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Stories from the Heartland: Cattle rancher adjusts to “worst” drought in memory

Feb 17, 2015 11:23PM ● Published by Cen Cali Life Magazine

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Stories from the Heartland

Cattle rancher adjusts to “worst” drought in memory

by Mike Scott

“We need more rain, and lots of it!”

Eight simple words from cattle rancher Mike Preston, who’s thankful for the recent rains that have drenched the Central Valley but knows much more is needed.

Preston’s great-grandfather started raising cattle in Central California in the late 1800s. At one point, the sprawling “Preston Ranch” covered 5,000 acres.

But after serious droughts – first in the early 1900s, then the mid-1970s, and now in the early part of the 21st century (“The worst I’ve seen,” says Preston) – the family’s property and herd of Angus/Brangus cattle is smaller than ever. Preston and his brother have cut the size of their herd by more than 25 percent, from more than 100 animals to about 75. The original huge ranch is down to just 640 acres.

The animals should gain “two-to-three pounds a day during grass season,” Preston says. But the ongoing water shortage has resulted in less natural grass, so he is having to spend money on other types of feed like alfalfa hay, liquid molasses and almond hulls to try and keep the animals’ weight up.

Drilling a new well to supply drinking water to his herd is far from a simple solution. Preston figures that three years ago, such a project would cost around $8,000. Now, he says, it’s more like $20,000 to dig the same well – “if you can get anybody to do it.”

Well diggers are in strong demand across the Central Valley. Merced County Agricultural Commissioner David Robinson says the number of permit requests to drill new wells in the area has doubled or even tripled in the past couple of years. Robinson says it’s not unusual for farmers or ranchers “to wait 12-to-18 months for new wells.” Some, desperate to get underground water flowing to the surface of their properties more quickly, have purchased their own drilling rigs.

Preston tossed out his trusted Farmers Almanac awhile back, no longer believing its overly optimistic weather forecasts for California. His wife, KellyAnn, doesn’t understand why some of her neighbors are continuing to plant thirsty pistachio and almond orchards in this current drought.

“It makes me mad,” she fumes. “Everyone’s letting their lawns die here in Le Grand. I gave up on my garden.”

She fears that more deep wells in the area will dry up what’s left of the dwindling groundwater supplies.

Does 67-year-old Mike Preston ever think of retiring?

“Never!” he says emphatically. “Even in rough times like now, I have too much fun!”

“Him and his buddies haven’t grown up yet,” his wife adds, chuckling. “There’s guys out there in their 80s still ranching!”

Still, if the drought drags on, KellyAnn says, “We’re going to be looking for new jobs.”

Her husband agrees.

“You might find me back up in Yosemite giving horseback rides,” he says, referring to one of the many jobs he had as a younger man, before he decided to return to the family ranch.

For the time being, Preston just keeps his fingers crossed for more rain.

Robinson, noting that California’s reservoirs are operating at 20-30 percent of capacity, cautions that it will take more than just one or two decent storms to get the state out of its current crisis.

But at least, he says, “We’re moving in the right direction.”

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