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Stories from the valley

A Normal Fall

Contributed by Dan Macon

I suppose this post will be proof to some that ranchers are never satisfied. When it’s not raining, we complain about the drought. When it starts raining, we complain about the mud. When it rains in the summertime, we complain about the price of hay. When it fails to rain in the fall, we worry about our lack of winter grass.

In the second half of September, we measured more than two inches of rain here in Auburn – more than enough to germinate the forage (grasses and clovers, primarily) on our winter pastures. While we celebrated the earlier-than-normal start to the growing season, I worried about the similarities between 2013 (when the grass started early only to wither in our unusually dry fall and early winter months) and 2019. And just like 6 years ago, the promising September weather gave way to a warm, dry October (punctuated this year by multiple “public safety power shutoffs” due to fire danger). Even with wet weather returning during Thanksgiving week, we measured less than three-quarters of an inch of rain in October and November – not nearly enough to keep the early grass growing.

Our foothill grasslands typically experience two dormant seasons. The first is obvious; our annual grasslands must always go to seed and die in late spring or early summer. We don’t see any new forage growth until the germinating rains of autumn – and we manage our grazing accordingly. This means we try to leave enough of the springtime grass growth to sustain our sheep in the fall until the new grass is up and growing.

The second dormant season is less obvious. Even in the best of years, grass growth typically slows (and usually stops) sometime around the winter solstice. At this point in the year, the days are too short, and the temperatures (of both air and soil) are too cold to facilitate growth. The grass just sits there until longer days and warmer temperatures return in early February. In 2013, we experienced an unusual intensification of this pattern; a dry October and November were followed by low snowfall in early December. This cold storm, in turn, was followed by nearly 60 days without rainfall. Looking back at photos from December 2013, I’m startled by the lack of green grass.

While we don’t seem to be in the same pattern this December, this recent rainfall won’t do much to help our forage situation in the short term. Joe Fischer, a rancher friend here in Auburn, tells me that his dad says the grass won’t grow unless the combined high and low temperatures exceed 100. Yesterday, our low temperature was 36; the high was 49 (for a combined high-low of 85). Even though we’ve had rain, we likely didn’t grow any grass yesterday. The cold days of December and January won’t support much growth, even if we’ve had enough moisture.

Based on this, we realized in early November that we were going to need to sell sheep, feed hay, or find alternative grazing land to get us through the early winter this year. Fortunately, our friends Nathan and Kaitlyn Medlar, who also graze sheep (along with goats – all for fuel-load reduction in the spring and summer) offered us some valley alfalfa stubble for our sheep. Valley farmers have long used sheep (and increasingly goats) to manage weeds and pests in alfalfa during the late fall and winter. And so several weeks ago, we hauled our sheep west of Highway 99 in Sutter County to graze 40 acres of alfalfa.

We’re incredibly grateful for the forage, but grazing alfalfa comes with its own set of complications. Alfalfa is incredibly nutritious, which can cause bloat in sheep if they overconsume it (bloat is a potentially fatal stomach ache, in layman’s terms). Windy storms, like those we’ve enjoyed over the last week or so, create additional challenges – we need to reinforce our fences to keep them from blowing over. And we’re learning that the water that typically runs off our foothill grazing land has to go somewhere – these valley fields can become soggy in a hurry.

We’re incredibly fortunate to be part of a community of ranchers that helps one another through difficult times. Nathan and Kaitlyn’s generosity has meant we don’t need to sell sheep, and we don’t need to buy hay (it’s almost always cheaper to take livestock to feed than to buy feed for livestock). And we’re incredibly thankful for the return of wet weather since Thanksgiving. This moisture won’t grow much grass for the next 4-6 weeks, but it will mean that we have enough grass to get us through lambing in late February and March. That said, I’d much prefer a “normal” fall – whatever that is!