Wednesday, March 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Importance of Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are links to my own stories:

Drought Story - Flying Mule Farm (YouTube digital story)

Emma's Drought Story (YouTube digital story)

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

Audio Drought Story (SoundCloud recording)

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

Farmer and Ranchers Voices from the Drought (Facebook page)

Voices from the Drought SoundCloud Stories (audio stories)

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

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

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

After Work and Before Dinner

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lessons from the Dust Bowl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 13, 2014

One of those Days...

Folks who read my Flying Mule Farm facebook posts (at might get the impression that lambing season consists of six weeks of bucolic bliss - of problem-free births, gamboling lambs, green grass and sunshine.  And while I do enjoy this time of year immensely, lambing season does offer its share of challenges.  Like any profession, shepherding offers good days and bad.  Yesterday was the latter.

My day started with the realization that the 3+ acre paddock I'd built on a steep hillside the day before only contained about 36 hours worth of grass for our 150 ewes.  Because of the terrain, the 12-net paddock had taken me about 4 hours to build.  I rearranged yesterday's schedule so that I could move the sheep onto fresh feed in the afternoon - and hopefully have time to go to a drought meeting and my daughter's high school soccer match.

Moving the paddock went fairly smoothly.  I started at 3 p.m., and by 5:15 I was ready to move the sheep the 200 yards to their new home.  Between the old paddock and the new one I'd built, we'd need to cross a small seasonal creek (less than 12 inches wide) and a blacktop road.

Ewes with new lambs are difficult to move - they want to stay put, and they want to fight the dogs.  Lambs that are 2+ weeks old can also be difficult - they have no fear of the dogs, and they don't understand that moving means going to fresh feed (the ewes, by contrast, know when I'm setting up fence that they get to go somewhere good).

About two-thirds of the sheep crossed the creek and the road and went right into their new paddock.  Another group stayed back with their lambs, but the dogs and I worked them across the creek and into the new field easily enough.  All we had left was approximately 20 lambs (without their mothers).  By now it was about 6:15.

These lambs would work their way down to the small creek and decide it looked like the Grand Canyon.  They'd then double back and run to the old paddock - back up the hill.  The dogs and I must have gathered and pushed them to the creek a dozen times.  We tried bringing a few ewes back to them so they'd get the idea that the creek was cross-able - no luck there, either.  Finally, as it grew dark, I called my friend Roger to help me.  He arrived with a flashlight, and at 8:25, we finally caught the last delinquent lamb and put her in the new paddock.  By then, all I had left to do was fill water troughs, feed the guard dog and hook up the electric fence.  I rolled into the driveway at home at about 9:10 - 14 hours after I'd left for the day.  Whew!

This morning, I'm happy to report, we were back in the land of bucolic bliss - all the lambs were mothered up, and we had a new set of twins born overnight.  Days like yesterday make me even more grateful for days like today!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

City Drought, Country Drought

About a week after the big rain we had in early February, the peepers (tree frogs) started singing at our pond here at home.  I went out after sundown and recorded the sound on my iPhone.   For me, their song indicated that we'd finally received some relief from our dry conditions.  At least 3 other farmers of my acquaintance posted audio recordings of the peepers singing at their farms that week on Facebook.  All of us, it seemed, were relieved to hear the frogs.

This week, a friend of mine received a call from a very distraught woman who lives in a posh subdivision in our county.  The frogs in the water feature in her landscaping, it seems, were bothersome - they were even keeping her awake at night.  She asked for help in ridding her "pond" of frogs.

These differing perspectives on the return of the tree frogs, for me, incapsulate the difference in our state's response to this drought.  California is both the most populous state in the country and the leading agricultural state - a dichotomy that plays out in our water policy.  I've written previously about my annoyance when TV or radio "meteorologists" talk about beautiful (aka, sunny) weather during a dry winter.  Some time in January, I noticed, these prognosticators started realizing that our "beautiful" weather was a problem.

Another example of this disconnect: our local water agencies serve both agricultural and urban customers.  One agency calls itself an irrigation district; the other calls itself a water agency.  At a board meeting last month, the water agency decided that swimming pools were "commercial" water users - just like farms.  While I can certainly appreciate the economic impacts of reducing or eliminating water for swimming pools, I have a difficult putting these impacts in the same category as reducing our ability to produce food.  This perspective, it seems to me, is incredibly urban.

