- (Public Value) UCANR: Building climate-resilient communities and ecosystems
The Placer County Resource Conservation District (Placer RCD) is rapidly expanding their prescribed burning program offerings to improve community wildfire resilience. The Prescribed Burning on Private Lands (PBPL) Pilot Program works to reduce barriers that limit private landowners from implementing prescribed burns including understanding permitting, liability, and developing the skills and confidence to put prescribed fire on the ground. Placer RCD offers technical assistance, workshops, and demonstration burns to give landowners the resources and confidence they need to implement safe and legal prescribed burns. In addition to education, the RCD created the first Placer Prescribed Burn Association (PBA) and is developing a community equipment cache. To get involved or learn more, visit www.placerrcd.org or contact Cordi Craig at email@example.com.
We're in the process of planning more prescribed fire for working landscapes field days this fall and winter, too - stay tuned for details!/span>/span>
I invite you to travel back in time with me - clear back to late October 2021! We'd measured more than 10 inches of rain in Auburn, and we could see the first green shoots of grass emerging through the dry forage. While November was slightly disappointing from a precipitation perspective, we measured more than 12 inches of rain in December - capped off by a crazy, wet, and cold storm just before the first of the year. I'm sure most of us were celebrating what looked like a great feed year when we rang in 2022. But then the spigot shut off - here in Auburn, we've measured just 1.77 inches of rain since January 1 - the driest start to the calendar year in the 20+ years I've kept records. Combining this lack of moisture with warmer-than-normal temperatures and unusual (at least for winter) dry north wind, we are squarely back in drought conditions. In many ways, we seem to be experiencing a more severe drought than last year, at least on our foothill annual rangelands.
Ranchers know that drought is more than just a lack of precipitation. Low rainfall years, provided the storms come at the right time, can produce above-average forage. This year, however, the warm temperatures have brought oaks and other vegetation out of dormancy earlier than normal - this early onset of the growing season in our oak woodlands has increasedevapotranspiration (or soil-water demand). The north winds haven't helped. Before we received an inch of rain on March 14-15, I checked soil moisture in Auburn - and found it to be less than 20% (more like May than March). The rain gave us a short boost, but by the end of last week, soil moisture was back around 25%.
Ourrangeland vegetation reflects these poor growing conditions. Our annual grasses andforbs, by definition, must produce seed every year. In dry conditions, this means that they reproduce and turn brown early and at a shorter stature. Where our sheep are grazing just west of Auburn, I've seen soft chess and annualryegrass headed out this week - a good 30 days early. In a good year, the soft chess will be as much as 18 inches tall; this year, it's done growing at 6 inches. Many of our importantbroadleaf forage plants are maturing equally early - I'm seeing vetch dying back on our shallower soils, and thefilaree is already in the late bloom stage, as well.
These are all red flags from a forage quantity perspective - shorter feed this spring means less residual feed to return to next fall. But early maturity also compresses our forage quality window. Many of us expect a 45-60 day period when we have high quality forage on our annual rangelands - and we set our production calendars accordingly. As these grasses and forbs mature, they decline in quality - providing less protein and energy to our grazing animals. They also become less palatable - in other words, they don't taste as good and they don't provide as much nutrition. The graph below demonstrates that crude protein levels in annual grasses drop below cow maintenance levels between the late flowering and maintenance stages (which we're approaching). If we're trying to put weight on animals, protein levels are deficient by the time we reach the early flowering stage. For more information, check out this ANR Publication (Annual Rangeland Forage Quality).
We're still hopeful that the significant snow pack we built up in December will mean we'll have adequate irrigation water here in the foothills - other regions in the state aren't so fortunate. Given the exceptionally dry conditions, however, I expect we'll need to make at least 2 irrigation rotations over our irrigated pastures to rebuild soil moisture and start growing forage. For us, this means we won't start regrowing irrigated pasture forage following our first graze periods until the end of May.
In light of these impacts, what are some of the strategies we should consider going forward? The basic premise of most drought management strategies is to increase our forage supply (by buying hay or other feed, irrigated early, or leasing new pasture) or reducing our forage demand (by selling livestock or weaning early). Check out our Drought Decision Making Tool for Ranchers for information on how to analyze the economics of these options! This page also includes a new bulletin on early weaning.
