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

Friday, February 24, 2017

Highs and Lows

The first thing I discovered during my morning lambing check this morning was a dead lamb. He happened to be the last lamb I'd checked the night before. His mother was an experienced ewe, and he'd looked fine yesterday. This morning, I heard his mother calling and found him laying flat out - not yet stiff, but definitely dead. A closer inspection of the ewe revealed that she only had milk on one side of her udder - the other side was hard and dry (empty). Her
This lamb looked great yesterday morning.
This morning he was dead.
good side had plenty of milk for a single lamb, but it could be that the lamb simply hadn't been able to get enough milk.

As I made the rest of my rounds through the flock this morning, I found brand new set of twins, which brightened my day immensely. I watched them for about 5 minutes - the ewe was attentive and both lambs nursed vigorously. Although I was still troubled by the dead lamb, I felt better as I headed into my "real" job.
A nice set of twins.

During lambing season, I usually spend my lunch hour checking the ewes again. As I drove up to the pasture today, I noticed a ewe that appeared to have afterbirth hanging from her vulva - but who had no lamb in sight. Worried that she may have aborted her lamb, I caught her and checked inside. She had a lamb, but it was breach - all I could feel were its hocks (properly presented lambs are born front-feet-and-nose-first). A breach lamb with hind legs tucked underneath it is difficult for the ewe to deliver on her own.

An enormous lamb - who came into the world backwards!
Reaching in halfway to my elbow, I was able to push the lamb back up the birth canal and grab a hind foot. Once I had the foot outside the ewe, the rest of the lamb followed reasonably easily. It was huge! I assumed that the lamb had been so large that it hadn't been able to turn around prior to being born. I laid the lamb in front of the ewe so she could clean it - and noticed he hadn't started breathing. I thumped his chest cavity lightly a few times - it shook its head and started breathing. Ten minutes later, the ewe was up and the lamb was laying sternal - looking exhausted but like it was going to make it. I always prefer twins - and I'm always a bit disappointed when a ewe has one huge lamb instead of two medium-sized lambs. Regardless, I felt good that I'd been able to get a live lamb from the ewe.

As I drove off, I was startled to see the ewe had delivered a second lamb! She had twins after all - and big ones at that! By the time I finally left (perhaps 30 minutes after pulling the first lamb), both were standing and trying to nurse.
A sight welcomed by any shepherd!

People who don't raise livestock may be surprised to learn that ranchers are bothered by the death of an animal. I'm certainly clear-eyed about the fact that we raise animals for meat - and yet I have continued to raise sheep through the drought because I love the new life that arrives every spring. I love the cyclical nature of my work - from preparing the ewes for breeding, to turning in the rams, to watching the ewes grow in their pregnancies. I love lambing season most of all - but I also love watching the lambs grow. I love shearing day and weaning day and sale day - and I love the final product of my efforts, too.

I've been fortunate to learn from a number of fine ranchers and shepherds throughout my life, and I've had the opportunity to share my experiences with new shepherds. I've come to realize that each of us has to gain direct experience - somebody could tell me how to pull a breach lamb, but I didn't know how to do it until the first time it happened to one of my ewes. What I have learned from other ranchers - and what I hope I convey - is an attitude of respect and reverence for my animals and for the land. Last year, a friend who also raises sheep told me, "When the death of a lamb doesn't bother us, we should quit being shepherds." During the drought, another friend who also went through the anguish of selling animals to keep the farm said, "Our animals are like our body of work - we spend a lifetime making decisions about breeding and management that ultimately results in a flock that fits our farm."

Like any vocation, I suppose, ranching has its high points and low points. Some days are deeply satisfying - others are intensely frustrating. Some days, I experience both emotions in the space of half a day!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

More Observations about Livestock Guardian Dogs

Sometimes, my professional/academic interests intersect with my personal experiences. These last several weeks have been one of those instances. Academically, I've been working on a publication about livestock protection tools (including livestock guardian dogs). Personally, I've been observing my own livestock guardian dogs at work. As you might imagine, I've been thinking about how my own experiences with these dogs matches the research I've been reading.

Ray Coppinger, who is widely credited with bringing the first working livestock guardian dogs to the U.S. in the 1970s, suggests that livestock guardian dogs display three types of behavior that make them effective predator deterrents: trustworthiness, attentiveness and protectiveness. Some of these behaviors are typical of any dog, while some appear to be genetically unique to livestock guardian dogs. All of these behaviors must be induced at some level by appropriate rearing conditions, training and management. Proper rearing of livestock guardian dog puppies is critical; improperly reared dogs cannot be retrained to become successful guardians. Similarly, dogs that come from working (as opposed to pet) lines make better guardians. As a sheep producer, I try to utilize the natural genetic and behavioral variations in these dogs to match them with our setting. For example, more athletic and aggressive dogs may be more appropriate where the predators are similarly athletic and aggressive.

I think many of us have a tendency to think of livestock guardian dogs as a "tool" rather than as a biological entity. We compare tools by function - a round-point shovel is used for digging, while a square-point shovel is used for scooping material. Accordingly, this perspective suggests that a Great Pyrenees is used for guarding, while a border collie is used for herding. Sure, some brands of shovels are better than others, but they function in much the same way.

Biology, on the other hand, is much more complicated. I've had border collies that are incredible herding dogs - and I've had others that had no desire (or ability) to work. Similarly, I've had livestock guardian dogs that have been outstanding at their jobs. I've had others that didn't fit our system or environment.

Over the last several weeks, I've been talking about livestock guardian dogs with other ranchers and with other researchers. These conversations have made me think about the dogs we've had - and about our success rate. Here's a summary (in chronological order):
  1. Scarlet was our first dog. We bought her as a puppy. During her first lambing season, she tried to steal lambs. We were able to correct this behavior. However, we probably treated her too much like a pet - before she was 3, she was hopping out of our electric fences and trying to hang around with people. We gave her to some friends in Colfax, where she had a great life guarding their home.
  2. Buck was about 2 when he was given to us. He'd been a guardian, but was not suited to the small pasture situation he was in. For the most part, he was an outstanding dog - despite his tendency to roam on occasion. He guarded our sheep until he became senile at about 9 years of age. He's buried at one of our leased pastures.
  3. Chester came to us as a puppy. He was a Maremma and came from another rancher. As a young dog, he was good. When he turned two, we couldn't keep him in - he'd jump our 42" electric fences with ease. We tried giving him to another rancher with taller fences - they had the same problem. We even tried donating him to the Folsom Zoo - he scaled their 6-foot chainlink fences and wandered the neighborhood. He would have been a good dog in an open range situation, but he didn't fit our operation.
  4. Boise also came to us as a puppy. He was (and is) an outstanding dog - but like Chester, he wouldn't stay in our electro-net. We gave him to a ranch in Rio Vista, where he worked well.
  5. Vegas was our first female dog after Scarlet. She worked for us for about 5 years, and then wouldn't stay in the pasture. We sold her to another farm here in Auburn - she doesn't stay in their pastures either, but it's apparently not a problem for them.
  6. Reno is an Anatolian we purchased as a puppy from a small-scale goat ranch in Nevada County. As a young dog, he was obnoxious - he chewed the ears off several lambs. However, he grew out of his puppy behaviors - and he's still working for us today. He's 8 years old.
  7. Rosie the First was the daughter of Boise and Vegas. We traded her for Boise (the Rio Vista ranch had bought her from us). She worked well for a couple of years, but started getting out and wandering. She now lives with our friends in Colfax (as Scarlet's replacement).
  8. Rosie the Second was given to us by some folks who raise chickens. She was too much of a pet - we used her for about 3 months, but she wouldn't stay in the electric fence. We gave her to a family in Georgetown, where she's inside 6-foot fences. 
  9. Bodie is our newest dog - he's not quite a year old. So far, he seems great. He stays with the sheep even when we're moving between pastures. He is, however, still a puppy. He chews on ears. He doesn't chase sheep, but he bounces up to them enthusiastically. We'll see - the jury is still out on Bodie.
Looking at this summary, our success rate with dogs is 2 out 8 (as I said, I'm not ready to put Bodie in the success or the failure column). Reno and Buck were with us until their old age - none of the rest of the dogs lasted in our system.

Twenty-five percent is not a great success rate. These dogs aren't inexpensive - we've spent an average of $300 per dog to buy them. They cost us about $500 per year to keep (expenses are primarily dog food and vet bills). Based on our success rate and their direct costs, then, Reno and Buck cost us far more than their purchase prices. This is the issue that nonlethal advocates (who don't have livestock) don't fully understand. Not every dog works. And every dog that doesn't work costs the rancher money. By my math, if just 25% of the dogs I've purchased end up working, the dogs that work cost me $1200 (not including the expense of keeping them until we determine they won't work for us).

Economically, a $1200 dog has to prevent at least that much predation. I don't know how to measure this - after all, how do you measure something that doesn't happen?! Since virtually all of our predator losses in the 12 years we've raised sheep commercially have occurred when we didn't have a dog with the sheep, I assume the dogs are paying their way. 

Ultimately, the decision to use dogs (or not) comes down to personal perspective. I couldn't sleep at night if I didn't have Reno protecting our lambing ewes right now. We graze our sheep in places where it's simply not possible to shoot all of the predators - and I rarely carry a rifle with me anyway. But this is absolutely a personal decision - and one that fits with my particular paradigm of coexistence. I think dogs will work - and so I keep looking for the dogs that fit my paradigm.