Drought and high hay prices have forced beef producers in California’s Sacramento Valley to severely cull herds while neighboring hay growers with available water are having a banner year.

So say Josh Davy, University of California Extension livestock, range, and natural resources advisor for Tehama, Colusa, and Glenn counties, and Steve Orloff, University of California Cooperative Extension director in Siskiyou County.

“We rely on rainfall for our forage in the wintertime,” says Davy. “We live in an area range-wise that’s dominated by annual plants, so they germinate in the fall with first rains and grow until May when they dry up and set seed.

“Last year we had an early rain in September and that germination died. Then it didn’t really rain until February or March. We went three-quarters of the year with nothing – absolutely zero feed.”

Normally, cattle are moved to irrigated ground from dryland in summer, but even much of that water is running out, Davey says. “It’s getting scary.”

With no new hay growth expected until this fall and current alfalfa prices at $300/ton, it’s “pretty expensive” to feed beef cows. Culling and destocking started last winter and haven’t stopped, he says.

Ranchers aren’t set up to feed grain, and alfalfa is “usually the cheapest protein supplement when you’re looking at dry feed. The problem is, the price is so high right now. Even oat hay is sitting at $200/ton.

“We’ve been doing quite a few drought meetings, trying to figure out ways to keep folks limping through,” says Davy.

“In the area I’m in,” says Orloff in nearby Siskiyou County, “there are winners and losers. It all depends on your water source.” Some areas rely on surface water “and they’re done (producing forage) for the year.

“A lot are ranchers who have irrigated pastures; it’s going to be a tough year. Some have had to sell cows or find some other place for their cows.”

Hay growers with well water, as long as that water is holding out, are producing crop that sells for record prices. “I have alfalfa growers who have wells, and it looks like the best year ever. The demand is so high and the price is so good. We didn’t have any hay rained on at first cutting as we typically do.”

Beef-quality alfalfa prices are typically in the $230-260/ton range. “In years like this when prices are so high, especially when we have so many cattlemen looking for alfalfa, that really brings up the price for the mediocre or lower-quality hay.”

For resources, ranchers can visit the University of California Extension Livestock and Natural Resources website.