Even Drought-Resistant Super Cows Are Struggling in Historic California Drought

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Where can you find the best beefcake in California? Right near the beach, of course.

The drought-resistant super cows of Salmon Creek Ranch in Bodega Bay, 40 miles northwest of San Francisco, have been weathering the (lack of) storm during California’s historic drought thanks in large part to their proximity to a daily dose of coastal fog and rolling hills of green grass, but years of steadily decreasing rainfall has caught up to them and, for the first time in the ranch’s eight-year history, the cows this fall had their feed supplemented with hay and water trucked in from the outside world.

Though they look hardier than your average bovine, the genetic makeup of Salmon Creek’s cows has less to do with their drought durability than these three factors: location, location, location. The old real estate adage rings true for Salmon Creek Ranch, named after the creek that flows through its normally grassy hills to the nearby ocean.
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If this sounds bucolic, it is—as long as you love wind chill and thick fog. Though it may be detracting for prospective homebuyers, the fog that blankets the area most of the year combines with the cool temperatures and breezy wind patterns to create a perfect storm for raising cattle, especially during a drought. The Scottish breeds raised at Salmon Creek—Aberdeen Angus and Scottish Highlander—respond well to the cool, foggy climate. (It has the feel of a good place to age whiskey as well.)

“Usually, the cows always have somewhere to go where they can find something to eat,” says Lesley Brabyn, who owns and operates the 400-acre ranch with her husband John and their daughter Jocelyn. “We haven’t had anything like this before.”

The irony of trucking in water to feed cows within eyesight of the largest body of water on the planet is probably the least frustrating part of the drought. Everything costs more in rural, geographically isolated Bodega Bay—gas is still about $5 per gallon—and paying for water and hay delivery gets expensive.

“We tried as long as we could,” says Brabyn. They tried to not overstock the land, keeping the animal count down to spread out what little resources were available, but in October Salmon Creek was forced to supplement their cows’ diet with hay.

“We really tried not to do that but this year was tough,” says Brabyn. “We go out there and look at the little grass and it’s not doing anything… Usually there are fields where it should be knee-high, and it was just at your ankle—in spring 2013. One year, we might have been able to get by. But two years in a row, it has been really tough.”

There are many grass-fed cattle ranches in Salmon Creek Ranch’s region of Northern California. It may not be known as Cow Country, but combined with dozens of ranches in neighboring Marin, Humboldt and Mendocino counties, it makes up a large portion of grass-fed, Slow Food-approved meat. But many ranches have been struggling, resorting to reducing their herds and even taking advantage of relaxed federal regulations on feed earlier this year, which allowed grain to be used in lieu of grass for a time.

Kobe, Wagyu and other fatty, marbled, prime grades of beef are held in high esteem, but often share the same flavor. Salmon Creek’s beef, like other high-quality grass-fed beef operations, has a unique taste due to the unique vegetation of the ranch. It’s unlikely to be duplicated anywhere else in the world. Call it beef terroir.
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So when the cattle’s natural foraging patterns are interrupted by the introduction of outside feed, it’s a big deal for the end product. Though the cows don’t mind the trucked-in hay—”It’s like candy, they love it,” says Brabyn—customers might. When the current generation of cows is harvested, that change in feed could very well affect the flavor of the meat. Already, customers have a limited availability of Salmon Creek Ranch beef to purchase at local farmers markets and order online.

The 400-acre Salmon Creek Ranch has been owned and operated by the Brabyn family since 2007. John and Lesley have ranching in their blood and returned to life on a farm after careers in the nonprofit sector. Jocelyn came home after working as a field archeologist on the East Coast to work on the farm.

Salmon Creek’s beef is grass fed and grass finished, a surprisingly rare combination in today’s buzzword-happy “grass fed” meat market. “A lot of ranches will market as grass fed and they feed hay, which is grass,” says Brabyn. The USDA allows this for beef to be marketed as “grass fed,” and even for the more rigid standards of “certified organic.”

Even though their land is certified organic, Salmon Creek Ranch cannot label its beef such. “Up until the day the animal is harvested, its totally organically fed and raised, but we still can’t market it that way,” says Brabyn. They would also need to find a certified organic slaugherhouse to process the live animals and a certified ogranic butcher to prepare them for sale. “A lot of people don’t realize the butchering and slaughter of an animal are two different processes often done by two different places,” says Brabyn, adding that for her, there are no affordable organic options in Northern California.

According to the USDA, “Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources.” The idyllic picture of free-roaming cows as natural lawnmowers doesn’t hold true, in most cases. Feed lots are widely used, with acceptable feed substituted for grain slurry fed to factory-farmed beasts. The animals only have to be let out to graze “during the growing season.”

Salmon Creek’s philosophy doesn’t align with these loose standards. “The cattle can pick and choose what their bodies need from among the many different native grasses, shrubs, trees and ‘weeds’ that flourish during the different seasons. We believe this approach more closely matches the natural conditions their ancestors were bred for,” reads the ranch’s Web site.
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Sonoma County declared a drought emergency back in February 2014, and only in December was there been rainfall enough to give even a glimpse of relief. “Right now, it’s started greening up,” says Brabyn. ”[The grass] is like an emerald green, but it doesn’t have much nutritional value. It’s mostly water.”

If the rain continues, will Salmon Creek Ranch be able to survive? “We’ll see,” says Brabyn. “We’re just on hold until things get back to normal.”

Nicolas Grizzle is a freelance writer in Northern California. Follow him on Twitter @NicolasGrizzle.