Sunday, January 25, 2015

Research Cowboy

I've only been at the University of California's Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center for a little more than a week, but I'm thinking this new job - as a "research cowboy" - is going to be a pretty good fit for me.

SFREC is a 5,700-acre ranch that has been owned by the University of California since the early 1960s.  The facility, and it's cattle, are available to researchers from a variety of disciplines.  Currently, scientists from UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC Cooperative Extension, CSU Chico, and other institutions are conducting research into cattle nutrition, water quality, grazing management, wildlife habitat and cattle health, just to name a few subjects.  To a self admitted pasture geek like me, it's important and facscinating research!

The job of the staff, me included, includes normal ranch work - maintaining fences and roads, irrigating pastures, moving and caring for cattle.  We also support the research projects - feeding brewer's grains to cows, weighing steers on a grazing trial, helping researchers locate a transect to measure water quality.  I'm finding the variety of work to be enjoyable and mentally stimulating.

With a ranch this large, and with terrain that varies from Yuba river frontage to ponderosa pine - black oak forest, it will take me some time to get familiar with the entire property.  We were so busy in my first week that I didn't have time to get all of my safety training done (meaning the only modes of transportation available to me so far are Lulu the quarterhorse, a 1952 military jeep, and my own two feet).  I'm not complaining, though - walking and riding are the best way to get to know the place, I think!  While it's nice to know the roads, the only way to assess the condition of the pastures and the cattle, at least in my very short experience here, is on foot or horseback.

As you might imagine on a ranch of this size, there's an amazing array of wildlife.  So far, I've seen lots of raptors - including redtail hawks, kestrals, golden eagles and bald eagles.  I've also seen quail and bandtail pigeons, and a fair number of deer.  I expect I'll see much more as the seasons progress.

I'm also enjoying the fact that I can focus on the cattle and the grass.  The field station has an amazing crew to support the research and care for the property.  The fact that most of my colleagues have been working at the field station for more than 10 years suggests that it's a pretty great place to work.

Stay tuned - I'm sure I'll have more to write about in the days, months and years to come.  In the meantime, I'm thoroughly enjoying learning to be a research cowboy!


Monday, January 12, 2015

Global Weirding

As I was setting up fences this morning to give my ewes some additional grazing for the day, I was startled to see two large flocks of geese flying high overhead, headed north.  While we have lazy resident Canada geese that don't migrate, these geese were formed up and flying at high altitude.  I wonder if the record-setting warm temperatures we've had for the last week (after our brief "cold" snap in early January) have confused the geese.

Our native blue oaks seem equally confused.  I started to notice that many of the oaks started turning color in August - 45-60 days earlier than normal.  Based on the limited research I've done, this was probably because they were drought stressed.  Despite this early color-change, many of these oaks still have leaves - and we're only 6-8 weeks away from normal leaf-out.  Our local horticulture farm advisor, Cindy Fake, theorizes that the hormonal changes that cause the trees to drop leaves (by making cellular changes in leaf stems) didn't happen this year.  I find it very odd to see autumn colors in the midst of winter.

Finally, following the wettest December we've had since we've lived in Auburn, the weather has once again turned dry.  We haven't had measurable rainfall since Christmas (almost three weeks).  While this dry spell pales in comparison to last year's 50-plus day dry stretch in December and January, it does make me nervous.  I was stunned by the lack of snow in Yosemite National Park during our visit on January 3.

What does this mean?  Personally, I think the climate is changing and that human activity (e.g., burning fossil fuels) is at least partly responsible for this change.  In the short term, these weird phenomena can create challenges for those of us who work directly with natural resources.  I've written previously about the disease issues we've faced because of last year's dry and warm winter.  Many fruit trees require cold weather for a necessary dormant period - and many crop pests are able to overwinter when it's warmer than normal.  In the long term, I think most farmers and ranchers will adapt - but these changes will probably influence the types of crops and the length of our growing season here in the Sierra foothills.

In the meantime, we seem to be back in a pattern

like last year.  The days are beautiful, but the lack of winter weather is frightening.  Weird, indeed!


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Selling Sheep

For some time now, I’ve realized that my current income level (between my current part-time job and our sheep business) doesn’t meet my family’s needs.  While I’ve been planning to return to college to obtain a masters degree, I’ve also decided to take a full-time job that will provide enough income and allow me to further my education. Next Wednesday, I will become the herdsman at the University of California’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center.  I’ll have day-to-day responsibility for managing the cattle and grazing on the Center’s 5700 acres of rangeland and pasture.  I’m tremendously excited!  That said, my decision (at least in part) is the consequence of the lack of profit in my sheep business, which in turn, is driven mostly by my lack of capitalization, lack of scale, and the impacts of 3 years of drought.  Despite these challenges, I’ve discovered that I enjoy teaching others about animal agriculture and farming - and a significant factor in my decision is my desire to do more hands-on teaching.  I’m excited - and a bit nervous - about this new chapter in my life!
But I’m also having a hard time letting go of my farming dream.  I’ve started thinking through the reality of trying to raise sheep while working on a masters thesis and working full-time.  I’ve been so fortunate to be working in a part time job that gives me the flexibility to deal with problems with the sheep when they occur.  Depending on where we’re grazing sheep, my office job is no more than 5 miles from our pastures.  I won’t be able to drop everything and put sheep back in their electric fence when I’m working 45 miles away - and so we’ve started selling ewes.

I began ranching commercially, albeit at a very small scale, nearly 20 years ago with the partnership purchase of a handful of cows. I took our first vegetable crop - swiss chard, pumpkins and popcorn - to the Auburn farmers market in the fall of 2002.  Over the next several years, we tried a little bit of everything - from bok choy to green beans, sweet corn to snow peas, and pastured eggs to pastured poultry.  I finally settled on grass-fed lamb.  When I look back at my writing from that time period, I’m struck by my own optimism and naivete - micro farms were going to save the world, or so I thought at the time!

The economic realities of small-scale farming tempered my optimism and cured my naivete over the years.  As our emphasis evolved towards sheep and I tried to expand to a scale that would provide a full-time salary for me, I began to realize that this farming gig was much more challenging that I’d originally thought.  Ultimately, I’ve realized that I don’t have the capital, the secure and affordable land base, the market volume and (if I’m honest, some of the business skills) necessary to grow to the 600-800 ewe operation necessary to pay me (the owner) $35,000 to $40,000 per year.  While my shepherding skills have improved tremendously in the last 20 years - to the point where I’m certain I could care for that many sheep with little or no additional help - I simply haven’t been able to grow my sheep business to a sustainable level.  And like many small scale farmers, I enjoy working outside much more than the mundane (but very necessary) tasks like bookkeeping and business management - so I’ve neglected these parts of the job.

In some ways, this realization has made me a better teacher when it comes to helping new farmers (or at least I hope it has) - my experience has taught me the importance of addressing the issues of scale and capitalization early on in creating a farming business.  On the other hand, I fear that I have become the stereotypical grumpy old farmer who is great at telling newbies why something won’t work (rather than offering suggestions that increase the likelihood of success).

I've also realized that while the drought has been difficult for our business, it's not the sole factor in the challenges we've faced.  The drought has intensified the problems that already existed in our ranching business; namely, our lack of scale, our undercapitalization, and my poor cash flow management.  I don't regret any of the decisions that I've made in coping with the drought.  To take care of our land, we needed to reduce our flock.  To be a father to my daughters, I needed to spend my Saturdays with them (at soccer games, horse shows, and simply at home) rather than at the farmers' market.

Moving forward, we will be keeping a small breeding flock (small enough to manage, but big enough to matter).  I plan to make some improvements to the fences and the irrigation system at our longest-running leased properties to ensure that sheep can’t escape the properties entirely, which will make it easier to be away during the day.  I guess what I’m saying is that I will keep a hand (or at least a finger) in the sheep business even while I’m going back to school and working another job.  Being a shepherd is part of my identity, and I can’t entirely give that up. Selling sheep isn't the end of the world for me, but I know it will leave a hole.

Several years ago, a friend loaned me her copy of Sweet Promised Land by Robert Laxalt.  Laxalt recounts the experiences of his father, who immigrated to Nevada from the Basque country - first to tend sheep for others; later, to tend his own sheep.  The memoir recounts that the elder Laxalt went out of the sheep business multiple times (because of drought, economics and other familiar factors) - and always returned to it.  As I think about the failings of my small farm business and about selling my own flock, the example of Dominique Laxalt’s persistence, hard work, and enthusiasm for raising sheep gives me some hope.  The realization that I need to make changes now is made easier by the hope that I’ll come back to the sheep business on a commercial scale - sometime in the future.

Monday, January 5, 2015

2015 Shepherding School

Once again, Flying Mule Farm (in collaboration with UC Cooperative Extension) is offering a series of workshops designed to help new and aspiring shepherds get started in the sheep business.  These workshops will give students basic information on sheep husbandry, marketing and business management, lambing, shearing and wool handling, predator prevention and pasture management.  Several workshops will be offered classroom style, while most will feature hands-on work with sheep.

The 2015 Shepherding School kicks off with a workshop on predator protection on January 11.  Here's the full schedule:

  • Predator Protection for Small Scale Livestock Producers (January 11): This workshop is part of the Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference in Grass Valley, CA.  For more information (and to register) go to: http://foodandfarmconference.com.
  • Introduction to Sheep Husbandry - Classroom Session (January 15): Basic information on managing a small flock of sheep, including management calendars, husbandry practices, economics of the sheep business, and marketing.  For more information, and to register online, go to: http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/?calitem=250009&g=22527.  The workshop will be held at the UCCE office in Auburn.
  • Introduction to Sheep Husbandry - Field Day (January 17): This hands-on field day will provide students with the opportunity to learn how to give vaccinations, trim feet, evaluate general health, and prepare a flock for lambing.  For more information, and to register online, go to: http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/?calitem=250011&g=22527. The workshop will be held at our leased pasture near Auburn.
  • Lambing on Pasture Field Day (March 7): This field day will provide hands-on instruction on managing a lambing flock on pasture.  Students will learn to dock, castrate and eartag lambs, manage ewe and lamb nutrition, evaluate health, and manage pastures during lambing.  Stay tuned for registration information!
  • Shearing and Wool Handling Field Day (early May): This field day will provide hands-on information regarding preparing sheep for shearing, shearing-site set-up and management, wool handling and preparation for marketing.  The date will be determined by availability of our sheep shearer.
  • California Multi-Species Grazing Academy (September 11-13): This multi-day workshop will provide students with hands-on experience in electric fencing, pasture management, forage evaluation and animal husbandry.  Participants will work with sheep and goats.  Stay tuned for more information!

For more information, go to http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/ and click on the specific events on the calendar page - or contact me directly at flyingmulefarm@gmail.com or 530/305-3270!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Grazing during Dormancy

In the last week, our weather in the Sierra foothills has turned cold - finally!  While I welcome the onset of winter (especially after the 11+ inches of rain we had in December), the cold weather and shorter days mean that our annual grasses have gone into their winter dormancy.  And with dormancy comes a change in our grazing strategy.

We are always concerned with providing adequate rest for our pasture grasses to regrow after a bout of grazing.  On our un-irrigated rangelands, this rest phase varies from 20-25 days (in March and early April) to 45-60 days (after fall germination and before winter dormancy).  Our annual grasses have two dormant periods - summer (after the grasses die and before a germinating fall rain), and winter (once the soil temperatures and day lengths drop past the critical point).  Now that our rangelands have gone into winter dormancy, they won't start growing again until the soil temperatures and day lengths cross back over this threshhold - usually sometime in mid-February.

All of this means that the paddocks we're grazing today (January 1) won't be grazable again for at least 30 days after growth resumes (we'll probably pass through these paddocks again in mid-March).  In other words, we won't get any significant quantity of new forage for about 75 days.  What grass we have now will have to carry the ewes through until then.

With more than 17 inches of rainfall since the rain "year" began on July 1, we're much better off this January than we were last year.  When I look back at photographs from last January, I'm amazed by the lack of green!  The other difference, however, is the lack of standing dry forage this January.  With all of the rain we've had, last year's grass crop has largely decomposed.  Last year, the standing dry grass saved us - we were able to feed supplemental protein and meet our ewes' fiber requirements with dry forage.  This year, we'll need to stretch the standing green forage that we have on January 1 until the grass starts growing again.  Every year is different; the art of managing rangelands and livestock requires us to stay flexible!  Happy 2015!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Gear Review - Head-wear for (Bald) Farmers and Ranchers

As a bald rancher who spends much of my time outside, I've become something of a connoisseur of hats.  For me, a hat is much more than a fashion decision - it's a piece of gear that makes my day-to-day work safer and more comfortable.  I thought I'd offer a brief review of the types and brands of hats that I prefer - hopefully others will offer additional suggestions!

My hats must serve multiple functions.  First, like all of my work clothes, my hats must be durable in all kinds of conditions.  In addition to covering the top of my head, my hats sometimes serve as training tools for training my border collies, as a basket for collecting eggs, or as a flyswatter.  Second, my hats must be comfortable - my lack of hair means I don't have much between my scalp and my hat.  Third, my hats must serve season-specific functions - warmth in the winter, ventilation in the summer, shade for my face and sweat-absorption year-round.
The original Stormy Kromer cap


Since it's winter-time as I write this, I'll start with my preferences for a winter hat.  For everyday work, I love a standard Stormy Kromer hat.  George "Stormy" Kromer, according the company's website, was a semi-pro ballplayer and railroad man.  He had his wife sew a special flap on a wool ballcap to keep it from blowing off in the windy locomotive where he worked.  Today, the caps (and other garments) are made in Michigan.  I like the caps because they're made from wool and cotton.  The unique ear-flap covers my ears just enough to keep me warm in really cold weather (without being too hot).  They have enough of a bill to shade my eyes, too.  Since the outer material is wool, these hats retain their warmth even when wet - making them a great option in rainy weather as well.  And Stormy Kromer will replace a lost, stolen or destroyed cap within three years of purchase for 50% of the price of a new hat.

When it's really cold out, I'll sometimes where a knit hat - as long as it's real wool!  The synthetic knit hats I've tried make my head itch, don't breathe well, and don't retain their insulating properties when wet.  I'll also sometimes where a regular ballcap - but I'll admit I was very disappointed when Major League Baseball stopped using wool in its on-field caps.  And sometimes I'll wear a felt western hat - I prefer Stetsons and Resistols.  The older the hat, the better quality - the newer hats don't seem to hold up as well.
SunBody hats can be shaped to your preference.

My summer-time hat comes from SunBody Hats in Texas.  These woven palm hats are made in Guatemala.  I usually get a 3-1/2 inch brim (but you can order a hat with a 6-inch brim if you like more shade).  By soaking these hats in water, you can soften and shape them to your own preference.  I usually order mine with vent holes in the sides (which helps keep my head cool in the summer) - SunBody also makes hats with vents woven into the crown.  These hats retain their shape well, and are softer and more comfortable than the more conventional straw western hats I've tried.  The cloth headband absorbs moisture well.

Like most ranchers, I have a work hat and a "go-to-town" hat for each season.  Don't tell my wife, but this policy is mostly an excuse to buy a new SunBody hat every spring!  By the time fall rolls around, last year's straw hat is just about worn out (did I mention that I'm hard on hats?!).  I also have two Stormy Kromers, but since they can be dry cleaned, I haven't figured out a way to justify a new one every season.

If you're interested in more information about these hats, check out their websites:

http://www.stormykromer.com/

http://www.sunbody.com/


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Quietly Paying Attention

I'll admit to professional bias, but the part of the Christmas Story from the Gospel of Luke that most appeals to me is when the angels appear to the shepherds.  I realize that much of this story has to do with the symbolism of God choosing to announce the birth of Christ to the lowest of the lowly; that's fine - as a shepherd, I've had lowly days myself.  Even so, to me this part of the story suggests something more profound.  To me, this story suggests that perhaps stockmen - and women - are more in tune with what's happening around them.  To me, this story suggests that shepherds (and by extension, stock-people) were perhaps the only people who would have noticed the angels in the first place!

The best stock-people I've known - and by this, I mean shepherds (and shepherdesses), cowboys (and girls) and goatherds - have some things in common.  I've found them to be quiet and constantly paying attention.  And they spend much of their time (if not most of it) out of doors.  Stockmanship involves quiet observation - of the environment, of the animals, and of the situation.  I have found that when I'm quiet and aware, I notice some amazing things - things that I might have missed if I were not paying attention.

Secondly, by definition, a stockman (or woman) must spend time with stock.  For grazing animals, this means spending time outdoors away from "civilization."  Even those of us who graze animals close to town work mostly away from civilization - our work is far more physical than most "civilized" jobs.

This combination - working conciously, quietly, out of doors, and physically - means that we are privileged to see and experience some amazing things.  We get to see the geese and sandhill cranes migrating, we get to hear a creek start to run after a drenching rain, we get to feel the warmth of the sun on the first true spring day,  we get to taste the first ripe blackberries of summer, and we get to smell leaves becoming topsoil in the fall.  For me, spending time outside, working with animals, and being quiet enough to be "in" my environment means that I get to observe some wonderous events.

All of which brings me back to the story of the shepherds.  Regardless of what you believe, I hope that the new year brings you the opportunity to be outdoors, quiet and concious of your surroundings.  May you hear angels sing in the coming twelve months.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A New Chapter

Next month, I'll be opening a new chapter in my work as a stockman.  In mid January, I will become the herdsman at the University of California’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center.  This new job will give me the opportunity to care for grazing livestock (cattle, in this case) and to help with education and outreach activities.  I’m tremendously excited about the job! I'll be getting paid to work horseback with my dogs, and I'll have the opportunity to assist with research and teaching!


As you can imagine, this change means we're re-thinking our sheep business.  We'll be downsizing our operation significantly in the next several weeks.  Our plan is to match our flock to the pasture resources we have close to home (we intend to keep 40-50 ewes).  We'll still offer grass-fed lamb next fall (whole and half lambs can be reserved later this spring), and we'll still offer our best fleeces to handspinners this spring.  However, we won't be going to the farmer's market for the foreseeable future.


In the meantime, we are offering 85 bred ewes for sale.  Most of these ewes are 3-5 years old.  We ultrasounded the flock in mid-December, and all of the ewes we're offering for sale scanned as bred.  They are due to lamb between late February and the end of March.  They are mostly "mules" (Blueface Leicester-crosses - mostly with Cheviot ewes).  We're asking $240 each for them ($230 each if you take 10 or more).


Once again, we will be offering our Shepherding School in 2015 (in collaboration with UC Cooperative Extension).  Here's the schedule:


  • Predator Protection for Small-Scale Livestock Producers - January 11, 2015 (part of the Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference in Grass Valley). For info, go to http://foodandfarmconference.com.
  • Introduction to Sheep Production (including marketing, management and husbandry)  - January 15, 2015 (6:30 to 8:30 p.m.) - Auburn, CA
  • Sheep Huspandry Field Day (including trimming feet, vaccinations and general husbandry) - January 17, 2015 (8:30 a.m. to 12 noon) - Auburn, CA
  • Pasture Lambing School (including managing ewes and lambs, processing lambs, and nutritional considerations) - March 7, 2015 (8:30 a.m. to 12 noon) - Auburn, CA
  • Wool Handling and Shearing - May 2015 (date and time to be determined) - Auburn, CA




Thank you for all of your support over the years.  We are staying in Auburn - and staying in the sheep business.  I'll continue to provide updates at www.facebook.com/flyingmulefarm and on my blog at www.flyingmule.blogspot.com. And I'm sure I'll continue to write about my experiences and observations as a stockman.

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

I'm Dreaming... of a GREEN Christmas!

With apologies to Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin...

Dreaming of a Green Christmas

Ol' Bing had it wrong when he sang his song dreamin' of Christmas snow.

After the wreck of '13, I'm hopin' for green grass this Christmas, ya know.

No startin' each day loadin' the hay and haulin' it out to the sheep -


Let the rain come, followed by sun; gimme lotsa grass that's knee-deep!

By far, the shortest Christmas poem I've ever written, and certainly not the best - but it's been that kind of year!  Here's hoping that 2015 brings an end to our drought!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ready for the Storm

We've probably all heard the saying, "Red sky in morning, farmer take warning."  I'm wondering what this morning's
purple sky means!
If the weather forecasters are correct, we're in for a significant storm this week in Northern California.  Perhaps I'm cynical (or maybe I'm just a farmer who spends much of his time outdoors), but these weather events rarely live up to the media hype - I think this is the tenth or eleventh "Storm of the Century" we've faced since 2000.  And since we've been in a drought, the hype over this storm seems especially intense.  Even so, we're taking steps early in the week to prepare our sheep operation and our home for the arrival of wet and windy weather.

Rangeland livestock are especially well-equipped to cope with inclement weather.  The particular breeds of sheep that we raise were developed in northern England and southern Scotland, so they can handle wet and windy storms.  Since we are rangeland-based, we take sheep to the grass (rather than carry hay to the sheep).  Our storm preparations, then, are centered around making sure we have adequate forage and natural shelter for the sheep going into the stormy weather.  We also try to build big enough paddocks to avoid having to build more fence during the height of the storm.  In other words, we try to keep both sheep and shepherds safe and comfortable!
This 4.5-acre paddock should have enough forage and shelter for the ewes through this week's storm.

My storm preparations started yesterday.  Before heading into my Cooperative Extension job yesterday morning, I built a new 4.5 acre paddock for the ewes.  Based on the growth stage of the grass and the current nutritional needs of the ewes, this much grass should last for 5-6 days.  However, during inclement weather, the ewes will graze more than normal (to help maintain body temperature).  Tomorrow, I'll build another new paddock which will allow us to move sheep quickly and easily on Thursday or Friday if necessary.  In selecting a site for this new paddock, I made sure that the terrain and vegetation would provide some relief from the rain and especially the wind.  This large paddock has a small grove of live oaks at the bottom of the hill, and another smaller grove at the top.  If we were lambing (which will start at the end of February), I would have chosen a site on a north or northwest facing slope to provide more topographic shelter from wind-driven rain (during storms, our prevailing winds come from the south and southeast).

My second consideration with impending stormy weather is truck access.  We've had enough rain this fall that the green grass (and heavy morning dew) is providing most of the ewes' water requirements - my 150 ewes are drinking less than 10 gallons per day (total).  Despite this fact, I want to make sure I can get my truck close to a water trough.  With 3-4 inches of rain expected at the end of the week, this means I need a fence line near a paved or graveled road.

This morning, I  moved a second group of sheep into a more sheltered location at another property.  This paddock also has trees and terrain to provide shelter, and it has flowing water (which means I won't need to haul water).  This group of sheep should be fine through the weekend.
This morning - working "by the dawn's early light" to move a second
group of sheep onto fresh (and sheltered) feed.

My biggest concern with this predicted storm is the wind.  Our temporary electric fence works great, but the combination of high winds and soggy soils will sometimes pull fence posts out of the ground or knock sections of fencing over.  We also may get branches (or even entire trees) that blow over onto our fences.  Once the storm starts, I'll check the fences morning and night to make sure there are no problems.  I'll also walk through both groups of sheep to check for any health problems.

As with most of my shepherding work, I'll rely on my border collies during the storm as well.  Like our sheep, border collies as a breed were developed in the British Isles.  Our dogs seem to love wet and windy weather - it must be genetic!  If I need to catch a sheep to provide medical treatment or move the sheep into the new paddock, the dogs will make quick work of the job.  And if the sheep escape through a blown down fence, the dogs will bring them back.  I sometimes think the dogs actually knock down fences just to have an excuse to work the sheep!
As always, Mo is ready to help!

At home, we've cleaned our gutters and raked our leaves - which we'll need to do again after the storm, no doubt.  I'll also place sandbags in front of my shop building - in heavy rain, we get a small stream flowing through the shop.  I'll also set up my battery charger in the garage - our electric fences are powered by deep-cycle 12-volt batteries.  In sunny weather, our solar panels can keep our batteries charges; with 3-4 days of cloudy weather expected, I'll need to rotate batteries.  Finally, I'll make sure the wood box is full of firewood and that the kerosene lanterns are full of lamp oil.  By tomorrow afternoon, we'll be ready.  Bring on the "Storm of the Century" - at least this week's version!