Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 50
Paring down: Drought conditions are forcing the county's cattlemen to sell off their livelihood
BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
A quick glance toward the hills prompts a second look these days. It’s hard to believe that after so many months of all sun and no rain, there’s actually a hint of something other than dead brown on the Central Coast’s gentle slopes.
Ruminate on that.
It actually rained. Green grass is beginning to sprout in soft, spry blades, coloring the ground and tempting the cattle anticipating future cud.
After months of eating dry hay and alfalfa grown in the Central Valley, Santa Barbara County’s cows might actually be able to graze freely again—but not just yet. While the good stuff is beginning to push out of the ground, it’s still too short for cows to get to it, Tim Kooperman, president of the California Cattlemen’s Association, said during a speech at a recent Santa Barbara County Cattlemen’s Association meeting.
“We’re still in a situation where they can see it and smell it, but they can’t eat it yet,” he explained.
That hint of vegetation needs more time to grow, more time to gain all the nutrients that bovines need to be strong, healthy, and—quite frankly, for people who like to eat beef—tasty.
After a very slow start to the rainy season, a few recent soggy days yielded less than an inch of water in Santa Barbara County, and the long-term forecast is predicting a dry future.
At this point, everyone’s aware that a drought has hit California. News stories about what could possibly be the worst drought in the state’s history are making front pages across the nation. California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January, and Santa Barbara County followed suit less than a week later, declaring its own state of emergency.
President Barack Obama visited Fresno on Feb. 14 and unveiled a drought aid package worth $183 million for California ranchers who lost livestock, farmers’ resource conservation efforts, and communities running low on water supplies.
But the drought didn’t start at the beginning of this year; livestock producers have been living with the brunt of dry consequences for much longer, said Brenda Farias, county executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
“Everybody else just started talking drought in January,” Farias said. “We’ve been talking about drought with cattle ranchers for two or three years.”
Farias said this area has gotten some rain, and it’s nice, but it’s not enough; farmers need more rain to keep the new grass growing. To make up for three dry years in a row, ranchers need rain to fall consistently and softly over the coming months—not so hard or so much that it erodes pastures and creeks.
Thinning the herd
An American flag and a large painted metal ball mark the entrance to a long dirt driveway that leads south off Highway 135, west of Los Alamos.
Directly east of the fence that stretches along the dusty drive are dark green swaths of row crops in neatly tilled rows. Across the highway, to the north, are barren grape vines lined out above a carpet of neon-green irrigated ground.
West of that fence line is the Branquinho Ranch: a plot of arenas, pens, and pastures; horses, goats, dogs, and cows; trucks, tractors, and bailed hay; and children and grandchildren. The land is home to a way of life into which John and Brandy Branquinho were born—a lifestyle handed down through both their families for four or five generations.
“There’s no better life,” John said. “Sometimes it’s a 24-hour, ’round the clock work, and it’s a lifestyle we all love.”
Their story starts with grandparents and great grandparents who pioneered ranching in the valleys between Los Olivos and Santa Maria.
Since the family’s livestock legacy began, only one or two other intervals of drought have come close to the one Branquinho Ranch is battling at the moment. But nothing John and Brandy have personally experienced equals what they’re going through right now.
“We’ve had some tough years and fought and struggled through it,” John said. “We’ve never had to completely sell out our herd like we have this year.”
Over the last three years, as the available grazing grass has dwindled, the Branquinhos have steadily shrunk their herd because of feed costs.
At the end of January 2014, the ranch sold off more than 400 cow/calf pairs. In a normal year, calves aren’t sold until they’re weaned; this year, babies were still suckling at moms’ teats. Also, the ranch usually keeps most of the cows and re-breeds them to sustain the herd for the coming year.
Brandy said they probably have 5 to 10 percent of the cows they had three years ago; that’s 200 head of cattle: 100 steers, and 100 heifers. They’re all yearlings.
“If it rains, we’ll keep them; if not we won’t,” John said. “If we don’t get rain by the first of March, we’ll ship ’em.”
Dependent on nature
In the last two storms, John measured only nine-hundredths of an inch at the ranch. He said the grass his cattle graze on needs at least two more inches of rain by March 1, and then it needs a minimum of another two inches for the rest of the year.
If it rains four inches, 200 head of cattle can graze the 10,000 acres of land leased by the Branquinhos. There would be just enough grass to go round until fall.
John said February’s storms brought enough moisture to wet the ground on its surface. Without more rain, as the grass grows, its roots can only push so far into the soil before hitting dry dirt. Once the roots hit dry dirt, that’s it for growth.
Buying feed is a big expense, especially for a ranch that’s always grown enough hay to keep the herd full of chow through the non-grazing season.
“The last two years we haven’t,” John said. “We have to feed.”
The ranch dry farms hay on 300 acres—no irrigation, only rain.
“Which makes it really hard,” Brandy said. “We did work the ground—we got it all ready to plant; we were just waiting for the rain to come, and it hasn’t come yet.”
Most likely, there won’t be hay this year.
The ranch started buying hay in October 2013. Without any rain to propagate grass on leased grazing land, John and Brandy have continued to buy feed since October.
Before they sold out the cow/calf pairs, the Branquinhos invested $1,060 to feed each pair. Cows consume 15 percent of their body weight per day, and hay costs $265 a ton. That cost is expected to go up as state water supplies drop in the Central Valley.
The reason the yearlings have stuck around is because they weigh half as much as a cow/calf pair does, so they cost half as much to feed.
“They’re easier to sustain,” John noted.
