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Ranchers running out of feed, water options


For years, ranchers listed 1976 and 1977 as the worst drought conditions in memory. Now, with no rainfall in nearly a month and forecasts calling for dry conditions to continue, many are worried that 2014 could be even worse.

"It's pretty dire out there," said Tim Tesconi, interim manager of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. Some livestock ranchers' ponds and reservoirs are drying up, especially in the Two Rock and Chileno Valley areas outside Petaluma, forcing them to truck in water at great cost. Ranchers around the county are having to buy hay much earlier than usual because grass is not growing. The added expenses are causing some to start culling the weaker animals from their herds.

"There are farmers who can't pay their bills," said Larry Peter, who works with many dairies as owner of Petaluma Creamery and Spring Hill Jersey Cheese.

He said he knows of six dairy farmers having to haul water, which costs roughly $150 to $200 a load. For a rancher with a larger herd, that can add up to $2,000 or more a day, he said.

Peter says he was giving a neighbor water from his own ranch, but had to stop as his supply dwindled. He may have to start trucking in water soon for the 300 dairy cattle he keeps on Spring Hill Road west of Petaluma. His lake is fed by a spring and will be empty in about two weeks, he said.

To offset his water needs, he is giving his cows organic lactose left over from the process of making whey. The lactose provides the cows with moisture and other nutrients.

"I've been in the dairy business 27 years, and I've never seen a drought like this," he said.

Still, Peter is in better shape than some because he's not yet having to buy hay or silage. He grew his own silage and thinks he has enough to last through late February, when he'll have to start buying it unless it rains. Normally, he never runs out.

Sebastopol sheep farmer Rex Williams also put aside hay for the winter, but is using it months ahead of when he normally would. He expects it will last another 45 days, at which point he may have to start buying hay to feed his dairy sheep in February and March.

"I'm figuring out my feed budgets now and seeing if I can afford to buy more hay, how many sheep I can afford," he said. He and his wife already have reduced their herd of about 400 by a third and are preparing to sell an additional 15 to 20 ewes that are not pregnant.

He expects that, like other farmers, he may have to start charging more for the lamb he sells at farmers markets.

Don DeBernardi, a dairy rancher with about 1,600 cattle in the Two Rock area, also is having to buy a lot more feed than usual. "There's no pasture at all, so we're buying feed, and there's no local feed left," he said.

Norm Yenni farms hay near Sears Point and affirmed that local hay supplies are running low. He planted last year's crop in March, after the majority of the rain fell for the year.

"Historically, it's the best time to plant," he said. But because of the dry conditions, he only got about two-thirds his normal crop.

"My hay is priced as high as its ever been and my inventory is as low as it's ever been," he said. He's selling oat hay for $200 a ton; last year it was $180.

The little hay he has left is committed to some of his regular customers. Normally, he sells hay on a retail basis through February or March, but he stopped those sales about three weeks ago.

"Usually I count in tons, but this year I'm counting in bales," he said.

This winter, he's trying something different. He's planting his seeds now, rather than later in the spring, with the idea that he can maximize the rain when it does come by having the seeds in the ground and ready to grow.

Of course, if it doesn't rain, the planting will have been in vain. "I'm banking on the fact that there's gonna be rain."

The 2013 calendar year was the driest on record in Santa Rosa, where just 8.68 inches of rain fell, compared with 30.13 inches on average, said Don Schukraft, a consulting meteorologist with the private Western Weather Group, based in Chico. The weather year, which began July 1 and goes through June 30, also is shaping up to be unusually dry, with just 2.43 inches of rainfall to date. That's about 21 percent of normal rainfall, 11.23 inches, he said.

Petaluma, meanwhile, received 5.59 inches from January to December 2013, compared with 24.89 inches normally. Since July 1, 2013, Petaluma has received 2.37 inches, Schukraft said.

The high-pressure system that has kept the area dry is expected to remain in place at least through the weekend. There is a less than 20 percent chance that light showers could fall Wednesday, National Weather Service Hydrologist Mark Strudley said.

"It's going to be mostly dry, consistent with what we've been having," he said. "Even if we do get rain next week, it probably will be pretty light."

And such mild, dry weather is expected to continue at least through mid-January, according to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center.

January typically is the wettest month in Santa Rosa, with an average rainfall of 6.20 inches, Schukraft said. But only 0.13 inches of rain are currently expected in Santa Rosa from now through Jan. 19. He said to expect below-normal rainfall for the rest of the winter and spring.

But Strudley noted that long-range forecasts are poor at predicting atmospheric rivers, which can deliver a huge amount of rain to the Bay Area in a short amount of time. He said it still is possible such a system could move through and bring water to the area.

In the meantime, with water in Lake Sonoma as low as its ever been this time of year at 160,000 acre feet, and water in Lake Mendocino at less than 40 percent of normal levels, the Sonoma County Water Agency is undertaking a first-ever winter water conservation campaign.

The campaign consists of public service announcements that ask people to avoid washing their car and watering the lawn. One announcement shows a dog urinating on an arid lawn. It says, "The official sprinkler of 2014."

"We want to get the message out there that there's a drought on, so the water should be off," Water Agency spokesman Brad Sherwood said. He added, "It's a very odd situation we face."