Tuesday, January 31, 2012


I've written previously about stockmanship and about what it means to be part of a farming community.  So many times in our area, we're running our sheep or cows adjacent to land that has come out of agricultural production.  The very characteristics that allow us to market our products directly to consumers - namely a growing population - often make the production of those products more challenging.  Tonight, however, I was reminded of what it means to be in a community of stockmen, where the word "neighbor" is a verb.

Late this afternoon, I received a call from Patti Beard, who rents the ranch next to one of the properties we lease.  Patti and I both sit on the Placer County Agricultural Commission, and Patti has ranched in Placer County most of her life. When she was young, her family operated a dairy north of Auburn (where she still lives) - she even took several cows to college with her at Chico State as a way to pay for her education.  Patti called to say she was missing a heifer and asked if I'd keep an eye out for her.

A few hours later, I got a call from someone else indicating that we had a steer out at the same property.  Figuring the two calls might be related, I loaded up my dogs and headed to the ranch.  Sure enough, Patti's black heifer was not only out of her pasture - she'd gone through my fences too and was at a neighbor's property.
Pushing the steers (and Patti's heifer) back north to the gate.

My first priority was to get the heifer back to my pasture - she was lonely for our steers, so it wasn't too difficult.  Next, I called Patti to let her know the heifer was safe (cell phones are pretty handy sometimes).  Patti said they'd come to the gate between the two properties so we could get the heifer back where she belonged.  As I herded the cows back towards the other end of the ranch, I encountered one of the biggest coyotes I've seen in some time, along with a number of deer and one of the prettiest sunsets ever.  Just as it was getting dark, we arrived at the gate - where Patti and Steve were waiting for us.
Not a bad way to end the work day!

Sorting cattle in an open field is not a simple task.  In my experience, slow and quiet always works better than fast and loud, but not every cattleman feels the same way.  Patti and Steve, however, work cattle like I do, and we soon had the heifer back with Patti's cows - while our steers stayed on our side of the fence.  After a few obligatory remarks about the lack of rain, the condition of our cattle, and the wildlife we'd seen in the last several days, we all headed home for the night.

Neighboring, I think, takes work.  Being a good neighbor, in an ranching sense, means taking responsibility for the safety and well-being of your own animals as well as the animals of your neighbor.  It means working until the job is done - even if it's dark, cold or wet.  "Neighbor" is a verb when you live among a community of stockman.  I'm comforted to know that such a community still exists in Auburn!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

From Robert Burns' "The Twa Dogs"

Here's a translation of one stanza from "The Twa Dogs" - 

The other was a ploughman's collie,
A rhyming, ranting, raving rollicking young friend,
Who for his friend and comrade had him,
And in his youth had Luath named him,
After some dog in Highland song,
Was made long past - Lord knows how long.
He was a wise and faithful cur,
As ever leaped a ditch or stone fence.
His honest, pleasant, white streaked face
Always got him friends in every place;
His breast was white, his shaggy back
Well clad will coat of glossy black;
His joyous tail, with upward curl,
Hung over his buttocks with a swirl.

Burns could have been describing our dog, Mo!

Friday, January 27, 2012


Vaccination workshop participants learning how to tip the ewes and give injections.

This past week has marked the last of our major preparations for lambing.  Last Sunday, we started vaccinating the ewe flock for enterotoxemia and tetanus - we hosted a workshop for folks interested in raising sheep.  Some much needed rain on Sunday afternoon put a halt to our workshop, so we finished up with our vaccinations on Tuesday.  While we were giving these injections, we also evaluated each ewe to determine if she needed to be "tagged" - that is, we looked at the amount of manure clinging to her wool on her backside, and the amount of wool on her udder, and decided whether to have this wool shorn.  Of our 230 +/- ewes, we marked 93 ewes for tagging.

On Wednesday, I hauled the ewes that didn't need tagging onto fresh feed.  Yesterday, everyone else was hauled home.  Shortly after 1 p.m. today, our shearer (Derrick) arrived and tagging got underway.
Ewes awaiting tagging.

Tagging our ewes serves many purposes.  First, by removing the soiled wool, we reduce the chance for infection or other problems in the lambs.  Second, removing the soiled wool lessens the possibility of fly strike when the weather warms up in the spring. Third, by removing the wool from the belly and the udder, we increase the likelihood that the ewe's lambs will find a teat instead of a lock of wool.

Courtney and Josie - along with Matthew Shapero - part of
our tagging crew!
One of the things I enjoy about raising sheep is the ritual associated with our yearly tasks.  Breeding, tagging, lambing, shearing and weaning are annual tasks - each associated with a certain type of work and with certain friends (like Derrick).  I was reminded of this today when our friend Courtney joined us to help with tagging.  Her daughter Josie, who just turned a year old, came with her - Josie also joined us for shearing last spring - by the time she's three, she'll be doing most of the work herself, I think!  My oldest daughter, Lara, also joined us - keeping track of ear tag numbers as Derrick worked.  Lara's been helping since she was not much older than Josie.  These annual rituals become part of the fabric of our lives - I look forward to the transitions that each task represents.

Now we wait!  The first ewes will lamb in the next several weeks.  Before we know it, we'll be weaning lambs from their mothers and starting the irrigation water!  The year marches on!
Waiting is tiresome work!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Likes and Dislikes: Social Media and Community

Facebook's lower case "f" logo seems ubiquitous these days.  Everywhere I look, I'm asked to "like" something on facebook.  And I'll admit, I've used facebook both professionally and personally.  Professionally, we've used facebook (and this blog) to help connect people to our farm - and our farm to our community.  Personally, facebook gives me a chance to stay connected with friends and family who I don't get to see on a regular basis.  In this sense, facebook and other social media can help create and strengthen community.

But these virtual communities have a negative side, as well.  "Big Brother" isn't our government; rather, it's social media sites and corporations that record our interests (our "likes") in order to sell us more stuff.  Indeed, when I logged into my blog this afternoon, Google informed me that it's changing the way it views my privacy.  Beyond these concerns, however, I have a feeling that these social media websites (or virtual communities) have contributed significantly to the vitriol and polarization we see in our politics and our public discourse.

While I enjoy the funny stories and humorous photos my friends post on facebook, I find the absolutist statements about political affiliations, religious beliefs, and social outlooks increasingly disturbing.  Because we can only "virtually" see our friends on facebook or other networking sites, we seem to feel free to say things we'd never say in person.  I have "real-life" friends from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, countries and political points-of-view.  I wouldn't think of purposely saying something that I thought might be insulting or hurtful to them in person.  When we can't see our friends, however, we seem to think that denigrating a perspective different than ours, often in insulting language, is appropriate behavior.

I'm not sure if this on-line polarization is the cause of our real-life polarization or if it's the other way around - it probably works both ways.  Part of my discomfort, I'm certain, stems from the fact that the world is not black and white for me - there's enough gray to make me question every extreme or fundamentalist position I hear or read.  Ultimately, all effective communication (whether verbal, written or on-line) requires us to consider our audience.  Social media has diminished this filter for many of us.  Sometimes I wish facebook had a "dislike" option - but I guess that's too absolute!

Saturday, January 21, 2012


My friend and fellow farmer Alan Haight spent the afternoon helping me move sheep today.  Alan and his wife Jo own Riverhill Farm in Nevada City - they grow the most amazing vegetables!  I've had the privilege of working with Alan on a variety of educational and other projects over the years, a relationship that has been solidified by our mutual admiration for the works of Wendell Berry.

Alan is one of the most community-minded farmers I know.  Late last year, he asked if he could come work with me one day this winter - and today was that opportunity.  Together, we moved our 220 ewes from Shanley Ranch back to Oak Hill Ranch (where our corrals are) so that we can vaccinate them tomorrow.  This move entailed a walk of about one-and-a-half miles - moving the sheep with the border collies is less stressful and more cost effective than putting them in a trailer - along with moving water troughs, guard dogs and llamas, and fencing.

While the extra set of hands made the afternoon go much more quickly than it would have otherwise, it was also a pleasure to get to work with another farmer.  We've made a commitment to help new farmers learn the skills necessary to raise sheep, an activity I love.  However, I realized this afternoon how much I enjoy working with someone who already understands the work (and work in general).

I also realized today that a farming community must be intentional.  In our region, farms are generally spread out geographically - the days of farming next to a neighbor who also farms are gone (thanks to development and economic trends).  Those of us who still make our living farming must work to strengthen the community of farmers. Working together, more than anything, reinforces these connections.  Alan is a model for all of us - we should all seek opportunities to work together.  Alan jokingly told me that he'd call me in July (in the height of his vegetable season) for repayment.  In all seriousness, though, that's what community means - we help each other when our help is needed - and we don't keep track of the balance of repayment.  Thank you, Alan, for reminding me!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Rain - Finally

Yesterday, I delivered two of our livestock guardian puppies to Jeanne McCormack, a fellow sheep rancher from Rio Vista.  We met in a parking lot in Dixon under cloudy skies, commiserating that it was not yet raining (the Weather Service had predicted the rain would start by 10 a.m.).  Jeanne told me that her father had weather records on their ranch dating back to 1892, and that we'd just experienced the driest December and half of January in that 120 year period.  Jeanne and her husband Al Medvitz also grow grain - they rely on fall and winter rains to germinate the crop and keep it going - so the lack of moisture was a double hit for them.

As the day went on, the weather remained cloudy and cold - and dry.  I wondered if this storm was going to fizzle like the "storms" we had in November and December.  Finally, as I hauled water to the ewes (which is an unusual task in January), I started to feel a few sprinkles.  Driving home from the ranch, I finally got to turn on my windshield wipers!

Every time I awoke last night, I'd listen for rain (and was pleasantly reassured to hear it).  This morning, we had a half-inch of rain in our rain gauge - not enough to get us caught up, but enough to get us started.  There were no puddles - the ground had absorbed every drop.  We'll need much more rain before we start to see any run off.

As I've written before, weather makes farming and ranching enjoyable and challenging - often all at the same time.  The last 60 days have been mentally challenging for me - seeing the grass dry up and having to purchase extra feed for the sheep certainly impacts our bottom line.  Seeing dust while I'm moving sheep in January is downright depressing.  On the other hand, a long awaited rain feels like Christmas morning and my birthday all wrapped into one.  As my friend Pat Shanley (who has seen lots of rain and lots of dry spells in his 92 years in Auburn) said yesterday - "Mother Nature doesn't consult with us about when we need the rain - we're on her schedule."  Let's hope she has more rain on her calendar!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Some of us farmers joke that we wish we were weather forecasters - we'd love to get paid for being right less than 50 percent of the time.  In all seriousness, meteorology seems to involve as much art as science - the weather remains challenging to predict despite our collective knowledge and technology.
The mothers of future grass-fed beef - we're feeding hay
because of the dry weather.

The weather certainly seems to be changing.  Sunday, as we were training dogs here in Auburn, a south wind blew and the weather grew colder.  Monday morning, we awoke to 20 degree temperatures and broken pipes at home.  Our high was 44F, significantly more winter-like than the 60+ degree days last week.  The National Weather Service assures us that we'll get a bunch of rain over the next 5-7 days.  Today's clouds suggest that moisture is on the way, as do the black-headed Juncos (also known as snow birds) I saw today for the first time this winter at Shanley Ranch.

"Red sky at night - sailors' delight" - I hope tonight's beautiful sunset doesn't
mean that the predicted rain is going to miss us again!
Since I'm somewhat of a techno-geek, I've been checking multiple weather websites over the last month in anticipation of the eventual onset of winter.  I'll probably check these websites many times before heading for bed tonight, too.  The proof of their accuracy will arrive later tonight, I hope - I can't wait to awaken to the sound of rain on our roof.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Progress - Part 2

Last year during lambing we discovered the hard way that our sheep were deficient in selenium.  At the beginning our lambing season, we had a number of apparently healthy lambs die after two or three days.  Unable to discern the cause on our own, we took a dead lamb to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory at UC Davis.  The postmortem indicated that our lambs were selenium deficient.  The soils in our part of California are low in selenium (and as a result, so is our grass).  To counteract this, we had been giving the ewes and lambs a selenium drench, and we'd been providing a commercially available loose salt mix that has a small amount of selenium in it.  Our system obviously wasn't working! At that point we started giving every newborn lamb a selenium/vitamin E injection.  We didn't lose any more newborn lambs.

This summer, we again lost a few seemingly healthy lambs while they were on pasture.  After another trip to the lab in Davis, we learned that we were contending with internal parasites - a condition made worse by an underlying selenium deficiency.  In addition to causing weak lambs, uterine prolapses and other reproductive problems, selenium deficiency is also related to parasite and disease resistance.

We considered giving another injection to the lambs, but fortunately I called Dr. Nancy East first.  Dr. East is a veterinarian and fellow sheep producer (she happens to be the president of the California Wool Growers Association at the moment).  For many years, she worked with the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis.  She explained the complicated relationship between selenium and healthy sheep.  She also explained that the mineral mix we'd been using didn't have enough selenium in it, partly because an adequate level of selenium would make the product taste bad to the sheep.  Fortunately, she knew of a solution!  Western Feed Supplements - a company in Silver Springs, Nevada (about a 45 minute drive southeast of Reno) - makes a mineral block that has adequate selenium AND is formulated to taste good to sheep.  She suggested we try providing these blocks to our sheep before giving further injections.  She also suggested that we blood test 10 of our ewes prior to giving our pre-lambing vaccinations this winter to determine if their selenium levels were adequate going into lambing.

In early September, we purchased 2.5 tons of 50 pound mineral blocks from Western Feed Supplement (unloading 100 mineral blocks by hand and stacking them in the barn made me long for a forklift!).  We started offering blocks to all of the sheep, and they seemed to find them extremely palatable.

Last Friday, my wife Samia (who happens to be a large animal veterinarian herself) took blood samples from 10 of our ewes and sent the samples to the Davis lab.  Late yesterday, we received the results - every ewe we tested had adequate selenium levels in her blood!  Thanks to the new regime suggested by Dr. East, we won't have to go to the added expense of an injection (and we'll avoid stressing the ewes with another shot as well).  We'll still give the newborn lambs an injection (adequate selenium levels in the ewes do not necessarily ensure adequate levels in the lambs), but it feels as if we've made another step towards raising healthy happy sheep.

Samia and I have raised sheep for about 20 years, and we've been doing this commercially now for 7 years - long enough to realize that there is always more to learn.  One of the things I like most about farming in general (and sheep in particular) is this continuous learning process.  As we accumulate (and apply) more knowledge and skill, we make progress in our business.  Our improvement shows up as healthier ewes, more lambs and greater productivity - and ultimately greater profitability.  While raising sheep is a way of life for us, it's also the way we try to make our living.  Each lesson learned is another step along the path that will make (and keep) our business viable.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Dogs of Flying Mule Farm

This afternoon, Courtney McDonald and Roger Ingram joined Lara and me to train sheepdogs.  Courtney brought Lucy, Roger brought Cait and Bella, Lara worked Mo, and I worked Taff and Ernie.  We all decided that it was extremely helpful to train our dogs together - Roger brought an iPad to video tape our sessions, and we were all able to offer suggestions and insights.  We're hoping to make it a monthly event.

Our afternoon together emphasized for me the attitude and investment necessary to work dogs successfully.  Unlike a piece of equipment, a dog requires a system of communication and understanding to work effectively - working a dog is truly a partnership.  Part of the attraction of raising sheep, for me, is this reliance on my dogs.  Other sheep producers are very successful by relying primarily on equipment and facilities.  I would rather invest my time and energy in learning to use my dogs more effectively!

Enjoy these photos:

Courtney's dog, Lucy.

Lucy again!

Roger and Cait.

Mo - very pleased with himself after working.

Roger and Bella (with Courtney doing the filming).

Confused by the Weather

The continued dry weather seems to dominate my days and my thinking.  At the risk of overdoing the discussion of this winter's weather in this space, I'll offer a few more observations about the strange phenomena we've experienced in the last 12 months.
Not much green grass for the sheep at the moment.
We're providing supplemental protein to help them
digest the dry grasses.

Yesterday, as I drove down Baxter Grade Road from Auburn to the Ophir/Newcastle area, I noticed a number of blue oaks that have put out fresh green leaves - in January!  I'm not sure if these trees ever totally lost their leaves last fall, but the warm temperatures and lack of moisture seem to have made them "think" that their dormant period is over.

According to the National Weather Service, the low humidity and windy conditions this weekend have resulted in the issuance of a red flag warning.  I cannot ever remember the threat of wildfire in January on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada.

As I drove up the road to 5 Mile Ranch (one of our leased ranches) yesterday afternoon, I was startled to see a 3-foot gopher snake sunning himself on the blacktop.  Usually these snakes disappear during the winter months.
Normally, this gopher snake would be scarce until the warmer and drier months of spring.  He was sunning himself (herself?) on the road into the ranch yesterday afternoon.

I grew up in Tuolumne County.  Sonora Pass, by which Highway 108 crosses the Sierra crest, is still open.  My sister and her family went over the pass on the day after Christmas - unheard of!

The grass that germinated at the Doty Ravine Preserve in Lincoln (where we graze cows) after our first October rainfall has now died - the forage is almost completely brown.

Last June, we received 2.88 inches of rain at our place in Auburn - more than twice as much as we received in November and December.  On June 4, the day we weaned our lambs, we had a high of 63 degrees and a half-inch of rain.  On January 3, 2012, the high temperature was also 63, but we received no precipitation.

I realize that a single season's weather doesn't tell us anything about climate change - we've had dry winters in the past (and wet summers, too).  However, the "normal" weather patterns on the west slope of the Sierra do seem to have changed in the 44+ years I've lived here.  Without checking the "official" records I can't be certain, but we seemed to have more summer thunderstorms and winter snow in Sonora when I was a kid than my parents experience today in the same location.  We also seem to have more extreme events - extreme storms, extreme dry periods, extreme wind - than I remember as a kid.  Based on what I've observed over the last several weeks, Mother Nature seems nearly as confused by the weather as I am!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dealing with Winter Drought

As noted in an earlier post, we're in the midst of one of the driest stretches of winter weather on record.  Our rainfall for the season is about one-third of normal; more critically, we've received less than two inches of rain in the last 60+ days.  I spoke with several farmers yesterday whose memories stretch back further than mine - this winter, it seems, is comparable with the drought year of 1975-76.  One of our farm advisors said that she read about similar conditions in the 1940s.

With no rain in the forecast for the next seven days at least, we're starting to reach a critical point in our grazing operations.  Even if we get some rain soon, day length and soil temperature are not yet sufficient to support significant grass growth.  Furthermore, the soil profile will need to fill up with moisture before grass starts to grow again.  I'm seeing much of the grass that germinated with the rain we received in early October start to wither.

We try to match our production system with the "normal" weather pattern in our area.  Our sheep have their greatest demand for forage just before and just after they give birth.  Typically, we start to see significant grass growth sometime in late February here in the Sierra foothills, so that is when we try to start lambing.  Without rain in the next two weeks, we probably won't see much in the way of grass growth by the time the lambs start arriving next month.

To manage for this year's conditions, we're trying to save ungrazed pastures for the ewes to lamb on.  We're also adding protein to the ewes' diet (protein feeds the bacteria in a ruminant's digestive tract that allow the animal to digest dry grass).  In other words, by adding protein, we can increase the ewes' consumption of dry grass (which is about all we have at the moment).

We're also looking for opportunities to graze additional properties near our base of operations here in Auburn.  Thanks to our border collies, we can walk the sheep from property to property and avoid the additional time, expense and stress of hauling the ewes in a trailer.  At this stage in their gestation, we prefer not to haul the sheep if possible.

In the meantime, I find myself getting grumpier about the weather forecasters who predict "another beautiful day" of cloudless skies and warm temperatures.  In January, beautiful weather (at least to a rancher) typically requires rain gear!  Let's up we all need to break out the raincoats soon!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Shepherding Skills

Much of the work involved in caring for sheep involves a blend of knowledge and skills.  For example, knowledge about ruminant nutrition must be combined with the skill of moving electric fencing in our system.  Knowledge about shearing sheep is meaningless without developing the skills necessary to safely operate a shearing machine or the skills to humanely restrain a sheep during the shearing process.

Knowledge can be gained in many ways - by reading books and websites, taking classes, or talking to other sheep producers.  Skills, in my estimation, can only be gained by doing.  The only way to get better at flipping and holding a ewe for shearing for example, is to do it many times.

New and aspiring shepherds have a tremendous amount of knowledge-building resources available.  One of my favorite books on the subject of grass-based sheep production - More Sheep, More Grass, More Money by Peter Schroedter - offers a wealth of knowledge about everything from breed selection and pasture management to predator protection and lambing systems.  Similarly, the Sheep 201 website (http://www.sheep101.info/201/) managed by Susan Schoenian from the University of Maryland is a tremendous resource for folks new to the business of caring for sheep.

Without developing hands-on skills, however, the knowledge contained in these and other resources is useless. The best vaccination program, for example, is worthless if a shepherd doesn't know how to give an injection safely.  In previous years, Flying Mule Farm has offered an apprenticeship program to give 2-3 individuals an opportunity for intensive hands-on learning.  While we feel that our apprenticeship program has been successful (at least three of our apprentices now raise their own sheep), we've decided to take our educational program in a new direction in 2012.  This year, we're offering a series of Shepherding Skills Workshops, in which we'll combine knowledge transfer and hands-on skill building opportunities.  Our first workshop, on January 22, will cover vaccination programs and preparations for lambing.  Participants will have a chance to learn about our vaccination program while they are learning how to give injections.  We'll also cover the types of supplies and equipment we'll have on hand once we start lambing in February.  Future workshops will cover lambing, shearing and wool handling, vegetation management, grass finishing and stock handling.  For a complete schedule, go to our website at http://www.flyingmulefarm.com/shepherding_skills_workshop_series.

At one time, most shepherds learned the skills of the trade by working in the family business.  For many of us, these opportunities no longer exist.  I hope that our Shepherding Skills Workshop Series will provide an opportunity for the type of hands-on learning and mentoring that used to be common in our industry.  Stay tuned!