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Stories from the valley

A Precarious Season

Contributed by Dan Macon

I look forward to this time of the year – not because of any holiday or other celebration; mid-October is when the Nevada Irrigation District shuts off summer water deliveries. In other words, mid-October is when we quit irrigating our pastures, and I get an hour back in every day. Yet despite the fact that I won’t have to start each day by moving sprinklers across our pasture for the next 6 months, the gap between the end of irrigation season and the onset of true winter weather always makes me a bit nervous.

In many ways, our production calendar accommodates this uncertainty. We bring the ewes back to irrigated pasture in early September to improve the nutritional quality of their diet. This boost in nutrition prepares them for breeding season (which kicks off around the first of October) – added nutrition before the introduction of the rams equals higher ovulation rates and more lambs next spring. By mid October, most of the ewes will be bred, and their nutritional requirements will drop. The rams will stay with the ewes until mid-November, and we’ll continue to graze on the irrigated pastures we’ve stockpiled until that point.

And yet we can’t help but look ahead. Ideally, we’ll have enough rainfall in October to germinate the plants on our annual rangelands. If we get germination when the days are still long enough and warm enough to support grass growth, we’ll have plenty of nutritious forage heading into winter. Unlike irrigation however, we can’t count on this (as the 2013-2015 drought taught us so painfully). This year, we had germinating rain in September, but we’ve measured just 0.02 inches so far in October (with no rain in the forecast). While we have some green grass on our winter rangeland, it won’t grow much more until we get another significant rain – and recent north winds have dried the vegetation even more.

The wind also contributes to the sense of precariousness. North wind and low humidity elevates the fire danger here in the Sierra foothills (as the last several autumns have painfully demonstrated). This year, in the week before the end of irrigation season, we were without electricity for about 40 hours (part of Pacific Gas & Electric’s “public safety power shutoff”). A return to warm, dry, and windy conditions this week could mean another shutoff.

In many ways, autumn is my favorite season. I love the sense of winding down and wrapping up our year – and I also love the anticipation that comes with knowing the rams and ewes are working hard on next year’s lambs! I enjoy having time to go for walks before work rather than moving sprinklers across our pasture! But I won’t truly relax until we start getting regular precipitation. Until that point, life seems a bit precarious.