From the Fields® - December 14, 2011

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By Guy Rutter, Sacramento County beekeeper

While 2011 may be the year the drought was broke, it has failed to generate enough honey-producing plants to create a bumper crop of honey. However, we do anticipate better production for next year if rainfall returns to a normal pattern.

An improvement in the condition of bees remains to be seen. While looking well through the summer and into the fall, bees have a tendency to crash and dwindle or develop colony collapse disorder. Many beekeepers seem to have a magic formula on hive top for the bees to consume, though it is too early to tell.

This brings us to almond pollination pricing, which should be consistent with last year's price. However, based on possible winter losses, this could change as we close in on pollination time. Also, fluctuating and unpredictable fuel costs could become a hindrance for last-minute pollination demands.

One item most fail to mention is the mountain of paperwork due towards year's end, some regulatory and some non-regulatory.

By Dave Roberti, Sierra County rancher

Like most places, it has been a really good year for us. Hay production was probably a little bit above average. We had a good, wet year, so our irrigation costs were down about 30 percent, but hay prices were $100 a ton over average. So we had a very good year as far as the hay. The cattle business also was good as beef prices were up, so financially we probably had the best year we've ever had. So we are looking to upgrade some equipment, upgrade our irrigation and things like that.

We are at 5,000 foot elevation and typically we get three cuttings. When there is a really extended season, we might get a fourth cutting, but we don't count on that. We had three cuttings this year. We had a late start this year, so we were really concerned about getting the third cutting put up in time, but luckily the fall extended long enough that we were able to do that.

We put in a solar project this year. Our utility company is allowing us to net-meter and aggregate all of our irrigation pumps together. We have about nine different meters on our irrigation pumps. So whatever we produce on the solar project will go directly against whatever we use on the irrigation pumps. The system is designed to completely offset on an average year our irrigation power usage, which is about $150,000 a year. It covers about three acres. It is up and running and so far things are looking pretty good.

We are figuring it will be about a 10-year payback, but if utility rates continue to rise, which we expect them to do, that will shorten that because we will get a benefit of getting that price back on the net metering.

By Dino Giacomazzi, Kings County dairy farmer

December is a transitional month for dairy producers. We have finished planting winter forages, so farming is behind us and now we turn our attention to preparing the dairy for rain. It was a fairly dry fall and so far winter is cold.

Feed supplies are very tight. Many traditional byproduct feeds like cotton seed and distillers grains have priced themselves out of many dairy rations. Alfalfa hay is rare and quality is low.

Margins are likely to be tight and remain that way into 2012. The milk price has decreased in the last month as butter, cheese and nonfat dry milk all have been softening.

The beef market is strong and should help to reduce the milk supply a little bit.

By Ron Michener, Trinity County forester

Trinity County is a very unique county in that it is extremely large, with most of it in public land. Because we are so remote, our shipping costs are much higher than other locations, which means that we automatically have lost 25 percent of our profit. That's the bad news.

The worse news is that the timber market is pretty low so that when we do a harvest, we have the cost of the fall involved. We have loading equipment, we have the trucks and then we have the cleanup. So a timber harvest is a large, complex task, all of which is covered under the forest practices rules for the state of California, which are the most stringent forestry rules in the United States, bar none.

We have to deal with the water rules and the air rules on a regular basis. These regulations make life very difficult for people who own timberland.

The good news for our particular property is that there is so much native regeneration that we have more trees than we need. We would have to go through and trim them out on a regular basis. It's just like if you plant a row of carrots in the spring. Two or three weeks later you go through and thin them. If you don't, you have carrots the size of your little finger. And trees are the same except the growth time is more like 30 to 50 years. It is the same process; you have to thin your crop. When you thin, you get rid of the fire hazard and have a healthier forest and you have more groundwater available. You have a larger tree, it is going to grow faster and it will leave more water for the other trees.

By Sam Dolcini, Marin County rancher

In Marin County, we are just finishing up the calving season. Most all of our cows are calved out and so are our neighbors'. We had some early rains that were challenging for some of our farmer-neighbors over in the valley, but the rain turned out quite well for us. We actually have a little bit of green grass started already and cows are backing off of the hay stack. With feed prices as high as they are, it is always good to see the hay last as long as possible.

We are just getting ready to start marking the calves, giving them their first round of shots. Bulls got turned out at the first of the month, which means we'll be looking for next year's calf crop starting already.

We are fortunate enough that we didn't downsize at all, so we will keep our herd size right about where it is. It is extremely difficult to find any pasture to expand to, so you just have to do the best you can with the resources you have available.

We are also in a part of the world where the demand for pasture has gone way up. As organic dairy producers are facing the new rules as to the number of days that they can leave their cows on feed, these dairies are becoming very aggressive in seeking out pasture to rent.

Our calves in the coastal area arrive around the first of September and are usually wrapped up by the first of December. They will be marketed when the feed season wraps up, which is normally June or July, depending on late rains. Typically in our part of the state we get our calves a little bit bigger, with weights of 750 pounds on occasion.