Like many of you, I expect, I've recently debated whether to keep my social media accounts - Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram sometimes seem like a bottomless pit of advertising and argument. But then something like this happens....
Last week, I wrote about the idea of an "ecological calendar" - a way to think about our production calendars from an ecological perspective (read the post here). I included my first rather awkward attempt at graphically displaying my own sheep production calendar - and shared the graphic on Instagram.
Within several hours, I had the most wonderful response from someone who listens to our Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know podcast - complete with an actual, real-world ecological calendar from a famous sheep-producing region in France! Yeva (@why_suarez on Instagram) shared this:
"The inner orange circle says “troupeau en montage” (herd in the mountains) and troupeau en crau (the Crau is a geographical area). Most sheep farmers in the south of France move their sheep to the mountain areas (like Haute Savoie, the mountains between Italy and France. Pyrenees is another system yet again) as there's not enough green pastures available, because of the high temperatures that dry out the land and/or because the irrigated areas are used to produce hay (there are more reasons, but that's the short version!). Wolves are a big issue, they will be guarded by a shepherd throughout the summer. But back to the calendar.
"You see two blue lines pass through all the circles, one: mid-June; one: beginning of October. That's when the sheep are away, which matches with the outer circle that says “estives dans les alpages.” Estives means summer pasture. Most of the sheep will be taken there, represented in the tiny sheep symbols. Outside that period is says in the circle “enneigement en montagne,” which is basically snow in the mountains!
"The arrows show the movement of the sheep to the different kind of pastures. In the Crau, you basically have two kinds, the green one that is irrigated and produces the hay and the dry one or the “Coussouls” that have a very specific kind of biodiversity and is known for its many rocks.
"It's a bit complicated to explain because it's a circular system, so it's all linked – which also makes it very cool, because the entire calendar is pasture and hay based, including lambing dates, etc. But basically, Foins de Crau is a very famous hay that's produced with a complicated irrigation system and is subject to many rules if it wants to qualify as “foins de crau,” as it's known for its very high quality. They cut it three times a year (in the calendar it says “1ere coupe = first cut, etc.). Each “cut” has a different nutritional component and is marketed differently. The fourth cut is not actually cut; it is eaten by the sheep when they return from the mountains. That's why you see the sheep symbols between October and February in the same circle as the “cuts” – we call those kinds of pastures the “prairies.”
"Half February (the blue line only overlaps the prairies and coussouls) they are then moved to the coussouls. The prairies will start growing again for the first foins de crau cut and the cassouls offer enough food. Some other shepherds bring sheep to hill areas nearby instead of the coussouls – it tends to depend on the particularities of that farm. The amount of sheep symbols has grown in the cassouls circle, because the herds tend to be much bigger as this calendar reflects an autumn lambing period, which is the overall tendency here.
"Outside the inner circle is a smaller blue one that shows when the prairies are irrigated with water and when not (“arrossage de pres”). The specific timing of the movement of the herds would be a much longer story! But I hope the different layers of the calendar are clearer now and why they are linked."
I shared this calendar explanation with my friend Dr. Hailey Wilmer, who is the Research Rangeland Management Specialist at the U.S. Range Sheep Production Efficiency Research Unit, in Dubois, Idaho. Her observation was that "calendars can help tell stories across landscapes." I agree - looking at the calendar Yeva shared, and the explanation she provided, helped me look again at my own calendar. I asked myself these questions:
- What is the heart of our sheep operation in terms of nutrition and forage? For us, I think, it's the annual rangeland we use in the winter and again in summer.
- What is the second most important forage resource? In our case, it's our irrigated pasture. Pasture is more productive - and also more costly. With sheep, we could probably figure out how to get along without it.
- Finally, how do our production needs (vaccinations, shearing, lambing, etc.) fit within these underlying forage cycles?
All of this brings me to a question for you! How does your production system fit the ecological cycles in your region? I hope you'll share! And I guess I'll keep my social media accounts for now....
Over the last ten years or so, I've had the opportunity to help teach farm and ranch business planning courses (first, as a collaborating producer; more recently, as an extension advisor). One of the exercises we've used to help producers relate their cash flow budgets to their production calendars is to create an operational timeline that includes key management activities - as well as the associated inflows and outflows of cash. While this timeline has been a useful teaching tool - it always seemed a bit flawed to me. The work of ranching, after all, is cyclical rather than linear. During our most recent Beginning Farming Academy, I tried a new approach - a circular calendar rather than a timeline. And it so happens that a recent article in Rangelands (the non-technical journal published by the Society for Range Management) puts a name to this approach. Karim-Aly Kassam, of the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment and the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at Cornell University, calls these "ecological calendars" - calendars that provide a systematic way to measure and give meaning to time based on our observations of the habitats in which we live.
