Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dealing with Winter Drought

As noted in an earlier post, we're in the midst of one of the driest stretches of winter weather on record.  Our rainfall for the season is about one-third of normal; more critically, we've received less than two inches of rain in the last 60+ days.  I spoke with several farmers yesterday whose memories stretch back further than mine - this winter, it seems, is comparable with the drought year of 1975-76.  One of our farm advisors said that she read about similar conditions in the 1940s.

With no rain in the forecast for the next seven days at least, we're starting to reach a critical point in our grazing operations.  Even if we get some rain soon, day length and soil temperature are not yet sufficient to support significant grass growth.  Furthermore, the soil profile will need to fill up with moisture before grass starts to grow again.  I'm seeing much of the grass that germinated with the rain we received in early October start to wither.

We try to match our production system with the "normal" weather pattern in our area.  Our sheep have their greatest demand for forage just before and just after they give birth.  Typically, we start to see significant grass growth sometime in late February here in the Sierra foothills, so that is when we try to start lambing.  Without rain in the next two weeks, we probably won't see much in the way of grass growth by the time the lambs start arriving next month.

To manage for this year's conditions, we're trying to save ungrazed pastures for the ewes to lamb on.  We're also adding protein to the ewes' diet (protein feeds the bacteria in a ruminant's digestive tract that allow the animal to digest dry grass).  In other words, by adding protein, we can increase the ewes' consumption of dry grass (which is about all we have at the moment).

We're also looking for opportunities to graze additional properties near our base of operations here in Auburn.  Thanks to our border collies, we can walk the sheep from property to property and avoid the additional time, expense and stress of hauling the ewes in a trailer.  At this stage in their gestation, we prefer not to haul the sheep if possible.

In the meantime, I find myself getting grumpier about the weather forecasters who predict "another beautiful day" of cloudless skies and warm temperatures.  In January, beautiful weather (at least to a rancher) typically requires rain gear!  Let's up we all need to break out the raincoats soon!

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