Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Reluctant Shepherd

Having tended sheep on winter nights,
I've wondered what the shepherds who were the
First to hear the news of Jesus' birth
Actually experienced. Being a shepherd myself,
And knowing other stockmen for
Most of my life, I figure there was at least
One shepherd that night who wouldn't leave his flock.

"You boys go on - this ewe's about to lamb,"
I imagine him saying. Or perhaps he said,
"I been hearin' coyotes all night - I'm not leavin' my flock,
Heavenly host or no." I'm not sure
They had coyotes in the Holy Land,
But I'm sure there were predators - there always are
Where there's sheep. I can think of a thousand reasons
He might have refused to go to town -
Some shepherds just don't like towns.

While it's not in any of the gospels,
I also wonder if he was sorry
He didn't go to the stable in Bethlehem
Once his buddies returned. I figure he might
Have been the first Lutheran shepherd -
Feeling guilty about not going but
Unwilling to forget his responsibility to his sheep.

Regardless, I like to imagine him in heaven
Finally meeting Jesus. Since Jesus
Talked a lot about taking care of his "sheep,"
I reckon he was pretty forgiving
Of our reluctant shepherd. That's what Christmas is all about!

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Goats (by Julie House)

After 6 months into my externship, I got the opportunity to bring goats home to my family’s 10 acres. This would seem on the surface to be just like managing our sheep and goats at the ranch, and our contract grazing off site. But bringing them home definitely made everything more personal.
Within the first week I got a call at 4 in the morning from my aunt that the goats were in their yard. In an attempt to bring them back to their paddock, I learned that they do not herd the same as sheep, and having them separated from the sheep at my house made driving them down the hill much more difficult without the use of a herding dog. By five thirty, I had made some progress back to our property, but had given up on getting them into their pen by myself and made the phone call to Dan to bring Taff, his herding dog, and come over to help.
Since then, they did get out into the neighbors yard once more, but I have become a better fence builder since and have managed to keep them contained. They still always seem to keep the family busy. My dad will feed the dog when I am late coming from the ranch. One of our guard dogs died of old age a few weeks ago, and yesterday a doe fell into the ditch and needed a good push to get out. Also, I have walked more of the property than ever before and seen things that I did not know were there, thanks to the goats for uncovering them.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Scotch Broth

I was looking through the index in one of my favorite cookbooks (Fannie Farmer) this weekend and came across a reference to Scotch Broth. The name itself intrigued me, so I looked up the recipe. Scotch Broth is basically a wintertime lamb soup made with neck slices, root vegetables, barley and butter. We made it for dinner last night, and it was wonderful!

Here's the recipe - we varied slightly from Fannie Farmer:

3 lbs lamb breast or neck slices
8 cups cold water
1/2 cup barley
3 TBS butter
2 carrots, diced fine
2 stalks celery, diced fine
2 small white turnips or rutabagas, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, diced fine
Freshly ground pepper

Remove most of the fat from the meat and cut into small pieces. Put it in a pot with the cold water. Bring to a biol and stir in the barley. Simmer, partially covered, for 1-1/2 hours, or until the meat and barley are tender, adding more water if any evaporates. Remove the meat from the bones. Cool the soup and skim off the fat. Melt the butter in a skillet and add the carrots, celery, turnip (or rutabaga), and onion. Cook over low heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Add to the soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook for another 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Serve piping hot.

This was a great seasonal meal! Everything we used with the exception of the butter and the water came from the Auburn Farmer's Market! After a day outside in the cold rain, it really hit the spot. I had visions of Scottish shepherds coming home to a meal like this!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Great Livestock Guardian Experiment of 2009 - Part 1: Chester (by Courtney McDonald)

If I have learned anything during the past ten months of interning with Flying Mule Farm, it is that effective livestock protection is essential to keeping livestock. Without reliable protection, your entire flock - and therefore your business - is at risk.
When we first moved into our new rented house, Eric and I were ecstatic to finally have a little bit of pasture to keep sheep and goats on. We discussed the idea of a livestock guardian dog with our new landlords, and they seemed intrigued by the idea. We explained that the dog’s job is to bark and be aggressive towards predators. So we took Chester, a livestock guardian dog that Flying Mule Farm had used to guard the sheep. He preferred to be anywhere else than in the sheep’s paddock, however, so after awhile he was retired from the farm. I invested in some 5 foot 8 inch electric netting for our new pasture, and added two lines of electric poly tape to the existing permanent fence to create a “Chester-proof” grazing area.
So Chester was brought to his new home, and he was thrilled to have so much new territory to mark. If you have never met Chester you should know that he is one of the largest, most handsome, and sweet natured dogs on the planet. He and Eric became fast friends.
The problems began on the first night. Chester was doing a great job of barking away anything he felt didn’t belong in his vicinity. We closed the windows and had a good night’s sleep. The next day, I asked my neighbor if the barking had bothered him, and he said he hadn’t heard a thing. Ten minutes later, my landlord showed up and said (in a very nice way) that Chester’s barking had upset the neighbors and that if he barked like this every night we would have to relocate him. He agreed to give us a few days to figure out the situation, and he seemed just as eager for Chester to be able to stay as we were.
Over the next few nights Eric and I slept with one eye open, going out to the pasture every time Chester started to bark, about every hour or so. We would assure him that everything was okay and sometimes sit with him until he went to sleep. It never lasted long, though, and soon enough we knew we had to try something different. After about a week in the pasture, we started tying Chester up at night in the half-covered carport with a comfy bed to sleep on. He didn’t make a peep the first night, so we figured we had found the perfect solution. After the third night he began barking all night again, so we tried something new. We began bringing him into the well room after dark. This is a ¾ covered outdoor area just outside the door to the house. We thought that it would be enough shelter to keep him quiet. And it did, for about 3 nights. After that, he began to whine at night. Then, he began a high-pitched barking intended to let us know that he would rather be somewhere else. We felt terrible for him, not least because there are so many critters about at night on the roof and in the walls making noise that he needed to warn us about. One early morning he even got out of the well room and went to visit all of the neighbors, which wasn’t helping his case. So we began switching up the nightly routine from the well room to the carport to the pasture, to see if a change in his routine would didn’t.
Motivated by a lack of sleep and love of Chester, we decided it was a good idea to bring this gigantic, fluffy dog who had never seen the inside of a house into our bedroom at night. Again, the first night he was quiet and showed potential to be a pet. But by the second and third nights, he was on the bed, trying to climb out of the shut window above us, whimpering and stepping on our faces to get there. We decided to try him again out on the pasture. We borrowed 18 ewes from Flying Mule Farm to graze and lamb in the fall. This was the main motivation for taking Chester in the first place. We were cautiously optimistic that if Chester was back with his sheep he might calm down and bark only at real threats.
Once again, we were back outside throughout the night, reassuring him. I remember falling asleep one night in the pasture among the star thistle with my head on my knees. This whole time I harbored a lonely guilt that we were not doing the right thing, and that Chester should be in a place where he could bark freely the way he felt necessary.
On the second night with his ewes Chester escaped his Fort Knox perimeter fencing. I remember thinking “oh my gosh, he is being so quiet tonight”, only to wake up to Chester tied to a tree just outside our from door, asleep. Apparently he went for a little adventure in the middle of the night over to our landlords house! At this point Eric and I knew there was nothing else we could do. Chester’s fate was sealed. We had to give him back to Dan at Flying Mule Farm.
We still see Chester often over at Dan’s house. We even occasionally bring him over to our house for a day trip. We love Chester, but it was beyond us to make turn him into a guardian or a pet. The perfect situation is out there waiting for him, somewhere.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Snow Day!

We awoke to snow yesterday - about 6 inches by the time it quit falling. According to the Auburn Journal, it was the most snow seen in Auburn in the last 20 years. School was canceled, so the girls and I did our morning chores together.

I love snow - despite the challenges it presents me as a rancher. Yesterday, we started by repairing sheep fence that had been pushed over by the snow. To get to the sheep, we drove on unplowed roads. After securing the sheep, we fed three groups of cows - pairs (cows and calves), first calf heifers and pregnant cows. Then we returned to the ewes and fed hay to them, followed by deliveries of hay to two groups of goats. After lunch, I resumed my rounds - feeding guard dogs, more hay for the ewes, and finally hay for the sheep at home.

Lara, our oldest daughter, is like I was as a boy - she played outside in the snow all day. Emma is more like her mom - she played outside some but was content to stay warm inside in the afternoon.

Today, we awoke to a hard freeze - it was clear and 18 degrees! The roads, which were plowed yesterday, were icy this morning. We moved the ewes onto fresh (and snow-covered) feed, and then moved goats as well.

I don't know if climate change is for real, but I do know that it snowed more in the foothills when I was a kid. I miss getting snow like we received Sunday night/Monday morning!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Another Beautiful Day

As I see the world, all life on our planet depends on the proper mix of soil, sunlight and water. Even those of us who are omnivores depend on plants to feed the animals that provide us with meat and milk. Based on this understanding, I get weary this time of year of hearing TV and radio weather people tell us that we're going to have another "beautiful day" when the forecast calls for sunshine.

I must confess that I enjoy stormy weather. I love waking up to the sound of rain. While rain, snow and wind often complicate my outside chores, I mostly enjoy being out in the elements during a storm.

We've just endured our third year of drought in California. Although the late rains we received last spring made the grass grow, we're facing severe water shortages throughout the state. I heard yesterday that the state water project will deliver only 5% of normal water supplies to its customers. While the Nevada Irrigation District, which supplies our irrigation water, seems to be in much better shape, they cannot sustain full deliveries in the face of a sustained drought.

Given our current water situation, "another beautiful day" (at least to me) will be one that brings rain in the foothills and snow in the mountains!

Monday, November 30, 2009


We lost our oldest guardian dog, Duke, last night. He'd been guarding goats in Auburn, and the property owner discovered him last evening.

Duke was an older dog - not sure exactly how old, but certainly over 8 years of age. For a dog of his size and breed, he was pretty old. He was always very protective of his livestock, but he was also very leery of people. Our friends Allen and Nancy Edwards acquired him about 4 years ago, and they always wondered if he'd been mistreated by a previous owner.

Lately, we'd put Reno, our youngest dog, with Buck to learn the trade. Reno's on his own with the goats, now - we hope he learned Duke's loyalty to his livestock. Thank you, Duke.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Giving Thanks

Like many, I've been thinking quite a bit about the things for which I'm thankful this year. Here's a start to my list:

  1. The chance (and ability) to work outside with animals nearly every day in the last year.
  2. My family, who puts up with (and helps with) my farming habit.
  3. The rain, which started early this fall - I hope it keeps coming!
  4. My friends.
  5. My interns - Courtney, Julie and Jason (see #4).
  6. My dogs - Taff has become an incredible partner in our sheep operation (and in just about everything else I do).
  7. The chance to do this all again in the coming year!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Wheeler Sheep Camp

After making a meat delivery to Truckee yesterday afternoon, we had time to drive north on Highway 89 to the Kyberz Flat Interpretive Area on the Tahoe National Forest. This area, east of Highway 89 and north of Stampede Reservoir, is adjacent to the old Henness Pass Road, one of the primary immigrant and freight routes through our part of the Sierra Nevada during the gold rush and the Comstock mining era. Petroglyphs left by the Washoe people suggest that the area was important long before Europeans arrived.

Our main reason for going to Kyberz Flat was to see the restored Basque oven at what had once been the Wheeler Sheep Camp. The Wheeler Sheep Company, from Reno, used the camp as the hub of its summer operations. At one time, the camp included a cabin, corrals, barns, a chicken coop, and developed springs (the remains of which are still evident). In the 1990s, the director of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, led efforts to restore the brick oven at the camp. The ovens were used to bake bread for the sheepherders who worked for Wheeler Sheep Company. Every five days, according to the sign at the site, the camptender would bring the herders fresh-baked bread from the oven.

Looking out over Kyberz Meadow, I could hear the echoes of ewes calling to their lambs, of herders calling to each other and to their dogs. As a modern-day shepherd, the idea of a summer spent in the mountains without moving electric fence is quite appealing, as is the idea of moving an entire flock to the mountains on foot.

I seem to have an ever-growing list of projects here at home (repairing fences, re-doing our wood/tool shed, etc.). After our "field trip" yesterday, I've added the construction of a brick oven to the list!


Last month, my Dad gave me two Muscovy ducks - both drakes. About 10 days ago, our interns, Courtney and Julie, and I butchered them. On Sunday, we celebrated the end of irrigation season by barbecuing the ducks and making lamb stew over the campfire. The ducks were incredible!

I've only eaten duck a few times, and I suspect it wasn't well prepared when I had it. This time, it was done perfectly. It has the look and texture of beef, but a flavor that is unique. Our youngest daughter, Emma, love it, too - she ate as much as I did!

We're considering adding Muscovy ducks as our primary poultry enterprise. We still have a lot to learn, but if the flavor and quality of the ducks we had for dinner on Sunday evening is any indication, they'd be a great addition!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Lamb vs. Chocolate

I heard on NPR yesterday that every American consumes on average 24 pounds of candy each year. The most recent statistic for lamb consumption is less than 1 pound per person per year. Maybe this is why we have an obesity epidemic?

By the way - we're not giving out lamb to trick-or-treaters tonight!

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 26, 2009


We held the first of our annual planning meetings today with our local farm advisor, Roger Ingram. I try to spend some time at the end of each year evaluating the previous year and planning for the coming one. This year, we spent some time thinking about what went well and what needs improvement.

As we talked, I realized that one of my biggest challenges is to keep from spreading myself too thin. I truly enjoy raising sheep and marketing lamb. I also enjoy working in the woods (cutting firewood, milling lumber and making peeled poles). In 2010, I need to try to organize my work so that I spend my time as profitably as possible. As our sheep flock expands, this means more time irrigating pastures and managing our grazing operation.

Our interns, Julie and Courtney, also participated in today's meeting. I found their insights into our business (after nearly a year of direct participation) to be extremely helpful. I think they found the discussion to be a useful model in considering their own farming endeavors, too.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Grazing Trial

In early September, we planted triticale (a rye-wheat hybrid) and ryegrass in a small plot at one of our leased properties. To plant the seed, we broadcast it onto the ground and then fed 150 sheep and goats over it. We had the equivalent of 240 cows per acre on the site for a day and a half - they trampled the seed in very effectively.

After planting, our local farm advisor irrigated the plot diligently - in a week, we had newly sprouting grass. The rains over the last two weeks were perfectly timed.

Today - about 7weeks after we planted the seed - we put 90 head of sheep on the plot for 2 hours. Before turning the sheep in, we clipped to sample one-foot squares to determine the amount of feed on the site - I'm guessing we had close to 2 tons of grass per acre. It was beautiful! At a time of year when feed is generally in short supply, we successfully planted a pasture using nothing but livestock, a broadcast seeder, and electric fence. Pretty cool!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fall Coyotes and Guard Dogs

Fall is the bleakest time for predators, I think - there's not much around for the coyotes to eat. As a consequence, they seem to be spending more time near our sheep at night.

Last night, one of the folks who lives at our leased ranch heard coyotes about and our guard dogs barking. Buck, our oldest and most reliable guard dog (a Pyr-Anatolian cross) had all of his ewes bunched together and protected. We couldn't get along without our dogs!

We currently have four guard dogs. They live with the sheep and goats around the clock. In the daylight hours, they sleep. At night, they're all business. They don't like strange dogs, but they are very friendly with our Border Collies. They're amazing!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Working Dogs

Last Saturday, our friend Ellen Skillings visited and conducted an afternoon clinic on working border collies. Ellen is a breeder, trainer and sheep producer from Tulelake, CA. She trained my dog, Taff, and bred and trained our daughter's dog, Mo. Our friends Roger Ingram, Courtney McDonald and Teresa Trull also joined us (with Bella, Lucy and Pippin, respectively).

In my daily work at the ranch, I get so focused on getting particular jobs done that I often fail to insist that Taff perform his work correctly. We always get the job done, but Taff gets away with things that he shouldn't. Usually, these transgressions are the result of my failure to communicate effectively.

Ellen helped each of us be better partners with our dogs. Each dog (and each of us) is in a different spot in terms of abilities and training - we all learned a tremendous amount on Saturday.

Ellen will be back in Auburn on November 8 and December 13 - we can't wait!


