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Stories from the valley

Following the Green – Grass, that is…

Contributed by Dan Macon

As a grazer of sheep, I pay close attention to the nutritional intake of my flock. Nutrition, after all, plays a key role in the health of my sheep – and the profitability of my business! The right nutrition at the right time impacts the number of lambs born each spring, as well as the weight of these lambs when we sell them each summer. Proper nutrition means more wool at shearing time. Green forage – grass, clovers and other broadleaf plants, and brush – generally has greater nutritional value than brown grass or dead weeds. Most of this value is centered on the protein content of the plant – green plants tend to have higher protein levels. And so, like shepherds before us, we go to great lengths to ensure that the animals with the highest nutritional demand have access to green forage for as much of the year as possible. We follow the green.

Historically, shepherds literally did follow the green. Sheep spent their winters and early springs in the Sacramento Valley and lower foothills. As the lower elevation grass dried out later in the spring, these flocks moved uphill with the green forage. As a kid growing up in the 1920s, my friend Pat Shanley could remember hearing sheep bells on the flocks traveling up Baxter Grade west of Auburn in the springtime. These sheep (and their shepherds) would walk from the Sutter Buttes all the way to the High Sierra east of Foresthill. Another friend, Bob Wiswell, who still raises sheep in Lincoln, remembers riding a mule with his family’s flock through downtown Auburn on their way to the mountains each spring in the 1950s. These shepherds would reverse the trip in the fall, taking the sheep back to winter pastures in the valley.

This system required a unique system of infrastructure. Sheep ranching families established permanent “camps” central to the mountain pastures grazed by their sheep. Each band of sheep (a band is roughly 1000 ewes) was watched by its own herder, who followed the sheep in a camp wagon. Each herder, in turn, was supplied by a camp tender who lived in the main camp. These camp tenders baked bread and supplied other staples to the herders on a weekly basis. This summer, I’ve had the chance to visit three such historic camps on the Tahoe National Forest.

While our landscapes have changed in the last 100 years, the nutritional demands of grazing sheep have not. Some producers still take sheep to the High Sierra for summer grazing, although the sheep and the shepherds arrive mostly by truck rather than on foot. Travel trailers and trips to Reno for groceries have replaced sheepherder wagons and fresh baked bread, but there are still sheep grazing in the mountains!

Our small operation represents a miniature version of this transhumant grazing system. Our ewes spend the winter and early spring in the lower foothills west of Auburn, where they deliver their lambs each March. As the weather warms and our irrigation water arrives (usually around mid-April), we begin making our own green grass – and we move the sheep up the hill closer to Auburn. For six months, most of my days begin with moving irrigation water over our summer pastures to keep them green. We use this green forage to feed our replacement ewe lambs and feeder lambs through the summer, and to prepare our ewe flock for breeding in the late summer and fall.

This summer, I’m working with a large-scale sheep operation who grazes Forest Service range north of Truckee to study the behavior of their livestock guardian dogs. On top of irrigating our pastures and caring for our sheep, this project has given me an opportunity to observe this modern day migration of sheep first hand. By their nature, sheep will always require day-to-day human management – and the humans will always need to be in close proximity to the sheep. For me, at least, this annual cycle gives me a greater appreciation for the cycle of the seasons. After the first autumn rain, I always start watching for new shoots of green grass coming up through last year’s thatch. On the first sunny afternoon of late winter, I can almost hear the grass starting to grow rapidly! As spring turns to summer, I look forward to cooling off in the sprinklers as I move irrigation water across our irrigated pasture. And sometime in August, the heavy dew and cooler temperatures offer a hint that autumn is just around the corner. Following the green, I suppose, means I follow the seasons.