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!

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Final Exams

Yesterday, my July issue of The Shepherd arrived (if you’re raise sheep, and you’re not a subscriber, you should be!). Louise Liebenberg, a sheep producer from Alberta, writes an outstanding monthly article on livestock guardian dogs. This month’s installment is titled, “Corrections.” Louise discusses the importance of correcting inappropriate behavior in LGDs. She writes, “A well timed ‘no’ is probably the best form of correction, and in some cases the only correction needed!” She also says, “Some people like to believe that [a] mentor dog will stop in and correct the young dog, but this rarely happens and ultimately the onus lies on you to guide and at times, correct the dog....”

As someone who tries to be a student of “training” both LGDs and herding dogs, I found the article to be especially insightful. I would go a bit further in differentiating correction from punishment. To me, correction happens in the moment - the dog is able to associate my displeasure with an action that is currently occurring. The dog is chasing the sheep, I say “NO,” the dog changes his behavior. Punishment, according to my definition, happens after the fact. I find a sheep that’s been injured by the dog, I tell the dog, “NO,” and he has no idea what the hell I’m talking about. This applies to training herding dogs, in my experience, as well. Correcting a mistake in the moment helps the dog; punishing a mistake after it happens (even if it’s only seconds or minutes after it happens) just confuses the dog. A correction says, “that behavior is inappropriate - try something else.” A punishment says, “I’m mad at you for what you did before.”

I’m frequently asked about whether I use my older dogs to help train my younger dogs (both LGDs and herding dogs). With my herding dogs, I rarely if ever work a trainee with an older dog. In my experience, the trainee focuses on the other dog rather than on his partnership with me. Our early training, in my opinion, is largely about building trust and a system of communication. Working dogs together can disrupt this critical bonding process.

Similarly, I think putting a young LGD with an older dog can disrupt the pup’s bonding process with livestock. My most effective LGDs are those dogs who stay with their livestock no matter what. I’d much prefer a dog that stays with his sheep when the sheep break out of a paddock than one who goes roaming the neighborhood in search of other canine companionship. Furthermore, as a sheepman first (and a dog trainer second), I can’t afford to keep a dog who’s only role is to train a pup - our adult dogs are all out working. A “mentor” dog is simply not cost effective for us.

That said, over the last two lambing seasons, I’ve witnessed interactions between older, experienced dogs and novice dogs. Lambing time is our most critical period for predator protection - and the most difficult test for a dog. From a predation perspective, our lambing season comes at a time when the coyotes and mountain lions don’t have many dietary options. From a dog’s perspective, lambing season offers all sorts of gastronomic and maternal delights. Our dogs love to clean up afterbirth! We’ve had young female dogs that decided they should care for newborn lambs - their maternal instincts drive them to steal lambs from the ewes. Both predilections can create problems. Ideally, we need a dog that is attentive but respectful of lambing ewes. We need a dog that gives a ewe her space while lambing, but that keeps the predators at bay.

In February 2018, we put a young, inexperienced dog (Bodie) with an older dog (Reno) at the outset of lambing. I was fortunate to arrive at the pasture shortly after the first lamb of the year was born - and I captured the interaction between Bodie, Reno, and the ewe on video. Bodie was curious about the new lamb - it was his first experience with lambing, after all. As he approached the ewe and her lamb, Reno barked at him and chased him away. I witnessed this same interaction several days later. Bodie was a perfect lambing dog the rest of the season.

This past April, we hauled the flock back to our spring/summer irrigated pastures. We had one ewe left to lamb, and she gave birth to twins on the day we hauled the sheep. We also decided to put our youngest dog, Elko, with Bodie and the rest of the flock. Every time Elko approached the ewe and her lambs, Bodie chased him away. Elko was respectful of the ewes and lambs for the rest of the spring; this summer, he’s guarding the replacement ewe lambs and doing a great job.

In both cases, a skeptic might say, “the older dog only wanted the afterbirth!” That’s probably true, but the correction was important. These observations reinforce those that Louise shares in her article. In both cases, the older dog offered a correction in the moment - a correction that had a lasting impact. In both cases, my correction would have come too late (most likely) - becoming a punishment rather than a correction. And in both cases, the dogs passed their final exams!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Learning from my Dogs

I'm fascinated by dogs - working dogs, in particular. Since we got into the sheep business as a commercial enterprise nearly 15 years ago, I've been blessed by the opportunity to work with, and learn from, a variety of dogs. A good number of these dogs have been working border collies; others have been livestock guardian dogs of various breeds. In every case - whether I trained the dog or not, I've learned something. And as I've grown older and gained more experience, I've realized how much I don't know!

