I usually enjoy life and growing things as a farmer, however I was excited in the recent weeks to see the remains of something most definitely dead; owl pellets under an artificial nesting site. After a couple barn owl boxes were installed last year, I have eagerly awaited their occupation. Did you know that a family of barn owls will eat about 1,000 rodents in a single nesting season?
The recent owl pellet observation sparked my interest in researching the benefits of barn owls in agriculture. I found lots of information but focused on a particularly good peer-reviewed article called Agriculture land use, barn owl diet, and vertebrate pest control implications. (Kross, 2016). I will share with you the highlights, but you might want to read the research report yourself.
Research of owl presence at 25 California nesting boxes located mainly on row crops and perennial crops and forage, identified 1044 prey species. Pocket gophers, mice, and voles are generally the most important parts of the barn owl diet. Gopher numbers were highest in owl pellets found near perennial cropping systems but still a significant part of pellets found in annual cropping systems. Although mice are often considered less important as pests than gophers, they can carry pathogens that are a food-safety risk. 99.5% of prey items studied were agriculture pests, therefore owls are likely to provide valuable pest control services for farmers in our area if owl populations are fostered. Barn owls can persist if nesting sites and prey are available. Farmers seem to help provide the rodents, but let's not forget the nesting sites!
Alternative methods for rodent control such as trapping and poisoning can be expensive, labor intensive, and impact non-target species. Installation of nesting boxes to attract barn owls is not a proven method for sustained rodent control in agriculture systems by itself, rather it is best included as a component in an integrated pest management plan. Availability of nests sites appears to be the limiting factor of barn owl population growth in habitats that interface with humans (i.e. Farms and Ranches). Barn owls in the studied area occupied over half of the artificial nesting sites available to them, so installing nest boxes on farms may increase the natural barn owl rodent control.
Farmers and ranchers who wish to utilize the low-cost natural predation of rodent pests by barn owls in their agriculture systems or simply attract owls should:
- Provide abundant nest sites, including nest boxes. Funding and plans may be found through contacting your local resource conservation district.
- Increase crop type diversity in proximity to nest sites to include both perennial and annual systems to increase owl hunting efficiency.
- Install nest boxes now for this spring nesting season for best chance of owl occupation in the next 6 months.
Read the research article discussed above:
Kross S., Bourbour R., & Mertinico B. 2016. Agriculture land use, barn owl diet, and vertebrate pest control implications. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment. 223, 167-174. http://sarakross.weebly.com/uploads/8/6/7/7/8677631/kross_bourbour___martinico_2016.pdf
NRCS Barn Owl Information Sheet and Owl box plans https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs144p2_063925.pdf
UC Master Gardener Gopher Blog post, ideas for gopher management with great photos https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=29485
UCANR Songbird, Bat, and Owl Houses https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/Details.aspx?itemNo=21636 This handy guide explores the benefits of the biodiversity and aesthetics of songbirds, bats, and owls. While written with vineyard managers in mind, anyone interested in learning about nest boxes will find this guide useful. Purchase this booklet at the link above for $15.
Risk – What are you waiting for?
As the old saying goes, when it rains it pours. Nobody knows that better than we do right now, literally. For most farmers, rain is a good thing. However, for mandarin growers the amounts of rain and lengthy periods of high humidity are not good for mandarins in the middle of the season. This brings up the issue of risk on the farm. Drought, wildfire, food safety issues, crop loss, rain or frost damage are just a few of those risks.
Despite the periodic heavy rains, Placer and Nevada Counties are considered “abnormally dry” for this time of year according to the national drought monitor. After moderate and severe drought, this may seem like a fairly normal year. With shifting climates the “abnormal” could become normal over time. As we saw this fall, wildfire tore through thousands of homes and hundreds of thousands of acres. It seems the “most devastating wildfire in history” is becoming a headline each year.
