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Cattle ranchers monitor weather, feed availability

Issue Date: January 29, 2020
By Ching Lee
Pasture conditions during the next several months will be important factors as cow-calf operators decide what animals to sell this spring.
Photo/Ching Lee

Rainfall this winter has been adequate to keep pastures green and cattle ranchers hopeful that they will see good gains for their cattle, now that market prices are starting to improve.

For most California cow-calf operations that market their cattle in the spring, rainfall and pasture conditions during the next several months will be key to their decisions on what to sell at that time, Contra Costa County rancher Tom Brumleve said. Though market prices will affect his bottom line, he said, his decisions are influenced more by weather and feed availability.

"If the rain proves to be OK through the spring, then we'll keep our calves when we wean them," he said. "And if we don't have a good-enough spring, then we'll sell most of the calves."

Despite the rain, grass growth has been slow due to cooler temperatures this time of year, though there's been enough grass that Brumleve has not had to feed hay. These days, he keeps his stocking rates "on the conservative side" and has even shrunk his herd after losing some land he was leasing. He said he has no plans to find new ground "because there's just not much grazing land available."

In his region, most of that grazing land has been lost to urban development or purchased for other uses, he said. Whereas his entire operation used to graze on Mount Diablo State Park land, a decision years ago to end most cattle grazing in the park has left him with "only a tiny percentage of what we used to have."

"The result is there's just less and less grazing. There are some real environmental penalties too, after they stopped the grazing altogether," he said, noting how blazes now burn much hotter and destroy more trees in the process.

Though recent wildfires have changed some people's attitudes about the benefits of grazing and controlled burns to reduce fuel loads, Brumleve said "the state parks are one of the last holdouts."

After receiving 13 inches of rain in his area, John Pisturino, a ranch manager in Santa Cruz County, said he would like to see some 60-degree days to get grasses growing. He noted he was feeding hay in October and stopped about a month ago when he moved the cattle to the hills.

"I may have to start feeding again if (the grass) doesn't start growing," he said.

Most ranchers choose to hold on to their calves this time of year, he said, but if the cost of hay gets too high and there's not much grass production, some ranchers will be forced to sell their calves early. The extra cost of hay is one of the main reasons owners of the ranch he's managing have opted to keep cow numbers down. Some of the ranch is already being leased to other farmers who grow berries and vegetables.

"It's too expensive in Santa Cruz County to raise cows anymore," Pisturino said. "You have to have a lot of land and a lot of cows to make any money in the cow business. What saves us is the farmland that we rent to other people."

Glenn Drown, who raises cattle at the 3,000-foot elevation in the foothills of San Diego County, said precipitation from October through December resulted in about 12 inches on one of his ranches and "fair" grass growth, though good enough that his cattle have maintained their weight without the need to feed hay. But scant rainfall so far this year makes him "a little nervous."

"We may end up having to feed (hay)," he said. "I'm buying half a load of hay right now and bringing it up from Imperial Valley, just to put in the barn to have and see what happens."

After reducing his herd by more than 30% during the state's most recent drought, Drown said his numbers are still down by about 20% to 25%, and he does not want to expand much more at this time. One reason is uncertainty on a county property that he leases and whether it will be available when his 10-year lease expires. Another reason is the reduced grazing capacity on U.S. Forest Service ground he leases, mainly due to brush encroachment, which has also reduced the amount of drinking water for cattle in nearby streams.

George Gookin, a representative for Cattlemen's Livestock Market in Galt, said the price of cattle at the auction yard has been rising, with light cattle increasing $10 to $30 per hundredweight, while 400- to 500-pound steer calves have gone up 50 to 60 cents a pound. Prices for most big cattle going to feedlots have also increased $10 to $15 per cwt. during the last two to three months, he noted.

"Looks like we're going to be in pretty good shape coming into the spring," Gookin said.

He pointed to the signing of the Phase 1 trade agreement between the U.S. and China and the U.S. ratification of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement as reasons for optimism in the cattle business.

With the fires in Australia killing thousands of sheep and cattle, Australian beef production and beef exports are expected to drop this year, Gookin said. Australia is a major exporter of beef to China, but with the losses from the fire, he said it presents "a window" for U.S. cattle producers to move into that market.

"We hate to make a profit on somebody else's problems, but when a window opens up, you have to take advantage of it," Gookin said. "It looks like that's probably going to be the next good window."

Though the beef market during the last year and a half has been "rocky," Gookin said, "it looks like we're on a little bit of an upswing."

That the cattle market is starting to come up has been "a really welcome relief," said Glenn County rancher Jim Jones.

"It's been kind of a stagnant market, but all of a sudden, we're getting inroads back into some of our export markets," he said.

He pointed to the U.S. bilateral trade deal with Japan that took effect this year as one positive development. Though he said he views the U.S.-China trade agreement as being more beneficial to pork producers, "I can see beef starting to get back into that market too."

"I'm optimistic for this year," Jones said. "All the financial indicators and economic indicators show that the market has already reached bottom and is starting to slowly climb back."

(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.

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