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Showing posts from August, 2011

A Shepherd's Perspective on Local Food Systems

We recently received a request to supply 360 lamb rib chops for an event in Placer County.Seems the folks putting on the event love lamb chops and wanted to support local producers.While I appreciate the support, I find myself troubled by what this order implies about the state of our local food system.As a society, we have become accustomed to being able to purchase any type of food at any time of the year.We fail to consider the repercussions of this approach to buying food locally from small scale producers.The more I think about it, the more I believe that local food system means more than just eating in season and shopping at the farmers’ market.A successful local food system requires collaboration between eaters and farmers – between supply and demand.
Our “eat anything at any time” system of food distribution relies on commodity scale production – “You want lamb chops, we’ve got ‘em – how many do you need?”To fill an order for 360 rib chops, we would need to process 23 lambs.Whi…

Sheep in the Woods

In the 4-6 weeks before we turn the rams in with the ewes in the fall, we try to put the ewes on a rising plane of nutrition - in other words, we try to put the ewes on better quality feed.  This is called "flushing," and it can increase the number of twins conceived.  In years past, we've tried feeding hay, with some success.  This year, we're taking our entire ewe flock to Edwards Family Farm in Colfax.
Allen and Nancy Edwards are primarily tree farmers - they grow timber.  They also grow lots of deer brush, buck brush, blackberries, and other perennial vegetation that is green even in August.  Nutritional analysis shows that this vegetation is high in protein and/or energy - essential elements in flushing the ewes.  Blackberries, for example, have a similar nutritional profile to alfalfa hay.  In past years, Allen and Nancy have managed this resource using goats.  This year, we're trying it with sheep.  Sheep are generally grazers more than browsers (that is, t…

More Lessons from our Dogs

I often joke with people that our border collies are the best employees a sheep rancher could have - they always show up on time, I never have to bail them out of jail on Saturday morning, and the workers comp is reasonable since I'm married to a vet!  I told this story to someone at Sierra College today, and he remarked, "It's a pretty good deal for your dog, too!"

This made me think.  Our work is a pretty good deal for our dogs - our border collies live to work.  Taff will sulk if I don't take him with me.  Ernie becomes very serious if he thinks he's going to get to work the sheep.  Mo is usually happy, but he's happiest when there are sheep or cows to move.

Working border collies live to work - they absolutely love what they do.  How many of us can say the same thing about our work?  Many of us take jobs simply because we need the money.  We work all week to earn enough money for basic living expenses.  My dogs live by the basic principle that their i…

Highs and Lows

As with any work, ranching has it's good days and bad days.  Rarely do these high points and low points occur on the same day.  Yesterday, however, was a exception.

We're currently grazing sheep on land owned by Sierra College in Grass Valley.  The property we're grazing is located adjacent to Nevada Union High School and is crisscrossed by trails used by students walking to and from school and for cross-country training.  Yesterday, the second day of school for NU, I spoke with three agricultural classes about targeted grazing and the environmental benefits of sheep.  The students were engaged, attentive and fun - I love sharing my interest in grazing with kids who seem to share my interest!

Between talking to the classes, I set up fence for a new paddock for the sheep.  The new 5-acre paddock is dominated by year-old re-sprouts of Himalayan blackberries, mature poison oak and tall coniferous trees (mostly Ponderosa pine).  While this type of vegetation would typically fav…

Cattle Grazing and Yosemite Toads

This study was published several months ago, but I thought it might be of interest:

I have a connection to this issue through my days working with the California Cattlemen's Association.  In the mid 1990s, the Sierra National Forest was sued over its grazing program by several environmental groups.  During the course of the litigation, we organized a field trip to the Sierra's grazing allotments that included the Forest Service, the environmental groups and the ranching families that took cows to the mountains.  As you might imagine, the discussions were fairly tense at times.

During one of our last stops, we listened to a researcher (who was from Fresno Community College, as I recall) who had been doing surveys of Yosemite toad populations.  He had documented declines in their populations, and he was certain that the decline was due to the presence of cattle in their habitat.

While the …

Thoughts on Dogs

I had a beer with my friend Roger this evening, and as usually happens, our conversation turned to working dogs.  To quote (loosely) a line from one of my favorite songs by Scottish folksinger Dougie McLean, "We will take a dram together.  The whiskey makes it all so clear."  I hate to admit it, but sometimes a beer helps crystallize my thoughts.

Roger and his border collie Bella have made huge strides in their working relationship this summer.  Most of this progress has happened since Roger and Bella had a very frustrating day trying to move the lambs at Elster Ranch.  Roger said that the challenges of that day helped him realize the importance of trying something different if things aren't working.

In thinking about my experience with working dogs, I realized how fortunate I was to start my experience with Ellen Skillings' Paige.  Paige was 11 when Ellen loaned her to us, and she knew more about handling sheep than I'll ever know.  Paige had incredible confiden…

Sierra College - Grass Valley (Day 6)

After two days in this paddock!

Sierra College - Grass Valley (Day 5)

Before and after pictures.  These photos show 24 hours of grazing by 200 ewes.

Sometimes It Doesn't Work - Sometimes It Does!

We've jumped into targeted grazing in a big way this year.  We grazed about 250 acres in Rocklin from March to early August.  We've grazed Sierra College in Rocklin twice this year.  Currently, we have sheep at Sierra College in Grass Valley and at the Placer Land Trust's Canyonview Preserve in Auburn.

Successful targeted grazing requires us to match our animals' needs and preferences with the growth stage of the plants we're targeting.  We also have to match our management objectives with those of our clients.  We might need the ewes to be on higher quality forage at a time when a client doesn't have good feed.  We also need to account for the weather - this year, in particular, has been challenging.  With the abnormal late rains, we have had a hard time predicting forage growth.

We recently moved sheep from a contract in Nevada County after deciding that our goals didn't fit well with the state of the vegetation and the goals of the landowner.  When I loo…

Further Thoughts on Profit and Farming

I had a call yesterday from a very well-intentioned and enthusiastic man who wants to get started with goats.  While he said that he was calling to seek my advice about goat breeds, marketing and the use of dogs (guardian and herding dogs), he seemed to already have most of the answers (or at least he didn't agree with my answers).  During the course of our discussion, he told me that making a profit from his goat enterprise wasn't a motivating factor - he simply wanted to have dairy goats as a service to his family and to his community.

I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed with this perspective.  Without profit as a motivating factor, was this aspiring farmer going to accurately analyze his enterprises?  I like to think that I farm for many reasons (making a profit is one of them, but so is love of the land, love for the work, the opportunity to provide my community with food and fiber, and the chance to work with my family).

All business people (including small-scale…

The Irrigator's Lament

In our Mediterranean climate, green grass in the summertime requires irrigation.  We recently leased a new pasture near Auburn, and we find ourselves back in the business of making it rain in the summer!

I know old timers who seemed to be able to make water run uphill.  Before the days of aluminum pipe and Rainbird (tm) sprinklers, pastures were irrigated out of ditches that ran along the contours of the hills here in our area.  Ranchers would use canvas dams to cause water to spill out of these ditches and run across their pastures.  This technique wasn't terribly efficient in terms of water use, but it didn't require much capital after the ditches were built.  I like the idea of trading labor for capital expenses!

The ranch we just leased uses two types of systems.  On the largest field, we're moving aluminum hand pipe.  These two inch pipes are 20 or 30 feet long, and we move them once a day - seven days a week.  The remaining 15 acres of pasture is irrigated with quick…

Pasture Geeks

I'll admit it - I'm a pasture geek.  I get a huge thrill out of seeing grazing animals go into a new pasture.  There's something thoroughly relaxing about the sound of ruminant animals munching away on fresh feed.  I'm always curious about the way in which individual animals select the plants they prefer to graze.

Over the last week, we moved approximately 300 head of sheep from Rocklin up to Grass Valley.  In each new pasture they entered, we were able to observe (at least briefly) their dietary preferences.  At the Elster Ranch, the ewes consumed prickly lettuce, cocklebur and starthistle.  When we moved them to Sierra College today, they seemed to prefer the starthistle and blackberries.

I think my friend (and our local farm advisor) Roger Ingram must be a pasture geek, too.  He helped me move our lambs onto fresh feed this morning.  We were thinking that we'd need to move them onto some dry grass to allow our irrigated pasture to recover from the last grazing. …

Not Farm Related (mostly)

Thanks to the help of our current and past interns (and friends) Courtney McDonald, Paul Lambertson, and Callie Murphy - along with our friend Roger Ingram - we were able to take a brief vacation to the mountains last weekend.  We joined family and friends for three nights on the Stanislaus River on Sonora Pass.  I realized that I've been camping on the Stanislaus River for more than 40 years!  Rather than making me feel old, it makes me realize that it's important to know a place!
In my 40 years of camping on the Stanislaus, I don't think I've ever seen the river higher that it was this year (at least at this point of the summer).  The river was a good 2 feet higher than last year, as was Eagle Creek.  We drove over Sonora Pass (and back over - more on this to follow), and I was amazed by the amount of snow left at higher elevations.  We saw incredible waterfalls on the pass - so much water!
The wildflowers were also amazing.  We camped at Dardenelles, and even in the c…