Local dairies struggle to feed their cows as pasture feed dries up

By Katherine Minkiewicz-Martine, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, November 8, 2021


Dairyman John Bucher’s cows. Due to drought complications, Bucher’s farm is producing about 5% to 10% less milk than what they normally produce. Photo Katherine Minkiewicz-Martine

How is the drought impacting local dairy farms? For most of Sonoma County, the main issue isn’t with providing cows something to drink, but something to eat.

Due to the exceptional drought in California and dry conditions across much of the west, the food that many farmers rely on for their cattle is dwindling and even alternative food supplies like almond hulls, oat and wheat hay are decreasing as demand outstrips supply.

“It’s almost like gold right now,” said Tawny Tesconi, the executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

Less water means less grass and hay and some local dairymen are having to purchase feed all the way from the midwest in order to feed their herds.

“The feed that is grown across the west coast has been reduced this year just simply by the amount of water, so our farms not only have to pay a bit more for that feed, but they’re having to bring some of it from farther away in order to get sufficient feed for the animals,” said Clover Sonoma President Ken Gott. “That is one of the most significant factors impacting dairies in Sonoma County.”

John Bucher, whose family has run a dairy farm on Westside Road since the 1950s, said the drought “is actually more impactful on organic dairy farming than in conventional dairy farming because we have certain organic rules that we need to abide by. The animals have to get a certain amount of their diet from pasture and we depend on mother nature for our irrigation. And when we don’t have that, it means we have to purchase more feed from outside sources.”

In order to be a certified organic dairy, the cows must eat pasture grass 128 days a year, according to Tesconi.

Bucher’s parents started the dairy farm just outside of Healdsburg in 1958 and in the mid-2000s they converted to organic farming. Bucher’s farm is one of 30 farms in the area that produces milk for the Clover Sonoma brand.

He said when there’s a regional drought it can be difficult to find alternative feed resources.

“Unfortunately, it’s not just California that’s suffering through this drought, it’s actually all of the western U.S. and southwestern U.S.. Some of the grains that we purchase for our organic grains that are sourced in California, those are all lost this year. Our our protein sources for the livestock and our grain sources are in real short supply and it’s driving prices extremely high,” he said.

Bucher said he started noticing shortages and higher prices in April.

“Once April came and went and we didn’t have any additional rain you could see a real shift in feed purchases and what was available,” Bucher said.

He noted that the farm has had to purchase hay all the way from Idaho. His cows typically get a combination of feed, hay, grain and almond hulls.

“There are a lot of byproducts out there that animals can eat, so our main source of feed when we don’t have pasture is just alfalfa and purchased grain hay like an oat or wheat hay and a protein source, which would be either soy beal meal or canola, and the problem is all of those protein sources are in short supply. What’s happening now is, since it is such a vast drought area in all of the western U.S., there’s livestock that used to to be grazing on the hillsides, but just like here the grasses are all dried up and didn’t grow. Anyone that has livestock, and not just cattle, has to purchase more feed,” Bucher said.

He said now it’s the grains and the proteins that are especially escalating in price.

“We’re seeing it across the board and there’s only so much you can substitute and everyone else is doing the same substitution,” he said. Essentially, even the alternative feed sources are in short supply.

Nutrition provided by grass from the pasture is the main source of feed for Clover cows, but when the grass dries up, farmers have to bring in additional nutritional sources.

Alternative feed sources include corn, wheat or barley and byproducts such as almond hulls, rice bran, cottonseed, soybean meal, distiller’s grains and beet pulp. Clover dairies also harvest their grasses when they are growing rapidly in the spring and turn them into silage and hay. The hay and silage can be stored and fed to the cows during other parts of the year.

Bucher said his biggest concern is running out of all types of feed.

“If we get into a third year of dry conditions and if we don’t get enough green grass, then the biggest fear I have is that we’re going to run out of feed …That’s never even crossed my mind before,” he said.“There are businesses that are on the cusp of whether they’re going to survive.”

Bucher said not many of the county’s dairies are located in wine country like his is, but one of the advantages of his dairy location is that they currently have adequate well water resources.

“Our supply is OK right now. We’ve been monitoring our wells, looking at the drawdown and the water tables are definitely lower,” he said.

He said they’ve been monitoring their wells with their pump and well company since February in order to keep an eye on water levels and make sure they have adequate supply.

“Whereas, some of my peers in the dairy business — a lot of the dairies are in Petaluma, west country and Marin County — the further west you get you have better pasture, but you have less reliable water sources,” he said.

In areas such as south west Petaluma and Two Rock where well and spring water is more scarce, farmers are facing not only a feed challenge, but are also facing a water challenge and are having to sell off cows just to have less mouths to feed and water.

“All of our dairymen are facing some sort of water scarcity challenge and it’s causing them to have to sell off cows just to have less mouths to feed and some of them are hauling water and have been for almost a year now,” Tesconi said.

She said the City of Petaluma has worked with Sonoma Water to allow farmers to pay to tap into the water being provided to urban users in the city, yet, a cow drinks about 40 gallons of water a day in the summer. That’s a lot of water that some farmers have to haul in.

Tesconi said some dairymen in the Santa Rosa area are trying to get their wells back in order and add new pumps, but the issue is that well-related work is severely backlogged as others rush to do the same thing.

Tesconi added that the drought will probably impact the bureau’s crop report since less milk will be produced if farmers continue to sell off cows.

“If we see another year of drought and without additional water storage and infrastructure provided in the county I think it really could be detrimental to a few of our dairies,” she said.

Bucher said they’ve had to keep their herd number small this year.

“We have been keeping our numbers relatively low, just keeping the animals that we really need to operate the farm,” he said.

Bucher Farms normally has around 700 cows and 700 replacement heifers as well as 50 bulls, a total of around 1,500 animals. This time around, he said they’re probably down about 10% to 15% of their overall figures.

Bucher said they don’t have extra wiggle room to keep lower- producing animals and animals that don’t have the same rate of gain.

He said the drought is already impacting his production levels.

“With less animals we’re producing less milk. Our numbers have been lower than previous. We’re probably down anywhere from 200 to 300 gallons a day, about 5% to 10%,” Bucher said.


John Bucher says “Hi” to a young calf at his dairy farm on Westside Road just outside of Healdsburg. (Photo Katherine Minkiewicz-Martine)

Saving water and looking at drought solutions

At Clover Sonoma, which sources its milk from 30 farms across Sonoma County, there are various measures its farmers and facility are taking to try to conserve water.

“All of them have different conservation efforts going on, whether that’s a combination of how they farm, to things such as no till farming. A lot of compost applications help retain the moisture in the soil,” said Clover Sonoma President Ken Gott.

Additionally, “Some of the dairies will actually do (water) recycling of some sort and always looking for ways to reuse and minimize the use of water, whether that’s in the application of fertilizer onto the fields, to how they clean their equipment and the internal parts of the facility,” he said.

At Clover’s main facility in Petaluma where the milk is delivered and packaged, Gott said they make the tank cleaning process as efficient as possible in order to save water.

In terms of ways dairy farms can save more water, Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi said creating more water storage options and lining ponds to increase efficiency can be viable options.

Although the cost to do so is “extremely expensive,” she said, “ and so we’re really pushing for more funding from the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture or from the state of California to really help all farmers in our county, not just dairy farmers, stay in business.”

Tesconi said it would be good to find a way to store more water during floods or when more water is coming into the county.

“That would make such a difference I think for all of us. The more we can all push towards either upgrading and improving the reservoirs and ponds that we have already, or building more, I think the better off we are in protecting our ag industry in Sonoma County,” she said.

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org