Friday, December 30, 2016

Sheepherder Bread

My family traditionally gathers at my folks' place outside of Sonora on the day after Christmas. This year, we opted for a random potluck dinner - every person could bring whatever dish they wanted to bring (making it entirely possible that we'd only have dessert)! It worked out great - we  had barbecued turkey (the first one my niece Sara ever cooked), several potato dishes, barbecued flatiron steak, several types of salad, and my own contribution - sheepherder bread.

I've been a very infrequent baker in the past - I love homemade bread, but rarely take the time to make it myself! I found a very simple recipe on the NPR website (of all places) for bread that would have traditionally been made for Basque sheepherders - just flour, water, sugar, butter, salt and yeast. The fun thing about the recipe (at least for me) is that it recommends a 12-inch Dutch oven rather than traditional bread pans.

After finishing my sheep chores on Christmas Day, I mixed the dough and let it rise by the woodstove. After kneading it a second time and placing it in my Dutch oven (I oiled the inside and put a circle of aluminum foil in the bottom), I let it rise some more. As indicated by the recipe, I placed the covered Dutch oven inside our kitchen oven at 375. After about 12 minutes, the loaf had risen enough to push the lid up! I removed the lid and baked the bread for another 30 or 35 minutes (until the top was golden brown and the loaf sounded hollow when I thumped it). I removed it from the oven and turned the Dutch oven upside down (hoping it didn't stick). It slid right out!

On Monday evening, we sliced the 12-inch round loaf in half, revealing a beautiful white bread inside. I suspect the cast iron that surrounded the sides and bottom of the loaf helped it bake evenly. Even with 12 of us eating it, we had plenty left for sandwiches and toast the next several days. It was outstanding!

So now I'm motivated! I'm hoping to bake bread at least once a month. I'm going to experiment using 2 smaller Dutch ovens (10-inch instead of 12-inch). I'm also going to experiment with honey (instead of sugar) and with other types of flour. And someday, I want to bake this kind of bread in an outdoor oven - sounds like another project!

In the meantime, here's the recipe I used this time around: 

Prize-Winning Sheepherder Bread

During the winter months, herders would live in sheep wagons, which contained a stove and an oven. They baked their own bread in a Dutch oven, buried in the coals from sagebrush or aspen wood fires, with a tight-fitting lid and a bale handle.
Richard Lane/Courtesy Basque Library at the University of Nevada, Reno
3 cups very hot tap water
1/2 cup (1/4 lb.) butter or margarine
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 tsp. salt
2 packages active dry yeast
9 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Salad oil
In a large bowl, combine hot water, butter, sugar and salt. Stir until butter is melted; let cool to about 110 degrees. Stir in yeast; cover and set in a warm place until bubbly, about 15 minutes. Beat in about 5 cups flour to make a thick batter. Stir in about 3 1/2 cups more flour to make a stiff dough. Scrape dough onto a floured board. Knead until smooth and satiny, 10 to 20 minutes — adding as little flour as possible to prevent sticking. Place dough in a greased bowl; turn over to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled — about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch dough down and knead briefly on a floured board to release air. Shape into a smooth ball. With a circle of foil, cover the inside bottom of a 5-quart cast iron or cast aluminum Dutch oven. Grease foil, inside of Dutch oven, and lid with oil. Place dough in Dutch oven and cover with lid. Let rise in a warm place until dough pushes up lid by about 1/2 inch, about 1 hour. (Watch closely.) Bake, covered, with a lid in a 375-degree oven for 12 minutes. Remove lid and continue to bake until loaf is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.
Remove bread from oven and turn onto a rack to cool. You will need a helper. Peel off foil and turn loaf upright. Makes one very large loaf.
Source: From the Sheepcamp to the Kitchen, Volume II

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Day Before the Day Before Christmas

As I write this at the desk in our kitchen, a cold rain is falling outside. Both the calendar and the weather suggest that Christmas morning is just around the corner. I can hear the woodstove ticking in the other room - I just added a piece of Douglas fir to the fire. I was awakened this morning by a phone call from one of our landlords - the rams and the guard dog were grazing in her backyard (not where they were supposed to be). I threw on some warm clothes, put the dogs in the pickup, and headed out to do chores. Now I'm home - a belly full of breakfast and my second cup of coffee in my hand.

I am usually very healthy, but for the last week and a half, I've been fighting first a cold and then the flu. I'll admit that I have difficulty doing nothing - 10 days of feeling under the weather makes me extremely restless! That said, I wonder if being sick is a reminder that I need to slow down on occasion. The short days and long nights of early winter reinforce this reminder - and help me recharge my batteries. The only other task on my agenda for today is to haul water to the rams at some point - I think I'll spend the rest of the day indoors reading and enjoying my family!

Raising livestock often means that we're outdoors in all kinds of weather. The well-being of the animals always comes first. Sometimes, this means we're building electric fence and moving sheep in the midst of a driving rain. But sometimes, like today, we only need to feed the guard dogs and walk through the sheep. Sometimes, we get to stay inside by the fire! Merry Christmas, everyone!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Almost Done

I took a final exam today - just like my oldest daughter. Feels kinda strange to say - but we're both on winter break! And it feels pretty good!

