"Over the last several years, I've become convinced that being stuck in the middle scale-wise is incredibly challenging. While I've written about this struggle numerous times, I've never written as concisely or as eloquently as Mr. Parry. "You are," he says, "somewhere between a real business and a self employed Mom and Pop operation. There is never enough money or enough time." By contrast, small operations subsidize their living expenses with off-farm jobs. "You believe in the benefit of what you are doing," he writes. "Because of your belief system, it is worth it.... You have little time and money to spare, but you persevere."
Parry talks about reassessing his farm's assets - his "unfair advantage." In his case, his family decided that it was the fact that they owned "1100 acres of verdant green irrigated pastures that [are] one of a kind in our dry southwest climate." While their livestock operation is going back to a commercial (as opposed to direct-market) approach, the Parry's are "selling the view" - developing agricultural tourism enterprises to compliment commercial sheep and cattle production.
Given our own struggles to come to terms with the challenges of scale, I can imagine that Mr. Parry and his family also resisted the decision to shut down the direct marketing part of their operation. However, his article ends on a positive note. "Fox Fire Farms still has all the livestock.... What has changed is that it is back to low cost, commercial production." Partly because of our ongoing drought, we're headed in the same direction this year - we don't anticipate direct marketing any meat from this year's lamb crop. Parry concludes, "A correctly structured commercial livestock enterprise has a lot going for it, not the least of which is time for life's other priorities." I find this statement especially encouraging as I head out to check sheep before driving to town to watch my oldest daughter's varsity soccer match.
In some ways, the changes at Flying Mule Farm have been forced on us - by the dry winter and by the economic realities of mid-scale livestock production. These last several years have been stressful, as regular readers of this blog will no doubt acknowledge. Mr. Parry's article has helped me realize that we haven't been alone in this struggle. His ability to make positive changes to his operation that allow him and his family to make "time for life's other priorities" is incredibly reassuring and liberating.
Over the coming weeks, I plan to share some of our thought processes regarding our own "unfair" advantages and what they mean for the future of our business. I hope my handful of readers will weigh in with their own insights and experiences! Thanks to Richard Parry for stating the obvious: "Everyone does not have to be a direct marketer of meats."
Last week, I received an update from the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) in Browns Valley, California, regarding estimated forage (grass) production. As you may recall, the January 1 measurement at SFREC was just 52 pounds per acre of forage – about 10 percent of normal for that date. The big storm we experienced in early February (over 7 inches of rain in four days) helped tremendously, as did the smaller storms that came through in late February. As of March 3, SFREC measured 400 pounds of forage per acre (about 58 percent of normal). Based on data collected at SFREC since 1979-80, we now have as much forage as we would expect to see by December 1 in a normal winter – in other words, we are 3 months behind schedule when it comes to growing grass.
My experience with grazing our sheep near Hidden Falls Regional Park northwest of Auburn confirms this lack of production. Our ewes are currently giving birth – which means they are consuming nearly twice as much forage as they do when they are not pregnant or producing milk for lambs. We typically time our lambing season to coincide with the onset of rapid grass growth – we try to match our period of highest demand with the supply of highly nutritious and rapidly growing forage. Last fall when we turned our rams in with the ewes (ewes are pregnant for about 150 days), we expected normal weather and forage production. This spring, we're adjusting to much drier conditions. Since we currently have about as much green grass as we'd expect to see in December, this means that we're moving sheep much more frequently. Yesterday, I built a 3+ acre paddock using portable electric fencing. Normally, this much grass would last our ewes 3-4 days at this time of year. This year, we were able to keep the sheep in this paddock for about 36 hours. The drought means we are spending twice as much time moving sheep as we normally would in March. It also means that our pasture recovery periods (the time in which we let graze pastures rest before grazing again) are longer - 35-40 days rather than the 25-30 days we'd normally expect in mid-March.
