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.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Trade Offs

As we were building fence for the soon-to-be-lambing ewes this morning, someone drove by and asked my partner Roger how long it took to set up the electro-net fencing we use for the sheep. Roger replied, "It's not too bad," to which the driver said, "Seems like a lot of work." Roger's answer - which both of us use with some frequency, was, "Yeah - but this way we don't have to feed any hay!" The driver, who obviously wasn't a rancher, didn't understand - and I suspect even some of my rancher friends don't understand the trade off we're making. Building electric fence is a lot of work - wouldn't it be easier just to feed hay?

The paddock that Roger and I built this morning encloses about 5.75 acres of high quality forage. Since the ewes are on the verge of lambing, their forage demand is peaking. They're eating nearly twice as much grass now as they need in the late summer - after all, many of them eating for three (and perhaps for four). We estimate that this paddock will last the ewes for seven days. Working together, we had it built in about 90 minutes. Doing the math (and paying our selves $15 per hour - at least on paper), putting up this fence cost us $45. To make this comparison fair, we'll charge our selves some depreciation on the fencing (that is, the cost of owning this asset). Our total cost for feeding the ewes for the next seven days, then, is $50.

Let's compare this to feeding hay. With the number of sheep we have in this group, we'd need to feed 3 bales of alfalfa per day to meet their nutritional needs. Assuming we bought a truckload of hay (which makes the per bale price less than buying it from the feed store), these 3 bales would cost us $24/day. Add to that the time spent loading (5 minutes) and the time spent feeding (15 minutes), and our per day cost to feed alfalfa would be $29 per day. I won't add the time and fuel spent driving out to the sheep - we do that everyday regardless of whether we're taking hay to them. If we multiply this daily cost by the seven days the ewes will be in the paddock we built this morning, the cost of feeding hay for a week is $203. I received my bachelor's degree in agricultural economics nearly 27 years ago, but I think I remember learning that it made more sense to use the approach that resulted in lower costs - in other words, it made more sense to build the fence than to buy and feed the hay.

This trade off decision has ramifications for the rest of our management. Since we're moving sheep frequently, we're able to rest pastures after we graze them. This makes our system more efficient - the sheep get one chance to graze the plants in their current paddock, and then the grass gets to grow again. Based on our calculations, this has allowed us to increase our stocking rate by 25-30% over a system where the sheep would simply graze all 200 acres of our winter pastures from December 1 through April 1. In other words, allowing regrowth to occur means we grow more grass.

Sheep are notoriously susceptible to internal parasites. Since they are grazing our paddocks for 4-7 days on average - and then moving off those paddocks for 30-365 days, we're able to disrupt the life cycle of these internal parasites. This saves us money on dewormers.

Trade offs are not always black-and-white, either-or questions. There are times (in the midst of a driving rain, for example) when 15 minutes of feeding hay sounds far more enjoyable than 45 minutes of building fence. Most days, however, I like keeping that extra money in my pocket - that's the ultimate trade off!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sheep Management Basics: It All Starts with Grass!

Note: Over the last four weeks or so, I've given four presentations on the basics of raising sheep. I thought it might be fun (for me, at least) to do a series of blog posts based on my presentations. This will be the first in a series....

When we started our small flock of sheep (in 2005), we gave a great deal of thought to how we would match our production calendar to the forage cycle in the Sierra foothills where we live. While we still had much to learn 12 years ago (indeed, we still have much to learn today), we knew that we wanted to match our period of greatest forage demand with the period of greatest forage growth. For us, everything started with grass - and it still does today!

We live and operate in a Mediterranean climate in our part of the Sierra foothills. Our annual weather pattern is typified by cool, wet (hopefully) winters, and dry, warm summers. Accordingly, our annual grasses grow according to distinctive and predictable patterns. In most years, we get a germinating rain in mid-October or early November. Our annual grasses start growing - and continue to grow until the days get too short and the soil gets too cold (usually just before the winter solstice). During this winter dormant period, the grass doesn't grow much (if at all) - but usually by early February, the days are long enough (and the soil warm enough) that our grasses and forbs (broad-leaf plants) start growing slowly again. By the first of March - if we've had normal precipitation - our grass is ready to rip! In most years, we have our greatest quantity of highly nutritious annual grass from early March through mid-May.

So much for the supply side of the equation. On the demand side, our ewes require the greatest quantity of highly nutritious forage in the last third of their pregnancies and the first 6 weeks of their lactation (that is, the 6 weeks after they give birth). They require so much forage during this phase, in fact, that our stocking rate increases by almost 100 percent. In other words, 100 ewes that are about to give birth will consume nearly twice as much grass at this point in their reproductive cycles as they will when they aren't pregnant or nursing lambs.

Logically, then, we try to match supply with demand. We time our production system so that the ewes are giving birth when the annual grasses begin to grow rapidly. We start lambing in late February and finish lambing around the first of April. As a consequence, we've never fed hay during lambing - Mother Nature sees to the needs of our ewes during lambing. In addition to matching forage supply with forage demand, this decision allows us to map out the rest of our production year.

Our shearer tells us that sheep don't shear well in the first 6 weeks after lambing - so we wait to shear until the youngest lambs are 6 weeks old (usually in the first week of May). Since we want to avoid getting stickers and other vegetation in the ewes' wool, we pay attention to where the sheep are grazing before shearing.

We typically move the sheep back to our irrigated pastures in mid-April. Depending on the year, we'll wean the lambs (that is, separate them from their mothers) sometime in June. After weaning, the ewes can graze on dry forage (more about how we manage this type of grazing in a later installment). The lambs (those that we're keeping, anyway - replacement ewe lambs and feeder lambs) stay on our higher quality irrigated pasture.

