Hard choices: With drought, large animals harder to sustain
With water under ration, wells running dry and fields so parched even weeds have trouble growing, many who keep large farm animals in Sonoma County are facing excruciating, desperate choices.
“You haven’t known pain until you’ve seen an 84-year-old farmer crying about his cows and his land growing dry,” said Erica Gregory, founder and director of Flat Broke Farm Animal Rescue in Cotati, one of the county’s oldest animal rescues.
Tales of tough decisions are mounting as summer enters its hottest, driest phase. Hoping to save the livestock he couldn’t afford to feed and water, one Sonoma County farmer recently took the desperate measure of cutting another landowner’s fence, putting four cows inside to graze, and closing the fence.
“We heard about the cows being placed at somebody’s pasture,” said Jennie Stevens, whose family owns the Rivera Farm in Sebastopol, which has about 40 animals. “The owners were located — the cows still had their ear tags on.”
Neither farmer wanted to be identified or to answer questions, Stevens said.
“It’s very early in the year to have such dry land. We are paying 10% to 15% more per hay bale right now, and it’s expected to go much higher,” she said. “It’s really difficult for farmers used to having a certain amount of natural grass to feed their livestock.”
It has always been hard for some people in rural Sonoma County to hang on to large animals like horses, goats and even cows for financial and other reasons.
But with this year’s unprecedented drought, calls to rescues and sanctuaries that specialize in such animals have substantially increased. Small farmers and large ranchers alike also are having to cull more of their herds earlier. Green pastureland for grazing is drying up sooner, and the cost of hay has risen so much that some can’t afford to stockpile hay for the winter the way they normally do this time of year.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, Gregory said.
“Dumping” of large animals has been a consistent problem in rural areas here for years, she said, but it’s gotten worse with the most recent drought, as it does with every emergency situation such as fires and floods.
“They sneak them into a neighbor’s field or onto a country road,” Gregory said. “They are hoping someone else can take them on. We have thousands of animals dumped here (in the county) every year.”
She estimates that so far this year, Flat Broke Farm has personally found and taken in 120 to 125 abandoned large animals. Some, she said, could have wandered off in search of water unbeknownst to their owners.
It’s an excruciating choice for animal owners, Gregory said.
But with Sonoma County in a state-declared drought emergency as a result of scant rainfall this year, primary water sources are drying up. Several cities are requiring 20% to 40% mandatory reductions for water users.
Hay is more expensive because there is less of it: Where hay growers might have had three cuttings in a normal rainfall year, this year they may have gotten only one.
With wells and springs running dry, people with pet farm animals are calling Gregory, saying they’re “willing to sacrifice their ‘children’” by surrendering them, she said. Some have to choose between selling their animals or their farms.
Kate Sullivan, owner and founder of Sonoma Action For Equine Rescue, or SAFER, has run a feed-assistance program for horses for 13 years. She coordinates fostering of horses and other large animals that owners need to rehome in three different counties. For example, she said at the moment she has a rescued mustang, a gelding and “a little mare that needs a home.” These are “companion horses” that can’t be ridden.
“It’s pretty dire,” Sullivan said. “You can’t be judgmental. If you don’t have water, you don’t have a lot of choices.”
The program operates through feed stores where customers can donate at the point of purchase to SAFER, and those in need can pick up bales of hay.
One resource for animal owners dried up last year starting with the outbreak of the pandemic, Sullivan said. Many large animal auctions in Northern California have closed.
Without a place to sell their animals, people are stuck. Large animal euthanasia “costs a fortune,” she said — about $275 for a veterinarian’s house call and another $250 to pick up the animal and take it to a rendering plant. There isn’t one in Sonoma County, and that adds to the costs.
“If they can’t afford to feed it, they can’t afford to euthanize it,” Sullivan said.
Betsy Bueno, a retired police officer who operates Lost Hearts and Souls Horse Rescue in Santa Rosa, said the need to place large animals began in earnest with the wildfires of 2017 when people lost their property. Then people lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it’s the drought and fire season, she said.