California's winter pastures are greening up

 California ranks fourth in the nation for sales of cattle and calves despite drought and the constant encroachment of almond orchards onto seasonal pastureland. -- blj



Capital Press
Abundant Calif. rain aids rangelands, fills stock ponds
Tim Hearden
All the rain that's fallen on California is doing wonders for rangelands, but livestock producers are still relying on supplemental feed. Much more rain will be needed for ranchers to start replacing animals that were sold off because of the drought.

RED BLUFF, Calif. — All the rain that’s fallen on Northern California in December has done wonders for rangelands, but it’s still too soon for ranchers to start planning for the end of drought conditions.
Ranchers are still supplementing feed with baled hay and other grains, even as fields and hillsides are lush and green as a result of precipitation that has approached records in some areas.
“After the years of drought we’ve had, it’s nice to actually have a fall like this,” said Josh Davy, a University of California Cooperative Extension livestock advisor here.
The abundant rains not only help the grass grow but also fill stock ponds, Davy said.
“We’ve had enough rain that there’s been some runoff and we’ve started to see these ponds fill up, which is crucial to winter grazing,” said Sunol, Calif., rancher Tim Koopmann, the California Cattlemen’s Association’s immediate past president. “At my place, we’ve had 9.3 inches of rain since the first of November.”
Three years of drought have taken their toll on forage lands throughout California, but annual grasslands have shown tremendous improvement lately, Koopmann said. The grass still has high water content, but it will gain nutritional value in a few weeks as it starts to harden, he said.
Aiding in the growth have been relatively warm temperatures, as most lower elevations have recorded “100-degree days” in which afternoon highs and nighttime lows add up to more than 100 degrees, aiding the soil, Koopmann said.
While Northern California has seen plentiful rainfall, precipitation in the Central Valley and areas south has varied, noted Mark Lacey, a CCA board member who runs cattle on several properties south of Fresno.
A property in the foothills near Visalia has received nearly 8 inches of rain this fall, while another at the south end of the valley has gotten about an inch and a half, he said.
“It’s starting to respond depending on where it’s at and how much rain it’s had,” Lacey said of the rangeland.
The rainy fall and early winter comes as cattle have been moved to lower elevations. The weather has helped fields, too, as rain has aided the emergence of a wheat crop of which 80 percent was rated good or excellent, the National Agricultural Statistics Service reported.
The germination and winter growth of forage grasses are only the first among distinct phases of forest growth, UC researchers explain on a rangelands website. Rapid spring growth precedes peak forage production, the UC explains, so ample late-season rains are crucial to productive grazing lands.
Green grasses in the late winter to late spring are key to the adequacy of beef cattle weight gains, the UC advises.
“No spring, no year,” Koopmann said. “If we don’t get the March rains, we could have an abysmal end of the season ... But I couldn’t be happier with the way the winter has started off.”
The winter’s rainy start marks a contrast with last year, when a nearly total lack of rainfall for much of the winter forced ranchers to irrigate their pastures, use supplemental feed and trim their herd sizes to control costs.
Most ranchers won’t begin to replenish herds right away, Lacey said.
“It always helps to see some rain, but ... we’re going to have to take our time rebuilding these herds,” Lacey said. “It’s hard to invest in cows when you don’t know exactly how the year is going to turn out.
“I think after this year if we have a decent year and guys have forage to carry over, you’ll start to see guys start to rebuild their inventories,” he said.