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 email@example.com 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.
We have a variety of livestock and pasture-focused workshops scheduled this spring! Check out the links for more information.
Penn Valley, CA
Co-sponsored by the Nevada Irrigation District and the Nevada County Resource Conservatory District, this FREE workshop will focus on soil management, irrigation systems, and pasture management. Participants must pre-register – contact Kaycee Strong at (530) 273-6185 ext. 244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn how to set up and manage a small-to-medium-sized shearing facility for small flocks. Participants will learn about sheep handling, shearing preparation, wool handling, and wool marketing. (Note: this is not a shearing school). Register at: http://ucanr.edu/woolhandling&shearingmanagement.
UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, Browns Valley, CA
This day-long workshop will include presentations on managing soils and forage, decision tools and strategies for managing livestock during drought, and climate data and visualization tools to support on-ranch planning. Register at: http://sfrec.ucanr.edu/?calitem=445275&g=62869
Shone Farm, Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa, CA
This 2-day, hands-on grazing school provides participants with practical, field-based experience in applying the principles of managed grazing on rangelands. Participants will learn to estimate carrying capacity and graze periods, as well as develop grazing plans and monitoring systems. For more information, go to: http://cesonoma.ucanr.edu/?calitem=446449
This one-day workshop will focus on the business practices and logistics planning essential to managing an effective and profitable targeted grazing business. UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor Dan Macon has managed medium-and large-scale targeted grazing projects in the Sierra Foothills and Sacramento Valley. Other speakers will include current contractors and grazing experts. Register at https://ucanr.edu/sites/Livestock/?calitem=450512&g=93567.
Stay up to date on other workshops and events at https://ucanr.edu/sites/Livestock//span>
I realized this morning that it's been some time (nearly a year, in fact) since I posted an update on my progress with our youngest livestock guardian dog, Elko. In case you missed the first five installments of this journal, Elko is a Pyr x Akbash dog we acquired from Fred Groverman in Petaluma in September 2017. I've been tracking our progress in his development. This weekend marked a significant step in Elko's development.
During the last week of March, I traveled through northeastern California talking about (and more importantly, learning about) protecting livestock from predators. Thanks to a Renewable Resources Extension Act grant, a number of my UC Cooperative Extension colleagues and I were able to bring some folks with experience dealing with wolves and grizzly bears in Wyoming and Montana to share their perspectives with California ranchers. During our formal workshops - and during the 700+ miles we traveled together - I learned a tremendous amount!
George Edwards is the executive director of the Montana Livestock Loss Board, a state program that compensates ranchers for losses to wolves, mountain lions, and grizzly bears. George provided invaluable insights into why a compensation program makes sense - and into the types of tools that ranchers are using in Montana to avoid these losses. He shared this outstanding video about an innovative carcass disposal program in western Montana.
I first met Cat Urbigkit nearly 10 years ago at an American Sheep Industry conference in Reno. I've since had the chance to get to know Cat as a fellow producer and friend. Her experiences using livestock guardian dogs to protect both sheep and cattle from large carnivores - including gray wolves and grizzlies - was especially enlightening.
Now that I've had a few weeks to reflect on what I learned, my own experiences with livestock guardian dogs have come into clearer focus. Cat emphasized that no two dogs are alike - just as no two livestock operations are alike. A dog that will work for Cat in western Wyoming may not be a good fit for me in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada; similarly, my dogs may not work well in Cat's extensive rangeland environment. In other words, a dog "trained" by someone else - that is, bonded with someone else's livestock in their environment - won't necessarily stay with my sheep. I have not been successful in outsourcing the critical bonding period. My dogs have to bond with my sheep.
Livestock guardian dogs, as Cat says, are "dogs of nature." Rather than "training" them, we must give them the opportunity to fully express their own instincts. They should smell, hear, and see the livestock they'll spend their lives protecting from the earliest possible moment. I've written previously that I think this means that my dogs need to bond with my sheep and my system (electric fenced paddocks in the urban-rural interface). I think that's not quite right, however. After visiting with Cat, I think the bond between dog and my sheep is the most critical component. My dogs stay with my sheep because of their bond - not because of my fence. The dogs I used early in my shepherding career roamed because I hadn't allowed them to bond properly, I suspect. And this bonding process has to happen on my operation - a livestock guardian dog "specialist" who isn't also a rancher can't duplicate my specific conditions.
Elko spent last summer with our dry ewes in the company of another LGD, Bodie. When we split our sheep into separate breeding groups in late September, Elko (who was then just over a year old) went with his own group of ewes. About a week into our breeding season, we suspect we lost a ewe in Bodie's group to a coyote attack (in a paddock with low visibility due to vegetation). We put Elko with Bodie at that point, with good results. Bodie, who we know we can trust with lambing ewes, stayed with the ewes through the winter and during lambing. Once we separated the rams from the ewes in mid-November, Elko stayed with the rams until this past Saturday. The rams went home to be shorn; the ewes and lambs went to irrigated pasture - and Elko joined Bodie as part of his "final exam."
Last year, we put Bodie with an older dog at the beginning of lambing season (here's a video link). The older dog, Reno, chased Bodie away from lambing ewes, which helped Bodie understand what was expected of him. By coincidence, our last ewe lambed on Saturday shortly after we put Elko with Bodie and the ewe flock - and I observed Bodie provide similar training. Bodie would not let Elko get too close to the ewe and her new lambs. I suspect that this was at least partly because Bodie wanted to eat the afterbirth; regardless, the result was that Elko learned to respect a lambing ewe's "personal space."
Elko's training is not completed - he's still in the canine equivalent of his late teen years. At the risk of anthropomorphizing our LGDs, I know that I didn't always make the best decisions in my late teen years - we'll keep a close eye on Elko while he's with the lambs and ewes. That said, this weekend he passed a significant test!
A final note on costs - Elko cost us $525.35 to acquire (cost of puppy + mileage). Through Saturday, we've spent $526.44 on vaccinations and dog food.
Targeted grazing using sheep, goats, or cattle (or combinations of two or more species) can be an effective way to manage vegetation for a variety of goals. Given the ever-present threat of wildfire in the summer and fall months in the Sierra foothills, many landowners and land managers are considering hiring targeted grazing contractors to help manage wildfire fuel loads.
Using ruminants to manage fuel loads through targeted grazing offers a number of important advantages:
- Targeted grazing can be a cost-effective alternative for reducing fine and ladder fuels over large and rugged landscapes that may be inaccessible for equipment or hand crews.
- Targeted grazing is especially effective at maintaining fuel reduction treatments like shaded fuel breaks.
- Unlike many treatment methods, targeted grazing actually removes fuel from the landscape - the wildfire fuels are removed by the grazing/browsing livestock.
- Targeted grazing contractors can often provide all necessary infrastructure (fencing, livestock water, predator protection, etc.).
By managing the type and number of animals, the duration of grazing, the season and frequency of grazing, and the spatial distribution of livestock, targeted grazing can help landowners and managers achieve a variety of land management goals.
Where is Targeted Grazing Effective?
Well-managed targeted grazing can be used to address site-specific landscape goals. For example, targeted grazing can impact specific invasive weeds (like yellow starthistle, medusahead or Himalayan blackberries). By controlling competing vegetation at crtical times, targeted grazing can enhance habitat restoration efforts. Finally, targeted grazing can reduce fine fuels and ladder fuels to reduce wildfire danger in a variety of environments.
Typically, targeted grazing is a cost-effective vegetation management alternative where other options are ineffective. Specifically, targeted grazing can be more cost effective on landscapes that are too steep, rocky or remote for conventional vegetation management (like mowing or chemical treatment), or in the urban-wildland interface where burning is not an option.
Managing Animal Impacts
Grazing livestock have three basic impacts on the landscape. They consume vegetation through grazing, they trample vegetation (which can facilitate the breakdown of plant carbon in the soil and modify wildfire fuel profiles), and they transfer nutrients through defecation and urination. Targeted grazing uses all three impacts to accomplish specific vegetation management goals.
Targeted grazing contractors also have a solid understanding of the growth characteristics and vulnerabilities of specific target vegetation. For example, grazing yellow starthistle with sheep or goats during the bolt stage (April to June, usually), can dramatically reduce seed production. Browsing Himalayan blackberries in the fall as the plants are going dormant can stress root systems at a key period.
Timing of targeted grazing for fuel reduction is also important. To reduce the potential for re-growth, fuel reduction grazing should be done after the last spring rain. Since the nutritional quality of annual grasslands typically declines rapidly at this time of year, targeted grazers may need to provide supplemental nutrition to ensure appropriate impact to targeted vegetation. In some instances, cattle may be the most appropriate species for particular projects.
Why Pay Someone to Graze? Isn't Free Grass Enough?!
Targeted grazing is a very different business model than simply grazing for livestock production. Effective targeted grazing focuses on impacting target vegetation at exactly the right time for specific landscape or vegetation goals. Traditional livestock production, on the other hand, focuses on putting weight on animals or increasing reproductive success. Traditional livestock operations generate income from the sale of animals and animal products; these operations focus on body condition and the nutritional status of the animals at specific production stages. Targeted grazers generate income from vegetation management services; these operations may accept a drop in body condition or reproductive success to achieve desired impacts to low quality forage as long as this service is paid for.
Unlike equipment, which can be parked when not in use, livestock must be fed before they arrive on your property and after they leave. Part of the service that targeted grazing companies provide is the logistical planning necessary to keep their livestock "employed" throughout the grazing season.
Goals are Important!
Realistic landowner and land manager goals are important for successful targeted grazing applications. Targeted grazing is often a long-term approach that addresses prior problems. For example, invasive weeds may be symptomatic of a long-term lack of management. A single targeted grazing project is unlikely to address these long-term symptoms; a multi-year approach will likely be necessary to improve ecological function and reduce the weed seedbank. Recognizing this, many targeted grazing contractors will reduce their annual per acre charges in exchange for multi-year contracts.
Expectations are also important. Landowners who expect a uniform appearance to land treated with grazing (as if the land had been mowed) will likely be disappointed; grazing often leaves a patchy appearance on the landscape. Furthermore, grazing does not often provide the immediate visual effects of chemical treatment, mastication, or mowing. Vegetation treated with herbicide, for example, often shows immediate impact; grazing is a long-term management technique.
Finally, timing is critical. If targeted grazing occurs too early in the season, soil moisture may be sufficient for the targeted vegetation to re-grow. On the other hand, the palatability of annual grasses and weed species may decline as these plants mature. Contractors often provide supplemental nutrition and other management techniques to impact this lower quality forage at the optimal time.
What to look for in a Targeted Grazing Contractor
Targeted grazing companies are service providers. Consequently, experience, responsiveness, and attention to detail are critical. Consumers should look for companies with experience in grazing projects in similar environments and situations. Ask potential contractors about their experience level – and ask for references.
Targeted grazing may not be the least costly vegetation management option (compared to mowing or herbicide treatment). As outlined above, targeted grazing is often the best alternative where other treatments aren't possible.
Most targeted grazing contractors will provide an estimate on a per acre basis, allowing consumers to compare targeted grazing to other vegetation management options. In addition, contractors will provide an estimate of the project start date and duration. These estimates can be somewhat uncertain depending on year-to-year changes in vegetation quantity.There are a variety of factors that impact the cost of a particular targeted grazing project, including:
- Relative ease (or difficulty) of setting up infrastructure, including loading and unloading facilities. Projects in steep or difficult-to-access terrain require more labor (and, therefore, are typically more costly).
- Access to livestock water. Easily accessible water can make the project less costly; projects without access to water may require the contractor to haul water to the livestock.
- Other risks, like vandalism, toxic plants, or proximity to high-value landscaping may increase the cost.
- Multi-year contracts are typically cheaper on a per acre basis. Livestock and targeted grazing staff become more accustomed to a particular property (and therefore more efficient) if the contract is for multiple years.
- Headache factors – like free-roaming pet dogs or neighbors who object to livestock or livestock guardian dogs – can increase the cost of a project.
Landowners and managers should contact targeted grazing contractors well in advance of the desired project start date. Targeted grazing contractors are busiest during the spring and early summer months; scheduling these jobs typically occurs in during the prior fall and winter.
Targeted grazing can be a highly effective way to reduce fuel loads, control invasive weeds, and manage ecologically sensitive landscapes. Livestock be an economical and eco-friendly way to manage vegetation on landscapes where equipment is impractical. For a list of local and regional targeted grazing contractors, click here!
If you are a targeted grazing contractor who does work in Placer, Nevada, Sutter or Yuba Counties, please email your information to me at email@example.com.