While the risk of catastrophic wildfire seems to be increasing each year, rain and frost damage have historically plagued foothill farms. With travel throughout the world as easy as an overnight plane ride, international agriculture pests and diseases are also a real possibility here. I am not trying to scare you - I just want to highlight the need for farmers and ranchers to be aware of and plan for risks, and have the necessary resources to get through it.
Mother Nature is not the only risk; consider the romaine lettuce farmers on the Central Coast who had no market this fall when E. coli was found in that product. Even if one farmer did everything possible to maintain food safety, their crop may have been a total loss. Wouldn't you be glad to have crop insurance or revenue protection in place if you were in their shoes?
You will have the opportunity to hear from a fellow farmer and insurance agent, Domenic Fino of Golden Pacific Crop Insurance at the Farmer-to-Farmer Breakfast on January 9th at the Auburn UC Cooperative Extension office, from 8 to 11 AM. Sign-up today at http://ucanr.edu/survey/survey.cfm?surveynumber=26336 It's time to be informed and prepared to protect your farm.
Resources available on our website:
Drought Planning - https://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/Drought/Drought_Planning/
Financial Resources and Insurance programs https://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/Resources/Financial-Resources/
National Honey Bee Day - Aug. 18, 2018: Brush up on your knowledge of bee protection
Author: Stephanie Parreira
Celebrate National Honey Bee Day by brushing up on your knowledge of bee protection—check out the newly revised Best Management Practices to Protect Bees from Pesticides and Bee Precaution Pesticide Ratings from UC IPM. These resources will help you strike the right balance between applying pesticides to protect crops and reducing the risk of harming our most important pollinators.
The best management practices now contain important information regarding the use of adjuvants and tank mixes, preventing the movement of pesticide-contaminated dust, and adjusting chemigation practices to reduce bee exposure to pesticide-contaminated water. The Bee Precaution Pesticide Ratings have also been updated to include ratings for 38 new pesticides, including insecticides (baits, mixtures, and biological active ingredients), molluscicides (for snail and slug control), and fungicides.
Most tree and row crops are finished blooming by now, but it is a good idea to learn about bee protection year-round. Visit these resources today to choose pesticides that are least toxic to bees and learn how you can help prevent bees from being harmed by pesticide applications.
At a recent beginning farming workshop, that was the exact question that was posed to an earnest group of beginning farmers. Many of you may have similar questions so this post answers a few of them. If you have more questions about beginning farming, come to the next workshop this fall, which will be announced on our Foothill Farming website calendar.
- How do I get into an association for the crops I want to grow or am growing?
There are a number of organizations for a variety of locally grown crops, most would be happy to help a new, teachable farmer learn and understand some of the specifics about their crop and provide networking opportunities. Here is a list of a few local, crop specific organizations that you could join. Also feel free to look under resources on the Foothill Farming website for more information about your potential crop.
- California Wool Growers Association – http://woolgrowers.org/
- Mountain Mandarin Growers Association - http://www.mountainmandarins.com/
- Placer County Vintner's Association - https://placerwine.com/placer-county-vintners-association/
- Placer County Wine & Grape Association - http://pcwga.org/
- Sierra Wine & Grape Growers Association - http://swgga.org/
- Tahoe Cattlemen's Association - https://www.facebook.com/TCA-Tahoe-Cattlemens-Association-180625651975901/
Regardless of whether or not you see your crop-specific producers association above, there are also a few other local options to connect you with other farmers and ranchers.
- California Certified Organic Farmers, Sierra Gold Chapter - https://www.ccof.org/ccof/chapters/sierra-gold
The other questions pertain to water, you can guess why. Water is critical to agriculture in the foothills and its availability to your farm is key to deciding how, when, and what you can potentially raise or grow.
- Did local irrigation districts reduce deliveries during the last drought?
Most agriculture in the foothills depends on ditch water from local irrigation districts. It takes approximately 1 miner's inch of water to irrigate 1.5 – 2 acres of pasture or about 1 acre of crops during the hot summer months. During the last drought, irrigation districts asked their customers to voluntarily conserve water, and they did. No reductions were forced. Thankfully we are no longer in a drought and both the Nevada Irrigation District and Placer County Water Association plan for full water deliveries this irrigation season, which runs from April to October.
- If I need irrigation district water past October, do I need to buy the entire 6 months of winter water?
Perennial crops often require winter irrigation water due to intermittent rains in many recent winters. NID offers a fall water supply for Oct. 15 through Dec. 1. It is important to bear in mind that winter water is usually more expensive than normal irrigation water, about 125% of normal rates and is not feasible in most cropping systems. Contact your irrigation district to inquire about the availability of winter water and how much water would be available to you during the normal irrigation season.
- Nevada Irrigation District - https://nidwater.com/
- Placer County Water Agency - https://pcwa.net
- What are the dangers of creek water?
Unless you have a deeded right to use water from creeks or streams on your property, you cannot use that water. Most producers get irrigation water from an irrigation district.
Creek water or other surface water is potentially subject to contamination from wildlife, domestic animals, or other sources and is considered a food safety risk for irrigating agricultural crops. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Rule has specific rules and guidelines for water used on crops. For more information about the FSMA, check out the Food and Drug Administration website at https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/FSMA/default.htm
Local fire agencies have warned that fire season is not over. Cooler temperatures are a relief but not a stop sign for wildfire. As of last week, according to Chief Marc Bashoor at FireChief.com over 50 fires still rage in the Western United States, at varying degrees of containment, California taking the brunt of the damage. It is important that local farmers and ranchers continue to take necessary precautions against wildfires and other disasters. How can you be prepared? The following blog was written by Livestock and Natural Resource Adviser, Dan Macon.
- Author: Dan Macon Posted: July 11, 2018. Updated Aug 27, 2018.
“In June, I wrote about preparing our ranches for fire (Fire Season is Here: Is Your Ranch Ready?). Since that time, we've seen large fires in ranching country. Each of these fires is a stark reminder that we live and raise livestock in a fire-prone landscape.
In July, a number of ranchers from Placer County met with law enforcement, fire and animal control officials to discuss the emergency preparation and response issues unique to commercial-scale ranching operations. As we talked, I realized that there are several factors that make planning for and responding to wildfire (and other emergencies, like flooding) challenging for these kinds of ranching businesses:
- Many ranches have livestock in multiple locations.
- Many leased pastures are simply pastures; there is no landlord or other resident on site.
- Because of this, the physical address of the pasture may not be readily apparent.
- Often, the number of livestock at a particular site may be more than can be easily evacuated in a single load in a stock trailer.
- Access during a fire may be difficult due to law enforcement road blocks. Since many of us lease pastures, gaining access (as opposed to staying at our home places in the event of an evacuation) can be problematic.
There are several things we can do to help address these issues. First, we should write down the locations where our livestock are grazing at least on a seasonal basis. What's the address? How many animals are at each location, and what classes of animals are there? What are the evacuation routes you'd be likely to use to get animals out of harms way? If you couldn't evacuate the animals, are there safe zones on or nearby the location where animals could be moved? Is there an on-site landlord or resident, or perhaps a neighbor, that you could call in an emergency situation? Finally, are there 2 or 3 nearby ranchers who could help you? Here's a sample of my one-page plan:
Access to leased pastures during a large-scale fire or other emergency may be more problematic. On Monday, we learned from CalFire that there is a liaison officer within the agency's incident command structure who can help facilitate access to livestock during a multi-day fire. Short-term access may be more difficult - we're working with our local emergency responders to find ways to address this while also protecting public and fire fighter safety.
What steps do you take to prepare for the possibility of wildfire? I hope you'll share your ideas and questions in the comment section below!
And finally, I'm working on organizing similar meetings with first responders in Nevada, Yuba and Sutter Counties. If you operate a commercial ranch, or lease land to a rancher in one of these counties, and would like to get involved, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Watch for a follow-up blog that will focus on farmer preparation for wild fire or other emergency threats.