Tuesday, December 29, 2015

When livestock are your livelihood - #sheep365

As a new month (and a new calendar year) approaches, I'm exactly 90 days into my #sheep365 social medial project.  Since October 1, I've posted at least one photograph of something related to my family's sheep operation on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  Other producers (especially in the United Kingdom) have started using the hashtag, too - search for #sheep365 on Twitter and Instagram for some great sheep-related photography!

While many of the photos look very similar from one day to the next, the photos that I took in October look very different than those I took this week.  Now that I'm roughly 25 percent of my "sheep year," I can see differences in our rangeland and pastureland (we've moved from irrigated pasture to wintertime annual rangeland) and in our sheep ("open" ewes in October versus mostly pregnant ewes in December).  I've also photographed some of the mileposts of our year - from turning out the rams on day 1 to moving the sheep to winter pasture on day 66.

The project has also initiated conversations with my fellow shepherds (and shepherdesses).  While we have not lost any sheep to predation during this first 3 months of my project, every shepherd must cope with predators.  While the arrival of wolves in California is a high profile example, I worry more about more mundane predators - especially coyotes and free-roaming dogs.  I especially appreciate the sentiments expressed in a Facebook conversation about predator losses early this month.  My friend John Harper said,
"Non livestock producers [are] amazed to hear that producers grieve over their losses from any predator.  Their belief is that since producers raise livestock from the food chain that we don't care about them.  They [non-producers] [are] in awe that we believe in providing the best life while they are in our care until [they fulfill] the service they were genetically selected for.  They don't understand that since the animals have been bred to abandon their defenses to serve humans that we have a special bond to protect them."
Another friend and sheep producer, Jasmine Westbrook (who had recently experienced a lethal dog attack in her sheep), responded,
"I have also encountered the misconception that ranchers do not become emotionally attached to our livestock.  It seems obvious from the inside that when you raise an animal from birth you would become fond of it....  I don't think people realize how much our lives intertwine with our livestock....  It's our job to protect them, and we failed today."
I guess the point that I'm trying to make here is this: Even though raising sheep is a business to me and my family, it's more than than that.  As Jasmine said, "When raising livestock is your livelihood, livestock is your life."  Part of this is economic - while my savings account isn't very robust, my ranch-related assets (sheep, fencing, dogs, equipment, etc.) are more robust.  But it's more than that for me - I love working with livestock (sheep, especially).  Weaning a healthy group of lambs and sending them off with our buyer feels like success.  Losing a ewe to a coyote feels like failure.

This brings me back to this project.  As I try to take photographs that tell a story about what I'm doing on any given day, I'm realizing that these small, seemingly insignificant activities add up to my life and to my livelihood.  I'm also realizing that spending time with our sheep is part of what I look forward to every day.  Only 275 days left in this project!  In the meantime, here are a few of my favorite photographs from the last month or so.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Of Wolves and Livestock

Wolves have been on my mind recently.  Earlier this year, we received confirmation that a breeding pair of wolves had taken residency in Siskiyou County (in Northern California).  We saw photographs that indicated they were a successful breeding pair (at least 5 pups were in the photographs).  Over the weekend, the Sacramento Bee included a report of the first probable instance of a calf (and possibly a cow) killed by wolves (click here for the article).  And this week, the Bee's editorial page included yet another opinion piece authored by staffer from the Center for Biological Diversity (click here for this article).

First a note of discouragement about the Sacramento Bee's coverage of this issue.  The link to the op/ed piece by Amroq Weiss of CBD is shown as "news" - when it's clearly opinion.  Over the last 12 months, the newspaper's coverage of the topic, at least on its editorial pages, has been entirely one-sided - even though the paper has received at least two submissions that offer a different perspective on wolves.  Given the Bee's lack of balance on this issue, I guess I'll continue to offer my own viewpoints on wolves and livestock here on my Foothill Agrarian blog.
A screenshot from www.sacbee.org - this "article" was written by the
Center for Biological Diversity.
I do think it's possible to have a reasonable conversation about wolves in California, contrary to what Ms. Weiss would have us believe.  Over the weekend, I posted a link to the first article on my twitter feed (I posted just the link - with no comment about the article).  Over the course of several hours, several of us engaged in a useful discussion about how ranchers can cope with wolf predation.  I think this conversation needs to expand.

Nonprofit organizations in other western states have developed funding sources that can reimburse ranchers for direct losses to wolves.  In my opinion, these programs help, but they don't address the entire picture.  Emerging research clearly demonstrates a link between the presence of wolves and stress-related production losses in livestock.  These losses include reduced reproductive success (that is, fewer calves or lambs per breeding female) and lower weaning weights (due to greater energy requirements for predator evasion/defense as well as increased stress).  For more information, click on this study).

Most of us who are in the business of raising livestock on rangelands have invested significant time, energy and capital in developing the genetics of our flocks or herds to match our resource base.  For example, we keep ewes in our flock that do well on the type of vegetation that our foothill rangelands and irrigated pastures will produce.  We select rams that compliment the genetic make-up of our ewes.  Our ewes teach their lambs how to thrive on our forage.  In other words, the success of our current flock is a direct result of the breeding and ewe-retention decisions we made 4-5 generations back.  While we might be reimbursed for the death of a particular ewe or ram, the market price we would receive doesn't reflect the genetic value of that individual within our flock.  I cannot simply replace a dead ewe with one I purchase from the auction yard in Escalon.

Furthermore, in my own sheep operation, I worry about another indirect cost should the wolves' territory expand further south.  We are committed to co-existing with the predators in our environment (mainly coyotes and mountain lions).  Electric fences and livestock guardian dogs have allowed us to raise sheep in our part of the Sierra foothills without having to kill these predators.  But we also ranch in areas where there are many people.  Our livestock guardian dogs have to be aggressive enough to deter the coyotes and cougars, but docile enough not to scare the neighbor kids.  Based on the experiences of ranching colleagues with more wolf interaction, we'd need to get bigger and more aggressive dogs to protect our flock from wolves.  I'm not sure how the neighbors would feel about this.

Rural communities often bear the brunt of living day-to-day with well-intentioned but at times ill-conceived environmental laws and regulations.  While this doesn't mean that some of these laws and regulations are unjustified, I do feel that rural communities and businesses that depend on our natural resources are sometimes not considered when these laws and regulations are adopted.  The daily opportunity to see and interact with wildlife is one of the more rewarding aspects of my livelihood; at the same time, worrying about protecting my sheep from predators is stressful.  Dealing with the aftermath of a predator attack is unpleasant and frustrating.  I have chosen sheep ranching as a profession because I love working with nature and I love caring for livestock.  Wolves (and other large predators) are a concept to somebody living and working in Sacramento or San Francisco; those of us who live with these predators have a much more complex relationship with them.  I wish the Sacramento Bee would acknowledge this!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Christmas for Shepherds

"Back in the cities, they have different ways,
Football and eggnog and Christmas parades
I'll take my blankets, I'll take the reins,
It's Christmas for cowboys on the wide open plains."

                                                                    -- John Denver

A week from today, my youngest daughter will awaken us early on Christmas morning.  I think she's taken over my role as the member of our family most excited about Christmas!  She even wants me to teach her how to make coffee this year, so she can bring me a cup in bed (which, as the theory goes, will get me out of bed sooner).  After opening our gifts to each other and eating our traditional cinnamon roll breakfast, we'll all head outside to do our home chores.  We'll feed the horse and mule, let the few sheep we keep at home out of their night pen, feed the hog and check on the chickens.

Since we keep most of our sheep on rented pasture about 6 miles from home, our Christmas Day chores involve some driving.  Usually, I do these chores by myself, but on Christmas, the girls go with me.  Sami's happy to have us all out of the house, I think - she gets to clean up a bit before the next round of Christmas festivities (all food-related).  I relish the time tending our sheep with my daughters.

We usually try to move the sheep onto fresh grass a day or two before Christmas, which makes our Christmas Day chores easy.  We feed the guard dogs, check the condition of the ewes, and walk our fences.  Our border collies join us - there's not much for them to do, but they'd mope if we left them home.  If the day is cold and wet (like we hope it is this year), we look forward to getting back to the house and warming up in front of the wood stove.

In many respects, Christmas is like any other day for a shepherd - the sheep still need my attention.  Christmas Day is special in my family - not only for it's cultural and religious significance, but also for the reminder that we get to work with each other.  We get to work outside, and we get to work with livestock.

Shepherds' chores, in many ways, haven't changed much through the centuries.  I still worry about my sheep.  Like my predecessors, I make sure they've got plenty to eat and that they're protected from predators.  As I watch my daughters working with me, especially on Christmas morning, I grateful that another generation is learning how to tend sheep.  I couldn't ask for a better Christmas gift.

Merry Christmas!

The goofy Macon girls - Christmas Day 2014

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Clear Direction

The chapters of my professional life have been brief of late.  Since 2011, in addition to carrying on my own small-scale commercial sheep operation, I've worked for a large sheep outfit in the Delta, for our local University of California Cooperative Extension office, and for the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center.  This week, I started yet another chapter - as an assistant specialist in rangelands in the Plant Sciences Department at UC Davis.  In some ways, I feel like a flake for changing jobs so frequently.  In considering this new opportunity, however, I've discovered that I finally feel like I have some clear direction in my career.

