Thursday, April 17, 2014

Wildflowers and Rangelands - and Grazing Animals

I believe these are Blue Dicks( Dichelostemma pulchellum)

I know this is a Mariposa Tulip- just not sure which one!

Seep-spring Monkey Flower (Mimulus guttatus) - I think!

Pretty sure this is a Delphinium of some sort - and I think
it's poisonous, too.  Good think there's plenty of other
plants for our sheep to graze!

I've always called this White Brodiaea, but I think that's
incorrect.  Anyone know what it is?

California Brodiaea

Lobb's Poppy?  It's smaller than a California Poppy.
In 7th and 8th grade, I had a wonderful science teacher - Mr. Atkins.  During my 8th grade year, I got to take his ecology class - we broke into teams and carefully analyzed a small plot of land at Curtis Creek School in Tuolumne County.  Each plot had been studied by classes before ours - and (I hope) would be studied for years after we graduated.  We documented the species of plants and animals that lived on or traveled through our plots.  We took measurements of things like tree diameter and (I remember this one distinctly) the width of a crack in a small boulder on our plot.  We compared our findings with those of the students preceding us.  Our plot featured a bright yellow flower that no one before us had been able to identify.  I found it in my wildflower field guide - it was woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum).

Mr. Atkins class gave me a profound appreciation for plants in general and native wildflowers in particular.  During my 8th grade and early high school years, I made my own plant press and collected samples of all of the wildflowers that I could find on the property where we lived along Sullivan Creek east of Sonora.  Somewhere, I'm sure, my parents still have my collection.

In the late 1990s, I had the opportunity to serve as the first executive director of the California Rangeland Trust, a statewide land trust established by the California Cattlemen's Association to protect privately owned rangelands from development.  During my tenure with CRT, we were approached by the American Lands Conservancy to help them conserve the Bear Valley Ranch in the Coast Range west of the town of Williams.  This particular Bear Valley was known all over the world for it's wildflower displays.  ALC initially thought that grazing was a threat to the flowers and decided to remove grazing from the ranch.  No cows, however, soon meant no wildflowers - seems the grazing animals were an integral part of managing these rangelands for multiple benefits (including native flora).  I am still proud to have been part of conserving the Bear Valley Ranch for grazing and for it's habitat values.

It's been 33 years since I took Mr. Atkins' ecology class - and I still get a thril from finding new wildflowers - and from seeing old familiar ones.  Today, as I built a new paddock for our sheep, I took a few minutes to document the native wildflowers in this new paddock.  We grazed these rangelands about 50 days ago.  Even in our drought conditions, these flowers have bloomed and are reproducing.  I'm always amazed by the resiliency and interdependence between herbivory (grazing) and plant lifecycles.  Thanks, Mr. Atkins, for lighting that spark!

Note: I hope my botanist friends will correct the identifications I've made of these flowers!  I'm working from an older field guide  - and I'm sheepherder, after all!

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Difficult Day

It's been so long since I had a regular 9-to-5 office job, I'm probably out of practice when it comes to complaining about Mondays!  I hope you'll bear with me - I'm going to complain about this one!

First thing this morning, I checked our ewes.  We're down to 4-6 ewes left to lamb, I think.  We'd had a new lamb yesterday (which I marked this morning), and I found one more new lamb this morning.  The sheep had been moved onto fresh feed yesterday, and they all looked contented!  I left them to check in on a grazing project we're doing in collaboration with another company here in Auburn.  So far, so good!

The grazing project is for Pacific Gas and Electric.  This morning, we moved 400 goats and 400 ewes from Rock Creek Reservoir in Auburn out to another property near Halsey Forebay in Christian Valley.  The move went fine - our partners on the project - Star Creek Land Stewards - are real professionals!

I had planned on spending at least some of my day at my other job - with U.C. Cooperative Extension.  I stopped by home after supervising the PG&E move, only to receive a call from the landowner where our sheep are grazing (adjacent to Hidden Falls Regional Park here in Auburn) - seems our sheep were out!  I collected my three border collies and headed out to take care of the problem.

As I was bringing our sheep back to their paddock, I noticed that the lamb I'd marked earlier this morning was missing - much to his mother's dismay (she kept calling for him).  I also discovered 3 places where the fence had come down.  One was minor, but the other two sections involved a substantial amount of fence - like the sheep had been chased through them.  Since I was planning to be gone in Rio Vista for the next two days, I decided it might be smart to move the sheep to fresh pasture today (I assumed that they were tired of the rapidly-maturing ripgut brome in their current paddock).  I talked this over with the landowner and we both decided that this would be the best option.

After a quick trip to my UCCE office, I returned to the sheep and started building fence.  I also looked for the missing lamb - without success.  After I built a holding pen for the sheep, the dogs and I moved the entire flock down the hill.  During the move, I noticed a ewe with blood on her haunch.  I caught her to examine her more carefully, and discovered that she'd been bitten on the rear leg and on the neck - typical of a dog attack.  I found one additional ewe who seemed to have blood on her neck.

