More rain needed as rangelands enter peak growing season

University of California Cooperative Extension livestock advisor Josh Davy points out flowering grasses on a ranch south of Red Bluff, Calif. More rain is needed as rangelands enter their peak season for spring growth.

RED BLUFF, Calif. — More rain is needed to feed grass growth as California is entering what is typically its peak season for the development of spring and summer forage, University of California experts advise.

The Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley, Calif., measured only 475 pounds of forage per acre on March 1 while on average it would expect about 700 pounds per acre, researchers said.

On balance, range conditions in California are better than they were at this time last year, when a lack of forage caused ranchers to trim herds to cut feeding costs. But range quality has been inconsistent, said Josh Davy, a UC Cooperative Extension livestock adviser here.

“It’s really hit or miss everywhere,” Davy said. “I’ve had some folks tell me they’re limping by and some tell me it’s a disaster for them again. It looks to me that if we don’t get some substantial rain pretty soon, we’re going to be in trouble for salvaging this year. We’re right in the time from now through April when the bulk of our growth is going to occur.”

Though Northern California continues to see periods of showers, the chances of significant rain will grow slimmer as the spring progresses.

The federal Climate Prediction Center foresees below-average precipitation for much of California over the next couple of weeks, and only equal chances of above- or below-average rainfall for the state over the next three months.

However, Davy notes that it’s often more difficult for forecasters to predict spring weather than at other times of the year.

“It’s an odd year — an early year,” Davy said, referring to grass growth. “In some places it’s up to a month earlier than normal, and this dry weather is not going to help that out at all.”

The abundant rainfall in November and December spurred optimism among livestock producers that they might soon be able to replenish herds. Annual grasslands showed tremendous improvement after three years of drought had taken their toll on forage lands throughout California.

However, the dry January and February haven’t put rangelands on a positive footing heading into spring, the Sierra Foothill researchers note. The center only got about a quarter of the 10 inches of rainfall it normally receives in the first two months of the year.

In past years when the center had forage values similar to the 475 pounds per acre it recorded on March 1, it ended up with large differences in forage by the end of spring. In the 1979-80 season, the center started March with 500 pounds per acre and ended up with only 56 percent of average forage production by the end of spring, researchers noted in a news release.

However, after starting March of 2002 with 447 pounds per acre, the center’s plots achieved end-of-spring forage production that was 93 percent of normal, the release explained.

Rangeland has responded well to recent rains, enabling livestock to feed on abundant grass in some areas, but supplemental feeding of cattle and sheep continues, the National Agricultural Statistics Service reports.

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