Our older ewes will graze it (some) early in the growing season, but by the time we get back to these pastures in the fall, the plants are too coarse to be palatable. As with most forage plants, palatability and nutrition seem to be related - as the plants become coarse, they also drop in nutritional value. And since the sheep don't graze it late in the year, it seems to be able to out-compete some of the more desirable species (which the sheep will eat).
Over the last decade, we've tried several different approaches. Early on, thinking that fertility was a key factor, we tried fertilizing with triple phosphate. We saw no difference between the areas we fertilized and those we didn't. One of our landlords tried mowing the broomsedge mid-season - which didn't seem to set it back at all, and which also didn't increase its palatability. In 2020 and 2021, I tried spot treating individual plants with glyphosate. These plants were still vegetative (that is, they hadn't flowered or produced seed yet), but in most cases, as the plant died from the herbicide, it seemed to go into hyperdrive and produce seeds. After the 2020 experiment, we didn't notice much difference from our spot spraying - we're still seeing broomsedge in our pastures.
In very early April, I decided to try another type of spot treatment - fire! Using a propane torch, I tried burning individual plants, as well as groups of plants where fire would carry. Broomsedge seems to be more of a warm-season perennial here, so it really hadn't started growing yet.
Obviously, this spring has been atypical, weather-wise (although over the last decade, I'd be hard-pressed to say what "typical" weather is). After I burned the broomsedge, we received more than four inches of rain (more than we measured for January through March 2022). Additionally, we started irrigating in mid-April. Not surprisingly, the burned broomsedge started to grow - sending up new tillers within a week or two of my burning.
Fast-forward to the last two weeks. We finally got the sheep onto the parts of the pasture I'd burned. And they absolutely LOVED the fresh growth on the broomsedge - they selectively grazed the plants that I'd treated (and ignored the decadent plants that I didn't burn). The next step will be to see if these plants stay palatable following our typical rest period (which is usually 35-40 days during this time of year).
By some definitions, a weed is simply a plant that is growing where we don't want it to grow. A weed, in a pasture setting, is a plant that takes up water, nutrients, and sunlight, at the expense of plants that may have greater nutritional value or more palatability. In that sense, broomsedge is definitely a weed - it's growing where I might otherwise be able to grow orchardgrass or clover. But what if I can figure out a cost-effective way to keep it palatable longer into the grazing season? What if I can get the sheep to eat it? Maybe a "weed" is in the eye of the beholder! Stay tuned - I'll provide an update on my observations as we make a second pass through this pasture!
Register now for the Sierra Foothills Cattle & Sheep Grazing School!
If you look back far enough in the histories of most foothill cattle operations, you'll find... SHEEP! Believe it or not, many long-time cattle operations also had sheep at one time. And today, there's increased interest in using multi-species grazing as a risk management and diversification tool!
If you're interested in learning more about managing both sheep and cattle on rangeland or pasture, sign up for the Sierra Foothills Cattle & Sheep Grazing School, July 14-15, 2022, in Auburn, California! This two-day school will include information - and hands-on experience - in grazing planning, estimating carrying capacity, fencing systems, stockmanship and husbandry practices, cattle and sheep nutrition, and economics! Our instructors include Dan Macon (UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor), Joe Fischer (Bruin Ranch), and Ryan Mahoney (R. Emigh Livestock). Every student will have an opportunity to graze both sheep and cattle!
Tuition for the 2-day program is $200, which includes meals and course materials. Producer scholarships are available through Sierra Harvest.
For more information, contact me at email@example.com or (530) 889-7385. Let's get out there and graze!
Last month, between dog food and vaccines, we spent just over $103 on our three livestock guardian dogs (LGDs). For the first part of April, our two older dogs (Bodie and Elko) were with our ewe-lamb pairs on annual rangeland west of Auburn. Our younger dog (Dillon) was protecting our rams. After we sheared the sheep over the third weekend of April, Dillon and Bodie went with the pairs to irrigated pasture; Elko stated with a handful of late lambing ewes at our home place. During that time frame, we lost a lamb to disease, another to a fencing mishap, and a third due to an assumed case of thievery (by Dillon - see "The Right Dog for the Job"). We didn't, however, lose any sheep to predators - in fact, we haven't lost any sheep where they were protected by dogs for at least half a decade. But how do we know whether our dogs are a cost-effective livestock protection tool?
Along with my colleague Carolyn Whitesell (UCCE Human-Wildlife Interactions Advisor in the Bay Area), I just published a new peer-reviewed analysis of the economics of LGDs in the Western Economics Forum (you can download the full paper here). If you're not into reading journal articles (and who is, really!?), here are our key findings:
Benefits of Using LGDs
- LGDs likely reduce the indirect, stress-induced losses associated with depredation (including reduced weight gains, lower conception rates, and increased labor).
- Ranch-raised ewes may have greater value than purchased ewes given their local adaptation to management and forage conditions.
- Sheep guarded by LGDs travel greater distances to forage in rangeland conditions, increasing grazing efficiency.
- Labor costs and dog:livestock ratios vary greatly in real-world settings. Maximizing labor efficiency, and determining the proper number of dogs by operation and season can reduce costs.
- Successful bonding techniques are a key driver in LGD acquisition and development costs (and subsequent depreciation expenses).
With the month of May upon us, wildfire season (at least here in the Sierra foothills) is just around the corner. Indeed, May is Wildfire Awareness Month - the National Interagency Fire Center website is a great source of information on steps we can all be taking to make our communities, ranches, and homes more fire safe and fire resilient.
