Friday, December 17, 2010

Bringing in the Reindeer

This story started with a business idea.  Our girls, Lara and Emma, both have pretty good sheep dogs – Mo and Ernie (respectively).  Over dinner this summer, Lara suggested that we could help other ranchers gather and move their livestock.

“Let’s put a sign up at the feed store, Dad,” she said.  “You could use Taff, too!”

“Yeah – we could make a little money for Christmas and get a chance to use our dogs,” Emma agreed.  “Let’s make a poster.”

The next week, we put up a handmade sign:

Need help corralling your wild sheep?
We can help!
Have sheep dogs – will travel!
Dan Macon and Daughters
Livestock Herding Services
Call us today!

We also posted the information on our website in hopes that we’d reach more folks who needed our assistance.

During the next several months, we took on a few jobs – nothing too difficult.  We helped a neighbor move his goats into a new pasture.  This fall, we helped gather a friend’s ewes before they were tagged for lambing.  The girls earned some spending money, and the dogs had great fun!

The week after Thanksgiving, I got a call on my cell phone from a number I didn’t recognize – I didn’t even recognize the area code.  I let the call roll over into my voice mail, and retrieved this message:

“Mr. Macon, this is Kris Kringle up north – you might know me better as Santa Claus.  I saw the information on your website and thought maybe you could give me a hand.  In early October, one of the elves forgot to latch the door to the grain room.  One of the reindeer – probably Donner – got the door open, and the reindeer got into my special grain.  The stuff that makes them fly.  They’ve been impossible to catch ever since.  After Thanksgiving, I usually start putting them in harness and getting them in shape, but they take off every time we try to catch them.  Give me a call – I’m sure your girls and their dogs can help!”

Well, as you can imagine, I called back immediately.  Kris picked up the call himself – who knew Santa had a cell phone!?

I said, “Santa, the girls and I would love to help, but I’m not sure Taff, Mo and Ernie are up to gathering flying livestock.  They are great dogs, but they’re not terribly aerodynamic.”
Mo waiting to get airborne!

Taff at rest - a typical pose.

Mo's little brother Ernie - doesn't he look like he could fly!?

“Just leave that to me,” laughed Santa, “I have a special supplement I add to the grain we feed the reindeer.  A scoop on their dog food ought to do the trick!”

I covered the phone and asked Lara and Emma what they thought.  “Let’s try it, Dad,” Emma said, “sounds like fun!”

“Yeah, Dad,” Lara agreed.  “I’d like to see the dogs fly!”

“We’ll give it a shot, Santa,” I spoke into the phone.  “How do we get up there?”

“Leave that to me,” he said.

A week later, we were at the North Pole.  Santa made us promise not to divulge our travel route or methods – we’ve since tried to find his place on Google Earth without success.

We put a scoop of reindeer dust on the dogs’ food.  Ernie and Taff gulped theirs down, but we had to add an egg to Mo’s food to get him to eat all of it.  Immediately, all three dogs began to levitate about five feet above the snowy ground.

“Looks like it worked,” Santa said.

Mo and Ernie were obviously thrilled to be flying, but Taff looked apprehensive.
Lara said, “Dad – I think you should keep Taff on the ground – he doesn’t even like to jump much.  Maybe he can put them in the corral once they’re down.  Let’s see if Mo and Ernie can gather the reindeer.”

Now those of you who’ve been around sheep dogs know that we have commands to go left and right – “come bye” and “away to me.”  However, I’d never given much thought to up and down!  While I was certain that there were obscure Scottish terms for up and down that made just as much sense as “come bye” and “away,” the girls convinced me that “higher” and “lower” would be easier to remember.   We walked out to the corrals and saw the reindeer circling high over head.

Lara called Mo to her side and said, “Come by – higher” in a sweet voice.  He climbed into the air and circled to his left around the reindeer.  Emma told Ernie, “Away – higher,” and he took off to the right.  Taff curled up under Santa’s sleigh – content to wait until the other dogs did the aerobatic work.

As the dogs came around behind the maverick reindeer, most of them bunched together.  One of them, however (“That’ll be Donner,” Santa told us), put his head up and decided to take on the dogs.

“Not a smart move,” Lara chuckled – “Get ‘im, Mo,” she called.  Mo crept towards Donner (you should see a dog creep when it’s airborne – it’s something else!).  Donner put his head down.  I covered my eyes – those antlers looked wicked.  Quick as a wink, Mo dashed in and nipped Donner on the nose!  Donner tucked his tail and joined the others.

“Walk on – lower,” Emma called.  Mo and Ernie wove back and forth just above and slightly behind their “flock.”  Down they came – and Taff was waiting for them.  As soon as the reindeer touched the ground, he made sure they went through the corral gate.  Santa’s elves slipped halters on them and took them into the barn.

“Thanks, girls – your dogs are amazing!  I’ll bet Mrs. Claus has hot chocolate and cookies waiting for us,” said Santa.  Emma and Lara thought that sounded great!  “And I’ve got something for Taff, Mo and Ernie,” Santa added, “Liver-flavored candy canes.”  Yum!

We made our way home this last week.  Santa told us to be sure to hang stockings for Taff, Mo and Ernie – the girls can’t wait to see what he brings the dogs!  We all want to try the candy canes!

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fall Work is Done!

Yesterday, we completed our fall work with the ewes - we trimmed feet on the last set of ewes (about 75 of them) and put them through the footbath.  We then moved them onto new feed.  There's nothing more satisfying to me than seeing sheep grazing contentedly!

We're due for heavy rain over the next several days.  Now that our fall animal husbandry activities are competed, we can concentrate on keeping the sheep moving to fresh feed.  In a month or so, we'll bring them in for their annual vaccinations.  In about 2 months, our new crop of lambs will begin to arrive.  Seems like we just turned the rams in!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Portable Foot Bath - It Works!

We put the finishing touches on our portable foot bath yesterday and actually used it - we were able to put about 240 ewes through the foot bath.  They each soaked for a minimum of 30 minutes.  It worked great!  Here are some photos:

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mutton Curry

Believe it or not - we're having mutton curry tonight!  By choice, not necessity!  We've been selling mutton products (stew meat, pet food and sausage) for about a year now.  The sausage is great!  Customers have been telling us that the mutton stew meat is great, too, but tonight is the first time we've tried it.  We have to say that the customer is always right!

Here's what we did (as best as I can remember - we kind of threw it together).

1 pkg mutton stew meat (about 2 lbs)
3 large carrots, sliced
10 cloves garlic, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
1/2 butternut squash, peeled and diced
Thai red curry (to taste)
1/2 can coconut milk
Coarse ground pepper (to taste)
Kosher salt (to taste)
Smoked Spanish paprika (to taste)

Brown mutton pieces in olive oil.  Put in crock pot.  Add carrots, onions, garlic, curry powder, and pepper.  Cover with water and coconut milk and cook on low for 4 hours.  Add butternut squash.  Continue cooking on low for 2 hours.  Remove meat and vegetables.  Remove bones.  Strain fat from liquid and reduce liquid over stove by half.  Recombine all ingredients.  Add salt and paprika to taste.  Heat through and serve over rice.

The neat thing about this recipe - everything except the coconut milk came from our Auburn farmer's market! It's cheap, too - less than $10 to feed the four of us Macons and leave us some leftovers!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Bald Eagle!

As I was checking fence at a newly leased ranch near Auburn yesterday, I happened upon a bald eagle roosting in a large oak.  I was within 50 feet of it when it flew off.  It was so majestic.

In the last several years, we've seen several bald eagles here in Auburn - usually around Christmas.  I think they must be moving around this time of year.

I realize that not everyone agrees with the approach of the federal Endangered Species Act, but the bald eagle is truly a success story.  I never fail to be thrilled when I see one!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Long Days

The last two days have been incredibly long ones!  Yesterday, I helped to put on a workshop on soil and irrigation management for vegetable production.  The workshop was at Jim Muck's farm in Wheatland - Farmer Jim's Produce grows vegetables for farmers' markets and for his own CSA.  It was a great day - lots of new and existing growers and lots of great information.  Check out my youtube channel for videos:  I'll keep adding more!

Today, I hauled sheep and a steer to Wolfpack Meats in Reno.  When I left Grass Valley, Caltrans reported chain controls over I-80, so I ended up driving to Oroville and up Highway 70.  What should have been a five-hour round trip turned into a nine-hour drive.  We have lots of customers who want our sheep sausage before Christmas, so I felt obligated to get to Reno today.  While Wolfpack does a great job for us, I do wish we had an option closer to home!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Portable Foot Bath - Step 2

Today, I made sliding gates and adjustable panels for the foot bath.  The panels will allow us to tie in to our existing corrals.  The next step will be to install the liner - we're almost ready to go.  The pink gates are my failed attempt at making a "livestock crossing" sign for moving livestock across a county road!

The Ernie Blog (#2)

I finally had a chance to work Ernie again tonight - with Thanksgiving and fall sheep work, we haven't had much time.  He was a bit fast at first, but he quickly settled in nicely.  He was much more attentive to me tonight - easier to call off the sheep.  We also worked on some small outruns - the first step in teaching him to gather sheep.  I was very pleased!

Ernie the Blur!

As an amateur, I find myself falling into a rut - we work on the same old things time after time.  Once Ernie started showing some boredom, I realized that I needed to mix things up.  Once he started figuring out that I was asking him to leave my feet and bring the sheep to me, he brightened considerably.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Portable Foot Bath - Step 1

I started working on our portable foot bath today.  So far, these are our expenses:

40 mil shower pan liner - (2) 15' x 4' sections - $153.30
Pan adhesive - $7.86
Wood screws - $8.69

I'm using true-dimension 1x4 douglas fir that I milled - I guess there's a cost to it (my labor), but I won't include it for these purposes.

Today, I constructed a gate frame for the back of the trailer. This panel is removable in case we want to use the trailer for other purposes.  I'll cut two 18" x 48" sheets of plywood to use as gates - these will be guillotine-style gates that slide up and down.  I'll also need to build two short panels that will run from the end of our alley to the trailer (for loading the sheep into the foot bath).  I also need to glue the pvc liner together and put it on the floor of the trailer.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mending Fence (Again)

Skid marks and damaged posts - I'd like to see the car that did this damage!
We lease the Doty Ravine Preserve from the Placer Land Trust.  The property, which is bordered on the east by Gladding Road, includes about a mile of riparian habitat, lots of vernal pools, and some beautiful valley oaks.

Gladding Road makes two 90 degree turns adjacent to the preserve.  The western most turn is a problem - cars travelling downhill (southbound) on Gladding sometimes miss the turn (when it's wet, or when people are driving too fast).  This is our fourth season on the preserve, and yesterday, the 16th car went through our fence.  No one has ever offered to help fix the fence.

I guess I grew up in a different time.  While I've always been a cautious driver (and subsequently have never had an "accident" of this nature), I was always taught to take responsibility for my actions.  I'd like to think I'd be fixing a fence that I'd driven through.

At my folks place east of Sonora, we had a half dozen or so incidents of people driving through the fence.  Probably half of the drivers involved fixed (or at least paid for) the damage.  We've had no such luck here - a sign, I think, that rural Lincoln is not so rural any more.

I'm not sure what the solution is - it's a dangerous corner.  We joke that the county could put a ramp at the corner, which would launch cars over the fence (saving the fence and allowing us to catch the offending drivers).  At some point, I'm sure that someone will hit a tree or pole at the corner and be seriously injured (or worse).  In the meantime, I'd just like some help fixing the fence!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Portable Foot Bath

We've been working to eliminate footrot from our flock for several years.  Over the last 12 months, we've made progress through combination of foot baths, vaccinations, trimming, and genetic improvement.  As we've noted earlier, we lost one of these tools when FootVax, the vaccine we've been using, was discontinued.  This will force us to rely more heavily on our remaining tools.

A key to our future management of footrot will be the regular use of a foot bath.  With the numbers of sheep that we currently manage, and the fact that we move our animals between properties frequently, this becomes a challenge.  With our current set up (a 4x8 footbath), we would need 5-7 days just to soak every ewe for 45 minutes.

After racking my tiny brain, I think I may have found a solution.  My dad gave me a utility trailer that his dad had built in the 1950's.  We used it extensively in our family's auction business.  Over the next week, we'll be outfitting it to serve as our portable foot bath.  The trailer will allow us to soak 30-40 ewes at a time, which will allow us to treat all of the sheep in a single day.  Stay tuned for more information!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Lara and her dog Mo helped us work sheep on Monday.  At one point, Lara sent Mo to gather a field of about 180 ewes, which included a handful of ewes that have lambed.  Mo disappeared around the back of a hill and didn't reappear where we were expecting, so Lara went looking for him.  Sometimes when a dog disappears like this, he's become distracted or confused (and has basically quit working) - not Mo, however!  Mo had discovered a ewe with a newborn lamb, and he was slowly bringing her along to join with the rest of the bunch.
Taff (L) and Mo waiting to go to work!

I can't describe how proud I was of Lara and Mo.  The episode emphasized to me the importance of "listening" to our working dogs.  Mo's disappearance might have been cause for anger (mine and Lara's) if we hadn't realized what he was trying to "tell" us.  Without the ability to verbalize, dogs must rely on their handler's ability to understand their actions and judgement - and Mo's judgement is nearly always good!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Placer County 4-H Stock Dog Project Photos

Jo Ellen Sellers, the mother of one of the kids in our stock dog 4-H project, took these photos yesterday - aren't they great!?

Lara and Mo taking a group of ewes back to pasture.

Ellen and Tess putting ewes and lambs through the corrals.

Canyon View Preserve - Final Post

We completed this round of the Canyon View Project last Saturday - we moved the sheep and goats off the project in anticipation of heavy rains over the latter half of the weekend.  Thanks to our border collies Taff and Mo, we were able to load the animals in a culdesac adjacent to the property - all without loading chutes or corrals!

The animals did a tremendous job on the blackberries - they defoliated most of the plants they could reach.  By defoliating them in the fall when they are going dormant (and trying to store energy in their root systems), we hope we can stress the plants enough to kill some of them.  Later this winter, the Placer Land Trust will plant native trees and shrubs in the riparian corridor.  We'll bring sheep back this spring to graze the yellow starthistle as it begins to bolt (probably in early May).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Ernie Blog

Our youngest border collie, Ernie, is nearly a year old.  We've been working him on sheep, with our friend Ellen Skillings' help, for about three months now.  I'm a novice at starting a puppy, but he's amazing!

Tonight, I worked him on five ewe lambs in our back field.  He has been ignoring me and charging in at the sheep, but tonight he was very attentive to me.  We're working on pacing and distance - he still works a bit too close to the sheep, but we're making improvement.

Ellen tells us that we need to keep the work interesting for a dog of Ernie's intelligence.  I'm looking forward to the next step with him - I'm hoping to use him during the winter on larger groups of sheep.  My challenge is remembering that he's still learning.  I need to avoid getting in a hurry - I need to take time to correct him when he's wrong and praise him when he's right.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Winter Weather Preparations

With the onset of winter weather expected this weekend, we're making a few preparations to ensure that our animals are ready for the cold and wet conditions.  The sheep handle this kind of weather remarkably well - their wool coats are terrific insulation.  Similarly, our guardian animals (dogs and llamas alike) can handle the wet weather just fine.

There are, however, a few things we try to prepare for before the rain (or maybe snow) starts falling.  First, if we have young lambs (as we do currently), we make sure that our pastures include some sort of shelter.  This could be trees or shrubs, or it could be topography.  Our prevailing winds during a storm are generally southerly, so a north-facing slope will provide some wind protection.  The pastures that our sheep are in this weekend offer all three types of protection.  Second, we make sure we have plenty of fully-charged deep-cycle batteries on hand. These batteries power our electric fences.  Normally, the batteries are charged by solar panels, but the limited sunlight over the next 3-4 days means we'll have dead batteries on occasion.  Third, we do any necessary hauling into and out of our pastures before the ground is too wet to drive on.  Today, I pulled our small water trailer out of the pasture.  Finally, we try to anticipate high water, high wind, or other problems that might cause problems for our electric fencing.  We shore up fencing where necessary, and check our fences more frequently during the storm.

As grass-farmers, we rely on the type of weather we're supposed to get this weekend.  I'm looking forward to real winter weather (and to the grass and new life it will bring next spring)!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fall Sheep Work

Ewes are pregnant for 145-155 days.  If we want to match our lambing season to the period of rapid grass growth in the spring, we need to breed them in October and early November.  Today marked the 42nd day that the rams were with our ewes (which covers two estrus cycles), so today we separated the rams and ewes and trimmed everyone's feet.

In the past, we've had problems with footrot, a soil-borne bacterial infection.  We've implemented a comprehensive vaccination, footbath and culling program that has resulted in far fewer problems.  Today's foot-trimming work bore this out - we had very few infected ewes.

Unfortunately, the vaccine that we've been using has been discontinued - a common problem for sheep vaccines in a country with declining sheep production.  We'll be able to vaccinate our sheep this fall, but I don't know what we'll do in the future.

Our dogs were amazing today - especially Mo (who belongs to our daughter Lara).  He gathered the ewes, moved sheep the the corrals, and even loaded the rams in the trailer.  He's a young dog, but today he showed me how much he's matured.  Working with border collies is a partnership that goes deeper than any relationship I've ever had with a pet.  Today was a blast!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Day on the Farm, by Tristan Lambertson

Tristan Lambertson came to the farm with his Dad, Paul, last week - here are his reflections on his day!

"I had a great day at the Flying Mule Farm. Farmer Dan taught me how to work on a sheep farm. I got to see a lot of baby lambs. We spread fences out to make new pens, and I got to watch Taff heard the sheep. Farmer Dan also took me to the Edwards’ to pick-up firewood. While we were there he showed me how to know how old a tree is. As we were leaving, he let me smell a bay leaf that he had picked from a tree on the side of the road. I hope I’ll get to go back and farm again soon."

Canyon View Preserve - Day 12

Today, our interns (Alice and Paul) moved the sheep and goats into a new paddock at Canyon View.  This involved moving the animals into a holding pen and then setting up new fence across the small creek and through a fairly dense stand of blackberries.  They did a great job, for the most part.

Tonight at about 4:45 p.m., I received a call from a neighbor that the animals seemed to be out - they'd been on a walk and were greeted by Reno the guard dog.  When I arrived, I found the animals out - they'd gone through a section of fence.  I'm not sure if something chased them through the fence, or if a section of the fence fell down - regardless, the animals were out.

Farm internships are a great way to gain hands-on experience.  Interns can provide significant on-farm help, as well.  That being said, an internship is a learning experience, which means there will be mistakes on occasion.

Back in Roseville

I went to the Roseville Farmers' Market today for the first time in many months - I've been having our interns go to the market in my place.  While it's a very different market than Auburn, I enjoyed being back - I saw customers I knew, as well as many new faces.  Our newest intern, Paul, brought his family, which was a real treat!  Here are the kids enjoying a cookie behind my stall!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Lambing in the Rain

I always worry about our newest lambs when it rains.  Generally, our ewes take wonderful care of their lambs - a little rain doesn't phase them.  However, the older ewes that we're lambing out this fall have had some challenges.

When we arrive at the ranch each morning, our first chore is to walk through the ewes and lambs and check for problems.  I look for lambs that appear thin or cold, especially after a rainy and windy day like we had Sunday.  If a ewe isn't producing enough milk or has forgotten a lamb, we'll intervene.  If possible, we supplement the ewe's milk production by bottle-feeding the lamb (or lambs) in the pasture.  Sometimes, however, a lamb has become so chilled that we have to intervene more forcefully.

This morning, we discovered a lamb that was barely alive.  He was so cold (mostly from lack of milk) that he had no suckling response.  We caught his mother and tried to milk her, only to discover that she was hardly producing any milk at all (the root of the lamb's problems).  We were able to get about 10 ml of colustrum from her, which we fed to the lamb using a stomach tube.  I then wrapped the lamb in my coat and left it the sunlight while we did the rest of our chores.  We brought the lamb home and gave him milk replacer, again using the stomach tube because he was too weak to suck.  We left him wrapped in a towel next to the woodstove.

When we returned from our next set of chores, he was warm and hungry - and he'd remembered how to suck!  We fed him sheep's milk that we'd frozen during the summer, which he devoured quickly.  As I write this, he's napping on the hearth next to the fire - waiting for the next feeding at 10 p.m.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Canyon View Preserve - Days 7 & 8

Yesterday, I arrived at the project at about 1 p.m. and decided that the animals needed more feed - they had gone through the second paddock much more quickly.  I added a section of fence and allowed them access to more blackberries.

Today I arrived to the dismaying scene of goats in the adjacent subdivision.  Thanks to our wonderful dogs, Mo and Taff, we got everyone gathered and back on-site.  We then moved the bunch downhill to a new paddock with lots of blackberries - they seemed quite happy when we left.

This time of year, I start watching the weather.  High wind and high water will impact our fencing, so I try to make sure that the paddocks are secure.  With rain on the way, I'll be back at the project site first thing in the morning to make sure everyone's okay.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Canyon View Preserve - Day 6

The goats and sheep completed their work on the first paddock yesterday, so we moved into a new paddock just across the small creek at Canyon View.  They were happy to be on fresh feed.  We appear to be holding to the schedule I established for the project.

One of the challenges in managing blackberries with sheep and goats is that sheep sometimes get stuck in the thorns.  We had to rescue one ewe lamb who was stuck - she's fine.  The thorns are also hard on my border collies.  I was quite proud of Mo and Taff - they showed considerable toughness in moving through the brambles to move the sheep and goats yesterday.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Canyon View Preserve - Days 4 & 5

The goats and sheep are making great progress - an island of the thickest blackberries is all that's left in this paddock.  On Monday, we found several of the smallest goats eating their way out of the berries, while the larger goats and some of the sheep were eating their way in.

