Thursday, July 23, 2015

At What Price Progress? A Rancher's Perspective on Placer County's Regional Sewer-line Project

If you live and/or work on the northwest side of Auburn, California (as we do), you're no doubt aware of the regional sewer line project that's under construction at the moment. This project will allow sewage from our part of Placer County to flow downhill (as sewage generally does!) to a large, state-of-the-art water treatment facility near Lincoln.  No doubt, it will help protect water quality by allowing the county to close smaller, out-of-date plants like the one on Joeger Road (just up the road from us).  On the other hand, this project has had some interesting impacts on our community - and I have a feeling these short-term impacts are just the beginning.  I'm sure the county has addressed many of these questions and concerns - but just in case they haven't....

First, there seem to have been a number of questional decisions made relative to this project - some by the county, some by the contractor:
  • Last fall, the Placer County Public Works Department decided to resurface portions of Mt. Vernon Road to improve traction.  Not long after the work was completed, trenching work began in some of the same stretches of roadway.  Seems like a waste of money to me - perhaps the resurfacing could have waited until the sewer line was completed (since the road will need to be repaved anyway).
  • The work on Shanley hill (to the west of where we graze our sheep) started during the dry season last fall.  I watched a guy welding - surrounded by dry grass - and wasn't surprised to see a grassfire start.  Thankfully, a water truck was close at hand, and the fire was extinguished before it could spread too far.  Fire danger is high enough as it is!
  • The crew working on Joeger Road seems surprised and understandably frustrated by the amount of rock they've encountered.  Apparently, they've never tried digging a fencepost hole in North Auburn!  The project is taking significantly longer than the county or the contractor planned.

The project has also created a number of  "minor" inconveniences for our neighborhood.  While the contractor's crew has gone out of their way to accommodate those of us who live here, I still have to go the long way from home to the ranch (normally a 3 mile drive, it's now about 5 miles).  This isn't a huge imposition (except when there's a lot of traffic on Highway 49), but it does add a little time to my irrigation and sheep chores.  Last night's wildfire on Baxter Grade, however, offers a reminder that road closures can have devastating impacts during fire season.  Last year at this time, I had sheep on Baxter Grade - evacuating them would have taken far longer with Joeger Road closed.  I'm assuming the fire trucks that responded from Higgins Corner had to go the longer route to get to the fire last night.

When we do drive on Joeger Road, we must cross trench plates and rought pavement, which I'm sure adds to the wear and tear on our vehicles.  I'm not sure if the contractor is having compaction problems or if it's just the nature of the work, but there are a number of places on Joeger where the completed and filled-in trench seems to be sinking.  Joeger Road, from the water treatment plant to Mt. Vernon Road, will need to be resurfaced.  And we'll need new tires and front-end alignments for our vehicles!

I haven't seem much of the project where it crosses oak woodlands and pasture land, but I have walked some of the impacted land near Mt. Vernon Road.  We have grazed our sheep on a portion of pasture that was traversed by the pipeline.  Based on the difficulty we had in putting our temporary fence posts in, it seems that soil compaction wasn't a problem outside of the road right-of-way - the ground is much harder than the adjacent undisturbed soils.  I'm not sure what kind of erosion prevention seeding was done (although I do remember seeing California poppies growing over the pipeline this spring), but the only thing growing on the section we grazed is yellow starthistle.  I'm fearful that soil disturbance on the scale required for this project, combined with drought conditions, will exacerbate an already difficult noxious weed problem on our local grazing lands.  And at least on the lands we graze, the contractor has not been diligent about replacing the fences it removed during construction.

Which brings me to the most critical question I have regarding this project.  While I understand the need to protect water quality by enhancing our community's ability to treat waste water, I fear that this project will ultimately facilitate the further development (and destruction) of rangeland agriculture and farmland in Western Placer County.  Our landscape is nearly too fragmented as it is to support economically viable ranching operations; this project will make it easier for developers to obtain permits for new subdivisions.  In other words, the short-term costs and inconveniences of this project could lead to a permanent loss of rangeland agriculture and the habitat and aesthetic benefits it provides.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Stockmanship Notes: Belief, Attitude and Punching a Clock

Bud Williams, who taught many people how to use low-stress stockmanship, said that this approach to working livestock requires “belief and the will to do it.”  In other words, low-stress stock handling requires a commitment to learning through experience.  As I’ve written before, learning to work livestock with low-stress techniques is a learning process for me.  The key, for me, is that I believe in it.  When something doesn’t work, I don’t abandon my belief in the approach; rather, I think about what I could have done differently.  Recently, however, I’ve come to believe that time is a critical component of this approach.  Part of this is the recognition that sometimes I need to “move slowly to work quickly” – working cattle or sheep calmly and deliberately makes the overall effort go more quickly.  I’ve also realized that my efforts to work effectively with my dogs, horses and mule require me to take time, while we’re working, to improve our partnership.

Don’t get me wrong – I think training and schooling activities are important for horses and dogs.  This work establishes a foundation from which our stock-working partnership can proceed.  A dog, for example, must understand that he must go around stock without “contact” until I ask him to come in.  A horse (or mule) must understand leg and rein cues.  Once this foundation – really a system of interspecies communication – is established, though, progress can only be made (I think) through “real” work.

In my experience, this is where time comes into play.  Once Ernie, our youngest border collie, had a basic grasp of our communication system, I made several mistakes.  First, I’d try to use him for real work – for moving sheep over long distances.  I’d expect him to make good decisions, and I’d get frustrated when he didn’t.  Rather than take the time to help him understand what I was asking, I’d give up and use a more experienced dog.  Unsurprisingly (at least looking back), Ernie failed to progress.  Second, I’d continue to try to school him small groups of sheep, which just made him bored (and which led to more of the behavior I was trying to correct).

I’ve come to realize that I’ve taken a similar approach to riding my mule, Frisbee.  Frisbee was started under saddle by a trainer-friend of ours, JoDe Collins.  We also started working her in harness, but never progressed beyond dragging things (logs, sleds, farm implements) to wheeled vehicles.  In the intervening years, I didn’t ride much (being busy with sheep-raising, mostly).  Frisbee also had shown some fear of cattle (mostly at mule shows).  Earlier this year, I needed another saddle-animal at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (one of our SFREC horses has been lame since May).  Frisbee was my only option.  I’ll admit to being a bit nervous about using her to work cattle, but she was the only choice.

The turning point in both examples, was my realization that I needed to take time to build trust and communication while we were working!  With Ernie, I started using him for real work (mostly moving sheep and helping me put sheep through our corrals).  Instead of getting frustrated with him, I started taking the time to work on problems as they occurred.  Ernie’s learning really accelerated when I started using him at SFREC to help me with cattle work.  He’s become a moderately talented dog with enormous heart and stamina – a wonderful partner.

Frisbee has progressed similarly.  Rather than get frustrated by her “mule moments” (if you’ve ever worked with mules, you know what these are!), I started taking the time to help her get through them.  If she balked at being ridden through the brush, I’d get off and lead her until she regained her confidence.  Rather than worry too much about her being afraid of cattle, I simply started exposing her to cattle work in small doses.  As her comfort level with the work and the place increased, I began asking her to do more and more.  This last week, we gathered cows, herded them several miles up the road, and searched the brush for missing cattle.  She handled everything I asked her to do.

Obviously, a strong foundation was critical in both cases.  We had a system of communicating; what we lacked was experience and confidence (myself included).  As Steve Cote, the author of Stockmanship writes, “Experience is knowledge, so this takes time.”  Both animals made huge strides when I stopped worrying about accomplishing a task by a certain time – as did I!  When I finally accepted the fact that I truly was working on the animals’ time – that the job couldn’t be rushed (and that it usually went faster when I took my time) – we all gained knowledge and confidence.

The animals we are tending - sheep and cows - benefit from this approach as well.  Which brings me to my final point about time.  At least for me, working with animals rarely goes perfectly - the problems, when I'm in the right frame of mind, are learning opportunities.  Time for reflection is also important.  Increasingly, I find myself seeking time to think about what worked and what didn't - and about what I would do differently.  I also find myself taking time to ask others how they would handle similar situations.  Learning, for all of us (humans and animals), it seems, takes time!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Stockmanship Notes: This Week's Observations

Some observations and notes from this week's stock work - mostly for my own further instruction!  

  1. We moved 76 cows about 2 miles to the upper part of the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center on Monday.  I rode one of the Center horses, and I was joined by another rider on a quad.  A third person "led" the cows in the hay truck (although they didn't seem too interested in the hay).  These were cows that know the Center, but I really concentrated in maintaining a balance between keeping forward momentum and maintaining the "shape" of the herd.  The dogs were great at keeping the cattle bunched, and the move went well.
  2. Due to an open gate, 9 of these cows came back down to some irrigated pasture.  Yesterday, we drove them back up the road to the rest of the cows.  I rode my mule, Frisbee, and used both dogs again.  Frisbee, as I've written previously, had not worked cattle until I brought her to the Center about 6 weeks ago.  In fact, she was afraid of cattle.  She performed wonderfully yesterday.  She climbed banks, crossed creeks, and focused on the cows.  I was even able to put her on the tail of one cow - she physically touched the cow! Mules often dislike being ridden downhill - Frisbee is no exception!  I think she's worried that the saddle will slide up her neck (mules don't have prominent withers, like horses).  She usually wants to go slowly down hills.  However, when she's focused on cattle, she loses her fear of going downhill - we tracked down a couple of wayward cows at a trot - downhill!  She's taking to the regular work!
  3. This morning, we moved a large group of heifers up the road to a different irrigated pasture.  It was an easy move, but it was helped by the fact that I allowed the heifers to move off at their own pace.  They stopped at the one turn we had to make and thought about circling back, but a few serpentine moves on my part got them headed up the hill again.  This really emphasized the importance of starting out.  Letting the cows get up, stretch, and move off at their own pace really works!
  4. Ernie helped me gather a small pasture (4 acres) with 81 cows in it.  I asked him for a left-hand outrun ("come bye").  For the first time, he went wide enought not to make contact with the cows until he was behind them and balanced with me.  Once he made contact (about 250 yards away), he looked to me for further instruction (another first).  I asked him to walk onto the cows - and his "lift" was perfect - enough force to get movement, but in total control.  We had to take the cows out through a gate in mid-fence (as opposed to a corner), which is more difficult.  Ernie has finally figured out that we're working together, I think!
All in all, this was a pretty satisfying week - learned some, progressed some - and excited about next week!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


In my Sunday paper, an article from the New York Times appeared entitled “China fences in its nomads, and an ancient life withers.”  The article described the efforts by the Chinese government to relocate nomadic herders in China’s western provinces, based (in part) on the official position that “grazing harms grasslands.”  Does this sound familiar?  Later in the day on Sunday, I went fishing in the upper reaches of the Yuba River watershed with my friend and sheep shearer Derrick Adamache.  The stretch of the Yuba that we fished, which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, was once part of a grazing allotment.  Based on the decadent grasses and overgrown brush, I’d say that this part of my own backyard has been subjected to the same official (and popular) viewpoint.

Grazing livestock is an ancient art, as the Times article suggests, and admittedly one that can cause problems if improperly managed.  Unfortunately, native wisdom about this “art” is often discounted.  Nomadic herders – and ranchers – are often seen as relics of the past, with little (if anything) to offer in the way of scientific understanding.  According to the Times article:

“ ‘The idea that herders destroy the grasslands is just an excuse to displace people that the Chinese government thinks have a backward way of life,” said Enghebatu Togochog, director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, based in New York. “They promise good jobs and nice houses, but only later do the herders discover these things are untrue.’ ”

I think in some ways, governments find the self-sufficiency of nomads (and ranchers) to be threatening.  The fact that people can exist – even thrive – with little or no government assistance or material wealth is threatening, especially to a totalitarian government like China’s.

Similarly, I think that people without direct experience managing rangelands and grazing animals must have difficulty grasping the idea that grazing is regenerative to grasslands.  In our disposable, consumption-based society, the idea that something is renewable (like grass) is a foreign concept.

Those of us in the ranching world sometimes fall prey to the same type of thinking.  We talk about the genetic and management improvements that allow us to produce more beef or lamb on less land.  To me, this misses the critical difference between rangeland and cultivated agriculture.  I don’t mean to diminish the importance of cultivated agriculture, but the beauty of rangeland agriculture is that I can produce meat, fiber and milk on land that, by definition, cannot be cultivated.  Most of the rangelands where I raise my sheep, for example, are too steep, too rocky or too dry to grow a crop.  Most of these lands cannot be irrigated.  Despite these limitations, these lands grow wonderful grass – which my sheep “harvest” and turn into wool and lamb chops.  While efficiency is important, I believe that we should embrace the fact that ours is a land-extensive enterprise.  We need large, unbroken blocks of rangeland – for grazing, for wildlife habitat, for carbon sequestration, for open space, for watershed function!  In other words, we shouldn’t apologize for the fact that our ranching livelihoods keep large tracts of rangelands intact and undeveloped.

As Derrick and I made our way back towards Truckee, we drove out to Independence Lake, which was recently acquired by the Nature Conservancy.  On our way to the lake, we passed through an aspen grove that featured arboglyphs (tree carvings) created by a Basque sheepherder.  The trees were on the edge of a sagebrush flat that to my shepherd’s eye would have been an ideal bedding ground for sheep.  But sheep are no longer present at Independence Lake – and neither are sheepherders.  I couldn’t help but wonder about the fate of the man who carved the Basque flag and the lauburu (Basque cross) on the aspens we photographed.  I also wondered about the fate of the Chinese herders whose lives have been “improved” by the government.  As the Times article reported:

“Like hundreds of thousands of pastoralists across China who have been relocated into bleak townships over the past decade, he is jobless, deeply indebted and dependent on shrinking government subsidies to buy the milk, meat and wool he once obtained from his flocks.”

