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Showing posts from September, 2011

Knitting Sheepherder

Several years ago, my sister taught me how to knit.  As a sheep farmer, I thought it was important to know something about how to use all of the products my sheep produced.  As someone recovering from two broken arms (that's right - two!), I hoped that learning to knit would help me recover some manual dexterity.  On both accounts, learning to knit has been rewarding and enjoyable!  My skills are very basic - I've knitted several scarves and one simple hat - but I do have a much greater appreciation for the skill involved and for the versatility of wool.  Learning to knit also gave me the incentive to try to have finished products made from our own wool.

For the first time this autumn, we are attempting to market some of our wool directly to our customers, as yarn and roving (cleaned and carded wool that is not spun).  When we sheared the sheep in May, we selected what we thought were the 30 or so best fleeces (based on cleanliness, lack of hair - we have some Dorper genetics,…

The Cycle Starts Again

Yesterday marked the beginning of another cycle in our sheep production system.  With help from my friend (and our local farm advisor) Roger Ingram, and intern Paul Lambertson, I went through all of our ewes in preparation for turning the rams in with them next Monday.  "Going through" the ewes involves evaluating their body condition (the amount of fat cover they have), which gives us some idea of their nutritional status.  We "flush" the ewes prior to breeding them, which means we increase the quality of their nutritional intake - this year we've had the ewes on green brush and irrigated pasture since the last part of August.  We also evaluate each ewe's production records - how many lambs did she have last year? - was she a good mother?  Finally, in our ongoing effort to eradicate footrot from our flock, we check out their feet.

Out of the 130 +/- ewes that we bred last year, we decided to cull 27.  Most of these decisions were made on the basis of our E…

Heralds of Autumn

As I was moving water at 5 Mile Ranch near Auburn this afternoon, I heard the distinctive sound of sandhill cranes passing overhead - on their way south for the winter.  Scanning the cloudless sky, I finally matched the sound with the actual birds - two groups of them.  I'd been looking in my weather diary lately, and I was expecting to see them soon.

Despite the hot weather, the migration of the cranes signals the onset of autumn.  Even though the days are quite warm, the nights are cool - hinting of the even cooler weather to come.  Once the cranes are flying, we feel like we can proceed with our fall work - sorting the ewes into breeding groups and turning in the rams.  In many ways, the sheep year starts now - not on January 1.  In about 5 months, we'll start seeing the first lambs (and we'll start looking for the sandhill cranes moving north again).

Telling Stories

In his short story "A Friend of Mine," Wendell Berry writes of his character Elton Penn: "He was tired.  He was forty-seven years old that summer ... and he was beginning to know what the older men meant when they told the young ones, 'you don't know what tired is.'"  At the age of forty-four, I'm starting to get an inkling of what Berry is describing!

Yesterday, I helped my friend Bill Boundy work his cows and calves.  We were joined by the crew at Elster Ranch - and we worked owner George Nolte's cattle, too.  Working the calves involves giving vaccinations, putting Bill's brand on his calves, castrating the bull calves, and putting ear tags in.  Working the cows and heifers involves boostering their inoculations, changing ear tags when necessary, and de-worming them.  Even in cool weather, working cattle in the corrals can be a hot and dusty job; yesterday, we had hot weather!

As we were working, I realized that I was the second oldest ma…

Reflections on the Fair

As I understand the origins of 4-H and Future Farmers of America, these organizations were created in part to educate farmers and ranchers through their children.  By teaching the latest production techniques to kids through the cooperative extension system, farmers and ranchers would adapt their production systems to apply modern scientific advances.

With the Gold Country Fair just completed, I'm reflecting on the modern role of 4-H and FFA.  Our oldest daughter, Lara, showed a market lamb, a breeding ewe and her dog (Popcorn).  Our youngest, Emma, showed her rabbit and her (our) dog, Taff.  My wife, Sami, was the project leader for the Gold Country 4-H sheep group.  I helped and supported where I could.

Over the years, 4-H and FFA have evolved from a system of extending knowledge to farmers and ranchers through their kids to a program of introducing youth to agriculture and other activities through hands-on learning.  Our experience at the recently concluded fair highlighted thi…

Valley Trees

On Friday morning, I drove from Yuba City to Dixon.  For the first time in at least 10 years, I drove State Highway 113 north of Woodland - went through Robbins and Knights Landing.  While I'm normally a foothills/mountains kind of guy, I realized how much I loved this part of the Sacramento Valley.  Since I was driving by myself, I had plenty of time to contemplate as to why this was.

The crops that grow in this part of the valley are incredible, both in variety and in quantity.  Between Yuba City and Woodland, I saw sunflowers, prunes (or dried plums, I guess), walnuts, canning tomatoes, field corn, almonds, rice, beans, melons, and alfalfa - and I'm sure I'm missing a few crops.  For a foothill rancher who is used to 18 inches of topsoil being a luxury, the incredible productivity of these valley soils was humbling!

But the diversity of crops wasn't the only thing that made this part of the valley attractive.  As I drove south, I realized that it was the trees - bot…

Lessons from Colfax (So Far)

If you've been reading Foothill Agrarian lately, you'll know that we've moved all of our 300 ewes to the Edwards Family Farm in Colfax.  The Edwards Family has owned 500+ acres of forest land on the north rim of the American River canyon for more than 60 years.  After the Ponderosa fire in 2001, Allen and Nancy decided to introduce goats into their operation as a way to manage brush and diversify their production.  Several years ago, they got out of the goat business, but they still want to use livestock to manage vegetation - enter our sheep!

We had hoped to utilize the existing medium-tensile electric fence to contain our sheep during the day.  Our plan was to let them graze larger areas during the day and to pen them in smaller electro-net paddocks during the night (as added protection against predators).  While the goats respected the fence, we soon learned that our sheep would need to be trained to respect it.  Our inability to contain the sheep in the existing infras…