Savings from reduced water costs can outweigh lost revenue
By TIM HEARDEN
ETNA, Calif. -- By learning how to maximize irrigation efficiency and making changes in herd management, ranchers can make do with less water than they're accustomed to, experts say.
Water is "the most critical input" for ranchers and "the most difficult to manage," said Steve Orloff, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor based in Yreka, Calif.
But when it comes to knowing how much water to use on an alfalfa field, it helps to know that "what happens on the surface isn't necessarily what happens at the root level," he said.
Likewise, alfalfa doesn't use the same amount of water throughout the summer. Instead, its water use peaks in July while its most efficient use of water is during the spring, he said.
So a rancher can save lots of water simply by eliminating one cutting of hay, or two at the most, he said.
"If we cut the water off after the first cutting, we've saved up to 2 feet of water," Orloff said. "After the second cutting, we've saved about 6 inches ... to 16 inches.
"It's not too earth shattering that when we shut the water table off, yield goes down," he said, adding that how much depends on the soil and other factors. "The advantage is that growers are still able to harvest the more valuable spring cutting."
Orloff's advice came as about 50 ranchers attended an annual "cattle tour" Aug. 26 in the Scott Valley of far Northern California, near the Oregon state line. The event was sponsored by local cattle groups and the California Cattlemen's Association.
The topic of the day was how to produce hay and cattle in drought conditions, which have put water at a premium in many areas of the West.
Some varieties of alfalfa are better than others at resisting drought, and all varieties bounce back well the following spring after a dry year, Orloff said. But the degree to which alfalfa becomes more drought resistant could hinge on what terms the USDA sets for production of Roundup Ready alfalfa, he said.
"If Roundup Ready comes back, hopefully we'll have some of these other traits in the future," Orloff said. "One of the biggest traits is drought tolerance."
Meanwhile, soil sensors can help ranchers determine when to start irrigating in the spring. Most ranchers start irrigating "when their neighbors do," said John Bennett of Intermountain Seed and Supply in Dorris, Calif.
But soil near the surface could be drier than at the root level, he said, prompting a rancher to irrigate needlessly. Sensors can range from $400 to $1,000, he said.
"How many people are going to dig a 2-foot hole," he said. "If you can save one irrigation in a 100-acre field, it will pay for the equipment."
A rancher can also save water -- and feed costs -- by running fewer cows or smaller cows, said Dan Drake, a UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Yreka.
"Bigger cows have a higher feed requirement," Drake said. "The flipside is we like these big cows because they give us a bigger calf."
Another solution is to ship calves earlier than normal, which Drake acknowledges will cost a rancher income but will also cut down on management costs.
A calf starts eating at about 60 days, and as it gets bigger, it eats more and more feed, he said.
"It's easy to see here why shipping calves early is effective," Drake said. "The earlier we ship, the less calf feed we have to supply. The flipside is we have lighter weights to sell."
University of California drought management for agriculture: http://ucmanagedrought.ucdavis.edu/agriculture.cfm