Drought hinders effort to build sheep flocks

Issue Date: February 22, 2012
By Ching Lee
Sheep producers like Ryan Indart of Fresno County are being forced to move their sheep more often because of the lack of rain and corresponding lack of good rangeland forage.
Photos/Steve Adler
Sheep ranchers in California are scrambling to find adequate forage for their flocks.
Photo/Steve Adler
Dry forage from a field on the west side of Fresno County that last year at this time was producing lush, green grass.
Photos/Steve Adler

After two encouraging years of robust prices for U.S. lamb, California sheep ranchers say lack of rainfall this winter has made it tough to find enough feed to sustain and grow their flocks, even as demand for their product continues to be strong.

"It's causing a lot of stress," said Ryan Indart, a Fresno County sheep rancher. "If we don't get any rain, there's going to be a lot people like myself selling sheep, and then the numbers are going to go down."

That could counter recent efforts to expand the nation's shrinking sheep population and strengthen an agricultural sector that for years has struggled with a volatile market—but has recently been rejuvenated by emerging demand and higher prices for both lamb and wool.

Last year's severe drought in Texas, the nation's top sheep producer, did not help to boost production, as many Texas ranchers drastically reduced livestock numbers. Some of those animals found greener pastures in California but now, with the Golden State also seeing less precipitation, sheep ranchers here are scrambling to find forage, said Lesa Carlton, executive director of the California Wool Growers Association.

"We're not necessarily at a point where we're seeing our numbers decrease," she said, "but a lot of our guys are having to get a bit more creative with the type of grazing that they're doing, because they've got the increased numbers."

They're moving their sheep more often, she noted, and trying to find alternative feed sources such as different crop residues that their sheep don't normally graze on.

The majority of the state's commercial sheep producers lamb in the fall and place their flocks on other farmers' alfalfa fields through the winter. By this time of year, the lambs are usually moving off of alfalfa and onto native grasses, where they will be finished and sold in late spring.

Indart said he has had to wean his lambs about six weeks early this year due to lack of feed. He has already sold 260 sheep and will probably sell another 600 to 700 if rangeland conditions do not improve, he said.

In a more typical year, most of Indart's sheep would be grazing on about 5,000 acres on the west side of the valley. This year, he is moving them much farther—to land on the east side that has benefited from more rain. That ground, too, will dry up in a few weeks without a good drenching, he noted, and then he will be forced to move his lambs to the feedlot.

"I don't typically like to do that, because it's expensive and it takes a lot of labor, but I'm going to have to this year," Indart said.

More lambs entering feedlots this early will create a glut in the harvest-ready inventory, after which there won't be much supply to follow, said Greg Ahart, national director of producer relations for Superior Farms, the state's largest lamb processor.

Ahart said consumers are price-sensitive and have already backed off on buying lamb with the extreme run-up in prices, which has also caused retailers to shy away from the product. The hope now is that the upcoming Easter holiday, a peak time for lamb sales, will help to work through the inventory bubble, he said.

John Cubiburu, a San Joaquin County sheep rancher who has increased his flock with sheep from both Texas and California, said it may be customary for some producers to send their lambs to the feedlot when pastures are not available, but he prefers finding other feed sources, even if it means traveling greater distances.

"One of the things about sheep is that they are a migratory species and we have the ability to move and take them places that have vegetation," he said, noting that this year it will also cost more to haul his animals farther.

He said some producers may even send their lambs out of state and just retain their ewes, while others may sell the lambs early and/or place them in feedlots but retain ownership. But he said he doubts many will reduce their flocks just yet because the rainy season is not over and "some nice storms could change everything."

"It's still kind of early to hit the panic button," he said. "I think as long as we have good market prices, people will continue to keep their numbers strong for now. I'm going to remain optimistic but just start prepping. I've already started taking my animals to farther distances than I have normally in the past."

For Glenn County sheep rancher Wes Patton, who has been trying to increase his flock, the concern is whether he will have irrigation water this summer. He keeps his sheep mainly on irrigated pasture but has had to start feeding them hay, which he normally wouldn't do.

"The kind of hay that we're feeding to these animals is just in short supply and very, very expensive," he said.

His most critical time will be the end of the month when he starts lambing. Typically, he would be lambing just as the spring grasses come, "but if we don't get some changing weather, then it's going to be a difficult situation," he said.

Frank Iturriria, a Kern County sheep producer, raises his own replacements and is trying to maintain his sheep numbers. By this time of year, his flock is usually in the foothills, but right now there's no grass there, so he said he's forced to buy feed wherever he can find it.

Ahart said there has been so much enthusiasm and positive news about the sheep business recently that he "would hate to see the industry lose the momentum that it's built" due to short-term difficulties.

Indart said he's hopeful Mother Nature will deliver some needed spring rains and that in the long run, producers will continue to reinvest and increase their herds if the market remains healthy.

Iturriria agreed, saying, "I'm confident we will get through this. It's not the first time we've had these issues."

(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.

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