Ranchers wrangle with the weather

The sun sets on a field in the San Juan valley.

Cold temperatures a plus for stone fruit
Cold temperatures a plus for stone fruit

The cold, dry weather that has dominated the fall and early winter in San Benito County is a mixed bag for local agriculture.

Rainfall has come in under 2 inches for the season, down from 4.05 inches in 2010 at this same time.

“The cattle industry is being hurt,” said Ron Ross, the San Benito County agriculture commissioner. “Normally at this time of year there would be a good grass growth in the hills to feed the cattle. While we had a fairly good start earlier this year, the lack of rain has caused the grass to stop growing.”

The rain season runs from July to June, with most of the rain in San Benito County coming after the new year, but the rain so far this season is below the average up to this time.

One local cattle rancher, Joe Morris, of Morris Grassfed Beef, said that his ranch has not had to supplement grass yet largely due to a heavy rain season last year that created a lot of grass growth last year.

“This is way down in terms of rainfall, but there is rarely much growth of new, green grass at this time of year,” Morris said. “We plan for it to be a shortage so we haven’t had to bring in any (supplemental feed.)”

Ross said that some ranchers are bringing in purchased hay to supplement the rangeland, and some have had to bring in water to restock the ponds and springs that ranchers use to water the cattle in the mountains.

“They are keeping their fingers crossed that the rains will happen soon and the grass will be able to feed the cattle,” Ross said.

He said that farmers who grow dry land hay, which relies on rain water instead of irrigation, may also be feeling the effects of the weather.

“Without grass, you get no grassfed beef,” Morris said. “It will be a big problem for county ranchers. They (the rains) are very slow so it’s wait and see – and do a rain dance.”

Ross said the drier weather will likely not be a problem for row crops in the spring and summer.

“Right now the groundwater and surface water situation is better than it has been,” Ross said. “So it probably won’t impact the row crops.”

Though the weather has warmed the last week during the day, the cold snap in December that brought temperatures down into the 30s and 20s overnight has been helpful for stone fruits.

“The lack of rainfall and the cold weather has helped stone fruit growers – apricots and cherries,” Ross said. “For those types of fruit crops the weather has to be cold so they become dormant and rest. We’ve had good chilling weather for them.”

Both Ross and Morris said the cattle industry will be hurt if rain isn’t on its way soon.

“The cattle industry is probably the most likely to get hurt with this situation if it continues,” Ross said.

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