Sunday, March 29, 2015

Crossing a Threshold

I imagine that the farmers and ranchers who lived through the Dust Bowl felt like the world (at least as they knew it) was ending.  That's the thing about drought - you don't know you're in one until it's well underway, and you don't know when it will end until it's over.  All you know for sure is that the world is not behaving normally.  Or, to put it another way, "Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get." This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but I can't find evidence that he actually said it!

As we face a fourth year of drought in California, I feel like we've crossed some sort of climate threshold.  The world has changed, at least from where I can observe it.  Here's a partial list of the things that feel different to me:

  • We have almost no snow in the Sierra Nevada (Spanish for Snowy Mountains).  Many ski resorts - even some of the big ones - have closed early.  The latest snow survey reveals that our snow pack is just 8 percent of normal for this time of year - the lowest amount every recorded in the 65 years we've been doing snow surveys.  Since we rely on snow pack for storing much of the water we use in the hot, dry summer months (for irrigation, drinking water and environmental purposes), the lack of snow is of grave concern.
  • The winter weather we have had this year was concentrated into a handful of relatively extreme events, punctuated by extended dry periods. December 2014 was the wettest December we've experienced since moving to Auburn in 2001.  January 2015 was the driest January in history.
  • Speaking of extreme events, we've seen wildfires and dust storms on the east side of the Sierra Nevada this "winter."  I talked to a friend whose family has ranched on the east side of Sierra Valley (north of Truckee) for generations.  They had a sand storm in February that left 2-3 feet of sand piled up along their fencelines.  A February wildfire north of Bishop burned more than 7,000 acres and destroyed many homes in the small community of Swall Meadows.
  • I manage sheep and cattle grazing on annual rangelands in the Sierra foothills.  The vegetation is 30-45 days ahead of where it should be in late March.  Our annual grasses are already producing seedheads - and some are dying back.  The blue oaks and black oaks leafed out at least 30 days earlier than normal.  And since the vegetation is off schedule, so are many of the insects and animals that depend on rangelands.  The wild turkeys are already nesting.  We have leaf hoppers in our grasslands that we normally don't see until early summer.
  • Much of this is related to temperatures, I'm sure.  We've had temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s in March - it feels more like May!  The warm temperatures and early vegetation growth means that soil moisture is depleted - what little precipitation we received since the first of the year is gone.

And so at the risk of sounding slightly apocalyptic, it feels to me as if we've crossed some sort of climate threshold.  If our own activities as humans have changed the climate (and I believe that the scientific evidence supports this perspective), then it feels as if we have moved into a period of rapid change and profound uncertainty.  We have challenging days (and years) ahead of us, I'm afraid.

Pastoral Bliss - or working my @$$ off!

Since I started my job at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in January, I've received lots of congratulatory messages.  I've also heard lots of good-natured envy - statements like, "Wow - you get to ride a horse and get paid to do it?!"  And while I'm absolutely loving my job - I am getting paid to ride a horse, after all - I've realized that the actual work involved in making a living by caring for livestock is incomprehensible to most people.

Part of this relates to the nature of the work.  I work outside in an incredibly beautiful environment.  I ride a horse and do a fair amount of walking.  For most people, horseback riding and hiking are strictly recreational activities - something they do in their leisure time.  I think the assumption is that my work activities must happen at the same leisurely pace.  The pressure of getting cows and calves paired up before moving them back to pasture, or of building fence around a new pasture for my sheep before they run out of grass, isn't part of an outsider's frame of reference.  The riding and hiking is all they see.

Which brings us to economics (seems like everything relates to economics for me!).  While I'm so fortunate to be making a living doing work I love to do, it is work (as opposed to recreation).  During our lambing season this year (which is now wrapped up), my work day started at 6 a.m. when I left for the Field Station.  I typically left for home between 3:30 and 4 p.m., which put me at our sheep operation by 4:30 or 5 p.m.  If I only needed to check on new lambs, I was done in an hour.  If we needed to build fence, I might be working until 7:15 or 7:30 p.m.

