Saturday, October 31, 2015

October 2015 - #sheep365

I'm a month into my little project of documenting my year of working with sheep with photography (with the hashtag #sheep365).  I've enjoyed thinking about how to tell a story about raising sheep through photographs - I hope you've enjoyed the photos, too!  Only 331 more days of this left (as somebody pointed out early on, I should have called this project #sheep366 because 2016 is a leap year).

Another fun aspect of this project has been that other sheep-raisers are already using the hashtag, or have started since I picked it up.  If you go to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and search for #sheep365, you'll see sheep from other parts of the world - pretty cool!  If you raise sheep, I hope you'll start sharing photos with this hashtag, too!

Finally, I've been contemplating what it means to be a shepherd.  If you haven't read The Flock by Mary Austin, you should (and I highly recommend the University of Nevada Press edition, which includes an outstanding afterword by Barney Nelson).  Here's how Mary Austin defines a shepherd: "A shepherd is an owner who travels with the flock, with or without herders, overseeing and directing...."  She contrasts this with an "owner or wool grower [who] sits at home...seldom seeing his flocks."  While shepherd isn't a term that's used much in the U.S., I like this description - I suppose a shepherd is what I am!

At the end of each month during the duration of this project, I'll post a blog entry with my favorite photos.  I'm finding that the photos aren't staying in chronological order (thank you Google) - sorry for the confusing layout! Thanks for following along!
A sheepherder selfie (shelfie?!) while moving irrigation!
In early October, I took a day off from my shepherding
responsibilities and went deer hunting - successfully, I might add!
Wondering where the pea crisps are!
Kate supervised the end of irrigation season!
October in Placer County - grazing sheep under the persimmon trees!
Rosie - director of security.
Red sky at night - no rain in sight.
Love this pasture - and the sheep do, too.
Waiting to get started - not one of Ernie's strong suits.
Moving up the road to Amber Oaks Farm - easier than hauling with the trailer.
Integrated pest management - we get green feed, and Amber Oaks Berry farm gets
pest control!  Works well for both of us!

Sorting our breeding groups on October 1 - with Roger Ingram.
Fred, our new Shropshire ram.  We've put him with the mule and Shropshire
breeding group.

My second deer hunting trip in October - in the High Sierra!
The rams enjoy their work!
In the berries...
The ewes like dog food - and so does Reno!
The rams must be in good body condition going into the breeding season -
they kinda forget to eat for about 6 weeks cuz there's too much to do!
Sometimes a border collie is required to keep the sheep
away from the guard dog's dinner.
About midway through the month, I discovered that Instagram
allows me to combine photos - what a nerd I am!
What a goofball!
Taff is retired, but he still loves to nap in
the back of my truck!
The first heavy dew of the fall - and the first wet feet!
Nothing better to a shepherd than seeing sheep with their heads down, grazing!
Had chores and homework to do on the night of our county fair
lamb carcass awards dinner, but I was able to drop off some reusable
shopping bags for the kids, courtesy of the American Lamb Board!
Another shelfie....
Sheep, sheep and more sheep....
Both the Macon girls play soccer, so it's part of every October.  Emma's team,
the 49er United Ambush, was third at the Roseville Ghosts and Goals tournament -
and they won the costume contest!
Nice pasture!
Always a curious ewe in the bunch....
We put bells on about 10% of the flock -
nice to be able to hear them if they get out
in the dark!
These girls were happy that I'd re-filled their mineral tub!
Waiting for rain....
Love this tree!
Raccoons are only a threat during lambing, but
Reno doesn't like them in his sheep any time
of the year.
Towards the end of October, we moved the mule/shrop breeding group into a stand of johnsongrass - a weed that's related
to Sudan grass.  We watch the weather this time of year - this grass becomes toxic after it freezes.
We're part of an informal group (the Foothill Grazing Geeks) of
ranchers who meet for pasture walks from time to time - we hosted
this month's meeting.
Any question why this particular crossbreed (sired by a Blueface Leicester ram out of a Cheviot ewe) is called a "mule"!?
Our irrigation water shut off on October 15.
Now we hope for rain....
As the days grow shorter, sometimes I don't see the sheep
in daylight hours.
Plenty of dog power!  Mo (L) and Ernie (R) are my everyday dogs.  Kate (C) belongs to a friend - we tried her out
for another friend, who is going to purchase her.  Kate will fly to Tennessee next week!
Halloween morning at Flying Mule Farm - hopefully the last warm and dry day for awhile.  Supposed to rain tomorrow - we'll see!
We had showers in early October - wish we'd had more!  This is our mule and
Shropshire breeding group.

Friday, October 30, 2015

A Good Death?

In my college English composition course, my professor suggested that I read E.B. White’s essay, “Death of a Pig,” written in 1947. Even then, I was an aspiring rancher/writer, and my professor thought I would appreciate White’s more grown-up version of his children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web.  She was correct – “Death of Pig” is an outstanding story.  White, whose pig dies prematurely of an incurable disease, concludes, “I have written this account in penitence and in grief, as a man who failed to raise his pig, and to explain my deviation from the classic course of so many raised pigs.”  I thought of White’s essay this week after having to euthanize two young animals.  Death is part and parcel of raising livestock for meat, but premature death feels like failure.

The animals I euthanized were not very old.  They had been born with congenital defects that were resulting in their inability to nurse.  Without nursing, obviously, they would slowly starve to death.  My act ended their suffering, but I realized that euthanasia is the most unpleasant part of my responsibility as a rancher.  I use the word “responsibility” with purpose here – I think I have a profound responsibility to care for my animals throughout their lives – and through their deaths.  Sometimes I alleviate suffering by giving an animal an antibiotic treatment (which often saves that animal’s life).  Sometimes, unfortunately, I alleviate suffering by humanely ending an animal’s life.  While I understand this intellectually, euthanizing an animal feels like failure emotionally.  I think E.B. White understood this perspective.

The animals I care for have great lives, as far as I can tell – they have plentiful grass and fresh water, they have shelter in inclement weather and shade when it’s hot.  We protect them from predators with electric fences and guardian dogs.  We protect them from disease with vaccinations.  We remove their woolly coats in the spring and let them regrow in the fall.  They get to be sheep!  And we raise them for meat.

My friend and fellow sheep rancher Al Medvitz once told me, “People mistakenly think that death is the opposite of health, but that’s not true!  Death is part of life, and a healthy death is a good thing.”  I raise animals because I love them – in all their forms, including when I serve meat to my family and friends.  I’m fortunate, I think, to be more directly connected to this cycle of living and dying than most people in our society.

As the handful of regular readers of this blog probably realize by now, I often write about things that bother me as a way of working them out in my own mind.  I appreciate your indulgence.  I realized again this week what an amazing responsibility we take on when we choose to care for livestock.  I don’t care for this particular part of my livelihood (euthanasia, that is), but in some respects it reaffirms my love of a life shared with livestock.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Stockmanship Notes: Starting Right

In my experience, moving mothers with young offspring (cows with calves, or ewes with lambs) is about the most difficult stock herding job there is.  The babies haven't learned the routine yet, and the mothers tend to be very protective.  Sometimes this job is complicated further by topography, poor fence design, weather, and other factors.  Each of these issues came into play last week while we were moving cows and calves into a new field at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC).

Let me set the scene: We had a group of 66 older cows, most of whom had calves at their sides, that needed to be moved.  The gates into the new field were located in a saddle (which means we had uphill and downhill slopes from that particular spot.  The day was warm, and we weren't able to get an early start.  Finally, the gate out of the current pasture didn't match up with the gate into the new pasture - which meant that we had some geometric challenges, as well!  A schematic of these pastures appears below:

When we arrived at the spot depicted above, we had cows and calves (though not necessarily cows with their own calves) in both Pasture A and Pasture B.  Three of us were horseback, and fourth person drove the truck (shown in Pasture C) and was available to help on foot.  We pushed all of the cattle through the gate into Pasture B and closed the gate to Pasture A.  We then set up the gates/truck going (briefly) through Pasture C and into Pasture D (our final destination).  The driver of the truck through some hay to the left (west) of the gate into Pasture D as a lure.  We started herding the cows and calves from Pasture B into Pasture D.

About two-thirds of the cows and calves went into the new pasture; it was the remaining one-third (mostly calves) that proved difficult.  The calves would see cows on the west side of the fence between B and D and would run uphill inside pasture B.  We'd work them back down towards the gate, only to have them break back up the hill, or on occasion downhill to the east in Pasture B.  For some calves, the pressure was too great, and they went through the fence between B and A.  Ultimately, a 50-yard move took the four of us just over an hour to complete.  Even though we used low-stress stockmanship principles, the move was stressful for everyone - people, horses and cattle.

That afternoon, I described the situation to my friend Roger Ingram, our local farm advisor and a fellow student of stockmanship.  Roger showed me an outstanding video clip from a Montana rancher Witt Hibbard, who edits an online publication called the Stockmanship Journal.  In the video, Hibbard demonstrated his approach to getting cows and calves up and moving.  As I've described before, Hibbard's technique looks slow - he's very patient - but the work gets done quickly.

His approach with pairs was to move obliquely towards the cattle (not directly towards them).  He would stop and wait for cows and calves to get up, and would make sure that they were mothered up (so that the cows weren't worried about their calves and vice versa).  He then would use short zigzag movements to ask them to move off.  I was struck by the fact (and I think he mentioned this in his narration) that the cows and calves moved like it was their own idea - they were very calm and relaxed.  And they went through the gate Hibbard wanted them to go through!

Today, I needed to move a different group of cows, so I tried this new approach.  It was an easier move in many ways - only 28 cows, three of which had brand new calves.  The gate we were going through was down hill from where the cows were lying.  The only complication was that the gate was in the middle of the fenceline (rather than at a corner).  I have found that mid-fence gates are often difficult for animals to see.  I rode a quad bike into the pasture, but did most of the work on foot.

I took an indirect line around the back of the group of cattle.  I paused and let them get up and stretch.  The cows without calves moved off; the mama cows stayed with their calves.  Once the back group of cows had risen, stretched and gone to the bathroom (sorry for the technical terminology), I did some short zigzags to get some movement, and then backed off to let the cows and calves pair up on their own time.  The pregnant cows then saw the gate and moved towards it at a moderate walking speed.  Their motion drew the attention of the rest of the cows in the field - and they all began to follow.  The last calf was still at my end of the pasture - she finished urinating and then looked around for her mother.  They paired up and trotted along behind the rest of the cows.  I followed slowly behind and shut the gates.

The geometry of these two moves was vastly different, but I think that had I used the approach I tried today on the larger group last week, it might have gone more smoothly.  I'll get a chance to find out tomorrow - we're moving the big group across a county road and into a new pasture tomorrow morning.  I'll keep you posted!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

My Favorite Season

I slept in this morning - unusual for me.  After a couple of cups of coffee, Emma and I went for a walk.  As I write this at our kitchen table, Emma is making crepes for breakfast.  After I eat, I'll head out to split some firewood and move a handful of sheep over to the neighbors.  Later this afternoon, we'll watch Emma play soccer.  The sky is overcast and the light filtering through the mulberry trees in our yard is golden.  I think autumn is my favorite season!

Partly, I think, this because every thing slows down.  Life is always busy, but I feel like we start running in late February when our lambs are born.  After lambing, we progress to irrigation season, shearing, and then it's summer.  While the equinox is in late September, autumn truly starts for me when our irrigation water shuts off in mid-October.  Once the water is off, I gain an extra hour everyday - no more moving sprinklers.

As Emma and I were walking this morning, I realized that the natural world is also slowing down.  The wild animals are preparing for winter (as we are - splitting wood and filling the freezer with meat are just two of my preparations).  I don't think I could live in a climate where there is no dormancy.  Autumn reminds me that it's okay for me to rest, too!

I know that I'll look forward to the lengthening days that follow the winter solistice - and to the arrival of new lambs, the start of irrigation season, and so on.  But I also realize as I grow older that I'll look forward to these things because autumn has helped me slow down.  Enjoy this fall!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Evolution of a Stock Dog: Little Things

About a month ago, our older working dog, Mo, injured his foot - which earned him a month of rest and relaxation.  If you have working border collies, you'll know how hard this is for a dog!  Mo's angst, however, was Ernie's pleasure - Ernie was the only dog I took to work during Mo's forced vacation.  Ernie benefited from working by himself, which I fully realized yesterday (Mo's first day back at work).

