I have an aversion to using someone else’s labels, especially when they are bantered about in the political arena, but wildflowers here at the first of February are unusually early. Temperatures for the past 10 days have been over 70 degrees, no rain in sight.
We are half-way through our rainy season with slightly over 3 inches of precipitation to date when our annual rainfall averages over 15 inches. Four of the last five years have been declared droughts by the USDA, and this season is off to the slowest start since record-keeping began. Sierra snowpack is 14% of normal. Regardless of what you want to call it, our weather, our climate, has become extremely volatile and it is changing.
Blame is a useless exercise at this juncture, I believe, because we must deal with the impacts, whatever and wherever they are, now and adapt—we’re all in this together, like it or not. From a cattleman’s perspective, green grass is short or non-existent, hay extremely hard to find. Water for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley will be expensive or unavailable this coming growing season. The price of food will increase for everyone.
I want to thank freelance journalist Carson Vaughan for bringing the topic of ‘Climate Change’ to the foreground as he interviewed people at the recent National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. I predicted that 7 out of 10 would be in denial. I truly hope I was wrong!
Oftentimes during a year of stress, some Blue Oaks shut down, loose their leaves, only to come back to life the following season. But our 4-year drought was too much and too long for whole slopes of oaks, despite above-average rainfall this season. Now, as the survivors begin to leaf-out, the casualties are fairly easy to distinguish. Most, it seems, are below 2,000 feet in elevation on north to west-facing hillsides. As these trees have been here all my life, I’m guessing they are over 100 years old, but most have probably been here less than 200 years. Usually at the top of these slopes is an older tree, or remnants of an older tree, a grandfather oak that provided the acorns.
(Facebook viewers can enlarge the photo by linking to the blog)
I thought it appropriate to offer a ‘before and after’ photo of the same hillside that’s on the cover of my ‘Best of the Dry Years’ (at the top of the column on the right) taken in September 2013. There was no improvement in feed conditions until the spring of 2016.
Dry Creek is running over 500 cfs this morning @ 6:00 a.m., after over an inch of rain in the past two days, over 6” for the first half of January—10 consecutive days of measurable precipitation—it’s wet! Any plans to cross the creek to fix fences and sort cattle won’t happen today. Furthermore, the moisture is deep, a good thing, but the only vehicle we have to get to the fence work will be the Kubota and I’d prefer to wait until Dry Creek is running less than 100 cfs.
Oh, I know the stories when Earl McKee and his sorrel horse swam the channel to ride five miles to free cattle locked in his Greasy corrals; or Clarence Holdbrooks swimming his red horse to move cattle stranded on the other side of the creek fifty years ago. They are my heroes still. All we have at risk with our current cattle mix-up is that our replacement heifers are running with the neighbor’s steers, at a time of the month, unfortunately, when the majority will be cycling, yet not exposed to the Wagyu bulls. But no livestock is at risk.
According to the 10-day forecast, we have a 5-day window to dry out before the next series of storms begin on the 18th, then 5 more days projected to leave 2.5” of rain. But no one’s complaining, yet, no one’s hollered ‘uncle’.
Not unlike the drought, Robbin and I have been making contingency plans. It dawned on me last night that making a ranch work within all the variables of the weather requires some hands-on creativity—that the art of cattle ranching starts with thinking well-outside the box. C’est la vie!
Weekly Photo Challenge: ‘Ambience’
No other love song, only
the comforting sound of fury
rumbling, rolling, churning
upstream like an old lover
returning to hold and stay
awhile with sycamores,
the boy with single-shot .410
reaching from the far bank
for dove in the top limbs
before the floods of ’67 & ’69
enveloped them, before
our high-water kisses in ’97
shared tears with rain—pure
ecstasy after so long dry.
10:00 a.m., January 8, 2017: 629 cfs
Not quite the storm of the decade, Dry Creek peaked at 1,390 cfs early yesterday morning. As of this morning, accumulated rainfall since the first of the year on lower Dry Creek has been a little over 4 inches, with yet another storm forecast to bring about 1.5″ due midday tomorrow—all welcome.
The continual gray clouds and rain of late seems miraculous when contrasted with the bare hills and dust of the past four years that have been permanently imprinted in our minds as more normal than not. The drought changed our thought processes and how we operate the ranch. And despite the ample availability of water streaming in nearly every canyon, I have often caught myself still worrying about stockwater. It’s how we lived, day to day, for a long time.
