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Timing is everything in drought management, experts say

Tim Hearden

Capital Press

To survive the drought, ranchers should consider when to wean the calves and trim the herd, irrigate when the range needs it the most and avoid overgrazing to leave some stubble on the range for the fall, University of California experts said during a workshop.

Capital Press

BROWNS VALLEY, Calif. — When it comes to managing cattle and rangelands in severe drought, timing is everything.

When to wean the calves and trim the herd, when to irrigate and when to pull cattle off the range are all crucial considerations as ranchers try to weather the dry conditions, University of California experts said during a Jan. 29 workshop here.

Supplemental feed alone won’t sustain an operation in the long run, so ranchers should be planning now for how they manage their grasslands for next fall and winter, the UC Cooperative Extension advisors explained.

“Number one, never try to feed yourself out of a drought,” said Roger Ingram, a farm advisor in Placer and Nevada counties. “It can bankrupt you financially and … it can bankrupt you ecologically.

“Right now you might be in emergency and triage mode, but at a different time of year when it’s raining, it’s time to sit down and come up with a drought plan,” he said.

Younger cow-calf operators should seek advice from those who made it through the last catastrophic drought in the mid-1970s, said Glenn Nader, who works with growers in Yuba, Sutter and Butte counties.

“I’ve got ranchers I’ve been talking to for 10 years … (saying) ‘I can’t afford to make a mistake,’” Nader said.

Hundreds of ranchers attended the day-long workshop at the UC’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, which was streamed online and shown at remote venues in Mariposa, Hopland, San Luis Obispo, Bakersfield and Ventura.

The workshop came as a recent statewide UC survey found that more than one-third of California ranchers expect devastating impacts to their operations if drought conditions persist. One rancher in Mariposa County has already sold off half his cow herd to afford feeding the rest, and sheep producers are concerned that lambs won’t have enough green grass to attain spring market weight, according to UC news releases.

A light rain fell outside as speakers at the research center discussed supplementing with alternative protein and roughage, managing animal health, making culling decisions and other measures to help ranchers stay in business through what is becoming one of the worst droughts in the state’s history.

Among their advice to ranchers:

• Consider weaning early to boost cows’ efficiency. A cow that stops feeding sees a spike in energy to prepare for the next calving season, explained Red Bluff livestock advisor Josh Davy.

• Producers with limited water should remember that irrigated pasture is thirstiest during the summer and not as much in the fall, Redding advisor Larry Forero said. He noted that one irrigation district plans to forgo October irrigation this year and send the water in April and May instead.

“Don’t try to half-irrigate 100 acres — fully irrigate 50,” he said. “And if you get to the point where you have to have some dry ground, leave a little stubble because it’ll help you in the fall.”

• Know when to trim the herd. The earlier you do, the more feed is available for the rest of the herd, Ingram said. Ranchers may be selling into a better market than when everyone else is culling, and the money may prevent the need for a further reduction, he said.

“If you’re raising breeding animals, there’s going to be a general reluctance to get rid of that genetic base,” he said. “But that’s something to think about.”

• Don’t let the animals over-graze whatever grass is available. Growth of grass is slow in drought, so the range will need more rest between feedings, Ingram said. And keeping some dry matter on the hillside will prevent erosion, maintain soil health and enable the range to gather water when it does rain, he said.


UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center: http://ucanr.edu/sites/sfrec/


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