At this point in the year, the blackberries can be a great source of nutrition - they have protein levels similar to that found in alfalfa hay.  With their wool, the sheep are somewhat more reluctant to enter the thickest patches.  We find that the goats blaze "eating trails" that the sheep can follow.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


I think fall is my favorite season.  I've always liked change, and for some reason, the changing weather of autumn appeals to me.  I enjoy the sense of things wrapping up - this year's leaves coming off the trees, this year's irrigation season ending (usually on October 15).

Fall also brings a sense of promise - of new beginnings - that is  directly related to the annual cycle of our farm.  If the weather cooperates in the fall, we get a germinating rainfall (like we got weekend before last).  A germinating rain gets the grass started, and if we get a stretch of warmish weather after this rainfall, the grass really takes off.  Every day now, I can see more green in our pastures.  This fall grass growth is critical for carrying our animals through the winter months.

Finally, fall is our main breeding season for the sheep.  Most breeds of sheep are seasonally anestrous, which means they only breed when the days are growing shorter (and which also means they have their lambs when there is grass).  We put our rams with the ewes on October 1 this year, which means the lambs will begin arriving in late February or early March.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Canyon View Preserve - Day 3

Another quiet day on this project - we just needed to check fences and feed the guard dog (Reno).  Everybody seemed pretty happy (including Emma)!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Canyon View Preserve - Day 2

The goats and sheep have made good progress in the 24 hours they've been on site at the Canyon View Preserve.  Based on what they've consumed so far, I think this first paddock will take them about 5-6 days.  Here's a photo of the goats and sheep in the midst of the blackberries.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Canyon View Preserve

We turned 15 goats and 45 ewe lambs onto the Placer Land Trust's Canyon View Preserve in Auburn today.  We're using the critters to graze/browse invasive brush, including blackberries and scotch broom.  Stay tuned for updates on this project.  Believe it or not, sheep do a great job on brush (if they're "trained" to eat it)!

Barnyard Bags and other fun stuff

For years, we've tried to find a way to re-use the feed sacks that seem to pile up around any livestock enterprise.  After a farmer's market customer showed me a shopping bag made from a wheat sack in Africa, we hit on the idea of Barnyard Bags - shopping bags made from feed sacks.  Since I'm not much of a seamster (I guess that's the masculine version of seamstress), Sami has been designing and making these great bags!

For more information on our Barnyard Bags and other gift items, go to!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Rainy Day

Since we rely on grass for our livelihood, the first real rain of the fall is a big event.  We generally need at least a half an inch of rain to germinate the grass, and the earlier in the fall it comes, the more grass growth we'll get before the cold and dark of December brings things to a halt.  While we've had a few sprinkles since the autumnal equinox, tonight marks the first sustained rainfall of the season.  This should be our germinating rain

Of course, while the rain is welcome, it complicates our outdoors work.  I just returned home from moving 3 groups of sheep (in Grass Valley and Auburn).  While the border collies love working in the rain (it's part of their Scottish heritage), I need more protective gear to make the day somewhat comfortable.  Even the best rain gear leaves me somewhat clammy when I'm working; I've found that a wool shirt is the best underlayer for keeping me warm in the wet weather.

We also worry about the sheep in weather like this, particularly when they are lambing.  The ewes and lambs in Grass Valley looked good - their wool coats enable them to deal with the wet weather, too.  As long as they have enough feed and trees or brush for shelter, they seem to do fine.

Now I'm home.  I've got a fire going in the woodstove, the Giants game on the radio, and a glass of whiskey in my hand - a great way to end the first real rainy day of fall!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Local and Grass-fed - Worth More?

Value is a term that is not often applied to food.  In this country, most of us seem more interested in affordability (some would say cheapness) when it comes to our food.  Indeed, we spend the lowest percentage of our income on food of any developed country in the world.  Our cheap food "policies," intentional and otherwise, have serious consequences for the environment and for the people who grow our food (farmers, ranchers, and the people who work for them).

We produce grass-fed lamb and beef for local customers.  What does this mean?  For us, it means that we feed only grass to our lambs and steers.  Producing a high quality and delicious product strictly on grass requires significant expertise in pasture management, animal husbandry, and animal selection.  Unlike producers who sell into the commodity market, this means that we must manage the entire process - from raising the animal to processing the meat to selling the final product.  As a example, for me to sell one package of lamb chops at a local farmers' market, I must spend 7-8 months caring for the lamb (and 12 months caring for its mother).  Because I'm required to obtain USDA inspection before I can sell my meat, I must make two trips to Dixon (to my processor) and back (once to have lambs processed and once to pick up meat).  Finally, I must store my meat in a county-approved facility before finally offering it for sale at a farmers' market.  In the industrial food system, each of these functions is performed by a separate entity; in a local food system, these functions are often performed by the farmer.  I believe strongly that the local system results in better food that's better for the land and the people who raised it; I also believe that it may be more "expensive" to produce food this way.

Among the challenges that we face in producing local and grass-fed meat is that these terms mean different things to different producers and customers.  For some, lamb that is produced in Idaho but processed in Dixon might be considered "local."  There are producers that insist that animals that are fed grain in a pasture (rather than in a feedlot) are "grass-fed."  While this lack of standard definitions for these terms is frustrating to me at times, I believe that the ability of individual producers to talk directly with customers about these definitions is more important than standardization.

What does this ambiguity mean for my customers?  First, I need to educate my customers about our values and production practices.  By grass-fed, for example, we mean that our animals are eating grass - nothing else!  We value this type of production because we feel that it results in a healthier product (for the eater and for the land).  By local, we mean that our animals were raised locally (in Placer and Nevada County) and processed as locally as USDA inspection rules allow (our beef is processed in Reno).

To return to the question posed in the title of this entry, I think local and grass-fed meat is worth more than conventionally raised meat for several reasons.  Local and grass-fed meat is more nutritionally dense - our customers get more (and higher quality) nutrients per dollar spent on our meat versus something that comes out of the industrial food system.  Second, because our product is processed in smaller batches (and generally at smaller facilities), more care is taken with its handling.  Our restaurant customers tell us that they don't have nearly as much waste with our lamb as they do with commodity lamb, for example.  Finally, because my customers can see my animals and the land that I manage directly, I have greater accountability to my community.  I feel obligated to take greater care because my neighbors are also my customers.

In many ways, producing and selling meat locally requires us to return to an older system while working within a regulatory and marketing system that favors large scale production based on cheap petroleum.  If we simply try to compete with the modern system on price, we'll fail.  If we compete in terms of value, flavor, nutrition, community and land stewardship, we'll succeed.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fall Lambs

Last May, we purchased roughly 50 older ewes from another sheep rancher in the Delta.  While most sheep are seasonal breeders (that is, they only breed when the days are growing shorter), these ewes were "out-of-season" breeders.  When we got them home, we turned our Blueface Leicester rams in with them.  About 150 days later (last Sunday, to be exact), these ewes started lambing.
Mo says "I'm ready to go to work!"

Vegas - our youngest guard dog.

I love lambing season - there's something about new life that makes the days exciting.  This is our first year lambing in the fall, however, and we're finding it a bit different.  First, the feed quality is not what it is in the springtime (when we normally lamb), which makes meeting the nutritional needs of the ewes more difficult.  We're finding that we need to supplement the pasture grasses just to keep the ewes going.  Second, since it's been warm (actually, downright hot), we've been somewhat worried about dehydration in the lambs.  Third, since these ewes weren't raised in our system of pasture lambing, we're having to adjust to their mothering style.

New arrivals!
The upside of lambing in the fall is that we'll have product to sell next spring.  The wether lambs that are being born this week will reach a finished weight next April or May.  We're also hoping that the ewe lambs being born now will inherit some of their mothers' out-of-season breeding ability.  While the results of this experiment won't be known until sometime in the future, I'm enjoying the daily gift of new life!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Motivating a New Generation of Farmers

I spoke tonight to the Future Farmers of America chapter at Del Oro High School in Loomis.  After I talked about our farm and about the Placer Ag Futures Project, I asked the kids to tell me what would motivate them to become farmers.  I asked the same question to a group of FFA members at Bear River High School three or four years ago.  Interestingly, I got the same answers both times - more money and more information.  In other words, some kids wanted to make more money than small-scale farming generally provides.  Other kids wanted more information about the fact that small-scale farming was actually a career.

I think this suggests several courses of action for those of us who are worried about where our food comes from.  First, our society generally places very low value on the production of food and fiber.  Our nation spends the lowest percentage of gross income on food of any developed country.  Food, and the way it is produced, is just not very important to many people.  We need to change this - there is nothing more fundamental to life than what we eat, and yet we're not willing to vote for good food with our dollars.

Second, those of us who do farm have not done a good job of educating those who will replace us.  In part, this is related to the first problem - we tend to tell young people that they need to choose another career because they won't be able to make a living farming.  The issue quickly becomes more complex, however; we're also not very good at sharing our knowledge - we feel threatened by competition, perhaps, or feel that our work doesn't take much skill.

I'm interested in what others think about these questions!  What do we need to do TODAY to make certain we have good food TOMORROW?

Placer Farm and Barn Tour - 2010

On Sunday, October 10, we hauled sheep and border collies to the Forster Ranch in Ophir as part of the 2010 Placer Farm and Barn Tour.  We've been part of every Farm and Barn event, but this was the first time we've demonstrated our dogs.  We thought you might enjoy some photos!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fields of Dreams

This summer, we've had the good fortune of running sheep on the Elster Ranch between Auburn and Grass Valley.  This ranch has been well-managed with cattle by Bill Boundy for many years.  George Nolte, who purchased the ranch several years ago, has been working to improve the ranch's productivity even further.  With Bill's help, George has installed a new K-Line irrigation system (go to for a video) and has planted a number of new irrigated pastures.  Our grass-fed lambs have been the beneficiaries of these improvements.

I love watching big league baseball in person, and one of my favorite things about going to the ball park is the moment when I first see the field.  A well-kept ball field shines like an emerald - it's so green it hurts my eyes.  Seeing the Elster Ranch pastures for the first time was a similar experience.  I came over a low rise and saw the most beautiful clover and grass pasture I've ever seen.

Elster Ranch is my first experience with a landlord who is committed to making his or her property more productive.  Many people who purchase large properties see them as real estate (to be developed) or toys (to be played with).  George and Bill are vastly different - they care for the land and want to improve its agricultural and ecological productivity.  What a refreshing change!

Monday, October 4, 2010

KVMR Celtic Festival

We took sheep (all from the Celtic world) to the KVMR Celtic Festival in Grass Valley last weekend - great fun was had by all!  Thought you might enjoy these pictures of a faerie princess with her North Country Cheviot ewe, Falfa!

Note the very sleepy faerie princess and the alert border collie in the background!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Turning in the Rams

As I wrote several days ago, today marks our new year (at least in sheep terms).  Today, we split our ewes into breeding groups and turned the rams in with them.  In the process, we evaluated the condition of each ewe (her degree of fat cover, the health of her feet, etc.).  The day marked one of our regular chances to check in and take stock of our successes (and failures) as shepherds.

Overall, we marked our successes today.  The ewes were in appropriate condition for breeding.  The rams, based on their behavior once they were with the ewes, were also in VERY appropriate condition.

Our interns, Paul and Alice, were a huge help today!  They helped gather, evaluate and sort the sheep, and they helped put them in individual paddocks.  I can't thank them enough!  For more information about our Shepherd Apprentice Program, go to

The true test of our success over the last 6 weeks (and through the next 6 weeks of breeding season) will be the number of lambs born next spring.  In late February 2011, we'll begin to see new lambs.  Our hope is that every other ewe will give birth to twins - we call this a 150% lamb crop.  We'll keep you posted!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Predator Friendly?

We've been seeing lots of coyotes around our sheep lately.  The proximity of these predators to our livelihood presents an ethical dilemma for me - I'm always thrilled at seeing local wildlife, but I always worry about the safety of our sheep.  Our friend and partner Ellen called last night, saying that she was a "poor shepherd" because she failed to run over a coyote on her drive back to the ranch.  We both agreed that we would have a hard time killing a predator unless it was actually killing a sheep.

If we didn't use guardian animals (dogs and llamas), I would not be able to say this.  I like to tell folks that we're predator friendly, but our guard dogs are not!  The exception to this, at least for me, is a domestic dog.  We've lost sheep to neighbor dogs, and I think I'd probably have a hard time NOT shooting a domestic dog that was chasing my livestock (even if it hadn't killed anything yet).  A domestic dog kills for sport; a coyote kills for sustenance.  That being said, I'm not sure what I'd do if I found a coyote in the act of killing a sheep.  Since I don't have a rifle with me at all times, the question is probably moot.

One of the things I love about my living is that I have a chance to interact with nature on a daily basis - indeed, I'm dependent on nature for my livelihood.  Success in this livelihood requires me to take the good with the bad.