Sunday, March 1, 2015

Why Shepherds Worry

Our flock of ewes started lambing last Saturday.  While I love this time of year (I've written previously that lambing season is like six weeks of Christmas), I also worry during lambing.  I try to limit my worrying to things I can do something about, but I'm not always successful at this!  I worry about having enough forage for the sheep at this critical time of year (especially during this drought). I worry about missing a lambing problem and losing a lamb or a ewe (or both). I worry about making sure the sheep have vegetation or other shelter during inclement weather (we don't have a lambing barn).  I worry about predators.  I worry about getting enough sleep!

I've realized this past week that one must actually be a shepherd to understand these anxieties.  About three weeks ago, I checked in with a homeowner in the area where we're grazing about the availability of a 15+ acre field that we wanted to graze on our way to other properties.  This landowner has been coordinating with his neighbors, and the field was critical to our plans.  With the dry weather we had in January, we needed to give our previously grazed pastures enough rest before grazing them again.  Even with the December rains, we only have about 50 percent of the grass we'd expect at this time of year.  The 10-15 days that this new field would support our sheep became a vital part of our grazing plans during lambing.  Through a miscommunication between neighbors, it turns out that this field was not available.  Had we known this three weeks ago, we might have hauled the sheep to another property; now that we're lambing, we don't want to put the ewes and lambs on a trailer (another worry).  The homeowner suggested that we simply skip around the neighborhood to lots with more forage - also difficult to do with ewes and young lambs.  In our pasture lambing system, long moves can often disrupt the bonding process between lambs and ewes. And so I worry.

When I went out to check the flock on Monday evening, I encountered a neighbor dog I didn't recognize.  He desperately wanted to get inside the fence.  Fortunately, my guard dogs were all over the situation.  I later figured out that he belonged to a neighbor several properties away. When the neighbor's young daughter came to retrieve the dog, I made sure that she understood what would happen if the dog came back (or worse, if I had dead sheep).  Neither she nor the homeowner where we had the sheep seemed to realize the extent of my concern - surely a sweet pet dog wouldn't hurt sheep!

Now I'm worried about the weather.  Over this weekend, the weather has turned colder (although we didn't get the rain that was predicted).  The sheep can handle inclement weather fine, even during lambing - if I'm prepared.  This weekend, our preparations meant that we moved the flock off the open hillside where they'd been grazing (and where there was still more grass) into a wooded pasture that offers shelter from the wind and rain.  I moved the ewes that hadn't lambed first, along with the ewes that had older lambs.  The newest "pairs" followed along more slowly, and in some cases I carried the lambs while their mothers followed behind.  A move that would normally take five minutes took more than an hour.  And I always worry about lambs getting mixed up when we move; I remained with the sheep until I was certain that every lamb was with its mother.  I find that non-shepherds don't understand the attention to detail and planning necessary for raising sheep.  As Ivan Doig writes, "To be successful with sheep, even when you're not thinking about them, you'd better think about them a little."

As frustrating as the lack of understanding of non-shepherds can be, I've also been comforted by the understanding and friendship my fellow shepherds (and stock people).  I was at a meeting on Thursday from which I needed to depart early to get back and check the sheep.  There were several other shepherds at the meeting, each of whom was entirely understanding.  Today, I postponed a trip to look at some ewe lambs we might purchase because I was worried about the weather.  Again, the rancher I was planning to visit understood my desire to put off the trip for another week.

All stock people, I think, understand this sense of worry.  We cope with uncertain markets, unreliable weather, and all sorts of other challenges (man-made and natural) because we love what we do.  Those of us who are good at it (and those of us, like me, who are striving to become good at it) will always worry.  I guess worry is part of being a shepherd!

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Lucky Guy

I might get in trouble for posting this picture!  I wish I knew who the artist is (perhaps somebody who sees this will know).  My friend Jeannie Hodges, who is the mother of my best friend from elementary school, posted this on my Facebook timeline today. Her comment was, "reminded me of your life."  Later in the day, as I was walking through a group of cow-calf pairs to make sure they hadn't trespassed into one of the research plots at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC), I thought about the picture, and Jeannie's comment.  I realized how lucky I am to be doing the work that I do.

When I made the decision to apply for this job, in some ways it felt like an admission that I'd failed as a sheep rancher.  While I love the work of caring for grazing animals like nothing else I've ever done, I've never been able to make a living doing it - until now.  My motivation for starting to ranch was to produce food for my community from the rangeland landscapes that I loved.  While I still enjoy the direct interaction that this work gives me with people that love to eat the food I produce, I've realized that my true passion lies in husbandry - in caring for livestock and for land.  I'm a stockman - or as my new title at SFREC indicates, a herdsman.

Today's workday was a snapshot of why I think I'm lucky.  This morning, I saddled one of the SFREC horses and rode through a 300+ acre pasture where we're grazing a group of heifers.  The fog lifted as we rode, making for some incredible scenery.  At the top of this particular pasture, I can see the Sierra crest, including the Sierra Buttes at the headwaters of the Yuba River (which runs by SFREC).  We returned to headquarters in time for a barbecue lunch that all of us contributed to producing.  After lunch, I hauled protein tubs to cow-calf pairs, checked on several groups of yearling steers, and drove a 1952 jeep out to check the research plots I mentioned above.  My afternoon partner was Mo, one of my border collies who (like me) is learning to herd cattle as well as sheep.

After "work," I headed out to the pasture where we're grazing our sheep, along with Mo's half brother Ernie and my retired sheepdog, Taff.  The ewes are due to begin lambing in the next 4-5 days, so I walked through the flock slowly to check on the health of the ewes.  We then drove to another property to check on a small group of yearling ewes.  Since we still had daylight, I decided to do a bit of schooling with Ernie.

All of this returns me to the picture that Jeannie posted on Facebook.  All afternoon, I thought of the things that John (Jeannie's son, and my best friend as a kid) enjoyed doing together.  Most of what we did was outdoors.  I realized how fortunate I am to still be spending my life outdoors in the foothills where I was raised.  I'm a lucky guy!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Herding Cultures

While today is Saturday (a day off for most), I went in to my new job to help move 300+ heifers into fresh pasture (complete with bulls!) this morning.  Ranching, even on a university research station, is rarely a 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday job - the heifers needed fresh feed TODAY!  With four of us horseback (and two of us with dogs), and the rest of the crew on ATVs, the 3-mile drive went smoothly.  After finishing my "paying" job, I came home and set up fence for the sheep.  I realized as I was working this afternoon that traditional herding cultures - shepherding, cowboying, etc. - are extremely appealing to me.

These traditions require practitioners to live extremely close to nature.  By necessity, we must watch the health of the land and of our animals.  If the grass is too short, the animals need to move.  If the animals are in need, we must care for them.  If the rains don't come, we must adjust our management.

In our own sheep operation, and in my new job, I've embraced modern technology.  I have an iPhone.  I'm writing this piece on my iPad.  I use a laptop computer.  All of these have made my job as a stockman and a grazier more efficient and effective.  But I've also embraced traditional tools.  Without my dogs and without my desire to understand livestock behavior, I couldn't manage rangeland.  Without the horse that I ride at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, I couldn't get a true picture of rangeland condition and forage growth.  Many of the physical (as opposed to virtual) tools and techniques that I use are hundreds (if not thousands) of years old.

As we completed our mini cattle drive this morning, I was able to talk stock dogs with one of the riders who joined us.  My dogs are used to working sheep, but we're learning how to transition to cattle.  I realized, as we rode and talked, that I have a lifetime of knowledge to gain about my profession.  I'm thankful that there are still people to learn from!  I'm thankful to be part of a herding culture!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

How will we know when it's over?

