California Dairies Confront the Drought

February 10, 2014 06:30 AM
California Dairies Confront the Drought

While eyeing record-high milk prices, California’s dairies prepare for limited forage and water supplies.

A field of emerald-colored winter wheat flanks the freestall barns of Skyview Dairy, and the adjoining alfalfa crops have new growth. Holstein heifers romp in their outdoor corral and, in the well-maintained milking parlor, cows stand calmly as employees prep their udders.

On the surface, everything looks picture-perfect at Brian and Kerri Vander Poel’s 1,550-cow dairy near Shafter, Calif. But the early February scene hides a troubling fact: It’s been more than a month since any notable rain fell here in the southern San Joaquin Valley. As the Vander Poels are acutely aware, California’s rainy season is winding down without having delivered anywhere near the state’s needed amounts of rain and snow.

Like thousands of farmers between San Diego and San Francisco, the Vander Poels are facing not only a third year of drought but California’s driest year on record. Snowpacks are scant and major reservoirs are low. In every field, farm office and coffee shop, talk centers on whether there will be enough water to get crops through the summer months. Are pumps powerful enough to pull up groundwater from ever-deeper levels? Could wells run dry? How high will utility bills soar as their pumps work to keep fields and orchards irrigated? And will there be enough forage supplies to feed the state’s 1.78 million dairy cows?

Already, California Governor Jerry Brown has declared an emergency drought. State officials have announced there will be no deliveries of surface water this year. Federal water allocations, to be announced late this month, are expected to be at zero as well. Normally, those two sources account for about 70% of California’s agricultural water needs.

Despite the possibility that thousands of acres of California farmland – for crops like cotton, cantaloupes, broccoli and garlic – may be fallowed this year, empty fields are not an option for dairies and their hungry herds. That means producers in the nation’s No. 1 dairy state are making contingency plans even as they hope Mother Nature delivers desperately needed late-winter storms.

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Prices for top-quality alfalfa hay, now in the $280-$300 per ton range, could rise to $400 if the drought persists. Those high costs could limit alfalfa hay in dairy rations. (Photo: Catherine Merlo)

Dairies' major concern is ensuring they have adequate forage supplies. Alfalfa hay is likely to be in short supply as the drought reduces plantings and results in fewer cuttings, says Joel Karlin, commodity manager and market analyst with Western Milling Co. "What’s available will be bid on quite aggressively," Karlin says. "Remember, there’s big demand for hay in the export market."

Prices for top-quality alfalfa hay, now in the $280-$300 per ton range, could rise to $400 if the drought persists, Karlin forecasts. Those high costs could limit alfalfa hay in dairy rations.

Some dairy producers may forego planting corn for silage, choosing instead to produce sorghum, which requires only two waterings compared to corn’s four or five. The downside, however, is that sorghum’s lower quality could lead to reduced milk production.

Farther north at his dairy near Modesto, Calif., producer John Fiscalini is making plans to keep his 1,500 milking cows fed. He may plant 90-day corn instead of his usual 120-day crop, so he can cut back on two waterings this summer. Fiscalini may also abandon the Sudan grass he typically plants as a third crop so he can save two or three irrigations. His dairy typically grows 75% of its silage and buys all of its hay, "which will be more expensive this year," Fiscalini says. He also expects the price of almond hulls, a common feed source for many San Joaquin Valley dairies, to rise since water shortages may force some almond orchards out of production this year.

California groundwater and corn silage
In many cases, dairies’ drought survival will largely depend on groundwater to irrigate crops like corn silage to feed hungry herds. California has 1.78 million dairy cows. (Photo: Catherine Merlo)

Dairies’ drought survival, in many cases, will largely depend on groundwater, which typically accounts for about 30% of the state’s farm needs. That percentage will increase sharply this year.

On many dairies, field irrigation accounts for roughly 70% of water needs. (The rest is used to water cows and to service parlor and barn equipment.) Those with existing wells, like the Vander Poels, may pull water from as deep as 300’-500’. In some cases, the water table has dropped to 1,000’ or more. Some farms are drilling new wells, which can cost $250,000 each -- and that’s if they can get a well driller. The waiting list is a year or more.

Brian Vander Poel’s main focus is upgrading the wells on his Shafter dairy and on his 1,300-acre feed-producing farm 10 miles away in Wasco. "I’m worried how far down our water table has dropped," he says. "My dad had two wells that went dry."

Between their two farms, the Vander Poels have nine groundwater wells. Four run efficiently on natural gas, but rates are beginning to climb. The other five are powered by electricity, and those bills will soar this summer. But Vander Poel is ready.

"Being self-sufficient in growing our own feed will help us weather the drought," he says.

For now, California is churning out the milk while it can, as producers take advantage of record high milk prices at $22 per cwt. and better. In January alone, the state’s milk production rose by 3-4%, says Jerry Dryer, a dairy market analyst.

"It’s been ideal milk production weather: no rain or mud," Dryer says. "That’s likely to continue until dairies hit a wall when there’s no alfalfa hay in the Imperial Valley come March."

Dryer believes a sharp reduction in California’s milk output will have a significant impact not only on the U.S. but worldwide as well.

"California is the size of New Zealand in terms of milk produced," he says. "Look what happened to dairy prices with New Zealand’s drought last year. California is a major producer of skim milk powder, whey, cheese and butter. It’s getting sold as soon as it’s made."

Fiscalini, however, doesn’t anticipate a drop in the state’s milk production. "With $20 milk, most California dairymen will find a way to keep milk production at a pretty high pace," he says, "even with the drought and even if they have to take alfalfa out of their rations and feed other forages and less expensive corn."

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