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Showing posts from January, 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 w…

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!


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.

Tagging our ewes serves many purposes.  First, by removing the soiled wool, we reduce the chance for infection or o…

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…


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 muc…

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 …


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 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.
Since I'm somewhat of a techno-geek, I've been checking multiple weather websites over the last month…

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 w…

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:

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.

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 go…

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 producti…

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 pastur…