January Morning

January Morning

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Late Spring Rain

Since last Friday, we've measured 0.85 inches of rain at our home place near Auburn.  This moisture has arrived during relatively brief thunderstorms - and like many late spring rains, it's been spotty.  A friend who ranches less than three miles from us measured more than an inch of rain last night!  For most farmers and ranchers, the timing of the rain is as important as the total amount - and these late spring rains have been a mixed blessing for our operation.

On the positive side, rain at this time of year can help our irrigated pastures.  The point of efficient irrigation is to match the water applied to our pastures with the water needs of our soils and plants.  I monitor this both directly and indirectly.  Directly, I check the amount of moisture in our soils on a regular basis by digging into the root zone and evaluating the amount of water by the look and feel of our soil.  We don't want our soils to totally dry out during irrigation, nor do we want them to remain saturated at all times.  Indirectly, I monitor the evapo-transpiration (ETo) in our area.  ETo is the amount of water lost through evaporation and transpiration (uptake by plants).  This information is available through the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) website operated by the California Department of Water Resources.  Through this website, I can track daily (or even hourly) ETo, as well as precipitation and soil temperature.  Each Friday, I check these numbers and note them in my irrigation log - which allows me to make adjustments in my irrigation schedule.  Between May 18 and May 24, the ETo for the Auburn CIMIS station was 1.16 inches - that means soil lost 1.16 inches of water to plants and evaporation in the last week.  To keep our plants growing, we need to add at least that much water back into the soil.  Mother Nature provided about 80 percent of our water demand this week!  We've kept irrigating, which means we're banking soil moisture for the drier, hotter weather sure to come.

On the negative side, our rangeland (or unirrigated) pastures are dominated by annual grasses and broadleaf plants (which we call forbs - things like clover and filaree).  Annual plants must complete their life cycles each year - that is, they germinate, grow, flower (reproduce) and die.  Most of our forage plants germinate in the fall (with some notable exceptions that I'll explain below), grow through the winter and spring, and reproduce and die in the late spring or early summer.  In managing our rangelands for grazing, we evaluate peak forage production some time in May, and then ration out this standing "crop" until the next growing season begins in the fall.

Our sheep are ruminants, which essentially means that the microbes in their foreguts (their rumen systems) are able to break down the cellulose material in forage and extract essential nutrients.  These "bugs" in the sheep's guts require a diet with about 8 percent protein to thrive.  Green, growing forage can be anywhere from around 12 percent protein to as high as 25 percent.  Dry, dead forage, on the other hand, can be as low as 3-4 percent protein.  And when this dry forage gets rained on, many of the remaining nutrients (including protein) are leached out.  So rain on our dry annual grasses actually decreases its value to our grazing sheep.  We can get the sheep to eat the dry grass, but we have to provide supplemental protein to ensure the health and vigor of their gut microbes.

Some of my friends say that ranchers are never happy - it's always too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry.  When the market for lambs is high, we don't have enough grass.  When we have plenty of grass, the market crashes.  I suppose there is some truth to what my friends say, but I also think that trying to earn an income in partnership with Nature is fraught with uncertainty.  These late spring rains are a great example - they help with our irrigated pastures (a blessing), but they hurt the nutritional value of our annual grasslands (a curse).  I guess we'll just keep taking whatever Mother Nature serves up!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


The shepherd's year, as I reflect on it, is a combination of intense mileposts interspersed with routine tasks.  Lambing, shearing, weaning the lambs, shipping the lambs, sorting the breeding groups, moving the sheep between summer and winter pastures - these are the periods of concentrated effort.  Between these bursts of work (and indeed, even during them), the routine tasks must be accomplished.  These routine responsibilities include things like checking the electric fences, feeding the livestock guardian dogs, walking through the sheep to check for health problems, and moving the irrigation water.  With shearing now behind us and weaning lambs about a month away, we've settled back into our routine.

The routine tasks seem to lend themselves to a division of labor.  My partner Roger handles checking the fences and the sheep and feeding the guard dog.  I take care of moving the irrigation water.  At times, especially when we have a bigger move to do with the sheep or a lot of fence to move, we'll work together - but the daily smaller chores are covered individually.

Last year, we upgraded our main irrigation system from aluminum hand-pipe to a K-Line pod system.  Rather than disassembling the pipe, walking it to a new set, and reassembling it every 24 hours, I now drag the K-Line with an ATV.  Our system is set up on a 24-hour set and a 10-day rotation - for those of you who don't irrigate, this means that the sprinklers put out enough water in 24 hours to meet our plants' needs.  We come back to the same spot in the pasture every 10 days.

When all goes smoothly, it takes me about 30 minutes to move water.  If I leave for the ranch by 7 a.m., I can get the water shifted and make it to work before 8 a.m.  But as with most things in farming and ranching, the water moves don't always go smoothly.  Frequently, I find plugged sprinklers, which I try to unplug without turning off the system (to save time).  This means I often arrive at work with wet clothes!  Last year, the neighbor's dog took great pleasure in biting the sprinklers while they were running - on occasion I'd arrive to find a geyser in the middle of my irrigation set.  Sometimes I forget to check the fuel in the ATV!

Similarly, the sheep chores are mostly non-eventful.  One of us (mostly Roger) will feed Reno, walk through the sheep, and check the fences.  Once in a while, we'll find a lamb or a ewe that needs to be treated for some ailment (usually a mild respiratory infection).  This time of year, with warm days and with the sheep on irrigated pasture, we sometimes see coccidiosis (a parasite that causes diarrhea).  Sometimes we'll arrive to a non-working electric fence (usually a dead battery or some kind of fault on the fence itself).  These problems always seem to occur when we have someplace else to be!

This year, I have a couple of additions to my daily routine.  We recently purchased a new border collie puppy (Mae).  Our oldest working dog (Mo) is 9, so we've decided it's time to start working on his replacement.  Mae is still too young for direct training on sheep, but all of us are working on socializing her and on basic manners (coming when called, not jumping on people, crate-training, etc.).  She's been great fun to have around!  And this week, we also picked up a new guard dog puppy.  Bodie is part Anatolian and part Maremma.  His training is very different - we want him to bond with the sheep, so he's getting very little in the way of socialization (except at feeding time).  At the moment, he's adjusting to life away from his brothers and sisters by living with a handful of sheep we keep at the house.  Over the next several weeks, I'll expose him to electric fencing in preparation for his lifetime of guarding our sheep.

I guess in some respects, raising livestock is like any other avocation.  There are times of intense work and times of routine in any job, I suppose.  What's different about ranching, at least to me, is that the rhythm of my work follows the progression of the seasons - lambs and shearing in spring, sorting breeding groups in fall, and shipping finished lambs in fall, for example.  The other difference, I think, is that I'm on the ranch's schedule - even when I think I'm not!  A broken water pipe or a sick lamb can't simply be left until tomorrow.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Shearing 2016

Our family is on the back end of an incredibly busy weekend.  As I write this, the rest of my family is napping (it's late afternoon here).  And I just listened to the Giants finish off the Arizona Diamondbacks for a 4-game sweep!  For our oldest daughter, Lara, this was the weekend of Senior Ball - her last formal high school dance.  For me, this was shearing weekend - we had hoped to shear last weekend (for lots of reasons, not the least of which - I wanted to be able to take photos of Lara and her date).  Rain meant we postponed shearing till this weekend.

First, a bit about Lara's night.  I haven't talked to her yet, but I did see Sami's photos of Lara and her varsity soccer teammates at the historic Placer County Courthouse in Auburn - wearing their formal dresses and their soccer cleats!  As Lara completes her 4 years at Placer High, I'm remembering my own experiences at Sonora High School.  Auburn and Sonora are both one high school towns - and playing sports (as a Lady Hillmen or as a Wildcat) means so much more than simply winning or losing. High school sports - at their best - gives athletes a feel for what it means to represent their community.  Lara and her Lady Hillmen teammates get this!  I can't wait to hear about the rest of Lara's evening.

Second, shearing (at least for a small-scale producer like me) is similar to a calf branding.  It's a communal event that involves lots of work and lots of laughter.  My weekend started Friday morning - after I moved irrigation water, my partner Roger and I gathered and shipped the sheep home in anticipation of shearing.  On Saturday, we hosted a workshop for 10 new and aspiring shepherds on setting up for shearing, handling wool and preparing fleeces for marketing.  Today, I hauled the rams back to their summer pasture (at a neighbor's - their boys are also Placer High students!).  Later, Roger and I hauled the ewes back to pasture.  This evening, I'll sack the rest of our wool and work on cleaning up.

