on the road

on the road

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Benchmarks


Even though our sheep operation is very small scale, we try to take it seriously as a business.  To me, this is important for a number of reasons.  First, we don't view it as a hobby - the business should cover its expenses, pay us for our time, and make a profit!  Second, I feel like I have an obligation to other sheep producers (large and small) to take it seriously - I don't want to undercut other producers through lack of profit motive or ignorance.  Third, we have consistently tried to provide educational opportunities to new and aspiring sheep producers - on economics as well as production practices.

Consequently, I find industry benchmarks to be a useful tool in evaluating our progress as sheep producers.  The U.S. Lamb Resource Center has recently developed benchmarks and best practices related to reproductive efficiency (click here for "Best Practices for Increasing Your Lamb Crop").  The benchmarks establish standards for reproductive efficiency for high and low input range flocks as well as for high and low input farm flocks.  According to the Center, high input flocks use shed lambing, herders, multiple management groups, strategic feed supplementation, and improved pastures.  Low input flocks use range/pasture lambing, fenced pastures, simple management groups and limited supplementation.

First, a note on how we manage our sheep.  From a size standpoint, we would be considered a farm flock - but from a management perspective, we operate like a range flock.  We lamb on pasture, and we focus on grazing rather than supplemental feeding to meet the flock's nutritional needs.  I suppose we fall somewhere between high and low input.  Here's how we compare to the industry benchmarks:

Key Reproductive Indicators

Range Flocks
Farm Flocks
Flying Mule Farm

High Input
Low Input
High Input
Low Input
2016 
Dry Ewes
<7%
<10%
<5%
<7%
3.50%
Lambs Born
150%
120%
200%
175%
181.10%
Lamb Losses
15%
17%
11%
15%
6.00%
Lambs Weaned
127%
100%
178%
148%
164.90%
Ewe Lambs Lambing
50%
30%
85%
65%
0%

Looking at these numbers a bit more closely, our conception and lambing rates (reflected in the numbers for "dry ewes" and "lambs born") exceed the benchmarks for range flocks.  Only 3.5% of our ewes didn't get bred in 2015, and our lambing percentage was more than 181%.  From late gestation through weaning, we had a total lamb death loss of 6%, and we weaned a 165% lamb crop.  The only category where we didn't meet the industry benchmark was in breeding our ewe lambs - we wait to breed our ewe lambs until they are 18 months of age - when they are no longer considered to be lambs (more on this below).

The Lamb Resource Center suggests selecting from 12 Lamb Crop Best Practices to improve reproductive efficiency.  The Center stresses that these practices don't fit every operation; rather, producers should pick those that have the the greatest impact.  Below, I've described the practices that fit our operation, as well as those that we'd like to implement.

