While it may be difficult to imagine with another atmospheric river storm bearing down on Northern California this evening, irrigation season is just around the corner. Most of the water districts in the foothills will begin delivering water around April 15 - and six months of moving water through irrigated pasture will begin for many of us! Here are a few tips to help make this coming irrigation season run smoothly!
First, we should schedule irrigation (or design our systems) to provide the right amount of water at the right time to meet plant needs. These obviously change as we go through the irrigation season - after this weekend's storm, we should have plenty of soil moisture for a week or more.
Plant and soil water demand, ideally, should determine the quantity of water applied and the frequency of irrigation. This will help improve forage quality, reduce runoff and increase water use efficiency. But how do we know what the plant and soil water demand is?
One of the easiest ways to determine this is simply to learn to assess soil moisture by feel. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has a great pamphlet entitled Estimating Soil Moisture by Feel and Appearance. If you'd rather have a hard copy of the pamphlet (it's even printed on waterproof paper), we have copies at the office!
Another way to determine soil and plant water demand is to use the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) to estimate evapo-transpiration (or ETo). ETo is the amount of water transpired by plants and lost through evaporation; CIMIS has weather stations throughout the state that provide regional estimates of ETo. The closest stations for our region include one near Auburn and one at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley. The CIMIS website provides data regarding daily (and even hourly) ETo, precipitation, air temperature, soil temperature, humidity, wind, and a variety of other parameters that can impact irrigation.
Finally, if you'd like to know exactly what's happening in your pastures, I can install a WaterMark moisture sensor. These sensors can help you track the effectiveness of your existing irrigation system and adjust the quantity of water applied and the frequency of application. Call the office if you'd like to schedule an appointment! You can reach me at email@example.com or (530) 889-7385.
In future weeks, look for additional blog posts about managing irrigated pasture! Also, mark your calendar for Saturday, May 19 - I'll be co-hosting an irrigated pasture workshop with the Nevada Irrigation District and the Nevada County Resource Conservation District in Penn Valley from 8 a.m. - 11:30 a.m. - stay tuned! In the mean time, enjoy the coming rain!
April 27-28, 2018
UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center
8279 Scott Forbes Rd., Browns Valley, California
This two-day, hands-on grazing school will provide participants with practical, field-based experience in applying the principles of managed grazing on rangeland and irrigated pasture. Working in teams, participants will learn about grazing planning, paddock design, range ecology, estimating carrying capacity, range ecology and monitoring, and drought planning.
Day 1 (Friday, April 27 - 8:30 a.m. - 7 p.m.)
- Principles of Managed Grazing
- Stocking Rate and Carrying Capacity Field Activity
- Electric Fencing Basics Field Activity
- Practical Grazing Management Field Activity
- Range Ecology and Monitoring
- Feed Budgeting and Drought Planning
Day 2 (Saturday, April 28 - 8:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.)
- Nutrition and Supplementation
- Pasture Walk and Assessment
- Beef Cattle Economics 101
- Putting the Principles into Practice - Action Planning for Your Ranch
Cost: $180 (includes meals and course materials). No refunds - your payment guarantees your space!
Hotels are available in Grass Valley and Marysville. Dormitory and camping spaces are available on a first-come-first-served basis at SFREC.
For more information:
Since I haven't posted an update to my Livestock Guardian Dog Journal for four months, I thought an update on this project might be timely! We've been training a new dog to work during lambing (with some interesting observations about behavior). We've trained the new dog to respect 3-wire temporary fencing (as opposed to electro-net). And we've been collecting GPS and trail camera data on predator interactions. Lots to report!
GPS Collaring / Remote Sensing Project
We have been putting GPS sensors on two livestock guardian dogs that are with a flock of 82 sheep (bred ewes and open yearling ewes) west of Auburn. One of these dogs is a 10-year-old Anatolian shepherd neutered male; the other is a 2-year-old Anatolian x Maremma intact male. These collars record location every 5 minutes. We've also deployed seven trail cameras on the parameter of the sheep paddock to document wildlife, domestic animal and human activity in the proximity of the sheep. Our hope is that when we compare the time stamp on photos with the GPS locations of the dogs, we'll begin to understand what kinds of interactions the dogs have with predators and non-predators.
The habitat where the sheep are grazing is foothill oak woodland and open grassland. To date, the cameras have detected coyotes, foxes, deer, jackrabbits, skunks, raccoons, owls, and small birds - along with domestic dogs, walking/jogging/cycling humans and horseback riders. We're in the process of going through the GPS data to determine what the dogs were doing when these animals and people showed up in the cameras. Here are a few of the most interesting photos:
Learning to be a Lambing Dog
Our oldest dog, Reno, has been an outstanding dog at lambing. He keeps his distance from lambing ewes, is very patient with rambunctious lambs, and keeps afterbirth cleaned up (which can attract scavengers and predators). Since he's ten years old, we decided we need to try 2-year-old Bodie with the lambing ewes this year. We also hoped that Reno would teach him manners and respect - Bodie is still a bit immature behaviorally.
