January Morning

January Morning

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Working Dogs vs. Recreation Dogs

Moving ewes and lambs with Ernie last night.
Every couple of months, I get a phone call or an email from somebody who has heard that we use herding dogs in our sheep operation.  Occasionally, these questions come from a fellow sheep producer (usually a new one) who wants to learn how to use dogs (and make themselves a better shepherd).  More frequently, the call comes from somebody looking to find a new activity to enjoy with their border collie or Australian shepherd.  With the latter, the conversation usually begins with the other person describing how gifted and intelligent their dog is.  While I'll still take time to help folks in the first category, I've become increasingly reluctant to help folks in the second.

First, I should say I'm not a dog trainer.  I've had help with my herding dogs. Much of what my dogs have learned, I've learned with them. The skills that my dogs have, they've developed through actual work - moving sheep and cows.

Second, a bit about my experience working with the second group of people - the folks who would like to give their dogs a new activity.  Some are entirely understanding when I explain that my sheep are (at least in part) my livelihood.  I usually ask whether they are committed to becoming stockmen (or women), or if they are simply looking for an alternative to frisbee or agility.  I will always help aspiring shepherds, but when I suggest that their dog (and especially my sheep) would be better served by something that doesn't involve chasing sheep (and most of these dogs chase rather than herd), the people who are looking for activity rather than skill often don't understand my concern.  A few folks in this category will then proceed to argue with me - their dog comes from working lines, after all.

Yesterday, I listened to an outstanding podcast from the Heritage Radio Network about guardian and herding dogs.  The host, John Wilkes (himself a former sheep farmer) interviewed Welsh shepherd and champion dog handler Aled Owen.  Our newest dog, Mae, is descended from one of Owen's dogs.  He talked about the need for a solid trial dog to get real work on a regular basis.  The best sheep dog trial handlers I know in this country say the same thing - a trial dog truly excels only when he or she has to do real-world sheep work on a regular basis.  Similarly, I think, a trial handler is well-served by day-to-day shepherding.

All of this reflection was caused by call I got this morning from a gentleman who wanted to bring his 6-year-old collie (as well as his doctor and her Australian shepherd) to "play" with my sheep.  I tried to explain why I was reluctant to have my sheep subjected to this kind of dog.  I suggested that frisbee or agility might be a better activity.  I don't think I got through, but I'm glad that his dogs won't be chasing my sheep through the fence.  I guess I'm getting grumpy about some things in my extreme mid-forties!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Thankful for the water, but....

On Friday, April 15, our irrigation district (Nevada Irrigation District, or NID) turned on our irrigation water.  Unlike the last several years, NID has plenty of water in storage (both in reservoirs and as snowpack) - we don't have to worry about getting enough water this year.  Even more importantly, NID expects to have enough carry-over water in storage at the end of this season to ensure adequate supplies for next year.  After four years of drought, having enough water is a huge relief!  But while I'm thankful for the water, early season irrigation with our K-Line irrigation system is a challenge - largely because of type of water delivery system we have in the foothills.

First, let me extol the virtues of NID's system.  Our irrigation system is a legacy of the first settlers (miners and farmers) in our part of the Sierra foothills.  Miners, mostly, dug canal systems to provide water for mining - which farmers later used to grow crops.  The NID canal that runs through the north end of our home property was built sometime in the late 1800s (the easement on our deed dates to the 1880s, as I recall).  This system is almost entirely gravity based.  Except when I step on the scale, I'm a huge fan of gravity!  With respect to our irrigation system, gravity means that we use very little energy to deliver water to our ranch.  Gravity moves water from NID's high country reservoirs to the canals that provide our water.  Gravity moves water from our diversion box on the canal to our mainline pipe.  And gravity delivers water to our K-Line sprinklers.  It's a pretty efficient system!

Unfortunately, gravity also makes leaves, grey pine cones, oak catkins and other debris fall into the open canals that carry water from the high country to our pastures.  This detritus is small enough to flow through our 6-inch mainline and 2-inch risers.  It's small enough to flow through our lateral feeder pipes.  It's not small enough, however, to flow through our pressure regulators and sprinkler nozzles.  And this is the "but" in the title of this post.  When I move water at this time of year, I invariably have plugged sprinklers.  It's easiest - and less time consuming - to unplug the sprinklers while the system is running.  Which means I come home wet most evenings!  Sometimes, gravity makes larger things fall into the canal and end up in our system - over the years, I've had pond weeds, acorns, frog and fish parts, and even a whole rat end up in our irrigation system.  I suppose a filter might be in order - but in the meantime I'll trade my time for the extra expense of a filter system.

When it comes to irrigation, there are many measures of efficiency.  Our K-Line system, which consists of flexible above-ground pipe and pods with sprinklers, delivers an even amount of water across our hilly pastures.  In that respect, it's highly efficient.  I have friends who still flood irrigate.  While this technique may seem inefficient, it definitely has its advantages in our foothill landscapes.  The best flood irrigators can push water uphill (or at least it seems that they can to me).  They don't worry too much about clogged sprinkler nozzles, either!  And flood irrigation, done well, can help recharge groundwater aquifers.

And so as spring becomes summer, and you see lush pastures, bountiful orchards and plentiful vegetable farms as you drive through the Placer County foothills, join me in being thankful for the water that grows our food!  And join me in thanking the farmers and ranchers - and NID staff - who keep the water flowing!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Stockmanship Notes: Learning to be a Shepherd

Earlier this week, I had an exchange on Twitter with a fellow shepherd (and outstanding author - check out The Shepherd's Life) from the UK named James Rebanks:

A day later, my friend Kent Reeves posted an article on my Facebook page entitled "Stop attacking pastoralists. We're part of natural resource management, too."  Finally, I had an actual face-to-face conversation (imagine that!) with a fellow sheep rancher this week, during which we both lamented the lack of experienced shepherds in California (and, I suspect, elsewhere in the United States).  Each of these encounters underscored a problem that has been tickling my subconscious mind for some time now: in our modern, technologically advanced society, very few people have a detailed grasp on what it means to be a shepherd - and even fewer have a true desire to learn (and master) the necessary skills.

