January Morning

January Morning

Saturday, January 14, 2017

39 Days

Heads down and grazing - and plenty of grass! Just what every shepherd likes to see 39 days before lambing!
Based on simple math and observation, our ewes will start lambing roughly 39 days from today. I say roughly because the gestation period for sheep varies from 145 days to 155 days - that's where the math applies! We turned the rams in with the ewes on September 29, so the earliest the ewes could lamb (according to my calculations) is February 22. My observations today tend to support this prediction - the ewes look pregnant!

We vaccinate the ewes four to six weeks before they lamb, which allows them to transfer some of the immunity they gain from the vaccine to their lambs. We also trim their feet - generally the wet winter weather makes their feet soft and easy to trim. And it's our last chance to assess their general health and condition before they start to lamb. As you might imagine, with the tremendous fall grass growth we had, the ewes look great!

Now we enter the calm before the storm (more or less). With the ewes in the last trimester of their pregnancies, their forage consumption has increased. In essence, we've increased our stocking rate by 60 percent without adding any additional sheep. In other words, the ewes are consuming 60 percent more grass because they're eating for 2 (or 3 - or 4)! Our work in the next 39 days will consist of moving the ewes a bit more frequently than we have been - the same size pasture will last them fewer days than it did in December. Despite these more frequent moves, however, this is a pretty easy time (compared to the intensity of lambing). We're cruising until lambing begins in 5-1/2 weeks.

Cruising doesn't mean we've shut of our brains, however. We're constantly thinking about where the ewes are now relative to where we need them to be at lambing. At this stage (without lambs at their sides), we can graze the ewes on open pastures even during stormy weather. Since we pasture lamb (without barns or other man-made shelter) we try to save pastures with tree cover for lambing. This means we're giving a great deal of thought to our paddock moves during the next 39 days.

All farming and ranching operations are marked by milestones - planting and harvesting; breeding and lambing. Between these major events, there are minor milestones - and today we passed one of them. Vaccinations mark our last preparations for lambing - preparations that started when we selected replacement ewes 18 months ago. These preparations continued as we determined which of the older ewes should be sold last summer when we weaned our lambs. They continued in August when we mouthed and bagged the ewes (checked their teeth and udders). They continued as we fed canola meal to the ewes to get them ready to breed - and when we turned the rams in with the ewes. Now, we've done everything we can do to ensure a healthy and plentiful lamb crop in 2017.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Ready for the Storm

With apologies to Scottish singer/songwriter Dougie McLean.... If you haven't heard his song by the same title - be sure to check it out!

If we can believe the weather forecasters (and I have far more faith in the forecasters than I do in the local TV news anchors who tend to overstate inclement weather), we're facing quite a series of wet storms in California over the next week or so. The latest forecast map from the National Weather Service (below) predicts that we'll get between 6-9 inches of rain over the next 6 days here in Auburn. With the rain we've had already, our soils are completely saturated - which means most of this precipitation will run off. And so my work this week (outside of my paying job) has focused on preparation - on getting ready for these storms.

First, I want to provide a perspective on the media's obsession with big storms. Like many of my ranching and farming colleagues, I chuckle at the "storm of the century" headlines and melodramatic newscasters that dominate our local media at present. But my friend Joe Fischer offered a different perspective today (thanks to his wife, Abbie). Abbie reminded Joe (and Joe reminded me) that most folks don't share the direct connection with weather and the environment that we do - as a rancher, I have to care for my sheep, regardless of the weather - and so I've become pretty adept at dealing with all kinds of weather. Abbie suggested that the media has to make a big deal about this kind of weather - or people are likely to do stupid (and dangerous) things.

In our own preparations, we first try to anticipate the needs of our sheep. We make sure that we've got plenty of grazing ahead of them - quality forage, and enough of it, is crucial to their well-being. Since the sheep (and the guard dogs that protect them) are living on annual rangeland at this time of year (without access to barns), we make sure that they have trees, brush and topographical features for shelter. We pay attention to where our fences run - and check them frequently. Wet and windy weather tends to blow down temporary fences and  "prune" our native trees - which sometimes results in branches that drop on our fences. And we make sure that our sheep are grazing on hillsides and high ground - away from creeks that might rise rapidly if we get as much rain as predicted.

Since most of our sheep are grazing properties at some distance from our home place, we think about access as well. I have a pretty good idea where we might see flooding from creeks that cross the roads between home and pasture. I pack a chainsaw with me - just in case there's a tree over the road when I'm headed out to do chores. And I plan for contacting landowners where our sheep are grazing in case we can't reach the pastures to feed the guard dogs.

We rely on portable electric fencing to contain our sheep and help repel predators - these fences are powered by energizers that run on solar-charged 12-volt batteries. During the short days of midwinter, cloud cover can keep the solar panels from charging the batteries - and a dead battery means a dead fence. Consequently, we make certain we have a spare battery available for each group of sheep going into extended cloudy weather.

Closer to home, we've also made preparations. Since we heat our home with wood, we make sure we have plenty of dry firewood and kindling close to the house. Sami braved the crowds at the feed store (Echo Valley Ranch in Auburn) to make sure we have plenty of hay (for the sheep we have at home), chicken feed and dog food. And earlier this week, I spent my evening filling sandbags to protect our garage and shop from runoff from the county road (our house sits lower than the road, so heavy rain can swamp our garage and shop).

As a kid, I read all of the Little House on the Prairie books - and I used to pretend that I was preparing for a tornado or blizzard (which never actually happened in Sonora, where I grew up!). I have to admit that I get an adrenaline rush out of preparing for crazy weather - even if it doesn't actually materialize. I'll probably lose some sleep this weekend worrying about it - and I'll probably still get a chuckle out of the media coverage of the storm. But I'll also take comfort know I'm as ready as I can be for the coming storm. Stay warm and dry, everyone!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Memories of 1997 - and a look ahead at the coming week

This all happened 20 years ago, so my memory is a bit hazy - but here's what I recall about the New Years Flood of 1997. According to my friend Matt Echeverria, there was nearly six feet of snow at Lake Tahoe on Christmas Day 1996. By New Years Day a week later, the entire snowpack at lake level had disappeared - washed away by a week's worth of Pineapple Express storms (what forecasters 20 years later would call "atmospheric river events"). Steve Danna, another friend who farms in southwestern Yuba County, suffered tremendous property damage when a levee broke on the nearby Bear River. I definitely remember seeing the high water line in his farm shop building - it was 18 feet high! And I definitely remember Steve telling me that they found melon bins bearing the Danna name in San Francisco Bay a month after the flood.

Closer to home, the front page of our local Auburn Journal featured a photograph of the American River from the Highway 49 bridge on the way to Cool - the water was lapping at the roadway. When I drove down to the bridge a day or two later, I was startled to see several large logs stranded on the upper portion of the nearby No Hands Bridge. The force of the water must have been incredible.

I haven't had time to research the actual rainfall totals that led to the 1997 flood, but I read a forecast today that suggested that the storms headed for California may exceed the 1996-97 event in terms of total rainfall and snowfall. Indeed, the forecast precipitation for the next 10-day period is the wettest this particular forecaster had ever seen. He indicated that the potential ranged from "'major flooding' all the way to possible 'EPIC FLOOD.'"
Looks like we're gonna get wet this week!

California's history shows that drought sometimes ends with flooding. In their 2013 book The West without Water, B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam write of the 1861-62 flood that ended nearly two decades of dry years. Surveyor William Brewer noted that some areas in the Sierra Nevada received  60-102 inches of rain. Nevada City (just up the road from us) measured more than nine feet of rain that winter - normal precipitation is around 55 inches. Brewer was amazed that the two-month rainfall totals in some locales was more than two years of rainfall in his typically wetter hometown of Ithaca, New York.

Who knows whether this round of storms will be as intense as predicted! I have noticed that short-term forecasting seems to be much more accurate in 2017 than it was even twenty years ago - especially when it comes to estimating total precipitation from individual storms. I guess we'll know in about a week - but the rain we're supposed to get in the next 7 days would exceed our total precipitation from February 1, 2013 through January 31, 2014 (a 12-month period in which we measured less than 10 inches of rain). We'll see!

In the meantime, we're getting prepared. The sheep are on good pasture with plenty of sheltering trees and terrain. The woodshed is full of dry firewood, and the barn is full of hay (for the horses and the home sheep). We'll probably put sandbags in front of our garage and shop to keep runoff from flowing through. And we'll keep an eye on the weather....

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Flipping Back to the Beginning

Just before we moved from Penryn to our current place in Auburn in 2001, I started keeping a weather diary. It's a green, hardbound book with one page for every day of the year - and with no year on it. On nearly every day since I started keeping it, I've recorded the day's weather (usually minimum and maximum temperatures, precipitation, and sky conditions) and other observations on one or two lines. And every January 1, I flip clear back to the beginning. Since the first day of the new year marks a regular milestone, I especially enjoy looking back at my entries for January 1.

Since New Years Day is just a couple of weeks past the winter solstice, the temperatures I've recorded over the last 17 years are typically on the cold side (at least for the Sierra Foothills). The coldest low I've noted since 2001 was 21 F in 2015. The warmest high was 62 F in 2012. In 2004, I noted that it was a "wild windy and rainy day" - and I recorded 0.45 inches of rain in the previous 24 hours. The most rain I've recorded on this day in the last 17 years was 0.80 inches in 2005. In 2009, according to my note, the New Year came in "foggy and cold."

I also try to make observations about the birds we see at this time of year. In 2001, I saw robins, juncos, flickers and white crowned sparrows. In 2002, our first winter in Auburn, I saw hooded mergansers on our pond and a bald eagle flying overhead. In 2004, I noted "lots of robins in garden."

Some years, we get out of the house on New Years Day. In 2001, we hauled our horses to Empire Mine State Park in Grass Valley. In 2003 (when Lara was 6 and Emma was less than a year old), we stayed the night at Sami's folks' house in Granite Bay (because we'd gone to a casino night party at the home of some friends from our church). In 2013, we went to Yosemite Valley with my sister and her family. Last year, we went snowshoeing in Truckee.

This year, the weather is cold and grey. We're supposed to get rain later this afternoon - and maybe a little snow overnight! As usual, I barely stayed awake until 10 p.m. last night. I started my day with a great walk. After my sheep chores (feeding the guard dogs and moving the rams), I came home and started making a new batch of sheepherder bread. I'm not one to make resolutions, but I do intend on baking bread once a month in the new year - we'll see! Later this afternoon (after a nap!), I'll take Mae out to the back pasture for a training session with the handful of sheep we have at home. Tonight, perhaps, we'll play a game or watch a movie - all in all, a pretty low-key New Years Day!

As a rancher, weather is so much a part of my day-to-day life. Obviously, the drought of the last 5 years has had a profound impact on our business and on our lives - in some ways, I suppose, my nearly completed master's degree is just one of the consequences of these dry years. As I get older (this April, I'll turn 50) I find that I my memory of the conditions of previous years requires me to record my observations - I can't remember the weather last month, let alone 17 years ago!

The physical nature of keeping a handwritten weather diary, I think, heightens my awareness of the passage of time. Last night, as I thumbed to the back of the diary to record the conditions on December 31, 2016, the weight of the pages preceding that date was noteworthy - even more so tonight when there are no pages preceding my entry!

My best wishes to all for 2017!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Sheepherder Bread

My family traditionally gathers at my folks' place outside of Sonora on the day after Christmas. This year, we opted for a random potluck dinner - every person could bring whatever dish they wanted to bring (making it entirely possible that we'd only have dessert)! It worked out great - we  had barbecued turkey (the first one my niece Sara ever cooked), several potato dishes, barbecued flatiron steak, several types of salad, and my own contribution - sheepherder bread.

I've been a very infrequent baker in the past - I love homemade bread, but rarely take the time to make it myself! I found a very simple recipe on the NPR website (of all places) for bread that would have traditionally been made for Basque sheepherders - just flour, water, sugar, butter, salt and yeast. The fun thing about the recipe (at least for me) is that it recommends a 12-inch Dutch oven rather than traditional bread pans.

After finishing my sheep chores on Christmas Day, I mixed the dough and let it rise by the woodstove. After kneading it a second time and placing it in my Dutch oven (I oiled the inside and put a circle of aluminum foil in the bottom), I let it rise some more. As indicated by the recipe, I placed the covered Dutch oven inside our kitchen oven at 375. After about 12 minutes, the loaf had risen enough to push the lid up! I removed the lid and baked the bread for another 30 or 35 minutes (until the top was golden brown and the loaf sounded hollow when I thumped it). I removed it from the oven and turned the Dutch oven upside down (hoping it didn't stick). It slid right out!

On Monday evening, we sliced the 12-inch round loaf in half, revealing a beautiful white bread inside. I suspect the cast iron that surrounded the sides and bottom of the loaf helped it bake evenly. Even with 12 of us eating it, we had plenty left for sandwiches and toast the next several days. It was outstanding!

So now I'm motivated! I'm hoping to bake bread at least once a month. I'm going to experiment using 2 smaller Dutch ovens (10-inch instead of 12-inch). I'm also going to experiment with honey (instead of sugar) and with other types of flour. And someday, I want to bake this kind of bread in an outdoor oven - sounds like another project!

In the meantime, here's the recipe I used this time around: 

Prize-Winning Sheepherder Bread

During the winter months, herders would live in sheep wagons, which contained a stove and an oven. They baked their own bread in a Dutch oven, buried in the coals from sagebrush or aspen wood fires, with a tight-fitting lid and a bale handle.
Richard Lane/Courtesy Basque Library at the University of Nevada, Reno
3 cups very hot tap water
1/2 cup (1/4 lb.) butter or margarine
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 tsp. salt
2 packages active dry yeast
9 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Salad oil
In a large bowl, combine hot water, butter, sugar and salt. Stir until butter is melted; let cool to about 110 degrees. Stir in yeast; cover and set in a warm place until bubbly, about 15 minutes. Beat in about 5 cups flour to make a thick batter. Stir in about 3 1/2 cups more flour to make a stiff dough. Scrape dough onto a floured board. Knead until smooth and satiny, 10 to 20 minutes — adding as little flour as possible to prevent sticking. Place dough in a greased bowl; turn over to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled — about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch dough down and knead briefly on a floured board to release air. Shape into a smooth ball. With a circle of foil, cover the inside bottom of a 5-quart cast iron or cast aluminum Dutch oven. Grease foil, inside of Dutch oven, and lid with oil. Place dough in Dutch oven and cover with lid. Let rise in a warm place until dough pushes up lid by about 1/2 inch, about 1 hour. (Watch closely.) Bake, covered, with a lid in a 375-degree oven for 12 minutes. Remove lid and continue to bake until loaf is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.
Remove bread from oven and turn onto a rack to cool. You will need a helper. Peel off foil and turn loaf upright. Makes one very large loaf.
Source: From the Sheepcamp to the Kitchen, Volume II

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Day Before the Day Before Christmas

As I write this at the desk in our kitchen, a cold rain is falling outside. Both the calendar and the weather suggest that Christmas morning is just around the corner. I can hear the woodstove ticking in the other room - I just added a piece of Douglas fir to the fire. I was awakened this morning by a phone call from one of our landlords - the rams and the guard dog were grazing in her backyard (not where they were supposed to be). I threw on some warm clothes, put the dogs in the pickup, and headed out to do chores. Now I'm home - a belly full of breakfast and my second cup of coffee in my hand.

I am usually very healthy, but for the last week and a half, I've been fighting first a cold and then the flu. I'll admit that I have difficulty doing nothing - 10 days of feeling under the weather makes me extremely restless! That said, I wonder if being sick is a reminder that I need to slow down on occasion. The short days and long nights of early winter reinforce this reminder - and help me recharge my batteries. The only other task on my agenda for today is to haul water to the rams at some point - I think I'll spend the rest of the day indoors reading and enjoying my family!

Raising livestock often means that we're outdoors in all kinds of weather. The well-being of the animals always comes first. Sometimes, this means we're building electric fence and moving sheep in the midst of a driving rain. But sometimes, like today, we only need to feed the guard dogs and walk through the sheep. Sometimes, we get to stay inside by the fire! Merry Christmas, everyone!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Almost Done

I took a final exam today - just like my oldest daughter. Feels kinda strange to say - but we're both on winter break! And it feels pretty good!

I've been chipping away at a master's degree in integrated resource management via an online program from Colorado State University for almost two years. Lara, on the other hand, is completing her first semester at Montana State University in Bozeman. She's flying home tonight for the Christmas holidays; I drove home from my my office. For the next three-and-a-half weeks, I'll only have to work and take care of sheep; maybe I can get Lara to help me with the latter!

Earlier this week, I learned that my major professor will accept a research paper I did for one of my classes this term as satisfying the requirement for completing a professional paper. Upon completing this morning's final, I'm just two classes and 6 units away from having my master's degree. Wahoo!

As I reflect on going back to school in my extremely mid-forties, I've realized that in some ways, I'm still the same kind of student I was in my early twenties. In other ways, however, I've changed immensely. When I was first in school (at UC Davis in the late 1980s) I was driven to get good grades. Exams, for me, were like an athletic contest - I wanted to win (actually, I wanted to kick ass)! Today, my competitive drive is tempered by the knowledge that exam results do not necessarily equate to knowledge. In other words, I put slightly less pressure on myself.

I've also found that I have a much more sensitive bullshit meter than I had as a younger person. When I was 20, I figured that my professors probably knew more than I did. Now that I'm almost 50, I'm not so certain about this. Most of my classes at Colorado State have been outstanding; one or two have been dreadful. Perhaps the biggest change in my perspective, however, has been the fact that the dreadful classes don't bother me as much as they would have when I was 20!

Finally, tonight I'm celebrating the end of the semester much like I would have during my first round of college - I'm having a beer! Cheers!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Sheepherding at Christmastime

As a kid (and I suppose, as an adult), my favorite month was (and is) December. Many of my friends dread the shorter days and the early darkness; I've always appreciated the wintry days and long nights. Perhaps it's a bit of zen-like appreciation - I appreciate more the gradually longer days and growing light after the solstice because of the darkening days leading up to the first day of winter. Part of my enjoyment, I think, relates to the approach of Christmas - and as a kid, I always enjoyed the season of advent. And having grown up going to Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, the version of the Christmas story found in Luke was always the highlight and the culmination of the advent season for me. I especially liked (and still do) the King James version of the second chapter of Luke. As an adult - and as a shepherd (maybe it's professional curiosity) - I've read the verses describing the appearance of the angel to the shepherds even more closely. For me, this part of the story resonates more deeply because of my avocation.

In lots of ways, the nature of the work that I do with sheep has changed profoundly over the last two millennia. I drive my truck to the pastures where my sheep are grazing. I use electric fence to contain the sheep. I use ear tags to identify them. I use electricity to shear them. But in some ways, the work of a shepherd is the same. I use dogs to protect them from predators and move them from pasture to pasture. I worry about them in stormy weather. I spend a great deal of time outdoors, regardless of the weather. I get their wool off in the springtime. I make sure the lambs are mothered up with the ewes. I suspect I'd recognize the work that shepherds in the Middle East were doing two thousand years ago - and I suspect they'd recognize the work I do today. Shepherding isn't the oldest profession in the world, but it's probably among the top ten!

At this time of year, our work slows down. The ewes are bred - most are in the first trimester of their pregnancies. Their nutritional requirements are satisfied by the green grass that germinated in October (at least this year) and by the minerals we provide. Most of our effort involves putting up and taking down electric fence as we move the sheep. Since the ewes don't have lambs at their sides at the moment (and won't until late February), we don't worry too much about stormy weather. In the days leading up to Christmas, we'll move the sheep to a large, grassy paddock so that our chores on Christmas day are minimal.

Six months from now, I'll be leaving the house around sunrise and getting home around sunset - much like now. The difference is that this time of year, I'm leaving home around 7:30 in the morning - and generally getting home before 6 in the evening. I enjoy the long days and the work of summer - all the more because I get to enjoy the long nights and rest of winter. And so as the year winds down towards the winter solstice, I'm appreciating the chance to recharge and renew my energy. I hope you are, too.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Carnivores and Sheepherders

I've been reading, writing and thinking about the positive relationship between raising sheep and conserving carnivores a great deal lately. Admittedly, my sheep-ranching friends will likely think this heretical - how can sheep-raising be compatible with conserving predators? Similarly, I know that some of you who read this will question whether ranching as a land use can help preserve predator habitat. I hope you'll all hear me out!

By way of explanation, I've been doing research for several papers I'm working on as part my master's degree in integrated resource management (online at Colorado State University). One of my professors, Jacey Cerdy, pointed me toward a book entitled Monster of God by David Quammen (which I just finished). The book examines humans' cultural relationship with large predators. I've also been reading a variety of scholarly papers addressing the subject. Rangeland livestock (like cattle, sheep and goats), it seems, share habitats with apex predators all over the globe. While this often results in conflict, it can also result in opportunities for coexistence - and even mutual dependence.

