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Cattle may move early due to feed prices, drought

Issue Date: April 6, 2022
By Kevin Hecteman
Cattle await transportation from a Modoc County corral. Ranchers who need to move cattle from winter grounds early may find themselves scrambling to line up trucks, and paying dearly for them.
Photo/Ned Coe

California ranchers are being squeezed by drought, high prices and, now, transportation issues. That is expected to result in an earlier, faster and more expensive move to get cattle to their summer grazing pastures.

"Normally, the movement from winter grazing country to summer grazing is a six- to eight-week-long process," said Ned Coe, a Modoc County rancher and California Farm Bureau field representative. "That's impacted by the location of the grazing and when that feed dries up, and also the location that the cattle producer is moving his cattle to for the summer."

This year, with the drought drying up the winter grounds faster than usual, the timeline for cattle moving is likely to be compressed. "I think we're going to see the bulk of it in April 15 to the first week of May," Coe said.

But there are major hitches: finding transportation, and the money to pay for it.

"There's only so many cattle trucks available," Coe said. "If it's already hard to schedule them in a normal year, compressing that window down to probably half the time is really going to get difficult."

Any trucking ranchers can manage to line up is liable to be expensive. As of April 1, a gallon of diesel fuel averaged nearly $6.41 in California, according to AAA. Coe said there will be a fuel surcharge added to his bill that "I just have to accept."

Tracy Schohr, a University of California Cooperative Extension advisor in Quincy, said she is seeing signs of disruption manifest in other ways. For example, one livestock association is having to move up its annual cattle auction fundraiser.

"Historically, that was in later May," Schohr said. "Now they're pushing that up into April to recognize the fact that a lot of these producers are going to be weaning early, because there isn't the forage there for those calves. They're going to try to keep what is left to sustain those cattle before they're able to move them."

Some Sierra Valley producers, she added, have already begun transporting cattle from Butte County and the Oakdale area back to Sierra Valley, and looking for transportation this month.

"They're about, consistently, a month if not more ahead of those typical schedules of what we've seen in the region," Schohr said.

Butte County irrigation management stations in Biggs and Durham show sparse 2022 rainfall through the end of March. The Durham station recorded 1 inch of rain for the first three months of the year, while Biggs registered 0.8 inch. In comparison, Durham saw 5.5 inches of rain just in December, while Biggs had 3.93 inches for the last month of 2021.

"That vegetation has already started to dry out as a combination of windy days plus lack of precipitation, and we've had high-temperature days," Schohr said. "That forage production is not there."

As a result, ranchers are left with a range of options—none of them good.

"I'm hearing more and more cattle producers culling the least productive portion of their cattle herds," Coe said, explaining that is often the only viable option when forage disappears and hay is unaffordable.

"Most people look at cows that are the least productive portion of their herd in hopes that they can keep a smaller group of more productive cows as their base to hopefully grow back from," Coe said. "But that's a multiyear, four- or five-year process at best."

Trucking in hay is becoming prohibitively expensive. "There is still hay moving for cattle, but the price of the hay is so high that it really takes it out of the question for a lot of cow-calf operations to be supplementing," Coe said. "Then, on top of the price of the hay and scarcity of it is the cost of transporting it has practically doubled with the fuel increases."

Hay prices vary by location and quality, he noted.

"Beef cattle hay is $250 to $350 a ton," Coe said. "Normally, you'd be looking at $125 to $175, probably." Add the fuel surcharge, and "that's the reason a lot of the livestock guys are going, 'We can't afford to buy it.'"

During the 2014 drought, UCCE interviewed a number of ranchers to learn about how they handled it. Then, Schohr said, "one of the options at that time was actually buying feed, because there were such high cattle prices they could actually afford to buy hay at that higher premium."

Now, she noted, "we're not seeing the beef markets respond in the same way with higher prices, and so there's really a squeeze on feed availability." When feed is found, she said, the price "is super high."

Schohr said, "A couple of producers have told me they're not selling anything that they have and are not making commitments for the new year, because they're going to try to feed their own cattle with what they have."

When drought struck California in 2013, Napa County rancher Dan McQueeney got out of the cattle business. He now runs 500 head of goats. This year, he's looking at cutting the herd down to 200—even though the animals have been doing their part to tamp down wildfire risk.

"Hay is completely unattainable and so expensive—it's breaking me there," said McQueeney, noting that hay he'd normally buy for less than $200 per ton is selling for $285 to $310. "I'm actually probably going to destock, and I'm also doing wildfire fuel reduction. That helps with our hay bill."

McQueeney said he got into goat farming to learn something new. "It made sense to me to do wildfire-fuel reduction and then also sell the kids," he said. "But last year, we didn't put the bucks back in with our goats because I anticipated high feed costs, and when you're trying to finish the kids, it's really expensive to try to make it a marketable animal."

McQueeney applauded cattle ranchers looking for ways to survive.

"I'd say the people who have the courage to stay in the cattle business at this time, I really admire them," he said, "because they have to be very creative, and they have to be looking toward being extremely flexible, especially when we don't know what's going to happen next year."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He 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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