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!
I suppose my obsession with the weather apps on my smartphone started during the 2013-2014 drought. I've always been a weather geek, but during that dry spell, I found myself constantly checking multiple apps to see if one held more hope for moisture than another. That fall, I was lambing out a large commercial flock of sheep in the California Delta. Later that winter, I went to work as the beef herdsman at UC's Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC). Grass - and the moisture to grow it - was never far from front of mind. And as a dry, cold December stretched into an even drier January, we reduced our sheep numbers (both on the outfit I was working for, and in our own flock). As the weather stayed dry that spring, we hunted every blade of grass we could find at SFREC. And looking at the plethora of weather apps that are still on my phone today, I find myself getting nervous about this fall and winter... again!
Based on that 2013-2014 experience, I've become much more focused on my grazing planning. For me, this involves multiple timeframes - I'm thinking about where our sheep will be able to graze over the next 3-4 weeks, as well as what our forage resources might look like into late January and February (during late gestation for our ewes). Beyond lambing, I start thinking about how much irrigated pasture we'll have available to us next summer. Based on this planning, I can adjust when and where we move the sheep in the short term. In the long term, I can adjust our flock size to make sure our forage demand balances with our forage supply.
Setting our stocking rate, then, becomes a critical part of our drought strategy. Do we stock for an "average" year (whatever that is)? Do we stock for a good year with the understanding that we'll need to sell animals if our grass doesn't come on? Or do we stock conservatively - for the worst years - and adjust by bringing in more animals if we're pleasantly surprised by rainfall and grass? My friend and colleague Josh Davy, who runs cows in the Sacramento Valley, says, "My starting point is to set my stocking rate so that I can survive December and January - those are the toughest months, feed-wise."
We can also affect our stocking rate simply through our management calendar. We try to matching our lambing period (which is also our period of highest forage demand) with the onset of rapid grass growth (usually in late February or early March). Most years, this works out - although the incredibly dry period we had in the first quarter of 2022 tested my resolve. This also allows us to reduce our stocking rate as the forage dries out in late spring and summer - by simply selling our lambs.
All of this brings me back to THIS fall and getting nervous. We had a germinating rain in mid September - and we've had no precipitation since here in Auburn. The grass that germinated after that first rain has stopped growing (and in some cases, died). Our irrigation water shut off on October 15, which means our irrigated pasture won't grow much more forage unless we get some rain. Last night, I mapped out our grazing for the next month - I think we'll have enough grass to stay on our irrigated pasture until the first weekend of December.
After that, we'll see where we are - if we get rain in the next 7-10 days (and there appears to be some in our forecast - depending on the app I'm looking at!), we'll have some green forage on our lower elevation annual rangelands by the time we move the sheep. If we don't get any rain, we'll need to provide supplemental protein to allow the ewes to digest the dry forage we saved as a buffer. At this point, I'm reluctant to sell any bred ewes - we've already invested in next year's lamb crop.
During last year's dry spell, Siskiyou County Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor, Grace Woodmansee and I developed a drought decision support tool to help ranchers think about their short- and long-term drought strategies. The core of this tool is a 12-month forage calendar - a tool to help you think about potential gaps in your forage supply through the course of the year. This year, I've found it helpful to revisit my forage projections on a regular basis - grass that seemed plentiful after last December suddenly looked short in mid-March. Similarly, what looked to be a dismal grass year in March turned around with April's storms. The process of planning - of looking ahead at our grass - helped make my decision-making process more rational. Had April remained dry, I would have sold sheep; since it turned wet, I was able to maintain my numbers. My forage calendar, in other words, allowed me to establish some realistic key dates for decision-making.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to check a few more weather apps - one of them is bound to have an optimistic forecast for next week!
I invite you to travel back in time with me - clear back to late October 2021! We'd measured more than 10 inches of rain in Auburn, and we could see the first green shoots of grass emerging through the dry forage. While November was slightly disappointing from a precipitation perspective, we measured more than 12 inches of rain in December - capped off by a crazy, wet, and cold storm just before the first of the year. I'm sure most of us were celebrating what looked like a great feed year when we rang in 2022. But then the spigot shut off - here in Auburn, we've measured just 1.77 inches of rain since January 1 - the driest start to the calendar year in the 20+ years I've kept records. Combining this lack of moisture with warmer-than-normal temperatures and unusual (at least for winter) dry north wind, we are squarely back in drought conditions. In many ways, we seem to be experiencing a more severe drought than last year, at least on our foothill annual rangelands.
