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Placer County's Drought of 2011/2012 - the Rest of the Story

Between October 4, 2011 and October 7, 2011, we measured 1.3 inches of rain at our home place just north of Auburn, California.  With another 1.2 inches falling on October 11, we thought we were off to a great start to the rainy season.  An inch or more of precipitation in early October usually means that we have enough warm days left to germinate our grass and get it growing well.  With "normal" rainfall until Thanksgiving, we'd have good forage for our sheep for the winter.

The 1.2 inches of rain we measured on October 11, 2011 was the last rain we'd get last October.  In November, we received 1.12 inches.  December was typically cold and atypically dry - we only measured 0.10 inches of rain.  January was slightly better - 5.35 inches fell - but February was disappointing.  By February 29, we'd measured less than 11 inches of rainfall for the season.

Without normal rain, we were forced to graze our sheep on dry grass, which has very little nutritional value.  We purchased supplemental protein, which allows our sheep to digest this dry feed - we've never had to buy protein in the winter.  We normally count on having enough green, nutritious forage by the time we start lambing (in late February).  This year was different.  Our friend and fellow sheep rancher Jeannie McCormack, whose family has kept weather records at the ranch in Rio Vista for 120 years, told me that the winter of 2011-2012 was the driest they'd ever seen.

When we sheared our sheep in May, we found evidence of the nutritional stress that the winter drought had put them through.  For the first time in my experience, we had "wool break," a condition in which the wool fibers weaken because of the lack of nutritious forage.  Some of our wool "broke" (or weakened) about 6 months prior to shearing (December 2011).  Looking at photos from that period, I can see why!

Christmas Day - 2011 - notice the lack of green grass.

December 2010 - a more "normal" year.

In our Mediterranean climate, we're used to dry spells in the summertime.  Without irrigation, we'd be unable to graze our sheep on green grass in the foothills from June through September (which is why the old timers took their livestock to the mountains in the summer).  In the late winter and early spring, however, we normally have amazing grass - this year we didn't.  While we did catch up on our rainfall in April and May, the grass was in such a rush to catch up that it matured (and dropped in nutritional value) more quickly than usual.

All food production is weather-dependent.  Moisture and sunshine, in proper measure, are critical to farming - and they are the things over which we have the least control. While the extreme drought in the Great Plains and Midwest this summer makes our wintertime drought pale by comparison, the conditions of last winter were challenging to say the least.


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