California cattle rancher Sam Travioli described the pasture on his ranch in the foothills east of Fresno as resembling a parking lot.
Across the parched landscape, his cattle sought relief in the shade beneath the trees during the early July heat wave that scorched through the West. The nonirrigated range where his cattle stay all year will not have enough feed to sustain them into the rainy season, when the grass starts growing again.
Like many ranchers in the state, Travioli is dealing with a year of poor grass production, the result of scant rainfall this spring. He reduced his herd by 35 percent earlier this year to stretch his feed but acknowledged he will still need to put up hay.
"If you don't reduce your herd, you will feed hay all summer and it's just not economically feasible to feed hay all summer long," he said.
Battered by drought in recent years, ranchers throughout the country also have been shrinking their herds, with national cow numbers continuing to fall. The high price of hay and corn has added to their problems, deterring many ranchers from retaining or expanding their herds.
"It's just impossible to build back (herds) right now, because we have to do it on native grasses," Travioli said. "It's really the only way you could afford to."
The limited precipitation that parts of the state received in late June did not help the condition of rangelands that were already out of production, except for maybe lowering fire danger a while longer, said Glenn Nader, a University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources farm advisor for Butte, Sutter and Yuba counties.
Once annual grasses have dried, he said, rain could actually reduce the amount of nitrogen or protein in the plants, thus lowering the quality of the dry feed that ranchers are holding for their animals this fall. The rain did help ranchers on irrigated pasture, as well as those who summer-pasture their cattle in the mountains where perennial grasses are still growing, he noted.
"It's going to extend their season," Nader said. "The big push will be this fall when people come back down to the annual systems, either out on irrigated pasture or out of the mountains. We just won't have the fall feed that we would normally like to come home to."
David Gallino, whose cattle spend the summer grazing on transitory brush range in the Sierra, said conditions there still look good but feed will be tighter this year. That means he will need to monitor his cattle more closely so their grazing does not exceed utilization standards set by the U.S. Forest Service, he said.
On his home range in Nevada County, Gallino said the late June rain sprouted some of the native grasses, and he's concerned there may not be enough seed left in the soil to grow adequate forage this fall.
Fadzayi Mashira, UCCE livestock and natural resources farm advisor for Mariposa, Merced and Madera counties, said most seeds have a long lifespan and can sometimes germinate after one year, so having some germination doesn't necessarily deplete the seed bank to support next year's growth.
But she agreed with Nader that summer rains might be more of a disadvantage for most ranges in the valley, as the water tends to decompose the dry grasses faster, and most of the annual grasses don't germinate until fall.
Mashira noted that most of the ranges in her region experienced below-average forage production this year, with some areas at 50 percent of average because they simply did not get enough rainfall or snow to keep grasses growing.
Miguel Errea, whose family runs a cow-calf operation in Monterey County, said he has liquidated about two-thirds of the herd after his region received about a third of its normal rainfall this year and less than a third of average grass production.
"(Cattle) prices have been pretty good," he said. "But of course, the prices don't mean much if you haven't got much to sell. Next year we won't have very much to sell. That's the downside: High prices with no sales don't benefit us much."
Not all areas of the state were starved for rain this year. In parts of the north state such as Modoc County, timely rains in May helped native grasses thrive, as well as filled ponds and water holes, said rancher Richard Taylor. This came in sharp contrast to last year, when the region didn't receive much rainfall at all, he noted.
"This year, we're going to have an abundance (of feed)," he said.
Dan McQueeney, who ran cattle on nonirrigated pasture in the foothills of eastern Napa County, was less optimistic about his forage prospects and liquidated his entire herd in January in anticipation of another dry year. After his pasture took a beating last year, McQueeney said he didn't want to repeat the experience. He said he remembered what his parents went through in the 1970s, when they tried to "feed their way out" of a seven-year drought.
"Every year they kept buying hay, hoping that they'd get a rainfall," he said. "It almost bankrupted them. I followed that lesson not to get in that position."
Fortunately, he sold his cattle at the top of the market, he said, and with the current poor forage year, he expects others will be liquidating their herds. That means there may be opportunities for him to buy some heifers, which are less demanding on the rangeland, and get back in the business.
Farm advisor Nader said ranchers who liquidate their cattle this year due to drought may be able to take advantage of federal tax provisions that allow them to postpone reporting the capital gains for three years if they restock during that time.
"That's one of the reasons why some of them will try to feed through a drought, which is a very expensive proposition, because they don't want to pay high capital gains cost to liquidate their herds," he said.
Source: Ching Lee