My friend Ryan Mahoney, who manages Emigh Livestock near Dixon, California, has embraced a variety of new ranching technologies. He's invested in electronic identification systems, automated weighing and sorting systems, and other technology designed to utilize critical resources (land, labor, and water, especially) more efficiently. But while Emigh Livestock is definitely a larger-scale operation, Ryan also stresses the importance of human intelligence and experience when it comes to raising sheep and cattle. "Nothing can ever replace the 'eye of the shepherd,'" Ryan told me recently. "but these technologies can help us make better decisions - and make our operation more profitable in the long run."
Most of our foothill ranches operate at a smaller scale, but the combination of the "eye of the rancher" and new technology is equally important. For example, we've started using electronic identification systems to make better decisions about our sheep while reducing labor at lambing and weaning (see Electronic ID Systems: Can They Pay for Small-Scale Livestock Producers?). We rely on portable electric fencing systems to allow us to graze rangeland and irrigated pasture that we couldn't safely access otherwise. And for the last several years, we've used Facebook and Google Calendar and Google Earth to track our management activities (see My Virtual Day Book).
Several years ago (before I became the livestock and natural resources advisor for Placer, Nevada, Sutter and Yuba Counties), a group of us formed what we somewhat jokingly called the Foothill Grazing Geeks. Our common interest was (and still is!) learning all we can about grazing livestock in the Sierra Foothills. We meet on a somewhat regular basis on each others' ranching operations. The host ranch sets the agenda (which usually includes both new ideas and nagging questions about some aspect of grazing cattle, sheep or goats). Occasionally, we even organize field trips to visit operations outside of the foothills. Almost always, we talk (at least tangentially) about some of the technology we use. And as the photo at the top of this post suggests, we spend a great deal of time staring at grass!
During the course of these visits, I've learned about using a trash pump to fill portable water tanks to haul water to livestock (from Brad and Alana Fowler at The Goat Works). I've learned about pod irrigation systems and pasture mapping applications (from Rob Thompson at Legacy Ranching and Spencer and Melissa Tregilgas at Free Hand Farm). I've learned about single-wire electric fencing (from Albert and Connie Scheiber at Scheiber Ranch). I've learned about new forage varieties and the potential for embryo transfer to accelerate genetic progress (from Joe Fischer at Bruin Ranch). I've seen first hand how drones can help manage and monitor grazing (from Roger Ingram at Flying Mule Farm).
Each of these ranchers has embraced technology as a way to improve efficiency and manage information more effectively. Even so, the "eye of the rancher" is still important in their operations. Real-world experience - and the powers of observation - are still critical in the day-to-day management of grazing animals. Technology can help, but there does not seem to be any short cut to developing this "eye" - experience is a journey all ranchers must take. I still rely on my experience to estimate the number of grazing days in a particular pasture, or to notice an individual animal that looks a little off. Technology has helped to train the eye of this shepherd, but it hasn't replaced it!
On October 30, our Foothill Grazing Geeks group will co-host a Grazing Technology Field Day in Auburn (from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.). Each Geek will show case specific technology - but we're hoping that others will share their favorite grazing and ranching tech as well! The event is free-of-charge, but we are asking folks to RSVP here (after all, we need to know how much coffee and how many donuts we'll need to provide!). Hope to see you there!
Electronic identification (EID) systems for livestock provide a number of potential advantages for producers, and new technology is making these systems more affordable. From an animal management and recordkeeping perspective, EID systems make tracking genetics, animal performance, and animal health easier and more robust. From a product perspective, EID systems can facilitate greater feedback on product quality from processors, as well as improved trace-back capabilities. But EID systems can be expensive. This post will help small-scale livestock producers consider the benefits and costs of adopting EID technology.
Our Old System
In my sheep operation, our previous record-keeping and animal identification system evolved over a number of years. Our ID system developed to facilitate the kinds of records we needed to make management decisions, track production, and market our lambs.
At lambing, each lamb received a small, brass ear tag. Rams and terminal lambs were tagged in the right ear. Potential replacement ewe lambs were tagged in the left ear. Down the road, this system allowed for a quick visual cue for sorting sheep. At lambing, we kept a handwritten journal, in which we recorded birth date, dam ID, birth type (single, twin, etc.), breeding group, and EZ Care score (the EZ Care score is used to evaluate ewes as well as potential replacement ewe lambs). These handwritten records were transferred to an Excel spreadsheet every evening during lambing. During this time, we noted any ewes that needed to be culled for reproductive or maternal reasons.
At weaning, we put visual identification tags (free USDA scrapie tags) in each lamb after we separated lambs from ewes. We hand recorded each tag number, matching with the brass lamb tag number. If a ewe lamb was going to be retained, we put a colored ear tag (associated with her breeding group) with the year of her birth in her other ear. We also hand-recorded the body condition score for each ewe. Since the tagging process could be somewhat lengthy (because we had to read each lamb tag), we generally brought the lambs back in a day or two later to give their weaning vaccinations.
