Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Border Collie Day Spa

Sami says that my dog, Taff, has personal hygiene habits that are similar to mine.  He often looks unkempt (as do I), but I'm a bit insulted by the insinuation.  I've never (purposely) rolled in manure (cow or sheep), and I have a distinct dislike for burrs.

Today, Taff helped return a group of wayward sheep to their pasture in Rocklin.  They'd been chased (probably by a coyote) through the electric fence - Taff and I (and Lara's dog, Mo) gathered the last bunch and put them back where they belonged (our apprentice, Paul Lambertson, along with his dog Ben, had gathered most of the flock).  During the work, Taff picked up a few burrs.

After this adventure, Taff and I went to the Canyonview Preserve, a property owned by the Placer Land Trust.  There wasn't a great deal of work for Taff, but he managed to find even more burrs!  Our friend Jean Allender calls these burrs "beggar's lice" - I like the term and the imagery.  As a shepherd, I'm too poor to have real lice, but I certainly have beggar's lice!

But the beggar's lice weren't enough.  After helping me move the lambs at Elster Ranch this afternoon, Taff found the biggest, greenest pile of runny sheep manure on the property!  Even after hosing him off, he gave off an odor (and an aura) of sheep poop!

Tonight, Sami is giving him his second summer haircut.  Border collies are so smart - I secretly suspect him of rolling in the manure and running through the burrs to force us to clip him.  He'll be much cooler after his trip to the barber, and much cleaner after I give him a bath!  Even border collies enjoy a trip to the day spa!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

That Time of Year

I've probably written about this in past years - it seems to happen to me at some point every summer.  I reach a point where I'm so tired mentally and physically that feel I'm ready to throw in the towel.  There were several days last week when an air-conditioned office job with a steady paycheck sounded pretty attractive.

Part of my malaise comes from working 6-1/2 to 7 days a week this time of year.  With sheep spread between Rocklin and southern Nevada County, my days can stretch pretty long.  We tend to fill up most of the daylight hours with work.  Part of it stems from the relatively low pay that comes with my job.  I've never had a desire to get rich, but it would be nice to live with a little less financial stress, too.

For me, these "dog days" of summer will last until sometime in August.  Usually in the last half of August, I'll awake to a morning that feels and smells like autumn.  I'll remember, then, that the year is turning and that cooler weather is around the corner.  We'll be closer to marketing this year's lamb and mutton, which will alleviate the financial pressure on our family.  And we'll start preparing for getting the sheep bred - I'll start getting excited about next year's lamb crop.  In the meantime, I'm looking forward to spending a few days in the mountains next week out of cell phone range!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Culture of Stockmanship

Like any other activity that involves other living beings, stockmanship is a complicated concept, one that is further complicated by the fact that it involves other species.  As I look back over my experience in working with livestock, I marvel at how much I have learned.  Stockmanship involves skills that are based on trial and error, observation, and cross-species communication.

When we first started raising sheep, we'd build a small pen - or trap - in which to catch the sheep.  We lacked the experience and confidence to be able to handle the sheep to give them shots or load them in the trailer.  As we grew our flock, we'd build elaborate alleys and pens to load them in the trailer when we needed to move them.  Today, with the help of a good border collie, I loaded two rams in the trailer at the side of a country road - no fences and no feed to lure them into the trailer.

Stockmanship, to me, involves the ability to safely and humanely work with livestock.  This work includes moving animals from one pasture to another, loading them into a trailer (quietly), restraining them for inoculations or other treatments, and a variety of other tasks.  I am finding that being a good stockman requires a combination of confidence and observation - confidence to try something (even though it might not work) and observation of behavior, health and other communication from the animals themselves.  A ewe with droopy ears might need doctoring.  An steer that holds it's head high and snorts at my border collie might need a gentle hand when moving from pasture to pasture.

There exists a culture of stockmanship, as well.  This includes offers of help - trading of labor without keeping track of the balance of these trades.  This culture, I think, derives from the common experience of having to work until a job is done - you don't quit moving the sheep at 5 o'clock.

One of my favorite novels, Fencing the Sky by James Galvin, describes this culture of stockmanship like this:

"Mike had tried to convince Oscar that a community of small ranch families was the perfect Marxist society, where everyone had enough but not too much.  Everyone worked together - loaning machinery, lending a hand - a Utopian idea, a way of life.

"Funny, thought Oscar, I thought that was freedom.  Marxism is for ants."

Healthy farming and ranching communities have this duality - they are generally conservative, but neighbors help neighbors and expect nothing in return.  This is the culture of stockmanship.

This week, for some reason, has offered many examples of stockmanship for me - both in terms of skills and culture.  On Monday, I recieved a call at 4:30 a.m. that I had cows on the road in Auburn.  I threw some clothes on and worked with a neighbor to get these cows back into our pasture - only to discover that they weren't ours!  We figured out who the owner was and made arrangements to return the cows (the owner didn't have a trailer, so I offered to haul them back for her).  On Tuesday, we sheared and vaccinated lambs with the help of a number of kids - they were learning stockmanship (both the skills and the culture).  My friend Bill Boundy, who has cows on the Elster Ranch where we have sheep, offered to help, too.  Bill is a cowman, but the culture of stockmanship is such that he was gracious enough to offer to help.

Some folks who have livestock, however, don't understand the culture of stockmanship.  Today, I was finally able to find the time to get the two stray cows back to their owner.  Had these cows belonged to me, I would have helped bring them into the corrals, sort them off from the other cows and load them in the trailer.  Bill Boundy would have done the same.  This is partly out of self-interest - I'd want to make sure that I got my own cows back.  More importantly, it's because it's the right thing to do.  If someone got my cows off the road (which would have been a huge liability issue), pastured them for two days, and offered to haul them back to my property, I like to think that I'd have helped.  The folks who owned these cows, however, were not part of this culture.

Raising livestock is hard way to make a living - it's physically, mentally and financially demanding.  The culture of stockmanship is one of the intangible benefits of my livelihood - I relish the chances to learn from folks like Bill Boundy.  As I approach my extremely mid-40s, I realize that there are several generations coming after me that can benefit from my experience and perspective.  My apprenticeship program is part of how I share these things, but the community of stockmanship demands less formal sharing, too.  Perhaps I should have found a way to tell the folks whose cows I returned what's expected of them in a community of stockmen.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

More Observations

As frequent readers of Foothill Agrarian will know, I am deeply appreciative of the fact that my work takes me outdoors nearly everyday.  On particularly hot days, sometimes I question my choice of professions (or at least my choice of locale), but even on days like this one, I find that being outside is what I enjoy most.

If I'm paying attention when I'm working outside, there is always something new to observe.  The wet spring and the unusual late June rainstorm this year have had a number of interesting impacts on the natural world.  Late rain seems to favor yellow starthistle (California's new state flower, I think).  As a late maturing annual plant with a deep taproot, starthistle can take advantage of late-season moisture.  This year's crop of starthistle is especially impressive.  While it's a terribly invasive and annoying weed, it does provide reasonably good nutrition for livestock when the rest of our forage is dry and of low value.  We currently have sheep on the Placer Land Trust's Canyonview Preserve here in Auburn.  The sheep are absolutely annihilating the starthistle - here are a couple of fenceline photos for proof!  Please excuse the quality of these photos - I took them with my phone, which is only of average intelligence!

I've also noticed that many of our native oaks (in our region, these are mostly blue oaks and interior live oaks) have put on a burst of new growth since we received nearly an inch of rain in late June.  In dry years, I've observed the strategies that these trees use to survive the lack of moisture (like losing their leaves earlier than normal), but this is the first time that I've observed them taking advantage of the gift of late rain.

Agriculture, if it is to be successful over the long term, should work in partnership with nature.  I wonder if our farming and ranching systems are flexible enough to take advantage of favorable conditions (or to adjust to unfavorable conditions).  Add this question to the ever-growing list of reasons why I love my job!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lamb Jam San Francisco 2011

We were invited by the American Lamb Board to participate in Lamb Jam San Francisco this year (for more information, go to  This year's event, which was held at the Golden Gate Club at the Presidio in San Francisco, was completely sold out - more than 700 folks turned out!  We were one of three "local" producers (along Pozzi Ranch Lamb from Sonoma County and Shannon Ranch from Lake County) who had booths - what fun!  The event featured a chef's competition, wine tasting, and some outstanding and unusual lamb dishes.  For us, it was a great excuse to spend a fun day in the City!  Enjoy these photos!

The Macon girls manning our booth.

Who's that little lamb?

There were 3 rooms with different wineries and restaurants - each room was packed!

Since we cook whole lambs on occasion, I was intrigued by the folks from
The Whole Beast - here, they're carving a lamb and making pita wraps.  They were good,
but they should have used Courtney McDonald's recipe!

The crowd was amazing!

Here's how The Whole Beast barbecued the lambs - pretty cool!

I liked this simple approach to building a barbecue.  There are two lambs being
barbecued in this photo.

Taking a lamb off the fire.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Old Town Auburn Farmers' Market

Here's what you missed today if you didn't make it to the Old Town Auburn Farmers' Market today!

Friday, July 15, 2011


I just came in from riding my mule, Frisbee, in our back pasture.  I noticed this evening that the blue oaks on our property have pushed out new growth since the big rain we had in late June.  Seems like nature takes advantage of positive conditions - the oaks will grow more because of the natural irrigation they received this summer.

The challenge for farmers and ranchers in our region, I think, is to work with natural conditions.  Generally speaking, we get a germinating rain sometime in the fall.  The grass starts to grow, and it continues to grow until the temperatures remain too cold for growth (usually sometime in December).  In late February or early March (usually), the temperatures stay warm enough to promote rapid grass growth.  In May or early June, soil moisture is depleted and growth stops.

For livestock producers, this means that we should try to synchronize the reproductive cycle with the weather cycle.  A female sheep or cow has her greatest nutritional demand in late pregnancy and early lactation.  The grass is at its best, usually, in March and April.  Spring lambing and calving, then, seems to make sense.

For crop farmers, the challenge is somewhat different.  Most of our "annual" crops, at least in California's Mediterranean climate, require summer irrigation.  My friend Alan Haight, from Riverhill Farm, is pondering whether there are any crops that match our weather patterns.  It's an interesting concept.

Successful small-scale farming requires careful observation - of weather patterns, of livestock behavior, of crop responses.  Observation is part of what makes this profession enjoyable!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Flying Mule Farm's Grass-fed Lamb Education Project

We recently started a grass-fed lamb educational project.  While we originally envisioned this project for 4-H members, we decided to open it more broadly (at least in this first year).  Our participants this year include both children and adults - our oldest daughter, Lara; three boys from Nevada County; our newest apprentice Callie Murphy and her boyfriend Matt; and the four children of our other apprentice, Paul Lambertson.

Through this project, we're hoping to help our participants learn about animal selection, husbandry practices, pasture management, meat processing, marketing and financial record keeping.  Each participant selected a lamb at weaning and paid market price for the lamb.  We've been scheduling regular work days during which the participants help with things like shearing, moving fence, vaccinating the lambs, and other activities.

Once the lambs reach finish weight, we'll talk again about live animal evaluation and will place the lambs in order of their quality.  We'll place them again after they've been processed - based on meat quality and yield. Finally, each participant will market the meat (or keep it for their own use, if they want).

4-H does some wonderful things for youth development and education.  Over the years, 4-H has also been a vehicle for teach farmers and ranchers new production techniques by educating their children.  Both of our daughters are 4-H members - Lara even had the 4-H champion lamb at our county fair last year.  While the 4-H program has been wonderful, I think it sometimes fails to expose kids to alternative approaches to livestock production - a grass-fed lamb will not compete well at a county fair.  We hope our project offers kids (and their parents), as well as our apprentices, a hands-on opportunity to learn about grass-based livestock production.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Right Dog for the Job

Regular readers of Foothill Agrarian will know that we depend on our border collies to help us accomplish many jobs with the sheep, goats and cattle.  Over the last several months, I've realized (not surprisingly) that our two trained dogs, Mo and Taff, have different talents and abilities.  Increasingly, I find myself choosing the dog to fit the job on a particular day.

Taff, our oldest dog at 8 years old, is the best dog for general ranch work.  If I need to move a large group of sheep over a long distance, Taff is the dog for the job.  He's extremely loyal to me - indeed, he will not work for anyone else like he works for me - and with the right encouragement, he'll work until the job is done.  While he's the heaviest of our three working dogs, he also seems to have the most stamina.  Even on warm days, he'll keep going.  This evening, we moved 70 ewes about a half-mile to a new paddock at Sierra College.  Taff was the perfect dog for the task - he kept the sheep moving until we were done.  I let him cool off in the water trough when we reached our destination.

Mo, who actually belongs to our oldest daughter, Lara, has much more "eye" and precision than Taff.  "Eye" is an intangible quality in border collies - in essence, Mo can look at sheep and get them to move.  He's wonderful for loading the trailer, moving sheep in the corrals, or putting a single, recalcitrant ewe back with the flock.  Lara has trialed him once and he performed beautifully.  Unlike Taff, Mo is the type of dog that I can move 3 steps to the left and one step to the right.  However, Mo's athletic build doesn't translate into more stamina.  If he gets hot or tired, Mo is apt to take a break - whether it's appropriate for the situation or not.  Last month, Mo quit working for a stretch during a long move in Rocklin - allowing the sheep to graze on the golf course!

Ernie, our youngest dog, seems to be a combination of Mo and Taff.  At 19 months of age, he's still learning his trade (as am I).  I'm hoping to train Ernie myself - without the help of a professional trainer.  Today, I used Ernie to take the lambs from our corrals at Elster Ranch back to their paddock - a trip of about a quarter mile.  Ernie seems to have lots of "eye" and power - and he also seems to want to work until the job is done.  We'll see how he turns out - I hope I don't mess him up too bad!


Ernie - he has quite the sense of humor!

I'm pretty fortunate to have multiple dogs for the multiple jobs I need to accomplish.  In fact, I'm lucky that my work allows me to be with my dogs every day.  As I've said before, working border collies (or any animal) is a lifetime process - I'll always be learning something new.  I love it!

Sunday, July 10, 2011


Many of us who have livestock have been talking about Maggie the cattle dog (see for the story).  Most of us agree that we don't know if we'd be able to show as much restraint as Maggie's owner, John Reader.  Personally, I think it would probably be a good thing that I don't carry a firearm - I'm not sure what I'd do if somebody tried to run over my livestock, my friends and family and my dog.

I was relating this story to a fellow stockman from Utah last weekend.  He told me that he had a friend who rode a huge (nearly 17 hands) black horse when he drove cattle to the mountains.  If a motorist showed any inclination towards driving through the herd, his friend would stop his horse in the middle of the road and point at the offending driver.  Invariably, the driver stopped and waited.

Recently, I've been riding my mule more often.  She's almost the same size - nearly 17 hands.  I'm probably not an imposing person to most, but when you're sitting 5 feet 8 inches off the ground, even the shortest person is somewhat intimidating!  My goal is to get Frisbee (my mule) comfortable enough with cars to be able to stop traffic when we're moving sheep!

Growing Grass

To produce grass-fed lamb and beef, we've become students of the art and science of growing grass.  In some respects, we farm grass that we harvest using sheep and cattle!  I thought a brief description of how we take care of our grass might be of interest.

Grass plants (all forage plants, really) go through three phases of growth.  Phase 1 includes germination and re-growth following grazing or harvest.  In this phase, the plant does not have enough leaf area to photosynthesize sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy, so it draws on the carbohydrates stored in the seed or in the root system.  From a grazing standpoint, Phase 1 plants are extremely nutritious, but because of the lack of leaf area, very low in quantity.

The plant will transition to Phase 2 when it has enough solar receptors (e.g., leaf area) to manufacture it's own energy.  At this stage, the forage is both high in nutritional quality and plentiful.  Phase 2 is a grass-farmer's goal!

In Phase 3, the plants are trying to complete their reproductive cycle.  They may be producing seeds, in the process going through lignification (which means they are becoming more coarse and less palatable.  The plants may have so many leaves that the lower ones begin to die for lack of sunlight.  At this stage, the forage is plentiful but of low nutritional value.  Phase 3 plants may also be called decadent - they are past their prime.

An annual plant is one that completes its life cycle all in one year - it germinates, grows, produces seeds, and dies.  Most of California's unirrigated pastures are comprised of annual grasses and forbs (broad-leaf plants). A perennial plant stays alive from year to year.  Most irrigated pasture plants are perennials, as were many of California's original native grasses.

In general, our goal as grass-farmers is to keep our forage plants in Phase 2 for as long as possible.  We try to manage our livestock to remove just enough leaf material to take the plant to the bottom of Phase 2 - the plants should still have enough leaf area to manufacture their own energy (rather than draw on the energy stored in their roots).  At the other end of the cycle, we want to graze these plants before they reach Phase 3, when they will not taste as good to the livestock (and when they will provide less nutrition).

As with every rule, there are exceptions to these principles.  At certain stages of production, Phase 3 plants might be more desirable.  When we wean our lambs, for example, we want to decrease the nutritional quality of the feed the ewes are consuming so that they'll stop producing milk.  On the other hand, we want to keep our lambs on the best forage possible - they'll reach a finished weight much more quickly if they are on high quality forage.

Based on these principles, we can also develop a useful definition of over-grazing.  Over-grazing happens one plant (and one bite) at a time.  If a plant is grazed down to Phase 1, and then grazed again before it's had a chance to re-grow into Phase 2, we'll stress the root system.  Repeated over-grazing will kill the plant because the root system can only store so much energy.  In most cases, we don't want to over-graze.  There are, however, some instances where over-grazing may be desirable.  If we over-graze yellow starthistle, for example, we can reduce it's seed production by up to 90 percent.  Repeated over-grazing of Himalayan blackberries will eventually kill the plants.

So far, most of this probably sounds fairly scientific.  The art comes in when we introduce animals and humans into the equation.  The weather, management timing, stage of production and other factors all enter into my decisions about when to move my animals onto fresh grass.  On irrigated pasture, a grass or clover plant may fully recover and be ready to graze again in 25 days during May or June.  In August, these same plants may be heat stressed - they might take 35-40 days to recover.  Annual grasses typically germinate with the first substantial rainfall in October or November.  If we graze these grasses in December, the cold weather and short days mean that they won't fully recover for 90-120 days.  If we re-graze these plants too soon, we risk killing them.

As a self-described pasture geek, I enjoy tinkering with this system.  I like trying to control undesirable plants like yellow starthistle with grazing alone - no chemicals!  I also enjoy trying to grow the highest quality forage possible - and harvesting it with a biological system rather than a mechanical one!  I feel like I've failed as a grass-farmer if I have to cut hay!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Shearing the Lambs

Little by little, we're trying to get our lambs sheared over the next few weeks.  We've found that shearing them helps them deal with the heat a bit better, which means they'll gain weight faster!  Thanks to our landlord George Nolte at the Elster Ranch for these photos.  Thanks also to Roger Ingram and Michael, Gabe and Ben McDonald for helping out on Thursday!  I'm not the most accomplished sheep shearer, but the only way to get better is to shear lots of sheep!

Buck and Mo found a shady spot to watch the lambs being shorn.

Taking the wool off - a sweaty job even early
on a July morning.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


I'm re-reading Fencing the Sky by James Galvin - in my narrow little world, it's one of the most important novels written in the last 20 years.  I highly recommend it!  Here's a few quotes:

"But of all the conversations man has and has had with nature, agriculture is arguably the most intimate, lively, and potentially loving one, since it is ancient, necessary...."

"Who speaks for the land?  Or, more properly, who interprets the language of subtlety and catastrophe?  Farmers?  Ranchers?  Environmentalists?  What do you lose, from an environmental point of view when you lose a family farm or ranch?

"Besides losing a way of life, a culture opposed to the dominant First World values of expansion and greed, you lose species diversity, care, and the thread of the conversation concerning a particular place."

One of the characters, Oscar Rose, says in response to the above ideas: "So I'm not complaining.  I don't mind the work.  Just let me do it.  I don't mind being invisible.  I just don't want to disappear."

While Placer County has a thriving agricultural community, my chosen "profession" - shepherding - is largely a solitary endeavor.  I like to think that I'm part of "a culture opposed [to] expansion and greed."  I've also realized, especially as we've provided grazing services in a suburban community, that my work is largely invisible.  For the vast majority of Americans, the work that we do is out of sight and out of mind - food is what's on the supermarket shelves.