on the road

on the road

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Progress

I took a load of 37 lambs to our processor in Dixon this morning - the last of this year's lambs are finished.  For us, this marks tremendous progress in our operation - two years ago, the last of our lambs didn't finish until February - at 11 months of age.  We aim to finish our lambs at 95-100 pounds (lighter than conventionally finished grain-fed lambs). The oldest of this year's lambs were seven months of age.  This may not seem like a big difference, until you realize that it costs about $5 per month to feed and care for a lamb - in other words, this year's lambs cost us at least $20 less per head to raise.  As I think about our management system, our progress can be attributed to three factors: genetics, pasture and animal management and marketing sophistication.

This marks the third year of our use of the three-tier breeding system used in Great Britain to produce grass-fed lambs.  We breed our white-faced ewes (Dorset, Dorper, North Country and Border Cheviot, and Coopworth) to Bluefaced Leicester rams.  The ewe lambs from this cross-breeding (known as mules in England) are then bred to a terminal sire - this year's lambs were sired by a composite ram (British Suffolk, Texel and Columbia) from Hamilton Brothers in Rio Vista, and by an extremely thick Border Cheviot buck.  This F2 cross maximizes something called hybrid vigor - the offspring of this breeding perform better than either parent, in essence.  Some of this year's lambs gained more than a half pound per day on grass.

Our animal management systems have also improved.  Most shepherds have had some experience with footrot - a debilitating bacterial infection of the foot that causes significant production losses.  While our genetic program has selected for sheep with more resistance to this problem, our ability to put all of the sheep through a footbath on a regular basis has had a tremendous benefit.  We've also improved our mineral supplementation - our region is extremely deficient in selenium - which has improved health and weight gain.

We have been so fortunate to lease pasture at Elster Ranch between Grass Valley and Auburn for the last two years.  New owner George Nolte and cattle tenant Bill Boundy have invested incredible time and resources in improving the pastures at the ranch - we had 2 foot high clover to graze in October.  We learned this year the benefit of leaving the pastures longer after grazing - if we left grass and clover at an 8-inch stubble height after grazing, we were able to regraze in 25-30 days.  By leaving more, we were able to graze more.  While we won't be grazing at Elster Ranch next year (George is expanding his cattle operation and needs more pasture), we hope to apply what we've learned these last two years to the irrigated pasture we're leasing next year.

Finally, the commodity price for lamb has created more opportunity for everyone in the sheep business.  This year, we were able to market our lighter lambs at a profitable price, which allowed us to save our pasture for the better performing lambs.  We've also added several new products to the things we market directly to our customers.  Instead of only offering lamb at the farmers' market, we now offer sheep skins, yarn and wool roving.

Because all farming is tied to the rhythms of the seasons, progress can be slow sometimes.  I learn something new everyday, but the accumulation of this knowledge may not show results for a year or more.  At the age of 44, I hopefully have at least 30 more years to learn how to do this better - to make progress!

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