Thursday, August 7, 2014

El Nino - or La Nada - Preparing for a Fourth Year of Drought

Disclosure: I borrowed the term "La Nada" from a friend who heard a weather forecaster say that we have three winter weather patterns in California - El Nino, La Nina and De Nada.  To me, La Nada (the nothing) makes more sense than De Nada (literally, of nothing), but I like the concept!

According to the National Weather Service, the likelihood of a strong El Nino event this winter (which was predicted last spring) is diminishing - and with it, so has the likelihood of an above-average precipitation year.  In other words, we're looking at a fourth year of drought.  Even normal precipitation during the winter months won't re-charge our groundwater supplies or re-fill our reservoirs.  Consequently, I'm preparing to cope another dry year in our ranching business.

The combination of our Mediterranean climate and our annual grasslands means that most of our grass growth occurs by mid-May.  My job as a grazer, then, is to ration the feed that grows in the spring to my sheep to make sure they have enough grass to get them through to next year's grass.  We hope for a germinating rain in early October, which allows the newly sprouted grass to grow for 6-8 weeks before the short days and colder temperatures put the grass into a winter dormant period.  As last year demonstrated, however, we can't always count on this!

Last week, we took an inventory of the grass we have available to us through the rest of the summer and fall.  We estimate our forage supply by estimating the number of "sheep days" per acre - how many sheep can be fed on one acre for 24 hours.  We can then estimate the carrying capacity and duration of grazing on all of our grazing land.
Here's what the inventory we completed last week looks like.  If it doesn't rain - at all! - for the next 10 months, we have enough dry forage to graze for 340 days.  This means we have stockpiled enough forage to get us through to late June 2015 - with zero new grass growth.  If we have no rain between now and June 2015, it will be disastrous - but at least our sheep will have something to graze until then.

The next step in our planning process is to match up our management calendar (and our personal calendars) with our forage inventory.  Here are some key dates in the coming 5 months:

  • September 3-7 - Gold Country Fair (limited availability for sheep emergencies)
  • September 8-30 - Flushing - we put the ewes on a rising plane of nutrition to boost conception and lambing rates
  • October 1 - November 15 - Breeding season
  • November 15 - December 5 - Settling - we try not to haul the ewes or cause any other undue stress that would result in lost pregnancies
  • Late January - Vaccinations and hoof-trimming
  • Mid February through end of March - Lambing!
  • Early May - Shearing
  • May or June (depending on forage quality/quantity) - Weaning
Based on these key dates, here's our grazing plan for the coming months:
  • Pasture 9 is a paid job, but it's in an area with a great deal of recreational use (which increases the possibility of vandalism problems), so somebody needs to be able to respond to problems in 20-30 minutes.  We'll graze this pasture for 25 days, allowing us to impact 30-40 of the 75 acres.  We moved sheep here yesterday; they'll ship out on August 31.
  • Pastures 2-5 are close to home and relatively safe.  We'll put sheep here September 1-8 (while we're at the fair).  This will make chores easier and less time-consuming.
  • We've been stockpiling our limited irrigated pasture to save our best green grass for flushing the ewes.  We hope to have enough to graze the ewes from September 8 through September 30 on irrigated pasture - if not, we'll supplement their nutrition with alfalfa.
  • Once we turn the rams in with the ewes, we don't want to haul the sheep for at least 65 days.  Our options are Pasture 7 or Pasture 8.  If we go to Pasture 8, we can stay there through the end of lambing season.  Both pastures are free in terms of rent; we've decided that we'll take the flock to Pasture 8 on October 1.  We've helped the landowner of Pasture 7 find another grazer who can graze her property this summer.
That's about as far out as we've planned at the moment.  We know we'll need to figure out where the sheep will be when we shear them in early May (we sheared at home in 2014, which means 8-9 trailer loads to get them there).  We'll either do this again or find a way to shear the sheep at/near Pasture 8.  We'll also want to graze our irrigated pastures in the springtime to keep them in a nutritious state through next summer.

Which brings me to the topic of irrigated pasture and next year's water supply.  We found out last month that we qualified for "emergency" drought assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  This means that we'll receive cost-share assistance for upgrading the irrigation system at our main irrigated pasture.  Hopefully we'll get these upgrades installed this fall.  These improvements will allow us to stretch our water allotment further in the future - we'll make more efficient use of the water we get.

We purchase our irrigation water from the Nevada Irrigation District (NID).  This spring, NID purchased water from PG&E to help ensure that they'd have enough carry-over stored water to get through to next year (the lack of snowpack this year made the PG&E purchase necessary).  This year, NID has asked for a voluntary 15 percent reduction in water use - and customers seem to be achieving this goal.  Next year, however, is very much up in the air - and is further complicated by state-imposed limits on junior water rights because of the drought.  Here's a graph showing current storage in NID's reservoir system:
So far, it looks like we're on target to go into next year with 111,000 acre feet of stored water.  However, if the winter of 2014-2015 is anything like the winter we just went through, I expect significant reductions in irrigation water in 2015.  Early next spring, we'll re-evaluate our situation and set some decision dates for things like early weaning, culling of ewes, and whether we're going to retain any feeder or replacement lambs.

Finally, we're looking at options for improving our ability to grow high quality forage in dry conditions.  I'm part of an informal group of professional ranchers here in Placer and Nevada Counties that is looking at alternatives.  There may be some dryland perennial grasses or improved annual grasses that we can seed over our existing pastures to improve productivity, especially during drought.  I'll keep you posted on these possibilities!

As I go through this planning process, I try to keep four principles in mind:
  1. My first priority is to take care of the land I've been entrusted to manage.  I won't sacrifice the long-term health of the land for a short-term benefit.
  2. Flying Mule Farm is a business, not a hobby - I will not subsidize the farm with my off-farm income!
  3. I can't (WON'T) feed my way out of a drought - I must match forage demand with carrying capacity.
  4. Hope for the best; plan for the worst.
I always get a chuckle from long-range weather forecasts that predict rain more than a week in the future - here's a screenshot of AccuWeather's forecast for September 18, 2014.  I'd love to get "a little morning rain" on September 18, but I don't give this prediction much weight.  We'll hope that a strong El Nino develops, but we're preparing to cope with another La Nada!

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