Sunday, May 3, 2015

Embracing Complexity

In California’s ongoing conversation about drought, we seem to look for simple answers to an incredibly complicated problem.  Lauren Michele’s piece (“Why knock almonds? Alfalfa uses more water) in the April 26, 2015 edition of California Forum is no exception – “Californians need to lay off the cheeseburgers, and the media needs to lay off the almonds,” Michele concludes.  In other words, California could solve its water crisis if we’d stop raising cattle and growing alfalfa.  But like most matters concerning water and agriculture, reality is far more complex than Michele would have us believe.

Michele begins her piece by citing oft repeated – and incorrect – “data” regarding the water required to produce beef.  In California, beef cattle spend the majority of their lives on rangeland – land that by definition is not  irrigated.  Much of this water, then, is rainfall that grows grass – not irrigation water.  Those of us who rely on grasslands watered by rainfall have faced “reductions” in our water supply each of the last four years – simply because we didn’t receive our normal precipitation.  In general terms, we've only grown two-thirds of our normal grass this year.  Most of us have adjusted by selling livestock.

Much of California’s water originates on or flows across rangeland that is used for sheep and cattle production.  Grazing, as a land use, is an important factor in maintaining habitat diversity and connectivity, in managing invasive species (like yellow starthistle), and in reducing wildfire threat.  Eliminate rangeland livestock production and we lose these critical ecosystem services.

Alfalfa, from an economic standpoint, may indeed contribute less value to California’s economy than almonds.  From an environmental perspective however, alfalfa is an important crop.  It is often grown in long-term rotation with other crops; as a legume, it naturally fixes nitrogen in the soil, which reduces the need for fertilizer applications.  When alfalfa is irrigated, the water that is not taken up by the plant helps recharge groundwater supplies or flows back to surface water where it can be used for agricultural or environmental benefit downstream.

In the meantime, we have been planting almonds and other permanent crops on rangelands that were not previously irrigated.  Technological and cultural advancements have made it possible to grow (and irrigate) crops on land that could only grow grass in years past.  As Michele suggests, these decisions are largely economic – an unirrigated acre of grass provides a net return of $1.02 to a rancher, while an acre of irrigated almonds provides a net return of $195.  However, these economic figures don’t answer questions about where the irrigation water comes from, or what happens during times of drought.  An acre of grass during drought can still be grazed; an acre of almonds must be irrigated to survive – and this irrigation water is often groundwater.

We seem to be entering an era of increased uncertainty regarding our climate and our water supply.  This uncertainty is more complicated than it would have been a generation ago; California’s growing population makes divvying up the water “pie” difficult even in normal years.  Resolving conflicts over water use will require us to accept – and embrace – the complexity of the issue.  Simply favoring one crop over another based on water use doesn’t move us down that path.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

From Anxiety to Resignation

Last night, we measured 1.15 inches of rain in Auburn.  The Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (where I take care of cattle and pastures) picked up 0.71" of rain.  While the precipitation is a welcome break in our warmer-than-normal springtime weather, it doesn't have much more significance than that.  Our annual grasses, for the most part, have already matured and won't grow any more even with this rain.  In our irrigated pastures, this weather will slow evapotranspiration (the demand for water from plants and evaporation) temporarily, but we still need to irrigate.  And so the year marches on - we're quickly approaching our "normal" summer dry period.  My winter-time anxiety about drought has turned into resignation that we are coping with a fourth dry year.

Despite the above-average rainfall we received last December, I remained worried about drought.  In some respects, I felt like the boy who cried wolf - I kept thinking (and saying), "This drought's not over."  In early January, our local water agencies told us that their private weather forecasts were indicating above average precipitation through the end of March.  But forecasting the weather is a chancy business - even for paid professionals!  January turned out to be the driest on record (we measured a whopping 0.01" of rain for the month).  By the end of March, our total rainfall was similar to last year's disappointing total - and the snowpack was the worst on record.  The April 1 snow survey for our watershed indicated that we had just 4 percent of normal for that date.  The Nevada Irrigation District reported that it's snowpack was the smallest - by far - in its 94-year history.  The boy who cried wolf turned out to have seen a whole pack of them!

For farmers and ranchers, drought induces constant worry.  I think about the drought's consequences every day.  Will we have enough grass for the sheep and cows this spring?  (We did, but barely). Will our summer irrigation water be cut? (Probably not). Will it be more expensive?  (Yes). Will we have enough dry grass to graze next fall before the rains come again?  (I'm not sure). Will our native oak trees survive a fourth year of drought?  (We're seeing drought stress in some blue oaks at SFREC). Will we have pest problems because of the warm winter?  (We did last year). Will the continued dry weather result in infestations of weeds like yellow starthistle and medusahead barley?  (Again, I'm not sure). Intellectually, I realize that worrying won't make it rain, but emotionally I find that I can't help but worry.

But as we head into our normal dry season, I find that my anxiety is turning into resignation.  We're not likely to get much more rain until next autumn (and even if we do, it won't help much).  My worry about the dry winter has transitioned to worry about hot weather and fire danger, but hot weather and wildfire are part of every summer in Northern California.  While my sharp daily anxiety about the immediate consequences of the drought is giving way to a dull worry in the back of my mind that we're at the front end of a long-term dry period, at least I know what I have to work with this summer.  We'll try to manage our sheep and cattle grazing to make it through until next fall's rain.      We'll stretch this summer's irrigation water as far as it will go by installing new, more efficient equipment.  In other words, we'll try to live with what we have - and I'll take a break from worrying about rain until next October!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Profit and the Nature of Farming

Since Governor Brown announced mandatory reductions in urban water uses earlier this month,  he has repeatedly emphasized that agriculture has already taken a significant reduction in water availability.  He's also made the point that using water to grow food is different than using it to grown lawns (for a similar perspective, check out this NPR story).  Despite the Governor's attempts to educate the public about agriculture, many of our urban neighbors (aka, customers) have railed about "big ag" using too much water.  I've read statements on line that even suggest that profit is not an appropriate motive for farming, especially if you're exporting some of the crop you grow - I guess we should farm and ranch simply for the satisfaction of feeding our neighbors.  Unfortunately, this satisfaction doesn't pay my mortgage.

For me, this begs the question, "What do we mean by 'big ag'?"  Is this about the type of ownership?  There are extremely large farming operations (in excess of 100,000 acres) that are privately held.  There are much smaller operations that are owned by family corporations to facilitate passing the ranch to the next generation.  Perhaps ownership isn't a good (or at least the only) criteria we should consider.  Is it the size of operation?  I worked for a 3,900-acre diversified farm last year that produced lamb, wool, several types of small grains, and winegrapes.  Sounds like a large operation, right?  It is managed by the husband-and-wife owners and 4 employees and operates on very thin margins - doesn't sound like "big ag" to me.

Ultimately, those of us who farm and ranch commercially are business people.  Without profit, businesses are not sustainable.  Dave Pratt, who teaches a Ranching for Profit school, puts it this way: "Profit is to business as breathing is to life."  In other words, profit isn't the reason that I ranch, but it's crucial if I hope to continue ranching.

In the context of water use, I think the discussion of big versus small gets further complicated.  I suspect that larger farms have more financial capacity for investing in water-conserving irrigation systems.  While there are cost-share programs available for improving water conservation, the capital outlay required is still significant.  I'm curious as to whether a 1,000-acre row crop or orchard is more water efficient than 100 10-acre operations.  I don't know the answer, but it's a question we should be asking.

Additionally, our society, through non-governmental organizations, government agencies, and the market place, has told farmers that we'd rather they grow high-value crops (like trees and grapevines) than low value crops (like pasture, alfalfa, field corn and row crops) because these high-value crops are more water efficient.  Is it legitimate, then, for us to squawk when we find out that these high-value crops have export value?  How do we account for the fact that these high value crops take huge investments in development - investments that may price smaller-scale operations out of the market?  How do we account for the fact that these products must be marketed at scale to be profitable?  What happens during drought?  An alfalfa or tomato grower - or a pasture-based sheep operator like me - can fallow land if water is not available.  What would you do if your $50,000/acre investment (just in trees and infrastructure - not including land) was at risk because of lack of water?  Would you let the trees die and start over?  If I had the wherewithal, I'd probably pump water.

