Ranching, like any other agricultural business, requires a considerable amount of planning. Unlike some farming businesses, however, ranching also requires a certain level of comfort with conditions that are beyond our control. Unexpected problems can certainly "crop" up for irrigated crop production, but we generally have some lead time to make decisions about planting or finding alternative sources of irrigation water. While I don't mean to diminish the challenges that all of us in California agriculture are facing in this incredibly dry year, I think looking down the road is different for rangeland livestock producers than for anyone else.
As I wrote last month (Yup - this is a Drought!), drought can seem like a slow-moving emergency. After a late start to our grass year in November 2020, I held out hope that we'd get something like normal precipitation in early 2021. We did not; our dry spring locked in certain parts of our forage planning process. For example, the feed that had grown by the time we shipped ewes and lambs off of our winter rangeland and back to irrigated pasture in early April was all that we'd have to work with for the rest of the year. No more rain meant no more growth.
Other parts of our annual forage calendar are less certain this year. For the first time in the 16 years I've irrigated pasture for our sheep, we're facing the potential of a mandatory reduction in our irrigation water deliveries this year. The Nevada Irrigation District, who delivers our water from the high country, is looking at the lowest carryover potential in its reservoirs in its 100 year history. Consequently, the district may end our irrigation season early, or give us less water for the full season (which typically ends on October 15). This uncertainty about our irrigated pasture compounds the ambiguity about our fall forage supply - we never know when the first germinating rain will arrive, which makes planning difficult.
For many of us who rely on annual rangeland, then, autumn is perhaps our most precarious season. Many of us try to stretch our irrigated pasture as long as we can - hoping it will last until the fall rains green-up our rangeland forages. Most of us try to manage our spring grazing to conserve dry forage for the fall - just in case the rains come late.
In our small operation, we've found that a 12-month forage calendar helps us identify future problems before they require drastic (e.g., expensive) decisions. For each of the next 12 months, we try to estimate whether we'll have adequate forage. If we think the forage will be inadequate, we try to determine why. Is it a lack of quantity (are we going to be out of feed)? Is it insufficient quality (is our forage too low in protein or energy for the stage of production we're in)? Or is it a lack of stock water? By thinking through our forage projections, we're able to think about strategies for addressing them:
- If we're going to be out of feed, do we need to think about selling some animals?
- If we have dry feed that we're trying to graze with pregnant ewes, we can supplement their protein. We start thinking about buying protein now before everyone's looking for it (and driving up the price).
- If we're worried about a lack of stock water, we start thinking about how we can get water to our sheep (so they can graze the forage we've conserved).
I wish I had a crystal ball that would tell me the exact date we'd get a germinating rain - it would make planning so much easier. Without a crystal ball, however, we can start looking down the road. We can - and should - start planning now for how we're going to get through next fall and winter. Our new Drought Decision Support Tool for Ranchers provides a framework for thinking about your forage future - check it out and please provide feedback!
Help Us Pilot-Test a New Decision-Support Tool!
By now, most of us are well aware that we're in the second year of another significant drought. A growing proportion of Northern California is classified as D4 by the U.S. Drought Monitor. And we're coming off one of the driest rainy seasons in memory. But while many producers have already started implementing drought plans, others are still considering their options. As we learned from the 2012-2016 drought, these decisions are difficult but critical to the long-term viability of our ranches.
To this end, we've created a Drought Strategies Decision Support Tool that will help producers walk through specific strategies to deal with on-the-ground conditions. This tool will guide you through developing your forage outlook for the next 12 months. It will also help you relate your reactive strategies (like weaning your calves or lambs early or selling breeding-age females) with your ranch goals and proactive drought strategies. In addition, the tool is intended to help you establish a critical date by which you will take action. Finally, we've created some simple spreadsheets (available here) to help you analyze the costs and benefits of several key strategies (like feeding hay, weaning early, or selling livestock).
During the last drought, Glenn Nader, livestock advisor emeritus for Sutter and Yuba, said, “The only way you're gonna survive a drought is to make decisions.” We hope this tool will help you do so! But we need your help! We hope you'll use this tool to hone your own drought strategies. We also hope you'll give us feedback! How can we make this tool more useful? What are we missing?
If you'd like to set up an appointment to walk through this together, please contact us (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). We're happy to go over it on the phone or schedule a ranch call. We look forward to hearing from you!
I sat (virtually) through a local irrigation district board meeting this morning. As you might imagine in a year like this, drought was on everybody's mind, from elected board members to staff to customers. The district has already asked for voluntary water conservation; next month, their board will likely consider mandatory cutbacks. And this district isn't alone - the Browns Valley Irrigation District, for example, has announced that it will end irrigation water deliveries in late August or early September (roughly 45 days earlier than normal). 2021 is shaping up to be an incredibly difficult year.