This year was especially enjoyable because my friend (and Lara's classmate) Jake Richardson helped us.  Jake first started working with me when he was 11 (I think).  He's since started his own flock, and he's excelled as a sheep and goat showman.  In the fall, he's headed off to college in Texas; this weekend, he helped us shear.

Our dogs play an essential role in our work - and shearing day is no exception.  Mo and Ernie helped gather and load the ewes on Friday.  One ewe in particular (1548, to be exact) decided she'd like to kill Ernie.  Beginning on Friday, she'd hunt him down whenever she saw him.  During shearing, she chased him out of the corrals.  Today, as we shipped the ewes and lambs back to pasture, I made sure to help rebuild Ernie's confidence.  He'll take on an angry mama cow, but this ewe has his number.  If she hadn't had twins the last three years, she'd go down the road!  Yesterday, our shearer left the back of his car open as we were loading him up (and enjoying a beer).  After he left, I discovered that Ernie was missing - he'd jumped into Derrick's car!  This morning was Mo's turn for adventure - he got sprayed by a skunk while I was changing water!  And I can't leave Reno (our guardian dog) out - he decided yesterday (while we were shearing) that he needed to protect the chickens from the sheep - I think he was hoping for a chicken dinner.

The everyday work of raising sheep goes on - even during shearing week.  This morning, I moved irrigation water while Roger built fence for the ewes and lambs.  Tomorrow, we'll both resume our daily chores - I'll do the irrigating while Roger checks the sheep.  But shearing is one of our key milestones - a report card, if you will.  We evaluate the condition of our ewes at shearing - with the wool off, we can see what kind of shape they're in.  I realized today that when the ewes are shorn, they're far more uniform than when they are in full fleece.  I guess this suggests that we have considerable variability in our wool production.  This year, our ewes are in amazing condition (for the most part) - normal precipitation and grass growth, combined with improved management, means that they look great.

Beginning on Thursday evening, I didn't sleep well.  On Thursday, I was worried about the day I had ahead of me hauling sheep and setting up for shearing.  I snapped at my family (which I always regret, but which I always do).  Friday night, with ewes separated from lambs in the corrals, I failed to sleep well again - plus I was worrying about shearing.  Last night, even after a physically draining day, I had trouble sleeping - worrying about shipping the ewes and lambs back to pasture.  Tonight, I think I'll sleep pretty soundly!
Bringing the woollies into the corrals - Friday morning.
Jake - the Woollie

Our crew and our students - after packing the first sack!

Sewing up the second sack of wool.  We still pack our wool in "sausage packs."

The boys - back out on pasture.

Sheared ewes with their lambs - back out on pasture.

One year's worth of wool...

Friday, May 13, 2016


As I write this post, I'm listening to a scoreless baseball game on the radio (Giants vs. Diamondbacks) and lambs bleating in the corrals - both normal sounds around here in mid May.  We're preparing to shear the ewes tomorrow!

We were hoping to shear last weekend, but we had just enough rain to make the sheep too wet to shear.  So we spent today hauling sheep home, setting up our portable corrals, and getting ready for one of the bigger days in the shepherd's year.  Ewes that are newly lactating are difficult to shear, so we typically wait until our youngest lambs are 5-6 weeks old before we shear.  This puts us up against sticker season - as our forage dries out, we start to get foxtail, ripgut brome, and other stickers in the wool.  With the warm temperatures we've had this spring, sticker season has come early.  I wish we'd been able to shear last weekend!

Today, after I moved water, we built our temporary corrals at the ranch and loaded the sheep to haul them home.  After 4 trips with ewes and lambs, I went to pick up the rams at a neighbor's, while my partner Roger dismantled the corrals and hauled them to the house.  I brought the sheep into a dry-lot pen - and Roger and I set up the corrals so that we can sort lambs from ewes tomorrow.  We keep the sheep off feed and water overnight to let them empty their rumens and bladders - which makes the 90-second shearing process much more comfortable for them.  Tonight, Sami and Emma helped me set up the wool-sack stand and bring the first 20 ewes into the barn.  We try to keep the first group of sheep under cover overnight to keep the dew off them - a heavy dew makes the sheep too wet to shear.  As my family will tell you, I'm kind of a jerk during shearing.  Shearing, as one of the key milestones of our sheep year, is like a final exam.  I want everything to go smoothly, and I'm conscious of the amount of work ahead of us.  I guess I'm somewhat intense by nature - and so I'm not as patient as I should be during this time.  Fortunately, Sami and the girls are far more patient with me!

