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Monday, May 5, 2014

El Nino's return expected to cause more weather chaos

by Mark Mendiola - WLJ Correspondent

Destructive tornadoes wreaking widespread destruction from Arkansas to North Carolina, blacking out tens of thousands of electricity users, destroying and flattening numerous houses. Flash flooding inundating Alabama and Florida, washing out highways with many inches of rain falling within a brief amount of time.

A massive mudslide wiping out a small town in northwestern Washington state, suddenly killing dozens of residents. The entire state of California suffering a relentless drought that has ignited raging wildfires normally not seen until late summer.

Extreme weather. American ranchers striving to raise livestock under such dire conditions nationwide find their tenacity and ingenuity stretched to the snapping point. Compounding their woes is word that meteorologists are convinced another El Nino phenomenon is forming in the Pacific Ocean, threatening to further raise food prices by disrupting global weather patterns.

U.S. government forecasters predict a more than 65 percent chance that a vast area of the Pacific will warm up, causing heavy rain in some places and drought in others. It has been estimated that global food prices easily could climb 15 percent to record highs in as little as three months after an El Nino forms.

Referring to the Golden State’s ongoing drought, Tim Koopmann, President of the California Cattlemen’s Association, said after weathering the droughts of 1975-77 and 1987-89, “this by far has had the most severe impact. … We have been absolutely devastated the last three years.”

Normally thousands of out-of-state cattle are brought into California for winter grazing to gain 300 pounds, but this year they showed up by November and were out by January for lack of vegetation, depleted stock ponds and dried up streams.

Koopmann, a fourth generation rancher, said his family has ranched in the San Francisco Bay area since 1918. “We bowed our neck and stayed in place.” A spring on the home ranch that has never dried up went dry last July. His daughter has only 36 steers grazing on 4,000 acres.

Normally, livestock producers are running 620,000 mother cows in Southern California, but Koopmann said that number could be down by 100,000, meaning there are fewer cattle to reduce fire fuels, increasing wildfire risks.

Counterparts in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and other Plains states who have been battling extreme heat and parched ground for four years have been taking California cattle to rebuild their herds.

“The recovery is going to be long and drawn out,” Koopmann told the Western Livestock Journal.

California’s snow pack is virtually nonexistent, and irrigators will be severely cutting back on water allocations, causing a definite sharp decline in crop production and escalating food prices, he said.

California produces some 300 commodities and about 50 percent of the entire nation’s fruits and vegetables.

An estimated 500,000 acres are expected to lie fallow.

Ranchers are facing hay going for $300 a ton. With cattle prices at record highs, many of them are liquidating their herds.

“We’re not having a whole lot of fun here,” Koopmann said. “If it was so fun and easy, everybody would like to be doing it. All we can do is hope and pray it will return to normal rainfall and hang on.”

Kansas also has been experiencing the adverse effects of a lengthy drought, said Todd Domer, Kansas Livestock Association’s Vice President of Communications. The lack of moisture has made it extremely difficult in western Kansas, where 50 mile per hour winds have created major dust storms, he said.

Some creeks are extremely low and streams are not running, depriving cattle of water and forage. “There are still places throughout the state that have not had much if any rain,” Domer said, also citing drought conditions in Texas, New Mexico and parts of Colorado.

Despite the drought’s persistence, the Kansas livestock industry remains strong and resilient with beef cattle numbering 12.4 million head, up 6 percent. If El Nino develops, Domer said he hopes it will bring increased moisture for the state.

Chancey Hanson, Communications Director for the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, said many OCA members are still feeding their cattle hay and cubes even though it’s May. “Usually by this time of year we can count on the new growth in pastures to support the cattle.”

Hanson added: “Beef production isn’t an easy job on a wet year, but when longterm dry weather strikes, the challenges and expenses multiply rapidly.”

Hanson said reports he has read indicate the dry weather pattern will stay for a while. “In the meantime, we encourage all producers to be good managers of the forages they have available and pray for rain.”

Jason Zahn, President of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, which has 3,000 members, said the winter in North Dakota has been brutal, and April has been a rough month for ranchers, with cold, snow, ice and rain making conditions miserable.

“We’ve had a cold winter temperature-wise. Not a lot of snow. It’s been pretty tough right in the middle of calving for us,” Zahn said.

It’s been difficult for North Dakota ranchers to increase their cow herds the last five or six years because of flooding, storms and other weather setbacks. “It’s hard to rebuild when you are dealing with adversities,” he said. However, a healthy hay crop and corn prices down by half help soften the blow.

Ranchers in the state typically lose up to 5 percent of their calves during calving season, but Zahn said during 2011-2012 he heard the percentage of lost calves went up to 15 percent in some cases. He estimates he calves out 550 cows.

Jack Field, Executive Vice President of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said April was fairly cool, and there has been a slow start to grass coming on good in his state. Heavy precipitation the last half of February replenished up to 70 percent of Washington’s snow pack. Some parts of the state are relatively dry while others have received healthy doses of rain.

The money spent to pay rent on farm land in two of the state’s northwestern counties is staggering, Field said. Some parcels are going for $25,000 to $40,000. British Columbia farmers have been bidding up the price.

Jim Magagna, Executive Vice President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said with the exception of the state’s very southwest corner, Wyoming has received adequate moisture this winter. Its snowpack averaged 135 percent of normal a month ago. Its lowest drainages are in the high 80s or low 90s.

Hay prices remain strong, but they are down significantly from a year ago, when they were fetching up to $250 a ton, Magagna said. Hay prices are so high in California that ranchers there reportedly can buy hay at $200 a ton in Wyoming, ship it to their state and still pay less for it than if it were purchased in California.

Looking ahead into 2014, Magagna said: “I think it’s got to be a better year than when we had drought from the Pacific Coast to the Midwest.” — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent