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Showing posts from October, 2011

Turning the Page

In our farming operation, there are tasks that seem to allow us to complete one season's work and turn our attention to the next season - to turn the page, so to speak.  I especially look forward to the page that we turn in the autumn when we market the last of the current year's lambs.  Up until this time, we're spread out - ewes with the rams on one or two properties, grass-finishing lambs on another.  My days seem to be consumed with moving electric fence and driving.  After this time, our flocks are more consolidated - things slow down and I find myself spending much less time on the road.

Today, I weighed and evaluated our last 39 lambs.  These lambs have been on the best grass/clover pastures that we have access to - this year, they've been at the Elster Ranch between Auburn and Grass Valley since early June.  Tomorrow, I'll ship these lambs to our processor, and beginning next week, we'll begin to market the last of our lamb at the Auburn and Roseville …

Dog Days (of Autumn)

Last weekend, we hosted a two-day sheep dog clinic with our friend Ellen Skillings.  In the midst of the weekend (during which we learned a tremendous amount), our livestock guardian dog, Vegas, gave birth to 8 puppies.  What a weekend!

I've written before about my amazement with abilities and intelligence of border collies.  I find livestock guardian dogs to be equally amazing, but for different reasons.  Vegas, who is an Akbash-Anatolian cross dog, is proving to be a wonderful mother.  Our guardian dogs (we have four adult dogs) live with our sheep around the clock.  Since we've had guard dogs, we've not lost a single animal to a predator (provided the sheep were with the dogs).

Guardian dogs use a strategy of escalating aggressiveness to ward off predators, which in our neighborhood include coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, and domestic dogs (the latter are often the biggest threat).  Our guardian dogs will first bark to warn a predator not to come any closer.  If …

Can We Afford Cheap Food?

The headline in the business section of last Friday's Sacramento Bee read "Farmers find U.S. workers wary of hard work in fields."  The article described the challenges that Alabama farmers in particular are having in finding field workers.  Thanks to Alabama's "tough immigration law," many Latino workers have left the state.  One of the farmers in the article indicated that the U.S. workers he's tried to hire "show up late, work slower than seasoned farm hands and are ready to call it a day after lunch....  Some quit after a single day."  Another farmer quoted in the article, Connie Horner, who grows 8-1/2 acres of organic blueberries in south Georgia, is considering letting her organic certification lapse because she can't get enough skilled workers.

The article does a good job of discussing the issues surrounding immigration law and labor.  It fails, however, to  ask the more important questions about our desire for cheap food and its im…

Why Grass-fed?

When we started raising livestock to feed our community six years ago, we made the decision to go grass-fed.  Six years ago, grass-fed meat was still on the fringe of acceptability - both from a consumer perspective and from a producer perspective.  Grain-fed beef and lamb was the norm - the proponents of grain-feeding had done an amazing job of equating a grain-based diet with a quality product.

Over the last six years, we've tried to educate our customers about the benefits of grass-fed meats (mostly lamb, in our case).  Unlike some "grass-fed" producers in our community, we've made the decision that for us, grass-fed means that we don't feed any grain - ever - to the animals we raise for market (for more information, go to our website:  One of the biggest changes in the local marketplace has been our customer's awareness of the benefits of truly grass-fed meat.

In an artic…

Releasing the Pressure

Last weekend, we hosted a sheep dog clinic with our friend, Ellen Skillings.  We had a great day - perfect weather, fun people, good dogs!

One of the principles of training a dog (or any animal, for that matter) is that of pressure and release from pressure.  Animal behaviorists tell us that our training techniques should mimic the social interactions of the animals themselves.  Mother dogs, for example, will train their pups by rewarding good behavior (through licks, etc.) and by correcting poor behavior (through growls and more aggressive actions).  Training a dog, then, requires us to correct (not punish) improper behaviors and to reward desirable behaviors.

Ellen explained how tone and sound is the communication tool we can use to help our dogs understand what's expected of them in regards to working livestock.  A harsh or low tone can communicate dissatisfaction.  A neutral tone can convey a request.  A happy or high tone communicates enthusiasm.

Sheep dogs have been an int…

Value-Added Without Adding Value

For the last 6 or 7 years, we've marketed grass-fed lamb at our local farmers' markets.  To do this legally, we must take our lambs to a USDA-inspected facility - our closest option is in Dixon (about 65 miles away) - and have them harvested and cut-and-wrapped.  By converting our lambs into a meat product, we are attempting to "add value" to our production.

When the lamb market was low, this worked great!  We'd take a lamb that was worth about $110 at an auction, spend $65to haul it to Dixon and have it converted into meat that we could sell at the farmers' market, and sell it retail for about $250.  At this rate, we enjoyed a net profit of $75per lamb.  Sure, I spent most every Saturday working (selling lamb at the farmers' market), but this system worked fairly well!

Today, our 100 pound lambs are worth about $1.90 per pound (for a total value of $190).  Our processing costs have increased to $80-90 per lamb.  Fuel prices have also increased - if I ha…

Giving and Receiving

Exchanging help is part of living in a farming or ranching community. In previous eras, putting up hay or building a barn were community efforts - they still are in Amish country.  Today's big jobs - branding calves or shearing sheep, for example - remain group efforts, for the most part.  Sharing work is part necessity and part enjoyment.  Farmers and ranchers can't afford to keep a large crew employed all year for the few times that extra hands are needed (nor are there enough skilled workers around, many times), so "volunteer" help is necessary for these big jobs.  Equally important, these big jobs provide an excuse for families and friends to gather to share in the annual mileposts that mark the farming year.  These days feature hard work, to be sure, but they also feature a great deal of fun!
Sometimes, we all need help in our more mundane tasks as well.  I find that it is much easier for me to offer help than it is for me to ask for it (and I suspect the same i…

Rain Delays

When I left the house this morning, the National Weather Service website was predicting a 60 percent chance of rain after 11 a.m., with rainfall totals likely to be less than a tenth of an inch.  It's now 11:24 a.m., and we've already measured close to four tenths of an inch - and it's still raining!  That meteorology is such an inexact science is not a shock to me - I'm used to the weather folks being wrong.  And I'm grateful for Mother Nature's irrigation services on the clover seed I planted last week.  Fortunately, I was smart enough to take my rain gear with me to Elster Ranch this morning, so moving the lambs to a pasture a quarter mile away wasn't quite the soggy job it might have been!  Now, I'm waiting for my rain gear to dry a bit before heading back out into the storm.  While these autumn rains sometimes hamper our efforts to get outside work done (for example, I can't deliver firewood today), they are a welcome and needed break from the …

Beginnings and Preparations

Most people associate springtime with new life, but for me new life begins with the preparations I make in early autumn.  Since we lamb in the later winter and early spring, ovine biology requires me to think at least 5 months in advance.  Similarly, preparing our pastures for finishing lambs next spring and summer requires action during the fall months.  In many ways, our sheep year started today.

This morning, we brought all of the breeding ewes into the corrals and sorted them into two groups.  The first group, comprised of our our whitefaced ewes (mostly Border and North Country Cheviot, Dorper-cross, Coopworth and Columbia ewes, were joined by our Bluefaced Leicester rams.  Their cross-bred lambs are the "mules" that are the maternal foundation of our flock.  The second group, made up of our mule ewes, were joined by our "terminal" rams.  All of the offspring of this mating are marketed - the hybrid vigor of this F2 cross results in fast growing lambs.

After s…