January Morning

January Morning

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Work in Progress

Photo credit: Emma Macon
Shearing sheep is intensely physical.  When I went to sheep shearing school five years ago at the University of California's Hopland Research and Extension Center, I was surprised by how sore my legs were - I'd assumed that stooping over a sheep would tire my back, but my hamstrings ached for days.  Several weeks ago, Matt Smith, a New Zealander living in Cornwall, England, set the world record (at least according the websites I've seen), set a world record by shearing 731 ewes in 9 hours - by himself!  (for more info, check out this website.) I'm not nearly as fast (Mr. Smith can probably shear 8-10 ewes in the time it takes me to shear one!) - nor can I shear for 9 hours straight.  But the interesting thing about shearing (and other physical skills) is that even Mr. Smith - at some point - had to struggle through shearing his first sheep, just like me!  And he only got really good at it by doing a lot of it!

That's the thing about shearing sheep!  Much like other agrarian "arts," shearing can't be learned by reading a book or watching someone else do it.  There are some great guides to help aspiring shearers get started (see this guide from the Premier 1 Supplies website, for example - or better yet, find a copy of Wool Away by Godfrey Bowen).  As I mentioned, I went to a 5-day school in Mendocino County.  But the only way to learn - and certainly the only way to get better at it - is to do it (and do lots of it).

When we shear our ewes, we hire our friend Derrick Adamache to shear for us.  Derrick has sheared sheep and goats for nearly 30 years.  He's fast, he handles our sheep well, and he has amazing stamina.  By hiring Derrick, I can focus on things like sorting the lambs from the ewes before they go into the shearing pen and on preparing the wool for marketing.  I also get to learn from Derrick!

We typically shear our ewes in early May while they are still nursing their lambs.  In mid summer, we try to shear the lambs we've kept.  Since they are fewer in number, and since they don't have to be sorted before shearing, I've started shearing them myself - I need the practice!  Last weekend, I sheared half of our replacement ewe lambs.  A couple of observations (about shearing and my own ability):

  • I'm slow when shearing the difficult parts of the sheep - parts where I'm working "blind" or worried about the sheep's "sensitive" areas.  This means it takes me longer than it would for an experienced shearer to shear the bellies, the crutch and the neck/first shoulder.  The more I shear, the more confident I get that I'm doing it right - but I'm still slow!
  •  Stamina is critical.  I find that as I get tired, I get out of position more frequently (which results in sheep are more active on the shearing board).  The last sheep always seem to be more active than the first sheep I shear!
  • Flexibility and muscle tone is also critical.  I sheared our ram lambs the weekend before, and was sore until Wednesday.  I sheared twice as many lambs Sunday, and I'm not sore at all!
  • I'm right handed, but my left hand is the critical hand in sheep shearing.  With my left hand, I position the sheep for each "blow" (or stroke) with the shearing handpiece.  With my left hand, I stretch the sheep's skin to smooth out the wrinkles that might otherwise be caught between the fingers of the comb and sliced by the cutters on the shearing machine.  I rarely pay attention to my non-dominant hand in my everyday activities; shearing forces me to do so.
  • Which brings me to my final observation: while shearing sheep is hard physically, it also takes mental stamina.  Looking up and seeing yet another pen full of sheep to be shorn can be discouraging if I have the wrong mental attitude about the work.  Pushing through my fatigue gets me to the point where I can look up and see a paddock full of freshly shorn sheep - a wonderful feeling!  But pushing through the fatigue is also an important step in becoming a better shearer.  Adjusting my positioning, improving my technique, increasing my flexibility - all of these make the act of shearing a single sheep faster and more comfortable (for me and for the sheep).
I like the thought that every fine woolen textile - from a Harris tweed coat to a Pendleton sweater to a Navajo rug - starts with the process of shearing a sheep.  Every piece of wool fabric starts with someone holding a sheep on the shearing board.  Some shearers call it the 60-second (or even 30-second) waltz - done well, shearing has all of the repetitiveness and rhythm of dance.  Done well, shearing - and a well-shorn sheep - are impressive to observe.  I aspire to doing it well!