I write this not to seek sympathy for how hard I work (hard work is certainly not unique to agriculture!), but to try to understand my own reaction to friends' envy about my job.  Sometimes in the twelfth hour of a 14-hour day, I find it difficult to remember how lucky I truly am to be doing work I enjoy!  I hope my friends will keep reminding me of this!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Stock Dog Biathalon

This week at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, we've been gathering cow-calf pairs in anticipation of doing pregnancy checks this Thursday.  I also needed to move our ewes and lambs on Monday evening.  Thankfully, I had my working partners with me - Ernie and Mo each took huge steps towards becoming accomplished stock dogs (that is, dogs who can herd both sheep and cattle).  This evening, I'm in awe of their heart, endurance and athleticism.  They truly are stock dog biathletes!

In both cases, I was moving mothers and babies (calves and lambs), which are probably the most difficult class of livestock for dogs to herd.  Good mothers (cows and ewes) want to protect their young - and so they'll fight the dogs.  My dogs have learned to be appropriately firm with a "stompy" ewe, but aggressive mama cows are another matter.  A dog needs a great deal of courage to stand his (or her) ground with a 1300 pound bovine bearing down on him.

The cow work was further complicated by the terrain.  Yesterday and today, we were working on gathering pairs out of a field formally called Forbes-2, but more affectionately known as Jackass Joes. It's a 600+ acre field that runs from the Yuba River up to Buzzard Peak - an elevation change of over 800 feet from bottom to top.  Part of the field can be covered on horseback; much of it is too steep even for horses.  Walking from the river to the top is strenuous for any dog; pushing reluctant cows to the top is intense.  Fortunately both dogs - and the horses I rode (Lulu yesterday and Rose today) were up to the task!

Looking down to were we started our ride.
Yesterday after "work," the dogs and I moved all of our ewes and lambs down the hill and across the road from where they'd been grazing.  Moving sheep pairs is further complicated by the fact that herding lambs is worse than herding cats!  Lambs haven't figured out that it's a bad idea to disobey the dogs yet - and the dogs know better than to get too rough with the lambs.  Moving sheep pairs takes more finesse than moving cattle pairs, and I wasn't sure my dogs could make the adjustment from one species to the other.  My lack of confidence was unfounded; the dogs handled the move perfectly!

Today, we went back to Jackass Joes to find some missing pairs.  This time, it was just me and the dogs (yesterday, one of my colleagues had ridden with us).  We found 5 pairs at the bottom of the pasture and started working them up toward the gate at the top.  The cows worked their way into a patch of brush and rock that was far too steep and densely vegetated for me and my horse.  I sent Mo and then Ernie ahead of the cows.  They stopped them, and after a brief period of intense negotiation, the dogs convinced the cows to turn around and take an easier route up the hill.

Like all athletes, my dogs know the importance
of staying cool and hydrated!
All of this work - and working both dogs together - has revealed several things about the strengths of each dog. Mo has an incredible amount of judgement - he knows where he needs to be at all times.  Ernie, on the other hand, has heart and courage - he stayed directly in front of a cow that wanted to clean his clock.  A few well-timed nips to her nose convinced her to turn around and head up the hill.

People who have never relied on their animal partners to achieve a piece of work are probably tired of me saying this, but working with dogs is an amazing experience.  Over these last 2 days, my dogs have proven that they'll try to do anything I ask them to do.  I couldn't ask for any better help!

Finishing yesterday's last chore!  Ernie's wondering when I'm
going to quit taking photos and start helping him!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Thoughtful Stockmanship

One of the best novels I've ever read is Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry.  Here is one of my favorite passages - the narrator (Jayber Crow) is talking to a professor at the seminary he is about to leave:

“'You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time.' 
'And how long is that going to take?' 
'I don't know. As long as you live, perhaps.' 
'That could be a long time.' 
'I will tell you a further mystery,' he said. 'It may take longer.'” ― Wendell BerryJayber Crow
While Berry is talking about something much deeper (faith), I've found that this idea applies to my efforts to become a better stockman.  Whether I'm working with my dogs, herding sheep, riding or driving a horse or mule, or moving cattle, I find the process of learning - of observing, trying, adapting and responding to what the animals are telling me to be incredibly rewarding - for me, and (I hope) for the animals.

