Tuesday, March 23, 2021

A Little Piece of Work...

 ...and big satisfaction!

We moved sheep this afternoon. Not a momentous occasion - we move sheep at least once a week most of the year. Moving sheep during lambing is a bit more complicated, though - the lambs are old enough to be rambunctious, and young enough not to realize that the move means fresh feed (and that the border collie is serious about pointing them in the right direction). So while our little move up the road wasn’t a big deal, work-wise, I took great satisfaction in it.

Part of my satisfaction comes from getting work done. Too often, I think, many of us are unable to see the results of our work at the end of the day. At 4:30pm, the sheep were in a paddock that was running short on feed. By 5:30pm, they were happily grazing a new pasture. For a stockman, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing livestock with their heads down grazing. I find the sound of sheep grazing to be one of the most relaxing sounds I know.

But my satisfaction from afternoons like this is more profound than simply accomplishing a task. My partner Roger and I are students of livestock behavior - a simple move like this fascinates both of us. My current top dog, Mae, is an amazing working partner - she intuitively knows how much pressure to apply to a stompy ewe versus an airhead lamb. And just as importantly, the ewe flock we’ve spent a decade and a half building is mostly comprised of outstanding mothers. Before we left this evening, we walked through the sheep to make sure everyone was “mothered up” (that is, that lambs were with their mothers). I glanced up to watch Ewe 1386 (a ewe that tried to run me over when I “marked” her lambs three weeks ago) happily grazing with all three of her lambs nibbling grass beside her. She’s exemplary, but even the lesser mothers had their lambs in close proximity.

As I’ve said before, I think good stock people work in livestock as artists work in other media. Our sheep represent our “body of work” - a corpus that is always evolving and (hopefully) improving. Our sheep fit our land and our management - as Wendell Berry has written, we’ve “let the farm judge” the quality of our breeding program. Similarly, I take incredible satisfaction in the partnership that I have with my working dogs (both border collies and livestock guardian dogs). My “day job” can be stressful and, at times, unsatisfying. My sheepherding job, too, can be stressful - our current drought is a case in point. But there are days - and parts of days (like this afternoon) - that remind me why I love doing this.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Coming to Terms with Being Part-Time

Photo by Kaleiah Schiller

About a decade ago, I was focused on becoming a full-time rancher. We had more sheep than we'd ever had before (and more than we've had since). We were getting paid to graze within the city limits of Rocklin and Lincoln, as well as at Sierra College's campuses in Grass Valley and Rocklin. We were selling grassfed lamb and beef at farmers markets in Auburn, Roseville, Tahoe City, and Truckee. I was working more than full time, but was only paying myself a part-time wage. Ten years later, we run our sheep business as a part-time partnership. I work full time for the University of California; the sheep are a sideline. And I think I've finally embraced the idea of being a part-time rancher.

Ranching - raising grazing livestock on rangeland and pasture - has always been a difficult business. The amount of land necessary for an economically viable operation has always been enormous - even in relatively productive regions like the Sierra foothills. Over the years, I've realized that I would need to have at least 600 ewes to generate enough income to pay myself a reasonable full-time salary. This many ovine mouths would require somewhere around 1000 acres of rangeland and 120 acres of irrigated pasture to be feasible. While I might be able to earn similar income with fewer sheep if I were getting paid to graze, there would be tradeoffs in terms of headaches and time away from home. When I first began to realize the barriers to achieving my full-time goal, I cursed the modern-day challenges of urbanization (and conversion of land to other uses), of ranch fragmentation, of my own standard-of-living expectations. These external challenges were compounded by my own under-capitalization (partly due to my reluctance to take on debt) and, if I'm honest, my own naivete.

The transition away from my goal of ranching full-time wasn't always easy, nor was it a straight line. In 2012, I went to work part time for our local cooperative extension office as a community education specialist. The wages weren't great, but the health benefits were! In 2013 (just as our 1000-year drought was intensifying) I went to work half-time for McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista (where I was able to graze our sheep, as well). When the drought forced the operation to downsize in early 2014, I picked up more hours for cooperative extension. Later that year, I went to work as the beef herdsman at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, simultaneously starting an online master's degree program at Colorado State University. A year later, I joined the UC Rangelands Lab as an assistant specialist, focusing on water quality and drought issues. Finally, in 2017, I finished my master's degree and was hired as the livestock and natural resources advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in the community where I lived and raised sheep.

