Ranchers in Placer, Nevada, and Yuba Counties, along with UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) and the County Agricultural Departments from these three counties, have established a Disaster Livestock Access Program to facilitate livestock and human safety before, during, and after wildfire and other emergencies.
Evacuating livestock from commercial ranching operations may not be possible in the event of a major incident, due to scale of operation. Sheltering-in-place may be the best and safest alternative. Safe access by trained and qualified ranch personnel is critical to livestock welfare, firefighter safety, and public safety. The geographic scope of this project aligns with the CALFIRE administrative unit for the region (Nevada, Placer, and Yuba Counties).
Livestock Access Passholders may be permitted into evacuation zones, or other restricted areas, to provide feed, water, medical treatment, and other care to commercial livestock.
Qualified Commercial Livestock Operator: For the purposes of this program, a commercial livestock operator is defined as owning/managing 50+ head of livestock (including in utero, e.g., 25 bred cows), 100+ poultry or rabbits, or 50+ beehives that reside in Placer, Nevada, or Yuba County for at least a portion of the year, or a person who, through an agreement with that owner of livestock, has authority and is responsible to oversee the care and well-being of the livestock. This program applies to commercially raised species of livestock, including cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, poultry, rabbits, llamas, alpacas, and bees. “Commercially raised” means the livestock are raised as part of a business.
Application for Registration: To enroll in the program, a Commercial Livestock Operator must provide contact information, APNs and/or physical addresses of grazing sites, general season(s) of use, livestock description and count, and other information by completing the online form at https://surveys.ucanr.edu/survey.cfm?surveynumber=40428. If you need assistance completing the online registration, contact Dan Macon at (530) 889-7385 or email@example.com. Please note that ranch owners, family members, and managerial employees are eligible to participate. Employees who receive hourly pay are not eligible.
Renewal Application: If you've received a Nevada-Placer-Yuba Pass in 2021 or 2022, you can renew your pass by re-registering and talking a 1-hour virtual refresher course. Register here: https://surveys.ucanr.edu/survey.cfm?surveynumber=40477.
Mandatory Training: A new Commercial Livestock Operator must complete an initial 4-hour training. Trainings will be offered in late May and early June in Nevada, Placer, and Yuba Counties, and you may attend any one of these regardless of your county of residence. If you received a pass in 2022, you will need to complete a 1-hour virtual training session.
For more information: Contact Dan Macon, UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor (Placer-Nevada-Sutter-Yuba) at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 889-7385.
Fair warning - you might want to file this blog post under the category, "Aren't Ranchers Ever Happy?!" I'll admit - last year, I was worried about warm temperatures, lack of soil moisture, and dried-up stock ponds here in the Sierra Foothills. We'd had the driest January-March ever recorded. Seasonal creeks weren't running. A lack of stock water was limiting access to some pastures for ranchers in my four counties. But thanks to an early start to the grass season (a germinating rain in October) and warmer-than-usual temperatures, followed by rain (at last) in April 2022, we had plenty of grass from Yuba County south through Placer County. According to the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Centern (SFREC) in Browns Valley (Yuba County), we had 3,806 pounds of forage per acre on May 1, 2022 - 20 percent more than the historical average for that date. Total precipitation from October 2021 through September 2022 was 21.2 inches - about 17 percent lower than the historical average.
The year before that (the 2020-21 water year) was even stranger. That year, SFREC measured just 10.57 inches of precipitation - the driest year since 2000 (drier, even than the worst of the drought years of 2013-2015). Even with the lack of moisture, however, the grass grew - total production was 108 percent of the historical average (3,382 pounds per acre). Once again, most seasonal creeks didn't run. Spring-fed stock water systems failed. But we had grass.
So where do we stand this year? The 2022-23 water year has been phenomenal. We have a near-record snow pack here in the northern Sierra Nevada. The southern Sierra Nevada has the most snow ever recorded! The creeks are running! Ponds are full! The May 2, 2023 Drought Map shows our region of the Sierra Foothills has escaped the drought!
