Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Grazing Cover Crop at Blossom Hill Farm

This week, we're conducting an experiment with our friends J.R. and Claudia Smith at Blossom Hill Farm here in Auburn.  The Smiths are organic melon growers.  They've used cover crops for years to protect their soils in the winter and to build fertility and organic matter.  Normally, they mow the cover crop (which includes oats, bell beans and Austrian peas), allow it to decompose, and then incorporate it into the soil with a rototiller.  This year, they've saved one of their fields for us to graze.  They are evaluating the cost savings and the impact on soil fertility.  For us, it's a chance to try out something that we may be able to offer as a service to other growers in the future.

Yesterday, we put all of the ewes and lambs (close to 300 head total) onto an acre field that included cover crop, weeds, grasses, clover and brush.  By this morning, they'd impacted close to 75 percent of the cover crop.  We look for 3 impacts to plants - consumption, trampling or manure deposition - so this means that the sheep had eaten, walked on or pooped on about 3/4 of the plants in the paddock.  I suspect that the manure deposition and trampling may actually speed up the decomposition of the plants, but we'll have to wait and see.

Thanks to J.R. and Claudia for letting us try this experiment!

Moving Sheep

My day started and 6 a.m. yesterday - we moved all of the ewes and lambs from Lincoln to Blossom Hill Farm in Auburn (where they'll be grazing cover crop and weeds this week).  At just before midnight, I unloaded the last of 8 trailer loads - made for a very long day (and about 280 miles on the truck).

Before Placer County was so populous, it was not uncommon for sheep to be trailed on the road.  The trip from Lincoln to Auburn may have taken 3 days.  It certainly would have been more enjoyable than 18 hours in the truck!

I'll post photos and video of the cover crop grazing later today.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Choosing the Right Sheep

In his essay “Let the Farm Judge,” Wendell Berry proposes allowing the farm (that is, the land and its associated resources and topography) to play a role in selecting the right type of sheep (or other livestock) for the farming operation.  While he concedes that the “industry standard,” as represented by the show ring and the processor, is important, he also advocates for local adaptation:
“Intelligent livestock breeders may find that, in practice, the two questions become one: How can I produce the best meat at the lowest economic and ecological cost?  This question cannot be satisfactorily answered by the market, by the meat packing industry, by breed societies, or by show ring judges.  It cannot be answered satisfactorily by “animal science” experts or by genetic engineers.  It can only be answered satisfactorily by the farmer, and only if the farm, the place itself, is allowed to play a part in the selection.”
In our own operation, we’ve tried to balance the need to meet the demands of our customers for flavorful, tender grass-fed lamb raised without antibiotics or added hormones with the demands of our land.  Our operation exists entirely on rented ground, which means that we don’t live on the property where our sheep graze.  Our customers are mostly the end users of our lamb, which means we receive direct feedback from the people that are eating our product.
Based on our observations, we need sheep that will meet the following criteria:

·         Our sheep must be able to utilize a wide range of feed resources – from irrigated pasture to annual grasses to invasive weeds to brush.
·         Our customers want moderately sized cuts of lamb, so we need lambs that will finish at 90-110 pounds.
·         Since we finish our lambs entirely on grass, we need medium-sized sheep that do well on our feed resources.
·         We lamb in our pastures rather than in a barn.  Because we operate on rented land at some distance from our home, we cannot be with the lambing ewes around the clock.  This means that we need ewes that can lamb on their own without our assistance.  We need lambs that can get up and nurse quickly, and we need ewes that can produce sufficient milk from grass.
·         We primarily lamb in the early spring, with a smaller lamb crop coming in the fall (from the previous year’s spring-born ewe lambs).  In other words, out-of-season breeding is beneficial but not emphasized in our system.
·         The bacteria that cause foot rot and foot scald seem to be endemic in the pastures that we lease.  We’ve noticed that sheep with black feet seem to have more resistance to foot rot.
·         To optimize our profitability, we need ewes that will produce a 150 percent lamb crop with little or no external feed inputs.
·         To reduce costs, we need sheep that are resistant to internal parasites.
·         While wool is not a significant product for us, we do want sheep that produce fleeces of sufficient quality and quantity to cover the cost of shearing them.
When we started our commercial sheep operation, we purchased Dorper and Dorper-cross sheep.  Dorpers are a cross between Dorset sheep and Black-headed Persian sheep.  They are moderate-sized, produce a choice-grade carcass at 85-90 pounds, and shed their wool naturally.  The ewes that we purchased seem to have a widely varied diet, as well.  Unfortunately, their white feet also seem particularly susceptible to foot rot.  We found ourselves spending more to treat their foot problems that we were saving by not having to shear them.  While we were able to achieve a lamb crop of 130 percent with minimal external inputs, we felt that the foot problems were also impacting our lambing percentage.  While our customers were extremely happy with the product we were raising, our farm seemed to be telling us that we had not yet found the optimum genetics for our flock.
As we researched possible solutions, we discovered a 3-tier system used extensively in the United Kingdom to produce grass-fed lambs.  In this system, “hill” ewes are bred to Blue-faced Leicester (BFL) rams.  The resulting cross-bred sheep, called “mules,” have the milking ability, wool quality and length of body of the Blue-faced Leicester breed and the hardiness of the hill ewes.  The BFL breed also tends to improve twinning percentage and has black feet.  The mule ewes are then bred to a terminal sire (usually a British Suffolk or Texel), with all of the offspring marketed as lambs.  In the UK, these lambs finish at 110-120 pounds in 6 months.
            In 2008, we decided to try to produce our own “mules.”  We purchased a BFL ram from a breeder in Sonoma County and bred our Dorper and Dorper-cross ewes to him.  We also purchased a handful of North Country and Border Cheviot ewes – both Cheviot breeds are known for their hardiness.  Last spring’s lamb crop is promising – the mule lambs seem to be gaining faster and to have fewer foot problems (especially the mules out of Cheviot ewes).  We’ll breed these ewe lambs to a terminal sire next spring.
We’ve also implemented new management systems designed to help us deal with our feet problems.  We are vaccinating every ewe with FootVax every 6 months.  This is an expensive program – approximately $4.50 per head per year, but it seems to be working in about 95 percent of our sheep.  We’re also using a zinc oxide footbath on a regular basis.
To address our lambing percentage issues, we’ve started using body condition scoring to split our ewes into groups prior to breeding.  The thinner ewes are put on our higher quality feed about 6 weeks before breeding.  Next year, we intend to use teaser rams to synchronize our ewes’ heat cycles and to increase twinning percentage.  A ewe’s second estrus cycle generally will produce more eggs, which should help increase our number of twins.
            To ensure that we can pasture lamb with minimal labor, we’ve adopted another British system called Easy-Care lambing.  In this system, we record scores for every ewe in three categories: lambing ease, mothering ability and lamb vigor.  Scores are assigned as follows:
Lambing Ease
Very Minor Help
No assistance
Mothering Ability
Leaves lambs
Stands Well Back
Follows Whatever
Lamb Vigor
Has to be Sucked
Slow to suck
Up and Sucked

Anything with a total score of 1 or less is culled.
We also cull for other reasons.  A ewe with exceptionally bad feet will be culled, as will a ewe that doesn’t conceive over two consecutive breeding seasons.  We’re also trying to improve our wool quality – we’d like the ewes to produce enough wool of sufficient quality to cover the cost of shearing them.  Ewes that have natural parasite resistance are retained; ewes that are susceptible to parasites are culled.  Finally, we’re selecting ewe lambs who are twins with the hope that they will be predisposed to twin as well.
As with any system, our new approach will take time to implement.  Based on the advice of Richard Hamilton, one of the biggest and most innovative sheep producers in Northern California, we’re going to give this new genetic program 5 years to determine its success.  I’m also aware that what seems like new approach to me may have been tried by others previously.  There is a cost to being unconventional – not the least in terms of the ridicule of other producers.  We’re hoping that our innovative approach helps us make sure that our sheep fit our farm and our market.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Earth Day 2010

When I was working for the California Cattlemen's Association (more than 13 years ago, now), someone (probably the American Farm Bureau Federation) coined the phrase "Every Day is Earth Day for a Farmer."  While it's a tiresome cliche', I do think about Earth Day and my relationship to the environment at this time of year.

A typical day for me is spent mostly outdoors, and mostly in an "environment" that is largely "natural."  On some days, nature can be cruel - cold, windy days when we're lambing or hot, dry days in the woods with a wildfire nearby.  On other days, nature cooperates - rain in April and May when we'd otherwise be irrigating pasture, for example.

Today, I participated in an Earth Day Fair at HP in Roseville.  I realized how fortunate I am (given my personality) to be working outside everyday.  I'm incredibly grateful to those who invent and build and create the types of technology that make my life easier.  I'm also grateful that my job doesn't require me to work in a cubicle.

I ran into one of my college roommates, who has worked at HP for 18 years.  He's a great guy - incredibly smart.  He described his new work environment as a stall rather than a cubicle.  Thankfully, the only stall I work in includes a mule!

Happy Earth Day!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Small Farmers Journal Auction

My Dad and I, along with my youngest daughter Emma, are headed for Madras, Oregon, in the morning - we're making my fifth trip to the Small Farmer's Journal Auction and Swap Meet.  It's a wonderful event - we've been going long enough now that we've made friends that we only see once a year.  A long drive (9 hours) but well worth the effort.  I'll post photos when I return!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Update on Reno

Samia stopped to check on Reno this morning on her way to Sacramento.  He's doing well.  He may slough some skin off of his nose, but he's bright and has his usual voracious appetite.  Good news!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Walden Woods Project - Last Day

We moved the sheep and goats from Walden Woods to another project this afternoon.  When we arrived to begin loading the animals, we found that Reno (our Anatolian shepherd guard dog) and one sheep had been bitten by a rattlesnake.  Both should be fine.  This is the first time we've had a dog (or a sheep) encounter a snake.  We treated Reno with dexamethazone (a steroid that reduces inflammation and pain) and penicillin.  We'll see how the lamb is doing tomorrow.

Overall, I'm very pleased with the job the sheep did.  They removed the invasive grasses and impacted most if not all of the poison oak plants in their paddocks.  They also grazed the thistles quite extensively, which should reduce the amount of seeds these plants produce.  We'll bring animals back here in July to impact the poison oak a second time.

Our herding dogs, Mo and Taff, are critical to our ability to do these types of projects.  At Walden Woods, we did not have the ability to set up loading pens.  Mo and Taff brought the sheep to the trailer and helped us load.  When we got to our new contract, Taff herded the sheep up our clients' driveway and into their new paddock.  They are amazing dogs!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Walden Woods Project - Day 13

This was the first day that I didn't go to the project - I had a meeting in Sacramento.  Courtney McDonald, who helps me on occasion, checked on the sheep and goats this morning.  All was well, and the animals didn't need to be moved.  We'll move them tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Walden Woods Project - Day 12

We moved into the last unit on this project today - one more move and we'll be through.  We've learned that we need to push the envelope a bit to get the sheep and goats to consume the poison oak this time of year.  Since everything else is still green, the poison oak becomes one of their last choices.  To get good consumption of the poison oak, we take the chance of having sheep go through the fences in search of more palatable feed.  So far this hasn't happened yet, but we're not getting uniform impact on the poison oak.

We'll have the animals back on the site in July.  At that point, the only green vegetation will be poison oak, and suspect we'll have much better consumption.  We'll see!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Walden Woods Project - Day 11

Not much to report today - the animals had not quite cleaned up the newest portion of their paddock.  We'll move them mid-day tomorrow, and I still expect that they'll be done by Friday.  The real development was my first mild case of poison oak!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Walden Woods Project - Day 10

We're probably 3-5 days away from finishing this project.  Tonight, we met with a representative of the HOA to discuss avoiding newly germinated wildflowers.  We are happy to accommodate his request; however, it will reduce the acreage we treat while adding to our work (we'll need to move fences more frequently and fence areas that are more difficult).

We find that many people view grazing like they view other vegetation management techniques (like herbicide application).  There is a perception that grazing kills plants.  As I've discussed in earlier posts, grazing can be managed to do a variety of things.  Properly managed grazing can promote the growth of some plants while limiting the growth of others.  Established wildflowers can survive grazing; some wildflowers even need grazing or other types of management to thrive.  Newly established stands, on the other hand, may need protection from grazing.

Here's a video of the animals moving onto fresh feed.  We added about half an acre of new forage to this paddock.  The animals will have consumed this feed by tomorrow afternoon!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Walden Woods Project - Day 9

We have several goals for this project.  First, we want to eliminate the poison oak (or at least reduce it).  Second, we want to reduce the invasive thistles on the site.  Finally, we want to reduce the fine fuel load, which is comprised mostly of annual grasses.  These goals require somewhat different approaches.  For the poison oak, we'll need to repeatedly defoliate it, which will eventually stress the plants enough to kill them.  For the thistle, grazing it at this stage won't kill it, but it will reduce the number of viable seeds produced by each plant.  This will reduce the amount of thistle next year.  For the fine fuels, we want to consume them or trample them.

Livestock have 3 impacts on plants, each of which can help us achieve these goals.  First, obviously, the sheep and goats consume the plants.  Second, they walk on them.  By trampling them, the animals help incorporate organic matter into the soil and speed the decomposition of dead plant material.  Finally, animals do what animals do after they eat and drink: they deposit manure and urine, which aids in the cycling of nutrients in this system.

The best place to see these impacts, for me, is to look down a fenceline.  This photo shows grazed vegetation on the left and ungrazed vegetation on the right.

To accomplish these goals, we need very portable systems.  We use portable electric fencing and portable livestock water systems.  We also use herding dogs extensively.  Our border collies help us keep animals controlled and help us move them quickly, efficiently and humanely.

Shepherd Cam - Watch Videos from Ewetube

Now that I've figured out how to do this, I'll probably overdo it!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Using a Footbath for Sheep and Goats

We have been battling foot scald and foot rot in our sheep and goats.  This condition, which is caused by several strains of bacteria that live in the soil, makes the sheep limp and causes moderate to severe production losses.  We vaccinate our ewes and does, but we've also started using a footbath to control the bacteria in our lambs.

Here's a video of the animals going through the footbath today!

Walden Woods Project - Day 8

No real news to post today, which is a good thing!  We received a call last night from a Walden Woods resident that the coyotes were howling and the dog was barking.  Everyone was fine today, so Reno did his job!

One of the hardest things for me to do is to trust our system and our guard dogs.  I worried all night last night (without cause).  Experience suggests that I can trust the guard dogs to protect the sheep, but I still fret!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Winter's Last Gasp?

Sometime after the first day of spring we get a stretch of winter weather - it's as if winter wants us to really appreciate spring!  This week has been one of those stretches.  We had snow just up the hill on Wednesday, and today was cold, wet and blustery day at the ranch.  I don't mind - I try to remember days like this when I'm moving irrigation pipe on a 100 degree day in July!

After retrieving meat from our processor in Dixon this morning, I spent the afternoon moving sheep and goats to a new paddock in Lincoln.  This involves moving fence and animals.  Thankfully, I had both of our border collies today.  Mo and Taff were amazing - they moved all 140 ewes and 170 lambs very quickly.  After we got the sheep settled in, we moved 20 does and 25+ goat kids as well.  The dogs were pretty tired by the time we finished.

I'm so lucky to get to work outside - even on days like this!

Walden Woods Project - Day 7

Today was an easy day on the project - I simply checked the sheep and goats and fed Reno.  The animals, Reno included, seem to deal with the wet weather just fine.  The trees provide shelter from the wind and rain, and the sheep seem to like the cooler temperatures.  Here are a few photos of the last paddock and the new one....

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Thanks, Julie!

Julie House finished her internship with us about 10 days ago.  She worked with us for a full 12 months, going through the full cycle of production from lambing to grass finishing to breeding and back to lambing.  Julie has also been the face of Flying Mule Farm at the Roseville Farmer's Market every Tuesday (a role in which she will continue).

During the course of her internship, Julie has learned about livestock production, pasture management and working dogs.  She has been especially interested (and helpful) in our contract grazing program.  She managed our small goat herd at her parents' place in south Auburn last fall.  Her experience as a chef has also helped us in developing recipes for lamb, beef and goat.

We've been extremely fortunate in our internship program over the last year - Julie has added a great deal to our enterprises!  Please thank her on our behalf when you see her at a farmer's market!

Walden Woods Project - Day 6

As of tomorrow, the livestock will have been at Walden Woods for a week!  We moved them to their third paddock today - my Dad helped me with the move, as did Taff (our oldest border collie).  They did a great job on the annual grasses and cleaned up most of the poison oak, too.  I forgot my camera today, so I don't have photos of their efforts.

Based on what we have left, I estimate that the job will take about two weeks.  When we come back for our second pass through the common area in July, I'll bring older ewes and more goats, which should have a greater impact on the poison oak.

Walden Woods Project - Day 5

I'm experimenting with using my little digital camera as a video camera - it works pretty well!  The clip below shows sheep eating thistles and poison oak - not the most riveting footage unless you're a pasture geek like me!


We'll be moving these guys today - they'll probably have about another 4-5 days on the project.