- Author: Daniel K Macon
Some of you probably know what my family has experienced over the last 10 months. I won't rehash it all here - if you're interested, I invite you to check out my personal blog at www.flyingmule.blogspot.com. Needless to say, 2023 has been quite a year.
The purpose of this blog post is to share some thoughts and observations about the vulnerability of first-generation ranchers to medical and other crises. And hopefully, to help us all have reality-based conversations about the connection between our own physical well-being and our ability to farm or ranch. I hope others will weigh in on this conversation.
To make the long, painful story short, 2023 has been an awful year for my family. In late January, Samia, my wife of 33 years, underwent emergency brain surgery. In February, just prior to a second brain surgery, she was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. She passed away in mid August.
I'm blessed to have really good health insurance through my job. When I checked my health insurance portal this evening, I found that they had been billed nearly $1.7 million since January 1. While they had negotiated a discount of just over $1 million, they'd paid out in excess of $600,000 (so far - I just received another ambulance bill today). We can (and should) debate the merits of the U.S. healthcare system in another space; in this post, I want to talk about health insurance as it pertains to small-scale farming and ranching.
Samia and I started Flying Mule Farm shortly after we moved to Auburn in 2001. Our first commercial farming endeavors were selling pumpkins in the fall and potted daffodils in the spring at the Auburn Farmers' Market. I soon realized that I was better at raising livestock than plants, and we started raising sheep in 2005. I worked full time and ranched part time until 2011, when I jumped into sheep production with both feet - quitting my other jobs!
I was 44 years old - middle-aged, but still invincible (in my mind) - even though I'd broken both arms in a fall from a stack of straw in 2007. And as an invincible middle-aged rancher, I debated whether health insurance was a necessary expense. Fortunately, Samia insisted that it was - especially since our growing daughters needed to see a doctor each year. But I still grumbled about the premium payments.
In 2009, I started helping our local extension office teach a multi-week farm/ranch business planning course. We always forced new producers to think about difficult things like paying themselves, like generating profit, like taking a vacation now and then. And we talked about health insurance. Farming and ranching, after all, are very physical occupations - especially at the scale typical here in the Sierra foothills. I always offered the example of my broken arms - we all laughed and moved on to more important things.
But as my family has lived through the last 10 months, I have realized that if this had happened when I was self-employed, it would have broken us - physically, emotionally, and financially. I've realized the importance of insurance. When I was self-employed, our out-of-pocket maximum was beyond our means (to be fair, a higher premium was also beyond our means). Yesterday, I met with a young beginning rancher and asked about their insurance. “I don't have any,” was the reply.
These decisions are very personal for all of us - I get that! But with the benefit of hindsight, I also realize now that I would have done everything possible to dig up the means to pay for Samia's treatment regardless of our insurance status. And that without insurance, I undoubtedly would have fallen short. The decisions that our family had to make in the last 10 months were difficult enough; deciding which bill to pay (or not to pay) - and losing a business (and our home) in the process - would have been even more devastating./span>
- Author: Daniel K Macon
Barb goatgrass (Aegilops triuncialis L.) is a winter annual grass native to the Mediterranean region and western Asia. According to a UCANR publication, it was introduced to Sacramento and El Dorado Counties via the importation of cattle from Mexico. And it is a growing problem on annual rangelands here in the Sierra Foothills. In some ways, I think of this invasive grass as "medusahead on steroids" - barb goatgrass spikes and joints (seedheads) disperse by attaching to animals, humans, and equipment. I often see new infestations along roads or walkways. Barb goatgrass forms dense stands with a rapidly establishing root system, making it extremely competitive with other annual grasses and forbs. In some areas, barb goatgrass reduces forage quality and quantity by as much as 75 percent - and because livestock tend to avoid the plant (and graze more desirable forages), it can spread rapidly.
Carol and Andy Kramer, who operate a sheep and cattle ranch in Nevada County, have been fighting barb goatgrass for several years. Most recently, they've been working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) through an Environmental Quality Incentives Program contract focused on goatgrass control. Over the course of the last 9 months, Carol and Andy have been working with the Placer Resource Conservation District (RCD) and UCCE to experiment with using prescribed fire to reduce goatgrass and re-invigorate native grasses.
Research suggests that burning goatgrass for two consecutive years offers "excellent control." Sounds pretty straightforward, right?! Not so fast! Fire is an effective control method when most of the fine fuel has dried sufficiently to carry the fire, but when the goatgrass seedheads are still attached to the stem - in other words, in late spring or early summer, when everyone is starting to get nervous about fire in the foothills!
A quick aside about using prescribed fire as a range improvement tool. When I started working with ranchers in California in the early 1990s (when I was just out of college, working for the California Cattlemen's Association), prescribed fire had largely gone out of vogue. This was partly a result of increasing worries about liability, and partly, as I recall, a shift in focus and attitude within the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (which became officially known as CalFire in the early 2000s). Today, after a decade of increasingly catastrophic wildfires (and the accelerating spread of invasive weeds like barb goatgrass), prescribed fire is making a comeback - thanks to efforts of many of my UCCE colleagues, RCD staffers and contractors like Cordi Craig and Chris Paulus (who led this effort), and especially of landowners like Carol and Andy!
Obviously, with something as complicated as prescribed burning, you don't simply wake up one June morning and say, "Hey, this would be a great day to light the back pasture on fire!" Carol and Andy (along withCordi and Chris, andUCCE) began planning for this burn last winter. As fire professionals,Cordi and Chris recommended putting a "black line" around the 1.5 acres ofgoatgrass during the winter months, whenCALFIRE burn permits are not required. Carol and Andy invested in water tanks and other equipment, and spent much of the winter and early spring pile burning and creating fire lines. Working together, we also burned several adjacent units to remove ground and ladder fuels in the areas surrounding thegoatgrass site.
Then we all waited! We needed the underlying fuel to be dry enough to burn, but we also needed the goatgrass to hold onto its seedheads. And we needed the right weather conditions. With the wet, cool spring we had in 2023, these conditions didn't arrive until July - well into fire season. This meant that we also needed a permit from CalFire. I've lived and worked in CalFire's NEU unit (which covers Placer, Nevada, and Yuba Counties) - and worked with and around ranchers - for nearly 30 years. I wasn't aware of CalFire ever allowing a rancher to do a prescribed fire for range improvement (or any other reason) in July. But thanks to the Kramer's persistence and Cordi and Chris's experience and knowledge, we received permission to do the burn on July 13.
Carol and Andy started the fire around 9am that morning - temperatures were hovering around 80F, and the relative humidity was just over 50%. Amazingly, we had difficulty getting the vegetation to burn - even as temperatures rose and humidity dropped over the course of the morning. By midday, we'd burned all we could burn, and began mopping up (making sure the fire was completely out).
Walking through the burn, I was amazed by the variability in burn intensity. Some of the goatgrass seedheads were completely consumed; others looked like they had not been exposed to fire at all. Carol collected seedheads from before the burn, as well as singed and apparently unsinged seedheads, to see if there will be any difference in germination (we'll keep you posted). We also started thinking about next year's burn.
One of the biggest challenges in burning for a second consecutive year, I expect, will be whether there is enough fine fuel (other grasses, pine needles, dry leaves, etc.) to carry the fire through the goatgrass. Visiting the site two weeks ago, I was impressed to see native blue wildrye starting to grow in the blackened burn unit (even with very little precipitation since the fire) - we'll be anxious to see what happens once we've had a germinating rain. Even so, we are considering broadcasting a quick-growing, early maturing annual grass (like soft chess (Bromus hordeaceus) this fall so that we have more receptive fuel next spring.
I think we all learned a great deal about the logistics of using fire to manage goatgrass (thanks to Cordi and Chris) - and about the challenges of using prescribed fire during fire season. One of the side benefits, from my perspective, is the demystification of fire generally. This was not a scary burn, even though it happened in the middle of July! While this was partly due to the conditions on the day of the burn, the work that Carol and Andy did to prepare (with Cordi and Chris's guidance) over the many months leading up to July 13 made it successful and safe. We're all looking forward to next year's fire!
Ranchers in Placer, Nevada, and Yuba Counties, along with UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) and the County Agricultural Departments from these three counties, have established a Disaster Livestock Access Program to facilitate livestock and human safety before, during, and after wildfire and other emergencies.
Evacuating livestock from commercial ranching operations may not be possible in the event of a major incident, due to scale of operation. Sheltering-in-place may be the best and safest alternative. Safe access by trained and qualified ranch personnel is critical to livestock welfare, firefighter safety, and public safety. The geographic scope of this project aligns with the CALFIRE administrative unit for the region (Nevada, Placer, and Yuba Counties).
