Friday, January 30, 2015

The Evolution of a Stock Dog

If you've read my blog in the past, you'll know that I frequently write about my experiences learning to use border collies to help me manage my sheep.  As my own skills and confidence have improved, so have the skills and confidence of my dogs.  Together, we can generally handle any situation involving the sheep - from moving up the county road to loading the trailer to sorting off and catching a sick animal.  While I have the good fortune to have the chance to work my dogs in my new job as the herdsman at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, the cows (and the environment) are very different - for me and my dogs.

When I took this new job, I sought the advice of friends who have more experience working cattle with dogs than I have.  All of the advice was useful - and all of it was advice I would not have understood when I started working dogs.  Experience is an excellent teacher.  Several years ago, I had used Mo to help move cows that we were custom grazing for other people.  His work was passable, but he was clearly more comfortable with sheep (as was I).

Yesterday, we gathered cow-calf pairs and bulls off of a hilly pasture at SFREC.  I worked Mo from horseback, which was new for both of us.  As we crested the main hill, we easily pushed a group of 12 pairs off the ridge towards the gate we were planning to go through.  One of the other staff members radioed that there were a couple of cows who refused to leave a supplement tub about halfway down the hill.  She was on an ATV, and the hillside was too steep for her.  I worked my way down until I could see the cows, and sent Mo on a "come bye" flank (to the left).  He got into position in front of the stubborn cows and got them headed the right direction.

I turned my horse just in time to see the 12 pair we'd gathered originally galloping back towards us!  I  urged Mo to get to their heads while I worked my way down the steep hill.  Mo stopped them, and together we got them turned back around and headed up the road towards the gate.  On several occasions, a stubborn cow decided she'd rather fight Mo than head to fresh feed - and Mo stood his ground!  This gave me enough time to get into position to help turn the cow and keep them lined out.

The gate in this particular field is in a difficult spot - rather than being on an inside corner, it's adjacent to an outside break in the fence (which means the cows don't naturally see it).  Most of the pairs went through, but one calf (there's always one, it seems) missed the gate entirely and ran up the inside of the fence to keep up with her.  I sent Mo on an "away" flank - which he spaced perfectly, and he stopped the calf.  Again, this gave me enough time to ride over and help him turn the calf and walk him back to the gate.

Once we got a count on the cows, we realized we were 3 short.  Anna (the other staff member) and I made another ride through the field without finding them.  I decided that Mo and I would check an adjacent pasture later that afternoon.

The morning's work obviously boosted Mo's confidence with working cattle - I could see him getting more confident as we worked.  Mama cows can be among the most difficult cattle to herd with dogs - their maternal instincts tell them that the dog is a threat.  It also reinforced some of the advice I'd received from my friends.  Mo started to realize that I could help him, which boosted his confidence even further.  He's generally a very gentle dog with sheep; he was appropriately aggressive with the cows.

That afternoon, we drove out to the adjacent pasture to look for the missing pairs.  The field is long and skinny (it runs on both sides of an irrigation ditch), and it's brushy in some areas.  Mo and I walked along the ditch bank, and as we reached the far end of the pasture, Mo spotted the cows (I've learned to watch my dogs when searching for livestock - they almost always see them before I do) .  I told Mo to stay put and walked ahead to open the gate.  Walking back, I sent Mo up into the brush to push two cows and three calves towards the gate.  The third cow was below the ditch, so I recalled Mo and sent him down to collect her.  All three pairs walked through the gate and up onto the road in the first pasture.

Like the big group, these six animals missed the difficult gate.  I've found that smaller groups of range livestock (cows and sheep) are usually more difficult to control than larger groups - they are more nervous when they are in smaller groups.  After missing the gate the first time, they started running up the hill.  Mo did a beautiful outrun - he didn't make contact with the cows until he was in position to stop them and turn them back.  After several more passes by the gate, they walked through and lined out towards their new pasture.

Mo's evolution from sheep dog to stock dog is a long term project (as is my own evolution from shepherd to stockman).  Mo's half-brother Ernie will take even more work.  I realized while working Mo on the cows that solid flanks and controlled outruns are critical - and Ernie's not quite there yet.  I also realized, however, that there's no substitute for actual work - we only make progress when things are in motion.  In that respect, working stock dogs is like training horses.  As a novice, my instinct was to shut things down when they started going wrong.  I've done the same thing with horses - stopping might be safer, but not much is learned (by horse OR rider).  Looking back, I realize that my decision to use Ernie every day not only improved his abilities and confidence; it improved mine as well.  I intend to use the same approach it getting my dogs to work with cattle.  I'll keep you posted!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Research Cowboy

I've only been at the University of California's Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center for a little more than a week, but I'm thinking this new job - as a "research cowboy" - is going to be a pretty good fit for me.

SFREC is a 5,700-acre ranch that has been owned by the University of California since the early 1960s.  The facility, and it's cattle, are available to researchers from a variety of disciplines.  Currently, scientists from UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC Cooperative Extension, CSU Chico, and other institutions are conducting research into cattle nutrition, water quality, grazing management, wildlife habitat and cattle health, just to name a few subjects.  To a self admitted pasture geek like me, it's important and facscinating research!

The job of the staff, me included, includes normal ranch work - maintaining fences and roads, irrigating pastures, moving and caring for cattle.  We also support the research projects - feeding brewer's grains to cows, weighing steers on a grazing trial, helping researchers locate a transect to measure water quality.  I'm finding the variety of work to be enjoyable and mentally stimulating.

With a ranch this large, and with terrain that varies from Yuba river frontage to ponderosa pine - black oak forest, it will take me some time to get familiar with the entire property.  We were so busy in my first week that I didn't have time to get all of my safety training done (meaning the only modes of transportation available to me so far are Lulu the quarterhorse, a 1952 military jeep, and my own two feet).  I'm not complaining, though - walking and riding are the best way to get to know the place, I think!  While it's nice to know the roads, the only way to assess the condition of the pastures and the cattle, at least in my very short experience here, is on foot or horseback.

As you might imagine on a ranch of this size, there's an amazing array of wildlife.  So far, I've seen lots of raptors - including redtail hawks, kestrals, golden eagles and bald eagles.  I've also seen quail and bandtail pigeons, and a fair number of deer.  I expect I'll see much more as the seasons progress.

I'm also enjoying the fact that I can focus on the cattle and the grass.  The field station has an amazing crew to support the research and care for the property.  The fact that most of my colleagues have been working at the field station for more than 10 years suggests that it's a pretty great place to work.

Stay tuned - I'm sure I'll have more to write about in the days, months and years to come.  In the meantime, I'm thoroughly enjoying learning to be a research cowboy!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Global Weirding

As I was setting up fences this morning to give my ewes some additional grazing for the day, I was startled to see two large flocks of geese flying high overhead, headed north.  While we have lazy resident Canada geese that don't migrate, these geese were formed up and flying at high altitude.  I wonder if the record-setting warm temperatures we've had for the last week (after our brief "cold" snap in early January) have confused the geese.

Our native blue oaks seem equally confused.  I started to notice that many of the oaks started turning color in August - 45-60 days earlier than normal.  Based on the limited research I've done, this was probably because they were drought stressed.  Despite this early color-change, many of these oaks still have leaves - and we're only 6-8 weeks away from normal leaf-out.  Our local horticulture farm advisor, Cindy Fake, theorizes that the hormonal changes that cause the trees to drop leaves (by making cellular changes in leaf stems) didn't happen this year.  I find it very odd to see autumn colors in the midst of winter.

Finally, following the wettest December we've had since we've lived in Auburn, the weather has once again turned dry.  We haven't had measurable rainfall since Christmas (almost three weeks).  While this dry spell pales in comparison to last year's 50-plus day dry stretch in December and January, it does make me nervous.  I was stunned by the lack of snow in Yosemite National Park during our visit on January 3.

What does this mean?  Personally, I think the climate is changing and that human activity (e.g., burning fossil fuels) is at least partly responsible for this change.  In the short term, these weird phenomena can create challenges for those of us who work directly with natural resources.  I've written previously about the disease issues we've faced because of last year's dry and warm winter.  Many fruit trees require cold weather for a necessary dormant period - and many crop pests are able to overwinter when it's warmer than normal.  In the long term, I think most farmers and ranchers will adapt - but these changes will probably influence the types of crops and the length of our growing season here in the Sierra foothills.

In the meantime, we seem to be back in a pattern

like last year.  The days are beautiful, but the lack of winter weather is frightening.  Weird, indeed!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Selling Sheep

For some time now, I’ve realized that my current income level (between my current part-time job and our sheep business) doesn’t meet my family’s needs.  While I’ve been planning to return to college to obtain a masters degree, I’ve also decided to take a full-time job that will provide enough income and allow me to further my education. Next Wednesday, I will become the herdsman at the University of California’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center.  I’ll have day-to-day responsibility for managing the cattle and grazing on the Center’s 5700 acres of rangeland and pasture.  I’m tremendously excited!  That said, my decision (at least in part) is the consequence of the lack of profit in my sheep business, which in turn, is driven mostly by my lack of capitalization, lack of scale, and the impacts of 3 years of drought.  Despite these challenges, I’ve discovered that I enjoy teaching others about animal agriculture and farming - and a significant factor in my decision is my desire to do more hands-on teaching.  I’m excited - and a bit nervous - about this new chapter in my life!
But I’m also having a hard time letting go of my farming dream.  I’ve started thinking through the reality of trying to raise sheep while working on a masters thesis and working full-time.  I’ve been so fortunate to be working in a part time job that gives me the flexibility to deal with problems with the sheep when they occur.  Depending on where we’re grazing sheep, my office job is no more than 5 miles from our pastures.  I won’t be able to drop everything and put sheep back in their electric fence when I’m working 45 miles away - and so we’ve started selling ewes.

I began ranching commercially, albeit at a very small scale, nearly 20 years ago with the partnership purchase of a handful of cows. I took our first vegetable crop - swiss chard, pumpkins and popcorn - to the Auburn farmers market in the fall of 2002.  Over the next several years, we tried a little bit of everything - from bok choy to green beans, sweet corn to snow peas, and pastured eggs to pastured poultry.  I finally settled on grass-fed lamb.  When I look back at my writing from that time period, I’m struck by my own optimism and naivete - micro farms were going to save the world, or so I thought at the time!

The economic realities of small-scale farming tempered my optimism and cured my naivete over the years.  As our emphasis evolved towards sheep and I tried to expand to a scale that would provide a full-time salary for me, I began to realize that this farming gig was much more challenging that I’d originally thought.  Ultimately, I’ve realized that I don’t have the capital, the secure and affordable land base, the market volume and (if I’m honest, some of the business skills) necessary to grow to the 600-800 ewe operation necessary to pay me (the owner) $35,000 to $40,000 per year.  While my shepherding skills have improved tremendously in the last 20 years - to the point where I’m certain I could care for that many sheep with little or no additional help - I simply haven’t been able to grow my sheep business to a sustainable level.  And like many small scale farmers, I enjoy working outside much more than the mundane (but very necessary) tasks like bookkeeping and business management - so I’ve neglected these parts of the job.

In some ways, this realization has made me a better teacher when it comes to helping new farmers (or at least I hope it has) - my experience has taught me the importance of addressing the issues of scale and capitalization early on in creating a farming business.  On the other hand, I fear that I have become the stereotypical grumpy old farmer who is great at telling newbies why something won’t work (rather than offering suggestions that increase the likelihood of success).

I've also realized that while the drought has been difficult for our business, it's not the sole factor in the challenges we've faced.  The drought has intensified the problems that already existed in our ranching business; namely, our lack of scale, our undercapitalization, and my poor cash flow management.  I don't regret any of the decisions that I've made in coping with the drought.  To take care of our land, we needed to reduce our flock.  To be a father to my daughters, I needed to spend my Saturdays with them (at soccer games, horse shows, and simply at home) rather than at the farmers' market.

Moving forward, we will be keeping a small breeding flock (small enough to manage, but big enough to matter).  I plan to make some improvements to the fences and the irrigation system at our longest-running leased properties to ensure that sheep can’t escape the properties entirely, which will make it easier to be away during the day.  I guess what I’m saying is that I will keep a hand (or at least a finger) in the sheep business even while I’m going back to school and working another job.  Being a shepherd is part of my identity, and I can’t entirely give that up. Selling sheep isn't the end of the world for me, but I know it will leave a hole.

Several years ago, a friend loaned me her copy of Sweet Promised Land by Robert Laxalt.  Laxalt recounts the experiences of his father, who immigrated to Nevada from the Basque country - first to tend sheep for others; later, to tend his own sheep.  The memoir recounts that the elder Laxalt went out of the sheep business multiple times (because of drought, economics and other familiar factors) - and always returned to it.  As I think about the failings of my small farm business and about selling my own flock, the example of Dominique Laxalt’s persistence, hard work, and enthusiasm for raising sheep gives me some hope.  The realization that I need to make changes now is made easier by the hope that I’ll come back to the sheep business on a commercial scale - sometime in the future.

Monday, January 5, 2015

2015 Shepherding School

Once again, Flying Mule Farm (in collaboration with UC Cooperative Extension) is offering a series of workshops designed to help new and aspiring shepherds get started in the sheep business.  These workshops will give students basic information on sheep husbandry, marketing and business management, lambing, shearing and wool handling, predator prevention and pasture management.  Several workshops will be offered classroom style, while most will feature hands-on work with sheep.

The 2015 Shepherding School kicks off with a workshop on predator protection on January 11.  Here's the full schedule:

  • Predator Protection for Small Scale Livestock Producers (January 11): This workshop is part of the Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference in Grass Valley, CA.  For more information (and to register) go to:
  • Introduction to Sheep Husbandry - Classroom Session (January 15): Basic information on managing a small flock of sheep, including management calendars, husbandry practices, economics of the sheep business, and marketing.  For more information, and to register online, go to:  The workshop will be held at the UCCE office in Auburn.
  • Introduction to Sheep Husbandry - Field Day (January 17): This hands-on field day will provide students with the opportunity to learn how to give vaccinations, trim feet, evaluate general health, and prepare a flock for lambing.  For more information, and to register online, go to: The workshop will be held at our leased pasture near Auburn.
  • Lambing on Pasture Field Day (March 7): This field day will provide hands-on instruction on managing a lambing flock on pasture.  Students will learn to dock, castrate and eartag lambs, manage ewe and lamb nutrition, evaluate health, and manage pastures during lambing.  Stay tuned for registration information!
  • Shearing and Wool Handling Field Day (early May): This field day will provide hands-on information regarding preparing sheep for shearing, shearing-site set-up and management, wool handling and preparation for marketing.  The date will be determined by availability of our sheep shearer.
  • California Multi-Species Grazing Academy (September 11-13): This multi-day workshop will provide students with hands-on experience in electric fencing, pasture management, forage evaluation and animal husbandry.  Participants will work with sheep and goats.  Stay tuned for more information!

For more information, go to and click on the specific events on the calendar page - or contact me directly at or 530/305-3270!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Grazing during Dormancy

In the last week, our weather in the Sierra foothills has turned cold - finally!  While I welcome the onset of winter (especially after the 11+ inches of rain we had in December), the cold weather and shorter days mean that our annual grasses have gone into their winter dormancy.  And with dormancy comes a change in our grazing strategy.

We are always concerned with providing adequate rest for our pasture grasses to regrow after a bout of grazing.  On our un-irrigated rangelands, this rest phase varies from 20-25 days (in March and early April) to 45-60 days (after fall germination and before winter dormancy).  Our annual grasses have two dormant periods - summer (after the grasses die and before a germinating fall rain), and winter (once the soil temperatures and day lengths drop past the critical point).  Now that our rangelands have gone into winter dormancy, they won't start growing again until the soil temperatures and day lengths cross back over this threshhold - usually sometime in mid-February.

All of this means that the paddocks we're grazing today (January 1) won't be grazable again for at least 30 days after growth resumes (we'll probably pass through these paddocks again in mid-March).  In other words, we won't get any significant quantity of new forage for about 75 days.  What grass we have now will have to carry the ewes through until then.

With more than 17 inches of rainfall since the rain "year" began on July 1, we're much better off this January than we were last year.  When I look back at photographs from last January, I'm amazed by the lack of green!  The other difference, however, is the lack of standing dry forage this January.  With all of the rain we've had, last year's grass crop has largely decomposed.  Last year, the standing dry grass saved us - we were able to feed supplemental protein and meet our ewes' fiber requirements with dry forage.  This year, we'll need to stretch the standing green forage that we have on January 1 until the grass starts growing again.  Every year is different; the art of managing rangelands and livestock requires us to stay flexible!  Happy 2015!