Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Watching Other Dogs

As some of you will know, I've had the opportunity to observe a large number of livestock guardian dogs - both in my capacity as a livestock advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) and in my private capacity as a shepherd (and a student of everything sheep). I've watched our own dogs and learned about the management approaches and behavioral characteristics that result in a dog that fits in our system. I've studied other people's dogs and learned even more about the relationship between dogs, livestock, and people. Over the last several years, I've used geographic position system (GPS) technology and trail cameras to try to learn about the relationship between dogs and predators. And recently, I've had the opportunity to observe dogs and livestock owned by other producers who use management systems different than ours. As the summer 2019 grazing season wraps up, I thought I'd share some of my recent observations.

Last week, I camped near Russell Valley north of Truckee to be able to watch Luis, who works as a sheepherder for Talbott Sheep Company, take his band of ewes (a band is roughly 1000 head of sheep) from their bed grounds (near his camp) out to graze. Last week, Luis' camp was located on the east side of the road that runs from Boca Reservoir north to Stampede Reservoir. Just after sunrise, Luis and his border collies worked the band across the road and down to the meadow adjacent to the Little Truckee River. This group of sheep is guarded by a single guardian dog (a second dog had decided to visit too many campgrounds, so he was relocated to a more remote band of sheep). The dog led the sheep across the road and down to the river to drink. But I use "led" loosely here; the dog was in front of the band, but the ewes seemed more intent on grazing than on following the dog. After they'd grazed for several hours, the sheep decided it was time to head back towards camp. At this point, Luis and his collies went back up the road to keep the ewes grazing in the meadow for another hour or two. The livestock guardian dog followed the sheep this time.

This week, after checking in with both bands of sheep in the Stampede region, I paid a visit to Squaw Valley Ski Resort. My friends Brad and Alana Fowler and Nathan and Kaitlyn Medlar are working with Squaw-Alpine to determine if goats can help the resort manage the height of vegetation on the ski slopes (lower vegetation requires less snow for coverage - meaning an earlier ski season!). Brad Robinson, Squaw-Alpine’s environmental manager, is a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. His experience at Cal Poly's Swanton Pacific Ranch convinced him that livestock could be an effective tool.

Brad and Nathan had turned goats out on the slopes on Monday. On Tuesday, I arrived at about the same time as Nathan's wife, Kaitlyn - who had two Big White Dogs in the back seat of her truck. Brad and Nathan reported that the goats had been restless during their first trip up the mountain. While the goats were herded during the day, they were penned in electro-net for the first night. According to Brad and Nathan, neither goats nor herders got much sleep the first night; coyotes on the outside of the night pen kept them up most of the night. After daylight, both Brad and Nathan observed coyotes near the goats. Which is why Kaitlyn was delivering dogs on Tuesday.

We put the dogs in the back of Brad's truck and drove up to the goats on Tuesday afternoon. Nathan and Kaitlyn led the dogs down to the goats and gently pushed the herd upslope. Brad had indicated that the goats had moved uphill rapidly the day before; on Tuesday, with the dogs, they ambled up the mountain, grazing as they went. Both Brad and Nathan reported this morning that the dogs and the goats seemed much more relaxed - both goats and herders got some sleep last night. Brad texted that the dogs chased a coyote out of camp last night; Nathan sent a photo of the dogs and the goats comfortably grazing the ski slope - held in place by high quality forage rather than any fences.

As I thought about these experiences, I think that the livestock were more confident because they with with dogs they knew. The sheep near Stampede continued to graze contentedly even once they spotted an unknown human (me) in close proximity. Their dog knew I was there - and I'm sure the sheep knew that he knew - and so they were confident that they were safe. At Squaw Valley, I could almost see the goats heave a collective sigh of relief when the dogs arrived - and their subsequent grazing behavior suggested that the dogs helped them settle into a new environment.

There is a risk, I realize, in anthropomorphizing these observations. Trust and confidence seem like human emotions. That said, there is scientific literature that supports my observations. Research conducted at the U.S. Sheep Center in Dubois, Idaho, suggests that "that ewes grazing with accompanying LGD will travel greater daily distances compared with ewes grazing without LGD accompaniment. As a result of traveling greater distances, ewes may also be exposed to more and varied foraging opportunities." (Webber et al. 2015). For me, these observations suggest that the bonding process works both ways. I've always focused on bonding our dogs with our sheep; I'm coming to realize that the sheep (or any other livestock) must bond with their dogs, as well.

In the coming weeks, I hope to post some videos of my observations. In the meantime, I hope other producers will share their experiences (good and bad) in using livestock guardian dogs!

Friday, August 30, 2019

Six-and-a-Half More Weeks of Making it Rain

I forget where I heard this, but somebody once told me, "When you're young, the days are short and the years are long. As you grow older, the days are long and the years fly by." I've certainly found this to be true - I can't believe we're approaching the first day of September. As of tomorrow, we have just 45 more days of pasture irrigation ahead of us. The preceding 20 weeks of moving water nearly everyday have flown by, but I must say I'm looking forward to starting my day on October 16 doing something other than dragging the K-Line irrigation system across the hilly pastures that our sheep graze near Auburn. And by October 17, I'll be hoping for rain - I always look forward to letting Mother Nature do the irrigating!

As I wrote in a blog post for Sacramento Valley Stories, we irrigate out of necessity. Green forage has greater nutritional value for our sheep, and since it doesn't rain (normally) from May through October in our climate - and since we don't take our sheep to high mountain pastures in the summer - we must irrigate our summer pasture. Our system is set up such that we have 5 zones irrigated by a K-Line pod system from New Zealand. Each zone contains 10-12 sets. Each set runs for 24 hours; we return to each set every 10-12 days. Our system is designed (at least in theory) to ensure that our pasture plants (grasses and clovers, mostly) get enough water during July and August.

But these lines don't move themselves. Most mornings from April 15 through October 15 (when the Nevada Irrigation District, or NID, delivers "summer" water), my day starts with 45-60 minutes of dragging these lines across our hillsides with an ATV. Some days, this job requires more time. The open ditch system that NID uses to deliver our water from reservoirs high in the mountains to our east is entirely gravity fed (which means we don't have pumping costs); it also tends to grow a fair amount of aquatic weeds. When we get a heavy weed-load in our water, I spend considerably more time unclogging sprinklers. And some days I show up to my day job entirely soaked!

We installed our K-Line system just after the drought with help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which covered just under half of the cost of the equipment. This cost-sharing program is designed to help ranchers conserve water. Unlike residential water conservation, however, increasing water use efficiency in a farming or ranching setting doesn't actually mean we're using less water; rather, we are able to take the same amount of water and spread it over more acreage. For our operation, this has meant we have a better balance between our unirrigated rangeland (where we winter our sheep) and our summer/fall pasture (where we grow lambs and prepare our ewes for breeding).

Water represents a significant cost in our operation - our water bill and the regulatory fees associated with it (along with the 150-plus hours a year we spend irrigating) constitute more than half of our annual operating expenses. But we're grateful to have the water.

Coming back to my realization that we're nearly in September; I always look forward to the onset of irrigation season almost as much as the end of it. I look forward to the way my work day changes once we're done irrigating - instead of starting my day on the ATV, I'll start going for walks again before work. My sheep checks will shift to after work; I'll feed the livestock guardian dogs and move sheep to fresh pasture on my way home from my UC Cooperative Extension job. This pattern will continue until we start lambing in late February (when we check the sheep three times a day).

Raising sheep, at least in our system, is directly tied to the seasons. There's always work to be done, but the work changes depending on the weather and where we are in our production calendar. As I've passed middle age, I've realized that I have a finite number of these annual cycles left in my lifetime. I suppose this has made me enjoy the important (and the mundane) moments even more. And one of the moments I enjoy most is waking up on October 16!

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Bonding and Stockmanship

For the last year or so, we've been working with a PhD student at UC Davis. Kaleiah Schiller is interested in animal behavior - and specifically in maternal behavior in sheep. Studying a subset of our ewe flock, Kaleiah videotaped our interactions with ewes and lambs during our 2019 lambing season. She also observed ewe behavior during pre-lambing vaccinations, shearing, and weaning. Last weekend, she presented a poster with some of her preliminary findings at the 159th annual meeting of the California Wool Growers Association. Of particular note, she found that:
"This experiment demonstrates the importance of the human-animal bond in minimizing the anxiety and stress caused by human management and intervention."
Kaleiah testing a ewe's willingness to approach
an unfamiliar person.
This is a reasonably straightforward statement - but one with profound implications for sheep (and all livestock) production. While my experience with lambing ewes is limited to my own sheep and one season at McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista, my own observations confirm Kaleiah's conclusion.

Our sheep - all of them - see us every day. This is partly a function of scale - we have (at the moment) roughly 150 head of sheep. But this is also a function of our management system. We use livestock guardian dogs, which means we feed each dog (and see each group of sheep protected by a dog) everyday. We also rely on electro-net fencing rather than permanent fencing, which means we move sheep every 3-7 days. This may seem like a small point, but it also means that every 3-7 days, the sheep associate us with fresh forage - positive reinforcement.

This familiarity pays off at lambing time. Most of our ewes are not terribly stressed when we catch their lambs within the first 24 hours of their birth. Many of our ewes stay within 25 feet of us while we're "processing" their lambs. This is partly due to familiarity; it's also partly due to the fact that we've consistently selected ewes who are solid mothers. Regardless, our system seems to result in the "human-animal bond" that Kalieah has observed.

My experience at McCormack Sheep and Grain, in many ways, confirms this observation by demonstrating the opposite behavior. Admittedly, this is a much larger flock (1300 in the year I worked there). But these ewes were not as bonded with their shepherds (myself included) as my own sheep - they were extremely stressed when we caught their lambs. Indeed, some ewes would leave their lambs as soon as they saw a human - any human. By necessity, we had to bring most pairs into the barn to solidify the ewe-lamb bond. This required considerably more time than our pasture lambing system.

Emma marking a McCormack lamb in 2014.
Part of this difference, I'm sure, was the lack of selection pressure - McCormack's did not use maternal ability as a criteria for keeping ewes - and retaining ewe lambs. But part of this difference was also a result of a different management system. McCormack sheep graze large paddocks - and may only see a shepherd once a week (if that). This difference, I think, has profound implications for the economics of sheep production. We generally consider labor to be an overhead expense (that is, labor costs don't vary with the number of sheep we're managing). One shepherd ought to be able to care for 1000 ewes most days. But the sheep may be telling us something different. Sheep will bond with a shepherd (research suggests that sheep actually recognize people). There may be an upper limit (probably somewhere around 600-800 ewes) to this bonding process. I wonder if we'd have had better success putting one shepherd with each 600 ewes at McCormack's several months before lambing began - and keeping this shepherd with this group through lambing. Perhaps that's another experiment we ought to do!

We often talk about the bond between shepherd and dog, or cowboy and horse. We often fail to understand (at least in my opinion) the importance of the bond between shepherd and sheep (or cowboys and cows). I suppose this is largely a matter of trust - and positive feedback. But I also think it's an underappreciated component of stockmanship. Stress is reduced when we know each other. And lower stress means lower labor costs - and increased productivity. Maybe we need to intentionally spend time bonding with our livestock!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Not a Straight Line

Last week, I posted an essay about needing our youngest livestock guardian dog, Dillon, to do some actual guarding. We'd heard that there was a mountain lion in the vicinity of a small group of our sheep, and our two older dogs were already with their own groups. Until last week, Dillon had been with a small group of yearling ewes we keep at our home place to train our border collie pups. But last week was the real deal - Dillon went to work!

On the upside, Dillon kept his sheep safe. I installed game cameras to see what kinds of predators might be in the neighborhood. I didn't get any images of mountain lions, but I captured several photos of coyotes within 5-6 feet of our electro-net fencing (which is also a predator deterrent). I'll pull Dillon's GPS collar tonight to see what he was doing with the coyotes visited - but the bottom line is, we had predators around, and we lost no sheep. Good boy, Dillon.