  • Optimal Nutrition. Ewes should be on a rising plane of nutrition prior to breeding and have a body condition score (BCS) of 3 or slightly less at breeding.  We made significant strides in this area last year, and plan to duplicate our effort this year.  Beginning this weekend, we'll start supplementing our irrigated pasture with canola meal (which is high in protein and energy).  Our lambing schedule is timed to match the ewes highest nutritional needs (during late gestation and early lactation) with the onset of rapid grass growth in the spring.
  • Breed Ewe Lambs at 7-9 Months of Age. We don't (and probably won't) follow this guideline.  We want our ewe lambs to weigh approximately 85% of their mature weight at breeding.  Our forage resources make this difficult to accomplish at 9 months of age, and we're not convinced that supplemental feed is worth the extra expense.  In our pasture lambing system, waiting to breed the ewe lambs until they are 18 months old has the added benefit of reducing many of the lambing problems common to smaller ewe lambs, like dystocia and mis-mothering.
  • Select for Prolific Genetics. One of the silver linings of our ongoing drought has been the fact that we have retained only those ewes who had given birth to twins in the past.  This year, the only replacement ewe lambs we kept were from multiple births.  We've always purchased rams that were from multiple births.  Given the importance of genetics to prolificacy, we'll continue to follow this practice.
  • Use Crossbreeding. First-cross lambs have a 5% higher survival rate than straight-bred lambs, and first-cross ewes tend to have higher lamb crops than purebred sheep.  We use mule ewes (which in our case are a cross between the Cheviot and Blueface Leicester breeds) as our primary breeding flock.  We cross these ewes with Shropshire rams, giving us additional heterosis.  This combination seems to work well in our environment, both in terms of lamb crop and lamb performance.
  • Cull Underperforming Ewes. We cull ewes that don't measure up in our EZ-Care record keeping system (which evaluates ewes on lambing ease, mothering ability and lamb vigor).  We also cull for missing teeth and for udder problems (hard bags or misshapen teats).  I think this is part of our success in terms of maternal ability and conception rate.
  • Reduce Lamb Loss. Postnatal lamb losses should be below 10% of all lambs born.  Our vaccination program, nutritional program, and predator prevention system seems to be working.  And the maternal ability of our ewes doesn't hurt, either!
  • Test for Pregnancy Status. We have used ultrasound in the past to determine pregnancy status.  For us, this is a drought management strategy - we can sell any ewes that aren't bred if we're worried about a lack of forage.  High input producers take the additional step of separating ewes with single lambs from those carrying multiple lambs (so that the multiple-bearing ewes can get extra nutrition).  We don't have the ability to manage separate groups like this, so we probably won't incorporate preg-testing as a normal practice.
  • Disease Prevention and Treatment. I'm fortunate to be married to our vet!  We do a pretty good job of preventing most common diseases and treating them when they arise.  We also use the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab at UC Davis to help evaluate health issues.
  • Match Reproduction to Management. I feel like this is one of the most important practices on the entire list.  We raise small to moderate sized sheep - which means they don't need as much forage to maintain condition as larger sheep.  Over the years, we've paid attention to the ewes that remain productive in our environment - and we've sold those that didn't.
  • Test Rams. The center suggests using a general breeding soundness exam on rams 30-60 day prior to breeding.  We haven't done this in the past, but it's probably worth considering.
  • Manage for Seasonal Changes in Reproduction. The breeds we use were developed in England, and like most English breeds, they are seasonal breeders.  Their ovulation rates peak in October and November (which means their lambs will be born in February and March).  While some producers may try to manipulate their ewes' estrus cycles, we feel like the seasonal nature of our ewes' fertility matches our feed resources (which peak in April).
  • Accelerate Lambing Cycles. Some high input producers try to get 3 lamb crops every 2 years (ewes are pregnant for 5 months, making this acceleration possible).  In our range-based system, this won't work for us.
While I enjoy the outdoor, physical work of raising sheep, I also enjoy the intellectual challenge.  Every year, we try to get a little better at what we do.  Benchmarks are a useful tool in evaluating our progress!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Montana Observations

Okay - I realize that I'm not the first Californian to say this - not even close.  I want to move to Montana!  I'll also admit that it's not likely to happen in the short term - my oldest daughter would transfer out of Montana State University if we moved to Bozeman, and my youngest daughter would disown me if we moved before she finished high school.  And winter would have to cease to be a dirty word for my wife!  Nonetheless, I'd love to live in Montana someday!

I've spent approximately 8 full days in Bozeman, Montana - all in the summer months - in my entire life. Consequently, I'm fully prepared for all of Montana's seasons!  And I've traveled the state extensively - as long as you count the Gallatin Valley as "extensively"!

