Monday, November 12, 2018

Another Dry Autumn

As I write this, the Camp Fire continues to burn - mostly out of control - less than 60 miles to the north in Butte County. The grass that germinated after the inch-and-a-half of rain we received 48 days ago has withered. While our temperatures have finally become more seasonal (we've even had several frosty mornings), the warmer-than-normal daytime temperatures for most of October and low humidity have left our part of the Sierra foothills tinder-dry - or "crispy," as I remarked to my family yesterday. With the shorter days and cooler temperatures of the winter solstice just around the corner, and no rain in our forecast for at least a week, we're not likely to have much green grass until well into 2019. And so today, I pulled out our drought plan.

Our approach to raising sheep on our foothill rangelands gives us the flexibility to cope with dry conditions. We stock our pastures conservatively - our stocking rate is 2-3 acres per ewe for the winter and early spring, which leaves us significant dry forage going into the autumn months. We have invested in portable water and fencing systems, which allow us to take our sheep to standing forage (as opposed to feeding them hay). Our management calendar matches our production system with forage growth - we lamb in the late winter and early spring when the grass is most likely to be growing rapidly. We plan our grazing on a monthly basis to identify forage challenges before they become crises.

Even with this careful preparation, however, we also need to respond when dry stretches occur. To reduce the emotion involved in making these decisions, we've tried to think about the conditions and critical dates by which they'll need to be made. In looking at our drought plan this afternoon, I've realized that we're approaching a key decision point. If we have not had germination by December 1, our plan calls for two possible actions:

  • Cull any ewes that are missing teeth or that have hard bags (if they weren't culled already).
  • Provide supplemental protein to the remaining ewes to allow them to digest the dry forage we've saved from last year.
The second action is straightforward. By feeding supplemental protein, we'll be able to maintain the nutritional intake of our just-bred ewes through early gestation (when their nutritional demands are reasonably low). At some point (we hope) we'll get rain - and the grass will germinate again. Supplemental protein is the bridge that will help us get the flock to that point.

The first action is a bit more difficult. Every year, we keep a handful of older ewes who have always been productive (in other words, they've always had twins). Our hope is that with enough high-quality forage, we can get one more replacement ewe lamb out of these ewes. However, because of their lack of teeth, they need higher quality forage throughout their pregnancies. Our choice, in a year like this, is to bring them home and feed them hay - or to sell them. As older ewes, they won't be worth much at the sale - we'll have some difficult discussions about how we should proceed. We usually move the sheep back to our winter pastures around December 1 - we'll take a close look at these older ewes when we bring them into the corrals after Thanksgiving.

Our 2012-2015 drought has been called a "Thousand Year Drought" - the driest/warmest stretch of years in the last millennium in California. But I wonder if this drought isn't longer than just 2012 to 2015. Since I began keeping rainfall records in 2003, 10 out of the last 16 years have been below average in terms of precipitation. I realize that total rainfall doesn't begin to tell the whole story in terms of grass growth (indeed, last year's "normal" rainfall, combined with perfect timing and warmer weather, resulted in record-setting forage production). That said, a dry autumn like this one makes me extremely nervous. I suppose for now, I'll just keep checking the weather apps on my phone to see if the 10-day forecast includes rain - the twenty-first century version of a rain dance!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Here We Go Again

While autumn is my favorite season, it always seems a bit chancy to me. Since we rely on the grass that rainfall and Mother Nature grow in our Mediterranean climate, fall is a critical season. We need rain to start the grass; we need more rain to keep the grass growing. Having come through our once-in-a-lifetime drought (2013-2014) - or so I thought - an autumn season like the one we're experiencing now makes me nervous.

During the first week of October, we measured 1.5 inches of rain over the course of two days here in Auburn. While some ranches nearby measured next to nothing, we saw newly sprouted green grass about a week later. But since that time, it's been dry. We've even had several periods of high fire danger (a combination of high winds, low humidity, and relatively high temperatures). Since that time, the newly sprouted grass has withered.

One of my favorite weather blogs is Weather West, written by a guy named Daniel Swain. During the big drought, Swain coined the term "ridiculously resilient ridge" for the persistent ridge of high pressure resulting from unusually warm water in the eastern Pacific. This ridge deflected the storms that usually bring rainfall to central and northern California during the 2013-2014 drought. And according to Swain, it's back. Since our wonderful early October rain, the ridiculously resilient ridge is again blocking storms.

