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Showing posts from July, 2011

Border Collie Day Spa

Sami says that my dog, Taff, has personal hygiene habits that are similar to mine.  He often looks unkempt (as do I), but I'm a bit insulted by the insinuation.  I've never (purposely) rolled in manure (cow or sheep), and I have a distinct dislike for burrs.

Today, Taff helped return a group of wayward sheep to their pasture in Rocklin.  They'd been chased (probably by a coyote) through the electric fence - Taff and I (and Lara's dog, Mo) gathered the last bunch and put them back where they belonged (our apprentice, Paul Lambertson, along with his dog Ben, had gathered most of the flock).  During the work, Taff picked up a few burrs.

After this adventure, Taff and I went to the Canyonview Preserve, a property owned by the Placer Land Trust.  There wasn't a great deal of work for Taff, but he managed to find even more burrs!  Our friend Jean Allender calls these burrs "beggar's lice" - I like the term and the imagery.  As a shepherd, I'm too poor t…

That Time of Year

I've probably written about this in past years - it seems to happen to me at some point every summer.  I reach a point where I'm so tired mentally and physically that feel I'm ready to throw in the towel.  There were several days last week when an air-conditioned office job with a steady paycheck sounded pretty attractive.

Part of my malaise comes from working 6-1/2 to 7 days a week this time of year.  With sheep spread between Rocklin and southern Nevada County, my days can stretch pretty long.  We tend to fill up most of the daylight hours with work.  Part of it stems from the relatively low pay that comes with my job.  I've never had a desire to get rich, but it would be nice to live with a little less financial stress, too.

For me, these "dog days" of summer will last until sometime in August.  Usually in the last half of August, I'll awake to a morning that feels and smells like autumn.  I'll remember, then, that the year is turning and that cool…

The Culture of Stockmanship

Like any other activity that involves other living beings, stockmanship is a complicated concept, one that is further complicated by the fact that it involves other species.  As I look back over my experience in working with livestock, I marvel at how much I have learned.  Stockmanship involves skills that are based on trial and error, observation, and cross-species communication.

When we first started raising sheep, we'd build a small pen - or trap - in which to catch the sheep.  We lacked the experience and confidence to be able to handle the sheep to give them shots or load them in the trailer.  As we grew our flock, we'd build elaborate alleys and pens to load them in the trailer when we needed to move them.  Today, with the help of a good border collie, I loaded two rams in the trailer at the side of a country road - no fences and no feed to lure them into the trailer.

Stockmanship, to me, involves the ability to safely and humanely work with livestock.  This work include…

More Observations

As frequent readers of Foothill Agrarian will know, I am deeply appreciative of the fact that my work takes me outdoors nearly everyday.  On particularly hot days, sometimes I question my choice of professions (or at least my choice of locale), but even on days like this one, I find that being outside is what I enjoy most.

If I'm paying attention when I'm working outside, there is always something new to observe.  The wet spring and the unusual late June rainstorm this year have had a number of interesting impacts on the natural world.  Late rain seems to favor yellow starthistle (California's new state flower, I think).  As a late maturing annual plant with a deep taproot, starthistle can take advantage of late-season moisture.  This year's crop of starthistle is especially impressive.  While it's a terribly invasive and annoying weed, it does provide reasonably good nutrition for livestock when the rest of our forage is dry and of low value.  We currently have sh…

Lamb Jam San Francisco 2011

We were invited by the American Lamb Board to participate in Lamb Jam San Francisco this year (for more information, go to  This year's event, which was held at the Golden Gate Club at the Presidio in San Francisco, was completely sold out - more than 700 folks turned out!  We were one of three "local" producers (along Pozzi Ranch Lamb from Sonoma County and Shannon Ranch from Lake County) who had booths - what fun!  The event featured a chef's competition, wine tasting, and some outstanding and unusual lamb dishes.  For us, it was a great excuse to spend a fun day in the City!  Enjoy these photos!

Old Town Auburn Farmers' Market

Here's what you missed today if you didn't make it to the Old Town Auburn Farmers' Market today!


I just came in from riding my mule, Frisbee, in our back pasture.  I noticed this evening that the blue oaks on our property have pushed out new growth since the big rain we had in late June.  Seems like nature takes advantage of positive conditions - the oaks will grow more because of the natural irrigation they received this summer.

The challenge for farmers and ranchers in our region, I think, is to work with natural conditions.  Generally speaking, we get a germinating rain sometime in the fall.  The grass starts to grow, and it continues to grow until the temperatures remain too cold for growth (usually sometime in December).  In late February or early March (usually), the temperatures stay warm enough to promote rapid grass growth.  In May or early June, soil moisture is depleted and growth stops.

For livestock producers, this means that we should try to synchronize the reproductive cycle with the weather cycle.  A female sheep or cow has her greatest nutritional demand in late …

Flying Mule Farm's Grass-fed Lamb Education Project

We recently started a grass-fed lamb educational project.  While we originally envisioned this project for 4-H members, we decided to open it more broadly (at least in this first year).  Our participants this year include both children and adults - our oldest daughter, Lara; three boys from Nevada County; our newest apprentice Callie Murphy and her boyfriend Matt; and the four children of our other apprentice, Paul Lambertson.

Through this project, we're hoping to help our participants learn about animal selection, husbandry practices, pasture management, meat processing, marketing and financial record keeping.  Each participant selected a lamb at weaning and paid market price for the lamb.  We've been scheduling regular work days during which the participants help with things like shearing, moving fence, vaccinating the lambs, and other activities.

Once the lambs reach finish weight, we'll talk again about live animal evaluation and will place the lambs in order of their …

The Right Dog for the Job

Regular readers of Foothill Agrarian will know that we depend on our border collies to help us accomplish many jobs with the sheep, goats and cattle.  Over the last several months, I've realized (not surprisingly) that our two trained dogs, Mo and Taff, have different talents and abilities.  Increasingly, I find myself choosing the dog to fit the job on a particular day.

Taff, our oldest dog at 8 years old, is the best dog for general ranch work.  If I need to move a large group of sheep over a long distance, Taff is the dog for the job.  He's extremely loyal to me - indeed, he will not work for anyone else like he works for me - and with the right encouragement, he'll work until the job is done.  While he's the heaviest of our three working dogs, he also seems to have the most stamina.  Even on warm days, he'll keep going.  This evening, we moved 70 ewes about a half-mile to a new paddock at Sierra College.  Taff was the perfect dog for the task - he kept the shee…


Many of us who have livestock have been talking about Maggie the cattle dog (see for the story).  Most of us agree that we don't know if we'd be able to show as much restraint as Maggie's owner, John Reader.  Personally, I think it would probably be a good thing that I don't carry a firearm - I'm not sure what I'd do if somebody tried to run over my livestock, my friends and family and my dog.

I was relating this story to a fellow stockman from Utah last weekend.  He told me that he had a friend who rode a huge (nearly 17 hands) black horse when he drove cattle to the mountains.  If a motorist showed any inclination towards driving through the herd, his friend would stop his horse in the middle of the road and point at the offending driver.  Invariably, the driver stopped and waited.

Recently, I've been riding my mule more often.  She's almost the same size -…

Growing Grass

To produce grass-fed lamb and beef, we've become students of the art and science of growing grass.  In some respects, we farm grass that we harvest using sheep and cattle!  I thought a brief description of how we take care of our grass might be of interest.

Grass plants (all forage plants, really) go through three phases of growth.  Phase 1 includes germination and re-growth following grazing or harvest.  In this phase, the plant does not have enough leaf area to photosynthesize sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy, so it draws on the carbohydrates stored in the seed or in the root system.  From a grazing standpoint, Phase 1 plants are extremely nutritious, but because of the lack of leaf area, very low in quantity.

The plant will transition to Phase 2 when it has enough solar receptors (e.g., leaf area) to manufacture it's own energy.  At this stage, the forage is both high in nutritional quality and plentiful.  Phase 2 is a grass-farmer's goal!

In Phase 3, the plants …

Shearing the Lambs

Little by little, we're trying to get our lambs sheared over the next few weeks.  We've found that shearing them helps them deal with the heat a bit better, which means they'll gain weight faster!  Thanks to our landlord George Nolte at the Elster Ranch for these photos.  Thanks also to Roger Ingram and Michael, Gabe and Ben McDonald for helping out on Thursday!  I'm not the most accomplished sheep shearer, but the only way to get better is to shear lots of sheep!


I'm re-reading Fencing the Sky by James Galvin - in my narrow little world, it's one of the most important novels written in the last 20 years.  I highly recommend it!  Here's a few quotes:

"But of all the conversations man has and has had with nature, agriculture is arguably the most intimate, lively, and potentially loving one, since it is ancient, necessary...."

"Who speaks for the land?  Or, more properly, who interprets the language of subtlety and catastrophe?  Farmers?  Ranchers?  Environmentalists?  What do you lose, from an environmental point of view when you lose a family farm or ranch?

"Besides losing a way of life, a culture opposed to the dominant First World values of expansion and greed, you lose species diversity, care, and the thread of the conversation concerning a particular place."

One of the characters, Oscar Rose, says in response to the above ideas: "So I'm not complaining.  I don't mind the work.  Just let me d…