January Morning

January Morning

Monday, September 12, 2016

Further Reflections on Non-lethal Predator Protection

Reno at work.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



Thursday, September 8, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Benchmarks


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

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

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

Key Reproductive Indicators

Range Flocks
Farm Flocks
Flying Mule Farm

High Input
Low Input
High Input
Low Input
2016 
Dry Ewes
<7%
<10%
<5%
<7%
3.50%
Lambs Born
150%
120%
200%
175%
181.10%
Lamb Losses
15%
17%
11%
15%
6.00%
Lambs Weaned
127%
100%
178%
148%
164.90%
Ewe Lambs Lambing
50%
30%
85%
65%
0%

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

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

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

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Montana Observations

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

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

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

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














Bittersweet

As I started writing this post, I was sitting in a hotel room in Elko, Nevada, after a 9-hour drive from Bozeman, Montana.  As I finish it now, I'm sitting in our living room.  Our family has had a wonderful time over the last week - we all fell in love with southwestern Montana, I think.  We also delivered our oldest daughter, Lara, to start her freshman year of college at Montana State University.  And while I'm incredibly proud of and happy for Lara, I'm a bit sad tonight.  I feel like there's a small hole in my heart, and the only piece that fits in it is still in Montana.

I've always been prone to melancholy feelings at the end of a particularly enjoyable trip - I hate for the good time to be over.  This feeling is especially pronounced when I'm leaving a place that I'd like to live - and so leaving southwestern Montana has been especially difficult.  But my melancholy at the conclusion of this trip is even more pronounced.  Leaving Lara at college emphasizes that our life as a family is forever changing.  Lara will always be my first kid; now she's taken a big step on her own path.

Just before Lara was born (nearly 19 years ago now), I had the opportunity to participate in the California Agricultural Leadership Program.  At one point during my two-year fellowship, I remember a discussion with my classmates about leadership and parenthood.  We came to the conclusion that one of the greatest contributions any human being can make to society is to raise a child who is equipped to make a positive impact on that society.  Intellectually, I know that it's time for Lara to find out what she's passionate about doing with her life.  It's time for her to cast her own shadow rather than stand in ours'.  But emotionally, this is a bittersweet time. I know she'll be fine; emotionally, it feels like we've thrown her into the deep end of a pool 900 miles from home.

Like any life changing event, this change will become easier with time.  I know there will be times that Lara struggles with being on her own, just as I know there are times that Samia, Emma and I will struggle with the fact that she's gone (coming home to her unoccupied room was one of those times).  And I also know that Lara is a competent, confident and intelligent young woman who will make a huge positive impact on our world.  I love being her Dad; I look forward to this new stage in our relationship!  For now, though, I'm a bit sad....

Friday, August 26, 2016

Is Education Wasted on the Young? Probably Not!

This week, I'm in the unique position of starting the seventh and eighth courses in my online master's degree program at Colorado State University and taking my oldest daughter (Lara) to Bozeman, Montana, to start her first semester at Montana State University.  As I think about my own undergraduate experience (at UC Davis), I can't help but compare the opportunities that await Lara with my own academic career.  I can't help but think about what I might have done differently if I'd known then what I know now.  And I can't help but wonder if post-secondary education is wasted on those who have just graduated from high school!

While I'm approaching my fiftieth year, I can't say that I have any regrets about my educational choices.  The courses I took in college, which led to a bachelor of science degree in agricultural economics, have served me well.  Although I can't remember the particulars of some classes, the education I received is part of the sum of who I am today.  Undergraduate education - both formal and informal - is an incredible journal of self discovery and social development.  I suppose that in some respects, I love sheep-raising today because of the mix of courses and experiences I enjoyed at Davis.

My current educational endeavors - working to complete a master's in agriculture in integrated resource management (a combination of range management, animal science and agricultural business) - are far easier for me today than they would have been immediately following my undergraduate coursework.  My life experience - from working in the policy arena to operating my own ranching business to conducting research and education programs for other ranchers - has prepared me for the classes I'm currently taking.  When I was younger, I probably didn't question my professors as much; today, I recognize BS when I see it (which is to say, I know when someone is - or isn't - talking from experience).  Today, the questions I ask my professors are asked from know-how as much as from a lack of knowledge; as an undergraduate, I couldn't say this.

