Sunday, December 31, 2017

Good Riddance! And Thank Goodness for Sheep!

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, 2017 seemed at times to have an apocalyptic feel to it. We experienced extreme political dysfunction at home and abroad. We saw Nazis marching openly in American cities. We watched the world inch closer to nuclear war. The natural world, in which many of us (myself included) find solace, joined in the "fun" - from extreme storms to extreme wildfires, earthquakes to mudslides, volcanic eruptions to drought. In California, we had one of the wettest years on record - and one of the worst fire seasons. We also had one of the hottest summers in my memory, and one of the driest Decembers. I'll admit there were times during 2017 when I wondered when the locusts or raining frogs might appear. I'm glad it's nearly over!

I suspect that the political upheaval we experienced here in the United States - and elsewhere around the the globe - is at least indirectly related to the changes we're seeing in our climate and environment. The climate is changing. I believe that these changes are largely related to human activity, but regardless of the cause, change breeds uncertainty. And uncertainty, in human communities, seems to breed chaos.

For me, this external chaos stood in contrast to positive milestones in my own small world. I finished graduate school. I was hired for the job that caused me to go back to school (and for which I finally feel suited). My oldest daughter completed her first year of college and discovered that she's interested in many of the socio-scientific topics that drew me to work in rangeland management. My youngest daughter graduated from 8th grade, started high school (and worked hard in all her classes), and became an anchor on her junior varsity soccer team. I turned 50 (which is not nearly as depressing as some predicted).

The craziness of 2017 also reinforced the importance earning at least a very small portion of my living from raising sheep. Our small flock represents a minor part of our family's income, but it contributes tremendously to my own sanity. The fact that these animals depend upon me - and I on them - is comforting. The fact that my work with our sheep - despite our many modern "conveniences" - would be recognizable to shepherds who lived thousands of years ago, is reassuring. The fact that I contribute - in a very small way - to the well-being of my fellow humans (through the production of fiber and meat), is humbling. In the midst of my busy life this past year, I found myself enjoying the time I spent building electric fence; using my dogs to move the sheep; and working with friends at shearing, lambing and weaning. Caring for sheep, in many ways, kept me sane.

And so despite the ugliness of this past year, on this New Year's Eve, I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful, in part, because hanging a new calendar with blank spaces seems like an act of hope to me. I'm hopeful, too, I suppose, because as Will Rogers said, "A farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn't still be a farmer." My work with our sheep at this time of year is a case in point; I can't help but noting the progression of our ewes' pregnancies as we approach our 2018 lambing season in 7-8 weeks. And finally, I'm incredibly grateful that I can say "shepherd, among other things" when someone asks what I do for a living. Happy New Year!

Friday, December 29, 2017

New Normal?

If the weather forecast for the rest of the month is accurate, we'll receive less than one inch of precipitation this December when the month ends on Sunday. Since we live in a Mediterranean climate in the northern hemisphere, we expect December to be one of our rainy months (and in the 16+ years we've lived in Auburn, we've averaged nearly 7 inches of rain in December). This average, however, masks the variability in our December precipitation - in 2011, we measured just 0.10 inches; in 2005, we had 13.48 inches. During our recently concluded (?) 500-year drought (2012-2015), we received between 0.50 inches (2013) and 11.62 inches (2014). Extremes, it seems, might be our new "normal" weather.

As a rancher who relies on the grass that Mother Nature provides, this variability presents challenges for grazing our annual grasslands. For a variety of reasons, we don't (can't!) irrigate these grasslands - the grass we harvest with our sheep from November through April needs rain to grow. December and January, with their short days and (relatively) cold temperatures, are our dormant months in terms of grass growth. Even so, the rains that fall in December and January are critical for the soil moisture that will support the forage we need (and expect) when our ewes enter late gestation and begin to deliver their lambs in late February.

December is also a critical month for building the Sierra snowpack that will fill the High Sierra reservoirs that store and supply our irrigation water during the summer months (we need irrigation for the green grass our sheep need in the summer). While these reservoirs are far above their seasonal averages (thanks to last year's record setting precipitation), there is very little snow in our high country. Usually, rain in the Sierra foothills becomes snow in the high mountains - no rain means no snow, either.

I'm not a climate scientist by any stretch of the imagination - but I have paid close attention to the weather for more than half of my 50 years in this region. While variability has always been a feature of our foothill climate, the extremes (of dry and wet) seem much more pronounced to me. The climate also seems warmer, in general - snow days were not uncommon when I was a school kid in Tuolumne County; my parents have not had much snow at the home I grew up in during the last 10-15 years. The climate, it seems to me, is changing.

All of this brings me to my point, I suppose. Politicians can debate about whether our climate is changing (and, more importantly, about whether human activity is responsible for this change). Overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that the climate is changing and that humans have contributed to this change in significant ways. These debates don't help me address the realities of grazing sheep on annual rangeland in the Sierra foothills. The challenge for me, on a daily and yearly basis, is to adapt to these changes. The challenge for me is to increase the flexibility of our sheep enterprise. The challenge for me, ultimately, is to adapt to this new normal - to this new variability.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Preparing for Christmas

Like most of my readers who celebrate Christmas, I'm in the midst of preparations for the upcoming celebration. I'm nearly done with my shopping (earlier than normal, for me). We finally picked out our tree last weekend - we'll decorate it once Lara is home from college tomorrow. We've decided on our Christmas dinner menu and begun assembling the ingredients. But unlike most of my readers, I suspect, we're also spending time planning out our sheep grazing strategies for the coming weeks. I've come to realize that these preparations are part of the traditions that I cherish.

As with all ranchers, our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day include chores - feeding the horses, mules and sheep at the house, gathering eggs, and feeding the dogs. We also must check the sheep and feed the livestock guardian dogs at our rented pastures (the ewes are currently about 7 miles from home; the rams are 3 miles away). The ewes are (hopefully) pregnant, but their nutritional demands won't really ramp up until mid January. Our grazing planning involves estimating the amount of forage they'll need and building new paddocks that will allow us to avoid having to move sheep on for a week or so - shepherds need a break at this time of year, too!

This Saturday, my partner Roger and I will build a 5-6 acre paddock for the ewe flock. We'll move the ewes onto this fresh feed; they'll stay for a week or maybe more. We'll also move the rams (who are grazing a separate property). On Christmas Eve, I'll go to both pastures to feed the livestock guardian dogs; on Christmas morning, my daughters will join me (it's a tradition we all enjoy - including Sami, who gets an hour or so to herself). On the day after Christmas, our family travels to Sonora - and Roger will handle the chores for a couple of days.

Traditions are an important part of Christmas celebrations (at least for me). I still hang the stocking my Mom made for me as a kid. Our girls (who are 14 and 20) still put cookies and eggnog out for Santa Claus. We still take turns opening presents on Christmas morning. As a shepherd, these traditions include planning out where our sheep will be (and what they'll be grazing) for the week before and the week following Christmas. These traditions include bundling up after breakfast on Christmas morning and piling into the front seat of the pickup with my daughters. And these traditions, for me, including saying a prayer of thanksgiving that livestock are a part of my livelihood - and my life. Merry Christmas!
Christmas Morning, 2016 - Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Lucky... and Worried

Another "beautiful" day in the Sierra foothills!
One of the things I enjoy about serving on the board of the California Wool Growers Association (I'm currently the vice president) is the chance to catch up with fellow sheep producers from all over California at our board meetings. And as with most conversations among ranchers, the talk inevitably turns to weather and forage conditions. Weather and grass (and their effects on the market) it seems, are the variables that unite sheep ranchers large and small. After yesterday's board meeting in Woodland, I've realized that we're extremely fortunate to have green grass in our pastures near Auburn this December; I'm also concerned that the current stretch of dry weather might be the front end of another drought.

Board members who raise sheep in the San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast reported yesterday that the grass hasn't started where they are - they simply haven't had enough (or in some cases, any) rain. These reports match my own observations from a trip south through the Sierra foothills in mid-November - the green grass seemed to peter out before Jackson. Several of my cattlemen friends have confirmed that our part of the northern foothills are unique this year - we're the only ones with green forage at the moment.

At the moment, we have enough green grass ahead of our sheep to make it through the next month or two. With the shorter days and colder temperatures that coincide with the approaching winter solstice, our green grass has now gone dormant - even with rain, it won't start growing again until February. Without rain between now and February, however, the resumption of growth will be delayed. Our entire production system centers on matching lambing with the onset of spring growth in late February. Since ewes are pregnant for approximately 5 months, we've already cast the die - we are depending on winter rain to bring late winter and early spring forage for our sheep during their period of greatest demand. The lack of rain in the forecast, and the dry conditions most everywhere else in California, have me worried.
As this map from late November clearly shows, most of
California is much drier than normal for this time of year.

Because of the 2012-2015 drought, we've made adjustments in our management to be able to cope with dry conditions. We stock our pastures conservatively, which allows us to stockpile forage. While this leftover dry grass is filling, it lacks the nutritional power required for lactating ewes - and so we've also purchased supplemental protein as a hedge against continued dry conditions. Since our flock's forage consumption increases by nearly 50 percent during lambing, we may need to move the sheep more frequently than in a typical year. We'll start planning on spending more time building fence and moving sheep if conditions remain dry.

In the meantime, I'll be thankful for the rain we've had (over 8 inches since October 1). I'll be grateful for the green grass we see in our rangeland pastures (mostly hiding under last year's growth). I'll try to enjoy these "beautiful" winter days (although beautiful December weather for a California sheepman includes rain). And I'll say a little prayer for my colleagues who are battling drought in other parts of the state.
And with no rain in our forecast, I'm starting to worry....

Monday, November 27, 2017

Never Far Away

I suppose that for anyone who has weathered an historically severe storm (or lack of storms, as the case may be), the memory of that climatological disaster is never far back in the recesses of memory. The farmers and ranchers who survived the Dust Bowl years were haunted by its memory. The farmers and ranchers who survived this year’s hurricanes will remember these events for the rest of their lives. These kinds of calamities are turning points and mileposts - life after will never be the same as life before. And so it is with my own memories of the 2012-2015 drought. It’s the event that has come to define my mid-life. 

When people ask me how many sheep we have, I invariably compare the size of our operation today with its size before the drought. Before the drought, I thought of myself as a rancher who worked part-time in town. After the drought, I’ve become a full-time cooperative extension farm advisor with a part-time sheep operation. My experiences - selling sheep, scrambling to find grass, working more and more hours away from the ranch - make me conservative in my current approach to raising livestock. We run far fewer sheep than our rangelands will support in the best years (in other words, we stock our ranch for the dry years). We take much more time to estimate forage supplies and plan our grazing. We have a good idea about the sheep we’d keep and those we’d sell if we got into another drought. We are always on the lookout for new grazing opportunities.

All of this is a backdrop to explain to myself (and to others, perhaps) my reaction when I saw a Twitter post today from Daniel Swain, a weather researcher who writes the Weather West blog, suggesting that a building ridge of high pressure off the West Coast will bring dry conditions to California for the first half of December. Even though we’ve had close to normal precipitation in our part of the Sierra foothills, this news makes me worry. Other parts of California have not been so fortunate. Even as a part-time rancher, I rely on rain to grow grass in the fall, winter and early spring - and snow to supply irrigation water for summer grass. Intellectually, I’m reasonably confident that we’ll get enough rain and snow to maintain our current level of production. Emotionally, however, the prospect of an extended dry period in the midst of our rainy season is difficult. This news makes me realize that drought is never very far away in our Mediterranean climate - or in my memory.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Day Mae Grew Up

Always a nice site after moving sheep - the flock spread out with heads down grazing.
As some of you may know, Mae is my youngest working dog. She's also the first female border collie that I've started, and the only border collie that I've trained entirely on my own. She's been an easy, thoughtful and trainable dog from the beginning - very different that the male dogs I've started. Don't get me wrong - Mae has her quirks, and like most border collies (and many humans I've met), she gets in trouble when she has time off. She likes to stare at the horses and mules at our home place. She enjoys barking at the leaf blower (which she learned from our older dog, Mo). But she's nearly always made good decisions when we're working sheep. And today, (as she's approaching her second birthday), she showed me that she's grown up. She's ready to take on more responsibility in our small sheep operation.

While today's work didn't involve a long move or a big gather, it was reasonably technical. We needed to gather a 4-acre paddock, bring the sheep out of the electro-net fence, walk them through a gate and past the ram paddock, then through another gate. At the second gate, the sheep needed to make a 160-degree turn up the road. After walking up the road, the sheep needed to duck through a final gate into their next paddock. The last gate was tight, so I wanted the flock somewhat strung out so they wouldn't crowd through it.

Mae and I have been working on taking flanks that are counter to her instinct to balance the sheep with me. We've also been working on taking partial flanks - border collies have a powerful instinct to get to the heads of the sheep. Finally, we've been working on bending out her outruns and flanks - ideally, a dog should take a wide route to the back of the block before making contact with their flight zones.

The sheep were ready to move when we arrived at the paddock, so about two-thirds of them headed up the hill towards us. The remaining third were still grazing at the bottom of the hill about 150 yards away. I asked Mae for a left-hand (come bye) flank. She saw the sheep at the bottom the hill and aimed herself behind them. As she started cheating in too tight, I asked her to lie down and start again. As she started, I used a harsh voice to ask her to bend out. She took the correction and bent out. It took 3 corrections, but each time, she made a good decision.

When we move sheep out of electro-net fencing, we typically wait until the flock is gathered near the point of exit. If a dog is pushing too much, the sheep will press the fence. This morning, I asked Mae to lie down behind the flock as I opened the fence. She obliged, and the sheep came through the opening calmly. We then walked to the crest of a small hill and headed towards the first gate. The sheep veered towards the ram paddock, but Mae's quarter flank to the left got them back on track - I was pleased that she took a come bye, that her flank was square (which allowed her to avoid pushing the back of the flock as she moved into position), and that she held her position when I said, "right there."
Making the turn towards the second gate.

As we approached the second gate, I again asked for a short flank to get the sheep's heads pointed towards the gate. She obliged, dropping when I asked for a lie down so I could slow the sheep and go through the gate ahead of them. As the first third of the flock passed through, I was able to "bump" the leaders lightly to get them to turn up the road. As they turned, I asked Mae for a right (away) flank to turn the rest of the flock as it came through the gate. She took the flank and settled in behind the sheep. After a short walk up the road (during which we let the flock string out a bit), I asked for a short come bye flank, and the sheep turned into the last gate and their new paddock. I called Mae off and praised her - and closed the paddock.
Strung out and walking through the last gate.

To my non-sheepdog friends, this may seem like a very simple piece of work - and I may seem overly excited about Mae's progress. To my sheep dog friends, I suspect, the tasks may seem simple but the progress of a young dog justifies my excitement. As I've written before, the bond between a working dog and its handler (regardless of the work) is much deeper and more intense than any relationship I've ever had with a pet. I've taught my pet dogs obedience, which is a totally different experience than training a dog to work (at least for me). The work that Mae and I accomplished today required 3-way communication - between man and dog, between man and sheep, and between dog and sheep. I suspect that the man in this equation (me) is the least accomplished communicator of the three species. Watching Mae think about the work and adjust her approach according to the behavior of the sheep, our relative positions on the landscape, and my verbal commands, I realized working with my dogs is one of the reasons I so enjoy shepherding. We still have more to learn (both of us), but I realized this morning that we're at a point where we can accomplish a great deal of work together. Good dog, Mae! That'll do.
Waiting for the next job!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Heading into the Dark - #52weeksofsheep

With Thanksgiving Day behind us, and the winter solstice and Christmas Day ahead, we're approaching the slow and easy time of our shepherding year. At our latitude, the daylight hours are relatively short (9 hours and 47 minutes today, according to Weather Underground). Despite the warm temperatures this week, I expect our grasses will go dormant sometime in the next 2-3 weeks (dormancy results from a combination of soil temperatures below 50F and short day-lengths). Since our sheep production calendar is timed to match grass growth, our work slows as we head into the darkest days of the year, as well.

I've visited more northern latitudes during the fall and winter months, but Auburn, California, is as far north as I've ever lived for an extended period of time. I know that many folks grow depressed in the dark days of winter; I've always enjoyed these shorter days. I love the cooler weather (although this week has not been especially cool). I love any excuse to have a fire in the woodstove (our only heat). And I appreciate the opportunity to sleep in a bit, especially on the weekends.

Since we try to match our sheep production calendar to the forage productivity cycle, the next 6 weeks (the darkest part of the year) coincide with the slowest time of the sheep year. Our entire management system revolves around the onset of rapid grass growth - in other words, we want to start lambing in late February, which means we put rams with ewes in October and early November. We separated rams from ewes on November 10 this year; we'll let the ewes settle in their pregnancies until next weekend. Next Saturday, we'll haul the flock to our winter rangeland (which is at a slightly lower elevation than our summer irrigated pastures). Once there, our work will focus on moving sheep every 6-7 days until it's time to vaccinate the ewes in late January. Our work slows as we approach the winter solstice.

For me, these long nights provide a chance to re-charge. I sleep longer. I read more. I rest. I don't find the long nights and short days of late autumn and winter depressing; rather, I find them rejuvenating. I'm thankful that our sheep husbandry coincides with this seasonal slow-down. I enjoy heading into the dark.

Monday, November 20, 2017

At Home on the Range

I had the opportunity this evening to participate in a panel discussion about careers in sustainable agriculture at UC Davis. I was the only animal agriculturist on the panel, and at the end of the evening, a young woman asked whether I thought there was a future for animal agriculture generally, and for sheep production specifically, given growing concerns over climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

In answering her question, I realized that I've had the good fortune to find work that allows me to embrace the intersection of social science, economics, and bio-physical science. I've had the opportunity to immerse myself in the cultures and places where rangeland agriculture is practiced in California. And I've had the opportunity to engage in rangeland livestock production myself.

My somewhat tongue-in-cheek definition of rangeland, as I explained in my answer tonight, is that it is comprised of land that is too hot, too cold, too dry, too steep - too "something" - to support cultivation. The rangelands in my part of the Sierra foothills don't grow crops - but they do grow grass (more in some years than others). Some would say these lands are of marginal productivity (apparently they've never heard the frogs sing at night during lambing season - fecundity is the word that comes to mind for me). Ruminant animals, through the miracle of their digestive processes, can turn the "crop" grown on these "marginal" lands (that is, grass, forbs and brush) into muscle, fiber and milk. The lambs and wool I sell each year are the products of this conversion - renewable products that benefit my community and the world. Properly managed, grazing animals (like my sheep) also benefit the environment - my sheep help keep invasive weeds in check. Grazing can help reduce the threat of wildfire, as well. The lands my sheep graze provide habitat for a variety of wildlife - critters that wouldn't be here if these lands were converted to housing developments.

I've always rooted for underdogs, so perhaps my affinity for rangelands stems from this character trait. "Marginal" lands (like rangelands) are the "underdogs" of both agricultural and natural landscapes. Rangelands can't grow more valuable crops. Until recently, rangelands weren't considered recreational or aesthetic assets, either. Since rangeland productivity varies greatly depending on annual weather (on our local foothill rangelands, annual grass growth can vary from less than 1,000 pounds of grass per acre to nearly 5,000 pounds per acre - depending largely on the amount and timing of precipitation), ranching has always required a combination of courage and resignation. Some years we guess right - many years, we don't. Consequently, many of us are conservative (with a lower-case "c") by nature - we don't take too many chances. Gambling is bad for business - and bad for our rangelands.

Circling back to the question tonight, I realized while driving home from Davis that I'm most at home working on these rangeland landscapes. I'm happiest working with (and more importantly, learning from) people who have spent lifetimes working on these landscapes. In my fiftieth year, I've arrived at a profession than matches my avocation - I have the good fortune to be doing research and education work centered on rangeland agriculture. And I have the added good fortune to be engaged in rangeland agricultural production myself. I'm truly at home on the range.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

No Easy Answers Part 2

In mid October, some friends who graze their cattle in the mountains of western Lassen County (less than 200 miles from our home), became the first ranchers to have cattle “officially” killed by wolves in California in nearly a century. Wildlife officials confirmed that the Lassen pack killed a 600-pound heifer; four more heifers died (and were partially eaten by wolves), but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) couldn’t confirm the cause of death. While I learned about the depredations shortly after they happened through the rancher grapevine, news of my friends’ losses weren’t made public until the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation issued a joint press release this week. The October 28 edition of the Sacramento Bee ran the story.

If you’ve read my previous blogs about wolves, you’ll probably know that I’ve frequently been frustrated with the Bee’s coverage. The paper has run guest opinions disguised as news articles, and apparently has no interest in exploring this complex issue from all sides. This morning’s front-page article was no different, unfortunately.

Despite what some of the more strident wolf advocates would have us believe, livestock-predator coexistence is incredibly complicated. Large carnivores and ranching operations rely on the same rangeland habitats – habitats that in California are shrinking for a variety of reasons. Coexistence is an abstract concept for someone living in Sacramento or San Francisco; it takes on an entirely different meaning when it has to happen in the pasture beyond your barn – and when it’s your livestock and livelihood that are trying to coexist with the predators in your environment.

This particular incident is an important case in point. CDFW offered to have employees camp in the meadow where cattle and wolves were overlapping. While I don’t know the particulars in this case, I do know that the relationship between ranchers and the agency has been strained for years. Many ranchers are reluctant to provide access to their private lands because they fear the agency will “find” a reason to curtail their use of their private properties. Stories like the one in this morning’s paper further erode this trust by implying that ranchers would rather take matters into their own hands. (The article ended by describing the death of a wolf in Oregon, apparently as evidence that ranchers have no interest in coexistence).

The article quoted a wolf advocate as saying that livestock depredations are rare and that “livestock owners have to take ‘common-sense’ precautions when wolves are in the area. These include making sure the livestock stay together for protection.” In the 25 years that I’ve worked with ranchers in California, the best scientifically supported management approach has been to disperse cattle over the landscape to protect and enhance a variety of resources (including mountain meadows and riparian areas). Many ranchers have employed riders and other techniques (including genetic selection of cattle) to keep cattle from concentrating in small areas; this is not a behavior or a management approach that can be turned off immediately once wolves arrive on the scene. While there are a number of well-meaning organizations and individuals who are trying to work with ranchers on this topic, condescending, overly simplistic statements like the one in this morning's paper do little to foster a spirit of collaboration.

At the risk of repeating myself, we have used nonlethal predator protection tools in our sheep operation from the outset. By using livestock guardian dogs, electric fencing, and intensive grazing management, we’ve been able to limit our losses to the predators in our region (mostly coyotes, mountain lions and neighborhood dogs). Our commitment to these tools is partly philosophical (we value coexistence with wildlife) and partly practical (we can’t be with our sheep 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). To date, I’ve never had to kill a predator (which is not to say that I would look the other way if I happened upon a predator in the act of killing a sheep). I will say that the predators have not always lived up to their end our bargain of coexistence – we’ve lost sheep to dogs, coyotes, and probably mountain lions. And while our sheep are a business, the loss of ANY animal in my care feels like a failure – the loss is far more than simply an economic loss.

Others have pointed to our reasonably successful coexistence as an example for other producers. While I do try to share our experiences and approaches with other ranchers, I do so with a clear understanding that OUR tools work in OUR system and OUR environment. Fencing our sheep in 10-acre electro-paddocks and feeding guard dogs everyday works in our management system on the annual rangelands near Auburn where our sheep spend their lives. It would be presumptuous of me to suggest that these tools work universally. It is beyond presumptuous for anyone without direct knowledge of a particular operation (or even the general day-to-day operation of any ranch) to suggest that any particular tool would be effective.

My inclination when faced with a complex issue is to turn to science for answers. The disciplines of ecology, animal behavior and range management (to name a few) can help us address technical questions. However, this issue in particular highlights the fact that bio-physical science can only provide some of the answers. Human behavior and relationships are also critical components. For example, some scientific research suggests that indiscriminate lethal control of predators like wolves and coyotes does not prevent livestock predation (and may in fact increase it). But telling a rancher he/she can’t use lethal force to protect his/her livestock feels like a loss of control to that rancher – regardless of the scientific evidence that it may not work in the long term. A friend who ranches in wolf habitat puts it this way, “We spent more than 500 years in North America using lethal control to protect our livestock from predators; now we’re being asked to adapt and coexist with wolves in a few short years. That’s a difficult thing to do in such a short time.”

CDFW predicts wolves will eventually come as far south as I-80 in the Sierra Nevada (although I'm not entirely clear on whether the interstate would be a barrier to further expansion). Some scientists point to the lack of a natural prey base (primarily elk, but also deer) in our part of the Sierra as a limiting factor; others wonder if wolves (as opportunistic carnivores) will simply switch to the prey that’s available (livestock). Some of what I’ve read suggests that wolves will not inhabit the semi-rural foothills like Auburn, and yet OR-7 (the first wolf to migrate into California) spent several months in the Tehama County foothills to our north. I do know that our small sheep operation relies on the same annual rangelands that our current suite of predators lives in. I suspect that adding a new predator (the wolf) to the region will complicate our relationship with all predators. This problem, in other words, defies simplistic approaches.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Deer Hunting 2017

As I've written in previous autumns, I didn't grow up hunting. My dad and I fished (a lot! some of my favorite memories are of my dad picking me up from school before lunchtime so we could fish the Stanislaus River below Beardsley Reservoir). But we didn't hunt.

We did eat venison on the rare occasions that a friend would bring us some - and we all loved it. Just over five years ago, I decided to enroll in a local hunter safety course and get my first hunting license. I purchased a deer rifle - and a deer tag. The next year, I purchased another rifle (guns, for me, are tools rather than rights). I hunted for several years without getting a buck (I won't say without success - I learned something every time I hunted). In 2014, while hunting with my brother-in-law Adrian near Carson Pass, I got my first buck. Hunting by myself in 2015, I got another - and hunting again with Adrian (this time on the north coast of California), I got my third buck in 2017.

I'm a type-A personality (big shock to my friends, I'm sure). I like to be good at the things I enjoy doing. From a hunting perspective, I've come to realize that I truly enjoy the physical skills involved. I've enjoyed learning to be quiet. I've enjoyed learning to think about where deer might be at particular times of the year or time of day. I've enjoyed learning to shoot accurately. And (thankfully) I've enjoyed learning how to field-dress a deer.

This year, some long-time friends in Humboldt County, California, graciously invited Adrian and I to hunt on their ranch. Several Saturdays ago, we were both successful (Adrian in the morning; me in the evening). While I filled my B-zone tag, I decided I wanted to try to get a second buck in my local D3-5 zone. I told my oldest daughter, Lara, that I felt a little bad about being greedy - after all, I'd already had a successful hunt. She said, "Yeah, but you use all of the meat - you're not just hunting for a trophy." My youngest daughter, Emma, reinforced this sentiment. She told me, "I love venison, and I want to do something with the deerskin, too." For a father who has tried to instill respect for the animals that feed and clothe us, these ideas made me incredibly proud!

And so this weekend - the last weekend of deer season on our part of California - I'll be out in the woods trying to harvest one more buck. As my girls know, I won't be looking for a trophy - I'll be looking to put meat in our freezer. And if I'm not successful, I won't be disappointed - any day spent alone, quiet, and paying attention, in our mountains, is a good day. That's why I hunt....

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Autumn Haiku

Woodsmoke and yellow
Light. Cold mornings and warm days.
Nighttime grows longer.

Finally, it rains.
Germination day, the grass
Grows green at the ranch.

Usually, he sees
Me first. But not every time.
Winter venison.

One day, it's summer.
The next, slate gray clouds and snow
Fall in the Sierra.

Criss-cross the ends of
The stack to keep it upright.
The winter's warmth stacked.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Fire Relief Fundraiser

So many people in Northern California have been impacted by this week's devastating wildfires, including many of our farming and ranching friends in the Sierra foothills. We'd like to make a very small effort to help out these farms and ranches by donating a whole lamb, cut-and-wrapped, with all of the proceeds going to the Nevada County Farm Bureau's fire relief efforts.

To make a bid, simply go to our Facebook page ( and enter your bid as a comment. If you'd like to make a contribution, send me an email at Thanks! And please share this info with your friends and family! Every little bit helps!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Happy New Year - Sheep New Year, that is!

Sheep-raising, like most agricultural endeavors, follows the seasons. In the Sierra foothills, where we graze sheep, our best forage is in the springtime - and so we match our production system to the grass. In other words, we time our management calendar so that lambs are born when the grass is growing rapidly - we match supply with demand in our system. Since sheep are pregnant for 145-155 days, and since we want our ewes to start lambing when rapid grass growth begins in late February, we turn the rams in with the ewes around October 1.

For us, the act of putting rams with the ewes feels like the first day of a new Sheep Year. The lambs born in 2017 are weaned; most of them have been sold. After weaning, the ewes go back onto dry forage for the summer. Around September 1, we put them on irrigated pasture and feed them grain to "flush" them - to get them ready for breeding. And yesterday, we put the rams back with the ewes for 6 weeks of ovine procreation. Happy New Year!

Here's a short video blog about what the last couple of days have entailed:

Monday, September 25, 2017

52 Weeks of Sheep #4 - All About Flushing

Since we're offering a workshop on Friday focusing on preparing sheep for breeding season, this seemed like a timely vlog post!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Gourmet Sheepherders

I have the honor of serving as the vice president of the California Wool Growers Association - the oldest livestock organization in the state. I recently asked my fellow officers, all of whom are of Basque heritage, to share their favorite lamb recipes. I can't wait to try them!

I should say that most of the sheep ranchers I know gravitate towards the lower priced cuts of lamb. That's not to say we don't enjoy a good rack of lamb or loin chop when we have the chance; rather, I suspect that most of us would rather sell these expensive cuts - or save them for special occasions.

Here are the recipes they shared!

Ryan Indart, President
Ryan and his family farm and ranch in Fresno County. I've always wanted a recipe for Basque beans - can't wait to try this one! He says its a combination of recipes from Wool Growers Basque Restaurant in Bakersfield and Louie's Basque Corner in Reno - two of my favorite places to eat!

Basque Beans
1-1/2 bags dried kidney and pinto beans
1/3 cup bacon or salt pork
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
8 oz can tomato sauce
1/2 tsp dried thyme/oregano/basil
pinch red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
3 cups water or beer/wine mixture
2 cups beef stock
3/4 lbs boneless pork (cubed)
3/4 lbs ham steak w/ bone
1 bay leaf
1/2 lb Spanish or Mexican chorizo or linguisa
Lamb stew meat

Soak beans overnight or do a quick soak (google it!). Rinse beans and return to pot. Add enough water to cover 3/4 inches. Bring to a boil over high and then reduce to a simmer for 2 hours. While beans are cooking, cook boneless pork, bacon, lamb stew meat, and chorizo for a few minutes (don't cook all the way) along with onions and garlic - use white wine and butter. After the beans have cooked 1 hour, stir in the meat/garlic/onion mix, along with tomato sauce, thyme/oregano/basil, pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Cook for one more hour and let rest. Eat the next day.

Sheep Camp Stew
Ryan says he makes this recipe during lambing season.

Lamb Shanks or Ribs
Ryan says this is one of his favorite recipes!

Ed Anchordoguy, Secretary/Treasurer
Ed raises sheep in Sonoma County - and he's the money guy for our association! He sent the following recipes:

"Two very simple ones which you probably know. Leg of Lamb- Cut Rosemary into small sprigs and skin gloves of garlic.  Make holes in leg with a knife and stuff both a sprig of Rosemary and a clove of garlic into each hole.  Make holes all over both sides of leg.  Put salt and pepper on the outside of leg if you want and either bbq or put in oven. Lamb Chops- Chop up rosemary and garlic gloves in a Mezzaluna wood bowl with Mezzaluna knife until you dice it all into almost a paste.  You can also create the same paste in a blender or food processor.  You can add salt and pepper if you want.  Put the mash on thick on one side of the lamb chop (loin is best of course, lamb steaks work well also), the side with paste up on the bbq.  If you are putting them in oven you can do both sides.  You just don’t want it to burn much, just crispy.  There is a small company in Clovis called The Basque Co.  They make a Meat Tenderizer- BBQ Sauce which is excellent to marinate any cut of lamb.  I have been using it for years.  You can buy it in most major grocery stores.  You can also order it directly from the source and have it shipped to you.  They also make a great Seafood Marinade." [Note: We've used this marinade for years - it's our favorite for just about every kind of meat!]

Ed also forwarded this recipe - he says that once his friends have tried it, they always ask for it again!

Frankie Itturia, Immediate Past President
Frankie and his family graze sheep in the Bakersfield area and along the east side of the Sierra. He preceded Ryan as CWGA President. Frankie's dad, Paco, was CWGA President when I worked for the California Cattlemen's Association more than 20 years ago (which, as I like to remind my cattleman friends, is the second oldest livestock organization in the state!). Frankie shared a number of great recipes from the Bo-Peep cookbook put out in Kern County several years ago!

I think I'll need to acquire one of those cookbooks!

Finally, I'll share one of my family's favorite recipes. As the only non-Basque member of our current officer team - and as the only Scotch-Irish-German (and other various ethnicities) officer, I thought I'd share a decidedly non-Basque recipe! My family usually has this on Christmas Eve.

Scotch Broth
(Adapted from the Fannie Farmer cookbook)

3 lbs lamb breast or neck slices
8 cups cold water
1/2 cup barley
3 TBS butter
2 carrots, diced fine
2 stalks celery, diced fine
2 small white turnips or rutabagas, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, diced fine
Freshly ground pepper

Remove most of the fat from the meat and cut into small pieces. Put it in a pot with the cold water. Bring to a boil and stir in the barley. Simmer, partially covered, for 1-1/2 hours, or until the meat and barley are tender, adding more water if any evaporates. Remove the meat from the bones. Cool the soup and skim off the fat. Melt the butter in a skillet and add the carrots, celery, turnip (or rutabaga), and onion. Cook over low heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Add to the soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook for another 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Serve piping hot.

What's your favorite lamb recipe!? I challenge all of my fellow sheep producers (foreign and domestic!) to share a recipe in the comments section! Let's have some fun with this!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

52 Weeks of Sheep: #1

Here's my first attempt at vlogging! Enjoy! And let me know if there are specific questions or topics you'd like me to cover in the next 51 weeks!

You can subscribe to my YouTube channel, too - flyingmulefarm!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

52 Weeks of Sheep - a New Video Blog

As a part-time shepherd with a day job, I've come to realize that I have an opportunity (perhaps, even, a responsibility) to talk about the day-to-day realities of raising sheep. Many of my full-time sheepherding colleagues don't have time to tell their stories; their days are consumed with caring for sheep. There are exceptions, obviously - be sure to check out these Instagram accounts of a few of my favorite California shepherds: @californiasheeprancher, @starcreeklandstewards, @wookeyranch, @humboldtherder, @skyelarkranch and @jaimegreywin!

Nearly 2 years ago, I started a project I called #Sheep365 - I took (and talked about) a photo of our sheep operation each day for a full year. I found it to be a fun - and challenging - project! Having something to say everyday is not as easy as it sounds (even for me).

This year, beginning this Saturday, I'm going to try something different. While I'll continue my written blog, I'm going to start a once-a-week video blog (or "vlog") focusing on whatever it is we're doing with the sheep. This week's installment is a short video clip about starting the process of flushing the ewes. Flushing means we put our breeding flock on a rising plane of nutrition, which increases ovulation and (subsequently) our lambing percentage. Today, we moved the ewes from dry annual rangeland near Hidden Falls Park west of Auburn to our irrigated pastures closer to town.

To follow my "52 Weeks of Sheep" project, follow me on Instagram at @flyingmulefarm. I'll also post links to my Flying Mule Farm Facebook page (at

Friday, August 25, 2017

21st Century Shepherds in California!

In the 30 years we've raised sheep, we've sold sheep in lots of ways - in parts (as meat), directly to processors, through livestock auctions in Escalon and French Camp, and to our friends and neighbors. We've seen our lambs leave the ranch in our gooseneck trailer, in a pickup with stock racks, and in the back of a Subaru station wagon. In 2017, we're trying a new marketing technique: next month, we'll be offering a Shropshire ram lamb and two crossbred ewe lambs in the first ever California Wool Growers Association Online Niche/Specialty Breeds Sheep Sale! Welcome to the 21st century!

Just as this marketing technique is new to us, it's also new to the California Wool Growers Association. As vice president of the association, I feel like it's my obligation to support the sale! CWGA has long managed the California Ram Sale, a live auction that currently takes place in Porterville each April. This sale is focused on commercial range operations - some buyers may purchase 30-40 blackface or Rambouillet rams. Smaller scale producers (like us) don't typically have a use for that many rams, and these breeds don't typically fit our programs. This online sale is an exciting new way for CWGA to meet the needs of members like me!

Perhaps a bit of historical perspective is necessary - it occurs to me that some (most) of my readers don't know much (anything) about the California Wool Growers Association! CWGA was founded in 1860 - making it the oldest livestock organization in the state (which I take great relish in reminding my friends who are members of the California Cattlemen's Association). My predecessors in CWGA formed the organization to help market their wool - fiber was far more important than meat in the 19th Century! These forward-thinking sheep ranchers secured a ship to move their wool around the horn to the East Coast wool markets. I'm sure in their day, they were considered cutting-edge marketers!

Today, CWGA represents sheep producers of every stripe and scale in California. Most of the large-scale operations are members; increasingly, many of the small-scale outfits like ours are as well. We find strength in numbers - we can purchase vaccines, supplies and feed at a discount; we can work with our state legislators and regulators to address issues of concern. And we can sell sheep over the internet! After 157 years, we're still cutting edge!

Just in case you're in the market for crossbred ewe lambs or a Shropshire ram lamb, here's a few photos of the sheep we're offering!
A nice Suffolk/Hampshire ewe lamb - she'd
be a great ewe for a 4-H or FFA exhibitor!

This Suffolk/Hampshire ewe lamb was born
as a quadruplet! A great looking ewe!

One of our Shropshire ram lambs - if you know Shropshires in the U.S., you know Fred Groverman!
This lamb is 6 months old in this pic - and weighs 110 lbs on nothing but grass and hay! Great genetics -
and Fred is offering a group of Shropshire ewe lambs who would be a perfect match to this big guy!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Charlottesville 2017

Several years ago, I came across a letter that my dad sent to the editor of the Union Democrat newspaper in Sonora in 1968. As I was just over a year old, I didn't know about the letter at the time. His letter was sent in response to the assasination of Robert Kennedy in June 1968. My dad, a teacher in a rural school district in Northern California, advocated gun control in response to Kennedy's murder. I still stand in awe of my dad's courage in writing such a letter. I imagine his letter had ramifications for his career and for his relationships in his community - but he wrote it anyway. And so I must write this.

Times have changed, obviously (a letter to the editor seems almost quaint in light of the instant gratification of Facebook and Twitter). And yet I can't help but admire my dad's response as I consider my own feelings following the events in Charlottesville yesterday. And I can't help but remember my granddad (my dad's dad) who crawled into the tailgunner's turret of a B-29 based on Guam during World War 2. Much as my granddad fought the evil of his time (fascism), my dad fought the evil of his days (racism).

The violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, yesterday is reprehensible on all sides. That said, the white supremacists and Nazis that precipitated the violence must be held accountable. Had a person of color, or a Native American, or (God-forbid) a Muslim, driven a car into the crowd, we'd all be howling "terrorism." The fact that our government cannot (will not?) call the act of a white, Christian(?) young man terrorism frightens and angers me.

Perhaps a blog post isn't a particularly courageous act - it doesn't feel like much in light of this weekend's events. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to stake out my perspective on what happened on the other side of this continent yesterday. I feel compelled to call out racism and intolerance when I see it. I feel compelled to join my dad and my granddad in my own small way.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Descending Towards Autumn

I could never live somewhere that doesn’t have distinct seasons. I’ve enjoyed Hawaii and the Caribbean when I’ve visited, but the sameness of the seasons suggests that I wouldn’t enjoy living in those places. While some would argue that my part of the Sierra foothills doesn’t experience the seasonal extremes of places like the northern Rockies, Alaska, or the tip of South America, I do enjoy the distinct changes in light, weather and internal attitude that come with the changing of the seasons.

As I write this in mid August, I recognize that we’re still in the midst of summer. Even so, the changing light (and shortening days), the moderation of our sizzling July temperatures, and the fact that both of our daughters are (or will be soon) back in school confirms that we’ve started descending the backside of the calendar - autumn is just around the corner. At some point in the next several weeks, we’ll have a cool morning and a breezy, cool(ish) day that reminds me that fall really is approaching.

Autumn, for me, has always been a season of transition and juxtaposition. The cold nights and warm days of October transition to the stormy weather and colder nights of early December (we usually have our coldest mornings just after Thanksgiving, it seems). As we “fall” towards the closing of the year, I find myself taking stock of what I’ve accomplished over the last 10 months - agriculturally and otherwise. The lambs (most of them) are sold, so we know whether the year will be profitable (or not) in a financial sense.

This feeling of wrapping up, however, is contrasted by the new beginnings represented by the start of the school year. It’s further contrasted by our preparations for a new crop of lambs. In my childhood, school started after Labor Day; our youngest, Emma, started high school last Tuesday. Lara, our oldest, will start her second year of college at Montana State University at the end of this month. Also at the end of the month, we’ll move our ewes back to irrigated pasture and begin feeding them barley in preparation for turning the rams in with them in late September. While the shorter days, falling leaves, and sense of melancholy that autumn brings me, I always get excited about the new possibilities of a new school year and a new “sheep” year. In some respects, these contrasting emotions make autumn my favorite time of year - that and the knowledge that we’ll soon be past the 100-degree temperatures of summer!

Autumn, like every season, holds uncertainty for farmers and ranchers. As a shepherd who depends on grass, I enter every fall wondering when (if?) we’ll get a germinating rain that will get the grass growing. I wonder whether we’ll have an early cold spell that will put the new grass of autumn into early dormancy. As I grow older, I also recognize that the days seem to speed by ever more quickly - Lara’s four years of high school went by quickly; Emma’s are likely to seem even more brief. Even so, I always look forward to our annual descent towards autumn. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Bozeman to Los Angeles: The West from 30,000 Feet

A much longer post is percolating - having to do with daughters, dads, college experiences, and what it means (to me) to be a Westerner. As I stew on these themes, however, I wanted to share a few observations on the somewhat surreal experience of starting my afternoon in Bozeman, Montana, and ending it (at least till I board my next flight) in Los Angeles, California.

This was my third trip to Bozeman - in the last three years, I’ve taken our daughter Lara to visit Montana State University for the first time; our whole family delivered her to her freshman year last summer; this summer, I helped her get her car to Montana. This trip marked the first time that I’ve flown for either part of the journey; in years past, I’ve driven to and from Montana.

The drive to Bozeman (at least the way we do it) takes about 15 hours to cover the 900+ miles. While the drive is long, I enjoy the slowly changing western landscapes we drive through - from the granite and conifers of the Sierra to the sagebrush flats of central Nevada and the juniper-studded mountains of the northeastern part of the state. As we enter southern Idaho, the land (with the addition of center-pivot irrigation) transitions to more intensive agriculture. The Snake River plain of eastern Idaho, in turn, transitions to the timbered mountainsides and broad river valleys north of Ashton. Once we leave the depressingly touristy town of West Yellowstone, Montana, we enter a slice Yellowstone National Park and descend the Gallatin River into Bozeman. The length of the trip gives my mind (and my body) time to adjust to these changing aspects of the American West.

Flying, however, is another experience altogether. As my United flight climbed out of Belgrade, Montana, I watched the hay and grain fields of the Gallatin valley reach up to the steep slopes of the Bridger Mountains. Clouds (and this summer’s ever-present smoke) obscured most of the next hour of my flight, but I caught a glimpse of the Wasatch Range and the Great Salt Lake as we turned southwest towards Southern California. About 40 minutes later, I snapped a cellphone photo of the canyon lands of the desert southwest. I have to say: seeing the interior West from 30,000 feet is not nearly as interesting as seeing it from ground level!

Our plane hit some minor turbulence as we flew flew over the mountains marking the eastern edge of the Los Angeles basin. As we approached LAX from the south, I saw the Pacific Ocean in the distance - the western edge of the American West. The packed freeways (even at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon) and expanse of concrete and rooftops stood out in stark contrast to the fields and mountains I saw when I left Bozeman several hours earlier. This is probably not a shock to anyone who reads this blog, but I far prefer fields and mountains to concrete and rooftops.

Technology (airplanes, computers, and such) have shortened the distances between communities and people. In many respects, this has been a plus - connectivity usually gives us greater empathy for others. But in some respects, these connections present a double-sided challenge for rural communities - and for the West in general. If I can get from Bozeman to Los Angeles in less than three hours, perhaps I’ll decide that a summer place in Montana and winter place somewhere warmer (like LA) is doable. Driving around Bozeman - and flying out of the Gallatin valley - revealed significant new suburban development; condominiums instead of crops. Concrete and rooftops permanently change the ecological and cultural attributes that (at least for me) make the west the West. Flying, rather than driving, underscores how quickly these transitions can happen

Friday, July 21, 2017

Epitaph for a One-Lane Bridge

Roughly 10 years ago, we leased a ranch north of Lincoln along Doty Ravine. The quickest way to get from home (in Auburn) to the ranch was to drive Joeger Road to Mt. Vernon Road to Wise Road. As we approached the low ground in Lincoln on the east end of Wise Road, we'd cross Doty Ravine on a one-lane bridge. I crossed that bridge nearly every day for four years. Today, as I drove Wise Road on my way to Yuba City, I encountered a detour - Placer County is replacing the old one-lane bridge over Doty Ravine.

I can certainly understand the County's reasoning. The old bridge was probably a maintenance nightmare. From a transportation efficiency and legal liability standpoint, necking the two-lane road down to a single lane didn't make much sense. But I have to say I'm mourning the passing of this relic of simpler times.

Based on the stories that friends have told me about the roads between Auburn and Lincoln, Mt. Vernon and Wise Roads were not paved until the second half of the 20th Century (perhaps Jean Allender or Betty Samson can fill in the details). The Doty Ravine Bridge was a reminder to me of these simpler times - like the bridge, the roads were single lane as well.

More importantly, the one-lane Doty Ravine Bridge was a reminder (in an increasingly fast-paced world) to slow down. If someone was approaching the bridge from the other direction at the same time, both of us would decelerate (usually). We'd make sure that whoever was closest to the crossing made it over first.

This slowing down also required neighborliness. Most of the folks I passed crossing the Doty Ravine Bridge were strangers, and yet we nearly always waved at one another as we crossed. The one-lane bridge was a reminder, in some ways, that our destination wasn't more important than safety and politeness. In an increasingly busy (and rude) world, I'll miss this reminder.

I suppose I'm sounding like a curmudgeon. Progress is positive, right?! I expect that the county road department was tired of dealing with damage to the bridge caused by people who didn't slow down and wave. I expect the county counsel was tired of the liability faced by the county when people caused accidents. But with a two-lane bridge, I'll make it to Lincoln 10 to 15 seconds faster than I would have otherwise. I'd gladly give back that time. I'll miss this reminder of our rural roots.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Moving to the Country

In early May number of years ago - before the drought - I was moving ewes and lambs home for shearing. Since it was before the drought, we had more than 200 ewes - and (like now) we saved the 1-1/2 acre pasture at our home place for the 3-4 days that the sheep would be home for their annual clipping. As I pulled in to drop off the second or third load, a friend who kept bees in our pasture waved me over to tell me that a woman from the county code enforcement office had come by a few minutes earlier. Apparently, one of our neighbors had called to complain about "all of the sheep" in our pasture. I called the code enforcement woman back immediately - she'd already confirmed that our property was zoned "farm" - and when I told her the sheep would be there less than a week, she said, "I'll call the person who complained and let them know you have every right to have your sheep there - especially since they'll be gone in less than 7 days." We never did learn which neighbor objected to the sights and sounds of agriculture in our "neighborhood," but we suspect it was one of the families who had recently moved to the country. In some cases, I'm afraid, the expectations of those moving to the country fail to match the realities of living in a rural (or even semi-rural) community.

We've had other similar experiences with folks who encounter our sheep operation - even with people who ask us to graze their properties. I suppose the image of farming, for some, is one of bucolic bliss - peacefully grazing (and quiet!) sheep spread across a green hillside. In reality, grazing livestock can often be peaceful. It also involves hard work. Grazing animals make noise on occasion (especially at weaning time or during shearing). Livestock guardian dogs will bark if something threatens their sheep. Some of the grass that animals consume passes all the way through and comes out the other end (imagine that!). Grasslands and pastures that are grazed seldom look as "neat" as a mowed field (to some, anyway - I much prefer the look of a grazed pasture). To a shepherd, the smell of wet wool or of manure from animals that have been eating grass is normal (even pleasant, some would say); to some who move to the country, I guess, these odors, sounds and sights are objectionable.

Even in areas where we're asked to graze (for fuel reduction purposes or to control invasive weeds), we get questions like: "how soon will you be done here?" or "I didn't realize how much they'd smell" or "will you be able to get the manure off the road?" Most recently, some folks who asked us to graze their 4 acres (because they didn't want to mow it) decided they couldn't handle the sight and smell of sheep manure, and that the uneven look of the leftover vegetation was undesirable.

Sometimes this disconnect can take a dangerous turn. Placer County, where we live and raise sheep, still has a local ordinance on the books that allows the movement of livestock on county roads. For short moves between properties (of less than 2 miles) on quiet county roads, we much prefer herding our sheep to hauling them in the trailer. Nearly all of the drivers we encounter are patient and interested in what we're doing - most take photos or videos of our border collies and sheep with their phones. Occasionally, however, someone decides he or she can't wait until we can get the sheep off the road to let them pass - and so they drive through our flock. Fortunately, we've never had a sheep or a dog (or a person, for that matter) injured when this happens; other ranchers haven't been so fortunate.

Placer County, like many California counties, also has a right-to-farm ordinance that protects commercial farmers and ranchers from nuisance complaints associated with the normal course of an agricultural business. These ordinances are important - anyone who buys a home in rural Placer County gets a copy of the ordinance as part of the normal disclosure process. I suppose some buyers even read the ordinance! That said, our experience with these issues is not unique. As Placer County continues to grow population-wise, these challenges will only intensify. While I find it easy to complain about our new neighbors who have no idea what it takes to run a sheep operation (or any other farming or ranching enterprise), I am realizing that those of us who are farmers and ranchers have a responsibility to proactively reach out to people who move to the country. Who knows - maybe some of these folks will end up ranching one day!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Summer Routine

Several weeks ago, we weaned our lambs. This year, weaning was a multi-step process, largely due to the heat (we tried to be finished with sheep work by 9 a.m. on hot mornings). During the third weekend of June, we completed the physical weaning of the lambs - we separated them from their mothers and  applied permanent ear tags. The ewes were moved to dry forage (with a mix of still-green yellow starthistle); the lambs went back to irrigated pasture. The following weekend, we weighed the lambs and started marketing the feeder lambs. We also selected the lambs that we'll finish for our own winter meat. Last weekend, I vaccinated the replacement ewe lambs and the ram lambs that we'll market. I also treated the lambs for internal parasites (which can be lethal if left untreated). Finally, I sorted the thin ewes (those who had worked especially hard during their lactations or who had lost weight for other reasons). These thin ewes will get to stay on irrigated pasture; the rest were moved to dry annual rangeland. Last Saturday afternoon marked the end of this stage of our sheep year.

With the work of weaning behind us, we're settling in to our summer routine. For the next 50 days or so, I'll focus on irrigating our pastures and caring for the lambs. My partner Roger will focus on caring for the ewe flock on dry pasture. We'll help each other accomplish big projects (moving the ewes, shearing the lambs, moving the lambs to a different property), but much of the work is the same day after day - the dog days of summer!

As I grow older, I find that routine becomes enjoyable rather than monotonous. In The Solace of Open Spaces (which I highly recommend), Gretel Ehrlich writes that irrigation "is an example of how a discipline - a daily chore - can grow into a fidelity." In our current situation, my "daily chore" is comprised of moving the K-Line pod irrigation system every morning. On good days - when the ATV is running right, when the sprinklers aren't clogged and when I'm paying attention - irrigation takes about 45 minutes. On less good days - when the ATV isn't running quite right; when we get a load of aquatic weeds, trash, leaves, or fish clogging the system; or when I run over a riser and have to repair the system - irrigation can take a couple of hours. In either case, discipline is critical - no matter how tired I am or what I have to do during the rest of my day, the water must get moved. The pipe must get repaired. We haven't talked about this, but I suspect Roger settles into a similar routine of responsibility in July and August.

Fidelity, I think, comes from our dedication to the less glamorous tasks of raising sheep. Flushing the ewes, managing our breeding groups, lambing and shearing are all more "exciting" than moving sprinklers day in and day out. And yet I find that the deferred gratification of irrigating is rewarding in a different way. In some ways, irrigating is like saving money. Putting money in my savings account is much less exciting than buying that new pair of boots. As I get older, however, I find that I enjoy watching my bank account grow. Similarly, I enjoy seeing our irrigated pastures respond to my efforts to spread the water over them. Increasingly, I'm able to relish the days when everything goes as planned - and I'm able to laugh at myself on the many days when it doesn't! I'm beginning to learn that my success as a shepherd depends on my ability stay focused through the routine work as much as it is to manage the "exciting" times.

Irrigation season, in our part of the foothills, follows a chronological (rather than an ecological) schedule. The water arrives in our ditches on April 15. The water shuts off on October 15. No matter what else we might be doing, this means that we're moving sprinklers every day for 183 days. Now that the lambs are weaned and the ewes are moved, I'm finding that I'm looking forward to 50 days of simply moving water across our pastures. I'm looking forward to 50 days of watching the grass grow!