Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Land Must Come First

As I write this, we've received a little less than a half inch of rain in the last 24 hours.  While this moisture has done wonders for my mental attitude, it's really done next to nothing to change our drought conditions - we've still measured less than an inch of precipitation since December 1.  Even if we received an inch or more of rain in the next week (which isn't in the forecast, unfortunately), we would still not have enough grass on our rangelands to graze for another 30-45 days.  In other words, the drought persists - and we must move ahead with our plans for coping with it.

Over the last several weeks, I've been interviewed by a number of local, state and national media outlets about the impacts of the drought on our operation and on California ranchers in general.  Usually the discussion focuses on options for feeding our way out of drought - purchasing hay and other feedstuffs to make up for the lack of grass on our rangelands.  Even the most farm-savvy reporters seem somewhat surprised that our strategy leans more towards selling animals than toward buying feed.  As I talk to customers and others who are not in the ranching business - and even to some who are in the business on a smaller scale - I find that they are also surprised.  Why, they ask, can't you feed your way out of this drought?

My answers have tended towards the economic reasons - with higher demand for hay, I simply can't afford to feed all of our sheep.  Basic business principles tell us that if our costs of production are higher than our sales revenue, we can't be sustainable in an economic sense.  But the real reason that de-stocking (that is, selling our breeding animals) is our primary strategy has more to do with the ecological sustainability of our operation.  If we're going to stay in ranching over the long haul, the land must come first.

First, I should probably discuss some basic principles of grazing management and describe how they fit into our operation.  In a "normal" year, we try to abide by the principle of "take half, leave half" on both our unirrigated rangelands and on our irrigated pastures.  Grass growth on unirrigated rangeland is measured in pounds per acre, and we try to leave at least 800 pounds of standing grass at the end of the growing season (which usually happens in May).  We leave this much "residual dry matter" for several reasons:

  1. It provides a micro-environment that encourages earlier germination once the fall rains commence by moderating temperature, retaining moisture and protecting new grass seedlings.
  2. It protects our soils by providing root structure and intercepting the energy of falling rain drops - in other words, it prevents erosion.
  3. It helps give more desirable plants a leg up on invasive weeds (generally).  Invasive weeds tend to like disturbed or bare soils.
  4. Finally, saving this much dry grass gives us a stockpile of dry forage going into the fall months.  Dry grasses are not terribly nutritious for our livestock (we generally need to provide some supplemental nutrition), but we time our production system to be able to graze our ewes on this dry feed when they have lower nutritional demands.
Based on past experience, we may be lucky to grow 800-1000 pounds of grass on some of our rangelands this year, so taking half would leave us under this threshold going into next fall.  If we graze too much this spring, we create the potential for erosion and weed infestation next year - and we'd have little or no fall feed for our ewes.

On irrigated pasture, we use the "take half, leave half" principle for a slightly different reason.  Grass grows by capturing sunlight energy with it's "solar panels" or leaves.  As we graze (that is, as our sheep remove the solar panels), we reduce the ability of the grass to capture sunlight energy.  Following a grazing, the grass will draw energy from its roots to begin regrowing its leaves.  Once the leaves are big enough, they once again can capture enough sunlight to meet the needs of the entire plant.  We try to time our grazing to allow for this full recovery before we graze again - if we don't, we'll eventually kill the root system (and the rest of the plant).  If we turn sheep into a pasture with 12-inch-high grass, we try to graze it down to 6 inches.  With this much leaf material left, the grass recovers more quickly - in May and June, we might be able to graze it again in 25 days.  As the weather grows hotter, recovery takes longer - we might need to wait 35-40 days.  Over the years, we've found that a more severe graze (taking the grass down to 2-4 inches, for example) lengthens the recovery period significantly.  In a year like this, where summer irrigation water will likely be in short supply, it will be even more important to leave enough grass.  We may have to dry up some of our irrigated pastures in late summer, and research done by the University of California indicates that our pastures are more likely to survive if we leave 4-5 inches of residual after our last grazing.

