rancher tending grazing sheep
Kelsey Nichols, ranch manager for McCormack Sheep Ranch in Rio Vista, tends to sheep grazing on postharvest barley stubble that was recently baled. Rancher Al Medvitz, who operates the ranch with his wife Jeannie McCormack, says drought conditions have forced downsizing of his flocks. (Ching Lee)

By Ching Lee, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation  

Parched pastures have forced many sheep ranchers to thin their flocks, while those who provide targeted grazing services have seen business surge—and producers say looming state overtime rules for sheepherders threaten their viability even if they survive impacts of the drought.

Most immediately, with dry conditions decimating pastures, sheep ranchers must make decisions about the size of their flocks, supplemental feed purchases and ways to sustain their operations.

When it became clear earlier this spring that the forage on his ranch would not be enough to support his animals, Solano County sheep rancher Al Medvitz said he had “serious conversations” with his buyer about “whether we continue,” as it would require feeding “expensive alfalfa” and other supplements, and even current rising prices would need to be “much higher” for him to at least break even.

“We were all very frightened,” he said, about prospects of the feed year.

In addition to reducing his breeding stock, Medvitz said he sold lambs to another rancher with irrigated pasture, while some sheep went out of state and others were marketed as feeders.

The need to downsize comes as the lamb market has been on an upswing, driven by lower supplies, higher retail sales and now the return of food service, ranchers say.

Higher market prices make selling lambs early and at lighter weights “an attractive option for a lot of people,” Placer County sheep rancher Dan Macon said.

“It’s an easier decision to make when lambs are worth more,” he added.

In his own operation, Macon, who also works as a University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor, said he’s trying to maintain his breeding flock numbers—at least for this year. The big unknown, he said, is what feed conditions will be in the fall, noting that lack of available irrigation water will mean more fallowing of alfalfa fields, reducing the amount of postharvest stubble on which sheep can graze in October and November.

With alfalfa and grain hay markets up 40% to 50%, Solano County farmer and sheep rancher Ian Anderson said he should be selling his crops to earn more income. But with limited forage on pastures, and because he doesn’t want to give up his sheep business, he’s feeding that hay to his livestock.

He said he’s already reduced about one quarter of his flock, pulling lambs off the range and sending them to feedlots to stretch the forage for his ewes. In addition to culling extra mature ewes, he said he sold all his replacement ewe lambs at about the same price for which he bought them in October, as the animals were too old to enter the meat market and because there were few buyers in the state looking to acquire replacement ewes when there’s a lack of affordable feed.

With wild price swings in the sheep market—noting that “last year during COVID, you couldn’t get a dollar a pound for lamb” versus the $2.70 a pound they’re worth now—Anderson said it’s been a struggle trying to decide whether to abandon his traditional ethnic and niche markets in favor of selling to the state’s lone processor, Superior Farms in Dixon, which is “offering such a high price for feeders because they have a severe shortage of lambs.”

One “silver lining” during a drought, Macon said, is the increased opportunities for targeted-grazing projects. Because there’s less vegetation on the ground, he said grazing flocks can cover more acres a day, making the enterprise more profitable.

Even though demand for her sheep-grazing services has been “extremely high” this year, Merced County rancher Andrée Soares said her business will not be able to withstand the more than 50% wage increase she will be required to pay sheepherders beginning in 2022, when new rules for overtime pay take effect for farms and ranches with 25 or fewer employees.

Soares said other agricultural employers have been able to mitigate some effects of Assembly Bill 1066, which changed rules governing overtime and hourly wages for agricultural employees, by implementing different shifts. This can’t be done for sheepherders, she noted, because of the “unique and nomadic nature of the work,” which requires herders to live near the animals and go where the forage is.

“As bad as the drought is, this is by far the greatest threat to the entire sheep and goat industry in California,” she said. “Most people are going to make it through the drought. We just don’t know how many are going to make it through Jan. 1, 2022.”

Sheep producers have been calling for an administrative solution: Adopt the federal workweek standard for sheep and goat herders at 48 hours, replacing the current state standard, which defines their workweek at 168 hours.

Soares said more than 10 counties so far have passed resolutions in support of the suggested administrative fix, with “more coming,” and she said ranchers have been contacting the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“We are calling,” she said. “We are fighting every day for more and more noise and support, because we’re just not being heard.”

San Joaquin County rancher John Cubiburu said if the new rules take effect without changes, he will be forced to sell all his replacement ewes next year to help pay for the wage increases—and that will give him enough time to start liquidating his herd.

“I do not have the margin in the business to sustain these labor increases,” he said. “The whole California sheep industry will crumble overnight if we do not get some assistance from the California government.”

Even with lamb prices on the rise, Cubiburu said wool prices remain “at an all-time low from the last three years,” while production costs have soared “significantly”—from fuel to feed to trucking to existing wage increases. What’s more, he’s now traveling greater distances to find feed for his sheep, which are more spread out, necessitating “more labor to watch our herds” and more fuel to get there.

Soares said if the law does not change, she fears some 700,000 animals will leave the state or go to slaughter next year, which would crush the current sheep infrastructure on which her business depends, including meat markets, sheep shearers, trucking companies and other support.

“If the infrastructure goes away because the bulk of the industry goes away as a result of this (legislation), I don’t know how long targeted grazing is going to be around, either,” she said.

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