Sunday, July 18, 2021

Midsummer Work

We've reached the point in our sheep year that I enjoy the least. The lambs are weaned and most are sold. The ewes are dried off and grazing on dry (and flammable) vegetation west of Auburn. And we're moving water - seven days a week, we're dragging K-Line irrigation pods across our irrigated pastures. For me, the summer doldrums have arrived.

Dislike is too strong a word, but I think I enjoy summer chores least out of all of the work we do with our sheep, largely because of the heat. While the first few 90-degree days always shock my system, my body generally acclimates to hot daytime temperatures. Hot nights, however, are another matter. Hot nights make sleeping difficult; waking up hot tends to make me a little grumpy - and definitely less than rested.

Beyond the heat, though, I find the lack of variety in our work tedious. Each day starts with a trip to our irrigated pasture. Irrigated with K-Line means that I drive four-wheeler over the same circuit across our irrigated pasture every day from mid-April through mid-October. While I'm grateful to have the water (especially in a year like this), the monotony of irrigating starts to grate on me by mid-July, even when everything goes right. But like any ranching activity, irrigation doesn't always go right. Clogged sprinklers, broken lines, and low water pressure are a constant battle. We need the green grass to feed our replacement and feeder lambs, and to get our ewes ready for breeding in the fall. Growing green grass in the summer in our Mediterranean climate means we have to make it "rain" every day for six months.

Other seasons of the sheep year are more stimulating for me. Flushing the ewes (which involves feeding them extra calories to boost their conception rate) is like entering a mosh pit for four weeks. Evaluating the breeding flock and turning the rams in with the ewes feels like New Year's Day - a fresh start for all of us! Once the rams are done with their work, we settle in to our (relatively) slow time - moving the ewes on annual rangeland every 5-7 days, and no more irrigating! In January, we trim feet and vaccinate the ewes in preparation for lambing - and lambs begin to arrive in late February. The spring flush of grass - even in a dry spring like this - is always challenging and fun. How are we going to graze all of the grass that needs grazing? In the midst of this fun, we bring all of the sheep home for shearing. And as the spring flush tapers off, we wean and sell our lambs.

Then July arrives - my least favorite of the summer months. In June, summer still seems fun - perhaps because I can still remember the cold days checking the lambing ewes in early March. August is better than July - mostly because we almost always have a day in August that feels like autumn is coming. But July is just plain hot and monotonous.

Farming and ranching require many skills and a great deal of knowledge - animal husbandry, financial management, regulatory compliance, biology, soil science; I could go on. Farming or ranching at any scale, however, also requires a great deal of stamina - working through fatigue, doing the same thing day after day after day. Little breaks from the tediousness are helpful for me - a trip to a mountain stream for an afternoon of fly-fishing, an overnight backpacking trip, any meal that includes homegrown tomatoes and sweet corn, or a Sunday afternoon nap with a ballgame on the radio. And the knowledge that I'll be flipping the page on my calendar in about 2 weeks!

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Of Wolves and Social Media… and Real Life

Social media is an interesting phenomenon, when it comes to friendships. I have “friends” on Facebook who I’ve never met. I have followers - and I follow folks - on Twitter and Instagram, who are strangers in real life. I share some (many?) things in common - an interest in sheep (obviously), a focus on science, an affinity for the Sierra Nevada. But sometimes, I find, social media allows us (myself included) to post things without thinking about how my “friends” feel about the issue. For me, as a sheep rancher and as a cooperative extension researcher and educator, predators are a particularly complicated subject. And no predator is more complicated, at least in the Sierra, than gray wolves.

Officially, there are three established packs of wolves in California - in Siskiyou, Lassen, and now Plumas Counties. Other wolves have traveled through the northern two-thirds of the state (most notably, a collared wolf from Oregon that came down the east side of the Sierra, traveled though Tuolumne County, and ended up in San Luis Obispo County before his collar quit transmitting). More recently, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed a new pack in the north end of the Sierra Valley - one of my favorite places in the northern Sierra, and home to the ranches of a number of friends and acquaintances.

I learned of this new pack last month, when friends and colleagues reported the loss of a yearling heifer, and harassment of a group of yearlings (who ran through fences several times). Today, another friend posted how excited he was to learn of this new pack.

As a scientist and lifelong Sierra resident, I’d be thrilled to see wolves. Indeed, I’ve been conducting a research project to evaluate the effectiveness of livestock guardians dogs in newly re-established wolf territory. But as a sheep rancher and colleague of those who lost animals to this new pack, I’m upset about this new pack’s predilection for beef. My concern, like my colleagues, is much more than economic impact - any loss of an animal in my care feels like failure on a personal level.

Social media has lots of upside - it connects us with people we wouldn’t know otherwise; it exposes us to points of view different than our own. But I find that I am uncomfortable commenting on posts like I saw this afternoon, celebrating something that I have mixed feelings about. I don’t want to offend my virtual friends, and yet I also don’t want to diminish the pain that my colleagues have experienced at the loss of their livestock.

We live in interesting times….

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Trade-offs and Pay Days

Seems like most Mother’s Days, we’re shearing sheep. Most Father’s Days, including this one, we’re weaning lambs. Yesterday, we sorted off and weighed our lambs (all before 7:30 a.m.), sold our crossbred ewe lambs to some friends, and hauled the ewes back to dry feed for the summer. Today, we hauled our wethers and most of our cull ewes to our buyer. And we got paid for a year’s worth of work. We’ll be getting a bit more income - we’ll get second payments for our lambs; we’ll hopefully sell our wool this year, too. And we’ll get paid for reducing fuel load with our ewes. But this weekend represents the biggest pay day of our year.

Like all businesses, we’ve worked through the optimize-versus-maximize analyses of our economics. We could collect more gross revenue if we sold meat instead of live animals. We could raise more lambs by putting more nutrition into our ewes prior to breeding. We could raise heavier lambs by breeding our ewes earlier in the year, or potentially if we lambed in the fall. We could receive more money for our wool if we raised fine-wool sheep.

But there are trade-offs involved in all of this. We don’t have the irrigated pasture necessary to finish our lambs - we need to save it for our ewes. And even if we did have enough pasture, I’m not convinced the extra labor and expense involved in selling our own meat would make us more profitable. We could put more nutrition into the ewes during September and October to increase our lambing percentage from 165% to 180% - but the extra expense wouldn’t generate enough extra income to justify 15 more lambs. We could lamb in January - or even in November - and be able to sell bigger lambs in June, but we would need to lamb in a barn and feed hay at lambing to make this work during the depths of our foothill winters. On top of this, we’d have to change breeds - our ewes won’t cycle before the summer solstice, which means they won’t lamb before the winter solstice. This is related to our breed choices; with more than 25 inches of rain (usually), fine wool sheep (who will lamb in the fall) do not do well in our environment - we’d have more foot rot and wool rot with fine wool sheep.

The beauty of sheep is that there are breeds that fit every environment. Our sheep do well on our annual rangeland and low-quality irrigated pasture. They lamb on pasture with minimum labor. They grow a coarse fleece that actually has tremendous strength and softness. They make us money - especially in a year like this when the lamb market is strong.

Now that we’ve been paid for our lambs, we’ll pay our pasture rent, buy some hay and grain for flushing, and think about any additional capital purchases we need to make. And we’ll pay ourselves. A once-a-year pay day is much like a report card - heavier, healthier lambs mean a higher grade. The trade-offs described above suggest we’re graded on a curve, but I’m pleased with the “A” we earned this year!

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Everything is on the Table

I used to refer to the drought we lived through in 2012-2015 as our “historic drought” - the most severe drought my generation of Californians would face. And then came 2021. The precipitation we received in 2019-2020 water year was well below average; our 2020-2021 precipitation total is the lowest since we’ve lived in Auburn (less than 19 inches total). Depending on who you ask, these last two years have been the driest ever here in the foothills. In sheepherder terms, it’s pretty damn dry here in Auburn.

The Sierra snowpack is equally disappointing. The warm, dry autumn we experienced in 2020 resulted in incredibly dry mountain soils - the snow that did fall last winter either evaporated or soaked in this spring. Very little of last winter’s snow ended up in our reservoirs. The dry winter and spring meant below-average forage production on our rangelands; the lack of runoff might mean an early end to our irrigation season. In other words, we may have lower forage production on our irrigated pasture to match the lower forage production on our annual rangelands. Our fall grazing plans look pretty bleak at the moment.

