While summer doesn’t officially begin until the solstice (which falls on June 20 this year), summer work at Flying Mule Sheep Company seems to begin on the day after we wean our lambs. Most of the lambs will be sold within a week of weaning; those that remain will graze on our irrigated pastures near Auburn for the rest of the season. The ewes, with lower nutritional demand once they’re no longer nursing lambs, will go back to the dry annual rangelands we graze during winter. And we’ll settle into our summer routine.
Selling lambs is like getting a report card – we’ll finally be evaluated on our year’s work! In part, we’ll be evaluated on things we can control – the genetics of our flock and the quality of our pasture will influence the value we receive for our lambs. Some things, however, are well beyond our control. This year, the lamb market has been severely impacted by the stay-at-home orders necessitated by the COVID-19 crisis. We’ll likely receive 35 to 40 percent less for our lambs than we expected to get before all of this started. Nonetheless, I always enjoy depositing our lamb checks!
This year, we’ll be keeping 25 to 30 lambs on irrigated pasture for the rest of the summer. This group will include our replacement ewe lambs (the females we’re keeping to maintain the size of our flock) and a handful of feeder lambs we’ll finish for our family and friends. Until the water shuts off in mid-October, I will start each day by moving the irrigation water and checking on the lambs and their livestock guardian dog.
On weaning day, we’ll haul the ewes back to the community near Hidden Falls Regional Park where they spend each winter and early spring. Now that the green grass on these annual rangelands has turned to golden brown, we’ll focus our grazing on fuel load reduction and weed control. My partner Roger Ingram will manage this flock until we recombine the sheep in early September in preparation for breeding season.
Like most small-scale operations, both Roger and I are flexible in these responsibilities. If Roger needs help building fence or moving sheep on the road, I’ll be there to help. Similarly, when my family takes a short vacation in early July, Roger will take over the irrigation responsibilities. And we’ll both keep a careful eye on the fire danger – any scent of smoke or sight of fire planes flying low makes us scan the horizon in the direction of our sheep.
While our work is largely the same from one year to the next, the conditions with which we must deal can change dramatically. Despite the lower-than-average rainfall we received this year, we are above normal in terms of grass growth – great for the sheep, scary for the fire danger. What looked like a strong lamb market back in February has become much less certain, thanks to the COVID-19 crisis. And so while we settle into the routine of our summer chores, we’re continuously adjusting to the conditions around us. That’s the essence of ranching, I suppose!
Top photo credit: Emma Macon