US - California’s devastating four year drought is due to come to a long awaited end, ranchers heard at the Cattle Industry Convention this week.
This is welcome news to the state's beef industry, which has reduced its cow herd by 40 per cent.
Rain is expected this weekend, and further ahead, pressure systems are going to allow moisture in, with Texas and the South West region in general expecting relief by May.
This is according to Cattlefax which says a major change in Pacific Ocean temperature will return systems back to where they were in the mid 1990’s.
“Sea temperatures are about to change from the current cycle,” said Dr Art Douglas, long range forecaster for Cattlefax. “The Pacific got cold in 1998 but now we have finally seen this reverse and are back in the climate regime seen in 1976 to 1997.”
His message to the Cattlefax Outlook audience was California will get rain and the Mid West will be cooler and drier.
Cattlemen hope precipitation will end a “ripple effect” which has seen ranches and packing plants shrink or sell-up. A year ago a National Beef Packing Company plant closure devastated a southern California community, cutting 1300 jobs.
However, Dr Douglas remained tentative about the wider implications for temperature, admitting that a “fickle” El Nino system had left the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “a bit confused”.
US Department of Agriculture charts show 40 per cent of California in “exceptional drought” to start the year after one of the driest Januarys in history.
Last year the state fire department was called out to 1000 more wildfires than the five year average and many major reservoirs are below half capacity, one is at six per cent.
California Rancher Kevin Kester said that, after seeing many neighbours struggle, California’s ranchers are “more than ready” for rain.
"We’ve had to halve our cow herd over the past three years"
He operates a commercial cow-calf and stocker ranch in central western California, the area hardest hit by the drought.
“This drought has been devastating for a number of cattle ranchers,” Mr Kester told TheCattleSite.
“We’ve had to halve our own cow herd over the past three years, purely due to drought."
The state's herd reduction has largely been in the form of higher slaughtering rates and relocating cattle out of state to more reliable precipitation, he added.
Pasture deterioration has meant a costly feed bill, said Mr Kester, made worse by competing over forage with the country’s leading dairy herd. Prior to the drought, California produced more than 20 per cent of US milk from its almost 1.8 million strong herd.
Mr Kester’s last alfalfa hay purchase cost $240 per ton delivered. The furthest he has had to look for alfalfa hay has been Idaho, around 1100 miles away.
But he admits supplementing cattle this way is not viable for long.
“In California on non-irrigated grazing ground, feeding supplemental energy and protein is economically unsustainable for longer periods of time.
“Most of the time cows are out grazing and that is what sustains them. If there’s no grazing, the cost of feed is so expensive in the US, California in particular.”
Meanwhile, precipitation is already moving into California. US newscasters are talking about a “Pineapple Express”, a plume of rain coming from Hawaii expected to batter the coast this weekend.
Mr Kester concluded that, despite the challenging times, his offspring are still enthusiastic about ranching and eager to continue what is currently a fifth generation business going back to 1860.
They will look to retain heifers and rebuild their herd when rain comes.
Oceanic temperatures on America’s East Coast are also due for a change, although Dr Douglas sees this taking "a year or two”.
For the West Coast, Dr Douglas commented: “The next few weeks will help the extreme drought conditions, as will the next three to four months.”
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