Drought weighs heavy on Calif. dairymen

The record-breaking drought in California is bringing water shortages that will impact feed crops for dairies and increase prices for feed. The California Farm Water Coalition estimates that 500,000 acres of cropland will be fallowed. That’s 780 square miles and the size of Las Angeles and San Diego combined.
Carol Ryan Dumas

Capital Press

Published on February 14, 2014 10:46AM

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
The cracked-dry bed of the Almaden Reservoir is seen on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, in San Jose, Calif.  California dairymen face higher feed prices and forage shortages because of ongoing drought.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press The cracked-dry bed of the Almaden Reservoir is seen on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, in San Jose, Calif. California dairymen face higher feed prices and forage shortages because of ongoing drought.

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California’s water crisis, driven by a record-breaking drought, has the state’s dairymen facing forage shortages and higher feed costs.

“It’s been pretty tough,” said Dominic Carinalli, a dairyman in Sebastopol, about 50 miles north of San Fransisco. “We already have bought a lot of extra hay and feed.”

Conditions now appear as bad or worse than the last big drought in 1976-77, he said.

He’ll have to buy an abnormal amount of feed this year. Hay is up probably 30 percent from a year ago and supplies are getting pretty tight, he said.

“You don’t even ask the price; you just ask if they have any,” he said.

Feed is going to be more of an issue as time goes on. Reservoirs are low, and it’s already the end of February. Precipitation starts to slack off in April and farmers are lucky to get a couple of showers in May, he said

His area did get 8 inches to 10 inches of rain last week, but other than that there hasn’t been any since February or March of last year, which has taken a toll on his pastures, he said.

“The prognosis is not very good,” he said.

He’ll have enough well water to water his cows, but raising feed is another issue. Other dairymen, however, will have issues with watering their cows, and some areas are just plain short of water for all purposes, he said.

Even though milk prices are good, “people sure as heck aren’t going to increase” their herds, he said.

“The biggest impact on our dairies is going to be the need to supplement feed,” said Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources at the University of California.

And they’ll have to pay a lot of money to haul it in from other states, he said.

The state’s water crisis presents long-term issues for its dairies that could lead to less milk production in the state. Some will have to decrease the number of cows, selling to other dairies or into the beef market, and rebuilding a herd is expensive, he said.

The biggest issues facing dairymen are the cost of alfalfa and some fairly significant cutbacks in water allocations, said Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen.

The maximum allocation from Modesto Irrigation District this year is 18 inches, where it’s typically 4 feet, and the district is paying growers to fallow ground. Alfalfa hay has spiked from $230 to $240 a ton to $280 to $300 a ton, and California dairymen are already importing it from Oregon and Utah, he said.

Dairymen will make it through a rough spot, but the state has got to get some rain. Most dairymen have wells and pumps, the problem comes in if they have to drill a well. Anyone wanting a well in the Central Valley, where permanent crops are going in, probably has to wait at least six months, he said.

Turlock dairyman Ray Souza said there’s some indication that wells on the east side of the Central Valley are drying up, and the Turlock Irrigation district cut water allocations by 40 percent.

“People are trying to lock in feed contracts to make sure they have adequate supplies,” he said.

In addition to higher hay prices, almond hulls, used to extend corn silage supplies, are $180 a ton, up from $130 in the last three months, he said.

He’s looking at planting an early maturing corn variety for his corn silage to save an irrigation or two and will be down on production. And he’s culling non-essential animals such as steers and crossbreds.

“If the drought continues, I don’t know how much local feed will be available,” he said.

The drought is also impacting Nevada and other surrounding areas, creating more competition for feed, especially roughages, hay and silage, he said.

“It’s creating some concern. Hay prices are going up $25 to $50 (a ton) from December and are expected to go higher,” said Tom Barcellos, a Porterville dairyman and president of Western United Dairymen.

There’s also concern about having enough forage and people will likely abandon irrigating hay to get silage crops up. He’s also seriously thinking about changing to sorghum, which is a little more forgiving with stress than corn, he said.

He’s going to attempt to irrigate all of his alfalfa but will fallow half his double cropping of wheat silage and corn if he has to and won’t have any feed to sell to others, he said..

With zero allocation of surface irrigation water from the State Water Project and a snowpack that’s only about 15 percent of normal, the situation is devastating, and there are no weather patterns on the horizon for improvement, he said.

Barcellos has domestic wells to water his cows, but some wells across the state will go dry, and the aquifer is going to be strained to the limit, he said.

With milk prices at all-time highs, dairymen today are trying to buy cows, but it could be a different story by summer, he said.


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