Sonoma County's record winter dry spell was briefly broken with light rain showers Wednesday, but ranchers and farmers remain concerned.

The severe lack of rainfall in the past three months puts agriculture in a very precarious position, said Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

"Even if we get substantial rainfall over the next six weeks, there's still going to be very limited forage and range grasses growing to feed animals in the fall," McCorvey said. "Ranchers will again be forced to purchase additional hay to feed their animals."

Nearly an inch of rain fell in Santa Rosa on Thursday, and more than an inch fell in Cazadero, Guerneville and Sebastopol, according to AccuWeather. Rain showers will linger around the North Coast today, and another fast-moving storm will bring more rain tonight and Saturday, with dry weather set to return Sunday.

Precipitation for January through March in Santa Rosa totalled 3.83 inches -- the least rain for the period in the past 72 years, Press Democrat records show. The average rainfall for those winter months is around 16 inches.

"It's the driest start to the year on record in a lot of areas, even San Francisco, which is significant," said Logan Johnson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "It's certainly concerning that we're starting out so dry."

February numbers put the month as the fourth-driest on record, with 0.40 inches of precipitation, a fraction of the 5.95 inches of rain during an average February, said Johnson.

While sporadic March rain showers managed to sprinkle the county with some water, ranchers and farmers are struggling to feed their herds due to lack of pasture.

"We've experienced virtually three months of drought-like conditions and very cold nights," McCorvey said. "It's cut the feed available for livestock down to 25 percent of normal."

The issue is magnified in part by several years of dry winters, which caused ranchers to reduce or even liquidate their herds, McCorvey said.

Valley Ford rancher Joe Pozzi, who raises sheep and cattle, says he hasn't had to reduce his livestock yet.

"That's not to say it wouldn't happen," said Pozzi, who has worked in ranching most of his life. "There's been widespread shortages in feed throughout the Western U.S."

For ranchers like Pozzi, that means buying expensive hay to feed their livestock to offset the lack of natural forage production, McCorvey said.

"It's a very serious economic dilemma for livestock and dairy farmers," said McCorvey, who noted competition from Japan for alfalfa hay also was driving up feed prices.

Norm Yenni, who owns Sears Point Farming near Sonoma, said hay costs are worrisome.

"The prices are already pretty darn high and they'll probably go up because of the lack of rain," said Yenni, whose grain crops are partially allocated for hay. "It's not good for me and it's not good for the consumers."

The low rainfall has caused the Sonoma County Water Agency to begin monitoring reservoir levels daily, said agency spokesman Brad Sherwood. The agency provides the domestic water supply to 600,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties.

"We haven't received the amount of rainfall that we'd like to see, and our reservoirs are dropping fairly significantly," said Sherwood. "We're mainly concerned with water shortage and levels dropping in Lake Mendocino." The Lake Mendocino reservoir is key to maintaining dry-season flows in the Russian River from just north of Ukiah to Healdsburg.

The weather conditions, however, haven't seriously affected the wine industry, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

"We don't feel that it's a critical issue because the December rain was good," said Kruse. "Recent rains brought our soil profile to normal."

If no significant rainfall hits the county in the next few weeks, the agency will seek advice on water-flow management from the state Water Resources Control Board, said Sherwood.

Pozzi is operating in wait-and-see mode.

"A couple of good rains in the next few weeks will really help," Pozzi said. "If we don't have that, we're in big trouble."

News Researcher Janet Balicki and Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz contributed to this story.

You can reach Staff Writer Melody Karpinski at 521-5205 or melody.karpinski@pressdemocrat.com.