As I write this on Sunday evening (February 8, 2015), my rain coat and my winter work coat are both drying.  This weekend marks the first time I've needed rain gear since before Christmas - so far, we've measured nearly 2.75" of rain since Friday afternoon.  While it's less than was predicted for Auburn, the rain is a welcome departure from our record dry January.  But our drought continues - even with a record-setting December, we're behind normal.  And there's very little snow in the Sierra Nevada.  From where I sit, there doesn't seem to be an end to our Big Dry.

Droughts are different than other weather phenomena for several reasons.  With big storms, we usually have some warning - as we do with heat waves.  With drought, however, we don't know we're in one until well after it's started.  The calendar year 2013 was the driest on record for our part of California - we measured just over 10 inches for the entire year.  Since California almost always experiences a summer "drought" - we rarely receive any rainfall from June through October - the dryness snuck up on me.  Looking back at my writing from 12-14 months ago, I started to realize that we were facing serious drought conditions in December 2013.  By January 2014, we were in the midst of the longest winter dry spell in recorded history.  About 12 months ago, we started selling sheep to make sure we weren't overstocked on our grazing land.  Today, I've taken a full-time job as the herdsman at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) - in part because we don't have enough sheep to generate a full-time income.

December 2014 was quite different than December 2013.  With more than 11 inches of rain, we received more precipitation in December than we did in all of 2013.  However, when we drove to church in the rain on Christmas Eve 2014, I had no idea that it was the last significant rain we'd receive until last Friday.  In addition to being dry, January was exceptionally warm.  The blue oaks in Auburn, which typically don't come out of dormancy until early March, already have their new leaves.  Some of our annual grasses are already going to seed - at least 45 days early.

The uncertainty about a drought's beginnings is matched by the uncertainty about it's termination.  Meteorologists tell us that we need 150-175% of "normal" rainfall to end our drought, but we won't know if we've achieved that benchmark until after it's happened.  For me, this uncertainty brings a psychological cost.  Uncertainty engenders worry - will we have enough spring grass for the sheep (and for the cows at SFREC)?  Will we have enough stored water to irrigate our pastures this summer?  What will next fall bring?  Our current weather also makes me wonder about longer term issues - is this the new "normal" weather pattern?  Can we expect extended winter dry periods punctuated by brief periods of inundation?  When will this drought be over, or is this what we can expect in the future?  While I'm waiting to find out, I guess I'll just enjoy this weekend's stormy weather!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Here We Go Again

Thanks to the rain we had in November and December, we have substantially more green grass at the end of January 2015 than we had a year ago.  But with virtually no rain since Christmas Eve, even with much warmer-than-normal temperatures, grass growth has come to a standstill.  Since our December storms were relatively warm, there is very little snow in the mountains (and very little water in our reservoirs).  I can't help but thinking we're in for another year of severe drought.

From 2013 to 2014, we reduced our sheep numbers by nearly 40 percent because of the drought.  With a new full-time job, we've reduced our flock even further this winter; we're now grazing just over 80 ewes.  Since I'm working full time at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, we're trying to arrive at a flock size that allows us to move sheep on the weekends (in other words, we want to build big enough paddocks to give us enough forage to last 80 ewes for 7 days).  Because of the lack of moisture, we're not seeing much regrowth.  We'd normally expect to have 120-160 sheep-days of grass per acre at this time of year (which means a 4-acre paddock would last our flock 6-8 days).  We seem to have about half this amount of forage at the moment - a 4-acre paddock lasts 3-4 days.

We're still anticipating that we'll sell another 25-30 ewes, but since we'll start lambing in about 3 weeks, the window for selling these ewes is closing rapidly - I don't like to haul ewes that are just about to lamb.  We'll likely lamb out at least 60 ewes this spring.  If it stays dry, it means we'll either build larger paddocks on the weekends or we'll move sheep during the week.

Even though our water district (the Nevada Irrigation District) has done a great job of conserving water and planning ahead, I'm getting worried about what the summer irrigation season may hold.  With virtually no snow in the high country, we may be looking at reductions in water deliveries.

