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Showing posts from February, 2014

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

I have a generally optimistic and positive view of my fellow human beings.  I tend to think that most people are out to do the right thing, and this perspective (for the most part) has translated to a fairly understanding viewpoint on government regulation.  I think that most regulators are well-meaning people, and that most regulations are created to address an important set of issues.  For example, I complain about meat inspection regulations sometimes, but I also know that the inspection system does an outstanding job of ensuring my family (and my customers) that our meat is safe and wholesome.  Last night, however, I attended a meeting that shook my confidence in the sensibility and good will of regulators and regulations.

I'm not entirely clear on the history of this issue, but here's what I think has happened.  Early in the previous decade, farmers and ranchers who irrigated their crops within the boundaries of California's Central Valley Regional Water Quality Contr…

Expectation and Uncertainty

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 …

Plan for the Worst - Hope for the Best

These eight words sum up our drought plan.  We're hoping it rains, but we're assuming it won't.  We've had enough rain since the first of February to start grass growth - which is quite a relief in the short term.  Looking longer term, every day without rain means we're one day closer to the end of the rainy season (which usually occurs in late March or April) - one less day in which to make up our precipitation deficit.  And even with the rain we had several weeks ago, the water we have stored for summer irrigation (in the form of snow and reservoir storage) remains woefully inadequate.  The Nevada Irrigation District (NID), which supplies our summer irrigation water, reports on its website that the snow pack in its watersheds is just 7 percent of normal for this time of year.  While I assume the picture was improved with the early February storms, I'm still planning on dealing with a reduction (perhaps significant) in our summer water.  NID, it seems, along …

Dealing with Drought in Rio Vista

Today, we weaned the fall-born lambs here in Rio Vista.  This involves separating the lambs from their mothers.  Because of the drought, we're doing this about a month earlier than normal - which has several benefits from a management perspective (as well as some challenges).

First the benefits.  Ewes that are nursing lambs have a higher demand for high quality forage than "dry" ewes (ewes that are not lactating).  By weaning early, we're able to reduce the feed demanded by the ewes.  In addition, we'll be able to sort through the ewes in the coming week and sort off animals that have developed health issues during their lactation - uneven or hard udders, bad feet, or other problems.  These ewes can be sold, further reducing our feed demand.  Finally, weaning the ewes now gives us a bit longer to get them in shape for breeding this spring (in anticipation of next fall's lambs).

On the flip side of this coin, the lambs are younger than usual at weaning (and a …

Drought Update - February 12, 2013

Last weekend brought the first real rain storm in more than 18 months to Northern California.  From Thursday morning through Sunday evening, we measured more than 7.5 inches of rain in Auburn.  In Rio Vista, where our sheep are currently grazing, we received 4.4 inches over that same timeframe.  Based on seasonal averages, we're approaching 50% of our normal precipitation for this time of year! Perhaps more importantly, we've finally received enough moisture - combined with warming soil temperatures and lengthening days - to grow some grass.  While it will still be at least 30 days before we have enough green forage to meet the full nutritional demands of our ewes, things do look better for the spring grazing season.

Looking longer term, I'm still very concerned about the availability of water this summer for irrigating our pastures.  We'll know more when the Nevada Irrigation District meets at the end of this month, but this warm series of storms didn't store much…

No Easy Answers

I'm helping to teach a small farm business planning short course at the moment - part of my work as a program representative with UC Cooperative Extension.  This year, four local farms are participating - we held our "farm economics boot camp" yesterday.   As we worked through the economic analysis for each farm, I was reminded again about the challenges we've faced with our own farm.  Questions of scale, market efficiency, and capitalization continue to be challenging for us - and, I think, for many small farms.  The local food movement, which emphasizes small scale production, is threatened, in my opinion, by the economic realities of farming at a micro-scale.  As a "practicing" professional farmer, I have grown more and more skeptical of those authors and others who offer recipes for successful small-scale agriculture.

I've listened to, read and been inspired by farmers like Joel Salatin, Gene Logsdon and others who offer step-by-step instructions to…

Images from the Drought

As you might imagine, the dry winter (and it's ramifications, both short- and long-term) have been the dominant topic of conversation among farmers and ranchers this winter.  I wanted to share a few images that represent the drought and it's impacts on agriculture in the last month or two.  I think these images speak for themselves - even with the rain we're receiving this weekend, we have a lot more catching up to do.

Still a Drought...

It's finally raining here!  It's been so long, I almost forgot where I'd stashed my rain gear!  While this rain has done wonders for my attitude, the drought is still a long way from being over - here's why:

First, our normal rainfall in Auburn (according to from July 1 through January 31 is just over 20 inches.  As of this morning, we're still under 6 inches since July 1.  The forecast for this weekend suggests we may get as much as 4 more inches by Monday morning, but we're still playing catch up.

Second, even with this rain, it will take at least 30 days for the grass to grow to a point where our sheep will be able to get most of their nutrition from it.  That means at least 30 more days of feeding hay (unless we can find new pastures that haven't been grazed this fall and winter).  From an economic standpoint, 30 days of feeding hay will cost us approximately $27 per animal.  Leased pasture (assuming there is grass), by contrast, costs …