Based on these principles, we look at two factors in determining our management approach.  First, we consider the carrying capacity of our land - that is, we look at the supply that Mother Nature gives us.  This year, it's looking like Mom will be pretty stingy, but we don't have any control over this component.  We can, however, control our demand - we can adjust our stocking rate (or the number of mouths we need to feed) to bring demand into balance with supply.  This gives us a couple of options:
  1. We can reduce our stocking rate by selling animals.  We've started this process and will continue to re-evaluate our flock size as the year progresses.
  2. We can supplement or replace our grasses by feeding our sheep.  As I've indicated, this option doesn't make sense economically for us.  Furthermore, if we're feeding in our pastures, we'll continue to impact what little grass there is.
  3. We can take animals to new pastures that have not been grazed.  Fortunately, it's much easier to do this with sheep than with cattle - we can utilize smaller properties and don't require much in the way of infrastructure (we bring our own fencing and water systems in most cases).  We are also pursuing this option at the moment.
As with any changes to a business, one should always consult his or her banker.  Our banker, obviously, is concerned with our ability to meet our financial obligations.  Those of us who ranch, however, must work with much more demanding banker - the land.  An overdraft notice from Mother Nature means we're out of business.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


The forecast for Northern California finally includes rain!  It's hard to say from the forecasts I've seen just how much we'll get - and one storm isn't enough to break this drought - but every little bit will help at this point.  All morning I've been enjoying Facebook posts from friends who live further north than Auburn celebrating the precipitation they're receiving.  I hope it's headed south!

As I said, one storm - no matter how large - won't be enough to break this drought.  Our soils are so depleted of moisture that anything that falls will soak in immediately.  Given the state of the grass on most of our rangelands, it will be at least 40 days before we get enough growth to provide any nutritional value to our sheep.  And since we've been so dry for so long, this rain will probably not produce any run-off - which we desperately need to start re-filling stock ponds and re-charging our springs and creeks.

Even so, the rain brings hope.  We'll hope that if one storm can break through the ridge of high pressure that's been blocking storms from California since early December, more will follow.  If nothing else, rain will be a welcome change from the dry and unseasonably warm weather we've had all month.  If nothing else, rain will wash the dust off of everything.  I jokingly told my family that if it does rain this week, I'd put on my bathing suit and dance in it - at least they hope I was joking!  We'll see....

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Emotional Toll of Drought

This morning, I awoke to another depressingly beautiful January day - clear skies and an expected high temperature here in Auburn of close to 70 degrees.  I say depressing, because we should be in the midst of our rainy season here - but since December 1, we've measured less than one inch of precipitation.  And there doesn't look to be much moisture in our future, either - a long range forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, "below median precipitation (and above normal temperatures mentioned earlier) during the height of the climatological rainy season support a continuation and possible intensification of drought conditions across California."  Earlier this week, AccuWeather predicted rain for the weekend of February 1.  As I check their forecast this morning, they’ve backed off on this prediction. Even the television "meteorologists" have quit using words like "beautiful" to describe our weather pattern - which must mean this drought is getting serious.

As our drought has worsened, I’ve started watching the Ken Burns’ film The Dust Bowl. The narrative quotes extensively from the writing of Caroline Henderson, a farmer who lived in the Oklahoma panhandle.  In her “Letters from the Dust Bowl” published in the Atlantic Monthly in the 1930s, she wrote, “Many a time I have found myself tired out from having tried, unconsciously and without success, to bring the distant rainclouds nearer to water our fields.  I’m beginning to see how worse than useless is this exaggerated feeling of one’s own responsibility.”  As I drove to work this morning, I found myself looking hopefully (and ultimately, uselessly) at the clouds drifting over the Sierra crest.  Indeed, I find that most of my thoughts at present revolve around the weather.  Driving though the foothills where I live and the Montezuma Hills (in the Sacramento Delta) where I work, the parched landscape is depressing and scary.  I often mutter to myself about plans for dealing with the dryness.  I lay awake at night worrying about what the future holds for our farm.

I've written recently about the impacts the drought is having on our business (see  We're feeding more hay than we normally would at this time of year, and we're planning on reducing our flock of sheep by 25-30% by the end of this month.  If it stays this dry, we’ll wean this year's lambs much earlier than normal, and we probably won't have enough grass to market any grass-fed lamb this year.  The business impacts, then, are likely to be significant for us - we are in "hang on" mode.

As The Dust Bowl makes clear, drought also takes an emotional toll on farmers and ranchers.  Samia and I have raised sheep for more than 20 years.  For the last 9 years, we've been trying to increase the scale of operation to allow for some financial success.  We've kept our best ewes and their daughters - building our flock to its current size.  In this process, we've become attached to our animals and to the seasonal rhythms of working with them.  On January 31, I will take 30 or so of these ewes to the Escalon Livestock Auction - and I'll admit that I'll probably get choked up a bit when I drive away.  Those 30 ewes represent a great deal of hard work and sacrifice on my part and on the part of my family.  If we're to stay in business and take care of our land, we absolutely have to sell them - but this rationalization won't make it any easier.  Once again, Caroline Henderson writes more eloquently than I can about this feeling: “But of all our losses, the most distressing is the loss of our self-respect.  How can we feel that our work has any dignity when the world places so little value on the products of our toil?”  I don’t think she meant that prices were too low; rather, I think she was distressed by the fact that the earth wasn’t cooperating in her family’s efforts to grow a crop.

