on the road

on the road

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Lucky... and Worried

Another "beautiful" day in the Sierra foothills!
One of the things I enjoy about serving on the board of the California Wool Growers Association (I'm currently the vice president) is the chance to catch up with fellow sheep producers from all over California at our board meetings. And as with most conversations among ranchers, the talk inevitably turns to weather and forage conditions. Weather and grass (and their effects on the market) it seems, are the variables that unite sheep ranchers large and small. After yesterday's board meeting in Woodland, I've realized that we're extremely fortunate to have green grass in our pastures near Auburn this December; I'm also concerned that the current stretch of dry weather might be the front end of another drought.

Board members who raise sheep in the San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast reported yesterday that the grass hasn't started where they are - they simply haven't had enough (or in some cases, any) rain. These reports match my own observations from a trip south through the Sierra foothills in mid-November - the green grass seemed to peter out before Jackson. Several of my cattlemen friends have confirmed that our part of the northern foothills are unique this year - we're the only ones with green forage at the moment.

At the moment, we have enough green grass ahead of our sheep to make it through the next month or two. With the shorter days and colder temperatures that coincide with the approaching winter solstice, our green grass has now gone dormant - even with rain, it won't start growing again until February. Without rain between now and February, however, the resumption of growth will be delayed. Our entire production system centers on matching lambing with the onset of spring growth in late February. Since ewes are pregnant for approximately 5 months, we've already cast the die - we are depending on winter rain to bring late winter and early spring forage for our sheep during their period of greatest demand. The lack of rain in the forecast, and the dry conditions most everywhere else in California, have me worried.
As this map from late November clearly shows, most of
California is much drier than normal for this time of year.

Because of the 2012-2015 drought, we've made adjustments in our management to be able to cope with dry conditions. We stock our pastures conservatively, which allows us to stockpile forage. While this leftover dry grass is filling, it lacks the nutritional power required for lactating ewes - and so we've also purchased supplemental protein as a hedge against continued dry conditions. Since our flock's forage consumption increases by nearly 50 percent during lambing, we may need to move the sheep more frequently than in a typical year. We'll start planning on spending more time building fence and moving sheep if conditions remain dry.

In the meantime, I'll be thankful for the rain we've had (over 8 inches since October 1). I'll be grateful for the green grass we see in our rangeland pastures (mostly hiding under last year's growth). I'll try to enjoy these "beautiful" winter days (although beautiful December weather for a California sheepman includes rain). And I'll say a little prayer for my colleagues who are battling drought in other parts of the state.
And with no rain in our forecast, I'm starting to worry....

Monday, November 27, 2017

Never Far Away

I suppose that for anyone who has weathered an historically severe storm (or lack of storms, as the case may be), the memory of that climatological disaster is never far back in the recesses of memory. The farmers and ranchers who survived the Dust Bowl years were haunted by its memory. The farmers and ranchers who survived this year’s hurricanes will remember these events for the rest of their lives. These kinds of calamities are turning points and mileposts - life after will never be the same as life before. And so it is with my own memories of the 2012-2015 drought. It’s the event that has come to define my mid-life. 

When people ask me how many sheep we have, I invariably compare the size of our operation today with its size before the drought. Before the drought, I thought of myself as a rancher who worked part-time in town. After the drought, I’ve become a full-time cooperative extension farm advisor with a part-time sheep operation. My experiences - selling sheep, scrambling to find grass, working more and more hours away from the ranch - make me conservative in my current approach to raising livestock. We run far fewer sheep than our rangelands will support in the best years (in other words, we stock our ranch for the dry years). We take much more time to estimate forage supplies and plan our grazing. We have a good idea about the sheep we’d keep and those we’d sell if we got into another drought. We are always on the lookout for new grazing opportunities.

All of this is a backdrop to explain to myself (and to others, perhaps) my reaction when I saw a Twitter post today from Daniel Swain, a weather researcher who writes the Weather West blog, suggesting that a building ridge of high pressure off the West Coast will bring dry conditions to California for the first half of December. Even though we’ve had close to normal precipitation in our part of the Sierra foothills, this news makes me worry. Other parts of California have not been so fortunate. Even as a part-time rancher, I rely on rain to grow grass in the fall, winter and early spring - and snow to supply irrigation water for summer grass. Intellectually, I’m reasonably confident that we’ll get enough rain and snow to maintain our current level of production. Emotionally, however, the prospect of an extended dry period in the midst of our rainy season is difficult. This news makes me realize that drought is never very far away in our Mediterranean climate - or in my memory.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Day Mae Grew Up