Because of the short grass this spring, I'm growing increasingly worried about conditions next autumn. Our foothill rangelands are dominated by annual grass and forb (broadleaf) species. By definition, an annual plant must complete its lifecycle in one year – that is, it must germinate, grow, reproduce and die all within one growing season. In drier years, annual plants will often mature and reproduce earlier – and at a lower height – in order to ensure that they create seeds for the next growing season. I anticipate that we'll see our rangeland plants mature earlier this year – I'm already seeing foxtail barley and wild oats “heading out” (setting seeds) in early March – a good month earlier than normal.
So why am I worried about conditions next fall? In a "normal" year, we try to abide by the principle of "take half, leave half" on our unirrigated rangelands. This means that we try to leave at least 800 pounds of standing grass (the technical term is “residual dry matter”) at the end of the growing season (which usually happens in May). We leave this much "residual dry matter" for several reasons:
- It provides a micro-environment that encourages earlier germination once the fall rains commence by moderating temperature, retaining moisture and protecting new grass seedlings.
- It protects our soils by providing root structure and intercepting the energy of falling rain drops - in other words, it prevents erosion.
- It helps give more desirable plants a leg up on invasive weeds (generally). Invasive weeds tend to like disturbed or bare soils. Too much residual can also encourage invasives to take over a site, so we try to find a balance.
- Finally, saving this much dry grass gives us a stockpile of dry forage going into the fall months. Dry grasses are not terribly nutritious for our livestock (we generally need to provide some supplemental nutrition), but we time our production system to be able to graze our ewes on this dry feed when they have lower nutritional demands (that is, when they are not about to give birth or lactating).
Based on past experience, we may be lucky to grow 800-1000 pounds of grass on some of our rangelands this year, so taking half would leave us under this threshold going into next fall. If we graze too much this spring, we create the potential for erosion and weed infestation next year - and we'd have little or no fall feed for our ewes.
Many beef cattle producers in the foothills breed their cattle to deliver calves in the fall. This may seem counter-intuitive based on the above discussion (after all, these cows experience their greatest nutritional demand at a time when the quality of forage is at its low point for the year). However, many ranchers feel that they can take better advantage of the spring flush of forage growth if their calves are mature enough to gain weight from grazed forage. Fall calving operations have limited options for dealing with shortages of fall forage – they can purchase hay, lease additional grazing land, and/or sell cows.
As a sheep producer, I have more flexibility. This winter and spring we're grazing on land that has not been grazed for two years, which allows us to save our summer and fall grazing land. While we may graze the land we're currently grazing again next winter and spring, we're not relying on it for forage this coming fall. Consequently, we can make sure we leave enough residual dry matter to provide the benefits outlined above. We'll also continue to look for options to graze additional rangeland through the summer and fall months. Because our entire system (animals, fencing, livestock water, etc.) is portable we can move our animals to where the feed is (rather than buying additional feed and bringing it to the animals).
On Monday, March 24, UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor Roger Ingram is organizing a workshop in Auburn for livestock producers to help us work through these questions on our own operations. We'll get some hands-on experience in estimating forage supply and thinking through our fall forage scenario. Roger will also provide information regarding animal health and nutrition, and early weaning strategies. For more information, go to http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/?calitem=234305&g=22527.
Drought planning, as I've written previously, is most effective if it's done while it's raining! While we've chosen to raise sheep for a number of reasons, the flexibility that sheep (and other small ruminants, like goats) provide for harvesting forage seems like a good decision during the current drought. We'll see what next fall brings us!
This morning, I awoke to another depressingly beautiful January day - clear skies and an expected high temperature here in Auburn of close to 70 degrees. I say depressing, because we should be in the midst of our rainy season here - but since December 1, we've measured less than one inch of precipitation. And there doesn't look to be much moisture in our future, either - a long range forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, "below median precipitation (and above normal temperatures mentioned earlier) during the height of the climatological rainy season support a continuation and possible intensification of drought conditions across California." Earlier this week, AccuWeather predicted rain for the weekend of February 1. As I check their forecast this morning, they’ve backed off on this prediction. Even the television "meteorologists" have quit using words like "beautiful" to describe our weather pattern - which must mean this drought is getting serious.
