Cooperative Extension San Joaquin County
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Posts Tagged: sheep

Livestock grazing helps California tackle wildfire

California is searching for solutions to the wildfire crisis. Livestock ranchers believe they can help.

At the 14th Annual Rangeland Summit in Stockton in January, more than 150 ranchers, public land managers and representatives of non-profit organizations that work on land conservation gathered to share research and experiences that outline the value of cattle and sheep grazing on rangeland.

Since California was settled by Europeans, cattle and sheep have been an integral part of the state's history.

“Cattle can control brush,” said Lynn Huntsinger, UC Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley in a presentation on brush management. She discussed research she conducted in the early 1980s to understand the role of cattle in Sierra Nevada brush control.

“We need to make livestock into firefighters,” she said. “Constant, deliberate, targeted grazing is needed for fire management.”

However, thick, overgrown brush requires intensive treatment that cattle can't handle on their own.

“You have to start from a good place,” Huntsinger said. “Start early, such as post fire. Plan when you have a blank slate for the forest you want.”

UCCE specialist Lynn Huntsinger suggested cattle may be viewed as a team of firefighters.

The tragic loss of homes and lives to wildfire in the last few years has increased the public demand for answers and action. However, the reasons for greater frequency and intensity of wildfire are not well understood.

“Is it climate change? Past decisions? Land use? What can we do about it?” asked UC Cooperative Extension specialist Van Butsic. “Research.”

At the summit, Butsic presented the results of his recent research to determine whether ownership has an impact upon whether land will burn. He and his colleagues studied the burn histories of forest and rangeland areas that were matched with the same characteristics, except in ownership.

“We controlled for all factors – slope, elevation, the likelihood of ignition,” he said. “We found that on forest and rangeland, federal ownership led to .3 percent higher fire probability. Ownership is dwarfing the impact of climate change.”

There is still much more research to be done.

“We can't say the impact of grazed vs. ungrazed land,” Butsic said. “We also need to look at fire severity as well as fire frequency.”

Research by UCCE advisor Laura Snell and her colleagues showed that rangeland doesn't need to be 'rested' following a fire.

The UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Modoc County, Laura Snell, shared preliminary results at the rangeland summit that provide information for landowners making decisions about returning livestock to burned areas.

She and a team of colleagues studied the fire history of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management rangeland in Lassen and Modoc counties where fires had burned through 5, 10 and 15 years before. The dataset included information about whether the land was “rested” for two years after the fire, or whether livestock were returned to graze soon after the blaze.

The scientists set out to determine whether fire intensity and climate at the site (measured by soil temperature and moisture) had an impact on the future diversity of plant species and growth of cheat grass, an invasive species that animals don't like. 

“No matter what we did, graze or not graze, after 15 years, the species richness stayed the same,” Snell said. “Grazing was not the driving factor.”

The results are also important in terms of fuels accumulation and the prevention of future wildfires.

“Federal land managers have typically used a policy to rest the land for two years after a fire. During the interval, the fuels sometimes burn again and livestock producers have to wait another two years,” Snell said. “Our research showed you don't necessarily need to rest the land after the fire.”

Sheep and cattle grazing can reduce the fuel load for a potential wildfire. (Photo: Dan Macon)

Two ranchers who were recently impacted by wildfire presented their experiences and perspectives during the rangeland summit.

Mike Williams of Diamond W Cattle Company had livestock on 6,500 acres of leased land in Ventura County when the Thomas Fire ignited on Dec. 4, 2017. Over more than a month, the fire burned 281,893 acres and consumed 1,000 structures.

Williams had stockpiled feed on certain pastures by limiting grazing, which during the fire turned into hazardous fuel.

Adam Cline, rangeland manager for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Preserve in the Capay Valley, had a similar experience when the County Fire burned more than 90,000 acres in western Yolo and eastern Napa counties in June and July 2018. To reserve feed for later, Cline had left 2,500 pounds per acre of residual dry matter on grazing land as a drought mitigation strategy. He said he plans to reconsider this grazing plan.

