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Finding water for cattle to drink poses challenge for San Luis Obispo County ranchers

Bob Soto's family has ranched the hills off of Higway 46 and Santa Rosa Creek for more than 100 years. This is the first year he can recall the spring that feeds this stock trough going dry. Usually the gully behind him is muddy but this year is dust.
Bob Soto's family has ranched the hills off of Higway 46 and Santa Rosa Creek for more than 100 years. This is the first year he can recall the spring that feeds this stock trough going dry. Usually the gully behind him is muddy but this year is dust.

A year ago, there was so little rain that green grass was scarce, and ranchers including Robert Soto in Cambria were forced to sell off large portions of their cattle holdings in the face of sky-high prices for supplemental feed.

Those cattle sell-offs and strong prices led to a 34 percent increase in San Luis Obispo County’s beef crop in 2014 — valued at more than $129 million.

Entering the fourth year of California’s drought, local cattle herds have been thinned enough that feed is no longer the top problem. Now it has spread deeper — to the springs and watering holes that are beginning to dry up.

“In the last few years, we’ve lost 50 percent of our springs,” said Soto, who runs cattle on 2,500 acres around Cambria — where five generations of his family have ranched.

“A spring that has never dried since 1900, when my family started farming here, it’s dry now. Where are the cattle gonna water?” Soto asked.

He’s even building a fence around the spring that has gone dry in order to keep his thirsty cattle out of the empty trough and mud.

“In their search for water, they wreck and tromp on everything. I am training them to go to another trough,” he said.

Water scarcity, coupled with the October 2014 closure of the county’s only livestock market in Templeton to make way for a housing development, is creating a challenging situation for San Luis Obispo County’s cattle industry.

If watering holes continue to run dry, farmers will be forced to haul water to the cattle from wells — an expensive endeavor. Additionally, ranchers are now faced with the added costs of transporting their calves hundreds of miles for auction.

In the long term, rebuilding herds to pre-drought levels is an uphill challenge.

“If you take the number of cows and split it in half, then you have half the calves. That’s not a solid recipe for success,” said Randy

Baxley, owner of Visalia Livestock Market, which ran the weekly Templeton livestock market until it closed last year.

Baxley predicts it will take five years to rebuild local cattle herds. 

And that’s only after the rains come back, said Brenda Ouwerkerk, chief deputy commissioner for the county agriculture department.

“The million-dollar question is, of course, when?” she said.

A new normal

“There will no longer be what we call a normal year — it will be real dry or real wet,” said Royce Larsen, the watershed and natural resources adviser for the UC Cooperative Extension in San Luis Obispo County.

According to the climate change models that Larsen refers to, predictions are that droughts will come more often and be more severe. The wet years will be wetter, with more flooding.

“If you look at historical records of rainfall (for San Luis Obispo County), there’s droughts all along in there. We know it will change and recover — we just don’t know when,” Larsen said.

“We are four years into this drought, and if you look at it, eight of the last 10 years had below-average rainfall. … The trees are dying. The shrubs are dying. The cattle ponds are drying up. Some streams haven’t had water for going-on four years. As summer goes on, it gets worse,” Larsen said.

One of Larsen’s duties is to track how much green grass is growing on parcels throughout San Luis Obispo County.

He expected the coastal areas to be much greener by now, but the timing and amount of rain have meant abnormally low grass growth. 

That shouldn’t pose a problem this year, only because ranchers thinned their herds — meaning a mediocre amount of grass is enough to feed them.

“By and large, ranchers are gonna be OK this year because they sold so many cattle last year,” Larsen said.

Among those ranchers is Stephen Hearst, William Randolph Hearst’s great-grandson and vice president/general manager of Hearst Corp.’s western properties.

In response to the drought the past two years, Hearst had reduced the two ranches’ cattle herds by about half — with 550 head now at San Simeon and 800 head at Jack Ranch. 

Fortunately for the 82,000-acre Hearst Ranch in San Simeon, grassland is bouncing back greener than elsewhere in the county.

“This year’s drought picture is vastly different than the previous two or three,” Hearst said. Despite receiving half the normal rainfall on the ranch this winter, the grazing land “looks 100 percent better now than it did” in previous years, he said.

He recently hosted Whole Foods officials for a tour of the property, which in the early morning was wet from drizzle and heavy dew, a pleasant surprise because that hasn’t happened often this winter or spring.

With the well-timed rains “keeping the green tint on the hills, we’ve actually just purchased nearly 400 head,” including 125 bred heifers “carrying babies that will be part of our 2017 delivery to Whole Foods,” Hearst said.

The ranch is taking on new stock “cautiously,” he added, and hopes to deliver about 1,000 head of cattle to Whole Foods in 2017.

Still, water is a major, ongoing concern.

“Unfortunately, the rainfall we’ve received has failed to replenish our springs and our groundwater supplies on both ranches,” said Ben Higgins, director of agriculture operations for Hearst Ranch. “We are experiencing fairly low spring production in San Simeon, where we’re very reliant on natural springs” to provide water to not only the ranch headquarters and stock water, but to the hilltop (Hearst Castle), the visitor center and Old San Simeon Village.

“Normal production from the source spring is about 100,000 gallons a day — at best about 200,000 gallons a day, Higgins said. In the fall, it produced about 25,000 to 28,000 gallons a day. Today, it’s about 43,000 gallons a day. And it’s only April,” he added.

At Jack Ranch, Higgins said, most of the water comes from groundwater and a number of wells.

“It has been adequate so far,” he said.

Because their stock ponds and reservoirs are full, and they’re conserving water.

“We believe we have enough to make it through the year,” Higgins said.

It’s an accumulating effect, however.

“Each year looks a little worse,” he said. “If we don’t have a number of successive very good years fairly soon, we’ll begin to experience very serious problems on both ranches.”

Trial and error

“We are in a trial-and-error period,” said Dick Nock, a lifelong rancher who has moved cows from Cayucos, where there is no more green grass, to his other two ranches near Morro Bay and Highway 46.

He has enough grass in those locations because he cut his stock by about half last year.

“But we’re not much better off waterwise,” said Nock, who monitors his springs daily. “These cows will drink 15 to 20 gallons of water a day. … Right now, we’re not hurting that bad. But we don’t know when that spring might dry up,” adding that a long or hot summer will reveal

weaknesses. 

If so, farmers are faced with the difficult choice of selling cattle or hauling water.

“If I run out of water, I’ll just sell the cows,” Nock said.

Soto, the Cambrian rancher who culled his herd from 150 to less than 100 last year, is proactively spending his time mending and strengthening existing water infrastructure. The traditional way is to build a box around a spring to capture water, and to run a pipe from the box to a trough. Soto wants to make sure there is no water waste.

“The bottom line is, the cow herds are down to the levels of the 1950s,” he said.

If the summer is long or hot, he worries, there won’t be water come September.

“Last year was a pretty severe year,” Soto said. “We never thought that we’d have another. It’s gonna be a pretty critical year.”

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