Monday, October 31, 2016

Earning their keep: More on livestock guardian animals

Over the last 12 months, I've posted several essays about our commitment to - and experience with - nonlethal predator protection tools. Livestock guardian animals (mostly dogs, but also llamas) have been the cornerstone of our system. Several recent losses have reinforced my belief that dogs are the best livestock protection tool available.

In late September, we brought 6 ewe lambs home to use for training our border collies. They joined one of our bottle-raised lambs, an older ewe, and our llama. Sometime in mid October, one of these ewe lambs simply disappeared. On Sunday afternoon, she was there - by midweek, she was gone. At that point, we started night-penning the sheep to make sure they were safe.

Also in late September, we took sheep to some friends' pasture just north of our home place. They had raised sheep, and told us they'd put their llama with the ewe lambs and cull ewes to provide some protection. Unfortunately, this didn't happen - and yesterday, we learned that we'd lost 3 ewe lambs in the last 5 weeks. The llama went in with the sheep.

As a backdrop to all of this, I'm currently completing a master's degree in integrated resource management at Colorado State University. This semester, I'm taking a course on livestock-wildlife conflict. And my professional paper is focused on non-lethal predator protection tools. I've been reviewing a number of research papers about livestock guardian dogs and llamas.

From a practical standpoint, llamas require less extra management and expense - after all, they thrive on a diet identical to that of sheep. However, as our own experience supports, llamas are not as effective as dogs. I think there are several reasons for this.

First, I think llamas are effective in North America largely because our predators have never seen them in the wild. I joke that llamas look like they were invented by Dr. Seuss - they look like they were created by a committee! Humor aside, llamas do look, act, and even smell different from any animal I've been around. I suspect that coyotes feel the same as I do. However, much of the literature I've reviewed suggests that once predators become habituated to a specific deterrent, the deterrent loses its effectiveness.

Some of the guardian llamas I've seen and used have exhibited some degree of aggression toward dogs; others have not. Our county trapper has told me that he's seen llamas that have been killed by mountain lions. Based on these observations, I suspect that some predators become habituated to llamas - which reduces (or eliminates) their effectiveness as guardian animals. Fundamentally, as herbivores, llamas are prey animals that have (in some cases) developed protective behaviors.

On the other hand, dogs seem to be far better guardian animals (at least in my experience). While there are certainly trade-offs involved in using dogs (they have to be fed everyday, for one thing), they seem to be much more effective. I suspect that this success is due, at least in part, to the fact that guardian dogs effectively replace canine predators (and perhaps feline and ursine predators, as well) in our environment. Dogs fill the carnivore niche - unlike coyotes, mountain lions and bears, they typically don't eat sheep. Based on our experience, I'd much prefer to have a carnivore protecting my sheep than another herbivore!

In addition to using dogs, we use portable electric fencing - and we move our sheep frequently. The 3 ewe lambs we recently lost were in a hard-wire fence - and they'd been in this relatively large pasture for nearly 5 weeks. The combination of electric fence and regular movement probably helps confound the predators in our environment. The fact that we're out feeding the dogs everyday means there's a human present with the sheep regularly.

I realize that this is all speculation on my part. Scientific research regarding the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of non-lethal tools is challenging for a variety of reasons. Researchers find manipulation of predator prevention systems problematic, and experimental design (replication and control) can be demanding if not impossible (Fascione et al, ed. 2004).  Furthermore, experimental controls that compare the use of non-lethal tools with lack of use exposes these control groups of livestock to potential predation, raising ethical concerns.  Consequently, much of the current science regarding non-lethal predator controls in a livestock production setting is observational in nature.

Similarly, the economics of using guardian dogs (or any other non-lethal tool) are difficult to analyze. I know the direct cost of using dogs in our operation (approximately $300/year/dog), but I don't know how many sheep losses the dogs prevent. In other words, I can only determine the cost portion of a cost-benefit analysis.

Ultimately, I suppose this reinforces my belief that raising sheep is both an art and a science!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Sheep, Stockmanship and Shopping Centers

The title of this blog post seems incongruous, but I hope you'll bear with me. Sometimes, seemingly disjointed  and unrelated ideas rattle around in my head for a bit until something I see - or read or do - brings them together. In this case, a YouTube video about hefting sheep in the Scottish hills helped make a connection between much of what I've been doing and thinking in the last several months.