This brings me back to our week in Bozeman.  I have to say that I'm incredibly impressed with Montana State University.  The staff and faculty have all gone out of their way to be welcoming to our daughter - and to our family.  The university emphasizes a sense of community very much unlike my own undergraduate experience more than 25 years ago.  MSU also emphasizes its role as Montana's land grant university - from the president to the deans to faculty to staff.  Accordingly, MSU still caters to it's rural constituency, with programs designed to equip young people to go home and make a difference (rather than move away).  As I watch Lara embark on her college career, I realize that this emphasis probably means more to me now than it would have when I was 18 (and perhaps than it does now to Lara).  After observing a half-week of Facebook posts about MSU, a friend (who happens to be a native Montanan) asked if I wished I was coming to school here.  In many ways, I suppose I do!

As I reflect on my college experiences (in my distant past at Davis and more recently online at Colorado State), I realize that much of what I've gained educationally is an inherent curiosity.  Education, if we're paying attention, teaches us to keep learning (as opposed to simply memorizing facts and formulas).  Higher education teaches us to ask important questions, to accept different viewpoints (and to question our own) - to ask "why" as well as "why not."  The seeds that were planted in my first animal science course - or in my advanced composition course - continue to bear fruit today.  Seeing this future germination through the eyes of my child is incredibly exciting!  To the extent that we all continue to learn, education is never wasted - no matter one's age!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Work in Progress

Photo credit: Emma Macon
Shearing sheep is intensely physical.  When I went to sheep shearing school five years ago at the University of California's Hopland Research and Extension Center, I was surprised by how sore my legs were - I'd assumed that stooping over a sheep would tire my back, but my hamstrings ached for days.  Several weeks ago, Matt Smith, a New Zealander living in Cornwall, England, set the world record (at least according the websites I've seen), set a world record by shearing 731 ewes in 9 hours - by himself!  (for more info, check out this website.) I'm not nearly as fast (Mr. Smith can probably shear 8-10 ewes in the time it takes me to shear one!) - nor can I shear for 9 hours straight.  But the interesting thing about shearing (and other physical skills) is that even Mr. Smith - at some point - had to struggle through shearing his first sheep, just like me!  And he only got really good at it by doing a lot of it!

That's the thing about shearing sheep!  Much like other agrarian "arts," shearing can't be learned by reading a book or watching someone else do it.  There are some great guides to help aspiring shearers get started (see this guide from the Premier 1 Supplies website, for example - or better yet, find a copy of Wool Away by Godfrey Bowen).  As I mentioned, I went to a 5-day school in Mendocino County.  But the only way to learn - and certainly the only way to get better at it - is to do it (and do lots of it).

When we shear our ewes, we hire our friend Derrick Adamache to shear for us.  Derrick has sheared sheep and goats for nearly 30 years.  He's fast, he handles our sheep well, and he has amazing stamina.  By hiring Derrick, I can focus on things like sorting the lambs from the ewes before they go into the shearing pen and on preparing the wool for marketing.  I also get to learn from Derrick!

We typically shear our ewes in early May while they are still nursing their lambs.  In mid summer, we try to shear the lambs we've kept.  Since they are fewer in number, and since they don't have to be sorted before shearing, I've started shearing them myself - I need the practice!  Last weekend, I sheared half of our replacement ewe lambs.  A couple of observations (about shearing and my own ability):

  • I'm slow when shearing the difficult parts of the sheep - parts where I'm working "blind" or worried about the sheep's "sensitive" areas.  This means it takes me longer than it would for an experienced shearer to shear the bellies, the crutch and the neck/first shoulder.  The more I shear, the more confident I get that I'm doing it right - but I'm still slow!
  •  Stamina is critical.  I find that as I get tired, I get out of position more frequently (which results in sheep are more active on the shearing board).  The last sheep always seem to be more active than the first sheep I shear!
  • Flexibility and muscle tone is also critical.  I sheared our ram lambs the weekend before, and was sore until Wednesday.  I sheared twice as many lambs Sunday, and I'm not sore at all!
  • I'm right handed, but my left hand is the critical hand in sheep shearing.  With my left hand, I position the sheep for each "blow" (or stroke) with the shearing handpiece.  With my left hand, I stretch the sheep's skin to smooth out the wrinkles that might otherwise be caught between the fingers of the comb and sliced by the cutters on the shearing machine.  I rarely pay attention to my non-dominant hand in my everyday activities; shearing forces me to do so.
  • Which brings me to my final observation: while shearing sheep is hard physically, it also takes mental stamina.  Looking up and seeing yet another pen full of sheep to be shorn can be discouraging if I have the wrong mental attitude about the work.  Pushing through my fatigue gets me to the point where I can look up and see a paddock full of freshly shorn sheep - a wonderful feeling!  But pushing through the fatigue is also an important step in becoming a better shearer.  Adjusting my positioning, improving my technique, increasing my flexibility - all of these make the act of shearing a single sheep faster and more comfortable (for me and for the sheep).
I like the thought that every fine woolen textile - from a Harris tweed coat to a Pendleton sweater to a Navajo rug - starts with the process of shearing a sheep.  Every piece of wool fabric starts with someone holding a sheep on the shearing board.  Some shearers call it the 60-second (or even 30-second) waltz - done well, shearing has all of the repetitiveness and rhythm of dance.  Done well, shearing - and a well-shorn sheep - are impressive to observe.  I aspire to doing it well!


Friday, August 5, 2016

Hopeful Weather

The last full week of July 2016 marked the longest stretch of hot weather we've had in the Sierra foothills this summer.  While we didn't get nearly as warm as some parts of California, the heat here was oppressive.  Moving irrigation and unclogging sprinklers became the highlight of my day (and getting wet in the process) - anything to cool off a bit!  As is usually the case for me, I found myself coping with the heat by looking forward to that day in August that would bring a hint of the coming autumn weather.  A day that starts out cooler, with the scent of dew on dry grass and decaying leaves in the air. Usually, this day arrives late in the month; in 2016 (an unusual weather year for lots of reasons), it arrived today!

During the summer months, we typically sleep with the windows open and with fans running (we don't have air conditioning - just a whole-house fan and wonderful shade trees around the house).  This morning I woke up cold - and a quick glance at the thermometer when I got out of bed revealed that the outside temperature was just 49 degrees Fahrenheit.  When I left the house to head to the ranch, a cool breeze was rattling the leaves of the mulberry trees in the yard.  And as I drove the 3 miles to I descended into a fog bank - unusual for early August, but entirely welcome!  Between the heavy dew on the pasture grasses, the overspray of the sprinklers, and the cool wind, I was chilled by the time I finished my chores.  I know we'll have more hot days before summer is over, but mornings like this give me hope!

This week, I read that 2015 set all kinds of climate records (see the Climate Central website for details).  Mark Twain supposedly said, "Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get," although I can't find direct evidence that the quote is his.  Regardless, I think it does illustrate the difference between climate and weather.  All of the scientific evidence I've seen suggests that our climate is growing warmer, and yet the day-to-day weather doesn't feel much different (for example, it's always hot in late July).  In some respects, I suppose we're like a frog in a pot of water on the stove - we won't realize it's getting hotter until we're fully cooked.  Regardless, I always look forward to an August day like today - it gives me hope that cooler (and wetter) weather is on the horizon.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Adaptation and Resilience

I'm taking a course as part of my master's degree program at Colorado State University called "Managing for Ecosystem Sustainability."  I've enjoyed the course, which has covered topics like the carbon and nitrogen cycles and soils management.  The reading materials and lectures have also focused on resiliency and adaptation to climate change - topics that are especially relevant to me, given my recent experience with drought.

I've long thought that any successful response to climate change will require an accumulation of small, individual decisions to change our behaviors as a species.  Government mandates and technological advances aside, climate change will only be addressed successfully by individuals, in my opinion.  The "big" solution doesn't seem likely.  In the past, my thinking has focused on behavior changes that will reduce, or at least slow, the affects of climate change (increasing carbon dioxide concentrations and temperatures and rising sea levels, just to name the ones that come to mind immediately).  This class, on the other hand, has made me consider the things that I can do personally to adapt to these changes (which, increasingly, seem inevitable to me).

In some respects, the long history of agriculture has been one of adaptation.  Farmers and ranchers have figured out what grows well in their specific location.  In California, at least, crops are grown (for the most part) where the climate and environment support their profitable cultivation.  Rice is grown on heavy soils in the Sacramento Valley, for example.  Small grains (wheat, barley, rye, etc.) are grown in the Montezuma Hills in the Delta where irrigation water is scarce.  Avocados and citrus are grown in climates (and micro-climates) where freezing temperatures are unlikely.

Ranchers make similar choices.  In his essay, "Let the Farm Judge," Wendell Berry writes about the powers of observation and adaptation that led British (and Scottish, Welsh and Irish) shepherds to develop 80 distinct breeds and cross-breeds of sheep on a group of islands the size of Kentucky.  As Berry suggests, while the market (consumer demand) often places specific product demands on livestock producers, the land and its climate deserve at least equal weight in a producer's decisions about livestock breeds.

 Admittedly, sometimes technology gets it wrong.  I'm not convinced - the economic incentives aside - that we should be growing almond trees on rangeland in California (for a variety of reasons).  As the grain farmers who broke the sod of the high plains in the 1920s learned, rain doesn't follow the plow.  I guess this brings me back to the importance of individual acts over large-scale technological innovation.

Our ranching operation entails turning grass (grown on rangeland that won't - or shouldn't - produce cultivated crops) into flesh and fiber and milk.  Using ruminant animals (sheep, in our case), we turn this grass into products that humans can use.  We've focused on sheep because we feel that they fit our environment (small pieces of unfenced grassland) better than cattle (and frankly, because sheep fit my skill-set better than cattle).  We've focused on a cross-breeding system that results in sheep that thrive on a combination of annual grasses, weeds, brush, and irrigated pasture.  And we've selected individual sheep in our breeding program that perform especially well in our oak woodland environment.

Rising temperatures and increasing carbon dioxide concentrations will undoubtedly impact our rangelands and our irrigated pastures.  I expect that we'll see more invasive weeds (both grasses and broadleaf plants).  We'll see warm-season grasses (which thrive with more carbon dioxide and warmer temperatures) displace the cool-season grasses in our irrigated pastures.  Because sheep generally have a more widely varied diet than cattle - and because our sheep specifically have been exposed to a wide range of forage plants - I think we're well positioned to adapt to the changing climate.

Some "experts" believe that animal agriculture should be abandoned in the face of climate change - after all, ruminant animals emit methane (a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide).  I disagree for a variety of reasons.  First, grazing animals allow humans to produce nutritionally dense food (meat and milk) and renewable fiber on land that won't grow a crop.  For example, our ewes spend approximately two thirds of the year grazing on land that is too dry, too steep or too poor to grow a food crop - but this land grows outstanding forage (which our sheep convert to meat and wool).  Second, by focusing on the type of animal that fits our environment - and managing our rangeland to favor the plants that they prefer - we can increase the digestive efficiency of our sheep (and reduce methane emissions).

I'll admit that I'm worried about the world we seem to be leaving our children and grandchildren.  As I write this piece, we're in the midst of our second significant heat wave of the summer in Northern California.  While I'm not suggesting that this (or any particular) heat wave is a result of global climate change, I do worry about the ramifications of even a small increase in average temperatures.  That said, I'm encouraged by the proven ability of farmers and ranchers to adapt to their environments.  Taking steps to reduce the drivers of climate change is important; continuing to adapt to an ever-changing environment is even more critical.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Managing the Dry Season

As we enter the middle of summer in the Sierra foothills, we transition to a different phase of our annual grazing management.  Our lambs are making one last pass over our irrigated pasture, while the ewes have been moved onto un-irrigated annual grasslands nearby.  With the rains of last winter and spring behind us, we're meting out this year's forage growth (in the form of standing dry grass and broad-leaf plants) - and hoping for a few soaking rains in October to get next year's grass started!

