Friday, November 24, 2017

Heading into the Dark - #52weeksofsheep

With Thanksgiving Day behind us, and the winter solstice and Christmas Day ahead, we're approaching the slow and easy time of our shepherding year. At our latitude, the daylight hours are relatively short (9 hours and 47 minutes today, according to Weather Underground). Despite the warm temperatures this week, I expect our grasses will go dormant sometime in the next 2-3 weeks (dormancy results from a combination of soil temperatures below 50F and short day-lengths). Since our sheep production calendar is timed to match grass growth, our work slows as we head into the darkest days of the year, as well.

I've visited more northern latitudes during the fall and winter months, but Auburn, California, is as far north as I've ever lived for an extended period of time. I know that many folks grow depressed in the dark days of winter; I've always enjoyed these shorter days. I love the cooler weather (although this week has not been especially cool). I love any excuse to have a fire in the woodstove (our only heat). And I appreciate the opportunity to sleep in a bit, especially on the weekends.

Since we try to match our sheep production calendar to the forage productivity cycle, the next 6 weeks (the darkest part of the year) coincide with the slowest time of the sheep year. Our entire management system revolves around the onset of rapid grass growth - in other words, we want to start lambing in late February, which means we put rams with ewes in October and early November. We separated rams from ewes on November 10 this year; we'll let the ewes settle in their pregnancies until next weekend. Next Saturday, we'll haul the flock to our winter rangeland (which is at a slightly lower elevation than our summer irrigated pastures). Once there, our work will focus on moving sheep every 6-7 days until it's time to vaccinate the ewes in late January. Our work slows as we approach the winter solstice.

For me, these long nights provide a chance to re-charge. I sleep longer. I read more. I rest. I don't find the long nights and short days of late autumn and winter depressing; rather, I find them rejuvenating. I'm thankful that our sheep husbandry coincides with this seasonal slow-down. I enjoy heading into the dark.

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