Monday, February 28, 2011

A Lambing Journal - Day 7

While this lambing season has been less than spectacular in terms of our success, there is one aspect of our management system that seems to be living up to expectation.  For the first time this year, we used a "teaser" ram - a ram that Sami vasectomized.  In other words, he has all the parts, but he can't finish the job.  This allows us to use the ram effect - exposure to the teaser ram is supposed to synchronize the estrus cycles of all of the ewes, which in turn compresses the lambing season.  We had 9 ewes give birth yesterday, and 8 more (so far - it's 9:30 p.m.) give birth today.  Synchronizing the ewes allows us to focus all of our labor into a shorter time frame.

Speaking of labor, I think I'm starting to hit the wall.  This lambing season, because of the weather, has been similar to the first few months of parenthood - up every 2-3 hours.  With more stormy weather due in tomorrow night, I'm hoping to get a good night's sleep tonight - we'll see.

We have two lambs in the living room tonight.  The smallest triplet is doing great!  She gets to go to show and tell with Emma on Wednesday.  During my 9:00 visit to the sheep tonight, I found a twin ewe lamb by her self and cold.  She's warming by the woodstove.  We'll keep our fingers crossed.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Lambing Journal - Day 6

Today marked 150 days since the rams were turned in with the ewes, and it was by far the busiest day yet this lambing season.  While it started off with more frustration (we had a lamb fall into a small creek and get chilled), it ended on a high note.  As I write this at 7:30 p.m. we've had 4 single lambs, 2 sets of twins and one set of triplets.  When I left the ranch an hour ago, there was at least one more ewe who was set to lamb.  I'll go back after the girls go to bed and check on her - wouldn't surprise me if a few more had lambed as well.  As of this moment, we have 20 lambs on the ground.  In the next two weeks, I expect that at least 100 more will arrive!

We also stripped out (milked) one of the ewes that had lost her twins in the storm.  I taught two of our interns how to milk by hand - we agreed that it was clear why someone had invented a milking machine!  We got 40 ounces of milk (which we'll save for future bottle lambs), and we'll try to catch her again tomorrow.
Emma and Waylynn

While the ewe that had triplets is a great mother, we decided to bring the smallest of the three lambs home to be bottle-raised.  "Waylynn," as the girls named her (because of her voice), has settled in.  She's pretty cute!

We're expecting more wet weather this week.  It won't be quite as cold, but we are preparing for more long nights.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Lambing Journal - Day 5

Today was a better day (for the most part).  In addition to the two lambs born last night, we've had three new lambs so far (all singles).  I expanded the paddock that the ewes are in, which made the girls happy.  I was on hand this morning when ewe 512 gave birth (unassisted) to a 14 pound lamb!  They were doing great tonight when I saw them.  Cold and dry is much preferred to cold and wet and windy.

I sometimes hesitate to post photos of the lambs - after all, our main product is meat.  In 6-8 months, the lambs that we're caring for today will become the product that earns us our living.  Some people have a problem with this.  To me, it is part of a cycle.  I absolutely love this time of year - new life is amazing.  My friend and fellow sheepman Al Medvitz puts it this way: "In this country, we think that death is the opposite of health - it's not.  Death can be a healthy and necessary part of life."

With that said, here are a few photos from today.

A new "mule" ewe.

Happy sheep!

A new Border Cheviot "mule" ewe.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Lambing Journal - Day 4

What a day - eventful, long, exhausting, discouraging, encouraging - you name it.  We ended up losing all but one of the lambs that were born in the last two days - the cold, wet and windy weather was just too much for them. When something like this happens, I always second guess myself - should I have moved them into a barn somewhere?  Should I have left them in a paddock with less feed and where the new lambs were secure rather than move them to fresh feed?  Should I breed for a later lambing date?  We try to get lambs on the ground beginning in February so that the ewes (and the lambs) can benefit from the rapid grass growth that begins in late February or early March.  Usually it works fairly well, but not when we get the kind of weather we had last night.

As far as eventful goes, the rain and wind turned to snow at about 10:15 this morning - as Taff and I were moving a handful of yearling ewes to better shelter.  It snowed like crazy for about 2 hours and then quit.  Snow is an event in Auburn, and we were out in it!

On an encouraging note, Mo and Taff (our two oldest border collies) were amazing today.  They moved the ewes back to the Thompson Ranch, where the Thompson family graciously gave us access to a barn and to a sheltered pasture.  The dogs brought the ewes through 4 gates, across two creeks, and onto fresh feed.  They then helped move the yearlings and the rams to more sheltered paddocks.  Mo wasn't done - he had to move 85 sheep and goats into a new paddock at Sierra College, too.  When I picked my daughter Lara up tonight, she said the dogs looked as tired as I did.

While the loss of lambs is discouraging, I'm also thankful tonight.  I'm grateful to my wife, Sami, for caring for all of the lambs that ended up at home last night.  She did everything humanly possible to keep them going.  I'm grateful to the Thompsons for letting us use their barn and pasture.  I'm amazed and grateful that we have such tremendous dogs.

I'm probably rambling - three hours of sleep in the last 36 will do that to a person.  The next two nights are predicted to be bitterly cold (for California) and potentially snowy, so I'll be checking the sheep every 3-4 hours around the clock.  I guess I'll get to sleep all night once it warms up!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Lambing Journal - Day 3

It's just after 10 p.m. as I write this, and it's been a very long day.  It started out great - two new sets of twins this morning, and a single this afternoon.  Unfortunately we're getting very cold rain and wind tonight.  At my 8 p.m. visit to the sheep, I found that the lambs weren't handling the cold well.  After talking it over with Sami, we decided to bring all of the lambs and ewes home.  We have two lambs on the hearth warming up, and everyone else is in the barn.  I'll head back out to the ranch (about a 3 mile drive) at 1 a.m. to check for more lambs - I hope the rest of the ewes can hold on.
Paul weighing one of the new lambs.
Warming by the woodstove.

Tomorrow, we'll move onto a different property with access to a barn.  We're supposed to get even colder tomorrow, so I plan on dropping the rest of my activities and get the sheep situated.

I love what I do, but days like this are draining (physically and emotionally).  Hope tomorrow's a better day!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Lambing Journal - Day 2

Sami with the newly jacketed lamb.
Our day started with checking on yesterday's ewe lamb.  Her head and one ear were still swollen.  While she was warm and seemed to have eaten, we decided to make sure.  While I held the ewe, Sami milked her (and we decided she had definitely nursed during the night).  We tube fed her, and gave her more anti-inflammatory and some long-acting antibiotics.  Sami made a "jacket" for her out of an old sweatshirt.  Tonight, she's still swollen, but she seems to have eaten - we'll keep our fingers crossed!

My next stop was at the paddock where the ewes were.  No new lambs, so we went on to Sierra College to move the yearling ewes and goats.  After feeding a small group of cows in Lincoln, I returned to Auburn to check the ewes - again, no new lambs.  Paul, Taff and I moved them just down the road to fresh feed (which they were happy about!).  We then expanded the paddock - I wanted to be sure they had plenty of feed and natural shelter with the weather (rain and snow) we're expecting in the next several days.

As we let them into the expanded paddock, we noticed a ewe calling and looking back like she'd left a lamb. She was showing whitish discharge, indicating she hadn't yet lambed.  After about a half an hour of searching for a lamb (just in case), Paul (our apprentice) saw her give birth to a ram lamb.  About 20 minutes later, she had a second - a ewe lamb this time.  After my last check tonight, all three were doing great!
Ewe 616 with her twins.

Courtney, Josie, Maria and Buck.
Our friend Courtney brought her baby Josie and her niece Maria by to see the sheep.  Buck made sure everyone was okay!

This new property has lots of blackberries (and according to the neighbors) lots of coyotes.  We're a bit concerned about predation, but our guard dog, Buck, has always done a great job.  When I went back just before sundown, he was laying near the ewe and her lambs, so I think the sheep are in good hands.
The last sunny afternoon for a while?

The coming weather makes me nervous.  We've selected breeds and individual ewes for their hardiness and mothering ability, but the combination of wind and cold rain or snow can be deadly.  We'll monitor things very closely over the next 3-4 days and move the sheep into a barn if it becomes necessary.  I won't sleep very well until this wet/cold spell passes.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Lambing Journal - Day 1

Lambing season officially started today (a day early by my calculations, but the ewes don't carry a calendar).  Ewe #33 (a maiden ewe, meaning this is her first lamb) had a bloody discharge showing when I walked through the sheep this morning.  As this is usually a sign that a ewe has already delivered, I was worried that I didn't see a lamb with her.  After more exploration in the pasture, I came across a single ewe lamb off by herself (never a good sign).  The ewe showed slight interest in the lamb, but much more interest in grazing.  The lamb was clean and dry, but obviously hungry - she even tried to nurse on the guard dog (good ol' Uncle Buck).

