Saturday, January 21, 2023

Where There’s a Ram (Lamb), There’s a Way


I suppose most shepherds have experienced an unexpected lamb or two over the course of their shepherding careers. A ewe lambs out of lambing season - how could this happen?! Immaculate conception doesn’t typically occur in sheep, so there’s really only a handful of ways it could occur. And yesterday, it happened to me! (Actually, it happened while I was in New Mexico, so it happened to Roger, who’s tending our sheep while I’m gone).

On August 18, 2022, I moved the breeding ewes off the dry forage they’d been grazing and back to irrigated pasture (the first step in our flushing process). Rather than keeping them separate from our replacement ewe lambs and feeder lambs (and, I should note, a 6-month-old Shropshire ram lamb), I ran them together for about 3 weeks. I assumed (incorrectly, as I now know) that the ram lamb had not reached sexual maturity yet.

We typically time our breeding so that lambs arrive in the third week of February (when the grass is ready to start growing rapidly). This year, I was especially deliberate in timing our breeding - I knew I would be gone at a conference in mid-February, so I counted 145 days back from February 20 (when I wanted lambing to begin) and turned the rams in on September 27.

I usually start noticing that the ewes look pregnant around Christmastime - they start looking wider and deeper, and their udders begin to develop (shepherds say the ewes are “bagging up”). Over the last two weeks, I noticed that a Shropshire ewe was really bagging up - and I assumed she’d be one of the first to lamb in late February. I was correct about her being the first to lamb; I missed the date by a considerable margin!

Yesterday, Roger texted me photograph of ewe 2094 with a pair of newborn ewe lambs, obviously sired by a Shropshire ram. I went back through my management notes to figure out how this could have happened!

The Shropshire ram lamb we’d kept was born on February 24, 2022 - which means he was barely 6 months old on August 18 - when we combined the ewes with the lambs. I figured that he hadn’t reached puberty yet, and I also figured the ewes wouldn’t be cycling in the heat. Oops!

While it’s not the end of the world to have early lambs, it does complicate our management a bit. The flock while take a little more time to move now that there’s a ewe with new lambs. We’ll have to keep a closer eye on the late January and early February weather, too - luckily we have some grass growth thanks to all of the rain we’ve received, but a cold storm could be tough on these new lambs. And we’ll have to keep an eye out for additional lambs - I haven’t noticed any other ewes with significant udder development, but we’ll look more closely now.

Most of us who raise sheep know that where there’s a ram, there’s a way for ewes to get bred. We joke about rams who are able to breed ewes through the fence. Sometimes, due to our own management mistakes, the ram doesn’t have to work that hard!

Off to fresh feed - thanks, Roger!

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Hands On

Of all of the grazing livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats, primarily), sheep seem to take the most management - and many of the things we do to manage sheep (shear them, vaccinate them, trim their feet, help them lamb) must be done by hand. As these interventions occur throughout the sheep year, they create, as my friend Dr. Rosie Busch says, "windows of opportunity," when we can take stock of other things like body condition, general health and thriftiness, and behavior. Last weekend was one of those windows in our operation.

As much as possible, we try to match our production calendar to our local ecology. We time our lambing to match the phenology of our rangeland plants - in other words, we try to lamb when we have the most high quality forage available on our annual rangelands. Our ewes have their highest nutritional demand in the last 5-6 weeks of gestation and the first 6 weeks of lactation (just before and just after lambing). Our rangeland forage (which is far cheaper to grow than the grass we have to irrigate all summer) reaches its nutritional peak (in both quality and quantity) in late winter and into springtime. And so we time our breeding so that the ewes start lambing in the third week of February - just when the grass is really starting to take off (or so we hope).

That anchor point - lambing - determines the rest of our production calendar. To make sure the ewes pass some immunity to clostridial diseases and tetanus on to their lambs through their colostrum, we vaccinate 6 weeks before the onset of lambing. To get lambs in late February, we turn our rams in in late September. To be sure the ewes are ready to breed in late September, we put them on better feed in early September. To get adequate response to this improved nutrition, we graze the ewes on lower quality dry forage after we wean their lambs in late June. And since ewes that have just recently lambed don't shear well, we wait to shear them until April (when the youngest lambs are about six weeks old).

Last weekend - about 6 weeks before the first lambs are due to arrive - was one of our windows of opportunity. We vaccinated all of the ewes during our annual Sheep Husbandry Field Day (offered through UC Cooperative Extension). Since they were in the corrals, we also checked their feet for signs of footrot or other foot health problems. We checked their general health status, and we did a 5-point check on each ewe to check her for internal parasites. The 5-point check includes a (1) FAMACHA evaluation (which looks at the color of the third eyelid as a way to determine anemia - reflective of barberpole worm infection), (2) a body condition score (which estimates nutritional status), (3) a "dag" score (which evaluates the degree of manure staining on the hind legs), (4) an evaluation of nasal discharge (indicating nose bots, which are more common in the fall), and (5) a determination of whether the ewe has bottle jaw (swelling under her chin, caused by internal parasites).

