Friday, June 24, 2016

Getting Paid Once a Year

Several weeks ago, I posted a link on my Flying Mule Farm Facebook page to a story I wrote for a blog called Stories from the Valley (One Year to the Next), where I referenced a "bigger lamb check." When one of the regular visitors to my Facebook page laughed at the term, I realized that the concept of getting paid once a year is probably foreign to most folks.

First, I should say (as some readers will know) that I work off the ranch, so we don't rely on the income from the sheep business to make our living.  Regardless, we do treat our small sheep operation as a stand-alone business - in other words, the business has to cover it's direct and overhead costs, pay the partners a salary, and generate a profit.  Since the bulk of our income arrives in the late spring and early summer (through the sale of live lambs and wool), we have to budget our cash flow carefully.  We still have expenses in the midst of winter - the lamb checks I get in June have to carry us through until this time next year!

Before we can get paid, there are a number of management and marketing activities that we have to undertake.  Once we're done lambing (and I know approximately how many lambs we'll retain as replacement ewes or as feeder lambs), I start contacting potential buyers.  We only keep as many lambs as we have grass for grazing, so that sets our upper limit for retaining lambs.  Most of our buyers in recent years are small-scale sheep producers and folks who want to raise meat for their own freezers.  We also market some lambs directly to Superior Farms, the main lamb processor in California.  Typically, our marketing window corresponds with the Muslim holiday of Ramadan (during which we find increased demand for lambs the size of ours).

We time the weaning of our lambs (weaning is the process of separating the ewes from the lambs) to correspond with the availability of higher quality (that is, green) forage.  During the drought, we weaned the lambs in late May; this year, with better irrigation and more grass, we were able to wait until June 20.  The longer the lambs can nurse, the more they'll grow.  On the other hand, lactation is a significant energy demand on the ewes - we want to make sure that we wean early enough to put weight back on the ewes before our breeding season begins in early October.

This year, our preparations for weaning began the weekend before - we set up our corrals and made sure we had all of our supplies on hand.  After I moved the irrigation water early Monday morning, Roger and I brought the sheep into the corrals.  My daughters Lara and Emma joined us, and we got the process underway.  The first step was to record weights for each lamb - this gives us a sale weight for the lambs we're selling, and allows us to calculate an adjusted 100-day weight for each lamb (which allows us to compare lamb and ewe performance regardless of when the lamb was born).  While the lambs were in the alley, we also put in their permanent ear tags - an identifier tag for all lambs, and a red tag denoting breeding group and year of birth for the ewe lambs).  Those that we intend to keep (replacement ewe lambs and feeder lambs) were marked with red paint; those that we intend to sell were left unmarked (I should note that we only use approved scourable paint - paint that will wash out of our wool).

Once we finished tagging and weighing the lambs, we ran them back through the alley - this time to sort the ewes from the lambs through a "cut" gate.  Once the sorting was completed, the border collies and I took the ewes to a small holding pen over the hill - out of sight of where the lambs would be going.  Then we took the lambs back to their pasture - the first time moving newly weaned lambs is always a challenge, but the short move went well.

One of our goals at weaning is to get the ewes to stop lactating as quickly as possible to avoid mastitis (an infection of their mammary systems).  To do this, we try to abruptly lower their nutritional intake by moving them off of irrigated pasture and onto dry forage.  We also want them out of sight and mind for the lambs - the lambs will break out of our electric fences if they can see and/or hear their mothers.  Consequently, after we put the lambs back on pasture, we gathered the ewes back into the corrals and hauled them to another ranch.  A long and busy day, to say the least!

Here are the statistics for this year's lambs:
Lambs weaned per ewe exposed
Average weaning age
107.2 days
Average actual weaning weight
62.9 lbs
Average 100-day adj weaning weight
59.1 lbs
Average actual weaning weight per ewe
108.0 lbs
Average 100-day adj weaning weight per ewe
100.1 lbs
Death loss (post-lambing to weaning)

This week, we've been marketing lambs.  This means bring the lambs into the corrals, sorting off the lambs that we're selling, and allowing our buyers to make their selections.  By this Sunday, we'll have all of the feeder lambs sold; we will keep the purebred Shropshire lambs for a bit longer (along with our Mule replacement ewe lambs and the feeder lambs we're keeping).  The revenue from this week's sales will carry us through until we sell next year's lambs!  And the size of our lamb checks depends on two key factors - the weight of the lambs and the price per pound we receive.  Typically, the price per pound declines as weight goes up, but the total value of a heavier lamb is greater than that of a lighter lamb.  Our lambs were heavier than normal this year!

In many ways, weaning and selling our lambs is the final report card on our management efforts over the prior 12 months.  The decisions we've made since last July (after weaning our 2015 lambs) have had a direct impact on our economic success this year.  Beyond the lamb checks, though, I take great satisfaction in looking at a pen-full of healthy, vigorous and muscular lambs.  I take a lot of satisfaction in the compliments we get from our buyers.  And I appreciate getting paid for our year's work!

