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Stories from the valley

Finished with Lambing… and with Growing Grass?

Contributed by Dan Macon

Early on the morning of March 18, I arrived at our lambing paddock west of Auburn to check the sheep and prepare to move our flock to new grazing. I was greeted by Bodie and Elko, our livestock guardian dogs, and by the last lambs of the year – ewe 2423 had given birth to a pair of vigorous and healthy ewe lambs overnight. Both lambs were nursing when I arrived – always a good sign. Just 30 days after we started lambing, we were finished!

By nearly every measure, our short lambing season was a success. All but one of the ewes we put with our rams back in late September conceived. Despite our struggles with the bluetongue virus last fall (an insect-borne disease that we seem to see during drought years, and which can cause abortions in sheep), we didn’t experience any out-of-the-ordinary problems. With the lack of stormy weather over the last 30 days, our lamb survival exceeded our expectations. And our lambing rate of 1.6 lambs per ewe is the best we’ve ever experienced – the result of our efforts to prepare the ewes and rams for breeding last September.

sheep and lambs

Some of the advantages of a compressed lambing season are probably obvious. We check the flock three times a day during lambing; 30 days of this effort is far less labor than the typical 45-50 days! We’re back to twice-a-day checks for the next several weeks, and will go back to once-a-day in April. Since all of the lambs are reasonably close in age, they’ll be more uniform in size when we market them this summer (making them more valuable to our buyers).

However, some of the advantages are less obvious, especially as it relates to our ongoing drought. On the evening of March 14, we received just under an inch of rain – our first meaningful precipitation in 2022. While the rain was most welcome, it has not done much to alleviate the impacts of the dry, warm, and windy weather we experienced in February and much of March. Before the rain, we were seeing soil moisture levels that looked more like May than February. Just six days after the rain, soil moisture is again depleted. With even warmer temperatures forecast for the coming week, the forage plants where our sheep are grazing will be done growing (if they’re not done already).

Rangeland drought is different than drought on irrigated farmland. We can’t irrigate the pastures where our sheep are currently grazing – we rely entirely on rainfall to grow our grass. And when the rain doesn’t come, our grasses mature shorter and earlier. This early maturity means we have less total forage available, and what we do have is lower in nutritional value – a double whammy.

Because of these dry conditions, we’ve been grazing areas that we don’t typically use because they’re so steep they make building fence much more difficult. We’ve also been moving the flock more frequently, which is incredibly time consuming with young lambs. Up until the lambs are 3-4 weeks old, moving the flock is like herding cats (here’s a video of moving “pairs” from last year). As they get older, moving them becomes easier – so a more compressed lambing season means we’ll soon reach that point!

With lambing season behind us, we’re looking ahead to the start of our irrigation season in mid-April, and to shearing the sheep and moving back to irrigated pasture a week later. Last week’s rain has given us a bit of breathing room – we’re more confident that we won’t need to move sheep from our winter pastures earlier than planned. And with lambing completed, we can turn our attention to getting our irrigation system up and running. On to the next part of our year!