Even in our smaller-scale, part-time sheep operation, we probably can’t afford to feed our way out of drought. Taking the sheep to the forage is always cheaper than taking the forage (e.g., hay) to the sheep. That said, we’ll be taking a close look at feed prices over the next month or two. Our other option is to sell some (or even all) of our sheep. The lamb and ewe markets are at historic highs right now - this might be the year when get out of the sheep business, at least temporarily.

None of these options are attractive to me. I much prefer to graze our sheep on the grass we’ve grown, rather than feed them hay grown by someone else. Selling any of our ewes is equally unattractive. Our sheep fit our landscape; our genetic program has created a ewe flock well-suited to our environment and our management. We can’t simply go to the auction and buy ewes that fit our operation.

Over the next 6-8 weeks, we’ll put pencil to paper and figure out which option makes the most sense. We’ll look at the cost of hay and other feed stuffs. We’ll consider whether we can be profitable at a smaller scale. And we’ll think about selling out. Every option is on the table. But we’ll also think about where we want to be when this drought ends. Can we maintain our genetic base? Are there other ways we can harvest forage from our annual rangelands and irrigated pastures? These are big decisions; decisions that our ranching colleagues all over California are going to be making this summer. For many of us, this will be the drought that defines our ranching operations, I suspect.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

A Report from the High Country: It’s Dry, Too

For the last three years, I’ve been collaborating with Talbott Sheep Company to study livestock guardian dog behavior in open range. They graze several bands of sheep near Stampede and Boca Reservoirs north of Truckee; they’ve been gracious enough to let me put GPS collars on their dogs and place trail cameras on their sheep range. Last Thursday, a colleague and I got a jump on placing trail cameras on the allotment - we are hoping to be able to compare wildlife (especially predator) presence before, during, and after sheep grazing. This was the first year I’ve placed cameras well in advance of the arrival of the sheep - we were in the mountains about 5 weeks earlier than the last two years. And to my eye, the high country is damn dry.

I’ve had the good fortune of spending time on both sides of the Sierra crest from Plumas County to Inyo County for most of my 54 years. As a kid, we camped every year on Sonora Pass; as an adult, work and recreation have allowed me to explore the high country both north and south of my native mountains. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the upper elevations so dry in early June, at least since I’ve been an adult.

Hydrologists and water managers are telling us that this has been one of the most unusual snow-melts in memory. With stormy weather returning late to California last fall, the first precipitation in the Sierra was snow - snow that fell onto dry soil. The late winter and early spring snow surveys suggested that we had a lower-than-average snowpack, but that the runoff would bring reservoirs back to a reasonable level of storage once the melt started. But the runoff apparently never made it into the rivers. The dry soil was a sponge - most of the meltwater soaked in rather than running off.

Thursday was my second trip into the Donner Pass country in a month. On my first trip, Rattlesnake Creek, which flows into the South Yuba River, was running like I usually see it run in late June. Thursday, the Yuba looked like a late summer river, as did the Little Truckee River north of the town of Truckee itself. Kyburz Marsh, where Talbott’s sheep will be unloaded in five weeks, looked much like it did last year - in the second week of July. As we hiked through the meadows and into the uplands, I noticed wildflowers blooming that I typically don’t see until August. Some wildflowers were not going to bloom at all - some low-growing lupine that was blooming last July was dying this year without making flowers.

But what startled me most was the condition of the little creeks draining into Kyburz Marsh from the north and east. They were completely dry - and they looked like they hadn’t run at all this spring. When we left the meadow and hiked into the timber, the ground grew dusty - and sounded crispy. I worry that the fire season may be long and dangerous even above 6000 feet.

This year, I’ve come to realize the limitations of scale and observation from afar. At a national scale, when viewed from points east, California’s dry conditions apparently seem less severe than 2014 and 2015. But remote sensing and written reports don’t tell the entire story - have they ever?! I’ve realized that one cannot fully appreciate the on-the-ground conditions without being on the ground, year after year. And as someone who has been on the ground somewhere in the Sierra Nevada for each of my 54 years, I can say it’s as dry as I can remember. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Maybe I Was Wrong...

