Thursday, April 28, 2011

Livestock and Wildlife

The interactions between livestock and wildlife are complex.  In some cases, wildlife and livestock may compete for resources - forage, water, etc.  In other cases, wildlife and livestock seem to be complimentary.  In most cases, maintaining range livestock production (instead of residential, commercial or industrial development) favors wildlife.

We're currently grazing about 240 acres of open space within the Whitney Oaks community of Rocklin, California.  This open space is all that remains if the Whitney Ranch - one of the first sheep ranches in our part of the state.  As you can imagine, this open space is an incredible resource for the community - it provides recreational opportunities, watershed values, scenic vistas - and wildlife habitat.  I would imagine that for many of the kids in the community, it provides the only day-in-day-out contact with the "wild."  For the next several months, it also provides forage for our sheep.

We've been contacted by a concerned resident regarding the potential competition between the resident deer herd and our flock of sheep for limited forage resources.  While it may seem obvious to me that the greater threat to the local deer is wildfire and urban land use patterns, this gentleman is genuinely concerned about the well-being of the deer.  In my experience, deer and sheep have somewhat different dietary preferences - deer prefer browse (e.g., brush), while sheep prefer grasses and annual broadleaf plants.  Given the limited forage available, however, there probably is some competition.

On the other hand, we notice increased raptor activity following the sheep.  As the sheep remove (or trample) the vegetation, hawks (and I presume owls) have greater success in foraging for rodents.  As we moved the sheep today, for example, I saw red-shouldered and sharp-shinned hawks cruising the previous paddock.  I guess "forage" is the the eye of the beholder.

I know I'm fortunate to be out in the midst of wildlife habitat on a daily basis.  We try to be as predator-friendly as possible - we use guardian animals (llamas and dogs) rather than lead to protect our sheep from coyotes and mountain lions (and domestic dogs - the far greater threat in our environment).  As a livestock producer, I have more direct interaction with the "wild" than most folks.  On the other hand, my livelihood (and the well-being of my animals) depends on my vigilance - both in terms of providing enough feed and in protecting them from harm.  This balancing act is part of our larger struggle (as a species) to live within our environment (rather than "on top" of it).

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Learning Skills

What do homemade fried chicken, shearing sheep, building fence, driving a mule/horse and working a sheep dog have in common?  They all require hands-on experience to do well!  The Scottish folksinger, Dougie McLean says about learning to use the scythe, "It's not like you can go out and by the video "Scythe in a Day."  The skills I've listed above are similar - they require lots of experience (perhaps a lifetime worth of experience) to do well.

I guess the other thing that these skills have in common is that they are both physical/manual and mental.  Working a dog requires both a physical presence and total mental focus, as does driving a mule.  When my great-grandmother Grace Fleming taught my Dad to fry chicken, she told him, "Mike, if you want to learn to do this, you need to be here at the stove the entire time - it's not something you can wander off and come back to."  Similarly, John Erksine, a horse farmer / friend from Washington, says that driving a horse involves a lifetime of learning and the ability to be totally calm and totally present.  As my Dad would say, "Be Here Now."

The other part of learning these types of skills is the importance of experience.  Experience tells us what to expect in a given situation - and more importantly (if we're paying attention to our mistakes), how to respond. Experience (now) tells me that if my young dog splits off a sheep during a training session, I can let him retrieve the sheep as long as he's not abusing her.  The first time something like this happened, I reacted poorly.

Finally, gaining skill and experience is often easiest when we're working with someone with more of both!  Someone who has fried lots of chicken is a more effective teacher than a website or a cookbook.  The physical nature of these skills requires tactile learning to be effective - a video about how to make homemade fried chicken can't describe how a piece of chicken drops off the fork when it's done.

Those of us who are trying to master skills like this have three responsibilities, I think (at least three).  First, we must strive, as John Erskine says, to be totally present and totally calm.  Second, we must always learn from what works (and from what doesn't work) - observation and adjustment are part of learning.  Third, we must pass on what we've learned to a new generation.  Even in a digital age, these types of skills are important!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Emma's Blog

My daughter Emma "penned" the following entry (and took the photo):

I am happy that it is spring.  Spring is fun.  I love smelling the flowers and grass and the soil and I hear the lambs. We have 12 bottle lambs.  They are so cute; they run like crazy. It is fun to have bottle lambs and they eat twice a day in the morning and night.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Avian Sign Posts

I was reminded today that my work as a shepherd is tied closely to the rhythms of the seasons - and that nature also pays close attention to these rhythms.  I heard and saw the first Bullock's Oriole today in a tree in one of our pastures.  The return of the Orioles (from Central America, I think) generally occurs in our part of the foothills around the third week of April.  They remind me that it's time to shear!  The Sandhill Cranes go south in the fall - about the time we turn the rams in with the ewes.  They come back north in February - about the time our new lambs arrive.

I count myself fortunate to make my living in partnership with nature - sometimes I have to stop and remember to be quiet enough to hear what nature is telling me!  Sometimes it's the call of a bird that wakes me up!

Contract Grazing - Not for the Faint Hearted

Twice in the last week (on Saturday in Rocklin, and today in Lincoln), we've had sheep out of the fence on our contract grazing jobs.  We know for sure that the sheep in Rocklin were chased through the fence by some kids.  I suspect that the sheep in Lincoln may have had human encouragement (if not outright assistance) in their great escape this morning.  My assistant manager, Paul, saw the sheep inside the fence at 5:45 this morning - by 6:45 they were out.

Steep terrain and proximity to roads can make pasture set-up difficult!
The risk of having sheep out in an urban area is just one of the challenges in contract grazing.  Other issues include the potential for poisonous plants (either growing naturally or fed as yard clippings), predator attacks, and neighbor complaints.  In my experience, 99.9% of the neighbors love seeing the sheep.  There are always a few folks, however, who don't like the noise, the smell, or the fact that someone is being paid to graze their animals.

Obviously, there's a great deal more to contract grazing than simply turning the sheep or goats out.  With fuel approaching $4.50/gallon, there's obviously the cost of hauling animals in and out of projects.  The lands that lend themselves to grazing are generally steep, rocky, overgrown - or all three - which makes building fence and moving livestock more challenging.

Grazing animals have three distinct impacts on plants.  First, they consume them.  Second, they trample on them.  Third, they help cycle nutrients by excreting on them.  Depending our our clients' goals, we try to impact every plant in a particular paddock in at least one manner.  As some plants reach maturity, they become unpalatable to the animals - which means we try to trample the plants as much as possible.  Trampling requires us to manage the density of our animals carefully.
Taff examining "herd effect" - the sheep trampled this vegetation.

By increasing stock density, we can increase the "herd effect."

Finally, there is a hidden cost to contract grazing.  When we found the sheep Saturday night in Rocklin, they were obviously very frightened by the ordeal of being chased through an electric fence.  They remained quite skittish for the next several days, and they probably consumed less vegetation.  Not only does this slow our progress on the contract, it impacts animal health and well-being.

Contract grazing can be an incredible useful tool for land managers, and a useful business enterprise for livestock producers.  It does, however, take a certain level of management expertise - not every producer is cut out for contract grazing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Working in the Woods - in the name of good beer!

While our main enterprises center on sheep grazing, we also produce sustainable forest products in partnership with the Edwards family in Colfax and with Courtney McDonald (who interned with us several years ago).  Today, we completed an order for 24 peeled poles for another small farmer here in Auburn.  We used 21 Douglas fir trees to manufacture the 24 poles.  These are trees that needed to be thinned from the Edwards' woods to improve the health of the forest - it's nice to have an economic reason to remove these little trees.

The process involves felling and limbing the trees, cutting the poles to length, and then peeling the bark by hand (using a draw knife).  This time of year, the sap is starting to move up the trees, which makes peeling the bark much easier.  Timing is everything (as with many things) - last week, the 20-foot poles took Courtney more than an hour to peel (because the sap wasn't running yet).  The poles I cut today took about 20 minutes to peel - an amazing difference.

