Tuesday, March 30, 2010


3-11-07012.jpg picture by flyingmulefarm

Our friend Ellen emailed us last night that she'd had to euthanize Paige, her oldest border collie.  Just over three years ago, Ellen let us use Paige, who was then 11 years old.  Paige had been an incredible trial dog.  While she had slowed down a bit, she was still an incredible farm dog.  I learned an incredible amount about working dogs from her.

Paige was a character.  I picked her up from Ellen at a sheep dog trial in Zamora in mid February.  On the drive home, she proceeded to eat the crackers Sami had packed for my lunch.  That night, she pulled a tray of cookies off the kitchen counter, too.  During her first month with us, she also destroyed a tri-tip we had thawing on the counter.  We've since decided that Ellen's dogs are genetically coded to counter-surf.

Ellen warned us about Paige's intolerance for children, especially small children.  Our youngest daughter, Emma, was 3 years old at the time.  She and Paige became fast friends.  One of my favorite photos from this time is of Emma reading "The Very Hungary Caterpillar" to Paige on our kitchen floor.  In November that year, our oldest daughter, Lara, trialed Paige in Auburn and in Plymouth.  Their teamwork and determination brought tears to my eyes.

For nearly a year, Paige was my everyday companion in my work with our sheep.  While I purchased another dog through Ellen, Paige was my most reliable helper.  In all honesty, I probably got in Paige's way more than I helped her - she knew things about working sheep that I'll probably never understand completely.  She was the perfect introduction to the culture of working sheep dogs for all of us.  She wasn't a very big dog physically, but she had an enormous heart and a huge personality.
august0112.jpg picture by flyingmulefarm
The last time I worked Paige, I realized that she truly needed to retire.  We had sheep out near a county road after dark.  Paige gathered them and put them back into their pasture, but she could neither hear nor see me when I tried to call her off.  I spent a frantic 45 minutes in the dark looking for her.  I knew that she needed to retire for her own safety.

Ellen picked Paige up from us on the day that we received Mo, a puppy from Ellen's Emer.  We saw her periodically over the next 2 years - usually in Tulelake but at least once in Auburn.  Every time we saw her, Paige seemed to recognize us.  As her health deteriorated, she still wanted to work - she couldn't hear or see very well, but she still knew her job.

Dogs are like teachers in my experience - we are only blessed with truly exceptional teachers (and dogs) a few times during our lifetimes.  Paige was one of those dogs.  We are so grateful to Ellen for sharing her with us.  We'll miss her.

Walden Woods Project - Day 4

I don't have much to report today.  The ewes and goats made progress on the poison oak, but they still have more to do in their current paddock.  We may have to reduce the paddock size (which increases the stock density) to get them to eat the brush.

I can tell fairly quickly whether the animals are getting enough to eat.  If they are laying down and chewing their cuds when we arrive on the scene, they are fine.  If they run to the fence and vocalize their desire to move to a new paddock, they are out of feed.  They were very content today!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Walden Woods Project - Day 3

This was a pretty quite day - all we had to do was feed the guard dog (Reno) and check fences.  The sheep were all lying down and chewing their cuds when we arrived - they looked very content.  This paddock may take them a bit longer - there is more poison oak than I realized at first.  We may have to force them to eat the brush a bit.

Reno was not my first choice as far as guard dogs go for this project.  The Walden Woods Homeowner's Association was worried that a barking dog would annoy residents.  Since Reno is the least vocal of our guard dogs, we brought him. He's going to be a very capable dog, but he's still a puppy.  I don't trust him entirely with babies - kids or lambs.  This meant that I did not bring as many goats to the project as planned - most of our goats have kids at the moment.  Our next entry (this summer) will include more goats.

In other news (I've always wanted to say that), we had 3 new lambs at Doty Ravine today, including the little ewe lamb in this photo.  Not sure where the black eye-patch came from, but she's pretty cute!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Walden Woods Project - Day 2

The sheep and goats finished off the first acre - it took them about 50 hours.  They did a great job with the annual grasses and forbs (broad-leaf plants).  They also defoliated most of the poison oak.  We'll come back and hit some of the poison oak they missed before we haul them out in a week or so.

In my experience, sheep have nearly as varied a diet as goats.  They are not quite as aggressive with brush - they don't climb like goats do - but they will consume most of the vegetation they can reach.  As our ewes mature and gain more experience, their diet becomes even more varied.

The new paddock I moved them into today is about 1.75 acres, and I anticipate that it will take them about 2-3 days to complete.  My estimate for the total project of 10-14 days seems fairly accurate at this point.  We'll see how the coming wet weather affects their consumption - it shouldn't make any difference.  The new paddock has some soaproot in it - a native plant that grows from a bulb.  The Native Americans used the root to make soap.  I'm not sure whether the livestock will eat it - we'll see!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Walden Woods Project - Day 1

Yesterday, we took 46 sheep and 3 goats to a fuel reduction project at the Walden Woods subdivision in Granite Bay.  Our client, Bella Fire Services, received a grant on behalf of the neighborhood to make the common area more fire safe.  Our livestock are the last phase of the project - we're using the sheep and goats to remove grass, weeds and brush resprouts (mostly poison oak) on 7 acres.

After 36 hours, the animals will have completed the first acre of the project.  The residents of Walden Woods seem to be happy with the early results.  I'm not always as patient as I should be in explaining our management system, but the project seems to be going well so far.  We'll keep adding updates as the project progresses!

Today's photos were taken by our daughter Emma - pretty good photos for a 6-year-old!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Over the last two days, we worked with one of our landlords to replace a main line for the irrigation system on this property.  We hope to be able to irrigate an additional 15-20 acres as a result of this project.  We put in 800 feet of 6-inch pipe, tying it into the old pipe at either end.

The project was fun - I enjoy working with other people on things like this.  Hard work is easier when it's shared.  The weather was pleasant, the jokes were silly, and before we realized it, we were almost done!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shepherding Skills

Throughout history, shepherds have occupied the lowest rung of society.  Tending stock has not been a desirable profession, and tending sheep has often been the least desirable of stock-tending occupations.

As a shepherd myself, I'm constantly amazed by how much there is to know in my line of work.  I have to know about sheep behavior, animal health, nutrition, wool management, and reproduction.  Since we use dogs extensively (both guardian dogs and herding dogs), I also have to know something about dog behavior, health, and nutrition.  I also need to know about how dogs and sheep interact.  Since we are a grass-based operation, I need to know about pasture management, grass growth and reproduction, ecological processes and soil management.  Because we market meat directly, I must know something about butchering and cooking.  Finally, since we are a small business, I need to know about accounting, business management, and marketing.

Sometimes I find the breadth of knowledge required for my job to be overwhelming, but mostly I find the demands of my work to be rewarding and mentally stimulating.  Several weeks ago, my border collie, Taff, was increasingly ineffective in moving the ewes.  Ewes are very protective of newborn lambs, and Taff was very intimidated.  I decided to use Taff and our younger dog, Mo, together.  It worked beautifully - Mo is young and enthusiastic, and his enthusiasm gave Taff the courage to stand up to the aggressive ewes.

We are also in the process of bonding two new guard dogs (Reno and Vegas) to their sheep.  Reno is nearly a year old, while Vegas is just 18 weeks old.  As puppies, they both want to play with their sheep sometimes (which is hard on the sheep).  We're trying dangle sticks (sticks on chains that hang from their collars).  These devices make it uncomfortable for the dogs to run, which keeps them (in theory) from chasing the livestock.  So far, this seems to be working.

Finally, we've tried a new system for marking lambs.  When we process newborn lambs, we put their mother's ear tag number on them with spray paint.  Twins get a red number, while singles get a blue number.  This has allowed us to tell at a glance whether we have new lambs in the paddock.  It's been a huge timesaver.

While shepherding may seem like a very simple "profession," I find the ongoing need to learn, adapt and adjust to be exciting and engaging.  I probably have 25-30 more years of doing this work ahead of me; I look forward to learning more about my occupation!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Genetics are weird

Check out this photo of a lamb that was born in our flock this week.  The ewe is a Coopworth-Bluefaced Leicester cross (or a Coopworth "mule") and the ram is a Border Cheviot - both of them are white sheep.  This lamb has what are called "badger" markings.

The Border Cheviot breed includes a recessive gene for this coloration.  There is a breed from Wales that has white wool and facial markings like this lamb - a Welsh Mountain Badger Face.

Enjoy the photos!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Stuff that works

I really like stuff that works, and I'm willing to pay more for things if I know that they work for my particular needs.  Here's a list of stuff that works for me:

  1. Oringi rain gear - this rain gear from New Zealand is the best I've ever owned!
  2. Muck chore boots - neoprene boots that have good traction and keep my feet warm.
  3. Drew's linecutter boots - firefighting/logging boots that are custom-made, affordable (less than $300) and durable.
  4. Pendleton wool shirts - I have several shirts from my Dad and my uncle that are almost as old as I am.
  5. Filson wool coats and vests - I own 3 coats and 1 vest - they're great!
  6. Stafix and Speedrite fence energizers - very dependable in all situations!
  7. Premier all-positive electric net
  8. Premier neck crook - a new addition to our sheep equipment; this neck crook makes catching new lambs a cinch.
  9. Well-bred border collies - I couldn't raise sheep without them.
  10. Moore Maker pocket knives - a sharp knife is a good knife, and these hold their edge.
  11. Jonsered chainsaws - mine always starts!
  12. National Cattlemen's Beef Association pocket calendar - don't tell the cattlemen, but it works for sheep records, too!
  13. Cabela's merino wool socks
  14. Carhartt ridge coat - a good work jacket!
  15. Sunbody palm leaf hats - bald guys like me need a good hat!
  16. Key brand double front work pants - cheaper and more durable than Carhartts
Let me know what you've found that works!

Monday, March 8, 2010

"Wonder" the Lamb

On Wednesday, February 24, one of our ewes had triplets (2 ewe lambs and one ram lamb).  She seemed to be taking care of all 3, so we left them with her.  On Thursday, February 25, we moved the ewes to another paddock that offered shelter under some large oak trees in anticipation of weekend storms.  On Friday afternoon, I went through the sheep after a heavy downpour and was disappointed to find one of the triplets, a ewe lamb, missing.  Since we'd seen great horned owls and eagles around, I assumed that we'd had our first aerial predator loss.

This past Monday (March 1), we moved the sheep again.  Our intern, Alice, heard a lamb calling from near the trees in the old paddock, but she couldn't see anything.  Investigating more carefully, Alice found a hole at the base of the largest oak.  She could hear a lamb but couldn't see it until she stuck her head down the hole.  To our amazement, she pulled the ewe lamb out of the hole!  She was very thin, but definitely alive.  After missing all of her meals over the weekend, she was ready to nurse on anything that moved.  Unfortunately, her mother had forgotten about her by this time, so brought her home to raise her on a bottle.  On the ride home, she tried to nurse on the steering wheel, on my elbow, and on the border collies.  She took to the bottle immediately and seems to be thriving here at home.

We've tried to select our sheep for their hardiness, but this ewe lamb's example is extreme!  Alice named her "Wonder Lamb" (a play on Alice in Wonderland), and "Wonder" is one of those lambing stories we'll talk about the rest of our lives, I'm sure!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

One of those days...

More than 99 percent of the time, our electric fencing system works great.  Today was not one of those days!  Yesterday, we sorted off some finished lambs that we'll have processed this week.  We put them in a paddock along side our ewe lambs here in Auburn so that we could quickly get them loaded tomorrow.  When I arrived at the ranch this afternoon, they had gone through the electric fence, joining the ewe lambs.  I'll get to sort them all over again tomorrow morning!  At least I marked the lambs that we'll ship - they should be easy to pick out from the larger group.

From Auburn we drove to Lincoln where our ewes and does are just about done giving birth to lambs and kids. I usually double check all of the fences when I have someone helping me put them up - yesterday I didn't.  Apparently they ran out of feed sometime after noon today and decided to explore.  When we arrived, we found all of the animals roaming freely.  Thank goodness for good dogs; Taff and Mo had them rounded up quickly.

With sheep and goats, we've found that no fencing system is foolproof (and that sometimes we're foolish).  The best fence is one that has plenty of feed inside it; no fence will hold livestock if they decide the feed looks better on the other side.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Great Livestock Guardian Experiment - Part 3 - Sally the Llama (by Courtney McDonald)

This is the third and (hopefully) final installment in this series of guardian experiments.   
Just before Thanksgiving Eric and I borrowed four of Dan and Sami’s old wether goats to eat down the blackberries around the property.  These goats aren’t in too much danger of predation since they are so large and aggressive, but eventually Eric and I want to have our own sheep.  So we were in the market for a reliable guardian. 
Having done some research about llamas as guardians, Dan and I decided that getting one to put with the goats would be a good trial.  If the llama worked out, then we could employ her at vegetation management jobs where a barking dog wouldn’t be welcome.  So we got one and split the cost 50-50.  Her name is Sally. 

Sally was very shy at first, and did not like being led on a halter.  When she saw her new goat companions, she seemed as thrilled as you could imagine a llama being.  The thrill wore off a little, however, when the goats began butting her for no apparent reason.  Still, she seemed content enough in her new surroundings.  She soon learned that if she spit at the goats, they would keep their distance.  As of yet the goats are the only thing I have seen her spit at.  She has never spit at a person, and she absolutely LOVES kids.  Any new visitors and she will walk right up to them to smell their breath.  Apparently this is a llama’s way of checking you out.  Sally is very alert, and I think one of the reasons she is such a good guardian is because she is quite confrontational with anything – dog, predator or person – that she is not sure about.  Even though llamas are technically prey animals, they don’t act the same way as other animals when threatened.  I think this makes them seem like a more intimidating meal. 
We have had Sally for four months now, and have had zero predator problems.  At the moment, she is guarding our dairy ewe, Yola, another ewe named Rosie and her newborn twin lambs, and the goat boys.  I hear the coyotes almost every night, but so far they have stayed away - thanks to Sally.


Since we've started lambing, my older border collie, Taff, has lost his confidence.  The ewes aggressively defend their lambs, which makes it difficult for Taff to get them to move.  Taff has a tendency to sulk if things don't go his way, and the ewes have exacerbated the problem.

Yesterday, I decided to try working Taff with our young dog, Mo, who belongs to our daughter Lara.  Mo is a brave if inexperienced dog, and I thought that Taff might have more confidence if he had help.  My plan worked!  Taff was much more courageous, and the two dogs successfully moved the entire flock (young lambs and all) into a new paddock.  Taff regained enough confidence even to take on ewes that challenged him.

One of the things I love about working with animals is the challenge of figuring out how best to communicate with them.  I have found that problems are generally the result of my inability to communicate, not disobedience on the part of the animal.  Yesterday was rewarding because I figured out how to get through to Taff.