Now I have no idea what happened.  The sheep could have decided that they were tired of the feed in their current paddock and broken out - at which time a dog (or a coyote) attacked.  Alternatively, a dog could have entered the paddock, discovered how much fun it was to chase sheep, and attacked the ewe.  Regardless, the entire episode left me feeling very depressed.

My job as a shepherd, ultimately, is to care for my sheep.  I've written previously about our desire to be "predator-friendly" - I get a thrill out of seeing coyotes and mountain lions.  That said, the thrill disappears rapidly when my sheep are harmed.  As I said, there's no way to figure out what attacked my sheep - I'm just saddened by the loss of the lamb and by the potential loss of a ewe.  It feels like a failure on my part.

Here's to better days the rest of this week!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Drought Update - April 10, 2014

Yesterday afternoon, I helped our local farm advisors, Roger Ingram and Cindy Fake, install matrix blocks in an irrigated pasture that we graze here in Auburn.  The matrix blocks allow us to track soil moisture - and to time our irrigation accordingly.  Ultimately, this should help us use our water more efficiently - we'll only irrigate when the grass needs water.
Cindy Fake installing matrix blocks in our pasture.

As they dug a hole with a soil auger (we went down 18 inches), both Roger and Cindy remarked about how dry the soil profile was - especially considering the rainfall we'd had last week.  Roger said that the soil conditions were more like mid-May than early April.  I suspect that even with the rain we've had since late January, our soils were so dry that we've just never caught up.

The condition of our annual rangeland pastures supports this hypothesis.  We try to balance supply (grass) with demand (the number of sheep we have grazing).  We express supply in terms of sheep days per acre - that is, how many sheep can graze for one day on one acre.  Typically, by early April, we expect to get 150-200 sheep days per acre (which means our 150 ewes should be able to stay 3 days on a 3-acre paddock).  Some of the pastures we've grazed in the last two weeks have only had 50-60 sheep days per acre - and we even grazed one paddock last week that had 25 sheep days per acre - the 2 acre paddock lasted 12 hours!

I realized today that looking at our rangelands at a landscape level can be deceptive.  Looking across the hillside at our grazing sheep, it looks like we have plentiful green grass.  Looking straight down, however, I begin to see bare ground and stunted plants.  I expect the pasture I moved the ewes into this morning (about 3 acres) will last about a day and a half - in other words, it's about 75 sheep days per acre.

We're fortunate to be able to move our sheep to grass.  We have the advantage of having the management and stockmanship skills - and portable fencing systems - that allow us to take advantage of pastures that other producers can't graze.  Even so, I'm still worried about the fall.  The pasture in these photos has been rested for 48 days - normally enough to grow a substantial amount of grass this time of year.  The fact that much of this grass has regrown less than 6 inches is worrisome.

The landscape view - looking across a new hillside paddock.

Looking down - my hat gives this photo some proportion.  The grass is short!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Back to Basics - Lessons from a Fellow Former Direct Marketer

I recently read an article by Colorado rancher Richard Parry, published in the April issue of The Stockman GrassFarmer.  Mr. Parry has been direct-marketing his grassfed lamb for a few years longer than we have - I believe he has around 700 ewes that graze on his 1100 acres near Ingatio, Colorado (in the southwestern part of the state).  He starts out by saying:

"Over the last several years, I've become convinced that being stuck in the middle scale-wise is incredibly challenging.  While I've written about this struggle numerous times, I've never written as concisely or as eloquently as Mr. Parry.  "You are," he says, "somewhere between a real business and a self employed Mom and Pop operation.  There is never enough money or enough time."  By contrast, small operations subsidize their living expenses with off-farm jobs. "You believe in the benefit of what you are doing," he writes. "Because of your belief system, it is worth it....  You have little time and money to spare, but you persevere."

Parry talks about reassessing his farm's assets - his "unfair advantage."  In his case, his family decided that it was the fact that they owned "1100 acres of verdant green irrigated pastures that [are] one of a kind in our dry southwest climate."  While their livestock operation is going back to a commercial (as opposed to direct-market) approach, the Parry's are "selling the view" - developing agricultural tourism enterprises to compliment commercial sheep and cattle production.

Given our own struggles to come to terms with the challenges of scale, I can imagine that Mr. Parry and his family also resisted the decision to shut down the direct marketing part of their operation.  However, his article ends on a positive note.  "Fox Fire Farms still has all the livestock.... What has changed is that it is back to low cost, commercial production."  Partly because of our ongoing drought, we're headed in the same direction this year - we don't anticipate direct marketing any meat from this year's lamb crop.  Parry concludes, "A correctly structured commercial livestock enterprise has a lot going for it, not the least of which is time for life's other priorities."  I find this statement especially encouraging as I head out to check sheep before driving to town to watch my oldest daughter's varsity soccer match.

