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Drought Forces California Ranchers To Make Tough Decisions

Amy Quinton
Capital Public Radio
One of about 400 head of cattle owned by Jim Gates of Nevada County Free Range Beef

California’s ranchers depend on fall and winter rains to keep grasses growing for their livestock. But the state’s drought is forcing them to make tough decisions. With rangelands dry statewide, moving herds isn’t an option. Many are resorting to buying feed, but its rising cost is making that choice difficult. As Amy Quinton reports from Sacramento, some ranchers must decide whether to sell their livestock or go out of business. 

Jim Gates is talking to his hungry cows. The owner of Nevada County Free Range Beef pulls a bale of feed across a barn floor and loads it into his truck.

Gates: “This is Milo hay or gib corn, some people call it sorghum, it’s not the best in the whole world but it’s a damn site better than none.”

Most years his cows thrive on green grass that is fed by winter rains in the Sierra foothills. But Gates says this winter if there’s a blade of grass he’s trying to figure out how to put a cow on it to eat it.

Gates: “Look at it out there, they ain’t nothing for ‘em to bite, they’re wearing their teeth out trying to get at it.”

We hop in his truck to feed some of his nearly 400 head of cattle. He says he’s already had to feed more than two years worth of hay.

Gates: “They weren’t billowing at me because they think I’m a good guy. They’re billowing at me because this hay’s on the back of the truck. This is going to affect the bottom line big time.”

As we drive into his field with the feed, the cows come running.

Demand for hay has increased, so has its price. Finding it is another chore. Gates says most ranchers he’s talked to have given up trying to feed their herd through the drought. Instead, they’ve sold their cattle.

Gates: “They’ve just took them to the auction, cut their herd in half, it’s half the feed, just like that. I don’t have that option. The cattle you seen already sold, this year, next year the following year.”

Dan Macon owns about 200 head of sheep. Several ewes would normally be grazing this time of year on his farm in Auburn. But the pasture is nothing but stubble. His pond is almost empty.

Macon: “Normally by this time of year our pond is full too so that’s a pretty good indication of how dry it’s been. And out here with this number of sheep we’d have grass that was three or four inches high on a normal year.”

Macon says this winter is the worst drought he’s ever experienced, and it will likely be one of the most expensive. In normal years of rain and grass, he would budget about a pound of hay per ewe per day.

Macon: “We try to keep three pounds per head per day going into the winter just in case we have a dry spell and this year we’re feeding about six pounds of hay per day, double what we budgeted.”         

With no grass to hold down feeding costs, Macon says that leaves him with just one option.

Macon: “We’re going to have to sell 30 to 40 percent of those ewes just to bring our feed demand back in balance with the limited supply of grass this year. And that I think for every livestock producer having to sell animals there’s an emotional attachment that’s really, we don’t talk about it much but that’s one of the really hard parts about drought to me.”

Macon says he’ll make the decision at the end of the month, and if there’s no rain, some of the animals in which he and his wife have invested ten years will have to go to auction. To put the drought into some perspective, U-C’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center has measured the amount of grass it has grown for the last 30 years.

“What we saw this year really shocked us," says Jeremy James the Center’s Director. He says they’ve grown about 40 pounds of grass per acre.

James: “What we would normally would grow during that window between September and the end of December is about 500 pounds, so we’re about 10 times lower on feed this year”

That’s the lowest on record. James says ranchers are going to need more options than buying feed or selling their herd. The Center is holding a conference this week to help ranchers survive the drought and stay in business.

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