My own work this week offered yet another example of the realization I had several years ago that stockmanship - the work of caring for livestock - operates on its own clock (see my earlier Stockmanship Notes: Belief, Attitude and Punching a Clock).  Now that our ewes have finished giving birth, my attention has turned to keeping lambs healthy, keeping the sheep on the proper side of the electric fences, and preparing for irrigation season.  While moving the sheep over the weekend, I'd discovered a ewe lamb with a respiratory infection.  I'd treated her with antibiotics, but I was still worried about her after hauling the sheep to a new property on Sunday.  Monday morning, I spent an extra 10 minutes during my morning chores looking for her - not much time, I realize, but I would have taken an extra hour if necessary.  While I had other things I needed to do on Monday morning, my priority was the health and well-being of our sheep.  Similarly, I spent extra time on Thursday morning troubleshooting the electric fence.  Overnight rain made the vegetation wet, which decreased the charge going through the fence.  After walking the perimeter of our 3+ acre paddock several times, I was able to fix the problem.  And I was a half hour late getting to my "real" job.

Over the years that I've been learning to be a shepherd (yes, I'm still learning - I will be for life), the animals in my care have taught me many lessons.  Thanks to vandals, I once had sheep out near the Southern Pacific tracks in Lincoln - at 6 a.m. on Easter Sunday.  I have loaded ewes and weak lambs into the back of my truck at 11 p.m. in the wind and sleet because I was worried about whether the lambs would survive the storm.  I have left a family barbecue to make sure sheep didn't get into the county road adjacent to our leased pasture.  I've helped bed a group of goats down for the night on the wrong side of a rain-swollen creek that we couldn't cross.  In the moment, each of these events was stressful; looking back, they helped teach me patience, attention to detail, and the importance of seeing a job through to completion.

In the course of working with interns, students and employees, I've realized that some people have an aptitude for this kind of work, while others do not.  I've had interns who treated our sheep like their own, and others who couldn't understand why I was upset when they forgot a critical detail like turning the electric fence back on.  I've worked with colleagues and employees who taught me important lessons, and I've worked with others who quit because the work was "too hard."  And I've found that students who ask questions tend to become better shepherds than students who try to tell me how much they already know.

As the High Country News piece I referenced suggests, sheepherders (and cowboys) are integral to managing natural resources.  Not only do our animals need us; the land needs us - the land needs people whose job it is to be on it and in it day after day.  This is perhaps where the disconnect with our non-shepherding friends and neighbors is most pronounced.  For most people, hiking through the foothills, or riding horseback through the mountains, is recreation.  For sheepherders and cowboys, these activities are our vocation - a vocation we love, but work nonetheless.  I think our ability to listen to the land, and to manage our natural resources, is enhanced by the day-in, day-out work that pastoralists - stockmen and stockwomen - perform in caring for grazing livestock.  The land - our environment - needs people whose job it is to pay attention.

In other countries, folks have realized that these skills may not get passed from one generation to the next.  In France, there are formal shepherding schools where young people (mostly) learn the skills necessary to caring for grazing sheep.  A wonderful book, The Art and Science of Shepherding, describes these schools, as well as the extensive knowledge of French shepherds.  There is talk of establishing such a school in this country, as my friend Cole Bush describes in a recent article in The Stockman Grassfarmer.  For the last 4 or 5 years, we've offered a series of "Shepherding Skills" workshops designed to give new and aspiring shepherds hands-on learning opportunities.  Collectively, I think we must do more of this - our skills and knowledge must be passed on to a new generation of stock-people.

Reading my own writing - and listening to my own conversations with other sheep and cattle producers, I fear that I may become the "grumpy old sheepherder" I used to ridicule.  I fear, at times, that I'm becoming the old guy who complains about the lack of a work ethic in the generations that follow my own.  I hope that I'll keep learning from others - and I hope that I'll find new ways to pass my own knowledge to others.  And mostly I hope that the wisdom of stock-people receives the appreciation that it is due.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

2016 Lambing Report

The first lambs of 2016

Yesterday morning, I found ewe 1526 with a brand-new ewe lamb (born overnight) – she put a wrap on our 2016 lambing season (an interesting side note – she was also the last ewe to give birth last year).  In many ways, lambing season is one of the measuring sticks we use to evaluate the success of our management over the previous 12 months.  The year’s lambing season is dependent on ewe nutrition prior to and during our breeding season (the previous September through mid-November), our management in the 3 weeks post-breeding, and weather and management during the 6 week lambing season.  By any measure, this year’s lambing season was our most successful ever – and the result of continuous learning and management adjustments on our part.  I should note that I offer this report not as a comparison with other sheep producers; rather, I want to document our efforts this year as a benchmark for evaluating future management decisions.


Breeding Interval
October 1 – November 15
Lambing Interval
February 22 – April 4
Average Gestation Interval
155.1 days
Median Gestation Interval
154 days
Conception Rate (ewes bred/ewes exposed)
Lambing Rate (lambs born/ewes bred)
Live Lambing Rate (lambs surviving @ end of lambing/ewes bred)
Live Lambs per Ewe Exposed
Death Loss
Bottle Lambs (#, %)
Cull Ewes (%)
Maiden Ewe Lambing Rate
Shropshire Lambing Rate
White Face Lambing Rate
Mule Lambing Rate
Percent lambing in first 34 days (2 cycles)


Until this year, 2015 had been our most successful lambing season (140.9% lambing rate, 136.6% live lambing rate).  In my opinion, there are several factors responsible for this dramatic year-over-year improvement:

