As I've written numerous times, research into the efficacy of livestock protection tools, including livestock guardian dogs, is difficult (if not impossible). The traditional model for scientific inquiry - that of comparing a treatment to a control - is extremely challenging when it comes to livestock protection tools. Fundamentally, nobody wants to be part of the control group (that is, nobody wants to leave a group of livestock unprotected to see if the treatment works!). Further challenges arise when we begin thinking about other variables - questions like the specific environment, the predators in that environment, the dietary preferences of those predators, the surrounding land uses, and so on.
Yet these challenges don't mean that we shouldn't try to shed light on questions about where specific livestock protection tools may work, or where they may fail. I like the idea of doing case studies - real world examples of the success or failure of these tools. In my mind, a useful case study would objectively describe as many of the site- and operation-specific details as possible. Case studies could take into account that many real-world management systems employ multiple tools. And case studies could be important whether or not a particular approach successfully prevented predator losses - sometimes we learn more from our failures than from our successes. The following account, then, is my first attempt at writing one of these case studies.
Flying Mule Sheep Company grazes approximately 100 head of sheep on foothill annual rangeland west of Auburn, California, from mid-December through early April. The flock is comprised of bred ewes (approximately 80 head) and replacement yearling ewes (approximately 20 head). The grazed landscape is a large-lot subdivision (20-40 acre lots). Individual parcels are connected via paved and unpaved private roads and Nevada Irrigation District canals. Many residences have domestic dogs; some have horses and donkeys. Vegetation in the grazed landscape includes open grasslands, blue/live oak savanna, blue/live oak woodland, and riparian vegetation. Surrounding land uses include grazing land (cattle, sheep, and goats) and a large regional park (mostly wildland).
Twelve game cameras were placed throughout the grazed landscape in late December. Cameras were placed adjacent to game trails, roads, and canals to help determine the species of wildlife present and the frequency of camera "capture" in relationship to the proximity of livestock guardian dogs and sheep. In order of prevalence in game cameras from late December through early April, I noted coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and a single mountain lion (in the evening on March 1, 2020). Other wildlife caught on camera included deer, raccoons, skunks, jackrabbits, and turkeys.
During the graze period (December 15, 2019 through April 6, 2020), we had no predator losses. In early February, I found a buck that was likely killed by a mountain lion. On the night that we documented the mountain lion in a game camera (March 1), the flock was in a 13-acre paddock, the boundary of which was about 30 yards away from the camera location. On that date, there were 47 lambs with the ewes (between the ages of 1 day and 11 days). The sheep had been moved into this paddock on the morning of March 1. We lost three lambs during the time the sheep were in that paddock due to starvation or mis-mothering.
From a purely scientific standpoint, I cannot say that the dogs and electric fence prevented predation. While the cameras clearly demonstrated that we had predators in the vicinity of the sheep, I don't know that these specific predators would have killed sheep (rather than wildlife prey) if they'd had the opportunity. I don't know if these predators took livestock from unprotected herds/flocks during the same time period. That said, I can conclude that I feel much safer having dogs with the sheep in this landscape! I can also conclude that the mountain lion I caught in my camera has probably seem me more than I've seen it!
As for most of you, I imagine, my world seems upside down at the moment, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. As I write this, my youngest daughter is finishing her junior year of high school through online courses. My oldest daughter is completing her second-to-last semester at Montana State University through online courses. And I'm working from the desk in my kitchen. I think I've participated in more video conferences in the last seven days than I've been on in my entire professional life. Based on the advice of medical professionals, we're practicing social distancing, washing our hands, and avoiding large gatherings of people.
Despite COVID-19's dominance of our news cycle and our family conversations, normal, everyday ranching concerns continue. We're at the tail end of our lambing season, which means I'm checking the flock every morning and evening (and more frequently during stormy weather). And we're still worrying about drought.
