Saturday, July 14, 2018

Sharing the Work

For much of the year, the work of raising grazing livestock on rangeland can be solitary. At the small scale of our operation, most of the day-to-day work of caring for our sheep is done alone. During the summer months, I irrigate our pastures and take care of our lamb flock; my partner Roger takes care of the ewes. We only work together every couple of weeks. On larger sheep operations - and on many beef cattle operations - the daily work takes place in isolation - a herder or a cowboy, on most days, will work by him (or her) self. The marginal economics of rangeland agriculture, I suspect, is largely responsible for this solitude - there simply isn't enough income to be derived from grazing livestock on large landscapes to justify a huge crew.

Because most of our work is done in our own company, those times of year when we work together are especially enjoyable. I'm reminded of this every year at shearing time. Shearing day, for us as for most sheep operations of any size, is an intense day of hard work. It's also a day when we work - and laugh - together. We share a meal. We enjoy a beer when the work is done. Everyone pitches in. Branding day, in my experience, is the cattle ranching equivalent. Neighbors, friends and family work hard, side by side, and share a meal when the work is done.

I was reminded this week that there are other times in the production year when sharing the work is important. Roger and I were invited to help some friends ship ewes and turn out on National Forest land north of Truckee. We met the first load at the allotment; we followed the trucks back to Virginia City to help load the second half of the band. My friend Emilio Huarte, the ranch foreman, talked about how much he enjoyed shipping days in the past. "All the old Basque guys would come and help," he said. "Some of the guys would stay in camp and cook all day. I miss those times - most of those guys are gone now."

Later in the week, I had occasion to talk with some old family friends in Sonora (where I grew up) about their memories of driving cattle to the mountains. Dick Geiser, who played softball with my Dad when I was a little kid, remembered herding their cows up Phoenix Lake Road past the house where I grew up. "It took 5 or 6 of us to keep the cattle moving and out of people's yards," he told me. Like Emilio, he missed those times.

I sometimes wonder if our fast-paced world makes sharing the work more difficult. How many of us can take 2 or 3 days away from our "real" work to cook for the crew in sheep camp on shipping day? How many of us could take 5 or 6 days off work to walk a herd of cattle to the mountains? And yet as I think about these conversations over the last week, I'm realizing that working together is important for many reasons. Working together allows us to learn from one another. Working together helps a younger generation learn and an older generation share its wisdom. Working together creates the memories and happiness that can make the long stretches of solitude bearable. If I'm invited to help Emilio again, I'll volunteer to cook for the camp!

After I returned from helping ship the sheep, I shared a text conversation with a younger friend who ranches here in Auburn. Joe Fischer manages a purebred cattle operation and runs a few sheep on the side. Joe and his family have helped us at shearing for the last several years. We both agreed that learning to work together was a value we hoped our kids would learn. We both agreed to be more mindful about finding time to share our work.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Teaching... and Learning

Just over six years ago (at least I think it's been that long - now that I'm over 50, time seems oddly compressed), we offered our first Wool Handling Class as part of the UC Cooperative Extension Shepherd Skills Workshop Series. Among the students was a woman named Carrie Butler, who would be headed off to a sheep shearing school at the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center during the following week. Carrie was among the first group of students who came to all of our first series of workshops; a series that continues to this day. Here's a link to a post from that 2012 school. And here's a link to our current schedule of classes (see the calendar on the right side of this web page).

Fast forward to this spring. Carrie contacted me about coming to shear our sheep. She'd been shearing on her own and as part of a crew since attending the shearing school - all on a part time basis (Carrie is a programmer for the East Bay Municipal Utility District in the Bay Area). Today, Carrie made the 2-hour trek to Auburn and sheared our lambs (feeder lambs, replacement ewe lambs, and Shropshire ram lambs). While I sheared a handful, Carrie did the bulk of the work (and is a much better shearer than I am). As usual when I watch someone else shear, I learned something from Carrie - in particular, I learned a new technique for "clearing" (that is, shearing the wool from) a part of the ovine anatomy that's always given me trouble - the left shoulder and elbow.