Finally, the warm temperatures seem to have everything out of sync.  We have blue oaks starting to leaf out (in January!).  At home, we have daffodils blooming - at least 30 days earlier than normal.  A friend called this week to tell me he'd seen/heard sandhill cranes flying north - again, at least 30 days early.

A fourth year of drought feels like uncharted territory to me.  While I'm hopeful we're going to get some rain next weekend, I find myself wondering if warmer, drier winters are the new normal for us. I hope not!

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Evolution of a Stock Dog

If you've read my blog in the past, you'll know that I frequently write about my experiences learning to use border collies to help me manage my sheep.  As my own skills and confidence have improved, so have the skills and confidence of my dogs.  Together, we can generally handle any situation involving the sheep - from moving up the county road to loading the trailer to sorting off and catching a sick animal.  While I have the good fortune to have the chance to work my dogs in my new job as the herdsman at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, the cows (and the environment) are very different - for me and my dogs.

When I took this new job, I sought the advice of friends who have more experience working cattle with dogs than I have.  All of the advice was useful - and all of it was advice I would not have understood when I started working dogs.  Experience is an excellent teacher.  Several years ago, I had used Mo to help move cows that we were custom grazing for other people.  His work was passable, but he was clearly more comfortable with sheep (as was I).

Yesterday, we gathered cow-calf pairs and bulls off of a hilly pasture at SFREC.  I worked Mo from horseback, which was new for both of us.  As we crested the main hill, we easily pushed a group of 12 pairs off the ridge towards the gate we were planning to go through.  One of the other staff members radioed that there were a couple of cows who refused to leave a supplement tub about halfway down the hill.  She was on an ATV, and the hillside was too steep for her.  I worked my way down until I could see the cows, and sent Mo on a "come bye" flank (to the left).  He got into position in front of the stubborn cows and got them headed the right direction.

I turned my horse just in time to see the 12 pair we'd gathered originally galloping back towards us!  I  urged Mo to get to their heads while I worked my way down the steep hill.  Mo stopped them, and together we got them turned back around and headed up the road towards the gate.  On several occasions, a stubborn cow decided she'd rather fight Mo than head to fresh feed - and Mo stood his ground!  This gave me enough time to get into position to help turn the cow and keep them lined out.

The gate in this particular field is in a difficult spot - rather than being on an inside corner, it's adjacent to an outside break in the fence (which means the cows don't naturally see it).  Most of the pairs went through, but one calf (there's always one, it seems) missed the gate entirely and ran up the inside of the fence to keep up with her.  I sent Mo on an "away" flank - which he spaced perfectly, and he stopped the calf.  Again, this gave me enough time to ride over and help him turn the calf and walk him back to the gate.

Once we got a count on the cows, we realized we were 3 short.  Anna (the other staff member) and I made another ride through the field without finding them.  I decided that Mo and I would check an adjacent pasture later that afternoon.

The morning's work obviously boosted Mo's confidence with working cattle - I could see him getting more confident as we worked.  Mama cows can be among the most difficult cattle to herd with dogs - their maternal instincts tell them that the dog is a threat.  It also reinforced some of the advice I'd received from my friends.  Mo started to realize that I could help him, which boosted his confidence even further.  He's generally a very gentle dog with sheep; he was appropriately aggressive with the cows.

That afternoon, we drove out to the adjacent pasture to look for the missing pairs.  The field is long and skinny (it runs on both sides of an irrigation ditch), and it's brushy in some areas.  Mo and I walked along the ditch bank, and as we reached the far end of the pasture, Mo spotted the cows (I've learned to watch my dogs when searching for livestock - they almost always see them before I do) .  I told Mo to stay put and walked ahead to open the gate.  Walking back, I sent Mo up into the brush to push two cows and three calves towards the gate.  The third cow was below the ditch, so I recalled Mo and sent him down to collect her.  All three pairs walked through the gate and up onto the road in the first pasture.

Like the big group, these six animals missed the difficult gate.  I've found that smaller groups of range livestock (cows and sheep) are usually more difficult to control than larger groups - they are more nervous when they are in smaller groups.  After missing the gate the first time, they started running up the hill.  Mo did a beautiful outrun - he didn't make contact with the cows until he was in position to stop them and turn them back.  After several more passes by the gate, they walked through and lined out towards their new pasture.

Mo's evolution from sheep dog to stock dog is a long term project (as is my own evolution from shepherd to stockman).  Mo's half-brother Ernie will take even more work.  I realized while working Mo on the cows that solid flanks and controlled outruns are critical - and Ernie's not quite there yet.  I also realized, however, that there's no substitute for actual work - we only make progress when things are in motion.  In that respect, working stock dogs is like training horses.  As a novice, my instinct was to shut things down when they started going wrong.  I've done the same thing with horses - stopping might be safer, but not much is learned (by horse OR rider).  Looking back, I realize that my decision to use Ernie every day not only improved his abilities and confidence; it improved mine as well.  I intend to use the same approach it getting my dogs to work with cattle.  I'll keep you posted!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Research Cowboy

I've only been at the University of California's Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center for a little more than a week, but I'm thinking this new job - as a "research cowboy" - is going to be a pretty good fit for me.

SFREC is a 5,700-acre ranch that has been owned by the University of California since the early 1960s.  The facility, and it's cattle, are available to researchers from a variety of disciplines.  Currently, scientists from UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC Cooperative Extension, CSU Chico, and other institutions are conducting research into cattle nutrition, water quality, grazing management, wildlife habitat and cattle health, just to name a few subjects.  To a self admitted pasture geek like me, it's important and facscinating research!

The job of the staff, me included, includes normal ranch work - maintaining fences and roads, irrigating pastures, moving and caring for cattle.  We also support the research projects - feeding brewer's grains to cows, weighing steers on a grazing trial, helping researchers locate a transect to measure water quality.  I'm finding the variety of work to be enjoyable and mentally stimulating.

With a ranch this large, and with terrain that varies from Yuba river frontage to ponderosa pine - black oak forest, it will take me some time to get familiar with the entire property.  We were so busy in my first week that I didn't have time to get all of my safety training done (meaning the only modes of transportation available to me so far are Lulu the quarterhorse, a 1952 military jeep, and my own two feet).  I'm not complaining, though - walking and riding are the best way to get to know the place, I think!  While it's nice to know the roads, the only way to assess the condition of the pastures and the cattle, at least in my very short experience here, is on foot or horseback.

As you might imagine on a ranch of this size, there's an amazing array of wildlife.  So far, I've seen lots of raptors - including redtail hawks, kestrals, golden eagles and bald eagles.  I've also seen quail and bandtail pigeons, and a fair number of deer.  I expect I'll see much more as the seasons progress.

I'm also enjoying the fact that I can focus on the cattle and the grass.  The field station has an amazing crew to support the research and care for the property.  The fact that most of my colleagues have been working at the field station for more than 10 years suggests that it's a pretty great place to work.

Stay tuned - I'm sure I'll have more to write about in the days, months and years to come.  In the meantime, I'm thoroughly enjoying learning to be a research cowboy!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Global Weirding

As I was setting up fences this morning to give my ewes some additional grazing for the day, I was startled to see two large flocks of geese flying high overhead, headed north.  While we have lazy resident Canada geese that don't migrate, these geese were formed up and flying at high altitude.  I wonder if the record-setting warm temperatures we've had for the last week (after our brief "cold" snap in early January) have confused the geese.

Our native blue oaks seem equally confused.  I started to notice that many of the oaks started turning color in August - 45-60 days earlier than normal.  Based on the limited research I've done, this was probably because they were drought stressed.  Despite this early color-change, many of these oaks still have leaves - and we're only 6-8 weeks away from normal leaf-out.  Our local horticulture farm advisor, Cindy Fake, theorizes that the hormonal changes that cause the trees to drop leaves (by making cellular changes in leaf stems) didn't happen this year.  I find it very odd to see autumn colors in the midst of winter.

Finally, following the wettest December we've had since we've lived in Auburn, the weather has once again turned dry.  We haven't had measurable rainfall since Christmas (almost three weeks).  While this dry spell pales in comparison to last year's 50-plus day dry stretch in December and January, it does make me nervous.  I was stunned by the lack of snow in Yosemite National Park during our visit on January 3.

What does this mean?  Personally, I think the climate is changing and that human activity (e.g., burning fossil fuels) is at least partly responsible for this change.  In the short term, these weird phenomena can create challenges for those of us who work directly with natural resources.  I've written previously about the disease issues we've faced because of last year's dry and warm winter.  Many fruit trees require cold weather for a necessary dormant period - and many crop pests are able to overwinter when it's warmer than normal.  In the long term, I think most farmers and ranchers will adapt - but these changes will probably influence the types of crops and the length of our growing season here in the Sierra foothills.

In the meantime, we seem to be back in a pattern

like last year.  The days are beautiful, but the lack of winter weather is frightening.  Weird, indeed!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Selling Sheep

For some time now, I’ve realized that my current income level (between my current part-time job and our sheep business) doesn’t meet my family’s needs.  While I’ve been planning to return to college to obtain a masters degree, I’ve also decided to take a full-time job that will provide enough income and allow me to further my education. Next Wednesday, I will become the herdsman at the University of California’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center.  I’ll have day-to-day responsibility for managing the cattle and grazing on the Center’s 5700 acres of rangeland and pasture.  I’m tremendously excited!  That said, my decision (at least in part) is the consequence of the lack of profit in my sheep business, which in turn, is driven mostly by my lack of capitalization, lack of scale, and the impacts of 3 years of drought.  Despite these challenges, I’ve discovered that I enjoy teaching others about animal agriculture and farming - and a significant factor in my decision is my desire to do more hands-on teaching.  I’m excited - and a bit nervous - about this new chapter in my life!
But I’m also having a hard time letting go of my farming dream.  I’ve started thinking through the reality of trying to raise sheep while working on a masters thesis and working full-time.  I’ve been so fortunate to be working in a part time job that gives me the flexibility to deal with problems with the sheep when they occur.  Depending on where we’re grazing sheep, my office job is no more than 5 miles from our pastures.  I won’t be able to drop everything and put sheep back in their electric fence when I’m working 45 miles away - and so we’ve started selling ewes.

I began ranching commercially, albeit at a very small scale, nearly 20 years ago with the partnership purchase of a handful of cows. I took our first vegetable crop - swiss chard, pumpkins and popcorn - to the Auburn farmers market in the fall of 2002.  Over the next several years, we tried a little bit of everything - from bok choy to green beans, sweet corn to snow peas, and pastured eggs to pastured poultry.  I finally settled on grass-fed lamb.  When I look back at my writing from that time period, I’m struck by my own optimism and naivete - micro farms were going to save the world, or so I thought at the time!

The economic realities of small-scale farming tempered my optimism and cured my naivete over the years.  As our emphasis evolved towards sheep and I tried to expand to a scale that would provide a full-time salary for me, I began to realize that this farming gig was much more challenging that I’d originally thought.  Ultimately, I’ve realized that I don’t have the capital, the secure and affordable land base, the market volume and (if I’m honest, some of the business skills) necessary to grow to the 600-800 ewe operation necessary to pay me (the owner) $35,000 to $40,000 per year.  While my shepherding skills have improved tremendously in the last 20 years - to the point where I’m certain I could care for that many sheep with little or no additional help - I simply haven’t been able to grow my sheep business to a sustainable level.  And like many small scale farmers, I enjoy working outside much more than the mundane (but very necessary) tasks like bookkeeping and business management - so I’ve neglected these parts of the job.

In some ways, this realization has made me a better teacher when it comes to helping new farmers (or at least I hope it has) - my experience has taught me the importance of addressing the issues of scale and capitalization early on in creating a farming business.  On the other hand, I fear that I have become the stereotypical grumpy old farmer who is great at telling newbies why something won’t work (rather than offering suggestions that increase the likelihood of success).

I've also realized that while the drought has been difficult for our business, it's not the sole factor in the challenges we've faced.  The drought has intensified the problems that already existed in our ranching business; namely, our lack of scale, our undercapitalization, and my poor cash flow management.  I don't regret any of the decisions that I've made in coping with the drought.  To take care of our land, we needed to reduce our flock.  To be a father to my daughters, I needed to spend my Saturdays with them (at soccer games, horse shows, and simply at home) rather than at the farmers' market.

Moving forward, we will be keeping a small breeding flock (small enough to manage, but big enough to matter).  I plan to make some improvements to the fences and the irrigation system at our longest-running leased properties to ensure that sheep can’t escape the properties entirely, which will make it easier to be away during the day.  I guess what I’m saying is that I will keep a hand (or at least a finger) in the sheep business even while I’m going back to school and working another job.  Being a shepherd is part of my identity, and I can’t entirely give that up. Selling sheep isn't the end of the world for me, but I know it will leave a hole.

Several years ago, a friend loaned me her copy of Sweet Promised Land by Robert Laxalt.  Laxalt recounts the experiences of his father, who immigrated to Nevada from the Basque country - first to tend sheep for others; later, to tend his own sheep.  The memoir recounts that the elder Laxalt went out of the sheep business multiple times (because of drought, economics and other familiar factors) - and always returned to it.  As I think about the failings of my small farm business and about selling my own flock, the example of Dominique Laxalt’s persistence, hard work, and enthusiasm for raising sheep gives me some hope.  The realization that I need to make changes now is made easier by the hope that I’ll come back to the sheep business on a commercial scale - sometime in the future.

Monday, January 5, 2015

2015 Shepherding School

Once again, Flying Mule Farm (in collaboration with UC Cooperative Extension) is offering a series of workshops designed to help new and aspiring shepherds get started in the sheep business.  These workshops will give students basic information on sheep husbandry, marketing and business management, lambing, shearing and wool handling, predator prevention and pasture management.  Several workshops will be offered classroom style, while most will feature hands-on work with sheep.

The 2015 Shepherding School kicks off with a workshop on predator protection on January 11.  Here's the full schedule:

  • Predator Protection for Small Scale Livestock Producers (January 11): This workshop is part of the Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference in Grass Valley, CA.  For more information (and to register) go to:
  • Introduction to Sheep Husbandry - Classroom Session (January 15): Basic information on managing a small flock of sheep, including management calendars, husbandry practices, economics of the sheep business, and marketing.  For more information, and to register online, go to:  The workshop will be held at the UCCE office in Auburn.
  • Introduction to Sheep Husbandry - Field Day (January 17): This hands-on field day will provide students with the opportunity to learn how to give vaccinations, trim feet, evaluate general health, and prepare a flock for lambing.  For more information, and to register online, go to: The workshop will be held at our leased pasture near Auburn.
  • Lambing on Pasture Field Day (March 7): This field day will provide hands-on instruction on managing a lambing flock on pasture.  Students will learn to dock, castrate and eartag lambs, manage ewe and lamb nutrition, evaluate health, and manage pastures during lambing.  Stay tuned for registration information!
  • Shearing and Wool Handling Field Day (early May): This field day will provide hands-on information regarding preparing sheep for shearing, shearing-site set-up and management, wool handling and preparation for marketing.  The date will be determined by availability of our sheep shearer.
  • California Multi-Species Grazing Academy (September 11-13): This multi-day workshop will provide students with hands-on experience in electric fencing, pasture management, forage evaluation and animal husbandry.  Participants will work with sheep and goats.  Stay tuned for more information!

For more information, go to and click on the specific events on the calendar page - or contact me directly at or 530/305-3270!