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Stories from the valley

Foolishness? I Prefer to Call It Optimism

Contributed by Dan Macon

As I write this, another round of wildfires has ignited in Northern California. While these fires are not impacting us directly here in Auburn, our horrid air quality has returned. With east winds, temperatures in the 90s, and extremely low humidity, we’re enduring another Red Flag Warning. Our irrigation water shuts off in 16 days and there’s no rain in the forecast. Our country remains polarized and in the grip of a pandemic. And yet today, we did one of the most optimistic things a sheep rancher can do: we turned the rams in with the ewes. In about 150 days, we should see the first lambs of 2021.

Having survived the 1000-year drought of the mid-2010s, we have rebuilt our sheep numbers to a level that we think we can sustain even in a dry autumn. Between our irrigated pasture, some farm ground we graze for a neighbor, and the rangeland forage we saved for fall, we should have plenty for the ewes to eat – even if we don’t get rain until November. But we will need rain at some point in the next 40 days – our annual rangelands won’t germinate another crop of grass until we get at least an inch of rain. Last spring’s grass is now dry – fine for fall grazing, but the sheep will need more nutrition come late December (as they enter their last trimester of gestation).

sheep being loaded into trailer

Even with this uncertainty, the first day of a new breeding season always makes me optimistic. We brought the breeding flock back to irrigated pasture in late August, and we’ve been feeding them a mixture of grain and oilseed for the last two weeks to get them ready for this day. This process, called “flushing,” puts the ewes on a rising plain of nutrition. The added energy and protein in their diet increases ovulation – and increases the number of lambs born next year. We’ve also been giving the rams some extra groceries – during the six weeks they’re with the ewes, they’ll often forget to eat!

This morning, we brought the ewes into the corrals to assess their nutritional status and sort them into breeding groups. Our white-face ewes (mostly Cheviots) went with our Blueface Leicester ram – the resulting lambs will be crossbred “mules.” We’ll keep most of these ewe lambs as replacements next year. The mature “mule” ewes, along with our Shropshire ewes, went with our Shropshire rams. When the rams were turned in with their respective groups, I was pleased to see some serious interest!

sheep grazing in field

I’ve found that in raising sheep – or in any other agricultural endeavor, really – the work is the same, but every year is different. Today marks the 16th time I’ve turned rams in with ewes in late September or early October. In some years, we’ve had rain by now; other years have been dry like this one. Sometime around the beginning of breeding season, I always hear some of the first Sandhill cranes flying south over the ranch – I heard them today, in fact! And usually while we’re lambing, I’ll hear them returning north – a sure sign that spring is returning. And so even with all the craziness around us, I’m reassured today. I know the seasons will change (eventually) – and I know the lambs are coming! How can I not be optimistic today?!