Carrie came in gratitude for the education she'd received from our workshops. For me, as a teacher, knowing that my enthusiasm for and knowledge of raising sheep sparked an interest in somebody else is incredibly rewarding. My sheep partner, Roger Ingram, remarked today that the more we learn, the more we realize how much we don't know. Carrie's journey, from sheep novice to sheep shearer, is humbling to me. I've realized how much I don't know; Carrie helped me realize that the little bit that I do know (and share) about raising sheep can have a profound impact on other people. Thanks, Carrie!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Picking a Pup

So let me say right up front - this is much more difficult than I imagined! Picking the pup we'll keep from Mae's litter of nine is tough, mostly (I suspect) because I've never had to select a dog from a litter of my own breeding.

We've decided that we'll keep one of the four males - mostly for practical reasons. We want to perpetuate these genetics, which seems easier with a male. If we kept a female, we'd have to manage her heat cycles - with a male, we can be a little more selective about when we decide to try for another litter of pups.

Now we need to pick from these four! There are two who look much like Mo - classic border collies. White ruff, black body, white blaze on their faces. There's one who's becoming a tricolor - and I'm partial to tricolor dogs (Taff, my first real dog, was a tri - and so is Ernie). The fourth dog is the most unusually marked of the lot - he's got more white on his body, and a perfect arrow on his forehead.

Markings, though, aren't a reason to pick a pup. Even at this early stage (they're just 4 weeks old), their individual personalities are starting to show. The tricolor is a moose - he's big, and he knows it. One of the Mo lookalikes is quiet - he's not standoffish, but he seems to hold back and think about the situation (which I like). Arrowhead is middle-of-the-road - he's friendly, confident without being too obnoxious, and well-built. We'll see!

Picking a pup comes down to a balance between nature and nurture, I suppose. Given their parentage, each of these pups has the potential to become a fine sheep dog. Their upbringing - the socialization we give them now, the training I'm able to provide later, will allow them to live up to their full potential. My selection, then, comes down to picking the pup that is the best match for my own abilities and personality. Thankfully, I've got several more weeks to decide!

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Cost of Coexistence

If you've read my blog previously, you probably know that we try to use nonlethal livestock protection tools in our sheep operation. You probably also know that I'm studying the interactions between livestock guardian dogs and wildlife in our foothill environment. Using game cameras set up around the perimeter of our sheep paddocks, I'm trying to document the kinds of wildlife (especially predators) that our dogs might encounter. Using self-built GPS collars, I'm also tracking the positions of the dogs in relationship to the animals captured in the cameras. In the coming weeks, I'm hoping to add a digital, voice-activated audio recorder to this set up - I know the dogs are barking in response to predators, but I'd like to know if they differentiate between threatening and non-threatening wildlife.

All of this is a long-winded introduction to an idea that's been percolating in my sheepherder/researcher brain. Some time ago I posted on social media several of the more interesting trail camera photos (we "caught" coyotes, raccoons, skunks and a red tail hawk). A friend asked me if the coyote was still living. I had to admit that I'm not a very good shot - beyond that, I described my research project, as well as the fact that the sheep are currently in a location that makes lethal control difficult. His response (as much tongue-in-cheek as mine had been) was, "Lucky coyote."

But as I thought more about our humorous exchange, I began to realize that maybe this particular coyote was lucky. Our livestock guardian dogs protect our sheep, certainly; they also protect the predators in our environment. Based on my observations (and the photos I'm getting with the trail cameras), we have predators like coyotes and foxes (I have yet to get a photo of a mountain lion or black bear, but I suspect we have these, too) in close proximity to our sheep. And yet because of the dogs and electric fences, these carnivores are not eating lamb or mutton. Because of our dogs and electric fences, we're avoiding conflicts with wildlife.

Obviously, our society values wildlife. Californians have voted to protect mountain lions from hunting. Gray wolves, who appear to be expanding their range in the Sierra, are protected by the state and federal endangered species acts. Few of us, however, must live directly with the consequences of this protection. While I'll absolutely admit that I get a thrill whenever I see wildlife (including predators), I'll also admit to feeling a deep sense of responsibility to the sheep I raise. My sheep depend upon me for protection. To a certain extent, these predators do as well.

I'm not unique among my sheep-raising colleagues in the foothills (or indeed, throughout the West). Many of us use livestock guardian dogs or other guardian animals. Most of us (myself included) use guardian animals to avoid the economic impacts of predation - after all, every lamb killed by a coyote represents a financial loss. Even ranchers who use lethal control often use nonlethal methods as well. Like most ranchers, I raise sheep both as a business and as an avocation - I love working outdoors with livestock. I love grazing my sheep on foothill rangeland. For me to be able to continue to do what I love (even on a part-time basis), the sheep business has to turn a profit.

Consequently, my decisions about how to protect my sheep from predators are based largely on economics. One of the challenges in analyzing livestock protection tools from an economic perspective is to compare the costs with the benefits. The cost side of this equation is easy. I know that each livestock guardian dog costs me $600-800 per year in dog food and veterinary care. I know that about half of the puppies we start won't end up working in our system. I know that I'll spend about $1,500 on purchasing and raising a puppy to working age (around two years old). And I know that I'll hopefully get 6-8 years of service from a puppy that makes the transition to working adult.

What I don't know - what I can't possibly know - is how many lambs a particular dog saves from predation each year. I can't measure something that doesn't happen. I sleep better at night knowing my sheep are protected by a vigilant dog; I haven't been able to attach a specific dollar figure to my peace of mind.

As I think about the wildlife we're protecting by using dogs, the economic analysis is similarly challenging. What is a coyote or mountain lion worth to someone who values these animals in the environment?

In academic terms, I suppose we are providing an ecosystem service by using livestock guardian dogs. Our use of dogs, by reducing conflict between sheep and predators, protects both. The "lucky" coyote I caught with my game camera gets to live on the ranch we lease because our dogs and our fences keep him from killing sheep. Despite this service, we don't get any more money for our lambs. There is no premium paid for our efforts to coexist. If coexistence is truly important to us all, perhaps there should be.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018


Since we've been in the sheep business, we've been blessed with some exceptional sheepdogs. Our first, Paige, was a retired sheepdog trial dog that our friend Ellen Skillings loaned to us for several months - she taught us what a good dog could accomplish in terms of work. Taff, my old buddy, came to us as a 4-year-old; he was an old soul who we referred to as the Buddha collie (because of his benevolent nature). One of our current dogs, Ernie, is a true character - he's proof that dogs have senses of humor. But our two finest sheepdogs (at least for the way we manage our flock) are Mo and Mae. And this last weekend, Mae gave birth to nine of the best looking puppies ever!

First, a bit about the parents. Mo, who actually belongs to our oldest daughter Lara, is easily the most athletic dog I've ever worked. When he was a pup, we'd take him and Taff for a run at one of our leased ranches. Taff was in his prime, physically, but Mo made him look slow. I remember Mo blowing by Taff running through the tall grass - and looking back at Taff while he expanded the distance between them! Later, as Mo began to work, he added judgement and intelligence to his physical abilities. Once, I sent him over a hill to gather a group of sheep that were out of sight. Soon, the sheep topped the hill and came towards me - but Mo was nowhere in sight. I started to get annoyed - I figured Mo was blowing me off. Just as I was preparing to call him back and scold him, he appeared at the crest of the hill, slowly driving a ewe with a new (and unexpected) lamb back to the rest of the sheep.

Mae, who's just two-and-a-half, is the most biddable dog I've ever worked. She can nearly match Mo in terms of judgement and athleticism; she's his superior in terms of drive and stamina. Mo will take a break to cool off when he's working; Mae would work until she dropped if I let her. A slight dog, she'll take on the most obstreperous ewe. There's a saying among shepherds - "Someday I hope to be the shepherd my dog deserves." Mae is that kind of dog - she's better than I am!

