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.
Ranching, like any other agricultural business, requires a considerable amount of planning. Unlike some farming businesses, however, ranching also requires a certain level of comfort with conditions that are beyond our control. Unexpected problems can certainly "crop" up for irrigated crop production, but we generally have some lead time to make decisions about planting or finding alternative sources of irrigation water. While I don't mean to diminish the challenges that all of us in California agriculture are facing in this incredibly dry year, I think looking down the road is different for rangeland livestock producers than for anyone else.
As I wrote last month (Yup - this is a Drought!), drought can seem like a slow-moving emergency. After a late start to our grass year in November 2020, I held out hope that we'd get something like normal precipitation in early 2021. We did not; our dry spring locked in certain parts of our forage planning process. For example, the feed that had grown by the time we shipped ewes and lambs off of our winter rangeland and back to irrigated pasture in early April was all that we'd have to work with for the rest of the year. No more rain meant no more growth.
Other parts of our annual forage calendar are less certain this year. For the first time in the 16 years I've irrigated pasture for our sheep, we're facing the potential of a mandatory reduction in our irrigation water deliveries this year. The Nevada Irrigation District, who delivers our water from the high country, is looking at the lowest carryover potential in its reservoirs in its 100 year history. Consequently, the district may end our irrigation season early, or give us less water for the full season (which typically ends on October 15). This uncertainty about our irrigated pasture compounds the ambiguity about our fall forage supply - we never know when the first germinating rain will arrive, which makes planning difficult.
For many of us who rely on annual rangeland, then, autumn is perhaps our most precarious season. Many of us try to stretch our irrigated pasture as long as we can - hoping it will last until the fall rains green-up our rangeland forages. Most of us try to manage our spring grazing to conserve dry forage for the fall - just in case the rains come late.
In our small operation, we've found that a 12-month forage calendar helps us identify future problems before they require drastic (e.g., expensive) decisions. For each of the next 12 months, we try to estimate whether we'll have adequate forage. If we think the forage will be inadequate, we try to determine why. Is it a lack of quantity (are we going to be out of feed)? Is it insufficient quality (is our forage too low in protein or energy for the stage of production we're in)? Or is it a lack of stock water? By thinking through our forage projections, we're able to think about strategies for addressing them:
- If we're going to be out of feed, do we need to think about selling some animals?
- If we have dry feed that we're trying to graze with pregnant ewes, we can supplement their protein. We start thinking about buying protein now before everyone's looking for it (and driving up the price).
- If we're worried about a lack of stock water, we start thinking about how we can get water to our sheep (so they can graze the forage we've conserved).
I wish I had a crystal ball that would tell me the exact date we'd get a germinating rain - it would make planning so much easier. Without a crystal ball, however, we can start looking down the road. We can - and should - start planning now for how we're going to get through next fall and winter. Our new Drought Decision Support Tool for Ranchers provides a framework for thinking about your forage future - check it out and please provide feedback!
Help Us Pilot-Test a New Decision-Support Tool!
By now, most of us are well aware that we're in the second year of another significant drought. A growing proportion of Northern California is classified as D4 by the U.S. Drought Monitor. And we're coming off one of the driest rainy seasons in memory. But while many producers have already started implementing drought plans, others are still considering their options. As we learned from the 2012-2016 drought, these decisions are difficult but critical to the long-term viability of our ranches.
To this end, we've created a Drought Strategies Decision Support Tool that will help producers walk through specific strategies to deal with on-the-ground conditions. This tool will guide you through developing your forage outlook for the next 12 months. It will also help you relate your reactive strategies (like weaning your calves or lambs early or selling breeding-age females) with your ranch goals and proactive drought strategies. In addition, the tool is intended to help you establish a critical date by which you will take action. Finally, we've created some simple spreadsheets (available here) to help you analyze the costs and benefits of several key strategies (like feeding hay, weaning early, or selling livestock).
During the last drought, Glenn Nader, livestock advisor emeritus for Sutter and Yuba, said, “The only way you're gonna survive a drought is to make decisions.” We hope this tool will help you do so! But we need your help! We hope you'll use this tool to hone your own drought strategies. We also hope you'll give us feedback! How can we make this tool more useful? What are we missing?
If you'd like to set up an appointment to walk through this together, please contact us (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). We're happy to go over it on the phone or schedule a ranch call. We look forward to hearing from you!