I've been chipping away at a master's degree in integrated resource management via an online program from Colorado State University for almost two years. Lara, on the other hand, is completing her first semester at Montana State University in Bozeman. She's flying home tonight for the Christmas holidays; I drove home from my my office. For the next three-and-a-half weeks, I'll only have to work and take care of sheep; maybe I can get Lara to help me with the latter!

Earlier this week, I learned that my major professor will accept a research paper I did for one of my classes this term as satisfying the requirement for completing a professional paper. Upon completing this morning's final, I'm just two classes and 6 units away from having my master's degree. Wahoo!

As I reflect on going back to school in my extremely mid-forties, I've realized that in some ways, I'm still the same kind of student I was in my early twenties. In other ways, however, I've changed immensely. When I was first in school (at UC Davis in the late 1980s) I was driven to get good grades. Exams, for me, were like an athletic contest - I wanted to win (actually, I wanted to kick ass)! Today, my competitive drive is tempered by the knowledge that exam results do not necessarily equate to knowledge. In other words, I put slightly less pressure on myself.

I've also found that I have a much more sensitive bullshit meter than I had as a younger person. When I was 20, I figured that my professors probably knew more than I did. Now that I'm almost 50, I'm not so certain about this. Most of my classes at Colorado State have been outstanding; one or two have been dreadful. Perhaps the biggest change in my perspective, however, has been the fact that the dreadful classes don't bother me as much as they would have when I was 20!

Finally, tonight I'm celebrating the end of the semester much like I would have during my first round of college - I'm having a beer! Cheers!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Sheepherding at Christmastime

As a kid (and I suppose, as an adult), my favorite month was (and is) December. Many of my friends dread the shorter days and the early darkness; I've always appreciated the wintry days and long nights. Perhaps it's a bit of zen-like appreciation - I appreciate more the gradually longer days and growing light after the solstice because of the darkening days leading up to the first day of winter. Part of my enjoyment, I think, relates to the approach of Christmas - and as a kid, I always enjoyed the season of advent. And having grown up going to Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, the version of the Christmas story found in Luke was always the highlight and the culmination of the advent season for me. I especially liked (and still do) the King James version of the second chapter of Luke. As an adult - and as a shepherd (maybe it's professional curiosity) - I've read the verses describing the appearance of the angel to the shepherds even more closely. For me, this part of the story resonates more deeply because of my avocation.

In lots of ways, the nature of the work that I do with sheep has changed profoundly over the last two millennia. I drive my truck to the pastures where my sheep are grazing. I use electric fence to contain the sheep. I use ear tags to identify them. I use electricity to shear them. But in some ways, the work of a shepherd is the same. I use dogs to protect them from predators and move them from pasture to pasture. I worry about them in stormy weather. I spend a great deal of time outdoors, regardless of the weather. I get their wool off in the springtime. I make sure the lambs are mothered up with the ewes. I suspect I'd recognize the work that shepherds in the Middle East were doing two thousand years ago - and I suspect they'd recognize the work I do today. Shepherding isn't the oldest profession in the world, but it's probably among the top ten!

At this time of year, our work slows down. The ewes are bred - most are in the first trimester of their pregnancies. Their nutritional requirements are satisfied by the green grass that germinated in October (at least this year) and by the minerals we provide. Most of our effort involves putting up and taking down electric fence as we move the sheep. Since the ewes don't have lambs at their sides at the moment (and won't until late February), we don't worry too much about stormy weather. In the days leading up to Christmas, we'll move the sheep to a large, grassy paddock so that our chores on Christmas day are minimal.

Six months from now, I'll be leaving the house around sunrise and getting home around sunset - much like now. The difference is that this time of year, I'm leaving home around 7:30 in the morning - and generally getting home before 6 in the evening. I enjoy the long days and the work of summer - all the more because I get to enjoy the long nights and rest of winter. And so as the year winds down towards the winter solstice, I'm appreciating the chance to recharge and renew my energy. I hope you are, too.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Carnivores and Sheepherders

I've been reading, writing and thinking about the positive relationship between raising sheep and conserving carnivores a great deal lately. Admittedly, my sheep-ranching friends will likely think this heretical - how can sheep-raising be compatible with conserving predators? Similarly, I know that some of you who read this will question whether ranching as a land use can help preserve predator habitat. I hope you'll all hear me out!

By way of explanation, I've been doing research for several papers I'm working on as part my master's degree in integrated resource management (online at Colorado State University). One of my professors, Jacey Cerdy, pointed me toward a book entitled Monster of God by David Quammen (which I just finished). The book examines humans' cultural relationship with large predators. I've also been reading a variety of scholarly papers addressing the subject. Rangeland livestock (like cattle, sheep and goats), it seems, share habitats with apex predators all over the globe. While this often results in conflict, it can also result in opportunities for coexistence - and even mutual dependence.

Some research suggests that profitable ranching may be the best option for keeping critical ecosystems from being permanently fragmented or destroyed by development (Rashford, Grant and Strauch, 2008). Others take this a step further. David Quammen writes that the cultural relationship between shepherds (and by extension, cattle grazers) and large predators is crucial to the preservation of both:
“Shepherds, as I’ve learned, have a relationship with these animals [European brown bears] that’s more intimate, more mutual, than you can get through the scope of a Holland & Holland .375 as you stand on a high seat, sighting down. They share habitat with bears. They have reason to fear them. To detest them…. They have their own, old-fashioned means of coping. They measure bears in a dimension deeper than deutschemarks and CIC points. Maybe that relationship itself, not just Romania’s population of Ursus arctos, is something too valuable to lose.”
As I consider my own experience as a shepherd, as a ranching advocate, and as a student of these issues, I can't help but see them as related.

I'm under no illusion that our small sheep operation is a fundamental economic driver in western Placer County (where we live). The little bit of income that my landlords receive in the form of lease payments isn't enough to offset their costs of owning the land. That said, the fact that ranching exists as a land use AND a business means that grazing land (including the lands we graze) is kept intact - for my sheep and for the predators that live in our environment.

Coexistence is complicated. Coexistence doesn't mean I like losing sheep to coyotes or mountain lions. It doesn't mean that I wouldn't protect my flock with lethal force if I came upon a coyote or a mountain lion attacking my sheep. My relationship with these predators, though, is far more personal than someone who sends a check to predator protection group, I suspect. I have to live with the consequences of my decision to try and coexist - consequences which might (occasionally) include dead lambs or injured sheep. I've got skin in the game, so to speak. Like the hunters that Quammen references in the above quote, those who support predator-advocacy organizations don't have the same depth of relationship with these predators as those of us who directly coexist with them. Another article I've read recently puts it this way: “As people become more urbanized, they seem to become more positive toward wildlife; of course, they also become more insulated from the problems of living with wildlife.” (from "The Future of Coexistence" by Woodroffe, Thirgood and Rabinowitz in People and Wildlife: Conflict or Coexistence). The authors continue, "...the immediate costs of living with wildlife are (or are perceived to be) borne by the rural population."

 Even in a state like California, where publicly owned land accounts for more than half of our land base, privately owned land is critical for wildlife habitat. Many species of wildlife - including, probably, the largest carnivores - continue to exist (at least in part) because some of this private land is used for grazing livestock.

So while I worry about the safety of my sheep - especially since we may have gray wolves in our region in the next decade - I also know that my business relies on the same "wild" landscapes that provide homes for these predators. In some ways, I think, our mutual continued existence depends on one another.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Drought and Dormancy

I read in yesterday's paper that we've experienced the wettest October and November in northern California in the last 30 years (for more on my direct observations of our autumn precipitation, go to "An October Like No Other"). This autumn has also been unusually warm here - we didn't have our first freeze until well into November (in the 15 years we've lived in Auburn, we've usually had a hard frost by Halloween). The combination of moisture and warm temperatures has made the grass grow - I can't remember another fall like this one for grass growth.

But as the article in the paper explained - and as the drought map below reinforces - we're still in the midst of one of the longest droughts in California history. Our portion of western Placer County has improved (we're only in "moderate drought" at the moment), but other parts of the state (especially the southern San Joaquin Valley and the central coast) remain extremely dry.

On our Sierra foothill rangelands, we typically go through two dormant seasons in terms of forage production - you might think of these as grass "droughts." Since our forage plants (grasses and broad-leaf forbs) are mostly annuals, the first of these dormant seasons is obvious. The golden-brown grasses of our California summers represent the annual warm season drought in our Mediterranean climate. This dry forage doesn't have enough protein in it to support our sheep - which is why we either supplement their protein intake or move them to irrigated pasture.

The second dormant season is less obvious. At some point (usually in late November or early December) the shorter days and colder temperatures put our newly germinated green grasses into dormancy. With the sun at a lower angle in the sky, the soil doesn't absorb as much heat - once the soil temperatures drop below 50 degrees F, grass growth comes to a halt. I checked the soil temperature reading for this morning at the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) weather station near Auburn - we're at 52.5 degrees. In other words, we've just about hit our winter grass "drought." Our job now is to ration the grass that's already grown this fall until the days get long and warm enough to get the grass growing again (usually in early March).

In the meantime, I hope the precipitation keeps coming. Continued rain in the foothills will help maintain soil moisture and replenish springs and creeks. Continued snow in the mountains will help ensure that we have stored enough water to keep the rivers and irrigation canals flowing next summer. And to paraphrase my friend and fellow rancher Tim Koopmann, the spring rains make the year! Keep it coming!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Disappointed in Stormy Kromer - but with a happy ending!

Note: this story has a happy ending! See the comment below! Stormy Kromer has restored my faith in their commitment to quality and customer service!

As a follicly challenged (that is, bald) sheepherder who works outside at least part of every day (regardless of the weather), I rely on hats to shade my face, protect my head, and keep me warm. My wife would say I have far too many hats - but I'm not sure that's possible. My favorite winter hat for the last decade or so has been a Stormy Kromer - a wool baseball cap with a unique flap that slides down over my ears when it's especially cold. I've liked Stormy Kromers because they're made from wool here in the United States - I've owned 3 of them in that time period. I've even written positively about these hats in this space in previous posts!

The company, based in the upper Midwest, offers (supposedly) a lifetime guarantee on its website:
They say that when you own a Stormy Kromer, no other cap will ever satisfy your taste for comfort or quality. And we believe that’s true too, so we offer what other clothing manufacturers might consider a little crazy:
The Stormy Kromer Lifetime Warranty
The SK Lifetime Warranty program started in 2010, when we began sewing a unique serial number into each cap. If you purchased a Stormy Kromer cap with a serial number and it ever wears out, or if there is ever a problem with the cap
caused by poor workmanship or faulty material, we will replace it free of charge.
Sounds good, right!?

Like a lot of ranchers, I have a work hat and a town hat - the town hat being the newer one that is still mostly clean. Recently, I've noticed that my work hat (same size as my town hat) has shrunken - it's much smaller than it was when I purchased it. It's so much smaller, in fact, that it hurts to wear it. Last night, I contacted the company about the problem via the customer service section of its website.

Today, I received this suggestion from Stormy Kromer:

Thank you for reaching out to us. Unfortunately since these caps are made of wool – they do have a chance of shrinking. It will not stretch out at all.

My suggestion would be to try selling your cap to a friend or family member to try recouping some of your costs, and then ordering a cap in the size you need.
So much for replacing a hat with a "problem caused by poor workmanship or faulty material" - and I was so happy to receive a much needed lesson about the properties of wool! I have Pendleton and Filson garments that are older than I am - and that retain their proper sizing. And I'm the proud owner of a Duckworth knit cap made from wool grown by a Montana ranching family. Sadly, I don't think I'll ever purchase another Stormy Kromer (even if I can convince an unsuspecting relative or friend to buy my old one).

And so tonight, I'm disappointed. A company that I've touted to others - for its commitment to quality and to using a renewable fiber that I produce - hasn't lived up to its reputation (or its publicly stated values). Oh well....

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Foothill Shepherd's Year in Photographs

Note: Auburn Arts Association has extended my Shepherd's Year in Photographs exhibition at Auburn City Hall through the end of the year! In case you aren't in Auburn, here are the photos I chose for the exhibit - enjoy!

A Shepherd’s Year in Photographs
My wife and I have raised sheep at some scale since moving to Penryn in 1994.  Now based in Auburn, we’ve raised sheep commercially since 2005.  Drought and a full-time off-ranch job have meant that we’ve drastically reduced our flock from its peak of 350 ewes – but I still think of myself as a shepherd.
On October 1, 2015, when we put the rams with the ewes, I started a social media project I called #Sheep365.  My plan was to post at least one photograph every day (on Instagram and Facebook) for a year, depicting whatever it was I was doing that day in our sheep operation.  A shepherd’s year involves day-in-day-out care for sheep, punctuated by milestones like lambing, shearing, weaning and breeding.  The photos in this exhibit (two from each month, plus some special shots) are just a small sampling of my project – and my year.  Every photograph was taken with my iPhone 5s.

The shepherd’s year, in my mind, begins on the day that he or she puts the rams with the ewes.  Breeding season represents our hopes for the coming year. As this exhibit begins, the rams are back with the ewes – in preparation for 2017.

The Object of His DesireOne of our Blueface Leicester rams lost an eye when he was a lamb.  Now he tilts his head to get a better look at the ewes!October 2015

Ewes and Oaks
With cooler temperatures and shorter days, our irrigated pastures perk up a bit in October – just in time for breeding season!
This is one of my favorite oaks in one of my favorite pastures.
October 2015

The Bachelor Pen
The rams are turned in with the ewes for six weeks in October and early November – then it’s back to their own pasture for the rest of the year. Not a bad life – six weeks of work and all-you-can-eat after that!
November 2015

Moving through Autumn
We prefer to walk the sheep from one leased pasture to another – it’s much easier than hauling them in the trailer. I enjoy the colors in autumn, and our border collies enjoy the work!
November 2015

Waiting for the Rain
After four years of drought, sheep and shepherds alike were hopeful for a return to normal winter weather patterns. If you look closely, you can see a hint of green grass under last year’s dead grass.
December 2015

Sunrise Sheep
As a part-time shepherd, I usually check the sheep before work in the morning. I love the light at that time of day – and at this time of year!
December 2015

One Month to Go
By January, the bred ewes are enormous. We say, “They’re starting to bag up” – meaning their udders are beginning to fill with milk.  This ewe gave birth to twins 37 days later.
January 2016

Winter Skies
Being a shepherd – even a part-time shepherd – means we’re outside in all kinds of weather.
I love this sky – looking west towards Lincoln.
January 2016

Red Sky at Night
During lambing season, we keep a careful eye on the weather. If a storm is expected, we’ll move the flock to a pasture with plenty of trees and other natural shelter. But while stormy weather causes extra work, we pray for rain to make the grass grow.
February 2016

New Life!
At some point in late February, we’re greeted by the arrival of a new lamb.  We time our lambing to coincide with the onset of green grass – compare this photo to those taken in December!
Our ewes have amazing maternal instincts – this ewe will challenge anyone (or anything) that gets too close to her lamb.
February 2016