An essay like this should end with a call to action or a positive note.  This one doesn’t.  I find myself troubled and sad to think of my Chinese colleagues who have been forced to move to town.  I find myself discouraged that grazing (and the livelihood and land uses it supports) in my own state faces similar (if less dramatic) challenges.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Stockmanship Notes: Questions

I'd like to try something a bit different with this blog post.  Usually, I try to share stories and perspectives related to my work as a stockman.  This time, however, I hope to share an experience and ask questions - I hope my fellow stockmen (and women) will join in the conversation!  One of the things I like most about what I do for a living is the opportunity to learn constantly!  Let me know what you think about this approach!

Last week, at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, we moved around 170 heifers from the unirrigated rangeland pasture where they'd been grazing back to irrigated pasture at our headquarters - a cattle drive of about 2 miles.  Two of us were horseback (or muleback, in my case).  While I usually use 2 border collies for this type of job, my older (and more skilled) dog was lame - so I used Ernie by himself.  We also had help from a colleague on an ATV at critical points in the drive.

A couple of notes about my equine and canine partners.  I rode my saddle mule, Frisbee.  Before coming to the Center about 5 weeks ago, Frisbee had never worked cattle.  I've used her for small jobs since bringing her to work, but yesterday was by far the biggest piece of work we've attempted.  Previously, she's been somewhat afraid of cattle, and she's also been VERY reluctant to cross creeks (those of you with mule experience know how "reluctant" they can be).  Ernie has made tremendous strides as a stockdog in the last 6 months.  He's easily the most courageous dog I have, and he has incredible drive - so much so that I have to force him to take breaks when it's hot.  On the other hand, he's not as solid on his flanks and other commands as I would like.  My colleague was mounted on one of the Center horses, Rose - she's a pretty handy horse.  My colleague is a good rider who doesn't have a great deal of experience with low-stress livestock handling.  He is, however, willing to learn!

The gather went fairly well.  My mule has become quite bonded with Rose (the other equine) - and she suffered some separation anxiety when we started our separate circles.  Interestingly, her anxiety disappeared when we came upon the first cattle in our part of the gather.  From that point forward, she was fine.  She's not the most athletic mule, but she handled the work just fine - I was very pleased.

Because we gathered from 3 separate fields, we were able to let the cattle settle before we started driving them.  I've found that this makes for a less stressful move - the heifers had a chance to drink, stretch and urinate/deficate before we started moving them.  Once we were out of the pastures, though, they wanted to graze.  So here's my first question:
Would the heifers have moved better if we'd started the drive later in the morning (after they'd had a chance to graze and drink)?  I wanted to start early to beat the heat, but I wonder if they would have moved better had they eaten first.
Eventually, we worked them up a hill and through a gate into the next field.  This part went well - we eased them through a difficult gate, which they walked through calmly.  At the next gate, however, things didn't go so smoothly.

At the next gate, we had to take them across a paved road and through another gate into an ungrazed pasture.  Since this gate is not in a corner, we needed to provide the visual cues (rather than rely on a fenceline) to get them through the gate.  This was further complicated by another error - we failed to open the entry gate before letting them out onto the road.  About half the cows went down the road and found some green grass in a boggy spot along the road.  The other half of the cattle walked up the fenceline in the pasture we were trying to come out of.  I succeeded in getting the cattle in the road turned around, while the other rider got the heifers that were still in the field turned back to the gate.  Once I got heads pointed toward the gate, everybody went through fine.  Here's my second question:
Could we have done something different here (besides making sure the gate across the road was open)?
Once the cattle were through the gate, about two-thirds of them kegged up in a brushy corner of the pasture - normally a rider would have been in place to prevent this, but we were both otherwise occupied during the road crossing.  We had to take them back the way they'd come and turn them up the hill to hit the trail we wanted to use.  The third of the cows that didn't keg up were already on the trail well out ahead of us. This led to our third challenge - because we had to deal with the back of the herd, the leaders ended up in a creek bottom upstream from where we wanted to cross.  This situation required more riding in steep country (and help from the ATV rider).  With green forage and water, the cows were quite reluctant to leave the creek.  My third question:

Should we have stopped the leaders and bunched the herd up before proceeding?  Does it ever make sense to stop movement that's going in the intended direction (even when we're not there to guide it)?

We finally got the heifers out of the creek and bunched the entire group at the gate where we cross the county road.  The leaders were just turning back towards us as we brought the last of the cattle towards the gate.  A colleague opened the gate, and the heifers field across the road and into the irrigated pasture.  They were happy critters (as were we!).