I sat (virtually) through a local irrigation district board meeting this morning. As you might imagine in a year like this, drought was on everybody's mind, from elected board members to staff to customers. The district has already asked for voluntary water conservation; next month, their board will likely consider mandatory cutbacks. And this district isn't alone - the Browns Valley Irrigation District, for example, has announced that it will end irrigation water deliveries in late August or early September (roughly 45 days earlier than normal). 2021 is shaping up to be an incredibly difficult year.
Given the likelihood that we'll be facing irrigation water reductions at some point this season, we're starting to think about our management options now. What is the best approach for keeping pastures going this year? Are there some things we can do this season to improve pasture survival for next year? Thankfully, some of my UCCE colleagues dove into this topic during the last drought. This publication is especially helpful!
First, we've noticed that the soil profile was very dry by the time we got irrigation water in mid April - and other ranchers have reported similar observations. Ranchers with flood irrigation systems were finding that it took much longer to get water to the end of the field because of these dry conditions. With our pod sprinkler system, it took us two full rotations to get the soil profile full and begin meeting plant demand. Our local irrigation district reported that these dry conditions have resulted in mid-summer irrigation demand - in early May!
With the prospect of water reductions, we need to evaluate the resiliency of the forage species and varieties in our pastures. Some grasses are more drought tolerant than others. At this stage, we can't really do much to shift to a more drought tolerant forage in the midst of the grazing season, but we can adjust our irrigation, fertilization, and grazing strategies to address the needs of the specific species and varieties.
Many foothill and Sacramento Valley pastures go through an annual succession of forages, with cool-season grasses and legumes like tall fescue, orchard grass, and white clover dominating early in the growing season. As temperatures warm, we tend to see more warm-season grasses like dallisgrass and bermuda. With the return of cooler temperatures and longer nights in late summer and early fall, the cool-season often rebound. The warm-season grasses are typically more drought tolerant, as you might imagine. Of the cool-season grasses, species and variety matter. In general, tall fescue seems to be more drought tolerant than orchardgrass, although there are some drought tolerant orchardgrass varieties. Most of our clover varieties, unfortunately, don't have much drought tolerance.
So how should we manage this year? And what can we expect next year? These recommendations are largely adapted from an excellent video produced by my late UCCE colleague, Steve Orloff (click here to view the video):
- Protect plant crowns: avoid grazing below 3" stubble height (and more residual may be better). The plant crown and stubble store sugars and carbohydrates essential for subsequent regrowth. Protecting these plants this fall increases the likelihood that they'll survive into next year.
- Know your pasture plants and pasture soils: prioritize irrigating those fields or portions of fields that can withstand drought. Focus on keeping drought-tolerant forage plants going - the less drought-tolerant plants may need to be replanted regardless of your management. Know where your deeper soils are - in our foothill pastures, these are typically at the foot of slopes. Generally, these deeper soils can hold onto water longer.
- Collect soil samples and target your fertilizer applications: Fall applications of potassium and phosphorous can help stimulate root growth, but it's always helpful to know your baseline fertility. Nitrogen application during drought, however, can concentrate nitrates (and be harmful to grazing livestock).
- Focus on recovery periods: While I think it's ALWAYS critical to vary grazing rotations based on the recovery period of the pasture, drought makes this even MORE important. In short feed years, it's always tempting to come back to a field before it's fully recovered from the last graze. DON'T DO IT! Allowing plants to recover fully will enhance root growth and pasture resiliency.
- Think about next year: If our water shuts off early, we may lose some of our clover - consider over-seeding clover just before the first fall rain. One of the more interesting ideas in the video referenced above was the possibility of planting an annual cereal crop (like triticale) before the water shuts off - and grazing in the fall and again in the spring (assuming something like "normal" winter precipitation). This is something I'll need to think through, but I'm intrigued by the idea.
As always, I'm available to come to your pasture to talk about these options and your specific situation. And we're hoping to do an on-ranch, in-person workshop later this summer to discuss these strategies in more detail. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com or (530) 889-7385!
