In 2018, as the Camp Fire was still burning in Butte County, a number of University of California colleagues, led by Area Dairy Advisor Betsy Karle, sampled irrigated pasture forage, hay, and corn silage from locations throughout Northern California (including several pastures here in Placer and Nevada Counties). Some of these regions had been impacted by ash fall and wildfire smoke; others had not. Our intent was to learn if ash created any potential toxicity or other health problems for livestock. We were especially interested in looking at heavy metal concentrations.
As we once again find ourselves in smoky conditions, I thought it might be helpful to provide an overview of our findings. For the most part, we did not find any concentrations of metals, minerals, or other compounds that should cause concern for livestock producers. Similarly, Tracy Schohr, who is the Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor for Butte, Plumas, and Sierra Counties, looked at water quality during the immediate aftermath of the Camp Fire. Her results were also unremarkable. Read more here.
The take-home message from our forages study (which I think also applies to water quality) is this:
"While more detailed and controlled studies could provide additional information, these results indicate 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 [or grazing pastures]. 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."
If you'd like to test your forage or water quality, or have questions about testing results, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 889-7385. I can also provide you with a complete copy of our forage study results.
Over the last three days, we've had a stark reminder about our vulnerability to wildfire and public safety power shutoffs here in the Sierra foothills. On Saturday morning, as I was getting ready to participate in the California Wool Growers Association virtual convention, I received word that the power was out in the community where our ewes are grazing. This meant we'd likely have to haul water to the sheep (rather than filling troughs from a pump-fed hose bib) - doable, but time consuming. Fortunately, power was restored quickly, and we were able to fill the troughs - a relief since Saturday was one of the hottest days of the summer so far!
Last night, I awoke to the sound of one of our border collies opening the screen door and trotting into the kitchen (where he could hide beneath the desk). Mo hates thunder, and I realized that thunder had chased him inside. I went outside to watch the lightning dance around the hills to our west and north. These storms were dry, and so we awoke this morning to news of a number of small (and at least one not-so-small) fires just to our north in Nevada County. I can smell smoke outside my office as I write this.
These events remind us that we're approaching peak fire season here in the northern foothills. The continuing heat wave (we're supposed to be over 100F for the fourth consecutive day) is drying the fuel to critical levels. As we head towards autumn, we'll likely see stronger and more erratic winds - and, according to the flyer I received from Pacific Gas & Electric last week, more public safety power shutoffs.
Last year's shutoffs were chaotic, to say the least. Here in north Auburn, we lost power three or four times (I think; so much has happened since last fall, my memory is a bit hazy). I do recall that the warning calls and texts from PG&E were frequent and rarely accurate. We had difficulty finding ice for our ice chests, and folks seemed to have forgotten how to go through intersections without working traffic lights. I grew up with lengthy power outages from winter weather, so the loss of electricity was more of an inconvenience for us - thankfully we had a small generator handy, so we could keep the meat in our freezers cold.
Heading into this fall, though, we should all be thinking about how we can manage through these power shutoffs and prepare for wildfire. Here's a start:
Public Safety Power Shutoff Preparation
- Can we get water to our livestock if the power goes off? How much water will our livestock need per day? If I can't pump water to them, do I have enough tank capacity and water access to haul water to them until power is restored?
- Do I have back-up power for our freezers and refrigerators? What is at risk in these appliances? We no longer sell meat at farmers markets; if we did, I'd be sure to have enough backup power generation on hand. What about vaccines and other pharmaceuticals? We keep our animal drugs in a refrigerator in our shop - can we keep them cold if we have no electricity?
- Do we have enough gasoline to run our generator for several days?
- Do we have enough ice for our ice chests to get us through a day or two without power? We've started filling empty milk cartons with water and freezing them for future use.
- Do all of our flashlights and battery-powered lanterns have good batteries?
- Can we charge our phones and computers in our vehicles? My laptop has an adapter, and we all have car chargers for our smart phones.
- Have we signed up for alerts from PG&E and other emergency services? As unorganized as the PG&E alert system was last year, it was helpful to feel connected and to be getting updates. And since these shutoffs coincide with periods of high fire danger, access to our phones is critical.
Since large-scale fires often coincide with loss of power, most of the preparations listed above apply here, too. But there are additional questions we think about when it comes to fire:
- Can we get to our sheep in the event of fire? Currently we have livestock on two leased properties at some distance from our home. In the event of a fire at these locations, we would contact law enforcement and animal control if we needed to gain access.
- Do we have contact information for landlords and neighboring landowners where our livestock our grazing, just in case we can't get access?
- Who would we call if we needed to haul our livestock out of the path of an oncoming fire? We can't get all of our sheep in one load, so we'd need to call for help.
- Alternatively, are there safe zones where we could place our livestock if we didn't have time to evacuate? Irrigated pastures or dry lots devoid of flammable vegetation may give us some emergency protection in a fast moving fire.
- Do we have a texting tree or a calling tree to check in with other ranchers in our community? I have found that county and CalFire emergency notification services typically don't provide timely information about small, local fires. But my ranching friends are always on top of things - often, the first word I get about a fire in our part of Placer County is a text from a fellow rancher.
- Are our buildings and other infrastructure protected? Since we have livestock in multiple locations, I think about this beyond our home place. Are there fire breaks protecting fences and forage? Have we removed brush around buildings and corrals?
- Do we have fire tools available to us? I keep a fire rake and a 5-gallon backpack pump in my truck during the summer - I've never had to use them, but I feel better having them with me.
You can sign up for PG&E alerts at at https://www.pge.com/mywildfirealerts (if you're a PG&E customer) or https://pge.com/pspszipcodealerts (if you're not a PG&E customer). You can also access PG&E's weather forecasting center at https://pge.com/weather.
Finally, I want to hear from you! What are you doing to prepare for fires and power outages? Share your ideas in the comments below, or on the UCCE Sustainable Foothill Ranching Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/FoothillSustainableRanching/.
Can any of us remember a summer like this?! The work of ranching continues - irrigating pasture, checking livestock, preparing for calving or breeding season. And yet the COVID-19 pandemic casts a pall over everything we're doing. Market disruptions - including increasing demand for direct-to-consumer meat products - add to the uncertainty we're all grappling with. I'm wearing a mask when I go to the feed store and limiting my trips to town. And, as I write, this, my youngest daughter is starting her last year of high school - from home.
Given the continued rise in COVID cases here in Placer County, our UC Cooperative Extension staff continues to work from home. But while we're not in the office, we are still out and about serving our communities. Our 4-H staff is working with our volunteer leaders and 4-H members to start the new 4-H year. Our nutrition staff continues to work with schools throughout the community to provide school gardens and nutrition/healthy lifestyles information for kids and adults. Our Master Gardeners have developed some incredibly innovative online educational opportunities. Check out our website at http://ceplacer.ucanr.edu/ for more details!
Our agricultural programs are also ongoing! I am working with colleagues at Davis and elsewhere to put on a bi-weekly webinar on a variety of grazing and livestock production topics. Our Working Rangelands Wednesdays series has covered topics like drought, targeted grazing, water quality, and fuel load reduction. You can register to participate in these webinars here.
I've also been collaborating with Ryan Mahoney of Emigh Livestock on a weekly podcast called Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know (available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts). While our focus has largely been on sheep industry topics, I think you'll find that many of our episodes are broadly applicable to all livestock production. If there's a topic you'd like us to take on, please send me an email at email@example.com.
Research projects aren't standing still, either - we are wrapping up our early weaning project at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center this fall. I'm continuing to collect data on predators and livestock guardian dog behavior on the Tahoe National Forest this summer. Our northern California irrigated pasture research continues, and we're about to start a collaborative forage variety trial with specialists from UC Davis and farm advisors from throughout the state. I find that I especially enjoy the days I get to spend in the field!
We are planning a number of virtual workshops this fall, including our "So You Want to Start a Farm or Ranch" workshop and our Beginning Farming Academy - stay tuned for details. And I'm working with the Tahoe Cattlemen's Association to organize a beef production workshop or webinar in late September. Watch my website for more information!
If you're on Instagram, you might check out my IGTV channels - covering a variety of topics from forage production and management to livestock guardian dogs. You can follow me on Instagram at @flyingmule.
Finally, I am available by phone, email, and in person! If you have a pasture, livestock, or range management question, call me at (530) 889-7385 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm always glad to get out in the field, so don't hesitate to contact me!
These are strange times, to say the least. Stay safe, and stay positive. I hope to hear from you!
