Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Farmer Looks at 50

In 31 days, I'll celebrate my 50th birthday - half a century on the planet. Like Jimmy Buffet's pirate persona, this seems like an appropriate time to think about the path that led me here - and the path that's still before me.

Like the protagonist in "A Pirate Looks at 40," I often wonder if I was born too late. When our youngest daughter, Emma, was in third grade, her class took a trip to the Bernhard Museum here in Auburn. The museum depicts life in the foothills in the late 1800's. Parents serve as volunteer docents for the field trip, and museum staff meets with parents the week prior to go over activities and talk about the importance of dressing in period clothing (to make the kids' experience more authentic). I'd come to the meeting straight from a day of sheepherding - and the woman leading the session looked at me and said, "Mr. Macon - you'll be fine dressed just like that."

I suppose my wardrobe reflects my personality and my perspective. Wherever I've lived - and wherever I've visited - I seem to seek out people who have a connection to their place and to the land. I think I learned this from my parents. Consequently, I've become convinced that being an "old timer" is more a matter of attitude than of longevity. After nearly a half century of living in northern California - most of it in the Sierra foothills - I've realized that I deeply value the wisdom and land ethic of the farmers and ranchers I've been privileged to know.

My great grandfather was an auctioneer in Iowa. My dad and my uncle both went to auction school when they were in college - and when I was about 10, they formed Macon Brothers Auctioneers. I went to the Missouri Auction School with my dad when I was 15 - this summer, I will have been an auctioneer for 35 years. From that point in 1982, I was often the youngest person to do something - the youngest auctioneer, the youngest staffer at the California Cattlemen's Association, the youngest executive director of a statewide land trust. But after I turned 35 (I think), this began to change. I wasn't the youngest anymore, nor was I the eldest (the implication being, I wasn't the wisest, either! - at least in my mind).

I told my brother-in-law Adrian, who turned 50 several years ago, that I thought I'd know more by the time I was this old. He replied, "I didn't realize how much I'd forget by now." I think he nailed it - my memory certainly isn't what it used to be, anyway! Some days, I feel like the kid in the Far Side cartoon who asks his teacher if he can be excused because his brain is full!

In terms of my farming career, however, I feel like I have perhaps gained some measure of wisdom. I've invested time and effort (not to mention money) into learning to be a shepherd. I've made plenty of mistakes, and I'm always learning more - but I've raised sheep long enough now that I can handle most things the sheep throw at me.

In the last decade, I've transitioned from part-time farmer, to full-time farmer (at a part-time wage), back to part-time farmer. For several years, I was resentful - and ashamed - that I couldn't make a full-time living from farming. Perhaps part of the wisdom I've attained as I approach the half-century mark is the fact that very few of my farming predecessors (and fewer of my farming contemporaries) have been able to make a full time living from farming. Producing food - despite its importance - has seldom been hugely profitable to the people who coax crops from the soil - or to the people that tend to livestock. While this fact still makes me grumpy on occasion, I think I'm starting to make peace with it.

I started my professional life working for the California Cattlemen's Association. Graduating from UC Davis with a degree in agricultural and managerial economics, I was fairly conventional in my attitudes towards farming and ranching. In my late twenties, I had the privilege of participating in the California Agricultural Leadership Program. I began to question my assumptions about conventional agriculture, and I began to turn my attention towards local issues and local food systems. In 2002, when I was 35, we began selling pumpkins and popcorn at the Auburn Farmer's Market.

For the last 15 years, in many ways, local food production has been my focus. In addition to pumpkins and popcorn, we marketed chard, summer squash, eggs, blackberries, bok choi, radishes, winter squash, grassfed beef, grassfed goat, pastured chicken - and lamb. Mostly lamb. We were one of the first two meat vendors in the Auburn farmer's market.

The farmer's market, for me, was a tremendous experience - the connections with my community will remain with me for the rest of my life. In my mid forties, however, I began to realize what I was giving up to sell food to my community. I was missing most of my daughters' Saturday soccer games. I was working 60-70 hours a week and making less than minimum wage. When I decided I couldn't afford to continue marketing directly to consumers (and was vocal about my decision), the farmer's market forgot about me. I suppose this realization is the most difficult part of the last decade for me.

But soon I'll be 50! This spring, as we've concluded another lambing season, I've realized that I have (at most) 25-30 more lambing seasons left in my lifetime. I've become comfortable with being a part-time shepherd. I've realized that my experiences - positive and negative - can be instructive to a generation of farmers and ranchers (and aspiring farmers and ranchers) who are coming behind me. I've realized, at last, that I love raising livestock and I love teaching others to do the same. These things are my life's work.

I know I have plenty of faults - I'm opinionated, stubborn, sarcastic and impatient, just to name a few. I'm also becoming comfortable in my own skin. Perhaps that's one of the benefits of growing older - we fix the faults we can fix, and accept those we cannot. Jimmy Buffet sings, "After all the years, I've found - my occupational hazard being my occupation's just not around." Having been around now for 49 years and 11 months, I'm happy to realize that the occupations I love - raising sheep and teaching others about it - are still possible to pursue.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Yep - I'm a Tolkien Geek

I imagine there are plenty of nearly-fifty-year-old guys who grew up reading books by J.R.R. Tolkien. I think my folks gave me a paperback copy of The Hobbit when I was in the 5th grade. I know I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time in 6th grade. I even had a Lord of the Rings party when I was 12 - we all dressed up as our favorite characters (even my parents and my 6th grade teacher humored). I've since re-read both books often - as well as The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales, The Father Christmas Letters, and all of Tolkien's other works. I'll admit it - I'm definitely a Tolkien geek!

Lately, I've come across a copy of The History of the Lord of the Rings Part I: The Return of the Shadow by Tolkien's son Christopher. This book, part of a series of 12 volumes, compares the many versions of Tolkien's manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings. As an aspiring writer (admittedly nowhere near the caliber of Tolkien, but aspiring nonetheless), I'm as fascinated by the writing process as I am by the world that Tolkien created.

As a kid, I assumed that Tolkien was simply describing another world - one that he could see. Middle Earth was created from whole cloth - it was all inside his head (the geography, the ethnography, the languages, the history) before he put pen to paper. As I read The Return of the Shadow, I realize how the process of writing - for Tolkien as for me - is iterative. Each draft of the first chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring evolved significantly in the writing process - and the entire work took years to complete. I've been writing a much more mundane professional paper - but every time I read it, I make changes. Reading Tolkien's drafts has helped me realize that this is a normal process.

As I think back to how I perceived Middle Earth as a child, I realize that the feeling of reality that came from reading Tolkien's books came from the quality of the writing. Long before Peter Jackson's movies came to theaters, I could picture the Shire, the Misty Mountains, and the plains of Rohan in my mind - largely because of Tolkien's descriptive powers. I understand now that these descriptions were understated enough to seem real, yet vivid enough to paint a picture. This combination makes Tolkien's writing tremendously powerful for me.

When I think about the authors whose work I treasure, they all seem to have this ability in common. Tolkien, Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig - each of these writers can transport me to their worlds, to their communities, to their minds. What an incredible gift!

More Lessons from the 2017 Lambing Season

Mostly for my own future reference, I wanted to jot down a few additional notes from this year's lambing season:

  • We had more breech deliveries that we've ever seen. Just a note for future reference - water will break, mucous plug will come out, but you won't see feet and nose emerge. When you reach inside, you'll probably feel hocks rather than rear feet. Push the lamb back in and try to manipulate at least one leg back through the birth canal. You'll have to flex the foot at the pastern (curl it back towards the outside world). Pull with one leg if necessary.
  • Taking the trailer out to the sheep was a revelation - we saved 5 lambs during the sleet/snow storm on March 6 by penning them in the trailer out of the wind and wet. It took about 48 hours for them to get their legs under them, but now they're catching up. Much easier to have the trailer next to the sheep than to bring them all the way home!
  • Moving ewes and young lambs went much better this year. We focused on the start of the move - we got all of the sheep up, let them get paired up, stretch, etc., and then asked them to move.
  • The Omega 3-6-9 lamb and kid supplement seemed to help turn around dummy lambs. Getting a little energy and some vitamins into them seemed to sustain them until they figured out how to nurse. The BoSe shots may have helped with this, too.
  • I remembered that catching a ewe is easier if you have her lambs! Caught several ewes that needed medical attention by simply catching their lambs and letting them come up to me.
  • Catching a lambing ewe that's afraid to be caught is a different manner. Using a dog (or another person) to distract the ewe helps.
  • Stripping out a ewe with a big bag or big teats is easier with two people! Feeding her lamb(s) her milk allows us to keep the lamb(s) with her.
  • Our lambing interval was just 23 days this year! Not sure why, but it might be related to the fact that we were able to graze the ewes next to the rams (who were in a hardwire fence) - we had the same ram effect as using a teaser. We'll have to keep this in mind!
I think that's it for now - I'll add to these as I recall more lessons!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Lambing 2017: Three Weeks In