Ranchers know that drought is more than just a lack of precipitation. Low rainfall years, provided the storms come at the right time, can produce above-average forage. This year, however, the warm temperatures have brought oaks and other vegetation out of dormancy earlier than normal - this early onset of the growing season in our oak woodlands has increasedevapotranspiration (or soil-water demand). The north winds haven't helped. Before we received an inch of rain on March 14-15, I checked soil moisture in Auburn - and found it to be less than 20% (more like May than March). The rain gave us a short boost, but by the end of last week, soil moisture was back around 25%.
Ourrangeland vegetation reflects these poor growing conditions. Our annual grasses andforbs, by definition, must produce seed every year. In dry conditions, this means that they reproduce and turn brown early and at a shorter stature. Where our sheep are grazing just west of Auburn, I've seen soft chess and annualryegrass headed out this week - a good 30 days early. In a good year, the soft chess will be as much as 18 inches tall; this year, it's done growing at 6 inches. Many of our importantbroadleaf forage plants are maturing equally early - I'm seeing vetch dying back on our shallower soils, and thefilaree is already in the late bloom stage, as well.
These are all red flags from a forage quantity perspective - shorter feed this spring means less residual feed to return to next fall. But early maturity also compresses our forage quality window. Many of us expect a 45-60 day period when we have high quality forage on our annual rangelands - and we set our production calendars accordingly. As these grasses and forbs mature, they decline in quality - providing less protein and energy to our grazing animals. They also become less palatable - in other words, they don't taste as good and they don't provide as much nutrition. The graph below demonstrates that crude protein levels in annual grasses drop below cow maintenance levels between the late flowering and maintenance stages (which we're approaching). If we're trying to put weight on animals, protein levels are deficient by the time we reach the early flowering stage. For more information, check out this ANR Publication (Annual Rangeland Forage Quality).
We're still hopeful that the significant snow pack we built up in December will mean we'll have adequate irrigation water here in the foothills - other regions in the state aren't so fortunate. Given the exceptionally dry conditions, however, I expect we'll need to make at least 2 irrigation rotations over our irrigated pastures to rebuild soil moisture and start growing forage. For us, this means we won't start regrowing irrigated pasture forage following our first graze periods until the end of May.
In light of these impacts, what are some of the strategies we should consider going forward? The basic premise of most drought management strategies is to increase our forage supply (by buying hay or other feed, irrigated early, or leasing new pasture) or reducing our forage demand (by selling livestock or weaning early). Check out our Drought Decision Making Tool for Ranchers for information on how to analyze the economics of these options! This page also includes a new bulletin on early weaning.
As far along as our annual rangeland vegetation is today, another rain won't do us much good - other than perhaps grow some summer annual weeds that may have some grazing value. Rain wouldgive our irrigated pastures a boost, however - at least here in the foothills. We'll see what April brings!
I feel like I've said this every year for the last decade, but what a strange weather year we're having! Here in Auburn, we experienced the most intense rainfall in October that I can remember (with more than 8 inches falling in a 48 hour period). November was drier than "normal," but December turned wet and cold. We measured more than 12 inches of precipitation in December at home (including a bit of snow). Just up the hill from us though, record amounts of snow fell - the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab on Donner Summit set an all-time record for December with 193.7 inches of snow!
Unfortunately, the Snow Lab set another record yesterday - the longest consecutive period without measurable precipitation during meteorological winter (32 days) since the lab was established in 1971. Today, February 10, marks the 33rd day without rainfall here in Auburn. And our high temperature today is supposed to be over 70F. Despite the promising start we saw in October, we're once again dusting off the drought plan for our small sheep operation.
Every drought, obviously is different - as is every year within a multi-year drought. During the winter of 2013-2014, for example, we went 52 days (from early December through the end of January) without rainfall in Auburn - but we measured more than 14 inches in February and March. In December 2014, we measured over 11 inches - followed by 0.01 inches in January 2014. In the first year of the current drought (2020), we had just 0.03 inches in February, but measured more than 12 inches from March through May. Last year, in contrast, we received just 0.18 inches after April 1.
