Thursday, April 19, 2018

Another Corner Turned

More grass than sheep - I feel this way every April!
When I think about the events that mark my work as a part-time shepherd, I envision my annual work as a circle. The top of my year is marked by the day we turn the rams in with the ewes (around the first of October). For some unknown reason, the progression of my circular year runs counter clockwise; we drop off the top of the year into the long nights of winter and waiting for lambs. The bottom of our sheep year, then, is the day that we move from our winter rangeland back to the irrigated pastures closer to home (roughly the first week of April). As we work our way back towards breeding season, we mark the seasons with irrigation, shearing the flock, weaning and shipping the lambs, and flushing the ewes in preparation for the coming year's lamb crop. Some of these milestones are more prominent than others; perhaps it's a sign of how illogical my shepherd's mind can be, but I think of these milestones as corners in the circle of my sheepherding year.

I turned one of these corners this afternoon. In our Mediterranean climate in California's Sierra Foothills, we don't have green forage for our sheep to graze in the summertime unless we irrigate our pastures. Many of the sheep ranchers who came before me in this region took their sheep to high mountain meadows in the summer, "following the green". Today, most of us have to bring the green to the sheep by planting and irrigating our summer forages. And this afternoon, I opened the valves that will allow us to irrigate our 15 acres of rented pasture.

Our water is supplied by the Nevada Irrigation District. The water that flowed through our K-Line irrigation system and out through our sprinklers this afternoon probably fell as snow last winter in the upper reaches of the Yuba River watershed. Stored in a series of reservoirs and delivered through an intricate system of canals (some of which date to the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s), our water arrives at the ranch through the miracle of gravity. We're blessed (economically and otherwise) that our irrigation system doesn't require any pumping!
Keeping it green!

Our pastures contain a mixture of improved perennial forages (like tall fescue, orchardgrass, white clover, and birdsfoot trefoil - aren't these great names), and less desirable but still palatable "weeds" (like prickly lettuce, velvetgrass, and dallis grass), among other plants. Our sheep, as I've observed, like the variety - some will even eat the "weeds" before moving on to the planted grasses. The variety in texture, flavor, rooting depth (which is related to the minerals in the forage) - and other factors known only to sheep - are an important part of our nutritional management system.

Like all ranchers, we always wish we had more grazing mouths to feed at this time of year. Our grass grows most rapidly in April - we can't stay ahead of it. Over-mature grass is less palatable to livestock, so our goal is to get the sheep over all of our pastures quickly to help keep the grass and other forages in a tender (or vegetative) state. We could use 3-4 times as many sheep in the next month - our pastures would benefit, but where would we put them for the summer?!

The corner I turned today means someone (mostly me - I am the lead on irrigation, while my partner Roger is the lead on summer sheep management) will be moving sprinklers every day for the next 6 months. Our system is set up to run on each station for 24 hours (the "set" in irrigator terms) and to return to each station every 10 days (the "rotation"). The sprinklers are designed to deliver water at a rate that our soils can absorb, in a quantity that will sustain our plants until the sprinklers return to that portion of the pasture. When everything is running smoothly, the process of moving sprinklers takes about 45 minutes out of my day; when problems arise, irrigating can take several hours.

Tools of the rainmaker's trade!
Every farmer and rancher, large and small, lives according to the rhythms of nature and biology. Germination, growth, flowering and harvest; breeding, birthing, weaning and selling are cyclical, regardless of what we're raising. I find these cycles of life incredibly rewarding. As I grow older (and I passed another corner today - I turned 51!), I appreciate even more that I learn something on every trip through the circle of our sheep year.

No comments:

Post a Comment