- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
A story in the Los Angeles Times this week opened with the concerns of cattle ranchers. Without winter rain rangeland grass doesn't grow. Ranchers must decide whether to buy expensive feed or cull their herds to weather the drought.
"Their struggle is a bellwether for California's $45 billion agriculture sector," wrote reporter David Pierson. The repercussions will be felt beyond the state's borders. "The Golden State produces nearly half of all U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables and is the nation's leading dairy and wine producer."
Pierson quoted Doug Parker, director of the UC California Institute for Water Resources, in his article.
"The agriculture industry is definitely hit the hardest by drought," Parker said. "In California, agriculture uses 80 percent of water in the state. It's a major input for their business and hits their finances and employment directly."
The San Luis Obispo Tribune reported on drought hardships for SLO County fruit and vegetable farmers. Growers are facing increasing irrigation costs and taking steps to reduce salt buildup in the soil.
"The drought forces growers to prioritize crop cycles,” said Mary Bianchi, UC Cooperative Extension adviser. “What do you plant, and what do you leave fallow?”
In Stanislaus County, ranchers are expressing concerns about a trend among farmers toward planting almonds, reported the The Modesto Bee. Ranchers are worried the spread of almonds, walnuts an other high-value crops could strain their limited groundwater, drive up land prices and intrude on their way of life.
“It's not hard to understand why (farmers are planting more almonds),” said Roger Duncan, UCCE advisor. “It's very profitable.”
It was Duncan who provided the rough figures on almond profitability during the first day of the ninth annual summit of the California rangeland Conservation Coalition recently, wrote Bee reporter John Holland. Duncan said the net is even better for walnuts, which are not as extensive but still have had major growth in acreage. He also said the nut boom could be limited by a shortage of water and land.
The Drovers Cattle Network reported that cattle ranchers are seeking strategies for surviving the drought.
According to the article, rancher Billy McDonald's wife, Aileen, said she learned from UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Glenn Nader that "you need to set a date, like if it doesn't rain by a certain date, to start culling. That's really important."
Also as part of the story, Roger Ingram, UCCE advisor in Placer and Nevada counties, advised ranchers to develop a drought plan.
Ingram warned against overgrazing and emphasized the importance of leaving enough residual dry matter in the ground to enhance seed germination and minimize soil erosion. With more bare ground, water would run off instead of soaking in, he said, and there would be less organic matter to feed soil microbes, resulting in fields being overrun by undesirable plants such as medusahead and yellow starthistle.
"Your grazing strategy should be take half, leave half," he said.
For those who are on irrigated pasture with limited water supply, UCCE advisor Larry Forero said fields are the driest in the summer but can get by with less water in the fall, so irrigate as close to evapotranspiration as possible and then stop irrigating. He also advised leaving four to five inches of stubble to facilitate pasture growth in the fall, should it rain or irrigation water become available.