Monday, June 30, 2014

Getting Paid to Graze?! Darn Right!

We've provided vegetation management services using targeted grazing for a number of years.  Every year, I receive calls from landowners who are interested in using sheep or goats to solve their fuel loading problems.  Invariably, several potential customers will say something along the lines of, "I've got all this grass [brush, weeds, etc.] - you'd get free feed for your sheep [goats]!"

We charge for this service for a variety of reasons.  One of the major reasons we charge is that a great deal of planning goes into the short period of time we're on a specific property.  I've got to plan the transportation and set-up before the animals arrive.  Perhaps more importantly, I have to make sure the animals have a place to go once they've finished the project.

This week, I was reminded about several other reasons for charging for this service.  We're currently grazing on a site that has no fences - including along about a half-mile of county road - which means we're building thousands of feet of electric fence each week.  The site also doesn't have water, which means we're hauling water to the sheep.  And we're grazing in rough, brushy terrain, which means we're at greater risk for predation.  Last week, we built fence through blackberries and poison oak - always a fun job, but especially enjoyable in hot weather!  This week, we had a ewe that appears to have been bitten by a rattlesnake.

In other words, "free" feed is rarely worth what you pay for it!
The ewes like grazing on blackberries, but it's not much fun building fence through it!

I'm pretty sure this ewe was bitten on her foot by a rattlesnake.
I treated her with antibiotics and dexamethazone today.
She should recover, but we'll keep an eye on her.

The snakebit ewe heading off through the poison oak - this is also nice for fence building!  Fortunately, I'm
reasonably immune to poison oak!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Gear Review - Footwear for Farmers

For me, like most farmers and ranchers, function is more important than form when it comes to fashion.  I need clothes that are durable and comfortable.  While I often choose the least expensive option when it comes to pants and shirts, I never skimp on footwear!  I’d rather pay more for durable boots that can be rebuilt than pay less for boots that will wear out in 6 months and need to be thrown away!

The first rule for comfortable feet, at least for me, is to wear comfortable socks.  I’ve tried synthetics, but I always come back to wool (perhaps it’s because I’m a sheep rancher).  Wool has some amazing properties that synthetic materials just can’t match.  Wool is moisture-wicking and breathable, making wool socks comfortable year round.  Wool can also absorb up to 30 percent of its weight in water and retain its insulating properties.  Finally, wool has natural antibacterial properties – not that smelly feet is ever a problem for a farmer!

I’ve tried a number of different brands of wool socks.  SmartWool socks, from New Zealand, are outstanding, as are US-made Wigwam socks (which use US wool!).  Cabela’s has its own brand, which are very similar to SmartWool (and usually a bit cheaper).  This year, I bought a pair of Darn Tough socks made by the Vermont Sock Company.  They are more expensive (about $22 for the pair I bought), but they are made with US wool – and they come with a lifetime guarantee!  If they wear out, Vermont Sock Company will send me a new pair – I even read the fine print and could not find a sheepherder exemption to the guarantee!

As for boots, I look at the type of work I need to accomplish and purchase them accordingly.  When I’m working sheep in the corrals or working on flat ground, I like a pull-on boot with a low heel and a fairly non-aggressive tread design (non-aggressive tread makes it easier to scrape the sheep manure from my boots when I get home, which my family greatly appreciates).  When I’m cutting firewood or building fence on steep, rugged ground, I need something that will provide better traction and ankle stability.

I also prefer boots that can be repaired by a cobbler.  Boots with a sewn-on sole can be re-soled; boots with a molded or glued-on sole can’t be.  Even better, I like a boot with an upper that can be repaired or rebuilt as it wears out.  Finally, I prefer a boot that isn’t lined – or treated with a synthetic waterproofing (like GoreTex).  I find that well-oiled leather boots with wool socks work in most conditions.  When it’s really wet, I’ll switch to rubber boots!
Drew's Linecutters (L), Redwing Pecos (M) and White's Ranch Packers (R) - all freshly oiled!

For an off-the-shelf, American-made boot, I like Redwings.  I have a pair of pull-on, smooth-soled Redwings that I use for sheep work and everyday wear.  The soles can be replaced, and the uppers are unlined.  My only complaint is that they have a cloth lining in the lower part of the boot.  I also have a pair of lace-up logging boots that I found on the clearance rack at our local boot store.  They don’t fit quite as well (I usually wear a 7-1/2 or 8 B, and these are a little wide), but they’re comfortable and durable.  As a lace-up, they give me more stability, and the Vibram soles give me better traction than my pull-ons.

Because I have a small, narrow foot, I can’t always find off-the-shelf boots.  I’ve tried two hand-made brands and like them about equally.  I have a pair of White’s ranch-packers, an 8-inch lace-up boot with a high arch and a mini-Vibram sole (which cleans easier than a full Vibram sole).  I also have a pair of custom-made Drew’s firefighter boots.  Because these boots were made to my measurements, they are probably the most comfortable boot I’ve ever owned.  They have high arches and full Vibram soles – they are my first choice when I’m working in steep, rugged country.  I’ve had both of these pairs of boots re-soled, and I’ve had the White’s rebuilt once (Drew’s Boots in Klamath Falls will re-build a pair of boots at about 1/3 to ½ of the cost of a new pair of boots).

Not every brand of boot I’ve tried has been satisfactory.  I have a pair of US-made Thorogood pull-on boots that wore out after 4 months.  I tried Wolverine boots several years ago, but was disappointed when the lower liner disintegrated.  I’ve had Justin boots in the past, but they recently stopped making work boots in narrow widths at my size.

Finally, I’ve found that keeping my boots clean and well-oiled is critical to their comfort and longevity.  I use saddle soap to clean them, and I useNor-V-Gen Shoe Paste or Obenauf’s Heavy Duty LP boot oil to keep the leather in good condition.  Looking on the Obenauf’s website, I think I’ll try their waterproofing next winter, too!

As a shepherd, I’m on my feet quite a bit.  Several years ago, I used a pedometer to track how much walking was required to build a 2-acre paddock using electric fence – I ended up walking more than 1.5 miles!  Spending a little extra on comfortable and durable footwear makes days like this much more enjoyable!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Of Wolves and Hard Work

Note: On Saturday, June 14, 2014, the Sacramento Bee published an op-ed piece entitled "Hard work remains to keep California's wolves safe" (to read the article, click here). While I'm certain that the Bee's readership is not universal in its support of the listing of the wolf as endangered by the California Fish and Game Commission, the paper has yet to run any alternative viewpoints. I submitted the following essay for consideration last week (and the Bee has decided, apparently, not to publish it). Obviously, this is a complicated issue - I hope others will offer their own perspectives!  

As a rancher and lifelong resident of the Sierra foothills, I read Amroq Weiss’ piece (“Hard work remains to keep California’s wolves safe,” June 14, 2014) with interest. Like Ms. Weiss, I'm always thrilled to see wildlife - including the large predators (coyotes, black bears and mountain lions) in our environment.  I use the word "our" here purposely.  As a sheep rancher, I live in and rely upon the same wild landscapes that these predators call home.  And while I'll admit that I would be thrilled to see a wolf in the wild, I have a different perspective than Ms. Weiss on the hard work involved in co-existing with these predators.

My family operates a small-scale commercial sheep operation in the foothills near Auburn.  We produce grass-fed lamb and provide vegetation management services using sheep and goats for a variety of clients.  We've made a commitment to coexisting with predators.  By utilizing livestock guardian dogs and electric fencing, we have minimized conflicts.  We've seen black bears near our sheep, as well as evidence of mountain lions.  We've also had eagles and owls try to take lambs during our spring lambing season.  The biggest threat to our sheep, frankly, are neighbor dogs that are allowed to run free.

Wolves are a different matter entirely.  The thrill of seeing a wolf, for me, would be tempered by my concern for the safety of my animals.  I know sheep producers in the Rockies who have had livestock guardian dogs killed by wolves - coyotes and mountain lions generally won't attack a guardian dog.  I know other producers who have lost mature cows to wolves.  My commitment as a shepherd is to the well-being and safety of my flock; the sight of a dead lamb (or even worse, a lamb that has been attacked but is not yet dead) is indescribably devastating.

Ms. Weiss suggests that the cattle and sheep "industries" seem to have more political clout than California's 38 million human residents when it comes to wolves.  Looking at the issue from my perspective, I find it challenging to raise livestock in a state that is increasingly abandoning its rural roots.  Land use, conservation and water policies are set by our urban neighbors and their elected representatives, with little regard for the impacts on those of us in rural communities. We must live with the implications of these policies - while producing food and fiber.  And this brings me to the topic of hard work.

In her article, Ms. Weiss indicates that wolf predation on livestock in Oregon has declined because of simple techniques like "monitoring cattle herds on horseback and quickly removing livestock carcasses."  The economics of ranching (whether we raise sheep or cattle) are challenging - increased labor squeezes already thin profit margins.  While I don't discount the "hard" work of advocating for wildlife, quickly removing a 1,200 pound cow carcass that is 10 miles from the nearest gravel road is difficult work in the truest sense of the words.

Furthermore, wolves will change the human relationships around ranching and rangeland conservation in California.  In the last 10 years, we've made tremendous strides in finding common ground between environmentalists and ranchers.  The California Rangeland Conservation Coalition (, for example, is a collection of ranching, agency and environmental organizations that are committed to protecting and enhancing habitat by maintaining viable ranches on these lands.  In other states, wolves have proven to be a polarizing force politically.  I hope we have time to strengthen our relationships over the management of rangelands before for we must deal with the arrival of wolves in California.  I hope we can continue to build partnerships that lead to voluntary conservation measures. Unfortunately, the listing of the wolf as a state endangered species (which may or may not actually aid in its recovery as a species), puts this hard work and collaboration at risk.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Do we have the food system we deserve?

I heard a story on National Public Radio last night about large scale farming.  Based on the 2012 Census of Agriculture, NPR reported, just 4 percent of U.S. farms produce 67 percent of our food.  The story focused on one large family farm in Kansas that has expanded by purchasing the farms of neighbors - to the point where they now grow more than 16,000 acres of sorghum, corn, soybeans and wheat.  Expansion, at least for this farm, was driven by the need to increase their economies of scale - to produce more food at a lower cost.  The remainder of the story focused on the impacts that this consolidation has had on rural towns throughout the Midwest.

I was interested in what was not said in the story.  Americans, I think, want cheap food produced on small family farms.  We spend the lowest percentage of our income on food of any nation on the planet - and we like it that way!  We also have a vision of what farming should be like - Jefferson's yeoman farmer (and his family) is still the ideal for many of us.  What we don't fully appreciate, however, is the disconnect between these two priorities.

In my own experience as a sheep rancher who has sold lamb at farmers' markets, I've seen this disconnect first hand.  I've had potential customers examine a package of my lamb chops and tell me, "Wow - this is a lot more expensive than the lamb I can buy at Costco."  At the same time, I've had customers imply that my ranch is larger than their ideal vision of a family farm.  They'll say, "Wow - I didn't know you had that many sheep (200 +/-)! I thought you were a small farm!"  In some ways, I wonder if folks consider food such a basic necessity that they take for granted someone should want to (or need to) make a living growing it.

As I think through this issue further, I think most of us simply desire cheap food.  We want choices when we go to the grocery store, and we want these choices to have minimal impact on our wallets. While we say we want an food system based on local, family-owned small farms, we vote with our pocket books for cheap food almost every time (I'm guilty of this, too).  Cheap food requires us to adopt policies and practices that maximize the economies of scale and production efficiencies - in other words, policies and practices that favor large scale production.  Perhaps we have the food system we deserve!

Here's an interesting discussion of other aspects of cheap food:

Friday, June 13, 2014

Drought Update - Marketing our Lambs 2014

As I've written previously, one of the consequences of the drought is a change in how we market our lambs.  In the past, we've tried to market most of our lambs as meat, directly to our customers.  We sold lamb at farmers' markets, to restaurants, and directly to our customers.  This year, we won't be at the farmers' market at all.  We are finishing a handful of lambs (mostly for our own freezer and the freezers of our family), but most of our lambs will be marketed within a month of weaning (that is to say, by next weekend).

Part of this shift in our marketing strategy is a direct result of the lack of precipitation over the last three years.  Good irrigated pasture is difficult to find, and so we're not able to finish as many lambs on grass.  Some grass-fed producers have decided to grain-finish their animals this year - and they've told their customers about their plans.  We've decided to stay true to our 100% grass-fed system, so a lack of summer grass impacts our production.

Most of the shift in strategy, however, is indrectly related to the drought.  Because I've taken an off-farm job (which as of this week requires 32 hours of my time each week), I have less time for our ranching business.  A typical work day during the summer looks like this:

  • 6:45 a.m. - leave the house, check on ewes (at one location) and lambs (at another location).  Feed guard dogs.  Move irrigation water.
  • 7:45 a.m. - return home, drop off border collies, change clothes if necessary, and head to work.
  • 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. - work at the UC Cooperative Extension office in Auburn.  Hopefully we have no problems with sheep during the day!
  • 5 p.m. - check sheep, move water if necessary, and hopefully return home by 7 p.m.
I usually have one day off each week, which I reserve for building fence, moving sheep, and other tasks that take longer than the couple of hours of daylight I have available after work.

With days like this, I find that I simply don't have the energy or the time to be at the farmers' market on Saturdays.  I'll admit that I'm probably a little burnt out on the market - while I love the interaction with my customers, I miss spending time with my family on Saturdays.  I've decided that I want to be at soccer games, horse shows and fishing trips while my girls are still at home.