During the course of the year, if we treated an individual animal with antibiotics or dewormer, we recorded her (or his) ear tag number in an online journal (using Facebook and Google Calendar), noting the appropriate withdrawal period. At shearing, flushing, breeding and pre-lambing vaccinations, we checked animals against an inventory list. While we never kept track, I suspect we have had a tag loss rate of about 3 percent per year. If we couldn't read the ewe's old lambing tag, we lost the data associated with her old number. Finally, we collected individual body condition scores on a handwritten list at weaning, flushing and breeding.
When we marketed our lambs, we tried to remember to write down ear tag numbers. If we were direct marketing lambs with the help of Superior Farms, we would send processing instructions for each group by paint mark – red marks processed one way; blue marks another (for example). We sometimes received lot yield information from Superior Farms (mostly carcass weight and sometimes yield grade).
Even though our system wasn't perfect, it seemed to work. By keeping close track of the maternal traits measured in our EZ Care lambing system, we improved maternal ability and reduced lambing labor. We were able to track vaccinations and medications and ensure appropriate withdrawal times. Our Excel records seem to provide the management data we need for decision making purposes. So why change?
In 2017, USDA announced that it would no longer provide plastic scrapie tags for free. Being extremely frugal (okay, cheap!), I decided to look for other alternatives. Replicating our current system (brass lamb tag, scrapie tag and colored breeding group tag) would cost approximately $2.13 per head (not including lost tags). We started to evaluate other options.
Shearwell Data, a company from the UK, announced that its EID tags were approved for the USDA Scrapie Eradication Program. As we looked into this option further, we discovered that these tags were reasonably priced ($1.03/tag in the quantities we needed). They came in different colors (which would allow us to use them for visually sorting our breeding groups), and they had a 99 percent retention rate (better than our old tags). This year at weaning, we started using Shearwell tags.
The decision to move to EID tags doesn't end with the purchase of the tags, however; we also needed to buy a reader. Several years ago, while working for a large-scale sheep outfit in Rio Vista, I used a Shearwell reader (which looked much like the scanners that UPS drivers use to track packages). The scanner worked reasonably well once it was set up to record the data we needed. Unfortunately, because tech support was in the UK, getting help during business hours was impossible. It also required the user to be very close to the sheep, which was difficult with some ewes. In talking with my friends at Emigh Livestock (also in Rio Vista), they suggested checking out a reader made by Gallagher. It would read the Shearwell tags, but they liked the user interface and wand-like construction better than the Shearwell reader. After seeing theirs in use, we went with the Gallagher HR5, at a cost of about $2,200.
With the Shearwell tags and the Gallagher reader, we can automatically collect all of the data we've been collecting by hand – and then some. We can record all of the lambing data we need to make marketing and retention decisions. We can mark a ewe for culling – and get an alarm on the reader the next time she comes into the sorting chute. We can add visual ID tag numbers in case we lose an EID tag. We can link a ewe's ID to her lamb's. And when we're done with a working session, we can download all of this data into an Excel spreadsheet. The reader also connects via Bluetooth to our smart phones.
The New System
Our new system will reduce both labor and the direct costs associated with ear tags and livestock identification. Because the Shearwell tags are smaller (and more likely to stay in) than our old scrapie tags, we'll use these tags at birth (instead of the brass lamb tags). We'll record ewe and lamb information with the reader, which will automatically populate our Excel spreadsheets. At this point, we can also mark a ewe to cull (which will give us an alarm every subsequent time we scan that ewe). Since the lambs will already have their permanent tag, we won't need to bring them in twice at weaning – we can wean and vaccinate all in one session. Using the reader, we can also automatically include withdrawal times for any treatments or vaccinations we administer, which will give us a warning if those animals are scanned again (at shipping, for example) – no more checking numbers against a written list (and no more clipboards in the corrals). Because we're using different colors for each breeding group, we'll still be able to sort into breeding groups visually (instead of having to scan ear tags). We'll collect individual body condition scores at weaning, flushing and breeding – allowing us to track and analyze the nutritional status individual ewes (as well as breeding groups). When we sell lambs to Superior Farms, we'll get detailed carcass data back on each lamb. Since we won't need someone dedicated to writing information at weaning, flushing and breeding, we can get by with less labor at these key times.
But What About the Cost?!
The cost of the entire system is significant. We could have decided to use the EID tags (simply to get carcass data) and not purchase the reader, but we think the reader will offer enough labor savings and additional data management benefit to justify the expense. Just to be certain, however, I have analyzed the investment in more detail, looking at both a simple payback period and the net present value of the investment.
