On The Desperation of Drought, and Flushing Ewes Anyway

On The Desperation of Drought, and Flushing Ewes Anyway

It rained this morning. Big, beautiful drops of water fell from blackness and for an instant I could almost hear the soil rejoice.

Drought on a farm can be a terrifying time. Last week the sky opened up and dumped as much as two inches on neighbors as near to us as just a couple country blocks over, but here that storm was little more than a few wind gusts and a blanket of grey clouds to the south. We’ve been feeding next year’s hay for weeks already; the grass has been gone since August and makes no indication of a return in 2017.

Normally we can count on an early autumn re-growth. July and August here are always hard on the unirrigated fields of grass and hay. Even our lawns consistently die off by early August only to return in September for one last show of green. We depend on this grass for the cattle and sheep. Especially the sheep whose flushing diet is normally comprised of a sudden shot of carbohydrate-rich fall grass. It’s not quite early spring grass, but it’s not too far off and it makes for a nice lamb crop come February and March.

Flushing is a practice where, by making sure a ewe’s body condition is increasing — that is, she’s gaining weight — during the breeding season, her body is encouraged to release more eggs at once. This way, she’s more inclined to have twins or triplets. It’s nature’s insurance plan. If a ewe is gaining weight in the fall she ought to have enough body condition to support more than one growing fetus through pregnancy and nursing the following spring. Her ample and growing condition is like an ace in the hole; it makes her body feel comfortable placing a bigger bet. But if she’s lean and getting leaner, her evolutionary biology wants to plays it safe. One lamb is better than none for the future of her species after all, so if it’s going to be a rough winter better to put all her energy into one robust little lamb than split it up and have two or three too weak to carry on her ovine legacy.

Evolutionarily this makes perfect sense. A lean fall leads into the leanest season of all: winter. A ewe too heavy with impending lambs will use her reserves faster than a ewe who carries just one babe. But in the year 2017, sheep in America — like their human caretakers — are more comfortable than ever. Mother Nature may be a cruel matriarch, but I don’t follow suit. Just because it was a poor hay season doesn’t mean we’ll let the sheep go hungry between now and next May. We’ll pay a pretty penny more for their winter rations and we’ll be extra careful about waste, but they’ll be fed, and well. And since a ewe’s way is paid by the lambs she produces, one who has twins or triplets is easier for us to care for even in times like these. Twins and triplets mean bigger budgets which we can translate into better care — and more of it. Hay, bedding, grain, vaccines and the whole nine yards.

This year we’ve had to resort to grain to flush the ewes and we’ll likely feed it in tiny quantities through much of the winter to help balance the nutrient density of their diet. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but it’s never the stock who feel the desperation most acutely. We’re happy to shoulder that burden. Unnatural as it may be.

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