Local
11:55 am
Thu January 16, 2014

Year’s Dry Start Hurts Ranchers, Farmers

Joe Morris brings part of his herd up a hill in Hollister. Morris owns Morris Grassfed in San Juan Bautista. He says the current drought is the worst he's experienced in more than two decades in business.
Credit Vinnee Tong
Morris Grassfed cows are being herded up to a natural spring.
Credit Vinnee Tong

Many people across California are thinking the same thought lately: If only I could make it rain.

The state just endured its driest year ever, according to the National Weather Service. And rainfall levels this year -- at halfway through our rainiest months -- aren’t much improved. Now the state has created a team to address the drought, with many waiting for Gov. Brown to officially declare it an emergency.

Farmers and ranchers are already feeling the pain.

Rancher Joe Morris in San Jaun Bautista says this drought is the worst he’s seen in decades. The water shortage got so bad in the fall, that he spent weeks trucking tap water to his cows. He says it’s causing no small amount of anxiety.

Heart palpitations at three in the morning are kind of a fairly common experience for ranchers in this situation,” Morris says. He owns Morris Grassfed and sells beef to 900 families throughout the state.  

On a recent clear day -- no rainclouds in sight -- he pulls up at a plot of land in Hollister. 

I’ve been grazing cattle here, taking care of this particular land for about 18 years,” he says.

And today he’s trucked in 120 baby cows from Watsonville where they don’t have enough water.  He’s going to herd them a mile-and–a-half to the top of a grassy hill where they can drink from a natural spring.

Underfoot, as the cows climb the hill, the grass is dry -- some of it so dry that it’s gone white -- and the dirt is so parched that it crumbles and cracks in long crooked lines. Morris and an employee ride horseback as three of his dogs keep the unruly bubble of cows on the right path.

According to the California Cattlemen’s Association, ranchers are on the frontlines when it comes to drought. Less rain means less vegetation and less water in the creeks and streams where cows drink. This is forcing ranchers like Morris to cut their herds.

“You can kind of go out and measure the amount of grass per acre and make a decision, I better reduce my herd by such and such,” he says.

For Morris that meant cutting his herd by 50-percent and the future doesn’t look much brighter.

Jeanine Jones is on a recently created state drought management team.  Reached by phone in Sacramento, she says this year so far is pretty dry, and that’s on top of two already dry years.

So with that kind of setup and the conditions as dry as they are this far through the year, not looking too good, particularly when you consider that on average, half of California’s statewide precipitation occurs in December, January and February,” she says.

After climbing for more than an hour, Morris and his cows reach the top of the hill. And they’re within eyesight of a 4,000-gallon water tank that pumps water from a spring down in the valley.

While his cows drink, Morris says he realizes most people don’t have to think about drought the way he does.

“Drought to a lot of our neighbors is pretty abstract. You turn on the water and it still comes out,” he says. “You go to the bathroom, flush it, take a 20 minute shower, whatever. But this is real. When you have no water and 300, or 240 pairs, it gets real.”

It may have to get real for Morris’s customers, too.  With fewer cows and all this extra work to get them fed, he might need to add a drought surcharge to their bills this year.