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.
|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|