Effects of the California Drought

Ten days ago I had to cull again due to the drought. It was my third cull and probably not my last. This one hurt a great deal. It included sheep that in better times would have been retained as breeding stock and flock leaders. They were better representatives of my breed of sheep than the first ewes I meticulously researched, selected, purchased and waited (seemingly endlessly) to be delivered.

I mentioned to other farmers that this type of culling cuts the heart right out of you – and it does. But as I try to explain how it feels I realize that many folks, who are not faced with the day to day decisions about which animals to keep and which to slaughter, might not recognize the difference between a rancher’s decision to harvest and a forced, painful cull. How do I explain that difference?

A harvest is never “easy” to a rancher who respects each and every life on their farm as we do. But a forced cull amplifies the pain. It is not just a decision to take a life for purposes of sustenance. A forced cull abandons both progress and potential. Like many ranchers we have been breeding our sheep for specific purposes in our particular environment for many years. We select individuals who thrive and best fulfill our goals. Each year the lambs get stronger, more vigorous and better suited to our land. They evolve to thrive here and as such become more than just a sheep of a particular breed – they become sheep uniquely suited to sustainable husbandry on our ranch. A forced cull means there are fewer of these uniquely suited sheep and a smaller gene pool from which to develop the next generation.

But beyond the practical implications is the fact that when you have a forced cull you often have to include animals you have worked with and admired for many years. They may not be the prettiest or most productive.   Maybe their wool color is not perfect or they are a bit on the small side. Or maybe they are just a bit older than the rest of the flock. But they have made positive contributions to the next generation of your flock. They have mowed your orchards and eliminated weeds from your crops. They have followed you from field to field trusting you were taking them to fresh grazing. They know you and take direction from you willingly. They have provided you with milk and wool and lambs in return for your protection and care. And even when they are not tame or friendly there is a bond between you that may be hard for people to understand unless they experience it.

Even now after ten days my heart aches for the individuals I had to cull. The logical side of me knows why it was necessary but the emotional side of me will continue to grieve. I know there are ranchers all across the State with similar stories.