on the road

on the road

Friday, July 21, 2017

Epitaph for a One-Lane Bridge

Roughly 10 years ago, we leased a ranch north of Lincoln along Doty Ravine. The quickest way to get from home (in Auburn) to the ranch was to drive Joeger Road to Mt. Vernon Road to Wise Road. As we approached the low ground in Lincoln on the east end of Wise Road, we'd cross Doty Ravine on a one-lane bridge. I crossed that bridge nearly every day for four years. Today, as I drove Wise Road on my way to Yuba City, I encountered a detour - Placer County is replacing the old one-lane bridge over Doty Ravine.

I can certainly understand the County's reasoning. The old bridge was probably a maintenance nightmare. From a transportation efficiency and legal liability standpoint, necking the two-lane road down to a single lane didn't make much sense. But I have to say I'm mourning the passing of this relic of simpler times.

Based on the stories that friends have told me about the roads between Auburn and Lincoln, Mt. Vernon and Wise Roads were not paved until the second half of the 20th Century (perhaps Jean Allender or Betty Samson can fill in the details). The Doty Ravine Bridge was a reminder to me of these simpler times - like the bridge, the roads were single lane as well.

More importantly, the one-lane Doty Ravine Bridge was a reminder (in an increasingly fast-paced world) to slow down. If someone was approaching the bridge from the other direction at the same time, both of us would decelerate (usually). We'd make sure that whoever was closest to the crossing made it over first.

This slowing down also required neighborliness. Most of the folks I passed crossing the Doty Ravine Bridge were strangers, and yet we nearly always waved at one another as we crossed. The one-lane bridge was a reminder, in some ways, that our destination wasn't more important than safety and politeness. In an increasingly busy (and rude) world, I'll miss this reminder.

I suppose I'm sounding like a curmudgeon. Progress is positive, right?! I expect that the county road department was tired of dealing with damage to the bridge caused by people who didn't slow down and wave. I expect the county counsel was tired of the liability faced by the county when people caused accidents. But with a two-lane bridge, I'll make it to Lincoln 10 to 15 seconds faster than I would have otherwise. I'd gladly give back that time. I'll miss this reminder of our rural roots.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Moving to the Country

In early May number of years ago - before the drought - I was moving ewes and lambs home for shearing. Since it was before the drought, we had more than 200 ewes - and (like now) we saved the 1-1/2 acre pasture at our home place for the 3-4 days that the sheep would be home for their annual clipping. As I pulled in to drop off the second or third load, a friend who kept bees in our pasture waved me over to tell me that a woman from the county code enforcement office had come by a few minutes earlier. Apparently, one of our neighbors had called to complain about "all of the sheep" in our pasture. I called the code enforcement woman back immediately - she'd already confirmed that our property was zoned "farm" - and when I told her the sheep would be there less than a week, she said, "I'll call the person who complained and let them know you have every right to have your sheep there - especially since they'll be gone in less than 7 days." We never did learn which neighbor objected to the sights and sounds of agriculture in our "neighborhood," but we suspect it was one of the families who had recently moved to the country. In some cases, I'm afraid, the expectations of those moving to the country fail to match the realities of living in a rural (or even semi-rural) community.

We've had other similar experiences with folks who encounter our sheep operation - even with people who ask us to graze their properties. I suppose the image of farming, for some, is one of bucolic bliss - peacefully grazing (and quiet!) sheep spread across a green hillside. In reality, grazing livestock can often be peaceful. It also involves hard work. Grazing animals make noise on occasion (especially at weaning time or during shearing). Livestock guardian dogs will bark if something threatens their sheep. Some of the grass that animals consume passes all the way through and comes out the other end (imagine that!). Grasslands and pastures that are grazed seldom look as "neat" as a mowed field (to some, anyway - I much prefer the look of a grazed pasture). To a shepherd, the smell of wet wool or of manure from animals that have been eating grass is normal (even pleasant, some would say); to some who move to the country, I guess, these odors, sounds and sights are objectionable.

Even in areas where we're asked to graze (for fuel reduction purposes or to control invasive weeds), we get questions like: "how soon will you be done here?" or "I didn't realize how much they'd smell" or "will you be able to get the manure off the road?" Most recently, some folks who asked us to graze their 4 acres (because they didn't want to mow it) decided they couldn't handle the sight and smell of sheep manure, and that the uneven look of the leftover vegetation was undesirable.

Sometimes this disconnect can take a dangerous turn. Placer County, where we live and raise sheep, still has a local ordinance on the books that allows the movement of livestock on county roads. For short moves between properties (of less than 2 miles) on quiet county roads, we much prefer herding our sheep to hauling them in the trailer. Nearly all of the drivers we encounter are patient and interested in what we're doing - most take photos or videos of our border collies and sheep with their phones. Occasionally, however, someone decides he or she can't wait until we can get the sheep off the road to let them pass - and so they drive through our flock. Fortunately, we've never had a sheep or a dog (or a person, for that matter) injured when this happens; other ranchers haven't been so fortunate.

Placer County, like many California counties, also has a right-to-farm ordinance that protects commercial farmers and ranchers from nuisance complaints associated with the normal course of an agricultural business. These ordinances are important - anyone who buys a home in rural Placer County gets a copy of the ordinance as part of the normal disclosure process. I suppose some buyers even read the ordinance! That said, our experience with these issues is not unique. As Placer County continues to grow population-wise, these challenges will only intensify. While I find it easy to complain about our new neighbors who have no idea what it takes to run a sheep operation (or any other farming or ranching enterprise), I am realizing that those of us who are farmers and ranchers have a responsibility to proactively reach out to people who move to the country. Who knows - maybe some of these folks will end up ranching one day!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Summer Routine

Several weeks ago, we weaned our lambs. This year, weaning was a multi-step process, largely due to the heat (we tried to be finished with sheep work by 9 a.m. on hot mornings). During the third weekend of June, we completed the physical weaning of the lambs - we separated them from their mothers and  applied permanent ear tags. The ewes were moved to dry forage (with a mix of still-green yellow starthistle); the lambs went back to irrigated pasture. The following weekend, we weighed the lambs and started marketing the feeder lambs. We also selected the lambs that we'll finish for our own winter meat. Last weekend, I vaccinated the replacement ewe lambs and the ram lambs that we'll market. I also treated the lambs for internal parasites (which can be lethal if left untreated). Finally, I sorted the thin ewes (those who had worked especially hard during their lactations or who had lost weight for other reasons). These thin ewes will get to stay on irrigated pasture; the rest were moved to dry annual rangeland. Last Saturday afternoon marked the end of this stage of our sheep year.

With the work of weaning behind us, we're settling in to our summer routine. For the next 50 days or so, I'll focus on irrigating our pastures and caring for the lambs. My partner Roger will focus on caring for the ewe flock on dry pasture. We'll help each other accomplish big projects (moving the ewes, shearing the lambs, moving the lambs to a different property), but much of the work is the same day after day - the dog days of summer!

As I grow older, I find that routine becomes enjoyable rather than monotonous. In The Solace of Open Spaces (which I highly recommend), Gretel Ehrlich writes that irrigation "is an example of how a discipline - a daily chore - can grow into a fidelity." In our current situation, my "daily chore" is comprised of moving the K-Line pod irrigation system every morning. On good days - when the ATV is running right, when the sprinklers aren't clogged and when I'm paying attention - irrigation takes about 45 minutes. On less good days - when the ATV isn't running quite right; when we get a load of aquatic weeds, trash, leaves, or fish clogging the system; or when I run over a riser and have to repair the system - irrigation can take a couple of hours. In either case, discipline is critical - no matter how tired I am or what I have to do during the rest of my day, the water must get moved. The pipe must get repaired. We haven't talked about this, but I suspect Roger settles into a similar routine of responsibility in July and August.

Fidelity, I think, comes from our dedication to the less glamorous tasks of raising sheep. Flushing the ewes, managing our breeding groups, lambing and shearing are all more "exciting" than moving sprinklers day in and day out. And yet I find that the deferred gratification of irrigating is rewarding in a different way. In some ways, irrigating is like saving money. Putting money in my savings account is much less exciting than buying that new pair of boots. As I get older, however, I find that I enjoy watching my bank account grow. Similarly, I enjoy seeing our irrigated pastures respond to my efforts to spread the water over them. Increasingly, I'm able to relish the days when everything goes as planned - and I'm able to laugh at myself on the many days when it doesn't! I'm beginning to learn that my success as a shepherd depends on my ability stay focused through the routine work as much as it is to manage the "exciting" times.

Irrigation season, in our part of the foothills, follows a chronological (rather than an ecological) schedule. The water arrives in our ditches on April 15. The water shuts off on October 15. No matter what else we might be doing, this means that we're moving sprinklers every day for 183 days. Now that the lambs are weaned and the ewes are moved, I'm finding that I'm looking forward to 50 days of simply moving water across our pastures. I'm looking forward to 50 days of watching the grass grow!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The "Easy" Nonlethal Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Ewe 144

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good mama - 144 with her 2016 quadruplets.