Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Taking the Bad with the Good

One of my favorite musical groups is a band from Newfoundland called Great Big Sea.  They perform a combination of their own material and traditional, Celtic-influenced music.  One of my favorite songs, Tickle Cove Pond, includes the line, "The hard and the easy, we take as they come."  This line describes my day - and in many ways, the thinking behind my #sheep365 project.

When I started taking photos of the day-by-day work involved in raising sheep, I consciously decided that I'd post photos of the parts of being a shepherd that I most enjoyed - ewes grazing on green grass, new lambs frolicking.  I also consciously decided that I'd show the hard days, too - the monotony of irrigating in August, and the death that comes with raising livestock.  Today is the 145th day of my 366 day project (it's a leap year, after all) - and today marks the first day that I've posted something about the harder part of my avocation.

The first three ewes to deliver lambs were maiden ewes - first-time mothers.  Yesterday afternoon, I found the first set of twins, one of which was separated from her mother.  I reunited the lamb with her mother and sister, which seemed to go well.  While I didn't sleep particularly well last night (worrying about these first lambs), when I checked them at 6:30 this morning, they were paired up and doing great.  I also found two new sets of twins this morning.  I watched them for about 10 minutes, and everything looked to be fine.

My partner Roger checked the sheep at noon, and found one of the new lambs laying by itself and not looking good.  He wrapped it up and took it to his office - and my wife Sami picked it up an hour later.  Roger was able to give the lamb some colostrum, and Sami gave it some electrolytes.  Despite our collective best efforts, the lamb died this evening.

The second ewe with twins was also showing signs of struggling to learn how to take care of her lambs.  Roger found her with one lamb this evening - the other was sleeping about 50 feet away (unusual for a newborn lamb).  We got them back together and moved away to let them bond.  I've found that I sometimes have to force myself to trust the ewes - in most cases, a first-time mother will eventually figure out what she's doing.  Since we pasture lamb (rather than barn lamb), we've selected ewes that demonstrate superior maternal behavior (or so we hope).  Sometimes the maiden ewes are more challenging.  I expect that I won't sleep well again tonight - I'm worried about the new set of twins, and I'm worried that the dead lamb may portend more problems to come.  Regardless, I'll be back out to check the sheep as the sun comes up tomorrow.

All of this brings me back to the purpose behind my #sheep365 project.  I want to show the "hard and the easy" parts of being a shepherd.  Until today, most of my posts have depicted the easy parts. But as someone told me several years ago, "if you have livestock, you'll have deadstock, too."  This is the reality of caring for animals.  My friend and fellow rancher Liz Hubbard said tonight, "when we reach the point where the death of a lamb doesn't bother us, we should quit being shepherds."  She's right - I hope that the folks who follow my posts who are not farmers or ranchers get some sense of this.  In many ways, that's the true reason I decided to post something everyday for a year.  Some, I'm sure, will be confused (or even troubled) by the fact that we raise sheep (in part) to produce meat - and yet we're saddened by the death of a day-old lamb.  While the loss of a lamb like this represents an economic loss, it's far more difficult for me than watching the value of my stocks (the few that I own) decline.  Those of us who ranch do so because we love life and we love the land - and we understand that death is a necessary part of life.  This understanding doesn't make a day like today any easier, just as the understanding of how we get paid (by selling lambs) doesn't diminish the joy we experience in new life.

Hopefully, there won't be too many more days like this during the coming 6 weeks of our lambing season.  Hopefully, most of my posts will show the joy I take in my livelihood.  And I want folks to know that I didn't post the photo of the dead lamb for its shock value or for sympathy.  I truly want my non-ranching friends to gain insight into what it means to be a shepherd.  Choosing this life means that I must take the hard with the easy - and the bad with the good.  Thanks for indulging me.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Ideal Ewe

With the start of another lambing season just around the corner (our ewes are due to start lambing around February 23), I'm again giving some thought to what Flying Mule Farm's Ideal Ewe looks like.  And I refer specifically to our Ideal Ewe for a reason; every operation has specific environmental, management and marketing conditions - which means every operation should have a different set of criteria for its ideal ewe.

