Monday, August 1, 2022

To Know a Place

A conversation with my friend Hailey Wilmer last week started me thinking (again) about what is required to really know a place. Dr. Wilmer, a range researcher with the USDA Agricultural Research Service at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho, had recently spent several weeks collecting data in the backcountry. She remarked that she was enjoying learning a new place - learning about how to get from point A to point B in the absence of roads, learning about where the good camping spots were, learning to see the country as the sheepherders who care for the Station’s flock see it.

Her comment made me think about my experience on the sheep ranges north of Truckee, California, these last four years. I’ve been studying the interactions between livestock guardian dogs and wildlife - and in the process, exploring much of the Kyburz and Boca sheep allotments on the Tahoe National Forest. And while I don’t know the country like Madardo and Luis (the herders) know it, I’m getting to know it better. The herders know where the sheep can cross the Little Truckee River safely. They know where the sheep can drink on their way into the shipping corrals in September. They know what the sheep like to graze in the morning - and the entirely different set of plants they like to graze in the evening. For me, knowing this country has required my attention - and my repeated visits. Knowing a place takes time, and I don’t yet know the Kyburz/Boca country like Madardo and Luis.

Closer to home, I’m privileged to have spent the last decade and a half getting to know the places where our sheep graze. As I was moving water at our irrigated pasture this morning, I saw little tree frogs where I expected to see them. I heard the mocking birds singing from the top of the oak near the telephone pole near irrigation set number 2. I missed the pair of red tail hawks that I frequently see near set number 5, but I expect I’ll see them tomorrow or the next day. Later, when I was checking the ewes on our summer targeted grazing contract (and where we’ve lambed our ewes in late winter since 2011), I saw doves feeding along the road where I always see them. I saw deer sign and game trails along the seasonal creek. I saw praying mantises on the sheep - which I typically see in August.

But knowing a place, I think, means more than knowing the roads and trails. More than knowing when I can expect to see a certain bird, or where I can expect to find a coyote track. Knowing a place means knowing how much rain will make the little creek run where we winter our sheep. Knowing a place means knowing where the frost will linger into the afternoon on a cold December day, or where the breeze will come up on a hot summer morning. Knowing a place means knowing where the clover will grow one spring, and soft chess the next, depending on the timing and amount of rainfall. 

Knowing a place, in other words, means being there - and being inquisitive - across many seasons and many years. Knowing a place requires being present, again and again, in that place. As Wendell Berry’s great character, Jayber Crow learned, knowing anything takes a lifetime - or maybe longer.

Thanks to my friend Ryan Mahoney for taking these pics!

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Back Where I Started

I’ve had sheep - actually, let me rephrase this - Sami and I have had sheep since she was in vet school at Davis. Close to 30 years. We started off raising a handful of feeder lambs, as well as an injured ewe that newly-minted Dr. Macon nursed back to health. In 2005, we bought 12 Barbados wethers and grazed 10 of them on brushland and grassland near Colfax (2 of them escaped into the American River canyon - we heard reports of them from rafters and river-swimmers for several years). In 2006, we bought 27 ewes and 30 feeder lambs and grazed them at Loma Rica Ranch between Grass Valley and Nevada City. Early in the second decade of the 21st Century, we tried to make a go of it raising sheep full-time - our ewe numbers approached 300. Drought - and the economic realities of scale (we were far too small to make a full-time income from our sheep) - forced us to downsize to a part-time operation. In 2021, we bred around 90 ewes.

About 7 or 8 years ago, we partnered with my friend Roger Ingram on our part-time sheep enterprise. Roger was the livestock and natural resources advisor for UC Cooperative Extension when we started our partnership; I hold that position today (and have since Roger’s retirement in 2017). Our roles in the sheep business have evolved with our professional responsibilities, too. Over the last five years, Roger has done the bulk of the electric fence building and grazing planning. I’ve been responsible for irrigation, lambing, and financial management.

This year, with the pandemic hopefully winding down, Roger decided he’d like to do more traveling and less fence building. His decision coincided with changes in our fall forage supply. Fall is a critical time in our operation - it’s breeding season. The conversion of a local farm that we typically grazed in October to housing put a 30-day hole in our forage supply. The expected loss of another irrigated pasture within the next several years will impact our summer grazing. Based on all of these factors, I decided to downsize our operation while buying out Roger’s interest in the business. All of that culminated this week.

A week ago, we weaned our lambs. Based on weaning weights and the number of lambs weaned per ewe, this was easily our most successful year. Despite the challenging conditions in the first three months of 2022, we felt like we were hitting on all cylinders. We had an arrangement with a fellow targeted grazing operation to sell them our ewe lambs and a handful of ram lambs. We thankfully worked out an arrangement with another local producer to buy our feeder lambs. And a third business (also local) agreed to buy the ewes we planned to sell.

This morning, the last of our feeder lambs and ewes loaded into someone else’s trailer. At the moment, the entire Flying Mule Sheep Company inventory consists of 55 running age ewes, 5 cull ewes, 2 rams, 7 replacement ewe lambs, 1 ram lamb, 15 feeder lambs, and 2 livestock guardian dogs. And starting this week, they’ll be entirely my responsibility. Roger will help out when I need to be out of town, as well as at shearing and other key times - but I’ll be the guy moving fences, changing water, and checking sheep. Just like I was in 2006.

But unlike 2006, today I’m a much better (although still learning) shepherd. I’m more efficient at building fence and moving irrigation water. I’m a better judge of forage and sheep health. I’m using border collies (which we didn’t start doing until 2008 or 2009). I’m better at managing my time - and the business.

I’ll admit I felt a bit sad seeing the ewes we decided to sell leave the ranch. I also felt sad seeing Dillon, one of our livestock guardian dogs, go. But I’m comforted knowing that our sheep and Dillon went to friends who value our work at developing locally adapted sheep and trustworthy dogs over the years. The past week has been both busy and stressful for me, but I’m excited to settle into a new routine. And I’m happy to still be in the sheep business - even if it is part-time. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Which Sheep to Keep?

Heading to the corrals on weaning day.

Every year about this time, we wean our lambs. Part of this process involves evaluating the ewes - we try not to spend more resources (time, money, and forage) on ewes that need to leave the flock (which can be necessary for a variety of reasons). Part of this process is also selecting the ewe lambs that will replace these ewes. This year, however, is more complicated; this year, we’re downsizing our flock due to a loss of fall grazing opportunities and my partner Roger’s desire to step back from the day-to-day responsibilities of raising sheep. This year, we’re selecting the ewes that will be the basis of our flock moving forward.

This process always starts with our long-term breeding objectives. I like to think about the ideal ewe for our flock - knowing that this ideal is always a direction rather than an end point. For us, we want a moderately-sized ewe who can thrive on a wide variety of forages. A ewe that doesn’t need to be coddled - hardiness and longevity are key traits in our operation. She needs to be resistant to foot rot and internal parasites. We want a ewe that will conceive twins and that can count to two once her lambs are born. She needs to be able to lamb without help, on pasture, and produce enough milk from what she can graze during the springtime. She needs to bring in both lambs at weaning - and wean close to her weight in lambs in 100-120 days. She needs to respect our electric fences. In other words, she needs to be adapted to our system and our environment.

A sheep breeder from Australia recently introduced me to a different way of looking at all of this. In his mind, we can either look at the entire flock or manage individual animals. While we do look at the whole (the flock), I realized during our conversation last week that we make decisions based on individuals - how many of the traits I described in the preceding paragraph does THIS particular ewe exhibit? And how likely is she to pass those traits on to her lambs? Our entire record-keeping system is designed around this individual animal analysis.

