Every spring, there comes a stretch of time when I wish we had 10 times as many sheep. Since we're stocked at a level where we're comfortable we'll have enough grass in bad years (and in the autumn months - see my December 2018 post, Fall Feed... or Fuel Load?), we almost always have more grass than grazers in April and May. We simply can't keep up with forage growth during the spring flush.
Grazing, obviously, can be a tremendous tool for managing fuel load (especially "fine" fuels, like grass and broadleaf plants) in our Mediterranean climate. Unlike mowing or mechanical fuel reduction tools, or herbicide treatment, grazing actually removes flammable material - ruminant animals like sheep, goats and cattle convert this "fuel" into muscle, fat, bone, and fiber. Grazing livestock can access areas where it would be next to impossible to operate equipment. And areas that have been grazed don't burn with as much intensity as areas that haven't.
Despite these benefits, every spring I am reminded that we simply don't have enough livestock in California to address all of our wildfire fuel problems. Targeted grazing contractors have developed successful business models focused on bringing grazing animals to the fuel load - working with utilities, homeowners associations (HOAs), and municipalities to manage fuels near infrastructure, residences, and communities. Yet even within these more focused operations, I believe we'd benefit from greater coordination between grazing contractors, rangeland managers, and fire planners. Let me explain using an example from my own spring/summer grazing operations.
We no longer operate a paid targeted grazing business, but we do trade winter grazing for summer fuel load reduction with a community near Auburn - in other words, we graze our sheep in the community during winter and early spring for free, in exchange for reducing fuel load in the late spring and summer. So far, this arrangement has worked well for us as well as for the HOA. We do a great deal of grazing planning during our lambing season (mostly to ensure that we've got enough forage and natural shelter for the ewes and lambs); more recently, we've also started to be more intentional about our summer grazing plans.
The fuels in this community are mostly annual grasses and broadleaf plants, with some coyote bush, poison oak, and Himalayan blackberry interspersed with blue oaks, interior live oaks, and foothill pines. The homesites are located on a series of parallel ridges and drainages that fall off to the northwest, and the community is adjacent to a large regional park. In thinking about our summer efforts to make this community more fire safe, we've chosen to remove fuels from a strip on either side of the roads and driveways serving the homes. We've also grazed around the structures that are situated on ridge tops. We've realized that our grazing wouldn't necessarily be a fuel break (in the sense of removing all vegetation down to mineral soil); our grazing, rather, would hopefully slow a fire enough to give fire fighters a chance to protect structures and lives.
As we've thought about this, however, I've realized that I would benefit from a better understanding of fire behavior in our particular environment. Where are the ignition sources likely to be? My sense is that southerly Delta breezes in the summertime are usually associated with lower temperatures and higher humidity (and less extreme fire behavior). North and northeast winds, on the other hand, tend to be hot and dry - does this suggest that we should focus our grazing on removing fuels north and east of the community. These kinds questions, I think, are where ranchers, rangeland managers, and fire planners could greatly benefit one another's understanding of these interactions. Since we can't possibly have enough grazing animals to address ALL of our fuel-load issues, we need to be more strategic about prioritizing grazing activities that are focused on fuel-load reduction. These kinds of collaborative efforts, I think, are an important piece of reducing the threat of wildfire in our foothill communities.
Targeted grazing using sheep, goats, or cattle (or combinations of two or more species) can be an effective way to manage vegetation for a variety of goals. Given the ever-present threat of wildfire in the summer and fall months in the Sierra foothills, many landowners and land managers are considering hiring targeted grazing contractors to help manage wildfire fuel loads.
Using ruminants to manage fuel loads through targeted grazing offers a number of important advantages:
- Targeted grazing can be a cost-effective alternative for reducing fine and ladder fuels over large and rugged landscapes that may be inaccessible for equipment or hand crews.
- Targeted grazing is especially effective at maintaining fuel reduction treatments like shaded fuel breaks.
- Unlike many treatment methods, targeted grazing actually removes fuel from the landscape - the wildfire fuels are removed by the grazing/browsing livestock.
- Targeted grazing contractors can often provide all necessary infrastructure (fencing, livestock water, predator protection, etc.).
By managing the type and number of animals, the duration of grazing, the season and frequency of grazing, and the spatial distribution of livestock, targeted grazing can help landowners and managers achieve a variety of land management goals.
Where is Targeted Grazing Effective?
