on the road

on the road

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Managing Pastures for Mules and Horses

Note: I wrote this article for the American Mule Association newsletter last year - thought it might be of interest here!

As a mule owner who also happens to be a commercial sheep producer, I try to pay close attention to the health of my pastures.  While our mules get most of their nutritional intake from hay, we do provide pasture periodically during the year – both as a supplemental feed source and for exercise.  We try to maintain quality pastures – both for the benefit of our mules and for the protection of soil health and water quality.  A basic understanding of the interaction between soil, water, pasture plants and our animals is key to our success as pasture managers.

Perhaps because we make part of our living from grazing sheep, I view myself as a grass farmer who harvests his crop with livestock (sheep and mules, in our case).  This philosophical approach means that we try to create the conditions favorable to desirable grass plants AND unfavorable to weeds (a weed, by my definition, is any plant that is growing where I don’t want it to grow).  To create these conditions, we can manage a few basic functions: stocking rate (the number of animals), stock density (the number of animals per unit of pasture), rest from grazing, and timing of grazing.

Our pastures are unirrigated annual rangelands – that means they are dominated by annual grasses that complete their entire life cycle (germination, growth, reproduction and death) each year.  Typically, we’ll get enough rainfall in the autumn to germinate our pastures.  If these rains come early in October (when the air and soil temperatures are still favorable to grass growth), we’ll get fairly substantial growth before the colder weather and winter dormancy set in.  Usually in December, shorter days and colder temperatures will slow or stop grass growth.  With adequate rainfall, longer days and warmer temperatures in late February will bring our pastures out dormancy, and rapid grass growth will begin sometime in March.  As temperatures continue to warm and the spring rains diminish, our annual grasses will begin to mature (or head out) and make seed.  As these plants begin to turn brown, their palatability and nutritional value diminish.

Grazing animals have three basic impacts on pasture plants.  First, obviously, they consume plants through grazing.  Not all grazing is equal, however – we’ve probably all noticed that horses graze differently than sheep or cows, for example.  I’ve also noticed that mules graze differently than horses – mules seem to enjoy a wider variety of forage than horses do. These grazing differences are both physiological and behavioral – horses and mules like different plants than cows and sheep, and their mouths are constructed differently as well.  The second impact is trampling – hoof action impacts both plants and the underlying soil.  Finally, grazing animals cycle nutrients by depositing manure and urine on the soil surface.  These areas of defecation and urination create what animal scientists call “zones of repugnance” (I love the term!) – we’ve probably all also noticed that our mules won’t eat around a manure pile for several months.  This behavior has evolved as a disease-avoidance mechanism for all grazing animals.

With management, these impacts can have a positive effect on pasture health as well as on soil and water quality.  By resting our pastures, we allow grazed plants to regrow and out-compete undesirable weeds.  By managing trampling and manure/urine deposition, we can cycle nutrients and carbon through our soils.  By leaving enough plant cover at the end of the growing season, we can ensure that run-off water is filtered before it reaches ponds or creeks and that we have a microclimate suitable for germination with the fall rain.

Without management (usually through season-long grazing and no rest for our pastures), these impacts can have a negative effect on pasture health, soil stability and water quality.  Horses and mules will overgraze the plants they like, allowing weeds (like yellow starthistle) to thrive.  Trampling when our soils are too wet can create soil compaction and bare soil – which further encourages weed growth and causes erosion.  In addition, bare soils are unable to filter pathogens and other pollutants from our pastures – and these pollutants end up in ponds and streams.

Finally, overgrazing is a function of time rather than animal numbers.  Overgrazing can occur when we leave animals in a pasture too long – they take a second bite from a plant before it has had enough time to recover.  Overgrazing can also happen when we cheat the rest period – that is, when we put animals back a pasture before the plants have fully recovered from the previous grazing.  In either case, we risk killing the plants we want and providing favorable conditions for more weeds.

