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:
As for most of you, I imagine, my world seems upside down at the moment, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. As I write this, my youngest daughter is finishing her junior year of high school through online courses. My oldest daughter is completing her second-to-last semester at Montana State University through online courses. And I'm working from the desk in my kitchen. I think I've participated in more video conferences in the last seven days than I've been on in my entire professional life. Based on the advice of medical professionals, we're practicing social distancing, washing our hands, and avoiding large gatherings of people.
Despite COVID-19's dominance of our news cycle and our family conversations, normal, everyday ranching concerns continue. We're at the tail end of our lambing season, which means I'm checking the flock every morning and evening (and more frequently during stormy weather). And we're still worrying about drought.
Yesterday, I was invited to give a presentation during the California-Nevada Drought Early Warning System regular bimonthly webinar. The first two talks covered current conditions and future outlook - and even with the rain and snow we had in our part of the Sierra Nevada and Sacramento Valley last week, we remain in drought conditions. If you're interested in the details, here's a recording of the webinar talks (mine is the third talk in the webinar). The first two talks confirmed my observations. After last week's rain, I checked soil moisture on our winter rangeland - even with three inches of precipitation, the soil was only 50-75 percent saturated (which explains the lack of water in our seasonal creeks). We're starting to see some of our annual grasses head out, indicating the possibility of an earlier-than-normal decline in forage quality. While the snow in the mountains was welcome, our snow water content remains well below average for this time of year.
As I was preparing my talk, I started thinking about how my approach to this year's drought was different from how we managed through 2013-14 (one of the driest years in my memory). While every drought is unique (in terms of severity, timing, and scope), I think I've also learned from my experience. In 2013, we moved our sheep to Rio Vista, where I helped manage a 1900 ewe operation. Here's a quick comparison of the steps we took in the fall of 2013 and early winter of 2014, versus our strategies in 2019-20.
2013-2014 Drought (late germination, followed by extended dry period and warm January temperatures)
- We fed our entire year's supply of alfalfa during lambing (October-December) because there was virtually no grass on our annual rangelands.
- In late January, we sold approximately one-third of our ewes to reduce our forage demand once they started to lamb.
- In mid-February, we moved our sheep back to annual rangeland in the foothills near Auburn (to ensure that the larger commercial flock would have access to rangeland in Rio Vista.
- In late February, we ultrasounded our ewes to determine whether they were pregnant. We sold a handful of open ewes.
- We weaned our lambs four weeks earlier than normal (in late May) to reduce our stocking rate and save dry forage for fall.
2019-2020 Drought (late termination, followed by wet December, dry January, record dry/warm February)
- For the first time ever, we took our ewes to alfalfa stubble in the Sacramento Valley (near Nicolaus) from mid-November until mid-December. While we incurred some additional expense, this allowed us to rest our winter rangeland for an additional 30 days.
- Because we've kept detailed grazing records since the previous drought, we were able to put together detailed, 2-month grazing plans. We identified additional forage resources on our winter rangeland that allowed us to extend our forage supplies.
- We will cull any ewe without a lamb when we ship the flock back to spring/summer pasture in April. We'll cull additional ewes at weaning (for poor mothering, bad udders, missing teeth, etc.)
I'm curious as to how your drought strategies have changed! Are you doing anything differently this year? Is this the first drought you've experienced?
I've kept daily weather records since we moved to Auburn (nineteen years this week, in fact). During that time, we've experienced some exceptionally wet years (2016-17 comes to mind, when we measured almost 63 inches of precipitation), as well as some exceptionally dry years (like 2006-07, when we received just under 20 inches). Other years and specific months stand out, too - like the 14.5 inches we measured in January 2017, or the 0.5 inches we received in December 2013. Unfortunately, February 2020 will go down as one of those stand-out months - we measured a measly 0.03 inches of rain for the entire month.
The current water year (which started in October) was preceded by a wetter-than-normal September (at least here in Auburn). We received better than 2 inches - enough to germinate the grass on our annual rangelands. As often happens when we get early rain, though, we didn't get much to follow up the promising start. From October 1 through November 30, we measured just 0.71 inches. We got back on track in December (with more than 8 inches), but 2020 has been disappointing so far. Through the end of February, the season total was just 56 percent of our long-term average for the date. The March 3 version of the U.S. Drought Map puts all of Placer, Nevada, and Yuba Counties, as well as the eastern portion of Sutter County, in the Moderate Drought category. And the most recent drought outlook from the National Weather Service (see below) suggests that drought will persist or develop in the northern two-thirds of California.
Looking ahead to summer irrigation season, we're fortunate that most of our local water agencies went into the winter with more holdover in their reservoirs than normal. Even so, the latest Sierra snow pack numbers for our region are more depressing than the lack of rain. The central Sierra snow pack is only 38 percent of normal for this date.
I'm not a weather forecaster by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a weather geek. This morning, I looked at the long term average precipitation for March through June in my weather records, which didn't provide much reassurance. Even if we get 75 percent of our average rainfall for the next four months, we'll end the water year with less than 20 inches total. Even with 150 percent of average - a miracle March (and April, May, and June) - we'll end the water year well below our long-term average.
