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Ranchers discuss challenges of drought on public lands

Issue Date: July 22, 2020
By Ching Lee
Ranchers who graze livestock on public land say it’s important to work with landowning agencies, to make sure the agencies understand the economics of livestock production.

Ranchers who graze livestock on rangeland often feel the effects of drought first, as forage and water sources for their animals run dry. In a webinar hosted by the University of California, Davis, last week, three California ranchers shared challenges they face managing multiple-use public lands, and how they cope with drought.

All three ranchers cited supplying their livestock with drinking water as a driving issue when grazing on public lands, which sometimes may lack enough water to run livestock during a drought, despite still having adequate feed on the ground.

Alameda County cattle rancher Tim Koopmann runs a cow-calf operation in the San Francisco Bay Area and leases land from local agencies, municipalities and a variety of nonprofit landowners. He said ranchers often become reluctant to invest in water development and infrastructure when they lease public property for grazing, especially if it is not a long-term lease. However, he added, relying on ponds and other natural water sources on public lands during a drought could be "pretty hazardous" for cattle.

Koopmann said installation of storage tanks, pipelines and other plumbing to bring water to livestock "is not cheap." Solar pumps, which he has on his home ranch, can cost $3,000 to $6,000 to install, he said, and without financial assistance from the landowning agency or federal programs such as those funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "it's sometimes difficult to do."

For Emilio Huarte, a second-generation foreman for Talbott Sheep Co. in Los Banos—which grazes sheep on private and federal public lands in California and Nevada—the biggest problem he faces on land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is with wild-horse populations that damage springs and compete for the same drinking water as his sheep.

"We're not allowed to push them off," he said of the wild mustangs. "As far as trying to get the sheep and the horses to drink out of the same spring, it's damn near impossible, so we do a lot of water hauling."

During dry years such as this, Huarte said he's actually better off keeping the sheep at the home ranch, because hauling water in BLM country becomes expensive. However, he also noted that finding summer feed in the San Joaquin Valley has become harder, because former pastureland and alfalfa fields that sheep could graze have now been planted to almonds and other tree crops.

Cattle rancher Jack Hanson operates on private and federal public lands in Lassen County and state public lands in the Sierra foothills. He said a county road allows him to transport water troughs to BLM allotments, but two wildfires last year made that road inaccessible. Hanson said his cattle usually come home early in drought years due to lack of water, even though there is enough feed on the land.

Funding from the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program could help with installing a well, he said, but finding water is "a challenge out in that country." With at least 80% of his cattle already back home now due to dry conditions, Hanson said not being able to fully use his public allotments means he's not able to cut as much hay on his home ranch.

During droughts, Huarte said he's often asked to reduce sheep numbers on the public lands he uses—many times on short notice.

"That's one of my biggest headaches," he said.

Koopmann stressed the importance of having a lease that fits the needs of the rancher and the public landowner—and that specifies what happens during a drought.

As a tenant, the rancher should make sure the landowner understands the business and economics of ranching, he said. Ranchers should ensure the government agency they're working with understands their business plan, so ranchers are given adequate notice when they're required to remove or reduce livestock numbers during a drought.

Without proper notice, ranchers won't be able to find a home for their animals, especially during a drought when "the rest of the state is suffering as well," Koopmann said. Having to sell their animals when other ranchers are doing the same thing also floods the market, hurting the entire sector, he added.

"Make sure they understand that we have a reasonable expectation of a profit—that's not a cuss word—and also an understanding of the logistics of moving cattle and marketing cattle," Koopmann said. "Most importantly, sit down with the primary person you're dealing with and become a partner with that agency, so that they understand what your needs are, you understand what their goals are, and work together on drought solutions."

Though ranchers are often forced to liquidate livestock when they run out of feed during a drought, Hanson said "reducing cow numbers is one thing we try to avoid." Buying hay is an option, but he acknowledged that could be cost-prohibitive. He cited crop insurance as an important strategy, especially the federal Livestock Forage Disaster Program and the Pasture, Rangeland and Forage insurance plan.

One strategy Huarte said he learned during the 2011-15 drought was to make his bands of sheep smaller; instead of running three bands of 1,200 head, he might run four bands of 800 head. He acknowledged it's more expensive to do that from a labor standpoint, as extra herders are involved.

Koopmann spoke about the advantages of converting allotment leases from a cash-rent basis to renting by animal unit month or AUM, which allows ranchers to pay only for what they use. During a drought, when forage and water resources run low on public rangelands, ranchers can feed their livestock at home or on a feedlot—and they won't lose money on public allotments if they rent by AUM, he said.

He said ranchers should also try to encourage public-land agencies to lengthen leases, thereby providing ranchers an incentive to work on water development on the lands they lease. In addition, they should encourage rent credit or ways to share in the cost of such projects.

"Again, it goes back to having (the agencies) understand your business, understand that a long-term lease is beneficial, because you've then taken ownership interest in that property," Koopmann said. "Then you become a partner with the landowner."

(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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