Drought, water shortages force ranchers to downsize

Issue Date: September 17, 2008
Ching Lee

There are fewer mouths to feed on Stanislaus County cattle producer David Absher's ranch, because there is precious little feed to begin with.

Two years of skimpy rainfall and poor grass growth left little for his cows to eat, and like many California farmers and ranchers, Absher has had to make drastic changes to his operation to conserve resources in light of the state's current drought.

He thinned his herd by 30 percent earlier in the year to take pressure off his range and now plans to reduce another 10 percent because there won't be enough water in his allotment for the year to keep his summer pastures growing and his cows fed.

Stanislaus County rancher David Absher, left, and his ranch manager, Jonathan Hjelmervik, have had to make drastic changes in response to drought.

"Essentially we're stockpiling feed on the pastures that we already have," said Absher, who is among nearly 200 farmers and ranchers who responded to a survey conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation about how producers are coping with current water shortages. "The fewer cows that you have on it, the less is consumed, so we're reducing the impact on the pasture over the grazing season to extend the grazing season."

Although Absher raises cattle, he said he considers himself a grass farmer first because only with proper management of this resource can he sustain his herds. But the extended drought has made range management much more difficult this year.

Walking through his ranch near Modesto, where his cows graze on irrigated pastures during summer months, Absher noted the "holistic" approach his ranch manager, Jonathan Hjelmervik, must take to meet the needs of the cattle while maintaining the health of the land.

Left on their own, cows will eat the land bare. One of Hjelmervik's jobs is to move them from one section of the field to the next to allow the eaten parts to rest and regrow. Absher said grass grows back faster on his irrigated pasture if kept longer than 6 inches.

Because ranchers were already dealing with dismal rain and forage last year, Absher said he left his cattle on the winter native grass in the foothills longer than usual. Now he will have reduced feed when he moves his cattle back there in the fall.

"Grass is like a bank account," he said. "If you use all of your feed when the grass here in the valley stops growing, then you'll have nothing to go back to. So you have to keep a bank account of grass from last year."

Matt Byrne, executive vice president of the California Cattlemen's Association, said wildfires this summer damaged some of the pastures that ranchers rely on for grazing, while lack of rainfall left most of the state's remaining rangeland in very poor condition. That has forced many ranchers to sell more cattle, including their breeding stock, and sell calves earlier than normal.

Faced with a reduced number of revenue-producing animals and rising costs from feed to fuel to fertilizer, Byrne said many California ranchers must make tough financial and management decisions.

Grasses produce well on irrigated pasture when there is sufficient water available, but suffer during times of water shortages.

"The economics are working against you on the cost side and the revenue side," he said. "The question is, when do things turn around? And if they do, will ranchers be able to bring animals back in to replace those that they've let go?"

Although individual ranchers face difficult decisions, consumers may see little impact. Bill Dale, executive director of the California Beef Council, said the state's reduced cattle numbers likely will not affect supermarket beef supplies or consumer prices.

"California is a beef-deficit state," he said. "We don't raise enough beef to supply our population, so regardless of whether we're in a drought or not, we have to bring beef in from other states to meet our demands."

Siskiyou County cattle rancher Scott Murphy said not only will he have to spend an additional $4,500 on supplemental feed to sustain his cattle through this year's drought, but he will also be losing revenue from any extra alfalfa that he would typically be able to sell if not for the lack of water to grow it.

"I sell my own hay, and I also feed my critters my own hay," he said. "So instead of shelling out more money to feed these cattle, I'm giving up market opportunity of selling this hay to feed it to my cows."

Leonard and Barbara Luiz, who raise cattle and grow hay on 200 acres in Siskiyou County, said they've reduced about 20 percent of their herd, keeping few heifers and selling their calves smaller than they would like. They lost about 50 acres of hay production due to lack of rainfall and have had to spend nearly $20,000 on supplemental feed.

Hay prices have skyrocketed, Barbara Luiz said. Even though she and her husband have fewer cows to feed now, they're still spending about 30 percent more on feed. They've been able to irrigate some of their hillside because they have well water and a spring on their property, but the high cost to pump the water means they will only irrigate every two to three weeks, just to keep portions of the pasture green.

Absher said ranch owners who typically rent their property for grazing also don't have any grass to lease.

"What do they do? Everybody requires cash flow from assets," he said. "It's pretty extensive the damage that's being done by the drought. There are economic consequences that are pretty far reaching."

Cattle ranchers are not alone in their struggles with the drought. Julie Austin, who raises goats in El Dorado County for breeding stock, meat and weed control, also had to downsize her herd because she couldn't afford to buy the supplemental feed to sustain all 500 of them. She sold 50 and is looking to sell another 20.

Austin said she invested $17,000 in a new well to provide water for her goats. She said she hopes the well will eventually yield enough water to benefit her pasture, too. In the meantime, she said, feed has doubled in price while native grasses turned scarce in June when her goats normally could graze through July or August. Sales of her goats have also declined because other ranchers, faced with the same drought-driven management issues, are unwilling to expand their herds or start new ones.

"When you don't get rains to produce the grasses, everything suffers," Austin said. "It affects the hay prices and it affects the alfalfa prices, which then in turn affects everything else."

Those who raise sheep are also adapting to the dry conditions. Lesa Carlton, executive director of the California Wool Growers Association, said sheep farmers have to be more aggressive and creative this year to secure land from other farmers to graze their animals. But the advantage they have is sheep will eat crop residue and dry stubble left over from harvest, so they have more feed sources than other livestock.

Carlton said while sheep ranchers have not had to downsize their herds like other livestock producers, many of them are selling their lambs at a lighter weight this year, which makes the sale less profitable.

"It definitely has been a challenge, but they're trying to be as resourceful as possible," she said.

(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.