We've definitely seen an impact on the annual rangeland where we winter our sheep west of Auburn. The February 1 forage supply at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in the Yuba County foothills was about 69 percent of normal. I suspect the March 1 measurement won't be much better. While the lack of moisture is concerning, the warm February temperatures have pushed many of the blue oaks to leaf out 3-4 weeks earlier than normal. Last Thursday (before the brief storm over the weekend), I walked through one of the pastures we hadn't grazed yet. The grass was short generally, but I was especially surprised to see the vegetation beneath the oaks starting to wither and die - in the first week of March! This Sunday, after we'd received roughly a third of an inch of rain the day before, I dug a six inch hole to check soil moisture at the root zone of our annual grasses. I'd estimate moisture levels to be at around 25 percent of field capacity - in other words, incredibly dry for early March. No wonder the creeks aren't running!
Most of us will likely have enough grass to get buy this spring, although a lack of stock water could be problematic. I'm more concerned about the potential lack of fall feed. Short grass this spring means we're covering more ground with our sheep. This could mean less dry feed to return to with our sheep after the summer irrigation season ends in October. Our plan is to cull our older and less productive ewes at shearing or weaning. We may even consider selling some of the replacement ewe lambs we'd normally keep.
These conditions call for drastic measures, obviously - and so we've scheduled drought workshops in Grass Valley and Yuba City! Over the last six years, I've attended or helped to organize four or five drought workshops - and it's rained every time!
In all seriousness, in light of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, we are scheduling a Drought Planning for Rangeland Livestock Producers webinar (rather than an in-person workshop) in late March or early April. Stay tuned for details! We'll share results from our 2016 post-drought rancher interviews, feature panel discussions with ranchers and other experts, and discuss ranch-specific goal setting - all focused on coping with what is shaping up to be another drought year.
If you'd like to receive notice of this webinar (and future workshops), contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As I write this post, the first few drops of rain are falling on our part of the Sierra foothills since early October. Here in Auburn, those early autumn rains were enough to green up our annual rangeland; other parts of the foothills and Sacramento Valley weren't so fortunate. And even the areas that experienced germination have since seen most of this new grass wither in the prolonged dry period since those first storms. For some of us, the word “drought” has crept back into our vocabulary – we have a long way to go in our rainy season, but the lack of fall feed and stock water is a concern for many.
Thanks to the leadership of Dr. Leslie Roche, our UC Cooperative Extension Specialist for rangeland management at UC Davis, county range and livestock advisors and other range professionals are reporting local conditions to the U.S. Drought Monitor on a monthly basis during the fall, winter and spring. Based on local observations, formal measurements of forage production, and reports from ranchers, these monthly updates bring greater resolution – and more on-the-ground perspectives – to the U.S. Drought Monitor's weekly drought reports and longer-term drought forecasts. A comparison of last week's California drought map (top) with this week's map reflects our most recent report!
Individuals can also report on drought conditions directly! One of the easiest ways to regularly report on precipitation is to join the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network (COCORAHS - https://www.cocorahs.org/). I've been a member of this network for 3 or 4 years. Using the COCORAHS rain
The National Drought Mitigation Center has also developed a new report form that allows users to enter site-specific conditions like precipitation, creek and spring flow, forage conditions, livestock impacts, and other drought-related effects. While our network of advisors and rangeland professionals is providing monthly input via this report, individual farmers and ranchers can also report conditions directly at https://survey123.arcgis.com/share/49e1807892e143b5b8256e0128cf3ddb.
While quantitative data is important (like precipitation amounts, pounds of forage production per acre, soil moisture and temperature, etc.), qualitative data is also critical to informing the Drought Monitor. For example, if your creeks are typically flowing by Thanksgiving, but are not flowing this year, report that fact! If you've noted that the early germinated grass has since died, report that as well! Each data point, whether quantitative or qualitative, improves the resolution of the weekly drought maps!
Finally, the UC Rangelands website has an outstanding Rangeland Drought Information Hub, with links to the Drought Impacts Reporter and Drought Monitor, weather and climate information, our Voices from the Drought audio archive, and research-based information on preparing for and responding to drought conditions. Check it out at http://rangelands.ucdavis.edu/drought/./span>/span>
I suspect the last five or six years have been difficult on our native oaks in the Sierra foothills. During the drought, many of the blue oaks I see regularly between Auburn and Lincoln leafed out during the unusual warm spells we seemed to have in late January and early February. After especially hot and dry summers, many of them dropped their leaves early. Finally, in 2017, our drought broke - in a big way! We measured over 61 inches of rain in Auburn - more than twice our annual average. And yet our blue oaks are still looking stressed. In late spring and early summer, many of them had a powdery cast to their leaves. Now, in early September, many of them seem to be turning color and dropping leaves - at least a month and a half earlier than normal. Since I'm not an oak expert, I turned to my friend Doug McCreary, natural resource specialist emeritus with the University of California.
Doug confirmed that the blue oaks were impacted by powdery mildew early in the season - thanks to our wet April. The wet spring also caused a fungal disease called anthracnose, which is likely the cause of the early leaf loss we're seeing now. Anthracnose can also infect valley oaks and black oaks - indeed, infected black oaks can experience extensive defoliation early in summer (which I've noticed during my visits to higher elevations in the foothills).
Fortunately, the effects of this fungal infection are typically not long-lasting. Since the weather conditions (that is, a wet spring) that favor anthracnose infection are reasonably rare, it's unlikely that our oaks will suffer any long-term effects.