January Morning

January Morning

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Year of the Sheep (Photos)

A year later, I can't really remember where the idea originated. Sometime in late September 2015, I decided to start a project I called #Sheep365. Using my iPhone, I intended on taking at least one photo of my family's sheep operation every day for a year - beginning on October 1 when we turned the rams in with the ewes. I posted these photos on my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds - all with the #Sheep365 tag. Looking back now at the last 366 days (2016 is a leap year!), I have thoroughly enjoyed the project - in part because I'm now enjoying looking back, and in part because of the conversations I've had with friends (old and new) about raising sheep.

A shepherd's year involves day-in-day-out care for sheep and for the land - punctuated by milestones like lambing, shearing, weaning and breeding. As I look back at the photos, many of them don't seem to be much different from one day to the next, and yet I can see the changing of the seasons and the changing of my work as I scroll through them. I've become aware that I'm trying to tell a daily story while also weaving together the story of my entire year of shepherding.

As my project wrapped up last week, I realized that it was more than just a year-long social media experiment – it was an artistic endeavor. I realized that I was trying to tell a story – not just about what was happening on any particular day, but also about how each day in a shepherd’s life relates to the days that came before and to the days that would follow. I see now that art does resemble life (or perhaps it’s the other way around). This year-long project required both dedication and discipline on my part (which I didn’t fully appreciate until I no longer had to think about what I would post that day). Similarly, raising sheep requires dedication and discipline – there are days that I’d rather not leave the house at sunrise to move irrigation water before work, just as there are evenings that I’d rather go home than swing by the ranch to feed guard dogs after the sun has set. To take this analogy even further, I’ve realized that a rancher works with animals, water, sunlight, and soil to create a body of work. Science and technology are certainly a part of my daily work, but there is an art (that I’m still learning) to putting these things together.

Unbeknownst to me, other shepherds had been using the #Sheep365 tag - and as a consequence, I made the acquaintance of shepherds in other parts of the country and other parts of the world. I even got to post to an international twitter feed for a week.

Finally, the project opened conversations with folks about the work involved in raising sheep. I've enjoyed answering questions about things that I take for granted. I've enjoyed the positive feedback, too!  Here's a look back at our year:

As I explained when I started the project, the shepherd's year begins on the day that the rams go with the ewes. This day represents our hopes for the coming year. We time our breeding with an eye towards lambing - we want lambs to be born when the grass is green and growing fast - in springtime, in other words! And so October 1 is the first day of the sheep year for us. Since we have two breeding groups (a replacement group and a terminal group), we had sheep in two locations last October. For the first half of the month, we were still moving irrigation water, as well.

In 2015, we got our germinating rain in early November. A germinating rain is typically 0.5-0.75" of rain - enough to get the annual grasses on our rangelands started - always an important day for us! After we separated the rams and ewes again in mid-November, we re-combined the ewes into one big group. The rams went back to the bachelor paddock! We had our first frost, and the last of last spring's lambs reached their market weights.

As usual, December was the slowest month for shepherding - and a nice break!  The ewes were bred and settled in their pregnancies.  Early in the month, we hauled them to our winter rangeland pastures - where they'd stay until they were done lambing in April. And on Christmas Day, my daughters helped with chores. I always do a little extra work on the days leading up to Christmas, to make sure that all we need to do on the big day is check sheep and feed guard dogs. And after Christmas, we got a way for a few days (which meant the posts featured guest photos by my partner, Roger Ingram!)

In January, work started picking up again. With short days, relatively cold temperatures, and the lingering effects of the drought, we didn't have much green grass - and so we moved the sheep frequently. The ewes were getting enormous; we started to suspect that we might have more twins that normal at lambing time. At the end of the month, we brought the flock into our portable corrals to trim their feet and give them their pre-lambing vaccinations.

The photos I took in February start to show a bit more green grass in them - just in time for lambing! The early February days always drag for me - I'm waiting for lambs! I went through my preparations - checking supplies and assembling tools. Then on February 22, ewe #1543 (affectionately named "Pina" by my youngest daughter) delivered twin lambs. Six weeks of Christmas had begun!

