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.
Note: This post was adapted from my Foothill Agrarian blog.
I've read a number of Twitter threads over the last six weeks that have been focused on supporting local farmers and ranchers during the COVID-19 crisis. I think this is great! Anything that refocuses our food buying habits on local producers is positive, in my opinion. But even at the local level, our food system is a complex network of relationships, business and otherwise. And producing meat, especially pork, lamb, and beef, is even more complicated - by regulations, as well as by basic biology. I thought it might be useful to walk through my own decision-making process when it comes to how we market our lambs.
Fundamentally, we are in the business of harvesting grass and other vegetation with sheep. Through the miracle of rumination, our sheep are able to turn this forage into muscle, fat, bone, fiber, and milk. When it comes right down to it, we're in the business of turning the products of photosynthesis into meat and wool.
As ranchers know, not all grass (or broadleaf forages) are created equal - nor are they of equal nutritional value all through the year. As grazers, we must be concerned with both quantity and quality when it comes to creating an annual forage budget. And we must think about matching our production cycle with our forage availability - in other words, we need to balance supply and demand.
From a quantitative perspective, we have an abundance of green, nutritious forage (in most years) from March through mid-May on our unirrigated rangelands, and from April through late June on our irrigated pasture. After the "summer slump" (when temperatures are too warm for our cool-season forages like orchard grass and clover), we get a second (although lesser) peak in forge production in the late summer and early fall. The most challenging time for us here in the Sierra foothills and Sacramento Valley is mid-autumn through mid-winter - in Auburn, our irrigation water ends on October 15, so we must conserve last year's dead grass until the autumn rains germinate the forage on our annual rangelands.
In terms of quality, we focus largely on protein. The rumen microbes that break down cellulose and provide our animals with energy need at least 7-8 percent protein in the forage the sheep are consuming. Green forage is much higher in protein (typically) than dry grass - the forages on our annual rangelands and irrigated pastures right now (late April) are 14-20 percent protein; the dry grass that our ewes graze in July and August are 4-6 percent protein.
On the demand side of the equation, our forage demand (both in terms of quality and quantity) peaks as our ewes give birth and nurse their lambs. Non-lactating ewes have much lower feed demands - that's why we can graze them on dry annual grass in mid-summer. Growing lambs, on the other hand, need the most nutritious forage we can provide - they need energy and protein to grow muscle, bone, fat, and wool. Since we wean our lambs in mid-June at 65-70 pounds, this means that any lambs we plan to keep and finish on grass (at 100-110 pounds) need the highest quality forage we can grow. And we have a second (albeit) lower peak in nutritional demand in September, when we bring our ewes back to irrigated pasture to get them ready for breeding season.
Regardless of the forage type (green or dry rangeland forage or irrigated forage), we boil the considerations I've outlined into an estimate of sheep days per acre. This is sheepherder talk for estimating how many sheep one acre of forage will support for one day (cattle producers can do the same kind of estimate - one cow day's worth of forage will feed 5-6 sheep!).
Last summer, we grew (and harvested with sheep) just over 18,000 sheep days of irrigated pasture forage. If we divide this number by the days in our irrigation season (180 days, to keep the math simple), we see that we can graze 100 head of sheep on our pasture for the duration of the irrigation season. Let's break this down a bit further:
- From April 15 to June 15, we grazed 80 lactating ewes, 10 replacement ewes, and 110 lambs on our irrigated pasture. Based on how much each of these classes of animals consume, we estimate that we harvested about 9,000 sheep days in that two-month period.
- Once we weaned the lambs, we sold all but 35 of them (the sheep we kept included 20 replacement ewe lambs and 15 feeder lambs that we wanted to finish on grass). These sheep remained on irrigated pasture from June 15 through August 31 (for our purposes, let's say 75 days). These sheep consumed 2,625 sheep days worth of forage.
- From September 1 through the end of irrigation season on October 15, we had all of our sheep (ewes, replacement ewe lambs, and feeder lambs) on irrigated pasture - a total of 120 head. During this period, we harvested another 5,400 sheep days of forage.
- After the end of irrigation season, we had approximately 975 sheep days of forage left - with 120 head of sheep in our flock, this meant we had just over 8 days of grazing left on our irrigated pasture after the water turned off.
So how did a blog post about selling meat end up looking at grazing math?! Let's say that we wanted to direct market more lamb as individual cuts of meat (that is, finished and processed lamb). For example, what if we wanted to finish and direct market 75 lambs - could we do it with our current forage resources? From June 15 through the end of irrigation season, these 75 lambs would require 9,000 sheep days of our best forage. Since we'd already used 9,000 sheep days up to June 15, these lambs would require every blade of grass we could grow after weaning. We would have no grass for growing ewe lambs, nor would we have any grass for our breeding ewes. Our alternatives would be to purchase hay, lease additional irrigated pasture, or reduce the size of our breeding flock. We couldn't simply wake up on June 15 (weaning day) and decide to keep 60 extra lambs because we wanted to sell meat next November instead of feeder lambs next week.
The last issue for me is the added time and cost involved in marketing meat. In a good year, I know I can sell our feeder lambs in late June for $130-150 per head. If I decide to finish them and sell them as meat, I will incur additional costs beyond the cost of feeding these lambs for another 4-5 months. Once they're finished, it will cost me about $150 per lamb to have them harvested and packaged in a form that I can legally sell. I'll have multiple trips to the processor (which take me away from doing work on the ranch). I'll have the time involved in marketing and selling meat (which can be significant). I'll have the cost involved in storing meat. At our scale, I've found that selling meat results in higher gross income, but selling feeder lambs in June results in higher net income. In other words, we're more profitable selling a live feeder lamb in June that we would be selling meat in November.
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!
Direct marketing, for some farmers and ranchers, can be a way to capture more of the consumer dollar. By bypassing the middlemen - wholesalers, distributors, and retailers - direct marketing can allow a producer to receive retail value for his or her product. But direct-market meat is a different story. Direct-market meat requires substantial processing - the harvest and cut-and-wrap services provided by processing facilities and butchers require significant skill and capital investment. Over the last 50 years, we've lost local meat processing capacity - small local butchers simply don't exist in very many places. Many of us assume that increasing this processing capacity would solve the problem. In my experience, the solution isn't quite so simple. As someone who has marketed meat directly to consumers at a modest scale (120+ lambs per year at our peak), I have observed a variety of complicated questions regarding the real issues involved increasing harvest and processing capacity.
As a small producer, I wanted the ability to call a plant one week and deliver animals the next week. However, most of the small plants in our region are fully booked as much as a year out. A new small plant would be similarly impacted eventually – and from the perspective of the plant, it would be easier to have 10 clients bringing 200 steers (or 500 lambs) per year than to have 200 clients bringing 10 steers (or 25 lambs). In my mind, the only way to address this need for scheduling flexibility for the producer would be to build a plant with excess capacity, which is not economically efficient. This excess capacity would allow me to call the plant on Thursday to schedule a harvest, deliver my lambs the following Sunday, and have packaged meat by the next Friday. If the plant were running at capacity, it could not accommodate me.
Seasonality is related issue, in my mind. Grass-fed meat is a great opportunity for some producers, but typically not a year-round product for many small-scale ranchers. What will a new plant do to keep its crew busy on a year-round basis? I think this is another factor that pushes plants to find fewer, larger-scale customers.
Meat processing has largely been organized on a manufacturing model. The plant buys the raw product (livestock), converts it into meat, and then sells it to distributors, wholesalers, consumers, etc. The model we're talking about is a service model – the plant has to make money on the service it provides rather than adding value to product it owns. That's a very different model, one that is a struggle for existing operations (let alone new ones). For example, when we started with our regional processor, we could get a lamb harvested and fabricated for $50/head. The company soon realized that the cost of providing this service was much greater than the cost of the labor involved – they had to deal with 100 or more operations like mine that each wanted to harvest 10-15 head once a month. The cost is now $120-130 depending labeling and other factors. This is reflective of true cost of providing a service rather than selling a product.
Despite the interest in new processing capacity locally, there has not been any significant financial commitment from local citizens or producers towards the construction of a facility. This is where the rubber meets the road. And I suspect that this is the crux of the issue – there are both regulatory and economic barriers to entry in the meat processing business. The low return on investment for a service-oriented meat processing facility may make the economic barriers the more difficult to fix. I think if the economics were positive, we'd see private investment in new USDA-inspected processing capacity.
Alternatively, we may want to consider focusing on the regulatory barriers. Along those lines, a couple of things come to mind for me:
- There are inspection-exemptions for direct-marketed poultry based on scale of operation. In some circumstances, a poultry producer could harvest as many as 20,000 birds a year without USDA inspection and sell the meat directly to end users. No similar exemption currently exists for livestock.
- There was state legislation adopted last year making it legal for cattle producers to sell a live animal and for the buyer to then arrange for harvest and cut-and-wrap. There has been some confusion as to whether this new law applies to other livestock; the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is taking the position that it only applies to cattle since cattle producers pay for an ownership inspection (e.g, brand inspection) at harvest. There is interest among other livestock groups (California Wool Growers, California Pork Producers, etc.) in extending this option to other species.
- CDFA could provide more state inspection (for a fee, perhaps). This could facilitate direct marketing of meat products.
This is probably WAY more information than anyone wants on this topic, but I do think it's important for us to understand the complexity of the issue. I guess I see a couple of important needs:
- Economic analysis and extension – I think UC Cooperative Extension (and others) could help small-scale producers (and large-scale, for that matter) better understand the economics of selling meat versus selling live animals. My very simplistic assumption when I started was that I would be more profitable selling $350 worth of meat than I would be selling a live lamb for $150. Reality was much more complicated. I think there's a need to help folks better understand this question. Producing a finished product (as opposed to a live animal) at scale is a complicated production and economic model for most livestock producers. It requires a very different set of skills.
- Research-to-policy – I also think there is a role for extension and others to help regulators understand the opportunities and barriers involved in direct-market meat production. This runs the gamut from ensuring food safety to understanding economics to quantifying consumer demand.
Many of my extension colleagues - in California and elsewhere - have spent considerable time and effort examining this problem. Their work has been exceptionally valuable - we have a much better understanding of the complexity of these challenges today than I did when I started in the direct-market meat business more than a dozen years ago. Perhaps these questions are part of the maturity process - the early pioneers must expose the weaknesses in the system. Some of these weaknesses are economic; others are regulatory. I'm hopeful that we're making progress towards discerning - and addressing - the most critical barriers.
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.