Tuesday, December 29, 2015

When livestock are your livelihood - #sheep365

As a new month (and a new calendar year) approaches, I'm exactly 90 days into my #sheep365 social medial project.  Since October 1, I've posted at least one photograph of something related to my family's sheep operation on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  Other producers (especially in the United Kingdom) have started using the hashtag, too - search for #sheep365 on Twitter and Instagram for some great sheep-related photography!

While many of the photos look very similar from one day to the next, the photos that I took in October look very different than those I took this week.  Now that I'm roughly 25 percent of my "sheep year," I can see differences in our rangeland and pastureland (we've moved from irrigated pasture to wintertime annual rangeland) and in our sheep ("open" ewes in October versus mostly pregnant ewes in December).  I've also photographed some of the mileposts of our year - from turning out the rams on day 1 to moving the sheep to winter pasture on day 66.

The project has also initiated conversations with my fellow shepherds (and shepherdesses).  While we have not lost any sheep to predation during this first 3 months of my project, every shepherd must cope with predators.  While the arrival of wolves in California is a high profile example, I worry more about more mundane predators - especially coyotes and free-roaming dogs.  I especially appreciate the sentiments expressed in a Facebook conversation about predator losses early this month.  My friend John Harper said,
"Non livestock producers [are] amazed to hear that producers grieve over their losses from any predator.  Their belief is that since producers raise livestock from the food chain that we don't care about them.  They [non-producers] [are] in awe that we believe in providing the best life while they are in our care until [they fulfill] the service they were genetically selected for.  They don't understand that since the animals have been bred to abandon their defenses to serve humans that we have a special bond to protect them."
Another friend and sheep producer, Jasmine Westbrook (who had recently experienced a lethal dog attack in her sheep), responded,
"I have also encountered the misconception that ranchers do not become emotionally attached to our livestock.  It seems obvious from the inside that when you raise an animal from birth you would become fond of it....  I don't think people realize how much our lives intertwine with our livestock....  It's our job to protect them, and we failed today."
I guess the point that I'm trying to make here is this: Even though raising sheep is a business to me and my family, it's more than than that.  As Jasmine said, "When raising livestock is your livelihood, livestock is your life."  Part of this is economic - while my savings account isn't very robust, my ranch-related assets (sheep, fencing, dogs, equipment, etc.) are more robust.  But it's more than that for me - I love working with livestock (sheep, especially).  Weaning a healthy group of lambs and sending them off with our buyer feels like success.  Losing a ewe to a coyote feels like failure.

This brings me back to this project.  As I try to take photographs that tell a story about what I'm doing on any given day, I'm realizing that these small, seemingly insignificant activities add up to my life and to my livelihood.  I'm also realizing that spending time with our sheep is part of what I look forward to every day.  Only 275 days left in this project!  In the meantime, here are a few of my favorite photographs from the last month or so.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Of Wolves and Livestock

Wolves have been on my mind recently.  Earlier this year, we received confirmation that a breeding pair of wolves had taken residency in Siskiyou County (in Northern California).  We saw photographs that indicated they were a successful breeding pair (at least 5 pups were in the photographs).  Over the weekend, the Sacramento Bee included a report of the first probable instance of a calf (and possibly a cow) killed by wolves (click here for the article).  And this week, the Bee's editorial page included yet another opinion piece authored by staffer from the Center for Biological Diversity (click here for this article).

First a note of discouragement about the Sacramento Bee's coverage of this issue.  The link to the op/ed piece by Amroq Weiss of CBD is shown as "news" - when it's clearly opinion.  Over the last 12 months, the newspaper's coverage of the topic, at least on its editorial pages, has been entirely one-sided - even though the paper has received at least two submissions that offer a different perspective on wolves.  Given the Bee's lack of balance on this issue, I guess I'll continue to offer my own viewpoints on wolves and livestock here on my Foothill Agrarian blog.
A screenshot from www.sacbee.org - this "article" was written by the
Center for Biological Diversity.
I do think it's possible to have a reasonable conversation about wolves in California, contrary to what Ms. Weiss would have us believe.  Over the weekend, I posted a link to the first article on my twitter feed (I posted just the link - with no comment about the article).  Over the course of several hours, several of us engaged in a useful discussion about how ranchers can cope with wolf predation.  I think this conversation needs to expand.

Nonprofit organizations in other western states have developed funding sources that can reimburse ranchers for direct losses to wolves.  In my opinion, these programs help, but they don't address the entire picture.  Emerging research clearly demonstrates a link between the presence of wolves and stress-related production losses in livestock.  These losses include reduced reproductive success (that is, fewer calves or lambs per breeding female) and lower weaning weights (due to greater energy requirements for predator evasion/defense as well as increased stress).  For more information, click on this study).

Most of us who are in the business of raising livestock on rangelands have invested significant time, energy and capital in developing the genetics of our flocks or herds to match our resource base.  For example, we keep ewes in our flock that do well on the type of vegetation that our foothill rangelands and irrigated pastures will produce.  We select rams that compliment the genetic make-up of our ewes.  Our ewes teach their lambs how to thrive on our forage.  In other words, the success of our current flock is a direct result of the breeding and ewe-retention decisions we made 4-5 generations back.  While we might be reimbursed for the death of a particular ewe or ram, the market price we would receive doesn't reflect the genetic value of that individual within our flock.  I cannot simply replace a dead ewe with one I purchase from the auction yard in Escalon.

Furthermore, in my own sheep operation, I worry about another indirect cost should the wolves' territory expand further south.  We are committed to co-existing with the predators in our environment (mainly coyotes and mountain lions).  Electric fences and livestock guardian dogs have allowed us to raise sheep in our part of the Sierra foothills without having to kill these predators.  But we also ranch in areas where there are many people.  Our livestock guardian dogs have to be aggressive enough to deter the coyotes and cougars, but docile enough not to scare the neighbor kids.  Based on the experiences of ranching colleagues with more wolf interaction, we'd need to get bigger and more aggressive dogs to protect our flock from wolves.  I'm not sure how the neighbors would feel about this.

Rural communities often bear the brunt of living day-to-day with well-intentioned but at times ill-conceived environmental laws and regulations.  While this doesn't mean that some of these laws and regulations are unjustified, I do feel that rural communities and businesses that depend on our natural resources are sometimes not considered when these laws and regulations are adopted.  The daily opportunity to see and interact with wildlife is one of the more rewarding aspects of my livelihood; at the same time, worrying about protecting my sheep from predators is stressful.  Dealing with the aftermath of a predator attack is unpleasant and frustrating.  I have chosen sheep ranching as a profession because I love working with nature and I love caring for livestock.  Wolves (and other large predators) are a concept to somebody living and working in Sacramento or San Francisco; those of us who live with these predators have a much more complex relationship with them.  I wish the Sacramento Bee would acknowledge this!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Christmas for Shepherds

"Back in the cities, they have different ways,
Football and eggnog and Christmas parades
I'll take my blankets, I'll take the reins,
It's Christmas for cowboys on the wide open plains."

                                                                    -- John Denver

A week from today, my youngest daughter will awaken us early on Christmas morning.  I think she's taken over my role as the member of our family most excited about Christmas!  She even wants me to teach her how to make coffee this year, so she can bring me a cup in bed (which, as the theory goes, will get me out of bed sooner).  After opening our gifts to each other and eating our traditional cinnamon roll breakfast, we'll all head outside to do our home chores.  We'll feed the horse and mule, let the few sheep we keep at home out of their night pen, feed the hog and check on the chickens.

Since we keep most of our sheep on rented pasture about 6 miles from home, our Christmas Day chores involve some driving.  Usually, I do these chores by myself, but on Christmas, the girls go with me.  Sami's happy to have us all out of the house, I think - she gets to clean up a bit before the next round of Christmas festivities (all food-related).  I relish the time tending our sheep with my daughters.

We usually try to move the sheep onto fresh grass a day or two before Christmas, which makes our Christmas Day chores easy.  We feed the guard dogs, check the condition of the ewes, and walk our fences.  Our border collies join us - there's not much for them to do, but they'd mope if we left them home.  If the day is cold and wet (like we hope it is this year), we look forward to getting back to the house and warming up in front of the wood stove.

In many respects, Christmas is like any other day for a shepherd - the sheep still need my attention.  Christmas Day is special in my family - not only for it's cultural and religious significance, but also for the reminder that we get to work with each other.  We get to work outside, and we get to work with livestock.

Shepherds' chores, in many ways, haven't changed much through the centuries.  I still worry about my sheep.  Like my predecessors, I make sure they've got plenty to eat and that they're protected from predators.  As I watch my daughters working with me, especially on Christmas morning, I grateful that another generation is learning how to tend sheep.  I couldn't ask for a better Christmas gift.

Merry Christmas!

The goofy Macon girls - Christmas Day 2014

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Clear Direction

The chapters of my professional life have been brief of late.  Since 2011, in addition to carrying on my own small-scale commercial sheep operation, I've worked for a large sheep outfit in the Delta, for our local University of California Cooperative Extension office, and for the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center.  This week, I started yet another chapter - as an assistant specialist in rangelands in the Plant Sciences Department at UC Davis.  In some ways, I feel like a flake for changing jobs so frequently.  In considering this new opportunity, however, I've discovered that I finally feel like I have some clear direction in my career.

I love working with rangeland livestock - sheep, specifically - like nothing else I've ever done.  Raising sheep on grass will always be part of what I do - until I'm too old to do it!  As I've written here before, however, raising sheep at a full-time, commercial scale, without access to enough land and enough capital, has proven difficult.  California's worst drought in 500 years hasn't made this any easier.  I've realized that I can be happy raising sheep as a part-time endeavor - which is what my current land base and finances will allow.

I've also realized that I enjoy scientific research and teaching.  I'm working on a master's in agriculture degree in integrated resources management at Colorado State - the degree combines range management, animal science and agricultural business (much like my career, in many ways).  Upon completing my master's degree, I hope to work as a farm advisor within the agricultural extension system.

All of this brings me to my current job.  I have an academic appointment within the Plant Sciences Department at UC Davis (where I earned my bachelor's degree 25 years ago!).  My work includes research into the impacts of drought on rangeland livestock producers, working with ranchers to address water quality and other rangeland-focused environmental issues, and developing educational programs focused on improving rangeland management.  I'm joining a tremendous team of scientists - working for and learning from Dr. Ken Tate and Dr. Leslie Roche, who are internationally-recognized range scientists.

More than 18 years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the California Agricultural Leadership Program.  During the course of the two-year fellowship, I realized that my skills and personality were better-suited to serving others than to the advocacy jobs I'd held up to that point.  My ongoing effort to establish a successful ranching business is part of this realization - producing food for others is the ultimate in service, in my mind.  But my new job - and my effort to obtain the qualifications for working as a farm advisor - are another step down this path for me.  While I agonized over the decision to leave my work as herdsman at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, I'm finding that I've never been more excited about a new job as I am about this one!

2016 Flying Mule Farm Shepherd School Workshops

Flying Mule Farm, in partnership with the Placer/Nevada office of UC Cooperative Extension, is once again offering a series of Shepherd School Workshops in 2016!  A blend of classroom instruction, discussion and hands-on learning, our Shepherd School is designed to teach new and aspiring sheep producers the basics of pasture and rangeland-based sheep raising.

