Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Unexpected Guest

It was half past four when a knock on the door
Interrupted our Christmas Day.
We were ready to eat, so I rose from my seat
To send our visitor on his way.

And as I looked out, without a doubt,
I could see that he was a bum.
"Get goin'," I said, with a shake of my head,
"You shouldn't have bothered to come."

Now he was an old man with his hat in his hand
And silvery stubble on his chin.
My wife said, "Dan, be a gentelman,
And let our guest come in."

He added, "It's cold and I'm too old
To sleep on the ground tonight.
I been all over town," he said with a frown,
"And now it's the day's last light."

"Come in where it's warm, there's a room in the barn,"
My wife said.  "We'd be glad to have you stay.
Now come take a seat - we're ready to eat.
Please join us while we pray."

He said, "You're much too kind, and it eases my mind
To know there's folks like you around.
Spendin' Christmas alone - well, it's just no fun.
Lord, please the new friends that I've found."

Next mornin' when I fed, he'd made his bed.
His tracks in the snow led down our road.
In a spidery hand this grizzled old man
Had left us with only a note:

"Thanks for the eats and the warm place to sleep.
I'd like to make you a little wager -
I'd bet my life it was a rancher's wife
Who put Mary and Joseph up in the manger."

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2013

The First Guard Dog

"Where'd the first guard dog come from, Dad?"
Lara asked me as we were ridin' home.
So I did a little research this week
And finally came up with this poem.

I learned that shepherds back in Bible times
Fought coyotes like we do today.
Seemed like no mater what they did,
They just couldn't keep 'em away.

Now when baby Jesus was born,
Angels came to the herders at night.
An' the air filled with their gloriuos song
An' the sky filled up with light.

The Bible says "they were sore afraid,"
But it wasn't 'cause of the Heavenly Host.
It was leavin' their sheep with the coyotes about -
That's what scared 'em the most.

So God created a guard dog -
Like sheep he was woolly and white.
He made the dog wanna stay with the flock
An' keep the coyotes away all night.

God told the herders, "Now you can go -
The dog'll watch over the herd.
Go welcome my Son in Bethlehem,
Who's come to be my Word."

So sheepherders were the first to go
An' welcome God's own Son,
But without their new guard dog,
They never would've gone!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bringing in the Reindeer - Re-posted from 2010

This story started with a business idea.  Our girls, Lara and Emma, both have pretty good sheep dogs – Mo and Ernie (respectively).  Over dinner this summer, Lara suggested that we could help other ranchers gather and move their livestock.

“Let’s put a sign up at the feed store, Dad,” she said.  “You could use Taff, too!”

“Yeah – we could make a little money for Christmas and get a chance to use our dogs,” Emma agreed.  “Let’s make a poster.”

The next week, we put up a handmade sign:

Need help corralling your wild sheep?
We can help!
Have sheep dogs – will travel!
Dan Macon and Daughters
Livestock Herding Services
Call us today!

We also posted the information on our website in hopes that we’d reach more folks who needed our assistance.

During the next several months, we took on a few jobs – nothing too difficult.  We helped a neighbor move his goats into a new pasture.  This fall, we helped gather a friend’s ewes before they were tagged for lambing.  The girls earned some spending money, and the dogs had great fun!

The week after Thanksgiving, I got a call on my cell phone from a number I didn’t recognize – I didn’t even recognize the area code.  I let the call roll over into my voice mail, and retrieved this message:

“Mr. Macon, this is Kris Kringle up north – you might know me better as Santa Claus.  I saw the information on your website and thought maybe you could give me a hand.  In early October, one of the elves forgot to latch the door to the grain room.  One of the reindeer – probably Donner – got the door open, and the reindeer got into my special grain.  The stuff that makes them fly.  They’ve been impossible to catch ever since.  After Thanksgiving, I usually start putting them in harness and getting them in shape, but they take off every time we try to catch them.  Give me a call – I’m sure your girls and their dogs can help!”

Well, as you can imagine, I called back immediately.  Kris picked up the call himself – who knew Santa had a cell phone!?

I said, “Santa, the girls and I would love to help, but I’m not sure Taff, Mo and Ernie are up to gathering flying livestock.  They are great dogs, but they’re not terribly aerodynamic.”
Mo waiting to get airborne!

Taff at rest - a typical pose.

Mo's little brother Ernie - doesn't he look like he could fly!?

“Just leave that to me,” laughed Santa, “I have a special supplement I add to the grain we feed the reindeer.  A scoop on their dog food ought to do the trick!”

I covered the phone and asked Lara and Emma what they thought.  “Let’s try it, Dad,” Emma said, “sounds like fun!”

“Yeah, Dad,” Lara agreed.  “I’d like to see the dogs fly!”

“We’ll give it a shot, Santa,” I spoke into the phone.  “How do we get up there?”

“Leave that to me,” he said.

A week later, we were at the North Pole.  Santa made us promise not to divulge our travel route or methods – we’ve since tried to find his place on Google Earth without success.

We put a scoop of reindeer dust on the dogs’ food.  Ernie and Taff gulped their's down, but we had to add an egg to Mo’s food to get him to eat all of it. Immediately, all three dogs began to levitate about five feet above the snowy ground.

“Looks like it worked,” Santa said.

Mo and Ernie were obviously thrilled to be flying, but Taff looked apprehensive.
Lara said, “Dad – I think you should keep Taff on the ground – he doesn’t even like to jump much.  Maybe he can put them in the corral once they’re down.  Let’s see if Mo and Ernie can gather the reindeer.”

Now those of you who’ve been around sheep dogs know that we have commands to go left and right – “come bye” and “away to me.”  However, I’d never given much thought to up and down!  While I was certain that there were obscure Scottish terms for up and down that made just as much sense as “come bye” and “away,” the girls convinced me that “higher” and “lower” would be easier to remember.   We walked out to the corrals and saw the reindeer circling high over head.

Lara called Mo to her side and said, “Come by – higher” in a sweet voice.  He climbed into the air and circled to his left around the reindeer.  Emma told Ernie, “Away – higher,” and he took off to the right.  Taff curled up under Santa’s sleigh – content to wait until the other dogs did the aerobatic work.

As the dogs came around behind the maverick reindeer, most of them bunched together.  One of them, however (“That’ll be Donner,” Santa told us), put his head up and decided to take on the dogs.

“Not a smart move,” Lara chuckled – “Get ‘im, Mo,” she called.  Mo crept towards Donner (you should see a dog creep when it’s airborne – it’s something else!). Donner put his head down.  I covered my eyes – those antlers looked wicked. Quick as a wink, Mo dashed in and nipped Donner on the nose!  Donner tucked his tail and joined the others.

“Walk on – lower,” Emma called.  Mo and Ernie wove back and forth just above and slightly behind their “flock.”  Down they came – and Taff was waiting for them.  As soon as the reindeer touched the ground, he made sure they went through the corral gate.  Santa’s elves slipped halters on them and took them into the barn.

“Thanks, girls – your dogs are amazing!  I’ll bet Mrs. Claus has hot chocolate and cookies waiting for us,” said Santa.  Emma and Lara thought that sounded great! “And I’ve got something for Taff, Mo and Ernie,” Santa added, “Liver-flavored candy canes.”  Yum!

We made our way home this last week.  Santa told us to be sure to hang stockings for Taff, Mo and Ernie – the girls can’t wait to see what he brings the dogs!  We all want to try the candy canes!

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Rancher's Christmas Prayer

One night in early December
I was grumblin' to my wife.
It was way after dark and chores were just done,
And I was complainin' about the rancher's life.

"You and I both have worked hard all year,"
I said as I frowned over supper.
"But with snow comin' early and hay priced sky high,
Things will only get tougher.

"And I saw on TV that we ranchers are bad,
'Destroying the land,' the man said.
Cows and sheep are to blame for everything wrong,
From methane to diseases, I've read.

"City folks think that we're all gettin' rich
And workin' just 4 hours each day.
They think ranches are run by big corporations
Or that the work that we do is just play.

"Maybe it ain't worth it no more,
No matter how many mouths that we feed.
I'm of a mind to sell the whole ranch;
Maybe a job in town's what I need."

In response my wife picked up a leather-bound book
Whose cover was tattered and worn.
She thumbed back to just the right page -
It'd been read so much it was torn.

She read me a story that never grows old,
Though I'd heard it many times before.
She read to me the second chapter of Luke,
Which tells of the birth of our Lord.

"Don't ever feel bad," she said as she smiled,
"About workin' all day around stock.
Remember the very first people to greet baby Jesus
Had been out watchin' their flocks.

"And while city folks may not understand us,
And they criticize the things that we do,
Remember that God chose shepherds, not city folks,
To share in the first Christmas news.

"So be proud of the life that you've chosen,
And don't worry what others are sayin'
Thank God that he made you a rancher
While this year at Christmas you're prayin'."

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Reluctant Shepherd (re-posted)

Having tended sheep on winter nights,
I've wondered what the shepherds who were the
First to hear the news of Jesus' birth
Actually experienced. Being a shepherd myself,
And knowing other stockmen for
Most of my life, I figure there was at least
One shepherd that night who wouldn't leave his flock.

"You boys go on - this ewe's about to lamb,"
I imagine him saying. Or perhaps he said,
"I been hearin' coyotes all night - I'm not leavin' my flock,
Heavenly host or no." I'm not sure
They had coyotes in the Holy Land,
But I'm sure there were predators - there always are
Where there's sheep. I can think of a thousand reasons
He might have refused to go to town -
Some shepherds just don't like towns.

While it's not in any of the gospels,
I also wonder if he was sorry
He didn't go to the stable in Bethlehem
Once his buddies returned. I figure he might
Have been the first Lutheran shepherd - 
Feeling guilty about not going but
Unwilling to forget his responsibility to his sheep.

Regardless, I like to imagine him in heaven
Finally meeting Jesus. Since Jesus
Talked a lot about taking care of his "sheep,"
I reckon he was pretty forgiving
Of our reluctant shepherd. That's what Christmas is all about!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Last Year's Christmas Party

Strange things happen when there's mules around,
But the strangest thing I ever seen
Was last year when my old saddle mule
Got drunk on Christmas Eve.

Now Granddad throws a Christmas party
On the afternoon before the big day.
He invites the buckaroos and hayin' crews
And neighbors from miles away.

Before our wives give us permission to go,
We have to promise we'll be home
In time to go to church that night -
And that's the subject of my poem.

Some of us drive, others'll ride in
On horses or mules - we hitch 'em at the rail.
Granddad's famous for his brandy and eggnog,
And that's where I'll start this tale.

Last year's party was in the office in the barn
But Granddad made the eggnog up outside.
He filled up a tub and added the brandy -
It was the best I'd ever tried.

We was gettin' pretty warmed up
And nobody noticed my mule outside the door.
Nobody saw her drink all the eggnog,
Or fall down passed out on the floor.

It wasn't till we was fixin' to leave
That we discovered the predicament we was in -
My mule was sleepin' it off in front of the door
And we was all stuck within.

You can imagine what our wives said
When we called about bein' late.
Mine said, "If you don't make church don't bother comin' home."
She said she'd be lockin' the gate!

We finally pushed my mule away from the door
And she struggled to her feet.
She staggered and weaved all the way home -
Ridin' a hung-over mule's no treat!

So this year I've learned my lesson,
Though I'm still ridin' that ol' mule.
If I ever ride her again on Christmas Eve
I'd be one helluva fool!

Note: This poem is based partly on a true story.  My Granddad kept a "guard" donkey at his salvage yard in Southern California.  One Christmas, "Annie Mule" drank all of the eggnog at the Christmas party and passed out in front of the office door, trapping everyone inside!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Santa's Mules

Santa called up the other day
While I was outside shoin'
My wife's favorite saddle horse.
He said, Dan, how ya doin'?

I hear you own a set of mules;
You pack 'em summer an' fall.
But I'd like to borrow 'em, he said.
That's the reason for my call.

I had the vet out the other day -
She said my reindeer were sick.
No Christmas trip, she ordered me,
So you can see I'm in quite a fix!

I'd like to borrow your four best mules
This year for my Christmas ride.
Four mules can do the work of nine deer,
Just as long as they can fly.

Well, I don't know 'bout the flyin' part,
I told St. Nick on the phone.
But if it'll help pull off Christmas this year,
Well, I'd be glad to make the loan.

Just leave the flyin' lessons to me, he laughed.
By New Years you'll have 'em back.
But I might need your help tyin' hitches
An' loadin' up their packs.

So I'm headed north later this week -
Spendin' Christmas at the Pole.
How Santa teaches mules to fly,
I'd surely like to know.

And while mules can be pretty stubborn,
Santa'll like 'em just fine, I bet.
They're smarter than any ol' reindeer,
And even some folks I've met!

So next year I figure that Santa
Will own his own string of mules.
His reindeer'll be sent out to pasture -
No more workin' the night before Yule.

And no more talk about Rudolph -
Just give Santa a string of long ears.
Now we wish you a merry Christmas -
And the happiest of all New Years!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Gift

"I'm sleepin' in the barn tonight," Emma told her Mom and Dad.
"I know it's cold, but I'm ten years old - now where's my sleepin' bag and pad?"
"You seem pretty determined," I said, "Can't you tell me why?
It's an odd request, but then I guess we might just let you try."

"Dad," she said, "It's Christmas Eve - don't you know that maybe
The animals will talk at twelve o'clock - God's reward for helpin' Mary's baby!"
Then I said, "Emma, that's pretty silly, but I guess you need some learnin.
So grab a light, 'cause you know you might get scared before the morning."

So Mom got her bundled up and she rolled out her bag in the hay.
She sat up to make herself stay awake - she'd show 'em all on Christmas Day!


My wife said, "It's cold and it's late - don't you think you should check on her, Dan?
She's pretty excited - you know what tonight is - but maybe she's changed her plan."
I laced up my boots, but on a hat, and buttoned my coat up high.
I cracked the barn door, then opened it more, and I swear this isn't a lie.

"Close that door," said my old horse, "That wind is cold and it's damp."
"That's right," said a cow, "Don't wake Emma now - come over here and put out that lamb."
"W-w-was that you?" I stammered to my horse, "Could this night be any stranger?"
He answered, "Yes, don't you know were blessed that night Jesus was born in a manger?"

"We animals were the only ones there," another cow quietly told.
"We gave Him a bed to rest His sweet head - we helped his folks get out of the cold.
So now at midnight on each Christmas Eve we receive this wonderful gift from above.
God gives us each the power of speech, 'cause we were the first to show Jesus our love."

"So when Emma wakes up in the mornin', you can tell her yourself that it's true.
She should always believe that on Christmas Eve, we critters can talk just like you!"

Monday, December 16, 2013

Would you and I have gone?

Back a couple of years ago,
I met an old hand named Ray.
He asked me something 'bout Christmas
That I still ask myself today.

Now Ray had herded sheep
On a big place south of Elko.
Said, "It was an awfully lonely spot -
Lotsa time to read and think, though."

"I stocked that old herder's wagon
With all the books I could read.
I had a pretty good dog that year,
So I'd read while them woolies'd feed."

"One of the books I found
Got me thinkin' hard, you see.
It was a study on herdin'
Stock, way back through history."

"Shepherds back in Bible times
Would pen their flocks each night
And then lay across the gateway
Until the mornin' light."

"Now imagine we're a couple a herders
Guardin' our ewes at night,
When an army of singin' angels
Fills up the sky with light."

"And they tell us 'Go to Bethlehem,
And leave your flocks right there.
Go welcome God's own baby son.'
I'm tellin' you - I'd be scared."

But I wonder if given the chance
What you and I woulda done
When baby Jesus was born that night -
Would you and I have gone?"

Christmas Poems

When I was in college, my folks gave me a collection of Christmas poems by the cowboy poet, Waddie Mitchell.  I loved them - and they inspired me to try my hand at cowboy poetry.  While my work is not in the same league as Waddie's (as you'll find out in the coming days), I have had lots of fun with it.  During the days leading up to Christmas this year, I'll share a few of my favorites.  Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Few of our Favorite Winter Recipes

With the winter solstice just around the corner, my culinary thoughts have turned to soups and stews!  We've made most of these recipes in both a counter-top slow cooker and in a cast iron Dutch oven - can't go wrong either way!  I love coming home to a fire in the wood stove and the aroma of dinner cooking slowly in the kitchen.

Beer Braised Mutton Rib or Loin Chops
  • 4 mutton rib or loin chops
  • 1 dark beer
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, diced
  • salt, pepper and paprika, and Italian herbs to taste
Trim the fat from the chops.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and lightly brown in olive oil.  Remove from pan, retaining liquid and oil.  Add diced onion and saute' until nearly translucent, then add garlic and saute' for about 2 minutes more.  Place chops in slow cooker or Dutch oven.  Put onion and garlic mixture on top of chops.  Pour beer over the top and add other seasonings.  Cook in oven at 300F for 2-3 hours (until meat is tender).  Remove meat from pot, skim fat from cooking liquid and make a creamy gravy or reduction sauce.  Serve with rice or mashed potatoes.  Serves 4.

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
  • Salt
  • 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 every time 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)

The Ethics of Working Stock Dogs

At least for me, there seems to be a set of unwritten rules about working stock dogs with another person - kind of like some of the unwritten rules in baseball!  In baseball, if a pitcher throws at one of my teammates, someone on the opposing team can be certain to get a high and tight fastball at some point.  For example, in the 2012 National League Championship Series, Matt Holliday of the St. Louis Cardinals injured San Francisco Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro with a hard (and some thought dirty) slide to break up a double play.  I remember thinking at the time that the Giants would probably retaliate - and sure enough, Holliday was hit by a pitch later in the series.  He didn't argue or get angry - I think he knew it was coming.

These rules aren't written for a reason, obviously.  But sometimes unwritten rules need to be put on paper (or maybe into a blog!) - and that's what I want to attempt here.  I hope other stockmen (and women) will weigh in with their perspectives!

As with anything, there is a spectrum of skill levels among dog handlers.  I would not count myself as an expert, nor would I presume to be good enough at this stage to train a dog to a competitive level.  I do, however, rely on my dogs to accomplish the daily tasks associated with being a shepherd.  The simple fact that I need to work with a dog (or two) nearly every day has exposed me to a variety of situations and experiences.  I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that I have at least a working knowledge of what a dog can do, and what a dog should do, in a wide variety of situations and conditions.

So here are the rules, at least as far as I can see them:

  1. If I'm working with another shepherd who is obviously my superior in terms of understanding and working stock dogs, I'm perfectly fine if that person gives my dog a command while we're working.  During the work (or more likely, when the task is completed), I'll ask the other person about what they were seeing and what my dog was doing wrong.  I find this very helpful!  I also find that I don't give their dogs commands under any circumstances.
  2. If I'm working with someone who is approximately equal with me in ability, I expect that they will not give my dog a command unless the dog is endangering the sheep or the other dog(s).  Likewise, I will not give commands to their dog unless I'm worried about the dog being unnecessarily rough with the sheep.
  3. If I'm working with a person who has less dog and sheep experience than me, I expect that they will not give my dog any commands, period.  An inexperienced handler (and I was one once!), at least in my opinion, lacks the contextual knowledge to know if a dog is handling a situation correctly.  For example, if a ewe turns on my dog and tries to head-butt and trample him, I want my dog to defend himself.  A quick nip on the nose of a charging takes a great deal of courage for a dog - courage that I need in certain situations.  If I scold or correct a dog at that point (which I've done as a new handler), I might teach him that he's not to defend himself.  By the same token, I will correct a dog that unfairly bites a ewe in the flank after she's given up the fight and turned tail - that's unfair to the ewe, and represents a lack of courage on the dog's part.  In real life, these two actions are often only a split second apart - and it's taken me years to learn to recognize and respond with the correct timing.  An inexperienced handler can confuse the dog and make the situation worse - especially when he/she is attempting to correct somebody else's dog.
  4. When working with less experienced handler, I generally won't give his/her dog any commands or corrections if we're working in a training situation.  On the other hand, if we're in the midst of a job and the other person's dog is not working right (which puts more stress on the sheep and on my dog), I will step in and offer a correction if it's necessary.
This brings me to the difference between sheep dog trial dogs and ranch dogs.  I've heard many ranchers say, "I wouldn't want one of those trial dogs - they don't know what real work is."  I've heard trial people who don't rely on their dogs professionally say, "that's just a ranch dog - he'd never make it competitively."  From my perspective, the best dogs in either situation are dogs that are trained to a trial standard and that have to work large numbers of sheep everyday.  In other words, as a "professional" shepherd, I want a professional dog.  While I've never entered a sheep dog trial, I aspire to use dogs to their greatest potential.  Much like the buckaroo who won't do any job that can't be done from a horse, a shepherd won't do any job that can't be accomplished in partnership with his/her dogs.

I hope my shepherding and dog trialing friends will add their perspectives - I would expect many different viewpoints!  Please leave your comments below!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

December 4, 2013 - A Shepherd's Day in Photographs

I thought it would be fun (at least for me and for my family) to document my day with photographs.  Today, I set the alarm on my phone to go off on the hour, with the idea that I'd take a photo that would be indicative of what I was doing at that point in time.  I added a few additional photos - there are always interesting things going on where sheep are involved.  I'm under no illusions that anyone else will find these photos fun or thought-provoking, but they will serve as a way for me to share my day with my wife and daughters.
When the cold wakes me up, I turn to coffee!

The first week of December is typically one of the coldest times of the year in Northern California, and 2013 is no exception.  At 4:30 this morning, the cold air coming from the furnace in my trailer awakened me.  When it was light, I discovered that I was out of propane.

My work day started with a check of the ewes that were due to have single lambs.  I walked through the entire bunch, looking for birthing problems and cold lambs.  I did find a ewe who had given birth to a dead lamb.  Everybody else looked great!
Bundled up for breakfast!

Headed out to work, just as the sun came up.

Getting ready to leave the office.

If these lambs had cameras, they'd have photographed me!

Then I moved on to the twin-lambing bunch.  We've made it through the wave of intensive lambing - only one new set of twins overnight.  The ewe was a great mother, and I quickly tagged her lambs and gave them tetanus antitoxin and selenium injections.

Our next task was to finish tagging the rest of the new lambs in this bunch.  After sorting out which lambs went with which ewes, we moved the rest of the still-pregnant ewes to another field to finish lambing - consolidating the "drop" bunches will cut down on labor in the coming weeks.

Taking a late lunch, I drove into Rio Vista to pick up propane and pipe insulation, grabbing lunch at Lira's Super Market while I was in town.
The modern shepherd's notebook - just like UPS!

Selfie - with sheep.

Moving the last of the drop bunch - with Mo.

Catch-pen - tagging lambs.

Holding our sheep with Mo - waiting for another group to pass by.

Rosie is on the job!

Walking the drop bunch past our ewes.

Fresh feed!

After lunch, I built fence, moved the pairs we had tagged that morning, and tagged the 4 new sets of lambs born during the day.

As the sun set, I finished winterizing the water system for my trailer, and drove to Al and Jeannie's home for a quick meeting.  I came back to my trailer for dinner and fell asleep watching a movie!  Just a typical day for this shepherd!

Ace Hardware in Rio Vista - picking up propane and pipe insulation!

My view at 3 p.m.

The water truck, the ewes and lambs, and a very large ship in the background.

Sunset on sheep.

Sunset on Mt. Diablo.

My home away from home.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


I think that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  Not only does it mark the beginning of my favorite season - for me, it's a day to consciously reflect on all the things (big and small) that I'm grateful for.  The food isn't too bad, either!

This year, I want to do a simple list of all that I'm thankful for.  It's not an all-inclusive list, but here it is:

I'm thankful for my family - immediate and extended.

I'm grateful that I get to do the work of farming with my girls and my wife.

I'm thankful for the community of farmers that I've had the privilege of joining.

I'm thankful for the older generation of farmers who have shared their wisdom, experience and humor with me.

I'm grateful that I get to work outside nearly every day.

I'm thankful for the sights, sounds, smells and experiences that come with working outside.

I"m grateful for the food that will be on our table tonight - and for the food that graces our table everyday.  I'm especially grateful to the people who do the work of growing our food.

I'm thankful for my dogs.  Somebody told me that there are no great shepherds without great dogs.  I aspire to be the great shepherd my dogs deserve!

I'm thankful for my sheep.  They are the reason I get to work outdoors everyday!

As the weather grows colder, I'm thankful for wool!  I'm thankful for all of the people between the shearer and the seamstress that make wool clothing possible!

I'm thankful that I live in a time and place where my freedom to express myself, to worship (or not) in the place and way of my choosing, and to elect my representatives are protected.  I often take these freedoms for granted.

I'm thankful for the men and women through history who have fought and died for these freedoms.

I'm thankful to be sitting in front of a computer with a roof over my head and a fire in the woodstove this morning!

I'm grateful for my new job as a shepherd at McCormack Ranch.  I'm grateful to be making a pastoral living.

I'm thankful....

Friday, November 22, 2013

Farmer Amnesia

I have farmed "professionally" since 2002.  Eleven years ago this fall, we took our first crop - popcorn, pumpkins and Swiss chard - to the Auburn Farmers Market. That year, and every year since, I've reached a point in the year where I'm absolutely burnt out.  Some years, it's been the grind of 70-80 hour work weeks that wears me down.  Other years, it's drought or disease problems.  When I reach this point, a customer's innocuous comment about high prices at the farmers market, or an unexpected expense, is enough to make me REALLY grumpy - and I wonder if it's worth continuing to farm.  Thankfully, each autumn I suffer an extreme case of farmer amnesia - the anticipation of the coming year makes me forget the struggles of the 12 months I've just lived through!

When I grew vegetables, the onset of farmer amnesia usually coincided with the arrival of the Johnny's Seeds Commercial Growers Catalog in my mailbox.  My friend and fellow farmer, Jim Muck of Jim's Produce in Wheatland, calls this "farmer porn!"  Invariably, I'd find a new variety or a new tool (or both!) that I was anxious to try next year.  Despite my best attempts to remain realistic, I'd experience a growing sense of excitement for the coming growing season and a deep desire to get my hands in the soil again.

As our farm transitioned away for crop production and became focused on sheep, the onset of farmer amnesia occurred when we took the rams away from the ewes and settled in for that restful period between breeding and lambing.  As the nights grew longer, I found that I no longer needed to work 12-14 hours each day.  I started looking forward to lambing (which I like to think of as six weeks of Christmas in February and March).  I forgot about the six months of moving irrigation pipe, building fence and hauling sheep!

This phenomenon must be related to the cycles of the year.  In the summer months, I find myself working sun-up to sun-down.  In the winter, I still work sun-up to sun-down, but the time between these two events is much shorter at our latitude.  Dina Moore, a friend who ranches in Humboldt County, says that winter's shorter days force us to rest.  As the days grow longer after the Winter Solstice, I find my optimism and enthusiasm about farming returning.  Thank goodness for farmer amnesia!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Pasture Lambing on a Larger Scale

One of the first sets of twins born on pasture this year.

Managing my own sheep, I've always lambed on pasture rather than in a barn (for a full description of the system we've used, see Lambing on Pasture).  As I wrote last February, pasture lambing has several advantages (at least in our system):

  1. Lower (or no) capital costs for barns and other structures.
  2. Healthier lambs and ewes - very few of the respiratory problems that often come with lambing in an enclosed area.
  3. The development of a ewe flock with tremendous mothering abilities - ewes that give birth without assistance, develop a mother-lamb bond quickly, and produce plenty of milk.
  4. Lower feed costs - little or no supplemental feed is required.

In my new job, I'm helping ranch manager Ellen Skillings develop and implement a pasture lambing system on a much larger scale.  We'll be lambing out 1700 ewes (including mine) between November 1 and the end of March (the fall lambing ewes will finish up before Christmas - we'll have month-long break before the spring lambing ewes begin).  On this operation, the motivations and benefits of pasture lambing (as opposed to barn lambing) are different, as are the techniques.  Regardless, I continue to be sold on the system compared to the barn lambing alternative!

Over the last week, I've had several conversations with two of my fellow employees at the ranch regarding this system.  Both men are hard workers, and one in particular has had a great deal of experience working with sheep.  Walter has never worked in any system BUT barn lambing, and I get the feeling that many of the herders at surrounding ranches share his skepticism about our new approach.  Thinking about these conversations has helped me clarify my own preferences for lambing on pasture.

First I should more fully describe our system.  Earlier this fall, each potentially bred ewe was ultrasounded to determine how many lambs she was carrying.  This process allowed us to sort the open ewes (those that were not bred) from the bred ewes.  It also allowed us to further sort those carrying single lambs from those that appeared to have multiple lambs (mostly twins).

Ewes that are carrying and nursing twins need more higher quality forage than those with single lambs.  We put the single bunch on dry pasture and started feeding them grass hay and alfalfa.  The two twin bunches are grazing on alfalfa.  A fourth group, which we call the primalas (because this is their first lambing), is on alfalfa close to the main barn - first-lamb ewes can have more lambing and mothering problems, so we wanted them close to barn in case they needed to come in for assistance.

Under the old system, nearly every ewe came into a barn at lambing.  These ewes were put into "jails" - small pens - until they had fully bonded with their lambs.  Then they were combined with 3-4 other "pairs" - ewes with lambs - in mixing pens before eventually going back out on pasture.  In this system, each jail and mixing pen needed fresh water and hay twice a day.  Once a pen was emptied, it needed to be cleaned and re-bedded before the next ewe arrived.  The old system required lots of harvested feed (mostly hay) and lots of labor.  Furthermore, the old system masked mothering problems.  By forcing ewes to bond with their lambs artificially, the old system failed to select for appropriate mothering instinct and ability.

Drifting the "old" pairs forward to join the "new" pairs.
In our new system, we have prepared four 1.25-acre electro-net paddocks on the alfalfa for each group (the two twin bunches and the primalas).   Our first task each morning to drift the front group in each series of paddock forward onto fresh forage.  During this drift, any new pairs or ewes that are in the process of lambing are left back - we call this our "drop bunch" because they've dropped lambs.  These new pairs are processed - we put an electronic ear tag in each lamb's left ear, we record the ewe's identification (along with information about her mothering ability and the ease with which she gave birth), and we give each lamb two shots (tetanus antitoxin and selenium/vitamin E).  Once these new pairs are processed, we push the "old pairs" - all of the ewes with lambs already on the ground - up into the paddock with the new pairs.  We then take down the back paddock, build a new paddock ahead of the front group, and move water troughs and mineral feeders.  We're finding that this system doesn't take any less labor, necessarily, but we are discovering significant benefits in terms of mothering and feed resources.  Last year, the ranch had significantly more "bummer" lambs - lambs that were rejected by their mothers for a variety of reasons.  This year, we've had a total of 4 bummers (out of more than 175 lambs born in the first 10 days of lambing).  We've also saved money because the sheep are harvesting the alfalfa (rather than the equipment).
High quality forage is critical to a pasture lambing system - as is controlled
grazing.  We use electro-nets to manage grazing on alfalfa.

There are several steps we're taking this year that will make this system work even better in years to come - and several things we'll do differently next year.  First, we are recording every ewe's performance in three criteria - lambing ease, mothering ability and lamb vigor.  A good pasture-lambing ewe should lamb without assistance, should stay with her lambs at all times (even when we're processing the lambs), and should produce enough milk for her lamb to grow rapidly.  By recording performance, we'll be able to cull the ewes that fail in any one of these categories.  We'll also be able to make better decisions about which of this year's ewe lambs to keep as replacements.  The daughter of a ewe who had problems won't stay in our flock. Secondly, the ranch has initiated an electronic identification system.  We use EID ear tags in the ewes and lambs and handheld readers to record birth information.  This information is automatically loaded onto our computer system each evening and will give us the ability to quickly evaluate a variety of performance factors in addition to the mothering data described above.

I'm finding that these ewes are not as comfortable with humans around as my ewes (who are used to seeing me everyday).  Consequently, we're finding that we can't always get close enough to a new mother to scan her EID ear tag or to read her farm tag.  Next year, we'll paint brand each ewe's ID number on her back prior to lambing (I'm actually going to try this with my ewes this spring).

One of the reasons that the staff has had trouble adjusting to this new system, I think, is that a new task seems to take longer than a job that we're used to.  It used to take all day to bring sheep in, put older pairs into mixing pairs and then back out on pasture, feed the barn-housed sheep, change bedding, etc.  Now it takes all day to move fences and feed sheep in the pastures.  Routine is comfortable; change is not - even if change is for the better, I guess.  My job, in part, is to help the guys become comfortable in this new system and to understand the bigger picture.  To me, the bigger picture is that we'll have more lambs raised by their mothers without much help from us.  We'll have healthier lambs and ewes - and ultimately more lambs to sell.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The News from McCormack Ranch

November 1 - the day when we're supposed to start lambing here at McCormack Ranch - is quickly approaching.  With ewe vaccinations behind us, we're now working on setting up electro-net paddocks on the alfalfa and sorting the ewes into smaller lambing groups.  Not quite the calm before the storm!

Yesterday, we also hosted one of our customers on a ranch tour and picnic lunch.  The crew from the Fatted Calf in Napa joined us yesterday - and brought an amazing lunch to share!  I'm looking forward to working with them!

In the meantime, enjoy these photos!

Boise was pretty excited about the ranch tour with the crew from the Fatted Calf!

A beautiful day for checking out the Delta!
Mo enjoyed the Sacramento River.

Lambing paddocks ready for action.

The girls coming in for a morning drink.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ernie's Growing Up!

If you've read this blog at all in the last 6 months, you know that Ernie (our youngest working border collie) has been a handful.  At some point this summer, I decided that his sheep work was never going to improve if he didn't get regular work.  Rather than leave Ernie home when we had real work to do, I started using him.  In fits and starts, we made some progress - but I still relied on Mo and Taff (our older, proven dogs) to do things like load the trailer, move sheep up the county road, and (most recently) move range ewes from the corrals to their paddocks at my new job at McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista.

All of that is starting to change.  Last Friday, Ernie and I moved lambs from the Allender property in Auburn back to our corrals at Oak Hill Ranch (a walk of about half a mile).  He helped me sort several ewes out of this bunch, and then we walked them out of the corrals, across a field, and up Shanley Road to Amber Oaks Berry Farm.  This move involved lots of gates, several turns, and a need to keep the sheep out of Tim Boughton's vegetables at Amber Oaks.  Despite a few  minor hiccups (where Ernie reverted back to his old habit of trying to get to the heads of the sheep), he did wonderfully!  He still works too close much of the time, but he's really trying to pay attention to me - he's acknowledging that we're working together!  My friend Roger videotaped much of the move - hopefully we'll post some of it soon!

Today, I relied on Ernie to bring two groups of ewes out of the corrals and to move them back to their paddocks.  The first was a short move - maybe 150 yards.  The second was a one-mile walk up the road.  He passed with flying colors!  We still have a long way to go, but we're definitely making progress!  I wish I had better photos to post - but I still have to give Ernie my undivided attention when we're working.  Someday....

The end result of Ernie's work this afternoon - ewes back in their pasture!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Some Thoughts on Dogs - Observations from my first week at McCormack Sheep and Grain

While I'm still in the midst of making the transition from "shepherd in charge" at Flying Mule Farm to deputy livestock manager / director at McCormack Sheep and Grain, I've learned some interesting things about dogs in the last two weeks.  These thoughts are fairly random - please bear with me!

I've been using Taff (my 11-year-old border collie) and Ernie exclusively - Mo is on a brief vacation providing stud services.  Taff has slowed down significantly over the last year.  He's big for a border collie, and the years of physical work have started to take their toll.  His eyesight is diminished, as is his hearing (or so I thought - more on this below).  Ernie, as some of you know, loves to work - sometimes with me, sometimes for himself.  He's made big strides in his willingness to work as a partner with me, but we still have a long way to go.

On my second day at McCormack's, I helped Ellen Skillings (my friend and the livestock manager at the ranch), gather approximately 1500 ewes out of a 300+ acre field and bring them into the corrals for vaccinations.  As Ernie doesn't handle gathering particularly well, I left him back.  I brought Taff, and Ellen brought her top dog (Emer) and another younger dog who is very similar to Ernie.  We gathered about 1/3 of the ewes, and then Ellen left us to look for the rest of the sheep.  Taff and I moved the ewes toward the gate, picking up several hundred more as we went.  After about 10 minutes, we met up with Ellen and the rest of the flock.  The three dogs bunched the two groups and drove them towards and then through the gate onto the road to the corrals.  Taff was amazing!  Nothing wrong with his hearing - he took my commends from several hundred yards away!

This week, with Ellen gone, I've continued to work on getting the ewes vaccinated before laming begins next month.  This works involves bringing the sheep into the corrals, putting smaller groups into the crowding alley, and then putting the vaccinated ewes back on pasture (we sort those that are carrying twins off from the open ewes or those with singles - the twin-bearing ewes get more and better forage).  I have been using Taff in the mornings and to do long drives back to pasture.  Ernie gets to work in the corrals after lunch as well as on shorter drives back to pasture - including a complicated task that I'll describe in more detail.

Taff has been working fairly well in the corrals.  He gets a bit intimidated by stompy ewes, and he hates working rams (due to receiving a concussion from an aggressive ram several years ago).  That said, he's been responsive and has been especially good at driving sheep up the road.  Yesterday, he even cast himself wide around one of my ewes who was out of her pasture and brought her back through an open gate (a single sheep is very difficult for most dogs to work).

Ernie has shown his confidence in the corrals.  I can send him around a group of sheep in a pen, and he'll take my flank command without hesitation.  He quietly walks through the sheep along the fenceline until he's behind them, and he then holds his ground quite well.  One of the groups of ewes has to go back to a field that requires us to through the corner of a field that contains the remainder of the un-vaccinated ewes.  To avoid mixing the groups, Ernie and I have been pushing the un-vaccinated group up and over the hill so that they are out of sight from the gates.  Ernie has a hard time driving - he desperately wants to get to the heads of the sheep, but he's handled this task fairly well.  The first day, we walked, and he stayed with me the entire way.  Yesterday, I rode the ATV - a new experience for Ernie.  He handled it well - did some short flanks to bring stragglers into the main bunch.  However, as I shifted my attention to turning the ATV around after we'd driven them over the hill, he saw his chance to run to their heads (and ignore me).  Fortunately, I was able to call him off quickly and go back down the hill (leaving the sheep in place).  We then proceeded to bring two groups of ewes back into their two separate pastures.  With the first group, Ernie decided to work for himself for a brief moment.  I was able to convince him that I was still in the picture - and then he worked beautifully!  He stayed well off the bunch (these range ewes have significantly larger flight zones than our own sheep), but he maintained contact with the sheep and kept them controlled as they moved through the gates.

These experiences lead me to several observations about Ernie.  First, as I've written before, Ernie requires my constant focus and attention.  He can sense when my attention is diverted and will almost always take advantage of these lapses.  Second, Ernie is beginning to discover that there may be more work than he can get done if he acts like an idiot - unnecessary running will just wear him out!

Finally, some observations about guard dogs.  Last year, we traded dogs with McCormack Ranch.  They took Boise, a male akbash-cross that we had purchased as a puppy.  Boise is incredibly athletic, which makes him difficult to contain in our electro-net.  In exchange, we took Rosie (a daughter of Boise), who had taken to hanging out with bummer lambs at McCormack's.  Rosie quickly adjusted to staying with sheep in electro-net, and we found that we could trust her to stay with her sheep even when we were moving them from property to property.

We've now moved Rosie and Reno (our other male Anatolian dog) with our sheep to McCormack Ranch.  Reno went first, and we left him with one of our breeding groups.  However, when he saw us moving the McCormack ewes from the adjacent field last week, he decided to come along to see what was happening.  Rosie went this week and is so far staying with our sheep.

Our dogs have joined Boise and Annie at McCormack Ranch.  Unlike our system, where we want the dogs to stay in our smaller paddocks (mostly so they don't get on road or bother the neighbors), the dogs at McCormack's roam throughout the entire 3900 acres.  In many ways, the dogs in a system like this work because they've displaced coyotes as the large canine predator in this ecosystem - predators that view sheep as part of their "pack" (rather than their prey base).  It's been very interesting to observe their interactions with each other and with our border collies in this type of setting.

More observations to come....