Drought losses increase in Sonoma County’s agricultural sector
In the rural “dairy belt” of southwestern Sonoma County, where winter rains typically turn the landscape into a blanket of brilliant green, struggling dairy farmers have turned to trucking water to dry land in early spring just to water their cows – their storage ponds are running out even though the ranges have browned earlier than usual.
The Two Rock area west of Petaluma, where many of the county’s more than 60 dairies are concentrated, has fewer deep water wells due to its geomorphology, so several farmers have acquired water tankers there. or trucker time and bought water from the city during their cows in what some fear will be a temporary fix as household water conservation kicks in.
But even those with a water supply, like Healdsburg-area dairy farmer John Bucher, are under pressure to support their livestock.
On arid land pastures and unirrigated rangelands, there was less grass for the animals to eat, and it grew for a shorter period of time. Herders have also had less water to irrigate pastures and fields where they grow fodder, including hay that may be cut three or even four times per season in a normal year.
Bucher, whose family owns vineyards and 360 acres of dairy land on Westside Road near the Russian River, thinks he can manage to keep his cows watered with what he can get from two underground water wells.
But concerns about feeding his dairy cows and young animals have already prompted him to reduce the herd by around 10%, starting in February and March.
“We were just trying to stay ahead…just trying to navigate through this dry spring,” said Bucher, who still has about 1,300 head, including 650 producing cows. “There was just no extra grass.”
The feed issue is particularly difficult for the county’s many certified organic dairies, where cows over 6 months old must spend at least 120 days on pasture, he and others said. But there will be fierce competition from conventional and organic breeders for any feed they can find this year, given the scope of the drought and the scale of its impact on supply.
Finding livestock feed
Much of the western United States is already experiencing severe drought, including areas that typically supply California with hay and other livestock feed – the Central Valley, the Klamath River Basin and the Nevada.
Dairyman Doug Berreta said some brokers are already saying they may have to look to Utah and Idaho for hay.
“They’re going to have to go further,” he said. “Hopefully we don’t have to haul it over the Rocky Mountains. If we have to, I just don’t know how we’re going to afford it.
At the Beretta Family Dairy in west Santa Rosa, cows typically graze “until October,” thanks to a reliable supply of sewage collected from the city, the third-generation dairyman said.
By the time the city fulfilled its delivery contracts to the Geysers power-producing steam fields, it did not have enough recycled wastewater to supply what it usually does to about 60 agricultural users who usually irrigate with municipal supplies each year.
Beretta’s allocation, reduced by 30% last year, was further reduced by 30 to 40% this year, he said. That means there has been little water to irrigate about 200 acres of hay and silage typically put in place for the winter to feed about 300 dairy cows and 450 to 500 young animals at the ranch right now, a he declared.
“It’s a huge success for us,” he said.
The family managed to harvest food in April, about 25% less than last year, but he has already sold about 20 dairy cows and another 20 pregnant heifers are leaving for Washington State this week. He says he’ll incur tens of thousands of dollars in extra costs to feed the cows he ends up with – and he’s worried there won’t be enough food to buy.
Herds at auction
Jim Mickelson, whose family raises Hereford seed stocks near Bodega and Valley Ford, said he expects to sell “about 150 heads by the time we’re done.”
Mickelson’s daughter, Jamie, raises beef for farmers’ markets, restaurants and direct-to-consumer sales, and between them they have about 600 head, he said.
In addition to livestock, he works in the pump and well business and dug a new well a few months ago, which could give him enough water to get through the year.
But the skyrocketing cost of feeding them this year, along with reduced demand for bulls, “doesn’t make economic sense,” he said.
Many cows have names and personalities, and it’s painful to let them go, he says, but the ranch will probably have 20% or 25% fewer heads by the end of the year.
“It’s been a tough year,” Mickelson said. “But what’s really going to be difficult is if it doesn’t rain this fall. If it doesn’t rain this fall, it will be a disaster.
Stretch the meager supplies
Outside of Petaluma, sustainable agriculture pioneer Bob Cannard was gloomy about the prospects for Green String Farm, the farming operation he’s maintained for decades on the outskirts of town.
With so little rainwater stored this year, he and his partner have only planted what can be watered from a well usually used to wash produce from the farm stand open five days a week.
“If this little well dries up, it will be over,” he said.
He has some overwintered garlic that will soon be gone and spinach from a small farm in Sonoma as well.
But the majority of the main farm is unplanted, and Cannard worries about the state of the region as a whole and what he sees as an ongoing transition from fertile floodplain to desert.
As for Green String Farm, “this is very serious business,” he said. “I hope I don’t have to close.”
You can reach editor Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or [email protected] On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.