Saturday, March 9, 2019

Sheep Walking

I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions, but after the holidays this year, I took up jogging. During January and February, I tried to jog 3 times a week, and I eventually worked up to 7-8 miles each week. I was feeling pretty good about getting a run in before work on weekdays and a longer run on one of the weekend days. Then lambing started on February 17.... No more time for jogging; lots of time for walking!

As I’ve written before, our pasture lambing system requires us to walk through the sheep at least three times a day. When we have stormy weather (of which we’ve had plenty this year), we walk through the flock more frequently to get the lambs up and make sure they’re nursing. My partner Roger and I split up these duties, but it still means a great deal of walking. And since my iPhone has a built-in pedometer, it’s been interesting to see just exactly how much walking I’ve been doing.

First the lambing statistics. As of this evening, we are exactly 21 days into our lambing season. So far, 81 percent of the ewes have given birth - at most, we only have 16 ewes left to lamb (assuming they’re all pregnant - I expect we have several “open” ewes). From a labor standpoint, the more condensed our lambing season is, the better - it concentrates our work. From a marketing standpoint, we like the lambs to arrive in a short timeframe - this helps ensure a more uniform group of lambs when we sell them. And the fact that 81 percent of the ewes were impregnated within a three week period certainly explains why the rams looked so tired back in late October!

Now for the exercise statistics! According to my iPhone pedometer, I’ve walked 122.5 miles in the last three weeks! Had I started walking west on February 17 when the first lamb arrived, I’d be at AT&T Park (or Oracle Park, now, I guess) - well before the Giants’ opening day! And my iPhone says I’ve climbed the equivalent of 665 flights of stairs in the last three weeks! No wonder my 51+ year old hips and knees are a bit tired!

In our system, there’s no substitute for walking. Riding - a horse or an ATV - doesn’t provide the same perspective. When we’re “marking” new lambs (which involves docking, castrating, ear-tagging, and paint marking), we have to be on foot to catch the lambs. When we come on a ewe in need of assistance, we have to be on foot in order to catch her and help her. I find that I use my senses of sight, smell, and hearing during lambing - watching for ewes in labor, smelling for rare signs of infection, and listening for ewes who may be missing a lamb. The quiet of walking allows me to do these things.

This morning, we moved the sheep into a new paddock. The dogs and I brought the main bunch up to the fence and let them through to fresh grass. Then we walked back and carried the newest lambs (with their mothers following) into the new pasture. As usual, the dogs walked (or ran, mostly) at least three times as far as I did - and they still had lots of energy when we were done. I can only imagine what their pedometers would show tonight!

Thursday, February 28, 2019

I Guess I'll Let it Rain: Dealing with Bad Weather in a Pasture Lambing System


When I was a kid, my Dad and my uncle started an auction company called Macon Brothers Auctioneers. One August (as I remember it - I was seven or eight), as they were preparing for their first big farm equipment auction in Walla Walla, Washington (where my uncle Doug lives), they sat in the kitchen of a wheat farmer friend and watched a hail storm wipe out his crop. My Dad tells the story:
"I said, 'what are you going to do, Dick?' Dick looked out the window and said, 'Well, I guess I'll let it hail - what else can I do?!'"
This story, obviously, has stayed with me. My family didn't farm or ranch at the time, but even 40-plus years after this happened, I think about Dick Fulgham's attitude about an event that was beyond his control, and how it applies to my work as a shepherd.

Weather has always had the potential to erase a year's worth of farming or ranching work (or even more than a year, in some cases). Dick had already paid to produce his wheat crop that year - without a crop to harvest, he'd have no income to cover his production expenses. In our sheep operation, all of the expense (labor, feed, vet costs, etc.) we put into our ewe flock points us towards six weeks of lambing in late February and March. And weather, as I've been reminded this week, can be just as cruel to ranchers as it can be to wheat farmers.

But while I can't do anything about the weather, I can take steps to make our ranch as resilient as possible. This means I need to plan for sudden catastrophic events (like 5 inches of rain and 40 mph winds over a two-day period) as well as for longer term problems (like drought). And over the years, we've developed a few lambing management systems to help us cope - to help make sure that our year's worth of work with the ewe flock results in a salable crop of lambs,

What's the Plan?!
For a variety of reasons, we lamb on pasture rather than in a barn. We think this system is healthier for our sheep, but it does place significant importance on planning. We time our lambing to match the onset of rapid grass growth in our Sierra foothill environment. We also pay attention to how long the ewes will be able to nurse their lambs before the grass dies in late spring. And we consider the nutritional resources necessary to prepare the ewes for breeding in the late summer and early autumn. All of these factors point us towards a lambing season that lasts from approximately February 20 through March 31.

Accordingly, we save our most productive and most sheltered paddocks for lambing. Shelter, in our system, means tree cover and topography that allow ewes and lambs get out of the wind and rain. Furthermore, by giving these lambing paddocks ample rest between grazings, we ensure that we have a large quantity of high quality forage available for that six week period. We want this forage to meet the ewes' nutritional demands at lambing, and we don't want the ewes to have to travel very far to fill their rumens.

We also emphasize maternal aptitude in our ewe flock. For the last 10 years, we've scored every ewe at birth on her ability to deliver lambs without assistance, on her maternal instincts (in other words, her ability to bond with her lambs), and on her milk production (as measured by the vigor of her lambs). A ewe that doesn't measure up in these characteristics is sold after we wean her lambs. Just as importantly, her daughters are also sold - these traits are inherited, after all. Over time, this system has created a flock that thrives in our pasture lambing system. Nearly all of our ewes give birth without assistance, and most of them can count to two (that is, they can take care of at least two lambs).

Tools of the Trade
Over the years, we've also discovered a handful of tools and techniques that can help get us through critical stretches of bad weather. Several years ago, we started parking our gooseneck stock trailer near the sheep during lambing. This gives us a sheltered space to put a ewe if she happens to give birth during a particularly nasty storm. We can also use the trailer to help get a poor mother bonded with her lambs - she still gets sold when we wean her lambs, but it helps us keep her lambs alive (and have something to sell later). Finally, one person can milk a ewe in the trailer (which isn't possible in the pasture) - having a bottle of ewe's milk available can help get critical calories into a lamb that may be chilled. We probably save a half-dozen lambs a year in the trailer.

Last year, we discovered biodegradable plastic raincoats for our lambs. LambMacs, made by the UK company Shearwell, can help lambs conserve body heat during wet and windy weather. The ewes can still smell their lambs' heads and bums (critical for maintaining the ewe-lamb bond). At the quantity we order, these LambMacs cost just $0.57 each - cheap insurance in my mind. With the stormy weather we've experienced over the last five days, we've put coats on more than half of our lambs. I suspect we've saved 10-15 lambs just in this time frame.

Finally, when we do find a chilled lamb that's unresponsive, we wrap the lamb in a coat and place it on the floorboards of the truck with the heater running full blast. A cold lamb can't digest milk, so we need to bring its body temperature up before trying to feed it (or putting it back with mom). By this stage of lambing (nearly two weeks in), most of my work coats have doubled as lamb beds. I'll need to do laundry this weekend!

Sheep Walking
The best way to keep ewes and lambs going in stormy weather, at least in my experience, is to make sure they are getting plenty of calories - and to make sure that lambs are staying with the ewes. During especially harsh weather, this means that we periodically walk through the entire bunch to make sure lambs are staying close. A cold lamb will often be laying on its side; a warm lamb is usually laying sternal, perhaps curled up. We'll look for lambs that are by themselves, and we'll make the ewe get up so that the lambs can nurse. Making sure the lambs are nursing seems to help keep body temperatures up and lambs alive.

We'll also pay close attention to forage conditions in each paddock. While we don't mind making the ewes work a bit harder to graze when they are "dry" (that is, when they aren't nursing a lamb), we prefer that they don't have to move much to graze while they're lambing. Accordingly, we might move the drop bunch (the lambing ewes) a day before we'd move them before they've started to lamb. This is especially true if we expect inclement weather.

A Few Final Thoughts
Sheep will always be labor-intensive - indeed, the labor requirements are what has driven many ranching families to abandon sheep in favor of raising cattle. Lambing will always be the most labor-intensive time of year, regardless of the system or the season. I don't think any kind of technology will ever replace the hands, eyes, and brain of the shepherd. And while we can't change the weather, we can put thought into our system and our planning process. By planning our grazing and only keeping the ewes that fit our system, we can give their lambs a fighting chance even in the worst weather. As we've discovered, there are a variety of tools that can help us ensure that our year's worth of work with our ewes results in a crop we can sell in the spring! Our particular system won't fit every producer, but every good producer has a system!

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!