But at just under 8 months of age, Dillon is still a teenager - and a teenage boy, at that. Dillon took a strong liking to one of the ewes in the group he was guarding - and I mean he REALLY liked her. In an inappropriate and explicit way, if you get my meaning. When he wasn't "liking" her, he followed her around the paddock, halfheartedly chasing her on occasion. I was very relieved that I had not scheduled any school field trips last week. I corrected the behavior when I was able to (for more on correction vs. punishment, see my post Final Exams from last month). Last night, I hauled one of the larger groups (and their dog, Elko) back to this ranch - and Dillon went back to guarding his yearling ewes at the house.

This kind of behavior is not necessarily unusual for a puppy at this stage of development (at least in my experience). Some might suggest putting Dillon with an older dog - and that may be something I try down the road. I've had more luck in putting a teenage dog with a group of sheep that will discourage this behavior. Next week, we'll bring our ram battery back from their summer quarters to get them ready for breeding - and Dillon will go with them. I suspect that the rams will be able to offer a more timely (and more effective) correction than I was able to provide.

Training any animal, in my experience, rarely progresses in a straight line. There are always set backs and frustrations, along (hopefully) with progress and breakthroughs. This kind of behavior in an 8-month-old puppy is not optimal, but it's not unexpected. If the behavior persists, however, Dillon will need to find another line of work. We'll give him every chance to learn the kind of respect and manners we expect from our guard dogs - what good is a dog that keeps predators away so he can stress the livestock himself?!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Of Livestock Guardian Dogs, Mountain Lions, and Wildlife Services

As I wrapped up my chores this morning (checking sheep and moving irrigation), I headed home to drop off one of my herding dogs before heading to my day job. As I drove down Mt. Vernon Road west of Auburn, I passed my friend Eric Lopez, who works for Placer County Public Works. Ignoring my phone on the short drive home (actually, I didn't realize I'd had any calls), I saw that Eric had called twice after we passed each other.

I called him back, and he asked if we still had sheep at the corner of Mt. Vernon and Shanley Roads (we do). He told me that he'd seen a mountain lion and two cubs just a mile up the road (near the county animal shelter, and just a half-mile from my UC Cooperative Extension office in Auburn. He'd spoken with our local wildlife specialist (another friend, Dave Bugenig), who told him the cougar had been seen off and on over the last several months in the vicinity of Shanley Road. Where we have sheep.

Perhaps I should share a bit about the sheep we have at this location. Until Tuesday evening, we'd grazed our replacement ewe lambs and feeder lambs at Oak Hill Ranch. On Tuesday, we added 10 older ewes who needed the added nutrition of irrigated pasture. Last night, I sorted the lambs off and hauled them (and their livestock guardian dog, Elko) to another property. The only sheep left at this location are the older ewes. And with Elko gone, these ewes were only protected by our electro-net fencing.

After talking with Eric, we decided that we needed a livestock guardian dog with the ewes. Our only option was our puppy, Dillon (who is 7-1/2 months old). Dillon has been with a handful of yearling ewes at the house - bonding with our sheep and learning to respect them. He's still just a pup (in fact, he's going through his terrible teenage period), but he's got a big bark. And at 75 pounds, he's a physically impressive teenager to boot! This evening, he had his first ride in the back of my pickup - and he's now responsible for security at Oak Hill Ranch.

All of this is a long introduction to the main point of this essay. As I've written before, we're committed to nonlethal tools for philosophical (and, more importantly, for practical) reasons. We graze sheep on property that we don't own. We graze pastures surrounded by rural-residential properties. I'm not able to practice lethal control of predators for these reasons. That's not to say I wouldn't ask our local wildlife specialists (ours are employed by our county; others work for USDA Wildlife Services) for help if we had a serious problem. I wouldn't hesitate to ask for help taking out a predator that I knew was killing my sheep. Thankfully, I haven't had to ask for this kind of help.

But our wildlife specialists (I still call them trappers) help us in other ways. Today's events are a great example - my friend Dave told us that there'd been a lion working in the area where we had our sheep - and so we put a dog with the older ewes.

These next couple of weeks will be a good test for Dillon. He's still a pup, but his size and impressive bark should be intimidating to most predators. We've put him with older ewes, who should reinforce the manners that our yearling ewes have been trying to teach him.

Protecting our sheep from coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, and domestic dogs (our main predators) is a dynamic and adaptive process. We have to pay attention to the costs - each dog costs us $400 a year just in food - that's 3 lambs' worth of income. We have to pay attention to the kinds of predators that are present at any given time - neighbor dogs and coyotes represent very different threats. And we rely on the folks who understand these predators better than we do. Our local wildlife specialists are an incredible source of real-time information about what's happening around our sheep. Wildlife Services is critical to our success in using nonlethal livestock protection tools.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Sheep Camp Summer

In the last three weeks, I've had occasion to visit three High Sierra sheep camps (two in the vicinity of a research project I'm doing, one as the destination of a backpacking trip). Actually, now that I think about it, I've visited a total of five camps - three historic camps and two current (working) camps. I guess this is probably a sign that my professional and personal interests overlap to the extent that one is indistinguishable from the other. Perhaps that suggests I'm boring; I prefer to think that I'm fortunate to be doing work I love.

Wheeler Sheep Camp is located near Kyburz Flat on the Tahoe National Forest. Some of the original buildings (now gone) were built by Martin and Felix Gallues before 1921. The Gallues brothers, like many of the sheepherders of the 20th century, immigrated from the Basque country. While the camp was in use, it included a main cabin, a horse barn, a tack shed, a chicken house, sheep corrals, and a brick oven for baking bread. Today, only the oven remains. It was restored by a professor from UNR in collaboration with the Tahoe National Forest in the early 1990s - and it can be reserved and used for baking bread!

I've visited Wheeler Camp several times before; this summer, I have a research project in the neighborhood. I'm working with the current sheep grazing permittee - Talbott Sheep Company from Los Banos, California, to study livestock guardian dog behavior in an open range grazing system. Talbott Sheep Company turns one of it's sheep bands (1000 ewes) out in the meadow south of Wheeler Camp. Luis, the herder with this band, set up his first camp (a travel trailer) within sight of the old oven at Wheeler.

The Whiskey Creek Sheep Camp is located in the Granite Chief Wilderness west of Lake Tahoe. No longer in use, the buildings at the site today were originally constructed by the Ibarra brothers from Reno in 1959 (according to the Forest Service). Reno's Basque community has since restored the cabin, storage building, and oven.

My youngest daughter, Emma, and I backpacked into Whiskey Creek last weekend. The first part of the trail, from Alpine Meadows to Five Lakes, was crowded both coming and going. But as soon as we passed Five Lakes and entered Granite Chief, we saw very few folks on the trail. And once we set up our camp near Whiskey Creek, we only saw two other parties over the course of three days.

The cabin and store room at Whiskey Creek are log structures made from lodgepole pines harvested nearby. Both buildings have tin roofs; the store room includes screened cabinets that would have been sheathed in wet burlap to keep food cool. The highlight of the camp, though - at least for me - is the oven. While the interior of the oven is lined with bricks, the external structure is made entirely from dry-fitted granite. It's beautiful - and it looks like you could still bake bread in it today.

Whiskey Creek Camp sits just south of Squaw Peak on the banks of the creek for which it's named. I was struck by the fact that the Ibarra brothers were packing supplies and material into the camp at the same time the U.S. Olympic Committee was improving the ski hill at Squaw Valley - the 1960 Winter Olympics took place just over the mountain!

My favorite camp, however, is the historic camp at Russell Valley northeast of Truckee. This camp, which includes several cabins, an amazing sawdust-insulated cold box, a barn, a water tower, and an oven, is considered an "archaeological site" by the Forest Service - a regulatory way of saying it can no longer be used by sheepherders! My friend Chooch, foreman for Talbott Sheep Company, can remember staying there as a kid (Chooch is a little younger than I am, I think, so this would have been in the late 1970s and early 1980s). Set in the timber, the camp looks north across a beautiful meadow. Talbott's second band of sheep is usually unloaded just up the road - and the modern-day sheep camp (again, a travel trailer) is nearby. My research project will take me by the Russell Camp every week until late September!