At weaning time, I usually combine the information I record at lambing on ease of birth, mothering ability, and lamb vigor (which we score objectively) with a visual appraisal of each ewe lamb. If mom excels in these maternal traits, we have some confidence that daughter will as well. But she can’t be a dink - she has to have thrived in our environment and on our forage. And she can’t be crazy, either - a pretty ewe lamb who won’t stay in the electric fence isn’t so pretty!

This year’s evaluation went beyond looking for replacement ewe lambs, though - we needed to figure out which of our “running age” ewes we’d keep. In addition to our normal culling criteria (missing teeth or a lumpy udder), I decided to look at four factors:

  • The ewe’s most recent EZ Care score (which measures the maternal traits outlined above). A perfect score is 3, but we’ll typically keep a ewe who scored 2 (which usually means I had to help her lamb).

  • Whether we had to treat the ewe for internal parasites during the last year (and how many times).

  • How much younger (or older) than the average age of our ewes is she?

  • How many pounds of lamb did she wean, on average, over the last two years?

My next step will be to actually look at all of the ewes I’ve decided to keep on paper - mere numbers can’t replace what my friend Ryan Mahoney calls the “eye of the shepherd.” I’ll look for structural correctness, body condition, and other physical manifestations of quality breeding. And I’ll take another look at the ewes that I’ve decided (again, on paper) to sell.

Even with all of this analysis, I had the realization while I was selecting replacement ewe lambs last weekend that one of the results of sticking with our breeding program for these last 16 years is that I can trust our genetics. The ewe lambs I marked as potential replacements at birth are a uniform bunch - as are the ewe lambs I marked as sale lambs. By maintaining our core breeding generations over 16 generations of sheep, I feel like we now have sheep that are genetically and phenotypically adapted to our environment and our management system. I’m happy with the ewes and lambs we’re keeping; I’m sad to see the ones we’re selling leave. But I’m also happy knowing that our ewe and lamb buyers will be getting quality sheep!


Thursday, June 9, 2022

Uncertainty… Again

When my wife Sami was in vet school, we brought home a ewe from the place where we’d boarded my horse. The ewe had a joint infection, which my soon-to-be-veterinarian wife treated. The ewe survived, and over the next several years (as we bought our first home in Penryn, and then moved to Auburn), we expanded our sheep “business.” We raised a few feeder lambs each year - one (or more) for our own freezer, several for friends and family.

In 2004 or 2005, we partnered with some friends with whom we shared a farmers market stall on purchasing a dozen Barbados lambs to graze on their property near Colfax. This is a story for another post, but I’ll just say the experience convinced me that we didn’t want to raise Barbados sheep. In the fall of 2005, we bought some Dorper and Dorper-cross ewes - and a Dorper ram - and embarked on the journey that has become Flying Mule Sheep Company.

In those early years, I was working in Grass Valley, and grazing our sheep on the famed Loma Rica Ranch between Grass Valley and Nevada City. In 2006, our first year lambing out our ewes, we had snow every 2 weeks for our entire lambing season. I learned a tremendous amount. And I worked mostly by myself - with a good deal of help from our local farm advisor, Roger Ingram.

As time went on, we expanded our operation. Eventually, Roger purchased a handful of sheep that we ran with our ewes. And in 2014, Roger and I formed a partnership. We’ve operated as a partnership ever since.

Our professional lives have also been intertwined. I went to work for the Placer-Nevada office of the University of California Cooperative Extension in 2012 - where Roger was the livestock and natural resources advisor and county director. After earning a master’s degree, I was hired as Roger’s successor in 2017. And our sheep partnership continued; Roger took over more responsibility in his retirement. He managed the grazing; I managed the finances and the irrigating.

Before the pandemic, Roger expressed an interest in stepping back from the day-to-day management of our sheep business. But he stayed with it - as the virus kept us all close to home, Roger continued to build fence and move sheep.

But now, in 2022, Roger has decided to step back. And I absolutely understand - Roger is both my friend and my business partner; friend is the most important label. Roger wants to travel. He wants to enjoy his retirement. He wants flexibility - which raising sheep doesn’t always provide. And so in the next two weeks, we’re dissolving our partnership.

