You might say Rancho Sisquoc got hit upside the head with a 2x4. The board was drought conditions, and the wake-up was the realization the ranch wasn't a good money-making proposition in a down market.

So, in a general changeover, this California coastal range ranch is rethinking and redoing almost everything to do with range and livestock. That includes marketing strategy, calving season, management policy and range programs.

Ranch manager Ed Holt says this came about due to four years of severe drought in the 1990s, followed by a price downturn during their traditional June sale season in 1995. He was shocked by the amount of economic damage the ranch, owned by the Flood family of San Francisco, had to take.

"Now, we approach every day as a drought - because it's coming," says Holt, who also oversees vineyard operations on the 38,000-acre ranch.

Holt, along with other ranch operation personnel, began looking for help. They talked to a wide variety of experts - folks like Wayne Jensen of the University of California (UC) and range management specialist Stan Parsons. They also attended range and economic schools.

One of the first things they did was measure their feed supply, something they now do annually. Using a homemade, foot-square device, they clip and weigh feed, analyzing carrying capacity based on a UC Extension formula that evaluates the nutritional value of feed.

"We weigh it to one thousandth of a gram," says livestock manager Bob Schwarzkopf. The samples go to a laboratory for nutritional analysis that is used to calculate how many cows they can feed - and still have 30% of feed left over. That gives them a reserve in case of drought.

"It's a way of budgeting our feed," says Ron Davis, who runs the range side of the operation. He says their new calving season arose out of the information they got from feed analysis.

Second Look At Feed Supply They found they didn't have enough feed to support the cows they were running. That was also evident because they had to keep an active oat and alfalfa hay operation in place just to keep the cows going.

"We had pastures undergrazed and overgrazed," recalls Schwarzkopf. So, they began checking aerial USDA maps to determine where their usable pastures fit into the overall acreage. They were shocked again.

What surprised them was how little useable pasture they had on this rugged ranch where mountainous terrain and impenetrable brush only left them about 11,000 grazeable acres. In light of the feed quality variability from pasture to pasture, they began to see their range in a whole new way. Davis says it's impossible to do range measurement precisely, but it gave them "an accurate guess" about what they had.

"It just all made good common sense," Schwarzkopf points out, "and we're trying to put it together."

Soon, big overviews were leading to smaller hands-on decisions that helped their cows. For example, nutritional analysis of their grasses showed that they were deficient in copper and zinc. Now, their mineral blocks (the only supplements they feed) are custom made with extra copper and zinc.

Improve Nutrition At Calving Another observation they made during this introspective period two years ago was that their cows were in poor condition at calving. Their traditional calving season was September to November, but that was based on the assumption they needed a 550- to 600-lb. calf to market the following June.

In the past, they'd received good prices for those calves, and the calves were in good condition if sold by July 4. But, their calving percentage was down, in the low 70s because they'd designed an artificial calving season driven by the market, not by range conditions.

The rainy season on the coast is from January to April, and in the past, when calves were dropping three months earlier than that, cows were on poor feed and in poor condition. The ranch was squeaking by economically as long as the June calf price was high. Cows, however, weren't breeding back well.

In 1995 prices fell and the economic success of the ranch ran aground. A small calf crop combined with low prices showed them how close to economic disaster the ranch operated.

"I don't know if we'd have changed anything if we were still getting 90 cents for June calves," Holt admits. But, when prices fell below 70 cents in 1995, the ranch's entire economic and management scheme was shaky.

So, they moved the calving season back three months. Now, their objective is to drop calves from December through February. That's already raised their calving percentage 10%.

"We were putting the bulls out when there wasn't any green grass," Davis says of the old days. "That puts a stress on conception."

Holt maintains he should be able to achieve a 90%+ calf crop, especially since most of the past problems were nutrition related.

Now, they're almost certain of five months of green feed for wet cows if the rains come as expected. If they don't, they still have a 30% feed reserve. They've also stopped growing hay to force themselves to meet the demands of a sound economic system.

Change In Marketing Strategy "You can't feed out of a drought," Holt says. "And, if you feed out of an open range, you're abusing the range."

Obviously, this change in calving doesn't allow the ranch to meet the June deadline for a weaned calf, so the crew has completely changed its marketing strategy, too. They've shifted to more of a stocker operation than cow-calf.

"We're trying to hit the feeder market in April and May," Holt says. That means holding calves over 13-16 months on existing range and providing 800-lb. long yearlings to a lucrative feeder market.

This provides some variability in marketing since they can market earlier if prices are favorable. This year, for example, late-summer calf prices were good enough to sell 140 calves.

This kind of marketing flexibility allows them to take advantage of sudden market changes, but it may also leave them short of livestock. They try to run 1,000 animal units, 800-850 cows being part of that. They realize they may also have to be flexible in stocking philosophy.

But at least the ranch is moving out of what Holt calls a "cull cow business," illustrated by the number of dry cows sold after they'd failed to conceive. The ranch is now in an ongoing economic analysis, too, designed to tell exactly how they're doing at any point in time.

Their computer analyses - using Ranch Vision, Lotus and their own spreadsheet software - uses standard features such as stock flow plans, livestock evaluation and profit/loss analysis.

Holt often compares the ranch to a factory. He says they might have shown a profit in the past, but they were losing their manufacturing capacity (their cows) to do so. Economic analysis can project where they'll be at any time given any number of circumstances.

"We're profitable, but we want to be more profitable," Holt says. The computer can help tell them how to get there. The computer, and good communication among the three men regarding all these new concepts, can also tell them how to better deal with future droughts, he adds.

"We spend a lot of time on drought strategies," he says. Thus, if it doesn't rain by mid-February, options are clear: They can sell their stocker and other non-producer animals, wean calves early and sell them; and/or get rid of dry cows. Based on a feed analysis, they can also sell cow/calf pairs if the drought becomes too serious.

This kind of thinking alone is a breakthrough for Rancho Sisquoc, where in the past there was no clear direction or goal during drought.

Turn Grazing Into A Science In addition, their range analysis has given them new grass-growing techniques which should increase carrying capacity. Davis is also studying native plants in an effort to give the ranch better - although not necessarily more - feeding capacity.

"We can lengthen our green season with perennial grasses," Davis says. Species such as perennial rye, stipa, orchardgrass, gramas and poa can be managed. They stay green and nutritious longer than annuals.

The ranch is moving toward a modified holistic rotation system, too, that will utilize the natural pasture. Although the ranch does not lend itself to cell fencing, the managers think by using natural barriers, more manpower and water cutoff, they can rotate cattle to get more pounds per acre. Specifically, they hope to more intensively graze pastures and then rest them for long periods and better growth.

Holt says that since the ranch has a rosier economic outlook, morale is up and they have more positive feelings about their management options. l