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Stories from the valley

Back to Ranching

Contributed by Dan Macon

In mid-October, the Nevada Irrigation District (who supplies our pasture irrigation water) ends the summer irrigation season. From April 15 through October 15, my day nearly always begins with an hour (or more) of moving water to irrigate the pasture that feeds our sheep during this period. When the water shuts off around October 15, I get this hour back – and I mark the transition from farming back to ranching.

In our Mediterranean climate, we must irrigate most crops during the warm, dry summer months. This applies to almonds and rice as much as it applies to irrigated pasture. In many ways, irrigation means I’m more of a farmer during this half of the year: I’m irrigating to grow the vegetation that I harvest with sheep. Our sheep, being ruminants, turn this crop into protein and fiber. Once the water quits flowing in the canal that feeds our ranch, I become a rancher again – I must rely on the grass that Mother Nature grows through rainfall (rather than the grass I grow by dragging K-Line sprinklers across the hillside).

This is not to say that I blindly enter either season. During the winter, I worry about getting enough snowpack in the Sierra to fill the reservoirs that supply our summer irrigation water. During the summer, I make sure we leave enough dry grass to feed our ewes through the fall and winter months even if we don’t get rain.

But having this hour (or more) back in my life is wonderful. This week, I’ve slept in a bit (rising at 5:30 a.m. instead of 4:30 or 5). Next week, I plan to exercise before heading into my day job. This weekend, I intend to spend some time deer hunting. The longer nights and shorter daylight hours, combined with a reduction in my daily chores, allow me to recharge my batteries!

To return to the idea that irrigation equals farming, while grazing on unirrigated rangeland equals ranching, I suppose that I favor ranching. I enjoy working with livestock. Despite the stress of relying on nature to grow forage for my sheep, I much prefer the intellectual and physical challenges of managing sheep on rangeland (where nature does the “irrigating”) to the 6-month slog of moving water to grow grass. I look forward to the next six months!