Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ernie's Progress - Days 11-16

My sessions with Ernie were interrupted a bit by our annual camping trip - we spent 4 days on Sonora Pass with friends, so Ernie didn't have much to do over the weekend.  I did use him, however, on the day we left as well as today.

Before we left on Thursday, I used Ernie to move 75 ewes across a creek and down a gravel road onto fresh feed.  When we left the house, our retired guard dog, Buck, jumped in the back of the truck with Ernie - so he got to go, too!  Ernie did very well at quietly move the ewes across the creek.  He was a little less careful once they got on the road - he resumed trying to get to their heads.  As a result, they passed the opening I'd made in the fence the first time.  We collected our wits (Ernie and I) and got them into the paddock on the second try.  At that point, Ernie decided that he didn't want to be called off.  We "discussed" it and he ultimately decided that I was serious about the "that'll do" command!

After we finished, I noticed Ernie was lame.  I thought maybe he had a thorn in a pad, but when I examined him, I realized he'd cut himself on a hind leg between his foot and hock.  I'm still not sure what he ran into, but Sami and Emma had to sew him up before we left for our trip.  Emma was so sweet - she sat with him in the kennel while he was waking up from the anesthesia.

This morning, I took him with me to haul water and set up fence for another set of ewes.  For some reason, he was very reluctant to get out of the truck.  I finally encouraged him to join me, and I decided that we'd have a brief schooling session with this bunch of ewes (about 125 head).  I sent him on several short outruns and asked him to lie down once he'd started fetching them to me.  He wasn't wide enough, but he was much better than he's been - actually went around the sheep calmly.  He also took the lie down command quite well, and was reasonably easy to call off.  All in all, it seems like he's improving a little bit each time we go out to do a job!

When we got home from our camping trip on Sunday, Ernie wouldn't let Emma out of his sight.  He's still a goofball, but the regular work is making him a more enjoyable dog to be around!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Growing and Harvesting Grass

I'm a grass farmer - I grow grass that my sheep harvest.  They convert this resource into meat, fiber and milk - a pretty cool system, I think!  This time of year, we rely on irrigated pasture for finishing our lambs and (to a lesser extent) for flushing our ewes prior to breeding season.

For the last several years, we've grazed an irrigated pasture owned by Bud and Jean Allender.  For the most part, it's outstanding pasture - a mix cool season forage (like Ladino clover, bird's foot trefoil and orchard grass) and some warm season grasses (dallis grass and johnson grass, mostly).  We've also noticed an increasing abundance of two warm season invasive plants - smut grass and broom sedge.  Neither of these plants is desirable from a grazing perspective.  Smut grass doesn't produce much leaf material (it's mostly stalks for seed production), and broom sedge seems to be unpalatable to our lambs if it's reaching maturity.

Day 0 - ready to graze after ~40 days rest

Day 2 - 1/3 acre paddock with 70 lambs

This year, we've tried an experiment for managing these invasive species.  After our first grazing pass with the lambs, we brought dry ewes into graze the most severely infested parts of the pasture.  While we normally try to leave 4-6 inches of grass after we graze, we let the ewes take these plants down further - our hope was that a severe graze would allow more desirable plants to compete with the smut grass and broom sedge.
Grazed broom sedge - June 27, 2013

Broom sedge - regrowth.  Photo taken July 21, 213

Normally at this time of year, we try to rest our irrigated pastures for 35-40 days between grazings.  This gives the forage sufficient time to recover so that grazing will benefit the root systems of the plants.  However, broom sedge in particular seems to recover from grazing more rapidly.  Some of the broom sedge we grazed less than 3 weeks ago needs to be grazed again.  We're seeing a bit more clover where we severely grazed the broom sedge and smut grass, but I think we'll need to graze this portion of the pasture more frequently to get a handle on it.

If you're a pasture geek (like me) and this kind of thing interests you, we'll be holding a pasture walk at this property on the evening of July 30.  Go to http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/?calitem=191658&g=22527 for more information!

Ernie's Progress - Days 8-10

On Friday afternoon, Ernie and I hauled the lambs back from Amber Oaks Berry Farm to our corrals, and then walked them to our irrigated pasture about a half mile away.  For the most part, Ernie did an outstanding job.  The first load of lambs was in a large pasture with a gate on the road.  I backed the trailer to the gate, strung a short section of fence, and sent Ernie to gather the lambs.  He cast himself around them fairly wide (at least for him) and brought them quietly to the trailer.  They hopped in - with Ernie lying down behind them.  I was quite proud of him!  The second load didn't go quite as smoothly - we loaded in a different spot, and I didn't have the set up quite as solid.  Most of the lambs loaded, but 6 scooted between the fence and the trailer.  It was a complicated spot to get them back in, so I used Mo to help Ernie.

The walk to irrigated pasture was a little rough at the beginning - Ernie constantly wanted to be at the lambs' heads.  By the time we were nearly there, however, Ernie was tired enough to listen!  The end of our walk was great - he cast himself around a bunch that didn't walk straight in the new paddock and brought them quietly to the opening.

This morning, we moved a group of ewes onto fresh feed at MC Ranch.  When I'm using Mo or Taff, I'll often have a dog hold the sheep while I move the last bit of fence.  This takes a quiet and confident dog, as the sheep are usually drawn by my movement and the prospect of new grass.  I had Ernie gather the ewes (again, he cast himself fairly wide) and hold them up the hill from where I was building fence.  He was perfect!  Next, we walked the sheep further up the hill to an opening I'd created.  Ernie wanted to run to their heads, but he took my commands and actually lied down to let them come through the opening quietly.  It was quite a morning!

Ernie loves to go with me - even when he doesn't get to work.  I think it's helping for him to realize that there are little jobs that we need to accomplish - even if it's just changing water!  These last several days were promising!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Ernie's Progress - Day 7

I've told myself several times in the last year that I should always take a dog with me when I'm checking sheep - even if I'm only expecting to have to feed a guard dog.  Last night, I had to learn the lesson again - when I arrived at MC Ranch to check on a bunch of ewes that we're using to reduce fire danger for the landowner, I discovered that they'd been run through the fence by something.  The 75 ewes were scattered across about 10 acres of hillside.  I quickly turned around and ran home to get Ernie and Taff.

I decided to take both dogs because I would typically use 2 dogs for a job like this (usually Mo and Taff).  As we approached the first group, Ernie left without being sent.  Ideally, a dog should go wide around a group of sheep until he is in a position to bring them to the handler (and he shouldn't do it until asked!).  Ernie hasn't learned this yet, so his "outrun" was a bee-line for the sheep, who proceeded to scatter.  Taff took a more appropriate route and was able to gather the ewes and begin fetching them to me.  Ernie joined Taff in this effort.

A note about Taff.  He's now 10 years old and starting to slow down.  He's big for a border collie (over 50 lbs without much fat), which means he's had more wear and tear from working than a smaller dog would have.  He's also beginning to lose his hearing, I think.  He's been a wonderful dog for ranch work - will work all day and then some - but he's always sulked if he's given too much correction.  He'll also sulk if another dog gets some of the work.  If the other dog is being corrected, Taff will simply shut down and quit working - which he did last night after the initial gather.

Without Taff, I relied on Ernie to bring this first group back to their paddock.  While Ernie desperately wanted to get to the heads of the sheep (to bring them back to me), I was able to keep him behind this flock with me - and he actually drove them back to the pasture.  We then went to retrieve the second group.

Once again, Ernie took a direct line to the sheep rather than circling around behind them.  Nonetheless, he did get this smaller bunch gathered and heading back towards me.  By this time, he was tired enough to accept my "lie down" command - and he again was able to do some short drives.  He also opened up his flanks a bit when I asked him go around the sheep.

As always, progress comes in fits and starts - probably true with training any dog.  We make progress some days - other days we seem to regress.  Ernie did some things that I liked last night, but he also did some things that I found infuriating.  All we can do is keep working, I guess.

I've come to realize that progress only happens when we're trying things - when there's motion.  In the past, I've tended to shut things down when they aren't going right - seemed like the safest course of action.  Now, I try to expose Ernie to a variety of situations and help him learn to respond appropriately.  We're not always successful, but it is rewarding to see him start to figure things out.  I'm most pleased about his heart and stamina - he worked last night until we were done!

This evening, we're hauling lambs back to our corrals and then walking them about a half-mile to new pasture.  I haven't decided if I'll use Ernie to load the trailer - we'll be loading along a private road without the benefit of corrals, so I'll likely use Mo.  Ernie, however, will help unload the trailer and take the sheep to the new place.  Stay tuned....

