Welcome to the inaugural post to my new blog, Ranching in the Sierra Foothills! In the coming weeks and months, I'll be posting information about workshops, new research, and other topics related to ranching in the Sierra foothills! I hope you'll join in the conversation!
By way of introduction, I am tremendously excited to become the new livestock and natural resources advisor for Placer, Nevada, Sutter and Yuba Counties! I have huge shoes to fill - Roger Ingram and Glenn Nader served our communities incredibly well!
Most recently, I have been an associate specialist in rangeland science and management at UC Davis (with the UC Rangelands program), with research and extension activities focused on drought management, livestock-predator coexistence, irrigated pasture and water quality. I am also a partner in Flying Mule Farm, a small-scale commercial sheep operation in Auburn, California. I have a master's degree in integrated resource management from Colorado State University and a bachelor's degree in agricultural and managerial economics from UC Davis. I currently serve as vice president of the California Wool Growers Association and am a past president of the California-Pacific Section of the Society for Range Management. My wife Samia and I have two daughters – Lara (19) and Emma (13). I am looking forward to focusing my research and extension activities on livestock-predator interactions, drought resilience, irrigated pasture, targeted grazing, and ranch economics.
In the meantime, we have a couple of events scheduled in the near future - click on the links below for more information:
July 16 - Sierra Foothill Wool Pool
I also invite you to check out the UCCE Sustainable Foothill Ranching Facebook page. You can also follow me on Twitter at @flyingmulefarm!
For me, irrigating pasture is a unique blend of art and science. I'll get to some of the science in a moment. Moving water across a field - whether by flood irrigation, hand-pipe sprinklers or a movable pod system - is truly an art. The best irrigators I've known have a sixth sense about when and how to move water to grow grass. I've known some irrigators to whom the laws of gravity did not apparently apply - I'd swear they could make water flow uphill!
These irrigators have an intuitive sense of the science behind irrigation. They understand that water demand (in the form of transpiration by plants and evaporation from the soil - together these are called evapotranspiration or ETo) changes based on climatic conditions and time of year. They understand that well-managed soils hold on to moisture. Canopy cover, soil structure and organic matter all influence a pasture's water holding capacity.
Fortunately, for those of us who lack this intuitive sense of when and how much to irrigate, there are some easily accessible tools for measuring factors like ETo and soil moisture. A shovel, perhaps, is the pasture irrigator's most important tool - with a shovel we can see what's going on below the surface. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has a useful photo guide to estimating soil moisture by feel - all you need to do is dig into the root zone and grab a handful of soil! Soil moisture sensors can also provide a look at what's happening below the soil surface - these sensors can provide a more accurate estimate of how much soil moisture is available in the root zone of our pasture plants.
If measuring soil moisture tells us about the supply side of the irrigation equation, ETo tells us about demand. Evapotranspiration is typically expressed in the inches (or volume) of water used by a planted area within a certain timeframe. ETo is dependent on the physiology and structure of plants, as well as on climatic factors like sunlight, air temperature, relative humidity and wind speed. Site-specific reference ETo data is provided by the Department of Water Resources California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) website. This data is generated from weather stations throughout the state - including stations in Auburn and at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley. Reference ETo estimates the water used by cool-season pasture grasses and provides a great starting point to determining how much water our pastures need.
To give you some sense of how ETo changes over the course of the irrigation season, here's a weekly summary of ETo and precipitation for Auburn since the start of our irrigation season in mid-April. Keep in mind, when ETo (demand) exceeds the precipitation (natural supply) in a given time frame, we have to make up that deficit with irrigation (if we want our pastures to keep growing). I find it especially interesting to note that ETo nearly doubled from June 13 to June 20 - I suspect this sudden change in conditions stressed our pasture plants.
Much of the research into irrigated pasture in northern California was conducted many years ago. Given the evolving nature of water use and agricultural production in Northern California, new science-based information about water use efficiency, forage production, and the environmental benefits provided by irrigated pasture is critical. To begin to answer some of these key questions, we are initiating a 3-year cross-sectional survey of irrigated pasture management practices in partnership with Dr. Leslie Roche and the UC Rangelands program at UC Davis. We'll be using rapid assessment tools to measure forage productivity, diversity and soil fertility across a range of grazing, water and nutrient management intensities. We'll also be developing workshops and field days designed to help ranchers understand and use our findings. Stay tuned for details!
In the meantime, I encourage you to check out these resources on irrigated pasture:
The Detwiler Fire in Mariposa County (which has burned over 45,000 acres as of this post) reminds us that California's annual rangelands are especially vulnerable to wildfire. After record-setting rainfall in the just-concluded precipitation year, we have an unusual amount of fine fuels (dry grass and forbs). And after our just-concluded 500-year drought, we're still coping with significant tree mortality problems, especially on the west slope of the southern and central Sierra Nevada. (As a side note, I drove through the region currently impacted by the Detwiler Fire last fall - the number of dead Ponderosa pines was astounding). For me, at least, the threat of wildfire is a top-of-mind issue every year until the fall rains begin. I'm sure that those of you who also graze livestock on annual rangelands during the dry season feel the same way!
For me, there are three areas where I focus my attention when it comes to the threat of wildfire. The first is situational awareness. Obviously, when I'm checking sheep or building fence, I keep an eye on my surroundings - a puff of smoke commands my attention immediately. I'm cognizant of wind and humidity, as well. A fire plane makes a distinctive sound - a low flying fire plane suggests that there's a fire close by. Even when I'm sitting in my office (which is about 8 miles from our annual rangeland pastures), I listen for the sound of firefighting aircraft - the rest of the staff in Auburn is now used to seeing me run outside to look for smoke when we hear planes go over this time of year!