We're entering the third trimester of our autumn season. November typically brings stormy weather - and yet there are no storms in our 10-day forecast at the moment (indeed, we'll have another fire weather watch later this week). I suppose it's a sign of my weather obsession, but I check each of the weather apps on my smart phone 3-4 times a day. A predicted storm (even 10 days out) raises my spirits; I tumble back to earth when it disappears from the forecast.

We're not in crisis mode yet. Our production calendar is set with the possibility of a dry fall in mind. We save dry grass to graze this time of year. We plan to lamb in late winter and early spring when we'll almost certainly have green grass. And yet my experience in 2013-2014 - when we sold nearly half of our sheep - still haunts me.

Several weeks ago, my youngest daughter said, "I hope it rains soon - I don't want to listen to you worry." I do worry - I imagine all stock-people do when the rain doesn't come. Even so, having made it through California's last drought, I feel like I'm better prepared. Despite my preparations, though, I agree with Emma. I hope it rains soon.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Livestock Guardian Coyotes and the Limitations of Research

This coyote showed up in a game camera in July - approximately 15 feet from our sheep! No sheep were harmed in the
making of this photograph!
Recently, several folks sent me a link to a blog post by Randy Comeleo from Oregon State University cooperative extension entitled, "Using Coyotes to Protect Livestock. Wait, What?" Comeleo cites research - some from California - that suggests that the more coyotes we kill indiscriminately in ranching environments, the more livestock losses we'll experience. The post seems to fit with my own perspective - I've often said that my use of nonlethal tools (livestock guardian dogs and electric fence, primarily) is a contractual arrangement with the predators in my environment. I promise not to kill predators indiscriminately; the predators, in turn, must promise not to eat lamb or mutton. While my statement is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there does seem to be some merit to the approach. Comeleo's article indicates that research supports the idea that a non-sheep-eating coyote fills the niche that might otherwise be filled by an ovinivorous animal.

Like much scientific research, however, there are studies that seem to contradict this perspective. For example, research in Utah in the late 1990s suggests that preventive hunting of coyotes can have benefits for sheep producers in the following grazing season (see "Effect of Preventive Coyote Hunting on Sheep Losses to Coyote Predation," by Kimberly Wagner and Michael Conover (1999)). To me, this conflicting research emphasizes the limitations of pure research to inform the "art" of raising livestock in a rangeland environment. The scientific process tries to control all variables except the one in question; those of us who manage livestock on rangeland in an ever-changing climate are (by necessity) comfortable with variables we can't control.

As someone with a foot in both worlds (ranching and research), I sometimes struggle with this dichotomy. I'm intrigued by the question of whether my livestock guardian dogs displace the coyotes that live near my sheep, or if they simply disrupt their predatory behaviors. From a purely scientific perspective, I suppose, I would need to know how many coyotes live in close proximity. I'd need to know whether these coyotes would prey on sheep that weren't protected by dogs. I'd need to know whether my electric fence provided similar deterrence, and I'd need to know how many lambs were saved by both tools. From my more simplistic (realistic?) rancher perspective, I only care about how much my dogs cost and whether I suffer any death loss due to predators. As a rancher, I'm interested in knowing what my dogs are doing when a coyote (or any other predator) approaches my sheep - I really don't care how many coyotes are in the neighborhood. I'm simply happy that my sheep aren't dead and that I can afford to keep the dogs.

All of this, I suppose, is related to our own personal paradigms. I believe my dogs and my fences will work. When a dog causes a problem, or when sheep break through the electric fence, the filter of my own paradigm influences my response. What can I do to help the dog understand his (her) job? Was the fence working properly? If I felt like dogs and portable electric fence were not effective, I'd likely abandon these tools at the first hint of a problem.

Fortunately, there is a new generation of scientists studying these issues - scientists who combine bio-physical research with a social science foundation. These researchers understand that the real world is messy - we can't answer important questions if we insist on controlling all of the variables. This type of work - which combines scientific rigor with the everyday concerns of on-the-ground practitioners - will be critical answering questions like the one raised by my OSU colleague. Can the right kind of coyotes actually protect my sheep?!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Seasonally-Activated Attention Deficit Disorder (SAADD)

I've always been attracted to changes and transitions. I am (I suspect) unusually curious about what's over that next ridge, across that creek, or beyond the horizon. I always wonder what might be at the end of the dirt road. And I suppose that's why I've always seemed to like the seasons of change (spring and autumn) more than summer and winter.

I suspect I may be genetically predisposed to cold(ish) weather - perhaps my Scotch-German ancestry has given me thick blood. I can always add layers of clothing and stoke up the fire in the wood stove when it's cold outside. On the other hand, there's a limit to how many clothes I can remove when the weather is hot! But even with my inclination towards winter, I've realized that I prefer the transitional seasons to summer's bright heat and winter's gray cold.

