While I consider myself a rancher, from a technical standpoint, I’m a grass farmer. I graze livestock on rangeland – land that is generally unirrigated and that won’t support cultivated agriculture. I harvest my “crop” with four-legged “harvesters” – cattle and sheep. Unlike most of my colleagues in more conventional irrigated crop farming, my success in the fall, winter and early spring is directly tied to the water that falls out of the sky. No rain means no grass, as we learned painfully in December 2013 and January 2014. Thankfully, the autumn of 2014 was much better in terms of rainfall. We measured more than 11 inches of rain in Auburn for December alone, which meant that we started the New Year with a good start on our rangeland grasses.
But the first month of 2015 saw a return to dry conditions. We received just 0.01” of rain in January – and the grass showed it. At the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley, forage measurements revealed that virtually no grass grew during the month of January – even with warmer temperatures. So you can imagine how excited I was to get three inches of rain in Auburn during the first weekend of February!
The early February rain means that our grass will finally start growing again! With our first lambs of 2015 due to arrive later this month (and with the lambs, our ewes’ greatest demand for grass), the rain means we should start March with sufficient forage. Longer days, warmer temperatures and adequate soil moisture results in grass – my most important crop!
But we’re not out of the woods yet – I’m still worried about the rest of the season. Most of our grasses are annuals, which means they have to complete their entire life cycle each year. If the rain stops and weather stays warm, these grasses will mature and go to seed early (which means we have less production). And in the summer months, we rely on irrigated pasture. Our water comes from mountain reservoirs which are typically fed by snow melt. According to the latest snow survey, our snow pack is woefully inadequate at the moment. We may see reductions in our summer water supply if we don’t catch up in March and April.
Fortunately, the forecast for March seems to indicate that we may receive substantial precipitation. Another “Miracle March” would be nice. To paraphrase humorist Will Rogers, a rancher wouldn’t be a rancher if he weren’t an optimist. So while our thoughts turn to spring, I’m hoping for more winter weather in Northern California. Keep it coming!