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Dry season is unwelcome news to ranchers

by Linda Hiller, staff writer

In spite of a few recent thunderstorms, State Climatologist John James said the Western Nevada water year has been dry, with 15 straight months of above average temperatures accompanied by below normal precipitation.

“Since the water year ends in September, unless we get a big storm this month, we’ll wind up the year with precipitation numbers below normal,” James said. “Most areas had no precipitation in July and August, with the greatest recorded rainfall around one-third of an inch at Jarbidge.”

James said the precipitation totals are low all over the Sierra – Mount Rose bowl, 85 percent; Glenbrook, 90 percent; Marlette Lake, 81 percent; Carson River, Twin Lakes, 85 percent; and Carson River, Ebbets Pass, 83 percent. The below-average year doesn’t necessarily mean a drought is here or on the way, he cautioned.

“This ends a six-year-long wet period that followed the seven-year drought of the 1980s and 1990s,” James said. “Almost all the mountain locations are below normal, but I would never say we are headed for drought.”

James also said evaporation was above normal statewide.

n Various factors. Carson Valley Watermaster Julian Larrouy said a combination of factors have contributed to the dryness in the area.

“It’s been an extremely dry summer,” he said. “We haven’t had the afternoon thunderstorms, which usually occur in June, July and August, and the winds have also been a bad factor. We had to cut back farmers on irrigation water if they were low on the list – I think the third crop of alfalfa is certainly going to be a short one this year.”

Alfalfa is grown from a perennial plant that generally yields three cuttings throughout the summer. Valley ranchers count on the crop to feed their own livestock. When the yield is low, ranchers are forced to purchase feed from outside sources.

n Ranchers adapt. Chris Hellwinkel, a third generation dairy farmer, said water was scarce a few weeks earlier than usual this July, forcing him to abandon his home ranch fields and pastures off Centerville Road for leased land with a better water supply.

“We saved our storage water across the way on 100 acres we lease from the Stodiecks, and we just finished cutting that today,” he said Tuesday.

Hellwinkel said he will be forced to buy more stock hay for his herd of 270 Holsteins, 150 of which are on the milking line. The extra feed will run around $30 to $40 per day, he said, and like other area ranchers, he will be tightening the belt a bit to get through it.

“It’s nothing like we haven’t seen before,” he said. “Last year was a very good year, and out of those back-to-back wet years, our crops came in good and strong.”

Hellwinkel said the new concern will be to look at his alfalfa fields to see if they will survive the harsh summer to grow again next year.

“We don’t know what were gonna lose, and we may eventually have to turn some fields under,” he said.

Arnold Settelmeyer, who grows alfalfa for use on his family’s cattle ranches in the middle and at the south end of the Valley, said freezing weather for the past three nights has shriveled his third southern crop a bit, causing him to cut this week.

“And, we didn’t have all the water we wanted this year – I’m cutting now,” he said by cellular phone in the field Tuesday. “We don’t know yet if we’ll have to buy extra this year. We’ll be bringing the range cattle home a month early this year because of the lack of water. It hits us from several areas, but we just live with it in Nevada. We’re not so bad off as open range guys who are totally dependent on rainfall.”

Settelmeyer said the Carson River is usually considered a good provider to Valley ranchers.

“The Carson River has been pretty good, but we’re probably 80 percent of what we usually have,” he said. “It woke us up again and made us realize that we live in a desert.”

n It’s good and bad. University of Nevada, Reno Cooperative Extension Educator Steve Lewis said he hasn’t yet had any panicked phone calls from area ranchers.

“Most of our hay crop usually goes to the local, domestic market – feed stores, other farms, their own herds, etc.,” he said. “Other parts of the state are more dependent on hay sales for their economy, but here we don’t have that focus.”

Lewis said extreme environmental fluctuations – temperature highs and lows, water shortages and overages – have a stimulating effect on the nutritional quality of the alfalfa plant.

“Generally, the first and third crop of hay are the best quality,” he said. “What happens is that when you have a real contrast between the high and low temperatures, it puts more of a stress on the plant and it pulls on its root reserves. That’s why Nevada has higher quality hay than other areas without the extremes.”

But the tightrope hay growers have to walk is the fact that extremes may yield higher quality hay, but less of it, he said.

Lewis also said the hay that is cut after a freeze can have a drop in nutritional value, giving it the name of “beef hay,” meaning it is just for mostly fiber, not for pregnant or lactating cows or young heifers.

n It’s been worse. In his July 2000 Nevada Climate Summary, James included a state report from July 1931:

“Drought conditions continue severe. In a few places a second crop of alfalfa was harvested, but on many projects the water on hand did not serve to mature a second crop. Much grain was cut for fodder. Gardens and the potato crop were largely destroyed. Streams and springs failed and ranges deteriorated. Near the close of the month many ranchers were buying feed for their stock or preparing to ship them to pastures out of the state.”