Raising sheep (or any livestock, for that matter) has historically been a nomadic occupation. The sheep have always followed the green grass. In our small-scale foothill operation, this means we move the sheep to irrigated pasture in the summer. For larger-scale operations like Talbott Sheep Company, the idea is similar, but the annual migration is much longer. Our sheep winter between Lincoln and Auburn; they summer near Auburn. The Talbott sheep winter near Los Banos, spend the spring in western Nevada, and summer north of Truckee. Grazed without fences, these sheep must be actively managed by herders who stay with them day and night. The logistical necessities of tending sheep that far from home have always required camps - and before the advent of supermarkets and Walmart, these camps had to supply all of the needs of sheepherders. How fortunate that some of these old camps still exist!

Tuesday evening, I stopped by Kyburz Flat to change GPS collars on the livestock guardian dogs in Luis's band. As he rode his ATV back to his camp to retrieve a collar, I sat on a rock at the edge of the meadow to watch the sheep graze. Wheeler Camp was a mile behind me; Russell Valley Camp was four or five miles to my south. The only sounds were birdsong, the occasional bleat of a ewe, and the rhythmic ringing of a sheep bell. I think I could get used to sheep camp life!

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Getting There is Half the Fun - So is Getting Ready!

This will mark the third summer in a row that I've done a short backpacking trip in the Sierra with one of my daughters. In 2017, my oldest daughter, Lara, came home from her first year at Montana State University having been bitten by the backpacking bug. We did an overnighter on the northeast side of Spaulding Reservoir on the Tahoe National Forest. Last year, my youngest, Emma, and I did an overnight trip to Island Lake (further north from Spaulding). I was indescribably happy several months ago when Emma asked where we were going this summer - Emma's a quiet kid who doesn't get too excited about much, so I knew that her asking meant she'd enjoyed last year's trip as much as I had! And so in a couple of weeks, Emma and I will head out on a 2-night trip - this time into the Granite Chief Wilderness west of Lake Tahoe. I can't wait!

I grew up car camping, and have car camped for all of my adult life. Before we were married, I introduced my wife Sami to the joys of car camping. We camped our way through Oregon to visit the veterinary schools at Oregon State and Washington State. We camped on the Oregon coast for several nights on our honeymoon. And we've camped on the west slope of the Sierra almost every year since we were married 29 years ago in August.

But I didn't do much backpacking as a kid or young man. In high school, I backpacked into the Emigrant Wilderness with a couple of buddies for a 2-night stay at Grouse Lake. Before we had kids, I went on a pack trip into Dorothy Lake in the north end of Yosemite. I didn't do another back country trip until Lara and I went in 2017. But I was hooked!

Camping has changed during my lifetime (and so have I, I suppose). When we went to the mountains 40 years ago, we saw fewer people. We saw considerably less trash, too - I've been incredibly disappointed on my last several camping trips in the Sonora Pass country. So much garbage, and so many people! While we've seen people on our backpacking trips, we've also been able to be entirely alone. Perhaps that's the value of "wilderness" that Wallace Stegner told us we needed.

As Emma and I are preparing for this year's trip, I'm also reading Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose's account of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Yesterday, I went to REI in Roseville to pick up a few items for our trip - and I started reading about Meriweather Lewis' preparations for exploring the western two thirds of the North American continent. Lewis, obviously, didn't have REI (or a detailed map, for that matter). Lewis couldn't scramble to a high point during his journey where he'd be likely to have cell service. There's really no comparing the expedition and my little two-day trip.

And yet I'm realizing that part of what I'm enjoying about learning to backpack is the preparation. I enjoy thinking about what I really need for a two-night trip. Food and shelter are at the top of the list for me - clothing (after my first two recent trips) is far less important. As an increasingly old guy, I'm willing to pack a lightweight chair - I'll gladly give up extra socks and t-shirts for a comfortable seat by the campfire. In short, I'm enjoying the thought that goes into planning a trip like this!

In ten days, Emma and I are planning to hike to Whiskey Creek Sheep Camp in Granite Chief. We'll take fishing gear this year. We'll take coffee to enjoy in the mornings, and books to read in camp. We won't take much extra clothing - as my friend (and my girls' middle school science teacher) Gary Wells told me, "If the weather's crappy, just stay in your sleeping bag in your tent and play cards!" I can't wait to leave! As my friend the late Ron Arrington said, "If you're lucky enough to be in the mountains, you're lucky enough." And for me, preparing to go to the mountains is half the fun!