Thursday, December 29, 2011

No such thing as average

The ewes need supplemental protein and energy at the moment.

Starthistle seedheads contain some energy - even at this time of year.  The sheep eat these seedheads despite the thorns.
On this date last year, we'd received 10.99 inches of rain for the month of December.  Our average for December (at least in the ten Decembers we've lived in Auburn) is 8.13 inches.  So far in 2011, we've received 0.10 inches.  After getting just 1.12 inches in November, things are awfully dry here.  One definition of average is that half of the data falls above the average, and half falls below.  We're definitely on the "below" side this December!

Statistics may be boring, but the ramifications of such a drastically below average December (rainfall-wise) are anything but boring.  We're scrambling to find enough feed for the sheep now, let alone in 8 weeks when we start lambing.  While the cold weather and lack of moisture means that green grass is scarce right now, it also means that the forage we've already grazed isn't regrowing.  We experience our greatest forage demand in the last 4-5 weeks of pregnancy and the first 4-6 weeks of lactation - in other words, from mid-January through mid-April.  We bet on the averages - usually, we'll have enough rain to ensure the onset of spring grass growth by the third week of February.  This year, I'm not certain we'll win our bet.

We have several courses of action.  First, we're trying to save some forage that we haven't grazed for more than a year - this will hopefully get us through the first few weeks of lambing.  Second, we're providing supplemental protein and energy to the ewes right now.  The protein will help them digest the rougher, drier forage that we have available, and the energy will keep them going during these colder days.  If our winter drought continues, we may need to consider additional supplemental feed.  We may also need to consider selling some ewes to make sure our feed demand matches the quantity and quality of our supply.

In the meantime, we'd appreciate prayers for rain!  Here's hoping for a wet start to 2012!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Shepherd's Christmas Chores

While Christmas Day is a special day for our family, it’s also a day like most others.  We still need to check the sheep, feed the guard dogs, gather the eggs – in short, the chores still have to get done.  For me, my chores as a shepherd take on a different feeling – indeed, a different significance – on Christmas Day.

Generally, our chores get done a bit later on Christmas.  We’re up just as early, but mostly because we’re all curious to see what Santa Claus brought for us.  After opening our gifts and enjoying a breakfast of cinnamon rolls, the girls and I head out to care for the animals.  Our home chores – feeding and watering the horses and chickens (and any random sheep that happen to be at home) – go quickly.  Then we load the border collies into the truck and head off to check the sheep at our rented pastures.

Because it’s Christmas morning, we’re usually the only folks on the road, which makes the drive enjoyable.  I most notice the lack of traffic in the solitude and quiet that greets us at the ranch.  Usually, the only sounds we here are the birds, the livestock, and maybe an occasional neighbor kid playing with a new toy (rather than the distant traffic we usually hear).  Since we try to do most of the significant work in the days leading up to Christmas, our Christmas chores generally consist of feeding the guard dogs and walking through the sheep to make certain they’re all healthy.

Shepherding is usually a solitary endeavor that provides time (if I’ll take it) for contemplation.  Perhaps the extraordinary quiet of Christmas, combined with the significance of shepherds in the Christmas story, make Christmas chores an especially contemplative time for me.  I find the quiet and slower pace of Christmas Day comforting.  On a normal day, I’m rushing to complete one task so that I can move onto the next one; on Christmas Day, I find that I get to enjoy the chores before me, rather than worrying about the work to come.  I also find myself thinking about the generations of shepherds that have lived before my time, and I wonder what they experienced and thought about on cold days near the winter solstice.  Despite the challenges of the life I’ve chosen, Christmas Day chores always remind me of how lucky I am to be working with animals, to be working outdoors, and to be working with my family.

Merry Christmas!