Well-managed targeted grazing can be used to address site-specific landscape goals. For example, targeted grazing can impact specific invasive weeds (like yellow starthistle, medusahead or Himalayan blackberries). By controlling competing vegetation at crtical times, targeted grazing can enhance habitat restoration efforts. Finally, targeted grazing can reduce fine fuels and ladder fuels to reduce wildfire danger in a variety of environments.
Typically, targeted grazing is a cost-effective vegetation management alternative where other options are ineffective. Specifically, targeted grazing can be more cost effective on landscapes that are too steep, rocky or remote for conventional vegetation management (like mowing or chemical treatment), or in the urban-wildland interface where burning is not an option.
Managing Animal Impacts
Grazing livestock have three basic impacts on the landscape. They consume vegetation through grazing, they trample vegetation (which can facilitate the breakdown of plant carbon in the soil and modify wildfire fuel profiles), and they transfer nutrients through defecation and urination. Targeted grazing uses all three impacts to accomplish specific vegetation management goals.
Targeted grazing contractors also have a solid understanding of the growth characteristics and vulnerabilities of specific target vegetation. For example, grazing yellow starthistle with sheep or goats during the bolt stage (April to June, usually), can dramatically reduce seed production. Browsing Himalayan blackberries in the fall as the plants are going dormant can stress root systems at a key period.
Timing of targeted grazing for fuel reduction is also important. To reduce the potential for re-growth, fuel reduction grazing should be done after the last spring rain. Since the nutritional quality of annual grasslands typically declines rapidly at this time of year, targeted grazers may need to provide supplemental nutrition to ensure appropriate impact to targeted vegetation. In some instances, cattle may be the most appropriate species for particular projects.
Why Pay Someone to Graze? Isn't Free Grass Enough?!
Targeted grazing is a very different business model than simply grazing for livestock production. Effective targeted grazing focuses on impacting target vegetation at exactly the right time for specific landscape or vegetation goals. Traditional livestock production, on the other hand, focuses on putting weight on animals or increasing reproductive success. Traditional livestock operations generate income from the sale of animals and animal products; these operations focus on body condition and the nutritional status of the animals at specific production stages. Targeted grazers generate income from vegetation management services; these operations may accept a drop in body condition or reproductive success to achieve desired impacts to low quality forage as long as this service is paid for.
Unlike equipment, which can be parked when not in use, livestock must be fed before they arrive on your property and after they leave. Part of the service that targeted grazing companies provide is the logistical planning necessary to keep their livestock "employed" throughout the grazing season.
Goals are Important!
Realistic landowner and land manager goals are important for successful targeted grazing applications. Targeted grazing is often a long-term approach that addresses prior problems. For example, invasive weeds may be symptomatic of a long-term lack of management. A single targeted grazing project is unlikely to address these long-term symptoms; a multi-year approach will likely be necessary to improve ecological function and reduce the weed seedbank. Recognizing this, many targeted grazing contractors will reduce their annual per acre charges in exchange for multi-year contracts.
Expectations are also important. Landowners who expect a uniform appearance to land treated with grazing (as if the land had been mowed) will likely be disappointed; grazing often leaves a patchy appearance on the landscape. Furthermore, grazing does not often provide the immediate visual effects of chemical treatment, mastication, or mowing. Vegetation treated with herbicide, for example, often shows immediate impact; grazing is a long-term management technique.
Finally, timing is critical. If targeted grazing occurs too early in the season, soil moisture may be sufficient for the targeted vegetation to re-grow. On the other hand, the palatability of annual grasses and weed species may decline as these plants mature. Contractors often provide supplemental nutrition and other management techniques to impact this lower quality forage at the optimal time.
What to look for in a Targeted Grazing Contractor
Targeted grazing companies are service providers. Consequently, experience, responsiveness, and attention to detail are critical. Consumers should look for companies with experience in grazing projects in similar environments and situations. Ask potential contractors about their experience level – and ask for references.
Targeted grazing may not be the least costly vegetation management option (compared to mowing or herbicide treatment). As outlined above, targeted grazing is often the best alternative where other treatments aren't possible.
Most targeted grazing contractors will provide an estimate on a per acre basis, allowing consumers to compare targeted grazing to other vegetation management options. In addition, contractors will provide an estimate of the project start date and duration. These estimates can be somewhat uncertain depending on year-to-year changes in vegetation quantity.There are a variety of factors that impact the cost of a particular targeted grazing project, including:
- Relative ease (or difficulty) of setting up infrastructure, including loading and unloading facilities. Projects in steep or difficult-to-access terrain require more labor (and, therefore, are typically more costly).
- Access to livestock water. Easily accessible water can make the project less costly; projects without access to water may require the contractor to haul water to the livestock.