The seeds for this post were planted during our trip to Bozeman, Montana, in August. During orientation at Montana State University, we visited an activity fair on campus. One of the booths that I visited was the Montana Land Reliance, an agriculturally focused land trust that works with ranchers throughout Montana. I had been familiar with the group (and with their slogan, "Cows not Condos") since working with the California Rangeland Trust in the late 1990s. As I was talking with the young lady staffing the booth, I joked that they needed a "Sheep not something" slogan, too.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to help with and participate in a stockmanship workshop put on by Steve Cote and Roger Ingram. While the focus was largely on handling livestock (cattle, mostly) in a low-stress manner, we also talked about how livestock that are handled well have fewer health and reproductive problems, and how they'll actually stay put on a particular piece of grazing land. Steve Cote stressed that learning stockmanship is a lifelong process - that a good stockman (or woman) is constantly asking questions of the livestock (in terms of behavior and response) and trying new approaches based on these "answers."

Finally, today I found a link to this outstanding video on Facebook:

Unlike our part of the Sierra Foothills, sheep have been grazing on these Scottish hills for thousands of years. Each flock of sheep knows which part of these unfenced hills is its native home - in some respects, they place themselves just like Steve Cote and Roger Ingram taught us about placing cattle on the range.

Late in the video, there were two statements that finally tied these ideas together for me. One of the speakers says, "Sheep are looking after the landscape," adding, "Sheep keep people in these remote hills." In other words, sheep grazing maintains the grass-covered hillsides, and sheep production supports remote small communities throughout Scotland.

Admittedly, we don't have a thousand year tradition of grazing sheep in the Sierra foothills. But grazing animals are a vital part of our rangeland landscapes in California and elsewhere in the West. Rangelands, according to my sheepherder definition, are too hot, too cold, too steep, too dry - too something - to support cultivated agriculture. And these lands can be incredibly productive - as wildlife habitat, as watersheds, as open space. Just as well-managed grazing by sheep and cattle can help maintain the productivity and health of these lands, ranching as an economic activity can help keep these lands from turning into housing tracts and shopping malls. Several weeks ago, I thought of a new slogan: Sheep not Shopping Malls!

I'm under no illusion that the small annual rent I pay to graze the 20 acres of irrigated pasture and 250 acres of annual rangeland keeps our landlords from considering offers from real estate developers. Nonetheless, the fact that our landlords love to see sheep grazing on their hillsides means something. The fact that there are still a few of us in this part of Placer County who raise sheep and cattle at a commercial scale means we still have a culture of stock-raising. Yesterday evening, I sold a ram to the children of a fellow ranching family - they raise cattle, but his kids are learning about sheep. My own daughters, by watching us work since before they could walk - and helping us work once they could - are learning skills that date back to the first shepherds in the Scotthish hills.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Year of the Sheep (Photos)

A year later, I can't really remember where the idea originated. Sometime in late September 2015, I decided to start a project I called #Sheep365. Using my iPhone, I intended on taking at least one photo of my family's sheep operation every day for a year - beginning on October 1 when we turned the rams in with the ewes. I posted these photos on my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds - all with the #Sheep365 tag. Looking back now at the last 366 days (2016 is a leap year!), I have thoroughly enjoyed the project - in part because I'm now enjoying looking back, and in part because of the conversations I've had with friends (old and new) about raising sheep.

A shepherd's year involves day-in-day-out care for sheep and for the land - punctuated by milestones like lambing, shearing, weaning and breeding. As I look back at the photos, many of them don't seem to be much different from one day to the next, and yet I can see the changing of the seasons and the changing of my work as I scroll through them. I've become aware that I'm trying to tell a daily story while also weaving together the story of my entire year of shepherding.

As my project wrapped up last week, I realized that it was more than just a year-long social media experiment – it was an artistic endeavor. I realized that I was trying to tell a story – not just about what was happening on any particular day, but also about how each day in a shepherd’s life relates to the days that came before and to the days that would follow. I see now that art does resemble life (or perhaps it’s the other way around). This year-long project required both dedication and discipline on my part (which I didn’t fully appreciate until I no longer had to think about what I would post that day). Similarly, raising sheep requires dedication and discipline – there are days that I’d rather not leave the house at sunrise to move irrigation water before work, just as there are evenings that I’d rather go home than swing by the ranch to feed guard dogs after the sun has set. To take this analogy even further, I’ve realized that a rancher works with animals, water, sunlight, and soil to create a body of work. Science and technology are certainly a part of my daily work, but there is an art (that I’m still learning) to putting these things together.

Unbeknownst to me, other shepherds had been using the #Sheep365 tag - and as a consequence, I made the acquaintance of shepherds in other parts of the country and other parts of the world. I even got to post to an international twitter feed for a week.

