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Grass, Water, and Warmth

Folks who don't raise grass (not that kind of grass!) and harvest it with grazing animals, I suppose, probably think we ranchers are always complaining.  We never have enough rain, except when we get too much. The rain doesn't come at the right time, or in the right place. The grass is washed out, or it matures too early. The summer heat shuts down our irrigated pasture growth, but we want warm soils in the fall to get the grass started. In other words, to the uninitiated, we ranchers are never happy!

Seeing ourselves through others' eyes, I think, is helpful. At a holiday party, a friend told me that her husband couldn't quite figure out why I was so worried about winter rain - and why I couldn't enjoy a "beautiful" sunny day in December. While I'm a worrier by nature, I think worrying about the weather is natural for anyone who relies on Mother Nature directly. That casual conversation planted the seed for this brief explanation of how our rangelan…
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Good Riddance! And Thank Goodness for Sheep!

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, 2017 seemed at times to have an apocalyptic feel to it. We experienced extreme political dysfunction at home and abroad. We saw Nazis marching openly in American cities. We watched the world inch closer to nuclear war. The natural world, in which many of us (myself included) find solace, joined in the "fun" - from extreme storms to extreme wildfires, earthquakes to mudslides, volcanic eruptions to drought. In California, we had one of the wettest years on record - and one of the worst fire seasons. We also had one of the hottest summers in my memory, and one of the driest Decembers. I'll admit there were times during 2017 when I wondered when the locusts or raining frogs might appear. I'm glad it's nearly over!

I suspect that the political upheaval we experienced here in the United States - and elsewhere around the the globe - is at least indirectly related to the changes we're seeing in our climate and environment. The …

New Normal?

If the weather forecast for the rest of the month is accurate, we'll receive less than one inch of precipitation this December when the month ends on Sunday. Since we live in a Mediterranean climate in the northern hemisphere, we expect December to be one of our rainy months (and in the 16+ years we've lived in Auburn, we've averaged nearly 7 inches of rain in December). This average, however, masks the variability in our December precipitation - in 2011, we measured just 0.10 inches; in 2005, we had 13.48 inches. During our recently concluded (?) 500-year drought (2012-2015), we received between 0.50 inches (2013) and 11.62 inches (2014). Extremes, it seems, might be our new "normal" weather.

As a rancher who relies on the grass that Mother Nature provides, this variability presents challenges for grazing our annual grasslands. For a variety of reasons, we don't (can't!) irrigate these grasslands - the grass we harvest with our sheep from November throug…

Preparing for Christmas

Like most of my readers who celebrate Christmas, I'm in the midst of preparations for the upcoming celebration. I'm nearly done with my shopping (earlier than normal, for me). We finally picked out our tree last weekend - we'll decorate it once Lara is home from college tomorrow. We've decided on our Christmas dinner menu and begun assembling the ingredients. But unlike most of my readers, I suspect, we're also spending time planning out our sheep grazing strategies for the coming weeks. I've come to realize that these preparations are part of the traditions that I cherish.

As with all ranchers, our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day include chores - feeding the horses, mules and sheep at the house, gathering eggs, and feeding the dogs. We also must check the sheep and feed the livestock guardian dogs at our rented pastures (the ewes are currently about 7 miles from home; the rams are 3 miles away). The ewes are (hopefully) pregnant, but their nutritional demands …

Lucky... and Worried

One of the things I enjoy about serving on the board of the California Wool Growers Association (I'm currently the vice president) is the chance to catch up with fellow sheep producers from all over California at our board meetings. And as with most conversations among ranchers, the talk inevitably turns to weather and forage conditions. Weather and grass (and their effects on the market) it seems, are the variables that unite sheep ranchers large and small. After yesterday's board meeting in Woodland, I've realized that we're extremely fortunate to have green grass in our pastures near Auburn this December; I'm also concerned that the current stretch of dry weather might be the front end of another drought.

Board members who raise sheep in the San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast reported yesterday that the grass hasn't started where they are - they simply haven't had enough (or in some cases, any) rain. These reports match my own observations from a trip…

Never Far Away

I suppose that for anyone who has weathered an historically severe storm (or lack of storms, as the case may be), the memory of that climatological disaster is never far back in the recesses of memory. The farmers and ranchers who survived the Dust Bowl years were haunted by its memory. The farmers and ranchers who survived this year’s hurricanes will remember these events for the rest of their lives. These kinds of calamities are turning points and mileposts - life after will never be the same as life before. And so it is with my own memories of the 2012-2015 drought. It’s the event that has come to define my mid-life. 
When people ask me how many sheep we have, I invariably compare the size of our operation today with its size before the drought. Before the drought, I thought of myself as a rancher who worked part-time in town. After the drought, I’ve become a full-time cooperative extension farm advisor with a part-time sheep operation. My experiences - selling sheep, scrambling to …

The Day Mae Grew Up

As some of you may know, Mae is my youngest working dog. She's also the first female border collie that I've started, and the only border collie that I've trained entirely on my own. She's been an easy, thoughtful and trainable dog from the beginning - very different that the male dogs I've started. Don't get me wrong - Mae has her quirks, and like most border collies (and many humans I've met), she gets in trouble when she has time off. She likes to stare at the horses and mules at our home place. She enjoys barking at the leaf blower (which she learned from our older dog, Mo). But she's nearly always made good decisions when we're working sheep. And today, (as she's approaching her second birthday), she showed me that she's grown up. She's ready to take on more responsibility in our small sheep operation.

While today's work didn't involve a long move or a big gather, it was reasonably technical. We needed to gather a 4-acre pa…