Thursday, September 25, 2014

Wearing out my Raingear

The work of a shepherd is hard on work clothes, I've decided.  Most of my hats are sweat- and dust-stained.  The collars of my workshirts are generally stained (if not worn through).  My jeans feature holes where the 12-volt fence batteries touch them when I'm carrying them.  As much as I try to keep my work boots oiled, they're usually dusty and worn.  And my coats - I can usually only get 3-4 years out of a Carhartt canvas jacket - and same generally goes for my raingear.  If there's any silver lining to this drought, I guess, it might the fact that I'll be able to get another year out of my Carhartt rainsuit - hardly used it at all last year!  I hope I wear the sucker out this winter!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Planting Trial

Beginning on July 11, we started irrigating about 2-1/2 acres of hillside pasture in anticipation of having green grass in September (now!) for flushing the ewes (flushing is the process of putting ewes on an improving plane of nutrition just prior to breeding).  The pasture we irrigated had not been planted, so we waited until the annual grasses and forbs that grew in the spring of 2014 had matured, set seed, and died.  Our irrigation caused new plants to germinate (mimicking the germinating rains of autumn).  The pasture grew a variety of annual grasses, clovers and forbs (like filaree), as well as yellow starthistle, bull thistle and common cocklebur.  Last Friday morning, I moved the ewes onto this pasture.

This morning, in the eerie light cast by smoke from the King Fire, Roger Ingram and I planted a variety of grass seed as a trial for planting pastures without heavy equipment.  We broadcast the seed with the sheep still grazing the pasture.  We'll leave them in for another 2-3 days, and we'll feed hay on top of the starthistle and other undesirable plants.  Finally, before we move the ewes into the next paddock, I'll use the border collies to maximize herd effect - we'll trample as much of the remaining vegetation as possible to get as many seeds in contact with the soil as possible.  After I move the sheep, I'll resume irrigating the paddock (and hope for rain).

We planted a variety of seeds, including several types of annual ryegrass, several varieties of forage triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye), and intermediate wheatgrass (a perennial that typically favors a slightly higher elevation but which does grow on other parts of the ranch).  My hope is to prove that we can plant these seeds using animal impact, and that we can grow them with limited irrigation in the late summer and early fall.  If it works, this may become part of our drought strategy!
Reno loves to help with seeding projects!

We used a "belly-grinder" seeder.

Lovely air quality this morning!

Rosie supervised the entire project.

 I'll be taking photos and monitoring our progress.  In the meantime, enjoy these photographs from another smoky morning in Auburn!

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Different Feeling this Fall

As we approach this year's autumnal equinox (next Monday), the weather is finally starting to turn a bit.  The shorter days, and the location of the sun when it clears the horizon, give the mornings a different feel.  I always look forward to fall, but it feels different to me this year.  I moved the breeding ewes onto another property this morning (with the help of a border collie, of course).  This morning I realized that the anxiety of facing another possible dry winter, and the pall cast by smoke from the nearby King Fire, has weighed heavily on my mind.

A summer dry spell is typical for our part of California.  We usually enjoy our last rainfall in May or early June - and then irrigate our way through the summer months.  Summers are often dry and dusty - at least where we're not irrigating.  Our summer water turns off on October 15 (and we're thankful in a dry year like this one to make it clear to the end of the season) - and we hope for significant rain before the end of October.  For our sheep pastures, we need about an inch of rainfall before new grass will germinate.  If we can get that precipitation before the days are too short and the soil is too cold, we can grow enough grass to get us through the winter.

I enjoy the onset of fall because the work I do starts to change.  We turn the rams in with the ewes on October 1, an event I always look forward to - it feels like the start of a new year (and an act of optimism).  I also look forward to the end of irrigation season - I enjoy having one less thing to do each day, 7 days a week.  Finally, I look forward to the first morning when my family asks me to start a fire in the wood stove - then I know the seasons have truly changed.

Part of what makes this fall seem different is my memory of last fall and winter.  While it's probably no dustier than normal, I find myself anxious about when we'll get enough rain to wash the dust off of everything.  I look at the weather forecast and find myself more skeptical about the chance of rain that sometimes appears on the horizon.  The realization that we're entering the most dangerous stretch of our fire season - and the smoky skies we're experiencing - adds to my anxiety.  The crunch of dry grass under my feet this morning as I moved sheep made the land feel crispy and desiccated.  The black oaks on the margins of our irrigated pastures, and the blue oaks on our winter rangeland, look stressed - they've started dropping leaves earlier than normal.  I've yet to hear the sandhill cranes overhead - their migration is another milestone that marks the transition from summer to fall.

Uncertainty is part of farming and ranching - part of the risk that we accept when we take on Mother Nature as a partner.  Sometimes we need a not-so-gentle reminder that we're not in total control - last year's winter was just such a reminder for me.  My job is to plan - plan to take advantage of the good times and to survive the bad times.  I like the idiom, "Make hay while the sun is shining."  I just hope it doesn't shine all winter again.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

King Fire Farmer/Rancher Fundraiser

As you probably know if you live in Northern California, the King Fire (which started near Pollock Pines) blew up yesterday.  The fire grew from around 18,000 acres on Tuesday night to over 70,000 acres as of this morning.  Yesterday afternoon and evening, the fire burned past Stumpy Meadows Reservoir and clear to Hell Hole Reservoir in Placer County.

The long term impact of the fire remains to be seen.  It will almost certainly impact water supplies and watershed values for years to come.  In the short term, it has had devastating impacts on farmers and ranchers.  In a year already short on grass, some ranchers have lost their summer forage to the fire - and I'm sure some have lost livestock, too.  Others have been impacted by smoke and by evacuations.  In short, it's been a scary week.

We want to do a small part in helping folks get through this disaster.  Flying Mule Farm is teaming up with Vassar Ranch and North Valley Farms Che'vre to donate the following:

  • A grass-fed lamb (cut-and-wrapped) - approximately 30 lbs of meat
  • A 50 lb variety box of grass-fed beef
  • A sampler of wonderful goat cheeses
The meat will be available for delivery in October.  The cheese will be shipped to the winning bidder.

You can bid on these items on our Facebook page - go to and enter your bid as a comment to my post.  And please share this with others!

Thanks for your help!

The Macon Family
Flying Mule Farm
(530) 305-3270

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Using Livestock Guardian Dogs in a Small-Scale Commercial Sheep Operation: One Ranch's Approach

Reno, an Anatolian Shepherd.

We operate a small scale (approximately 150 ewe) commercial sheep operation in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.  We've used livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) in our operation as part of our predator protection strategy since 2005.  Through trial and error - and through learning from other producers and published research - we seem to have arrived at a management system with our LGDs that has resulted in a pack of dogs that fits our system quite well.  I should add that this last statement - "fits our system" - is critical!  Our approach seems to result in dogs that work for us; our system won't likely work in every circumstance.

Overview of Flying Mule Farm

Rosie with the sheep during lambing season.
We operate a "nomadic", grass-based system - we lease or get paid to graze on approximately 400 acres of annual rangeland and 20-25 acres of irrigated pasture.  Our sheep are only at our home place for 7 days out of the year - during shearing.  Since none of our pastures are fenced, we rely on portable electric fencing to contain our sheep - more on this later.  We lamb on pasture in the late winter and early spring, weaning our lambs in early June.  The ewes run on dry rangeland pastures until late summer, when we put them on irrigated pasture in preparation for breeding.

While our sheep operation is part-time, we do treat it as a business, keeping a close eye on economics.  Our revenue sources include the sale of feeder lambs (sold at weaning), the sale of meat (lamb and mutton), the sale of wool and wool products, the sale of cull ewes and rams, and targeted grazing services.  Depending on the lamb market, our ewes generate total revenue of $20,000-25,000 annually.  Our expenses are divided into direct costs (expenses that vary directly with the number of sheep - supplemental feed, vet costs, shearing, etc.) and overhead costs (mostly land and labor costs that we incur regardless of the number of sheep).  Our dogs - LGDs and herding dogs - are an overhead expense (essentially labor).  Dog expenses include vet costs, feed costs and depreciation (that is, we budget a small amount annually towards replacing our current dogs).