If you operate a ranch in Nevada, Placer, or Yuba County, one of the first steps you should consider taking is registering for this year's Disaster Livestock Access Program. Developed last year by a steering committee comprised of local ranchers, agricultural commissioners, and UC Cooperative Extension, the Disaster Livestock Access Program is designed to coordinate with emergency managers to provide ranchers with access to livestock in evacuation zones for the purpose of feeding, watering, and caring for commercial livestock.
Our program is unique in that our geographic coordination mirrors that of our local CALFIRE unit (which reflects the on-the-ground reality that many commercial ranches operate in multiple counties). Each county will recognize a pass issued by any of these three counties (Nevada, Placer, and Yuba).
Who qualifies for a Disaster Livestock Access Pass?
For the purposes of this program, a commercial livestock operator is defined as owning or 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. Cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, poultry, rabbits, llamas, alpacas, and bees that are "commercially raised" (e.g., as part of a business) qualify for the program. The program applies to both private land (owned or leased) as well as to public land (including US Forest Service and BLM grazing allotments).
Will a Disaster Livestock Access Pass get me through a road block?
Not necessarily. Your local agricultural department and I will work with incident command to identify areas within evacuation zones that are safe for passholders to access. Refer to the incident flowchart below for more details.
How do I get a Disaster Livestock Access Pass?
To enroll in the program, you must provide contact information, APNs, physical addresses, and/or allotment names of grazing sites, general season(s) of use, livestock description and inventory, and release of liability. You can register online at the N-P-Y Disaster Livestock Access Registration Site or by contacting me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 889-7385. Ranchers will need to apply each year; even if you received a pass in 2021, you'll need to complete this registration process again this year.
Is training required?
If you haven't held a pass previously, you'll need to participate in a 4-hour training session on Saturday, June 4, 2022, from 9am to 1pm at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley, CA. This training will provide an overview of the program, information on the incident command system and wildfire behavior, and an opportunity to ask questions with local law enforcement, emergency services, and CALFIRE. If you held a pass last year, you'll need to participate in a 1-hour virtual refresher course currently in development.
Preparation is Key!
Three days before our first 2021 training session, the River Fire tore through parts of Placer and Nevada Counties. Several of the ranchers who came to the workshop were able to describe the chaos and confusion of the early hours of the fire - as well as the need to coordinate with law enforcement and fire officials on the fly. Hopefully this program will improve our ability to communicate during an emergency - and provide access to care for livestock.
If you have questions, please contact me at email@example.com or (530) 889-7385./span>/span>
When it comes to livestock protection tools, there are no "silver bullets"....
I want to start this blog post by saying I'm convinced that livestock guardian dogs (LGDs), if properly bred and bonded, are the most effective livestock protection tool available to me as a small-scale commercial sheep producer. I have game camera photos of coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and even mountain lions within 50 yards of our lambing paddocks that prove to me that our dogs are working. I have lost replacement ewes to coyotes in each of the last two years where we were unable to have a dog with our sheep. But like every nonlethal tool in my tool box, LGDs are not a silver bullet. They aren't perfect, and I was reminded of this today.
I've written frequently about our bonding process - about the importance of bonding a young pup with OUR livestock and our management system. Over the 17 years that we've raised sheep and used dogs, I've become better at managing this process. I select pups from working parents - pups that are born where they can hear and smell sheep before their eyes are open. I put pups with dry ewes as soon as I can (preferably at 8-10 weeks of age). I put teenage dogs with rams to cure their desire to play and roughhouse. And I put young dogs (at 18-24 months) with an older dog at lambing as part of their final exam - an older dog will often enforce respect for the lambing process and ensure that a younger dog doesn't interfere (or worse, steal or kill a lamb).
But every dog is different. Just as every border collie pup out of working parents doesn't necessarily make a sheep dog, every LGD pup doesn't make a trustworthy guardian.
I bought Dillon several years ago at an auction - he was a promising pup from a sheep outfit in northern Nevada. We bonded him as we bond all of our LGDs - and he made expected progress - for the most part. Dillon has been slow to mature behaviorally. Most dogs, at two-and-a-half years of age, are mature (mentally and physically). Dillon still acts like a pup sometimes. He's overly exuberant at feeding time. He bounds up to sheep playfully. He's a goofball.
And today, we think, he's a lamb thief.
For a variety of reasons, we have a small group of very late lambing yearling ewes this year - which is not our normal practice. Last week, we sorted off the ewes we thought were pregnant and kept them at home after we sheared the flock last weekend. Dillon, who had been with our rams, was turned out with the older pairs (and with an older dog) - we kept the pregnant ewes at home, with an older dog. Unfortunately, we missed one of the pregnant yearlings, and she remained with the main flock.
This morning, when my partner checked the main flock, he found Dillon with a newborn lamb in his mouth. Dead. The ewe was a maiden; an experienced ewe might have chased Dillon off. Unfortunately, this first-time mother did not - nor did the older dog. Now we're faced with a dilemma - we have a dog that's great with older pairs, dry ewes, or rams, but who wants to keep new lambs “safe” from their mothers.
Ultimately, I think, this comes down to selecting the right dog for the job - or maybe it's the right job for the dog. We currently have two outstanding lambing dogs - dogs who are entirely trustworthy with lambing ewes. We have a third dog, Dillon, who is effective in less complicated situations. How do we manage this going forward?
Every dog is different - just as every operation is different. Dillon is great with our rams. He's great with dry ewes or older pairs. He's not, unfortunately, a suitable replacement for our older lambing dogs. He's not a perfect dog - he's no silver bullet. The same can be said of any livestock protection too, ultimately.