But rangeland drought is more than simply a lack of precipitation, and rangeland forage production depends on many factors in addition to rainfall. Critically, drought is the interaction of lack of precipitation and soil-moisture deficit driven by high temperatures and increased evapotranspiration. On California's annual rangelands, seasonality of precipitation and climate-soil interactions result different drought impacts depending on the season. While fall drought can obviously lead to winter and spring drought, I found it helpful to think about our own drought plan based on the different impacts we see depending on the time of year.
- Fall Drought: driven by a lack of fall precipitation, fall drought causes a delay in germination on annual rangelands. This can lead to a lack of fall and winter forage (both in terms of quality and quantity), as well as a lack of stock water. Our 2013-2014 drought is a good example.
- Winter Drought: To some extent, California's annual rangelands experience some degree of winter drought most years - the days get too short, and the air and soil temperatures get too cold, to grow much forage. When combined with a lack of precipitation (like in January 2015), this can lead to a lack of both forage and stock water in winter and early spring.
- Spring Drought: This type of drought is driven by a lack of precipitation and warm temperatures in late winter and early spring, leading to increased evapotranspiration and decreased soil moisture. We see perennial plants (including oaks and brush) come out of dormancy early. We may also see our rangeland forage head out early, which results in a decrease in forage quality. Lack of precipitation and dry soils can also result in decreased runoff, impacting stock water availability. Finally, a dry spring (combined with seasonal overstocking of our ranch) can lead to a lack of dry forage next fall. For me, the dry spring of 2021 is a perfect example.
- Summer Drought: While a lack of precipitation is normal in Mediterranean climates like ours, summer drought from a forage perspective is driven by lack of winter snow pack and resulting cuts in irrigation water, or decreases in mountain forage production. With our record low snow pack in 2015, many ranchers didn't receive normal irrigation deliveries. The lack of snow and rapid snow melt last year (2021) meant many high-country grazers in the Sierra had their grazing seasons slashed.
So what does this drought taxonomy mean for our sheep outfit? What kinds of strategies are available to us given the particular conditions in February 2022?
I shared the descriptions above with my colleague Josh Davy (who's the livestock and range advisor for Glenn, Colusa, and Tehama Counties, and who runs his own cattle). He said, "My starting point is to set my stocking rate so that I can survive December and January - those are the toughest months, feed-wise." We've done the same thing - the 2012-2016 drought taught us to be conservative with our stocking rate. Last September, when we turned in the rams, we kept the number of ewes and replacement ewe lambs we felt like we could graze through the winter.
But what about now? We'll start lambing within the next week - which means we've put a year's worth of expense into these ewes to get them to the point where they'll give us something to sell this summer. We're continually looking at the amount of forage ahead of us as we approach our lambing season; we're also looking back to see if the pastures we've already grazed are regrowing. This week's planning meeting was depressing: the forage we've grazed since late December isn't regrowing at all, which means we'll need to rely on what we have left (if it stays dry). And what we have left will only feed the ewes through the third or fourth week of March - we'll be short about 3 weeks (we will move to another ranch in mid-April).
Ultimately, we have two options - we can increase our forage supply (by purchasing hay or grazing difficult-to-access pastures), or we can decrease our forage demand (by selling sheep). As with any plan, there are tradeoffs to both of these approaches - we can increase costs and/or labor, or we can decrease our income. For now, we've settled on the following strategies:
- We'll graze hard-to-fence pastures and move sheep more frequently if necessary up through the first week of lambing. Every extra day we buy now will give us one more day of forage in late March. As the ewes drop more lambs, however, they'll become more difficult to move (which requires more time and effort on our part). Since we typically don't reach peak lamb drop until early March, this gives us a window of about 3 weeks to access these difficult pastures.
- Based on past experience 85-95 percent of our ewes will have lambed by March 31. We may have a few stragglers, but we should be close to finished. If we haven't had an inch of rain by then, and if there's no rain in the 14-day forecast, we'll sort off the ewes that haven't lambed and sell them. Late lambs won't wean as heavy, which means they won't generate as much income. Selling the ewes will reduce our forage demand.
