Newborns

Newborns

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sheepherder Container Garden Version 2.0

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 29, 2017

Paranoid or Prepared

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Sheep to the Mountains

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

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



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

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

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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

Preparing for the Unexpected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Shearing Day Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humbled and Excited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Preparing for Shearing




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


By Friday, they'll have this grazed down.