Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Farming and Art

Last week, my colleagues and I were discussing the future of our farming and ranching endeavors.  I work at the Placer-Nevada office of UC Cooperative Extension.  Like me, my colleagues are both farmers and “community education specialists” (according to our official UC job titles).  While each of us finds our extension work enjoyable and fulfilling, we’re all farmers (or ranchers) at heart.  Our off-farm jobs, in other words, allow us to continue to farm.  Even with our off-farm income, however, each of us continues to struggle with the economics of our agricultural enterprises.  We’re in love with farming, but we’re not sure we can continue.

While listening to our local community radio station over the weekend, I heard a song by Rita Hoskings, a regional folk/Americana musician whose work I enjoy.  I started thinking about the economics of art.  I don’t pretend to know what Rita Hoskings’ financial or employment situation is, but I can’t imagine that an artist who is played on a regional public radio station can make a living solely from her art (at least initially).  And I imagine other local artists face similar challenges – challenges not unlike the ones I face as a small-scale rancher.  At the same time, I imagine that when Ms. Hoskings started making music professionally, she introduced herself as a musician (rather than as whatever her other job might have been).  In other words, I suspect that an artist’s passion for her craft defines her as a person – and that she works other jobs to allow her to continue to pursue that passion.

Similarly, when I introduce myself to someone, I say that I’m a sheep rancher or a shepherd – I rarely (if ever) introduce myself as a community education specialist.  My ranching work is far more important to me than simple economics – it defines who I am and how I view the world.  It’s my passion – it’s integral to my physical, emotional and mental being.

Given the similarities between artists and farmers, then, I wonder whether the economic considerations are also similar between farming and art.  How does someone like Rita Hoskings keep making and performing music?  When does art move from hobby to livelihood (even if it’s only a partial livelihood?  In my own case, can I find the balance between the time I spend being a shepherd and the income I receive from my work?

I’m relatively new to Twitter, but I follow a shepherd from the Lake District in England who raises Herdwick sheep.  Just today, he tweeted, "Love to listen to best shepherds talking about their flocks - its like listening to Camus talk about writing, or Van Gogh about painting." Part of what I love about raising sheep is the long-term commitment that is required – I won’t see the benefit (economic or otherwise) of the decisions I make this fall until next spring at the earliest.  We have dedicate years to developing the genetic base of our flock.  And there is an art to managing our pastureland.  Perhaps what my Twitter “friend” is saying is that shepherding, when it’s done well, is more avocation than vocation – and as much art as science.  Given the thin margins involved in raising livestock (and making art, I’m sure), it’s this sense of avocation that keeps me going.

To learn more about Rita Hosking and her music, go to www.ritahosking.com!  Click here to learn more about Herdwick sheep!

From the Farming in the Foothills blog...

I write an occasional post for the Farming in the Foothills blog (on the UCCE Foothill Farming website).  Here's my most recent article: Thoughts on Convenience and Middlemen

Monday, October 27, 2014

Talking Baseball

Over the last several baseball seasons, I've shared a running discussion about the game with my Dad and with a mutual friend from New Hampshire, Steve Schofield.  We share observations about teams, games and players; recommendations on good baseball books and movies; and stories from our baseball pasts.  Steve, who grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers and playing stickball in New York, is now a Red Sox fan.  My Dad, a Southern California native, grew up rooting for the LA version of the Dodgers (an allegiance he passed on to me).  Today, both of us are Giants fans.  For all three of us over the last 5 years, the major league postseason has been pretty exciting - the Giants and Red Sox have been regular playoff teams.

Today, my Dad sent Steve and me the following email:
"I am watching the baseball channel. The Royals are having a voluntary workout. Some of the guys shagging flies in the outfield have their little kids with them,, complete with their own little gloves. Little kids with dad on the big league field the day before game 6. Only in baseball."
I grew up playing baseball.  I started in Pee Wee ball when I was 5 or 6 - and played organized baseball or softball every year until my mid-twenties.  While I didn't get to play stickball in the street like Steve or my Dad, I played lots of playground ball when I was in elementary school.  And while both of my daughters are soccer athletes, they've both grown to appreciate baseball.  My oldest daughter loves to watch Hunter Pence (the Giants' right fielder) play because of his hustle and his obvious love for the game.  My youngest has recently discovered the joys of playing catch - which her Dad (me!) loves!

Here's my reply to my Dad's email:
"One of the things I've liked about this year's Giants team is that I've heard several players talk about how lucky they are to be getting paid to play a kid's game that they love to play. I saw a photo from the clubhouse celebration after the NLCS victory of Javier Lopez sitting on the floor talking to his kids. How cool is that!
"Maybe it's because baseball doesn't have a clock, but it seems like the game lends itself to a different pace and set of priorities. Posey said that when he heard about Taveras' death during the game last night, it made the game seem pretty unimportant. I find it refreshing to hear a professional athlete with some perspective - and I think ballplayers have more of this kind of perspective than other pros!  I can't imagine Colin Kapernick saying something like that!
"It's probably a sign that I'm getting older, but I worry about the talk of changing baseball to appeal to a younger audience. Perhaps baseball needs to wait for this younger audience to develop some maturity and perspective!
"The only thing I'm really sad about is that there are, at most, two more games until the end of the season...."

As Giants' broadcaster Mike Krukow often says, "Enjoy this great game!"

Friday, October 17, 2014

Little Victories

This has been a challenging week - a disease outbreak in the ewes, a child and a wife under the weather at home, costly repairs to my truck, and a dismal weather forecast for the rest of the fall.  Even with the Giants winning the National League pennant last night, this has been a stressful stretch of time.  This morning, however, brought some measure of satisfaction - thanks to Ernie, our youngest (and most challenging) sheepdog.  I'll take little victories wherever and whenever they come!

Those of you who have relied on a canine partner in your sheep or cattle operations have probably all had a hard-headed dog or two.  Ernie is 4, and he's been a challenge all along.  I've been using him regularly for about a year, and the steady work has been great for him.  He finally understands the other side of tired.

This morning, I needed him to gather a group of ewes and bring them into a holding pen so I could move the electric fence.  He's done the work before, but he usually works fast and close to the sheep (which makes the sheep move too fast).  The ewes were about 75 yards away (a short distance for a well-trained dog, but a long outrun for Ernie at this stage).  I sent him to the right (an "away" flank), and he actually took a wide route around the sheep (unusual for him).  Several times, he started to dive in towards the ewes, and each time he took my correction and bent himself out wider.  He settled in behind the flock quietly - and even took my "lie down" command at a distance.  The sheep walked nicely into their holding pen - and Ernie let me call him off (sometimes he'll get so excited once the sheep are through a gate that he wants to do it again!).  Later, he even brought some wayward ewes back into their paddock - mostly on his own.

Sometimes these little victories only seem like victories because of the frustration that's come before.  Sometimes I have to remind myself to look for them. Thanks, Ernie, for your help today - and for reminding me to look for the positive!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Another "Gift" from Last Year's Warm and Dry Winter

To improve the nutritional intake of our ewes during the first two weeks of our breeding season, we've been feeding hay to our breeding ewes since the first of October.  While we have plenty of dry grass, the nutritional value of this forage (which grew last spring), is minimal.  By feeding hay, we hope the ewes will produce more eggs - and a higher percentage of twins next spring.

Our ewes have adapted to this new feeding regime very quickly - whenever they hear my diesel truck now, they run to the fence along the road.  Earlier this week, however, we started noticing that a significant number of ewes in our larger breeding group (our "mules" or crossbred ewes) were losing interest in the hay.  They'd come up with the rest of the sheep, sniff around at the hay, and then wander off down the hill.  Many of them were losing weight (obviously - they'd quit eating), and many of them had nasal discharges.  After consulting with my wife (who's also my veterinarian!), we decided that we were looking at an outbreak of bluetongue virus.  Other sheep ranchers have experienced similar outbreaks this year - now it's our turn!

