Spring rains buoy cattle ranchers’ outlook

Issue Date: April 25, 2018
By Ching Lee
Calaveras County rancher Michael David Fischer checks on cattle on his ranch in Valley Springs. Fischer says recent spring rains have improved pasture conditions throughout the region.
Photo/Ching Lee
Cattle graze on this pasture in Calaveras County.
Photo/Ching Lee

Recent spring rains that have boosted grass growth on rangelands also have improved the outlook for California ranchers, many of whom are still trying to rebuild their herds in the aftermath of the state's multi-year drought.

But some remain apprehensive about expanding too much, spooked by another dry winter that increased their feeding costs and forced some to make difficult management decisions. For now at least, Mother Nature has averted a disaster, they say.

Looking at the condition of pastures in his region, Calaveras County rancher Michael David Fischer said there should be enough natural grass for grazing cattle until about June.

"We'll have adequate feed now until we sell our calves," he said. "The calves look heavier and the grass is still green, lush and growing. I think it's going to end up being a fairly good feed year for us."

But he noted one reason he's in such good shape is because he has fewer mouths to feed, having reduced his herd 25 to 30 percent during the previous drought. With the healthy rain year in 2017, he said he kept "quite a bit" of his replacement heifers last year and plans to keep more this year, to build back his numbers.

He said he's optimistic about market prices, noting that they "didn't look too bad" at the video livestock sales he was monitoring in the last few weeks, though the price of cull cows and cull bulls has weakened. He's also paying attention to news on trade, especially about the ongoing disputes with China, which he said could affect the cattle market.

China said earlier this month that it plans to levy retaliatory tariffs of 25 percent on agricultural and food products from the United States, including beef. Until last June, the Chinese market had been closed to U.S. beef for more than 13 years. Since its reopening, U.S. beef exports to China have been steadily gaining momentum, the U.S. Meat Export Federation said, adding that the proposed tariff could stymie further export growth.

Lack of rain during the winter failed to germinate native grasses in the Clovis foothills, forcing Fresno County rancher Cindy Tews to feed hay and extra supplements. She still ended up culling "a good number" of her cattle in early March, but said recent rains have allowed her to extend the grazing season for another two weeks, at which time she will ship her calves to another grass ranch out of state or to the feedlot.

"Because we did liquidate and now these grasses are growing, we'll have ample summer grass at this point, which was one of our schools of thought when we made our decision to sell early on," she said.

She's also in rebuilding mode, a process she began last year and will most likely continue in the fall by purchasing more cattle. But she said she probably won't expand beyond what she had before the drought.

"Usually after we've gone through a liquidation, we're a little bit timid and conservative in our spending," she said.

El Dorado County rancher Chuck Birt said he's looking to buy 40 head of cattle in an effort to rebuild and expand his herd, but he's having a hard time finding what he wants on the market.

"It's kind of a bittersweet deal," he said. "We sold the cows when the price wasn't very high, and now we're trying to buy back and the prices are a lot higher."

Because he kept only his very best cattle during the drought, his herd now is "a lot better quality," so he's reluctant to "add just any cow to the herd." He said there's usually plenty of young heifers to choose from in the spring and fall, but not this year. It's an indication that ranchers are trying to rebuild and hanging on to their heifers, he said.

"They're just not letting go of them," Birt said.

Gerald Beeson, who runs cattle in Mendocino, Lake and Yolo counties, said he hasn't seen too many ranchers in the state expanding their herds beyond what they had before the drought, especially with limited grazing on public lands. He continues to look for new ground, he said, but finds he can't afford the land prices.

With the dry winter this year, he said his calves have not made the gains he would like to see. Though he did not resort to feeding hay, he noted the lack of grass on one ranch did not allow him to stock until February. In more-typical years, the cattle would've been there in November.

"They were set back from the beginning and it hurts them physically," he said. "We'll have a lighter calf crop."

For Shasta County rancher Henry Giacomini, the increased moisture since early March has improved rangeland conditions, even though cooler weather so far has not allowed much grass growth. But that should change as temperatures start to rise, he said.

What's unclear at this point is whether there'll be sufficient drinking water on the mountain rangeland during the summer, and how much water he'll need to haul at that time.

"We expect our stock water will be limited as the summer grazing season progresses, because we haven't caught as much water as we would've liked because of the low snowpack and low precipitation in December, January and February," he said.

Still, he said he anticipates this will be "a decent year" for him in terms of cow conditions and calf crop. His only concern now, he said, is how the market will hold up, noting that cattle prices have dropped since last fall. Though the market may trend up a bit this summer on some classes of cattle, Giacomini said he thinks it will trend back down in the fall when he sells this year's calf crop.

"That's what we're budgeting for and that's what we're anticipating," he said.

With concerns about a softening cattle market, he said he may look to expand his production of grass-fed beef, prices of which are more profitable. But to do that, he would need to re-evaluate his feed resources and reduce his cattle inventory, he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.