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The no-tech way to preserve California’s state grass

Purple needlegrass, pictured here in the foreground, once dominated the state's grasslands. Today, California has lost most of its grasslands, and the needlegrass occupies only one tenth of what remains. Photo by Loralee Larios, UC Riverside

Disappearing native is like an environmental Swiss Army knife

Though it is disappearing, California's official state grass has the ability to live for 100 years or more. New research demonstrates that sheep and cattle can help it achieve that longevity.

Purple needlegrass once dominated the state's grasslands, serving as food for Native Americans and for more than 330 terrestrial creatures. Today, California has lost most of its grasslands, and the needlegrass occupies only one tenth of what remains.

It is drought resistant, promotes the health of native wildflowers by attracting beneficial root fungi, burns more slowly than non-native grasses and speeds the postfire recovery of burned lands. For these and other reasons, many who work toward habitat restoration hope to preserve the needlegrass.

A researcher measures the size of an individual grass clump to assess its health. Photo by Loralee Larios, UC Riverside

“Where it grows, these tall, slender bunches become focal points, beautiful as well as environmentally beneficial,” said Loralee Larios, a UC Riverside plant ecologist affiliated with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. “However, identifying successful management strategies for a species that can live for a couple hundred years is challenging.”

To meet that challenge, Larios teamed up with University of Oregon plant ecologist Lauren Hallett and Northern California's East Bay Regional Park District. They tracked the health of nearly 5,000 individual needlegrass clumps over six years, including an El Niño rain year as well as historic drought.

The researchers took measurements of plant health including growth and seed production. They placed small bags over many of the grass clumps to capture the seeds and quantify the number of seeds they produced.

Their findings, now published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, were that purple needlegrass did better in places where sheep were allowed to graze. The positive effects of the grazing were amplified in times of wetter weather.

Previously, the park district spent a decade trying to assess the success of its grassland maintenance techniques. However, the district's method of applying a strategy like grazing, and then measuring the percentage of needlegrass clumps in a given area resulted in data that didn't follow a discernable pattern from year to year.

“By tracking each plant over time, rather than scanning broadly across an area, we gained much more clarity about how the grass responds to the grazing,” Larios explained. “Perhaps counterintuitively, we saw that the needlegrass generally died back when sheep weren't allowed to graze on it.”

When sheep were removed from the study sites, the needlegrass in all but two of the sites became less healthy. The researchers would like to learn whether the two sites that remained healthy have needlegrasses that are genetically distinct.

Plant ecologists Loralee Larios, UC Riverside, and Lauren Hallett, University of Oregon, monitor purple needlegrass in Northern California. Photo by Stella Cousins, University of Michigan

Grazing is a controversial strategy for grassland restoration. Some conservationists believe sheep eating the target grass, particularly during already stressful drought years, does not enhance their survival. As far back as the 1800s, some researchers hypothesized that the combination of grazing and drought resulted in the loss of perennial grasses.

Though drought was not beneficial for any of the plants in this study, the researchers believe grazing helped needlegrass survive in at least two ways. One, by trampling on leaf litter and other organic debris, sheep created space for new needlegrass to grow.

“Sometimes you get litter that's as deep as a pencil — so much dead, non-native grass piles up. It's hard for a little seed to get enough light through all of that,” Larios said.

Secondly, sheep eat non-native grasses that generate growth-suppressing debris and compete with purple needlegrass for resources.

When the Spanish colonized California, they brought forage grasses like wild oats that they thought would benefit cattle. Those introduced grasses spread, and now dominate the state's grasslands.

“Our grasslands are known as one of the world's biggest biological invasions,” Larios said.

California has as many as 25 million acres of grasslands, equivalent to the combined areas of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Though Larios does not believe it is possible to rid the state of all non-native grasses, she said it is possible to maintain or even increase the amount of purple needlegrass.

“It's great for carbon storage, which mitigates climate change, it doesn't serve as wildfire fuel, and cultivates a space for wildflowers that pollinators are then able to use,” Larios said. “We want to keep all those benefits.”

Posted on Thursday, September 22, 2022 at 10:38 AM
  • Author: Jules Bernstein, UC Riverside
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Environment, Natural Resources

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 (20), Laura Snell (4), Lynn Huntsinger (7), rangeland (30), sheep (10), Van Butsic (12), wildfire (167)
Focus Area Tags: Environment

Madera farmer says feeding sprouted grain to sheep improves milk quality

Hydroponically grown sprouts at six days old. (Photo: Dan Putnam)
A Madera farmer is sprouting barley hydroponically inside shipping containers on his farm to produce feed for his sheep, reported Ezra David Romero on Valley Public Radio.

“I think that's a big advantage if you don't have a lot of land,” the farmer said. “You can produce a tremendous amount of feed in a very, very small area with a very little amount of water.”

However, UC Cooperative Extension alfalfa specialist Dan Putnam noted in the story that the system may not pencil out.

"If you really apply a little bit of economics to it and animal nutrition to it, it doesn't appear quite as promising as one might think," Putnam said.

There is no question that animals find the sprouted barely delicious. Online videos show cattle and horses "gobbling up sprouted grain like a vegetarian at a salad bar," Putnam wrote in a 2013 blog post that asked Does hydroponic forage production make sense? Things are not always as they seem. Animal ration calculations are based on dry matter since water is provided separately. 

"A feed with 90 percent water (such as sprouted grain) has considerably less 'feed value' than something with only 5 percent water (such as the grain itself), on a pound for pound basis," Putnam's blog post says.

Feeding sheep sprouted barley makes sense to Mario Daccarett, the owner of the Golden Valley Farm. He said cheese made from his sheep's creamy milk is sold in places like Whole Foods.

"They have our cheese there and they tell me that our Golden Ewe cheese is the best for grilled cheese sandwich ever, and they have over 500 different varieties of cheese there," Daccarett said.

The farmer feeds his sheep one part oats and hay and one part sprouted barley.

“You do the math and you say, 'Well, yeah, it might not work,' but once we started doing it we found out that sheep tend to eat less, more nutrition, more enzymes,” Daccarett said. “So they become more efficient.”

Posted on Friday, June 24, 2016 at 2:55 PM
Tags: Dan Putnam (14), hydroponic (1), sheep (10)

UC sheep shearing school prepares students for gainful employment

Ewes waiting for shearing at the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center Sheep Shearing School. (Photo: Evett Kilmartin)
Sheep shearing is like a dance. It requires strength, flexibility, a tender touch and the right moves. Once mastered, the skill can open the door to gratifying and high-paying seasonal work.

“I tell my sheep shearing students, ‘You'll never be unemployed,'” said John Harper, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor in Mendocino County. “And you'll never be poor.”

Shearers can earn $50 to $100 per hour, Harper said, and can start a business with a $3,000 investment in equipment.

“If they can learn how to shear sheep correctly, it's a great little business to get into,” Harper said.

The need for skilled sheep shearers in California and other parts of the nation has prompted the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center to host an annual sheep shearing school, where a diversity of students are introduced to a trade that allows them to work with their hands, out-of-doors, when and where they want.

Although sheep shearing is traditionally a male occupation, Harper said he encourages women to take the course.

“Women have a lower center of gravity. Strength is important, but so is hip rotation,” Harper said. “The sheep's skin is very loose and the blades are pretty powerful. The female students tend to be more cautious and we see fewer nicks.”

Beatrice Thomas, 41, is a typical student.

“I came to sheep shearing by way of dance and the arts,” Thomas said.

She left her Bay Area desk job about a year ago. “There wasn't a mind-body connection,” she said. “Forty hours at a desk, my body was aching.”

But sheep shearing was a completely different experience.

“This doesn't hurt the same way as sitting at a desk, because it feels vital. Every move is important. There's a dance. There's a rhythm. My whole spirit lit up,” Thomas said.

The 5,200-acre Hopland Research and Extension Center is home to a flock of about 1,000 sheep, which provide opportunities for scientists to study their role in land management. They also serve as a ready supply of animals for prospective new shearers to learn the craft.

“We teach students how to shear in a way that ensures the welfare of the sheep, produces a quality wool clip, and keeps the shearers safe,” Harper said. “We received a grant from the National Sheep Industry Improvement Association to purchase new shearing equipment. This allows the students to learn with brand new, state-of-the-art combs, cutters and hand pieces.”

The annual sheep shearing school at Hopland is the only intensive five-day course in the United States, said Hannah Bird, community educator at the research center.

“It brings people from all over the country and sometimes outside the country,” she said.

The week together helps build camaraderies amongst the newly trained sheep shearers. Hopland sheep shearing alums have created a Facebook group to stay in touch and refer jobs to one another. Several previous students are making a living a sheep shearing. One is Stephany Wilkes, a 2013 sheep shearing student who now runs her own sheep shearing business from San Francisco.

“People always ask me, ‘How can you run a sheep shearing business and live in the city?'” Wilkes said. “But there are actually a lot of sheep in the Bay Area, in Marin County, Solano and Yolo. I shear in Hayward and as far south as Gilroy. I go can go anywhere a car can.”

Lead instructor Gary Vorderbruggen said a key to sheep shearing success is a calm demeanor.

“Sheep don't need to be riled up. If you can be calm, and be safe, you will gain speed with experience,” Vorderbruggen said. “It's no different than a dance. It's like a square dance, except you're doing that square dance with an unwilling partner.”

Joining Harper and Vorderbruggen instructing the class in 2016 was Trevor Hollenback. He was first exposed to sheep shearing when visiting a friend's sheep farm in Austria.

“I realized this is a really skilled craft. It's amazing,” Hollenback said.

Hollenback quit his desk job and traveled to New Zealand for training, then returned to the Austrian farm for more practice. Back in the United States, Hollenback opened his own business and began shearing sheep in California and Arizona. He was tapped to be the instructor at Hopland because of his formal training in New Zealand.

“One of the most important things that the students can take away from this course is going to be sheep handling, how to move the sheep around, how to control the sheep on the board,” Hollenback said. “A lot of students came here with very little background in livestock. Footwork, positions, getting the pattern down – all the finer points in shearing – that comes with practice.”

The week-long sheep shearing school at Hopland will be held again in spring 2017. The class typically fills up within two hours of opening registration. Register interest on the UCCE Mendocino website to be notified when registration opens.

View scenes from the 2016 Sheep Shearing School at Hopland in the video below:

Posted on Tuesday, May 31, 2016 at 8:24 AM

'Wild and wooly' sheep shearing class held at Hopland

Sheep shearing is hard work, but has rewards.
Many sheep shearing students said the process was "the hardest thing they have ever done," reported Glenda Anderson in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The newspaper ran a lengthy feature and a photo gallery of the annual sheep shearing school held at the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center this week.

Reporter Justine Frederiksen of the Ukiah Daily Journal also reported on the sold-out sheep shearing and wool classing training at the 5,300-acre Mendocino County research center.

“And 60 percent of these people had never even touched a sheep before,” said John Harper, UCCE advisor and shearing school leader. Nearly all the students were women and included an artist from San Francisco, a retired fire chief, a UC Davis graduate student, and a woman who was learning to shear ahead of travels to New Zealand “because I think it will be a good skill to have for work, in case I want to stay for a couple of months.”

“One of the things new students have the most trouble with is what we call ‘tipping' the sheep, or flipping them over,” Harper said. He explained that, to get the sheep into the ideal starting position, you need to push its back legs down with one hand and tuck its head in with the other, twisting the animal into a sitting position with all four legs dangling.

UC Hopland REC sheep shearing students are part of a new wave of sheep shearers and wool enthusiasts industry officials hope will reverse decades of disinterest and decline. The shearing classes were booked well ahead of time, said Hannah Bird, a community educator at the research station. Many students are seeking a break from city life or jobs tying them to a desk.

Wrote reporter Glenda Anderson, shearing sheep is sweaty, back-straining work that earns just $2 to $5 per sheep. But an expert sheep shearer taking part in the program said sheep shearing for a living has its benefits.

“It's a lifestyle thing. I could work six months a year and travel around the world,” paying for the travel by working here and there, he said.

Posted on Friday, May 13, 2016 at 5:04 PM

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