When we were in the targeted grazing business, I always marveled that many landowners and land managers didn't start thinking about managing their fuel loads until the grasses and other fine fuels really started growing in April. To this day, I still get phone calls and emails in April and May inquiring whether I can provide sheep or goats to reduce someone else's fire danger. Even now, with more producers providing targeted grazing services throughout the state, there simply are not enough livestock in California to treat all of the dangerous fine fuels (what many of us used to call "fall feed"). Consequently, we need to think about where and how we graze strategically - where can we provide the greatest protection to neighborhoods, infrastructure, and even our own farms and ranches?
Every spring, I see a news report where CalFire suggests that we're facing another dangerous fire season. Either we've had lots of precipitation, which means lots of grass (a.k.a., fine fuel), or we've had a dry, warm spring (like this year), which means fire season may start earlier than normal. This week, we're coping with the first heat wave of the summer (even though it's not officially "summer" yet) - which always raises awareness of the fire threat even further. We've even seen the first grass fires in the Sacramento Valley. I know I've started paying more attention to the aircraft flying over our home place - all summer, I glance up to see if it's a fire plane (and if it is, I start looking for smoke on the horizon). Finally, these first hot days remind me that it's time to get serious about our ranch fire plan (click here for a fire planning for ranchers fact sheet).
Now I'm certainly no expert when it comes to fire behavior - that combination of fuels, topography, and weather that drives site-specific wildfire conditions. However, when I look at the areas where we graze our sheep in the summer months, I think this fire behavior triangle is a useful lens. I ask myself the following questions:
- Where are the fine fuels most likely to create a ladder for fire to get into brush or trees?
- Where are the likely ignition sources in this landscape? While I can't necessarily control the natural ignition sources (like lightning), are there other potential sources (like recreation areas, roadways, utility infrastructure)?
- Are there assets in the community or on the particular property that I want to protect from fire? This may include homes, outbuildings, wells, sensitive ecological areas, or other values.
- Are there areas where modifying the fine fuels could slow a fire, giving firefighters a chance to stop it? This relates, at least in part, to the topography of a particular location.
When it comes to this last point, I think it may be useful to think of grazing like we're creating what my forester friends call a shaded fuel break. My friend Allen Edwards, who owns timber land outside of Colfax, had the foresight to construct a shaded fuel break on his property on either side of an access road along the ridge between the American River canyon and Interstate 80. To create the shaded fuel break, Allen removed the ladder fuels under his mature trees (brush, small trees, and limbs on the larger trees). When the 2001 Ponderosa Fire came out of the canyon on a hot August day, his shaded fuel break allowed firefighters to safely make a stand and keep the fire from moving further east and north, into the town of Colfax. In the lower foothills, we may be able to use targeted grazing in similar manner. A combination of grazing and browsing livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats) can modify the fuel load such that fire behavior will change enough to give firefighters a chance. These "grazed" fuel breaks don't necessarily remove all of the flammable vegetation, but grazing impacts (including removal of the vegetation and trampling, which can reduce oxygen circulation within the dry forage) can slow a fire's advance. These types of fuel modifications should be coupled with roads or other access points that allow firefighter access in the event of a fire.
If you're considering using a targeted grazing contractor, click here for a fact sheet. I also have a list of regional targeted grazing contractors available on my website. If you're a rancher who is thinking about adding targeted grazing as an enterprise, here's a short power point on the Principles of Targeted Grazing. If you still have questions, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org./span>/span>
I've kept daily weather records since we moved to Auburn (nineteen years this week, in fact). During that time, we've experienced some exceptionally wet years (2016-17 comes to mind, when we measured almost 63 inches of precipitation), as well as some exceptionally dry years (like 2006-07, when we received just under 20 inches). Other years and specific months stand out, too - like the 14.5 inches we measured in January 2017, or the 0.5 inches we received in December 2013. Unfortunately, February 2020 will go down as one of those stand-out months - we measured a measly 0.03 inches of rain for the entire month.
The current water year (which started in October) was preceded by a wetter-than-normal September (at least here in Auburn). We received better than 2 inches - enough to germinate the grass on our annual rangelands. As often happens when we get early rain, though, we didn't get much to follow up the promising start. From October 1 through November 30, we measured just 0.71 inches. We got back on track in December (with more than 8 inches), but 2020 has been disappointing so far. Through the end of February, the season total was just 56 percent of our long-term average for the date. The March 3 version of the U.S. Drought Map puts all of Placer, Nevada, and Yuba Counties, as well as the eastern portion of Sutter County, in the Moderate Drought category. And the most recent drought outlook from the National Weather Service (see below) suggests that drought will persist or develop in the northern two-thirds of California.
Looking ahead to summer irrigation season, we're fortunate that most of our local water agencies went into the winter with more holdover in their reservoirs than normal. Even so, the latest Sierra snow pack numbers for our region are more depressing than the lack of rain. The central Sierra snow pack is only 38 percent of normal for this date.
I'm not a weather forecaster by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a weather geek. This morning, I looked at the long term average precipitation for March through June in my weather records, which didn't provide much reassurance. Even if we get 75 percent of our average rainfall for the next four months, we'll end the water year with less than 20 inches total. Even with 150 percent of average - a miracle March (and April, May, and June) - we'll end the water year well below our long-term average.
We've definitely seen an impact on the annual rangeland where we winter our sheep west of Auburn. The February 1 forage supply at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in the Yuba County foothills was about 69 percent of normal. I suspect the March 1 measurement won't be much better. While the lack of moisture is concerning, the warm February temperatures have pushed many of the blue oaks to leaf out 3-4 weeks earlier than normal. Last Thursday (before the brief storm over the weekend), I walked through one of the pastures we hadn't grazed yet. The grass was short generally, but I was especially surprised to see the vegetation beneath the oaks starting to wither and die - in the first week of March! This Sunday, after we'd received roughly a third of an inch of rain the day before, I dug a six inch hole to check soil moisture at the root zone of our annual grasses. I'd estimate moisture levels to be at around 25 percent of field capacity - in other words, incredibly dry for early March. No wonder the creeks aren't running!
Most of us will likely have enough grass to get buy this spring, although a lack of stock water could be problematic. I'm more concerned about the potential lack of fall feed. Short grass this spring means we're covering more ground with our sheep. This could mean less dry feed to return to with our sheep after the summer irrigation season ends in October. Our plan is to cull our older and less productive ewes at shearing or weaning. We may even consider selling some of the replacement ewe lambs we'd normally keep.
These conditions call for drastic measures, obviously - and so we've scheduled drought workshops in Grass Valley and Yuba City! Over the last six years, I've attended or helped to organize four or five drought workshops - and it's rained every time!
In all seriousness, in light of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, we are scheduling a Drought Planning for Rangeland Livestock Producers webinar (rather than an in-person workshop) in late March or early April. Stay tuned for details! We'll share results from our 2016 post-drought rancher interviews, feature panel discussions with ranchers and other experts, and discuss ranch-specific goal setting - all focused on coping with what is shaping up to be another drought year.
If you'd like to receive notice of this webinar (and future workshops), contact me at email@example.com.
For many of us in Northern California, the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons are still very fresh in our minds. The late-season fires in Sonoma County in 2017, and the Camp Fire in Butte County in 2018, were among the most destructive deadliest fires in California's history. With above average precipitation - and above average forage growth - ranchers in the Sierra foothills and Sacramento Valley should start working now to prepare for what promises to be another very challenging fire season.
- Near normal temperatures and precipitation through August.
- Above normal snow pack gradually melting through July.
- Weak El Niño continuing through the summer.
- Heavy fine fuel crop [grass!], completely cured in June. Above normal brush growth.
- Below normal amount of summer lightning due to prevailing SW-W flow.
- Normal Significant Fire Potential in May. Above Normal at lower elevations from Sacramento Valley June-August, spreading north and including middle elevations beginning in August. Significant Fire Potential remaining quiet at high elevations.
While many of us have remarked that forage growth on our foothill rangelands seemed late this year, monitoring at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center suggests that we're now above normal - the April 1 forage numbers are about 120 percent of the long term average. This data - as well as the NCGCC predictions above - was generated before the significant rainfall we've received over the last week. While the cooler temperatures and moisture will tamp down fire danger this month, we'll probably see increased fine fuel and brush growth as a result of these May storm systems. In other words, our fire danger will ramp up once the weather turns hot and dry.
At the risk of recycling a blog post from last fire season, here are some actions all of us can take in the coming weeks to prepare for increasing wildfire risk later in the summer:
Developing a Plan
What is at risk in your operation? Do you have livestock in multiple locations? Will you be able to access your home place or rented pastures in the event of a fire? Do you rely on dry forage in the fall before new grass germinates? A ranch wildfire plan should have several main components:
- Protecting Buildings, Infrastructure and Information: All of us should make our home places fire safe! Remove flammable vegetation within 100 feet of homes and other buildings. Don't forget other critical infrastructure like propane tanks, wells, equipment sheds and barns. Also be sure you have protected critical legal documents and insurance information. You should also check CalFire's suggestions for putting together an emergency supply kit (http://www.readyforwildfire.org/Emergency-Supply-Kit/).
- Protecting Forage: Many of us stock our operations conservatively to ensure that we have fall forage for our livestock. You might consider creating fuel breaks to protect this forage. Disking or grading around the perimeter of pastures, or at least adjacent to potential ignition sources, can protect this forage. Another alternative would be to use targeted grazing adjacent to roads or pasture boundaries - this can reduce the fuel load and slow a fire down. The width of any fuel break depends on the fuel type, topography/slope, and potential flame lengths that a fire might generate.
- Protecting Livestock: I try to think ahead of how I might move animals out of harm's way in the event of a fire. Given enough warning, I would either haul livestock away from a fire or herd them to a safe location. Many of us, however, have too many animals to evacuate on short notice. Leaving animals in pasture (or "sheltering in place") might be the only option in many cases. In our operation, I've identified areas like irrigated pastures or areas with little or no vegetation where we could put livestock until a fire passes. If you need to leave animals in place, be sure they have enough feed and water for several days. Will the animals have water if the power goes out? Be sure to take down temporary fences or other hazards that may injure animals as the fire moves through your property.
- Water Supply: Water is critical for protecting our properties and for keeping livestock healthy. Do you have adequate water supplies for wetting down your buildings and facilities, or for directly fighting fire? If you have to pump water, do you have a backup system in case you lose power? Can you provide stock water if the power goes out? You may wish to consider investing in a backup generator and/or additional water storage. Remember, PG&E will likely shut down the power grid during periods of severe fire risk.
- Escape Routes: Ideally, we should all have at least two routes in and out of our ranch properties. We try to think about at least two alternatives for moving our livestock to safety in the event of a fire - and this means loading and unloading facilities, a plan for gathering livestock, and a clear understanding of the road system near our pastures. Narrow roads can be problematic for navigating with stock trailers, especially when fire equipment is also inbound.
- Backup: Obviously, we can't all be on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to a fast-moving fire. Consider working with friends, neighbors or colleagues to have a backup plan to evacuate or otherwise protect your livestock. Consider meeting with your neighbors to go over key livestock facilities, evacuation plans and access routes. Be sure to check in with these backup resources in the event of fire.
- Communication Plans: Do you have phone numbers for the other ranchers in your area? Do you know who runs the cows or sheep next door? Most of us probably do! During fire season, many of us text or call our neighbors when we see smoke. Perhaps it's time to formalize these calling trees. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like help setting up a calling tree for your area. Also, consider communicating with local law enforcement and animal control officials before an emergency occurs - letting these folks know where you have animals may be helpful in accessing your livestock during a fire.
- Situational Awareness: If you're like me, your ear can tell the difference between a fire plane and a regular aircraft. Whenever I'm outside during fire season, I scan the horizon for smoke - especially when I hear fire planes overhead. I carry fire tools and a 5-gallon backpack pump in my truck during fire season, as well, and I'm constantly aware of my surroundings when I'm working in dry grass or brushland.
Last summer, I put together a fillable form to help livestock producers write down a simple wildfire plan. In our sheep operation, I printed a copy of this plan for everyone associated with our ranch (family members, landlords, co-owners). I also shared our plan with our local animal control and law enforcement. The plan stayed in my truck until fire season ended. Thankfully, we didn't need to implement our plan - but the planning process itself instigated useful conversations within our business and with our neighbors. Click on the links below for more information:
Finally, I want to hear from you! What steps are you taking to prepare for wildfire and other emergencies in your ranching operation! We can all learn from one another - please share your plans in the comment section!
Whenever I'm asked to talk about livestock and predators with a non-ranching group, I poll the audience about what predators give me the most problems in our sheep operation. Most say coyotes, some say mountain lions; inevitably, a few say black bears. And they're almost always surprised when I explain that the single worst depredation loss we've ever suffered was to a neighbor's dog.
We have grazed our sheep in some fairly remote environments. From my own observations (and from looking at game camera photos as part of my livestock guardian dog research), I know that coyotes, foxes and bobcats do exist in close proximity to our sheep. I'm also certain there are mountain lions in our environment. But early one morning eight years ago, a neighbor's dog came into our back field at home (where we had just a handful of sheep, but no guardian dog) and killed four ewes. Another neighbor saw the attack and let us know. When I spoke with the dog's owner, he said, "My dog would never do that," and yet we found blood and wool in the dog's teeth.
Domestic dogs seem to chase livestock for enjoyment rather than out of hunger. In addition, dogs tend not to be very skilled at killing livestock. Consequently, the damage dogs inflict is often far more gruesome than that inflicted by a wild predator. As with wild predators, some of the impacts from a dog attack may be indirect - that is, the stress of the attack may cause cows (or ewes or does) to abort their pregnancies. Feeder livestock that are worried by dogs may not gain as much weight. I've had to repair or replace electric fencing through which my sheep ran while being chased by a dog.
Sections 31102, 31103, and 31501 of California Food and Agriculture Code address the issue of dogs worrying livestock. These provisions of California state law provide that:
- A person may kill any dog "found in the act of killing, wounding, or persistently pursuing or worrying livestock or poultry," or with proof that "conclusively shows that the dog has recently engaged in killing or wounding livestock or poultry," on land that the owner of the dog does not own or possess;
- A person may seize or kill "any dog entering any enclosed or unenclosed property upon which livestock or poultry are confined";
- The livestock owner "may recover as liquidated damages from the owner of the dog twice the actual value of the animals killed or twice the value of the damages sustained by reason of the injuries"; and
- The livestock owner is not subject to any criminal or civil action as a consequence of killing or seizing a dog in these circumstances.
In addition to these state laws, most counties have additional ordinances permitting animal control officers to capture or kill dogs found to be killing, injuring, worrying, or pursuing livestock.
While I find it helpful to understand the legal aspects of this problem, the cold, objective language of the law doesn't necessarily make my emotional response any easier. I love dogs; indeed, I rely on border collies and livestock guardian dogs every day. My border collies are also my pets - and I would hate to think about someone else killing my pet. But I also value my sheep - I think all of us who raise livestock have an emotional attachment to the animals in our care. To further complicate these matters, the dogs that we find chasing our livestock often belong to neighbors - people who we see at the mailbox or whose kids go to the same school as our kids. For me, I guess, the question becomes, "How do we prevent this from happening?"
Yesterday, I took a call from a friend who had just caught a neighbor's dog chasing his heifers. He knew the dog, and he knew the dog's owner. He was able to have a rational but direct conversation with the dog's owner about the problem, about the extent of her liability, and about what he would be forced to do if the dog continued to be a problem. He reported that the conversation was productive (largely, I expect, because he controlled his emotions). As I thought about his example over the last 24 hours, as well as my own experiences with this problem, I've developed some ideas about how we can (hopefully) avoid these problems. I hope others will share ideas as well!
For Livestock Producers
- We should get to know our neighbors and their dogs. Since many of us graze livestock on leased properties some distance from our home places, these neighbors can help watch for strange dogs (and other problems). I've started to try to introduce myself to neighbors when we take on a new grazing lease. Many neighbors now call me if they notice something unusual.
- Explain to neighbors, dog-walkers who may not have their dogs on a leash, and others, that pet dogs can (and will) chase livestock if given the opportunity. What may seem like a "cute" game is in fact stressing our livestock. We should take the time to describe how this stress affects the well-being of our animals. Consider putting up a sign asking folks to keep their dogs on a leash.
- If an attack happens, I hope I can follow my friend's example. These are difficult conversations; remaining calm while explaining the impacts - and noting what will happen if the problem continues - is critical.
- Get to know the animal control officers who work in your area - they can often provide help with these issues. I sometimes get a call from our local officers when there has been a problem dog in the vicinity of our sheep.
For Dog Owners
- If you're walking your dog close to livestock, please keep it on a leash.
- If your dog gets away from you (or gets out of your yard) and chases livestock, please make an effort to contact the livestock owner. Taking responsibility is an important first step towards starting an objective conversation.
- Keep an eye out for stray dogs in your neighborhood, especially if there are livestock grazing nearby. Let animal control and the livestock owner know about the dog, if possible.
If you have questions about this issue, contact your local animal control department or agriculture department at the numbers below.
|County||Agriculture Department||Animal Control|
|Nevada||(530) 470-2690||(530) 273-2179|
|Placer||(530) 889-7372||(530) 886-5541|
|Sutter||(530) 822-7500||(530) 822-7375|
|Yuba||(530) 749-5400||(530) 741-6478|
My friend Ryan Mahoney, who manages Emigh Livestock near Dixon, California, has embraced a variety of new ranching technologies. He's invested in electronic identification systems, automated weighing and sorting systems, and other technology designed to utilize critical resources (land, labor, and water, especially) more efficiently. But while Emigh Livestock is definitely a larger-scale operation, Ryan also stresses the importance of human intelligence and experience when it comes to raising sheep and cattle. "Nothing can ever replace the 'eye of the shepherd,'" Ryan told me recently. "but these technologies can help us make better decisions - and make our operation more profitable in the long run."
Most of our foothill ranches operate at a smaller scale, but the combination of the "eye of the rancher" and new technology is equally important. For example, we've started using electronic identification systems to make better decisions about our sheep while reducing labor at lambing and weaning (see Electronic ID Systems: Can They Pay for Small-Scale Livestock Producers?). We rely on portable electric fencing systems to allow us to graze rangeland and irrigated pasture that we couldn't safely access otherwise. And for the last several years, we've used Facebook and Google Calendar and Google Earth to track our management activities (see My Virtual Day Book).
Several years ago (before I became the livestock and natural resources advisor for Placer, Nevada, Sutter and Yuba Counties), a group of us formed what we somewhat jokingly called the Foothill Grazing Geeks. Our common interest was (and still is!) learning all we can about grazing livestock in the Sierra Foothills. We meet on a somewhat regular basis on each others' ranching operations. The host ranch sets the agenda (which usually includes both new ideas and nagging questions about some aspect of grazing cattle, sheep or goats). Occasionally, we even organize field trips to visit operations outside of the foothills. Almost always, we talk (at least tangentially) about some of the technology we use. And as the photo at the top of this post suggests, we spend a great deal of time staring at grass!
During the course of these visits, I've learned about using a trash pump to fill portable water tanks to haul water to livestock (from Brad and Alana Fowler at The Goat Works). I've learned about pod irrigation systems and pasture mapping applications (from Rob Thompson at Legacy Ranching and Spencer and Melissa Tregilgas at Free Hand Farm). I've learned about single-wire electric fencing (from Albert and Connie Scheiber at Scheiber Ranch). I've learned about new forage varieties and the potential for embryo transfer to accelerate genetic progress (from Joe Fischer at Bruin Ranch). I've seen first hand how drones can help manage and monitor grazing (from Roger Ingram at Flying Mule Farm).
Each of these ranchers has embraced technology as a way to improve efficiency and manage information more effectively. Even so, the "eye of the rancher" is still important in their operations. Real-world experience - and the powers of observation - are still critical in the day-to-day management of grazing animals. Technology can help, but there does not seem to be any short cut to developing this "eye" - experience is a journey all ranchers must take. I still rely on my experience to estimate the number of grazing days in a particular pasture, or to notice an individual animal that looks a little off. Technology has helped to train the eye of this shepherd, but it hasn't replaced it!
On October 30, our Foothill Grazing Geeks group will co-host a Grazing Technology Field Day in Auburn (from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.). Each Geek will show case specific technology - but we're hoping that others will share their favorite grazing and ranching tech as well! The event is free-of-charge, but we are asking folks to RSVP here (after all, we need to know how much coffee and how many donuts we'll need to provide!). Hope to see you there!