- Other risks, like vandalism, toxic plants, or proximity to high-value landscaping may increase the cost.
- Multi-year contracts are typically cheaper on a per acre basis. Livestock and targeted grazing staff become more accustomed to a particular property (and therefore more efficient) if the contract is for multiple years.
- Headache factors – like free-roaming pet dogs or neighbors who object to livestock or livestock guardian dogs – can increase the cost of a project.
Landowners and managers should contact targeted grazing contractors well in advance of the desired project start date. Targeted grazing contractors are busiest during the spring and early summer months; scheduling these jobs typically occurs in during the prior fall and winter.
Targeted grazing can be a highly effective way to reduce fuel loads, control invasive weeds, and manage ecologically sensitive landscapes. Livestock be an economical and eco-friendly way to manage vegetation on landscapes where equipment is impractical. For a list of local and regional targeted grazing contractors, click here!
If you are a targeted grazing contractor who does work in Placer, Nevada, Sutter or Yuba Counties, please email your information to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a grazer of sheep, at least from a forage management perspective, I live by the rule, "If the worst might happen, it probably will." A corollary to this rule is that pessimists are often pleasantly surprised. As a somewhat pessimistic rancher, I'm pleasantly surprised when we get fall rains and green grass before Halloween!
My pessimism manifests itself in a variety of ways. Like many ranchers, one of my go-to drought preparation tools is to use a conservative stocking rate. We maintain the number of animals that we know can graze even in a dry year, rather than permanently stocking for the best years. We can always adjust our stocking rate up when we have lots of grass (by purchasing feeder lambs or grazing someone else's sheep). This also means that we save some of the grass that grows each spring to come back to in the fall - this dry forage is the buffer that ensures we can carry our livestock through until the grass starts to grow again.
But this dry forage can represent a fire hazard in the summer and early autumn months. By consuming grass, broadleaf plants and brush, grazing and browsing livestock can help reduce fire risk by removing or modifying these fine fuels. For some, biomass utilization conjures images of high-tech power plants utilizing wood chips to generate electricity; for me, biomass utilization means that livestock eat plants; plants that might otherwise burn in the summer and fall.
These differing perspectives on the value of (or threat from) dry forage set up potential conflicts between grazing tenants and grazing landlords. The tenant, by necessity, wants to save grass for fall (a "non-rainy day" fund of sorts); the landlord wants to reduce fire danger. How do we meet the needs of both parties?
I'm not certain that I've figured out the answer to this conundrum, but perhaps our experience in managing our sheep this summer and fall might shed some light on one approach. After talking with the community that owns our winter grazing land, we weaned our lambs 3-4 weeks earlier than normal so that we could move ewes back to dry forage (dry ewes have significantly lower nutritional demands than lactating ewes or growing lambs). With input from the homeowners, we focused our summer grazing on the most vulnerable areas - south-facing slopes adjacent to homes, roadsides where fires could start, and weed-infested areas that needed summer grazing impact.
A careful accounting of our year suggests that our efforts, while beneficial to the neighborhood, were costly to us. Our early-weaned lambs were lighter than usual when we sold them, which meant lower income. Our replacement ewe lambs haven't grown as well as we expected. Our ewes needed supplemental protein (to allow them to digest dry grass) for 3-4 weeks longer than normal, which meant higher expenses. In other words, it cost us money to manage someone else's fuel loading problem.
These economic impacts are even more pronounced for cattle producers. Since sheep and goats have much shorter gestation periods, we typically have a 2-3 month window where their nutritional requirements are quite low - we can push them to manage dry forage and not impact next year's lamb or kid crop. Cattle, on the other hand, must re-breed 85-90 days after they deliver their calf - which makes nutrition between this year's calving and breeding for next year's calf crop a much more critical consideration.
Timing is also critical. In my experience, the critical time for reducing fuel loads with grazing is late spring and early summer - after the last rain but before the forage becomes tender dry. In reality, this means we need to cover lots of ground in a 4-6 week period - and few of us have enough livestock at that point in the grazing year to move that quickly. The challenge is further complicated by the fact that our annual grasses are less palatable at this growth stage.
Ultimately, grazing can be an incredibly important tool in reducing fire danger in our Mediterranean climate. Using this tool effectively, however, has value (and costs) - just like any other fuel-load reduction tool. As a rancher, I want to make sure I have some dry grass to come back to in the fall. This doesn't solve the fuel-loading problem; my community's fuel load is my fall forage. We need to re-think our grazing arrangements to reflect this reality!