Friday, August 5, 2016

Hopeful Weather

The last full week of July 2016 marked the longest stretch of hot weather we've had in the Sierra foothills this summer.  While we didn't get nearly as warm as some parts of California, the heat here was oppressive.  Moving irrigation and unclogging sprinklers became the highlight of my day (and getting wet in the process) - anything to cool off a bit!  As is usually the case for me, I found myself coping with the heat by looking forward to that day in August that would bring a hint of the coming autumn weather.  A day that starts out cooler, with the scent of dew on dry grass and decaying leaves in the air. Usually, this day arrives late in the month; in 2016 (an unusual weather year for lots of reasons), it arrived today!

During the summer months, we typically sleep with the windows open and with fans running (we don't have air conditioning - just a whole-house fan and wonderful shade trees around the house).  This morning I woke up cold - and a quick glance at the thermometer when I got out of bed revealed that the outside temperature was just 49 degrees Fahrenheit.  When I left the house to head to the ranch, a cool breeze was rattling the leaves of the mulberry trees in the yard.  And as I drove the 3 miles to I descended into a fog bank - unusual for early August, but entirely welcome!  Between the heavy dew on the pasture grasses, the overspray of the sprinklers, and the cool wind, I was chilled by the time I finished my chores.  I know we'll have more hot days before summer is over, but mornings like this give me hope!

This week, I read that 2015 set all kinds of climate records (see the Climate Central website for details).  Mark Twain supposedly said, "Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get," although I can't find direct evidence that the quote is his.  Regardless, I think it does illustrate the difference between climate and weather.  All of the scientific evidence I've seen suggests that our climate is growing warmer, and yet the day-to-day weather doesn't feel much different (for example, it's always hot in late July).  In some respects, I suppose we're like a frog in a pot of water on the stove - we won't realize it's getting hotter until we're fully cooked.  Regardless, I always look forward to an August day like today - it gives me hope that cooler (and wetter) weather is on the horizon.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Adaptation and Resilience

I'm taking a course as part of my master's degree program at Colorado State University called "Managing for Ecosystem Sustainability."  I've enjoyed the course, which has covered topics like the carbon and nitrogen cycles and soils management.  The reading materials and lectures have also focused on resiliency and adaptation to climate change - topics that are especially relevant to me, given my recent experience with drought.

I've long thought that any successful response to climate change will require an accumulation of small, individual decisions to change our behaviors as a species.  Government mandates and technological advances aside, climate change will only be addressed successfully by individuals, in my opinion.  The "big" solution doesn't seem likely.  In the past, my thinking has focused on behavior changes that will reduce, or at least slow, the affects of climate change (increasing carbon dioxide concentrations and temperatures and rising sea levels, just to name the ones that come to mind immediately).  This class, on the other hand, has made me consider the things that I can do personally to adapt to these changes (which, increasingly, seem inevitable to me).

In some respects, the long history of agriculture has been one of adaptation.  Farmers and ranchers have figured out what grows well in their specific location.  In California, at least, crops are grown (for the most part) where the climate and environment support their profitable cultivation.  Rice is grown on heavy soils in the Sacramento Valley, for example.  Small grains (wheat, barley, rye, etc.) are grown in the Montezuma Hills in the Delta where irrigation water is scarce.  Avocados and citrus are grown in climates (and micro-climates) where freezing temperatures are unlikely.

Ranchers make similar choices.  In his essay, "Let the Farm Judge," Wendell Berry writes about the powers of observation and adaptation that led British (and Scottish, Welsh and Irish) shepherds to develop 80 distinct breeds and cross-breeds of sheep on a group of islands the size of Kentucky.  As Berry suggests, while the market (consumer demand) often places specific product demands on livestock producers, the land and its climate deserve at least equal weight in a producer's decisions about livestock breeds.

 Admittedly, sometimes technology gets it wrong.  I'm not convinced - the economic incentives aside - that we should be growing almond trees on rangeland in California (for a variety of reasons).  As the grain farmers who broke the sod of the high plains in the 1920s learned, rain doesn't follow the plow.  I guess this brings me back to the importance of individual acts over large-scale technological innovation.

Our ranching operation entails turning grass (grown on rangeland that won't - or shouldn't - produce cultivated crops) into flesh and fiber and milk.  Using ruminant animals (sheep, in our case), we turn this grass into products that humans can use.  We've focused on sheep because we feel that they fit our environment (small pieces of unfenced grassland) better than cattle (and frankly, because sheep fit my skill-set better than cattle).  We've focused on a cross-breeding system that results in sheep that thrive on a combination of annual grasses, weeds, brush, and irrigated pasture.  And we've selected individual sheep in our breeding program that perform especially well in our oak woodland environment.

Rising temperatures and increasing carbon dioxide concentrations will undoubtedly impact our rangelands and our irrigated pastures.  I expect that we'll see more invasive weeds (both grasses and broadleaf plants).  We'll see warm-season grasses (which thrive with more carbon dioxide and warmer temperatures) displace the cool-season grasses in our irrigated pastures.  Because sheep generally have a more widely varied diet than cattle - and because our sheep specifically have been exposed to a wide range of forage plants - I think we're well positioned to adapt to the changing climate.

Some "experts" believe that animal agriculture should be abandoned in the face of climate change - after all, ruminant animals emit methane (a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide).  I disagree for a variety of reasons.  First, grazing animals allow humans to produce nutritionally dense food (meat and milk) and renewable fiber on land that won't grow a crop.  For example, our ewes spend approximately two thirds of the year grazing on land that is too dry, too steep or too poor to grow a food crop - but this land grows outstanding forage (which our sheep convert to meat and wool).  Second, by focusing on the type of animal that fits our environment - and managing our rangeland to favor the plants that they prefer - we can increase the digestive efficiency of our sheep (and reduce methane emissions).

I'll admit that I'm worried about the world we seem to be leaving our children and grandchildren.  As I write this piece, we're in the midst of our second significant heat wave of the summer in Northern California.  While I'm not suggesting that this (or any particular) heat wave is a result of global climate change, I do worry about the ramifications of even a small increase in average temperatures.  That said, I'm encouraged by the proven ability of farmers and ranchers to adapt to their environments.  Taking steps to reduce the drivers of climate change is important; continuing to adapt to an ever-changing environment is even more critical.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Managing the Dry Season

As we enter the middle of summer in the Sierra foothills, we transition to a different phase of our annual grazing management.  Our lambs are making one last pass over our irrigated pasture, while the ewes have been moved onto un-irrigated annual grasslands nearby.  With the rains of last winter and spring behind us, we're meting out this year's forage growth (in the form of standing dry grass and broad-leaf plants) - and hoping for a few soaking rains in October to get next year's grass started!

Sheep are ruminant animals, which means they have multiple compartments to their digestive tract.  Micro-organisms in the rumen (and to a lesser extent, in the omasum, abomasum and reticulum) allow ruminant animals to break down cellulose (plant fiber) into essential fatty acids.  In other words, the bugs in a sheep's gut allow the animal to make a living on grass!

To facilitate the digestion of cellulose, these micro-organisms require the animal to consume forages or other feeds with at least 8 percent protein - the bugs need the protein to survive.  On our annual rangelands, green forage typically contains 15-25 percent protein.  During the growing season (fall, if we get rain, and especially springtime), the standing forage contains more than enough protein - indeed, this is why we lamb in late winter and early spring.  But during the dry months (mid-June through October or November, typically), our dry annual grasses and broad-leaf plants are very low in protein (as low as 3-4 percent).  Despite the decline in quantity, we typically have more than enough quantity of forage during these months.  The trick for us, then, is to get enough protein to the sheep to allow their "bugs" to digest this dry forage.

The most important part of our grazing/nutritional strategy is timing.  We time our production cycle to take advantage of the usually sufficient quantity of high quality forage in the spring time - we match demand with supply.  The greatest nutritional demand for a ewe is during her last month of pregnancy and her first six weeks of lactation.  By overlaying this 10-week period of high demand with the period of rapid grass growth in the spring, we eliminate the need for supplemental feeding during this critical time.  Equally as important, this schedule allows us to match our period of lowest demand (post-weaning and pre-breeding) with the period of lowest forage quality.

After we wean the lambs and before we start preparing the ewes for the next breeding season (a technique called "flushing" - more on this below), we simply want the ewes to maintain their condition.  Actually, for the 7-10 days after we wean the lambs, we like to have the ewes on low quality forage to dry up their milk production as quickly as possible (which reduces the chance of mastitis).  During this maintenance phase, we put our "dry" ewes (dry, as in no longer producing milk) on our dry annual grass.  To make sure they can digest this dry forage, we also provide supplemental protein.  Over the years, we've tried a variety of supplements - from alfalfa hay to molasses-based protein tubs.  Currently, we've provided tubs with 18 percent protein to the ewes; next week, we're going to try a small quantity of barley screenings (12 percent protein) fed by hand every other day instead of the tubs.  The grain won't replace the dry grass in our ewes' diets; rather, it will provide their gut micro-organisms with enough protein to digest the grass they'll will be grazing.  If it works, it will be a much lower cost alternative to the protein tubs.


If we had more irrigated pasture, we'd graze the ewes on green forage during the mid-summer months.  However, with our current limited pasture availability, supplemental protein allows us to keep more ewes in our flock to take advantage of the green grass in the winter and spring (and to make our business economically feasible).  Supplemental protein also allows us to use our sheep to help reduce the fuel load in our community - the ewes are currently reducing the fire danger in a neighborhood adjacent to Hidden Falls Regional Park west of Auburn.  Once the lambs have made their second pass over the irrigated pasture, they will either be sold or moved to dry forage as well (with supplemental protein).

The lower quality dry forage we're currently grazing also makes the effect of flushing more pronounced.  In early September, we'll move the ewes back to our irrigated pastures (which will have been ungrazed for 50-75 days at that point).  We'll also hand-feed the sheep with a high-protein, high-energy feed (this year, we'll use pelleted canola meal).  The shift from low-quality dry grass to higher-quality green grass and supplemental feed will increase ovulation in the ewes - and give us more lambs next spring!

In the meantime, our summer days are spent moving water on our irrigated pastures and building fence on our hard, dry annual rangelands.  We check the dogs (guardian dogs and border collies alike) and our socks for stickers and burs.  We watch the horizon for smoke and the sky for fire planes (wildfire is a constant worry during our summer grazing season). We lug 125-pound protein tubs or buckets of grain to the ewes.  And we look forward to the first rains of autumn!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Scariest Weekend of the Year

I awoke this morning to the realization that it was time for me to write my annual plea regarding fireworks and the 4th of July (see Living with Wildfire or Nervous).  As I write this post, significant portions of California are on fire - and our wildfire season has only just begun.  Closest to home, the Trailhead Fire has consumed more than 3,000 acres about 15 miles east of our home.

I'll admit that I enjoy a good, professionally orchestrated fireworks show.  For several years now, my family has gone to see the Sacramento River Cats play baseball on July 3 - both because we enjoy baseball and because the team puts on an outstanding fireworks display.  But living in the foothills - and running sheep on annual grasslands (which are tinder dry by this time of year) makes me nervous around Independence Day.  One careless spark could mean disaster.

And so here's my plea: if you live in the Sierra foothills and you want to enjoy fireworks, please (PLEASE) go somewhere and watch a professional show.  Don't take a chance on starting a fire!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Getting Paid Once a Year

Several weeks ago, I posted a link on my Flying Mule Farm Facebook page to a story I wrote for a blog called Stories from the Valley (One Year to the Next), where I referenced a "bigger lamb check." When one of the regular visitors to my Facebook page laughed at the term, I realized that the concept of getting paid once a year is probably foreign to most folks.

First, I should say (as some readers will know) that I work off the ranch, so we don't rely on the income from the sheep business to make our living.  Regardless, we do treat our small sheep operation as a stand-alone business - in other words, the business has to cover it's direct and overhead costs, pay the partners a salary, and generate a profit.  Since the bulk of our income arrives in the late spring and early summer (through the sale of live lambs and wool), we have to budget our cash flow carefully.  We still have expenses in the midst of winter - the lamb checks I get in June have to carry us through until this time next year!

Before we can get paid, there are a number of management and marketing activities that we have to undertake.  Once we're done lambing (and I know approximately how many lambs we'll retain as replacement ewes or as feeder lambs), I start contacting potential buyers.  We only keep as many lambs as we have grass for grazing, so that sets our upper limit for retaining lambs.  Most of our buyers in recent years are small-scale sheep producers and folks who want to raise meat for their own freezers.  We also market some lambs directly to Superior Farms, the main lamb processor in California.  Typically, our marketing window corresponds with the Muslim holiday of Ramadan (during which we find increased demand for lambs the size of ours).

We time the weaning of our lambs (weaning is the process of separating the ewes from the lambs) to correspond with the availability of higher quality (that is, green) forage.  During the drought, we weaned the lambs in late May; this year, with better irrigation and more grass, we were able to wait until June 20.  The longer the lambs can nurse, the more they'll grow.  On the other hand, lactation is a significant energy demand on the ewes - we want to make sure that we wean early enough to put weight back on the ewes before our breeding season begins in early October.

This year, our preparations for weaning began the weekend before - we set up our corrals and made sure we had all of our supplies on hand.  After I moved the irrigation water early Monday morning, Roger and I brought the sheep into the corrals.  My daughters Lara and Emma joined us, and we got the process underway.  The first step was to record weights for each lamb - this gives us a sale weight for the lambs we're selling, and allows us to calculate an adjusted 100-day weight for each lamb (which allows us to compare lamb and ewe performance regardless of when the lamb was born).  While the lambs were in the alley, we also put in their permanent ear tags - an identifier tag for all lambs, and a red tag denoting breeding group and year of birth for the ewe lambs).  Those that we intend to keep (replacement ewe lambs and feeder lambs) were marked with red paint; those that we intend to sell were left unmarked (I should note that we only use approved scourable paint - paint that will wash out of our wool).

Once we finished tagging and weighing the lambs, we ran them back through the alley - this time to sort the ewes from the lambs through a "cut" gate.  Once the sorting was completed, the border collies and I took the ewes to a small holding pen over the hill - out of sight of where the lambs would be going.  Then we took the lambs back to their pasture - the first time moving newly weaned lambs is always a challenge, but the short move went well.

One of our goals at weaning is to get the ewes to stop lactating as quickly as possible to avoid mastitis (an infection of their mammary systems).  To do this, we try to abruptly lower their nutritional intake by moving them off of irrigated pasture and onto dry forage.  We also want them out of sight and mind for the lambs - the lambs will break out of our electric fences if they can see and/or hear their mothers.  Consequently, after we put the lambs back on pasture, we gathered the ewes back into the corrals and hauled them to another ranch.  A long and busy day, to say the least!

Here are the statistics for this year's lambs:
Lambs weaned per ewe exposed
164.9%
Average weaning age
107.2 days
Average actual weaning weight
62.9 lbs
Average 100-day adj weaning weight
59.1 lbs
Average actual weaning weight per ewe
108.0 lbs
Average 100-day adj weaning weight per ewe
100.1 lbs
Death loss (post-lambing to weaning)
0.0%

This week, we've been marketing lambs.  This means bring the lambs into the corrals, sorting off the lambs that we're selling, and allowing our buyers to make their selections.  By this Sunday, we'll have all of the feeder lambs sold; we will keep the purebred Shropshire lambs for a bit longer (along with our Mule replacement ewe lambs and the feeder lambs we're keeping).  The revenue from this week's sales will carry us through until we sell next year's lambs!  And the size of our lamb checks depends on two key factors - the weight of the lambs and the price per pound we receive.  Typically, the price per pound declines as weight goes up, but the total value of a heavier lamb is greater than that of a lighter lamb.  Our lambs were heavier than normal this year!

In many ways, weaning and selling our lambs is the final report card on our management efforts over the prior 12 months.  The decisions we've made since last July (after weaning our 2015 lambs) have had a direct impact on our economic success this year.  Beyond the lamb checks, though, I take great satisfaction in looking at a pen-full of healthy, vigorous and muscular lambs.  I take a lot of satisfaction in the compliments we get from our buyers.  And I appreciate getting paid for our year's work!



Friday, June 17, 2016

A Shepherd's Spouse

As I wrote in my previous post (Pastoral? Some Days!) I'm currently reading a wonderful book entitled Of Sheep and Men by R.B. Robertson.  In the chapter I just finished, he describes the varied responsibilities of the shepherd's wife (at least as she existed on the Scottish borders in the mid 1950s):
"But the shepherd's wife, like the wife of the diplomat, the missionary, the innkeeper, and the man of any other profession where an interested and cooperative partner is essential to the performance of the work, must be a woman of a very rare but definite type.  It might almost be said that her qualities are more important than those of the shepherd himself, for certainly most of the year she works harder than he does, and at times her work requires more expert knowledge and a higher standard of skill than does his.
"She must know the job of sheep-herding thoroughly, for she assists at the clippin', the dippin', the lambin', and all other busy periods in the sheep year, usually looks after the bit of hill and fields around the house where the delicate in-bye sheep are kept.... She must have an all-round knowledge of farming, for the little croft, with its two cows, pigs, chickens, large vegetable plot, and hayfield - all the sidelines with which the shepherds supplement their small wages - is entirely her responsibility.  She is the veterinary surgeon of the glen, and all ailing beasts - lambs, sheep, cattle, dogs, humans - are immediately placed under her care.... She must run a kitchen herself which is capable of producing hearty dinners, and right on time...."
Obviously, much of this writing reflects the traditional gender roles of the 1950s.  However, I've found (as have most of the ranchers I know) that "an interested and cooperative partner is essential" to our operation.