As far along as our annual rangeland vegetation is today, another rain won't do us much good - other than perhaps grow some summer annual weeds that may have some grazing value. Rain wouldgive our irrigated pastures a boost, however - at least here in the foothills. We'll see what April brings!
I feel like I've said this every year for the last decade, but what a strange weather year we're having! Here in Auburn, we experienced the most intense rainfall in October that I can remember (with more than 8 inches falling in a 48 hour period). November was drier than "normal," but December turned wet and cold. We measured more than 12 inches of precipitation in December at home (including a bit of snow). Just up the hill from us though, record amounts of snow fell - the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab on Donner Summit set an all-time record for December with 193.7 inches of snow!
Unfortunately, the Snow Lab set another record yesterday - the longest consecutive period without measurable precipitation during meteorological winter (32 days) since the lab was established in 1971. Today, February 10, marks the 33rd day without rainfall here in Auburn. And our high temperature today is supposed to be over 70F. Despite the promising start we saw in October, we're once again dusting off the drought plan for our small sheep operation.
Every drought, obviously is different - as is every year within a multi-year drought. During the winter of 2013-2014, for example, we went 52 days (from early December through the end of January) without rainfall in Auburn - but we measured more than 14 inches in February and March. In December 2014, we measured over 11 inches - followed by 0.01 inches in January 2014. In the first year of the current drought (2020), we had just 0.03 inches in February, but measured more than 12 inches from March through May. Last year, in contrast, we received just 0.18 inches after April 1.
But rangeland drought is more than simply a lack of precipitation, and rangeland forage production depends on many factors in addition to rainfall. Critically, drought is the interaction of lack of precipitation and soil-moisture deficit driven by high temperatures and increased evapotranspiration. On California's annual rangelands, seasonality of precipitation and climate-soil interactions result different drought impacts depending on the season. While fall drought can obviously lead to winter and spring drought, I found it helpful to think about our own drought plan based on the different impacts we see depending on the time of year.
- Fall Drought: driven by a lack of fall precipitation, fall drought causes a delay in germination on annual rangelands. This can lead to a lack of fall and winter forage (both in terms of quality and quantity), as well as a lack of stock water. Our 2013-2014 drought is a good example.
- Winter Drought: To some extent, California's annual rangelands experience some degree of winter drought most years - the days get too short, and the air and soil temperatures get too cold, to grow much forage. When combined with a lack of precipitation (like in January 2015), this can lead to a lack of both forage and stock water in winter and early spring.
- Spring Drought: This type of drought is driven by a lack of precipitation and warm temperatures in late winter and early spring, leading to increased evapotranspiration and decreased soil moisture. We see perennial plants (including oaks and brush) come out of dormancy early. We may also see our rangeland forage head out early, which results in a decrease in forage quality. Lack of precipitation and dry soils can also result in decreased runoff, impacting stock water availability. Finally, a dry spring (combined with seasonal overstocking of our ranch) can lead to a lack of dry forage next fall. For me, the dry spring of 2021 is a perfect example.
- Summer Drought: While a lack of precipitation is normal in Mediterranean climates like ours, summer drought from a forage perspective is driven by lack of winter snow pack and resulting cuts in irrigation water, or decreases in mountain forage production. With our record low snow pack in 2015, many ranchers didn't receive normal irrigation deliveries. The lack of snow and rapid snow melt last year (2021) meant many high-country grazers in the Sierra had their grazing seasons slashed.
So what does this drought taxonomy mean for our sheep outfit? What kinds of strategies are available to us given the particular conditions in February 2022?
I shared the descriptions above with my colleague Josh Davy (who's the livestock and range advisor for Glenn, Colusa, and Tehama Counties, and who runs his own cattle). He said, "My starting point is to set my stocking rate so that I can survive December and January - those are the toughest months, feed-wise." We've done the same thing - the 2012-2016 drought taught us to be conservative with our stocking rate. Last September, when we turned in the rams, we kept the number of ewes and replacement ewe lambs we felt like we could graze through the winter.
