The long rainless stretch over the winter dramatically cut grass growth on West Side cattle ranches, an expert said Friday.
The losses were somewhat less in the hills on Stanislaus County's eastern flank, which benefited from storms in early spring, said Theresa Becchetti, livestock adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension.
The dry spell reduced grass growth by about 80 percent in western parts of the county where irrigation is not available, she said. The estimate ranged from 55 percent to 70 percent around the eastern belt.
The east-west comparison was similar to the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, said Becchetti, who clips samples of grass to help come up with the figures.
John Herlihy of Modesto, who runs cattle near Tracy and Santa Nella, said he reduced their density on the land and sold some animals at less than desired weight to deal with the conditions.
The rain in March and April did the West Side little good, but it was well-timed for grass growth in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
"Amazingly enough, there was some very good grass production that resulted from those late rains, and that surprised a lot of people," Herlihy said.
The poor feed conditions are offset somewhat by beef prices that have remained strong, he said.
Stanislaus County ranchers had an estimated $64.9 million in gross income in 2010, according to the county crop report. Merced and San Joaquin counties also are big producers.
Range analysis: Poor to fair
Over the winter, December and January went by with little rain. Despite the spring storms, the weather year ended June 30 with rain still at less than average, as reflected in a rangeland update Monday from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Nonirrigated range condition was generally reported to be from poor to fair, with some higher- elevation range in good to fair condition," it said.
Becchetti and Diana Waller, district conservationist for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, reported the conditions in a letter last month to county and federal agriculture officials.
They noted the good start to the grass last fall, thanks to rain that helped the seeds germinate.
"Unfortunately, that is where it ended," they wrote.
Becchetti said the measures taken by ranchers, such as reducing animal density and feeding hay, could pay off.
"The people who manage correctly are going to have forage to come back to next winter," she said.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.