As drought conditions continue, California livestock owners must feed more hay or find more ground to graze their animals.
Source: California Farm Bureau Federation
Lack of precipitation so far this season has California farmers and ranchers bracing for a third consecutive dry year that they say could have wide-reaching impact on the state's agricultural landscape.
2013 closed out as one of the driest years on record, with reservoir and groundwater levels falling to historic lows. The state's dismal snowpack—with water content at about 20 percent of average for this time of year—also points to how dry California's winter has been.
The most immediate impact of the dry weather is being felt by the state's ranchers, who depend on fall and winter rains to keep grasses growing for their livestock.
"Our pasture is as dry as it has been all summer in the hills," said John Pierson, a Solano County cattle rancher and hay farmer.
Even though his region received some rain in November, he said grasses that had germinated then have since died off with the cold weather, and what's left on the ground is so brittle that there's not much feed value in it.
Pierson said he's now feeding his cattle "a significant amount more" hay for this time of year while trying to maintain enough for the rest of the season, anticipating little help from Mother Nature. Despite the high price of hay, he said he decided to stock his barns rather than sell it, "not knowing what was coming this year." Because of this move, he said he won't need to start selling his cows just yet.
"A lot of things can still happen," he said.
Because forage has been scarce, Glenn Nader, a University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor, said some ranchers have reported seeing their cattle "aggressively eating" large amounts of oak tree acorns, which can be toxic to them.
Dry years seem to increase acorn production, he said. While acorn kernels are high in energy, they also contain tannins that can cause problems for cattle if they over-consume.
"The consumption of acorns always occurs, but during a drought, cattle seem to increase their consumption in spite of the tannin levels," Nader said. "At lower levels, (acorns) protect against bloat, but at high levels, they can damage internal organs."
John Cubiburu, a San Joaquin County sheep rancher, said January through March are critical months for forage and putting weight on his lambs, as he tries to finish them in time for the spring and summer markets. The state's commercial sheep ranchers typically start lambing in the fall. During that time, their flocks graze on alfalfa fields, where they are kept through the winter.
With no rain, frost destroyed much of the alfalfa, he said, and there has not been any new growth. The growing lambs are also now eating more, he added, and finding more ground to feed them has been tough, especially as they transition off of alfalfa onto native grasses.