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!
Most ranchers track production – pounds of calves or lambs sold, seasonal gain on stocker cattle or feeder lambs, or pounds of wool shorn are all measures of ranch productivity. These are the benchmarks that we compare year-to-year – or across the fence with our neighbors! However, ranches produce more than just livestock – they provide wildlife and native plant habitats, water filtration, fuel reduction, and cultural landscapes. These “ecosystem services” are increasingly valued as important reasons to conserve working ranches.
What are Rangeland Ecosystem Services?
California rangelands are biologically and climatically diverse, and ranchers utilize a variety of public and private lands. Within Placer, Nevada, Sutter and Yuba Counties, working ranches often represent the “wide open spaces” and iconic oak woodlands of our foothill communities. They also provide migration corridors and other habitat values for wildlife. Well-managed grazing land in our 4-county region supports a wide variety of wildlife, including red-legged frogs, burrowing owls, and Swainson's hawks, to name a few. These lands also provide important habitat types, like vernal pools and blue oak woodlands. Yet despite these critical ecosystem services, rangelands have become highly fragmented - and increasing land values make it difficult for the next generation of ranchers to get started.
Payments for Ecosystem Services
Rangeland ecosystem services provide value beyond the market price of your livestock. How can you take advantage of these values?
- Conservation easements allow landowners to realize some of the capital value of their land without selling; rather, the landowner voluntarily exchanges future development rights for payment or tax reductions. As one example, the California Rangeland Trust focuses on funding conservation easements for ranchlands.
- Cost-share programs like the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program fund on-ranch conservation practices. A local example is the Placer County Water Agency and Placer County Resource Conservation District, which offer cost-share funds for irrigation water conservation efforts.
- Certification and eco-labeling programs help consumers support ranchers directly – rewarding ecologically beneficial management. Despite the potential, many labeling and certification efforts are still under development.
Future Opportunities in our 4-County Region
Suburban growth and a rapidly changing environment in our region makes rangeland ecosystem services even more
For more reading: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0190052814500727