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California fires: Impact on dairy farmers in the US

While grazing land has been destroyed yet again, there are no easy solutions to fire prevention in future.

At this point on the western coast of the USA, wildfires have affected over 3 million hectares. It’s the worst fire season in 7 decades, and while the strain on some horticulture, beef and dairy farmers (along with vineyard owners) has been very difficult, there are programs in place to support them. There are also ways to greatly reduce the risk and extent of future wildfires, but none of them will come easy.

The dairy farm in the evacuation zone is owned by John Bucher, and home to 700 dairy and 700 beef cattle. Photo: John Bucher
The dairy farm in the evacuation zone is owned by John Bucher, and home to 700 dairy and 700 beef cattle. Photo: John Bucher

Values for financial loss to farms in California are not available at this time. However, Dayna Ghirardelli, director of producer relations at the California Milk Advisory Board, explains: “One can imagine that if a pasture that is relied upon for grazing of youngstock is burned, it will be a direct financial impact now that those cattle need to be fed with purchased hay. Not to mention the feed crops that have burned and what that will mean for future supply, demand and price.”

The smoke in many areas of the state has been severe constantly, and smoke inhalation may cause health issues in cattle and other livestock, let alone people.

Sheltering in place

As of 30 September, mandatory evacuation zones have affected only 1 dairy in the state, in Sonoma County (north of San Francisco), but Ghirardelli adds that “This is the second time in less than 10 months for this particular dairy.” Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, says that there and in nearby Marin county, there are about 75 dairies but the majority are thankfully located in valleys and away from forested areas.

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The dairy farm in the aforementioned evacuation zone is owned by John Bucher, and is home to 700 dairy and 700 beef cattle. Once before, fires have spread to within about a mile of the farm, and Tesconi said on 2 October that the fires could return to the farm depending on winds.

Bucher has been allowed to shelter in place and milk the cows under the farm’s Fire Emergency Plan. This is because evacuating the dairy cattle would require taking them somewhere they can be milked, which is not an easy task. The farm’s Fire Plan includes cleaning impervious areas of any fuel/dried forage, removing flammables where possible, emptying barns of stored hay, keeping everything around the dairy barns wet, and placing cattle in the barns (aluminium and cement freestall). The cows will be taken to a central outdoor area on the farm if needed.

This farmer and his cows could not put a shelter in place without a great deal of support. Ghirardelli explains that in an evacuation zone, “When a feed truck or milk truck tries to access the dairy, it is simply not going to happen without some assistance. Through various efforts (and a few fire seasons of experience) there is a program in place in Sonoma County where access passes are provided by the local Sheriff in order to support animal operations, when safe of course. Having a great relationship with local officials has been very important.”

Moving cattle

On 2 September, Agriculture.com reported on the ‘Marsh Fire,’ which began on 16 August due to thousands of lightning strikes. It affected the farm of Dave and Samantha Cascarini, which is home to 500 cattle on 12,000 acres of steep terrain. They couple decided to move as many cattle as they could, and split up to do so. Samantha found a newborn calf lying on a patch of wet grass in the middle of a burned pasture. Because the calf was still covered in afterbirth, only her eyelashes were burned. The Cascarini cattle are being moved to the farm’s other pieces of land and will be returned in the spring, but other beef farmers in the area are having to sell cattle since grazing grounds are gone and hay is too expensive.

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Awareness of programs

There are many disaster relief programs in place for California farmers. However, because it became clear last year that it was difficult to know what’s available, Tesconi and others recently held an online seminar for farmers, outlining programs at the county, state and national (US Department of Agriculture, USDA) level. For example, through the USDA Farm Service Agency, help is available for rebuilding fences or water supplies, caring for burned animals and covering the financial losses from animal deaths. Locally, property taxes can be re-assessed or payment delayed, and farmers can get exemptions from, or expedited, re-building permits.

Fire prevention

The annual fires in the US west coast are caused by hundreds of lightning strikes. Widespread yearly fires in parts of North America have been a natural phenomenon for thousands of years. Some people blame climate change for the extent of current fires and others focus on management of forested land. In a recent essay on social media, beef farmer Dave Daley in Butte County notes that half of the land in California is owned by the federal or state government. It contains large amounts of “unmanaged fuel loads because of the restrictions to do anything on the land,” he states. “Right now, the only buffer to these disasters are private, well-managed, grazed landscapes. They may still burn, but the fires are not as catastrophic and can be controlled.”

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Tesconi agrees. “Landowners need to collaborate on land management and more debris and dead trees need to be removed,” she says. “I’m pushing hard to get financial support to help increase grazing, as it can be costly due to predator control and sourcing water.”

In terms of farmers logging their own farmland, the cost, timeline and log prices make it unattractive at best. It’s estimated that a timber harvest in Sonoma County takes 2 years for most landowners and just the ‘timber harvest plan’ costs an average of US$45,000.

Carrying out controlled burns is another option, but Tesconi says the concept has been frowned upon due to the resulting smoke. However, “you need to compare that to the air quality issues with the fires we’re having,” she says. “Our air quality right now is the worst in the world, but to have controlled burns, there needs to be cooperation from agencies that don’t work together now.”