Saturday, April 23, 2016

Working Dogs vs. Recreation Dogs

Moving ewes and lambs with Ernie last night.
Every couple of months, I get a phone call or an email from somebody who has heard that we use herding dogs in our sheep operation.  Occasionally, these questions come from a fellow sheep producer (usually a new one) who wants to learn how to use dogs (and make themselves a better shepherd).  More frequently, the call comes from somebody looking to find a new activity to enjoy with their border collie or Australian shepherd.  With the latter, the conversation usually begins with the other person describing how gifted and intelligent their dog is.  While I'll still take time to help folks in the first category, I've become increasingly reluctant to help folks in the second.

First, I should say I'm not a dog trainer.  I've had help with my herding dogs. Much of what my dogs have learned, I've learned with them. The skills that my dogs have, they've developed through actual work - moving sheep and cows.

Second, a bit about my experience working with the second group of people - the folks who would like to give their dogs a new activity.  Some are entirely understanding when I explain that my sheep are (at least in part) my livelihood.  I usually ask whether they are committed to becoming stockmen (or women), or if they are simply looking for an alternative to frisbee or agility.  I will always help aspiring shepherds, but when I suggest that their dog (and especially my sheep) would be better served by something that doesn't involve chasing sheep (and most of these dogs chase rather than herd), the people who are looking for activity rather than skill often don't understand my concern.  A few folks in this category will then proceed to argue with me - their dog comes from working lines, after all.

Yesterday, I listened to an outstanding podcast from the Heritage Radio Network about guardian and herding dogs.  The host, John Wilkes (himself a former sheep farmer) interviewed Welsh shepherd and champion dog handler Aled Owen.  Our newest dog, Mae, is descended from one of Owen's dogs.  He talked about the need for a solid trial dog to get real work on a regular basis.  The best sheep dog trial handlers I know in this country say the same thing - a trial dog truly excels only when he or she has to do real-world sheep work on a regular basis.  Similarly, I think, a trial handler is well-served by day-to-day shepherding.

All of this reflection was caused by call I got this morning from a gentleman who wanted to bring his 6-year-old collie (as well as his doctor and her Australian shepherd) to "play" with my sheep.  I tried to explain why I was reluctant to have my sheep subjected to this kind of dog.  I suggested that frisbee or agility might be a better activity.  I don't think I got through, but I'm glad that his dogs won't be chasing my sheep through the fence.  I guess I'm getting grumpy about some things in my extreme mid-forties!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Thankful for the water, but....

On Friday, April 15, our irrigation district (Nevada Irrigation District, or NID) turned on our irrigation water.  Unlike the last several years, NID has plenty of water in storage (both in reservoirs and as snowpack) - we don't have to worry about getting enough water this year.  Even more importantly, NID expects to have enough carry-over water in storage at the end of this season to ensure adequate supplies for next year.  After four years of drought, having enough water is a huge relief!  But while I'm thankful for the water, early season irrigation with our K-Line irrigation system is a challenge - largely because of type of water delivery system we have in the foothills.

First, let me extol the virtues of NID's system.  Our irrigation system is a legacy of the first settlers (miners and farmers) in our part of the Sierra foothills.  Miners, mostly, dug canal systems to provide water for mining - which farmers later used to grow crops.  The NID canal that runs through the north end of our home property was built sometime in the late 1800s (the easement on our deed dates to the 1880s, as I recall).  This system is almost entirely gravity based.  Except when I step on the scale, I'm a huge fan of gravity!  With respect to our irrigation system, gravity means that we use very little energy to deliver water to our ranch.  Gravity moves water from NID's high country reservoirs to the canals that provide our water.  Gravity moves water from our diversion box on the canal to our mainline pipe.  And gravity delivers water to our K-Line sprinklers.  It's a pretty efficient system!

