cattle grazing
Plentiful rainfall late last year has kept pastures green at Grizzly Island in Solano County. But dry weather during the past two months has stopped grasses from growing for grazing livestock. Ranchers say precipitation in the next few weeks will be critical for forage growth. (Photo: Ching Lee)

By Ching Lee, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation

After two dry months, the next few weeks will be crunch time for California ranchers, as many look to the skies for rain to get pastures growing and keep their livestock fed.

Generous storms late last year got range conditions off to “a fantastic start,” said Solano County rancher Jeff Dittmer. There’s been enough feed on the ground that his cattle are still in “pretty decent shape,” he said. Even now, pastures remain green, but the lack of rain has stopped grasses from growing, so he has started to feed some hay. This time of year, the grass should be growing much faster than the cattle can eat it, he noted.

“We’re starting to run out of time,” Dittmer said. “If we don’t get some decent rain here in the next month or so, it’s going to look awful grim come this summer.”

For pastures to make good feed, ranchers don’t necessarily need the downpour the state saw in December, he said. But timing is key. Smaller, more frequent showers are more helpful for growing grass than one big deluge, Dittmer added.

“Half inch of rain here and there makes all the difference in the world once you’re into the springtime,” he said.

After western Glenn County received 12 inches of rain during what he described as a “miracle fall,” Mike Landini, who runs a grass-fed cow-calf operation in Elk Creek, said “tough decisions got set aside and we were able to pretty much keep the cows, even think about building back up a little bit after two years of drought.”

But the dry weather since then has depleted his grasses, to the point that he will need to feed hay to get through April or May, when he can start shipping his cattle to summer pastures in Oregon.

“If we don’t get any rain here in Glenn County, we’ll be back to the same scenario we’ve been for the last two falls: We won’t have feed this next October, November, December to come home to,” Landini said.

He noted that grasses on shallower soils have already turned brown because there hasn’t been enough moisture. If it doesn’t rain for three more weeks, he said, another 50% of the grass will be lost, “and there’s no recovery after that.”

With some substantial precipitation, rangelands can still see more forage growth for the year, said Theresa Becchetti, a University of California livestock and natural resource advisor for Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

“If we get more than trace amounts of rain in the next week or so, it is very possible to end the season looking close to normal, or even above normal,” she said. “If we don’t, it will be ugly.”

She noted that ranchers she’s talked to are “holding out hope for a ‘Miracle March’” and don’t want to think about tough decisions they may be forced to make, including feeding hay, weaning calves early or both. Weaning early can be a financial hit or miss, she noted, depending on market prices when they sell their calves, as the calves will be lighter weight. But if the price is high enough to compensate, ranchers can still come out ahead.

Mark Lacey, who operates in Inyo and Mono counties, and whose father also manages cattle in Kern, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, said they plan to wean early if they don’t see any rain by the middle of this month.

“Everybody’s biting their nails, hoping for rain in the next couple weeks, not wanting to have to make the same decisions they made last year,” he said.

He noted many ranchers already reduced their cattle numbers last year due to drought. Operations with summer grazing ground may need to consider moving their cattle early. Those without will need to wean calves early and decide how aggressively to cull their herds, he added.

The cattle market is better than last year, but Lacey noted prices are at least a dollar per pound lower than during the state’s last drought, from 2012 to 2016, when many ranchers were forced to liquidate herds. Prices then were high enough to justify costs of moving cattle out of state. Now freight costs are soaring, there’s a scarcity of feed and surging pasture and hay costs.

Despite an inch and a half of rain last week, San Diego County rancher Glenn Drown said he decided to ship 25% of his replacement heifers to the saleyard, figuring “we’d waited long enough.”

He noted his region was fortunate last year to have gotten some late rains that helped make good grass, so he hasn’t had to reduce much of his herd during the past two years, though his numbers have been down for about six years. If conditions don’t improve this year, he said he will need to “cull a little deeper with the older cows.”

“I think we still have to wait and see what March and April bring,” Drown said.

With hay prices at $300-plus per ton, Andy Domenigoni, who runs cattle in Tulare and Riverside counties, said “it’s a real easy decision this year” to sell cattle. He’s getting ready to ship some in about a week because feed is already short. Without some April showers, he said, he’ll definitely need to sell calves early “while the market is good.”

“You can’t feed your way out of it with the price of hay this year,” he said.

If there’s a “Miracle March,” Domenigoni said, “it could really change things around” and perhaps change his mind about how aggressively he may need to reduce his numbers. But with the higher cattle market, he said he will probably still cull some older cows.

Though Tulare County rancher Sam Travioli has heard other ranchers talk about shipping cattle early, he said he thinks it’s a little early for that, as the rainy season is not over. He acknowledged that ranchers may not be expanding herds anytime soon, but he said he also doesn’t think too many will be heavily downsizing either.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen. It might rain 10 inches three weeks from now,” Travioli said. “We’re survivors. We’ll make it somehow, some way.”

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