Sunday, December 21, 2014

Quietly Paying Attention

I'll admit to professional bias, but the part of the Christmas Story from the Gospel of Luke that most appeals to me is when the angels appear to the shepherds.  I realize that much of this story has to do with the symbolism of God choosing to announce the birth of Christ to the lowest of the lowly; that's fine - as a shepherd, I've had lowly days myself.  Even so, to me this part of the story suggests something more profound.  To me, this story suggests that perhaps stockmen - and women - are more in tune with what's happening around them.  To me, this story suggests that shepherds (and by extension, stock-people) were perhaps the only people who would have noticed the angels in the first place!

The best stock-people I've known - and by this, I mean shepherds (and shepherdesses), cowboys (and girls) and goatherds - have some things in common.  I've found them to be quiet and constantly paying attention.  And they spend much of their time (if not most of it) out of doors.  Stockmanship involves quiet observation - of the environment, of the animals, and of the situation.  I have found that when I'm quiet and aware, I notice some amazing things - things that I might have missed if I were not paying attention.

Secondly, by definition, a stockman (or woman) must spend time with stock.  For grazing animals, this means spending time outdoors away from "civilization."  Even those of us who graze animals close to town work mostly away from civilization - our work is far more physical than most "civilized" jobs.

This combination - working conciously, quietly, out of doors, and physically - means that we are privileged to see and experience some amazing things.  We get to see the geese and sandhill cranes migrating, we get to hear a creek start to run after a drenching rain, we get to feel the warmth of the sun on the first true spring day,  we get to taste the first ripe blackberries of summer, and we get to smell leaves becoming topsoil in the fall.  For me, spending time outside, working with animals, and being quiet enough to be "in" my environment means that I get to observe some wonderous events.

All of which brings me back to the story of the shepherds.  Regardless of what you believe, I hope that the new year brings you the opportunity to be outdoors, quiet and concious of your surroundings.  May you hear angels sing in the coming twelve months.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A New Chapter

Next month, I'll be opening a new chapter in my work as a stockman.  In mid January, I will become the herdsman at the University of California’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center.  This new job will give me the opportunity to care for grazing livestock (cattle, in this case) and to help with education and outreach activities.  I’m tremendously excited about the job! I'll be getting paid to work horseback with my dogs, and I'll have the opportunity to assist with research and teaching!


As you can imagine, this change means we're re-thinking our sheep business.  We'll be downsizing our operation significantly in the next several weeks.  Our plan is to match our flock to the pasture resources we have close to home (we intend to keep 40-50 ewes).  We'll still offer grass-fed lamb next fall (whole and half lambs can be reserved later this spring), and we'll still offer our best fleeces to handspinners this spring.  However, we won't be going to the farmer's market for the foreseeable future.


In the meantime, we are offering 85 bred ewes for sale.  Most of these ewes are 3-5 years old.  We ultrasounded the flock in mid-December, and all of the ewes we're offering for sale scanned as bred.  They are due to lamb between late February and the end of March.  They are mostly "mules" (Blueface Leicester-crosses - mostly with Cheviot ewes).  We're asking $240 each for them ($230 each if you take 10 or more).


Once again, we will be offering our Shepherding School in 2015 (in collaboration with UC Cooperative Extension).  Here's the schedule:


  • Predator Protection for Small-Scale Livestock Producers - January 11, 2015 (part of the Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference in Grass Valley). For info, go to http://foodandfarmconference.com.
  • Introduction to Sheep Production (including marketing, management and husbandry)  - January 15, 2015 (6:30 to 8:30 p.m.) - Auburn, CA
  • Sheep Huspandry Field Day (including trimming feet, vaccinations and general husbandry) - January 17, 2015 (8:30 a.m. to 12 noon) - Auburn, CA
  • Pasture Lambing School (including managing ewes and lambs, processing lambs, and nutritional considerations) - March 7, 2015 (8:30 a.m. to 12 noon) - Auburn, CA
  • Wool Handling and Shearing - May 2015 (date and time to be determined) - Auburn, CA




Thank you for all of your support over the years.  We are staying in Auburn - and staying in the sheep business.  I'll continue to provide updates at www.facebook.com/flyingmulefarm and on my blog at www.flyingmule.blogspot.com. And I'm sure I'll continue to write about my experiences and observations as a stockman.

