Saturdays are busy at the Templeton Livestock Market.
As this year’s extreme drought continues day after day, ranchers are selling off large percentages of their cattle and calculating how long they can hold on before selling their entire herds.
The situation is so dire because the Central Coast is entering its second year of extreme drought. That means there is no grass from last year, and none is growing this year for the cattle to graze on.
Ranchers are paying premium prices for alfalfa feed with no end in sight.
“If we had had a particularly good year last year, there might be some forage left, but we didn’t,” said Mary Bianchi, UC Cooperative Extension horticulture adviser. “The combination of the two dry years means there is no feed.”
If rain doesn’t come by March to green the hills with the grass their cattle need to eat, many herds will be sold off, ranchers say. That would be a severe blow to San Luis Obispo County’s beef cattle industry, which was valued at $69 million in 2012 and ranks only behind wine grapes and strawberries in importance.
Ranchers who sell off most or all of their herds face a slow, years-long process of rebuilding them once the rains return.
Bob Soto is one rancher facing that grim prospect.
“It’s pretty desperate,” said Soto, who runs 2,500 head of cattle on 2,500 acres around Cambria. Five generations of his family have been in the cattle business.
“I’ve never seen this in my lifetime,” he added. “It means feeding cattle every day, buying alfalfa and hoping for rain. We like to be optimistic, but it’s pretty desperate.”
The situation is reaching a tipping point for ranchers, explained Aaron Lazanoff, Cal Poly beef manager. If there is no relief from the drought in February, the entire winter rainy season is likely a loss.
“You are definitely getting down to the wire if you are going to feed through the winter,” he said. “If we don’t get any rain by the end of February, there’s no way anyone can afford to feed through to November.”
Even when the rains do finally come, it will take the land several years to heal from the drought. The grasses and flowering plants that the cows eat are too beaten down to recover immediately, Lazanoff said.
Soto, 63, was at the Templeton Livestock Market last week to sell 20 head of cattle with plans for bringing another 50 head to the auction this Saturday.
“I’ve sold 25 percent of my stock, and I was at reduced numbers already,” he said.
The market sprawls across a 16-acre property on Main Street in Templeton. Behind the small red metal auction barn, more than 1,000 cattle in pens were shuffling in the dirt and lowing. Dozens of gangly calves, some nudging their mothers to nurse, stood among them.
Inside the auction room, the air was sharp with cattle urine as buyers in jeans and cowboy hats sat in bleacher seats looking down on the ring where cows were whisked in and out two or three at a time.
Auctioneer and market owner Randy Baxley stood in the auction block, his rhythmic song responding to the slight nods from the buyers.
Usually, Randy and Beth Baxley operate their market every other Saturday between October and April. But with so many ranchers selling cattle, they’ve been on a weekly schedule since Jan. 1, Beth Baxley said. The couple also operates the Visalia Livestock Market every Wednesday.
“Obviously, we’re in a severe drought, and we’re running (selling) five or six times more than we should in January,” she said Saturday. “There are 1,300 or 1,400 head here today, and we’ll sell all of that.”
Ranchers have been selling older cows first, but now many are selling pairs — a cow and calf — something nearly unheard of in January. Calves are born from October to December, and ranchers typically don’t sell them until at least June.
“People are selling calves smaller and younger,” Baxley said. “They’re forced to sell because they don’t have any feed. Worst case is that all the cattle in the area will be sold, and it’s looking that way if we don’t get any rain. It’s looking pretty desperate.”
The one bright spot is that prices are high, since bad weather across the country has reduced the number of cattle nationwide.
On Saturday morning, buyers were bidding between about 60 cents to 90 cents per pound for animals that would be slaughtered. Cow-and-calf pairs would be sold later in the day, mostly priced by head rather than by pound. Many would go to feed lots in Texas, where ranchers are building up herds after a devastating drought there several years ago, Baxley said.
Good prices for cattle contrast with the cost to buy alfalfa, said Dick Nock, a rancher who also buys cattle at auction for slaughterhouses. Nock has 4,000 acres near Cayucos and usually runs about 400 head of cattle.
“Right now I’m at half that,” he said.
The price of alfalfa has soared to about $275 per ton, up from $140 per ton, he said. Ranchers are buying alfalfa from Nevada because local growers are mostly sold out, he said.
“It’s costing me $500 a day to feed my cows, and I’m not feeding all of them,” Nock said.
He, too, will wait until March and then sell most or all of his herd if it doesn’t rain. Nock, 83, and Soto both said they planned to stay in the business, buying cattle and starting the four- to five-year process of restoring their herds once the rains finally come.
But rebuilding a herd takes time, not just because of cost, but because new cows have lower conception rates and are more likely to abort while they acclimate, they said. Even cows that ranchers keep this year may not have calves next fall if they’re underweight, Soto said.
“Thin cows don’t bull,” he said.
Still, Soto said the drought won’t drive him out of a business rich with family tradition.
“I’m in it for my lifetime,” Soto said. “My son is in it, too. So I’ll stay in the business. But I’m wondering when we go to buy cattle back a year from now, what the prices will be then.”
And he wonders whether other ranchers, especially younger ones, will leave the cattle business instead of rebuilding their herds. That could spell the end of any significant cattle ranching in San Luis Obispo County, he said.
“This drought today could change the future of agriculture in our county,” Soto said. “We just don’t know yet.”