Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Third year of drought?

These days we seem to be caught up cycles, economic cycles, election cycles, and most important to those who make their living in agriculture, weather cycles.

I remember the drought years of mid 1970s, as well as the painful years of 1988 -1991. These weather patterns come along about every ten years or so, long enough that people forget how bad it can be. Each new generation of farmers and ranchers who comes of age in the good years have to learn the painful lessons that come with a multi-year drought. Your costs dramatically increase as your revenue declines.

The effects of the current three year drought are cumulative. Most of the ranchers in our area do not run animals on the same ground on a year round basis. In the winter months, starting around November, the livestock are turned out onto grasslands, mainly the hills in western Yolo County. If we have a dry fall and winter, the new grass does not start growing early and the ranchers must feed hay or find other supplemental feed. With the price of hay doubling in the last two years, this option is becoming so expensive, the thin profit margins livestock producers have disappear. The question soon becomes how can I minimize my losses for the year, how do I pay my bills?

When late spring arrives, if the rainfall has been below normal, the feed on the hills does not last as long as normal and this compounds the problem. With the rangelands drying up earlier, the need to ship the livestock to their summer pastures may come a full month sooner than planned. For those growers who ship their livestock to higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada range or southern Oregon, the summer pastures may still be covered in snow and the rancher will once again have to purchase extra hay and supplement until he can move his livestock.

For growers who keep their livestock on irrigated pasture here in Yolo County, this year will be very challenging. The Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District will curtail the amount water used for irrigation as the last two dry years have depleted most of the surface storage water held in the Indian Valley Reservoir.

While we enjoy the warm sunshine and green grass in hills right now, every time the forecast shows seven little pictures of the sun, we know the odds are stacking up against us. 2009 will be another dry year. Unless we receive another March miracle, hard decisions will have to made.

The worst part of these cycles is they seems to run together. Every drought hits right when the economy is in recession. Any way you look at the situation, the effects of the drought will hit the agriculture and livestock industry hard.

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