Friday, June 17, 2016

A Shepherd's Spouse

As I wrote in my previous post (Pastoral? Some Days!) I'm currently reading a wonderful book entitled Of Sheep and Men by R.B. Robertson.  In the chapter I just finished, he describes the varied responsibilities of the shepherd's wife (at least as she existed on the Scottish borders in the mid 1950s):
"But the shepherd's wife, like the wife of the diplomat, the missionary, the innkeeper, and the man of any other profession where an interested and cooperative partner is essential to the performance of the work, must be a woman of a very rare but definite type.  It might almost be said that her qualities are more important than those of the shepherd himself, for certainly most of the year she works harder than he does, and at times her work requires more expert knowledge and a higher standard of skill than does his.
"She must know the job of sheep-herding thoroughly, for she assists at the clippin', the dippin', the lambin', and all other busy periods in the sheep year, usually looks after the bit of hill and fields around the house where the delicate in-bye sheep are kept.... She must have an all-round knowledge of farming, for the little croft, with its two cows, pigs, chickens, large vegetable plot, and hayfield - all the sidelines with which the shepherds supplement their small wages - is entirely her responsibility.  She is the veterinary surgeon of the glen, and all ailing beasts - lambs, sheep, cattle, dogs, humans - are immediately placed under her care.... She must run a kitchen herself which is capable of producing hearty dinners, and right on time...."
Obviously, much of this writing reflects the traditional gender roles of the 1950s.  However, I've found (as have most of the ranchers I know) that "an interested and cooperative partner is essential" to our operation.

I learned in one of my animal science classes that it is critical for a rancher to develop a relationship with  his or her veterinarian. When I give talks about raising sheep, I joke that I took this advice to heart - I sleep with my veterinarian!  Beyond the veterinary advice, though, Sami is the type of partner described by Robertson.  While I'm the one who talks about shepherding and who does most of the day-to-day work with our sheep, Sami is busy taking care of the animals at home - raising bottle lambs, raising a pig for our freezer, seeing that the dogs are healthy.  She's taking kids to soccer practice and riding lessons.  She's helping me cope with lambing problems that require 2 pairs of hands or midwifery skills beyond my own. She's dealing with my often filthy laundry!  And she's running her own large animal veterinary practice.

On most of the ranching operations I know, at least one spouse works at least part-time off the ranch.  The extra income - and especially the health and retirement benefits - are part of the risk management strategy for many operations.  As I talk to families who have ranched far longer than we have, I realize that this has almost always been true (at least for family-scale operations).  And these roles are not gender specific - many of the commercial-scale sheep operations that I know are managed by women whose husbands have off-ranch jobs!

All joking and philosophizing aside, however, this post is meant as a thank you to my wife for putting up with my sheep habit and for all of the hard work that she puts in - both with the sheep and with everything else she does.  Ours truly is a partnership!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Pastoral? Some Days!

At the recommendation of friend and fellow rancher Jill Hackett, I recently picked up a copy of a book entitled Of Sheep and Men by R.B. Robertson.  Written in 1957, the book is a humorous and (so far - I'm only five chapters in) accurate account of a year spent among sheep-raising families on the Scottish borders in the 1950s.  I'm thoroughly enjoying the book, and last night, I came across this gem:
"I too had been taught during my liberal education that 'pastoral' in the literary or artistic sense means a highly stylized form of expression, bearing no casual relationship or emotional connection with the shepherd's way of life...." offers these definitions (among others) of the word "pastoral":
  1. having the simplicity, charm, serenity or other characteristics generally attributed to rural areas
  2. pertaining to the country or life in the country; rural; rustic
  3. portraying or suggesting idyllically the life of shepherds or of the country, as a work of literature, art or music
  4. of, relating to, or consisting of shepherds 
  5. used for pasture, as land.
The fourth and fifth definitions certainly relate to my life and work - we use land for pasture, and my work is that of a shepherd.  Setting aside the second definition for a moment, however, I want to examine the idea that rural life and rural work have an inherent "simplicity, charm [and] serenity."

From the outside looking in, I realize that my work as a shepherd may indeed appear to be idyllic.  I get to work outdoors in a beautiful setting.  I get to experience new life firsthand.  I get to take my dogs to work!  I realize that the photos and posts of my (and other shepherds') #sheep365 project largely reinforce this pastoral image.  And much of my work is serene - I love what I do, and for good reason.

But not every job or every day is pastoral in the sense of the first and third definitions found on  Some jobs and some days are downright unpleasant.  Building electric fence on a 100 degree day through mature yellow starthistle is not my idea of an idyllic activity, nor is disposing of a ewe that's been mauled by a dog.  Fly-struck lambs, abortion storms, and drought (all of which I've experienced first-hand, and all of which are part of the bargain when one chooses to be a shepherd) are incredibly stressful and generally disagreeable.

The first definition also suggests that rural areas (and by extension, the work of rural people) possess a certain simplicity.  Another motivation for me to share photos of our sheep operation everyday for a year is to show (hopefully) that raising sheep is anything but simple.  Shepherding, like any agricultural endeavor, takes a combination of attention to detail, persistence, knowledge, skill and hard work.  This milk commercial from Australia puts a comical spin on the perception that anyone can farm:

I really want to make a video like this about sheep ranching!