Livestock Access Passholders may be permitted into evacuation zones, or other restricted areas, to provide feed, water, medical treatment, and other care to commercial livestock.
Qualified Commercial Livestock Operator: For the purposes of this program, a commercial livestock operator is defined as owning/managing 50+ head of livestock (including in utero, e.g., 25 bred cows), 100+ poultry or rabbits, or 50+ beehives that reside in Placer, Nevada, or Yuba County for at least a portion of the year, or a person who, through an agreement with that owner of livestock, has authority and is responsible to oversee the care and well-being of the livestock. This program applies to commercially raised species of livestock, including cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, poultry, rabbits, llamas, alpacas, and bees. “Commercially raised” means the livestock are raised as part of a business.
Application for Registration: To enroll in the program, a Commercial Livestock Operator must provide contact information, APNs and/or physical addresses of grazing sites, general season(s) of use, livestock description and count, and other information by completing the online form at https://surveys.ucanr.edu/survey.cfm?surveynumber=40428. If you need assistance completing the online registration, contact Dan Macon at (530) 889-7385 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that ranch owners, family members, and managerial employees are eligible to participate. Employees who receive hourly pay are not eligible.
Renewal Application: If you've received a Nevada-Placer-Yuba Pass in 2021 or 2022, you can renew your pass by re-registering and talking a 1-hour virtual refresher course. Register here: https://surveys.ucanr.edu/survey.cfm?surveynumber=40477.
Mandatory Training: A new Commercial Livestock Operator must complete an initial 4-hour training. Trainings will be offered in late May and early June in Nevada, Placer, and Yuba Counties, and you may attend any one of these regardless of your county of residence. If you received a pass in 2022, you will need to complete a 1-hour virtual training session.
For more information: Contact Dan Macon, UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor (Placer-Nevada-Sutter-Yuba) at email@example.com or (530) 889-7385.
Fair warning - you might want to file this blog post under the category, "Aren't Ranchers Ever Happy?!" I'll admit - last year, I was worried about warm temperatures, lack of soil moisture, and dried-up stock ponds here in the Sierra Foothills. We'd had the driest January-March ever recorded. Seasonal creeks weren't running. A lack of stock water was limiting access to some pastures for ranchers in my four counties. But thanks to an early start to the grass season (a germinating rain in October) and warmer-than-usual temperatures, followed by rain (at last) in April 2022, we had plenty of grass from Yuba County south through Placer County. According to the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Centern (SFREC) in Browns Valley (Yuba County), we had 3,806 pounds of forage per acre on May 1, 2022 - 20 percent more than the historical average for that date. Total precipitation from October 2021 through September 2022 was 21.2 inches - about 17 percent lower than the historical average.
The year before that (the 2020-21 water year) was even stranger. That year, SFREC measured just 10.57 inches of precipitation - the driest year since 2000 (drier, even than the worst of the drought years of 2013-2015). Even with the lack of moisture, however, the grass grew - total production was 108 percent of the historical average (3,382 pounds per acre). Once again, most seasonal creeks didn't run. Spring-fed stock water systems failed. But we had grass.
So where do we stand this year? The 2022-23 water year has been phenomenal. We have a near-record snow pack here in the northern Sierra Nevada. The southern Sierra Nevada has the most snow ever recorded! The creeks are running! Ponds are full! The May 2, 2023 Drought Map shows our region of the Sierra Foothills has escaped the drought!
How can this be?! As of today, SFREC has measured just under 35 inches of rain since October 1 - 42 percent more than "normal." But the May 1 forage production figures are below average - just over 3,000 pounds per acre (about 4 percent under the historical average). What's going on here?
Annual rangelands are notoriously complex (in terms of biodiversity, phenology, and productivity). We've known for some time that forage production on our foothill rangelands has as much to do with the timing of precipitation as it does with the total amount. Forage production also depends on adequate soil and air temperature - warmer soils and warmer ambient air temperatures, given adequate moisture, result in greater forage production. Colder temperatures and cloudy days, on the other hand, tend to work against grass growth - as we've seen during this unusually chilly spring in the foothills.
We also know that photo period - the number of daylight hours - plays a role. I've usually thought of this in terms of winter dormancy - in early December, the days are short enough that the grass goes dormant here in the foothills, regardless of moisture or temperature. This year, however, is teaching me that photo period may be equally important in controlling when our rangeland plants flower and set seed. Even though we still have tremendous soil moisture in our rangeland pastures, I'm seeing many of our annual grasses and broadleaf plants "head out" and go to seed - they're just about done growing, despite what seem like favorable conditions. As any rancher will tell you, as soon as our annual forages go to seed, they drop in palatability and nutritional value.
