Register now for the Sierra Foothills Cattle & Sheep Grazing School!
If you look back far enough in the histories of most foothill cattle operations, you'll find... SHEEP! Believe it or not, many long-time cattle operations also had sheep at one time. And today, there's increased interest in using multi-species grazing as a risk management and diversification tool!
If you're interested in learning more about managing both sheep and cattle on rangeland or pasture, sign up for the Sierra Foothills Cattle & Sheep Grazing School, July 14-15, 2022, in Auburn, California! This two-day school will include information - and hands-on experience - in grazing planning, estimating carrying capacity, fencing systems, stockmanship and husbandry practices, cattle and sheep nutrition, and economics! Our instructors include Dan Macon (UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor), Joe Fischer (Bruin Ranch), and Ryan Mahoney (R. Emigh Livestock). Every student will have an opportunity to graze both sheep and cattle!
Tuition for the 2-day program is $200, which includes meals and course materials. Producer scholarships are available through Sierra Harvest.
For more information, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 889-7385. Let's get out there and graze!
I invite you to travel back in time with me - clear back to late October 2021! We'd measured more than 10 inches of rain in Auburn, and we could see the first green shoots of grass emerging through the dry forage. While November was slightly disappointing from a precipitation perspective, we measured more than 12 inches of rain in December - capped off by a crazy, wet, and cold storm just before the first of the year. I'm sure most of us were celebrating what looked like a great feed year when we rang in 2022. But then the spigot shut off - here in Auburn, we've measured just 1.77 inches of rain since January 1 - the driest start to the calendar year in the 20+ years I've kept records. Combining this lack of moisture with warmer-than-normal temperatures and unusual (at least for winter) dry north wind, we are squarely back in drought conditions. In many ways, we seem to be experiencing a more severe drought than last year, at least on our foothill annual rangelands.
Ranchers know that drought is more than just a lack of precipitation. Low rainfall years, provided the storms come at the right time, can produce above-average forage. This year, however, the warm temperatures have brought oaks and other vegetation out of dormancy earlier than normal - this early onset of the growing season in our oak woodlands has increasedevapotranspiration (or soil-water demand). The north winds haven't helped. Before we received an inch of rain on March 14-15, I checked soil moisture in Auburn - and found it to be less than 20% (more like May than March). The rain gave us a short boost, but by the end of last week, soil moisture was back around 25%.
Ourrangeland vegetation reflects these poor growing conditions. Our annual grasses andforbs, by definition, must produce seed every year. In dry conditions, this means that they reproduce and turn brown early and at a shorter stature. Where our sheep are grazing just west of Auburn, I've seen soft chess and annualryegrass headed out this week - a good 30 days early. In a good year, the soft chess will be as much as 18 inches tall; this year, it's done growing at 6 inches. Many of our importantbroadleaf forage plants are maturing equally early - I'm seeing vetch dying back on our shallower soils, and thefilaree is already in the late bloom stage, as well.
These are all red flags from a forage quantity perspective - shorter feed this spring means less residual feed to return to next fall. But early maturity also compresses our forage quality window. Many of us expect a 45-60 day period when we have high quality forage on our annual rangelands - and we set our production calendars accordingly. As these grasses and forbs mature, they decline in quality - providing less protein and energy to our grazing animals. They also become less palatable - in other words, they don't taste as good and they don't provide as much nutrition. The graph below demonstrates that crude protein levels in annual grasses drop below cow maintenance levels between the late flowering and maintenance stages (which we're approaching). If we're trying to put weight on animals, protein levels are deficient by the time we reach the early flowering stage. For more information, check out this ANR Publication (Annual Rangeland Forage Quality).
We're still hopeful that the significant snow pack we built up in December will mean we'll have adequate irrigation water here in the foothills - other regions in the state aren't so fortunate. Given the exceptionally dry conditions, however, I expect we'll need to make at least 2 irrigation rotations over our irrigated pastures to rebuild soil moisture and start growing forage. For us, this means we won't start regrowing irrigated pasture forage following our first graze periods until the end of May.
