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Drought conditions distinguish Placer County as disaster area

Area farmers struggling to feed livestock
By: Amber Marra, Journal Staff Writer
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During the past year it has been increasingly difficult for Dan Macon to feed his flock.

Farmers like Macon who are struggling after a year of sparse rainfall can soon receive help. Placer County has been declared a natural disaster area because of drought conditions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to a press release sent on Wednesday.

Macon owns Flying Mule Farm and the 400 sheep that comes with it. Sparse rain earlier this year has impacted him even now as he tries to sell wool, which is at a lower quality because some of his sheep have been nutritionally strained.

"Wool breaks" occur when fibers closest to a sheep's skin weaken when it is nutritionally stressed. When the wool is later processed, the fibers break at that point, lowering the quality of the wool.

Macon has also had to sell some of his lambs prematurely this year.

"We have tried to get access to additional grazing land rather than reduce our flock, but we've had to sell lambs early because we didn't have feed for them," Macon said.

The combination of moving his flock around, buying feed and a less-than-stellar turnover for wool this year have been financially shocking to Flying Mule Farm.

"It has made it more expensive," Macon said. "The other challenge most folks wouldn't think about is when it did start to rain the grass grew so quickly we had a very short window of when it was highly nutritious."

Placer County was designated as a disaster area on Sept. 5 with six other California counties. In disaster areas farmers and ranchers can apply for assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Roger Ingram, livestock farm advisor with Placer County, said Placer County was also declared a natural disaster area in 2008 due to drought conditions.

He said that in October 2011 there wasn't much rain until January when there was a brief storm, but after that the weather was largely dry until March, when the area got 8 inches of rain.

For Macon it is critical that his flock gets proper nutrition in the spring when ewes are ready to give birth.

"Generally there is a 45-day stretch from March to mid-to-late April where the grass is high quality and high quantity and that's the best time of year for grazing," Macon said.

Since Placer County has been designated as a natural disaster area, farmers and ranchers can apply for low-interest federal disaster loans up to $2 million.

Farmers have eight months, or until May 6, 2013, to apply for the Economic Injury Disaster Loans to cover any damages suffered since Jan. 1, 2012.

In Placer County, cattle and calves are listed as the second biggest crop in the county according to the 2011 agricultural crop report with a value of almost $11.3 million. Rice is the only crop that beat out cattle, according to the press release.

Joshua Huntsinger, Placer County Agricultural Commissioner, said in the press release that many farmers and ranchers have either had to sell off livestock or purchase hay at increasing prices this year.

Karin Sinclair owns Sinclair Family Farm in Newcastle. Her farm is irrigated, but she has had to buy hay over the past few months. She said she bought hay at $160 per ton last month for her cows. That's gone up $60 during that time.

"I know a lot of people who are downsizing instead of feeding the animals," Sinclair said.

Eligibility for the loans is available to those businesses that depend on farmers and ranchers affected by the drought, as well as farmers that have been impacted directly, according to the release.

Macon isn't sure if he will have to apply for a loan yet because he hasn't fully understood the financial damage done by a year with little rain.

"We'll look at it pretty carefully. For me as a business person, I want to look at the strings attached to this assistance and determine if it's worth it," Macon said.

Contact Amber Marra at amberm@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.

To apply to the U.S. Small Business Administration for an Economic Emergency Disaster Loan go to https://disasterloan.sba.gov/ela. For more information on disaster loans call 800-659-2955 or email disastercustomerservice@sba.gov.

Placer County farmers and ranchers can also contact the USDA Yuba City office at (530) 671-0850 for more information on the application process.