Shadow of a Drought

Lack of water leads to stresses on California farms

Effects of the ongoing drought in California extend beyond shortening our showers and leaving rose bushes thirsty.

“We’re already doing price increases,” says Albert Straus, president of Straus Family Creamery. “I can’t see it coming down yet.” The company, which comprises eight dairies, has already experienced milk and cream shortages this year because of the drought. And Straus’ creamery is not alone.

Rex Williams, owner of Williams Ranch, says he had to sell 100 ewes to ensure there would be enough grass and water for the rest to live through the season. “This is huge,” Williams says. “I’ve heard the old timers tell stories [about the 1976–77 drought], but now I’m experiencing it.”

His flock, which totaled 389 ewes, is down to less than half that number.

California just experienced its third driest winter on record—and its hottest winter on record. Northwest California received just 12.6 inches of rain—3.3 inches less than the 1977 benchmark for the driest year on record.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared the drought an emergency, and the federal government has allowed a variance on grazing requirements for organic beef and dairy products. “Pasture is stunted, growing slower than normal,” says Straus, who started the first organic dairy in the western United States, in 1994. The variance, which loosens a 120-day pasture-grazing requirement, has helped, says Straus, but “it all depends on what happens with the rains going forward.”

The fact that cows aren’t grazing outdoors doesn’t affect the product in a noticeable way, says Straus, but it does increase demand for other feed sources. There is a lack of certified organic hay, which is used to supplement organic cows’ diet. “If you haven’t gotten a contract for hay [already], there’s nothing out there,” says Straus. The lack of hay has resulted in a price increase of about 50 percent, and if current conditions continue, Straus says the shortage could last another two or three years.

Jennifer Bice, owner of Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery, says she hasn’t been too worried about a lack of water; her company makes products with goat’s milk, and goats don’t drink as much as cows. But she is watching the Weather Channel these days for another reason. “Most hay is grown in the Central Valley,” she says. “If they’re even going to get the water to grow the hay, at the very least it’s going to be very expensive.”

Like most farmers, Bice feeds her animals hay to supplement the grasses and other plants consumed on the pasture. She has enough to last a few more months, but “this summer will be the telling tale,” she says. There aren’t many local sources, says Bice, because “when you can grow wine grapes and get $50 a bottle, you don’t want to grow hay.”

Ranches in wetter regions aren’t hit as hard by the drought, but are still feeling the effects. “Because of our location on the coast, we get a lot more precipitation than other places inland,” says Jocelyn Brabyn of Bodega Bay’s Salmon Creek Ranch. Their land is certified organic, but the animals aren’t, owing to technicalities in the certification process, says Brabyn. “The cows have not gone hungry thus far,” says Brabyn, “but we’ve had to get water trucked in for the ducks.” The cost of trucking-in water, she says, has been as high as $700 per month.

One major difference between meat and dairy cows is the amount of water they drink. A dairy cow, which needs more hydration to make more milk, can drink up to 50 gallons of water on a hot day. That means even if there is enough food, without more rain, dairies could face even more strain.

“It’s a lot worse than the ’76–’77 drought,” says Straus, whose farm was started by his father in 1941. Though the eight dairies in the Straus Family Creamery “have reported having enough water, filling ponds and reservoirs for the season to come,” Straus says he’d like to see more conservation statewide. “When I travel to Southern California, I don’t see any conservation there.”

State Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, has introduced a bill that would allow treated human wastewater for use with livestock. But farmers, including Williams and Straus, are skeptical. “The use of tertiary treated human wastewater for livestock is not tested and not approved,” says Straus. Even if it’s passed in the Legislature, he says, “I will not subject my cows and my customers to this potentially harmful method.”