March was a blur - lambs, lambs, and more lambs. 2016 was our most successful lambing season ever - 100 lambs out of 55 ewes. Other than lambs, though, I don't remember much about March!

In early April, we purchased a border collie puppy. Mae came to us from our friend Geri Byrne in Tulelake, CA. She's been a firecracker from the start - incredible energy. She's also showing signs of being an incredibly talented sheep dog. Oh yeah - and irrigation season started, which meant I'd spend most mornings moving water for the next 6 months.

In May, we brought all of the sheep home to be sheared - we typically wait until the youngest lamb is 5-6 weeks old before shearing the ewes. Shearing, for me, is the sheep equivalent of branding calves - it's hard work made enjoyable by the company of friends who help us. We also picked up a new livestock guardian dog puppy - Bodie is a Maremma-Anatolian mix. At the end of the month, our oldest daughter, Lara, graduated from Placer High School (as one of 14 valedictorians - and the first ag student to be valedictorian).

June seems like it was mostly moving water! We also weaned the lambs (later than normal, thanks to a strong grass year) and marketed all of our feeder lambs.

As usual, July was hot and dry.  The lambs were on irrigated pasture, while the ewes went back to dry forage. And, we got to go on vacation (to the coast and then to the Sierra - where the meat bees were horrible).

In August, we began preparing the rams for breeding season by feeding them grain. We want them to be in exceptionally good condition going into breeding season, because they usually forget to eat much while they're with the ewes! At the end of the month, we took a week-long trip to Montana to drop Lara off at Montana State University (and where I got to visit the Montana Wool Lab - once a sheep geek, always a sheep geek!). When we returned, I picked up a ton of canola meal in the Sacramento Valley to use for flushing the ewes, which started in...

On Labor Day weekend, we went through the ewes to determine whether we needed to cull any due to missing teeth or bad udders. Two ewes had lost all of their lower incisors (which makes it difficult for them to graze). The next weekend, Emma had an incredibly successful Gold Country Fair with her sheep (her first fair without her older sister) - she won the award for high point sheep exhibitor! We also started feeding canola meal to the ewes to flush them (that is, improve their nutrition to increase ovulation). On September 29 (two days early because we had a wedding on October 1), we turned the rams back in with the ewes.

As my project wrapped up, I was invited by Placer Arts to participate in the Auburn Art Walk on October 7, 2016. I’ve selected 24 of my favorite photos (2 from each month) to exhibit in the gallery at Auburn City Hall (1225 Lincoln Way in Auburn). Placer Arts is hosting a free reception in the gallery from 6-9 p.m., and my photos will be on exhibit (and available for purchase) through early December. While I’m under no illusions that I’m a great photographer, I’m excited to have a further opportunity to talk about the work involved in raising sheep in the Sierra foothills!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Further Reflections on Non-lethal Predator Protection

Reno at work.

From my earlier writing in this space, you may know that we're committed to using non-lethal livestock protection tools in our sheep operation (see Big Dogs, Hot Fences and Fast Sheep - A Few Thoughts on Predators and Sheep-raising or Livestock and Predators: No Easy Answers for a few of my recent posts on the topic). We use these non-lethal tools for practical and philosophical reasons. From a practical standpoint, I can't be with our sheep 24 hours a day to keep the coyotes, mountain lions and neighbor dogs at bay. Even if I could, we often graze in close proximity to houses, making the use of a rifle impossible. Philosophically, we've made a decision to try to co-exist with predators as part of a more comprehensive strategy: we want our grazing operation to fit into and (when possible) to enhance our annual rangeland environment. Non-lethal tools permit us to protect our sheep and protect the large carnivores in our system.  And most days, our system works great. Except when it doesn't.

Two recent incidents have reminded me that no predator protection system is perfect - even ours. Just over a week ago, we ran all of the ewes through the corrals to assess body condition prior to flushing. During this process, we also check mouths (to make sure the ewes have all of their teeth) and bags (we feel their udders to make sure there's no evidence of past mastitis). We also take an inventory by checking off ear tags. This allows us to replace missing ear tags - and, on rare occasions, discover whether we are missing any sheep. This year, we discovered that 262, one of our registered Shropshire ewes, was missing. I recalled that she had been missing at shearing in May also, but I had chalked that up to the chaos that is shearing day.  As we discussed her disappearance, we realized that we had not seen any evidence of a dead ewe (a carcass, roosting vultures, bawling lambs) since she had her lambs in early March.  Doing further research, we discovered that the sheep had broken out just once since lambing started. While there is no way to know what happened to 262 with any certainty, we assume that she was killed by a predator, probably a mountain lion, and possibly when the sheep were outside the electric fence for several hours in late March. She disappeared even though the flock was protected by our experienced livestock guardian dog at the time.
Bodie with his ewe lambs.

Today provided another reminder of one of the key challenges to our system. As you may recall, we recently purchased a new Anatolian x Maremma guard dog pup (Bodie).  For the most part, Bodie has been exhibiting appropriate guarding behavior - he's definitely bonded with the sheep.  In late August, we placed Bodie with our older dog, Reno, with a large group of sheep.  Since early September, he's been on his own with a group of weaned ewe lambs.  This morning, I found a ewe lamb who had been chewed on mostly around the ears.  As I was checking her over, Bodie came back and tried to play with her.  I corrected him (with growl and by grabbing him by the rough of the neck) and removed the lamb.  Tonight, I put Bodie with the older ewes and Reno with the lambs - older ewes usually don't put up with a playful puppy (and chewed ears are a symptom of a puppy treating lambs like fellow puppies). In many respects, today's incident is my mistake.
Bodie with his new charges - the older ewes.

This ewe lamb should recover
completely - but she's not
feeling very well today.

Bodie's handiwork.
I was reminded that Reno - who is the best dog we've ever had - exhibited similar behavior when he was Bodie's age.  We even had a one-eared ewe that we affectionately called "Vinnie" (a sheepherder reference to Vincent Van Gogh) - the most extreme example of Reno's inappropriate play behavior.  While I'm confident that Bodie will outgrow this behavior, this morning was a reminder to me that he's still young and that we need to help him understand his job.

Both of these incidents underscore one of the challenges in greater adoption of non-lethal tools among ranchers. I believe that these non-lethal tools work, and a set-back like a chewed-on ewe lamb doesn't alter my belief.  Instead, I look for changes we can make in how we're managing our guard dogs and our sheep that will hopefully resolve the problem. Similarly, I believe that my time is better spent building temporary electric fence and moving the sheep to the forage than it would be buying, storing and feeding hay. But if I had a different paradigm - if I believed that the only way to protect my sheep was to kill every coyote I saw at the ranch - today's setback would simply reinforce my belief that non-lethal tools (like guard dogs) don't work.

All of this brings me to the real point of this essay. Nonprofit organizations, government agencies and academics (like me) can easily recommend the use of non-lethal predator protection tools. The flip-side of these recommendations is that we can also easily criticize those producers who don't use them as being out of touch with modern production systems and societal norms. But the decision to use (or not to use) non-lethal tools is not that simple. Not only is the success of these tools very site-specific (in other words, a rancher needs to use a tool that fits his or her terrain, type of livestock, type of predator, etc.); success depends largely on whether an individual producer believes in the tool. I believe guardian dogs work in my system and in my environment - and so I'll go to the added expense and labor of feeding a dog every day, of treating a sick or injured dog, of adjusting my management to increase the likelihood of a dog's success. A producer who sees all of these things as added expense and added work - without the associated benefit - would see today's setback as confirmation that the system won't work.

Finally, I find that this morning's episode confirms for me the challenges in taking a biological (as opposed to a technological) approach to managing our sheep operation (for a more detailed perspective on this, see Technology vs. Biology). Biology is much more complicated - we have to understand interacting systems, behaviors and cycles. I have the technology to kill a coyote; I find it much more challenging to understand how our dogs and sheep can interact with coyotes without the interaction being lethal (for individuals within any of these species).

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Food Tank Summit: A Part-time Shepherd's Perspective

Several friends recently invited me to attend the 1st annual Farm Tank Conference in Sacramento later this month. According to the event website:
"This two-day event will feature more than 35 different speakers from the food and agriculture field, interactive panels moderated by top food journalists, networking, and delicious food, followed by a day of hands-on activities and opportunities for attendees. This is the second in a series of three two-day Summits in 2016 which will bring together some of the world’s most impactful food system leaders. Earlier this year, the Washington, D.C. Food Tank Summit completely sold out and drew in more than 30,100 livestream viewers. This is a can’t miss event for 2016!"
"Locals" are able to attend the conference for $129 for one day or $249 for both days. When I remarked on Facebook that the event was beyond my financial means to attend, several fellow small-scale farmers and ranchers made similar comments, while meeting organizers encouraged us to attend.

I fully realize that this event is organized by well-meaning and passionate people, and the list of speakers is quite impressive.  But as a grizzled (can a bald guy call himself grizzled?!) veteran of Placer County's local food movement - and especially as someone who has tried (and failed) to make a full-time living from raising sheep - I guess I am a bit disappointed that the list of speakers doesn't include more folks who have struggled to build an economically viable and ecologically sustainable farming or ranching operation.  While I certainly don't know all (or even most) of the speakers on the program, I suspect that none of them have had to decide which bill (either business or household related) not to pay this month, or whether they can afford new tires on the truck before winter.

One's definition of small-scale farming depends on one's perspective.  Before drought and economic reality forced us to downsize our flock, we had built our numbers to over 300 ewes - which was still not nearly large enough to pay me a full-time wage.  Some of our farmers market customers at the time thought 300 head of sheep was a large operation - and they were even more astounded when I told them that I'd need to run 800-1,000 ewes to pay myself the median wage for Placer County (approximately $35,000 per year).

While I haven't seen an actual agenda for the Food Tank Summit, I imagine that there will be a great deal of discussion about policy changes and infrastructure improvements that will help "small-scale" farming operations.  In my experience, when livestock production is discussed at these types of events, the conversation invariably turns to the perceived need for more small-scale meat processing capacity.  As a meat producer, I think we're chasing the wrong goal.  No matter where I process my lambs, I still need to be at a large enough scale to be economically viable.  Several years ago, I determined that I could pay myself that $35,000 per year wage from 200 ewes if my customers were willing to pay $35 per pound for a whole lamb (which would make each lamb worth around $1,000).  Not surprisingly, I haven't found anyone willing to pay that for my lamb (even though they're quite delicious and humanely raised).  In other words, being able to get my lambs processed closer to home makes a VERY marginal difference to the economic viability of my business.

The primary barriers to expanding our sheep operation are access to land, access to capital, and efficiency of marketing.  For the viability (and sustainability) of my business to improve, these barriers must be addressed.

At least in our part of the Sierra foothills, land is valued well beyond its ability to grow grass.  Even the most productive irrigated pasture doesn't produce enough forage to justify paying the typical asking price for real estate - and unirrigated rangeland is even more overpriced as compared to its agricultural productivity.  And price is only one component of land access.  Much of our region split into relatively small parcels.  This fragmentation presents a number of challenges - for example, we currently graze on about 400 acres (about 20 acres of which are irrigated).  At last count, we work with 20 different landowners on this 400 acres.  While our landlords are great, coordinating our grazing across 20 different ownerships is complicated.  Crossing from one property to another over (or around) a property that isn't part of our operation is also complicated.  And grazing animals require a significant amount of land - our current land base supports approximately 80 ewes.  I'm not sure we could find enough land in close proximity to our current operation to support the 800-1,000 ewes necessary for a full-time business.

Even if we had access to enough land, we'd need to put together enough sheep to graze it - which takes significant capital.  Purchasing 1,000 ewes would likely cost close to $200,000 - and that doesn't include fencing, equipment, livestock guardian dogs, and other capital costs.

Finally, direct marketing is very enjoyable - I've always found direct interaction with my customers to be fulfilling and rewarding.  Direct marketing is also terribly inefficient.  To market all (or even most) of the lambs from 800-1,000 ewes, I would need to go to at least 5-6 farmers markets every week - 52 weeks out of the year.  Conversely, I could hire someone to cover the markets (which, in my experience, would mean lower sales volumes in each market - people want to buy from the farmer, not his or her employee).

Several years ago, I came up with the following ideas for addressing these obstacles.  As I read them today, I think they are still valid (and still a long way from becoming reality):

  • Access to Land: local government and non-governmental organizations in Placer County are focused on land conservation, including farm- and ranchland conservation.  In some cases, these entities have purchased or accepted conservation easements on agricultural land, which at least ensures these lands won't be subdivided.  In other cases, lands have been purchased outright.  I think we need to go a step further - we need a program through which the community purchases large-scale farms and ranches from willing sellers.  These lands could be made available to commercial farmers at an affordable lease rate.  We could even create a local, modern version of the Homestead Act - a long term (20+ year) lease or life estate on the farm- and ranchlands owned by agencies or NGOs could be provided to families who agree to make agricultural improvements on these lands.  In any case, we need to end the fallacy that splitting a working farm or ranch into 5 acre ranchettes keeps the land in agriculture!
  • Access to Capital: commercial lending institutions (and to a large extent, USDA credit programs) are geared towards large-scale loans rather than towards meeting the needs of small-scale farming.  For example, I talked to an agricultural loan officer in my bank who told me they didn't generally make agricultural loans of less than $250,000.  The business lending officer wasn't comfortable with the risks inherent in farming - so a smaller loan would have cost me substantially more in interest.  I think crowd-funding and community lending pools might be the answer.  Finding a way to make capital affordable - and a way to give the community some direct financial involvement in its own food system, might help small growers invest in their businesses.
  • Collaborative Marketing: personally, I like the term "cooperative," but the failure of several California marketing cooperatives (Tri-Valley Growers, for example) in the last 20 years makes it a dirty word in some farming circles.  That said, I think we need more collaboration.  Consumers consistently tell us that convenience is a real barrier to eating locally grown food - some folks simply can't get to the farmers' market.  On the flip side, I don't know of any small-scale farmer who wants to go to more farmers' markets each week - especially without some guarantee of sufficient sales volume.  Larger ranches have joined strategic alliances with marketing/processing firms - maybe we need to look at a similar model for small- to mid-sized ranches.
Last weekend, a friend came out to the ranch to help us go through the ewes to determine which we will keep and which need to be culled this year.  Towards the end of the day, she asked, "So are you living the dream - getting to work on the land and with livestock?"  Over the last several days, I've thought about my answer to this question.  I absolutely love the work of being a shepherd - of caring for animals and for the land, of producing food and fiber for my family and community.  I love this work enough to continue to do it even while working a full-time off-ranch job and completing a master's degree.  But I can't say that I'm "living the dream."  My dream would be to make my living raising sheep.  My dream would be to make enough money from raising sheep to put my daughters through college.  My dream would be to own at least part of the land that I graze with my sheep.  My dream would be to replace my pickup when it turns over 300,000 miles sometime in 2017.  At least for now, fulfilling my dream has proven to be elusive.  I hope someone at the Food Tank Summit at the end of the month addresses these everyday realities.

Note: for some additional perspective on Sacramento's farm-to-fork activities, check out this op-ed piece from the Sacramento Bee.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Even though our sheep operation is very small scale, we try to take it seriously as a business.  To me, this is important for a number of reasons.  First, we don't view it as a hobby - the business should cover its expenses, pay us for our time, and make a profit!  Second, I feel like I have an obligation to other sheep producers (large and small) to take it seriously - I don't want to undercut other producers through lack of profit motive or ignorance.  Third, we have consistently tried to provide educational opportunities to new and aspiring sheep producers - on economics as well as production practices.

