Ranchers weigh options as dry spell lingers

Issue Date: December 4, 2013
By Ching Lee
As a result of dry weather that has parched range grasses, ranchers such as Jim Gates of Nevada County, above, have begun feeding hay and other forage sources to their cattle.
Photo/Ching Lee
Cattle feed on what’s left of the short grasses in this Nevada County pasture, which has received no irrigation since October and little help from Mother Nature so far this fall.
Photo/Ching Lee

After a lack of precipitation last spring deteriorated California pastures, cattle ranchers looked forward to a healthy rainy season this fall to start grasses growing again. But Mother Nature's scant offerings so far have not brought the relief they had hoped.

The state did receive some moisture late last month to help fill stock ponds and start seasonal streams flowing, said Glenn Nader, a University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor for Yuba, Sutter and Butte counties. But in terms of growing feed, he said the rain came a little late.

"Things may germinate, but they'll just sit there," he said. "There's not going to be any rapid growth until March—unless we get an unusually warm December."

Because the springtime was so dry, ranchers who move their cattle to summer pastures did not have much dry feed for their animals to come home to this fall. And where they do have dry feed, stock water has been very limited, and hauling water can be cost-prohibitive, Nader noted.

"Many of them were hoping they'd get an early germination and have green feed to go into the winter with, and that just didn't occur," he said.

The state will still need successive rains this winter and enough ground moisture to support decent growth next year, Nader added.

For now, ranchers will have to find other forage sources, including dry feed and supplementing with hay, he said, noting that less hay production this year due to drought has led to tight supplies and high prices.

"People can quickly feed themselves into a negative cash flow with today's hay prices," he said. "That's why a lot of people are looking at alternative dry matter sources such as corn stover, rice straw and other things, to try and cheapen up those costs."

Andy Domenigoni, who runs cattle on dryland pasture in Riverside and Tulare counties, said in addition to feeding hay since September, he buys culled oranges, lemons, avocados and other vegetable and fruit byproducts from a local packinghouse to supplement until range conditions improve.

He said he weaned his calves early this year and thinned about 25 percent of his cows when he saw how low he was getting on feed. He noted he had already culled about 15 percent of his herd last year and sold all of his heifers the last two years, so he has no replacements.

The aggressive herd liquidations across the nation in recent years due to drought have kept the cattle market strong for producers, Domenigoni said, and it will take some time before U.S. cattle ranchers can begin to fully rebuild after years of contraction.

"When cattle numbers are short, the prices stay up, and those who can afford to stay in the business will make some money," he said.

San Joaquin County cattle rancher Rich Rice said high cattle prices have been good for those who have cattle to sell, but if producers have to sell their cows due to lack of feed, then they won't have many to sell the following year.

"If you're selling the cows, you're selling the factory, because they make a calf to sell every year," he said. "Sure, she's going to bring pretty good money, but that's not really what you want to do."

Because he runs his cattle on rented ground—both dryland and irrigated pasture—that land will cost him money even if he cannot turn cattle out on it. For the moment, he said he's been able to move his cattle to various properties to stretch the feed, but he's had to send some of his yearlings to feedlots. And while he hasn't reduced his numbers yet, he said with hay prices getting higher, it will not be feasible for larger operations like his to obtain enough hay and labor to feed all his cattle.

For Nevada County rancher Jim Gates, who raises grassfed cattle on irrigated pasture, dry weather has increased his production costs considerably because he has to keep his animals on range much longer and must buy more hay than usual.

He noted the Nevada Irrigation District shut off its water on Oct. 15, so he now depends totally on rainfall to grow his pasture. He said his region received about two inches of rain last month, enough to germinate grasses in some areas of the pasture—but north winds immediately dried them out.

"We're going to need some more rain real quick, because it's as dry as it's ever been," he said.

Santa Cruz County rancher John Pisturino said after the state's last drought several years ago, he began expanding his herd, but he may now have to reduce his numbers again if the season does not improve. He said he's been supplementing with hay since September and has enough to see him through January or February, at which time he hopes grasses will be long enough to support his cattle.

"We'll see how the spring goes. It's not panic mode until after this rainy season," he said.

Denis Lewis, who raises purebred Angus bulls in San Joaquin County, said even though his cattle are on irrigated pasture, he has stopped irrigating because the cooler temperatures in recent weeks have not been conducive to growing grass. That means he has had to increase his hay purchases by about 30 percent, while reducing his herd by about 10 percent. He said he's concerned about how the drought will affect the state's dryland hay production.

"Hay growers are banking on the rain to make it grow, and if we don't get any rain for two or three months, then what has germinated will die," he said.

Siskiyou County rancher Leonard Gorden said not only is the drought affecting cattle producers—some of whom will go out of business or reduce their numbers so severely that ranching will no longer be a business but a hobby—but he said he's concerned about the long-term effect it will have on the entire U.S. beef sector.

"Eventually, if cattle numbers get too low and the price of beef continues to get higher because of that, I think our consumers will try to go to alternative protein sources," 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.