These considerations are similar for ranchers.  I've written extensively about how hard it's been to sell sheep in this drought.  My friend Deneane Glazier Ashcraft, who operates North Valley Farms Chèvre (a goat dairy) in Cottonwood, recently said:

"I don't know if anyone who doesn't raise livestock can understand what it is like to have to sell off animals that took decades of careful breeding to assemble.  For many shepherds and herdsmen, the herd represents their "body of work". Much thought and monetary investment has gone into creating groups of animals that work in specific grazing and feeding management scenarios. Even non-animal ag folks don't understand the attachment an accomplished herdsman has to the animals.  And there is little understanding of the cost involved in caring properly for the herd.  Many think we should be happy in the "glow"  and "satisfaction" of being part of the land and producing food for our communities.  That is what drives many of us, but we of the working classes are also dependent on the streams of modest income that result from our endeavors.  I think unless people have had the experience of the morning the truck comes to load and take away "the body of work" they can't relate.  
All of this brings me back to the uproar about mandatory urban water cutbacks and the sense that farmers are getting an unfair "pass" from water restrictions.  Since this drought began, farmers and ranchers have been coping with water cutbacks.  We've had to make hard decisions - about selling animals, letting trees die, laying off employees.  As I told someone last week, I love the lilacs that I've planted around our home.  They probably won't get much water this summer, and some of them may not survive.  That said, for me at least, there is something more fundamental to human existence about using water to produce food and fiber.  I'll willingly stop watering my yard if it means I (and my farmer and rancher colleagues) can continue to produce food and fiber.  Again, Deneane Glazier Ashcraft says it more eloquently:
"And as hard as it is for some of us to understand the other end, their pain of not being able to shower for an hour, tolerating an ugly lawn and dirty car and feeling wounded relative to handing over the "dead presidents" to some farmer at the farmer's market who they perceive as a millionaire, is as acute and painful for that individual.  It is a different frame of reference.  Therein lie the stumbling blocks to solving our problems."
If we can get beyond the finger-pointing, perhaps this drought will force us as a society to come to terms with what we want our food system to look like. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Some Observations on my Dogs

They learn...
Not only are Mo and Ernie learning to work cattle (after a lifetime spent working sheep).  They are learning the terrain at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center.  They gave me a good demonstration of this last Thursday.  On Wednesday, we'd gathered a group of 230+ heifers out of a very brush pasture.  The dogs and I spent much of our time crashing through brush to get the heifers up through the gate into the next field.  By the end of the gather, we were all beat - and sick of the brush.  On Thursday, we found 43 more heifers in the old field.  They broke down off the road where the big group had, but the dogs anticipated them - and brought them back to the road on their own!

They can switch species (and approaches)
At SFREC, in addition to gathering and moving heifers last week, we also moved steers and cow-calf pairs.  The dogs changed their approaches to each - the cows wanted to fight, while the steers and heifers were more curious.  On Tuesday afternoon, I used Ernie to help move ewes and lambs.  Ernie is appropriately aggressive with cows that try to chase him off; he's far less aggressive (again, appropriately so) with sheep.  I enjoyed seeing him make this transition with little effort!

Mo is more confident working cattle if I'm horseback
Most of the time we're moving cattle at SFREC, I'm working from horseback.  On several occasions last week, however, I moved steers while on foot.  In both instances, Mo worked for a bit and then decided to wait for Ernie and me back at the jeep.  By contrast, he never quits when I'm horseback.  I realized that when I'm on a horse, I can more easily get into position to help him - and to discourage protective cows from fighting with the dogs.  Ernie, who is less sensitive but more confident, doesn't seem to care whether I'm horseback or on foot.

If I'm patient, they can handle most jobs
While cattle take more patience than sheep, I'm finding that if I trust the dogs to handle a job - and give them the time to do it, they usually reward my confidence.  Two weeks ago, we were gathering 5 stray pairs from an extremely steep and brushy field.  The cows led their calves around a cliff into some brush where my horse and I couldn't follow.  I sent both dogs ahead of the cows and waited - giving the dogs plenty of encouragement.  In a few minutes, the cows decided it would be in their best interest to come back the way they'd gone in - and the rest of the gather went smoothly.

We're working in some big country - it takes lots of energy
I'm paying much closer attention to my dogs' nutritional needs - they are working in much bigger country than they are used to!  We take lots of water breaks (which we've always done), but I'm also feeding them small meals between bouts of work.

Mo and Ernie are learning to work as a team
In the past, Mo has sulked when I've worked Ernie - part of it has had to do with Ernie's stubbornness (and my response to it), but part of it, I think, has had to do with Mo's desire to work on his own.  With cattle, both dogs are learning to work together.  On some occasions, Ernie will drive the herd from behind, while Mo works the flanks to keep it headed in the proper direction.  In other instances, they'll change positions.  If a particularly aggressive cow is trying to fight one of them, the other will come to help.  This has crossed over into their work on sheep; the last big move we did with ewes and lambs went well because they worked together.  I've enjoyed watching them figure this out!

