…or what to do if it just won't rain!
Over the last thirty-plus years they've been keeping records at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC), we've received a germinating rain, on average, around October 21. A quick check of the 14-day forecast (through November 8) suggests that we'll be waiting more than two more weeks for this year's germinating rain – typical for the way the rest of 2020 has gone, I suppose! We've started thinking about how we're going to manage our sheep grazing through the rest of the year. We saved plenty of dry forage; our challenge is how to cost-effectively help our sheep use it.
Many of us have heard – and adopted – the adage, “Don't feed your way out of a drought.” This is easy to say, but more difficult to do, I think. After all, we've all made significant investments in our livestock. Our sheep fit our system and our landscape; we can't just sell out and expect to start up where we left off in terms of genetics. For me, anyway, the decision to feed or not to feed is more complicated than this oft quoted maxim. For one thing, there are differences to how we cope with short-term drought versus a longer term dry period.
Like many of you, we stock our rangelands and pastures conservatively, especially after the 2011-2015 drought. Going into fall with dry feed in reserve is like going into fall with a full woodshed – I find it comforting to know that we've saved enough forage to get us through a dry fall. But utilizing this dry forage requires us to supplement the protein in our livestock's diet. And supplemental protein can be expensive.
Ruminant animals can digest forage thanks to the microbes in their guts. To thrive – and to digest the cellulose in dry forage, these microbes need protein. On a maintenance diet, ewes (or cows) need a diet containing 7-8 percent protein. By this stage of the year, most of our dry annual grasses are between 4-5 percent. If we've stocked our ranches conservatively, we probably have plenty of this dry feed – the trick is getting enough protein into our livestock so that they can graze it!
In the last 5-6 years, we've tried a number of different protein sources. We've used molasses tubs from a variety of sources and with a variety of types of protein. We've used loose soy-based mixes that limit animal consumption by adding salt. And this year, we tried alfalfa hay. Heading into late autumn this year, we're planning to use alfalfa – mostly due to economic considerations.
Our experience with molasses tubs has been that some (all?) of our sheep seem addicted to the sweetness. We go through these tubs far more quickly than the label-indicated consumption rate would suggest. We've not found these tubs to be cost effective.
Several years ago, we switched to a loose protein supplement. These feeds use salt to limit intake; theoretically, an animal should only consume enough feed each day to get the optimal amount of protein. In our experience, the animals over-consume for several days before the salt has the desired effect – once they even out, they seem to do quite well on this protein.
But like the molasses tubs, loose protein is fairly expensive when considered from the perspective of cost per head per day. This summer, we put pencil to paper and decided to try feeding alfalfa hay. The loose protein needed to be consumed at a rate of 0.5 pounds per head per day. That meant our 84 ewes needed slightly more than one forty pound bag every day (for sake of ease, we fed just one bag per day). At $16 per bag, the cost started adding up.
As we analyzed our alternatives, we started by considering the quantity of protein the ewes needed (rather than the percent in their diet). The bagged protein was 16% protein, which meant that the sheep were supposed to consume approximately 0.08 pounds of protein each day. Good alfalfa sheep hay is also about 16% protein. In a 110-pound bale (figuring 90% dry matter to compare it to the loose protein), we'd have just under 16 pounds of total protein. If we fed a bale to our 84 ewes every other day, they would be getting just over 0.09 pounds of protein per day on average. The bagged protein cost us $0.19 per head per day; the alfalfa (at $14 per bale) was just over $0.08 per had per day. We fed alfalfa.
Obviously, the cost of purchasing the feed is not the only cost we need to consider. The loose protein, theoretically, can be feed in quantity, since the salt will limit intake. Hay on the other hand, has to be hand fed, which incurs a labor cost. But feeding one bale of alfalfa every other day was not a huge labor demand, considering we needed to check the sheep and feed the livestock guardian dogs every day anyway.
We also tried to objectively compare the nutritional status of the sheep prior to breeding this year (with hay) to previous years (with bagged protein). We collect body condition scores on all of the ewes before flushing (in late August). Last year, our average body condition score was 3.1 (on a scale of 1 to 5); this year, our average was just over 3.2. While I realize that two data points don't suggest a trend (and while there are other variables to consider), I do think that our more cost effective alternative (hay) yielded acceptable results. We got the ewes through the summer months on dry feed at less than half the cost.
All of this brings me back to this fall. Even if we get rain in the next three weeks, we won't have much green grass until December at the earliest (and remember, green equals protein). Fortunately, we saved a substantial amount of last spring's forage on our winter rangeland – from a volume perspective, we have enough feed to get through the rest of the year (if not longer). However, we will need to supplement protein to be able to utilize this dry forage. Based on our experience this summer, we'll be feeding alfalfa.
Here's a quick back-of-the envelope comparison of the cost of feeding molasses tubs versus loose protein versus alfalfa.
If you'd like to look at these alternatives for your operation, check out the Montana State University Sheep Ration Program. Oklahoma State University has a similar program for beef cattle, as does UC Davis.
Be sure to check out our upcoming webinars on cattle production and targeted grazing - we have a great line-up of speakers and topics!
Tuesday, October 6 (6pm) - Introduction to Targeted Grazing
This webinar will provide an overview of targeted grazing, including grazing management, picking the right grazer for the job, livestock management, and customer relations. Cost: $10. Click here to register!
Thursday, October 15 (6pm) - Cattle Health – From Parasite Management to Vaccination Programs
With Dr. Gaby Maier (UCD School of Veterinary Medicine Beef Extension Specialist) and Dr. Becky Childers (Large Animal Veterinarian). Learn about controlling external and internal parasites, developing a vaccination program for your herd, and the importance of establishing a working relationship with your veterinarian. FREE! Sponsored by Tahoe Cattlemen's Association. Click here to register!
Tuesday, October 20 (6pm) - Beef Business Basics
With Dan Macon, UC Cooperative Extension; Judd Tripp, Placer County Rancher; and JC Baser, Placer County Rancher. This webinar will focus on basic economic analysis for new and existing ranching businesses. Our rancher panel will share their experiences operating successful foothill ranching enterprises. FREE! Sponsored by Tahoe Cattlemen's Association. Click here to register!
Thursday, October 22 (6pm) - The Basics of Grazing Management
With Dan Macon, UC Cooperative Extension; Greg Lawley, Placer County Rancher; Joe Fischer, Placer/Nevada County Rancher. Well-managed grazing can improve pasture productivity and cattle health. Learn the basics of grazing management and hear from ranchers who use these practices every day. FREE! Sponsored by Tahoe Cattlemen's Association. Click here to register!
Tuesday, October 27 (6pm) - The Business of Targeted Grazing
Join Dan Macon and a panel of targeted grazing contractors to learn about the ins and outs of building a targeted grazing business. Cost: $10. Click here to register!
Thursday, October 29 (6pm) - Beef Cattle Nutrition
With Dr. Pedro Carvalho, UC Davis Feedlot Management Extension Specialist. Learn basic information about beef cattle nutrition, from grazing to ration formulation. FREE! Sponsored by Tahoe Cattlemen's Association. Click here to register!
Once you've registered for each webinar, you'll receive a Zoom link that will allow you to participate. We'll also post videos of each webinar on the Ranching in the Sierra Foothills YouTube Channel.
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.
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>
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: