Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Drought and Dormancy

I read in yesterday's paper that we've experienced the wettest October and November in northern California in the last 30 years (for more on my direct observations of our autumn precipitation, go to "An October Like No Other"). This autumn has also been unusually warm here - we didn't have our first freeze until well into November (in the 15 years we've lived in Auburn, we've usually had a hard frost by Halloween). The combination of moisture and warm temperatures has made the grass grow - I can't remember another fall like this one for grass growth.

But as the article in the paper explained - and as the drought map below reinforces - we're still in the midst of one of the longest droughts in California history. Our portion of western Placer County has improved (we're only in "moderate drought" at the moment), but other parts of the state (especially the southern San Joaquin Valley and the central coast) remain extremely dry.

On our Sierra foothill rangelands, we typically go through two dormant seasons in terms of forage production - you might think of these as grass "droughts." Since our forage plants (grasses and broad-leaf forbs) are mostly annuals, the first of these dormant seasons is obvious. The golden-brown grasses of our California summers represent the annual warm season drought in our Mediterranean climate. This dry forage doesn't have enough protein in it to support our sheep - which is why we either supplement their protein intake or move them to irrigated pasture.

The second dormant season is less obvious. At some point (usually in late November or early December) the shorter days and colder temperatures put our newly germinated green grasses into dormancy. With the sun at a lower angle in the sky, the soil doesn't absorb as much heat - once the soil temperatures drop below 50 degrees F, grass growth comes to a halt. I checked the soil temperature reading for this morning at the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) weather station near Auburn - we're at 52.5 degrees. In other words, we've just about hit our winter grass "drought." Our job now is to ration the grass that's already grown this fall until the days get long and warm enough to get the grass growing again (usually in early March).

In the meantime, I hope the precipitation keeps coming. Continued rain in the foothills will help maintain soil moisture and replenish springs and creeks. Continued snow in the mountains will help ensure that we have stored enough water to keep the rivers and irrigation canals flowing next summer. And to paraphrase my friend and fellow rancher Tim Koopmann, the spring rains make the year! Keep it coming!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Disappointed in Stormy Kromer - but with a happy ending!

Note: this story has a happy ending! See the comment below! Stormy Kromer has restored my faith in their commitment to quality and customer service!

As a follicly challenged (that is, bald) sheepherder who works outside at least part of every day (regardless of the weather), I rely on hats to shade my face, protect my head, and keep me warm. My wife would say I have far too many hats - but I'm not sure that's possible. My favorite winter hat for the last decade or so has been a Stormy Kromer - a wool baseball cap with a unique flap that slides down over my ears when it's especially cold. I've liked Stormy Kromers because they're made from wool here in the United States - I've owned 3 of them in that time period. I've even written positively about these hats in this space in previous posts!

The company, based in the upper Midwest, offers (supposedly) a lifetime guarantee on its website:
They say that when you own a Stormy Kromer, no other cap will ever satisfy your taste for comfort or quality. And we believe that’s true too, so we offer what other clothing manufacturers might consider a little crazy:
The Stormy Kromer Lifetime Warranty
The SK Lifetime Warranty program started in 2010, when we began sewing a unique serial number into each cap. If you purchased a Stormy Kromer cap with a serial number and it ever wears out, or if there is ever a problem with the cap
caused by poor workmanship or faulty material, we will replace it free of charge.
Sounds good, right!?

Like a lot of ranchers, I have a work hat and a town hat - the town hat being the newer one that is still mostly clean. Recently, I've noticed that my work hat (same size as my town hat) has shrunken - it's much smaller than it was when I purchased it. It's so much smaller, in fact, that it hurts to wear it. Last night, I contacted the company about the problem via the customer service section of its website.

Today, I received this suggestion from Stormy Kromer:

Thank you for reaching out to us. Unfortunately since these caps are made of wool – they do have a chance of shrinking. It will not stretch out at all.

My suggestion would be to try selling your cap to a friend or family member to try recouping some of your costs, and then ordering a cap in the size you need.
So much for replacing a hat with a "problem caused by poor workmanship or faulty material" - and I was so happy to receive a much needed lesson about the properties of wool! I have Pendleton and Filson garments that are older than I am - and that retain their proper sizing. And I'm the proud owner of a Duckworth knit cap made from wool grown by a Montana ranching family. Sadly, I don't think I'll ever purchase another Stormy Kromer (even if I can convince an unsuspecting relative or friend to buy my old one).

And so tonight, I'm disappointed. A company that I've touted to others - for its commitment to quality and to using a renewable fiber that I produce - hasn't lived up to its reputation (or its publicly stated values). Oh well....

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Foothill Shepherd's Year in Photographs

Note: Auburn Arts Association has extended my Shepherd's Year in Photographs exhibition at Auburn City Hall through the end of the year! In case you aren't in Auburn, here are the photos I chose for the exhibit - enjoy!

A Shepherd’s Year in Photographs
My wife and I have raised sheep at some scale since moving to Penryn in 1994.  Now based in Auburn, we’ve raised sheep commercially since 2005.  Drought and a full-time off-ranch job have meant that we’ve drastically reduced our flock from its peak of 350 ewes – but I still think of myself as a shepherd.
On October 1, 2015, when we put the rams with the ewes, I started a social media project I called #Sheep365.  My plan was to post at least one photograph every day (on Instagram and Facebook) for a year, depicting whatever it was I was doing that day in our sheep operation.  A shepherd’s year involves day-in-day-out care for sheep, punctuated by milestones like lambing, shearing, weaning and breeding.  The photos in this exhibit (two from each month, plus some special shots) are just a small sampling of my project – and my year.  Every photograph was taken with my iPhone 5s.

The shepherd’s year, in my mind, begins on the day that he or she puts the rams with the ewes.  Breeding season represents our hopes for the coming year. As this exhibit begins, the rams are back with the ewes – in preparation for 2017.

The Object of His DesireOne of our Blueface Leicester rams lost an eye when he was a lamb.  Now he tilts his head to get a better look at the ewes!October 2015

Ewes and Oaks
With cooler temperatures and shorter days, our irrigated pastures perk up a bit in October – just in time for breeding season!
This is one of my favorite oaks in one of my favorite pastures.
October 2015

The Bachelor Pen
The rams are turned in with the ewes for six weeks in October and early November – then it’s back to their own pasture for the rest of the year. Not a bad life – six weeks of work and all-you-can-eat after that!
November 2015

Moving through Autumn
We prefer to walk the sheep from one leased pasture to another – it’s much easier than hauling them in the trailer. I enjoy the colors in autumn, and our border collies enjoy the work!
November 2015

Waiting for the Rain
After four years of drought, sheep and shepherds alike were hopeful for a return to normal winter weather patterns. If you look closely, you can see a hint of green grass under last year’s dead grass.
December 2015

Sunrise Sheep
As a part-time shepherd, I usually check the sheep before work in the morning. I love the light at that time of day – and at this time of year!
December 2015

One Month to Go
By January, the bred ewes are enormous. We say, “They’re starting to bag up” – meaning their udders are beginning to fill with milk.  This ewe gave birth to twins 37 days later.
January 2016

Winter Skies
Being a shepherd – even a part-time shepherd – means we’re outside in all kinds of weather.
I love this sky – looking west towards Lincoln.
January 2016

Red Sky at Night
During lambing season, we keep a careful eye on the weather. If a storm is expected, we’ll move the flock to a pasture with plenty of trees and other natural shelter. But while stormy weather causes extra work, we pray for rain to make the grass grow.
February 2016

New Life!
At some point in late February, we’re greeted by the arrival of a new lamb.  We time our lambing to coincide with the onset of green grass – compare this photo to those taken in December!
Our ewes have amazing maternal instincts – this ewe will challenge anyone (or anything) that gets too close to her lamb.
February 2016

Nap Time
Lambs basically spend their time doing three things: playing, eating and sleeping. I suspect these twins were gamboling through the pasture minutes before I snapped this photo.
Every shepherd with a smart phone has shot at least one video of a “lamb-pede” – lambs chasing each other through the fields.
March 2016

Hybrid Vigor
We use cross-breeding to enhance the health and vigor of our lambs.  These lambs were sired by a Shropshire ram. Their mother is a “mule” – a cross between a Blueface Leicester ram and a Border Cheviot ewe. The yellowish tint to their wool is meconium.
March 2016

Fresh Grass!
The lambs learn quickly (from their mothers) that when the shepherd opens the gate, there’s fresh grass to graze in the next pasture! Sometimes they get a little encouragement from the border collies….
April 2016

A Good Dog
I once heard an older shepherd say, “I hope one day to be the shepherd my dogs deserve.” Our border collies, like Mo, are more than pets – they are our working partners.
April 2016

The ewes and lambs graze on irrigated pasture through the month of May. We try to shear them before the stickers get too bad – foxtails and other vegetation can foul their wool.
May 2016

The ewes all look so clean after they’ve been shorn!  Our sheep usually grow about five pounds of wool in 12 months.  Shearing a ewe takes our hired shearer about 90 seconds. The lambs will be shorn later in the summer.
May 2016

A Flying Mule
In the UK, where the cross-breeding scheme we utilize originated, the cross between a Blueface Leicester ram and a hill-breed ewe is called a “mule” – if you look closely, this lamb’s feet aren’t touching the ground.  He’s a flying mule!
June 2016

The Weaning Pen
Depending on the grass, we wean our lambs in late May or early June.  Thanks to better-than-average grass growth this year, we were able to wait to wean the lambs until June 20.  The lambs go onto irrigated pasture; the ewes get to graze on dry grass after weaning.
June 2016

A Cool Drink of Water
As the summer temperatures rise, the ewes drink more water.  They’ll usually come to the trough after their morning graze, and again before bedding down at night.
July 2016

Shaded Up
After their lambs are weaned in June, and before we start preparing them for breeding again in September, the ewes are grazed in our unirrigated annual grasslands and oak woodlands.  During the heat of the day, they shade up under the oaks.
July 2016

Hopeful Weather
In every August, there comes a day that suggests that summer won’t last forever – that autumn is on the way.  This year, we had a cool, misty morning in early August – which made the hot days that followed a little more bearable.
August 2016

The Boys
Except for 6 weeks in the fall, the rams are pastured separately from the ewes. This helps ensure that all of the sheep are ready for business once the breeding season commences.  In August, we begin feeding the rams some extra groceries – they might forget to eat once they’re with the ewes!
August 2016

Back to Green
September marks the beginning of our preparations for next year’s lambs.  We bring the ewe flock back to irrigated pasture, and we supplement their diet with canola meal and barley.  “Flushing the ewes” – putting them on a rising plane of nutrition – results in increased ovulation – and more lambs next spring!
September 2016

Autumn Morning
As late summer turns to autumn, we prepare to start another year. Shorter days mean we’re often doing chores before the sun has fully risen.
September 2016

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Renewing Community

This has been a week of travel and of meetings for me. It's also been a week of talking about predators and ranching. On Thursday, I participated in a meeting of the UC Ag and Natural Resources Wildlife Work Group at Davis. On Friday, I traveled to Quincy to attend a meeting about ranching in coexistence with wolves. And today, I participated in the 2016 Fibershed Wool Symposium in Point Reyes Station (as part of a producer panel that discussed sheep breeds and husbandry). In the latter two meetings, I renewed friendships with other ranchers - and made some new rancher friends. And as I reflect on my week tonight, I realize that my sense of being part of a ranching community is evolving.

What an incredible crowd at today's Fibershed Wool Symposium!

The landscape where we graze our sheep was almost entirely put to agricultural uses in the not-too-distant past. Today, however, the semi-rural land around Auburn is highly fragmented - small farms are interspersed with subdivisions. Our sheep graze almost entirely on leased land - and our winter grazing land isn't contiguous with our summer irrigated pastures. While we can still herd our sheep in some cases, this fragmentation means that we also have to haul our sheep from time to time.

Aside from these practical considerations, our disjointed landscape has changed the nature of our relationship to our neighbors. Our home place is the only commercial agricultural operation on our road. Our winter grazing land is within a large-lot subdivision west of Auburn. The landowners for whom we graze are incredibly nice folks - but they have little (if any) understanding of what we do. When Auburn was more of an agricultural community, one's neighbors were more likely to be farmers or ranchers themselves; today, it's vastly different.

Sometimes, this lack of shared experience and understanding can have challenging consequences. We've had sheep killed by a neighbor's dog. We've had other neighbors complain about the 2-3 days that all of our sheep are at our home place for shearing. We've had neighbors complain about our livestock guardian dogs barking at night.

Yesterday, I learned about a ranching community in southern Alberta, Canada, that is working together to coexist with wolves. Their's is both physical community (that is, their ranches are adjacent to one another) and a human community (they work together to protect their livestock). This kind of community no longer exists where we ranch - our non-ranching neighbors and landlords often have very different perspectives on predators than we do. Some think the only good coyote is a dead coyote (which goes against our commitment to coexistence) - others (as I've mentioned) let their dogs run loose. If (or perhaps, when) wolves become re-established in our region, I worry that we won't have the kind of support network that has allowed these Canadian ranchers to work together to graze cattle without having to kill wolves.

Today, however, my optimism was renewed. The majority of the audience during the panel discussion were non-ranchers - and yet they were folks who valued our efforts to raise sheep in a way that fits our environment. Some were urban or suburban dwellers who support our attempts to make at least part of our living from the land.

Perhaps more importantly, my sense of being part of a ranching community was renewed. I may not have geographic neighbors who raise sheep, but I'm part of a community of ranchers, nonetheless. In some respects, technology has supported this new idea of community - I had lunch today with group of fellow sheep ranchers, one of whom I had only known previously through our Instagram conversations! I'm realizing that this is, perhaps, the most critical benefit of my #sheep365 project - I've connected with sheep producers all over the world. And despite our lack of geographic connectivity, we are indeed a community.

And as with more conventional communities, these connections must be nurtured. Virtual connections (via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms) have their place, but I remain convinced that face-to-face communication is vital for healthy relationships. Those of us who ate lunch together today, I think, recognize this importance. During the coming months, we hope to get together again - to help one another with our work, to share our ideas and questions - to build community.