  • Improved nutrition at flushing and breeding: In 2015, we were able to graze the entire ewe flock on irrigated pasture from early September through early December.  We also utilized a high protein, high energy supplemental feed (pea crisps) through flushing and the first 17 days of breeding.  I believe that our flushing and breeding nutrition greatly improved our conception and lambing rates, as well as our synchronization (that is, the percentage of ewes lambing in the first 34 days of lambing season).  We had 3 sets of triplets and our first ever set of quadruplets this year!
  • Improved management and nutrition during settling: For several years, we’ve “settled” the ewes after removing the rams in the fall.  During the 18-21 days after pulling the rams, we do not do any significant management (other than moving the ewes on to new pastures as normal).  This year, we were also able to keep the ewes on irrigated pasture during this phase.  I think this probably helped a small number of ewes maintain their pregnancies during this critical phase.
  • Selection for multiple births: One of the criteria we’ve used to determine which ewes we would keep during our drought-induced de-stocking over the last two years was a ewe’s propensity to twin.  We also only retained ewe lambs that were born as twins.  This likely resulted in more multiple births this year.  The differences between our breeding groups (Shropshire, White Face and Mule) seem to back this up: we have bred White Face replacements in each of the last two years, which means we haven’t been replacing our Mule ewes with ewe lambs.  This year’s replacement ewe lambs will all be Mules, which should pay dividends when they have their first lambs in 2 years.
  • Death Loss: Our death loss is slightly higher than normal this year (6%).  Here’s a breakdown of our losses:
  • Lost 1 lamb to watery mouth (E. coli infection) – first time this has ever happened (it’s unusual in a pasture lambing system).  The lamb was one of set of triplets.  We processed the lambs within 24 hours (as we normally do), but this lamb never really got up and going.
  • Lost a sibling to this first lamb several weeks later during a rainstorm.  The ewe had unusual teat placement, and we’d been worried about her remaining lambs since losing the first one.  We will carefully evaluate the ewe at weaning to determine whether she should be culled.
  • One lamb was born weak to a mother that focused on the other twin.  She’s an older ewe, and we’ve marked her to be culled.  Took the lamb home, but she never really got going.
  • Lost one lamb from a set of triplets during a rainstorm.  Probably weather related.
  • Lost one of a set of twins born to a maiden ewe early in lambing season.  Not sure about the reason.  The ewe will get one more chance.
  • Lost a weak lamb born as the smaller of a set of twins.  This was a late-bred ewe (and the lambs were sired by different rams).  Took the lamb home; it rallied but didn’t make it.  It was not the ewe’s fault.

Looking Ahead

Since we’ve been able to make improvements to our irrigation system, we’ll have higher quality forage through the summer and fall this year.  As a result, we’ll be able to keep the lambs on the ewes through the third week of June.  Following weaning, we’ll keep the replacement ewe lambs and feeder lambs on irrigated pasture (we anticipate keeping about 30 total).  The ewes will move back to dry forage through the end of August (when we’ll start flushing them).

At least visually, our wool yield looks to be improved over previous years (which is likely related to nutrition).  Wool quality is somewhat diminished as one of our breeding groups picked up cockleburs during the breeding season.  We’ll market all of our wool on a commodity basis this year.

Last year, we used a free source of flushing feed – waste pea crisps.  These were about 22% protein and 30% fat.  This feed source won’t be available this year, so we will begin researching alternatives that have a similar nutritional profile.  Canola meal looks promising, but we will need to evaluate the economics.

Halfway through - lambs born on March 3, 2016.
We hope to market a number of our feeder lambs to other local producers this summer.  We’ll also keep 10-15 to finish on grass.  The remainder of our feeder lambs will be marketed prior to end of Ramadan.  Over the last several years (as we’ve sold productive ewes to other producers), we’ve realized that we’ve done a good job of building the maternal ability of our ewes and ewe lambs.  Consequently, we’ll market a few replacement ewe lambs (both Mules and Shropshires) to other producers.  Finally, we’ll market the best of our Shropshire ram lambs as rams.  We’ll try to manage our irrigated pastures with an eye towards growing lambs and saving forage for flushing/breeding.

The replacement ewe lambs we retain will all be from multiple births.  We’ll also keep one Shropshire ram lamb (also from a multiple birth).  This should provide some genetic predisposition toward twinning in the future.  We anticipate keeping enough replacement ewe lambs to maintain our total flock size at 65-70 females.

Finally, we’ve been able to make just a single pass over most of our winter grazing land.  This has allowed for significant regrowth post-grazing.  While this will allow us to stockpile forage for summer grazing for the ewes, as well as for post-breeding grazing next winter, we will need to balance our forage needs with landowner priorities for fuel reduction.  Anecdotally, we’ve noticed more native perennials on some of our winter rangelands – I hope to formally measure changes in these perennials over the next several years.
The last lamb of the year!

Monday, March 21, 2016

An Amateur Plant Geek Grows Up

My fascination with California plants started when I was about 14.  My eighth grade science teacher, Mr. Atkins, taught a wonderful ecology class.  He broke us into teams of 2, and assigned us a plot on the hillside outside his classroom.  My plot, which I shared with my friend Frank Saffen, was a 2-meter block of oak woodland.  At least once a week, the entire class was outside studying our plots - measuring the girth of trees, identifying wildflowers and other plants, and observing insects and other animal life.  I'm not sure how many years Mr. Atkins had taught the class, but each plot came with a binder of information collected by previous students.  Our particular plot included a pretty yellow wildflower, one which previous students had not been able to identify.  With Mr. Atkins' help, we identified it as common woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum). While I'd always been interested in nature, Mr. Atkins class was my first experience in formal observation and measurement.  During high school, I started a collection of pressed wildflowers I found around our home in Tuolumne County.  Mr. Atkins started me on a path of amateur plant geek-dom!

My initial interest in native plants focused on the most showy plants in our foothill environment - wildflowers and trees.  As I recall, my herbarium collection included valley oaks, black oaks, crimson monkeyflower, shooting stars and buttercups (among other things).  But while I still enjoy seeing these "stars" of the native plant world, my interests have matured as I've aged.  Perhaps this is due in part to my current vocation as a shepherd, but I like to think it represents a maturing of my tastes and sensibilities.  Now that I'm enjoying extreme middle age (I'll be 49 next month), my interests have turned from wildflowers to native grasses. I would compare it, in some ways, to my taste in beer - when I was 21, my beer of choice was "cold and open" - today, I enjoy the complexity of a craft-brewed IPA or nitro stout!

The foothill rangelands that I still call home (and that I graze with our sheep) have changed tremendously over the last 300 years.  With European and American settlement, the introduction of domestic livestock, and cyclical dry years and wet spells (which we still experience today), our grasslands and oak woodlands have come to be dominated by annual grasses and weeds from other continents.  Some of these introduced plants are important to me as a sheep producer - annual grasses like soft chess, Italian wild rye, rose clover and filaree.  Others are bothersome - invasive weeds like yellow starthistle, medusahead and barbed goat grass.  And so I get especially excited when I find remnants of our native perennial grasses in the pastures where I'm grazing our sheep!

While native grass plants aren't has flashy as wildflowers, I think they are beautiful (both aesthetically and ecologically).  Purple needlegrass (or state grass!), for example, has beautifully delicate, purplish seedheads - they catch the early morning sunlight unlike any other grass in our environment.  California melic grows in the rock outcrops where we graze - it's a different color of green than any other grass - and it's slender seedheads are reddish colored in the early spring.  And since these are perennials, they stay green longer into California's quintessential golden brown summers - I love finding a green and growing bunch grass in the midst of dead annual grasses (and so do the sheep!).  These perennials seem to like well-managed grazing, too - like most grasses, they likely evolved in the presence of grazing animals.  We typically graze the pastures that have perennial grasses in the early spring and again in the late fall or early winter - which means these plants have all spring and summer to recover and to produce seeds.

And so while I still enjoy finding new wildflowers and watching for when my favorites start blooming, I've grown up!  As much as I like the flowers, I like the grass even more.  I'm still a geek, but perhaps I'm more mature (at least in this respect)!

Monday, March 14, 2016

A Shepherd's Vocabulary

Now that I’m nearly six months into my year-long #sheep365 project, I’m realizing that many of the terms and phrases I use as a shepherd are entirely foreign to my non-sheep-raising friends.  Some words are familiar (like bummer and dry) but are used in an unfamiliar context.  Other words and phrases are entirely nonsensical to the uninitiated (like “sort off the bellies and topknots”).  As my friend Liz Hubbard (who raises sheep in southeastern Oregon) said, “No wonder my townie friends don’t understand anything I say!” Earlier this week, I decided that I’d do a blog post about these terms and phrases – and I asked my sheepherding friends on Facebook to include the words that they use.  We had a great time brainstorming – and this blog post is the result of our collective work.  I hope you find it as informative and amusing as we did!  I’ve not made this an all-inclusive list – in the hopes that my fellow shepherds will offer their own comments and essays!

As I tried to organize this post, I categorized many of the words by topic.  Every phase of my work (or any shepherd’s work) has a specific set of terms.  Sheep reproduction and husbandry, marketing, shearing, wool handling and marketing – each have a distinct (and often peculiar) vocabulary.  I’ll try to use these categories as I define the terms we use.  I’ll also define the terms I use, as well as some of the terms that my friends suggested (some of which were new to me).  And fair warning – some of our vocabulary can get somewhat ribald!  I suppose this stems from the fact that we’re in the business of managing and observing ovine sex, to a large degree! Sometimes our terminology and phrases reflect the dark humor that comes with realizing dead-stock are a part of raising livestock.  I don’t apologize for this (not in the least), but I do realize that some of you might take offense.

Since we’re currently in the midst of lambing, I’ll start with the terms that we use to describe the reproductive process in sheep.  Before our breeding season, most of us flush the ewes by putting them on a rising plain of nutrition.  In my experience, this works best when the ewes have been on low quality forage before flushing begins.  About a month before breeding, we’ll evaluate the ewe flock’s body condition scores (an evaluation of external fat cover and, therefore, nutritional status).  We’ll then put them onto better forage (irrigated pasture in our case) and add a supplemental source of protein and energy.  Flushing makes the ewe’s reproductive system think, “Wow – we’re going into good times!  We better ovulate like crazy!”  When we turn the rams (or bucks) in with the ewes, some of us say that the ewes are bucked up.    Some of us use a marking harness on the rams (a harness that fits around the ram’s brisket, which includes a waxy, colored block for marking the ewes he mounts).  Each ram gets a different color (or the colors are changed every 17 days to indicate which cycle a ewe was bred on).  Others might use a raddle system – a colored powder is applied directly to the ram’s brisket, which allows him to mark the ewes he’s covered.   Very few commercial producers use AI (or artificial insemination), since it must be done laparoscopically in sheep.  After we pull the rams, we allow the ewes to settle – we avoid stressing them to make sure that they stay keep their newly formed embryos.  Sometimes, we’ll hire a veterinarian or ultrasound technician to scan the ewes to determine whether they are bred and possibly how many lambs they are carrying.

As we get closer to lambing, the ewes will start bagging up – as they begin producing milk, their udders will swell.  For those of us who don’t scan our ewes, this is sometimes the first true sign that a ewe is pregnant.  If we raise breeds of sheep that are heavily wooled, we may crutch or tag the ewes just prior to lambing.  This involves shearing the wool from the ewe’s belly, topknot (to prevent a condition called wool blindness), udder, and rear end.  Crutching provides a cleaner environment through which the lamb is born (by removing soiled wool) and helps ensure that the new lambs find a teat rather than a lock of wool hanging from the udder.

