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Showing posts from April, 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 d…

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

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…

Wildflowers and Rangelands - and Grazing Animals

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 mad…

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 m…

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 …

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....…

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 paddo…

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 nor…