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Stories from the valley


Contributed by Dan Macon

Much like the season of Advent, the waning days of autumn and the first days of winter mark a time of waiting in our sheep operation. With breeding season over and lambing season ahead of the ewes, we’re enjoying the slower pace between the two most hectic stretches of the sheep rancher’s year. And we’re keeping a close eye on the weather. Fall rain, if it comes early enough, means winter grass. Winter rain, regardless of when it comes, means forage for the ewes when they start to lamb in late February. These first weeks of December, then, are a time of waiting for us.

Much of our waiting at this time of year centers on the weather. Will it rain? We had a germinating rain in early October, but with no moisture to follow these early rains, we had to wait for a second green-up in late November. Will it turn cold? If it does, grass growth will stop entirely. Once it’s started raining again, will the rain keep coming? The six inches of rain we received in the last 10 days of November were followed by a relatively dry stretch – a waiting period that makes winter shepherds (at least this one) nervous.

Sunday night, however, the rain returned. In a 16-hour period, we measured nearly an inch and a half of rain here in Auburn. With the shorter days and cooler temperatures of the approaching solstice at hand, this rain won’t grow much grass immediately – but it replenishes the bank account that we store up in anticipation of warmer days (and impending lambs) as the days begin to lengthen again. A little December moisture makes the waiting more bearable.

Another shepherd once told me, “Every year is the same, except that it’s different.” By this, I think she meant that the patterns of the shepherd’s year are similar one year to the next – breeding is followed by gestation is followed by lambing. Shearing precedes weaning, which precedes selling our lambs. By late August, we’re preparing again for the coming breeding season. This familiar schedule, however, fits within an unpredictable pattern of weather. We don’t know – even with the latest technology, we can’t know – what each year will bring in terms of rain, grass, and growing conditions. All we can do is wait – patiently at times, anxiously at others. This most recent rain makes the waiting a bit more bearable.