on the road

on the road

Saturday, October 28, 2017

No Easy Answers Part 2

In mid October, some friends who graze their cattle in the mountains of western Lassen County (less than 200 miles from our home), became the first ranchers to have cattle “officially” killed by wolves in California in nearly a century. Wildlife officials confirmed that the Lassen pack killed a 600-pound heifer; four more heifers died (and were partially eaten by wolves), but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) couldn’t confirm the cause of death. While I learned about the depredations shortly after they happened through the rancher grapevine, news of my friends’ losses weren’t made public until the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation issued a joint press release this week. The October 28 edition of the Sacramento Bee ran the story.

If you’ve read my previous blogs about wolves, you’ll probably know that I’ve frequently been frustrated with the Bee’s coverage. The paper has run guest opinions disguised as news articles, and apparently has no interest in exploring this complex issue from all sides. This morning’s front-page article was no different, unfortunately.

Despite what some of the more strident wolf advocates would have us believe, livestock-predator coexistence is incredibly complicated. Large carnivores and ranching operations rely on the same rangeland habitats – habitats that in California are shrinking for a variety of reasons. Coexistence is an abstract concept for someone living in Sacramento or San Francisco; it takes on an entirely different meaning when it has to happen in the pasture beyond your barn – and when it’s your livestock and livelihood that are trying to coexist with the predators in your environment.

This particular incident is an important case in point. CDFW offered to have employees camp in the meadow where cattle and wolves were overlapping. While I don’t know the particulars in this case, I do know that the relationship between ranchers and the agency has been strained for years. Many ranchers are reluctant to provide access to their private lands because they fear the agency will “find” a reason to curtail their use of their private properties. Stories like the one in this morning’s paper further erode this trust by implying that ranchers would rather take matters into their own hands. (The article ended by describing the death of a wolf in Oregon, apparently as evidence that ranchers have no interest in coexistence).

The article quoted a spokeswoman from the Center for Biological Diversity as saying that livestock depredations are rare and that “livestock owners have to take ‘common-sense’ precautions when wolves are in the area. These include making sure the livestock stay together for protection.” In the 25 years that I’ve worked with ranchers in California, the best scientific management approach has been to disperse cattle over the landscape to protect and enhance a variety of resources (including mountain meadows and riparian areas). Many ranchers have employed riders and other techniques (including genetic selection of cattle) to keep cattle from concentrating in small areas; this is not a behavior or a management approach that can be turned off immediately once wolves arrive on the scene. While there are a number of well-meaning organizations and individuals who are trying to work with ranchers on this topic, condescending, overly simplistic statements like the one in this morning's paper do little to foster a spirit of collaboration.

At the risk of repeating myself, we have used nonlethal predator protection tools in our sheep operation from the outset. By using livestock guardian dogs, electric fencing, and intensive grazing management, we’ve been able to limit our losses to the predators in our region (mostly coyotes, mountain lions and neighborhood dogs). Our commitment to these tools is partly philosophical (we value coexistence with wildlife) and partly practical (we can’t be with our sheep 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). To date, I’ve never had to kill a predator (which is not to say that I would look the other way if I happened upon a predator in the act of killing a sheep). I will say that the predators have not always lived up to their end our bargain of coexistence – we’ve lost sheep to dogs, coyotes, and probably mountain lions. And while our sheep are a business, the loss of ANY animal in my care feels like a failure – the loss is far more than simply an economic loss.

Others have pointed to our reasonably successful coexistence as an example for other producers. While I do try to share our experiences and approaches with other ranchers, I do so with a clear understanding that OUR tools work in OUR system and OUR environment. Fencing our sheep in 10-acre electro-paddocks and feeding guard dogs everyday works in our management system on the annual rangelands near Auburn where our sheep spend their lives. It would be presumptuous of me to suggest that these tools work universally. It is beyond presumptuous for anyone without direct knowledge of a particular operation (or even the general day-to-day operation of any ranch) to suggest that any particular tool would be effective.

