When we were in the targeted grazing business, I always marveled that many landowners and land managers didn't start thinking about managing their fuel loads until the grasses and other fine fuels really started growing in April. To this day, I still get phone calls and emails in April and May inquiring whether I can provide sheep or goats to reduce someone else's fire danger. Even now, with more producers providing targeted grazing services throughout the state, there simply are not enough livestock in California to treat all of the dangerous fine fuels (what many of us used to call "fall feed"). Consequently, we need to think about where and how we graze strategically - where can we provide the greatest protection to neighborhoods, infrastructure, and even our own farms and ranches?
Every spring, I see a news report where CalFire suggests that we're facing another dangerous fire season. Either we've had lots of precipitation, which means lots of grass (a.k.a., fine fuel), or we've had a dry, warm spring (like this year), which means fire season may start earlier than normal. This week, we're coping with the first heat wave of the summer (even though it's not officially "summer" yet) - which always raises awareness of the fire threat even further. We've even seen the first grass fires in the Sacramento Valley. I know I've started paying more attention to the aircraft flying over our home place - all summer, I glance up to see if it's a fire plane (and if it is, I start looking for smoke on the horizon). Finally, these first hot days remind me that it's time to get serious about our ranch fire plan (click here for a fire planning for ranchers fact sheet).
Now I'm certainly no expert when it comes to fire behavior - that combination of fuels, topography, and weather that drives site-specific wildfire conditions. However, when I look at the areas where we graze our sheep in the summer months, I think this fire behavior triangle is a useful lens. I ask myself the following questions:
- Where are the fine fuels most likely to create a ladder for fire to get into brush or trees?
- Where are the likely ignition sources in this landscape? While I can't necessarily control the natural ignition sources (like lightning), are there other potential sources (like recreation areas, roadways, utility infrastructure)?
- Are there assets in the community or on the particular property that I want to protect from fire? This may include homes, outbuildings, wells, sensitive ecological areas, or other values.
- Are there areas where modifying the fine fuels could slow a fire, giving firefighters a chance to stop it? This relates, at least in part, to the topography of a particular location.
When it comes to this last point, I think it may be useful to think of grazing like we're creating what my forester friends call a shaded fuel break. My friend Allen Edwards, who owns timber land outside of Colfax, had the foresight to construct a shaded fuel break on his property on either side of an access road along the ridge between the American River canyon and Interstate 80. To create the shaded fuel break, Allen removed the ladder fuels under his mature trees (brush, small trees, and limbs on the larger trees). When the 2001 Ponderosa Fire came out of the canyon on a hot August day, his shaded fuel break allowed firefighters to safely make a stand and keep the fire from moving further east and north, into the town of Colfax. In the lower foothills, we may be able to use targeted grazing in similar manner. A combination of grazing and browsing livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats) can modify the fuel load such that fire behavior will change enough to give firefighters a chance. These "grazed" fuel breaks don't necessarily remove all of the flammable vegetation, but grazing impacts (including removal of the vegetation and trampling, which can reduce oxygen circulation within the dry forage) can slow a fire's advance. These types of fuel modifications should be coupled with roads or other access points that allow firefighter access in the event of a fire.
If you're considering using a targeted grazing contractor, click here for a fact sheet. I also have a list of regional targeted grazing contractors available on my website. If you're a rancher who is thinking about adding targeted grazing as an enterprise, here's a short power point on the Principles of Targeted Grazing. If you still have questions, contact me at email@example.com./span>/span>
One of the things I enjoy most about cooperative extension is the opportunity to organize hands-on learning activities. From our Shepherding Skills Workshops to my California Cattle and Sheep/Goat Grazing Schools, I love the chance to get ranchers and land managers together, outdoors, to learn about grazing management and animal husbandry. But thanks to COVID-19 and the necessity to avoid large gatherings, I've had the opportunity to discover new ways to do my job!
Several weeks into California's shelter-at-home order, my friend and fellow rancher Ryan Mahoney (of R. Emigh Livestock in Rio Vista) came to me with a fun idea for doing a weekly video/podcast on all things sheep. Ryan suggested that we should call our project Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know, using a conversational format. Each week, one of us comes up with a topic and a list of questions for the other - so far, we've covered wool, feeding lambs, managing pasture, business benchmarks, risk management, and dealing with COVID-19. Our videos are available on my Ranching in the Sierra Foothills YouTube (I prefer EweTube) channel; Ryan has figured out how to turn these into podcasts, which are available on Spotify and Apple Podcast. We've had lots of fun producing them; hopefully, they're useful for other sheep producers, too!
Thanks to a grant I received from the Renewable Resources Education Act program, I've also collaborated to start a bi-weekly webinar series we're calling Working Rangeland Wednesdays. Working with my friend and colleagues Leslie Roche (the rangeland management specialist at UC Davis) and Grace Woodmansee (Leslie's graduate student and my intern), we've produced two webinars so far - both focused on rangeland drought.
And finally, I've been producing short Instagram videos on a variety of topics, including stocking rate and carrying capacity, livestock guardian dogs, and grazing planning. These are available via my IGTV channel (follow me at @flyingmule). For me, these have been fun ways to produce short, spontaneous videos on topics that I find interesting - hopefully others do, too! I generally also post them on my Sustainable Foothill Ranching Facebook Page.
Nothing will replace hands-on, face-to-face workshops for building skills and community. That said, being forced to work from home has allowed me to explore some new technology and reach out to friends and colleagues who are outside of my local area. For example, last week's Working Rangeland Wednesday webinar featured a panel of three ranchers who I respect tremendously - and who probably would not have had time in May to spend an hour in Auburn speaking at a workshop (considering that Auburn is more than an hour's drive for two of the three). Working at home has forced me to become more creative - and I'm enjoying the results! I hope you do, too!
When we started in the commercial sheep business over 15 years ago, we knew we wanted to use livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) to protect our sheep from predators. LGDs were not as common then in the foothills as they are today, so our choices were somewhat limited - and my knowledge of these dogs was even more limited. One LGD puppy looked much like another (white and fuzzy) - and while I knew enough to pick a pup from working stock, I didn't know the questions I should be asking - or even what I should be looking for in terms of behavior. While we were lucky enough to pick up an older dog who turned out to be a decent protector, our record of success in our early years was mixed at best.
As we gained more experience using LGDs, we started to look for specific traits in new dogs. And we started to realize the importance of appropriate bonding and early-life "training" (I use the word "training" here differently than I might use it with respect to a herding dog - training a LGD doesn't necessarily involve teach a dog specific commands). As I've gained more experience and insight, our record of success has improved.
Over the last six months, I've been collaborating with extension colleagues in California and elsewhere to increase our understanding about what makes a solid livestock guardian dog. Carolyn Whitesell, who is the new human-wildlife interactions advisor with UC Cooperative Extension in the Bay Area, has experience working with LGDs in Africa. Bill Costanzo, who comes from a California sheep background, is a LGD extension specialist with Texas A&M. We've worked to come up with a new fact sheet on selecting the right LGD puppy. You can download it here.
Over the coming months, we hope to produce a series of fact sheets on caring for your LGD, as well as on bonding techniques and problem-solving. Carolyn and I will also be surveying producers about their techniques for bonding LGDs with livestock. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, you may want to check out my Flying Mule Dogs channel on Instagram - you can follow me at @flyingmule. I'll be posting additional videos about the LGDs we use in our operation!
With many of us continuing to shelter-at-home during the COVID-19 crisis, I wanted to let you know about some upcoming virtual workshops and podcasts I have scheduled! I hope you'll join us!
Ranchers Virtual Coffee Hour (Tuesday, May 5, 2020 – 6:30 a.m.): Join other local ranchers for an early-morning check-in – and still have time to get out and move water before it gets too hot! We'll talk about pasture conditions and livestock markets – and plan for future webinars! Bring your own coffee! Register at http://ucanr.edu/virtual_coffee_hour_may5
Working Rangelands Wednesdays Webinar Series (Every other Wednesday, beginning on May 6 – 1:00 p.m.): We're kicking off a new webinar series on ranching and rangelands with this presentation from Grace Woodmansee and Dr. Leslie Roche on rangeland drought. Grace will present findings from a 2016 survey of California ranchers on drought preparation and response strategies. The first webinar will be Wednesday, May 6, at 1:00 p.m.Register at http://ucanr.edu/working_rangeland_webinar_may6
Virtual Grazing School (Beginning May 4, 2020): Check out my new Ranching in the Sierra Foothills YouTube channel for a series of videos covering the principles of managed grazing, determining stocking rate and carrying capacity, troubleshooting and building electric fence, and portable stock water systems! https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChmJnrOY-7XboaNe5fVXSQw
Instagram Live Interviews (Thursday Mornings, 7:30 a.m.): If you're in Instagram, tune in to my live feed each Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m.! You can follow me at @flyingmule. I'll interview experts on range management, livestock husbandry, ranch economics, and a variety of other topics! You'll be able to post questions during the broadcast, too!
Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know Podcast (posted weekly): Join Ryan Mahoney of Emigh Livestock and me as we explore a variety of sheep-related topics! So far we've covered economic benchmarks, wool production, and getting started in the sheep business. Subscribe on Spotify or through Apple Podcasts! Videos will also be uploaded to my YouTube channel.
For more information, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Given California's ongoing shelter at home order, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, most of the ranchers I know are no longer gathering at a local coffee shop to catch up on how the neighbor's calf crop looks! Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, however, I held my first-ever Virtual Coffee Hour for ranchers this morning! We had a great discussion about drought, wildfire preparation, the impacts of COVID-19, and our individual coffee preferences.
Our conversation confirmed that this has been an exceptionally unusual year in terms of forage growth. Some noted that there seemed to be more foxtail and filaree than usual; others said the forage growth was patchy. Everyone felt like the forage on our annual grasslands would mature earlier than usual - possibly signaling an early onset of fire season.
Most importantly, we learned that 60 percent of those on the call prefer black coffee, while 30 percent add cream and sugar. And an astounding 10 percent didn't drink coffee at all!
Our next Ranchers Virtual Coffee Hour will be on Tuesday, May 5 at 6:30 a.m. - register here to get a link: