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!
As some readers of this blog may know, I'm currently working on a research project examining livestock guardian dog behavior. The back story is this: several years ago, I was invited to demonstrate electro-net and livestock guardian dogs at a workshop on livestock protection tools. The electro-net fencing was easy! However, since I was speaking at midday, the LGD demo was less than dynamic - the dog came over to the fence, barked half-heartedly at the people he didn't recognize, and resumed napping in the shade!
This experience got me thinking! How could I demonstrate the effectiveness of these dogs without dragging folks out to observe the sheep in the middle of the night (when the dogs are much more active)? Geographic positioning system (GPS) technology seemed like a possible answer - but commercial GPS collars were too expensive for my cooperative extension / sheepherder budget. While perusing Facebook one day, I ran across a post from Dr. Derrick Bailey at New Mexico State University. Dr. Bailey was using home-built GPS collars to track cattle distribution on New Mexico rangeland! At last, an affordable solution! Dr. Bailey was gracious enough to spend an hour on the phone with me talking about my project ideas - and he shared the technical details of the collars he was using.
Here's a quick photo guide to building the collars I'm using on LGDs (and on sheep). The materials include:
- LGD collars from Premier 1 Supplies (I like these extra-wide collars - I think they're comfortable for the dogs, and they seem to hold up in rangeland conditions). https://www.premier1supplies.com/p/guard-dog-collars?cat_id=164
- 3-1/2" x 2" threaded nipples and threaded caps (for the case)
- 1/2" x 5/32" pop rivets and #8 SAE flat washers (to attach the case to the collar)
- i-gotU GT-600 travel and sports logger (available on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/i-gotU-USB-Travel-Sports-Logger/dp/B0035VESMC/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2OO21VMYVPBN2&keywords=i+got+u+tracker&qid=1564451973&s=gateway&sprefix=I+got+U%2Caps%2C194&sr=8-2
The collars take about 5 minutes to build. The i-gotU trackers can be programmed to collect GPS coordinates from every 5 seconds up to every 5 minutes. Set at 5 minute intervals, the batteries in the unit will last 10 days. Dr. Bailey also sent me plans for an auxiliary battery system - that will be my next project!
I've also experimented with an Optimus 2.0 tracker (https://www.amazon.com/Optimus-Tracker-6543857646-GPS-2-0/dp/B01C31X50K/ref=sr_1_4?crid=UR8F2VQBBT8M&keywords=optimus+tracker&qid=1564452200&s=gateway&sprefix=optimus+t%2Caps%2C199&sr=8-4) which sends a real-time signal to my cell phone with the position and speed of travel of the unit. These trackers don't record positions, but they are useful from a practical standpoint - they will send an alarm to my phone if a guard dog is out of my pasture.
I'm hoping that we'll have some data to share from my project on the Tahoe National Forest north of Truckee in the next couple of weeks. Working with Talbott Sheep Company, I've collared 2 dogs in each of 2 bands of sheep. So far, the collars seem to be working great!
And on a humorous note, as you can see from the photos, I put UCCE (for University of California Cooperative Extension), along with my phone number, on the collars. I received a text yesterday that said:
"Hello, we found Ucce at the upper little truckee campground this morning. He still has his tracker around his neck and is just hanging out at the campsites."
I explained that we were doing a research project with the dogs and that someone would come by to get the dog soon.
That said, I think Ewecie (or maybe Ewechie) would be a great name for a guard dog, don't you!?
Here are some photos to walk you through building a collar.
In the space of several days in early June, I received phone calls from two foothill cattle producers about an unusual number of dead and dying blue oaks on their annual rangelands. The first rancher's observations were limited to his home place; the second rancher was noticing the blue oaks dying on leased grazing land from Auburn to Nevada City. In mid June, I visited one of these operations and noted several things:
- Some of the trees that the rancher said had leafed out normally in spring appeared to be entirely dead and devoid of leaves.
- Several trees appeared to be dying from the top down or on individual branches. Many of the leaves on these trees also appeared to be scorched.
- These trees did not appear to have any lesions on their trunks - no wounds or noticeable fungal growth.
Several weeks later, I published my summer newsletter and included a short blurb asking readers to contact me if they were noticing anything unusual in their blue oaks. Within an hour of sending the newsletter electronically, I had emails from several landowners noting similar conditions. The issue, it seems, is more widespread than just a couple of random trees!
While I'm no expert on the diseases of blue oaks (or any other tree, for that matter), I'm fortunate to have colleagues within the University of California who are! I contacted Dr. Matteo Garbelotto, a Cooperative Extension Specialist in Forest Pathology at UC Berkeley. Dr. Garbelotto has studied a variety of tree diseases, and he immediately suggested collecting samples from some of our foothill trees to try to figure out what is happening.
This week, Dr. Doug Schmidt from Dr. Garbelotto's Forest Pathology and Mycology Lab joined me in collecting samples. We collected leaves with evidence of scorching, soil samples from the base of infected trees, and tissue samples from the trunks at eight sites from Placer to Yuba County. The lab will test these samples over the coming weeks to try to isolate the pathogen(s) or other factors that may be causing blue oaks to die. We hope to have some preliminary answers in about six weeks.
In the meantime, you can help us understand the extent of the problem. Take note of any recently dead or currently dying blue oaks on your property. Take photos of the entire tree, a close up of the leaves, and any other unusual features. And complete our Blue Oak Mortality survey to help us build a database of impacted areas.
Contact me at email@example.com if you have questions!
Last week, I held my first California Cattle Grazing School at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley. The two-day school, an adaptation of Roger Ingram's long-running California Grazing Academy, included classroom talks and field-based learning activities. And as I had hoped, it also featured a great deal of rancher-to-rancher learning. Sometimes, I think, many of us learn as much from these informal conversations as we do from prepared lectures - I know I do!
One of the class participants, Clay Daulton, is a long-time Madera County rancher. I've known Clay since I was just starting my professional career more than 25 years ago. Clay recently became a California Naturalist, doing his capstone project for the program on the varieties of grass and forb species on his foothill rangeland. Clay told us, "I spent half of my life paying attention to cattle - I could pick out a sick calf in a pasture from 100 yards away. But I should have been paying attention to my grass." Clay showed us how he calculates the carrying capacity of his ranch each fall based on the weight of the steers he's contracted to graze and on the amount of carryover forage available from the previous spring.
Earlier in the day, after I gave a formal talk about fencing systems and stockwater development, Paidin Gillis, who ranches in Lincoln, shared his technique for keeping water troughs from freezing in colder climates. He sketched out the system on a flip chart while the rest of the class looked on. Clifton Dorrance, from the Hollister area, shared his technique for burying concrete water troughs to keep cattle from undermining the trough - and he told us that this technique also makes water more accessible to wildlife.
During the first day, a group of local ranchers (known humorously as the "Foothill Grazing Geeks") joined us to talk about how they use the managed grazing principles we cover in the school. Connie Scheiber, from Lincoln, talked about switching their operation from fall calving to spring calving to match forage demand with the period of rapid growth. Joe Fischer, Brad Fowler and Rob Thompson talked about the value of forage diversity in their irrigated pastures. As teachers, Roger and I sat back and listened!
In one of my favorite essays ("Let the Farm Judge", which can be found in Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food), Wendell Berry writes,
"What does it mean that an island not much bigger than Kansas [England] ... should have developed sixty or so breeds of sheep? It means that thousands of farmers were paying the most discriminating attention, not only to their sheep, but to the nature of their local landscapes and economies, for a long time."
I was reminded of Berry's emphasis on the knowledge of farmers (and ranchers) this weekend. While much of our work in cooperative extension focuses on research and teaching, I think we serve our communities most effectively when we create space for people to learn from one another, as well.
If you missed this year's California Cattle Grazing School, consider registering for our California Sheep and Goat Grazing School in September - stay tuned for details!
Researchers at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) in Browns Valley have been collecting rangeland forage production data since 1979. As a rangeland geek, grazier, and now livestock farm advisor, I find it fascinating to look back at the tremendous variability in forage growth over the last 39 years - partly, I suppose, to help predict the short-term future (in other words, this year's spring growth). From a practical standpoint, I find this dataset helpful for grazing planning purposes, as well.
Since the beginning, SFREC staff has noted germination dates for each year. Since the mid 1990s, the staff has also measured total available rangeland forage on the first day of the month from December through peak standing crop (which generally occurs sometime in May or early June). The average germination date over that time is October 21 - although germination has occurred as early as September 2 (in 2000) and as late as December 12 (in 2002). Interestingly, total production was right at average in 2000-2001, while the much later germination year (2002-2003) produced 145% of normal forage. Timing of precipitation after germination seems to be a critical factor!
As I said at the outset, annual rangeland forage production is incredibly variable. Total production over the last 39 years has ranged from 1,071 pounds of dry matter per acre in 1987-88 to 4,696 pounds per acre in 1992-93. Monthly production is also all over the board - on February 1, 2014, the crew measured just 98 pounds of dry matter per acre (average for the date is 533 pounds). I remember that February well - my family and I sold about a third of our commercial ewes because we simply didn't have enough grass.
Forage production on annual rangeland, obviously, is tied to precipitation. The relationship, however, is complex. Total precipitation is probably not as important as the timing. Air and soil temperatures are also related to grass growth, as this year's numbers clearly demonstrate. Here in Auburn (and I suspect in Browns Valley), our seasonal rainfall has been up and down. We had good rains in November, a relatively dry and warm December, a wet and warm January, and through this week, a dry February. As of today, our precipitation is about 80 percent of normal for our part of the foothills. This year's February 1 forage production at SFREC was a whopping 957 pounds of dry matter per acre - nearly 180 percent of normal for the date. And to think that back in late December I was worried about having enough grass this spring!
The timing of moisture also impacts the date at which we reach peak standing crop. With the dry weather and north wind we've had up until this week, I wondered if our annual grasses would mature earlier than normal. Antecdotally, some of the lower elevation ranchers I've spoken with in the last several weeks reported that the grasses on their shallower soils were starting to show signs of heading out. And talking to friends who ranch in other parts of the state (especially the Central and South Coasts and the San Joaquin Valley), the grass in our Sierra foothills is the exception rather than the rule this year. Some parts of the state do not have any green forage at all.
So what can we do with these numbers from a practical standpoint? I use the monthly numbers for planning purposes - a dry, cold autumn followed by a dry December and January means we'll be tight on forage in February (like 2013-14). Conversely, adequate moisture and warmer-than-usual temperatures (like last year and, at least in our region, this year) means extra forage in February. I also use the peak standing crop information to plan for summer and fall grazing. If we know how much we've grown, we can ration out our dry forage and make sure we leave enough residual to protect the soil when the rains start again in the fall.
Experienced ranchers, obviously, know the difference between a good grass year and a poor one. The data collected at SFREC helps put numbers to this variation - numbers that can help all of us become better managers!