Given the likelihood that we'll be facing irrigation water reductions at some point this season, we're starting to think about our management options now. What is the best approach for keeping pastures going this year? Are there some things we can do this season to improve pasture survival for next year? Thankfully, some of my UCCE colleagues dove into this topic during the last drought. This publication is especially helpful!
First, we've noticed that the soil profile was very dry by the time we got irrigation water in mid April - and other ranchers have reported similar observations. Ranchers with flood irrigation systems were finding that it took much longer to get water to the end of the field because of these dry conditions. With our pod sprinkler system, it took us two full rotations to get the soil profile full and begin meeting plant demand. Our local irrigation district reported that these dry conditions have resulted in mid-summer irrigation demand - in early May!
With the prospect of water reductions, we need to evaluate the resiliency of the forage species and varieties in our pastures. Some grasses are more drought tolerant than others. At this stage, we can't really do much to shift to a more drought tolerant forage in the midst of the grazing season, but we can adjust our irrigation, fertilization, and grazing strategies to address the needs of the specific species and varieties.
Many foothill and Sacramento Valley pastures go through an annual succession of forages, with cool-season grasses and legumes like tall fescue, orchard grass, and white clover dominating early in the growing season. As temperatures warm, we tend to see more warm-season grasses like dallisgrass and bermuda. With the return of cooler temperatures and longer nights in late summer and early fall, the cool-season often rebound. The warm-season grasses are typically more drought tolerant, as you might imagine. Of the cool-season grasses, species and variety matter. In general, tall fescue seems to be more drought tolerant than orchardgrass, although there are some drought tolerant orchardgrass varieties. Most of our clover varieties, unfortunately, don't have much drought tolerance.
So how should we manage this year? And what can we expect next year? These recommendations are largely adapted from an excellent video produced by my late UCCE colleague, Steve Orloff (click here to view the video):
- Protect plant crowns: avoid grazing below 3" stubble height (and more residual may be better). The plant crown and stubble store sugars and carbohydrates essential for subsequent regrowth. Protecting these plants this fall increases the likelihood that they'll survive into next year.
- Know your pasture plants and pasture soils: prioritize irrigating those fields or portions of fields that can withstand drought. Focus on keeping drought-tolerant forage plants going - the less drought-tolerant plants may need to be replanted regardless of your management. Know where your deeper soils are - in our foothill pastures, these are typically at the foot of slopes. Generally, these deeper soils can hold onto water longer.
- Collect soil samples and target your fertilizer applications: Fall applications of potassium and phosphorous can help stimulate root growth, but it's always helpful to know your baseline fertility. Nitrogen application during drought, however, can concentrate nitrates (and be harmful to grazing livestock).
- Focus on recovery periods: While I think it's ALWAYS critical to vary grazing rotations based on the recovery period of the pasture, drought makes this even MORE important. In short feed years, it's always tempting to come back to a field before it's fully recovered from the last graze. DON'T DO IT! Allowing plants to recover fully will enhance root growth and pasture resiliency.
- Think about next year: If our water shuts off early, we may lose some of our clover - consider over-seeding clover just before the first fall rain. One of the more interesting ideas in the video referenced above was the possibility of planting an annual cereal crop (like triticale) before the water shuts off - and grazing in the fall and again in the spring (assuming something like "normal" winter precipitation). This is something I'll need to think through, but I'm intrigued by the idea.
As always, I'm available to come to your pasture to talk about these options and your specific situation. And we're hoping to do an on-ranch, in-person workshop later this summer to discuss these strategies in more detail. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com or (530) 889-7385!
If you've read my blog posts or newsletters over the last four years, you'll probably recognize that drought is a recurring theme - in my writing, in my extension programming, and in my research. Having ranched through the 2012-2015 drought, I tend to get a little nervous whenever we go through an unusual dry and/or warm stretch during our "normal" rainy season. And over the last six months, I've written about drought planning, feeding supplemental protein to utilize dry forage, and options for hauling drinking water to livestock. But all of these blog posts were written with the hope that we still had time for the rains to come - that we still had time to avoid a second consecutive dry year. Now that we're in the first week of May, I can say with more confidence (not to mention, disappointment) - we're in a drought here in the Sierra foothills.
I suppose most of us think about lack of rain or snow when we think of drought - and that's been a feature of this year's drought, to be sure. Through April 30, we've measured 18.7 inches of rainfall for the water year (since October 1, 2020). In the 20 years I've kept records here in Auburn, this is the lowest amount of precipitation I've recorded - lower, even, than the 2013-14 drought. As of May 1, we're sitting at 62 percent of average, based on my records.
But rainfall doesn't tell the whole story of this year's drought. January 2021 was the only month if this water year with above average rainfall. April, on the other hand, saw us measure just 6 percent of our average monthly precipitation. In fact, I've come to think of drought as a "climatic water deficit" - an event that combines low precipitation with higher environmental water demand, which we've also seen in the foothills this year.
The factors that drive this higher demand are numerous. Since last year was drier and warmer than normal, I suspect that we entered the current water year with very dry soils. This year's rainfall never truly re-saturated these soils, as evidenced by the lack of flow in our seasonal creeks - this is the first spring since I've lived in Auburn that I didn't see water in the ephemeral creeks where we graze our sheep. Secondly, many of the blue oaks in the lower foothills began to leaf out in late February, which increased evapotranspiration demand significantly (and earlier than normal). Finally, we've had a number of north wind events (the most recent of which created red flag fire conditions in early May) - these dry winds, and the associated low relative humidity levels, pull moisture out of vegetation and soil alike.
Local evapotranspiration data bears this out! The Auburn CIMIS (California Irrigation Management Information System) station recorded 6.0 inches of precipitation between February 1, 2021, and April 30, 2021 (similar to my data). Total evapotranspiration (water lost to evaporation or taken up by plants) during the same period was just over 12 inches. No wonder soil moisture in our rangelands was virtually nonexistent on May 1!
So what does this drought mean for us as rangeland livestock producers? In our operation, we feel reasonably confident that we'll have enough summer irrigation water to grow our typical summer forage, but I know other regions where summer water will be short. On our annual rangelands, which are critical to our fall and winter forage needs, we're seeing the feed mature at least a month earlier than normal. I suspect our peak standing crop (that is, the total amount of forage produced) will be lower than the long term average. Our fall grazing plans assume that we'll need to ration out this standing dry forage until we get a germinating rain. We'll be taking inventory of our fall forage resources in the next couple of weeks - if we look to be short of forage, we'll either look for more ground to graze or consider reducing our sheep numbers.
We'll also keep an eye on invasive weeds. The lack of late rain (so far) means less advantageous growing conditions for yellow starthistle. On the other hand, a quick visit to the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center today revealed that barbed goat grass is headed out a month earlier than usual!
We won't, however, try to feed our way out of this drought. I've run the numbers on putting the ewes on full feed if we run out of standing forage (either on our irrigated pasture or our annual rangeland). The numbers simply don't pencil, and while I hate to sell sheep, I'd hate to go broke buying hay even more. If you haven't run your own numbers, I'd be happy to sit down with you and look at options. Obviously, there are also financial and tax implications of selling livestock - these are complicated and difficult decisions.
All of this brings me to what I consider to be the key lesson I learned from the last drought. The difficult decisions we face as livestock producers can be stressful and isolating. I found it helpful in 2014 - and I find it helpful now - to talk to other producers. Partly, I think, just knowing that our friends and neighbors are dealing with similar challenges can be reassuring. More importantly, sharing ideas and approaches to coping with this drought can help us expand our own toolboxes and to see alternatives we might be missing. Next week, we'll be hosting a webinar on drought planning and federal drought programs (click here to register). I would also encourage you to join the Farmer-Rancher Drought Forum on Facebook - this closed group is open only to farmers, ranchers, and agricultural professionals - and it can be great way to share ideas, learn from others, and simply to commiserate.
Many of us are facing some difficult decisions in the months to come - and some of us have already implemented some of these difficult choices. If you have questions - or simply want to talk through some of the drought-related issues you're grappling with, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 889-7385.
Late last month, we held a Prescribed Fire on Working Landscapes workshop near Colfax, culminating in a small broadcast burn on the Edwards Family Tree Farm. As we prepared to ignite the burn, our instructor emphasized that the dry winter and early spring had resulted in fire conditions that were more like early June than late March. Last night, after I finished working in the office, I decided to try to burn some brush at our home place near Auburn. The message on the Placer County Burn Information line indicated that burning was suspended through tomorrow due to elevated fire danger. In early April. I guess it's time to start preparing our ranches for another fire season.
Wildfire preparations can more complicated for commercial livestock operations than for typical homeowners. In addition to creating a fire-safe space around homes, we also need to protect livestock and ranch infrastructure. Many ranches have livestock in multiple locations, and many of these leased pastures are simply pastures; there is no landlord or caretaker on site. Often, the number of livestock at a particular location may be more than can be easily evacuated in case of wildfire. Finally, access during a fire may be difficult due to law enforcement road blocks and priority for fire equipment. Here are a few of things we do to get ready for fire season.
Assessing the Threat
What is at risk in our operation? Do we have livestock in multiple locations? What is access like? At a minimum, our wildfire preparation efforts address the following:
- Create defensible space around home(s), barns and other infrastructure.
- Are there any access issues at any location where you have livestock? Single lane roads can be especially problematic. Do you have alternative access points?
- If you rely on dry forage for fall grazing, are there steps you can take to protect this forage from fire?
- Are there potential animal health issues associated with smoke and other indirect wildfire impacts?
Developing and Implementing a Wildfire Plan
Our ranch wildfire plan has several components:
- Protecting buildings, infrastructure and information: We remove flammable vegetation from within 100 feet of houses and other buildings. This also includes other critical infrastructure like propane tanks, wells, equipment sheds, barns and corrals. We also make sure we have protected critical legal documents and insurance information. Check CalFire's suggestions for putting together an emergency supply kit (http://www.readyforwildfire.org/Emergency-Supply-Kit/).
- Protecting forage: Like many operations, we stock our rangeland pastures conservatively to ensure a supply of fall forage. In some areas, we try to create fuel breaks to protect this forage from wildfire through targeted grazing. Disking or grading around the perimeter of pastures, or at least adjacent to potential ignition sources, can also reduce the threat. The width of any fuel break depends on the fuel type, topography/slope, and potential flame lengths that a fire might generate.
- Protecting livestock: We try to plan ahead for how we might move livestock out of harm's way in the event of a wildfire. That said, we have too many animals to evacuate on short notice; leaving animals in pasture (or “sheltering in place”) might be our best option. Fortunately, we've never had to do this. If you need to leave animals in place, be sure they have enough feed and water for several days. Will the livestock have water if the power goes out? Be sure to take down temporary fences or other hazards that may injure livestock as the fire moves through the property. Prepare for any post-fire health problems (like respiratory infections or other injuries) as well.
- 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 want to consider investing in a backup generator and/or additional water storage.
- Escape routes: Ideally, we try to have at least two routes in and out of our ranch properties. In addition, we try to think about at least two alternatives for moving livestock to safety in the event of a fire - this means loading and unloading facilities, a plan for gathering livestock, and a clear understanding of the road system near your pastures. Narrow roads can be problematic for navigating with stock trailers, especially when fire equipment is also inbound.
- Backup: Obviously, many of us can't be on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to a fast-moving fire (especially when livestock are grazing on multiple properties). We work 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: I try to keep phone numbers for the other ranchers in our area on my phone, and I try to keep track of who runs the cows or sheep next door. During fire season, many ranchers text or call neighbors when they see smoke. Consider formalizing these calling trees.
- Situational awareness: During fire season, I constantly watch for smoke, especially when I hear fire equipment or aircraft. We carry a shovel or other fire tool and 5 gallons of water in our pickups and pay attention to where ranch visitors park – a catalytic converter on dry grass can be disastrous. I also check local news websites or alert services (like www.yubanet.com).
Writing Down our Plan
Even for ranching operations with few or no employees, writing down our plan can help others (spouses, neighbors, etc.) know what to do and who to contact in case of fire. Our written plan includes the locations where livestock are grazing (which suggests this plan needs to be updated as livestock are moved). Location information includes a physical address and/or map, along with the number and class of animals on site. We also include a description of potential evacuation routes (including locations of loading facilities). Are there safe zones (like dry lots or irrigated pastures) on the property or nearby where animals could be moved if evacuation isn't possible? Is there an onsite caretaker or neighbor we can call in case of emergency? Are there other ranchers who could help us? What are the numbers of livestock haulers who might be available? Click here for a template for completing your own plan!
I share a copy of this plan with other people in our operation – specifically, with my wife and kids, and my partner. This year, I'll plan on sharing this plan with our landlords, as well. Finally, we'll provide a copy (or at least a list of locations where we have livestock) to our local fire, animal control, and law enforcement agencies.
A Future Solution?
As with many other ranching counties in California, Placer, Nevada, and Yuba Counties have been working on formalizing an Ag Pass program designed to help ranchers gain safe access to livestock in emergency situations. Assembly Member Megan Dahle has introduced legislation (AB 1103) that would implement this program statewide. These programs would require ranchers to attend training on fire behavior and the incident command system, and would likely also require a list of properties where livestock may be grazing. If you'd like more information about the Ag Pass idea, contact me at email@example.com.
As I look back over previous posts to my Ranching in the Sierra Foothills blog, I see that I seem to write about wildfire preparation just about every spring. I guess that's the nature of living with fire - our ranch fire plans are something that we should revisit every year - better to have a plan that we don't use than to need a plan when fire strikes. Stay safe this summer!