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.
We are extremely fortunate to have an excellent crew of neighbors to help us mark our calves. Yesterday was a beautiful day to brand our second bunch of Wagyu X calves, though pretty dusty near the end of the work. Even though the hills are green, the grass is terribly short with only 4.31” of rain on Dry Creek thus far this year with only two months left of our rainy season. Furthermore, the spring forecast https://weatherwest.com/archives/8382 is quite disturbing.
Feeding hay since August, some neighbors have already begun to sell their cows into this down market. Ideally, the cull cows will attain their heaviest weights by mid-April, however most everyone’s cows are now stressed as short feed and growing calves have kept them thin. With little rain and a minimal snowpack, summer irrigation water will be in short supply, which translates to higher water prices in the San Joaquin Valley. Likewise, one can be assured that with fewer cuttings, the price of hay will also be high.
The south slopes have already dried up, offering only a month of green this year. Without any moisture in the next week, the west slopes will follow suit. Not necessarily the amount of rain, but the timing is always the crucial variable for native feed. We carry on as if by some miracle we can keep our cows together, but time is running out for the Southern Sierra foothills.
The real old boys who found their weather in the stars,
within explosive storms on the sun, years in advance—
would be dismayed with how we farm today.
My father’s shadow, I followed disc and tractor straining
to turn the earth, blackbirds diving like swarming sea gulls
behind us, as we broke clods in lace-up boots to test the soil.
Trading energy, no one cultivates today to turn green weeds
and stinging nitrogen back into the ground—no one marks-out
furrows in sandy loam, no one irrigates with a hoe.
We spray chemicals (‘herbicides’ sounds nice and friendly)
in the naked space between the trunks of vines and trees.
We run trillions of miles of black plastic for a sip in drips
to save water for more crops we can seldom sell at a profit.
Still the perpetual motion of new money: each depreciation
offsetting taxes for urban investors on the next farm
they sell to one another like summer homes and yachts.
Why bother to predict tomorrow’s weather when farms
change hands in a swirl of smoke and yellow steel?
I have an aversion to using someone else’s labels, especially when they are bantered about in the political arena, but wildflowers here at the first of February are unusually early. Temperatures for the past 10 days have been over 70 degrees, no rain in sight.
We are half-way through our rainy season with slightly over 3 inches of precipitation to date when our annual rainfall averages over 15 inches. Four of the last five years have been declared droughts by the USDA, and this season is off to the slowest start since record-keeping began. Sierra snowpack is 14% of normal. Regardless of what you want to call it, our weather, our climate, has become extremely volatile and it is changing.
Blame is a useless exercise at this juncture, I believe, because we must deal with the impacts, whatever and wherever they are, now and adapt—we’re all in this together, like it or not. From a cattleman’s perspective, green grass is short or non-existent, hay extremely hard to find. Water for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley will be expensive or unavailable this coming growing season. The price of food will increase for everyone.
I want to thank freelance journalist Carson Vaughan for bringing the topic of ‘Climate Change’ to the foreground as he interviewed people at the recent National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. I predicted that 7 out of 10 would be in denial. I truly hope I was wrong!
On the semi-arid edge of jet streams,
already rattlesnakes and dust in the road
framed in rusty Fiddlenecks and green
filaree, lush as lettuce. Hard shell of clay
and granite bring us off the mountain
through the bluff of fractured boulders,
blue lupine spears in pockets of golden
poppies grinning, open to the sun.
I forget the year, but it was March 3rd
I killed two below the den beside
the steep and rocky draw to Buckeye,
that waterfalls after a good long rain—
the earliest ever, sunning in warm dirt.
They have no calendar, no date circled
to leave the medusa tangle, brittle rattles
brush in a black hole. No fan of fear
fogging climate change—another sign,
a new extreme for snakes: more days
to make a living between shorter vacations.
We add the signs, the trend is dry, despite El Niño late to work as south slopes turn
summer blonde and brown. Two months
early to be thinking: weaning calves—
we take instruction from grass and water.
We may be sipping the last of spring.