This personal history came back to me one evening last week as I was checking the lambing ewes well after dark (sheepherding is often solitary work, so my mind usually wanders!). Rangeland livestock production, at least at the family scale, has often been part time. Most of the ranchers I've known since I was a kid in Tuolumne County had a side hustle (before any of us even knew the term) - ranchers were often loggers, or worked at the sawmill. Somebody in the family usually had a town job - mostly for the benefits and stability of a regular income. Some ranchers were (and are) teachers, lawyers, contractors, or other professionals - maybe ranching is the side hustle!

Part of my struggle with being part-time, I think, has been the self-imposed idea that anything less than full-time is just a hobby. Several weeks ago, my friend Joe Fischer, who runs a purebred Angus operation here in the foothills, offered this observation:

"There are part-time ranches who take their operations seriously as a business. These are the ranchers who understand that their livestock often set the schedule - that even a part-time business can sometimes require full-time attention."

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from my favorite author, Ivan Doig:

"To be successful with sheep, even when you're not thinking about them, you need to think about them a little."

As I was walking through the ewes that evening last week, looking for a set of newborn lambs in the midst of a rainstorm, I thought about both of these quotes. I realized that a job or a business are simply a piece of making a "living" - that a "livelihood" is more than just the income I receive. Raising sheep, for me, is both a part-time business and a full-time avocation. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

More on Recreation...

Last month, as part of my “day job”, I organized a webinar I called, “Working with Ranchers: A Field Guide for Agencies and NGOs.” As I prepared for the workshop, I asked a handful of local ranchers what they would want agency and nonprofit staff to know about ranching. One of my friends said simply, “Tell them this isn’t recreation - it’s a business.” I am reminded of his sentiment this week as I start and end my work day by checking our lambing ewes.

Perhaps I should start by describing my morning/evening routine through the eyes of a non-rancher (if you’ll allow me that liberty). As the sun rises over the crest of the Sierra Nevada, I’m hiking through the grasslands and oak woodlands of the Placer County foothills. Climbing a hill gets my heart and respiration rates revved up. I notice the wildflowers starting to bloom - and if I’m lucky, I get to see some wildlife. Native birds, certainly; sometimes other critters as well! And then there are the lambs! New life - if you’ve never seen lambs bouncing across a green field, I’m sorry for you. And as the sun sets over the coast range, I marvel at the views of the Sacramento Valley and Sutter Buttes. I’m a lucky guy, to be sure.

Now let me describe what I’m actually doing! Lambing requires all of my senses. As you might imagine, I’m looking and listening intently as I walk through the flock. Looking to make sure that lambs are matched with their mothers. Looking to see if a ewe is in labor and might need help. Listening to hear if a ewe is calling for her lambs, or if a ewe is vocalizing as she’s pushing to deliver a lamb. Listening to and watching my dogs as well - are the livestock guardian dogs relaxed or anxious? I even rely on my sense of smell at times - a lambing flock smells different than a flock during the summer months. Lambing season, in other words, requires my total focus and total presence in the moment. And it requires me to work until the work is done - I don’t simply leave a ewe with a lambing problem because it’s time to get to a meeting. And I love it - I love the work of raising sheep like nothing else I’ve ever done.

So where’s the rub? The rub, for me, is in trying to relate to neighbors and friends who envy the morning walk without appreciating the morning work. The rub is in trying to explain that while this is a very part-time business, it’s still a business - and a livestock business, at that. The morning hike might be interrupted by a ewe whose lamb has died. The evening stroll might extend well past sundown as I try to make sure that every lamb has mothered up. My sleep might be interrupted by the need to make sure the sheep are okay during a late winter storm.

Don’t get me wrong - I’ve chosen (and continue to chose) to ranch part time and work full time. If I’m honest, I do this mostly (entirely?) because I love the work of raising sheep on grass in the Sierra foothills. But because I love it so intensely, I take it seriously. As my friend said last month, “This isn’t recreation.” For me, it’s that and much, much more.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Mixed Blessings and Sleepless Nights

I’m sure this will shock some of you, but rain in March makes me lose sleep - even in a dry year like this! I know I’ve vowed never to complain about rain again (having raised sheep through the millennial drought of 2012-2015) - and I’m not complaining now. But I also know I’m enough of a shepherd that I’ll probably not get a good night’s sleep tonight.