The second is preparation. As we enter fire season, we talk about where the sheep will be and where we might be able to move them if a fire threatens. While hauling the sheep out of harms way is our preferred option, we also discuss potential safe areas, including nearby irrigated pastures, green belts or areas cleared of vegetation. I also carry a McLeod fire tool and a 5-gallon backpack pump in my truck - it's important to be prepared.
The third area of focus is response. Fortunately, in the 15 years we've raised livestock commercially, we've never had to respond to a fire directly threatening our animals. We have lost fences on leased properties to fire, but we've never been forced to evacuate (for which I'm very grateful). As fast as the Detwiler Fire is moving, I suspect we wouldn't have much time to respond. Our option of last resort would be to let the fences down and hope that the ewes and the guard dogs get somewhere safe.
As in much of the world, carnivores and grazing livestock in our four-county region (Placer, Nevada, Sutter and Yuba) share the many of the same rangeland habitats. In some cases, land use conversion of rangelands - often to urban or suburban development - concentrates livestock and predators on a shrinking landscape - making conflict inevitable (see Zimmerman et al., 2010).
As many ranchers know, the main predators of sheep, goats and cattle in our region are coyotes, mountain lions, black bears and domestic dogs. In the last several years, gray wolves have come back into northern California. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) recently collared a female member of the newly named "Lassen Pack," apparently in the mountains somewhere west of Susanville. Gray wolves in California are protected under both the state and federal endangered species acts; lethal control of gray wolves is not an option in California. CDFW anticipates that gray wolves will eventually move as far south as I-80 in the Sierra Nevada and Mendocino County in the Coast Range.
Closer to home, I attended a meeting of the Sutter-Yuba Farm Bureau this week, which featured a discussion about a mountain lion that was collared and recently spotted in the Sutter Buttes (an area in which such sightings are apparently unusual). Ranchers in the Buttes were legitimately concerned about the safety of their livestock. While mountain lions are a specially protected species in California, ranchers can obtain depredation permits if a mountain lion has killed livestock. According to CDFW, if you suspect lion depredation, you should preserve the carcass and scene (by placing a tarp over the carcass, covering tracks with cans or buckets, and minimizing disturbance). Call your nearest CDFW office or local Wildlife Services specialist (or county specialist in Placer County). If a lion kill is confirmed, CDFW will issue a depredation permit. See below for contact information for these agencies.
Livestock protection tools - guardian dogs, electric fencing, increased human presence (to name a few) - can offer site- and operation-specific protection for grazing livestock. Along with a number of campus-based specialists and other farm advisors from through northern California, I have been working on a new publication that will help ranchers (and others) evaluate these tools for their own operations. We hope the publication will be available this fall. We will also be launching a livestock-carnivore information hub on the UC Rangelands website. Stay tuned!
Finally, we have also initiated a long-term survey to evaluate the direct and indirect impacts of predators on rangeland livestock operations. This study, which will continue over the next 10 years, will examine direct impacts (death loss) from predators, as well as potential indirect impacts (reduced conception rates, lower weaning weights, increased labor, the cost of nonlethal tools, etc.). If you are a commercial livestock producer who has at least 5 years of records on your operation and who plans to stay in business for at least 10 more years, please contact me if you're interested in participating in this project. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, I have provided a number of links regarding depredation and carnivore-livestock co-existence, as well as contact information for local agency offices.
- California Department of Fish and Wildlife - Region 2 (which includes Placer, Nevada, Sutter and Yuba Counties)
- USDA Wildlife Services - California - the state office can provide contact information for wildlife specialists in your county.
- Placer County Agriculture Department (Placer County employs its own wildlife specialists, who are available to assist with depredation problems)
- National Wildlife Research Center - the research arm of USDA Wildlife Services. The center is conducting a variety of research projects related to livestock-predator interactions.
- CDFW Gray Wolf Conservation Plan
- CDFW Gray Wolf FAQ Sheet for Ranchers - tools for California livestock producers to discourage wolf presence, guidance for suspected wolf depredation, and wolf legal status.
While our continued hot weather makes it difficult to remember that autumn is just around the corner, we're working on a busy schedule of fall and winter workshops and field days! Details will follow (be sure to check our Foothill Farming Events Calendar regularly) - but I wanted to make sure you get these events on your calendar!
|August 31, 2017||
|September 23, 2017||
Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, Browns Valley, CA
|September 29, 2017||
Shepherd Skills Workshop: Preparing Sheep for Breeding
|October 18, 2017||
Full Belly Farm Tour
Capay Valley, CA
|October 25, 2017||
Farmer-to-Farmer Potluck and Operational Succession Panel Discussion
|November 3, 2017||
|November 9, 2017||
Electric Fencing Workshop
|November 15, 2017||
Farmer-to-Farmer Breakfast - Whole Farm Insurance Workshop
|January 17, 2018||
Farmer-to-Farmer Breakfast - Labor Workshop
|January 18, 2018||
Shepherd Skills Workshop: Introduction to the Sheep Business
|January 20, 2018||
Shepherd Skills Field Day: Sheep Husbandry Basics
|January 25 - March 1, 2018||
Farm Business Planning Short Course
|February 13, 2018||
|February 20, 2018||
Operations Planning Workshop
|March 3, 2018||
Shepherd Skills Field Day: Pasture Lambing School