The drought, obviously, will strain our business financially - which has an emotional price as well.  We are buying hay at a time of year that normally brings us enough grass to support our sheep.  We'll have fewer lambs to sell this year, and we won't likely be able to supply our community with grass-fed lamb.  Like Caroline Henderson, a good deal of my sense of self (and self-worth) is tied up in my work - I'm a shepherd.  Selling animals, from an emotional perspective, feels like a failure to me.  I know of cattle producers in other parts of the state that have sold out entirely - liquidating herds that took two and three generations of their family to build.  I’m beginning to understand that the term “the Great Depression” referred to the nation’s emotional state as well as economic conditions.

In his book The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan describes the impacts of the Dust Bowl on farming and ranching families in the Great Plains.  During the height of that drought, the federal government bought cattle, drove them into trenches, and shot them - reducing grazing pressure on parched rangelands to help hold the soil in place.  I can't imagine the emotional price that those families paid.  I find it frightening that this year is shaping up to be drier (at least here in California) than the worst of those Dust Bowl years.  However, I also find it amazing (and hopeful) to read Egan's accounts of families who stuck it out during the Dust Bowl - who rebuilt their farms (and their lives) when the rains finally returned and the soil stopped blowing.  I hope I'm just as stubborn and resilient.

The Foothill Farming website is building a drought information section – click here to go to that section of the website.  We’ve also created a Facebook group – the Farmer-Rancher Drought Forum – as a place to share information, ask questions and post photographs of drought conditions.  Finally, on January 29, the University of California’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center will be holding a Drought Mitigation Workshop for ranchers (click here for more information).  I know we’ll get valuable information about how to deal with the drought from a business and resource management perspective.  I also know that we’ll all feel better when we go home – just knowing that others are dealing with similar issues (including the emotional issues I’ve described) will help make the drought easier to bear.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ernie's Progress - an update

Ernie had to be a big dog today!  I needed to give Mo a break this week, so Ernie and Taff came with me to McCormack Ranch.  Ernie's a long way from perfect, but he's an equally long way from the dog he was 12 months ago!

This morning, we pushed ewes and lambs about half a mile up the road onto new feed.  Ernie, for the most part, did wonderfully - he even drove sheep (which has always been difficult for him - he wants to get to their heads).  Then we helped gather about 450 pairs out of an adjacent field.  Again, he did great!  This afternoon, we pushed these pairs onto the the new feed, which took about an hour.  Ernie wasn't perfect, but neither did he quit!  I was quite proud of him.  He'll sleep good tonight - I think he finally figured out what the other side of tired looks like!

Taff, on the other hand, shuts down when I have to focus on Ernie.  Taff's always been a sulky dog, and it's even more pronounced as he gets older.  That said, I'd still be at work (it's 6:15 and dark here) without my dogs.  Thanks, boys!

Monday, January 13, 2014

More Drought Planning

With last weekend's disappointing rain "storm" - only 0.08" of rainfall in Auburn - we're moving ahead with our drought plan.  Thought this might be of interest to other producers out there.  In my mind, these things are important to write down.  The very process of writing helps me organize my thoughts and think through the ramifications of the decisions I'm making.

Flying Mule Farm Drought Plan
January 13, 2014

De-Stocking Plan
Rain-by Date: January 26, 2014
Minimum Rainfall: 1.0”

If we have not received the minimum rainfall by our rain-by date, we will cull 30-40 ewes.  Our culling decisions will be made on January 26 while we are trimming feet and administering pre-lambing vaccines.  Our culling criteria will be as follows:

  1. Any ewe or ewe lamb with active footrot or other obvious health problem
  2. Any ewe that appears to be open
  3. Any ewe identified on current inventory list as a potential cull (because of past lamb production - singles each of the last 3 years)

Ewes that are culled for feet, other health problems, or because they are open will be treated and sold at auction by January 31.  They will not be vaccinated or de-wormed.  Ewes that appear to be bred and that are culled for #3 above will be vaccinated and de-wormed.  We will offer these ewes to other producers; however, if they are not sold by January 31, they will be hauled to auction as well.

