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Stories from the valley

Fall Feed… or Fire Danger?

Contributed by Dan Macon

Ranchers, myself included, are conservative by nature. I don’t mean politically (at least for me – although this is also true in many cases). Many of us (again, myself included), assume that if the worst might happen, it probably will. Pessimists, I’ve heard, are often pleasantly surprised – pessimistic ranchers are pleasantly surprised when we get rain when we’re “supposed” to, for example.

This conservatism manifests itself in a variety of ways. Many of us stock our ranches conservatively – we maintain the number of animals we know we can graze even in a drought year. We make changes slowly. We save the grass that grows in the springtime (at least here in the Sierra Foothills) to come back to in the fall (most of us graze our livestock on more nutritious irrigated pasture or mountain meadows in the summer months).

But while there are fewer of us around (much of the land near Auburn, where I live, is no longer grazed by cattle or sheep), our non-ranching neighbors have rediscovered the benefits of grazing in our fire-prone Mediterranean climate. By consuming grass, broadleaf plants and brush, grazing (and browsing) livestock can help reduce fire risk. For some, biomass utilization conjures images of high-tech power plants utilizing wood chips to generate electricity; for me, biomass utilization means that my sheep eat plants. Plants that might otherwise burn in the summer and fall.

This realization sets up conflicting objectives, at least for me. Because I’m conservative (again, with a lower-case, non-political “c”), I’m inclined to save spring forage for fall grazing. The folks that allow us to graze their land in the late winter and springtime see the forage I’ve saved as a threat – that stuff will burn! So how do we reconcile these divergent perspectives? Perhaps it’s a matter of prioritization and economics. Let me explain….

With our current flock size, we need somewhere between 130 and 150 acres of rangeland pastures from December 1 through April 1. In a “normal” year, this amount of grass is sufficient to feed our pregnant ewes through the end of their pregnancies. It’s also enough to carry us through six weeks of lambing. In a conventional pasture lease, this much land might cost me $1500 annually. Obviously, if we leave these pastures around April 1, they will keep growing until the soil dries and the grasses turn brown. When the autumn months stay dry, this dry forage we’ve saved sustains our sheep.

The folks who own this land (we own 3 acres, yet we need around 250 acres of rangeland and irrigated pasture to sustain our sheep through the year) would like us to keep grazing in the spring and summer months to reduce the fire threat in their community. This year, we focused our summer grazing on the most vulnerable areas – south-facing slopes adjacent to homes, roadsides where fires could start, and weedy areas that needed summer impact.

Our approach isn’t always perfect. Our lambs, because they were weaned 4-5 weeks early, were lighter – and so they brought less money (which impacted our bottom line). Since we moved the ewes off of our irrigated pasture before we would have otherwise, we had 4-5 weeks of added expense – we had to feed supplemental protein to allow them to digest the dry forage.

All of this is a long-winded explanation of a realization I came to this week. Grazing can be an incredibly important tool in reducing fire danger in California. Using this tool, however, has value – like any other fuel-load reduction tool. My inclination is to make sure I’ve got at least some dry grass to come back to in the fall (in the event we don’t get fall rains). This doesn’t solve the fuel-loading problem, however; my landlords’ fuel-load is my fall grazing. As a rancher, I need some incentive to use this fall feed in the late spring and summer! For our operation, this incentive has been rent-free pasture from December through April; for others, it might mean cash payment. Fall forage, after all, has economic value to me as a rancher. Similarly, fuel-load reduction has economic value to our communities! Our grazing arrangements should reflect this fact.