Nap Time
Lambs basically spend their time doing three things: playing, eating and sleeping. I suspect these twins were gamboling through the pasture minutes before I snapped this photo.
Every shepherd with a smart phone has shot at least one video of a “lamb-pede” – lambs chasing each other through the fields.
March 2016

Hybrid Vigor
We use cross-breeding to enhance the health and vigor of our lambs.  These lambs were sired by a Shropshire ram. Their mother is a “mule” – a cross between a Blueface Leicester ram and a Border Cheviot ewe. The yellowish tint to their wool is meconium.
March 2016

Fresh Grass!
The lambs learn quickly (from their mothers) that when the shepherd opens the gate, there’s fresh grass to graze in the next pasture! Sometimes they get a little encouragement from the border collies….
April 2016

A Good Dog
I once heard an older shepherd say, “I hope one day to be the shepherd my dogs deserve.” Our border collies, like Mo, are more than pets – they are our working partners.
April 2016

The ewes and lambs graze on irrigated pasture through the month of May. We try to shear them before the stickers get too bad – foxtails and other vegetation can foul their wool.
May 2016

The ewes all look so clean after they’ve been shorn!  Our sheep usually grow about five pounds of wool in 12 months.  Shearing a ewe takes our hired shearer about 90 seconds. The lambs will be shorn later in the summer.
May 2016

A Flying Mule
In the UK, where the cross-breeding scheme we utilize originated, the cross between a Blueface Leicester ram and a hill-breed ewe is called a “mule” – if you look closely, this lamb’s feet aren’t touching the ground.  He’s a flying mule!
June 2016

The Weaning Pen
Depending on the grass, we wean our lambs in late May or early June.  Thanks to better-than-average grass growth this year, we were able to wait to wean the lambs until June 20.  The lambs go onto irrigated pasture; the ewes get to graze on dry grass after weaning.
June 2016

A Cool Drink of Water
As the summer temperatures rise, the ewes drink more water.  They’ll usually come to the trough after their morning graze, and again before bedding down at night.
July 2016

Shaded Up
After their lambs are weaned in June, and before we start preparing them for breeding again in September, the ewes are grazed in our unirrigated annual grasslands and oak woodlands.  During the heat of the day, they shade up under the oaks.
July 2016

Hopeful Weather
In every August, there comes a day that suggests that summer won’t last forever – that autumn is on the way.  This year, we had a cool, misty morning in early August – which made the hot days that followed a little more bearable.
August 2016

The Boys
Except for 6 weeks in the fall, the rams are pastured separately from the ewes. This helps ensure that all of the sheep are ready for business once the breeding season commences.  In August, we begin feeding the rams some extra groceries – they might forget to eat once they’re with the ewes!
August 2016

Back to Green
September marks the beginning of our preparations for next year’s lambs.  We bring the ewe flock back to irrigated pasture, and we supplement their diet with canola meal and barley.  “Flushing the ewes” – putting them on a rising plane of nutrition – results in increased ovulation – and more lambs next spring!
September 2016

Autumn Morning
As late summer turns to autumn, we prepare to start another year. Shorter days mean we’re often doing chores before the sun has fully risen.
September 2016

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Renewing Community

This has been a week of travel and of meetings for me. It's also been a week of talking about predators and ranching. On Thursday, I participated in a meeting of the UC Ag and Natural Resources Wildlife Work Group at Davis. On Friday, I traveled to Quincy to attend a meeting about ranching in coexistence with wolves. And today, I participated in the 2016 Fibershed Wool Symposium in Point Reyes Station (as part of a producer panel that discussed sheep breeds and husbandry). In the latter two meetings, I renewed friendships with other ranchers - and made some new rancher friends. And as I reflect on my week tonight, I realize that my sense of being part of a ranching community is evolving.

What an incredible crowd at today's Fibershed Wool Symposium!

The landscape where we graze our sheep was almost entirely put to agricultural uses in the not-too-distant past. Today, however, the semi-rural land around Auburn is highly fragmented - small farms are interspersed with subdivisions. Our sheep graze almost entirely on leased land - and our winter grazing land isn't contiguous with our summer irrigated pastures. While we can still herd our sheep in some cases, this fragmentation means that we also have to haul our sheep from time to time.

Aside from these practical considerations, our disjointed landscape has changed the nature of our relationship to our neighbors. Our home place is the only commercial agricultural operation on our road. Our winter grazing land is within a large-lot subdivision west of Auburn. The landowners for whom we graze are incredibly nice folks - but they have little (if any) understanding of what we do. When Auburn was more of an agricultural community, one's neighbors were more likely to be farmers or ranchers themselves; today, it's vastly different.

Sometimes, this lack of shared experience and understanding can have challenging consequences. We've had sheep killed by a neighbor's dog. We've had other neighbors complain about the 2-3 days that all of our sheep are at our home place for shearing. We've had neighbors complain about our livestock guardian dogs barking at night.

Yesterday, I learned about a ranching community in southern Alberta, Canada, that is working together to coexist with wolves. Their's is both physical community (that is, their ranches are adjacent to one another) and a human community (they work together to protect their livestock). This kind of community no longer exists where we ranch - our non-ranching neighbors and landlords often have very different perspectives on predators than we do. Some think the only good coyote is a dead coyote (which goes against our commitment to coexistence) - others (as I've mentioned) let their dogs run loose. If (or perhaps, when) wolves become re-established in our region, I worry that we won't have the kind of support network that has allowed these Canadian ranchers to work together to graze cattle without having to kill wolves.

Today, however, my optimism was renewed. The majority of the audience during the panel discussion were non-ranchers - and yet they were folks who valued our efforts to raise sheep in a way that fits our environment. Some were urban or suburban dwellers who support our attempts to make at least part of our living from the land.

Perhaps more importantly, my sense of being part of a ranching community was renewed. I may not have geographic neighbors who raise sheep, but I'm part of a community of ranchers, nonetheless. In some respects, technology has supported this new idea of community - I had lunch today with group of fellow sheep ranchers, one of whom I had only known previously through our Instagram conversations! I'm realizing that this is, perhaps, the most critical benefit of my #sheep365 project - I've connected with sheep producers all over the world. And despite our lack of geographic connectivity, we are indeed a community.

And as with more conventional communities, these connections must be nurtured. Virtual connections (via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms) have their place, but I remain convinced that face-to-face communication is vital for healthy relationships. Those of us who ate lunch together today, I think, recognize this importance. During the coming months, we hope to get together again - to help one another with our work, to share our ideas and questions - to build community.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Earning their keep: More on livestock guardian animals

Over the last 12 months, I've posted several essays about our commitment to - and experience with - nonlethal predator protection tools. Livestock guardian animals (mostly dogs, but also llamas) have been the cornerstone of our system. Several recent losses have reinforced my belief that dogs are the best livestock protection tool available.

In late September, we brought 6 ewe lambs home to use for training our border collies. They joined one of our bottle-raised lambs, an older ewe, and our llama. Sometime in mid October, one of these ewe lambs simply disappeared. On Sunday afternoon, she was there - by midweek, she was gone. At that point, we started night-penning the sheep to make sure they were safe.

Also in late September, we took sheep to some friends' pasture just north of our home place. They had raised sheep, and told us they'd put their llama with the ewe lambs and cull ewes to provide some protection. Unfortunately, this didn't happen - and yesterday, we learned that we'd lost 3 ewe lambs in the last 5 weeks. The llama went in with the sheep.

As a backdrop to all of this, I'm currently completing a master's degree in integrated resource management at Colorado State University. This semester, I'm taking a course on livestock-wildlife conflict. And my professional paper is focused on non-lethal predator protection tools. I've been reviewing a number of research papers about livestock guardian dogs and llamas.

From a practical standpoint, llamas require less extra management and expense - after all, they thrive on a diet identical to that of sheep. However, as our own experience supports, llamas are not as effective as dogs. I think there are several reasons for this.

First, I think llamas are effective in North America largely because our predators have never seen them in the wild. I joke that llamas look like they were invented by Dr. Seuss - they look like they were created by a committee! Humor aside, llamas do look, act, and even smell different from any animal I've been around. I suspect that coyotes feel the same as I do. However, much of the literature I've reviewed suggests that once predators become habituated to a specific deterrent, the deterrent loses its effectiveness.

Some of the guardian llamas I've seen and used have exhibited some degree of aggression toward dogs; others have not. Our county trapper has told me that he's seen llamas that have been killed by mountain lions. Based on these observations, I suspect that some predators become habituated to llamas - which reduces (or eliminates) their effectiveness as guardian animals. Fundamentally, as herbivores, llamas are prey animals that have (in some cases) developed protective behaviors.

On the other hand, dogs seem to be far better guardian animals (at least in my experience). While there are certainly trade-offs involved in using dogs (they have to be fed everyday, for one thing), they seem to be much more effective. I suspect that this success is due, at least in part, to the fact that guardian dogs effectively replace canine predators (and perhaps feline and ursine predators, as well) in our environment. Dogs fill the carnivore niche - unlike coyotes, mountain lions and bears, they typically don't eat sheep. Based on our experience, I'd much prefer to have a carnivore protecting my sheep than another herbivore!

In addition to using dogs, we use portable electric fencing - and we move our sheep frequently. The 3 ewe lambs we recently lost were in a hard-wire fence - and they'd been in this relatively large pasture for nearly 5 weeks. The combination of electric fence and regular movement probably helps confound the predators in our environment. The fact that we're out feeding the dogs everyday means there's a human present with the sheep regularly.

I realize that this is all speculation on my part. Scientific research regarding the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of non-lethal tools is challenging for a variety of reasons. Researchers find manipulation of predator prevention systems problematic, and experimental design (replication and control) can be demanding if not impossible (Fascione et al, ed. 2004).  Furthermore, experimental controls that compare the use of non-lethal tools with lack of use exposes these control groups of livestock to potential predation, raising ethical concerns.  Consequently, much of the current science regarding non-lethal predator controls in a livestock production setting is observational in nature.

