Water, Water – Nowhere

I’m writing this watching raindrops creep down my window, obscuring the view of my wet and muddy horses grazing happily, some in their waterproof blankets, others in their thick winter coats. This is a normal view for us here in Northern California in February, but this year I’m watching the rain with a greater sense of urgency than usual.

Until last week, our fields still looked as dry as they do in August.

That’s because it’s only the first rainstorm we’ve had this year and the first rain we’ve had at all since the beginning of December. (And we had only two light storms in October and November, to cap one of California’s driest years ever. Last month was the driest January ever in recorded history.)

Normally by late December or January we’ve cut our hay consumption in half, because our grass has is so thick and lush that the horses just walk away from their hay. This year I’m feeding hay like I do in the summer, because my fields look worse than they do in August. It’s a worrisome expense at a time of year when business usually slows down for most trainers.

 This winter’s weather (the drought here, the snow and ice in the East) is a stark reminder that, as farmers, we’re completely dependant on Mother Nature to provide our animals with water. Not just to drink, but also to grow the grass, hay and grains they eat. I know other areas of the country, most notably Texas, have been struggling with drought for years, but to experience it yourself is definitely eye-opening.

Our “seasons” and feeding systems here in California are different than a lot of the country. We get the about 90 percent of our rain between November and March, and our grass grows to about May. By July, it’s all turned brown and stopped growing. Our soil is fabulously fertile (it has to be), and the grass here is amazingly resilient and tough—but without a good winter hit of water, it simply can’t perform.

I recently read a comment that summed it up best: “In the Midwest/East you use hay to store your summer sun for the winter. We [in California] use hay to store our winter rain for the summer.”

Because we are a dry region, we’ve learned how to take care with the resources we do have. We’re careful not to overgraze, to make the grass we do get last as long as possible. Many larger farms have storage ponds for any excess water, and most people I know try to conserve water. On our property, in a dry year, we have to regularly have a truck bring in water to fill our storage tank.

Fluctuations in rainfall are normal, and in the eight years we’ve been here there have been wet years where the grass grew and the creeks ran until July 4, and we’ve had dry years where everything was dry by May. This year, the creeks haven’t run at all yet.

 In the central valley of California (the center of West Coast agriculture), cattle guys are selling off stock, and crop growers are starting to decide which fields and orchards they’ll let go fallow. Water agencies are planning restrictions, and new rules are already being put in to place for suburban water customers.

By the way, I’m getting a little tired of hearing how “lucky” we are to be on a well, because “the government can’t tell you how much water to use.” Well, yes, that’s true, it’s “up to us,” except if we screw it up, there simply isn’t any more water. We have no back-up plan or agency; if we use up our water, it’s gone. We have no more. It’s at times like this that I wouldn’t might the oversight, thanks.

Now, I could easily write this blog about “poor California” and how we’re suffering. But the reality is, it’s not just us, nor will it be just us in years to come. Maybe next year it’s the Southeast. Or the Midwest. Or the Northeast. And Texas may never recover. Make no mistake, even if you only own one horse whom you board, lack of water will effect you—your hay and grain bill will increase, and your board bill will go up as barn owners pass the increasing costs of water on to you. We don’t do this gladly, but it’s the difference between staying open and shutting down.

I don’t have any great answer as to what to do. There is, ultimately, only so much water to conserve, and when you’re talking about the water needed to keep livestock alive and thriving, letting your lawn turn yellow and watering plants with dish water just doesn’t make that big of an impact. But we need to prepare to figure that out, because it’s likely what we are experiencing here is just the beginning.

Ever since the modern domestication of horses, we have endeavored to provide optimal health to a transitory, plains-grazing species, designed to move and eat grasses and legumes constantly. We’ve confined and tried to feed them in a static, controlled way. It’s been a mixed bag of success, and we’ve gotten better at it as time and scientific knowledge have evolved.

But maybe it’s time to step up those efforts—how do we keep our horses well fed and cared for without those grasses and legumes? Because it’s not hard to imagine a time when—between the ever-declining land to grow hay and climate change—hay becomes too cost-prohibitive to feed, and ambient grass is just a fond memory.

 In the meantime I’ll sit here, watching the rain fall, counting each drop, and praying for more.

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