When we were in the targeted grazing business, I always marveled that many landowners and land managers didn't start thinking about managing their fuel loads until the grasses and other fine fuels really started growing in April. To this day, I still get phone calls and emails in April and May inquiring whether I can provide sheep or goats to reduce someone else's fire danger. Even now, with more producers providing targeted grazing services throughout the state, there simply are not enough livestock in California to treat all of the dangerous fine fuels (what many of us used to call "fall feed"). Consequently, we need to think about where and how we graze strategically - where can we provide the greatest protection to neighborhoods, infrastructure, and even our own farms and ranches?
Every spring, I see a news report where CalFire suggests that we're facing another dangerous fire season. Either we've had lots of precipitation, which means lots of grass (a.k.a., fine fuel), or we've had a dry, warm spring (like this year), which means fire season may start earlier than normal. This week, we're coping with the first heat wave of the summer (even though it's not officially "summer" yet) - which always raises awareness of the fire threat even further. We've even seen the first grass fires in the Sacramento Valley. I know I've started paying more attention to the aircraft flying over our home place - all summer, I glance up to see if it's a fire plane (and if it is, I start looking for smoke on the horizon). Finally, these first hot days remind me that it's time to get serious about our ranch fire plan (click here for a fire planning for ranchers fact sheet).
Now I'm certainly no expert when it comes to fire behavior - that combination of fuels, topography, and weather that drives site-specific wildfire conditions. However, when I look at the areas where we graze our sheep in the summer months, I think this fire behavior triangle is a useful lens. I ask myself the following questions:
- Where are the fine fuels most likely to create a ladder for fire to get into brush or trees?
- Where are the likely ignition sources in this landscape? While I can't necessarily control the natural ignition sources (like lightning), are there other potential sources (like recreation areas, roadways, utility infrastructure)?
- Are there assets in the community or on the particular property that I want to protect from fire? This may include homes, outbuildings, wells, sensitive ecological areas, or other values.
- Are there areas where modifying the fine fuels could slow a fire, giving firefighters a chance to stop it? This relates, at least in part, to the topography of a particular location.
When it comes to this last point, I think it may be useful to think of grazing like we're creating what my forester friends call a shaded fuel break. My friend Allen Edwards, who owns timber land outside of Colfax, had the foresight to construct a shaded fuel break on his property on either side of an access road along the ridge between the American River canyon and Interstate 80. To create the shaded fuel break, Allen removed the ladder fuels under his mature trees (brush, small trees, and limbs on the larger trees). When the 2001 Ponderosa Fire came out of the canyon on a hot August day, his shaded fuel break allowed firefighters to safely make a stand and keep the fire from moving further east and north, into the town of Colfax. In the lower foothills, we may be able to use targeted grazing in similar manner. A combination of grazing and browsing livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats) can modify the fuel load such that fire behavior will change enough to give firefighters a chance. These "grazed" fuel breaks don't necessarily remove all of the flammable vegetation, but grazing impacts (including removal of the vegetation and trampling, which can reduce oxygen circulation within the dry forage) can slow a fire's advance. These types of fuel modifications should be coupled with roads or other access points that allow firefighter access in the event of a fire.
If you're considering using a targeted grazing contractor, click here for a fact sheet. I also have a list of regional targeted grazing contractors available on my website. If you're a rancher who is thinking about adding targeted grazing as an enterprise, here's a short power point on the Principles of Targeted Grazing. If you still have questions, contact me at email@example.com./span>/span>
One of the things I enjoy most about cooperative extension is the opportunity to organize hands-on learning activities. From our Shepherding Skills Workshops to my California Cattle and Sheep/Goat Grazing Schools, I love the chance to get ranchers and land managers together, outdoors, to learn about grazing management and animal husbandry. But thanks to COVID-19 and the necessity to avoid large gatherings, I've had the opportunity to discover new ways to do my job!
Several weeks into California's shelter-at-home order, my friend and fellow rancher Ryan Mahoney (of R. Emigh Livestock in Rio Vista) came to me with a fun idea for doing a weekly video/podcast on all things sheep. Ryan suggested that we should call our project Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know, using a conversational format. Each week, one of us comes up with a topic and a list of questions for the other - so far, we've covered wool, feeding lambs, managing pasture, business benchmarks, risk management, and dealing with COVID-19. Our videos are available on my Ranching in the Sierra Foothills YouTube (I prefer EweTube) channel; Ryan has figured out how to turn these into podcasts, which are available on Spotify and Apple Podcast. We've had lots of fun producing them; hopefully, they're useful for other sheep producers, too!
Thanks to a grant I received from the Renewable Resources Education Act program, I've also collaborated to start a bi-weekly webinar series we're calling Working Rangeland Wednesdays. Working with my friend and colleagues Leslie Roche (the rangeland management specialist at UC Davis) and Grace Woodmansee (Leslie's graduate student and my intern), we've produced two webinars so far - both focused on rangeland drought.