I woke up at 2 this morning to the sound of rain - the first real rain of the fall. What a wonderful noise! While not all of my farming colleagues will be happy with the timing of this first precipitation, it's perfect for us.

October 15 generally marks the end of the irrigation season - our irrigation district stops its summer water deliveries. Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate by turning on the "winter water" at the same time, but this year her timing is perfect.

We need about an inch of rain to start the grass - it's called a germinating rain. If this week's forecast is accurate - several inches of rain followed by 75 degree days - our pastures should be covered in a beautiful green fuzz within the next 7 days!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Labor vs. Technology

Over the summer, my Dad sent me a copy of Home Economics by Wendell Berry, my favorite author. Included in this collection of 14 essays is one entitled "A Good Farmer of the Old School," in which Berry describes the farming operation of Lancie Clippinger, who happens to farm with horses. Mr. Clippinger's approach to farming emphasizes choices - choices between technology and labor, between conventional and organic techniques, between crops and livestock. My friend Allen Edwards emphasizes looking at returns to labor versus returns on investment when analyzing farm enterprises. In many ways, this is the same approach.

In thinking about our sheep operation, we've decided to spend our time moving fence and irrigating pasture rather than purchasing expensive grain. This is a trade-off for us; in essence, we're trading our labor in moving fence and pipe for the faster gains we'd get by purchasing outside feed.

We are currently feeding locally grown alfalfa to our lambs to improve their gains. We've made this choice to free up additional feed for the ewe flock going into the winter. Again, we've tried to structure our business to maintain options - within seasons and from one year to the next.

Wendell Berry writes that "mental paralysis and economic slavery can be instituted on a farm by the farmer's technological choices." I think the key for us is to choice technology (like electric fencing) that increases our flexibility.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Our Approach to Grass-fed Lamb

At Flying Mule Farm, we take our commitment to producing all-natural, grass-fed meat seriously. We use the following animal health and management procedures:

1. No hormones/implants or animal by-products are used (fed or otherwise administered).
2. No antibiotics capable of entering the animal’s blood stream are fed or injected.
3. Quality Assurance practices are followed (all injections in the animal’s neck or over rib).

We raise our animals on natural grasses, legumes or range forage (this includes grass and alfalfa hay). No supplemental grains or grain-based manufactured rations are fed. No reprocessed animal tissue, animal by-products, fecal material, food waste or by-products are fed either as supplement or primary feed at any time. We do provide a full array of mineral supplements as required to maintain maximum levels of good health; however, these minerals are not provided in conjunction with grain or grain-based supplements.

Animals must occasionally be confined in corrals for sorting, vaccination, and other management procedures. However, animals are provided with access to pasture at all other times.

No synthetic hormones, growth promotants or steroids are used at any time during the animal's life. No implants are used (fed or otherwise administered).

We employ management practices that promote animal health including pasture rotation, vaccination, and low stress handling. We also medicate animals in the event of illness or injury in order to minimize suffering and prevent death. However, no animal is processed and marketed that has had antibiotics administered into or passed through the blood stream that may produce antibiotic residues. All vaccinations are administered in the animal’s neck or rib area and can be traced and verified.

Using guardian animals and electric fencing, we maintain a “predator-friendly” operation.

We welcome visitors to our operation to observe and verify our management and production systems. We believe that these systems allow us to produce the best tasting, highest quality and safest grass-fed meats possible.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Costs of Being Different

We just concluded our county fair. Our oldest daughter, Lara, showed a Suffolk market lamb and our Blueface Leicester ram. She did well with both - her lamb placed in the middle of its class and sold for a very fair price. Our ram was the only registered ram at the fair, so he was the Supreme Champion. The judge did not know what breed he was.

Our operation is very different from most. We're using a 3-tier cross-breeding system used in England to produce our grass-fed lamb. Most commercial sheep producers in our region raise whitefaced ewes and finish their lambs on grain. We lamb in the pasture, mostly in late February and March. Most producers our size lamb in a barn. We use guardian dogs to protect our sheep from predators. Others use traps and lead to control coyotes and other predators.

There are costs to being different than most of the producers around us. One of the costs is the lack of other folks that we can talk to and learn from. I'd like to talk to other producers using our genetic scheme, for example. Another cost is in the implied and, at times, explicit ridicule of our peers. The fair drove this home for me. In the show world, sheep that aren't of Suffolk and/or Hampshire breeding simply don't do well. There is a bias towards large (140+ pound) lambs that must be finished on grain. Sheep this big certainly make a lot of money for the feed salesman, but they don't work in our system.

I kind of like being different (although I think it's necessary to ask myself why others aren't using our approach). I think it's more difficult for our kids to be different. When everyone else is showing a black-and-white grain-fed lamb, it's difficult to show something as different as the lambs we raise.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Industrial Food

We saw the documentary Food, Inc. last week - it was both informative and scary. On Wednesday, I went to our youngest daughter's back-to-school night and learned that we're welcome to bring treats to her class to help celebrate her birthday, but these treats are required to be store-bought rather than homemade - it's a state law. Something's wrong here!

Friday, August 21, 2009


As regular readers know, we produce 100% grass-fed meat - lamb, beef and goat. We have the most experience producing lamb, but we're learning more and more about grass-fed beef this year - in partnership with our friend Ann Vassar. We manage Ann's cows when they're in Auburn, and we market the calves that she's bred.

We're just beginning to market the second of the 8-10 calves that we hope to finish this year. The first, a heifer, graded nearly prime - the highest USDA grade. This current steer graded choice. These quality grades are an estimate of the eating quality of the beef - they measure the amount of intramuscular fat, which relates to tenderness, flavor and palatability.

Our processor - Wolfpack Meats at University of Nevada, Reno, and another butcher have been somewhat surprised by the quality of the beef. I think it's the combination of Ann's ability to manage her genetics to produce high quality cattle and our ability to manage our grass. The final factor is patience - we don't process the calves until we're sure they are ready.

While grass-fed meats have well documented nutritional benefits, I think I'd produce grass-fed lambs and cattle regardless. We grow grass, and we grow it well. By being grass-fed, we're able to be nearly self sufficient in our feed production - we don't need to import any grain. As someone who eats my fair share of meat, I also find that I prefer the flavor of grass-fed meat. The higher levels of Omega-3, CLA and beta-carotene are an added benefit!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Wildlife Friendly?

One of the reasons I love to farm is that it gives me a chance to be outdoors and to see lots of wildlife up close. I love seeing hawks and waterfowl when I'm out working. I even enjoy seeing the occasional predator - coyotes and foxes are interesting critters.

When we started raising sheep commercially, we made the decision to co-exist with the predators in our area (mostly coyotes). By using electric fencing and guardian dogs, we hoped, we'd be able to protect our sheep and enjoy the wild animals that share our community.

Yesterday, I learned that a neighboring landowner saw a mountain lion coming through one of the ranches we lease. We haven't lost any animals, but we're definitely on high alert. The presence of a lion makes me think again about our "wildlife friendly" approach. The late folksinger and peace activist U. Utah Phillips once said about a bar fight that if someone knocks you off your bar stool, you must decide whether you're truly a pacifist between the bar stool and ground. In other words, you can only truly decide if you're a pacifist when you're actually tested.

I've often wondered what I'd do if I came upon a coyote killing a lamb or a mountain lion killing a ewe. My first instinct, I think, would be to protect the animals that are in my care. So far, our guardian dogs have done the job for us (without the use of lethal force). The presence of a lion in the neighborhood makes me apprehensive, but I'm also excited that our community still includes these wild animals. Wendell Berry writes, "sheep and coyotes [may] need each other, at least in the sense that neither would prosper in a place totally unfit for the other."

Friday, August 7, 2009


There are a number of milestones that mark a shepherd's progress through the year - lambing and shearing come to mind. Oddly enough, during the next week, we'll mark a milestone that is really the start of our new "sheep" year.

Next week, we'll bring all 130+ ewes together and sort them according to their body condition. We'll give each ewe a numeric score, with 1 being extremely thin and 5 being extremely fat. We expect scores mostly between 2 and 3. All of the thinner ewes (2.5 or below) will go onto higher quality feed - not as high quality as the feed we're saving for our lambs, but green, irrigated feed nonetheless. The ewes that score 2.5 or higher will remain on dry feed for several more weeks.

This feeding process is known as "flushing." The theory behind it is that putting the ewes on a rising plane of nutrition will increase their ovulation, in turn increasing the percentage of twin lambs born next spring. Next week marks our initial preparations for next year's crop of lambs.

Following flushing, we'll turn our rams in with the ewes (in the third week of September). The rams will stay with the ewes for 3 estrus cycles (51 days). During our breeding season, we'll continue to keep all of the ewes on a rising plane of nutrition (more green grass). After we pull the rams, we'll enter a somewhat less hectic period (at least with the sheep) during the late fall and early winter. Shortly after New Year's Day, we'll bring all the ewes in to update their vaccinations, trim their feet, and prepare them for lambing. If our rams do their job, lambs will arrive during the third week of February (approximately 145 days after the rams are turned in with the ewes). Our success next year depends on our ability to manage our ewes effectively over the next 4 weeks!

One of the things I enjoy about farming is the changing routine - there are certain tasks that must be done during certain seasons. In many ways, August is my favorite summer month - there is always a morning that dawns with a hint of autumn (this morning, for example). The turning of the year keeps life interesting.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Midsummer Break

We just returned home from a wonderful (and much needed) camping trip on the Stanislaus River. I grew up camping on the Stanislaus, and our girls are doing the same. It was a quick trip (Friday-Monday), but we ate wonderful food, caught up with great friends, caught (and ate) native trout, and generally unwound. I'm ready to go again.

We stayed longer than normal this year, thanks to our outstanding interns (Julie and Courtney). They took care of things here at home - moved water, moved sheep, etc. Thanks to them, we were able to totally get away!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tahoe City Cooking Demonstration

My friend Anne Chadwick took some amazing photos of a cooking demonstration and talk that our intern Courtney McDonald and I did in Tahoe City. The recipe for our lamb kabobs is on our website at

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Mondays are hectic days, no matter what you do for a living, I suppose. For us, Mondays seem to be especially busy, partly because we have a full compliment of interns on Mondays. Take yesterday, for example:

My day started out by running to Auburn Equestrian Center (AEC), where we are contract grazing sheep and goats to control blackberries and thistles. Our guard dog, Boise, had jumped out of the paddock during the night. On my way to get him back in, I touched bases with two of our interns, Julie and Courtney, to begin lining out the day.

As Julie and I built a new paddock at AEC, Courtney moved irrigation water at Thompson Ranch. We each finished these tasks by about 8:30 a.m., so we decided to meet at Belair market to research beef cuts and prices (we've started marketing grass-fed beef). After our field trip, we went back to Thompson Ranch to meet our third intern Jason. A brief meeting organized the remainder of our day.

Jason and Julie checked on the rest of the sheep - they moved lambs at a neighboring property and fed Buck the guard dog. They then went to Canyonview (where we have another contract grazing project) and fed Duke the guard dog. Then it was back to the house to inventory our meat supply for the rest of the week, and on to Roseville Meat to organize the rest of our meat inventory and to bring back meat for the Roseville, Tahoe City and Truckee farmer's markets. Julie and Jason were finished by early afternoon.

Courtney and I went up to Colfax to process and deliver firewood. We loaded a half cord of Douglas fir, which I delivered to customers in Meadow Vista. We also cut and split a cord of oak, which I'll deliver to the same customers later this week.

By 5 p.m. (when most sane people are off work), we were back at Thompson Ranch to do the afternoon irrigation moves. After finishing this project shortly after 6, Courtney came to the house to milk our dairy ewe, while Julie stopped by AEC to check on things there. I cleaned up and headed to my Placer County Agricultural Commission meeting (as did Julie). I finally got to eat dinner at about 9 p.m.

Like most small-scale farmers, I find that I tend to completely fill the daylight hours this time of year. I always seem to reach a point in July where I'm exhausted. By the end of the month, fall (and the close of the irrigation season) will seem close enough that I get a second wind. I hope it comes soon!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tales from the Rainmaker (the intern blog by Julie House)

Recently, I was mocked at Thompson Ranch, by someone trying to make conversation about how, she was very happy that she was not moving pipe. Yet this is one of my favorite jobs and I am not sure why, except for that it keeps my imagination working. I imagine being in a Strong Man competition hiking uphill carrying 2 times 30 feet of aluminum pipe, trying to beat out the competition. Or the fact that I just prefer to do the most difficult moves first, saving the easiest for last. Or the fact that you never know what will happen as metal pieces fly into the air on towers of water.
Mostly, I try to realize that this, one of the simplest yet most difficult jobs we do often goes wrong, and what how would I solve the problems if no one was out their with me, as we move several cubic inches of water being forced by gravity in order to come out of a sprinkler head at many gallons per minute.
Recently, I began thinking about what happened 100 years ago before, aluminum pipe and irrigation districts. One of the wonders of agriculture is that it has thousands of years of history prior to today, of people working with nature to harvest each year enough food to make it into the next. And yet today, we try to manipulate nature to give us tomatoes in January and Lambs in July. Trying to explain to customers how our lambs that were born in the spring are not fat enough is just not what the typical American can comprehend.
We continue to try our best to keep the ground moist in the region that we live all summer long. I think that finally we have taught some people that tomatoes don’t grow naturally in the cold. Soon they might be able to understand the seasons, as people used to in the past, and we will start to crave the shanks stewing on the stovetop, but we know that it is too hot outside to braise, yet soon enough it will be cool again and the rain will make itself.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Lara, our oldest daughter, worked her border collie tonight. Mo is about 1-1/2 years old, and Lara has been working him for about a year now. Our friend Ellen Skillings bred Mo, and she's been helping Lara with his training.

For several years, we tried getting free border collies to help us with our sheep. In every case, the dog didn't have the instinct for herding. Mo is the exact opposite - he was sired by a top level working dog, and his mother (Ellen's Emmer) is also a top-flight dog. Mo's genetic foundation shows in his intelligence, his work ethic and his ability.

Ellen has taught us to start a pup by encouraging him to go around sheep. The commands come later. A border collie has to know how to do five basic things - go left, go right, walk up on stock, stop and remain focused on the stock, and come off stock. As with horses, it's important to shape the motion of the dog to the commands - a dog that won't go around stock can't be trained easily.

Mo has tremendous instinct - he's wanted to go around sheep since he was very young. Tonight, Lara added the flank commands (come bye for going left and away to me for right). Mo picked them up immediately.

Instinct is an interesting trait. In many ways, humans have lost the ability to trust our instincts - we think too much. Watching Mo (and Lara) reminds me to trust my own instinct - my "gut feelings" are usually correct if I'll just pay attention!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Farming in Public

Since we rely on mostly rented pasture land for our sheep operation, we often find ourselves farming in public; that is, we're often pasturing sheep adjacent to public roads or other public areas. In many respects this is a great opportunity to educate our community about what we do. I'm continuously struck by how few people have any direct connection with animal agriculture. By the same token, farming in public can create additional stress when this lack of knowledge manifests itself in a negative manner.

This morning, the girls and I moved sheep and goats onto an overgrown area at Auburn Equestrian Center here in Auburn. We'll be using the livestock to remove blackberries, thistles, and other unwanted vegetation. The owners and many of the visitors to Auburn Equestrian Center were thrilled to have sheep and goats on the property, and several folks stopped to find out more about what we were doing. In this case, farming in public created an opportunity for us to connect with our community in an educational setting.

Some people, however, assume that we're out to abuse our animals - they think it's too hot or too cold for the sheep, too wet for the guard dogs, too sunny for everyone. In some cases, these people are well-meaning, and they are more than willing to learn about our production system and about our care for our animals. In other cases, I'm not sure folks are well-meaning. I find this group to be terribly frustrating.

Farming in an urbanizing community has positive and negative aspects to it. On the positive side of the ledger, I have access to a tremendous market that doesn't exist in more remote areas. I have neighbors and customers who value what I do, in part (I believe) because it's done in the public eye. On the negative side of the equation, the misguided (in my mind) criticism adds stress to my job. There are days that I wish I ran sheep in the middle of northern Nevada.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sheep on the Road

We moved about 140 lambs to another property just down the road in Auburn yesterday. To move them, we had two options: we could take 4-5 trailer loads of lambs at 2 miles per round trip, or we could walk them through one of our pastures at Thompson Ranch, onto Mt. Vernon Road, and into the new pasture (a walk of about 1 mile). We opted for walking them.