I realized this evening, as I was moving irrigation water, that I’ve been here before. I’ve been in a place where all of the responsibility was mine - from lambing out the ewes, to building fence in July, to moving water for the six month irrigation season. And yet I’m a bit apprehensive.

Part of my apprehension, I think, is the reality of my current job. I’m doing the same work that Roger was doing when we entered our partnership - and when I was responsible for much of the day-to-day work. My day job is time consuming and occasionally stressful (more than occasionally, if I’m honest). Running sheep is much like operating a dairy - the work requires daily attention, above and beyond my full-time job. Roger provided some of this attention - next month, the attention will be entirely my responsibility.

Over the last 16 years, finally, we’ve arrived at a profitable part-time business model. I’ve become a shepherd (looking back, I wouldn’t call my 2006 self a shepherd). I’ve learned how to manage a business, how to care for sheep, how to graze rangeland and pasture. Roger has been on this journey with me - as a partner, a mentor, a friend. I’m so happy for Roger to be moving on to this next phase in his life. I’m uncertain about the next phase in mine.

I’ve realized, over the last 20 or more years, that raising livestock - sheep, specifically - is what I love to do. For a variety of reasons - internal and external - raising sheep is not something I’m able to do as my full-time occupation. Regardless, raising sheep brings me a great deal of satisfaction and a moderate amount of income (finally). As the responsibility for the sheep of Flying Mule Sheep Company becomes (again) solely mine, I find myself thinking about the uncertainties I experienced 16 years ago when we bought 26 breeding ewes. I’ll be interested to see what the next 16 years brings!

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Downsizing Approaches

As I’ve written earlier this year, Flying Mule Sheep Company is planning to downsize this summer. My long-time partner, Roger Ingram, wants to to step back from the day-to-day work of raising sheep so he can travel more. Roger has done most of the fence building and grazing management over the last 4-5 years; I don’t blame him for wanting to retire! Since I work full-time (and then some), I’m thinking about how I can simplify our operation. And on top of this, we’ve lost some of our fall feed - we have grazed the berry vineyards at Amber Oaks Berry Farm for nearly 10 years, but the Boughton’s lost their long-time lease last winter. To borrow an old cliche, we’re learning (again) that the only constant is change.

Roger’s last day as a full partner will be June 30. We’ll wean and sell the lambs on June 25-26. We’ll go through the ewes on weaning day, too - and in the days that follow, I’ll decide which ewes I want to keep and which ones we’ll sell. Among the factors I’ll consider in making my decision are the age of the ewe, her maternal ability (which we track every year), her productivity (measured in pounds of lamb weaned over the last two years), and whether we’ve had to deworm her in the last two years. I’m still working out how to weigh each factor, but I’m glad that we’ve been using electronic ear tags as part of our record-keeping system for the last four years - having these records makes my job much more objective!

In addition to reducing our numbers, I’m looking for ways to simplify our management system. Perhaps we won’t split the ewes into two breeding groups (with different rams). Maybe we’ll look for dry summer forage within walking distance of our irrigated pasture (instead of hauling the ewes 7 miles down the road). We’ll definitely continue to shear earlier, allowing us to eliminate one series of trailer trips in the springtime. And we’ll continue to focus on maternal ability and effective flushing - keeping only the good mothers, and compressing our lambing season as much as possible will keep lambing labor manageable.

I also anticipate that my pasture management system will evolve. While we’ll still focus on taking sheep to feed (rather than feeding hay to sheep), I’m thinking my fence building time will be focused on weekends - which means I’ll try to build 7-day paddocks (or at least build enough paddocks to accommodate 7 days of grazing). This will be especially critical during irrigation season (April 15 - October 15), when my days will continue to start with 45+ minutes of moving water.

All businesses evolve; ours is no different. The next 12 months will be a learning experience, for sure - but we’ll still be in the sheep business! Stay tuned!