Let me explain! For the first time since we started lambing two-and-a-half weeks ago, we’re getting a decent rainstorm this evening. We absolutely need the rain - with the grass growing and the trees leafing out, our soil moisture deficit is reaching a critical point. We didn’t have much soil moisture to begin with; the lack of precipitation and the increased soil-water demand is concerning. There’s a chance that we’ll end March 2021 with less seasonal rainfall here in Auburn than we’d measured by this time in 2014. The grass-growing side of my brain is rejoicing tonight!

But the lambing side of my brain (and yes, at this stage of lambing season, grass and lambs is about all I have room for in my sheepherder mind) is anxious. Our production calendar tries to strike a balance between lambing during nice weather and lambing early enough to take full advantage of the spring flush of grass. Unlike many of the larger operations in the Delta and San Joaquin Valley, we don’t have sufficient fall forage to lamb in the fall, and I’m not willing to feed the hay necessary to lamb in mid-winter. Our compromise is to lamb in the late winter and early spring - when the grass is usually primed to take off. And when the weather can still be iffy. March, I think, is the cruelest month for a spring-lambing outfit like ours.

We are very intentional about our grazing and flock management year round - but especially so at lambing. We save our most sheltered pastures for lambing - our paddocks have enough tree and brush cover to provide shelter and windbreaks for the ewes and the lambs to get out of the weather. We’ve started using some nifty lamb raincoats developed in the UK - biodegradable plastic “lamb macs” that cost us less than $0.50 each. We make late night and early morning (before sunrise) rounds through the flock to make sure lambs are nursing.

Ultimately, though, we have to trust our sheep - and ourselves. We’ve spent years selecting for ewes that are great mothers - ewes that can count at least to two (and often to three), ewes that produce enough milk, ewes that know to shelter under the trees we’ve fenced within their paddocks. For the most part, our ewes have earned our trust!


But I know I’ll wake up tonight if we get a sudden downpour. I know I’ll wake up when my partner texts me after he’s walked through the sheep at 10 pm tonight. I know I’ll awaken even earlier than normal tomorrow morning, and that I’ll be checking the flock before the sun rises. And I know I’ll be grateful for whatever rain falls overnight. The blessing of rain is worth a sleepless night during lambing.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

To Every Season...

I grew up on Pete Seeger. I'm pretty sure my folks have most of his albums on vinyl, and I'm pretty sure I rushed the stage at a concert in Modesto (when I was 4 or 5) and yelled, "Play Abiyoyo, Pete!" - at least that's the family legend! Today, when I heard sandhill cranes overhead as I was checking the ewes for new lambs, the lyrics of Pete's song, Turn, Turn, Turn! (adapted from the book of Ecclesiastes) echoed in my brain. I may have even whistled the tune.

I've known David and Barbara Gallino since shortly after I went to work for the California Cattlemen's Association in 1992. When I first met them, the Gallinos ranched between Grass Valley and Auburn. They wintered their cattle in the foothills; they summered on the Tahoe National Forest above Camptonville. We hit it off from the first time we met.

At some point, when I started running sheep commercially in the early 2000's, David and I started a friendly competition to see who heard the sandhill cranes flying south in the fall and north again in February - whoever heard them first would call the other. For me, it was a measure of whether I was spending enough time outside.

When we started this tradition, we saw each other frequently. But lives change - David and Barbara sold their cows and transferred their grazing permit 5 or 6 years ago. I gave up on trying to run sheep full time and went to work for UC Cooperative Extension. Our paths still cross now and then, but not like they used to. David and Barbara still live on the ranch; I still run sheep.

This morning, as I was checking our lambing ewes and building fence, I heard sandhill cranes overhead for the first time in 2021. I dropped the roll of fencing I was carrying, and called David and Barbara. "You've heard 'em, haven't you?!" Barbara said when she picked up the phone, not even saying hello (they must have caller ID!). "David said this morning it was time for them to be going over!"

When David got on the phone, he said, "In late February, you're always a little down - the hay pile low, the mud's deep, and the grass isn't doing much. Then the sandhill cranes go over, and you realize, 'we're gonna make it another year.'"

These days, I only talk to David and Barbara when we hear the cranes, for the most part. But every September - when the cranes move south - we talk; we talk again in February. And every September, I know it's time to turn the rams in with the ewes when I hear the cranes. And I know we'll be lambing when the cranes start their migration to the north.

In 2021, as we're coping with a pandemic, the sound of the cranes today was reassuring. In all of the uncertainty of modern life, I take comfort in the fact that there are still things that come with each season. And I enjoy catching up with my friends, David and Barbara! I'm humming Turn, Turn, Turn! as I post this essay.

Monday, February 15, 2021

This isn't Recreation

In several weeks, I'm putting on a webinar for agency and nonprofit staff entitled, "Working with Ranchers." In preparation for the workshop, I polled a number of my ranching friends, asking them, "What would you want folks to know about ranching?" One of my friends responded, "It would be useful if they realized that it is a business, not a recreation." I was reminded of this comment today as I talked to a homeowner in the community where we graze our sheep all winter - she asked us to avoid 3-4 days worth of grazing on her property so her son could have a paintball battle with his friends.

Our sheep enterprise is very part time - we only have about 100 ewes. By my estimation, we'd need to be running at least 500 ewes to generate enough revenue to pay me a full time salary (albeit, less salary than I make now). But it is a business. We track our income and expenses. Our capital purchases (like equipment or dogs) have to increase revenue or decrease expenses. We generate a profit (a small one, but a profit nonetheless).

From the outside looking in, I suppose, the fact that we spend our Saturday mornings (not to mention the other days of the week) building fence rather than walking our dogs or having paint ball battles suggests that we're recreational sheepherders. I don't mean to suggest that we don't recreate - I love to fish, hunt, and backpack. For the last month, I've been sawing lumber with a chainsaw mill - purely recreational. But our sheep are a business, which I guess is difficult to fathom.

Losing 3-4 days worth of feed isn't a huge problem. I'm also aware that we're grazing on other people's property. But part of running this as a business, at least for us, is that we plan our grazing. Our planning is both short term (where will we be during the 6 weeks of lambing season) and longer term (will we have enough forage to come back to next fall). If we didn't run this as a business, I guess we'd just buy hay when we ran out of grass. As it is, we'll need to use 3-4 days worth of spring grass that we'd normally have saved for the fall.

All of this brings me back around to the workshop I'll be leading in 9 days. Working outdoors with livestock seems bucolic to many - I get that. And I'm probably guilty of giving my non-ranching friends the impression that most (if not all) of the rewards I enjoy from raising sheep are entirely recreational. I guess what I hope folks take away from the workshop is the fact ranching - like any other serious business - requires attention to detail, a focus on profitability, and a great deal of hard work.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Here We Go Again

I'm writing this on February 8, 2021. By my calculations, we should start lambing in 12 days. By the ewes' calculations, we'll probably begin a day or two before then. Regardless of when we actually begin, I find myself looking at the coming lambing season through a different lens than in previous years. In 2020, our lambing season was bisected by the original stay-at-home order issued in response to the arrival of COVID-19. This year, I look at lambing as a beacon of normalcy in what has been a chaotic twelve months.

As anyone who knows me can attest, lambing season is my favorite time of year. Lambing, even at our relatively small scale, is an intense period. Next week. we'll begin checking the ewes 2-3 times a day; at least three times a day once the first lambs are born. In stormy weather, we'll check the sheep through the night, as well. But the work of a shepherd is rewarded with being able to witness new life first hand. Our work is rewarded when we watch week-old lambs discover the springs in their legs. Our work is rewarded because it connects us to shepherds who lived generations - or even millennia - ago. Shepherds who would recognize the work we do in the 21st Century.

Between the pandemic and politics, the last year has been tumultuous (to put it mildly). My work as a farm advisor has changed - rather than offering hands-on learning experiences for ranchers, I've provided webinars on Zoom. The administrative responsibilities of my job have been overwhelming at times. And so I'm finding that I'm looking forward to lambing even more than normal.

To be a shepherd is to be socially distant, in many ways. The economics of raising sheep (or any livestock or crop, really) requires us to be as efficient with our labor as possible. In other words, we can't afford any more help than absolutely necessary! And while our sheep are a sideline for me economically, I find that I look forward to the early mornings spent feeding guard dogs and checking fences. I especially look forward to walking through the lambing paddock at the start of every day from late February through early April. And to doing it again at the end of each day.

Caring for animals during the birthing process, for me, takes a specific kind of focus and patience. I make myself slow down during lambing - I'm on the ewes' schedule, not my own. That's not to say I ignore my other responsibilities, but I will admit to rescheduling - or even cancelling - a meeting that conflicts with the necessary work of pulling a lamb or making sure a ewe has bonded with her babies. Lambing helps me understand priorities.

This year marks the sixteenth lambing season since we started raising sheep commercially. As I grow older, I realize that I have a finite number of these lambing seasons ahead of me. This year, with all that's happened in our community, our country, and our world since my last lambing season, I'm taking a deep breath. Thank goodness - here we go again!