We sheared sheep last week. Let me elaborate - my friend Derrick Adamache sheared our sheep; I made sure he had sheep to shear, made sure the wool was sorted and packed correctly, made sure the sheep (shorn and unshorn) had enough to eat. It was a busy week!
For shepherds, shearing is the equivalent of branding for cowboys. It's intensive work - for us, it involves hauling sheep to our home place, planning their grazing, sorting them into groups, setting up our portable corrals, purchasing supplies, scheduling additional help - all on top of our regular work. Despite the long days, I always look forward to shearing. I enjoy catching up with Derrick and hearing the news from other parts of Northern California where he's sheared - and from mutual friends. I enjoy working with friends. And I enjoy the opportunity to take a closer look at all of our sheep - I enjoy taking stock of our operation.
This year, I anticipated seeing the consequences of California's drought during our shearing. We'd already seen the drought's impact in our lambing percentage - we had fewer lambs than we'd normally expect, partly because of the forage conditions during breeding. Nutritional stress can also cause problems with wool quality - and I expected to see some wool break this spring. Surprisingly, I only found one fleece that had weak fiber - and only a half dozen or so that were short. The rest of our wool looked remarkably good, considering the year we're experiencing. I've written previously that the dry weather has meant less but stronger grass (in a nutritional sense). I think our wool quality reflected this phenomenon.
The real shock, however, came when Derrick reviewed his notes. He keeps a notebook with a separate page for each shearing customer. When he made our entry for this year, he told me that we sheared 90 fewer sheep this year. In other words, the size of our flock decreased by more than 37 percent in the last 12 months. Some of this decrease is a direct result of the drought - we sold 20 ewes in January when conditions were so dry. Some of it is an indirect result of three consecutive dry years - we've sold sheep that just weren't performing well.
This contraction has a number of consequences for us. Because I wish to keep my Saturdays free for family activities (like soccer), I've decided that we won't participate in the Auburn farmers' market for the next several years (at least). Because we have less irrigated pasture than we once grazed, we've also decided that we can't keep lambs during the summer - we'll save our limited irrigated pasture for preparing the ewes for breeding. This year, we're selling nearly all of our feeder lambs at weaning (in the next 3 weeks). While the feeder lamb market is reasonably strong, fewer sheep and less direct marketing means I need to work more hours off the farm - beginning next month, I'll be working 32 hours a week for the University of California Cooperative Extension (on top of my daily shepherding responsibilities). My work with McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista is also evolving because of the drought - dry conditions mean fewer sheep there, as well.
As we continue to adapt our business and our grazing management to the drought, I'm giving a great deal of thought to our relative advantages as sheep producers. While we're still far too small to make this a full time business (even if we were able to finish and direct-market all of our lambs), we are able to take advantage of free grazing opportunities. Because of our portable fencing and livestock water systems, our stockmanship skills and our border collies, and our contacts within the community, we've been able to access more than 150 acres of grazing land this spring at no cost to us. For the most part, this is land that could not be grazed any other way - it has no fences and no stockwater. We get forage - and our landowner-partners get their fuel load managed.
I've recently seen long-range weather forecasts that suggest we're heading into an "El Niño" year - which typically means wetter-than-normal conditions for Northern California. I'm hopeful, but I'm not yet willing to bet the farm on a wet year. I'm confident that we have enough forage for our current flock for the summer and fall - and we'll see what next winter brings!