In some ways, the changes at Flying Mule Farm have been forced on us - by the dry winter and by the economic realities of mid-scale livestock production.  These last several years have been stressful, as regular readers of this blog will no doubt acknowledge.  Mr. Parry's article has helped me realize that we haven't been alone in this struggle.  His ability to make positive changes to his operation that allow him and his family to make "time for life's other priorities" is incredibly reassuring and liberating.

Over the coming weeks, I plan to share some of our thought processes regarding our own "unfair" advantages and what they mean for the future of our business.  I hope my handful of readers will weigh in with their own insights and experiences!  Thanks to Richard Parry for stating the obvious: "Everyone does not have to be a direct marketer of meats."

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Three Dog Day

While California's drought persists, today we were able to move our sheep back to the paddock we first grazed when we moved them back to Auburn on Valentine's Day.  This paddock has been rested since February 17 (48 days) - a longer recover period than we would expect this time of year.  Even with the rainfall we had in March and early April, the grass isn't growing like normal.  That said, the forage in this paddock looks pretty good - and the sheep agree!

Lambing is winding down - we have 10-15 ewes left to lamb, I think.  Most of the lambs are beginning to understand "the system" - that is, they're figuring out that they need to stay with the group when the border collies "ask" them to move.  Our move back to this first paddock involved moving the flock out of the old paddock and onto Blue Oak Ranch Road.  We had to walk about 150 yards down the road into the new paddock.

The sheep were ready to move - we'd probably left them in the old paddock for about 12 hours too long (primarily because I had to be out of town Saturday and part of Sunday) - so they were anxious to get to fresh feed.  Consequently, they were ready to run when we opened the fence!  Rosie, our livestock guardian dog, loves to explore when we move the flock - and the sheep love to follow her.  Thankfully, I had all three border collies (Taff, Mo and Ernie) - and my assistant shepherd, Emma!

Ernie is finally at a point where I can use him for specific jobs when we're doing a move like today's.  This means that I can trust him to make reasonably good decisions about where he needs to be, and he listens well enough to take direction (or to quit working when that's called for).  As the youngest dog in our bunch, he's easily the most energetic, too - which was a plus today as well!

When the sheep came out of the old paddock today, they followed Rosie up a neighbor's driveway.  I was able to send Ernie on a flank that required him to jump the fence - he got to the heads of the lead sheep and turned them back down towards the road.  As the main flock took off down the road, Ernie and Taff (with help from Emma) made sure the lambs followed their mothers.  Ernie (with a command from me) brought the sheep back into a bunch.  As we walked towards the new paddock, about half of the flock went past the opening I'd made in the fence.  I was able to call Ernie to me (through the sheep) and send him on a flank to turn the sheep that had gone too far.  The whole move took less than 10 minutes, thanks to the dogs!

Most jobs only require one dog, I find - but it's sure nice to have 3 reliable dogs when the work requires it! Since this was the warmest day of our spring so far, the boys were quite happy to have Emma cool them down with a garden hose when their work was done!  Later, as we went to retrieve more fence from the old paddock, they lolled in the water troughs.  As I write this, they're napping the shade.  Thanks, guys!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Almost Done - Recapping our 2014 Lambing Season

As we head into April, the Flying Mule Farm ewe flock is nearly done delivering this year's lambs.  Thanks to the ongoing drought, this year's lambing season has been interesting in several ways.  In this brief post, I'll try to summarize our successes - and the things we need to work on for next year.

First, we moved our sheep to McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista for our breeding season.  We didn't want to turn the rams in prior to hauling our ewes to their new home, so our breeding season started about a week later than normal (which meant lambing was also a week later than normal).  The dry conditions last fall (both in Auburn and in Rio Vista) meant that we were feeding hay during breeding rather than running the ewes on old irrigated pasture and newly germinated dryland pasture. We are now seeing that the combination of stressors on our ewes during breeding translated to fewer lambs this spring.  Our lambing percentage is running 10-15 percent lower than normal.

With the extended dry period in Northern California from early December through the end of January, we found that we were continuing to feed hay to our sheep after we pulled the rams out of the flock.  The lack of grass in Rio Vista (for our sheep, but more importantly, for the McCormack sheep) meant that we needed to move our sheep off of McCormack Ranch (to reduce the forage demand).  In late January, we sold approximately 20 ewe lambs and unthrifty older ewes.  In mid February, we hauled all of our ewes back to Auburn to graze pastures that had been rested for 2 years.    I was a bit nervous about hauling our sheep so close to lambing, but we didn't experience any ill effects.  The sheep were happy to be grazing again, too!

