Monday, January 31, 2011

Fixing the Windmill - first installment

We're leasing the Shanley Ranch in Auburn from Mr. Pat Shanley.  It's a beautiful place - it occupies the ridge between Auburn and Ophir.  To the east, we can see Auburn and the Sierra crest.  To the southwest, we can see Folsom Lake and Rancho Seco.  To the west, we can see Mt. Diablo and much of the Coast Range.  We've seen eagles and deer and lots of hawks on the ranch.  It's a great place to go to work!

Today, we started working on getting the windmill in the midst of the ranch working again.  Mr. Shanley, who has lived most of his 90+ years in Auburn, was on hand to walk us through the project.  He's a wealth of knowledge and has become a true friend - I hope I make it to 90 in similar shape!

We're not done with the project, but I thought you might enjoy a few photos of the project!  We'll keep you posted on our progress!  I've never worked on a windmill before, so this is all new to me.  One of the things I hope to become in my lifetime is a pretty good windmill man!

Disconnecting the connector from the pump rod.
A close-up of the connector and pump rod.
Mr. Shanley.
Setting up the pulley used to pull the pump rods from the well shaft.  For someone who doesn't care for high places, this was an especially fun job!
Ready to pull the pump rods and pump.

Our next step will be to remove the pump (or sucker) rods and pump from the well.  We suspect that something's gone wrong with the pump, but we'll see once we get it up!  If anyone out there has worked on a windmill, we'd be interested in hearing from you!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sami and Lara's favorite stuff

Sami and Lara took some photos of their favorite places and critters at Flying Mule Farm!

Organic: To Be or Not To Be (With Apologies to Hamlet)

Occasionally, a customer (or potential customer) will ask whether our grass-fed lamb is organic.  In nearly every case, the customer will make a purchase after I explain our reasons for not being certified organic.  Because we're able to sell directly to our customers (usually with face-to-face contact), organic certification has not been advantageous for us.  For me, there are both practical and philosophical reasons not to become certified.

First, the practical (and perhaps economic) reasons....

We currently raise nearly 200 sheep (with plans to expand this number to more than 400 ewes).  We own (along with our bank) just 3 acres, which means we rely almost entirely on rented pasture and contract grazing.  This year, we are leasing property from at least 6 different landowners.  We'll be getting paid to graze on at least 5 additional properties, each with yet another landowner.  For us to certify our live animals as organic, we'd not only need to certify our husbandry practices - we'd also need to work with our landlords and our grazing customers to certify their land.  In other words, we'd need to obtain organic certification on 11 separate properties (with separate owners) in order to call our live lambs "organic."  For our landlords and grazing customers, this would be an unnecessary expense; for us, it would be an undesirable expense (largely for the following reason).

To call our meat "organic," we would need to have our lambs processed in a certified organic processing facility.  Given the current meat inspection environmental health rules, we must have our meat processed in a USDA-inspected plant, of which there are limited options in Northern California.  Our current processing partner is Superior Farms in Dixon.  Despite the fact that we are a very small fish in their big pond (they process more lambs in a day than we'll process all year), they do an outstanding job for us.  Our lambs are handled humanely (just like we'd handle them), and our meat is processed with care and quality.  Superior is not, however, organically certified (and neither are the other facilities we might use) - there is not an economic advantage for them to go to the expense of certification for my 250 lambs this year.  Even if we had our production practices and land certified, we would not be able to put the "O" word on our meat label.

These practical barriers are related to the philosophical barrier that exists in my mind.  To me, many of our food processing and marketing rules are designed to facilitate a food system where farmers and consumers don't need to know one another directly.  In other words, these regulations (including the National Organic Program) exist to maintain the anonymity of farmers and eaters.  Perhaps this is necessary for a system that is large enough to feed 300 million people, but the regulatory system seems to favor very large producers and processors.  If you're buying lamb at the grocery store without any connection to the farm or farmer who raised it, I suppose it's reassuring to know that a trained inspector approved it or that a third party certified the production practices used by the farmer.  I'd rather look the farmer in the eye and ask him or her how their food was produced.

Perhaps these thoughts sound like a rationalization on my part for not becoming certified organic, but let me explain our production system.  Our lambs are 100 percent grass-fed - they consume nothing except their mother's milk, grass, and some extra minerals.  We do vaccinate our lambs and ewes against the diseases that are common in our region, but we observe (and go beyond) all of the label restrictions on these vaccines.  We feel like we have a responsibility to our animals AND to our customers to raise happy, healthy sheep.

How do our customers know that we're accurately representing our products?  That's the key, the reason that a third party verification system was created, right?  I think this is the beauty of a smaller-scale, community-based direct market system.  During parts of the year, my customers drive past my sheep on their way to the farmers' market.  At all times of the year, we welcome visitors to our farm.  In other words, our production practices are entirely open for our customers to see.  If you don't count the trip to the processor (which is just 65 miles from Auburn), our meat is usually consumed within 25 miles of where we raise our animals.  The key, then is a local, transparent farming and food system.  Eating local won't solve all of our food safety issues, but knowing our farmers (and as farmers, knowing our eaters) is a huge step in the right direction.

Wordle: Organic

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Now We Wait...

According to my records, we should start lambing in about 26 days.  We're lambing out 125 +/- ewes this year, and we've made some management changes that should concentrate 90% of the lambing in the first 2-3 weeks of our lambing season - in other words, we'll be insanely busy in less than a month.

In the meantime, we're waiting.  The ewes have been vaccinated, so there's little husbandry work left to do before the lambs begin to arrive.  Our work these days entails moving the flock onto fresh feed every 3-4 days.  Our work also entails worry and expectation - worry when we see problems, and expectation for the year ahead.  I guess it's the shepherding version of Advent!

Here are some photos of the pregnant ewes.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Day at the Office

The latest statistics indicate that less than two percent of the population of the United States is involved in production agriculture.  This factoid suggests that my day-to-day work routine is vastly different from that of most folks.  In the interest of greater cultural understanding, I'd like to share with you photos of my normal day at the "office."

Here are two scenes from my commute.

Sometimes, I hit traffic as I get closer to work.
A fellow commuter - I always try to avoid causing road rage!
Upon arriving at the office, I have to check in with security.
The water cooler!
At lunch time, many of the ladies at the office step out to soak up the sun!

One of my co-workers - Taff.

One of this year's interns!

Another co-worker - Mo - likes to relax after a tough day at the office!

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Pile of Assets and a Collection of Jobs

I just returned from two days at the American Sheep Industry conference in Reno.  Most of my time was spent in a Ranching for Profit seminar presented by Dave Pratt from Ranch Management Consultants.  It was outstanding!

On the first afternoon, we talked about the difference between being self-employed (or owning your job) and being a business owner.  Dave asked, "Is your ranch a business or simply a pile of assets and a collection of jobs."  I have to admit that on most days, my "business" is the latter.

Most of us involved in small-scale farming or ranching love the day-to-day work. I enjoy working with sheep, being outside, talking to customers - "working in the business," as Dave would say.  With the amount of work required to raise sheep, I find that I often lose sight of the need to work ON the business - to think about the issues that will make my business more profitable.

Economically, my business has reached the point where it needs to grow or become part-time.  To make this a full-time business, the farm must pay me a full-time wage and make a profit.  Our current flock of 180 +/- ewes isn't big enough from an economic sustainability perspective.  The question now turns to whether I can feasibly grow our operation to the size (probably 500 ewes) necessary, or whether I need to shrink the business so that it is truly part time.

This is obviously a weighty question - one that will take some time for me and my family to answer.  I'm inclined to grow the business, but I'm not certain where the necessary capital will come from.  Purchasing an additional 200 ewes, which, given our cross-breeding system will achieve the necessary scale within a year or two, will take more capital than I have on hand.  Debt may be a necessary part of achieving my goal of making this a full-time business, but debt makes me nervous.

Any thoughts?

PS - I went to the conference with our local farm advisor, Roger Ingram, and with friend and fellow sheep farmer Robin Lynde (Meridian Jacobs).  For another perspective on the meeting, and for some outstanding photos, go to Robin's blog at

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Herding Sheep in the Fog

We moved the ewes yesterday in the fog.  As I write it, it doesn't sound like such a big deal, but we couldn't see more than about 50 yards at the time.  Our border collies, Mo and Taff, finally found the sheep, and we moved them into their new paddock.  At least we thought we found all of the ewes!

This morning when I arrived to feed the guard dogs, Boise greeted me outside the paddock.  As I was getting ready to be mad at him for getting out, I noticed fresh sheep droppings on the outside of the fence.  As I walked further, I came upon dry spots in the grass - a sign that a sheep had slept in the spot (and prevented the dew from settling on the ground).  A bit further, and we found about 20 ewes that we'd missed the day before.

While I'm sometimes frustrated by our guard dogs, I've also learned to trust their instincts (for the most part).  Usually, when Buck or Boise is out, there's been a predator around or a sheep out.  Their protective instincts override their fear of getting shocked by going through the electric fence.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Emma's Day at the Ranch

Emma took the camera to the ranch today - here's what she saw (captions by Emma)...

Buck was eating his food, because the other dog (Boise) would eat his dog food.

Buck licking his lips!

Boise and the sheep in the fog.

Boise eating his food.

Ernie looking out of the window of the truck.

Ernie looking at something.
Me chewing my gum!

Roger working Bella.

Bella focusing.

Me and Ernie (my Dad took this photo).

My Dad working Ernie.

Ernie is focusing.
Vegas on her back being goofy.

Sheep in the fog.

Dad catching Vegas.

Dogs playing by Frisbee (the mule).

Dogs playing with each other.

Ernie sitting on the steps.

Ernie working as hard as he can.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Seems like there's a day in every season that carries a hint of the season to come.  August always includes a morning that smells like fall.  We always get a hot day in April or May that feels like summer.  This morning, when I walked out to get the paper at 5:30, I heard the peepers singing - little frogs that don't seem to mind the cold.  To me, the peepers mean spring - even when it's cold and dark in the morning.

We usually get a brief "false" spring in January or February - a stretch of several days or weeks when the sun shines, the grass grows, and the spring bulbs are fooled into sprouting.  I know we'll have more winter, but these days are a welcome break from the cold, foggy and wet weather we've been having.

As I get older, the years seem to spin by faster and faster.  We'll start lambing in 5 weeks.  Irrigation season will start 3 months from today.  In 94 days, I'll be 44 years old.  In 100 days or so, we'll be shearing the sheep.  In eight and a half months, we'll turn the rams in with the ewes again.

I like to think of the calendar like a circle.  New Year's Day is the top of the circle, and we've now started down the arc towards spring.  Enjoy these beautiful days!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I'm helping to teach a Beginning Farming class here in Auburn - last night was the first session.  As an introduction, my friend Allen Edwards and I described our beginning farming adventures.  I'm not sure how useful it was for the class participants, but I found it to be an enlightening exercise to consider what I knew when I started, what I know now, and how much I have yet to learn!

So much of small-scale farming is skill-based.  Farming takes an immense amount of knowledge, yes; but it also takes a wide variety of physical, observational and mental skills.  Take stockmanship - the ability read, understand, and handle livestock.  A good stockman understands livestock behavior and is able to quickly observe subtle changes in this behavior.  A ewe with droopy ears, for example, may be sick.  A restless, pregnant ewe may be getting ready to give birth.  Animals that are laying down and chewing their cuds contentedly probably have had enough to eat.

We purchased a small group of feeder lambs when we first moved to Auburn in 2001.  They were extremely wild - so wild, in fact, that we took to feeding them in a small pen so that we could be sure to catch them when we were ready to have them processed.  The combination of their wildness and our inexperience was probably stressful on the sheep; it was certainly stressful on us!  Fast forward to last November.  Our border collies and I loaded 60 sheep and goats into our trailer in a cul de sac - no fences, no pens - just good dogs and a more experienced stockman.

I've benefited from the experience and knowledge of a number of mentors.  Our local farm advisor, Roger Ingram, has taught me a great deal about stock handling and animal behavior.  Our friend Ellen Skillings has helped me understand how to use dogs effectively and how to evaluate the health status of a group of sheep.  Much of what I've learned has come from simply trying and failing (and sometimes succeeding).  Based on what I've learned in the last 20 years that we've had sheep, I'm sure I have a great deal more to learn, as well!

The practical aspects of sheep-raising, I think, must be learned by doing.  College courses, workshops, and other formal situations are useful introductions, but real skill development comes through repetition and through trial and error.  I suspect other types of farming are similar.  While these skills were once passed from one generation to the next when kids worked alongside parents and grandparents, most young people who are interested in farming today don't have this opportunity.  To me, on-farm internships and apprenticeships are critical in filling this need.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Guardian Dog Woes

We use livestock guardian dogs and llamas to protect our sheep from predators - critters like coyotes, mountain lions and domestic dogs.  We currently have four guard dogs - Buck (our oldest and most reliable dog), Boise, Reno and Vegas (Boise's daughter).  Buck is a reliable guardian for lambing ewes - we call him Uncle Buck, because he lets the lambs climb on him while they're playing.  Buck is getting older (he's 8 or 9), so we're hoping one of the younger dogs will develop into a reliable lambing dog.  Boise shows promise - we're finding we can trust him more and more.  We have high hopes for Vegas, too - she's becoming a great dog.  However, we found out today that at just a year of age, she's not yet trustworthy with newborn lambs.

Lara's oldest ewe, Woolie, gave birth to twins today (a week or so earlier than we expected).  When Sami and Lara discovered that she'd lambed, they found one lamb dead and the other chewed up - by Vegas.  While losses like this are one of the risks of using guard dogs, I struggle with it when it happens.  I love the dogs, but I feel like I've failed the sheep.  I'll agonize over this for the next several days.  We'll work with Vegas to help her understand acceptable guarding behavior.  As she matures, she'll hopefully begin to understand her job better.  In the meantime, we'll use a llama to guard the lambing ewes here at home - llamas aren't as effective with some predators, but they are safer with the new born lambs.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

#%&*ing Healthcare System

Just before Thanksgiving, I had to go the emergency room.  We were injecting our ewes with FootVax using a dose syringe - a pistol-like apparatus that holds multiple doses.  As I removed the syringe from a ewe, she kicked it out of my hand.  It landed needle-first in the instep of my left foot, the needle penetrating through my rubber boot.  While nothing was injected, there was likely some residue of the vaccine on and in the needle.  The vaccine safety precautions indicated that it could cause vascular spasming that might result in the loss of a digit (if it was injected into a finger or toe).  This didn't sound good, so I decided to go the ER.

The nurses at the ER were great - I was seen by a nurse almost immediately.  Auburn is a small town, so I knew several of the nurses.  We laughed about what happened - they told me I probably wouldn't need to worry about athlete's foot for awhile!  I was less impressed with the doctor who examined me.  He looked at my foot and said he'd call Poison Control.  In about 45 minutes he returned and said that Poison Control had never heard of the vaccine and suggested that I talk to a veterinarian.  Since my wife is a veterinarian, I'd already taken this advice!  He prescribed antibiotics (a product that we've used to treat our guard dogs when they've had infections - they are cheaper for dogs, I might add).  Another nurse came in and cleaned the wound and put gauze and tape on it.  All told, I was probably at the hospital for about 90 minutes.

Here's an itemized list of the treatment I received:

Exam by triage nurse
Exam by ER nurse
Exam by ER doctor
Call to Poison Control by ER doctor
4x4 gauze and tape applied by ER nurse

Yesterday, we received a summary of the charges from our insurance agency (Anthem Blue Cross).  The 90-minute trip to the ER cost $711.51.  I don't know if the new federal healthcare law has had any impact on our personal situation, but it's outrageous that the minimal treatment I received was so expensive!  I would have received better attention having my wife take care of it!