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The fat of the land? 

Low rainfall makes thin pastures and thinner cattle

Restless hooves churned up clouds of dust in the corrals outside the Templeton Livestock Market as agitated cattle noisily waited their turn to enter the auction ring.

click to enlarge HUNGRY HERDS :  With local ranchland already starting to dry up, ranchers are selling off their cattle. These bulls grab a bite before heading into the auction ring at the Templeton Livestock Market. - PHOTO BY KATHY JOHNSTON
  • PHOTO BY KATHY JOHNSTON
  • HUNGRY HERDS : With local ranchland already starting to dry up, ranchers are selling off their cattle. These bulls grab a bite before heading into the auction ring at the Templeton Livestock Market.

# Inside, the clang of metal gates and a forceful "Hee-yah!" signaled the arrival of another herd, the focus of the auctioneer's singsong patter and the beef-buyers' bids.

There's been more action than usual at the weekly cattle sale local ranchers are busy rounding up their herds from dried-out pastures that haven't seen enough rain.

"You either sell them, or you sit back and watch them turn their toes up and starve. I'd rather get rid of them than have them die," said cattleman John Arnold, whose Pozo ranch has had just seven inches of rain so far this season a third of the normal amount, and far less than last year's 38 inches.

In Shandon and other eastern areas of SLO County, where only two or three inches of rain have fallen, the browning ranchland already looks more like it does in June than in March. New calves can't find enough to eat to fatten up, while cows and bulls are growing thinner.

It's a scene echoing across the United States, as ranchers in many areas are sending their cattle to market at lighter weights than they did a year ago, according to a USDA report released in mid-March.

"Cattle are coming to town early. A lot of people are selling, and a lot have already sold," said Jo Ann Switzer, the secretary-treasurer of the SLO County Cattlemen's Association.

"It's hard to see people selling so early. They get quite a bit less," she added.

Inside the red corrugated metal building at the Templeton Livestock Market, a buyer in the bleachers poked the pungent air with his index finger, signaling his bid on a group of black Angus cattle with their ribs showing. He'll take the animals out of California to fatten them up in feedlots or graze them on lusher pastures elsewhere, such as harvested wheat fields in the Midwest.

Switzer, whose role is to check in the cattle at the market in the "receiving" chutes, said some were in good condition, but some were "hurting for feed."

As another group was ushered into the ring, three buyers in white cowboy hats leaned up on the rail, focusing on the milling animals kicking up sawdust while the auctioneer gauged their interest.

"Those guys on the rail we call them 'rail birds' know how those cattle are going to dress," observed Pat Gallagher, a longhorn owner who comes to watch the sale every week. "They can tell the condition of their bones, whether they're soft or hard. They want ones carrying a lot more flesh. Those are good bulls, nice and fat, not like that last skinny one."

The price for the big bulls weighing nearly a ton apiece was set at 58 cents a pound, a contrast to the 44 cents the "skinny one" brought. One of the beef buyers pulled a yellow card out of the hip pocket of his Wranglers and noted his purchase, one booted foot resting on a low rail.

Many of the animals are destined to become hamburger, "because there are lots of places that sell hamburgers, and not so many that sell steak," Gallagher said.

Cattlemen sometimes refer to the big animals as "baloney bulls," according to Arnold, because their coarse meat can take as much as 10 percent added water.

So far, the market for SLO County cattle has been "pretty good," Arnold said. He's hoping his cow-calf pairs might fetch $1,000.

"They're all cute this year, with real nice eyes," he noted with a trace of sadness.

"A lot of the pasture has already turned brown, but if we get 20-, 30-, 40-100ths of rain, that'll get us by another week," he added.

The high price of feed also has cattlemen worried. They're anticipating that the price of hay will "skyrocket," Switzer said. Corn is expensive, too, with much of the grain going to produce ethanol fuel rather than cattle feed, Gallagher said.

"We are survivors," Switzer summed up. "We'll make it one way or the other."

As Arnold noted, "You survive by day to day, hopeful. You just keep looking skyward, till you get a crook in your neck."

Freelance journalist Kathy Johnston may be reached at kjohnston@newtimesslo.com.

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