While I consider myself a sheep rancher, in many ways, I’m a farmer who grows a crop (grass) and harvests it with 4-legged combines (sheep). Our sheep turn this grass (inedible to humans) into meat, fiber and milk – products we can use. Folks who don’t grass and harvest it with grazing animals, I suppose, probably think we ranchers are always complaining. We never have enough rain, except when we get too much. The rain doesn’t come at the right time, or in the right place. The grass is washed out, or it matures too early. The summer heat shuts down our irrigated pasture growth, but we want warm soils in the fall to get the grass started. In other words, to the uninitiated, we ranchers are never happy! From my perspective, all I ask is that we have perfect weather – all of the time!
Seeing ourselves through others’ eyes, I think, is helpful. At a holiday party, a friend told me that her husband couldn’t quite figure out why I was so worried about winter rain – and why I couldn’t enjoy a “beautiful” sunny day in December. While I’m a worrier by nature, I think worrying about the weather is natural for anyone who relies on Mother Nature directly. That casual conversation planted the seed for this brief explanation of how our rangeland and pasture-based sheep operation works.
Sheep (and cows, goats, deer, antelope, bison, elk, among other critters) are ruminants. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying their digestive systems, these animals have multi-compartment stomachs that contain bacteria that allow them to digest the cellulose contained in grasses and other plants (which we have difficulty digesting ourselves). These bacteria require protein to thrive – for a sheep to maintain weight and essential bodily functions, its diet needs to contain at least 8 percent protein. The cheapest (and best, in my opinion) source of protein is green forage (grass, broadleaf plants, brush, etc.).
In our Mediterranean climate, most of our precipitation falls from November through March. If we get sufficient rain early enough in the fall (1 inch in mid-October is ideal), the annual grasses and forbs (broadleaf plants like clover) on our rangelands will germinate and begin to grow. We typically move onto these rangelands in early December, by which time we hope there’s enough green grass to meet the nutritional needs of our sheep. And we hope the rain keeps coming – while the grass goes dormant during the short, relatively cold days of December and January, we want to keep the soil moisture up so the grass will start growing again in February. In the best years, the annual grasses and forbs start growing in October and continue growing through the end of May. Since most of these plants on our unirrigated rangelands are annuals, however, they are compelled to complete their life cycles each spring – that is, even if it kept raining through the summer (or even with irrigation), our annual grasses and forbs would set seed and die. A note about irrigating our annual rangelands (because I’m frequently asked) – we simply cannot do it. We typically can’t get water to much of these lands, and it would be too costly even if we could. These dead grasses are the iconic golden, rolling hills of our foothill rangelands. During the winter and spring months, these growing plants contain as much as 20-22 percent protein – more than enough for our sheep! As they mature and die, the protein levels crash – by August and September, these annual plants may be as low as 3-4 percent protein. Our sheep can graze this brown vegetation, but they need additional protein to allow their gut microbes to digest this more fibrous material.
In our operation, that’s where irrigated pasture comes in! Unlike our annual rangelands, our irrigated pastures are planted with introduced perennial plants (like orchard grass, fescue, plantain, ladino clover, and birdsfoot trefoil – aren’t these great names?!). To keep these improved pastures growing during the summer months, we must irrigate. And while rainfall is important to keeping these pastures alive in the winter and for resuming growth in the spring, we have to “make’ it rain by irrigating these pastures every 7-10 days during the late spring, summer and fall.
We’re fortunate in our part of the foothills to have a gravity-fed surface water system. In the simplest terms, this means we don’t have to pump water to irrigate our pastures. We purchase water from the Nevada Irrigation District (NID), which has storage reservoirs ranging from Jackson Meadows in the high Sierra Nevada mountains to our east down to Scotts Flat Reservoir near Nevada City and Combie Lake between Auburn and Grass Valley. This system, partly a vestige of the Gold Rush, depends storing water both in these reservoirs and as snow – the higher elevation lakes, in particular, are snow-fed. In normal years, our irrigation water begins on April 15 and lasts through October 15. In particularly dry years, NID might delay deliveries in the spring or shut off the water earlier in the fall. Without irrigation to grow our late spring, summer and fall forage, we have to find other ways to supplement the protein in our flock’s diet (usually with hay or a grain-based protein) – all of which adds to our costs of production.
Our entire management calendar is based on this system. Our ewes have their greatest demand for high quality forage in the last 3-4 weeks of their pregnancies and the first 6 weeks of nursing lambs. We match this 10 week peak in demand for high quality forage with the time of year when we typically grow lots of grass – late winter through spring. We try to match our system with what Mother Nature usually provides, but sometimes she doesn’t live up to her side of the bargain. In the winter of 2013-2014, for example, we didn’t have any rain for nearly 60 days in December and January. This meant less grass at lambing time (March), which in turn meant more labor on our part (moving sheep every 3 days rather than every 6-7 days). The winter of 2015-2016 was different – the rain in our part of the foothills was fine, but we had a much-diminished snowpack. Thankfully, NID was able to make normal irrigation deliveries – but another low snowfall year could have meant reduced irrigation water.
Every year, obviously is different – which is sometimes a source of frustration (and always a source of conversation) for ranchers. This year, our germinating rain came on October 20 (we measured 0.67 inches at home). It was another 3 weeks before we got another significant rain, but the second half of November was outstanding (we ended up with nearly 7.5 inches for the month). The grass on our annual rangelands was sufficient to feed our ewes when we turned them onto winter pastures on December 2. But then the rained almost stopped coming – we had just two storms (and less than an inch of rain) in all of December. And the first snow survey of the year yesterday indicated that the Sierra snowpack is just 24% of normal. As you might imagine, those of us who came through the 2012-2015 drought with grazing livestock are a bit spooked – many of us are dusting off our drought plans! For our operation, we do as much planning and preparation for drought as we can – we stock our pastures conservatively, we try to stockpile dry grass for the fall and winter, we keep careful records of our grazing and of forage growth. We also try to plan our responses if drought intensifies – setting dates for selling sheep if we don’t have enough grass, for example.
From the outside, I can see where I might seem difficult to please. I want rain in October. I want it warm enough in the foothills in October and November to start our annual grasses, but cold enough in the high country that the snow pack builds. In the late winter and spring, I’d like sunny days mixed with periodic rain to extend the annual grassland growing season, but more snow in the mountains to fill our reservoirs. During the summer, I’d like warm days and cool nights that favor grass growth on our irrigated pastures. To further complicate the outside perspective on farmers and ranchers, the weather conditions that are favorable to our grazing operation might be harmful to a mandarin grower or vegetable farmer. Growing food is so darned complicated!
So if you happen into a coffee shop with pickups outside and farmers and ranchers inside, you can expect to hear them talking about the weather. If you’re with a rancher when a weather forecaster talks about another beautiful, sunny day in December, you can expect him (or her) to gripe! And don’t be surprised if he (or she) checks multiple weather apps to find a more hopeful forecast!