And finally, I've been producing short Instagram videos on a variety of topics, including stocking rate and carrying capacity, livestock guardian dogs, and grazing planning. These are available via my IGTV channel (follow me at @flyingmule). For me, these have been fun ways to produce short, spontaneous videos on topics that I find interesting - hopefully others do, too! I generally also post them on my Sustainable Foothill Ranching Facebook Page.
Nothing will replace hands-on, face-to-face workshops for building skills and community. That said, being forced to work from home has allowed me to explore some new technology and reach out to friends and colleagues who are outside of my local area. For example, last week's Working Rangeland Wednesday webinar featured a panel of three ranchers who I respect tremendously - and who probably would not have had time in May to spend an hour in Auburn speaking at a workshop (considering that Auburn is more than an hour's drive for two of the three). Working at home has forced me to become more creative - and I'm enjoying the results! I hope you do, too!
When we started in the commercial sheep business over 15 years ago, we knew we wanted to use livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) to protect our sheep from predators. LGDs were not as common then in the foothills as they are today, so our choices were somewhat limited - and my knowledge of these dogs was even more limited. One LGD puppy looked much like another (white and fuzzy) - and while I knew enough to pick a pup from working stock, I didn't know the questions I should be asking - or even what I should be looking for in terms of behavior. While we were lucky enough to pick up an older dog who turned out to be a decent protector, our record of success in our early years was mixed at best.
As we gained more experience using LGDs, we started to look for specific traits in new dogs. And we started to realize the importance of appropriate bonding and early-life "training" (I use the word "training" here differently than I might use it with respect to a herding dog - training a LGD doesn't necessarily involve teach a dog specific commands). As I've gained more experience and insight, our record of success has improved.
Over the last six months, I've been collaborating with extension colleagues in California and elsewhere to increase our understanding about what makes a solid livestock guardian dog. Carolyn Whitesell, who is the new human-wildlife interactions advisor with UC Cooperative Extension in the Bay Area, has experience working with LGDs in Africa. Bill Costanzo, who comes from a California sheep background, is a LGD extension specialist with Texas A&M. We've worked to come up with a new fact sheet on selecting the right LGD puppy. You can download it here.
Over the coming months, we hope to produce a series of fact sheets on caring for your LGD, as well as on bonding techniques and problem-solving. Carolyn and I will also be surveying producers about their techniques for bonding LGDs with livestock. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, you may want to check out my Flying Mule Dogs channel on Instagram - you can follow me at @flyingmule. I'll be posting additional videos about the LGDs we use in our operation!
With many of us continuing to shelter-at-home during the COVID-19 crisis, I wanted to let you know about some upcoming virtual workshops and podcasts I have scheduled! I hope you'll join us!
Ranchers Virtual Coffee Hour (Tuesday, May 5, 2020 – 6:30 a.m.): Join other local ranchers for an early-morning check-in – and still have time to get out and move water before it gets too hot! We'll talk about pasture conditions and livestock markets – and plan for future webinars! Bring your own coffee! Register at http://ucanr.edu/virtual_coffee_hour_may5
Working Rangelands Wednesdays Webinar Series (Every other Wednesday, beginning on May 6 – 1:00 p.m.): We're kicking off a new webinar series on ranching and rangelands with this presentation from Grace Woodmansee and Dr. Leslie Roche on rangeland drought. Grace will present findings from a 2016 survey of California ranchers on drought preparation and response strategies. The first webinar will be Wednesday, May 6, at 1:00 p.m.Register at http://ucanr.edu/working_rangeland_webinar_may6
Virtual Grazing School (Beginning May 4, 2020): Check out my new Ranching in the Sierra Foothills YouTube channel for a series of videos covering the principles of managed grazing, determining stocking rate and carrying capacity, troubleshooting and building electric fence, and portable stock water systems! https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChmJnrOY-7XboaNe5fVXSQw
Instagram Live Interviews (Thursday Mornings, 7:30 a.m.): If you're in Instagram, tune in to my live feed each Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m.! You can follow me at @flyingmule. I'll interview experts on range management, livestock husbandry, ranch economics, and a variety of other topics! You'll be able to post questions during the broadcast, too!
Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know Podcast (posted weekly): Join Ryan Mahoney of Emigh Livestock and me as we explore a variety of sheep-related topics! So far we've covered economic benchmarks, wool production, and getting started in the sheep business. Subscribe on Spotify or through Apple Podcasts! Videos will also be uploaded to my YouTube channel.
For more information, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Note: This post was adapted from my Foothill Agrarian blog.
I've read a number of Twitter threads over the last six weeks that have been focused on supporting local farmers and ranchers during the COVID-19 crisis. I think this is great! Anything that refocuses our food buying habits on local producers is positive, in my opinion. But even at the local level, our food system is a complex network of relationships, business and otherwise. And producing meat, especially pork, lamb, and beef, is even more complicated - by regulations, as well as by basic biology. I thought it might be useful to walk through my own decision-making process when it comes to how we market our lambs.
Fundamentally, we are in the business of harvesting grass and other vegetation with sheep. Through the miracle of rumination, our sheep are able to turn this forage into muscle, fat, bone, fiber, and milk. When it comes right down to it, we're in the business of turning the products of photosynthesis into meat and wool.