According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, sheep with bluetongue exhibit some or all of the following symptoms:
"After an incubation period of 4–6 days, a fever of 105–107.5°F (40.5–42°C) develops. The animals are listless and reluctant to move. Clinical signs in young lambs are more apparent, and the mortality rate can be high (up to 30%). About 2 days after onset of fever, additional clinical signs such as edema of lips, nose, face, submandibular area, eyelids, and sometimes ears; congestion of mouth, nose, nasal cavities, conjunctiva, and coronary bands; and lameness and depression may be seen. A serous nasal discharge is common, later becoming mucopurulent. The congestion of nose and nasal cavities produces a “ sore muzzle” effect, the term used to describe the disease in sheep in the USA. Sheep eat less because of oral soreness and will hold food in their mouths to soften before chewing. They may champ to produce a frothy oral discharge at the corners of the lips. On close examination, small hemorrhages can be seen on the mucous membranes of the nose and mouth. Ulceration develops where the teeth come in contact with lips and tongue, especially in areas of most friction. Some affected sheep have severe swelling of the tongue, which may become cyanotic (‘blue tongue”) and even protrude from the mouth. Animals walk with difficulty as a result of inflammation of the hoof coronets. A purple-red color is easily seen as a band at the junction of the skin and the hoof. Later in the course of disease, lameness or torticollis is due to skeletal muscle damage. In most affected animals, abnormal wool growth resulting from dermatitis may be observed."
There are a number of strains of the virus - we've had it one other year in our sheep (we had 3-4 ewes with bluetongue about 4 years ago, and all of them survived).  While there is usually a vaccine available for the virus, we've never used it (it's much like the flue vaccine - the strains in the vaccine must match the strain in the environment in any given year for it to be effective).  What's more, the vaccine is not available this year - the California manufacturer did not produce any vaccine in 2014 due to production problems.  Based on the symptoms we've observed, this year's strain is different than the strain we had previously, but based on the age of the ewes that are showing symptoms, I think our older ewes must have some natural immunity.

The virus is transmitted by a biting midge (we used to call them "no-see-ums").  According to an article recently published by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine:
"bluetongue is most prevalent when midges are abundant in late summer and fall, but there has been speculation over how the virus survives through the winter. When temperatures turn cold and the biting-midge populations plummet, transmission appears to cease for more than six months, but the virus reappears when temperatures warm the following season."
The UCD study found that the virus was able to overwinter in the midge population.

Now I'm a shepherd, not an epidemiologist or entomologist , but based on what I know about insect pests, it would seem that a normally cold and wet winter in our region would be hard on these midges.  Last year's winter was neither wet nor very cold - and I suspect that we have more midges (and more virus) this fall because of the drought.  In other words, the drought has had impacts far beyond the lack of rainfall for those of us who farm or ranch.

Since bluetongue is a virus, we can't treat it directly.  Again, according to Merck:
"There is no specific treatment for animals with bluetongue apart from rest, provision of soft food, and good husbandry. Complicating and secondary infections should be treated appropriately during the recovery period."
Yesterday, I sorted off the 33 ewes that were showing signs of the virus and hauled them to another property (where we still have some green grass).  Normally, I don't like hauling animals during breeding season - I prefer to let the ewes "settle" for 18 days (around the first week of December) after we remove the rams to ensure that they remain pregnant.  However, we felt it was important to isolate these sheep and to provide them with green grass and supplemental feed.  We'll also treat any secondary infections - sometimes sheep with bluetongue can develop additional respiratory infections, which we treat with antibiotics.  And we'll leave them on this alternative pasture until they've fully recovered.  On a positive note, some of them looked much brighter this morning. Flexibility, once again, is a key part of our management system!

While I'm grateful not to face the daily stress of a long commute or a job I hate, I have to admit that ranching can be stressful at times.  The drought, and its associated impacts, have definitely made life more stressful than usual.  I worry about the economic impacts (in terms of added expenses and lower revenue) that bluetongue will cause my business; more profoundly, I hate to see my animals suffering.  I haven't slept well during the last several nights, and getting up extra early to accommodate the additional work of caring for sick sheep has exacerbated my feeling of fatigue.  This morning's rain has helped, but we desperately need cold and wet weather in the coming months.  We need an end to the drought.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Getting my First Deer

About 5 years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn to hunt.  I'd grown up fishing, but my immediate family didn't hunt.  And not only didn't we hunt; we didn't have many firearms (only a bolt-action .22 with birdshot to discourage chicken-stealing, wandering dogs). As a dedicated omnivore, I decided that hunting would allow me to participate directly in the harvest of meat (even more directly than raising and selling grass-fed lamb).   Just over 3 years ago, I finally got my act together and completed a hunter safety course, which allowed me to purchase a hunting license and my first ever deer tag.  I also purchased a Marlin 30-30 rifle (and received a scope from my sister that Christmas).  That first fall I hunted several times in Colfax - always by myself.  I didn't get a deer, but I learned to appreciate the benefit of being alone and quiet in the woods - I saw some amazing wildlife - including a bear that followed me on one of my early morning hunting trips.  Last year, I again hunted in Colfax - and I also got to hunt with my friend Eric Lopez and my brother-in-law Adrian Lopez (both of whom are more experienced hunters than me).  Eric got a deer on one of our trips.  On the last day of the season, I nearly got a shot at a buck, but decided that I wasn't comfortable firing my rifle so close to the property line of the ranch where I was hunting.  This year, I've been to Colfax several times, and once to the Magonigal Pass area of Donner Pass - and I didn't see a buck in either location.  Last weekend, however, was different!  Adrian and I camped near the top of Carson Pass - and on Saturday, we both got a deer!
Looking northeast from our campsite.

We got our bucks at the base of the bluff in the background.

We arrived at our camping spot somewhat by accident.  Adrian lives in Columbia, and I live in Auburn - so Carson Pass (up Highway 88) is about halfway between us.  We met in Jackson, got our groceries, and headed up the hill.  After buying a map at the ranger station near Pioneer, we decided we'd check out the Silver Fork of the American River.  Fortunately for us, we missed the turnoff - and we decided to keep heading up country.  We saw a campground symbol on the map further up the pass - and found a beautiful spot to camp.  As the sun was setting - making the aspens and the lava-cap mountain behind them glow - we set up camp.  We were amazed that the small creek still had water running (an auspicious sign, as you'll see).

We were not up as early as some hunters on Saturday morning - I heard 4-5 trucks go past camp while it was still dark.  Nonetheless, we were up at daybreak.  We grabbed a quick snack, filled our water bottles, and headed up the mountain.  We crept through the forest, trading places taking the lead.  As we neared the top of the little watershed we were camped in (near the lava ridge above us), we heard several rifle shots (which seemed a ways off).  We crossed the creek, and Adrian suggested we stay below the ridge dividing our creek from a tributary (so the low sun wouldn't throw our shadows too far).  About that time, we heard barrage of 8 or 9 rifle shots - we lost track, but it sounded like target practice!  We heard voices above us, and Adrian saw one of the other hunters up in the lava bluffs.  We decided to start making our way back down the ridge.

We'd only been walking a few minutes when we both heard something coming down the hill through the brush and trees towards us.  Adrian said, "That's a deer," and sure enough, a small forked horn buck was walking quickly through the trees in our direction.  We both looked through our binoculars, and Adrian said, "He's legal - take him."  My inexperience nearly cost me the opportunity!  I had loaded my 30-30 lever action rifle, but I hadn't yet chambered a round.  I quickly rectified that situation and took off the safety - and the buck still hadn't seen us!  At this point, he was about 50 yards away, quartering towards me.  I looked through my scope - and couldn't see a damn thing (Adrian later showed me how to adjust it).  Finally, with the deer about 25 yards away and broadside to me, I fired - and made the perfect shot you would expect with a deer so close!  The buck made one or two jumps and it was over - I had my first deer!

When we were sure the buck was dead, I dragged him into a small clearing about 20 yards down hill and started filling out my deer tag.  I hadn't even attached the tag to his antlers when Adrian said, "Something else is coming down the hill." We turned to look - and a slightly larger buck was coming down the same exact trail!  Being a more experienced hunter, Adrian was prepared.  In the space of less than 5 minutes (and within 20 yards of each other), we both had a deer.

Now the hard work began!  We were more than a mile away from camp - and the only way to get our deer back was to drag them down the ridge.  We kept to the high ground as much as possible (gravity became our friend), but it was a long and tedious trip back.  After a quick snack and a very cold (and tasty) beer, we began the work of cleaning our deer.  I've dressed out sheep before, but I had never done a deer by myself.  Adrian patiently walked me through it - and cleaned his deer at the same time.  I asked if we were going to skin the bucks, but Adrian suggested that the butcher in Jackson would do it for a small fee. As we were working, the hunters we'd heard above us walked into camp - they'd also shot a deer and had followed our trail down the ridge.  We compared notes and realized that they'd driven our deer off the lava ridge - and right to us!

About 90 minutes later, we arrived at Swingles Meats in Jackson - and learned that they no longer skinned deer.  So we went back to work!  Skinning a deer in the back of a Dodge pickup isn't ideal but it can be done.  Our work finished, we headed back to camp.  Since I had a second tag, we went back out the next morning, but our hunt was mostly exploratory - we climbed into the cliffs where our deer had been flushed the day before, and were treated to some spectacular views.  Then it was back to camp for lunch, loading up, and the trip back home.  For many reasons, the trip was one of the best outdoor experiences I've ever had!  When I told my friend Eric what had happened, he said, "You guys are lucky ----ers!"  And he was right!
A shot from our exploring on Sunday.

Adrian checking for deer signs in the bluff where our bucks had been the morning before.

I learned so many things on this trip.  First, I thoroughly enjoy being in the mountains - by myself, yes - but even more with someone who shares my appreciation for and love of the Sierra.  And Adrian and I both love seeing new country - we'd never camped on Carson Pass before.  Second, I enjoy learning something that can ONLY be learned by doing - no matter how much I'd read about hunting and deer behavior, I think the only way to learn how to hunt is to do it (hopefully with the help of someone more experienced).  Third, I appreciated hunting with someone as respectful as Adrian - we both hunt, ultimately, with the idea that we're feeding ourselves and our families.  While my family doesn't rely on my hunting abilities for sustenance (thank goodness, given my lack of success the last two years), we do believe that we're ethically required to consume the animal whose life I took.  Adrian and I ran into some other hunters on Saturday afternoon who were only packing a trophy out - they'd left most of the meat.  I couldn't hunt that way.  Fourth, the circumstances that led to both of us getting a deer in such a short time frame were instructive.  I assumed when I'd heard the shots that any deer in our proximity would be gone.  Because we remained alert, we had an opportunity.  Finally, the importance of taking a shot that you're sure about hit home for me - I'm not a good enough marksman to take long-range, iffy shots at this stage of my hunting career.

When I got home, I called my folks - they'd already heard about our success.  While my Dad is not a hunter, both of my parents made sure that we had plenty of outdoor experiences as kids.  I mentioned to them that I had realized on this trip that I could camp comfortably with minimal gear, my Dad said, "Well, you've done it all your life."  I came home with a new appreciation for how I was raised!

Finally, I'm not posting any photos of the buck.  To me, they're private - but I don't object to other people's photos.  I will probably post some photos of the meals we enjoy along with our favorite recipes.  Most of all, I'm looking forward to picking up my venison in two weeks - Adrian and I will hopefully be able to meet up in Jackson and perhaps have a beer!  And, I'm looking forward to many more autumn days spent being quiet in the outdoors.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ominous Signs

Moving one of our breeding groups onto "fresh" dry forage at sunrise this morning.
As I read today's weather forecast in the Sacramento Bee over my second cup of coffee, I was disheartened by this statement: "Sadly, no rain in the extended forecast." Despite the promising rain that broke our long summer dry spell last week, I can't help but worry about the prospect for moisture this fall.  Looking back on my weather journal from last autumn, I'm starting to think that this year is shaping up much like last year.  I'm worried about a fourth year of drought.

I spoke at a drought workshop last week at the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center.  One of the morning speakers, Sam Sandoval Solis, an assistant professor and cooperative extension specialist in water management, reported that the most recent long range forecast for California indicates that we have about a 67 percent probability that we will be drier than normal from October through December.  Things may improve a bit for the first three months of 2015 - he said the forecast indicates we have a 50-50 chance of normal precipitation.  While I don't give much weight to long-range weather forecasts, I certainly hope that these predictions turn out to be overly pessimistic.  The most recent drought outlook map released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looks ominous indeed.
The outlook for breaking this drought doesn't look good - at least through December.

