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!
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:
I've kept daily weather records since we moved to Auburn (nineteen years this week, in fact). During that time, we've experienced some exceptionally wet years (2016-17 comes to mind, when we measured almost 63 inches of precipitation), as well as some exceptionally dry years (like 2006-07, when we received just under 20 inches). Other years and specific months stand out, too - like the 14.5 inches we measured in January 2017, or the 0.5 inches we received in December 2013. Unfortunately, February 2020 will go down as one of those stand-out months - we measured a measly 0.03 inches of rain for the entire month.
The current water year (which started in October) was preceded by a wetter-than-normal September (at least here in Auburn). We received better than 2 inches - enough to germinate the grass on our annual rangelands. As often happens when we get early rain, though, we didn't get much to follow up the promising start. From October 1 through November 30, we measured just 0.71 inches. We got back on track in December (with more than 8 inches), but 2020 has been disappointing so far. Through the end of February, the season total was just 56 percent of our long-term average for the date. The March 3 version of the U.S. Drought Map puts all of Placer, Nevada, and Yuba Counties, as well as the eastern portion of Sutter County, in the Moderate Drought category. And the most recent drought outlook from the National Weather Service (see below) suggests that drought will persist or develop in the northern two-thirds of California.
Looking ahead to summer irrigation season, we're fortunate that most of our local water agencies went into the winter with more holdover in their reservoirs than normal. Even so, the latest Sierra snow pack numbers for our region are more depressing than the lack of rain. The central Sierra snow pack is only 38 percent of normal for this date.
I'm not a weather forecaster by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a weather geek. This morning, I looked at the long term average precipitation for March through June in my weather records, which didn't provide much reassurance. Even if we get 75 percent of our average rainfall for the next four months, we'll end the water year with less than 20 inches total. Even with 150 percent of average - a miracle March (and April, May, and June) - we'll end the water year well below our long-term average.
We've definitely seen an impact on the annual rangeland where we winter our sheep west of Auburn. The February 1 forage supply at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in the Yuba County foothills was about 69 percent of normal. I suspect the March 1 measurement won't be much better. While the lack of moisture is concerning, the warm February temperatures have pushed many of the blue oaks to leaf out 3-4 weeks earlier than normal. Last Thursday (before the brief storm over the weekend), I walked through one of the pastures we hadn't grazed yet. The grass was short generally, but I was especially surprised to see the vegetation beneath the oaks starting to wither and die - in the first week of March! This Sunday, after we'd received roughly a third of an inch of rain the day before, I dug a six inch hole to check soil moisture at the root zone of our annual grasses. I'd estimate moisture levels to be at around 25 percent of field capacity - in other words, incredibly dry for early March. No wonder the creeks aren't running!
Most of us will likely have enough grass to get buy this spring, although a lack of stock water could be problematic. I'm more concerned about the potential lack of fall feed. Short grass this spring means we're covering more ground with our sheep. This could mean less dry feed to return to with our sheep after the summer irrigation season ends in October. Our plan is to cull our older and less productive ewes at shearing or weaning. We may even consider selling some of the replacement ewe lambs we'd normally keep.
These conditions call for drastic measures, obviously - and so we've scheduled drought workshops in Grass Valley and Yuba City! Over the last six years, I've attended or helped to organize four or five drought workshops - and it's rained every time!
In all seriousness, in light of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, we are scheduling a Drought Planning for Rangeland Livestock Producers webinar (rather than an in-person workshop) in late March or early April. Stay tuned for details! We'll share results from our 2016 post-drought rancher interviews, feature panel discussions with ranchers and other experts, and discuss ranch-specific goal setting - all focused on coping with what is shaping up to be another drought year.
If you'd like to receive notice of this webinar (and future workshops), contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Saturday evening, the Tahoe Cattlemen's Association held it's annual membership dinner. Ranchers from Placer and Nevada Counties sat down to a wonderful tri-tip dinner prepared by the Del Oro High School FFA chapter. But despite the great meal and the enjoyable company, many were understandably concerned about the lack of rainfall. And as with any gathering of ranchers in Northern California this November, drought has begun creeping back into conversations here in the Sierra Foothills. When I jokingly asked who could remember the last time it had rained this fall, there was nervous laughter.
For rangeland livestock producers, drought is a different phenomenon than it is for crop farmers or urban dwellers; the dry spell we've experienced over the last month-and-a-half is no exception. Those of us who graze livestock on annual rangelands in Northern California rely on fall precipitation to germinate our fall/winter forage, and to replenish stock ponds and seasonal creeks for stock water.