Similarly, the economics of using guardian dogs (or any other non-lethal tool) are difficult to analyze. I know the direct cost of using dogs in our operation (approximately $300/year/dog), but I don't know how many sheep losses the dogs prevent. In other words, I can only determine the cost portion of a cost-benefit analysis.

Ultimately, I suppose this reinforces my belief that raising sheep is both an art and a science!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Sheep, Stockmanship and Shopping Centers

The title of this blog post seems incongruous, but I hope you'll bear with me. Sometimes, seemingly disjointed  and unrelated ideas rattle around in my head for a bit until something I see - or read or do - brings them together. In this case, a YouTube video about hefting sheep in the Scottish hills helped make a connection between much of what I've been doing and thinking in the last several months.

The seeds for this post were planted during our trip to Bozeman, Montana, in August. During orientation at Montana State University, we visited an activity fair on campus. One of the booths that I visited was the Montana Land Reliance, an agriculturally focused land trust that works with ranchers throughout Montana. I had been familiar with the group (and with their slogan, "Cows not Condos") since working with the California Rangeland Trust in the late 1990s. As I was talking with the young lady staffing the booth, I joked that they needed a "Sheep not something" slogan, too.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to help with and participate in a stockmanship workshop put on by Steve Cote and Roger Ingram. While the focus was largely on handling livestock (cattle, mostly) in a low-stress manner, we also talked about how livestock that are handled well have fewer health and reproductive problems, and how they'll actually stay put on a particular piece of grazing land. Steve Cote stressed that learning stockmanship is a lifelong process - that a good stockman (or woman) is constantly asking questions of the livestock (in terms of behavior and response) and trying new approaches based on these "answers."

Finally, today I found a link to this outstanding video on Facebook:

Unlike our part of the Sierra Foothills, sheep have been grazing on these Scottish hills for thousands of years. Each flock of sheep knows which part of these unfenced hills is its native home - in some respects, they place themselves just like Steve Cote and Roger Ingram taught us about placing cattle on the range.

Late in the video, there were two statements that finally tied these ideas together for me. One of the speakers says, "Sheep are looking after the landscape," adding, "Sheep keep people in these remote hills." In other words, sheep grazing maintains the grass-covered hillsides, and sheep production supports remote small communities throughout Scotland.

Admittedly, we don't have a thousand year tradition of grazing sheep in the Sierra foothills. But grazing animals are a vital part of our rangeland landscapes in California and elsewhere in the West. Rangelands, according to my sheepherder definition, are too hot, too cold, too steep, too dry - too something - to support cultivated agriculture. And these lands can be incredibly productive - as wildlife habitat, as watersheds, as open space. Just as well-managed grazing by sheep and cattle can help maintain the productivity and health of these lands, ranching as an economic activity can help keep these lands from turning into housing tracts and shopping malls. Several weeks ago, I thought of a new slogan: Sheep not Shopping Malls!

I'm under no illusion that the small annual rent I pay to graze the 20 acres of irrigated pasture and 250 acres of annual rangeland keeps our landlords from considering offers from real estate developers. Nonetheless, the fact that our landlords love to see sheep grazing on their hillsides means something. The fact that there are still a few of us in this part of Placer County who raise sheep and cattle at a commercial scale means we still have a culture of stock-raising. Yesterday evening, I sold a ram to the children of a fellow ranching family - they raise cattle, but his kids are learning about sheep. My own daughters, by watching us work since before they could walk - and helping us work once they could - are learning skills that date back to the first shepherds in the Scotthish hills.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Year of the Sheep (Photos)

A year later, I can't really remember where the idea originated. Sometime in late September 2015, I decided to start a project I called #Sheep365. Using my iPhone, I intended on taking at least one photo of my family's sheep operation every day for a year - beginning on October 1 when we turned the rams in with the ewes. I posted these photos on my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds - all with the #Sheep365 tag. Looking back now at the last 366 days (2016 is a leap year!), I have thoroughly enjoyed the project - in part because I'm now enjoying looking back, and in part because of the conversations I've had with friends (old and new) about raising sheep.

A shepherd's year involves day-in-day-out care for sheep and for the land - punctuated by milestones like lambing, shearing, weaning and breeding. As I look back at the photos, many of them don't seem to be much different from one day to the next, and yet I can see the changing of the seasons and the changing of my work as I scroll through them. I've become aware that I'm trying to tell a daily story while also weaving together the story of my entire year of shepherding.

As my project wrapped up last week, I realized that it was more than just a year-long social media experiment – it was an artistic endeavor. I realized that I was trying to tell a story – not just about what was happening on any particular day, but also about how each day in a shepherd’s life relates to the days that came before and to the days that would follow. I see now that art does resemble life (or perhaps it’s the other way around). This year-long project required both dedication and discipline on my part (which I didn’t fully appreciate until I no longer had to think about what I would post that day). Similarly, raising sheep requires dedication and discipline – there are days that I’d rather not leave the house at sunrise to move irrigation water before work, just as there are evenings that I’d rather go home than swing by the ranch to feed guard dogs after the sun has set. To take this analogy even further, I’ve realized that a rancher works with animals, water, sunlight, and soil to create a body of work. Science and technology are certainly a part of my daily work, but there is an art (that I’m still learning) to putting these things together.

