After dry months, farmers hope for a rainy January

Issue Date: January 4, 2012
By Ching Lee

Except for some early autumn rains, the lack of precipitation so far this season has disappointed California farmers and ranchers looking for a repeat of the healthy 2011 water year that officially ended the state's drought.

Farms and fields have not received much of a soaking in the last two months, and while California's rainy season isn't over until it's over, farmers agree the late fall/early winter dry spell makes them nervous.

"It's not good, but it's not a train wreck yet," said Lawrence Dwight, a cattle rancher in Humboldt County.

He noted that in a more typical year, his region would have gotten about 6 inches of rain by the end of December but had received only about half an inch. He said how the season shapes up from here on out will determine his hay production in the spring. A bigger concern at the moment is the scarcity of water in stock ponds, which should be overflowing right now, he said.

Ranchers who do not have wells rely on streams and ponds to provide drinking water across the range for their livestock, and some of these water sources are dry, said Glenn Nader, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor based in Yuba City. Since cattle do not travel far and stay close to the water area, ranchers with dry streams and ponds will either have to haul water or haul feed to their cattle, "both of which are very expensive propositions," he added.

If it doesn't rain by mid- to late January and north wind patterns continue, he said, rangelands with grasses that were germinated by fall rains could be lost, especially on more shallow soils.

"Certainly things can regerminate if we do get a spring rain, but the forage production is much less generally when we have one of those years," Nader said.

Mike Bartley, a Lassen County cattle rancher, said in average to good water years, he can typically grow all of his own hay—enough to feed his cattle through the winter.

"But if we don't get some moisture, we won't get that hay crop next year, and next winter is when we'll be hurting," he said.

Nader noted that with the current high price of hay and alternative feeds, farmers are "already a little nervous that it could be a very expensive consequence to deal with this year."

Bartley said the bulk of his rancher neighbors who ship their cattle to the Central Valley for the winter are already hurting as the region has not had enough precipitation to grow the grasses needed.

Lack of rain and forage would also hamper ranchers' ability to grow their herds, he added, noting that he's currently trying to increase his cattle numbers after reducing them in recent years.

"If we have a horrible year, we will be either buying hay if we can find it or we will be liquidating, culling deeper than we want to cull," Bartley said. "That's probably our biggest worry at this moment."

As a dryland grain and hay farmer in Los Angeles County, Terry Munz said he relies on rainfall to produce a crop, but low soil moisture has so far prevented him from planting. He said he likes to wait for a good inch of rain to germinate weeds before he works the ground and starts planting. But since October, his area had received a total of just 1.7 inches of rain in small increments, not enough to wet the ground.

"I tried to disk a little bit a couple of days ago and I kind of gave up because it was too dry to work it," he said. "I'm not too concerned yet, but if I don't see any rain by mid-January, then I'll start getting pretty worried."

With winds blowing and no rain, Tom Millar, a Glenn County wheat and almond farmer, said he has already had to irrigate his orchards. He said his wheat crop, planted in heavy soil, "is hanging in there OK," but noted that some of the fields in the foothills need water badly.

Irrigation may not be an option for some farms. Mat Conant, who grows walnuts in Sutter County, said canal water from the South Sutter Water District is typically not available until May 1, so he would have to irrigate with well water, which is much warmer and could prematurely wake the trees. When trees are dormant, they do not need as much water, so he's holding off on irrigating them.

Ron Macedo, a Stanislaus County farmer who also sits on the board of directors of the Turlock Irrigation District, said he has already fielded calls from farmers who want to know when the district plans to fill its canals so they can irrigate.

He said conditions have to get pretty dry for the district to consider diverting water into its canal system this early in the winter, but with the lack of rainfall and the amount of frost, which takes moisture out of the ground, "there'll be some definite need to irrigate." He said the district will likely have the canals flowing by mid-January if Mother Nature does not bring relief.

"Almond trees will start pushing and the buds will start swelling around the middle of January, so it's pretty imperative for them to have water then," he said.

Nader said another major concern for farmers is how the dry season has done little to help the Sierra snowpack, which will largely determine how much irrigation water can be delivered this summer. According to the California Department of Water Resources, the state's snow water content, at 2.3 inches as of last week, was 24 percent of average for the end of December. A year ago, the December snowpack was 198 percent of average.

But Larry Domenighini, a wheat farmer in Glenn County, said it is nothing new to start the season dry but then come back with some major storms.

"There have been a lot of dry Decembers over the years, so I'm not concerned yet," he said. "It's always rained enough by the end of February."

He said while he would like it to rain so that his wheat crop will start growing, he's also taking advantage of the dry days to get some backhoe work and ground leveling done—outdoor projects that he would otherwise be rushing to do in the spring.

"I guess I always look for a silver lining," he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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