Sunday, May 20, 2018

Long Term Stewardship in a Short Term World

My two favorite farmer-writers, Wendell Berry and James Rebanks, often write about the agrarian importance of long-term attachment to place. Berry, from Kentucky, is part of a farming community that has existed for centuries. Rebanks, from England, raises sheep on pastures that have known his family's sheep for much longer than that. Both eloquently describe the commitment to and knowledge of the land that comes from this multi-generational tenure. As a Californian, and as a farmer in whom the farming gene lay dormant for several generations, I sometimes find myself envious of the ties that farmers like Berry or Rebanks have to their places. Sometimes I feel that no matter how carefully I farm or how observantly I watch the world around me, I'll never know the places where my sheep graze as intimately as someone whose family has been on the land for centuries. And yet, as I watch some of the successful first-generation farmers in my community - and as I watch my own ranching endeavors, I'm hopeful that careful and observant farming can lead to this deep-rooted knowledge of place here in the Sierra foothills.

For me, one of the great challenges to developing a durable commitment to the land in a place like Auburn is the economic value of the land itself. In California, as in much of the West, farming and ranching are often seen as interim land uses - agricultural land is simply inventory for future development to a "higher and better" use (usually houses). Because of this, real estate values typically outstrip the agricultural production value of the land - in simpler terms, farmers and ranchers can't afford to purchase land based on what it will grow. New farmers and ranchers (and 15 years into my ranching career, I consider myself a new rancher) typically must rent the land they farm.

Even with the most iron-clad, long-term written lease and most supportive landlord, many ranchers (myself included, at times) have difficulty justifying long-term (and I mean multi-generational long-term) thinking given the insecure nature of our tenure on the land. Why should I invest time, money and worry in land that someone else might own next week? Why should I invest in these things if my landlord might lease to someone who offers more money next year?

For my part, I always try to take a longer-term view of my stewardship of other people's land, as well as my own. Based on conversations with other ranchers and observations of their management, I think most of us do. Despite the often thin economic returns from grazing livestock, most of us are motivated to ranch as much for our love of the land and our animals as for economic reasons. For me, the work is too hard and the risks are too great to continue to ranch without this long-term commitment to stewardship - even on land that I know I may not be able to graze next year.

However, sometimes our long-term goals can conflict with the short-term needs of our landlords - reducing wildfire danger is just one example. Some of the landowners for whom we graze would prefer that we graze off all of the annual vegetation before fire season starts in June. While fire hazard is a consideration in our management planning, we're also concerned about having enough dry forage to return to in the fall - we look at this dry grass as a standing hay crop as well as a potential fire threat. To address these paradoxical objectives, we prioritize our summer grazing to protect homes while reserving other areas for fall grazing.

We seem to be living in an era that emphasizes immediate gratification, which makes farming and ranching all the more unusual. The decisions I made last fall about which rams to put with which ewes will influence the genetic makeup and quality of my flock for the rest of my ranching life. Similarly, our grazing management decisions about how long to graze an area, how long to rest pastures, and which season to use specific pieces of land - in other words, our entire approach to grazing management - will influence the quality of our grazing land next fall, next year, and for many years to come.

To make these decisions, a rancher must know his or her livestock and landscapes intimately. These are complex natural, social and economic systems, and operationally-specific knowledge only comes with years of careful observation and record-keeping on the part of the rancher. I'm often reminded that I won't always get these decisions right, but because I ranch for the long-term, I'll have another chance to try. And livestock must know the the land as well as the rancher. Our sheep know the landscapes that they graze - having watched generations of our ewes graze the same lands for more than a decade now (a blink of the eye to someone like James Rebanks), I realize that they have spatial and temporal memories just as I do.

In the face of a changing climate, I believe that farmers and ranchers are crucial agents of adaptation. We deal with changes - on the land, in the environment, in the weather - on a daily, weekly and annual basis. When our conversations move beyond the politics of climate change, I am always struck by the creativity and intensity that farmers and ranchers bring to the discussion of adaptation. Long-term stewardship, I think, even in the face of uncertain tenure on the land, requires us to constantly adapt. The practical, problem-solving focus of farmers and ranchers is critical to our future - well beyond the fact that all of us need to eat.

