Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Thursday, December 24, 2009
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!
Saturday, December 19, 2009
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
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
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 help...it 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
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
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
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
- The chance (and ability) to work outside with animals nearly every day in the last year.
- My family, who puts up with (and helps with) my farming habit.
- The rain, which started early this fall - I hope it keeps coming!
- My friends.
- My interns - Courtney, Julie and Jason (see #4).
- My dogs - Taff has become an incredible partner in our sheep operation (and in just about everything else I do).
- The chance to do this all again in the coming year!
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Saturday, October 31, 2009
By the way - we're not giving out lamb to trick-or-treaters tonight!
Monday, October 26, 2009
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
Thursday, October 22, 2009
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
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
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
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
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Friday, August 21, 2009
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
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
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
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
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
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
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
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
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
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
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
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 http://www.placercountysinseasoncookbook.com/gallery/Whats_for_DInner_june_21_09/index.html
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
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
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
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 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
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
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
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:
- Do you feel guilty about mowing your lawn? What a waste of good feed!
- 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!
- Do you forget your anniversary but studiously record the first germinating rainfall each autumn?
- Is the highlight of your day achieving 7,000 volts on your electric fence?
- Do you think the forgotten 11th commandment was "Covet not thy neighbor's grass"?
Embrace your inner pasture geekness!
Thursday, May 21, 2009
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
Friday, May 15, 2009
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
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
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
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
Sunday, May 3, 2009
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
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
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
Monday, April 27, 2009
Monday, April 20, 2009
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
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!