- (Public Value) UCANR: Protecting California's natural resources
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.
On to the Next Phase
We've reached a new phase in our effort to learn how to bond a livestock guardian dog with cattle. As we described in previous blog posts, we are learning that we need to bond Sam, our 7-month old LGD puppy, with cattle – and vice versa. The cattle need to be as comfortable with Sam as he is with them – and so we'll be trying Sam in a new setting, with new cattle, after the first of the year.
The ranch we'd been collaborating with was planning to try Sam with a group of bred heifers they're keeping in close to their headquarters (they're due to start calving next month). The heifers, we were thinking, were more curious than older cows, which would hopefully help them accept Sam more readily. For the initial part of this new phase, we planned keep Sam fenced in an electronet paddock in the midst of the heifer field – the heifers would be fed and access water in close proximity, but the electric fence would prevent direct contact initially.
Snow is hard on electronet fencing – the weight knocked down sections of the fence, allowing the calves and Sam to get out into the larger pasture. On the plus side, Sam clearly demonstrated that he preferred being with the calves. While he'd come up to the ranch buildings when there was activity, he always returned to his calves. On the negative side, however, the ranch felt that our plan to keep Sam in electronet fencing in the heifer pasture was not workable with more snow in the forecast. On December 20, I traveled to Likely one last time and retrieved Sam. We'll move on to a new phase of the project!
I should note that Sam traveled well – the ranch trained him to walk on a lead and to be tied out, and he made the 4-hour trip in a dog crate without soiling the crate, crying, or barking.
For the short term, this new phase involves putting Sam with a handful of rams at our home place. He's also with our oldest and best dog, Bodie. We don't typically put a small pup with an older dog (as we want the pup to bond with livestock first). As a pup matures, however, an older dog can help reinforce the importance of respect for the livestock - Bodie has already corrected Sam several times.
While Sam continues to mature physically, he also continues to behave like a puppy on occasion – a puppy who weighs 80 pounds or more! In Likely, Sam demonstrated that he still liked to play with the orphan calves he was pastured with. This behavior included licking and sometimes gently biting their ears and faces, and bounding up to the calves if they were grazing at a distance. While the ranch corrected this behavior when observed, Sam couldn't be observed around the clock. Similarly, he was initially overly enthusiastic about the rams he's with now - so we're trying a tool that I've used on other young dogs that were exuberantly playful.
A dangle stick is a device that hangs from a dog's collar and makes running and jumping uncomfortable. Comprised of a piece of wood, short pipe, or weighted piece of PVC attached to a chain, the dangle stick hits a dog in the mid-leg area, making this activity uncomfortable. This discomfort, which is alleviated when the dog is walking calmly, corrects the unwanted behaviors – in other words, it makes the right behavior easy and the wrong behavior difficult. The dog can correct himself!
When we first attached the dangle stick to Sam's collar, he was annoyed by it – he chewed on the chain. Within several minutes, however, he accepted it and learned how to navigate the pasture with it. Over the last several days, I've watched Sam bound after the rams, only to have the stick knock against his legs. He stopped running and walked up to them calmly – just the effect we were looking for. Sam will wear the dangle stick for several weeks – and then we'll assess his behavior without it. If he reverts to his old puppy habit of running up to the livestock, we'll put it back on.
After the holidays, we'll place Sam on another cattle ranch here in the Sierra Foothills. This new ranch is a bit smaller (both in terms of acreage and livestock), but is having significant coyote issues during calving. We'll work with this new outfit to introduce Sam to the cattle and vice versa – with the hope that Sam and the cattle will eventually accept one another. While Sam still needs to prove himself, we hope that controlling his interaction with the cattle in a new operation will help further his training. I've observed similar challenges in bonding naïve sheep with LGDs – sheep that have been raised to be afraid of dogs don't immediately trust these big white dogs. In my experience, this is where the dog's submissive behaviors are so critical. While play behavior can be excused, aggressive or dominant behavior can't be. We'll be watching Sam for continued submissiveness as he moves into this new environment. We'll also be watching the cattle to see if they begin to accept this big white dog in their pasture. And as always, we'll be monitoring Sam's desire to stay with livestock. Stay tuned!