Skip to main content

How will we know when it's over?

As I write this on Sunday evening (February 8, 2015), my rain coat and my winter work coat are both drying.  This weekend marks the first time I've needed rain gear since before Christmas - so far, we've measured nearly 2.75" of rain since Friday afternoon.  While it's less than was predicted for Auburn, the rain is a welcome departure from our record dry January.  But our drought continues - even with a record-setting December, we're behind normal.  And there's very little snow in the Sierra Nevada.  From where I sit, there doesn't seem to be an end to our Big Dry.

Droughts are different than other weather phenomena for several reasons.  With big storms, we usually have some warning - as we do with heat waves.  With drought, however, we don't know we're in one until well after it's started.  The calendar year 2013 was the driest on record for our part of California - we measured just over 10 inches for the entire year.  Since California almost always experiences a summer "drought" - we rarely receive any rainfall from June through October - the dryness snuck up on me.  Looking back at my writing from 12-14 months ago, I started to realize that we were facing serious drought conditions in December 2013.  By January 2014, we were in the midst of the longest winter dry spell in recorded history.  About 12 months ago, we started selling sheep to make sure we weren't overstocked on our grazing land.  Today, I've taken a full-time job as the herdsman at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) - in part because we don't have enough sheep to generate a full-time income.

December 2014 was quite different than December 2013.  With more than 11 inches of rain, we received more precipitation in December than we did in all of 2013.  However, when we drove to church in the rain on Christmas Eve 2014, I had no idea that it was the last significant rain we'd receive until last Friday.  In addition to being dry, January was exceptionally warm.  The blue oaks in Auburn, which typically don't come out of dormancy until early March, already have their new leaves.  Some of our annual grasses are already going to seed - at least 45 days early.

The uncertainty about a drought's beginnings is matched by the uncertainty about it's termination.  Meteorologists tell us that we need 150-175% of "normal" rainfall to end our drought, but we won't know if we've achieved that benchmark until after it's happened.  For me, this uncertainty brings a psychological cost.  Uncertainty engenders worry - will we have enough spring grass for the sheep (and for the cows at SFREC)?  Will we have enough stored water to irrigate our pastures this summer?  What will next fall bring?  Our current weather also makes me wonder about longer term issues - is this the new "normal" weather pattern?  Can we expect extended winter dry periods punctuated by brief periods of inundation?  When will this drought be over, or is this what we can expect in the future?  While I'm waiting to find out, I guess I'll just enjoy this weekend's stormy weather!

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Trade Offs

As we were building fence for the soon-to-be-lambing ewes this morning, someone drove by and asked my partner Roger how long it took to set up the electro-net fencing we use for the sheep. Roger replied, "It's not too bad," to which the driver said, "Seems like a lot of work." Roger's answer - which both of us use with some frequency, was, "Yeah - but this way we don't have to feed any hay!" The driver, who obviously wasn't a rancher, didn't understand - and I suspect even some of my rancher friends don't understand the trade off we're making. Building electric fence is a lot of work - wouldn't it be easier just to feed hay?

The paddock that Roger and I built this morning encloses about 5.75 acres of high quality forage. Since the ewes are on the verge of lambing, their forage demand is peaking. They're eating nearly twice as much grass now as they need in the late summer - after all, many of them eating for three (and p…

No Easy Answers Part 2

In mid October, some friends who graze their cattle in the mountains of western Lassen County (less than 200 miles from our home), became the first ranchers to have cattle “officially” killed by wolves in California in nearly a century. Wildlife officials confirmed that the Lassen pack killed a 600-pound heifer; four more heifers died (and were partially eaten by wolves), but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) couldn’t confirm the cause of death. While I learned about the depredations shortly after they happened through the rancher grapevine, news of my friends’ losses weren’t made public until the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation issued a joint press release this week. The October 28 edition of the Sacramento Bee ran the story.
If you’ve read my previous blogs about wolves, you’ll probably know that I’ve frequently been frustrated with the Bee’s coverage. The paper has run guest opinions disguised as news articles, and appar…

Humbled and Excited

More than 20 years ago, I went to work for the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA). After two internships, I'd been hired by my friend and mentor John Braly as the membership director in 1992. By 1996, I'd been promoted to assistant vice president - pretty heady stuff for a young guy who hadn't grown up in the industry. I started looking for new challenges. Dr. Jim Oltjen, who was (and is) the beef extension specialist at UC Davis (my undergraduate alma mater) suggested that I think about going to graduate school to prepare for a career in extension. I considered it, but the timing wasn't right.

Fast forward to 2013 (or so) - I'd been working as a part-time community education specialist in our local University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) office for several years. The farm advisors in the office - Roger Ingram and Cindy Fake - suggested that I consider getting a master's degree and applying for a future farm advisor job. This time the id…