- (Public Value) UCANR: Protecting California's natural resources
- Author: Daniel K Macon
Barb goatgrass (Aegilops triuncialis L.) is a winter annual grass native to the Mediterranean region and western Asia. According to a UCANR publication, it was introduced to Sacramento and El Dorado Counties via the importation of cattle from Mexico. And it is a growing problem on annual rangelands here in the Sierra Foothills. In some ways, I think of this invasive grass as "medusahead on steroids" - barb goatgrass spikes and joints (seedheads) disperse by attaching to animals, humans, and equipment. I often see new infestations along roads or walkways. Barb goatgrass forms dense stands with a rapidly establishing root system, making it extremely competitive with other annual grasses and forbs. In some areas, barb goatgrass reduces forage quality and quantity by as much as 75 percent - and because livestock tend to avoid the plant (and graze more desirable forages), it can spread rapidly.
Carol and Andy Kramer, who operate a sheep and cattle ranch in Nevada County, have been fighting barb goatgrass for several years. Most recently, they've been working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) through an Environmental Quality Incentives Program contract focused on goatgrass control. Over the course of the last 9 months, Carol and Andy have been working with the Placer Resource Conservation District (RCD) and UCCE to experiment with using prescribed fire to reduce goatgrass and re-invigorate native grasses.
Research suggests that burning goatgrass for two consecutive years offers "excellent control." Sounds pretty straightforward, right?! Not so fast! Fire is an effective control method when most of the fine fuel has dried sufficiently to carry the fire, but when the goatgrass seedheads are still attached to the stem - in other words, in late spring or early summer, when everyone is starting to get nervous about fire in the foothills!
A quick aside about using prescribed fire as a range improvement tool. When I started working with ranchers in California in the early 1990s (when I was just out of college, working for the California Cattlemen's Association), prescribed fire had largely gone out of vogue. This was partly a result of increasing worries about liability, and partly, as I recall, a shift in focus and attitude within the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (which became officially known as CalFire in the early 2000s). Today, after a decade of increasingly catastrophic wildfires (and the accelerating spread of invasive weeds like barb goatgrass), prescribed fire is making a comeback - thanks to efforts of many of my UCCE colleagues, RCD staffers and contractors like Cordi Craig and Chris Paulus (who led this effort), and especially of landowners like Carol and Andy!
Obviously, with something as complicated as prescribed burning, you don't simply wake up one June morning and say, "Hey, this would be a great day to light the back pasture on fire!" Carol and Andy (along withCordi and Chris, andUCCE) began planning for this burn last winter. As fire professionals,Cordi and Chris recommended putting a "black line" around the 1.5 acres ofgoatgrass during the winter months, whenCALFIRE burn permits are not required. Carol and Andy invested in water tanks and other equipment, and spent much of the winter and early spring pile burning and creating fire lines. Working together, we also burned several adjacent units to remove ground and ladder fuels in the areas surrounding thegoatgrass site.
Then we all waited! We needed the underlying fuel to be dry enough to burn, but we also needed the goatgrass to hold onto its seedheads. And we needed the right weather conditions. With the wet, cool spring we had in 2023, these conditions didn't arrive until July - well into fire season. This meant that we also needed a permit from CalFire. I've lived and worked in CalFire's NEU unit (which covers Placer, Nevada, and Yuba Counties) - and worked with and around ranchers - for nearly 30 years. I wasn't aware of CalFire ever allowing a rancher to do a prescribed fire for range improvement (or any other reason) in July. But thanks to the Kramer's persistence and Cordi and Chris's experience and knowledge, we received permission to do the burn on July 13.
Carol and Andy started the fire around 9am that morning - temperatures were hovering around 80F, and the relative humidity was just over 50%. Amazingly, we had difficulty getting the vegetation to burn - even as temperatures rose and humidity dropped over the course of the morning. By midday, we'd burned all we could burn, and began mopping up (making sure the fire was completely out).
Walking through the burn, I was amazed by the variability in burn intensity. Some of the goatgrass seedheads were completely consumed; others looked like they had not been exposed to fire at all. Carol collected seedheads from before the burn, as well as singed and apparently unsinged seedheads, to see if there will be any difference in germination (we'll keep you posted). We also started thinking about next year's burn.
One of the biggest challenges in burning for a second consecutive year, I expect, will be whether there is enough fine fuel (other grasses, pine needles, dry leaves, etc.) to carry the fire through the goatgrass. Visiting the site two weeks ago, I was impressed to see native blue wildrye starting to grow in the blackened burn unit (even with very little precipitation since the fire) - we'll be anxious to see what happens once we've had a germinating rain. Even so, we are considering broadcasting a quick-growing, early maturing annual grass (like soft chess (Bromus hordeaceus) this fall so that we have more receptive fuel next spring.
