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.