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Felix Adamo/ The Californian

Cattle rancher Nathan Carver on his ranch on Highway 155, east of Highway 65.

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Felix Adamo/ The Californian

Nathan Carver tosses hay from his slow moving truck as cattle follow him on his ranch near highways 65 and 155.

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Felix Adamo/ The Californian

With a 5,000-gallon water tank behind him, rancher Nathan Carver discusses the drought and how it is impacting his cattle ranch.

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Steven Mayer/ The Californian

Justin Mebane owns and operates Famoso-Western Stockman's Market north of Bakersfield.

Fifth-generation cattle rancher Nathan Carver coaxed his flatbed Dodge into low gear, opened the driver's door and stepped out onto the parched landscape.

Even as the truck trundled forward, the 55-year-old cattleman scrambled up onto the truck bed and began tossing hay to some 250 bawling cows and calves now following behind in a long hungry parade.

In a normal winter, Carver said, his herd would be feasting on natural and nutritious green grasses carpeting his winter rangeland about 30 miles north of Bakersfield.

But this winter is not normal. Not even close.

This land hasn't seen rain of any consequence since late November, when nearly 1 inch fell over a four-day period, according to the National Weather Service.

Then it went dry again, and stayed dry, with mere traces of moisture in December and virtually nothing in January.

"In most years, it would already be green out here," Carver said, looking around at the dirt-brown hills. "We did have green -- but it didn't last."

Instead, Carver and scores of other ranchers in Kern County are in survival mode.

Many are buying hay, and lots of it, to feed the animals whose "genetics" have been painstakingly bred over generations.

Ranchers from the Temblor Range to the Tehachapis are digging into their reserve funds, turning to banks for loans, or if they're lucky, securing emergency funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency -- all to buy hay and feed for their cows: their livlihoods, their lives.

"I've never seen it this bad," said Glennville rancher Fred Beard, who is in his mid-60s.

If the drought extends into a fourth year, "you've got to think about selling out," he said.

A brook that runs across Beard's property is not babbling. It's not even whispering, as winter snowfall in the Sierra -- at about 20 percent of normal -- has come to a halt. What grass that is left on Beard's ranch has turned brown.

"I had a spring go dry," he said.

"But the low country has suffered more, and the west side (of the valley) is really suffering."

As caretakers of not just businesses, but proud family traditions, Carver and Beard intend some day to hand off their operations to future generations. No one wants to be remembered as the guy who lost the ranch.

So they cull their herds, buy feed, work every day and hang on.

"People are selling cattle like crazy," said Jack Lavers, a former president of the Kern County Cattlemen's Association who has sold about 100 of his own cows to cut feed costs and help him ride out the drought. And more cows may need to be sold.

Lavers looks for high-quality hay to keep his herd in good shape, but hay prices are higher than they were in previous years as many farmers have shifted from growing hay and other row crops to planting permanent crops, such as grapes or almonds.

Lavers pays about $235 a ton, delivered.

The number of bales in a ton of hay ranges from about 33 to 50. A herd of 350 head can eat roughly 50 bales a day. Add the cost of specialized protein feeds and it means ranchers, depending on the size of their herds, are dealing with several thousands of dollars per month in additional costs.

At the junction of Highway 99 and Famoso Road north of Bakersfield, Justin Mebane was in the saddle Thursday morning, working with a group of cowboys to separate "pairs" -- cow and calf -- from a herd being readied for sale.

Mebane, owner-manager of Famoso-Western Stockman's Market, said he's seen a jump in the number of cattle being placed on the auction block. But if the rains and mountain snows don't return, the young cattleman said he's expecting a much more radical spike in sales activity.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "If we don't get some rain, we're going to get really, really busy. Ranchers will need to liquidate their herds."

And that means bringing to an end generations spent building not just the numbers, but the characteristics -- the genetics, as the cattlemen say -- of the herd.

If there's any softening of the blow for ranchers, it's that beef prices are at record highs, Mebane said.

Cattle on the hoof, going from feedlot to packing plant, are selling at an average of about $1.44 per pound, compared to $1.25 a pound about a year ago. Of course, that's not good news for beef consumers who are seeing prices rise.

Drought in Texas, the nation's largest beef producer, had already reduced the number of cattle in the United States. Now it's happening here, too. And fewer cattle translates to higher prices.

For Mebane, the situation may prove to be a short-term windfall. But in the long run, he said, it's worrisome. Fewer mother cows in Kern County will result in smaller herds and, ultimately, less commerce.

"This is their livelihood," Mebane said of local ranchers.

Fortunately, the USDA's Farm Service Agency offers a range of assistance to ranchers in Kern County and throughout drought-stricken California.

Val Dolcini, state executive director for the FSA, said the federal-government programs include NAP, the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which provides financial assistance to producers of noninsurable crops when low yields or loss of inventory occur due to a natural disaster.

In the case of local ranchers, that crop is natural forage, grasses cattle feed on from the valley floor to the Sequoia National Forest. About 100 ranchers in Kern are eligible for NAP benefits when drought destroys or severely limits livestock forage. Ranchers can buy into the federal insurance for just $250 per year.

"Calls to our offices have increased significantly across the state," Dolcini said.

Another component of the FSA's safety net for ranchers is called the livestock forage program. It's similar to NAP, but it's connected to the federal farm bill, and the farm bill has been tied up in the U.S. Congress for months.

For Carver, whose cows are eating at least $300 per day in profits, being a good caretaker of his family's business means doing whatever it takes to get through this crisis. And driving into the valley every morning, loading up his truck and feeding his cows is part of what it takes.

"This is what I've done every single day, except one, since Thanksgiving," he said. "You do what you have to do to keep your cows fed."

California has struggled with cycles of rain and drought for as long as people have lived here, Carver added. This isn't the state's first drought and it won't be its last.

"We're just trying to survive here. You live on hope and you rely on your family."

February and March could bring rain, he said. And the drought could end. Or not.

"I've stopped looking at the weather reports," he said with a wry smile. "It's too depressing."