Sunday, April 22, 2012

Native Sons and Native Plants

This spring marks the third season that we've provided sheep for vegetation management at the historic Chinese cemetery here in Auburn.  The 2+ acre property on Highway 49 is managed by a nonprofit that also takes care of the Joss House in old Auburn.  We've given them a reduced rate for our targeted grazing services.  The cemetery marks the final resting place of some of the Chinese immigrants who helped build Auburn during the 19th century.

Today, I took 30 ewes to the cemetery to start the project.  As I set up fence, I noticed that there were patches of purple needlegrass scattered among the invasive annual grasses that dominate most of our area.  I've never noticed this native grass before; I'm sure it was there, but I also think our grazing has helped it thrive. Purple needlegrass is actually California's official state grass - it's a perennial grass that stays green all year long.  As a pasture geek, I think it's one of the prettiest grasses I've seen.

This site is interesting.  As a cemetery, it's sacred ground - I always try to be respectful when we're working here.  Because it's sacred ground, it's been protected - which is probably why the native plants still exist among the European and Asian annual plants that thrive in our region. Seeing the purple needlegrass reminded me of the contributions that the original Chinese immigrants made to our region.  We're honored to play a small role in sustaining this heritage - both in terms of our fauna and our cultural heritage!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lost Dogs and Social Media

Wednesday afternoon, a fairly intense (at least for our Sierra Nevada foothill region) thunderstorm blew through Auburn.  We had lightning, thunder, wind, heavy rain and even some small hail.  The storm was intense enough and close enough that I decided to wait to finish building electric fence for the sheep until it passed - something I posted on facebook just for fun.

When we fed our animals at home on Wednesday evening, we discovered that Lara's border collie Mo was missing.  Remembering the intensity of the afternoon's storm, we assumed that he was hiding from the thunder.  After we failed to find him hiding around the farm, we made an increasingly frantic search of our immediate neighborhood.  Lara and I drove with the windows open, calling Mo's name.  Sami went door-to-door asking if anyone had seen him. No luck.  We all went to bed worried and upset. Before going to bed, I posted photos of Mo on facebook, asking friends and fans of our farm to keep an eye out for him.  I also sent an email to friends who know Mo, again asking for help.

Thursday morning, we awoke to numerous offers of help in our email in-boxes and on facebook.  In fact, my posts about Mo probably received more response than anything I've ever posted on facebook.  In the end, however, it was old fashioned face-to-face networking that returned Mo to Flying Mule Farm.

Before leaving to take Lara to school, we printed missing dog posters, offering a reward for Mo's return.  I left posters at several local businesses, and Sami posted them in our neighborhood as she took Emma to school.  Emma took one to her teacher (who lives nearby) - and her teacher immediately called Sami to tell her that she'd seen Mo that morning, frantically trotting down the county road in front of our place.  Sami and I both started walking the community and calling for Mo.  I stopped at several homes and asked neighbors if they'd seen him - at least one other person had seen him that morning as well.  Our county animal control offered to help search as well.

By 10:30, Sami needed to get to an appointment, but she decided to stop at a nearby small animal hospital to leave a poster.  The receptionist looked at the photo and said, "We have that dog here."  As anyone who has lost (and found) a pet knows, we were all overjoyed.  Mo spent the rest of the morning going on calls with Sami, and he spent the afternoon moving sheep with me.  My facebook posts and emails announcing his return received even more response than the first posts!

As I've written here and elsewhere previously, part of the reason I farm is that I love working with animals.  While I've never been without a dog in the nearly 45 years I've been alive, my relationship with my working dogs runs much deeper than any relationship I've ever had with a pet.  My working dogs are my daily companions and working partners - I'm constantly amazed at their instinct, their courage and their stamina.  The potential loss of one of our partners was an awful feeling.  His return was truly an joyous occasion.  As Mo and Taff helped me move one of our flocks to a new pasture about a mile up the road yesterday, I couldn't help but think that Mo was feeling relieved and joyous as well!

The other interesting part of this entire episode for me was the sense of community that I felt.  Our friends and colleagues, both local and virtual (that is, our on-line "community") offered tremendous support and help.  My friend Roger Ingram, for example, offered to help search for Mo at 9:30 on Wednesday night.  Others made special trips to and through our neighborhood watching for him.  I'm certain that the thoughts and prayers of friends from outside our geographic area had something to do with Mo's safe return.

Tonight, Sami will put microchips in all of our dogs.  From now on, we'll make sure that Mo is safely with us if a thunderstorm approaches.  And we'll be much more aware of our connections with our community.  Thank you all!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Learning New Tricks

In my line of work, I put up and take down a lot of electric fence.  We use Electro-Net from Premier 1 Supplies - these are 164-foot rolls of electrified netting with integrated fence posts.  With 16 of these nets, I can fence a 10-acre pasture in several hours.  I've been using this fencing long enough to become fairly efficient at putting it up and taking it down - or so I thought!

I'm currently working with Prescriptive Livestock Services, an Oregon-based company, to manage a large targeted grazing project in Lincoln, California.  At the moment, I'm overseeing the management of around 2,300 goats and 1,600 sheep - all within the Lincoln city limits.  The day-to-day work is being done by a group of incredibly efficient and hard working herders - all of whom are from Peru.

On Monday, I helped DiDi Camayo, who is taking care of most of the goats, set up Electro-Net. I thought I was fast, but DiDi is amazing!  Watching DiDi, I realized I could be more efficient in my work!

Setting up a large paddock is inherently inefficient - at some point, I have to walk back to my starting point and carry more rolls of fencing to the opposite side of the paddock.  DiDi has obviously thought about this - his approach starts when he picks up fencing.  Because of this, he can set out one roll of fencing while carrying a second roll.  His approach cuts the time required to set up a new paddock nearly in half.

Yesterday, I started using DiDi's technique - it works!  I can learn new tricks!  When I'm working with apprentices or friends, I usually compare my efficiency with their's.  I'm almost always faster!  Working with DiDi, however, I was humbled.  I guess we can always learn from others!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Thoughts on Working Dogs

My friend and fellow sheep producer Lana Rowley posted an interesting perspective on working stock dogs on facebook recently:

"There is a giant disconnect between trial and ranch folks who use dogs...if I hear a ranch person bad mouth 'those trial dogs' I want to say they should maybe step to the post a time or two.... Trial folks who think any old dog can do ranch work (not chores) I wish to have them prove that by pulling 500 lambs out of the neighbor's alfalfa.  Same for cattle vs. sheepdogs - if they have not worked tough cattle/pairs then maybe they don't know what it takes.  Same if you think a cowdog is too "rough" for sheep - might just not be trained enough or not have any real power without teeth.  [I'd] like to see folks walk a few hundred miles in those shoes before they start name calling...."

Lana has some incredible dogs - dogs that are successful on the trial field and on the ranch.  I've had occasion over the last two days to observe some ranch trained dogs working with a Peruvian herder - with equally incredible results.

I'm helping manage a large grazing contract in the city of Lincoln.  At present, we have approximately 1500 sheep and 2200 goats within the city limits!  Yesterday, DiDi (one of the herders working on this contract) - along with his 4 dogs, moved 1600 goats (in two groups) about 2 miles onto fresh feed.  While yesterday's trek was mostly along the margins of farm fields and cow pastures, today's move (600 goats, more than 2 miles) was a bit more challenging.  Today, Juan and Robbie joined DiDi and me - along with 5 dogs.  Part of today's move was along Joiner Parkway - a main thoroughfare through Lincoln.

I'm an amateur dog trainer at best, but I do try to use pressure and release from pressure (mostly with my tone of voice) as a way to communicate with my dogs.  I've never competed in a sheepdog or cattle dog trial, but our dogs have been trained to that level (and my oldest daughter has trialed).  Observing DiDi, Juan and Robbie over the last 2 days, I realized that on the most basic level, they use the same techniques.

Traditional basic commands for border collies are "come bye" (to go around to the left), "away to me" (around to the right), "lie down" (stop by remain focused on the stock and await further instruction), "walk on" (obvious), and "that'll do" (come back to me).  The dogs that moved the goats over the last two days didn't know these commands, but they were extremely effective.  My new Peruvian friends used hand signals and a variety of harsh and kind commands to communicate with their dogs.  While these dogs might not (at least initially) succeed in a competitive trial, they got the goats moved safely and efficiently.

The common thread in all of this is our appreciation for the work of our dogs.  My respect for my dogs increases with every task they help me complete - our relationship is truly a partnership.  As I helped move goats over these last 2 days, I realized that DiDi, Juan and Robbie have a similar partnership with their dogs.  When we finished moving today's group of goats, I thanked DiDi, Juan and Robbie.  Robbie said "perros buenas" - good dogs! - making sure we thanked the dogs, as well! I couldn't agree more!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Feeding the Bottle Lambs

Of the more than 250 lambs born so far at Flying Mule Farm, we've only had to bring 10 home to be raised as "bottle" lambs.  Here's a fun video of Sami feeding her youngsters!