Our Approach to Preventing Predatation

The main predators in our environment, in order of importance (at least in my opinion) are domestic dogs, coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, eagles and great horned owls.  This hierarchy may change if wolves come back to our part of the state - we'll cross that bridge if we come to it!  We also worry about feral pigs in some areas - not as a predation threat but as a problem for our electric fences.

We use an integrated approach for preventing predator losses.  First, our electric fences are a deterrent to most canine predators (domestic and wild) - they don't do much to stop a mountain lion, and they just piss off the black bears.  Second, we use guardian animals (singly and in combination) to convince predators to look elsewhere for a meal.

Occasionally, we'll use a guardian llama with a group of sheep.  Our current llama is an older female.  She's very alert, especially to dogs she doesn't know.  My theory is that llamas smell and look so different than any other animal our native predators have seen that they are not quite sure how to approach them.  We will typically use a llama in a situation where a barking dog might cause problems for landowners or neighbors - but we only use a llama when we're fairly certain we won't have problems with mountain lions.  Our joke is that a llama's strategy for dealing with a lion is to stand in the middle of the sheep and point out the slow ones!

The mainstay of our predator protection strategy is our LGDs.  Over the years, we've used a variety of breeds - Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Anatolian Shepherd and Maremma (and various crosses of these breeds).  While there are some behavioral differences between breeds, we've had good success with most of them.

We try to incorporate dogs into our system as if they were the large canine predator in their environment.  Rather expecting them to fight off predators, we hope that they will displace predators from our rangeland ecosystem.  I think they do this through normal canine behaviors - marking territory and protecting their "pack" (the sheep).  We've never had to shoot a predator where we've had LGDs with the sheep.  In fact, I believe that our dogs come to an "understanding" with the predators in their neighborhood - the predators know the sheep are off limits.  I would worry that killing a predator would encourage new predators (who don't understand our "system") to fill that niche.

For the most part, we find that the combination of a single dog and our electric fence is sufficient protection for the sheep.  In some situations when we've been grazing in large paddocks (>5 acres) in brushy terrain, we'll use two dogs together.  We would use more dogs if we started having a predation problem, but so far this system seems to be working.  I'll admit - this is an economic consideration for us.  A single LGD costs about $500 per year to keep.  Unless we start having a significant economic loss due to predators, I'm not inclined to increase our LGD numbers.

Socialization and Bonding with the Sheep

Over my 47 years, I've probably raised 15-20 dogs from puppy to adulthood.  Until I started raising LGDs, however, I didn't really think much about socializing puppies - I figured all dogs needed to socialize with humans extensively.  Consequently, the first two LGDs we purchased as puppies were failures as guardians - they were/are great pets, but they ultimately decided that they'd rather be with humans than with sheep.

We purchased our first LGD, Scarlet, from a rather reclusive goat rancher in eastern Yuba County.  Scarlet, an Akbash x Pyrenees cross, was approximately 6-months old when we purchased her.  We immediately put her to work with our ewes, which were grazing on leased property near Grass Valley.  Despite a few problems caused by her overly developed maternal instinct during her first lambing season, Scarlet did quite well.  Our mistake was in showing her a good deal of affection in all situations - if she got out, I tried to make coming to me a pleasant experience.  I used a soft voice and a great deal of praise to get her to come to me - which I think she eventually craved more than being with her sheep.  By the time she was 3 years old, she wouldn't stay in our electric fence - she decided she'd rather hang out in the yard of the folks who lived on the property.  We ultimately gave her to a friend in Colfax, where she's made a great pet on a large (500+ acre) property.