Surprisingly, the county road department was easy to work with - it turns out that there is currently no restriction on driving livestock on a county road provided they don't stray onto adjacent properties. Since we only had to use about 100 yards of Mt. Vernon Road, we didn't think we'd impact traffic too severely.

Our interns, Julie and Courtney, stopped traffic as we came onto the road. By the time we reached the road, Taff (our border collie) was pretty tired, but he gamely kept the sheep moving (along with Roger Ingram, our friend and local farm advisor). The sheep were on the road for less than two minutes.

The response of drivers who had to wait (or chose not to) was typical of the changes to our once-rural community. Several drivers were very patient, and one woman even got out of her car to help us turn the sheep into the lane. When I thanked her, she said, "I wouldn't miss this for the world!" On the other hand, several drivers decided they couldn't wait and whipped around Courtney to continue on their way. Fortunately, they didn't endanger our animals or themselves with their impatience.

My friend Bob Wiswell, whose family has raised sheep and cattle in Lincoln for several generations, tells stories about walking sheep from the home ranch up to a Forest Service grazing allotment beyond Foresthill - a walk of several days. While those days are lost to "progress," we enjoyed getting a small taste yesterday. Unfortunately, I don't have any photos to share - we were all to busy to snap pictures!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Thank Goodness Sheep Don't Read!

Most of the grazing and animal behavior text books that I've read suggest that goats will eat brush and blackberries, while sheep will eat grass and broadleaf weeds. We've just placed a flock of 67 sheep and 13 goats on an Auburn property owned by the Placer Land Trust, and I'm pleased to report that our sheep can't read.

The Placer Land Trust hired us to control invasive plants and reduce fire danger on it's Canyonview Preserve in Auburn. The property is north of I-80 near the Canyonview subdivision and directly downslope from a professional building (see photos). The first paddock was about 1/2 acre of blackberries, thistles, dry grass and live oak. The flock polished off the vegetation in about 28 hours. The next paddock included poison oak and scotch broom, along with blackberries - again, they demolished the undesirable plants. Today (day 3), we moved them into more blackberries and dry grass (including a small burr, which the sheep love).

Our sheep obviously have not read the text books! They love all of the vegetation and are nearly as agressive with the brush as the goats are. The goats are more apt to climb, which means they will remove more of the higher vegetation, but we're really liking the combination of the two species.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Whole Lamb (the intern blog by Courtney McDonald

Last Sunday I was fortunate enough to drop by while Dan and Roger Ingram were grilling two whole baby lambs over an oak fire for a special event. I was only bringing cutting boards, but ended up staying long enough for a beer and a taste of lamb.

The lambs were splayed out, skin-side up to lay flat. They cooked this way for about two hours, and then were flipped over for another hour. Dan and Roger had rubbed the lambs all over with a mixture of kosher salt and fresh garlic, mixed to a dry paste, and were basting the lambs with lemon juice and water from a spray bottle. This “asada-style” method was inspired by Roger’s trip to Argentina.

The borrowed grill had been custom made - a standard tow trailer with a grill grate suspended over the bed. A hand-cranked cable allowed the grill to be adjusted up or down. It was the perfect size for two baby lambs, one on each side of the support pole in the center. A pretty cool contraption, topped off with flames painted on the sides.

I’ve never cooked a lamb whole, but as an observer last Sunday, I almost wouldn’t want to cook lamb any other way. Each cut of meat, left in place on the carcass to cook all together, was amazingly tender and juicy. The neck, shoulder and shank meats were falling off the bone, as was (of course) the loin, rib and tenderloin. And it had all cooked the same amount of time. It was as if Mother Nature planned for this lamb to be cooked whole, and arranged the parts to cook perfectly this way. At least that was what I what I was thinking when, after the lambs were turned skin-side down, pools of steaming juices were collecting in between the skin and the meat and slowly bubbling around the carcass joints, melting away any remaining connective tissue and adding extra flavor and moisture at the same time.
My favorite part of the whole lamb was the skin. Perfectly rendered of excess fat, beautifully flavored from the light smoke of the grill, well seasoned, golden brown and crispy - it was like the best part of Thanksgiving turkey!

For photos of the event, check out

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Child Labor

About 12 years ago, I had the chance to travel to the Dominican Republic with a group of 29 other agriculturists. We visited a cigar factory, and were astounded to see children as young as 10 and 11 working along side their parents rolling cigars. After thinking it through, however, most of us remembered times that we worked with our parents - not in a factory, but certainly in a farming situation. We realized that "child labor" provided us with examples of how to work and gave us a chance to spend time with our parents. While I can't condone the type of sweatshop work we saw in Santo Domingo, my own experience of working with my parents was wonderful. That work is part of who I am today.

Over the last two days, our youngest daughter, Emma, went to work with me. Emma loves to help, and yesterday, she spent part of the morning rolling rounds of firewood to me to split. Today, I told her I'd pay her to help me load boxes of campfire wood for the farmer's markets, which added more motivation. Even at 5 (or nearly 6, as she reminded me), she started to anticipate the work that needed to be done. At one point, she started bringing armloads of kindling to add to the boxes all on her own. For a dad, she was amazing to watch.

I think that families that work together and enjoy each other's company begin to anticipate what needs to be done with little or no verbal communication. I remember working with my Dad that way, and it's incredibly rewarding to see that seed begin to germinate in my own kids. I am so fortunate to do work that can include them both in meaningful work. What a father's day gift!

Friday, June 12, 2009

The garden is in - finally!

In years past, we've always grown vegetables to sell at the farmer's market, along with our grass-fed meat. This year, we've decided that the sheep and firewood enterprises are our most profitable, so we didn't dedicate the time to planting a market garden. As a result, I've put off getting our family garden planted - too much going on.

Last night, however, Emma and I planted our sweet corn, summer squash, Swiss chard, string beans and radishes. Better late than never! Once again this year, I prepared the entire garden with mule power - no fossil fuels were harmed in the preparation of our garden!

Despite my education and experience, the germination of a seed is still somewhat miraculous to me. I place a seemingly lifeless object into the soil, add water, and wait. in 3-4 days, we'll see radish plants emerging. In 7-10 days, we'll see the beans, corn and squash coming up. In 75 days, we'll be eating Silver Queen sweet corn!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Next Generation of Farmers

The average age of a farmer in Placer County is 57+ - more than two-thirds of the farmers in our county are older than 65, while less than 5% are younger than 35. We seemed to have lost an entire generation to other professions.

Many factors have contributed to these demographics - the cost of land, lack of capital, the difficulty of the work involved, and low income from farming (among other things) are all part of the problem.

Our children, who are 11 and 5, participate daily in our farming operation. Both girls have their own small flocks of sheep. Both girls help take care of Yola, our dairy ewe. Emma cares for chickens and ducks as well.

While we've definitely sparked their interest in agriculture, I worry about the example I may be setting for them. The scale at which we are currently farming requires a great deal of work but does not generate enough revenue to justify hiring any help. Even with our 3 wonderful interns, I'm working 80-90 hours each week at the moment. Here's my worry: I am concerned that our kids will only see our farm as endless work at low pay for their father. Looking at farming through their eyes, I can't see why they'd choose it as a career. I've talked to other small-scale, full-time farmers who have similar worries.

So how do we deal with this problem? Do we need to achieve sufficient scale (and income levels) to hire help? Are there ways to be more efficient with our time? I'm very interested in what others might see as solutions!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Summer Storms

I used to think the phrase "when I was a kid" was something that only a really old person used, but last night I used it with our girls. At about 9:30 last night, we had a thunderstorm like we used to have "when I was a kid" in Sonora. The sky lit up with lightning, the wind kicked up, and we had about a 1/2 inch of rain. What a treat!

Summer thunderstorms in our part of the world can be fun, exciting and/or scary - sometimes all at once. They are fun because it's a treat to get rain during the dry season - the rain cleans everything and makes the outdoors smell good. They are exciting because of the noise and light - we talked about them being nature's fireworks last night. Finally, they are scary when they lack enough rain to counteract the fire-starting potential of the lightning. The worst wildfires "when I was a kid" were do to dry lightning storms.

From a ranching and farming perspective, summer thunderstorms have good points and bad points, too. Last night's rain will help the irrigated pastures we graze, but it will also leach the nutrients out of the dry grass we're saving for fall and winter. Tree fruit farmers are always worried about hail this time of year - a hailstorm can wipe out an entire crop. Hay growers (and those of us that depend on hay) worry about cut hay getting wet before it's baled (which can make the hay moldy). Timberland owners are obviously worried about the fire-producing potential of lightning storms.

As a farmer, I'm both a spectator and a participant when it comes to weather. I love watching storms! Generally, I also love working in all kinds of weather (provided I'm prepared for it). Sounds like we'll have more of the same over the next 3-4 days - just like "when I was kid."

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Kids and Dogs

The girls and I spent last weekend in Tulelake with our friend Ellen. Ellen trains and breeds working border collies - she found Taff for me, and Lara's dog Mo is out of Ellen's dog Emmer. We had a great time - watched the end of a sheep dog trial and had several lessons with Mo.

Both Lara and Emma are naturals with dogs. While Emma is not quite old enough to work sheep, Lara has an amazing intuitive sense for working them. Part of this, I think, is because our kids haven't had to unlearn bad habits. For example, Lara seems to understand the "pressure and release" approach to working livestock and to training dogs better than most adults. Most times, she's in the right place at just the right time. She's fun to watch!

Emma is counting the days until she's old enough to have her own puppy. In the meantime, she's using Taff for 4-H obedience and agility competitions. She's very sweet and kind with Taff, who is generally a one-person dog. He's enjoying the extra attention, and Emma's learning about responsibility. She's also fun to watch!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Intern Flock (by Courtney McDonald)

As part of our internship, Julie, Jason and I have been given a new project. This time it’s one that carries with it a lot of responsibility. The three of us are in charge of our own flock of sheep for about the next six months.

This flock is called the dry ewe flock - meaning that they were not bred during the fall when the ram was last put in with them. Because the ram was “turned in” for a second chance last week, they have much higher nutritional needs than the ewes whose lambs have been weaned and are now on dry pasture. These other ewes no longer need to produce milk, are not going to be bred again soon, and therefore can get enough nutrition for themselves on dry pasture. Our dry ewes need pasture richer in nutrients so that they have a better chance of being bred and have a better chance of having twins when they are bred. When a ewe has twins, that doubles the new lambs added to the flock (obviously). Whether they become replacement ewes or feeder lambs to be marketed later on, having twins is the target for the particular breeds of sheep that Dan is raising.

Taking care of the “intern flock” of dry ewes comes with a lot of responsibility. We are in charge of feeding the guard dog, Boise, making sure the ewes have a constant supply of mineral supplement, keeping an eye on their water (which is easy for the moment since it is hooked up to a self-filling hose), and moving them to fresh feed every couple of days. I think this last thing will be the most challenging part. Since their nutritional requirements are higher, the ewes need to be moved sooner than they would otherwise. This means there are new things to look for in the pasture itself that we haven’t had much experience with up until now. I’m hoping that by the end of this project we’ll have a much better sense of how to manage a pasture for all types of livestock with different levels of nutrient needs.

We are coordinating the pasture moves with the irrigation water moves, so there are many factors to consider. The sheep should never be on wet pasture, so we need to time their moves to pasture that has not been irrigated for at least a couple of days. We’re also currently sharing this pasture with a flock of just-weaned feeder lambs, also with high nutritional needs, so we keep that in mind when planning future moves. It’s also ideal for the flock to have a shade tree on hot summer days.

We will use Mondays to take care of the ewes’ feet. All three interns are working on Mondays, so with the help of Dan and Taff, we think we can accomplish the labor-intensive job of running the ewes through a footbath and trimming feet when necessary.

The ram will be pulled out of the flock in June after about 35 days (2 ewe cycles). Hopefully we will have a flock of pregnant ewes to lamb in the fall – and lots of twins!!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Pasture Geeks

As we were building electric fence in Lincoln today, I realized that I'm a pasture geek. We discovered lots of dung beetle activity in the cow pies at the ranch. Dung beetles are indicators of a healthy nutrient cycle - they carry bits of manure into the soil, where it is further processed by other organisms and made available to plants.

Roger Ingram, my friend and our local farm advisor, was equally excited - we're both pasture geeks! My interns, Julie and Jason, were mildly interested - they haven't yet achieved full pasture geek status. Jason's wife, Sarah, was amused - here were two college educated guys staring at cow pies!

There are several signs that you, too, may be a pasture geek:

  1. Do you feel guilty about mowing your lawn? What a waste of good feed!

  2. When you drive down the freeway, do you find yourself estimating the stock days of grazing available on the median strip? If only they'd fence the median!

  3. Do you forget your anniversary but studiously record the first germinating rainfall each autumn?

  4. Is the highlight of your day achieving 7,000 volts on your electric fence?

  5. Do you think the forgotten 11th commandment was "Covet not thy neighbor's grass"?

Embrace your inner pasture geekness!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Weaning Time

Yesterday, we began the process of weaning our lambs from their mothers. We separated 40 or so of the biggest lambs and put them on our highest quality grass. The ewes went back to dry grass - their nutritional requirements are greatly reduced once they're not nursing lambs. In the next 3-4 weeks, we'll wean the rest of the lambs.

Since we had all of the sheep in the corrals, we took the time to do other things, too. We trimmed feet and ran everyone through a footbath to improve the health of their feet. We gave vaccinations to the lambs that we weaned. We ear-tagged each of the lambs that we weaned, too - this allows us to track their progress in our flock. Finally, we evaluated the condition of the ewes to make plans for them as well. Those that have chronically bad feet will be sold. Those that are in especially good condition are noted, too.

Two of our interns, Courtney and Julie, helped out during part of the day, as did our friend, Roger Ingram. Even with the great help, it was a very long day (especially considering that we had to move irrigation pipe once we were done putting the sheep back out to pasture).

The longer we do this, the more we learn about how to do it more efficiently and less stressfully (on the animals and on the people). Our corral system, which Roger helped us design, works great - the animals flow into smaller catch pens and into the working alley. Sorting all of the lambs (large and small) before we work them also helps the work go faster. We try to work the animals quietly and at their own pace - we go slow to work fast. My border collie, Taff, was indispensable - he moved the sheep into the corrals, helped to move them into the catch pens, and then helped us move them back out to pasture. Moving lambs away from their mothers is a test for any dog, and Taff did wonderfully!

Even though it was hard work, the day was very satisfying. It was chance to take stock of how our lambs are progressing (they look great). It was chance to work along side friends. It was a chance to get started on a big job!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Peeling Poles

We've been working on peeling poles at Edwards Family Farm last week and this week. We're making teepee poles for a school in Loomis, jump poles for a friend with horses, and structural poles for our own uses.

Allen has selected a site that needs to be thinned - it is packed with small Douglas fir trees. The trees that we're harvesting are too small even for firewood, but they work for poles. Allen falls them and limbs them, and I cut them to the appropriate length.

During this time of year, the bark on Douglas fir is very loose - the trees are growing rapidly. This makes it easy to remove the bark with a drawknife. We can remove the bark from a 25-foot pole in about 30 minutes.

I'm finding that I like the work. While I always enjoy working in the woods, my work is generally accompanied by the sound of a chainsaw or woodsplitter. Since we're relying on handtools for most of this work, we can actually hear the birds sing.

I also like the fact that we're turning trees that are a liability from a fire safety perspective into a useful product. Allen's woods will be healthier for our efforts, and we're able to provide our community with a useful product.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Chickens, from start to finish (the intern blog by Courtney McDonald)

Last Sunday (Mother’s Day) was the day that Dan and Samia decided was perfect for killing and processing the chickens they had been raising for the last 8-9 weeks. Julie, also an intern with Flying Mule Farm, came along with her parents, and I brought Eric, my boyfriend. Since both Julie, Eric, and I have all been or are currently chefs, the killing and processing of the chickens is especially interesting to us. I hold the belief (as many others do) that if you can eat an animal, you should at least know how that animal got to your plate.

A few months ago, Eric and I tried processing some spent hens ourselves without really knowing what we were doing. Our research involved watching some YouTube videos of other amateur attempts and reading a few books-each of which recommended a different method. We settled on chopping the head off with a hatchet, not scalding the bird before plucking (I don’t recommend this), and ended up doing the evisceration after dark, outside by flashlight. It was a great experience still, but not very efficient (and a little traumatic).