I'll admit, I can't truly bring myself to call this a drought year. I can live with 96% of normal forage production - it's considerably better than the 2100 pounds per acre we had on May 1, 2015 (when I managed the cow herd at SFREC). But this year is an important reminder about how complex our grazing systems truly are. Carrying capacity fluctuates from one year to the next - and from one month to the next. Our job as ranchers is to build enough flexibility into our management systems to allow us to "weather" the valleys in forage production, and benefit from the peaks!
Looking back at more than 20 years of precipitation data I've collected since my family moved to Auburn, I can't say that we've ever had an “average” year – that is, we've never had exactly 32.68 inches of rain. Some years, like 2016-17, we measure quite a bit more than average (62.96 inches, to be exact); other years, like 2020-21, we measure less (just 19 inches). Since I started keeping track in 2003, we've had 12 years with less than our average, and 6 years with more than average (the balance – 3 years – have been close to what I would call "normal"). Since 2007, we've experienced several 2-4 year stretches of below average rainfall – including the memorable droughts of 2012-2015 and 2020-2022. Interestingly, though, the trendline on my data suggests that our “average” precipitation has increased slightly since I started keeping track in 2003.
But as anyone who manages livestock on our annual rangelands will tell you, the amount of rainfall we receive is only part of the story when it comes to grass growth – timing and temperature (both soil and air temperature) are key drivers in rangeland forage production. The last two years have provided a stark example!
Think back to mid-March 2022. After an exceptionally wet start to the water year (in October 2021, I measured more than 10 inches of rain), our rangeland forages got off to a great start – they'd germinated in late October and had grown through early December. But in January 2022, the faucet shut off – we received less than 2.5 inches from January 1 through March 31. By some accounts, it was the driest January-March on record. I recall checking soil moisture on the rangelands where our sheep were grazing in mid-March 2022, and finding that we had less than 25% moisture – more like May conditions in the root zone of our rangeland plants.
Despite these dry conditions, however, the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Education Center (SFREC) measured 1,412 pounds of forage per acre on March 1, 2022 (187% of “average” for the date). Rain returned in April 2022, and total forage production at SFREC ended up being 122% of the long term average (just over 3,800 pounds per acre).
In the autumn of 2022, our germinating rain came nearly a month later than the year before – which meant the rangeland forage didn't have much time to grow before the short days and cold temperatures of December forced it into dormancy. A wet and cold December was followed by a wetter (if somewhat warmer) January 2023. While February was slightly drier than “average,” March turned wet and cold again. As of this writing (March 29), we've measured exactly 28 inches of rain at our home place in Auburn since New Year's Day!
Even with all of this moisture, however, forage production at SFREC is lagging significantly behind last year. On March 1, SFREC measured just 619 pounds per acre (less than the long term average for that date of 750 pounds - and less than half of what we had a year ago at this time). As you might expect, soil temperatures followed the cooler air temperatures in late February; cold soils mean little or no forage growth.
Stated another way, we were in a precipitation drought on this date last year – and we had more forage than “average.” This year is shaping up to be one of the wetter years since I've worked in the foothills – and we're short on feed at the moment (a grass drought). With long days and warmer temperatures coming, I suspect the forage will explode in April, but for now, feed conditions in the foothills are tight!
So how do we manage through this kind of uncertainty? As ranchers, how can we set our stocking rates and production calendars given these wide swings in conditions? During our Working Rangelands Wednesdays webinar series last year, Dr. Leslie Roche (our Cooperative Extension Specialist in Rangeland Management) suggested that while the total amount and seasonable distribution of precipitation are the biggest drivers for annual forage production, specific timing is also critical. November and April precipitation are especially important, based on Dr. Roche's analysis. A statewide collaborative effort is ground-truthing remote sensing technology that will hopefully provide real-time forage production data without needing an army of range technicians clipping plots on a weekly basis.
All of this information will help ranchers make decisions about seasonal and annual adjustments to our stocking rates, but good management will always require careful planning and on-the-fly adjustment to the current year's conditions. While While my colleague Grace Woodmansee (Siskiyou County Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor) developed our Drought Decision Support Tool with drought in mind, I'm realizing there's value in putting together a 12-month forage plan regardless of the conditions! There's no such thing as an average year!