One of the questions I'm asked most frequently when it comes to livestock guardian dogs is, "How many dogs do I need to protect my sheep/goats/cows?" As you might imagine, the short answer is, "It depends." The long answer is more complex. From an economic perspective, the answer is, "As many as it takes to hold predator losses in your operation at an acceptable level, but no more than that." From a production perspective, I've found that the answer depends on operational characteristics, the environment, and the abilities of the specific dog(s).
While it is tempting to try to develop a rule of thumb recommendation (like one dog per 100 ewes), reality is usually more complicated. Wearing my sheepherder economics hat for a moment, the fundamental question comes down to comparing the costs of a dog versus the benefits the dog provides. On the cost side of the ledger, I must account for the cost of dog food, veterinary care, and depreciation. In our operation, these annual expenses amount to roughly $600 per dog. On the benefit side of the ledger, I need to know how many sheep DON'T get killed by predators to determine if my $600 in expenses are justified. Obviously, this is not an easy number to estimate - how can I measure something that doesn't happen? How do I quantify the sheep that might have died had I not had a livestock guardian dog with them? I suspect we'd lose more sheep if we didn't use dogs, but I'm not willing to leave the sheep unprotected to find out!
Operational characteristics, in my experience, play a significant role in determining the optimal number of dogs. Birthing seasons (spring vs. fall), other livestock protection tools (like electric fence, on-site herders, night penning, etc.), grazing management (set stocking versus rotational grazing), and the number of individual herds or flocks all factor into determining the right number. Using our operation as an example:
- We lamb in the late winter and early spring, when there is not a significant natural prey base for the wild predators in our environment. Our lambing paddocks are 7 miles from our home. This argues for more dogs.
- We use electro-net fencing, which definitely deters canine predators (dogs, coyotes and foxes) as well as bobcats. This allows us to get by with fewer dogs.
- We move the sheep frequently - they move to fresh pasture every few days, and graze different properties in spring/summer versus fall/winter. I suspect all of this movement keeps the predators off balance. This allows us to get by with fewer dogs.
- We rarely (if ever) have all of our sheep in one mob. This time of year, the mature ewes are in one flock; the feeder lambs and replacement ewe lambs are in a second flock; the rams in a third location. During breeding season, we have two separate breeding groups plus a group of lambs. This argues for more dogs.
Based on these factors, we feel that we need at least three dogs for our small, part-time operation. With three dogs, we can protect three different groups of sheep or place two dogs together during our most vulnerable time of year (lambing). During some parts of the year, we have more dogs than necessary, which provides flexibility if we begin to have problems with predation.
The environment where we're grazing, and the predators it contains, is a second critical consideration. Here in the Sierra foothills (at least at the moment) our main predators (in order of potential threat) are domestic dogs, coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, bobcats, foxes, and birds of prey. I've spoken with ranchers on the north coast who would add crows, ravens, and magpies to that list. And ranchers in northeastern California would add gray wolves. Predator density and prey base also come in to play. Are there several established packs of wolves in the region? Is there sufficient native prey? Are these particular wolves (or coyotes, or mountain lions) known to prey on livestock? Each of these questions are important to consider when determining how many dogs a particular operation might need.
Finally, every livestock guardian dog is an individual. Some are athletic and want to patrol a wide area; others want to stay with their livestock. Some dogs are more canine aggressive than others (an important trait in wolf habitat); others will harass bears. And these traits will change over time - a dog that was aggressive and athletic in his younger days might be content to stay with lambs on irrigated pasture in his later years. In my experience, there is more variation between individuals than there is between livestock guardian dog breeds (a subject for a future blog post!).
Finally, I started a new phase of my livestock guardian dog behavior study this week. I'll be tracking the movements of four dogs (2 each in separate 1000-ewe bands of sheep) grazing on the Tahoe National Forest in Nevada and Sierra Counties (in an area that a collared Oregon wolf has been known to visit in the last 12 months). This is a long-time producer with experienced herders operating on open range with no fences. They typically use two dogs with one band and three dogs with the other, and experience less than one percent death loss while the sheep are on Forest Service allotments. They also have additional dogs they can add to each band if predator problems begin to escalate.