Fast-forward to today.  We currently use two LGDs with our sheep - Rosie and Reno.  Rosie is an Akbash x Anatolian from a litter born at our home place in 2011.  Both parents were outstanding working dogs, and Rosie has proven to be one of our best.  The litter was whelped in our barn where they could hear and smell sheep from birth.  Our interaction with the puppies was limited to giving them vaccinations, trimming their toenails, and eventually feeding them.  We tried not to overly socialize them - we wanted them to bond from an early age with their "pack" - the sheep.  From the outset, Rosie was the shyest pup in the litter.  We sold her to a large operation in the Delta, where they kept her initially with the bummer lambs in the lambing barn.  Later, when they tried to move her out into larger pastures (200-300 acre), she kept returning to the barn.  We decided to swap her for her father (who is an incredibly athletic dog).  Boise adapted to the larger rangeland environment quite well, and Rosie did equally well in our electric fencing.  She's still quite shy, but she's our most trustworthy dog (by far) in terms of staying with the sheep in all circumstances.  When we move sheep from one property to another, I can trust her to stay with the sheep while we're herding them with our border collies.  If she gets out for some reason, she'll usually lay by the fence until we arrive to let her back in.
Reno with his girls.

All of this is not to say that I will tolerate a dog that is aggressive with people.  I think there's a balance in the socialization process - our dogs need to be comfortable with people but not so attached that they'll leave our sheep.  And every dog - like every person - is different.  The training approach we used with Rosie might not have worked with Scarlet.

I've recently heard from several people who assert that a dog will only bond with livestock if he's neglected or even abused by his owner or shepherd.  That has certainly not been my experience.  Rosie, who has never been mistreated, would much prefer to be with sheep than with people. I do think it's possible to be kind to a dog without being overly affectionate.
Rosie - on one of the rare occasions in which she
wants to be petted!

Finally, I think the animal behavior principles we try to use with sheep dogs, livestock and horses also apply to LGDs.  We use a system of pressure and release from pressure to help shape behavior.  Applied correctly, a pressure-release system mimics the way that animals teach behavior norms in a pack or herd situation.  For example, a mother dog will growl at her puppies if they are doing something she doesn't want them to do.  Similarly, I'll use a gruff voice and displeased body language if I'm trying to help a dog understand that it's current behavior is undesirable.  Once the dog changes its behavior (even if the new behavior isn't exactly what I'm looking for), I'll immediately shift to a kind voice - a reward for trying something different.  We apply this to our LGDs by reserving a soft voice for the times that the dogs are behaving well - staying with stock, etc.  If a dog misbehaves - chases stock, plays with a lamb, or gets out of the paddock, for example  - I'll use a gruff voice and a hard look.  If the dog persists in the undesirable behavior and looks for approval, I'll refuse to look at it or face it.  In an extreme case, where a dog might play with a lamb to the point of injuring or killing it, I'll grab it by the ruff and pin it to the ground - just as an alpha dog might do.

LGDs in Retirement

Sometimes, Buck will hop in the truck to go see the sheep
(and his buddy, Reno)
Buck is enjoying his retirement!
We've recently retired Buck, our oldest LGD.  Buck was an outstanding lambing dog for many years - we called him Uncle Buck because he would lay in the paddock during the day and let the lambs climb on him.  Despite is calm demeanor with the sheep, he was always on guard.  I've watched at night sit beneath a tree in a pen of lambing ewes and bark at the great horned owl in the treetop until it left.  About a year ago, though, Buck started growing senile (we think he's currently 11 or 12 years old).  The first time we noticed it was when we had him at home protecting a small group of lambs.  One morning we noticed he was gone.  I drove the neighborhood looking for him without success.  I'd just given up when a neighbor who has sheep called - they live about a mile away as the crow flies, or about 2.5 miles away by road.  Buck had shown up at their place and jumped in with their sheep (their guard dog, apparently figuring it was vacation time, retired to the front porch).  Buck refused to let the neighbor's husband into the pasture to feed the sheep.  Over the next 2-3 months, Buck wandered off with increasing frequency - often forgetting where his own sheep were.  We brought him home to stay last summer.  He's still in good shape physically (good enough shape to clime a 42" fence), but he's not all there mentally.  We figure he's earned a comfortable retirement - and we hope he dies of natural causes.


One of the things I like most about raising livestock and using dogs (LGDs and herding dogs) is the constant learning.  I'm always learning new things - if I'm paying attention!  I think one of the most important things I've learned is that every dog - and every sheep - is different, as is every situation and environment.  We need dogs that are closely bonded with sheep, that are able to think for themselves, and that are comfortable without a lot of human interaction.  This type of dog doesn't fit every situation - if we lived on the property where we raise sheep, I'd need/want a different type of dog.  Similarly, not every dog will thrive in a situation like ours.  Perhaps the key to using LGDs is matching the dog to the job and vice versa.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Subtlety of Summer Drought on California Rangelands

With Labor Day and our local Gold Country Fair behind us, I find my thoughts turning to autumn.  This morning, I went through all of our mature ewes, checking them for udder problems and teeth problems, and de-worming any that seemed to have internal parasites.  We call this process "bagging and mouthing" - we check udders for hard lumps that indicate a past bout of mastitis (these lumps inhibit a ewe's ability to produce milk - and to feed her lambs).  We check the ewes' mouths to see if all of their teeth are intact - a ewe that is missing teeth is not able to graze as efficiently, which can also impact milk production.  Finally, we check the color of every ewe's third eyelid.  An eyelid that is vibrant and pink indicates that that ewe is relatively free from barberpole worms, one of the most common summer parasites in sheep.  An eyelid that is pale indicates anemia - a symptom of parasitic infection.  Those with pale eyelids are given an oral de-wormer.  We only treat the infected ewes because we don't want to make the parasites resistant to our de-wormer by overusing it (plus, it saves us money!).  After sorting off 13 ewes for hard bags, bad teeth, or poor performance during last spring's lambing season, I took the rest of the flock - next year's brood ewes - to a neighboring property with irrigated pasture to start the "flushing" process.  Flushing means that we are putting the sheep on a rising plane of nutrition (they've been on dry grass), which should increase their ovulation rates (and, hopefully, the number of twins born next spring).  We've been managing our limited irrigated pasture this year with flushing in mind - we sold most of our lambs at weaning (rather than finishing them on irrigated pasture) with the idea that the ewes would graze our irrigated pasture now.  This long-winded explanation of what we're doing now serves as a backdrop for the continuing impacts of California's drought on our operation.  This dry year, which was so up-in-our-face last winter, is much more subtle in California's normally dry summer months, at least for a rangeland-based livestock operation like ours.

Unlike many farms in California, we've been blessed with adequate irrigation water this summer.  The Nevada Irrigation District (NID), which supplies our water, purchased extra water from Pacific Gas and Electric this spring.  This purchase, along with water conservation measures, means that NID will go into this winter with adequate carry-over supplies in its reservoir system.  For us, the purchase has meant that we've received our normal water deliveries on the irrigated pastures that we graze.  But irrigated pasture is only a small part of our operation.  We have the ability to irrigate about 20 acres of pasture near Auburn, which represents about 5 percent of our total acreage.  We graze on about 400 acres of annual rangeland - land that is not irrigated.  In other words, we rely on rainfall to grow forage for our sheep for most of their needs.  Indeed, our entire management calendar revolves around the rainy season and the flush of spring grass growth - we time our lambing to coincide with spring grass.

Most of California has a Mediterranean climate, characterized by a distinct rainy season (late fall, winter and early spring) and a distinct dry season (late spring, summer and early fall).  Last winter's record-setting dry period meant that our rangelands didn't have much green grass in January and February - and even into March.  The drought, as I've written, had a profound impact on our operation.  Since we've been able to irrigate this summer, the drought's impacts have been much more indirect (unlike the impacts on farmers in the Central Valley).  For example, many of the oak trees on the rangelands we graze seem stressed by the lack of soil moisture - they have started dropping leaves well before the autumn equinox.  We're also seeing unusual forage conditions because of the timing and amount of rainfall last year - we have much more wild oats on many of our rangelands.  While some dry grass has nutritional value for our sheep, dry wild oats are not very nutritious or palatable.  And finally, because of the dust that has been prevalent on our rangelands and in our corrals since last winter, we are seeing some increased problems with pneumonia.  Dust can cause respiratory infections in livestock, and we've been treating more cases of this than normal.

Some of these subtle impacts are psychological, too.  California's annual rangelands are always brown and dry in early September, and yet I find that I'm getting more anxious about the onset of the rainy season than I normally do at this time of year.  I find myself looking at the weather forecast with greater scrutiny - will the El NiƱo predicted for California actually materialize, and will it result in higher than average precipitation?  We have planned our grazing carefully for the coming months - we'll have enough dry forage to last us into March of next year - but find myself worrying about what will happen if this winter turns out like last winter.

To paraphrase Will Rogers, a farmer (or rancher) has to be an optimist or he wouldn't keep farming.  In three-and-a-half weeks, we'll turn our rams in with the ewes - the ultimate act of optimism in a sheep rancher's year.  We're betting the rains (and the green grass) will come.  We hope we're right!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Headed to the Fair

As I write this on Labor Day afternoon, Sami and the girls are preparing to wash their Gold Country Fair lambs and give them one last clip.  Lara is showing a market lamb, her eighth trip to the fair since she was 9 years old.  Emma will be showing a market lamb and a ewe lamb (which she's keeping for breeding).  While this week will mark the culmination of a good deal of hard work for the girls (and for Sami and me), it will also give us a chance to catch up with old friends and re-connect with our community.  For me, that's what the fair is all about!

As a commercial sheep producer, I'll admit to mixed feelings about the "industry" that has developed around breeding, raising and showing "club" lambs (lambs that are raised specifically for showing at fairs).  At their best, livestock shows help us establish a standard by which we can evaluate the genetic improvement in our commercial flocks.  Unfortunately, in my opinion, many livestock shows have become beauty pageants for livestock - contests that bear little if any relationship to commercial livestock production.  Animals are evaluated purely on physical appearance, with little or no regard for the quality of the product or the cost of producing it.

Despite my reservations, I think it's important for my daughters to participate in our county fair, for several reasons.  First, I think preparing an animal to show at the fair teaches responsibility.  Both girls have been up early all summer to feed their lambs in the morning.  They've learned about ovine nutrition and animal husbandry.  Emma is showing a market lamb she bought from her fifth grade teacher, along with a ewe lamb that her older lamb birthed last spring.  Lara is showing a lamb selected from the flock of our friend Ann Vassar.  Both girls are learning about evaluating a lamb for its future potential as product.

Second, both girls are learning about marketing - marketing themselves as well as their animals.  Last week, they both donned their show uniforms and delivered invitations to the junior livestock auction to businesses all over Auburn.  They are also learning how to market the end product - largely because we are focused on the end product as a family.  I'm certain that a potential buyer could ask either girl what their favorite cut of lamb is, and both of them could describe the meat and their favorite method for cooking it in great detail!  Both girls will enter their respective showmanship competitions - contests in which they are evaluated on their ability to prepare and show their lambs to their best advantage, as well as their knowledge of sheep production.  Success in the showmanship class means far more to Sami and me than success at the auction!

Third, our daughters are learning about the economics of the sheep business.  While they've always been fortunate enough to make a profit on their lambs, we've been clear that profit is not guaranteed.  Mom and Dad (and Grandma and Grandpa) will not buy or add money to their lambs to make sure they make money.  In other words, they're learning what the sheep business is really like - I'd love a guarantee of making money every year, but that's not how it works!  Furthermore, both girls have shown breeding animals at some point in their fair careers - owning and caring for an animal year round, selecting a ram to compliment the genetic potential of their ewe(s) and caring for a newborn lamb help bring reality to their projects.

Fourth, the girls are learning about working as a community.  At their best, 4-H and FFA programs require the kids to do the work - without the direct, physical assistance of adults!  One of the best things about the fair, for me, is watching the older kids help the younger ones - and vice versa.

Finally, the Gold Country Fair is teaching kids about the impact of this year's drought.  At this year's fair, exhibitors will not be allowed to wash their animals.  While our girls have lived with the implications of the dry year (mostly because their Dad seems obsessed with the drought), many kids in our community don't have this day-to-day connection with the consequences of drought.  I'm looking forward to the conversations this new rule will instigate.

I enjoy seeing photos of sheep shows posted by internet friends from Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia.  Based on the photos, I'd guess that livestock shows in these countries occur in places and under conditions that more closely resemble our production system: they seem to happen in show rings constructed on farms in the middle of pastures.  While our own fairgrounds and show culture seem to depart from my reality as a commercial producer, I think the lessons our girls are learning are crucial to their futures - whether they choose to become ranchers or not.  I'm looking forward to the fair!