Early Weaning Plan
Decision Date: March 31, 2014
Decision Criteria: Must have adequate forage growth to have quit feeding hay.

If drought conditions persist through March 31, we will likely wean our lambs early.  I anticipate that we will be done lambing by late April.  We will wean all lambs 30 days after the last lamb is born.  Our decisions regarding marketing and finishing lambs will be based on summer forage availability.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Drought Planning

I took my friend Pat Shanley to lunch just before Christmas.  Pat was born in Auburn in 1920, so he has first-hand experience with all kinds of weather years here in the Sierra foothills.  He told me that December 2013 was the driest December in his memory.

I received a forwarded email today from the superintendent of the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) in Browns Valley that confirms Pat's observations.  Since 1991, SFREC has collected forage production data for November and December.  These measurements basically account for the amount of forage that grows after the first germinating rain in the fall until the soil is too cold to support further growth.  Since 1991, the average forage production from germination through the end of December is 482 pounds of forage (basically grass) per acre.  This year, forage production from the germinating rain we received on November 21 through December 31 was just under 48 lbs per acre!  Furthermore, soil temperatures at SFREC dropped below 50F on December 5 - which means grass growth is at a standstill until soil temperatures rise sometime in mid-February.  Normal precipitation from September 1 through December 31 at SFREC is around 11 inches - this year, they measured 3.27 inches.  In other words, it's shaping up to be one of the driest years on record - and it suggests that Pat has a pretty good memory!

After I read this email, I checked the long range forecast on Weather Underground, AccuWeather and the National Weather Service website.  Each forecast has indicated a chance of rain in the next 10 days, but as of today that chance seems to have evaporated.  Based on the current forecast, I wouldn't be surprised if we receive less than an inch of precipitation this month.

What's a grass-farmer to do? We time our lambing season to take advantage of the "spring flush" of grass growth - usually mid-February through late-April.  By matching our peak demand for forage with peak supply, we try to ensure that we have enough animals to use our forage resources efficiently. Usually, we have more grass than mouths to feed, but this year looks to be very different. Due to our move to Rio Vista, we're lambing a bit later than usual, but we would likely be facing a pretty lean year in terms of forage production regardless of where our sheep have their lambs.

We have two options in the short term - destocking and early weaning.  While most producers have culling criteria that they use every year, drought conditions may require us to go beyond our normal considerations to further reduce our flock size.  Early weaning can also reduce forage demand – the sooner an animal’s offspring is weaned, the sooner that female can dedicate energy to restoring body condition in anticipation of the next breeding season (instead of to producing milk).

Typically, we cull our ewes based on productivity – an open (un-bred) ewe is sold so that we make sure our pregnant ewes have enough feed.  This year's drought conditions, however, may require a more aggressive culling strategy.  We have identified an “A” flock (animals we will keep) and a “B” flock (animals that can be sold during drought).  The "B" flock will probably be sold by the end of January.

Here are a few additional factors we consider when deciding whether to keep or cull a specific animal:
  • Productivity (as measured in pounds of lambs, calves or kids weaned): keeping ewes that under-produce can compromise the health and productivity of our higher producing ewes by utilizing scarce forage and water resources.  Obviously, this requires careful record-keeping - the records we've maintained over the last 5 or 6 years will pay off now.
  • Age: research at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center has demonstrated that weaning weights of calves and pregnancy rates decline dramatically in cows that are 10 years of age or older.  Drought can be good time to cull older animals.  We've already culled most of our older ewes, but we'll take another look at the flock this month.
  • Behavior: most flocks contain individual animals whose behavior presents management problems.  For example, a ewe that has learned not to respect electric fence may teach other sheep to escape.  A ewe that is aggressive when being worked in the corrals can be dangerous.  Drought can present an opportunity to remove these problems.
  • Physical Health: low performance may be related to physical health issues – foot rot in sheep, for example.  Aggressively culling animals for physical problems can improve overall herd productivity in the long run.
  • Genetics: Drought can present an opportunity to analyze and adjust the genetic composition of your herd.  Again, detailed record-keeping is crucial.  Animals whose genetic potential fits our production system and resources of the ranch will be retained; those who do not will be culled.

Destocking also requires requires us to examine our female replacement strategies and capacity for running stockers or feeder animals.  Reduced forage supplies may mean keeping fewer replacement ewe lambs and reducing the number of feeder lambs kept as stockers.  We'll evaluate these options later in the spring.

