Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Autumn in the High Country

Over the 54 years I’ve spent on the planet, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in the mountains during just about every season - and just about every year. As a kid, we camped on the west slope of Sonora Pass every summer. We often took day trips in the spring and fall, and we skied at Dodge Ridge and Bear Valley in the winter. After college and before kids, my Dad and I camped and fished on the West Walker River each fall (including one October when the temperature never rose above 25F!). More recently, work and recreation have both taken me into the high country - fishing, camping, and backpacking in the summer; hunting in the fall; research and extension work all year long. Today, I spent most of the day on the Tahoe National Forest north of Truckee, retrieving the game cameras we put out as part of a livestock guardian dog study. And as usual, the trip confirmed that autumn in the high country is my favorite season in my favorite place in the world.

While we haven’t had any really stormy weather yet, we’ve had enough cool weather (and shorter days) to convince the high country to put on her fall wardrobe. The cottonwoods and brush on the west slope are starting to turn yellow; the aspens on the east side are spectacular. With overcast skies and a stiff breeze, the aspens seem to emit their own radiance - flecks of gold against the green of the ponderosa pine and red fir.

Autumn is a shoulder season in the northern Sierra - the summer tourists have left, and the skiers haven’t yet arrived. Serious fisherman know that fall fishing on Sierra rivers (especially those that flow east) is often the best fishing of the season - and I did see a few fishermen today. Only the most serious deer hunters are out during the middle of the week - and Zone X7a, where I was today, has a limit on the number of tags available. Once I left the pavement of CA-89, I saw a grand total of 4 other people. As I grow older, my curmudgeonly tendencies grow stronger; I thoroughly enjoyed the solitude today. In my mind, the mountains and their critters are similarly introverted. Autumn in the high country gives me the same feeling I have when company leaves our house - I miss our visitors, but I also relish the relaxation. The wind sighing in the trees today seemed to be more than simply a meteorological phenomenon.

I have been lucky, over my entire life, to have reasons to be in the Sierra in autumn. Whether for work or recreation, even the briefest trip to the high country this time of year rejuvenates and relaxes me. I suppose that’s part of what attracted me to deer hunting in my middle age - hunting is a chance to be in the mountains this time of year, and a chance to be quiet and observant. As our daughters have moved on to (and out of) college in other parts of the West, I’ve come to appreciate the seasons in the other great mountain ranges of our region - but I’ve never come across a place I love more than the Sierra high country in autumn.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Heading into Fall

After a very warm day yesterday, we awoke this morning to temperatures in the low 50s here in the Sierra foothills. In March, this feels balmy; in September, this means wearing a sweatshirt when I leave the house to irrigate at the ranch. Finally, the weather has a hint of autumn in it! After a long, hot, and smoky summer, a cooler morning was incredibly welcome. Maybe fall is on its way!

We ranch in a Mediterranean climate, with wet, cool winters and warm, dry summers. Our rangelands are characterized as "annual" rather than "perennial," meaning they are dominated by annual grasses and forbs. We don't have green grass (unless we irrigate) from roughly June through October. Spring rains can mean longer green season in the spring; a dry fall can mean no green grass until Thanksgiving (or later, like last year). And so there's always a sense of uncertainty and expectation as we head into fall. We look forward to that first real storm!

In many ways, autumn is my favorite season. There's a sense of winding down - the days grow shorter, irrigation season ends, we pick the last of the summer vegetables, and I get to spend a few days deer hunting. But as a shepherd whose sheep lamb in the springtime, autumn also marks a beginning. In about 10 days, we'll put the rams with the ewes in anticipation of next year's lamb crop. For me, the new year doesn't begin on January 1 - it begins on the day we turn the rams in with the ewes (or on the day we get a germinating rain).

Even at our small scale, we do a lot of planning focused on breeding season. We started talking in April about how many ewes  and replacement ewe lambs we thought we could keep this fall. After the driest two years in our experience, we were a little nervous about what this season would hold. Dry soils this spring meant our irrigated pastures were less productive than typical - we weren't sure we'd ever catch up on our forage growth. Last year's dry fall spooked us, too - we barely scraped by last November on what remained of our irrigated forage. And so we made the decision to keep fewer replacement ewe lambs and to cull more heavily than normal. We made the calculation that we could breed 80 of our own ewes, plus 11 that belong to a friend, and keep 13 replacements - hopefully without having to buy any hay. We'll see if our decisions pan out - if we get early rain, we may wish we'd kept more ewes! Conversely, another dry fall might mean we need to sell more sheep (or buy some expensive hay).

In many ways, I think, small ruminants like sheep and goats offer more flexibility than cattle. Our sheep can utilize a wide variety of forages. We're equipped to graze rangelands that might be inaccessible or undesirable for cattle. I suppose it doesn't hurt that ours is a part-time business, either. But we do have to make decisions about the economics of our business. We can't afford to bring feed to the sheep for very long - we're far more profitable when we can take the sheep to the feed. That said, we're locked in now. We've invested half a year's worth of work and management to get our flock ready to breed this fall.

In the meantime, I'll enjoy these cool mornings and bright days. And I'll look forward to turning in the rams - and enjoying that first real storm of autumn, whenever it arrives!

Monday, September 6, 2021

Hooves on the Ground

Shortly after the Rim Fire near my hometown of Sonora was finally extinguished in 2013, I started seeing hats and bumper stickers with the slogan, "Log It, Graze It, or Watch it Burn." Reductions in logging and grazing on federal lands, according to the proponents of this catchphrase, were directly related to the explosive fire behavior we'd just experienced. In each subsequent year, fire behavior has seemed more extreme - this year, we've seen the Dixie and Caldor fires burn from the west slope of the Sierra to the east side. Logging and grazing, to some, are a black-and-white answer to a growing problem.

Real life, unfortunately, is rarely so black-and-white. Well managed grazing, like well managed logging, can reduce wildfire fuels; but drouthy conditions, windy weather, and low humidity can still result in extreme fire behavior (as we've seen in 2021). And poorly managed grazing and logging come with their own ecological consequences. Can logging and grazing prevent catastrophic wildfire? The answer, I'm afraid, is "it depends."

But while complicated problems like climate change require complex solutions, I wonder if there are some simple truths about our relationship with the land that we're missing. Last week, I spent a fair amount of time on the Truckee Ranger District of the Tahoe National Forest. While all of California's national forests are closed to the public due to extreme fire danger and a lack of firefighting resources, I had permission to be on the Tahoe to collect wildlife and sheep grazing data. And I helped my friends at Talbott Sheep Company ship their ewes off of the Tahoe and back home to Los Banos.

Talbott Sheep Company has grazed sheep between Kyburz Flat and Boca Reservoir from early July through September for more than three decades. This year, three bands of sheep (at approximately 1,200 head each) - each watched by a herder and 2 to 4 livestock guardian dogs, spent just under 3 months grazing the sagebrush steppe, mountain meadows, and east side conifer forests of the Truckee Ranger District. The sheep consumed grass and brush - reducing the fine fuels in the process.

But I've realized this year that part of the nuance to this issue is that the benefits of grazing are more than just hooves on the ground - more than simply the consumption of fire fuels and the modification of the fuel profile by grazing livestock. I'm beginning to understand that the at least part of the benefit of grazing - or logging, for that matter - is the fact that people have a reason to be on the landscape, day in and day out. The Talbott Sheep Company herders, camp tender, and managers saw a good portion of the 50,000-plus acres where their sheep grazed during the summer. This last week, with all of the national forests in California closed to the public, we were virtually the only people with permission to be on the forest. I'm not suggesting that any of this directly prevented any wildfires this summer; but having people on the land, paying attention to vegetation, weather, and water, can't hurt.

This phenomenon is not unique to public lands. I've noticed that ranches purchased by nonprofits and government agencies often fall into disrepair - not due to to negligence, but because without a rancher, the ranch isn't maintained. The day-to-day work of ranching requires attention to details - the maintenance of fences and roads, the germination of next year's grass crop, the clover years versus the grass years. Knowing a landscape in all of its moods and seasons, perhaps, requires a reason to be there every day. For ranchland, it requires boots - and hooves - on the ground. 

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Tending Sheep at the End of the World

I enjoy writing for many reasons - I write to inform, to entertain, to educate, and sometimes to persuade. But I also use writing as a form of therapy - to work out how I feel about a particular topic, to deal with depression, or anxiety, or anger. This piece will be of the latter variety - I suspect the handful of folks who read it won't find it funny or educational. You've been warned - turn back now!

Over the last 8 years, every place I love, and many of the people I love, have been severely impacted by wildfire. When the Rim Fire blew up near Yosemite in 2013, it tore through the Evergreen Road country west of the park - an area where friends grazed cattle and where my family enjoyed the Strawberry Music Festival. In the years since, places like Stumpy Meadows, Mountain Ranch, and Dardenelles Resort have burned. The Camp Fire destroyed Paradise. The Bear Fire devastated a friend's multi-generation cattle operation. The Dixie Fire leveled Greenville. The River Fire, close to home (and so far, thankfully, much smaller) drove farming and ranching friends from their work and their livestock. All of us in the foothills and Sierra Nevada, even if we're not directly impacted, have endured day after day of air so thick with smoke it seems chewy.

Not coincidently over that same time frame, we've faced some of the most severe drought conditions in a thousand years. 2012-2015 was the driest four-year stretch in California in a millennia. Mother Nature said, "You think that was dry, hold my beer!" The 2020-21 water year was the most severe combination of warm weather and low rainfall in my memory - and in the memories of ranchers who are much older than I am. We sold sheep in 2014 because of the drought; we're contemplating selling again this year if conditions don't improve.

All of this is probably old news to most who've been paying attention. But all of it came back to me Thursday as I was driving home from Likely, CA. Smoke from the Dixie Fire turned the world an eerie red color. I stopped between Madeline and Litchfield on US-395 just before 5 p.m., and the light was so dim and weird that the crickets were singing. A half-hour later, when I stopped for gas in Standish, the sky was a deeper, darker red, and ashes were falling. Someone else at the gas station mentioned the ashes were pieces of Westwood and Chester. When today dawned smoky again here in Auburn, I found myself depressed about our present, and anxious about our future.

This year's smoke and monstrous wildfires come after a record-setting year last year. And during an ongoing pandemic, civic strife, and other crises. I'll admit, I'm exhausted by the nonstop crisis mode we've all been in for the last 18 months.

For me, the evidence that our climate is changing, and that we humans are responsible for the change, is incontrovertible. I know some of my friends will disagree, and that's okay. For me, though, it seems like the pace of this change is accelerating. The cool pot of water we humans jumped in originally is starting to boil - and it hasn't seemed real to me until now. I think my depression and anxiety come from a feeling of powerlessness - I feel incapable of doing anything but just putting up with these conditions. What can one sheepherder/scientist do in the face of global calamity?! Last fall, when it finally rained and extinguished the fires, I thought, whew - that's over. I'll never have to live through a fire season like 2020. Little did I know. And what can I do now?

Some days, things seem to be unraveling. I've always thought preppers - the folks that seem to be waiting for the collapse of civilization with relish - where at least a half bubble off of level. But after the last two years, especially, I begin to see how easy it would be to slip into that mindset. Mostly, though, I take comfort in the fact that I can (and do) raise a good portion of the food we eat (especially this time of year). I appreciate more and more the fact that I know how - and have taught my daughters how - to raise animals, to hunt and fish, to garden. Even as I type these words, I realize they seem a bit melodramatic. But maybe we're living through melodramatic times.

Staying in the melodramatic vein, though, I sometimes think how lucky I am to be raising sheep. Sheep were probably among the first animals we humans domesticated. They produce milk, fiber, and meat. They seem to be infinitely adaptable - they are raised from the arctic circle to the equator, and back to the tip of South America. One of my favorite Far Side cartoons is of the fisherman watching nuclear bombs explode on the horizon and saying, "You know that this means? Screw the limit!" I'll admit to having bizarre ideas of grazing sheep on golf courses and in county parks and in other places currently off-limits when the final unraveling occurs.

I usually try to end my essays on a positive note - on a call to action, or on a realization that has occurred to me during the process of writing. I'm at a loss, with this essay, to find a happy ending. That said, I suppose every insurmountable problem can only be solved by small, incremental actions. I can do things like cut back on my use of fossil fuels, continue to work towards local self-sufficiency in terms of my family's energy and food needs, try to transfer my skills (limited as they may be) to others. Maybe that's what adaptation looks like - micro-actions that ultimately add up to something meaningful.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Shepherds are Shepherds, No Matter Where (or When)

Thanks to my friend and fellow sheep-raiser, Ryan Mahoney, who suggested we start recording our sheep-related conversations during the first spring of the COVID-19 pandemic, I've had the chance to be part of a fun little podcast we call Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know for the last year-and-a-half. About a year ago, another sheep geek, Dr. Rosie Busch (our UC Davis Sheep and Goat Extension Veterinarian), joined our podcast. Amazingly, we've found time to talk once a week (mostly) about all kinds of sheepy topics - and a handful of folks have started listening! What fun!

Before the pandemic began, another shepherd friend and fellow California Wool Growers Association director, Joanne Nissen, sent me a copy of an amazing book - A Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks. A British shepherd, Rebanks' book described his relationship to his native landscape (where his family has grazed sheep for nearly a thousand years, and where sheep have grazed for far longer than that). He wrote about ways of knowing a place and a production system built on place, on community, and on family. I devoured the book.

Last year, Rebanks published a new book - Pastoral Song (in the U.S., English Pastoral in the U.K). His new work describes his realization that traditional farming (which usually included livestock and crops) offers solutions for our modern food system. He talks about his own realization that the modern focus on specialization and efficiency has had ecological consequences. He also talks about the importance of people who have economic and ecologic ties to a specific place - farmers.

Rebanks is perhaps the most famous shepherd on social media - he has nearly 150,000 followers on his @herdyshepherd1 Twitter account. Last spring, he tweeted something about wanting to talk about his new book before it came out in the U.S. in August 2021. So I contacted him! And last week, I got to interview James for Sheep Stuff!

Through the miracle of Zoom, I talked to James on Thursday morning (my time - after my morning chores; Thursday evening in the U.K.). Had we been talking in a pub (on his side of the Atlantic) or a bar here in Auburn, I suspect we'd still be talking. 

I won't spoil the podcast, which will be available next week. But I will say that shepherds are shepherds, no matter where they raise their sheep. A California sheepherder friend of Basque descent, Martin Etchamendy, told me a great story about an international gathering of shepherds he attended more than 30 years ago. "There where shepherds from Russia and Iran and all sorts of other places," he said, adding, "We all spoke different languages, but we understood one another." I experienced the same thing talking with James!

In the meantime, if you haven't read A Shepherd's Life, I highly recommend it! And be sure to ask your local bookstore if they have Pastoral Song! At the end of our conversation, I asked James if he was a farmer who writes or a writer who farms. You'll have to listen to the podcast to hear his answer; you'll need to read his books to decide for yourself!

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Midsummer Work

We've reached the point in our sheep year that I enjoy the least. The lambs are weaned and most are sold. The ewes are dried off and grazing on dry (and flammable) vegetation west of Auburn. And we're moving water - seven days a week, we're dragging K-Line irrigation pods across our irrigated pastures. For me, the summer doldrums have arrived.

Dislike is too strong a word, but I think I enjoy summer chores least out of all of the work we do with our sheep, largely because of the heat. While the first few 90-degree days always shock my system, my body generally acclimates to hot daytime temperatures. Hot nights, however, are another matter. Hot nights make sleeping difficult; waking up hot tends to make me a little grumpy - and definitely less than rested.

Beyond the heat, though, I find the lack of variety in our work tedious. Each day starts with a trip to our irrigated pasture. Irrigated with K-Line means that I drive four-wheeler over the same circuit across our irrigated pasture every day from mid-April through mid-October. While I'm grateful to have the water (especially in a year like this), the monotony of irrigating starts to grate on me by mid-July, even when everything goes right. But like any ranching activity, irrigation doesn't always go right. Clogged sprinklers, broken lines, and low water pressure are a constant battle. We need the green grass to feed our replacement and feeder lambs, and to get our ewes ready for breeding in the fall. Growing green grass in the summer in our Mediterranean climate means we have to make it "rain" every day for six months.

Other seasons of the sheep year are more stimulating for me. Flushing the ewes (which involves feeding them extra calories to boost their conception rate) is like entering a mosh pit for four weeks. Evaluating the breeding flock and turning the rams in with the ewes feels like New Year's Day - a fresh start for all of us! Once the rams are done with their work, we settle in to our (relatively) slow time - moving the ewes on annual rangeland every 5-7 days, and no more irrigating! In January, we trim feet and vaccinate the ewes in preparation for lambing - and lambs begin to arrive in late February. The spring flush of grass - even in a dry spring like this - is always challenging and fun. How are we going to graze all of the grass that needs grazing? In the midst of this fun, we bring all of the sheep home for shearing. And as the spring flush tapers off, we wean and sell our lambs.

Then July arrives - my least favorite of the summer months. In June, summer still seems fun - perhaps because I can still remember the cold days checking the lambing ewes in early March. August is better than July - mostly because we almost always have a day in August that feels like autumn is coming. But July is just plain hot and monotonous.

Farming and ranching require many skills and a great deal of knowledge - animal husbandry, financial management, regulatory compliance, biology, soil science; I could go on. Farming or ranching at any scale, however, also requires a great deal of stamina - working through fatigue, doing the same thing day after day after day. Little breaks from the tediousness are helpful for me - a trip to a mountain stream for an afternoon of fly-fishing, an overnight backpacking trip, any meal that includes homegrown tomatoes and sweet corn, or a Sunday afternoon nap with a ballgame on the radio. And the knowledge that I'll be flipping the page on my calendar in about 2 weeks!

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Of Wolves and Social Media… and Real Life

Social media is an interesting phenomenon, when it comes to friendships. I have “friends” on Facebook who I’ve never met. I have followers - and I follow folks - on Twitter and Instagram, who are strangers in real life. I share some (many?) things in common - an interest in sheep (obviously), a focus on science, an affinity for the Sierra Nevada. But sometimes, I find, social media allows us (myself included) to post things without thinking about how my “friends” feel about the issue. For me, as a sheep rancher and as a cooperative extension researcher and educator, predators are a particularly complicated subject. And no predator is more complicated, at least in the Sierra, than gray wolves.

Officially, there are three established packs of wolves in California - in Siskiyou, Lassen, and now Plumas Counties. Other wolves have traveled through the northern two-thirds of the state (most notably, a collared wolf from Oregon that came down the east side of the Sierra, traveled though Tuolumne County, and ended up in San Luis Obispo County before his collar quit transmitting). More recently, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed a new pack in the north end of the Sierra Valley - one of my favorite places in the northern Sierra, and home to the ranches of a number of friends and acquaintances.

I learned of this new pack last month, when friends and colleagues reported the loss of a yearling heifer, and harassment of a group of yearlings (who ran through fences several times). Today, another friend posted how excited he was to learn of this new pack.

As a scientist and lifelong Sierra resident, I’d be thrilled to see wolves. Indeed, I’ve been conducting a research project to evaluate the effectiveness of livestock guardians dogs in newly re-established wolf territory. But as a sheep rancher and colleague of those who lost animals to this new pack, I’m upset about this new pack’s predilection for beef. My concern, like my colleagues, is much more than economic impact - any loss of an animal in my care feels like failure on a personal level.

Social media has lots of upside - it connects us with people we wouldn’t know otherwise; it exposes us to points of view different than our own. But I find that I am uncomfortable commenting on posts like I saw this afternoon, celebrating something that I have mixed feelings about. I don’t want to offend my virtual friends, and yet I also don’t want to diminish the pain that my colleagues have experienced at the loss of their livestock.

We live in interesting times….