Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Late Spring Rain

Since last Friday, we've measured 0.85 inches of rain at our home place near Auburn.  This moisture has arrived during relatively brief thunderstorms - and like many late spring rains, it's been spotty.  A friend who ranches less than three miles from us measured more than an inch of rain last night!  For most farmers and ranchers, the timing of the rain is as important as the total amount - and these late spring rains have been a mixed blessing for our operation.

On the positive side, rain at this time of year can help our irrigated pastures.  The point of efficient irrigation is to match the water applied to our pastures with the water needs of our soils and plants.  I monitor this both directly and indirectly.  Directly, I check the amount of moisture in our soils on a regular basis by digging into the root zone and evaluating the amount of water by the look and feel of our soil.  We don't want our soils to totally dry out during irrigation, nor do we want them to remain saturated at all times.  Indirectly, I monitor the evapo-transpiration (ETo) in our area.  ETo is the amount of water lost through evaporation and transpiration (uptake by plants).  This information is available through the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) website operated by the California Department of Water Resources.  Through this website, I can track daily (or even hourly) ETo, as well as precipitation and soil temperature.  Each Friday, I check these numbers and note them in my irrigation log - which allows me to make adjustments in my irrigation schedule.  Between May 18 and May 24, the ETo for the Auburn CIMIS station was 1.16 inches - that means soil lost 1.16 inches of water to plants and evaporation in the last week.  To keep our plants growing, we need to add at least that much water back into the soil.  Mother Nature provided about 80 percent of our water demand this week!  We've kept irrigating, which means we're banking soil moisture for the drier, hotter weather sure to come.

On the negative side, our rangeland (or unirrigated) pastures are dominated by annual grasses and broadleaf plants (which we call forbs - things like clover and filaree).  Annual plants must complete their life cycles each year - that is, they germinate, grow, flower (reproduce) and die.  Most of our forage plants germinate in the fall (with some notable exceptions that I'll explain below), grow through the winter and spring, and reproduce and die in the late spring or early summer.  In managing our rangelands for grazing, we evaluate peak forage production some time in May, and then ration out this standing "crop" until the next growing season begins in the fall.

Our sheep are ruminants, which essentially means that the microbes in their foreguts (their rumen systems) are able to break down the cellulose material in forage and extract essential nutrients.  These "bugs" in the sheep's guts require a diet with about 8 percent protein to thrive.  Green, growing forage can be anywhere from around 12 percent protein to as high as 25 percent.  Dry, dead forage, on the other hand, can be as low as 3-4 percent protein.  And when this dry forage gets rained on, many of the remaining nutrients (including protein) are leached out.  So rain on our dry annual grasses actually decreases its value to our grazing sheep.  We can get the sheep to eat the dry grass, but we have to provide supplemental protein to ensure the health and vigor of their gut microbes.

Some of my friends say that ranchers are never happy - it's always too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry.  When the market for lambs is high, we don't have enough grass.  When we have plenty of grass, the market crashes.  I suppose there is some truth to what my friends say, but I also think that trying to earn an income in partnership with Nature is fraught with uncertainty.  These late spring rains are a great example - they help with our irrigated pastures (a blessing), but they hurt the nutritional value of our annual grasslands (a curse).  I guess we'll just keep taking whatever Mother Nature serves up!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


The shepherd's year, as I reflect on it, is a combination of intense mileposts interspersed with routine tasks.  Lambing, shearing, weaning the lambs, shipping the lambs, sorting the breeding groups, moving the sheep between summer and winter pastures - these are the periods of concentrated effort.  Between these bursts of work (and indeed, even during them), the routine tasks must be accomplished.  These routine responsibilities include things like checking the electric fences, feeding the livestock guardian dogs, walking through the sheep to check for health problems, and moving the irrigation water.  With shearing now behind us and weaning lambs about a month away, we've settled back into our routine.

The routine tasks seem to lend themselves to a division of labor.  My partner Roger handles checking the fences and the sheep and feeding the guard dog.  I take care of moving the irrigation water.  At times, especially when we have a bigger move to do with the sheep or a lot of fence to move, we'll work together - but the daily smaller chores are covered individually.

Last year, we upgraded our main irrigation system from aluminum hand-pipe to a K-Line pod system.  Rather than disassembling the pipe, walking it to a new set, and reassembling it every 24 hours, I now drag the K-Line with an ATV.  Our system is set up on a 24-hour set and a 10-day rotation - for those of you who don't irrigate, this means that the sprinklers put out enough water in 24 hours to meet our plants' needs.  We come back to the same spot in the pasture every 10 days.

