Just three weeks ago tomorrow, we moved our 150 ewes from Rio Vista back to Auburn. With forage short in Rio Vista, we had an opportunity to graze several properties near Hidden Falls Regional Park northwest of Auburn that hadn't been grazed since we'd had sheep on them in 2012. While the dry grass left over from the 2013 growing season didn't have much nutritional value, it was substantially more forage that we had available elsewhere. Thanks to the heavy rainfall in early February, there was some green grass available for our sheep when we unloaded them on Valentines Day. Longer days and warming soil temperatures - along with continued precipitation - promised more forage growth as we approached the vernal equinox. With our lambing season beginning in earnest around March 1, we hoped that the grass supply would begin to match our demand - our ewes need nearly twice their normal forage intake while they are nursing small lambs. However, nothing about this year is normal!
We're finding that the rapidly greening hillsides are deceptive in terms of forage volume. In the first 10 days that we had sheep on this site, they broke out of our electric fencing four times. While we know there are predators around (neighbors have seen coyotes near our paddocks, I suspect that these breakouts are due to lack of feed. I've now re-calibrated my eye to this year's feed conditions - and I've found that we have about half of the forage quantity we'd normally see in early March. This makes sense - the grass didn't really start to grow until about 35 days ago!
From a practical standpoint, this means we're moving the sheep more frequently. We use 165-foot sections of electronet to fence our sheep. A 3-net by 3-net paddock will enclose about 5 acres - and currently, 5 acres will feed our ewes for about 3 days. In previous years, we'd have enough grass by early March that 5 acres would last this many sheep 6-7 days. Moving twice as fast requires twice as much labor. I can take down, move and set-up 12 nets in about 3 hours. Instead of this 3-hour task happening once a week, it's happening twice a week. Even with the extra work, however, moving the sheep to new forage every 3 days is still cheaper than buying hay! We're fortunate to have the flexibility to follow the green feed!