Late rains won’t stop ag emergency

03/22/2012

The rain that pummeled West Marin last week was a welcome boon to area ranchers and dairymen struggling from an exceptionally dry winter, but it was far from enough to allay fears of impending summer drought or stiflingly high feed costs, some contend.

“We wanted that rain bad,” John Taylor, who operates a small organic dairy north of Point Reyes Station, said. “But it’s kind of too late. We wanted it when it could help establish root systems for our grasses.”

The unusually warm and dry weather since October has left Taylor scrambling to prepare for a potentially warmer, dryer summer. He’s already placed multiple emergency orders for additional feed—normally he buys it all at once, in the fall—and said he’s been forced to cull any slightly unproductive cows because they’re too expensive to feed. “It’s like telling a long-distance runner they have one month to prepare for a marathon, rather than six,” Taylor said. “There’s a huge difference there.”

For Loren Poncia, who raises grass-fed beef in Tomales, it’s been a difficult winter. “There’ve been a lot of late nights in the last four months—just me awake, thinking about what my next steps were going to be,” he said. “Honestly, there was one point when I was within a week of selling everything.” Poncia is still considering selling off part of his herd, though many of his animals have yet to reach an ideal weight, because the price of beef right now is high.

The Marin County Board of Supervisors acknowledged his and other’s concerns on Wednesday, declaring “agricultural emergency” conditions throughout the county, a move that will make producers eligible for state and federal financial assistance—most likely in the form of low-interest loans—should such funds become available in coming months.

“Some people will argue it’s not that bad, and they’re probably right. Some ranchers have decent stands,” Stacey Carlsen, the county agricultural commissioner who requested the declaration, said. “But on the whole, if you survey producers all over the county, forage production is clearly down.”

In a letter to the board, Carlsen outlined the problem, noting that average precipitation from October to February has been approximately one third of what is usual. “This dry period was compounded by unseasonably warm daytime temperatures that dried forage out; a greater than average number of mornings with frost which inhibited forage growth; and occasional strong winds which further reduced soil moisture and dried out grasses during the time when they should have been actively growing,” he wrote.

These conditions have left the county’s 185 ranchers and dairymen—which together brought in nearly $42 million in county revenue in 2010—with around half as much forage for livestock as they would hope to see this time of year. “We’re just really not getting much production out of our fields,” Taylor said. “There’s less dry matter and nutrients in the blades, and a lot of the grass is already going to seed, which is not a good thing.”

Organic standards require that Taylor’s cows—he has about 200—consume at least a third of their diet from pastures, a rule that, given the uncertainty of how this summer will play out, has him concerned. “We won’t be able to quantify the full extent of this dry weather until, by the earliest, June or July,” he said, adding that in the six years he has managed the dairy he’s never witnessed such extreme conditions. “If you average it out over the years, we should have had 21.1 inches of rain by March 1. Instead, we had just 8.5. For us, that means a 12 percent loss in feed production.”

According to Carlsen’s letter—which described an approximate 50 percent drop in forage production from October through February—that figure is relatively low. “This rain is not going to help what has already happened,” Carlsen said. “Many ranchers will be pushed to buy more hay from outside, which will be hard because they’ll be competing with other ranchers in the Central Valley suffering from dry conditions. And that will only push prices higher than they already are.”

Other potentially unforeseen consequences loom. Sally Gale, who operates a grass-fed beef ranch and apple orchard with her husband, Mike, in Chileno Valley, said the dry weather will likely weaken the ability of her native grasses to compete with distaff thistle, an invasive plant that continues to plague their fields.

The Gale’s Chileno Valley Ranch, which draws its water from an on-site creek, is fine, for now. “We’re worried about the summer,” Sally said. “For the last couple of years we’ve had some weeks in July and August of really extreme heat, which dries us out and makes it tough.” She and Mike practice water-conserving techniques, including a drip system for their orchard, but don’t have a back-up system.

Merv McDonald, a rancher who leases land in Point Reyes National Seashore and elsewhere in the county, said things are obviously bad—but no worse than they’ve been in the past. “Once in the 40’s I had to sell my lambs by April 15—yes, I remember the day—because of drought. Then, one year I had to haul the cows halfway cross the county to get them to water,” he said. “It’s been like this before and it’ll be like it again.”

To a younger producer like Taylor, that wisdom may be less comforting. “We just hope for rain—small, steady rains,” he said. “It’s our life. It’s important to us; it’s important to our cows.”