Sunday, June 24, 2012

Getting Older

Last night, we helped with the 20th annual UC Davis Horse Auction.  Samia and I have been at 19 of the 20 - we missed the auction two years ago when my folks took us all to Hawaii.  I'm having a hard time comprehending the fact that I'm old enough to have done anything in my adult life (after college, that is) twenty times!  I was 25 years old the first year that I served as the auctioneer for the sale.  I was working for the California Cattlemen's Association; Sami was recently out of vet school.  I still had hair! Dan Sehnert, who has worked in the Animal Science Department at UC Davis since I was in college, is the only person who has been to more of the auctions than we have.

Looking around last night, I found myself measuring my participation in the event against the changes in the facilities and people associated with the horse program at UCD.  The first year of the auction, the redwood trees on the west side of the arena where we've held the auction were less than 20 feet tall - they didn't provide much shade.  Last night, most of us were shaded by the trees.  Joel Viloria is now the horse barn superintendent - he's the fourth one we've worked with.

Another development (most welcome in our mind) has been the addition of mules to the sale. At least thirteen years ago, UCD started offering mules sired by Action Jackson, a jack owned by Pat Downing.  Twelve years ago, I bought a thoroughbred mare in foal to Action - our mule Frisbee was born in April of 2001.  The next year, her brother Boomerang was born.  Last night, we sold Action's Playbunny - a sorrel molly mule who topped the sale at over $3000!  Next year, UCD will be offering a draft mule out of a Percheron mare.  The mules have mad the auction truly unique!

Age sneaks up on me.  If you'd asked me when I was 18, I'd have told you that I would have things figured out by the time I was 45.  Now that I've reached that age, I realize that figuring stuff out is an ongoing process!  Sometimes it takes an annual event to remind me of where I've been, how much I've learned, and how much more I hope to experience!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Turning Another Corner

Last weekend, we started the process of weaning the lambs from their mothers.  The oldest lambs are now about 100 days old - and weighing 70 pounds or more.  By separating them from the ewes, we can put the lambs on our highest quality irrigated pasture.  The ewes can spend 45-60 days on rougher feed - yellow starthistle and other invasive weeds, for example.  When we wean the lambs, we give them a permanent (hopefully) ear tag, vaccinate them for the most common diseases in our area, and deworm them.

The sheep year begins with breeding season.  About 45 days prior to turning the rams in with the ewes (mid August), we'll evaluate the ewes for health and body condition.  Those that are a bit thin will be separated out and fed higher quality feed (irrigated pasture or supplemental hay).  On September 1, we'll put all the ewes on higher quality feed and turn in our "teaser" rams - vasectomized rams that help synchronize the estrous cycles of the ewes.  On October 1, we turn in the rams.

The next milepost comes in December - we ultrasound the ewes to determine whether they are bred and trim their feet.  After this work, we relax until lambing starts in the third week of February.  When lambing is completed, we shear the ewes.  Weaning is the next "corner" to our year - it represents a shift in focus from the ewe flock to the growing lambs - this year's profit.

Over the coming weeks, we'll carefully monitor the health of our lambs.  We'll check for foot problems - a common issue on irrigated pasture.  We'll monitor the incidence of internal parasites, too.  In July, we'll shear most of the lambs, too - by this time, their wool will be long enough to have some value.  Beginning in late August, the largest lambs will weigh 90-100 pounds.  During the fall, we make almost weekly trips to our processor to harvest our lambs and provide meat to our customers.

I enjoy the rhythms of the ranching year - the work follows a seasonal cycle.  I also enjoy the variability that comes with each year.  This year, the dry mid-winter months, followed by wet weather in March and early April, made for challenging feed conditions - all of our annual grasses matured in a 10-day period.  We also purchased another flock that had been bred later than our own ewes - meaning our weaning process will be stretched out over 30-45 days this year.


Since early March, I've been managing a number of targeted grazing projects for Prescriptive Livestock Services - a company from eastern Oregon.  These contracts have all been in the Lincoln and Auburn area, and we've used a combination of sheep and goats - at one point this spring, we had nearly 2,000 sheep and more than 2,200 goats within the Lincoln city limits!  While I've been overseeing the projects, much of the day-to-day work has been handled by a handful of herders from Peru.  These men come here under a special visa program that allows specialized workers to enter the U.S. legally.  I've worked most closely with three herders - Didi, Yan and Jhonny (especially Didi) - and I've been incredibly impressed with their dedication to their work, their knowledge of livestock and their ability to work hard.

Working with Spanish-speaking colleagues has made me think about the complexity of communication.  First, I'm constantly amazed by the capacity of the human mind to come up with very different sounds for the same object or action.  For example, Didi and I were talking about cooking one afternoon.  He tried to explain a traditional Peruvian meal prepared in an "horno."  Those of you who speak Spanish will know that Didi was describing an oven.  This may seem simplistic, but I'm fascinated by the fact that cultures and civilizations have developed such diverse systems of communication.

Language in this country has taken on political ramifications, too.  At the risk of offending those who believe that anyone wishing to live and/or work in the U.S. should learn to speak English, working with Didi has made me realize that my own perspective on language is more personal than political. On a personal level, communication requires us to find a way to help the person listening to us understand what we're trying to say.  I find myself wishing I'd retained more of my high school Spanish lessons!  Despite my very limited Spanish (and Didi's not-quite-so limited English) we have found a way to communicate - through hard work, mostly.

In some respects, I think learning to work with border collies and horses has helped me learn to communicate more effectively with people who speak a different language.  I come to working with dogs or horses with the assumption that I need to strive to be understood (not the other way around - I don't expect my border collies to understand me until I've worked on a system of communication that they can comprehend).  In the same way, I think it's my responsibility to find a way to communicate with someone who doesn't speak English.

Technology may help us with this challenge.  I've downloaded two applications onto my iPhone that translate English into Spanish (and other languages) and vice versa.  The first program requires me to type a word or phrase, which is then translated.  The second program allows me to speak a word or phrase and then repeats it back to me in Spanish.  Didi and I have had great fun using these tools to communicate - we laugh at our own mistakes and enjoy our successes when we actually understand one another.

Last week, we hauled 720 goats in 6 loads onto another grazing project.  We used a double-deck trailer, counting 55 animals onto the top deck and 70 onto the lower deck.  I found myself counting in Spanish - and I could hear Didi counting under his breath, too - sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish.

Monday, June 4, 2012

More Baseball - the Cow Palace

Perhaps it's the success of the Giants over the last week, but I seem to be on a baseball kick!  In response to my last post, a family friend and fellow auctioneer Steve Scofield (a Red Sox fan who lives in New Hampshire) wrote this:

"We could probably write a book called 'Everything You Ever Wanted to Know You Learned Playing Baseball.' As meaningless as the game is, playing with the other kids only taught us negotiation, teamwork, friendship, sharing, winning, losing, you're not perfect, you make mistakes, so does everyone else, you are responsible for your decisions. If only we knew enough to go for beers afterwards."

I've been thinking about my own baseball "career" lately.  I played "organized" baseball from the age of 6 through my sophomore year in high school.  I decided not to play varsity ball because the varsity coach at Sonora High School while I was there let the seniors vote as to which juniors to keep on the team.  Even at 17, I didn't care much for those kind of politics!

Some of my fondest memories about baseball involve what we called the "Cow Palace."  As I recall, I played Little League for the Standard Cascaders and Colt League ball for the Standard Braves (it's been quite some time, so my memories of team names could be faulty).  Regardless, I do remember the field where we played our home games.  Standard was the last company town in Tuolumne County - home to Curtis Creek School and the Pickering Lumber Company.  Our ball field was provided by the sawmill.  With the vast expanse of outfield grass, Pickering Lumber Company was also in the cattle business.  Before every home game, one of our fathers would chase the cows off of the field before we took infield practice.  The home team was responsible for scooping cowpies off the infield.  Any hit to the outfield that landed in a cowpie was deemed a ground rule double.  By the fifth inning of most games, the cows had overcome their fear of people enough to creep back into the outfield.  Usually, a dad drove his truck back out onto the field to move the cows so we could finish our game.  Today, the site is home to a sports complex called Merlo Field, but I suspect there are a bunch of guys my age who still call it the Cow Palace!

As a seventh and eight grader at Curtis Creek Elementary School in Standard, most of my spring recesses were spent playing baseball.  My 8th grade basketball coach, Jack Lackey, had played baseball in the Yankees farm system.  During one lunch period, he bet a bunch of us that we couldn't catch a pitch from him.  He was right- until I tried to catch his curveball, I didn't realize how much a thrown baseball could move!

Tonight, Emma and I took our gloves out to the back pasture and played catch.  That's the beautiful thing about baseball - you can play it anywhere!  Looking at Steve's thoughts, I realize that baseball did teach me many things - accepting a lack of perfection being perhaps the most important lesson.  Related to this lack of perfection is the desire to get up and try again AND the reminder not to take myself too seriously - maybe that's why baseball (at least to me) remains our national pastime!  I think it's time for a beer!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Baseball Gloves

This will not seem like a farming-related post, but please bear with me.  My friend Dave Pratt, who teaches Ranching for Profit schools throughout North America puts it best - everyone should care deeply about something that's absolutely meaningless in the larger scheme of things.  For me (and for Dave), baseball is one of those things.  Baseball gloves, however, do perhaps have a deeper meaning!

I listened to parts of the San Francisco Giants game this afternoon.  The team held it's "Junior Giants Glove Drive" today - it was an effort to raise money and take donated gloves for disadvantaged kids in the Bay Area.  Former Giants infielder, current broadcaster and Glove Drive chairman Duane Kuiper talked about how a baseball glove is something you keep for a long time.  Gloves have stories that go with them!  The Giants collected $27,500 and more than 500 donated ball gloves today!

Hearing about the Glove Drive on the radio, I reflected on my own experience playing baseball and encouraging others to take up the game.  Most recently, my youngest daughter Emma has shown an interest in baseball.  She's got an amazing arm for an 8-year-old, and she's learning to hit, too.  She's using the first glove I ever owned - a Keystone glove (made in the U.S.) that my Dad bought for me when I was 5 or 6 at Mundorf's Hardware in Sonora.  I'm using a Wilson A2000 XLC (also U.S.-made) that I saved for and bought with my own money when I was a freshman at Sonora High School (way back in 1982 - 30 years ago!).  I can still remember my Mom taking me to Action Sports in Modesto to get it - I was so proud of that glove!  I was a mediocre infielder in high school, but I had a great glove!  To break it in, I rubbed it with neatsfoot oil, put a ball in it, and put it between my mattress and box springs for a week!

The Glove Drive also reminded me of my trip to the Dominican Republic and Cuba while I was part of the California Agricultural Leadership Program in 1997.  Along with several of my classmates, I collected baseballs, gloves and caps to give away during our trip.  Our first experience with this was in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Santo Domingo, D.R.  As we walked down streets where raw sewage ran in the gutters, kids the age of Emma followed us on ramshackle bicycles and on foot.  We decided to give them a half dozen new baseballs - most of them were wearing the caps of Major League teams.  We tossed the shiny white hardballs to them and the most amazing thing happened - they gathered around each ball and held it, smelled it and talked about it.  Each ball was then carefully tucked away - they kept playing with their old balls until they wore out, I think.  I also gave a kid in a Dodgers' hat a glove I'd brought - he was in awe.

A week later, we arrived in Havana.  On one of my first walks along the waterfront (the Malecon) I came upon a ballgame being played beneath a classical Spanish statue.  The infield was cobblestones - which made ground balls tricky!  I got the attention of the pitcher and tossed him a brand new ball.  Immediately, all of the players from both teams gathered at the pitching "mound" to examine the ball.  Again, they held it and smelled it - and put it away!  While my lack of Spanish was a barrier to communication, it was evident that they appreciated the gift.

These memories suggest that baseball (and other sports) are far from meaningless.  I frequently find myself disgusted by the greed and lack of ethics of many professional athletes.  However, I also find myself getting choked up tonight as I remember how treasured a new baseball was to some of the poorest kids I'll ever meet.  Sports, at least at the amateur and recreational level, can remind us of our commonality and our humanity.  For me, baseball holds a special place - it's part of my family heritage.  I can distinctly remember my Grampa and my Dad talking about players they had both seen.  I can remember pretending to be Ron Cey in my Aunt's backyard while waiting anxiously to go to the Dodgers' game later that evening (I was probably Emma's age).  As an adult, I became a Giants fan - and I remember the thrill of listening to the final out of the 2010 World Series (as do my daughters!).  Picking up my old glove to play catch with my daughter involves all of these memories!  Kudos to the Giants for helping more kids start their own stories!