The first lamb of 2017!
Three weeks ago today, lambing season 2017 got underway for us! On the morning of February 19, Mae and I moved the ewes to a 5.75 acre paddock with plenty of grass and tree cover (a paddock we'd be saving for lambing). When I went back to check the sheep that evening, ewe #261 (a Shropshire ewe) was in labor with a big ram lamb (who happened to have one of his legs back). I caught the ewe, pulled the lamb, and lambing season had begun.

In many ways, this first lamb was a harbinger of how lambing season would go this year. We've pulled more lambs than normal - mostly because our lambs were unusually big this year. We even had to do the first c-section in all our years of raising sheep - saved one of the lambs but couldn't save the ewe. We suspect the large lambs are due to warm weather in November and nearly double our normal grass growth this winter. Large lambs - and large litter sizes (we've had 2 sets of quadruplets and 4 sets of triplets so far) means we have more bottle lambs than normal. As I write this, Sami is mixing up yet another batch of milk replacer for the bummers. Despite these challenges, we'll take big lambs and extra labor over drought anytime!

Since lambing represents the most intense labor demand of the year, we try to concentrate it as much as possible. A concentrated lambing season also means that our lambs are more uniform in size when we wean them in June (which makes them more marketable). The rams are with the ewes for approximately 6 weeks, so this marks the outer bounds of our lambing season. Usually, 85-90 percent of the ewes are bred in their first two cycles (the estrus cycle of a ewe is 17 days). This year, 95 percent of the ewes have lambed in the first 3 weeks of lambing! No wonder the rams were tired when we separated them from the ewes last November!

Now we're waiting for the last 5 percent of the ewes to deliver their lambs. Judging by appearances, I expect this will happen in the next 10 days. We'll continue to check the sheep three times a day until the last ewe delivers her lambs.

Every year we learn something new. This year, we took our gooseneck trailer to the leased property where we lamb during last weekend's cold storm. We had a set of twins and a set of triplets that got hypothermic during Monday's cold rain/sleet. Normally, we'd have taken these lambs home to be bottle-raised. This year, we put them in the trailer with their mothers. After a couple of days of recuperating in the shelter of the trailer, they went back with the rest of the sheep. We'll keep this "tool" in our toolkit for future lambing seasons.

Once lambing wraps up, we'll move on to other chores. The sheep will get moved back to our summer pastures sometime in April. In mid-April, our irrigation season begins - I'll go back to moving water once a day, every day. In late April or early May, our friend Derrick Adamache will shear the ewes - he'll come back in July to shear the lambs we're keeping. And in June, we'll wean the lambs - the final "report card" for our efforts this year. In the meantime, the sheep and I will enjoy this spring weather!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

How our 1st Orphan Lamb Came to Be

I should begin this account by saying that it might seem a little gruesome to some. I don't write it for its shock value, and I don't write it to seek sympathy. Rather, I wanted to document the events that led to our first orphan lamb in nearly 25 years of raising sheep - mostly for my own use, but also in the hope that it might be instructive to others.

This year's lambing season has been remarkable for the number of big lambs and assisted births we've had - so remarkable, in fact, that my partner, Roger Ingram, has been reviewing scientific literature about lamb birth weights. He has found several publications that seem to shed light on our experience. In addition to normal variation, lamb birth weights vary based on litter size (singles are typically larger than twins), number of lambs the ewe has had (maiden ewes generally have smaller lambs, while "middle-aged" ewes have larger offspring; older ewes seem to again have smaller lambs), and the sex of the lamb (ram lambs are larger than ewe lambs). Not surprisingly, however, environmental factors play a role in birth weights as well. Some of the research Roger found indicated that body condition prior to breeding is a factor. Climatic conditions during the first 50 days of a ewe's pregnancy can impact birth weight (warm weather seems to be related to heavier lambs), as can forage quality and quantity in the last 50 days of gestation (when 70 percent of fetal development occurs).

Setting aside the sheep-related variables listed above, we examined the nutritional and climatic conditions this year for some clue regarding our big lambs. 

First, our flushing program (when we provide additional high quality feed to the ewes prior to breeding in increase ovulation and thus twinning) was extremely effective this year. In late August, the ewes had an average body condition score (BCS) of just over 3 (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being thin and 5 being obese). Just four weeks later, the combination of irrigated pasture and canola meal we'd fed the ewes increased their average BCS by 10 percent!

Second, following our germinating rain in mid October, we had a warm and wet autumn. November was notably warm in Auburn - I'd need to look at my weather journal, but I remember remarking about how mild the weather was. We turned the rams in with the ewes on September 29 - and most of the ewes were bred by the end of October. The first 30 days of their gestation were marked by relatively warm weather.

The warm, wet fall resulted in incredible forage growth on our annual grasslands. Roger says this was the best winter grass year he's seen in 30 years - and I'd concur with that assessment. Quantitatively, range monitoring at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center 20 miles north of us in Browns Valley backs this up - they measured 185 percent of normal forage production on January 1, 2017. In other words, we had almost twice as much high quality grass in January and early February as we typically have.

Based on Roger's literature review, we seem to have been in the "perfect storm" in terms of lamb birth weights this year. And our experience once lambing started supports this assertion. We've assisted in far more deliveries than normal, and we've had more malpresented lambs than normal (a malpresented lamb may have a leg or its head back, or be presented backwards). Fortunately, through Monday, we'd only lost one lamb due to these problems.

Last week, we noticed that one of our ewes had a mild vaginal prolapse. We've seen this happen before - and as with our past experience, her prolapse would disappear once she stood up and moved around. We decided to simply keep an eye on her - our previous experience suggested that this was the right course of action.

On Monday morning, during the coldest storm we've had during lambing in several years, I arrived at the pasture to find the ewe in labor and straining. The prolapse had reappeared, and at my wife's suggestion (I should note that my wife Sami is also our vet), I pushed the prolapse back into place. The ewe remained standing, and my repair seemed to hold. She seemed more comfortable. I returned to trying to get several sets of chilled lambs on their feet.

About an hour later, I found the ewe straining again - and the prolapse was back out. I again pushed it back - and again it seemed to hold - but not for long. About 30 minutes after this second repair, I discovered that she'd perforated her rectum and had disemboweled herself. It looked even more gruesome than it sounds. At that point, I realized there was nothing we could do to save her. Fortunately, Sami was able to get to the pasture about 30 minutes later - and our focus turned to trying to save the lambs while alleviating the suffering the ewe. Sami sedated her and performed a c-section. The first lamb she delivered was huge - I estimate it was at least 15 pounds (out of a ewe that weighed maybe 160 pounds). I suctioned the mucous from the lamb's nose and mouth and rubbed it vigorously with a towel. Despite taking a few feeble gasps, the lamb's heart never beat. The second lamb was just as big - and very definitely alive. Roger cleaned it off, and it was trying to stand within 5 minutes of entering the world. It's home with the other bottle lambs and doing great.

Sami then euthanized the ewe. She's the first ewe we've ever lost during lambing. Sami remarked that the lambs were obviously full term but seemed to be too large to get into the birthing position (normal position is for a lamb to emerge through the birth canal with its nose tucked between its front legs).

Based on what Roger learned in his literature review, I'm not surprised that we are seeing bigger lambs this year. Management-wise, I'm not sure there is anything we could do differently. We may adjust our flushing procedure slightly (perhaps we'll use a feed that's not quite as high in protein and energy as canola meal). The weather and forage conditions are out of our control. Knowing that a warm autumn and doubled forage production in January might be an issue will help us prepare for the added labor requirement at lambing in future years.

For more on the subject, here's a link to Roger's latest Foothill Rancher newsletter!