In late August, we bring the ewes back to our irrigated pastures. We check their body condition, teeth and udders to make sure they can stay in the breeding flock. And on the first of September, we start flushing them. Flushing involves putting the ewes on a rising plane of nutrition prior to breeding to increase ovulation rates. We've found that proper flushing can increase our subsequent lambing percentage by 40-50 percent - that is, flushing can increasing lambing rates from 1.3 lambs per ewe to 1.8 lambs per ewe.

Since sheep have a gestation period of 145-155 days, we count backwards from our desired lambing date of February 22. That means the rams get turned in with the ewes around October 1. Since we want to concentrate our lambing season (a matter of labor efficiency), the rams come out six weeks later in mid-November. The ewes then "settle" in their pregnancies for roughly three weeks - we try not to do anything that might cause stress (like trim their feet or move them long distances).

Once the ewes have settled, we haul them back to our winter range - the landscape where they'll stay through lambing. In mid-January (4-6 weeks before lambing), we'll trim their feet and give them their vaccinations (which will transmit immunity to their lambs). Then we wait for lambing - and the cycle starts again.

Ruminant livestock - cattle, goats and sheep - have an amazing capacity to convert grass and other forages into meat, milk and fiber. Grazing lands that won't grow a cultivated crop, our sheep convert sunshine, rain, carbon and soil (in other words, grass!) into products we can use. By working with nature, we have essentially eliminated the need to provide supplemental feed (hay or grain) to our ewes. With the exception of flushing (when we do provide a bit of supplemental protein and energy), our ewes typically "harvest" everything they consume by grazing. It all starts with grass!

Look for the next installment: Lambing on Pasture

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Going Gray in a Black-and-White World

Nearly 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the California Agricultural Leadership Program. During the course of this incredible two-year fellowship program, I began to realize that issues I saw as black-and-white as a twenty-something were rarely as simple as I assumed. Now, as somebody who will mark a half century on this planet in a few months (I'm startled to realize that I've escaped middle age!), I find the world to be increasingly gray - things are less black-and-white for me today than they were 20 years ago. And yet based on what I read on Facebook and other social media platforms, others seem to view the world in increasingly stark perspective. In other words, what seems gray to me is apparently black-and-white to many.

Demographically - and geographically - I would seem to be supportive of our new President. I'm a white male approaching 50 years of age. I make part of my living in production agriculture. I find many governmental regulations associated with my ranching activities to be burdensome. I hunt and fish (and own several guns). I live in the West (if California counts as part of the West). I live in a semi-rural area that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. And yet....

And yet, I find President Trump's policies relative to immigrants deeply troubling. I find his lack of knowledge (and even respect) for the principles embodied in our Constitution (especially freedom of speech, assembly and religion - and the separation of powers) incredibly concerning. As a scientist, I find his dismissive attitude towards science frightening. And I find his complete lack of empathy for people who are less fortunate to be profoundly disturbing. I vacillate between incredulity about his administration's apparent incompetence, and fear - fear that his administration's early blunders are purposely leading our country down a very dark path.

Most of my social media "friends" are friends in fact - people who I know, like and respect. These issues, based on what some of my friends have posted in the last two weeks, are black-and-white to many of them. Based on what I've read, singling out a particular religion because of the violent actions of a few fundamentalist adherents is entirely justified. So, apparently, are the violent actions of fundamentalist adherents to Christianity - in other words, if "our" side commits violence, it's justified. People I know and respect - my friends - seem willing to excuse this President's bigotry, apparent ignorance, insensitivity and misogyny. Some of my friends dismiss those who are willing to take to the streets in protest as "rioters."

Examples of our collective insensitivity abound. In last Sunday's Sacramento Bee, Frances Kakugawa wrote a beautiful piece about her family's experience with bigotry and fear during World War II. I sent her a very brief email thanking her for sharing her experience and perspective. She responded that my email had stood out among the many negative comments she'd received. Friends who teach in public schools have reported that students of color are afraid of what might happen to them. A place of worship here in Placer County - and the Islamic Center in Davis - were vandalized since President Trump took office. What have we become? We seem to think that incivility is better than political correctness. If political correctness means having empathy for my fellow human beings, then I suppose I try to be politically correct. I guess for me, acknowledging the "grayness" of our world means accepting that others may have different perspectives (based on their own life experiences and values) - the fact that they might be different than my own perspective doesn't make them wrong.

Several weeks ago, as I was leaving one of our leased ranches, I saw a young woman with two young children walking along our rural road. She was wearing a head-scarf - she looked out of place in rural Placer County, and her children looked frightened. I turned around to see if I could help - as someone else stopped to help as well (which I found heartening). The woman (who was of Saudi descent) was lost - I helped her get where she needed to go. I think most (if not all) of my friends would have done the same thing. This week while I was working at UC Davis, I passed a young woman (who I assume was a student) who was wearing more traditional Muslim clothing - all I could see of her face was her eyes. As we walked passed each other, I couldn't help but wondering what our country looked like through her eyes at the moment. Interacting with real human beings makes the black-and-white vitriol on Facebook and Twitter seem foolish and immature.

I sincerely hope that we're not headed back down a path of dehumanizing others because of their color, language, religious beliefs, ethnic background, or other differences. I sincerely hope that my friends who support the current administration can accept the fact that at least one of their friends (me!) is genuinely afraid of where this President may be leading us. And I sincerely hope that I can begin to understand the perspectives of my friends with whom I disagree. In the world of social media, it's all too easy to click the "unfriend" button (something I've been tempted to do on many occasions in the last three weeks). I sincerely hope that actual (as opposed to virtual) friendship can be the basis for greater understanding.