on the road

on the road

Monday, May 25, 2015

Makes a Dad Proud

This past Saturday, we weaned this year's lambs.  By "we," I mean my sheep partner Roger and my daughters Lara and Emma - and our canine partners, Mo and Ernie.  Fewer sheep meant the day went quickly - but the work also went fast because of our systematic approach and our ever-improving skill levels.  The work also went fast because my girls are becoming damn good helpers!

After we gathered the ewes and lambs into the corrals, Roger reminded us all that we should take a few minutes to talk about what we needed to do and about the roles each of us would fill.  I get impatient sometimes, but this brief "timeout" is always time well spent.  We decided that Roger and I would apply ear tags and inject vaccines, while Lara would load ear tag applicators and syringes.  Emma decided she wanted to be the clerk - she identified lamb ownership and wrote down permanent ear tag numbers.

At that point, we began putting sheep through the alley and cut gate - ewes went one direction, while lambs went another.  With the help of the dogs, the sorting went quickly - even more so with the help of Lara and Emma.  We've always emphasized low-stress stockmanship and the use of animal behavior to work our sheep.  Both girls are very intuitive stock-people - they know where and when to apply pressure to the flock, and where and when to back off.  As a Dad, I enjoyed watching them work!

Once the sheep were sorted and the ewes were moved to a more secure holding pen, we worked the lambs.  We then put the lambs back through the corrals and ran each of them over the scale to get a weaning weight.  Emma and Lara split the duties of recording weights on the computer and helping move lambs through the corrals.  When we finished, Roger looked at his clock - we'd gathered, weaned, ear-tagged, vaccinated and weighed nearly 100 lambs in less than 2-1/2 hours!

Both of my girls have reached the age and skill level where they can be very helpful with this type of work.  With their increasing skill comes efficiency and enjoyment - Saturday was a very enjoyable day - at least for me, and I think for Lara and Emma, too!  As a Dad, I can't describe the pride I take in watching my kids anticipate what needs to be done - and then do the work well.  Saturday was a great day!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Flying Mule Sheep Company

Because of drought and related factors, Flying Mule Farm is transforming its commercial sheep operation to a small-scale demonstration flock.  Our new entity, Flying Mule Sheep Company, will focus on public and sheep producer education and the demonstration of grass-based production practices.  Specifically, we will demonstrate the following:


  • Development of a genetic base designed to optimize a low-input grass-based production (with little or no supplemental feed inputs).
  • Development of a grazing and nutrition management system that will result in a weaned lamb crop of 150 percent.
  • Development of a record-keeping and management system designed to optimize maternal characteristics (lambing ease, lamb vigor, mothering ability) in a pasture-based system.
  • Development of leasing considerations and leasing fact sheets for small-farm flocks.
  • Demonstration of desirable grass-fed carcass quality.
  • Demonstration of forage management, husbandry and marketing systems for small-scale, direct-market sheep producers.
  • Demonstration of low-stress stockmanship techniques and handling systems.
  • Demonstration of the use of guardian and stock dogs in a small-farm flock.
  • Demonstration of water-efficient irrigation technology for foothill ranchers.
  • Demonstration of predator-friendly management systems.
  • Public outreach on a variety of topics, including meat and fiber production, targeted grazing, stockmanship and predator control.

This project will continue to evolve, so stay tuned!  Look for workshops, field days, articles (and yes, more blog posts)!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Technology vs. Biology

Last month, I was invited to speak about our approach to protecting our sheep from predators at the Central Coast Rangeland Coalition spring meeting near Carmel.  The entire workshop was devoted to examining non-lethal approaches to protecting domestic livestock from predators like coyotes, mountain lions and wolves.  As I listened to other speakers, and to my fellow ranchers asking perceptive questions about non-lethal approaches, I began to feel that modern livestock production could be divided into two approaches: technological management versus biological management.  In other words, managing land and livestock using a linear, mechanical approach versus managing these elements by striving to understand and adapt to living systems.

From the standpoint of protecting our sheep from predators, we've tried to take the approach of living with predators rather than eradicating them.  Our entire management system has been devised to fit our sheep into their rangeland environment, rather than imposing them on it.  We move our animals frequently, just as wild grazing animals would move in response to predator pressure.  We use electric fences to discourage predators and protect our sheep, and we use livestock guardian dogs fill the ecological niche that would otherwise be filled by coyotes or other predators.  And we select ewes that give birth to active, vigorous lambs and that are protective of their offspring.

During the workshop, I learned that predator eradication systems can often increase predator pressure.  Coyotes, for example, will increase their reproductive rates when one of the alpha pair is killed.  When a dominant animal is killed, the subordinate animals in that group will begin to reproduce as they attempt to replace the dominate animal.  Killing an alpha, in other words, increases the number of coyotes.  While I don't have any direct experience with wolves, I've read that a similar dynamic exists.  The technological approach of killing all predators (whether they are killing livestock or not), it seems, can create more predator pressure in some situations.

A similar dichotomy exists in our approaches to stockmanship, I think.  A mechanical, or technological, approach to stockmanship relies on force and fear.  With enough people, dogs, horses, etc., we can make cattle or sheep go through a gate, walk up an alley, or load into a trailer.  A biological approach, in contrast, seeks to understand and use animal (and human) behavior to manage livestock.  Bud Williams, who helped countless livestock producers understand and implement low-stress stockmanship techniques, put it this way:

The "old" [mechanical/technological] way of handling livestock: "I'm going to MAKE that animal do what I want."

The "new" [biological] way of handling livestock: "I'm going to LET that animal do what I want."

The "new" approach requires us to study livestock behavior.  If we're using dogs and/or horses to help us in this approach, it requires us to study inter-species communication (as I've written previously in "Thoughtful Stockmanship").

At least for me, these opposing approaches come down to our approach to life, in some ways.  With the amazing technology we have today at our fingertips, I think it's easy to assume that we have all of the answers.  The biological approach to managing land in livestock, by contrast, requires that we keep asking questions.  When something doesn't work as planned, the biological approach requires us to ask why - whereas the technological approach pushes harder, works faster - and yells louder.  When we find a coyote-killed ewe, if we use the technological approach, we kill any coyote we see.  If we use the biological approach, we try to figure out what we could do differently to prevent future conflict.  Again, Bud Williams sheds light on this topic.  The technological approach says, "That miserable, no-good ornery ewe (missed the gate, charged me, ran through the fence, etc.).  The biological approach says, "What did I do to cause the animal to react that way?"  Answers imply certainty - questions acknowledge uncertainty.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Playing a Kid's Game

As an extremely middle-aged but lifelong baseball fan, I no longer think of professional ballplayers as heroes.  As the late Jim Murray wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "If you think baseball isn't a business, then General Motors is a sport."  But one of the things that keeps me watching - and mostly listening - to baseball, is that there seem to be players who remember that they are getting payed to play a kids' game.  There are still players who, despite being millionaires, seem to realize that they are pretty damn lucky to be where they are.

Hunter Pence has played right field for two world champion San Francisco Giants teams.  He's fun to watch - he does everything at full speed.  And he doesn't seem to take himself too seriously (just google Hunter's Hitters for proof).  During spring training this year, he was hit by a pitch on the forearm, fracturing a bone.  After starting the regular season on the disabled list, he started a rehab stint with the Giants' Triple A club, the Sacramento RiverCats.  And thanks to our friends Steve Nichols and Claudia Smith, my family got to attend last night's game.  We arrived during batting practice, and our girls joined a large group of fans beyond the home dugout waiting to see Pence.  When the rest of the Sacramento club came out to warm up on the field, Pence jogged down to the home plate area and started signing autographs for a group of little leaguers who had been part of an earlier parade.  He made his way slowly down the third base line, signing baseballs, caps, and other memorabilia.  He spent at least 20 minutes signing autographs, including for both of our girls!

Like in most situations like this, I'm sure, some of the autograph-seekers had economic motives.  Some were pushy adults.  Most, though, were kids who just wanted to be close enough to a big leaguer to have him sign something.  My oldest daughter, Lara, said that he made eye contact with everyone for whom he signed something, and that he seemed to seek out the little kids who had been waiting patiently for him.  Lara got a signed Giants cap, and Emma got a signed game ticket.  They were both pretty excited (as was their Dad)!

Pence's performance during the actual game wasn't as noteworthy - he popped out, struck out with runners on base, and reached on a throwing error.  He was then thrown out at home trying to score the tying run on a ground ball to first.  From where we sat (and we had great seats!), he looked safe - but he hopped up smiling and jogged to the dugout.  It's also worth noting that he wore number 9 for Sacramento (rather than his customary number 8).  I'm sure as he could have demanded that the player wearing 8 for Sacramento give up his number - but he didn't.

Baseball, even at the professional level, is a humbling game.  The best hitters in the history of the game made outs 60-70 percent of the time.  Last year's World Series MVP, Madison Bumgarner, only lasted 5 innings in last night's Giants' loss to the Florida Marlins.  And Hunter Pence went 0-for-3 against minor league pitchers.  But it was refreshing to see a multi-millionaire professional athlete acknowledge that he was getting paid to play a game.  No other professional sport, in my opinion, has the pacing and accessibility that allows fans and players to interact like baseball.  Take me out to the ballgame - any day!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Embracing Complexity

In California’s ongoing conversation about drought, we seem to look for simple answers to an incredibly complicated problem.  Lauren Michele’s piece (“Why knock almonds? Alfalfa uses more water) in the April 26, 2015 edition of California Forum is no exception – “Californians need to lay off the cheeseburgers, and the media needs to lay off the almonds,” Michele concludes.  In other words, California could solve its water crisis if we’d stop raising cattle and growing alfalfa.  But like most matters concerning water and agriculture, reality is far more complex than Michele would have us believe.

Michele begins her piece by citing oft repeated – and incorrect – “data” regarding the water required to produce beef.  In California, beef cattle spend the majority of their lives on rangeland – land that by definition is not  irrigated.  Much of this water, then, is rainfall that grows grass – not irrigation water.  Those of us who rely on grasslands watered by rainfall have faced “reductions” in our water supply each of the last four years – simply because we didn’t receive our normal precipitation.  In general terms, we've only grown two-thirds of our normal grass this year.  Most of us have adjusted by selling livestock.

Much of California’s water originates on or flows across rangeland that is used for sheep and cattle production.  Grazing, as a land use, is an important factor in maintaining habitat diversity and connectivity, in managing invasive species (like yellow starthistle), and in reducing wildfire threat.  Eliminate rangeland livestock production and we lose these critical ecosystem services.

Alfalfa, from an economic standpoint, may indeed contribute less value to California’s economy than almonds.  From an environmental perspective however, alfalfa is an important crop.  It is often grown in long-term rotation with other crops; as a legume, it naturally fixes nitrogen in the soil, which reduces the need for fertilizer applications.  When alfalfa is irrigated, the water that is not taken up by the plant helps recharge groundwater supplies or flows back to surface water where it can be used for agricultural or environmental benefit downstream.

In the meantime, we have been planting almonds and other permanent crops on rangelands that were not previously irrigated.  Technological and cultural advancements have made it possible to grow (and irrigate) crops on land that could only grow grass in years past.  As Michele suggests, these decisions are largely economic – an unirrigated acre of grass provides a net return of $1.02 to a rancher, while an acre of irrigated almonds provides a net return of $195.  However, these economic figures don’t answer questions about where the irrigation water comes from, or what happens during times of drought.  An acre of grass during drought can still be grazed; an acre of almonds must be irrigated to survive – and this irrigation water is often groundwater.

We seem to be entering an era of increased uncertainty regarding our climate and our water supply.  This uncertainty is more complicated than it would have been a generation ago; California’s growing population makes divvying up the water “pie” difficult even in normal years.  Resolving conflicts over water use will require us to accept – and embrace – the complexity of the issue.  Simply favoring one crop over another based on water use doesn’t move us down that path.