Heavy rains produced higher than average grass and weed fuel loads in many Northern California areas this year, causing landowners, municipalities, businesses and non-profit organizations to search for options, such as contracting with sheep and goat owners to help reduce fire danger through prescribed grazing.
Thirty-six inches of rain fell between November 2018 and March 2019 in the greater Santa Rosa area, as reported by UCCE Sonoma County. This amount of water stimulated seasonal grass and weed growth reaching heights of five feet or more in some North Bay locations that normally see growth of only a foot or two in an average season. Late rains in May will also increase perennial vegetation growth this year.
When rains end, rising temperatures will dry grasses and brush, raising the possibility of another major wildfire year – unless steps are taken to reduce the risk.
Six of the 10 most destructive wildfires in California history occurred during the last 18 months. In 2018 alone, 43,255 wildfires were reported nationwide, burning approximately six million acres, the highest number of fires since 2012.
Many populated areas, including 22 in Sonoma County and 27 in Marin County, have been designated as “communities at risk of wildfires on non-federal lands,” defined as places within 1.5 miles of areas of high or very high wildfire threat as determined by the California Department of Forestry Fire Protection’s Fire and Resource Assessment Program (FRAP).
Compared with brush and tree blazes, grass fires can erupt into “flash burns” that move rapidly in high winds, such as the 80-mph gales experienced in the Tubbs, Nuns and other fires that ravaged large portions of Lake, Napa and Sonoma Counties.
Today, animal grazing is seen as a more sustainable, environment-friendly method for the controlled harvesting of overgrown vegetation. Ruminants (animals that chew the cud and have a three or four-part stomach) also create breaks that can limit fires from leap-frogging from undeveloped land to at-risk homes and businesses in communities close to the Wildland-Urban Interface.
Targeted grazing for fire prevention is seen as a more environmentally-safe way to remove grass, when compared with chemical methods, controlled burns or mechanical abatement, which could
trigger out-of-control wildfires when metal hits a rock producing a spark.
Grazing animals have been part of fuel load reduction efforts for years in California and other western states. Sheep and goats can navigate difficult terrain, especially where grades exceed 50%,
and also where mechanical cutting, or those using weed whackers, would be hard pressed to do the job – or too expensive.
A straw poll of those leasing grazers shows a significant uptick in demand this spring, following years of vegetation growth that has increased fuel loads dramatically.
With 550,000 sheep and 90,000 goats (non-dairy or Angora) in California, based on the 2019 USDA census, the state is in a unique position to use these grazers as tools in its fuel abatement arsenal. The cost of removing downed wood and heavy debris is not cheap, but grazers can reduce an acre of high grass to near ground-level stubble in about a day at less cost. However, as demand increases, fees for grazing services are trending higher.
Sheep and goat contract grazing can be a lucrative business. Herders in this category range in size from sole proprietorships, with small flocks of 50-60 animals that can handle one grazing project at a time, up to mega operations involving thousands of animals assigned to multiple locations. Fees per acre range from under $200 to $900 or more, with volume discounts available for multi-acre, multi-client projects.
Sole Proprietorship Goat Grazing
Paigelynn Trotter, an insured livestock operator and service provider based in Tomales, offers vegetation management services in Sonoma County and surrounding areas. Together with her 60
goats (Spanish, Boer and Alpine crosses) and a border collie named “Briar,” she has managed her own grazing business for three years.
Trotter moves her does and kids daily to new paddocks to graze acre-size lots. If the location is more than a few miles from home, she brings a travel trailer to park close to the hot wire goat
enclosure to keep a close eye on the flock, protect them from predators like coyotes and to provide supplemental nutrients as needed.
Recently she brought her herd to a riverfront in Petaluma. While much of this parcel is almost level and can be mechanically mowed, grasses surrounding the property are over four feet tall, ideal for goat grazing.
“We work year-round, but the service we provide is in high demand in spring and early summer when annual grass varieties are still in leaf with seed heads animals love to eat. My flock eats just
about everything. Invasive plants such as Yellow Star Thistle, Italian Thistle or Pepper Weed are species goats prefer, while sheep often prefer grasses.”
As a child, Trotter loved animals. She had access to horses and eventually bought one of her own. Later she took a job taking Yosemite National Park visitors on guided horse trips and also worked as a professional pack mule driver transporting supplies to high sierra camps. She earned a degree in Sustainable Agriculture at Santa Rosa Junior College.
“SRJC has a great program at Shone Farm and is now starting a grazing school to help students get started in this business as part of its focus on environmental horticulture and animal science that also includes a summer academy.”
Trotter charges from $250-$850 per acre, depending upon a dozen different project-related factors. Overhead expenses include goats, insurance and equipment, but the biggest project expenditures are transportation and labor.
“Goats can cost $300 to $400 each, more than the $200 price for a retired dairy goat, but far less than the $800 to $1,200 paid for show quality animals. Does can live 12 to 20 years, and can be bred between eight and 12 times, providing a decent return on investment. Another major overhead item was a 20-foot stock trailer.”
She enjoys being part of a sustainable business that is good for communities at risk of wildfires as well as good for her flock and the environment.
“On big projects, I collaborate with other grazers that have 300 sheep or more. It’s good to have a mixed flock for large grasslands.”
Large Scale Sheep Grazing
At the upper end of the contract grazing spectrum are nonprofit firms such as the KAOS Sheep Outfit, also known as “Fibershed,” operated by Robert Irwin in cooperation with its founder Rebecca
Burgess, specializing in large-scale projects. Fibershed serves Mendocino, Lake and Colusa Counties.
Robert, Jaime and Claire Irwin have been in the (Australian Corriedale) sheep grazing business for five years. Their flock has averaged 6,000 to 7,000 animals and is getting bigger, including 4,000 ewes and feeder lambs. They employ five shepherds, have 53 guard dogs and transport flocks using two trucks and trailers.
“A critical factor today is whether you are too small for big jobs, or too large for small ones. We focus on volume deals involving larger tracts of land where several adjacent clients chip-in to pay a
minimum $10,000 fee. We strive to get communities to work together in a plan where local entities share the expense,” Irwin said. “Our biggest challenge is finding animals to do the work. This year we have 12,000 sheep — and that may not be enough!”
“Our flock grazes in vineyards and along utility rights of way, such as Button Canyon in Lake County. While vineyard owners using narrow row tractors can plow each block with one or two passes,
our sheep in these vineyards can save the owner about $150 an acre to take care of what’s left.”
Irwin works with vineyards (after April 1), on utility and pipeline rights of way and walnut orchards (for 45 days starting June 1) and cuts fire breaks from July to September. The season comes to an end in October when lambs are born and picks up again from December through February. Volume discount fees range from $500/acre for 20 acres, to single-acre quotes from $350 to $650, depending on terrain and other variables.
According to Irwin, his fees are half the cost of conventional cutting and removal methods, resulting in a saving of $300 to $400 per acre over mechanical and manual options.
“If you are good at what you do, you’re busy, but if you are too busy, it may be hard to keep up. We’ve narrowed our model to focus on repeat business. However, if you have too many sheep, you
might still experience losses. We’ve debated whether or not to cut back. In this line of work, if you make one major wrong decision, you wouldn’t be in this business anymore. You’ve got to keep your future business pipeline line full all the time to be successful.”
Volume projects produce economies of scale, such as not having to transport different numbers of sheep to a variety of locations, consolidating herders and guard dogs in one area, not having to
remove and set up hot fences in many isolated regions, among other benefits.
“We saved 1,100 homes in the Valley Fire using sheep to remove fuel loads in Hidden Valley Lake. Having worked the 2015 fires successfully, we had an obligation to come back. People were glad that we did in the years that followed.”
Public/Private Sectors Use Grazers
City governments in Ukiah, Petaluma and elsewhere as well as fire departments in the North Bay use grazing animals. Other entities, such as the U.S. Forest Service (in the Los Padres National Forest), East Bay Regional Parks, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley and the Nature Conservancy do the same. Many others have joined a growing list, including vineyard operators, land management firms, utilities (PG&E and pipeline operators), homeowners associations and major employers, such as Keysight Technologies.
Keysight Technologies Experience
Keysight Senior Vice President Hamish Gray said his company has been using grazers to reduce ground fuel loads around the firm’s Fountaingrove campus in the hills east of Santa Rosa for more
than a decade. He said grazing animals were a contributing factor helping to prevent Keysight’s buildings from being destroyed during the 2017 wildfires.
“In the past, we contracted with Living Systems Land Management for sheep and this year used a new local vendor based in Sebastopol, called Chasin Goats Land Management. Over the years we
have had from 250 to 1,200 animals on site.”
Prior to this, Keysight’s landscaping team would weed whack and mow, but these methods introduced fuel and generated heat, dust and noise that bothered neighbors and employees while
creating its own fire risk. It was also difficult for Keysight’s team to work in rough terrain.
Gray observed that, in general, sheep eat nose-down, while goats eat from the ground up to as high as they can reach on their hind legs. They can also climb trees. He said they are efficient grazers.
Rather than laying cut vegetation down in the field, they consume it as they go.
He said using sheep and goats provides the same fire control. “Sheep do a fine job on grass and when we want shrubs and trees to remain relatively untouched are present. Goats are better at clearing shrubs and small trees that we don’t want. Our neighbors and employees tell us they love seeing and hearing the animals.”
Gray said the use of grazers is part of Keysight’s vision to build a better planet by employing a global framework of ethical, environmentally sustainable and socially responsible operations.
Pepperwood Preserve Fuel Model Research
At the 3,200-acre non-profit Pepperwood Preserve in the Mayacamas Mountains off Mark West Springs Road, 95% of the property was burned along with several buildings during the 2017 firestorm.
“We endorse grazing to control fuels in ways that avoid overgrazing. We have 150-head of Black Angus cattle and prefer them to goats because they don’t graze as close to the ground,” said Lisa
Micheli, Ph.D., President and CEO. “For more urban settings, goats are great. When I was a student living in the Berkeley Hills, I remember seeing herders come with their animals to graze local regional parks.”
Thanks to support from the Flora L. Thornton Foundation, Pepperwood has teamed with Tukman Geospatial to create a fuel model and other indicators of fuel loads prior to, and in the wake of, the 2017 fire season.
When this research is completed, the model will provide a basis for more regular updates with forest and climate data moving forward. The new fuel model will provide a higher spatial resolution
than existing, publicly available fuel models, giving CalFire and other agencies a more accurate tool for addressing the need to remove high fuel loads in critical areas.