While we had a few early lambs (we exposed the ewes owned by our daughters to the rams earlier than the rest of the flock) we started lambing in earnest around March 1.  We use a teaser (or vasectomized) ram to synchronize the estrus cycles of our ewes prior to breeding - this concentrates the lambing period.  This year, about 85 percent of the ewes were bred within the first 17 days (which means 85 percent of them delivered their lambs by March 17).  Synchronization helps concentrate our labor demands during lambing.  We usually have a bit higher concentration - which makes me think that shipping the ewes just prior to breeding may have had impact on synchronization, too.

For the last five years (at least), we've utilized the EZ-Care scoring system developed in Great Britain for evaluating and retaining ewes that can lamb on pasture without assistance.  In this system, each ewe is evaluated on three criteria (lambing ease, mothering ability and lamb vigor).  We want ewes that can lamb without assistance on pasture, that will stay with and protect all of their lambs, and that produce enough milk to raise healthy and vigorous lambs.  Having to pull lambs in a pasture system can problematic.  Ewes that can't count or that leave their lambs require us to hand-raise lambs (which is much more labor intensive and costly).  Ewes that can't convert grass to milk efficiently raise smaller (and less profitable) lambs.  We have consistently sold ewes that don't measure up in these three criteria - and we've also been diligent about not retaining the daughters of ewes that don't measure up.  Each year we've used this system, lambing has become easier to manage - we've developed a ewe flock with the genetic predisposition for being good mothers.

McCormack Sheep and Grain is in the process of implementing a similar system, so I had an opportunity to contrast the genetics and behavior of our flock at lambing with a much larger group of ewes that have never been selected for mothering ability.  While both groups of ewes had very few lambing problems or lamb vigor issues (I didn't keep track, but I suspect we assisted similar percentages of ewes with delivering their lambs), I noted substantial differences in mothering ability.  Most of our ewes stay with their lambs even while we're processing the lambs (which involves ear-tagging, paint-marking, docking and castrating - all at a day of age).  This may be in part because our smaller flock is handled more frequently - we're moving sheep every few days, so they're more comfortable with human contact.  Based on my experiences this year, however, I think consistently selecting for ewes that can perform well in the three criteria I've described is a huge labor (and lamb) saver.

One of the key management principles we try to apply to our sheep operation is to match our period of highest forage demand with the grass cycle.  In our annual rangelands (that is, pastures that are not irrigated but that rely on rainfall for growth), we generally have the highest quality and greatest quantity of forage in March and early April.  Our ewes experience their greatest forage demand in the month before lambing (during the last trimester of fetal development) and during the 6 weeks after lambing (while they are nursing their lambs).  While our current drought has created substantial challenges in terms of forage production (we're seeing much less grass, and it seems to be maturing much earlier than normal), the relatively mild weather during lambing has been beneficial.  Stormy weather, especially cold rainstorms accompanied by wind, can cause hypothermia in our lambs.  We typically manage this risk by putting the flock in pastures with natural shelter (either topographic shelter or vegetation like trees or shrubs).  In the nearly 5 weeks that we've been lambing this year, we've had just three storm events - and we've only lost one lamb to hypothermia.  In this case, it was a lamb whose mother forgot she'd had twins.  Based on the criteria described in the preceding paragraph, we'll sell this ewe after we wean her surviving lamb.

Looking ahead this year, we're planning to shear the ewes about 10 days earlier than normal.  This will allow us to assess the quality of forage available and the amount of irrigated pasture we can access.  If forage quality looks good, we'll leave the lambs with the ewes for another 2-3 weeks.  If quality has declined, we'll consider weaning the lambs while they are home for shearing - this would be about 5 weeks earlier than normal.  We'll also sort off and sell any ewes that didn't get bred or that lost lambs - which will allow us to save our limited forage resources for our more productive animals.  When we do our final weaning, we'll also sell any ewes that didn't measure up in our EZ-Care system.  I expect we'll go into the summer months with 10-15 percent fewer sheep than we have now.  While we'll keep a few replacement ewe lambs this year, we'll save most of our summer irrigated pasture for flushing (that is, preparing the ewes for breeding by improving their nutritional intake before turning in the rams).  While this means we won't be selling grass-fed lamb at our local farmers' market, I suspect it will increase our profitability by lowering costs and increasing our lambing percentage next year.

In the meantime, we're waiting for the last of the ewes to lamb - and we're enjoying watching the older lambs cavort in our pastures.  Nothing says springtime (even in a dry year like this) like frolicking lambs!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Million Dollar Rain? We'll See...

A beautiful start to the day - rain!
In some ways, Facebook has become a virtual coffee shop for farmers and ranchers.  Rather than gathering at the local coffee shop, many of us share news (and complaints!) on Facebook.  This morning, a friend of mine posted an update on last night's rain in Valley Springs (down in Calaveras County).  Another friend commented that this was "a million dollar storm" - the idea being that this rain will grow enough grass to improve our collective financial position as ranchers by a significant amount.  And as I made my morning check for new lambs today, I was pleased to be wearing my rain gear!  A brief thundershower last night dumped a half-inch of rain.
The forecast for the next 5 days shows a continued chance of rain.  While we'll still end the rainy season with below-normal precipitation, this week's moisture gives us a bit more flexibility in our plans for dealing with the drought.

Many of the annual (unirrigated) grasses in our part of the Sierra foothills are already reaching maturity - that is, they have stopped growing and are now producing seeds.  For these grasses, this rain is almost too late.  They might stay green a week to 10 days longer now, but they aren't going to grow any more.  On the other hand, in the pastures we've already grazed (we've grazed about 120 acres since moving the sheep back to Auburn in mid-February), we will see some regrowth.  Grazing keeps these annual grasses in a vegetative (as opposed to reproductive) state, which means this moisture will help them regrow before setting seed.

Our irrigation season typically starts in mid-April.  The Nevada Irrigation District, which provides water to most of the irrigated pastures we lease, has announced that it is seeking a voluntary 10-15 percent reduction in irrigation water use this year.  This reduction might happen in the form of a delay to the start of irrigation season, or an early end to it this fall.  These rains mean that our irrigated pasture will have some soil moisture going in to April - making that voluntary reduction easier to bear.

A rainy day also gives me an excuse to stay inside and do some planning.  If you've been reading my blog posts over the last several months, you'll know that drought planning has been an ongoing activity for us.  While this week's storms give us some breathing space, we are still worried about the quantity and quality of grass for our sheep next autumn.  Over the last several days, I've been using some tools provided by UC Cooperative Extension to help me understand our options as we go through the summer and fall this year.

The first tool I've used is a grazing chart.  This chart allows me to look at the big picture for our ranch.  I've highlighted important management tasks (like shearing, weaning our lambs, preparing our ewes for breeding, and turning the rams in with them).  It also allows me to look at our current feed situation.  The second tool is a chart that prioritizes the animals we'll sell if conditions remain dry or if our forage situation doesn't improve.  Based on my analysis of these two tools, we've identified the following strategies and needs:

  1. When we shear the ewes in early May, we will sort off any ewes that have not had lambs this year and sell them immediately - no sense in feeding something that is not providing a return.
  2. We will also wean any lambs from a ewe that is in poor body condition (that is, a thin ewe).  This will allow the ewe more time to recover before the next breeding season.  These lambs will be sold.
  3. Ewes that are in good body condition will continue to nurse lambs until our normal weaning date (around June 1).  At that point, we will sell most of our lambs.  We'll also sell any ewes that are not good mothers or that have health or behavioral problems (like ewes that habitually get out of our electric fences).
  4. After weaning, our ewes can go on less nutritious forage for around 8 weeks.  This allows us to dry up their milk production quickly (which reduces problems with mastitis).  Based on my grazing chart, I know that I'll need to find some dry (unirrigated) pasture for the ewes in June and July.  This might be an opportunity to hire the girls out for fuel reduction and vegetation management projects!
  5. By grazing the ewes on unirrigated pasture in June and July, we can focus on resting our irrigated pastures in anticipation of grazing them again to flush the ewes.  Flushing is a process of putting the ewes on more nutritious feed (green grass!) prior to breeding to increase ovulation (and hopefully the number of twins born the following spring).  We'll plan to keep the ewes on our more limited irrigated pastures for flushing and breeding this year - which will reduce or eliminate the amount of hay we'll need to purchase.  We may look at culling a few more ewes to balance our supply of irrigated pasture with our grazing demand.
  6. The next "hole" in our forage supply is November and December - after the ewes are bred.  Once again, they will have lower nutritional requirements (at least during the first trimester of their pregnancies).  We intend to save forage where we're currently grazing so that we can bring the ewes back after we pull the rams from the flock.  In other words, our success next fall depends on how much forage we can save this spring.

Our plans, obviously, will continue to change as conditions change.  The tools that I've found most helpful (the grazing chart and our culling priorities) give us the flexibility to adjust our plan if it rains (or if it doesn't).  Without a plan, the drought is debilitating.  With a plan, I feel much more confident that we'll be able to cope with whatever the rest of this year brings us.  Hopefully it will bring a few more soggy days like this one!  We'll see....

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Importance of Stories

A little over a month ago, I wrote a blog post about the drought that referenced Caroline Henderson, an Oklahoma farmer who wrote "Letters from the Dust Bowl" for the Atlantic Monthly during the 1930s.  Her letters were quoted extensively in Ken Burns' "The Dust Bowl" on PBS.  I found her observations about the weather and economic conditions to be especially articulate - and relevant to our own struggles with the current dry spell.  Her firsthand account of farming in the Dust Bowl inspired me to tell my own story - and to encourage other farmers and ranchers to share theirs as well.  In the intervening weeks, I've recorded two short videos and helped my 10-year-old daughter Emma record a third.  With the help of the UC Davis Plant Science Department, I also recorded an audio story about the drought's impact on our farm.  And I've continued to write regularly about the topic here in Foothill Agrarian.  While I hold no illusions that my stories are told as eloquently as Henderson's, I'm motivated to continue to tell them for several reasons.

First, as a rancher who until recently has focused on marketing my meat products directly to customers within my community, I want my neighbors to know about the impacts the drought is having on their food supply.  As part of a local food system, I think it's important to share both our challenges and successes - and the drought is certainly presenting us with challenges.

Second, I think our stories are important for a wider audience.  The drought has impacted those of us closest to the land in profound ways.  In a state with a population of over 30 million, those of us who farm and ranch need to tell our own stories - in our own words - to our suburban and urban neighbors.  We also have a responsibility to document our experiences for future farmers and ranchers.  Sharing our own thought processes may help other producers avoid our mistakes!

Third, I find the process of organizing my thoughts (either in writing or verbally) to be therapeutic.  The drought (and our response to it) is stressful.  Telling stories about it helps me process information and relieves this stress, in some ways.

I know that some people are tired of sad stories about the struggles of farmers and ranchers.  I guess I'm guilty of dwelling on this topic to the exclusion of most other issues this winter and spring.  But I continue to tell stories about the drought for an intensely personal reason.  I want my daughters - and their children - to be able to look back at this time period and understand what their parents went through.  While I didn't grow up on a commercial farm or ranch, I vaguely remember the 1976-77 drought and the worry it caused my parents.  I wish some of their thoughts had been recorded (on paper or otherwise).  I don't expect my girls will read my stories this year - or even perhaps in this decade.  I do hope, however, when they are my age that they can look back at what we experienced during this drought - and I hope it helps prepare them for the inevitable challenges they will face, regardless of the professions they pursue.

Our own current drought (at least so far) cannot match the duration and intensity of the weather-related challenges of the Dust Bowl years.  For me,  the uncertainty about the impacts of climate change and an ever-growing population makes this drought especially worrisome.  Those of us dealing with the drought on a day-to-day basis owe it to record our stories for our customers, our communities and our families.

Here are links to my own stories:

Drought Story - Flying Mule Farm (YouTube digital story)

Emma's Drought Story (YouTube digital story)

Drought Story 3-3-14 (YouTube digital story)

Audio Drought Story (SoundCloud recording)

Also, you may want to check out the following repositories of current drought-related stories:

Farmer and Ranchers Voices from the Drought (Facebook page)

Voices from the Drought SoundCloud Stories (audio stories)

My View of the Drought (YouTube digital story by fellow rancher Carolyn Roberti)

If you are a farmer or rancher, I hope you'll record your own stories soon!  Our neighbors need to know what's happening - our families need to know what's happening.  Let me know if you'd like help with the technological part of this!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

After Work and Before Dinner

Having an off-farm job and taking care of lambing ewes can present time-management challenges.  Sometimes things are crazy; sometimes (like tonight) being a part-time shepherd seems to work out!

After work tonight, I needed to move the sheep, which means building fence and moving lambs (see my post about how much fun lambs can be!).  When I arrived at the paddock tonight, I discovered a couple of new lambs - and one ewe who had apparently been bitten by a rattlesnake today.  I spent about 90 minutes taking down and re-building electric fence - with the help of a neighbor.  As I was pulling away to run home for medicine for the snake-bit ewe, he walked up with a set of new twins who had been sleeping when we moved the sheep.  In other words, it was nearly 7 p.m. and I needed to run home, pick up a dose of dexamethazone for the ewe, come back and treat her, and make sure the lambs had found their mother.  Seemed like it was going to be a long night!

When I got back to the sheep at around 7:20, I quickly found the two sleepy lambs - nursing on their mother!  My first problem was solved.  I walked through the sheep and found the snake-bit ewe - caught her easily with my crook.  An injection of dex and another of antibiotic - second problem dealt with.  She got up and went off to graze - finding her twin lambs in the process.

When I'd entered the paddock, I'd noticed a maiden ewe (e.g., a first-time mother) in labor.  After finishing my other chores, I settled in to watch her.  She would lay down and push, and then get up and graze.  I saw that her lamb was presenting normally (I could see both front feet and a nose emerging), but she just wasn't making much progress.  Back to the truck - I retrieved Mo (one of our border collies) and my crook.  With Mo's help, I caught the ewe and gently laid her on her side.  The lamb was shoulder-locked, so I eased one leg forward and guided it's head out.  The rest of the lamb followed - and I laid it in front of its mother.  She finally called to her lamb and started cleaning it - and the lamb responded by shaking its head and clearing its air passages - third problem fixed!

Driving home, I realized I was feeling a deep sense of satisfaction - not everyone gets to save two lives (hopefully) between quitting time and dinner!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lessons from the Dust Bowl

In late January, I attended the 9th annual California Rangeland Conservation Coalition summit in Oakdale.  The Coalition, which includes ranchers, environmentalists, agency staff and academics, was formed out of recognition of our common interest in conserving California rangelands for their ecological and economic values.  This unlikely combination of folks has actually agreed that ranching - grazing livestock - is essential to protecting wildlife habitat, enhancing watershed function and managing invasive plants.  While past summits have focused on the threats posed by real estate development, this year’s event focused on a different, and for me, unexpected threat - the conversion of our rangelands to orchards and vineyards.

What’s so bad about turning unirrigated rangelands into irrigated almond and walnut orchards or vineyards, you might ask?  As it turns out, there’s plenty to worry about - increased competition for limited water resources, impacts to native species, destruction of vernal pool and other rangeland habitats, and fragmentation, just to name a few.  But there’s more to the issue than these directly observable effects.

After returning home from this year’s summit, I happened to start watching Ken Burns’ latest PBS documentary, The Dust Bowl.  As I watched, I was struck by the similarity between the attitudes and actions of farmers in the Southern Plains in the years leading up to the Dust Bowl, and our own efforts to convert “unproductive” grasslands into intensively farmed orchards.  At the risk of being melodramatic, I think we should consider the lessons of the Dust Bowl and the parallels with today’s grassland conversion.

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, rangeland is defined "as a land cover/use category on which the climax or potential plant cover is composed principally of native grasses, grasslike plants, forbs, or shrubs suitable for grazing and browsing, and introduced forage species that are managed like rangeland. This includes areas where introduced hardy and persistent grasses, such as crested wheatgrass, are planted and such practices as deferred grazing, burning, chaining, and rotational grazing are used, with little or no chemicals or fertilizer being applied. Grasslands, savannas, many wetlands, some deserts, and tundra are considered to be rangeland. Certain communities of low forbs and shrubs, such as mesquite, chaparral, mountain shrub, and pinyon-juniper, are also included as rangeland."

My own "cowboy" definition of rangeland is any land that is too steep, too dry, too wet, too "something" for cultivated agriculture.  Pre-historically, our rangelands were grazed by wild ungulate (hooved) animals, and today, California's rangelands are the foundation of our livestock industry - cattle and sheep have grazed on rangelands in California for more than two and a half centuries.  Rangelands continue to provide habitat for an incredible array of wildlife and native plants - everything from raptors to reptiles and the majestic oak to the smallest wildflower.  Scientists are increasingly convinced that well-managed livestock grazing is crucial to the health of the native flora and fauna on our rangelands.  And ranching, as an economic endeavor, is crucial to keeping these rangelands intact  itseems that ranching and wildlife both require large, contiguous tracts of open land.

The Southern Plains - that area roughly centered around the Oklahoma panhandle and adjacent states (Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas) - are also an important rangeland ecosystem.  Donald Worster, a Professor of American History at the University of Kansas, says, “Nature took several million years to find a solution to these unstable soils, these high winds, these turbulent weather conditions, which was the grasses.”

In the first half of The Dust Bowl, writer Dayton Duncan explains, along with Worster and survivors of the Dust Bowl, how the wheat boom resulted in the plowing of native prairie and planting of wheat on millions of acres in the Southern Plains.  The price of wheat, driven up by World War I, seemed to be on an endless upward path.  Even though the Plains were prone to periodic drought, Worster says, “Promoters promised that the very act of farming would increase the precipitation - the rain follows the plow.”  Wayne Lewis, who grew up on a farm in the Oklahoma panhandle, adds, "In the late 20s, the crops were good, the prices were good and so everybody...the thing to do was to break out everything and get it in wheat."  Indeed, from 1925-1929, Southern Plains wheat farmers busted sod on an area equal in size to the state of New Hampshire.

Technological advancements, unusually wet weather and government policy facilitated the wheat boom.  “Modern machinery made wheat farming more efficient and profitable even if prices fell to $1 per bushel," writes Duncan.  According to The Dust Bowl, an unidentified federal agency claimed that "the soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses."  And the weather cooperated.  “The great plow-up had going for it ample rainfall for a period of 10-15 years and it just kept encouraging more and more," says Worster.

Like the economic bubbles of my own lifetime, not everyone was convinced that the wheat boom was beneficial or sustainable.  According to Duncan, “A handful of old timers, especially the cattlemen who had been there through those droughts, weren’t so sure [about sod-busting the Plains].  To them, the Southern Plains were a grassland and the sod should never be turned.” Calvin Crabill, who grew up on a ranch in southeastern Colorado, recalls that his father, a cattle rancher, took a night job plowing the prairie.  "He knew that buffalo grass was the natural turf of that country - it was grazing country.  He didn't stay with the tractoring thing too long because I think it just got his heart.  He was a stockman and he knew it was all wrong and he paid the price for it later," says Crabill.

