November 10, 2008
California's worst drought in decades is forcing the state's cattle ranchers to downsize their herds because two years of poor rainfall have ravaged millions of acres of rangeland used to feed their cows and calves.
Joe Gonzales, who normally runs 500 cows on his 2,000-acre spread about 30 miles south of San Jose, cut his herd by half over the past year and may have to sell more if the drought persists, the worst he has seen in 30 years.
During most dry years, California cattlemen send their herds to places with healthier pastures or buy supplemental feed to sustain their animals until the rainy season. But high fuel prices, a lack of green pastures in California and neighboring states, and the soaring cost of livestock feed have left ranchers little choice but to sell off their mother cows because they can ill afford to feed them.
California ranchers typically raise calves for six to 10 months before selling them to feedlots in Texas, Nebraska, Colorado and other states, but they usually keep mother cows that produce offspring for a decade.
The number of beef cows on California pastures dropped from 700,000 in January 2007 to 655,000 in January 2008, or 6 percent, according to the US Department of Food and Agriculture. John Nalivka, president the agricultural research firm Sterling Marketing, expects another 6 percent decline when new cattle numbers are reported in January.
The drought has also hurt out-of-state ranchers who are selling their cows because feeding them is too costly.
California, the country's fourth-largest beef cattle producer, is downsizing at a time when US beef production is shrinking amid higher fuel and feed prices. The herd reductions spell bad news for consumers.
In California, cattle ranchers are among the hardest hit by a statewide drought that has forced farmers to reduce crop plantings and leave fields fallow, dealing a major blow to the state's US$30 billion agriculture industry.
In the first eight months of this year, state officials say, rangeland losses made up $95 million of the estimated $260 million in drought-related agricultural losses.
A recent federal report found that 95 percent of the state's rangelands are in "poor" or "very poor" condition.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought in May after the state recorded two years of below-average rainfall, a sharp reduction in Sierra Nevada snowpack and its driest spring on record. Late last month, state water officials warned local agencies that their water deliveries could be cut by as much as 85 percent next year.