Yesterday, I was invited to give a presentation during the California-Nevada Drought Early Warning System regular bimonthly webinar. The first two talks covered current conditions and future outlook - and even with the rain and snow we had in our part of the Sierra Nevada and Sacramento Valley last week, we remain in drought conditions. If you're interested in the details, here's a recording of the webinar talks (mine is the third talk in the webinar). The first two talks confirmed my observations. After last week's rain, I checked soil moisture on our winter rangeland - even with three inches of precipitation, the soil was only 50-75 percent saturated (which explains the lack of water in our seasonal creeks). We're starting to see some of our annual grasses head out, indicating the possibility of an earlier-than-normal decline in forage quality. While the snow in the mountains was welcome, our snow water content remains well below average for this time of year.
As I was preparing my talk, I started thinking about how my approach to this year's drought was different from how we managed through 2013-14 (one of the driest years in my memory). While every drought is unique (in terms of severity, timing, and scope), I think I've also learned from my experience. In 2013, we moved our sheep to Rio Vista, where I helped manage a 1900 ewe operation. Here's a quick comparison of the steps we took in the fall of 2013 and early winter of 2014, versus our strategies in 2019-20.
2013-2014 Drought (late germination, followed by extended dry period and warm January temperatures)
- We fed our entire year's supply of alfalfa during lambing (October-December) because there was virtually no grass on our annual rangelands.
- In late January, we sold approximately one-third of our ewes to reduce our forage demand once they started to lamb.
- In mid-February, we moved our sheep back to annual rangeland in the foothills near Auburn (to ensure that the larger commercial flock would have access to rangeland in Rio Vista.
- In late February, we ultrasounded our ewes to determine whether they were pregnant. We sold a handful of open ewes.
- We weaned our lambs four weeks earlier than normal (in late May) to reduce our stocking rate and save dry forage for fall.
2019-2020 Drought (late termination, followed by wet December, dry January, record dry/warm February)
- For the first time ever, we took our ewes to alfalfa stubble in the Sacramento Valley (near Nicolaus) from mid-November until mid-December. While we incurred some additional expense, this allowed us to rest our winter rangeland for an additional 30 days.
- Because we've kept detailed grazing records since the previous drought, we were able to put together detailed, 2-month grazing plans. We identified additional forage resources on our winter rangeland that allowed us to extend our forage supplies.
- We will cull any ewe without a lamb when we ship the flock back to spring/summer pasture in April. We'll cull additional ewes at weaning (for poor mothering, bad udders, missing teeth, etc.)
I'm curious as to how your drought strategies have changed! Are you doing anything differently this year? Is this the first drought you've experienced?
As I write this post on the morning of March 19, 2020, several of the counties surrounding Placer County, where I live, work, and ranch, have issued "shelter in place" orders in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. The only order I've actually read, from Sutter and Yuba Counties, specifically notes that the following "essential businesses" are among those exempted from the shelter in place order:
Food cultivation, including farming, nurseries, livestock, fishing, and businesses necessary to support those industries;
Food and agriculture processing and distribution facilities including those facilities on farms and those use to conduct related research.
In other words, I can continue doing most of what I do, but I will need to change some of the ways in which I work.
We are in the midst of lambing season, which means the sheep need to be checked 2-3 times a day (and more frequently during stormy weather). Fortunately, sheepherding is naturally socially distanced - even in normal times, we usually work independently. As the Sutter-Yuba order acknowledges, the work of farming - especially at this time of year - doesn't shut down. Animals need to be fed, crops need to be planted - the work goes on.
We farmers and ranchers - and agricultural researchers - still need to take precautions, though. We need to avoid large gatherings, maintain social distancing, WASH OUR HANDS FREQUENTLY! Our farms and ranches, and the communities who depend on the food and fiber we produce, are depending on us to stay healthy.
I can't speak for others, but at times the news has been a bit overwhelming. I realized yesterday as I was trying to set up my home office and continue to do my extension work that I was having difficulty focusing on any specific task. Fortunately, a friend called before lunchtime, just to catch up. We talked about forage conditions and lambing (he's a sheep rancher, too), and also talked about our families and about the times we're living through. Having that direct interaction (as opposed to texting or emailing) helped me relax and focus - and the rest of the day was productive.
