Targeted grazing using sheep, goats, or cattle (or combinations of two or more species) can be an effective way to manage vegetation for a variety of goals. Given the ever-present threat of wildfire in the summer and fall months in the Sierra foothills, many landowners and land managers are considering hiring targeted grazing contractors to help manage wildfire fuel loads.
Using ruminants to manage fuel loads through targeted grazing offers a number of important advantages:
- Targeted grazing can be a cost-effective alternative for reducing fine and ladder fuels over large and rugged landscapes that may be inaccessible for equipment or hand crews.
- Targeted grazing is especially effective at maintaining fuel reduction treatments like shaded fuel breaks.
- Unlike many treatment methods, targeted grazing actually removes fuel from the landscape - the wildfire fuels are removed by the grazing/browsing livestock.
- Targeted grazing contractors can often provide all necessary infrastructure (fencing, livestock water, predator protection, etc.).
By managing the type and number of animals, the duration of grazing, the season and frequency of grazing, and the spatial distribution of livestock, targeted grazing can help landowners and managers achieve a variety of land management goals.
Where is Targeted Grazing Effective?
Well-managed targeted grazing can be used to address site-specific landscape goals. For example, targeted grazing can impact specific invasive weeds (like yellow starthistle, medusahead or Himalayan blackberries). By controlling competing vegetation at crtical times, targeted grazing can enhance habitat restoration efforts. Finally, targeted grazing can reduce fine fuels and ladder fuels to reduce wildfire danger in a variety of environments.
Typically, targeted grazing is a cost-effective vegetation management alternative where other options are ineffective. Specifically, targeted grazing can be more cost effective on landscapes that are too steep, rocky or remote for conventional vegetation management (like mowing or chemical treatment), or in the urban-wildland interface where burning is not an option.
Managing Animal Impacts
Grazing livestock have three basic impacts on the landscape. They consume vegetation through grazing, they trample vegetation (which can facilitate the breakdown of plant carbon in the soil and modify wildfire fuel profiles), and they transfer nutrients through defecation and urination. Targeted grazing uses all three impacts to accomplish specific vegetation management goals.
Targeted grazing contractors also have a solid understanding of the growth characteristics and vulnerabilities of specific target vegetation. For example, grazing yellow starthistle with sheep or goats during the bolt stage (April to June, usually), can dramatically reduce seed production. Browsing Himalayan blackberries in the fall as the plants are going dormant can stress root systems at a key period.
Timing of targeted grazing for fuel reduction is also important. To reduce the potential for re-growth, fuel reduction grazing should be done after the last spring rain. Since the nutritional quality of annual grasslands typically declines rapidly at this time of year, targeted grazers may need to provide supplemental nutrition to ensure appropriate impact to targeted vegetation. In some instances, cattle may be the most appropriate species for particular projects.
Why Pay Someone to Graze? Isn't Free Grass Enough?!
Targeted grazing is a very different business model than simply grazing for livestock production. Effective targeted grazing focuses on impacting target vegetation at exactly the right time for specific landscape or vegetation goals. Traditional livestock production, on the other hand, focuses on putting weight on animals or increasing reproductive success. Traditional livestock operations generate income from the sale of animals and animal products; these operations focus on body condition and the nutritional status of the animals at specific production stages. Targeted grazers generate income from vegetation management services; these operations may accept a drop in body condition or reproductive success to achieve desired impacts to low quality forage as long as this service is paid for.
Unlike equipment, which can be parked when not in use, livestock must be fed before they arrive on your property and after they leave. Part of the service that targeted grazing companies provide is the logistical planning necessary to keep their livestock "employed" throughout the grazing season.
Goals are Important!
Realistic landowner and land manager goals are important for successful targeted grazing applications. Targeted grazing is often a long-term approach that addresses prior problems. For example, invasive weeds may be symptomatic of a long-term lack of management. A single targeted grazing project is unlikely to address these long-term symptoms; a multi-year approach will likely be necessary to improve ecological function and reduce the weed seedbank. Recognizing this, many targeted grazing contractors will reduce their annual per acre charges in exchange for multi-year contracts.