Sometimes new mothers will clean off a lamb and then go off to graze, forgetting where they've left the lamb.  After watching the ewe for about 45 minutes, I decided to send the ewe and lamb home.  Our intern, Paul, put in an ear tag, gave her a selenium drench, and docked her tail.  He also paint branded her with her mother's ear tag number (33), which allows us to quickly match up ewes with lambs.  Samia came by with the trailer, and we loaded them up.  Before Sami left, we held the ewe and allowed the lamb to nurse.

Sami put them in a stall at home all by themselves.  When I checked on them at about 2 p.m., the ewe had definitely mothered up - she was calling to the lamb, and the lamb was warm and happy.  Unfortunately, Sami found the lamb with a swollen head about 2 hours later.  We're not sure if the swelling is from a spider bite or some other sort of trauma.  We gave the lamb an anti-inflammatory, and I'll head back out shortly to check on her.

Now that we've started lambing, we'll go through the ewes 2-3 times each day - checking for new lambs and for problems.  The ewes are only about 3 miles from home this year, which is great (last year, we lambed in Lincoln - about 15 miles from home).  We're most worried about the coming cold weather - the National Weather Service is predicting a chance of snow Thursday night through Saturday in Auburn.  We'll monitor the conditions and move the sheep to a more sheltered location if necessary.

I'm planning on updating this "journal" daily as we go through lambing season - stay tuned!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Intern Reunion at Sierra College

One of our 2009 interns, Julie House, visited us today - what a treat!  Julie is now working at a Montessori school in Davis.  We had a great time catching up.  Julie helped us move fence for the sheep and goats at Sierra College and walked through the ewes to check for new lambs (turns out that lambing is her favorite time of year, too).  One of this year's interns, Paul Lambertson, worked with us this morning, too - our chores went especially quickly!

Over the years, we've tried to develop a formal internship program.  Our interns are expected to read up on subjects related to sheep production and pasture management.  We also help them gain hands-on experience in all aspects of our business.  Finally, each intern takes on a farm-related project - Julie's was helping to organize a lamb and goat recipe book - and a farm-community project.

While formal education is important, much of what I've learned from being in the sheep business is not taught in college level animal science or agricultural economics classes.  We hope that our interns gain a tremendous amount of skill and knowledge during their time with us.  We certainly benefit from looking at our operation through new eyes!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Late Winter Sunset

What a pretty day!  Wish you could here the frogs chirping - made these sunset photos even prettier!

A Shepherd's Day

This morning, my friend and sheep partner Roger Ingram and I moved the bred ewes about 1/4 mile down Shanley Road to fresh feed.  Thanks to our outstanding dogs (Bella and Mo this morning), the move went very well - and the sheep were very happy to be on new feed.  After they settled in, Roger and I walked through the ewes to see how close they're getting to lambing.  We expect to have new lambs by the end of the week!

Then Mo and I drove to Sierra College to check on the yearling ewes and goats that are grazing a fuel break on campus.  I'd moved them yesterday, so we didn't have much to do.  After several days of cold rain, they were enjoying the sunshine.

After stops at the feed store and the hardware store on the way home, I finally cleaned my desk (much to Sami's amazement and delight).  I also went through our lambing supplies and got organized for the impending arrivals.  This afternoon, we met Roger and our friend Kathy Hofer at the ranch to train dogs.  Taff did some great outruns, and Ernie definitely made progress.  One more check of the lambing ewes, and we returned home.  All in all a great day!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Working in the Rain

I must admit - I kind of enjoy working outside in stormy weather.  I'm fortunate to have pretty decent foul weather gear (including lots of woolen clothing and good rubber boots), so it's generally not too uncomfortable.
I find being outdoors in rain or snow to be calming - things are quieter and slower.

Today, I built a new 3/4 acre paddock for our sheep and goats at Sierra College (in the rain).  I also moved our 130 pregnant ewes across the road and into a new pasture during a driving sleet storm in Auburn.  Maybe it's genetic - my northern European and Scottish ancestors probably dealt with worse weather.  What a great day!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Shepherd's Dog at Rest

Ernie got to spend the night in the house last night.  As you can see, he especially enjoyed waking up in front of the woodstove this morning!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

8 days to go

Theoretically, we have 8 days to wait before the first lambs arrive.  The ewes aren't acquainted with theory, so we might have a ewe or two that decides to lamb early.  Accordingly, we will spend the rest of this week walking through the sheep  to make sure that everyone's okay.

As I've written previously, I love this time of year.  The grass is starting to grow, the days alternate between spring and winter, and we begin to see the results of our work last summer and fall.

On April 2, we're hosting a photography workshop with our friend Mary Yates (from Sage Ranch).  We should have most of our lambs on the ground by then - should be a great day for photos and fun!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Da' Boys

A few photos of our rams - soaking in the footbath today!
Our terminal bucks - we use a Border Cheviot and a composite (Texel x British Suffolk) ram on our "mule" ewes.

The Blueface Leicester Rams.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Grass-fed or Grain-fed - Asking the Right Question

Grass-fed meat has become quite trendy over the last 5 years.  When I working on establishing a producer-owned grass-fed beef business in 2003, grass-fed was still viewed skeptically by producers and consumers alike - it had a reputation for being tough and dry (from a consumer perspective) and an unprofitable "micro" niche (from a rancher perspective).  Since that time, we've seen the publication of several Michael Polan books espousing the benefits of grass-fed meat.  We've had cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in North America.  And we've seen one of the largest privately owned ranches in California (Hearst Ranch) start marketing grass-fed beef.

As with many agricultural trends, the U.S. Department of Agriculture seems to be lagging behind.  For many years, USDA permitted meat purveyors who marketed grass-fed meat to feed grain for up to 20 percent of the animal's lifetime nutritional requirements.  While the definition has changed, it continues to create confusion among producers and consumers alike.  In our own local farmers markets, we find that the term "grass-fed" means different things to different folks.

To us, grass-fed means just that - our lambs and steers eat grass and grass alone.  While it might be easier (and cheaper) to put weight on our animals if we add a little grain to their diets, we hold fast to our personal 100% grass-fed definition - no grain, ever.  This dedication means that our meat has the higher levels of Omega 3, CLA and beta carotene that make grass-fed meat so nutritious.  Our research suggests that feeding ANY grain changes this nutritional profile.

All of this suggests that the proper question for a consumer to ask is not, "Is your lamb grass-fed?"  It might be better to ask, "Do you feed any grain - ever?"

Friday, February 4, 2011

How Small is Big Enough?

Small is beautiful, E.F. Schuacher tells us, and Schumacher’s vision of economics at a more human scale certainly resonates with me as a small-scale farmer.  From a local food perspective, small farms are held up as a more compassionate, sustainable and responsible alternative to corporate-managed industrialized agriculture.  Small, family-owned farms, the theory goes, are more ecologically sensitive than their “industrial” counterparts.  As a practitioner of “small” farming, I am philosophically and economically inclined towards this perspective.  As someone striving to make my living from small farming, however, I often struggle with the question of scale.  Balancing the idealistic goal of staying small with the realistic need to be big enough to earn a living wage is, I think, one of the most critical questions for small farmers.

From a practical standpoint, there are advantages to staying small.  On a small farm, the farmer can pay close attention to details that might be lost on a larger operation – details like soil protection and pest detection.  Wendell Berry writes that a farm is sized correctly if it can be cared for by the farm family and perhaps by a few seasonal employees.  Obviously, this definition means that a right-sized farm will vary depending on the crops produced.  For example, our family can properly care for 400 ewes with a minimum of outside help.  On the other hand, five or ten acres of vegetables might be the correct size for another operation.

Perhaps by necessity, smaller-scaled farms also have more direct contact with their customers.  With fewer units to sell, small farms are driven to maximize their profits per unit, which often means direct marketing.  This direct connection means less time between harvest and consumption, which allows small farms to market fresher, better tasting, and more nutritious fruits and vegetables.  As a small farmer, I focus more on feeding my neighbors and my community than on the oft-repeated focus on “feeding the world” espoused by the proponents of industrial-scale agriculture.

The romantic notion of making a living from 100 ewes or an acre of mixed vegetables, however, quickly runs up against the realities of scale.  Small producers typically have higher unit costs for purchasing supplies, obtaining processing services, transporting products, and other inputs.  In some cases, these higher unit costs on the expense side of the ledger partially or totally offset the higher per unit revenues that result from direct marketing.  In other words, I receive more per lamb marketed than my large-scale counter parts, but my expenses per lamb are greater as well.  Size is related directly to costs.  For example, the harvest cost for a lot of 19 lambs is $25 per animal.  For 20 lambs, I only pay $20 per animal.  A semi load of lambs (400 or so), would cost even less to process.  Similarly, a bale of alfalfa costs $14 at our local feed store.  If I buy a ton of alfalfa, I save 10 percent.  If I purchase a truck and trailer load, the hay costs just $8.50 per bale, and it’s delivered to our place.

In addition to advantageous economies of scale, large, industrial-sized farms make efficient use of capital, mostly in the form of equipment.  Large farms substitute cheap fossil fuel and machinery for labor.  Jobs that a small farmer might do by hand (like weeding the string beans) can be accomplished by a $40,000 tractor and cultivator.

Finally, scale matters to customers, too.  Buyers like restaurants and retail grocers would generally rather purchase food from a handful of sources rather than from a greater number of small farms.  The Farmers Diner, a small New England chain of restaurants committed to buying from local, small-scale producers, can’t afford to pay $7.50 per pound for bacon from a farmer just down the road (the price the farm received for bacon at the farmers’ market).  Says Bill McKibben in Eaarth, what Farmers Diner owner Tod Murphy “really requires is not huge commodity producers or small, incredibly wonderful gourmet farms.”  Murphy tells McKibben, “What I need are 1950s-size farms” – the mid-sized farms that have disappeared in the last 30 years.

Economically, a farm is “profitable” if its revenue per unit sold is greater than the direct costs of producing each unit.  For me, I earn a profit if I can sell my lamb for more than the cost of feed, veterinary care, shearing and processing.  Once a farm can sell each unit at a profit, the farm family must determine its total income needs (for things like living expenses, overhead costs, health care, retirement, etc).  Is the farm a part-time occupation?  Does the family need to derive one or more full-time salaries from the operation?  In other words, the farm must operate at a scale that covers its production expenses and its overhead, and that produces a profit for the farm family.  While this scale varies by the type of operation and by the farm family’s needs and expectations, it is a question that must be answered correctly for the farm to stay in business.

In our case, farming represents about 80 percent of my working hours.  Logically, the farm should generate 80 percent of my income.  At our current size, it does not – the majority of my income comes from consulting contracts.  What, then, are my options for making my farm pay me a full-time wage?

Our primary activity is the production of grass-fed lamb.  We started our business with 27 ewes in 2005.  Today (2011) we have approximately 100 ewes.  Experience suggests that I could manage 3-4 times as many sheep without a significant increase in labor or land expenses.  Economics analysis suggests that 400 ewes would produce enough lambs to generate both a salary for me and a profit for the business.  My conclusion is that we are not yet operating at the proper scale, given our goals and financial needs.

While small farms may represent a way to invest labor (instead of or in addition to capital), capital costs take center stage when considering any expansion. The typical return-on-investment analysis is not a sufficient gauge of success on its own.  As a small farmer, I don’t have much capital to invest in my operation.  I do have my time, knowledge and skills, however.  Consequently, I’m far more concerned with how much a specific enterprise or activity will return per hour of my labor.  That being said, once I’ve learned the skills necessary for an enterprise, it may make sense to invest enough money to increase the scale of our operation.

Much of the solution lies in making our national food system more equitable to those who produce our food.  “We need to be willing to pay our neighbors enough to grow our food that they can make a decent living,” says Bill McKibben (Eaarth,  p 178).  To be sustainable, agriculture must address three key elements: resource conservation and enhancement, social equity, and economic viability.  To ignore any of these three issues is short sited; to ignore economic viability is lethal.  A farm that fails economically will ultimately fail to conserve resources and social equity.  Ultimately, economic viability requires farms to operate at a scale that provides for profitability.