Database goal is to bring grazers, landowners together


Issue Date: September 4, 2019
By Ching Lee

With growing concerns about wildfires and interest in ways to prevent them, the University of California Cooperative Extension is developing a statewide database that would help connect livestock owners who could provide grazing services with landowners who need vegetation management.

"We laugh about it being more like a dating service where everyone has their own profile," said Stephanie Larson, the UCCE livestock range management advisor in Sonoma and Marin counties who is a lead on the project.

The impetus for the database system, she said, grew out of increased demand in her region for grazing services, adding that her office alone has received at least 25% more calls in recent months from people looking for grazers who can perform weed-abatement services.

"It started in Sonoma because of our fire," she said, referring to the 2017 Tubbs Fire that burned parts of Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties, and at the time was the most destructive wildfire in the history of the state.

That fire not only raised the community's awareness about wildfires, but got people talking about the "need to do something for vegetation reduction," Larson said, adding that she's "always been pushing people to graze."

"The fire got their attention, and now we're providing them information: This is what grazing is, this is a tool. Here's some folks in your area who can provide these services," she said.

Though landowners tend to think of goats for weed abatement, Larson said she's trying to "educate folks" about how sheep and cattle may be used in certain projects.

The UC database would be a three-tiered system, Larson said, with the first tier for the "neighborhood graze," using smaller-scale producers with a few animals who are willing to graze small parcels. This could be a project for 4-H or FFA members, she said, "something that the students could learn from." Those with smaller parcels also could join and scale up, allowing the same grazer to work multiple parcels in the same neighborhood or community, she added.

She described the second tier consisting of actual targeted-grazing companies, producers with trucks and trailers who specifically provide grazing services and are paid to do it.

The third tier would be livestock producers who traditionally lease land for grazing. Larson said she envisions matching those producers with landowners who want to reduce vegetation on their land but don't necessarily want to pay to have it done. With the growing shortage of grazing land, she said the database could help ranchers find suitable ground for leasing.

Larson said UC is focused on building the grazers list first and has received responses from about 75 producers interested in being in the database. She said she hopes to have the website up by early next year. Though UC is developing and hosting the website, she said other details have yet to be worked out, including who will manage it, how to determine who goes on the list, whether there should be a certification process and if the website should have a user-review/comment section.

"I'm willing to manage it, but it's not my list to own," Larson said. "I don't want to be in the middle deciding who goes where," adding that she wants the website to be "fluid," allowing people to upload their own businesses.

To get the word out and to invite feedback, she has reached out to groups including county Farm Bureaus, California Wool Growers Association, California Cattlemen's Association, the Range Management Advisory Committee, Fibershed and CropMobster.

Erica Sanko, executive director of Wool Growers, said the association in recent years has seen more requests from private landowners, municipalities and other public agencies seeking grazing services.

"There are more projects for targeted grazing than our current members can provide at this point," she said. "They say there is definitely room to expand and there's opportunities for other producers to get involved in targeted grazing as a service."

The increased demand for grazers is not limited to projects related to wildfire mitigation. Sanko noted a "significant jump" in vineyards looking to sheep and goats to manage vegetation due to the cost and availability of labor. Demand in Lake, Sonoma, Napa and San Luis Obispo counties has "skyrocketed," she added. Sheep and goats can get into areas such as steep hillsides that mechanical equipment cannot, she pointed out, and grazing livestock also provides nutrients back to the soil.

With more land being converted to crops such as trees and vines or urban development, Sanko said finding forage has become a growing challenge for ranchers, and targeted grazing offers them an option. Some producers see targeted grazing as a way to diversify their business, giving them another potential income stream and adding value to their operation, she said.

Though the Wool Growers' website maintains its own directory of producers who offer targeted-grazing services, that directory lists only its members. The association also does not "serve as an intermediary," Sanko said, nor does it categorize producers based on their size. The website also offers a "clearinghouse" where potential clients could list project proposals for grazers.

Billie Roney, a rancher who runs cattle in Butte, Tehama and Lassen counties and serves on RMAC, said she supports UC's effort to "link up" landowners and ranchers who could do grazing. She noted that regulatory restrictions that limit grazing on public lands and predation issues have made it more difficult for ranchers to find grazing land.

Cattle will generally need to graze larger acreages, Roney said, "and it's probably not next to a bunch of homes." Commercial operations also focus on producing meat, Sanko said, and those producers are more mindful of forage quality so not to negatively affect their animals' body condition, whereas targeted grazers know they are providing a specific service such as clearing an open space.

For contract grazers who want to advertise their services on the UC database, go to: ucanr.edu/matchgraze. For landowners who are looking for grazers, go to: ucanr.edu/needgrazers.

(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.