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Planning for drought still important, experts say

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Though nearly half of California has recovered from a four-year drought, it’s still important for ranchers to plan their irrigation and feeding strategies for when the next water shortage occurs, experts advise.

RED BLUFF, Calif. — Though 2016-17 turned out to be a wet winter, university and industry experts urge ranchers to continue to plan for drought in how they manage their pastures and feed.

Knowing when to water and which animals to give the highest-quality supplemental feed could help cow-calf operations through the next drought, University of California Cooperative Extension advisers say.

Such measures may include irrigating pasture with limited water in the spring, when the crop demand is greater, rather than the fall, said Larry Forero, a UCCE adviser based in Redding.

“People usually irrigate based on a schedule,” Forero told producers during a California Cattlemen’s Association-sponsored forum Jan. 27 at the Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale. “They’re not necessarily irrigating based on demand.”

Research that Forero has been conducting since the 1990s has shown that rangelands’ peak water demand is in the summer, when the days are warmer and longer, but that they can get by with less water in September and October than ranchers often apply, he said.

He noted that when one local water district faced a 25 percent reduction at the height of the drought in 2014, it decided to forgo October irrigation that year and send the water in April and May instead.

As for grazing ground, Forero advises producers not to deficit irrigate.

“If water gets short, reduce the amount of land you’re irrigating and irrigate what you have well,” he said, adding that producers should leave about 5 inches of stubble after grazing so the grass will survive.

For producers using supplemental feed, early weaning of calves leads to significant savings in hay and other feed, said Josh Davy, a UCCE livestock adviser in Red Bluff.

Cows that have had their calves weaned early can be shifted to more marginal grazing ground or feeds, while high-quality pasture or high-energy and -protein feeds can go directly to the calf, researchers advise.

The goal is to maintain cow condition to make sure they get back to calving right away. A study by Davy and others found that “strategic feeding” achieved nearly as high a pregnancy rate as giving high-quality hay to the whole herd, he said.

So ranchers can focus on providing the more expensive, higher-quality feed to younger cows that naturally have more difficulty in keeping weight on, Davy said.

“Those thinner cows are really, really important to get weight on,” he said.

The forum, which also covered the benefits of rotational grazing, came as drought conditions have retreated from nearly half of California after January’s storms.

The U.S. Drought Monitor reported Jan. 26 that moderate, severe or extreme drought continues in much of Central and Southern California, but areas north of Sacramento have recovered from drought.

However, even in areas that are free from drought, it’s important for producers to plan for the next one, said Justin Oldfield, the CCA’s vice president of government affairs.

“It’s still important information to share,” he said.

The forum was one of several the CCA has planned around California as a result of a USDA grant, Oldfield said.

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