The ecological foundation of our operation are our annual rangelands.  From November through mid-April, our ewes graze in the oak woodlands near Auburn.  Our grazing land is composed mostly of annual grasses and broadleaf plants, along with several species of brush.  I've written elsewhere about the relative values of our forage species; for my purposes in this essay, I'll just say that our rangeland plants exhibit a variety of nutritional value and grazing palatability, and that these factors vary spatially and seasonally.

During the summer months, we have access to irrigated pasture.  In our Mediterranean climate, we don't have green grass in the summer months unless we irrigate it.  This green forage provides much greater nutrition than the dry annual grasses during the summer and early fall.  We use this forage to put weight on our lambs (as a grass-fed operation, we don't feed any grain to our lambs) and to prepare our ewes for the breeding season (October 1 - November 15).

We also operate almost entirely on land without fences or other facilities.  Consequently, we rely on portable electric fencing systems and the herding ability of our border collies.  We lamb on our pastures (rather than in a barn), and we rely on our ewes' maternal abilities and our livestock guardian dogs to keep lambs safe from predators.

In past years, we've marketed the majority of our lambs as grass-fed meat through our local farmers markets.  More recently, we've shifted our focus to selling lighter weight, grass-fed lambs during ethnic (mostly Islamic) holidays.  In both scenarios, we want a moderate-sized lamb that will finish (that is, deposit sufficient muscle and fat) on grass (without any extra grain or concentrate feed).  We also market our wool (sometimes directly to the end user, other times through a broker) - so we want sheep that produce a quality fiber product as well.

Finally, having suffered through significant footrot (footrot is a bacterial infection similar to thrush in horses - it causes severe economic losses for sheep producers) problems in the past, we want sheep that have natural resistance to this infection.

Given these criteria, here's what the Ideal Ewe looks like for our operation:

  • She will conceive her first lambs at 18 months of age and deliver her first lambs at around 2 years of age (we don't push our ewes to breed as ewe lambs - we let them grow to their mature size before they are bred).
  • She will deliver 10 to 12 lambs during the course of the next 6 years (we want one crop of lambs each year - some producers push this to get 3 crops of lambs in two years.  Economically, the cost of this type of operation doesn't make sense for us).  We prefer twins - triplets are not ideal, because we either have to bottle raise one of the triplets at home (expensive) or the ewe loses substantial body condition trying to produce enough milk for 3 lambs.
  • She will be an outstanding mother!  We evaluate every ewe (and every potential replacement ewe lamb) for her ability to deliver her lamb(s) without assistance from us, for her maternal attachment to her lamb(s) (which is related to her ability to protect her lamb(s) from predators) and for the vigor of her lamb (which is related to her milk production).  A ewe that doesn't make the grade is marked for sale once her lambs are weaned in the late spring.
  • She will have sound feet that require minimal trimming - and that resist footrot!
  • She will respect our electric fence and our border collies.  A ewe that gets through the fence - or that fights the dogs when we need to move them - is more trouble than she's worth!
  • She will be calm and easy to handle in our corrals - we don't want sheep that are annoyingly tame, but we also don't want sheep that try to run to the next county when they see us.
  • She will produce 5-6 pounds of wool with fibers that are at least 5 inches long.  Some breeds produce far more wool; the breeds that we use seem to produce about this amount.  Because our wool is on the coarse side (that is, it is larger in diameter than Rambouillet or Merino wool), it also tends to have less lanolin in it, which means our yield percentage is higher than these fine-wool breeds. Six pounds of our "grease" wool will yield around 3.5 pounds of clean wool; 6 pounds of Rambouillet grease wool will yield about 3 pounds of clean wool.
  • She will produce lambs that will have sufficient muscling and fat cover to grade choice at 100 pounds liveweight.  This is smaller than the average commodity-market lamb in the U.S., but it fits our market perfectly.  This means we want moderate frame size and easy fleshing ability in our lambs - large-framed sheep need more feed resources (including grain).
Our daughters have both shown sheep at our county fair.  While I'm always interested to hear what the judge has to say about their lambs - and about the few breeding animals they've shown, I'm always struck by the realization that this "industry" standard has very little relationship with the kind of sheep that I've found most profitable for our farm.  Wendell Berry, an author and a farmer, writes: 
“Intelligent livestock breeders may find that, in practice, the two questions become one: How can I produce the best meat at the lowest economic and ecological cost?  This question cannot be satisfactorily answered by the market, by the meat packing industry, by breed societies, or by show ring judges.  It cannot be answered satisfactorily by “animal science” experts or by genetic engineers.  It can only be answered satisfactorily by the farmer, and only if the farm, the place itself, is allowed to play a part in the selection.”
Our farm passes judgement on our abilities as managers and livestock breeders every year.  The ewes that meet all or most of the requirements I've outlined above stay in our flock - and pass their genetic potential on to subsequent generations.  I'd be interested to learn what other shepherds look for in their Ideal Ewe!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Where has the magic gone? Thoughts on ranching, science and easy answers

In the last several years, I found that I’m becoming increasingly skeptical of easy answers and “magical” solutions when it comes to ranching.  The quick fix that will solve all of the challenges of raising sheep on rangeland seems elusive – whether it’s supposed to address economic, ecological or animal husbandry problems.  When I was getting started in the sheep business, these recipes and mystical answers held a great deal of attraction to me.  Today, much of the magic is gone!  Perhaps that’s a good thing!

Perhaps this is related to my age – I’m no longer the na├»ve youth who wanted to make my living from farming and ranching 15 years ago.  Perhaps this related to my return to school – I’m currently pursuing my master’s degree in integrated resource management through an online program at Colorado State University.  Most likely, this is a combination of these and other factors.

I should probably provide an example or two.  I’ve written previously in this space about my own struggle to resolve the differences between the advice of farm writers like Joel Salatin with my own experience (see this post, for example).  As I’ve gained practical experience and knowledge, I’ve realized that someone else’s recipe for success can never address my own specific circumstances and environment.

More recently, I’ve been intrigued by similar suggestions relating to rangeland productivity and predator protection.  I’ve read about ranchers in other parts of North America who have experienced tremendous increases in productivity by planting and grazing cover crops.  I’ve listened to folks in other parts of the West talk about their success in using fladry (hanging flags on polywire) and other technological tools to deter wolves from preying on livestock.  These sound like easy answers to some of the problems I’ve faced (or will face if wolves make it this far south) – and yet my increasingly skeptical mind wonders whether these easy solutions are too good to be true.

Much of this skepticism, I realize, has to do with my own paradigms.  In my experience, my paradigms can be powerful filters for incoming information and drivers of my own approach to ranching.  For example, I firmly believe that low-stress livestock handling works.  I also firmly believe that my integrated approach to protecting my sheep from predators (using dogs, management and electric fencing) works.  Because of this, I’m inclined to seek answers when something doesn’t work (like when I lose a sheep to a coyote, or when cows don’t flow easily through a gate) that fit my paradigm.

In many ways, science can help uncover the site- and situation-specific complexities involved in answering these questions.  However, I also find myself frustrated with a reductionist approach to science.  Putting 5 ewes in a small paddock and measuring their impact on yellow starthistle doesn’t acknowledge the complex relationships between herd effect, grazing preferences, animal performance and soil health.  A single-season experiment doesn’t account for variations in weather, animal behavior, or ranch management.  Experience has shown me that these things are related in complicated ways – just like experience has shown me that hard work matters more than easy solutions.