None of this should suggest that I don't love what I do.  I love the work of raising sheep like nothing else I've ever done professionally.  I like the combination of intellectual and physical work.  I enjoy being outside as the seasons change.  I am thrilled by new life and by a well-finished lamb.  I take great pride in producing food and fiber.  I'm lucky to be living a pastoral life!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Livestock and Predators: No Easy Answers

Since we've raised sheep commercially (and even when our sheep enterprise was a hobby), we've been committed to trying to live with the predators in our environment.  Over the years, we've lost just a handful of sheep - several to coyotes, at least one each to mountain lions and rattlesnakes, and four in one night to a neighbor's dog.  Mostly, though, our commitment to nonlethal predator protection tools has worked.  A combination of electric fencing, livestock guardian dogs, sheep selection and grazing management (see Big Dogs, Hot Fences and Fast Sheep for the details) has allowed us to co-exist with the predators in our environment.  But as I talk with other sheep producers in California and elsewhere in the West (and even overseas via Facebook and Twitter), I realize that our approach won't work for everyone.  And as we face the prospect of wolves returning to our part of the Sierra foothills in my lifetime, I'm even more convinced that there are no easy answers to the question of livestock-predator co-existence.

My first experience with coyote predation happened shortly after we moved to Auburn in 2001.  One morning, we noticed that we were missing a feeder lamb.  The rest of the sheep were bunched in a far corner of the pasture and kept looking to the other side of the field where an irrigation canal ran through our property.  I checked the ditch, and found the dead lamb halfway under water.  Its throat was torn out, and a portion of it had been eaten. We called the county trapper, who confirmed that it was a coyote.

Looking back on this incident, I realize several things - about predators and my attitudes toward them.  First, we lost the value of the lamb that died - a direct economic loss.  More than that, however, I suspect that the stress experienced by the other lambs caused a number of indirect economic costs (like a temporary drop in weight gain, for example).  I also learned something about myself - I learned that had I observed the coyote in the act of killing or feeding on my lamb, I would have taken lethal action to stop it (I would have shot it).  I also learned that I couldn't have brought myself to kill just any coyote - I would need proof that a specific, individual coyote was the culprit.  In other words, I learned that I would take action to directly intervene in the death of my sheep, but I wasn't comfortable taking random or preemptive action to prevent other coyotes from hunting my sheep.  Later, when we lost the four ewes to a dog, I also realized that as much as I like dogs, I would shoot a dog in the act of killing my sheep (I didn't take such action in this case, but the dog was impounded by Animal Control and the owner was required to make restitution).

Wolves, when they arrive, will be a different issue altogether.  Personally, my commitment to coexistence will mean that I'll work to find nonlethal protection techniques that are effective.  Even without this commitment, however, state and federal laws give me no choice - it would be a criminal act for me to harm a wolf.  The hunting behaviors and abilities of wolves are unlike those of any predators I've experienced.  More - and bigger - livestock guardian dogs will probably be my primary tool, but this has its costs, too.  Raising sheep is a business for me, and I'll have to weigh the extra costs carefully.

Like all of the ranchers I know, I view the loss of any of the animals in my care as a personal failure.  There are many reasons that sheep can die, and not all of them are preventable; however, every death affects me emotionally and economically.  While I appreciate the efforts of agencies and nonprofit groups to reimburse ranchers for direct losses to wolves (and other predators in some regions), I feel like these direct costs are just part of the true impact of predators.  Indirect impacts include reductions in reproductive success, weight loss, additional labor, and other additional costs (like feeding and caring for extra guard dogs, and increased liability insurance costs associated with these bigger dogs).   Finally, a dead ewe or ram 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, and there are also 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.  As part of my work with UC Rangelands and as part of my graduate studies at Colorado State, I'm helping develop a rancher survey to begin looking at these indirect impacts.  I think the results of this long-term project will be important and insightful.

Several weeks ago, a friend and fellow northern California rancher told me, "The hard part about the wolf/livestock issue may not be the animals, but the people.  Ever since 1492, and before, man has dealt with predators in one way or another.  That's 524 years.  Now, only since 1995 when wolves were re-introduced, our elite, progressive society has demanded that we change our thoughts and attitudes.  That is only 21 years.  That is a lot to ask of people!"  I think she has a point - and it reflects part of the greater divide between urban and rural people the world over.  Perspectives on predators depend, at least in part, on their proximity to your home and livelihood.

Perhaps its a sign that I'm getting older, but these issues seem much more complicated to me than when I was a younger man.  So much of the success (or failure) of nonlethal predator protection tools depends on the frame of reference of the person using (or not using) them.  I've come to understand that these tools are like any other approach to raising livestock.  If you believe they'll work, you'll find a way to make them work.  If you don't believe they'll work, they'll seem like a lot of extra effort and expense - and ultimately they won't work for you.  Like all complex socio-ecological issues, there isn't any one-size-fits-all answer to co-existing with predators.
Bodie - a 10-week-old Anatolian-Maremma puppy.  He's the newest member of
our predator prevention team!