I think this illuminates the "it depends" answer in my first paragraph! They have 1 dog per 400 sheep; we have 1 dog per 51 sheep. They are grazing mature ewes in a relatively wild environment for only 75 days - and at a time when the natural prey base is plentiful. We need more dogs to protect ewes and lambs at an especially vulnerable time of year (and I should note - the large operation needs more dogs at lambing as well). The common thread for each of these operations, however, is that we are constantly evaluating our need for predator protection against the cost of providing it. If we could get by with fewer dogs, we would; similarly, if the large operation needs more dogs this summer, they'll add dogs. In other words, it depends!
Direct marketing, for some farmers and ranchers, can be a way to capture more of the consumer dollar. By bypassing the middlemen - wholesalers, distributors, and retailers - direct marketing can allow a producer to receive retail value for his or her product. But direct-market meat is a different story. Direct-market meat requires substantial processing - the harvest and cut-and-wrap services provided by processing facilities and butchers require significant skill and capital investment. Over the last 50 years, we've lost local meat processing capacity - small local butchers simply don't exist in very many places. Many of us assume that increasing this processing capacity would solve the problem. In my experience, the solution isn't quite so simple. As someone who has marketed meat directly to consumers at a modest scale (120+ lambs per year at our peak), I have observed a variety of complicated questions regarding the real issues involved increasing harvest and processing capacity.
As a small producer, I wanted the ability to call a plant one week and deliver animals the next week. However, most of the small plants in our region are fully booked as much as a year out. A new small plant would be similarly impacted eventually – and from the perspective of the plant, it would be easier to have 10 clients bringing 200 steers (or 500 lambs) per year than to have 200 clients bringing 10 steers (or 25 lambs). In my mind, the only way to address this need for scheduling flexibility for the producer would be to build a plant with excess capacity, which is not economically efficient. This excess capacity would allow me to call the plant on Thursday to schedule a harvest, deliver my lambs the following Sunday, and have packaged meat by the next Friday. If the plant were running at capacity, it could not accommodate me.
Seasonality is related issue, in my mind. Grass-fed meat is a great opportunity for some producers, but typically not a year-round product for many small-scale ranchers. What will a new plant do to keep its crew busy on a year-round basis? I think this is another factor that pushes plants to find fewer, larger-scale customers.
Meat processing has largely been organized on a manufacturing model. The plant buys the raw product (livestock), converts it into meat, and then sells it to distributors, wholesalers, consumers, etc. The model we're talking about is a service model – the plant has to make money on the service it provides rather than adding value to product it owns. That's a very different model, one that is a struggle for existing operations (let alone new ones). For example, when we started with our regional processor, we could get a lamb harvested and fabricated for $50/head. The company soon realized that the cost of providing this service was much greater than the cost of the labor involved – they had to deal with 100 or more operations like mine that each wanted to harvest 10-15 head once a month. The cost is now $120-130 depending labeling and other factors. This is reflective of true cost of providing a service rather than selling a product.
Despite the interest in new processing capacity locally, there has not been any significant financial commitment from local citizens or producers towards the construction of a facility. This is where the rubber meets the road. And I suspect that this is the crux of the issue – there are both regulatory and economic barriers to entry in the meat processing business. The low return on investment for a service-oriented meat processing facility may make the economic barriers the more difficult to fix. I think if the economics were positive, we'd see private investment in new USDA-inspected processing capacity.
Alternatively, we may want to consider focusing on the regulatory barriers. Along those lines, a couple of things come to mind for me:
- There are inspection-exemptions for direct-marketed poultry based on scale of operation. In some circumstances, a poultry producer could harvest as many as 20,000 birds a year without USDA inspection and sell the meat directly to end users. No similar exemption currently exists for livestock.