My lack of statewide - and season-wide - exposure notwithstanding, I'd like to offer a few (limited) observations:

  • There's a reason that Montana is considered "Big Sky Country" - the sky truly is huge!
  • Driving long distances in Montana is much more enjoyable (at least to me) than driving long distances in Nevada.  Both states alternate between valleys and mountain ranges.  The valleys in Montana are more to my liking - they appear to be fertile and well-settled (at least in southwestern Montana).
  • Montana is a livestock state!  We saw lots of cattle - and even some sheep!
  • Unlike California, Montana seems comfortable with it's rural communities.  I really noticed this during freshman orientation at Montana State University.  Everyone emphasized the importance of the land grant university system.  I graduated from - and currently work at - UC Davis; I've never heard a Davis chancellor talk about (let alone champion) the land grant system.  MSU seems to take pride in educating students from rural communities - with the idea that these students will go home and make a difference.
Since our daughter Lara will be at MSU for the next 4+ years (or so we assume at this point), I think I'll get to visit Montana a few more times (at least).  I even hope to visit in the winter (partly to convince Sami that cold weather and snow aren't the end of the world).  In the meantime, enjoy these photos from our trip - mostly taken by our younger daughter, Emma - who told me after our first day in Bozeman, "I like it here!"  I do too!














Bittersweet

As I started writing this post, I was sitting in a hotel room in Elko, Nevada, after a 9-hour drive from Bozeman, Montana.  As I finish it now, I'm sitting in our living room.  Our family has had a wonderful time over the last week - we all fell in love with southwestern Montana, I think.  We also delivered our oldest daughter, Lara, to start her freshman year of college at Montana State University.  And while I'm incredibly proud of and happy for Lara, I'm a bit sad tonight.  I feel like there's a small hole in my heart, and the only piece that fits in it is still in Montana.

I've always been prone to melancholy feelings at the end of a particularly enjoyable trip - I hate for the good time to be over.  This feeling is especially pronounced when I'm leaving a place that I'd like to live - and so leaving southwestern Montana has been especially difficult.  But my melancholy at the conclusion of this trip is even more pronounced.  Leaving Lara at college emphasizes that our life as a family is forever changing.  Lara will always be my first kid; now she's taken a big step on her own path.

Just before Lara was born (nearly 19 years ago now), I had the opportunity to participate in the California Agricultural Leadership Program.  At one point during my two-year fellowship, I remember a discussion with my classmates about leadership and parenthood.  We came to the conclusion that one of the greatest contributions any human being can make to society is to raise a child who is equipped to make a positive impact on that society.  Intellectually, I know that it's time for Lara to find out what she's passionate about doing with her life.  It's time for her to cast her own shadow rather than stand in ours'.  But emotionally, this is a bittersweet time. I know she'll be fine; emotionally, it feels like we've thrown her into the deep end of a pool 900 miles from home.

Like any life changing event, this change will become easier with time.  I know there will be times that Lara struggles with being on her own, just as I know there are times that Samia, Emma and I will struggle with the fact that she's gone (coming home to her unoccupied room was one of those times).  And I also know that Lara is a competent, confident and intelligent young woman who will make a huge positive impact on our world.  I love being her Dad; I look forward to this new stage in our relationship!  For now, though, I'm a bit sad....

Friday, August 26, 2016

Is Education Wasted on the Young? Probably Not!

This week, I'm in the unique position of starting the seventh and eighth courses in my online master's degree program at Colorado State University and taking my oldest daughter (Lara) to Bozeman, Montana, to start her first semester at Montana State University.  As I think about my own undergraduate experience (at UC Davis), I can't help but compare the opportunities that await Lara with my own academic career.  I can't help but think about what I might have done differently if I'd known then what I know now.  And I can't help but wonder if post-secondary education is wasted on those who have just graduated from high school!

While I'm approaching my fiftieth year, I can't say that I have any regrets about my educational choices.  The courses I took in college, which led to a bachelor of science degree in agricultural economics, have served me well.  Although I can't remember the particulars of some classes, the education I received is part of the sum of who I am today.  Undergraduate education - both formal and informal - is an incredible journal of self discovery and social development.  I suppose that in some respects, I love sheep-raising today because of the mix of courses and experiences I enjoyed at Davis.