Springtime is easy to understand - new life abounds. Our lambs are frolicking! Irrigation water returns to our canals. The grass begins to riot!

But truth be told, my favorite season (by far) is autumn. In our Mediterranean climate in the Sierra foothills, the first real rain of autumn usually marks the beginning of our grass year. Germination Day (which ought to be a holiday, in my opinion) occurs several days after we get a half inch or more of rain. As bright green shoots of grass appear underneath last year's dead stalks, we turn the rams in with the ewes. This seems like an act of faith and hope - a five-month Advent, of sorts. An investment in the coming year.

In autumn, the nights grow cooler - sometimes cool enough that we need a fire to heat the house. Mornings grow even colder - a 40-degree morning in October provides an excuse to break out my woolen shirts (which I usually shed before I'm done moving irrigation water, but no matter). When we grew vegetables, I always looked forward to the hard frost that marked the end of harvesting tomatoes and summer squash. As a shepherd, I look forward to the frost that finally kills the sluggish autumn flies and the meat bees that harass the dogs.

Today, I fed the last of the barley to our breeding flock. We start feeding barley in late summer to "flush" the ewes - the added dietary energy increases their ovulation rates (and the lambs they'll conceive). Feeding barley to the ewes is an adventure - I've never been to a punk-rock concert, but I suspect the mosh pit is not much different than trying to feed a mob of hungry ewes! We feed barley through the first two weeks of breeding (in other words, until mid-October).

On Sunday, I'll move the irrigation water for the last time in 2018. Nearly every day for the last 6 months, my work day has started with dragging the K-Line sprinklers behind the ATV. On Monday morning, I think I'll go for a walk before work (instead of scrambling to get to the ranch before 7 so I can be at work by 8). Perhaps I'll just sleep a little longer!

My friends Mark and Dina Moore, who ranch and grow timber in Humboldt County, told me more than 20 years ago that they relished the fall and winter months. Shorter daylight hours - and more importantly, longer nights - forced them to rest. As I've tied my work to the rhythm of the changing seasons, I've come to appreciate this perspective even more. Between my ranch work and my professional work, I often work sun-up to sun-down (and beyond). As our hemisphere spins towards the shortest day of the year, I can feel my batteries re-charging.

By early February, I'll be looking forward to the growing light (and the coming lambs). While spring is a wonderful season, I've find that I look towards autumn with greater relish. By mid-August, I'm always looking forward to the first cool morning and hint of fall. I guess I'm always looking over the horizon - regardless of the season!

Monday, October 8, 2018

Thank you, Ernie

Our border collie Ernie has been a frequent subject of this blog, as some will know. While I got to use Ernie to herd sheep, he really belonged to our youngest daughter, Emma. In addition to his sheep dog duties, Ernie was Emma's companion. She showed him in agility and obedience at our local fair. He often slept at the foot of Emma's bed. They were buddies. All of this makes this post difficult to write.

Ernie came to us from our friend Ellen Skillings in 2010. Emma and I drove to Tulelake on the California-Oregon border to pick him up in January of that year. At around 6 months of age, we started introducing Ernie to sheep work. He proved to be a challenging dog - he loved the work, but he didn't want to work with a human partner.

In 2013, I took a part-time job at McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista. The position involved working with large numbers of sheep on a daily basis. With my old top dog, Taff, slowing down and nearing retirement, I needed Ernie to help take some of the load off my new top dog, Mo. Ernie proved to be up to the task.

But Ernie's training process wasn't what you might expect. I have come to believe that shepherds are given the dogs they need at a particular point (and I suspect this is true of most working dogs, regardless of the work we ask them to do). What I needed at that point was a dog to show me how to pay attention to how the work was being done. Ernie began to improve when I needed him to accomplish big tasks - and when I realized that I needed to be totally present and totally focused when we worked together. Mo was a dog who relished our partnership; Ernie taught me that I needed to be a partner, too. He also taught me to work with a dog who's drive wouldn't allow him to rest. Unlike Mo, who'd find water if he got too hot while we were working, Ernie wouldn't quit. On hot days, I'd have to force him to take a break.

The following year, I worked as the beef herdsman at the University of California's Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley. Neither Ernie nor Mo had ever worked on cattle, but both dogs took to the work immediately. From gathering pairs from the bluffs overlooking the Yuba River to moving steers and heifers up the road, both dogs benefited from the regular work. Ernie, because he needed to be more thoughtful in his work with larger livestock, started to listen better. And working cattle helped him become a better sheep dog.

As our sheep business became more part-time, the dogs didn't get to work as regularly - but I still needed their help for things like moving sheep at lambing, catching ewes for treatment, weaning the lambs, or moving sheep on or across county roads. Ernie's heart and stamina made him my first choice when I needed to complete a difficult task. At times, Ernie would come to the office with me, too - and when he was home, he honed his skill at chewing on hoses and digging holes.

Ernie was always afraid he'd miss something, I think - and so he always made sure he jumped into the truck if the opportunity presented itself. There were times I didn't realize Ernie was with me until I got to town. And this wasn't just my truck - sometimes Ernie would jump into any available vehicle. Several years ago, after a long day of shearing sheep, I called the dogs to help me put the freshly shorn ewes back out on pasture. Mo came right away; I eventually gave up on Ernie and had Mo help me with the work on his own. We searched all of Ernie's usual hiding places (the back of my truck, the hay barn, Sami's office) to no avail. I finally called our shearer, Derrick Adamache, who had nearly made it home to Truckee. I asked Derrick if Ernie was in his car (he drives a Subaru station wagon). Derrick did a quick check, told me, "no, but let me pull over and check," and then said, "yep - he's curled up right behind the driver's seat." Derrick was gracious enough to drive back towards Auburn - and ever since that day we've checked his car more carefully when he leaves!

Earlier this summer, we noticed that Ernie was drooling and bleeding from his mouth. We thought he might have a foxtail embedded under his tongue, but the diagnosis was far worse. Ernie had a cancerous growth in his mouth. We had the growth removed, knowing it would come back. On September 30, we realized he had new masses in his mouth and throat. Swallowing was becoming difficult for him.

A week ago, I knew I would need to move one of our breeding groups onto fresh pasture. This job is typically pretty easy early in breeding season - since we're feeding barley to the sheep, they'll follow a bucket anywhere. But I decided I wanted to give Ernie some work. Despite his condition, he jumped in the truck when I called him; his drive was undiminished by his condition. I could tell he didn't have his usual energy, but once he came into contact with the flock, he was his usual hard-driving self. He brought the ewes off the hill and into their new paddock - managing to ignore (as he always has) the livestock guardian dog who wanted to play.

I wasn't prepared at my own emotions while watching Ernie work. I realized that this was likely the last time we'd ever work together. I realized that in some ways it has been easier for me when my dogs have left me unexpectedly. I found myself on the edge of tears most of Monday (and over the edge on several occasions).

Over the weekend, we all realized that it was time to let Ernie go. As anyone who has ever loved a dog will know, losing a dog is difficult. Those of us who have relied on working dogs, I suppose, feel this loss deeply - we've lost a companion and a working partner. My sorrow is intensified by the knowledge that my daughter has lost her pal. Thank you, Ernie - you were the dog I needed, even when I didn't realize it. See you on the other side one day, I hope!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Fall Feed... or Fuel Load Reduction?

Ranchers, myself included, are conservative by nature. I don't mean politically (although this is also true in many cases). Many of us (again, myself included), assume that if the worst might happen, it probably will. Pessimists, I've heard, are often pleasantly surprised - pessimistic ranchers are pleasantly surprised when we get rain when we're "supposed" to, for example.

This conservatism manifests itself in a variety of ways. Many of us stock our ranches conservatively - we maintain the number of animals we know we can graze even in a drought year. We make changes slowly. We save the grass that grows in the springtime (at least here in the Sierra Foothills) to come back to in the fall (most of us graze our livestock on more nutritious irrigated pasture or mountain meadows in the summer months).

But while there are fewer of us around (much of the land near Auburn, where I live, is no longer grazed by cattle or sheep), our non-ranching neighbors have rediscovered the benefits of grazing in our fire-prone Mediterranean climate. By consuming grass, broadleaf plants and brush, grazing (and browsing) livestock can help reduce fire risk. For some, biomass utilization conjures images of high-tech power plants utilizing wood chips to generate electricity; for me, biomass utilization means that my sheep eat plants. Plants that might otherwise burn in the summer and fall.

This realization sets up conflicting objectives, at least in our business. Because I'm conservative (with a lower-case, non-political "c"), I'm inclined to save spring forage for fall grazing. The folks that allow us to graze their land in the late winter and springtime see the forage I've saved as a threat - that stuff will burn! So how do we reconcile these divergent perspectives? Perhaps it's a matter of prioritization and economics. Let me explain....