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

I'm Dreaming... of a GREEN Christmas!

With apologies to Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin...

Dreaming of a Green Christmas

Ol' Bing had it wrong when he sang his song dreamin' of Christmas snow.

After the wreck of '13, I'm hopin' for green grass this Christmas, ya know.

No startin' each day loadin' the hay and haulin' it out to the sheep -


Let the rain come, followed by sun; gimme lotsa grass that's knee-deep!

By far, the shortest Christmas poem I've ever written, and certainly not the best - but it's been that kind of year!  Here's hoping that 2015 brings an end to our drought!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ready for the Storm

We've probably all heard the saying, "Red sky in morning, farmer take warning."  I'm wondering what this morning's
purple sky means!
If the weather forecasters are correct, we're in for a significant storm this week in Northern California.  Perhaps I'm cynical (or maybe I'm just a farmer who spends much of his time outdoors), but these weather events rarely live up to the media hype - I think this is the tenth or eleventh "Storm of the Century" we've faced since 2000.  And since we've been in a drought, the hype over this storm seems especially intense.  Even so, we're taking steps early in the week to prepare our sheep operation and our home for the arrival of wet and windy weather.

Rangeland livestock are especially well-equipped to cope with inclement weather.  The particular breeds of sheep that we raise were developed in northern England and southern Scotland, so they can handle wet and windy storms.  Since we are rangeland-based, we take sheep to the grass (rather than carry hay to the sheep).  Our storm preparations, then, are centered around making sure we have adequate forage and natural shelter for the sheep going into the stormy weather.  We also try to build big enough paddocks to avoid having to build more fence during the height of the storm.  In other words, we try to keep both sheep and shepherds safe and comfortable!
This 4.5-acre paddock should have enough forage and shelter for the ewes through this week's storm.

My storm preparations started yesterday.  Before heading into my Cooperative Extension job yesterday morning, I built a new 4.5 acre paddock for the ewes.  Based on the growth stage of the grass and the current nutritional needs of the ewes, this much grass should last for 5-6 days.  However, during inclement weather, the ewes will graze more than normal (to help maintain body temperature).  Tomorrow, I'll build another new paddock which will allow us to move sheep quickly and easily on Thursday or Friday if necessary.  In selecting a site for this new paddock, I made sure that the terrain and vegetation would provide some relief from the rain and especially the wind.  This large paddock has a small grove of live oaks at the bottom of the hill, and another smaller grove at the top.  If we were lambing (which will start at the end of February), I would have chosen a site on a north or northwest facing slope to provide more topographic shelter from wind-driven rain (during storms, our prevailing winds come from the south and southeast).

My second consideration with impending stormy weather is truck access.  We've had enough rain this fall that the green grass (and heavy morning dew) is providing most of the ewes' water requirements - my 150 ewes are drinking less than 10 gallons per day (total).  Despite this fact, I want to make sure I can get my truck close to a water trough.  With 3-4 inches of rain expected at the end of the week, this means I need a fence line near a paved or graveled road.

This morning, I  moved a second group of sheep into a more sheltered location at another property.  This paddock also has trees and terrain to provide shelter, and it has flowing water (which means I won't need to haul water).  This group of sheep should be fine through the weekend.
This morning - working "by the dawn's early light" to move a second
group of sheep onto fresh (and sheltered) feed.

My biggest concern with this predicted storm is the wind.  Our temporary electric fence works great, but the combination of high winds and soggy soils will sometimes pull fence posts out of the ground or knock sections of fencing over.  We also may get branches (or even entire trees) that blow over onto our fences.  Once the storm starts, I'll check the fences morning and night to make sure there are no problems.  I'll also walk through both groups of sheep to check for any health problems.

