For farmers and ranchers (or least for this one), each year is marked by a series of mileposts. My shepherding year begins in early October when I turn the rams in with the ewes. The next milepost comes in early January, when we ultrasound the ewes to determine which ones are pregnant. Lambing season begins in late February – six weeks of new life. Shearing happens in early May – we wait until the youngest lambs are 6 weeks old before getting the wool off of the ewes. The last major milepost is weaning day, when we separate the lambs from their mothers – this usually happens in early June as the green grass turns to brown. I enjoy the rhythm that these mileposts impart to my work, but in recent years, each milepost has come with a reminder of the drought.
On Tuesday of last week we sheared our ewes – and the fact that we completed the task in a day was itself a reminder of the impact this drought has had on our ranch. Two years ago, we sheared 237 ewes over the course of two days. Last year, we sheared 147 ewes, having sold 90 because of the lack of grass. This year, we sheared just 95 – and we were done by 3 p.m. This year’s further reduction in numbers reflects my need to go back to work full-time because of the drought – fewer sheep means less income.
Fewer sheep wasn’t the only reminder of the drought, however. My friend Derrick Adamache, who shears our sheep, remarked that our wool (like much of the wool he’s seen this year) was dirtier than normal. It also had more stickers. The dirt in our wool is directly related to the lack of rain this winter – the dirt simply didn’t get washed out like normal. And the stickers are a result of our early maturing annual grasses. In a “normal” year, the grasses and forbs (broad-leaf plants) haven’t matured by the time we shear; this year, our forage plants are done growing and are in the process of turning brown.
The dry year has impacted our next milepost as well. As I said, we typically wean our lambs in early June as our unirrigated rangelands are drying up. The weaned lambs are either sold or moved to irrigated pasture. This year, we’ll wean two weeks earlier than normal. As the annual forage dries, its nutritional value declines. If we don’t wean early, we put the health of our ewes at risk (a lactating ewe has nearly twice the nutritional requirement of a ewe that is not producing milk). This year, our lambs will be two weeks younger – and two weeks lighter – than usual.
With Governor Brown’s pronouncement that domestic water use must be cut by 25 percent across the board, many of our urban and suburban neighbors are just now adjusting to life with less water. For those of us who raise food – farmers and ranchers – drought has been a constant companion for the last four years. While the mileposts in my year underscore the impact the drought has had on my family’s ranch, there hasn’t been a day in the last several years when the dry weather hasn’t been front-of-mind for me.