Friday, February 20, 2015

A Lucky Guy

I might get in trouble for posting this picture!  I wish I knew who the artist is (perhaps somebody who sees this will know).  My friend Jeannie Hodges, who is the mother of my best friend from elementary school, posted this on my Facebook timeline today. Her comment was, "reminded me of your life."  Later in the day, as I was walking through a group of cow-calf pairs to make sure they hadn't trespassed into one of the research plots at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC), I thought about the picture, and Jeannie's comment.  I realized how lucky I am to be doing the work that I do.

When I made the decision to apply for this job, in some ways it felt like an admission that I'd failed as a sheep rancher.  While I love the work of caring for grazing animals like nothing else I've ever done, I've never been able to make a living doing it - until now.  My motivation for starting to ranch was to produce food for my community from the rangeland landscapes that I loved.  While I still enjoy the direct interaction that this work gives me with people that love to eat the food I produce, I've realized that my true passion lies in husbandry - in caring for livestock and for land.  I'm a stockman - or as my new title at SFREC indicates, a herdsman.

Today's workday was a snapshot of why I think I'm lucky.  This morning, I saddled one of the SFREC horses and rode through a 300+ acre pasture where we're grazing a group of heifers.  The fog lifted as we rode, making for some incredible scenery.  At the top of this particular pasture, I can see the Sierra crest, including the Sierra Buttes at the headwaters of the Yuba River (which runs by SFREC).  We returned to headquarters in time for a barbecue lunch that all of us contributed to producing.  After lunch, I hauled protein tubs to cow-calf pairs, checked on several groups of yearling steers, and drove a 1952 jeep out to check the research plots I mentioned above.  My afternoon partner was Mo, one of my border collies who (like me) is learning to herd cattle as well as sheep.

After "work," I headed out to the pasture where we're grazing our sheep, along with Mo's half brother Ernie and my retired sheepdog, Taff.  The ewes are due to begin lambing in the next 4-5 days, so I walked through the flock slowly to check on the health of the ewes.  We then drove to another property to check on a small group of yearling ewes.  Since we still had daylight, I decided to do a bit of schooling with Ernie.

All of this returns me to the picture that Jeannie posted on Facebook.  All afternoon, I thought of the things that John (Jeannie's son, and my best friend as a kid) enjoyed doing together.  Most of what we did was outdoors.  I realized how fortunate I am to still be spending my life outdoors in the foothills where I was raised.  I'm a lucky guy!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Herding Cultures

While today is Saturday (a day off for most), I went in to my new job to help move 300+ heifers into fresh pasture (complete with bulls!) this morning.  Ranching, even on a university research station, is rarely a 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday job - the heifers needed fresh feed TODAY!  With four of us horseback (and two of us with dogs), and the rest of the crew on ATVs, the 3-mile drive went smoothly.  After finishing my "paying" job, I came home and set up fence for the sheep.  I realized as I was working this afternoon that traditional herding cultures - shepherding, cowboying, etc. - are extremely appealing to me.

These traditions require practitioners to live extremely close to nature.  By necessity, we must watch the health of the land and of our animals.  If the grass is too short, the animals need to move.  If the animals are in need, we must care for them.  If the rains don't come, we must adjust our management.

In our own sheep operation, and in my new job, I've embraced modern technology.  I have an iPhone.  I'm writing this piece on my iPad.  I use a laptop computer.  All of these have made my job as a stockman and a grazier more efficient and effective.  But I've also embraced traditional tools.  Without my dogs and without my desire to understand livestock behavior, I couldn't manage rangeland.  Without the horse that I ride at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, I couldn't get a true picture of rangeland condition and forage growth.  Many of the physical (as opposed to virtual) tools and techniques that I use are hundreds (if not thousands) of years old.

As we completed our mini cattle drive this morning, I was able to talk stock dogs with one of the riders who joined us.  My dogs are used to working sheep, but we're learning how to transition to cattle.  I realized, as we rode and talked, that I have a lifetime of knowledge to gain about my profession.  I'm thankful that there are still people to learn from!  I'm thankful to be part of a herding culture!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

How will we know when it's over?