Cows have taught Ernie to be more thoughtful
Ernie has never been a terribly thoughtful dog - speed and movement have been his primary tool for getting animals to move.  His outruns, rather than taking a route that gets him around the livestock before making contact with them, have usually taken the most direct route.  He's discovered that this approach with cows (which are bigger and faster than sheep) makes for more work - he's naturally started taking a wider approach on his outruns.  I was gratified to see him do this while gathering ewes and lambs last week.

I'm thoroughly enjoying learning along with my dogs!  I'm also realizing, with Mo being 7 years old and Ernie being 5, that I'll need to think about starting a new pup in the next year or so - I never want to be without at least two dogs!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Where are Agriculture's Sacrifices?!

Finally, after four years of drought, the State of California has mandated reductions in urban water use.  After Wednesday's April 1 snow survey confirmed that the Sierra snowpack is somewhere between five and eight percent of normal (does that three percent range in news reports really matter - it's flippin' dry!), Governor Jerry Brown announced an executive order requiring a 25 percent reduction in municipal water use.  As expected, much of the urban media in California and elsewhere has been asking why the Governor didn't mandate similar reductions in agricultural water use.  And so I guess that while those of us who farm and ranch have been grappling with drought since 2012, many of our urban neighbors (at least those in the media) haven't grasped the drought's profound impact on agriculture.

As a rancher, I depend largely on rangelands (that is, grass) to feed my livestock.  On the basis of total acreage, the vast majority of the land that I graze with sheep and cattle is watered by rainfall rather than by irrigation.  Less rain means less grass - we've received about two-thirds of normal rainfall over the last four years, and our grass growth has been reduced by a similar margin.  Simple math suggests, then, that we've cut back our water "use" on our unirrigated rangelands by 33 percent.  We can't replace this "lost" water with other sources - I can't drill a well to irrigate rangeland.  The only tools available to me as a rancher are to purchase hay (too expensive), find additional land (also too expensive, generally) or sell animals (which we've done - we've sold more than half of our sheep in the last three years).

Farmers have also dealt with reductions in water for irrigation.  This year, irrigation districts that receive water from the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) will receive a ZERO percent allocation.  Again, using simple math, farmers that rely on CVP water will reduce their use of this water by 100 percent!  More "fortunate" farmers who irrigate with water from the state water project will only be cut by 80 percent.  To cope with these reductions, some farmers who grow annual crops (vegetables, rice, grains, etc.) have fallowed land.  Other farmers with permanent crops (trees or vines) - which have been encouraged as a way to reduce water use because they can be irrigated with drip and other water-saving technology - have turned to groundwater.  Fallowing a crop that costs $50,000 per acre to plant doesn't make economic sense; farmers who can't tap into alternative water supplies have no choice but to let trees and vines die.

Ultimately, these reductions in water availability and the corresponding reductions in farm and ranch production have reduced incomes and increased expenses for California farmers and ranchers.  Fallowed land directly leads to layoffs - 17,000 by one estimate in today's Sacramento Bee.  These impacts extend beyond the farm gate, too - suppliers, processors and other businesses that serve agriculture or rely on agricultural production have also cut jobs.

I've written about this experience previously, but I think it sums up the urban-rural split with respect to the drought.  Late last spring, after we had reduced our flock of sheep by 40 percent, I was talking with a neighbor about the drought.  She is a smart, well-meaning woman who works in town - and who doesn't have much knowledge of farming or ranching.  I mentioned that the drought had impacted our grazing operation significantly, and in a friendly attempt to commiserate, she said, "I know - I tried to take my kids to the water park in Rocklin last week, and it was closed!"

And so as all of us in California - urban and rural - face a fourth year of unprecedented dryness, we're all making sacrifices.  We're all being reminded that we directly rely on the natural world - on sunshine, water, soil and carbon - for our sustenance.  And I'll bet all of us are looking forward to a return rainy and snowy weather!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Crossing a Threshold

I imagine that the farmers and ranchers who lived through the Dust Bowl felt like the world (at least as they knew it) was ending.  That's the thing about drought - you don't know you're in one until it's well underway, and you don't know when it will end until it's over.  All you know for sure is that the world is not behaving normally.  Or, to put it another way, "Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get." This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but I can't find evidence that he actually said it!