Based on yesterday's experience, I've decided that I will call a friend and/or family member once a day - social distancing doesn't need to be isolating. I've also decided that I'll check in on my older friends at least once a week. I know we need to be cautious about spreading COVID-19 to older folks, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't reach out to them to make sure their needs are being met. Twenty-first Century medical and information technology are amazing, but our sense of community - our willingness to help our neighbors - will be critical to getting through this crisis.
To ensure that we are taking all appropriate COVID-19 precautions within UC Cooperative Extension, the Placer, Nevada, and Sutter-Yuba UCCE offices are closed for face-to-face, in-person service through April 7, 2020. While these measures may be inconvenient, we are taking these precautions to support our communities. And while our offices may be closed, we are still at work – mostly from home. If you have a livestock or natural resource question during the closure, please email me directly (at firstname.lastname@example.org) or leave me a voice mail at 530/889-7385. I will be checking both voice mail and email regularly during the closure, and will respond as quickly as possible.
During the closure, we will not be holding any workshops or meetings. However, I have several webinars and other online programs in the works – stay tuned for details! Also, I will be updating my blog, FaceBook pages, and Instagram IGTV channels regularly. Follow the links below to view these resources:
- UCCE Placer-Nevada-Sutter-Yuba Livestock and Natural Resources website: https://ucanr.edu/sites/Livestock/
- UCCE Foothill Farming website: https://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/
- Ranching in the Sierra Foothills Blog: https://ucanr.edu/blogs/RanchingintheFoothills/index.cfm
- UCCE Sustainable Foothill Ranching FaceBook page: https://www.facebook.com/FoothillSustainableRanching/
- UCCE Foothill Farming FaceBook page: https://www.facebook.com/FoothillFarming/
- Instagram (including IGTV channels): follow me @flyingmule (note: I'm posting short videos about grazing management, stockmanship, and other topics - and lots of photos of lambs!)
- Twitter: @flyingmulefarm
Also, I am able to do ranch calls and consultations by phone or by video conferencing (including FaceTime) – if you have a question or an issue that involves looking at a particular resource or livestock issue, this might be an option!
I realize that this is a very challenging time for all of us. I also know that livestock need to be cared for, pastures need to be managed, and bills need to keep getting paid regardless of what is going on around us. Take care of your families, your communities - and yourselves! Please feel free to contact me – I look forward to hearing from you!
I've kept daily weather records since we moved to Auburn (nineteen years this week, in fact). During that time, we've experienced some exceptionally wet years (2016-17 comes to mind, when we measured almost 63 inches of precipitation), as well as some exceptionally dry years (like 2006-07, when we received just under 20 inches). Other years and specific months stand out, too - like the 14.5 inches we measured in January 2017, or the 0.5 inches we received in December 2013. Unfortunately, February 2020 will go down as one of those stand-out months - we measured a measly 0.03 inches of rain for the entire month.
The current water year (which started in October) was preceded by a wetter-than-normal September (at least here in Auburn). We received better than 2 inches - enough to germinate the grass on our annual rangelands. As often happens when we get early rain, though, we didn't get much to follow up the promising start. From October 1 through November 30, we measured just 0.71 inches. We got back on track in December (with more than 8 inches), but 2020 has been disappointing so far. Through the end of February, the season total was just 56 percent of our long-term average for the date. The March 3 version of the U.S. Drought Map puts all of Placer, Nevada, and Yuba Counties, as well as the eastern portion of Sutter County, in the Moderate Drought category. And the most recent drought outlook from the National Weather Service (see below) suggests that drought will persist or develop in the northern two-thirds of California.
Looking ahead to summer irrigation season, we're fortunate that most of our local water agencies went into the winter with more holdover in their reservoirs than normal. Even so, the latest Sierra snow pack numbers for our region are more depressing than the lack of rain. The central Sierra snow pack is only 38 percent of normal for this date.
I'm not a weather forecaster by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a weather geek. This morning, I looked at the long term average precipitation for March through June in my weather records, which didn't provide much reassurance. Even if we get 75 percent of our average rainfall for the next four months, we'll end the water year with less than 20 inches total. Even with 150 percent of average - a miracle March (and April, May, and June) - we'll end the water year well below our long-term average.