A simple payback period is calculated by dividing the initial investment by the net increase in revenue resulting from the purchase. The net present value analysis accounts for the time value of money – it is the difference between the present value of cash inflows and the present value of cash outflows over a period of time. The discount rate is used to reflect the potential for inflation or other risk to diminish the future value of that income stream.
I estimate that the new system will save us over $500 in labor each year (less time at lambing and weaning – and less time generally tracking inventory). We'll also save a bit of money in ear tags (buying one tag instead of 3 for each animal). The net revenue increase per year, then, is around $606.50. I assume the reader will have a useful life of 15 years, with no salvage value (that is, nobody will want to buy it when we're done it it).
Based on a purchase price for the reader of $2,200, here's what my analysis shows:
- Simple Payback Period ($2,200 ÷ $606.50) = 3.6 years. This means we can pay back this purchase in less than 4 years.
- Net Present Value (Discount Rate = 5%, 15 year useful life) = $2,098. This means the $2,200 investment we made this year will add nearly $2,100 to our bottom line in today's dollars over the lifetime of the reader!
These analyses do not account for the improvements we should be able to make in carcass quality through better genetic selection, nor the ability to provide our customers with traceback opportunities. And I'm sure there are other management benefits I haven't considered!
Investing in this technology today gives us new potential opportunities down the road, too. Flock management software, based on these EID tags, may give us even more savings and/or added revenue. In an ever tightening agricultural labor market, automated weighing and handling systems may allow us to continue to raise sheep with no outside labor. And I suspect there are new applications being developed!
Even small-scale operations like ours should make decisions on management systems, equipment, and technology based on economics. The decision to implement an EID system, at this stage, seems economically sound. We'll continue to track the costs and benefits as we fully implement the system.
 All sheep and goats over 18 months of age must have a USDA-approved scrapie ear tag when they are sold. Most auction yards require scrapie tags regardless of the animal's age./span>
As a (relatively) new livestock and natural resources farm advisor, I'm fortunate to have known and worked with my predecessors (Roger Ingram in Placer-Nevada and Glenn Nader in Sutter-Yuba). I'm also fortunate to be working in a region where I've lived for most of my life. Even so, during my first year on the job, I've been conducting an informal needs assessment to determine the direction and focus of my research and extension program. And I've been learning a great deal!
One of the first things I realized in this process is that the breadth of geography, terrain and ecosystems in my four-county region is remarkable. The lowest point in Placer, Nevada, Sutter and Yuba Counties is 23 feet above sea level at Joes Landing on the Sacramento River (Sutter County). The highest point in my four counties is Mount Lola in Nevada County at 9,148 feet above sea level. Rangeland types extend from Sacramento valley grasslands and riparian habitats, through the vernal pools and blue oak woodlands of the foothills, through the mixed conifer belt and mountain meadows of the Sierra Nevada, and on to the eastside pine and sagebrush habitats east of the Sierra crest.
The livestock production systems in my four counties reflect this variation. The ranches in my region primarily produce beef cattle, sheep, goats, hogs and poultry. Operational size varies as well, from small-scale, part-time ranches to large-scale, extensive enterprises. Grazing resources range from annual grassland to irrigated pasture (valley, foothill and mountain) to mountain meadows to sagebrush steppe, as well as a significant amount of brush-land.
Ranch ownership tends to be somewhat less diverse (at least according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture). 86% of ranch owners identify as white, and 61% are male. My focus is on serving commercial livestock producers; targeted grazing contractors; land trusts and other nonprofits with an emphasis on rangelands; local, state and federal land and resource management agencies; and local community and consumer groups interested in local food systems and natural resource management.
As I said, my method for learning about the needs of the region was largely informal. Over the course of my first year, I met with a variety of ranchers, agency land managers, nonprofit organizations, and others. These conversations revealed three primary and interrelated areas of need for applied research and extension activities:
Based on these themes, I've initiated a number of research and educational activities, including:
- Research regarding specific rangeland drought management and response tools.
- Research and demonstration of tools for enhancing the productivity and sustainability of irrigated pasture.
- Research and demonstration of tools that help minimize livestock-wildlife conflicts.
- Development and facilitation of emergency planning and response tools (especially for wildfire) for commercial livestock producers.
- Development and demonstration of ranch business planning and economic analysis tools, including online tools.
- Continued development of hands-on livestock husbandry and grazing management educational programs.
- Research into and demonstration of grazing as a vegetation management and fuel load reduction tool.
I'm very fortunate to be working with extension colleagues within my region and throughout the state on many of these issues. One of the strengths of the cooperative extension system is this opportunity for collaboration and for tapping into cutting edge research led by our campus-based specialists. As I begin my second year as an advisor, I am working with colleagues on a variety of projects:
- We're starting a 3-year study into the economic and ecological consequences of weaning calves early as a drought response strategy. This research will be conducted at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center.
