Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Million Dollar Rain? We'll See...

A beautiful start to the day - rain!
In some ways, Facebook has become a virtual coffee shop for farmers and ranchers.  Rather than gathering at the local coffee shop, many of us share news (and complaints!) on Facebook.  This morning, a friend of mine posted an update on last night's rain in Valley Springs (down in Calaveras County).  Another friend commented that this was "a million dollar storm" - the idea being that this rain will grow enough grass to improve our collective financial position as ranchers by a significant amount.  And as I made my morning check for new lambs today, I was pleased to be wearing my rain gear!  A brief thundershower last night dumped a half-inch of rain.
The forecast for the next 5 days shows a continued chance of rain.  While we'll still end the rainy season with below-normal precipitation, this week's moisture gives us a bit more flexibility in our plans for dealing with the drought.

Many of the annual (unirrigated) grasses in our part of the Sierra foothills are already reaching maturity - that is, they have stopped growing and are now producing seeds.  For these grasses, this rain is almost too late.  They might stay green a week to 10 days longer now, but they aren't going to grow any more.  On the other hand, in the pastures we've already grazed (we've grazed about 120 acres since moving the sheep back to Auburn in mid-February), we will see some regrowth.  Grazing keeps these annual grasses in a vegetative (as opposed to reproductive) state, which means this moisture will help them regrow before setting seed.

Our irrigation season typically starts in mid-April.  The Nevada Irrigation District, which provides water to most of the irrigated pastures we lease, has announced that it is seeking a voluntary 10-15 percent reduction in irrigation water use this year.  This reduction might happen in the form of a delay to the start of irrigation season, or an early end to it this fall.  These rains mean that our irrigated pasture will have some soil moisture going in to April - making that voluntary reduction easier to bear.

A rainy day also gives me an excuse to stay inside and do some planning.  If you've been reading my blog posts over the last several months, you'll know that drought planning has been an ongoing activity for us.  While this week's storms give us some breathing space, we are still worried about the quantity and quality of grass for our sheep next autumn.  Over the last several days, I've been using some tools provided by UC Cooperative Extension to help me understand our options as we go through the summer and fall this year.

The first tool I've used is a grazing chart.  This chart allows me to look at the big picture for our ranch.  I've highlighted important management tasks (like shearing, weaning our lambs, preparing our ewes for breeding, and turning the rams in with them).  It also allows me to look at our current feed situation.  The second tool is a chart that prioritizes the animals we'll sell if conditions remain dry or if our forage situation doesn't improve.  Based on my analysis of these two tools, we've identified the following strategies and needs:

  1. When we shear the ewes in early May, we will sort off any ewes that have not had lambs this year and sell them immediately - no sense in feeding something that is not providing a return.
  2. We will also wean any lambs from a ewe that is in poor body condition (that is, a thin ewe).  This will allow the ewe more time to recover before the next breeding season.  These lambs will be sold.
  3. Ewes that are in good body condition will continue to nurse lambs until our normal weaning date (around June 1).  At that point, we will sell most of our lambs.  We'll also sell any ewes that are not good mothers or that have health or behavioral problems (like ewes that habitually get out of our electric fences).
  4. After weaning, our ewes can go on less nutritious forage for around 8 weeks.  This allows us to dry up their milk production quickly (which reduces problems with mastitis).  Based on my grazing chart, I know that I'll need to find some dry (unirrigated) pasture for the ewes in June and July.  This might be an opportunity to hire the girls out for fuel reduction and vegetation management projects!
  5. By grazing the ewes on unirrigated pasture in June and July, we can focus on resting our irrigated pastures in anticipation of grazing them again to flush the ewes.  Flushing is a process of putting the ewes on more nutritious feed (green grass!) prior to breeding to increase ovulation (and hopefully the number of twins born the following spring).  We'll plan to keep the ewes on our more limited irrigated pastures for flushing and breeding this year - which will reduce or eliminate the amount of hay we'll need to purchase.  We may look at culling a few more ewes to balance our supply of irrigated pasture with our grazing demand.
  6. The next "hole" in our forage supply is November and December - after the ewes are bred.  Once again, they will have lower nutritional requirements (at least during the first trimester of their pregnancies).  We intend to save forage where we're currently grazing so that we can bring the ewes back after we pull the rams from the flock.  In other words, our success next fall depends on how much forage we can save this spring.

Our plans, obviously, will continue to change as conditions change.  The tools that I've found most helpful (the grazing chart and our culling priorities) give us the flexibility to adjust our plan if it rains (or if it doesn't).  Without a plan, the drought is debilitating.  With a plan, I feel much more confident that we'll be able to cope with whatever the rest of this year brings us.  Hopefully it will bring a few more soggy days like this one!  We'll see....

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