Sometime in the next 10 days, our lambing season will begin. In years past, I've described lambing season as six weeks of Christmas - I love the advent of new life that occurs daily during lambing. This year, however, my excitement about lambing is somewhat tempered by the uncertainty caused by our drought.
Because we were moving our ewes to Rio Vista last fall, we turned the rams in with them a week or so later than normal - which means our lambing season will begin in early March rather than the third week of February. We usually prefer the earlier onset of lambing because it gives us an extra 10 days or so of highly nutritious grass for the ewes to convert to milk for their lambs. Because our drought has delayed the onset of rapid grass growth (no soil moisture equals no grass growth), this year's delay is probably helpful. We're finally starting to see some green grass - just in time for lambs to arrive.
We've built our flock with the idea of selling grass-fed lamb to our community. Over the last several years, our access to summer irrigated pasture has been somewhat limited, but we've still been able to finish at least 40 lambs for local markets. This year, the potential lack of summer irrigation water (we're expecting cuts in our supply this year) and the necessity of taking off-farm work have combined to make finishing lambs and marketing meat impossible for us. We'll keep a few lambs for our own use, but we plan to sell most of this year's lambs shortly after we wean them. And, because of the weather, we plan to wean them earlier than normal (early May rather than early June) - which will reduce our forage demand and allow the ewes to recover more quickly from the strain of lactation. Our dry winter and unusual precipitation pattern probably means that our annual grasslands (that is, those pastures that are not irrigated) will probably mature more quickly than normal this year. As annual grasses mature and die, they become less nutritions and less palatable for our sheep - another reason to wean our lambs earlier than usual.
Finally, because of the dry conditions, we've reduced the size of our flock substantially. Three years ago, we lambed out more than 300 ewes. Since this year is the driest in a series of dry years, we've cut back on our numbers substantially. This year, we'll lamb out about half that number. Perhaps my attitide is somewhat smug, but I feel like I could lamb 150 ewes with my eyes closed and one arm tied behind my back. We'll see if my confidence is justified! Stay tuned....