For much of California’s central valley, 2013 stands as the driest year in recorded history. Thus far, say area farmers and ranchers, 2014 has provided little relief from a drought now in its third year. The impacts are staggering. According to a recent study released by the University of California at Davis, the drought will cost the state’s agricultural economy an estimated 1.7 billion dollars this year, and leave roughly 14,500 farm workers unemployed.
For ranchers in the region, the situation is dire. While some have managed to find enough feed to salvage their herds, others have had to drastically reduce numbers, or even sell out completely, owing to the lack of forage and water.
“This has been a bleak three years,” says Bay Area rancher Tim Koopman. “This is the worst drought in my memory in terms of total devastation.” According to Koopman, in the places where grass is available, water often is not. “It’s not only poor forage growth,” he explains. “It’s compounded by three years of excessively dry weather where we haven’t had the groundwater restoration necessary to maintain our stock water. Springs have dried up, stock ponds haven’t filled, it’s horrendous.”
With no water, and thousands of acres going ungrazed, Koopman worries that the range will be left in a precarious position, once the grass dries up. “There’s quite a few places in the state that are normally yearling country,” he explains. “Calves come from all over to take advantage of this winter grazing. A lot of them stayed home this year, and I think we’re going to have a pretty hazardous fire season, because of the lack of grazing on this yearling country.” As an example, Koopman points to a ranch operated by his daughter in the nearby town of Winters. Though yearlings were contracted to graze in November, lack of water forced them out in January, months before their scheduled removal. “Now she’s got wild oats up to her knees, and no way to graze it because she’s got no water,” says Koopman. “That’s a fine fuel load that we haven’t normally got, and I think it could be a real problem.”
In a region that normally receives 20 inches of rain annually, just 13 inches fell last year. Koopman indicates that only 11.8 inches have fallen so far this year. “The problem is timing,” he says. “With 11.8 inches, we could have a pretty decent feed year, but timing is critical.” Unlike most of the west, the ranges of central California are composed almost entirely of annual grasses, which must regenerate from seed each year.
In an ordinary year, these grasses germinate in the fall, and rely on fall and winter moisture to sustain themselves until spring. “We had rain in October, so we got an early germination on these grasses,” explains Koopman. “Then we had nothing. Those plants germinated and died, so then we had to start all over.”
Though the effects of drought are being felt throughout the central valley, ranchers point out that the severity of the impact is not uniform. There’s different stories in different parts of the state,” explains Ione rancher Duane Martin. “It hasn’t been good anywhere, but it hasn’t been as bad in some areas as it has in others.” According to Martin, who owns and leases land throughout the state, the southern portions of the central valley have been hit particularly hard, resulting in drastic cuts to herd numbers. “Some people have liquidated their entire herd,” he says. “I only stocked 60 percent on my feeder cattle, and left them in grow yards, to make room for my cows.” “I’ve got a ranch down there with 500 cows on it,” he adds. “There should be 1,500 cows, and 3,000 yearlings, but I don’t know that it’s going to keep the 500.”
“Everywhere is different, and has a different tone to it,” says Martin. “Right here (in Ione), I got 11 inches of rain. At our ranch in Merced, they might have gotten four. People down there that stocked at the normal rate, their cattle might not have gained anything. I’ve got cattle that gained normally, but there are 40 percent fewer than normal.” “I’ve still got to make the rent on the full amount of pasture, though,” he adds.
According to the California Cattlemen’s Association, cow numbers statewide are down roughly 140,000 head, from the usual 600,000. A trend that is likely to continue as the state’s cattle make their annual move from dry rangelands to irrigated pasture. “I’ve got 1,000 irrigated acres over at Woodland, and there’s not one drop of water in the district,” says Martin. “Over in the Amador irrigation district, I’ve got 400 acres of irrigated pasture, and we’re only going to have half of the normal water,” he adds. “In a couple of months, it will all dry up, and I’ve got lots of cows here now that will have to go somewhere.” While Martin indicates that his cattle are headed for leased pasture in the rocky mountains, many of California’s cattle are being sold into the Southern Plains, as producers in those states attempt to restock following the drought in that region.
While many have had to reduce numbers or sell out, others have managed to maintain their herds in the face of the ongoing drought. “We’re in much better shape than a lot of folks are,” says Woodland rancher Scott Stone. “Those poor guys down south have been absolutely hammered, far worse than we have. We actually did get some pretty good storms, and it made a big difference.”
Stone and his family raise both cattle and hay, and he credits the diversity of their operation with much of their success in weathering the drought. “We’re fortunate in that we are also in the hay business, although it’s never fortunate to throw all your hay on the ground for the cows instead of sending it out on the truck,” he says. “You can’t feed your way out of a drought, but we determined we were going to hang onto everything for as long as we could. We did buy quite a bit of outside hay, cornstalks, and whatever else we could get, but we were fortunate enough to get some rain and, just in the last 30 days or so, the cattle have started to pick up a little bit.”
While more fortunate than most, Stone points out that the drought is still posing problems that his operation must overcome. “These droughts are the gift that keeps on giving,” he says. “We’ve got reservoirs that are dry now; they’re never dry in the spring. We just shipped four loads to Nevada because the ranch that they were at had a really good well stop producing, and they’ve been hauling water for the past 30 days. Hauling water just kills you.”
Overall, he says, his cows have weathered the drought better than expected. “I know our weaning weights are going to be down, but I was surprised at how well our cows bred up. When your feed resources are that bad for that long, I expected a huge disaster. I don’t know how they managed to breed back.”
As ranchers have sold down their herds, the one silver lining in the midst of tragedy has been high prices. Though record numbers of California cattle are crossing auction blocks throughout the state, prices have remained strong. “At least we’ve had price support,” says Koopman. “I can’t imagine where we’d be if we were going through all this in a down market.” He does, however, point out that, if prices remain high, restocking following the drought may prove difficult.
With the traditional rainy season now nearly over in California, farmers and ranchers are already looking to next fall. Many are pinning their hopes on the formation of an El Niño weather pattern predicted by weather experts in the coming months. “If that happens, they are predicting heavy rainfall, similar to what we saw in 1996,” says Koopman. “I hope so. At this point in time, just to get stock water replenishment, we need a year like that. To really stock this country, it’s got to rain.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent