Friday, September 28, 2012

Modern Shepherding

When I wrote the description of our farm for last year's KVMR Celtic Festival, I started with the phrase "combining Old World traditions and modern technology" to summarize our approach to raising sheep.  As we prepare for this year's festival, I've finally given some thought to what I meant by this.

In his essay “Let the Farm Judge,” Wendell Berry proposes allowing the farm (that is, the land and its associated resources and topography) to play a role in selecting the right type of sheep (or other livestock) for the farming operation.  While he concedes that the “industry standard,” as represented by the show ring and the processor, is important, he also advocates for local adaptation:

“Intelligent livestock breeders may find that, in practice, the two questions become one: How can I produce the best meat at the lowest economic and ecological cost?  This question cannot be satisfactorily answered by the market, by the meat packing industry, by breed societies, or by show ring judges.  It cannot be answered satisfactorily by “animal science” experts or by genetic engineers.  It can only be answered satisfactorily by the farmer, and only if the farm, the place itself, is allowed to play a part in the selection.”

In our own operation, we’ve tried to balance the need to meet the demands of our customers for flavorful, tender grass-fed lamb raised without antibiotics or added hormones with the demands of our land.  Our operation exists entirely on rented ground, which means that we don’t live on the property where our sheep graze.  Our customers are mostly the end users of our lamb, which means we receive direct feedback from the people that are eating our product.

Based on our observations, we need sheep that will meet the following criteria:

·         Our sheep must be able to utilize a wide range of feed resources – from irrigated pasture to annual grasses to invasive weeds to brush.
·         Our customers want moderately sized cuts of lamb, so we need lambs that will finish at 90-110 pounds.
·         Since we finish our lambs entirely on grass, we need medium-sized sheep that do well on our feed resources.
·         We lamb in our pastures rather than in a barn.  Because we operate on rented land at some distance from our home, we cannot be with the lambing ewes around the clock.  This means that we need ewes that can lamb on their own without our assistance.  We need lambs that can get up and nurse quickly, and we need ewes that can produce sufficient milk from grass.
·         We lamb in the early spring.  Out-of-season breeding is not emphasized in our system.
·         The bacteria that cause foot rot and foot scald seem to be endemic in the pastures that we lease.  We’ve noticed that sheep with black feet seem to have more resistance to foot rot.
·         To optimize our profitability, we need ewes that will produce a 150 percent lamb crop with little or no external feed inputs.
·         To reduce costs, we need sheep that are resistant to internal parasites.
·         While wool is not a significant product for us (at least economically), we do want sheep that produce fleeces of sufficient quality and quantity to cover the cost of shearing them.

In the "new" world, I think we've largely lost the ability to raise the type of livestock that our "place" requires - we largely raise the same sheep as everyone else.  At Flying Mule Farm, we've tried to walk a different path.

From a stock handling and sheep management perspective, we're also fairly traditional.  We rely on our border collies for many different tasks, including moving sheep from pasture to pasture, catching ewes and lambs for medical treatments, loading the trailer, sorting sheep, and other activities.  We've invested significant time improving our dog handling skills, as well.

Our predator protection system is largely based on systems developed in Eurasia - especially in Turkey.  We rely primarily on livestock guardian dogs that come to this country from Turkey and from the Basque region. These dogs - Akbash, Anatolian Shepherds and Great Pyrenees - evolved with herding cultures and fill the "large canine" niche in our environment.  I may jinx myself, but we've never lost a sheep where we've had a guardian dog protecting them.

Speaking of tools, we use several traditional tools in our day-to-day work as well.  During lambing season, I rely on a traditional shepherd's crook to catch newborn lambs for processing (ear tagging, etc.).  Since we lamb out in our pastures, we must catch each newborn lamb before it's 24 hours of age.  A crook (and a dog) make this possible.  Throughout the year, I use a sheep hook (or a leg crook) to catch a sheep that needs medical attention.

Our marketing program is probably more traditional than modern as well.  We market many of our lambs (and some of our mutton) directly to people we know.  In this sense, we're probably closer to the Old World model - our neighbors and friends purchase their lamb (and more recently, their yarn) directly from us.

Finally, we rely on the oldest transportation technology around - walking!  In the last 10 days, I've moved 200 ewes more than 2 miles total.  I've also moved 175 lambs about 1.5 miles.  In both cases, the sheep walked - as did I!  Shoe-leather is much less expensive than petroleum!

Switching gears, we also rely on very modern technology in our operation. Since most (if not all) of our leased pastures are not fenced for sheep, we rely on portable electric fencing systems.  Our electro-nets are powered by New Zealand electric fencers and solar-charged batteries.  Occasionally, we use solar-powered water pumps to provide stockwater to our sheep.  This technology allows us to graze properties that would otherwise be inaccessible.

I've recently purchased an iPhone - and I've added apps that allow me to estimate pasture acreages and to update my customers on new products.  We now accept credit cards for payment at the farmers' market, thanks to an iPhone app.  Each application makes me more efficient!

Finally, this essay represents a use of modern technology.  While I rely on the "old" approach of marketing directly to the folks who eat my lamb and wear my wool, I stay connected with these customers through my blog and through social media (

I find this mix of old and new to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work.  I love the day-to-day work of sheep raising, and I also love being able to connect my work with the larger community.  I'm also reassured by the fact that if all of our modern technology disappeared tomorrow, I'd still be able to raise sheep!

Monday, September 17, 2012

If We Build It, Will They Come?

Drop in on a group of livestock producers in northern California (or anywhere in most of the U.S. for that matter), and the discussion will eventually turn to the challenges of ranching, economic and otherwise.  Chief among these challenges, based on the conversations I've participated in, is the lack of meat processing capacity.  The lack of processing facilities, the theory goes, depresses the prices paid to ranchers and restricts our ability to market meat directly to our community.  The system is rigged in favor of large producers and large processors.

For me to sell meat legally, federal law requires my animals to be processed in a plant inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service.  Many of the existing USDA-inspected plants in California are already operating at capacity, and building a new plant is expensive (partly due to the federal, state and local regulations involved).

Based on this reasoning, the solution is to re-build a system of smaller-scale, community-based, USDA-inspected meat processing plants.  Local ranchers would "flock" to these plants - and local consumers would as well.  Like the baseball diamond in the midst of a corn field, people assume that if you build a small-scale meat processing plant, "they [ranchers and consumers] will come."

Having raised and marketed lamb, mutton, beef, goat and chicken, I sometimes wonder if this is true.  While the raw numbers look positive (a plant that can process 2500-3000 head of cattle each year appears to generate a positive return on investment), the details of actually operating such a plant are far less clear cut - for several reasons.

First, many producers talk about marketing their animals as meat directly to customers, but relatively few actually follow through on this marketing strategy.  Marketing meat is much more labor intensive and people-oriented than hauling my lambs to the auction.  Many ranchers would rather leave the marketing to someone else - they'd like to think that a local processor would pay them more for their animals AND handle all of the marketing responsibilities.  I'm not convinced that there are enough of us who want to raise, process and market our animals to support this type of smaller-scale plant.

Secondly, for decades, the meat processing business has largely been organized on the factory or manufacturing model - processors purchase raw material (live animals), convert it to another form (meat), and market this product to the end user.  The factory model profits by using labor and technology to convert raw materials into a product that consumers want.  Those of us who market our own meat rely on a different model; we need a processor to provide a service.  In this service provider model, ownership of the raw material and the finished product is retained by the producer of the raw material.  The processor earns income through the service provided by its labor rather than through the margin between the cost of inputs and value of outputs.  In my experience, there is a tension between these two models - most processors try to serve both roles (with varying degrees of success).

Third, my decision about which processor to use is driven by the value of the service I receive.  My current USDA-inspected lamb processor charges me $75-80 (depending on how many lambs I deliver) to harvest and process my lambs.  If I can process 20 lambs in one lot, my transportation costs are less than $10 per head - in other words, I can get my lambs converted into products I can sell for $85-90 each.  Conversely, having a ranch slaughter service and a local meat processor provide the same services will cost me at least $125 per head.  This is a significant difference that can make a big impact on my bottom line.  To win my business, a new local USDA processor would have to offer similar service at a competitive price.

Theses are complicated issues without clear solutions, obviously.  I'd love to work with a local business to process my lambs, but I also need high quality, affordable service from my processing partner.  I'd also love to get a premium for my lambs while being able to simply sell my live lambs to a processor.  These goals may be unattainable given the current regulatory and economic environment.  I fear that a group of producers and local food advocates may invest in a plant with great intentions but without a clear understanding of the appropriate business model.

Another solution might be to tackle the meat inspection regulatory system.  Our meat inspection system was created to prevent the contamination of our food supply.  Perhaps we need to look at a separate regulatory system that recognizes the differences between meat products that are marketed locally versus those that are shipped across the country or around the world.

As I grow older, I find myself more suspicious of seemingly easy answers.  I think the issue of local meat processing is a question without easy answers.  If we build a local plant, will enough people (both ranchers and customers) support it to make it profitable?  Am I making this question too complicated?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Placer County's Drought of 2011/2012 - the Rest of the Story

Between October 4, 2011 and October 7, 2011, we measured 1.3 inches of rain at our home place just north of Auburn, California.  With another 1.2 inches falling on October 11, we thought we were off to a great start to the rainy season.  An inch or more of precipitation in early October usually means that we have enough warm days left to germinate our grass and get it growing well.  With "normal" rainfall until Thanksgiving, we'd have good forage for our sheep for the winter.

The 1.2 inches of rain we measured on October 11, 2011 was the last rain we'd get last October.  In November, we received 1.12 inches.  December was typically cold and atypically dry - we only measured 0.10 inches of rain.  January was slightly better - 5.35 inches fell - but February was disappointing.  By February 29, we'd measured less than 11 inches of rainfall for the season.

Without normal rain, we were forced to graze our sheep on dry grass, which has very little nutritional value.  We purchased supplemental protein, which allows our sheep to digest this dry feed - we've never had to buy protein in the winter.  We normally count on having enough green, nutritious forage by the time we start lambing (in late February).  This year was different.  Our friend and fellow sheep rancher Jeannie McCormack, whose family has kept weather records at the ranch in Rio Vista for 120 years, told me that the winter of 2011-2012 was the driest they'd ever seen.

When we sheared our sheep in May, we found evidence of the nutritional stress that the winter drought had put them through.  For the first time in my experience, we had "wool break," a condition in which the wool fibers weaken because of the lack of nutritious forage.  Some of our wool "broke" (or weakened) about 6 months prior to shearing (December 2011).  Looking at photos from that period, I can see why!

Christmas Day - 2011 - notice the lack of green grass.

December 2010 - a more "normal" year.

In our Mediterranean climate, we're used to dry spells in the summertime.  Without irrigation, we'd be unable to graze our sheep on green grass in the foothills from June through September (which is why the old timers took their livestock to the mountains in the summer).  In the late winter and early spring, however, we normally have amazing grass - this year we didn't.  While we did catch up on our rainfall in April and May, the grass was in such a rush to catch up that it matured (and dropped in nutritional value) more quickly than usual.

All food production is weather-dependent.  Moisture and sunshine, in proper measure, are critical to farming - and they are the things over which we have the least control. While the extreme drought in the Great Plains and Midwest this summer makes our wintertime drought pale by comparison, the conditions of last winter were challenging to say the least.

Is Farming a Lifestyle or a Business?

With the changes we're making to our farming operation this summer and fall, I've been thinking a great deal about my reasons for farming.  Farming, eventually, will be the way I make my living (for now, I'm hopeful it's a way to make some income to supplement other work). In this sense, farming is most certainly a business - and I try to treat my own farm as a business.  There is, however, other compensation beyond the monetary reward I receive from selling my products. I get to work outside with animals nearly every day of the year.  I'm a direct witness to the miracle of new life.  I see and interact with all kinds of wildlife on a regular basis.  I get to work with my daughters and see them learn to do my job - better than I can do it in some cases.  I produce food - something that sustains life within my own community.  I get to take direct responsibility for turning the animals I raise into the food that I (and my customers) eat.

While our farm has struggled financially, these "lifestyle" benefits of farming have sustained me.  As I've written previously, Flying Mule Farm provides my family and me with a wonderful way of life but not with a living (yet).  I realize now that I've chosen to continue farming (even on a part-time basis) largely because of the enjoyment I get out of my work.

That being said, our farm has to ultimately succeed as a business - I can't continue to enjoy these lifestyle benefits if it costs me money to do so.  I think this is a challenge for every small farm - is there enough income to support the other benefits (to the farmer and to the community)?  These questions are also tied up in the notion of sustainable agriculture.  A sustainable farm, in my mind, conserves and protects natural resources and pays a living wage to its workers.  None of these benefits, however, are sustainable if the farm isn't profitable over the long run.

Farming at our scale (or at any scale, really) requires hard physical work and long hours.  I'll admit there are days when I wonder why I continue farming.  My friend Alan Haight, who operates Riverhill Farm near Nevada City with his wife Jo, talks about the amnesia that happens to all farmers - sometime in the fall we tend to forget all of the hard work and financial struggle and start dreaming about next season.  If we can just farm one more year, maybe we'll figure things out!  I think the non-monetary rewards of farming are what keep me in the business.  Hopefully financial compensation will follow!