As with most of my shepherding work, I'll rely on my border collies during the storm as well.  Like our sheep, border collies as a breed were developed in the British Isles.  Our dogs seem to love wet and windy weather - it must be genetic!  If I need to catch a sheep to provide medical treatment or move the sheep into the new paddock, the dogs will make quick work of the job.  And if the sheep escape through a blown down fence, the dogs will bring them back.  I sometimes think the dogs actually knock down fences just to have an excuse to work the sheep!
As always, Mo is ready to help!

At home, we've cleaned our gutters and raked our leaves - which we'll need to do again after the storm, no doubt.  I'll also place sandbags in front of my shop building - in heavy rain, we get a small stream flowing through the shop.  I'll also set up my battery charger in the garage - our electric fences are powered by deep-cycle 12-volt batteries.  In sunny weather, our solar panels can keep our batteries charges; with 3-4 days of cloudy weather expected, I'll need to rotate batteries.  Finally, I'll make sure the wood box is full of firewood and that the kerosene lanterns are full of lamp oil.  By tomorrow afternoon, we'll be ready.  Bring on the "Storm of the Century" - at least this week's version!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Of Floods and Droughts - Past, Present and Yet to Come

I just finished reading The West without Water by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam.  For the most part, the book is an interesting look at 20,000 years of climate history in the American West, with an eye towards predicting the impacts of impending climate change.  While accounts of prehistoric and historic droughts, floods and other extreme weather events are interesting and informative, I found myself disappointed by the tired, disproven (at least from my perspective) anti-agriculture solutions offered in the book's conclusion.  While the science behind the examination of the historic climate record seems thorough, I find the lack of scientific rigor applied to the recommended solutions.

The majority of the book is devoted to a rigorous review of the scientific evidence for variations in the climate of the American West in the last 20,000 years.  The opening chapters review much of the written history of California and the West with respect to climate - especially the 1861-1862 floods in California and the "Great Droughts of the Twentieth Century."  The authors provide an excellent account of the 1861-1862 floods - the loss of life and property were devastating.  The authors make the case that such an event could happen again - and that we are ill-prepared in California (with nearly 40 million residents, some of whom live in flood plains). I was most struck by an account from the January 11, 1862 edition of the Nevada City Democrat that "reported that Native Americans left Marysville for the Sierra foothills a week before the large flood, predicting higher water than at any time since the region had been settled by European-American pioneers." (p. 38).

Part Two reviews the geologic, climatic and biologic record of the Holocene Epic - including the "Long Drought" of the Mid-Holocene, the "Great 'Medieval Drought'," and the "Little Ice Age of the 17th and 18th Centuries.  In this well-researched section of the book, the authors describe the tremendous variability in the climate of the American West, as well as the cycles and oscillations behind this variability (including El Nino, La Nina and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation).  Ingram and Malamud-Roam succinctly relate these prehistoric and historic climatic variations to the possible impacts of impending climate change.  While this section is especially well written, perhaps the most important perspective is offered in a quote on the book's dust jacket.  James Lawrence Powell, author of Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West, says, "Earth's climate has changed before but always on a geological time scale.  By burning millions of years' worth of fossil fuels in a couple of centuries, humans have now forced atmospheric change onto our time scale."

This sentence sums up my worry about climate change.  Based on what I've read (in this book and others), I believe that earth's climate has always been variable.  For the most part, it seems, past climatic changes have happened at a pace that has allowed the environment - plants, animals (and to a lesser extent, humans) to adjust.  By speeding up the carbon cycle by burning fossil fuel, I fear we've compressed climate change (which has generally occurred on a geological time scale of tens- to hundreds-of-thousands of years) into our own lifetimes.  While our current drought is frightening, to be sure, I'm more frightened by the evidence that 2013 and 2014 have been among the warmest years in recorded human history.  Change seems to be gathering momentum.

As much as I found the first two sections of this book interesting and well-written, I was tremendously disappointed by the ill-informed and seemingly un-researched indictment of agriculture in the last section.  To summarize, the authors seem to believe that if we'd simply stop raising cattle and start planting high-value permanent crops (like nuts, fruits and grape) that use high-tech irrigation systems, we'd solve most of our water problems.  I take issue with this perspective for two reasons.