We have been fortunate this summer that the Nevada Irrigation District (NID), which supplies our irrigation water, has been able to meet its conservation goals through voluntary actions.  Our irrigation season ends on October 15, and NID predicts that it will end the season with more water remaining in its reservoirs than it projected at the beginning of the season in mid-April.  Despite this good news, NID has announced that it will not be supplying winter water to customers (some farms, especially orchards, need winter water during dry winters).  Without water flowing through NID's extensive canal system, many ranchers won't have stockwater for their cows and sheep until the winter rains begin to refill stockponds and creeks.  NID is concerned that a state-mandated curtailment of some water rights may keep the district from storing water in reservoirs this winter, so these cutbacks are probably prudent.  I'm thankful we have the ability to haul water to our sheep - but we'll need to use more expensive treated water this fall.
Thanks to prudent management - and conservation
by farmers and residents alike - NID will end the
year with more water in storage than originally predicted.

Over the last three weeks, I've traveled to Los Banos (for a California Wool Growers executive committee meeting - I'm the newly elected treasurer), to Hopland (for the aforementioned drought workshop) and to High Sierra (to the Magonigal Pass area for an afternoon deer hunting trip).  I saw impacts of the drought everywhere I looked - slicked-off rangeland with very little residual grass, fallowed fields and dying fruit trees, dry creekbeds and bathtub ringed reservoirs, and bone-dry brush and dusty mountain trails.  Even with the glorious rain we had several weeks ago, we're still in the grip of the most intense drought in a generation.  At some point during my recent travels, I heard someone say on the radio that we'd need 150 percent of normal precipitation to make an impact on the drought conditions.

Closer to home, this autumn is looking ominously like last autumn.  Thanks to the rain we had in late September, grass seeds started to germinate on our rangelands.  I'm always amazed by how quickly the tiny shoots of green emerge through last year's dead grass, especially when rain is followed by warm temperatures.  Within 4-5 days of the rain, I saw new growth.  As I moved sheep this morning, however, I noticed that much of this new growth was beginning to wither and die.  Even the scattered native perennial grasses in our pastures, which were refreshed by the rain, look dry and brown again.  With no rain in the forecast, the seeds that germinated in late September won't produce grass for the coming year - we'll need another germinating rain.  Last year, we had three separate germinating rains - and no new grass to speak of until March.  I'm worried that we're in for more of the same this fall.
The last of the grass that germinated in our late
September rain - without more rain soon, these
green shoots will wither and die.

A native purple needlegrass plant (a perennial grass)
in front of a patch of invasive medusahead.  I'm hoping our
grazing management will encourage more of these natives!

Despite these ominous signs, I feel like our sheep operation is as prepared as we can be for a fourth dry year.  We've inventoried the dry grass available to us - we've got enough standing dry forage to get us through till next summer, even if it doesn't rain at all!  As long as we can provide supplemental protein to feed the mircro-organisms in rumens of our sheep, the sheep will be fine.  We'll keep hauling water, and we'll keep working on upgrading our summer irrigation system (which will allow us to stretch our summer water further). We continue to fine-tune our grazing management - with the hope that we can encourage the re-establishment of more resilient native grasses.  And we'll certainly keep praying for rain.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Shepherd's New Year

We breed our ewes to lamb when the grass is coming on - we like to have the lambs start to arrive in late February.  This schedule allows us to match our greatest demand for high quality forage (when the ewes are lactating) with Mother Nature's greatest supply of grass (at least in a normal year).  Since ewes are pregnant for 150 days, this means we turn the rams in with the ewes on October 1.  For me, this day has always felt like New Year's Day!  And after three years of drought, this year's New Year's feels like a defiant act of optimism!

Enjoy these photos of our day.  We sorted the ewes into their breeding groups, and moved them to another property near Auburn.  It's been a long but productive day!

The ewes have no idea what awaits them!

Purple Needlegrass at Blue Oak Ranch - love these perennials!

On the bus to Ewe-ville.  This ram's new name is Horton - we'll see if anyone gets this!

 Sorting our breeding groups.

Looks like the girls are happy to see the boys!

Stepping off the trailer - into new pasture.