Cattle ranchers feel brunt of the drought; some fear costs will triple

It’s easy to see how harshly drought has visited Stanley Van Vleck’s 10,000-acre cattle ranch. In all directions, across plain and foothill, the landscape is colored sickly brown.

Winter is normally the time that California ranchers rely on the rain to turn the grass green, providing food for cattle that roam the hillsides. This year, though, there is no green grass to be found on Van Vleck’s sprawling ranch south of Highway 16 near Rancho Murieta.

“This is worse than the drought in the 1970s,” Van Vleck said. “That drought lasted longer but at least there was more rain per year. So, our lands are severely impacted. When you have no water, you have no grass. And when you have no grass you have no meat.”

Van Vleck’s ranch gets all of its supply of water from rain. It’s water that he traps on 15 ponds and a large lake. Currently, half of the ponds are nothing but dust sinks. The 350-acre lake, which he uses to irrigate pastures, has shrunk to a 10-acre pond. The water level is so low it now lies several feet below the spillway used to send it to pasture areas.

Van Vleck, like many other cattle ranchers in California, is coping by selling off as many cattle as he can without crippling his business.

“We’re downsizing like we never have had to,” said Van Vleck, who sells premium Kobe beef to Snake River Farms. “This is now more a drastic situation than we thought it would be.”

On an average year, Van Vleck keeps 2,000 head of cattle on his ranch, but this year he has whittled the herd to 200 animals. Recently, during a meeting with his family and an agricultural financial consultant, the bitter-pill option of selling off all his animals was discussed. That option is becoming more and more likely if no rain falls by spring, Van Vleck said.

Van Vleck isn’t the only rancher taking such drastic steps.

Davis and Fairfield-area rancher Pete Craig is selling off all of his 1,000 yearlings to buyers in the Midwest and shipping his cattle. He’s hoping not to sell any cows. “Basically, we’re trying to save the ‘factory,’ ” said Craig, who also ranches 200 acres in Nevada.

California ranchers are unloading livestock in high numbers, said Jake Parnell, manager of Cattlemen’s Livestock Market in Galt. Last year at this time the auction house sold 475 cattle. On Wednesday 3,100 cattle were sold. Most of the buyers hail from states such as Nebraska, Colorado and Oklahoma. Despite the high number of cattle for sale, prices have not dropped. Instead, they have risen as Midwest state ranchers seek to build up herds thinned by previous drought years.

“They’ve finally had a good year. They now have grass” said Parnell. Prices for cattle sold at the market are 70 percent higher this year than last year, he said.

Parnell said he’s expecting the massive sell-off to continue through the next eight weeks. “Even if it does rain, people will be forced to sell because it’s not just a lack of feed, it is also the lack of drinking water for these cattle. There are no streams, and springs are drying up.”

To keep his cows, Craig said he will need to purchase hay, and the supply is dwindling as ranchers dip into the feed stock that they would normally sell to brokers.

Craig is buying hay from all over California instead of meeting feed demands locally, which is the custom. He’s also feeding his cows rice straw, an inferior form of feed that offers less protein.

“The drought has tripled our costs,” said Craig. “If this continues some guys will have to lose their ranches.”

Hay brokers are doing a brisk business. Vickie Nimmo, who owns Nick Nimmo Inc. in Galt, said she’s bringing in hay from Nevada and north to the Oregon border to meet demand from customers who never bought hay before.

The situation is not confined to cattle. Sheep rancher Dan Macon is feeling the drought pinch, too.

Macon owns the Flying Mule sheep ranch in north Auburn, where he keeps 200 sheep. He also manages sheep for the 118-year-old McCormack Ranch operation in Rio Vista, where 1,500 sheep are run.

“Based on the McCormack family records, this has been the driest year since the family has been in that part of the state,” said Macon. “It’s bone dry over there. It’s pretty frightening.”

The fear, for Macon, is that much of the feed in storage and for sale will be exhausted come fall.

“That is a real danger for us that keep livestock on annual rangeland,” he said. “If we don’t get rain here in the next 60 days we’ll begin seeing severe impacts.”

Typically, hay is purchased by the ton, and prices are $50 higher per ton than what Macon said he normally pays. He expects the price is going to get higher.

In Auburn, Macon irrigates in the summer in order to keep pastures green, but he may not get that water if the Nevada Irrigation District cuts back water allocations, which may be reduced by as much as 50 percent this summer, he said.

Macon said the drought is resulting in a double hit to his income as he is having to sell off his lambs at a lower weight, soon after weaning. The lower weight brings a reduced price. Right now there is no winter grass for them to feed on. On a normal year he keeps lambs after spring weaning and sells them in the fall when they fatten up to roughly 95 pounds. This year, Macon is selling his them at a weight of roughly 60 pounds.

“We’ll have to pare down to a smaller operation, just to hang on,” Macon said.

Many ranchers in California have already scaled down their operations or diversified into other businesses, anticipating that a severe drought would come someday.

The Van Vleck family has for years pursued a variety of revenue streams. Parts of the family ranch have been used for clay mining, National Guard and fire and rescue training, and paintball, among other things. Cattle ranching only accounts for roughly half his income, Van Vleck said.

The most troubling aspect of the current drought for Van Vleck is that it will take years for the ground to recover even if a substantial amount of rain falls between now and summer.

“It’s not as if when it rains all this grass is going to just pop up,” said Van Vleck. “There is no grass to create a seed. It’s going to take a long time for this to start growing.”

Van Vleck expects it will take three years for the ranch to recover, if it rains.

“It’s not just a water issue, it’s a time issue.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee