Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Sticking with It

In every year I've ranched, I've hit a metaphorical wall at some point in late July or early August. The days are long and hot - and (even worse), the nights are hot, too. By the end of July, I've started virtually all of the last 100+ days by moving water - and sometimes moving fence and sheep. By the time we reach August, our sheep work has become monotonous, too - the lambs are weaned and sold, the ewes are no longer lactating. And since ours is a part-time ranch, this usually means I'm out of the house shortly after daylight to beat the heat and to get back to my day job by 8 a.m. - and some days, I'm back out to move sheep or check fences after "quitting" time. By late July, most years, the work becomes a slog. But we stick with it.

This year, between a pandemic, political divisiveness, and racial injustice, my summer doldrums seem especially intense. With the warm nights and worry-induced insomnia, I'm tired when I wake up - and have difficulty falling asleep in the evening. But the water needs moving and the sheep need caring for. And so we stick with it.

With the dry, hot weather comes worry about wildfire. We're constantly watching the sky for fire planes and smoke (usually our first warning). We're picking stickers out of our socks and off of our dogs. We're checking the guardian dogs for foxtails in their feet. We're keeping an eye out for snakes. But we stick with it.

What keeps me going? Why do I seem to forget this summer slog (what my friend and fellow farmer Jim Muck calls farmer amnesia) by the time we turn the rams in with the ewes in the fall? I was thinking about this question this morning as I was treating a handful of wormy lambs, dragging K-line sprinklers, and preparing to euthanize a sick ewe who didn't respond to repeated treatment.

The biggest factor that keeps me going, I think, is the turning of the year. It's hot and dry now, but I know there'll be a day in August when the day dawns cooler and it smells like fall. When I farmed vegetables I used to look forward to the first killing frost - no more picking zucchini! Now I look forward to the frost that finally kills the flies.

In late August, we'll bring the ewes back to our irrigated pasture, and all of our sheep will be in one place again. We'll flush the ewes to prepare them for breeding in September - and the rams will be turned around the first of October. Irrigation season will end, the rains will return (hopefully), and the cycle of new life will begin again. And that's why I stick with it on days like this. The sense that I'm responsible for the lives of other creatures - that I play even a bit roll in feeding and clothing my community - that I get to work outdoors with dogs and sheep and family - that's why I stick with it.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

True Fiction

Maybe this only happens to me: have you ever read a work of fiction (or any book, really) about a subject - or even a setting - that you know something about? Do you ever find yourself examining both the narrative and the accuracy of tangential descriptions? And does inaccuracy diminish your enjoyment of the book? I must admit - it does for me!

Late last month, as we were preparing to leave on a trip to visit colleges and our college-student daughter in the northwest, I downloaded a mystery novel, The Bitterroots, by C.J. Box. After all, we were traveling to the Bitterroot Valley of Montana to camp with our oldest daughter, Lara. I figured it would be fun to read another person's description of the geography, people, and towns, as we were driving through the region.

The story line is about what you would expect from a mystery novel - some violence, a quick pace, and admirable (if flawed) heroine. But if I'd hoped to get an accurate description of the agriculture of the area, I should have known better.

The first flaw (and yes, this is petty) is that one of the characters allegedly received his agricultural business degree from the University of Montana. Every Montana State Bobcat knows that MSU is THE land grant institution in Montana (and it will be Lara's alma mater by the end of November). MSU offers an ag business degree; U of M does not  (to my knowledge). I'll admit that I had second thoughts about finishing the book when I read this.

The second flaw (so far), is Box's description of shipping cows to slaughter every fall. Now I know that cows do get shipped - but they're not the primary product of any ranch - in Montana or elsewhere. Cows are not steers - at least to those of us who raise livestock. This might feel like an insignificant distinction to non-ranchers, but those of us who ranch know differently. I sell lambs; I cull ewes.

These inaccuracies got me thinking: are there authors whose descriptions of places and ranches ring true? For me, there are at least three examples of writers I trust to describe what I do as a rancher with accuracy.

Ivan Doig, who grew up on ranches (and other places) in Montana, wrote about sheep like he'd been around them. In Dancing at the Rascal Fair, he wrote, "To be successful with sheep, even when you're not thinking about them, you'd better think about them a little." His description of gamboling lambs in English Creek could only have been written by somebody who'd spent time in the lambing pen.

James Galvin, who wrote Fencing the Sky and The Meadow, is another writer who seems to get ranching culture. I don't know much about him, but his writing suggests that he's been around ranchers and livestock. In Fencing the Sky, his main character, Mike, is someone I might have known. At one point, Galvin writes, "Mike had tried to convince Oscar that a community of small ranch families was the perfect Marxist society, where everyone had enough but not too much.  Everyone worked together - loaning machinery, lending a hand - a Utopian idea, a way of life." I've had similar conversations with my rancher friends - usually in the shearing shed or the branding pen.

Wendell Berry, who is probably my favorite author of any genre, raises sheep himself in Kentucky. While I love his fiction, perhaps the best words he's written (at least in my opinion) are from this poem:
"I come to earth on the barn floor where the ewe's lambs have been born and now, wet and bloody, breathing at last the air of this wintry world, struggle to rise, while the ewe mutters and licks."
I suspect that could only be written by someone who'd pulled a stuck lamb and watched his ewes approach lambing season year after year.

I imagine that people from other professions are similarly critical when they read about their livelihoods or their communities. Some writers, through skill and experience, write authentically; others make it up. Both are fiction, but only one is true.

Who are your favorite authentic authors? I'd love to hear from others about their favorite books and poems!

Monday, July 13, 2020

A Mountain Guy - and a Curmudgeon?!

As I've written on previous occasions, one of the ways that folks can be classified, at least in my opinion, is as "coastal people" or as "mountain people." Some people find solace in the pounding surf and the infinite vistas that the seacoast provides; others, like me, are restored by spending time in the mountains. Our recent trip through the northwest of North America provided both - we spent several nights near the coast of Northern California and central Oregon; several more nights where the Bitterroot and Saphire ranges come together in western Montana. And our trip home - through central and southern Idaho, and most of the breadth of Nevada's basin-and-range country and over the Sierra crest - provided more time in the mountains. Our travels confirmed that I'm a mountain guy - and my reaction to the ever-increasing numbers of people in these mountains as we traveled west confirmed that I am, increasingly, a curmudgeon!

Since our oldest daughter, Lara, has been at college at Montana State University in Bozeman, I've had the opportunity to explore a little bit of the northern Rockies. I've driven through the Cascades, passed the Rubies, and through the Blues and Wallowas. I've hunted in the northern Coast Range. But most of my mountain time has been in the Sierra Nevada - mostly between Sonora Pass and Sierra Valley. I've been in these mountains in every season - from spring snowmelt and summer camping to autumn fishing and winter snow sports. I won't claim to know all of the moods or special places in these mountains - but I'm working on it!

Each time I've visited mountains in less populous regions, I'm struck by how crowded the Sierra Nevada have become. We camped in the Bitterroot Valley over the Independence Day weekend - and there were vacant campsites. We floated the Salmon River - and saw only a handful of other boaters. But as we approached Reno from the east - and as we crossed Donner Pass on our way home - the traffic grew progressively worse.

I've spent at least one night somewhere on Sonora Pass most of the years I've been alive. During the last several trips, I've been saddened by the amount of trash I've found along the Stanislaus River. On summer weekends, I've found it increasingly difficult to enjoy the solitude I love in the mountains near my home. I'm finding that I want (and need) to go deeper into the Sierra to be alone.

As we crested Donner Summit and headed down the interstate towards our foothill home, I was struck by the differences between the northern Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. I've loved most of the mountains I've visited; none more than my native Sierra. But the mountains of my childhood and youth are now within a day's drive for almost 30 million people. And while I don't begrudge others the opportunity to enjoy the mountains I love, I miss being alone in the Sierra. I suppose that makes me a bit of a curmudgeon!

Monday, June 8, 2020

Managing for What We Want

At the highest point in our irrigated pasture, an old pear tree grows. The pasture had been an orchard at one time - and there are still remnants of these trees scattered throughout the property. Some trees (especially the persimmons) are still producing. Others, like this pear, have re-sprouted from rootstock and don't produce any edible fruit. All of them - bearing or not - provide shade for our sheep and our livestock guardian dogs.

Several years ago, this particular tree was surrounded by a jungle of milk thistle that grew taller than me. Thistles are often nature's way of taking up excess nutrients - in this case, nutrients deposited by the sheep who liked to sleep (and defecate) under the tree. Like most ranchers, I'm not fond of thistles of any kind - and milk thistles are especially nasty plants. But rather than worrying too much about killing these thistles (with herbicide or chopping) we decided to focus on what we'd rather have in their place. We decided to try to manage for what we wanted - rather than what we didn't want.

Our first step was to use the sheep to impact the site. We didn't particularly care what the impact was - the sheep could eat the plants or trample them into the ground. Trampling puts the plants in contact with the soil, which facilitates further breakdown by soil microbes. Grazing - well, grazing is also the first step in the microbial breakdown of these plants - in this case, in the ewes' rumens. We found that our sheep actually like milk thistle - spines and all. They stripped the leaves off the stocks and even ate the flowers.

The next step was to think about what we'd rather see growing on this hilltop. We decided we'd try seeding the site with something that would germinate and grow rapidly - we wanted to out-compete the thistle seeds that were still in the soil. We also wanted something that would be tasty and nutritious for the sheep. Even though this is irrigate pasture, we decided to try annual ryegrass, thinking it would germinate quickly and crowd out any thistles that did manage to sprout.

Now it's two years after we planted the seed. The sheep just grazed this paddock last

week. The ryegrass was waste-high - and there was only a single milk thistle plant under the pear tree. The sheep loved the ryegrass (I have video of them grazing it when they first came into the paddock - here's a link) - but they also stripped the leaves off the thistle plant.

We've tried a similar approach on some annual rangeland that we graze in the winter (before and during lambing) and in mid-summer (with dry ewes). There's a large flat that has consistently been overrun with yellow starthistle. The homeowner association has had an aggressive spraying program, but we convinced them to let us try an alternative approach with our sheep. In 2018, we grazed the site for 3 days with nearly 100 ewes - the before and after photos are startling. Last year we were a little late, and the impacts weren't as impressive. But this spring, there seems to be far less starthistle growing on the flat. We'll take sheep back there in two weeks - stay tuned for photos!

I don't think we've hit on a magic formula - there's no recipe for a certain number of sheep grazing at a certain density for a certain number of days. I also realize that not all sheep will graze milk thistle. But OUR sheep grazed the way WE manage them on OUR leased pasture did seem to control the milk thistle problem. The shift, for me, was in thinking about what we wanted to see in this pasture - not to worry about what we didn't like.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

I'm Taking a Break

Like many of my Facebook friends, I’m sure, I have struggled to process the events of the last week (let alone the last several months). I have come to realize that I am privileged beyond comprehension – I've been able to work through the shelter-at-home orders in California. The small community where I live seems far removed from the violence that has engulfed most of our country in the last 8 days. But I’ve also come to realize that this geographical privilege is, at least in part, due to the fact that I was born white and male. I'm not guilty about this, but it is nonetheless a fact.

In conversations with my wife and daughters and with my female colleagues over the last several weeks, I’ve realized that they consider things like, “Should I go into the field to do research by myself?” or “Is this a safe time to pump gas at this gas station?” That I never even think about these things strongly suggests my own privilege.

The color of my skin confers further privilege, I believe. An example – my truck registration was due in April. The notice got buried in my family’s transition to working at home – and so I didn’t get it paid until May. I drove my truck for several weeks – around Auburn, to Sacramento, as far east as Truckee and as far west as Dixon – without a current tag. I didn’t worry about getting pulled over – and had I been stopped, I knew that my explanation would have been sufficient for the officer who stopped me. I don’t know that this privilege would have been extended to me if my skin were black or brown.

Facebook – and social media generally – allows all of us to post things without considering their consequences. For me, Facebook has become both an echo chamber (confirming my world view) and a place of incendiary and divisive discourse. Friends – people who I respect – have posted things about people of other races, religious beliefs, and perspectives that they would never say face-to-face. I have seen things posted by other agriculturists in the last several days that are beyond disgusting. I’m both discouraged and saddened.

As a consequence of all this, I’ve decided to take a long (perhaps permanent) break from my personal Facebook account. I will probably still post photos of sheep on my Flying Mule Sheep Company page, and I’ll still post science-based information on my Sustainable Foothill Ranching page, but I won’t be on Facebook as Dan Macon. I'm also exploring more about my own implicit biases - learning about the things I don't even realize I'm doing. I've found Harvard University's implicit bias site to be helpful in this regard (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html).

I hope that my Facebook friends who have my email address or my phone number will engage in conversation – I think we can make progress as a society when we talk (and listen) to one another and try to understand one another. I would also welcome your comments on this blog - provided they're respectful and constructive. I simply don’t think Facebook provides that opportunity at the moment. Facebook provides a place to speak, not a place to listen, in my opinion. And we need more listening at the moment.


Saturday, May 23, 2020

Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know, and Other Fun Stuff!

One of the things I enjoy most about cooperative extension is the opportunity to organize hands-on learning activities. From our Shepherding Skills Workshops to my California Cattle and Sheep/Goat Grazing Schools, I love the chance to get ranchers and land managers together, outdoors, to learn about grazing management and animal husbandry. But thanks to COVID-19 and the necessity to avoid large gatherings, I've had the opportunity to discover new ways to do my job!

Several weeks into California's shelter-at-home order, my friend and fellow rancher Ryan Mahoney (of R. Emigh Livestock in Rio Vista) came to me with a fun idea for doing a weekly video/podcast on all things sheep. Ryan suggested that we should call our project Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know, using a conversational format. Each week, one of us comes up with a topic and a list of questions for the other - so far, we've covered wool, feeding lambs, managing pasture, business benchmarks, risk management, and dealing with COVID-19. Our videos are available on my Ranching in the Sierra Foothills YouTube (I prefer EweTube) channel; Ryan has figured out how to turn these into podcasts, which are available on Spotify and Apple Podcast. We've had lots of fun producing them; hopefully, they're useful for other sheep producers, too!

Thanks to a grant I received from the Renewable Resources Education Act program, I've also collaborated to start a bi-weekly webinar series we're calling Working Rangeland Wednesdays. Working with my friend and colleagues Leslie Roche (the rangeland management specialist at UC Davis) and Grace Woodmansee (Leslie's graduate student and my intern), we've produced two webinars so far - both focused on rangeland drought.

And finally, I've been producing short Instagram videos on a variety of topics, including stocking rate and carrying capacity, livestock guardian dogs, and grazing planning. These are available via my IGTV channel (follow me at @flyingmule). For me, these have been fun ways to produce short, spontaneous videos on topics that I find interesting - hopefully others do, too! I generally also post them on my Sustainable Foothill Ranching Facebook Page.

Nothing will replace hands-on, face-to-face workshops for building skills and community. That said, being forced to work from home has allowed me to explore some new technology and reach out to friends and colleagues who are outside of my local area. For example, last week's Working Rangeland Wednesday webinar featured a panel of three ranchers who I respect tremendously - and who probably would not have had time in May to spend an hour in Auburn speaking at a workshop (considering that Auburn is more than an hour's drive for two of the three). Working at home has forced me to become more creative - and I'm enjoying the results! I hope you do, too!

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

On to the Next Phase

The sheep year, for me, is a circle - we start at the bottom with breeding (October and half of November). Following a 5-month gestation, we arrive at the top of the cycle - lambing is like six weeks of Christmas in late February and March. As we start working our way back down the circular calendar, the mileposts include shipping back to our summer pasture (in early April), the onset of irrigation season (which lasts from mid-April through mid-October), and shearing (which nearly always falls on Mother's Day weekend). And after shearing, we move on to the denouement of the sheep year - weaning, summer grazing, and preparing the ewes for breeding. Starting the cycle again.

