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.