As lambing approaches, we start going through the ewes twice a day, looking for problems.  We’ve never had this happen, but sometimes a shepherd might experience an abortion storm – generally a problem caused by disease or nutritional deficiency that causes multiple ewes to abort their lambs.  If this were to happen in our flock, we’d send the aborted fetus to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab at UC Davis.  A ewe that has aborted is said to have slipped her lamb.  During late gestation, we also keep an eye out for ketosis – basically a condition where the ewe’s digestive track is compressed by the lambs in her uterus such that she can’t get enough forage to satisfy her energy demands.

If everything goes according to plan, sometime around 145 days after the rams were turned in with the ewes, our first lambs arrive.  A ewe that is in early stages of labor will be restless, and may start to vocalize (baa).  As labor progresses, she’ll usually lie down and push – and often we’ll notice maternal grunting, or vocalization associated with pushing.  Once her first lamb is born, a ewe will commence to nickering at the lamb – this sound, along with the sense of smell (for both ewe and lamb) will cement the maternal bond.  If it doesn’t, we might have to jail

or jug the ewe with her lambs.  A jail or jug is a small pen (usually in a barn) where the ewe and her lambs can get used to one another.  In our pasture lambing system, we rarely use these.  Our ewes, if left alone, will stay on their lambing beds (a circle within 20 feet of where she gave birth) for as long as 24 hours.  On larger range operations in California, we’ll sometimes use lamb hobbles to keep a set of twin lambs together and close to the ewe.  These are short bits of rope with leather straps that allow us to connect the foot of one lamb with the foot of another.  The lambs can still move around, but they can’t get separated (and confuse the ewe).  On big operations, I’ve used a small trailer pulled by a four-wheeler to move ewes and lambs from the pasture back to the jugs in the lambing barn.  We called this the lambulance – a friend in southeastern Oregon calls it the lambie bus.  If the maternal bond doesn’t happen (sometimes a ewe can’t count past one), or of something else happens, we have a bummer lamb, which we take home to bottle-feed.  Large operations will often have a bummer pen where these lambs are reared as a group.

At times, the birthing process doesn’t go smoothly.  Mostly these are simple problems to fix – a lamb might be shoulder-locked or elbow-locked in the birth canal.  In these cases, we catch the ewe and pull the lamb (by pulling on the front legs, which emerge first along with the head in normal presentation).  Sometimes this is more complicated, however!  Sometimes, we might have a two-headed lamb (not really! This just means that both twins are trying to come out at the same time).  We might have a breach lamb (coming out backwards).  Sometimes lambs are born with a leg back or with the head back, in which case we have to try to re-position the lamb.  On occasion, we’ll have a big-headed lamb that takes a long time to be born.  These lambs seem to suffer from oxygen deprivation – it usually takes them a day or two to figure out how to nurse.  We call these dummy lambs – other producers call them big dumb bastards (technically accurate, as we often don’t know which specific ram sired a particular lamb).

Soon after lambing season begins (the timing depends on the operation), we start marking lambs.  On our operation, this means that we apply an ear tag (in the left ear if it’s a ewe lamb we’re keeping, in the right ear if it’s a ram lamb or if it’s a ewe lamb we’re selling).  We also dock the lambs using an elastrator (or bander) – sheep with long, woolly tails can accumulate manure on their tails.  This may lead to a condition called flystrike, where flies lay eggs in the manure and the larva (aka, maggots) begin eating into living tissue.  Some folks think docking is inhumane; I feel like flystrike is much worse!  The male lambs that we don’t wish to save as rams are also castrated at this time – they become wethers.  Finally, we dip the umbilical cord in iodine and put the mother’s ear tag number on the lamb’s left side using scourable paint (paint which will wash out of the wool).  Twins and triplets get this number in red; singles in blue.

Collectively, ewes with lambs at their side are called pairs (regardless of how many lambs they have).  When we check them – and especially when we move them to new pasture – we make sure they are paired up or mothered up.  In our operation, we check the flock at least 3 times per day to make sure lambs are mothered up.  We also check for cold lambs – it doesn’t take long for a lamb to get hypothermic in stormy weather if it’s not nursing regularly.  In polling my fellow shepherds for this blog post, I learned a new term for cold lambs – frogged or froggie lamb.  These cold lambs are often wet, slimy, and have their hind legs splayed out behind them – just like a frog!

At some point (usually when the lambs are 7-10 days old), the lamb races begin.  Gangs of lambs will chase each other around the pasture – another term I learned this week was lampede!  Sometimes these little hoodlums will play a game we call “tag the guard dog” – they’ll sneak up and touch the guard dog and then run away – it’s hilarious!

Finally, sometimes we try to graft an orphan lamb (or one of a set of triplets or quadruplets) onto another ewe.  I’ve never had much success with this, but sometimes a granny ewe will take it upon herself to “adopt” another ewe’s lamb.  Sometimes this is great (as with bummer lambs); other times it can be a problem (as it confuses the lamb’s true mother).  And the last ewes to lamb are called tail-enders.  There always seem to be a few stragglers in every flock!

Let’s turn our attention to shearing and wool!  I hope my friends who are more knowledgeable about wool will add to this section, but here’s a few of the terms we use.  We use a bull-pen set up at shearing – 8-10 ewes are run into the shearing pen, where one of us catches each ewe for the shearer.  Our shearer uses a shearing machine (an electric motor which turns a shaft attached to his handpiece).  Where electricity is unavailable, you might still see a shearer use blade shears (the scissor-type hand shears).  We sort off the bellies, topknots and dags (belly wool and topknots generally have more VM – or vegetation – contamination, and dags are the manure-soiled locks of wool from a ewe’s rear-end).  By sorting off these lower value parts of the fleece, we get more money for the more valuable wool.  We also check each fleece for staple length (the length of the fiber – short-stapled wool is less valuable because the fibers are more difficult to process) and for wool strength.  Wool is said to be tender if it breaks in the middle of the fiber – this is called wool break.  Wool break is caused by health or nutritional stress.  Sometimes, each fleece is skirted on a skirting table – this allows the second cuts (short fibers resulting from a second pass of the shearer’s handpiece) to fall through the slots on the table.  It is also the point where the wool grader determines wool quality.  On large operations, the grader sorts fleeces into like kinds – and these like kinds are baled together using a hydraulic wool press.  These compressed bales weigh 400-600 pounds!  On our smaller operation, we roll the fleeces after skirting them and put them into a burlap wool sack suspended from our wool sack stand.  As the sack fills, somebody stomps the wool to compress it in the sack.  We can usually get 175-200 pounds of wool into these 6-foot long sacks.  We sew the top shut with a sack needle.  These finished sacks are sometimes called sausage packs.  Wool can be said to be fine or coarse, strong (as in coarse or as in strong fibered).  We judge wool by luster, crimp and handle.  Individual clusters of wool fibers are called locks.  Most of us sell grease wool (wool with the lanolin still in it) based on the grease weight (clean wool yield is typically about 50 percent of the grease weight).

