Wednesday, April 24, 2013

This Wool...

This wool has a story - it comes from sheep that graze the hillsides, pasturelands and brushfields around my Sierra foothills home.

This wool is shorn and skirted and rolled and sacked by the hands of my family and friends.
This wool comes from sheep that spend their entire lives on grass.
This wool is protected by Buck and Reno and Rosie - three dedicated guardian dogs.
It is also protected by Clara and Tina - two less dedicated and quite funny looking llamas.

This wool comes from sheep that are guided from pasture to pasture by Taff and Mo and Ernie.
This wool helps make my part of Auburn a little more fire-safe during the summer.
This wool helps protect and restore native grasslands.  It helps hawks and owls find more food by reducing the grass that hides the rodents.

This wool comes from a family that is trying to make its living from the land and from a livelihood that's older than history itself.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Seed Catalog for Sheep Farmers

When I grew vegetables for the farmers' markets, I always looked forward to the day (usually around Christmas) that my seed catalogs would arrive.  Farming at this scale (for me, at least) required a certain amount of amnesia - I found that I had to forget how hard the work was last year in order to be able to even consider farming this year.  The seed catalog was always an essential part of forgetting about the prior year's tribulations.  One look at the new varieties of sweet corn or winter squash, and I was already anticipating the flavor of a new year's labors!

At our Shepherd's Picnic last weekend, I finally picked up my own copy of the latest edition of the British Sheep and Wool Book from my friend and fellow shepherd Robin Lynde (of Meridian Jacobs near Vacaville).  I'd been looking for the book for years after reading about it in one of my favorite Wendell Berry essays ("Let the Farm Judge").  To paraphrase Berry's essay, he says that the fact that there are more than 80 breeds of sheep that originated in England and Scotland - an island approximately the size of Berry's native Kentucky - testifies to the careful observation and husbandry of generations of British shepherds.

The current edition features descriptions of more than 60 breeds of sheep - information about where and how they originated, the characteristics of their fleeces, and the uses to which their wool is put.  Beautiful photos accompany the text - photos that show why England and Scotland are sheep-producing countries!

We're fairly settled on the breeds of sheep we raise - following Mr. Berry's advice, we've selected breeds and individual sheep that fit the parameters of our land, our management system and our market.  That said, I'm always interested in learning how other farmers - over hundreds or even thousands of years - have made similar decisions that ultimately resulted in the breeds we raise today.  In many ways, the British Sheep and Wool Book is a seed catalog for sheep farmers!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Great Escape - or Always Bring a Dog

Ewes and lambs returning from their morning escapade!

My friend and fellow sheep rancher Lana Rowley once posted on facebook that she was never sorry when she took a dog or a gun with her when she left the house.  While I'm not as much as a gun guy, I share Lana's sentiment about dogs.  I was thinking of her quote this morning as I left the house, as a matter of fact - I didn't think I'd have any work for the dogs, and I needed to go to the office after my sheep chores, so I left the border collies at home.

Almost home, thanks to Mo and Taff!
Ironically, I discovered that the sheep had escaped from their paddock as I drove up Mt. Vernon Road towards Shanley Road - the result of a dead battery.  Without a dog, it would have taken me all morning (and perhaps longer) to put 190 ewes with lambs back into their electric fencing.  I made a u-turn and rushed home to pick up Mo and Taff.  By the time I returned (less than 10 minutes later), the guard dogs were exploring Mt. Vernon Road (and stopping traffic) and the sheep were spread over 20 acres.  I caught one of the guard dogs (Reno slipped back under the fence to be with his sheep) and parked at the now-empty paddock.  I sent Mo and Taff around the sheep, and what would have been a 2-3 hour job for a human was a 5-minute jaunt for the dogs.  I've learned my lesson!  My next border collie will be named American Express - I'll never leave home without him!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Conversations on Stockmanship

I had occasion one morning several weeks ago to drop by Jim and Steph Barrie’s place in Thermalands (just northeast of Lincoln).  Mutual friends from southeastern Oregon who winter their cattle with Jim and Steph had left some “Shepherd’s Scarf” kits when they dropped off bulls the week before, and I finally had time to pick them up (I’ll be selling them at our farmers’ market).  I’ve known Jim since his days as the county trapper, and our paths have crossed now and again.  After retiring from the county, Jim has devoted his time to managing the family ranch, and to training horses and dogs.

After the typical rancher complaints about the weather and the challenges of the livestock business, our conversation turned to dogs, horses and people we’d known.  I related that one of things I like most about working dogs is the challenge of communication with another species – of conveying clear direction to my dogs and listening to what they’re trying to tell me.  In response, Jim told me a great story that illustrates this point much better than I ever have.

A number of years ago, Jim was training a cow dog for another rancher.  She’d have Jim come when she wasn’t around and train her dog on her cows in a large field.  Jim said that one particular horned cow would always challenge the dog at some point – and the dog would try to leave the cow and work the rest of the herd.  Jim (as I have done) would always force the dog back onto the recalcitrant cow, which the dog obviously didn’t like.  After one such training session, Jim asked his dad about it.  “My dad said, ‘That dog’s trying to tell you something,” Jim told me.  “’Next time you work him, just let him be and see what he does.’”

The next time they worked the cows, Jim tried his dad’s advice. “That cow turned,” Jim said, “and I just stayed quiet.  The dog pushed the rest of the cows up the fenceline to a big willow.  He got them settled in under the tree and then went back – all on his own – and took on the horned cow.  He nipped her heals all the way up the field until she joined the rest of the herd, and I stayed quiet the whole time.”

When Jim got home, he told his dad what had happened.  “My dad said, ‘The dog was telling you that he was worried that the rest of the cows would get away if he dealt with the ornery cow like you wanted him to.  He figured he needed to get the rest of the cows settled before he could deal with her.’” As Jim said, the dog reasoned it out.

I pass this story because I think it’s an important lesson for me (and perhaps for others) as a stockman who has realized that I’ll always be learning.  It’s also important on several other levels, however.  First, it illustrates a way of looking at working with animals that I think is important.  To me, it suggests that the listening part of communicating with another species (and probably with our own species) involves using more than our ears – it requires us to use our eyes, our brains and our intuition.  It implies that we need to have a relationship of trust with our animal partners (in my case, with dogs and horses or mules) that gives us the confidence to try things even if we’re afraid they might not work.

Like me, Jim has considered offering internships as a way to pass along his experience and knowledge to a new generation of stockmen (and women).  We both lament the changes in our community that make it more difficult for a young person to get hands-on, real-world experience in working with livestock – most kids don’t grow up on a ranch anymore.  The changes in our community give us less time to work together, too – stockmanship skills, I think, are learned by working together – by sharing stories and approaches to our work, and (most importantly) by sharing actual work.  Modern life makes us think that we’re too busy to spend an hour with a friend in the midst of a hectic work day swapping stories.  I’ve written previously about the value in slowing down so that the work will go faster – this visit was a reminder that slowing down helps me learn important lessons, too.  Thanks, Jim!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

2013 Lambing Notebook - Installment #6

As of this evening, we're just about done lambing - only 3-15 ewes left to lamb.  Within the next week, we'll be entirely done.  All in all, it's been a successful lambing season.  While I would have liked more precipitation during the spring, the dry weather made lambing easy this year - we had a tremendous survival rate.

Today, I decided I needed to put some of the ewes and their lambs through a footbath - the recent wet weather has resulted in some foot-scald in the sheep (a bacterial infection that causes lameness).  A footbath of zinc sulfate in water clears this up, so today (despite the rainy weather) was the day to get the work done. Moving ewes and young lambs is always a test of my dogs (and me) - and Taff and Mo performed admirably bringing the sheep in from the paddock.

On a down note, when we gathered the sheep today, I discovered a large lamb that had died overnight - the first lamb we've lost so far.  Hard to tell why the lamb had died - sometimes it just happens.

On a much more positive note, I had to use our young dog, Ernie, to help move the ewes and lambs back from the corrals to the pasture.  Ernie has been a bit of a wild man, but since my old man Taff (who's 9) was pretty worn out, I brought in Ernie as a reinforcement.  He was great!  He listened, took commands, and treated the sheep well - I couldn't have been more happy with him!