Saturday, December 1, 2012
No Two Years Alike
Some of the impacts of last year's winter drought were immediate. Because we had little if any green forage in December and January, we were forced to purchase supplemental protein for our ewes. The protein allows a ruminant's digestive system to process dry grass (which is higher in cellulose). Like any feed source that must be purchased (as opposed to the feed that grows naturally in our pastures), this protein greatly increased our costs of production.
On the other hand, we didn't realize some of the impacts until later in the year. In May when we sheared the ewes, we discovered that we had "wool break" in some of our fleeces. Wool break, which is a weakening of the wool fibers, is caused by some source of stress for the sheep. The timing of the stress can be determined by where the fiber breaks, and wool break makes the wool less valuable when it's sold. In our case, the break occurred in the middle of the fiber - about 6 months before shearing. In other words, in December 2011.
We've also noticed that this year's lambs have not gained weight as fast as normal. Some of our later lambs (we had a group of ewes that didn't lamb until late April) didn't perform well at all. While some of this difference might be attributed to a change in the irrigated pasture we had access to this year, I think some of it resulted from the dry conditions in December and January - in the last half of our ewes' pregnancy.
This year, we've had the perfect combination of fall rains and warm weather. The grass started growing with the first germinating rain in the second half of October. With only one frost so far, we've had warm enough weather to keep the grass growing. The short days and colder temperatures of December and January will force the grass into a dormant period, but we've had enough growth to keep the sheep going until longer days and warming temperatures start the grass again - usually about the time the lambs start to arrive in late February.
Unfortunately, one farmer's perfect weather is another farmer's wreck. Last year, while we were struggling with higher feed costs and frequent pasture moves, our mandarin-growing friends were enjoying one of the best harvest seasons they'd had in a number of years. Without the usual December rain and wind, they were able to pick nearly every day of December. We enjoyed mandarins into January last year. This year, while our ewes are thriving on this late fall burst of green forage, mandarin growers are trying to fit a day or two of picking in between rain storms.
While the technology and techniques of farming give some of us more options for dealing with variations in weather, all of us are ultimately reliant on what nature gives us. My dependence on nature is the source of great satisfaction for me - and also the source of great frustration at times. And while science and technology are an important part of our farming system, it is the art of dealing with nature's gifts (or lack thereof) that keep me interested in farming year after year.
Now I think I'll head out into the storm and move the ewes onto fresh green grass!