Consequently, I find industry benchmarks to be a useful tool in evaluating our progress as sheep producers.  The U.S. Lamb Resource Center has recently developed benchmarks and best practices related to reproductive efficiency (click here for "Best Practices for Increasing Your Lamb Crop").  The benchmarks establish standards for reproductive efficiency for high and low input range flocks as well as for high and low input farm flocks.  According to the Center, high input flocks use shed lambing, herders, multiple management groups, strategic feed supplementation, and improved pastures.  Low input flocks use range/pasture lambing, fenced pastures, simple management groups and limited supplementation.

First, a note on how we manage our sheep.  From a size standpoint, we would be considered a farm flock - but from a management perspective, we operate like a range flock.  We lamb on pasture, and we focus on grazing rather than supplemental feeding to meet the flock's nutritional needs.  I suppose we fall somewhere between high and low input.  Here's how we compare to the industry benchmarks:

Key Reproductive Indicators

Range Flocks
Farm Flocks
Flying Mule Farm

High Input
Low Input
High Input
Low Input
Dry Ewes
Lambs Born
Lamb Losses
Lambs Weaned
Ewe Lambs Lambing

Looking at these numbers a bit more closely, our conception and lambing rates (reflected in the numbers for "dry ewes" and "lambs born") exceed the benchmarks for range flocks.  Only 3.5% of our ewes didn't get bred in 2015, and our lambing percentage was more than 181%.  From late gestation through weaning, we had a total lamb death loss of 6%, and we weaned a 165% lamb crop.  The only category where we didn't meet the industry benchmark was in breeding our ewe lambs - we wait to breed our ewe lambs until they are 18 months of age - when they are no longer considered to be lambs (more on this below).

The Lamb Resource Center suggests selecting from 12 Lamb Crop Best Practices to improve reproductive efficiency.  The Center stresses that these practices don't fit every operation; rather, producers should pick those that have the the greatest impact.  Below, I've described the practices that fit our operation, as well as those that we'd like to implement.

