Saturday, July 7, 2012

Taking Time

This summer, we're grazing our rams at a neighbor's property about 3/4 of a mile away from our home place.  We try to keep our rams at least a mile away from our ewes until breeding season starts (the ewes are all on leased pasture 3 miles or more from the house) - the "ram effect" helps synchronize ovulation and increase twinning rates.  While I could have driven to the ram pasture in a matter of minutes, I opted to ride my mule instead.  The decision to ride instead of drive meant that I needed to groom my mule, saddle her, ride to the ram pasture and back, and unsaddle and groom her again.  Had I decided to burn petroleum, the chore would have taken all of 10 minutes.  Riding my mule made it a 45 minute task.

Part of why I decided to farm as a livelihood was the fact that I would be in charge of my own time - no punching a time clock for me!  In theory, this sounds great - I'm my own boss!  Unfortunately, my boss is insane on occasion - there's always more to do and never enough time to do it!  For me, riding my mule represents an acknowledgement that that I do control my schedule - I can afford to "waste" the 35 additional minutes it takes to ride to the ram pasture simply because riding my mule is far more enjoyable than driving my truck.

I struggle with extending this philosophy to other parts of my life.  For example, I love to fish for trout.  Despite my passion for fishing, I usually get to fish 2-3 times each year - even though I can be on pretty decent trout water in 45 minutes.  Tonight, I decided that the next day I can finish my chores by 2 p.m., I'm grabbing my fly rod and heading for the mountains!  I'm taking time to do something I enjoy!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Dogs, Neighbors, and Farming Close to Town

As regular readers of Foothill Agrarian (all three of you) know, the dogs of Flying Mule Farm (both herding and guarding dogs) play an important role in our operation and in the lives of our family.  I rarely go anywhere without at least one of our border collies, and our livestock guardian dogs (despite the occasional management problems they present) do an incredible job of protecting our sheep from mountain lions, coyotes, domestic dogs and other predators.

Regular readers also know that we farm close to town, and that our proximity to suburbia creates both opportunities and challenges for us.  We love the fact that our farmers' market customers drive by our sheep on their way to town, and that many kids first touch a live lamb on our farm.  On the downside, many folks in our community no longer have first hand experience with production agriculture.

About a year ago, we received an anonymous email from a neighbor (who did not identify him/herself) complaining that our dogs barked late at night and early in the morning.  The email came one evening while we'd been busy at our county fair, so the border collies had been out in our backyard later than normal (Taff and Mo sleep in the house most nights, while Ernie and Popcorn sleep in crates in the garage).  We went to great lengths following the email to make sure the dogs were in by 9 p.m.

We also have guardian dogs here at home occasionally - recuperating from an injury or guarding livestock that we're keeping here.  Last night, I received the following email from the same anonymous neighbor:

"Thank you for your continued efforts to keep your dogs quiet. It appears you have gotten another dog, a VERY loud one. It woke us up at 5am this morning. This dog has a very loud and deep bark, and YES it is yours.

Indeed, other dogs are also barking-- but because you may have more dogs than the average family, they seem to bark more, and start the others going too. I haven't communicated in sometime, because I can see the efforts you are making.

Bark collars really do teach the dogs not to bark, you may consider it as a training tool.

Thank you for your consideration, as the sound is very upsetting to my wife."
At Sami's urging, I decided to sleep on my response (my first inclination was not very neighborly!).  This morning, I spent about 45 minutes composing my reply:

"Sorry to hear that our dogs have inconvenienced you.  Thank you for your acknowledgement of our efforts.
As you may not know, we are in the commercial sheep business.  All of our dogs are an essential part of our business - either as herding dogs or as livestock production dogs (LPDs).  While most of our operation exists on leased land around Auburn, we do keep some sheep and goats at our home place.  These are generally animals that require special care - orphaned lambs that must be bottle-fed 2-3 times daily, older sheep and goats that require special care and feeding, and an occasional injured or sick animal.  Our property is zoned "Farm" by Placer County, which permits these commercial activities.
Sheep and goats are vulnerable to predators like coyotes, mountain lions and domestic dogs - even in a neighborhood like ours.  Indeed, the only animals we've ever lost to predators were killed by a neighbor dog two years ago in our back pasture.  At that time, we did not have any LPDs with the sheep.  The neighbor dog was observed chasing sheep into the irrigation ditch and killing them for sport - we lost 4 ewes in the attack.  Since that time, we've tried to make sure that we are always protecting our animals (and our livelihood).  Our LPDs are critical to this effort.
LPDs instinctively respond to anything they perceive as a threat to the animals they are guarding.  The best LPDs are raised with the animals they spend their lives guarding - our dogs have been with sheep from the moment they were whelped.  Their first response to a perceived threat is to bark.  If the threat persists, an LPD will aggressively challenge the threat.  Sometimes the threat is readily apparent to us humans; other times it is not.  We have experienced our dogs barking at the scent or sound of a coyote in the neighborhood, which we only discovered later.  We've also noticed that our LPDs can learn about routine - for example, they don't bark at folks who walk their dogs past our place at the same time everyday.  Since barking is part of their guarding behavior, discouraging an LPD from barking will ruin the dog's effectiveness.
When we have LPDs at our home place, we are especially aware of their barking - both because it represents a potential threat to our livestock and because we want to be good neighbors.  When a dog sounds a warning bark (and we've found that LPDs only bark when they are trying to warn off a perceived threat), we'll check it out - even in the middle of the night.  Most of the time, our dogs relax and stop barking once we've responded to their warning barks.
I would like to invite you to visit our operation at some point.  The partnership that we've developed over many years with both our herding dogs and our LPDs represents an amazing relationship between humans and dogs.  We could not operate a commercial sheep business without this partnership, and watching our dogs work - even for us - is a wonderful experience.  Also, we'd be glad to forward you additional information regarding LPD behavior and training." 
I'm still not certain if my response was appropriate or effective.  Nearly all of the folks we come into contact with are interested in and supportive of our operation.  The vocal few who are not seem to cause a disproportionate share of stress to my life.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Robert Burns' Perspective on Shepherds

I suspect that most folks know Robert Burns by his poem "Auld Lang Syne" - we at least think of the Scottish poet at the end of every year.  I don't know much more about Burns, but as a fan of Scottish music, I've learned a bit about his poetry.  I especially like the version of his "A Man's a Man for a' That" by the Scottish band The Old Blind Dogs.  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I was able to download a recording of "The Shepherd's Wife" (a Burns poem) by Jim Malcolm (one-time front man for The Old Blind Dogs).  Here's a translation of the poem:

As a modern day shepherd, I know that I'm guilty of working long past the time when I should be home! Some things don't change!