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Stories from the valley

Remembering how

Contributed by Dan Macon

Lambing season is about to begin. Even with a diminished number of ewes (thanks to California’s epic drought), lambing season is the most labor-intensive portion of our year. While lambing will last for six weeks, most of the lambs (and most of the work) will be concentrated between February 23 and March 23 (indeed, 90 percent of our ewes will lamb in this four week period). By April 1, we’ll have somewhere between 90 and 100 lambs frolicking in our pastures!

We time our lambing season to coincide with the resumption of grass growth on our annual rangelands. Typically, our grass germinates with the first significant rainfall in autumn – in 2016, this arrived on October 15. Our grass goes dormant in the depth of winter – the days are too short (and the ground is too cold) to grow much grass. As the days grow longer and warmer (usually in mid to late February), the grass starts to grow again. Since our ewes have their greatest nutritional demand when they’re giving birth and nursing young lambs, we try to match our lambing with the onset of spring growth.

For us, the springs of 2014 and 2015 represented the depth of California’s drought. In 2014, we sold nearly half of our remaining sheep (to make sure we had enough grass). In 2014, we measured just over 14 inches of rain in February and March (most of this came before we started lambing). In 2015, we measured just over 3.5 inches in this same period.

Since we lamb on pasture (as opposed to in a barn), we keep a close eye on the weather during lambing. In the last 3 years, we haven’t had much rain (especially cold rain) during lambing – which has been nice. Cold rain – especially when combined with wind – is tough on the lambs. Lambing in stormy weather means we’re checking the sheep more frequently. In good weather, we check the sheep twice a day; in stormy weather, we check them at midday as well as once or twice overnight. We also plan our grazing more carefully during lambing – we save our more sheltered pastures for lambing (ewes and lambs will shelter under trees or behind brush during stormy conditions).

The first year we lambed on pasture (2006), we were grazing near Grass Valley (which is at a higher elevation than our current operation). From late February through the end of March, it snowed every Tuesday. That year’s lambing was a trial by fire (or perhaps ice, I suppose). In 2011 (our last above average rainfall year), I can remember checking the ewes in the middle of the night in driving sleet. Since then, lambing has been relatively easy – dry weather is good for lambs (but bad for grass).

This year, we’re on pace to have our wettest year since we moved to Auburn in 2001. We’ve measured more than 44 inches of rain since October 1 – and we’re facing at least 45 more days of wintry weather. As a result, we’re spending more time planning our grazing. And I expect we’ll spend more time checking the ewes once lambing starts. We’re trying to remember what we did when we had a normal winter!

Lambing is my favorite time of year. Every day of lambing is like Christmas – the gift of new life is incredibly rewarding. Lambing is also the most stressful time of year, however; it’s six weeks of worrying. Once lambing begins, I won’t sleep well until the last ewe has given birth. Given this year’s incredible wet weather, I expect I’ll be worn out by the time the last lamb arrives.