I've known Doug Joses and his family for more than a quarter century. The unofficial mayor of Mountain Ranch (in Calaveras County) Doug has spent his entire life ranching in the Sierra foothills – raising cattle, sheep, and Angora goats. Several years ago, Doug related his experience during the Butte Fire (which devastated portions of Amador and Calaveras Counties in 2015). He also talked about his experience using fire to improve rangeland productivity in the 1970s and 1980s – he and his neighbors used fire regularly to control brush and improve forage quality for livestock and wildlife. I wasn't old enough to realize it, but fire was part of the ranching culture of the foothill communities where I grew up.
At some point, though, we lost the cultural affinity for – and know-how about – using fire as a tool for preventing larger, catastrophic wildfires (and for improving rangeland conditions). Fire became the domain of professionals – we simply couldn't trust ranchers – or our communities, really – with such a potentially dangerous tool. When I graduated from college and started my career in the early 1990s, very few ranchers were using fire in the foothills.
Perhaps landowners need to “take back” the work of using fire. Last month, I had the opportunity to observe (I would like to say “help,” but I really didn't do very much) a small broadcast burn in a patch of nonindustrial timber land near Colfax. The 2-acre site was part of a larger, multi-landowner shaded fuelbreak that included portions of Allen Edward's property. This particular patch had been masticated to knock down the brush that had regrown after the 2001 Ponderosa Fire (which Allen's previous fuel reduction work had helped to stop).
Of the various methods for reducing fuel loads, only fire and grazing actually remove fuel – mastication, mowing, herbicide treatments, etc. modify the fuel profile, but the fuel itself remains in place. The wood chips and brush scraps leftover from the mastication on this site were still flammable.
The key takeaway for me from the burn at Allen's was that fire – like grazing – can be an iterative process. A single burn – like a single graze period – won't necessarily convert a fire-prone site to a fire-safe site. Last week's burn consumed fuel on the surface, but not the deeper material that had been moistened by previous rainfall. Allen also emphasizes that two-thirds to three-quarters of the cost of the burns he's conducted so far were incurred “before we ever struck a match,” adding, “without the mastication, hand clearing, and pruning, a fire would destroy most of my trees.”
Most importantly, last month's burn seemed simple. All of us who were on site wore cotton or wool work clothes, sturdy boots, and work gloves. We had a variety of hand and power tools (fire rakes, McLeod hoes, pitch forks, backpack pumps, chainsaws, and leaf blowers), plus a pick-up bed water tank and trash pump for extra water. Chris Paulus, a retired CalFire battalion chief who is leading this effort in Colfax, brought a unique combination of professional knowledge and landowner practicality to the burn. While Chris is definitely an advocate for “good” fire, he's also sympathetic to the concerns and questions that landowners have about returning fire to the tool box.
As I've talked with Allen and Chris, a new idea is forming. Like any new “tool,” landowners and managers need time to get comfortable with actually using fire on the landscape. We've used our 2-day grazing academies (started by my predecessor, Roger Ingram) as a way to help ranchers get comfortable with managed grazing systems. What about a prescribed fire academy, where landowners can get real-world experience using fire to reduce wildfire danger, improve forage production, and enhance wildlife habitat. Stay tuned!
Every rancher dreads getting that phone call - "Your cows [sheep, goats, etc.] are out." And anyone who relies on fences to keep livestock contained has probably received that call at some point. Fences fail, gates are left open, somebody forgets to hook up the electric fence energizer. Whenever I get that call, I drop everything else and take care of getting our sheep back where they belong. Getting our livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) back in the sheep paddock can sometimes be more problematic!
Over the years, I've come to realize the importance of a well-bonded LGD. Even if our sheep escape, a well-bonded dog will stay with them - and will often come back with the flock when we herd them back to the paddock. But sometimes, a dog will get out of our fences to chase off a predator. Sometimes a dog will simply decide to explore the neighborhood. Sometimes a dog will slip a collar or scoot through a gate when we're moving the sheep.
LGDs can get into trouble when this happens. One of our earlier dogs, Reno, loved chicken dinners - woe to the free-range chickens that might be nearby. He also disliked outdoor cats immensely (and often to their detriment). And so on the occasions that he got out of the sheep paddock, I was often in a hurry to catch him and keep him out of trouble. I'd call to him and follow him around, trying to catch him by the collar. The more I called (often increasingly frantically), the more he'd run away from me. I joked that if he'd had five toes on a front paw, he would have flipped me off!
