California drought squeezing cow-calf operations

Tim Hearden

Capital Press

The drought that's gripping California for the third year has ranchers trimming their herds to cut down on consumption costs. One industry insider compares the current drought to one in the mid-1970s that put some ranchers out of business.

Capital Press

RED BLUFF, Calif. — Bryce Borror had a perplexed look as he stared at a dry creek bed on leased land just outside of Red Bluff.

His family’s Tehama Angus Ranch in Gerber, Calif., usually winters cattle on the property, but isn’t doing so this year because of a lack of water and usable grass.

“I don’t know” what the future holds, said Borror, a fourth-generation rancher.

“We simply haven’t turned out on our winter rangeland,” he said. “We don’t have any stockwater and feed from last year is pretty short as well. Without spring rains last year, we ended up pulling cows off there earlier — around April 15 — and we didn’t leave as much grass as we normally do on winter rangelands.”

The ranch specializes in breeding Angus cattle, so it’s reluctant to start culling and lose valuable genetic information, Borror said. But the drought that’s gripping California for a third year has other cow-calf producers trimming their herds to cut down on consumption costs, said Tim Koopmann, a Sunol, Calif., rancher and president of the California Cattlemen’s Association.

As many as 15 percent of cows have already been marketed, Koopmann said. Pretty soon, ranchers will have to start culling their more productive cows, which means they won’t have as many calves to raise.

“It’s basically a compilation of three years” of dry conditions, Koopmann said. “Right now the impacts from a statewide standpoint are absolutely horrible. It’s devastating.”

Koopmann compares this drought to the one that hit California in the mid-1970s, which he said put some ranchers out of business.

“There’s a fine line between putting breeding cattle out on the market and feeding them,” he said. If it doesn’t start raining soon, “people are going to have to make some serious business decisions.”

Ranchers have been supplemental feeding with hay and grain for most of the fall and winter as drought conditions have persisted, particularly in California’s San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Range and non-irrigated pasture around the state remains in poor to fair condition, NASS reports.

Poor range conditions prompted the USDA’s Farm Service Agency last summer to designate 57 of California’s 58 counties as natural disaster areas, making them eligible for low-interest emergency loans from the agency. Most of the state is classified as being in severe or extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

It’s unlikely that much help in the form of rainfall is on the way. The federal Climate Prediction Center foresees below-average precipitation in California over the next three months.

Darrell Wood, whose organic and natural operation runs cattle in Vina, Calif., says his stockwater is low and he has about 30 days of feed left. After that, culling of cows or early weaning of calves are possibilities, he said.

“We’ve had to at least discuss a Plan B,” he said. “The key is to make the decision before the cattle start slipping with their physical condition.”


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