After the fires, farmers face long-term feed shortages

When wildfires painted West Coast skies orange in September, the nation’s attention was fixated on California and Oregon.

But experts say the aftermath of wildfires is often overlooked. Loss of forage and rangeland is extensive, and many farmers are struggling to feed livestock.

Researchers say feed losses are worst in California, where some forage lands may not reach pre-fire production levels for years.

In western Oregon, the climate is more favorable, but animals still face feed shortages. In both states, farmers are donating hay to help.

“I could hardly even begin to guess the scope of damage. About 5 million acres burned in (California). How much of that was grazing land? At least a million acres?” said Mark Lacey, president of the California Cattlemen’s Association.

Total losses remain unknown, but ballpark estimates are emerging.

According to a recent theoretical modeling study published by the University of California, the SCU Lightning Complex Fire alone, which burned 396,624 acres, likely cost farmers $68.2 million — $18.4 million in just forage damage.

“When you have these large fire footprints, it adds up,” said Sheila Barry, co-author of the study and UC Cooperative Extension natural resource adviser.

Forage loss this year was estimated at 200 pounds per acre, followed by 40% lower-than-normal production the next year and 20% the year after that.

Where the hottest fires burned, Barry said, there are now scorched seed banks and soils turned hydroponic — unable to absorb water. Some upper soil profiles are sterilized and in annual grass pastures where rain is scarce, chaparral shrubs may grow back faster than forage.

Groups across California are collecting hay donations, but experts say the donations won’t make up for lost rangeland. Lacey predicted some ranchers will have to sell animals early.

Oregon, too, faces livestock feed shortages.

Oregon State University staff said it’s too early to estimate the number of acres burned or animals displaced, but impacts are widespread.

Melody Larson, administrative assistant to the associate deans of Extension and Academic Programs, has been coordinating statewide hay donations since the fires. Larson has arranged transportation of more than 500 tons of hay bales to feed horses, cattle, donkeys, goats, sheep, alpacas and llamas.

“When we did the initial call-out, it felt like this, this onslaught of hay,” said Jenifer Cruickshank, OSU Extension dairy management expert who has been managing donations on the ground.

Sam Angima, associate dean of the Extension Service, said the largest donations came from Union and Harney counties.

As winter draws near, the team said it’s harder to keep bales dry because many farmers’ barns burned. Cruickshank said some farmers are asking for smaller loads at a time. The Oregon Office of Emergency Management has provided ropes, tarps and equipment to protect hay from mildew.

Angima said pastures will likely suffer post-fire impacts, and farmers are donating straw to lay over burned land to mitigate erosion.

“It won’t be an easy recovery, but it’s not as bad as California. Our grass started coming back a month ago. We’re fortunate to have the climate we have,” said Angima.