After a lack of precipitation last spring deteriorated California pastures, cattle ranchers looked forward to a healthy rainy season this fall to start grasses growing again. But Mother Nature's scant offerings so far have not brought the relief they had hoped.
The state did receive some moisture late last month to help fill stock ponds and start seasonal streams flowing, said Glenn Nader, a University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor for Yuba, Sutter and Butte counties. But in terms of growing feed, he said the rain came a little late.
"Things may germinate, but they'll just sit there," he said. "There's not going to be any rapid growth until March—unless we get an unusually warm December."
Because the springtime was so dry, ranchers who move their cattle to summer pastures did not have much dry feed for their animals to come home to this fall. And where they do have dry feed, stock water has been very limited, and hauling water can be cost-prohibitive, Nader noted.
"Many of them were hoping they'd get an early germination and have green feed to go into the winter with, and that just didn't occur," he said.
The state will still need successive rains this winter and enough ground moisture to support decent growth next year, Nader added.
For now, ranchers will have to find other forage sources, including dry feed and supplementing with hay, he said, noting that less hay production this year due to drought has led to tight supplies and high prices.
"People can quickly feed themselves into a negative cash flow with today's hay prices," he said. "That's why a lot of people are looking at alternative dry matter sources such as corn stover, rice straw and other things, to try and cheapen up those costs."
Andy Domenigoni, who runs cattle on dryland pasture in Riverside and Tulare counties, said in addition to feeding hay since September, he buys culled oranges, lemons, avocados and other vegetable and fruit byproducts from a local packinghouse to supplement until range conditions improve.
He said he weaned his calves early this year and thinned about 25 percent of his cows when he saw how low he was getting on feed. He noted he had already culled about 15 percent of his herd last year and sold all of his heifers the last two years, so he has no replacements.
The aggressive herd liquidations across the nation in recent years due to drought have kept the cattle market strong for producers, Domenigoni said, and it will take some time before U.S. cattle ranchers can begin to fully rebuild after years of contraction.