I suppose my obsession with the weather apps on my smartphone started during the 2013-2014 drought. I've always been a weather geek, but during that dry spell, I found myself constantly checking multiple apps to see if one held more hope for moisture than another. That fall, I was lambing out a large commercial flock of sheep in the California Delta. Later that winter, I went to work as the beef herdsman at UC's Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC). Grass - and the moisture to grow it - was never far from front of mind. And as a dry, cold December stretched into an even drier January, we reduced our sheep numbers (both on the outfit I was working for, and in our own flock). As the weather stayed dry that spring, we hunted every blade of grass we could find at SFREC. And looking at the plethora of weather apps that are still on my phone today, I find myself getting nervous about this fall and winter... again!
Based on that 2013-2014 experience, I've become much more focused on my grazing planning. For me, this involves multiple timeframes - I'm thinking about where our sheep will be able to graze over the next 3-4 weeks, as well as what our forage resources might look like into late January and February (during late gestation for our ewes). Beyond lambing, I start thinking about how much irrigated pasture we'll have available to us next summer. Based on this planning, I can adjust when and where we move the sheep in the short term. In the long term, I can adjust our flock size to make sure our forage demand balances with our forage supply.
Setting our stocking rate, then, becomes a critical part of our drought strategy. Do we stock for an "average" year (whatever that is)? Do we stock for a good year with the understanding that we'll need to sell animals if our grass doesn't come on? Or do we stock conservatively - for the worst years - and adjust by bringing in more animals if we're pleasantly surprised by rainfall and grass? My friend and colleague Josh Davy, who runs cows in the Sacramento Valley, says, "My starting point is to set my stocking rate so that I can survive December and January - those are the toughest months, feed-wise."
We can also affect our stocking rate simply through our management calendar. We try to matching our lambing period (which is also our period of highest forage demand) with the onset of rapid grass growth (usually in late February or early March). Most years, this works out - although the incredibly dry period we had in the first quarter of 2022 tested my resolve. This also allows us to reduce our stocking rate as the forage dries out in late spring and summer - by simply selling our lambs.
All of this brings me back to THIS fall and getting nervous. We had a germinating rain in mid September - and we've had no precipitation since here in Auburn. The grass that germinated after that first rain has stopped growing (and in some cases, died). Our irrigation water shut off on October 15, which means our irrigated pasture won't grow much more forage unless we get some rain. Last night, I mapped out our grazing for the next month - I think we'll have enough grass to stay on our irrigated pasture until the first weekend of December.
After that, we'll see where we are - if we get rain in the next 7-10 days (and there appears to be some in our forecast - depending on the app I'm looking at!), we'll have some green forage on our lower elevation annual rangelands by the time we move the sheep. If we don't get any rain, we'll need to provide supplemental protein to allow the ewes to digest the dry forage we saved as a buffer. At this point, I'm reluctant to sell any bred ewes - we've already invested in next year's lamb crop.
During last year's dry spell, Siskiyou County Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor, Grace Woodmansee and I developed a drought decision support tool to help ranchers think about their short- and long-term drought strategies. The core of this tool is a 12-month forage calendar - a tool to help you think about potential gaps in your forage supply through the course of the year. This year, I've found it helpful to revisit my forage projections on a regular basis - grass that seemed plentiful after last December suddenly looked short in mid-March. Similarly, what looked to be a dismal grass year in March turned around with April's storms. The process of planning - of looking ahead at our grass - helped make my decision-making process more rational. Had April remained dry, I would have sold sheep; since it turned wet, I was able to maintain my numbers. My forage calendar, in other words, allowed me to establish some realistic key dates for decision-making.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to check a few more weather apps - one of them is bound to have an optimistic forecast for next week!
- Author: Dan Macon
- Author: Katie Low
- Author: Ricky Satomi
Along with damage to built structures, vegetation and natural areas on the property may need restoration – dry forage conserved for fall grazing must be replaced (likely with purchased hay in the short-term), drainage around damaged culverts and road surfaces must be mitigated before the winter. Other impacts may also emerge in the coming months – some trees that were scorched will survive while others die; burned brush may vigorously resprout and develop into future fire hazards; invasive weeds may gain a foothold on bare ground.
