California rains lead to hope for a rangeland revival

Feb 12, 2010
by WLJ

Autumn and winter rains have transformed many California pastures: Rangeland grasses and other forage have germinated and started to recover. Many stock ponds have refilled. Some ranchers are even starting to talk about expanding their herds. But most remain cautious.

“It’s still a drought,” said Rob Frost, a cattle rancher in Ventura County, who said his area has been dry for 10 years.

However, he added, the season is off to a good start, and the state’s rangelands entered the season with plenty of need for recovery. At the end of October, a USDA report described 55 percent of California pasture and range as in “very poor” condition and 25 percent in “poor” condition.

Regular rains will be needed to sustain the rangeland recovery.

Walter Hardesty, who operates a cow/calf ranch in Sacramento County, said what would be ideal is a rainstorm once a week through March and April. That would keep grass growing and build up the watershed.

“I’ve started expanding my herd,” he said. “About a month ago, I started holding back a few more heifers than I have the past few years.”

California Cattlemen’s Association Executive Vice President Matt Byrne said the cow herd in California has been greatly reduced by the drought, with cow herd numbers falling to “the lowest they have been since the late 1950s.”

“We’re an optimistic bunch, but most ranchers think it is too early to consider herd expansion,” Byrne said. “They are hoping to get all stock ponds filled and waiting to see if the precipitation continues.”

Frost said some of his stock ponds have filled and creeks and springs have started to run. He described himself as an optimist, and said he might retain a few heifers if the rain continues. He has room for 500 mother cows on his ranch but is only running about 300 now because of the drought.

Myron Openshaw, who operates a beef cattle ranch in Butte County, said this is developing into a good feed year, adding that things look good and stock ponds are full. However, he said, “We need snow in the mountains. The reservoirs are still low and we need the snow to fill them more for summer use.”

His range grasses could survive with just a few showers, Openshaw said, but he said there is a need for lots of rain for the good of everyone else.

Tehama County rancher Randy Smoak said rains in his region “have helped greatly. I’m starting to get feed coming in. All my stock ponds are full. I’m elated with the rain. It’s been a godsend.”

San Diego County rancher Jim Davis said his rangeland, which stands at the 3,500-foot elevation, has had about 8 inches of rain so far. The rain has filled two of his three large stock ponds and the third pond is about 85 percent full, so he will have enough water to last all summer. The grass is growing well, providing the cattle adequate forage.

But, Davis said, it is too early to think about expanding the herd.

“San Diego County tends never to be average,” he said. “We either get aboveaverage rainfall or belowaverage. Weather systems either get sent our way or pushed off someplace else.”

Byrne said cattle ranchers in the far north have not seen as much precipitation as the rest of the state.

Ned Coe, who runs a beef cattle ranch in Modoc County, said there has been some snow on his place, but it is still too cold for anything to grow this time of year.

Neil McDougal, University of California Cooperative Extension range specialist for Madera and Fresno counties, said he thinks the range grasses stand about where they should be this time of year. He said what really counts is what happens in March and April.

“We have a rule of thumb that if you get an inch of rain at the 1,500-foot elevation the first week of April, forage production will kick up by 50 percent,” he said.

McDougal said he remains guarded because after three or four years of drought, one can’t be optimistic.

“Remember, when the year started the ranchers had below-normal amounts of forage,” he added. “The rain stimulated grasses, but there weren’t stubs to protect the young grass from frost. Things are coming along well, but how much rain falls in March and April will tell us how the situation really is.” — California Farm Bureau Federation