I told someone recently that I have re-read several books on training herding dogs over the years (The Farmer's Dog by John Holmes and Talking Sheepdogs by Derek Scrimgeor). Looking back, I realize now that both books, while interesting, where way above my head at my first reading. I didn't know enough to know how uninformed I was! As I've re-read these books, the subtlety of working with sheep dogs in a variety of settings and situations has informed my understanding. Real-world experience, in other words, has complimented my book learning.

Livestock guardian dogs, I've found, are every bit as complicated as herding dogs. When we purchased our first LGD, a female Akbash named Scarlet, I assumed one big white dog would be as good as any other. This seems silly now that I write it - I absolutely know that some border collies have greater herding abilities than others; why wouldn't this be the same for LGDs? I'm still learning this lesson, but I'm finally able to see that my training needs to respond to a particular dog's experience, behavior, personality, and instincts. Yet another outstanding dog book, Brave and Loyal by my friend and fellow shepherd, Cat Urbigkit, has added to my understanding of these complex canines.

Which brings me to a few observations about a handful of young dogs that I'm working with currently. We kept two border collies out of a litter of pups that my dog Mae had last summer. Gillie and Sage are just over a year old, and both are proving to be more challenging to train than their parents. Sage had some time away from training due to a surgery - I've just started him on sheep again. Gillie had some time off while we were lambing (I just didn't have enough time in the day). Both pups are not nearly as confident as their parents, and Gillie is especially sensitive when I try to correct her. We're taking it slowly; Mae was doing real work by the time she was 18 months old. I'm realizing that I might need help from a professional trainer - I'll probably try to take a lesson with both of them simply to get some suggestions on MY approach to their training.

We're also starting a young Akbash-Pyrenees cross named Dillon. He's just over 6 months old and looks to be a promising guardian. He's currently with a handful of yearling ewes, and he seems to be well bonded. He's so well bonded, in fact, that he frantically dug under a gate to be with them after we had to sedate him to remove foxtails from his ears. He's proving (at least so far) that he'll stay in all kinds of fencing (electric fence as well as hard-wire field fence) as long as his sheep are there. And he's developed a deep, impressive bark - which he uses whenever there's something he deems a threat. As an inexperienced pup, this threat might be coyotes singing in the ravine north of his pasture, or it might be the neighbor kid riding her bike down the gravel road.

Another friend and fellow rancher, Liz Hubbard, once told me, "When you're working a dog, you need to be totally present and totally focused." Perhaps that's the biggest thing I've learned from my working dogs. When I work with my herding dogs, I can't be daydreaming or fretting over a bad day at the office. Every bit of work we do together is a training session - for all of us! Being present and focused with my livestock guardian dogs is a different matter; I have to be observant without disrupting their bond with their sheep. In both cases, the responsibility for communicating lies with me - it's not the dog's fault if she doesn't understand what I'm asking. I suppose in some respects, being totally present and totally focused is one definition of empathy - I find that it helps me see the world through their eyes. And I learn something every time we work together.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Big or Small: We're all in this Together!

Yesterday afternoon, we held our third annual Sierra Foothills Wool Pool. Sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension, our wool pool is a way for small-scale producers to get their wool marketed. Since its inception, my friends at Roswell Wool have been incredibly supportive. Mike Corn, owner of Roswell Wool and immediate past president of the American Sheep Industry Association, has made sure that small producers like us have a way to market our wool. Ian McKenzie, a Kiwi who spends half of each year in the American West (and the other half in New Zealand), cheerfully works with us and with other small-scale sheep producers in the foothills to get our wool packaged, shipped, and sold. And even though we're extremely small fish in an exceptionally large pond (we shipped somewhere around 1,000 pounds of raw wool yesterday - total US wool production is somewhere close to 25 million pounds a year), Mike and Ian always make us feel like we're all in this together - regardless of the size of our operation.

As a small-scale producer, we often rely on the infrastructure that exists because there are also large-scale operations in California. The vaccines, medicines, and feedstuffs we use are available because the California market is much larger than our 100-ewe flock. Ian McKenzie spends the spring and early summer in California because there are semi-loads of wool to be shipped; his small flatbed trailer load of our wool is a drop in the bucket. We're fortunate to be able to harvest (and sell) our lambs at Superior Farms in Dixon (just 65 miles down Interstate 80 from our home place) - the largest processor and marketer of lamb products in the U.S. Superior Farms operates in Dixon not because we have 75 or so lambs to sell in Auburn; rather, they are centrally located to handle lambs from the Imperial Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and from the Delta. I definitely realize I'm riding on the coattails of my larger-scale friends - woolen coattails, but coattails nonetheless.

