Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Rim Fire Fundraiser

Since I saw this photo posted on Facebook, I haven't been able to erase it from my mind's eye.  We're always mindful of fire this time of year - last night I saw smoke and fire planes in the direction of home while I was changing water.  I raced home to check our animals - relieved to find that all was well here.

As many of you know, I grew up in Tuolumne County - where the Rim Fire continues to burn out of control.  A number of my friends and fellow ranchers have been severely impacted by the fire - losing barns, equipment, forage, and even cows in some cases.  The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau has established a fund to purchase emergency hay for the ranching families who have experienced losses.  My family would like to organize a local effort to raise money in support of this effort.  Here’s what we’re doing:

We are offering a whole, grass-fed lamb, cut-and-wrapped, via on-line auction (at our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/flyingmulefarm.)  You can bid by posting a comment with the amount of your bid on our Facebook page. The winning bidder will receive approximately 25-27 lbs of lamb (with processing donated by Ann Vasser at Superior Farms in Dixon) - the lamb will be ready for pick-up in late September or early October.  The retail value of a whole lamb is approximately $300.  The entire purchase price will be donated to the TCFB Emergency Hay Fund.  Bidding will close at 6 p.m. on Sunday, September 1.

Please pass this along to others who you think might be interested in participating. This is an experiment on our part, so thank you for your patience (and for your donation)!

The Macon Family
Flying Mule Farm

(530) 305-3270

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Is the Customer Always Right?

Several years ago, a customer purchased a package of lamb shanks at the farmers' market.  I assumed, incorrectly, that anyone who asked for lamb shanks would know how to cook them.  The next week, the customer said, "You know, we barbecued those shanks and they were awful - way too tough!"  Rather than speak my mind, I suggested that they try one of our slow-cooked lamb shank recipes - and I gave them a free package to replace the package they'd ruined.  Our recipe was successful, and these folks have since become regular customers.

Such encounters are much less common with professional chefs, but they do happen.  On rare occasions, a chef will fail to prepare a product appropriately.  A tough steak from Iowa Beef Products (one of the biggest beef processors in the country) is one thing; a tough steak from Flying Mule Farm is quite another - customers that provide direct feedback to the farmer or rancher have every responsibility to tell us when things are bad as well as when they are good.  That said, I guess I feel like those of us who sell direct have every right to expect that the professionals who prepare and sell our products will do a good job with it, too!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Ernie's Progress - and the Ultimate Goal!

It's been more than a week, but I wanted to add another installment to the ongoing saga of my attempts to work with Ernie, our youngest border collie.  On August 8, Ernie and I moved approximately 140 ewes and lambs from the Allender property in Auburn back to Oak Hill Ranch.  Ernie worked great - he took my "lie down" at the gate, letting the sheep walk through without succumbing to the temptation to rush them through the gap and get to their heads.  I even got him to lie down and "look back" - not an easy task for those of you who train border collies for trial work!  Most impressively, he took my flank commands even when they ran counter to his instincts!

Since then, I've used him several times for short moves and for holding sheep while I rearrange fencing.  For the most part, he's been great.  He still thinks he needs to beat me to the work sometimes - running to the head of the flock rather than staying behind it, like I'm asking.  Nonetheless, he's made real improvement - and he has allowed me to call him off the work every time I've asked him.  I'm pleased!

Last Saturday, however, I had a reminder of our ultimate goal.  We were at a soccer tournament about 12 miles from the ranch when I got a call from a neighbor that the sheep were out.  I hopped in the truck and raced home for a dog - and Mo was the first dog at the gate.  We continued on to the ranch and found that the sheep were indeed outside the electric fence.  In fact, there were two groups - far enough apart that we couldn't see the second group from the hillside were we first arrived.

I sent Mo, and he did a beautiful wide outrun - not coming into contact with the sheep until he was balanced with me (which means he could retrieve them on a straight line to me).  As they approached, I asked Mo to lie down and look back - even though neither one of us could see the other group of sheep.  I sent him on a blind outrun and waited.  In about 3 minutes, the rest of the sheep crested the hill and came straight for me - Mo had found them and had remembered where I was during the process.  Not only was this an impressive show of instinct on Mo's part; it saved me at least 20 minutes of walking back to find the other group of sheep, re-gathering the first group, and putting them back in the pasture.  I made it to the soccer game about 5 minutes into the first half!

Mo has been an exceptional dog.  He's very sensitive, but incredibly talented!  Ernie is not quite so talented, and he's always pushing on me to determine the limits of what I'll put up with.  On the other hand, Mo's sensitivity means that he'll quit working when he's too hot - he'll leave a group of sheep to find a pond or water trough in which he can cool off.  Ernie, by contrast, will keep working until the job is done.  In my work, there's a need for both types of dog (or, ideally, a dog that combines Ernie's stamina with Mo's talent).  I think it's a lifetime worth of effort on my part to find that dog!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ernie's Progress - August 7

Not a whole lot to report today, but what I do have to report about Ernie is positive.  This evening, we moved ewes and lambs into an expanded paddock.  I asked Ernie to come into the paddock.  He wanted to go around the sheep, but I wanted him to stay with me.  Despite his desire to work, he stayed with me - definitely progress!  Later, we discovered that we had a single lamb (and a former bottle baby, so an obnoxious single at that) that had stayed back.  Working a single is difficult for many dogs, and Ernie struggled to figure out what I was asking.  That said, he successfully moved the lamb into the newly expanded paddock.  I was pretty proud of him!

Tomorrow or Friday, we'll be moving this group of sheep to the corrals and then up the county road.  I think Ernie's ready!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Some Observations on Guard Dog Behavior

On my lunch hour today, I let sheep into a new paddock that I had constructed before work this morning.  This new paddock is bounded on three sides by electric fencing, and on the remaining side by an existing field fence.  On the other side of this field fence is my landlords' vegetable garden and back yard.  While they love having the sheep "mow" their irrigated pasture, they're not wild about having sheep in the garden or the yard.  That said, they would like the sheep to graze right up to the field fence - grazing the weeds helps keep garden pests like squash bugs at bay.

I'm always a little nervous about relying on a fence that isn't my own electric fence.  Old field fence, especially, often has gaps where wires have broken - gaps that are big enough for an ambitious lamb to squeeze through.  I always check these fences carefully, but I'll often miss holes that the sheep eventually notice.  Or maybe the guard dog - and that's what happened today.

First a note about guard dog behavior.  Our livestock guardian dogs live with the sheep around the clock.  Their job is to protect the sheep from threats - mostly other critters (in area, these include coyotes, mountain lions, neighbor dogs, owls, and the occasional eagle).  There are other threats - people, wildfire, floods, etc. - with which we've had little experience (thankfully).  I have heard stories of guardian dogs leading sheep or goats to safety in the midst of a wildfire.  Our dogs receive very little training - mostly because I want them to bond with our livestock, not with me.  I want them to know their names, to at least look at me when I call to them and to allow me to attend to their general health (apply flea/tick control, check feet for foxtails, etc.).  Anything beyond these basics, and I've found that a dog wants to spend more time with me than with the sheep.  In essence, we're training these dogs that they are the alpha in a pack of very wooly, fangless dogs.

Our dogs seem to respond to threats with a series of potentially escalating actions.  When they first perceive a threat, they will place themselves between the sheep and the threat and evaluate the need for further response.  Last week, a magazine photographer wanted to shoot some photos of our ewes.  When we arrived, I fed Reno (a 4-year-old Anatolian) before inviting the photographer into the paddock.  She began taking pictures, and asked me to herd the flock towards her for some up-close action shots.  She crouched down to snap pictures, and Reno was instantly on hand - standing between her and the sheep.  He never barked or acted aggressively, but it was clear that he was concerned about what she was doing - and a 100+ pound dog doesn't have to bark to be intimidating!  If physical presence doesn't suffice, our dogs will begin to bark - and they have impressive barks.  If additional deterrence is necessary, guard dogs will attack a predator.  I've never observed this in our own dogs - I'm pretty sure their size and their bark usually work!

Guard dogs also work in an ecological sense - that is, they seem to fill the niche in our environment that must be filled by a large canine (typically a coyote).  They fill this niche by exhibiting typical large canine behaviors.  For example, when we let a flock into a new pasture, the dog will walk the entire perimeter of the field sniffing and marking its territory (by urinating and defecating along the fenceline).  If their happens to be a dead rabbit or other small animal in the paddock, they will eat it (they typically aren't fast enough to catch these animals, but they will scavenge).

And this brings me back to the story I started to tell!  As I was getting ready to leave, Rosie greeted me at the truck - outside the new paddock she'd just gone into.  Rather than get upset with her, I just called to her and then watched.  She went back to the hole she'd found and crawled back into the paddock.  I patched up the hole and thanked Rosie for her help!

Like any system, it takes time to learn how to work with guard dogs.  When we got our first dog, Scarlet, I would have spent all afternoon trying to catch her and put her back with the sheep.  Today I watched and waited (and not for very long).  I guess that's one of the things I like about the way we raise sheep!

Another Way of Looking at This!

If you've read my blog for the last year or so, you know that I've been struggling with questions of scale and economic viability.  Even with a part-time job, I'm finding that the income from my current operation isn't adequate to meeting my family's reasonably modest financial needs.  Last February, I looked at scale from a different direction (see http://flyingmule.blogspot.com/2013/02/by-numbers-looking-at-scale-from.html).  In this analysis, I determined that I needed to run approximately 500 ewes to be able to pay myself an annual salary of $35,000, pay for my family's health insurance, and put some money aside for retirement.

Recently, as I was analyzing the prices I charge for our grass-fed lamb and mutton, I realized that there is another way of looking at these numbers!  If my goal is to pay myself the average Placer County wage ($35,000/year) and maintain our sheep operation at it's current scale (150 +/- ewes), why don't I simply raise my prices?!  Our current average retail price for lamb is approximately $11 per pound.  Some cuts, like rack of lamb and loin chops, are more expensive.  Other cuts, like shoulder roasts and leg of lamb, are less per pound.

Here's what I found: Instead of tripling the scale of our operation, I can simply triple our retail prices!  This would mean that we'd charge $58 per pound for rack of lamb and $30 per pound for a butterflied leg of lamb!  I didn't realize that making a living wage was a simple as tripling our prices!

In all seriousness, any business is far more complex than these numbers - and farm businesses are more complex than most.  Obviously, tripling my prices won't result in more income - I wouldn't pay that much for lamb, and I know my customers wouldn't either!  This analysis does suggest, however, that achieving the right balance between scale, pricing, and business management is critical to the success of a farm - or any business, for that matter.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Few Random Thoughts about Raising Livestock and Selling Meat

As I was making a meat delivery this afternoon, I heard a story on National Public Radio about a taste test of the first laboratory-created hamburger in England today.  Seems some university researcher (I was disgusted at this point, so I didn't pay attention to which university) grew bovine muscle fibers from stem cells and created this "beef" patty.  The reporter was excited about the potential for this new technology to provide meat to a growing population without the "environmental damage" involved in raising beef cattle.  Livestock production, according to the story, just takes too much land to be economically or ecologically sensible.  In addition, these "burgers" were ethically superior, since no animals had to die.

I guess I found this ironic - here I was delivering meat from animals that I'd cared for throughout their lifespan.  The land on which these sheep had grazed was still providing open space and ecological benefits because (at least in part) there was an economic reason (e.g., ranching) to keep it that way.  The meat was going to be further processed by another local business into sausage - and people who I know (and who know me) were going to eat it.  In other words, the meat I was selling was created by nature and hard work, by someone who cares deeply about the land and his animals, and was going to be consumed by people who appreciated this effort.  Laboratory "meat" just can't duplicate this connectivity.

Creating meat in lab is a symptom of our growing lack of connection with our food.  I had another example of this disconnection this weekend.  A would-be customer contacted me about purchasing beef bones.  I indicated that I did have some bones in inventory and that I could pick them up for her during my next trip to my meat locker in Roseville (a 45-mile round trip).  She expressed disappointment that I didn't have the bones on hand and that she might have to wait a day or two, but she did reserve $12 worth.  I indicated that I'd be picking up her order on Saturday afternoon after the farmers' market and after completing my ranch chores.  When Saturday rolled around, she decided she couldn't wait that long - and I lost the sale.  This sequence made me realize that I think of myself as a rancher who happens to sell meat, while some customers think of me as a grocery store who happens to raise animals.  Our desire for instant gratification, if taken to its logical endpoint, results in a hamburger that is created in a test tube.  Count me out of that kind of food system!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Ernie's Progress - Days ?

Yesterday marked Ernie’s first real day as “the dog” - we had lots of work to do, and Ernie was the only dog available.  And last night, Ernie discovered the other side of tired.

First, I should describe the work we needed to complete.  First, we moved 125 ewes from Shanley Hill to our corrals - a walk of about 1.25 miles.  I used both Mo and Ernie, but Mo came up lame about halfway there, so the job was up to Ernie to complete.  Then, we put all of the ewes through the corrals and into the footbath - we were sorting off thin ewes to put on irrigated pasture prior to breeding.  After we sorted these ewes, we walked the thin ewes about ⅓ of a mile to our irrigated pasture.  Then we loaded the rest of the ewes in the trailer and hauled them to another property, where Ernie had to move them about ¼ mile from the trailer to their paddock.  The last chore involved taking the cull ewes about 200 yards from the corrals to a patch of green grass.

The first stretch of work started like most of Ernie’s efforts - he had more energy than he needed, and he wanted to be at the head of the flock at all times.  After correcting him a few times, his attempts to get to the sheeps’ heads were at least a bit more under control - he started making wider flanks (and realizing, I think, that he was controlling the flock’s movement at a greater distance than he is used to).  On several occasions, I was able to get him to drive the flock from behind - staying with me instead of constantly trying to stay on balance.

His work in the corrals was pretty decent - he did try to work without being asked sometimes, but he really tried to listen to me.  Often, I’ll use Mo to walk into the sheep in the alley to encourage forward movement.  Ernie didn’t quite get this, but he tried - and I realized that Mo didn’t quite get it at first either.  That recognition, I think, helped me cut Ernie some slack!

The walk to irrigated pasture started much like our earlier walk - Ernie wanted to be on balance.  I had my oldest daughter, Lara, walk the guard dog on a leash to lead the flock.  After Ernie raced to their heads several times, I asked Lara to give him a harsh correction.  It worked wonders - I was too far away to offer such a correction, but Lara’s hard voice shocked Ernie.  After that, he listened much better - except when we moved the sheep through a gate.  I think gates are like venturis - sheep and dogs seem to speed up when they are going through a tight space!  Ernie couldn’t help himself - he tried to get to the head of the flock.  However, Lara and I both corrected him, and he started listening again.  As we put the flock into our electric-fenced paddock, I even had to send Ernie on a flank that was counter to what his instincts were telling him.  He took the flank and brought the wayward sheep back to the opening in the fence.

Loading the ewes in the trailer and moving them down the road - our next task - wasn’t pretty, but we got it done.  While I was dropping off the trailer at the house, Ernie crashed - I’ve never seen him so tired.  Nonetheless, he jumped in the truck when I told him to load up!  

Our final chore yesterday involved moving about 15 cull ewes out of the corrals, through a narrow gate and into a new paddock.  I decided that we’d try some schooling - I’d insist that Ernie make good decisions about his flanks.  I was really pleased!  He opened out and tried to stay out of the sheeps’ flight zone until I asked him to make contact with them.  He took my lie down commands quietly, and he even waited until the ewes walked calmly through the narrow gate before flanking again to turn them into the paddock.  He then returned to the truck and slept!  While Ernie usually spends the night in the garage, I let him sleep in the house last night.  He didn’t make a peep!

