From the Fields® - March 19, 2014

By Clay Daulton, Madera County cattle rancher

On the subject of the drought, we attended the UC Extension Grazing and Ecology workshop in Catheys Valley on March 12. There were about 60 producers and nine presenters. When it comes to rangeland, they’ve proved that livestock are beneficial to the environment.

It was a great program and yet another reminder that there’s nothing but truly great people in UC Extension. They know what is practical and what is real when it comes to rangeland and the environment. They talked about the water quality conditions. There was some talk about what not to do, like don’t feed expensive hay; just thin herds.

While ranchers are never mentally prepared for drought, there are a lot of things like pipelines, pumps and managed grazing that can make the effects less severe. That would be very much unlike the collective inaction of our state legislators for the last 45 or so years since Gov. Pat Brown. He was the 1960s California governor behind building the California Aqueduct and a lot of storage.

There’s nothing you can do about drought now. You should have been doing it for the last 20 years.

By Larry Massa, Glenn County diversified farmer

We’ve been feeding cattle, which is not normal for this time of year, but our pastures haven’t been producing an adequate amount of grass because of the drought. It’s not normal, but we’ve been keeping our herd going.

We usually keep our cows on winter range west of Willows, but we’re bringing them in sooner than usual. We’ve already culled pretty heavily, but still have some yearling steers.

Beef prices have been phenomenal. It’s the one saving grace in this crisis.

We got through the drought of 1977 without our wells going dry, but we had them tested because it has been dry for several years. Right now, we have one well that’s not very strong. Whether that well or the others make it through the summer depends on how dry it gets.

We’ve never seen it this dry before. I know people in Elk Creek who are bringing in water. They’re running water trucks seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Between buying feed and water, maintaining a herd is becoming cost prohibitive. These conditions really force you to think about your operation.

By Ken Doty, Santa Barbara citrus/avocado grower

We’re looking at a decent avocado year in terms of my individual production; it looks like it might be a great price here with the overall crop down.

The same is true in lemons, following the freeze and problems in other producing areas. We’re looking at a potentially great year if I can get there with water. It’s getting skinny. There are some reports of well levels dropping or worse. I’m OK for the moment, but midsummer, I don’t know. We’ve had a total of less than 7 inches of precipitation.

We’re trying to do some things to cope. I’m doing a complete mulch application on all of my lemons, which I can drive and make an easier application. The avocados are a different story because they are on hillsides and I can’t drive much of it. I built a reservoir last fall and hope to put that into play; at least I have a little bit of storage.

I’m relatively assured that we will get our crops off this year. There’s no telling what we’ll have for crops after this winter. The last couple of years have been very difficult. Our water quality isn’t the greatest and when you don’t have those good leaching rains, then the salts start to build up and that’s really tough on the avocados.

By Jonnalee Henderson, Colusa County nut grower

In the almonds, we had excellent bloom weather and we are not seeing much evidence of disease problems from the few showers we had. With this warmer weather, the trees are leafing out and pushing the nuts out quickly and we are just starting our fertilizer program. With the help of our great pest control advisors, we are monitoring brown almond mite populations. But don’t worry beekeepers, we won’t treat until beehives are removed or the practice is approved.

Our small peach acreage also had great bloom weather and the trees are starting to leaf out as we finish pruning. In the walnuts, we are expecting to see some bud break soon.

By Mike Vukelich, Contra Costa County greenhouse grower

We’re looking forward to spring, our big sales months in the flower-growing business. We have bedding plants like petunias, marigolds, asters, pansies and violas, and our big sales time is in March, April and May.

Of course, in order to have a good year we have to have water. All of our nurseries have plenty of well water, but the big problem is the lack of water at the consumer level.

Right now, I see people in the garden shops and they have spring fever. So, we’re hoping to do well, but you never know. In 1976 and 1977, we had two drought years. At that time, I was growing blooming color plants and in those two years I threw out 25 million plants. We’re growing different kinds of things now, more hanging baskets and combination potted plants.

By Jim Morris, Siskiyou County diversified grower

Up in the Klamath mountains of Siskiyou County, we feel blessed with the recent rains that we have had. The rains have been very beneficial, but we still have a dire lack of snowpack in our area. Most of our systems are snow-driven systems and we are concerned that later in the year we won’t have the water necessary for grazing and for crop production.

Right now we are still feeding hay to our cattle. It is still cold in our area and we are hoping to be able to turn out the cattle to grazing in the next 30 days or so if there is enough feed.

Fields are being prepped and balers and swathers are being blown off and we are ready to put the hay together for this coming year. We still hope to provide hay for the rest of the state in places that we know won’t be producing hay because of the lack of water.

We are looking for a good summer. We may not fallow as much in our area as growers do in other areas of the state. A lot of our crops are irrigated with groundwater and we still have access to groundwater. Some places probably will be fallowed to a degree, but not as much as in other places down state. We should still be able to produce the crops that we normally produce. Late season, we may have to cut back on some of the irrigations, but for those crops that we grow, we look to be in pretty good shape right now.

By Norma Tofanelli, Napa County winegrape and walnut grower

We dry farm our head-trained heritage vines and are fortunate to be sited where we rarely get frost. We delay bud break by pruning later than most, so we still have about a week of pruning to go. Dry-farmed vines have deep roots, so the drought is not as big a concern for us as for others.

While all appears to be about a week earlier than normal, we still have no bud break. The rains gave our cover crop the boost it needed to grow, but not as much as we would like. As we head into this dry, warmer period, our concern now is for turning the ground before it gets to too dry to break up the clay clods.