For my non-ranching friends, especially those with children, Labor Day weekend marked the unofficial end of summer and the start of a new school year. On our ranching operation, we have started our preparations for a new production year. And this year, in part because of our ongoing drought, we’re trying out a few new approaches to our preparations.
We time the arrival of new lambs with the onset of rapid grass growth in the spring. Our ewes need large quantities of high quality grass in the last month of their pregnancies and in the first six weeks of lactation. This means that we want our lambs born in late February and March. Since ewes are pregnant for 145-155 days, we need to breed the ewes in October and early November. This schedule also means that we need to “flush” our ewes during September. Flushing is the process of increasing the quality of nutrition for our ewes prior to breeding, which increases ovulation rates (and the number of twins born in the following spring).
This year, we installed a new, highly efficient irrigation system for our pasture – it allows us to spread less water over more acreage. We’ve been saving this green grass (which has far greater nutritional value than our dry forage) for September – we turned the ewes into the first irrigated paddock yesterday (much to their delight!. They’ll stay on irrigated pasture through the first 17 days of October.
We’re also trying some supplemental feeding this year. Even though our green grass is more nutritious than our dry grass, it’s still somewhat lacking in energy and protein. This year, we’re trying out a feed source that comes from a regional food manufacturer. CalBee, located in Fairfield, makes a variety of snack foods from peas and lentils. Not every pea crisp meets their quality standards, so rather than take this “waste” to the landfill, CalBee is making it available as livestock feed. These crisps are high in protein (from the peas and lentils) and in energy (in the form of canola oil). And our sheep love them! We’re hoping that the combination of green grass and added protein and energy will mean more lambs next spring!
Every year, we measure the success of our management efforts by evaluating several parameters. Like most farming and ranching businesses, we experience a biologically-imperative time lag between implementing a management change and measuring its results. For some farmers, this is the time lag between planting and harvesting; for us, it is the interval between breeding and lambing. In other words, we won’t know whether our new flushing strategy worked until we’re done lambing in late March 2016. In the meantime, we’re feeding snack food to our sheep! Stay tuned….