Ranchers look at thinning herds as water pressures, wildfires, rising prices take toll

Rangeland losses due to a combination of drought and wildfire have dealt a severe blow to California's ranchers, who now are facing tough choices on whether to reduce herd sizes.

The losses are estimated at more than $80 million and include costs of supplementing feed for animals and the predicament of having to sell animals that are underweight, said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the California Department of Agriculture.

"We're seeing a lot of people reducing the size of their herds," said Matt Byrne, executive vice president of the California Cattlemen's Association.

Compounding the challenge, he said, is that "the price of any supplemental feed is at an all-time high." Alfalfa hay, for example, had averaged about $120 a ton the past five years. It's now at more than $200 a ton. Corn that sold for $4 a bushel a year ago now costs between $6 and $7.

Statewide, the value for rangeland in 2007 was $182 million. Irrigated pasture totaled another $104 million in 2007.

Byrne said operators aren't just selling this year's calves earlier, but selling breeding stock as well.

On the Central Coast, Byrne said, herds are being reduced by as much as 50% to 60%. Normally in that region, cattle can be kept on pasture year-round, but this year's drought has had statewide impacts.

In the central San Joaquin Valley, many ranchers are accustomed to moving sheep and cattle to grazing lands, but that also has become more costly as fuel prices have soared.

Valley rangeland losses as of mid-July include Kern County at $9.8 million, Merced County at $7.4 million, Tulare County at $3.3 million, Madera County at $1.7 million and Fresno County at $680,000.

Ben Elgorriaga of Madera said he has weathered the rangelands setbacks by moving his sheep around -- to Colorado, to the Sacramento area and into the retired lands of the Westlands Water District. But the cost of feed and fuel, he adds, "is killing us."

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report says more than 90% of California rangeland is in poor or very poor condition.

And this year's sorry condition of the rangeland comes on the heels of conditions that some, including Elgorriaga, say were still worse last year.

In 2007, pasture was withered in part by the same freeze that crippled the California citrus industry, along with unusually dry conditions in the spring.

This year, it was the early wildfires as well as a spring that went into the record books as the driest in more than 80 years.

Neil McDougald, a livestock and range management farm adviser for Madera and Fresno counties, said rangeland scorched by wildfire will need at least three years to recover.

McDougald, with the University of California Cooperative Extension, said a second consecutive year of low rainfall totals is taking an accumulative toll on grasses.

"It means reduced residual matter, and you don't have all the protection for the beginning of next year's crop," he said. "Every year that you use that resource more, it adds to your risk."

Madera County cattleman Clay Daulton said he uses "managed grazing" to address that risk. "I rest the fields," he said.

John Lasgoity pastures his sheep on land he has leased from Westlands and planted to grains.

"I dry-land farm in Fresno County, experimenting with clovers and oats, but that's expensive at $60 to $70 an acre," he said.

McDougald said some options for ranchers have dwindled.

"Some used to move them to the national forests," he said. But permits for those uses have significantly declined.