Steve Cote, who works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Idaho, has written another wonderful book entitled Stockmanship: A Powerful Tool for Grazing Lands Management.  He writes,
"The best handlers have the best attitudes. They watch, adjust, and constantly move to where the stock show them they need to be to get the job done right, all the time. 
"Put the same energy into learning and watching that you once put into chasing wild cows. No- body likes wild cattle, so why make them that way? Don’t tolerate wild ones. Change them by working them right. 
"Confidence in this method, backed with a little knowledge, will get things done right."
For me, these assertions capture the essence of stockmanship.  In many ways, I think, admitting that you don't know something and that you're still learning takes far more self confidence than insisting that you know what you're talking about.

Thoughtful stockmanship requires us to assume that if animals aren't doing what we expect or desire that they are trying to communicate with us (rather than misbehaving).  For example, if cattle won't go through a particular gate, a thoughtful stockman (or woman) tries to figure out why (rather than trying to go faster or yell louder).

Interspecies communication is complicated - especially when there are more than two species involved.  In my daily work at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, for example, I often ride a horse and use a border collie to move cattle.  Just think about all of the communication that has to happen in this scenario - the dogs are communicating with the cattle and with me.  The horse is also communicating with me and the cattle.  The cattle have to try to communicate with a horse, a human and a dog.  In all of these interconnecting networks, the human (me) is probably the least adept at understanding what the other species are trying to "say."  I have found that the faster I try to work, the more impatient I become - and and my ability to communicate suffers.

Which brings me to the pace of work.  I think one of the reasons that I find it difficult to work in a group of people with varying degrees of commitment to thoughtful stockmanship is that the pace at which I like to work seems slow (at least at first glance).  I don't try to get cattle (or sheep) moving - and keep them moving - at a brisk pace.  If I can get livestock moving, I release the pressure on them as a reward for their behavior.  To others, I'm sure that my backing off on the pressure seems to slow the work - to me, it seems to reward the livestock for doing what I've asked them to do.  Jerry Johnson, who cares for the UC Davis Animal Science Department cattle, talks about a former part-time employee, saying he never knew anyone who worked so slow and got so much done.  Going slow to work fast, in other words.

Finally, I use pressure and release from pressure to train livestock to move quietly and calmly.  Sometimes when working with others who don't use these techniques, I suspect that my colleagues see this release from pressure as timidity on my part.  However, I think stockmanship requires quiet confidence and an attitude of continuous learning.  The animals are always trying to tell us something; we must be thoughtful enough to understand them.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Different Year, Different Drought

Our continued dry weather and scant snow pack make it increasingly likely that 2015 will be another drought year in my part of California.  While conservation and prudent management mean that our own irrigation district (the Nevada Irrigation District, or NID) will probably make full deliveries this year, farmers and ranchers in other parts of the state aren't so fortunate.  And even with prospects for a "normal" irrigation season, we're currently dealing with the consequences of a dry January and February on our un-irrigated annual grasslands.
The contrast between grazed and un-grazed annual grasslands is
remarkable at SFREC.  I put these cow-calf pairs into this new pasture
just before taking this photograph.

The Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC), where I am the beef herdsman, has been monitoring annual forage production for over 30 years.  This year's March 1 measurement indicated that our forage growth is about 70 percent of normal for this time of year.  This beats last year's March 1 measurement (which was 58 percent of normal), but it doesn't tell the whole story (about either year).

Last year, we had no precipitation between early December 2013 and late January 2014 - in fact, we set a record for consecutive days without precipitation.  The autumn of 2014 was much better in terms of rain - we measured more rain in Auburn in December than we've measured since we moved there in 2001.  We had great germination in our annual grasslands, and by January 1, 2015, the green hills and oak woodlands that we graze (with sheep in Auburn, and with cattle at SFREC) were promising a better year for grass growth.
A ewe with new twins, grazing pasture that was last grazed in
November.  In a normal year, this grass would be much taller!