But what about now? We'll start lambing within the next week - which means we've put a year's worth of expense into these ewes to get them to the point where they'll give us something to sell this summer. We're continually looking at the amount of forage ahead of us as we approach our lambing season; we're also looking back to see if the pastures we've already grazed are regrowing. This week's planning meeting was depressing: the forage we've grazed since late December isn't regrowing at all, which means we'll need to rely on what we have left (if it stays dry). And what we have left will only feed the ewes through the third or fourth week of March - we'll be short about 3 weeks (we will move to another ranch in mid-April).
Ultimately, we have two options - we can increase our forage supply (by purchasing hay or grazing difficult-to-access pastures), or we can decrease our forage demand (by selling sheep). As with any plan, there are tradeoffs to both of these approaches - we can increase costs and/or labor, or we can decrease our income. For now, we've settled on the following strategies:
- We'll graze hard-to-fence pastures and move sheep more frequently if necessary up through the first week of lambing. Every extra day we buy now will give us one more day of forage in late March. As the ewes drop more lambs, however, they'll become more difficult to move (which requires more time and effort on our part). Since we typically don't reach peak lamb drop until early March, this gives us a window of about 3 weeks to access these difficult pastures.
- Based on past experience 85-95 percent of our ewes will have lambed by March 31. We may have a few stragglers, but we should be close to finished. If we haven't had an inch of rain by then, and if there's no rain in the 14-day forecast, we'll sort off the ewes that haven't lambed and sell them. Late lambs won't wean as heavy, which means they won't generate as much income. Selling the ewes will reduce our forage demand.
- Based on these strategies, if we get to late March or early April and find we don't have adequate forage for the pairs (ewes and lambs), we'll feed hay until we ship the sheep home for shearing in the third week of April. From that point, we think we'll have enough forage to make it till weaning in late June.
- Finally, if it stays dry through the rest of the growing season, we'll look at further de-stocking to conserve our fall forage. We might sell more ewes, or we might wean the lambs early. We might do both.
These are not easy decisions - ever! But I find that they are easier when we've talked through them and weighed all of our options. And I also find that setting some key dates for implementation helps take the emotion out of the decision - and holds me accountable. Uncertainty, for me, is more unpleasant than making a difficult decision.
While wildfire has always been a part of our foothill and mountain environments, the scope and intensity of recent fires are well beyond anything most of us have experienced. In the last decade, incidents like the Rim Fire, the Butte Fire, the King Fire - not to mention the North Complex Fire and the Dixie Fire - have severely impacted foothill and Sierra ranching operations from Mariposa County to Lassen County. More locally, the River Fire (on both sides of the Bear River) resulted in evacuations of several farming and ranching operations during the 2021 fire season). Other ranchers in Yuba, Nevada, and Placer Counties lost forage to smaller fires. With fire season starting earlier - and lasting longer - we all need to be better prepared!
To kick off this effort, we are collaborating with the California Cattle Council and the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) to host a Ranchers Wildfire Field Day on Friday, Feburay 18, 2021 at SFREC in Browns Valley, CA. Our agenda will include rancher panel discussions, presentations on fire behavior, wildfire preparation, prescribed fire, and sheltering-in-place options, and policy updates from the California Cattlemen's Association, California Farm Bureau Federation, and California Wool Growers Association. Here's a quick overview of the day:
- Surviving a Fire (Rancher Panel) - Dave Daley, Brian Kingdon, and Kevin Pharis
- Ranch Hardening and Fire Planning - Dan Macon, UCCE
- Fire Tools and Fire Behavior Basics - Chris Paulus, CALFIRE (retired)
- Using Fire as a Tool - Prescribed Fire on Working Landscapes - Jeff Stackhouse, UCCE (invited)
- Evacuate or Defend: Making Resilient Wildfire Response Plans in Ranching Communities - Dr. Amanda Stasiewicz, San Jose State University
- Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (Rancher Panel) - Mike Guerry and Rob Oxerango, Idaho Ranchers
- Policy Updates - CCA, CFBF, and CWGA
- 2022 Wildfire Update and Working with CALFIRE - local CALFIRE representative
Lunch will be sponsored by the California Cattle Council! Registration is just $5/person - register at http://ucanr.edu/2020_ranchers_wildfire_field_day
Like many of you, I expect, I've recently debated whether to keep my social media accounts - Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram sometimes seem like a bottomless pit of advertising and argument. But then something like this happens....
Last week, I wrote about the idea of an "ecological calendar" - a way to think about our production calendars from an ecological perspective (read the post here). I included my first rather awkward attempt at graphically displaying my own sheep production calendar - and shared the graphic on Instagram.
Within several hours, I had the most wonderful response from someone who listens to our Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know podcast - complete with an actual, real-world ecological calendar from a famous sheep-producing region in France! Yeva (@why_suarez on Instagram) shared this:
"The inner orange circle says “troupeau en montage” (herd in the mountains) and troupeau en crau (the Crau is a geographical area). Most sheep farmers in the south of France move their sheep to the mountain areas (like Haute Savoie, the mountains between Italy and France. Pyrenees is another system yet again) as there's not enough green pastures available, because of the high temperatures that dry out the land and/or because the irrigated areas are used to produce hay (there are more reasons, but that's the short version!). Wolves are a big issue, they will be guarded by a shepherd throughout the summer. But back to the calendar.
"You see two blue lines pass through all the circles, one: mid-June; one: beginning of October. That's when the sheep are away, which matches with the outer circle that says “estives dans les alpages.” Estives means summer pasture. Most of the sheep will be taken there, represented in the tiny sheep symbols. Outside that period is says in the circle “enneigement en montagne,” which is basically snow in the mountains!
"The arrows show the movement of the sheep to the different kind of pastures. In the Crau, you basically have two kinds, the green one that is irrigated and produces the hay and the dry one or the “Coussouls” that have a very specific kind of biodiversity and is known for its many rocks.
"It's a bit complicated to explain because it's a circular system, so it's all linked – which also makes it very cool, because the entire calendar is pasture and hay based, including lambing dates, etc. But basically, Foins de Crau is a very famous hay that's produced with a complicated irrigation system and is subject to many rules if it wants to qualify as “foins de crau,” as it's known for its very high quality. They cut it three times a year (in the calendar it says “1ere coupe = first cut, etc.). Each “cut” has a different nutritional component and is marketed differently. The fourth cut is not actually cut; it is eaten by the sheep when they return from the mountains. That's why you see the sheep symbols between October and February in the same circle as the “cuts” – we call those kinds of pastures the “prairies.”
"Half February (the blue line only overlaps the prairies and coussouls) they are then moved to the coussouls. The prairies will start growing again for the first foins de crau cut and the cassouls offer enough food. Some other shepherds bring sheep to hill areas nearby instead of the coussouls – it tends to depend on the particularities of that farm. The amount of sheep symbols has grown in the cassouls circle, because the herds tend to be much bigger as this calendar reflects an autumn lambing period, which is the overall tendency here.
"Outside the inner circle is a smaller blue one that shows when the prairies are irrigated with water and when not (“arrossage de pres”). The specific timing of the movement of the herds would be a much longer story! But I hope the different layers of the calendar are clearer now and why they are linked."
I shared this calendar explanation with my friend Dr. Hailey Wilmer, who is the Research Rangeland Management Specialist at the U.S. Range Sheep Production Efficiency Research Unit, in Dubois, Idaho. Her observation was that "calendars can help tell stories across landscapes." I agree - looking at the calendar Yeva shared, and the explanation she provided, helped me look again at my own calendar. I asked myself these questions:
- What is the heart of our sheep operation in terms of nutrition and forage? For us, I think, it's the annual rangeland we use in the winter and again in summer.
- What is the second most important forage resource? In our case, it's our irrigated pasture. Pasture is more productive - and also more costly. With sheep, we could probably figure out how to get along without it.
- Finally, how do our production needs (vaccinations, shearing, lambing, etc.) fit within these underlying forage cycles?
All of this brings me to a question for you! How does your production system fit the ecological cycles in your region? I hope you'll share! And I guess I'll keep my social media accounts for now....