Monday, February 25, 2013

2013 Lambing Notebook - Installment #2

The subtitle of today's entry is Bottle Babies and Fair Lambs!

I'll write more about this later, but here are some photos of Smalls and The Great Lambino (with apologies to "The Sand Lot"), along with Emma's fair lamb, Milo.  Milo was born today - he's out of Emma's ewe Oats.  Emma is so excited - can't wait to see how this turns out!


Uncle Buck

Emma with her lamb - ear-tagging.

Reno at rest!

Emma and Milo - watch out, Gold Country Fair!

Add caption

The Great Lambino (L), Emma (C) and Smalls (R) - the first bummer lambs of the year.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

2013 Lambing Notebook - Installment #1

Several years ago, I made a blog entry everyday during our lambing season.  I'm not nearly as ambitious this year, but I thought I would try to make some more regular updates about how lambing is progressing in 2013.  While I hope this is of interest to others, I'm doing it mostly so that I can remember how this season goes!

We turned the rams in with the ewes on October 1, 2012, which means our ewes are, at most, 147 days into their gestation.  Ewes are pregnant for 145-155 days (generally), so we're just getting started.  So far, we've had 5 lambs born to 3 ewes, which is about normal for this stage of the game.

Last night, I couldn't make my evening check on the ewes until almost 9 p.m. - we had a soccer tournament in Woodland that kept us away all afternoon.  Usually when I drive up to the paddock, the guard dogs greet me.  Last night, however, I was only greeted by Buck.  Reno was nowhere to be seen.

As I started walking through the flock, I heard Reno barking at me (or more accurately, at my flashlight) off to the south.  I called to him to let him know it was me, and he eventually found me.  After the obligatory head-scratch, he made it clear that I needed to follow him.  He lead me to a ewe that had just given birth to twins.  Reno, obviously, had been overseeing the proceedings.

Reno's attentiveness to birthing ewes is the culmination of an interesting "growing-up" process for him. When I first got him as a 6-month old pup, he was overly playful.  He thought lambs were fellow puppies who would be great fun to romp with.  During Reno's playful phase, he chewed the ear off of a ewe (who is still in the flock) and otherwise caused me a great deal of stress.  I thought he'd never grow out if it.  Now that he's 4, he's become an extremely reliable guardian for our flock, and we can trust him with lambing ewes.

In the years we've used guardian dogs to protect our flock from predators, I've come to realize that these dogs straddle the boundary between domestic dog and wild canine.  Training a good guard dog, I think, means living as much of his or her canine instincts in tact as possible.  In many ways, our guard dogs fill the "large canine predator" niche in our operation.  While they certainly run off other predators (like coyotes, mountain lions and domestic dogs), they also succeed in their guardianship by displacing these other predators in our ecosystem.

Canine predators help control the rodent and rabbit populations in our natural systems.  While I don't think our guard dogs are fast enough to catch a healthy jackrabbit, I know that they do dig up gophers and ground squirrels when they have a chance to do so.  Canine predators, at least in our part of California, are also scavengers.  Our dogs will devour dead wild animals that they may find in their paddocks.  During this time of year, they also clean up the afterbirth, which otherwise would attract undesirable predators.  And on rare occasions, their predatory behavior seems to conflict with my goals as the caretaker of my flock.  Sometimes we'll have a weak or sick lamb that dies in the paddock before we can intervene.  The guard dogs clean these dead lambs up as well.

Occasionally, a sheep will become attached to one of the guard dogs.  Our only female dog at the moment, Rosie, seems to have a pet ewe lamb.  She's with our replacement ewes (who are just now yearlings).  At every feeding, Rosie is shadowed by a ewe lamb who follows her all over the paddock.

On a different note, I'm becoming quite concerned by the continued dry weather.  The fall rains were ideal this year, but we've had less than 2 inches of rainfall since January 1.  The ground sounded dry under my boots this morning as I built fence and moved the ewes.  The last 4 weeks of pregnancy and the first 6 weeks of motherhood are the most critical for our ewes nutritionally.  We try to time our lambing season with the onset of rapid grass growth in our part of California, which usually starts around the first part of March.  The lack of rainfall means we're moving our sheep onto fresh grass more frequently (because the volume of grass is less than normal) - adding labor to an already labor-intensive season.  The weather, obviously, is beyond my control, but that doesn't keep me from worrying!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

By the Numbers: Looking at Scale from the Opposite Direction

As a small farmer, I’ve struggled with the idea of appropriate scale.  I’d like my sheep operation to be small enough to be manageable and community-focused, but large enough to pay me a reasonable wage.  I’ve often started with an idea about the proper scale (number of sheep, in my case), and tried to come up with a reasonable salary.  Recently, however, I’ve worked at this question from the opposite direction – I’ve decided to evaluate the size of operation necessary to generate a specific salary target.

