Thanks to the rain we had in November and December, we have substantially more green grass at the end of January 2015 than we had a year ago. But with virtually no rain since Christmas Eve, even with much warmer-than-normal temperatures, grass growth has come to a standstill. Since our December storms were relatively warm, there is very little snow in the mountains (and very little water in our reservoirs). I can't help but thinking we're in for another year of severe drought.
From 2013 to 2014, we reduced our sheep numbers by nearly 40 percent because of the drought. With a new full-time job, we've reduced our flock even further this winter; we're now grazing just over 80 ewes. Since I'm working full time at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, we're trying to arrive at a flock size that allows us to move sheep on the weekends (in other words, we want to build big enough paddocks to give us enough forage to last 80 ewes for 7 days). Because of the lack of moisture, we're not seeing much regrowth. We'd normally expect to have 120-160 sheep-days of grass per acre at this time of year (which means a 4-acre paddock would last our flock 6-8 days). We seem to have about half this amount of forage at the moment - a 4-acre paddock lasts 3-4 days.
We're still anticipating that we'll sell another 25-30 ewes, but since we'll start lambing in about 3 weeks, the window for selling these ewes is closing rapidly - I don't like to haul ewes that are just about to lamb. We'll likely lamb out at least 60 ewes this spring. If it stays dry, it means we'll either build larger paddocks on the weekends or we'll move sheep during the week.
Even though our water district (the Nevada Irrigation District) has done a great job of conserving water and planning ahead, I'm getting worried about what the summer irrigation season may hold. With virtually no snow in the high country, we may be looking at reductions in water deliveries.
Finally, the warm temperatures seem to have everything out of sync. We have blue oaks starting to leaf out (in January!). At home, we have daffodils blooming - at least 30 days earlier than normal. A friend called this week to tell me he'd seen/heard sandhill cranes flying north - again, at least 30 days early.
A fourth year of drought feels like uncharted territory to me. While I'm hopeful we're going to get some rain next weekend, I find myself wondering if warmer, drier winters are the new normal for us. I hope not!