Wednesday, July 30, 2014

One Man's Weeds - Another Man's Forage

Or How I  Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Yellow Starthistle
Soldiers in the War on Weeds!
Okay, so I don't really love yellow starthistle, but my attitude about weeds is evolving.  Back in 2001, I dragged my young nieces and oldest daughter along on a weed tour of the Sierra Valley.  As I recall, the theme of the tour was militaristic - we were waging war on weeds like tall whitetop and yellow starthistle.  The tour focused on strategies for controlling (and hopefully eradicating) these invasive plants from other continents.  The girls (now ages 16 to 22) tease me about this fascinating and enjoyable field trip to this day!

Perhaps I should pause and provide my favorite non-scientific definition of a weed.  A weed is a plant that's growing somewhere that you don't want it to be.  When I grew vegetables, the weeds I hated the most were Bermuda grass, Johnson grass and red-root pigweed.  By this definition, however, a squash plant in the middle of a row of tomatoes would be a weed, too - it's not wanted there!

Now that we focus exclusively on grass-fed sheep production, we divide our grazing resources into two categories - unirrigated rangeland and irrigated pasture.  The weed issues are different in each category.  Our rangelands are dominated by annual grasses and forbs that were introduced from Europe and Asia with the arrival of Spanish livestock.  I read recently that a severe drought in the 1860's allowed these plants to take hold and push out the native grasses.  By the above definition, today's valuable forage species (soft chess, annual ryegrass, rose clover, filaree, etc.) were once weeds - they were growing where they weren't wanted.  Today's "weeds" include more recent arrivals - yellow starthistle, medusahead barley, barbed goat grass, bull thistle, milk thistle and skeletonweed (just to name a few).  On some of our rangelands, we have undesirable native "weeds," too - like poison oak.

The plants in our irrigated pasture are mostly introduced (or planted) perennial grasses and clovers.  Typically, we have orchard grass, ladino clover, dallis grass, birdsfoot trefoil and tall fescue in our higher quality irrigated pastures.  Today's weeds include smut grass and broom sedge (Don't you just love the common names of weeds?  So much more fun than the Latin names, in my opinion!)

The weeds in both systems can be problematic.  Medusahead barley, for example, contains a high amount of silica, which means it doesn't decompose as rapidly in the winter.  It creates a thatch which prevents sunlight from reaching the soil surface, and through which only more medusahead can grow.  Yellow starthistle has an exceptionally deep taproot that allows it to access soil moisture when most other plants are drying up.  Like medusahead, it can create a monoculture that is harmful ecologically and agriculturally.  On irrigated pasture, smut grass is a plant that produces a lot of stalk and not much leaf - not ideal for grazing!  The stalk is high in cellulose, which makes it less palatable to livestock.  Broom sedge is a warm-season grass that grows rapidly in the middle of the summer.  Like medusahead and starthistle, it can create a monoculture.  With fine hairs on its leaves, it's not especially palatable either.
Grazing last year's starthistle "skeletons" and this year's sprouts.
But from a grazing perspective, these weeds are not entirely bad.  They function, in some ways, just like the more desirable plants in our pastures and on our rangelands - they convert sunlight, soil and water into green plant tissue.  While they have mechanisms that defend themselves from grazing at certain stages in their life cycles (spines, in the case of starthistle; stiff awns, in the case of medusahead; toxic compounds, in the case of poison oak), each of these plants can be grazed if we get the timing right.  I've watched our sheep devour the spiny seedheads on yellow starthistle, for example - and starthistle stays green longer into the summer (which gives it greater nutritional value than some of our dry grasses).  Another example: medusahead is highly palatable in the springtime before it produces a seedhead - we've nearly eradicated medusahead at our home place by grazing it heavily every spring.  Similarly, poison oak can be grazed early in the growing season with no ill effects on the sheep.

Some of the weeds on our irrigated pastures are a bit more challenging.  Since smut grass doesn't have much leaf material, it doesn't provide much forage value.  Broom sedge is not terribly palatable, but we have found that our ewes will eat it (while the lambs will not).  We are experimenting this year with a different irrigation regime (12-hour sets instead of 24 hours) and with severe grazing on the parts of our pastures with smut grass and broom sedge.  On the plus side, broom sedge grows rapidly during the hottest part of the summer - we can regraze broom sedge in 21 days (as opposed to the 35-40 rest periods we allow on other pastures).

Even as we've adapted our grazing strategies to take advantage of what these weeds can provide, we're still focused on shifting our pastures towards a more desirable mix of grass and forbs.  We'd love to have more native perennial grasses - some of our pastures have purple needlegrass, for example.  These native perennials stay green later in the year and have habitat and soil protection benefits.  We are also thinking about trying to plant some dry-season perennials that can survive our long, dry summers without much (if any) irrigation.  In some ways, I guess we're trying to balance managing for what we don't want (weeds) with managing for what we do want (desirable plants).  I find that there's always something new to learn!

"Before" - 5 minutes after putting 120 ewes onto a 1.5 acre
paddock on irrigated pasture.  The green stuff in the
foreground is broom sedge.
One of the tools we've started using to evaluate our progress is a new application for my iPhone from the University of Nebraska.  GrassSnap allows me to take photos from the same photo point over time.  I'm hopeful that this will help us measure our progress!  Check out these photos from one of our irrigated pastures in Auburn (this is broom sedge).

"After" - the same paddock, 3 days later!
The most recent issue of California Agriculture (peer-reviewed research published by the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources) includes an interesting article that tries to predict future invasive plants in California.  Unlike many of the rangeland weeds that were introduced by livestock, the article indicates that most of our new invasive plants will from ornamental plants sold by nurseries.  Many of these horticultural plants can be toxic to livestock (like oleander, for example) - I'll have to keep a close eye on these types of invasives in the future!

Finally, there are two weeds that I have absolutely abhor as a shepherd.  Common cocklebur and spiny clotbur are the most obnoxious (beyond noxious) weeds in our ecosystem.  Both can be grazed at the right time of year (even though they are slightly toxic at certain growth stages), but what I hate about them is the seeds they produce.  These burs are enormous, and they love clinging to wool and dog hair.  They can cause sores on my dogs, and they diminish the value of our wool.  And so I have declared war on these weeds - my weapons of choice are a sharp hoe or my own two hands.  I'm not sure I can learn to love (or even like) cocklebur and clotbur!
Common cocklebur - enemy of sheepmen everywhere!

Spiny clotbur - have you ever seen
a nastier looking plant?!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Farm-to-Fork - Why the Sacramento Bee Just Doesn't Get It

The Sacramento Bee seems to have embraced the Sacramento region's growing "farm-to-fork" movement, but recent editorials, guest editorials and news coverage suggest a lack of understanding of what it takes to actually put food on our forks.  At best, the Bee's recent coverage indicates a lack of understanding about the connections between farming and food.  At worst, the Bee seems increasingly hostile to the concerns of the rural communities surrounding the Sacramento metropolitan area - the very rural communities that provide the agricultural foundation for farm-to-fork.  For example, on June 14, 2014, the paper published a guest opinion from the Center for Biological Diversity supporting the state listing of the wolf as an endangered species.  To my knowledge, the Bee has yet to publish an alternative perspective about the impact that the listing is likely to have on ranchers (and I know that at least one differing viewpoint was submitted).  During the following week, the capture of a mountain lion in a Sacramento neighborhood made the front page of the Bee.  The lion was relocated to a rural area of El Dorado County.  The article described at length the fear that neighborhood residents had for their safety and the safety of their pets; it failed to mention any impacts to the rural landowners where the lion was relocated.  And just yesterday, the paper published an editorial blasting the state's farmers for wasting water during the drought (to view the editorial, click here).  As a rancher whose business has been profoundly impacted by the drought - and who is investing time and money to conserve water - the Bee's simplistic view of agricultural water use is especially frustrating.

In the 1990's, policy experts and, I suspect, the Sacramento Bee's editorial board, encouraged farmers to transition from "thirsty" annual or perennial crops, like canning tomatoes and alfalfa, to more water efficient permanent crops - like almonds and pistachios.  According to the "experts," these permanent crops made more efficient use of water because they could be irrigated with drip or micro-sprinkler technology.  What the experts failed to realize, however, is that this crop conversion made water demand more inelastic.  In other words, a tomato grower faced with zero water deliveries from his or her irrigation district could decide not to grow tomatoes that year - a short term loss, but not catastrophic.  An almond grower faced with a similar dilemma isn't likely to fallow his or her orchard - the significant investment in trees and infrastructure requires the farmer to irrigate at least enough to keep the trees alive.  During the drought, we're seeing many of these growers turn to groundwater as their only alternative.

According to the Bee, "agriculture has been let off the hook" when it comes to conserving water during this drought.  Let's examine the facts.  Many cattle and sheep ranchers have sold animals to make sure that they have enough grass - both irrigated and non-irrigated - to support the animals they've kept.  Personally, we've sold nearly 40 percent of our sheep.  I know other ranchers who have sold much higher percentages of their herds.  To put this in terms that a non-rancher might understand, imagine that your retirement investments lost 40-60 percent of their value in a 12 month period - you'd be devastated, right?

Farmers are facing similar impacts.  In February, I started a Facebook page called Farmer and Rancher Voices from the Drought.  I also started a group page just for farmers and ranchers to share information.  Some of the photos and stories posted on both pages are heartbreaking - photos of dying citrus trees in the southern San Joaquin Valley, stories of crops planted and then left to die when the State Water Resources Control Board curtailed the water diversions of junior water rights holders, posts about the impacts to farmworkers and their families.  I read last week that California farmers have fallowed 800,000 acres of land this year - an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. A recent study by UC Davis indicates that 17,100 seasonal, part-time and full time jobs have been lost because of the drought (and each one of these lost jobs effects a family). At least to me, it hardly seems that agriculture has been let off the hook during this drought.

In our operation, we've changed the way we're managing our irrigation water.  We've installed matrix blocks to monitor soil moisture in some of our pastures.  This helps us match the timing of our irrigation to the needs of our plants - and we've discovered that we don't need to water as much!  In some of our pastures, we delayed the start of our irrigation season by about 2 months - we're irrigating now to grow forage for our sheep this fall (instead of starting to irrigate in mid-April).  And we are making do with less irrigated pasture overall - which means we are not selling any grass-fed lamb at our local farmers' market this year.

Like many conservation-minded folks in the city of Sacramento (and elsewhere), I'm sure that at least some of the people on the Bee's editorial board have let their lawns die this year to conserve water.  I'm willing to be that they are still collecting a paycheck.  The farmers and ranchers who have sold animals or let trees die because of the drought, on the other hand, are taking a substantial economic hit.  I just wish the Bee's editorial board would realize that without our farms, there wouldn't be much to put on our forks.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Next Year

I went fishing today.  Not remarkable, I realize - but what is remarkable was the water situation on the middle fork of the American River, where we fished.  We drove beyond the town of Foresthill to French Meadows Reservoir, part of the Placer County Water Agency's (PCWA) Middle Fork American River project.  We started by fishing in the river above the reservoir, but there was so little water flowing that we decided to try the lake instead.  I'd fished the lake just 4 weeks earlier, and I was stunned by how far the water level had dropped - at least 5-6 feet according to my untrained eye.  The lack of inflow and rapidly dropping water level made me wonder what next year will hold.

Our irrigation water at Flying Mule Farm comes from the Nevada Irrigation District (NID) - PCWA's neighbor to the north.  While the watersheds that serve the two agencies are similar, their water rights situations vary somewhat.  PCWA provides irrigation water to many of the small farms and mandarin orchards in the Loomis Basin, and to many of the rice, cattle and hay farms in western Placer County.  At recent meetings, both agencies have assured us that they have enough water to make it through the irrigation season (which officially ends on October 15) this year.  They've also assured us that they'll have enough carry-over water stored in their reservoirs to make it through next year - if we get normal precipitation.

This week, I saw several news reports about the potential for an El Niño event this coming winter.  Last spring, long-range forecasters were certain that a strong El Niño was developing in the Pacific.  More recently, the intensity of the El Niño seems to have weakened, and the stories published this week seemed to suggest that the likelihood of above average precipitation in Northern California this winter is fading.  In fact, several reports I read indicated that this winter was likely to be average or below average for precipitation.