First, the science behind these assertions is far from settled.  The authors suggest that a six-ounce steak requires 2,600 gallons of water to produce.  Unfortunately, their bibliography for this chapter does not provide any direct references for this number.  Despite this oversight, there is current research from UC Davis that provides an very different picture.  According to research published in the Journal of Animal Science by JL Beckett and JW Oltjen in 1993, this six-ounce steak takes just 157 gallons for applied irrigation water to produce.  Rangeland livestock production, in my experience, is an important way of producing meat, milk and fiber from vegetation grown with rainfall on land that otherwise wouldn't produce food.

The second assertion - that we need to move away from "thirsty" row and field crops (like alfalfa and rice) and into higher value permanent crops (like almonds and grapes) seems to have been disproven during our most recent drought.  In a normal year, these row crops may take a bit more water to grow.  In dry years (like 2014, for example) farmers can elect not to grow them.  Permanent crops, however, are less forgiving.  Many farmers who made the transition to high value crops in the last 20 years drilled new and/or deeper wells this year to keep these trees and vines alive - they couldn't fallow orchards or vineyards in the current drought.

While my objections to these assertions obviously demonstrate my bias towards food production as the most important human use of water beyond drinking water, I think the authors' bias demonstrates a more troubling problem.  While much of the research into past climate variation and current climate impacts is rigorous, many of the recommended solutions appear to by philosophically or politically motivated.  The ultimate solutions in my opinion will require ALL of us to change the ways we live and use resources.  Agriculture needs to come to the table, but so do urban areas, suburban homeowners, environmentalists - everyone!  We'll all need to adapt.

Read the book - it's worth your investment of time - but read it critically.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Stoic Creatures


Someone more eloquent than I once said that sheep are stoic creatures.  I interpret
this to mean that sheep accept whatever comes their way without complaint.  To me, this characteristic is why many stockmen are not suited to raising sheep - it's terribly frustrating to care for an animal that is fine one day and on death's door the next.  I've found that it takes a very discerning eye on the part of the shepherd to notice a problem with an individual sheep - it's any eye that I'm still developing.

This afternoon, I needed to move the ewes.  They had plenty of dry forage, but they had grazed most of the green grass.  As I prepared to move them into a holding pen, a powerful thunderstorm chased the ewes back under some tree cover - and chased me back to the truck (I'm always a little nervous about handling electric fence during an electrical storm).  By the time the lightning had passed (though it was still raining) I only had a half hour of daylight left for building fence.

I debated about whether to build fence - my rain gear had soaked through, my border collie was cowering from the lightning, and darkness was approaching.  I decided I'd expand the existing paddock by about two-thirds of an acre - giving the ewes enough fresh feed to last till tomorrow.

Usually if the ewes are out of feed, they come to the nearest fenceline to watch me complete the new fence.  Tonight, probably because of the rain, they watched me from under the treeline - about 75 yards away from where I was working.  However, as I removed the fence dividing the old paddock from the new, they trotted forward into the fresh forage.  Being stoic creatures, they were quiet about it - but they seemed relieved to have some green grass to graze.  At the risk of anthropomorphizing my sheep, they seemed to express gratitude for the new paddock as they trotted past me.  I can't articulate the feeling very well, but I was glad I'd decided to spend a half hour in the driving rain building fence.