Finally, the project opened conversations with folks about the work involved in raising sheep. I've enjoyed answering questions about things that I take for granted. I've enjoyed the positive feedback, too!  Here's a look back at our year:

As I explained when I started the project, the shepherd's year begins on the day that the rams go with the ewes. This day represents our hopes for the coming year. We time our breeding with an eye towards lambing - we want lambs to be born when the grass is green and growing fast - in springtime, in other words! And so October 1 is the first day of the sheep year for us. Since we have two breeding groups (a replacement group and a terminal group), we had sheep in two locations last October. For the first half of the month, we were still moving irrigation water, as well.

In 2015, we got our germinating rain in early November. A germinating rain is typically 0.5-0.75" of rain - enough to get the annual grasses on our rangelands started - always an important day for us! After we separated the rams and ewes again in mid-November, we re-combined the ewes into one big group. The rams went back to the bachelor paddock! We had our first frost, and the last of last spring's lambs reached their market weights.

As usual, December was the slowest month for shepherding - and a nice break!  The ewes were bred and settled in their pregnancies.  Early in the month, we hauled them to our winter rangeland pastures - where they'd stay until they were done lambing in April. And on Christmas Day, my daughters helped with chores. I always do a little extra work on the days leading up to Christmas, to make sure that all we need to do on the big day is check sheep and feed guard dogs. And after Christmas, we got a way for a few days (which meant the posts featured guest photos by my partner, Roger Ingram!)

In January, work started picking up again. With short days, relatively cold temperatures, and the lingering effects of the drought, we didn't have much green grass - and so we moved the sheep frequently. The ewes were getting enormous; we started to suspect that we might have more twins that normal at lambing time. At the end of the month, we brought the flock into our portable corrals to trim their feet and give them their pre-lambing vaccinations.

The photos I took in February start to show a bit more green grass in them - just in time for lambing! The early February days always drag for me - I'm waiting for lambs! I went through my preparations - checking supplies and assembling tools. Then on February 22, ewe #1543 (affectionately named "Pina" by my youngest daughter) delivered twin lambs. Six weeks of Christmas had begun!

March was a blur - lambs, lambs, and more lambs. 2016 was our most successful lambing season ever - 100 lambs out of 55 ewes. Other than lambs, though, I don't remember much about March!

In early April, we purchased a border collie puppy. Mae came to us from our friend Geri Byrne in Tulelake, CA. She's been a firecracker from the start - incredible energy. She's also showing signs of being an incredibly talented sheep dog. Oh yeah - and irrigation season started, which meant I'd spend most mornings moving water for the next 6 months.

In May, we brought all of the sheep home to be sheared - we typically wait until the youngest lamb is 5-6 weeks old before shearing the ewes. Shearing, for me, is the sheep equivalent of branding calves - it's hard work made enjoyable by the company of friends who help us. We also picked up a new livestock guardian dog puppy - Bodie is a Maremma-Anatolian mix. At the end of the month, our oldest daughter, Lara, graduated from Placer High School (as one of 14 valedictorians - and the first ag student to be valedictorian).

June seems like it was mostly moving water! We also weaned the lambs (later than normal, thanks to a strong grass year) and marketed all of our feeder lambs.

As usual, July was hot and dry.  The lambs were on irrigated pasture, while the ewes went back to dry forage. And, we got to go on vacation (to the coast and then to the Sierra - where the meat bees were horrible).

In August, we began preparing the rams for breeding season by feeding them grain. We want them to be in exceptionally good condition going into breeding season, because they usually forget to eat much while they're with the ewes! At the end of the month, we took a week-long trip to Montana to drop Lara off at Montana State University (and where I got to visit the Montana Wool Lab - once a sheep geek, always a sheep geek!). When we returned, I picked up a ton of canola meal in the Sacramento Valley to use for flushing the ewes, which started in...

On Labor Day weekend, we went through the ewes to determine whether we needed to cull any due to missing teeth or bad udders. Two ewes had lost all of their lower incisors (which makes it difficult for them to graze). The next weekend, Emma had an incredibly successful Gold Country Fair with her sheep (her first fair without her older sister) - she won the award for high point sheep exhibitor! We also started feeding canola meal to the ewes to flush them (that is, improve their nutrition to increase ovulation). On September 29 (two days early because we had a wedding on October 1), we turned the rams back in with the ewes.

As my project wrapped up, I was invited by Placer Arts to participate in the Auburn Art Walk on October 7, 2016. I’ve selected 24 of my favorite photos (2 from each month) to exhibit in the gallery at Auburn City Hall (1225 Lincoln Way in Auburn). Placer Arts is hosting a free reception in the gallery from 6-9 p.m., and my photos will be on exhibit (and available for purchase) through early December. While I’m under no illusions that I’m a great photographer, I’m excited to have a further opportunity to talk about the work involved in raising sheep in the Sierra foothills!