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Drought hammers ranchers; Profits drying up along with the weather – and worse could be yet to come
The drought extends well beyond Colusa.
According to George Cline, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, 2013 was the driest calendar year on record in Sacramento.
Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, Sacramento received 6.13 inches of rain.
Records go back to 1877, Cline said, but meteorologists discount 1877 because several months are missing. The previous low, therefore, was 1932, with 6.52 inches of rain. The next lowest after that was 1976, with 6.69 inches of rain.
— Colusa County Sun-Herald
With California fresh out of the driest calendar year in the state's recorded history, Colusa County cattle ranchers in particular are already feeling the effects of the water shortage.
With range severely depleted due to the lack of rain, many cattlemen have had to resort to purchasing feed to keep their herds fed — a measure which significantly increases the cost — and squeezes the profit margin of raising their cattle.
Those ranchers without a reliable water source have had to supplement their water as well.
"I haven't had to bring in water, but I have had to with the hay... that doubles or triples the cost of raising your cattle. It only makes economic sense if you have enough range to support the cow and eventually the calf," Ben Felt said. He owns a grass-fed beef operation in Colusa.
"It doesn't take long to eat up any profit you're going to have for the future calf crop," Felt said.
"It's very bad," said Williams cattle rancher Bob Alvernaz.
"It would have been a good year to buy insurance on your rainfall. We've been hauling water to one ranch between Wiilliams and Maxwell since last February or March. You have to rely on rain in the hills." Alvernaz said, adding that he had a ranch in Sites with multiple wells, but that he had still had to bring in feed.
"We've been feeding cornstalk and rice straw like a lot of guys. I've been up here with cattle since 1960 and this and 1976 were pretty much the same (in terms of rainfall). (The rain) better come," Alvernaz said. "You drive up there through Sites and you'll see what it looks like."
"If we get enough rain where it germinates the grass and continues to grow, that would help." Felt said. He added it would be more beneficial for long-term operations than it would be for those feeding cattle for six to eight months before they passed them along to the next stage.
"It'd have to come real quick. Unless it does, it won't be economically beneficial. It's getting close to the critical side," Felt said. "But late rain doesn't mean that someone won't sustain financial damage. Still, I'll take any rain that we get."
Ranchers are facing difficult decisions
The high cost of keeping a herd fed in these dry conditions might soon force cattle ranchers to make difficult decisions.
"It comes down to, 'Can I afford to feed the animal as much as its worth just so I can have it around next year?' Am I ahead now to sell before everyone else starts selling?" Colusa cattle rancher Ben Felt said.
In a worst case scenario, options could range from significant culling to selling the entirety of a herd in order to mitigate losses and to have the means to start up at a later — and more economically viable — time.
If things don't soon improve, Alvernaz said his operation could face greater-than-average culling.
"We typically cull out 20 percent of our herd each year and raise our own replacements. If we don't get rain this year, it's going to have to be more," Williams cattle rancher Bob Alvernaz said.
"Nobody is really immune to the problem. Some will be able to make it, and some will be having to consider doing something else," Felt said. "I figure it will right itself, but it's how you hang on in the middle -- and sometimes, you don't."
"When there is no grass and you're buying feed, if (the lack of rain) were to continue through the winter, you put more feed into your cattle than they're worth. And you don't want to sell your cattle, anyway," Felt said, adding that a lot of work goes into developing strong herd with good genetics.
While the current water shortage seems daunting, both Felt and Alvernaz remain optimistic.
"I'm still expecting a lot of rainfall," said Alvernaz. "For quite a few years it's been March and April that get the big rains. An old rancher once told me that when you get big acorns, you are going to have a cold, wet winter. I've been telling people that is what we're in for. So far, we've just had the cold."
"I'm optimistic. In this industry, you have to be," Felt said.
State hasn't declared a drought – yet
On Dec. 18, Gov. Jerry Brown called for a multi-agency task force to monitor the potential for a statewide formal drought declaration.
While a formal drought has yet to be declared for California, the numbers could be cause for concern.
According to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor — produced in partnership between the national Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — released on Dec. 26 — reports that 94 percent of California is experiencing at least a moderate drought.
There are five categories listed on the U.S. Drought Monitor, ranging in order of severity from abnormally dry, moderate drought, severe drought, extreme drought and exceptional drought — and the report says that 85 percent of California is experiencing severe drought conditions. Colusa County is included in that category.
To put that number into perspective, only 23 percent of the state was experiencing severe drought on Jan. 1, 2013.
Based on the report, Colusa County did not even register as abnormally dry — the lowest category — on its scale.
CONTACT reporter Brian Pearson at 713-9519.