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Cattle ranchers seek strategies for drought

Issue Date: February 5, 2014
By Ching Lee
Veterinarian Nancy Martin talks to ranchers about animal health and making culling decisions during a drought survival workshop at the University of California Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley.
Photo/Ching Lee
UC Cooperative Extension advisor Glenn Nader shows ranchers different roughages such as corn stover that can be used as feed supplements during droughts or when dry matter is limited.
Photo/Ching Lee

For California cattle ranchers, making management decisions during one of the state's worst droughts has not been easy.

Many of them sought help, as more than 100 livestock owners packed the University of California Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley last week to attend a workshop aimed at helping them cope with this winter's prolonged dry spell, with topics ranging from optimizing pasture to using supplemental feed and managing risk. Ranchers also gathered at six other locations to watch a live webcast of the workshop.

Billy McDonald, who runs cattle in Sacramento and Santa Clara counties, said a key message he took from the workshop was "never feed your way out of a drought."

McDonald's wife, Aileen, said she learned from UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Glenn Nader that "you need to set a date, like if it doesn't rain by a certain date, to start culling. That's really important."

She noted that they've been holding off on making these hard decisions, wanting to "give it one more day, one more day," in hopes that conditions would improve.

Trying to sustain an operation with supplemental feeding alone "will bankrupt you economically, financially and ecologically," said Roger Ingram, a Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Placer and Nevada counties. He advised ranchers to develop a drought plan.

Ingram also warned against overgrazing and emphasized the importance of leaving enough residual dry matter in the ground to enhance seed germination and minimize soil erosion. With more bare ground, water would run off instead of soaking in, he said, and there would be less organic matter to feed soil microbes, resulting in fields being overrun by undesirable plants such as medusahead and yellow starthistle.

"Your grazing strategy should be take half, leave half," he said.

For those who are on irrigated pasture with limited water supply, UCCE advisor Larry Forero said fields are the driest in the summer but can get by with less water in the fall, so irrigate as close to evapotranspiration as possible and then stop irrigating. He also advised leaving four to five inches of stubble to facilitate pasture growth in the fall, should it rain or irrigation water become available.

Being relatively new to ranching, Evan Bohan, who runs cattle in Butte County, said one point he took to heart had to do with increasing the rest period on a piece of ground between grazing, to allow the grass to grow back. Plants need a longer recovery period during drought, Ingram explained.

"It falls right in line with what we've been thinking about doing anyway," Bohan said.

Based on his family's experience during the big drought of 1976-77, Bohan said they have already reduced their cattle numbers. Now, his main concern is getting the ground back to health, and that may entail additional culling, he said.

Running a grass-fed operation that sells meat directly to customers, Carol Albrecht, a third-generation cattle rancher in Butte County, said her challenge is trying to maintain her niche market through this drought. With not enough grasses on the range to sustain her cattle, she said she fears losing her longtime customers if she sells her cattle.

She said the information from the workshop made clear that she needs to "solidify a plan," noting that she has already reduced by half the number of steers she's going to sell this year, which means she'll have enough to sell to just half her customers.

"So the question is: Do we go further (with the herd reduction) or do we feed?" she said.

Listening to the various presentations also made her realize that the decisions she's been making in her operation "were not that far-fetched," she said, and that other ranchers are facing the same problems.

"You sort of second-guess yourself: Do I really need to get rid of anything under body score 5? Yeah, I do. They said you do need to do that," she said.

Solano County rancher Douglas Freitas, who runs yearling operations in Napa and Yolo counties, said the meeting underscored for him the importance of risk management and having insurance. He noted he's already covered under the federal Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which pays on losses in feed and pasture due to drought, and the federal Pasture, Rangeland and Forage insurance program, designed specifically for hay and livestock producers.

Another important point Freitas said he took from the meeting was on early weaning, which he has started to do. When looking at drought economics and costs vs. value, advisor Nader said one option for ranchers to consider is weaning calves 30 to 90 days earlier than normal, and as early as six weeks.

Freitas said he's also going to look into using different feedstuffs and byproducts, such as almond hulls and culled fruits and vegetables. Other alternative feeds that Nader discussed include rice bran, canola meal, walnut meal, pinto beans, corn stover, rice straw, and lima and kidney bean straw. Advisors said straws may be used as low-quality forage to supply fiber, but they lack protein and other minerals. Nader also warned that as the drought persists, demand for these products will tighten supplies and drive up their value.

Scott Murphy of Siskiyou County is another rancher who said he's going to wean his calves early this year. Although he's been trying to build his herd numbers, Murphy said based on what he heard at the meeting and in trying to adapt to the drought, he's thinking about just maintaining his herd size by keeping his replacement heifers and culling his older cows. He reasoned that younger animals won't consume as much grass during the summer. And since he's working on breeding feed efficiency into his herd, he said this plan makes sense.

"So maybe this is a good opportunity to get rid of some of those cows that may not be so efficient," he said. "They're at a good price right now, so I'll replace them with calves that have those genetics for feed efficiency."

Workshop presentations and other materials may be viewed at

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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