Unfortunately, gravity also makes leaves, grey pine cones, oak catkins and other debris fall into the open canals that carry water from the high country to our pastures.  This detritus is small enough to flow through our 6-inch mainline and 2-inch risers.  It's small enough to flow through our lateral feeder pipes.  It's not small enough, however, to flow through our pressure regulators and sprinkler nozzles.  And this is the "but" in the title of this post.  When I move water at this time of year, I invariably have plugged sprinklers.  It's easiest - and less time consuming - to unplug the sprinklers while the system is running.  Which means I come home wet most evenings!  Sometimes, gravity makes larger things fall into the canal and end up in our system - over the years, I've had pond weeds, acorns, frog and fish parts, and even a whole rat end up in our irrigation system.  I suppose a filter might be in order - but in the meantime I'll trade my time for the extra expense of a filter system.

When it comes to irrigation, there are many measures of efficiency.  Our K-Line system, which consists of flexible above-ground pipe and pods with sprinklers, delivers an even amount of water across our hilly pastures.  In that respect, it's highly efficient.  I have friends who still flood irrigate.  While this technique may seem inefficient, it definitely has its advantages in our foothill landscapes.  The best flood irrigators can push water uphill (or at least it seems that they can to me).  They don't worry too much about clogged sprinkler nozzles, either!  And flood irrigation, done well, can help recharge groundwater aquifers.

And so as spring becomes summer, and you see lush pastures, bountiful orchards and plentiful vegetable farms as you drive through the Placer County foothills, join me in being thankful for the water that grows our food!  And join me in thanking the farmers and ranchers - and NID staff - who keep the water flowing!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Stockmanship Notes: Learning to be a Shepherd

Earlier this week, I had an exchange on Twitter with a fellow shepherd (and outstanding author - check out The Shepherd's Life) from the UK named James Rebanks:

A day later, my friend Kent Reeves posted an article on my Facebook page entitled "Stop attacking pastoralists. We're part of natural resource management, too."  Finally, I had an actual face-to-face conversation (imagine that!) with a fellow sheep rancher this week, during which we both lamented the lack of experienced shepherds in California (and, I suspect, elsewhere in the United States).  Each of these encounters underscored a problem that has been tickling my subconscious mind for some time now: in our modern, technologically advanced society, very few people have a detailed grasp on what it means to be a shepherd - and even fewer have a true desire to learn (and master) the necessary skills.

My own work this week offered yet another example of the realization I had several years ago that stockmanship - the work of caring for livestock - operates on its own clock (see my earlier Stockmanship Notes: Belief, Attitude and Punching a Clock).  Now that our ewes have finished giving birth, my attention has turned to keeping lambs healthy, keeping the sheep on the proper side of the electric fences, and preparing for irrigation season.  While moving the sheep over the weekend, I'd discovered a ewe lamb with a respiratory infection.  I'd treated her with antibiotics, but I was still worried about her after hauling the sheep to a new property on Sunday.  Monday morning, I spent an extra 10 minutes during my morning chores looking for her - not much time, I realize, but I would have taken an extra hour if necessary.  While I had other things I needed to do on Monday morning, my priority was the health and well-being of our sheep.  Similarly, I spent extra time on Thursday morning troubleshooting the electric fence.  Overnight rain made the vegetation wet, which decreased the charge going through the fence.  After walking the perimeter of our 3+ acre paddock several times, I was able to fix the problem.  And I was a half hour late getting to my "real" job.

Over the years that I've been learning to be a shepherd (yes, I'm still learning - I will be for life), the animals in my care have taught me many lessons.  Thanks to vandals, I once had sheep out near the Southern Pacific tracks in Lincoln - at 6 a.m. on Easter Sunday.  I have loaded ewes and weak lambs into the back of my truck at 11 p.m. in the wind and sleet because I was worried about whether the lambs would survive the storm.  I have left a family barbecue to make sure sheep didn't get into the county road adjacent to our leased pasture.  I've helped bed a group of goats down for the night on the wrong side of a rain-swollen creek that we couldn't cross.  In the moment, each of these events was stressful; looking back, they helped teach me patience, attention to detail, and the importance of seeing a job through to completion.

In the course of working with interns, students and employees, I've realized that some people have an aptitude for this kind of work, while others do not.  I've had interns who treated our sheep like their own, and others who couldn't understand why I was upset when they forgot a critical detail like turning the electric fence back on.  I've worked with colleagues and employees who taught me important lessons, and I've worked with others who quit because the work was "too hard."  And I've found that students who ask questions tend to become better shepherds than students who try to tell me how much they already know.

As the High Country News piece I referenced suggests, sheepherders (and cowboys) are integral to managing natural resources.  Not only do our animals need us; the land needs us - the land needs people whose job it is to be on it and in it day after day.  This is perhaps where the disconnect with our non-shepherding friends and neighbors is most pronounced.  For most people, hiking through the foothills, or riding horseback through the mountains, is recreation.  For sheepherders and cowboys, these activities are our vocation - a vocation we love, but work nonetheless.  I think our ability to listen to the land, and to manage our natural resources, is enhanced by the day-in, day-out work that pastoralists - stockmen and stockwomen - perform in caring for grazing livestock.  The land - our environment - needs people whose job it is to pay attention.

In other countries, folks have realized that these skills may not get passed from one generation to the next.  In France, there are formal shepherding schools where young people (mostly) learn the skills necessary to caring for grazing sheep.  A wonderful book, The Art and Science of Shepherding, describes these schools, as well as the extensive knowledge of French shepherds.  There is talk of establishing such a school in this country, as my friend Cole Bush describes in a recent article in The Stockman Grassfarmer.  For the last 4 or 5 years, we've offered a series of "Shepherding Skills" workshops designed to give new and aspiring shepherds hands-on learning opportunities.  Collectively, I think we must do more of this - our skills and knowledge must be passed on to a new generation of stock-people.

Reading my own writing - and listening to my own conversations with other sheep and cattle producers, I fear that I may become the "grumpy old sheepherder" I used to ridicule.  I fear, at times, that I'm becoming the old guy who complains about the lack of a work ethic in the generations that follow my own.  I hope that I'll keep learning from others - and I hope that I'll find new ways to pass my own knowledge to others.  And mostly I hope that the wisdom of stock-people receives the appreciation that it is due.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

2016 Lambing Report

The first lambs of 2016

Yesterday morning, I found ewe 1526 with a brand-new ewe lamb (born overnight) – she put a wrap on our 2016 lambing season (an interesting side note – she was also the last ewe to give birth last year).  In many ways, lambing season is one of the measuring sticks we use to evaluate the success of our management over the previous 12 months.  The year’s lambing season is dependent on ewe nutrition prior to and during our breeding season (the previous September through mid-November), our management in the 3 weeks post-breeding, and weather and management during the 6 week lambing season.  By any measure, this year’s lambing season was our most successful ever – and the result of continuous learning and management adjustments on our part.  I should note that I offer this report not as a comparison with other sheep producers; rather, I want to document our efforts this year as a benchmark for evaluating future management decisions.


Breeding Interval
October 1 – November 15
Lambing Interval
February 22 – April 4
Average Gestation Interval
155.1 days
Median Gestation Interval
154 days
Conception Rate (ewes bred/ewes exposed)
Lambing Rate (lambs born/ewes bred)
Live Lambing Rate (lambs surviving @ end of lambing/ewes bred)
Live Lambs per Ewe Exposed
Death Loss
Bottle Lambs (#, %)
Cull Ewes (%)
Maiden Ewe Lambing Rate
Shropshire Lambing Rate
White Face Lambing Rate
Mule Lambing Rate
Percent lambing in first 34 days (2 cycles)


Until this year, 2015 had been our most successful lambing season (140.9% lambing rate, 136.6% live lambing rate).  In my opinion, there are several factors responsible for this dramatic year-over-year improvement:

