Wednesday, February 29, 2012


We're officially in the midst of lambing season - we now have a newborn lamb in the living room!  We'll be offering him a bottle every several hours for the next week or two, and he'll be transitioning to outdoor life as soon as the weather improves.

We get bottle lambs for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes a ewe dies, so we have orphan lambs.  Sometimes a lamb gets chilled and won't get up to nurse on its own.  Other times, like tonight, we find a lamb that can't figure out how to nurse and/or a ewe that doesn't seem that interested in its lamb.

Tonight, I watched this lamb and its mother for over an hour.  When I first discovered the pair, the ewe had not yet passed her placenta, which meant that the lamb was not yet an hour old.  During the the time I watched them, I never saw the lamb nurse.  I even caught the ewe at one point and tried to get the lamb to latch on - no luck.  This was the ewe's first lamb, and she just doesn't seem to be a very good mother.

I hate to bring lambs home - they never do as well as they would on their mother's milk.  In this case, however, I was afraid that the lamb wasn't going to get much mother's milk.  I finally decided that it was a choice between taking a chance that the lamb might die overnight versus knowing that we could feed it milk and keep it going.  New life is always miraculous to me.  I am always disappointed when a ewe doesn't see the birth of her own lamb(s) in the same light!

Lambing 2012 - first update

Someone remarked that we'd had about five or six days of winter this year (at least if you count the number of storms we've had).  One of those winter days (or nights, in this case) was last night.  We've had rain and lots of wind overnight - it's been one of those nights that keeps a shepherd up with worry - especially if his ewes are in the midst lambing (as ours are).

Last year, I kept a daily journal on this blog of our lambing.  We had a difficult time of it last year - a selenium deficiency resulted in the loss of many lambs early on during lambing, and wet weather was hard on the sheep as well. I won't keep a daily log this year, but it is helpful to look back at what we went through in 2011.

At 3:45 this morning, I finally gave in to my worrying and ventured out to make my first round through the sheep (we have flocks in two locations about 5 miles apart at the moment).  Because of last year's experience, I had some anxiety about what I'd find.

I was pleasantly surprised!  The first group, which included several sets of twins born yesterday morning, looked great!  I did find one lamb that had been born dead last night - it was a large lamb and a first-time mother, so it probably died in the birthing process.  The second group, which is closer to home, included 3 new lambs born late yesterday - all of whom were fine!  There were even two new healthy lambs that had been born during the storm.  We had provided both flocks with sheltered paddocks, of which they took full advantage.

I wouldn't want to go through another year like last year, and yet I think it allowed us to learn some important lessons.  Our new mineral supplementation program seems to have solved the selenium problem.  Healthy ewes and healthy lambs seem to be able to cope with the cold and wet.  We'll keep our fingers crossed - I know we have a long way to go this lambing season.  At least for one night, things seem to be working!

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Each year during lambing, I find that I must re-learn trust.  Because we pasture lamb, I must trust that our ewes will deliver their lambs unassisted and take good care of them once they are born.  I must trust that our guardian animals (dogs and llamas) will protect the sheep from predators like coyotes, dogs and mountain lions.  I need to trust my own instincts, too - should I move the ewes to fresh forage, or can they make it another day where they are.  Experience and mistakes (I hope) lead to wisdom, and wisdom helps me trust in my own abilities and the abilities of my animals.

Most of the time, my trust is well-founded - we've established a flock that is well-suited to pasture lambing.  Our guardian animals, for the most part, do their jobs well.  Our border collies have the intelligence to change their approach to herding once the lambs arrive (the ewes are much more aggressive with lambs at their sides).

Sometimes, though, I find that things don't work out like I plan.  Today, for example, I found a lamb that had been injured by a guard dog - sometimes the dogs lick new lambs excessively, which wears a raw spot on their skin.  This afternoon, one group of ewes decided to ignore the electric fence and broke out of their paddock - twice!  They were telling me that I'd misjudged the quantity and quality of the forage in their pasture.

I'm so fortunate on days like this to have an understanding and reassuring family.  When I make mistakes like these, I tend to get down on myself.  My family helps out - Sami and Lara doctored the injured lamb, and everyone was understanding when I needed to run back to the sheep to put them in their pasture for the second time. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lambing 2012

We're officially into lambing season - our first lamb of 2012 has arrived!  Actually, we started yesterday, but do to the over-exuberance of Vegas the guard dog, today's lamb is the first that has survived.  She's out of a maiden ewe (which means this is the ewe's first lamb), but the ewe seems to be handling motherhood quite well.

Over the next 6 weeks, we anticipate the birth of 250-300 lambs.  A second, smaller group of ewes will give birth in April.  All told, we should have 375-450 lambs this spring.  Needless to say, we'll be busy.

With lambing comes sleepless nights, worries about weather, and long days.  We pasture lamb (meaning we rely on our ewes to give birth without assistance and to be outstanding mothers).  While our ewes generally do an outstanding job, I still feel like a mother hen - always worrying!  Regardless, lambing is my favorite time of year - I love the new life that lambing brings us!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Walking vs. Driving - what's a shepherd to do?!

Actually, the answer to this question is pretty simple - a good shepherd will always choose to walk sheep to a new pasture if he (or she) has good dogs!
Red line - our walking route today.
Blue line - the walking route to our loading facilities.
Yellow line - the route we'd have had to drive to move the sheep.

Today, we moved a group of about 100 ewes onto a neighboring property.  We walked about a third of a mile - through 4 gates and up a fairly steep hill - but not a bad walk.  In the aerial photo above, our route is represented by the red line.  The ewes nibbled on grass all the way to their new pasture, and the dogs (as well as the shepherd) enjoyed the work.

If we'd had to haul the sheep to this pasture, the day would have involved a longer walk (nearly a half a mile) - represented by the blue line on the map.  Then we'd have had to put the ewes in the trailer - about 25 at a time in their current pregnant state - and drive about .9 miles to the new pasture (represented by the yellow line).  Our 20 minute walk would have turned into a half-day worth of work!

Thank goodness for excellent border collies and helpful neighbors!

More Thoughts about Profitable Farms

Last summer, I wrote a blog entry entitled "Is Profit a Dirty Word."  This week, I was reminded of the conflict I feel about profitability and farming by a discussion during a local farm business planning class that I'm helping to teach.  The word "profit," it seems, comes with lots of baggage!

Profit is a difficult thing for many of us small farmers to get our arms around.  In some ways, we’ve chosen farming as a rejection of the “normal” American aspiration for material wealth.  Profit, as such, is part of this rejection – we farm because we value good food, good land and strong communities more than monetary gain.

Once we begin the work of farming, however, profit takes on a different meaning.  Without profit, we can’t produce food over the long term.  Without profit, we can’t keep our land in farming.  Without profit, our families cannot be contributing members of our communities.

Someone asked whether it is legitimate for a family with other sources of income to "subsidize" their love of farming with their off-farm income.  I struggle with this - certainly our family has needed off-farm income to support our farming habit from time to time.  I've come to the conclusion, however, that a profit motive is critical to our farm's place in our local agricultural community.  Here's why:

If a business makes a profit (or a loss, for that matter), we can assume that some economic analysis has occurred - we can assume that the business knows how much money it's taken in and how much money has gone out in the way of expenses.  After all, profit is the positive difference between income and expenses (both direct expenses and overhead).  As a small-scale farmer who markets most of my production directly to consumers, I base my pricing decisions on these economic factors - my prices reflect my need for my farm production to pay my family's basic needs (like groceries, health care, college savings, our mortgage, our retirement, etc.).

I bristle when I hear someone say, "I just planted these trees so that the grandkids can learn about growing fruit - I don't really need to make money from my 'farm'."  Without going through a rigorous economic analysis (and without determining what is required to make a profit), these "farmers" have a profound impact in my ability to make a living.  If farm products are priced at a level that results in a loss (or even at a break-even), I feel pressure to reduce my own prices.

Profit has both an economic and a cultural meaning (as I've written before).  The cultural definition of profit is problematic for me - I farm largely because I've rejected our culture's obsession with material wealth.  In an economic sense, however, profit is vital to my existence as a small farmer - and to the existence of my fellow farmers.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Finished Product

When we shipped the last of our lambs for processing last fall, we kept the two lightest lambs to finish on grass and alfalfa for our own freezer - we always seem to run out of meat before the next year's "crop" is ready.  We also wanted to teach Sami's 4-H Sheep Project kids about the end product - they usually don't see their lambs after the fair auction.  A week ago, I took these two lambs to our regular processor (Superior Farms in Dixon).  Last Friday, I picked up the whole lambs and took them to Roseville Meats - where we store the meat we sell at farmers' markets.  Today, Dan (who has worked at Roseville Meats off and on for 20 years), showed us how to "fabricate" a lamb - how to cut it up into individual cuts of meat.
Getting started.

As Dan started showing us how to break down a lamb, it was clear that he'd been doing this for a long time.  Like most of the applied arts, butchery takes lots of repetition, and Dan is a master.  He took time to show the kids how to tell where to cut specific pieces of lamb.  He even weighed the meat, the trim (which we'll have ground) and the waste (bones, fat, etc.).  We found that we had significantly greater yield (the ratio of "sell-able" retail cuts of lamb and trim) that we usually get.

Watching Dan work, I was struck by the fact that that our livelihood relies on the skill of many folks - our own skill as farmers must be matched by the skill of our butchers.  Roseville Meats is a throw-back of sorts - not many people know how to cut meat as skillfully as Dan and the other butchers there.
All done!

As I write this, I'm grilling some sirloin chops from these lambs.  I can't wait to try them!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Fragmentation and Isolation

Habitat fragmentation is known to be a significant threat to wildlife species in our part of California.  As farms and ranches are split into smaller pieces to accommodate suburban sprawl and ranchette development, we lose migration corridors, foraging habitat and other critical habitat attributes.

This fragmentation can impact farming in similar ways.  From the standpoint of physical geography, fragmentation reduces the size of properties available for farming or ranching.  When a 160-acre orchard here in Placer County is split into 5-acre lots - even if the trees remain - the economic viability of farming is seriously diminished.  The story is similar for all types of farming and ranching.  The scale of an operation is directly related to it's economic viability - a farm needs to produce enough product (and profit) to cover direct costs and overhead costs.  An acre of vegetables, or 100 acres of unirrigated pasture, does not produce enough revenue for a farm family to make a living.

Beyond these economic impacts, fragmentation has logistical impacts as well.  Using our own operation as an example, fragmentation can increase costs.  We lease 20 acres of irrigated pasture that is less than a mile from 100 acres of annual rangeland that we also lease.  Despite this proximity, these ranches are separated by 6 to 8 separate smaller properties.  Before the intervening properties were subdivided, we could have walked our sheep from the irrigated pasture to the rangeland - a trip that would have taken about 30 minutes (at most).  Today, since the landowners between our leased pastures don't want sheep tromping through their yards, we have to haul them in our trailer (or hire a semi to move them).  This less direct route requires us to drive about 5 miles each way.  Given the capacity of our trailer, moving our 300 sheep from one property to the other requires 12 trips (120 miles), a 12-hour day, and a significant amount of fossil fuel.

The third impact of fragmentation is to isolate farmers and ranchers from one another.  In an earlier age, our neighbors would also be farmers.  Today, we rarely run our sheep next to someone else who is also making their living from any kind of farming (let alone from sheep production).  This isolation takes a toll in several ways.  At one time, farmers learned (at least in part) from the successes and failures of their neighbors - you could see what was happening on the other side of your fence.  The farming infrastructure (fences, canals, roads, etc.) was maintained by neighbors.  Today, for example, most of our neighbors don't have livestock, so fence maintenance is not a priority for them.

I'm not sure what the solution to these issues might be.  The conservation community has been effective at conserving larger landscapes and migration corridors to help avoid habitat fragmentation.  Perhaps we need a similar approach to agricultural land conservation - we need to conserve whole "foodsheds" as well as watersheds.  We also need to be honest about the scale of operation necessary for a farm or ranch to be economically viable.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Carbon Cycles

Proof that Roger and I were in Pacific Grove!  With the
beautiful weather, it took great workshops to keep
us inside!
Thursday, I had the opportunity to attend my first EcoFarm conference.  In its 32nd year, EcoFarm takes place at Asilomar in Pacific Grove - one of my favorite places in all of California.  My friend Roger Ingram (a fellow sheepman and our local farm advisor) also went - we both spoke at different sessions.

Roger's session on grazing systems also included another friend - Joe Morris of TO Cattle Company.  Joe spoke about using grazing (cattle in his case) to manage carbon cycles.  Joe said that he'd heard that the first two weeks in January were the warmest in recorded weather history in the U.S.  Regardless of one's perspective on what is causing these apparent climate changes, we are dealing with increasing levels of carbon in our atmosphere.  Joe is using cattle to incorporate carbon deep in the soil.

Joe's presentation helped me look at our sheep grazing operation in a different light.  In Joe's view, there are three ways that graziers can manage carbon - consumption (by livestock), trampling (also by livestock), and manure/urine deposition (hopefully by livestock!).  Some carbon sources (like green grass) are best managed by grazing.  Other carbon, like dry grass or weeds, is best consumed by fungi and bacteria.  Grazing animals may not consume this material, but they will trample it.  Accordingly, Joe calls these plants "trample" carbon.
Herding the sheep helps concentrate the trampling effect - the border
collies especially enjoy this technique!

At the moment, we're working with some homeowners near Auburn to control yellow starthistle.  Last year's plants have set seed and died (starthistle is an annual plant, meaning it completes its life cycle in a year).  Some new plants have germinated underneath the "carcasses" of last year's crop.  This dead starthistle, by Joe's definition, is trample carbon - it doesn't have much nutritional value for our sheep (except for the seeds, which they love!), but the soil fungi and bacteria will consume it if it's in contact with the soil.  We can enhance the carbon cycle, then, by trampling!

The after-effects of trampling.

We have several tools at our disposal to help manage this trample carbon.  We can increase stock density - more animals per unit of area - and we can herd our animals.  Prehistorically, the relationship between prey animals - coyotes, wolves, cougars, etc. - and herbivores - deer, tule elk, etc. - bunched animals to intensify and concentrate this herd impact.  This morning, I used our border collies as a substitute for these predators and our sheep as a substitute for these native herbivores.  Using herding, we trampled portions of last year's starthistle crop with the hope that the soil critters will thrive on this source of carbon.

Back to EcoFarm - I've been aware of this conference for many years, but have never attended (it's a pricey event that I've never been able to afford).  After my experience yesterday, I hope I can go back!  It was by far the most positive gathering of farmers I've ever been to.  Of the approximately 1200 participants, I'd estimate that more than half were younger than I am (44 years) - hugely unusual in American agriculture (where the average age of a farmer is 57+).  Even more impressive - there was a positive feeling about this gathering - little if any complaining about external forces (government, markets, etc.).

Most importantly, I felt renewed by the sense of community I felt at the conference.  EcoFarm draws participants from all over North America (and beyond), and yet there was a spirit of camaraderie that was both remarkable and unusual.  I came home with hope - both for our farm and for small farming in general!