Since we direct-market some of what we raise, I have a regular opportunity to talk to my suburban and urban customers about the impacts of this drought on our business - and on our community's ability to produce its own food.  For those of us in the "country," this drought has meant that we're selling animals, or deciding which part of our orchards we'd let die.  For those of us in the "city", I'm afraid, the drought has meant that we're thinking about not watering our lawns as frequently.  To help bridge this divide, I've recently launched a Facebook page called Farmer and Rancher Voices from the Drought.  This page, I hope, is a place where we can talk about the impacts of the drought on our farms and ranches - and on our larger communities.  I hope you'll check it out!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Moving Fast

Just three weeks ago tomorrow, we moved our 150 ewes from Rio Vista back to Auburn.  With forage short in Rio Vista, we had an opportunity to graze several properties near Hidden Falls Regional Park northwest of Auburn that hadn't been grazed since we'd had sheep on them in 2012.  While the dry grass left over from the 2013 growing season didn't have much nutritional value, it was substantially more forage that we had available elsewhere.  Thanks to the heavy rainfall in early February, there was some green grass available for our sheep when we unloaded them on Valentines Day.  Longer days and warming soil temperatures - along with continued precipitation - promised more forage growth as we approached the vernal equinox.  With our lambing season beginning in earnest around March 1, we hoped that the grass supply would begin to match our demand - our ewes need nearly twice their normal forage intake while they are nursing small lambs.  However, nothing about this year is normal!

We're finding that the rapidly greening hillsides are deceptive in terms of forage volume.  In the first 10 days that we had sheep on this site, they broke out of our electric fencing four times.  While we know there are predators around (neighbors have seen coyotes near our paddocks, I suspect that these breakouts are due to lack of feed.  I've now re-calibrated my eye to this year's feed conditions - and I've found that we have about half of the forage quantity we'd normally see in early March.  This makes sense - the grass didn't really start to grow until about 35 days ago!

From a practical standpoint, this means we're moving the sheep more frequently.  We use 165-foot sections of electronet to fence our sheep.  A 3-net by 3-net paddock will enclose about 5 acres - and currently, 5 acres will feed our ewes for about 3 days.  In previous years, we'd have enough grass by early March that 5 acres would last this many sheep 6-7 days.  Moving twice as fast requires twice as much labor.  I can take down, move and set-up 12 nets in about 3 hours.  Instead of this 3-hour task happening once a week, it's happening twice a week.  Even with the extra work, however, moving the sheep to new forage every 3 days is still cheaper than buying hay!  We're fortunate to have the flexibility to follow the green feed!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Drought Update - the Importance of Community

In The Sound of Mountain Water, Wallace Stegner wrote:

“One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”

Last Friday, I was invited to participate in a half-day drought workshop put on by the Sierra Valley and Feather River Resource Conservation Districts in Vinton (a small town in the northeastern corner of the Sierra Valley).  My presentation was minor - I spoke about the importance of telling our stories about the drought to the media.  Other speakers dealt with more weighty topics - things like how to manage pastures during the drought and how much summer irrigation water to expect.  Taken at face value, the talks might have seemed depressing.  We learned about how to best sell off cows, about the lack of snowpack at higher elevations, and about the challenges of re-building businesses after the drought.
Glenn Nader speaking at the Sierra Valley Drought Workshop.  (photo: Ken Tate)

Taken as a whole, the talks were outstanding - and the ranchers and farmers in the crowd were intensely engaged.  This drought, after all, has profoundly impacted our businesses and livelihoods.  I was most impressed, however, by the positive energy in the Vinton Grange Hall when we took a break between talks.  The volume in the hall elevated immediately, as friends greeted friends.  I was struck once again by the importance of bringing people together to share stories and information - and to commiserate.  My friend Ken Tate, who is on the faculty at UC Davis, pointed this out - he said, "Wow - listen to this room!  Folks really needed this chance to get together!"

If there's a silver lining to our drought, it's the sense of cooperation that has been re-established in rural communities like Sierra Valley, Auburn and Rio Vista (places in which I've had the opportunity to work this year).  Neighbors are helping neighbors - indeed, "neighboring" has become a verb again.

Glenn Nader, another friend who happens to be a livestock/natural resources farm advisor for UC Cooperative Extension, found another silver lining.  On our drive to Sierra Valley, we were talking about an earlier drought workshop at the Sierra Foothills Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley in late January.  The combination of technical information from the workshop and the realization that all of us were having to make difficult decisions about selling animals helped one of his neighbors arrive at the difficult but necessary decision to sell some of her cows.  At the Sierra Valley workshop, Glenn put it this way: "The only way you're gonna survive a drought is to make decisions."  These decisions, at least for me, are easier when I realize that I operate within a community of farmers and ranchers who are having to make similar choices.

As Wallace Stegner alludes, we have an image of the cattleman (the quintessential "Westerner") as a rugged individualist.  Those of us who still make a living from the land in the West, however, have learned that cooperation and community are far more important than individualism and isolation.  Meetings like the Sierra Valley drought workshop give us an opportunity to come in from our work and remember the importance of community.