For many ranchers in the Sierra foothills and Sacramento Valley, irrigated pasture is a critical component of our annual forage calendar. In many ways, irrigated pasture has replaced the historic practice of "following the green" - of taking sheep and cattle to mountain pastures during the summer months. Green summertime forage in the foothills and valley requires irrigation in our Mediterranean climate - and so many of us spend at least part of every day from April through October spreading water across our pastures.
Here in the foothills, these pastures do more than feed livestock. Large blocks of green vegetation provide landscape-scale firebreaks that protect rural residential communities. These pastures support a great deal of wildlife, as well - I consistently see wild turkeys, blacktail deer, song birds, and hawks (just to name a few species) on our pastures near Auburn. At least to me, a well managed irrigated pasture is a cool, green jewel amidst the summer-time brown of our foothill landscapes.
Truly productive irrigated pastures don't simply appear once we start applying water, though. No matter how much I water the annual grasses that grow on our rangelands, these plants have to die each year - that's what makes them annuals! Establishing irrigated pasture is similar to planting an other permanent crop - it requires soil preparation, infrastructure development, fertilizer application, and seeding of perennial forage species (like orchard grass, fescue, and clover).
Once planted, irrigated pasture requires careful management, as well. Our irrigation system is designed to put enough water in 24 hours onto the pasture to meet plant needs for ten days (in other words, our irrigation "sets" are for 24 hours, and our "rotation" brings us back to the same location in the pasture every ten days). We also manage our grazing carefully - matching our rest periods with the growth rate of our forage. When the grass is growing rapidly in the springtime, we can graze the same paddock every 25 days; in the heat of the summer when grass growth slows, our rest periods are longer to allow the plants to re-grow before we graze them again. And to protect water quality, we try not to irrigated underneath the livestock.
Obviously, the decision to establish irrigated pasture - or to incorporate it into our production systems - must include economics! Establishing pasture - even one that will last for 20-plus years - requires significant investment. Once established, we have to pay for water, depreciate our equipment, pay for labor, PAY OURSELVES!
This spring, I collaborated with Don Stewart at the Ag Issues Center at UC Davis to update two cost studies specifically analyzing foothill irrigated pasture. Click on the links below to access them:
On a related note, I'm also collaborating with Dr. Leslie Roche, Cooperative Extension Specialist in Rangeland Management at UC Davis, along with a number of other farm advisors throughout Northern California, on a research project examining a variety of irrigated pasture management strategies. We're looking at grazing management, water management, forage production, soil health, and a variety of other parameters - stay tuned for more information on this project as well!
Now I need to go out and move water....
I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to get a fair bit of formal education - from my undergraduate days at UC Davis studying agricultural economics to the online coursework I took while obtaining my master's degree at Colorado State University. The certificates that hang on the wall in my office attest to this formal education; my membership in professional societies (like the Society for Range Management and Western Association of Agricultural Economics) gives me access to continued learning. My formal (and continuing) education has driven my intellectual curiosity.
Thankfully, I've also had the opportunity to learn from experience - my own and that of others. Much of what I've learned through my own experiences has been from mistakes that I've made! In many cases, I've learned what NOT to do next time. I've also had the good fortune to learn from others - from mentors (ranchers and colleagues). This informal learning is interesting - while there are times when it confirms what I've learned from books or in classrooms, it often makes me question my formal instruction. And it certainly drives my intellectual curiosity, as well.
Early on during our shelter-at-home experience this spring, my friend Ryan Mahoney, a sheep producer from Rio Vista, approached me with the idea of starting a podcast about sheep production. While Ryan operates at a very large scale (and we have a much smaller operation), we felt like we could both learn from one another. We also felt like taping a podcast would give us something to do every Wednesday afternoon! And so Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know was born! We've now produced 12 episodes in our first season, covering topics like risk management, the effects of COVID-19 on the sheep industry, and livestock guardian dogs.
"The best sheepherder gets the most out of the land by getting the most into the sheep."
As we continue producing Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know, Ryan and I hope to interview other producers to learn from their experiences. We'll also be talking with experts in animal health, livestock nutrition, marketing, and business management - learning from their experiences, and having fun along the way!
You can check out our podcast HERE! And let us know what topics you'd like to learn more about!/span>