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ernie's Progress - Day 6

I have to admit - I cheated a little bit yesterday.  I had to move around 70 lambs up a private road, through a farm gate, up through a row of raspberries and into a new paddock.  The farmer on whose land we're grazing wanted to make sure that the sheep didn't get into his rhubarb or blueberries, too - so I needed to make sure I controlled the sheep carefully during the move.  I chickened out and didn't use Ernie - I decided that I needed Mo and Taff instead.  While I think I made the right decision, I was disappointed that I didn't yet have enough confidence in Ernie to trust him.

I did use Ernie to move a small group of sheep we have at home last night.  We moved them out of a paddock in the back yard, through two horse paddocks, and into a third pen.  The group of sheep includes a bottle-raised lamb that doesn't obey the normal stock-handling "rules" - he has no flight zone whatsoever.  This lamb stayed back, and I was able to get Ernie to "look back" and go back for him.  Ernie was somewhat intimidated by the horses and mules, but he did ultimately get the sheep where they needed to be.

One of our challenges has been Ernie's unwillingness to come off stock at times.  When it's time to quit (which I indicate by saying "that'll do" and walking away from the stock, Ernie will sometimes self-deploy, charging in at the sheep and refusing to listen.  He hasn't been doing this at all this week as we've been doing real work - it's been easy to call him off.  Yesterday, however, he ran a ewe through the fence.  I was able to get him to lie down, and we returned the ewe to the paddock.  He then let me call him off.  I think his self-deployment was related to the pressure he felt coming through the horse pens and gates - probably similar to the pressure that I sometimes put on him in training situations.  In essence, I think he's trying to beat me as a way to release tension.  In the coming weeks, I'll need to work at helping him releasing this tension without getting himself (or me and the sheep) in trouble.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ernie's Progress - Days 2-4

We haven't had much to do for the last several days - mostly just routine things like feeding guard dogs, moving sprinklers and so forth.  Today, we moved 75 ewes into a new paddock and expanded a paddock for the lambs.  Ernie was helpful in all of these situations!

Sometimes when we feed guard dogs, the sheep will overwhelm the dog and eat all of the dog food.  When Mo and/or Taff are with me, I have them hold the sheep away from the dog food.  This was a pretty good test for Ernie - it requires a lot of "eye" (controlling the sheep without a lot of movement) and a great deal of confidence.  Ernie wasn't sure about it at first, but ultimately he was successful.  He also held the ewes away from the fence while I unloaded protein tubs.

Today, I needed him to gather 75 ewes and bring them to an opening in the fence (and onto fresh feed).  This required a short outrun (around the sheep) and a quiet fetch (which involves bringing the sheep to me).  Ernie did pretty well - he missed a group of ewes that were shaded up under a tree, but when he came back around, he picked them up and gathered the whole bunch.  He brought them to me and then took a "lie down" command to let them come through the opening calmly - he was great!

Even with these successes, his joker personality comes through - I think he's related to the mythical Coyote trickster of Native American lore!  On Thursday, he chased a jack rabbit nearly a half a mile - almost catching it!  He also jumped out of the truck before I left one of the ranches - which I didn't realize until I arrived at the next ranch.  And whenever we change sprinklers, he makes sure to check each one once they're turned on!

Today I realized that much of what he needs is my confidence and patience - confidence that we can do what needs to be done, and patience when the work doesn't go exactly as planned.  Even though our work in the last 3 days has not been physically demanding, he's been exhausted when we get home - thinking must wear him out!  We'll see what this next week brings - tomorrow or Tuesday, I'll need to load lambs without the benefit of a set of corrals.  It'll be a good test!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Ernie's Progress - Day 1

I've written in previous posts about our youngest border collie, Ernie.  In many ways, Ernie has the potential to be a very talented herding dog.  He's fast, he's smart, and he has amazing stamina.  Ernie is also a goofball at times - his favorite "hobbies" seem to be running through sprinklers and biting hoses (which is annoying and expensive).  In our training sessions, he'll often show flashes of brilliance followed by what seems to be willful disobedience.  Recently, I began to wonder if this disobedience was do to the fact that I was not using him in many real work situations - mostly I'd been drilling him on small groups of sheep in relatively risk-free scenarios.  Because of his inexperience, I was reluctant to take the extra time necessary to help him succeed in real work - like moving the entire flock from one property to another or working sheep in the corrals.  I decided last weekend that I'd make the time over the next month, and that I'd rely almost solely on Ernie for the next month.  The only exceptions, I decided, would be situations where we might put sheep or dogs in danger if Ernie made a mistake.  Yesterday, we started our month of working together.

Yesterday's chores included vaccinating and de-worming the lambs, putting them through a footbath, and loading them in the trailer to move to a new pasture.  The work, for Ernie, involved working the lambs through the corrals and loading the trailer - both situations which require thoughtfulness and calmness from a dog, as well as a good understanding of flank commands ("come bye" to circle to the left, "away" to go right).  These have not always been strong points for Ernie.  However, he did fairly well.  He worked too closely to the sheep at times, and a few times he seemed to forget that we were working as partners, but we got the work done.

The work was not terribly demanding for Ernie from a physical standpoint - he probably worked for a total of 60 minutes during the course of our day.  However, he was exhausted at the end of the day - a good sign that he was working hard mentally.  At least for one day, my theory that real work - with a real endpoint and real goals - would be helpful for Ernie in developing our working partnership seemed to hold true.

Over the course of the next month, I will try to document Ernie's progress as we work together.  The month will be interesting!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Learning to Work

For some reason, I've been thinking lately about the process of learning a skill.  Here are a few random quotes that I think are especially relevant to the work of small-scale farming and ranching:

"To be successful with sheep, even when you're not thinking about them, you'd better be thinking about them a little." - Ivan Doig

"It's not a thing you can learn inside a day." - Dougie McLean

"The difference between a journeyman mechanic and an apprentice is knowing how hard you can hit something without breaking it." Russ Melendez (our mechanic)

"There are so many ways for a man to be a fool, he can't possibly avoid them all." - Ivan Doig

"Wake up in the morning and plow to the end of the row." - Adrienne Young

"10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness." - Malcom Gladwell

"'You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers.  You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time.'  'And how long will that take?'  'I don't know.  As long as you live perhaps.'  'That could be a long time.'  'I'll tell you a further mystery,' he said. 'It may take longer.' - Wendell Berry

I hope you'll post your own thoughts about learning to work - learning to live, really!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Living with Wildfire

As a kid, I hung out with a kid whose father flew fire planes in the summer.  Brett Hansen's dad, Pete, flew an S-2 - an anti-submarine plane converted to drop fire retardant.  Brett and his family spent the summer and early fall in Columbia; the winter and spring in South Dakota (where Pete flew crop dusters).  One of the truly cool things I got to do in the summer as a kid was to spend the day at the Columbia airport at the tanker base.  I learned (without knowing I'd learned it) that flying a fire plane involved a great deal of waiting around - punctuated by incredibly intense times of fighting wildfire from the air.  Piloting a fire plane, it seemed to me, was a glamorous occupation - Pete got to fly (which I loved) in the mountains (which I also loved).  I could always tell when a fire plan was flying over - just by the sound of the twin engines.

I'm not sure how old I was when Pete crash-landed his plane during a fire on the Stanislaus National Forest.  He was fortunate - he walked away from the crash. The accident, however, made me realize as a child that fighting wildfire was exceptionally dangerous.  As I grew older, the thrill of hearing a fire plan go over my house was replaced by fear that the fire was close.  Indeed, when the 49 Fire struck near our home in Auburn several years ago, I was first alerted to the fire by the sound of turbo-prop S-2s flying low over our rooftop.  At the sound of fire planes overhead, I always gauge the proximity of the fire by the altitude of the planes - a low flight path means the fire is close at hand.

As an adult, I have friends who are in the fire service.  At least one of my high school buddies, Pete Gookin, flies a fire helicopter for CalFire.  Pete actually flew on the 49 Fire.  Other friends, like Matt Smotherman and Kevin Summers, work in more urban - and equally dangerous - settings.  Having been close enough to fire to be frightened, I have utmost respect for my friends and their colleagues.

Summer wildfires are part of living in the West.  The tragic deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots yesterday in Arizona reminds us that we owe our safety to men and women who are willing to risk their lives every time they're called.