Shearing, for shepherds, is like branding for cattlemen.  Shearing is physically intense (especially for the shearer, but also for the crew).  It requires a "crew" - we need help to make the day go smoothly.  Some years, we have friends and fellow shepherds help us; this year, we're holding a workshop for new and aspiring shepherds.  While some of the "help" will be inexperienced, I expect the day will go well.  Even so, I won't sleep well tonight - between the sound of the lambs and my own anxiety, I'll toss and turn all night!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


We're supposed to shear our sheep this Saturday.  Since we lamb in the spring, we shear a bit later than most California sheep producers - we try to wait until the youngest lambs are 5-6 weeks old.  Newly lactating ewes don't shear as easily, but there's a trade-off - especially in an early grass year like this one.  As the grass dries out, we can get more stickers in the wool.  And so the first weekend in May is usually when we shear.

As a pasture based operation, we don't have many options when it comes to shearing facilities.  My long-term dream is to build a shearing shed; in the meantime, we shear in our horse barn or in one of the horse barns near our rented pastures.  Even with our reduced numbers, we find it difficult to house all of the ewes overnight prior to shearing.  When the weather is dry, this isn't a problem - the ewes are penned on a dry lot overnight.  When the weather turns wet, however, we have to be flexible.

This year, we've been planning to haul all of the sheep home for the weekend to shear in our own barn.  Despite the added work of hauling home, this is a better facility for shearing.  We use one stall as a holding pen, and the other as the "bull pen" where the shearing happens.  We sort off 8 ewes at a time into the bull pen, where one of the crew catches the ewes for the shearer.  Once the 8 ewes are shorn, they go out the barn alley into a pasture we've saved and rejoin their lambs.  Each fleece comes out of the shearing pen onto a skirting table (where soiled wool is removed and the fleece is rolled).  The rolled fleeces then go into a 6-foot high burlap wool sack in our hay barn, where one of us stomps it down (each sack can hold 30-35 of our fleeces).  On the day after shearing, we haul the flock back to our rented pasture.

The only downside of this arrangement (besides the trailer ride for the sheep) is the lack of under-cover pen space.  If it rains, the sheep get wet!  And wet wool spoils.  So we have to be flexible!

From the standpoint of pasture quality, I love this forecast!
Nature will be doing my irrigating!  From the standpoint
of shearing our sheep, this weather is problematic.
One option is to shear the sheep in a barn near our leased pasture.  The advantages are that we can walk the sheep here rather than haul them.  And, we will have enough space to house them overnight under cover (which means they'll be dry when we shear them starting on Saturday morning).  We can also keep our skirting table and wool sack under cover - in other words, it's an all weather facility.  The downside is that the shearing pen is not as level as our home facility (which makes the shearing job more difficult).  We also have to impose on the folks who own and lease the horse facilities.

Looking ahead at the forecast for the rest of the week, the likelihood of rain on Friday and Saturday seems to be increasing.  We'll either need to shear close to the ranch, or wait until the following weekend.  In other words, we'll have to be flexible!  Much like the rest of the year....

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Seven Months In - a #Sheep365 Update

Seven months ago today, I started a little self-indulgent project that I called "#Sheep365."  I wanted to share a photo of our small-scale sheep operation everyday for a full year, and I decided to start the project on the day that we turned the rams in with the ewes.  Everyday since, I've posted at least one photograph of my day's activities on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Now that I'm more than halfway through with the project, I'm realizing several things about my effort, about social media and about our operation:

  • Photographs are more meaningful (at least to me) if they tell a story.  I find myself taking lots of photos (all with my iPhone) in an effort to capture something about the particular day or time of year I'm documenting.  I don't always succeed, but the photos that I like the best tell a story or convey a sense of action.
  • I'm more aware of other farmers and ranchers who are doing similar projects.  Alan Haight at Riverhill Farm (check out @riverhillfarmers on Instagram), and Jill Hackett of Ferndale Farms (check out @humboldtherder on Instagram) are taking especially wonderful photos.  I encourage you to check them both out!  Also, be sure to check out #sheep365 on Twitter - there are sheep producers in other parts of the world who are posting some pretty cool things!
  • My photos generate some learning opportunities - I've had a chance to explain our operation and sheep-raising in general to a variety of folks.  I've tried to share both positive images and those that reflect the more difficult side of farming and ranching.  I've been able to explain why we use antibiotics to treat infection.  I've been able to talk about why we're concerned over the arrival of wolves in northern California.
  • Finally, I've been able to compare conditions this year with previous years.  One photo in particular demonstrated the difference between normal rainfall and grass growth (this year) with the impacts of a fourth year of drought (last year).
The next 5 months (or the next 152 days, to be exact) will see us shear the sheep, wean our lambs, market our lambs, irrigated our pastures, and prepare for yet another breeding season.  When #Sheep365 ends, my work as a shepherd will continue.  While I don't think I'll post daily photos beyond September 30, I will be more conscious of photographing the story of our farm - and comparing conditions with previous years.

Note: I'm considering producing a calendar with 12 of my favorite photos from this project - let me know if you'd be interested!

In the meantime, here are a few photos from the last couple of months!  Enjoy!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Working Dogs vs. Recreation Dogs

Moving ewes and lambs with Ernie last night.
Every couple of months, I get a phone call or an email from somebody who has heard that we use herding dogs in our sheep operation.  Occasionally, these questions come from a fellow sheep producer (usually a new one) who wants to learn how to use dogs (and make themselves a better shepherd).  More frequently, the call comes from somebody looking to find a new activity to enjoy with their border collie or Australian shepherd.  With the latter, the conversation usually begins with the other person describing how gifted and intelligent their dog is.  While I'll still take time to help folks in the first category, I've become increasingly reluctant to help folks in the second.

First, I should say I'm not a dog trainer.  I've had help with my herding dogs. Much of what my dogs have learned, I've learned with them. The skills that my dogs have, they've developed through actual work - moving sheep and cows.

Second, a bit about my experience working with the second group of people - the folks who would like to give their dogs a new activity.  Some are entirely understanding when I explain that my sheep are (at least in part) my livelihood.  I usually ask whether they are committed to becoming stockmen (or women), or if they are simply looking for an alternative to frisbee or agility.  I will always help aspiring shepherds, but when I suggest that their dog (and especially my sheep) would be better served by something that doesn't involve chasing sheep (and most of these dogs chase rather than herd), the people who are looking for activity rather than skill often don't understand my concern.  A few folks in this category will then proceed to argue with me - their dog comes from working lines, after all.

Yesterday, I listened to an outstanding podcast from the Heritage Radio Network about guardian and herding dogs.  The host, John Wilkes (himself a former sheep farmer) interviewed Welsh shepherd and champion dog handler Aled Owen.  Our newest dog, Mae, is descended from one of Owen's dogs.  He talked about the need for a solid trial dog to get real work on a regular basis.  The best sheep dog trial handlers I know in this country say the same thing - a trial dog truly excels only when he or she has to do real-world sheep work on a regular basis.  Similarly, I think, a trial handler is well-served by day-to-day shepherding.

All of this reflection was caused by call I got this morning from a gentleman who wanted to bring his 6-year-old collie (as well as his doctor and her Australian shepherd) to "play" with my sheep.  I tried to explain why I was reluctant to have my sheep subjected to this kind of dog.  I suggested that frisbee or agility might be a better activity.  I don't think I got through, but I'm glad that his dogs won't be chasing my sheep through the fence.  I guess I'm getting grumpy about some things in my extreme mid-forties!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Thankful for the water, but....

On Friday, April 15, our irrigation district (Nevada Irrigation District, or NID) turned on our irrigation water.  Unlike the last several years, NID has plenty of water in storage (both in reservoirs and as snowpack) - we don't have to worry about getting enough water this year.  Even more importantly, NID expects to have enough carry-over water in storage at the end of this season to ensure adequate supplies for next year.  After four years of drought, having enough water is a huge relief!  But while I'm thankful for the water, early season irrigation with our K-Line irrigation system is a challenge - largely because of type of water delivery system we have in the foothills.

First, let me extol the virtues of NID's system.  Our irrigation system is a legacy of the first settlers (miners and farmers) in our part of the Sierra foothills.  Miners, mostly, dug canal systems to provide water for mining - which farmers later used to grow crops.  The NID canal that runs through the north end of our home property was built sometime in the late 1800s (the easement on our deed dates to the 1880s, as I recall).  This system is almost entirely gravity based.  Except when I step on the scale, I'm a huge fan of gravity!  With respect to our irrigation system, gravity means that we use very little energy to deliver water to our ranch.  Gravity moves water from NID's high country reservoirs to the canals that provide our water.  Gravity moves water from our diversion box on the canal to our mainline pipe.  And gravity delivers water to our K-Line sprinklers.  It's a pretty efficient system!

Unfortunately, gravity also makes leaves, grey pine cones, oak catkins and other debris fall into the open canals that carry water from the high country to our pastures.  This detritus is small enough to flow through our 6-inch mainline and 2-inch risers.  It's small enough to flow through our lateral feeder pipes.  It's not small enough, however, to flow through our pressure regulators and sprinkler nozzles.  And this is the "but" in the title of this post.  When I move water at this time of year, I invariably have plugged sprinklers.  It's easiest - and less time consuming - to unplug the sprinklers while the system is running.  Which means I come home wet most evenings!  Sometimes, gravity makes larger things fall into the canal and end up in our system - over the years, I've had pond weeds, acorns, frog and fish parts, and even a whole rat end up in our irrigation system.  I suppose a filter might be in order - but in the meantime I'll trade my time for the extra expense of a filter system.

When it comes to irrigation, there are many measures of efficiency.  Our K-Line system, which consists of flexible above-ground pipe and pods with sprinklers, delivers an even amount of water across our hilly pastures.  In that respect, it's highly efficient.  I have friends who still flood irrigate.  While this technique may seem inefficient, it definitely has its advantages in our foothill landscapes.  The best flood irrigators can push water uphill (or at least it seems that they can to me).  They don't worry too much about clogged sprinkler nozzles, either!  And flood irrigation, done well, can help recharge groundwater aquifers.

And so as spring becomes summer, and you see lush pastures, bountiful orchards and plentiful vegetable farms as you drive through the Placer County foothills, join me in being thankful for the water that grows our food!  And join me in thanking the farmers and ranchers - and NID staff - who keep the water flowing!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Stockmanship Notes: Learning to be a Shepherd

Earlier this week, I had an exchange on Twitter with a fellow shepherd (and outstanding author - check out The Shepherd's Life) from the UK named James Rebanks:

A day later, my friend Kent Reeves posted an article on my Facebook page entitled "Stop attacking pastoralists. We're part of natural resource management, too."  Finally, I had an actual face-to-face conversation (imagine that!) with a fellow sheep rancher this week, during which we both lamented the lack of experienced shepherds in California (and, I suspect, elsewhere in the United States).  Each of these encounters underscored a problem that has been tickling my subconscious mind for some time now: in our modern, technologically advanced society, very few people have a detailed grasp on what it means to be a shepherd - and even fewer have a true desire to learn (and master) the necessary skills.

My own work this week offered yet another example of the realization I had several years ago that stockmanship - the work of caring for livestock - operates on its own clock (see my earlier Stockmanship Notes: Belief, Attitude and Punching a Clock).  Now that our ewes have finished giving birth, my attention has turned to keeping lambs healthy, keeping the sheep on the proper side of the electric fences, and preparing for irrigation season.  While moving the sheep over the weekend, I'd discovered a ewe lamb with a respiratory infection.  I'd treated her with antibiotics, but I was still worried about her after hauling the sheep to a new property on Sunday.  Monday morning, I spent an extra 10 minutes during my morning chores looking for her - not much time, I realize, but I would have taken an extra hour if necessary.  While I had other things I needed to do on Monday morning, my priority was the health and well-being of our sheep.  Similarly, I spent extra time on Thursday morning troubleshooting the electric fence.  Overnight rain made the vegetation wet, which decreased the charge going through the fence.  After walking the perimeter of our 3+ acre paddock several times, I was able to fix the problem.  And I was a half hour late getting to my "real" job.

Over the years that I've been learning to be a shepherd (yes, I'm still learning - I will be for life), the animals in my care have taught me many lessons.  Thanks to vandals, I once had sheep out near the Southern Pacific tracks in Lincoln - at 6 a.m. on Easter Sunday.  I have loaded ewes and weak lambs into the back of my truck at 11 p.m. in the wind and sleet because I was worried about whether the lambs would survive the storm.  I have left a family barbecue to make sure sheep didn't get into the county road adjacent to our leased pasture.  I've helped bed a group of goats down for the night on the wrong side of a rain-swollen creek that we couldn't cross.  In the moment, each of these events was stressful; looking back, they helped teach me patience, attention to detail, and the importance of seeing a job through to completion.

In the course of working with interns, students and employees, I've realized that some people have an aptitude for this kind of work, while others do not.  I've had interns who treated our sheep like their own, and others who couldn't understand why I was upset when they forgot a critical detail like turning the electric fence back on.  I've worked with colleagues and employees who taught me important lessons, and I've worked with others who quit because the work was "too hard."  And I've found that students who ask questions tend to become better shepherds than students who try to tell me how much they already know.

As the High Country News piece I referenced suggests, sheepherders (and cowboys) are integral to managing natural resources.  Not only do our animals need us; the land needs us - the land needs people whose job it is to be on it and in it day after day.  This is perhaps where the disconnect with our non-shepherding friends and neighbors is most pronounced.  For most people, hiking through the foothills, or riding horseback through the mountains, is recreation.  For sheepherders and cowboys, these activities are our vocation - a vocation we love, but work nonetheless.  I think our ability to listen to the land, and to manage our natural resources, is enhanced by the day-in, day-out work that pastoralists - stockmen and stockwomen - perform in caring for grazing livestock.  The land - our environment - needs people whose job it is to pay attention.

In other countries, folks have realized that these skills may not get passed from one generation to the next.  In France, there are formal shepherding schools where young people (mostly) learn the skills necessary to caring for grazing sheep.  A wonderful book, The Art and Science of Shepherding, describes these schools, as well as the extensive knowledge of French shepherds.  There is talk of establishing such a school in this country, as my friend Cole Bush describes in a recent article in The Stockman Grassfarmer.  For the last 4 or 5 years, we've offered a series of "Shepherding Skills" workshops designed to give new and aspiring shepherds hands-on learning opportunities.  Collectively, I think we must do more of this - our skills and knowledge must be passed on to a new generation of stock-people.

Reading my own writing - and listening to my own conversations with other sheep and cattle producers, I fear that I may become the "grumpy old sheepherder" I used to ridicule.  I fear, at times, that I'm becoming the old guy who complains about the lack of a work ethic in the generations that follow my own.  I hope that I'll keep learning from others - and I hope that I'll find new ways to pass my own knowledge to others.  And mostly I hope that the wisdom of stock-people receives the appreciation that it is due.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

2016 Lambing Report

The first lambs of 2016

Yesterday morning, I found ewe 1526 with a brand-new ewe lamb (born overnight) – she put a wrap on our 2016 lambing season (an interesting side note – she was also the last ewe to give birth last year).  In many ways, lambing season is one of the measuring sticks we use to evaluate the success of our management over the previous 12 months.  The year’s lambing season is dependent on ewe nutrition prior to and during our breeding season (the previous September through mid-November), our management in the 3 weeks post-breeding, and weather and management during the 6 week lambing season.  By any measure, this year’s lambing season was our most successful ever – and the result of continuous learning and management adjustments on our part.  I should note that I offer this report not as a comparison with other sheep producers; rather, I want to document our efforts this year as a benchmark for evaluating future management decisions.


Breeding Interval
October 1 – November 15
Lambing Interval
February 22 – April 4
Average Gestation Interval
155.1 days
Median Gestation Interval
154 days
Conception Rate (ewes bred/ewes exposed)
Lambing Rate (lambs born/ewes bred)
Live Lambing Rate (lambs surviving @ end of lambing/ewes bred)
Live Lambs per Ewe Exposed
Death Loss
Bottle Lambs (#, %)
Cull Ewes (%)
Maiden Ewe Lambing Rate
Shropshire Lambing Rate
White Face Lambing Rate
Mule Lambing Rate
Percent lambing in first 34 days (2 cycles)


Until this year, 2015 had been our most successful lambing season (140.9% lambing rate, 136.6% live lambing rate).  In my opinion, there are several factors responsible for this dramatic year-over-year improvement:

  • Improved nutrition at flushing and breeding: In 2015, we were able to graze the entire ewe flock on irrigated pasture from early September through early December.  We also utilized a high protein, high energy supplemental feed (pea crisps) through flushing and the first 17 days of breeding.  I believe that our flushing and breeding nutrition greatly improved our conception and lambing rates, as well as our synchronization (that is, the percentage of ewes lambing in the first 34 days of lambing season).  We had 3 sets of triplets and our first ever set of quadruplets this year!
  • Improved management and nutrition during settling: For several years, we’ve “settled” the ewes after removing the rams in the fall.  During the 18-21 days after pulling the rams, we do not do any significant management (other than moving the ewes on to new pastures as normal).  This year, we were also able to keep the ewes on irrigated pasture during this phase.  I think this probably helped a small number of ewes maintain their pregnancies during this critical phase.
  • Selection for multiple births: One of the criteria we’ve used to determine which ewes we would keep during our drought-induced de-stocking over the last two years was a ewe’s propensity to twin.  We also only retained ewe lambs that were born as twins.  This likely resulted in more multiple births this year.  The differences between our breeding groups (Shropshire, White Face and Mule) seem to back this up: we have bred White Face replacements in each of the last two years, which means we haven’t been replacing our Mule ewes with ewe lambs.  This year’s replacement ewe lambs will all be Mules, which should pay dividends when they have their first lambs in 2 years.
  • Death Loss: Our death loss is slightly higher than normal this year (6%).  Here’s a breakdown of our losses:
  • Lost 1 lamb to watery mouth (E. coli infection) – first time this has ever happened (it’s unusual in a pasture lambing system).  The lamb was one of set of triplets.  We processed the lambs within 24 hours (as we normally do), but this lamb never really got up and going.
  • Lost a sibling to this first lamb several weeks later during a rainstorm.  The ewe had unusual teat placement, and we’d been worried about her remaining lambs since losing the first one.  We will carefully evaluate the ewe at weaning to determine whether she should be culled.
  • One lamb was born weak to a mother that focused on the other twin.  She’s an older ewe, and we’ve marked her to be culled.  Took the lamb home, but she never really got going.
  • Lost one lamb from a set of triplets during a rainstorm.  Probably weather related.
  • Lost one of a set of twins born to a maiden ewe early in lambing season.  Not sure about the reason.  The ewe will get one more chance.
  • Lost a weak lamb born as the smaller of a set of twins.  This was a late-bred ewe (and the lambs were sired by different rams).  Took the lamb home; it rallied but didn’t make it.  It was not the ewe’s fault.

Looking Ahead

Since we’ve been able to make improvements to our irrigation system, we’ll have higher quality forage through the summer and fall this year.  As a result, we’ll be able to keep the lambs on the ewes through the third week of June.  Following weaning, we’ll keep the replacement ewe lambs and feeder lambs on irrigated pasture (we anticipate keeping about 30 total).  The ewes will move back to dry forage through the end of August (when we’ll start flushing them).

At least visually, our wool yield looks to be improved over previous years (which is likely related to nutrition).  Wool quality is somewhat diminished as one of our breeding groups picked up cockleburs during the breeding season.  We’ll market all of our wool on a commodity basis this year.

Last year, we used a free source of flushing feed – waste pea crisps.  These were about 22% protein and 30% fat.  This feed source won’t be available this year, so we will begin researching alternatives that have a similar nutritional profile.  Canola meal looks promising, but we will need to evaluate the economics.

Halfway through - lambs born on March 3, 2016.
We hope to market a number of our feeder lambs to other local producers this summer.  We’ll also keep 10-15 to finish on grass.  The remainder of our feeder lambs will be marketed prior to end of Ramadan.  Over the last several years (as we’ve sold productive ewes to other producers), we’ve realized that we’ve done a good job of building the maternal ability of our ewes and ewe lambs.  Consequently, we’ll market a few replacement ewe lambs (both Mules and Shropshires) to other producers.  Finally, we’ll market the best of our Shropshire ram lambs as rams.  We’ll try to manage our irrigated pastures with an eye towards growing lambs and saving forage for flushing/breeding.

The replacement ewe lambs we retain will all be from multiple births.  We’ll also keep one Shropshire ram lamb (also from a multiple birth).  This should provide some genetic predisposition toward twinning in the future.  We anticipate keeping enough replacement ewe lambs to maintain our total flock size at 65-70 females.

Finally, we’ve been able to make just a single pass over most of our winter grazing land.  This has allowed for significant regrowth post-grazing.  While this will allow us to stockpile forage for summer grazing for the ewes, as well as for post-breeding grazing next winter, we will need to balance our forage needs with landowner priorities for fuel reduction.  Anecdotally, we’ve noticed more native perennials on some of our winter rangelands – I hope to formally measure changes in these perennials over the next several years.
The last lamb of the year!