Here’s what we do to manage our mule/horse pastures: We keep our animals off our pastures entirely during the fall germination/growth period.  We want our pasture grasses to establish strong root systems during this time and for them to become well-established prior to the onset of heavier winter rains (which will help prevent erosion).  During the fall and winter, we feed hay in small paddocks that are surrounded by grass (as a buffer that filters our run-off).  Once rapid growth begins in late winter or early spring, we’ll begin turning horses and mules out onto our pastures for a few hours each day.  We treat these like feeding periods – if it typically takes our mules 2 hours to eat their hay, we’ll turn them out on pasture for two hours in the morning or evening (sometimes both).  We don’t leave them out around the clock, and we don’t turn them out if the soils are saturated (which can accelerate compaction).  We’ll continue to do this until the grasses start to mature.  At that point, we cease grazing with the equines.  In the late spring and early summer, when undesirable plants like yellow starthistle and mustard begin to mature, we’ll try to put sheep on our pastures to manage these weeds.  As an alternative, you might consider hand-pulling these weeds or using an approved chemical application.

For more information on managing your mule pastures, check out the following web resources:






Monday, April 28, 2014

Foothill Forage Conditions - Observations on Drought, Sheep Grazing and Vegetation

Some of our filaree is waist-high - at least to
10-year-old Emma!

If you've been reading this blog during the last 6 months, you're probably tired of reading about the drought.  I hope you'll bear with me - as someone who has been living with the implications of this drought on a daily basis, I'm trying to document (at least anecdotally) what the lack of rainfall has meant for the rangelands we graze with our sheep.  If nothing else, I hope that I can look back at what I've written this spring and remember what these conditions were like - and I hope my kids can look back and have some idea of what we went through.

Since mid-February, we've been grazing our sheep on annual rangelands near Auburn that have not been grazed for at least two years.  When we turned sheep onto these pastures on February 14, we'd finally had some rain, but the green grass was still very short.  We contemplated feeding some hay so that the sheep would have enough protein to utilize the old dry grass.  In the first week the sheep were in this new location, we did feed several bales of hay.  Fortunately, the grass started to catch up with our demand shortly thereafter.  We did find ourselves moving the sheep much more frequently than in previous years.
The Flying Mule Farm grazers at rest!

Usually by February we've had enough precipitation that last year's dead annual grasses and forbs (broadleaf plants) have started to decompose - part of the carbon cycle.  This year, it was so dry that very little (if any) decomposition had taken place - we even had a 15-acre grass fire near where we were grazing in February.  Even now (late April), there seems to be more thatch than I'd expect to see in a normal rainfall year.  My friend and fellow rancher Joe Morris (who raises cattle near San Juan Bautista) calls this "trampling" carbon (as opposed to "grazing" carbon - or green forage).  My sheep will eat some of this dry forage, but it's not terribly nutritious.  Rather than force them to graze it, we try to utilize the other two impacts that grazing animals have on pasture plants (that is, trampling and manure deposition) to cycle this carbon through the system.  By getting this dead plant material in contact with the soil, we can help the soil microbes break down this carbon - improving soil health, reducing fire fuel loads, and (hopefully) encouraging a healthier stand of forage plants in future years.  Indeed, much of the thatch we're seeing this year is last year's medusahead barley and yellow starthistle - two highly invasive plants that are undesirable from a rangeland health and livestock production standpoint.  We hope that grazing and trampling will encourage more desirable plants to out-compete these invasives.
A healthy stand of ripgut brome - one of the more aptly-named
grasses in our annual rangelands.  Once it starts making seeds,
our sheep don't like it much.

Because of the dry year, we're also seeing our annual plants mature earlier than normal.  This means that they are going to seed earlier - and this process of reproduction makes them less palatable and less nutritious for our sheep.  They also seem to shorter in stature than in normal years, which means our rangelands are just not producing the same volume of forage they produce when we receive average precipitation.  And while I don't know this for sure, the composition of plant species on these rangelands seems somewhat altered.  We seem to have a great deal of filaree (an introduced annual broadleaf plant that thrives on disturbed soils), as well as ripgut brome (an annual grass as nasty as its name) and foxtail barley.  I'm not seeing as much soft chess and annual rye grass as I'm used to seeing in late April.  Some pastures seem to  have more clover (mostly annual rose clover and medics), while others have less.  I'm also noticing a fair amount of bare ground in some pastures - even in some where we haven't grazed.  Finally, we usually get fairly rapid recovery on our grazed rangelands in March and early April - in previous years, we've been able to re-graze pastures after 25-30 days of rest in the springtime.  This year, we're finding that we need to rest pastures for 45-50 days to allow for adequate re-growth.  Some plants are using the rest period to go to seed - also unusual based on past experience.
A sheep's-eye view of forage conditions on April 28, 2014.

So what does all of this mean to us in terms of managing our sheep?  Currently, we're grazing a paddock that has a fair amount of last year's yellow starthistle crop still standing.  We've placed our water trough and supplemental mineral in the midst of this thatch to encourage the animals to trample these old plants into the ground.  We're also hoping the sheep will eat the starthistle that's germinated this year - we hope that by stressing these new plants, we can reduce the amount of seed they produce this year.  Before I move them into a new paddock later in the week, I'll use my border collies to herd the sheep through the thickest stands of thatch.

We're now done lambing, but many of our ewes are at peak lactation - which means they need as much as 60 percent more forage as they require when they are not lactating.  The older lambs are starting to graze, too - we now have 300+ mouths to feed as opposed to the 150 we turned out on these pastures in mid February.  As the forage matures, we'll keep a close eye on quantity and quality - if quality starts to drop in May, we'll consider weaning the lambs earlier than normal.  Once we've weaned their lambs, the ewes can go onto much rougher, lower quality forage - it actually helps dry up their lactation more quickly (which is a good thing health-wise).  We'll also look at selling any older ewes that didn't have lambs this year - further reducing our forage demand.  We will keep a handful of replacement ewe lambs, and we'll likely raise a handful of lambs for our own freezer this year.  The rest of the lambs will be sold - which will allow us to save most of our limited summer irrigated pasture for the ewes.

I've seen recent long-range weather forecasts predicting El Nino conditions for northern California in the coming winter.  We'll see - some El Nino years have been wetter than normal, others have been drier.  For now, we'll continue to be conservative in our stocking rates and flexible in our grazing plans.  Our ability to move our sheep to available forage is probably our most important drought strategy.
Before turnout in our current paddock.
Lots of last year's starthistle.

A close-up before turnout.

After 22 hours of grazing


Close-up after 22 hours.

Another close-up of trampling impacts - I like to see
this carbon making contact with the soil!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Wildflowers and Rangelands - and Grazing Animals

I believe these are Blue Dicks( Dichelostemma pulchellum)

I know this is a Mariposa Tulip- just not sure which one!

Seep-spring Monkey Flower (Mimulus guttatus) - I think!

Pretty sure this is a Delphinium of some sort - and I think
it's poisonous, too.  Good think there's plenty of other
plants for our sheep to graze!

I've always called this White Brodiaea, but I think that's
incorrect.  Anyone know what it is?

California Brodiaea

Lobb's Poppy?  It's smaller than a California Poppy.
In 7th and 8th grade, I had a wonderful science teacher - Mr. Atkins.  During my 8th grade year, I got to take his ecology class - we broke into teams and carefully analyzed a small plot of land at Curtis Creek School in Tuolumne County.  Each plot had been studied by classes before ours - and (I hope) would be studied for years after we graduated.  We documented the species of plants and animals that lived on or traveled through our plots.  We took measurements of things like tree diameter and (I remember this one distinctly) the width of a crack in a small boulder on our plot.  We compared our findings with those of the students preceding us.  Our plot featured a bright yellow flower that no one before us had been able to identify.  I found it in my wildflower field guide - it was woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum).

Mr. Atkins class gave me a profound appreciation for plants in general and native wildflowers in particular.  During my 8th grade and early high school years, I made my own plant press and collected samples of all of the wildflowers that I could find on the property where we lived along Sullivan Creek east of Sonora.  Somewhere, I'm sure, my parents still have my collection.

In the late 1990s, I had the opportunity to serve as the first executive director of the California Rangeland Trust, a statewide land trust established by the California Cattlemen's Association to protect privately owned rangelands from development.  During my tenure with CRT, we were approached by the American Lands Conservancy to help them conserve the Bear Valley Ranch in the Coast Range west of the town of Williams.  This particular Bear Valley was known all over the world for it's wildflower displays.  ALC initially thought that grazing was a threat to the flowers and decided to remove grazing from the ranch.  No cows, however, soon meant no wildflowers - seems the grazing animals were an integral part of managing these rangelands for multiple benefits (including native flora).  I am still proud to have been part of conserving the Bear Valley Ranch for grazing and for it's habitat values.

It's been 33 years since I took Mr. Atkins' ecology class - and I still get a thril from finding new wildflowers - and from seeing old familiar ones.  Today, as I built a new paddock for our sheep, I took a few minutes to document the native wildflowers in this new paddock.  We grazed these rangelands about 50 days ago.  Even in our drought conditions, these flowers have bloomed and are reproducing.  I'm always amazed by the resiliency and interdependence between herbivory (grazing) and plant lifecycles.  Thanks, Mr. Atkins, for lighting that spark!

Note: I hope my botanist friends will correct the identifications I've made of these flowers!  I'm working from an older field guide  - and I'm sheepherder, after all!


Monday, April 14, 2014

A Difficult Day

It's been so long since I had a regular 9-to-5 office job, I'm probably out of practice when it comes to complaining about Mondays!  I hope you'll bear with me - I'm going to complain about this one!

First thing this morning, I checked our ewes.  We're down to 4-6 ewes left to lamb, I think.  We'd had a new lamb yesterday (which I marked this morning), and I found one more new lamb this morning.  The sheep had been moved onto fresh feed yesterday, and they all looked contented!  I left them to check in on a grazing project we're doing in collaboration with another company here in Auburn.  So far, so good!

The grazing project is for Pacific Gas and Electric.  This morning, we moved 400 goats and 400 ewes from Rock Creek Reservoir in Auburn out to another property near Halsey Forebay in Christian Valley.  The move went fine - our partners on the project - Star Creek Land Stewards - are real professionals!

I had planned on spending at least some of my day at my other job - with U.C. Cooperative Extension.  I stopped by home after supervising the PG&E move, only to receive a call from the landowner where our sheep are grazing (adjacent to Hidden Falls Regional Park here in Auburn) - seems our sheep were out!  I collected my three border collies and headed out to take care of the problem.

As I was bringing our sheep back to their paddock, I noticed that the lamb I'd marked earlier this morning was missing - much to his mother's dismay (she kept calling for him).  I also discovered 3 places where the fence had come down.  One was minor, but the other two sections involved a substantial amount of fence - like the sheep had been chased through them.  Since I was planning to be gone in Rio Vista for the next two days, I decided it might be smart to move the sheep to fresh pasture today (I assumed that they were tired of the rapidly-maturing ripgut brome in their current paddock).  I talked this over with the landowner and we both decided that this would be the best option.

After a quick trip to my UCCE office, I returned to the sheep and started building fence.  I also looked for the missing lamb - without success.  After I built a holding pen for the sheep, the dogs and I moved the entire flock down the hill.  During the move, I noticed a ewe with blood on her haunch.  I caught her to examine her more carefully, and discovered that she'd been bitten on the rear leg and on the neck - typical of a dog attack.  I found one additional ewe who seemed to have blood on her neck.

Now I have no idea what happened.  The sheep could have decided that they were tired of the feed in their current paddock and broken out - at which time a dog (or a coyote) attacked.  Alternatively, a dog could have entered the paddock, discovered how much fun it was to chase sheep, and attacked the ewe.  Regardless, the entire episode left me feeling very depressed.

My job as a shepherd, ultimately, is to care for my sheep.  I've written previously about our desire to be "predator-friendly" - I get a thrill out of seeing coyotes and mountain lions.  That said, the thrill disappears rapidly when my sheep are harmed.  As I said, there's no way to figure out what attacked my sheep - I'm just saddened by the loss of the lamb and by the potential loss of a ewe.  It feels like a failure on my part.

Here's to better days the rest of this week!


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Drought Update - April 10, 2014

Yesterday afternoon, I helped our local farm advisors, Roger Ingram and Cindy Fake, install matrix blocks in an irrigated pasture that we graze here in Auburn.  The matrix blocks allow us to track soil moisture - and to time our irrigation accordingly.  Ultimately, this should help us use our water more efficiently - we'll only irrigate when the grass needs water.
Cindy Fake installing matrix blocks in our pasture.

As they dug a hole with a soil auger (we went down 18 inches), both Roger and Cindy remarked about how dry the soil profile was - especially considering the rainfall we'd had last week.  Roger said that the soil conditions were more like mid-May than early April.  I suspect that even with the rain we've had since late January, our soils were so dry that we've just never caught up.

The condition of our annual rangeland pastures supports this hypothesis.  We try to balance supply (grass) with demand (the number of sheep we have grazing).  We express supply in terms of sheep days per acre - that is, how many sheep can graze for one day on one acre.  Typically, by early April, we expect to get 150-200 sheep days per acre (which means our 150 ewes should be able to stay 3 days on a 3-acre paddock).  Some of the pastures we've grazed in the last two weeks have only had 50-60 sheep days per acre - and we even grazed one paddock last week that had 25 sheep days per acre - the 2 acre paddock lasted 12 hours!

I realized today that looking at our rangelands at a landscape level can be deceptive.  Looking across the hillside at our grazing sheep, it looks like we have plentiful green grass.  Looking straight down, however, I begin to see bare ground and stunted plants.  I expect the pasture I moved the ewes into this morning (about 3 acres) will last about a day and a half - in other words, it's about 75 sheep days per acre.

We're fortunate to be able to move our sheep to grass.  We have the advantage of having the management and stockmanship skills - and portable fencing systems - that allow us to take advantage of pastures that other producers can't graze.  Even so, I'm still worried about the fall.  The pasture in these photos has been rested for 48 days - normally enough to grow a substantial amount of grass this time of year.  The fact that much of this grass has regrown less than 6 inches is worrisome.




The landscape view - looking across a new hillside paddock.





Looking down - my hat gives this photo some proportion.  The grass is short!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Back to Basics - Lessons from a Fellow Former Direct Marketer

I recently read an article by Colorado rancher Richard Parry, published in the April issue of The Stockman GrassFarmer.  Mr. Parry has been direct-marketing his grassfed lamb for a few years longer than we have - I believe he has around 700 ewes that graze on his 1100 acres near Ingatio, Colorado (in the southwestern part of the state).  He starts out by saying:

"Over the last several years, I've become convinced that being stuck in the middle scale-wise is incredibly challenging.  While I've written about this struggle numerous times, I've never written as concisely or as eloquently as Mr. Parry.  "You are," he says, "somewhere between a real business and a self employed Mom and Pop operation.  There is never enough money or enough time."  By contrast, small operations subsidize their living expenses with off-farm jobs. "You believe in the benefit of what you are doing," he writes. "Because of your belief system, it is worth it....  You have little time and money to spare, but you persevere."

Parry talks about reassessing his farm's assets - his "unfair advantage."  In his case, his family decided that it was the fact that they owned "1100 acres of verdant green irrigated pastures that [are] one of a kind in our dry southwest climate."  While their livestock operation is going back to a commercial (as opposed to direct-market) approach, the Parry's are "selling the view" - developing agricultural tourism enterprises to compliment commercial sheep and cattle production.

Given our own struggles to come to terms with the challenges of scale, I can imagine that Mr. Parry and his family also resisted the decision to shut down the direct marketing part of their operation.  However, his article ends on a positive note.  "Fox Fire Farms still has all the livestock.... What has changed is that it is back to low cost, commercial production."  Partly because of our ongoing drought, we're headed in the same direction this year - we don't anticipate direct marketing any meat from this year's lamb crop.  Parry concludes, "A correctly structured commercial livestock enterprise has a lot going for it, not the least of which is time for life's other priorities."  I find this statement especially encouraging as I head out to check sheep before driving to town to watch my oldest daughter's varsity soccer match.

In some ways, the changes at Flying Mule Farm have been forced on us - by the dry winter and by the economic realities of mid-scale livestock production.  These last several years have been stressful, as regular readers of this blog will no doubt acknowledge.  Mr. Parry's article has helped me realize that we haven't been alone in this struggle.  His ability to make positive changes to his operation that allow him and his family to make "time for life's other priorities" is incredibly reassuring and liberating.

Over the coming weeks, I plan to share some of our thought processes regarding our own "unfair" advantages and what they mean for the future of our business.  I hope my handful of readers will weigh in with their own insights and experiences!  Thanks to Richard Parry for stating the obvious: "Everyone does not have to be a direct marketer of meats."

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Three Dog Day

While California's drought persists, today we were able to move our sheep back to the paddock we first grazed when we moved them back to Auburn on Valentine's Day.  This paddock has been rested since February 17 (48 days) - a longer recover period than we would expect this time of year.  Even with the rainfall we had in March and early April, the grass isn't growing like normal.  That said, the forage in this paddock looks pretty good - and the sheep agree!


Lambing is winding down - we have 10-15 ewes left to lamb, I think.  Most of the lambs are beginning to understand "the system" - that is, they're figuring out that they need to stay with the group when the border collies "ask" them to move.  Our move back to this first paddock involved moving the flock out of the old paddock and onto Blue Oak Ranch Road.  We had to walk about 150 yards down the road into the new paddock.

The sheep were ready to move - we'd probably left them in the old paddock for about 12 hours too long (primarily because I had to be out of town Saturday and part of Sunday) - so they were anxious to get to fresh feed.  Consequently, they were ready to run when we opened the fence!  Rosie, our livestock guardian dog, loves to explore when we move the flock - and the sheep love to follow her.  Thankfully, I had all three border collies (Taff, Mo and Ernie) - and my assistant shepherd, Emma!

Ernie is finally at a point where I can use him for specific jobs when we're doing a move like today's.  This means that I can trust him to make reasonably good decisions about where he needs to be, and he listens well enough to take direction (or to quit working when that's called for).  As the youngest dog in our bunch, he's easily the most energetic, too - which was a plus today as well!

When the sheep came out of the old paddock today, they followed Rosie up a neighbor's driveway.  I was able to send Ernie on a flank that required him to jump the fence - he got to the heads of the lead sheep and turned them back down towards the road.  As the main flock took off down the road, Ernie and Taff (with help from Emma) made sure the lambs followed their mothers.  Ernie (with a command from me) brought the sheep back into a bunch.  As we walked towards the new paddock, about half of the flock went past the opening I'd made in the fence.  I was able to call Ernie to me (through the sheep) and send him on a flank to turn the sheep that had gone too far.  The whole move took less than 10 minutes, thanks to the dogs!

Most jobs only require one dog, I find - but it's sure nice to have 3 reliable dogs when the work requires it! Since this was the warmest day of our spring so far, the boys were quite happy to have Emma cool them down with a garden hose when their work was done!  Later, as we went to retrieve more fence from the old paddock, they lolled in the water troughs.  As I write this, they're napping the shade.  Thanks, guys!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Almost Done - Recapping our 2014 Lambing Season

As we head into April, the Flying Mule Farm ewe flock is nearly done delivering this year's lambs.  Thanks to the ongoing drought, this year's lambing season has been interesting in several ways.  In this brief post, I'll try to summarize our successes - and the things we need to work on for next year.

First, we moved our sheep to McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista for our breeding season.  We didn't want to turn the rams in prior to hauling our ewes to their new home, so our breeding season started about a week later than normal (which meant lambing was also a week later than normal).  The dry conditions last fall (both in Auburn and in Rio Vista) meant that we were feeding hay during breeding rather than running the ewes on old irrigated pasture and newly germinated dryland pasture. We are now seeing that the combination of stressors on our ewes during breeding translated to fewer lambs this spring.  Our lambing percentage is running 10-15 percent lower than normal.

With the extended dry period in Northern California from early December through the end of January, we found that we were continuing to feed hay to our sheep after we pulled the rams out of the flock.  The lack of grass in Rio Vista (for our sheep, but more importantly, for the McCormack sheep) meant that we needed to move our sheep off of McCormack Ranch (to reduce the forage demand).  In late January, we sold approximately 20 ewe lambs and unthrifty older ewes.  In mid February, we hauled all of our ewes back to Auburn to graze pastures that had been rested for 2 years.    I was a bit nervous about hauling our sheep so close to lambing, but we didn't experience any ill effects.  The sheep were happy to be grazing again, too!

While we had a few early lambs (we exposed the ewes owned by our daughters to the rams earlier than the rest of the flock) we started lambing in earnest around March 1.  We use a teaser (or vasectomized) ram to synchronize the estrus cycles of our ewes prior to breeding - this concentrates the lambing period.  This year, about 85 percent of the ewes were bred within the first 17 days (which means 85 percent of them delivered their lambs by March 17).  Synchronization helps concentrate our labor demands during lambing.  We usually have a bit higher concentration - which makes me think that shipping the ewes just prior to breeding may have had impact on synchronization, too.

For the last five years (at least), we've utilized the EZ-Care scoring system developed in Great Britain for evaluating and retaining ewes that can lamb on pasture without assistance.  In this system, each ewe is evaluated on three criteria (lambing ease, mothering ability and lamb vigor).  We want ewes that can lamb without assistance on pasture, that will stay with and protect all of their lambs, and that produce enough milk to raise healthy and vigorous lambs.  Having to pull lambs in a pasture system can problematic.  Ewes that can't count or that leave their lambs require us to hand-raise lambs (which is much more labor intensive and costly).  Ewes that can't convert grass to milk efficiently raise smaller (and less profitable) lambs.  We have consistently sold ewes that don't measure up in these three criteria - and we've also been diligent about not retaining the daughters of ewes that don't measure up.  Each year we've used this system, lambing has become easier to manage - we've developed a ewe flock with the genetic predisposition for being good mothers.

McCormack Sheep and Grain is in the process of implementing a similar system, so I had an opportunity to contrast the genetics and behavior of our flock at lambing with a much larger group of ewes that have never been selected for mothering ability.  While both groups of ewes had very few lambing problems or lamb vigor issues (I didn't keep track, but I suspect we assisted similar percentages of ewes with delivering their lambs), I noted substantial differences in mothering ability.  Most of our ewes stay with their lambs even while we're processing the lambs (which involves ear-tagging, paint-marking, docking and castrating - all at a day of age).  This may be in part because our smaller flock is handled more frequently - we're moving sheep every few days, so they're more comfortable with human contact.  Based on my experiences this year, however, I think consistently selecting for ewes that can perform well in the three criteria I've described is a huge labor (and lamb) saver.

One of the key management principles we try to apply to our sheep operation is to match our period of highest forage demand with the grass cycle.  In our annual rangelands (that is, pastures that are not irrigated but that rely on rainfall for growth), we generally have the highest quality and greatest quantity of forage in March and early April.  Our ewes experience their greatest forage demand in the month before lambing (during the last trimester of fetal development) and during the 6 weeks after lambing (while they are nursing their lambs).  While our current drought has created substantial challenges in terms of forage production (we're seeing much less grass, and it seems to be maturing much earlier than normal), the relatively mild weather during lambing has been beneficial.  Stormy weather, especially cold rainstorms accompanied by wind, can cause hypothermia in our lambs.  We typically manage this risk by putting the flock in pastures with natural shelter (either topographic shelter or vegetation like trees or shrubs).  In the nearly 5 weeks that we've been lambing this year, we've had just three storm events - and we've only lost one lamb to hypothermia.  In this case, it was a lamb whose mother forgot she'd had twins.  Based on the criteria described in the preceding paragraph, we'll sell this ewe after we wean her surviving lamb.

Looking ahead this year, we're planning to shear the ewes about 10 days earlier than normal.  This will allow us to assess the quality of forage available and the amount of irrigated pasture we can access.  If forage quality looks good, we'll leave the lambs with the ewes for another 2-3 weeks.  If quality has declined, we'll consider weaning the lambs while they are home for shearing - this would be about 5 weeks earlier than normal.  We'll also sort off and sell any ewes that didn't get bred or that lost lambs - which will allow us to save our limited forage resources for our more productive animals.  When we do our final weaning, we'll also sell any ewes that didn't measure up in our EZ-Care system.  I expect we'll go into the summer months with 10-15 percent fewer sheep than we have now.  While we'll keep a few replacement ewe lambs this year, we'll save most of our summer irrigated pasture for flushing (that is, preparing the ewes for breeding by improving their nutritional intake before turning in the rams).  While this means we won't be selling grass-fed lamb at our local farmers' market, I suspect it will increase our profitability by lowering costs and increasing our lambing percentage next year.

In the meantime, we're waiting for the last of the ewes to lamb - and we're enjoying watching the older lambs cavort in our pastures.  Nothing says springtime (even in a dry year like this) like frolicking lambs!