Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Trade Offs

As we were building fence for the soon-to-be-lambing ewes this morning, someone drove by and asked my partner Roger how long it took to set up the electro-net fencing we use for the sheep. Roger replied, "It's not too bad," to which the driver said, "Seems like a lot of work." Roger's answer - which both of us use with some frequency, was, "Yeah - but this way we don't have to feed any hay!" The driver, who obviously wasn't a rancher, didn't understand - and I suspect even some of my rancher friends don't understand the trade off we're making. Building electric fence is a lot of work - wouldn't it be easier just to feed hay?

The paddock that Roger and I built this morning encloses about 5.75 acres of high quality forage. Since the ewes are on the verge of lambing, their forage demand is peaking. They're eating nearly twice as much grass now as they need in the late summer - after all, many of them eating for three (and p…

No Easy Answers Part 2

In mid October, some friends who graze their cattle in the mountains of western Lassen County (less than 200 miles from our home), became the first ranchers to have cattle “officially” killed by wolves in California in nearly a century. Wildlife officials confirmed that the Lassen pack killed a 600-pound heifer; four more heifers died (and were partially eaten by wolves), but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) couldn’t confirm the cause of death. While I learned about the depredations shortly after they happened through the rancher grapevine, news of my friends’ losses weren’t made public until the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation issued a joint press release this week. The October 28 edition of the Sacramento Bee ran the story.
If you’ve read my previous blogs about wolves, you’ll probably know that I’ve frequently been frustrated with the Bee’s coverage. The paper has run guest opinions disguised as news articles, and appar…

Humbled and Excited

More than 20 years ago, I went to work for the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA). After two internships, I'd been hired by my friend and mentor John Braly as the membership director in 1992. By 1996, I'd been promoted to assistant vice president - pretty heady stuff for a young guy who hadn't grown up in the industry. I started looking for new challenges. Dr. Jim Oltjen, who was (and is) the beef extension specialist at UC Davis (my undergraduate alma mater) suggested that I think about going to graduate school to prepare for a career in extension. I considered it, but the timing wasn't right.

Fast forward to 2013 (or so) - I'd been working as a part-time community education specialist in our local University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) office for several years. The farm advisors in the office - Roger Ingram and Cindy Fake - suggested that I consider getting a master's degree and applying for a future farm advisor job. This time the id…