First, I want to brag (just a bit) about our ewes' feet! Like all sheep producers in California, I suspect, we've had our share of footrot. At the height of the last drought, we were diligent about treating footrot - we used the FootVax vaccine, we trimmed feet religiously, and we used a zinc oxide footbath regularly. We also culled the ewes who had chronic problems. While I like to think much of our success was due to my foot trimming, footbaths, and vaccine program, I suspect that mostly we improved by getting rid of the sheep that were most susceptible. Last Saturday, I think I trimmed less than 1% of the feet I looked at! Granted, Dr. Busch has introduced us to new management measures that discourage excessive foot trimming, but I was incredibly pleased with our foot health - especially after such extraordinarily wet conditions.

Health-wise, I was also pleased. We did have a number of ewes with nasal discharge, but I only treated one of them with antibiotics. The ewe I treated was wheezing (and had been since early December, when I also treated her). The others all seemed very health - and so I didn't treat them. Limiting our use of antibiotics to the conditions that truly require them is an important way to reduce antibiotic resistance.

Finally, I think I only treated one bred ewe for internal parasites (as the result of a subpar 5-point score). I did treat 3 open ewe lambs for parasites, which is not uncommon - they are still growing, and so they are demanding more of their nutritional system. As with antibiotics, targeted treatment for parasites helps reduce resistance to our treatments. While it may seem counterintuitive, we actually want parasites who have never been exposed to our dewormers!

These windows of opportunity, these times when we have to put our hands on all of our sheep, are important. For me, they're much like a report card - they are a time to check and see how much I've learned. And hopefully, how much I've improved my management. Since I see the sheep nearly every day, I sometimes fail to notice problems, as well as progress. I find that having someone who knows my sheep but who sees them only periodically (like a veterinarian) can be extremely helpful. Perhaps the best thing about last Saturday was the text I got from Dr. Busch after we worked the sheep: "Your sheep look incredible this year!" Thankfully, I agree!

Now we wait for lambing, our next hands-on window of opportunity!

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Choring Before Christmas

Our sheep, and the livestock guardian dogs who protect them, have a different concept of time than I do. I’m certain they know the seasons - shorter days and somewhat cooler temperatures mean breeding season; lengthening days and growing grass (not to mention growing bellies) signal the onset of lambing. On a day-to-day basis, one of our dogs knows when the sheep are out of feed - he’ll wait by a junction in the electro-net fencing when he thinks it’s time to move the sheep to fresh pasture. Despite this innate knowledge, however, I suspect they don’t know much about our human schedules. For sure, they seem to know when we’re sitting down to dinner with friends (which is when they invariably break through the electro-net); but they don’t know when it’s someone’s birthday. And they don’t know when we’re getting ready for Christmas. Or do they?

Anyone who raises livestock - on any scale - knows that the chores don’t stop simply because it’s a holiday. Dogs need feeding; sheep need checking. That said, I usually spend the better part of a day (or two) before Christmas getting things set up so that Christmas Day chores are easy. Yesterday, I moved the ewes to a small paddock that would hold them until Christmas morning - and prepared a second paddock that would provide 3-4 more days of grazing. I also took down electro-net fencing and set up a third paddock - one that would hold the ewes until after New Years Day. Thanks to the chores I accomplished yesterday, my chores for the rest of 2022 will be easy.

Tomorrow morning, after we open gifts, my daughters and I will drive out to the sheep pasture. We’ll move the flock onto fresh feed, and we’ll give Bodie (the dog with this set of ewes) a treat of some kind. Before we go, I’ll feed the rams here at home and give Elko (our other dog) a treat. At some point next week, I’ll move the ewes into the next paddock.

Our production calendar, inadvertently, allows us to coast between Christmas and New Years. Since we time our lambing to coincide with the onset of grass growth here in the Sierra foothills, this final week of the year is easy going. The ewes are not quite into their final trimester of gestation, which means their nutritional requirements haven’t ramped up yet - which also means we can push them a bit to eat the dry forage we saved from last year. We still need to do our chores, for sure, but our chores are easier than they will be in 6 weeks!

My pre-Christmas chores have become part of my family’s Christmas tradition - I’m usually building fence the day or two before Christmas. And our Christmas chores are also part of the tradition - I suspect the dogs know something special is happening when the girls join me on Christmas morning. For me, the work I put in yesterday makes the relaxation over the next week all the more enjoyable. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Long Nights, Short Days, and Rainy Weather

We’ve reached that time of year where I don’t see much of my place in daylight during the week.  As the winter solstice approaches, I’m often out of the house at or just after sunrise (usually to check sheep and feed the livestock guardian dogs). I’m nearly always back home after sunset (which happens a little before 5 p.m. at our latitude). Outside work, at least at home, is reserved for the weekends, even in rainy weather.

This morning, I moved the rams (and their dog, Elko) back from the neighbors and into our back pasture (a matter of simply walking them through a gate and moving a fence energizer). As I was walking through the back pasture, I realized that one of the willow trees next to our little pond had blown over in last night’s storm. With the heavy rainfall we’ve received most of the day, I decided to wait for a dry (or at least less rainy) weekend day to get it cleaned up - just one more thing on my “To Do” list!

After completing the home chores, I drove the 6 miles to our winter sheep pasture to feed the other dog (Bodie) and check on the ewe flock. We moved them from our irrigated pasture to their winter home a week ago; they were convinced that I was there to move them to the next pasture this morning. After assuring them they’d get to move tomorrow, I put up more fence to get the next paddock completed. After running some errands in town, I returned home just in time for the skies to open! While I don’t mind working in the rain, I also don’t mind an excuse to stay inside and read this time of year - which is what I did!

Since we heat our home entirely with wood, staying inside and reading in December requires staying outside and sweating earlier in the year. When the days are longer, I cut firewood. I move sprinklers to grow grass on our irrigated pasture. I work in our yard - mowing grass, tending our vegetable garden, doing little repairs to the barns and the house. As we approach the shortest day of the year, my outside work feels compressed, but it also feels slowed. Working outdoors in all weather and at all times of year, I think, connects me with these annual rhythms. I enjoy sitting outside and reading after dinner in the summer; I enjoy sitting outside by a campfire before dinner in the winter.

All of this makes the “artificiality” of working in an office challenging for me at times. I’ll admit to enjoying coming into an air conditioned office after sweating through a hot morning of moving sprinklers. Like anyone, I appreciate being out of the rain on days like this. What I miss, though, is knowing the weather in every moment. I’m an outside person at heart. And so during the long nights and short days of winter, when my nature says I should be slowing down, working in an office allows me to remain unnaturally busy. I long for dormancy at this time of year! Short days and rainy weather match the slowest time in our sheep operation - there’s something to be said to matching our work to the seasons!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Waiting for Clarity

Now that irrigation season has been over for nearly 2 months, I’m back in the habit of walking (or jogging VERY slowly) several mornings a week before work – and on weekends. The exercise gets me out of the house early (I still have chores to do, after all), and it gives me time to think without the distractions of email, texts, or phone calls. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to rely on this combination of physical activity and contemplation to help me make decisions. Clarity, for me, seems to come when I’m not staring directly at the problem – and when my lungs are pumping!

But clarity doesn’t always come on demand. Over the last five months, I’ve been adjusting to running Flying Mule Sheep Company as a sole proprietor rather than as a partner. When we weaned last spring’s lambs, I bought out my partner, Roger. Last summer, with help from my youngest daughter, Emma, I used the ewes to reduce fuel loads in a community near Auburn (and got paid to do it). I also grazed our replacement ewe lambs and feeder lambs on irrigated pasture closer to home (moving water every day; moving sheep every 4-5 days). And I worked my full time (and then some) cooperative extension job. By the time irrigation season ended on October 15, I was exhausted.

This fall, I’ve realized that other parts of my life have changed as well (beyond simply being the only shepherd in our sheep business). Both of our daughters have moved away – Lara to a job in New Mexico; Emma to college in Idaho. We visited Emma over Thanksgiving week; we’ll visit Lara in mid-January. On top of this family travel, the post-COVID conference world is demanding more of my professional attention. In January, I’ll head to Texas to moderate a panel discussion on targeted grazing at the American Sheep Industry Association conference. In February, I’m going to Boise to co-lead a symposium on rangeland sheep production at the Society for Range Management conference. These opportunities, in part, have arisen because I’m both a shepherd and an extension agent.

I’ll be home during lambing (from late February through the end of March), but will travel to Oregon in mid-April to visit Emma at a logging sports competition. A week later, I have to attend another conference for work. I find myself anxious about figuring out how to get the sheep looked after while I’m gone.

Our sheep enterprise, obviously, is a side gig – big enough to be profitable; small enough to preclude hiring help. I don’t NEED to raise sheep, but I love the work. I don’t need the income, either, but I like having meaningful work that relates to my extension priorities. But sheep, like dairy cattle, demand daily attention. Unlike beef cattle, sheep (and livestock guardian dogs) need to be checked every day – someone once told me, “If you see your sheep every day, you won’t see any problems.” They were mostly right – I still see problems on occasion!

And so I find myself considering other side gigs. Since COVID, I’ve been messing around with a chainsaw sawmill – milling rough-cut boards and building furniture and other fun stuff from local timber. My long-time friend Allen, who owns a chunk of timber ground in Colfax, wants to start a joint-venture portable sawmilling business. I’m intrigued – and torn. A sawmill doesn’t need to be fed every day. A sawmill would be a side gig that allows me to travel. And yet…. And yet, I have difficulty contemplating NOT being a shepherd. I can’t give up my sheep.

Part of this, I think, is my inclination to want to work both with my hands and my brain. I realized in high school – during Mr. Sterni’s wood shop class and Mr. Clyde’s drafting class – that my creativity required a combination of physical and mental work (sorry, Mr. Clyde, but I suspect I could never have been a computer-aided draftsperson). I realized that I was most fulfilled by the applied arts – by designing and building something. By creating a body of work – which my flock of sheep has become. Body and mind are connected for me – which is probably why physical activity helps me make decisions. Now, more than 35 years after graduating from Sonora High School, I’m still the same kid who needs to exercise both my brain and my hands.

All of this brings me back to my walk this morning. I realized, as I was walking before work, that I’m waiting for some kind of epiphany – some kind of clarity. I want to be able to travel to see our daughters. I want to be able to fish, camp, and backpack in the summer. I want to be able to hunt (here in California, and with my daughters in other states) in the autumn. I want to learn a new business (sawmilling). And I want to remain a shepherd – and a county extension agent. Simplifying the sheep enterprise might accomplish all of these goals, and yet I haven’t yet been able to put all of these pieces together. Keeping the sheep on a single (rented) property all year might help, but I’d have to feed hay part of the year (and those of you who know me will know how difficult this would be for me). Keeping sheep at home (at vastly reduced numbers) seems like a pointless (and expensive) hobby. Keeping sheep (regardless of where they are) will require me to ask for help when I’m gone – and that’s difficult for me, too!

Part of growing older, at least for me, has come with the realization that I can (and should) give myself time to make decisions like these. I don’t need to figure this out NOW – I don’t even need to figure this out before my travels in April. But I do feel the need to come to some decision. I do need some clarity on all of this. And so I’ll keep walking – and thinking. I’ll keep waiting for clarity. 

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Unwritten Rules

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?

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

There’s Busy - and then there’s Sheep Busy

Between my “day job” as a cooperative extension advisor and county director, and my sheep ranching work, life has been exceptionally busy over the last six months. Research, teaching, and middle management responsibilities, all add up. On top of my “professional” life, moving water daily from mid-April until mid-October, feeding livestock guardian dogs daily all year long, and moving sheep once or twice a week, add up even more! As we stand on the cusp of December, I realize I’m tired of the non-stop running. I’m tired of being busy.

Much of my busyness, at least professionally, seems to be an attempt (futile, at times) on my part to balance my responsibilities and interests. As extension county director, I’m responsible for our local funding support. I manage our local staff and support our other advisors. And I try to do the things that drew me to cooperative extension in the first place - locally-focused research, teaching, and one-on-one work with ranchers in the counties I serve. But there are evenings when I get home and wonder what, exactly, I accomplished.

Lately, this busyness has affected my ability to enjoy raising sheep. Chores - whether morning or evening - seem like just one more thing I need to get done. I’ve always enjoyed the sights and sounds of turning my sheep into fresh pasture; lately, this has seemed like it’s just more work. I’ve enjoyed the annual cycles of grass growth, the changing of the seasons, the movement from breeding to gestation to lambing to weaning - and back again. But this fall, I’m tired. Just simply tired.

Lambing, as other shepherds will attest, is the busiest time of the shepherd’s year. As a pasture lambing operation, our lambing season consists of about 6 weeks of checking the flock three times a day (before my day job, on my lunch hour, and after my day job). But I love lambing season. At the end of each day, I can look back and see what I accomplished - the number of lambs marked, or the amount of fence constructed for next week’s grazing. Sami, no doubt, will remind me of the evenings when I stress about the weather, or the nights when I sleep on the couch so that I can get up and drive to the sheep every 3 or 4 hours during a storm. But the exhaustion, and the stress, are different for me. I feel like my work as a shepherd during lambing matters; sometimes I wonder about my work as a middle manager.

I guess one of the things I enjoy most about raising sheep is the combination of physical and mental work. I love working outside, with my hands, and with other animals (dogs and sheep). I also love thinking about how I can be a better shepherd - about planning my grazing, about being more efficient during lambing or shearing. When I think about my extension work, I realize that enjoy the same things - I love working outside (collecting data or teaching classes). I love thinking about - and discussing - ways that we can manage rangelands more effectively, ways that we can increase profitability in livestock production. I love work that makes a difference.

Ultimately, I suppose, I enjoy being busy when I feel like there’s a purpose to the work. I enjoy looking back over my day and seeing what I accomplished - marked lambs, or a stack of firewood; a full data sheet, or a successful field day. Being busy for the sake of being busy - I can do with out that. Meaningful work? Bring it on!