California had the ideal climate for raising cattle, with mild winters and lush green pastures that were perfect for fattening cattle and getting them in prime condition for market. For years, ranchers in the east brought their cattle to California to fatten them up. Those days are gone forever, just as the old-west cattle drives
The lush green pastures of yesteryear have been replaced with acres of stunted, dry brown tufts of grass. The creeks and streams that once fed the land are now nothing more than dry rocky indentations cutting through the parched earth.
Today, a reversal of sorts is taking place in California. Cattle ranchers, intent on saving their livelihood and their herds are loading their heifers and steers onto trucks for the long drive to Nevada, Texas, Nebraska and other states with feedlots to take them. "If there's no water and no feed, you move the cows," said Gaylord Wright, 65, owner of California Fats and Feeders Inc. "You move them or they die."
Even though there is no exact headcount on the number of cattle that have been moved to greener pastures, Reuters did a review of state agricultural records
and found that at least 100,000 cattle have been shipped out of the state in the past four months. Jack Cowley, a rancher and past president of the California Beef Cattle Improvement Association, said California has shipped cattle out-of-state before, but this year's migration is much bigger than any before.
Ranchers usually hold back breeding stock which give birth to calves and keep operations going year after year. This time around, many more of the mature cows and heifers are also being moved. Cowley expressed the fear that this move could do irreparable damage to the nation's 18th largest cattle herd. Area auctioneers and cattle ranchers say California will have difficulty rebuilding their lost herds.
Cowley, who says most people spend a lifetime building a herd to the way they want it, had to sell 18 percent, or 200 of his breeding herd to a place in Nevada because he didn't have enough water. Now, he says he will have to sell another 200 of his herd.
Industry analysts are saying that with beef prices and transportation costs already rising, there is uncertainty over where and how many future cattle will be raised and processed. The national herd size is already at a 63-year low because high grain prices and several years of drought have forced ranchers to send animals to slaughter earlier as well as reduce the size of their herds.
There have been some signs of change in all this. Some producers are holding back breeding heifers and female calves from the slaughter houses in areas where the drought has let up, or where some ranchers are betting on the weather improving. But even with doing this, they are still buying California cattle.
One change that has gotten little publicity is the consolidation of feedlots
and slaughterhouses by the beef industry. This has given rise to an ever-increasingly mobile livestock herd. Ranchers must now ship their cattle farther distances than they did in the past to reach feedlots. All this added cost in transportation goes into the end product cost to the consumer.
The National Beef Packing Company plant in Brawley, California is the last major slaughterhouse near the California-Mexico border. It plans to close May 23 because of the drop in the number of cattle being processed. Feedlots in the area are closing for the same reason, lack of livestock, and the company couldn't be assured of a steady supply of cattle. The plant has the capacity to process 1,900 head of cattle a day, or about two percent of the national herd.
Most of California's cattle are being shipped to Texas, 47,400 at last count. Nebraska, the home of more feedlots than any other state, has taken in 14,000 cattle so far this year. Last year during the same period, Nebraska took in 542 California cattle. “Some of our California cows are going to be Texans. There’s no way around it,” said cow-calf producer Tim Koopman, president of the California Cattlemen’s Association.
Curt Covington, senior vice-president for the Ag and Rural Banking Division at Bank of the West summed up the situation pretty well when he said, "Unless you see Noah come out to California with a boat, you're not going to see these cattle come back here anytime soon."