As we face a fourth year of drought in California, I feel like we've crossed some sort of climate threshold.  The world has changed, at least from where I can observe it.  Here's a partial list of the things that feel different to me:

  • We have almost no snow in the Sierra Nevada (Spanish for Snowy Mountains).  Many ski resorts - even some of the big ones - have closed early.  The latest snow survey reveals that our snow pack is just 8 percent of normal for this time of year - the lowest amount every recorded in the 65 years we've been doing snow surveys.  Since we rely on snow pack for storing much of the water we use in the hot, dry summer months (for irrigation, drinking water and environmental purposes), the lack of snow is of grave concern.
  • The winter weather we have had this year was concentrated into a handful of relatively extreme events, punctuated by extended dry periods. December 2014 was the wettest December we've experienced since moving to Auburn in 2001.  January 2015 was the driest January in history.
  • Speaking of extreme events, we've seen wildfires and dust storms on the east side of the Sierra Nevada this "winter."  I talked to a friend whose family has ranched on the east side of Sierra Valley (north of Truckee) for generations.  They had a sand storm in February that left 2-3 feet of sand piled up along their fencelines.  A February wildfire north of Bishop burned more than 7,000 acres and destroyed many homes in the small community of Swall Meadows.
  • I manage sheep and cattle grazing on annual rangelands in the Sierra foothills.  The vegetation is 30-45 days ahead of where it should be in late March.  Our annual grasses are already producing seedheads - and some are dying back.  The blue oaks and black oaks leafed out at least 30 days earlier than normal.  And since the vegetation is off schedule, so are many of the insects and animals that depend on rangelands.  The wild turkeys are already nesting.  We have leaf hoppers in our grasslands that we normally don't see until early summer.
  • Much of this is related to temperatures, I'm sure.  We've had temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s in March - it feels more like May!  The warm temperatures and early vegetation growth means that soil moisture is depleted - what little precipitation we received since the first of the year is gone.

And so at the risk of sounding slightly apocalyptic, it feels to me as if we've crossed some sort of climate threshold.  If our own activities as humans have changed the climate (and I believe that the scientific evidence supports this perspective), then it feels as if we have moved into a period of rapid change and profound uncertainty.  We have challenging days (and years) ahead of us, I'm afraid.


Pastoral Bliss - or working my @$$ off!

Since I started my job at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in January, I've received lots of congratulatory messages.  I've also heard lots of good-natured envy - statements like, "Wow - you get to ride a horse and get paid to do it?!"  And while I'm absolutely loving my job - I am getting paid to ride a horse, after all - I've realized that the actual work involved in making a living by caring for livestock is incomprehensible to most people.

Part of this relates to the nature of the work.  I work outside in an incredibly beautiful environment.  I ride a horse and do a fair amount of walking.  For most people, horseback riding and hiking are strictly recreational activities - something they do in their leisure time.  I think the assumption is that my work activities must happen at the same leisurely pace.  The pressure of getting cows and calves paired up before moving them back to pasture, or of building fence around a new pasture for my sheep before they run out of grass, isn't part of an outsider's frame of reference.  The riding and hiking is all they see.

Which brings us to economics (seems like everything relates to economics for me!).  While I'm so fortunate to be making a living doing work I love to do, it is work (as opposed to recreation).  During our lambing season this year (which is now wrapped up), my work day started at 6 a.m. when I left for the Field Station.  I typically left for home between 3:30 and 4 p.m., which put me at our sheep operation by 4:30 or 5 p.m.  If I only needed to check on new lambs, I was done in an hour.  If we needed to build fence, I might be working until 7:15 or 7:30 p.m.

I write this not to seek sympathy for how hard I work (hard work is certainly not unique to agriculture!), but to try to understand my reaction to friends' envy for my job.  Sometimes in the twelfth hour of a 14-hour day, I find it difficult to remember how luck I truly am to be doing work I enjoy!  I hope my friends will keep reminding me of this!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Stock Dog Biathalon

This week at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, we've been gathering cow-calf pairs in anticipation of doing pregnancy checks this Thursday.  I also needed to move our ewes and lambs on Monday evening.  Thankfully, I had my working partners with me - Ernie and Mo each took huge steps towards becoming accomplished stock dogs (that is, dogs who can herd both sheep and cattle).  This evening, I'm in awe of their heart, endurance and athleticism.  They truly are stock dog biathletes!