My current educational endeavors - working to complete a master's in agriculture in integrated resource management (a combination of range management, animal science and agricultural business) - are far easier for me today than they would have been immediately following my undergraduate coursework.  My life experience - from working in the policy arena to operating my own ranching business to conducting research and education programs for other ranchers - has prepared me for the classes I'm currently taking.  When I was younger, I probably didn't question my professors as much; today, I recognize BS when I see it (which is to say, I know when someone is - or isn't - talking from experience).  Today, the questions I ask my professors are asked from know-how as much as from a lack of knowledge; as an undergraduate, I couldn't say this.

This brings me back to our week in Bozeman.  I have to say that I'm incredibly impressed with Montana State University.  The staff and faculty have all gone out of their way to be welcoming to our daughter - and to our family.  The university emphasizes a sense of community very much unlike my own undergraduate experience more than 25 years ago.  MSU also emphasizes its role as Montana's land grant university - from the president to the deans to faculty to staff.  Accordingly, MSU still caters to it's rural constituency, with programs designed to equip young people to go home and make a difference (rather than move away).  As I watch Lara embark on her college career, I realize that this emphasis probably means more to me now than it would have when I was 18 (and perhaps than it does now to Lara).  After observing a half-week of Facebook posts about MSU, a friend (who happens to be a native Montanan) asked if I wished I was coming to school here.  In many ways, I suppose I do!

As I reflect on my college experiences (in my distant past at Davis and more recently online at Colorado State), I realize that much of what I've gained educationally is an inherent curiosity.  Education, if we're paying attention, teaches us to keep learning (as opposed to simply memorizing facts and formulas).  Higher education teaches us to ask important questions, to accept different viewpoints (and to question our own) - to ask "why" as well as "why not."  The seeds that were planted in my first animal science course - or in my advanced composition course - continue to bear fruit today.  Seeing this future germination through the eyes of my child is incredibly exciting!  To the extent that we all continue to learn, education is never wasted - no matter one's age!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Work in Progress

Photo credit: Emma Macon
Shearing sheep is intensely physical.  When I went to sheep shearing school five years ago at the University of California's Hopland Research and Extension Center, I was surprised by how sore my legs were - I'd assumed that stooping over a sheep would tire my back, but my hamstrings ached for days.  Several weeks ago, Matt Smith, a New Zealander living in Cornwall, England, set the world record (at least according the websites I've seen), set a world record by shearing 731 ewes in 9 hours - by himself!  (for more info, check out this website.) I'm not nearly as fast (Mr. Smith can probably shear 8-10 ewes in the time it takes me to shear one!) - nor can I shear for 9 hours straight.  But the interesting thing about shearing (and other physical skills) is that even Mr. Smith - at some point - had to struggle through shearing his first sheep, just like me!  And he only got really good at it by doing a lot of it!

That's the thing about shearing sheep!  Much like other agrarian "arts," shearing can't be learned by reading a book or watching someone else do it.  There are some great guides to help aspiring shearers get started (see this guide from the Premier 1 Supplies website, for example - or better yet, find a copy of Wool Away by Godfrey Bowen).  As I mentioned, I went to a 5-day school in Mendocino County.  But the only way to learn - and certainly the only way to get better at it - is to do it (and do lots of it).

When we shear our ewes, we hire our friend Derrick Adamache to shear for us.  Derrick has sheared sheep and goats for nearly 30 years.  He's fast, he handles our sheep well, and he has amazing stamina.  By hiring Derrick, I can focus on things like sorting the lambs from the ewes before they go into the shearing pen and on preparing the wool for marketing.  I also get to learn from Derrick!

