According to USDA’s Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin, the greater Sacramento area saw an average of roughly five inches of rainfall during the early winter and spring months this year, which is down 40% compared to other years. For ranchers like Bret Ellis, owner of the East Sheridan Vernal Pool Preserve, their management of the land relies heavily on the rain season.
“April showers are critical,” Ellis explained. The preserve is covered in vernal pools and seasonal wetlands, and not only do these wetlands provide important habitat for different species, but they also encourage the cattle to move around the land to evenly graze the 370-acre property.
The preserve was conserved in conjunction with Wildlands Inc. in 2005. The goal of the conservation easement is to protect the numerous vernal pools and swale that can be found on the property. The management plan for the preserve stipulates that the land be used for dryland cattle grazing to ensure that the health of the vernal pools is maintained. Vernal pools are important because they serve as an essential breeding ground for certain species of wildlife, like the endangered California tiger salamander.
In 2018, Ellis purchased the preserve with the easement on the property. He bought the land to utilize it for grazing his cattle during the months of December to early June. Since he has purchased the property, the amount of standing water that is typically on the land within the vernal pools has dramatically decreased due to the lack of rainfall that California has seen over the last few years.
“As a rancher, you kind of hope that this dry season is just a passing period, then eventually we can get back to normal,” Ellis said. For years, ranchers have seen the ebb and flow of dry periods followed by a wet season; each time they are hit with a dry period, they adapt and change their practices to make sure that they maintain the sustainability of their land and livelihoods.
For Ellis, he adapts to these dry seasons by cutting down his cattle numbers and shortening the amount of time the land is being utilized. In years with average rainfall, the cattle are typically removed the first week of June to allow for regrowth for the next winter grazing period. This year, Ellis moved his cattle a month earlier to protect the land from overgrazing and to ensure that his cattle are getting the necessary nutrients to maintain their health and decrease the risk of overgrazing.
This trend is common among our California Rangeland Trust ranching partners. Many have had to resort to smaller cattle numbers to be sustainable on their land. Rangeland Trust Rangeland Stewardship Specialist, Mikie McDonnell, has been monitoring the Rangeland Trust’s over 80 properties under easement for the last year and she has seen a dramatic change in forage growth on the land.
“There just is not the growth that ranchers need to keep their cattle on the land without the risk of overgrazing,” McDonnell explained. “As much as a rancher needs the land to be successful, the land needs the rancher to keep it viable for years to come.”
“It is what it is, and you just have to use what you know to move forward,” Ellis stated. These changes that our ranchers are having to make, further show the resilience that ranchers have. Between the changing cattle prices, deadly wildfire seasons, and drought, ranchers have had to adapt and learn on the spot to continue to keep our open spaces beautiful and our mouths full.