Expectations are also important. Landowners who expect a uniform appearance to land treated with grazing (as if the land had been mowed) will likely be disappointed; grazing often leaves a patchy appearance on the landscape. Furthermore, grazing does not often provide the immediate visual effects of chemical treatment, mastication, or mowing. Vegetation treated with herbicide, for example, often shows immediate impact; grazing is a long-term management technique.
Finally, timing is critical. If targeted grazing occurs too early in the season, soil moisture may be sufficient for the targeted vegetation to re-grow. On the other hand, the palatability of annual grasses and weed species may decline as these plants mature. Contractors often provide supplemental nutrition and other management techniques to impact this lower quality forage at the optimal time.
What to look for in a Targeted Grazing Contractor
Targeted grazing companies are service providers. Consequently, experience, responsiveness, and attention to detail are critical. Consumers should look for companies with experience in grazing projects in similar environments and situations. Ask potential contractors about their experience level – and ask for references.
Targeted grazing may not be the least costly vegetation management option (compared to mowing or herbicide treatment). As outlined above, targeted grazing is often the best alternative where other treatments aren't possible.
Most targeted grazing contractors will provide an estimate on a per acre basis, allowing consumers to compare targeted grazing to other vegetation management options. In addition, contractors will provide an estimate of the project start date and duration. These estimates can be somewhat uncertain depending on year-to-year changes in vegetation quantity.There are a variety of factors that impact the cost of a particular targeted grazing project, including:
- Relative ease (or difficulty) of setting up infrastructure, including loading and unloading facilities. Projects in steep or difficult-to-access terrain require more labor (and, therefore, are typically more costly).
- Access to livestock water. Easily accessible water can make the project less costly; projects without access to water may require the contractor to haul water to the livestock.
- Other risks, like vandalism, toxic plants, or proximity to high-value landscaping may increase the cost.
- Multi-year contracts are typically cheaper on a per acre basis. Livestock and targeted grazing staff become more accustomed to a particular property (and therefore more efficient) if the contract is for multiple years.
- Headache factors – like free-roaming pet dogs or neighbors who object to livestock or livestock guardian dogs – can increase the cost of a project.
Landowners and managers should contact targeted grazing contractors well in advance of the desired project start date. Targeted grazing contractors are busiest during the spring and early summer months; scheduling these jobs typically occurs in during the prior fall and winter.
Targeted grazing can be a highly effective way to reduce fuel loads, control invasive weeds, and manage ecologically sensitive landscapes. Livestock be an economical and eco-friendly way to manage vegetation on landscapes where equipment is impractical. For a list of local and regional targeted grazing contractors, click here!
If you are a targeted grazing contractor who does work in Placer, Nevada, Sutter or Yuba Counties, please email your information to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whenever I'm asked to talk about livestock and predators with a non-ranching group, I poll the audience about what predators give me the most problems in our sheep operation. Most say coyotes, some say mountain lions; inevitably, a few say black bears. And they're almost always surprised when I explain that the single worst depredation loss we've ever suffered was to a neighbor's dog.
We have grazed our sheep in some fairly remote environments. From my own observations (and from looking at game camera photos as part of my livestock guardian dog research), I know that coyotes, foxes and bobcats do exist in close proximity to our sheep. I'm also certain there are mountain lions in our environment. But early one morning eight years ago, a neighbor's dog came into our back field at home (where we had just a handful of sheep, but no guardian dog) and killed four ewes. Another neighbor saw the attack and let us know. When I spoke with the dog's owner, he said, "My dog would never do that," and yet we found blood and wool in the dog's teeth.
Domestic dogs seem to chase livestock for enjoyment rather than out of hunger. In addition, dogs tend not to be very skilled at killing livestock. Consequently, the damage dogs inflict is often far more gruesome than that inflicted by a wild predator. As with wild predators, some of the impacts from a dog attack may be indirect - that is, the stress of the attack may cause cows (or ewes or does) to abort their pregnancies. Feeder livestock that are worried by dogs may not gain as much weight. I've had to repair or replace electric fencing through which my sheep ran while being chased by a dog.