When all goes smoothly, it takes me about 30 minutes to move water.  If I leave for the ranch by 7 a.m., I can get the water shifted and make it to work before 8 a.m.  But as with most things in farming and ranching, the water moves don't always go smoothly.  Frequently, I find plugged sprinklers, which I try to unplug without turning off the system (to save time).  This means I often arrive at work with wet clothes!  Last year, the neighbor's dog took great pleasure in biting the sprinklers while they were running - on occasion I'd arrive to find a geyser in the middle of my irrigation set.  Sometimes I forget to check the fuel in the ATV!

Similarly, the sheep chores are mostly non-eventful.  One of us (mostly Roger) will feed Reno, walk through the sheep, and check the fences.  Once in a while, we'll find a lamb or a ewe that needs to be treated for some ailment (usually a mild respiratory infection).  This time of year, with warm days and with the sheep on irrigated pasture, we sometimes see coccidiosis (a parasite that causes diarrhea).  Sometimes we'll arrive to a non-working electric fence (usually a dead battery or some kind of fault on the fence itself).  These problems always seem to occur when we have someplace else to be!

This year, I have a couple of additions to my daily routine.  We recently purchased a new border collie puppy (Mae).  Our oldest working dog (Mo) is 9, so we've decided it's time to start working on his replacement.  Mae is still too young for direct training on sheep, but all of us are working on socializing her and on basic manners (coming when called, not jumping on people, crate-training, etc.).  She's been great fun to have around!  And this week, we also picked up a new guard dog puppy.  Bodie is part Anatolian and part Maremma.  His training is very different - we want him to bond with the sheep, so he's getting very little in the way of socialization (except at feeding time).  At the moment, he's adjusting to life away from his brothers and sisters by living with a handful of sheep we keep at the house.  Over the next several weeks, I'll expose him to electric fencing in preparation for his lifetime of guarding our sheep.

I guess in some respects, raising livestock is like any other avocation.  There are times of intense work and times of routine in any job, I suppose.  What's different about ranching, at least to me, is that the rhythm of my work follows the progression of the seasons - lambs and shearing in spring, sorting breeding groups in fall, and shipping finished lambs in fall, for example.  The other difference, I think, is that I'm on the ranch's schedule - even when I think I'm not!  A broken water pipe or a sick lamb can't simply be left until tomorrow.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Shearing 2016

Our family is on the back end of an incredibly busy weekend.  As I write this, the rest of my family is napping (it's late afternoon here).  And I just listened to the Giants finish off the Arizona Diamondbacks for a 4-game sweep!  For our oldest daughter, Lara, this was the weekend of Senior Ball - her last formal high school dance.  For me, this was shearing weekend - we had hoped to shear last weekend (for lots of reasons, not the least of which - I wanted to be able to take photos of Lara and her date).  Rain meant we postponed shearing till this weekend.

First, a bit about Lara's night.  I haven't talked to her yet, but I did see Sami's photos of Lara and her varsity soccer teammates at the historic Placer County Courthouse in Auburn - wearing their formal dresses and their soccer cleats!  As Lara completes her 4 years at Placer High, I'm remembering my own experiences at Sonora High School.  Auburn and Sonora are both one high school towns - and playing sports (as a Lady Hillmen or as a Wildcat) means so much more than simply winning or losing. High school sports - at their best - gives athletes a feel for what it means to represent their community.  Lara and her Lady Hillmen teammates get this!  I can't wait to hear about the rest of Lara's evening.

Second, shearing (at least for a small-scale producer like me) is similar to a calf branding.  It's a communal event that involves lots of work and lots of laughter.  My weekend started Friday morning - after I moved irrigation water, my partner Roger and I gathered and shipped the sheep home in anticipation of shearing.  On Saturday, we hosted a workshop for 10 new and aspiring shepherds on setting up for shearing, handling wool and preparing fleeces for marketing.  Today, I hauled the rams back to their summer pasture (at a neighbor's - their boys are also Placer High students!).  Later, Roger and I hauled the ewes back to pasture.  This evening, I'll sack the rest of our wool and work on cleaning up.

This year was especially enjoyable because my friend (and Lara's classmate) Jake Richardson helped us.  Jake first started working with me when he was 11 (I think).  He's since started his own flock, and he's excelled as a sheep and goat showman.  In the fall, he's headed off to college in Texas; this weekend, he helped us shear.

Our dogs play an essential role in our work - and shearing day is no exception.  Mo and Ernie helped gather and load the ewes on Friday.  One ewe in particular (1548, to be exact) decided she'd like to kill Ernie.  Beginning on Friday, she'd hunt him down whenever she saw him.  During shearing, she chased him out of the corrals.  Today, as we shipped the ewes and lambs back to pasture, I made sure to help rebuild Ernie's confidence.  He'll take on an angry mama cow, but this ewe has his number.  If she hadn't had twins the last three years, she'd go down the road!  Yesterday, our shearer left the back of his car open as we were loading him up (and enjoying a beer).  After he left, I discovered that Ernie was missing - he'd jumped into Derrick's car!  This morning was Mo's turn for adventure - he got sprayed by a skunk while I was changing water!  And I can't leave Reno (our guardian dog) out - he decided yesterday (while we were shearing) that he needed to protect the chickens from the sheep - I think he was hoping for a chicken dinner.

The everyday work of raising sheep goes on - even during shearing week.  This morning, I moved irrigation water while Roger built fence for the ewes and lambs.  Tomorrow, we'll both resume our daily chores - I'll do the irrigating while Roger checks the sheep.  But shearing is one of our key milestones - a report card, if you will.  We evaluate the condition of our ewes at shearing - with the wool off, we can see what kind of shape they're in.  I realized today that when the ewes are shorn, they're far more uniform than when they are in full fleece.  I guess this suggests that we have considerable variability in our wool production.  This year, our ewes are in amazing condition (for the most part) - normal precipitation and grass growth, combined with improved management, means that they look great.

Beginning on Thursday evening, I didn't sleep well.  On Thursday, I was worried about the day I had ahead of me hauling sheep and setting up for shearing.  I snapped at my family (which I always regret, but which I always do).  Friday night, with ewes separated from lambs in the corrals, I failed to sleep well again - plus I was worrying about shearing.  Last night, even after a physically draining day, I had trouble sleeping - worrying about shipping the ewes and lambs back to pasture.  Tonight, I think I'll sleep pretty soundly!
Bringing the woollies into the corrals - Friday morning.
Jake - the Woollie

Our crew and our students - after packing the first sack!

Sewing up the second sack of wool.  We still pack our wool in "sausage packs."

The boys - back out on pasture.

Sheared ewes with their lambs - back out on pasture.

One year's worth of wool...

Friday, May 13, 2016


As I write this post, I'm listening to a scoreless baseball game on the radio (Giants vs. Diamondbacks) and lambs bleating in the corrals - both normal sounds around here in mid May.  We're preparing to shear the ewes tomorrow!

We were hoping to shear last weekend, but we had just enough rain to make the sheep too wet to shear.  So we spent today hauling sheep home, setting up our portable corrals, and getting ready for one of the bigger days in the shepherd's year.  Ewes that are newly lactating are difficult to shear, so we typically wait until our youngest lambs are 5-6 weeks old before we shear.  This puts us up against sticker season - as our forage dries out, we start to get foxtail, ripgut brome, and other stickers in the wool.  With the warm temperatures we've had this spring, sticker season has come early.  I wish we'd been able to shear last weekend!

Today, after I moved water, we built our temporary corrals at the ranch and loaded the sheep to haul them home.  After 4 trips with ewes and lambs, I went to pick up the rams at a neighbor's, while my partner Roger dismantled the corrals and hauled them to the house.  I brought the sheep into a dry-lot pen - and Roger and I set up the corrals so that we can sort lambs from ewes tomorrow.  We keep the sheep off feed and water overnight to let them empty their rumens and bladders - which makes the 90-second shearing process much more comfortable for them.  Tonight, Sami and Emma helped me set up the wool-sack stand and bring the first 20 ewes into the barn.  We try to keep the first group of sheep under cover overnight to keep the dew off them - a heavy dew makes the sheep too wet to shear.  As my family will tell you, I'm kind of a jerk during shearing.  Shearing, as one of the key milestones of our sheep year, is like a final exam.  I want everything to go smoothly, and I'm conscious of the amount of work ahead of us.  I guess I'm somewhat intense by nature - and so I'm not as patient as I should be during this time.  Fortunately, Sami and the girls are far more patient with me!

Shearing, for shepherds, is like branding for cattlemen.  Shearing is physically intense (especially for the shearer, but also for the crew).  It requires a "crew" - we need help to make the day go smoothly.  Some years, we have friends and fellow shepherds help us; this year, we're holding a workshop for new and aspiring shepherds.  While some of the "help" will be inexperienced, I expect the day will go well.  Even so, I won't sleep well tonight - between the sound of the lambs and my own anxiety, I'll toss and turn all night!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


We're supposed to shear our sheep this Saturday.  Since we lamb in the spring, we shear a bit later than most California sheep producers - we try to wait until the youngest lambs are 5-6 weeks old.  Newly lactating ewes don't shear as easily, but there's a trade-off - especially in an early grass year like this one.  As the grass dries out, we can get more stickers in the wool.  And so the first weekend in May is usually when we shear.

As a pasture based operation, we don't have many options when it comes to shearing facilities.  My long-term dream is to build a shearing shed; in the meantime, we shear in our horse barn or in one of the horse barns near our rented pastures.  Even with our reduced numbers, we find it difficult to house all of the ewes overnight prior to shearing.  When the weather is dry, this isn't a problem - the ewes are penned on a dry lot overnight.  When the weather turns wet, however, we have to be flexible.

This year, we've been planning to haul all of the sheep home for the weekend to shear in our own barn.  Despite the added work of hauling home, this is a better facility for shearing.  We use one stall as a holding pen, and the other as the "bull pen" where the shearing happens.  We sort off 8 ewes at a time into the bull pen, where one of the crew catches the ewes for the shearer.  Once the 8 ewes are shorn, they go out the barn alley into a pasture we've saved and rejoin their lambs.  Each fleece comes out of the shearing pen onto a skirting table (where soiled wool is removed and the fleece is rolled).  The rolled fleeces then go into a 6-foot high burlap wool sack in our hay barn, where one of us stomps it down (each sack can hold 30-35 of our fleeces).  On the day after shearing, we haul the flock back to our rented pasture.

The only downside of this arrangement (besides the trailer ride for the sheep) is the lack of under-cover pen space.  If it rains, the sheep get wet!  And wet wool spoils.  So we have to be flexible!

From the standpoint of pasture quality, I love this forecast!
Nature will be doing my irrigating!  From the standpoint
of shearing our sheep, this weather is problematic.
One option is to shear the sheep in a barn near our leased pasture.  The advantages are that we can walk the sheep here rather than haul them.  And, we will have enough space to house them overnight under cover (which means they'll be dry when we shear them starting on Saturday morning).  We can also keep our skirting table and wool sack under cover - in other words, it's an all weather facility.  The downside is that the shearing pen is not as level as our home facility (which makes the shearing job more difficult).  We also have to impose on the folks who own and lease the horse facilities.

Looking ahead at the forecast for the rest of the week, the likelihood of rain on Friday and Saturday seems to be increasing.  We'll either need to shear close to the ranch, or wait until the following weekend.  In other words, we'll have to be flexible!  Much like the rest of the year....

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Seven Months In - a #Sheep365 Update

Seven months ago today, I started a little self-indulgent project that I called "#Sheep365."  I wanted to share a photo of our small-scale sheep operation everyday for a full year, and I decided to start the project on the day that we turned the rams in with the ewes.  Everyday since, I've posted at least one photograph of my day's activities on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Now that I'm more than halfway through with the project, I'm realizing several things about my effort, about social media and about our operation:

  • Photographs are more meaningful (at least to me) if they tell a story.  I find myself taking lots of photos (all with my iPhone) in an effort to capture something about the particular day or time of year I'm documenting.  I don't always succeed, but the photos that I like the best tell a story or convey a sense of action.
  • I'm more aware of other farmers and ranchers who are doing similar projects.  Alan Haight at Riverhill Farm (check out @riverhillfarmers on Instagram), and Jill Hackett of Ferndale Farms (check out @humboldtherder on Instagram) are taking especially wonderful photos.  I encourage you to check them both out!  Also, be sure to check out #sheep365 on Twitter - there are sheep producers in other parts of the world who are posting some pretty cool things!
  • My photos generate some learning opportunities - I've had a chance to explain our operation and sheep-raising in general to a variety of folks.  I've tried to share both positive images and those that reflect the more difficult side of farming and ranching.  I've been able to explain why we use antibiotics to treat infection.  I've been able to talk about why we're concerned over the arrival of wolves in northern California.
  • Finally, I've been able to compare conditions this year with previous years.  One photo in particular demonstrated the difference between normal rainfall and grass growth (this year) with the impacts of a fourth year of drought (last year).
The next 5 months (or the next 152 days, to be exact) will see us shear the sheep, wean our lambs, market our lambs, irrigated our pastures, and prepare for yet another breeding season.  When #Sheep365 ends, my work as a shepherd will continue.  While I don't think I'll post daily photos beyond September 30, I will be more conscious of photographing the story of our farm - and comparing conditions with previous years.

Note: I'm considering producing a calendar with 12 of my favorite photos from this project - let me know if you'd be interested!

In the meantime, here are a few photos from the last couple of months!  Enjoy!