Friday, August 19, 2011

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!

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