After months of dry weather, hot temperatures, and enormous wildfires, we awoke this week to the sound and scent of rain. I know we’ll still have warm days, and that the most dangerous part of fire season is still ahead of us, but this week’s rain was a reminder that autumn is coming. And autumn, for a sheep rancher (at least for this sheep rancher) is always a hopeful season.
Will Rogers famously said, “The farmer has to be an optimist, or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.” Planting a seed is an inherently optimistic act – the farmer can’t know what the growing season will bring, but he or she plants the seed anyway. As a shepherd, putting the rams with our ewes requires a similar sense of optimism – especially in a year like this. We depend on getting enough rain this autumn to germinate the grass on our annual rangeland. This grass will feed our ewes and the lambs growing inside of them; ultimately, we’re betting on grass that hasn’t germinated yet to feed the lambs that arrive next March. The cycle continues.
In late August, we hauled all of the ewes home from the community where they’d been grazing on dry grass (and reducing fire danger) and put them back on our irrigated pastures. Last weekend, we went through all of our sheep – checking their body condition and overall health. We also “mouthed and bagged” all of the breeding ewes – we checked to make sure they hadn’t lost any teeth or developed any scar tissue in their udders. A ewe that’s missing teeth can’t graze as efficiently; a ewe with a lumpy udder won’t produce enough milk to raise her lambs. At the end of our morning’s work, we had selected this year’s breeding flock.
Two weeks before the rams join the ewes, we start feeding grain to the flock. For the ewes, the extra calories will increase their ovulation rate, in turn increasing the number of twin lambs they’ll deliver next spring. For the rams, the extra groceries are turned into fat – fat that they’ll burn off during the 45 days they’re with the ewes. For the first couple of weeks of breeding season, at least, eating is a very low priority for our rams – they’re too busy with other things!
The last Monday of September, usually, is the first day of our sheep year – that’s the day when we split our breeding groups and turn the boys in with the ewes. We’ll continue to feed some grain for the first two weeks of breeding; after that, the sheep will graze on irrigated pasture through Thanksgiving. By Christmas, we’ll begin to see outward signs that the ewes are carrying lambs.
Between drought, fire, virus, and politics, pessimism can come easily. The scent of wet soil and the sound of rain on the roof, for me at least, helps cure my pessimism. The thought of the lambs that will arrive next spring, the result of decisions and actions we’re taking now, restores my natural optimism. Fall is a hopeful season!