Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

What Water Means to a Rancher

In Fall

There is a faint rustling at the top of the pines—just a teasing promise of winter rains to come. The September days are still hot in the mountains, but you can see that the season is about to turn. The green grass of early summer (wild oats, timothy, red clover) is browning. Now, evening comes more quickly in long shadows over the meadow.

By October, the rancher is looking for cloud cover in the west and hoping for that first good, soaking rain to revive the winter range and begin the cycle of renewal. A steady one to two inches with warm days to follow would be ideal, but the rancher will be grateful for any moisture because then the life-giving winter rains are sure to follow.

In Winter

Sometimes, winter rains can be a blessing for ranchers and sometimes they can be a disaster. At my ranch on Rock Creek if it rains steadily for three days and three nights it can flood. My mother always told us that if we could see the Sutter Buttes to the south it was clearing up and wouldn’t flood. My sister and I would keep a watch on those blue hills. So far, my mom’s prediction has held true.

Cows meander in the fields of Big Pine, CA near HWY 395.

We know that we need the rains (and sometimes snow) to fill the springs, creeks and drainage holes for the cattle to have water in the spring. But when you’re kneeling on the wet ground helping a cow calve, or pulling her calf in a snowstorm, it’s hard to think of spring, sunshine, and grass growing!

By early January on Rock Creek the rains have brought goldfields into bloom. Grandpa called goldfields “those little yellow flowers” and said when they came up it was time to move the cattle from the valley to the upper range

In Spring

Water in spring means full creeks rushing and tumbling, springs that are overflowing, lava potholes for the border collies to swim in. If the rains have been plentiful (like this year), the grass is strong and healthy and the cattle put on weight quickly.

Sometimes, in a perfect spring, the rains come about two weeks apart, and the pastures and rangelands are lush with rye, filaree, and clover. The native grasses and wildflowers are splashes of bright color. After the goldfields, the shooting stars, the johnny-jump-ups, and the tidy tips arrive. Larkspurs, like troops of union soldiers, march across the fields. Later, poppies, lupine, and mariposa lilies line the banks of water holes. On the upper range little seasonal creeks and springs are full. Down in secluded draws, cows with new babies graze on dark green carpets. The smell of wet earth is everywhere. Spring is God’s yearly miracle for a rancher.

In Summer

As spring comes to an end in late May it’s time to move the cattle from the spring ranges to summer pasture in the high mountains.

Cattle grazing on lush green hills near Salinas County.

To keep these pastures growing all season ranchers will need to irrigate, often from rivers and creeks. I’ve built dams with rocks and mud (very environmentally friendly!) and with ground cloths and tarps. At one ranch, we irrigated from a creek that was home to a family of beavers. The beavers built their dam about a mile above the pump that diverted the water we irrigated with. In order to have enough water flowing in the creek each morning, we had to first go up to their dam and take out enough of their willow and mud construction. It took about an hour to dig out even a small hole. Meanwhile, the beavers slapped their tails on the water and scolded us. At night, they rebuilt their dams stronger than ever.

Even though irrigation is hard work, you feel proud watching the water pour across the meadows. You can take a break from digging and admire your achievement. Geese, with their babies tucked on their backs, are sailing down the creek. Sandhill cranes are stalking the ditches for frogs. Deer are startled out of the willows.

After four months of irrigating you’re hoping for a thunderstorm to keep the grass growing. But, as the days get shorter and the nights get cooler, you feel fall coming closer. Now the year has made a full circle; in every season, water is crucial to the rancher. Water is life.

JoEllen Hall comes from a cattle ranching family with a long grazing history in Butte County and elsewhere in Northern California. Her mother Doro­thy Stover Hall, an accomplisher trick rider, was one of the first Little Nells of Chico State’s vanished Pioneer Days. Jo’s border collies Goodness and Mercy followed her nearly all of their days.

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