To help landowners and managers assess the conditions of their properties and make decisions about managing their resources going forward, we've compiled a number of helpful resources below:
Evaluating burn severity
The most damaging long-term impact to natural resources after wildfire is soil erosion. Loss of aboveground cover and even surface cover exposes soil to erosive effects of precipitation and runoff. This may be worsened on steep slopes or areas where roads are damaged and water may channelize. There are many different methods land owners can use to reduce the risk of significant soil erosion post-fire. Generally, the faster you implement erosion mitigation techniques, the more you increase the likelihood of reducing erosion impacts. You can find more information about erosion mitigation on the UCANR Fire website.
Consider evaluating risks to soil on and leading to your property. On private land, consultation with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, local RCD, or private land restoration consultant may help determine the severity of damage and what restoration work is needed to protect the soil.
If adjacent to federal land, Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams are currently assessing severity impacts to determine where protection measures are required to minimize damage to soil productivity, hydrologic function, and water quality. Once complete, these reports will be made public and can be used to identify potential risks to your property.
El Dorado County NRCS: Brook Fuller (530) 295-0120 ext 3
Placer County NRCS: Chris Robbins (530) 217-6258
Not all trees will die after being damaged by fire. Native California tree species have several adaptations which can help them survive or recover quickly after fire. If a tree does not pose an immediate hazard to health or property, it may be worth waiting to see whether it will recover.
Hardwoods and conifers differ in their resistance and ability to recover from fire. Since conifers only produce one set of foliage each year, the loss of foliage can be fatal. Typically, conifers may survive with as little as 25% of the crown remaining intact. However, smaller trees (less than 6 inches in diameter) and where the entire base of the tree has been exposed to fire, are unlikely to survive.
In contrast, oaks can potentially re-leaf after and therefore survive when all the foliage has burned off. Even when the trunk has been killed, many oaks will resprout from the roots in the spring, which can re-establish more quickly than acorn plantings.
If uncertain, cut small openings in the bark to expose the cambium layer underneath and check if the cambium is moist. A slow burning fire may leave the foliage green, but kill the live cambium tissue of the tree.
It is also important to consider the difficulty and cost associated with removing a tree now versus in the future. Depending on the size of your property and the number of trees, emergency exemptions may be available to remove any damaged trees and accelerate the regeneration of a forest stand. Consult with a local Registered Professional Forester or Certified Arborist for more information.
For more information, see Post Fire Recovery for Forest Landowners (UCCE).
Smoke/ash impacts on forage and livestock health
While wildfire may directly injure livestock, we're often more concerned with short and long-term impacts from smoke inhalation. To reduce stress and health risk to your livestock, limit exercise when smoke is visible. Particulates can also alter the immune system and reduce the ability of the lungs to remove foreign materials, such as pollen and bacteria, to which livestock are normally exposed. If livestock have experienced coughing over a long period of time, there is a greater risk of secondary problems such as bacterial pneumonia. Give livestock ample time to recover from smoke-induced airway insult.
Plan on giving livestock 4 to 6 weeks to recuperate after the air quality returns to normal. Handling, moving, or transporting livestock during this time may aggravate the condition, delay the healing
process, and compromise the performance of livestock for many weeks or months. If your livestock continue to experience primary or secondary problems with smoke-induced respiratory injury, you should contact a livestock veterinarian.
Forage toxicity is also a common concern after a wildfire, particularly in areas where structures and household products have been lost. Forage sampling research conducted after previous fires has demonstrated little evidence of wildfire ash causing increased heavy metal or other toxicity issues in forages. While more detailed studies are needed to provide additional information, preliminary results from recent fires with a high degree of structure loss have shown that forages affected by wildfire ash deposition are likely safe for livestock to consume. If you have forages that may be affected by ash deposition, evaluate the concentrations of minerals before formulating a ration. If you're exceptionally concerned about toxicity from contamination and cannot dilute with unaffected feed, isolate and test feed for heavy metals and organic compounds. Reach out to your local UCCE Farm Advisor if you have questions regarding taking a representative sample, choosing a lab, lab analyses, or interpreting your results.