When I was 9 years old, our well went dry. My family lived east of Sonora, and the 1976-77 drought did in our groundwater. Most of what I remember about those years was my folks being stressed about the added expense of having to hook into a community water system. And I can remember the reservoirs in the foothills being dismally low. But I was just a kid - that drought didn’t really have any consequences on my daily life.

Fast forward to 2013-15. We went nearly 2 months without rain during our normal rainy season. We had a fire near our winter sheep pasture - in February! We sold ewes, weaned our lambs earlier than normal, and made it through. Scientists called it the “Millennial Drought,” the driest stretch in more than a thousand years. Then it rained in 2015-16. And we had one of the wettest years on record the following year. We’d survived the test - we were still ranching.

But over the last several weeks, I’ve had occasion to talk to ranching colleagues who ranched through the 1976-77 drought, and whose families are still ranching today. I’ve talked to colleagues who also made it through the Millennial Drought. And they all agree: 2021 is the worst year they can remember. Maybe I was wrong.

The severity of this year’s drought reflects the “perfect” combination of a variety of factors. The 2019-20 water year was drier than normal. After a particularly warm autumn, we got a late start to our rainy season in November 2020 - the grass on our winter rangeland didn’t germinate until around Thanksgiving. Below average rainfall in November and December was somewhat offset by an above average January - but February and March were dry, and April was dismal. And our usual May rainfall hasn’t arrived at all. In the mountains, where our summer water arrives as winter snow, the dry fall meant that the snow fell on top of dry soil. As the winter snow melted, most of it soaked into the dry ground rather than running off into creeks and rivers - and eventually into reservoirs. Even the water planning professionals are befuddled by this year’s runoff conditions.

But this year has taught me (again) that drought is more than just a lack of water in my rain gauge. The dry soils here in the foothills never did become saturated enough to get the seasonal creeks running or the stock ponds filling. The blue oaks came out of dormancy earlier than usual, increasing their demand for water at a time when the soil had none to give. Over the last 60 days, we’ve had more north wind than I can ever remember - which has pulled even more moisture out of the vegetation and the soil. The fire professionals tell us that fire danger is more like a normal July than May.

Last year’s dryness spooked me a bit. We were nervous about our fall forage, so we cut our sheep numbers by 15 percent. Headed into this summer, we feel as though we have enough forage to feed our ewes next fall, even if we get another late start to the grass year. We’ll keep fewer feeder lambs than typical, to allow us to keep enough replacement ewe lambs to maintain our numbers.

Other ranchers have had to take more drastic actions. I have friends who have sold 30 percent of their cows; others who weaned their calves and lambs months earlier than usual. You might think this is an easy decision, but consider what a 30 percent loss of equity in your home would do to your financial health. These decisions have long-term consequences. Selling cows this year means less income for years to come. Selling lambs early might change our relationship with our buyers. All of this impacts the ranch-specific genetics that many of us have spent lifetimes building.

The term “climate change” is politically fraught - a sure way to start an argument in a rural community. Even so, most of the ranchers I know think that the climate is changing. If we leave the politics (e.g., the cause) aside, most of us have spent our entire ranching careers adapting to climate variability. What frightens me, though, is the pace of change we seem to be experiencing now. In 2016-17, we experienced the wettest year in my lifetime in the Sierra Foothills. Just four years later, we’re experiencing the driest year. These extremes make planning difficult. Personally, I do think the scientific evidence is clear that human activity is responsible for climate change, but mitigating these impacts seems beyond my personal capacity. What can I do?! On the other hand, adaptation is critical - adaptation is something I can do on my own. Maybe I was wrong about 2013-15 being the worst drought of my lifetime; maybe I can learn to adapt to this new reality. 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Guiding the Water: Making it Rain in the Summer

I love visiting new bookstores - browsing should be a physical activity (as opposed to a click and point activity), in my experience. Last month, while helping my daughter move from Montana to New Mexico, we visited a great bookstore in Las Cruces. Occupying at least a half-block on Main Street, Coas Books has an incredible collection of new and used books. Including a signed, first-edition copy of English Creek, by my favorite author, Ivan Doig (a Montanan). Needless to say, I bought the book! Among my many favorite passages from this wonderful novel is this:

“...Ben English in his fields across from us here, moving the water. Guiding the water, it might be better said. For Ben English used the water of his namesake creek as a weaver uses wool. With care. With respect. With patience. Persuading it to become a product greater than itself.”

