Friday, October 17, 2014

Little Victories

This has been a challenging week - a disease outbreak in the ewes, a child and a wife under the weather at home, costly repairs to my truck, and a dismal weather forecast for the rest of the fall.  Even with the Giants winning the National League pennant last night, this has been a stressful stretch of time.  This morning, however, brought some measure of satisfaction - thanks to Ernie, our youngest (and most challenging) sheepdog.  I'll take little victories wherever and whenever they come!

Those of you who have relied on a canine partner in your sheep or cattle operations have probably all had a hard-headed dog or two.  Ernie is 4, and he's been a challenge all along.  I've been using him regularly for about a year, and the steady work has been great for him.  He finally understands the other side of tired.

This morning, I needed him to gather a group of ewes and bring them into a holding pen so I could move the electric fence.  He's done the work before, but he usually works fast and close to the sheep (which makes the sheep move too fast).  The ewes were about 75 yards away (a short distance for a well-trained dog, but a long outrun for Ernie at this stage).  I sent him to the right (an "away" flank), and he actually took a wide route around the sheep (unusual for him).  Several times, he started to dive in towards the ewes, and each time he took my correction and bent himself out wider.  He settled in behind the flock quietly - and even took my "lie down" command at a distance.  The sheep walked nicely into their holding pen - and Ernie let me call him off (sometimes he'll get so excited once the sheep are through a gate that he wants to do it again!).  Later, he even brought some wayward ewes back into their paddock - mostly on his own.

Sometimes these little victories only seem like victories because of the frustration that's come before.  Sometimes I have to remind myself to look for them. Thanks, Ernie, for your help today - and for reminding me to look for the positive!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Another "Gift" from Last Year's Warm and Dry Winter

To improve the nutritional intake of our ewes during the first two weeks of our breeding season, we've been feeding hay to our breeding ewes since the first of October.  While we have plenty of dry grass, the nutritional value of this forage (which grew last spring), is minimal.  By feeding hay, we hope the ewes will produce more eggs - and a higher percentage of twins next spring.

Our ewes have adapted to this new feeding regime very quickly - whenever they hear my diesel truck now, they run to the fence along the road.  Earlier this week, however, we started noticing that a significant number of ewes in our larger breeding group (our "mules" or crossbred ewes) were losing interest in the hay.  They'd come up with the rest of the sheep, sniff around at the hay, and then wander off down the hill.  Many of them were losing weight (obviously - they'd quit eating), and many of them had nasal discharges.  After consulting with my wife (who's also my veterinarian!), we decided that we were looking at an outbreak of bluetongue virus.  Other sheep ranchers have experienced similar outbreaks this year - now it's our turn!

According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, sheep with bluetongue exhibit some or all of the following symptoms:
"After an incubation period of 4–6 days, a fever of 105–107.5°F (40.5–42°C) develops. The animals are listless and reluctant to move. Clinical signs in young lambs are more apparent, and the mortality rate can be high (up to 30%). About 2 days after onset of fever, additional clinical signs such as edema of lips, nose, face, submandibular area, eyelids, and sometimes ears; congestion of mouth, nose, nasal cavities, conjunctiva, and coronary bands; and lameness and depression may be seen. A serous nasal discharge is common, later becoming mucopurulent. The congestion of nose and nasal cavities produces a “ sore muzzle” effect, the term used to describe the disease in sheep in the USA. Sheep eat less because of oral soreness and will hold food in their mouths to soften before chewing. They may champ to produce a frothy oral discharge at the corners of the lips. On close examination, small hemorrhages can be seen on the mucous membranes of the nose and mouth. Ulceration develops where the teeth come in contact with lips and tongue, especially in areas of most friction. Some affected sheep have severe swelling of the tongue, which may become cyanotic (‘blue tongue”) and even protrude from the mouth. Animals walk with difficulty as a result of inflammation of the hoof coronets. A purple-red color is easily seen as a band at the junction of the skin and the hoof. Later in the course of disease, lameness or torticollis is due to skeletal muscle damage. In most affected animals, abnormal wool growth resulting from dermatitis may be observed."
There are a number of strains of the virus - we've had it one other year in our sheep (we had 3-4 ewes with bluetongue about 4 years ago, and all of them survived).  While there is usually a vaccine available for the virus, we've never used it (it's much like the flue vaccine - the strains in the vaccine must match the strain in the environment in any given year for it to be effective).  What's more, the vaccine is not available this year - the California manufacturer did not produce any vaccine in 2014 due to production problems.  Based on the symptoms we've observed, this year's strain is different than the strain we had previously, but based on the age of the ewes that are showing symptoms, I think our older ewes must have some natural immunity.

The virus is transmitted by a biting midge (we used to call them "no-see-ums").  According to an article recently published by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine:
"bluetongue is most prevalent when midges are abundant in late summer and fall, but there has been speculation over how the virus survives through the winter. When temperatures turn cold and the biting-midge populations plummet, transmission appears to cease for more than six months, but the virus reappears when temperatures warm the following season."
The UCD study found that the virus was able to overwinter in the midge population.

Now I'm a shepherd, not an epidemiologist or entomologist , but based on what I know about insect pests, it would seem that a normally cold and wet winter in our region would be hard on these midges.  Last year's winter was neither wet nor very cold - and I suspect that we have more midges (and more virus) this fall because of the drought.  In other words, the drought has had impacts far beyond the lack of rainfall for those of us who farm or ranch.

Since bluetongue is a virus, we can't treat it directly.  Again, according to Merck:
"There is no specific treatment for animals with bluetongue apart from rest, provision of soft food, and good husbandry. Complicating and secondary infections should be treated appropriately during the recovery period."
Yesterday, I sorted off the 33 ewes that were showing signs of the virus and hauled them to another property (where we still have some green grass).  Normally, I don't like hauling animals during breeding season - I prefer to let the ewes "settle" for 18 days (around the first week of December) after we remove the rams to ensure that they remain pregnant.  However, we felt it was important to isolate these sheep and to provide them with green grass and supplemental feed.  We'll also treat any secondary infections - sometimes sheep with bluetongue can develop additional respiratory infections, which we treat with antibiotics.  And we'll leave them on this alternative pasture until they've fully recovered.  On a positive note, some of them looked much brighter this morning. Flexibility, once again, is a key part of our management system!

While I'm grateful not to face the daily stress of a long commute or a job I hate, I have to admit that ranching can be stressful at times.  The drought, and its associated impacts, have definitely made life more stressful than usual.  I worry about the economic impacts (in terms of added expenses and lower revenue) that bluetongue will cause my business; more profoundly, I hate to see my animals suffering.  I haven't slept well during the last several nights, and getting up extra early to accommodate the additional work of caring for sick sheep has exacerbated my feeling of fatigue.  This morning's rain has helped, but we desperately need cold and wet weather in the coming months.  We need an end to the drought.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Getting my First Deer

About 5 years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn to hunt.  I'd grown up fishing, but my immediate family didn't hunt.  And not only didn't we hunt; we didn't have many firearms (only a bolt-action .22 with birdshot to discourage chicken-stealing, wandering dogs). As a dedicated omnivore, I decided that hunting would allow me to participate directly in the harvest of meat (even more directly than raising and selling grass-fed lamb).   Just over 3 years ago, I finally got my act together and completed a hunter safety course, which allowed me to purchase a hunting license and my first ever deer tag.  I also purchased a Marlin 30-30 rifle (and received a scope from my sister that Christmas).  That first fall I hunted several times in Colfax - always by myself.  I didn't get a deer, but I learned to appreciate the benefit of being alone and quiet in the woods - I saw some amazing wildlife - including a bear that followed me on one of my early morning hunting trips.  Last year, I again hunted in Colfax - and I also got to hunt with my friend Eric Lopez and my brother-in-law Adrian Lopez (both of whom are more experienced hunters than me).  Eric got a deer on one of our trips.  On the last day of the season, I nearly got a shot at a buck, but decided that I wasn't comfortable firing my rifle so close to the property line of the ranch where I was hunting.  This year, I've been to Colfax several times, and once to the Magonigal Pass area of Donner Pass - and I didn't see a buck in either location.  Last weekend, however, was different!  Adrian and I camped near the top of Carson Pass - and on Saturday, we both got a deer!
Looking northeast from our campsite.

We got our bucks at the base of the bluff in the background.

We arrived at our camping spot somewhat by accident.  Adrian lives in Columbia, and I live in Auburn - so Carson Pass (up Highway 88) is about halfway between us.  We met in Jackson, got our groceries, and headed up the hill.  After buying a map at the ranger station near Pioneer, we decided we'd check out the Silver Fork of the American River.  Fortunately for us, we missed the turnoff - and we decided to keep heading up country.  We saw a campground symbol on the map further up the pass - and found a beautiful spot to camp.  As the sun was setting - making the aspens and the lava-cap mountain behind them glow - we set up camp.  We were amazed that the small creek still had water running (an auspicious sign, as you'll see).

We were not up as early as some hunters on Saturday morning - I heard 4-5 trucks go past camp while it was still dark.  Nonetheless, we were up at daybreak.  We grabbed a quick snack, filled our water bottles, and headed up the mountain.  We crept through the forest, trading places taking the lead.  As we neared the top of the little watershed we were camped in (near the lava ridge above us), we heard several rifle shots (which seemed a ways off).  We crossed the creek, and Adrian suggested we stay below the ridge dividing our creek from a tributary (so the low sun wouldn't throw our shadows too far).  About that time, we heard barrage of 8 or 9 rifle shots - we lost track, but it sounded like target practice!  We heard voices above us, and Adrian saw one of the other hunters up in the lava bluffs.  We decided to start making our way back down the ridge.

We'd only been walking a few minutes when we both heard something coming down the hill through the brush and trees towards us.  Adrian said, "That's a deer," and sure enough, a small forked horn buck was walking quickly through the trees in our direction.  We both looked through our binoculars, and Adrian said, "He's legal - take him."  My inexperience nearly cost me the opportunity!  I had loaded my 30-30 lever action rifle, but I hadn't yet chambered a round.  I quickly rectified that situation and took off the safety - and the buck still hadn't seen us!  At this point, he was about 50 yards away, quartering towards me.  I looked through my scope - and couldn't see a damn thing (Adrian later showed me how to adjust it).  Finally, with the deer about 25 yards away and broadside to me, I fired - and made the perfect shot you would expect with a deer so close!  The buck made one or two jumps and it was over - I had my first deer!

When we were sure the buck was dead, I dragged him into a small clearing about 20 yards down hill and started filling out my deer tag.  I hadn't even attached the tag to his antlers when Adrian said, "Something else is coming down the hill." We turned to look - and a slightly larger buck was coming down the same exact trail!  Being a more experienced hunter, Adrian was prepared.  In the space of less than 5 minutes (and within 20 yards of each other), we both had a deer.

Now the hard work began!  We were more than a mile away from camp - and the only way to get our deer back was to drag them down the ridge.  We kept to the high ground as much as possible (gravity became our friend), but it was a long and tedious trip back.  After a quick snack and a very cold (and tasty) beer, we began the work of cleaning our deer.  I've dressed out sheep before, but I had never done a deer by myself.  Adrian patiently walked me through it - and cleaned his deer at the same time.  I asked if we were going to skin the bucks, but Adrian suggested that the butcher in Jackson would do it for a small fee. As we were working, the hunters we'd heard above us walked into camp - they'd also shot a deer and had followed our trail down the ridge.  We compared notes and realized that they'd driven our deer off the lava ridge - and right to us!

About 90 minutes later, we arrived at Swingles Meats in Jackson - and learned that they no longer skinned deer.  So we went back to work!  Skinning a deer in the back of a Dodge pickup isn't ideal but it can be done.  Our work finished, we headed back to camp.  Since I had a second tag, we went back out the next morning, but our hunt was mostly exploratory - we climbed into the cliffs where our deer had been flushed the day before, and were treated to some spectacular views.  Then it was back to camp for lunch, loading up, and the trip back home.  For many reasons, the trip was one of the best outdoor experiences I've ever had!  When I told my friend Eric what had happened, he said, "You guys are lucky ----ers!"  And he was right!
A shot from our exploring on Sunday.

Adrian checking for deer signs in the bluff where our bucks had been the morning before.

I learned so many things on this trip.  First, I thoroughly enjoy being in the mountains - by myself, yes - but even more with someone who shares my appreciation for and love of the Sierra.  And Adrian and I both love seeing new country - we'd never camped on Carson Pass before.  Second, I enjoy learning something that can ONLY be learned by doing - no matter how much I'd read about hunting and deer behavior, I think the only way to learn how to hunt is to do it (hopefully with the help of someone more experienced).  Third, I appreciated hunting with someone as respectful as Adrian - we both hunt, ultimately, with the idea that we're feeding ourselves and our families.  While my family doesn't rely on my hunting abilities for sustenance (thank goodness, given my lack of success the last two years), we do believe that we're ethically required to consume the animal whose life I took.  Adrian and I ran into some other hunters on Saturday afternoon who were only packing a trophy out - they'd left most of the meat.  I couldn't hunt that way.  Fourth, the circumstances that led to both of us getting a deer in such a short time frame were instructive.  I assumed when I'd heard the shots that any deer in our proximity would be gone.  Because we remained alert, we had an opportunity.  Finally, the importance of taking a shot that you're sure about hit home for me - I'm not a good enough marksman to take long-range, iffy shots at this stage of my hunting career.

When I got home, I called my folks - they'd already heard about our success.  While my Dad is not a hunter, both of my parents made sure that we had plenty of outdoor experiences as kids.  I mentioned to them that I had realized on this trip that I could camp comfortably with minimal gear, my Dad said, "Well, you've done it all your life."  I came home with a new appreciation for how I was raised!

Finally, I'm not posting any photos of the buck.  To me, they're private - but I don't object to other people's photos.  I will probably post some photos of the meals we enjoy along with our favorite recipes.  Most of all, I'm looking forward to picking up my venison in two weeks - Adrian and I will hopefully be able to meet up in Jackson and perhaps have a beer!  And, I'm looking forward to many more autumn days spent being quiet in the outdoors.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ominous Signs

Moving one of our breeding groups onto "fresh" dry forage at sunrise this morning.
As I read today's weather forecast in the Sacramento Bee over my second cup of coffee, I was disheartened by this statement: "Sadly, no rain in the extended forecast." Despite the promising rain that broke our long summer dry spell last week, I can't help but worry about the prospect for moisture this fall.  Looking back on my weather journal from last autumn, I'm starting to think that this year is shaping up much like last year.  I'm worried about a fourth year of drought.

I spoke at a drought workshop last week at the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center.  One of the morning speakers, Sam Sandoval Solis, an assistant professor and cooperative extension specialist in water management, reported that the most recent long range forecast for California indicates that we have about a 67 percent probability that we will be drier than normal from October through December.  Things may improve a bit for the first three months of 2015 - he said the forecast indicates we have a 50-50 chance of normal precipitation.  While I don't give much weight to long-range weather forecasts, I certainly hope that these predictions turn out to be overly pessimistic.  The most recent drought outlook map released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looks ominous indeed.
The outlook for breaking this drought doesn't look good - at least through December.

We have been fortunate this summer that the Nevada Irrigation District (NID), which supplies our irrigation water, has been able to meet its conservation goals through voluntary actions.  Our irrigation season ends on October 15, and NID predicts that it will end the season with more water remaining in its reservoirs than it projected at the beginning of the season in mid-April.  Despite this good news, NID has announced that it will not be supplying winter water to customers (some farms, especially orchards, need winter water during dry winters).  Without water flowing through NID's extensive canal system, many ranchers won't have stockwater for their cows and sheep until the winter rains begin to refill stockponds and creeks.  NID is concerned that a state-mandated curtailment of some water rights may keep the district from storing water in reservoirs this winter, so these cutbacks are probably prudent.  I'm thankful we have the ability to haul water to our sheep - but we'll need to use more expensive treated water this fall.
Thanks to prudent management - and conservation
by farmers and residents alike - NID will end the
year with more water in storage than originally predicted.

Over the last three weeks, I've traveled to Los Banos (for a California Wool Growers executive committee meeting - I'm the newly elected treasurer), to Hopland (for the aforementioned drought workshop) and to High Sierra (to the Magonigal Pass area for an afternoon deer hunting trip).  I saw impacts of the drought everywhere I looked - slicked-off rangeland with very little residual grass, fallowed fields and dying fruit trees, dry creekbeds and bathtub ringed reservoirs, and bone-dry brush and dusty mountain trails.  Even with the glorious rain we had several weeks ago, we're still in the grip of the most intense drought in a generation.  At some point during my recent travels, I heard someone say on the radio that we'd need 150 percent of normal precipitation to make an impact on the drought conditions.

Closer to home, this autumn is looking ominously like last autumn.  Thanks to the rain we had in late September, grass seeds started to germinate on our rangelands.  I'm always amazed by how quickly the tiny shoots of green emerge through last year's dead grass, especially when rain is followed by warm temperatures.  Within 4-5 days of the rain, I saw new growth.  As I moved sheep this morning, however, I noticed that much of this new growth was beginning to wither and die.  Even the scattered native perennial grasses in our pastures, which were refreshed by the rain, look dry and brown again.  With no rain in the forecast, the seeds that germinated in late September won't produce grass for the coming year - we'll need another germinating rain.  Last year, we had three separate germinating rains - and no new grass to speak of until March.  I'm worried that we're in for more of the same this fall.
The last of the grass that germinated in our late
September rain - without more rain soon, these
green shoots will wither and die.

A native purple needlegrass plant (a perennial grass)
in front of a patch of invasive medusahead.  I'm hoping our
grazing management will encourage more of these natives!

Despite these ominous signs, I feel like our sheep operation is as prepared as we can be for a fourth dry year.  We've inventoried the dry grass available to us - we've got enough standing dry forage to get us through till next summer, even if it doesn't rain at all!  As long as we can provide supplemental protein to feed the mircro-organisms in rumens of our sheep, the sheep will be fine.  We'll keep hauling water, and we'll keep working on upgrading our summer irrigation system (which will allow us to stretch our summer water further). We continue to fine-tune our grazing management - with the hope that we can encourage the re-establishment of more resilient native grasses.  And we'll certainly keep praying for rain.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Shepherd's New Year

We breed our ewes to lamb when the grass is coming on - we like to have the lambs start to arrive in late February.  This schedule allows us to match our greatest demand for high quality forage (when the ewes are lactating) with Mother Nature's greatest supply of grass (at least in a normal year).  Since ewes are pregnant for 150 days, this means we turn the rams in with the ewes on October 1.  For me, this day has always felt like New Year's Day!  And after three years of drought, this year's New Year's feels like a defiant act of optimism!

Enjoy these photos of our day.  We sorted the ewes into their breeding groups, and moved them to another property near Auburn.  It's been a long but productive day!

The ewes have no idea what awaits them!

Purple Needlegrass at Blue Oak Ranch - love these perennials!

On the bus to Ewe-ville.  This ram's new name is Horton - we'll see if anyone gets this!

 Sorting our breeding groups.

Looks like the girls are happy to see the boys!

Stepping off the trailer - into new pasture.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Wearing out my Raingear

The work of a shepherd is hard on work clothes, I've decided.  Most of my hats are sweat- and dust-stained.  The collars of my workshirts are generally stained (if not worn through).  My jeans feature holes where the 12-volt fence batteries touch them when I'm carrying them.  As much as I try to keep my work boots oiled, they're usually dusty and worn.  And my coats - I can usually only get 3-4 years out of a Carhartt canvas jacket - and same generally goes for my raingear.  If there's any silver lining to this drought, I guess, it might the fact that I'll be able to get another year out of my Carhartt rainsuit - hardly used it at all last year!  I hope I wear the sucker out this winter!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Planting Trial

Beginning on July 11, we started irrigating about 2-1/2 acres of hillside pasture in anticipation of having green grass in September (now!) for flushing the ewes (flushing is the process of putting ewes on an improving plane of nutrition just prior to breeding).  The pasture we irrigated had not been planted, so we waited until the annual grasses and forbs that grew in the spring of 2014 had matured, set seed, and died.  Our irrigation caused new plants to germinate (mimicking the germinating rains of autumn).  The pasture grew a variety of annual grasses, clovers and forbs (like filaree), as well as yellow starthistle, bull thistle and common cocklebur.  Last Friday morning, I moved the ewes onto this pasture.

This morning, in the eerie light cast by smoke from the King Fire, Roger Ingram and I planted a variety of grass seed as a trial for planting pastures without heavy equipment.  We broadcast the seed with the sheep still grazing the pasture.  We'll leave them in for another 2-3 days, and we'll feed hay on top of the starthistle and other undesirable plants.  Finally, before we move the ewes into the next paddock, I'll use the border collies to maximize herd effect - we'll trample as much of the remaining vegetation as possible to get as many seeds in contact with the soil as possible.  After I move the sheep, I'll resume irrigating the paddock (and hope for rain).

We planted a variety of seeds, including several types of annual ryegrass, several varieties of forage triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye), and intermediate wheatgrass (a perennial that typically favors a slightly higher elevation but which does grow on other parts of the ranch).  My hope is to prove that we can plant these seeds using animal impact, and that we can grow them with limited irrigation in the late summer and early fall.  If it works, this may become part of our drought strategy!
Reno loves to help with seeding projects!

We used a "belly-grinder" seeder.

Lovely air quality this morning!

Rosie supervised the entire project.

 I'll be taking photos and monitoring our progress.  In the meantime, enjoy these photographs from another smoky morning in Auburn!

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Different Feeling this Fall

As we approach this year's autumnal equinox (next Monday), the weather is finally starting to turn a bit.  The shorter days, and the location of the sun when it clears the horizon, give the mornings a different feel.  I always look forward to fall, but it feels different to me this year.  I moved the breeding ewes onto another property this morning (with the help of a border collie, of course).  This morning I realized that the anxiety of facing another possible dry winter, and the pall cast by smoke from the nearby King Fire, has weighed heavily on my mind.

A summer dry spell is typical for our part of California.  We usually enjoy our last rainfall in May or early June - and then irrigate our way through the summer months.  Summers are often dry and dusty - at least where we're not irrigating.  Our summer water turns off on October 15 (and we're thankful in a dry year like this one to make it clear to the end of the season) - and we hope for significant rain before the end of October.  For our sheep pastures, we need about an inch of rainfall before new grass will germinate.  If we can get that precipitation before the days are too short and the soil is too cold, we can grow enough grass to get us through the winter.

I enjoy the onset of fall because the work I do starts to change.  We turn the rams in with the ewes on October 1, an event I always look forward to - it feels like the start of a new year (and an act of optimism).  I also look forward to the end of irrigation season - I enjoy having one less thing to do each day, 7 days a week.  Finally, I look forward to the first morning when my family asks me to start a fire in the wood stove - then I know the seasons have truly changed.

Part of what makes this fall seem different is my memory of last fall and winter.  While it's probably no dustier than normal, I find myself anxious about when we'll get enough rain to wash the dust off of everything.  I look at the weather forecast and find myself more skeptical about the chance of rain that sometimes appears on the horizon.  The realization that we're entering the most dangerous stretch of our fire season - and the smoky skies we're experiencing - adds to my anxiety.  The crunch of dry grass under my feet this morning as I moved sheep made the land feel crispy and desiccated.  The black oaks on the margins of our irrigated pastures, and the blue oaks on our winter rangeland, look stressed - they've started dropping leaves earlier than normal.  I've yet to hear the sandhill cranes overhead - their migration is another milestone that marks the transition from summer to fall.

Uncertainty is part of farming and ranching - part of the risk that we accept when we take on Mother Nature as a partner.  Sometimes we need a not-so-gentle reminder that we're not in total control - last year's winter was just such a reminder for me.  My job is to plan - plan to take advantage of the good times and to survive the bad times.  I like the idiom, "Make hay while the sun is shining."  I just hope it doesn't shine all winter again.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

King Fire Farmer/Rancher Fundraiser

As you probably know if you live in Northern California, the King Fire (which started near Pollock Pines) blew up yesterday.  The fire grew from around 18,000 acres on Tuesday night to over 70,000 acres as of this morning.  Yesterday afternoon and evening, the fire burned past Stumpy Meadows Reservoir and clear to Hell Hole Reservoir in Placer County.

The long term impact of the fire remains to be seen.  It will almost certainly impact water supplies and watershed values for years to come.  In the short term, it has had devastating impacts on farmers and ranchers.  In a year already short on grass, some ranchers have lost their summer forage to the fire - and I'm sure some have lost livestock, too.  Others have been impacted by smoke and by evacuations.  In short, it's been a scary week.

We want to do a small part in helping folks get through this disaster.  Flying Mule Farm is teaming up with Vassar Ranch and North Valley Farms Che'vre to donate the following:

  • A grass-fed lamb (cut-and-wrapped) - approximately 30 lbs of meat
  • A 50 lb variety box of grass-fed beef
  • A sampler of wonderful goat cheeses
The meat will be available for delivery in October.  The cheese will be shipped to the winning bidder.

You can bid on these items on our Facebook page - go to and enter your bid as a comment to my post.  And please share this with others!

Thanks for your help!

The Macon Family
Flying Mule Farm
(530) 305-3270

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Using Livestock Guardian Dogs in a Small-Scale Commercial Sheep Operation: One Ranch's Approach

Reno, an Anatolian Shepherd.

We operate a small scale (approximately 150 ewe) commercial sheep operation in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.  We've used livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) in our operation as part of our predator protection strategy since 2005.  Through trial and error - and through learning from other producers and published research - we seem to have arrived at a management system with our LGDs that has resulted in a pack of dogs that fits our system quite well.  I should add that this last statement - "fits our system" - is critical!  Our approach seems to result in dogs that work for us; our system won't likely work in every circumstance.

Overview of Flying Mule Farm

Rosie with the sheep during lambing season.
We operate a "nomadic", grass-based system - we lease or get paid to graze on approximately 400 acres of annual rangeland and 20-25 acres of irrigated pasture.  Our sheep are only at our home place for 7 days out of the year - during shearing.  Since none of our pastures are fenced, we rely on portable electric fencing to contain our sheep - more on this later.  We lamb on pasture in the late winter and early spring, weaning our lambs in early June.  The ewes run on dry rangeland pastures until late summer, when we put them on irrigated pasture in preparation for breeding.

While our sheep operation is part-time, we do treat it as a business, keeping a close eye on economics.  Our revenue sources include the sale of feeder lambs (sold at weaning), the sale of meat (lamb and mutton), the sale of wool and wool products, the sale of cull ewes and rams, and targeted grazing services.  Depending on the lamb market, our ewes generate total revenue of $20,000-25,000 annually.  Our expenses are divided into direct costs (expenses that vary directly with the number of sheep - supplemental feed, vet costs, shearing, etc.) and overhead costs (mostly land and labor costs that we incur regardless of the number of sheep).  Our dogs - LGDs and herding dogs - are an overhead expense (essentially labor).  Dog expenses include vet costs, feed costs and depreciation (that is, we budget a small amount annually towards replacing our current dogs).

Our Approach to Preventing Predatation

The main predators in our environment, in order of importance (at least in my opinion) are domestic dogs, coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, eagles and great horned owls.  This hierarchy may change if wolves come back to our part of the state - we'll cross that bridge if we come to it!  We also worry about feral pigs in some areas - not as a predation threat but as a problem for our electric fences.

We use an integrated approach for preventing predator losses.  First, our electric fences are a deterrent to most canine predators (domestic and wild) - they don't do much to stop a mountain lion, and they just piss off the black bears.  Second, we use guardian animals (singly and in combination) to convince predators to look elsewhere for a meal.

Occasionally, we'll use a guardian llama with a group of sheep.  Our current llama is an older female.  She's very alert, especially to dogs she doesn't know.  My theory is that llamas smell and look so different than any other animal our native predators have seen that they are not quite sure how to approach them.  We will typically use a llama in a situation where a barking dog might cause problems for landowners or neighbors - but we only use a llama when we're fairly certain we won't have problems with mountain lions.  Our joke is that a llama's strategy for dealing with a lion is to stand in the middle of the sheep and point out the slow ones!

The mainstay of our predator protection strategy is our LGDs.  Over the years, we've used a variety of breeds - Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Anatolian Shepherd and Maremma (and various crosses of these breeds).  While there are some behavioral differences between breeds, we've had good success with most of them.

We try to incorporate dogs into our system as if they were the large canine predator in their environment.  Rather expecting them to fight off predators, we hope that they will displace predators from our rangeland ecosystem.  I think they do this through normal canine behaviors - marking territory and protecting their "pack" (the sheep).  We've never had to shoot a predator where we've had LGDs with the sheep.  In fact, I believe that our dogs come to an "understanding" with the predators in their neighborhood - the predators know the sheep are off limits.  I would worry that killing a predator would encourage new predators (who don't understand our "system") to fill that niche.

For the most part, we find that the combination of a single dog and our electric fence is sufficient protection for the sheep.  In some situations when we've been grazing in large paddocks (>5 acres) in brushy terrain, we'll use two dogs together.  We would use more dogs if we started having a predation problem, but so far this system seems to be working.  I'll admit - this is an economic consideration for us.  A single LGD costs about $500 per year to keep.  Unless we start having a significant economic loss due to predators, I'm not inclined to increase our LGD numbers.

Socialization and Bonding with the Sheep

Over my 47 years, I've probably raised 15-20 dogs from puppy to adulthood.  Until I started raising LGDs, however, I didn't really think much about socializing puppies - I figured all dogs needed to socialize with humans extensively.  Consequently, the first two LGDs we purchased as puppies were failures as guardians - they were/are great pets, but they ultimately decided that they'd rather be with humans than with sheep.

We purchased our first LGD, Scarlet, from a rather reclusive goat rancher in eastern Yuba County.  Scarlet, an Akbash x Pyrenees cross, was approximately 6-months old when we purchased her.  We immediately put her to work with our ewes, which were grazing on leased property near Grass Valley.  Despite a few problems caused by her overly developed maternal instinct during her first lambing season, Scarlet did quite well.  Our mistake was in showing her a good deal of affection in all situations - if she got out, I tried to make coming to me a pleasant experience.  I used a soft voice and a great deal of praise to get her to come to me - which I think she eventually craved more than being with her sheep.  By the time she was 3 years old, she wouldn't stay in our electric fence - she decided she'd rather hang out in the yard of the folks who lived on the property.  We ultimately gave her to a friend in Colfax, where she's made a great pet on a large (500+ acre) property.

Fast-forward to today.  We currently use two LGDs with our sheep - Rosie and Reno.  Rosie is an Akbash x Anatolian from a litter born at our home place in 2011.  Both parents were outstanding working dogs, and Rosie has proven to be one of our best.  The litter was whelped in our barn where they could hear and smell sheep from birth.  Our interaction with the puppies was limited to giving them vaccinations, trimming their toenails, and eventually feeding them.  We tried not to overly socialize them - we wanted them to bond from an early age with their "pack" - the sheep.  From the outset, Rosie was the shyest pup in the litter.  We sold her to a large operation in the Delta, where they kept her initially with the bummer lambs in the lambing barn.  Later, when they tried to move her out into larger pastures (200-300 acre), she kept returning to the barn.  We decided to swap her for her father (who is an incredibly athletic dog).  Boise adapted to the larger rangeland environment quite well, and Rosie did equally well in our electric fencing.  She's still quite shy, but she's our most trustworthy dog (by far) in terms of staying with the sheep in all circumstances.  When we move sheep from one property to another, I can trust her to stay with the sheep while we're herding them with our border collies.  If she gets out for some reason, she'll usually lay by the fence until we arrive to let her back in.
Reno with his girls.

All of this is not to say that I will tolerate a dog that is aggressive with people.  I think there's a balance in the socialization process - our dogs need to be comfortable with people but not so attached that they'll leave our sheep.  And every dog - like every person - is different.  The training approach we used with Rosie might not have worked with Scarlet.

I've recently heard from several people who assert that a dog will only bond with livestock if he's neglected or even abused by his owner or shepherd.  That has certainly not been my experience.  Rosie, who has never been mistreated, would much prefer to be with sheep than with people. I do think it's possible to be kind to a dog without being overly affectionate.
Rosie - on one of the rare occasions in which she
wants to be petted!

Finally, I think the animal behavior principles we try to use with sheep dogs, livestock and horses also apply to LGDs.  We use a system of pressure and release from pressure to help shape behavior.  Applied correctly, a pressure-release system mimics the way that animals teach behavior norms in a pack or herd situation.  For example, a mother dog will growl at her puppies if they are doing something she doesn't want them to do.  Similarly, I'll use a gruff voice and displeased body language if I'm trying to help a dog understand that it's current behavior is undesirable.  Once the dog changes its behavior (even if the new behavior isn't exactly what I'm looking for), I'll immediately shift to a kind voice - a reward for trying something different.  We apply this to our LGDs by reserving a soft voice for the times that the dogs are behaving well - staying with stock, etc.  If a dog misbehaves - chases stock, plays with a lamb, or gets out of the paddock, for example  - I'll use a gruff voice and a hard look.  If the dog persists in the undesirable behavior and looks for approval, I'll refuse to look at it or face it.  In an extreme case, where a dog might play with a lamb to the point of injuring or killing it, I'll grab it by the ruff and pin it to the ground - just as an alpha dog might do.

LGDs in Retirement

Sometimes, Buck will hop in the truck to go see the sheep
(and his buddy, Reno)
Buck is enjoying his retirement!
We've recently retired Buck, our oldest LGD.  Buck was an outstanding lambing dog for many years - we called him Uncle Buck because he would lay in the paddock during the day and let the lambs climb on him.  Despite is calm demeanor with the sheep, he was always on guard.  I've watched at night sit beneath a tree in a pen of lambing ewes and bark at the great horned owl in the treetop until it left.  About a year ago, though, Buck started growing senile (we think he's currently 11 or 12 years old).  The first time we noticed it was when we had him at home protecting a small group of lambs.  One morning we noticed he was gone.  I drove the neighborhood looking for him without success.  I'd just given up when a neighbor who has sheep called - they live about a mile away as the crow flies, or about 2.5 miles away by road.  Buck had shown up at their place and jumped in with their sheep (their guard dog, apparently figuring it was vacation time, retired to the front porch).  Buck refused to let the neighbor's husband into the pasture to feed the sheep.  Over the next 2-3 months, Buck wandered off with increasing frequency - often forgetting where his own sheep were.  We brought him home to stay last summer.  He's still in good shape physically (good enough shape to clime a 42" fence), but he's not all there mentally.  We figure he's earned a comfortable retirement - and we hope he dies of natural causes.


One of the things I like most about raising livestock and using dogs (LGDs and herding dogs) is the constant learning.  I'm always learning new things - if I'm paying attention!  I think one of the most important things I've learned is that every dog - and every sheep - is different, as is every situation and environment.  We need dogs that are closely bonded with sheep, that are able to think for themselves, and that are comfortable without a lot of human interaction.  This type of dog doesn't fit every situation - if we lived on the property where we raise sheep, I'd need/want a different type of dog.  Similarly, not every dog will thrive in a situation like ours.  Perhaps the key to using LGDs is matching the dog to the job and vice versa.