“Now, cattle feed looks like a lot of fuel,” he said.

Posted on Tuesday, January 22, 2019 at 8:40 AM
Tags: cattle (7), Laura Snell (2), Lynn Huntsinger (4), rangeland (15), sheep (5), Van Butsic (4), wildfire (36)
Focus Area Tags: Environment

Research can help Californians live safely with wildlife

A ewe and her lamb at the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center. (Photo: Robert Keiffer)
Winter is typically lambing season on Northern California sheep ranches - a perilous time of year. Baby lambs are vulnerable prey for wildlife like coyotes, mountain lions and bears. With increasing numbers of wildlife, both rural and urban neighborhoods are being impacted.

At the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center, we are braced for our first winter under a new policy that minimizes the use of lethal control against native wildlife that prey on our lambs and ewes. As director of the 5,300-acre Mendocino County research facility, I'm nervous for the well-being of our 500 sheep and lambs soon to be born. 

The animals are defenseless, therefore it is our responsibility to protect them from predation by wildlife or other animals, such as domestic dogs. Many non-lethal methods of protecting the sheep have been implemented over the past several months. We installed and repaired fences and brought in five new guard dogs to protect the sheep.

Our new practices seemed to work last spring and summer. We can't draw research conclusions from one year of data, but the number of sheep confirmed killed by wild carnivores in 2015 was much smaller than the year before, 10 vs. 48. And the number of coyotes taken so far in 2014 – 15 – was about half the amount in 2014.

I'm encouraged by the numbers. But we want to do better. As a University of California research center, Hopland is the ideal place to study ways for sheep ranchers throughout Northern California to maintain sustainable flocks even in the presence of the growing, and increasingly diverse, wildlife population. At Hopland, we are interested in learning more about how to prevent conflicts with wild animals and reduce the need for lethal control of wildlife. This information will inform policies for wildlife control in cities, rural areas and on ranches.

The Hopland REC was a working sheep ranch when it was purchased by the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources for rangeland and animal management research in 1951. From the 1990s to the 2000s, 10 to 15 percent of lambs or more were killed each year by predators – mainly coyotes – despite aggressive non-lethal and legal lethal control, according to Bob Timm, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist who served as director of the station for 30 years before retiring in 2014.

We will always have predators threatening our sheep. We need research-based information to inform us how to deal with them humanely while maintaining economically viable ranching operations in Mendocino County and throughout California.

Justin Brashares, a professor of wildlife ecology at UC Berkeley, has developed a research plan for the center. We are seeking funding and, in the coming years, will use Hopland as a living laboratory to answer many questions scientists and ranchers have about wildlife in Northern California. The research will help us estimate the wildlife population. We plan to use high-technology GPS collars on prey and predator species to develop very fine-scale information about their interactions. Hopland will also be a site to study the very fencing we and other sheep producers are earnestly installing to protect our sheep from hungry carnivores.

I believe we are lucky to have the wildlife among us. I'm committed to helping our community protect wildlife and raise sheep with research and education programs at Hopland. 

We will always have predators threatening our sheep. We need research-based information to inform us how to deal with them humanely while maintaining economically viable ranching operations in Mendocino County and throughout California.

Posted on Friday, January 15, 2016 at 8:53 AM
  • Author: Kimberly Rodrigues

Living with wildlife while managing working landscapes

Good fencing is one tool that allows coyotes and sheep to share the open range.
The UC Hopland Research and Extension Center (UC HREC) will host workshops on Dec. 1 and 2 to foster understanding and encourage community dialog about ranching on a landscape with populations of coyote, black bear, mountain lions and other wildlife.

“Mendocino County supports many ranchers and our communities enjoy locally produced lamb, beef, milk, cheese and other agricultural products,” said Kimberley Rodrigues, director of UC HREC. “Along with these opportunities come challenges associated with living alongside some of our resident wildlife. The workshops will help local residents deal with these challenges.”

Rodrigues – who has a doctorate degree in environmental science and has been a leader in outreach, strategic facilitation and partnership development for 25 years – has been actively involved in wildlife management at the 5,300-acre HREC since she arrived in mid-2014.

“I quickly realized the biggest challenge to maintaining a sustainable flock of sheep here in our location is addressing predation issues, primarily by coyotes,” Rodrigues said. “With some improvements to our fences, changes in pasture rotations and increased use of guard dogs, losses of sheep to coyotes are now at an acceptable level. We hope to share our own experience, hear from diverse perspectives and experiences at these events and would like HREC to become a hub for future learning on this topic.”

Recent discussion and decisions made by the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors regarding their contract with USDA Wildlife Services (WS) and their use of an integrated wildlife damage management program prompted UC HREC to provide a space for two workshops to allow learning on wildlife management and community conversation.

The Dec. 1 workshop will focus on scientific design and is implemented by USDA WS. It provides an opportunity to hear experts from USDA, the Californi Department of Fish and Wildlife, UC Cooperative Extension and Defenders of Wildlife to discuss the most up-to-date research in wildlife behavior and non-lethal control methods.

The Dec. 2 community conversation workshop is hosted by UC HREC and includes current research from UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, wildlife biologists and discussion of the challenges associated with ranching in Mendocino County from the Magruder family and other local ranchers. The day will culminate in discussion groups on topics ranging from integrated wildlife management tools to understanding local, state and federal connections.

The public may attend either day or both days. Registration for the two workshops is separate.

“Topography, surrounding environments, community viewpoints, available funds and the kind of animals being farmed are all part of the picture – there is no easy solution,” said Hannah Bird, UC HREC community educator. “Ranchers and land managers need to know what tools are available to them and the implications and benefits of each of these tools. Attending both workshops will provide a deeper understanding of the issues.”

Community members, ranchers, land managers and members of non-profit organizations are invited to attend. The workshops will be at the Rod Shippey Hall, Hopland Research and Extension Center, 4070 University Road, Hopland, CA 95449. Registration is $30 for each day (including lunch) and must be made in advance. The registration deadline is Nov. 23. Space is limited.

Sign up for the Dec. 1 USDA WS workshop at http://ow.ly/TYhBd and the Dec. 2 community conversation workshop at http://ow.ly/TYhos.

More on the University of California Hopland Research and Extension Center:

The Hopland Research and Extension Center is a multi-disciplinary research and education facility run by the University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources Division. As stewards of more than 5,300 acres of oak woodland, grassland, chaparral, and riparian environments their mission is to find better ways to manage our natural resources and conduct sustainable agricultural practices, through science, for the benefit of California's citizens.

Author: Hannah Bird

Posted on Monday, November 23, 2015 at 10:38 AM
Tags: coyotes (3), Hopland REC (2), Kim Rodrigues (3), sheep (5), wildlife (24)

Mozilla information scientist finds her passion at UC Sheep Shearing School

Stephany Wilkes shears a 150-lb Targhee-Columbia ewe at Hopland Research and Extension Center.
It's May in Hopland, and the sparse winter rains are nothing more than a memory. Sharpened shears at the ready, Stephany Wilkes, an information science Ph.D. who works for Mozilla, walks a 150-pound sheep into the shearing area. Under the watchful eye of expert instructors, she flips the sheep on its side and starts methodically removing the fleece, smoothing the skin with her left hand, clippers in her right, moving the sheep with her legs.

“It's like a dance,” she says. “Once you have it right (and I mean, really have it), suddenly the whole method makes sense. You expend much less energy. You're controlling the sheep with your legs, which leaves your hands free, one to hold the shearing hand piece and the other to smooth out the skin so you don't nick the sheep.”

Since there are 400 ewes whose fleeces must be shorn before the hot summer months, that's important for her and her classmates.

The University of California Cooperative Extension Sheep Shearing School is the only program of its kind in California. It has been run in Mendocino County since at least 1990, but in 2009, it moved to the Hopland Research and Extension Center south of Ukiah.

