Over the last six months, drought has once again dominated most of my thinking and many of my conversations with other ranchers. Over the last two weeks, I've given drought talks in Sierraville and Rio Vista – both of which gave me time behind the wheel to think about drought management and the new Drought Decision Support Tools we've developed for ranchers to analyze the decisions we're all making as this drought becomes more serious. And I've realized that I seem to be focused on getting through this drought, rather than on how our ranching operation might emerge from the other side of it. In other words, I've been focusing on survival rather than resiliency. Survival can be depressing (at least for me); resiliency seems far more hopeful!
Elements of Resiliency
From a ranching perspective, I think, resiliency has three elements. As long-term businesses (even multi-generational in many cases), ranches must have Financial Resilience. Most of us are experiencing the added expenses and lower incomes typical of drought; resilient businesses are able to regain a sound financial footing quickly. Second, since most of our ranches are stocked with cows or ewes or goat does that fit our environments and production systems, our ranches must have Genetic Resilience. The genetic base of our flock or herd needs to remain intact – we need to be able to re-stock with animals that fit our ranches. Critically, our ranches must have Ecological Resilience. Just as drought is stressful for us and for our livestock, it's also stressful for our rangelands. Taking care of the land now (by focusing on balancing our stocking rate with a diminished carrying capacity, by avoiding overutilization of rangeland forages, by working to reduce the amount of bare ground that can create openings for invasive weeds) helps ensure that our rangelands can respond quickly when “normal” weather returns. And finally - and perhaps most importantly - we need to be resilient ourselves. Human Resilience - the ability to see through the challenges posed by drought, to stay positive about the future, allows us to focus on the other elements of resilience outlined above.
Incorporating Resiliency into our Drought Strategies
As I've thought about this concept of resiliency on my long drives this month, I've realized that there are several ways I can incorporate the idea of resiliency into my drought planning. From a proactive standpoint, I can take steps to be sure I understand the economics of my ranching business. What are my financial risks? What does it cost me to run a ewe for a year under normal conditions? How much debt do I have? From a genetics perspective, I can keep records on our sheep that allow me to know which ewes (or lines of ewes) perform well in our environment. Which ewes consistently wean the most pounds of lamb(s) each year? Which ewes seem to never need deworming or treatment for foot rot? Finally, I can develop – and, more importantly, review – a 12-18-month forage calendar that allows me to adjust stocking rate based on carrying capacity. I can rest some rangeland pastures during the growing season to stockpile fall forage. I can pay attention to the perennial grasses and brush species that can provide nutrition to my sheep during the dry season.
Beyond these preparations, however, resiliency can become the filter through which I evaluate my reactive drought strategies. How much will putting our ewes on full feed impact the economic health of the business – how much hay can we afford to buy? And where and how will I feed the ewes to avoid negative impacts to next year's forage production and soil health? Conversely, if I need to cull some sheep to reduce forage demand, how will it impact the genetic base of our flock? Should I sell older, proven ewes, or keep fewer replacement ewe lambs? What are the future economic implications of breeding fewer ewes this fall? By focusing on what our operation will look like after the drought, I hope I'll make better decisions this summer.
Some Final Thoughts
Finally, I come back to something I learned in 2013-2014. Picking the right drought strategies requires difficult decisions; decisions that are made more difficult by the fact that we don't know how long the drought will last. The best time for me to have thought about the resiliency of our operation was before this current drought intensified. The second best time to think about resiliency is now! For me, at least, thinking about a positive future for our small-scale operation (in other words, thinking about how I can enhance our resiliency) feels much more positive than simply worrying about how we'll survive.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). We're happy to go over it on the phone or schedule a ranch call. We look forward to hearing from you!
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!
Like any livestock management tool, livestock guardian dogs come with both costs and (hopefully) benefits. Some of these are easily calculated - for example, through today, we've spent $624.70 on dog food and veterinary costs related to our livestock guardian dogs this year. We currently have 3 dogs (Bodie, a 3-year-old I purchased as a pup for $350; Elko, a 2-year-old given to me as a pup; and Dillon, a 9-month-old pup purchased for $500). Some of the costs and benefits are less easily calculated, however; how do I know how many sheep didn't die because we had dogs with them? What is the value of my own peace of mind? A recent paper by Dr. Ellen Bruno (Cooperative Extension specialist in agriculture and resource economics at UC Berkeley) and Dr. Tina Saitone (CE specialist in agriculture and resource economics at UC Davis) sheds new light on these questions. Read the complete paper here.
Using data from the University of California's Hopland Research and Extension Center, Bruno and Saitone estimated that dogs reduced lambs lost to coyotes by 43% each year; ewe losses were reduced by 25%. The authors calculated the present value of these prevented deaths over the 7-year useful life of the dogs to be $16,200 (present value calculations were based on the market value of the lambs as well as the value of running-age ewes). Their model was based on using one dog per 100 ewes (more on this below).
