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Stories from the valley

When the Work’s All Done This Fall

For the handful of you that might be folk music aficionados, you’ll probably realize that I “borrowed” the title for this post from a traditional cowboy tune – my favorite version was recorded by the late Doc Watson. While my post isn’t nearly as sad as the fate of old Charlie in the song (check out the lyrics!), the song – and my post – reflect the seasonal nature of working with grazing livestock.

Fall, in our sheep operation, is a combination of wrapping up our work and planning for the coming year. The Nevada Irrigation District turns off our irrigation water on October 15 most years, which means one less daily chore. Usually sometime in October, we ship the last of our lambs and any cull ewes that we need to market (shipping is stockman’s lingo for hauling these animals to market). As the days grow shorter, our work mostly slows down.

However, fall is also a time for looking ahead. Our entire year revolves around matching our lambing season (when our ewes need the highest quality forage in the greatest quantity) with the onset of rapid grass growth on our annual grasslands. In Auburn, this rapid growth usually begins in early March. If we count backwards five months (the length of time a ewe is pregnant), this means the rams are turned in with the ewes around October 1. For the month prior to breeding, and for the first two weeks the rams are with the ewes, we feed the sheep extra groceries (whole oats, this year) to “flush” them – or increase their rate of ovulation. Flushing can increase our twinning percentage by as much as 40 points. In other words, more feed in the fall means more lambs in the spring. The end of flushing coincides with the end of irrigation – and we get an extra 60 minutes a day back in our schedules!

As I write this post, just two major tasks await our attention for the remainder of the year. Next weekend, we’ll separate the rams from the ewes – the boys will go back to the bachelor life until next October. In early December, after the ewes have settled in their pregnancies, we’ll move them to our winter pastures. Someday, I hope to make this six-mile trip by walking the sheep down Mt. Vernon Road in Auburn; this year (as usual), we’ll haul 4-5 trailer loads of sheep. The sheep will stay on these unirrigated pastures until they finish lambing in early April. Our days will settle into an easy routine – we’ll feed the livestock guardian dogs daily and move the sheep into fresh forage once or twice a week.

Fall, with its shorter days and slower pace, gives us time to rest and recharge our batteries. The work is never completely done, but I enjoy the chance to catch my breath and prepare for the new life that arrives each spring.