- I'm leading an ongoing effort to better understand the direct and indirect impacts to ranching operations from a variety of predators, including gray wolves.
- We've developed research-based information regarding the effectiveness of a variety of livestock protection tools.
- We're continuing to offer a variety of farm and ranch business planning workshops and short courses designed to help beginning and established producers improve economic viability.
- We're conducting a cross-sectional survey of irrigated pasture management systems throughout northern California, including on five sites in Placer and Nevada Counties.
- I'm starting a research project evaluating livestock guardian dog behavior and wildlife interactions that may ultimately include ranch partners and researchers in other Western states.
Coming into this position from a production background, I've realized that there are more needs than any one person can possibly address. My needs assessment has helped me identify what I feel are the key priorities currently. Obviously, these needs will evolve as economic, environmental, and climatic conditions change. What an exciting prospect!
I'd still like to hear from and talk with more producers! Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 889-7385 if you have questions, comments, or would like to schedule a ranch call!/span>
In our operation, there are several ways we can accomplish this work. We can move our portable corral system to the pasture where the sheep are grazing; we can move the sheep back to our corrals; or we can simply use dogs to bunch the sheep in the pasture and catch each animal individually. Being an agricultural economist by training (and somewhat of a economics geek), my first inclination is to compare the costs of each of these alternatives!
Option 1: Move the Corrals: We have a set of homemade portable corrals that incorporate Bud Williams' alley design (a "Bud Box" system). Two of us can dismantle, load and re-assemble this set up in about 45 minutes. This system allows us to put sheep into a race or alley to check eyes and treat infected individuals with a drench dewormer. The work of treating the 39 sheep in this bunch takes about 30 minutes. If we value our own labor at $15/hour, I estimate that this option would cost us $108 in labor (if we include the time it takes to move the corrals back to our headquarters).
Option 2: Move the Sheep to the Corrals: The lambs are currently grazing about 0.34 miles from our corrals. To walk the sheep from this pasture to our corrals, we would need to go through 5 gates and cross over land owned by four different people. The move is not terribly complicated (and our border collies love the work!), but it does take about 20 minutes to walk the sheep to the corrals to be treated - and another 20 minutes to walk them back to the pasture. Treatment time is the same as in option 1 - the total labor cost for option 2 is about $35.
Option 3: Treat the Sheep in the Pasture: My cowboy friends would call this a "rodear," I suppose - this option simply involves holding the sheep in a bunch in the pasture and catching each animal individually. For a group of sheep this size, two good dogs are sufficient. The dogs hold the sheep in a tight group. One of us catches each animal and examines the eye mucous membranes; the other person administers the drench (as needed) and marks the sheep. Any sheep showing anemia is treated with a drench; any sheep without symptoms is not treated. So that we can keep track of which sheep we've examined, we put a blue mark on the rump of those who do not need dewormer and a red mark on the rump of those we treat. Examining 39 lambs and treating those with symptoms takes about 30 minutes - our total labor cost for this option is $15. I suspect that this system is less stressful on the sheep, as well!
Obviously, this simplistic analysis doesn't capture the capital costs of acquiring and training the dogs (or of building the corrals, for that matter). Nor does it account for the cost of feeding and caring for the dogs. It also fails to account for the investment in building our own skills - I certainly could not have treated 39 lambs in 30 minutes when I started raising sheep commercially nearly 15 years ago. That said, our ability to handle livestock and use dogs effectively allowed us to treat 39 lambs before work this morning!
If you're interested in building your own stockmanship and sheep husbandry skills, there are two outstanding learning opportunities next several months:
September 14-15, 2018
UCCE - Auburn
11477 E Avenue, Auburn, California 95603
This two-day, hands-on grazing school will provide participants with practical, field-based experience in applying the principles of managed grazing on rangeland, brushland and irrigated pasture. Working in teams, participants will learn to estimate carrying capacity and graze periods, develop grazing plans and monitoring systems, and create drought and predator protection plans.
Day 1 (Friday, September 14 - 8 a.m. - 8 p.m.)
- Principles of Managed Grazing
- Sheep Husbandry Basics (electric fence, carrying capacity, stockmanship, sheep husbandry, etc.)
- Setting up a 24-hour Graze (field activity)
- Goat Husbandry Basics)
- Matching Production Calendars to Forage Calendars
- Controlling Internal Parasites
- Dinner and Panel Discussion
Day 2 (Saturday, September 15 - 8 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.)
- Sheep and Goat Nutrition
- Pasture and Range Ecology (field activity)
- Grazing Planning and Monitoring
- Pasture Walk and Assessment
- Targeted Grazing
- Livestock Protection Tools
Cost: $200 (includes breakfast, lunch and dinner on Day 1; breakfast and lunch on Day 2). Also includes all course materials. No refunds - your payment guarantees your space.
Hotels are available in Auburn.
For more information: