Drought squeezes local cattle ranchers

jlynem@thetribunenews.comOctober 25, 2013 

Faced with a second year of severe drought, many San Luis Obispo County cattle ranchers have been forced to thin their herds and bring in costly feed to keep animals healthy.

“We’re waiting for the rain, and it’s going to be real ugly if we don’t get any this winter,” said Richard Gonzales, who operates a cow-calf operation in Paso Robles.

Ranchers are used to the whims of Mother Nature. Droughts happen from time to time and they usually suffer through them and recover, local ranchers say.

But the lack of rainfall over the past two years has prompted federal monitoring agencies to declare San Luis Obispo County in extreme drought.

The situation is especially difficult for ranchers, whose livelihood depends on beefier bovine. Without enough grass to eat, cattle gain less weight and fetch less at market where they are sold by the pound.

Local ranchers declined to say how much they were spending on extra hay to feed their animals, but alfalfa hay can run several hundred dollars per ton. In a normal year, cattle simply graze on the natural grasses.

Some ranchers like Gonzales, who has 45 cows, anticipated drought conditions and sold all his calves in the spring. Gonzales also bought extra hay and had success growing his own.

But supplementing a cow’s diet can only last so long, said Gonzales, noting that his cattle ranching operation will survive this year.

“We’ll have enough hay to get us into February, and by then, we should have green grass that will be strong enough and won’t have to supplement,” he said. “At some point, you can’t just keep feeding them. If you don’t have the rain, you have to get rid of them.”

Aaron Lazanoff, who manages Cal Poly’s rangeland behind the campus and on the east side of campus, reduced the size of the herd in the spring. The university’s animal science department usually runs about 300 cow-calf pairs but is down to about 250 this year.

The cows are being fed supplemental alfalfa that costs $250 to $270 a ton, Lazanoff said.

“We probably should have been down another 50 cows,” he said. “You couldn’t be down enough cows this year. The drought was a lot more severe than we thought.”

Drinking water for Cal Poly’s cattle comes from springs in the higher rangeland, which is drying up, Lazanoff said. Consequently, the herds are not able to graze in the pastures in the higher elevations of Cal Poly’s main cow-calf ranch about eight miles north of campus.

“At this point, we are praying for rain,” he said. “We’re probably not going to make much of a profit in the beef cattle because of this drought.”

Anna Negranti, whose family runs about 35 cows in Cayucos, reduced the herd — mostly Angus cows — by about 20 percent.

“We planned ahead and made some changes to our cow herd, selling some calves early and selling some older cows and those with fertility issues,” she said. To feed the cows, Negranti also has trucked in more alfalfa hay.

“It’s as difficult as any time that I’ve seen,” Negranti said. “But in this area in the late 1800s, ranchers were driving them over cliffs because there was nothing to eat. Today, we have the ability to truck in more feed.”

Another problem facing many ranchers selling cows is replenishing their stock when the rains return, she said.

“The price of replacement is really high,” Negranti said. “Right now, if I took a decent cow to the yard, I would get about $700 to $800, but it would cost about $1,500 to replace her.”

At Navajo Ranch, located east of Paso Robles on Highway 58, the Cochrane family is taking it one day at a time.

“You really tighten your belt and hope to goodness you have another income, and hopefully you have saved up through the years,” said Susan Cochrane. “This drought will put some out of business.”

During drought conditions, managing the land is imperative, so that when rain falls, there will be enough grass for the herd, she said.

Cochrane is preparing her ranch, which has no wells, for a controlled burn to clear brush. Brush, she said, can take over the soil and prevent growth of new grass.

The Cochranes ran about 400 head of stocker cattle. Stocker calves are typically bought in the spring and then sold as feeder cattle in the fall.

Their cattle were sold in June and July, with the expectation that more would be purchased in November and December. The back-to-back drought resulted in the family breaking even on its cattle this summer, Cochrane said.

“It’s pretty hard when you sell your cattle for the same thing that you bought them for,” she said.

Now, Cochrane isn’t sure whether the family will be able to restock this autumn.

“Hopefully, we’ll get some rain and will be able to buy some cattle in February to pay our taxes, and put some food on the table and clothing on our backs,” she said.

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