Having shorn my fair share of sheep, I prefer a ewe that is smooth (in good body condition) but not too fat to bend.  I like open bellies, clean heads and clean legs (no wool on these hard-to-shear parts).  I don’t like sticky ewes (where the lanolin is cold and/or sticky).

After shearing, we typically wean the lambs (separate them from their mothers).  During this operation, we’ll also mouth and bag the ewes – we check to make sure they have all of their teeth and handle their udders to make sure they haven’t had any mastitis.  A broken-mouth ewe can’t convert grass to milk, wool and lambs.  A ewe with a hard bag won’t produce enough milk next year.  We’ll cull these ewes.  Sometimes, we’ll sell otherwise healthy ewes – these are attitude culls.  A ewe that won’t stay in our electric fences is a good candidate for an attitude cull!  One friend calls this, “treating the ewe with a dose of trailermycin” – in other words, hauling a problem ewe to the auction!

Keeping sheep healthy (or the failure to do so) brings out dark humor in many shepherds.  One of my friends speaks of suicidal sheep, which he defines as the “ability of sheep to snuff it without any input.”  Another friend described the 4-S syndrome (sick sheep seldom survive).  In reality, sheep are very stoic creatures – we sometimes don’t realize they’re sick until they’re on death’s doorstep.

One of the most challenging aspects of keeping sheep healthy is dealing with internal parasites.  We use the Famacha system to determine whether our sheep have intestinal and stomach worms.  If they do, we’ll drench them with dewormer (basically, administer a liquid medication orally).  We’ll watch for sheep that are off their feed (not eating), that have bottle jaw (swelling under their lower jaw – another sign of parasites).  With lambs, we watch for scours (diarrhea) and bloat (caused by over-rich forage).  A dead sheep is said to be upside down or legs up in the pasture.

Eventually, we get to market our lambs (and get paid!).  My favorite marketing term comes from the daughter of my friend Lana Rowley in southeastern Oregon.  She calls finished lambsfat bastards” – again, this is a technically correct use of the term, since we often put more than one ram with each breeding group of ewes!  Finished lambs are fat lambs (as opposed to feeder lambs, which may require additional feeding to reach finished weight).  In terms of meat, at least in the U.S., lamb is meat from an ovine animal of less than 12 month of age.  Anything older than this in the U.S. is called mutton.  Other countries have intermediate classifications – meat from animal from one to two years of age is called hogget (my favorite by the way – tender like lamb, but incredibly flavorful).  We ship lambs to send them to market.  If we’re selling to our processor, we usually get paid based on double the dress weight (live weight is generally twice the hanging, or hot weight of the carcass).  We also pay attention to the pelt value (pelts are sheepskins) – this has a bearing on the overall market.

Some of us graze our lambs on stubble (grain or alfalfa fields that have been harvested).  In the fall, we graze on crop aftermath (pumpkin fields, usually).  We might bring the sheep into our corrals to be sorted through a cut gate (a gate on our alley that has 2 or 3 openings leading to separate pens.  Some shepherds use tilt tables (a type of squeeze chute that restrains the ewe and can be tilted on its side to allow access to the sheep’s feet).  I use a much lower-tech method – I simply flip sheep and rest them on their rumps (similar to the starting position for shearing) to do things like trim feet and administer injections.  If I need to catch a ewe in the pasture for some reason, a good dog and a leg crook do the trick.  For catching lambs, I prefer a wider neck crook (which actually allows me to catch a lamb around the chest).

One of the most enjoyable parts of putting this question out via Facebook was connections I made through friends with shepherds in other countries.  If you think American shepherds speak a different language, check out some of the UK terms I learned from John Wilkes, who is originally from Shropshire.  Other parts of the UK have different terms (or variations on these): 

·  Yaw – ewe
·  Dagging – “arse wool removal”
·  Hefted – “yaws on open ground not leaving their patch due to maternal passed-down knowledge”
·  Glatting – “mending a hole in a hedge that a yaw escaped through”
·  Breaker – “a known escaper”
·  Tiddlin – bottle lamb
·  Cade lamb – orphan lamb
·  Teg – a hogget in Shropshire
·  Thrown her bed – a uterine prolapse
·  Black bag or garget – an udder explosion (“employ the shovel, rest in peace)
·  Gathering yaws – “fetching them off the hill”
·  Sheep walks – “paths trod by sheep for hundreds and hundreds of years
·  Pitch mark – “an owner’s mark”
·  Draft yaws – ewes that are taken “off the mountain for a couple more years at lower elevations”
·  Swids – swedes, a root crop grown for forage
·  Grubs – maggots
·  Drovers – “the fellas that took the yaws to market – wonderful, endearing country folk – mostly alcoholics, thieves and murderers”
·  Sheepwash – “special place in a river where sheep were cleaned before hand shearing”
·  And some especially colorful phrases from the Clun Valley:
o   “You be wooden yeaded like an awld Clun tup” - translation: you’re of questionable intellect, much like a Clun ram.
o   “All corned up like a September tup” – translation: gosh, that young fellow would appear to be all dressed up and looking for a young lady to squire for the evening [I won’t add what John said the young man might have in mind for later on in the evening!]

As I finish this post, I’m realizing there are many terms and phrases that my friends shared that I simply didn’t have room to include!  I hope they’ll offer blogs of their own (you know who you are!)  And I haven't even started to include the vast vocabulary of the sheep dog handler (which usually includes a number of inventive combinations of swear-words).  

This post was fun to write; I hope it’s as much fun to read!  In the meantime, I’m off to check the sheep – we’ll finish marking as soon as the tail-enders drop their lambs!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Out of Practice

If we can believe the weather forecast, our abnormally warm and dry February is about to transition to a wet March.  We need the rain - after four years of drought, an above-average rainfall year would be most welcome.  But if the drought has had any silver lining, it has been the "nice" weather we've enjoyed during our lambing season (late February through the end of March).  In the last two years, especially, we've had very little inclement weather during lambing.  And since we lamb on pasture (rather than in a barn), the nice weather has been a benefit.  With rain predicted for the coming week (and lambs likely to arrive in the midst of the storm), I hope I'm not out of practice when it comes to lambing during "normal" late winter and early spring weather!

Since we moved the ewes onto our winter ground last December, we've been planning for the possibility of stormy weather during our lambing season.  Mostly, this has meant passing up areas with lots of tree cover until lambing started.  Our ewes are conditioned to shelter under trees and brush during lambing, and we wanted to make sure that these sheltered paddocks had plenty of forage available.  Thanks to the warm weather we had in February, they do!

With shelter available, the lambs that are already on the ground should be able to handle the weather.  We check them frequently before and during storm events, just to make sure they are getting enough to eat (a belly full of milk makes for a warm lamb!).  We also keep an energy/vitamin supplement on hand that we can give to any lambs that look like they need an extra boost.

For the lambs that will be born during the storm (and a drop in barometric pressure seems to stimulate parturition), we'll keep dry towels on hand to help the ewes clean them off.  Over the years, we've selected for ewes that drop vigorous lambs - the sooner a new lamb can get up and nurse, the better!  Typically, most of our lambs are trying to nurse within 10 minutes of being born.  During storms, we'll check them more frequently just to make sure they're up and going quickly.

Finally, we pay close attention to our paddock design and fencing during wet (and especially windy) weather.  We avoid fencing in small creeks that might rise rapidly in heavy rain - we don't want a ewe to get separated from her lambs by a creek that was dry before the storm.  We'll also check for branches on the fences, and if the ground gets especially soggy, we'll check for blown-over fences.

Much of our pasture lambing system comes down to trusting ourselves and trusting the ewes.  Our ewes, for the most part, are exceptional mothers - and they've shown us in years past that they can handle just about any kind of weather our foothill climate can throw at them.  While we may be out of practice, we're ready for the rain!  Bring it on!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Taking the Bad with the Good

One of my favorite musical groups is a band from Newfoundland called Great Big Sea.  They perform a combination of their own material and traditional, Celtic-influenced music.  One of my favorite songs, Tickle Cove Pond, includes the line, "The hard and the easy, we take as they come."  This line describes my day - and in many ways, the thinking behind my #sheep365 project.

When I started taking photos of the day-by-day work involved in raising sheep, I consciously decided that I'd post photos of the parts of being a shepherd that I most enjoyed - ewes grazing on green grass, new lambs frolicking.  I also consciously decided that I'd show the hard days, too - the monotony of irrigating in August, and the death that comes with raising livestock.  Today is the 145th day of my 366 day project (it's a leap year, after all) - and today marks the first day that I've posted something about the harder part of my avocation.

The first three ewes to deliver lambs were maiden ewes - first-time mothers.  Yesterday afternoon, I found the first set of twins, one of which was separated from her mother.  I reunited the lamb with her mother and sister, which seemed to go well.  While I didn't sleep particularly well last night (worrying about these first lambs), when I checked them at 6:30 this morning, they were paired up and doing great.  I also found two new sets of twins this morning.  I watched them for about 10 minutes, and everything looked to be fine.

My partner Roger checked the sheep at noon, and found one of the new lambs laying by itself and not looking good.  He wrapped it up and took it to his office - and my wife Sami picked it up an hour later.  Roger was able to give the lamb some colostrum, and Sami gave it some electrolytes.  Despite our collective best efforts, the lamb died this evening.

The second ewe with twins was also showing signs of struggling to learn how to take care of her lambs.  Roger found her with one lamb this evening - the other was sleeping about 50 feet away (unusual for a newborn lamb).  We got them back together and moved away to let them bond.  I've found that I sometimes have to force myself to trust the ewes - in most cases, a first-time mother will eventually figure out what she's doing.  Since we pasture lamb (rather than barn lamb), we've selected ewes that demonstrate superior maternal behavior (or so we hope).  Sometimes the maiden ewes are more challenging.  I expect that I won't sleep well again tonight - I'm worried about the new set of twins, and I'm worried that the dead lamb may portend more problems to come.  Regardless, I'll be back out to check the sheep as the sun comes up tomorrow.

All of this brings me back to the purpose behind my #sheep365 project.  I want to show the "hard and the easy" parts of being a shepherd.  Until today, most of my posts have depicted the easy parts. But as someone told me several years ago, "if you have livestock, you'll have deadstock, too."  This is the reality of caring for animals.  My friend and fellow rancher Liz Hubbard said tonight, "when we reach the point where the death of a lamb doesn't bother us, we should quit being shepherds."  She's right - I hope that the folks who follow my posts who are not farmers or ranchers get some sense of this.  In many ways, that's the true reason I decided to post something everyday for a year.  Some, I'm sure, will be confused (or even troubled) by the fact that we raise sheep (in part) to produce meat - and yet we're saddened by the death of a day-old lamb.  While the loss of a lamb like this represents an economic loss, it's far more difficult for me than watching the value of my stocks (the few that I own) decline.  Those of us who ranch do so because we love life and we love the land - and we understand that death is a necessary part of life.  This understanding doesn't make a day like today any easier, just as the understanding of how we get paid (by selling lambs) doesn't diminish the joy we experience in new life.

