Targeted grazing helps lessen wildfire threat


Issue Date: July 13, 2016
By Ching Lee
Bianca Soares, project manager for Star Creek Land Stewards of Los Banos, checks on a herd of sheep and goats the operation is using to reduce overgrown vegetation at Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve in the Oakland hills. Public agencies and other landowners are increasingly turning to livestock grazing as a method to prevent fires and manage land.
Photo/Ching Lee
Star Creek Land Stewards uses goats for grazing to work on taller bushes and trees.
Star Creek Land Stewards uses dorper sheep, a South African breed that sheds its coat during the summer, to graze grasses and lower bushes.

Greater amounts of rainfall last winter and spring created more vegetation and fuel for fires. That has kept firefighters busy—as well as grazing sheep and goats.

Livestock ranchers who contract their animals for targeted grazing say demand for their services has risen, especially as wildfires burn in different parts of the state.

"We certainly have seen an increase in inquiries," said Andrée Soares, who runs Star Creek Land Stewards in Merced County, a commercial sheep and goat operation that specializes in contracted grazing.

Though her business is based in Los Banos, Soares said her animals don't see the home ranch during their grazing season, from February through August, with most of the grazing work in the Greater Sacramento and San Francisco Bay areas. Currently, she has six different herds grazing in five counties.

The majority of her business is with public agencies, but she noted that more private landowners are now reaching out to her and are considering using livestock as part of their land-management solution.

At Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve in the Oakland hills last week, two separate herds, each with 400 head, were expected to work the grounds for 10 to 15 days, said Bianca Soares, Andrée's daughter and Star Creek project manager. Each herd is managed by a herder at all times. With that size herd, the animals typically can mow through the vegetation at about 1 to 2 acres per day.

"They're really going to town," Bianca Soares said as the sheep and goats chowed through dense shrubs and other overgrown grasses on the park hillside.

She noted that sheep and goats work on different types of vegetation, with the sheep taking down the grasses and lower bushes, while the goats work on the taller bushes and trees. This helps not only to prevent fires by controlling undesirable vegetation, but also encourages growth of native plants, she said.

Because many of Star Creek's herds are already committed to multiyear contracts, the animals are not always available to take projects, although two of the herds are reserved specifically for on-the-spot requests. Star Creek typically won't take jobs with fewer than 5 acres, unless the property is contiguous with another project. Other factors that must be considered include cost of transportation, physical access to and from the site, and water availability for the livestock.

"Our business is really focused on a service," Andrée Soares said, "and so we seek out those contracts and provide a service. It's a little bit of a different model than the commercial sheep business."

Christina Elgorriaga Etchamendy, whose family runs sheep in Kern, Kings, Fresno, Merced and Madera counties, said she has received more calls lately from landowners who need grazing services. She said while her family would love to get into this side of the business, they are first and foremost commercial sheep producers and many of the projects that have come along simply did not pencil out.

"It boils down to: Is it cost-effective for the operation to have an employee there?" she said. "Is there enough acreage, is there enough feed? Because every time you move (the sheep), you're paying a trucking bill."

Her brother, Stephen Elgorriaga, said there are many other factors he has to consider, but labor is the big one. With the wages he has to pay, he said he can't justify keeping a herder with a small group of animals. It's also been more difficult trying to bring herders from South America through the H-2A temporary-worker program, Elgorriaga Etchamendy pointed out, and that makes short-term projects impractical. Projects with just a few hundred acres, Elgorriaga said, are "not worth the trouble unless you can charge them an exorbitant amount of money."

The quality of the feed on a property also has to be considered, he said, noting that sheep will not eat certain plants.

"You can't just turn the livestock out there and expect them to do well or maintain themselves on something that's a nuisance for someone else," he said.

This late in the year, when much of the vegetation has dried, using mechanized mowers could actually start fires, said Mike Canaday, who operates Living Systems Land Management in Coalinga. That makes livestock grazing all the more appealing, he added.

His sheep and goats graze throughout the state, with most of the work coming from municipalities, homeowner associations and companies with large swaths of land. The animals travel in groups of 450, and each of the eight groups has a herder staying with it. Canaday said he typically won't take a job for less than $2,500.

He said although he's been getting more calls about his services, they haven't necessarily resulted in more business this year.

"A lot of people see the fires and they know they've got to do something, but they don't really have the money this year, so they put it in the budget for next year," he said. "When we get a lot of fires, sometimes we don't see the business until the next year."

But the increased vegetation this year has resulted in more work, he added, as it is now taking his herds longer to thin weeds and brush.

The current fire season also has not brought new grazing business for Merced County sheep rancher Jon Amparan—but he noted he doesn't advertise for this type of work, as it is not the focus of his operation. Amparan has a few existing contracts with private landowners on smaller parcels, and he said he's been able to make those projects work because the properties are fenced off and therefore don't require a herder there full time.

"In order for it to be beneficial, it's got to have enough feed on it to work," he said.

What he would like to see, he said, is for more public lands to be grazed, noting that sheep once were used much more in the Sierra Nevada for land management, but much of it now sits idle.

"I think that's why we're having such big fires and things are out of control, because there hasn't been as much fire prevention taken," Amparan said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.