Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Shepherd's Perspective on Local Food Systems

We recently received a request to supply 360 lamb rib chops for an event in Placer County.  Seems the folks putting on the event love lamb chops and wanted to support local producers.  While I appreciate the support, I find myself troubled by what this order implies about the state of our local food system.  As a society, we have become accustomed to being able to purchase any type of food at any time of the year.  We fail to consider the repercussions of this approach to buying food locally from small scale producers.  The more I think about it, the more I believe that local food system means more than just eating in season and shopping at the farmers’ market.  A successful local food system requires collaboration between eaters and farmers – between supply and demand.

Our “eat anything at any time” system of food distribution relies on commodity scale production – “You want lamb chops, we’ve got ‘em – how many do you need?”  To fill an order for 360 rib chops, we would need to process 23 lambs.  While the $1,100 this order would generate in income for me would be nice, I would need to market 46 legs of lamb, 368 loin chops, 92 boneless shoulder roasts, 46 sirloin roasts, 92 lamb shanks, 23 packages of riblets and 50 pounds of stew meat before I’d realize any profit from these 23 lambs.   Furthermore, to fulfill this one-time order, I would be telling my loyal customers at the farmers’ market that they won’t be able to purchase rack of lamb or rib chops from me.

A local food system must ask its participants to work together – “I would like lamb, what do you have that might fit my needs?”  Farmers and eaters, in this type of arrangement, are in constant communication.  In addition, we must address storage needs – grass-fed lamb chos that are harvested in the fall can be consumed in the springtime if we have adequate frozen storage space (and if we overcome our aversion to frozen meat).   Farmers must pay attention to what their customers want, too – we must adapt our products and our plantings to address our eaters’ desires.

Largely, we’ve become a society that makes its dining decisions in the moment – few of us plan our weekly menus anymore.  The biological realities of farming require more planning – both on the part of the farmer and on the part of the eater.  A local food system, if it is to succeed, must account for these longer term realities and the day-to-day needs we all have for fresh, nutritious food.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sheep in the Woods

In the 4-6 weeks before we turn the rams in with the ewes in the fall, we try to put the ewes on a rising plane of nutrition - in other words, we try to put the ewes on better quality feed.  This is called "flushing," and it can increase the number of twins conceived.  In years past, we've tried feeding hay, with some success.  This year, we're taking our entire ewe flock to Edwards Family Farm in Colfax.
Taff moving the ewes to the night pen.

Allen and Nancy Edwards are primarily tree farmers - they grow timber.  They also grow lots of deer brush, buck brush, blackberries, and other perennial vegetation that is green even in August.  Nutritional analysis shows that this vegetation is high in protein and/or energy - essential elements in flushing the ewes.  Blackberries, for example, have a similar nutritional profile to alfalfa hay.  In past years, Allen and Nancy have managed this resource using goats.  This year, we're trying it with sheep.  Sheep are generally grazers more than browsers (that is, they prefer grasses and forbs to brush), but we think our sheep will utilize this feed effectively.

Today, Paul and I moved approximately 100 ewes from the Placer Land Trust's Canyonview Preserve near Auburn to Edwards Family Farm.  These ewes had been grazing on yellow starthistle mostly - and they were growing bored with it.  They were thrilled to be turned into the lush vegetation along Smother's Ravine!
Sheep in the forest!

Wildland grazing, like we're doing at Allen and Nancy's, presents different challenges than our work in Rocklin or Auburn (decidedly more urban settings).  Since we put sheep in Rocklin in March, I've slept with my cell phone by my bed - I'm constantly worried that we'll have sheep in the street somewhere!  At Allen and Nancy's my worries have more to do with nature - I'm concerned about predators and poisonous plants. I'm still sleeping near my phone, but I'll rest easier knowing that we don't have sheep out in a residential neighborhood!

