Saturday, January 28, 2017

Requiem for the Drought?

Since we moved to Auburn in 2001, the average annual rainfall at our place has been a shade under 30 inches. In the 2011 “rain year” (which we measured from July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011), we received just over 45 inches. In the subsequent 5 years (2012-2016), our average precipitation was 26.77” (which includes a slightly above average 2016 rain year). In addition to recording these rain year averages, we also track a rolling 12-month rainfall total – which helps us anticipate emerging drought conditions. Remarkably, from February 1, 2013, through January 31, 2014, our 12-month total was just 9.92 inches. As I recall, from early December 2013 through late January 2014, we went nearly 60 days without precipitation. While it did finally rain in 2014, January 2015 was the driest on record – just 0.01 inches of rain fell in Auburn. According to many accounts, this was the driest period in California in the last 500 years. And it was one of the most significant natural events in my lifetime.

This rainy season, we’ve received more than 35 inches of rain since October 1. We’ve measured more rainfall this January (14.53 inches so far) than we measured from February 1, 2013, through January 31, 2014 – indeed, more than we’ve ever measured in one month since we’ve lived in Auburn. From a forage perspective (I am a sheep rancher who depends on grass, after all), we’re seeing grass like we’ve never seen at this time of year. And yet….

And yet, I’m not quite willing to drive the last nail in the coffin of our 500-year drought. This year has been amazing; who knows what next year will bring. I suspect that many of us whose livelihoods depend (at least in part) on what Mother Nature provides aren’t quite willing to say that this drought is over.

This drought has been transformative in many ways. In 2011, I was still trying to make my living from raising sheep. In addition to managing our own flock of about 250 ewes and selling lamb each Saturday at the Auburn Farmers Market, I worked with Prescriptive Livestock Services and Star Creek Land Stewards to manage a number of targeted grazing contracts in western Placer County. In April 2011, a downpour over Lincoln forced us to try to swim a group of 600 goats across a rain-swollen creek – we ultimately had to wait for the water to go down the next day before getting the goats across the stream. 2011 was a wet year.

Fast forward to January 2017. If I count our replacement ewe lambs (which will be bred to lamb next year), we have 75 head of sheep. I work full-time as a rangeland researcher at UC Davis – and I’ll complete an online master’s degree from Colorado State University in May. We no longer direct-market any lamb. The natural world still shows signs of drought, as well - from the vast acreage of dead ponderosa pines in the Sierra forests to the oak trees that have fallen in this month's storms.

These life changes are all related – at least indirectly – to the drought. Our oldest daughter, Lara, was 14 years old when the drought began – today, she’s halfway through her first year of college at Montana State. Emma, our youngest, was just 8 when the drought hit – she’s lived with drought for a third of her life. I can’t help but think the drought has shaped their lives, as well.

The drought has made me more cautious, I think. I’d like to build up our sheep numbers again, but I want to make sure this wet year isn’t the exception in a more prolonged dry period. Selling sheep was painful, which makes increasing our flock feel risky. And I enjoy my current work immensely – having always been curious by nature, I’m finding that I enjoy research. But there are still times when I look at our little flock of sheep and feel a sense of sadness about what might have been had the drought not come.

In the early spring of 2014, I helped some colleagues launch a SoundCloud site called “Voices from the Drought.” The site features audio recordings from farmers and ranchers throughout California. This afternoon, I listened to the recording I posted to the site in February 2014. At the end of the recording, I said, “What I hope they [my daughters] remember about the drought and our response to it are a couple of things. I hope they remember that they remember that our number one concern was for the health of our land, that we sold sheep so that we could take care of our land through the drought rather than try to make it through with the sheep that we had. The second thing I hope they remember is that we held on. That we were tenacious about it – that we stayed in the sheep business through this dry period. I hope that they take that away and learn something about persistence and hard work through it.” We’ve stayed in the sheep business, albeit at a much smaller scale – and our land, I think, has come through the drought in decent condition.

As I’ve written previously, drought is unlike any other weather phenomenon I’ve experienced. When the rain stops, you know the storm is over – but you don’t know when a drought is over until well after the rain has returned. Don’t get me wrong – I’m thrilled about the moisture and the grass we have in late January 2017. And I’m ecstatic about the amount of snow we have in the Sierra. But I can’t quite bring myself to say the drought is over.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Few Tools of the Trade

One of the things (among many) that I like about raising sheep is that it requires relatively little in the way of fancy equipment or expensive tools. But the tools that I do require are critical - just as critical as a rope, comfortable saddle and good horse might be to a cowboy. Earlier this week, I used Facebook to ask my fellow shepherds about the three tools they find essential. We had a few laughs about some of the answers, but I think their feedback is quite interesting!

First, some humor! My friend Rex Williams (who operates a sheep dairy in Sonoma County with his wife, Kerry) said, "I have always said a good corral is cheaper than a divorce attorney" - Rex (who is also an auctioneer, like me) is always good for a laugh! Joking aside, though, I have found (as has Rex) that working sheep with my spouse can be stressful unless we have the right set-up. I'm sure that my cattle-raising friends have had similar experiences! And I'll admit (at least on this blog - don't tell Samia) that I'm usually the source of most of the stress!

My friend Liz Hubbard, who runs sheep with her husband Mike in Oregon (along with cows in Oregon and here in Placer County in the winter), told me, "My favorite tools are my border collie, my four-wheeler, and Mike - well, Mike is not a tool, but he's really nice and will hold a sheep if I ask or even shear one." I told her I was glad to hear Mike was not a tool!

Finally, John Kelsey, an old college buddy with whom I've recently reconnected on Facebook - and who loves lamb but doesn't raise sheep, said, "A fork, a knife, and a grill." Since I just finished up a dinner of barbecued lamb sirloin chops, I'd have to agree!

Much of the equipment cited by my friends was a variation on these themes - many people talked about how sorting gates, v-panels and well-designed portable corrals made the work more efficient. Several friends have recently ordered portable sheep "yards" (that's shepherd-language for corrals) from New Zealand - the Kiwis know how to work sheep efficiently! I'm looking forward to helping them work sheep through these systems in the near future - I'm sure I'll be envious!

Many of us who operate pasture- or rangeland-based systems also rely on tools that allow us to catch sheep in the pasture. I know a few sheep ranchers who use lariats (like a cowboy), but many of us rely on leg crooks and border collies to catch sheep that need attention. A number of friends said they liked the crooks available at Premier One Supplies.
I prefer the old-style leg crooks I can get from my friend Will Griggs at Utah Wool. These steel crooks can be attached to a wood handle - and with the help of one of my dogs, they allow me to catch most sheep without running them into the corrals.

Neck crooks are less frequently used in this country, but some of us also rely on these tools. I like the neck crooks available at Premier - they're great for catching new lambs in our pasture lambing system. Pasture lambing is more common in the UK than it is here - and I've always admired the hand-carved neck crooks made from hardwood and ram's horns that my colleagues in the British Isles use - maybe someday....

Containing sheep on pasture - and protecting them from predators - requires a different set of tools. Those of us who manage small- to mid-sized flocks on pasture often rely on electric fencing. The consensus among my Facebook friends is that Premier electro-net - which we all seem to purchase from LiveWire Products in Penn Valley, CA, is the best product out there! Give me electro-net powered at 6,000 volts, and a good livestock guardian dog, and I can sleep at night knowing the coyotes and mountain lions won't be eating my sheep!

All of us who have raised sheep for very long have looked for ways to make vaccinations, de-worming and foot-trimming easier. Several friends said that they couldn't get along without their vaccine guns (various models and brands were suggested). Backpack drenchers (which hold dewormer and have a "hook" that makes putting the right amount of dewormer in the back of a ewe's mouth easy) are invaluable. Some friends use "deck chairs" or "sheep hammocks" to hold the sheep during vaccinations and foot trimming. And speaking of foot trimming, I've found that the ARS hoof trimmers (again, available from Premier) to be my favorite.

Since most of us raise sheep both as an avocation and as a business, business management tools are also important. Dan Dinova said his cell phone is an important tool for trouble-shoothing and networking. Jaimie Irwin said Quickbooks was indispensable.

As shepherds, many of us spend much of our time outside, regardless of the weather. Several people said good rain gear and head wear were important "tools." I'm partial to wool garments (as many of my fellow sheep-people are) - I've got Filson and Pendleton garments that are older than I am! I've recently discovered Darn Tough and Farm-to-Feet wool socks - both brands use U.S. wool and are guaranteed for life! My friends John Wilkes (originally from the UK) and Derrick Adamache (who shears our sheep), have turned me on to Swandri bush shirts from New Zealand - I'm gonna have to save up! That's the thing about wool clothing, though - it lasts forever!

Many of the tools we all use are pretty basic. I've carried a pocket knife since I was about 7 years old (I'd probably be kicked out of school today) - and I suspect that most of my fellow shepherds have done the same. There are a few things that I won't skimp on - good boots, cold-weather clothing, and pocket knives. In my mind, there's no point in carrying a knife that won't hold an edge. Jon Carter said he carries a Benchmade knife; I've had great luck with US-made Buck knives, and I currently carry a razor-sharp Spyderco. A number of folks also said they carry rope or twine - although most shepherds don't use baling twine (which is a leading cause of wool contamination). A piece of rope always comes in handy - for tying fences together, leading a wayward guardian dog back to the sheep, or restraining a ewe.

My friend Lana Rowley, who ranches in southeastern Oregon, once told me that she'd never regretted having a gun or a dog with her. I've never been in the habit of having a firearm with me at all times, but I've never been sorry to have a border collie with me. Our sheep dogs are more than companions - they're essential partners in much of our work. And while I've never had to shoot a predator in the act of killing a sheep, I have had to run home for my Remington pump .22 when I've needed to humanely euthanize a dying ewe.

All of this brings me back to the question I originally asked my friends - "As a shepherd, what are the three things you couldn't do with out?" Considering our own operation, it comes down to this: Give me a good border collie, some electric fence, and a pocket knife, and I can manage! I hope the shepherds who happen to read this post will add their own perspectives!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

39 Days

Heads down and grazing - and plenty of grass! Just what every shepherd likes to see 39 days before lambing!
Based on simple math and observation, our ewes will start lambing roughly 39 days from today. I say roughly because the gestation period for sheep varies from 145 days to 155 days - that's where the math applies! We turned the rams in with the ewes on September 29, so the earliest the ewes could lamb (according to my calculations) is February 22. My observations today tend to support this prediction - the ewes look pregnant!

We vaccinate the ewes four to six weeks before they lamb, which allows them to transfer some of the immunity they gain from the vaccine to their lambs. We also trim their feet - generally the wet winter weather makes their feet soft and easy to trim. And it's our last chance to assess their general health and condition before they start to lamb. As you might imagine, with the tremendous fall grass growth we had, the ewes look great!

Now we enter the calm before the storm (more or less). With the ewes in the last trimester of their pregnancies, their forage consumption has increased. In essence, we've increased our stocking rate by 60 percent without adding any additional sheep. In other words, the ewes are consuming 60 percent more grass because they're eating for 2 (or 3 - or 4)! Our work in the next 39 days will consist of moving the ewes a bit more frequently than we have been - the same size pasture will last them fewer days than it did in December. Despite these more frequent moves, however, this is a pretty easy time (compared to the intensity of lambing). We're cruising until lambing begins in 5-1/2 weeks.

Cruising doesn't mean we've shut of our brains, however. We're constantly thinking about where the ewes are now relative to where we need them to be at lambing. At this stage (without lambs at their sides), we can graze the ewes on open pastures even during stormy weather. Since we pasture lamb (without barns or other man-made shelter) we try to save pastures with tree cover for lambing. This means we're giving a great deal of thought to our paddock moves during the next 39 days.

All farming and ranching operations are marked by milestones - planting and harvesting; breeding and lambing. Between these major events, there are minor milestones - and today we passed one of them. Vaccinations mark our last preparations for lambing - preparations that started when we selected replacement ewes 18 months ago. These preparations continued as we determined which of the older ewes should be sold last summer when we weaned our lambs. They continued in August when we mouthed and bagged the ewes (checked their teeth and udders). They continued as we fed canola meal to the ewes to get them ready to breed - and when we turned the rams in with the ewes. Now, we've done everything we can do to ensure a healthy and plentiful lamb crop in 2017.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Ready for the Storm

With apologies to Scottish singer/songwriter Dougie McLean.... If you haven't heard his song by the same title - be sure to check it out!

If we can believe the weather forecasters (and I have far more faith in the forecasters than I do in the local TV news anchors who tend to overstate inclement weather), we're facing quite a series of wet storms in California over the next week or so. The latest forecast map from the National Weather Service (below) predicts that we'll get between 6-9 inches of rain over the next 6 days here in Auburn. With the rain we've had already, our soils are completely saturated - which means most of this precipitation will run off. And so my work this week (outside of my paying job) has focused on preparation - on getting ready for these storms.

First, I want to provide a perspective on the media's obsession with big storms. Like many of my ranching and farming colleagues, I chuckle at the "storm of the century" headlines and melodramatic newscasters that dominate our local media at present. But my friend Joe Fischer offered a different perspective today (thanks to his wife, Abbie). Abbie reminded Joe (and Joe reminded me) that most folks don't share the direct connection with weather and the environment that we do - as a rancher, I have to care for my sheep, regardless of the weather - and so I've become pretty adept at dealing with all kinds of weather. Abbie suggested that the media has to make a big deal about this kind of weather - or people are likely to do stupid (and dangerous) things.

In our own preparations, we first try to anticipate the needs of our sheep. We make sure that we've got plenty of grazing ahead of them - quality forage, and enough of it, is crucial to their well-being. Since the sheep (and the guard dogs that protect them) are living on annual rangeland at this time of year (without access to barns), we make sure that they have trees, brush and topographical features for shelter. We pay attention to where our fences run - and check them frequently. Wet and windy weather tends to blow down temporary fences and  "prune" our native trees - which sometimes results in branches that drop on our fences. And we make sure that our sheep are grazing on hillsides and high ground - away from creeks that might rise rapidly if we get as much rain as predicted.

Since most of our sheep are grazing properties at some distance from our home place, we think about access as well. I have a pretty good idea where we might see flooding from creeks that cross the roads between home and pasture. I pack a chainsaw with me - just in case there's a tree over the road when I'm headed out to do chores. And I plan for contacting landowners where our sheep are grazing in case we can't reach the pastures to feed the guard dogs.

We rely on portable electric fencing to contain our sheep and help repel predators - these fences are powered by energizers that run on solar-charged 12-volt batteries. During the short days of midwinter, cloud cover can keep the solar panels from charging the batteries - and a dead battery means a dead fence. Consequently, we make certain we have a spare battery available for each group of sheep going into extended cloudy weather.

Closer to home, we've also made preparations. Since we heat our home with wood, we make sure we have plenty of dry firewood and kindling close to the house. Sami braved the crowds at the feed store (Echo Valley Ranch in Auburn) to make sure we have plenty of hay (for the sheep we have at home), chicken feed and dog food. And earlier this week, I spent my evening filling sandbags to protect our garage and shop from runoff from the county road (our house sits lower than the road, so heavy rain can swamp our garage and shop).

As a kid, I read all of the Little House on the Prairie books - and I used to pretend that I was preparing for a tornado or blizzard (which never actually happened in Sonora, where I grew up!). I have to admit that I get an adrenaline rush out of preparing for crazy weather - even if it doesn't actually materialize. I'll probably lose some sleep this weekend worrying about it - and I'll probably still get a chuckle out of the media coverage of the storm. But I'll also take comfort know I'm as ready as I can be for the coming storm. Stay warm and dry, everyone!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Memories of 1997 - and a look ahead at the coming week

This all happened 20 years ago, so my memory is a bit hazy - but here's what I recall about the New Years Flood of 1997. According to my friend Matt Echeverria, there was nearly six feet of snow at Lake Tahoe on Christmas Day 1996. By New Years Day a week later, the entire snowpack at lake level had disappeared - washed away by a week's worth of Pineapple Express storms (what forecasters 20 years later would call "atmospheric river events"). Steve Danna, another friend who farms in southwestern Yuba County, suffered tremendous property damage when a levee broke on the nearby Bear River. I definitely remember seeing the high water line in his farm shop building - it was 18 feet high! And I definitely remember Steve telling me that they found melon bins bearing the Danna name in San Francisco Bay a month after the flood.

Closer to home, the front page of our local Auburn Journal featured a photograph of the American River from the Highway 49 bridge on the way to Cool - the water was lapping at the roadway. When I drove down to the bridge a day or two later, I was startled to see several large logs stranded on the upper portion of the nearby No Hands Bridge. The force of the water must have been incredible.

I haven't had time to research the actual rainfall totals that led to the 1997 flood, but I read a forecast today that suggested that the storms headed for California may exceed the 1996-97 event in terms of total rainfall and snowfall. Indeed, the forecast precipitation for the next 10-day period is the wettest this particular forecaster had ever seen. He indicated that the potential ranged from "'major flooding' all the way to possible 'EPIC FLOOD.'"
Looks like we're gonna get wet this week!

California's history shows that drought sometimes ends with flooding. In their 2013 book The West without Water, B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam write of the 1861-62 flood that ended nearly two decades of dry years. Surveyor William Brewer noted that some areas in the Sierra Nevada received  60-102 inches of rain. Nevada City (just up the road from us) measured more than nine feet of rain that winter - normal precipitation is around 55 inches. Brewer was amazed that the two-month rainfall totals in some locales was more than two years of rainfall in his typically wetter hometown of Ithaca, New York.

Who knows whether this round of storms will be as intense as predicted! I have noticed that short-term forecasting seems to be much more accurate in 2017 than it was even twenty years ago - especially when it comes to estimating total precipitation from individual storms. I guess we'll know in about a week - but the rain we're supposed to get in the next 7 days would exceed our total precipitation from February 1, 2013 through January 31, 2014 (a 12-month period in which we measured less than 10 inches of rain). We'll see!

In the meantime, we're getting prepared. The sheep are on good pasture with plenty of sheltering trees and terrain. The woodshed is full of dry firewood, and the barn is full of hay (for the horses and the home sheep). We'll probably put sandbags in front of our garage and shop to keep runoff from flowing through. And we'll keep an eye on the weather....

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Flipping Back to the Beginning

Just before we moved from Penryn to our current place in Auburn in 2001, I started keeping a weather diary. It's a green, hardbound book with one page for every day of the year - and with no year on it. On nearly every day since I started keeping it, I've recorded the day's weather (usually minimum and maximum temperatures, precipitation, and sky conditions) and other observations on one or two lines. And every January 1, I flip clear back to the beginning. Since the first day of the new year marks a regular milestone, I especially enjoy looking back at my entries for January 1.

Since New Years Day is just a couple of weeks past the winter solstice, the temperatures I've recorded over the last 17 years are typically on the cold side (at least for the Sierra Foothills). The coldest low I've noted since 2001 was 21 F in 2015. The warmest high was 62 F in 2012. In 2004, I noted that it was a "wild windy and rainy day" - and I recorded 0.45 inches of rain in the previous 24 hours. The most rain I've recorded on this day in the last 17 years was 0.80 inches in 2005. In 2009, according to my note, the New Year came in "foggy and cold."

I also try to make observations about the birds we see at this time of year. In 2001, I saw robins, juncos, flickers and white crowned sparrows. In 2002, our first winter in Auburn, I saw hooded mergansers on our pond and a bald eagle flying overhead. In 2004, I noted "lots of robins in garden."

Some years, we get out of the house on New Years Day. In 2001, we hauled our horses to Empire Mine State Park in Grass Valley. In 2003 (when Lara was 6 and Emma was less than a year old), we stayed the night at Sami's folks' house in Granite Bay (because we'd gone to a casino night party at the home of some friends from our church). In 2013, we went to Yosemite Valley with my sister and her family. Last year, we went snowshoeing in Truckee.

This year, the weather is cold and grey. We're supposed to get rain later this afternoon - and maybe a little snow overnight! As usual, I barely stayed awake until 10 p.m. last night. I started my day with a great walk. After my sheep chores (feeding the guard dogs and moving the rams), I came home and started making a new batch of sheepherder bread. I'm not one to make resolutions, but I do intend on baking bread once a month in the new year - we'll see! Later this afternoon (after a nap!), I'll take Mae out to the back pasture for a training session with the handful of sheep we have at home. Tonight, perhaps, we'll play a game or watch a movie - all in all, a pretty low-key New Years Day!

As a rancher, weather is so much a part of my day-to-day life. Obviously, the drought of the last 5 years has had a profound impact on our business and on our lives - in some ways, I suppose, my nearly completed master's degree is just one of the consequences of these dry years. As I get older (this April, I'll turn 50) I find that I my memory of the conditions of previous years requires me to record my observations - I can't remember the weather last month, let alone 17 years ago!

The physical nature of keeping a handwritten weather diary, I think, heightens my awareness of the passage of time. Last night, as I thumbed to the back of the diary to record the conditions on December 31, 2016, the weight of the pages preceding that date was noteworthy - even more so tonight when there are no pages preceding my entry!

My best wishes to all for 2017!