Crabill's father and the other stockmen were right.  Following the stock market crash in 1929 and several years of record wheat crops, the price of wheat crashed.  As prices fell, the federal government encouraged farmers to plant less.  On the contrary, everyone planted more - to make up for lower prices with higher volume.  Farmers needed the income to cover their mortgages and equipment loans.  "The answer [was] always more, regardless of the problem," says Worster.  By 1931, the price of wheat had dropped to approximately half the cost of production.  And then it stopped raining.

With no moisture to germinate wheat (or any other) seeds, there were no longer any roots to hold the fragile Plains soils in place when the winds blew.  One dust storm in particular, in March 1935, finally got the nation's attention.  Dust from the Plains eventually blew through Washington DC and 300 miles out to sea in the Atlantic.  America's greatest economic disaster became its greatest ecological disaster - due, at least in part, to the conversion of rangeland to cropland.

So how does the wheat boom of the 1920s and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the Great Plains relate to rangeland conversion and orchard development in 21st century California?  To me, there seem to be a number of similarities.  At last week's summit in Oakdale, Roger Duncan, the UC Cooperative Extension Horticulture and Pomology Advisor for Stanislaus County, gave a presentation about trends in tree crop production.  Between 1992 and 2012, almond acreage in California has increased by 74 percent.  Pistachio acreage is up by 108%, and vineyard acreage has increased by 66%.  While some of these plantings have occurred on vegetable and field crop land, the greatest impact has been to rangeland.

Like the mechanization that played a role in the wheat boom, new technology is making orchard development on formerly unirrigated rangelands possible.  The hardpan, common to so many of our rangeland soils, once made orchard production impractical.  Bigger tractors and six to eight foot deep ripping allows farmers to break up this hardpan before planting trees.  The University of California and private industry are developing new tree varieties that allow orchards to thrive under a wider range of growing conditions.  The ability to access deep aquifers (some orchard wells are 16 inches in diameter and descend more than 500 feet below the surface) allows farmers to tap into new water sources.

This conversion is being driven by economic factors.  In general, a rancher needs approximately 12 acres of unirrigated rangeland to support one cow and her calf for a year.  For a 300 cow operation, the annual net return per acre is $1.02 (2008 Beef Cost and Returns Study, UCCE) . Planted to almonds, this acre of land would produce an annual net return of $195 per acre (2012 Almond Costs and Returns Study, UCCE) - and walnuts would generate annual net returns of $1,442 per acre (2012 Walnut Costs and Returns Study, UCCE).  According to Duncan, 82% of the world's almonds are grown in California.  In 2013, Blue Diamond Almond reported that "demand will continue to outstrip supply."  At the end of his presentation, Duncan showed a slide that asked, "When will the madness end?"  He concluded that conversion would stop only when California runs out of land and water.

Once again, the government is complicit in these conversions as well.  When a rancher dies and the value of his or her estate is determined by the IRS, the land is appraised at its highest and best use - which is orchard production (at least from an economic perspective).  Since the estate taxes are calculated on this higher amount, many families have no choice but to convert part of the ranch just to pay the tax.

At least to me, the situation on California's rangelands seems eerily reminiscent of the situation on the Great Plains in the late 1920s.  And now it's stopped raining.

In some respects, this conversion is too recent to fully understand the ecological and community implications.  Anecdotally, however, some impacts are already being felt.  Lower groundwater tables have created conflicts amongst landowners in Stanislaus County.  In Merced County, land subsidence is apparently linked to groundwater overdraft from deep wells in orchards.  Other impacts, like those to rangeland vegetation and wildlife, have not been studied yet, to my knowledge.

Fortunately, many of the academics, ranchers and environmentalists who are part of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition are starting to search for answers.  Sheila Barry, a livestock and natural resources advisor with UC Cooperative Extension in the Bay Area, focuses on the economics.  "The disparity is so great [between rangeland livestock production and orchard production]," she says, "that progress towards a level playing field will only come from finding ways to pay for non-production values [like wildlife habitat] produced by ranchers and ranches."  She adds, "We have to find ways to reduce the cost of doing business, too - estate tax policy shouldn't be pushing people to convert the ranches."  The afternoon session at the Oakdale summit was devoted to examples of efforts in other states (most notably Colorado and Montana) to pay for non-production values.

Finally, I'll admit to mixed feelings about this trend.  I've always viewed residential development as the greatest threat to our rangeland agriculture.  At least an orchard keeps land in agriculture.  I've started to realize, however, that our society is wonderfully adept at figuring out how to do things - we've figured out how to grow orchards on lands that we once thought were unsuitable to orchard production.  We are less adept at asking ourselves, "Should we do this?"  Thankfully, the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, and many of its members, is asking this very question.