As ranchers know, not all grass (or broadleaf forages) are created equal - nor are they of equal nutritional value all through the year. As grazers, we must be concerned with both quantity and quality when it comes to creating an annual forage budget. And we must think about matching our production cycle with our forage availability - in other words, we need to balance supply and demand.
From a quantitative perspective, we have an abundance of green, nutritious forage (in most years) from March through mid-May on our unirrigated rangelands, and from April through late June on our irrigated pasture. After the "summer slump" (when temperatures are too warm for our cool-season forages like orchard grass and clover), we get a second (although lesser) peak in forge production in the late summer and early fall. The most challenging time for us here in the Sierra foothills and Sacramento Valley is mid-autumn through mid-winter - in Auburn, our irrigation water ends on October 15, so we must conserve last year's dead grass until the autumn rains germinate the forage on our annual rangelands.
In terms of quality, we focus largely on protein. The rumen microbes that break down cellulose and provide our animals with energy need at least 7-8 percent protein in the forage the sheep are consuming. Green forage is much higher in protein (typically) than dry grass - the forages on our annual rangelands and irrigated pastures right now (late April) are 14-20 percent protein; the dry grass that our ewes graze in July and August are 4-6 percent protein.
On the demand side of the equation, our forage demand (both in terms of quality and quantity) peaks as our ewes give birth and nurse their lambs. Non-lactating ewes have much lower feed demands - that's why we can graze them on dry annual grass in mid-summer. Growing lambs, on the other hand, need the most nutritious forage we can provide - they need energy and protein to grow muscle, bone, fat, and wool. Since we wean our lambs in mid-June at 65-70 pounds, this means that any lambs we plan to keep and finish on grass (at 100-110 pounds) need the highest quality forage we can grow. And we have a second (albeit) lower peak in nutritional demand in September, when we bring our ewes back to irrigated pasture to get them ready for breeding season.
Regardless of the forage type (green or dry rangeland forage or irrigated forage), we boil the considerations I've outlined into an estimate of sheep days per acre. This is sheepherder talk for estimating how many sheep one acre of forage will support for one day (cattle producers can do the same kind of estimate - one cow day's worth of forage will feed 5-6 sheep!).
Last summer, we grew (and harvested with sheep) just over 18,000 sheep days of irrigated pasture forage. If we divide this number by the days in our irrigation season (180 days, to keep the math simple), we see that we can graze 100 head of sheep on our pasture for the duration of the irrigation season. Let's break this down a bit further:
- From April 15 to June 15, we grazed 80 lactating ewes, 10 replacement ewes, and 110 lambs on our irrigated pasture. Based on how much each of these classes of animals consume, we estimate that we harvested about 9,000 sheep days in that two-month period.
- Once we weaned the lambs, we sold all but 35 of them (the sheep we kept included 20 replacement ewe lambs and 15 feeder lambs that we wanted to finish on grass). These sheep remained on irrigated pasture from June 15 through August 31 (for our purposes, let's say 75 days). These sheep consumed 2,625 sheep days worth of forage.
- From September 1 through the end of irrigation season on October 15, we had all of our sheep (ewes, replacement ewe lambs, and feeder lambs) on irrigated pasture - a total of 120 head. During this period, we harvested another 5,400 sheep days of forage.
- After the end of irrigation season, we had approximately 975 sheep days of forage left - with 120 head of sheep in our flock, this meant we had just over 8 days of grazing left on our irrigated pasture after the water turned off.
So how did a blog post about selling meat end up looking at grazing math?! Let's say that we wanted to direct market more lamb as individual cuts of meat (that is, finished and processed lamb). For example, what if we wanted to finish and direct market 75 lambs - could we do it with our current forage resources? From June 15 through the end of irrigation season, these 75 lambs would require 9,000 sheep days of our best forage. Since we'd already used 9,000 sheep days up to June 15, these lambs would require every blade of grass we could grow after weaning. We would have no grass for growing ewe lambs, nor would we have any grass for our breeding ewes. Our alternatives would be to purchase hay, lease additional irrigated pasture, or reduce the size of our breeding flock. We couldn't simply wake up on June 15 (weaning day) and decide to keep 60 extra lambs because we wanted to sell meat next November instead of feeder lambs next week.
The last issue for me is the added time and cost involved in marketing meat. In a good year, I know I can sell our feeder lambs in late June for $130-150 per head. If I decide to finish them and sell them as meat, I will incur additional costs beyond the cost of feeding these lambs for another 4-5 months. Once they're finished, it will cost me about $150 per lamb to have them harvested and packaged in a form that I can legally sell. I'll have multiple trips to the processor (which take me away from doing work on the ranch). I'll have the time involved in marketing and selling meat (which can be significant). I'll have the cost involved in storing meat. At our scale, I've found that selling meat results in higher gross income, but selling feeder lambs in June results in higher net income. In other words, we're more profitable selling a live feeder lamb in June that we would be selling meat in November.