Total precipitation, however, is only part of the story.  The inflow into French Meadows, which was so low today, comes from snowmelt.  A warm winter, typical of an El Niño event, means that much of our high-elevation precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow.  In a normal year, we rely on snow to store water in the spring and release it into the streams (and ultimately into the reservoirs) in the summer.  We simply don't have enough storage to capture rainfall runoff during the winter and save it for the summer.

The issue is further complicated by the State Water Resources Control Board's recent curtailment order.  Under this order, "junior" water rights holders (that is, water rights that were issued after 1914) can no longer divert or impound water - to make sure that the "senior" water rights holders receive their water (California has a first-in-time, first-in-right system of allocating water).  This order means that water agencies with junior rights cannot hold back this water - it has to flow through their reservoirs to ensure that senior downstream users receive their allocations.  As I understand it, the State Board will leave this order in place for 270 days - through next February!  That means that any precipitation that falls in high country watersheds through next February will have to be passed through storage facilities - it can't be stored for next summer.

In our operation, the fundamental principle of our drought strategy is "hope for the best, plan for the worst."  We hope that next winter brings above-average rain and snowfall, but we're making plans for dealing with a fourth consecutive dry year.  Based on what our local water agencies have told us at recent meetings, I fear that they may be hoping for the best and planning for the best - in other words, I don't think they know what they'll do if 2014-2015 proves to be a fourth year of drought.

But we did catch fish today....

Friday, July 11, 2014

Learning to Work: The Continuing Education of Ernie the Border Collie (and Dan the Shepherd)

I spent yesterday moving our ewes from a targeted grazing contract just outside of Auburn to our main leased pasture closer to home.  This work involved hauling five trailer loads of ewes from Christian Valley back to Oak Hill Ranch near the corner of Mt. Vernon Road and Shanley Road.  I took our border collies Mo and Ernie to help me with the task.

Loading the trailer directly from our electro-net paddocks takes patience and good dogs - too much pressure and the sheep blow through the fence; too little pressure and they don't get in the trailer.  Once I'd moved the ewes into a smaller holding paddock, I set up the trailer and asked Mo to bring the flock to the rear of the trailer with the hope that they'd jump right in.  As sometimes happens, the ewes were reluctant to load, and Mo was not creating enough motion on his own.  In the past, I've had problems working Mo and Ernie together - I sometimes have to put pressure on Ernie (with a harsh voice - not physical pressure) to get him to listen.  Being a very sensitive dog, Mo will often quit working in these situations.  With this in mind, I brought Ernie into the paddock to see how they'd work together.

Ernie was great!  On several occasions, he clearly wanted to run straight at the flock rather than cast himself around them (this has been a problem for Ernie throughout his training).  Each time, I was able to lay him down and ask him to flank - and each time, he took my correction and cast around on a sufficiently wide flank.  And because he took my corrections and commands quietly, Mo continued to work for me as well.

When we arrived at Oak Hill Ranch with our first load of ewes, I decided I'd start with Mo.  I should mention here that Mo is intact, while Ernie has been neutered.  I soon realized that there was a dog in heat nearby - Mo's head just wasn't in the game, so to speak!  Ernie had to get the job done by himself!

Unloading the ewes and putting them into their new paddock was fairly straightforward.  The one complication was the fact that the ewes could walk past the paddock opening through a narrow corridor (with the electro-net on one side and a permanent fence on the other).  Ernie needed to get around these ewes to turn them back.  Until recently, he would usually run along side the sheep to get to their heads - which would speed them up and potentially push them through the electro-net.  Yesterday, he figured out how to get through the barbed wire fence so he could cast himself more widely around the ewes - it was beautiful!  And it wasn't a fluke - he did this several times!

Towards the end of the day, I used Ernie to gather and move a small group of lambs to a new paddock.  The lambs were scattered, but Ernie sent himself around the perimeter of the paddock so that he could gather the entire flock.  He brought them across a small creek, through two gates, and finally into the new paddock.  His only hiccup was that he decided once they were in the new paddock that he should gather them again - but he allowed me to call him off before we had too much chaos (a year ago, he'd have ignored me - and I would have yelled at him!).

At the end of the day, I stopped off for a beer with a few fellow farmers - each of whom is at a similar point in his farming career.  We talked about how some of the work gets easier - things that worried us as younger and less experienced farmers and ranchers no longer seem like such a big deal.  I find that I'm much more calm and confident when I'm working with Ernie than I used to be - and my attitude translates to calmness and confidence in Ernie.  He still has his moments, and I still lose my cool on occasion, but we're a much better team.  I know some of my confidence stems from the fact that Ernie's work has improved, but I think Ernie's work is improving because I'm taking a more positive approach to working with him.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pasture Envy

I'll admit it - sometimes I have pasture envy!  This condition is probably due, at least in part, to my decision to raise sheep in a Mediterranean climate - one that turns golden brown in the summertime.  And while there is much to like about living and ranching in an area with distinct rainy and dry seasons, I'm envious of those who graze their livestock on pastures that stay green most summers with little or no irrigation.

Montana pastures (photo: John W. Ross)

Green in July (photo: John W. Ross)
The latest bout of pasture envy comes as a result of modern technology and social media.  My friend John Ross, who works in Washington DC but whose heart is back home at the family ranch in Montana, recently posted photos on Facebook.  John was home in the Bear Paw Mountains for the Fourth of July, and based on the photographs, it's easy to see why his Scots ancestors (who probably raised sheep, I suspect!), settled in that part of Montana.

Facebook isn't the only instigator of pasture envy.  I've recently started trying learn how to use Twitter, and I've followed a couple of fellow shepherds from northern England.  Their photos of green summer pastures and stone walls and bridges are spectacular.  I hope to visit one day!
Yorkshire, England (photo: Amanda Owen)

The Lake District, England (photo: Herdwick Shepherd)

Rationally, I know that green grass in summertime always comes with a cost.  In our climate, we only have green grass in July if we're able and willing to irrigate it.  This time of year, I spend 10-12 hours a week irrigating what little green pastureland we have.  In Montana, I suspect, green grass comes at the cost of often brutal winters or summer rainstorms that can ruin a cutting of hay.  I'm sure that the shepherds I follow in England are coping with climate-related health and management issues that are entirely outside of my experience.

But pasture envy is not a rational emotion.  I look at the photos and think about how nice it would be if Mother Nature did my irrigating!  I start to calculate the carrying capacity of the pastures.  I can almost hear the sound of my sheep grazing on these lush green fields!  Sigh....
Our wonderful Mediterranean climate in Auburn, CA! 

Saturday, July 5, 2014


Fire season has begun in earnest.  Large fires are burning in the coast range north of San Francisco, as well as on the Modoc plateau.  Wildland firefighters are reporting that fuel moistures are unusually low because of the drought - they are seeing fire behavior that looks more like September than early July.  And the forecast calls for above normal temperatures and single-digit afternoon humidities through the middle of next week - which means any little spark is potentially disastrous.  Since this is Independence Day weekend, the chance of a little spark is much higher than normal.  The combination of dry fuels, dry weather and crazy people makes me nervous.

Fireworks are banned in and around Auburn, but they are readily available in Rocklin and Roseville - just to the west of us.  Nonprofits sell fireworks this time of year as fundraisers - and while I support many of the same causes, I can't support the method of raising money.  To me, selling fireworks to the general public in the middle of the summer in a fire-prone ecosystem is INSANE!  Surely none of the fireworks sold 20 miles down the road in Roseville will make it back to Auburn - right?!  In a drought year, especially, you'd think firework sales would be banned.  You'd (I'd) be wrong.

And so I'll spend all weekend scanning the sky for fire planes, the horizon for smoke, and the internet for news.  I won't sleep well knowing that our sheep are grazing on dry forage that could disappear in an instant.  While many people are traveling this weekend, my family will remain close to home - mostly because I'm a worrier.  And while I'll relax a bit when this heat wave breaks and the Fourth of July weekend is over, I won't be comfortable until the autumn rains put an end to this fire season.