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!