Thursday, September 13, 2018

Fall Feed... or Fuel Load Reduction?

Ranchers, myself included, are conservative by nature. I don't mean politically (although this is also true in many cases). Many of us (again, myself included), assume that if the worst might happen, it probably will. Pessimists, I've heard, are often pleasantly surprised - pessimistic ranchers are pleasantly surprised when we get rain when we're "supposed" to, for example.

This conservatism manifests itself in a variety of ways. Many of us stock our ranches conservatively - we maintain the number of animals we know we can graze even in a drought year. We make changes slowly. We save the grass that grows in the springtime (at least here in the Sierra Foothills) to come back to in the fall (most of us graze our livestock on more nutritious irrigated pasture or mountain meadows in the summer months).

But while there are fewer of us around (much of the land near Auburn, where I live, is no longer grazed by cattle or sheep), our non-ranching neighbors have rediscovered the benefits of grazing in our fire-prone Mediterranean climate. By consuming grass, broadleaf plants and brush, grazing (and browsing) livestock can help reduce fire risk. For some, biomass utilization conjures images of high-tech power plants utilizing wood chips to generate electricity; for me, biomass utilization means that my sheep eat plants. Plants that might otherwise burn in the summer and fall.

This realization sets up conflicting objectives, at least in our business. Because I'm conservative (with a lower-case, non-political "c"), I'm inclined to save spring forage for fall grazing. The folks that allow us to graze their land in the late winter and springtime see the forage I've saved as a threat - that stuff will burn! So how do we reconcile these divergent perspectives? Perhaps it's a matter of prioritization and economics. Let me explain....

With our current flock size, we need somewhere between 130 and 150 acres of rangeland pastures from December 1 through April 1. In a "normal" year, this amount of grass is sufficient to feed our pregnant ewes through the end of their pregnancies. It's also enough to carry us through six weeks of lambing. In a conventional pasture lease, this much land might cost me $1500 annually. Obviously, if we leave these pastures around April 1, they will keep growing until the soil dries and the grasses turn brown. When the autumn months stay dry, this dry forage sustains our sheep.

The folks who own this land (we own 3 acres, yet we need around 250 acres of rangeland and irrigated pasture to sustain our sheep through the year) would like us to keep grazing in the spring and summer months to reduce the fire threat in their community. This year, finally, we had a direct conversation about our differing needs. Consequently, we weaned our lambs 3-4 weeks earlier than normal so we could move the ewes back to the dry grass in this community. We focused our summer grazing on the most vulnerable areas - south-facing slopes adjacent to homes, roadsides where fires could start, and weedy areas that needed summer impact.

Our approach wasn't perfect this year. Our lambs, because they were weaned 3-4 weeks early, were lighter - and so they brought less money (which impacted our bottom line). Since we moved the ewes off of our irrigated pasture before we would have otherwise, we had 3-4 weeks of added expense - we had to feed supplemental protein to allow them to digest the dry forage. We'll make adjustments next year - having this conversation with our landlords was an important step.

All of this is a long-winded explanation of a realization I came to this week. Grazing can be an incredibly important tool in reducing fire danger in California. Using this tool, however, has value - like any other fuel-load reduction tool. My inclination is to make sure I've got at least some dry grass to come back to in the fall (in the event we don't get fall rains). This doesn't solve the fuel-loading problem, however; my landlords' fuel-load is my fall grazing. As a rancher, I need some incentive to use this fall feed in the late spring and summer! For our operation, this incentive has been rent-free pasture from December through April; for others, it might mean cash payment. Fall forage, after all, has economic value to me as a rancher. Similarly, fuel-load reduction has economic value to our communities! Our grazing arrangements should reflect this fact.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Feet on the Ground - and Cycles of Life

