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Ag Pass program aims to improve wildfire preparedness on rangeland

Tony Toso's cattle gather at a watering hole after the Detwiler Fire in Mariposa County in 2017. During disasters, ranchers need access to their livestock to ensure they are out of harm's way and have food and water. Photo by Tony Toso

When the Detwiler Fire broke out near his family's ranch in 2017, Tony Toso was home to take defensive action to protect his family and animals. The Mariposa County rancher feels fortunate that he was on site.

“We were on the front end of the fire damage and it started on a Sunday,” recalled Toso. “Had I not been home that day, it would have been very difficult for me to access my property and help keep our livestock safe. Within a matter of hours of the fire starting, the CHP had our county road closed and would not let anyone in.”

Emergency personnel close roads around wildfires for the safety of people and to prevent them from impeding fire suppression efforts. When fire threatens large ranching operations, ranchers need to move their livestock out of harm's way and make sure they have feed and water. While volunteer groups can assist in rescuing dogs, cats, and a few sheep or horses, they don't have a rancher's knowledge, expertise and experience that are essential for managing hundreds of cattle at large-scale ranching operations.

To help rural communities prepare for wildfire, it would be helpful for farmers and ranchers to have a plan in place to coordinate with first responders, according to Max Moritz, UC Cooperative Extension wildfire specialist. Ag Pass is a program developed in Ventura County to identify farmers and ranchers to firefighters, law enforcement and other emergency personnel so they can allow them onto their property to rescue animals and identify access roads and water sources. 

“Because fires are increasingly impacting people and are not going away anytime soon, we need to figure out approaches to sustainably live on fire-prone landscapes. In a broader sense, the Ag Pass is another way that we can adapt to, and coexist with, wildfire,” Moritz said.

Matthew Shapero, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and range advisor, and Moritz have written a publication to guide people who would like to create an Ag Pass Program for wildfire preparedness in their own locale.

“Our neighbors had cattle just north of us and they tried to get in and could not,” said Toso. “An Ag Pass in that situation, would have been a huge benefit had I not been at home and then wanted to access my property.”

In Ventura County, agricultural workers can apply for identification cards from the Central Ventura County Fire Safe Council, which verifies farm information through the county's pesticide applicator permit database. Ag Pass members provide detailed maps of their farms that show access roads – including many that don't show up on other maps.

Ranch plan maps can show access roads and water sources. Source: Veterans Emergency Technical Services and Central Ventura Fire Safe Council.

Shapero, who works in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, has been working with ranchers and county agencies to create an Ag Pass program in Santa Barbara County.

“The last few fire seasons have made a program like the Ag Pass more urgent than ever, especially as awareness of wildfire's impacts to agriculture has grown,” Shapero said. “We hope that this publication provides localities with a workable blueprint that will expedite the adoption of this or similar programs.”

Shapero has been working with Anthony Stornetta of Santa Barbara County Fire and representatives of other agencies to develop a training for Ag Pass participants in Santa Barbara County.

“After being at the Carr, Sonoma, Creek and Camp fires for months at a time, I started developing the program from the fire side and presented it to California Cattlemen's Association a couple years ago,” Stornetta. “This was a great collaborative effort. After meeting with our fire safe council, we are looking at the program being fully adopted very soon.”

In September, the Bear Fire raged through the Plumas National Forest where 400 of Dave Daley's cattle roamed to graze. The fifth-generation rancher wrote in moving detail of his grueling search for surviving cows in the rugged terrain during the wildfire and posted it to the California Cattlemen's Association website.

On the left, Dave Daley's cattle headed into the Plumas National Forest to graze before lightning sparked the North Complex Fires. Right, he rounded up survivors to escape the wildfire. Photo by Dave Daley

“I was unable to get access initially,” Daley said. “After working with our sheriff, I was able to get access through his office. But it required a deputy to take his time every day for 10 days to meet me at the roadblocks and escort me for several miles into our cattle range. I am very thankful for their willingness to do so. However, it was probably not the best use of their time when they were dealing with so many crises simultaneously and the fire was still raging. If there had been an Ag Pass system, that would have simplified the process, freed up law enforcement and given me a chance to save more cattle.”

Toso, the Mariposa County rancher and president of the California Cattlemen's Association, thinks a program as described in the UC Cooperative Extension publication benefits both ranchers and first responders.

“We can not only help protect ranching families, but we can use the opportunity to build working relationships and create trust between landowners and emergency personnel, as well as provide valuable information to those first responders from knowing the lay of the land,” he said. “Helping other counties and our member ranchers get a program on the books with their respective counties will be a priority for our organization.”

“Given each community's unique agency and personnel structure, it is our belief that the Ag Pass is best administered at the local or county level, however we are working with the state to see if policy measures can be developed that would simplify and support the Ag Pass concept,” Shapero said.

The training developed for Santa Barbara County includes an overview of hazards and safety issues, entrapment avoidance, incident organization, fire behavior, working with law and fire liaisons, access to incident, carding and certification. Stornetta anticipates the Santa Barbara County training will be held in spring 2021 and hopes it can be used in other counties as well. Ranchers who are interested in the Ag Pass training should contact Stornetta or Shapero.

“Preparing for Disaster: Establishing an Ag Pass Program in Your Community,” can be downloaded for free at https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8685.pdf.

Posted on Monday, December 21, 2020 at 12:51 PM
Tags: cattle (18), Matthew Shapero (7), Max Moritz (34), policy (4), wildfire (154)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

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. (Photo: Dan Macon)

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 (18), Laura Snell (4), Lynn Huntsinger (7), rangeland (31), sheep (9), Van Butsic (12), wildfire (154)
Focus Area Tags: Environment

Ventura ranchers thank UC Cooperative Extension

The Ventura County Cattlemen's Association publicly thanked UC Cooperative Extension and other organizations for their support during the devastating wildfires of late 2017.

In the space of 12 hours, the Thomas Fire ripped through vital grazing land that cattle rely on for their daily feed. Some animals were also killed in the fire. In a letter to the Ventura County Star, Beverly Bigger, president of the Ventura County Cattlemen's Association, said UCCE livestock and range advisor Matthew Shapero, the Ventura County agricultural commissioner and representatives of Ventura County animal services established an emergency program to supply five days of hay until ranchers could get on their feet.

UC Cooperative Extension also served as a one-stop location where ranchers could meet with representatives from multiple agencies to apply for assistance programs.

"We want to thank and recognize them for helping us in our time of need. We look forward to returning to our passion: managing and improving the land and continuing Ventura County's ranching heritage," Bigger wrote.

When rangeland burns, ranchers must scramble to feed their cattle. In Ventura County, UC Cooperative Extension stepped in to help after the Thomas Fire. (Photo: Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Posted on Wednesday, January 17, 2018 at 10:49 AM
Tags: cattle (18), Matthew Shapero (7), rangeland (31), wildfire (154)
Focus Area Tags: Economic Development

Videos show hikers how to avoid Black Friday stampedes on park trails

In a new series of videos, a cow puppet provides advice for hikers from UC Cooperative Extension on sharing open space with livestock.

While Americans traditionally beat a path to the malls the day after Thanksgiving, many opt out of shopping on Black Friday to enjoy the outdoors. In regional parks and other open spaces, hikers may encounter crowds of a different sort – cattle grazing with their calves. A 1,200-pound cow blocking the path can be daunting.

With a little patience and understanding, people who hike, bike and horseback ride can coexist peacefully with the cattle, according to Sheila Barry, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor in Santa Clara County.

For happier trails, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources has produced a series of videos that show hikers how they can amicably share open space with their beefy neighbors. In a two-minute video, a black cow puppet with a furry white face describes how to politely coax cows to moo-ove aside without spurring a Black Friday stampede.

“We wanted to produce videos that are entertaining as well as informative,” Barry said. 

The cow pun-filled video also describes the ecosystem services cattle provide by consuming nearly their body weight in plants. By grazing, cows manage the vegetation, reducing wildfire fuel, increasing water capture and promoting the diversity of native grasses and wildflowers.

In “Sharing open spaces with livestock,” the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources livestock experts give four simple tips for safely sharing open space with cows on the trail: 

  1. Keep moo-ving and speak in a normal tone. Sudden movements and loud noises may surprise cows.
  2. Approach cows from the side or front. They find it udderly unnerving to have someone sneak up from behind, the bovine blind spot.
  3. Steer clear of getting between a protective mother and her calf.
  4. If you need to move a cow, step slowly into its flight zone. Invading the animal's “personal space” will motivate it to mosey aside.

A second video, “Sharing open spaces with livestock when you have a dog,” gives advice for dog owners to keep their best friends safe around cows.

In a third video, “A year in the life of a cow,” the UC Cooperative Extension spokespuppet describes a typical year for a beef cow.

“The videos are a fun way to educate the public about grazing on rangelands,” said Stephanie Larson, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and rangeland advisor in Sonoma County.

The videos are based on the UC ANR publication “Understanding Working Rangelands,” authored by Barry and Larson, at http://ucanr.edu/shareopenspace.

Watch all three videos on UC ANR's YouTube channel:

Sharing open spaces with livestock https://youtu.be/Qd8LEGLDhaM

Sharing open spaces with livestock when you have a dog https://youtu.be/zzdGnfFwmcA

A year in the life of a cow https://youtu.be/znJbWknVXVg

Posted on Friday, November 17, 2017 at 8:48 AM
Tags: cattle (18), livestock (11), Sheila Barry (6), Stephanie Larson (11), Thanksgiving (9)

Impact of grazing livestock on public lands under drought conditions

Annual grasses on the range are very resilient, said UC ANR expert Sheila Barry. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
In a new report, the U.S. Forest Service said that drought conditions accelerate invasion of invasive plant species on grasslands in the West, leading to wind and water erosion, reported Tove Danovich in Takepart.com.

Poor management of grazed rangelands can "exacerbate the effect of drought," the report said.

The Forest Service identified the need to reduce cattle numbers on public land during a severe drought - in come cases to 50 or 70 percent of total carrying capacity, which is the number of animals the land can support before causing environmental degradation. Plants that have been overgrazed "are less able to recover after a drought," the report said.

For expert commentary, Danovich turned to a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) source. Sheila Barry, the livestock and natural resources advisor for UC ANR Cooperative Extension, said ranchers do have to reduce herd size in times of extreme drought.

Cattle that graze on the open range are usually finished at a feed lot. In the first year of drought, ranchers have the option of weaning cattle early to reduce demands on the land without reducing the herd size. In the second year of drought, ranchers have to consider cutting into their herds. "As soon as they do that," Barry said, "it can take up to eight years to build it back."

Posted on Thursday, February 4, 2016 at 3:32 PM
Tags: cattle (18), Sheila Barry (6)

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