We typically shear our ewes in early May while they are still nursing their lambs.  In mid summer, we try to shear the lambs we've kept.  Since they are fewer in number, and since they don't have to be sorted before shearing, I've started shearing them myself - I need the practice!  Last weekend, I sheared half of our replacement ewe lambs.  A couple of observations (about shearing and my own ability):

  • I'm slow when shearing the difficult parts of the sheep - parts where I'm working "blind" or worried about the sheep's "sensitive" areas.  This means it takes me longer than it would for an experienced shearer to shear the bellies, the crutch and the neck/first shoulder.  The more I shear, the more confident I get that I'm doing it right - but I'm still slow!
  •  Stamina is critical.  I find that as I get tired, I get out of position more frequently (which results in sheep are more active on the shearing board).  The last sheep always seem to be more active than the first sheep I shear!
  • Flexibility and muscle tone is also critical.  I sheared our ram lambs the weekend before, and was sore until Wednesday.  I sheared twice as many lambs Sunday, and I'm not sore at all!
  • I'm right handed, but my left hand is the critical hand in sheep shearing.  With my left hand, I position the sheep for each "blow" (or stroke) with the shearing handpiece.  With my left hand, I stretch the sheep's skin to smooth out the wrinkles that might otherwise be caught between the fingers of the comb and sliced by the cutters on the shearing machine.  I rarely pay attention to my non-dominant hand in my everyday activities; shearing forces me to do so.
  • Which brings me to my final observation: while shearing sheep is hard physically, it also takes mental stamina.  Looking up and seeing yet another pen full of sheep to be shorn can be discouraging if I have the wrong mental attitude about the work.  Pushing through my fatigue gets me to the point where I can look up and see a paddock full of freshly shorn sheep - a wonderful feeling!  But pushing through the fatigue is also an important step in becoming a better shearer.  Adjusting my positioning, improving my technique, increasing my flexibility - all of these make the act of shearing a single sheep faster and more comfortable (for me and for the sheep).
I like the thought that every fine woolen textile - from a Harris tweed coat to a Pendleton sweater to a Navajo rug - starts with the process of shearing a sheep.  Every piece of wool fabric starts with someone holding a sheep on the shearing board.  Some shearers call it the 60-second (or even 30-second) waltz - done well, shearing has all of the repetitiveness and rhythm of dance.  Done well, shearing - and a well-shorn sheep - are impressive to observe.  I aspire to doing it well!


Friday, August 5, 2016

Hopeful Weather

The last full week of July 2016 marked the longest stretch of hot weather we've had in the Sierra foothills this summer.  While we didn't get nearly as warm as some parts of California, the heat here was oppressive.  Moving irrigation and unclogging sprinklers became the highlight of my day (and getting wet in the process) - anything to cool off a bit!  As is usually the case for me, I found myself coping with the heat by looking forward to that day in August that would bring a hint of the coming autumn weather.  A day that starts out cooler, with the scent of dew on dry grass and decaying leaves in the air. Usually, this day arrives late in the month; in 2016 (an unusual weather year for lots of reasons), it arrived today!

During the summer months, we typically sleep with the windows open and with fans running (we don't have air conditioning - just a whole-house fan and wonderful shade trees around the house).  This morning I woke up cold - and a quick glance at the thermometer when I got out of bed revealed that the outside temperature was just 49 degrees Fahrenheit.  When I left the house to head to the ranch, a cool breeze was rattling the leaves of the mulberry trees in the yard.  And as I drove the 3 miles to I descended into a fog bank - unusual for early August, but entirely welcome!  Between the heavy dew on the pasture grasses, the overspray of the sprinklers, and the cool wind, I was chilled by the time I finished my chores.  I know we'll have more hot days before summer is over, but mornings like this give me hope!

This week, I read that 2015 set all kinds of climate records (see the Climate Central website for details).  Mark Twain supposedly said, "Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get," although I can't find direct evidence that the quote is his.  Regardless, I think it does illustrate the difference between climate and weather.  All of the scientific evidence I've seen suggests that our climate is growing warmer, and yet the day-to-day weather doesn't feel much different (for example, it's always hot in late July).  In some respects, I suppose we're like a frog in a pot of water on the stove - we won't realize it's getting hotter until we're fully cooked.  Regardless, I always look forward to an August day like today - it gives me hope that cooler (and wetter) weather is on the horizon.