Contingency Plans and Silver Linings
Looking back over my writing and social media posts since last autumn, I’ve realized I’ve been beating the drumbeat of impending drought for the last seven months. When we didn’t get a germinating rain until the second half of November, I worried about whether we’d have enough green grass in February when our ewes started to lamb. After a relatively dry December, January turned wet, which was a relief. But based on the lessons I learned in 2013-2014, I continued to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. And now, in early April, it appears my pessimism was justified.
Rangeland drought is vastly different than the droughts experienced by our urban neighbors – or even (to some extent) our irrigated farming colleagues. I can’t irrigate our rangeland pastures, and so I rely on the rainfall that Mother Nature provides (rather than what we’re able to store in the ground or behind dams). On the demand side of the equation, a warmer spring has meant increased water demand from the plants on our rangelands – and after a drier-than-average water year in 2019-2020, we started this rainy season in a hole. Our seasonal creeks never flowed this winter at all – even during our wet January. The combination of low rainfall, warmer-than-usual temperatures, and early emergence from dormancy has resulted in exceedingly dry conditions.
The forages (grasses and broadleaf plants like clover) on our annual rangelands are responding to these dry conditions. Annual plants must complete their entire life cycle in the space of a year – and so the annual forages that our sheep graze in the springtime are reaching maturity much earlier than normal. This impacts our operation in two ways: earlier maturing forage doesn’t grow as much (so there is less of it). These plants also become less palatable as they mature. In other words, drought-impacted forage is less filling, and it doesn’t taste great – not a positive combination!
Despite these challenges, the relatively dry weather we experienced during late February and March was great for lambing! One of the biggest challenges of lambing on pasture in late winter and early spring is keeping lambs warm and well-fed. Managing the lambing ewes during our typically rainy lambing season often requires middle-of-the-night walks through the lambing paddock – and since we lamb on leased ground, each of these checks require a 12-mile roundtrip drive. With our mostly dry weather during lambing, we had very little extra labor demand, and excellent lamb survival. We can be thankful for small blessings during a drought year, I suppose.
Our attention now turns to irrigation season and next autumn. Fortunately, the Nevada Irrigation District (who supplies our summer water) had enough carryover storage from last year to ensure that we’ll get close to full deliveries this summer. As dry as our soils are, however, we’ll need two or three rotations of irrigation water to get our pasture grasses growing again – but at least they’ll be growing. My main concern is for next fall. We try to save enough dry grass following lambing to have something to feed the ewes in November. If the grass stops growing early, we may find ourselves short if next October is dry.
Ranching, over the long haul, requires us to shape our management to the environment. We lamb in spring to utilize the spring flush of forage growth. We manage our sheep to help remove the flammable vegetation that endangers our community in the late summer and autumn months. Sometimes Mother Nature gives us what we need; sometimes we have to adjust. This looks like an adjustment year.