First, let’s review some economic theory.  My own salary (or draw) from our sheep business is an overhead expense - that is, my salary is fixed whether I'm managing 10 sheep or 1000 sheep (at least in theory).  My direct costs - for things like vaccines, mineral supplements, meat processing and shearing - vary directly with the number of sheep.  My "gross product" - the total value of my sales (and net increases in my sheep inventory) - minus my direct costs results in my "gross margin."  If my gross margin exceeds my overhead expenses, I make a profit.

Next - a few assumptions:
  • The retail value of a whole lamb at my current prices is about $300.
  • Each year, I market about 75% of the lambs born.  The remaining lambs are kept as replacement ewe lambs.
  • To finish lambs on grass, I need one acre of irrigated pasture for every 7 lambs (from June through October).
  • To graze my ewes, I need approximately 12 acres of annual rangeland for every 6 ewes (for the entire year).
  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average cash wage earned by Placer County residents in 2011 was about $35,000.
  • If I want the sheep business to contribute financially towards my eventual retirement, a contribution equally 5 percent of my salary seems like the minimum amount.
  • Catastrophic health insurance for me and my family is going to cost at least $4,000 per year.
  • I'd like my business to earn at least a small profit above and beyond my salary (or draw).  $5,000 seems reasonable.
  • My non-salary overhead expenses (which include pasture lease, irrigation water, fuel costs, dog costs, and other "fixed" expenses) is roughly $25,000.
Now for the math:
  • Total salary and benefits (for me - the owner of the business): $40,750
  • Salary + Other Overhead + Profit = $70,750.  This means that I have to generate this much in gross margin (gross product - direct costs).
  • Based on experience, I know that my direct costs will be around 45 percent of my gross product (or total revenue).
  • This means that I need to generate almost $129,000 in gross product to pay myself salary and benefits totaling $40,750!
What does this mean in terms of the scale of my operation?
  • To generate $129,000 in gross product, I would need to sell approximately 429 lambs at $300 each retail.
  • To produce 429 lambs each year - and have enough replacement ewes, I would need 476 ewes at my current lambing rate (we figure that we wean 1.2 lambs per ewe on average).
  • To finish lambs on grass, I would need 61 acres of irrigated pasture.
  • To graze my ewes year-round, I would need 715 acres of annual rangeland.
Obviously, any business is much more complicated that it's numbers!  I have found, however, that this exercise gives me a useful tool for thinking about scale from a financial perspective.  I hope other farmers, ranchers and small businesses will weigh in with their own experiences and thoughts!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Piling Stones

Today, we built two cairns on Shanley Hill.  According to Wikipedia, a cairn is "a man-made pile (or stack) of stones.  It comes from the Scottish Gaelic: carn (plural cairn).  Cairns are found all over the world in uplands, on moorland, on mountaintops...."  Shanley Hill certainly qualifies as an upland - and there are plenty of stones to work with!

While cairns are built for many reasons, in sheep country they've often been built as landmarks in country where there are no natural landmarks - or where shepherds are bored!  In the American West, Basque sheepherders built "harrimutilak" - translated as "stone boys" - to mark significant spots and, probably, to pass the time.

We decided that we could put the rocks on Shanley Hill to good use by building a couple of stone boys or cairns.  Our goal was to build them taller than Emma - you'll see by our photos that we succeeded!  Our friend and fellow shepherd Roger Ingram joined us, along with his dogs.  After finishing the second cairn, we enjoyed a lunch of sheep's milk cheese, apples, blood oranges and crackers - like shepherds before us, probably!  We wondered what archaeologists in 1000 years would think of our cairns!

Enjoy these photos!

Emma working on the foundation for cairn #1.

Almost taller than Emma!

Cairn #1 completed!

Roger and Lara working on cairn #2.

About half-way done....

3/4 done!

The completed project!

Another shot.
Our new landmark!

I'll leave you with another quote from Wendell Berry.  If you've never cared for a significant number of sheep, this might not make sense:

"In him, as he stood before her then, she saw the ancient unthanked care of shepherds.  The sheep merely suffered what was to be suffered, living the given life, dying the given death.  They did not ask for care or appreciate it when they received it.  And yet the care was given.  The flocks throve by no care commensurate with a price, but by an overplus of love, filling a known need in the shepherd, passionate and beyond memory old."

We'll start lambing sometime after mid-week this week.  I enjoyed starting the week by doing something that countless shepherds have done before me!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lambing on Pasture

Sometime in the next week, our 2013 lambing season will begin!  I thought this might be of interest to my fellow shepherds - and to others who are interested in sheep!  We will be hosting a Pasture Lambing Workshop on Sunday, March 10 in Auburn, California.  Email me at for more information!

Why not lamb in a barn?
Conventional wisdom indicates that sheep should give birth in the shelter of a barn.  Lambs, so the thinking goes, need shelter from inclement weather and a small enclosed space (a jug or a jail) in which to bond with their mother.  Since our operation exists almost entirely on leased land without this type of infrastructure, we’ve adopted a system for lambing out on pasture.  Our system builds on the experience of shepherds here and in other parts of the world – and we learn more each year.  We’ve found that pasture lambing has several advantages: 
  • Lower (or no) capital costs for barns and other infrastructure.
  • Healthier ewes and lambs – we see very few of the respiratory problems that often come with lambing in an enclosed area
  • A ewe flock with tremendous mothering abilities (and fewer mis-mothering problems.
  • Lower feed costs – we purchase very little supplemental feed during lambing.

 Like any livestock management system, pasture lambing requires careful record-keeping; knowledge of animal nutrition, health and behavior; and attention to detail.

Managing our forage
Ewes have the greatest nutritional demand during their last 6 weeks of pregnancy and their first 6 weeks of lactation.  Accordingly, we try to match our lambing period with the onset of rapid grass growth in our area.  We also try to manage our forage resources all year with the idea that we need lots of high-quality forage available beginning at the first of the year.

Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate (like 2012, for example).  We have several strategies for coping with poor forage growth:
  • We provide supplemental protein and energy to help the ewes utilize the rougher, dry forages we’ve saved from the prior growing season.
  • We seek additional pastures on neighboring properties (our portable fencing systems and stock-handling skills make this possible).
  • As a last resort, we’ll feed hay.

 Ewe selection and record-keeping
Since we do not confine ewes with their lambs immediately after birth, we require ewes that have strong maternal instincts.  We also need ewes that can deliver lambs without assistance and that produce adequate milk on a forage-based diet.  Since these traits are mildly heritable, we also need a system for determining which female lambs to keep as replacements.

We’ve found that the EZ Care Lambing System provides a simple yet powerful tool for evaluating ewe performance and for selecting replacement ewe lambs.  In this system, each ewe is scored on three criteria – lambing ease, mothering ability and lamb vigor – each year at the birth of her lambs.  Potential ewe lamb replacements are evaluated based on their mother’s scores.

Lambing Ease
Lamb is breech or must be pulled
Lamb requires minor assistance
No assistance needed
Mothering Ability
Ewe leaves lambs
Ewe stands well back while lambs are being processed
Ewe follows lambs wherever they go
Lamb Vigor
Has to be suckled
Slow to suckle
Lamb is up and has full belly

Any ewe with a cumulative score of 1 or less is culled.  Any ewe lamb whose mother’s score is 1 or less is not retained (she gets a right-hand ear tag – more on this later).

The power of this system is confirmed whenever we purchase a group of ewes that have not been selected using these criteria.  Invariably, we have more mothering problems with these sheep.

Flock health and nutrition
About 30 days prior to lambing, we vaccinate all ewes for clostridial diseases, including tetanus.  This gives the ewes immunity to these diseases, which passes through the placenta to the developing lamb(s).   We also try to save our best forage for the last 30 days of gestation – a time when the fetus is developing rapidly.  Adequate selenium levels are also critical.  The commercially available sheep salt does not provide enough selenium.  We purchase mineral blocks from Western Feed Supplements in Nevada.  You can also provide selenium injections prior to lambing.

Some ewes have soiled wool around their vaginas.  When we vaccinate, we also select ewes that need to be “tagged” – that is, ewes that need to have their hindquarters sheared.  Tagging removes the soiled wool, allowing for a cleaner delivery of lambs.  Tagging also removes wool from around the udder, which helps ensure that the lambs can find a teat (rather than a lock of wool).

Predator protection
In our area, the main predators that threaten newborn lambs are domestic dogs, coyotes, mountain lions, foxes, and owls.  We rely on a combination of electric fencing and guardian animals to protect our flocks from predators.  Guard dogs and llamas seem to be the most effective guardians for our situation.  We closely monitor the interaction of our guardian dogs with the sheep during lambing.  Some guardian dogs exhibit play behavior with the lambs (which can be lethal to the lambs), while others have an over-developed maternal instinct (which results in the dog protecting lambs from their mother).  If we observe problems, we’ll replace the guard dog(s) with a llama.

Watching the weather
While sheep (and newborn lambs in particular) are often hardier than we give them credit for, we do keep an eye on the weather during lambing.  Wet and windy weather, in particular, can pose problems.  If inclement weather is forecast, we try to put the sheep into paddocks that provide some natural shelter.  Trees, brush and topographic features provide windbreaks and shelter from rain and snow.  During stormy weather in our area, for example, our prevailing winds are from the south.  We try to put the flock on the lee side of a hill in a paddock with plenty of trees, rocks and/or brush for the ewes to shelter behind.

The best remedy for cold weather is a ewe that produces plenty of milk!  A lamb with a full belly typically will not get chilled in our climate.  Since milk production is related to forage quality, we try to make sure that the sheep have plenty of fresh forage available just before and during stormy weather.

Finally, we do not process lambs (e.g., dock and castrate) immediately prior to or during wet weather.

Managing and processing lambs
In our system, lambs are processed within 24 hours of birth (except as noted above).  Processing includes docking and castrating, spraying umbilical cords with betadine or iodine, ear tagging, and paint marking.  All ram lambs are tagged in the right ear, as are all terminal ewe lambs.  All potential replacement ewe lambs are tagged in the left ear.  We use small brass tags (adding a larger scrapie tag and a separate breeding group/ownership tag at weaning).  We record lamb number, ewe number, breeding group and EZ Care score for each lamb.  Finally, we paint mark each lamb with its mother’s ear tag number.  Single lambs are paint marked with blue paint, and multiple-birth lambs are marked with red paint.

We process within 24 hours for several reasons.  First, we’ve found that lambs older than 24 hours of age are nearly impossible to catch.  Second, docking and castrating are less stressful for the lambs because their central nervous systems have not fully developed at that age.  We use elastrators for docking and castrating.  This minimizes (or eliminates) any bleeding (which can be a problem when using guardian dogs).  We typically do not need to worry about flies during lambing, as the cooler temperatures seem to suppress fly populations.

Moving ewes and lambs
Moving ewes with newborn lambs can be a time consuming process.  Ewes will tend to want to stay on their “lambing beds” for 18-24 hours after giving birth.  This lambing bed is an imaginary circle perhaps 20 feet in diameter around the area where a ewe gives birth.  Even when we move the rest of the sheep onto fresh forage, a ewe that has just given birth will stay with her lamb(s).

Confident yet gentle dogs are a key to our system.  Ewes with lambs can be very aggressive towards dogs (desirable if they are fighting off predators – less desirable if they’re taking on a border collie).  We try to help our herding dogs walk the line between protecting themselves and not being overly aggressive towards the ewes.  New lambs haven’t learned to move away from our herding dogs – they are generally trying to follow the rest of the sheep, but they do not have any flight response.  Again, gentle dogs are a key.

When we move the flock onto fresh feed, we’ll allow the still-pregnant ewes and the ewes with lambs that are over 24 hours old to move as a group.  We’ll allow any new pairs (ewes with lambs less than 24 hours old) to stay back.  If we can’t encourage these new pairs to move on their own, we’ll carry the lambs.  This is a slow process; a ewe must be able to smell, see and hear her lamb(s) if she is to follow.  Lambs, therefore, must be carried at eye level for the ewe.

Once we’ve moved the entire flock, we’ll stay with them to make sure that ewes and lambs are matched up.  A newly moved flock is quite noisy!  Ewes are calling to their lambs and vice versa.  We try not to get in a rush – a lost lamb can get chilled quickly.

A note on catching ewes and lambs
Sometimes, we’ll need to catch a ewe to examine her or to give her medical treatment.  We also need to catch lambs for processing (and sometimes later for medical treatment).  We’ll use our border collies to help hold a group of sheep close.  I prefer a leg crook for catching ewes – these crooks are designed to hold a hind leg until the shepherd can catch the ewe.  For lambs, I prefer a neck crook.  When catching a lamb, I try to hook it around the chest (not the neck).

Handling problems
a.       Abortions
Ewes can abort their lambs for a variety of reasons.  An abortion rate of 3-5 percent is considered normal.  A more significant abortion rate (sometimes called an “abortion storm”) can indicate a serious problem.  Fortunately, we’ve not experienced this problem.  Should we have a problem in the future, we would collect several aborted fetuses and placentas and take them to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab in Davis.  The lab can determine the cause of the abortions, which will allow us to work with our veterinarian to address the problem.

b.      Dystocias
This is a fancy way to say that a lamb is stuck in the birth canal!  Sometimes a lamb has one leg back or is simply a bit too big.  If we can get both front legs forward, we’ll gently pull while the ewe is pushing.  A more complicated dystocia involves a breech deliver (butt-first).  If I can’t get the lamb turned myself, I’ll call my veterinarian.

c.       Mis-mothering
We’ve experienced several types mothering problems.  Sometimes, a ewe just isn’t a good mother (not often, given our system for selecting replacements).  However, it does happen – a ewe simply doesn’t know what to do.  In this case, we’ll usually take the lamb home and bottle raise it.

Some ewes don’t know how to count!  A ewe that has twins will sometimes forget her first lamb while taking care of the second one.  We’ll try penning such a ewe with both lambs with the hope that she’ll remember she has more than one lamb.

Some ewes (especially new mothers) will try to steal a lamb – especially if they are going into labor themselves.  This will usually resolve itself – the lamb’s real mother will aggressively protect her lamb.

Sometimes, a ewe that loses one of her twin lambs will adopt another ewe’s lamb.  If she has enough milk, we don’t worry too much about it.  In fact, we’ll make note of ewes that will take another lamb – sometimes this can make grafting an orphaned or abandoned lamb much easier (see below – grafting means that we try to get a ewe to take a lamb that is not her own.)

d.      Bottle lambs
We always seem to end up with a few bottle lambs.  Some are lambs that are abandoned by their mothers.  Others (in very rare cases) are orphaned when their mother dies.  We’ll also pull the smallest of a set of triplets off the ewe (so that the two strongest/biggest lambs will get plenty of milk).  Finally, sometimes a lamb gets chilled during wet and cold weather and won’t get up to nurse.

We have found that it’s most important to get a cold lamb warmed up before trying to feed it.  Once the lamb is warm (we put chilled lambs on a heating pad in front of our woodstove), its digestive system can handle milk.  We warm the milk to help continue the warming process from the inside out!  We’ve found that a cold lamb’s digestive system often shuts down, so warm milk in a cold lamb doesn’t do much good.

Some lambs don’t have a suck reflex at first.  In this case, we’ll pass a stomach tube directly into its stomach, making sure we don’t pass the tube into its lungs instead.

While we try to get sheep’s milk or goat’s milk for our bottle lambs, we do use milk replacer if necessary.  We also try to make sure that bottle lambs receive colostrum (either from their own mother or from a ewe that loses a lamb at birth – we try to strip out these ewes and save their milk).  This season, we’re trying a new recipe for lambs (up to 3 days of age):

                        ½ gallon whole cow’s milk
                        ½ gallon milk replacer
                        1 cup plain yogurt
                        1 raw egg

This formula increases the protein and probiotic content of the milk, which helps new lambs develop their digestive and immune systems. 

Bottle lambs can be weaned at 30-45 days.

e.      Lamb mortality
In 2011, we lost about 25 lambs in the first two weeks of lambing.  They would be born healthy and seem to thrive for 1-2 days, only to die for no apparent reason.  After taking a dead lamb to the CAHFS lab (see above), we found that our lambs were selenium deficient.  At that point, we gave every lamb an injection of BoSe (selenium and vitamin E) when we processed them, which eliminated the problem.  We also gave the ewes a BoSe injection.

I include this anecdote as a cautionary tale.  Some lamb mortality is normal – some lambs get cold or have other health problems that aren’t preventable.  However, if you experience an uncommonly high mortality rate, work with your veterinarian and with the lab to determine the cause.
A note on patience
Lambing is the most labor intensive time of the shepherd’s year, so slowing down and observing the flock may seem counterproductive.   However, experience has taught me that I am often more successful and efficient during lambing if I’m patient and observant.  Knowing when to intervene – with a ewe that’s having problems lambing, or with a lamb that can’t seem to find its mother, requires experience (obviously) – but it also requires patience.

A note on scale
While I have limited experience in lambing out large groups of ewes (1000+), I think there are some management strategies that can help make a large-scale pasture lambing system workable.  Ideally, lambs should still be processed (at least ear-tagged, paint-marked and inoculated (if necessary) within 24 hours of birth – it takes much more time to catch lambs that are more than 1 day old, and more time means more labor costs!  For a large-scale operation, I think drift lambing might make sense – ewes with older lambs and still-pregnant ewes are moved onto a fresh paddock each morning.  New lambs and their mothers, as well as ewes in late-stage labor, are left in the old paddock on their lambing beds until the ewe-lamb bond is established.  In the evening (or perhaps the next morning), these bonded pairs can rejoin the main flock.

Because I see my entire flock of 250 ewes nearly every day, they are quite comfortable with me moving through the flock at lambing time.  I think there may be some value in splitting a larger flock into smaller lambing groups (of 500 +/- ewes) and assigning one person to manage that group during lambing.  Sheep can recognize the shepherd who cares for them regularly, which makes catching and processing lambs less stressful for the flock and the shepherd.

Our Lambing Kit
We keep our lambing kit stocked with the following supplies:
  • Elastrators and enough bands for season
  • Ear tags and tagger
  • LA200 (antibiotic)
  • Survive! Drench (for weak or cold lambs)
  • BoSe injectable
  • 3 cc syringes and needles
  • 1 cc syringes and needles
  • Lambing notebook (for records)
  • Betadine solution in spray bottle (for navels)
  • OB lube
  • Marking paint (for marking ewe #s on lambs – different colors for singles vs. twins)
  • Stomach tube and 60 cc syringe (for tube-feeding week lambs)
  • Halter
  • Prolapse harness
  • Rubber gloves
  • OB s-curve needle and suture material
  • Towels and rags
  • Thermometer
  • Slip-on dog leashes (like your vet uses) and/or a lamb puller
  • Stethoscope
  • Scale and sling
  • Pritchard nipples and soda bottles
  • Frozen colostrum (ewe, doe or cow)
  • Lamb milk replacer
  • Neck crook
  • Leg crook
  • Flashlight or head lamb
  • Veterinarian’s phone number (in my case, my wife's cell phone!)

Friday, February 15, 2013

Neighborly Wisdom and Self Reliance

In his most recent book, A Place in Time, Wendell Berry writes, "But it is possible, even so, to look back with a certain fondness to a time when the sounds of engines were not almost constant in the sky, on the roads, and in the fields. Our descendants may know such a time again when the petroleum is all burnt. How they will fare then will depend on the neighborly wisdom, the love for the place and its genius, and the skills that they may manage to revive between now and then."  In my farming career - and in my life - I've tried (and generally failed) to articulate this perspective.  Rather than reflecting a sense of nostalgia for the "good old days" (which didn't exist when people were living through them), Berry's statement suggests a real need to pay attention to our past, to our land and to our neighbors.

When we farmed vegetables (which we haven't done for several years now), we tried to convert our system for turning the soil and cultivating our crops to animal power - mules, specifically.  My efforts were not based on a wish that I'd been born in an earlier era; rather, I farmed (and logged) with mules because I felt that these skills would be necessary again - probably within my lifetime.  Without petroleum, I was (and am) convinced that we'll need to relearn this system of farming.  After all, farmers who use horses and mules rather than tractors can grow their own fuel and put the "exhaust" to good use in building soil fertility!

Presently, our agricultural focus has turned to sheep.  While I find some new technologies helpful - like electric fencing, computers and smart phones - I've found that my profitability is improved when I learn skills and approaches to sheep-raising that have existed for thousands of years - skills like herding and walking!

After reading this passage from A Place in Time earlier this month, I've thought about it frequently - mostly as I was building electric fence and walking my sheep from property to property.  I think Berry has articulated three interrelated approaches to farming that I've tried to adopt in my own work and life.

Neighborly Wisdom
In the fictional farming community of Port William, Kentucky, Berry talks of a "membership" - the individuals within the community belong to one another and to the land.  As I grow older, I find myself seeking - and often finding - that I am part of a membership that values our collective attempts to make a living from the land.  This membership doesn't include all of Auburn, obviously, but it does include the small portion of rural Auburn where we graze our sheep.  I've learned a tremendous amount from folks that have lived here much longer than I have -  people like Pat Shanley, who has lived all of his 92+ years just west of Auburn.  Folks like Bud and Jean Allender, who are also native to this place - and people like Betty and Carrie Samson, who've been here long enough to be native, too!  In each of these cases, and in others, people have shared their lifelong connection with the land and with a way of living on it that have helped me learn how to be.

Neighborly wisdom, however, is not monopolized by people that have been here their entire lives.  Rich and Peggy Beltramo, who have been our landlords longer than anyone, have shared their wisdom.  Roger Ingram, my friend and our farm advisor - along with his colleague Cindy Fake - are wise neighbors by this definition.  Other farmers - Allen Edwards, Alan Haight, Bob Roan, Claudia Smith, Steve Pilz - are part of this membership, as well, as are my parents.

Membership implies belonging and investment.  The folks I've listed (and others) helped me feel like I belong here.  They've also helped me see that I need to invest my time and energy in sharing my own experiences - with the next generation of farmers and with the community as a whole.  This goes well beyond farming, I think.  After  deer hunting (unsuccessfully) for the first time in my life this fall, Bud Allender was thrilled to hear about my trip to the Jackson Meadows country north of Truckee - an area where he'd spent time working and hunting himself.  A willingness to work the land (and listen to the land) is the price of membership, I think.

Love for the Place and its Wisdom
I think we must love a place to acquire it's wisdom, partly because the lessons our places teach us can be painful.  For years, we struggled with footrot problems in our sheep.  We tried vaccines, frequent foot-trimming, and other  labor-intensive management techniques to no avail.  I finally realized that our land was telling me that I needed to select sheep that had some resistance to the disease and some resilience if they did contract it.  We've now been able to control the problem effectively.

Other lessons we learn by watching and observing a place over time.  This fall, Pat Shanley told me I could expect to see younger deer on the south end of the ranch I lease from him, and that the bigger bucks always seemed to be on the north end of the property.  He thought this was because the north knob caught more early sunlight in the autumn months, and these older deer claimed the warmer resting spots.  As I began paying more attention, I discovered that Pat was correct!  Pat's knowledge of his place and his attention to its lessons will help me manage my sheep better during this spring's lambing season - I'll save the warmer end of the ranch for the occasional wet and cold weather we get during lambing.

Revived Skills
Farming and rural living have always required a degree of self-reliance.  As Berry suggests, the skills of self-reliance will again become important "when all the petroleum is burnt" - and probably even before the absolute end of fossil fuels.  As a kid, I wasn't thrilled about having to help my folks butcher chickens - but I'm sure glad I know how to do it today!  I'm sure our girls are equally unhappy about having to help, but I hope they'll appreciate the skills (and self-reliance) that they'll take into the future.  The idea that we might fix something rather than dispose of it seems to me to be a skill that needs reviving, too.  Our current economy is based on consumption rather than production - and cheap petroleum is our economic foundation.  Consumption of a finite resource can't go on forever, though.  Those manual skills that actually produce something durable - carpentry, welding, farming, ranching, woodcutting, cooking! (just to name a few) seem to have lost importance in our society.  Those of us who can actually produce our own food, our own heat - our own households - AND who can produce these things for our communities - have a responsibility to pass on these skills.

Monday, February 4, 2013


In case you didn't see the Super Bowl (or at least the commercials) yesterday, you missed some good laughs and - amazingly - some thoughtful moments.  My favorite commercial was the Dodge Ram commercial featuring a two-minute soliloquy by Paul Harvey about farmers.  The photographs and the words in the ad made me proud to be a farmer - and grateful for the farmers I have known and still know today.  If you haven't seen the commercial, check out this link:

At some point in the near future, I want to initiate a serious discussion about the cultural and agricultural implications of this commercial.  Today, however, as part of my ongoing struggle to not take myself too seriously, I want to take a different approach.

Those of you who get western wear catalogs on occasion - and who (like me) actually wear western-wear clothing for work - have probably seen the "pre-worn" clothing that is apparently quite the fashion rage.  You can now buy a felt cowboy hat that already has sweat stains in it - no need to work for them, just buy a hat that already looks worked in!  You can also get a brand new straw hat that looks as if it's been trampled by a bull.  Rather than risk battery acid and barbed wire snags, you can buy pre-ripped jeans.  You can look like you've worked without actually having to work!  Cool!

In the same spirit, I'd like to offer for sale my 2005 Dodge 2500 4x4 pick-up - pre-farmed!  Just check ot these features:

  • The right front fender includes an actual dent from the suicidal deer that jumped into the road in front of me several years ago.
  • The left side bed rail has been crunched by an actual gooseneck stock trailer when I backed up over an unseen rock at the ranch.
  • My truck has a custom-made 1x10 rough-sawn board for a tailgate - the result of yet another gooseneck mishap.
  • The interior of my Dodge offers a unique combination of dog hair, several kinds of manure and road dust - giving it an amazing (and in wet weather, overwhelming) scent.  There's even a starter compost pile behind the rear seat!
  • After years of dusty roads and off-road ranch driving, the electrical system is quite entertaining!  You'll enjoy the random (as opposed to intermittent) windshield wipers - sometimes they come on all by themselves!  The power windows and door locks for the back doors haven't worked for years.
Imagine how proud you'll be driving an actual farm truck - your neighbors will be SO envious.  Driving the kids to school will be an amazing experience - I'm sure you can appreciate how proud my girls are when I drive them (and their friends) home from soccer practice!

A new Dodge crew-cab 4x4 diesel pick-up will run you close to $45,000, I'm sure.  These new trucks, however, have none of the character that a truly pre-farmed truck can offer.  I'm willing to let mine go for just $40,000 - maybe then I can afford a new truck on a farmer's wages!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Getting Ready

Three weeks from today (approximately), we'll start lambing.  Lambing season is the busiest time of year for me, and also the most exciting.  As I've written before, lambing is like 6 weeks of Christmas - the gift of new life - and all of the work!  For now, however, I'm focused on getting ready.

We have developed a pasture-based lambing system - all of our ewes give birth in the field.  Some producers will "jug" their lambs and ewes - put them in small pens to make sure the ewe develops a strong maternal bond.  We depend on our selection system, which emphasizes mothering ability, to ensure that our ewes bond with their lambs.

Because we lamb in our pastures, we try to make certain that we have plenty of grass available.  This is why we wait until late February to begin - usually we've had enough moisture and enough sunshine to get the grass growing.  While this past January was exceptionally dry (less than an inch of rain here in Auburn), the precipitation we received in December - combined with warmer days to come - should provide adequate feed.  Getting ready for lambing requires me to plan out our forage production and grazing rotation - I want to make sure we give our pastures enough rest before grazing them again.  Also, ewes without lambs are easy for the dogs to move - ewes with lambs are much more challenging!  We lease a 100 acre pasture from our friend Pat Shanley, which will allow us to keep the ewes in one place for 4-6 weeks - I'm hoping we won't need to graze it again until the lambs start to arrive in 3 weeks!

Before we start lambing, I inventory all of our supplies - ear tags for the lambs, elastrator bands (for castrating and docking - more on this at a later date), and marking paint are critical - we don't want to run out halfway through lambing!

For the next three weeks, I'll spend my time moving fence, moving sheep and watching.  We'll watch for problems - sometimes a ewe will lose a lamb at this stage, or she'll suffer a prolapse.  The ewes that are carrying twins or triplets sometimes need a little extra nutritional help - the developing lambs take up so much room that a ewe can't eat enough to take care of her needs.  We make sure that we have the right guard dog with the lambing bunch - not every dog can handle lambing.  And we catch up on sleep!  Once lambing starts, the days become very long!  I also try to get away from the farm for a day or two before lambing - I won't be going anywhere once lambing begins!