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Cattle ranchers hit hard by California's wildfires

Article-Cattle ranchers hit hard by California's wildfires

David McNew/Getty Images wildfire debris
Wineries, cannabis farms and cattle industry all take big hit from fires.

By Grace Kay

As California’s wildfires spread across more than 4 million acres in the state, cattle ranchers have been among the most vulnerable parts of the agriculture industry.

The fires have ripped through national forests used for grazing, killing cattle and destroying parts of the 38 million acres of rangeland, more than a third of the state, managed by ranchers. As the Creek and Zogg fires ravage the Sierra and Mendicino national forests, ranchers have struggled to evacuate areas threatened by fire and smoke, with many producers unable to get into evacuation areas to rescue their livestock.

Along with power outages also spurred by extreme heat, the wildfires have threatened the world’s fifth-biggest economy. While the losses from California’s cattle industry, which accounts for less than 2% of the total U.S. herd, are unlikely to cause beef shortages across the country or drive up prices, the wildfires have been devastating for ranchers whose cattle have grazed in the forests for decades. Some have lost more than three-quarters of their herds.

Kirk Wilbur, the vice president of government affairs at the California Cattlemen’s Association, says they don’t yet know the full extent of damage.

“People are still fighting to save their ranches,” Wilbur said. “This is the most catastrophic year we’ve ever experienced, especially for those who rely on the forest for their livelihood.”

Dave Daley, a Butte County rancher, lost over 85% of his uninsured herd in the Bear Fire. For six generations, the Daley family has worked the land, 400-head of cattle run free in the forest every summer. After the devastation of the Bear Fire, Daley said there is no clear way forward.

The cattle industry appears to have taken the biggest hit after wineries and cannabis farms. Napa County, a top wine production site in California’s $43.6 billion industry, estimates 80% of its Cabernet was lost. Damage has been smaller across the state’s farms, which produce more than a third of America’s vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts.

It’s been a volatile year in U.S. cattle markets. Thousands of slaughterhouse workers caught the COVID-19 virus earlier this year, prompting shutdowns at plants. That raised beef prices, but the lack of a market for the animals hit prices for cattle.

The California Farm Bureau Federation said most crops have not been significantly damaged as they are well irrigated and situated further from the forests. Most damage has been concentrated on businesses on the outskirts.

While smoke taint has created issues for wine grapes, it is unlikely to impact other crops. Some farmers growing leafy greens have had to implement additional washing measures to combat the debris, and the heat wave caused by the fires generated some losses for strawberries and greens, said Christopher Valdez, the president of the Growers-Shipper Association. But he does not expect to see any price increases or shortages in the market, he said.

Daley is still taking stock of his herd, searching the forest everyday for survivors, but more often picking through carcasses and euthanizing cattle too damaged to survive. Even some of the livestock he managed to save he has been forced to put down. He anticipates a difficult year ahead as winter showers could bring mudslides and he is uncertain whether the fire will impact his government permit.

He blames the politics that govern national forests and inhibit public grazing, as well as prescribed burns. He calls the forests “tinderboxes.”

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.
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