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Showing posts from January, 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 prett…

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 pr…

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!

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.

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 be…

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 …

Emma's Day at the Ranch

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


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. …


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 …

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 los…

#%&*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 sai…