Monday, November 12, 2018

Another Dry Autumn

As I write this, the Camp Fire continues to burn - mostly out of control - less than 60 miles to the north in Butte County. The grass that germinated after the inch-and-a-half of rain we received 48 days ago has withered. While our temperatures have finally become more seasonal (we've even had several frosty mornings), the warmer-than-normal daytime temperatures for most of October and low humidity have left our part of the Sierra foothills tinder-dry - or "crispy," as I remarked to my family yesterday. With the shorter days and cooler temperatures of the winter solstice just around the corner, and no rain in our forecast for at least a week, we're not likely to have much green grass until well into 2019. And so today, I pulled out our drought plan.

Our approach to raising sheep on our foothill rangelands gives us the flexibility to cope with dry conditions. We stock our pastures conservatively - our stocking rate is 2-3 acres per ewe for the winter and early spring, which leaves us significant dry forage going into the autumn months. We have invested in portable water and fencing systems, which allow us to take our sheep to standing forage (as opposed to feeding them hay). Our management calendar matches our production system with forage growth - we lamb in the late winter and early spring when the grass is most likely to be growing rapidly. We plan our grazing on a monthly basis to identify forage challenges before they become crises.

Even with this careful preparation, however, we also need to respond when dry stretches occur. To reduce the emotion involved in making these decisions, we've tried to think about the conditions and critical dates by which they'll need to be made. In looking at our drought plan this afternoon, I've realized that we're approaching a key decision point. If we have not had germination by December 1, our plan calls for two possible actions:

  • Cull any ewes that are missing teeth or that have hard bags (if they weren't culled already).
  • Provide supplemental protein to the remaining ewes to allow them to digest the dry forage we've saved from last year.
The second action is straightforward. By feeding supplemental protein, we'll be able to maintain the nutritional intake of our just-bred ewes through early gestation (when their nutritional demands are reasonably low). At some point (we hope) we'll get rain - and the grass will germinate again. Supplemental protein is the bridge that will help us get the flock to that point.

The first action is a bit more difficult. Every year, we keep a handful of older ewes who have always been productive (in other words, they've always had twins). Our hope is that with enough high-quality forage, we can get one more replacement ewe lamb out of these ewes. However, because of their lack of teeth, they need higher quality forage throughout their pregnancies. Our choice, in a year like this, is to bring them home and feed them hay - or to sell them. As older ewes, they won't be worth much at the sale - we'll have some difficult discussions about how we should proceed. We usually move the sheep back to our winter pastures around December 1 - we'll take a close look at these older ewes when we bring them into the corrals after Thanksgiving.

Our 2012-2015 drought has been called a "Thousand Year Drought" - the driest/warmest stretch of years in the last millennium in California. But I wonder if this drought isn't longer than just 2012 to 2015. Since I began keeping rainfall records in 2003, 10 out of the last 16 years have been below average in terms of precipitation. I realize that total rainfall doesn't begin to tell the whole story in terms of grass growth (indeed, last year's "normal" rainfall, combined with perfect timing and warmer weather, resulted in record-setting forage production). That said, a dry autumn like this one makes me extremely nervous. I suppose for now, I'll just keep checking the weather apps on my phone to see if the 10-day forecast includes rain - the twenty-first century version of a rain dance!

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