Always a nice site after moving sheep - the flock spread out with heads down grazing.
As some of you may know, Mae is my youngest working dog. She's also the first female border collie that I've started, and the only border collie that I've trained entirely on my own. She's been an easy, thoughtful and trainable dog from the beginning - very different that the male dogs I've started. Don't get me wrong - Mae has her quirks, and like most border collies (and many humans I've met), she gets in trouble when she has time off. She likes to stare at the horses and mules at our home place. She enjoys barking at the leaf blower (which she learned from our older dog, Mo). But she's nearly always made good decisions when we're working sheep. And today, (as she's approaching her second birthday), she showed me that she's grown up. She's ready to take on more responsibility in our small sheep operation.

While today's work didn't involve a long move or a big gather, it was reasonably technical. We needed to gather a 4-acre paddock, bring the sheep out of the electro-net fence, walk them through a gate and past the ram paddock, then through another gate. At the second gate, the sheep needed to make a 160-degree turn up the road. After walking up the road, the sheep needed to duck through a final gate into their next paddock. The last gate was tight, so I wanted the flock somewhat strung out so they wouldn't crowd through it.

Mae and I have been working on taking flanks that are counter to her instinct to balance the sheep with me. We've also been working on taking partial flanks - border collies have a powerful instinct to get to the heads of the sheep. Finally, we've been working on bending out her outruns and flanks - ideally, a dog should take a wide route to the back of the block before making contact with their flight zones.

The sheep were ready to move when we arrived at the paddock, so about two-thirds of them headed up the hill towards us. The remaining third were still grazing at the bottom of the hill about 150 yards away. I asked Mae for a left-hand (come bye) flank. She saw the sheep at the bottom the hill and aimed herself behind them. As she started cheating in too tight, I asked her to lie down and start again. As she started, I used a harsh voice to ask her to bend out. She took the correction and bent out. It took 3 corrections, but each time, she made a good decision.

When we move sheep out of electro-net fencing, we typically wait until the flock is gathered near the point of exit. If a dog is pushing too much, the sheep will press the fence. This morning, I asked Mae to lie down behind the flock as I opened the fence. She obliged, and the sheep came through the opening calmly. We then walked to the crest of a small hill and headed towards the first gate. The sheep veered towards the ram paddock, but Mae's quarter flank to the left got them back on track - I was pleased that she took a come bye, that her flank was square (which allowed her to avoid pushing the back of the flock as she moved into position), and that she held her position when I said, "right there."
Making the turn towards the second gate.

As we approached the second gate, I again asked for a short flank to get the sheep's heads pointed towards the gate. She obliged, dropping when I asked for a lie down so I could slow the sheep and go through the gate ahead of them. As the first third of the flock passed through, I was able to "bump" the leaders lightly to get them to turn up the road. As they turned, I asked Mae for a right (away) flank to turn the rest of the flock as it came through the gate. She took the flank and settled in behind the sheep. After a short walk up the road (during which we let the flock string out a bit), I asked for a short come bye flank, and the sheep turned into the last gate and their new paddock. I called Mae off and praised her - and closed the paddock.
Strung out and walking through the last gate.

To my non-sheepdog friends, this may seem like a very simple piece of work - and I may seem overly excited about Mae's progress. To my sheep dog friends, I suspect, the tasks may seem simple but the progress of a young dog justifies my excitement. As I've written before, the bond between a working dog and its handler (regardless of the work) is much deeper and more intense than any relationship I've ever had with a pet. I've taught my pet dogs obedience, which is a totally different experience than training a dog to work (at least for me). The work that Mae and I accomplished today required 3-way communication - between man and dog, between man and sheep, and between dog and sheep. I suspect that the man in this equation (me) is the least accomplished communicator of the three species. Watching Mae think about the work and adjust her approach according to the behavior of the sheep, our relative positions on the landscape, and my verbal commands, I realized working with my dogs is one of the reasons I so enjoy shepherding. We still have more to learn (both of us), but I realized this morning that we're at a point where we can accomplish a great deal of work together. Good dog, Mae! That'll do.
Waiting for the next job!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Heading into the Dark - #52weeksofsheep

With Thanksgiving Day behind us, and the winter solstice and Christmas Day ahead, we're approaching the slow and easy time of our shepherding year. At our latitude, the daylight hours are relatively short (9 hours and 47 minutes today, according to Weather Underground). Despite the warm temperatures this week, I expect our grasses will go dormant sometime in the next 2-3 weeks (dormancy results from a combination of soil temperatures below 50F and short day-lengths). Since our sheep production calendar is timed to match grass growth, our work slows as we head into the darkest days of the year, as well.