So if there aren’t the easy answers I once found so attractive – if there aren’t magical solutions to my most pressing issues as a rancher – where will the answers come from?  Perhaps our scientific approach needs to evolve – perhaps we need to find ways to deal with complex natural systems, economics and human relationships (that is, with ranching) through long-term, integrated scientific inquiry.  Perhaps we need to blend natural science and social science in a way that acknowledges practitioner experience and the scientific method.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that questions that I once thought could be answered in black-and-white terms are much more complicated.   Indeed, I’ve found that I’ve had to try things before I realized how much I didn’t know.  I’ve read that Albert Einstein once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.” (He had to have said it – it’s on the internet!).  Regardless of who said it, however, I’m beginning to see the truth in it!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Testimony re: Draft CA Dept of Fish & Wildlife Gray Wolf Conservation Plan

Tonight, I testified at the last of three hearings held by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife regarding its draft Gray Wolf Conservation Plan.  A number of stakeholders worked with the Department on the plan, including the California Wool Growers Association (of which I am a member and an officer).  The draft plan is over 300 pages; members of the public had 3 minutes to provide oral comments.  At the risk of boring most of you, here's what I said:

"Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments tonight.  My name is Dan Macon, and like most bald guys, I wear a number of hats!  I am a small-scale commercial sheep producer in Placer County. I'm also the treasurer of the California Wool Growers Association and an assistant rangeland specialist in the UC Davis Plant Sciences Department.  Tonight, I am speaking for myself as a small producer.  We have practiced non-lethal predator protection (raising sheep, goats and cattle) for 25 years.  My comments reflect this frame of reference.

"I'm glad to hear that the Department will be working to collar the wolves in California and to provide location information to local producers.  This is critical to any non-lethal predator management strategy.  I currently rely on Wildlife Services and my county trapper for information about the predators in my area.  For example, the trapper will let me know if he's had reports on mountain lions where I have my sheep - not so that I can take lethal steps, but so that I can adjust my strategies.  If I knew there were wolves close by, I would increase the number of livestock guardian dogs and adjust my grazing management.  If there were no wolves, there would not be a reason to incur this extra expense.

"Expense brings me to my second comment - direct and indirect costs of wolves.  The conservation plan does a good job of addressing the direct costs associated with livestock kills.  Indirect costs are more difficult to quantify.  First, a wolf kill represents the loss of genetic potential.  My sheep, like most herds and flocks, have been bred specifically for my environment and operation.  I can't simply go out and replace a ewe that has been killed with something from the sales yard and expect similar productivity.  This has multi-year ramifications.  Any investment in new genetics takes several years to provide a return.  Then there are the life-time productivity losses - in my flock, a ewe might have 12-15 lambs during her productive life.  If she's been killed, I lose that as well.

"The plan refers to losses in productivity due to stress, but this needs more attention.  Producers in other states report reductions in reproductive rates and weaning weights, as well as increased labor costs (looking for missing animals, for example).  UC Davis and UC Cooperative Extension are ramping up to collect baseline data on these issues.  I encourage the Department to support this research effort.

"Finally, wolves may result in a loss of grazing land.  I graze in proximity to recreation land.  Wolves, based on my research, will require me to use more and more aggressive livestock guardian dogs - which may not be acceptable near hiking and riding trails and rural residences.  I may incur more expense for liability insurance - and it costs more to run more dogs with my sheep.  Our operation, like many, isn't big enough to justify hiring a herder to stay with our sheep 24/7.  These lands are critical to my operation (and others like mine), and the services I provide are critical to managing the fuel loads and ecological conditions of these rangelands.

"Thank you."

A couple of observations on the hearing itself:

1. I've been around a long time (in other words, I'm on my way to becoming an old fart).  CDFW's Wildlife Branch Chief, Eric Loft, has worked for the agency since I worked for the California Cattlemen's Association in the early 1990s.  A good lesson - paths may continue to cross!

2. The process of taking testimony must be incredibly difficult for agency staff.  I can't imagine having to look engaged and interested without appearing to agree with a particular speaker!

3. Well-organized and well-spoken people get a little more leeway with the 3 minutes time limit than people who are nervous, disorganized and rambling.