Last Sunday was a completely different chicken processing experience. By the by the time Eric and I arrived at the farm to begin, all of the equipment and prep areas were already set up. There were a total of ten Cornish cross chickens to be processed, and they were HUGE! About five pounds each!

After killing the chickens and keeping them in upside-down metal cones off the ground to bleed out completely, they were scalded in 145 degree water for about 45 seconds. Then they were plucked using a very efficient machine called a chicken picker, which used it’s rubber knobs to quickly pluck the feathers out in about 15 seconds per bird. Into the house next, where Samia demonstrated how to cleanly remove the head, feet, and insides of the chickens. Since she is a veterinarian, we were able to learn the correct terminology for the chickens’ anatomy.

Finally, after being washed well after every step of the processing under cold water, the chickens were put into an ice water bath to chill to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Ready to eat!

Eric and I roasted our chicken on top of the chicken feet and had it for dinner on that same Sunday evening. It had fantastic flavor, and a much different texture than a store-bought chicken. I will have a hard time eating any other kind of chicken from now on!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Horses in the Woods

Allen Edwards, our friend and partner in the sustainable forest products we offer, likes to say that he has lots of flat ground - it's just tilted at 45 degrees! His family's property in Colfax is beautiful, but it's also very steep!

Since we're trying to convert our firewood and lumber production to the use of draft animals, the steep ground can be challenging. Pulling logs uphill is virtually impossible, and many of the slopes are too steep for horses or mules to stand on while we're hooking up to logs. A further complication is the need to remove slash (limbs, brush, etc.) from the slopes before skidding the logs.

At our last Sierra Nevada Small Farm Progress Days last Friday, we got to try a new system (new to us, anyway) that combines long cables with draft animals. In this system, we use cable "chokers" and long lines to hook into logs upslope from Allen's road system. Using pulleys, we then hook the horses to the long cable and skid the logs downslope while keeping the horses on the road. It worked wonderfully!

We'll keep trying to improve on the system, but it sure seems that we've finally figured out a way to use horses efficiently and safely in Allen's woods!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mending Fences

Arghhh! For the 5th time in two grazing seasons, I'm mending fence on our leased property in Lincoln. The property, which is owned by the Placer Land Trust, sits south and west of Gladding Road. The road makes several 90 degree turns, and people sometimes take the corners too fast. This time, they took out about 50 feet of fence and a power pole. As usual, the person who was responsible was long gone by the time we discovered the damage.

Holes in the fence are dangerous for the cows and dangerous for other drivers on Gladding Road. Thank goodness a neighboring rancher usually calls me before there's a problem.

One of the greatest challenges of farming or ranching in a rapidly urbanizing region is that most folks don't understand the consequences of this type of action. I was taught to take responsibility for my mistakes, which would include repairing a fence that I damaged. I'd sure like to teach this latest driver how to build fence!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dan's Top 10 Reasons for Farming with Horses

With apologies to David Letterman...

10. Tractors don't show affection

9. My daughters have never shown any interest in taking care of a tractor!

8. Horses (and mules) nearly always start.

7. You can't take your tractor on a pack trip in the mountains.

6. When you plow with a horse, you can hear the worms scream.

5. Tractors can't reproduce.

4. I can grow my own fuel for my horses and mules.

3. Horses and mules are voice activated.

2. The exhaust from a horse builds soil fertility.

1. I'm married to a veterinarian, not a diesel mechanic!

Working in the Woods II

Working in the woods after a spring rain is one of my favorite things to do. Yesterday, I cut firewood at Edwards Family Farm in Colfax. After receiving more than 4 inches of rain over the last 5 days, the woods were spectacular. Even though this has been a relatively dry year, the rains have come at just the right time for the wildflowers, which were incredible yesterday. Stay posted for photos!

Our work in the woods serves several purposes. Allen and Nancy are working to make their land more firesafe and more productive. This means thinning the trees so that the remaining trees get a larger portion of nutrients, water and sunlight (thus enabling them to grow faster). This thinning process also removes the excess fuels that create dangerous fire conditions - removing these fuels will help keep a future fire on the ground and out of the trees.

This thinning process creates a product for us - firewood. We're currently processing live oak and Douglas fir for firewood and Ponderosa pine for kindling. Allen falls and limbs the trees, and we work together to move the logs to our processing sites. I then cut the wood to length, while my interns help with the splitting. Our goal is to begin selling wood this month.

Being in the forest is a nice balance in a week that is spent mostly in more open country. I like the different variety of bird life that live in the forest, and as I said earlier, this year's crop of wildflowers is amazing!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Spring Rain

Since last Friday, we've measured over 2 inches of rain here in Auburn - more than we usually get in May. While it would have been nice to get this kind of precipitation in March or early April, I'll definitely take it now! It means we haven't needed to irrigate this weekend, which is a wonderful break!

The rain means we can't do some things. It's not safe to cut firewood in the rain, and we need to let the ground dry out a bit before we continue working our soil for our market garden. Other things need to be done regardless of the weather - we need to move the sheep and cows onto fresh grass, for example, even in the driving rain.

For farmers, weather teaches acceptance. When I was a kid, I remember my dad and my uncle (who were setting up a farm equipment auction in southeastern Washington) talking to a wheat farmer who had just watched a summer thunderstorm wipe out a good portion of his crop. "What are you going to do?" my dad asked. "Guess I'll just let it rain," the farmer replied. While this early May rain isn't nearly so devastating for us, I guess I'll just let it rain, too!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Art and Stockmanship

This weekend, I volunteered for two very different, but oddly related, community events. On Saturday evening, I was the auctioneer for Placer Arts Outside the Box 2 fundraiser. Today, I volunteered to bring sheep, goats and cattle for an emergency response training for Placer County Animal Control. On the surface, these seem like apples and oranges, but they are related in my mind.

The Outside the Box event featured 80 pieces by professional and amateur artists using a wooden box as the foundation. This is the second year I've done the live auction, and I really enjoy it (so much so that I'm trying to convince my oldest daughter, Lara, to partner with me on an entry next year).

The emergency response training was designed to train a cadre of volunteers who can help evacuate livestock in the event of an emergency (like a wildfire or flood). More than 50 volunteers should up at Stage Stop Ranch in Auburn for the training, which also included horses and alpacas.

The connection for me comes in the mix of art and science that I find in our approach to farming. Even in high school, I found myself attracted to the applied arts - woodworking, metalworking and drafting were among my favorite classes. Function doesn't preclude beauty, and I still find that I most enjoy the tools that are aesthetically pleasing and highly functional.

There is an art to my daily work. Understanding animal behavior is a science, but applying this understanding to loading sheep in a trailer using a border collie is an art. Managing grasslands requires an understanding of range science, but the daily activity involved requires creativity and technique. Objects that I use in my profession also reflect this balance. A well-made gate, one that I constructed from wood that I milled, has both beauty and function (at least to me). This balance between the rational and the creative is one of the things I love about farming.

Thursday, April 30, 2009


Now that we're done shearing the sheep and now that the irrigation water has started, we're transitioning to other activities. Twice a day now, we'll be moving irrigation pipe at our summer ranch in Auburn. In order to finish lambs and cattle on grass, we need to maintain lush, green grass through the summer months. This means irrigation. It's kind of fun at first, but by the time September rolls around, we'll be ready for the water to shut off (usually on October 15).

We're also moving sheep almost daily. They do better on fresh feed, so we try to set up our paddocks with enough feed for 1-2 days. This means the sheep are always eating!

Finally, we're focused on processing firewood. We're cutting oak at the Hunt Ranch in Lincoln - they lost many trees in last summer's Gladding Fire. We're also continuing to cut Douglas fir and oak in Colfax at Edwards Family Farm.

I like the variety that farming provides - always something new. Each season brings new tasks and new challenges, but rarely boredom!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Intern Blog - Adventures in Cheesemaking (by Courtney McDonald)

As I had mentioned in a previous posting, I am a proud half-owner of an East Friesian dairy ewe named Yola. Dan, Samia, Lara and Emma own the other half and we split the milking duties.

I love sheep’s milk and all of its unique qualities, and have been experimenting with the milk, making cheeses and yogurt to varying degrees of success. The first cheese I tried was ricotta, which came out fantastic. I made it a second time and it came out good, but with a slightly different texture. I decided I preferred the first batch. Next I have tried feta. I salted part of the batch to be able to try it quickly and brined the rest. The salted feta was a good cheese with great flavor, but in my opinion it didn’t really taste like feta. I am hoping that the brined feta will be taste more like other sheep’s milk feta I have had, with more acid and time to develop that characteristic feta flavor. Most recently I made cream cheese (I actually just finished the final step of beating salt into it with a wooden spoon tonight), and I think it is my most successful cheese so far. It has the right texture for spreading, a nice acid balance, and great sheep’s milk flavor. The yogurt I tried was a disaster (didn’t set), but I can still use it for yogurt drinks or sauces. All of the cheese I have tried so far has been made with the raw sheep’s milk, with the exception of the ricotta, which is heated to around 200 degrees to speed curd formation.

One source of frustration through this experimentation process has been the lack of information about sheep’s milk. All of the ratios and recipes I have used so far have been focused on cow’s milk and sometimes goat. Sheep’s milk is quite different from both of these (as I explained in an earlier posting), and therefore reacts differently to the various enzymes and cultures used for cheese making. I think my success will be due to a lot more research and understanding of the chemistry involved in the process. And a lot more failed cheese experiments.

Another challenge I have found so far is having enough time to devote solely to trying new cheeses. Most cheeses need at least 2 or 3 days of cooking, cooling, cutting, stirring, draining and hanging to come out right. If you try and rush the process, you are pretty much guaranteed poor results. Now that I have figured out these basic rules through trial and error, I have a little better idea of what to do or not do the next time.

Finally, a major frustration for me in these cheesemaking adventures has been that I haven’t automatically been good at them. Having spent my entire adolescent and adult life working with food hasn’t much carried over into the very precise and scientific world of cheese. Of course I was aware of the chemistry involved with making cheese, but I guess I was expecting to grasp the concepts involved a little quicker than I have so far. I know I will get there eventually, though. There is a reason most cheese makers spend years and sometimes decades perfecting their skills.

I’m looking forward to the continued failures and successes I will encounter. And if nothing else, at least Yola will still love me!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Working Together

As you saw from my last post, we sheared our sheep on Friday and Saturday. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the day was getting to work with my entire family. Sami helped move sheep into the shearing pen, Lara helped skirt the fleeces and catch lambs for the footbath, and Emma helped catch lambs and generally kept us all entertained.

It was also a time for working with friends. Two of our interns, Courtney and Julie, helped the entire day. Our friend Roger, who we run sheep with, also helped in the afternoon. After we finished shearing, we moved the ewes back onto pasture and cleaned up. Many hands made relatively short work!

I relish these chances to work together with family and friends. We're all tired at the end of the day, but the work is much more enjoyable when it's done with people I enjoy. This is the fourth year that Derrick Adamache has sheared our sheep, and I've come to consider him a friend, too!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sheep Shearing Time

On Friday afternoon, we started shearing our sheep. I've shorn the sheep just enough to know that it makes more sense to hire somebody who knows what he's doing. Our shearer, Derrick Adamache, has been shearing since the early 1980's. He definitely knows what he's doing!

Sheep shearing is an intense time. It involves bringing all of the sheep into a corral the night before they're shorn. We set up a sorting system to sort the lambs off of their mothers and to bring the sheep into the shearing pen as quietly as possible. We bring Derrick 8-10 ewes at a time. It takes him about 20 minutes to shear the pen.

Our wool is nothing special, but we still sell it to offset some of the cost of shearing. We're learning how to skirt our fleeces (which involves removing the less desirable wool) and to sort our fleeces by quality. We then bag it. We'll ship it to a woolen mill in New Mexico in the next month. The wool is only worth about 60-70 cents per pound. We all need to wear more wool!

While the ewes are being shorn, we put the lambs through a footbath to help cure the feet problems we have. Because they are separated from their mothers, they are quite vocal. It's a pretty loud process!

This year, we had a great crew! Our interns, Courtney and Julie, helped the entire day. Our girls, Emma and Lara, also helped, as did our friend Roger. It's hard work, but it's incredibly enjoyable when it's done with friends. I guess I like the process of working together with people I enjoy to accomplish a large task! Shearing also marks the passage from spring (and lambing season) to summer (and irrigation season) - it's one of the milestones of every year!

Monday, April 20, 2009


My friend Allen Edwards and I just returned from the 30th (I think) annual Small Farmer's Journal Horsedrawn Auction and Swap Meet (this year held in Madras, Oregon). My youngest daughter, Emma, went with us. We all had a wonderfully enjoyable, inspirational and educational time. The entire trip reinforced the idea that community is not necessarily defined by geographic proximity.

As a group, the farmers that came to the auction were a very optimistic bunch, despite the uncertain economy. We talked to a couple from Walla Walla, WA, who operated a market garden using horses for their traction. We spoke with a woman from northern Washington who operated a 20-member CSA and raised Icelandic sheep. We met a farmer and entrepreneur from Tennessee who had imported treadle-powered threshing machines from China. We reconnected with our friends from Midwest Leather - harness makers who recently moved from California to Utah.

On the first day, Emma connected with a group of kids her age - they had great fun playing on the grass near the equipment that was being sold. The rest of the weekend, these kids played together, which gave us parents a chance to meet one another. Among the folks I met was a man about my age who grew hay (with horses) part-time. We talked about trying to farm full-time. For both of us, it was important not only as a way to make a living, but also as an example for our kids. We both want our children to learn the skills that we have (especially related to using horses and mules). We also both want our kids to see that we're doing something we love - even if it means making less money.

While I try to be fully engaged in the community in which I live, this wider community of smaller-scale "alternative" farmers is also important to me. I came home energized and excited to get busy with our summer work!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


April seems to be a month of preparation - we're getting ready to begin irrigating our finishing pastures, we're getting ready to shear our flock, and we're getting ready to plant vegetables. It's the beginning of our truly busy time!

To prepare for shearing, we do a number of things. First, we move the ewes and their lambs to a property where we have electricity (necessary to power the shears). This means 7 trips from Lincoln to Auburn - a very busy day! The ewes are used to the trailer, but the lambs are not - they take some convincing. Thank goodness I have a good dog and lots of friends and interns! This past Monday, we moved all 120 ewes to Auburn. On Tuesday, I moved several ewes and ewe lambs, and today, I moved the rest of our ewe lambs to Thompson Ranch. Next week, we'll set up shearing pens and our corrals. On Saturday, our shearer will be here to shear the sheep.

Irrigation season is also an intense time, but it lasts for 6 months. Once we start irrigating next week, we'll be moving sprinklers twice a day, 7 days a week, until mid October. We'll spend 3-4 hours each day making sure the grass is watered and growing. By October 15, we'll be looking forward to a break!

While these seasonal tasks take time, we're also continuing the ongoing work of preparing next fall's firewood. Firewood must be "seasoned" or dried, to burn well, so we're cutting and splitting next year's wood now. We generally spend every Wednesday at Edwards Family Farm in Colfax skidding logs, cutting wood and splitting the rounds. It's a nice change of pace from our other work.

I enjoy the seasonal nature of my work - there's always something to do, but that "something" is always changing. Variety keeps me interested!

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Wrong Question

An article in today's Sacramento Bee discussed a new report from the Centers for Disease Control. The subtitle to the article was "CDC says system wasn't designed for globalism." The story discussed the recent salmonella outbreaks in pistachios and peanuts and suggested that our entire food safety bureaucracy needs to be updated to deal with a global food system.

I wonder if we're dealing with the wrong question. Do we need a food safety framework that recognizes the global food system as a legitimate method of food production, or do we need a food production system that recognizes the limits of our food safety system and focuses more on local production.

Make no mistake - I strongly believe that food safety regulations are important. Where I differ from the assumptions made by the CDC, I guess, is in the acceptance of global production as the norm. Maybe if we all ate more locally, we wouldn't be faced with the food safety issues that are so problematic. Perhaps if we knew the farmers and ranchers that produced the food we eat, we'd have a safer and more secure food supply.

I realize that some of this is wishful thinking - some communities and regions may not be able to grow their own food supply. But adjusting our food safety system to accept the problems inherent in shipping food around the world seems to me to be the wrong approach.

I'm very interested in hearing from others on this subject!