I thought of this passage this morning while I was irrigating (as I often do). We irrigate about 15 acres of hilly, foothill pasture near Auburn, California. Over the course of my sheep-raising career, I’ve irrigated leveled pasture north of Lincoln, sloping pasture near Newcastle, and (since 2008) these hills just west of Auburn. I’ve flood irrigated, moved aluminum hand-pipe sprinklers, and dragged K-Line movable pods. I’m not an expert, by an stretch of the imagination, but I’ve done it long enough now to have some sense of what Doig describes.

Our current system consists of five K-Line pod lines. This system, developed in New Zealand, works especially well in our foothill pastures. Topography and trees make irrigating challenging; these same features, plus the shallow soils, make it next-to-impossible to grow more valuable crops on this landscape. With flexible pipe and sprinklers in pods, we can drag each line to a new location each day. Our water, purchased from the Nevada Irrigation District (NID), originates high in the Yuba River watershed (a vestige of the Gold Rush era - we still pay for it by the “miner’s inch”). Each morning, from April 15 through October 15 (at least in “normal” years), I move each of the five lines to a new location. And I keep the grass growing. To feed our sheep. On good days, this takes about 45 minutes. On normal days, it takes an hour. Some days, it takes more than that.

You’ll hear irrigators talk about “set” and “rotation.” Set refers to the length of time that water is applied to a particular portion of a field. Rotation refers to the frequency that water returns to that particular location. Set and rotation can be engineered according to the quantity of water delivered, as well as to site-specific soil properties and water demands of the plants being irrigated. Our system was designed to run on a 24-hour set and 10-day rotation. But irrigation engineers are seldom the ones who do the actual irrigating.

Our pastures are incredibly diverse - in topography, vegetation, and soil. Our K-Lines are also diverse - we have a small area that we irrigate with a 4-pod line on a 9-day rotation. On the other extreme, we have a line with 11 pods. The low spots sometimes have frost (early and late in the irrigation season). The high spots - with thin soils and low water pressure - often dry out. In some zones, our rotation is 10 days. In others, we can’t get back to the first “set” for 15 days. Irrigation is complicated.

Despite our technology (K-Line pods, Rainbird sprinklers, a Honda ATV to pull the lines), simple things can be challenging. With the wind we’ve had over the last 10 days here in the foothills, we’ve had lots of leaves and other debris fall into the canals that deliver our water (which subsequently clog our sprinklers). As the weather warms, many of the canals in the NID’s system fill with aquatic weeds. Some of these clog our sprinklers, too; NID’s use of copper-based products to control the weeds present problems for our sheep.

All of this (and more) was circulating in my brain this morning, as I moved water before heading into my day job. Driving an ATV on a steep side hill takes most of my concentration - but I usually find room to let my mind wander. And this morning, I thought about Doig’s description of Ben English’s irrigation. Of guiding the water. With K-Line, guiding the water resembles fly-fishing. When I’m doing it well, I loop the lines back and forth across the pasture. When I forget where I am - or let my mind wander too much - I get knots (or kinks) in the pipe.

In a drought year like this, irrigated pasture usually gets criticized as an inefficient use of water. The water I spread over my pastures, the thinking goes, could be better used to produce a higher-value crop - or to flow to the ocean. As with most things, though, the devil is in the details. The pastures I irrigate grow tremendous forage; the soils are ill-suited to grow anything else. There are other benefits, as well - our pastures support wildlife, sequester carbon, and provide 15 acres of fuel break to our community. And they feed our sheep!

Some summer mornings, I would rather sleep in. During the work week, I’m sometimes embarrassed to show up at a meeting with mud on my shoes and with my pants soaked from the knees down. But then I think about Doig’s fictional Ben English. I think about my full-time rancher friends who work with water as a weaver works with wool - who can persuade water to become something greater than itself. Who are respectful and patient. I know there’s an amazing amount of science that we apply to irrigating; I’m drawn to the art. And that’s what Ivan Doig describes in English Creek!