Water Series: Pt 2 ~ Livestock Strategies To Withstand A Drought: Options & Tips from Flying Mule Farm

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Written by Dan Macon, Owner of Flying Mule Farm & the Eat Local Program, UCCE Placer/Nevada County.

Founded in 2001, Flying Mule Farm is located in Auburn, California, tucked in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Our farm produces 100% grass-fed lamb and mutton, fiber products, and targeted grazing services. We operate almost entirely on leased pastures (about 300 acres of unirrigated annual rangeland and 15-50 acres of summer-irrigated pasture), which range in elevation from approximately 1,100 to 1,400 feet.

Our production cycle:

In this region and with our Mediterranean climate, the average annual precipitation is around 30 inches, with most of it falling as rain between November and April. Typically, we’ll receive a germinating rainfall (we need at least an inch of rain to germinate our annual grasses) in late October or early November. Our annual grasses then go dormant in early December until soil temperature and day length support renewed growth, usually around late February. Our annual grasses continue to grow through the springtime, usually reaching peak production in mid- to late-May. At that point, the annuals produce seed and die.

As our unirrigated rangelands die back each spring, we transition to irrigated pasture for our lamb production, as green forage is needed for weight gain. Lambs will typically remain on irrigated pasture through the summer and early fall, while we graze our ewes on stockpiled dry forage until just before turning the rams in with them in early October.

Our irrigated pastures are served by our local irrigation district, which stores water at higher elevations and delivers it via an extensive canal system, some of which dates back to the Gold Rush. Typically, irrigation deliveries begin on April 15 and run through October 15. We time our breeding season so that our highest feed demand (the last four weeks of gestation and the first six weeks of lactation) coincide with rapid grass growth, or the “spring flush”.

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Dan Macon

Historically, we’ve run as many as 300 ewes. Over the last several years, we’ve reduced our flock because I needed to take a part-time job to supplement our farm income and, more importantly, obtain health benefits. This fall, we bred approximately 175 ewes. We’ve also reduced the number of lambs we retain until harvest due to lack of access to high quality irrigated pasture.

In 2013, we received a germinating rain during the third week of November. In the first week of December, we received approximately 0.5” of precipitation in the form of snow, and the weather immediately turned cold, which lowered soil temperatures to the point at which grass growth stopped. In other words, we had about 10 days in late November and early December for this year’s grass to germinate and grow before the cold weather pushed it into dormancy. The UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center measures grass production from germination to dormancy every year.

Normally, about 500 pounds per acre of grass will grow during this timeframe. This year, production was just 47 pounds per acre. January 2014 was also very dry, with less than an inch of precipitation, and we reached the critical period of gestation with little or no green grass available.

What are our options?

Well, we’ve had to adjust, and quickly.

The alternatives were to feed hay or to try to reduce our stocking rate to match our available forage resources. Feeding hay doesn’t make sense economically, but more importantly, we risk permanent damage to our rangelands by overgrazing them (for more information, see “The Land Must Come First” and “Drought Planning” from my blog).

Additionally, we try to manage our spring grass growth to ensure that we have dry forage to graze through the following autumn. Without this stockpiled forage, we’re in a perpetual feeding situation.

Flying Mule Farm pond, January 23rd

Flying Mule Farm pond, January 23rd

The economics of feeding hay are problematic as well. Purchasing a one-month supply of hay for our entire flock costs the same as renting pasture for nine months. The cost of two months of feeding hay exceeds the value of annual lamb crop. In other words, it does not make sense to feed our way out of the drought.

This past week’s storm has helped with our near-term needs to some extent. However, even with this moisture, it will be 30 to 40 days before the grasses have grown enough to provide ample quality and quantity to satisfy the nutritional needs of our soon-to-be lambing ewes. Our annual rainfall is now about 50% of normal for this time of year in the foothills – better than it was a couple of weeks ago, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

Of more importance, perhaps, is the prospect for reduced summer irrigation water deliveries. The last snow survey before this storm indicated that the snow pack in the watershed where our irrigation water comes from was 6-7% of normal. Our irrigation district is still considering a 25-50% reduction in irrigation water.

Taking action:

At the end of January, we identified approximately 55 sheep that we would sell. These included older or unthrifty ewes, ewes that consistently produced single lambs, rather than twins.  And, we decided not to keep any females that wouldn’t produce a lamb this year. We sold 20 of these 55 sheep at auction on January 31.

We also located pasture that had not been grazed for over a year, meaning it still had last year’s dry grass and what little green grass that had started in November. On February 14, we moved the flock onto this new pasture, where they’ll remain until they are done lambing in mid-April. At that point, we’ll decide whether the prospects for fall grazing require further reduction in flock size.

Because we’re likely to have less irrigation water available, we’ll probably also sell all of this year’s lambs at weaning, and we’ll wean early to conserve our forage for the ewes. This means we won’t be selling any grass-fed meat directly to customers this year, which has consistently been our primary sales outlet. Part of this decision is driven by the fact that I’ve taken an off-farm job – direct marketing is much more time consuming that selling all of our lambs to one buyer. We’ll receive a lower gross income, but we’ll have lower expenses as well.

5 tips for dealing with the drought:

  • Tip 1: Work with your neighbors and community. It’s important to work with your community to locate underutilized land, and find ways to make labor exchanges if needed. Our neighbors and customers have been sympathetic – the new pastures we’ve located have been offered to us free-of-charge, and we’ll manage the landowners’ fire danger in exchange for access to the grass. That said, there’s only so much the community can do to help us – they can’t make it rain on our pastures or snow in the high country.
  • Tip 2: Plan for drought conditions in advance. Make an objective plan while it’s still raining! We’ve identified the animals we’d sell if needed and have made hard deadlines to make these decisions.
  • Tip 3: Raise livestock that offer flexibility. We would not have access to the new pastures if we were raising beef cattle. We’ve invested in skills and portable infrastructure (fencing and livestock water) that allow us to utilize lands that other livestock producers can’t access.
  • Tip 4: Identify a single buyer. Develop flexibility in your marketing system: direct marketing is more time consuming and may require expensive feed resources to finish animals. Have a plan for alternative marketing options.
  • Tip 5: The land comes first. Many have asked: “Can’t you feed your way out of this drought?” My answers have tended towards the economic reasons – with higher demand for hay, I simply can’t afford to feed all of our sheep. Basic business principles tell us that if our costs of production are higher than our sales revenue, we can’t be sustainable in an economic sense. But the real reason that de-stocking (that is, selling our breeding animals) is our primary strategy has more to do with the ecological sustainability of our operation. If we’re going to stay in ranching over the long haul, we can’t afford to overgraze. This would lead to erosion, weed infestation and little or no dry forage stockpile for the fall months.

Please watch this short video illustrating the impacts of the drought on Flying Mule Farm.


Thank you, Dan for sharing your story and advice! If you have questions for Dan, or would like to view his blog, visit his website and get in touch.

To find more resources on water quality, efficiency, conservation and more, see our Water & Irrigation Toolkit.  

If you have questions, words of wisdom or other great tips for the many farmers dealing with the drought, visit our Conversations Page and post a question or comment!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch with me: evaa@farmsreach.com. We’d love to hear from you.

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