While ranchers are legitimately concerned with the potential impacts from gray wolves, other more common predators (like mountain lions, coyotes and black bears) can be more problematic in our region. And predators can have indirect impacts (like decreased weight gain, poor reproductive performance and added labor) in addition to causing direct losses.
In collaboration with my colleague Tracy Schohr (the livestock and natural resources advisor for Butte, Plumas and Sierra Counties), I have developed the following fact sheet to help ranchers understand and document these impacts:
In the meantime, please contact our offices - or your local agricultural commissioner or wildlife services specialist - if you have specific questions!
Wildfire preparations are more complicated for commercial livestock operations. Like our neighbors, we need to create a fire safe space around our homes; we also need to think about protecting ranch infrastructure and livestock. If you haven't prepared a ranch fire safety plan, or even if you have one in place, the beginning of fire season is a reminder that we all need to be prepared! Here are a few ideas for putting together a plan for your operation.
Assessing the Threat
What is at risk in your operation? Do you have livestock in multiple locations? What is access like to your home place as well as to rented properties? As I think about our sheep operation, the following issues come to mind:
- We need to protect our home, barns and other infrastructure at our home place.
- We have livestock in several locations. Where we have irrigated pasture, we aren't quite as worried about fire. Where we're grazing on dry grass, we are more concerned. While fire is an immediate threat to the health and well-being of our animals, it can also reduce the amount of fall forage we'll have.
- Access can be a challenge during a fire. Single-lane roads, law enforcement road blocks and other obstacles may make it difficult to get our livestock during a fire.
- Smoke can create health problems for people and livestock alike. About ten years ago, during a particular smoky stretch of the summer, we had an increase in respiratory disease in our sheep.
Because many of us have operations that are spread over multiple locations, getting timely and accurate information about where fires are can be challenging as well. I find that www.yubanet.com usually has the most up-to-date information on fire location and size - be sure to check the "Happening Now" tab. CalFire also has a phone app that purports to send alerts when fires start near your location, although I've found that the app doesn't provide the real-time information I need about small local fires. Many of us have informal phone trees with the other ranchers in our area - this can be be the best way to get in-the-moment information! Be sure you know the neighbors where your livestock are grazing!
Developing and Implementing a Plan
A ranch wildfire plan should have several main components:
- Protecting Buildings, Infrastructure and Information: All of us should make our home places fire safe! Remove flammable vegetation within 100 feet of our homes and other buildings. Don't forget other critical infrastructure like propane tanks, wells, equipment sheds and barns. Also be sure you have protected critical legal documents and insurance information. You should also check CalFire's suggestions for putting together an emergency supply kit (http://www.readyforwildfire.org/Emergency-Supply-Kit/).
- Protecting Forage: Many of us stock our operations conservatively to ensure that we have fall forage for our livestock. You might consider creating fuel breaks to protect this forage. Disking or grading around the perimeter of pastures, or at least adjacent to potential ignition sources. Another alternative would be to use targeted grazing adjacent to roads or pasture boundaries - this can reduce the fuel load and slow a fire down. The width of any fuel break depends on the fuel type, topography/slope, and potential flame lengths that a fire might generate.
- Protecting Livestock: We try to think ahead of how we might move animals out of harm's way. Given enough warning, we would either haul livestock away from a fire or herd them to a safe location. Many of us, however, have too many animals to evacuate on short notice. Leaving animals in pasture (or "sheltering in place") might be the best option in many cases. If you need to leave animals in place, be sure they have enough feed and water for several days. Will the animals have water if the power goes out? Be sure to take down temporary fences or other hazards that may injure animals as the fire moves through your property.
- Water Supply: Water is critical for protecting our properties and for keeping livestock healthy. Do you have adequate water supplies for wetting down your buildings and facilities, or for directly fighting fire? If you have to pump water, do have a backup system in case you lose power? Can you provide stock water if the power goes out? You may wish to consider investing in a backup generator and/or additional water storage.
- Escape Routes: Ideally, we should all have at least two routes in and out of our ranch properties. We try to think about at least two alternatives for moving our livestock to safety in the event of a fire - and this means loading and unloading facilities, a plan for gathering livestock, and a clear understanding of the road system near our pastures. Narrow roads can be problematic for navigating with stock trailers, especially when fire equipment is also inbound.
- Backup: Obviously, we can't all be on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to a fast-moving fire. Consider working with friends, neighbors or colleagues to have a back up plan to evacuate or otherwise protect your livestock. Consider meeting with your neighbors to go over key livestock facilities, evacuation plans and access routes. Be sure to check in with these backup resources in the event of fire.
- Communication Plans: Do you have phone numbers for the other ranchers in your area? Do you know who runs the cows or sheep next door? Most of us probably do! During fire season, many of us text or call our neighbors when we see smoke. Perhaps it's time to formalize these calling trees. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like help setting up a calling tree for your area.
