Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Stock Dog Biathalon

This week at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, we've been gathering cow-calf pairs in anticipation of doing pregnancy checks this Thursday.  I also needed to move our ewes and lambs on Monday evening.  Thankfully, I had my working partners with me - Ernie and Mo each took huge steps towards becoming accomplished stock dogs (that is, dogs who can herd both sheep and cattle).  This evening, I'm in awe of their heart, endurance and athleticism.  They truly are stock dog biathletes!

In both cases, I was moving mothers and babies (calves and lambs), which are probably the most difficult class of livestock for dogs to herd.  Good mothers (cows and ewes) want to protect their young - and so they'll fight the dogs.  My dogs have learned to be appropriately firm with a "stompy" ewe, but aggressive mama cows are another matter.  A dog needs a great deal of courage to stand his (or her) ground with a 1300 pound bovine bearing down on him.

The cow work was further complicated by the terrain.  Yesterday and today, we were working on gathering pairs out of a field formally called Forbes-2, but more affectionately known as Jackass Joes. It's a 600+ acre field that runs from the Yuba River up to Buzzard Peak - an elevation change of over 800 feet from bottom to top.  Part of the field can be covered on horseback; much of it is too steep even for horses.  Walking from the river to the top is strenuous for any dog; pushing reluctant cows to the top is intense.  Fortunately both dogs - and the horses I rode (Lulu yesterday and Rose today) were up to the task!

Looking down to were we started our ride.
Yesterday after "work," the dogs and I moved all of our ewes and lambs down the hill and across the road from where they'd been grazing.  Moving sheep pairs is further complicated by the fact that herding lambs is worse than herding cats!  Lambs haven't figured out that it's a bad idea to disobey the dogs yet - and the dogs know better than to get too rough with the lambs.  Moving sheep pairs takes more finesse than moving cattle pairs, and I wasn't sure my dogs could make the adjustment from one species to the other.  My lack of confidence was unfounded; the dogs handled the move perfectly!

Today, we went back to Jackass Joes to find some missing pairs.  This time, it was just me and the dogs (yesterday, one of my colleagues had ridden with us).  We found 5 pairs at the bottom of the pasture and started working them up toward the gate at the top.  The cows worked their way into a patch of brush and rock that was far too steep and densely vegetated for me and my horse.  I sent Mo and then Ernie ahead of the cows.  They stopped them, and after a brief period of intense negotiation, the dogs convinced the cows to turn around and take an easier route up the hill.

Like all athletes, my dogs know the importance
of staying cool and hydrated!
All of this work - and working both dogs together - has revealed several things about the strengths of each dog. Mo has an incredible amount of judgement - he knows where he needs to be at all times.  Ernie, on the other hand, has heart and courage - he stayed directly in front of a cow that wanted to clean his clock.  A few well-timed nips to her nose convinced her to turn around and head up the hill.

People who have never relied on their animal partners to achieve a piece of work are probably tired of me saying this, but working with dogs is an amazing experience.  Over these last 2 days, my dogs have proven that they'll try to do anything I ask them to do.  I couldn't ask for any better help!

Finishing yesterday's last chore!  Ernie's wondering when I'm
going to quit taking photos and start helping him!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Thoughful Stockmanship

One of the best novels I've ever read is Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry.  Here is one of my favorite passages - the narrator (Jayber Crow) is talking to a professor at the seminary he is about to leave:

“'You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time.' 
'And how long is that going to take?' 
'I don't know. As long as you live, perhaps.' 
'That could be a long time.' 
'I will tell you a further mystery,' he said. 'It may take longer.'” ― Wendell BerryJayber Crow
While Berry is talking about something much deeper (faith), I've found that this idea applies to my efforts to become a better stockman.  Whether I'm working with my dogs, herding sheep, riding or driving a horse or mule, or moving cattle, I find the process of learning - of observing, trying, adapting and responding to what the animals are telling me to be incredibly rewarding - for me, and (I hope) for the animals.

Steve Cote, who works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Idaho, has written another wonderful book entitled Stockmanship: A Powerful Tool for Grazing Lands Management.  He writes,
"The best handlers have the best attitudes. They watch, adjust, and constantly move to where the stock show them they need to be to get the job done right, all the time. 
"Put the same energy into learning and watching that you once put into chasing wild cows. No- body likes wild cattle, so why make them that way? Don’t tolerate wild ones. Change them by working them right. 
"Confidence in this method, backed with a little knowledge, will get things done right."
For me, these assertions capture the essence of stockmanship.  In many ways, I think, admitting that you don't know something and that you're still learning takes far more self confidence than insisting that you know what you're talking about.

Thoughtful stockmanship requires us to assume that if animals aren't doing what we expect or desire that they are trying to communicate with us (rather than misbehaving).  For example, if cattle won't go through a particular gate, a thoughtful stockman (or woman) tries to figure out why (rather than trying to go faster or yell louder).

Interspecies communication is complicated - especially when there are more than two species involved.  In my daily work at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, for example, I often ride a horse and use a border collie to move cattle.  Just think about all of the communication that has to happen in this scenario - the dogs are communicating with the cattle and with me.  The horse is also communicating with me and the cattle.  The cattle have to try to communicate with a horse, a human and a dog.  In all of these interconnecting networks, the human (me) is probably the least adept at understanding what the other species are trying to "say."  I have found that the faster I try to work, the more impatient I become - and and my ability to communicate suffers.

Which brings me to the pace of work.  I think one of the reasons that I find it difficult to work in a group of people with varying degrees of commitment to thoughtful stockmanship is that the pace at which I like to work seems slow (at least at first glance).  I don't try to get cattle (or sheep) moving - and keep them moving - at a brisk pace.  If I can get livestock moving, I release the pressure on them as a reward for their behavior.  To others, I'm sure that my backing off on the pressure seems to slow the work - to me, it seems to reward the livestock for doing what I've asked them to do.  Jerry Johnson, who cares for the UC Davis Animal Science Department cattle, talks about a former part-time employee, saying he never knew anyone who worked so slow and got so much done.  Going slow to work fast, in other words.

Finally, I use pressure and release from pressure to train livestock to move quietly and calmly.  Sometimes when working with others who don't use these techniques, I suspect that my colleagues see this release from pressure as timidity on my part.  However, I think stockmanship requires quiet confidence and an attitude of continuous learning.  The animals are always trying to tell us something; we must be thoughtful enough to understand them.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Different Year, Different Drought

Our continued dry weather and scant snow pack make it increasingly likely that 2015 will be another drought year in my part of California.  While conservation and prudent management mean that our own irrigation district (the Nevada Irrigation District, or NID) will probably make full deliveries this year, farmers and ranchers in other parts of the state aren't so fortunate.  And even with prospects for a "normal" irrigation season, we're currently dealing with the consequences of a dry January and February on our un-irrigated annual grasslands.
The contrast between grazed and un-grazed annual grasslands is
remarkable at SFREC.  I put these cow-calf pairs into this new pasture
just before taking this photograph.

The Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC), where I am the beef herdsman, has been monitoring annual forage production for over 30 years.  This year's March 1 measurement indicated that our forage growth is about 70 percent of normal for this time of year.  This beats last year's March 1 measurement (which was 58 percent of normal), but it doesn't tell the whole story (about either year).

Last year, we had no precipitation between early December 2013 and late January 2014 - in fact, we set a record for consecutive days without precipitation.  The autumn of 2014 was much better in terms of rain - we measured more rain in Auburn in December than we've measured since we moved there in 2001.  We had great germination in our annual grasslands, and by January 1, 2015, the green hills and oak woodlands that we graze (with sheep in Auburn, and with cattle at SFREC) were promising a better year for grass growth.
A ewe with new twins, grazing pasture that was last grazed in
November.  In a normal year, this grass would be much taller!

But then it quit raining.  We measured 0.01 inches of rain in Auburn in January.  SFREC fared a bit better - we got twice that much rain in Browns Valley!  And since we received around 3 inches of rain in early February, it's turned dry again.  As I write this, I'm seeing high clouds and a slight chance of rain in our forecast for tomorrow.

Getting back to the 70 percent of normal growth (about 475 pounds of grass per acre), this number represents our ungrazed standing crop of grass.  The pastures that we've grazed since January 1 seem to have stopped growing.  We generally expect to be able re-graze our annual grasslands every 30-35 days during the growing season (March to May), but we have yet to see the kind of recovery that makes me comfortable with regrazing.  Last year, because it rained in February, March and April, we had normal regrowth during this months.

Combined with the warmer-than-normal temperatures, much of our vegetation seems 20-30 days ahead of where it should be for early March.  The oaks have leafed out, the redbud and lilacs are blooming, and some of the annual grasses are headed out (making seeds).  By definition, annual plants must complete their life cycles (germination, growth, reproduction and death) within a year or growing season.  If it stays dry, I think our annual grasses will finish growing early.  In some ways, at least from a grazing perspective, 2015 may be tougher than 2014.
Native perennial grasses (like this purple needlegrass at
SFREC) can still be found in our foothill rangelands.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Farming Mythology

I'm currently teaching a course on natural resources conservation at our local community college.  Last week, we discussed sustainable agriculture.  I started with a group exercise, asking my students to describe a "factory farm" and a "sustainable farm."  Each group described factory farms as large, monoculture, corporately owned farms that rely on chemical inputs and that focus on global markets.  Each group described sustainable farms as diverse, small-scale, family-owned farms that are focused on local markets.  Having helped to teach beginning farming and farm business planning courses with our local cooperative extension office, I think these perspectives about farming are pervasive.  Many of the new, locally-focused farmers and ranchers in our community come to farming as a avocation as a rejection of their perceptions about large scale agriculture.  And I'll admit that my own approach to raising sheep is motivated in part by my desire to take a different path than conventional, large-scale livestock production.  But I'm beginning to think that some of our perceptions are based on mythology - that large is bad and small is good, that organic production (by it's very nature) is more sustainable.

First, contrary to what my students believe (as do, I suspect, most Americans), farming in the United States is still largely a family affair.  According to the USDA Economic Research Service, family-owned farms account for 97.6 percent of all U.S. farming operations, producing 85 percent of all farm production.  As with any complex system, family farming in the U.S. takes many different forms.  Again, according to ERS:

"Farms in the United States tend to be much larger and are operated differently than smallholder family farms in developing countries. Large U.S. farms are frequently run by extended families, with multiple owner-managers specializing in different parts of the farm business. Many large farms produce only a few commodities and often specialize in particular stages of commodity production. They often purchase the services of outside firms to handle some farm tasks (such as field preparation, chemical application, or harvest), relying on those providers for expertise, labor, and equipment. They may also rely on hired and contract labor in addition to the labor provided by the operators and their families. Nevertheless, most U.S. farms still rely primarily on labor provided by the farm family, and most large farms, which rely heavily on non-family labor, are still organized as family businesses. Family organization remains an essential feature of agriculture in the United States, just as it does throughout much of the rest of the world."
To bring this to a personal level, most of my friends who operate or work for large scale farming operations are part of family owned farms.  The sheep and grain operation I worked for last year would fall into this category.  At 3900 acres, it can hardly be considered small, but it is owned and operated by a husband and wife team.

The economic realities of farming (at any scale) have required all operations to increase labor efficiency.  For large-scale U.S. farming, many of these labor efficiencies have focused on technology and mechanization.  For small-scale "sustainable" farms, at least in my part of the foothills, these labor "efficiencies" have required the farm owners to work for less than minimum wage - in other words, many of us subsidize our operations by working for free at least part of the year (and often by holding down off-farm jobs).  I'm not sure either model is ultimately sustainable.

For me, factory farming has more to do with attitude than scale, ownership or crop diversity.  A factory acquires inputs, transforms these inputs through a manufacturing process, and sells out puts.  This can be accomplished at a variety of scales and regardless of ownership.

Sustainable farming, by contrast, involves the careful management of living systems and renewable resources.  Sustainable farming essentially requires us to combine living soil, sunlight, water and carbon in a way that sustains the biological, economic and social life of our farm, our community and our planet.  This also can be accomplished at a variety of scales and regardless of ownership.  That said, I think families who live and work in the communities where they farm ave better suited to this approach than corporate officers who are physically separated from the act of growing food.

In some ways, I wonder if American perceptions about factory versus sustainable farming are both directly related to our collective disconnection from the act of growing food.  When we demonize "factory" farms, we tend to forget that we want cheap food.  When we canonize "Organic" production (I capitalize the word to refer to certification rather than actual production practices), we forget that Organic farms can operate at a large scale and on the input-output model of a factory.

Returning to my own farming experience, I find that scale and efficiency have been critical to our efforts to be "sustainable." While I am proud of the attention we pay to the health of our soils and our animals, and of our role in our community, our inability to build our business to an economically viable scale (at least for now) suggests that true sustainability is an elusive (and difficult) goal.  And while social attitudes about food production are changing, we've not yet found a way to translate these attitudes into economic success for the types of farms we say want.  We have difficulty letting go of our myths!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Why a Lamb Becomes a Bummer (and What Happens Then)

Mo keeping track of our newest bummer lamb

If you raise sheep, at some point, you'll have a lamb whose mother won't - or can't - take care of it.  Sometimes we discover a lamb in our pasture that hasn't bonded with its mother.  Sometimes we have  a ewe that doesn't produce enough milk.  Sometimes we'll have a ewe with triplets who can only take care of two lambs.  On rare occassions, we'll have a ewe that dies during or after delivering a lamb.  We call these lambs bummers, and they eventually wind up in our kitchen!

Last night as I checked the flock, I found a ewe who had given birth to twins the previous evening whose udder was over-full and whose teats were overly large.  I call these "bottle teats" - they are too big for a newborn lamb to nurse on.  I observed the lambs (they seemed okay) and decided I'd wait until this morning to take any action.  This morning, the ewe's udder was still distended.  I caught her and put a halter on her (the first time she'd ever been haltered!).  After tying her to the fence, I stripped out her udder (in other words, I milked her by hand), capturing the colostrum to save for her lambs.  Sometimes stripping out an udder will relieve the pressure and help return teat size to normal.  In this case, it worked on the right side of her udder, but the left side was still a bit over-sized.  I released her and got her lambs up.  The larger, more vigorous lamb started trying to nurse immediately (and appeared to be successful).  Unfortunately, the smaller lamb seemed too weak to stand.  After completing the rest of my chores, I checked back in.  The bigger lamb was still active, while the smaller lamb was sleeping.  I checked the lamb's body temperature by putting my finger in his mouth.  He was cold, so I decided to leave the active lamb with the ewe and take the him home.
Dr. Macon and here newest charge!

Getting a bummer lamb warmed up is the first step!

This ewe's udder was distended, and her teats were too big
for her lambs.

It was slightly improved after
I hand-milked her.  Even with the
improvement, I opted to take the smallest lamb home.

My wife Samia is amazing with bummer lambs.  She's learned that before she tries to feed them (from a bottle), she must bring their body temperature up - a cold lamb can't digest milk.  Her first step is to wrap the lamb in warm towels, put it on a heating pad, and place it in front of our wood stove.  Once the lamb is warm, it will almost always take a bottle (on rare occassions, she'll feed it with a stomach tube).  We try to have some colostrum on hand for very young lambs.  For lambs that are up and going, Sami feeds a combination of sheep's milk (from a friend with dairy sheep), whole cow's milk, plain yogurt (for probiotics) and a raw egg (for protein and probiotics).  This recipe works well and is cheaper than commercial milk replacer.

As soon as possible, these lambs are moved outside with our home sheep - we want them to see other sheep being sheep (and more importantly, grazing like sheep) as soon as possible.  We'll typically wean these lambs at 8-10 weeks of age.  We'll also give them some supplemental grain - for some reason, bummer lambs just don't do as well on forage as naturally-raised lambs.

