Here in Auburn (on December 17, 2020), we received 0.64" of rain overnight. After a late start to the rainy season (and to germination on our annual rangelands), any rain is welcome at this point. But last night's rain continues an interesting (and potentially troubling) trend - our storm total was about 60 percent of what forecasters predicted earlier in the week. Similarly, last weekend's storms delivered less moisture than predicted. Our seasonal total (since October 1) is just over 4 inches; our average seasonal total here in Auburn over the last 20 years is over 11.5 inches - in other words, we've received just 36 percent of our "normal" precipitation so far.
On the positive side of all of these numbers, we have received enough rain to keep the grass that germinated last month going for a month or more. For our small sheep operation, we'd established a key date of December 31 for implementing more drastic drought measures (like buying more hay or selling sheep). With 1.89 inches of rain this month, and with the forage we've saved due to our conservative stocking rate and diligent grazing planning, we should make it through lambing without much added expense.
But the pattern remains concerning. I've noticed over the last several years that precipitation forecasting has become more accurate. While the exact timing of storms remains difficult to predict with down-to-the-minute accuracy, forecasters have become more adept at predicting storm totals several days out. That this year's storms seem to be falling short of predictions suggests that forecasting remains an inexact science.
Obviously, rainfall on our annual rangelands does more than grow forage. Many operations rely on run-off to recharge seasonal creeks and refill stock ponds. Without stock water, some producers won't be able to use the forage they saved from last spring (or they'll need to haul water). In the medium-term, the lack of snowfall in the high country portends a challenging summer for those of us who rely on irrigated pasture. Fortunately, our local water districts entered the winter with adequate carry-over in their reservoirs, but a lower-than-average snow pack is definitely concerning!
So while while our operation has made it through the first critical date of our drought plans, we're not out of the woods yet. After lambing is over in late March, our next major decision point will be weaning. We usually wean the lambs in mid/late June - sometimes as late as early July. In order to save forage on our annual rangeland for next fall, we may wean and sell our lambs early, allowing us to graze dry ewes on irrigated pasture into midsummer (which reduces our forage demand). I suspect our next decision date will be sometime in mid/late April.
I won't reiterate how difficult 2020 has been on a variety of fronts - drought just seems like one more crisis on top of a crisis-dominated year. I would encourage you to check out the Rangeland Drought Information Hub on the UC Rangelands website, however. You'll find a variety of resources for responding to drought conditions. From my perspective, the best time to start planning for drought is while it's raining. The second best time to start planning for drought is now! If you'd like help developing a drought plan or considering specific decisions, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When we finally received a more than two inches of rain in mid-November, I was relieved that we would finally have germination on our foothill rangelands - better late than never! Today, after two weeks of sunshine, I am indeed seeing a little green coming up through last year's dry forage. But the forecast isn't promising - as of this morning (November 30), we have no rain in our forecast here in Auburn for the next two weeks. The combination of dry weather, short days, and colder (for here, at least) temperatures indicates that we won't likely grow much grass during the month of December.
Drought planning begins with proactive strategies - a conservative stocking rate, for example, or a production calendar designed to match periods of high forage demand with rapid forage growth. One of the most important proactive strategies in our small-scale sheep operation is grazing planning. Over the years, we've trained our eyes to estimate the amount of forage we have available - measured in sheep days per acre. While our estimates are not 100 percent accurate all of the time, the simple act of looking ahead and estimating the quantity and quality of standing forage gives us a better idea of when we might need to adjust our plans.
The second element of our planning process is the idea of key dates. For me, establishing a date by which we need to make a decision forces us to actually make the decision. During the 2013-2014 drought, Glenn Nader (who preceded me as UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor in Sutter and Yuba Counties) said, "The only way you're gonna survive a drought is to make decisions." This advice, obviously, has stayed with me - indecision prolongs the pain (economic and otherwise) of drought. In our operation, we look at forage conditions, weather forecasts, and our production calendar when establishing a key date. For example, our ewes will enter the last trimester of gestation in early January. At this point, their nutritional demand will begin ramping up significantly as they approach their lambing dates. While we've saved enough dry forage to get by for the next 5-6 weeks (which we can utilize by supplementing the ewes' protein intake), late gestation will require a different strategy. A key date also requires us to think about a condition that must be met for a decision to be triggered. This December, that condition is rainfall. If we haven't received an inch of rain by December 31, and if there is no rain in the 2-week forecast on that date, we'll need to make a decision.
This brings us to the last element of our drought plan - what are our options if we're still dry on New Year's Eve? For me, these reactive strategies are far less palatable - they cost us money (as in more expenses, less revenue, or both). Here are the options that are currently on the table:
- Purchase enough hay to get the ewes through late gestation and into the beginning of lambing season.
- Look for byproduct or other alternative protein and energy sources to feed the ewes.
- Sell older ewes to reduce forage demand.
- Sell replacement ewe lambs to reduce forage demand.
- Allow body condition to decline until the forage begins to grow (which may reduce lamb survival and future reproductive success).
- Find additional rangeland pasture to graze (this would still require some supplemental nutrition).
Over the next several weeks, we'll brainstorm additional options. We'll work through the economic ramifications of each of these options. We may choose a combination - perhaps we'd sell a few sheep and purchase hay to sustain the rest of the flock. The point here is that we've given ourselves a deadline for taking action, and we'll work through the numbers associated with each decision.
In the meantime, we'll keeping hoping for rain....
…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.
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: