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Showing posts from April, 2011

Livestock and Wildlife

The interactions between livestock and wildlife are complex.  In some cases, wildlife and livestock may compete for resources - forage, water, etc.  In other cases, wildlife and livestock seem to be complimentary.  In most cases, maintaining range livestock production (instead of residential, commercial or industrial development) favors wildlife.

We're currently grazing about 240 acres of open space within the Whitney Oaks community of Rocklin, California.  This open space is all that remains if the Whitney Ranch - one of the first sheep ranches in our part of the state.  As you can imagine, this open space is an incredible resource for the community - it provides recreational opportunities, watershed values, scenic vistas - and wildlife habitat.  I would imagine that for many of the kids in the community, it provides the only day-in-day-out contact with the "wild."  For the next several months, it also provides forage for our sheep.

We've been contacted by a concerne…

Learning Skills

What do homemade fried chicken, shearing sheep, building fence, driving a mule/horse and working a sheep dog have in common?  They all require hands-on experience to do well!  The Scottish folksinger, Dougie McLean says about learning to use the scythe, "It's not like you can go out and by the video "Scythe in a Day."  The skills I've listed above are similar - they require lots of experience (perhaps a lifetime worth of experience) to do well.

I guess the other thing that these skills have in common is that they are both physical/manual and mental.  Working a dog requires both a physical presence and total mental focus, as does driving a mule.  When my great-grandmother Grace Fleming taught my Dad to fry chicken, she told him, "Mike, if you want to learn to do this, you need to be here at the stove the entire time - it's not something you can wander off and come back to."  Similarly, John Erksine, a horse farmer / friend from Washington, says that …

Emma's Blog

My daughter Emma "penned" the following entry (and took the photo):

I am happy that it is spring.  Spring is fun.  I love smelling the flowers and grass and the soil and I hear the lambs. We have 12 bottle lambs.  They are so cute; they run like crazy. It is fun to have bottle lambs and they eat twice a day in the morning and night.

Avian Sign Posts

I was reminded today that my work as a shepherd is tied closely to the rhythms of the seasons - and that nature also pays close attention to these rhythms.  I heard and saw the first Bullock's Oriole today in a tree in one of our pastures.  The return of the Orioles (from Central America, I think) generally occurs in our part of the foothills around the third week of April.  They remind me that it's time to shear!  The Sandhill Cranes go south in the fall - about the time we turn the rams in with the ewes.  They come back north in February - about the time our new lambs arrive.

I count myself fortunate to make my living in partnership with nature - sometimes I have to stop and remember to be quiet enough to hear what nature is telling me!  Sometimes it's the call of a bird that wakes me up!

Contract Grazing - Not for the Faint Hearted

Twice in the last week (on Saturday in Rocklin, and today in Lincoln), we've had sheep out of the fence on our contract grazing jobs.  We know for sure that the sheep in Rocklin were chased through the fence by some kids.  I suspect that the sheep in Lincoln may have had human encouragement (if not outright assistance) in their great escape this morning.  My assistant manager, Paul, saw the sheep inside the fence at 5:45 this morning - by 6:45 they were out.

The risk of having sheep out in an urban area is just one of the challenges in contract grazing.  Other issues include the potential for poisonous plants (either growing naturally or fed as yard clippings), predator attacks, and neighbor complaints.  In my experience, 99.9% of the neighbors love seeing the sheep.  There are always a few folks, however, who don't like the noise, the smell, or the fact that someone is being paid to graze their animals.

Obviously, there's a great deal more to contract grazing than simply t…

Working in the Woods - in the name of good beer!

While our main enterprises center on sheep grazing, we also produce sustainable forest products in partnership with the Edwards family in Colfax and with Courtney McDonald (who interned with us several years ago).  Today, we completed an order for 24 peeled poles for another small farmer here in Auburn.  We used 21 Douglas fir trees to manufacture the 24 poles.  These are trees that needed to be thinned from the Edwards' woods to improve the health of the forest - it's nice to have an economic reason to remove these little trees.

The process involves felling and limbing the trees, cutting the poles to length, and then peeling the bark by hand (using a draw knife).  This time of year, the sap is starting to move up the trees, which makes peeling the bark much easier.  Timing is everything (as with many things) - last week, the 20-foot poles took Courtney more than an hour to peel (because the sap wasn't running yet).  The poles I cut today took about 20 minutes to peel - an …

The Ernie Report

After taking a break from working Ernie due to lambing, I've finally been able to work our youngest dog, Ernie, on a more regular basis.  Tonight, he really made progress - he checked himself, and he generally gave more space to the sheep.  As per my previous entry, communication can sometimes be positive - sometimes discouraging.  Today was very positive!

The Art of Living Systems

Several conversations (and many of my own activities) over the last several months have been rattling around in my head.  These conversations and actions have to do with the difference between relying on living, breathing systems (like grazing sheep, herding dogs and draft animals) versus relying on machines (like mowers and tractors).  While some might argue that there is an art to driving a car or a tractor, I'm realizing that real art (at least in terms of my own life and livelihood) involves my ability to interact with and use living systems.

Let me explain a bit further.  I use grazing animals (mostly sheep) to help landowners achieve their vegetation management and ecological goals.  I use herding dogs and guardian animals to help manage my livestock.  When I get a chance, I use a draft animal to cultivate my garden.  The common thread in each of these endeavors is my need to communicate with other creatures - creatures with languages that I do not fully understand.  Unlike …

Market Time (the Intern Blog - by Callie Murphy)

Strawberry heaven I don't think the words "grocery shopping," "fun," or "inspiring" are often used in close proximity, except maybe if you are a chef. I would be more likely to describe it as "a necessary chore," "tiring," "overwhelming," and "confusing;" especially "confusing" as I start to pay attention more to what I am eating, when I am eating it and what kind of quality it is.

I now realize big chain grocery stores do not reflect the seasons in their produce nor the reality of what food in its natural state looks like (apples are not shiny and waxy when pulled from a tree, potatoes don't come sliced frozen in a plastic bag).  Sure, a lot of packaged food is easier to prepare and you can get ripe tomatoes in December, but there are costs associated with this convenience; costs that begin with eaters being totally removed from and unaware of the cycles of earth and how a bean stalk sp…

Update on Lambs

Now that lambing is done (for the spring, anyway), I've been taking a break from daily blogging.  I thought, perhaps, that an update on the lambs was in order - now that the last lamb is over a week old.  The last lamb, unfortunately, has had a run of bad luck.  The day after he arrived, his mother suffered a uterine prolapse.  Sami's efforts to keep her uterus in place with purse-string stitches has been successful.  Today, however, the lamb had a swollen hock - signs of a joint infection.  He may have navel ill (an infection that entered from his umbilical cord), or he may have suffered some kind of trauma to his leg.  I treated him with antibiotics, and we'll keep an eye on him over the next 3-4 days.

The rest of the lambs are doing well!  As part of our ongoing battle against footrot, we put all the ewes and lambs through the footbath last week.  We had noticed 8-10 lambs limping a bit (not unusual with all of the wet weather we've had).  The footbath seemed to help…


I ground-drove my mule, Frisbee, today - first time in over a year that she's been in harness.  I decided to take her out today in anticipation of cultivating our garden.  I'm hoping to use her exclusively - no fossil fuels shall be harmed in the preparation of our soil.

We did fairly well - after about 5 minutes of wanting to go fast, she settled in and listened.  I think she'll be ready to pull the springtooth harrow after a few more sessions.  I was struck once again by the challenge of communicating with animals.  Since we don't share a common language, we have to figure out (on both sides) how to talk to one another.  Since an animal's response is more instinctive than a humans (we seem to have lost or suppressed many of our instincts), I think it's more difficult for us to communicate than it is for our animals - we need to understand them and talk back in a way that they can understand.  In thinking about my relationship with my border collies, I realize…

Bottle Babies

We currently have 12 bottle baby lambs here at the house.  These are lambs who got too cold during the wild weather in March, lambs who were the smallest of a set of triplets, or lambs who were abandoned by their mothers.  Samia has been caring for them.

We thought folks would enjoy this video of them nursing from buckets!

A Lambing Journal - Day 42

The rams were in with the ewes for 40 days.  On day 42 of our lambing season, the last lamb arrived.  Ewe 32 had a single ram lamb sometime last night.  Judging by the swelling of his head and is general size, I'm guessing it was a somewhat difficult delivery.  Regardless, both the ewe and lamb are doing well today!

We had a busy and productive day today.  Paul and I brought all of the ewes and lambs into the corrals (with the help of Mo and Taff, of course - actually, they did most of the work!).  We sorted off all of the open ewes (those that weren't bred and those that lost lambs) - they'll go to the Whitney Oaks project later in the week.  We also sorted off 10 ewes with lambs - they'll graze small projects around Auburn for the next month.  The rest of the ewes and lambs (roughly 100) will go to a project in Lincoln in about a week.  Everyone (lambs included) went through the footbath today - with all of the wet weather we've had, we've started to see some…

A Lambing Journal - Day 40/41

I didn't post an update last night, because we held our second annual "Sheep Camp" - a one-night camp-out where the sheep are pastured.  This year, we were joined by current and past interns, their families (in some cases), our landlords, and a number of friends.  We made stew for 26 on the campfire - it was quite a feast!  The girls and I stayed the night, along with our intern Callie and her boyfriend Matt.  We feasted again this morning - egg burritos with bacon and leftover stew.

One of the last two ewes lambed overnight - a great set of twins.  We're down to one - I hope she'll lamb today.

A Lambing Journal - Day 39

Not much to report again today (at least lamb-wise).  We did accomplish a fairly complicated move of the lambs and ewes onto new pasture, though.  We brought the sheep through a total of four gates, up a driveway, and into fresh feed.  The lambs (for the most part) have figured out the routine, as have our dogs.  Once again, I'm so grateful to have dogs like Taff and Mo.

Hopefully, the last two ewes will give birth over the weekend!