Today, he still seems very tired - he found shady spots in which to rest at every stop today!  I did ask him to bring the ewes and lambs into a fresh paddock this afternoon.  His flank was the right shape (if a little too close), and he took my lie down to let the sheep walk through the opening.  Most importantly, he let me call him off when we were done with today’s little bit of work.

I’m hoping we’ve turned a corner.  I know there’s lots of work - and a fair bit of frustration - ahead for both of us, but I think it helped Ernie to realize that there was more work than he could do on his own yesterday - he needed to listen in order for the work to be manageable.  We’ll see!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Ernie's Progress - Day 18

I don't have too much to report today, other than the fact that I used Ernie briefly this morning to move about 75 ewes into a newly expanded section of their paddock.  He did well for the most part - I'd still like to see him open up his flanks, but at least he didn't charge in on the back side of the flock like he usually does.  He also took my lie down command from farther away than he ever has before - I was probably 40 yards from him when I asked him to lie down behind the sheep.  He took it, which allowed the sheep to walk (rather than run) into their new feed.  He also allowed me to call him off easily.

Tomorrow, we'll move 125 ewes off Shanley Hill and down to our corrals.  We'll sort sheep, put them through a footbath, and take the thin ewes to irrigated grass about 1/2 mile from the corrals.  Ernie should be a tired boy tomorrow (as will I)!

Our Favorite Mutton Recipes

As you know if you've been purchasing from us at the Old Town Auburn Farmers' Market, we've added grass-fed mutton to our line of products in the last several years.  This summer, we've started working with Smokey Ridge Charcuterie to provide meat for their wonderful sausage products, which has left us with some of our favorite cuts of mutton to eat at home (and to offer at the market).  Here's what we like to do with mutton!

Grilled Chops (Rib or Loin Chops)

  • 2 chops per person
  • Snow's Citrus Court Mandarin Marinade or Basque Meat Tenderizer (or substitute your favorite marinade!)
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
Trim fat from chops.  Place in marinade for at least 4 hours.  Prepare an indirect fire in the grill.  Sear chops over direct heat for 3 minutes per side.  Remove from direct heat and cook for another 6-8 minutes, depending on how done you like your chops.  This is a very quick and easy recipe!

Braised Riblets
  • 1 pkg of riblets (2 slabs of 8 ribs each)
  • 1 dark beer
  • 1/4 cup of brewed coffee
  • Salt, pepper and smoked paprika to taste
  • Barbecue sauce
Place slabs of riblets in a baking dish.  Add beer, coffee and seasonings.  Place uncovered in a 275 degree oven (or alternatively, on the barbecue over low, indirect heat).  Cook for 2-3 hours, basting with liquid periodically.  After slow cooking, baste with barbecue sauce (again, we like Snow's Citrus Court's sauce).  Turn up heat to 400 (or place over direct heat on the barbecue) for 20 minutes.  Cut into individual ribs and serve.  This recipe serves 4.

Braised Shanks 
2 shanks
1 tbsp black pepper
5 leaves fresh basil
1 tbsp salt
1/3 cup olive oil
Juice from 2 lemons
4 cloves garlic
2 medium onions, diced
2 tomatoes, diced
2 cups red wine
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 c brown sugar, packed
Preheat over to 350 degrees.  Layer onions on the bottom of a lidded pan. Place shanks on top. Pour wine, balsamic vinegar, and olice oil over shanks. Sprinkle brown sugar on top. Place cloves of garlic and lemon wedges between the shanks. Pour tomatoes over everything then sprinkle salt, pepper, and basil on top. Cover and cook for 3 hours. Serve immediately.  We've also made this recipe in the crock pot - preparing it in the morning and letting it cook all day!  It's a great meal when the weather starts to cool.  Serves 4.

Our family has decided that we love good mutton.  I hope you'll try these recipes - and share some of your own!