Our first lamb was born on February 22, and I was fortunate to arrive shortly after the birth. As has been typical, Reno was lying about 20 yards away from the ewe and lamb. Bodie met me at the pasture fence well away from them. After I had been there about 10 minutes watching the new lamb, Bodie joined us. I shot video of his interaction with the ewe and with Reno - you can view it at this link:
Training a New Lambing Dog (YouTube)
I suspect that some of Reno's protectiveness has to do with his love for eating afterbirth! That said, in the weeks since this interaction, Reno has enforced Bodie's respect for the sheep even when there isn't afterbirth available. And Bodie seems to have matured. He's more respectful of the sheep, less rambuctious in his behavior, and a better guardian dog in general.
Developing an LGD Puppy
Finally, an update on the Pyrenees x Akbash puppy we picked up in September. Elko is going to be a big dog - he's already as big as Bodie. Since pulling the rams from the flock in November, Elko has been with the rams learning manners. For several months, we kept him with Reno (which also helped on the manners front). Since we moved Reno to the lambing flock, Elko has been on his own. He's still definitely a puppy - we're not expecting him to provide much protection at this point, but he is learning to stay with his sheep.
Several weeks ago, we tried an experiment using a different type of fencing. We have found that most of our dogs will stay in 42-inch electro-net. However, we wanted to try training the sheep (and the dogs) to 3-strand poly-wire fencing. I installed a short stretch of fence at our home place and have watched Elko check it out and decide to stay on the proper side. Success!
Here's a relatively recent photo of Elko:
Stay tuned for more information on these topics! And just a note: last week, Reno became lame on a back leg. Our small animal veterinarian thinks he probably tore his ACL. At the moment, he's recuperating in the barn and watching over a trio of very annoying bottle lambs. Given the seriousness of his injury, he's probably permanently retired. He's been a great dog!
Researchers at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) in Browns Valley have been collecting rangeland forage production data since 1979. As a rangeland geek, grazier, and now livestock farm advisor, I find it fascinating to look back at the tremendous variability in forage growth over the last 39 years - partly, I suppose, to help predict the short-term future (in other words, this year's spring growth). From a practical standpoint, I find this dataset helpful for grazing planning purposes, as well.
Since the beginning, SFREC staff has noted germination dates for each year. Since the mid 1990s, the staff has also measured total available rangeland forage on the first day of the month from December through peak standing crop (which generally occurs sometime in May or early June). The average germination date over that time is October 21 - although germination has occurred as early as September 2 (in 2000) and as late as December 12 (in 2002). Interestingly, total production was right at average in 2000-2001, while the much later germination year (2002-2003) produced 145% of normal forage. Timing of precipitation after germination seems to be a critical factor!
As I said at the outset, annual rangeland forage production is incredibly variable. Total production over the last 39 years has ranged from 1,071 pounds of dry matter per acre in 1987-88 to 4,696 pounds per acre in 1992-93. Monthly production is also all over the board - on February 1, 2014, the crew measured just 98 pounds of dry matter per acre (average for the date is 533 pounds). I remember that February well - my family and I sold about a third of our commercial ewes because we simply didn't have enough grass.
Forage production on annual rangeland, obviously, is tied to precipitation. The relationship, however, is complex. Total precipitation is probably not as important as the timing. Air and soil temperatures are also related to grass growth, as this year's numbers clearly demonstrate. Here in Auburn (and I suspect in Browns Valley), our seasonal rainfall has been up and down. We had good rains in November, a relatively dry and warm December, a wet and warm January, and through this week, a dry February. As of today, our precipitation is about 80 percent of normal for our part of the foothills. This year's February 1 forage production at SFREC was a whopping 957 pounds of dry matter per acre - nearly 180 percent of normal for the date. And to think that back in late December I was worried about having enough grass this spring!
The timing of moisture also impacts the date at which we reach peak standing crop. With the dry weather and north wind we've had up until this week, I wondered if our annual grasses would mature earlier than normal. Antecdotally, some of the lower elevation ranchers I've spoken with in the last several weeks reported that the grasses on their shallower soils were starting to show signs of heading out. And talking to friends who ranch in other parts of the state (especially the Central and South Coasts and the San Joaquin Valley), the grass in our Sierra foothills is the exception rather than the rule this year. Some parts of the state do not have any green forage at all.
So what can we do with these numbers from a practical standpoint? I use the monthly numbers for planning purposes - a dry, cold autumn followed by a dry December and January means we'll be tight on forage in February (like 2013-14). Conversely, adequate moisture and warmer-than-usual temperatures (like last year and, at least in our region, this year) means extra forage in February. I also use the peak standing crop information to plan for summer and fall grazing. If we know how much we've grown, we can ration out our dry forage and make sure we leave enough residual to protect the soil when the rains start again in the fall.
Experienced ranchers, obviously, know the difference between a good grass year and a poor one. The data collected at SFREC helps put numbers to this variation - numbers that can help all of us become better managers!
Several new online resources from the University of California can help ranchers learn about a wide array of resource and ranch management issues!
There's an app for that!
A new publication from UCANR helps ranchers evaluate a variety of tools for protecting livestock from predators. Livestock Protection Tools for California Ranchers provides a summary of current research, as well as on-the-ground experience from ranchers throughout the West regarding livestock guardian animals, electric fencing, and other nonlethal tools.
UC Rangelands Information Hubs
The UC Rangelands website has a variety of outstanding information hubs for ranchers and land managers. These webpages include California-focused research and information on:
- Livestock-Predator Interactions
- Rangeland Water Quality
- Irrigated Pasture
- Rangeland Drought
- Public Lands
- Rangeland Decision-Making