Measuring the Drought: How Farmers and Ranchers Can Report on Drought Impacts

Note: this blog post was originally published on the Farming in the Foothills blog (at http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/blog/)
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In early November, the California Rangeland Watershed Laboratory at UC Davis hosted a workshop/webinar entitled “Ranching and California's Drought” (for videos of the presentations, CLICK HERE).  For me, one of the most interesting parts of the workshop was a panel discussion featuring several of the authors of the U.S. Drought Monitor (go tohttp://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/ for more information about the Drought Monitor).  According to the Drought Monitor website:
“The U.S. Drought Monitor, established in 1999, is a weekly map of drought conditions that is produced jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The U.S. Drought Monitor website is hosted and maintained by the NDMC.
“U.S. Drought Monitor maps come out every Thursday morning at 8:30 eastern time, based on data through 7 a.m. the preceding Tuesday. The map is based on measurements of climatic, hydrologic and soil conditions as well as reported impacts and observations from more than 350 contributors around the country. Eleven climatologists from the partner organizations take turns serving as the lead author each week. The authors examine all the data and use their best judgment to reconcile any differences in what different sources are saying.”
This weekly map is important for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it is increasingly used to determine eligibility for government-funded drought relief programs for farmers and ranchers.  It's also used by the Internal Revenue Service to determine how long a rancher who has sold breeding stock can defer his or her capital gains tax bill.  I learned during the workshop that the Drought Monitor authors rely on on-the-ground observations as well as remotely-sensed data on soil moisture, precipitation, vegetation and a variety of other factors.  Most applicable to me, the panel discussed ways that farmers and ranchers can provide real-world information to the Drought Monitor, which will help them improve its accuracy and timeliness.

What types of information are useful?
Obviously, on-the-ground information about precipitation is critical information.  Rainfall and snowfall amounts can vary greatly over short distances, and actual precipitation totals are an important dataset for the Drought Monitor.  Most of us have rain gauges – we should be recording daily rain and snowfall totals for our own records!
The panel indicated that information on forage production and other vegetation responses to precipitation are most useful when placed in historical context – in other words, reporting that our annual rangelands produced 2,000 pounds of forage per acre in 2014 isn't as useful as providing documentation that last year's forage production was 77 percent of the historic average.  That said, many of us have taken photographs of our farm or ranch on an annual basis – and these photographs often show differences in vegetation from one year to the next.  I've started using an iPhone application called GrassSnap (go tohttp://centralsandhills.unl.edu/GrassSnap for more information) that allows me to take repeatable photographs from a specific spot.  I'm going to start taking these photos of our home pasture on the first of every month – a quick and easy way to track forage production from month-to-month and year-to-year.
Another useful bit of data that I've been tracking (without realizing it might be important to the Drought Monitor) are bloom and leaf-out dates for some of the landscaping plants at our home.  I've recorded the bloom dates for our lilacs for the last 13 years.  I've also recorded bloom dates for our daffodils.  Weather and soil moisture can impact these dates, and this information (because I've got some historical context for it) is useful for the Drought Monitor.  I've also recorded the dates when I first see the blue oaks starting to leaf out – another helpful indicator.  We have four enormous mulberry trees in our yard – I've generally tried to record the date when they've finally dropped all of the leaves (and when we can stop raking them up!).  All of this information is related to our weather conditions.
Speaking of dates, there are other useful weather and climate related dates we might record - the date of the first killing frost, for example.  I've also recorded the date when I first hear or see the sandhill cranes flying over – either on their trip north in the early spring or their return trip south in the early fall.  There may be other types of migratory wildlife on our farms and ranches that can help provide some indication of weather and climatic conditions.  The dates when creeks start or stop running are useful information, as are the dates when vernal pools or stockponds start to fill or become dry.
macon1-23In addition to these weather-related impacts, many of us have experienced management and economic impacts from the drought.  Have you sold livestock because of lack of forage or stockwater?  Have you had fruit trees die?  Have you had your irrigation water deliveries curtailed?  Have groundwater levels dropped?  Have you observed health issues in your livestock or crops that might be weather related?  For example, we experienced a fairly severe outbreak of the bluetongue virus this fall, which was probably related to the relatively mild and very dry winter of 2013-2014.  The Drought Monitor uses these types of reports to quantify the economic impacts of drought.
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I'm incredibly busy – why should I take time to observe and report conditions? Isn't that the government's job?!
All of us are busy – ranching and farming provide “opportunities” to work more than full time for most of us!  Recording the types of information I've listed above takes time, as does submitting reports to the Drought Monitor.  While improving the accuracy of the Drought Monitor is an important goal on its own, I've found that recording this data helps me become a better manager.  For example, tracking rainfall totals last year helped me identify some critical dates for making decisions about stocking rates based on what our forage production was likely to be two or three months in the future.  Someone once said that drought can sneak up on you – it's not like a snowstorm that's predicted days or weeks in advance.  Keeping track helps reduce the element of surprise!
For me, at least, recording and reporting my observations is important psychologically, too.  Most of us probably experienced a feeling of helplessness at some point last winter when we were in the midst of our 50-plus day dry spell.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make it rain.  Keeping track of weather and climatic conditions – and reporting on these conditions to the Drought Monitor – gave me something useful to do.  This might seem like a stretch, but there's something to it, at least for me – doing something is better than doing nothing!

