Thursday, June 30, 2011

What Sheep Eat

Some "experts" claim that sheep won't eat blackberries or thistles!  Here's photographic proof!

This ewe just came into this paddock.  She chose Italian thistle over all other forages available to her!

These ewes love Himalayan blackberries!
This is the same patch of blackberries - 24 hours later!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Is Profit a Dirty Word?

Dave Pratt, who runs Ranching for Profit schools all over the world, says "Profit is to business as breathing is to life."  In other words, profit isn't the reason we're in business, but it's essential to accomplishing the purposes (short- and long-term) of our business.

When thinking about small-scale farming, however, profit can sometimes seem to be a dirty word - both to farmers and to their customers.  As a small-scale farmer myself, I admit that I struggle with the idea of profit at times.  I think that this struggle, at least in part, comes from my periodic inability to separate profit from the purpose of my business.  The purpose of Flying Mule Farm, as I see it, is to provide wholesome food to my community, to leave the land that we manage in better condition than we found it, and to provide my children with opportunities to work outdoors with animals (and to see their father doing something he loves).  Reality requires that Flying Mule Farm also provide enough income to cover its own expenses and to support my family's living expenses - minor things like a mortgage, health insurance, groceries (we don't yet grow everything we eat).

Profit, at least in part, is related to scale - but perhaps not in the way most of us think.  Big farms aren't necessarily more profitable than my own small-scale operation.  However, the scale at which I operate impacts my pricing decisions.  Because I only process 20 or so lambs at a time, my transportation and processing costs per lamb are significantly higher than a business that processes thousands of lambs in a day.  Consequently, my prices must reflect these higher costs.  I think most customers who are committed to supporting a local food system get this - they place greater value on quality and community commitment than they do on convenience or cheap food.  Some don't get it, however; these are the folks that tell me that Costco lamb is much cheaper than mine.

Wendell Berry writes, "Are we failing to consider that a family might farm a small acreage, take excellent care of it, make a decent, honorable and independent living from it and yet fail to make what the rest of us would consider a profit?"  How does this compare to Dave Pratt's perspective on profit?  How do we answer Berry's question in a region where farmland is priced beyond it's productive capacity?  Does a farm need to be profitable in an era when a visit to the emergency room costs $700 - even with health insurance?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Beating the Heat

The heat arrived with the summer solstice this year - we reached 99 degrees here at home (and we broke 100 degrees where the sheep are in Rocklin).  Like any weather, the heat presents certain challenges to us as ranchers.

Our animals consume much more water when it's this hot.  The sheep and goats need 1-2 gallons of water each in this type of weather, which means we're hauling more water to places like Sierra College and Whitney Oaks.  They'll also consume less forage during the hot part of the day - we try to get them up and eating early in the morning and in the cool of the evening.  They tend to loaf in the shade during the middle of the day.  And speaking of shade, we try to set up our paddocks so that there's plenty of shade.

We also take special care of our dogs in this type of weather.  The guard dogs, like the sheep, need plenty of water.  The border collies can become overheated very quickly while working - we make sure they have water to drink and to swim in.  We also clip our longer-haired border collies, which helps them stay cooler. When I have dogs with me in a vehicle, I don't leave them in the truck - they get to go with me on a leash most places.  Finally, we try to manage our stock moves to ensure that the sheep and the dogs are moving (exercising) during the cooler part of the day.

We're supposed to have one more hot day this week, and then drop back into the 80's and 70's - I'm fine with that!  I prefer cold weather to hot - I can always put on more clothing, but there's only so much I can take off (at least in public)!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sheep on the Move

Here's a great photo that Callie Murphy, one of our interns, took while we were herding sheep in Rocklin today!

Friday, June 17, 2011

10 Years of Farming

I realized today, as I was hauling sheep to various grazing contracts, that we established Flying Mule Farm ten years ago.  Ten years seems like a milestone, so I reflected on where we started, where we are now, and where we may be headed.

Like many families, I count farmers among my ancestors.  I'm fortunate that my parents, while they didn't earn their living from farming, did garden extensively and kept lots of animals.  The Macon family definitely has a farming gene!

Samia and I started keeping livestock on a small scale almost from the time we were married in 1990.  While Sami was in vet school, we inherited an injured ewe, and we helped a friend butcher chickens.  After we moved to Penryn in 1994, we started a garden, began raising chickens for eggs, and kept a variety of animals, including sheep and a bottle calf named Brutus.

In 2001, we purchased our current place in Auburn and founded Flying Mule Farm (named for our first mule, Frisbee - her brother Boomerang was born the next year.  We bought our place, in part, because it was zoned "Farm" - meaning we'd be able to establish a commercial farming enterprise.

That fall, we took our first crop to the Old Town Auburn Farmers' Market - we grew popcorn!  We had great fun - made a little money - and had lots of popcorn for our own use.  The following year, we grew Swiss chard, squash, beans, and other veggies for the market.

In 2003, on the day that our oldest daughter started school, we butchered our first batch of meat chickens - for our own use.  In 2005, we decided to expand our "hobby" sheep enterprise and purchased 27 ewes with our friends the Edwards family (from Colfax).  In 2006, we were the first vendors to bring lamb to the farmers' market.

Today, we have decided to drop our commercial vegetable production and focus primarily on lamb production.  We're still regulars at the farmers' market, offering grass-fed lamb, grass-fed beef, mutton sausage, sheepskins, wool products, and firewood.  We have also developed a contract grazing business - as I write this, we have sheep in the Whitney Oaks community of Rocklin, on the Rocklin campus of Sierra College, in Auburn's Chinese cemetery, at Oak Hill Ranch in Auburn, and at Elster Ranch between Auburn and Grass Valley.  We still own just 3 acres, but we're managing more than 1000 acres of foothill rangeland.

I'm always envious of folks who are the fourth or fifth generation of their family to farm or ranch.  I'm hoping that Sami and I are the first of a new generation of Macons who earn their living from the land!  Happy 10th anniversary, and thanks to all of our friends and customers who've made Flying Mule Farm possible!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hip Deep in Grass

Last week, we moved all of our lambs (and a few ewes) back to Elster Ranch between Grass Valley and Auburn.  We first grazed our lambs at Elster Ranch last summer - with great results.  Elster Ranch owner George Nolte and long-time grazing lessee Bill Boundy have put enormous effort into establishing incredible irrigated pasture.  With the cool, wet spring, we're literally hip-deep in grass and clover.  The lambs are having to look up to graze!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Never-ending Learning

I realize I'm not the first person to realize this, but learning seems to be a lifelong pursuit.  Everyday, if I'm paying attention, I notice something new.  In my professional life - is shepherding a profession? - I seem to learn something about communicating with my dogs all the time.

I think many of us have the assumption that our communication with animals is somewhat one-directional - we expect them to learn to associate our words or sounds with certain actions.  Yesterday, I learned (maybe re-learned is more appropriate) the importance of paying attention to what Ernie, our youngest sheep dog, is trying to tell me.  His communication is much more subtle than mine - so subtle, that I have often missed what he's trying to tell me.

With help from our friend Ellen Skillings, I am trying to be more attentive to the cues that Ernie gives me.  We worked the sheep again this morning, and I think I made progress in listening to Ernie - which built his confidence (in himself and in me).

I've said this before, but I was reminded yesterday that learning to work a dog well will be a lifetime journey for me - I'll always have more to learn!  Paraphrasing my favorite author, Wendell Berry, from one of my favorite novels, Jayber Crow, it may take a lifetime to learn; it may take more than a lifetime!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Spread Thin

By the end of the week, we'll be spread as thin as I ever care to be.  We'll have sheep in the Whitney Oaks community of Rocklin, sheep at Sierra College in Rocklin, sheep at the Chinese cemetery in Auburn, rams and goats in Auburn, and this year's lambs at the Elster Ranch between Auburn and Grass Valley.  Whew - I get tired just thinking about it (and thinking about my fuel bill).

Hopefully, this will only last a few weeks.  We hope to be done at Whitney Oaks by the end of the month.  The ewes at the cemetery will join the ewes at Sierra College in a week to 10 days.  Once these projects are done, we'll move on to projects in Grass Valley.  By the middle of August, we'll have all of our breeding flock at the Five Mile Ranch here in Auburn (where we'll flush them in preparation for breeding).

Since we only lamb once a year (in the springtime), we try other strategies for bringing money into the business when we don't have lamb to sell at the farmers' market.  One of the primary strategies is contract grazing - companies, agencies and landowners pay us to use our sheep to achieve their vegetation management goals.  While the cashflow is nice, the running around is hectic.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Selling our Wool II

On Monday, I delivered 105.5 lbs of our wool to Yolo Wool Mill in Woodland.  Yolo Wool Mill is a very small operation that caters to producers like us - they process small batches of wool into roving and yarn.  I got the impression that our wool will be one of the larger single batches they'll process this year.

The machinery they use is amazing.  The carding machine that they'll use to process our wool was built in 1956.  The spinning equipment is equally old.  Seems that the technology was more appropriately scaled in the middle of the last century!  The folks that work there seem to be part artist, part mechanic and part small-scale advocates.

From our 105.5 lbs of wool, we should get about 60 lbs of yarn and roving.  We're hoping to bring wool products to the farmers' market this fall.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

What's with the Weather?!

Today is June 4.  Our low temperature today was 53, and our high was 63.  So far (as of 5:45 p.m.), we've had .45" of rain.  By contrast, last year's high on this date was 84 degrees.  On March 14, 2011 (not quite 3 months ago) it was 40 and 64, and we measured an inch of rain.  In other words, the summer solstice is 17 days away, and we're still having late winter weather!

The Sacramento Bee featured a front page article about the weather this morning.  In essence, the article said that climate change doesn't necessarily equate to warmer temperatures - instead, it might mean that our weather becomes more unpredictable.  For the full article, go to

I must admit that I'm not too upset about the wet and cool weather.  I've always enjoyed cold weather more than hot weather.  While the rain has made somethings more difficult (especially shearing our sheep), it's also made irrigation largely irrelevant so far this year.  I'm certain we'll have a few 100 degree days here in the Sierra foothills, but for now, I'm enjoying our wild spring weather.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Selling our Wool

Yesterday, I drove to Hamilton Brothers near Rio Vista to deliver our wool in preparation for selling it in the near future.  For the last several years, we've relied on Roswell Wool to market our wool - they seem to do a pretty good job at getting fair prices for small producers like us.  This year's wool clip consisted of 2-1/2 sacks of good wool (from our mule ewes and rams) and 2 sacks of Dorper-cross wool (which is used for industrial purposes since the hair fibers won't take dye like wool).  I also delivered two sacks of lambs wool from last year.

Ian McKense, a New Zealander who works for Roswell Wool in the U.S. for 6 months out of the year, met me at Hamilton Brothers with a wool press.  This machine uses hydraulic power to compress fleeces into a nylon bag, creating a 300-400 pound bale of wool.  I knew our wool was always repackaged, but I'd never had the chance to participate before - it was quite interesting!

Ian is also a wool grader, so I was able to learn more about how our wool stacks up.  The sire breed that we use (Blueface Leicester) is a long-wool breed.  These fibers are mostly used for carpets.  The Dorper-cross wool may go into a home insulation product.  Our wool (probably about 800 lbs.) will be added to wool from other small producers to make uniform lots of around 3,000 pounds.
Ian McKense noting the lot number that our wool will join.

Our wool - waiting for us to roll it into the barn!

Wool prices are strong this year.  Ian told me that it's due to the relative lack of sheep (both here in the U.S. and in Australia and New Zealand) and to the favorable exchange rate between the U.S. and Australian dollars.  New Zealand suffered substantial losses from a spring blizzard last September, and Australia has had weather problems as well.  I'm looking forward to receiving our wool check this year - it might even cover the cost of shearing!

For the first time, we're not marketing all of our wool on a commodity basis.  Next Monday, I'll take about 30 of our finest fleeces to Yolo Woolen Mills near Woodland.  We going to experiment with having yarn and rovings made - look for our wool at the Auburn and Roseville Farmers' Markets later this year!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Watershed Observations

A friend who runs cattle on environmental preserve land near Lincoln once told me that he'd observed changes in the ways that his watershed functioned.  Because of the increase in impervious surfaces (roofs, sidewalks, blacktop, etc.) in the upper watershed, he felt that his part of the creek system had become "flashier" - that is, during storms, water levels in the lower watershed came up faster and rose to higher levels that before development occurred.  Water levels also dropped faster after storm events ended.

This spring, we've been grazing our sheep in a highly urbanized setting.  The sheep are grazing open space, generally on slopes, with homes both above and below.  We've observed several changes in the water courses that drain these slopes.

First, we're finding wetlands where they probably didn't exist previously.  These seeps and springs get their water from irrigation run-off from landscaping.  I would imagine that they serve an important function of filtering any impurities in this runoff before it reaches creeks or ponds (or groundwater).

Second, we're finding that relatively minor amounts of rain can create raging torrents.  Because storm runoff is concentrated by the storm drain system in the upper watershed, water levels in the natural water courses rise VERY rapidly.  The modification of these systems has caused some erosion on the steeper slopes.

As a farmer, I'm always concerned with conserving soil and water resources - without soil and water (and sunlight), we won't have any grass for our sheep to eat.  While I applaud efforts to conserve open space and wildlife habitat as part of urban and suburban development, the impacts on this remaining open space are complex.  Successful management of these lands is equally complex!