Newborns

Newborns

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!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The "Easy" Nonlethal Solution

If you've read my Foothill Agrarian blog over the last 12 months, you'll know I've been learning about (and, to some extent, writing about) the return of gray wolves to California and their potential impact on rangeland livestock producers. You'll also know that Flying Mule Farm has been committed to using nonlethal predator protection tools since we started raising sheep commercially more than 12 years ago. Our combination of livestock guardian dogs, electric fencing, and intensive grazing management has been highly effective at protecting our sheep from neighbor dogs, coyotes, mountain lions and black bears. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife believes that wolves will likely make it as far south as Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada - which suggests we might have wolves in our region in my lifetime. Because wolves are larger and (apparently) more intelligent carnivores - and mostly because I don't have any experience in dealing with them - this newly returned predator makes me worry that perhaps our current suite of nonlethal tools won't be sufficient.

According to the research I've read, and according to many of the nonprofit groups who support the wolves' return and who are trying to work with ranchers to find effective nonlethal protection tools, removing and disposing of livestock carcasses from rangeland and pasture settings can be one of the best ways to discourage wolves (and presumably other predators that are also scavengers - coyotes and bears, especially) from becoming habituated to killing and consuming livestock. Wolves are attracted to carcasses and even old bones. If these bone piles are in close proximity to grazing livestock, wolves may switch from carrion to killing.

I suppose I should explain a bit about typical livestock husbandry practices. Everyone I know who raises livestock on rangeland does it, at least in part, because they love working with animals and because they love the land. There are times in every ranching operation when animals die. We've lost ewes to old age, to injury, to snakebites, and to a number of unpreventable infirmities and diseases. If you have livestock, the saying goes, you'll also eventually have dead stock. Furthermore, my responsibility as a shepherd occasionally requires me to alleviate an animal's suffering by euthanizing it. I don't particularly like that part of my job, but I take this particular responsibility very seriously.

Once an animal has died, there are several options for disposing of the carcass. We can call a rendering company to retrieve the carcass. For sheep, this service runs $300-400 per animal (for an animal that might be worth as little as $30 at the auction). We can drive the carcass to UC Davis and deliver it to the California Animal Health and Food Safety laboratory. For $120 (for a sheep or goat), the lab will provide a complete necropsy report, which (usually) indicates the cause of death. We also get information about the animal's general nutritional and health status, which can help us improve our flock management. We typically use this service once or twice a year.

There are several things we can't do (at least in California). Legally, we can't bury a carcass on our owned or leased property. We also can't dispose of the carcass at most county landfills. And despite its demonstrated (in other states) efficacy and safety, composting is not currently an option in California (see this link on livestock composting for more information).

In addition to the economic considerations involved in carcass disposal, there are a number of logistical challenges involved. Even in our operation, we'll occasionally have an animal die at some distance from the closest road. While sheep are small compared to cattle, moving a sheep carcass without a vehicle or other equipment can be extremely challenging, to say the least. Imagine having to remove the carcass of a 2,000 pound bull that has died 10 miles from the nearest road in extremely rugged country. These challenges, at least to me, suggest that the "easy" solution of carcass removal as a nonlethal predator protection tool is easy on paper but (at times) incredibly difficult in practice. As a result, so-called "bone piles," which allow scavengers to do the work of carcass disposal, have often been the only viable option available.

These challenges suggest that we must do further research into effective composting techniques in California. Composting, if well-managed, can provide an alternative to producers while turning carcasses into a useful product. Other states have conducted such research; with the return of the gray wolf in California, perhaps it's time we start researching the topic here!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Ewe 144

Ewe 144 with her 2017 triplets.
Even when we were running 300-plus ewes, there were individual sheep that I would recognize. In many cases, this was related to behavioral or reproductive characteristics - some ewes are friendlier than others; some ewes are better mothers than others. Now that we've downsized significantly, I could probably tell you something about nearly every ewe in our flock. The following is a short story about Ewe 144 (the number refers to her ear tag).

I've not yet dug deep enough into our production records to determine who 144's dam was; her sire was one of 2 or 3 Blueface Leicester rams we had in 2011. The fact that she was retained in our flock past lamb-hood suggests that her mother was a good one - 144 was likely born without assistance, received plenty of milk, and was watched over by an attentive mother. She arrived in February or March of 2012.

In the fall of 2013, she was exposed to one of our composite rams. The breeding took, and she delivered a single lamb in the late winter or early spring of 2014. In 2015, she had twins. Last year, she delivered the first set of quadruplets we'd ever seen in our flock. We took the smallest lamb home; she nursed the three remaining lambs. This year, she delivered triplets on February 28. Based on her past record, we let her keep all three lambs.

Last weekend, we body condition scored the ewes. Body condition (in sheep) is assessed by feeling for fat cover over the spine, along the transverse processes, and over the upper rib. This external fat cover indicates the nutritional status of the animal; a score of 1 indicates emaciation, while a score of 5 denotes obesity. We like our ewes to be at around 3 to 3.5 when we turn the rams in with them in October. We expect them to drop a bit of condition late in their lactations (in June) - 2.5 to 3 are acceptable scores in our operation at weaning time (late June).

We also weigh the lambs at weaning. This gives us some sense of how much milk the ewes are producing and how well the lambs are growing. Ewes with singles often wean the biggest lambs; ewes with multiples usually wean the most total pounds of lamb. Since we get paid by weight, a ewe that weans more total pounds of lambs is more profitable.

Ewe 144 had a body condition score of 3.5 last weekend - which means she was both producing milk for her lambs and taking care of herself. Her three lambs weighed a combined 175 pounds - even more incredible when I consider that the sheep have had only grass and supplemental minerals since last October. She's been bred four times in her lifetime, and she's given us 10 lambs (9 of which she raised herself).

Sheep can be evaluated in a number of ways, including in the show ring. Sheep shows, at least in this country, can be helpful in setting breed standards in terms of style, appearance, and structural correctness. But these superficial characteristics often fail to recognize traits related to profit and sustainability (of which profit is a component). These superficial characteristics also fail to account for the importance of place; the "perfect" ewe in the show ring would likely fall apart in a grazing-based system like ours. Superficially, Ewe 144 is not particularly striking - she's an average-sized Cheviot mule ewe (mules are crossbreds - sired by Blueface Leicesters out of a Cheviot ewe, in this case). In California, in fact, there are no sheep shows in which she could be entered. And yet she's made more money for our farm in the last 4 years than any other ewe. She's our ideal. I wish I had a thousand more just like her!

Note: the lambs in the header of Foothill Agrarian are Ewe 144's lambs from 2017! The photo was taken in early March.

Good mama - 144 with her 2016 quadruplets.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Can Direct Marketing Save the Ranch?

I've had several conversations recently with ranching colleagues (both of whom operate much larger ranches than we do) about marketing meat versus marketing livestock. To some extent, each of us had started marketing meat for a variety of economic and philosophical reasons. Economically, we felt that by bypassing the "middlemen" in the meat business (cattle or lamb buyers, processors, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, etc.), we'd be able to capture more of the consumer dollar and enhance the profitability of our operations. Philosophically, we wanted to provide food directly to our communities. We wanted to shorten the distance between the ranch gate and the dinner table. In each case, we've recently concluded that the meat business is very different than the livestock business. We've concluded that we enjoy the work of caring for livestock and land far more than marketing meat. And we've each concluded that if we can't sell a live animal off grass and make a profit, no amount of value-added marketing of meat will make the business profitable. In other words, at least for this admittedly small sample size of family ranches, direct marketing alone cannot save the ranch.

When we established Flying Mule Farm more than 15 years ago, we focused our marketing efforts on direct-to-consumer and direct-to-retail channels. We sold beef, lamb and goat - and for one season, chicken - at our local farmers markets and to local and regional restaurants. While we learned a great deal about our products, we also learned that direct marketing took an enormous amount of ,time. During the peak of our direct marketing efforts, I spent 7-8 hours each week driving to and selling at the Roseville Farmers Market. I also spent 6-7 hours selling at the Auburn Farmers Market. In the summer months, I added 15 hours each week going to the Tahoe City and Truckee Farmers Markets. From June through September, this meant 30 hours each week selling meat - on top of 40 to 50 hours each week irrigating pastures, moving sheep, and doing other ranch chores. Looking back at those years, I have a better understanding as to why I was tired all the time!

The decision to sell meat rather than livestock had additional ramifications for our business. Converting a finished lamb into meat incurs additional costs - by the time I paid for harvest and cut-and-wrap services, transportation of live animals and finished product, storage of finished product, marketing labor, and other "value-added" costs, I had an additional $100-125 per lamb in expenses. The logistics of selling meat took more time away from production activities. A trip to the processor (which happened 8-10 times per year) meant 4 hours on Monday and 4 more hours on Friday were consumed with loading, transporting and unloading lambs (and then loading, transporting and unloading meat). Finally, selling meat instead of selling live animals meant I would defer receiving payment for my work until the last package of meat was sold. When I sold lambs to the processor or at an auction, I had a check within 3-4 days; when I sold meat, I might not receive final payment for that load of animals for 3-4 months. The expenses were due when they were incurred; the revenues took much longer to obtain.

Even though we were capturing a higher price for our retail products, I came to realize that direct marketing meat was a volume-dependent business. Economic "laws" are difficult to break - and the law of economies of scale is especially severe. I used just as much fuel hauling 25 lambs to the processor as I used hauling 2. Other expenses were similar - the unit cost of storage, labor, and processing were all affected by the volume of lambs I was marketing. Volume impacted the demand side of my equation, too. Restaurants wanted to buy lamb chops by the case (for example) - and they wanted all of the lamb chops in the case to be identical in terms of size, thickness and quality. Such uniformity was difficult when we were harvesting just 15-20 lambs at a time. Every rancher who has sold meat has bumped up against the reality that there are only 2 tri-tips in every steer - or 2 racks in every lamb. Selling steaks and chops was easy; selling chuck roasts and shoulder roasts was far more challenging.

Without question, there is demand for locally produced meat products in the community where we ranch. My colleagues would agree - they've observed similar interest in their communities. That said, each of us has realized that the greatest driver of profitability in our ranching businesses is in the production of a live animal. As one friend said, "If I can't make money grazing my cattle, selling steaks isn't going to turn my business around." I'm not sure how to resolve this seeming contradiction. Consumers, increasingly, want to directly support those of us who produce their food. At least for me, I haven't figured out how to make this work on the production side of the equation.

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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