- (Public Value) UCANR: Promoting economic prosperity in California
Can any of us remember a summer like this?! The work of ranching continues - irrigating pasture, checking livestock, preparing for calving or breeding season. And yet the COVID-19 pandemic casts a pall over everything we're doing. Market disruptions - including increasing demand for direct-to-consumer meat products - add to the uncertainty we're all grappling with. I'm wearing a mask when I go to the feed store and limiting my trips to town. And, as I write, this, my youngest daughter is starting her last year of high school - from home.
Given the continued rise in COVID cases here in Placer County, our UC Cooperative Extension staff continues to work from home. But while we're not in the office, we are still out and about serving our communities. Our 4-H staff is working with our volunteer leaders and 4-H members to start the new 4-H year. Our nutrition staff continues to work with schools throughout the community to provide school gardens and nutrition/healthy lifestyles information for kids and adults. Our Master Gardeners have developed some incredibly innovative online educational opportunities. Check out our website at http://ceplacer.ucanr.edu/ for more details!
Our agricultural programs are also ongoing! I am working with colleagues at Davis and elsewhere to put on a bi-weekly webinar on a variety of grazing and livestock production topics. Our Working Rangelands Wednesdays series has covered topics like drought, targeted grazing, water quality, and fuel load reduction. You can register to participate in these webinars here.
I've also been collaborating with Ryan Mahoney of Emigh Livestock on a weekly podcast called Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know (available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts). While our focus has largely been on sheep industry topics, I think you'll find that many of our episodes are broadly applicable to all livestock production. If there's a topic you'd like us to take on, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Research projects aren't standing still, either - we are wrapping up our early weaning project at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center this fall. I'm continuing to collect data on predators and livestock guardian dog behavior on the Tahoe National Forest this summer. Our northern California irrigated pasture research continues, and we're about to start a collaborative forage variety trial with specialists from UC Davis and farm advisors from throughout the state. I find that I especially enjoy the days I get to spend in the field!
We are planning a number of virtual workshops this fall, including our "So You Want to Start a Farm or Ranch" workshop and our Beginning Farming Academy - stay tuned for details. And I'm working with the Tahoe Cattlemen's Association to organize a beef production workshop or webinar in late September. Watch my website for more information!
If you're on Instagram, you might check out my IGTV channels - covering a variety of topics from forage production and management to livestock guardian dogs. You can follow me on Instagram at @flyingmule.
Finally, I am available by phone, email, and in person! If you have a pasture, livestock, or range management question, call me at (530) 889-7385 or email me at email@example.com. I'm always glad to get out in the field, so don't hesitate to contact me!
These are strange times, to say the least. Stay safe, and stay positive. I hope to hear from you!
For many ranchers in the Sierra foothills and Sacramento Valley, irrigated pasture is a critical component of our annual forage calendar. In many ways, irrigated pasture has replaced the historic practice of "following the green" - of taking sheep and cattle to mountain pastures during the summer months. Green summertime forage in the foothills and valley requires irrigation in our Mediterranean climate - and so many of us spend at least part of every day from April through October spreading water across our pastures.
Here in the foothills, these pastures do more than feed livestock. Large blocks of green vegetation provide landscape-scale firebreaks that protect rural residential communities. These pastures support a great deal of wildlife, as well - I consistently see wild turkeys, blacktail deer, song birds, and hawks (just to name a few species) on our pastures near Auburn. At least to me, a well managed irrigated pasture is a cool, green jewel amidst the summer-time brown of our foothill landscapes.
Truly productive irrigated pastures don't simply appear once we start applying water, though. No matter how much I water the annual grasses that grow on our rangelands, these plants have to die each year - that's what makes them annuals! Establishing irrigated pasture is similar to planting an other permanent crop - it requires soil preparation, infrastructure development, fertilizer application, and seeding of perennial forage species (like orchard grass, fescue, and clover).
Once planted, irrigated pasture requires careful management, as well. Our irrigation system is designed to put enough water in 24 hours onto the pasture to meet plant needs for ten days (in other words, our irrigation "sets" are for 24 hours, and our "rotation" brings us back to the same location in the pasture every ten days). We also manage our grazing carefully - matching our rest periods with the growth rate of our forage. When the grass is growing rapidly in the springtime, we can graze the same paddock every 25 days; in the heat of the summer when grass growth slows, our rest periods are longer to allow the plants to re-grow before we graze them again. And to protect water quality, we try not to irrigated underneath the livestock.
Obviously, the decision to establish irrigated pasture - or to incorporate it into our production systems - must include economics! Establishing pasture - even one that will last for 20-plus years - requires significant investment. Once established, we have to pay for water, depreciate our equipment, pay for labor, PAY OURSELVES!
This spring, I collaborated with Don Stewart at the Ag Issues Center at UC Davis to update two cost studies specifically analyzing foothill irrigated pasture. Click on the links below to access them:
On a related note, I'm also collaborating with Dr. Leslie Roche, Cooperative Extension Specialist in Rangeland Management at UC Davis, along with a number of other farm advisors throughout Northern California, on a research project examining a variety of irrigated pasture management strategies. We're looking at grazing management, water management, forage production, soil health, and a variety of other parameters - stay tuned for more information on this project as well!