  • Optimal Nutrition. Ewes should be on a rising plane of nutrition prior to breeding and have a body condition score (BCS) of 3 or slightly less at breeding.  We made significant strides in this area last year, and plan to duplicate our effort this year.  Beginning this weekend, we'll start supplementing our irrigated pasture with canola meal (which is high in protein and energy).  Our lambing schedule is timed to match the ewes highest nutritional needs (during late gestation and early lactation) with the onset of rapid grass growth in the spring.
  • Breed Ewe Lambs at 7-9 Months of Age. We don't (and probably won't) follow this guideline.  We want our ewe lambs to weigh approximately 85% of their mature weight at breeding.  Our forage resources make this difficult to accomplish at 9 months of age, and we're not convinced that supplemental feed is worth the extra expense.  In our pasture lambing system, waiting to breed the ewe lambs until they are 18 months old has the added benefit of reducing many of the lambing problems common to smaller ewe lambs, like dystocia and mis-mothering.
  • Select for Prolific Genetics. One of the silver linings of our ongoing drought has been the fact that we have retained only those ewes who had given birth to twins in the past.  This year, the only replacement ewe lambs we kept were from multiple births.  We've always purchased rams that were from multiple births.  Given the importance of genetics to prolificacy, we'll continue to follow this practice.
  • Use Crossbreeding. First-cross lambs have a 5% higher survival rate than straight-bred lambs, and first-cross ewes tend to have higher lamb crops than purebred sheep.  We use mule ewes (which in our case are a cross between the Cheviot and Blueface Leicester breeds) as our primary breeding flock.  We cross these ewes with Shropshire rams, giving us additional heterosis.  This combination seems to work well in our environment, both in terms of lamb crop and lamb performance.
  • Cull Underperforming Ewes. We cull ewes that don't measure up in our EZ-Care record keeping system (which evaluates ewes on lambing ease, mothering ability and lamb vigor).  We also cull for missing teeth and for udder problems (hard bags or misshapen teats).  I think this is part of our success in terms of maternal ability and conception rate.
  • Reduce Lamb Loss. Postnatal lamb losses should be below 10% of all lambs born.  Our vaccination program, nutritional program, and predator prevention system seems to be working.  And the maternal ability of our ewes doesn't hurt, either!
  • Test for Pregnancy Status. We have used ultrasound in the past to determine pregnancy status.  For us, this is a drought management strategy - we can sell any ewes that aren't bred if we're worried about a lack of forage.  High input producers take the additional step of separating ewes with single lambs from those carrying multiple lambs (so that the multiple-bearing ewes can get extra nutrition).  We don't have the ability to manage separate groups like this, so we probably won't incorporate preg-testing as a normal practice.
  • Disease Prevention and Treatment. I'm fortunate to be married to our vet!  We do a pretty good job of preventing most common diseases and treating them when they arise.  We also use the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab at UC Davis to help evaluate health issues.
  • Match Reproduction to Management. I feel like this is one of the most important practices on the entire list.  We raise small to moderate sized sheep - which means they don't need as much forage to maintain condition as larger sheep.  Over the years, we've paid attention to the ewes that remain productive in our environment - and we've sold those that didn't.
  • Test Rams. The center suggests using a general breeding soundness exam on rams 30-60 day prior to breeding.  We haven't done this in the past, but it's probably worth considering.
  • Manage for Seasonal Changes in Reproduction. The breeds we use were developed in England, and like most English breeds, they are seasonal breeders.  Their ovulation rates peak in October and November (which means their lambs will be born in February and March).  While some producers may try to manipulate their ewes' estrus cycles, we feel like the seasonal nature of our ewes' fertility matches our feed resources (which peak in April).
  • Accelerate Lambing Cycles. Some high input producers try to get 3 lamb crops every 2 years (ewes are pregnant for 5 months, making this acceleration possible).  In our range-based system, this won't work for us.
While I enjoy the outdoor, physical work of raising sheep, I also enjoy the intellectual challenge.  Every year, we try to get a little better at what we do.  Benchmarks are a useful tool in evaluating our progress!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Montana Observations

Okay - I realize that I'm not the first Californian to say this - not even close.  I want to move to Montana!  I'll also admit that it's not likely to happen in the short term - my oldest daughter would transfer out of Montana State University if we moved to Bozeman, and my youngest daughter would disown me if we moved before she finished high school.  And winter would have to cease to be a dirty word for my wife!  Nonetheless, I'd love to live in Montana someday!

I've spent approximately 8 full days in Bozeman, Montana - all in the summer months - in my entire life. Consequently, I'm fully prepared for all of Montana's seasons!  And I've traveled the state extensively - as long as you count the Gallatin Valley as "extensively"!

My lack of statewide - and season-wide - exposure notwithstanding, I'd like to offer a few (limited) observations:

  • There's a reason that Montana is considered "Big Sky Country" - the sky truly is huge!
  • Driving long distances in Montana is much more enjoyable (at least to me) than driving long distances in Nevada.  Both states alternate between valleys and mountain ranges.  The valleys in Montana are more to my liking - they appear to be fertile and well-settled (at least in southwestern Montana).
  • Montana is a livestock state!  We saw lots of cattle - and even some sheep!
  • Unlike California, Montana seems comfortable with it's rural communities.  I really noticed this during freshman orientation at Montana State University.  Everyone emphasized the importance of the land grant university system.  I graduated from - and currently work at - UC Davis; I've never heard a Davis chancellor talk about (let alone champion) the land grant system.  MSU seems to take pride in educating students from rural communities - with the idea that these students will go home and make a difference.
Since our daughter Lara will be at MSU for the next 4+ years (or so we assume at this point), I think I'll get to visit Montana a few more times (at least).  I even hope to visit in the winter (partly to convince Sami that cold weather and snow aren't the end of the world).  In the meantime, enjoy these photos from our trip - mostly taken by our younger daughter, Emma - who told me after our first day in Bozeman, "I like it here!"  I do too!