And yet small-scale producers like us - and like my friend Robin Lynde of Meridian Jacobs, and Spencer and Melissa Tregilgas of Free Hand Farm, and Lloyd McCabe of Dixon - add value to the sheep-raising community as well. Many of us are active on social media, educating our neighbors (and the neighbors of our large-scale colleagues) about sheep production, the benefits of sheep grazing, and the value of wool. Some of us sell rams to larger operations, providing an infusion of new genetic material. Many smaller operations are early adopters of new management systems and new technology; some of us hold workshops to help educate a new generation of sheep ranchers. And some of us, one day, will transition from small-scale to large-scale production.

One of the things I appreciate most about my chosen avocation is that most shepherds are humble by nature. As I've written before, nobody goes to Boot Barn looking for sheepherder clothes; cowboy clothes, on the other hand, are a fashion statement. In the West, many of those who have continued in the sheep business are the descendants of immigrants (or immigrants themselves). Many of us have always relied on other people's land to graze our sheep - lease arrangements like mine are the standard rather than the exception in the sheep business. Regardless of how large (or small) our sheep operations are, there is a sense

in the sheep-raising community that we're all in this together!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

So this is May?!

We awoke this morning - on Sunday, May 26, 2019 - to drizzly weather and cold (for May in the Sierra foothills) temperatures. Overnight, we'd measured 0.17 inches of precipitation, pushing our total for the month (actually, for the last 11 days) close to five inches. I wore my raincoat as I checked the sheep and fed the livestock guardian dogs; I came home and started a fire in the woodstove to ward off the chill in the house. This year's Memorial Day Weekend felt more like March than May! Indeed, with the additional 0.9" of rain we've measured since this morning, we've received more precipitation in May 2019 than we received in March this year!

Agriculturally, rain in May is a mixed blessing for California farmers. Many of my friends who grow cherries have seen their crops wiped out this year. I suspect we won't see many peaches or nectarines in the farmers market later this summer. And I'd sure hate to be trying to plant rice at the moment.

For us, five-plus inches of rain in the last 11 days has meant I've been able to take a break from irrigating our pastures. Yesterday, I dug down into our pasture soil to test the moisture - the soil profile was at least 75 percent full. With more than an inch of precipitation in the last 24 hours, I didn't bother checking it today. Typically in May, our pastures require just over 6 inches of water (to meet the requirements of our grasses and replace moisture lost to evaporation). In the last 11 days, Mother Nature has taken care of this - I haven't had to drag our K-Line irrigation system across the pasture. Our summer "drought" is inevitable; these storms have delayed its onset.

Some will point to this weather and say, "See - global warming isn't real." Warming, at least from my perspective, is a misnomer - what we're really experiencing is climate change - at least where I live. From my perhaps simplistic sheepherder perspective, our climate here in the Sierra foothills certainly seems to be changing. Temperatures - and precipitation - seem to be much more variable. For example, in the last decade, we've measured as little as 21.69 inches of precipitation and as much as 62.96 inches - making our "average" of 32.94 inches all but meaningless. Our snowpack in the higher elevations has been similarly erratic - ranging from non-existent during the height of our drought to nearly double this year. I'd hate to be in the long-range weather forecasting business!

From a practical standpoint, the weather of these last 11 days has provided a welcome break in our late spring routine. Since I haven't had to irrigate, I've gained another 45-60 minutes in my day - time that otherwise would have been spent moving water. I'm not sure I've used this extra time wisely - this morning, I came home and took a nap - but I have enjoyed this extended early spring weather. I'll try to remember it when we break a 100 degrees in the next 30-45 days!

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


Photo credit: Emma Macon
Despite being a sheepherder (by inclination and avocation), I am a fan of cowboy poetry. One of my favorite cowboy poets is Montana rancher, Wallace McCrae - and my favorite of his poems is one entitled, "Things of Intrinsic Worth" (although "Reincarnation" is a close second!). Here's an excerpt:
"Great God how we're doing, we're rolling in dough, as they tear and ravage the earth. And nobody knows..., or nobody cares about things of intrinsic worth."
Here's the whole poem:

I was reminded of this poem at a meeting on a recent evening, when I heard a local official talk glowingly about a "boutique farm." While I wouldn't classify the farm in question as a "boutique," the statement made me think about what the "official" perspective on farming and ranching has become in my part of the Sierra foothills. It reminded me of the farms and ranches that have disappeared in my home county (Tuolumne) and in my adopted county (Placer). The word "boutique" has been like a sticker in my sock for the last several days - it's bothered me, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Until this evening.

The intrinsic value of authentic farms and ranches, I've come to realize, is in the sustenance of human (and other) life. Here in the foothills, these enterprises produce food and fiber, certainly; they also produce wildlife habitat, open space, and iconic scenic vistas. The folks who run them, multi-generational and newcomers alike, are the warf and weft of our communities - the fabric that make these oak-studded hills a place where I want to live and work. They are the friends who lend a hand when it's needed, who call when they see smoke near one of our pastures, who have shared the stories of their places with me.

Others, certainly, have noted - and capitalized - on these values. I once thought it would be fun to do a photo essay of the subdivisions that include agricultural terms in their names (Johnson Ranch, Foothill Farms, The Vineyards). As I grow older, I'm simply saddened by this trend. Pavement and rooftops are the Sierra foothills version of McRae's strip mines in Colstrip, Montana.

I've realized this week that the lack of authenticity is what bothers me about the term "boutique farm." To me, this implies a farm or ranch that is operated for it's ambiance rather than for it's ability to feed or clothe it's community. It implies an operation that is valued for its appearances rather than its production. A boutique farm doesn't make noise or generate flies.

We hauled all of our sheep (and both of our mature livestock guardian dogs) home last week to be shorn. This process involves dry-lotting the sheep overnight to allow them to empty their digestive and urinary tracts (making shearing more comfortable for them). It also involves temporarily separating them from their lambs. The result is a day-and-a-half of noisy, dusty activity in our semi-rural part of north Auburn. The result is also nearly a half-ton of wool that will be made into clothing and carpets. I'm sure the noise and dust and barking dogs annoy some of our neighbors; I hope that we're also able to explain what we're doing and why we do it. I hope we're authentic about our sheep-ranching. I hope it has intrinsic worth.

I've long thought that many segments of our society value farm and ranch land only as an inventory of future subdivisions. Rangeland, especially, because of the acreage needed to sustain a ranching operation versus the number of houses it can support, is undervalued for its agricultural value. Here in Auburn, I need 2-3 acres of land to support each ewe for a year - and yet there's a proposed subdivision up the road that will have 5-6 houses on the land that could support one of my sheep. I get it - economically, this landowner is better off growing houses than raising sheep - but I wonder if this is really progress.

To end this on a more upbeat note, here's "Reincarnation"

Monday, May 13, 2019

A Curious Mind

Someone - a friend and colleague - paid me what I consider a high compliment several weeks ago. She said, “You have a curious mind.” Obviously - since I’m writing about it now - in the weeks since, this phrase has stayed with me. I am curious, but my curiosity tends to focus on the biological and behavioral rather than the mechanical.

I’ve never been mechanically inclined, really. Sure, I can pound a nail through a board (without bending the nail, most times). I can change the oil in my pickup. I can troubleshoot an electric fence. But I’ve always envied people like my brother-in-law Adrian, who can weld, or fix a diesel motor, or take apart and reassemble a rifle without an instruction manual. Those kinds of details are beyond me!

In many ways, my curiosity focuses on “why” rather than “how.” Why do some sheep prefer brush, while others prefer grass? Why are some cows solid mothers, while others reject their calves? Why do some ranchers adopt new technology, while others insist on doing it the way granddad did? Why did we grow so much grass last year (in an average rainfall year), while we grew less grass in 2017 (in a record rainfall year)? Why, why, why?

I suppose my curious focus on biological and behavioral questions drives the kind of work I do professionally. Biology and behavior (at least in my narrowly-focused experience) tend to be inexact sciences. I especially enjoy digging into relationships - the relationships between grazing animals and grass growth, for example. Or the relationships between economics and livestock production decisions. In my professional life, as a sheep producer and extension agent, the questions that excite me most have to do with these relationships. Do livestock guardian dogs displace coyotes or disrupt their predatory behaviors? Do herding dogs and sheep communicate - and if they do, what do they say? How can experienced ranchers best convey their knowledge to new ranchers?

Part of being curious, as should be obvious by now, is accepting that I’ll always have more questions than answers. As a farm advisor - and as a rancher, I’m paid to have answers - I am supposed to help the ranchers I serve understand complex issues. But I’m also paid to ask questions - and that’s what I really love about these jobs! I get paid to be curious!