In the meantime, how are you going to cope?
Having lived (and ranched) through California's 1000-year drought from 2012-2015, I often find myself recalling the autumn of 2013. Believe it or not, we had a germinating rain on September 3 - I measured 0.75" of rain here in Auburn. Just under three weeks later, we received another inch of rain. The combination was enough to get our grass started! But a fellow rancher - I can't remember who - told me never to trust a grass year that started before Halloween. October turned dry and November turned cold and dry - between October 1 and December 31, we measured just over two inches of rain. The grass that had looked so promising in late September was gone by New Year's Day 2014. My rancher friend was correct.
The Sierra Foothills typically experience a prolonged dry spell from late spring through early fall - part of living in a Mediterranean climate. Every autumn, I look forward to the first germinating rain - the storm that is the dividing line between brown grass and green grass on our annual rangelands. Weather forecasts from two weeks ago suggested that we'd get this storm last weekend; reality proved otherwise, and our weekend was cool but dry. And the most recent California drought map indicates that our normal dry spell has intensified into moderate-to-severe drought.
Looking back at 35 years of monitoring data from the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) in Browns Valley, I see a record of uncertainty and variability. The earliest germinating rain at SFREC was recorded on September 2, 2000. The latest occurred just two years later, on December 12, 2002. Over the last 35 years, the first germinating rain of the fall occurred around October 21. But in 29% of the last 35 years, a germinating rain hasn't arrived until after November 1.
Why does this matter? As most ranchers will know, we usually reach a point in mid-December when the days are too short and the temperatures (both air and soil) are too cool to support grass growth, regardless of soil moisture. I call this our winter dormant period - the timeframe where we have to get buy on the grass that grew from germination to dormancy (and last year's dry grass). If germination happens in mid-October, and we get follow-up rains, this means we have 45 days worth of growth at least. If germination happens a month later, we don't have much grass.
Because of this uncertainty and variability, most of us are conservative in our stocking rates - we keep the number of breeding animals we know we can sustain through a dry fall. Many of us use supplemental protein to be able to utilize the dry forage we saved from the previous spring. Others try to match our production cycle to the forage cycle, calving or lambing when we're likely to have adequate high quality forage.
As I think back on my experiences in 2013-2014, I think there is a difference between short-term drought and long-term drought. Our preparation strategies, like a conservative stocking rate and fitting our production calendar to the forage, help us deal with both. Response strategies, however, can be ramped up as the severity of the drought escalates. Buying supplemental feed, for example, might help bridge a dry fall; buying replacement feed to get through a dry two or three years is a recipe for bankruptcy. Similarly, deciding not to buy in stockers or feeder lambs in a dry fall is a short-term solution; selling breeding animals or replacement females is a more drastic step that might be necessary in a long-term drought.
One of the most important lessons I learned in the last drought is that we constantly need to be thinking about how much forage we have ahead of us, and talking about key decision dates. At the moment, we have enough dry grass to get through the end of January (provided we give the sheep supplemental protein). At that point, our ewes will be entering the last third of their gestation period - and their nutritional demands will start ramping up. We typically give the ewes their pre-lambing vaccines during the third week of January. If we're still dry at that stage, we'll have some difficult decisions to make. In the meantime, I'll keep doing my rain (and germination) dance! Don't worry - I won't post video!
For regular updates on forage and ranching weather conditions, check out my Instagram feed at @flyingmule!
Like many of you over the last several weeks (and indeed, over the last several years), I've read heartbreaking accounts of ranchers losing livestock in this latest round of devastating wildfires. I've talked to neighboring ranchers who helped friends evacuate livestock, and who moved their own animals to safe zones. And I've constantly watched the horizon for new smoke, and the sky for fire planes and helicopters. I've wondered what we can do as a ranching community to address our unique concerns and needs in the face of increasingly dangerous wildfires.
According to the California Fire Safe Council,
“Fire Safe Councils are grassroots, community-led organizations that mobilize residents to protect their homes, communities, and environments from catastrophic wildfire. A local Fire Safe Council is often sparked by a catalyst – perhaps a recent fire or a group of neighbors eager to spread a fire-safe message – then embraced by the community, which turns that initial interest into a committed group that finds ways to empower the residents to do their part to make the community safe.”
Most of these local Fire Safe Councils are formed by geographically related communities – counties, towns, or neighborhoods. But what about communities of interest? What about the ranching community? Our needs, when it comes to preventing and responding to wildfire, can be very different than a residential homeowner's needs.
Ranching in the Sierra foothills is unique. Many of us operate on multiple parcels, some leased, others owned. These ranches are dispersed throughout the community – they may be surrounded by residential communities or public lands. Some of us still take livestock to the high country, while others rely on irrigated pasture during the summer months. Many of us have livestock at multiple locations.
Because these ranches are grazed (or in fire terms, because the fine and ladder fuels are modified), ranches may provide areas where fire behavior changes – where firefighters can attack a fire directly. Ranches that include irrigated pasture may provide additional firebreak benefits. Some ranches have ponds or other water sources that maybe helpful to firefighting efforts.
Rancher needs during a wildfire may also differ from the surrounding communities. Unlike backyard livestock owners, commercial ranchers often have more livestock than can be evacuated by a single truck and trailer – making evacuation difficult even with enough warning. Ranchers with leased pasture may have difficulty accessing property and livestock during an emergency due to roadblocks. And ranchers typically have first-hand, on-the-ground knowledge – and oftentimes equipment – that may be helpful in the initial response to wildfire.
All of this brings me to an idea:
What if we created a Rancher's Fire Safe Council?
What if we formalized our efforts to inventory the equipment and expertise that could help protect ranch lands and the surrounding community? What if we formalized our relationships with CalFire, law enforcement, and other emergency services? What if we could train ourselves (and our neighbors) on things like safe evacuation and fire behavior? What if we formally became a resource for protecting our ranches and our communities?
I'd like to invite you to a meeting to explore this idea in more detail. And please feel free to invite other ranchers to participate. I envision this group being comprised of commercial producers – ranchers who have more livestock than could be evacuated in a single trailer, who are raising livestock as a business.
WHEN: Wednesday, October 28, 2020 – 6-7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Via Zoom – link will be provided once you register
Please RSVP at: https://ucanr.edu/survey/survey.cfm?surveynumber=32171
- What is a Fire Safe Council?
- Are there other ways to address the fire prevention, response, and recover needs of the ranching community?
- What could a Rancher's Fire Safe Council do? What are our top priorities?
- Who should be involved in this effort?
- Next steps
I look forward to hearing from you! What do YOU think a Rancher's Fire Safe Council could do? Leave a comment to this blog, or email me directly at email@example.com.
Be sure to check out our upcoming webinars on cattle production and targeted grazing - we have a great line-up of speakers and topics!
Tuesday, October 6 (6pm) - Introduction to Targeted Grazing
This webinar will provide an overview of targeted grazing, including grazing management, picking the right grazer for the job, livestock management, and customer relations. Cost: $10. Click here to register!
Thursday, October 15 (6pm) - Cattle Health – From Parasite Management to Vaccination Programs
With Dr. Gaby Maier (UCD School of Veterinary Medicine Beef Extension Specialist) and Dr. Becky Childers (Large Animal Veterinarian). Learn about controlling external and internal parasites, developing a vaccination program for your herd, and the importance of establishing a working relationship with your veterinarian. FREE! Sponsored by Tahoe Cattlemen's Association. Click here to register!
Tuesday, October 20 (6pm) - Beef Business Basics
With Dan Macon, UC Cooperative Extension; Judd Tripp, Placer County Rancher; and JC Baser, Placer County Rancher. This webinar will focus on basic economic analysis for new and existing ranching businesses. Our rancher panel will share their experiences operating successful foothill ranching enterprises. FREE! Sponsored by Tahoe Cattlemen's Association. Click here to register!
Thursday, October 22 (6pm) - The Basics of Grazing Management
With Dan Macon, UC Cooperative Extension; Greg Lawley, Placer County Rancher; Joe Fischer, Placer/Nevada County Rancher. Well-managed grazing can improve pasture productivity and cattle health. Learn the basics of grazing management and hear from ranchers who use these practices every day. FREE! Sponsored by Tahoe Cattlemen's Association. Click here to register!
Tuesday, October 27 (6pm) - The Business of Targeted Grazing
Join Dan Macon and a panel of targeted grazing contractors to learn about the ins and outs of building a targeted grazing business. Cost: $10. Click here to register!
Thursday, October 29 (6pm) - Beef Cattle Nutrition
With Dr. Pedro Carvalho, UC Davis Feedlot Management Extension Specialist. Learn basic information about beef cattle nutrition, from grazing to ration formulation. FREE! Sponsored by Tahoe Cattlemen's Association. Click here to register!
Once you've registered for each webinar, you'll receive a Zoom link that will allow you to participate. We'll also post videos of each webinar on the Ranching in the Sierra Foothills YouTube Channel.
In 2018, as the Camp Fire was still burning in Butte County, a number of University of California colleagues, led by Area Dairy Advisor Betsy Karle, sampled irrigated pasture forage, hay, and corn silage from locations throughout Northern California (including several pastures here in Placer and Nevada Counties). Some of these regions had been impacted by ash fall and wildfire smoke; others had not. Our intent was to learn if ash created any potential toxicity or other health problems for livestock. We were especially interested in looking at heavy metal concentrations.
As we once again find ourselves in smoky conditions, I thought it might be helpful to provide an overview of our findings. For the most part, we did not find any concentrations of metals, minerals, or other compounds that should cause concern for livestock producers. Similarly, Tracy Schohr, who is the Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor for Butte, Plumas, and Sierra Counties, looked at water quality during the immediate aftermath of the Camp Fire. Her results were also unremarkable. Read more here.
The take-home message from our forages study (which I think also applies to water quality) is this:
"While more detailed and controlled studies could provide additional information, these results indicate that forages affected by wildfire ash deposition are likely safe for livestock to consume.
"If you have forages that may be affected by ash deposition, evaluate the concentrations of minerals before formulating a ration [or grazing pastures]. If you're exceptionally concerned about toxicity from contamination and cannot dilute with unaffected feed, isolate and test feed for heavy metals and organic compounds."
If you'd like to test your forage or water quality, or have questions about testing results, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 889-7385. I can also provide you with a complete copy of our forage study results.
Over the last several months, I've had several conversations with ranchers about capital expenditures – purchases of durable, relatively expensive assets. I suppose many of us in agriculture think about equipment – trucks, trailers, tractors, ATVs (at least that seems to be what those of us in the livestock business consider). We might also consider handling equipment – corrals and chutes, for example – or breeding animals. And most of us (myself included) have a limited amount of capital with which to work. How do we figure out our priorities?
First, I think it's helpful to define a capital purchase. Unlike an operating expense (feed, for example), a capital purchase exchanges one asset (cash, generally) for another. Capital purchases are included on our balance sheet; operating expenses show up on our profit and loss statement. Obviously, there are costs to owning an asset. If we borrow money to purchase a truck, the interest payment is an expense. So is the annual depreciation. But the truck (or the breeding cows, or handling equipment) are assets of our business.
As business owners, why would we make a capital purchase? From my perspective, a capital purchase plan must be tied back to the specific needs of the business. What are the weak links in terms of business profitability? A capital purchase should address these weak links. For example, if we know we need to reduce our overhead costs (and as a reminder, overheads are land-related and labor-related in a livestock business), then equipment that makes our labor more efficient may be justified. If we know our gross margins (revenue minus direct expenses) are positive, then perhaps we need to think about expanding our productive capacity (e.g., buying more breeding animals). Or said another way, if we know we need to expand our business, and we have a limited amount of capital to invest, will reducing our overhead address the key challenge, or should we buy more livestock? These are critical questions!
We should also think about the source of funds for the purchase. Are we going to use the profits from our business? Our personal savings? Are we going to borrow money? If we use our personal savings, we should formalize a plan to pay back this investment – after all, the business is borrowing money from outside the business (even if that money is ours). If we are going to formally borrow money from a bank or other source, what are terms? Is collateral required? What is the interest rate?
If you're like me, you probably like shiny paint and new equipment. When I visit larger operations, I find myself envious of their sheep handling equipment. I would love to have a portable commercially-built sheep handling system, for example. But if I think about the function of a handling system (rather than the object – or the brand name), I can come up with alternatives to this large expenditure. For example, our current handling system is comprised of a home-built wooden alley and Bud Box set-up, with t-posts and wire panels for holding pens. For us, this system does everything a factory-built set-up will do, at a fraction of the cost. The function of a set of corrals is to facilitate easy sorting and handling. Building our own system has allowed us to invest our capital elsewhere.
Examining the function of a specific piece of equipment is also related to the bottlenecks in our operations. For example, when we started in the sheep business, we had a small, bumper-pull stock trailer. I could hall 12-15 mature ewes at a time (depending on whether they were newly shorn or in full fleece). As our flock grew, we began to realize that we were spending much more time hauling livestock from ranch to ranch. In this case, we ultimately made two investments: a larger stock trailer (that more than doubled our capacity) and a border collie (which allowed us to safely herd our sheep to some of the places we'd been hauling them previously).
Sometimes, one purchase requires another. For example, when we installed our K-Line irrigation system, we also had to buy an ATV to move water. In other words, the $9,000 we spent on irrigation improvements required an additional $3,500 purchase of a used ATV. We've considered buying a double-deck stock trailer, which would require also buying a loading ramp and always loading from facilities that we can reach with a truck and trailer. Like our border collies, the ATV has multiple benefits. At the moment, we can't justify adding a double-deck trailer.
Once we've decided what our capital purchase priorities are, there are several ways we can evaluate the financial implications of these investments. For new businesses (1-3 years), I think a simple payback period is an important analysis. To use this tool, we divide the total cost of the purchase by the annual positive change in profit (either through increased revenue, decreased expense, or a combination of the two). Here's an example:
- Purchase Price = $4,000
- Operating Costs (fuel, maintenance, depreciation) = $400/yr
- Labor Savings (irrigation, fencing, etc.) = $1,400/yr
- Net Income Change = +$1,000/yr
- Payback Period = $4,000 ÷ $1,000 = 4 years
All of this is a rather long-winded way of saying that capital purchases require a plan – just like every other aspect of our ranch businesses. We need to have a clear understanding of where the economic weak links in our business may be (e.g., overhead expenses vs. productive capacity vs. improving gross margins). We need to think about the function that we need accomplish rather than the object we think we need. We need to think about the entire investment required. And finally, we need to think about the financial and cash flow implications of making the purchase.