This year, some parts of the Sierra foothills received a germinating rain in mid/late September. We actually had green grass on some of the annual rangelands where we graze our sheep near Auburn. Unfortunately, since October 1, we've measured just 0.02 inches of rain here at the UCCE office in Auburn. The warm temperatures and dry north winds we had in October pulled moisture out of the soil; the grass that got started in September has mostly died. PG&E's public safety power shutoffs and an unusually abrupt end to irrigation water deliveries in Placer and Nevada Counties have left many ranchers scrambling to provide drinking water to their livestock.
While these forecasts can be depressing, I also know that conditions can change rapidly (and counter to what the weather experts predict). From October 2013 through the end of January 2014, for example, we measured less than 4 inches of rain in Auburn; in February 2014, we received almost 9 inches! More recently, in December 2017 we
Given the lack of green forage on our annual rangelands at the moment, and the lack of stormy weather on the horizon, what does planning for the worst look like? What actions should we be taking now to reduce the impact of both short-term and long-term drought?
Develop a Forage Budget: Most of us stock our grazing land conservatively - we try to manage our grazing during the spring and summer months to make sure we have fall feed. But do you know how much feed you actually have this fall? Do you know how many days of grazing you have before your fall feed is gone? Since the 2013-14 drought year, we've kept track of our forage supply and demand (or carrying capacity and stocking rate). Rather than use the standard unit of an Animal Unit Month (or AUM, the amount of forage consumed by a 1000-lb cow and her calf in one month), we track sheep days per acre. Granted this measurement is very specific to OUR sheep, but it gives us a useful estimate of our specific supply and demand. In the last two weeks, we've analyzed our winter pastures and determined that without forage growth, and with our current sheep inventory, we'll run out of feed in mid/late January. This is not a happy discovery, obviously, but it does help us focus on our options for addressing this shortfall.
Increase Forage Supply: You may have heard the adage, "Don't feed your way out of a drought" - you may have even heard it from me! And while feeding hay quickly becomes prohibitively expensive, there may be other ways to increase forage supply. In our case this fall, a friend offered us 40 acres of alfalfa stubble for the sheep. Instead of moving to our winter pastures this weekend, we'll save that forage for late December. Other options might be talking with a neighbor about an ungrazed property, or even hauling stockwater to an under-utilized portion of your own ranch. Obviously economics come into play here, too - is hauling water or building fence more expensive than feeding hay? That question will be answered differently for every operation!
Decrease Forage Demand: Selling animals is never an easy decision. One of the most difficult days in the 15 years we've raised sheep commercially was the day in January 2014 when I sorted off bred ewes to haul to the auction - we were out of forage and weren't sure when it would rain again. That said, giving some thought to the animals you could sell - or those you'd keep at all costs - helps make that decision easier. This year, we've prioritized the following animals for sale if the dry weather persists:
- Open/cull ewes
- Older rams
- Excess feeder lambs
- Replacement ewe lambs
- Old/thin bred ewes
Given the cost of hauling sheep to the auction, we want to make sure we have more than one or two; that said, when the sheep come off the alfalfa next month, the cull ewes, older rams, and excess feeder lambs will be sold. We'll save forage for the bred ewes and the replacement ewe lambs.
Selling breeding females is a more difficult decision for us. We can't simply go to the auction when it starts to rain and purchase bred ewes that fit our system and our forage resources; indeed, we're still recovering from selling sheep in 2014. And selling an asset (a ewe lamb or a heifer, for example) means we forego the future income she'd produce. We need to compare the money we'll save in the short term (by not having to buy feed) with the income we'll lose by selling breeding animals. There are a number of more sophisticated economic analysis tools we can use to consider these types of decisions.
Develop Stock Water Infrastructure: Fall stock water is often a limiting factor for many rangeland operations. If ponds haven't filled and creeks aren't running, pastures can't be grazed. While long term solutions (like drilling wells or installing water tanks and troughs) may be expensive and time consuming, short term solutions (like hauling water) may allow us to access additional forage resources. For example, in the winter of 2014-2015, I managed the cattle at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley. As you might recall, that winter was also exceptionally dry. In January, we realized we had more than 20 acres of grass growing along the road system on part of the facility - grass that was outside of our pastures. By hauling water to portable troughs placed on the road, we were able to graze this otherwise unusable forage. And we were able to give the regular pastures a much-needed rest. Hauling water, in other words, bought us time (and forage).
Because ranches are also businesses, we need to consider the financial, economic, and tax consequences of our drought strategies, as well. The UC Rangelands Drought Information Hub has a number of outstanding resources on these topics, as well as links to long-range forecasts. And I'm happy to help you walk through these considerations on your own operation - we can develop a forage budget, talk about water development, and discuss other drought management strategies. In the meantime, remember that staring at your weather app and cursing the weather forecast (as I have done) are not effective drought strategies!