But then it quit raining.  We measured 0.01 inches of rain in Auburn in January.  SFREC fared a bit better - we got twice that much rain in Browns Valley!  And since we received around 3 inches of rain in early February, it's turned dry again.  As I write this, I'm seeing high clouds and a slight chance of rain in our forecast for tomorrow.

Getting back to the 70 percent of normal growth (about 475 pounds of grass per acre), this number represents our ungrazed standing crop of grass.  The pastures that we've grazed since January 1 seem to have stopped growing.  We generally expect to be able re-graze our annual grasslands every 30-35 days during the growing season (March to May), but we have yet to see the kind of recovery that makes me comfortable with regrazing.  Last year, because it rained in February, March and April, we had normal regrowth during this months.

Combined with the warmer-than-normal temperatures, much of our vegetation seems 20-30 days ahead of where it should be for early March.  The oaks have leafed out, the redbud and lilacs are blooming, and some of the annual grasses are headed out (making seeds).  By definition, annual plants must complete their life cycles (germination, growth, reproduction and death) within a year or growing season.  If it stays dry, I think our annual grasses will finish growing early.  In some ways, at least from a grazing perspective, 2015 may be tougher than 2014.
Native perennial grasses (like this purple needlegrass at
SFREC) can still be found in our foothill rangelands.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Farming Mythology

I'm currently teaching a course on natural resources conservation at our local community college.  Last week, we discussed sustainable agriculture.  I started with a group exercise, asking my students to describe a "factory farm" and a "sustainable farm."  Each group described factory farms as large, monoculture, corporately owned farms that rely on chemical inputs and that focus on global markets.  Each group described sustainable farms as diverse, small-scale, family-owned farms that are focused on local markets.  Having helped to teach beginning farming and farm business planning courses with our local cooperative extension office, I think these perspectives about farming are pervasive.  Many of the new, locally-focused farmers and ranchers in our community come to farming as a avocation as a rejection of their perceptions about large scale agriculture.  And I'll admit that my own approach to raising sheep is motivated in part by my desire to take a different path than conventional, large-scale livestock production.  But I'm beginning to think that some of our perceptions are based on mythology - that large is bad and small is good, that organic production (by it's very nature) is more sustainable.

First, contrary to what my students believe (as do, I suspect, most Americans), farming in the United States is still largely a family affair.  According to the USDA Economic Research Service, family-owned farms account for 97.6 percent of all U.S. farming operations, producing 85 percent of all farm production.  As with any complex system, family farming in the U.S. takes many different forms.  Again, according to ERS:

"Farms in the United States tend to be much larger and are operated differently than smallholder family farms in developing countries. Large U.S. farms are frequently run by extended families, with multiple owner-managers specializing in different parts of the farm business. Many large farms produce only a few commodities and often specialize in particular stages of commodity production. They often purchase the services of outside firms to handle some farm tasks (such as field preparation, chemical application, or harvest), relying on those providers for expertise, labor, and equipment. They may also rely on hired and contract labor in addition to the labor provided by the operators and their families. Nevertheless, most U.S. farms still rely primarily on labor provided by the farm family, and most large farms, which rely heavily on non-family labor, are still organized as family businesses. Family organization remains an essential feature of agriculture in the United States, just as it does throughout much of the rest of the world."
To bring this to a personal level, most of my friends who operate or work for large scale farming operations are part of family owned farms.  The sheep and grain operation I worked for last year would fall into this category.  At 3900 acres, it can hardly be considered small, but it is owned and operated by a husband and wife team.

The economic realities of farming (at any scale) have required all operations to increase labor efficiency.  For large-scale U.S. farming, many of these labor efficiencies have focused on technology and mechanization.  For small-scale "sustainable" farms, at least in my part of the foothills, these labor "efficiencies" have required the farm owners to work for less than minimum wage - in other words, many of us subsidize our operations by working for free at least part of the year (and often by holding down off-farm jobs).  I'm not sure either model is ultimately sustainable.

For me, factory farming has more to do with attitude than scale, ownership or crop diversity.  A factory acquires inputs, transforms these inputs through a manufacturing process, and sells out puts.  This can be accomplished at a variety of scales and regardless of ownership.

Sustainable farming, by contrast, involves the careful management of living systems and renewable resources.  Sustainable farming essentially requires us to combine living soil, sunlight, water and carbon in a way that sustains the biological, economic and social life of our farm, our community and our planet.  This also can be accomplished at a variety of scales and regardless of ownership.  That said, I think families who live and work in the communities where they farm ave better suited to this approach than corporate officers who are physically separated from the act of growing food.

In some ways, I wonder if American perceptions about factory versus sustainable farming are both directly related to our collective disconnection from the act of growing food.  When we demonize "factory" farms, we tend to forget that we want cheap food.  When we canonize "Organic" production (I capitalize the word to refer to certification rather than actual production practices), we forget that Organic farms can operate at a large scale and on the input-output model of a factory.

Returning to my own farming experience, I find that scale and efficiency have been critical to our efforts to be "sustainable." While I am proud of the attention we pay to the health of our soils and our animals, and of our role in our community, our inability to build our business to an economically viable scale (at least for now) suggests that true sustainability is an elusive (and difficult) goal.  And while social attitudes about food production are changing, we've not yet found a way to translate these attitudes into economic success for the types of farms we say want.  We have difficulty letting go of our myths!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Why a Lamb Becomes a Bummer (and What Happens Then)

Mo keeping track of our newest bummer lamb

If you raise sheep, at some point, you'll have a lamb whose mother won't - or can't - take care of it.  Sometimes we discover a lamb in our pasture that hasn't bonded with its mother.  Sometimes we have  a ewe that doesn't produce enough milk.  Sometimes we'll have a ewe with triplets who can only take care of two lambs.  On rare occassions, we'll have a ewe that dies during or after delivering a lamb.  We call these lambs bummers, and they eventually wind up in our kitchen!

Last night as I checked the flock, I found a ewe who had given birth to twins the previous evening whose udder was over-full and whose teats were overly large.  I call these "bottle teats" - they are too big for a newborn lamb to nurse on.  I observed the lambs (they seemed okay) and decided I'd wait until this morning to take any action.  This morning, the ewe's udder was still distended.  I caught her and put a halter on her (the first time she'd ever been haltered!).  After tying her to the fence, I stripped out her udder (in other words, I milked her by hand), capturing the colostrum to save for her lambs.  Sometimes stripping out an udder will relieve the pressure and help return teat size to normal.  In this case, it worked on the right side of her udder, but the left side was still a bit over-sized.  I released her and got her lambs up.  The larger, more vigorous lamb started trying to nurse immediately (and appeared to be successful).  Unfortunately, the smaller lamb seemed too weak to stand.  After completing the rest of my chores, I checked back in.  The bigger lamb was still active, while the smaller lamb was sleeping.  I checked the lamb's body temperature by putting my finger in his mouth.  He was cold, so I decided to leave the active lamb with the ewe and take the him home.
Dr. Macon and here newest charge!

Getting a bummer lamb warmed up is the first step!

This ewe's udder was distended, and her teats were too big
for her lambs.

It was slightly improved after
I hand-milked her.  Even with the
improvement, I opted to take the smallest lamb home.

My wife Samia is amazing with bummer lambs.  She's learned that before she tries to feed them (from a bottle), she must bring their body temperature up - a cold lamb can't digest milk.  Her first step is to wrap the lamb in warm towels, put it on a heating pad, and place it in front of our wood stove.  Once the lamb is warm, it will almost always take a bottle (on rare occassions, she'll feed it with a stomach tube).  We try to have some colostrum on hand for very young lambs.  For lambs that are up and going, Sami feeds a combination of sheep's milk (from a friend with dairy sheep), whole cow's milk, plain yogurt (for probiotics) and a raw egg (for protein and probiotics).  This recipe works well and is cheaper than commercial milk replacer.

As soon as possible, these lambs are moved outside with our home sheep - we want them to see other sheep being sheep (and more importantly, grazing like sheep) as soon as possible.  We'll typically wean these lambs at 8-10 weeks of age.  We'll also give them some supplemental grain - for some reason, bummer lambs just don't do as well on forage as naturally-raised lambs.

Wether lambs (castrated males) are marketed with our other lambs.  Ewe lambs, if they were triplets or if they were bummers through no fault of their mother's, may stay in our flock. And bummer lambs are great public spokes-sheep - they often visit schools, farm days, and other events.  Last year, one of our bummer lambs even starred in a photo shoot for Vogue magazine!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Why Shepherds Worry

Our flock of ewes started lambing last Saturday.  While I love this time of year (I've written previously that lambing season is like six weeks of Christmas), I also worry during lambing.  I try to limit my worrying to things I can do something about, but I'm not always successful at this!  I worry about having enough forage for the sheep at this critical time of year (especially during this drought). I worry about missing a lambing problem and losing a lamb or a ewe (or both). I worry about making sure the sheep have vegetation or other shelter during inclement weather (we don't have a lambing barn).  I worry about predators.  I worry about getting enough sleep!

I've realized this past week that one must actually be a shepherd to understand these anxieties.  About three weeks ago, I checked in with a homeowner in the area where we're grazing about the availability of a 15+ acre field that we wanted to graze on our way to other properties.  This landowner has been coordinating with his neighbors, and the field was critical to our plans.  With the dry weather we had in January, we needed to give our previously grazed pastures enough rest before grazing them again.  Even with the December rains, we only have about 50 percent of the grass we'd expect at this time of year.  The 10-15 days that this new field would support our sheep became a vital part of our grazing plans during lambing.  Through a miscommunication between neighbors, it turns out that this field was not available.  Had we known this three weeks ago, we might have hauled the sheep to another property; now that we're lambing, we don't want to put the ewes and lambs on a trailer (another worry).  The homeowner suggested that we simply skip around the neighborhood to lots with more forage - also difficult to do with ewes and young lambs.  In our pasture lambing system, long moves can often disrupt the bonding process between lambs and ewes. And so I worry.

When I went out to check the flock on Monday evening, I encountered a neighbor dog I didn't recognize.  He desperately wanted to get inside the fence.  Fortunately, my guard dogs were all over the situation.  I later figured out that he belonged to a neighbor several properties away. When the neighbor's young daughter came to retrieve the dog, I made sure that she understood what would happen if the dog came back (or worse, if I had dead sheep).  Neither she nor the homeowner where we had the sheep seemed to realize the extent of my concern - surely a sweet pet dog wouldn't hurt sheep!

Now I'm worried about the weather.  Over this weekend, the weather has turned colder (although we didn't get the rain that was predicted).  The sheep can handle inclement weather fine, even during lambing - if I'm prepared.  This weekend, our preparations meant that we moved the flock off the open hillside where they'd been grazing (and where there was still more grass) into a wooded pasture that offers shelter from the wind and rain.  I moved the ewes that hadn't lambed first, along with the ewes that had older lambs.  The newest "pairs" followed along more slowly, and in some cases I carried the lambs while their mothers followed behind.  A move that would normally take five minutes took more than an hour.  And I always worry about lambs getting mixed up when we move; I remained with the sheep until I was certain that every lamb was with its mother.  I find that non-shepherds don't understand the attention to detail and planning necessary for raising sheep.  As Ivan Doig writes, "To be successful with sheep, even when you're not thinking about them, you'd better think about them a little."

As frustrating as the lack of understanding of non-shepherds can be, I've also been comforted by the understanding and friendship my fellow shepherds (and stock people).  I was at a meeting on Thursday from which I needed to depart early to get back and check the sheep.  There were several other shepherds at the meeting, each of whom was entirely understanding.  Today, I postponed a trip to look at some ewe lambs we might purchase because I was worried about the weather.  Again, the rancher I was planning to visit understood my desire to put off the trip for another week.

All stock people, I think, understand this sense of worry.  We cope with uncertain markets, unreliable weather, and all sorts of other challenges (man-made and natural) because we love what we do.  Those of us who are good at it (and those of us, like me, who are striving to become good at it) will always worry.  I guess worry is part of being a shepherd!