Despite the welcome 1.5” of rain this month, bringing our total rainfall for the season on Dry Creek to a meager 6”, our grass is short and thin, especially on the south and west slopes of our lower foothill country. Unless we get some well-spaced rains in April, we will wean our calves early, probably weighing 50 lbs. lighter than usual. With limited stockwater and no dry feed to carry our cows through summer, fall and to an unknown beginning of our rainy season, we will have cull our cow herd deeply. A strong high pressure ridge, typical of La Niña, is blocking storm activity to California and the rest of the West. Furthermore, market returns for cattle producers are stuck in an unsustainable range, in part due to Covid-19.
After a wonderfully fun day helping Kenny and Virginia McKee brand their calves in Woolley Canyon yesterday, Robbin and I are moving slowly as we recuperate by enjoying the colors of spring in the gathering fields around us. The lush appearance of the Fiddleneck and Popcorn Flowers in the photo below is deceptive as they have little nutritional value for cattle, but they do shade the ground and help hold what moisture we have.
This morning’s circle with salt and mineral for the first-calf heifers in the hills behind the house was not encouraging for the first of March. The south slopes are short and turning fast and the heifers want, and need, hay, though the calves look OK.
The forecasters have taken Saturday’s rain away, but next week still appears to be wet. We know that this ground is resilient, but with only March and April left as our only chance for real grass, this season’s future looks bleak and will probably require early weaning and a heavy culling of our cow herd, as there will be little old feed leftover to sustain these cows through summer and fall.
From an economic perspective, it costs around $500+ to keep our first and second calf heifers for a year, then add $400 for hay plus labor since August, an $850 calf won’t pencil out. Furthermore, with minimal snowpack and only four inches of rain this season, irrigation water will be expensive and the price for summer alfalfa high. Whether one believes in Climate Change or not, the trend for the last decade has been drought, (all across the West), the worst I’ve seen in my lifetime here, where losing money takes all the romance out of raising cattle. Nevertheless, we’re in it for the long haul and hope for the better days.
When I was young I wished
for longer springs and hillsides
painted with wildflowers,
grass belly-high and every canyon
running water—livestock grazing
pastoral notions, heavenly eternal.
I may have to stand in line
on the trail to mountain pastures
when I shed this human coil,
but hope to hell that the majority
of souls will be waiting
at the Pearly Gates instead.