Sections 31102, 31103, and 31501 of California Food and Agriculture Code address the issue of dogs worrying livestock. These provisions of California state law provide that:
- A person may kill any dog "found in the act of killing, wounding, or persistently pursuing or worrying livestock or poultry," or with proof that "conclusively shows that the dog has recently engaged in killing or wounding livestock or poultry," on land that the owner of the dog does not own or possess;
- A person may seize or kill "any dog entering any enclosed or unenclosed property upon which livestock or poultry are confined";
- The livestock owner "may recover as liquidated damages from the owner of the dog twice the actual value of the animals killed or twice the value of the damages sustained by reason of the injuries"; and
- The livestock owner is not subject to any criminal or civil action as a consequence of killing or seizing a dog in these circumstances.
In addition to these state laws, most counties have additional ordinances permitting animal control officers to capture or kill dogs found to be killing, injuring, worrying, or pursuing livestock.
While I find it helpful to understand the legal aspects of this problem, the cold, objective language of the law doesn't necessarily make my emotional response any easier. I love dogs; indeed, I rely on border collies and livestock guardian dogs every day. My border collies are also my pets - and I would hate to think about someone else killing my pet. But I also value my sheep - I think all of us who raise livestock have an emotional attachment to the animals in our care. To further complicate these matters, the dogs that we find chasing our livestock often belong to neighbors - people who we see at the mailbox or whose kids go to the same school as our kids. For me, I guess, the question becomes, "How do we prevent this from happening?"
Yesterday, I took a call from a friend who had just caught a neighbor's dog chasing his heifers. He knew the dog, and he knew the dog's owner. He was able to have a rational but direct conversation with the dog's owner about the problem, about the extent of her liability, and about what he would be forced to do if the dog continued to be a problem. He reported that the conversation was productive (largely, I expect, because he controlled his emotions). As I thought about his example over the last 24 hours, as well as my own experiences with this problem, I've developed some ideas about how we can (hopefully) avoid these problems. I hope others will share ideas as well!
For Livestock Producers
- We should get to know our neighbors and their dogs. Since many of us graze livestock on leased properties some distance from our home places, these neighbors can help watch for strange dogs (and other problems). I've started to try to introduce myself to neighbors when we take on a new grazing lease. Many neighbors now call me if they notice something unusual.
- Explain to neighbors, dog-walkers who may not have their dogs on a leash, and others, that pet dogs can (and will) chase livestock if given the opportunity. What may seem like a "cute" game is in fact stressing our livestock. We should take the time to describe how this stress affects the well-being of our animals. Consider putting up a sign asking folks to keep their dogs on a leash.
- If an attack happens, I hope I can follow my friend's example. These are difficult conversations; remaining calm while explaining the impacts - and noting what will happen if the problem continues - is critical.
- Get to know the animal control officers who work in your area - they can often provide help with these issues. I sometimes get a call from our local officers when there has been a problem dog in the vicinity of our sheep.
For Dog Owners
- If you're walking your dog close to livestock, please keep it on a leash.
- If your dog gets away from you (or gets out of your yard) and chases livestock, please make an effort to contact the livestock owner. Taking responsibility is an important first step towards starting an objective conversation.
- Keep an eye out for stray dogs in your neighborhood, especially if there are livestock grazing nearby. Let animal control and the livestock owner know about the dog, if possible.
If you have questions about this issue, contact your local animal control department or agriculture department at the numbers below.
|County||Agriculture Department||Animal Control|
|Nevada||(530) 470-2690||(530) 273-2179|
|Placer||(530) 889-7372||(530) 886-5541|
|Sutter||(530) 822-7500||(530) 822-7375|
|Yuba||(530) 749-5400||(530) 741-6478|
Registration is now open for several livestock-focused workshops offered by the University of California Cooperative Extension!
2019 Cattlemen's Symposium - March 20, 2019 (9am - 1pm)
Co-sponsored by the Tahoe Cattlemen's Association, the 2019 Cattlemen's Symposium will feature presentations on Genetic Improvement in Beef Cattle by Dr. Alison VanEenennaam of UC Davis, Cattle Marketing and Added-Value Programs by Dr. Tina Saitone of UC Davis, Managing Cattle Health by Dr. Gaby Meier of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and Managing Smutgrass on Irrigated Pasture by Josh Davy of UC Cooperative Extension.
