Monday, June 19, 2017

Dealing with the Heat

As I write this, we're three days into the first heat wave of 2017. Today, the thermometer here at our home has topped out at 96F (so far) - I suspect we've been closer to 100F at the ranch. According to Weather Underground, our humidity this afternoon is 21% - while it's relatively dry compared to the Midwest or South, it definitely feels muggy from my western perspective. In this kind of weather, we take a number of precautions - both for our animals and for ourselves.

During heat waves like this, I try to start work extra early. I usually move irrigation water and check the sheep before heading into my "real" job. I typically can leave the house by 7 a.m. and complete these chores in time to get to work at 8 a.m. This week, I'll be trying to leave the house an hour earlier. As always, I wear a wide-brimmed hat to shade my head. I also try to wear light-colored shirts and plenty of sunscreen. Even so, I'll typically sweat through my clothes before arriving at the office. I also drink water constantly - at my current rate, I'll drink more than a gallon of water today.

Our sheep are currently grazing on irrigated pasture with plenty of trees for shade. We fill water troughs morning and night - their water consumption has nearly doubled since the cooler weather we experienced a week. We also walk through the sheep more frequently - keeping an eye out for respiratory infections or other heat-related ailments. While sheep (and other livestock) can usually tolerate this kind of heat reasonably well, the wide swings in temperature (it was in the 60s last weekend) can create problems. By checking on the sheep twice a day, we can generally catch any problems before they become too serious.

We also keep a close eye on our dogs - both border collies and livestock guardian dogs. The guardian dogs, like the sheep, drink more water in this heat. They'll also stand or lay in the water troughs - I would, too! As long as they've got shade and water, they seem to handle the heat. With our herding dogs, we try to do any necessary work as early as possible. For example, we'll bring the sheep in to wean the lambs this Friday. We'll try to start work by 6 a.m., which should allow us to be done by 9 or 10 a.m. We'll take plenty of breaks, too, which gives the border collies a chance to cool off in the water troughs.

With the heat, the fire danger increases. We're always aware of the sound of fire planes and the smell and sight of smoke in the summer time; I'm especially vigilant in weather like this. With all of the dry grass, a spark and little bit of wind on a day like this can be disastrous. Once we wean the lambs, the ewes to will graze on dry forage for several months - I won't really relax until we move them back to irrigated pasture in early September.

Finally, weather geek that I am, I'll keep checking the forecast. According to Weather Underground, Thursday will be our hottest day in Auburn; by next week, we'll be back into the low 90s. The National Weather Service offers a slightly more optimistic forecast - more cooling by early next week. AccuWeather splits the difference. Regardless of the website, we're likely to have more hot weather as the summer progresses. Stay cool and safe out there!

High relative humidity can make hot temperatures even more dangerous. We keep an eye on the heat index
during weeks like this, too.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Change is Inevitable - but not always positive!

Last week, I heard one of my favorite cowboy poets, Wallace McRae, recite his poem, "Things of Intrinsic Worth" on the radio (thanks, KVMR!). Several days after I heard it, I found this interesting video on YouTube:

The changes that have happened in my world are very different than the strip mining and power generation that have impacted McRae's community of Colstrip, Montana. Most of the changes here in the foothills have involved pavement and rooftops - farms and ranches become strip malls and housing developments. The constant in both cases, though, is that many view farm and ranchland as inventory. In my mind, there is no higher or better use of land than producing food, clean water, habitat and beauty (all of which well-managed farms and ranches provide) - a real estate appraiser, developer, or mining company executive might disagree. I don't begrudge the farm and ranch families who've sold out; I do mourn for the loss of productive land.

These kind of changes can have profound impacts on communities as well as on individual farms and ranches. Several years ago, when moving goats from a targeted grazing project west of Lincoln, we found ourselves stranded on the wrong side of a raging creek - a creek we'd jumped across only the day before. A sudden downpour upstream of our location had pushed the stream over its banks. When we first moved to Placer County, this upper watershed was mostly ranches; at the time of the flood, the rain couldn't soak in because of the impervious surfaces in shopping centers and housing developments.

As I drive through parts of western Placer County, I sometimes worry that the only "ranches" my children's children will know are places like Stanford "Ranch" and Johnson "Ranch" -= housing developments that use our county's agricultural past as a marketing gimmick. I worry that those of us foolish enough to try to farm or ranch at a commercially viable scale in the Sierra foothills will forever more be leaseholders rather than landowners. Our operations will lack the stability and longevity that ownership conveys. In some ways, we'll lack the connection to place that has been so important to our foothill communities.

I suppose that I'm not quite old enough to be a curmudgeon - but just as being an "old timer" is more about attitude than chronology, being a curmudgeon is probably a state of mind. I miss the little farm just east of my hometown of Sonora (which was covered by the Sonora Plaza Shopping Center before I got to high school). I'm grumpy about the soon-to-be replaced one-lane bridge on Wise Road between Auburn and Lincoln (I'll miss slowing down and waving at an oncoming driver as I let him pass). I'm sad to think that Jim Bickford's family ranch near Penryn will be houses and golf courses in my lifetime. Some might say this is "progress" - I think we're losing something more valuable.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Different Dogs

Reno, an Anatolian Shepherd.
I recently read several chapters in Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger. The Coppingers founded the Livestock Guarding Dog project at Hampshire College in Massachusetts in the mid 1970s. Their work helped identify the types of behaviors and experiences (or training) necessary for successful livestock guardian dogs. An incident with our own dogs last night (and observations over the last several weeks) seemed to confirm much of what I read.

The book discusses the origins of livestock guardian dog breeds, which I found fascinating - the Coppingers theorize that these dogs developed over the course of centuries (indeed, millennia) of transhumant sheep and goat grazing in Europe and Asia. Dogs that stayed with these traveling flocks - and that protected them from predators - were given preferential treatment (more food, opportunities to reproduce, etc.) by their shepherds.

The Coppingers also suggest that the critical period for bonding livestock guardian dogs with the animals they'll spend their lives guarding is 4 to 16 weeks of age. During this period, when a dog's brain is undergoing rapid growth and change, social bonds can be formed. After this window closes, according to the Coppingers, these social bonds cannot typically be formed - in other words, if a livestock guardian dog doesn't bond to livestock before he or she is 4 months old, it probably won't happen.

As I've written before, we require several behaviors from our working livestock guardian dogs. First and foremost, obviously, they must protect our sheep from predators - coyotes, mountain lions and domestic dogs, at the moment; wolves, perhaps, in the future. This requires the type of bonding process described in the Coppingers' book. We also need our dogs to respect our electric fences. We've had dogs who were bonded with our sheep and who protected our sheep from predators, but who wanted to patrol beyond the boundaries of our electro-net fenced paddocks. Since we typically graze in rural residential areas near public roads, we couldn't keep dogs who wouldn't stay in our fences. Finally, again because we're in rural residential areas, we need dogs that are not inappropriately aggressive with other people. See "More Observations about Livestock Guardian Dogs" for more detailed descriptions of some of the dogs that have not fit our needs over the years.

There are folks out there who specialize in breeding and raising livestock guardian dogs and who guarantee that they'll work in any situation. These dogs typically cost a great deal more money than the dogs we've purchased, and while they're guaranteed, I've never been willing to pay this extra cost. As I've observed our own successful dogs, I've decided that I am more comfortable managing that critical bonding window myself. I suspect that it's also important to expose a puppy to the other environmental factors that shape future behaviors in that 4-16 weeks-of-age window - factors that are very specific to our own operation. That's not to say that there's not a place for those who specialize in breeding and rearing livestock guardian puppies - these breeders are improving the genetic pool and quality of livestock guardian dogs. In some ways, I suppose, this is similar to the relationship between seedstock (or purebred) livestock breeders and commercial ranchers.

All of this brings me to my recent observations. After we sheared the sheep in mid-May, we decided to put both of our dogs with the ewes and lambs. We'd kept our youngest dog, Bodie, with the rams all winter - we'd decided he wasn't quite mature enough to trust with lambing ewes. Maturity - and interaction with rams who wouldn't tolerate playful behavior - seemed to help Bodie understand his job. He's been with Reno (our older dog) and the ewes for 4 weeks now, and he seems to be doing well in his new situation. Both Bodie and Reno are well bonded with our sheep. Both of them respect a working electric fence ("working" is the key word here - more on this below). Neither of them are aggressive towards people.

Last night, when I arrived at our leased pasture after work to move irrigation water, I discovered that the sheep had escaped their paddock. They were grazing on green grass adjacent to their old paddock; the dogs, on the other hand, were gone. As I started building a new paddock, I spotted Reno trotting across a neighboring field. I shook a can of dog food and called to him - he spotted me and kept going (I suspect he'd have raised a middle finger if he'd had one!). A few minutes later, Sami arrived with a border collie for me. She tried to catch him and he did the same thing to her. We decided to ignore him at that point, and I focused on building fence. A few minutes later, I spotted Bodie in the adjacent field. I called to him, which he ignored until he saw the sheep. At that point, he came back to the flock and stayed with them as I finished the fence.

I suppose it took me 20-30 minutes longer to finish the new paddock. As I returned to the top of the hill where I'd parked, Reno strolled up to the new fence. Without saying anything to him, I simply opened the paddock and he walked into it.

When we move sheep from one property to another, we've found that some dogs (like Bodie) will stay with the flock while the border collies are moving them. Other dogs (like Reno) will wander more widely. Reno has always returned to the flock, but we can't trust him to stay with us while we're moving. I find these differences fascinating - both Reno and Bodie are good dogs, but they're both very different.

As I prepare to start my new job as a livestock and natural resources farm advisor with UC Cooperative Extension, I'm focused on opportunities for new research projects. One of the potential projects that most excites me is the possibility of working with other ranchers who've used livestock guardian dogs. I'd like to explore the types of behaviors that make a dog successful. As gray wolves continue to move into northern California, I'd like to evaluate the types of dogs and behaviors - and producer attitudes - that may help protect livestock from this new (at least for my generation) predator. I feel like there's so much more to learn about how these very different
dogs work!
Bodie, an Anatolian x Maremma.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sheepherder Container Garden Version 2.0

Several years ago, we experimented with growing a container garden in recycled protein tubs. I cut the bottoms out of the tubs, filled them with compost, and planted tomatoes, pole beans, summer squash, and chard. The garden was a success, but the plastic tubs weren't that pretty to look at.

This year, we've had our old redwood deck replaced. Most of the boards were beyond re-using, but we were able to salvage enough to take another run at a container garden. This year's version adds another dimension of re-use to the concept - wool!
Still needs more compost - but this year's
sheepherder container garden is entirely recycled!

At shearing, we set aside the top knot and belly wool (which typically contains lots of stickers and other vegetation), along with our skirtings (wool contaminated with vegetation and post-digestive residue - sheep shit, in other words). In past years, we've separated and sent this along with our main-line wool - it typically brings around 20 cents per pound. This year, we're trying a new experiment - we're putting this wool in the bottom of our planter boxes! It's organic (with a lower-case "o"), it contains nutrients (all of that sheep shit), and it has amazing water retention properties.

We'll see how it works (and will, of course, keep you posted). It may be that the wool stays too wet. It may be that the wool is too nitrogen-rich. It may be that all of those stickers sprout and we're inundated with weeds. It may be, even, that our tomatoes and peppers taste slightly of lanolin. Or it may be a rousing sheepherder success! We'll see! Now to keep the border collies from digging up the beds....

Monday, May 29, 2017

Paranoid or Prepared

Having grown up on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada, wildfire has always been a worry. Depending on the year, I've always started listening for fire planes and scanning the horizon for smoke sometime between mid-May and mid-June. In the fire-prone landscape of the Gold Country, we typically hit peak fire danger in August - and this threat lasts until we have a germinating rain in October or even November. My wife, who grew up in an urban part of southern California, used to think I was paranoid about fire - until the 49 Fire in Auburn several years ago. Now, she accepts my preoccupation with wildfire as a necessary precaution - I think she realizes that preparation is necessary.

We graze our sheep at some distance from our home. After we wean the lambs in June, we'll typically have our ewes grazing dry grass west of Auburn and our lambs on irrigated pasture closer to town. The UC Cooperative Extension office is generally in the flight path of fire planes that respond to fires near our grazing land - the first alert I get about a fire nearby is usually the drone of turbo-prop engines.

Since we graze in areas that are fire-prone, we have plans for responding in the event of fire. We usually have some sort of evacuation plan for moving the sheep. Once fire season begins, I carry a fire tool and a backpack pump with 5 gallons of water with me at all times. Even so, I worry that a fire might start near our sheep without me hearing about. Even with my preparations, I'm concerned about fire.

Technology, however, has made preparation easier. During fire season (and during other times of the year!), I go to YubaNet for up-to-the-minute information. A new phone app, developed by CalFire, promises to provide real-time warnings about fires in our area. Ready for Wildfire (which is available for iPhones and for Android-operated phones), provides fire preparation guidance and (most important to me) real-time information about fires in my area. According to the instructions, the app will text me whenever there's a CalFire fire incident within 30 miles of my phone - which is typically within 30 miles of my sheep! Tonight, I received the first text message - there's a small fire burning 20 miles north of us near Browns Valley (on Highway 20).

And so as this year's fire season begins in the northern foothills, please be careful. Most of the fires in our part of the state are human caused. And be sure to check out the Ready for Fire app!

Taking Sheep to the Mountains

Every year, as the grass begins to dry here in the Sierra foothills, I begin to dream about taking sheep to the mountains. I suppose my longing is related (at least in part) to the work involved in irrigating our pastures. But part of it, too, is my love for the mountains - and the romance of the idea of transhumance.

Sheep and cattle - and their herders - have always followed the green forage. In my part of California, this traditionally meant that the livestock were moved north or upslope in the spring and summer months. My friend Bob Wiswell, who still ranches in Lincoln, tells stories of riding a mule through Auburn, following a band of sheep to the mountains east of Foresthill. My friend Pat Shanley, who recently passed away just shy of his 97th birthday, recalled hearing the sheep bells coming up Baxter Grade in the 1920s - the Basque sheepherders always gave him an orphan lamb to raise as they came through Auburn. And my friend Karri Samson gave me an article several years ago that described how ranchers used to ship their lambs by rail from a stockyard  on the west side of Donner Pass.

Today, there are only a handful of sheep grazing allotments on the Tahoe National Forest to our east. Most of the grazing permits are for cattle - and most of these ranchers move their cows to the mountains in trucks. The remnants of past sheep grazing can be seen in the aspen carvings (arbo-glyphs) made by lonely Basque sheepherders, in the place names (like McGonagall Pass), and in archeological sites like the oven at Kyburz Flat.

In a very small way, we still practice a very localized transhumance. Our sheep spend the winter on annual rangeland west of Auburn. After the last lambs are born, we move them up the hill - a small elevation change, but up the hill nonetheless. The ewes and lambs graze on irrigated pastures until we wean the lambs in June; the lambs stay on this green grass, while the ewes go to lower quality dry forage. On September 1 (a month before breeding) the ewes come back to irrigated pasture to put them on a better plane of nutrition. Once the ewes are bred, they go back to lower elevation rangeland, and the annual cycle begins again.

Interestingly, Placer County still has a law on the books that must be a relic of our transhumant heritage. Several years ago, when we wanted to walk our sheep up a county road to another pasture, I called the road department to find out if it was possible. The man I talked to didn't know; he called back after several days to tell me that the only law on the books indicated that the county could do nothing to impair the movement of livestock on county roads - in other words, we had the right-of-way to herd our sheep up the road. Since that conversation, we've moved sheep on some of the quieter county roads near the ranch. Most of our neighbors love seeing us (and our dogs) move the sheep, but this love is not universal. Occasionally, someone will decide they can't wait 2-3 minutes and will drive past our flagger. Fortunately, we've never had any sheep or dogs (or shepherds) injured by these impatient jerks (I considered using a stronger word). Several years ago, a ranching family from Nevada County wasn't so fortunate. The Reader family still herds it's cattle from North San Juan to their summer grazing allotment on the Tahoe National Forest. Some who couldn't wait for the cows to move off the road injured several cows and purposely ran down one of the Reader's cattle dogs. There are very few things that could move me to violence; that would probably be one of them.

Last Friday, I got to visit one of my favorite places in the entire Sierra range - the Sierra Valley. Sierra Valley is - and mostly was (since the second half of the 19th Century), almost entirely grazed by cattle. Sheep mostly grazed on the periphery - and some still do. Sheep, it seems, can make use of lower quality forage (or maybe it's simply that ranchers have typically saved higher quality grass for higher value animals). As we descended into Sierraville on Highway 89, the sea of green grass blanketing the valley floor reminded me why ranching families have taken their grazing animals to the mountains for generations. Maybe someday....

Friday, May 19, 2017

Preparing for the Unexpected

Our local agricultural community has lost a number of key members in the last several years. Several, like my friends J.R. Smith and Jim Bachman, passed away after lengthy illnesses. Others, like Eric Hansen and Tony Aguilar, were taken from us unexpectedly. In each case, our community lost a leader and a good farmer. In each case, their farms and ranches have undergone significant transitions. With each loss, I've realized that I need to do a better job at preparing our ranching operation for the unexpected.

Farm and ranch succession is a critical topic. The average age of a farmer here in Placer County is around 59 years. More than two-thirds of the farmers and ranchers in our county are 65 years or older. The farms and ranches that many of us are working today will (hopefully) be worked by others within the next quarter century. All of us who work the land need to have conversations with our families (and others) about who will take over our operations upon our retirement or passing. In this post, however, I want to discuss what happens in the short term after an unexpected injury or loss of life.

Farms and ranches are, in many ways, living organisms. Even when the farmer or rancher is incapacitated or gone, the lives of our operations continue. For some, this means caring for trees or vines. For Flying Mule Farm, this means caring for sheep and guard dogs. I've realized over the last several weeks that the day-to-day work of running our ranch is largely (and inappropriately) in my head.

This week, I've started taking steps to remedy this situation. The starting point, at least for me, has been to think about the questions that my family might have if I were no longer around. I've organized this into daily and monthly (or seasonal) tasks. Every day, the livestock guardian dogs and border collies must be fed. The condition of the sheep and the quantity of forage in their paddock must be checked. From April 15 to October 15, the irrigation water must be moved. On a seasonal basis, we move sheep to different properties. We flush the ewes in September, turn the rams in October through mid-November, vaccinate the ewes in January, and shear the ewes in May. I've started by writing all of this information in one place.

After thinking about my daily, monthly and yearly activities, I started thinking about the people my family would need to contact. I have all of the contact information for our pasture leases in my phone; it needs to be in my written plan as well. I purchase supplemental feed and minerals for the sheep; these suppliers' information and the types of feed I purchase should be in the plan. I handle the marketing of our wool and most of our lambs - contacts for our sheep shearer and wool buyer and lamb buyers should be in the plan. I also think about the unexpected things I've had to deal with on the ranch. If a water line breaks, I need to turn off the irrigation water - where's that valve? What's the password to the computer where I keep my financial records?

After writing this basic information down in one place, my next step will be to share it with my family and with my partner to see what I've omitted - I expect that they'll have questions I haven't considered. I'll also show my plan to one of our local farm advisors - I'm certain she'll see things I've forgotten, as well. Finally, I'll print out a hard copy for my family and for my partner.

For most of us (myself included), thinking about our own mortality is usually unpleasant (or at least uncomfortable). Personally, I've found it helpful to think of this exercise as a process of ensuring the life (and lives) of my ranch will continue after I'm gone. I've found it helpful to think about making things easier for those who might have to care for our livestock and our land when I'm gone. And in some ways, working on this project feels like I'm honoring the legacy of those good farmers who've left our community. I suppose I'm still learning from them.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Shearing Day Details

Last week, I wrote about the preparation that goes into shearing our sheep. This week, I thought it might be helpful to provide some details about the day itself. Like our preparations, a great deal of consideration goes into the work we do on the day we shear! Just a note: between our flock and the flocks of two friends who joined us this year, we sheared 120 sheep on Saturday.

6:30 a.m. - I head out to the shearing barn and make sure the ewes I'd locked in the night before are still there - they are! I set up electro-net fencing for a paddock where the sheep will graze after they're shorn. Then I hang the first wool sack from the stand and wait for everyone else to show up.

7:30 a.m. (or so) - Derrick arrives and we start setting up the shearing stall. Derrick sets up his equipment; I help by leveling his shearing board. During this time, the first of our friends arrives with her first load of sheep - we unload and bring them into a second holding pen.

8:00 a.m. - Our "students" arrive - we typically have a shearing and wool handling workshop in conjunction with shearing day. Mostly we have the students learn how to skirt fleeces and evaluate the wool, but we also describe the various jobs involved in shearing day. They help me spread canvas tarps under the skirting table (tarps help reduce additional wool contamination - natural fiber tarps are much preferred to poly tarps).

8:15 a.m. - Derrick starts shearing the first pen of sheep. As I described earlier, we use a bullpen set up, which means we bring 8 (+/-) ewes into the shearing stall. Derrick catches each sheep, shears it, and lets it go. When he catches the last sheep in the pen, we let the sheared sheep out. He finishes the last sheep; we run it out to the paddock and bring 8 more into the shearing pen (from an adjacent pen that will hold 16-20 ewes).

One person is always in the stall with Derrick. This person keeps the other sheep out of the way while Derrick is shearing. He calls out the ear tag number of each sheep as it's being shorn (shearing day is one of the times we take inventory). He (or she) also picks up the sheared fleeces and hands them through the pen gate. Finally - and most importantly, this person sweeps up constantly - which keeps manure and wool scraps out of the good wool. If a ewe happens to urinate, this person also mops up the urine - a wet shearing floor is dangerous to the shearer; wet wool can foul the wool sack. We make sure the broom in the shearing stall is a straw broom - synthetic fibers can also contaminate the wool.

Once the wool is handed out of the pen, another person takes the fleece and spreads it on the skirting table. An accomplished wool grader can throw it onto the table - I'm still learning. At our shearing, a committee skirts the fleeces - removing manure tags, vegetable matter, and other contaminants. We also test the wool for strength and fiber length. Short or "tender" fleeces are sorted off and marketed separately from our good wool. This year, we also sorted our "mule" and white-face fleeces from our Shropshire and black-face fleeces - differentiation by type and quality will hopefully add value to our better wool. Once each fleece is skirted, it's handed off to the person who puts it into the wool sack (this year, we had several kids who were great sackers!). As the sack fills up, someone (usually me) climbs in and stomps the wool into the sack. The best stompers walk in a circular pattern around the edge of the sack - this way the wool catches on the burlap and remains compressed.

With our type of wool (and our size of sheep), we can get 25-30 fleeces in sack. Once the sack is full, I sew the top with cotton twin (using a very sloppy blanket stitch. Each end of the seam is dog-eared (to provide a handle), and the full sack is carried out to a waiting pallet. A new sack is hung, and we start again!

During all of this work, the holding pen will empty. With a couple of helpers (and a dog), I bring another group of sheep into the sorting alley. Lambs are sorted off; ewes go into the holding pen. This year, since we sheared on a weekend, both of our daughters helped with the sorting. I suppose it's sheepherder pride, but there's nothing like seeing your daughters work their own dogs and handle sheep like a pro!

12:30 p.m. - Derrick, as the shearer, sets the lunch hour. We typically order pizza; more traditional operations have a home cooked meal (someday....). We all wash up and gather in the shade outside - lunch is usually a full hour, which allows for some rest in addition to refueling.

1:30 p.m. - We resume shearing. In the afternoon, we also shear the sheep that belong to several friends. This requires some juggling - we want to keep each flock separate if possible. Our set-up isn't perfect, but we are able to keep 3 different flocks separate (which makes loading at the end of the day much easier).

4:30 p.m. - Derrick likes to shear the bucks (rams) last - this avoids problems with unintended breeding! Rams are bigger, stronger, and potentially more aggressive - they can be dangerous to handle. While all of our rams are reasonably docile, we handle them with a great deal of respect. This year, our oldest daughter (Lara) and our good friend Joe Fischer (an accomplished stockman) took care of bringing the rams into the holding pen. Roger and I helped Derrick in the shearing pen.

5:30 p.m. - When we catch the last ram, I almost always say, "That's the one we've been looking for." We then sack the last of the wool, clean up the skirting area, put the rams back in their holding pens, and breakdown the shearing equipment. The adults on the crew usually enjoy a beer while we're cleaning up; the kids have a soda. Derrick gives us our bill (we pay for set up plus a per-head charge). We settle up, shake hands, and Derrick leaves. Then we load up the other flocks and move our sheep onto a fresh paddock for the night.

Shearing is intense work - for the shearer, certainly, but also for the shepherd. The organization that goes into shearing day is incredibly important. Success, at least for me, is a day in which no sheep or people are injured or stressed. Success means the shearer never has to wait on us to get sheep to him (or her). Success means the wool is sorted and packed and stored - and prepared for marketing.

But shearing is also something else. As we were cleaning up this year, our friend Roger said, "You know what I really liked about today? The sense of community." And he was right! For the first half the day, we had students helping us (along with our friends and fellow shepherds). After lunch, it was just our friends - and our collective children. Working together, we made a long day seem fun. We watched our friends' kids learn about sheep and handling wool; I watched my own children teach the younger kids and handle sheep on their own. Finally, as I've written before, shearing is one of the mileposts in our year - it's a chance to see how we've done managing our sheep over the last 12 months.

Humbled and Excited

More than 20 years ago, I went to work for the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA). After two internships, I'd been hired by my friend and mentor John Braly as the membership director in 1992. By 1996, I'd been promoted to assistant vice president - pretty heady stuff for a young guy who hadn't grown up in the industry. I started looking for new challenges. Dr. Jim Oltjen, who was (and is) the beef extension specialist at UC Davis (my undergraduate alma mater) suggested that I think about going to graduate school to prepare for a career in extension. I considered it, but the timing wasn't right.

Fast forward to 2013 (or so) - I'd been working as a part-time community education specialist in our local University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) office for several years. The farm advisors in the office - Roger Ingram and Cindy Fake - suggested that I consider getting a master's degree and applying for a future farm advisor job. This time the idea stuck - and I eventually enrolled in an online graduate  program offered through Colorado State University (CSU).

Halfway through my studies, I was offered a job in the rangeland science and management program at UC Davis with Drs. Ken Tate and Leslie Roche. Through the Rustici Rangeland and Cattle Endowment, which Ken leads, I was able to get my tuition covered. While the CSU program is not a research-based master's degree, I also had the opportunity to participate (and in a few cases, lead) a variety of rangeland and grazing-focused research projects.

Last week, I finished the last of the requirements for my master's degree. While I'm still awaiting my diploma, I am surprised at my own sense of relief in being done. I'm also exhausted! To some extent, I think I've been running on adrenaline (and caffeine!) for the last two years. Between working full time, operating a small-scale sheep enterprise, and going to school, I guess I didn't fully appreciate how busy I'd been until I was done with school. In some ways it's like hitting your head with a hammer - it feels really good when you stop!

As my final semester of graduate school was progressing, I also started the process of applying for the position of UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor for Placer-Nevada-Sutter-Yuba Counties. This process involves a detailed application, a writing assignment, a public presentation, and an intensive interview. Partly because the job was the entire reason for going back to school - and partly, I suspect, because I've realized (at long last) that extension work (with its combination of teaching and applied research) is what I really want to do - I found myself to be nervous about both the process and the outcome. Two weeks before the end of the semester, I interviewed for the position. Last week, I accepted UCCE's offer of employment - I will become the livestock and natural resources advisor in my four-county region on July 1.

Unlike many new farm advisors, I come to this position mid-career. Looking back at the jobs I've held since graduating from UC Davis 27 years ago, I've realized that only one - that of raising sheep - ever felt like something I could do for the rest of my life. Until now. I have finally recognized that the parts of my earlier jobs that I most enjoyed involved the things I'll be doing on a daily basis as a farm advisor - teaching and doing research. Along with raising sheep, I feel as though I've finally figured out what I'm supposed to do in life!

I have enormous shoes to fill - Roger Ingram and Glenn Nader, who have proceeded me in these four counties, were incredibly productive and successful advisors. As I embark on this new chapter, I'm humbled by the people who have gone out of their way to help me get here - friends, colleagues, mentors, and (most importantly) family. I'm looking forward to that small piece of paper that proves I've completed my graduate studies. And I'm tremendously excited to get to do work I love in a community I love. I can't wait to start!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Preparing for Shearing

Headed for the corrals - and the trailer ride home!
For the last 5 or 6 years, we've hosted workshops during our shearing day (as part of our Shepherd Skills Workshops). Unlike our larger-scale friends, we don't have enough sheep to justify hiring a shearing crew; unlike many of the small flocks in our community, our operation is big enough to require some careful preparation. Since most of our students show up the day that we shear, I thought it might be helpful to walk through the preparations that lead up to shearing the sheep, as well as the steps we take to prepare our wool for market.

While wool is not the most valuable product we sell from our sheep, we do take a few steps to ensure a quality wool clip. First, we've declared war on baling twine - as baling twine breaks down, it can shed small pieces that contaminate wool. We also try to avoid grazing the sheep in cocklebur in the late summer and fall - these burs can ruin wool (and our shearer's hands). Since we lamb in the springtime, we wait until the youngest lambs are 5-6 weeks old before shearing (ewes in early lactation are more difficult to shear) - which means we try to avoid maturing filaree (the corkscrew seeds can also contaminate the wool.

While we think about wool quality all year, our shearing preparations generally begin with a call to our shearer in late March. Our friend Derrick Adamache has sheared our sheep since we got started with wool sheep 12 years ago. When we reached our peak flock size prior to the drought, our shearing lasted two days; now, with a smaller flock, Derrick can generally finish in a day. While I do a bit of shearing myself, I've found that shearing day is much smoother when we hire a professional - and when I can pay attention to managing the rest of the day's work (which I've outlined below).

I should probably include a brief discussion of what I look for in a shearer - and what shearers expect from their customers. I want someone who will handle my sheep like I handle them - I've never worked with a shearer who is rough on the sheep and wouldn't tolerate someone who was. By the same token, I try to take care of Derrick. I make sure all he needs to do is shear the next sheep. Since he charges by the head (rather than by the hour), I want to make sure he's never waiting on us. I make sure he's got a level place that's out of the sun to shear. I provide lunch (and breakfast if he stays the night). And while I don't know if this is customary, I always give him half a lamb in the fall. Shearing is incredibly hard work; it's important to keep the shearer happy!

Once Derrick confirms a shearing date (which is typically around Mother's Day weekend), I call our feed store to order wool sacks. The crews that shear for large-scale operations often bring their own wool grader and hydraulic press - they sort fleeces and bale them in square wool packs. As a smaller operation, we still use the old burlap "sausage" packs - six-foot burlap bags that we suspend from a homemade stand. With our sheep, we can typically get 25-30 fleeces in a sack, so I order accordingly.
Gathered into the portable corrals.

For the last several years, we've sheared the sheep at our home place - which requires us to haul all of the sheep home the week before we shear. I dream of walking the sheep the 2.5 miles from our leased ranch, but I'm fearful of impatient drivers on our decreasingly rural county road. This morning, we set up our portable corrals and hauled the entire flock home.

The next task will be to haul the rams home and keep them isolated from the rest of the flock. This always takes a bit of juggling - complicated this year by the fact that several other producers will be hauling their sheep here to be shorn as well. The rams will probably live in the gooseneck trailer while they're home.

On Friday evening, I'll set up a sorting system in one of our horse paddocks. The horses will go out to pasture; the sheep will come in to the dry lot overnight. We sort the lambs from the ewes while we're shearing; lambs will be shorn later in the summer. We hold the sheep off feed and water for at least 12 hours - empty rumens and bladders make for more comfortable sheep in the 75 seconds Derrick has them in the shearing board. We'll bring 16-24 ewes into the holding stall in the horse barn - this gives us a two or three pens worth of sheep that will be dry first thing in the morning (in case we have a heavy dew).

Derrick shears for us in a bullpen set up. That means we bring 8 ewes into a 12x12 foot stall. Derrick catches each ewe in turn; when he's caught the last ewe, we let the first 7 go out to rejoin their lambs. We repeat this cycle until the entire flock is shorn.

Depending on where we're sending our wool, we may skirt the fleeces (remove manure tags and vegetative contamination). This year, we're hoping to sell our wool locally, so we'll set up our skirting table. We also put canvas tarps down in our shearing yard to the wool from getting additional vegetable matter in it. I'll set up our wool sack stand - an ancient homemade stand that was given to us by our friend Ann Vassar. I'll dog-ear the bottom of the first sack (for handles) and hang it on the stand. Then we're ready to start!
We save our grass at home for this week!

My next entry will describe shearing day itself - stay tuned!

By Friday, they'll have this grazed down.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

In Living Memory

Several days ago, I wrote about the Five Feet of Rain that we'd received in Auburn this winter - the most rain we've measured since moving to Auburn 16 years ago. Recent media reports confirm that the winter of 2016-17 has been record setting - the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reported this week that "Northern California just surpassed the wettest year on record." Last night, somewhere on the internet, I read the term "in living memory." Perhaps it's a function of turning 50 next week, but "in living memory" seems to have particular significance for me in the context of my age and this winter. As a rancher, my memories of weather (and other natural phenomena) seem especially important at this stage of my life.

In some respects, living memories of weather are like living memories of other significant events. They are important for succeeding generations to know and learn about - often to the chagrin of those succeeding generations, I'm sure. I imagine the grandchildren and great grandchildren of ranchers who lived through the California floods of 1864 or the northern Rocky Mountain blizzard of 1887 got tired of hearing granddad talk about those events. I suppose some baby boomers got tired of their parents recalling the Dust Bowl. I imagine my own grandchildren (should I have any) will get tired of me talking about the Big Dry of 2012-2015 and the monster winter of 2016-2017. But maybe they won't - maybe they'll be like me. As our 500-year drought worsened, I sought out firsthand accounts of the Dust Bowl (most notably in Timothy Egan's fantastic book The Worst Hard Time). I read with interest the account of California's epic flood of 1864 in The West without Water by B. Elaine Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam.

As a rancher, I find that my daily life (and my livelihood) are so closely connected with weather and climate that I pay close attention - perhaps more attention than a normal person! An Australian researcher noted that during that country's prolonged drought, many farmers and ranchers were checking the weather apps on their smart phones 20-30 times a day. During the depths of our recent drought, I found myself looking at multiple forecasts each day for some glimmer of hope. My memories of that time inform the current management of our sheep. We're cautious about making sure we go into the fall months with enough forage to hold the sheep until spring. We spend more time planning our grazing months in advance. We're even more convinced that resting some pastures during the growing season is an important insurance policy against extended dry periods.

Other weather events have been equally memorable. In 2006, the first year we tried pasture lambing (in Grass Valley), it snowed once a week for 6 weeks during lambing. In December 2009, we had to take hay to our sheep and to some cows we were grazing for a friend - because we had eight inches of snow in Auburn! In the summer of 2008, we had about 6 weeks of hot weather and wildfires burning to the east of us - the skies were so smoky that it seemed like we had fog. We lost handful of lambs to pneumonia and I had heat exhaustion on a couple of occasions. Each of these events have stayed with me - and they inform my preparations for extreme weather today.

Not surprisingly, researchers have found that farmers and ranchers who have gone through a drought (or other extreme weather events) are better equipped to deal with them the next time. They know what works (and just as importantly, what doesn't work). They are more confident in their decisions. Ranchers who are going through these extreme events for the first time describe feelings of anguish, uncertainty, and powerlessness. Ranchers also talk about the value of learning from their peers - from other farmers and ranchers. Living memory, then, is an important tool in adapting to our increasingly variable environment.

Just as I recall the significant weather and climate-related events of my childhood (the hard freeze in Sonora in 1972, when it got down to 4 degrees; the drought of 1976-77; the Stanislaus Complex fire of 1987; the lingering drought during my college years of 1985-1990), my daughters will remember the Big Dry and the winter of 2016-2017. They'll remember the Rim Fire, the King Fire and the Butte Fire - each of which affected people and landscapes we know. At some point (in 60 or 70 years), they'll be among the few who will have living memories of these events. Hopefully their grandchildren will listen to (and learn from) their stories!

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Five Feet of Rain

Yearling ewes and lambs - enjoying a little sunshine this evening
When I got home this evening, we'd measured 0.79 inches of rain since 7 a.m. - it's since rained (and hailed even more). For the month of April, we've measured 5.57 inches so far - making April 2017 wetter than March. Most impressively, we've surpassed 60 inches of rain for the season (since October 1, 2016) - almost twice our average annual rainfall. We've had enough rain, finally, that California Governor Jerry Brown declared an end to our drought. But even in this record setting year, we seem to be seeing the lingering effects of the driest (and hottest) stretch in the last 500 years.

The National Centers for Environmental Information (part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) posted an article this week about the continuing impacts of California's drought. The post, which summarizes a longer paper from the Journal of Climate, suggests that it may take some parts of California decades to recover from this particular dry spell. For the full article, click here.

My observations haven't been scientifically rigorous, but they do suggest that there's something to the idea that a single wet year won't result in a full recovery. For example, we've had 15 inches more rain this season than we measured in the next wettest year since we've lived in Auburn. Even so, we haven't had standing water in our pastures for more than a day or two until this week. The seasonal creeks that flow through our winter grazing land seemed to flow for a week or so after particularly heavy rains - but then they'd quit. Much of the rain seems to have soaked in rather than run off - a good thing for groundwater supplies! Nonetheless, these phenomena suggest that we had a huge moisture deficit.

Part of what made this most recent drought unique were the unusually warm winter temperatures we experienced. During several dry winters, some of our deciduous oaks never lost their leaves. Many of our annual grass species matured earlier than normal. This winter, while the high Sierra received record amounts of snow, the mid elevations (4,000 to 5,500 feet above sea level) seemed to be mostly free of snow when I traveled through the mountains.

Climate scientists suggest that we'll likely experience more extreme weather events as the climate continues to change. Since October 1, 2016, we've had 24 instances in which we measured more than 1 inch of rain in a 24-hour period. I'd have to go back through my weather journal, but I suspect that this is unusual for Auburn. November 2016 was unusually warm; April 2017 seems unusually wet (so far, we've had nearly twice our normal April rainfall). The article I cited above indicates that "higher temperatures could combine with and amplify severe precipitation deficits." Extremes, I guess, might be the new normal.

Regardless of what the future climate brings us, we're awfully wet here in Auburn. I guess 60 inches of rain in a region that normally gets 30 inches will do that! As we sold two-thirds of our sheep during the drought, I swore I'd never complain about rain again - and I'm not complaining now! That said, I certainly enjoy the sunshine when it returns!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Farmer Looks at 50

In 31 days, I'll celebrate my 50th birthday - half a century on the planet. Like Jimmy Buffet's pirate persona, this seems like an appropriate time to think about the path that led me here - and the path that's still before me.

Like the protagonist in "A Pirate Looks at 40," I often wonder if I was born too late. When our youngest daughter, Emma, was in third grade, her class took a trip to the Bernhard Museum here in Auburn. The museum depicts life in the foothills in the late 1800's. Parents serve as volunteer docents for the field trip, and museum staff meets with parents the week prior to go over activities and talk about the importance of dressing in period clothing (to make the kids' experience more authentic). I'd come to the meeting straight from a day of sheepherding - and the woman leading the session looked at me and said, "Mr. Macon - you'll be fine dressed just like that."

I suppose my wardrobe reflects my personality and my perspective. Wherever I've lived - and wherever I've visited - I seem to seek out people who have a connection to their place and to the land. I think I learned this from my parents. Consequently, I've become convinced that being an "old timer" is more a matter of attitude than of longevity. After nearly a half century of living in northern California - most of it in the Sierra foothills - I've realized that I deeply value the wisdom and land ethic of the farmers and ranchers I've been privileged to know.

My great grandfather was an auctioneer in Iowa. My dad and my uncle both went to auction school when they were in college - and when I was about 10, they formed Macon Brothers Auctioneers. I went to the Missouri Auction School with my dad when I was 15 - this summer, I will have been an auctioneer for 35 years. From that point in 1982, I was often the youngest person to do something - the youngest auctioneer, the youngest staffer at the California Cattlemen's Association, the youngest executive director of a statewide land trust. But after I turned 35 (I think), this began to change. I wasn't the youngest anymore, nor was I the eldest (the implication being, I wasn't the wisest, either! - at least in my mind).

I told my brother-in-law Adrian, who turned 50 several years ago, that I thought I'd know more by the time I was this old. He replied, "I didn't realize how much I'd forget by now." I think he nailed it - my memory certainly isn't what it used to be, anyway! Some days, I feel like the kid in the Far Side cartoon who asks his teacher if he can be excused because his brain is full!

In terms of my farming career, however, I feel like I have perhaps gained some measure of wisdom. I've invested time and effort (not to mention money) into learning to be a shepherd. I've made plenty of mistakes, and I'm always learning more - but I've raised sheep long enough now that I can handle most things the sheep throw at me.

In the last decade, I've transitioned from part-time farmer, to full-time farmer (at a part-time wage), back to part-time farmer. For several years, I was resentful - and ashamed - that I couldn't make a full-time living from farming. Perhaps part of the wisdom I've attained as I approach the half-century mark is the fact that very few of my farming predecessors (and fewer of my farming contemporaries) have been able to make a full time living from farming. Producing food - despite its importance - has seldom been hugely profitable to the people who coax crops from the soil - or to the people that tend to livestock. While this fact still makes me grumpy on occasion, I think I'm starting to make peace with it.

I started my professional life working for the California Cattlemen's Association. Graduating from UC Davis with a degree in agricultural and managerial economics, I was fairly conventional in my attitudes towards farming and ranching. In my late twenties, I had the privilege of participating in the California Agricultural Leadership Program. I began to question my assumptions about conventional agriculture, and I began to turn my attention towards local issues and local food systems. In 2002, when I was 35, we began selling pumpkins and popcorn at the Auburn Farmer's Market.

For the last 15 years, in many ways, local food production has been my focus. In addition to pumpkins and popcorn, we marketed chard, summer squash, eggs, blackberries, bok choi, radishes, winter squash, grassfed beef, grassfed goat, pastured chicken - and lamb. Mostly lamb. We were one of the first two meat vendors in the Auburn farmer's market.

The farmer's market, for me, was a tremendous experience - the connections with my community will remain with me for the rest of my life. In my mid forties, however, I began to realize what I was giving up to sell food to my community. I was missing most of my daughters' Saturday soccer games. I was working 60-70 hours a week and making less than minimum wage. When I decided I couldn't afford to continue marketing directly to consumers (and was vocal about my decision), the farmer's market forgot about me. I suppose this realization is the most difficult part of the last decade for me.

But soon I'll be 50! This spring, as we've concluded another lambing season, I've realized that I have (at most) 25-30 more lambing seasons left in my lifetime. I've become comfortable with being a part-time shepherd. I've realized that my experiences - positive and negative - can be instructive to a generation of farmers and ranchers (and aspiring farmers and ranchers) who are coming behind me. I've realized, at last, that I love raising livestock and I love teaching others to do the same. These things are my life's work.

I know I have plenty of faults - I'm opinionated, stubborn, sarcastic and impatient, just to name a few. I'm also becoming comfortable in my own skin. Perhaps that's one of the benefits of growing older - we fix the faults we can fix, and accept those we cannot. Jimmy Buffet sings, "After all the years, I've found - my occupational hazard being my occupation's just not around." Having been around now for 49 years and 11 months, I'm happy to realize that the occupations I love - raising sheep and teaching others about it - are still possible to pursue.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Yep - I'm a Tolkien Geek

I imagine there are plenty of nearly-fifty-year-old guys who grew up reading books by J.R.R. Tolkien. I think my folks gave me a paperback copy of The Hobbit when I was in the 5th grade. I know I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time in 6th grade. I even had a Lord of the Rings party when I was 12 - we all dressed up as our favorite characters (even my parents and my 6th grade teacher humored). I've since re-read both books often - as well as The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales, The Father Christmas Letters, and all of Tolkien's other works. I'll admit it - I'm definitely a Tolkien geek!

Lately, I've come across a copy of The History of the Lord of the Rings Part I: The Return of the Shadow by Tolkien's son Christopher. This book, part of a series of 12 volumes, compares the many versions of Tolkien's manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings. As an aspiring writer (admittedly nowhere near the caliber of Tolkien, but aspiring nonetheless), I'm as fascinated by the writing process as I am by the world that Tolkien created.

As a kid, I assumed that Tolkien was simply describing another world - one that he could see. Middle Earth was created from whole cloth - it was all inside his head (the geography, the ethnography, the languages, the history) before he put pen to paper. As I read The Return of the Shadow, I realize how the process of writing - for Tolkien as for me - is iterative. Each draft of the first chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring evolved significantly in the writing process - and the entire work took years to complete. I've been writing a much more mundane professional paper - but every time I read it, I make changes. Reading Tolkien's drafts has helped me realize that this is a normal process.

As I think back to how I perceived Middle Earth as a child, I realize that the feeling of reality that came from reading Tolkien's books came from the quality of the writing. Long before Peter Jackson's movies came to theaters, I could picture the Shire, the Misty Mountains, and the plains of Rohan in my mind - largely because of Tolkien's descriptive powers. I understand now that these descriptions were understated enough to seem real, yet vivid enough to paint a picture. This combination makes Tolkien's writing tremendously powerful for me.

When I think about the authors whose work I treasure, they all seem to have this ability in common. Tolkien, Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig - each of these writers can transport me to their worlds, to their communities, to their minds. What an incredible gift!

More Lessons from the 2017 Lambing Season

Mostly for my own future reference, I wanted to jot down a few additional notes from this year's lambing season:

  • We had more breech deliveries that we've ever seen. Just a note for future reference - water will break, mucous plug will come out, but you won't see feet and nose emerge. When you reach inside, you'll probably feel hocks rather than rear feet. Push the lamb back in and try to manipulate at least one leg back through the birth canal. You'll have to flex the foot at the pastern (curl it back towards the outside world). Pull with one leg if necessary.
  • Taking the trailer out to the sheep was a revelation - we saved 5 lambs during the sleet/snow storm on March 6 by penning them in the trailer out of the wind and wet. It took about 48 hours for them to get their legs under them, but now they're catching up. Much easier to have the trailer next to the sheep than to bring them all the way home!
  • Moving ewes and young lambs went much better this year. We focused on the start of the move - we got all of the sheep up, let them get paired up, stretch, etc., and then asked them to move.
  • The Omega 3-6-9 lamb and kid supplement seemed to help turn around dummy lambs. Getting a little energy and some vitamins into them seemed to sustain them until they figured out how to nurse. The BoSe shots may have helped with this, too.
  • I remembered that catching a ewe is easier if you have her lambs! Caught several ewes that needed medical attention by simply catching their lambs and letting them come up to me.
  • Catching a lambing ewe that's afraid to be caught is a different manner. Using a dog (or another person) to distract the ewe helps.
  • Stripping out a ewe with a big bag or big teats is easier with two people! Feeding her lamb(s) her milk allows us to keep the lamb(s) with her.
  • Our lambing interval was just 23 days this year! Not sure why, but it might be related to the fact that we were able to graze the ewes next to the rams (who were in a hardwire fence) - we had the same ram effect as using a teaser. We'll have to keep this in mind!
I think that's it for now - I'll add to these as I recall more lessons!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Lambing 2017: Three Weeks In

The first lamb of 2017!
Three weeks ago today, lambing season 2017 got underway for us! On the morning of February 19, Mae and I moved the ewes to a 5.75 acre paddock with plenty of grass and tree cover (a paddock we'd be saving for lambing). When I went back to check the sheep that evening, ewe #261 (a Shropshire ewe) was in labor with a big ram lamb (who happened to have one of his legs back). I caught the ewe, pulled the lamb, and lambing season had begun.

In many ways, this first lamb was a harbinger of how lambing season would go this year. We've pulled more lambs than normal - mostly because our lambs were unusually big this year. We even had to do the first c-section in all our years of raising sheep - saved one of the lambs but couldn't save the ewe. We suspect the large lambs are due to warm weather in November and nearly double our normal grass growth this winter. Large lambs - and large litter sizes (we've had 2 sets of quadruplets and 4 sets of triplets so far) means we have more bottle lambs than normal. As I write this, Sami is mixing up yet another batch of milk replacer for the bummers. Despite these challenges, we'll take big lambs and extra labor over drought anytime!

Since lambing represents the most intense labor demand of the year, we try to concentrate it as much as possible. A concentrated lambing season also means that our lambs are more uniform in size when we wean them in June (which makes them more marketable). The rams are with the ewes for approximately 6 weeks, so this marks the outer bounds of our lambing season. Usually, 85-90 percent of the ewes are bred in their first two cycles (the estrus cycle of a ewe is 17 days). This year, 95 percent of the ewes have lambed in the first 3 weeks of lambing! No wonder the rams were tired when we separated them from the ewes last November!

Now we're waiting for the last 5 percent of the ewes to deliver their lambs. Judging by appearances, I expect this will happen in the next 10 days. We'll continue to check the sheep three times a day until the last ewe delivers her lambs.

Every year we learn something new. This year, we took our gooseneck trailer to the leased property where we lamb during last weekend's cold storm. We had a set of twins and a set of triplets that got hypothermic during Monday's cold rain/sleet. Normally, we'd have taken these lambs home to be bottle-raised. This year, we put them in the trailer with their mothers. After a couple of days of recuperating in the shelter of the trailer, they went back with the rest of the sheep. We'll keep this "tool" in our toolkit for future lambing seasons.

Once lambing wraps up, we'll move on to other chores. The sheep will get moved back to our summer pastures sometime in April. In mid-April, our irrigation season begins - I'll go back to moving water once a day, every day. In late April or early May, our friend Derrick Adamache will shear the ewes - he'll come back in July to shear the lambs we're keeping. And in June, we'll wean the lambs - the final "report card" for our efforts this year. In the meantime, the sheep and I will enjoy this spring weather!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

How our 1st Orphan Lamb Came to Be

I should begin this account by saying that it might seem a little gruesome to some. I don't write it for its shock value, and I don't write it to seek sympathy. Rather, I wanted to document the events that led to our first orphan lamb in nearly 25 years of raising sheep - mostly for my own use, but also in the hope that it might be instructive to others.

This year's lambing season has been remarkable for the number of big lambs and assisted births we've had - so remarkable, in fact, that my partner, Roger Ingram, has been reviewing scientific literature about lamb birth weights. He has found several publications that seem to shed light on our experience. In addition to normal variation, lamb birth weights vary based on litter size (singles are typically larger than twins), number of lambs the ewe has had (maiden ewes generally have smaller lambs, while "middle-aged" ewes have larger offspring; older ewes seem to again have smaller lambs), and the sex of the lamb (ram lambs are larger than ewe lambs). Not surprisingly, however, environmental factors play a role in birth weights as well. Some of the research Roger found indicated that body condition prior to breeding is a factor. Climatic conditions during the first 50 days of a ewe's pregnancy can impact birth weight (warm weather seems to be related to heavier lambs), as can forage quality and quantity in the last 50 days of gestation (when 70 percent of fetal development occurs).

Setting aside the sheep-related variables listed above, we examined the nutritional and climatic conditions this year for some clue regarding our big lambs. 

First, our flushing program (when we provide additional high quality feed to the ewes prior to breeding in increase ovulation and thus twinning) was extremely effective this year. In late August, the ewes had an average body condition score (BCS) of just over 3 (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being thin and 5 being obese). Just four weeks later, the combination of irrigated pasture and canola meal we'd fed the ewes increased their average BCS by 10 percent!

Second, following our germinating rain in mid October, we had a warm and wet autumn. November was notably warm in Auburn - I'd need to look at my weather journal, but I remember remarking about how mild the weather was. We turned the rams in with the ewes on September 29 - and most of the ewes were bred by the end of October. The first 30 days of their gestation were marked by relatively warm weather.

The warm, wet fall resulted in incredible forage growth on our annual grasslands. Roger says this was the best winter grass year he's seen in 30 years - and I'd concur with that assessment. Quantitatively, range monitoring at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center 20 miles north of us in Browns Valley backs this up - they measured 185 percent of normal forage production on January 1, 2017. In other words, we had almost twice as much high quality grass in January and early February as we typically have.

Based on Roger's literature review, we seem to have been in the "perfect storm" in terms of lamb birth weights this year. And our experience once lambing started supports this assertion. We've assisted in far more deliveries than normal, and we've had more malpresented lambs than normal (a malpresented lamb may have a leg or its head back, or be presented backwards). Fortunately, through Monday, we'd only lost one lamb due to these problems.

Last week, we noticed that one of our ewes had a mild vaginal prolapse. We've seen this happen before - and as with our past experience, her prolapse would disappear once she stood up and moved around. We decided to simply keep an eye on her - our previous experience suggested that this was the right course of action.

On Monday morning, during the coldest storm we've had during lambing in several years, I arrived at the pasture to find the ewe in labor and straining. The prolapse had reappeared, and at my wife's suggestion (I should note that my wife Sami is also our vet), I pushed the prolapse back into place. The ewe remained standing, and my repair seemed to hold. She seemed more comfortable. I returned to trying to get several sets of chilled lambs on their feet.

About an hour later, I found the ewe straining again - and the prolapse was back out. I again pushed it back - and again it seemed to hold - but not for long. About 30 minutes after this second repair, I discovered that she'd perforated her rectum and had disemboweled herself. It looked even more gruesome than it sounds. At that point, I realized there was nothing we could do to save her. Fortunately, Sami was able to get to the pasture about 30 minutes later - and our focus turned to trying to save the lambs while alleviating the suffering the ewe. Sami sedated her and performed a c-section. The first lamb she delivered was huge - I estimate it was at least 15 pounds (out of a ewe that weighed maybe 160 pounds). I suctioned the mucous from the lamb's nose and mouth and rubbed it vigorously with a towel. Despite taking a few feeble gasps, the lamb's heart never beat. The second lamb was just as big - and very definitely alive. Roger cleaned it off, and it was trying to stand within 5 minutes of entering the world. It's home with the other bottle lambs and doing great.

Sami then euthanized the ewe. She's the first ewe we've ever lost during lambing. Sami remarked that the lambs were obviously full term but seemed to be too large to get into the birthing position (normal position is for a lamb to emerge through the birth canal with its nose tucked between its front legs).

Based on what Roger learned in his literature review, I'm not surprised that we are seeing bigger lambs this year. Management-wise, I'm not sure there is anything we could do differently. We may adjust our flushing procedure slightly (perhaps we'll use a feed that's not quite as high in protein and energy as canola meal). The weather and forage conditions are out of our control. Knowing that a warm autumn and doubled forage production in January might be an issue will help us prepare for the added labor requirement at lambing in future years.

For more on the subject, here's a link to Roger's latest Foothill Rancher newsletter!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Sheep Management Basics: Pasture Lambing - Our System

Here's the next installment from my Sheep Management Basics talk:

Overview – Why Not Lamb in a Barn?
Conventional wisdom indicates that sheep should give birth in the shelter of a barn.  Lambs, so the thinking goes, need shelter from inclement weather and a small enclosed space (a jug or a jail) in which to bond with their mother.

Since our operation exists almost entirely on leased land without this type of infrastructure, we’ve adopted a system for lambing out on pasture.  Our system builds on the experience of shepherds here and in other parts of the world – and we learn more each year.  We’ve found that pasture lambing has several advantages:

a.       Lower (or no) capital costs for barns and other infrastructure.
b.       Healthier ewes and lambs – we see very few of the respiratory problems that often come with lambing in an enclosed area.
c.       A ewe flock with tremendous mothering abilities (and fewer mis-mothering problems.
d.       Lower feed costs – we purchase very little supplemental feed during lambing.

Like any livestock management system, pasture lambing requires careful record-keeping; knowledge of animal nutrition, health and behavior; and attention to detail.  In short, pasture lambing requires a systematic approach.

Experience and Observation
Over the years, I've come to realize that one of the principles of working or moving livestock is that I must move slowly to go fast.  Every time I get in a hurry to get something done - loading sheep in the trailer or moving sheep through the corrals, for example - the job takes much longer than it would if I had the proper patience.  When I'm quiet, my dogs are quiet as well - and the job goes quickly.

This principle, I think, is especially applicable at lambing time.  There is an art to lambing in a pasture (or really to any lambing system) that can only be learned by experience.  Moving slowly - both in a physical sense and from the standpoint of watching and waiting - is critical during lambing season.  A couple of examples:
  • Sometimes, when moving the entire flock onto new pasture, a handful of 2-3 day-old lambs decides it would be great fun to stay back in the old pasture.  Rather than try to catch them or chase them, I work with my dog to herd them quietly and slowly ahead to the rest of the flock.
  • Occasionally, I come upon a lamb that doesn’t seem to have a mother.  The lamb may dried off and energetic, but its mother is nowhere to be found.  I’ll typically look for a ewe that seems to be missing a lamb – and will even leave the lamb in the pasture until I come back for my evening rounds.  Sometimes a ewe might misplace a lamb, and waiting (rather than rushing the lone lamb home to bottle raise it) lets the ewe and lamb reunite.
I spend much of my time at lambing waiting and watching - waiting for a ewe to deliver her lambs on her own or watching to make sure that a ewe has bonded with her lambs.  If I move to quickly at this point, I risk disrupting the ewe-lamb bond by pulling a lamb or increasing my labor requirements by bringing a lamb home to be bottle raised.  Going slow, in this case, means less work!

Managing your forage
Ewes have the greatest nutritional demand during their last 6 weeks of pregnancy and their first 6 weeks of lactation.  We try to match our lambing period, then, with the onset of rapid grass growth in our area.  We also try to manage our forage resources all year with the idea that we need lots of high-quality forage available beginning at the first of the year.

Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate (like 2014, for example).  We have several strategies for coping with poor forage growth.

         We provide supplemental protein and energy to help the ewes utilize the rougher, dry forages we’ve saved from the prior growing season.
         We seek additional pastures on neighboring properties (our portable fencing systems and stock-handling skills make this possible).
         As a last resort, we’ll feed hay.

Ewe selection and record-keeping
Since we do not confine ewes with their lambs immediately after birth, we require ewes that have strong maternal instincts.  We also need ewes that can deliver lambs without assistance and that produce adequate milk on a forage-based diet.  Since these traits are mildly heritable, we also need a system for determining which female lambs to keep as replacements.

We’ve found that the EZ Care Lambing System provides a simple yet powerful tool for evaluating ewe performance and for selecting replacement ewe lambs.  In this system, each ewe is scored on three criteria – lambing ease, mothering ability and lamb vigor – each year at the birth of her lambs.  Potential ewe lamb replacements are evaluated based on their mother’s scores.

Lambing Ease
Lamb is breech or must be pulled
Lamb requires minor assistance
No assistance needed
Mothering Ability
Ewe leaves lambs
Ewe stands well back while lambs are being processed
Ewe follows lambs wherever they go
Lamb Vigor
Has to be suckled
Slow to suckle
Lamb is up and has full belly

Any ewe with a cumulative score of 1 or less is culled.  Any ewe lamb whose mother’s score is 1 or less is not retained (she gets a right-hand ear tag – more on this later).

The power of this system is confirmed whenever we purchase a group of ewes that have not been selected using these criteria.  Invariably, we have more mothering problems with these sheep.

We’ve found that a Rite-in-the-Rain weatherproof notebook works well for keeping handwritten lambing records. These records are transferred daily into an Excel spreadsheet (we transfer the records daily in case we lose the handwritten journal).

Flock health and nutrition
About 30 days prior to lambing, we vaccinate all ewes for clostridial diseases, including tetanus.  This gives the ewes immunity to these diseases, which passes through the placenta to the developing lamb(s).   We also try to save our best forage for the last 30 days of gestation – a time when the fetus is developing rapidly.  Adequate selenium levels are also critical.  The commercially available sheep salt does not provide enough selenium.  We currently use Bar Ale sheep mineral; you can also provide selenium injections prior to lambing.

Some ewes have soiled wool around their vaginas.  When we vaccinate, we also select ewes that need to be “tagged” – that is, ewes that need to have their hindquarters sheared.  Tagging removes the soiled wool, allowing for a cleaner delivery of lambs.  Tagging also removes wool from around the udder, which helps ensure that the lambs can find a teat (rather than a lock of wool).

Predator protection
In our area, the main predators that threaten newborn lambs are domestic dogs, coyotes, mountain lions, foxes, eagles, and owls.  We rely on a combination of electric fencing and guardian animals to protect our flocks from predators.  Guard dogs seem to be the most effective guardians for our situation.  We closely monitor the interaction of our guardian dogs with the sheep during lambing.  Some guardian dogs exhibit play behavior with the lambs (which can be lethal to the lambs), while others have an over-developed maternal instinct (which results in the dog protecting lambs from their mother). 

Watching the weather
While sheep (and newborn lambs in particular) are often hardier than we give them credit for, we do keep an eye on the weather during lambing.  Wet and windy weather, in particular, can pose problems.  If inclement weather is forecast, we try to put the sheep into paddocks that provide some natural shelter.  Trees, brush and topographic features provide windbreaks and shelter from rain and snow.  During stormy weather in our area, for example, our prevailing winds are from the south.  We try to put the flock on the lee side of a hill in a paddock with plenty of trees, rocks and/or brush for the ewes to shelter behind.

The best remedy for cold weather is a ewe that produces plenty of milk!  A lamb with a full belly typically will not get chilled in our climate.  Since milk production is related to forage quality, we try to make sure that the sheep have plenty of fresh forage available just before and during stormy weather.

Finally, we do not process lambs (e.g., dock and castrate – see below) immediately prior to or during wet weather.

Managing and processing lambs
In our system, lambs are processed within 24 hours of birth (except as noted above).  Processing includes docking and castrating, spraying umbilical cords with betadine or iodine, ear tagging, and paint marking.  All ram lambs are tagged in the right ear, as are all terminal ewe lambs.  All potential replacement ewe lambs are tagged in the left ear.  We use small brass tags (adding a larger scrapie tag and a separate breeding group/ownership tag at weaning).  We record lamb number, ewe number, breeding group and EZ Care score for each lamb.  Finally, we paint mark each lamb with its mother’s ear tag number.  Single lambs are paint marked with blue paint, and multiple-birth lambs are marked with red paint.

We process within 24 hours for several reasons.  First, we’ve found that lambs older than 24 hours of age are nearly impossible to catch.  Second, we’ve observed that docking and castrating are less stressful for the lambs because their central nervous systems have not fully developed at that age.

We use elastrators for docking and castrating.  This minimizes (or eliminates) any bleeding (which can be a problem when using guardian dogs).  We typically do not need to worry about flies during lambing, as the cooler temperatures suppress fly populations.

Moving ewes and lambs
Moving ewes with newborn lambs can be a time consuming process.  Ewes will tend to want to stay on their “lambing beds” for 18-24 hours after giving birth.  This lambing bed is an imaginary circle perhaps 20 feet in diameter around the area where a ewe gives birth.  Even when we move the rest of the sheep onto fresh forage, a ewe that has just given birth will stay with her lamb(s).

Confident yet gentle dogs are a key to our system.  Ewes with lambs can be very aggressive towards dogs (desirable if they are fighting off predators – less desirable if they’re taking on a border collie).  We try to help our herding dogs walk the line between protecting themselves and not being overly aggressive towards the ewes.

New lambs haven’t learned to move away from our herding dogs – they are generally trying to follow the rest of the sheep, but they do not have any flight response.  Again, gentle dogs are a key.

When we move the flock onto fresh feed, we’ll allow the still-pregnant ewes and the ewes with lambs that are over 24 hours old to move as a group.  We’ll allow any new pairs (ewes with lambs less than 24 hours old) to stay back.  If we can’t encourage these new pairs to move on their own, we’ll carry the lambs.  This is a slow process; a ewe must be able to smell, see and hear her lamb(s) if she is to follow.  Lambs, therefore, must be carried at eye level for the ewe.  We carry them by their front legs (see the photo at the top of this article), which allows the lambs to dangle at eye/nose level for the ewe.

Once we’ve moved the entire flock, we’ll stay with them to make sure that ewes and lambs are matched up.  A newly moved flock is quite noisy!  Ewes are calling to their lambs and vice versa.  We try not to get in a rush – a lost lamb can get chilled quickly.

A note on catching ewes and lambs
Sometimes, we’ll need to catch a ewe to examine her or to give her medical treatment.  We also need to catch lambs for processing (and sometimes later for medical treatment).  We’ll use our border collies to help hold a group of sheep close.  I prefer a leg crook for catching ewes – these crooks are designed to hold a hind leg until the shepherd can catch the ewe.  For lambs, I prefer a neck crook.  When catching a lamb, I try to hook it around the chest (not the neck).


Ewes can abort their lambs for a variety of reasons.  We consider an abortion rate of 3-5 percent normal.  A more significant abortion rate (sometimes called an “abortion storm”) can indicate a serious problem.  Fortunately, we’ve not experienced this problem.  Should we have a problem in the future, we would collect several aborted fetuses and placentas and take them to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab in Davis.  The lab can determine the cause of the abortions, which will allow us to work with our veterinarian to address the problem.

This is a fancy way to say that a lamb is stuck in the birth canal!  Sometimes a lamb has one leg back or is simply a bit too big.  If we can get both front legs forward, we’ll gently pull while the ewe is pushing.  A more complicated dystocia involves a breech deliver (butt-first).  If I can’t get the lamb turned myself, I’ll call my veterinarian.

We’ve experienced several types mothering problems.  Sometimes, a ewe just isn’t a good mother (not often, given our system for selecting replacements).  However, it does happen – a ewe simply doesn’t know what to do.  In this case, we’ll usually take the lamb home and bottle raise it. The ewe is sold after weaning.

Some ewes don’t know how to count!  A ewe that has twins will sometimes forget her first lamb while taking care of the second one.  We’ll try penning such a ewe with both lambs with the hope that she’ll remember she has more than one lamb.

Some ewes (especially new mothers) will try to steal a lamb – especially if they are going into labor themselves.  This will usually resolve itself – the lamb’s real mother will aggressively protect her lamb.

Sometimes, a ewe that loses one of her twin lambs will adopt another ewe’s lamb.  If she has enough milk, we don’t worry too much about it.  In fact, we’ll make note of ewes that will take another lamb – sometimes this can make grafting an orphaned or abandoned lamb much easier (see below – grafting means that we try to get a ewe to take a lamb that is not her own.)

Bottle lambs
We always seem to end up with a few bottle lambs.  Some are lambs that are abandoned by their mothers.  Others (in very rare cases) are orphaned when their mother dies.  We’ll also usually pull the smallest of a set of triplets off the ewe (so that the two strongest/biggest lambs will get plenty of milk.  Finally, sometimes a lamb gets chilled during wet and cold weather and won’t get up to nurse.

We have found that it’s most important to get a cold lamb warmed up before trying to feed it.  Once the lamb is warm (we put chilled lambs on a heating pad in front of our woodstove), its digestive system can handle milk.  We warm the milk to help continue the warming process from the inside out!  We’ve found that a cold lamb’s digestive system often shuts down, so warm milk in a cold lamb doesn’t do much good.

Some lambs don’t have a suck reflex at first.  In this case, we’ll pass a stomach tube directly into its stomach, making sure we don’t pass the tube into its lungs instead.

While we try to get sheep’s milk or goat’s milk for our bottle lambs, we do use milk replacer if necessary.  We also try to make sure that bottle lambs receive colostrum (either from their own mother or from a ewe that loses a lamb at birth – we try to strip out these ewes and save their milk).  This season, we’re trying a new recipe for lambs (up to 3 days of age):

½ gallon whole cow’s milk
½ gallon milk replacer
1 cup plain yogurt
1 raw egg

This formula increases the protein and probiotic content of the milk, which helps new lambs develop their digestive and immune systems. 

Bottle lambs can be weaned at 30-45 days.

Lamb mortality
In 2011, we lost about 25 lambs in the first two weeks of lambing.  They would be born healthy and seem to thrive for 1-2 days, only to die for no apparent reason.  After taking a dead lamb to the CAHFS lab (see above), we found that our lambs were selenium deficient.  At that point, we gave every lamb an injection of BoSe (selenium and vitamin E) when we processed them, which eliminated the problem.  We also gave the ewes a BoSe injection.

I include this anecdote as a cautionary tale.  Some lamb mortality is normal – some lambs get cold or have other health problems that aren’t preventable.  However, if you experience an uncommonly high mortality rate, work with your veterinarian and with the lab to determine the cause.
A Note on Scale
While I have limited experience in lambing out large groups of ewes (1000+), I think there are some management strategies that can help make a large-scale pasture lambing system workable.  Ideally, lambs should still be processed (at least ear-tagged, paint-marked and inoculated (if necessary) within 24 hours of birth – it takes much more time to catch lambs that are more than 1 day old, and more time means more labor costs!  For a large-scale operation, I think drift lambing might make sense – ewes with older lambs and still-pregnant ewes are moved onto a fresh paddock each morning.  New lambs and their mothers, as well as ewes in late-stage labor, are left in the old paddock on their lambing beds until the ewe-lamb bond is established.  In the evening (or perhaps the next morning), these bonded pairs can rejoin the main flock.

Because I see my entire flock of 250 ewes nearly every day, they are quite comfortable with me moving through the flock at lambing time.  I think there may be some value in splitting a larger flock into smaller lambing groups (of 500 +/- ewes) and assigning one person to manage that group during lambing.  Sheep can recognize the shepherd who cares for them regularly, which makes catching and processing lambs less stressful for the flock and the shepherd.

Our Lambing Kit
We keep our lambing kit stocked with the following supplies:
·       Elastrators and enough bands for season
·       Ear tags and tagger
·       LA200 (antibiotic)
·       Survive! Drench (for weak or cold lambs)
·       BoSe injectable
·       3 cc syringes and needles
·       1 cc syringes and needles
·       Lambing notebook (for records)
·       Betadine solution in spray bottle (for navels)
·       OB lube
·       Marking paint (for marking ewe #s on lambs – different colors for singles vs. twins)
·       Stomach tube and 60 cc syringe (for tube-feeding week lambs)
·       Halter
·       Prolapse harness
·       Rubber gloves
·       OB s-curve needle and suture material
·       Towels and rags
·       Thermometer
·       Slip-on dog leashes (like your vet uses) and/or a lamb puller
·       Stethoscope
·       Scale and sling
·       Pritchard nipples and soda bottles
·       Frozen colostrum (ewe, doe or cow)
·       Lamb milk replacer
·       Neck crook
·       Leg crook
·       Flashlight or head lamb

·       Veterinarian’s phone number