Sheep are ruminant animals, which means they have multiple compartments to their digestive tract.  Micro-organisms in the rumen (and to a lesser extent, in the omasum, abomasum and reticulum) allow ruminant animals to break down cellulose (plant fiber) into essential fatty acids.  In other words, the bugs in a sheep's gut allow the animal to make a living on grass!

To facilitate the digestion of cellulose, these micro-organisms require the animal to consume forages or other feeds with at least 8 percent protein - the bugs need the protein to survive.  On our annual rangelands, green forage typically contains 15-25 percent protein.  During the growing season (fall, if we get rain, and especially springtime), the standing forage contains more than enough protein - indeed, this is why we lamb in late winter and early spring.  But during the dry months (mid-June through October or November, typically), our dry annual grasses and broad-leaf plants are very low in protein (as low as 3-4 percent).  Despite the decline in quantity, we typically have more than enough quantity of forage during these months.  The trick for us, then, is to get enough protein to the sheep to allow their "bugs" to digest this dry forage.

The most important part of our grazing/nutritional strategy is timing.  We time our production cycle to take advantage of the usually sufficient quantity of high quality forage in the spring time - we match demand with supply.  The greatest nutritional demand for a ewe is during her last month of pregnancy and her first six weeks of lactation.  By overlaying this 10-week period of high demand with the period of rapid grass growth in the spring, we eliminate the need for supplemental feeding during this critical time.  Equally as important, this schedule allows us to match our period of lowest demand (post-weaning and pre-breeding) with the period of lowest forage quality.

After we wean the lambs and before we start preparing the ewes for the next breeding season (a technique called "flushing" - more on this below), we simply want the ewes to maintain their condition.  Actually, for the 7-10 days after we wean the lambs, we like to have the ewes on low quality forage to dry up their milk production as quickly as possible (which reduces the chance of mastitis).  During this maintenance phase, we put our "dry" ewes (dry, as in no longer producing milk) on our dry annual grass.  To make sure they can digest this dry forage, we also provide supplemental protein.  Over the years, we've tried a variety of supplements - from alfalfa hay to molasses-based protein tubs.  Currently, we've provided tubs with 18 percent protein to the ewes; next week, we're going to try a small quantity of barley screenings (12 percent protein) fed by hand every other day instead of the tubs.  The grain won't replace the dry grass in our ewes' diets; rather, it will provide their gut micro-organisms with enough protein to digest the grass they'll will be grazing.  If it works, it will be a much lower cost alternative to the protein tubs.


If we had more irrigated pasture, we'd graze the ewes on green forage during the mid-summer months.  However, with our current limited pasture availability, supplemental protein allows us to keep more ewes in our flock to take advantage of the green grass in the winter and spring (and to make our business economically feasible).  Supplemental protein also allows us to use our sheep to help reduce the fuel load in our community - the ewes are currently reducing the fire danger in a neighborhood adjacent to Hidden Falls Regional Park west of Auburn.  Once the lambs have made their second pass over the irrigated pasture, they will either be sold or moved to dry forage as well (with supplemental protein).

The lower quality dry forage we're currently grazing also makes the effect of flushing more pronounced.  In early September, we'll move the ewes back to our irrigated pastures (which will have been ungrazed for 50-75 days at that point).  We'll also hand-feed the sheep with a high-protein, high-energy feed (this year, we'll use pelleted canola meal).  The shift from low-quality dry grass to higher-quality green grass and supplemental feed will increase ovulation in the ewes - and give us more lambs next spring!

In the meantime, our summer days are spent moving water on our irrigated pastures and building fence on our hard, dry annual rangelands.  We check the dogs (guardian dogs and border collies alike) and our socks for stickers and burs.  We watch the horizon for smoke and the sky for fire planes (wildfire is a constant worry during our summer grazing season). We lug 125-pound protein tubs or buckets of grain to the ewes.  And we look forward to the first rains of autumn!