The cost is just $15 per person and includes lunch! Register at http://ucanr.edu/2019cattlesymposium.
Livestock Protection Tools Field Day - March 29, 2019 (8:30am - 12pm)
Penn Valley, CA
Are you interested in learning about techniques for protecting your livestock from predators? Curious about nonlethal livestock protection tools but concerned about costs and effectiveness? Join UCCE for this hands-on field day. Our keynote speaker, Cat Urbigkit, operates a sheep and cattle ranch in western Wyoming. She'll share her experiences using livestock guardian dogs and other tools to protect livestock from wolves and other predators in extensive rangeland environments. The field day will also feature demonstrations of turbo-fladry, electric fencing systems, game cameras, low-cost GPS collars for livestock guardian dogs, and other tools. Wildlife Services specialists will cover preserving a livestock kill site, and George Edwards, executive director of the Montana Livestock Loss Board, will discuss compensation programs.
Please note: This field day is focused on on-the-ground solutions to predator losses in commercial ranching settings. The intended audience is commercial ranchers. We will be hosting a similar workshop for agency and nonprofit staff, as well as interested public, later in Spring 2019 – stay tuned for details.
No charge for this workshop! Please RSVP at http://ucanr.edu/livestockprotectiontoolsnevadaco/span>/span>
While Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that can occurs worldwide, it is more common in tropical and sub-tropical areas. For example, Leptospirosis is a relatively frequent disease in Mexico. In California, Leptospirosis is an emergent disease, which could be explained (at least in part) by our changing climate. Leptospirosis is caused by spiral-shaped bacteria that can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and other organs of animals and humans. Cases usually occur in the summer and fall; large outbreaks have occurred after flooding. Leptospirosis is not spread from person to person, but from animals to humans through the urine of infected animals, which gets into soil or water. Humans and animals can become infected through direct contact with this contaminated soil or water, where the bacteria can survive for some months. The bacteria can also enter through cuts in the skin, through the mucous membranes or through drinking water.
In cattle, sheep, goats and swine, symptoms of Leptospirosis may include fever and reproductive problems (e.g., abortions). In humans, symptoms can range from mild to severe (including flu-like illness, weakness, vomiting, mental confusion, jaundice, and stiff neck). Most people who become infected have no symptoms or may confuse their symptoms with a simple cold. Unfortunately, some people may develop more significant problems from Leptospirosis.
Vaccines are currently available for livestock and dogs – these vaccines can help prevent disease severity but may not complete prevent infection. We can protect our own health by preventing and controlling infection in our livestock. In addition, rodents can be a reservoir of the disease, so rodent control is important. Don't handle urine, blood, or tissues from infected animals – wear protective clothing, especially gloves! And always wash up after handling animals!
As you might imagine, Leptospirosis is primarily an occupational disease in humans – in other words, those of us who work directly with animals, contaminated soil, or stagnant water can be at greater risk. Half of California cattle herds have been estimated to be infected with Leptospira, which can be a serious threat to livestock producers and ranch employees. Active epidemiological surveillance has been repeatedly recommended, but surprisingly, no studies on Leptospirosis have been conducted in California agriculture workers. As a result, the Center for Health and the Environment at UC Davis is studying the prevalence of the disease in farmers and ranchers, farm workers, and veterinarians. This study will help researchers better understand the main exposure factors. The Center is looking for volunteers to participate in the study.
You can participate if you are:
- At least 18 years old;
- A rancher, ranch worker, or veterinarian; or
- Working in agriculture, or in close contact with livestock.
You must not have been sick during the last five weeks.
If you decide to participate in the study, researchers will ask some questions about your occupation and work history. You will also be asked to provide a blood sample. The questionnaire and the blood draw will take about 30 minutes. After you have answered the questions and a professional has taken your blood sample in a health facility, you will receive $60 in compensation. The survey and blood collection are completely anonymous.
