From the Fields® - February 5, 2014

By Keith Watkins, Tulare County citrus grower

Basically, after the freeze in early December we’ve been harvesting a much as we can in the blocks where there wasn’t a lot of damage. We’ve been harvesting navels, lemons and mandarins, and the fruit is looking really good.

But now we’re getting down to blocks where there’s real damage. In the mandarins, especially, we’re seeing some drying due to freeze damage. We’re able to sort out the damaged fruit in the packinghouse, using sensors, so that fruit can be pulled out.

Market movement has slowed, but we can’t complain about demand. We’ve got a good quality packout and the current higher prices may be part of the reason for slowing. There also has been slowing of shipments going east because of weather.

We’ve gotten over the impact of the freeze and now it’s all about water. We grow in 15 different water districts and planning for water supplies is a big challenge. We have blocks in some districts where water supplies are running short and there’s no well water. The impact of the drought is ranch-specific.

I’ve talked with growers who are looking at ways to lower the demand on the trees and the water supply by minimizing fruit set. One of the things we’re looking at is pushing out older, weaker blocks so we won’t need as much water.

By Henry Giacomini, Shasta County beef producer

It’s dry in our area and everything revolves around that. It’s a serious drought situation, but in some ways we’re fortunate here in Hat Creek. The cows are on pasture, but for yearlings and calves there’s no way we’ll put them out to graze.

We’re operating now with 60 percent stocking on grass. The bottom line for us is that these conditions will increase the cost per cow to produce.

We held onto our steer calves last fall because we still had some pasture left. But that opportunity has dried up with the drought and, at this point, we have to feed them.

We’ve been on vacation and I told myself that if it hadn’t rained by the time we got back I was going to sell them. They go on the video market tomorrow and right now the market looks pretty good.

There’s no grass for grazing in California right now and hay is getting short. That’s a pretty serious situation in January. Hay isn’t cheap.

We’re very concerned about summer because it looks like we might have real issues with grass and stock water. It’s going to be a lean year.

Environmental protection will continue to be a priority. I don’t want to overgraze our pastures and with the dry conditions, I will work to protect the creeks.

By Brian Fedora, Colusa County walnut grower

As January ends, so are our hopes for a wet winter. I can only wish the next couple months are much wetter than the last couple. With such a dry spell, our winter tasks have been switched around. We are ahead of schedule on pruning, application of soil amendments and chemical applications. Shop work is a little behind, only because we have been in the orchards working. I also cannot recall so much irrigation in the winter months.

I worry that the dry winter will have unwanted effects on all commodities and thus also cause harm to the entire California economy. Walnut prices remain strong, but it is too early to tell how this dry winter could affect size, edible yield and production. The other issue is whether we will have water for irrigation. This issue will be one that we will all have to work together to get through. I am hopeful this water event will renew conversations of water storage and usage, as well as prompt action on new storage projects. While I remain optimistic rain will still come, we are preparing for a long, dry summer.

By Stacy Gore, Butte County diversified grower

Like most of California, we’re exceptionally dry here in the north state. Not to hit the panic button, but Lake Oroville level is tracking below ’76-’77 levels. Water districts here in the north are more certain as to the allocations they will be able to deliver, which allows growers to make plans as to what’s going to be farmed and what’s going to be left out.

Irrigation season in the orchards has been active since before Christmas. Lack of precipitation makes it necessary to irrigate so soil moisture levels are adequate for root activity. Almond bloom may be just around the corner, and playing catchup with irrigation during pollination and nut set can be a dangerous game.

Planting of rice and other spring crops might be a couple months away, but on some of the lighter ground, farmers are getting a jump on weed control and even a little leveling. Typically, leveling and January aren’t mentioned in the same sentence around here. However, I think we’re about to enjoy an atypical season.

Many of the area’s winter forage and hay crops are being irrigated, as well as some pastures that have access to water. Locally, much of these crops aren’t half as far along as they should be at this date.

By Bob Brennan, Tuolumne County cattle rancher

All the cattlemen in our area are feeding hay to our cattle. We wouldn’t normally be supplementing feed at this time of year, but we’re in our breeding season. We’ve got our calves out and our bulls are turned out.

One good thing about the lack of rain is that we haven’t needed to wait for a dry day to do our calf branding. The calves are easier to handle when it’s not muddy.

We had some problems with calf production and the cows probably suffered some abortion because of the Rim Fire last year. There were some cows bred last spring that should have calved but came up open, possibly from all the smoke, and there seems to be a good deal of foothill abortion going on as well.

But probably the biggest thing going on right now for the grazing permitees who were in the Rim Fire burn area is waiting for the U.S. Forest Service to come out and tell us who is going to be able to turn out cattle on our allotments and who isn’t. They have not told us yet.

There are quite a few ranchers who hold grazing permits that aren’t in the fire area and they will likely be unaffected by the fire’s damage. But, with lack of rain, the Forest Service has a tendency to decide on shortened grazing seasons.

To complicate things, some environmental groups are asking for a 2- to-10-year moratorium on grazing in the burn area. With the drought and a grazing moratorium, it will make it really hard for some permitees to stay in business. There’s no place for them to go.

None of the permitees are asking for 100 percent of grazing activities. We can see the damage and we’re willing to forego some of the time on our allotments; we’ve already said that.

But 10 years will do nothing but allow brush fields to take over the burned areas. There’s a lot of browse out there now, and the cattle will eat the fresh, green shoots that turn into growth and prevent the slower-growing trees from getting a chance.

In the meantime, we’re feeding hay. One grazing permitee told me right now he’s feeding a load of hay a week. That’s about $6,000 a week for hay. Essentially, some ranchers in our area have already lost all profits they might expect this year.