How can I report drought impacts and conditions to the Drought Monitor?
There are several formal avenues for reporting impacts and conditions to the Drought Monitor.  First, the National Drought Mitigation Center maintains a drought impacts reporting website (go to http://droughtreporter.unl.edu/).  By clicking on the “Submit a Report” button at the top of the page, you can follow the simple, on-screen directions to submit your observation.  The site is moderated, which means someone at the Center reviews each report and determines whether it can be considered a drought “impact” which can be used to inform the drought monitor map.  Again, historical context is important - when you make a report, compare current conditions to previous years.  For instance, you might report that a particular creek has never gone dry in the 50 years you've observed it. You can submit regular monthly observations as a “condition report ” to help build a historic record; summary information, such as how forage production compares to the historic average; or other observations or qualitative information on how drought conditions differ from normal.
 
I've also created an account on the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (http://www.cocorahs.org/).  This website allows me to report daily precipitation observations.  To ensure uniformity, the network asks members to use a specific rain gauge (and a link to an affordable source of these gauges is provided).  The Drought Monitor authors do review precipitation reports on the network website as they make their weekly updates.  As an admitted weather nerd, I've also found the daily precipitation maps generated on this website to be very interesting – it's just one more way of “looking over the fence” to see what's happening at the neighbors!

The importance of our stories!
Finally, qualitative information about the drought is just as important as quantitative data.  Our stories have importance, too – both for current research and future generations.  This drought is the most severe in a generation.  We need to share our stories with our families and with our neighbors – the colors on the Drought Monitor map will only impact public policy if we are willing to share the real-world effects on our land, our businesses, our families and our communities.  Fortunately, most of us have access to technological tools that make recording our stories easy.  One of the best sites I've seen for recording these stories is the SoundCloud Voices from the Drought site moderated by Brad Hooker at the UC Davis Plant Sciences Department.  For more information about the project, go tohttp://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=13098.  To listen to the Voices from the Drought stories, go tohttps://soundcloud.com/groups/farmer-and-rancher-voices-from-the-drought.
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Sunday, November 30, 2014

This Drought's Over - Right?!

As I write this post on November 30, 2014, I'm looking out the window at cloudy skies and wet ground.  Since Thanksgiving (three days ago), we've measured more than an inch of rain.  For the month of November, we've received just over 4.4 inches - compared to 3.43 inches in September-November 2013.  Thanks to well-spaced rain and continued warm temperatures, our grass has started to grow - also a departure from last year.  So the drought's over, right?!  Based on some of the posts I've seen on Facebook in the last 24 hours, you'd think a month of average precipitation had solved all of our problems.  Unfortunately, we're not out of the woods yet - not even close!

On the day after Thanksgiving, the girls and I drove to Tuolumne County from our home near Auburn.  Our route took us over the Parrots Ferry Bridge over New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River.  New Melones is part of the the federal Central Valley Project - it stores irrigation and drinking water for customers in the San Joaquin Valley and beyond.  And it's incredibly low.  Parrots Ferry is the easternmost crossing over the lake, and we were startled to see the tops of dead trees in the middle of the channel - in other words, this stretch of the lake seems to be less than 100 feet above the elevation of the former river channel.  And just as discouraging - there seemed to be new vegetation growing on the shoreline (indicating multiple years of low levels).

