Sunday, May 29, 2011

Through Others' Eyes

Teaching helps me to see things that I take for granted through another's eyes.  Yesterday, Sami and I taught our intern Callie and her boyfriend Matt how to process chickens.  Sami and I have processed chickens on a regular basis over the last 8 or 9 years (first for our own consumption, then for our customers).  Callie and Matt were new to the entire process, and their reaction to it helped Sami and I see it in a new light.

The butchering process, for me, is both physical and mental.  I always do the "outside" work (that is, I bleed, scald and pluck the birds), while Sami does the "inside" work (evisceration, chilling, weighing and bagging).  I've done the outside work enough to have muscle memory for the tasks involved.  For example, I know where and how to use the sticking knife to quickly and humanely dispatch the chicken.  I know how long to scald the bird to make sure the feathers come off completely, and I know how to hold the bird over our plucking machine safely and securely.  Teaching someone these tasks, however, takes a conscious effort on my part to explain how and why.

On the mental side of the equation, I always remember that butchering involves the taking of a life.  Indeed, eating meat involves this decision.  When faced with this decision, some choose to remove meat from their diets.  My family has chosen to participate directly in the process - I guess we feel like we have a responsibility to make the process humane and dignified.  Our oldest daughter has helped us since she was 5, and she told me yesterday that she feels like her knowledge of the entire process of meat production makes her a more responsible human being.

As we taught Callie and Matt how to do the work, I realized that Callie found the "outside" part of the work somewhat overwhelming emotionally.  Similarly, Sami prefers not to do the bleeding and plucking.  Matt, on the other hand, was determined to learn how to do the outside work with care and skill.  Back inside, Sami and Callie focused on learning to dress out the chickens and prepare them for storage.  Both Callie and Matt remarked that they thought they could handle the type of partnership arrangement that Sami and I have developed over the years of raising, processing and eating our own chickens.  Callie emailed me last night that they were looking forward to a chicken dinner this week!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Whitney Oaks Grazing Update

Taff bringing newly shorn sheep back to the Whitney Oaks project.
Now that the sheep have been shorn, we'll be bumping up our numbers on our Whitney Oaks grazing project in Rocklin.  This year's better-than-average rainfall has resulted in tremendous grass growth, and we find ourselves behind schedule on this project.  Now that we'll have more mouths on the project, we should pick up the pace.
Lack of on-site water means we're hauling water to the animals
on a daily basis.  Each sheep needs about 1 to 1.5 gallons of water per day.

In addition to adding animals, we're boosting consumption through management as well.  We've added protein tubs for the sheep - the additional protein will help the animals consume and digest more dry feed.  Ruminant animals need protein to digest cellulose, and the dry grass doesn't have enough protein for their systems.  These tubs take more labor and expense to use, but the trade-off in terms of animal health and forage consumption will be positive.
Sheep grazing on wild oats.

Protein supplement will help boost
consumption of dry grass.

Shearing the animals will also boost consumption.  Without wool, the sheep will be less likely to seek shade during the hot part of the day - meaning they'll graze for longer periods.  The continued cool weather will also help.

We're hoping to add a second group of animals (goats, this time) by the end of the week - more animals will equal greater coverage.  We'll be purchasing ewes from another producer, too - we finally found some sheep that are available for purchase.
Like goats, sheep will graze blackberries - they like the green!

We're starting to see some evidence of invasive weeds.
This is a stand of medusahead barley in the current paddock.

We're also seeing barbed goatgrass.

Steep slopes and run-off from streets and yards creates erosion.
We're trying to leave enough residual grass to protect slopes while
removing enough to reduce fire danger - a real balancing act!

Finally, we'll be setting up 5-acre paddocks that will allow us to move every day.  Animals will consume more forage if they're moved to fresh feed more regularly.  We'll test this system out this week.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Shearing - Day 1.5

Here are some photos from the first full day of shearing here at Flying Mule Farm.  More will be posted....

Roger, Courtney and Josie at the skirting table.  We're hoping to have some
of our wool processed into yarn this year!

After visiting the stylist, the girls enjoyed a pedicure.  We
put them through the footbath today, too!

Josie - the newest member of the crew.

Courtney showing Paul how to skirt a fleece.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Bucolic – adjective.  1. of or pertaining to shepherds; pastoral.  2. of, pertain to, or suggesting an idyllic rural life. []

In some ways, "bucolic" describes the life I lead.  Certainly the first definition applies – I am a shepherd who operates a pasture-based sheep business.  On some days, the second definition also applies – some days are idyllic.  Other days, unfortunately, are not.

Some of the stress I deal with is external.  Lack of rain, too much rain, predators that threaten my sheep, neighbors that object to our use of livestock guardian dogs – these are stressors that are largely outslide of my control.  However, I also find that I put stress on myself.  Most of this type of stress stems from my inability to say “no” – I seem to want to help anyone who asks.

Sometimes, I can’t say no to volunteer activities – things that I think are important to our community but that take time that I don’t have to give.  Other times, I can’t say no to business opportunities that take away from my core business.  Regardless, my inability to say the word “no” creates tension for my time and attention.

Most of the time, I find my present livelihood to be much more enjoyable (and less stressful) than the time I spent commuting to an office early in my career.  Also, I find that the physical nature of my work helps alleviate the effects of stress.  After a particularly stressful day yesterday, I went to a friend’s house and sheared five ewes for her.  The stress hadn't disappeared while I was removing the wool from her sheep, but I certainly felt better when I was done!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Weather Woes

Yesterday, I awoke to rain and an outside temperature of 38 degrees F - normal for March, but unusual for mid-May.  My folks reported an inch of snow at their home east of Sonora - the first time they could remember measurable snow in May in the nearly 44 years they've lived there.  Our intern Paul was caught in a thunderstorm (including hail, thunder and lightning) while moving the sheep in Rocklin.  By all accounts, May 15 was a wild day, weather-wise.

Normally I enjoy late season storms - I soak up the cooler weather knowing that the summer heat is just around the corner.  This year, since a canal outage has disrupted our supply of irrigation water, I'm especially grateful for the nearly one inch of precipitation we received yesterday.

On the other hand, we're trying to get our sheep shorn.  We're nearly 3 weeks behind our normal shearing date, thanks largely to the extraordinarily wet March we had.  I was planning on shearing about 30 ewes myself yesterday - we gave up after shearing 21 because the remaining ewes were too sloppy from having been penned indoors overnight.  Our contract shearer is due to arrive Wednesday morning, but we're still up in the air because of the rain forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday.  And we're behind on several grazing contracts - mostly because of the tremendous grass growth that all this wet weather has supported.

As I write this, the sky looks as if we'll be getting more rain soon.  I'm reminded of a story my Dad tells from the summer when he and my uncle were setting up their first farm equipment auction in southeastern Washington.  They were sitting in the kitchen of a wheat farmer on an August morning, watching the rain ruin the crop.  My Dad asked the farmer (Mr. Fulgham, as I recall) what he was going to do.  Mr. Fulgham replied, "I guess I'll just let it rain."

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Getting Ready to Shear - 2011

Seems like shearing preparations are hectic every year - we typically have to move sheep home or to some other central location to get them shorn.  The wet spring (and the threat of more wet weather next week), combined with the number of grazing contracts we have this year, has made this year especially crazy.

This will probably sound like whining, but listing all that we have to do between now and next Saturday (May 21) is therapeutic!

May 13
Beginning Farming Class in Jackson

May 14

  • Move portable corrals and footbath home and set them up
  • Move 10 pairs of ewes and lambs home from Shanley Lane
  • Move 2 rams home from Dry Creek Road
  • Mark large lambs for weaning and note their mothers' ear tag numbers
  • Sort 30 of the ewes whose lambs we'll wean off for shearing on Sunday
  • Set up shearing barn, skirting table, wool sack stand, etc.
  • Arts Council of Placer County Out of the Box Auction
May 15
  • Shear 30 ewes (I'll do these myself - should be interesting!)
  • Put 30 ewes through the footbath
May 16
  • Haul 30 shorn ewes to Whitney Oaks project in Rocklin
  • Haul 80-90 wooled ewes home from Whitney Oaks project
  • Haul Clara the guard llama home from Whitney Oaks
  • Shear Clara and Tina (the other llama) - Sami will do this!
  • Haul Clara back to Whitney Oaks
  • Farm Business Planning Class in Auburn
May 17
  • Haul water to sheep at Whitney Oaks
  • Clean up shearing barn and wool handling equipment for round 2
  • Meeting with County Supervisor Robert Weygandt
  • Bring ewes from Whitney Oaks into corrals, sort off the best fleeces to shear first
  • Beginning Farming Class in Auburn
May 18
  • Shear 80 or so ewes
  • Put ewes and lambs through footbath
  • Sort ewes for next day's shearing - dry lot them in the corrals overnight
  • Skirt good fleeces and individually bag them
  • Sack the rest of the fleeces
  • Check/move sheep at Whitney Oaks (thank goodness for shepherd apprentices!)
May 19
  • Shear remaining ewes (about 70)
  • Put remaining ewes and lambs through the footbath
  • Skirt good fleeces (again)
  • Sack the rest of the fleeces
  • Clean up shearing barn and wool equipment
  • Put all sheep back on pasture
  • Check/move sheep at Whitney Oaks
  • Beginning Farming Class in Auburn (what was I thinking?!)
May 20
  • Wean large lambs
  • Haul 3-4 loads of ewes back to Whitney Oaks
May 21
  • 4-H Youth Activity Fair in Roseville - demonstrate sheep dogs
  • Haul remaining ewes and lambs back to Shanley Ranch
  • Breast Cancer Benefit Auction in Loomis
May 22
  • Collapse from exhaustion!
Needless to say, I'll be quite happy when the next 10 days are behind us!  I hope the weather cooperates!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Urban-Rural Conflict

On Monday, we hauled most of our ewes and lambs home from a grazing contract in Lincoln - we're hoping to get the ewes shorn in the next several days, and we need to do the job at home.  The move home is always somewhat noisy - lambs looking for their mothers and vice versa are very vocal.  I delivered the last load at about 6 p.m., and everyone quieted down for the night.

However, they apparently didn't quiet down quickly enough for one of our neighbors.  We found out from our friend Tom Harper, who keeps several bee hives at our place, that someone from Placer County Code Enforcement had talked to him when he checked his hives yesterday afternoon.  I followed up with the woman from the County today and learned that a neighbor had filed a written complaint that we had too many sheep for our property (despite the fact that the grass in our pasture is thigh-high).

While our home property is relatively small, it is zoned "Farm," which means the County allows most agricultural production as a matter of right.  The woman let me know that her research into our property, and her visit to our back pasture, indicated that we are well within our rights as property owners to have the sheep here.  She indicated that she would respond to the neighbor who complained, and that she would let them know that the sheep will only be here long enough to be shorn.  I was pleasantly surprised by the tone and substance of our conversation.

On one hand, I feel bad that a neighbor was so upset by our operation that they felt the need to file a formal complaint.  We try to be good neighbors, but farming can be a noisy, dirty business at times.  On the other hand, I feel upset that someone who lives in what is still a fairly rural area would object to a rural business such as ours.

It's been interesting having our sheep in very urban settings this spring.  Nearly everyone who encounters our sheep in Rocklin and Lincoln loves them.  I find it troubling, I guess, that a more rural neighbor finds the sound of lambs calling for their mothers to be offensive.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

On April 19, the Bear River Canal ruptured near Colfax.  The canal, which is operated by Pacific Gas and Electric, moves water from the Bear River to Placer County Water Agency customers and to Placer County customers of the Nevada Irrigation District.  In one of the wettest years on record, we face the ironic prospect of starting the 2011 irrigation season in a drought.  Most of PCWA's commercial agriculture customers will have their water deliveries cut by 25 percent.  Some farms and ranches west of Lincoln will receive no water until the canal is repaired.  Here at home, we will have 3 days with irrigation water and 4 days without it each week.  Fortunately for us, the irrigated pastures we've rented this year are unaffected and will receive full deliveries.

In our Mediterranean climate, farming depends on our ability to store the precipitation that arrives in the winter months as rain and snow and then transport that water to the crops that need it.  Obviously, those of us who farm don't have the exclusive rights to this water - all of us need water for drinking and other household uses.  The environment - fish and wildlife - need water, too.  A drought, whether natural or man-made, forces us to prioritize these uses of water.  I would hope that in our current situation, some of the more "aesthetic" uses of water - fountains, golf courses, landscaping - would be curtailed to help protect our ability to feed ourselves.

Our local farm advisor calculates that the Bear River Canal moves 202,500 gallons per minute when it's operating.  Each of these gallons is critical to the farms and ranches below the canal.  I hope PG&E and our local water folks are up to the task of fixing it quickly.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Diversified Ranching in Sierra Valley - a Sierra CRAFT Workshop

Through a grant from the Western Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (WSARE), a group of farms and ranches in our region (our farm included) has been presenting a series of workshops on a variety of production, marketing and business management topics.  The Sierra Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (Sierra CRAFT) is focused on providing opportunities for farmers and ranchers to learn from each other.

Yesterday, with the help of UC Cooperative Extension and Plumas Rural Services, we held a tour of three Sierra Valley Farms that have successfully diversified their operations.  I wanted to share a few of the key lessons I learned - I'm sure that each participant learned something different.  We had a wonderful day!

Our first stop was at Harvey Ranch in Calpine.  Don and Anna Harvey raise about 3000 commercial ewes, along with a "spinning" flock consisting of about 50 Coopworth, Romney and Rambouillet ewes.  They also have a logging and firewood operation, which utilizes the timber on their property.  They mill lumber (mostly for ranch infrastructure) and produce peeled logs and bundled and bulk firewood.

The Harvey's lambing barn - made with lumber they milled!
A Romney fleece on the skirting table.
The Harveys' firewood processing equipment.
Anna stressed the importance of observation - knowing your land makes a difference, she said.  Don demonstrated his firewood processing machinery, telling us that he thinks a new piece of equipment should pay for itself in a year.  The firewood processor, for example, can produce 3 cords of wood an hour, making the $30,000 capital investment worthwhile.

Sierra Valley Farms

Gary Romano in his newest greenhouse enterprise.
The greenhouse is sunken into the ground for
temperature moderation.
Our next stop was at Gary and Kim Romano's Sierra Valley Farms near Beckworth.  The Romanos produce organic vegetables and native plants.  During the summer, they operate a farm stand and an on-farm farmers' market.  They also hold "Dinners in the Barn" in partnership with Moody's Bistro of Truckee - an event that recently made the list of the top 10 things to do in the Tahoe region.

Gary told us to try new things.  "You can over-analyze things sometimes," he said.  "Knowing the numbers is important, but eventually you've just got to try a new enterprise to know whether it will work."  He added, "Don't be afraid of failure!"

Despite the often harsh growing conditions and
an extremely short growing season, Sierra
Valley Farms produces vegetables for much of the year!

The final stop of the day was Green Gulch Ranch, where we were hosted by the entire Harrison family.  Green Gulch Ranch farms about 1500 acres of hay.  They also graze cattle and operate an upland bird hunting club.  This year, they are experimenting with a pumpkin patch as well.

Byrd Harrison says there are three reasons to diversify, in his mind.  First, some ranches diversify to increase their cash flow.  Second, diversification can help a ranch make more complete use of it's infrastructure.  At Green Gulch Ranch, they are adding a natural beef enterprise that will utilize the existing feedlot and pasture.  The third reason to diversify, Byrd told us, is to take a personal or family passion and turn it into a business.  The Harrisons are obviously passionate about the shooting sports, and the success of their hunting club is a direct result of this passion.
Green Gulch Ranch

Some of the chukar that Green Gulch provides
for its hunting club.

Byrd Harrison discussing the restoration of Green
Gulch's 100+ year old hay barn.

Indeed, passion for ranching was a common theme throughout the day.  Each family obviously loves what they do for a living.  Ranching is not without its challenges, obviously, but passion for the land and the work involved seems to carry each family through the rough spots.  Anna Harvey told us, "You've got to love what you do - ranching is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week job."

Heritage was also an important aspect of each operation.  The Harrisons have restored several 100+ year old barns at Green Gulch Ranch - these old barns are iconic symbols of the Swiss-Italian immigrants that first started ranching in Sierra Valley.  Gary Romano talked about spending summers on the ranch putting up hay and feeding hogs.  Anna Harvey told us, "I'm the fourth generation here - I have a responsibility to keep the ranch going."

For more information on Sierra CRAFT, check out the Foothill Farming website at

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Spring Photo Album

Enjoy these photos!

The windmill at Shanley Ranch.

Looking north at Shanley Ranch.

Looking east toward Sierra Buttes - love that snow in May!

The Sierra crest.

Green grass and blue sky!

Looking west from Shanley Ranch.

Hauling water to the sheep at Whitney Oaks.

Paul blocking off street access at Whitney Oaks.

Some of the girls at work - Whitney Oaks.

Excited about water and mineral!

Four-legged mowers do a pretty good job!

Ewes and lambs in Lincoln.

Tina, the newest member of our security division!
Getting the wool off - shearing sheep at the Auburn Farmers' Market.

Starting the "long blows" - long swaths of shearing on the sheep's left side.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

4-legged Hay Makers

Our grazing lease landlord Pat Shanley called yesterday - just to check in on me.  Pat has lived all of his 91 years here in Auburn (except for time away during World War II).  Since we leased his ranch last fall, he's become a good friend!

He told me that the man who had cut the field in front of his house (about 7 acres) for hay last year came to see him this week.  When he asked Pat about cutting hay this year, Pat told him, "We've got it covered - we're doing the mowing, baling and feeding all in one operation this year."  When the man looked puzzled, Pat explained further, "We have sheep coming!"  Pat and I both got a good laugh from the story.

Pat's reply was only partly in jest.  Like me, Pat feels that letting the animals do the job rather than using a machine (and increasingly expensive fuel) is the right approach.