How can this be?! As of today, SFREC has measured just under 35 inches of rain since October 1 - 42 percent more than "normal." But the May 1 forage production figures are below average - just over 3,000 pounds per acre (about 4 percent under the historical average). What's going on here?
Annual rangelands are notoriously complex (in terms of biodiversity, phenology, and productivity). We've known for some time that forage production on our foothill rangelands has as much to do with the timing of precipitation as it does with the total amount. Forage production also depends on adequate soil and air temperature - warmer soils and warmer ambient air temperatures, given adequate moisture, result in greater forage production. Colder temperatures and cloudy days, on the other hand, tend to work against grass growth - as we've seen during this unusually chilly spring in the foothills.
We also know that photo period - the number of daylight hours - plays a role. I've usually thought of this in terms of winter dormancy - in early December, the days are short enough that the grass goes dormant here in the foothills, regardless of moisture or temperature. This year, however, is teaching me that photo period may be equally important in controlling when our rangeland plants flower and set seed. Even though we still have tremendous soil moisture in our rangeland pastures, I'm seeing many of our annual grasses and broadleaf plants "head out" and go to seed - they're just about done growing, despite what seem like favorable conditions. As any rancher will tell you, as soon as our annual forages go to seed, they drop in palatability and nutritional value.
I'll admit, I can't truly bring myself to call this a drought year. I can live with 96% of normal forage production - it's considerably better than the 2100 pounds per acre we had on May 1, 2015 (when I managed the cow herd at SFREC). But this year is an important reminder about how complex our grazing systems truly are. Carrying capacity fluctuates from one year to the next - and from one month to the next. Our job as ranchers is to build enough flexibility into our management systems to allow us to "weather" the valleys in forage production, and benefit from the peaks!
Looking back at more than 20 years of precipitation data I've collected since my family moved to Auburn, I can't say that we've ever had an “average” year – that is, we've never had exactly 32.68 inches of rain. Some years, like 2016-17, we measure quite a bit more than average (62.96 inches, to be exact); other years, like 2020-21, we measure less (just 19 inches). Since I started keeping track in 2003, we've had 12 years with less than our average, and 6 years with more than average (the balance – 3 years – have been close to what I would call "normal"). Since 2007, we've experienced several 2-4 year stretches of below average rainfall – including the memorable droughts of 2012-2015 and 2020-2022. Interestingly, though, the trendline on my data suggests that our “average” precipitation has increased slightly since I started keeping track in 2003.
But as anyone who manages livestock on our annual rangelands will tell you, the amount of rainfall we receive is only part of the story when it comes to grass growth – timing and temperature (both soil and air temperature) are key drivers in rangeland forage production. The last two years have provided a stark example!
Think back to mid-March 2022. After an exceptionally wet start to the water year (in October 2021, I measured more than 10 inches of rain), our rangeland forages got off to a great start – they'd germinated in late October and had grown through early December. But in January 2022, the faucet shut off – we received less than 2.5 inches from January 1 through March 31. By some accounts, it was the driest January-March on record. I recall checking soil moisture on the rangelands where our sheep were grazing in mid-March 2022, and finding that we had less than 25% moisture – more like May conditions in the root zone of our rangeland plants.
Despite these dry conditions, however, the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Education Center (SFREC) measured 1,412 pounds of forage per acre on March 1, 2022 (187% of “average” for the date). Rain returned in April 2022, and total forage production at SFREC ended up being 122% of the long term average (just over 3,800 pounds per acre).
In the autumn of 2022, our germinating rain came nearly a month later than the year before – which meant the rangeland forage didn't have much time to grow before the short days and cold temperatures of December forced it into dormancy. A wet and cold December was followed by a wetter (if somewhat warmer) January 2023. While February was slightly drier than “average,” March turned wet and cold again. As of this writing (March 29), we've measured exactly 28 inches of rain at our home place in Auburn since New Year's Day!
Even with all of this moisture, however, forage production at SFREC is lagging significantly behind last year. On March 1, SFREC measured just 619 pounds per acre (less than the long term average for that date of 750 pounds - and less than half of what we had a year ago at this time). As you might expect, soil temperatures followed the cooler air temperatures in late February; cold soils mean little or no forage growth.
