…or what to do if it just won't rain!
Over the last thirty-plus years they've been keeping records at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC), we've received a germinating rain, on average, around October 21. A quick check of the 14-day forecast (through November 8) suggests that we'll be waiting more than two more weeks for this year's germinating rain – typical for the way the rest of 2020 has gone, I suppose! We've started thinking about how we're going to manage our sheep grazing through the rest of the year. We saved plenty of dry forage; our challenge is how to cost-effectively help our sheep use it.
Many of us have heard – and adopted – the adage, “Don't feed your way out of a drought.” This is easy to say, but more difficult to do, I think. After all, we've all made significant investments in our livestock. Our sheep fit our system and our landscape; we can't just sell out and expect to start up where we left off in terms of genetics. For me, anyway, the decision to feed or not to feed is more complicated than this oft quoted maxim. For one thing, there are differences to how we cope with short-term drought versus a longer term dry period.
Like many of you, we stock our rangelands and pastures conservatively, especially after the 2011-2015 drought. Going into fall with dry feed in reserve is like going into fall with a full woodshed – I find it comforting to know that we've saved enough forage to get us through a dry fall. But utilizing this dry forage requires us to supplement the protein in our livestock's diet. And supplemental protein can be expensive.
Ruminant animals can digest forage thanks to the microbes in their guts. To thrive – and to digest the cellulose in dry forage, these microbes need protein. On a maintenance diet, ewes (or cows) need a diet containing 7-8 percent protein. By this stage of the year, most of our dry annual grasses are between 4-5 percent. If we've stocked our ranches conservatively, we probably have plenty of this dry feed – the trick is getting enough protein into our livestock so that they can graze it!
In the last 5-6 years, we've tried a number of different protein sources. We've used molasses tubs from a variety of sources and with a variety of types of protein. We've used loose soy-based mixes that limit animal consumption by adding salt. And this year, we tried alfalfa hay. Heading into late autumn this year, we're planning to use alfalfa – mostly due to economic considerations.
Our experience with molasses tubs has been that some (all?) of our sheep seem addicted to the sweetness. We go through these tubs far more quickly than the label-indicated consumption rate would suggest. We've not found these tubs to be cost effective.
Several years ago, we switched to a loose protein supplement. These feeds use salt to limit intake; theoretically, an animal should only consume enough feed each day to get the optimal amount of protein. In our experience, the animals over-consume for several days before the salt has the desired effect – once they even out, they seem to do quite well on this protein.
But like the molasses tubs, loose protein is fairly expensive when considered from the perspective of cost per head per day. This summer, we put pencil to paper and decided to try feeding alfalfa hay. The loose protein needed to be consumed at a rate of 0.5 pounds per head per day. That meant our 84 ewes needed slightly more than one forty pound bag every day (for sake of ease, we fed just one bag per day). At $16 per bag, the cost started adding up.
As we analyzed our alternatives, we started by considering the quantity of protein the ewes needed (rather than the percent in their diet). The bagged protein was 16% protein, which meant that the sheep were supposed to consume approximately 0.08 pounds of protein each day. Good alfalfa sheep hay is also about 16% protein. In a 110-pound bale (figuring 90% dry matter to compare it to the loose protein), we'd have just under 16 pounds of total protein. If we fed a bale to our 84 ewes every other day, they would be getting just over 0.09 pounds of protein per day on average. The bagged protein cost us $0.19 per head per day; the alfalfa (at $14 per bale) was just over $0.08 per had per day. We fed alfalfa.
Obviously, the cost of purchasing the feed is not the only cost we need to consider. The loose protein, theoretically, can be feed in quantity, since the salt will limit intake. Hay on the other hand, has to be hand fed, which incurs a labor cost. But feeding one bale of alfalfa every other day was not a huge labor demand, considering we needed to check the sheep and feed the livestock guardian dogs every day anyway.
We also tried to objectively compare the nutritional status of the sheep prior to breeding this year (with hay) to previous years (with bagged protein). We collect body condition scores on all of the ewes before flushing (in late August). Last year, our average body condition score was 3.1 (on a scale of 1 to 5); this year, our average was just over 3.2. While I realize that two data points don't suggest a trend (and while there are other variables to consider), I do think that our more cost effective alternative (hay) yielded acceptable results. We got the ewes through the summer months on dry feed at less than half the cost.
All of this brings me back to this fall. Even if we get rain in the next three weeks, we won't have much green grass until December at the earliest (and remember, green equals protein). Fortunately, we saved a substantial amount of last spring's forage on our winter rangeland – from a volume perspective, we have enough feed to get through the rest of the year (if not longer). However, we will need to supplement protein to be able to utilize this dry forage. Based on our experience this summer, we'll be feeding alfalfa.
Here's a quick back-of-the envelope comparison of the cost of feeding molasses tubs versus loose protein versus alfalfa.
If you'd like to look at these alternatives for your operation, check out the Montana State University Sheep Ration Program. Oklahoma State University has a similar program for beef cattle, as does UC Davis.
Wednesday, October 28, 2020 – 6 p.m. (via Zoom)
The University of Cooperative Extension (UCCE) is organizing an informational meeting on forming a Rancher's Fire Safe Council in the Sierra Foothills and beyond on Wednesday, October 28, from 6-7:30 p.m. The meeting will include short presentations regarding the California Cattlemen's Association Wildfire Committee, community-based Fire Safe Councils, and Rangeland Fire Protection Associations. We'll be discussing ranching community priorities regarding fire prevention, fire response (including livestock evacuation), and coordination with emergency response agencies at the local, state and federal levels. Please note: this meeting is focused on the needs and issues of commercial-scale ranching operations.
To register (and receive a Zoom link for the meeting), go to: http://ucanr.edu/survey/survey.cfm?surveynumber=32171
For more information, please contact Dan Macon, UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor (Placer-Nevada-Sutter-Yuba) at email@example.com or (530) 889-7385./span>
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.