I've visited more northern latitudes during the fall and winter months, but Auburn, California, is as far north as I've ever lived for an extended period of time. I know that many folks grow depressed in the dark days of winter; I've always enjoyed these shorter days. I love the cooler weather (although this week has not been especially cool). I love any excuse to have a fire in the woodstove (our only heat). And I appreciate the opportunity to sleep in a bit, especially on the weekends.

Since we try to match our sheep production calendar to the forage productivity cycle, the next 6 weeks (the darkest part of the year) coincide with the slowest time of the sheep year. Our entire management system revolves around the onset of rapid grass growth - in other words, we want to start lambing in late February, which means we put rams with ewes in October and early November. We separated rams from ewes on November 10 this year; we'll let the ewes settle in their pregnancies until next weekend. Next Saturday, we'll haul the flock to our winter rangeland (which is at a slightly lower elevation than our summer irrigated pastures). Once there, our work will focus on moving sheep every 6-7 days until it's time to vaccinate the ewes in late January. Our work slows as we approach the winter solstice.

For me, these long nights provide a chance to re-charge. I sleep longer. I read more. I rest. I don't find the long nights and short days of late autumn and winter depressing; rather, I find them rejuvenating. I'm thankful that our sheep husbandry coincides with this seasonal slow-down. I enjoy heading into the dark.

Monday, November 20, 2017

At Home on the Range

I had the opportunity this evening to participate in a panel discussion about careers in sustainable agriculture at UC Davis. I was the only animal agriculturist on the panel, and at the end of the evening, a young woman asked whether I thought there was a future for animal agriculture generally, and for sheep production specifically, given growing concerns over climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

In answering her question, I realized that I've had the good fortune to find work that allows me to embrace the intersection of social science, economics, and bio-physical science. I've had the opportunity to immerse myself in the cultures and places where rangeland agriculture is practiced in California. And I've had the opportunity to engage in rangeland livestock production myself.

My somewhat tongue-in-cheek definition of rangeland, as I explained in my answer tonight, is that it is comprised of land that is too hot, too cold, too dry, too steep - too "something" - to support cultivation. The rangelands in my part of the Sierra foothills don't grow crops - but they do grow grass (more in some years than others). Some would say these lands are of marginal productivity (apparently they've never heard the frogs sing at night during lambing season - fecundity is the word that comes to mind for me). Ruminant animals, through the miracle of their digestive processes, can turn the "crop" grown on these "marginal" lands (that is, grass, forbs and brush) into muscle, fiber and milk. The lambs and wool I sell each year are the products of this conversion - renewable products that benefit my community and the world. Properly managed, grazing animals (like my sheep) also benefit the environment - my sheep help keep invasive weeds in check. Grazing can help reduce the threat of wildfire, as well. The lands my sheep graze provide habitat for a variety of wildlife - critters that wouldn't be here if these lands were converted to housing developments.

I've always rooted for underdogs, so perhaps my affinity for rangelands stems from this character trait. "Marginal" lands (like rangelands) are the "underdogs" of both agricultural and natural landscapes. Rangelands can't grow more valuable crops. Until recently, rangelands weren't considered recreational or aesthetic assets, either. Since rangeland productivity varies greatly depending on annual weather (on our local foothill rangelands, annual grass growth can vary from less than 1,000 pounds of grass per acre to nearly 5,000 pounds per acre - depending largely on the amount and timing of precipitation), ranching has always required a combination of courage and resignation. Some years we guess right - many years, we don't. Consequently, many of us are conservative (with a lower-case "c") by nature - we don't take too many chances. Gambling is bad for business - and bad for our rangelands.

Circling back to the question tonight, I realized while driving home from Davis that I'm most at home working on these rangeland landscapes. I'm happiest working with (and more importantly, learning from) people who have spent lifetimes working on these landscapes. In my fiftieth year, I've arrived at a profession than matches my avocation - I have the good fortune to be doing research and education work centered on rangeland agriculture. And I have the added good fortune to be engaged in rangeland agricultural production myself. I'm truly at home on the range.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

No Easy Answers Part 2

In mid October, some friends who graze their cattle in the mountains of western Lassen County (less than 200 miles from our home), became the first ranchers to have cattle “officially” killed by wolves in California in nearly a century. Wildlife officials confirmed that the Lassen pack killed a 600-pound heifer; four more heifers died (and were partially eaten by wolves), but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) couldn’t confirm the cause of death. While I learned about the depredations shortly after they happened through the rancher grapevine, news of my friends’ losses weren’t made public until the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation issued a joint press release this week. The October 28 edition of the Sacramento Bee ran the story.

If you’ve read my previous blogs about wolves, you’ll probably know that I’ve frequently been frustrated with the Bee’s coverage. The paper has run guest opinions disguised as news articles, and apparently has no interest in exploring this complex issue from all sides. This morning’s front-page article was no different, unfortunately.

Despite what some of the more strident wolf advocates would have us believe, livestock-predator coexistence is incredibly complicated. Large carnivores and ranching operations rely on the same rangeland habitats – habitats that in California are shrinking for a variety of reasons. Coexistence is an abstract concept for someone living in Sacramento or San Francisco; it takes on an entirely different meaning when it has to happen in the pasture beyond your barn – and when it’s your livestock and livelihood that are trying to coexist with the predators in your environment.

This particular incident is an important case in point. CDFW offered to have employees camp in the meadow where cattle and wolves were overlapping. While I don’t know the particulars in this case, I do know that the relationship between ranchers and the agency has been strained for years. Many ranchers are reluctant to provide access to their private lands because they fear the agency will “find” a reason to curtail their use of their private properties. Stories like the one in this morning’s paper further erode this trust by implying that ranchers would rather take matters into their own hands. (The article ended by describing the death of a wolf in Oregon, apparently as evidence that ranchers have no interest in coexistence).

The article quoted a spokeswoman from the Center for Biological Diversity as saying that livestock depredations are rare and that “livestock owners have to take ‘common-sense’ precautions when wolves are in the area. These include making sure the livestock stay together for protection.” In the 25 years that I’ve worked with ranchers in California, the best scientific management approach has been to disperse cattle over the landscape to protect and enhance a variety of resources (including mountain meadows and riparian areas). Many ranchers have employed riders and other techniques (including genetic selection of cattle) to keep cattle from concentrating in small areas; this is not a behavior or a management approach that can be turned off immediately once wolves arrive on the scene. While there are a number of well-meaning organizations and individuals who are trying to work with ranchers on this topic, condescending, overly simplistic statements like the one in this morning's paper do little to foster a spirit of collaboration.

At the risk of repeating myself, we have used nonlethal predator protection tools in our sheep operation from the outset. By using livestock guardian dogs, electric fencing, and intensive grazing management, we’ve been able to limit our losses to the predators in our region (mostly coyotes, mountain lions and neighborhood dogs). Our commitment to these tools is partly philosophical (we value coexistence with wildlife) and partly practical (we can’t be with our sheep 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). To date, I’ve never had to kill a predator (which is not to say that I would look the other way if I happened upon a predator in the act of killing a sheep). I will say that the predators have not always lived up to their end our bargain of coexistence – we’ve lost sheep to dogs, coyotes, and probably mountain lions. And while our sheep are a business, the loss of ANY animal in my care feels like a failure – the loss is far more than simply an economic loss.

Others have pointed to our reasonably successful coexistence as an example for other producers. While I do try to share our experiences and approaches with other ranchers, I do so with a clear understanding that OUR tools work in OUR system and OUR environment. Fencing our sheep in 10-acre electro-paddocks and feeding guard dogs everyday works in our management system on the annual rangelands near Auburn where our sheep spend their lives. It would be presumptuous of me to suggest that these tools work universally. It is beyond presumptuous for anyone without direct knowledge of a particular operation (or even the general day-to-day operation of any ranch) to suggest that any particular tool would be effective.

My inclination when faced with a complex issue is to turn to science for answers. The disciplines of ecology, animal behavior and range management (to name a few) can help us address technical questions. However, this issue in particular highlights the fact that bio-physical science can only provide some of the answers. Human behavior and relationships are also critical components. For example, some scientific research suggests that indiscriminate lethal control of predators like wolves and coyotes does not prevent livestock predation (and may in fact increase it). But telling a rancher he/she can’t use lethal force to protect his/her livestock feels like a loss of control to that rancher – regardless of the scientific evidence that it may not work in the long term. A friend who ranches in wolf habitat puts it this way, “We spent more than 500 years in North America using lethal control to protect our livestock from predators; now we’re being asked to adapt and coexist with wolves in a few short years. That’s a difficult thing to do in such a short time.”

CDFW predicts wolves will eventually come as far south as I-80 in the Sierra Nevada. Some scientists point to the lack of a natural prey base (primarily elk, but also deer) in our part of the Sierra as a limiting factor; others wonder if wolves (as opportunistic carnivores) will simply switch to the prey that’s available (livestock). Some of what I’ve read suggests that wolves will not inhabit the semi-rural foothills like Auburn, and yet OR-7 (the first wolf to migrate into California) spent several months in the Tehama County foothills to our north. I do know that our small sheep operation relies on the same annual rangelands that our current suite of predators lives in. I suspect that adding a new predator (the wolf) to the region will complicate our relationship with all predators. This problem, in other words, defies simplistic approaches.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Deer Hunting 2017

As I've written in previous autumns, I didn't grow up hunting. My dad and I fished (a lot! some of my favorite memories are of my dad picking me up from school before lunchtime so we could fish the Stanislaus River below Beardsley Reservoir). But we didn't hunt.

We did eat venison on the rare occasions that a friend would bring us some - and we all loved it. Just over five years ago, I decided to enroll in a local hunter safety course and get my first hunting license. I purchased a deer rifle - and a deer tag. The next year, I purchased another rifle (guns, for me, are tools rather than rights). I hunted for several years without getting a buck (I won't say without success - I learned something every time I hunted). In 2014, while hunting with my brother-in-law Adrian near Carson Pass, I got my first buck. Hunting by myself in 2015, I got another - and hunting again with Adrian (this time on the north coast of California), I got my third buck in 2017.

I'm a type-A personality (big shock to my friends, I'm sure). I like to be good at the things I enjoy doing. From a hunting perspective, I've come to realize that I truly enjoy the physical skills involved. I've enjoyed learning to be quiet. I've enjoyed learning to think about where deer might be at particular times of the year or time of day. I've enjoyed learning to shoot accurately. And (thankfully) I've enjoyed learning how to field-dress a deer.

This year, some long-time friends in Humboldt County, California, graciously invited Adrian and I to hunt on their ranch. Several Saturdays ago, we were both successful (Adrian in the morning; me in the evening). While I filled my B-zone tag, I decided I wanted to try to get a second buck in my local D3-5 zone. I told my oldest daughter, Lara, that I felt a little bad about being greedy - after all, I'd already had a successful hunt. She said, "Yeah, but you use all of the meat - you're not just hunting for a trophy." My youngest daughter, Emma, reinforced this sentiment. She told me, "I love venison, and I want to do something with the deerskin, too." For a father who has tried to instill respect for the animals that feed and clothe us, these ideas made me incredibly proud!

And so this weekend - the last weekend of deer season on our part of California - I'll be out in the woods trying to harvest one more buck. As my girls know, I won't be looking for a trophy - I'll be looking to put meat in our freezer. And if I'm not successful, I won't be disappointed - any day spent alone, quiet, and paying attention, in our mountains, is a good day. That's why I hunt....

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Autumn Haiku

Woodsmoke and yellow
Light. Cold mornings and warm days.
Nighttime grows longer.

Finally, it rains.
Germination day, the grass
Grows green at the ranch.

Usually, he sees
Me first. But not every time.
Winter venison.

One day, it's summer.
The next, slate gray clouds and snow
Fall in the Sierra.

Criss-cross the ends of
The stack to keep it upright.
The winter's warmth stacked.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Fire Relief Fundraiser

So many people in Northern California have been impacted by this week's devastating wildfires, including many of our farming and ranching friends in the Sierra foothills. We'd like to make a very small effort to help out these farms and ranches by donating a whole lamb, cut-and-wrapped, with all of the proceeds going to the Nevada County Farm Bureau's fire relief efforts.

To make a bid, simply go to our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/flyingmulefarm) and enter your bid as a comment. If you'd like to make a contribution, send me an email at flyingmulefarm@gmail.com. Thanks! And please share this info with your friends and family! Every little bit helps!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Happy New Year - Sheep New Year, that is!

Sheep-raising, like most agricultural endeavors, follows the seasons. In the Sierra foothills, where we graze sheep, our best forage is in the springtime - and so we match our production system to the grass. In other words, we time our management calendar so that lambs are born when the grass is growing rapidly - we match supply with demand in our system. Since sheep are pregnant for 145-155 days, and since we want our ewes to start lambing when rapid grass growth begins in late February, we turn the rams in with the ewes around October 1.

For us, the act of putting rams with the ewes feels like the first day of a new Sheep Year. The lambs born in 2017 are weaned; most of them have been sold. After weaning, the ewes go back onto dry forage for the summer. Around September 1, we put them on irrigated pasture and feed them grain to "flush" them - to get them ready for breeding. And yesterday, we put the rams back with the ewes for 6 weeks of ovine procreation. Happy New Year!

Here's a short video blog about what the last couple of days have entailed: