on the road

on the road

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Can Direct Marketing Save the Ranch?

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Dealing with the Heat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Change is Inevitable - but not always positive!

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, June 9, 2017

Different Dogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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