Our management strategies for this project are a bit different.  We'll be using herding techniques in addition to our usual electric fencing systems - much to the delight of the border collies.  At night, the sheep will go into an electric fence paddock - more protection from the coyotes, mountain lions and bears in Colfax.  We're also using all of our guard dogs in Colfax.  During the day, I'll herd the sheep to the areas of the Edwards Family Farm that we want to graze - pockets of brush and green grass.  Tonight, the sheep are night penned in one of Allen and Nancy's garden plots - they are eating dry vetch, yellow starthistle and bell beans.  Based on the crunching noise as they grazed, I'd say they're mostly eating vetch seeds and beans - it sounded like a cafeteria full of people eating Grape Nuts!  They loved it!
Munching away in the night pen.

We're hoping that there is enough forage for the ewes to stay at Edwards Family Farm through flushing and the breeding season (which ends in mid November).  While it was hot today, it's likely to be quite cold by the time we move them down to lower pastures.  I'm looking forward to being less spread out - I like working at Allen and Nancy's, and having sheep is a good excuse to be there every day for the next 10-12 weeks!

Friday, August 19, 2011

More Lessons from our Dogs

I often joke with people that our border collies are the best employees a sheep rancher could have - they always show up on time, I never have to bail them out of jail on Saturday morning, and the workers comp is reasonable since I'm married to a vet!  I told this story to someone at Sierra College today, and he remarked, "It's a pretty good deal for your dog, too!"

This made me think.  Our work is a pretty good deal for our dogs - our border collies live to work.  Taff will sulk if I don't take him with me.  Ernie becomes very serious if he thinks he's going to get to work the sheep.  Mo is usually happy, but he's happiest when there are sheep or cows to move.

Working border collies live to work - they absolutely love what they do.  How many of us can say the same thing about our work?  Many of us take jobs simply because we need the money.  We work all week to earn enough money for basic living expenses.  My dogs live by the basic principle that their instincts and inclinations require them to do the job that they were evolved/trained to do.

I've long been intrigued by the idea of finding my avocation - the work that suits my temperament, skills and abilities.  I think that raising sheep is my avocation, and in this sense, I'm much like my dogs - I'm doing what I love to do.  For many of us, economic realities interfere with this concept of avocation.  We sacrifice happiness in exchange for a paycheck.  In my case, I've sacrificed a paycheck for my happiness.  Hopefully the economics of my avocation will improve!

Highs and Lows

As with any work, ranching has it's good days and bad days.  Rarely do these high points and low points occur on the same day.  Yesterday, however, was a exception.

We're currently grazing sheep on land owned by Sierra College in Grass Valley.  The property we're grazing is located adjacent to Nevada Union High School and is crisscrossed by trails used by students walking to and from school and for cross-country training.  Yesterday, the second day of school for NU, I spoke with three agricultural classes about targeted grazing and the environmental benefits of sheep.  The students were engaged, attentive and fun - I love sharing my interest in grazing with kids who seem to share my interest!

The girls were ready to move to their new paddock!
These low growing blackberries have great nutritional value.
Between talking to the classes, I set up fence for a new paddock for the sheep.  The new 5-acre paddock is dominated by year-old re-sprouts of Himalayan blackberries, mature poison oak and tall coniferous trees (mostly Ponderosa pine).  While this type of vegetation would typically favor goats over sheep, my sheep have shown a preference for low-growing brush.  Sometimes the thorns catch the sheep's wool, impairing their movement.  Our sheep, however, don't seem to mind the vines. The nutritional value of this forage is tremendous - at this stage of the growing season, blackberries have a nutritional profile (protein and total digestible nutrients) similar to that of alfalfa hay.  I expect the sheep to do quite well on this vegetation.  The sheep were quite excited to move into their new paddock.

By about 2:30 p.m., I'd completed moving the sheep and was on my way south to move the lambs we graze at the Elster Ranch between Grass Valley and Auburn.  On the back roads that I travel between Sierra College and the ranch, there is a 10 minute stretch in which I don't have cell phone service.  As I was pulling up to the ranch gate, my phone indicated that four voicemails had arrived during that 10 minute period - all four were informing me that my sheep had escaped at Sierra College!  I turned around and raced back to Grass Valley.
Back in the paddock - grazing peacefully.