We've definitely seen an impact on the annual rangeland where we winter our sheep west of Auburn. The February 1 forage supply at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in the Yuba County foothills was about 69 percent of normal. I suspect the March 1 measurement won't be much better. While the lack of moisture is concerning, the warm February temperatures have pushed many of the blue oaks to leaf out 3-4 weeks earlier than normal. Last Thursday (before the brief storm over the weekend), I walked through one of the pastures we hadn't grazed yet. The grass was short generally, but I was especially surprised to see the vegetation beneath the oaks starting to wither and die - in the first week of March! This Sunday, after we'd received roughly a third of an inch of rain the day before, I dug a six inch hole to check soil moisture at the root zone of our annual grasses. I'd estimate moisture levels to be at around 25 percent of field capacity - in other words, incredibly dry for early March. No wonder the creeks aren't running!
Most of us will likely have enough grass to get buy this spring, although a lack of stock water could be problematic. I'm more concerned about the potential lack of fall feed. Short grass this spring means we're covering more ground with our sheep. This could mean less dry feed to return to with our sheep after the summer irrigation season ends in October. Our plan is to cull our older and less productive ewes at shearing or weaning. We may even consider selling some of the replacement ewe lambs we'd normally keep.
These conditions call for drastic measures, obviously - and so we've scheduled drought workshops in Grass Valley and Yuba City! Over the last six years, I've attended or helped to organize four or five drought workshops - and it's rained every time!
In all seriousness, in light of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, we are scheduling a Drought Planning for Rangeland Livestock Producers webinar (rather than an in-person workshop) in late March or early April. Stay tuned for details! We'll share results from our 2016 post-drought rancher interviews, feature panel discussions with ranchers and other experts, and discuss ranch-specific goal setting - all focused on coping with what is shaping up to be another drought year.
If you'd like to receive notice of this webinar (and future workshops), contact me at email@example.com.
Last month, I had a chance to attend the Society for Range Management annual convention in Denver, Colorado. Among the symposia I attended was one entitled "Transforming ranching through precision livestock management on extensive rangelands" - fancy title, right?! But despite the lengthy (and overly academic) title, I found the talks to be outstanding! And the possibility for using technology to improve livestock management presents an exciting opportunity!
The first speaker was Dr. Mark Trotter from CQ University in Queensland, Australia. He suggested that cooperative extension can and should play an important role in the development and use of new technology. First and foremost, this technology should have economic value for producers - either by increasing revenue or reducing costs. Dr. Trotter also suggested that extension should guide the development of technology and help test the hardware in real-world settings. Extension should help test the animal behavior algorithms that make the technology relevant in production settings. Finally, extension can help prepare the industry for the widespread adoption of these new technologies.
The most exciting technological developments, at least to me, are those that can help make labor more efficient. Dr. Trotter and Dr. Derek Bailey (from New Mexico State University) talked about new applications for global positioning system (GPS) technology and ear tag mounted accelerometers. Researchers are finding that these systems can predict when cattle or sheep will give birth and can even alert a producer about a calving or lambing problem. Other researchers are using these systems to detect diseases and predation impacts. Trotter and Bailey also talked about the potential for using this kind of technology to place water troughs in areas that will facilitate more efficient forage use, as well as helping managers predict when livestock need to move to fresh pasture.
The final speaker was Dr. Tony Waterhouse, professor emeritus from Scotland Rural College. He spoke about the need for durable technology: "Sheep break things a bit; cows break things a lot," he said. He has experimented with technology that records a ewe's proximity to specific lambs as a way to match a ewe with her offspring (often a difficult task in extensive range-based sheep production systems).
At least for me, technology will never replace the need for people to manage livestock. These are complex biological, economic, and social systems - the rancher's "eye" will always be critical. However, I do think that there may be ways - in the not too distant future - where this technology can help our eyes see patterns and behaviors we couldn't see previously. Stay tuned! I hope to begin testing some of this technology in the coming years!
In the meantime, here are some links to several of the technology firms mentioned in the symposium: