Wednesday, December 12, 2018

More than the Numbers: A Few Random Thoughts on our Wool

A few of our "mule" crossbreds - Blueface Lecister x Cheviot.

This won't be a surprise to anyone who wears wool, I'm sure - but not all sheep are created equal when it comes to wool quality. For the most part, the finer the wool, the more comfortable the fabric made from that wool. Wool-wearers are familiar with Australian Merino wool; Rambouillet sheep are the predominant fine-wool breed in the American West. Fine wool is typically under 21 microns in diameter, and is generally less "scratchy" than larger diameter (or coarser) wool. Fine wool is desirable for next-to-skin garments; course wool is used for carpets. I would imagine you can guess which type of wool is more valuable!

Our wool, largely from English crossbred sheep (Blueface Leicester x Cheviot) and Shropshire sheep, is coarse. Coarse wool sheep work well in our environment, where we typically receive more than 30 inches of rain annually. Fine-wool sheep, on the other hand, are better suited to more arid climates - like the southern San Joaquin Valley or the Intermountain West.

Most of our wool is more than 27 microns in diameter; some is over 30 microns! On the commodity market, fine wool is purchased by SmartWool and Armani. Our wool is purchased by carpet weavers. Last year, fine wool commanded record-setting prices (in excess of $3 per pound). A Rambouillet ewe that sheared a 12-pound fleece returned as much as $40 on her wool. Our wool, on the other had, was worth just $0.56 per pound. An average ewe in our flock returned less than $3. We paid around $4 to have her shorn. Since I have a degree in agricultural economics, I realize that our wool wasn't profitable in 2018.
Typical western white-face (and fine-wool) ewes - shipping out
of the mountains north of Truckee.

But the commodity market and wool diameter don't tell the whole story. Our "coarse" wool is supposedly unsuitable for next-to-skin garments. Despite this conventional wisdom, I own two stocking hats knit from yarn spun from our wool. Being a mostly bald shepherd (as anyone who knows me will attest), these hats are "next-to-skin" for me - and they are perfectly comfortable (and incredibly warm). Blueface Leicester wool, it turns out, is unusually soft for a coarse wool. I wish this was reflected in the price we receive for it!

I love the fact that the wool hat I wore today on my morning walk was sunshine, rainwater, soil, and (ultimately) grass just two years ago. I love the fact that I still wear Pendleton and Filson garments that are older than I am (and that I received from my Dad). I love the fact that even today, in an era of smartphones and super computers, every woolen garment begins with someone shearing a sheep by hand. Wool breathes, resists bacteria and fire, and insulates even when wet. Wool is the ultimate renewable fiber - my sheep produce more of it each and every year!

Every shepherd who raises wool sheep should have something made from his or her sheep's wool. I'm so fortunate to have friends and family who are talented (and generous) spinners and knitters. Keeping my bald head warm this morning with wool from our sheep almost made up for the poor returns from this year's wool clip!
Renewable fiber - on the hoof!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Of Cowboys, Sheepherders, and Paying for a Ranch

My sheep shearer, Derrick Adamache, tells a story about the value of wool 100 years ago. Relatively speaking, wool was worth much more in 1918 than it is today - Derrick tells about entire ranches that were purchased using a single year's wool check as a down payment. As the world emerged from World War I, American wool was worth $1.25 per pound (last year, our coarse wool brought $1.56 per pound - our 2018 wool hasn't sold yet, but will probably be worth less than that). By comparison, sheep ranchers paid $0.10 per head for shearing services (compared to the $4.00+ I pay to Derrick). Sheep walked nearly everywhere they went (as opposed to riding in trucks or trailers). I can see how my predecessors bought their ranches!

If you talk to a family that has owned a ranch for more than four generations nearly anywhere in the West, you'll find that a good many of them started (at least in part) with sheep. The running joke (among those of us who still raise sheep) is that cows bring prestige; sheep bring profit. Reality is a bit more complicated (isn't it always?). Sheep take more management - somebody has to see our sheep 365 days out of the year; cattle can survive without daily human contact. Sheep are more susceptible to predators, too - those of us who still raise sheep spend much more time than our cattle rancher friends protecting our animals from coyotes, mountain lions, neighbor dogs, and other predators. But sheep produce multiple products - lamb, mutton and wool (at least). Sheep can survive on marginal forage; cows need the best grass. Sheep, with a shorter gestation (five months rather than nine), offer more flexibility in terms of their nutritional requirements.

Somewhere around the middle of the Twentieth Century, cattle began to be more profitable than sheep (at least for most producers). American GI's during World War II were fed canned mutton - and swore off all sheep meat for the rest of their lives. New technology allowed us to turn petroleum products into winter garments - culminating with the invention of Polar Fleece by Malden Mills in the late 1970s. Increased protections for predators (like mountain lions, gray wolves and grizzly bears) induced some ranchers to switch entirely to cattle. As life became more expensive and more time consuming (and as we expected things like health insurance, entertainment, and higher education), ranch owners switched to a livestock species that required less time.

While these changes reflect modern economic realities, there has also been a long-held bias towards cattle-raising and against sheepherding. This bias is reflected in our culture. Go to your local western wear store and ask for cowboy boots - they'll know what you're asking for! Ask for sheepherder boots and they'll laugh at you (believe me!). I know a number of families that still raise 20-30 cows on the side simply to be able to say, "I run cows." There are far fewer of us who raise 100-200 ewes so that we can say, "I'm a sheepherder."

But this seems to be changing. At least on the West Coast (and I hear on the East Coast as well), lamb is increasingly in demand among "foodies." Even more lamb (and mutton) is moving through "non-traditional" marketing chains - that is, as urban areas become increasingly diverse ethnically, more sheep meat is being sold outside of the formal marketing system. Thanks to innovative companies like SmartWool, Duckworth, Farm-to-Feet and Darn Tough Socks, wool is once again becoming the sustainable alternative for hikers, skiers, hunters, and other outdoors-people. The ability of sheep to utilize a wide variety of vegetation - and the ability of sheepherders to graze sheep in just about any environment (including urban areas) - has created new opportunities for sheepherders to manage wildfire fuels. Sheep are chic!

Even with these new economic opportunities, I'm under no illusion that my cattle ranching friends will turn once again to sheep. Sheep still require more management; I have to put my hands on every sheep we own four or five times every year - cattle do not require nearly as much labor. I know I'll never be able to go to a western-wear store and ask to see the sheepherder hats. Regardless, we're able to manage rangelands that wouldn't be grazed otherwise - with electric fencing and livestock guardian dogs, we can graze land that would otherwise burn (or need to be mowed). We're able to turn grass, weeds and brush into wool, lamb and mutton. I'll gladly trade practicality (and profit) for prestige!

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Do these Big White Dogs Really Work?!

At the beginning of November, I had the privilege to be invited to speak about my experience with and research into livestock guardian dogs at the West Central States Wool Growers Convention in Casper, Wyoming. The Saturday session, where I spoke, was organized by Dr. Whit Stewart, Sheep Specialist and Professor at the University of Wyoming. Other speakers (including Dr. Stewart) discussed mastitis in sheep, mineral supplementation and nutrition, managing coccidiosis, using new technology to monitor rangeland use and diets of sheep and wildlife, marketing feeder lambs profitably, and a variety of other hugely interesting topics. I found it invigorating to be among other ranchers - and other researchers - with such enthusiastic interest in commercial sheep production!

To me, one of the more enjoyable aspects of ranching and conducting research in the era of social media is that I've made virtual friends with folks who share my interests all over the world! Dr. Stewart and I, for example, had never met in person before the meeting. When I went to pay for my purchases in the silent auction fundraiser, I met another virtual friend - Jenny Osguthorpe and her husband Brad ranch in Utah and Wyoming. I also had a chance to talk dogs and sheep with Cat Urbigkit, editor of The Shepherd magazine. Cat and her family ranch in western Wyoming - she's been using livestock guardian dogs in wolf country for a number of years. I had so much fun meeting these folks (and others) in person - social media is great, but there's no substitute for actually visiting with someone directly!

All of this is a long-winded introduction to a recorded version of my talk, "Do these Big White Dogs Really Work?! Livestock Guardian Dog Solutions: Observations from a Rancher/Researcher." If you've used these dogs, I hope you'll share your observations! If you have questions, ask away!

Monday, November 12, 2018

Another Dry Autumn

As I write this, the Camp Fire continues to burn - mostly out of control - less than 60 miles to the north in Butte County. The grass that germinated after the inch-and-a-half of rain we received 48 days ago has withered. While our temperatures have finally become more seasonal (we've even had several frosty mornings), the warmer-than-normal daytime temperatures for most of October and low humidity have left our part of the Sierra foothills tinder-dry - or "crispy," as I remarked to my family yesterday. With the shorter days and cooler temperatures of the winter solstice just around the corner, and no rain in our forecast for at least a week, we're not likely to have much green grass until well into 2019. And so today, I pulled out our drought plan.

Our approach to raising sheep on our foothill rangelands gives us the flexibility to cope with dry conditions. We stock our pastures conservatively - our stocking rate is 2-3 acres per ewe for the winter and early spring, which leaves us significant dry forage going into the autumn months. We have invested in portable water and fencing systems, which allow us to take our sheep to standing forage (as opposed to feeding them hay). Our management calendar matches our production system with forage growth - we lamb in the late winter and early spring when the grass is most likely to be growing rapidly. We plan our grazing on a monthly basis to identify forage challenges before they become crises.

Even with this careful preparation, however, we also need to respond when dry stretches occur. To reduce the emotion involved in making these decisions, we've tried to think about the conditions and critical dates by which they'll need to be made. In looking at our drought plan this afternoon, I've realized that we're approaching a key decision point. If we have not had germination by December 1, our plan calls for two possible actions:

  • Cull any ewes that are missing teeth or that have hard bags (if they weren't culled already).
  • Provide supplemental protein to the remaining ewes to allow them to digest the dry forage we've saved from last year.
The second action is straightforward. By feeding supplemental protein, we'll be able to maintain the nutritional intake of our just-bred ewes through early gestation (when their nutritional demands are reasonably low). At some point (we hope) we'll get rain - and the grass will germinate again. Supplemental protein is the bridge that will help us get the flock to that point.

The first action is a bit more difficult. Every year, we keep a handful of older ewes who have always been productive (in other words, they've always had twins). Our hope is that with enough high-quality forage, we can get one more replacement ewe lamb out of these ewes. However, because of their lack of teeth, they need higher quality forage throughout their pregnancies. Our choice, in a year like this, is to bring them home and feed them hay - or to sell them. As older ewes, they won't be worth much at the sale - we'll have some difficult discussions about how we should proceed. We usually move the sheep back to our winter pastures around December 1 - we'll take a close look at these older ewes when we bring them into the corrals after Thanksgiving.

Our 2012-2015 drought has been called a "Thousand Year Drought" - the driest/warmest stretch of years in the last millennium in California. But I wonder if this drought isn't longer than just 2012 to 2015. Since I began keeping rainfall records in 2003, 10 out of the last 16 years have been below average in terms of precipitation. I realize that total rainfall doesn't begin to tell the whole story in terms of grass growth (indeed, last year's "normal" rainfall, combined with perfect timing and warmer weather, resulted in record-setting forage production). That said, a dry autumn like this one makes me extremely nervous. I suppose for now, I'll just keep checking the weather apps on my phone to see if the 10-day forecast includes rain - the twenty-first century version of a rain dance!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Here We Go Again

While autumn is my favorite season, it always seems a bit chancy to me. Since we rely on the grass that rainfall and Mother Nature grow in our Mediterranean climate, fall is a critical season. We need rain to start the grass; we need more rain to keep the grass growing. Having come through our once-in-a-lifetime drought (2013-2014) - or so I thought - an autumn season like the one we're experiencing now makes me nervous.

During the first week of October, we measured 1.5 inches of rain over the course of two days here in Auburn. While some ranches nearby measured next to nothing, we saw newly sprouted green grass about a week later. But since that time, it's been dry. We've even had several periods of high fire danger (a combination of high winds, low humidity, and relatively high temperatures). Since that time, the newly sprouted grass has withered.

One of my favorite weather blogs is Weather West, written by a guy named Daniel Swain. During the big drought, Swain coined the term "ridiculously resilient ridge" for the persistent ridge of high pressure resulting from unusually warm water in the eastern Pacific. This ridge deflected the storms that usually bring rainfall to central and northern California during the 2013-2014 drought. And according to Swain, it's back. Since our wonderful early October rain, the ridiculously resilient ridge is again blocking storms.

We're entering the third trimester of our autumn season. November typically brings stormy weather - and yet there are no storms in our 10-day forecast at the moment (indeed, we'll have another fire weather watch later this week). I suppose it's a sign of my weather obsession, but I check each of the weather apps on my smart phone 3-4 times a day. A predicted storm (even 10 days out) raises my spirits; I tumble back to earth when it disappears from the forecast.

We're not in crisis mode yet. Our production calendar is set with the possibility of a dry fall in mind. We save dry grass to graze this time of year. We plan to lamb in late winter and early spring when we'll almost certainly have green grass. And yet my experience in 2013-2014 - when we sold nearly half of our sheep - still haunts me.

Several weeks ago, my youngest daughter said, "I hope it rains soon - I don't want to listen to you worry." I do worry - I imagine all stock-people do when the rain doesn't come. Even so, having made it through California's last drought, I feel like I'm better prepared. Despite my preparations, though, I agree with Emma. I hope it rains soon.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Livestock Guardian Coyotes and the Limitations of Research

This coyote showed up in a game camera in July - approximately 15 feet from our sheep! No sheep were harmed in the
making of this photograph!
Recently, several folks sent me a link to a blog post by Randy Comeleo from Oregon State University cooperative extension entitled, "Using Coyotes to Protect Livestock. Wait, What?" Comeleo cites research - some from California - that suggests that the more coyotes we kill indiscriminately in ranching environments, the more livestock losses we'll experience. The post seems to fit with my own perspective - I've often said that my use of nonlethal tools (livestock guardian dogs and electric fence, primarily) is a contractual arrangement with the predators in my environment. I promise not to kill predators indiscriminately; the predators, in turn, must promise not to eat lamb or mutton. While my statement is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there does seem to be some merit to the approach. Comeleo's article indicates that research supports the idea that a non-sheep-eating coyote fills the niche that might otherwise be filled by an ovinivorous animal.

Like much scientific research, however, there are studies that seem to contradict this perspective. For example, research in Utah in the late 1990s suggests that preventive hunting of coyotes can have benefits for sheep producers in the following grazing season (see "Effect of Preventive Coyote Hunting on Sheep Losses to Coyote Predation," by Kimberly Wagner and Michael Conover (1999)). To me, this conflicting research emphasizes the limitations of pure research to inform the "art" of raising livestock in a rangeland environment. The scientific process tries to control all variables except the one in question; those of us who manage livestock on rangeland in an ever-changing climate are (by necessity) comfortable with variables we can't control.

As someone with a foot in both worlds (ranching and research), I sometimes struggle with this dichotomy. I'm intrigued by the question of whether my livestock guardian dogs displace the coyotes that live near my sheep, or if they simply disrupt their predatory behaviors. From a purely scientific perspective, I suppose, I would need to know how many coyotes live in close proximity. I'd need to know whether these coyotes would prey on sheep that weren't protected by dogs. I'd need to know whether my electric fence provided similar deterrence, and I'd need to know how many lambs were saved by both tools. From my more simplistic (realistic?) rancher perspective, I only care about how much my dogs cost and whether I suffer any death loss due to predators. As a rancher, I'm interested in knowing what my dogs are doing when a coyote (or any other predator) approaches my sheep - I really don't care how many coyotes are in the neighborhood. I'm simply happy that my sheep aren't dead and that I can afford to keep the dogs.

All of this, I suppose, is related to our own personal paradigms. I believe my dogs and my fences will work. When a dog causes a problem, or when sheep break through the electric fence, the filter of my own paradigm influences my response. What can I do to help the dog understand his (her) job? Was the fence working properly? If I felt like dogs and portable electric fence were not effective, I'd likely abandon these tools at the first hint of a problem.

Fortunately, there is a new generation of scientists studying these issues - scientists who combine bio-physical research with a social science foundation. These researchers understand that the real world is messy - we can't answer important questions if we insist on controlling all of the variables. This type of work - which combines scientific rigor with the everyday concerns of on-the-ground practitioners - will be critical answering questions like the one raised by my OSU colleague. Can the right kind of coyotes actually protect my sheep?!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Seasonally-Activated Attention Deficit Disorder (SAADD)

I've always been attracted to changes and transitions. I am (I suspect) unusually curious about what's over that next ridge, across that creek, or beyond the horizon. I always wonder what might be at the end of the dirt road. And I suppose that's why I've always seemed to like the seasons of change (spring and autumn) more than summer and winter.

I suspect I may be genetically predisposed to cold(ish) weather - perhaps my Scotch-German ancestry has given me thick blood. I can always add layers of clothing and stoke up the fire in the wood stove when it's cold outside. On the other hand, there's a limit to how many clothes I can remove when the weather is hot! But even with my inclination towards winter, I've realized that I prefer the transitional seasons to summer's bright heat and winter's gray cold.

Springtime is easy to understand - new life abounds. Our lambs are frolicking! Irrigation water returns to our canals. The grass begins to riot!

But truth be told, my favorite season (by far) is autumn. In our Mediterranean climate in the Sierra foothills, the first real rain of autumn usually marks the beginning of our grass year. Germination Day (which ought to be a holiday, in my opinion) occurs several days after we get a half inch or more of rain. As bright green shoots of grass appear underneath last year's dead stalks, we turn the rams in with the ewes. This seems like an act of faith and hope - a five-month Advent, of sorts. An investment in the coming year.

In autumn, the nights grow cooler - sometimes cool enough that we need a fire to heat the house. Mornings grow even colder - a 40-degree morning in October provides an excuse to break out my woolen shirts (which I usually shed before I'm done moving irrigation water, but no matter). When we grew vegetables, I always looked forward to the hard frost that marked the end of harvesting tomatoes and summer squash. As a shepherd, I look forward to the frost that finally kills the sluggish autumn flies and the meat bees that harass the dogs.

Today, I fed the last of the barley to our breeding flock. We start feeding barley in late summer to "flush" the ewes - the added dietary energy increases their ovulation rates (and the lambs they'll conceive). Feeding barley to the ewes is an adventure - I've never been to a punk-rock concert, but I suspect the mosh pit is not much different than trying to feed a mob of hungry ewes! We feed barley through the first two weeks of breeding (in other words, until mid-October).

On Sunday, I'll move the irrigation water for the last time in 2018. Nearly every day for the last 6 months, my work day has started with dragging the K-Line sprinklers behind the ATV. On Monday morning, I think I'll go for a walk before work (instead of scrambling to get to the ranch before 7 so I can be at work by 8). Perhaps I'll just sleep a little longer!

My friends Mark and Dina Moore, who ranch and grow timber in Humboldt County, told me more than 20 years ago that they relished the fall and winter months. Shorter daylight hours - and more importantly, longer nights - forced them to rest. As I've tied my work to the rhythm of the changing seasons, I've come to appreciate this perspective even more. Between my ranch work and my professional work, I often work sun-up to sun-down (and beyond). As our hemisphere spins towards the shortest day of the year, I can feel my batteries re-charging.

By early February, I'll be looking forward to the growing light (and the coming lambs). While spring is a wonderful season, I've find that I look towards autumn with greater relish. By mid-August, I'm always looking forward to the first cool morning and hint of fall. I guess I'm always looking over the horizon - regardless of the season!