Newborns

Newborns

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Can Direct Marketing Save the Ranch?

I've had several conversations recently with ranching colleagues (both of whom operate much larger ranches than we do) about marketing meat versus marketing livestock. To some extent, each of us had started marketing meat for a variety of economic and philosophical reasons. Economically, we felt that by bypassing the "middlemen" in the meat business (cattle or lamb buyers, processors, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, etc.), we'd be able to capture more of the consumer dollar and enhance the profitability of our operations. Philosophically, we wanted to provide food directly to our communities. We wanted to shorten the distance between the ranch gate and the dinner table. In each case, we've recently concluded that the meat business is very different than the livestock business. We've concluded that we enjoy the work of caring for livestock and land far more than marketing meat. And we've each concluded that if we can't sell a live animal off grass and make a profit, no amount of value-added marketing of meat will make the business profitable. In other words, at least for this admittedly small sample size of family ranches, direct marketing alone cannot save the ranch.

When we established Flying Mule Farm more than 15 years ago, we focused our marketing efforts on direct-to-consumer and direct-to-retail channels. We sold beef, lamb and goat - and for one season, chicken - at our local farmers markets and to local and regional restaurants. While we learned a great deal about our products, we also learned that direct marketing took an enormous amount of ,time. During the peak of our direct marketing efforts, I spent 7-8 hours each week driving to and selling at the Roseville Farmers Market. I also spent 6-7 hours selling at the Auburn Farmers Market. In the summer months, I added 15 hours each week going to the Tahoe City and Truckee Farmers Markets. From June through September, this meant 30 hours each week selling meat - on top of 40 to 50 hours each week irrigating pastures, moving sheep, and doing other ranch chores. Looking back at those years, I have a better understanding as to why I was tired all the time!

The decision to sell meat rather than livestock had additional ramifications for our business. Converting a finished lamb into meat incurs additional costs - by the time I paid for harvest and cut-and-wrap services, transportation of live animals and finished product, storage of finished product, marketing labor, and other "value-added" costs, I had an additional $100-125 per lamb in expenses. The logistics of selling meat took more time away from production activities. A trip to the processor (which happened 8-10 times per year) meant 4 hours on Monday and 4 more hours on Friday were consumed with loading, transporting and unloading lambs (and then loading, transporting and unloading meat). Finally, selling meat instead of selling live animals meant I would defer receiving payment for my work until the last package of meat was sold. When I sold lambs to the processor or at an auction, I had a check within 3-4 days; when I sold meat, I might not receive final payment for that load of animals for 3-4 months. The expenses were due when they were incurred; the revenues took much longer to obtain.

Even though we were capturing a higher price for our retail products, I came to realize that direct marketing meat was a volume-dependent business. Economic "laws" are difficult to break - and the law of economies of scale is especially severe. I used just as much fuel hauling 25 lambs to the processor as I used hauling 2. Other expenses were similar - the unit cost of storage, labor, and processing were all affected by the volume of lambs I was marketing. Volume impacted the demand side of my equation, too. Restaurants wanted to buy lamb chops by the case (for example) - and they wanted all of the lamb chops in the case to be identical in terms of size, thickness and quality. Such uniformity was difficult when we were harvesting just 15-20 lambs at a time. Every rancher who has sold meat has bumped up against the reality that there are only 2 tri-tips in every steer - or 2 racks in every lamb. Selling steaks and chops was easy; selling chuck roasts and shoulder roasts was far more challenging.

Without question, there is demand for locally produced meat products in the community where we ranch. My colleagues would agree - they've observed similar interest in their communities. That said, each of us has realized that the greatest driver of profitability in our ranching businesses is in the production of a live animal. As one friend said, "If I can't make money grazing my cattle, selling steaks isn't going to turn my business around." I'm not sure how to resolve this seeming contradiction. Consumers, increasingly, want to directly support those of us who produce their food. At least for me, I haven't figured out how to make this work on the production side of the equation.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Dealing with the Heat

As I write this, we're three days into the first heat wave of 2017. Today, the thermometer here at our home has topped out at 96F (so far) - I suspect we've been closer to 100F at the ranch. According to Weather Underground, our humidity this afternoon is 21% - while it's relatively dry compared to the Midwest or South, it definitely feels muggy from my western perspective. In this kind of weather, we take a number of precautions - both for our animals and for ourselves.

During heat waves like this, I try to start work extra early. I usually move irrigation water and check the sheep before heading into my "real" job. I typically can leave the house by 7 a.m. and complete these chores in time to get to work at 8 a.m. This week, I'll be trying to leave the house an hour earlier. As always, I wear a wide-brimmed hat to shade my head. I also try to wear light-colored shirts and plenty of sunscreen. Even so, I'll typically sweat through my clothes before arriving at the office. I also drink water constantly - at my current rate, I'll drink more than a gallon of water today.

Our sheep are currently grazing on irrigated pasture with plenty of trees for shade. We fill water troughs morning and night - their water consumption has nearly doubled since the cooler weather we experienced a week. We also walk through the sheep more frequently - keeping an eye out for respiratory infections or other heat-related ailments. While sheep (and other livestock) can usually tolerate this kind of heat reasonably well, the wide swings in temperature (it was in the 60s last weekend) can create problems. By checking on the sheep twice a day, we can generally catch any problems before they become too serious.

We also keep a close eye on our dogs - both border collies and livestock guardian dogs. The guardian dogs, like the sheep, drink more water in this heat. They'll also stand or lay in the water troughs - I would, too! As long as they've got shade and water, they seem to handle the heat. With our herding dogs, we try to do any necessary work as early as possible. For example, we'll bring the sheep in to wean the lambs this Friday. We'll try to start work by 6 a.m., which should allow us to be done by 9 or 10 a.m. We'll take plenty of breaks, too, which gives the border collies a chance to cool off in the water troughs.

With the heat, the fire danger increases. We're always aware of the sound of fire planes and the smell and sight of smoke in the summer time; I'm especially vigilant in weather like this. With all of the dry grass, a spark and little bit of wind on a day like this can be disastrous. Once we wean the lambs, the ewes to will graze on dry forage for several months - I won't really relax until we move them back to irrigated pasture in early September.

Finally, weather geek that I am, I'll keep checking the forecast. According to Weather Underground, Thursday will be our hottest day in Auburn; by next week, we'll be back into the low 90s. The National Weather Service offers a slightly more optimistic forecast - more cooling by early next week. AccuWeather splits the difference. Regardless of the website, we're likely to have more hot weather as the summer progresses. Stay cool and safe out there!

High relative humidity can make hot temperatures even more dangerous. We keep an eye on the heat index
during weeks like this, too.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Change is Inevitable - but not always positive!

Last week, I heard one of my favorite cowboy poets, Wallace McRae, recite his poem, "Things of Intrinsic Worth" on the radio (thanks, KVMR!). Several days after I heard it, I found this interesting video on YouTube:


The changes that have happened in my world are very different than the strip mining and power generation that have impacted McRae's community of Colstrip, Montana. Most of the changes here in the foothills have involved pavement and rooftops - farms and ranches become strip malls and housing developments. The constant in both cases, though, is that many view farm and ranchland as inventory. In my mind, there is no higher or better use of land than producing food, clean water, habitat and beauty (all of which well-managed farms and ranches provide) - a real estate appraiser, developer, or mining company executive might disagree. I don't begrudge the farm and ranch families who've sold out; I do mourn for the loss of productive land.

These kind of changes can have profound impacts on communities as well as on individual farms and ranches. Several years ago, when moving goats from a targeted grazing project west of Lincoln, we found ourselves stranded on the wrong side of a raging creek - a creek we'd jumped across only the day before. A sudden downpour upstream of our location had pushed the stream over its banks. When we first moved to Placer County, this upper watershed was mostly ranches; at the time of the flood, the rain couldn't soak in because of the impervious surfaces in shopping centers and housing developments.

As I drive through parts of western Placer County, I sometimes worry that the only "ranches" my children's children will know are places like Stanford "Ranch" and Johnson "Ranch" -= housing developments that use our county's agricultural past as a marketing gimmick. I worry that those of us foolish enough to try to farm or ranch at a commercially viable scale in the Sierra foothills will forever more be leaseholders rather than landowners. Our operations will lack the stability and longevity that ownership conveys. In some ways, we'll lack the connection to place that has been so important to our foothill communities.

I suppose that I'm not quite old enough to be a curmudgeon - but just as being an "old timer" is more about attitude than chronology, being a curmudgeon is probably a state of mind. I miss the little farm just east of my hometown of Sonora (which was covered by the Sonora Plaza Shopping Center before I got to high school). I'm grumpy about the soon-to-be replaced one-lane bridge on Wise Road between Auburn and Lincoln (I'll miss slowing down and waving at an oncoming driver as I let him pass). I'm sad to think that Jim Bickford's family ranch near Penryn will be houses and golf courses in my lifetime. Some might say this is "progress" - I think we're losing something more valuable.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Different Dogs

Reno, an Anatolian Shepherd.
I recently read several chapters in Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger. The Coppingers founded the Livestock Guarding Dog project at Hampshire College in Massachusetts in the mid 1970s. Their work helped identify the types of behaviors and experiences (or training) necessary for successful livestock guardian dogs. An incident with our own dogs last night (and observations over the last several weeks) seemed to confirm much of what I read.

The book discusses the origins of livestock guardian dog breeds, which I found fascinating - the Coppingers theorize that these dogs developed over the course of centuries (indeed, millennia) of transhumant sheep and goat grazing in Europe and Asia. Dogs that stayed with these traveling flocks - and that protected them from predators - were given preferential treatment (more food, opportunities to reproduce, etc.) by their shepherds.

The Coppingers also suggest that the critical period for bonding livestock guardian dogs with the animals they'll spend their lives guarding is 4 to 16 weeks of age. During this period, when a dog's brain is undergoing rapid growth and change, social bonds can be formed. After this window closes, according to the Coppingers, these social bonds cannot typically be formed - in other words, if a livestock guardian dog doesn't bond to livestock before he or she is 4 months old, it probably won't happen.

As I've written before, we require several behaviors from our working livestock guardian dogs. First and foremost, obviously, they must protect our sheep from predators - coyotes, mountain lions and domestic dogs, at the moment; wolves, perhaps, in the future. This requires the type of bonding process described in the Coppingers' book. We also need our dogs to respect our electric fences. We've had dogs who were bonded with our sheep and who protected our sheep from predators, but who wanted to patrol beyond the boundaries of our electro-net fenced paddocks. Since we typically graze in rural residential areas near public roads, we couldn't keep dogs who wouldn't stay in our fences. Finally, again because we're in rural residential areas, we need dogs that are not inappropriately aggressive with other people. See "More Observations about Livestock Guardian Dogs" for more detailed descriptions of some of the dogs that have not fit our needs over the years.

There are folks out there who specialize in breeding and raising livestock guardian dogs and who guarantee that they'll work in any situation. These dogs typically cost a great deal more money than the dogs we've purchased, and while they're guaranteed, I've never been willing to pay this extra cost. As I've observed our own successful dogs, I've decided that I am more comfortable managing that critical bonding window myself. I suspect that it's also important to expose a puppy to the other environmental factors that shape future behaviors in that 4-16 weeks-of-age window - factors that are very specific to our own operation. That's not to say that there's not a place for those who specialize in breeding and rearing livestock guardian puppies - these breeders are improving the genetic pool and quality of livestock guardian dogs. In some ways, I suppose, this is similar to the relationship between seedstock (or purebred) livestock breeders and commercial ranchers.

All of this brings me to my recent observations. After we sheared the sheep in mid-May, we decided to put both of our dogs with the ewes and lambs. We'd kept our youngest dog, Bodie, with the rams all winter - we'd decided he wasn't quite mature enough to trust with lambing ewes. Maturity - and interaction with rams who wouldn't tolerate playful behavior - seemed to help Bodie understand his job. He's been with Reno (our older dog) and the ewes for 4 weeks now, and he seems to be doing well in his new situation. Both Bodie and Reno are well bonded with our sheep. Both of them respect a working electric fence ("working" is the key word here - more on this below). Neither of them are aggressive towards people.

Last night, when I arrived at our leased pasture after work to move irrigation water, I discovered that the sheep had escaped their paddock. They were grazing on green grass adjacent to their old paddock; the dogs, on the other hand, were gone. As I started building a new paddock, I spotted Reno trotting across a neighboring field. I shook a can of dog food and called to him - he spotted me and kept going (I suspect he'd have raised a middle finger if he'd had one!). A few minutes later, Sami arrived with a border collie for me. She tried to catch him and he did the same thing to her. We decided to ignore him at that point, and I focused on building fence. A few minutes later, I spotted Bodie in the adjacent field. I called to him, which he ignored until he saw the sheep. At that point, he came back to the flock and stayed with them as I finished the fence.

I suppose it took me 20-30 minutes longer to finish the new paddock. As I returned to the top of the hill where I'd parked, Reno strolled up to the new fence. Without saying anything to him, I simply opened the paddock and he walked into it.

When we move sheep from one property to another, we've found that some dogs (like Bodie) will stay with the flock while the border collies are moving them. Other dogs (like Reno) will wander more widely. Reno has always returned to the flock, but we can't trust him to stay with us while we're moving. I find these differences fascinating - both Reno and Bodie are good dogs, but they're both very different.

As I prepare to start my new job as a livestock and natural resources farm advisor with UC Cooperative Extension, I'm focused on opportunities for new research projects. One of the potential projects that most excites me is the possibility of working with other ranchers who've used livestock guardian dogs. I'd like to explore the types of behaviors that make a dog successful. As gray wolves continue to move into northern California, I'd like to evaluate the types of dogs and behaviors - and producer attitudes - that may help protect livestock from this new (at least for my generation) predator. I feel like there's so much more to learn about how these very different
dogs work!
Bodie, an Anatolian x Maremma.


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sheepherder Container Garden Version 2.0

Several years ago, we experimented with growing a container garden in recycled protein tubs. I cut the bottoms out of the tubs, filled them with compost, and planted tomatoes, pole beans, summer squash, and chard. The garden was a success, but the plastic tubs weren't that pretty to look at.

This year, we've had our old redwood deck replaced. Most of the boards were beyond re-using, but we were able to salvage enough to take another run at a container garden. This year's version adds another dimension of re-use to the concept - wool!
Still needs more compost - but this year's
sheepherder container garden is entirely recycled!

At shearing, we set aside the top knot and belly wool (which typically contains lots of stickers and other vegetation), along with our skirtings (wool contaminated with vegetation and post-digestive residue - sheep shit, in other words). In past years, we've separated and sent this along with our main-line wool - it typically brings around 20 cents per pound. This year, we're trying a new experiment - we're putting this wool in the bottom of our planter boxes! It's organic (with a lower-case "o"), it contains nutrients (all of that sheep shit), and it has amazing water retention properties.

We'll see how it works (and will, of course, keep you posted). It may be that the wool stays too wet. It may be that the wool is too nitrogen-rich. It may be that all of those stickers sprout and we're inundated with weeds. It may be, even, that our tomatoes and peppers taste slightly of lanolin. Or it may be a rousing sheepherder success! We'll see! Now to keep the border collies from digging up the beds....

Monday, May 29, 2017

Paranoid or Prepared

Having grown up on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada, wildfire has always been a worry. Depending on the year, I've always started listening for fire planes and scanning the horizon for smoke sometime between mid-May and mid-June. In the fire-prone landscape of the Gold Country, we typically hit peak fire danger in August - and this threat lasts until we have a germinating rain in October or even November. My wife, who grew up in an urban part of southern California, used to think I was paranoid about fire - until the 49 Fire in Auburn several years ago. Now, she accepts my preoccupation with wildfire as a necessary precaution - I think she realizes that preparation is necessary.

We graze our sheep at some distance from our home. After we wean the lambs in June, we'll typically have our ewes grazing dry grass west of Auburn and our lambs on irrigated pasture closer to town. The UC Cooperative Extension office is generally in the flight path of fire planes that respond to fires near our grazing land - the first alert I get about a fire nearby is usually the drone of turbo-prop engines.

Since we graze in areas that are fire-prone, we have plans for responding in the event of fire. We usually have some sort of evacuation plan for moving the sheep. Once fire season begins, I carry a fire tool and a backpack pump with 5 gallons of water with me at all times. Even so, I worry that a fire might start near our sheep without me hearing about. Even with my preparations, I'm concerned about fire.

Technology, however, has made preparation easier. During fire season (and during other times of the year!), I go to YubaNet for up-to-the-minute information. A new phone app, developed by CalFire, promises to provide real-time warnings about fires in our area. Ready for Wildfire (which is available for iPhones and for Android-operated phones), provides fire preparation guidance and (most important to me) real-time information about fires in my area. According to the instructions, the app will text me whenever there's a CalFire fire incident within 30 miles of my phone - which is typically within 30 miles of my sheep! Tonight, I received the first text message - there's a small fire burning 20 miles north of us near Browns Valley (on Highway 20).

And so as this year's fire season begins in the northern foothills, please be careful. Most of the fires in our part of the state are human caused. And be sure to check out the Ready for Fire app!

Taking Sheep to the Mountains

Every year, as the grass begins to dry here in the Sierra foothills, I begin to dream about taking sheep to the mountains. I suppose my longing is related (at least in part) to the work involved in irrigating our pastures. But part of it, too, is my love for the mountains - and the romance of the idea of transhumance.

Sheep and cattle - and their herders - have always followed the green forage. In my part of California, this traditionally meant that the livestock were moved north or upslope in the spring and summer months. My friend Bob Wiswell, who still ranches in Lincoln, tells stories of riding a mule through Auburn, following a band of sheep to the mountains east of Foresthill. My friend Pat Shanley, who recently passed away just shy of his 97th birthday, recalled hearing the sheep bells coming up Baxter Grade in the 1920s - the Basque sheepherders always gave him an orphan lamb to raise as they came through Auburn. And my friend Karri Samson gave me an article several years ago that described how ranchers used to ship their lambs by rail from a stockyard  on the west side of Donner Pass.



Today, there are only a handful of sheep grazing allotments on the Tahoe National Forest to our east. Most of the grazing permits are for cattle - and most of these ranchers move their cows to the mountains in trucks. The remnants of past sheep grazing can be seen in the aspen carvings (arbo-glyphs) made by lonely Basque sheepherders, in the place names (like McGonagall Pass), and in archeological sites like the oven at Kyburz Flat.

In a very small way, we still practice a very localized transhumance. Our sheep spend the winter on annual rangeland west of Auburn. After the last lambs are born, we move them up the hill - a small elevation change, but up the hill nonetheless. The ewes and lambs graze on irrigated pastures until we wean the lambs in June; the lambs stay on this green grass, while the ewes go to lower quality dry forage. On September 1 (a month before breeding) the ewes come back to irrigated pasture to put them on a better plane of nutrition. Once the ewes are bred, they go back to lower elevation rangeland, and the annual cycle begins again.

Interestingly, Placer County still has a law on the books that must be a relic of our transhumant heritage. Several years ago, when we wanted to walk our sheep up a county road to another pasture, I called the road department to find out if it was possible. The man I talked to didn't know; he called back after several days to tell me that the only law on the books indicated that the county could do nothing to impair the movement of livestock on county roads - in other words, we had the right-of-way to herd our sheep up the road. Since that conversation, we've moved sheep on some of the quieter county roads near the ranch. Most of our neighbors love seeing us (and our dogs) move the sheep, but this love is not universal. Occasionally, someone will decide they can't wait 2-3 minutes and will drive past our flagger. Fortunately, we've never had any sheep or dogs (or shepherds) injured by these impatient jerks (I considered using a stronger word). Several years ago, a ranching family from Nevada County wasn't so fortunate. The Reader family still herds it's cattle from North San Juan to their summer grazing allotment on the Tahoe National Forest. Some who couldn't wait for the cows to move off the road injured several cows and purposely ran down one of the Reader's cattle dogs. There are very few things that could move me to violence; that would probably be one of them.

Last Friday, I got to visit one of my favorite places in the entire Sierra range - the Sierra Valley. Sierra Valley is - and mostly was (since the second half of the 19th Century), almost entirely grazed by cattle. Sheep mostly grazed on the periphery - and some still do. Sheep, it seems, can make use of lower quality forage (or maybe it's simply that ranchers have typically saved higher quality grass for higher value animals). As we descended into Sierraville on Highway 89, the sea of green grass blanketing the valley floor reminded me why ranching families have taken their grazing animals to the mountains for generations. Maybe someday....

Friday, May 19, 2017

Preparing for the Unexpected

Our local agricultural community has lost a number of key members in the last several years. Several, like my friends J.R. Smith and Jim Bachman, passed away after lengthy illnesses. Others, like Eric Hansen and Tony Aguilar, were taken from us unexpectedly. In each case, our community lost a leader and a good farmer. In each case, their farms and ranches have undergone significant transitions. With each loss, I've realized that I need to do a better job at preparing our ranching operation for the unexpected.

Farm and ranch succession is a critical topic. The average age of a farmer here in Placer County is around 59 years. More than two-thirds of the farmers and ranchers in our county are 65 years or older. The farms and ranches that many of us are working today will (hopefully) be worked by others within the next quarter century. All of us who work the land need to have conversations with our families (and others) about who will take over our operations upon our retirement or passing. In this post, however, I want to discuss what happens in the short term after an unexpected injury or loss of life.

Farms and ranches are, in many ways, living organisms. Even when the farmer or rancher is incapacitated or gone, the lives of our operations continue. For some, this means caring for trees or vines. For Flying Mule Farm, this means caring for sheep and guard dogs. I've realized over the last several weeks that the day-to-day work of running our ranch is largely (and inappropriately) in my head.

This week, I've started taking steps to remedy this situation. The starting point, at least for me, has been to think about the questions that my family might have if I were no longer around. I've organized this into daily and monthly (or seasonal) tasks. Every day, the livestock guardian dogs and border collies must be fed. The condition of the sheep and the quantity of forage in their paddock must be checked. From April 15 to October 15, the irrigation water must be moved. On a seasonal basis, we move sheep to different properties. We flush the ewes in September, turn the rams in October through mid-November, vaccinate the ewes in January, and shear the ewes in May. I've started by writing all of this information in one place.

After thinking about my daily, monthly and yearly activities, I started thinking about the people my family would need to contact. I have all of the contact information for our pasture leases in my phone; it needs to be in my written plan as well. I purchase supplemental feed and minerals for the sheep; these suppliers' information and the types of feed I purchase should be in the plan. I handle the marketing of our wool and most of our lambs - contacts for our sheep shearer and wool buyer and lamb buyers should be in the plan. I also think about the unexpected things I've had to deal with on the ranch. If a water line breaks, I need to turn off the irrigation water - where's that valve? What's the password to the computer where I keep my financial records?

After writing this basic information down in one place, my next step will be to share it with my family and with my partner to see what I've omitted - I expect that they'll have questions I haven't considered. I'll also show my plan to one of our local farm advisors - I'm certain she'll see things I've forgotten, as well. Finally, I'll print out a hard copy for my family and for my partner.

For most of us (myself included), thinking about our own mortality is usually unpleasant (or at least uncomfortable). Personally, I've found it helpful to think of this exercise as a process of ensuring the life (and lives) of my ranch will continue after I'm gone. I've found it helpful to think about making things easier for those who might have to care for our livestock and our land when I'm gone. And in some ways, working on this project feels like I'm honoring the legacy of those good farmers who've left our community. I suppose I'm still learning from them.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Shearing Day Details

Last week, I wrote about the preparation that goes into shearing our sheep. This week, I thought it might be helpful to provide some details about the day itself. Like our preparations, a great deal of consideration goes into the work we do on the day we shear! Just a note: between our flock and the flocks of two friends who joined us this year, we sheared 120 sheep on Saturday.

6:30 a.m. - I head out to the shearing barn and make sure the ewes I'd locked in the night before are still there - they are! I set up electro-net fencing for a paddock where the sheep will graze after they're shorn. Then I hang the first wool sack from the stand and wait for everyone else to show up.

7:30 a.m. (or so) - Derrick arrives and we start setting up the shearing stall. Derrick sets up his equipment; I help by leveling his shearing board. During this time, the first of our friends arrives with her first load of sheep - we unload and bring them into a second holding pen.

8:00 a.m. - Our "students" arrive - we typically have a shearing and wool handling workshop in conjunction with shearing day. Mostly we have the students learn how to skirt fleeces and evaluate the wool, but we also describe the various jobs involved in shearing day. They help me spread canvas tarps under the skirting table (tarps help reduce additional wool contamination - natural fiber tarps are much preferred to poly tarps).

8:15 a.m. - Derrick starts shearing the first pen of sheep. As I described earlier, we use a bullpen set up, which means we bring 8 (+/-) ewes into the shearing stall. Derrick catches each sheep, shears it, and lets it go. When he catches the last sheep in the pen, we let the sheared sheep out. He finishes the last sheep; we run it out to the paddock and bring 8 more into the shearing pen (from an adjacent pen that will hold 16-20 ewes).

One person is always in the stall with Derrick. This person keeps the other sheep out of the way while Derrick is shearing. He calls out the ear tag number of each sheep as it's being shorn (shearing day is one of the times we take inventory). He (or she) also picks up the sheared fleeces and hands them through the pen gate. Finally - and most importantly, this person sweeps up constantly - which keeps manure and wool scraps out of the good wool. If a ewe happens to urinate, this person also mops up the urine - a wet shearing floor is dangerous to the shearer; wet wool can foul the wool sack. We make sure the broom in the shearing stall is a straw broom - synthetic fibers can also contaminate the wool.

Once the wool is handed out of the pen, another person takes the fleece and spreads it on the skirting table. An accomplished wool grader can throw it onto the table - I'm still learning. At our shearing, a committee skirts the fleeces - removing manure tags, vegetable matter, and other contaminants. We also test the wool for strength and fiber length. Short or "tender" fleeces are sorted off and marketed separately from our good wool. This year, we also sorted our "mule" and white-face fleeces from our Shropshire and black-face fleeces - differentiation by type and quality will hopefully add value to our better wool. Once each fleece is skirted, it's handed off to the person who puts it into the wool sack (this year, we had several kids who were great sackers!). As the sack fills up, someone (usually me) climbs in and stomps the wool into the sack. The best stompers walk in a circular pattern around the edge of the sack - this way the wool catches on the burlap and remains compressed.

With our type of wool (and our size of sheep), we can get 25-30 fleeces in sack. Once the sack is full, I sew the top with cotton twin (using a very sloppy blanket stitch. Each end of the seam is dog-eared (to provide a handle), and the full sack is carried out to a waiting pallet. A new sack is hung, and we start again!

During all of this work, the holding pen will empty. With a couple of helpers (and a dog), I bring another group of sheep into the sorting alley. Lambs are sorted off; ewes go into the holding pen. This year, since we sheared on a weekend, both of our daughters helped with the sorting. I suppose it's sheepherder pride, but there's nothing like seeing your daughters work their own dogs and handle sheep like a pro!

12:30 p.m. - Derrick, as the shearer, sets the lunch hour. We typically order pizza; more traditional operations have a home cooked meal (someday....). We all wash up and gather in the shade outside - lunch is usually a full hour, which allows for some rest in addition to refueling.

1:30 p.m. - We resume shearing. In the afternoon, we also shear the sheep that belong to several friends. This requires some juggling - we want to keep each flock separate if possible. Our set-up isn't perfect, but we are able to keep 3 different flocks separate (which makes loading at the end of the day much easier).

4:30 p.m. - Derrick likes to shear the bucks (rams) last - this avoids problems with unintended breeding! Rams are bigger, stronger, and potentially more aggressive - they can be dangerous to handle. While all of our rams are reasonably docile, we handle them with a great deal of respect. This year, our oldest daughter (Lara) and our good friend Joe Fischer (an accomplished stockman) took care of bringing the rams into the holding pen. Roger and I helped Derrick in the shearing pen.

5:30 p.m. - When we catch the last ram, I almost always say, "That's the one we've been looking for." We then sack the last of the wool, clean up the skirting area, put the rams back in their holding pens, and breakdown the shearing equipment. The adults on the crew usually enjoy a beer while we're cleaning up; the kids have a soda. Derrick gives us our bill (we pay for set up plus a per-head charge). We settle up, shake hands, and Derrick leaves. Then we load up the other flocks and move our sheep onto a fresh paddock for the night.

Shearing is intense work - for the shearer, certainly, but also for the shepherd. The organization that goes into shearing day is incredibly important. Success, at least for me, is a day in which no sheep or people are injured or stressed. Success means the shearer never has to wait on us to get sheep to him (or her). Success means the wool is sorted and packed and stored - and prepared for marketing.

But shearing is also something else. As we were cleaning up this year, our friend Roger said, "You know what I really liked about today? The sense of community." And he was right! For the first half the day, we had students helping us (along with our friends and fellow shepherds). After lunch, it was just our friends - and our collective children. Working together, we made a long day seem fun. We watched our friends' kids learn about sheep and handling wool; I watched my own children teach the younger kids and handle sheep on their own. Finally, as I've written before, shearing is one of the mileposts in our year - it's a chance to see how we've done managing our sheep over the last 12 months.

Humbled and Excited

More than 20 years ago, I went to work for the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA). After two internships, I'd been hired by my friend and mentor John Braly as the membership director in 1992. By 1996, I'd been promoted to assistant vice president - pretty heady stuff for a young guy who hadn't grown up in the industry. I started looking for new challenges. Dr. Jim Oltjen, who was (and is) the beef extension specialist at UC Davis (my undergraduate alma mater) suggested that I think about going to graduate school to prepare for a career in extension. I considered it, but the timing wasn't right.

Fast forward to 2013 (or so) - I'd been working as a part-time community education specialist in our local University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) office for several years. The farm advisors in the office - Roger Ingram and Cindy Fake - suggested that I consider getting a master's degree and applying for a future farm advisor job. This time the idea stuck - and I eventually enrolled in an online graduate  program offered through Colorado State University (CSU).

Halfway through my studies, I was offered a job in the rangeland science and management program at UC Davis with Drs. Ken Tate and Leslie Roche. Through the Rustici Rangeland and Cattle Endowment, which Ken leads, I was able to get my tuition covered. While the CSU program is not a research-based master's degree, I also had the opportunity to participate (and in a few cases, lead) a variety of rangeland and grazing-focused research projects.

Last week, I finished the last of the requirements for my master's degree. While I'm still awaiting my diploma, I am surprised at my own sense of relief in being done. I'm also exhausted! To some extent, I think I've been running on adrenaline (and caffeine!) for the last two years. Between working full time, operating a small-scale sheep enterprise, and going to school, I guess I didn't fully appreciate how busy I'd been until I was done with school. In some ways it's like hitting your head with a hammer - it feels really good when you stop!

As my final semester of graduate school was progressing, I also started the process of applying for the position of UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor for Placer-Nevada-Sutter-Yuba Counties. This process involves a detailed application, a writing assignment, a public presentation, and an intensive interview. Partly because the job was the entire reason for going back to school - and partly, I suspect, because I've realized (at long last) that extension work (with its combination of teaching and applied research) is what I really want to do - I found myself to be nervous about both the process and the outcome. Two weeks before the end of the semester, I interviewed for the position. Last week, I accepted UCCE's offer of employment - I will become the livestock and natural resources advisor in my four-county region on July 1.

Unlike many new farm advisors, I come to this position mid-career. Looking back at the jobs I've held since graduating from UC Davis 27 years ago, I've realized that only one - that of raising sheep - ever felt like something I could do for the rest of my life. Until now. I have finally recognized that the parts of my earlier jobs that I most enjoyed involved the things I'll be doing on a daily basis as a farm advisor - teaching and doing research. Along with raising sheep, I feel as though I've finally figured out what I'm supposed to do in life!

I have enormous shoes to fill - Roger Ingram and Glenn Nader, who have proceeded me in these four counties, were incredibly productive and successful advisors. As I embark on this new chapter, I'm humbled by the people who have gone out of their way to help me get here - friends, colleagues, mentors, and (most importantly) family. I'm looking forward to that small piece of paper that proves I've completed my graduate studies. And I'm tremendously excited to get to do work I love in a community I love. I can't wait to start!