  • Improved nutrition at flushing and breeding: In 2015, we were able to graze the entire ewe flock on irrigated pasture from early September through early December.  We also utilized a high protein, high energy supplemental feed (pea crisps) through flushing and the first 17 days of breeding.  I believe that our flushing and breeding nutrition greatly improved our conception and lambing rates, as well as our synchronization (that is, the percentage of ewes lambing in the first 34 days of lambing season).  We had 3 sets of triplets and our first ever set of quadruplets this year!
  • Improved management and nutrition during settling: For several years, we’ve “settled” the ewes after removing the rams in the fall.  During the 18-21 days after pulling the rams, we do not do any significant management (other than moving the ewes on to new pastures as normal).  This year, we were also able to keep the ewes on irrigated pasture during this phase.  I think this probably helped a small number of ewes maintain their pregnancies during this critical phase.
  • Selection for multiple births: One of the criteria we’ve used to determine which ewes we would keep during our drought-induced de-stocking over the last two years was a ewe’s propensity to twin.  We also only retained ewe lambs that were born as twins.  This likely resulted in more multiple births this year.  The differences between our breeding groups (Shropshire, White Face and Mule) seem to back this up: we have bred White Face replacements in each of the last two years, which means we haven’t been replacing our Mule ewes with ewe lambs.  This year’s replacement ewe lambs will all be Mules, which should pay dividends when they have their first lambs in 2 years.
  • Death Loss: Our death loss is slightly higher than normal this year (6%).  Here’s a breakdown of our losses:
  • Lost 1 lamb to watery mouth (E. coli infection) – first time this has ever happened (it’s unusual in a pasture lambing system).  The lamb was one of set of triplets.  We processed the lambs within 24 hours (as we normally do), but this lamb never really got up and going.
  • Lost a sibling to this first lamb several weeks later during a rainstorm.  The ewe had unusual teat placement, and we’d been worried about her remaining lambs since losing the first one.  We will carefully evaluate the ewe at weaning to determine whether she should be culled.
  • One lamb was born weak to a mother that focused on the other twin.  She’s an older ewe, and we’ve marked her to be culled.  Took the lamb home, but she never really got going.
  • Lost one lamb from a set of triplets during a rainstorm.  Probably weather related.
  • Lost one of a set of twins born to a maiden ewe early in lambing season.  Not sure about the reason.  The ewe will get one more chance.
  • Lost a weak lamb born as the smaller of a set of twins.  This was a late-bred ewe (and the lambs were sired by different rams).  Took the lamb home; it rallied but didn’t make it.  It was not the ewe’s fault.

Looking Ahead

Since we’ve been able to make improvements to our irrigation system, we’ll have higher quality forage through the summer and fall this year.  As a result, we’ll be able to keep the lambs on the ewes through the third week of June.  Following weaning, we’ll keep the replacement ewe lambs and feeder lambs on irrigated pasture (we anticipate keeping about 30 total).  The ewes will move back to dry forage through the end of August (when we’ll start flushing them).

At least visually, our wool yield looks to be improved over previous years (which is likely related to nutrition).  Wool quality is somewhat diminished as one of our breeding groups picked up cockleburs during the breeding season.  We’ll market all of our wool on a commodity basis this year.

Last year, we used a free source of flushing feed – waste pea crisps.  These were about 22% protein and 30% fat.  This feed source won’t be available this year, so we will begin researching alternatives that have a similar nutritional profile.  Canola meal looks promising, but we will need to evaluate the economics.

Halfway through - lambs born on March 3, 2016.
We hope to market a number of our feeder lambs to other local producers this summer.  We’ll also keep 10-15 to finish on grass.  The remainder of our feeder lambs will be marketed prior to end of Ramadan.  Over the last several years (as we’ve sold productive ewes to other producers), we’ve realized that we’ve done a good job of building the maternal ability of our ewes and ewe lambs.  Consequently, we’ll market a few replacement ewe lambs (both Mules and Shropshires) to other producers.  Finally, we’ll market the best of our Shropshire ram lambs as rams.  We’ll try to manage our irrigated pastures with an eye towards growing lambs and saving forage for flushing/breeding.

The replacement ewe lambs we retain will all be from multiple births.  We’ll also keep one Shropshire ram lamb (also from a multiple birth).  This should provide some genetic predisposition toward twinning in the future.  We anticipate keeping enough replacement ewe lambs to maintain our total flock size at 65-70 females.

Finally, we’ve been able to make just a single pass over most of our winter grazing land.  This has allowed for significant regrowth post-grazing.  While this will allow us to stockpile forage for summer grazing for the ewes, as well as for post-breeding grazing next winter, we will need to balance our forage needs with landowner priorities for fuel reduction.  Anecdotally, we’ve noticed more native perennials on some of our winter rangelands – I hope to formally measure changes in these perennials over the next several years.
The last lamb of the year!