As our drought has worsened, I’ve started watching the Ken Burns’ film The Dust Bowl. The narrative quotes extensively from the writing of Caroline Henderson, a farmer who lived in the Oklahoma panhandle. In her “Letters from the Dust Bowl” published in the Atlantic Monthly in the 1930s, she wrote, “Many a time I have found myself tired out from having tried, unconsciously and without success, to bring the distant rainclouds nearer to water our fields. I’m beginning to see how worse than useless is this exaggerated feeling of one’s own responsibility.” As I drove to work this morning, I found myself looking hopefully (and ultimately, uselessly) at the clouds drifting over the Sierra crest. Indeed, I find that most of my thoughts at present revolve around the weather. Driving though the foothills where I live and the Montezuma Hills (in the Sacramento Delta) where I work, the parched landscape is depressing and scary. I often mutter to myself about plans for dealing with the dryness. I lay awake at night worrying about what the future holds for our farm.
The pond at our home place is normally full in January. This year, it's in danger of drying up entirely.
I've written recently about the impacts the drought is having on our business (see www.flyingmule.blogspot.com). We're feeding more hay than we normally would at this time of year, and we're planning on reducing our flock of sheep by 25-30% by the end of this month. If it stays this dry, we’ll wean this year's lambs much earlier than normal, and we probably won't have enough grass to market any grass-fed lamb this year. The business impacts, then, are likely to be significant for us - we are in "hang on" mode.
As The Dust Bowl makes clear, drought also takes an emotional toll on farmers and ranchers. Samia and I have raised sheep for more than 20 years. For the last 9 years, we've been trying to increase the scale of operation to allow for some financial success. We've kept our best ewes and their daughters - building our flock to its current size. In this process, we've become attached to our animals and to the seasonal rhythms of working with them. On January 31, I will take 30 or so of these ewes to the Escalon Livestock Auction - and I'll admit that I'll probably get choked up a bit when I drive away. Those 30 ewes represent a great deal of hard work and sacrifice on my part and on the part of my family. If we're to stay in business and take care of our land, we absolutely have to sell them - but this rationalization won't make it any easier. Once again, Caroline Henderson writes more eloquently than I can about this feeling: “But of all our losses, the most distressing is the loss of our self-respect. How can we feel that our work has any dignity when the world places so little value on the products of our toil?” I don’t think she meant that prices were too low; rather, I think she was distressed by the fact that the earth wasn’t cooperating in her family’s efforts to grow a crop.
The drought, obviously, will strain our business financially - which has an emotional price as well. We are buying hay at a time of year that normally brings us enough grass to support our sheep. We'll have fewer lambs to sell this year, and we won't likely be able to supply our community with grass-fed lamb. Like Caroline Henderson, a good deal of my sense of self (and self-worth) is tied up in my work - I'm a shepherd. Selling animals, from an emotional perspective, feels like a failure to me. I know of cattle producers in other parts of the state that have sold out entirely - liquidating herds that took two and three generations of their family to build. I’m beginning to understand that the term “the Great Depression” referred to the nation’s emotional state as well as economic conditions.
In his book The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan describes the impacts of the Dust Bowl on farming and ranching families in the Great Plains. During the height of that drought, the federal government bought cattle, drove them into trenches, and shot them - reducing grazing pressure on parched rangelands to help hold the soil in place. I can't imagine the emotional price that those families paid. I find it frightening that this year is shaping up to be drier (at least here in California) than the worst of those Dust Bowl years. However, I also find it amazing (and hopeful) to read Egan's accounts of families who stuck it out during the Dust Bowl - who rebuilt their farms (and their lives) when the rains finally returned and the soil stopped blowing. I hope I'm just as stubborn and resilient.
The Foothill Farming website is building a drought information section – click here to go to that section of the website. We’ve also created a Facebook group – the Farmer-Rancher Drought Forum – as a place to share information, ask questions and post photographs of drought conditions. Finally, on January 29, the University of California’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center will be holding a Drought Mitigation Workshop for ranchers (click here for more information). I know we’ll get valuable information about how to deal with the drought from a business and resource management perspective. I also know that we’ll all feel better when we go home – just knowing that others are dealing with similar issues (including the emotional issues I’ve described) will help make the drought easier to bear.
Drought-impacted annual rangeland near Oakdale, CA. Photo credit: Holly George