My inclination when faced with a complex issue is to turn to science for answers. The disciplines of ecology, animal behavior and range management (to name a few) can help us address technical questions. However, this issue in particular highlights the fact that bio-physical science can only provide some of the answers. Human behavior and relationships are also critical components. For example, some scientific research suggests that indiscriminate lethal control of predators like wolves and coyotes does not prevent livestock predation (and may in fact increase it). But telling a rancher he/she can’t use lethal force to protect his/her livestock feels like a loss of control to that rancher – regardless of the scientific evidence that it may not work in the long term. A friend who ranches in wolf habitat puts it this way, “We spent more than 500 years in North America using lethal control to protect our livestock from predators; now we’re being asked to adapt and coexist with wolves in a few short years. That’s a difficult thing to do in such a short time.”

CDFW predicts wolves will eventually come as far south as I-80 in the Sierra Nevada. Some scientists point to the lack of a natural prey base (primarily elk, but also deer) in our part of the Sierra as a limiting factor; others wonder if wolves (as opportunistic carnivores) will simply switch to the prey that’s available (livestock). Some of what I’ve read suggests that wolves will not inhabit the semi-rural foothills like Auburn, and yet OR-7 (the first wolf to migrate into California) spent several months in the Tehama County foothills to our north. I do know that our small sheep operation relies on the same annual rangelands that our current suite of predators lives in. I suspect that adding a new predator (the wolf) to the region will complicate our relationship with all predators. This problem, in other words, defies simplistic approaches.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Deer Hunting 2017

As I've written in previous autumns, I didn't grow up hunting. My dad and I fished (a lot! some of my favorite memories are of my dad picking me up from school before lunchtime so we could fish the Stanislaus River below Beardsley Reservoir). But we didn't hunt.

We did eat venison on the rare occasions that a friend would bring us some - and we all loved it. Just over five years ago, I decided to enroll in a local hunter safety course and get my first hunting license. I purchased a deer rifle - and a deer tag. The next year, I purchased another rifle (guns, for me, are tools rather than rights). I hunted for several years without getting a buck (I won't say without success - I learned something every time I hunted). In 2014, while hunting with my brother-in-law Adrian near Carson Pass, I got my first buck. Hunting by myself in 2015, I got another - and hunting again with Adrian (this time on the north coast of California), I got my third buck in 2017.

I'm a type-A personality (big shock to my friends, I'm sure). I like to be good at the things I enjoy doing. From a hunting perspective, I've come to realize that I truly enjoy the physical skills involved. I've enjoyed learning to be quiet. I've enjoyed learning to think about where deer might be at particular times of the year or time of day. I've enjoyed learning to shoot accurately. And (thankfully) I've enjoyed learning how to field-dress a deer.

This year, some long-time friends in Humboldt County, California, graciously invited Adrian and I to hunt on their ranch. Several Saturdays ago, we were both successful (Adrian in the morning; me in the evening). While I filled my B-zone tag, I decided I wanted to try to get a second buck in my local D3-5 zone. I told my oldest daughter, Lara, that I felt a little bad about being greedy - after all, I'd already had a successful hunt. She said, "Yeah, but you use all of the meat - you're not just hunting for a trophy." My youngest daughter, Emma, reinforced this sentiment. She told me, "I love venison, and I want to do something with the deerskin, too." For a father who has tried to instill respect for the animals that feed and clothe us, these ideas made me incredibly proud!

And so this weekend - the last weekend of deer season on our part of California - I'll be out in the woods trying to harvest one more buck. As my girls know, I won't be looking for a trophy - I'll be looking to put meat in our freezer. And if I'm not successful, I won't be disappointed - any day spent alone, quiet, and paying attention, in our mountains, is a good day. That's why I hunt....

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Autumn Haiku

Woodsmoke and yellow
Light. Cold mornings and warm days.
Nighttime grows longer.

Finally, it rains.
Germination day, the grass
Grows green at the ranch.

Usually, he sees
Me first. But not every time.
Winter venison.

One day, it's summer.
The next, slate gray clouds and snow
Fall in the Sierra.

Criss-cross the ends of
The stack to keep it upright.
The winter's warmth stacked.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Fire Relief Fundraiser

So many people in Northern California have been impacted by this week's devastating wildfires, including many of our farming and ranching friends in the Sierra foothills. We'd like to make a very small effort to help out these farms and ranches by donating a whole lamb, cut-and-wrapped, with all of the proceeds going to the Nevada County Farm Bureau's fire relief efforts.