Students are taught the New Zealand method of shearing, where the entire fleece is cut from the sheep as a single unit so it can be sorted and graded according to micron count. The method is designed to be comfortable for both shearer and sheep.

John Harper, UCCE natural resources advisor for Mendocino County, has been running this program for more than 20 years. Although these sheep weigh enough to make handling them a workout, he says that hip flexibility is more important than upper body strength. Since this is something women tend to have more of than men, they are often successful students.

More than 250 students from across the western U.S. as well as Canada and Mexico and have graduated from the program. Many come back year after year to practice under supervision, but also to connect with each other.

This year, a wool grading section was added to the course, taught by Ron Cole and Rodney Kott. Sheep have recently been bred much more for meat than wool in the region but there is a growing demand for high quality fleeces. The finest merino sheep do not do well in damp North Coast conditions but thrive in the dryer Central Valley and foothills, and there is a need for trained graders. Only 3 percent of California's 5 million pounds of wool is currently being processed within the state, and yet California remains a net importer of wool goods, while falling second only to Texas in sheep production. California fleeces are either composted or sent to China for processing, something another graduate of Shearing Class, Matt Gilbert, is keen to avoid.

“There used to be lots of mills in the U.S. to process our wool,” he said. “Now there are hardly any. That's why I wanted to start my own mill to process fine wool. We will be selling to handspinners and knitters and to commercial textile manufacturers. It's about trying to keep the product of this place in the region.”

Gilbert was inspired by the Fibershed movement started by Rebecca Burgess in 2010. Drawing on the locavore movement, Burgess committed to clothing herself for an entire year with textiles grown and produced within 200 miles of her house in Fairfax. The movement is gaining adherents across the country and beyond.

Wilkes says the Fibershed movement is what got her interested in learning to shear, too.

“Eight years ago, I walked into a yarn store in San Francisco and asked where the local yarn was. I knew California was a major producer of wool. I was told there wasn't any. I was curious about why, and became involved with Fibershed and attended their first symposium in October 2012. During a panel involving shearers [one of whom was Matt Gilbert], I found out that small flock owners had a hard time finding people to shear their sheep. That got me thinking that I could learn to do the work," Wilkes said.

The UC certificate really means something to ranchers and farmers. As a woman who provided a Shearing School scholarship put it recently, “When I see UC Certification, I know I'm not going to have butchered animals.”

Harper explains that the North Coast sheep herding trends have changed over time – from large producers to smaller flocks – but now there is a move back to some larger flocks, driven in part by the Vines and Ovines project established in Mendocino County by UCCE advisor Morgan Doran with help from UCCE advisor Roger Ingram of Placer and Nevada counties, UCCE advisor Stephanie Larson of Sonoma County and UCCE specialist emeritus Mel George. The sheep were subjected to aversion training so they would not eat grape leaves. Now they browse through vineyards, conducting weed control and fertilization without harming the vines. One vintner, Clay Shannon, has 1,500 ewes. He pairs premium lamb with his wines in sales to niche markets. The idea is catching on.

Meanwhile, Wilkes is shearing sheep across Northern California on weekends or before work.

“I can't express how much Shearing School means to me and to California,” she says. “There's almost no way to break into agriculture if you didn't inherit land here. I found my calling late ... I love developing open source software and working on information privacy, but shearing is my passion. Shearing School is one of the few feasible avenues into agriculture in the state.”

The 2014 Shearing School class.

Wool classing.
Wool classing.

Stephany Wilkes at the Sonoma County Fair.
Stephany Wilkes at the Sonoma County Fair.

Posted on Thursday, July 31, 2014 at 8:07 AM
  • Author: Alison L Kent

‘Sheeping off’ alfalfa fields adds value for sheep producers and growers

Try spotting sheep dogs among grazing sheep.
In touring the back roads of California’s great Central Valley during wintertime, you may be surprised to come upon hundreds of sheep grazing alfalfa fields. The sheep are penned in by electric fences and graze the fields to near bare soil. Look closely and you may also see some Great Pyrenees dogs, used to guard the livestock from coyotes and other predators. The dogs blend in well with the sheep and it’s often fun to try to spot them in the mob.

