Spring started at 4:02 a.m. today, according to scientists who track Earth's axis, but cattle ranchers wouldn't mind if winter stayed around for a little while.
They hope the storm that was expected to arrive overnight will boost grasses that have had little rain since late December.
"It will be great if we can get a half-inch-plus," said Bill Sanguinetti, who runs cattle near Farmington. "The grass is trying to hold on."
He talked about the conditions Tuesday after the 61st annual Oakdale Livestock Forum, which deals with industry issues in Stanislaus and nearby counties.
Most land where beef cattle graze is not irrigated, so ranchers count on rain from late fall to early spring to grow much of their feed.
A shortage could force them to buy expensive hay, to move to irrigated summer pasture earlier than planned or to send their cattle to market at less weight than desired.
"You sell your cows if worse comes to worse," said Emery Ross, a rancher near Coulterville.
Modesto has had about two-thirds of its average total of 12.2 inches in the rainfall year that runs from July 1 to June 30, according to the Modesto Irrigation District.
The snowpack in the central Sierra Nevada, which supplies most of the Northern San Joaquin Valley's water, stood at 59 percent of average Tuesday, the California Department of Water Resources reported.
The bulk of the storms usually comes from November through March, so there's little time to bring up totals.
Water managers use April 1 to get the best sense of where the supply stands. That's a week and a half after the spring equinox, when the tilt of the planet puts the sun at an equal distance from the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
The dry winter has prompted the Turlock Irrigation District to limit 2013 deliveries to roughly half of what farmers could get in better years. The Modesto Irrigation District could approve a somewhat better allotment next month.
On parts of the West Side, irrigators can expect only 25 percent of their contracted amounts from the federal Central Valley Project because of drought and fish protections. They could turn to wells or try to buy water from districts without such cutbacks.
Hoping for warm, wet spring
Early spring rain, mixed with warm days, would be ideal for rangeland on the east and west flanks of the valley. That happened last year on the east, making up for a very dry winter.
Experts will measure the grass production next month to see whether to seek federal drought assistance, said Theresa Becchetti, a livestock and natural resources adviser at the University of California Cooperative Extension.
It co-sponsored the Oakdale event, which also featured a talk by Pelayo Alvarez, director of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition. He told of its efforts to get regulators, environmentalists and others to see the importance of ranching to wildlife, recreation and scenery.
"Ranchers are the most important stewards of the land," he said, "and we have to keep them in business."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.
AT A GLANCE
(As of Jan. 1, 2012)
HEAD OF CATTLE
San Joaquin: 19,700
(The totals do not include dairy cattle sold to the beef market, a substantial number in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.)
Stanislaus: 436,000 acres
Merced: 562,471 acres
San Joaquin: 120,000 acres
Tuolumne: 200,000 acres
Stanislaus: 33,200 acres
Merced: 26,597 acres
San Joaquin: 14,500 acres
Tuolumne: 1,420 acres
Sources: California Department of Food and Agriculture, county crop reports