Livestock Damage: Wildfires, Smoke, and Livestock (UC Davis)
Forage Toxicity: Wildfire Ash: Impact on Forage Crops
Contact the Farm Service Agency for more information about livestock disaster programs.
Preventing soil erosion is a top priority for fire-impacted rangelands. Physical changes to the soil, combined with loss of vegetation, can create a variety of problems including soil movement, increased runoff, mudflows, and debris flows. Research indicates that the amount of exposed mineral soil, regardless of slope, is correlated to erosion potential. For rangeland livestock operations, weed-free straw mulch is the best option for keeping soil in place. Soil protection measures should be in place before the first significant rain of the autumn.
For more information, see After the Fire: Resources for Ranchers.
Do not re-enter any areas that were heavily damaged or destroyed by fire until local fire authorities have cleared the area. Once you re-enter, it is important to assess hazards to protect your health and safety. Personal Protective Equipment such as N95 rated masks, protective clothing, gloves, and boots, and eye protection can reduce exposure to hazards.
There are a number of risks to be aware of when returning to your home post-fire.
- Check for the smell of gas. Turn off power until you've completed your inspection. Use a battery-powered flashlight to inspect a damaged home. (Note: the flashlight should be turned on outside before entering. The battery may produce a spark that could ignite leaking gas, if present.)
- Do not drink or use water from the faucet until emergency officials say it is okay; water supply systems can be damaged and become polluted during wildfires or as a result of subsequent post-fire flooding. If your well has been damaged by fire, contact a local licensed and bonded well constructor or pump installer to determine the extent of the damage and what must be done to either repair or decommission the well.
- Discard any food that has been exposed to heat, smoke, flood waters, or soot, as well as food that may have spoiled while your home was without power.
- Check to make sure the main breaker is on. If the breakers are on and power is still not present, contact the utility company. If you have a propane tank or system, contact a propane supplier, turn off valves on the system, and leave valves closed until the supplier inspects your system. If you have a heating oil tank system, contact a heating oil supplier for an inspection of your system before you use it. If you have a solar electrical system, this system should be inspected by a licensed technician to verify that the solar panels and electrical wiring are safe for continued operation.
Before cleaning up post-fire, create a list of damaged belongings. Photographing may help you document damages when working with you insurance provider. FEMA post-fire fact sheet
Next, you should decide how you want to remove debris. There are three main options for doing so 1) government-run programs 2) private contractors and 3) doing it yourself.
- Generally, counties implement a multi-phase approach to remove hazardous materials from residences: Phase I: removing household hazardous waste that may pose a threat to human health (e.g., batteries, asbestos siding, paints).
- This is required for all residential properties, but will be a free service in both counties. .
- Phase II: removal of debris and conducts property clean-up work. This includes removal of all burnt debris, foundations, hazardous trees, and contaminated soil to ensure the site is safe for building. Participation in the government run debris removal program is encouraged but optional.
- Information about Phase 2 in El Dorado and Placer Counties will be released in the coming weeks.
Food Safety: Food Safety Following Wildfire Evacuation (UCCE)
Placer County: https://www.placer.ca.gov/mosquito-fire-recovery
El Dorado County: https://www.edcgov.us/wildfire/Pages/Mosquito-Fire-Recovery.aspx
For damages to ranch infrastructure and livestock, contact local FSA/NRCS professionals, or your local resource conservation district.
And we want to hear from you, too! What kinds of assistance and information needs do you have after the fire? We're planning on field days and workshops focused on post-fire resilience in the coming months, and want to make sure we're addressing specific questions! If you were impacted by the Mosquito Fire, please take this brief survey!