If you've read my blog posts or newsletters over the last four years, you'll probably recognize that drought is a recurring theme - in my writing, in my extension programming, and in my research. Having ranched through the 2012-2015 drought, I tend to get a little nervous whenever we go through an unusual dry and/or warm stretch during our "normal" rainy season. And over the last six months, I've written about drought planning, feeding supplemental protein to utilize dry forage, and options for hauling drinking water to livestock. But all of these blog posts were written with the hope that we still had time for the rains to come - that we still had time to avoid a second consecutive dry year. Now that we're in the first week of May, I can say with more confidence (not to mention, disappointment) - we're in a drought here in the Sierra foothills.
I suppose most of us think about lack of rain or snow when we think of drought - and that's been a feature of this year's drought, to be sure. Through April 30, we've measured 18.7 inches of rainfall for the water year (since October 1, 2020). In the 20 years I've kept records here in Auburn, this is the lowest amount of precipitation I've recorded - lower, even, than the 2013-14 drought. As of May 1, we're sitting at 62 percent of average, based on my records.
But rainfall doesn't tell the whole story of this year's drought. January 2021 was the only month if this water year with above average rainfall. April, on the other hand, saw us measure just 6 percent of our average monthly precipitation. In fact, I've come to think of drought as a "climatic water deficit" - an event that combines low precipitation with higher environmental water demand, which we've also seen in the foothills this year.
The factors that drive this higher demand are numerous. Since last year was drier and warmer than normal, I suspect that we entered the current water year with very dry soils. This year's rainfall never truly re-saturated these soils, as evidenced by the lack of flow in our seasonal creeks - this is the first spring since I've lived in Auburn that I didn't see water in the ephemeral creeks where we graze our sheep. Secondly, many of the blue oaks in the lower foothills began to leaf out in late February, which increased evapotranspiration demand significantly (and earlier than normal). Finally, we've had a number of north wind events (the most recent of which created red flag fire conditions in early May) - these dry winds, and the associated low relative humidity levels, pull moisture out of vegetation and soil alike.
Local evapotranspiration data bears this out! The Auburn CIMIS (California Irrigation Management Information System) station recorded 6.0 inches of precipitation between February 1, 2021, and April 30, 2021 (similar to my data). Total evapotranspiration (water lost to evaporation or taken up by plants) during the same period was just over 12 inches. No wonder soil moisture in our rangelands was virtually nonexistent on May 1!
So what does this drought mean for us as rangeland livestock producers? In our operation, we feel reasonably confident that we'll have enough summer irrigation water to grow our typical summer forage, but I know other regions where summer water will be short. On our annual rangelands, which are critical to our fall and winter forage needs, we're seeing the feed mature at least a month earlier than normal. I suspect our peak standing crop (that is, the total amount of forage produced) will be lower than the long term average. Our fall grazing plans assume that we'll need to ration out this standing dry forage until we get a germinating rain. We'll be taking inventory of our fall forage resources in the next couple of weeks - if we look to be short of forage, we'll either look for more ground to graze or consider reducing our sheep numbers.
We'll also keep an eye on invasive weeds. The lack of late rain (so far) means less advantageous growing conditions for yellow starthistle. On the other hand, a quick visit to the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center today revealed that barbed goat grass is headed out a month earlier than usual!
We won't, however, try to feed our way out of this drought. I've run the numbers on putting the ewes on full feed if we run out of standing forage (either on our irrigated pasture or our annual rangeland). The numbers simply don't pencil, and while I hate to sell sheep, I'd hate to go broke buying hay even more. If you haven't run your own numbers, I'd be happy to sit down with you and look at options. Obviously, there are also financial and tax implications of selling livestock - these are complicated and difficult decisions.
All of this brings me to what I consider to be the key lesson I learned from the last drought. The difficult decisions we face as livestock producers can be stressful and isolating. I found it helpful in 2014 - and I find it helpful now - to talk to other producers. Partly, I think, just knowing that our friends and neighbors are dealing with similar challenges can be reassuring. More importantly, sharing ideas and approaches to coping with this drought can help us expand our own toolboxes and to see alternatives we might be missing. Next week, we'll be hosting a webinar on drought planning and federal drought programs (click here to register). I would also encourage you to join the Farmer-Rancher Drought Forum on Facebook - this closed group is open only to farmers, ranchers, and agricultural professionals - and it can be great way to share ideas, learn from others, and simply to commiserate.
Many of us are facing some difficult decisions in the months to come - and some of us have already implemented some of these difficult choices. If you have questions - or simply want to talk through some of the drought-related issues you're grappling with, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 889-7385.