On the cost side, the authors included initial purchase of pups, dog food (and labor associated with feeding the dogs), veterinary costs, and dog replacement costs. Labor costs, as they note, are largely dependent on the type of production system - Hopland's labor costs are probably much higher than the typical commercial operation. Using net present value analysis, Bruno and Saitone found that the costs of Hopland's livestock guardian dogs exceeded the benefits (in the value of lambs and ewes not killed by predators) by $13,412 over the seven-year analysis period. In other words, the dogs didn't pay their own way.
Bruno and Saitone offer several important caveats when interpreting these results. First, many ranchers report that dogs eliminate predation entirely (which has been our own experience). If this had been the case at Hopland, the benefits would have exceeded the costs of using dogs by over $12,000. Second, labor-related expenses associated with dogs can be difficult to quantify. In our operation, feeding the dogs is part of our daily check of fences and sheep - we see the sheep every day whether we have dogs with them or not. We charge about 5 minutes per day to feeding 3 dogs - even if I pay myself $20 per hour for this work, our "dog" labor amounts to $371 per dog annually. Hopland, on the other hand, reported labor costs of nearly $1,600 per dog per year. Finally, the authors note that lamb and ewe prices may (and usually do) change from one year to the next - and sometimes dramatically. Sheep values can alter the cost:benefit ratio.
Skeptics might wonder, "Even if you use dogs, if you're not experiencing any predator losses, maybe there aren't any predators around." My ongoing research into livestock guardian dog behavior suggests that there are ALWAYS predators around where small ruminants are grazing (whether on rangeland or irrigated pasture). Using trail cameras, we frequently "capture" coyotes, foxes, and bobcats within 10-15 feet of our sheep paddocks. Interviews with sheep- and goatherders working in the Sierra Nevada indicate that coyotes are heard - and often seen - every night near sheep and goat bed grounds. Though we see them less frequently, we know there are mountain lions and black bears in the vicinity of these operations. The predators are there - the dogs must be at least partly responsible for the lack of predator losses!
As I've written previously, the number of dogs used by producers can vary greatly - from one producer to the next, and from one season to the next on the same operation (see How Many Dogs?). One of the bands of sheep I'm observing near Truckee is guarded by a single dog (band is roughly 1,000 ewes - this scenario is significantly more cost effective than the 1 dog per 100 ewes ratio used in Bruno and Saitone's model). This ratio works because the band is comprised of mature ewes without lambs - and because the predators have plenty of other prey at this time of year. Once this band moves back to Los Banos to lamb on alfalfa stubble later this fall, the dog-to-sheep ratio will increase.
In my experience, peace of mind for the shepherd (or goatherd) can be a significant (if qualitative) benefit. My friends Brad Fowler and Nathan Medlar recently started a targeted grazing project at Squaw Valley Ski Resort north of Lake Tahoe (see Watching Other Dogs). They started the project without livestock guardian dogs (mostly to avoid conflicts with recreationists). They are herding the goats on the ski slopes during the day and penning them at night near their camp (a tent on the side of the mountain). Brad reported that neither they nor the goats slept at all on the first night - the coyotes kept the goats stirred up even though they were protected by electric fence. Brad and Nathan added two dogs on the second day - which relaxed the goats (and the goatherds). Brad reported both herders and livestock slept soundly on the second night.
Finally, research at the U.S. Sheep Center in Dubois, Idaho, found "that ewes grazing with accompanying LGD will travel greater daily distances compared with ewes grazing without LGD accompaniment. As a result of traveling greater distances, ewes may also be exposed to more and varied foraging opportunities." See Webber et al. 2015 for the complete study. To me, this suggests that dogs may make our grazing operations more efficient - allowing us to access forage that would otherwise not get grazed by unprotected livestock. This increased grazing efficiency can reduce our supplemental feed costs.
From my perspective, perhaps the most important part of Bruno and Saitone's work comes at the end of the paper:
"Sheep producers who are considering the purchase of LGDs, or those who already have LGDs and are interested in their return on investment, need a few pieces of data to make this determination. Market lamb and ewe prices are typically well known to producers and can be used, in conjunction with efficacy rates from this study, to estimate the benefits of LGDs.
"On the cost side, producers would need to make some logical forecasts about the time required to maintain LGDs, given their operation specifics.... Also, using guidance from the literature included herein, producers could calculate the likely dog cull and mortality costs of the LGD's useful life."
Ultimately, the success of any livestock protection tool (including lethal control) is highly variable depending on operator characteristics and environmental conditions. Dogs work in our operation because we see the sheep every day and because they are our only option for protecting lambing ewes (we lamb on pasture without access to a lambing shed). Dogs work for the range outfit on the Tahoe National Forest as well; human presence, the vigilance of the dogs, and the stage of production during their time in the mountains virtually eliminates predator losses. And dogs work for the targeted grazing outfits I work with in the foothills and mountains; peace of mind and lack of predator losses justify the costs of keeping dogs in these operations, too.