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.
Like many of you, I expect, I've recently debated whether to keep my social media accounts - Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram sometimes seem like a bottomless pit of advertising and argument. But then something like this happens....
Last week, I wrote about the idea of an "ecological calendar" - a way to think about our production calendars from an ecological perspective (read the post here). I included my first rather awkward attempt at graphically displaying my own sheep production calendar - and shared the graphic on Instagram.
Within several hours, I had the most wonderful response from someone who listens to our Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know podcast - complete with an actual, real-world ecological calendar from a famous sheep-producing region in France! Yeva (@why_suarez on Instagram) shared this:
"The inner orange circle says “troupeau en montage” (herd in the mountains) and troupeau en crau (the Crau is a geographical area). Most sheep farmers in the south of France move their sheep to the mountain areas (like Haute Savoie, the mountains between Italy and France. Pyrenees is another system yet again) as there's not enough green pastures available, because of the high temperatures that dry out the land and/or because the irrigated areas are used to produce hay (there are more reasons, but that's the short version!). Wolves are a big issue, they will be guarded by a shepherd throughout the summer. But back to the calendar.
"You see two blue lines pass through all the circles, one: mid-June; one: beginning of October. That's when the sheep are away, which matches with the outer circle that says “estives dans les alpages.” Estives means summer pasture. Most of the sheep will be taken there, represented in the tiny sheep symbols. Outside that period is says in the circle “enneigement en montagne,” which is basically snow in the mountains!
"The arrows show the movement of the sheep to the different kind of pastures. In the Crau, you basically have two kinds, the green one that is irrigated and produces the hay and the dry one or the “Coussouls” that have a very specific kind of biodiversity and is known for its many rocks.
"It's a bit complicated to explain because it's a circular system, so it's all linked – which also makes it very cool, because the entire calendar is pasture and hay based, including lambing dates, etc. But basically, Foins de Crau is a very famous hay that's produced with a complicated irrigation system and is subject to many rules if it wants to qualify as “foins de crau,” as it's known for its very high quality. They cut it three times a year (in the calendar it says “1ere coupe = first cut, etc.). Each “cut” has a different nutritional component and is marketed differently. The fourth cut is not actually cut; it is eaten by the sheep when they return from the mountains. That's why you see the sheep symbols between October and February in the same circle as the “cuts” – we call those kinds of pastures the “prairies.”
"Half February (the blue line only overlaps the prairies and coussouls) they are then moved to the coussouls. The prairies will start growing again for the first foins de crau cut and the cassouls offer enough food. Some other shepherds bring sheep to hill areas nearby instead of the coussouls – it tends to depend on the particularities of that farm. The amount of sheep symbols has grown in the cassouls circle, because the herds tend to be much bigger as this calendar reflects an autumn lambing period, which is the overall tendency here.
"Outside the inner circle is a smaller blue one that shows when the prairies are irrigated with water and when not (“arrossage de pres”). The specific timing of the movement of the herds would be a much longer story! But I hope the different layers of the calendar are clearer now and why they are linked."
I shared this calendar explanation with my friend Dr. Hailey Wilmer, who is the Research Rangeland Management Specialist at the U.S. Range Sheep Production Efficiency Research Unit, in Dubois, Idaho. Her observation was that "calendars can help tell stories across landscapes." I agree - looking at the calendar Yeva shared, and the explanation she provided, helped me look again at my own calendar. I asked myself these questions:
- What is the heart of our sheep operation in terms of nutrition and forage? For us, I think, it's the annual rangeland we use in the winter and again in summer.
- What is the second most important forage resource? In our case, it's our irrigated pasture. Pasture is more productive - and also more costly. With sheep, we could probably figure out how to get along without it.
- Finally, how do our production needs (vaccinations, shearing, lambing, etc.) fit within these underlying forage cycles?
All of this brings me to a question for you! How does your production system fit the ecological cycles in your region? I hope you'll share! And I guess I'll keep my social media accounts for now....
Over the last ten years or so, I've had the opportunity to help teach farm and ranch business planning courses (first, as a collaborating producer; more recently, as an extension advisor). One of the exercises we've used to help producers relate their cash flow budgets to their production calendars is to create an operational timeline that includes key management activities - as well as the associated inflows and outflows of cash. While this timeline has been a useful teaching tool - it always seemed a bit flawed to me. The work of ranching, after all, is cyclical rather than linear. During our most recent Beginning Farming Academy, I tried a new approach - a circular calendar rather than a timeline. And it so happens that a recent article in Rangelands (the non-technical journal published by the Society for Range Management) puts a name to this approach. Karim-Aly Kassam, of the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment and the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at Cornell University, calls these "ecological calendars" - calendars that provide a systematic way to measure and give meaning to time based on our observations of the habitats in which we live.