Wether lambs (castrated males) are marketed with our other lambs.  Ewe lambs, if they were triplets or if they were bummers through no fault of their mother's, may stay in our flock. And bummer lambs are great public spokes-sheep - they often visit schools, farm days, and other events.  Last year, one of our bummer lambs even starred in a photo shoot for Vogue magazine!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Why Shepherds Worry

Our flock of ewes started lambing last Saturday.  While I love this time of year (I've written previously that lambing season is like six weeks of Christmas), I also worry during lambing.  I try to limit my worrying to things I can do something about, but I'm not always successful at this!  I worry about having enough forage for the sheep at this critical time of year (especially during this drought). I worry about missing a lambing problem and losing a lamb or a ewe (or both). I worry about making sure the sheep have vegetation or other shelter during inclement weather (we don't have a lambing barn).  I worry about predators.  I worry about getting enough sleep!

I've realized this past week that one must actually be a shepherd to understand these anxieties.  About three weeks ago, I checked in with a homeowner in the area where we're grazing about the availability of a 15+ acre field that we wanted to graze on our way to other properties.  This landowner has been coordinating with his neighbors, and the field was critical to our plans.  With the dry weather we had in January, we needed to give our previously grazed pastures enough rest before grazing them again.  Even with the December rains, we only have about 50 percent of the grass we'd expect at this time of year.  The 10-15 days that this new field would support our sheep became a vital part of our grazing plans during lambing.  Through a miscommunication between neighbors, it turns out that this field was not available.  Had we known this three weeks ago, we might have hauled the sheep to another property; now that we're lambing, we don't want to put the ewes and lambs on a trailer (another worry).  The homeowner suggested that we simply skip around the neighborhood to lots with more forage - also difficult to do with ewes and young lambs.  In our pasture lambing system, long moves can often disrupt the bonding process between lambs and ewes. And so I worry.

When I went out to check the flock on Monday evening, I encountered a neighbor dog I didn't recognize.  He desperately wanted to get inside the fence.  Fortunately, my guard dogs were all over the situation.  I later figured out that he belonged to a neighbor several properties away. When the neighbor's young daughter came to retrieve the dog, I made sure that she understood what would happen if the dog came back (or worse, if I had dead sheep).  Neither she nor the homeowner where we had the sheep seemed to realize the extent of my concern - surely a sweet pet dog wouldn't hurt sheep!

Now I'm worried about the weather.  Over this weekend, the weather has turned colder (although we didn't get the rain that was predicted).  The sheep can handle inclement weather fine, even during lambing - if I'm prepared.  This weekend, our preparations meant that we moved the flock off the open hillside where they'd been grazing (and where there was still more grass) into a wooded pasture that offers shelter from the wind and rain.  I moved the ewes that hadn't lambed first, along with the ewes that had older lambs.  The newest "pairs" followed along more slowly, and in some cases I carried the lambs while their mothers followed behind.  A move that would normally take five minutes took more than an hour.  And I always worry about lambs getting mixed up when we move; I remained with the sheep until I was certain that every lamb was with its mother.  I find that non-shepherds don't understand the attention to detail and planning necessary for raising sheep.  As Ivan Doig writes, "To be successful with sheep, even when you're not thinking about them, you'd better think about them a little."

As frustrating as the lack of understanding of non-shepherds can be, I've also been comforted by the understanding and friendship my fellow shepherds (and stock people).  I was at a meeting on Thursday from which I needed to depart early to get back and check the sheep.  There were several other shepherds at the meeting, each of whom was entirely understanding.  Today, I postponed a trip to look at some ewe lambs we might purchase because I was worried about the weather.  Again, the rancher I was planning to visit understood my desire to put off the trip for another week.

All stock people, I think, understand this sense of worry.  We cope with uncertain markets, unreliable weather, and all sorts of other challenges (man-made and natural) because we love what we do.  Those of us who are good at it (and those of us, like me, who are striving to become good at it) will always worry.  I guess worry is part of being a shepherd!

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Lucky Guy

I might get in trouble for posting this picture!  I wish I knew who the artist is (perhaps somebody who sees this will know).  My friend Jeannie Hodges, who is the mother of my best friend from elementary school, posted this on my Facebook timeline today. Her comment was, "reminded me of your life."  Later in the day, as I was walking through a group of cow-calf pairs to make sure they hadn't trespassed into one of the research plots at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC), I thought about the picture, and Jeannie's comment.  I realized how lucky I am to be doing the work that I do.

When I made the decision to apply for this job, in some ways it felt like an admission that I'd failed as a sheep rancher.  While I love the work of caring for grazing animals like nothing else I've ever done, I've never been able to make a living doing it - until now.  My motivation for starting to ranch was to produce food for my community from the rangeland landscapes that I loved.  While I still enjoy the direct interaction that this work gives me with people that love to eat the food I produce, I've realized that my true passion lies in husbandry - in caring for livestock and for land.  I'm a stockman - or as my new title at SFREC indicates, a herdsman.

Today's workday was a snapshot of why I think I'm lucky.  This morning, I saddled one of the SFREC horses and rode through a 300+ acre pasture where we're grazing a group of heifers.  The fog lifted as we rode, making for some incredible scenery.  At the top of this particular pasture, I can see the Sierra crest, including the Sierra Buttes at the headwaters of the Yuba River (which runs by SFREC).  We returned to headquarters in time for a barbecue lunch that all of us contributed to producing.  After lunch, I hauled protein tubs to cow-calf pairs, checked on several groups of yearling steers, and drove a 1952 jeep out to check the research plots I mentioned above.  My afternoon partner was Mo, one of my border collies who (like me) is learning to herd cattle as well as sheep.

After "work," I headed out to the pasture where we're grazing our sheep, along with Mo's half brother Ernie and my retired sheepdog, Taff.  The ewes are due to begin lambing in the next 4-5 days, so I walked through the flock slowly to check on the health of the ewes.  We then drove to another property to check on a small group of yearling ewes.  Since we still had daylight, I decided to do a bit of schooling with Ernie.

All of this returns me to the picture that Jeannie posted on Facebook.  All afternoon, I thought of the things that John (Jeannie's son, and my best friend as a kid) enjoyed doing together.  Most of what we did was outdoors.  I realized how fortunate I am to still be spending my life outdoors in the foothills where I was raised.  I'm a lucky guy!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Herding Cultures

While today is Saturday (a day off for most), I went in to my new job to help move 300+ heifers into fresh pasture (complete with bulls!) this morning.  Ranching, even on a university research station, is rarely a 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday job - the heifers needed fresh feed TODAY!  With four of us horseback (and two of us with dogs), and the rest of the crew on ATVs, the 3-mile drive went smoothly.  After finishing my "paying" job, I came home and set up fence for the sheep.  I realized as I was working this afternoon that traditional herding cultures - shepherding, cowboying, etc. - are extremely appealing to me.

These traditions require practitioners to live extremely close to nature.  By necessity, we must watch the health of the land and of our animals.  If the grass is too short, the animals need to move.  If the animals are in need, we must care for them.  If the rains don't come, we must adjust our management.

In our own sheep operation, and in my new job, I've embraced modern technology.  I have an iPhone.  I'm writing this piece on my iPad.  I use a laptop computer.  All of these have made my job as a stockman and a grazier more efficient and effective.  But I've also embraced traditional tools.  Without my dogs and without my desire to understand livestock behavior, I couldn't manage rangeland.  Without the horse that I ride at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, I couldn't get a true picture of rangeland condition and forage growth.  Many of the physical (as opposed to virtual) tools and techniques that I use are hundreds (if not thousands) of years old.

As we completed our mini cattle drive this morning, I was able to talk stock dogs with one of the riders who joined us.  My dogs are used to working sheep, but we're learning how to transition to cattle.  I realized, as we rode and talked, that I have a lifetime of knowledge to gain about my profession.  I'm thankful that there are still people to learn from!  I'm thankful to be part of a herding culture!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

How will we know when it's over?

As I write this on Sunday evening (February 8, 2015), my rain coat and my winter work coat are both drying.  This weekend marks the first time I've needed rain gear since before Christmas - so far, we've measured nearly 2.75" of rain since Friday afternoon.  While it's less than was predicted for Auburn, the rain is a welcome departure from our record dry January.  But our drought continues - even with a record-setting December, we're behind normal.  And there's very little snow in the Sierra Nevada.  From where I sit, there doesn't seem to be an end to our Big Dry.

Droughts are different than other weather phenomena for several reasons.  With big storms, we usually have some warning - as we do with heat waves.  With drought, however, we don't know we're in one until well after it's started.  The calendar year 2013 was the driest on record for our part of California - we measured just over 10 inches for the entire year.  Since California almost always experiences a summer "drought" - we rarely receive any rainfall from June through October - the dryness snuck up on me.  Looking back at my writing from 12-14 months ago, I started to realize that we were facing serious drought conditions in December 2013.  By January 2014, we were in the midst of the longest winter dry spell in recorded history.  About 12 months ago, we started selling sheep to make sure we weren't overstocked on our grazing land.  Today, I've taken a full-time job as the herdsman at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) - in part because we don't have enough sheep to generate a full-time income.

December 2014 was quite different than December 2013.  With more than 11 inches of rain, we received more precipitation in December than we did in all of 2013.  However, when we drove to church in the rain on Christmas Eve 2014, I had no idea that it was the last significant rain we'd receive until last Friday.  In addition to being dry, January was exceptionally warm.  The blue oaks in Auburn, which typically don't come out of dormancy until early March, already have their new leaves.  Some of our annual grasses are already going to seed - at least 45 days early.

The uncertainty about a drought's beginnings is matched by the uncertainty about it's termination.  Meteorologists tell us that we need 150-175% of "normal" rainfall to end our drought, but we won't know if we've achieved that benchmark until after it's happened.  For me, this uncertainty brings a psychological cost.  Uncertainty engenders worry - will we have enough spring grass for the sheep (and for the cows at SFREC)?  Will we have enough stored water to irrigate our pastures this summer?  What will next fall bring?  Our current weather also makes me wonder about longer term issues - is this the new "normal" weather pattern?  Can we expect extended winter dry periods punctuated by brief periods of inundation?  When will this drought be over, or is this what we can expect in the future?  While I'm waiting to find out, I guess I'll just enjoy this weekend's stormy weather!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Here We Go Again

Thanks to the rain we had in November and December, we have substantially more green grass at the end of January 2015 than we had a year ago.  But with virtually no rain since Christmas Eve, even with much warmer-than-normal temperatures, grass growth has come to a standstill.  Since our December storms were relatively warm, there is very little snow in the mountains (and very little water in our reservoirs).  I can't help but thinking we're in for another year of severe drought.

From 2013 to 2014, we reduced our sheep numbers by nearly 40 percent because of the drought.  With a new full-time job, we've reduced our flock even further this winter; we're now grazing just over 80 ewes.  Since I'm working full time at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, we're trying to arrive at a flock size that allows us to move sheep on the weekends (in other words, we want to build big enough paddocks to give us enough forage to last 80 ewes for 7 days).  Because of the lack of moisture, we're not seeing much regrowth.  We'd normally expect to have 120-160 sheep-days of grass per acre at this time of year (which means a 4-acre paddock would last our flock 6-8 days).  We seem to have about half this amount of forage at the moment - a 4-acre paddock lasts 3-4 days.

We're still anticipating that we'll sell another 25-30 ewes, but since we'll start lambing in about 3 weeks, the window for selling these ewes is closing rapidly - I don't like to haul ewes that are just about to lamb.  We'll likely lamb out at least 60 ewes this spring.  If it stays dry, it means we'll either build larger paddocks on the weekends or we'll move sheep during the week.

Even though our water district (the Nevada Irrigation District) has done a great job of conserving water and planning ahead, I'm getting worried about what the summer irrigation season may hold.  With virtually no snow in the high country, we may be looking at reductions in water deliveries.

Finally, the warm temperatures seem to have everything out of sync.  We have blue oaks starting to leaf out (in January!).  At home, we have daffodils blooming - at least 30 days earlier than normal.  A friend called this week to tell me he'd seen/heard sandhill cranes flying north - again, at least 30 days early.

A fourth year of drought feels like uncharted territory to me.  While I'm hopeful we're going to get some rain next weekend, I find myself wondering if warmer, drier winters are the new normal for us. I hope not!