Stanislaus County ranchers feeling drought's financial pain

06/14/2008 4:41 AM

06/14/2008 10:13 AM

Drought has done an estimated $12.9 million worth of damage to Stanislaus County's beef industry since last fall, a county official said Friday.

The shortage of rain has stunted grasses on the county's 349,000 acres of nonirrigated grazing land, Agricultural Commissioner Gary Caseri said.

This has reduced the weight gain that ranchers had expected in the cattle, so they are making less money from meat processors. Ranchers also have had to spend money on supplemental feed and other costs.

Caseri detailed the losses in a letter requesting a federal disaster declaration, which could bring about low-interest loans for affected ranchers.

"Stanislaus County is currently experiencing a significant loss of rangeland forage due to lack of rainfall," said the letter, sent via the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. "Drought conditions and colder than normal temperatures from last year, coupled with lack of rainfall after the first of this year, have resulted in significant economic loss to local ranchers."

The $12.9 million is a small fraction of the county's annual income from beef cattle, estimated at $351 million in 2006. Much of that revenue comes from ranches with irrigated pastures or from dairy farms, which sell cows into the beef market after they are no longer worth milking.

Still, the losses can be painful for ranchers who rely only on the rain-fed grasses. They grow mainly in the foothills on each side of the valley, staying green well into spring in years with enough storms.

Caseri estimated a 58 percent drop in the value of this forage since October. He said ranchers have had to reduce the grazing season and sell some of the cattle earlier than they planned.

The sell-off is happening in other parts of the state, too.

"We have never had to do that before," said Stan Van Vleck, whose family has run cattle in Sacramento County for 150 years.

Caseri said his office is working on a separate estimate of the farm income losses because of irrigation cutbacks. This also could result in a federal disaster declaration.

All this is separate from the drought emergency declared by Gov. Schwarzenegger this week for the area between Sacramento and Kern counties. This action aims to streamline the movement of irrigation water to farms that face shortages.

The dryland ranchers also have to contend with an increased threat of grass and brush fires.

"It's drier than I've ever seen for this time of year," said John Snook, a U.S. Forest Service meteorologist in Redding who tracks moisture levels in vegetation.

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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