Like many people, coming to the end of one calendar year and opening a new year causes me to both reflect and plan. As a rangeland livestock producer, my reliance on precipitation means that much of my reflecting and planning during this Holiday season revolves around our ongoing drought.
Unlike other weather phenomena, a drought doesn’t have a well-defined beginning or ending. You don’t know you’re in a drought until it’s well under way; similarly, you don’t know a drought is over until after you’ve received enough rain or snow. As my friend and ranching partner Roger Ingram says, “The time to plan for a drought is while it’s still raining.” Thinking ahead, when it comes to weather, is time well spent.
While 2015 marked a continuation of what is arguably the worst drought in 500 years (at least on the West Coast of North America), we coped with the ongoing dryness reasonably well. We had already adjusted our stocking rate (we sold sheep in 2014 and 2015 both to reduce our forage demand and to reduce labor demands). We finally (after 18 months) received emergency drought funds to improve the efficiency of our irrigation system (which allowed us to stretch our summer irrigation water further). Our sheep were in great condition nutritionally coming into breeding season in October.
Looking ahead to 2016, most of our short-term plans (1-3 months) revolve around lambing. During the last four weeks of the ewes’ pregnancy and the first six weeks of their lactation (from approximately January 23 through April 30), the ewes will consume nearly twice as much forage as when they are not lactating. In practice, this means that a 5-acre pasture that lasts for 10 days in early December will only last for 5 days in late January. We time our lambing to coincide with the usual spring flush of grass growth on our annual rangelands. This year, we’re also trying to anticipate the impacts of El Nino. While most forecasters are still somewhat uncertain as to how far north the expected heavy rainfall will extend, we are planning as if we’ll have an unusually wet January through March. Since our ewes lamb in our pastures (rather than in a barn), we’re currently grazing our open hillsides and saving our wooded pastures for lambing. Trees and brush provide shelter for the ewes and lambs, and we want to make sure we have plenty of sheltered areas beginning in late February when the lambs start to arrive.
Our longer-term plans are focused on managing our irrigated pastures. With more summertime green grass this year (which is much more nutritious than dry grass), we should be able to keep our lambs longer (which means they’ll be heavier when we sell them). We should also be able to save green grass to flush the ewes prior to breeding (flushing refers to putting the ewes on more nutritious forage before exposing them to the rams to increase the number of twins conceived). Based on our experience in 2015, we think we have enough irrigated pasture to graze our current flock during the coming summer and early fall.
As I write, our part of Northern California has received close to our normal precipitation for this time of year. Last year, we had similar rainfall through the end of December – but January 2015 was one of the driest on record. While the weather forecasters seem more certain about a wet winter and spring this year, I’m still taking a wait-and-see approach. I’ll believe in El Nino when I’m still wearing my mud boots in May! In the meantime, best wishes for a wet and prosperous 2016!