- There was state legislation adopted last year making it legal for cattle producers to sell a live animal and for the buyer to then arrange for harvest and cut-and-wrap. There has been some confusion as to whether this new law applies to other livestock; the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is taking the position that it only applies to cattle since cattle producers pay for an ownership inspection (e.g, brand inspection) at harvest. There is interest among other livestock groups (California Wool Growers, California Pork Producers, etc.) in extending this option to other species.
- CDFA could provide more state inspection (for a fee, perhaps). This could facilitate direct marketing of meat products.
This is probably WAY more information than anyone wants on this topic, but I do think it's important for us to understand the complexity of the issue. I guess I see a couple of important needs:
- Economic analysis and extension – I think UC Cooperative Extension (and others) could help small-scale producers (and large-scale, for that matter) better understand the economics of selling meat versus selling live animals. My very simplistic assumption when I started was that I would be more profitable selling $350 worth of meat than I would be selling a live lamb for $150. Reality was much more complicated. I think there's a need to help folks better understand this question. Producing a finished product (as opposed to a live animal) at scale is a complicated production and economic model for most livestock producers. It requires a very different set of skills.
- Research-to-policy – I also think there is a role for extension and others to help regulators understand the opportunities and barriers involved in direct-market meat production. This runs the gamut from ensuring food safety to understanding economics to quantifying consumer demand.
Many of my extension colleagues - in California and elsewhere - have spent considerable time and effort examining this problem. Their work has been exceptionally valuable - we have a much better understanding of the complexity of these challenges today than I did when I started in the direct-market meat business more than a dozen years ago. Perhaps these questions are part of the maturity process - the early pioneers must expose the weaknesses in the system. Some of these weaknesses are economic; others are regulatory. I'm hopeful that we're making progress towards discerning - and addressing - the most critical barriers.
As we move into the dry season on our annual rangelands, I thought it might be useful to post a few resources on feeding supplemental protein to livestock to maintain forage intake!
Annual Rangeland Forage Quality (UCANR Publication 8022) - this 2001 publication provides a useful overview of the seasonal and annual variation in forage quality in our foothill region.
Cow Supplementation: Getting the Best Bang for your Buck (Proceedings, The Range Beef Cow Symposium XXIV, by K.C. Olson, 2015) - this is a great overview of ruminant nutrition and supplementation strategies, along with some basic economic considerations.
Alternative Protein Supplementation (Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center Drought Workshop, 2014) - this video of a talk by Dr. Roberto Sainz from UC Davis offers some interesting alternatives to rangeland protein supplementation.
Essential Nutrient Requirements of Sheep (New Mexico State University) - a useful overview of sheep nutritional requirements, including protein supplementation strategies.
For many of us in Northern California, the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons are still very fresh in our minds. The late-season fires in Sonoma County in 2017, and the Camp Fire in Butte County in 2018, were among the most destructive deadliest fires in California's history. With above average precipitation - and above average forage growth - ranchers in the Sierra foothills and Sacramento Valley should start working now to prepare for what promises to be another very challenging fire season.
- Near normal temperatures and precipitation through August.
- Above normal snow pack gradually melting through July.
- Weak El Niño continuing through the summer.
- Heavy fine fuel crop [grass!], completely cured in June. Above normal brush growth.
- Below normal amount of summer lightning due to prevailing SW-W flow.
- Normal Significant Fire Potential in May. Above Normal at lower elevations from Sacramento Valley June-August, spreading north and including middle elevations beginning in August. Significant Fire Potential remaining quiet at high elevations.
While many of us have remarked that forage growth on our foothill rangelands seemed late this year, monitoring at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center suggests that we're now above normal - the April 1 forage numbers are about 120 percent of the long term average. This data - as well as the NCGCC predictions above - was generated before the significant rainfall we've received over the last week. While the cooler temperatures and moisture will tamp down fire danger this month, we'll probably see increased fine fuel and brush growth as a result of these May storm systems. In other words, our fire danger will ramp up once the weather turns hot and dry.
At the risk of recycling a blog post from last fire season, here are some actions all of us can take in the coming weeks to prepare for increasing wildfire risk later in the summer:
Developing a Plan
What is at risk in your operation? Do you have livestock in multiple locations? Will you be able to access your home place or rented pastures in the event of a fire? Do you rely on dry forage in the fall before new grass germinates? A ranch wildfire plan should have several main components:
- Protecting Buildings, Infrastructure and Information: All of us should make our home places fire safe! Remove flammable vegetation within 100 feet of homes and other buildings. Don't forget other critical infrastructure like propane tanks, wells, equipment sheds and barns. Also be sure you have protected critical legal documents and insurance information. You should also check CalFire's suggestions for putting together an emergency supply kit (http://www.readyforwildfire.org/Emergency-Supply-Kit/).
- Protecting Forage: Many of us stock our operations conservatively to ensure that we have fall forage for our livestock. You might consider creating fuel breaks to protect this forage. Disking or grading around the perimeter of pastures, or at least adjacent to potential ignition sources, can protect this forage. Another alternative would be to use targeted grazing adjacent to roads or pasture boundaries - this can reduce the fuel load and slow a fire down. The width of any fuel break depends on the fuel type, topography/slope, and potential flame lengths that a fire might generate.
- Protecting Livestock: I try to think ahead of how I might move animals out of harm's way in the event of a fire. Given enough warning, I would either haul livestock away from a fire or herd them to a safe location. Many of us, however, have too many animals to evacuate on short notice. Leaving animals in pasture (or "sheltering in place") might be the only option in many cases. In our operation, I've identified areas like irrigated pastures or areas with little or no vegetation where we could put livestock until a fire passes. If you need to leave animals in place, be sure they have enough feed and water for several days. Will the animals have water if the power goes out? Be sure to take down temporary fences or other hazards that may injure animals as the fire moves through your property.
- Water Supply: Water is critical for protecting our properties and for keeping livestock healthy. Do you have adequate water supplies for wetting down your buildings and facilities, or for directly fighting fire? If you have to pump water, do you have a backup system in case you lose power? Can you provide stock water if the power goes out? You may wish to consider investing in a backup generator and/or additional water storage. Remember, PG&E will likely shut down the power grid during periods of severe fire risk.
- Escape Routes: Ideally, we should all have at least two routes in and out of our ranch properties. We try to think about at least two alternatives for moving our livestock to safety in the event of a fire - and this means loading and unloading facilities, a plan for gathering livestock, and a clear understanding of the road system near our pastures. Narrow roads can be problematic for navigating with stock trailers, especially when fire equipment is also inbound.
- Backup: Obviously, we can't all be on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to a fast-moving fire. Consider working with friends, neighbors or colleagues to have a backup plan to evacuate or otherwise protect your livestock. Consider meeting with your neighbors to go over key livestock facilities, evacuation plans and access routes. Be sure to check in with these backup resources in the event of fire.
- Communication Plans: Do you have phone numbers for the other ranchers in your area? Do you know who runs the cows or sheep next door? Most of us probably do! During fire season, many of us text or call our neighbors when we see smoke. Perhaps it's time to formalize these calling trees. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like help setting up a calling tree for your area. Also, consider communicating with local law enforcement and animal control officials before an emergency occurs - letting these folks know where you have animals may be helpful in accessing your livestock during a fire.
- Situational Awareness: If you're like me, your ear can tell the difference between a fire plane and a regular aircraft. Whenever I'm outside during fire season, I scan the horizon for smoke - especially when I hear fire planes overhead. I carry fire tools and a 5-gallon backpack pump in my truck during fire season, as well, and I'm constantly aware of my surroundings when I'm working in dry grass or brushland.
