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....

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