Mo is now 10 years old and slowing down. He's a fine-boned dog, and a life of physical work has taken its toll. He still loves to work, and I still use him when finesse is required; Ernie and Mae have taken on much of the hard work. Given the qualities of Mo and Mae, we decided that we wanted a puppy that would perpetuate their genetic potential. And so when Mae came into heat in April, we decided to let them reproduce.

Like any good sheepdog, Mae would rather work than procreate - and yet Mo was eventually successful. At shearing in mid-May, we noticed that Mae was growing wider and developing a mammary system. Looking back at the week before shearing, I realized that I'd noticed that Mae had become a bit more aggressive with the ewes who mistakenly challenged her.

Last Saturday morning, as we were getting ready to wean our lambs, Mae gave birth to 9 (9!) puppies. So far, everyone (pups and mom) are doing great - Mae is an attentive mother; the pups are vigorous (and hungry).

We'll keep one of these pups; he'll be Mo's successor. It'll be several years before we'll use him for real work; in the meantime, we'll hope he's as nice to be around as both of his parents. For now, we'll enjoy having puppies - 9 puppies! Once their eyes open and they begin to explore their world, I can only imagine what our backyard will be like! We'll keep you posted!

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Summer Routine

For most folks, I suppose, Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial beginning of summer. Astronomical summer begins on the solstice on June 21; meteorological summer begins on June 1. For our family, summer begins when we wean the lambs (this year, we'll wean on June 2) - but we're already easing into our summer routine.

On most mornings, I find myself waking in the gray light of dawn. This time of year, that means I'm usually awake by 5 a.m. After a couple of cups of coffee and some breakfast, I head out to move water (which usually takes about 30-40 minutes). I like to move water before it gets too hot once summer begins. From irrigating, I go into work (unless I've had an irrigation mishap that soaks my clothes).

Once we wean the lambs, we'll have three groups of sheep to check each day. The lambs (those we keep - replacement ewe lambs, ram lambs we'll sell later in the summer, and feeder lambs we're keeping for our own use) will stay on our irrigated pasture. The ewes will move back to annual rangeland - their nutritional demand drops significantly once they're no longer lactating. And the rams are also on annual rangeland - we keep them well away from the ewes until just prior to breeding to help synchronize the estrus cycles of the ewes. Since I do most of the irrigating, I typically take care of the lambs. My partner Roger checks the ewes; one or the other of us checks the rams.

As I get older, I find routine relaxing (for the most part). After the excitement of lambing and the hard work of moving the sheep home for shearing, changing water once a day and moving sheep every 3-4 days seems easy! We'll typically find a few days to get to the mountains or the coast - Roger will take care of irrigation while we're gone. When Roger leaves town for a couple of days, I'll fill in with the ewes. Our routine lasts until the ewes come back to irrigated pasture in early September (the beginning of our "autumn") in preparation for breeding.

The periods of intense work in our sheep year - flushing, lambing, shearing - require careful thought and planning. I enjoy the mental stimulation! But I also enjoy the routine - which takes a different kind of thoughtfulness. Rather than creativity, routine requires focus (at least for me). Doing routine things well means we'll have green grass and fat lambs in the fall. It means we'll have a higher proportion of twin lambs in the following spring. I haven't always done the routine things well; focus is a learned behavior for me, I guess!

I know there'll be a morning in mid July when it already feels too hot to be outside when I'm moving water at 7 a.m. I also know there'll be a morning in August that feels like fall - and I'll look forward to that day in mid-October when the irrigation water shuts off! But for now, I'm enjoying settling into my summer routine!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Long Term Stewardship in a Short Term World

My two favorite farmer-writers, Wendell Berry and James Rebanks, often write about the agrarian importance of long-term attachment to place. Berry, from Kentucky, is part of a farming community that has existed for centuries. Rebanks, from England, raises sheep on pastures that have known his family's sheep for much longer than that. Both eloquently describe the commitment to and knowledge of the land that comes from this multi-generational tenure. As a Californian, and as a farmer in whom the farming gene lay dormant for several generations, I sometimes find myself envious of the ties that farmers like Berry or Rebanks have to their places. Sometimes I feel that no matter how carefully I farm or how observantly I watch the world around me, I'll never know the places where my sheep graze as intimately as someone whose family has been on the land for centuries. And yet, as I watch some of the successful first-generation farmers in my community - and as I watch my own ranching endeavors, I'm hopeful that careful and observant farming can lead to this deep-rooted knowledge of place here in the Sierra foothills.