To make a bid, simply go to our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/flyingmulefarm) and enter your bid as a comment. If you'd like to make a contribution, send me an email at flyingmulefarm@gmail.com. Thanks! And please share this info with your friends and family! Every little bit helps!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Happy New Year - Sheep New Year, that is!

Sheep-raising, like most agricultural endeavors, follows the seasons. In the Sierra foothills, where we graze sheep, our best forage is in the springtime - and so we match our production system to the grass. In other words, we time our management calendar so that lambs are born when the grass is growing rapidly - we match supply with demand in our system. Since sheep are pregnant for 145-155 days, and since we want our ewes to start lambing when rapid grass growth begins in late February, we turn the rams in with the ewes around October 1.

For us, the act of putting rams with the ewes feels like the first day of a new Sheep Year. The lambs born in 2017 are weaned; most of them have been sold. After weaning, the ewes go back onto dry forage for the summer. Around September 1, we put them on irrigated pasture and feed them grain to "flush" them - to get them ready for breeding. And yesterday, we put the rams back with the ewes for 6 weeks of ovine procreation. Happy New Year!

Here's a short video blog about what the last couple of days have entailed:

Monday, September 25, 2017

52 Weeks of Sheep #4 - All About Flushing

Since we're offering a workshop on Friday focusing on preparing sheep for breeding season, this seemed like a timely vlog post!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

52 Weeks of Sheep - Week 3

Check out this week's vlog post - all about irrigating with K-Line!

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Gourmet Sheepherders

I have the honor of serving as the vice president of the California Wool Growers Association - the oldest livestock organization in the state. I recently asked my fellow officers, all of whom are of Basque heritage, to share their favorite lamb recipes. I can't wait to try them!

I should say that most of the sheep ranchers I know gravitate towards the lower priced cuts of lamb. That's not to say we don't enjoy a good rack of lamb or loin chop when we have the chance; rather, I suspect that most of us would rather sell these expensive cuts - or save them for special occasions.

Here are the recipes they shared!

Ryan Indart, President
Ryan and his family farm and ranch in Fresno County. I've always wanted a recipe for Basque beans - can't wait to try this one! He says its a combination of recipes from Wool Growers Basque Restaurant in Bakersfield and Louie's Basque Corner in Reno - two of my favorite places to eat!

Basque Beans
1-1/2 bags dried kidney and pinto beans
1/3 cup bacon or salt pork
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
8 oz can tomato sauce
1/2 tsp dried thyme/oregano/basil
pinch red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
3 cups water or beer/wine mixture
2 cups beef stock
3/4 lbs boneless pork (cubed)
3/4 lbs ham steak w/ bone
1 bay leaf
1/2 lb Spanish or Mexican chorizo or linguisa
Lamb stew meat

Soak beans overnight or do a quick soak (google it!). Rinse beans and return to pot. Add enough water to cover 3/4 inches. Bring to a boil over high and then reduce to a simmer for 2 hours. While beans are cooking, cook boneless pork, bacon, lamb stew meat, and chorizo for a few minutes (don't cook all the way) along with onions and garlic - use white wine and butter. After the beans have cooked 1 hour, stir in the meat/garlic/onion mix, along with tomato sauce, thyme/oregano/basil, pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Cook for one more hour and let rest. Eat the next day.

Sheep Camp Stew
Ryan says he makes this recipe during lambing season.

Lamb Shanks or Ribs
Ryan says this is one of his favorite recipes!

Ed Anchordoguy, Secretary/Treasurer
Ed raises sheep in Sonoma County - and he's the money guy for our association! He sent the following recipes:

"Two very simple ones which you probably know. Leg of Lamb- Cut Rosemary into small sprigs and skin gloves of garlic.  Make holes in leg with a knife and stuff both a sprig of Rosemary and a clove of garlic into each hole.  Make holes all over both sides of leg.  Put salt and pepper on the outside of leg if you want and either bbq or put in oven. Lamb Chops- Chop up rosemary and garlic gloves in a Mezzaluna wood bowl with Mezzaluna knife until you dice it all into almost a paste.  You can also create the same paste in a blender or food processor.  You can add salt and pepper if you want.  Put the mash on thick on one side of the lamb chop (loin is best of course, lamb steaks work well also), the side with paste up on the bbq.  If you are putting them in oven you can do both sides.  You just don’t want it to burn much, just crispy.  There is a small company in Clovis called The Basque Co.  They make a Meat Tenderizer- BBQ Sauce which is excellent to marinate any cut of lamb.  I have been using it for years.  You can buy it in most major grocery stores.  You can also order it directly from the source and have it shipped to you.  They also make a great Seafood Marinade." [Note: We've used this marinade for years - it's our favorite for just about every kind of meat!]

Ed also forwarded this recipe - he says that once his friends have tried it, they always ask for it again!

Frankie Itturia, Immediate Past President
Frankie and his family graze sheep in the Bakersfield area and along the east side of the Sierra. He preceded Ryan as CWGA President. Frankie's dad, Paco, was CWGA President when I worked for the California Cattlemen's Association more than 20 years ago (which, as I like to remind my cattleman friends, is the second oldest livestock organization in the state!). Frankie shared a number of great recipes from the Bo-Peep cookbook put out in Kern County several years ago!

I think I'll need to acquire one of those cookbooks!

Finally, I'll share one of my family's favorite recipes. As the only non-Basque member of our current officer team - and as the only Scotch-Irish-German (and other various ethnicities) officer, I thought I'd share a decidedly non-Basque recipe! My family usually has this on Christmas Eve.

Scotch Broth
(Adapted from the Fannie Farmer cookbook)

3 lbs lamb breast or neck slices
8 cups cold water
1/2 cup barley
3 TBS butter
2 carrots, diced fine
2 stalks celery, diced fine
2 small white turnips or rutabagas, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, diced fine
Freshly ground pepper

Remove most of the fat from the meat and cut into small pieces. Put it in a pot with the cold water. Bring to a boil and stir in the barley. Simmer, partially covered, for 1-1/2 hours, or until the meat and barley are tender, adding more water if any evaporates. Remove the meat from the bones. Cool the soup and skim off the fat. Melt the butter in a skillet and add the carrots, celery, turnip (or rutabaga), and onion. Cook over low heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Add to the soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook for another 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Serve piping hot.

What's your favorite lamb recipe!? I challenge all of my fellow sheep producers (foreign and domestic!) to share a recipe in the comments section! Let's have some fun with this!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

52 Weeks of Sheep: #1

Here's my first attempt at vlogging! Enjoy! And let me know if there are specific questions or topics you'd like me to cover in the next 51 weeks!

You can subscribe to my YouTube channel, too - flyingmulefarm!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

52 Weeks of Sheep - a New Video Blog

As a part-time shepherd with a day job, I've come to realize that I have an opportunity (perhaps, even, a responsibility) to talk about the day-to-day realities of raising sheep. Many of my full-time sheepherding colleagues don't have time to tell their stories; their days are consumed with caring for sheep. There are exceptions, obviously - be sure to check out these Instagram accounts of a few of my favorite California shepherds: @californiasheeprancher, @starcreeklandstewards, @wookeyranch, @humboldtherder, @skyelarkranch and @jaimegreywin!

Nearly 2 years ago, I started a project I called #Sheep365 - I took (and talked about) a photo of our sheep operation each day for a full year. I found it to be a fun - and challenging - project! Having something to say everyday is not as easy as it sounds (even for me).

This year, beginning this Saturday, I'm going to try something different. While I'll continue my written blog, I'm going to start a once-a-week video blog (or "vlog") focusing on whatever it is we're doing with the sheep. This week's installment is a short video clip about starting the process of flushing the ewes. Flushing means we put our breeding flock on a rising plane of nutrition, which increases ovulation and (subsequently) our lambing percentage. Today, we moved the ewes from dry annual rangeland near Hidden Falls Park west of Auburn to our irrigated pastures closer to town.

To follow my "52 Weeks of Sheep" project, follow me on Instagram at @flyingmulefarm. I'll also post links to my Flying Mule Farm Facebook page (at www.facebook.com/flyingmulefarm).