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!
As we move into the dry season on our annual rangelands, I thought it might be useful to post a few resources on feeding supplemental protein to livestock to maintain forage intake!
Annual Rangeland Forage Quality (UCANR Publication 8022) - this 2001 publication provides a useful overview of the seasonal and annual variation in forage quality in our foothill region.
Cow Supplementation: Getting the Best Bang for your Buck (Proceedings, The Range Beef Cow Symposium XXIV, by K.C. Olson, 2015) - this is a great overview of ruminant nutrition and supplementation strategies, along with some basic economic considerations.
Alternative Protein Supplementation (Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center Drought Workshop, 2014) - this video of a talk by Dr. Roberto Sainz from UC Davis offers some interesting alternatives to rangeland protein supplementation.
Essential Nutrient Requirements of Sheep (New Mexico State University) - a useful overview of sheep nutritional requirements, including protein supplementation strategies.
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.
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!
April 27-28, 2018
UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center
8279 Scott Forbes Rd., Browns Valley, California
This two-day, hands-on grazing school will provide participants with practical, field-based experience in applying the principles of managed grazing on rangeland and irrigated pasture. Working in teams, participants will learn about grazing planning, paddock design, range ecology, estimating carrying capacity, range ecology and monitoring, and drought planning.
Day 1 (Friday, April 27 - 8:30 a.m. - 7 p.m.)
- Principles of Managed Grazing
- Stocking Rate and Carrying Capacity Field Activity
- Electric Fencing Basics Field Activity
- Practical Grazing Management Field Activity
- Range Ecology and Monitoring
- Feed Budgeting and Drought Planning
Day 2 (Saturday, April 28 - 8:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.)
- Nutrition and Supplementation
- Pasture Walk and Assessment
- Beef Cattle Economics 101
- Putting the Principles into Practice - Action Planning for Your Ranch
Cost: $180 (includes meals and course materials). No refunds - your payment guarantees your space!
Hotels are available in Grass Valley and Marysville. Dormitory and camping spaces are available on a first-come-first-served basis at SFREC.
For more information: