Monday, October 31, 2011

Turning the Page

In our farming operation, there are tasks that seem to allow us to complete one season's work and turn our attention to the next season - to turn the page, so to speak.  I especially look forward to the page that we turn in the autumn when we market the last of the current year's lambs.  Up until this time, we're spread out - ewes with the rams on one or two properties, grass-finishing lambs on another.  My days seem to be consumed with moving electric fence and driving.  After this time, our flocks are more consolidated - things slow down and I find myself spending much less time on the road.
Ernie and Mo - ready to go to work!

Today, I weighed and evaluated our last 39 lambs.  These lambs have been on the best grass/clover pastures that we have access to - this year, they've been at the Elster Ranch between Auburn and Grass Valley since early June.  Tomorrow, I'll ship these lambs to our processor, and beginning next week, we'll begin to market the last of our lamb at the Auburn and Roseville farmers' markets.  After weighing the lambs, I drove back to Auburn to move one of our groups of breeding ewes onto fresh feed.  I ended the day by training my youngest border collie (Ernie) on a group of ewe lambs we've separated from the rest of the flock for just this purpose.

One of the most satisfying parts of farming, at least for me, is the opportunity to see what I've accomplished at the end of the day or at the end of the season.  I've always enjoyed stacking wood for this reason.  Today marked the culmination of a process that began just about 12 months ago when we put the rams with the ewes in the fall of 2010.  While our lambing season was challenging this year (I just looked back at my blog entries for February and March), our lambs did exceptionally well this summer and fall.  Looking at this last load of lambs, I'm extremely pleased with the progress we've made in our genetics and our management.  We've started the cycle over again - the rams are currently with the ewes - and I'm excited about our prospects for next year.

Can you find the ram in this photo?
Boise's ready to lead the sheep onto
fresh pasture.
Autumn has always been my favorite time of year.  The natural world seems to slow down - and if we're paying attention, so do we.  My friend Eric Alexander remarked last night that things seem quieter in the fall. The logical side of my brain tells me that this is because there are fewer folks mowing their lawns and using other types of power yard equipment.  The spiritual side of my brain tells me that this is because the earth is slowing down - things are going dormant and quiet.  Sometime in the next 2 weeks, we'll get our first frost of the fall.

Other farmers and ranchers are marking similar turnings.  As I gathered our lambs today, I could hear the cowbells on Dave and Barbara Gallino's cows more than a mile to the west.  Dave and Barbara summer their cows in the mountains part way up Yuba Pass.  They are gathering their cattle onto their home place before shipping them to the northern Sacramento Valley for the winter.  The sound of cowbells is a marker for me - it denotes the transition from one season to the next.  Shaun Clark, a young farmerwho grows summer vegetables finished, his clean-up and winter preparations today - the cover crop is planted and the crop residue is gone. I saw Tony Aguilar, who is a mandarin grower, last weekend - he's gearing up for harvest.  The expected cold weather will sweeten this year's mandarins!

An autumn sunset behind Shanley Hill - one of my favorite places in all of Auburn!
 After tomorrow, my work will take on a different feel.  I won't be scrambling to check sheep at three different properties.  I still have equipment and fencing to pick up at Elster Ranch, but I won't need to worry about any sheep there.  I can turn my attention to getting ready for winter - splitting firewood, raking leaves, and repairing equipment.  I can turn the page!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dog Days (of Autumn)

Last weekend, we hosted a two-day sheep dog clinic with our friend Ellen Skillings.  In the midst of the weekend (during which we learned a tremendous amount), our livestock guardian dog, Vegas, gave birth to 8 puppies.  What a weekend!

I've written before about my amazement with abilities and intelligence of border collies.  I find livestock guardian dogs to be equally amazing, but for different reasons.  Vegas, who is an Akbash-Anatolian cross dog, is proving to be a wonderful mother.  Our guardian dogs (we have four adult dogs) live with our sheep around the clock.  Since we've had guard dogs, we've not lost a single animal to a predator (provided the sheep were with the dogs).

Guardian dogs use a strategy of escalating aggressiveness to ward off predators, which in our neighborhood include coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, and domestic dogs (the latter are often the biggest threat).  Our guardian dogs will first bark to warn a predator not to come any closer.  If the predator persists, the dogs will bristle and snarl.  The third and final stage of defense is for the guardian dog to attack the predator.  To my knowledge, none of our dogs has ever reached this third stage, probably because the first two are incredibly intimidating.

Guardian dogs must be bonded with the animals they are to protect.  This means that puppies are socialized with sheep or goats rather than people.  For me, this is the most difficult part of rearing guardian dog puppies - they are amazingly cute and cuddly, but cuddling spoils them for their life's work.  Vegas' pups were whelped in our barn.  We have a handful of ewe lambs at home, and while we haven't allowed them into the stall with the puppies, the pups will be able smell, hear and eventually see them from the start.

I joke with school kids that one of the best parts of my job is the fact that I get to go to work with my dogs everyday.  The more I think about it, the less I believe it's a joke - I love to work with my dogs.  I've always had dogs as pets, but working dogs - both herders and guardians - make incredible partners.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Can We Afford Cheap Food?

The headline in the business section of last Friday's Sacramento Bee read "Farmers find U.S. workers wary of hard work in fields."  The article described the challenges that Alabama farmers in particular are having in finding field workers.  Thanks to Alabama's "tough immigration law," many Latino workers have left the state.  One of the farmers in the article indicated that the U.S. workers he's tried to hire "show up late, work slower than seasoned farm hands and are ready to call it a day after lunch....  Some quit after a single day."  Another farmer quoted in the article, Connie Horner, who grows 8-1/2 acres of organic blueberries in south Georgia, is considering letting her organic certification lapse because she can't get enough skilled workers.

The article does a good job of discussing the issues surrounding immigration law and labor.  It fails, however, to  ask the more important questions about our desire for cheap food and its impact on farming and farm labor.  Yes, farm work is physically demanding.  As a small-scale farmer, I've experienced both ends of the spectrum in terms of peoples' ability and desire to work hard.  As a country, we spend less of our disposable income on food than just about any other developed nation.  Perhaps this is the conversation we need to be having about farm labor - what is safe, nutritious and wholesome food really worth to us?  Can we afford cheap food?

One of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, in an editorial he wrote with Wes Jackson, puts it this way:

"For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. That is a mistake. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy. The government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billons of dollars to the agribusiness corporations."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why Grass-fed?

When we started raising livestock to feed our community six years ago, we made the decision to go grass-fed.  Six years ago, grass-fed meat was still on the fringe of acceptability - both from a consumer perspective and from a producer perspective.  Grain-fed beef and lamb was the norm - the proponents of grain-feeding had done an amazing job of equating a grain-based diet with a quality product.

Over the last six years, we've tried to educate our customers about the benefits of grass-fed meats (mostly lamb, in our case).  Unlike some "grass-fed" producers in our community, we've made the decision that for us, grass-fed means that we don't feed any grain - ever - to the animals we raise for market (for more information, go to our website:  One of the biggest changes in the local marketplace has been our customer's awareness of the benefits of truly grass-fed meat.

In an article in the most recent issue of the Small Farmer's Journal (, Chad Chriestenson of Lafayette, Colorado, summarizes current nutritional and production-focused research into grass-meat.  According to the article, research conducted by USDA and Clemson University has found grass-fed meats (compared to grain-fed) to be:

1. Lower in total fat.
2. Higher in beta-carotene.
3. Higher in Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol).
4. Higher in B vitamins thiamin and riboflavin.
5. Higher in calcium, magnesium and potassium.
6. Higher in total omega-3's.
7. Healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65:1 versus 4.84:1).
8. Higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a potential cancer fighter.
9. Higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA).
10. Lower in the saturated fats linked with hear disease.

These nutritional benefits are an important part of why we chose a grass-based production system, but they aren't the only reasons.  We feel that pasture-based livestock production has a number of environmental benefits, as well.  We don't need to import grain grown in another region (often in another state) - we grow plenty of grass right here.  Well managed pastures develop and maintain soil organic matter and enhance the water cycle.  Healthy pastures sequester atmospheric carbon, too.  Finally, we like the idea that we're raising animals that evolved to live on grass entirely on a diet of grass.  Sheep are ideally suited to convert grass into milk, meat and wool.

A commitment to 100% grass-fed production means that we have to be patient.  We have to wait for our animals to reach a finished condition (that is, we have to wait for them to put on enough fat to be "finished.").  We have to educate our customers about the seasonality and variation in grass-fed production - every year is different.  We have to pay extremely close attention to the condition of our pastures - we've found that only the healthiest pastures allow us to finish our animals entirely on grass.  Some producers take the short cut of feeding grain for the last 10 or 20 percent of an animal's life - we don't.

We realize that not every eater will prefer the flavor of grass-fed meat - there's room for variation in production systems.  However, we are proud of our commitment to a 100% grass-fed system, and we appreciate our customers' support of our efforts!  We all need to be more educated about the sources of our food!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Releasing the Pressure

Last weekend, we hosted a sheep dog clinic with our friend, Ellen Skillings.  We had a great day - perfect weather, fun people, good dogs!

One of the principles of training a dog (or any animal, for that matter) is that of pressure and release from pressure.  Animal behaviorists tell us that our training techniques should mimic the social interactions of the animals themselves.  Mother dogs, for example, will train their pups by rewarding good behavior (through licks, etc.) and by correcting poor behavior (through growls and more aggressive actions).  Training a dog, then, requires us to correct (not punish) improper behaviors and to reward desirable behaviors.

Ellen explained how tone and sound is the communication tool we can use to help our dogs understand what's expected of them in regards to working livestock.  A harsh or low tone can communicate dissatisfaction.  A neutral tone can convey a request.  A happy or high tone communicates enthusiasm.

Sheep dogs have been an integral part of our sheep operation for five years now - thanks to Ellen.  I'm still learning this system of communication.  For the most part, our trained dogs (Taff and Mo) put up with my relative inexperience with canine communication.  Our newest border collie - Ernie - is still figuring out his job (and my method of conveying what I want him to do).

Ernie's instincts are amazing - he wants to work.  As Ellen has tried to tell me repeatedly, my job is to let him - to correct Ernie's poor decisions while giving him the space to try to do the right thing.  I've found it easy (perhaps too easy) to correct mistakes - Ellen says I've nagged Ernie about these!  I've found it much more difficult to take the pressure off of Ernie when he's doing the right things.  It's this release from pressure that allows a dog to learn - I suspect it's the same with humans.

Working sheep with a dog, as I've written before, requires communication between human and dog, between human and sheep and between sheep and dog - it's incredibly complicated.  The more I learn, the more I appreciate the complexity of this system.  I've found that improving my relationship with my dogs and my sheep requires a sustained investment in learning how to communicate more effectively.  I'll be learning this for the rest of my life, I believe!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Value-Added Without Adding Value

For the last 6 or 7 years, we've marketed grass-fed lamb at our local farmers' markets.  To do this legally, we must take our lambs to a USDA-inspected facility - our closest option is in Dixon (about 65 miles away) - and have them harvested and cut-and-wrapped.  By converting our lambs into a meat product, we are attempting to "add value" to our production.

When the lamb market was low, this worked great!  We'd take a lamb that was worth about $110 at an auction, spend $65to haul it to Dixon and have it converted into meat that we could sell at the farmers' market, and sell it retail for about $250.  At this rate, we enjoyed a net profit of $75per lamb.  Sure, I spent most every Saturday working (selling lamb at the farmers' market), but this system worked fairly well!

Today, our 100 pound lambs are worth about $1.90 per pound (for a total value of $190).  Our processing costs have increased to $80-90 per lamb.  Fuel prices have also increased - if I haul 20 lambs to Dixon, the transportation cost (for hauling live lambs and picking up meat) is about $10per head.  While I've raised my prices somewhat, the retail value of the meat from one lamb is about $280.  In other words, I could sell my lambs for $190, or I could spend an additional $90 to $100 per lamb.  At current market prices, I am breaking even or even losing a small amount of money on each lamb - and still spending every Saturday working.

My dilemma is a micro-economic version of a macro-economic phenomenon.  Live lamb prices have risen by 50% since last year (due to fewer Australian and New Zealand imports, the relative value of the U.S. dollar to other currencies, and the lack of domestic supply).  Prices paid to processors (like Superior Farms, who processes my lambs) for wholesale meat have also risen about 50%.  At the retail level, however, prices have only risen by about 16%.  Retailers have been reluctant to raise prices more significantly because there is a price line over which consumers won't cross. Rather than buy lamb, the theory goes, consumers will buy a cheaper protein (beef, chicken or pork).

We see this in our farmers' market sales.  While we've raised our prices slightly, we are reluctant to go much further.  We feel like our customers will not buy a leg of lamb that is priced at more than $10 per pound.  As I've indicated above, our current prices result in a total lamb value that results in a loss when compared with selling our lambs to our processor (and having our Saturdays free).

What would a rational business person do in this situation?  The live lamb market will most certainly decline in the next 3-5 years. We've spent considerable time and effort in developing a genetic program and brand identification to meet our customers' needs and desires.  If we pull out of the farmers' market, will our customers remain loyal to us when we come back?  Surely other businesses face these questions!

Every business must balance short-term cash flow and profitability needs against long term marketing strategies.  One of the reasons that we started Flying Mule Farm was to participate in the feeding of our community.  We appreciate the direct feedback we receive from our customers, and we like to be part of an effort to localize our food production system.  On the other hand, we also need to make a living.  As a husband and a father, I also feel like I need to be part of my family - working every Saturday morning can limit my ability to do so.

I'm most interested in other perspectives on these questions - what am I missing?  I hope others will offer insights and perspectives!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Giving and Receiving

Exchanging help is part of living in a farming or ranching community. In previous eras, putting up hay or building a barn were community efforts - they still are in Amish country.  Today's big jobs - branding calves or shearing sheep, for example - remain group efforts, for the most part.  Sharing work is part necessity and part enjoyment.  Farmers and ranchers can't afford to keep a large crew employed all year for the few times that extra hands are needed (nor are there enough skilled workers around, many times), so "volunteer" help is necessary for these big jobs.  Equally important, these big jobs provide an excuse for families and friends to gather to share in the annual mileposts that mark the farming year.  These days feature hard work, to be sure, but they also feature a great deal of fun!

Sometimes, we all need help in our more mundane tasks as well.  I find that it is much easier for me to offer help than it is for me to ask for it (and I suspect the same is true for many ranchers).  Part of this is because I know how busy my colleagues are - asking for help takes them away from their own work.  Part of this is because of my own work ethic - I should be able to do these day-to-day jobs by myself.  Sometimes, however, circumstances and physical limitations combine to make asking for help imperative.  This week has marked one of those times.

Wednesday morning as I was stooping to tie two sections of electro-net fencing together, my lower back seized up.  My back occasionally goes out, but this time it was especially debilitating - probably an accumulation of the physical work I've been doing lately.  Following my injury, I sorted and loaded 20 ewes to take to Reno for processing and then spent 5 of the next 6 hours sitting behind the wheel of my truck - my back got worse as the day progressed.  By the time I started home from Reno with 1500 pounds of beef and sausage, I realized that my body would not allow me to unload and store the meat.  I swallowed my pride and called my friend Paul for help.  He met me at Roseville Meat and proceeded to unload all 28 boxes of meat by himself.

The nature of my work is that I do some physical labor every day.  This weekend, we're hosting a sheep dog training clinic.  Today I had scheduled the set-up for the clinic - hauling and setting up a round pen and holding pens for the sheep.  After a trip to the chiropractor confirmed that my back was messed up (and with strict instructions not to lift anything), I called my friend Courtney to help with this project.  While I still have some set-up to complete, the heavy lifting is done, thanks to her help.

Despite my reluctance to ask for help, I find that my friends are nearly always able to provide assistance.  I hope that I am able to return the favor.  One of the best parts of living and working in a farming or ranching community is that this exchange of help proceeds without any accounting - Paul didn't keep track of his efforts so that he could ask for reciprocation.  He and I both know that I'll help him at some point in the future - same with Courtney.  Giving and, as importantly, receiving help graciously is integral to rural life.  The receiving part is something I'm still learning.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Rain Delays

When I left the house this morning, the National Weather Service website was predicting a 60 percent chance of rain after 11 a.m., with rainfall totals likely to be less than a tenth of an inch.  It's now 11:24 a.m., and we've already measured close to four tenths of an inch - and it's still raining!  That meteorology is such an inexact science is not a shock to me - I'm used to the weather folks being wrong.  And I'm grateful for Mother Nature's irrigation services on the clover seed I planted last week.  Fortunately, I was smart enough to take my rain gear with me to Elster Ranch this morning, so moving the lambs to a pasture a quarter mile away wasn't quite the soggy job it might have been!  Now, I'm waiting for my rain gear to dry a bit before heading back out into the storm.  While these autumn rains sometimes hamper our efforts to get outside work done (for example, I can't deliver firewood today), they are a welcome and needed break from the hectic pace of our summer work.

There are some tasks that require us to work through the rain.  The lambs at Elster Ranch, for example, were out of grass in the field they'd been in for several weeks.  Moving them required setting up new fence about a quarter mile away.  Taff (my border collie) and I then walked the sheep up to their new pasture.  Taff doesn't mind the rain - it keeps him much cooler while he's working.  I think it has something to do with his Scottish heritage!  As long as I'm prepared with the proper clothing and footwear, I don't mind it either.  I love drying out in front of the woodstove after working in wet weather!

Other work, like loading and hauling firewood, is best left for drier weather.  I was supposed to deliver a cord of oak to a customer later today, but the ground quickly became too wet and slippery for a loaded truck to navigate.  While I don't mind working in the rain, I also don't enjoy getting stuck in the mud.  While today's delay means I'll be busier the rest of this week, it's nice to have an excuse to rest this morning!  Sometimes, Mother Nature reminds us to slow down and live in the moment!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Beginnings and Preparations

Most people associate springtime with new life, but for me new life begins with the preparations I make in early autumn.  Since we lamb in the later winter and early spring, ovine biology requires me to think at least 5 months in advance.  Similarly, preparing our pastures for finishing lambs next spring and summer requires action during the fall months.  In many ways, our sheep year started today.

This morning, we brought all of the breeding ewes into the corrals and sorted them into two groups.  The first group, comprised of our our whitefaced ewes (mostly Border and North Country Cheviot, Dorper-cross, Coopworth and Columbia ewes, were joined by our Bluefaced Leicester rams.  Their cross-bred lambs are the "mules" that are the maternal foundation of our flock.  The second group, made up of our mule ewes, were joined by our "terminal" rams.  All of the offspring of this mating are marketed - the hybrid vigor of this F2 cross results in fast growing lambs.
Two of the rams - waiting to be unloaded from the trailer.

"We can see the ewes - let's go!"

Ready to go to work!

The ewes were ready, too!  Perfect!

After sorting the ewes, I overseeded clover into our largest irrigated pasture (about 20 acres).  I put roughly 45 pounds of Ladino clover seed and 45 pounds of Renegade red clover onto the pasture.  This planting is designed to take advantage of the fall's first rain storm (another beginning), due in tonight or tomorrow.  In about a week, we'll also fertilize the pasture to encourage the clover to become well established prior to next year's grazing season.  This 20-acre field will allow us to finish next year's lambs entirely on forage (grass and clover).

With the beginning of this year's rainy season, we're also enjoying our first fire in our woodstove this evening.  The ladies in our house are somewhat cold-blooded - they wanted a fire tonight, so I obliged.  We're still gathering this year's wood supply, but it's reassuring to know that we're the only people responsible for a warm house during the coming months!

My work today lays the foundation for the year to come.  In 150 days (plus or minus), we'll see our first lambs.  In about 180 days, we'll graze the clover I planted today for the first time.  The rains that will start this week will germinate the grass that will sustain our sheep in the coming year.  The wood that I split tonight is the first of lots of wood.  I'm lucky to be so connected to the the rhythms of the year.