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Ranchers find range condition ‘not as bleak’

Issue Date: April 23, 2014
By Ching Lee
Yuba County rancher Henry Smith stands next to a feeder of almond hulls.
Photo/Ching Lee
Almond shells and rice bran which he has used as supplemental feed for his cattle.
Photo/Ching Lee
Rancher Henry Smith stands in a field in Browns Valley as his cattle graze nearby. Spring rains have helped pasture conditions for ranchers in the region.
Photo/Ching Lee

Recent spring rains have helped pasture conditions in parts of the state, providing relief for ranchers who struggled through much of the fall and winter with a lack of forage for their livestock.

But range conditions remain very challenging in much of California and, with the rainy season ending, some ranchers may need to reduce their herds in order to stretch their feed supply into the next season.

Dan DeWees, who runs his cattle in Calaveras County in the winter and on irrigated pasture in Merced County during the summer, said his winter range in Copperopolis finally has enough grasses to sustain his cattle after months of feeding hay.

His concern now, he said, is water supply to grow enough forage through the summer in Merced County, where irrigation season is expected to end early—in August rather than October. He said his crucial decision will come when that water shuts off, at which time he may have to cull at least 25 percent of his herd, "depending on where the hay market goes and what we can feed the cattle until it rains again next fall." DeWees said alfalfa hay in his region currently sells for $300 a ton.

Michael David Fischer, who runs cattle on native pasture in Calaveras and Amador counties, said feed conditions are "not as bleak" as they were in January but "still way behind normal years." He has been reducing his cattle numbers since 2011 and said he expects to lower them another 25 percent to 30 percent. He will also sell his calves at lighter weights at the end of April, whereas normally he ships them in May and June.

"You get to the point where you're still paying the same amount for your ground but you're down to about 40 percent of your animals, so it's costing you more on production," he said.

As someone who's experimented for years with feeding rice straw and a variety of feedstuffs, Yuba County rancher Henry Smith said he's gotten a lot more calls recently from fellow ranchers who are interested in trying other feeds.

"The idea has really caught on this last year," he said.

Even though his cattle graze on irrigated pasture—which is now green after the spring storms—Smith said he still supplements his yearlings with a mix of almond shells, almond hulls and rice bran, noting that the price of the latter two has skyrocketed.

A lack of forage has forced many ranchers to look at alternative feeds, said Roger Ingram, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Placer and Nevada counties, but he noted there's a learning curve involved with using those products and much to consider.

"I would say most people are pretty much stuck with destocking," Ingram said. "Most of them typically are buying hay."

While forage conditions in the northern Sierra foothills are now about 68 percent of normal and "workable" for ranchers, Ingram said, some of those annual grasses are nearing the end of their life cycle and will not grow much more, even with more rainfall.

Conditions were more dire along the Central Coast and there will not be enough feed to carry the cattle through to next season, said Royce Larsen, UCCE natural resource watershed advisor for San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties. He estimated the region received just 20 percent to 40 percent of its average rainfall, and it came late. Pastures didn't show green until the end of February, he noted, and the soil was so dry that wind and recent warm temperatures have dried it out.

He said ranchers in his region have been buying feed since last summer, and when fall and winter rains didn't materialize, they bought more hay or sold their cattle.

"My guess is 75 percent of all the cattle that used to be here are gone already," he said.

John Harper, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor for Mendocino and Lake counties, said in some parts of his region, the problem wasn't necessarily a feed shortage but a lack of drinking water in fields where springs aren't flowing. In those instances, ranchers have no choice but to haul water, which can cost upwards of $350 a tank to transport.

Many ranchers in the southern San Joaquin Valley, which did not get the rains seen in other parts of the state, have already destocked, said Julie Finzel, UCCE farm advisor for Kern, Kings and Tulare counties. They've sold enough of their herd that they're now hoping they can find enough feed to buy and sustain the cattle until fall, she added. Those who have higher-elevation ground to graze have been feeding hay since fall, while those who are restricted to lower elevation ran out of grass last spring, she noted.

She said while UCCE does not recommend ranchers try to feed their way out of a drought, ranchers should also consider retaining their herds' genetics, which has equity and takes a long time to build.

"In a drought this severe, it's kind of like all bets are off," she said. "Yes, you shouldn't be feeding through a drought, but the only way to get through it is to feed; otherwise, you'd have to sell your whole herd. And with cattle prices as high as they are, it's questionable whether or not somebody could buy cows again to try and continue ranching."

Harper said one strategy he's seen some purebred operations use is leasing their herds to out-of-state ranchers while retaining ownership of the cattle. But those are typically two- to three-year deals, in which the out-of-state rancher keeps the calf crop.

With his cattle grazing at 3,500-foot elevation and the storms that came through in late February and early March, San Diego County rancher Jim Davis said he should have enough feed to last him through the summer and into the fall. He already reduced his herd last summer, so this year, he said, he'll probably retain his heifers and try to rebuild.

"The forecast is for us to enter into an El Niño type of weather pattern this summer and fall. In that situation, we'll go from a bust to a boom again on moisture," he said.

(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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