Monday, May 9, 2022

2022 Lambing Season Update

Over the last number of years, I've tried to document how our lambing season has gone in my Foothill Agrarian blog - not because I think it will be of interest to anyone else, but so I can find these reports and look back at our progress (or lack thereof). So here goes this year's report!

When we gathered the sheep into the corrals in mid-November to pull the rams, we noted that one of the best maternal ewes we've ever had (the ewe formerly known as 1386) was still cycling. We decided to combine the breeding groups (as well as our yearling ewes, which we typically don't breed) and leave them with two of our rams for another cycle (17 days) - with the hope that we'd get ewe lambs out of 1386. More on this later....

After a great start to our grass year (with germination occurring in late October, and enough rain in November and December to keep things going), the rain shut off in January. In fact, January - March 2022 were the driest we've ever experienced. Great lambing weather, but we were sure nervous about having enough forage. Thanks to Roger, who spent lots of extra time building fence in steep country we hadn't grazed in prior years, we were able to keep the sheep on rangeland 2 weeks later than normal (and cut out 2 trips in the trailer - we hauled directly home for shearing instead of going to irrigated pasture first).

During our pre-lambing vaccinations in mid-January, we saw evidence that ewes were starting to bag up, but nothing looked remarkably close or remarkably big (indicating multiple lambs). That said, overall, the sheep were in great condition.

On day 142 of gestation (February 16), the first two ewes delivered twins (2040, a Shropshire ewe was first; 23, a brockle-faced ewe went later the same day). We were off and running!

2022 turned out to be the most compressed lambing season we've ever experienced, and one of the best breed-ups. Our pregnancy rate was nearly 99% (including 1386, who was late bred). Every ewe except 1386 and the one open ewe we had this year lambed within a 30 day window. More than 70% of the ewes had multiples (twins or triplets). Two ewes raised triplets on rangeland pasture. Our total conception rate (including the late bred ewes and yearlings) was 175%; our lambs per ewe exposed is currently 1.52 - our best rate ever. And 1386 ended up delivering twins in April (ram lambs, of course, but at least she had lambs!). And six of the yearling ewes were late bred, as well - all with singles (and all are solid mothers).

A few other statistics:

  • Abortion rate: 3.4% (benchmark: less than 5%)
  • Death loss (all causes except abortion): 9.5% (benchmark: less than 5%)
  • Pull rate (% of lambs needing assistance): 5.4%
  • Jail rate (% of ewes that needed to be put in pen at lambing): 5.6%
  • Bottle lamb rate (% of lambs bottle raised): 3.4%
Part of the reason I write all of this down is so that we can analyze what went right and what we could do better next year. Here are a few things that I think we got right this year:
  • For the first time in several years, we fed the rams all summer at our home place. This meant I saw them every day, and adjusted their feed intake at the appropriate time prior to breeding. They were in great shape when they went in with the ewes.
  • We increased the flushing ration we provided the ewes (to 1 lb of dry COB and 0.5 lb of chia seed per head per day from September 15 through October 15. We then tapered off feed for three days instead of stopping abruptly.
  • Our irrigated pasture quality appeared to be improved during flushing and breeding.
  • We switched back to a loose mineral during breeding, which seemed to increase intake.
  • One of the contributing factors in our higher-than-expected death loss was an unusual degree of mis-mothering - mostly experienced ewes who tried to steal lambs from other ewes. We've marked these ewes to be culled, which will hopefully alleviate the problem.
Now the task will be to see if we can duplicate our success in the coming year. We'll continue with the management measures outlined above. I am also contemplating whether to continue to split the ewes into 2 breeding groups - as our business evolves and Roger steps back from Flying Mule Sheep Company, I'm looking for ways to simplify. Keeping the ewes at Blue Oak Ranch until the week of shearing was one step in this process; a single breeding group might be another. On the other hand, I like the breed combinations we currently have - perhaps 2 breeding groups for the first cycle is a practical compromise.