Shearing day, for us, is usually our version of a community branding. Over the last half-decade or more, we've offered workshops for other small-scale sheep producers centered around shearing - we've covered things like shearing site set-up, as well as wool handling and marketing. And we usually have a number of friends - often with their kids - who show up to help. This year, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, we limited the number of people who were here, which was somewhat disappointing. But the process of getting the wool off - one of the ways we grade ourselves is on the quality of our wool clip - was still immensely satisfying. And a lot of hard work.

This year, our shearing preparations began with a call to Derrick Adamache, who has sheared our sheep for 15 years. Derrick's abilities are unique in my experience - he's sheared with large crew in Wyoming and New Zealand, and yet he's willing to take on small-scale commercial outfits like ours. With our "bull-pen" style set-up, Derrick can shear 18-20 sheep per hour (provided we're organized enough to keep the sheep flowing to him). We're too small for a crew; too big for someone who specializes in backyard flocks. We're lucky to know Derrick!

The next step involved setting up our corrals last Wednesday evening. Loading ewes and lambs is always an adventure; we use a "Bud box" corral design that capitalizes on sheep behavior (see this Ranching in the Sierra Foothills blog post for details). First thing Thursday morning, we gathered the sheep into our corrals and began loading them into the stock trailer. Five trips later, every sheep we own (except for the rams, which we sheared a month ago) were at our home place - along with all three livestock guardian dogs. I'm sure the neighbors always look forward to shearing week like we do - it's pretty noisy here for a couple of days!

On Friday morning, we brought the ewes into a holding pen without grass - we keep them off feed and water for 24 hours to empty their digestive and urinary tracts. Much like fasting before a medical procedure, this keeps the sheep comfortable on the shearing board (without full rumens and bladders) and keeps the shearer safe (since he's not slipping on manure and urine). After re-building our portable corrals here at home, we sorted the first 24 ewes into a covered holding pen and waited for morning.

Saturday morning started with the last steps of set-up. We hung a wool pack from our sacking stand. We spread canvas under our skirting table - a skirting table allows us to prepare each fleece as it comes off the sheep. And we placed the shearing board in the pen where Derrick would shear. Derrick arrived around 8:15, and by 8:45, we were in business!

We always provide lunch for our crew - this year, our youngest daughter, Emma, picked up sandwiches from a local deli. We usually serve pizza, but decided that a common dish wouldn't be appropriate in our current situation. We broke for lunch at noon (after Derrick had sheared 58 ewes) and started shearing again at 1 p.m.

Just before 3:30 p.m., I ran the last group of 9 ewes into the holding pen. Around 4 p.m., Derrick caught the last ewe and I said, "There's the one we've been looking for" - as I do every year. And then clean-up began. We put the canvas tarps away and stored the 5 full wool packs in the barn. I moved the sheep to a small pasture at the neighbors (we like to help them clean up their weeds in exchange for putting up with our noisy sheep for a couple of nights). And we cracked open beers!

But shearing isn't really over until the sheep are back at the ranch. On Sunday morning, we sorted off a handful of cull ewes (mostly ewes that hadn't had lambs this year or that lost the lambs they had). The rest of the sheep were hauled back to our irrigated pasture.

Now we're on to the next phase. Most of our work for the next 5 weeks will involve moving sprinklers, building fence, and moving sheep. Sometime around Father's Day weekend (which is only fair to my wife Samia, since we shear on her big day), we'll wean the lambs and sell most of them. And we'll begin working our way back to another breeding season and a brand new cycle.

One of the things I enjoy most about raising livestock on pasture and rangeland is that the work is largely the same, but every year is different. I enjoy measuring our success by the quality of our lambs and wool. I enjoy knowing that I'll have another chance to get better at this next year. And I enjoy knowing that we're helping to feed and clothe others. Now I need to go check the sheep....