Some research suggests that profitable ranching may be the best option for keeping critical ecosystems from being permanently fragmented or destroyed by development (Rashford, Grant and Strauch, 2008). Others take this a step further. David Quammen writes that the cultural relationship between shepherds (and by extension, cattle grazers) and large predators is crucial to the preservation of both:
“Shepherds, as I’ve learned, have a relationship with these animals [European brown bears] that’s more intimate, more mutual, than you can get through the scope of a Holland & Holland .375 as you stand on a high seat, sighting down. They share habitat with bears. They have reason to fear them. To detest them…. They have their own, old-fashioned means of coping. They measure bears in a dimension deeper than deutschemarks and CIC points. Maybe that relationship itself, not just Romania’s population of Ursus arctos, is something too valuable to lose.”
As I consider my own experience as a shepherd, as a ranching advocate, and as a student of these issues, I can't help but see them as related.

I'm under no illusion that our small sheep operation is a fundamental economic driver in western Placer County (where we live). The little bit of income that my landlords receive in the form of lease payments isn't enough to offset their costs of owning the land. That said, the fact that ranching exists as a land use AND a business means that grazing land (including the lands we graze) is kept intact - for my sheep and for the predators that live in our environment.

Coexistence is complicated. Coexistence doesn't mean I like losing sheep to coyotes or mountain lions. It doesn't mean that I wouldn't protect my flock with lethal force if I came upon a coyote or a mountain lion attacking my sheep. My relationship with these predators, though, is far more personal than someone who sends a check to predator protection group, I suspect. I have to live with the consequences of my decision to try and coexist - consequences which might (occasionally) include dead lambs or injured sheep. I've got skin in the game, so to speak. Like the hunters that Quammen references in the above quote, those who support predator-advocacy organizations don't have the same depth of relationship with these predators as those of us who directly coexist with them. Another article I've read recently puts it this way: “As people become more urbanized, they seem to become more positive toward wildlife; of course, they also become more insulated from the problems of living with wildlife.” (from "The Future of Coexistence" by Woodroffe, Thirgood and Rabinowitz in People and Wildlife: Conflict or Coexistence). The authors continue, "...the immediate costs of living with wildlife are (or are perceived to be) borne by the rural population."

 Even in a state like California, where publicly owned land accounts for more than half of our land base, privately owned land is critical for wildlife habitat. Many species of wildlife - including, probably, the largest carnivores - continue to exist (at least in part) because some of this private land is used for grazing livestock.

So while I worry about the safety of my sheep - especially since we may have gray wolves in our region in the next decade - I also know that my business relies on the same "wild" landscapes that provide homes for these predators. In some ways, I think, our mutual continued existence depends on one another.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Drought and Dormancy

I read in yesterday's paper that we've experienced the wettest October and November in northern California in the last 30 years (for more on my direct observations of our autumn precipitation, go to "An October Like No Other"). This autumn has also been unusually warm here - we didn't have our first freeze until well into November (in the 15 years we've lived in Auburn, we've usually had a hard frost by Halloween). The combination of moisture and warm temperatures has made the grass grow - I can't remember another fall like this one for grass growth.

But as the article in the paper explained - and as the drought map below reinforces - we're still in the midst of one of the longest droughts in California history. Our portion of western Placer County has improved (we're only in "moderate drought" at the moment), but other parts of the state (especially the southern San Joaquin Valley and the central coast) remain extremely dry.

On our Sierra foothill rangelands, we typically go through two dormant seasons in terms of forage production - you might think of these as grass "droughts." Since our forage plants (grasses and broad-leaf forbs) are mostly annuals, the first of these dormant seasons is obvious. The golden-brown grasses of our California summers represent the annual warm season drought in our Mediterranean climate. This dry forage doesn't have enough protein in it to support our sheep - which is why we either supplement their protein intake or move them to irrigated pasture.

The second dormant season is less obvious. At some point (usually in late November or early December) the shorter days and colder temperatures put our newly germinated green grasses into dormancy. With the sun at a lower angle in the sky, the soil doesn't absorb as much heat - once the soil temperatures drop below 50 degrees F, grass growth comes to a halt. I checked the soil temperature reading for this morning at the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) weather station near Auburn - we're at 52.5 degrees. In other words, we've just about hit our winter grass "drought." Our job now is to ration the grass that's already grown this fall until the days get long and warm enough to get the grass growing again (usually in early March).

In the meantime, I hope the precipitation keeps coming. Continued rain in the foothills will help maintain soil moisture and replenish springs and creeks. Continued snow in the mountains will help ensure that we have stored enough water to keep the rivers and irrigation canals flowing next summer. And to paraphrase my friend and fellow rancher Tim Koopmann, the spring rains make the year! Keep it coming!