Farming in Drought: Grass-fed meat producers struggle to grow grass
Rachel de Rosa surveys her ewes, which are grazing a piece of irrigated pasture. Even in drought, the farm must irrigate and grow some grass in order to keep their sheep healthy. The sprinklers also help keep the sheep cool. Lisa Leonard opens the gate to her sheep pasture in the heart of the Capay Valley and walks a few paces inside. In the distance, the hills flanking this narrow Yolo County valley rise up, covered in patches of green forest -- stark contrast to the dry, yellowed fields and browning oak trees on the valley floor. Behind us, the rest of Winddancer Ranch is dotted with a dozen Spanish turkeys and a collection of rusty-but-working farm equipment; the plott hound keeping watch has kicked up a cloud of dust. As we move forward into the field, some 400 Navajo-Churro ewes flock together.
Lisa and her partner, Jim, came here 10 years ago from the Bay Area to raise rare, heritage breeds of meat animals on grass rather than commercial feed-lots -- Lisa’s only alternative to becoming vegetarian, she said. This year, she’s harvested more lambs than usual, culling her herd because there’s not enough grass to support them. Selling more meat any other year would mean increased profit for her farm. This year, despite her efforts to grow enough grass, she had to buy two tractor-trailers of hay to feed the animals. “It wiped out any revenue we could possibly make,” she said. This year, they won’t even break even.
In mid-July, the University of California, Davis, published an economic analysis of the 2014 drought. It summarizes farm revenue and job loss estimates, tallies the number of unused (fallowed) acres, and recommends lawmakers work to improve groundwater management across the state to preserve California’s primary source of water during drought years. Looking at direct losses in crop, livestock, and dairy revenue along with the additional costs of pumping water, the report estimates a total economic loss of $2.2 billion in 2014 due to drought. And this number may be low: some farmers have criticized the report, suggesting it may not take full account of the indirect losses caused by lower crop production.
Lisa Leonard keeps only rare and heritage breeds of animals, including Navajo-Churro sheep, which she raises for wool, milk (cheese), and meat. At Winddancer Ranch and other small, grass-fed meat operations, the direct losses are enough to worry about, and are shaping the way these farms are managed. Lisa let a valuable alfalfa field go dormant in favor of irrigating Sudan grass: this grass is not as good a feed as alfalfa, but it takes less water. “Hopefully, hopefully, hopefully the alfalfa will come back with the [winter] rain,” she said. Replanting alfalfa would be a major investment. Until it does rain, all Lisa can do is be careful, keep an eye on how much groundwater is in her well, and try to be as efficient as possible in using it. Any time she uses water, she said, it serves two or three purposes: when she irrigates her fruit trees, for example, she grazes rabbits on the grasses that grow in between.
This year more than ever, she said, “we’re acutely aware of the balancing act of using that resource effectively.” Just down the road, Casa Rosa Farm knows this balancing act well. Rachel de Rosa and her partner, Anthony, moved to the Capay Valley from Madera County less than two years ago, in part because larger operations surrounding their original farm were sucking the groundwater dry. Here, Rachel said, with no big ag wells nearby, they’re lucky to manage their own aquifer.
In response to the drought, the de Rosas opted against planting summer crops this year, skipped a planned alfalfa planting in their olive orchard, are irrigating about half of their available sheep pasture, and feel lucky to have a family connection with hay to help feed their 100% grass-fed California Red Sheep and a small herd of Limousin cattle. Rachel stresses that she considers Casa Rosa to be a farm rather than a ranch: they raise crops, like grass, and feed them to the animals. In a year with about one tenth of the normal rainfall, when grass is difficult and resource-intensive to farm, feeding the animals is difficult too. Like Lisa, Rachel has had to cull her sheep herd -- she’d been aiming to increase her 2013 flock of 75 ewes to 100.
Instead, she cut back to about 50 to reduce stress on the pasture. Earlier this year, Winddancer Ranch and Casa Rosa Farm joined forces with two other Capay Valley grass-fed meat producers to reduce stress on themselves and their families -- forming the Capay Valley Meat Co-op had little to do with the drought, but may help each farm get through hard times in other ways: the four women farm-owners take turns selling at farmers’ markets so each can maintain their own market income without sacrificing every Saturday or having to drive hundreds of miles each week.
Alexis Robertson shows off the newest addition to Skyelark Ranch: a "trailer park" of chicken coops to house their laying hens, which have free range of the farm all day. Alexis Robertson of four-year-old Skyelark Ranch, a third member of the co-op, said the Capay Valley community, including the co-op and their neighbors, has been a valuable resource as she and her partner, Gillis, continue learning how to farm their chickens, hogs, and sheep.
Alexis joked that she and Gillis offered “lawn mowing” services to their neighbors, and were able to graze their sheep on neighbors’ fields and orchards when their own pasture wasn’t enough. Facing one of California’s worst droughts just four years into their farming career “made the growth curve even steeper,” Alexis said, but added that she feels somewhat insulated from the impact she’s heard about around the state. “We’re small, we’re not at our carrying capacity, so we maybe have a little flexibility,” she said.
While the drought has delayed her plans to grow the farm, she expects Skyelark will get through it alright. She also hopes that it bodes well for her future in farming: “We’ve only been farming four years, so every year has been below normal water levels,” she said. “Imagine how we’ll do in a normal year!”