As I read this paper, I realized that my approach to raising sheep largely revolves around this idea of an ecological calendar. Our sheep year starts and ends with the forage cycle here in the Sierra foothills. My starting point is to match our period of greatest nutritional demand (late gestation and early lactation - lambing season, in other words) with the time period when Mother Nature provides the greatest quantity of highly nutritious forage (the "spring flush"). This decision point gives us the ability to adjust our stocking rate to seasonal changes in the carrying capacity of our rangeland and irrigated pastures. We wean the lambs as the annual rangeland forages dry out. We manage our irrigated pasture to be sure we have quality forage prior to and during breeding season. Our ewes have their lowest nutritional demand during the late fall months. In many ways, our approach reflects an emphasis on the productivity of the ewes rather than the weaning weights of individual lambs - we're optimizing our ewes' ability to turn forage into fiber and lambs.
Our decision about when to lamb sets up other key dates in our production system, as well. We shear the ewes when the youngest lambs are 4-6 weeks old - in early May. The ewes shear better then, and we avoid some of the stickers that can contaminate our wool. We dry the ewes off (wean the lambs and end the ewes' lactation) on dry forage in mid-Summer - which allows us to rent the ewes out for fuel-load reduction on unirrigated rangeland. We flush the ewes (prepare them for breeding) in September, when our irrigated pasture begins to recover from the heat-induced summer slump in productivity. We turn the rams in with the ewes in late September, and the entire cycle starts again!
But as I've thought about our approach through the lens of an ecological calendar, I've realized that the key dates in our system have nothing to do with the chronological date - and everything to do with the annual cycles of weather and forage production. Rather than the names of the months, the headers on my ecological calendar are events - Germination Day, the Onset of Rapid Growth, the Summer Slump, the Autumn Rebound. Unlike the rigidity of the Gregorian calendar that most of us use, this ecological approach to our production schedule is incredibly flexible! Weaning day happens when the grass dries out, for example - which could be late May or late June, depending on the year. Longer-term flexibility is also possible - if we begin to see that our moisture and temperature regimes in the late winter and early spring change the timing of the spring flush, we can adjust our lambing date (by adjusting the date on which we turn the rams in with the ewes).
I suppose some will say that we're simply ranching with nature - that we're just adjusting our production to the cycles around us. But giving meaning to time based on my own observations of the world around me seems deeper than simply picking a lambing date to coincide with spring growth. Keeping track of how the world around me changes in response to things like the timing and amount of rainfall, the temperature of the air and the soil, the humidity and wind here in the foothills - all of this helps me adjust my interactions with the natural world. All of this helps make adapting our sheep enterprise to ever-changing conditions easier!
Ranching, like any other agricultural business, requires a considerable amount of planning. Unlike some farming businesses, however, ranching also requires a certain level of comfort with conditions that are beyond our control. Unexpected problems can certainly "crop" up for irrigated crop production, but we generally have some lead time to make decisions about planting or finding alternative sources of irrigation water. While I don't mean to diminish the challenges that all of us in California agriculture are facing in this incredibly dry year, I think looking down the road is different for rangeland livestock producers than for anyone else.
As I wrote last month (Yup - this is a Drought!), drought can seem like a slow-moving emergency. After a late start to our grass year in November 2020, I held out hope that we'd get something like normal precipitation in early 2021. We did not; our dry spring locked in certain parts of our forage planning process. For example, the feed that had grown by the time we shipped ewes and lambs off of our winter rangeland and back to irrigated pasture in early April was all that we'd have to work with for the rest of the year. No more rain meant no more growth.
Other parts of our annual forage calendar are less certain this year. For the first time in the 16 years I've irrigated pasture for our sheep, we're facing the potential of a mandatory reduction in our irrigation water deliveries this year. The Nevada Irrigation District, who delivers our water from the high country, is looking at the lowest carryover potential in its reservoirs in its 100 year history. Consequently, the district may end our irrigation season early, or give us less water for the full season (which typically ends on October 15). This uncertainty about our irrigated pasture compounds the ambiguity about our fall forage supply - we never know when the first germinating rain will arrive, which makes planning difficult.
For many of us who rely on annual rangeland, then, autumn is perhaps our most precarious season. Many of us try to stretch our irrigated pasture as long as we can - hoping it will last until the fall rains green-up our rangeland forages. Most of us try to manage our spring grazing to conserve dry forage for the fall - just in case the rains come late.
In our small operation, we've found that a 12-month forage calendar helps us identify future problems before they require drastic (e.g., expensive) decisions. For each of the next 12 months, we try to estimate whether we'll have adequate forage. If we think the forage will be inadequate, we try to determine why. Is it a lack of quantity (are we going to be out of feed)? Is it insufficient quality (is our forage too low in protein or energy for the stage of production we're in)? Or is it a lack of stock water? By thinking through our forage projections, we're able to think about strategies for addressing them:
- If we're going to be out of feed, do we need to think about selling some animals?
- If we have dry feed that we're trying to graze with pregnant ewes, we can supplement their protein. We start thinking about buying protein now before everyone's looking for it (and driving up the price).
- If we're worried about a lack of stock water, we start thinking about how we can get water to our sheep (so they can graze the forage we've conserved).
I wish I had a crystal ball that would tell me the exact date we'd get a germinating rain - it would make planning so much easier. Without a crystal ball, however, we can start looking down the road. We can - and should - start planning now for how we're going to get through next fall and winter. Our new Drought Decision Support Tool for Ranchers provides a framework for thinking about your forage future - check it out and please provide feedback!
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!