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.