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Rain results in plenty of green grass, a boon to cattlemen

Cattlemen are looking at the recent rains with what one ag official is calling "cautious optimism."

Those winter rains mean green, cow-filling grass in the foothills surrounding Merced -- and grass means fat cattle. For the past three years, that grass has been absent from the hills because of the lack of rain.

"I've talked to some guys and we are all cautiously optimistic," said Laura Westerfield, the county executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Because of the last three years of drought, the lack of grass in the foothills has put a burden on cattle growers who have had to supplement their cows with expensive hay.

With the recent rains, though, those foothills have been turning green. What's more, according to Matt Byrne, is that the stock ponds and creeks have been filling with water.

"Until the first major storm in January, we had enough rain to get the grass going but not enough to fill the creeks and ponds," said Byrne, the executive vice president of the California Cattlemen's Association. "Now those stock ponds are looking good."

Byrne said the cattle growers he's talked to are thinking about restocking their herds this year, after two years of cutting back because of high feed prices.

"Cattlemen are an optimistic bunch," Byrne said. "The rain and water have made people start thinking about what's going to happen next, and some folks may be holding back some additional heifers this year and building their herds back up."

Byrne said over the past three years the state's cow herd is down by 100,000 head because of the drought.

"Any effort to build back up will take a while," Byrne said. "But we're in a pretty good spot right now."

Byrne said cattle growers would like to see the rain continue through February, March and April, because in the past couple of years the rains have stopped after February.

"We've still got at least another month in the rain season," he said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."

Although it seems as if the hills are green everywhere, David Robinson, Merced County agriculture commissioner, said because of the drought, there is no carryover grass from the previous years and that means the grass on the steep hillsides is a bit sparse.

"With no carryover grass, the water just runs down the hill," Robinson said. "I'm hearing that the lower areas have good grass, and the rest of it is ready to go if we just get the rain."

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

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