As I write this post on the morning of March 19, 2020, several of the counties surrounding Placer County, where I live, work, and ranch, have issued "shelter in place" orders in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. The only order I've actually read, from Sutter and Yuba Counties, specifically notes that the following "essential businesses" are among those exempted from the shelter in place order:
Food cultivation, including farming, nurseries, livestock, fishing, and businesses necessary to support those industries;
Food and agriculture processing and distribution facilities including those facilities on farms and those use to conduct related research.
In other words, I can continue doing most of what I do, but I will need to change some of the ways in which I work.
We are in the midst of lambing season, which means the sheep need to be checked 2-3 times a day (and more frequently during stormy weather). Fortunately, sheepherding is naturally socially distanced - even in normal times, we usually work independently. As the Sutter-Yuba order acknowledges, the work of farming - especially at this time of year - doesn't shut down. Animals need to be fed, crops need to be planted - the work goes on.
We farmers and ranchers - and agricultural researchers - still need to take precautions, though. We need to avoid large gatherings, maintain social distancing, WASH OUR HANDS FREQUENTLY! Our farms and ranches, and the communities who depend on the food and fiber we produce, are depending on us to stay healthy.
I can't speak for others, but at times the news has been a bit overwhelming. I realized yesterday as I was trying to set up my home office and continue to do my extension work that I was having difficulty focusing on any specific task. Fortunately, a friend called before lunchtime, just to catch up. We talked about forage conditions and lambing (he's a sheep rancher, too), and also talked about our families and about the times we're living through. Having that direct interaction (as opposed to texting or emailing) helped me relax and focus - and the rest of the day was productive.
Based on yesterday's experience, I've decided that I will call a friend and/or family member once a day - social distancing doesn't need to be isolating. I've also decided that I'll check in on my older friends at least once a week. I know we need to be cautious about spreading COVID-19 to older folks, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't reach out to them to make sure their needs are being met. Twenty-first Century medical and information technology are amazing, but our sense of community - our willingness to help our neighbors - will be critical to getting through this crisis.
To ensure that we are taking all appropriate COVID-19 precautions within UC Cooperative Extension, the Placer, Nevada, and Sutter-Yuba UCCE offices are closed for face-to-face, in-person service through April 7, 2020. While these measures may be inconvenient, we are taking these precautions to support our communities. And while our offices may be closed, we are still at work – mostly from home. If you have a livestock or natural resource question during the closure, please email me directly (at firstname.lastname@example.org) or leave me a voice mail at 530/889-7385. I will be checking both voice mail and email regularly during the closure, and will respond as quickly as possible.
During the closure, we will not be holding any workshops or meetings. However, I have several webinars and other online programs in the works – stay tuned for details! Also, I will be updating my blog, FaceBook pages, and Instagram IGTV channels regularly. Follow the links below to view these resources:
- UCCE Placer-Nevada-Sutter-Yuba Livestock and Natural Resources website: https://ucanr.edu/sites/Livestock/
- UCCE Foothill Farming website: https://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/
- Ranching in the Sierra Foothills Blog: https://ucanr.edu/blogs/RanchingintheFoothills/index.cfm
- UCCE Sustainable Foothill Ranching FaceBook page: https://www.facebook.com/FoothillSustainableRanching/
- UCCE Foothill Farming FaceBook page: https://www.facebook.com/FoothillFarming/
- Instagram (including IGTV channels): follow me @flyingmule (note: I'm posting short videos about grazing management, stockmanship, and other topics - and lots of photos of lambs!)
- Twitter: @flyingmulefarm
Also, I am able to do ranch calls and consultations by phone or by video conferencing (including FaceTime) – if you have a question or an issue that involves looking at a particular resource or livestock issue, this might be an option!
I realize that this is a very challenging time for all of us. I also know that livestock need to be cared for, pastures need to be managed, and bills need to keep getting paid regardless of what is going on around us. Take care of your families, your communities - and yourselves! Please feel free to contact me – I look forward to hearing from you!
Last month, I had a chance to attend the Society for Range Management annual convention in Denver, Colorado. Among the symposia I attended was one entitled "Transforming ranching through precision livestock management on extensive rangelands" - fancy title, right?! But despite the lengthy (and overly academic) title, I found the talks to be outstanding! And the possibility for using technology to improve livestock management presents an exciting opportunity!
The first speaker was Dr. Mark Trotter from CQ University in Queensland, Australia. He suggested that cooperative extension can and should play an important role in the development and use of new technology. First and foremost, this technology should have economic value for producers - either by increasing revenue or reducing costs. Dr. Trotter also suggested that extension should guide the development of technology and help test the hardware in real-world settings. Extension should help test the animal behavior algorithms that make the technology relevant in production settings. Finally, extension can help prepare the industry for the widespread adoption of these new technologies.
The most exciting technological developments, at least to me, are those that can help make labor more efficient. Dr. Trotter and Dr. Derek Bailey (from New Mexico State University) talked about new applications for global positioning system (GPS) technology and ear tag mounted accelerometers. Researchers are finding that these systems can predict when cattle or sheep will give birth and can even alert a producer about a calving or lambing problem. Other researchers are using these systems to detect diseases and predation impacts. Trotter and Bailey also talked about the potential for using this kind of technology to place water troughs in areas that will facilitate more efficient forage use, as well as helping managers predict when livestock need to move to fresh pasture.
The final speaker was Dr. Tony Waterhouse, professor emeritus from Scotland Rural College. He spoke about the need for durable technology: "Sheep break things a bit; cows break things a lot," he said. He has experimented with technology that records a ewe's proximity to specific lambs as a way to match a ewe with her offspring (often a difficult task in extensive range-based sheep production systems).
At least for me, technology will never replace the need for people to manage livestock. These are complex biological, economic, and social systems - the rancher's "eye" will always be critical. However, I do think that there may be ways - in the not too distant future - where this technology can help our eyes see patterns and behaviors we couldn't see previously. Stay tuned! I hope to begin testing some of this technology in the coming years!
In the meantime, here are some links to several of the technology firms mentioned in the symposium:
Mark your calendar! We have a number of outstanding workshops already booked for 2020! More details will follow in the coming weeks!
PRESCRIBED FIRE ON PRIVATE LANDS (March 26 - Auburn, CA): This one-day workshop will feature information on fire terms and behavior, permitting and legal considerations, and CalFire's Vegetation Management Program. For more information, go to https://ucanr.edu/sites/forestry/files/318840.pdf.
DROUGHT PLANNING FOR RANCHERS (March 31 - Yuba City, CA; April 1 - Grass Valley, CA): Learn about the strategies and drought adaptation tools that helped California ranchers survive the historic 2012-2015 drought. We'll present information about tools for improving your ability to adapt to an increasingly variable climate.
CALIFORNIA TARGETED GRAZING ACADEMY (September 18-19 - Auburn, CA): This 2-day academy will combine hands-on learning about targeting specific vegetation management goals using sheep and goats with an overview of the business basics of contract targeted grazing.
For more details, including registration information, go to the Placer-Nevada-Sutter-Yuba Livestock and Natural Resources Homepage at https://ucanr.edu/sites/Livestock/
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.
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.