We're still selling some of our lambs locally.  Over the last 2 weeks, we've marketed 30 lambs to folks in Placer and Nevada Counties who what to raise their own lambs.  Today, Emma and I took 35 lambs to the Escalon Livestock Market (our closest livestock auction that sells sheep).  Next week, we'll sell 40-45 lambs to Superior Farms in Dixon.  And for the rest of the Saturdays this year, I'll be a sheep rancher, a soccer fan, a fisherman, a dad - and a farmers' market customer!


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Prepared - I hope!

Last week, we started marketing our feeder lambs.  One of our buyers, Jim Bierwagen, is a fellow farmer - the Bierwagen family has farmed in Chicago Park for well over 100 years.  Jim is also a firefighter, and a brief moment during his visit to our ranch reminded me of a common trait among those of us who work outdoors in wildfire country.  As we were making small talk, a twin-engine plane flew over (our ranch is in the take-off pattern for the Auburn airport).  We both glanced up, realized it wasn't a fire plan, and continued our conversation.

That brief glance speaks to our mutual awareness that we live with the threat of wildlfire.  I always watch for fire planes during the summer and autumn months.  Low flying planes are especially worrisome - the lower the altitude, the closer the fire.  When I see planes circling, I start looking for a column of smoke to help me narrow down the location of the fire.  Those of us who graze livestock in our fire-prone foothills have a pretty good sense of who might be threatened when we see smoke or planes flying - and we call each other to make sure everything (and everybody) is safe.

For our own operation, I take several precautions.  First, I carry a 5-gallon backpack pump and a McLeod (a fire hoe) with me at all times during the fire season.  Second, I try to prepare a plan for evacuating my sheep if a fire should occur nearby.  My greatest fear is that we'd have a fire that move more quickly than we could evacuate - our current flock of ewes takes four trailer loads to move.  Since there is always a possibility that we couldn't load and move this many sheep quickly enough, my evacuation plans generally include the identification of a safe zone where we could herd the sheep out of harms way.  Finally, we watch the weather (as we do all year long).  High temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions make me especially vigilant.

There are also things I don't do during fire season.  I don't use my lawnmower in dry grass after about 9 a.m. (and not at all if the humidity is low and/or the wind is blowing).  Even though I drive a diesel truck (without a catalytic converter, a diesel's exhaust system doesn't produce as much heat as a gasoline engine), I don't drive over dry vegetation, either.

Finally, I stay tuned in to local information sources.  While we have several local radio stations that do a pretty good job of reporting local fires, I've found that is the most accurate and fastest source of fire information.  Now that I carry a smart phone, I can access yubanet anywhere I have cell service, which is great.

The morning after Jim picked up his lambs, I was again at the ranch - and noticed a column of smoke to the west.  My friend Betty Samson owns the ranch just to the west of the ranch we lease, and another friend runs cows on Betty's place.  A couple of quick phone calls, and we determined that the fire was close enough to get our attention, but that it wasn't on Betty's ranch.  Thankfully, CalFire jumped on it quickly and held to a couple of acres.  I having a feeling, though, that it will be a long and dangerous summer.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Emergency?! Not in the District of Columbia!

Last winter, during the midst of our 50-something-day dry spell, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a variety of assistance programs designed to help California farmers and ranchers cope with the drought.  Some of these programs helped ranchers access water for livestock; others reimbursed ranchers for emergency feed purchases or hauling costs.  The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offered emergency Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding to help farmers and ranchers improve irrigation efficiency and implement managed grazing.

The irrigation system at our main leased property consists of portable 2-inch aluminum pipe and rainbird sprinklers.  It's not terribly efficient, especially with our hilly terrain.  We applied for emergency EQIP funding to cover half of the cost of upgrading our irrigation system.  In addition, since we've been using managed grazing systems (which involves timing our grazing and rest periods to maintain a healthy pasture and environment), we also applied for cost share funding to offset the cost of our additional fencing and labor.  NRCS set a deadline of March 6 for submitting applications - the idea was to get funding "on the ground" to help farmers and ranchers get through this year's drought - or so I thought.

In April, I toured the ranch with our local NRCS district conservationist.  He indicated that he thought the project looked good - and that we'd have to wait to see where we ranked relative to producers in the rest of the state.  He was hopeful that we'd know something in May.

While all of this was happening, Congress finally passed a new Farm Bill, which updated (and changed) all of USDA's programs - including (apparently) the emergency drought programs.  Nobody at the local level knows when they'll be able to start ranking projects and getting money on the ground.  I've heard it may be November before the folks in Washington DC get it figured out.  Apparently that's as fast as they can act in an emergency situation.  Frustrating to say the least!