For me, one of the great challenges to developing a durable commitment to the land in a place like Auburn is the economic value of the land itself. In California, as in much of the West, farming and ranching are often seen as interim land uses - agricultural land is simply inventory for future development to a "higher and better" use (usually houses). Because of this, real estate values typically outstrip the agricultural production value of the land - in simpler terms, farmers and ranchers can't afford to purchase land based on what it will grow. New farmers and ranchers (and 15 years into my ranching career, I consider myself a new rancher) typically must rent the land they farm.

Even with the most iron-clad, long-term written lease and most supportive landlord, many ranchers (myself included, at times) have difficulty justifying long-term (and I mean multi-generational long-term) thinking given the insecure nature of our tenure on the land. Why should I invest time, money and worry in land that someone else might own next week? Why should I invest in these things if my landlord might lease to someone who offers more money next year?

For my part, I always try to take a longer-term view of my stewardship of other people's land, as well as my own. Based on conversations with other ranchers and observations of their management, I think most of us do. Despite the often thin economic returns from grazing livestock, most of us are motivated to ranch as much for our love of the land and our animals as for economic reasons. For me, the work is too hard and the risks are too great to continue to ranch without this long-term commitment to stewardship - even on land that I know I may not be able to graze next year.

However, sometimes our long-term goals can conflict with the short-term needs of our landlords - reducing wildfire danger is just one example. Some of the landowners for whom we graze would prefer that we graze off all of the annual vegetation before fire season starts in June. While fire hazard is a consideration in our management planning, we're also concerned about having enough dry forage to return to in the fall - we look at this dry grass as a standing hay crop as well as a potential fire threat. To address these paradoxical objectives, we prioritize our summer grazing to protect homes while reserving other areas for fall grazing.

We seem to be living in an era that emphasizes immediate gratification, which makes farming and ranching all the more unusual. The decisions I made last fall about which rams to put with which ewes will influence the genetic makeup and quality of my flock for the rest of my ranching life. Similarly, our grazing management decisions about how long to graze an area, how long to rest pastures, and which season to use specific pieces of land - in other words, our entire approach to grazing management - will influence the quality of our grazing land next fall, next year, and for many years to come.

To make these decisions, a rancher must know his or her livestock and landscapes intimately. These are complex natural, social and economic systems, and operationally-specific knowledge only comes with years of careful observation and record-keeping on the part of the rancher. I'm often reminded that I won't always get these decisions right, but because I ranch for the long-term, I'll have another chance to try. And livestock must know the the land as well as the rancher. Our sheep know the landscapes that they graze - having watched generations of our ewes graze the same lands for more than a decade now (a blink of the eye to someone like James Rebanks), I realize that they have spatial and temporal memories just as I do.

In the face of a changing climate, I believe that farmers and ranchers are crucial agents of adaptation. We deal with changes - on the land, in the environment, in the weather - on a daily, weekly and annual basis. When our conversations move beyond the politics of climate change, I am always struck by the creativity and intensity that farmers and ranchers bring to the discussion of adaptation. Long-term stewardship, I think, even in the face of uncertain tenure on the land, requires us to constantly adapt. The practical, problem-solving focus of farmers and ranchers is critical to our future - well beyond the fact that all of us need to eat.

Our small-scale sheep operation won't solve the world's problems (climate, or otherwise). That said, we're blessed at the moment with landlords who appreciate and share our long-term focus and commitment to their land. And this gives me great hope - that there are others in our community who value long-term stewardship suggests that we might move beyond our society's short-term focus.