Drought slams livestock industry

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – California’s historic drought has touched off a chain reaction in local livestock output.

Humboldt County Agriculture Commissioner Jeff M. Dolf points to early selloffs, smaller herds, grazing shortages, reduced forage production and spikes in hay prices.

IMG_0962The commissioner says local producers began selling their livestock and reducing herd sizes at least a month before they would normally do so.

Early sales, triggered by drought-induced grassland shrinkage, reduce the weights of individual animals, a money loser.       

As grasslands wither, feed costs climb, even as income sags. Because the four-year drought has stricken large portions of the western states, demand for hay is high. That makes it “very expensive for producers to maintain herd sizes by supplemental feeding.”

Economically, hay purchases are a stopgap, not a solution. Dolf says, “A  common adage for livestock producers responding to severe drought conditions is that you cannot feed your way out of a drought, because it more than likely will bankrupt you.”

Herd reductions vary widely with the individual producer’s situation. Drought puts more pressure on inland operations than on coastal ones. In a normal year, the typical grazing capacity of coastal lands is six acres per animal unit, Dolf said. “In Southeast Humboldt, the grazing capacity is 35 acres per animal unit. Combine the severe drought with the lower grazing capacity and you can get an idea of how great the pressures to reduce herd sizes become on an inland producer.”

Another link in the chain reaction is year-to-year forage losses. One of the things the public needs to understand about rangeland management is that successive years of drought have cumulative impacts, Dolf explained in an email.

When forage production drops, the residual dry matter (plant material remaining from the prior year) that is essential for rangeland health in succeeding years is also reduced.

That is a serious problem because, said Dolf, “residual dry matter provides soil organic matter and is important for creating favorable micro-environments for seedling growth and protection from soil erosion.”

UC Davis estimates that this year’s drought will cost California agriculture nearly $2 billion and 10,000 jobs, with the Central Valley hardest hit.

Dolf’s office is working with the Federal Farm Service Agency on a drought survey of the impacts on agricultural production here. The 2015 estimate should be available in two weeks or so.

Statewide, a 53 percent drop in rangeland production was recorded in 2013, a 45 percent rollback in 2014.

Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Humboldt County is covered by a fast track designation that enables producers to apply for program assistance to help meet drought-induced losses, Dolf said.

The drought trains a laser beam on another crucial link in the dry spell’s chain reaction, reliance on groundwater in the absence of rain. Statistics requested by the Union from the county’s Department of Health and Human Services show that water well construction application numbers have shot up from 56 in 2011 to 161 in 2014. To date this year, they number 96.

The root causes and effects of this development are unknown, but the county is about to start laying down plans and procedures for monitoring groundwater on a systematic basis, according to Senior Environmental Analyst Andrew Bundschuh in the Environmental Services office of the county Department of Public Works.   

Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer, an associate faculty member at Humboldt State University, warns that California’s groundwater “has been vanishing at a shocking rate.” She cites a 2014 study by UC Davis, which concluded that farmers have been replacing about 75 percent of lost rainfall with groundwater.

Olson-Raymer tells her students that although pumping water from underground aquifers helps farmers in the immediate crisis, it is setting up agriculture up for a fall that could be far worse.

It is a singular issue in California because the state’s pumping regulations are wide open, she says. Unlike in other western states, anyone can draw as much water as he wants as long as it is for a “beneficial purpose.”

Built up over many years, aquifers are not easily refilled and as they are depleted, the land above starts sinking – permanently reducing their capacity.

“In short,” Olson-Raymer admonishes, “farmers are losing a crucial buffer against both this drought, if it persists, and future droughts.”

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