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Herald and News, Samantha Tipler

Food 4 Life farm has a closed cattle herd Teresa Penhall has been tending for 22 years. This year she may have to sell off some of the herd because of water shortages and a limited supply of feed.prev
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Impossible choice:

Looking for solutions in a tough water year
Food 4 Life farm may have to split up 22-year-old herd

By SAMANTHA TIPLER H&N Staff Reporter
May 23, 2014
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Samantha Tipler

Food 4 Life farm has a closed cattle herd Teresa Penhall has been tending for 22 years. This year she may have to sell off some of the herd because of water shortages and a limited supply of feed.prev
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Last week, Teresa and John Penhall stood in a corral, surrounded by the cow herd they have raised for 22 years. They held a notebook in hand and began to evaluate the mamma cows, calves and steers.

They were faced with the impossible decision of deciding which cattle they can afford to keep and which to sell.

It was like picking between members of her own family.

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“We tried to look at them as an investment instead of as friends. Which is hard. If we were to buy these, which ones would we buy,” Teresa Penhall said. “We started with 10-pair we could part with. Then after we both had our comments, we only had about five-pair we could part with. And so here we are, still feeding them hay because our emotional attachment is strong.”

The drought in the Klamath Basin is causing a lack of pasture and feed, and without feed, Penhall cannot keep her herd going at her farm south of Klamath Falls: Penhall Farms – Food 4 Life.

“Ultimately, we want to keep as many as we can,” she said. “And that’s what’s so frustrating about this. You don’t want to sell them, but you’re being forced to sell them or else they’ll starve.”

After a record dry winter, irrigators in the Klamath Basin are opting not to irrigate, some in the Klamath Water and Power Agency’s WUMP program, which pays farmers and ranchers not to irrigate.

In the past

In past years, the Penhalls turned their 30-cow-calf herd onto leased pasture. But that pasture is not irrigating this year.

“Typically in March, we’re preparing to distribute our herd to different locations for pasture,” Penhall said. “And now March is here, April is here, and we’re in May, and we have no place to go with them.”

The Penhalls took part in the WUMP program, deciding not to irrigate 47 acres in their back field. That field was on a rotating crop. Three years ago, it was alfalfa, two years ago, it was grain and last year, it was potatoes. They would have planted alfalfa again this year, but with no guarantees of water from the Klamath Irrigation District, they decided not to take the risk.

“That would have been devastating financially to kill all the work you put into it,” she said.

They decided to not plant and not irrigate instead. They used the money they received from not irrigating to buy hay for the cattle. It sits, a dry dirt field with no crops or pasture growing.

A closed herd

When Penhall walks into her field, she happily waltzes up to her lone bull, scratching him behind the ears and sitting on his shoulders. She walks over to a cow affectionately called “the horned Hereford” and rubs her neck.

The Penhall’s herd is Animal Welfare Approved, a U.S. Department of Agriculture label that prohibits feedlots, cages and crates and requires the animals be fed outdoors in pasture or on a range. The closed herd is antibiotic-, growth hormone- and vaccine-free. The cows and steers on the Food 4 Life farm are born there and, for those used to make beef, slaughtered there. Penhall calls it “womb to tomb.” And all the cattle are from inside the herd.

“There’s a lot of pride that goes into having a closed herd,” Penhall said. “I don’t bring anything in from the outside that has the potential of introducing illness to my herd.”

It’s because of that closeness that the Penhalls are so reluctant to sell their cattle, especially if they are forced to sell cows that could continue to produce good calves.

“They could have and should have more time to keep making babies, but their life was cut short because of a lack of feed,” Penhall said. “Don’t get me wrong, there’s not a lack of buyers. But it’s the emotional attachment that goes with selling something that had a potential of five more years that you raised from a baby.”

Now

When the Penhalls realized they needed to find a place for their cattle to graze, they started walking door-to-door in fields they saw were irrigated. Most families had already leased their pastures.

As of last week, the Penhalls had a place for some of their cattle: two 10-acre parcels to lease. There they took their 30 yearlings — about 15 heifers and 15 steers — to those green parcels to graze.

If they had to sell all the rest of their cattle, the Penhalls would have the steers for this year’s sales and the heifers to make more in the future.

“In the event we never found any more pasture, our bloodline would carry on in those heifers,” she said.

But they are still looking for a home for the other 19 cow-calf pairs in the herd.

“The other night, my husband mowed the lawn in the dark, in the rain, to feed his cows because they were mooing,” Penhall said. “He came in and said, ‘I’m going to have a heart attack if we don’t find some hay.’

“That’s when I started crying,” she said. “We’ve got to do something.”

Penhall sent out an email to 200 people, asking for any place where she could bring her cattle to graze. A few friends have responded, with the chance of sending one or two cow-calf pairs to a small field. They found some hay to buy in Malin. Now the cow-calf pairs are at the Food 4 Life farm, eating hay.

“They’re eating $100 worth of hay a day and that’s not in our budget,” Penhall said. “Do you make a house payment or do you buy hay? At 30 days that’s $3,000. The smart thing to do is sell your cows. But you just keep hanging on, thinking that any minute the phone is going to ring and someone’s going to say: I found a piece for you.”

The Penhalls may have found 45 acres to lease, but need to fence it. They’re debating the cost and time of fencing property that isn’t their own, and weighing if it’s their only option. It may be the only way to keep their herd whole.

“Basically, we’re trying to ride out the storm,” Penhall said. “And I don’t quit very easy. Neither one of us do. We’re just trying to maintain.”

stipler@heraldandnews.com; @TiplerHN

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