I think we all learned a great deal about the logistics of using fire to manage goatgrass (thanks to Cordi and Chris) - and about the challenges of using prescribed fire during fire season. One of the side benefits, from my perspective, is the demystification of fire generally. This was not a scary burn, even though it happened in the middle of July! While this was partly due to the conditions on the day of the burn, the work that Carol and Andy did to prepare (with Cordi and Chris's guidance) over the many months leading up to July 13 made it successful and safe. We're all looking forward to next year's fire!
Our older ewes will graze it (some) early in the growing season, but by the time we get back to these pastures in the fall, the plants are too coarse to be palatable. As with most forage plants, palatability and nutrition seem to be related - as the plants become coarse, they also drop in nutritional value. And since the sheep don't graze it late in the year, it seems to be able to out-compete some of the more desirable species (which the sheep will eat).
Over the last decade, we've tried several different approaches. Early on, thinking that fertility was a key factor, we tried fertilizing with triple phosphate. We saw no difference between the areas we fertilized and those we didn't. One of our landlords tried mowing the broomsedge mid-season - which didn't seem to set it back at all, and which also didn't increase its palatability. In 2020 and 2021, I tried spot treating individual plants with glyphosate. These plants were still vegetative (that is, they hadn't flowered or produced seed yet), but in most cases, as the plant died from the herbicide, it seemed to go into hyperdrive and produce seeds. After the 2020 experiment, we didn't notice much difference from our spot spraying - we're still seeing broomsedge in our pastures.
In very early April, I decided to try another type of spot treatment - fire! Using a propane torch, I tried burning individual plants, as well as groups of plants where fire would carry. Broomsedge seems to be more of a warm-season perennial here, so it really hadn't started growing yet.
Obviously, this spring has been atypical, weather-wise (although over the last decade, I'd be hard-pressed to say what "typical" weather is). After I burned the broomsedge, we received more than four inches of rain (more than we measured for January through March 2022). Additionally, we started irrigating in mid-April. Not surprisingly, the burned broomsedge started to grow - sending up new tillers within a week or two of my burning.
Fast-forward to the last two weeks. We finally got the sheep onto the parts of the pasture I'd burned. And they absolutely LOVED the fresh growth on the broomsedge - they selectively grazed the plants that I'd treated (and ignored the decadent plants that I didn't burn). The next step will be to see if these plants stay palatable following our typical rest period (which is usually 35-40 days during this time of year).
By some definitions, a weed is simply a plant that is growing where we don't want it to grow. A weed, in a pasture setting, is a plant that takes up water, nutrients, and sunlight, at the expense of plants that may have greater nutritional value or more palatability. In that sense, broomsedge is definitely a weed - it's growing where I might otherwise be able to grow orchardgrass or clover. But what if I can figure out a cost-effective way to keep it palatable longer into the grazing season? What if I can get the sheep to eat it? Maybe a "weed" is in the eye of the beholder! Stay tuned - I'll provide an update on my observations as we make a second pass through this pasture!
When it comes to livestock protection tools, there are no "silver bullets"....
I want to start this blog post by saying I'm convinced that livestock guardian dogs (LGDs), if properly bred and bonded, are the most effective livestock protection tool available to me as a small-scale commercial sheep producer. I have game camera photos of coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and even mountain lions within 50 yards of our lambing paddocks that prove to me that our dogs are working. I have lost replacement ewes to coyotes in each of the last two years where we were unable to have a dog with our sheep. But like every nonlethal tool in my tool box, LGDs are not a silver bullet. They aren't perfect, and I was reminded of this today.
I've written frequently about our bonding process - about the importance of bonding a young pup with OUR livestock and our management system. Over the 17 years that we've raised sheep and used dogs, I've become better at managing this process. I select pups from working parents - pups that are born where they can hear and smell sheep before their eyes are open. I put pups with dry ewes as soon as I can (preferably at 8-10 weeks of age). I put teenage dogs with rams to cure their desire to play and roughhouse. And I put young dogs (at 18-24 months) with an older dog at lambing as part of their final exam - an older dog will often enforce respect for the lambing process and ensure that a younger dog doesn't interfere (or worse, steal or kill a lamb).
But every dog is different. Just as every border collie pup out of working parents doesn't necessarily make a sheep dog, every LGD pup doesn't make a trustworthy guardian.
I bought Dillon several years ago at an auction - he was a promising pup from a sheep outfit in northern Nevada. We bonded him as we bond all of our LGDs - and he made expected progress - for the most part. Dillon has been slow to mature behaviorally. Most dogs, at two-and-a-half years of age, are mature (mentally and physically). Dillon still acts like a pup sometimes. He's overly exuberant at feeding time. He bounds up to sheep playfully. He's a goofball.
And today, we think, he's a lamb thief.