Early Weaning
Weaning  lambs earlier than normal is another effective strategy for surviving drought.  Ewes experience their highest nutritional demand when lactating.  In addition, ewe lambs and yearling ewes have even greater nutritional demand because their bodies are still growing, which requires energy and protein levels above that of mature females.  Early weaning can allow females to regain body condition prior to breeding and may help boost conception rates during times of drought.

With lambs, early weaning can occur as soon as 14 days of age, although most early weaning of lambs  takes place at 45 to 60 days of age.  We make sure our lambs are drinking water and consuming adequate amounts of dry feed prior to being weaned.  While we have focused on grass-fed production, we may creep feed our lambs this year (creep feeding involves providing feed to lambs while keep it away from their mothers - this replaces some of the protein and energy the lambs would normally get from mother's milk).   Heavily lactating ewes may develop mastitis, so we'll watch them carefully during the weaning process.  We'll probably try to wean all of our lambs by the middle of May this year.

Part of the bargain that we strike with Mother Nature when we decide to make our living from farming or ranching is that we'll make due with whatever she gives us in any given year.  This year looks as if it will test the boundaries of that bargain!

Renquist, B.J., J.W. Oltjen, R.D. Sainz and C.C. Calvert.  2006. Effects of age on body condition and production parameters of multiparous beef cows. Journal of Animal Science. 84(7):1890-1895.

Doran, M. 2014. Managing Cattle During Drought: Destocking and Early Weaning

Pratt, D. Ranch Management Consultants, Inc.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014


I write this with the realization that I may be the only person in all of California (or beyond) who spent part of his New Year's Day maintaining the tools of my trade - shepherding, woodcutting and farming tools.  This day is one of those unusual days in which I have absolutely no obligations - unlike Christmas and Thanksgiving, I'm not cooking a big meal.  After a leisurely morning, I decided that I would sand and oil the wood handles on my important tools - and sharpen those that needed sharpening.

I enjoy this task, as it only happens during the time of year when I can catch my breath a bit.  During the late winter and early spring, I'm busy with lambing.  As spring progresses, we're shearing sheep, weaning lambs and irrigating pasture.  Summer is consumed with irrigation, pasture rotations and sheep work.  In the fall, we're turning rams in with the ewes, harvesting lambs, and preparing for winter (which includes cutting and stacking firewood) - and this year's autumn work included lambing at McCormack Ranch.  For a few weeks in December and early January, things slow down - giving me a chance to do some of the maintenance work necessary to keeping the tools of my trade in good working order.

Today, I maintained the following eclectic mix of tools:

  • Leg crook (used for catching sheep).
  • Rocha hoe (a hoe made by a Mr. Rocha from Ripon, CA - I carry it in my truck to chop thistles and other invasive weeds).
  • 2 single-bit axes - for chopping kindling and breaking ice on water troughs.
  • McLeod hoe - a fire rake/hoe that I carry during fire season.
  • Grape hoe (or sopa, as an Italian neighbor called it) - for chopping weeds and small shrubs at ground level.
  • 2 square shovels
  • Scoop shovel
  • Pitch fork
  • Round-point shovel
To maintain the handles on these tools, I sand them with 60-grit sand paper.  I prefer handles without varnish - the varnish eventually peels, and the slick handles cause more blisters.  Sometimes I'll use a propane blow torch to burn the varnish off of new handles.  After sanding the handles, I use a rag to rub in linseed oil.  The oil keeps the wood handles from drying out and protects them from moisture and sunlight.  I also apply a mixture of beeswax and linseed oil to the handle ends (which are more likely to absorb moisture and cause cracking).

Just a note on linseed oil - when I was a kid, I nearly burned down our barn by leaving some rags in a pile after using them to apply linseed oil.  Spontaneous combustion actually happened!  Today, I read the safety notice on my can of linseed oil (imagine that, reading the instructions after more than 30 years of using a product) and learned that I should lay my rags out flat for at least 24 hours to allow them to dry.  In the process of drying, linseed oil creates heat - which can cause the rags to combust.  After drying, I'll wash them in a bucket.

After I work on the handles, I sharpen anything that needs sharpening.  I like to keep my hoes and axes as sharp as possible - a sharp tool means less work!  I also sharpened my pocket knife (I carry a Leatherman Wingman) - a sharp knife is a safe knife, in my experience.

Over the coming couple of weeks, I'll also take stock of my lambing supplies - I'll need to order ear tags and o-rings for docking and castrating lambs.  I'll order marking paint and iodine too - I hate to run out of these things in the midst of lambing.  I'll also enjoy my newly maintained tools!  Happy new year!