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!
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 email@example.com.
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....