Beef cattle can expect to chow down on plenty of grass this year, thanks to the rainy storms of winter.
The free feed will allow ranchers to use less purchased hay than in the past three years of drought.
"It's beautiful now," said Tom Gookin, who raises cattle in the La Grange and Knights Ferry areas. "I fed hay up until Christmas last year at La Grange."
Ranchers rely on rainfall rather than irrigation in most of the foothill grazing land that flanks the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
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A series of storms in January and February nourished the young grass, and March has started off wet, too.
"It's been a really good year so far," said Steve Kistler, a rancher near Tulloch Lake in western Tuolumne County.
The year started with grass of good quality but low volume, but now quality and quantity are strong, said Theresa Becchetti, a livestock adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension.
"For ranching, it's great because we've had nice, slow, soaking storms, and then we've had some sun," she said.
Cattle will feed on the green grass for a few months, then continue as the crop turns brown in late spring. Ideally, the ranches will start next winter with grass left over from this year's spurt.
Ample rain also fills up the ranch ponds where cattle drink.
Rain into April would be welcome, Gookin said, but later storms would reduce the quality of the feed.
Beef is among the top agricultural products in the north valley and adjacent Sierra Nevada counties. The foothills are strictly beef producers, while most of the volume from the valley floor comes from dairy cows past their prime.
The drought has hit hard. In just the first five months of 2009, Stanislaus County ranchers had $14.2 million in losses, according to the county agricultural commissioner's office. This included degraded rangeland and less-than-expected weight gain for the cattle.
This winter, though far from the wettest on record, has been better than the past three. Modesto rainfall was about 135 percent of average as of Wednesday, according to the Modesto Irrigation District.
While the valley floor and foothills are above average for rain, the snowpack in the central Sierra was just 93 percent of average as of Wednesday, according to the California Department of Water Resources. This is the main irrigation supply for north valley crops.
Farmers and ranchers hope for a few more cold storms to top off the snowpack while watering the foothill grass.
"If we'd get an inch of rain every two weeks, it would be great," Gookin said.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2385.