I discovered, however, almost by accident, that he would generally come back if I ignored him. One afternoon, he escaped and took off across the ranch. I went about fixing fence and checking sheep, and within five minutes, he was back and wanted to be back with his sheep. I've subsequently experienced the same thing with other dogs.
This morning, I got that call - "Your sheep are out." When I arrived, I found most of the sheep grazing in a neighbor's pasture - and spotted Dillon the LGD gallivanting across the far side of the pasture, perhaps a quarter-mile away. I focused on getting the sheep back into their paddock, and before I finished Dillon returned and allowed himself to be herded along with the sheep. A few minutes later, I found several straggler sheep outside another section of fence. As my border collie brought them back, I opened the electronet for them - allowing Dillon to escape again. Once again, I ignored him - and within minutes he walked up to me so I could catch his collar.
This kind of behavior, I think, is related to the bonding process that we use. I want my LGDs to know how to ride in the truck, to accept being walked on a leash or tied out on a chain while we're working sheep. But I most want them to want to be with their sheep in all circumstances. Teaching a livestock guardian dog to come when I call (or other obedience training, for that matter) seems to require a bond with me rather than with the livestock. A dog that sits, stays, and comes when I call, might prefer to be with me rather than with my sheep. Working LGDs are not pets, and so we have to meet them on their terms when we need them to guard livestock. Figuring this out has made catching the occasional wayward dog much less stressful!
Here in Auburn (on December 17, 2020), we received 0.64" of rain overnight. After a late start to the rainy season (and to germination on our annual rangelands), any rain is welcome at this point. But last night's rain continues an interesting (and potentially troubling) trend - our storm total was about 60 percent of what forecasters predicted earlier in the week. Similarly, last weekend's storms delivered less moisture than predicted. Our seasonal total (since October 1) is just over 4 inches; our average seasonal total here in Auburn over the last 20 years is over 11.5 inches - in other words, we've received just 36 percent of our "normal" precipitation so far.
On the positive side of all of these numbers, we have received enough rain to keep the grass that germinated last month going for a month or more. For our small sheep operation, we'd established a key date of December 31 for implementing more drastic drought measures (like buying more hay or selling sheep). With 1.89 inches of rain this month, and with the forage we've saved due to our conservative stocking rate and diligent grazing planning, we should make it through lambing without much added expense.
But the pattern remains concerning. I've noticed over the last several years that precipitation forecasting has become more accurate. While the exact timing of storms remains difficult to predict with down-to-the-minute accuracy, forecasters have become more adept at predicting storm totals several days out. That this year's storms seem to be falling short of predictions suggests that forecasting remains an inexact science.
Obviously, rainfall on our annual rangelands does more than grow forage. Many operations rely on run-off to recharge seasonal creeks and refill stock ponds. Without stock water, some producers won't be able to use the forage they saved from last spring (or they'll need to haul water). In the medium-term, the lack of snowfall in the high country portends a challenging summer for those of us who rely on irrigated pasture. Fortunately, our local water districts entered the winter with adequate carry-over in their reservoirs, but a lower-than-average snow pack is definitely concerning!
So while while our operation has made it through the first critical date of our drought plans, we're not out of the woods yet. After lambing is over in late March, our next major decision point will be weaning. We usually wean the lambs in mid/late June - sometimes as late as early July. In order to save forage on our annual rangeland for next fall, we may wean and sell our lambs early, allowing us to graze dry ewes on irrigated pasture into midsummer (which reduces our forage demand). I suspect our next decision date will be sometime in mid/late April.
I won't reiterate how difficult 2020 has been on a variety of fronts - drought just seems like one more crisis on top of a crisis-dominated year. I would encourage you to check out the Rangeland Drought Information Hub on the UC Rangelands website, however. You'll find a variety of resources for responding to drought conditions. From my perspective, the best time to start planning for drought is while it's raining. The second best time to start planning for drought is now! If you'd like help developing a drought plan or considering specific decisions, contact me at email@example.com.
When we finally received a more than two inches of rain in mid-November, I was relieved that we would finally have germination on our foothill rangelands - better late than never! Today, after two weeks of sunshine, I am indeed seeing a little green coming up through last year's dry forage. But the forecast isn't promising - as of this morning (November 30), we have no rain in our forecast here in Auburn for the next two weeks. The combination of dry weather, short days, and colder (for here, at least) temperatures indicates that we won't likely grow much grass during the month of December.