In light of these impacts, what are some of the strategies we should consider going forward? The basic premise of most drought management strategies is to increase our forage supply (by buying hay or other feed, irrigated early, or leasing new pasture) or reducing our forage demand (by selling livestock or weaning early). Check out our Drought Decision Making Tool for Ranchers for information on how to analyze the economics of these options! This page also includes a new bulletin on early weaning.
As far along as our annual rangeland vegetation is today, another rain won't do us much good - other than perhaps grow some summer annual weeds that may have some grazing value. Rain wouldgive our irrigated pastures a boost, however - at least here in the foothills. We'll see what April brings!
I feel like I've said this every year for the last decade, but what a strange weather year we're having! Here in Auburn, we experienced the most intense rainfall in October that I can remember (with more than 8 inches falling in a 48 hour period). November was drier than "normal," but December turned wet and cold. We measured more than 12 inches of precipitation in December at home (including a bit of snow). Just up the hill from us though, record amounts of snow fell - the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab on Donner Summit set an all-time record for December with 193.7 inches of snow!
Unfortunately, the Snow Lab set another record yesterday - the longest consecutive period without measurable precipitation during meteorological winter (32 days) since the lab was established in 1971. Today, February 10, marks the 33rd day without rainfall here in Auburn. And our high temperature today is supposed to be over 70F. Despite the promising start we saw in October, we're once again dusting off the drought plan for our small sheep operation.
Every drought, obviously is different - as is every year within a multi-year drought. During the winter of 2013-2014, for example, we went 52 days (from early December through the end of January) without rainfall in Auburn - but we measured more than 14 inches in February and March. In December 2014, we measured over 11 inches - followed by 0.01 inches in January 2014. In the first year of the current drought (2020), we had just 0.03 inches in February, but measured more than 12 inches from March through May. Last year, in contrast, we received just 0.18 inches after April 1.
But rangeland drought is more than simply a lack of precipitation, and rangeland forage production depends on many factors in addition to rainfall. Critically, drought is the interaction of lack of precipitation and soil-moisture deficit driven by high temperatures and increased evapotranspiration. On California's annual rangelands, seasonality of precipitation and climate-soil interactions result different drought impacts depending on the season. While fall drought can obviously lead to winter and spring drought, I found it helpful to think about our own drought plan based on the different impacts we see depending on the time of year.
- Fall Drought: driven by a lack of fall precipitation, fall drought causes a delay in germination on annual rangelands. This can lead to a lack of fall and winter forage (both in terms of quality and quantity), as well as a lack of stock water. Our 2013-2014 drought is a good example.
- Winter Drought: To some extent, California's annual rangelands experience some degree of winter drought most years - the days get too short, and the air and soil temperatures get too cold, to grow much forage. When combined with a lack of precipitation (like in January 2015), this can lead to a lack of both forage and stock water in winter and early spring.
- Spring Drought: This type of drought is driven by a lack of precipitation and warm temperatures in late winter and early spring, leading to increased evapotranspiration and decreased soil moisture. We see perennial plants (including oaks and brush) come out of dormancy early. We may also see our rangeland forage head out early, which results in a decrease in forage quality. Lack of precipitation and dry soils can also result in decreased runoff, impacting stock water availability. Finally, a dry spring (combined with seasonal overstocking of our ranch) can lead to a lack of dry forage next fall. For me, the dry spring of 2021 is a perfect example.
- Summer Drought: While a lack of precipitation is normal in Mediterranean climates like ours, summer drought from a forage perspective is driven by lack of winter snow pack and resulting cuts in irrigation water, or decreases in mountain forage production. With our record low snow pack in 2015, many ranchers didn't receive normal irrigation deliveries. The lack of snow and rapid snow melt last year (2021) meant many high-country grazers in the Sierra had their grazing seasons slashed.
So what does this drought taxonomy mean for our sheep outfit? What kinds of strategies are available to us given the particular conditions in February 2022?
I shared the descriptions above with my colleague Josh Davy (who's the livestock and range advisor for Glenn, Colusa, and Tehama Counties, and who runs his own cattle). He said, "My starting point is to set my stocking rate so that I can survive December and January - those are the toughest months, feed-wise." We've done the same thing - the 2012-2016 drought taught us to be conservative with our stocking rate. Last September, when we turned in the rams, we kept the number of ewes and replacement ewe lambs we felt like we could graze through the winter.
But what about now? We'll start lambing within the next week - which means we've put a year's worth of expense into these ewes to get them to the point where they'll give us something to sell this summer. We're continually looking at the amount of forage ahead of us as we approach our lambing season; we're also looking back to see if the pastures we've already grazed are regrowing. This week's planning meeting was depressing: the forage we've grazed since late December isn't regrowing at all, which means we'll need to rely on what we have left (if it stays dry). And what we have left will only feed the ewes through the third or fourth week of March - we'll be short about 3 weeks (we will move to another ranch in mid-April).
Ultimately, we have two options - we can increase our forage supply (by purchasing hay or grazing difficult-to-access pastures), or we can decrease our forage demand (by selling sheep). As with any plan, there are tradeoffs to both of these approaches - we can increase costs and/or labor, or we can decrease our income. For now, we've settled on the following strategies:
- We'll graze hard-to-fence pastures and move sheep more frequently if necessary up through the first week of lambing. Every extra day we buy now will give us one more day of forage in late March. As the ewes drop more lambs, however, they'll become more difficult to move (which requires more time and effort on our part). Since we typically don't reach peak lamb drop until early March, this gives us a window of about 3 weeks to access these difficult pastures.
- Based on past experience 85-95 percent of our ewes will have lambed by March 31. We may have a few stragglers, but we should be close to finished. If we haven't had an inch of rain by then, and if there's no rain in the 14-day forecast, we'll sort off the ewes that haven't lambed and sell them. Late lambs won't wean as heavy, which means they won't generate as much income. Selling the ewes will reduce our forage demand.
- Based on these strategies, if we get to late March or early April and find we don't have adequate forage for the pairs (ewes and lambs), we'll feed hay until we ship the sheep home for shearing in the third week of April. From that point, we think we'll have enough forage to make it till weaning in late June.
- Finally, if it stays dry through the rest of the growing season, we'll look at further de-stocking to conserve our fall forage. We might sell more ewes, or we might wean the lambs early. We might do both.
These are not easy decisions - ever! But I find that they are easier when we've talked through them and weighed all of our options. And I also find that setting some key dates for implementation helps take the emotion out of the decision - and holds me accountable. Uncertainty, for me, is more unpleasant than making a difficult decision.
Help Us Pilot-Test a New Decision-Support Tool!
By now, most of us are well aware that we're in the second year of another significant drought. A growing proportion of Northern California is classified as D4 by the U.S. Drought Monitor. And we're coming off one of the driest rainy seasons in memory. But while many producers have already started implementing drought plans, others are still considering their options. As we learned from the 2012-2016 drought, these decisions are difficult but critical to the long-term viability of our ranches.
To this end, we've created a Drought Strategies Decision Support Tool that will help producers walk through specific strategies to deal with on-the-ground conditions. This tool will guide you through developing your forage outlook for the next 12 months. It will also help you relate your reactive strategies (like weaning your calves or lambs early or selling breeding-age females) with your ranch goals and proactive drought strategies. In addition, the tool is intended to help you establish a critical date by which you will take action. Finally, we've created some simple spreadsheets (available here) to help you analyze the costs and benefits of several key strategies (like feeding hay, weaning early, or selling livestock).
During the last drought, Glenn Nader, livestock advisor emeritus for Sutter and Yuba, said, “The only way you're gonna survive a drought is to make decisions.” We hope this tool will help you do so! But we need your help! We hope you'll use this tool to hone your own drought strategies. We also hope you'll give us feedback! How can we make this tool more useful? What are we missing?
If you'd like to set up an appointment to walk through this together, please contact us (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). We're happy to go over it on the phone or schedule a ranch call. We look forward to hearing from you!
If you've read my blog posts or newsletters over the last four years, you'll probably recognize that drought is a recurring theme - in my writing, in my extension programming, and in my research. Having ranched through the 2012-2015 drought, I tend to get a little nervous whenever we go through an unusual dry and/or warm stretch during our "normal" rainy season. And over the last six months, I've written about drought planning, feeding supplemental protein to utilize dry forage, and options for hauling drinking water to livestock. But all of these blog posts were written with the hope that we still had time for the rains to come - that we still had time to avoid a second consecutive dry year. Now that we're in the first week of May, I can say with more confidence (not to mention, disappointment) - we're in a drought here in the Sierra foothills.
I suppose most of us think about lack of rain or snow when we think of drought - and that's been a feature of this year's drought, to be sure. Through April 30, we've measured 18.7 inches of rainfall for the water year (since October 1, 2020). In the 20 years I've kept records here in Auburn, this is the lowest amount of precipitation I've recorded - lower, even, than the 2013-14 drought. As of May 1, we're sitting at 62 percent of average, based on my records.
But rainfall doesn't tell the whole story of this year's drought. January 2021 was the only month if this water year with above average rainfall. April, on the other hand, saw us measure just 6 percent of our average monthly precipitation. In fact, I've come to think of drought as a "climatic water deficit" - an event that combines low precipitation with higher environmental water demand, which we've also seen in the foothills this year.
The factors that drive this higher demand are numerous. Since last year was drier and warmer than normal, I suspect that we entered the current water year with very dry soils. This year's rainfall never truly re-saturated these soils, as evidenced by the lack of flow in our seasonal creeks - this is the first spring since I've lived in Auburn that I didn't see water in the ephemeral creeks where we graze our sheep. Secondly, many of the blue oaks in the lower foothills began to leaf out in late February, which increased evapotranspiration demand significantly (and earlier than normal). Finally, we've had a number of north wind events (the most recent of which created red flag fire conditions in early May) - these dry winds, and the associated low relative humidity levels, pull moisture out of vegetation and soil alike.
Local evapotranspiration data bears this out! The Auburn CIMIS (California Irrigation Management Information System) station recorded 6.0 inches of precipitation between February 1, 2021, and April 30, 2021 (similar to my data). Total evapotranspiration (water lost to evaporation or taken up by plants) during the same period was just over 12 inches. No wonder soil moisture in our rangelands was virtually nonexistent on May 1!
So what does this drought mean for us as rangeland livestock producers? In our operation, we feel reasonably confident that we'll have enough summer irrigation water to grow our typical summer forage, but I know other regions where summer water will be short. On our annual rangelands, which are critical to our fall and winter forage needs, we're seeing the feed mature at least a month earlier than normal. I suspect our peak standing crop (that is, the total amount of forage produced) will be lower than the long term average. Our fall grazing plans assume that we'll need to ration out this standing dry forage until we get a germinating rain. We'll be taking inventory of our fall forage resources in the next couple of weeks - if we look to be short of forage, we'll either look for more ground to graze or consider reducing our sheep numbers.
We'll also keep an eye on invasive weeds. The lack of late rain (so far) means less advantageous growing conditions for yellow starthistle. On the other hand, a quick visit to the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center today revealed that barbed goat grass is headed out a month earlier than usual!
We won't, however, try to feed our way out of this drought. I've run the numbers on putting the ewes on full feed if we run out of standing forage (either on our irrigated pasture or our annual rangeland). The numbers simply don't pencil, and while I hate to sell sheep, I'd hate to go broke buying hay even more. If you haven't run your own numbers, I'd be happy to sit down with you and look at options. Obviously, there are also financial and tax implications of selling livestock - these are complicated and difficult decisions.
All of this brings me to what I consider to be the key lesson I learned from the last drought. The difficult decisions we face as livestock producers can be stressful and isolating. I found it helpful in 2014 - and I find it helpful now - to talk to other producers. Partly, I think, just knowing that our friends and neighbors are dealing with similar challenges can be reassuring. More importantly, sharing ideas and approaches to coping with this drought can help us expand our own toolboxes and to see alternatives we might be missing. Next week, we'll be hosting a webinar on drought planning and federal drought programs (click here to register). I would also encourage you to join the Farmer-Rancher Drought Forum on Facebook - this closed group is open only to farmers, ranchers, and agricultural professionals - and it can be great way to share ideas, learn from others, and simply to commiserate.
Many of us are facing some difficult decisions in the months to come - and some of us have already implemented some of these difficult choices. If you have questions - or simply want to talk through some of the drought-related issues you're grappling with, feel free to contact me at email@example.com or (530) 889-7385.