Thursday, July 29, 2010

Life and Death - on the Farm and at the Fair

This week, police shot and killed what they described as a "rampaging" cow at the California State Fair.  The cow had been brought to the fair as part of the animal birthing exhibit operated by the UC Davis Vet School.  UCD has offered the livestock nursery exhibit for about 30 years.  The cow apparently panicked and escaped from her handlers to run through the fairgrounds.  After she was surrounded, she panicked again and knocked over a police officer.  The decision to shoot her was made to protect fair employees (the fair hadn't opened yet, so there were no members of the public on the fairgrounds at the time).

Understandably, the incident has generated a debate about the livestock nursery exhibit and about fair security's handling of the situation.  Those who oppose any use of animals or animal products have seized on the incident to further condemn what they see as the exploitation of animals.  Others have spoken out against exhibiting animals while they are giving birth.  On the other hand, the local paper has carried quotes from fair-goers stating that "humans are more important than animals," which apparently justifies shooting the cow.

I find the issue to be less black-and-white than the news media and activists would have us believe.  I think the birth of an animal is one of the most miraculous events I've ever witnessed (besides, of course, the birth of my own daughters).  Lambing season is my favorite time of year, and I feel privileged to participate in this annual renewal.  One of the realities of caring for livestock, however, is that I have to deal with the death of an animal from time to time - sometimes during the birthing process itself.  While I don't enjoy this aspect of my livelihood, it is part of the work that I must do.

I have also seen animals get panicked.  A panicked cow can be quite frightening, especially for someone who is not used to being around livestock.  Our responsibility as caretakers of these animals is to stay calm and to try to de-escalate the stress on the animal.  Even for an experienced handler, this can be difficult.  For someone who only sees large animals in a setting like the fair, this can be next to impossible.  I don't know firsthand what happened at the fair, but I can imagine that the police were ill-equipped to de-escalate the situation.

This debate can be a healthy discussion if we can move beyond the black-and-white arguments about animal "rights" and public safety.  A fellow sheep producer and friend, Al Medvitz, once said that we make the mistake in this country of believing that death is the opposite of health.  I think the livestock nursery offers the public a chance to observe and participate in the miracle of new life.  I hope that this incident gives fairgoers and fair staff a chance to learn more about animal care and behavior as well.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Product Testing

When we introduce a new product or new cut of meat, we like to try it ourselves before offering it to our customers.  We think it's important to be able to give customers an idea about a product's quality and flavor before we ask them to spend money on it.

Usually, we have a great deal of confidence - we know our lamb is outstanding, for example, so we're comfortable recommending a new cut of lamb (like leg steaks or loin roasts).  This week, however, we introduced something a little different - mutton sausage, mutton tenderloin and rack of mutton.

Most people, including many of our customers, have a negative perception of mutton - it's perceived as being greasy and strong flavored.  While we've been marketing mutton as pet food (which some of our customers have used to make stew), this is the first time we've specifically marketed mutton products for people to consume.  I'll admit I was a little nervous about it.

My trepidation was somewhat alleviated when I arrived at Wolfpack Meats in Reno to pick up our products. Mike Holcomb of Wolfpack was just finishing making our link sausage - we tried Basque chorizo and Italian sausage this time.  The fresh sausage smelled and looked wonderful - no gamy odor and enough fat to be juicy but not so much as to overwhelm the sausage.  Still, I wondered if I'd like mutton sausage well enough to recommend it to our customers.

After I returned home I lit our barbecue and grilled a package of each variety.  I served the sausages to our product testers (better known as my family) - they loved them!  The flavor of both varieties was outstanding, and they were juicy without being greasy.  I couldn't wait to offer them to our customers!  While we have yet to cook the racks or tenderloins for ourselves, our experience with the sausage gave me confidence about these products as well.

Finding a way to add value to our sheep that cannot be considered lamb (in this country, any sheep older than 12 months has to be sold as mutton) is a critical step for us.  It will allow us to market an additional line of products at a profitable level, making our entire business more sustainable in the process.  I'm excited about further experimentation!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dogs and Efficiency

I've realized in the last several weeks that I don't seem to be as overwhelmingly busy this summer as I usually am.  Part of it is the fact that we're not irrigating as much this year - that fact alone gives me several extra hours each day.  Part of it is the fact that we have great help (as in previous years, we have interns who help make the big project more manageable).  Part of it is that I'm not driving to Tahoe City for a farmer's market once a week.  Significantly, I'm also getting better at working with Taff and Mo, our border collies.

Our herding dogs make me more efficient in numerous ways.  When I'm moving sheep from one pasture to another, the dogs make quick work of the move.  When I need to load sheep in the trailer, the dogs make it a one person job.  Yesterday, I de-wormed and marked 200 ewes.  This involves giving each ewe a liquid de-wormer (for internal parasite control) orally.  I also put paint brands on each ewe to indicate ownership, and I put bells on about 10 percent of the sheep to help us locate them in brush paddocks.  With Taff's help, I was able to do the entire job in about 3-1/2 hours.
Taff and Mo waiting to work.

We've used dogs now for about 4 years.  I'm finally feeling like I'm understanding the dogs well enough to be a good working partner.  In years past, I would have needed more equipment (fencing, especially) and more help to accomplish the jobs listed in the previous paragraph.  For example, treating 200 ewes several years ago would have been an all-day task for 2-3 people.
Ernie and Emma

I'm finding that one of the things I enjoy most about my work is the opportunity to improve my relationship with my working partners - my dogs.  Our newest edition, Ernie, is just beginning his training with sheep.  I'm looking forward to his progress.  I'm also looking forward to a lifetime of learning how to work with my dogs!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

150 Years of the California Wool Growers Association

I was invited to be part of a panel discussion on new opportunities in the sheep industry at the 150th anniversary convention of the California Wool Growers Association in San Francisco yesterday.  My family and I drove to Vallejo and caught a Baylink ferry into the city.  We had lunch at the Ferry Plaza farmer's market, which was amazing.  The panel included a person who has started a sheep dairy in Monterey County, a producer who contract grazes vernal pool mitigation banks in Sonoma County, a producer who is finding new uses for wool, and the manager of a small custom wool carding company in Yreka.  We had great questions and discussion with the other producers in attendance.

I have several observations about our day.  The farmer's market was one of the largest and busiest I've ever attended.  I was struck by the difference in the way San Francisco's environmental health department enforces market rules - none of the food booths were screened, meat vendors were able to display meat in ice-filled tubs on their tables (rather than in closed ice chests), and everyone was passing out samples.  At the conference itself, I got a real sense of the heritage and longevity of the sheep industry in California.

The high temperature in Auburn yesterday was 99.  In the city, the high was probably 75.  All in all, it was a nice break from the heat and an enjoyable one-day vacation with my family!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Summer Mode

This summer, so far, has been different from past years.  The most significant change is that we are not irrigating any pasture.  We have been grazing our lambs on irrigated pasture at several different properties, but we haven't had to do the watering ourselves - a nice change!

The trade-off, however, has been the time we're spending on contract grazing.  As I write this, we have sheep at five different properties.  This means we're driving more than in previous years.  While being paid for our grazing services has been wonderful, the amount of time I'm on the road is troubling.

Farming on land that we don't own has it's upside and downside.  I couldn't farm at our current scale if I had to own the land - farmland is just not affordable here.  On the other hand, our operation is very scattered at the moment.