Contributed by Dan Macon
I must admit; the first part of 2021 has felt an awful lot like 2020. COVID-19 has continued to rage. Anxiety about politics (regardless of one’s party affiliation) seems to be the norm. Dry, warm, and windy weather sparked wildfires in the mountains and foothills to our east and south – in January! And as we approached late January, our drought conditions here in Northern California seemed to intensify. And then it rained. Finally.
Drought is a different phenomenon for ranchers than it is for our urban and suburban neighbors, and even for our irrigated crop farming colleagues. Since we rely on the grass and other plants that Mother Nature provides, a late start to the rainy season (as we saw in 2020), as well as below normal precipitation once the rainy season begins, presents an immediate problem. The threat of reduced irrigation water or water rationing seem like distant problems; we’re dealing with below-normal forage production and a lack of drinking water for our livestock NOW. Friends have been selling livestock and buying hay.
Hopefully the rainy weather that returned to Northern California last weekend marks a shift in our weather pattern. We measured just over three-quarters of an inch of rain here in Auburn this weekend, and if the forecast is anywhere close to accurate, we might measure 3-4 inches more in the coming week and a half. We’ll still end January with below-average precipitation, but things are looking up!
Grass growth on the rangelands where our sheep are grazing is dependent on the timing of precipitation almost as much as the quantity. Even though we got a late start to our grass year this winter, we do have some green grass (thankfully). The recent rain, and the rain we’re expecting to get, will keep that grass growing – even if the impending storms only deliver half of what’s predicted. Obviously, this has practical implications – more grass means we won’t need to move the sheep as often. More grass means the ewes will have plenty to eat in the last four weeks of their pregnancies. And more grass means the ewes will produce plenty of milk for their lambs, who are due to begin arriving in the third week of February.
But “normal” winter weather also improves my outlook immensely. I heard the rain start Friday morning as I was drinking my first cup of coffee. I wore a raincoat for the first time in weeks as I feed our livestock guardian dogs and checked on the sheep. I stomped in puddles! My outlook brightened considerably.
Having lived and ranched through what climate scientists call California’s 1,000-year drought from 2011-2015, I feel somewhat better prepared to cope with drought today. We have the right number of sheep for our rangeland and forage resources. We have more tools in our toolbox when it comes to adjusting to dry conditions. But this week’s rain is incredibly welcome. This week’s rain takes the pressure off. This week’s rain suggests that maybe – just maybe – things are returning to normal. Finally.