For a variety of reasons, we have a small group of very late lambing yearling ewes this year - which is not our normal practice. Last week, we sorted off the ewes we thought were pregnant and kept them at home after we sheared the flock last weekend. Dillon, who had been with our rams, was turned out with the older pairs (and with an older dog) - we kept the pregnant ewes at home, with an older dog. Unfortunately, we missed one of the pregnant yearlings, and she remained with the main flock.
This morning, when my partner checked the main flock, he found Dillon with a newborn lamb in his mouth. Dead. The ewe was a maiden; an experienced ewe might have chased Dillon off. Unfortunately, this first-time mother did not - nor did the older dog. Now we're faced with a dilemma - we have a dog that's great with older pairs, dry ewes, or rams, but who wants to keep new lambs “safe” from their mothers.
Ultimately, I think, this comes down to selecting the right dog for the job - or maybe it's the right job for the dog. We currently have two outstanding lambing dogs - dogs who are entirely trustworthy with lambing ewes. We have a third dog, Dillon, who is effective in less complicated situations. How do we manage this going forward?
Every dog is different - just as every operation is different. Dillon is great with our rams. He's great with dry ewes or older pairs. He's not, unfortunately, a suitable replacement for our older lambing dogs. He's not a perfect dog - he's no silver bullet. The same can be said of any livestock protection too, ultimately.
Predator Protection in Rangeland Livestock Operations
One of the first projects I worked on when I started this job was a publication called Livestock Protection Tools for California Ranchers. Working with a number of other advisors and extension specialists, we took a detailed look at the variety of “tools” that ranchers could use to protect their livestock from predators – everything from livestock guardian dogs to electric fencing, and every predator from neighbor dogs to gray wolves. But as I've studied livestock-predator conflict more thoroughly, and as I've thought about how I protect my own sheep from predators, I've come to think that maybe “tool” is the wrong word. Protecting livestock from predators on rangeland takes a systems approach – one that reflects the overlapping ecology of grazing livestock and rangeland predators. A system that reflects an understanding of human, livestock, and predator behavior – and how these behaviors interact.
I'll use our sheep operation to illustrate what I'm trying to say here. We graze just shy of 100 wool-breed ewes on annual rangeland, irrigated pasture, and irrigated crop land, all within 7 miles of Auburn. The predators we've observed in our environment include mountain lions, black bears, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, domestic dogs, and golden and bald eagles. We also have birds that other producers might include on this list – crows and magpies. We lamb from late February through the end of March (when the grass on our annual rangelands is starting to grow rapidly). We move to irrigated pasture in April. In late June, we wean the lambs and sell most of them; the lambs we keep stay on irrigated pasture, while the ewes move back to annual rangeland. In late August, the ewes come back to irrigated pasture and/or cropland, where they stay through flushing and breeding. In early December, the entire flock moves back to annual rangeland.
Predator pressure varies by location and time of year. We tend to see more wild predators on annual rangeland, although we have seen coyotes in our irrigated pastures. We see more domestic dogs closer to town. We see eagles rarely, but we do see them. We have trail camera photos of a mountain lion within 30 yards of the paddock where we were lambing several years ago. We have too many photos of coyotes to count.
Mostly, we rely on our livestock guardian dogs and our electro-net fencing to keep predators away from our sheep. We know they work – because we've lost sheep where we didn't have both tools (in hard-wire fences without a dog), but I couldn't tell you which “tool” was more important. We've also used FoxLights™ - a randomly flashing light that supposedly deters coyotes and foxes. When we have sheep at home, we'll put them in a secure pen at night (e.g., night-penning) if we need to.
But our system encompasses more than dogs and fencing. We move the sheep every 3-7 days for most of the year. Mostly these are moves to an adjacent pasture, but I suspect the fact that the sheep are never in the exact same spot for very long helps confound the predators to some degree. We add dogs – and more human presence – during lambing, when we're especially vulnerable. We have focused on ewe genetics on maternal qualities – which for us includes vigorous lambs and protective ewes who can keep track of their young.
All of this might seem to be a matter of perspective – or vocabulary! One rancher's “toolbox” might be another rancher's “system.” But as we start talking about impacts from predators, and the costs associated with these impacts, I've come to think we need to take a broader view.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife received funding in last year's budget to help offset the cost of nonlethal predator deterrents for ranchers. By taking a systems perspective on this question, I think we can help the agency understand that most producers are already doing things to mitigate predator problems. Rather than asking, “what tools are you using?” we should be asking, “How have you changed your management to avoid conflict with predators?” Are there parts of your range you don't use during certain times of year? Are you riding through the heifer field more often? Are you adding extra livestock guardian dogs to your operation so you have enough dog power during lambing or kidding? Are you giving up leases because the predator pressure is just too intense? Some of these are “tools,” obviously, but some are systematic changes to our operations. Regardless, they all have costs. And in my mind, they should all be considered when it comes to any kind of predator deterrent cost-sharing program.
