Greener pastures encourage cattle ranchers
By Ching Lee
Generous rainfall in March and April improved pastures and stock ponds for cattle, but rancher Chuck Bacchi, who runs some of his cattle on this property in Sacramento County, says warming temperatures with no additional precipitation will hurt further grass growth.
Spring rains that soaked the state have made all the difference for California cattle ranchers.
After months of dry weather brought little grass growth to sustain their herds, ranchers agree that range conditions have greatly improved.
This comes at a time when a nationwide shortage of beef cattle, worsened by last year's drought in Texas, has kept cattle prices high and ranchers wanting to expand their herds in hopes of getting in on the robust market.
Chuck Bacchi, who runs cattle in El Dorado and Sacramento counties, said the market currently signals ranchers to retain their heifers and build their herds, but whether they can do so will depend on the weather and feed availability.
"It's record-high cattle prices," said Stanislaus County rancher David Absher, "but if you can't put any gain on (the cattle), you don't get to participate in that."
If the state hadn't gotten the substantial rainfall in March, Calaveras County rancher Nic Valente said he would have been moving his cattle to their summer pastures a week ago, more than a month earlier than normal.
"March rains were a savior to us," he said. "A simple two good weeks of rain have changed the whole year from here on out."
Not only has the increased moisture helped ranchers up and down the San Joaquin Valley, he said, but the improved snowpack means a better season for those who rely on irrigation water for summer pastures. He said while the last few storms won't keep creeks running all summer, they have helped to restore his stock water.
"The biggest concern in our area is having enough water in reservoirs that holds you over until you come back for their summer feed in the fall," Valente said.
Jon Dolieslager, a livestock broker and owner of Tulare County Stockyard in Dinuba, said before the "miracle March rains" came, many of his rancher-customers from Fresno to Ventura were planning to liquidate about 50 percent of their herds because they were running out of feed.
He pointed out that California took in "thousands of cattle" from drought-stricken Texas last year but has since sent many of those animals back when Texas finally got rain and conditions here dried up. And while the Golden State remains below its average annual rainfall, Dolieslager said "the outlook for California ranchers is a lot different this month than it was last month."
"It's not like it's a perfect year, but we'll get by," he said. "There's going to be grasses produced, especially in the north where their seasons go later."
But Bacchi, who relies strictly on rainfall to grow his pastures, said even though the rains have helped, he's concerned that if recent high temperatures continue without any more precipitation, the grass will stop growing.
He noted he will start moving his cattle to Oregon in early May and the Sierra in late May, and that will help leave some dry feed in the fields for his cattle to come back to in the fall.
"But really, this rain may be too late to get our full growth, and so we may be looking at short feed next fall and winter, depending on the weather, of course," Bacchi said.
Absher, who runs cattle as far south as Mariposa County and as far north as Modoc County, has similar concerns. He said he's been encouraged that the rains in March and April will allow him to "make up for some lost ground," but warned that 90-degree temperatures and 15 mph winds can take "a toll pretty quickly on whatever ground moisture you have."
He has already moved some of his cattle from the hills of Brentwood to irrigated ground in Oakdale in order to lighten the load on the native pasture and give those grasses a chance to grow "so we can bank some grass for next fall."
For Robert Cadenazzi, a rancher in Madera County, the improved range conditions mean he won't have to cull as heavily as he originally thought, but he said he won't be expanding his herd either, because his feed still won't be "fantastic this year."
Ellington Peek, owner and founder of Shasta Livestock Auction Yard and Western Video Market, said usually this time of year there's plenty of cattle from Texas and Oklahoma on the market, but this year many ranchers are trying to rebuild their herds.
He noted that cattle prices have softened a bit from what they were two months ago, but he predicted they will start to go up again soon—"maybe not before June or July, but sometime this summer," he said.
"Our (cattle) numbers are down out here (in California) too," he said. "When they find out that there aren't too many cattle sitting in California, it's going to make a difference. I think (prices) will be a little bit higher, but maybe not much."
Dolieslager said U.S. ranchers have already enjoyed two years of high cattle prices due to the nationwide cattle shortage, and he thinks it will "take us at least a couple of more years to get it balanced."
"It looks really good for cattle ranchers in the nation, and they're looking at two more great years again," he said. "The market is going to stay terrific no matter what happens, but we are dependent on the moisture."
Valente said he is always looking to expand his herd, "but the problem is trying to find ground to bring your cattle on." With current high cattle prices, there's more competition from other ranchers looking for ground to expand, driving up land values, he said.
There are other factors to consider to make the expansion pencil out economically, he added, such as whether the land is close to home so that ranchers are not shipping their cattle far distances, which drives up transportation costs.
"If you can expand, yeah, you can make a little more money that way. But it's hard if you're new and you're trying to buy into the market by buying pairs or bred cows, because they're really expensive," Valente said. "It's a good time to sell, but it's a bad time to buy."
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.