- (Public Value) UCANR: Building climate-resilient communities and ecosystems
Wednesday, October 28, 2020 – 6 p.m. (via Zoom)
The University of Cooperative Extension (UCCE) is organizing an informational meeting on forming a Rancher's Fire Safe Council in the Sierra Foothills and beyond on Wednesday, October 28, from 6-7:30 p.m. The meeting will include short presentations regarding the California Cattlemen's Association Wildfire Committee, community-based Fire Safe Councils, and Rangeland Fire Protection Associations. We'll be discussing ranching community priorities regarding fire prevention, fire response (including livestock evacuation), and coordination with emergency response agencies at the local, state and federal levels. Please note: this meeting is focused on the needs and issues of commercial-scale ranching operations.
To register (and receive a Zoom link for the meeting), go to: http://ucanr.edu/survey/survey.cfm?surveynumber=32171
For more information, please contact Dan Macon, UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor (Placer-Nevada-Sutter-Yuba) at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 889-7385./span>
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!
Over the last three days, we've had a stark reminder about our vulnerability to wildfire and public safety power shutoffs here in the Sierra foothills. On Saturday morning, as I was getting ready to participate in the California Wool Growers Association virtual convention, I received word that the power was out in the community where our ewes are grazing. This meant we'd likely have to haul water to the sheep (rather than filling troughs from a pump-fed hose bib) - doable, but time consuming. Fortunately, power was restored quickly, and we were able to fill the troughs - a relief since Saturday was one of the hottest days of the summer so far!
Last night, I awoke to the sound of one of our border collies opening the screen door and trotting into the kitchen (where he could hide beneath the desk). Mo hates thunder, and I realized that thunder had chased him inside. I went outside to watch the lightning dance around the hills to our west and north. These storms were dry, and so we awoke this morning to news of a number of small (and at least one not-so-small) fires just to our north in Nevada County. I can smell smoke outside my office as I write this.
These events remind us that we're approaching peak fire season here in the northern foothills. The continuing heat wave (we're supposed to be over 100F for the fourth consecutive day) is drying the fuel to critical levels. As we head towards autumn, we'll likely see stronger and more erratic winds - and, according to the flyer I received from Pacific Gas & Electric last week, more public safety power shutoffs.
Last year's shutoffs were chaotic, to say the least. Here in north Auburn, we lost power three or four times (I think; so much has happened since last fall, my memory is a bit hazy). I do recall that the warning calls and texts from PG&E were frequent and rarely accurate. We had difficulty finding ice for our ice chests, and folks seemed to have forgotten how to go through intersections without working traffic lights. I grew up with lengthy power outages from winter weather, so the loss of electricity was more of an inconvenience for us - thankfully we had a small generator handy, so we could keep the meat in our freezers cold.
Heading into this fall, though, we should all be thinking about how we can manage through these power shutoffs and prepare for wildfire. Here's a start:
Public Safety Power Shutoff Preparation
- Can we get water to our livestock if the power goes off? How much water will our livestock need per day? If I can't pump water to them, do I have enough tank capacity and water access to haul water to them until power is restored?
- Do I have back-up power for our freezers and refrigerators? What is at risk in these appliances? We no longer sell meat at farmers markets; if we did, I'd be sure to have enough backup power generation on hand. What about vaccines and other pharmaceuticals? We keep our animal drugs in a refrigerator in our shop - can we keep them cold if we have no electricity?
- Do we have enough gasoline to run our generator for several days?
- Do we have enough ice for our ice chests to get us through a day or two without power? We've started filling empty milk cartons with water and freezing them for future use.
- Do all of our flashlights and battery-powered lanterns have good batteries?
- Can we charge our phones and computers in our vehicles? My laptop has an adapter, and we all have car chargers for our smart phones.
- Have we signed up for alerts from PG&E and other emergency services? As unorganized as the PG&E alert system was last year, it was helpful to feel connected and to be getting updates. And since these shutoffs coincide with periods of high fire danger, access to our phones is critical.
Since large-scale fires often coincide with loss of power, most of the preparations listed above apply here, too. But there are additional questions we think about when it comes to fire:
- Can we get to our sheep in the event of fire? Currently we have livestock on two leased properties at some distance from our home. In the event of a fire at these locations, we would contact law enforcement and animal control if we needed to gain access.
- Do we have contact information for landlords and neighboring landowners where our livestock our grazing, just in case we can't get access?
- Who would we call if we needed to haul our livestock out of the path of an oncoming fire? We can't get all of our sheep in one load, so we'd need to call for help.
- Alternatively, are there safe zones where we could place our livestock if we didn't have time to evacuate? Irrigated pastures or dry lots devoid of flammable vegetation may give us some emergency protection in a fast moving fire.
- Do we have a texting tree or a calling tree to check in with other ranchers in our community? I have found that county and CalFire emergency notification services typically don't provide timely information about small, local fires. But my ranching friends are always on top of things - often, the first word I get about a fire in our part of Placer County is a text from a fellow rancher.
