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Stories from the valley

Sure Signs of Spring

Contributed by Dan Macon

This morning as I walked from my pickup out to the sheep pasture, I heard the first Bullock’s oriole of the spring. These bright orange birds winter in Mexico and summer in the western U.S. They build hanging, basket-like nests in the blue oaks that grow on our foothill rangelands. For me, their return means that springtime is truly around the corner!

As a sheep rancher, gamboling lambs also mean that springtime is just around the corner! We time our lambing season to coincide with the onset of rapid grass growth (which generally happens in early March at our elevation). When she’s producing milk for lambs, a ewe’s nutritional requirements nearly double – in other words, she needs almost twice as much highly nutritious, green grass as she does when she’s not lactating. By lambing as the grass is starting to take off, we’re able to avoid feeding our sheep hay or grain at this critical period.

This year’s lambing season was unusual for several reasons. First, the length of our lambing season usually corresponds to the number of days the rams are with the ewes in the fall. This year, our breeding season was a normal 42 days. Remarkably, all of our lambs were born in just 23 days! This means that the ewes were cycling in synchronization. This also explains why the rams looked so exhausted three weeks into breeding!

Second, our lambs were larger than normal this year. We had to assist more ewes than usual during the birthing process. We had several large lambs that were born with legs or heads back – and several that were born breech (backwards). I suspect that these larger lambs were a result of the warm, wet fall (which resulted in nearly twice as much grass as typical for January). Nearly 70 percent of the fetal growth of lambs occurs in the last 5-6 weeks of gestation. Since the ewes were enjoying the incredible January grass at this point in their pregnancies, the lambs got bigger!

Now with all of our lambs on the ground, our attention turns to other matters. We’re gearing up for the start of irrigation season in mid-April – happily, we’ll have plenty of water this year! We’ll be scheduling shearing for the end of April or the first part of May. And we’re taking a little break to enjoy the returning birds in our oaks and the new life in our pastures! Happy Spring!