In the meantime, how are you going to cope?
Having lived (and ranched) through California's 1000-year drought from 2012-2015, I often find myself recalling the autumn of 2013. Believe it or not, we had a germinating rain on September 3 - I measured 0.75" of rain here in Auburn. Just under three weeks later, we received another inch of rain. The combination was enough to get our grass started! But a fellow rancher - I can't remember who - told me never to trust a grass year that started before Halloween. October turned dry and November turned cold and dry - between October 1 and December 31, we measured just over two inches of rain. The grass that had looked so promising in late September was gone by New Year's Day 2014. My rancher friend was correct.
The Sierra Foothills typically experience a prolonged dry spell from late spring through early fall - part of living in a Mediterranean climate. Every autumn, I look forward to the first germinating rain - the storm that is the dividing line between brown grass and green grass on our annual rangelands. Weather forecasts from two weeks ago suggested that we'd get this storm last weekend; reality proved otherwise, and our weekend was cool but dry. And the most recent California drought map indicates that our normal dry spell has intensified into moderate-to-severe drought.
Looking back at 35 years of monitoring data from the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) in Browns Valley, I see a record of uncertainty and variability. The earliest germinating rain at SFREC was recorded on September 2, 2000. The latest occurred just two years later, on December 12, 2002. Over the last 35 years, the first germinating rain of the fall occurred around October 21. But in 29% of the last 35 years, a germinating rain hasn't arrived until after November 1.
Why does this matter? As most ranchers will know, we usually reach a point in mid-December when the days are too short and the temperatures (both air and soil) are too cool to support grass growth, regardless of soil moisture. I call this our winter dormant period - the timeframe where we have to get buy on the grass that grew from germination to dormancy (and last year's dry grass). If germination happens in mid-October, and we get follow-up rains, this means we have 45 days worth of growth at least. If germination happens a month later, we don't have much grass.
Because of this uncertainty and variability, most of us are conservative in our stocking rates - we keep the number of breeding animals we know we can sustain through a dry fall. Many of us use supplemental protein to be able to utilize the dry forage we saved from the previous spring. Others try to match our production cycle to the forage cycle, calving or lambing when we're likely to have adequate high quality forage.
As I think back on my experiences in 2013-2014, I think there is a difference between short-term drought and long-term drought. Our preparation strategies, like a conservative stocking rate and fitting our production calendar to the forage, help us deal with both. Response strategies, however, can be ramped up as the severity of the drought escalates. Buying supplemental feed, for example, might help bridge a dry fall; buying replacement feed to get through a dry two or three years is a recipe for bankruptcy. Similarly, deciding not to buy in stockers or feeder lambs in a dry fall is a short-term solution; selling breeding animals or replacement females is a more drastic step that might be necessary in a long-term drought.
One of the most important lessons I learned in the last drought is that we constantly need to be thinking about how much forage we have ahead of us, and talking about key decision dates. At the moment, we have enough dry grass to get through the end of January (provided we give the sheep supplemental protein). At that point, our ewes will be entering the last third of their gestation period - and their nutritional demands will start ramping up. We typically give the ewes their pre-lambing vaccines during the third week of January. If we're still dry at that stage, we'll have some difficult decisions to make. In the meantime, I'll keep doing my rain (and germination) dance! Don't worry - I won't post video!
For regular updates on forage and ranching weather conditions, check out my Instagram feed at @flyingmule!
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?
We have a variety of livestock and pasture-focused workshops scheduled this spring! Check out the links for more information.
Penn Valley, CA
Co-sponsored by the Nevada Irrigation District and the Nevada County Resource Conservatory District, this FREE workshop will focus on soil management, irrigation systems, and pasture management. Participants must pre-register – contact Kaycee Strong at (530) 273-6185 ext. 244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn how to set up and manage a small-to-medium-sized shearing facility for small flocks. Participants will learn about sheep handling, shearing preparation, wool handling, and wool marketing. (Note: this is not a shearing school). Register at: http://ucanr.edu/woolhandling&shearingmanagement.
UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, Browns Valley, CA
This day-long workshop will include presentations on managing soils and forage, decision tools and strategies for managing livestock during drought, and climate data and visualization tools to support on-ranch planning. Register at: http://sfrec.ucanr.edu/?calitem=445275&g=62869
Shone Farm, Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa, CA
This 2-day, hands-on grazing school provides participants with practical, field-based experience in applying the principles of managed grazing on rangelands. Participants will learn to estimate carrying capacity and graze periods, as well as develop grazing plans and monitoring systems. For more information, go to: http://cesonoma.ucanr.edu/?calitem=446449
This one-day workshop will focus on the business practices and logistics planning essential to managing an effective and profitable targeted grazing business. UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor Dan Macon has managed medium-and large-scale targeted grazing projects in the Sierra Foothills and Sacramento Valley. Other speakers will include current contractors and grazing experts. Register at https://ucanr.edu/sites/Livestock/?calitem=450512&g=93567.
Stay up to date on other workshops and events at https://ucanr.edu/sites/Livestock//span>