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Stories from the valley

One Year to the Next

Contributed by Dan Macon

This morning, we moved the ewes and lambs onto the last unirrigated paddock of our springtime grazing.  They’ll spend the next 4-5 days on this 4-acre pasture – then we’ll move them onto our irrigated pasture for one more pass.  We’re planning to wean the lambs (that is, separate them from their mothers) on June 20 this year.  As I look back at the last several years (the depth of our multi-year drought in Northern California), I’m even more thankful for the nearly normal rain fall – and above normal springtime forage growth – in 2016!

As I look back at my production journal, I’m struck by the differences in our weaning dates since 2014.  When we wean our lambs, we immediately reduce the nutritional demand of our ewes (since they no longer need to produce milk).  We typically ship the lambs that we’re not keeping shortly after weaning, so this milestone in our year represents a significant reduction in our forage demand.  Early weaning is one of our primary strategies for coping with drought.  In 2014, we weaned our lambs on June 1.  Last year, weaning happened on May 23.  This year, as I said, we’ll wean on June 20.  And because we’re leaving the lambs with the ewes until later in the spring, we’ll have bigger lambs to market at weaning – and a bigger lamb check to put in the bank!

sheep grazing

In addition to close-to-normal rainfall and a resulting better-than-normal grass year, there are several factors that contribute to this year’s later weaning date.  Thanks to improvements that we made to our irrigation system during the drought (with help from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service), we had better fall forage and more and better spring forage on our irrigated pastures.  This meant that the ewes were in better condition going into the winter and through lambing – and they’re in better condition now than they were during the last two springs.  These irrigation improvements also mean we’ll have more and better forage throughout the coming summer and fall.  We also have fewer sheep than we had going into the drought – since May 2014, we’ve reduced our ewe numbers by more than half (another of our drought coping strategies).  With fewer mouths to feed, our grass goes further than it did two years ago.

A near-normal year hasn’t ended California’s drought, but at least in Northern California, our short-term prospects for grass growth and summer irrigation water have improved significantly.  We’re still cautious – we won’t increase our sheep numbers significantly this year in case we return to drought conditions.  Even so, I’m grateful that we have enough forage to hold onto our lambs a bit longer than we’ve been able to in the last several years!