Dry spring, rangeland worry ranchers
San Joaquin County cattle producer Pat Connolly says that even though pastures and rangeland may look green, they aren't producing the kind of quality forage that cows need.
April showers bring May flowers, but so far this season's parched conditions have failed to bring the lush grasses that feed the state's grazing cattle, a situation that could spell disaster for California ranchers.
"We're at a really critical point right now," said Neil McDougald, University of California Cooperative Extension range and livestock advisor.
If precipitation doesn't pick up this month, the state's rangeland will be in bad shape for yet another year. Drought conditions plagued the state last year and drove many producers to sell their cattle early because the lack of forage could not sustain their herds.
McDougald said an inch or more rain during the first week of April could turn things around, but Mother Nature delivered small amounts of rain last week to some portions of Southern California, leaving the rest of the state dry. And longer-range forecasts show little hope for the type of rainfall that could drench the state of its current dry spell.
Faced with a below-normal forage production year, McDougald said many ranchers will likely be reducing their herd size. Cow-calf operations that calve in the fall will probably wean those calves earlier, he said, while stocker operations will see less weight on their animals due to the lack of forage.
"We're going to see less cow numbers on rangeland," he said. "Just look at the sale yards. These sale yards are in trouble because they aren't selling a whole lot of beef cattle right now."
California pastures look green and are bursting with wildflowers, but they haven't produced the kind of quality forage that cows like to eat, said San Joaquin County cattle producer Pat Connolly. After the dry spring last year, ranchers were hoping to make up ground in the fall, but that season's rainfall was dismal and the bare ground failed to provide the cover needed to protect young plants over the winter, making new growth more difficult in the spring.
McDougald said an ideal forage year would be to have a good mixture of grasses, forbs and legumes on the range. But low residual dry matter on the ground from the fall has shifted the state's grassland ecosystem toward lower-producing plants. Therefore, an abundance of filaree, popcorn flower and fiddleneck will be on the range this year, he said.
Cattle grow well on filaree, he noted, but these plants won't be able to sustain herds through the season because they tend to mature and dry out faster, so fields with mainly filaree will have a shorter-growing period of productive grasses. Because grasses, forbs and legumes grow, peak and die at different times, having a variety of all three provides a greater window of production, he added.
"Forbs are good, but when they dominate the system, you lose your flexibility because grasses and legumes provide a major part of that forage," McDougald said.
Connolly, who runs a cow-calf and stocker operation, said he culled 26 percent of his herd last year due to poor forage production and anticipates culling some of his herd again this year if conditions don't improve.
But he wants to hang on to as many cattle as he can. He said the lack of forage this year will likely drive many ranchers to reduce their herds more heavily, leaving fewer calves to supply the future market. If forage production bounces back next year, ranchers will be looking to build up their herds and fewer cattle will be going to the feedlots. That would drive up the value of his cattle.
"It's a real cyclical thing, and everybody knows how the cycle works. The only variable is the weather," Connolly said. "The odds of having two bad years in a row are pretty slim. But, who knows."
In the mountains where Tulare County rancher Sam Travioli runs his cow-calf operation, conditions are not any better. So far his forage growth is about 50 percent of normal. An inch of rain would greatly help and could carry him through the summer, he said, but forecasts for his area don't look too promising.
"We're not that bad off. We're just going to have to buy more hay, and of course that just cuts into our profits," he said.
Cattle ranching in the state's No. 1 dairy region is tough because the high demand for hay tends to drive prices up higher. With the amount of hay he had to feed this past winter, his cost was about double what it was the year before, and feed prices are expected to be more robust this year. Travioli questions the long-term survival of ranchers like himself if feed costs don't back down and beef prices don't improve.
"Ten years ago, I would've been real happy with the price we're getting today (for cattle)," he said. "But commodities have come up so much, it's putting a squeeze on everything. And then you get a dry year like this and you just don't make it."
He reduced his 500-head herd last year to 450 and said he will cull heavy again this year if the next few weeks don't bring the moisture needed to boost forage production. He's also exploring different feed options that might be cheaper but hasn't found anything yet.
"Hopefully we can catch a rain here," he said. "There's still hope, but we're getting toward the end of our rain season."
Further north, Plumas County cattle producer David Roberti said his region received a fair amount of snow this winter and the rangeland is just now starting to turn green. But because the ground is so dry from the lack of rain last fall, the snow that is melting now is going straight into the ground, providing no excess runoff.
"Normally we're in mud for two or three weeks," he said.
He's nervous about some of his cattle in north Yuba County. If dry conditions continue, he will likely have to bring them home early because of lack of feed on that range. Ranchers had to move their cattle off winter pasture early last year, and it may look to be the same again this year. Problem is, there's not much to graze on in the mountains yet, he said.
"When you start off having to leave your winter feed early, it really puts a crunch on the entire season," Roberti said. "You seem to never catch up. And with feed costs the way they are, it's pretty tough to buy a bunch of hay right now. But that may be the cheaper route."
(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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