Raising Livestock on Rangeland is not an Indoor Sport...
Larry McMurtry's novel, Lonesome Dove, was published the year I graduated from high school (way back in 1985 - before blogging was a word)! Four years later, the novel became one of my favorite television miniseries, featuring Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and Danny Glover (among others). While there are a number of memorable scenes and lines (from both the book and the miniseries), one that sticks with me as a rancher is Agustus McCrae's eulogy for Danny Glover's character, Deets:
"Cheerful in all weathers. Never shirked a task."
I've been reminded of this line frequently over the last several weeks - as we've had cold rain and wind here in Auburn, and as other ranchers in California have been dealing with never-ending snow. Rangeland agriculture - grazing sheep, goats, and cattle on the vegetation that Mother Nature provides - requires us to tend to our animals regardless of the conditions we (and they) are facing. We may not always be cheerful about unrelenting snow or sweltering heat, but if we've ranched for very long, we know that we can't shirk a task when it comes to our livestock.
But working in all weathers is much easier when we're intentional about our management systems and production calendars. We lamb on pasture, so we time our lambing to coincide with what is usually the onset of rapid grass growth in late winter (we're still waiting for rapid growth this year). This system requires that our ewes have strong maternal abilities - that they can lamb mostly without our help, that they can turn our rangeland forages into enough milk for their lambs, that their lambs get up and going quickly, and that they can count at least to two. Rather than trust to luck, we've utilized an objective selection process that allows us to keep our best ewes and their daughters, while culling the ewes that don't measure up.
Our intentionality extends to our grazing management. On our winter rangelands, we have open hillsides that we graze before lambing begins, which allows us to save the more sheltered areas (with trees, brush, and topography that provide shelter from wind and rain) for lambing. We watch the weather diligently during lambing season - while sheltered paddocks are important, there's no better shelter for a lamb than a belly full of milk. If we know we have cold or wet weather coming in, we'll move the ewes to fresh feed so that they don't have to walk very far to fill their rumens with forage. And we've found a cost-effective, biodegradable plastic raincoat that helps keep the youngest lambs warm and relatively dry in really nasty weather.
Even the best management planning can't change the weather, though. Sometimes, like January-March last year, it doesn't rain at all. We adjusted by building larger paddocks in steeper terrain to give the ewes access to more forage. Sometimes we get sleet or even snow in early March; we adjust to these conditions by increasing the number of times we check the sheep (including checks every two to three hours during the night). This year, due to some extenuating family circumstances, we've purchased feed for the ewes to supplement what they are able to graze during the current stormy stretch.
And despite our best planning efforts, sometimes Mother Nature simply doesn't cooperate. I have friends who are spending 16-person-hours a day feeding the cows they can find in four feet of snow - and arranging for helicopters to drop hay to the cows they can't reach. Other friends have hauled sheep and goats to higher ground during lambing and kidding - lining up trucks and building corrals on very short notice can be extremely stressful. This diligence is more than just an economic consideration; caring for animals is a responsibility that goes well beyond dollars and cents.
Finally, I suppose that being intentional extends to our wardrobe and equipment choices as ranchers. My friend John Helle, who ranches in western Montana, says his Norwegian grandfather used to say, "There's no bad weather, only bad clothing." Someone else once told me, "don't buy cheap boots or cheap cold or wet weather gear - you'll always be sorry." As I get older, being cheerful in all weathers (or at least being less grumpy in bad weather) is directly related to my own comfort and safety. Wool clothing, Gortex(tm) rain gear, and waterproof boots are part of my winter wardrobe; my summer gear includes broad-brimmed hats and sunscreen!
Last weekend, we held our annual Pasture Lambing Workshop. With rain and sleet in the forecast, several folks canceled at the last minute - but the two young women who did show up were enthusiastic and eager to learn. We talked about the planning and preparation that goes into any successful rangeland-based production system - planning that allows us to trust our animals and trust ourselves to cope with whatever the weather throws at us!
The Nevada-Placer-Yuba Disaster Livestock Access Pass Program operated for its second year in 2022. This program, available to commercial livestock producers in the three counties, is the first (and so far, only) multi-county program in California. The program is managed by UC Cooperative Extension and the Nevada, Placer, and Yuba Agriculture Departments, in partnership with CALFIRE and local law enforcement and emergency management agencies.
The program is available for commercial producers raising cattle, sheep, goats, poultry, rabbits, llamas, alpacas, and bees (commercial means the livestock are part of a business). To be eligible for the program, a producer must own 50 head of livestock (including in utero, e.g., 25 bred cows), 100 poultry or rabbits, or 50 beehives. The geographic area of the program matches CALFIRES Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit and reflects the on-the-ground reality that many commercial livestock producers operate in multiple counties.
The program is not an animal rescue or evacuation program; rather, the pass is designed to provide coordinated and safe access for producers with operations inside evacuation zones. Passholders work with UCCE and county agriculture departments to obtain permission from incident commanders to re-enter evacuation zones when it is safe to do so, for the purpose of feeding and caring for livestock.
In 2022, the program expanded by 68% - 72 producers obtained passes. New producers participated in a 4-hour training session hosted by UCCE, local agriculture departments, CALFIRE, and local law enforcement/emergency management agencies at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (with lunch generously sponsored by the Sutter-Yuba Farm Bureau). Renewing passholders participated in an online refresher training developed by UCCE. While passes were not formally used during the 2022 fire season, the pass program created positive working relationships between the ranching community and first responders. These relationships resulted in opportunities to help address producer and livestock safety during the Rices Fire in Nevada County and the Mosquito Fire in Placer County.
The California State Association of Counties recognized the Nevada-Placer-Yuba program with a 2022 Challenge Award in the Rural Disaster & Emergency Response category, citing the program's innovative tri-county partnership and proactive approach to addressing both public safety and livestock well-being.
Governor Newsom signed AB 1103 (sponsored by Assembly Woman Megan Dahle) in October 2021. This legislation creates a statewide livestock pass program, with new statewide training due out in 2023. Once this new curriculum is rolled out, we will be scheduling training for new and renewing passholders in all three counties! If you'd like updates on these training sessions, or the program in general, contact me at email@example.com.
2022 Program Statistics
- 28% of passholders had operations in more than one county. On average, passholders operated on 2.4 individual properties.
- 35% had multiple species of livestock.
- 38% of passholders operated in Nevada County; 21% in Placer, 29% in Yuba, and 11% had operations outside of the 3-county region.
- Participation by livestock species:
- Beef Cattle: 65%
- Sheep: 32%
- Goats: 19%
- Poultry: 19%
- Bees: 15%
- Hogs: 8%
- Rabbits: 7%
- Dairy (Goats or Cattle): 6%
- Other Livestock: 11%
- 86% were owners or family members of commercial operations; the balance were employees.
With the month of May upon us, wildfire season (at least here in the Sierra foothills) is just around the corner. Indeed, May is Wildfire Awareness Month - the National Interagency Fire Center website is a great source of information on steps we can all be taking to make our communities, ranches, and homes more fire safe and fire resilient.
If you operate a ranch in Nevada, Placer, or Yuba County, one of the first steps you should consider taking is registering for this year's Disaster Livestock Access Program. Developed last year by a steering committee comprised of local ranchers, agricultural commissioners, and UC Cooperative Extension, the Disaster Livestock Access Program is designed to coordinate with emergency managers to provide ranchers with access to livestock in evacuation zones for the purpose of feeding, watering, and caring for commercial livestock.
Our program is unique in that our geographic coordination mirrors that of our local CALFIRE unit (which reflects the on-the-ground reality that many commercial ranches operate in multiple counties). Each county will recognize a pass issued by any of these three counties (Nevada, Placer, and Yuba).
Who qualifies for a Disaster Livestock Access Pass?
For the purposes of this program, a commercial livestock operator is defined as owning or managing 50+ head of livestock (including in utero, e.g., 25 bred cows), 100+ poultry or rabbits, or 50+ beehives that reside in Placer, Nevada, or Yuba County for at least a portion of the year. Cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, poultry, rabbits, llamas, alpacas, and bees that are "commercially raised" (e.g., as part of a business) qualify for the program. The program applies to both private land (owned or leased) as well as to public land (including US Forest Service and BLM grazing allotments).
Will a Disaster Livestock Access Pass get me through a road block?
Not necessarily. Your local agricultural department and I will work with incident command to identify areas within evacuation zones that are safe for passholders to access. Refer to the incident flowchart below for more details.
How do I get a Disaster Livestock Access Pass?
To enroll in the program, you must provide contact information, APNs, physical addresses, and/or allotment names of grazing sites, general season(s) of use, livestock description and inventory, and release of liability. You can register online at the N-P-Y Disaster Livestock Access Registration Site or by contacting me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 889-7385. Ranchers will need to apply each year; even if you received a pass in 2021, you'll need to complete this registration process again this year.
Is training required?
If you haven't held a pass previously, you'll need to participate in a 4-hour training session on Saturday, June 4, 2022, from 9am to 1pm at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley, CA. This training will provide an overview of the program, information on the incident command system and wildfire behavior, and an opportunity to ask questions with local law enforcement, emergency services, and CALFIRE. If you held a pass last year, you'll need to participate in a 1-hour virtual refresher course currently in development.
Preparation is Key!
Three days before our first 2021 training session, the River Fire tore through parts of Placer and Nevada Counties. Several of the ranchers who came to the workshop were able to describe the chaos and confusion of the early hours of the fire - as well as the need to coordinate with law enforcement and fire officials on the fly. Hopefully this program will improve our ability to communicate during an emergency - and provide access to care for livestock.
If you have questions, please contact me at email@example.com or (530) 889-7385./span>/span>
While wildfire has always been a part of our foothill and mountain environments, the scope and intensity of recent fires are well beyond anything most of us have experienced. In the last decade, incidents like the Rim Fire, the Butte Fire, the King Fire - not to mention the North Complex Fire and the Dixie Fire - have severely impacted foothill and Sierra ranching operations from Mariposa County to Lassen County. More locally, the River Fire (on both sides of the Bear River) resulted in evacuations of several farming and ranching operations during the 2021 fire season). Other ranchers in Yuba, Nevada, and Placer Counties lost forage to smaller fires. With fire season starting earlier - and lasting longer - we all need to be better prepared!
To kick off this effort, we are collaborating with the California Cattle Council and the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) to host a Ranchers Wildfire Field Day on Friday, Feburay 18, 2021 at SFREC in Browns Valley, CA. Our agenda will include rancher panel discussions, presentations on fire behavior, wildfire preparation, prescribed fire, and sheltering-in-place options, and policy updates from the California Cattlemen's Association, California Farm Bureau Federation, and California Wool Growers Association. Here's a quick overview of the day:
- Surviving a Fire (Rancher Panel) - Dave Daley, Brian Kingdon, and Kevin Pharis
- Ranch Hardening and Fire Planning - Dan Macon, UCCE
- Fire Tools and Fire Behavior Basics - Chris Paulus, CALFIRE (retired)
- Using Fire as a Tool - Prescribed Fire on Working Landscapes - Jeff Stackhouse, UCCE (invited)
- Evacuate or Defend: Making Resilient Wildfire Response Plans in Ranching Communities - Dr. Amanda Stasiewicz, San Jose State University
- Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (Rancher Panel) - Mike Guerry and Rob Oxerango, Idaho Ranchers
- Policy Updates - CCA, CFBF, and CWGA
- 2022 Wildfire Update and Working with CALFIRE - local CALFIRE representative
Lunch will be sponsored by the California Cattle Council! Registration is just $5/person - register at http://ucanr.edu/2020_ranchers_wildfire_field_day
With wildfire season in full swing in California and elsewhere in the West, many ranchers are increasingly concerned about the safety and well-being of their livestock. Many - if not most - commercial-scale producers in the Sierra foothills and higher elevations operate on multiple parcels with multiple landowners. Accessing livestock in an area under evacuation orders due to wildfire - or any other large-scale disaster, for that matter - can be problematic. Commercial-scale operations typically have more animals than can be evacuated in a single load, making sheltering-in-place the only viable option. But livestock that are sheltered-in-place need care - water, feed, medical attention, etc. - making access for ranchers critical.
Over the last 6 months, I've been working with a committee of ranchers from Placer, Nevada, and Yuba Counties, along with the Agricultural Commissioners from each county, to create a Disaster Livestock Access Pass Program. The geographic focus of this effort mirrors CalFire's administrative region - and reflects the on-the-ground reality that many ranching operations cross county boundaries. We've patterned our local program on similar efforts in Butte, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo Counties. We hope to develop a similar program for Sutter County in the coming months.
For the purposes of this program, a commercial livestock operator is defined as an owner of livestock consisting of 50 head of livestock (including in utero, e.g., 25 bred cows), 100 poultry or rabbits, or 50 beehives or more that reside in Placer, Nevada, or Yuba County for at least a portion of the year, or a person who, through an agreement with that owner of livestock, has authority and is responsible to oversee the care and well-being of the owner's livestock.
To receive a Livestock Access Pass, qualified producers must complete an application survey and attend a 4-hour training session which will include information on fire behavior, the incident command system, and ranch-scale fire preparations. We will be holding training sessions in Auburn, Browns Valley, and Nevada City.