Darrel Cote, a small farmer near Auburn, bought the poles to use as a trellis system for the hops he's growing.  We're looking forward to seeing these poles in use!  In the meantime, I got to sample a bottle of the beer brewed by the outfit he's growing the hops for - Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing!  It was great - can't wait to taste a batch of the beer that we had a role in producing!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Ernie Report

After taking a break from working Ernie due to lambing, I've finally been able to work our youngest dog, Ernie, on a more regular basis.  Tonight, he really made progress - he checked himself, and he generally gave more space to the sheep.  As per my previous entry, communication can sometimes be positive - sometimes discouraging.  Today was very positive!

The Art of Living Systems

Several conversations (and many of my own activities) over the last several months have been rattling around in my head.  These conversations and actions have to do with the difference between relying on living, breathing systems (like grazing sheep, herding dogs and draft animals) versus relying on machines (like mowers and tractors).  While some might argue that there is an art to driving a car or a tractor, I'm realizing that real art (at least in terms of my own life and livelihood) involves my ability to interact with and use living systems.

Let me explain a bit further.  I use grazing animals (mostly sheep) to help landowners achieve their vegetation management and ecological goals.  I use herding dogs and guardian animals to help manage my livestock.  When I get a chance, I use a draft animal to cultivate my garden.  The common thread in each of these endeavors is my need to communicate with other creatures - creatures with languages that I do not fully understand.  Unlike machines, these creatures respond to my efforts to communicate with a combination of instinct and understanding.  Our efforts to talk to one another are imperfect, at best.

At the end of last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Small Farmer's Journal auction in Madras, Oregon.  I've long been a reader of the Journal - it's an outstanding collection of instruction and commentary on the type of farming and ranching that our family does.  This is the sixth year I've been able to attend the auction.  This year, for the first time, I was able to sit in on the "Teamsters Roundtable" - a panel discussion about using horses (and mules) in harness for farming and logging.

Someone in the audience asked the panel - all long-time teamsters - to describe the feeling of "perfect tension" on the lines when they are driving horses.  John Erskine, a farmer from Washington, said (and I'm paraphrasing) that it is a lifetime's work to understand what the lines should feel like.  "How softly can you touch your nose before you can't feel it," he asked, "that's the perfect softness."  John doesn't look like a Zen master, but looks are deceiving!

While I don't work my own mule as much as John works his horses, I immediately saw a parallel in my work with my border collies.  Unlike a machine, which can be operated with some skill once you've read the manual, working a border collie is a lifetime education.  I've finally realized that I'll ALWAYS be striving to communicate more effectively with my dogs - I will be learning for the rest of my years here.

Some dogs will work for just one person (and some horses, I imagine).  By the same token, some people can work any dog (I realize that this contradicts my first sentence, but bear with me).  What is it about some dog handlers (and some teamsters) that can command the respect of any dog (or any horse)?  I've asked this question of my friend Ellen Skillings (an accomplished border collie trainer and breeder) and I asked it of John Erskine.  Their answers varied slightly, but I think they were really saying the same thing.  Ellen believes that it is an element of honesty on one's communication with a dog that they can sense immediately.  This honesty instills trust, about which dogs have more intuition than many humans.  John believes that it comes from a sense of being centered and present in the moment - the ability to come our own emotions and thoughts is calming to our horses (or our dogs).

As I think about these ideas, I realize that this sense of honesty and centeredness is something towards which I'll always be striving - it is indeed a lifetime's work, as John said more eloquently than I.  The journey is a large part of the appeal to me - the journey makes working with living systems as much of an art as a science (maybe more).  I will probably never reach the final destination.  As Wendell Berry says in Jayber Crow (paraphrasing again), it may take a lifetime - it may take more than a lifetime!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Market Time (the Intern Blog - by Callie Murphy)

Strawberry heaven
I don't think the words "grocery shopping," "fun," or "inspiring" are often used in close proximity, except maybe if you are a chef. I would be more likely to describe it as "a necessary chore," "tiring," "overwhelming," and "confusing;" especially "confusing" as I start to pay attention more to what I am eating, when I am eating it and what kind of quality it is.