- Are our buildings and other infrastructure protected? Since we have livestock in multiple locations, I think about this beyond our home place. Are there fire breaks protecting fences and forage? Have we removed brush around buildings and corrals?
- Do we have fire tools available to us? I keep a fire rake and a 5-gallon backpack pump in my truck during the summer - I've never had to use them, but I feel better having them with me.
You can sign up for PG&E alerts at at https://www.pge.com/mywildfirealerts (if you're a PG&E customer) or https://pge.com/pspszipcodealerts (if you're not a PG&E customer). You can also access PG&E's weather forecasting center at https://pge.com/weather.
Finally, I want to hear from you! What are you doing to prepare for fires and power outages? Share your ideas in the comments below, or on the UCCE Sustainable Foothill Ranching Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/FoothillSustainableRanching/.
Given California's ongoing shelter at home order, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, most of the ranchers I know are no longer gathering at a local coffee shop to catch up on how the neighbor's calf crop looks! Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, however, I held my first-ever Virtual Coffee Hour for ranchers this morning! We had a great discussion about drought, wildfire preparation, the impacts of COVID-19, and our individual coffee preferences.
Our conversation confirmed that this has been an exceptionally unusual year in terms of forage growth. Some noted that there seemed to be more foxtail and filaree than usual; others said the forage growth was patchy. Everyone felt like the forage on our annual grasslands would mature earlier than usual - possibly signaling an early onset of fire season.
Most importantly, we learned that 60 percent of those on the call prefer black coffee, while 30 percent add cream and sugar. And an astounding 10 percent didn't drink coffee at all!
Our next Ranchers Virtual Coffee Hour will be on Tuesday, May 5 at 6:30 a.m. - register here to get a link:
As for most of you, I imagine, my world seems upside down at the moment, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. As I write this, my youngest daughter is finishing her junior year of high school through online courses. My oldest daughter is completing her second-to-last semester at Montana State University through online courses. And I'm working from the desk in my kitchen. I think I've participated in more video conferences in the last seven days than I've been on in my entire professional life. Based on the advice of medical professionals, we're practicing social distancing, washing our hands, and avoiding large gatherings of people.
Despite COVID-19's dominance of our news cycle and our family conversations, normal, everyday ranching concerns continue. We're at the tail end of our lambing season, which means I'm checking the flock every morning and evening (and more frequently during stormy weather). And we're still worrying about drought.
Yesterday, I was invited to give a presentation during the California-Nevada Drought Early Warning System regular bimonthly webinar. The first two talks covered current conditions and future outlook - and even with the rain and snow we had in our part of the Sierra Nevada and Sacramento Valley last week, we remain in drought conditions. If you're interested in the details, here's a recording of the webinar talks (mine is the third talk in the webinar). The first two talks confirmed my observations. After last week's rain, I checked soil moisture on our winter rangeland - even with three inches of precipitation, the soil was only 50-75 percent saturated (which explains the lack of water in our seasonal creeks). We're starting to see some of our annual grasses head out, indicating the possibility of an earlier-than-normal decline in forage quality. While the snow in the mountains was welcome, our snow water content remains well below average for this time of year.
As I was preparing my talk, I started thinking about how my approach to this year's drought was different from how we managed through 2013-14 (one of the driest years in my memory). While every drought is unique (in terms of severity, timing, and scope), I think I've also learned from my experience. In 2013, we moved our sheep to Rio Vista, where I helped manage a 1900 ewe operation. Here's a quick comparison of the steps we took in the fall of 2013 and early winter of 2014, versus our strategies in 2019-20.
2013-2014 Drought (late germination, followed by extended dry period and warm January temperatures)
- We fed our entire year's supply of alfalfa during lambing (October-December) because there was virtually no grass on our annual rangelands.
- In late January, we sold approximately one-third of our ewes to reduce our forage demand once they started to lamb.
- In mid-February, we moved our sheep back to annual rangeland in the foothills near Auburn (to ensure that the larger commercial flock would have access to rangeland in Rio Vista.
- In late February, we ultrasounded our ewes to determine whether they were pregnant. We sold a handful of open ewes.
- We weaned our lambs four weeks earlier than normal (in late May) to reduce our stocking rate and save dry forage for fall.
2019-2020 Drought (late termination, followed by wet December, dry January, record dry/warm February)
- For the first time ever, we took our ewes to alfalfa stubble in the Sacramento Valley (near Nicolaus) from mid-November until mid-December. While we incurred some additional expense, this allowed us to rest our winter rangeland for an additional 30 days.
- Because we've kept detailed grazing records since the previous drought, we were able to put together detailed, 2-month grazing plans. We identified additional forage resources on our winter rangeland that allowed us to extend our forage supplies.
- We will cull any ewe without a lamb when we ship the flock back to spring/summer pasture in April. We'll cull additional ewes at weaning (for poor mothering, bad udders, missing teeth, etc.)
I'm curious as to how your drought strategies have changed! Are you doing anything differently this year? Is this the first drought you've experienced?