Ranchers see Better Pastures, Tough Markets

Taylor Hillman Cattle

A series of storms this fall has promoted healthy grass growth on the range for grazing cattle, but improved feed conditions come as cattle prices remain in a slump and ranchers struggle to recover from the recent drought that has battered their herds.

“It’s unfortunate, because you’ve got good feed conditions brewing but no market,” said Yolo County rancher Casey Stone.

Although rainfall in October boosted enough grasses to sustain cattle, Stone noted that more storms are needed on his winter range to get creeks flowing to provide drinking water for his cattle, many of which remain on irrigated pasture.

“We’ve got a good head start from the last storm,” he said. “It certainly helps. We’ll take everything we can get.”

In Tehama County, rancher Bert Owens described his range conditions as “outstanding,” noting that recent precipitation coupled with mild temperatures and days of sunshine had native grasses “flying out of the ground.” This has allowed him to turn his cattle out on the winter range three weeks ahead of schedule, which has reduced his operating costs because he’s not buying any supplemental hay.

But recent storms have not eased his concerns that a dry winter may still be ahead. Owens said he remains cautious about expanding his herd, opting to wait until next spring “to see if we have enough soil moisture to carry us through the end of May.”

“This drought and lack of rain has really affected my thinking with regard to the number of livestock I do,” he said. “You can’t get too carried away this early in the grass-growing season. We can’t really count on these rains continuing.”

With large domestic supplies of beef and other meats weighing on the market, Owens said he does not anticipate cattle prices will improve significantly for two to three years, which means he will need to cut his costs where he can.

At 72, Mariposa County rancher Tom Gookin said he’s at the age where he doesn’t want to expand his herd, especially now with a depressed cattle market. He noted that two years ago, a calf sold for $1,160; today, a 1,400-pound cow brings half that price.

Though he said he plans to ride out the current market downturn, Gookin said he’s less certain about prospects for a robust rainy season. Because his cattle stay on dryland pasture all year, he said he will sell his herd “if I have to go through another drought and feed hay.”

Even if it turns out to be a plentiful feed year, Stone said there’s not much incentive for him to expand his herd, with the cattle market outlook being so grim. He noted that prices for cattle he sold this year were 30 to 40 percent lower than his original projections. Falling prices of hay, which he also farms, have hurt his income as well. He noted that many ranchers stocked up on hay last year for fear there would be another dry winter. Now those ranchers have surplus hay sitting in their barns. With early fall rains and so much feed on the ground currently, there’s even less demand for hay, keeping that market down, he said.

“These prices really rocked us pretty good,” Stone said. “We went from record-high cattle and hay prices two years ago to an absolute disaster right now.”

During the drought, Contra Costa County rancher Tom Brumleve reduced his herd by almost half. Without knowing what the coming season will bring, he said he will wait until April or May before he decides whether to rebuild his herd.

“I think my numbers are low enough that even if this year doesn’t get back to normal (rainfall), I’ll get by, but I’ll have to feed more hay,” he said. “If our numbers were up to our average, I’d be much more concerned.”

Madera County rancher Clay Daulton, who runs a stocker operation, said he doesn’t plan to expand his cattle numbers, but he will be back to average stocking rates this season. He noted he stocked only about a third of his normal numbers last year because he did not have enough residual feed on his pasture at the onset of the fall season. That resulted this year in the largest quantity of residual feed he’s seen on his ranch.

“It’s low-quality forage, but it also offers great potential for the new grass,” he said. “More rainfall in the coming year will be good. I have the buffer of this residual feed in case it does end up being drought-ish. It certainly is a beautiful start.”

In Shasta County, rancher Henry Giacomini noted that Redding had the third-wettest October on record, giving a huge boost to winter pastures and native feed in the foothills. The amount of rain has also brought stock water to those pastures, allowing him to move some cattle there.

Giacomini said he did not have to reduce his own herd during the drought, but he did cut back on his hay production so that more of that land could be grazed, which lowered his income.

Although some California ranchers may be reluctant to grow their herds at this time, he noted that U.S. cattle numbers are increasing, with many of those animals yet to hit the market, and that could put more pressure on the market. If lower prices curtail expansion nationwide, whereby ranchers aren’t retaining their heifers for replacement, that will keep pressure on the market for potentially two to three years, he added.

Depending on the rancher’s situation, Giacomini pointed out that lower cattle prices also present “a pretty opportunistic time to expand, if you’ve got cash flow to do it.” In his operation, there is not extra forage for him to expand much, but he said he might try to improve his herd by culling harder and replacing his lower-performing cattle.

“For the most part, we’re going to hold steady,” Giacomini said.

He said even though many California cattle ranchers were forced to reduce their herds during the drought and couldn’t take full advantage of several years of strong cattle prices, they would have had a tougher time if the cattle market had not been so good.

“In a way, at least the market held us together,” he said. “People who had to liquidate got paid well for it.”

Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item. Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.