Yesterday morning, we moved dry cows out of one irrigated pasture and into another.  Most of the cows went on their own, but there were two dry cows and one pair that stayed back.  The first task was putting the dry cows into the new pasture.  Ernie got them moving and pushed them through the gate, mostly on his own.  The pair eventually followed, but decided to go up a lane outside the pasture.  I went ahead and opened another gate for them (from inside the pasture).

At this point, the cow and calf stalled - the cow was too worried about me to continue up the lane.  I scooted Ernie under the fence behind her, and she continued toward the gate.  At this point, she stalled again.  I gave Ernie a "come-by" flank (sending him to his left).  He bent himself way out (which is new for him) and quietly turned the cow toward the gate.  Another come-by, and he went even wider!  And the cow and calf strolled into the pasture.

This is a little thing - a simple piece of work.  But it marks a huge development in Ernie's ability.  He took my flank command (which meant he was listening and that he trusted in what I'd asked him to do).  He moved quietly and calmly into the proper position.  I was so pleased with his effort!

For me, I think, a dog is never finished - largely because my relationship with each dog is developing and improving as we work together.  Yesterday's demonstration of Ernie's progress felt great!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Monotony vs. Persistence and Dedication

Last week, I started a photography project that I’m calling #sheep365.  Beginning on October 1 (which is the first day of our sheep breeding season), I’m going to post at least one photo of something related to our sheep operation everyday for one year.  These photos will be posted on my Facebook page (, on my Twitter feed (@flyingmulefarm) and/or on my Instagram account (@flyingmule), all with the hashtag #sheep 365.  The idea behind this project is to document my year for my own edification, and to share the day-to-day activities of a small-scale commercial sheep operation with others.  As of this writing, I’m all of five days into the project – and I’m already beginning to realize that my photographs will probably be monotonous to many of my non-farmer/rancher friends (and even to some of my “aggie” friends, I’m sure!).  But as I was doing chores tonight, I realized that the “monotony” is part of the story.  Rather than being bored by the day-in-day-out nature of my work, I find that I have grown to appreciate the persistence and dedication required of me as a rancher.  I find that the daily responsibility – and the daily “sameness” of my work – makes the gradual changes that come with the revolving seasons even more meaningful for me.

To someone who doesn’t raise livestock, my typical day in March might look much like my typical day in October.  I check the sheep, I feed the livestock guardian dogs, I get home close to sundown.  To me, though, the days are similar but different.  In March, checking the sheep means checking for new lambs.  In March, the grass is growing rapidly, which means we move our sheep more often.  In October (at least in the first half of the month), I’m still moving the irrigation water.  In October, we’ve just turned the rams in with the ewes, so we’re still making sure the ewes are on a rising plane of nutrition (which means we’re supplementing their grazing with additional feed).  From one day to the next, the jobs are very similar, but our annual production cycle means that the jobs change gradually as we go through the year.  This “monotony” also means I appreciate the milestones in our year even more – milestones like turning the rams in with the ewes, tagging the ewes (removing their rump wool) before lambing, lambing itself, shearing, and weaning – even more.

Raising livestock also requires dedication.  In our family, the animal chores usually come before we feed ourselves.  The running joke is that the sheep only break through the electric fence when we have something else going on – loose sheep mean that we drop everything and put them back in their pasture.  If we’re moving ewes with young lambs, the job isn’t done until we’re certain the lambs are mothered up again and nursing.  If I we check the fence at sundown and find that the battery is dead, we run home for a new battery and return to the pasture before settling in for the night.  One of my favorite authors, Ivan Doig, wrote in Dancing at the Rascal Fair, that “To be successful with sheep, even when you’re not thinking about them, you’d better think about them a little.”  I’ve certainly found this to be true.

And so as I contemplate my #sheep365 project, I’ve realized that what might seem boring to the uninitiated is actually part of what I value about my life.  Because of the “sameness” of my work, I think I notice little things that add beauty to my day – maybe that’s part of being a shepherd or a cowboy.  Because I’m outside nearly everyday, I notice when the shadows get longer earlier in the evening as late summer becomes fall.  I notice when the sandhill cranes start their migration.  I notice the first hard frost and the first hot day of summer.  I hope that’s what my project will allow me to share!