Unbeknownst to me, other shepherds had been using the #Sheep365 tag - and as a consequence, I made the acquaintance of shepherds in other parts of the country and other parts of the world. I even got to post to an international twitter feed for a week.

Finally, the project opened conversations with folks about the work involved in raising sheep. I've enjoyed answering questions about things that I take for granted. I've enjoyed the positive feedback, too!  Here's a look back at our year:

As I explained when I started the project, the shepherd's year begins on the day that the rams go with the ewes. This day represents our hopes for the coming year. We time our breeding with an eye towards lambing - we want lambs to be born when the grass is green and growing fast - in springtime, in other words! And so October 1 is the first day of the sheep year for us. Since we have two breeding groups (a replacement group and a terminal group), we had sheep in two locations last October. For the first half of the month, we were still moving irrigation water, as well.

In 2015, we got our germinating rain in early November. A germinating rain is typically 0.5-0.75" of rain - enough to get the annual grasses on our rangelands started - always an important day for us! After we separated the rams and ewes again in mid-November, we re-combined the ewes into one big group. The rams went back to the bachelor paddock! We had our first frost, and the last of last spring's lambs reached their market weights.

As usual, December was the slowest month for shepherding - and a nice break!  The ewes were bred and settled in their pregnancies.  Early in the month, we hauled them to our winter rangeland pastures - where they'd stay until they were done lambing in April. And on Christmas Day, my daughters helped with chores. I always do a little extra work on the days leading up to Christmas, to make sure that all we need to do on the big day is check sheep and feed guard dogs. And after Christmas, we got a way for a few days (which meant the posts featured guest photos by my partner, Roger Ingram!)

In January, work started picking up again. With short days, relatively cold temperatures, and the lingering effects of the drought, we didn't have much green grass - and so we moved the sheep frequently. The ewes were getting enormous; we started to suspect that we might have more twins that normal at lambing time. At the end of the month, we brought the flock into our portable corrals to trim their feet and give them their pre-lambing vaccinations.

The photos I took in February start to show a bit more green grass in them - just in time for lambing! The early February days always drag for me - I'm waiting for lambs! I went through my preparations - checking supplies and assembling tools. Then on February 22, ewe #1543 (affectionately named "Pina" by my youngest daughter) delivered twin lambs. Six weeks of Christmas had begun!

March was a blur - lambs, lambs, and more lambs. 2016 was our most successful lambing season ever - 100 lambs out of 55 ewes. Other than lambs, though, I don't remember much about March!

In early April, we purchased a border collie puppy. Mae came to us from our friend Geri Byrne in Tulelake, CA. She's been a firecracker from the start - incredible energy. She's also showing signs of being an incredibly talented sheep dog. Oh yeah - and irrigation season started, which meant I'd spend most mornings moving water for the next 6 months.

In May, we brought all of the sheep home to be sheared - we typically wait until the youngest lamb is 5-6 weeks old before shearing the ewes. Shearing, for me, is the sheep equivalent of branding calves - it's hard work made enjoyable by the company of friends who help us. We also picked up a new livestock guardian dog puppy - Bodie is a Maremma-Anatolian mix. At the end of the month, our oldest daughter, Lara, graduated from Placer High School (as one of 14 valedictorians - and the first ag student to be valedictorian).

June seems like it was mostly moving water! We also weaned the lambs (later than normal, thanks to a strong grass year) and marketed all of our feeder lambs.

As usual, July was hot and dry.  The lambs were on irrigated pasture, while the ewes went back to dry forage. And, we got to go on vacation (to the coast and then to the Sierra - where the meat bees were horrible).

In August, we began preparing the rams for breeding season by feeding them grain. We want them to be in exceptionally good condition going into breeding season, because they usually forget to eat much while they're with the ewes! At the end of the month, we took a week-long trip to Montana to drop Lara off at Montana State University (and where I got to visit the Montana Wool Lab - once a sheep geek, always a sheep geek!). When we returned, I picked up a ton of canola meal in the Sacramento Valley to use for flushing the ewes, which started in...

On Labor Day weekend, we went through the ewes to determine whether we needed to cull any due to missing teeth or bad udders. Two ewes had lost all of their lower incisors (which makes it difficult for them to graze). The next weekend, Emma had an incredibly successful Gold Country Fair with her sheep (her first fair without her older sister) - she won the award for high point sheep exhibitor! We also started feeding canola meal to the ewes to flush them (that is, improve their nutrition to increase ovulation). On September 29 (two days early because we had a wedding on October 1), we turned the rams back in with the ewes.

As my project wrapped up, I was invited by Placer Arts to participate in the Auburn Art Walk on October 7, 2016. I’ve selected 24 of my favorite photos (2 from each month) to exhibit in the gallery at Auburn City Hall (1225 Lincoln Way in Auburn). Placer Arts is hosting a free reception in the gallery from 6-9 p.m., and my photos will be on exhibit (and available for purchase) through early December. While I’m under no illusions that I’m a great photographer, I’m excited to have a further opportunity to talk about the work involved in raising sheep in the Sierra foothills!