I love working with rangeland livestock - sheep, specifically - like nothing else I've ever done.  Raising sheep on grass will always be part of what I do - until I'm too old to do it!  As I've written here before, however, raising sheep at a full-time, commercial scale, without access to enough land and enough capital, has proven difficult.  California's worst drought in 500 years hasn't made this any easier.  I've realized that I can be happy raising sheep as a part-time endeavor - which is what my current land base and finances will allow.

I've also realized that I enjoy scientific research and teaching.  I'm working on a master's in agriculture degree in integrated resources management at Colorado State - the degree combines range management, animal science and agricultural business (much like my career, in many ways).  Upon completing my master's degree, I hope to work as a farm advisor within the agricultural extension system.

All of this brings me to my current job.  I have an academic appointment within the Plant Sciences Department at UC Davis (where I earned my bachelor's degree 25 years ago!).  My work includes research into the impacts of drought on rangeland livestock producers, working with ranchers to address water quality and other rangeland-focused environmental issues, and developing educational programs focused on improving rangeland management.  I'm joining a tremendous team of scientists - working for and learning from Dr. Ken Tate and Dr. Leslie Roche, who are internationally-recognized range scientists.

More than 18 years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the California Agricultural Leadership Program.  During the course of the two-year fellowship, I realized that my skills and personality were better-suited to serving others than to the advocacy jobs I'd held up to that point.  My ongoing effort to establish a successful ranching business is part of this realization - producing food for others is the ultimate in service, in my mind.  But my new job - and my effort to obtain the qualifications for working as a farm advisor - are another step down this path for me.  While I agonized over the decision to leave my work as herdsman at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, I'm finding that I've never been more excited about a new job as I am about this one!

2016 Flying Mule Farm Shepherd School Workshops

Flying Mule Farm, in partnership with the Placer/Nevada office of UC Cooperative Extension, is once again offering a series of Shepherd School Workshops in 2016!  A blend of classroom instruction, discussion and hands-on learning, our Shepherd School is designed to teach new and aspiring sheep producers the basics of pasture and rangeland-based sheep raising.

  • Introduction to Sheep Production - January 14 (7 p.m. - 9 p.m.) - UCCE office, Auburn, CA: this classroom session will provide an overview of grass-based production systems, sheep management and husbandry, and basic economics.
  • Sheep Husbandry Field Day - January 16 (9 a.m. - 12 noon) - Auburn, CA - this hands-on field day will provide students with experience in giving vaccinations, trimming feet, and preparing ewes for lambing.
  • Pasture Lambing Field Day - March 5 (9 a.m. - 12 noon) - Auburn, CA - students will gain experience in handling lambing ewes, caring for newborn lambs, and managing spring grazing.  We will also discuss predator protection.
Stay tuned for registration information!  Contact Dan Macon at flyingmulefarm@gmail.com or (530) 305-3270 if you have questions.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Working Wilderness

As I was driving between ranches yesterday, I heard a piece on our local community radio station (KVMR) about an encounter with a mountain lion.  I'm not sure who the author or the reader was, but the host continued after the piece.  He talked about the cultural and spiritual significance of wilderness.  While I don't want to diminish his connection with wilderness, I realized that my work as a rancher gives me a very different connection with the land than someone who recreates in wild lands.  In many ways, rangeland agriculture as I practice it exists (in fact, depends) on the boundary between wildness and domesticity.

By definition, rangeland cannot be cultivated.  The land is too steep, too hot, too cold, too dry - too "something" to support crop agriculture.  And yet these lands are tremendously productive (at least to my eye) - they support grasses and broadleaf plants, trees and shrubs, and an incredible diversity of wildlife.  And they support grazing animals.  Sheep, cattle, goats and other domesticated ruminant animals can convert the vegetation on these rangelands into muscle, fiber and milk.

Unlike the more domesticated landscapes of cultivated farming, rangelands depend on some continued element of wildness.  Many rangeland landscapes are fire adapted and even fire dependent -  in other words, these lands need fire.  Rangelands serve critical functions in the water cycle, filtering water, protecting soil, and recharging aquifers.  Indeed, most of the water we consume as humans (and most of the water that is so important for environmental purposes) originates on or flows across rangeland.  Rangelands support diverse wildlife, too - from songbirds to apex predators.

As a rancher, my daily work brings me into intimate contact with these "wild" landscapes, even when I'm working close to town.  The elements that many would include in a description of wilderness exist on the land that I graze - wildlife (including large predators), lack of vehicle access and other human infrastructure, solitude.  My work itself has an element of wildness - raising sheep requires me to work outside in all kinds of weather and conditions.  And while raising sheep at our scale may not be the most profitable business financially, I have realized that the rewards of working outside with nature are similar to the spiritual signficance that many ascribe to wilderness areas.

I first heard the term "working wilderness" from Warner Glenn, a rancher from the Malpai region of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.  Warner took photographs of the first jaguar seen north of the Mexican border in many years.  While I've never encountered such a rare predator at such close range, I have been around large predators most of my life.  I've seen mountain lions at a distance and black bears at closer range.  I see coyotes frequently.  To bring this back to the story I heard on the radio yesterday, the narrator talked about his desire to reach out to his "brother" the mountain lion.  Warner Glenn, on the other hand, describes his encounter (I found this at https://swjags.wordpress.com/2007/08/17/warner-glenn-qa/) with the jaguar very differently (and in a way that more closely resembles my own experiences):

"(A.) Once you have seen one in the wild you will never forget the beauty of this animal and the potential danger he holds for some creature that steps into his zone.
(B.) The jaguar seems to be extremely confident in his ability to survive most any situation.
(C.) He shows no fear, as far as I could tell, only annoyance about having been bothered.
(D.) They know what a human is and grow uneasy in his presence and want to avoid him."

For me, the difference in my own idea about wilderness is the difference between romance and realism.  Seeing these large predators in their natural environment is exhilarating; seeing a ewe that's been killed by a coyote or a mountain lion is not.  While I've made a commitment to coexist with these predators, I've also made a commitment to care for my sheep.  As I grow older, I am better able to embrace the complexity of this relationship.  I find that I can accept the ambiguity inherent in loving these wild elements of the natural world while trying to protect my livestock.  And I've found that I need wide open spaces - working wilderness.  My economic success, and my spirit, rely on it.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Standing Guard

I'm proud to have counted Howard Nakai as a friend.  Howard farmed in Penryn and Newcastle most of his life.  We weren't close friends, but he was one of those older farmers I've been blessed to know who always took an interest in younger farmers and ranchers (like me).  The Loomis Methodist Church was absolutely packed for his memorial service several years ago.

Howard was one of the Japanese-Americans whose story was featured in a book published by Sierra College entitled "Standing Guard."  The work documented the stories of Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II.  I remember that Howard told of a Portugese neighbor who cared for his farm during the war - and who filled Howard's referigerator with beer and steak when he knew Howard was coming home.  Howard told me one time, "I never had a better beer."  When I purchased the book, I also received a lapel pin with the Japanese symbol for the words "standing guard."  I wear it as a reminder of my own responsibility to speak up.  It suggests the poem from Martin Niemoller, a German protestant minister, who said:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I offer this story as a way of expressing my incredible disgust over the proposal by several U.S. presidential candidates to keep Muslims out of the United States, and to have American Muslims carry some form of identification.  While I guess I can understand the fear that has led people to embrace this idea, I'm outraged that those who would lead us have chosen to ignore our founding principles - and basic human dignity.  And speaking of fear - I fear religious extremism in any form - Islamic, Christian, Jewish, or any other religion.

To me, the darkest periods of human existence have been marked by intolerance, fear, and prejudice.  I feel like I have an obligation - to my friend Howard, and to my fellow human beings - to speak up.  Singling out a entire group of people - because of their religion, their color, their ethnic backround - is an offense to my own humanity.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Stockmanship Notes: Cowboys versus Sheepherders

For the last year, I’ve been both a cowboy and a sheepherder.  My job at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center has involved caring for beef cattle.  During this time, I’ve also cared for my own sheep.  I’ve thought it might be interesting (to me, at least!) to compare the jobs – and to compare the American cultural perceptions of cowboys and sheepherders.

Cowboys are iconic in American culture.  Forget that many of our cultural notions about cowboys are false (far from the rugged individualist of American mythology, cowboys have always had to work together).  Even non-cowboys can wear cowboy hats and cowboy boots!

Sheepherders, on the other hand, are often the antagonists in our Western mythology – cutting fences and stealing grass.  Sheepherders are usually immigrants in this country – Scots and Irish, then Basques, now Peruvians and Bolivians.  Not many of us are cut out to provide the constant attention that raising sheep requires!  And who ever went to a western-wear store and asked for a sheepherder hat or a pair of sheepherder boots?!

Both jobs require considerable skill.  Malcom Gladwell has suggested that mastery of any skill requires an investment of at least 10,000 hours.  Some of these skills are transferrable regardless of the species – the skills of observation that allow me to detect an unhealthy ewe also allow me to me to detect an unhealthy cow.  Some skills require a change in technique and equipment: catching a ewe on open range requires a dog and a leg crook – catching a cow on open range requires a good horse, a good rope, and the ability to use both.  Personally, I’ve spent more time learning to use a dog – I’m a better sheepherder than cowboy.

Many multi-generation cattle ranching families once raised sheep.  Indeed, sheep paid off the mortgage on many present-day cattle ranches.  Some of my friends think this is because cattlemen (and women), by their nature, don’t like sheep.  I know differently – most ranching families got rid of their sheep once the ranch was paid off because they knew that sheep took more management time (and expertise) than cows!

Personally, I’ve found that I prefer sheep to cows.  I like the daily engagement and challenge of caring for sheep.  I like the fact that an overly protective ewe will not try to kill me when I’m handling her lambs (some cows will!).  I appreciate the fact that range sheep give me two salable products every year (lambs and wool).  I enjoy the flexibility that sheep give me in grazing the small properties that are available to me in my part of the Sierra foothills.

As some of you know, I’m engaged in a project to record my work with my sheep every day for a year (my #sheep365 project).  In many ways, this encapsulates the differences between raising sheep and raising cattle.  Sheep require my attention every day!  As Ivan Doig has written, “To be successful with sheep, even when you’re not thinking about them, you’d better think about them a little.”  Cattle, on the other hand, are easier – they don’t require as much day-to-day attention (and they aren’t as vulnerable to predators).  Sheep are a 365-day-per-year job!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Back to School

I haven't told very many people, but I've gone back to school - I'm enrolled in an online master's program through Colorado State University in Integrated Resource Management.  It's a hybrid degree, combining animal science, range science and agricultural business - kinda what I've been doing for my entire career.  So far, I'm enjoying the program (I'm just three classes in) - and I'm looking forward to starting my research project (a survey of cattle, sheep and goat producers regarding their drought management and recovery strategies).  In just over 2 weeks, I'll also start a new job as the assistant rangeland specialist at UC Davis (working with extension specialists Ken Tate and Leslie Roche).  The new job will allow me to focus on rangeland and watershed issues while completing my master's - I can't wait!

I'm finding there are several advantages to going back to school in my extreme middle age.  First, I don't feel the pressure I felt in college to be perfect.  In fact, I'm happy that I'm not getting perfect grades - I think this means that I'm actually learning.  A perfect grade would imply that I already know the material!  Second, I like the integrated nature of the program.  My life and work experience suggests that managing grazing animals on rangeland as a business takes a variety of skills and information sources.  I think I would find a more narrowly focused program frustrating.  Finally, I'm liking the online format - I could not have done something like this when I finished my undergraduate degree in 1990!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Calving Journal - November 18, 2015

  • No new calves today - I was surprised
  • Discovered a possible tagging mistake - found calf 245 by itself.  Cow 309 was hanging around.  This afternoon, calf was still in the same place.  Searched for cow 245, and found her with calf 309.  Went back - tried to get calf 245 up and cow 309 to notice him - no luck (calf seemed week).  Just went back a few minutes ago, and calf 245 was up and nursing on 309!  I'll sleep better tonight.  Not sure how we messed up the tags.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Calving Journal - Novemver 17, 2015

6 new calves today - the beginning of the first big wave, I think!  The cows are testing my faith in them - found a calf outside the fence today with no mama around.  Found another that mom forgot - she was glad when I brought her calf back to her.  And a third wanted to eat my lunch when I went to tag her calf.

Looks like we'll have at least 5-6 more tomorrow...

Calving Journal - November 16, 2015

Three calves born today - all to good mothers.  Lots more looking close to calving.  Still going through the mineral like crazy!

Monday, November 16, 2015

That'll Do, Taff - Good Dog

Last night, we had to put down my old border collie, Taff.  At 12 years old, he'd been retired from sheep work for better than a year.  While his health had been declining, he was still a happy dog - he'd follow me out to do chores at home and greet me at the gate when I returned from work.  Yesterday was different, though - he was obviously in pain.  Sami suspected that he had tumor in his abdomen.  Last night, he couldn't get up, so we decided it was time.  With Sami, Lara and Emma gathered around us, I scratched his ears until he took his last breath.  Before Sami administered the euthanasia solution, I told him, "That'll do, Taff - good dog!" - I wanted him to take some comfort in the words I'd used when we worked together (for those of you who don't work dogs, "that'll do" is the traditional signal that the work is done).  And his life was a job well done.

I got Taff when he was 4 years old.  He'd failed as a sheep dog trial prospect, but he was an above average ranch dog - and the first young-ish border collie I'd ever had.  Part of his failing as a trial dog was that he'd sulk if his handler put too much pressure on him - he'd essentially quit working.  He helped me figure out how to put the right amount of pressure on a dog (it's different for every dog) and more importantly, how to relieve the pressure as a reward.  Taff and I got an enormous amount of work done together - moving sheep from field to field and on county roads, sorting sheep for shearing, moving weaned lambs away from their mothers, loading the trailer, and moving ewes with baby lambs.  For several years, I rarely went anywhere without him.  He'd go with me to the Roseville Farmers Market and nap in the cab of my truck (don't tell the Environmental Health Department).  He went with me when I worked at McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista.  In fact, the first time I didn't take him to work with me, he chewed up my muck boots!

Taff had the goofiest ears - they touched at the top when he was listening!  We affectionately called him the cone-head.  As we got more working dogs, Taff became the alpha in our "pack" - the other dogs looked to him for leadership.  Unlike most alpha dogs, Taff was a benevolent and gentle ruler - we also called him the Buddha collie.  He was also a sticker magnet - he had the roughest coat of any dog I've owned.  We clipped him every summer to keep him cool and manage the stickers - he was usually embarrassed for a day or so, but always came to enjoy being cooler.  Even with his haircut, he never missed a chance to roll in the freshest manure he could find!  For many years, he slept on the floor by my side of the bed - the dust ruffle is still stained!

While he wasn't the most talented dog in terms of his herding abilities, he had tremendous heart.  His drive to work, when he was in is prime, was incredible.  In hot weather, I had be careful about making him cool off while we were working - he didn't want to quit.  When he wasn't working, though, he was very easygoing (in accordance with his Buddha collie personality).  When Emma started 4-H, she showed Taff in agility and obedience - they made a great team.  But he wouldn't work stock for anyone but me.  If Sami gave him a flank command, for instance, and I was present, Taff would look at me to make sure it was ok.  We imagined him saying, "Dan - are you sure she knows what the #$@% she's doing?!"

I've joked that my border collies have hobbies to keep them occupied when they aren't working.  Mo likes to chase bird shadows.  Ernie enjoys chewing up hoses.  Taff, as he eased into retirement, apparently studied geometry.  When he was about 10, he discovered that the shortest distance between 2 points was a straight line.  Instead of going around a group of sheep (as I wanted him to do), he started going straight through them.

As I've written before, someone more eloquent than me once said, "I hope to become the shepherd that my dogs deserve."  Taff certainly made me a better shepherd and better dog handler.  He helped me see what a partnership between a man and a dog could accomplish.  He helped me realize that in working with a dog, the responsibility for communicating  lies with me.  I'll miss his goofy ears, his funny bark, and most of all, his partnership.  Good dog, Taff - that'll do.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Calving Journal - November 14

I had to be here at 5 a.m. this morning to open the facility for a public bird hunt.  I've made two passes through the heifers - found a new calf each time.  The heifers still seem to be starved for salt - I put two new bags out and they went right to them.

Much like the sheep, I need to learn to trust the cows.  They'll hide their calves and act like they don't know where they are - but they always know!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Calving Journal - November 13, 2015

Today, I moved the two oldest calves and their mothers out to the main herd.  No new calves today, but lots of heifers look close.  I'm sure the stormy weather on Sunday will yield lots of new babies!

Germination Day

Say the title of this post out loud - Germination Day....  To me, when I hear it, it sounds like it should be a holiday.  I'm willing to admit that this may be because I'm a sheepman who relies on annual rangeland to feed my sheep - and because we've been in a prolonged drought - but I like the idea of taking a day off when our annual grasses finally germinate in the fall.  I certainly celebrate when our golden Sierra foothills turn to green!

Our annual grasslands need 0.5-1 inch of rain to germinate in the fall.  For the 40 years (or so) that folks have kept track of such things at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) in Browns Valley, CA, a germinating rain has arrived sometime between late September and early November (on average).  In other words, a soaking rain is needed to get the seeds of our annual grasses to sprout.  The required amount depends on soil type, aspect, topography, and other factors.  For most of the lands that we graze near Auburn, 0.75" of rain is enough to get the grass started.

Continued growth depends on a number of other factors.  Once the grass has germinated, we need a good mix of sunny days and continued rainfall to keep it going.  We also need conditions that help keep moisture in the soil - dry north wind, for example, will dry out our soils.   Cooler weather - and cold storms - also cool the soil.  We need soil temperatures of greater than 50 degrees F to keep the grass growing.  And finally, we reach a point in early December where we simply don't have enough daylight to grow grass - the days are too short for photosynthesis.

Based on these considerations, an ideal autumn for me is one in which we get a germinating rain before our irrigation water shuts off in mid October.  This first rain is followed at regular intervals (perhaps once a week) by moderate rainfall (0.33-0.75 inches) interspersed with sunny days.  These conditions allow for enough grass to grow before we reach winter dormancy.  At that point, we have to manage our grass carefully to get through to the resumption of growth that usually occurs in February.  If the grass gets an early start in the fall, we have more to work with through the winter!

Here in Auburn, we had our 2015 germinating rain on November 1-2.  Last weekend, we had another nice storm.  The grass is starting to grow!  On the other hand, these storms ushered in cooler weather - our daytime highs here at home have been in the mid 50s.  At SFREC, soil temperatures have dropped into the lower 50s in the last several days.  Past experience and a look at the weather forecast suggest that we'll probably go into our winter dormancy period in the next 3-4 weeks.

Early germination isn't always ideal, nor is fall precipitation always a good indicator of how the year will turn out in terms of forage production.  In 2013, we had a germinating rain in early September, followed by a lengthy dry spell.  This early germinated grass died for lack of moisture.  We then had another germinating rain in mid October, again followed by a dry spell.  The grass germinated again, but didn't grow much.  Finally, we had a very cold storm in early December, followed by 50+ days of no rain at all.  When it finally rained again in late January 2014, it took 45 days before we actually had enough green grass to graze our sheep.  By comparison, last fall was outstanding in terms of precipitation and warm temperatures - we had good grass growth by Christmas.  Once again, the storm door slammed shut - we had one of the driest January-February periods on record.

Those of us who rely on Mother Nature's provenance are conditioned to uncertainty - we never know for sure what the rainy season holds in the Sierra foothills (or anywhere else, for that matter).  Despite this uncertainty - or perhaps because of it - I am always excited when we get our germinating rain in the fall.  I always celebrate Germination Day!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Calving Journal - November 12

I'm responsible for caring for 160 first-calf heifers that are part of an experiment at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center.  The goal of the experiment is to develop a vaccine for foothill abortion - a tick-borne disease that causes late-gestation abortions in unexposed cattle.  Some commercial producers can experience more than 50% loss rates.

These heifers were synchronized and Wagyu bulls were turned out on February 14, 2015.  The bulls were removed on March 9 - a 23-day breeding interval.  Theoretically, this means calves should start arriving in the third week of November.  Wagyu bulls were used because they typically "throw" low-birthweight calves, perfect for first-calf heifers.

Over the summer, we had a heifer die for unknown reasons, leaving 159 heifers to calve.  Beginning in August and continuing through the end of October, we started seeing a few abortions.  As part of the project, we try to recover aborted fetuses so that they can be evaluated by the California Animal Health and Food Safety lab at Davis to determine whether foothill abortion is the cause.  Sometimes we can find the fetuses before the coyotes, sometimes we can't.  All told, we had 15 heifers abort or deliver live calves that dies within a day or two of birth.

In October, we had two calves born (more than 4 weeks early) that have survived.  This week, we've started calving in earnest - 6 calves in the last couple of days.  Based on my visual inspection of the heifers this afternoon - and on the observation that stormy weather induces parturition, I expect that we'll have 15-20 calves on the ground by next Monday.  After so many abortions, I'm enjoying dealing with live, vigorous calves this week!

I intend to keep a daily journal of my experience calving these heifers.  I've lambed large groups of ewes, but this is my first opportunity to work with beef cattle.  We have the heifers in a large (120+ acre) annual pasture (consisting of mostly dry forage with some newly germinated grass coming up underneath).  We'll probably move to another similar pasture in several weeks.  We're providing supplemental protein and minerals.

Here are my observations/experiences for today:

  • Three new calves overnight - 2 bull calves and 1 heifer calf
  • The calves are weighing around 50 lbs - very light, but perfect for avoiding dystocias!
  • Most of the heifers are proving to be very good mothers.  Today, one heifer thought she'd like to come after me when I tried to tag her calf.  I went back up in the afternoon (to give the cow a chance to settle into motherhood - and to allow her to completely clean the calf.  I drove the truck between her and the calf and left my dogs in the cab (to help keep the cow calm).  I was able to quickly and safely tag the calf.
  • I'm recording birthweights and maternal scores for calving ease, maternal ability and calf vigor.  We've used these criteria with our sheep - I don't know if anyone uses a similar system with cattle.
  • The heifers have really been going after the trace minerals - they must be short of something in their diet at the moment.
  • The heifers, as you would expect with cooler temperatures, tend to follow the sun - they are on the east-facing hillside in the morning and the southwest slope in the afternoon.
  • Much like pasture lambing ewes, these heifers seem to stay on their "calving beds" (a 20-25' circle around where they delivered their calf) for 18-24 hours.  In that time period, I can easily catch the calf to tag and weigh it.  After 24 hours, the calves become more difficult to catch - just like lambs! 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

October 2015 - #sheep365

I'm a month into my little project of documenting my year of working with sheep with photography (with the hashtag #sheep365).  I've enjoyed thinking about how to tell a story about raising sheep through photographs - I hope you've enjoyed the photos, too!  Only 331 more days of this left (as somebody pointed out early on, I should have called this project #sheep366 because 2016 is a leap year).

Another fun aspect of this project has been that other sheep-raisers are already using the hashtag, or have started since I picked it up.  If you go to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and search for #sheep365, you'll see sheep from other parts of the world - pretty cool!  If you raise sheep, I hope you'll start sharing photos with this hashtag, too!

Finally, I've been contemplating what it means to be a shepherd.  If you haven't read The Flock by Mary Austin, you should (and I highly recommend the University of Nevada Press edition, which includes an outstanding afterword by Barney Nelson).  Here's how Mary Austin defines a shepherd: "A shepherd is an owner who travels with the flock, with or without herders, overseeing and directing...."  She contrasts this with an "owner or wool grower [who] sits at home...seldom seeing his flocks."  While shepherd isn't a term that's used much in the U.S., I like this description - I suppose a shepherd is what I am!

At the end of each month during the duration of this project, I'll post a blog entry with my favorite photos.  I'm finding that the photos aren't staying in chronological order (thank you Google) - sorry for the confusing layout! Thanks for following along!
A sheepherder selfie (shelfie?!) while moving irrigation!
In early October, I took a day off from my shepherding
responsibilities and went deer hunting - successfully, I might add!
Wondering where the pea crisps are!
Kate supervised the end of irrigation season!
October in Placer County - grazing sheep under the persimmon trees!
Rosie - director of security.
Red sky at night - no rain in sight.
Love this pasture - and the sheep do, too.
Waiting to get started - not one of Ernie's strong suits.
Moving up the road to Amber Oaks Farm - easier than hauling with the trailer.
Integrated pest management - we get green feed, and Amber Oaks Berry farm gets
pest control!  Works well for both of us!

Sorting our breeding groups on October 1 - with Roger Ingram.
Fred, our new Shropshire ram.  We've put him with the mule and Shropshire
breeding group.

My second deer hunting trip in October - in the High Sierra!
The rams enjoy their work!
In the berries...
The ewes like dog food - and so does Reno!
The rams must be in good body condition going into the breeding season -
they kinda forget to eat for about 6 weeks cuz there's too much to do!
Sometimes a border collie is required to keep the sheep
away from the guard dog's dinner.
About midway through the month, I discovered that Instagram
allows me to combine photos - what a nerd I am!
What a goofball!
Taff is retired, but he still loves to nap in
the back of my truck!
The first heavy dew of the fall - and the first wet feet!
Nothing better to a shepherd than seeing sheep with their heads down, grazing!
Had chores and homework to do on the night of our county fair
lamb carcass awards dinner, but I was able to drop off some reusable
shopping bags for the kids, courtesy of the American Lamb Board!
Another shelfie....
Sheep, sheep and more sheep....
Both the Macon girls play soccer, so it's part of every October.  Emma's team,
the 49er United Ambush, was third at the Roseville Ghosts and Goals tournament -
and they won the costume contest!
Nice pasture!
Always a curious ewe in the bunch....
We put bells on about 10% of the flock -
nice to be able to hear them if they get out
in the dark!
These girls were happy that I'd re-filled their mineral tub!
Waiting for rain....
Love this tree!
Raccoons are only a threat during lambing, but
Reno doesn't like them in his sheep any time
of the year.
Towards the end of October, we moved the mule/shrop breeding group into a stand of johnsongrass - a weed that's related
to Sudan grass.  We watch the weather this time of year - this grass becomes toxic after it freezes.
We're part of an informal group (the Foothill Grazing Geeks) of
ranchers who meet for pasture walks from time to time - we hosted
this month's meeting.
Any question why this particular crossbreed (sired by a Blueface Leicester ram out of a Cheviot ewe) is called a "mule"!?
Our irrigation water shut off on October 15.
Now we hope for rain....
As the days grow shorter, sometimes I don't see the sheep
in daylight hours.
Plenty of dog power!  Mo (L) and Ernie (R) are my everyday dogs.  Kate (C) belongs to a friend - we tried her out
for another friend, who is going to purchase her.  Kate will fly to Tennessee next week!
Halloween morning at Flying Mule Farm - hopefully the last warm and dry day for awhile.  Supposed to rain tomorrow - we'll see!
We had showers in early October - wish we'd had more!  This is our mule and
Shropshire breeding group.