Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Since 2001, I've kept a weather diary.  Most days, I write down the high and low temperatures, the sky conditions, precipitation in the last 24 hours, and other general observations of the natural world.  At Christmas, I always think it's fun to look back at the weather on Christmases past!

2001 - Cloudy, 38F (30F @ 11 p.m. on the previous night)
2002 - Partly cloudy, 30F and frost
2003 - 34/48 - Cloudy, popcorn snow @ 4:30 p.m. - temperature dropped 9 degrees in 15 minutes.  Saw great blue heron fly over. 0.20" rain, 7.71" for the month.
2004 - 30/53 - clear and very frosty
2005 - 50/55 - cloudy and rain
2006 - 39/56 - cloudy
2007 - 24/48 - clear in the morning, cloudy in the afternoon
2008 - 32/44 - showers, hail in the morning, then clearing.  1.15" rain (3.75" for the month)
2009 - 27/57 - clear
2010 - 38/53 - cloudy, showers in the afternoon.
2011 - 25/56 - clear.
2012 - 35/45 - cloudy, rain developing around mid-day.  Heavy rain in evening.

As of yesterday, we've had 9.75" of rain for the month of December.  We'll be over 10" with today's rain, and we'll have had close to 20" for the season by tomorrow morning.

I'm not sure what this tells me, except that I'm a weather geek - a geek in so many ways, actually!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Stranger's Advice

Note: I originally wrote this poem more than 10 years ago, but I thought it was especially appropriate this year.  Merry Christmas!

I’d been to the sale earlier that day
To sell a load of lambs,
And drivin’ back I was mighty depressed
About what the buyer had paid.

We’d bought the ranch a couple years before
And it’d be tough to make it through
Another year like this one;
We couldn’t take much more.

The headlights of my truck flashed on a man
Up ahead alongside the road.
It was snowin’ pretty hard by then,
So I stopped and offered him a hand.

I could see that he was pretty old
As I looked him over in the cab.
His long white beard was full o’ ice,
And he shivered in the cold.

“Thanks for the ride,” he said and grinned,
“I knew you’d be along,
I’m headed the very same direction,
And I knew where you’d just been.”

How’d you know I’d been to town,
And how do you know who I am?
How do you know where I’m goin’?
I asked him with a frown.

“Dan, I know a lot more’n you think,”
He answered with a  chuckle.
“I know you took a beatin’ on those lambs
You sold,” he added with a wink.

Yeah, well, I said, it’s not much fun –
We’re barely getting by.
What’s worse we’ll have no Christmas –
Now what’ll I tell my son?!

“That’s why you picked me up,” said he,
“So I could tell you what to say.
Tell your boy why you chose this life,
And he’ll begin to see

“That he gets a gift most every day
By you livin’ there on the ranch.
That’s what you’re givin’ this Christmastime;
He’s bound to see it this way.

“He fishes all summer down at the crick,
Goes huntin’ with you in the fall.
Winters he helps with all the chores –
What else would a ranch kid pick?

“So don’t dwell on what you couldn’t get,
Store-bought gifts are over-rated!
Be thankful he’s growin’ up out here,
Your ranch is the perfect fit!”

Then he asked me to pull over once more
And let him out of the truck.
“This is as far as I need to go,”
He said, “and like I tried to say before,

“Don’t worry about what you couldn’t buy
Or what’s not underneath your tree,
‘Cause the gift you’ve already been given
Comes from up on high.”

As he climbed down from the cab he paused
And said, “Can’t you figure out who I am?”
And as he disappeared into the snow night,
I realized he was Santa Claus!

So now I’m thankful that we’re livin’ out here,
And that I’m raisin’ my family to ranch.
So I’m wishin’ you all a Merry Christmas
And the happiest of all New Years!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Shepherd's Table - Our Favorite Soup and Stew Recipes

Several days ago on facebook, a friend asked for a recipe for scotch broth - which our family has on Christmas Eve every year.  I started thinking about soup and stew - it's perfect weather for it!  I plan on putting all of our recipes onto a new Shepherd's Table page on our website (www.flyingmulefarm.com) - in the meantime, I'll post a few of my favorite wintertime recipes here!  Enjoy!

Scotch Broth
3 lbs lamb or mutton neck slices (or shoulder chops)
8 cups cold water
1/2 cup barley
3 TBS butter
2 carrots, diced fine
2 stalks celery or fennel, diced fine
2 small white turnips or rutabagas, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, diced fine
Freshly ground pepper

Remove most of the fat from the meat. Put it in a pot with the cold water. Bring to a boil and stir in the barley. Simmer, partially covered, for 1-1/2 hours, or until the meat and barley are tender, adding more water if any evaporates. Remove the meat from the bones. Cool the soup and skim off the fat. Melt the butter in a skillet and add the carrots, celery (or fennel), turnip (or rutabaga), and onion. Cook over low heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Add to the soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook for another 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Serve piping hot.

Mutton Curry
2 lbs boneless mutton shoulder - trimmed and cut into 1" cubes
4 cups lamb or chicken broth
1/2 onion - chopped
3 large cloves garlic - chopped
1/4 cup coconut milk
2 large potatoes - peeled and diced
1 large carrot - diced
1 can stewed tomatoes
1 can garbanzo beans
1 can tomato paste
3 fuyu persimmons or medium butternut squash, peeled and diced
2 tsp meat curry seasoning (available from Spice Grills at the Auburn Farmers' Market)
Salt to taste

Cube the mutton shoulder and brown in olive oil.  After browning the meat, saute the onions until slightly browned.  Add all ingredients EXCEPT persimmons to slow cooker.  Cook on low all day if possible.  An hour before serving, dice the persimmons with the skins left on and add to the curry. (we used chocolate fuyus, but any fuyu persimmon will work).  If you're using winter squash, add earlier in the process.  Serve over rice.

Sheep Camp Beans
Note: this recipe changes everytime I make it - depending on what ingredients I have on hand!

2 lbs lamb or mutton shoulder - trimmed and cut into 3/4" cubes
1 TBS olive oil
About a half cup of onion
5 cloves garlic
Some red wine (not sure how much - pour till it looks good!)
Some water (same deal as above)
1 can pinto beans (drained)
1 can kidney beans (drained)
1 can stewed tomatoes (I like the Italian seasoned variety)
1 can diced green chilies
Dash of cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste

I like to make this recipe in a cast iron dutch oven over a camp fire, but it can be made indoors as well!  A crock pot works great!

Prepare meat and brown in the dutch oven.  Remove from pot.  Add olive oil and saute onion and garlic.  Add sausage, beans, wine, water and chilies.  Season to taste.  Cook low and slow for several hours (or all day, if possible).  Have a taste of the red wine.  Cook a bit longer.  Serve with good bread!

Sheepherder Stew

2 pounds lamb kabobs or stew meat (or mutton)
1 large onion – chopped
3 cloves garlic - chopped
1 medium winter squash (butternut or acorn) – peeled and cut into 1” cubes
1 can stewed tomatoes
2 cans beans (pinto, black and/or kidney)
1 can diced Ortega chilies
1 cup red wine
2 cups chicken broth
Season to taste (we use salt, pepper, a pinch of cumin, bay leaves, paprika and basil)

Brown meat in olive oil.  Combine all ingredients in crock pot or dutch oven and cook until vegetables and meat are tender.  Serves 4 (with leftovers

Please share your own favorite soup and stew recipes!  Go to www.facebook.com/flyingmulefarm to post, or leave a comment below!  Cheers!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Meat Happens

On occasion, I’ll receive a phone call or an email asking if we have a whole lamb for sale.  Generally the potential customer who makes contact in this manner needs a whole lamb within the next week or two, and I’m usually unable to comply.  For us, the sale of meat is just the last step in a very long chain of decisions and actions.  I thought it might be useful to explain how meat happens – at least at Flying Mule Farm.

In many respects, the total quantity of meat we have available in a given year is determined by how we manage our flock as much as 15 months before we’re able to sell a single lamb chop.  Each year in August, we evaluate our ewes and begin the process of “flushing.”  Flushing increases ovulation in our ewes by improving the quality of their nutritional intake.  We flush the ewes by putting them on irrigated pasture or feeding alfalfa for 4-6 weeks before we actually turn rams in the ewes for breeding season.

The time of year in which we have fresh lamb available is determined by the breeds of sheep that we use.  In our three-breed crossbreeding scheme, we use Border and North Country Cheviot ewes crossed with Blueface Leicester rams to give us our maternal flock of “mule” ewes.  We cross these mules with a third breed – a composite of Suffolk, Texel and Columbia – to give us lambs that will finish quickly on nothing but grass.  Because our maternal breeds are seasonally anestrous – that is, because they’ll only ovulate when the days are growing shorter – we breed the sheep in the fall and lamb in the early spring.  Since our lambs need 6-9 months to reach a finished size, this means that we have lamb available in the fall.  While there are several sheep breeds that can be bred year-round, we’ve found that these breeds present other challenges in our system.

By mid April, all of our lambs are born.  We select some of the ewe lambs for replacing ewes in our flock – those that didn’t conceive or lamb successfully are sold.  The balance of the lambs represents that year’s marketable crop.  When we separate the lambs from the ewes in June (a process called weaning), we also evaluate the quantity and quality of irrigated pasture that we have during the summer.  Grass-finishing lambs require incredibly high quality green forage – which in our Mediterranean climate means irrigated pasture in the summer months.  We try to match the number of lambs we keep for finishing with the amount of pasture available.  Sometimes, despite our best planning efforts, the amount of pasture changes unexpectedly.  This year, for example, one of our landlords decided to mow a significant amount of our irrigated pasture in August – severely limiting the amount of forage we had available for the fall.

Sometime in October, the first of the year’s lambs are ready to be processed.  We determine this by weight and by the degree of fat cover on each lamb.  Fat cover is directly related to the eating quality of the meat – we want enough fat for your lamb chops to be juicy, tender and flavorful.  At this point, we’ve incurred the expense of caring for the lamb’s mother for a full year, along with the expense of raising the lamb.  These costs include things like vaccines to prevent common diseases, rent payments for our pastures, fuel for my daily “commute” to check our flocks, dog food for our border collies and livestock protection dogs, payments to our sheep shearer, supplemental feed (hay and minerals), and other incidental expenses.

As we begin processing our lambs, we move into the heavily regulated part of the meat business.  For us to sell meat legally, we must have our lambs processed at a federally-inspected facility.  Both the harvesting process and the cutting and wrapping of our meat must be inspected.  We’re fortunate to live just 65 miles from the closest federally-inspected lamb processor – other producers must travel much greater distances to have their animals processed.

Processing requires us to play close attention to financial and logistical details.  Financially, processing represents our greatest per head expense.  We pay $25 per lamb for harvest services, and $55-65 per head for cut-and-wrap services.  If we can bring 10 or more lambs to our processor and have them cut-and-wrapped in an identical manner, we pay the lower fee.  Processing greater numbers of lambs allows us to reduce our per-head transportation costs, as well.  Each load of lambs requires two trips to our processor – one to deliver live animals on Tuesdays, and another to pick up meat on Fridays.  In terms of mileage and time, each load represents an expense of roughly $200.  If we only take 10 lambs per trip, the transportation cost alone amounts to $20 per animal.  We usually try to take 15 or more in each load.

Logistically, scheduling our trips to the processor requires careful coordination.  In order to get on the processing calendar on a given Tuesday, I need to call the processor by the prior Friday with the number of lambs I’ll be bringing.  On Monday afternoon or early Tuesday morning, I’ll sort the lambs that I’m hauling from the rest of the flock (a process that usually requires me to bring the entire flock into our corrals).  Early Tuesday morning (hopefully before 6 a.m.) I’ll load the lambs and begin the drive to Dixon.  Pulling a stock trailer through Sacramento rush-hour traffic can sometimes be a challenging job.  At the plant, we unload and weigh the lambs, and then I pre-pay the harvest fees.  I also provide a sheet for each group of lambs with the cuts of meat our customers want, along with the per pound price for each cut.  Usually the processor follows my instructions; sometimes they make mistakes (which I don’t find out about until I pick up our meat on the following Friday).  On Friday, I make a similar trip to Dixon (this time without the trailer) to pick up the finished product.  The meat from each lamb is put in its own box – if I’ve had 20 lambs harvested, I haul 20 boxes back to my meat locker in Roseville.  I also pay the cut-and-wrap fees at this time.  By the time I have meat to sell, I have incurred expenses of at least $80 per lamb just to get my product!

I should also note that we must pay attention to the amount of product we can expect from each lamb.  We try to finish our lambs at 90-100 pounds live weight.  Depending on how we have the lamb cut-and-wrapped, a 100-pound lamb will give us just 30-35 pounds of meat.  Our prices reflect both the costs outlined above and this yield factor.

At last, we have product for our customers!  Hopefully, we’ve selected the cuts that people want to purchase.  If we’ve had rib chops made by our processor, and our customers want rack of lamb, we’re both out of luck.  We store our products in a rented meat locker in Roseville (another expense – we pay $125 per month for about 400 cubic feet of storage space.  We also need to pay attention to our marketing expenses – our annual farmers’ market membership fees, our weekly stall fees, and our marketing time all add to the cost of producing our lamb.  Hopefully, we can sell our lamb quickly enough – and for enough money – to have some money left over after we’ve paid all of our expenses!

If I’ve done my job in planning, we will have enough lambs to meet our known demand – and to be able to meet the needs of new customers as well.  Even if I’ve planned successfully, however, the logistical and financial challenges involved in selling meat make it unprofitable to take one or two lambs to my processor for the customer that calls to order a whole lamb for next week.  I’d have to charge this customer substantially more just to cover my processing and transportation costs AND make a profit.

Like many small businesses, raising livestock and selling meat is immensely complicated – even more so if I want to do it profitably.  Basic biology requires me to make the right decisions well in advance of actually selling a lamb chop – the decisions I make in August determine the quantity and quality of products I have available 15 months in the future.  Unfortunately, I can’t simply walk out to the sheep tree and pick a ripe lamb when a customer calls!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

No Two Years Alike

As I write this, we're in the fourth day of an expected five days of rainy weather.  Since Wednesday morning, we've measured over 4.5 inches of rain - and we're predicted to get at least another 3 inches by Monday morning.  For the season, we've received more than 10 inches.  By comparison, we'd received less than 4 inches by December 1 last year - and we wouldn't get much more rain until February 2012.  I can see the difference in the years when I look at my pastures - I see green this December where I saw only brown last year.

Some of the impacts of last year's winter drought were immediate.  Because we had little if any green forage in December and January, we were forced to purchase supplemental protein for our ewes.  The protein allows a ruminant's digestive system to process dry grass (which is higher in cellulose).  Like any feed source that must be purchased (as opposed to the feed that grows naturally in our pastures), this protein greatly increased our costs of production.

On the other hand, we didn't realize some of the impacts until later in the year.  In May when we sheared the ewes, we discovered that we had "wool break" in some of our fleeces.  Wool break, which is a weakening of the wool fibers, is caused by some source of stress for the sheep.  The timing of the stress can be determined by where the fiber breaks, and wool break makes the wool less valuable when it's sold.  In our case, the break occurred in the middle of the fiber - about 6 months before shearing.  In other words, in December 2011.

We've also noticed that this year's lambs have not gained weight as fast as normal.  Some of our later lambs (we had a group of ewes that didn't lamb until late April) didn't perform well at all.  While some of this difference might be attributed to a change in the irrigated pasture we had access to this year, I think some of it resulted from the dry conditions in December and January - in the last half of our ewes' pregnancy.

This year, we've had the perfect combination of fall rains and warm weather.  The grass started growing with the first germinating rain in the second half of October.  With only one frost so far, we've had warm enough weather to keep the grass growing.  The short days and colder temperatures of December and January will force the grass into a dormant period, but we've had enough growth to keep the sheep going until longer days and warming temperatures start the grass again - usually about the time the lambs start to arrive in late February.

Unfortunately, one farmer's perfect weather is another farmer's wreck.  Last year, while we were struggling with higher feed costs and frequent pasture moves, our mandarin-growing friends were enjoying one of the best harvest seasons they'd had in a number of years.  Without the usual December rain and wind, they were able to pick nearly every day of December.  We enjoyed mandarins into January last year.  This year, while our ewes are thriving on this late fall burst of green forage, mandarin growers are trying to fit a day or two of picking in between rain storms.

While the technology and techniques of farming give some of us more options for dealing with variations in weather, all of us are ultimately reliant on what nature gives us.  My dependence on nature is the source of great satisfaction for me - and also the source of great frustration at times.  And while science and technology are an important part of our farming system, it is the art of dealing with nature's gifts (or lack thereof) that keep me interested in farming year after year.

Now I think I'll head out into the storm and move the ewes onto fresh green grass!