I learned in one of my animal science classes that it is critical for a rancher to develop a relationship with  his or her veterinarian. When I give talks about raising sheep, I joke that I took this advice to heart - I sleep with my veterinarian!  Beyond the veterinary advice, though, Sami is the type of partner described by Robertson.  While I'm the one who talks about shepherding and who does most of the day-to-day work with our sheep, Sami is busy taking care of the animals at home - raising bottle lambs, raising a pig for our freezer, seeing that the dogs are healthy.  She's taking kids to soccer practice and riding lessons.  She's helping me cope with lambing problems that require 2 pairs of hands or midwifery skills beyond my own. She's dealing with my often filthy laundry!  And she's running her own large animal veterinary practice.

On most of the ranching operations I know, at least one spouse works at least part-time off the ranch.  The extra income - and especially the health and retirement benefits - are part of the risk management strategy for many operations.  As I talk to families who have ranched far longer than we have, I realize that this has almost always been true (at least for family-scale operations).  And these roles are not gender specific - many of the commercial-scale sheep operations that I know are managed by women whose husbands have off-ranch jobs!

All joking and philosophizing aside, however, this post is meant as a thank you to my wife for putting up with my sheep habit and for all of the hard work that she puts in - both with the sheep and with everything else she does.  Ours truly is a partnership!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Pastoral? Some Days!

At the recommendation of friend and fellow rancher Jill Hackett, I recently picked up a copy of a book entitled Of Sheep and Men by R.B. Robertson.  Written in 1957, the book is a humorous and (so far - I'm only five chapters in) accurate account of a year spent among sheep-raising families on the Scottish borders in the 1950s.  I'm thoroughly enjoying the book, and last night, I came across this gem:
"I too had been taught during my liberal education that 'pastoral' in the literary or artistic sense means a highly stylized form of expression, bearing no casual relationship or emotional connection with the shepherd's way of life...."
Dictionary.com offers these definitions (among others) of the word "pastoral":
adjective
  1. having the simplicity, charm, serenity or other characteristics generally attributed to rural areas
  2. pertaining to the country or life in the country; rural; rustic
  3. portraying or suggesting idyllically the life of shepherds or of the country, as a work of literature, art or music
  4. of, relating to, or consisting of shepherds 
  5. used for pasture, as land.
The fourth and fifth definitions certainly relate to my life and work - we use land for pasture, and my work is that of a shepherd.  Setting aside the second definition for a moment, however, I want to examine the idea that rural life and rural work have an inherent "simplicity, charm [and] serenity."

From the outside looking in, I realize that my work as a shepherd may indeed appear to be idyllic.  I get to work outdoors in a beautiful setting.  I get to experience new life firsthand.  I get to take my dogs to work!  I realize that the photos and posts of my (and other shepherds') #sheep365 project largely reinforce this pastoral image.  And much of my work is serene - I love what I do, and for good reason.

But not every job or every day is pastoral in the sense of the first and third definitions found on Dictionary.com.  Some jobs and some days are downright unpleasant.  Building electric fence on a 100 degree day through mature yellow starthistle is not my idea of an idyllic activity, nor is disposing of a ewe that's been mauled by a dog.  Fly-struck lambs, abortion storms, and drought (all of which I've experienced first-hand, and all of which are part of the bargain when one chooses to be a shepherd) are incredibly stressful and generally disagreeable.

The first definition also suggests that rural areas (and by extension, the work of rural people) possess a certain simplicity.  Another motivation for me to share photos of our sheep operation everyday for a year is to show (hopefully) that raising sheep is anything but simple.  Shepherding, like any agricultural endeavor, takes a combination of attention to detail, persistence, knowledge, skill and hard work.  This milk commercial from Australia puts a comical spin on the perception that anyone can farm:


I really want to make a video like this about sheep ranching!

None of this should suggest that I don't love what I do.  I love the work of raising sheep like nothing else I've ever done professionally.  I like the combination of intellectual and physical work.  I enjoy being outside as the seasons change.  I am thrilled by new life and by a well-finished lamb.  I take great pride in producing food and fiber.  I'm lucky to be living a pastoral life!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Livestock and Predators: No Easy Answers

Since we've raised sheep commercially (and even when our sheep enterprise was a hobby), we've been committed to trying to live with the predators in our environment.  Over the years, we've lost just a handful of sheep - several to coyotes, at least one each to mountain lions and rattlesnakes, and four in one night to a neighbor's dog.  Mostly, though, our commitment to nonlethal predator protection tools has worked.  A combination of electric fencing, livestock guardian dogs, sheep selection and grazing management (see Big Dogs, Hot Fences and Fast Sheep for the details) has allowed us to co-exist with the predators in our environment.  But as I talk with other sheep producers in California and elsewhere in the West (and even overseas via Facebook and Twitter), I realize that our approach won't work for everyone.  And as we face the prospect of wolves returning to our part of the Sierra foothills in my lifetime, I'm even more convinced that there are no easy answers to the question of livestock-predator co-existence.

My first experience with coyote predation happened shortly after we moved to Auburn in 2001.  One morning, we noticed that we were missing a feeder lamb.  The rest of the sheep were bunched in a far corner of the pasture and kept looking to the other side of the field where an irrigation canal ran through our property.  I checked the ditch, and found the dead lamb halfway under water.  Its throat was torn out, and a portion of it had been eaten. We called the county trapper, who confirmed that it was a coyote.

Looking back on this incident, I realize several things - about predators and my attitudes toward them.  First, we lost the value of the lamb that died - a direct economic loss.  More than that, however, I suspect that the stress experienced by the other lambs caused a number of indirect economic costs (like a temporary drop in weight gain, for example).  I also learned something about myself - I learned that had I observed the coyote in the act of killing or feeding on my lamb, I would have taken lethal action to stop it (I would have shot it).  I also learned that I couldn't have brought myself to kill just any coyote - I would need proof that a specific, individual coyote was the culprit.  In other words, I learned that I would take action to directly intervene in the death of my sheep, but I wasn't comfortable taking random or preemptive action to prevent other coyotes from hunting my sheep.  Later, when we lost the four ewes to a dog, I also realized that as much as I like dogs, I would shoot a dog in the act of killing my sheep (I didn't take such action in this case, but the dog was impounded by Animal Control and the owner was required to make restitution).

Wolves, when they arrive, will be a different issue altogether.  Personally, my commitment to coexistence will mean that I'll work to find nonlethal protection techniques that are effective.  Even without this commitment, however, state and federal laws give me no choice - it would be a criminal act for me to harm a wolf.  The hunting behaviors and abilities of wolves are unlike those of any predators I've experienced.  More - and bigger - livestock guardian dogs will probably be my primary tool, but this has its costs, too.  Raising sheep is a business for me, and I'll have to weigh the extra costs carefully.

Like all of the ranchers I know, I view the loss of any of the animals in my care as a personal failure.  There are many reasons that sheep can die, and not all of them are preventable; however, every death affects me emotionally and economically.  While I appreciate the efforts of agencies and nonprofit groups to reimburse ranchers for direct losses to wolves (and other predators in some regions), I feel like these direct costs are just part of the true impact of predators.  Indirect impacts include reductions in reproductive success, weight loss, additional labor, and other additional costs (like feeding and caring for extra guard dogs, and increased liability insurance costs associated with these bigger dogs).   Finally, a dead ewe or ram represents the loss of genetic potential.  My sheep, like most herds and flocks, have been bred specifically for my environment and operation.  I can't simply go out and replace a ewe that has been killed with something from the sales yard and expect similar productivity.  This has multi-year ramifications.  Any investment in new genetics takes several years to provide a return, and there are also life-time productivity losses.  In my flock, a ewe might have 12-15 lambs during her productive life.  If she's been killed, I lose that as well.  As part of my work with UC Rangelands and as part of my graduate studies at Colorado State, I'm helping develop a rancher survey to begin looking at these indirect impacts.  I think the results of this long-term project will be important and insightful.

Several weeks ago, a friend and fellow northern California rancher told me, "The hard part about the wolf/livestock issue may not be the animals, but the people.  Ever since 1492, and before, man has dealt with predators in one way or another.  That's 524 years.  Now, only since 1995 when wolves were re-introduced, our elite, progressive society has demanded that we change our thoughts and attitudes.  That is only 21 years.  That is a lot to ask of people!"  I think she has a point - and it reflects part of the greater divide between urban and rural people the world over.  Perspectives on predators depend, at least in part, on their proximity to your home and livelihood.

Perhaps its a sign that I'm getting older, but these issues seem much more complicated to me than when I was a younger man.  So much of the success (or failure) of nonlethal predator protection tools depends on the frame of reference of the person using (or not using) them.  I've come to understand that these tools are like any other approach to raising livestock.  If you believe they'll work, you'll find a way to make them work.  If you don't believe they'll work, they'll seem like a lot of extra effort and expense - and ultimately they won't work for you.  Like all complex socio-ecological issues, there isn't any one-size-fits-all answer to co-existing with predators.
Bodie - a 10-week-old Anatolian-Maremma puppy.  He's the newest member of
our predator prevention team!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Late Spring Rain

Since last Friday, we've measured 0.85 inches of rain at our home place near Auburn.  This moisture has arrived during relatively brief thunderstorms - and like many late spring rains, it's been spotty.  A friend who ranches less than three miles from us measured more than an inch of rain last night!  For most farmers and ranchers, the timing of the rain is as important as the total amount - and these late spring rains have been a mixed blessing for our operation.

On the positive side, rain at this time of year can help our irrigated pastures.  The point of efficient irrigation is to match the water applied to our pastures with the water needs of our soils and plants.  I monitor this both directly and indirectly.  Directly, I check the amount of moisture in our soils on a regular basis by digging into the root zone and evaluating the amount of water by the look and feel of our soil.  We don't want our soils to totally dry out during irrigation, nor do we want them to remain saturated at all times.  Indirectly, I monitor the evapo-transpiration (ETo) in our area.  ETo is the amount of water lost through evaporation and transpiration (uptake by plants).  This information is available through the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) website operated by the California Department of Water Resources.  Through this website, I can track daily (or even hourly) ETo, as well as precipitation and soil temperature.  Each Friday, I check these numbers and note them in my irrigation log - which allows me to make adjustments in my irrigation schedule.  Between May 18 and May 24, the ETo for the Auburn CIMIS station was 1.16 inches - that means soil lost 1.16 inches of water to plants and evaporation in the last week.  To keep our plants growing, we need to add at least that much water back into the soil.  Mother Nature provided about 80 percent of our water demand this week!  We've kept irrigating, which means we're banking soil moisture for the drier, hotter weather sure to come.

On the negative side, our rangeland (or unirrigated) pastures are dominated by annual grasses and broadleaf plants (which we call forbs - things like clover and filaree).  Annual plants must complete their life cycles each year - that is, they germinate, grow, flower (reproduce) and die.  Most of our forage plants germinate in the fall (with some notable exceptions that I'll explain below), grow through the winter and spring, and reproduce and die in the late spring or early summer.  In managing our rangelands for grazing, we evaluate peak forage production some time in May, and then ration out this standing "crop" until the next growing season begins in the fall.

Our sheep are ruminants, which essentially means that the microbes in their foreguts (their rumen systems) are able to break down the cellulose material in forage and extract essential nutrients.  These "bugs" in the sheep's guts require a diet with about 8 percent protein to thrive.  Green, growing forage can be anywhere from around 12 percent protein to as high as 25 percent.  Dry, dead forage, on the other hand, can be as low as 3-4 percent protein.  And when this dry forage gets rained on, many of the remaining nutrients (including protein) are leached out.  So rain on our dry annual grasses actually decreases its value to our grazing sheep.  We can get the sheep to eat the dry grass, but we have to provide supplemental protein to ensure the health and vigor of their gut microbes.

Some of my friends say that ranchers are never happy - it's always too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry.  When the market for lambs is high, we don't have enough grass.  When we have plenty of grass, the market crashes.  I suppose there is some truth to what my friends say, but I also think that trying to earn an income in partnership with Nature is fraught with uncertainty.  These late spring rains are a great example - they help with our irrigated pastures (a blessing), but they hurt the nutritional value of our annual grasslands (a curse).  I guess we'll just keep taking whatever Mother Nature serves up!