This afternoon, I went to the the California Department of Water Resources website (http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cdecapp/resapp/getResGraphsMain.action) to look at current reservoir levels - which confirmed my feeling that we still had a long way to go to get back to normal moisture.  According to DWR, Lake Shasta is currently at 23% of capacity and 39% of it's historic level for this time of year.  Lake Orovile is at 26% and 42%, respectively.  Folsom is sitting at 28% and 59%, while New Melones is at 21% and 38%.  In other words, without significantly above average rainfall (and more importantly, snowfall) in our Sierra Nevada and Northern California watersheds, we're facing the prospect of another summer without enough irrigation water for farmers and ranchers.  My friend Tom Orvis, who works for the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and who comes from an Oakdale ranching family, says this: "The Oakdale Irrigation District says the Stanislaus River watershed (New Melones) needs 125%-135% of "normal" to saturate the watershed enough to actually yield an "average year."  In other words, the soil was so dry coming into this winter that we'll need above average rainfall just to achieve normal runoff - scary!

We saw other signs of continued drought on our trip.  As my brother-in-law and I drove from his house in Columbia to my parents' place east of Sonora, I remarked about a large patch of dead live oaks on the hillside.  "Was there a fire up there?" I asked.  He told me that there hadn't been a fire, but that there were patches of dead and dying trees in various parts of the county.  While I can't be certain, dead trees sure seem to be drought-related in my mind.  On the rangelands where we graze our sheep, we've yet to see the creeks start running or the stockponds filling - a sure sign that the soil is not yet saturated enough to produce run-off.  This afternoon, I met with a friend who has a ranch in Orland (north of Sacramento).  Most of these recent storms have missed them entirely, he said - the creek that runs through their place is still dry.  All of these signs indicate, at least to my untrained eye, that we haven't started refilling the over-taxed groundwater supplies that many folks relied on to keep crops alive last year.

Even in semi-rural communities like the one I live in, it seems that most people are disconnected from the natural resources that sustain us.  Rain is an inconvenience - it ruins our leisure time, impacts our morning commute, and makes our trip to the mall (or at least the walk from the parking lot to the store) unpleasant.  If we see puddles and green grass in November, everything must be fine. But everything is not fine - we're still in the midst of the most severe drought of our generation.  I hope the rains keep coming - and I hope the snow starts to fall in the high country.  Otherwise, 2015 will be even more challenging than the year that's coming to a close.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Strange Weather

I've always been fascinated by weather - even when I was a kid.  I grew up in a home without cable television - the only station that consistently came in clearly was KCRA Channel 3.  I couldn't tell you who the news anchor people were when I was 9 years old, but I can still remember the weatherman - Harry Guise (I think that's how his name was spelled!).  Winter has always been my favorite season, in part because the weather is so much more interesting (at least in northern California) during the winter.  Now that I earn part of my living from harvesting grass with sheep, my fascination with weather has turned into an obsession - especially during the ongoing drought.

Unlike other weather phenomena, drought can sneak up on us.  We don't realize that we're in a drought until well after it's started.  And we can't look at a radar map to know with any certainty when a drought will end.  And while we've had some rainfall this autumn, we clearly remain in the midst of the most severe drought conditions in a generation.  The year-to-date Palmer Drought Severity Index, which measures long term meteorological drought, is the lowest ever measured for California.
The Palmer Drought Severity Index for California.
Note the comparison with 1977!

As an admitted weather geek, I find myself devouring information about weather.  I enjoy reading a blog called the California Weather Blog, written by Daniel Swain, a PhD student at Stanford.  I frequently check the U.S. drought monitor website hosted by the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, which comes out with an updated drought map each Thursday.  I've contributed information to the drought impact reporter, a site which allows public input to the drought monitor maps.  And I've recently joined the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network, a website that allows people to report on precipitation on a daily basis.
All of California continues to experience drought conditions - and our region
continues to experience the most severe drought conditions (despite the recent rainfall).

Beyond this high-tech interest in weather, I've kept a weather diary since 2001.  I try to record the minimum and maximum temperature each day, along with the precipitation we've received during the previous 24 hours.  I also try to track key climate related happenings - things like the first killing frost of the fall, the first time we build a fire in our wood stove, the first time I hear the sandhill cranes flying over in the spring and fall, when we first hear the tree frogs singing in the late winter, etc.  I enjoy looking back and comparing the weather from one year to the next.

