Here in Auburn (on December 17, 2020), we received 0.64" of rain overnight. After a late start to the rainy season (and to germination on our annual rangelands), any rain is welcome at this point. But last night's rain continues an interesting (and potentially troubling) trend - our storm total was about 60 percent of what forecasters predicted earlier in the week. Similarly, last weekend's storms delivered less moisture than predicted. Our seasonal total (since October 1) is just over 4 inches; our average seasonal total here in Auburn over the last 20 years is over 11.5 inches - in other words, we've received just 36 percent of our "normal" precipitation so far.
On the positive side of all of these numbers, we have received enough rain to keep the grass that germinated last month going for a month or more. For our small sheep operation, we'd established a key date of December 31 for implementing more drastic drought measures (like buying more hay or selling sheep). With 1.89 inches of rain this month, and with the forage we've saved due to our conservative stocking rate and diligent grazing planning, we should make it through lambing without much added expense.
But the pattern remains concerning. I've noticed over the last several years that precipitation forecasting has become more accurate. While the exact timing of storms remains difficult to predict with down-to-the-minute accuracy, forecasters have become more adept at predicting storm totals several days out. That this year's storms seem to be falling short of predictions suggests that forecasting remains an inexact science.
Obviously, rainfall on our annual rangelands does more than grow forage. Many operations rely on run-off to recharge seasonal creeks and refill stock ponds. Without stock water, some producers won't be able to use the forage they saved from last spring (or they'll need to haul water). In the medium-term, the lack of snowfall in the high country portends a challenging summer for those of us who rely on irrigated pasture. Fortunately, our local water districts entered the winter with adequate carry-over in their reservoirs, but a lower-than-average snow pack is definitely concerning!
So while while our operation has made it through the first critical date of our drought plans, we're not out of the woods yet. After lambing is over in late March, our next major decision point will be weaning. We usually wean the lambs in mid/late June - sometimes as late as early July. In order to save forage on our annual rangeland for next fall, we may wean and sell our lambs early, allowing us to graze dry ewes on irrigated pasture into midsummer (which reduces our forage demand). I suspect our next decision date will be sometime in mid/late April.
I won't reiterate how difficult 2020 has been on a variety of fronts - drought just seems like one more crisis on top of a crisis-dominated year. I would encourage you to check out the Rangeland Drought Information Hub on the UC Rangelands website, however. You'll find a variety of resources for responding to drought conditions. From my perspective, the best time to start planning for drought is while it's raining. The second best time to start planning for drought is now! If you'd like help developing a drought plan or considering specific decisions, contact me at email@example.com.
In the meantime, how are you going to cope?
Having lived (and ranched) through California's 1000-year drought from 2012-2015, I often find myself recalling the autumn of 2013. Believe it or not, we had a germinating rain on September 3 - I measured 0.75" of rain here in Auburn. Just under three weeks later, we received another inch of rain. The combination was enough to get our grass started! But a fellow rancher - I can't remember who - told me never to trust a grass year that started before Halloween. October turned dry and November turned cold and dry - between October 1 and December 31, we measured just over two inches of rain. The grass that had looked so promising in late September was gone by New Year's Day 2014. My rancher friend was correct.
The Sierra Foothills typically experience a prolonged dry spell from late spring through early fall - part of living in a Mediterranean climate. Every autumn, I look forward to the first germinating rain - the storm that is the dividing line between brown grass and green grass on our annual rangelands. Weather forecasts from two weeks ago suggested that we'd get this storm last weekend; reality proved otherwise, and our weekend was cool but dry. And the most recent California drought map indicates that our normal dry spell has intensified into moderate-to-severe drought.
Looking back at 35 years of monitoring data from the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) in Browns Valley, I see a record of uncertainty and variability. The earliest germinating rain at SFREC was recorded on September 2, 2000. The latest occurred just two years later, on December 12, 2002. Over the last 35 years, the first germinating rain of the fall occurred around October 21. But in 29% of the last 35 years, a germinating rain hasn't arrived until after November 1.
Why does this matter? As most ranchers will know, we usually reach a point in mid-December when the days are too short and the temperatures (both air and soil) are too cool to support grass growth, regardless of soil moisture. I call this our winter dormant period - the timeframe where we have to get buy on the grass that grew from germination to dormancy (and last year's dry grass). If germination happens in mid-October, and we get follow-up rains, this means we have 45 days worth of growth at least. If germination happens a month later, we don't have much grass.
Because of this uncertainty and variability, most of us are conservative in our stocking rates - we keep the number of breeding animals we know we can sustain through a dry fall. Many of us use supplemental protein to be able to utilize the dry forage we saved from the previous spring. Others try to match our production cycle to the forage cycle, calving or lambing when we're likely to have adequate high quality forage.
As I think back on my experiences in 2013-2014, I think there is a difference between short-term drought and long-term drought. Our preparation strategies, like a conservative stocking rate and fitting our production calendar to the forage, help us deal with both. Response strategies, however, can be ramped up as the severity of the drought escalates. Buying supplemental feed, for example, might help bridge a dry fall; buying replacement feed to get through a dry two or three years is a recipe for bankruptcy. Similarly, deciding not to buy in stockers or feeder lambs in a dry fall is a short-term solution; selling breeding animals or replacement females is a more drastic step that might be necessary in a long-term drought.
One of the most important lessons I learned in the last drought is that we constantly need to be thinking about how much forage we have ahead of us, and talking about key decision dates. At the moment, we have enough dry grass to get through the end of January (provided we give the sheep supplemental protein). At that point, our ewes will be entering the last third of their gestation period - and their nutritional demands will start ramping up. We typically give the ewes their pre-lambing vaccines during the third week of January. If we're still dry at that stage, we'll have some difficult decisions to make. In the meantime, I'll keep doing my rain (and germination) dance! Don't worry - I won't post video!
For regular updates on forage and ranching weather conditions, check out my Instagram feed at @flyingmule!
Like many of you over the last several weeks (and indeed, over the last several years), I've read heartbreaking accounts of ranchers losing livestock in this latest round of devastating wildfires. I've talked to neighboring ranchers who helped friends evacuate livestock, and who moved their own animals to safe zones. And I've constantly watched the horizon for new smoke, and the sky for fire planes and helicopters. I've wondered what we can do as a ranching community to address our unique concerns and needs in the face of increasingly dangerous wildfires.
According to the California Fire Safe Council,
“Fire Safe Councils are grassroots, community-led organizations that mobilize residents to protect their homes, communities, and environments from catastrophic wildfire. A local Fire Safe Council is often sparked by a catalyst – perhaps a recent fire or a group of neighbors eager to spread a fire-safe message – then embraced by the community, which turns that initial interest into a committed group that finds ways to empower the residents to do their part to make the community safe.”
Most of these local Fire Safe Councils are formed by geographically related communities – counties, towns, or neighborhoods. But what about communities of interest? What about the ranching community? Our needs, when it comes to preventing and responding to wildfire, can be very different than a residential homeowner's needs.
Ranching in the Sierra foothills is unique. Many of us operate on multiple parcels, some leased, others owned. These ranches are dispersed throughout the community – they may be surrounded by residential communities or public lands. Some of us still take livestock to the high country, while others rely on irrigated pasture during the summer months. Many of us have livestock at multiple locations.
Because these ranches are grazed (or in fire terms, because the fine and ladder fuels are modified), ranches may provide areas where fire behavior changes – where firefighters can attack a fire directly. Ranches that include irrigated pasture may provide additional firebreak benefits. Some ranches have ponds or other water sources that maybe helpful to firefighting efforts.
Rancher needs during a wildfire may also differ from the surrounding communities. Unlike backyard livestock owners, commercial ranchers often have more livestock than can be evacuated by a single truck and trailer – making evacuation difficult even with enough warning. Ranchers with leased pasture may have difficulty accessing property and livestock during an emergency due to roadblocks. And ranchers typically have first-hand, on-the-ground knowledge – and oftentimes equipment – that may be helpful in the initial response to wildfire.
All of this brings me to an idea:
What if we created a Rancher's Fire Safe Council?
What if we formalized our efforts to inventory the equipment and expertise that could help protect ranch lands and the surrounding community? What if we formalized our relationships with CalFire, law enforcement, and other emergency services? What if we could train ourselves (and our neighbors) on things like safe evacuation and fire behavior? What if we formally became a resource for protecting our ranches and our communities?
I'd like to invite you to a meeting to explore this idea in more detail. And please feel free to invite other ranchers to participate. I envision this group being comprised of commercial producers – ranchers who have more livestock than could be evacuated in a single trailer, who are raising livestock as a business.
WHEN: Wednesday, October 28, 2020 – 6-7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Via Zoom – link will be provided once you register
Please RSVP at: https://ucanr.edu/survey/survey.cfm?surveynumber=32171
- What is a Fire Safe Council?
- Are there other ways to address the fire prevention, response, and recover needs of the ranching community?
- What could a Rancher's Fire Safe Council do? What are our top priorities?
- Who should be involved in this effort?
- Next steps
I look forward to hearing from you! What do YOU think a Rancher's Fire Safe Council could do? Leave a comment to this blog, or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.