In both cases, I was moving mothers and babies (calves and lambs), which are probably the most difficult class of livestock for dogs to herd.  Good mothers (cows and ewes) want to protect their young - and so they'll fight the dogs.  My dogs have learned to be appropriately firm with a "stompy" ewe, but aggressive mama cows are another matter.  A dog needs a great deal of courage to stand his (or her) ground with a 1300 pound bovine bearing down on him.

The cow work was further complicated by the terrain.  Yesterday and today, we were working on gathering pairs out of a field formally called Forbes-2, but more affectionately known as Jackass Joes. It's a 600+ acre field that runs from the Yuba River up to Buzzard Peak - an elevation change of over 800 feet from bottom to top.  Part of the field can be covered on horseback; much of it is too steep even for horses.  Walking from the river to the top is strenuous for any dog; pushing reluctant cows to the top is intense.  Fortunately both dogs - and the horses I rode (Lulu yesterday and Rose today) were up to the task!

Looking down to were we started our ride.
Yesterday after "work," the dogs and I moved all of our ewes and lambs down the hill and across the road from where they'd been grazing.  Moving sheep pairs is further complicated by the fact that herding lambs is worse than herding cats!  Lambs haven't figured out that it's a bad idea to disobey the dogs yet - and the dogs know better than to get too rough with the lambs.  Moving sheep pairs takes more finesse than moving cattle pairs, and I wasn't sure my dogs could make the adjustment from one species to the other.  My lack of confidence was unfounded; the dogs handled the move perfectly!

Today, we went back to Jackass Joes to find some missing pairs.  This time, it was just me and the dogs (yesterday, one of my colleagues had ridden with us).  We found 5 pairs at the bottom of the pasture and started working them up toward the gate at the top.  The cows worked their way into a patch of brush and rock that was far too steep and densely vegetated for me and my horse.  I sent Mo and then Ernie ahead of the cows.  They stopped them, and after a brief period of intense negotiation, the dogs convinced the cows to turn around and take an easier route up the hill.

Like all athletes, my dogs know the importance
of staying cool and hydrated!
All of this work - and working both dogs together - has revealed several things about the strengths of each dog. Mo has an incredible amount of judgement - he knows where he needs to be at all times.  Ernie, on the other hand, has heart and courage - he stayed directly in front of a cow that wanted to clean his clock.  A few well-timed nips to her nose convinced her to turn around and head up the hill.

People who have never relied on their animal partners to achieve a piece of work are probably tired of me saying this, but working with dogs is an amazing experience.  Over these last 2 days, my dogs have proven that they'll try to do anything I ask them to do.  I couldn't ask for any better help!

Finishing yesterday's last chore!  Ernie's wondering when I'm
going to quit taking photos and start helping him!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Thoughtful Stockmanship

One of the best novels I've ever read is Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry.  Here is one of my favorite passages - the narrator (Jayber Crow) is talking to a professor at the seminary he is about to leave:

“'You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time.' 
'And how long is that going to take?' 
'I don't know. As long as you live, perhaps.' 
'That could be a long time.' 
'I will tell you a further mystery,' he said. 'It may take longer.'” ― Wendell BerryJayber Crow
While Berry is talking about something much deeper (faith), I've found that this idea applies to my efforts to become a better stockman.  Whether I'm working with my dogs, herding sheep, riding or driving a horse or mule, or moving cattle, I find the process of learning - of observing, trying, adapting and responding to what the animals are telling me to be incredibly rewarding - for me, and (I hope) for the animals.

Steve Cote, who works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Idaho, has written another wonderful book entitled Stockmanship: A Powerful Tool for Grazing Lands Management.  He writes,
"The best handlers have the best attitudes. They watch, adjust, and constantly move to where the stock show them they need to be to get the job done right, all the time. 
"Put the same energy into learning and watching that you once put into chasing wild cows. No- body likes wild cattle, so why make them that way? Don’t tolerate wild ones. Change them by working them right. 
"Confidence in this method, backed with a little knowledge, will get things done right."
For me, these assertions capture the essence of stockmanship.  In many ways, I think, admitting that you don't know something and that you're still learning takes far more self confidence than insisting that you know what you're talking about.

Thoughtful stockmanship requires us to assume that if animals aren't doing what we expect or desire that they are trying to communicate with us (rather than misbehaving).  For example, if cattle won't go through a particular gate, a thoughtful stockman (or woman) tries to figure out why (rather than trying to go faster or yell louder).

Interspecies communication is complicated - especially when there are more than two species involved.  In my daily work at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, for example, I often ride a horse and use a border collie to move cattle.  Just think about all of the communication that has to happen in this scenario - the dogs are communicating with the cattle and with me.  The horse is also communicating with me and the cattle.  The cattle have to try to communicate with a horse, a human and a dog.  In all of these interconnecting networks, the human (me) is probably the least adept at understanding what the other species are trying to "say."  I have found that the faster I try to work, the more impatient I become - and and my ability to communicate suffers.

Which brings me to the pace of work.  I think one of the reasons that I find it difficult to work in a group of people with varying degrees of commitment to thoughtful stockmanship is that the pace at which I like to work seems slow (at least at first glance).  I don't try to get cattle (or sheep) moving - and keep them moving - at a brisk pace.  If I can get livestock moving, I release the pressure on them as a reward for their behavior.  To others, I'm sure that my backing off on the pressure seems to slow the work - to me, it seems to reward the livestock for doing what I've asked them to do.  Jerry Johnson, who cares for the UC Davis Animal Science Department cattle, talks about a former part-time employee, saying he never knew anyone who worked so slow and got so much done.  Going slow to work fast, in other words.

Finally, I use pressure and release from pressure to train livestock to move quietly and calmly.  Sometimes when working with others who don't use these techniques, I suspect that my colleagues see this release from pressure as timidity on my part.  However, I think stockmanship requires quiet confidence and an attitude of continuous learning.  The animals are always trying to tell us something; we must be thoughtful enough to understand them.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Different Year, Different Drought

Our continued dry weather and scant snow pack make it increasingly likely that 2015 will be another drought year in my part of California.  While conservation and prudent management mean that our own irrigation district (the Nevada Irrigation District, or NID) will probably make full deliveries this year, farmers and ranchers in other parts of the state aren't so fortunate.  And even with prospects for a "normal" irrigation season, we're currently dealing with the consequences of a dry January and February on our un-irrigated annual grasslands.
The contrast between grazed and un-grazed annual grasslands is
remarkable at SFREC.  I put these cow-calf pairs into this new pasture
just before taking this photograph.


The Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC), where I am the beef herdsman, has been monitoring annual forage production for over 30 years.  This year's March 1 measurement indicated that our forage growth is about 70 percent of normal for this time of year.  This beats last year's March 1 measurement (which was 58 percent of normal), but it doesn't tell the whole story (about either year).

Last year, we had no precipitation between early December 2013 and late January 2014 - in fact, we set a record for consecutive days without precipitation.  The autumn of 2014 was much better in terms of rain - we measured more rain in Auburn in December than we've measured since we moved there in 2001.  We had great germination in our annual grasslands, and by January 1, 2015, the green hills and oak woodlands that we graze (with sheep in Auburn, and with cattle at SFREC) were promising a better year for grass growth.
A ewe with new twins, grazing pasture that was last grazed in
November.  In a normal year, this grass would be much taller!

But then it quit raining.  We measured 0.01 inches of rain in Auburn in January.  SFREC fared a bit better - we got twice that much rain in Browns Valley!  And since we received around 3 inches of rain in early February, it's turned dry again.  As I write this, I'm seeing high clouds and a slight chance of rain in our forecast for tomorrow.

Getting back to the 70 percent of normal growth (about 475 pounds of grass per acre), this number represents our ungrazed standing crop of grass.  The pastures that we've grazed since January 1 seem to have stopped growing.  We generally expect to be able re-graze our annual grasslands every 30-35 days during the growing season (March to May), but we have yet to see the kind of recovery that makes me comfortable with regrazing.  Last year, because it rained in February, March and April, we had normal regrowth during this months.

Combined with the warmer-than-normal temperatures, much of our vegetation seems 20-30 days ahead of where it should be for early March.  The oaks have leafed out, the redbud and lilacs are blooming, and some of the annual grasses are headed out (making seeds).  By definition, annual plants must complete their life cycles (germination, growth, reproduction and death) within a year or growing season.  If it stays dry, I think our annual grasses will finish growing early.  In some ways, at least from a grazing perspective, 2015 may be tougher than 2014.
Native perennial grasses (like this purple needlegrass at
SFREC) can still be found in our foothill rangelands.