Increasingly, our weather in northern California seems erratic.  During this drought, rainfall amounts have been strangely all over the board.  Yesterday, for example, areas in the Sacramento Valley recorded more than a half-inch of precipitation, while we measured just 0.05 inches at home (typically, the foothills receive more rain than the valley floor due to orographic lifting (that is, as storms pass over higher elevations, more rainfall is "squeezed" out).  Watching the Doppler radar yesterday, it looked like a band of heavy rain was moving into the foothills.  Somehow it missed Auburn!

In "normal" years (whatever that means), we usually have a killing frost no later than the first week of November.  For us, a killing frost means it gets cold enough (and stays cold enough) to kill the squash and tomato plants in our garden and knock the rest of the leaves off of our mulberry trees.  Today is November 21, and we've yet to have a killing frost.  If the weather forecast I just looked at is accurate, we won't have a killing frost for at least 7-10 more days.  Very strange.

As I mentioned, I also record observations about wildlife in my weather diary.  One of the most consistent wildlife mileposts in our area has always been the sandhill crane migration.  Since 2001, I've heard cranes within a 3-4 day window in late September every autumn - the cranes seem to have calendars that tell them when to fly south.  I might here and see the cranes going over for 10-14 days.  This year's migration started at least 10 days later than normal (according to my notes) - and I heard them flying over up until last week. Also very strange.

From a ranching perspective, this autumn is shaping up to be better than last year.  The springs, creeks and ponds that dried up last year are still dry, but at least we've had enough rainfall to germinate our grass and keep it growing.  In this respect, the lack of a killing frost has been helpful - warmer air temperatures mean warmer soil temperatures.  Hopefully we'll continue to grow grass until the shortening day lengths put our grasses into dormancy in early to mid December.  Despite these improved forage conditions, however, we're still facing an increasingly serious crisis.  After a year with very little snow pack in the Sierra Nevada, I'd hoped to see some snow during a day trip to Reno yesterday.  There was very little snow on our way over in the morning, and while we did get some snow on the return trip, it didn't amount to much.  This morning I heard that the upper reaches of Sugar Bowl Ski Resort received 3-4 inches from yesterday's storm.  Earlier this week, the websites I look to for weather forecasts predicted that we'd receive as much as 1.5 inches of rain from the storm that's supposed to come in tonight.  As of this afternoon, theses same sites are predicting less than a half an inch.

Increasingly, "normal" and "average" don't seem like useful terms for describing our weather - we seem to be entering a period where these terms apply to the midpoint between bouts of extreme weather rather than something we actually experience.  For an obsessed weather geek and rancher like me, these extremes are fascinating to watch but troubling to live through.
Hopefully we'll see more days like this in the near future - wet!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Enjoying the Fog - Another Sign of Drought?!

Normally, I hate driving in the fog.  I learned to drive in the upper foothills, which meant I had more experience driving in snow than fog - and I learned to prefer the snow!  The joke in our family was always, "At least I can usually see what I'm going to run into in the snow!"

In normal years, Auburn is sometimes exactly at the fog line.  We'll get a stretch of weather, usually after a good rainstorm, where the fog will roll in during the late afternoon and roll out sometime the next morning.  On some days, we'll have fog all day.  But with the drought, we seem to have had far fewer foggy days.

Last Saturday, I hauled some cull ewes and the last of our lambs to the Stockton Livestock Auction in French Camp, California.  While it was sunny when I left my corrals at 7 a.m., I hit fog coming down the hill into Sacramento - and I was in fog for the remainder of my trip.  Between Lodi and Stockton (on Interstate 5), the fog was soupy enough that I slowed down (as did some - not all - of my fellow drivers).

Last weekend's foggy weather meant that we had the right combination of moisture (from a rainstorm on Thursday) and atmospheric conditions.  And after the dry year we've had, I must admit - for the first time in my life, I enjoyed driving in it!