Shortly after I left the campus, it seems, a branch had fallen on the fence, allowing about 120 of the sheep to escape.  Grass Valley police had herded them onto the lawn of the Ridge Racquet Club about a half a block from where they'd escaped.  Thankfully, I had Taff (my oldest and most dependable border collie) with me - he and I herded the flock behind an assisted living facility and back to their paddock, where the sheep who hadn't escaped were awaiting them.  After checking the entire fence carefully, we drove back to Elster Ranch and continued our day.  About 12 hours after leaving home, Taff and I returned exhausted and dirty.

Targeted grazing projects like we're doing in Grass Valley have many positive aspects.  Grazing can be a cost effective and environmentally sensitive alternative for some landowners who want to control invasive weeds and reduce fire danger.  Grazing in an urban setting offers many formal and informal educational opportunities, too - yesterday we experienced both.  The folks who helped make sure the sheep were safe until I arrived (the police and private citizens) wanted to know if they were sheep or goats.  Everyone was fascinated by watching Taff work.

These projects also come with inherent risks - both natural and human caused.  I didn't see the branch fall on the fence, but I assume it was a natural occurrence.  Unfortunately, I've also experienced human-caused problems - the branch may have had "help" getting on the fence.  More than 99 percent of the folks we encounter on these projects are supportive and helpful, but it only takes one person to cause a problem.

Despite my exhaustion last night, I'll admit I didn't sleep well.  When we have sheep on grazing contracts, I always sleep with my cell phone by the bed.  Fortunately, it didn't ring last night!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cattle Grazing and Yosemite Toads

This study was published several months ago, but I thought it might be of interest:

I have a connection to this issue through my days working with the California Cattlemen's Association.  In the mid 1990s, the Sierra National Forest was sued over its grazing program by several environmental groups.  During the course of the litigation, we organized a field trip to the Sierra's grazing allotments that included the Forest Service, the environmental groups and the ranching families that took cows to the mountains.  As you might imagine, the discussions were fairly tense at times.

During one of our last stops, we listened to a researcher (who was from Fresno Community College, as I recall) who had been doing surveys of Yosemite toad populations.  He had documented declines in their populations, and he was certain that the decline was due to the presence of cattle in their habitat.

While the gentleman was talking, the kids who were on the trip (ranch kids and the children of the environmental activists) were off playing in the meadow.  As he wrapped up his talk, they approached us carrying handfuls of small amphibians - Yosemite toads.  To the researcher's credit, he admitted that the kids had found more toads than he'd counted in that meadow that year.  "Maybe my sampling technique needs improvement," he laughed.

As the report I've linked to above suggests, there is more going on here than a relationship between grazing and wildlife.  To me, that's the cool thing about science - we're forced to challenge our own assumptions at times.  Yes, poorly managed grazing can have environmental consequences.  And yes, well-managed grazing might be beneficial to the environment.  On the other hand, sometimes we need to peel away the scientific approach and see the world through the eyes of a kid!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Thoughts on Dogs

I had a beer with my friend Roger this evening, and as usually happens, our conversation turned to working dogs.  To quote (loosely) a line from one of my favorite songs by Scottish folksinger Dougie McLean, "We will take a dram together.  The whiskey makes it all so clear."  I hate to admit it, but sometimes a beer helps crystallize my thoughts.

Roger and his border collie Bella have made huge strides in their working relationship this summer.  Most of this progress has happened since Roger and Bella had a very frustrating day trying to move the lambs at Elster Ranch.  Roger said that the challenges of that day helped him realize the importance of trying something different if things aren't working.

In thinking about my experience with working dogs, I realized how fortunate I was to start my experience with Ellen Skillings' Paige.  Paige was 11 when Ellen loaned her to us, and she knew more about handling sheep than I'll ever know.  Paige had incredible confidence in her abilities - so much so that when she would sometimes ignore my commands, it was always the right decision on her part!  I think I started learning what I was doing wrong by paying attention to the situations in which she ignored me.

As Roger and I talked, I also realized that one of the most difficult things for us humans is to discern the difference between correction and punishment.  Punishment implies emotion - "I want you to STOP doing that now and I'm going to be mad at you if you don't!"  Correction implies a lack of emotion - "That's not what I asked, please try something different."  Good border collies generally try to do the right thing, I think.  Punishing them for a wrong decision shuts them down.  Correcting them by asking them to try something different encourages them to solve problems.  Punishment implies a dominant position for the human; correction implies a partnership.

Part of this equation includes confidence - both in the dog and in the shepherd.  The dog has to have confidence that the shepherd is trying to help.  The shepherd has to have confidence that the dog is trying to do the right thing (and that no matter how big a wreck they get into, they can get out of it).  This confidence takes time and experience, on the part of both team members.

To me, successful work with animals requires us humans to figure out how to communicate effectively.  The dogs and the sheep know what they're trying to tell us.  We need to figure out how to talk back to them in ways they can understand!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sierra College - Grass Valley (Day 5)

Before and after pictures.  These photos show 24 hours of grazing by 200 ewes.

Yesterday - just as the sheep moved into the paddock.
Today - 24 hours of grazing.  Nearly all of the seed heads on this wheatgrass have been grazed.  The ewes will be in this paddock until tomorrow late morning.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Sometimes It Doesn't Work - Sometimes It Does!

We've jumped into targeted grazing in a big way this year.  We grazed about 250 acres in Rocklin from March to early August.  We've grazed Sierra College in Rocklin twice this year.  Currently, we have sheep at Sierra College in Grass Valley and at the Placer Land Trust's Canyonview Preserve in Auburn.

Successful targeted grazing requires us to match our animals' needs and preferences with the growth stage of the plants we're targeting.  We also have to match our management objectives with those of our clients.  We might need the ewes to be on higher quality forage at a time when a client doesn't have good feed.  We also need to account for the weather - this year, in particular, has been challenging.  With the abnormal late rains, we have had a hard time predicting forage growth.
The sheep ate the leaves from this live oak sprout - an indication
that they didn't like the grass.

They also ate the leaves and the bark from this manzanita.

This is the fenceline on the project we halted - we fed hay here, which resulted in herd effect (or trampling) - the sheep didn't actually eat much of the forage.

Barbed goat grass - I wouldn't want to eat it, either!

The ewes were excited to get to fresh (and more tasty) feed!

Today's new paddock at Sierra College - the sheep seem to love the wheat grass!

We recently moved sheep from a contract in Nevada County after deciding that our goals didn't fit well with the state of the vegetation and the goals of the landowner.  When I looked at this project over the winter, the site was dominated by annual ryegrass (which is typically decent forage even when it's dry).  The landowner wanted to clear the vegetation in anticipation of establishing a home orchard.  With the late rains, we were delayed in getting sheep to the project because of the tremendous forage growth.  We finally moved 100 sheep onto the project last Thursday and Friday.

When I arrived, the site was dominated by invasive medusahead and barbed goat grass - it was probably the worst infestation of goat grass I've seen.  The late rains favored these incredibly invasive species.  Unlike annual ryegrass, these weeds have little if any nutritional value at this stage.  When they dry out, they form a prickly thatch that is not very palatable to livestock.  We can use herd effect - trampling - to impact these plants, but this requires feeding hay to meet the animals' nutritional needs.

I could tell when I arrived on day 2 that the sheep weren't happy.  There was plenty of vegetation left in their paddock, but they ran to the fence and called to me to give them something to eat.  At that point, they'd consumed every oak leaf and manzanita leaf they could reach.  I was afraid that they'd break out of my electric fence in search of more palatable forage. After consulting with the landowner and with our farm advisor, we decided to pull the plug on the project.

By contrast, we also moved sheep onto the Grass Valley campus of Sierra College late last week.  This site was dominated by perennial wheat grass, yellow starthistle, deciduous ceanothus, blackberries and manzanita.  The sheep, so far, love the feed - they are consuming an amazing amount of it!

The lesson, at least for me, is that we need to pay attention to forage conditions, animal preferences, landowner goals, weather conditions, etc. - there are lots of moving parts in this system.  Targeted grazing can be a "softer" and more affordable approach to vegetation management.  At some point, however, the animals' well-being must take precedence - I'm in the targeted grazing business because I'm in the sheep business - not the other way around.

Further Thoughts on Profit and Farming

I had a call yesterday from a very well-intentioned and enthusiastic man who wants to get started with goats.  While he said that he was calling to seek my advice about goat breeds, marketing and the use of dogs (guardian and herding dogs), he seemed to already have most of the answers (or at least he didn't agree with my answers).  During the course of our discussion, he told me that making a profit from his goat enterprise wasn't a motivating factor - he simply wanted to have dairy goats as a service to his family and to his community.

I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed with this perspective.  Without profit as a motivating factor, was this aspiring farmer going to accurately analyze his enterprises?  I like to think that I farm for many reasons (making a profit is one of them, but so is love of the land, love for the work, the opportunity to provide my community with food and fiber, and the chance to work with my family).

All business people (including small-scale farmers), I think, have a need and a responsibility to understand the economics of their business.  Profit is just one piece of this, obviously.  While profit (or loss) is not the only (or even most important) yardstick of success in farming, it should be part of the equation.  Indeed, as a farmer I have an obligation to my fellow farmers to look carefully at my own economics.  If profit doesn't enter into my consideration, there's a very real chance that I'll undercut the rest of the farm community by charging less for my products than it costs to produce them.  This puts severe pressure on other farms who need profit for their owners and workers to make a living.

I was surprised at the intensity of my reaction to the phone call last night.  I want to help new farmers get started, but I also want all of us to succeed economically.  Profit is one measure of this success.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Irrigator's Lament

In our Mediterranean climate, green grass in the summertime requires irrigation.  We recently leased a new pasture near Auburn, and we find ourselves back in the business of making it rain in the summer!

I know old timers who seemed to be able to make water run uphill.  Before the days of aluminum pipe and Rainbird (tm) sprinklers, pastures were irrigated out of ditches that ran along the contours of the hills here in our area.  Ranchers would use canvas dams to cause water to spill out of these ditches and run across their pastures.  This technique wasn't terribly efficient in terms of water use, but it didn't require much capital after the ditches were built.  I like the idea of trading labor for capital expenses!

The ranch we just leased uses two types of systems.  On the largest field, we're moving aluminum hand pipe.  These two inch pipes are 20 or 30 feet long, and we move them once a day - seven days a week.  The remaining 15 acres of pasture is irrigated with quick-connect sprinklers.  We're finding that these fields haven't been irrigated consistently for some time - many of the risers are difficult to find!

Our irrigation water is delivered by the miner's inch - a vestige of Placer County's mining history.  A miner's inch is 11+ gallons per minute, 24 hours a day.  The ranch we lease buys 16 miner's inches - a lot of water.  The water arrives on the ranch through an open ditch.  Gravity feeds the sprinkler system, which means we don't incur any energy costs to get water to the sprinklers!  The downside of the open ditch and gravity-fed system is that we get lots of junk in the water - leaves, twigs, frog parts - all of which makes it necessary to clean the sprinkler nozzles frequently.  The most disgusting thing I've found in our irrigation system is a whole dead rat!

Why is it necessary to irrigate our pastures?  For our lambs, we're trying to put weight on them, which means they need high levels of protein and energy in their diets.  Green grass and clover provide these nutrients - dry grass does not.  For the ewes, we're approach the time of year when we'll turn the rams in with them to breed them for next year's lambs.  About 4-5 weeks prior to breeding, we want the ewes' nutritional intake to improve - this will increase the number of twins born next year.

By August, the summer schedule of working sun-up to sun-down has taken its toll on me.  While we often work sun-up to sun-down in the winter, too, the days are shorter (so we get more rest).  This time of year, I often work 80-90 hours per week.  I find myself looking forward to October 15 - the last day that our irrigation district delivers water!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Pasture Geeks

I'll admit it - I'm a pasture geek.  I get a huge thrill out of seeing grazing animals go into a new pasture.  There's something thoroughly relaxing about the sound of ruminant animals munching away on fresh feed.  I'm always curious about the way in which individual animals select the plants they prefer to graze.

Over the last week, we moved approximately 300 head of sheep from Rocklin up to Grass Valley.  In each new pasture they entered, we were able to observe (at least briefly) their dietary preferences.  At the Elster Ranch, the ewes consumed prickly lettuce, cocklebur and starthistle.  When we moved them to Sierra College today, they seemed to prefer the starthistle and blackberries.

I think my friend (and our local farm advisor) Roger Ingram must be a pasture geek, too.  He helped me move our lambs onto fresh feed this morning.  We were thinking that we'd need to move them onto some dry grass to allow our irrigated pasture to recover from the last grazing.  However, when we arrived at the ranch, we were pleasantly surprised to find the irrigated pasture ready to be grazed again - after just 21 days of rest.  Roger remarked later in the day how pleased he was about the grass growth.  Always interesting to learn what makes a pasture geek happy!

Roger and I are looking for some high school or college students who are also pasture geeks!  We'd like to have students observe an individual sheep for a full day and record their grazing preferences and other activities every 15 minutes!  Anybody out there who wants to watch sheep eat?!  Maybe we'll make Pasture Geek t-shirts!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Not Farm Related (mostly)

Thanks to the help of our current and past interns (and friends) Courtney McDonald, Paul Lambertson, and Callie Murphy - along with our friend Roger Ingram - we were able to take a brief vacation to the mountains last weekend.  We joined family and friends for three nights on the Stanislaus River on Sonora Pass.  I realized that I've been camping on the Stanislaus River for more than 40 years!  Rather than making me feel old, it makes me realize that it's important to know a place!

In my 40 years of camping on the Stanislaus, I don't think I've ever seen the river higher that it was this year (at least at this point of the summer).  The river was a good 2 feet higher than last year, as was Eagle Creek.  We drove over Sonora Pass (and back over - more on this to follow), and I was amazed by the amount of snow left at higher elevations.  We saw incredible waterfalls on the pass - so much water!

The wildflowers were also amazing.  We camped at Dardenelles, and even in the campground the wildflowers  were plentiful.  Driving over the pass, we saw several varieties of Indian Paintbrush, firecracker flowers, mules ears, and other flowers I couldn't identify.

We had planned to return home via the eastern Sierra - we'd hoped to drive up 395 to Gardenerville, Nevada, and then cross back over on Carson Pass.  We had brief showers over Sonora Pass, and we saw evidence of heavier rain - debris flows over the road.  About 5 miles north of Sonora Junction (in the West Walker River canyon), we were turned around because a mudslide had closed 395.  I guess we'll have to wait to have Walker Burgers for lunch until our next trip!

The break from our summer work was wonderful.  I realized, too, that I love the Sonora Pass country - familiarity (at least in terms of landscapes) is a good thing.  I also realized that some people are ocean people, while others are mountain people.  I feel more at home - and more relaxed - in the mountains.  I'd love to run sheep in the High Sierra someday!

Which brings me to my last thought - Courtney shared this quote from Ivan Doig, one of my favorite authors:

"To be successful with sheep, even when you aren't thinking about them, you had better be thinking about them a little."  I must admit, even on vacation, I was thinking a little about our sheep!