It’s good to see the creek running, the literal lifeblood of the canyon, a psychological lift as we inhale the moist air and relax a little before addressing the work that waits ahead of us. We have calves to brand and watergaps to fix as soon as we can physically get to them, when the roads dry out and creek goes down, which probably won’t be until next week if tomorrow’s storm materializes.
Warm green December, grass ahead
of fewer cattle, young bulls work
at making friends in a perfect world
of tight fences and swinging gates
everyone respects for a little while.
On the uneasy edge of drought,
we will imitate fat calves lazing,
content to watch the show unfold
into the ordinary—nothing remarkable,
but with any luck a change for good.
A light rain arrived before daylight and continued through yesterday morning, 0.12”, not much, but enough to brighten-up the grass while the girls fed and I fixed fence around the bull pen, trapping the last of the bulls at large for the past week in the riparian along Dry Creek—beyond which our replacement heifers selected for Wagyu bulls are only a narrow pasture away—all the usual testosterone tension and shenanigans that’s hard on fences as the calendars in their bullheads suggest re-establishing the pecking order before it’s time to go to work on December 1st. We will acquiesce, as we did last year, choosing to put them to work a little early rather than fix fence until our target date.
A decade or so ago at the Visalia Livestock Market ‘Off the Grass Sale’, I was admiring some Angus eight-weight steer calves in the ring that belonged to Art Tarbell, perhaps the best calves offered that day. Retired as the local brand inspector, I’d known Art all my life, a kind and honest man. I asked him when he put his bulls out, suspecting that his calves might be a little older than ours. He chuckled saying, “Oh, they sorta put themselves out!”
So much for trying to manage bulls by the numbers.
More rain has begun to appear from several sources in the forecast for Friday and Sunday after Thanksgiving, no gulleywashers, but hope for a little more moisture to add to our meager 1.50” so far this season. Our own unscientific forecast has storms arriving Sunday through Tuesday, close enough and reassuring. Nothing I’ve seen or read indicates that this will be anything but another dry year for the southern two-thirds of California and the United States.
More disturbing news from Daniel Swain’s ‘The California Weather Blog’ http://weatherwest.com/archives/author/thunder: “Over the past few weeks, a truly extraordinary “heat wave” has been taking place at a time of year when temperatures should be plummeting to bitterly cold values after the onset of “Polar Night.” Near the North Pole, surface temperatures have been at or near the freezing point for an extended period of time–around 35 degrees F above average, and not cold enough to allow for the formation of sea ice. This extreme warmth, combined with unusual wind patterns, have combined to produce record-low sea ice extent across much of the Arctic Ocean basin. In fact, (apparently) for the first time in the observational record, significant multi-day sea ice losses have occurred during the peak freeze-up season. Meanwhile, in Northern Siberia, extreme cold and incredibly deep snowfalls have been observed–itself likely a consequence of the lack of sea ice to the North. This has led to a rather incredible atmospheric setup where actual temperatures currently increase as one goes north from Eurasia to the North Pole.”
That’s the latest, we gird our loins, but ever thankful for what we have.
a patient willing descent into the grass.
– Wendell Berry (“The Wish To Be Generous”)
Hemmed in silver moonlight, scattered
clouds linger over hills, no wet reflection
of the porch light. She has come and gone
without waking me with thunder, pellets
on the roof, not a leaky drip from the eave,
leaving nothing to remember her passing
by—not even her musty petrichor perfume
in the damp dark air to soothe my senses—
gone without a thought of waking me.
From a distance in the daylight, islands
of purple filaree look like dirt in graying
green, rolling dusty plumes follow cows
into water, yet they don’t seem to worry
into another winter without rain. Too
familiar, I read the signs with each synapse
shortened by the hard and dry. Too long
in the same place, I can see the weather
and the world have changed around me—
changed me as I retreat and try to adapt
like summer weed seed over time:
impervious to thirst and political herbicides.
I awake with chain saw eyes
measuring fallen trees:
to die of thirst,
dividends of drought
thick torsos with loose bark,
little brush to stack
to clear for grass,
to cover quail from hawks—
stove wood to haul and split
to hold the cold at bay
outside the door
into chimney smoke
and they are beautiful
in death, limbs reaching up
lengths cut clean
with sharp eyes
like people to heaven
begging notice, a chance
for purpose yet
and I am looking,
measuring like a tailor
around burls and forks—
old habits stumbling
with weak knees
in and out of dreams