Farm Beat: Drought hits first at cattle ranchers

01/24/2014 6:09 PM

05/02/2014 3:52 PM

Paul Ichord has purchased hay for his cattle to eat, and trucked water so they could drink, amid a drought that has turned brutal.

“As you can see, we’re suffering through a pretty bad dry spell right now,” Ichord told visitors Wednesday to his ranch about eight miles east of Waterford.

He and many other beef producers count on rain from mid-fall to mid-spring to grow grasses that provide free feed in the hills flanking the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Little has fallen in the first few months of the storm season, and none is forecast for at least the next week.

The beef industry, one of the top-grossing agricultural sectors in the region and state, is among the first to take a major hit from this year’s dry conditions. Growers of nuts, fruits and other irrigated crops could suffer as spring and summer approach, but the crisis is here and now for the ranchers.

“This is very uncharacteristic for us, to be this dry in January,” said Theresa Becchetti, a livestock and natural resource adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

She and Ichord spoke during a ranch tour that was part of the ninth annual summit of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition. It also featured a Tuesday meeting in Oakdale where ranchers talked about the encroachment of almonds and other high-value crops – the topic of an upcoming story in The Bee.

Nonirrigated rangeland covers more acreage in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties than all of their irrigated crops combined. It dominates the Sierra Nevada foothills to the east and stretches into Bay Area counties to the west.

The past two years had below-average rainfall, but a few well-timed storms provided enough grass for many ranchers to get through. This year is something else, with barely any rain so far in a storm season that usually stretches from October to May. Hillsides that should have greened up by now are as brown as at summer’s end.

Ranchers can bring in hay, but it’s costly because of the competing demand from dairy farmers and horse owners. They can increase their well-pumping to provide cattle with drinking water that in wet years can come from surface runoff. But this costs money, too, and it can stress the aquifers.

Ranchers also can sell their cattle early, at lower weights than they would prefer. This is especially enticing this year because beef prices have risen, thanks to strong global demand and a reduced supply resulting from the 2012 drought across much of the nation.

Livestock adviser Larry Forero, speaking at the Oakdale meeting, said selling early is risky because ranchers could face high costs in rebuilding their herds.

“It’s all easy to talk about, but you’ve still got to pay the bills,” said Forero, who works for the UC Cooperative Extension in Shasta and Trinity counties.

Often abundant

In good years, cattle feed on the green grass for a few months, then continue as it turns brown in late spring. Ranchers then can send the animals to market or move them to summer grazing land, if they have it. This includes irrigated pasture, which is in high demand, and national forest allotments, which have been reduced because of environmental rules.

Ichord does not have either of these options. He relies on the 3,000-acre ranch along Crabtree Road the tour group visited, and a ranch of about the same size in Merced County.

Ichord said this year is the worst he has seen since 1977, the second year of a severe two-year drought. But he said the grass, as bad as it looks this winter, will spring back to life if the weather turns rainy.

Becchetti said the vegetation – a mixture of oats, rye and other types – maintains a “seed bank” in the soil that can survive dry times.

Working landscapes

The coalition is made up of ranchers, environmentalists, academics and government workers who agree that rangeland can support both cattle and wildlife.

They note that certain birds can find food on the ground because cattle eat some of the grass. Grazing also reduces vegetation that could invade vernal pools – temporary bodies of water that harbor fairy shrimp and other creatures.

But these lands will stay in ranching only if ranching stays profitable, coalition members say, and that’s tough to do when the rain holds off.

The current and long-term challenges were discussed at the Oakdale meeting by Dave Daley, a fifth-generation rancher who teaches animal science at California State University, Chico. He cited the water problems, hay prices, government regulations and other issues facing ranchers.

But Daley also talked of a “generational land ethic” that could keep family operations going. And he mentioned an Oakdale fixture a couple of blocks from the meeting hall.

“Don’t it make you feel good to drive into town and see something that says House of Beef?”

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