It’s easy to see how harshly drought has visited Stanley Van Vleck’s 10,000-acre cattle ranch. In all directions, across plain and foothill, the landscape is colored sickly brown.
Winter is normally the time that California ranchers rely on the rain to turn the grass green, providing food for cattle that roam the hillsides. This year, though, there is no green grass to be found on Van Vleck’s sprawling ranch south of Highway 16 near Rancho Murieta.
“This is worse than the drought in the 1970s,” Van Vleck said. “That drought lasted longer but at least there was more rain per year. So, our lands are severely impacted. When you have no water, you have no grass. And when you have no grass you have no meat.”
Van Vleck’s ranch gets all of its supply of water from rain. It’s water that he traps on 15 ponds and a large lake. Currently, half of the ponds are nothing but dust sinks. The 350-acre lake, which he uses to irrigate pastures, has shrunk to a 10-acre pond. The water level is so low it now lies several feet below the spillway used to send it to pasture areas.
Van Vleck, like many other cattle ranchers in California, is coping by selling off as many cattle as he can without crippling his business.
“We’re downsizing like we never have had to,” said Van Vleck, who sells premium Kobe beef to Snake River Farms. “This is now more a drastic situation than we thought it would be.”
On an average year, Van Vleck keeps 2,000 head of cattle on his ranch, but this year he has whittled the herd to 200 animals. Recently, during a meeting with his family and an agricultural financial consultant, the bitter-pill option of selling off all his animals was discussed. That option is becoming more and more likely if no rain falls by spring, Van Vleck said.
Van Vleck isn’t the only rancher taking such drastic steps.