- Based on these strategies, if we get to late March or early April and find we don't have adequate forage for the pairs (ewes and lambs), we'll feed hay until we ship the sheep home for shearing in the third week of April. From that point, we think we'll have enough forage to make it till weaning in late June.
- Finally, if it stays dry through the rest of the growing season, we'll look at further de-stocking to conserve our fall forage. We might sell more ewes, or we might wean the lambs early. We might do both.
These are not easy decisions - ever! But I find that they are easier when we've talked through them and weighed all of our options. And I also find that setting some key dates for implementation helps take the emotion out of the decision - and holds me accountable. Uncertainty, for me, is more unpleasant than making a difficult decision.
Over the last six months, drought has once again dominated most of my thinking and many of my conversations with other ranchers. Over the last two weeks, I've given drought talks in Sierraville and Rio Vista – both of which gave me time behind the wheel to think about drought management and the new Drought Decision Support Tools we've developed for ranchers to analyze the decisions we're all making as this drought becomes more serious. And I've realized that I seem to be focused on getting through this drought, rather than on how our ranching operation might emerge from the other side of it. In other words, I've been focusing on survival rather than resiliency. Survival can be depressing (at least for me); resiliency seems far more hopeful!
Elements of Resiliency
From a ranching perspective, I think, resiliency has three elements. As long-term businesses (even multi-generational in many cases), ranches must have Financial Resilience. Most of us are experiencing the added expenses and lower incomes typical of drought; resilient businesses are able to regain a sound financial footing quickly. Second, since most of our ranches are stocked with cows or ewes or goat does that fit our environments and production systems, our ranches must have Genetic Resilience. The genetic base of our flock or herd needs to remain intact – we need to be able to re-stock with animals that fit our ranches. Critically, our ranches must have Ecological Resilience. Just as drought is stressful for us and for our livestock, it's also stressful for our rangelands. Taking care of the land now (by focusing on balancing our stocking rate with a diminished carrying capacity, by avoiding overutilization of rangeland forages, by working to reduce the amount of bare ground that can create openings for invasive weeds) helps ensure that our rangelands can respond quickly when “normal” weather returns. And finally - and perhaps most importantly - we need to be resilient ourselves. Human Resilience - the ability to see through the challenges posed by drought, to stay positive about the future, allows us to focus on the other elements of resilience outlined above.
Incorporating Resiliency into our Drought Strategies
As I've thought about this concept of resiliency on my long drives this month, I've realized that there are several ways I can incorporate the idea of resiliency into my drought planning. From a proactive standpoint, I can take steps to be sure I understand the economics of my ranching business. What are my financial risks? What does it cost me to run a ewe for a year under normal conditions? How much debt do I have? From a genetics perspective, I can keep records on our sheep that allow me to know which ewes (or lines of ewes) perform well in our environment. Which ewes consistently wean the most pounds of lamb(s) each year? Which ewes seem to never need deworming or treatment for foot rot? Finally, I can develop – and, more importantly, review – a 12-18-month forage calendar that allows me to adjust stocking rate based on carrying capacity. I can rest some rangeland pastures during the growing season to stockpile fall forage. I can pay attention to the perennial grasses and brush species that can provide nutrition to my sheep during the dry season.
Beyond these preparations, however, resiliency can become the filter through which I evaluate my reactive drought strategies. How much will putting our ewes on full feed impact the economic health of the business – how much hay can we afford to buy? And where and how will I feed the ewes to avoid negative impacts to next year's forage production and soil health? Conversely, if I need to cull some sheep to reduce forage demand, how will it impact the genetic base of our flock? Should I sell older, proven ewes, or keep fewer replacement ewe lambs? What are the future economic implications of breeding fewer ewes this fall? By focusing on what our operation will look like after the drought, I hope I'll make better decisions this summer.
Some Final Thoughts
Finally, I come back to something I learned in 2013-2014. Picking the right drought strategies requires difficult decisions; decisions that are made more difficult by the fact that we don't know how long the drought will last. The best time for me to have thought about the resiliency of our operation was before this current drought intensified. The second best time to think about resiliency is now! For me, at least, thinking about a positive future for our small-scale operation (in other words, thinking about how I can enhance our resiliency) feels much more positive than simply worrying about how we'll survive.