Drought planning begins with proactive strategies - a conservative stocking rate, for example, or a production calendar designed to match periods of high forage demand with rapid forage growth. One of the most important proactive strategies in our small-scale sheep operation is grazing planning. Over the years, we've trained our eyes to estimate the amount of forage we have available - measured in sheep days per acre. While our estimates are not 100 percent accurate all of the time, the simple act of looking ahead and estimating the quantity and quality of standing forage gives us a better idea of when we might need to adjust our plans.
The second element of our planning process is the idea of key dates. For me, establishing a date by which we need to make a decision forces us to actually make the decision. During the 2013-2014 drought, Glenn Nader (who preceded me as UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor in Sutter and Yuba Counties) said, "The only way you're gonna survive a drought is to make decisions." This advice, obviously, has stayed with me - indecision prolongs the pain (economic and otherwise) of drought. In our operation, we look at forage conditions, weather forecasts, and our production calendar when establishing a key date. For example, our ewes will enter the last trimester of gestation in early January. At this point, their nutritional demand will begin ramping up significantly as they approach their lambing dates. While we've saved enough dry forage to get by for the next 5-6 weeks (which we can utilize by supplementing the ewes' protein intake), late gestation will require a different strategy. A key date also requires us to think about a condition that must be met for a decision to be triggered. This December, that condition is rainfall. If we haven't received an inch of rain by December 31, and if there is no rain in the 2-week forecast on that date, we'll need to make a decision.
This brings us to the last element of our drought plan - what are our options if we're still dry on New Year's Eve? For me, these reactive strategies are far less palatable - they cost us money (as in more expenses, less revenue, or both). Here are the options that are currently on the table:
- Purchase enough hay to get the ewes through late gestation and into the beginning of lambing season.
- Look for byproduct or other alternative protein and energy sources to feed the ewes.
- Sell older ewes to reduce forage demand.
- Sell replacement ewe lambs to reduce forage demand.
- Allow body condition to decline until the forage begins to grow (which may reduce lamb survival and future reproductive success).
- Find additional rangeland pasture to graze (this would still require some supplemental nutrition).
Over the next several weeks, we'll brainstorm additional options. We'll work through the economic ramifications of each of these options. We may choose a combination - perhaps we'd sell a few sheep and purchase hay to sustain the rest of the flock. The point here is that we've given ourselves a deadline for taking action, and we'll work through the numbers associated with each decision.
In the meantime, we'll keeping hoping for rain....
October 2020 Beef Production and Targeted Grazing Webinars Now Available on YouTube!
Thank you to everyone who was able to join in one or more of our Beef Cattle and Targeted Grazing webinars during the month of October! We had great discussions on everything from managing parasites in cattle to bidding a targeted grazing job to managing pastures! I especially want to thank the Tahoe Cattlemen's Association for co-sponsoring the four cattle production sessions!
If you missed any of these webinars, or if you'd simply like to go back and review what you learned, I've loaded the videos of each session onto my YouTube channel! You can simply click the links below to watch the webinars!
An Introduction to Targeted Grazing (October 6) – learn the basics about managing targeted grazing for fuel load reduction and weed management.
Cattle Health with Dr. Gaby Maier and Dr. Becky Childers (October 15) – this webinar covers managing internal and external parasites, developing a vet-client-patient relationship, and how NOT to get fired by your veterinarian!
Beef Business Basics with Judd Tripp and JC Baser (October 20) – learn the basics of how to analyze your livestock business, and learn from the experiences of veteran Placer County ranchers.
Grazing Management Basics with Greg Lawley and Joe Fischer (October 22) – foothill ranchers discuss the art and science of managed grazing on rangeland and irrigated pasture.
The Business of Targeted Grazing with Bianca Soares (October 27) – learn about the business of targeted grazing, complete with tools for analyzing your own economic viability. The second half of this webinar features a question-and-answer session with an established targeted grazing contractor.
Beef Cattle Nutrition with Dr. Pedro Carvalho (October 29) – UC Davis/UCCE Feedlot Management Specialist Dr. Pedro Carvalho provides a basic overview of beef cattle nutrition in this final webinar.
And be sure to check out my Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Knowpodcast with fellow shepherd Ryan Mahoney – available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts! While our focus is on sheep, we cover topics of interest to most livestock producers!
If you have any questions, or ideas about future webinar or workshop topics, you can always contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (530) 889-7385.