  • Introduction to Sheep Production - January 14 (7 p.m. - 9 p.m.) - UCCE office, Auburn, CA: this classroom session will provide an overview of grass-based production systems, sheep management and husbandry, and basic economics.
  • Sheep Husbandry Field Day - January 16 (9 a.m. - 12 noon) - Auburn, CA - this hands-on field day will provide students with experience in giving vaccinations, trimming feet, and preparing ewes for lambing.
  • Pasture Lambing Field Day - March 5 (9 a.m. - 12 noon) - Auburn, CA - students will gain experience in handling lambing ewes, caring for newborn lambs, and managing spring grazing.  We will also discuss predator protection.
Stay tuned for registration information!  Contact Dan Macon at flyingmulefarm@gmail.com or (530) 305-3270 if you have questions.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Working Wilderness

As I was driving between ranches yesterday, I heard a piece on our local community radio station (KVMR) about an encounter with a mountain lion.  I'm not sure who the author or the reader was, but the host continued after the piece.  He talked about the cultural and spiritual significance of wilderness.  While I don't want to diminish his connection with wilderness, I realized that my work as a rancher gives me a very different connection with the land than someone who recreates in wild lands.  In many ways, rangeland agriculture as I practice it exists (in fact, depends) on the boundary between wildness and domesticity.

By definition, rangeland cannot be cultivated.  The land is too steep, too hot, too cold, too dry - too "something" to support crop agriculture.  And yet these lands are tremendously productive (at least to my eye) - they support grasses and broadleaf plants, trees and shrubs, and an incredible diversity of wildlife.  And they support grazing animals.  Sheep, cattle, goats and other domesticated ruminant animals can convert the vegetation on these rangelands into muscle, fiber and milk.

Unlike the more domesticated landscapes of cultivated farming, rangelands depend on some continued element of wildness.  Many rangeland landscapes are fire adapted and even fire dependent -  in other words, these lands need fire.  Rangelands serve critical functions in the water cycle, filtering water, protecting soil, and recharging aquifers.  Indeed, most of the water we consume as humans (and most of the water that is so important for environmental purposes) originates on or flows across rangeland.  Rangelands support diverse wildlife, too - from songbirds to apex predators.

As a rancher, my daily work brings me into intimate contact with these "wild" landscapes, even when I'm working close to town.  The elements that many would include in a description of wilderness exist on the land that I graze - wildlife (including large predators), lack of vehicle access and other human infrastructure, solitude.  My work itself has an element of wildness - raising sheep requires me to work outside in all kinds of weather and conditions.  And while raising sheep at our scale may not be the most profitable business financially, I have realized that the rewards of working outside with nature are similar to the spiritual signficance that many ascribe to wilderness areas.

I first heard the term "working wilderness" from Warner Glenn, a rancher from the Malpai region of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.  Warner took photographs of the first jaguar seen north of the Mexican border in many years.  While I've never encountered such a rare predator at such close range, I have been around large predators most of my life.  I've seen mountain lions at a distance and black bears at closer range.  I see coyotes frequently.  To bring this back to the story I heard on the radio yesterday, the narrator talked about his desire to reach out to his "brother" the mountain lion.  Warner Glenn, on the other hand, describes his encounter (I found this at https://swjags.wordpress.com/2007/08/17/warner-glenn-qa/) with the jaguar very differently (and in a way that more closely resembles my own experiences):

"(A.) Once you have seen one in the wild you will never forget the beauty of this animal and the potential danger he holds for some creature that steps into his zone.
(B.) The jaguar seems to be extremely confident in his ability to survive most any situation.
(C.) He shows no fear, as far as I could tell, only annoyance about having been bothered.
(D.) They know what a human is and grow uneasy in his presence and want to avoid him."

For me, the difference in my own idea about wilderness is the difference between romance and realism.  Seeing these large predators in their natural environment is exhilarating; seeing a ewe that's been killed by a coyote or a mountain lion is not.  While I've made a commitment to coexist with these predators, I've also made a commitment to care for my sheep.  As I grow older, I am better able to embrace the complexity of this relationship.  I find that I can accept the ambiguity inherent in loving these wild elements of the natural world while trying to protect my livestock.  And I've found that I need wide open spaces - working wilderness.  My economic success, and my spirit, rely on it.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Standing Guard

I'm proud to have counted Howard Nakai as a friend.  Howard farmed in Penryn and Newcastle most of his life.  We weren't close friends, but he was one of those older farmers I've been blessed to know who always took an interest in younger farmers and ranchers (like me).  The Loomis Methodist Church was absolutely packed for his memorial service several years ago.

Howard was one of the Japanese-Americans whose story was featured in a book published by Sierra College entitled "Standing Guard."  The work documented the stories of Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II.  I remember that Howard told of a Portugese neighbor who cared for his farm during the war - and who filled Howard's referigerator with beer and steak when he knew Howard was coming home.  Howard told me one time, "I never had a better beer."  When I purchased the book, I also received a lapel pin with the Japanese symbol for the words "standing guard."  I wear it as a reminder of my own responsibility to speak up.  It suggests the poem from Martin Niemoller, a German protestant minister, who said:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I offer this story as a way of expressing my incredible disgust over the proposal by several U.S. presidential candidates to keep Muslims out of the United States, and to have American Muslims carry some form of identification.  While I guess I can understand the fear that has led people to embrace this idea, I'm outraged that those who would lead us have chosen to ignore our founding principles - and basic human dignity.  And speaking of fear - I fear religious extremism in any form - Islamic, Christian, Jewish, or any other religion.

To me, the darkest periods of human existence have been marked by intolerance, fear, and prejudice.  I feel like I have an obligation - to my friend Howard, and to my fellow human beings - to speak up.  Singling out a entire group of people - because of their religion, their color, their ethnic backround - is an offense to my own humanity.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Stockmanship Notes: Cowboys versus Sheepherders

For the last year, I’ve been both a cowboy and a sheepherder.  My job at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center has involved caring for beef cattle.  During this time, I’ve also cared for my own sheep.  I’ve thought it might be interesting (to me, at least!) to compare the jobs – and to compare the American cultural perceptions of cowboys and sheepherders.

Cowboys are iconic in American culture.  Forget that many of our cultural notions about cowboys are false (far from the rugged individualist of American mythology, cowboys have always had to work together).  Even non-cowboys can wear cowboy hats and cowboy boots!

Sheepherders, on the other hand, are often the antagonists in our Western mythology – cutting fences and stealing grass.  Sheepherders are usually immigrants in this country – Scots and Irish, then Basques, now Peruvians and Bolivians.  Not many of us are cut out to provide the constant attention that raising sheep requires!  And who ever went to a western-wear store and asked for a sheepherder hat or a pair of sheepherder boots?!

Both jobs require considerable skill.  Malcom Gladwell has suggested that mastery of any skill requires an investment of at least 10,000 hours.  Some of these skills are transferrable regardless of the species – the skills of observation that allow me to detect an unhealthy ewe also allow me to me to detect an unhealthy cow.  Some skills require a change in technique and equipment: catching a ewe on open range requires a dog and a leg crook – catching a cow on open range requires a good horse, a good rope, and the ability to use both.  Personally, I’ve spent more time learning to use a dog – I’m a better sheepherder than cowboy.

Many multi-generation cattle ranching families once raised sheep.  Indeed, sheep paid off the mortgage on many present-day cattle ranches.  Some of my friends think this is because cattlemen (and women), by their nature, don’t like sheep.  I know differently – most ranching families got rid of their sheep once the ranch was paid off because they knew that sheep took more management time (and expertise) than cows!

Personally, I’ve found that I prefer sheep to cows.  I like the daily engagement and challenge of caring for sheep.  I like the fact that an overly protective ewe will not try to kill me when I’m handling her lambs (some cows will!).  I appreciate the fact that range sheep give me two salable products every year (lambs and wool).  I enjoy the flexibility that sheep give me in grazing the small properties that are available to me in my part of the Sierra foothills.

As some of you know, I’m engaged in a project to record my work with my sheep every day for a year (my #sheep365 project).  In many ways, this encapsulates the differences between raising sheep and raising cattle.  Sheep require my attention every day!  As Ivan Doig has written, “To be successful with sheep, even when you’re not thinking about them, you’d better think about them a little.”  Cattle, on the other hand, are easier – they don’t require as much day-to-day attention (and they aren’t as vulnerable to predators).  Sheep are a 365-day-per-year job!