Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Knitting Sheepherder

Several years ago, my sister taught me how to knit.  As a sheep farmer, I thought it was important to know something about how to use all of the products my sheep produced.  As someone recovering from two broken arms (that's right - two!), I hoped that learning to knit would help me recover some manual dexterity.  On both accounts, learning to knit has been rewarding and enjoyable!  My skills are very basic - I've knitted several scarves and one simple hat - but I do have a much greater appreciation for the skill involved and for the versatility of wool.  Learning to knit also gave me the incentive to try to have finished products made from our own wool.

For the first time this autumn, we are attempting to market some of our wool directly to our customers, as yarn and roving (cleaned and carded wool that is not spun).  When we sheared the sheep in May, we selected what we thought were the 30 or so best fleeces (based on cleanliness, lack of hair - we have some Dorper genetics, and and quality of the wool fibers themselves).  In early June, I delivered 105 pounds of wool to Yolo Wool Mill in Woodland - about 45 miles from home.  Jane Deamer, the owner of Yolo Wool Mill, and her crew scoured (washed) and carded the wool and spun some of it into yarn.  Of the 105 pounds of "grease" wool I delivered, I received 54 pounds of back in the form of yarn and roving.

While the hard work of marketing is just beginning, this new enterprise looks promising from an economic perspective.  This year, I would have received $111 for the 105 pounds of wool I had processed, had I sold it on the commodity market.  While price this is better than that we received in past years, it just barely covers the cost of having the sheep shorn.  We paid $4 per pound (grease wool) to have the wool scoured (plus a $25 "membership" fee).  The roving cost an additional $12 per pound (clean wool), and the yarn cost $16 per pound (clean wool).  If we're able to sell all of our yarn and roving, we'll net about $1,100 on our wool enterprise.

This year's wool is a blend of our best wool ewes - our Border and North Country Cheviots, our Bluefaces Leicester cross ewes, our Coopworth ewes, and our East Friesian dairy ewes.  According to The Knitter's Book of Wool (by Clara Parkes), Cheviot wool is springy and dense, and suitable for outerwear.  Bluefaced Leicester wool is softer and works well for knitting and felting.  Coopworth wool is long-stapled and works for outerwear garments.  Parkes doesn't include Friesian wool, but my observation suggests that it has similar qualities - it's long-stapled and fairly soft.

While I would like to be able to do everything from start to finish with our sheep (raising them, butchering them, shearing them, processing their wool, etc.), it simply isn't possible at the scale at which we operate (and in the case of meat, it's not possible legally, either).  I also have realized that a viable community of small farms needs small-scale processing options - like Yolo Wool Mill.  If we can make a profit with our woolen goods, we'll help Yolo Wool Mill stay in business, too - it's all interconnected.

On your next visit to the Auburn Farmers' Market, look for Flying Mule Farm - I'll be the sheepherder with the knitting needles!

The Cycle Starts Again

Yesterday marked the beginning of another cycle in our sheep production system.  With help from my friend (and our local farm advisor) Roger Ingram, and intern Paul Lambertson, I went through all of our ewes in preparation for turning the rams in with them next Monday.  "Going through" the ewes involves evaluating their body condition (the amount of fat cover they have), which gives us some idea of their nutritional status.  We "flush" the ewes prior to breeding them, which means we increase the quality of their nutritional intake - this year we've had the ewes on green brush and irrigated pasture since the last part of August.  We also evaluate each ewe's production records - how many lambs did she have last year? - was she a good mother?  Finally, in our ongoing effort to eradicate footrot from our flock, we check out their feet.

Out of the 130 +/- ewes that we bred last year, we decided to cull 27.  Most of these decisions were made on the basis of our EZ Care Lambing system - we score each ewe on the ease with which she had her lamb, the vigor of the lamb (a measure of milk production in the ewe), and ewe's mothering instincts.  Some of the decisions were based on foot health, as well.

Sometimes these decisions are difficult.  Roger decided to cull a ewe that had had a uterine prolapse shortly after giving birth.  Once a ewe prolapses, she's likely to do so again.  This particular ewe had outstanding confirmation, a nice fleece, and was in great body condition.  It's tempting to keep a ewe like this in the flock, but doing so increases veterinary and labor costs.

Developing a rational culling policy - and sticking to it - signals the transition from a hobby (e.g., thinking of the sheep as pets) to a serious business.  I enjoy all of our sheep, but I also need to make my living by raising them.  A ewe that won't produce a healthy lamb (preferably two) each year can't be part of my business.  Similarly, a ewe that won't take care of her lambs on her own adds to my labor costs.

Next week, the ewes will be sorted into breeding groups and the rams will be introduced to the flock.  The rams will stay with the ewes for six weeks - we've used flushing and a "teaser" ram to help synchronize the ewes' estrus cycles.  In mid-November, we'll trim every ewe's feet and start them on regular footbath treatments again.  Finally, some time in the third week of February the first lambs will arrive.  The cycle of our year starts with the work we did yesterday!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Heralds of Autumn

As I was moving water at 5 Mile Ranch near Auburn this afternoon, I heard the distinctive sound of sandhill cranes passing overhead - on their way south for the winter.  Scanning the cloudless sky, I finally matched the sound with the actual birds - two groups of them.  I'd been looking in my weather diary lately, and I was expecting to see them soon.

Despite the hot weather, the migration of the cranes signals the onset of autumn.  Even though the days are quite warm, the nights are cool - hinting of the even cooler weather to come.  Once the cranes are flying, we feel like we can proceed with our fall work - sorting the ewes into breeding groups and turning in the rams.  In many ways, the sheep year starts now - not on January 1.  In about 5 months, we'll start seeing the first lambs (and we'll start looking for the sandhill cranes moving north again).

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Telling Stories

In his short story "A Friend of Mine," Wendell Berry writes of his character Elton Penn: "He was tired.  He was forty-seven years old that summer ... and he was beginning to know what the older men meant when they told the young ones, 'you don't know what tired is.'"  At the age of forty-four, I'm starting to get an inkling of what Berry is describing!

Yesterday, I helped my friend Bill Boundy work his cows and calves.  We were joined by the crew at Elster Ranch - and we worked owner George Nolte's cattle, too.  Working the calves involves giving vaccinations, putting Bill's brand on his calves, castrating the bull calves, and putting ear tags in.  Working the cows and heifers involves boostering their inoculations, changing ear tags when necessary, and de-worming them.  Even in cool weather, working cattle in the corrals can be a hot and dusty job; yesterday, we had hot weather!

As we were working, I realized that I was the second oldest man on the crew (after Bill).  Seniority is a new experience for me.  I think some of us have always been "old timers" because of our approach to life and work, but having my chronological age match my outlook was a revelation.

I've always enjoyed telling stories - recounting experiences I've had or stories that older (mostly) men have told me about work.  Yesterday, I found myself telling funny stories about myself - things that I'd done wrong, mostly.  Humor always makes hard work go faster (at least in my experience).  As one of the senior members of the crew, however, I found that my stories seemed to have different significance.  They were funny (mostly), but they also seemed to be instructive to the other, younger guys.

One of the things I enjoy most about ranching is the way in which friends and neighbors help each other out during the times of intense work.  The Amish still have their barn raisings; cattle ranchers share their labor for things like branding and gathering.  As a sheep rancher (primarily), I've benefited from the help and humor of my friends and family during shearing and lambing.

Another of my favorite authors, Wallace Stegner, writes about the paradox of the Westerner.  We often think of the lone cowboy as the epitome of the Westerner.  However, those who stuck in the West - those who stayed and succeeded - had to work together.  Cooperation, in the West, means success.  Part of cooperation is the stories we tell - humor makes the work go faster, and the lessons that we older guys have learned help the younger folks avoid our mistakes (sometimes)!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Reflections on the Fair

As I understand the origins of 4-H and Future Farmers of America, these organizations were created in part to educate farmers and ranchers through their children.  By teaching the latest production techniques to kids through the cooperative extension system, farmers and ranchers would adapt their production systems to apply modern scientific advances.

With the Gold Country Fair just completed, I'm reflecting on the modern role of 4-H and FFA.  Our oldest daughter, Lara, showed a market lamb, a breeding ewe and her dog (Popcorn).  Our youngest, Emma, showed her rabbit and her (our) dog, Taff.  My wife, Sami, was the project leader for the Gold Country 4-H sheep group.  I helped and supported where I could.

Over the years, 4-H and FFA have evolved from a system of extending knowledge to farmers and ranchers through their kids to a program of introducing youth to agriculture and other activities through hands-on learning.  Our experience at the recently concluded fair highlighted this new purpose for me.

Many of the kids that show market animals at the fair do so in part to learn and in part to make money.  A champion lamb, for example, might provide a child with a net income of more than $2,000.  Youth exhibitors and their families often use these projects as a way to learn responsibility and to earn money for college.  While I don't want to diminish these purposes, I think that 4-H and FFA have a higher calling - one which changes the methods we use to teach youth exhibitors at county fairs.  I think the greater calling for these programs is to ignite a spark that can lead to a career in production agriculture.  Some of the exhibitors at the Gold Country Fair will be the farmers and ranchers that feed us in the future.
Lara Macon and Rhian Brinskele showing meat goats during this year's Gold Country
Fair Master Showmanship competition.

Part of this year's Gold Country 4-H sheep group!

Jake Richardson - obviously very happy about exhibiting the reserve grand champion lamb - you should see the belt buckle he won!

Emma Macon and her rabbit, Jasper.

One of the kids in my wife's group, Jake Richardson, raised the lamb that was selected as the reserve supreme champion lamb at this year's fair.  Jake's immediate family does not make its living from production agriculture, but his brothers and his parents are extremely supportive of Jake's interest in sheep production.  Over the course of the last year, Jake has helped out on our ranch - processing new lambs, setting up fence, shearing sheep, etc.

Success in the show ring, for a kid like Jake, might be the spark I mentioned above.  Perhaps Jake's educational and career plans will include production agriculture.  If nothing else, Jake now has direct experience in, and deep appreciation for, the work that goes into producing food.

In California, our county fairs have lost state funding and are struggling to stay afloat.  The Gold Country Fair, which reflects the agricultural roots and aspirations of our community, continues to play a critical role in the education of existing and future farmers and ranchers.  While most producers are no longer introduced to the latest production systems by the 4-Hers in their family, many future producers are first introduced to the idea that farming and ranching can be a career through their fair projects.  County fairs are too important to let them disappear!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Valley Trees

On Friday morning, I drove from Yuba City to Dixon.  For the first time in at least 10 years, I drove State Highway 113 north of Woodland - went through Robbins and Knights Landing.  While I'm normally a foothills/mountains kind of guy, I realized how much I loved this part of the Sacramento Valley.  Since I was driving by myself, I had plenty of time to contemplate as to why this was.

The crops that grow in this part of the valley are incredible, both in variety and in quantity.  Between Yuba City and Woodland, I saw sunflowers, prunes (or dried plums, I guess), walnuts, canning tomatoes, field corn, almonds, rice, beans, melons, and alfalfa - and I'm sure I'm missing a few crops.  For a foothill rancher who is used to 18 inches of topsoil being a luxury, the incredible productivity of these valley soils was humbling!

But the diversity of crops wasn't the only thing that made this part of the valley attractive.  As I drove south, I realized that it was the trees - both native and agricultural - that gave the landscape its beauty.  Every road, slough and river was lined with trees, mostly valley oaks and black walnuts.  The trees marked field boundaries, too - there were even some in the midst of farm fields.  Some were natural, others were obviously planted - some were old enough to have been planted by the original European settlers in this part of the world.

One thing I didn't see, however, were young trees.  Virtually all of the oaks and walnuts I saw were huge "grandfather" trees - 3 feet or more in diameter at the trunk.  Most were healthy, but some were decadent and decaying - slowly dying from mistletoe infestations or other diseases.  I also saw stumps; remnants of trees that had once shaded the road.  There were no saplings - no young trees to replace those that had been lost.

Driving by oneself (at least if one is a farmer) can make one philosophical.  I started thinking about the men and women who planted these trees.  They were probably, almost certainly, farmers.  They were also probably long departed.  No one (myself included) takes time to plant trees for the sake of shading roadways or field margins today.

I also found parallels between the state of these valley trees and the state of farming in the my part of the world.  At 44, believe it or not, I'm younger than the average farmer.  In Placer County, for example, two-thirds of our farmers are 65 years or older.  The next 10-15 years are frighteningly critical to the future of our local farming community.  There are many reasons that young people aren't farming - just as there are many reasons that there are no young trees along the roadways in northern Yolo County.  As I drove, I found myself asking, "Who will plant new trees?"  As I write this, I find myself asking, "Who will nurture new farmers?"

Friday, September 2, 2011

Lessons from Colfax (So Far)

If you've been reading Foothill Agrarian lately, you'll know that we've moved all of our 300 ewes to the Edwards Family Farm in Colfax.  The Edwards Family has owned 500+ acres of forest land on the north rim of the American River canyon for more than 60 years.  After the Ponderosa fire in 2001, Allen and Nancy decided to introduce goats into their operation as a way to manage brush and diversify their production.  Several years ago, they got out of the goat business, but they still want to use livestock to manage vegetation - enter our sheep!

We had hoped to utilize the existing medium-tensile electric fence to contain our sheep during the day.  Our plan was to let them graze larger areas during the day and to pen them in smaller electro-net paddocks during the night (as added protection against predators).  While the goats respected the fence, we soon learned that our sheep would need to be trained to respect it.  Our inability to contain the sheep in the existing infrastructure has created some challenges.  On the other hand, we had also hoped that the sheep would utilize the blackberries and other brush species.  We will turn our rams in with the ewes in about a month, and we were hoping to flush the ewes (that is, put them on a higher nutritional plane to increase ovulation and thus twinning rates) on this forage.  So far, this part of our plan has been encouraging.

While it is too soon to make any long-term decisions about whether our efforts will pay off (either for us or for the Edwards family), here's what we've learned so far:

The sheep obviously don't respect the permanent fencing.  The guard dogs don't either, which may be causing the sheep to go through it.  If an animal has it's head through an electric fence before it feels a shock, it will continue through the fence, which seems to be happening.  The dry conditions make this especially challenging - the fence is carrying 8,000 volts, but the dry ground limits the shock power on the sheep.

Our only alternative this year has been to use our electro-net fencing.  On irrigated pasture, I can build a 6 net paddock (which contains about 1.5 acres of pasture) in 45 minutes.  In brushy forestland, this job takes 4-5 hours.  Pulling this fence through the brush wears out the fencing, too.

One solution may be to train the sheep to different types of electric fencing during more favorable conditions - we'll work on it this winter.

Forage Quality and Utilization
We're very pleased with the forage utilization we're seeing.  The sheep have been as effective as goats on the blackberries, and they also seem to like the other brush species.  Given the nutritional profile of these forages (which in some cases are similar to alfalfa hay), we're hopeful that the ewes will put on weight now and have more twins next spring - we'll see!

Labor and Herding
Part of our plan was to herd the sheep during the day.  The terrain and vegetation have made this challenging. The sheep tend to spread out more than we expected, which adds to the challenge.  The combination of fencing and herding basically requires someone on-site full time, which isn't possible for us this year (we have too many other things to do).  In addition, 1,000 sheep might make a full-time herder/fence builder economically feasible.  300 sheep, while they're doing a great job, are not enough to justify hiring someone.

Our dogs have done an amazing job on this project.  The steep slopes and brush make their work extremely difficult, but they are handling it.  Herding the sheep on foot without dogs would be impossible.  The only downside for the dogs are the stickers - there are sand burrs and other stickers which require us to spend close to an hour each evening brushing the dogs.

Conclusions (So Far)
Vegas has done a great job of protecting our flock from predators.
Unfortunately, she's also leading the sheep through the fencing.

Above and below: Sheep DO eat blackberries!

While, we're pleased with the utilization we're seeing on the targeted brush species, the labor involved in this project is overwhelming.  If we can figure out how to train the sheep to the existing fencing, the project might work.  Stay tuned....