California may only be one year into the drought, but its toll feels much bigger to San Joaquin Valley livestock operators.
“It’s as bad as we’ve seen it in probably 15 years,” said Andrée Soares, president of Star Creek Land Stewards, Inc. “Animals have to be fed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s the biggest concern.”
Soares has about 6,000 sheep and goats. She’s based in Los Banos on the west side of the valley but her animals are often spread up and down the state doing targeted grazing for fire prevention.
Soares doesn’t know where her animals will be in the next few months or how they will eat. Even though there is high demand for fire prevention grazing, she said her business is still at risk because of the super dry conditions.
Much of the valley saw scant rainfall this year with some areas such as Bakersfield and Coalinga getting only a few inches. Less rain means less grass. And less grass means starving animals.
The lack of grass is so severe, pastures that normally provide a month of grazing are lasting only one to two weeks, said Ryan Indart, sheep rancher and president of the Indart Group, Inc. Livestock ranchers find themselves on a never ending hunt for fresh rangeland. They’re trucking livestock more often and farther than normal, which is unhealthy for the animals and costly for the owners. And they’re calling each other for help.
“I don’t ever remember a year where I’ve ever received phone calls like that,” said Indart, a third generation sheep rancher with 3,500 head in mostly western Fresno County.
The situation is worse than the 2012-2016 drought, ranchers said, because of the combination of extreme dryness and heat. Temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley soared well above 110s in June and early July as record breaking heat waves slammed the west.
The last time the valley was this dry was probably in the 1976-77 drought, said Leslie Roche, cooperative extension specialist and faculty member in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis.
Spring is critical for California grasslands because it’s a short window for rapid growth, explained Roche. This spring, not only was much of the scarce snowpack and rain sucked up by bone-dry forest soils but the grasses’ growth period was cut short. Normally, rangeland grasses grow to about 12 inches. This year, they maxed out at about three inches, said Roche.
And there’s not much water out there for animals to drink either.
“There’s a lot of springs and creeks that folks really hadn’t ever seen go dry before, that now have gone dry,” said Roche. So, pastures that do have some grass but no drinking water are unusable.
This year is a glimpse of what’s to come, according to Roche. She thinks in the future both extreme wet and dry years will be common, more “feast or famine” years as she put it. For livestock businesses, that’s not good news. It can take ranchers years to fully recover from an extreme drought year, especially if they have to downsize their herds.
Dairy farmers are also hurting from the drought.
Mark Plantenga has about 5,500 cows and a couple thousand acres at Western Sky Dairy in Bakersfield where he is a managing partner. He grows alfalfa, corn, wheat and sorghum for silage so his cows don’t rely on rangeland grazing.
But drought has hammered his farming operation. Declining water tables caused one of his seven wells to collapse and he had to drill another deeper to get water. He’s unable to farm all of his land this year and will have to spend close to $350,000 on well drilling and maintenance.
If the drought extends for another year, it would be “potentially disastrous,” said Plantenga.
Other ranchers are also worried about what the future holds.
Christina Elgorriaga Etchamendy and her family run about 3,000 sheep in the Lost Hills area in western Kern County. They also grow some almonds and alfalfa.
This year, Elgorriaga Etchamendy’s operation is hanging by a thread. Because there was so little grass available, she and her family used their alfalfa to feed their lambs instead of selling it.
But that wasn’t enough.
They’ve had their sheep graze on almond hulls from orchards pulled up for lack of water. And they paid a dairy farmer for their sheep to graze his harvested wheat field.
“When you’re desperate like that it’s almost like it doesn’t even matter what it costs,” said Elgorriaga Etchamendy “It’s either that or your animals die.”
Still, the family had to cut its herd by about 1,000 sheep.
Elgorriaga Etchamendy has four children who want to be sheep ranchers. But she doesn’t know if the profession will survive.
“It’s just so intense now that people are tired of fighting,” said Elgorriaga Etchamendy. “Eventually you’re like, ‘Is it worth it? Do I love it that much? Do I love it that much where I don’t sleep anymore and wonder if I can find feed tomorrow?’”