When we first started using livestock guardian dogs nearly 15 years ago, I often joked that we our sheep operation was "predator-friendly" because our dogs were not. In other words, the protective behavior of our dogs allowed us to avoid using lethal control on coyotes, mountain lions, and other predators in our environment. And in those 15 years, knock on wood, we've never had to kill a predator. This isn't to say we wouldn't use lethal control if we came upon a predator killing our sheep, but our dogs (for the most part) seem to be doing their jobs.
California now has a predator (the gray wolf) that is protected under both the State and Federal Endangered Species Acts. Under both laws, it is illegal to "harm or harass" a wolf - and lethal control (at least in California) is not an option (even if a wolf is killing livestock). Consequently, the potential interaction between LGDs and wolves takes on new implications - could a rancher whose dog injured (or even killed) a gray wolf be held liable for "taking" an endangered species? Would the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which recommends LGDs as a non-lethal livestock protection tool in wolf country, actually prosecute such a case?
More than two-thirds of these dogs had no reported interactions with wildlife. Of the 71 dogs that did interact with wildlife, 48% interacted with herbivores, while 73% interacted with predators. Just 9% had lethal interactions with herbivores (where the herbivore was killed); 10% had lethal interactions with predators. All of the documented interactions between LGDs and predators (a total of 44 instances) were defensive in nature (in other words, the predator approached the herd and the dog responded). Ultimately, the authors conclude, "Overall, the conservation benefit of LGDs does not appear to be outweighed by ethical implications of their use; LGDs were shown to be highly targeted and discriminatory towards predators attempting to predate on livestock." In other words, the LGDs in this study were effective at deterring predation while minimizing impacts on non-threatening wildlife.
I found this research especially interesting in light of my own observations of our LGDs and the LGDs used by other California operations. I've never witnessed a direct interaction between our dogs and a predator (which is why we're using GPS collars and trail cameras to try to document these encounters). In my 15 years of using these dogs, I've encountered 2 dead raccoons and 2-3 dead jackrabbits in our sheep paddocks, which I assume were killed by our dogs. I have also observed two of our dogs going after an otter (which is a much more vicious predator than I'd realized). I know that our dogs will respond when they hear coyotes howling in the distance, but I've never seen a direct confrontation.
Working with several range sheep operations this summer, I suspect that wildlife encounters may be more common in these unfenced, herded systems. The herders I've worked with report that the dogs are very active at night (as some of my trail cameras and the GPS data suggest).
I'm interested in learning from other producers - how do your LGDs respond to non-threatening wildlife versus predators? What kinds of things do you do to correct inappropriate behaviors? I hope you'll share your insights in the comments to this blog!
Last Saturday evening, the Tahoe Cattlemen's Association held it's annual membership dinner. Ranchers from Placer and Nevada Counties sat down to a wonderful tri-tip dinner prepared by the Del Oro High School FFA chapter. But despite the great meal and the enjoyable company, many were understandably concerned about the lack of rainfall. And as with any gathering of ranchers in Northern California this November, drought has begun creeping back into conversations here in the Sierra Foothills. When I jokingly asked who could remember the last time it had rained this fall, there was nervous laughter.
For rangeland livestock producers, drought is a different phenomenon than it is for crop farmers or urban dwellers; the dry spell we've experienced over the last month-and-a-half is no exception. Those of us who graze livestock on annual rangelands in Northern California rely on fall precipitation to germinate our fall/winter forage, and to replenish stock ponds and seasonal creeks for stock water.
This year, some parts of the Sierra foothills received a germinating rain in mid/late September. We actually had green grass on some of the annual rangelands where we graze our sheep near Auburn. Unfortunately, since October 1, we've measured just 0.02 inches of rain here at the UCCE office in Auburn. The warm temperatures and dry north winds we had in October pulled moisture out of the soil; the grass that got started in September has mostly died. PG&E's public safety power shutoffs and an unusually abrupt end to irrigation water deliveries in Placer and Nevada Counties have left many ranchers scrambling to provide drinking water to their livestock.
While these forecasts can be depressing, I also know that conditions can change rapidly (and counter to what the weather experts predict). From October 2013 through the end of January 2014, for example, we measured less than 4 inches of rain in Auburn; in February 2014, we received almost 9 inches! More recently, in December 2017 we
Given the lack of green forage on our annual rangelands at the moment, and the lack of stormy weather on the horizon, what does planning for the worst look like? What actions should we be taking now to reduce the impact of both short-term and long-term drought?
Develop a Forage Budget: Most of us stock our grazing land conservatively - we try to manage our grazing during the spring and summer months to make sure we have fall feed. But do you know how much feed you actually have this fall? Do you know how many days of grazing you have before your fall feed is gone? Since the 2013-14 drought year, we've kept track of our forage supply and demand (or carrying capacity and stocking rate). Rather than use the standard unit of an Animal Unit Month (or AUM, the amount of forage consumed by a 1000-lb cow and her calf in one month), we track sheep days per acre. Granted this measurement is very specific to OUR sheep, but it gives us a useful estimate of our specific supply and demand. In the last two weeks, we've analyzed our winter pastures and determined that without forage growth, and with our current sheep inventory, we'll run out of feed in mid/late January. This is not a happy discovery, obviously, but it does help us focus on our options for addressing this shortfall.
Increase Forage Supply: You may have heard the adage, "Don't feed your way out of a drought" - you may have even heard it from me! And while feeding hay quickly becomes prohibitively expensive, there may be other ways to increase forage supply. In our case this fall, a friend offered us 40 acres of alfalfa stubble for the sheep. Instead of moving to our winter pastures this weekend, we'll save that forage for late December. Other options might be talking with a neighbor about an ungrazed property, or even hauling stockwater to an under-utilized portion of your own ranch. Obviously economics come into play here, too - is hauling water or building fence more expensive than feeding hay? That question will be answered differently for every operation!
Decrease Forage Demand: Selling animals is never an easy decision. One of the most difficult days in the 15 years we've raised sheep commercially was the day in January 2014 when I sorted off bred ewes to haul to the auction - we were out of forage and weren't sure when it would rain again. That said, giving some thought to the animals you could sell - or those you'd keep at all costs - helps make that decision easier. This year, we've prioritized the following animals for sale if the dry weather persists:
- Open/cull ewes
- Older rams
- Excess feeder lambs
- Replacement ewe lambs
- Old/thin bred ewes
Given the cost of hauling sheep to the auction, we want to make sure we have more than one or two; that said, when the sheep come off the alfalfa next month, the cull ewes, older rams, and excess feeder lambs will be sold. We'll save forage for the bred ewes and the replacement ewe lambs.
Selling breeding females is a more difficult decision for us. We can't simply go to the auction when it starts to rain and purchase bred ewes that fit our system and our forage resources; indeed, we're still recovering from selling sheep in 2014. And selling an asset (a ewe lamb or a heifer, for example) means we forego the future income she'd produce. We need to compare the money we'll save in the short term (by not having to buy feed) with the income we'll lose by selling breeding animals. There are a number of more sophisticated economic analysis tools we can use to consider these types of decisions.
Develop Stock Water Infrastructure: Fall stock water is often a limiting factor for many rangeland operations. If ponds haven't filled and creeks aren't running, pastures can't be grazed. While long term solutions (like drilling wells or installing water tanks and troughs) may be expensive and time consuming, short term solutions (like hauling water) may allow us to access additional forage resources. For example, in the winter of 2014-2015, I managed the cattle at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley. As you might recall, that winter was also exceptionally dry. In January, we realized we had more than 20 acres of grass growing along the road system on part of the facility - grass that was outside of our pastures. By hauling water to portable troughs placed on the road, we were able to graze this otherwise unusable forage. And we were able to give the regular pastures a much-needed rest. Hauling water, in other words, bought us time (and forage).
Because ranches are also businesses, we need to consider the financial, economic, and tax consequences of our drought strategies, as well. The UC Rangelands Drought Information Hub has a number of outstanding resources on these topics, as well as links to long-range forecasts. And I'm happy to help you walk through these considerations on your own operation - we can develop a forage budget, talk about water development, and discuss other drought management strategies. In the meantime, remember that staring at your weather app and cursing the weather forecast (as I have done) are not effective drought strategies!
Between PG&E's public safety power shutoffs and a lack of precipitation, October was an interesting month for foothill ranchers. Many areas received a germinating rainfall in mid-September; most of that new grass withered in an October that saw only 0.02 inches of rain in Auburn. And while many operations are used to having irrigation water turned off in mid-October, the lack of rain and multiple blackouts by PG&E made getting drinking water to livestock a challenge. Last week, I sent a survey to area ranchers to help get a handle on the impacts from the public safety power shutoffs. While I'm still collecting data (if you're a rancher and have not yet participated in the survey, click on this link: http://ucanr.edu/oct19livestockwatersurvey), I wanted to share some preliminary results.
To date, 39 people have completed the survey. Most respondents receive water from the Nevada Irrigation District; an equal number use groundwater. Many operations use water from more than one source. Most of the operations responding are in Placer County, although a number of operations raise livestock in more than one county. Of those responding, 41 percent purchase winter water from their water district(s).
Here are more details on the responses so far:
If you haven't yet participated in this survey, go to this link: http://ucanr.edu/oct19livestockwatersurvey/span>
Last weekend, much of the Sierra foothills was impacted by another PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoff (or PSPS, as the company calls it). This time, the advertised windstorm actually materialized - and while shutting off the electrical grid probably made sense from a wildfire prevention perspective, PG&E's actions had unforeseen consequences for many foothill farms and ranches.
For customers of the Placer County Water Agency, the power shutoff meant no American River water during an especially dry period. Citrus growers, especially, are entering a critical timeframe in the ripening of this year's mandarin crop. Many livestock producers rely on winter water during this time frame to provide drinking water for livestock - others pump groundwater for livestock (which is difficult without electricity). This week, I've been filling a water tank in the back of my truck to haul water to our sheep.
In the coming month, we will be working on a comprehensive survey to document impacts to farmers and ranchers. In the meantime, we want to know if you've been impacted by lack of water (either for irrigation or for stock water). Please take a few minutes and complete the following survey:
Thank you! If you have any questions, please contact me at email@example.com or call the office at 530/889-7385.
Warning: the video link in this blog post includes images of a sheep killed by a coyote.
This story begins several weeks back. We split our ewe flock into two breeding groups in late September, and kept a third group (of replacement ewe lambs, who won't be bred until next fall) separate. With three groups of sheep, we felt like we needed to put our youngest livestock guardian dog (10-month-old Dillon) with the lambs. He had been with a handful of lambs at our home place, and seemed to be fine - a bit exuberant (as puppies can be), but fine.
A week into this situation, we noticed that one of the lambs had a chewed ear. We've had young dogs that occasionally chewed on ears, so we weren't too worried. In the next several days, four more lambs were injured, several seriously. We decided to put Dillon with a group of older ewes and rams.
His inappropriate behavior continued - and escalated. He began chasing sheep, which culminated with a ewe that became tangled in the electronet and died. We brought Dillon home (and put a "dangle stick" on his collar to make chasing sheep uncomfortable). The older dog went back with the breeding group, and we left the ewe lambs protected only by electric fence.
Fast-forward to this week. On Wednesday, we moved the lambs to a new paddock partly enclosed by electro-net fencing, partly by hard-wire sheep fence. On Thursday morning, we found a dead lamb in the paddock.
The rancher part of me was upset - we would expect this ewe lamb to grow up to produce five or six sets of lambs. The farm advisor part of me decided that this was an educational opportunity - I wanted to learn how to tell what kind of predator had killed the lamb.
I made a quick call to our local wildlife specialist (in Placer County, these folks work for the county - in other areas, county trappers are employed by USDA Wildlife Services). He looked a a few photos and said, "That looks like a coyote." He also told me how to investigate the carcass to know for sure.
You might wonder, why would this matter? The lamb was dead. As a rancher, I wanted to know what I was dealing with! Coyotes can get through a 4x6 inch hole; mountain lions can go over most fences. Mountain lions are protected by the State of California; coyotes, at the moment, are not. As a scientist, I was inherently curious. I wanted to know the differences between coyotes and mountain lions in terms of predatory behaviors.
Our trapper told me, "A mountain lion will usually kill its prey by crushing the base of the skull from above and behind; a coyote will kill by crushing the trachea from below. A lion will not usually eat the digestive tract; a coyote will eat everything. A lion will bury what it doesn't eat; a coyote will eat in the open and leave the rest." He also told me that skinning the neck of the lamb would confirm the predator involved: "Hemmoraghing on the throat would indicate a coyote; wounds on the top of the neck at the base of the skull would suggest a mountain lion."
Fortunately, I had my hunting pack in the pack seat of my truck (including rubber gloves and a sharp knife). I skinned the neck and found lots of trauma around the trachea - and no wounds on the top of the neck. We were dealing with a coyote, as the video below indicates.
We resolved the issue (hopefully) by bringing Dillon back to guard the lambs. We left his dangle stick on with the hope that he wouldn't chase the sheep. We also moved the sheep to a new paddock that was more secure. Our landlords told me this morning that they'd heard coyotes - and Dillon barking - most of the night. And we did not lose any more lambs.
As a shepherd, the premature death of any animal feels like a failure. I hate to put a young dog in a position where we have to rely on him before he's ready; I also hate to subject our sheep to depredation. But I also recognize that there are economic considerations involved. Treating the lambs that Dillon injured earlier in the month has cost us money; losing a ewe lamb to a coyote cost us more. These kinds of trade-offs are part of ranching, I suppose; my job as a farm advisor is to help others evaluate these choices objectively.
In the next several weeks, I hope to offer a tool to help others compare the cost of using a livestock guardian dog against the benefits. Stay tuned!