As I write this on Sunday evening (February 8, 2015), my rain coat and my winter work coat are both drying.  This weekend marks the first time I've needed rain gear since before Christmas - so far, we've measured nearly 2.75" of rain since Friday afternoon.  While it's less than was predicted for Auburn, the rain is a welcome departure from our record dry January.  But our drought continues - even with a record-setting December, we're behind normal.  And there's very little snow in the Sierra Nevada.  From where I sit, there doesn't seem to be an end to our Big Dry.

Droughts are different than other weather phenomena for several reasons.  With big storms, we usually have some warning - as we do with heat waves.  With drought, however, we don't know we're in one until well after it's started.  The calendar year 2013 was the driest on record for our part of California - we measured just over 10 inches for the entire year.  Since California almost always experiences a summer "drought" - we rarely receive any rainfall from June through October - the dryness snuck up on me.  Looking back at my writing from 12-14 months ago, I started to realize that we were facing serious drought conditions in December 2013.  By January 2014, we were in the midst of the longest winter dry spell in recorded history.  About 12 months ago, we started selling sheep to make sure we weren't overstocked on our grazing land.  Today, I've taken a full-time job as the herdsman at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) - in part because we don't have enough sheep to generate a full-time income.

December 2014 was quite different than December 2013.  With more than 11 inches of rain, we received more precipitation in December than we did in all of 2013.  However, when we drove to church in the rain on Christmas Eve 2014, I had no idea that it was the last significant rain we'd receive until last Friday.  In addition to being dry, January was exceptionally warm.  The blue oaks in Auburn, which typically don't come out of dormancy until early March, already have their new leaves.  Some of our annual grasses are already going to seed - at least 45 days early.

The uncertainty about a drought's beginnings is matched by the uncertainty about it's termination.  Meteorologists tell us that we need 150-175% of "normal" rainfall to end our drought, but we won't know if we've achieved that benchmark until after it's happened.  For me, this uncertainty brings a psychological cost.  Uncertainty engenders worry - will we have enough spring grass for the sheep (and for the cows at SFREC)?  Will we have enough stored water to irrigate our pastures this summer?  What will next fall bring?  Our current weather also makes me wonder about longer term issues - is this the new "normal" weather pattern?  Can we expect extended winter dry periods punctuated by brief periods of inundation?  When will this drought be over, or is this what we can expect in the future?  While I'm waiting to find out, I guess I'll just enjoy this weekend's stormy weather!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Here We Go Again

Thanks to the rain we had in November and December, we have substantially more green grass at the end of January 2015 than we had a year ago.  But with virtually no rain since Christmas Eve, even with much warmer-than-normal temperatures, grass growth has come to a standstill.  Since our December storms were relatively warm, there is very little snow in the mountains (and very little water in our reservoirs).  I can't help but thinking we're in for another year of severe drought.

From 2013 to 2014, we reduced our sheep numbers by nearly 40 percent because of the drought.  With a new full-time job, we've reduced our flock even further this winter; we're now grazing just over 80 ewes.  Since I'm working full time at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, we're trying to arrive at a flock size that allows us to move sheep on the weekends (in other words, we want to build big enough paddocks to give us enough forage to last 80 ewes for 7 days).  Because of the lack of moisture, we're not seeing much regrowth.  We'd normally expect to have 120-160 sheep-days of grass per acre at this time of year (which means a 4-acre paddock would last our flock 6-8 days).  We seem to have about half this amount of forage at the moment - a 4-acre paddock lasts 3-4 days.

We're still anticipating that we'll sell another 25-30 ewes, but since we'll start lambing in about 3 weeks, the window for selling these ewes is closing rapidly - I don't like to haul ewes that are just about to lamb.  We'll likely lamb out at least 60 ewes this spring.  If it stays dry, it means we'll either build larger paddocks on the weekends or we'll move sheep during the week.

Even though our water district (the Nevada Irrigation District) has done a great job of conserving water and planning ahead, I'm getting worried about what the summer irrigation season may hold.  With virtually no snow in the high country, we may be looking at reductions in water deliveries.

Finally, the warm temperatures seem to have everything out of sync.  We have blue oaks starting to leaf out (in January!).  At home, we have daffodils blooming - at least 30 days earlier than normal.  A friend called this week to tell me he'd seen/heard sandhill cranes flying north - again, at least 30 days early.

A fourth year of drought feels like uncharted territory to me.  While I'm hopeful we're going to get some rain next weekend, I find myself wondering if warmer, drier winters are the new normal for us. I hope not!