I now realize big chain grocery stores do not reflect the seasons in their produce nor the reality of what food in its natural state looks like (apples are not shiny and waxy when pulled from a tree, potatoes don't come sliced frozen in a plastic bag).  Sure, a lot of packaged food is easier to prepare and you can get ripe tomatoes in December, but there are costs associated with this convenience; costs that begin with eaters being totally removed from and unaware of the cycles of earth and how a bean stalk springs from the soil.

This bothers me; it is so basic.

Since starting work with Dan on Saturdays, the first half of my day is often spent at the Auburn Farmers Market. I love this market! It is built from a kind and diverse agri-community that is dedicated to feeding neighbors and pursuing the physically demanding agrarian lifestyle.

Matt (on his b-day!), me and Dan at the market
Every week is different at the farmers market.  I have been there in the cold, snow and rain this winter.  This past Saturday it was still chilly, but also sunny with the promise of warmth to come. The sun brings many more customers out to the market as well as more vendors. This past week there were vendors selling citrus, vegetables, mushrooms, cheese, fish, strawberries and emu chapstick!  Dan and I were selling lamb stew meat and "polar bear fur" (according to the local 8 years olds) aka sheepskins.  It is surprising to see what can be grown and created locally. It is also surprising to me to see so many of the same patrons at the market each week, regardless of the weather.  These folks are making the local food movement possible, by voting for local economies with their own hard-earned $$.

Where else but a farmers market can you meet and ask questions of the actual people who are getting dirty to bring food to their communities? It is direct access to those who are involved in one of the most fundamental aspects of human survival - food.   

If you are in the area Saturday April 23rd, Dan will be doing a sheep shearing demonstration at the market. Come by and check it out! 

Here are some fun and inspiring pictures of grocery shopping at the farmers market last Saturday.

Lisa with Hillcrest Orchards in Penryn

Local entertainment
Cut flowers!

Local fungi

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Update on Lambs

The last lamb of spring.
Now that lambing is done (for the spring, anyway), I've been taking a break from daily blogging.  I thought, perhaps, that an update on the lambs was in order - now that the last lamb is over a week old.  The last lamb, unfortunately, has had a run of bad luck.  The day after he arrived, his mother suffered a uterine prolapse.  Sami's efforts to keep her uterus in place with purse-string stitches has been successful.  Today, however, the lamb had a swollen hock - signs of a joint infection.  He may have navel ill (an infection that entered from his umbilical cord), or he may have suffered some kind of trauma to his leg.  I treated him with antibiotics, and we'll keep an eye on him over the next 3-4 days.

The rest of the lambs are doing well!  As part of our ongoing battle against footrot, we put all the ewes and lambs through the footbath last week.  We had noticed 8-10 lambs limping a bit (not unusual with all of the wet weather we've had).  The footbath seemed to help tremendously - I found only a single gimpy lamb today when I walked through the sheep.  We'll probably repeat the footbath next week.

With the wet March we had, the grass growth has been amazing.  Paddocks that were sized for one day's worth of grazing two weeks ago are now lasting 3-4 days - in other words, there is 3 to 4 times as much grass today than there was at the beginning of April.  We may get a bit of moisture tomorrow, which would help keep the grass green and growing for another week or two.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I ground-drove my mule, Frisbee, today - first time in over a year that she's been in harness.  I decided to take her out today in anticipation of cultivating our garden.  I'm hoping to use her exclusively - no fossil fuels shall be harmed in the preparation of our soil.

We did fairly well - after about 5 minutes of wanting to go fast, she settled in and listened.  I think she'll be ready to pull the springtooth harrow after a few more sessions.  I was struck once again by the challenge of communicating with animals.  Since we don't share a common language, we have to figure out (on both sides) how to talk to one another.  Since an animal's response is more instinctive than a humans (we seem to have lost or suppressed many of our instincts), I think it's more difficult for us to communicate than it is for our animals - we need to understand them and talk back in a way that they can understand.  In thinking about my relationship with my border collies, I realize that the challenges are largely the same.  My oldest dog, Taff, works better for me today than he did when I got him 4 years ago - not because he's a better dog, but because I'm a better communicator.

Working with animals is inherently humbling (if we're paying attention) - everyone should have the chance!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Bottle Babies

We currently have 12 bottle baby lambs here at the house.  These are lambs who got too cold during the wild weather in March, lambs who were the smallest of a set of triplets, or lambs who were abandoned by their mothers.  Samia has been caring for them.

We thought folks would enjoy this video of them nursing from buckets!

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Lambing Journal - Day 42

The rams were in with the ewes for 40 days.  On day 42 of our lambing season, the last lamb arrived.  Ewe 32 had a single ram lamb sometime last night.  Judging by the swelling of his head and is general size, I'm guessing it was a somewhat difficult delivery.  Regardless, both the ewe and lamb are doing well today!
Ewe 32 with the last lamb of the spring!

We had a busy and productive day today.  Paul and I brought all of the ewes and lambs into the corrals (with the help of Mo and Taff, of course - actually, they did most of the work!).  We sorted off all of the open ewes (those that weren't bred and those that lost lambs) - they'll go to the Whitney Oaks project later in the week.  We also sorted off 10 ewes with lambs - they'll graze small projects around Auburn for the next month.  The rest of the ewes and lambs (roughly 100) will go to a project in Lincoln in about a week.  Everyone (lambs included) went through the footbath today - with all of the wet weather we've had, we've started to see some scald (no foot rot - yet).  When we were nearly done, Paul went to Rocklin to move the Whitney Oaks flock.

Grazing behavior is both instinctive and learned.  We're starting to see the lambs experiment with grazing - I observed one lamb working on a multiflora rose today.  These are invasive roses that can take over irrigated pastures - nice to have a critter eat it!  This lamb probably has learned to eat brush from its mother.

Now that lambing is done, we'll turn our attention to other things - shearing, contract grazing, irrigating pastures, etc.  We'll also reflect on what worked well this year in terms of our breeding program, and what we'll change for next year. Here are some preliminary thoughts:

  1. The teaser ram seemed to synchronize the ewes quite well - we had a 90+ percent conception rate in a 40 day breeding season.
  2. We need to work on our flushing program - we made some progress in our lambing percentage this year, but I think we can get closer to our 150% lamb crop goal by changing our nutrition management prior to breeding.
  3. I'm not satisfied with our terminal sire program yet.  The lambs look good, although they are perhaps too large in their frame size for our grass-fed program.  We did have to pull a number of the lambs sired by the terminal rams, especially in the maiden ewes.  Next year, we'll either breed all of the maiden ewes to the Blueface Leicester rams, or we'll find another option for our terminal rams.
  4. I think our timing in terms of weather is okay - we did deal with some unusually cold and windy weather this year, but we're now achieving peak lactation in the ewes at the peak of grass growth.  There are trade-offs, certainly, but the lambs that have survived are gaining rapidly.  I'll likely make some plans for shelter next year.
  5. We'll continue to use BoSe for the lambs.  I'm going to re-evaluate our mineral program for the ewes to make sure we give them enough selenium, vitamin E and zinc.
For now, though, we're going to enjoy the fact that all of the lambs that could be born have been born!  I'll toast the ewes with a nice single malt scotch tonight after dinner!  Cheers!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Lambing Journal - Day 40/41

I didn't post an update last night, because we held our second annual "Sheep Camp" - a one-night camp-out where the sheep are pastured.  This year, we were joined by current and past interns, their families (in some cases), our landlords, and a number of friends.  We made stew for 26 on the campfire - it was quite a feast!  The girls and I stayed the night, along with our intern Callie and her boyfriend Matt.  We feasted again this morning - egg burritos with bacon and leftover stew.

One of the last two ewes lambed overnight - a great set of twins.  We're down to one - I hope she'll lamb today.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Lambing Journal - Day 39

Not much to report again today (at least lamb-wise).  We did accomplish a fairly complicated move of the lambs and ewes onto new pasture, though.  We brought the sheep through a total of four gates, up a driveway, and into fresh feed.  The lambs (for the most part) have figured out the routine, as have our dogs.  Once again, I'm so grateful to have dogs like Taff and Mo.

Hopefully, the last two ewes will give birth over the weekend!