But sustenance isn’t the same as nutrients in green grass. Cows don’t gain weight in the same way when they eat dry hay; the recently sold cows weighed less than they would have if they were grazing. Without grass, continuing to feed just isn’t worth the cost. Without rain, the cows have to go, and the Branquinhos will have to start from scratch and slowly build their herd back up.
“We’re in a supply-and-demand world,” John said. “We’ll just sell out what we have left and hope that next year’s better.”
Branquinho Ranch isn’t the only cattle operation with fewer cows than it had last year. It’s par for the range in California.
“Everybody’s cutting back,” John said. “They’ve pretty much hung on the latest they could.”
At the Feb. 12 county Cattlemen Association’s barbecue in Santa Ynez, ranchers were comparing this dry spell to past droughts and saying this year is the worst they’ve experienced.
Of course, there are stories—tall tales, half-truths, and family stories—of a drought in the late 1800s that could be likened to this one.
Swirling around over tri-tip at the Carriage Museum were stories about cows driven off cliffs, fed oak tree limbs, and missing the feed train because when the rain finally did come, a flood swept the tracks out.
Brandy told the Sun that during that drought, her grandmother, Rosa Ortega, was drowning in debt from buying feed to sustain her herd. Ortega was forced to sell her herd and her land in Olisos Canyon.
In 1933, Ortega’s daughter, Caroline Bell—Brandy’s mother—was able to buy the land back.
For today’s livestock producers, the worst rain lapses were 1975 to 1977 and 1987 to 1991. Andy Mills, longtime director of the Santa Barbara County Cattleman’s Association, said the ’70s drought was the worse of the two.
“That was nothing compared to this,” Mills said. “Back in the ’70s, there was water in the stock ponds. Now there’s no water to feed and no water to recharge [the ponds].”
The area has received so little rain that ponds, springs, and creeks are drying up or gone.
Mills runs cattle in the Hollister Ranch area, north of Santa Barbara. He’s sold off his cattle in groups, 20 percent at a time. He said a disaster like this isn’t easy to predict. Although there’s been low rainfall for the last three years, it’s normal to expect some moisture during the rainy season.
“We never imagined that things would be this bad,” Mills said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers crop insurance that costs $250 a year through the Farm Services Agency. The deadline for each following year is Dec. 31. The Farm Service Agency’s Farias said about three-fifths of area ranchers signed up for crop insurance.
It’s meant to help in times when ranches and farms face natural disasters. Crop insurance benefits can be reaped when the Secretary of Agriculture declares a state of emergency. California’s ag secretary declared a drought in 27 of the state’s 58 counties on Jan. 15. Santa Barbara is one of those counties.
“There are a lot of people who thought they didn’t need the insurance and they did,” Mills said. “And our operation is one of those. I wish we had had insurance.”
Crop insurance doesn’t cover everything. Farias said it’s “like your basic car insurance.”
The county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office and the ag secretary work together to come up with an average loss for the whole county. For ranchers, that number is based on weather data and grass. So far in 2014, ranchers’ agencies calculated a 93 percent loss of grazing land.
To qualify, ranchers who have insurance must show a loss of 50 percent or more. Based on the average price of feed, farm services will reimburse up to 55 percent of the money spent to fill the cattle’s bellies.
“It won’t cover all of their losses, but at least it’ll help pay some of their bills,” Farias said.
With the emergency declaration also comes the offer of emergency loans of up to $500,000 to cover losses.
“It is specifically for losses from whatever … disaster was declared,” Farias said. “In this case, it would have to be drought-related losses.”
For ranchers, emergency loans are paid out based on a three-year average of what it costs to feed cattle. Gary Troester, farm loan manager at the agency, said not all ranchers have that kind of data available, especially because cattle are mostly fed through grazing.
Troester said there are a number of non-emergency loans offered through the agency as well, so he can cater loans based on what each rancher needs.
“Depending on the info we can get from them and what they have available, we can usually figure out something that will work for them,” Troester said.
Most of the calls the agency gets are for help with wells, tanks, and troughs—basically water storage. The USDA’s Emergency Conservation Program can help with water needs. Depending on what the project is, the department will cover up to 75 percent of the project. Interested producers have until March 27 to apply.
Farias said that because cattle ranchers have been dealing with the drought for so long, the farm services agency has had a couple of years to develop programs catered toward livestock producers. She added that it’s the same with any disaster. Each sector of the agricultural community is affected differently by natural disasters.
“When it’s a drought, we receive calls from cattle ranchers,” Farias said. “Where there’s excessive rain, we get lots of phone calls from strawberry growers. It really depends on the disasters.”
At the moment, California livestock producers are in the grips of a drought that’s pushing the industry, families, and their livelihood to the brink. For people such as the Branquinhos, it’s just the way things go sometimes.
With 200 cows, business at the ranch is moving forward as usual—just with fewer cattle to sort and keep healthy.
John had major back surgery late last year, and on Feb. 12, he got on a horse for the first time since. He’s comfortable on his mare Maddie, and leaned with his hands folded across the saddle horn in a pen full of yearling steers.
They were separating heifers and steers, with the goal of putting bulls in with the females. Once pregnant, those heifers could start a new generation of Branquinho Ranch cows. And if the ranch is forced to sell, cows are worth more bred than fallow, and prices are at historic highs.
Brandy said that if they have to start over, that’s just the way it is. In the meantime, they’ll hang on to what they have and pull together as a family.
“It’s our way of life,” Brandy said.
Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at firstname.lastname@example.org.