With our current flock size, we need somewhere between 130 and 150 acres of rangeland pastures from December 1 through April 1. In a "normal" year, this amount of grass is sufficient to feed our pregnant ewes through the end of their pregnancies. It's also enough to carry us through six weeks of lambing. In a conventional pasture lease, this much land might cost me $1500 annually. Obviously, if we leave these pastures around April 1, they will keep growing until the soil dries and the grasses turn brown. When the autumn months stay dry, this dry forage sustains our sheep.

The folks who own this land (we own 3 acres, yet we need around 250 acres of rangeland and irrigated pasture to sustain our sheep through the year) would like us to keep grazing in the spring and summer months to reduce the fire threat in their community. This year, finally, we had a direct conversation about our differing needs. Consequently, we weaned our lambs 3-4 weeks earlier than normal so we could move the ewes back to the dry grass in this community. We focused our summer grazing on the most vulnerable areas - south-facing slopes adjacent to homes, roadsides where fires could start, and weedy areas that needed summer impact.

Our approach wasn't perfect this year. Our lambs, because they were weaned 3-4 weeks early, were lighter - and so they brought less money (which impacted our bottom line). Since we moved the ewes off of our irrigated pasture before we would have otherwise, we had 3-4 weeks of added expense - we had to feed supplemental protein to allow them to digest the dry forage. We'll make adjustments next year - having this conversation with our landlords was an important step.

All of this is a long-winded explanation of a realization I came to this week. Grazing can be an incredibly important tool in reducing fire danger in California. Using this tool, however, has value - like any other fuel-load reduction tool. My inclination is to make sure I've got at least some dry grass to come back to in the fall (in the event we don't get fall rains). This doesn't solve the fuel-loading problem, however; my landlords' fuel-load is my fall grazing. As a rancher, I need some incentive to use this fall feed in the late spring and summer! For our operation, this incentive has been rent-free pasture from December through April; for others, it might mean cash payment. Fall forage, after all, has economic value to me as a rancher. Similarly, fuel-load reduction has economic value to our communities! Our grazing arrangements should reflect this fact.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Feet on the Ground - and Cycles of Life

On my 51st birthday last April, my folks gave me a copy of This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems by my favorite poet, Wendell Berry. I've already quoted one of my favorite lines from a poem in this collection (see my post, Heart and Head: The Joys and Realities of Small-Scale Ranching); I found another great line this week (on the morning when we started flushing our ewes in preparation for next year's lamb crop):
"To one who has watched here many years, all of this is familiar. And yet none of it has ever happened before as it is happening now."
Last night, we went to a barn concert (actually, to be accurate, the concert was in a round pen at our friends' place - thanks, Dave and Chris Bugenig!) featuring Dave Stamey. Introducing his song "12 Mile Road" last night, he talked about the fact that many cowboy songs celebrate the huge ranches of the West - the places were a cowboy could ride for days and not come to a fence. "There aren't many songs," he said, "that celebrate the small, hardscrabble places where folks struggle to make a ranching life." He added, "That's the tradition I come from." As he was talking, I realized that he was describing our little sheep operation, too. A line from his song especially resonated for me:
"You do everything you can, by God, to keep your feet on the ground."
Poetry, I find, when it's written by my fellow farmers and ranchers - and both Berry and Stamey are far more eloquent than I am - often articulates the thoughts that have been niggling at the back of my brain. As Berry suggests, the work I do as a shepherd is familiar - carrying buckets of grain to the ewes this month to prepare them for breeding season is something I have done for "many years." And yet, this year (every year) is different. Every year is different, which I suppose is largely responsible for holding my interest. Each year presents a new set of problems to solve, a new set of joys and frustrations.

Persisting from year to year, as Stamey sings, requires a bit of stubbornness, too. His song made me think about our experiences during the 2012-2015 drought - the driest 4 years in the last thousand in California. We went into the drought with more than 250 ewes; we came out with fewer than 60. We've been rebuilding since - we'll put the rams in with 68 ewes this year, and we're keeping 20 ewe lambs for next year. Keeping my feet on the ground, for me, has meant going back to work of the ranch. It has meant getting a master's degree and being hired as the livestock and natural resources advisor for my region.

As I get older, I realize that I'm more aware of the mileposts in each year. Lambing, shearing and weaning. Flushing, breeding and settling the ewes. This work is the same, year in and year out - and yet this year's flushing has never happened like this before. Persistence - some would call it stubbornness - and an open mind - allows me to learn something with every season. That's what I love about ranching. That keeps my feet on the ground.