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Cattle graze amid Beale's spy planes
• About 1,900 cattle are grazing on base at the moment, between three leaseholders.
• Grazing season is usually between November and the end of May, all on nonirrigated pasture.
• Typically, cattle are Angus and Hereford breeds and are bred for beef.
• Cattle occupy about 12,000 acres of Beale's 23,000 acres.
• Beale receives about $250,000 in leasing fees, most of which goes to program costs such as fence repair.
As sleek jets, unmanned drones and famous spy planes roar overhead, one group of Beale Air Force residents couldn't care less. They're much more likely to get excited by sunshine, a spot of green grass and cool water to quench their thirst.
Thousands of cattle this time of year dot more than half the base's 23,000 acres, helping Beale maintain its grassland environment and giving the ranchers who participate in the base's grazing program a well-fed, sassy specimen when they're finished.
Chuck Carroll, who runs the program in his role as Beale's natural resources manager, said cattle feeding on the grass on base property goes back to before the base was established. Since World War II, though, it's been part of an annual program ranchers across Northern California compete to join. At the moment, Carroll said, ranches in Chico, Gridley and Elk Grove have their cattle on base for a seven-month stint usually starting in November and ending in May.
"There's a real demand for land, and beef prices are up," he said, adding 16 ranches submitted bids to join the program last year for a five-year cycle.
For Beale, the benefit comes in not only what ranches pay for grazing fees, but in reducing fire danger, helping vernal pool management and reducing invasive plant species such as star thistle, Carroll said.
"In order to have grassland, you have to have sustainable grazing," he said. "This provides a service to the local economy, and we're using public land productively."
Seeing animals peacefully graze on a military base also has a morale boost, Carroll said, based on the dozens of positive comments he has received.
But though they're definitely noticed, the cattle don't respond much in kind. As a U2 spy plane took off Wednesday afternoon with a roar overhead, a few dozen Angus cattle took no more interest than in gawkers at roadside or a hawk soaring a few feet overhead.
"When they're first getting there, their ears perk up when something's flying," said rancher Chris Donati of Chico. "But they get used to it pretty quick."
CONTACT Ben van der Meer at bvandermeer@ appealdemocrat.com or 749-4786. Find him on Facebook at /ADbvandermeer or on Twitter at @ADbvandermeer.
Feeding time? Nope, just archaeologists
As it helps the base, the grazing program at Beale Air Force Base isn't a bad deal for the cattle, either.
Chico cattle rancher Chris Donati, who has a few hundred head of beef cattle on the base, said his past results have been positive.
"It's pretty good ground," said Donati, adding the Beale stint helps him bill his cattle as organic, grass-fed beef. "They are the happy cows of California."
Not only cows, though.
Base natural resources manager Chuck Carroll said for prescribed grazing, the base has also brought in sheep and goats, specifically to help cut fire breaks.
Strong, well-maintained fences keep the cattle from wandering where they shouldn't, but that doesn't mean they don't occasionally cause unintended trouble.
Some years back, archaeologists at the base parked their car in one of the pastures, then left it for several hours while they researched artifacts some distance away.
In the meantime, Carroll said, cattle, thinking it was a vehicle coming to drop off food for them, surrounded the car and robustly wiped their noses on it.
The cattle had lost interest and wandered off when the archaeologist returned to find their slightly sticky, damp car, with no ready explanation for why, Carroll said.
A base official who had grown up around agriculture was the one who eventually figured out what happened, he said.
— Ben van der Meer