The Placer County Resource Conservation District (Placer RCD) is rapidly expanding their prescribed burning program offerings to improve community wildfire resilience. The Prescribed Burning on Private Lands (PBPL) Pilot Program works to reduce barriers that limit private landowners from implementing prescribed burns including understanding permitting, liability, and developing the skills and confidence to put prescribed fire on the ground. Placer RCD offers technical assistance, workshops, and demonstration burns to give landowners the resources and confidence they need to implement safe and legal prescribed burns. In addition to education, the RCD created the first Placer Prescribed Burn Association (PBA) and is developing a community equipment cache. To get involved or learn more, visit www.placerrcd.org or contact Cordi Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We're in the process of planning more prescribed fire for working landscapes field days this fall and winter, too - stay tuned for details!/span>/span>
Our older ewes will graze it (some) early in the growing season, but by the time we get back to these pastures in the fall, the plants are too coarse to be palatable. As with most forage plants, palatability and nutrition seem to be related - as the plants become coarse, they also drop in nutritional value. And since the sheep don't graze it late in the year, it seems to be able to out-compete some of the more desirable species (which the sheep will eat).
Over the last decade, we've tried several different approaches. Early on, thinking that fertility was a key factor, we tried fertilizing with triple phosphate. We saw no difference between the areas we fertilized and those we didn't. One of our landlords tried mowing the broomsedge mid-season - which didn't seem to set it back at all, and which also didn't increase its palatability. In 2020 and 2021, I tried spot treating individual plants with glyphosate. These plants were still vegetative (that is, they hadn't flowered or produced seed yet), but in most cases, as the plant died from the herbicide, it seemed to go into hyperdrive and produce seeds. After the 2020 experiment, we didn't notice much difference from our spot spraying - we're still seeing broomsedge in our pastures.
In very early April, I decided to try another type of spot treatment - fire! Using a propane torch, I tried burning individual plants, as well as groups of plants where fire would carry. Broomsedge seems to be more of a warm-season perennial here, so it really hadn't started growing yet.
Obviously, this spring has been atypical, weather-wise (although over the last decade, I'd be hard-pressed to say what "typical" weather is). After I burned the broomsedge, we received more than four inches of rain (more than we measured for January through March 2022). Additionally, we started irrigating in mid-April. Not surprisingly, the burned broomsedge started to grow - sending up new tillers within a week or two of my burning.
Fast-forward to the last two weeks. We finally got the sheep onto the parts of the pasture I'd burned. And they absolutely LOVED the fresh growth on the broomsedge - they selectively grazed the plants that I'd treated (and ignored the decadent plants that I didn't burn). The next step will be to see if these plants stay palatable following our typical rest period (which is usually 35-40 days during this time of year).
By some definitions, a weed is simply a plant that is growing where we don't want it to grow. A weed, in a pasture setting, is a plant that takes up water, nutrients, and sunlight, at the expense of plants that may have greater nutritional value or more palatability. In that sense, broomsedge is definitely a weed - it's growing where I might otherwise be able to grow orchardgrass or clover. But what if I can figure out a cost-effective way to keep it palatable longer into the grazing season? What if I can get the sheep to eat it? Maybe a "weed" is in the eye of the beholder! Stay tuned - I'll provide an update on my observations as we make a second pass through this pasture!
Register now for the Sierra Foothills Cattle & Sheep Grazing School!
If you look back far enough in the histories of most foothill cattle operations, you'll find... SHEEP! Believe it or not, many long-time cattle operations also had sheep at one time. And today, there's increased interest in using multi-species grazing as a risk management and diversification tool!
If you're interested in learning more about managing both sheep and cattle on rangeland or pasture, sign up for the Sierra Foothills Cattle & Sheep Grazing School, July 14-15, 2022, in Auburn, California! This two-day school will include information - and hands-on experience - in grazing planning, estimating carrying capacity, fencing systems, stockmanship and husbandry practices, cattle and sheep nutrition, and economics! Our instructors include Dan Macon (UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor), Joe Fischer (Bruin Ranch), and Ryan Mahoney (R. Emigh Livestock). Every student will have an opportunity to graze both sheep and cattle!
Tuition for the 2-day program is $200, which includes meals and course materials. Producer scholarships are available through Sierra Harvest.
For more information, contact me at email@example.com or (530) 889-7385. Let's get out there and graze!