- Situational Awareness: If you're like me, your ear can tell the difference between a fire plane and a regular aircraft. Whenever I'm outside this time of year, I scan the horizon for smoke - especially when I hear fire planes overhead. I carry fire tools and a 5-gallon backpack pump in my truck during fire season, as well, and I'm constantly aware of my surroundings when I'm working in dry grass or brushland.
Wildfire, obviously, is a significant threat in our region - and one that can be incredibly stressful to livestock and people alike. Preparation - though planning, improving our stockmanship skills, making our homes and ranches fire safe - can help reduce this stress. For more information, check out these resources:
One of the most important economic resources is Sample Costs for Beef Cattle Finished on Grass (Forero et al, 2017). As the authors suggest, "Changing the business structure of the ranch from selling live animals to merchandising meat requires a new set of skills and knowledge." Ranchers who want to sell directly need to like interacting with the public and have a firm grasp on food safety, meat quality, and marketing regulations (for more on this, see Selling Meat and Meat Products).
According to the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, value added products are defined as follows:
- "A change in the physical state or form of the product (such as milling wheat into flour or making strawberries into jam).
- "The production of a product in such a manner that enhances its value, as demonstrated through a business plan (such as organically produced products).
- "The physical segregation of an agricultural commodity or product in a manner that results in the enhancement of the value of that commodity or product (such as an identity preserved marketing system)
"As a result of the change in physical state or the manner in which the agricultural commodity or product is produced and segregated, the customer base for the commodity or product is expanded and a greater portion of revenue derived from the marketing, processing or physical segregation is made available to the producer of the commodity or product."
By definition, then, selling meat is selling a value added product - or is it? How do we know whether we're keeping a greater portion of the revenue if we're selling meat instead of selling a live animal?
The UC Davis cost study helps answer this question. It analyzes the purchase of 20, 800-pound heifers that will be finished on grass at a weight of 1100 pounds. The heifers will be grazed on leased irrigated pasture for a six-month grazing season at $30/AUM.
If you're considering selling meat (and even if you're already doing it), you might say, "but I already own the cattle - I wouldn't go out and buy heifers when I can simply finish my own! And I already have enough irrigated pasture, too - why would I rent it?"
This is a critical point in terms of analyzing a value-added business! In order to understand whether selling meat is actually adding value, the meat business has to buy the live animal (at least on paper) from the ranching business. If the ranch typically sells 800 pound heifers, the grass fed business has to rent pasture to finish these animals. In other words, the only way we can determine whether the extra costs associated with finishing and processing animals and then selling meat adds value is analyze the meat business as a stand-alone enterprise.
The cost study offers two sample economic analyses (one for selling carcass beef, and one for selling at farmers markets). I find the discussion extremely useful for thinking about the categories of additional expenses I incurred as a direct-market rancher. One important factor that I added in my own analysis, however, was the value of my time. Perhaps a typical summer week from 2012 will help illustrate this point.
During the summer of 2012, we marketed grassfed beef and lamb. I attended the Roseville Farmers Market each Tuesday, the Tahoe City and Truckee Evening Farmers Markets each Thursday, and the Auburn Farmers Market each Saturday. With this many markets each week, my sales volume was strong! However, from the time I left home in the morning to the time I'd put everything away after each market, this schedule took about 30 hours of my time (and over 200 miles of driving) each week. I did have help with some markets, but I always found that my customers would rather buy from me than from an employee (my best employees averaged about 60% of my typical sales). Alternatively, I could hire somebody to do all of the things that needed to be done at the ranch (irrigating, moving livestock, etc.). I also needed to handle scheduling with our meat processor; sort, load, and deliver live animals; pick up, store and inventory packages of meat. In other words, selling meat instead of live animals took much more of my time.
When we're selling meat, we can increase total revenue two ways: by selling more meat or by raising our prices. We found that we could get a premium for our grassfed lamb and beef, but that there was a limit to this premium. Most folks balk at paying more than $100 for a leg of lamb. While we could keep more of the consumer's meat-buying dollar in our own pocket, there was a limit to how much more most folks would spend.
Based on these experiences, I've taken the budget used in the cost study and added in marketing labor. I've also added in a line for an owner draw. After all, most of us aren't in business simply to pay our expenses - we need to pay ourselves, too! And we need to have a firm grasp on the value of our stories - how we raise our livestock is important; so is the quality of our product. That said, we found we needed to sell the entire animal (steaks as well as chucks) to be profitable.
Finally, there is a time element to all of this. When we take lambs to the auction or sell them to a processor, we have a check within a week's time. When I was selling meat, the cash flowed in more slowly. The time value of money, and the timing of cash inflows and outflows, are a consideration for any value added business, as well.
If you're thinking about marketing meat, or if you'd like to analyze your existing business, contact me at email@example.com or (530) 889-7385 - I'd be happy to walk you through this analysis!
Now that our Pyrenees x Akbash "puppy" Elko has nearly reached full-size, I have difficulty remembering he's still a puppy - a 120-pound puppy, but a puppy nonetheless. There are signs, however, that his brain is catching up with his body! Here are a few updates and observations.
For much of the winter and spring, Elko has been with our rams (who graze separately from our ewes except for a six-week breeding season). This allows us to keep Elko with livestock without great expectations that he'll need to provide protection - we find that our rams are less susceptible to predators, especially when we graze them at our home place. But this arrangement also gives Elko some sense of what his job will be when he's mature. He definitely seems bonded with sheep - while he's a friendly dog who is enthusiastic about feeding time, he'd prefer to spend his day in the company of ovines rather than humans - critical for a livestock guardian dog in our operation. The rams have also helped teach Elko some manners.
The next step in Elko's education has been to move him with the rams to another location. We typically move dogs with the sheep in the stock trailer; last Sunday, we hauled the rams and Elko to a pasture several miles away. I was encouraged to watch Elko walk the entire perimeter of the new field when we unloaded - that's something our working-age dogs do consistently.
After we wean the lambs in early June, we'll plan to put Elko with the dry ewes and one of our older dogs. Hopefully, the older dog will help Elko continue to learn about how to behave around different classes of sheep (much like our oldest dog, Reno, taught his protégé how to act around lambing ewes this winter). I'll keep you posted!
A final note: we typically have not had to clip our livestock guardian dogs in the summer - they don't seem to get stickers even if they're rough coated, and they seem to handle the summer heat just fine. Elko's coat is different, however; we'll likely give him a haircut before the end of the month.
A number of larger ranching operations in the Sacramento Delta have been grazing sheep and cattle together on a large scale with promising results. Typically, a rangeland manager (like me) would suggest that one cow equals five sheep in terms of stocking rate; in other words, for every five sheep a rancher adds to a pasture, he or she would have to remove one cow. The ranchers in the Delta, however, are finding that this ratio doesn't necessarily hold. Ryan Mahoney of Emigh Livestock, for example, reports that he can increase the stocking rate on his pastures by grazing sheep and cattle - without over-utilizing the pastures.
But what about animal performance? Obviously, the point of any commercial grazing operation is to put pounds on livestock or to produce offspring. I recently came across a 2001 paper in Proceedings, Western Section, American Society of Animal Science by B.C. Glidewell (of the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Oklahoma), J.C. Mosely (of Montana State University) and J.W. Walker (of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station). In an experiment conducted at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station near Dubois, Idaho, the authors compared the diets and average daily gains (ADG) of yearling Columbia ewes and yearling crossbred steers in four treatments:
- Cattle alone
- Sheep alone
- 75% cattle / 25% sheep
- 50% cattle / 50% sheep
Paddock size varied to keep stocking rate constant between treatments. Fecal samples were used to determine the botanical composition of sheep and cattle diets during the 28-day grazing periods.
Keep in mind that the experiment was conducted on a vastly different range type than the annual rangelands and irrigated pastures in our foothill and Sacramento Valley regions. However, the analysis of dietary preferences suggests more dietary overlap that I would have expected. The diets of both were grass-dominated (see Table 1).
|Livestock||% Grass||% Forbs||% Shrubs|
Table 1: Dietary Preferences
When sheep and cattle grazed together, dietary overlap averaged 86%. These findings were consistent with other research conducted on similar forage types in eastern Oregon (Vavra and Sneva 1978), which found dietary overlap of 78-86%. They differed from results in western North Dakota (Kirby et al. 1988), which found 30-35% overlap. The nutritive quality of sheep and cattle diets (as measured by the percent of crude protein (CP) and neutral detergent fiber(NDF)) did vary by treatment. Cattle diets were less fibrous when they grazed with sheep (that is, they were lower in %NDF), likely because cattle ate less grass due to competition with the sheep.
Steer performance (measured in ADG) did not vary significantly among treatments, but did trend higher as the proportion of sheep increased. Similarly, the performance of the yearling ewes in the trial trended higher when sheep grazed with cattle.
The authors also compared total gain per hectare (roughly 2.5 acres). As you might expect, total gain per hectare was related to growing-season precipitation in eastern Idaho. Interestingly, total gain by hectare also seemed to be related to the combination of sheep and cattle. In a wet year, multi-species grazing produced more pounds of livestock per hectare than cattle grazing alone. In a dry year, multi-species grazing produced as much gain per hectare as cattle grazing alone. The authors suggest that over the long term, at least in eastern Idaho, gain per unit of rangeland should increase by grazing cattle and sheep together.
Obviously, multi-species grazing won't fit every operation. Sheep and cattle often require different working facilities, fences, and management skills. However, as ranchers in the Delta are finding anecdotally, grazing cattle and sheep together may actually increase production from a given pasture. We should consider doing a similar study on annual rangelands and irrigated pasture!
Here's the complete reference to the paper:
Glidewell, B.C., J.C. Mosley, and J.W. Walker. 2001. Sheep and cattle response when grazed together on sagebrush-grass rangeland. Proceedings, Western Section, American Society of Animal Science. 52: 156-159.