Finally, all of these systematic considerations regarding predators have to fit within the larger context of our ranching systems. Not only do we need to think about avoiding or resolving conflicts with predators, we have to think about our marketing windows. We have to fit our genetics both to our environment and to the marketplace. We need to consider the cost of – and return to – labor (our own labor as well as that of our employees, if we have any). We need to think about short term cash flow and long term investment. We often need to satisfy the needs of our landlords, our families, our bankers, and others connected to our businesses. We have to be good neighbors. This larger context influences the choices we have available to us when it comes to predator protection. For me, the idea of a system (as opposed to a tool box) better reflects the complexity of coexisting with wildlife.
If you've been following our effort to demonstrate techniques for bonding livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) with cattle (either on this blog or through my @flyingmulefarm Twitter or Facebook accounts), you'll know that Sam the LGD pup got off to a great start on large cattle operation in Modoc County in 2021. But after their first significant snowfall of the year, and the realization that their heifers would begin calving shortly after the Holidays, the ranch decided that they simply didn't have the bandwidth to continue with the project. In the week before Christmas, I brought Sam back to Placer County – he spent the Holidays with my sheep and one of my mature LGDs, Bodie.
During Sam's “vacation,” I happened to visit with JC Baser, a local cattle producer who has experienced increasing problems with coyotes during his last several calving seasons. JC is on the board of our local Tahoe Cattlemen's Association, and his whole family is involved in their operation. He'd heard me talk about the project at board meetings, and called me one morning to talk in more detail.
The Baser's ranch is typical of many foothill cattle operations. They graze on leased rangeland in the winter time, and leased and owned irrigated pasture in the summer time. Perhaps atypically, however, they've created a great market for show cattle – fair steers and fancy heifers. They're also innovators when it comes to reproductive technology – utilizing artificial insemination and other techniques to continuously improve their genetics. And from the perspective of this project, they're willing to try new things!
After the first of the year, I toured the Baser's winter ranch, where they're currently calving. The following week, I worked with Garrett and Levi (JC and Michelle's sons) to set up an electro-net paddock near their barn. They put four heifers in the paddock; I added Sam. And the demonstration project was off and running in a new location!
Sam is now nearly 8 months old – in the midst of his “terrible teens” (the time period with most young LGDs seem to be puppy enough to want to play but big enough to play too roughly with livestock). As we introduced him to his new environment, he took special interest in JC and Michelle's youngest daughter (who's 5 years old). They've since reported that he continues to be fixated on her when she's nearby – and so they've limited her contact with Sam (since we want Sam to bond with cattle rather than people).
When we introduced Sam to the heifers, he barked a bit and tried to keep them away from us. I walked through the heifers and growled at Sam if he looked like he wanted to chase. Within about 10 minutes, he'd settled in. The heifers also seemed to settle – they were curious about their new fuzzy white pasture mate, but they quickly went back to grazing.
That was all 13 days ago. Yesterday, I visited the Basers and got an update on Sam's progress. They reported that for the first several days, when they arrived (and Sam knew they were there), he would herd the heifers around the paddock, nipping at their heels. On the occasions where they could observe Sam without his knowledge, however, he was content to be with his cattle. Late last week, they added an older dry cow to the mix. Sam tried to keep her separated from the heifers for about 10 minutes, but then settled back down. Today, he was excited to see me – and followed me through the paddock as I went to see the cattle. Once I was back outside the fence, however, he decided he'd rather be with the cattle than watch us – all positive signs.
The Basers also reported that Sam definitely barks at external stimuli – whether it's the rancher next door checking his cattle, or the sound of a coyote. This responsiveness is perhaps the most important tool in and LGDs tool box – in some cases, announcing their presence (through barking and scent marking) appears to deter predators.
Our next steps with Sam will be to introduce several cows with older calves at their sides. I suspect this introduction will be a two-way process – mother cows can be protective of their calves, so they may be more suspicious of the dog in their pasture. Conversely, Sam needs to get comfortable with the entire herd – and with the changes that occur (calving, weaning, etc.) in any commercial livestock setting. I'm hopeful he'll handle this new transition well, but we'll be watching closely.
For now, Sam remains inside an electro-net paddock, which keeps him with “his” cattle. Eventually, we hope that he'll be well-enough bonded with the ranch livestock that we won't need the eletro-net. We'll also work to get him trained to eat from an automatic feeder in a creep-feeding set-up – the labor of daily feeding is one of the drawbacks that many ranchers cite about using LGDs. And, like the final exam we subject our sheep-guarding dogs to, Sam will need to prove trustworthy during the calving process. These are all developments that will hopefully be natural as Sam matures. For now, however, he continues to make the progress I'd expect from an 8-month-old dog.