During this past baseball season, I discovered a great podcast - “Unwritten” - featuring former major leaguers Ron Darling and Jimmy Rollins. Each episode features one of baseball’s unwritten rules - don’t talk to a pitcher who’s throwing a no hitter, don’t steal a base when you’re up big in the late innings. Mostly I enjoy listening to a couple of retired ball players talking about the game! They’ve helped me reflect on our “Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know” podcast - hopefully, my co-hosts (Ryan Mahoney and Dr. Rosie Busch) and I convey a similar love for our subject! More recently, “Unwritten” has caused me to reflect on the unwritten rules of ranching.
Most of us who are (or work with) ranchers have heard that we’re not supposed to ask a rancher how many sheep or cows they own. “That’s like asking you how much money you have in your savings,” we tell the errant inquisitor. This unwritten rule, at least in my case, masks the fact that my livestock inventory is more complicated than just saying I have (at the moment) 62 head of sheep. My actual sheep numbers (as of this moment) include 52 breeding ewes, 7 replacement ewes, and 3 rams. If you’d asked me this question on May 1st, I would have told you I had 84 ewes, even thought at that moment I had 212 sheep (84 ewes, 126 lambs, and 2 rams).
However, there are more subtle (and often more meaningful) unwritten rules in most ranching communities. If you go through a closed gate, close it again. Assume the electric fence is always on. Don’t “steal” someone else’s grass. Most of us with livestock have experienced the “fun” of discovering when someone has left a gate open - usually when we get a call about our livestock being on the road. Many of us have had to learn the “fence is on” lesson the hard way - there’s nothing like stepping over an electric fence that you didn’t remember might be energized to make you appreciate electricity!
But ranching communities - especially in areas like my slice of the Sierra foothills - are also fairly small. Word gets around. Most of us operate on leased ground at some point. And most of us understand that our neighbors may be interested in the ground we’re currently leasing.
I should digress here for a moment - I use the term lease somewhat loosely here. In its strictest sense, “lease” implies the exchange of money. Here in the foothills - and especially in the foothill sheep business - “lease” has a more informal definition. Many of us who graze sheep have informal - and long-standing - arrangements with landowners and neighbors who allow us (or “hire” us) to graze their properties without any financial exchange. As shepherds, we get grass (and provide fencing, stock water, and predator protection). Our landowner partners get fuel reduction and weed management. These relationships provide stability for both partners - my landowner partners can count on me taking care of their soil and their vegetation; I can count on having enough forage during key portions of our production cycle (gestation, lambing, lactation, etc.).
Sometimes, though, another producer sees the grass we’ve grazed and puts a higher value on it. In most cases, our colleagues respect the arrangements we have to graze this grass - but not always. Sometimes, ground is “leased” out from under us, breaking this particular unwritten rule.
All of this leads me to speculate about why these rules are unwritten. I suppose some of these “rules” reflect our expectations of common courtesy; in other cases, these rules suggest that we expect others to have common sense. A pitcher who’s throwing a no hitter has to stay focused - courtesy suggests that we don’t talk to him about his no hitter. Similarly, closing a gate behind us is also a courteous act. Common sense dictates that we don’t touch a potentially electrified fence!
That these rules exist - unwritten or otherwise - suggests that common sense and common courtesy are in short supply. They are not as common as we’d like to think! And so when one of these “rules” is violated, we have various ways of reminding the violator that they’ve stepped outside of the community’s expectations. A base runner who steals a base when his team is enjoying a blowout in the late innings of a ballgame can expect to be “reminded” of his transgression later in the season (usually through a high-and-tight fastball or a hard slide). Our ranching community reprimands its transgressors less directly - someone who “takes” a lease might not be included in community activities. Reputations, in the ranching community (as in other professions) take a long time to build and a moment to ruin.
Over the course of the decade-and-a-half I’ve grazed sheep in my part of the Sierra foothills, I’ve only had two instances where someone tried to take ground I had arrangements to graze. In one case, my landlord honored our arrangement - and I found out afterwords that he’d told the inquirer no. In the other case, I found out when I contacted my landlord about our grazing schedule that we’d lost the feed we’d been counting on. Obviously, I much prefer the landlord who honored our mutual commitment! And the neighboring rancher who respected this arrangement!
I suspect that the topic of unwritten ranching rules will be the subject of a future Sheep Stuff podcast! And so I’m interested in YOUR unwritten rules! What are the things you expect from your neighbors, landlords, and colleagues, but that you don’t feel are necessary to articulate directly?! What are the “rules” that you abide by in your ranching business?