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!

1 comment:

  1. Very well done Dan! Well written and informative, telling a story I am not that familiar with. Thanks!