Our small-scale sheep operation won't solve the world's problems (climate, or otherwise). That said, we're blessed at the moment with landlords who appreciate and share our long-term focus and commitment to their land. And this gives me great hope - that there are others in our community who value long-term stewardship suggests that we might move beyond our society's short-term focus.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Why Wool Sheep?

In about two hours from now, we’ll be starting to shear sheep. In the hour before our crew starts to arrive, I’ll finish my set-up work: spreading canvas drop cloths where we’ll handle the wool, hanging the first wool sack of the day, checking on the pasture where the freshly-shorn ewes will rejoin their lambs. While this day (and the days leading up to it) is marked by intense work (both physical and mental), it is among my favorite times in the sheep year. And wool (even when it’s not worth much economically) makes this day possible. We raise wool sheep, in part, to allow us to have this day.

Perhaps because I’m getting older, I find myself especially cognizant of the connection that this day brings to generations of shepherds who preceded me. Getting the wool off has largely required the same type of work for centuries (in this country) and millennia (in other parts of the world): the sheep must be collected in one place, preparations for handling the freshly shorn fleeces must be made. While the technology has certainly changed, every wool garment starts with someone shearing a sheep. This connection to shepherds and shearers past, and to the wool clothing in my closet, is important to me.

Shearing day is also communal work. We’ll be joined by friends who will share in our efforts today. We’ll work hard; we’ll also laugh and enjoy each other’s company. Shepherding can be solitary work; shearing involves working together. The contrast makes both kinds of work all the more enjoyable.

To me, a freshly shorn ewe looks reborn. Relieved of a year’s worth of wool, she looks bright and clean. But despite her transformation, her lambs still know her (by sound and scent, I suspect). Watching the reunion of lambs and ewes is one of the highlights of my year.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Bringing Sheep Home

With lambing behind us and the weather in the Sierra foothills starting to warm up, we're turning our attention to shearing the ewe flock. We typically wait about 6 weeks after the last lamb is born (after which the wool comes off more easily), which usually puts shearing on Mother's Day weekend (as I've said before, I have a very patient wife). Since we graze almost entirely on other people's lands (which lack barns and electricity), shearing is the one stretch during the year when all of the sheep are at our home place north of Auburn for a few days. This Thursday, we'll haul all of the sheep home. Friday, we'll convert the horse barn into a shearing shed and the horse paddock into sheep yards. Saturday, we'll shear the sheep; on Sunday, we'll haul them all back to their summer pastures. And as much as I look forward to this part of our sheep year, I always have some trepidation about having all of our sheep on our little 3-acre property.

We live in a semi-rural area between Auburn and Grass Valley in California's Gold Country. While we still have a vibrant farming community in our part of Placer County, our particular neighborhood is not especially agricultural. I expect the neighbors look at the small group of sheep we generally have at home year-round (mostly bottle lambs and sheep belonging to our kids) with mild interest or amusement; having more than 170 ewes and lambs next door (not to mention three livestock guardian dogs) is a different matter.

Seven years ago, as I was hauling the sheep home for shearing (2011 was pre-drought, so there were even more sheep to be moved home), a neighbor turned us in to the county code enforcement officer for having too many sheep in our pasture. Our property is zoned "farm," and we're protected from nuisance complaints by our county's Right-to-Farm ordinance; nonetheless, I found the complaint irritating. The officer assured us that we were within our rights to have our sheep at home - especially when I told her they'd only be there for four days out of the entire year. As you might imagine, however, that experience has stayed with me. I still worry about annoying the neighbors.

When Auburn was truly an agricultural community, most of the neighbors wouldn't have given our sheep a second thought - they would have had sheep or cattle, too. And we wouldn't be hauling the sheep the 3 miles from our rented pasture to our home place; we'd have walked them safely up the county road. But today is different. Today, despite our rural environment, our community is largely urban in its attitudes towards the realities of agriculture. Many of our neighbors, sadly, are either misinformed or willfully ignorant about the realities of raising sheep at a commercial scale (or any other crop, for that matter). And we'd risk our lives (and those of our sheep and border collies) walking up the county road.

Our experiences, I suppose, are not that much different from our farming and ranching colleagues in North America or Europe. Those of us who chose to produce livestock or crops are rubes; anyone who's ever had a garden can be a farmer, after all! James Rebanks, an English shepherd who I follow on Twitter (@herdyshepherd1) uses the term, "daft twit" to describe these folks who look down on rural livelihoods. I like this term!

I'll admit that the day leading up to shearing, and shearing day itself, are noisy. We bring the entire flock into a dry lot the day before shearing - holding the sheep off feed and water makes them more comfortable during the 75 seconds or so they're on the shearing board. We also sort of 25-30 ewes the night before shearing and put them in a covered holding pen - we want to be sure their wool is dry when we start the next morning (heavy dew and wet wool can delay shearing). Their lambs call to them from the corrals; the ewes answer back most of the night. And I don't sleep well - I worry both about shearing day and about annoying the neighbors.

Ultimately, I suppose I hope that our shearing day is a reminder to our neighborhood about the work that goes into feeding and clothing all of us. While I worry about what the neighbors think, I also take a great deal of pride in participating directly in the production of food and fiber. And I'll be glad when all of the sheep are safely back in their summer pastures on Sunday evening!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Read It Again: Re-reading Favorite Books

Since I was a kid, I've had a habit of re-reading my favorite books. Until very recently, I've felt somewhat guilty about doing this; there are so many good books I haven't read, why waste my reading time on something I've already seen?! But I've recently discovered the value of revisiting the books that have had the most meaning for me.

My first experience re-reading favorite books, I'll admit, grew out of my status as a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien (some would say "fan"; most would say "geek"). My folks gave me a copy of The Hobbit (in 5th grade, I think), and then The Lord of the Rings trilogy (I'm guessing 6th grade). To say I was taken with these fantasies is an understatement; I continue to re-read all four books into my extreme middle age! I've always suspected laziness as a primary motive - why read a new book when I can revisit such classics?!

My perspective started to change maybe ten years ago. When I first started learning to use stock dogs, a friend recommended The Farmer's Dog by John Holmes. I read it, liked it, but didn't fully understand it. Several years later, I read Talking Sheep Dogs by Derek Scrimgeour (a shepherd and sheepdog handler from the UK). Again, I read it, liked it, but failed to understand the intricacies of starting and using a sheepdog. Several years into my experience working with border collies, however, I re-read both books - and realized that I understood more of both. I also realized, at last, how much more I had to learn.

My reading redundancy isn't limited to fantasy and sheepdog instruction; I've also re-read a number of other favorite authors. In each case, I can distinctly remember when and where I discovered each writer. I found English Creek by Montana author Ivan Doig, in the gift shop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium when I was in college. In sharing this new book with my friend and mentor John Ross (himself a native Montanan), I was introduced to Norman McLean and A River Runs Through It. In my early professional career, another mentor, Karen Ross (currently the California Secretary of Food and Agriculture), introduced me to Wendell Berry and his work, The Unsettling of America. I've since read everything these authors have written.

Now that I have a daughter living and studying in Montana, I'm finding myself returning to Ivan Doig's work. I read his first book, the memoir This House of Sky, when I was in school. I'd re-read much of his fiction; I hadn't re-read this book until this spring. I bought a copy (I guess I'd loaned my original out) and read it on the way home from Bozeman (where we'd been visiting Lara). And I finally realized why I enjoy re-reading the books that have meant the most to me.

I have found, ultimately, that the quality of these authors' writing, and the experiences of my own life, bring new meaning to each reading of their work. As I've worked at my own writing (in no way comparable to that of Doig, McLean or Berry), I've often thought I've been handicapped by my own stress-free life - my parents loved me (and I, them), I've always been gainfully employed (for the most part); in other words, I've had things pretty easy. In my first reading of This House of Sky, I was struck by the hardships Doig and his family endured. His mother died when he was a small boy; his father and his maternal grandmother (who ultimately raised him) didn't get along (at least at first); his father jumped from ranch job to ranch job (the story of many whose families tried to homestead in the Mountain West).

As I read the book this time, however, I realized that my own life experiences have shaped the person I am today (just as Doig's experiences shaped his own life). My life has been easy compared to the people of Doig's (and my folks') generation, certainly; but most people who have lived a half century have overcome some kind of challenge. For me, having known drought, business failure, and poor livestock markets, I can identify with Charlie Doig (Ivan's father) more today than I could when I was 25. I can understand Wendell Berry's fictional character Burley Coulter, whom Berry describes as "never learning anything until he had to." I've realized that these characters (real and imagined) are part of me - the quality of the writing and the authenticity of their experiences make these works a vital part of my own life.

And so finally, at the age of 51, I no longer apologize for re-reading good literature. I understand, at last, that reading is a partnership. The author, certainly, tries to convey certain emotions and thoughts; the reader, if he or she is thoughtful, brings his or her own life experience to these works. The older I get, the more I understand (at least when it comes to my favorite books)! The older I get, the more these works help me understand my own experiences.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Another Corner Turned

More grass than sheep - I feel this way every April!
When I think about the events that mark my work as a part-time shepherd, I envision my annual work as a circle. The top of my year is marked by the day we turn the rams in with the ewes (around the first of October). For some unknown reason, the progression of my circular year runs counter clockwise; we drop off the top of the year into the long nights of winter and waiting for lambs. The bottom of our sheep year, then, is the day that we move from our winter rangeland back to the irrigated pastures closer to home (roughly the first week of April). As we work our way back towards breeding season, we mark the seasons with irrigation, shearing the flock, weaning and shipping the lambs, and flushing the ewes in preparation for the coming year's lamb crop. Some of these milestones are more prominent than others; perhaps it's a sign of how illogical my shepherd's mind can be, but I think of these milestones as corners in the circle of my sheepherding year.

I turned one of these corners this afternoon. In our Mediterranean climate in California's Sierra Foothills, we don't have green forage for our sheep to graze in the summertime unless we irrigate our pastures. Many of the sheep ranchers who came before me in this region took their sheep to high mountain meadows in the summer, "following the green". Today, most of us have to bring the green to the sheep by planting and irrigating our summer forages. And this afternoon, I opened the valves that will allow us to irrigate our 15 acres of rented pasture.

Our water is supplied by the Nevada Irrigation District. The water that flowed through our K-Line irrigation system and out through our sprinklers this afternoon probably fell as snow last winter in the upper reaches of the Yuba River watershed. Stored in a series of reservoirs and delivered through an intricate system of canals (some of which date to the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s), our water arrives at the ranch through the miracle of gravity. We're blessed (economically and otherwise) that our irrigation system doesn't require any pumping!
Keeping it green!

Our pastures contain a mixture of improved perennial forages (like tall fescue, orchardgrass, white clover, and birdsfoot trefoil - aren't these great names), and less desirable but still palatable "weeds" (like prickly lettuce, velvetgrass, and dallis grass), among other plants. Our sheep, as I've observed, like the variety - some will even eat the "weeds" before moving on to the planted grasses. The variety in texture, flavor, rooting depth (which is related to the minerals in the forage) - and other factors known only to sheep - are an important part of our nutritional management system.

Like all ranchers, we always wish we had more grazing mouths to feed at this time of year. Our grass grows most rapidly in April - we can't stay ahead of it. Over-mature grass is less palatable to livestock, so our goal is to get the sheep over all of our pastures quickly to help keep the grass and other forages in a tender (or vegetative) state. We could use 3-4 times as many sheep in the next month - our pastures would benefit, but where would we put them for the summer?!

The corner I turned today means someone (mostly me - I am the lead on irrigation, while my partner Roger is the lead on summer sheep management) will be moving sprinklers every day for the next 6 months. Our system is set up to run on each station for 24 hours (the "set" in irrigator terms) and to return to each station every 10 days (the "rotation"). The sprinklers are designed to deliver water at a rate that our soils can absorb, in a quantity that will sustain our plants until the sprinklers return to that portion of the pasture. When everything is running smoothly, the process of moving sprinklers takes about 45 minutes out of my day; when problems arise, irrigating can take several hours.

Tools of the rainmaker's trade!
Every farmer and rancher, large and small, lives according to the rhythms of nature and biology. Germination, growth, flowering and harvest; breeding, birthing, weaning and selling are cyclical, regardless of what we're raising. I find these cycles of life incredibly rewarding. As I grow older (and I passed another corner today - I turned 51!), I appreciate even more that I learn something on every trip through the circle of our sheep year.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Lambing Report 2018

The following documents our statistics from this year's lambing season, records some of the lessons we learned (things that worked; things that didn't), and outlines changes we plan on implementing next year.

For the last four years, we have compared the performance of our ewes against U.S. sheep industry benchmarks, as well as against our own internal goals. The following table summarizes this analysis.

FMF Goal
Open Ewes
Flushing Ration

Pasture & Pea Crisps
Pasture & Canola Pellets
Pasture & Oat Screenings
Lambing Rate
Live Lambs/Ewe

Bottle Lambs (%)

Stillborn (%)

Deathloss (%)
Cull Ewes (%)
Observations/Lessons Learned
  • Does flushing pay? If we compare the added cost of purchasing oat screenings in 2018 against the "no-cost" flushing ration of irrigated pasture we used to prepare for the 2015 lamb crop, we probably had 25 more lambs this year than we would have had in 2015. At a total cost of $372, this year's flushing ration cost us $15.12 per extra lamb. I estimate the value of an extra lamb at sale time to be approximately $113 (depending on weight, etc.). Flushing does seem to make economic sense.
  • Shelter: Once again, we parked our gooseneck trailer in close proximity to our early lambing paddocks. This gave us the option of penning ewes whose lambs needed a bit extra time to get going, especially during cold storms. This worked well, for the most part - we did have one night during a particularly cold storm where we may have put too many ewes and lambs in the trailer (which likely resulted in mis-mothering). In the future, we may consider building partitions which would allow us to house four ewes with their lamb(s) in separate pens in the trailer.
  • LambMacs: About a week into lambing, we discovered plastic, biodegradable lamb rain coats (LambMacs from Shearwell in the UK). We used these successfully during several cold storms as an alternative to penning otherwise healthy, vigorous, and well-mothered lambs.
  • Open Ewes: We had a higher rate of open ewes this year, probably because our ewe flock is getting older. We'll cull most of these open ewes this year (which is reflected in our higher cull rate as well).
  • Moving Pairs: For the most part, this went well this year. We had one move (back to the corrals for shipping) that was especially difficult. We may have set up the start of the move wrong, and the sheep were hungry (which meant they bolted to fresh feed). 
  • Training New LGDs: We used Reno and Bodie together at the beginning of lambing. Reno (the experienced dog) enforced appropriate behavior on Bodie's part. After a few confrontations, Bodie settled in and did a great job.
  • EZ-Care: Our EZ-Care scoring system continues to result in solid mothering ability and lambing ease.
Changes for 2019
The primary change we're anticipating for the coming year involves the use of electronic identification (EID) tags. Rather than putting lamb tags in at lambing and adding scrapie tags at weaning, lambs will receive an EID tag at lambing. We'll be able to utilize software to track the information we currently record by hand, which should make subsequent work (weaning, culling, etc.) easier and more labor efficient.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Sleeping Easier

As I write this at shortly after 8 p.m. on the evening of April 6, we've received over two inches of rain in the last 24 hours (which is quite a bit for us in early April). More rain (heavy at times, as the National Weather Service says), is due to come in overnight and early tomorrow. This storm has been quite warm; rain has been falling over the crest of the Sierra Nevada all day. We've been warned of the possibility of localized flooding.

Had this weather happened three weeks ago (in the midst of lambing), I'd be up a good part of the night checking on newborn lambs. As it is, with all but our youngest lambs now at least three weeks old (and the oldest almost seven weeks old), I'm not too worried. The first week or so of a lamb's life, at least for us, seems to be the critical period. After that, the lambs (and their mothers) seem to have things figured out. By the time the lambs are 4-5 weeks old, they're starting to nibble on grass, as well. Additionally, the grass has started growing rapidly - pastures that we grazed just three weeks ago have regrown enough to graze again. As a consequence, the ewes are producing milk at maximum capacity (and nutritional value) - which means the lambs are getting plenty of groceries!

Every year, we reach the point where my degree of worry  changes. I still worry about the lambs - and we still check them twice a day. But their behavior and vigor eases my concern. I take tremendous pleasure in watching the lambs romp and play. Even during the cold storms of late February and early March, as soon as the sun comes out, the lambs are racing around; a warm storm like this doesn't slow them down a bit. I know when I begin to sleep better that our year is transitioning from lambing season to other tasks - irrigation season begins next week!