Now I need to go out and move water....
One of the things I enjoy most about cooperative extension is the opportunity to organize hands-on learning activities. From our Shepherding Skills Workshops to my California Cattle and Sheep/Goat Grazing Schools, I love the chance to get ranchers and land managers together, outdoors, to learn about grazing management and animal husbandry. But thanks to COVID-19 and the necessity to avoid large gatherings, I've had the opportunity to discover new ways to do my job!
Several weeks into California's shelter-at-home order, my friend and fellow rancher Ryan Mahoney (of R. Emigh Livestock in Rio Vista) came to me with a fun idea for doing a weekly video/podcast on all things sheep. Ryan suggested that we should call our project Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know, using a conversational format. Each week, one of us comes up with a topic and a list of questions for the other - so far, we've covered wool, feeding lambs, managing pasture, business benchmarks, risk management, and dealing with COVID-19. Our videos are available on my Ranching in the Sierra Foothills YouTube (I prefer EweTube) channel; Ryan has figured out how to turn these into podcasts, which are available on Spotify and Apple Podcast. We've had lots of fun producing them; hopefully, they're useful for other sheep producers, too!
Thanks to a grant I received from the Renewable Resources Education Act program, I've also collaborated to start a bi-weekly webinar series we're calling Working Rangeland Wednesdays. Working with my friend and colleagues Leslie Roche (the rangeland management specialist at UC Davis) and Grace Woodmansee (Leslie's graduate student and my intern), we've produced two webinars so far - both focused on rangeland drought.
And finally, I've been producing short Instagram videos on a variety of topics, including stocking rate and carrying capacity, livestock guardian dogs, and grazing planning. These are available via my IGTV channel (follow me at @flyingmule). For me, these have been fun ways to produce short, spontaneous videos on topics that I find interesting - hopefully others do, too! I generally also post them on my Sustainable Foothill Ranching Facebook Page.
Nothing will replace hands-on, face-to-face workshops for building skills and community. That said, being forced to work from home has allowed me to explore some new technology and reach out to friends and colleagues who are outside of my local area. For example, last week's Working Rangeland Wednesday webinar featured a panel of three ranchers who I respect tremendously - and who probably would not have had time in May to spend an hour in Auburn speaking at a workshop (considering that Auburn is more than an hour's drive for two of the three). Working at home has forced me to become more creative - and I'm enjoying the results! I hope you do, too!
With many of us continuing to shelter-at-home during the COVID-19 crisis, I wanted to let you know about some upcoming virtual workshops and podcasts I have scheduled! I hope you'll join us!
Ranchers Virtual Coffee Hour (Tuesday, May 5, 2020 – 6:30 a.m.): Join other local ranchers for an early-morning check-in – and still have time to get out and move water before it gets too hot! We'll talk about pasture conditions and livestock markets – and plan for future webinars! Bring your own coffee! Register at http://ucanr.edu/virtual_coffee_hour_may5
Working Rangelands Wednesdays Webinar Series (Every other Wednesday, beginning on May 6 – 1:00 p.m.): We're kicking off a new webinar series on ranching and rangelands with this presentation from Grace Woodmansee and Dr. Leslie Roche on rangeland drought. Grace will present findings from a 2016 survey of California ranchers on drought preparation and response strategies. The first webinar will be Wednesday, May 6, at 1:00 p.m.Register at http://ucanr.edu/working_rangeland_webinar_may6
Virtual Grazing School (Beginning May 4, 2020): Check out my new Ranching in the Sierra Foothills YouTube channel for a series of videos covering the principles of managed grazing, determining stocking rate and carrying capacity, troubleshooting and building electric fence, and portable stock water systems! https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChmJnrOY-7XboaNe5fVXSQw
Instagram Live Interviews (Thursday Mornings, 7:30 a.m.): If you're in Instagram, tune in to my live feed each Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m.! You can follow me at @flyingmule. I'll interview experts on range management, livestock husbandry, ranch economics, and a variety of other topics! You'll be able to post questions during the broadcast, too!
Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know Podcast (posted weekly): Join Ryan Mahoney of Emigh Livestock and me as we explore a variety of sheep-related topics! So far we've covered economic benchmarks, wool production, and getting started in the sheep business. Subscribe on Spotify or through Apple Podcasts! Videos will also be uploaded to my YouTube channel.
For more information, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Note: This post was adapted from my Foothill Agrarian blog.
I've read a number of Twitter threads over the last six weeks that have been focused on supporting local farmers and ranchers during the COVID-19 crisis. I think this is great! Anything that refocuses our food buying habits on local producers is positive, in my opinion. But even at the local level, our food system is a complex network of relationships, business and otherwise. And producing meat, especially pork, lamb, and beef, is even more complicated - by regulations, as well as by basic biology. I thought it might be useful to walk through my own decision-making process when it comes to how we market our lambs.
Fundamentally, we are in the business of harvesting grass and other vegetation with sheep. Through the miracle of rumination, our sheep are able to turn this forage into muscle, fat, bone, fiber, and milk. When it comes right down to it, we're in the business of turning the products of photosynthesis into meat and wool.
As ranchers know, not all grass (or broadleaf forages) are created equal - nor are they of equal nutritional value all through the year. As grazers, we must be concerned with both quantity and quality when it comes to creating an annual forage budget. And we must think about matching our production cycle with our forage availability - in other words, we need to balance supply and demand.
From a quantitative perspective, we have an abundance of green, nutritious forage (in most years) from March through mid-May on our unirrigated rangelands, and from April through late June on our irrigated pasture. After the "summer slump" (when temperatures are too warm for our cool-season forages like orchard grass and clover), we get a second (although lesser) peak in forge production in the late summer and early fall. The most challenging time for us here in the Sierra foothills and Sacramento Valley is mid-autumn through mid-winter - in Auburn, our irrigation water ends on October 15, so we must conserve last year's dead grass until the autumn rains germinate the forage on our annual rangelands.
In terms of quality, we focus largely on protein. The rumen microbes that break down cellulose and provide our animals with energy need at least 7-8 percent protein in the forage the sheep are consuming. Green forage is much higher in protein (typically) than dry grass - the forages on our annual rangelands and irrigated pastures right now (late April) are 14-20 percent protein; the dry grass that our ewes graze in July and August are 4-6 percent protein.
On the demand side of the equation, our forage demand (both in terms of quality and quantity) peaks as our ewes give birth and nurse their lambs. Non-lactating ewes have much lower feed demands - that's why we can graze them on dry annual grass in mid-summer. Growing lambs, on the other hand, need the most nutritious forage we can provide - they need energy and protein to grow muscle, bone, fat, and wool. Since we wean our lambs in mid-June at 65-70 pounds, this means that any lambs we plan to keep and finish on grass (at 100-110 pounds) need the highest quality forage we can grow. And we have a second (albeit) lower peak in nutritional demand in September, when we bring our ewes back to irrigated pasture to get them ready for breeding season.
Regardless of the forage type (green or dry rangeland forage or irrigated forage), we boil the considerations I've outlined into an estimate of sheep days per acre. This is sheepherder talk for estimating how many sheep one acre of forage will support for one day (cattle producers can do the same kind of estimate - one cow day's worth of forage will feed 5-6 sheep!).
Last summer, we grew (and harvested with sheep) just over 18,000 sheep days of irrigated pasture forage. If we divide this number by the days in our irrigation season (180 days, to keep the math simple), we see that we can graze 100 head of sheep on our pasture for the duration of the irrigation season. Let's break this down a bit further:
- From April 15 to June 15, we grazed 80 lactating ewes, 10 replacement ewes, and 110 lambs on our irrigated pasture. Based on how much each of these classes of animals consume, we estimate that we harvested about 9,000 sheep days in that two-month period.
- Once we weaned the lambs, we sold all but 35 of them (the sheep we kept included 20 replacement ewe lambs and 15 feeder lambs that we wanted to finish on grass). These sheep remained on irrigated pasture from June 15 through August 31 (for our purposes, let's say 75 days). These sheep consumed 2,625 sheep days worth of forage.
- From September 1 through the end of irrigation season on October 15, we had all of our sheep (ewes, replacement ewe lambs, and feeder lambs) on irrigated pasture - a total of 120 head. During this period, we harvested another 5,400 sheep days of forage.
- After the end of irrigation season, we had approximately 975 sheep days of forage left - with 120 head of sheep in our flock, this meant we had just over 8 days of grazing left on our irrigated pasture after the water turned off.
So how did a blog post about selling meat end up looking at grazing math?! Let's say that we wanted to direct market more lamb as individual cuts of meat (that is, finished and processed lamb). For example, what if we wanted to finish and direct market 75 lambs - could we do it with our current forage resources? From June 15 through the end of irrigation season, these 75 lambs would require 9,000 sheep days of our best forage. Since we'd already used 9,000 sheep days up to June 15, these lambs would require every blade of grass we could grow after weaning. We would have no grass for growing ewe lambs, nor would we have any grass for our breeding ewes. Our alternatives would be to purchase hay, lease additional irrigated pasture, or reduce the size of our breeding flock. We couldn't simply wake up on June 15 (weaning day) and decide to keep 60 extra lambs because we wanted to sell meat next November instead of feeder lambs next week.
The last issue for me is the added time and cost involved in marketing meat. In a good year, I know I can sell our feeder lambs in late June for $130-150 per head. If I decide to finish them and sell them as meat, I will incur additional costs beyond the cost of feeding these lambs for another 4-5 months. Once they're finished, it will cost me about $150 per lamb to have them harvested and packaged in a form that I can legally sell. I'll have multiple trips to the processor (which take me away from doing work on the ranch). I'll have the time involved in marketing and selling meat (which can be significant). I'll have the cost involved in storing meat. At our scale, I've found that selling meat results in higher gross income, but selling feeder lambs in June results in higher net income. In other words, we're more profitable selling a live feeder lamb in June that we would be selling meat in November.