You may wonder about this practice of ‘sheeping off’ or grazing alfalfa fields, as sheep are most associated with rangelands in the coastal foothills or the Sierras. Basque sheepherders have historically managed sheep grazing in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which is a legacy that still remains in arborglyphs, or drawings in aspen trees, and in current grazing leases on federal lands. But sheep grazing in alfalfa fields has also been a long-time practice, probably for as long as there’s been alfalfa in our valley.

A Basque arborglyph.
‘Sheeping off’ alfalfa fields in the fall and winter, when alfalfa fields are dormant and not growing, is of benefit to both alfalfa growers and sheep producers. The bulk of California’s lambs are born in the fall and early winter. Grazing alfalfa at this time accommodates the lambing operation by providing high quality feed at a time when forage is usually scarce. Sheep producers commonly establish enclosed paddocks on alfalfa fields with temporary fencing and then move the sheep to new areas of the field, often daily.

Alfalfa growers also benefit from sheep grazing in their fields during wintertime when the alfalfa is dormant. Alfalfa is a perennial crop which means that the root system remains alive below ground throughout the year even when the stems and leaves die during winter dormancy.  Sheep feed on winter weeds, helping to control them in both seedling as well as established alfalfa stands that may negate the need for an herbicide treatment. Sheep grazing also reduces the alfalfa vegetation that dies back in winter, producing cleaner hay, the following spring. Sheep also help control weevil insect pests by feeding on older alfalfa stems, where the weevils lay eggs. This practice may help reduce weevil pressure and feeding damage to the first alfalfa cutting when weevils are actively feeding, a positive benefit, especially for organic growers.

The correct timing of alfalfa grazing is especially important for sheep producers since incorrect timing can result in a potentially lethal condition in sheep called bloat. Bloat occurs when a ruminant, such as a sheep, consumes too much fresh alfalfa with a high concentration of leaf proteins called saponins. When saponins are digested in the rumen, they create foam that prevents the sheep from burping up gases that are a produced from digestion in their stomach. Grazing too early in the fall or too late in the spring increases the risk of bloat, which is another reason why alfalfa grazing is done during the winter months.

Studies in California have documented economic benefits for both sheep producers and alfalfa growers. Sheep producers benefit from high quality feed during wintertime. Alfalfa growers benefit from weed and weevil control, as well as cleaner hay that can result in higher quality forage compared to non-grazed alfalfa stands.

Next time you come upon an alfalfa field full of sheep, know that they’re there for a purpose, providing feed for sheep and weevil and weed control for the alfalfa, in an environmentally sound manner.  And, see if you can get in a game of ‘I Spy’ and find those Great Pyrenees dogs.

For more information, see the articles listed below:

  1. Bell, C.E. and J.N. Guerrero.  1997.  Sheep grazing effectively controls weeds in seedling alfalfa.  California Agriculture 51(2):19-23. http://ucce.ucdavis.edu/files/repositoryfiles/ca5102p19-67649.pdf
  2. Doran, M.P., L. Hazeltine, R.F. Long and D.H. Putnam.  2010.  Strategic grazing of alfalfa by sheep in California’s Central Valley.  Technical Report.  http://cesolano.ucanr.edu/files/63758.pdf
  3. Pelton, R.E., V.L. Marble, W.E. Wildman and G. Peterson.  1988.  Fall grazing by sheep on alfalfa.  California Agriculture 42(5): 4-5. http://ucce.ucdavis.edu/files/repositoryfiles/ca4205p4-68804.pdf

'Sheeping off' an alfalfa field.
'Sheeping off' an alfalfa field.

Alfalfa
Alfalfa

Posted on Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 6:13 AM
Tags: alfalfa (7), sheep (5), weeds (11)
 
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