Last summer, I put together a fillable form to help livestock producers write down a simple wildfire plan. In our sheep operation, I printed a copy of this plan for everyone associated with our ranch (family members, landlords, co-owners). I also shared our plan with our local animal control and law enforcement. The plan stayed in my truck until fire season ended. Thankfully, we didn't need to implement our plan - but the planning process itself instigated useful conversations within our business and with our neighbors. Click on the links below for more information:
Finally, I want to hear from you! What steps are you taking to prepare for wildfire and other emergencies in your ranching operation! We can all learn from one another - please share your plans in the comment section!
Every spring, there comes a stretch of time when I wish we had 10 times as many sheep. Since we're stocked at a level where we're comfortable we'll have enough grass in bad years (and in the autumn months - see my December 2018 post, Fall Feed... or Fuel Load?), we almost always have more grass than grazers in April and May. We simply can't keep up with forage growth during the spring flush.
Grazing, obviously, can be a tremendous tool for managing fuel load (especially "fine" fuels, like grass and broadleaf plants) in our Mediterranean climate. Unlike mowing or mechanical fuel reduction tools, or herbicide treatment, grazing actually removes flammable material - ruminant animals like sheep, goats and cattle convert this "fuel" into muscle, fat, bone, and fiber. Grazing livestock can access areas where it would be next to impossible to operate equipment. And areas that have been grazed don't burn with as much intensity as areas that haven't.
Despite these benefits, every spring I am reminded that we simply don't have enough livestock in California to address all of our wildfire fuel problems. Targeted grazing contractors have developed successful business models focused on bringing grazing animals to the fuel load - working with utilities, homeowners associations (HOAs), and municipalities to manage fuels near infrastructure, residences, and communities. Yet even within these more focused operations, I believe we'd benefit from greater coordination between grazing contractors, rangeland managers, and fire planners. Let me explain using an example from my own spring/summer grazing operations.
We no longer operate a paid targeted grazing business, but we do trade winter grazing for summer fuel load reduction with a community near Auburn - in other words, we graze our sheep in the community during winter and early spring for free, in exchange for reducing fuel load in the late spring and summer. So far, this arrangement has worked well for us as well as for the HOA. We do a great deal of grazing planning during our lambing season (mostly to ensure that we've got enough forage and natural shelter for the ewes and lambs); more recently, we've also started to be more intentional about our summer grazing plans.
The fuels in this community are mostly annual grasses and broadleaf plants, with some coyote bush, poison oak, and Himalayan blackberry interspersed with blue oaks, interior live oaks, and foothill pines. The homesites are located on a series of parallel ridges and drainages that fall off to the northwest, and the community is adjacent to a large regional park. In thinking about our summer efforts to make this community more fire safe, we've chosen to remove fuels from a strip on either side of the roads and driveways serving the homes. We've also grazed around the structures that are situated on ridge tops. We've realized that our grazing wouldn't necessarily be a fuel break (in the sense of removing all vegetation down to mineral soil); our grazing, rather, would hopefully slow a fire enough to give fire fighters a chance to protect structures and lives.
As we've thought about this, however, I've realized that I would benefit from a better understanding of fire behavior in our particular environment. Where are the ignition sources likely to be? My sense is that southerly Delta breezes in the summertime are usually associated with lower temperatures and higher humidity (and less extreme fire behavior). North and northeast winds, on the other hand, tend to be hot and dry - does this suggest that we should focus our grazing on removing fuels north and east of the community. These kinds questions, I think, are where ranchers, rangeland managers, and fire planners could greatly benefit one another's understanding of these interactions. Since we can't possibly have enough grazing animals to address ALL of our fuel-load issues, we need to be more strategic about prioritizing grazing activities that are focused on fuel-load reduction. These kinds of collaborative efforts, I think, are an important piece of reducing the threat of wildfire in our foothill communities.