If you are interested in participating or want more information (in English or Spanish), contact:
Center for Health and the Environment – UC Davis
Bud Williams, in many respects, was the leading expert on livestock handling and stockmanship on the planet. I never had the opportunity to meet Bud personally, but I have learned from several people who learned directly from him - notably Roger Ingram (my predecessor as livestock advisor) and from Steve Cote, who teaches and writes about Bud's techniques today.
Roger had the opportunity to work directly with Bud at a cattle feedlot in Canada in 1993, an experience he writes about in Belief and the Will To Do It. Low-stress stockmanship, Roger writes, requires a change in attitude:
Old Attitude: "I'm going to MAKE that animal do what I want."
New Attitude: "I'm going to LET that animal do what I want."
Old Attitude: "That miserable [fill in your own profanity] cow [or sheep, goat, etc.] broke back [missed the gate, charged me, got sick, etc.].
New Attitude: "What did I do to cause the animal to react that way?"
Steve Cote, in his first book, Stockmanship: A Powerful Tool for Grazing Lands Management, writes:
"The best handlers have the best attitudes. They watch, adjust, and constantly move to where the stock show them the need to be to get the job done right, all the time."
As I've worked my own sheep, and helped other producers handle cattle, sheep and goats, I've realized that low stress stockmanship is a continual learning process. The key, for me, is that I believe in it - I've seen the results when it works well! When something doesn't work, though, I don't abandon my belief in the approach; rather, I think about what I could have done differently. Thoughtful stockmanship requires us to assume that if the animals aren't doing what we expect or desire that they are trying to communicate with us (rather than misbehaving).
This idea that stockmanship is a lifelong learning process, at least for me, is what separates Bud Williams from Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin's facility designs are excellent, but in many ways they are designed to minimize stress on livestock when the handlers using the system are not students of stockmanship. Bud Williams' designs, on the other hand, work amazingly well because they are based on the principle that the handlers understand livestock behavior. The "Bud Box," which we use in our sheep corrals, is a great example of this principle.
Bud taught that animals will follow certain instinctive behaviors if they are in a normal mental state. Animals want to move in the direction they are headed; they also instinctively prefer to exit a pen where they entered it. They want to follow other animals (in other words, movement creates more movement when working with a herd or flock). They want to see what is pressuring them. If we want them to speed up, we can walk in the opposite direction of their movement; walking in the same direction as the animals will slow them down.
The Bud Box system takes advantage of these behaviors. Unlike the solid-sided, curved alleys and sorting "tubs" typical of many of the Dr. Grandin-designed facilities I've seen, the Bud Box is simple, open-sided, and straight. The Bud Box itself is a smallish pen at the head of the alley (for our sheep corrals, this pen is 8 feet by 10 feet - big enough for 8-10 ewes). The direction of movement into the alley is back towards the location where the animals entered the corrals (so they naturally want to return there). The opening at the head of the alley allows the animals to move away from the pressure of the handler working in the Bud Box - this handler simply walks from the opening diagonally through the Bud Box, which induces the animals to move away (and into the alley) in a calm manner. From there, a handler can walk with purpose in the opposite direction of the animal flow through the alley - this will induce the animals to move up the alley (towards a squeeze chute, or in our case, towards our sort gate). All of this can be done WITHOUT yelling, whistling, or using hot shots (or even rattle-paddles) to force the animals to go where we want them to go.
In our sheep operation, I've found that I can sort a group of sheep quickly working with just a dog. The dog helps load the Bud Box. The sheep are trained to the system - they will usually put themselves in the alley. While I stand at the sort gate at the end of the alley, the dog walks in the opposite direction of the sheep in the alley, which causes them to move forward (and through my sort gate).
Last month, we held a workshop on trimming feet and giving vaccinations to sheep. Using a drone, Roger was able to provide a bird's eye view of the Bud Box. This YouTube video shows us loading the alley, scanning ear tags, and sorting a wether into a holding pen.
Working animals rarely goes perfectly! Problems, at least when I'm in the proper frame of mind, are learning opportunities. Stockmanship requires cross-species communication (indeed, in the video above, there are sheep, dogs, and humans trying to communicate with one another). In my experience, time for reflection is also important - thinking about what worked (and what didn't) can make us better stock handlers!