Sunday, February 17, 2019

Legacies

Yesterday was a difficult day for my family. We had to put down two animals that had been a part of our family for more than a decade. Reno, our oldest (and best) livestock guardian dog was ten or eleven; Woolly, our oldest daughter's first ewe, was fifteen. Both will be missed, but both also left a lasting legacy in our sheep operation.

Reno came to us as a six-month old puppy from a small-scale goat operation east of Nevada City. There were times in that first year when we didn't think he'd work out. We were still new to using guard dogs, and Reno tested our abilities (and our patience). He chased lambs. He chewed on ears (indeed, we had a one-eared ewe for many years who we called Vinnie - for Vincent Van Gogh). Thankfully, Reno outgrew puppyhood and ultimately became our most trusted guardian. Somewhere, I have a photo of lambs climbing on him.

He also had a mischievous side. If he got out of our electric fence (which rarely happened), he'd explore the neighborhood. He enjoyed these excursions even more if he knew we were trying to catch him. As I've written previously, I think Reno would have flipped me the bird if he'd had a middle digit on his front feet. I finally realized that Reno was playing a game when he went on these jaunts. If I ignored him, he'd quickly come back to me so I could put him back with his sheep. He also never turned down a chicken dinner (if he could get it fresh), and he didn't care for cats or raccoons (much to their detriment). A cat-killing dog doesn't do much for relations with one's grazing landlord.

Woolly was a Dorset ewe that we bought for Lara when she was 6 years old. Lara's cousins still tease her about the summer visit when the three of them tried to halter-break Woolly (Hanna was 9 and Sara was 12) - apparently Woolly drug Lara face down around the pen several times. I suspect this was the same summer that Lara and Hanna sneaked off and ate four dozen ears of sweet corn from my market garden one afternoon, so the accuracy of their story can't be entirely trusted. Woolly later gave birth to the first lamb Lara showed at the Gold Country Fair - a sheep-showing career that ultimately earned Lara enough money to buy her first truck. After ten or eleven sets of lambs, we let Woolly retire - she lived out these last years grazing our home pastures.

As anyone who loves animals knows, the departure of an animal leaves a little hole in our lives and in our hearts. Part of our responsibility as animal owners is to prevent pain and suffering - and yesterday we realized that the time had come for us to let both of these animals go. As I've mourned their loss over the last 24 hours, however, I've realized my relationship with these animals is different because they were not pets - they were both an important part of our sheep operation. As such, they both leave important legacies for Flying Mule Sheep Company.

Reno helped me understand how important proper bonding with livestock was for a livestock guardian dog. He taught me to be patient with puppy misbehavior, but also to insist that he outgrow this behavior. And in his later years, he helped me realize the importance of allowing a younger dog to learn from (and be corrected by) an older dog. The video below from last lambing season shows Reno insisting that Bodie keep a respectful distance from a ewe and newborn lamb. I realize that Reno was just protecting his access to this ewe's afterbirth, but this correction was much like Bodie's graduation from puppy to guardian. Bodie is in charge this year as we begin to lamb, and we're fully confident in him.



Woolly gave birth to a number of ewes that are still in our flock. She was an outstanding mother - she usually had twins, and she could always count to two (meaning, she always took care of both of her lambs). Her maternal ability, and her ability to thrive on all kinds of forage, will live on in her daughters and granddaughters that remain in our flock. Her genetic influence lives on in our operation, much to our benefit.

To some, I suppose, my sorrow at losing these two animals may seem mushy - I'm a rancher, after all, and ranchers aren't supposed to be sentimental, right?! And yet I think we are - every rancher I know mourns the loss of their animal partners. And every rancher I know pays attention to the legacy that these animals leave in our operations. A ewe who passes on her maternal traits and ability to thrive in our specific environment is incredibly valuable. A dog who passes on his protective instincts lives on in the dogs he helps us train. I'm not sure I can articulate this, but I feel the loss of Reno and Woolly (and the other canine and ovine working partners I've lost as a rancher) far more profoundly than that I've felt for any pet. I owe them both my gratitude.

Friday, February 15, 2019

One Size Fits All, or No Size Fits Any

As the handful of folks who regularly read my Foothill Agrarian blog will know, I occasionally write about our use of nonlethal livestock protection tools and our attempts to coexist with wildlife. You'll probably remember that I've written that our commitment to these tools is both philosophical and practical. Philosophically, we value coexistence and feel that our use of these tools protects both our sheep and the surrounding wildlife (including predators). Practically, we can't be with our sheep 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to protect them. We have to rely on deterrents (primarily livestock guardian dogs and electro-net fencing) to keep our sheep safe. I hope I've also conveyed that these tools work in our system and in our environment - in other words, they are VERY site- and operation-specific. One size (or set of livestock protection tools) does not fit all operations.

Despite this fact - despite the reality that livestock protection tools must fit both the environment and the operation to be successful - many of the non-ranching organizations and individuals who advocate for their use imply that one size will in fact fit all. Ranchers who don't use a particular tool are just obstinate (or lazy, or too rigid, or too tradition-bound - I've heard all of these terms). Some of this stems from the label, I suspect - these "tools" are actually complex biological and behavioral relationships. They are not a "tool" that anyone can pick up and use successfully on the first try; rather, they require site-specific and intimate knowledge of the environment, the predators, and the production system.

Because I've been vocal about our use of livestock guardian dogs and other nonlethal tools, I find that we are sometimes held up as an example of how these "tools" can be successful. And I do try to share what we've learned about these tools in our specific operation with other producers. However, many times the second part of our story (the part where I say, "in our environment and management system") is missed. Some who hold us up as an example say, in effect, "See?! It works for Dan - it will work for you, too." I fear this oversimplification sometimes drives producers away from considering these tools in their own operations.

But I also find that there is an equally frustrating oversimplification within the ranching community at times. There are those ranchers who will say, in effect, "these tools don't work - they're a waste of time." Rather than saying one size fits all, these folks are saying, "no size fits anyone." At a very personal level, these tools probably won't work for someone who's paradigm suggests that nonlethal tools too costly or inherently ineffective. However, these fellow ranchers will sometimes question the motives of those who advocate for these tools (and by extension, those of us who use them) - we're na├»ve, we're not "real" ranchers, we're hacks for predator advocates. What bothers me most, I suppose, is that some of these folks object to any efforts to share information about these tools within the larger ranching community.

I suppose in some ways I feel caught in the middle of this contentious issue.These tools have worked (most of the time) for me. I've tried to be open and honest about their costs, and about those times when they've failed. I've tried to acknowledge the complexity of our system and our environment. Indeed, I'm conducting research to try to learn more about the mechanisms through which these "tools" keep our sheep alive. Maybe I want it both ways! Maybe I want those who hold our operation up as an example of coexistence to understand that what works for us may not work everywhere. Perhaps I want those who say these tools won't work for anyone to acknowledge that they can work for some operations in some situations. Maybe what I'm really saying is, "There are enough sizes to fit most of us."

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Building Up or Tearing Down: Differing Approaches to Direct Marketing

When we started in the sheep business, we marketed most of our lambs directly as meat - at farmers markets, to restaurants, or as freezer lambs. While our marketing channels have evolved (today, most of our lambs are sold as feeders to other producers, or directly to our processor), our marketing philosophy has remained constant. Our approach has always been to tell our customers what we do and why we do it - transparency is the cornerstone of our marketing message. I have found, however, that other producers sometimes try to differentiate their products by telling their customers that everything else is bad. They tear down the competition, in other words, rather than telling the positive story about their own products.

Part of our message has always been our focus on sustainability. We try to improve the ecological resources that we manage (by intensively managing our grazing, by coexisting with the wildlife in our environment, by paying attention to the health of our soils). The second pillar of sustainability, at least for me, is the health of our community. We try to give back - by teaching our neighbors about sheep production, by utilizing resources that might otherwise be wasted (for example, we're currently experimenting with feeding bakery waste that would otherwise go into the landfill). The foundation of our sustainability, however, is our economic viability. If we can't sustain our business financially, the other benefits of our management disappear.

Obviously, our approach is very specific to our resources, our community, and our family's situation. The system that works for us may not work for someone else; similarly, somebody else's approach may not fit for us. While I have always learned from how other shepherds manage their sheep and their resources - and while I've always been open about sharing our system - I've tried always to respect the decisions that other shepherds make based on their own circumstances.

One of the ways that we have marketed our products - whether it is meat or live lambs (or wool, for that matter) - is via social media. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been outstanding tools for sharing our story. For the most part, we've had positive experiences with these platforms. Occasionally, however, another producer will decide to criticize our system rather than talk about how and why they do things differently. I find these virtual lectures about what I'm doing wrong to be terribly frustrating.

I realize that the line between these marketing approaches is not well-defined. Sometimes differentiating one system from another can come across as overly critical - even when it's not meant to be. That said, I've always learned more from other producers who ask insightful questions about my situation than those who offer hard-and-fast rules regardless of the situation. And I've always appreciated producers who talk about why they do what they do rather than criticize their fellow producers.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Second Guessing Never Helps - But I Do It Anyway!

Our ewes are coming down to the final days of their gestation. On September 27, 2018 (133 days ago), the rams were turned in with the ewes. Sometime in the next 12-14 days, the first ewe of 2019 will deliver a lamb (or two, we hope). The vast majority of our sheep income for 2019 will be based on how many lambs are born between February 19 and April 1. The number of lambs we get this year will be based on breeding decisions and nutritional management decisions made last summer and fall. In other words, the number of lambs we get in the coming weeks has already been established - and yet I can't help but worry about the outcome!

My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I believe this spring marks our 22nd or 23rd lambing (and the 14th since we went "commercial" in the sheep business). I always look forward to the 6 weeks of lambing, but I also ALWAYS second guess myself in the weeks leading up to the first lamb. As I make my rounds through the ewes each morning, I look at them and speculate as to whether they are carrying a single or multiple lambs. I wonder whether our nutritional management in the month leading up to breeding was sufficient. In some ways, I suppose I'm guilty of trying to count my eggs (or lambs) before they hatch!

I used to let this get to me. Every time a ewe delivered a single - or worse, failed to have a lamb - I'd kick myself. Maybe it's a sign of maturity (which, according to my wife, I've not yet truly achieved), but I now I laugh at myself when I start speculating about how many lambs a particular ewe is carrying.

This morning, I had a text conversation with my fellow California Wool Growers Association officers. Our vice president, Ed Anchordoguy, who raises sheep near Petaluma, said, "I have many non-ag friends who will ask me how I can get excited about sheep. A flock on a green hillside, pregnant ewes, a group of ewe lambs - my favorite." In these weeks leading up to lambing, I find myself wanting to walk through the ewes just to enjoy how they look at this stage.

Another friend, Deneane Glazier Ashcraft, who has raised goats, talks about our flocks (or herds) as being similar to an artist's "body of work." The past choices we've made about which animals to keep, which rams to buy, can be seen in the way our current sheep fit our landscape. And their fit to our landscape has a direct relationship to their productivity. While there is a scientific component to this work, there's also a great deal of art - the eye of the shepherd still matters. The coming weeks will provide us with feedback on these past decisions - the ewes will tell us how we've done. Rather than second guess myself in these next two weeks, my energy will be better spent in preparing to care for the lambs that DO arrive!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Plans


I'm a planner. I suspect this part of my nature comes from my Mom. She's a list-maker (surely a type of planner). She - and I - like to think several steps ahead. This may come at cost; I sometimes envy my more spontaneous friends. When it comes to raising sheep, however, my predilection for planning has served me well.

Our production year begins with a plan that we made many years ago when we started raising sheep commercially. Fundamentally, we try to match our period of greatest forage demand (late gestation, lambing, and early lactation) with the period during which we're growing grass most rapidly on our unirrigated rangeland. Speaking more plainly, we try to lamb in late February and March, when the grass starts growing quickly. This part of our plan sets up the rest of our management calendar: we turn the rams in with the ewes in late September, which means we flush the ewes on irrigated pasture and whole grains during September. We shear the ewes about six weeks after the last lamb is born (which means mid-May). We wean the lambs after completing our first pass over our irrigated pastures (mid- to late-June).

While this overall plan rarely changes much from one year to the next, our annual grazing plans reflect the year-to-year variation in weather. Some years (like the fall/winter of 2016-2017) are easy - we get early rains and a warm autumn, resulting in more grass than we know what to do with in December and January. Some years, like this one, are more difficult from a grazing planning perspective. We had a germinating rain in early October 2018 (which was great), but no more rain until Thanksgiving (which was not). Since we didn't have much volume of green grass in December, we fed the ewes supplemental protein (an added expense), which allowed them to digest the dry grass we'd saved from spring. Now that the green grass is coming, we still don't have the volume we enjoyed 2 years ago - which means we're moving the sheep a bit more frequently.

The other part of our year-to-year planning has to do with lambing preparations. We lamb on pasture (unlike some sheep producers, we do not bring all of the lambing ewes into a barn at or just after lambing). Our plan begins with selecting ewes that can handle lambing on pasture - ewes that can give birth unassisted, that know how to count to 2 or 3 (meaning they'll take care of all of the lambs they deliver), that seek natural shelter (like brush or topography) in which to give birth. But we don't rely entirely on the ewes' instincts; we also plan our winter grazing to save our more sheltered rangeland for lambing. This means we graze the more exposed pastures in January and early February - pastures without much tree or brush cover, or that are facing the prevailing southerly winds we get during storms in the Sierra foothills. We have more flexibility to move sheep before they've lambed - dry ewes are much easier to move than pairs (ewes with lambs). Before lambing, we can easily move them (with the help of a border collie or two) from one end of our winter country to the other (as I did today); once the lambs begin arriving, we try to drift the flock gently from one paddock to the next.

Given my genetic predisposition to planning, I'll admit that I enjoy this mental aspect of shepherding nearly as much as the physical work. I find the work involved in raising sheep (building fence, herding the flock in partnership with my dogs, watching our finished lambs get on the trailer) intensely satisfying. I also find the work of planning - of estimating our forage needs, of preparing for lambing (or shearing or weaning), of selecting the right replacement ewe lambs for our flock - to be equally satisfying.

Lambing begins in about 18 days - stay tuned for the results of this year's planning efforts!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Wonders of Wool


My predilection towards wool might be a family trait. I have a small photograph of my Dad fishing on a Southern California beach with his uncle Guy in the late 1940s or early 1950s. My Dad is dressed in short sleeves and blue jeans; Uncle Guy is wearing a Stetson hat and a Pendleton woolen shirt. Uncle Guy was originally from Iowa and had lived briefly in Montana before coming to Southern California. As my Dad tells it, Uncle Guy usually wore Pendleton shirts – regardless of the season.

Some of Uncle Guy’s fashion preferences must have worn off on my Dad. Some of my earliest memories of shopping with my Dad include going into Baer’s Clothing in Sonora (a real old-fashioned, small-town clothing store – you could enter through the display windows in the front or the shoe department from a back street). Baer’s carried Stetson hats, Justin boots, Levi’s 501s (including an enormous pair that hung on the back wall as an advertisement). They sold dress clothes as well – suits and ties, Arrow shirts (under a sign that read, “Custer’s last shirt was an Arrow”). And they sold Pendleton shirts. I can distinctly remember my Dad buying classic Pendleton board shirts and pearl-snapped western shirts from Armand Baer.

My Dad has given me a number of these shirts that no longer fit him – including some that are older than I am. To me, one of the great wonders of wool is that it lasts so long. As a wool producer, I sometimes wish our product didn’t wear so well – maybe we’d sell more of it if it wore out more quickly! As a consumer, however, I definitely find value in wool. Even at $135 (the cost of a Pendleton shirt today), wool is a bargain! A $135 wool shirt that will last 50 years is still a better deal than a $40 cotton shirt that might last five!

The benefits of wool go far beyond longevity and economy, however. Wool is naturally fire resistant. It is also resistant to bacteria (which means it doesn’t stink like my cotton shirts after one day’s wearing). It can absorb up to 30 percent of its weight in water and still retain its insulating properties. The cuticle cells on the outside of wool fibers have a waxy coating, making wool water repellent. Wool is a renewable and biodegradable fiber, as well. The wool that we sheared from our sheep last May, which is by now likely turned into carpet, was the product of the grass our sheep consumed – a much smaller (and more sustainable) production loop than polyester or other man-made, petroleum-based fabrics!

I can’t bring myself to wear Pendleton shirts through the summer months like my Great-Uncle Guy, but I do wear wool socks every day of the year. I always look forward to the first chilly day of autumn, when I can break out my wool shirts again. Like my Dad, I’ve outgrown a couple of my Pendleton shirts – much to the delight of my daughters, who now get to wear them! As a sheep producer, I take great pride in producing something with such longevity!

Friday, January 4, 2019

We'll see...

Like most farmers and ranchers, I suspect, I have multiple weather apps on my smartphone. My favorite, mostly because it taps into very local amateur observations, is Weather Underground. I find that the forecasts aren't any more accurate than any other app - I think all of them rely on the National Weather Service. But when I'm away from home, I can look at my Weather Underground app and see what my neighbor is observing in the way of weather conditions. According to Weather Underground, we're supposed to be in for a rain-soaked, windy weekend. We'll see....

Like anyone who works outside, I pay attention to the weather. Like anyone who works with livestock, sometimes the weather doesn't matter - the livestock guardian dogs still need to be fed, the sheep still need to be checked. With high winds forecast for this weekend, we'll also need to check the condition of our electric fences - soggy soils and falling tree limbs can be a problem. The National Weather Service has issued a wind advisory for tomorrow. But we'll see....

As another shepherd once told me, every year is the same - except it's different. The 2018/2019 water year is no exception. I was so excited when we got a germinating rain in early October - and so disappointed when it didn't rain again until the week of Thanksgiving. While we've measured close-to-normal precipitation since October 1, the timing of our storms has meant that we don't have much green grass on our annual rangeland at the moment. With the ewes transitioning to late gestation (and higher nutritional requirements), we're a bit concerned about forage conditions. So we'll see....

Ultimately, for all of our improvements in forecasting the weather, we're still only able to look about 2 weeks out. At this point, I feel like anyone who says we're in for a normal year - or for a drought - is full of... something. This uncertainty is why most ranchers are conservative (not necessarily politically, but certainly agriculturally). This is why most of us say, "We'll see...."