Hopefully, there won't be too many more days like this during the coming 6 weeks of our lambing season.  Hopefully, most of my posts will show the joy I take in my livelihood.  And I want folks to know that I didn't post the photo of the dead lamb for its shock value or for sympathy.  I truly want my non-ranching friends to gain insight into what it means to be a shepherd.  Choosing this life means that I must take the hard with the easy - and the bad with the good.  Thanks for indulging me.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Ideal Ewe

With the start of another lambing season just around the corner (our ewes are due to start lambing around February 23), I'm again giving some thought to what Flying Mule Farm's Ideal Ewe looks like.  And I refer specifically to our Ideal Ewe for a reason; every operation has specific environmental, management and marketing conditions - which means every operation should have a different set of criteria for its ideal ewe.

The ecological foundation of our operation are our annual rangelands.  From November through mid-April, our ewes graze in the oak woodlands near Auburn.  Our grazing land is composed mostly of annual grasses and broadleaf plants, along with several species of brush.  I've written elsewhere about the relative values of our forage species; for my purposes in this essay, I'll just say that our rangeland plants exhibit a variety of nutritional value and grazing palatability, and that these factors vary spatially and seasonally.

During the summer months, we have access to irrigated pasture.  In our Mediterranean climate, we don't have green grass in the summer months unless we irrigate it.  This green forage provides much greater nutrition than the dry annual grasses during the summer and early fall.  We use this forage to put weight on our lambs (as a grass-fed operation, we don't feed any grain to our lambs) and to prepare our ewes for the breeding season (October 1 - November 15).

We also operate almost entirely on land without fences or other facilities.  Consequently, we rely on portable electric fencing systems and the herding ability of our border collies.  We lamb on our pastures (rather than in a barn), and we rely on our ewes' maternal abilities and our livestock guardian dogs to keep lambs safe from predators.

In past years, we've marketed the majority of our lambs as grass-fed meat through our local farmers markets.  More recently, we've shifted our focus to selling lighter weight, grass-fed lambs during ethnic (mostly Islamic) holidays.  In both scenarios, we want a moderate-sized lamb that will finish (that is, deposit sufficient muscle and fat) on grass (without any extra grain or concentrate feed).  We also market our wool (sometimes directly to the end user, other times through a broker) - so we want sheep that produce a quality fiber product as well.

Finally, having suffered through significant footrot (footrot is a bacterial infection similar to thrush in horses - it causes severe economic losses for sheep producers) problems in the past, we want sheep that have natural resistance to this infection.

Given these criteria, here's what the Ideal Ewe looks like for our operation:

  • She will conceive her first lambs at 18 months of age and deliver her first lambs at around 2 years of age (we don't push our ewes to breed as ewe lambs - we let them grow to their mature size before they are bred).
  • She will deliver 10 to 12 lambs during the course of the next 6 years (we want one crop of lambs each year - some producers push this to get 3 crops of lambs in two years.  Economically, the cost of this type of operation doesn't make sense for us).  We prefer twins - triplets are not ideal, because we either have to bottle raise one of the triplets at home (expensive) or the ewe loses substantial body condition trying to produce enough milk for 3 lambs.
  • She will be an outstanding mother!  We evaluate every ewe (and every potential replacement ewe lamb) for her ability to deliver her lamb(s) without assistance from us, for her maternal attachment to her lamb(s) (which is related to her ability to protect her lamb(s) from predators) and for the vigor of her lamb (which is related to her milk production).  A ewe that doesn't make the grade is marked for sale once her lambs are weaned in the late spring.
  • She will have sound feet that require minimal trimming - and that resist footrot!
  • She will respect our electric fence and our border collies.  A ewe that gets through the fence - or that fights the dogs when we need to move them - is more trouble than she's worth!
  • She will be calm and easy to handle in our corrals - we don't want sheep that are annoyingly tame, but we also don't want sheep that try to run to the next county when they see us.
  • She will produce 5-6 pounds of wool with fibers that are at least 5 inches long.  Some breeds produce far more wool; the breeds that we use seem to produce about this amount.  Because our wool is on the coarse side (that is, it is larger in diameter than Rambouillet or Merino wool), it also tends to have less lanolin in it, which means our yield percentage is higher than these fine-wool breeds. Six pounds of our "grease" wool will yield around 3.5 pounds of clean wool; 6 pounds of Rambouillet grease wool will yield about 3 pounds of clean wool.
  • She will produce lambs that will have sufficient muscling and fat cover to grade choice at 100 pounds liveweight.  This is smaller than the average commodity-market lamb in the U.S., but it fits our market perfectly.  This means we want moderate frame size and easy fleshing ability in our lambs - large-framed sheep need more feed resources (including grain).
Our daughters have both shown sheep at our county fair.  While I'm always interested to hear what the judge has to say about their lambs - and about the few breeding animals they've shown, I'm always struck by the realization that this "industry" standard has very little relationship with the kind of sheep that I've found most profitable for our farm.  Wendell Berry, an author and a farmer, writes: 
“Intelligent livestock breeders may find that, in practice, the two questions become one: How can I produce the best meat at the lowest economic and ecological cost?  This question cannot be satisfactorily answered by the market, by the meat packing industry, by breed societies, or by show ring judges.  It cannot be answered satisfactorily by “animal science” experts or by genetic engineers.  It can only be answered satisfactorily by the farmer, and only if the farm, the place itself, is allowed to play a part in the selection.”
Our farm passes judgement on our abilities as managers and livestock breeders every year.  The ewes that meet all or most of the requirements I've outlined above stay in our flock - and pass their genetic potential on to subsequent generations.  I'd be interested to learn what other shepherds look for in their Ideal Ewe!