On my 51st birthday last April, my folks gave me a copy of This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems by my favorite poet, Wendell Berry. I've already quoted one of my favorite lines from a poem in this collection (see my post, Heart and Head: The Joys and Realities of Small-Scale Ranching); I found another great line this week (on the morning when we started flushing our ewes in preparation for next year's lamb crop):
"To one who has watched here many years, all of this is familiar. And yet none of it has ever happened before as it is happening now."
Last night, we went to a barn concert (actually, to be accurate, the concert was in a round pen at our friends' place - thanks, Dave and Chris Bugenig!) featuring Dave Stamey. Introducing his song "12 Mile Road" last night, he talked about the fact that many cowboy songs celebrate the huge ranches of the West - the places were a cowboy could ride for days and not come to a fence. "There aren't many songs," he said, "that celebrate the small, hardscrabble places where folks struggle to make a ranching life." He added, "That's the tradition I come from." As he was talking, I realized that he was describing our little sheep operation, too. A line from his song especially resonated for me:
"You do everything you can, by God, to keep your feet on the ground."
Poetry, I find, when it's written by my fellow farmers and ranchers - and both Berry and Stamey are far more eloquent than I am - often articulates the thoughts that have been niggling at the back of my brain. As Berry suggests, the work I do as a shepherd is familiar - carrying buckets of grain to the ewes this month to prepare them for breeding season is something I have done for "many years." And yet, this year (every year) is different. Every year is different, which I suppose is largely responsible for holding my interest. Each year presents a new set of problems to solve, a new set of joys and frustrations.

Persisting from year to year, as Stamey sings, requires a bit of stubbornness, too. His song made me think about our experiences during the 2012-2015 drought - the driest 4 years in the last thousand in California. We went into the drought with more than 250 ewes; we came out with fewer than 60. We've been rebuilding since - we'll put the rams in with 68 ewes this year, and we're keeping 20 ewe lambs for next year. Keeping my feet on the ground, for me, has meant going back to work of the ranch. It has meant getting a master's degree and being hired as the livestock and natural resources advisor for my region.

As I get older, I realize that I'm more aware of the mileposts in each year. Lambing, shearing and weaning. Flushing, breeding and settling the ewes. This work is the same, year in and year out - and yet this year's flushing has never happened like this before. Persistence - some would call it stubbornness - and an open mind - allows me to learn something with every season. That's what I love about ranching. That keeps my feet on the ground.


Sunday, August 26, 2018

The 52nd Week - and What Comes Next...

Several years ago, I had the off-the-wall idea to start posting a photo of something to do with our little sheep operation every day for a full year. Beginning with the day we turned the rams in with the ewes (New Year's Day in our Sheep Year - the photo above!), my #sheep365 project taught me a great deal about telling the story of raising livestock - the annual cycle of breeding, birthing, weaning and marketing. Others started using the hashtag - and it even sparked Twitter and Facebook accounts (@Sheep365).

Fifty-one weeks ago, I decided to start a new project I called 52 Weeks of Sheep. Each week, I posted a video (or videos) of whatever it was we were doing with the sheep that particular week. I started out on YouTube, but soon found that 50-second videos on Instagram were easier to do. I started by talking about flushing the ewes in preparation for breeding season; my last post (next week) will cover the process of hauling the ewes from the dry, annual rangeland they've been grazing all summer back to irrigated pasture. I'm hoping at some point to be able to compile all 52 weeks of video blogging in one place (maybe here!).

I hope that these projects have helped non-sheep folks learn a bit about raising sheep. I've tried - in both #sheep365 and #52weeksofsheep - to share the good and the bad. I've tried to explain why I love lambing season. I've tried to show the monotony and the excitement. I've tried to share why I love what I do and where I get to do it. Perhaps more importantly, these projects have helped me realize that what I do - raising sheep, producing food, directly interacting with my environment - are increasingly rare in the 21st Century. These projects have also helped me connect with sheep producers in California, the Western U.S. and all over the world.

These connections hit home for me this last winter during lambing season. As usual during lambing (in late February and March), we were paying close attention to the weather. With a cold storm (and the possibility of snow) predicted, we were concerned about the newborn lambs in our pasture-based lambing system. Through my #sheep365 posts, I'd connected with a producer in the Dorset region of the UK (@meandeweblog) who posted something about some biodegradable lamb raincoats (called Lamb Macs) that she used. I sent her a message, found out where she got them, and within 5 days was using Lamb Macs from Shearwell to protect our lambs during the storm. The connections I made through social media literally saved a half-dozen lambs this year.

So as 52 Weeks of Sheep wraps up, I've been thinking about a new project. In addition to raising sheep, I work as a livestock and natural resources farm advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension service. Much of my work focuses on rangeland management - I work with other producers, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies to provide science-based information about managing rangelands. I'm engaged in a number of research projects - from drought management to coexisting with predators on rangelands. And so it seems natural to start a new project that focuses on this work! When I post my last #52weeksofsheep video on Tuesday or Wednesday, I'll also put up my first #rangelands365 post on my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts (check out on Facebook; @flyingmulefarm on Twitter and @flyingmule on Instagram). As with my #sheep365 project, I hope others will join in on using this hashtag - my posts will feature lots of foothill rangeland photos, but since nearly half of the earth's terrestrial surface can be considered rangeland, I hope we'll all learn about these incredible landscapes! Stay tuned!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Number 800

After uploading my last post to Foothill Agrarian several weeks back, I realized that my next post (this one!) would be my 800th since starting this blog back in February 2009. Nine-and-a-half years is a long time to be writing - it's an even longer time to be reading what I've written! On the occasion of Number 800, I want to thank my handful of regular readers for putting up with me!

I started my Foothill Agrarian blog as a place to discuss ideas about sustainable agriculture and forestry practices in the Sierra foothills from the perspective of a practitioner. While I still aspire to practice sustainable ranching, our operation has evolved in the last 9 years. We still raise sheep, but we no longer engage in much direct marketing of our meat. We still burn wood to heat our home in the wintertime; we no longer sell firewood or other forest products. Having survived the millennial drought, my views on the importance of scale and economic viability in rangeland agricultural production have evolved, as well. I'm not the same foothill agrarian I was in 2009, which is natural, I suppose.

I've used this blog as a place to tell stories, explain my production practices, and work out questions that bother me personally. I've written about losing sheep to predators, about baking sheepherder bread, and about baseball. I've explored the business side of direct-market ranching, the challenges of coping with Mother Nature, and the day-to-day joy and frustration of raising livestock on grass. I've worked through national issues that trouble me (like racism, for example). The process of organizing my thoughts, in many ways, has helped them evolve. In this regard, I suppose my motives for writing have been somewhat selfish - this space has helped me think more deeply about what I do and why I do it.

Despite my selfish motivations, folks have read - and continue to read - my essays. As I publish this post, Foothill Agrarian has had more than 260,000 page views! Thank you! Thank you for the feedback, for the questions, and for the encouragement! I intend to keep sharing my thoughts - I hope you'll keep sharing yours, as well!

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Worn Out

When we started raising sheep commercially, our focus was on direct marketing. As our flock and our business grew, we started to realize that the time involved in direct marketing (going to farmers markets, hauling live animals to our processor, hauling meat back to our storage locker, etc.) often conflicted with the time involved in actually raising the sheep (moving fence, moving sheep, irrigating pastures, etc.). With more markets and more ranch chores during the summer months, I invariably reached a point - usually around the first of August - when I was absolutely worn out. I couldn't wait for the summer markets to close and for our irrigation water to shut off (around October 15). I'm sure Sami would tell you (as would some of our customers) that I often became a grumpy rancher during most of August!

I was reminded of this today when I visited a friend who raises and direct markets livestock. I was tired just thinking about his endless "to do" list. Small-scale farmers and ranchers, as a rule, are an energetic bunch, but we all have our limits. Now that we are operating on a part-time basis - and no longer direct marketing - the work seems more enjoyable to me during the month of August. Sure, I get hot and tired - and probably irritable - but I don't feel the stress I once did when my list of chores was longer than the daylight hours of midsummer.

I worry at times that the local food movement fails to acknowledge the stress involved in 70 hour work weeks and challenging economics. I fall into tired cliches at times - "work smarter, not harder" is easy to say when you're not worried about who will move the irrigation water while you're selling meat at a farmers market an hour and a half away from the ranch. And while I don't know the answer to making this system more viable, I do know that we ranchers need to go easy on ourselves at this time of year. Take a break. Go swimming with our kids. Move that water tomorrow. If I could only follow my own advice....

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Sharing the Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Teaching... and Learning

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

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

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