Drought lessons from a sheep rancher

Drought lessons from a sheep rancher

August 28, 2014

Source: Brad Hooker, UC Davis

While a severe drought continues to devastate California agriculture, one sheep rancher in Oroville has found a centuries-old solution at the bottom of his wood stove — and researchers at UC Davis are paying attention.

After dumping ash from a weekend cookout in his backyard, Mel Thompson noticed the grass grew a little better. On the advice of Glenn Nader, a UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor based in Yuba City, Thompson took the initiative to research wood ash on his own, going as far as to establish a connection with an Oroville-based energy plant 20 minutes away, which was paying millions to deliver wood ash to the landfill.

Today, the difference in growth from that wood ash can be seen in two adjoining pastures on Thompson’s foothill ranch. One layered in ash three years ago has chest-high grass despite the drought, while the untreated pasture has considerably shorter ground cover.

While the benefits of supplementing crops with ash have long been known, the UC Davis researchers were interested in specifically how it was altering the soil composition to promote plant growth and how it could help other ranchers in this Northern California region.

“It has improved our feed production significantly,” says Thompson. “With that, in conjunction with fencing and the rotational grazing, we seem to be doing OK through this drought period.”

Ken Tate, a plant sciences professor and a Cooperative Extension rangeland watershed specialist, recently surveyed more than 500 ranchers and says Thompson falls into the roughly 5 percent of California ranchers practicing these types of strategies in hopes of gaining more productivity from their land.

“Mel is what we call an early adopter, someone who has a large toolbox and a lot of information that he makes use of,” Tate says. “He’s an innovator and experimenter in the industry.”

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