From the Fields® - May 21, 2014

By Jeff Frey, Santa Barbara County winegrape grower

With our vines right now, we are probably three weeks earlier than normal and the crop level looks pretty good for most varieties. This is somewhat surprising considering the big crop that we had last year. We do have some issues with water in the outlying areas where we have shallow wells. In most of the areas where we have deep wells and good aquifers, we are OK, even though we have had to put on a lot of water. We had to start irrigating early, all through the winter to supplement the rain that we didn’t get.

It is still too early to tell whether we had any damage from the heat last week. We will be assessing that. In Santa Maria, it was over 100 degrees; we set records numerous days. We just aren’t used to that here; 85 degrees is hot for us and it was scorching.

Diseases and pests have been nonexistent so far this year; mildew pressure hasn’t been bad.

Labor is really tight. With all the berries going on here in the Santa Maria area, there is a lot of competition for labor. People have raised their rates and finding good labor, or any labor for that matter, is very difficult.

Unless things change, harvest will definitely be early this year. If we can get the grapes off early, it gives the vines time to build themselves back up for the winter. It is just a matter of whether the wineries are ready to take the grapes early.

By Carol Scheiber, Placer County cattle rancher

We’re irrigating pasture, cutting hay and breaking hay. We started irrigating in April. Originally, we were told we weren’t going to get any water in January because of the drought. There are nine of us that are in Placer County Water Agency’s Zone 5. They came up with about 5,000 acre-feet of water, so we only took half of what we normally get because of the cost. We normally order 360 acre-feet of water, and we said we would take 180. We were trying to let the nine of us that wanted water to get some water.

It’s going a little slower because we don’t have the volume, as there are only three of us taking water, so it’s a little slower getting the water across the fields, but we’ve got the water. That’s our No. 1 priority—to get the water, because we couldn’t afford to buy hay for summer and hay for next winter.

We were able to finish out what hay we had from last year and we are now cutting this winter’s crop, which we planted last October. We planted a brand-new pasture last fall and we planted probably about 150 acres of new oat hay. Oat hay doesn’t get irrigated; rain supplies the water for it. We store the oat hay for our own use; we don’t sell any of it. We raise, hopefully, enough for our own cows. We depend on the rain, and those late rains really brought the crop up. They came at the right time and made a big difference. We normally start cutting in May, but because of the late rains, we had to wait for the fields to dry out to get into them.

We downsized our herd before we knew we were going to get water. So we cut the main herd of mother cows almost in half, and we got rid of probably about half the calves. This year, we weaned the calves in January and we usually don’t wean them until closer to April and May. After we had them weaned enough, we sold some, about 30, and then got rid of anything that wasn’t carrying a calf. Now, we should have sufficient pasture for them to summer on. We have three different fields that we irrigate and put the cows in. We let them eat and then irrigate behind them.

By Domenic Carinalli, Sonoma County dairy farmer

Here in the North Bay, most everybody right now has got their silage chopped and in the pit. The crops were probably average. Even after the drought, we did have a lot of rain this spring. The crops came up pretty good and we had a pretty nice crop of silage.

Silage is a local product that most all of us raise some of, and it’s a good portion of our feed, but we still have to supplement with alfalfa. Silage is an annual crop, so you either have enough now to make it until a year from now, or if you’re short, you might have to buy extra alfalfa, which is another cost. Some people don’t have enough, particularly if they’re milking a few more cows, and at that point, they’re going to have to buy more alfalfa, which is going to be very expensive. I had a really good crop, so I think I’m going to be in pretty good shape. It looks like we’re going to have enough to make it through the season.

The pasture was average or maybe a little below because of the shortage of water. We have a lot of organic dairymen up here who depend on pasture for their milk cows. Most of them were probably a little short this year because the season was short. We didn’t get any rain until the 8th or 9th of February.

The drought does affect us in that people are hauling water to water their cows. I’m in an area that has plenty of water, so I’m lucky that way because I don’t have to haul water. But there are people up here who do have to haul water for their cows, which is another added cost.

I think the biggest effect on us will be later in the summer when we’re buying alfalfa hay, because we don’t raise alfalfa in this area. We have to get it from the Central Valley. Hay here is historically higher than it is in the Central Valley because of the hauling. Sometimes we have to haul it from places like Nevada, so our hay price is naturally higher. With the shortage of water in the valley, hay is going to be very expensive. That’s something we’re not looking forward to. Milk prices are at a good level, but when feed prices go up that much, it’s going to affect us all.

By Doug McGeoghegan, Colusa County rice grower

Looking back on the last couple of years and these articles I have written for Ag Alert®, I noted that most have contained, in addition to my opinions and observations, some expressions of wishful thinking and optimism. That was particularly true when it came to issues related to the availability of water for irrigation. Mother Nature has bailed us out numerous times in the past, but she obviously needs an assist here in traditionally arid California. When we went through a similar situation in the drought culminating in the 1976-77 mess, we had a population of 10 million people in California, not the 38 million of today. So long as the decision-makers in this state continue to decide that nothing or lip service is the preferred course of action with regard to additional water storage, all any of us will have to lean on is continued wishful thinking.

While the overall water storage situation certainly improved with the rains in late winter and early spring, our situation in the Colusa Basin is always tenuous in Shasta Critical years, as necessary cutbacks and conservation programs implemented by the Sacramento River settlement contractors results in sharply reduced and unpredictable return flows to Reclamation District 2047. As such, notwithstanding the appropriative water rights held by many diverters along the Colusa Basin Drain and tributaries, you can’t pump water that isn’t there, nor risk fuel and fertilizer. Thus, many thousands of acres normally planted to rice will be fallowed in crop year 2014.

While we have some developed groundwater resources on our property, we have yet to depend completely on wells to grow a rice crop to maturity. We have questions as to well water quality and quantity over the course of a four-month growing season, not to mention power costs. As such, our final decisions with respect to the number of acres we plant will decidedly be on the conservative side, with much of our very productive rice ground fallow in crop year 2014.