In 2013, the nation’s largest dairy county, Tulare County, Calif., experienced its lowest annual rainfall total – 1.41 inches – since official records were kept over the past 55 years.California drought drives changes at Rio Blanco Dairy

Making matters worse, Central California’s Westside farms are no longer receiving surface water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Environmental pressures have sent billions of gallons of what was otherwise irrigation water into the Pacific Ocean to keep a tiny fish alive – the Delta smelt – rather than pump it south to irrigate food crops on valley farms.

State and federal agencies prepared a 156-page plan for managing California’s 2014 water supplies – in the event that next year is another dry one – addressing the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project operations. While the plan covers the water needs for fisheries, habitat environments and human requirements, it doesn’t take into account water needs for agriculture’s food and fiber production.

Thus, Central California dairy producers and farmers are left to their own devices. Like everyone in California agriculture, Jeff Wilbur, Rio Blanco Dairy, near Tulare, is battling one of the harshest droughts he has ever experienced.

A lot has changed on the agricultural landscape since Jeff Wilbur’s great-grandfather, W.H. Wilbur, settled in California in the late 1800s. A couple family dairy ventures through those early years helped bring this fourth-generation dairyman to where he is today.

Jeff and wife, Lisa, bought the dairy from Jeff’s father and uncle, who built the current facility in 1980. Today, they milk most of his 2,000-cow Holstein herd 2X. However, the high-producing string is run through their double-24 parallel parlor 3X in an effort to keep production up as they go through the sweltering summer months.

Wilbur is working hard to adjust his operation to reduce  the drought’s impact. He drilled a couple new water wells, and is doing everything he can think of to recycle and conserve that valuable resource.

“I’m no expert when it comes to droughts, aquifers, irrigation district policies and regulations,” he said. “I don’t pretend to understand the inner workings of water wells and pumps, but I can do everything possible, when it’s affordable, to conserve our water supply.”

Wilbur drilled a new agricultural well in 2012 for the farming operation, and a new domestic well in 2013. In the last six months those new wells have provided good water system support during a time when older wells are tailing off, and two wells actually dried up completely. One of those wells was located about 100 yards from the irrigation district’s recharging basin, which didn’t seem to make any difference in the ground water levels there.

Wilbur is left with 12 ag wells, the oldest at relatively shallow depths of 150 to 200 feet. The two new wells were drilled to depths of 500 feet and cost $125,000 each. The typical cost for drilling a new well can range from $50,000 to $500,000 depending on the depth and soil composition.

Rainfall records over the last 135 years in Wilbur’s area average slightly more than 10 inches per year. In 2013, however, rainfall was particularly sparse. So far this year, rainfall has climbed just over 4.5 inches, almost 50% of normal, but not enough for policymakers to open their floodgates in the Delta.

During wet years in the past, Wilbur was able to turn off his pumps and irrigate with 100% canal surface water. Those days are almost forgotten in a thirsty San Joaquin Valley.

System management

 In April, Wilbur made several timely water conservation decisions. He converted his milk cooling system from water-cooled to fan-cooled. But in doing so, he chose to leave the old water-cool system in place as backup, if needed.

Wilbur also changed how he cools his cows waiting in the holding pen before milking. While he once doused them with a generous amount of water, he has shortened the time the sprinklers are on to a mere 30 seconds. Then the water stays off for four minutes. That allows time to dissipate about 80% of the moisture off the cows before the sprinkler system comes on again, he said. Any excess water is recycled back through the dairy’s flush system.

Like most dairy operations, Wilbur uses his lagoon system flush program to not only clean up alleyways, but also irrigate his crops. He has seen noticeable crop performance improvement when supplementing irrigation with lagoon water. It also helps seal the ground and increase flow, he said. In addition, he uses “surge irrigation,” which pushes water through to the end of the field quicker and more efficiently.

Wilbur is also initiating a moisture metering system, and has installed soil probes in his fields to specifically identify crop water demands. And, he is using a new furrow wheelpacking tool through his corn and milo crops to smooth and slightly compact furrows, which helps move irrigation water more effectively and uses less of it.

Wilbur is quick to point out that conditions and water use conservation steps might be significantly different outside a 20-mile radius of his dairy, depending on location and microclimate variations.

Variety selections

 The dairyman said he has had to tweak his selection of silage varieties because of sensitivity to irrigation timing. “Some varieties can withstand more variables when it comes to stretching out irrigation frequency,” he said.

Wilbur farms 900 acres, of which 400 acres are in double- crop wheat and corn, and 100 acres single-crop corn for silage. The rest of his acreage is in alfalfa. That supplies three-quarters of his roughage requirements, covering all silage needs and about half of the required hay.

“I’ve clearly seen production slip, not so much on wheat silage, but on corn silage,” he said. “We are making some adjustments this year and going to more brown midrib (BMR) milo sorghum for silage. I’m choosing varieties that can stand less water.”

Sorghum is not really a new crop. Worldwide, milo is the fifth most important cereal crop behind wheat, rice, corn and barley. Sorghum is unique in that it can grow in some of the harshest environments. Wilbur said the drought will cause him to fallow 10% to 20% of his alfalfa acreage in July.

“Some alfalfa fields are not thriving like they should due to weed pressures,” he explained. “So I intend to pull out some of the weaker stands.”

Water supplies

 In typical years, San Joaquin Valley farmers draw approximately one-third of their water from their wells, and the balance from California’s State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. Most growers don’t expect to receive any water from either this summer. Underground water supplies are the only other option, and that supply is slowly being used up. In the midst of the drought, well drilling is booming in California’s most productive farming region. In some counties, new well requests have more than doubled over last year. In Tulare County, the number of permits has tripled to 245. In Kern County, farmers took out 63 new well permits in the first quarter of the year, more than quadrupling last year’s number.

“I don’t know what all the solutions are yet, but one thing this drought will do is increase attention toward irrigation and management innovation,” Wilbur said. “In the last 10 or 12 years, we’ve had water costs ranging from $25 to $50 per acre-foot. If you start amortizing the cost for new wells and just the higher operating costs, in general, it’s going to increase that (water) cost a bunch – probably $75 or higher.”

The bottom line is everyone needs to do his or her part to conserve, but “there is no one size fits all solution for farmers in such a diverse farming region as California,” Wilbur said.