Stated another way, we were in a precipitation drought on this date last year – and we had more forage than “average.” This year is shaping up to be one of the wetter years since I've worked in the foothills – and we're short on feed at the moment (a grass drought). With long days and warmer temperatures coming, I suspect the forage will explode in April, but for now, feed conditions in the foothills are tight!
So how do we manage through this kind of uncertainty? As ranchers, how can we set our stocking rates and production calendars given these wide swings in conditions? During our Working Rangelands Wednesdays webinar series last year, Dr. Leslie Roche (our Cooperative Extension Specialist in Rangeland Management) suggested that while the total amount and seasonable distribution of precipitation are the biggest drivers for annual forage production, specific timing is also critical. November and April precipitation are especially important, based on Dr. Roche's analysis. A statewide collaborative effort is ground-truthing remote sensing technology that will hopefully provide real-time forage production data without needing an army of range technicians clipping plots on a weekly basis.
All of this information will help ranchers make decisions about seasonal and annual adjustments to our stocking rates, but good management will always require careful planning and on-the-fly adjustment to the current year's conditions. While While my colleague Grace Woodmansee (Siskiyou County Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor) developed our Drought Decision Support Tool with drought in mind, I'm realizing there's value in putting together a 12-month forage plan regardless of the conditions! There's no such thing as an average year!
Raising Livestock on Rangeland is not an Indoor Sport...
Larry McMurtry's novel, Lonesome Dove, was published the year I graduated from high school (way back in 1985 - before blogging was a word)! Four years later, the novel became one of my favorite television miniseries, featuring Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and Danny Glover (among others). While there are a number of memorable scenes and lines (from both the book and the miniseries), one that sticks with me as a rancher is Agustus McCrae's eulogy for Danny Glover's character, Deets:
"Cheerful in all weathers. Never shirked a task."
I've been reminded of this line frequently over the last several weeks - as we've had cold rain and wind here in Auburn, and as other ranchers in California have been dealing with never-ending snow. Rangeland agriculture - grazing sheep, goats, and cattle on the vegetation that Mother Nature provides - requires us to tend to our animals regardless of the conditions we (and they) are facing. We may not always be cheerful about unrelenting snow or sweltering heat, but if we've ranched for very long, we know that we can't shirk a task when it comes to our livestock.
But working in all weathers is much easier when we're intentional about our management systems and production calendars. We lamb on pasture, so we time our lambing to coincide with what is usually the onset of rapid grass growth in late winter (we're still waiting for rapid growth this year). This system requires that our ewes have strong maternal abilities - that they can lamb mostly without our help, that they can turn our rangeland forages into enough milk for their lambs, that their lambs get up and going quickly, and that they can count at least to two. Rather than trust to luck, we've utilized an objective selection process that allows us to keep our best ewes and their daughters, while culling the ewes that don't measure up.
Our intentionality extends to our grazing management. On our winter rangelands, we have open hillsides that we graze before lambing begins, which allows us to save the more sheltered areas (with trees, brush, and topography that provide shelter from wind and rain) for lambing. We watch the weather diligently during lambing season - while sheltered paddocks are important, there's no better shelter for a lamb than a belly full of milk. If we know we have cold or wet weather coming in, we'll move the ewes to fresh feed so that they don't have to walk very far to fill their rumens with forage. And we've found a cost-effective, biodegradable plastic raincoat that helps keep the youngest lambs warm and relatively dry in really nasty weather.
Even the best management planning can't change the weather, though. Sometimes, like January-March last year, it doesn't rain at all. We adjusted by building larger paddocks in steeper terrain to give the ewes access to more forage. Sometimes we get sleet or even snow in early March; we adjust to these conditions by increasing the number of times we check the sheep (including checks every two to three hours during the night). This year, due to some extenuating family circumstances, we've purchased feed for the ewes to supplement what they are able to graze during the current stormy stretch.
