Spring is over. The rains have stopped and the north wind blows incessantly, creating ripples and white caps on the sea of wild oats and barley. Yellow mariposa lily, pink checkerbloom, harvest brodiaea, and farewell-to-spring are in bloom, a floral last hurrah before the heat and dust of summer sets in. In swales and ephemeral streams, coyote thistle bristles blue in contrast to the smooth emerald of the rushes. The grasses have headed up and are ripening seed, some which will stay high on the plant for a month or more, the rest shattering and falling on the soil or sticking in socks, the dogs’ ears, and the woolly fleeces of the sheep. The wind makes fence wires hum and sing. When it blows harder, the wind turbines that produce electricity for the ranch begin to howl and moan, setting our nerves on edge. In just a few days’ time, the wind will suck the last color from the grasses, leaving a pale wash of tans, beige, blonde, and sage green on the land.
The grassland is our home. We share it with hundreds of plant species, dozens of kinds of birds, snakes, toads, lizards, and small mammals, and innumerable insects and microbes. California grasslands are unique because they occur in one of five areas in the world with a Mediterranean climate: cold and wet in winter, hot and dry in summer. Other grasslands in the world receive summer rains, but in the Sacramento Valley, the rain stops in June and the temperatures just get hotter and hotter until September. Wild and domesticated, those of us that live here must make adjustments to survive the long, hot, dry, summer. Most of the plants have a simple strategy: live short lives during the “good times,” then set a lot of seed and die, and thus survive in tough little capsules on the soil surface or just below. Other plants avoid the summer drought by going underground. When conditions are good, their leaves grow and make food that is stored in bulbs deep in the soil all summer until moisture triggers their reemergence. Birds and toads and snakes and small mammals have similar adaptations. Some burrow underground and aestivate during the hot part of the year. Others leave altogether, returning only when conditions are favorable again. Some creatures are active, but only at the cooler ends of the day. That is our strategy: get up before dawn, work until it’s too hot, rest in the middle of the day, and work again until dark.
Late spring is one of the busiest times of year for us. Most of the year’s production of chickens is on pasture or in the process of being harvested and sold at the farmer’s market. We tend the chickens many times a day. They arrive as tiny chicks from the hatchery via the mail. We install them in their brooder where they stay safe and warm until they are big enough to go outside. During those two weeks, Richard checks them constantly, making sure the temperature is optimal, looking for weaklings, feeding and watering and cleaning. When the birds are older, they are turned out every morning to pasture where they flap and run, bump chests, dust bathe, and poke around in the grass. Feeders are filled with certified organic feed, waterers cleaned and checked for leaks, and grit pans refilled. On dangerously hot days, we set up misters to keep the birds a bit more comfortable. It’s not all hard work though. A fair amount of time is spent standing and watching “chicken TV,” a necessary and thoroughly enjoyable part of animal husbandry. Necessary, because by observing the animals often one can catch trouble before a crisis occurs. A malfunctioning mister or waterer can cause the premature death of the meat chickens if they overheat on a hot summer day. During one chicken TV episode, we observed symptoms of a nutritional deficiency (caused by a mistake in the feed manufacture) and quickly corrected it with vitamin supplements. Most of the time, everything is fine, and we take pleasure in watching healthy, vibrant birds happily going about their business.
A few years ago, we started growing chickens as part of our goal of self-sufficiency. We felt that one should “husband” the land, in the best sense of the word, and that meant to provide a good life for those who shared the land with us. And when the time came, it meant to look those animals in the eye and thank them for giving their lives so we might have a livelihood. Of course, once we ate our first home-grown chicken, we realized that the taste was better than anything we’d ever had before, and we were hooked.
Out on the grassland, the current crop of lambs is finishing. That means they are gaining weight and putting on the layer of healthy fat that makes them so juicy and delicious. This is a crucial time, as the animals must be moved to fresh paddocks daily to give them the best selection of plant foods. The paddocks (smaller enclosures within a large pasture) are created with temporary electric fencing, so much of our time is spent putting up and taking down the fences, moving water troughs, and replenishing salt and mineral supplements in the field. We use a method of grazing variously called MiG (management intensive grazing), pulse grazing, high-density/short duration grazing, or holistic grazing. I prefer the latter because it best describes what we are trying to do on the land: manage it for the health and well-being of all, the “whole” in holistic. By moving the animals frequently in a choreographed way, we can feed the land while it feeds us, nudging nature gently in the direction we want to go (better pastures, dynamic soils, greater biodiversity, healthier animals and people, and sustainable income).
As summer approaches, the sheep are brought up to the barn so lambs can be weighed and sorted and ewes sheared and readied for breeding. The heavy lambs are separated out and taken to the USDA inspected slaughterhouse so we can legally sell the meat at the farmers’ market. The lamb that we harvest as the grass begins to brown is all we will have to sell until next spring. Because we do not irrigate land, preferring instead to work within nature’s annual rain budget, we must time the birth, growth, and harvest of the lambs to parallel the seasonal germination, growth, and death of their natural food, grass.
Late spring is also shearing time, so we gather up and sort the ewes into several groups, putting a small number into the barn for the day’s work and the rest into a paddock to graze nearby. Shearing is hard physical work, and it requires skill to handle the sheep and remove the wool in one piece. I’m no professional, but after many years I can flip a ewe on her rump, clean off the belly wool, open the hip fleece, turn her and slip the cutters up the throat on the wicked neck blow, open the shoulder, turn and lay her on her side for the long blows up the back: halfway done. The cutters fly over the back of the neck, and then I roll her up, peeling away the shoulder wool on the other side down to the hip, finally separating wool and ewe at the tail. I sit her up, grab the hoof shears and trim her feet, then turn her loose, ready for joining with the ram. That’s when it all goes well. When it doesn’t go well, she flips me on my rump.
In late summer, we slow down a little and take a break from growing chickens. It’s just too hot for them, so the best strategy is to avoid the heat entirely and only grow them during the favorable times of year. The sheep have been shorn, and the brilliant white of their freshly revealed skin is now the dusty tan color of the landscape. Mid-day they bed down in the tall grass after an early graze and disappear, perfectly camouflaged. The morning check can panic us, thinking the sheep have gone on a walkabout, until we find them sleeping and burping in a low spot, chins on each other’s backs.
The dry grasses are all the sheep will eat between now and first rain, so they must be rationed carefully. As part of managing the “wholes,” we calculate how much food is standing on the land and match our herd size to the carrying capacity of our land. We estimate the amount each animal will need to be well fed for a day and multiply by the five or six months of no grass growth, and then add an amount to feed the wildlife (in our case, rabbits, voles, gophers, and other small mammals, as well as seed-eating birds). We must leave enough standing and trampled grass to provide habitat and to keep the soil covered, which will feed and protect the all-important soil microbes, earthworms, and other small soil organisms. Finally, we factor in the possibility that the rains may not come as expected and plan to have a month or two of “extra” feed in case of a drought. Planning our summer grazing in this way allows us to know at the beginning of the dry time whether we have too many or too few animals for the land to support.
A few years ago California entered another drought cycle. The rains were late and not enough, and the plants were short and sparse. We sold off about a third of the flock to ensure that there would be enough feed for those who remained. In a “good” year, oats and rye will dominate the fields. If the rains are late or stingy, clovers and filaree and wildflowers often take over. This back-and-forth between “grass years” and “forb years” (non-grass) is typical of our variable climate. Every year is different. We have tried seeding different species to enhance the food value of the vegetation, but we haven’t been impressed with the results. What works for us is changing the way we manage the land to work with what we have and move toward what we want. The goal is to tilt the balance in favor of the “good” plants (tasty rye, perennial species that stay green longer, nutritious clovers, and native plants) and reduce the “bad” plants (unpalatable species like medusahead and noxious weeds). It takes planning and time. Mistakes made this year can resonate for two or more years in the future. But so can successes. Last year, for the first time, I discovered a small patch of purple needlegrass, a native perennial grass that once dominated the terraces of this valley. This little relict patch was probably eaten short for the last fifty years and barely survived, but now we give it ample time to recover each year, and it is increasing.
High summer and the air is hotter than blood. The first clothes hung on the line are nearly dry by the time the last piece in the basket is pinned up. The garden gets picked and watered early, and we forget to have that second cup of morning tea. I anticipate the morning check on the ladies because I get to watch the sunrise walking west. The moment the sun crests the foothills, my skin warms and a bright band of light floods across the valley. If I time it just right and don’t blink, I’ll witness the moment my shadow appears on the ground before me. In the grassland, all is well. The sheep have full rumens and are gathering up to rest and wait out the hot part of the day. Horned larks sit in the meager shade of a fence post.
Later in the summer, when the nights start to get too hot to stay indoors, we move our bed outside and sleep under the stars. Instead of reading books, we read the sky. We watch the arc of the planets and name the summer constellations: Cygnus the swan, Lyra, Cassiopeia, the Corona Borealis, and my favorite, little Delphinus. Bats dip and dart overhead, eating the last few mosquitos, and we fall asleep, counting satellites, not sheep.
This is the first in a year-long series about seasons on Wookey Ranch, in the grasslands north of Chico, home to Baji Hantelman, Richard Coon, and the creatures mentioned herein.
Edible Shasta-Butte is the guide to local food, dining, and gardening in Northern California’s central valley from Butte County north to the Oregon border.