And despite our best planning efforts, sometimes Mother Nature simply doesn't cooperate. I have friends who are spending 16-person-hours a day feeding the cows they can find in four feet of snow - and arranging for helicopters to drop hay to the cows they can't reach. Other friends have hauled sheep and goats to higher ground during lambing and kidding - lining up trucks and building corrals on very short notice can be extremely stressful. This diligence is more than just an economic consideration; caring for animals is a responsibility that goes well beyond dollars and cents.
Finally, I suppose that being intentional extends to our wardrobe and equipment choices as ranchers. My friend John Helle, who ranches in western Montana, says his Norwegian grandfather used to say, "There's no bad weather, only bad clothing." Someone else once told me, "don't buy cheap boots or cheap cold or wet weather gear - you'll always be sorry." As I get older, being cheerful in all weathers (or at least being less grumpy in bad weather) is directly related to my own comfort and safety. Wool clothing, Gortex(tm) rain gear, and waterproof boots are part of my winter wardrobe; my summer gear includes broad-brimmed hats and sunscreen!
Last weekend, we held our annual Pasture Lambing Workshop. With rain and sleet in the forecast, several folks canceled at the last minute - but the two young women who did show up were enthusiastic and eager to learn. We talked about the planning and preparation that goes into any successful rangeland-based production system - planning that allows us to trust our animals and trust ourselves to cope with whatever the weather throws at us!
The Nevada-Placer-Yuba Disaster Livestock Access Pass Program operated for its second year in 2022. This program, available to commercial livestock producers in the three counties, is the first (and so far, only) multi-county program in California. The program is managed by UC Cooperative Extension and the Nevada, Placer, and Yuba Agriculture Departments, in partnership with CALFIRE and local law enforcement and emergency management agencies.
The program is available for commercial producers raising cattle, sheep, goats, poultry, rabbits, llamas, alpacas, and bees (commercial means the livestock are part of a business). To be eligible for the program, a producer must own 50 head of livestock (including in utero, e.g., 25 bred cows), 100 poultry or rabbits, or 50 beehives. The geographic area of the program matches CALFIRES Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit and reflects the on-the-ground reality that many commercial livestock producers operate in multiple counties.
The program is not an animal rescue or evacuation program; rather, the pass is designed to provide coordinated and safe access for producers with operations inside evacuation zones. Passholders work with UCCE and county agriculture departments to obtain permission from incident commanders to re-enter evacuation zones when it is safe to do so, for the purpose of feeding and caring for livestock.
In 2022, the program expanded by 68% - 72 producers obtained passes. New producers participated in a 4-hour training session hosted by UCCE, local agriculture departments, CALFIRE, and local law enforcement/emergency management agencies at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (with lunch generously sponsored by the Sutter-Yuba Farm Bureau). Renewing passholders participated in an online refresher training developed by UCCE. While passes were not formally used during the 2022 fire season, the pass program created positive working relationships between the ranching community and first responders. These relationships resulted in opportunities to help address producer and livestock safety during the Rices Fire in Nevada County and the Mosquito Fire in Placer County.
The California State Association of Counties recognized the Nevada-Placer-Yuba program with a 2022 Challenge Award in the Rural Disaster & Emergency Response category, citing the program's innovative tri-county partnership and proactive approach to addressing both public safety and livestock well-being.
Governor Newsom signed AB 1103 (sponsored by Assembly Woman Megan Dahle) in October 2021. This legislation creates a statewide livestock pass program, with new statewide training due out in 2023. Once this new curriculum is rolled out, we will be scheduling training for new and renewing passholders in all three counties! If you'd like updates on these training sessions, or the program in general, contact me at email@example.com.
2022 Program Statistics
- 28% of passholders had operations in more than one county. On average, passholders operated on 2.4 individual properties.
- 35% had multiple species of livestock.
- 38% of passholders operated in Nevada County; 21% in Placer, 29% in Yuba, and 11% had operations outside of the 3-county region.
- Participation by livestock species:
- Beef Cattle: 65%
- Sheep: 32%
- Goats: 19%
- Poultry: 19%
- Bees: 15%
- Hogs: 8%
- Rabbits: 7%
- Dairy (Goats or Cattle): 6%
- Other Livestock: 11%
- 86% were owners or family members of commercial operations; the balance were employees.