As I read this paper, I realized that my approach to raising sheep largely revolves around this idea of an ecological calendar. Our sheep year starts and ends with the forage cycle here in the Sierra foothills. My starting point is to match our period of greatest nutritional demand (late gestation and early lactation - lambing season, in other words) with the time period when Mother Nature provides the greatest quantity of highly nutritious forage (the "spring flush"). This decision point gives us the ability to adjust our stocking rate to seasonal changes in the carrying capacity of our rangeland and irrigated pastures. We wean the lambs as the annual rangeland forages dry out. We manage our irrigated pasture to be sure we have quality forage prior to and during breeding season. Our ewes have their lowest nutritional demand during the late fall months. In many ways, our approach reflects an emphasis on the productivity of the ewes rather than the weaning weights of individual lambs - we're optimizing our ewes' ability to turn forage into fiber and lambs.
Our decision about when to lamb sets up other key dates in our production system, as well. We shear the ewes when the youngest lambs are 4-6 weeks old - in early May. The ewes shear better then, and we avoid some of the stickers that can contaminate our wool. We dry the ewes off (wean the lambs and end the ewes' lactation) on dry forage in mid-Summer - which allows us to rent the ewes out for fuel-load reduction on unirrigated rangeland. We flush the ewes (prepare them for breeding) in September, when our irrigated pasture begins to recover from the heat-induced summer slump in productivity. We turn the rams in with the ewes in late September, and the entire cycle starts again!
But as I've thought about our approach through the lens of an ecological calendar, I've realized that the key dates in our system have nothing to do with the chronological date - and everything to do with the annual cycles of weather and forage production. Rather than the names of the months, the headers on my ecological calendar are events - Germination Day, the Onset of Rapid Growth, the Summer Slump, the Autumn Rebound. Unlike the rigidity of the Gregorian calendar that most of us use, this ecological approach to our production schedule is incredibly flexible! Weaning day happens when the grass dries out, for example - which could be late May or late June, depending on the year. Longer-term flexibility is also possible - if we begin to see that our moisture and temperature regimes in the late winter and early spring change the timing of the spring flush, we can adjust our lambing date (by adjusting the date on which we turn the rams in with the ewes).
I suppose some will say that we're simply ranching with nature - that we're just adjusting our production to the cycles around us. But giving meaning to time based on my own observations of the world around me seems deeper than simply picking a lambing date to coincide with spring growth. Keeping track of how the world around me changes in response to things like the timing and amount of rainfall, the temperature of the air and the soil, the humidity and wind here in the foothills - all of this helps me adjust my interactions with the natural world. All of this helps make adapting our sheep enterprise to ever-changing conditions easier!
Be sure to check out our upcoming webinars on cattle production and targeted grazing - we have a great line-up of speakers and topics!
Tuesday, October 6 (6pm) - Introduction to Targeted Grazing
This webinar will provide an overview of targeted grazing, including grazing management, picking the right grazer for the job, livestock management, and customer relations. Cost: $10. Click here to register!
Thursday, October 15 (6pm) - Cattle Health – From Parasite Management to Vaccination Programs
With Dr. Gaby Maier (UCD School of Veterinary Medicine Beef Extension Specialist) and Dr. Becky Childers (Large Animal Veterinarian). Learn about controlling external and internal parasites, developing a vaccination program for your herd, and the importance of establishing a working relationship with your veterinarian. FREE! Sponsored by Tahoe Cattlemen's Association. Click here to register!
Tuesday, October 20 (6pm) - Beef Business Basics
With Dan Macon, UC Cooperative Extension; Judd Tripp, Placer County Rancher; and JC Baser, Placer County Rancher. This webinar will focus on basic economic analysis for new and existing ranching businesses. Our rancher panel will share their experiences operating successful foothill ranching enterprises. FREE! Sponsored by Tahoe Cattlemen's Association. Click here to register!
Thursday, October 22 (6pm) - The Basics of Grazing Management
With Dan Macon, UC Cooperative Extension; Greg Lawley, Placer County Rancher; Joe Fischer, Placer/Nevada County Rancher. Well-managed grazing can improve pasture productivity and cattle health. Learn the basics of grazing management and hear from ranchers who use these practices every day. FREE! Sponsored by Tahoe Cattlemen's Association. Click here to register!
Tuesday, October 27 (6pm) - The Business of Targeted Grazing
Join Dan Macon and a panel of targeted grazing contractors to learn about the ins and outs of building a targeted grazing business. Cost: $10. Click here to register!
Thursday, October 29 (6pm) - Beef Cattle Nutrition
With Dr. Pedro Carvalho, UC Davis Feedlot Management Extension Specialist. Learn basic information about beef cattle nutrition, from grazing to ration formulation. FREE! Sponsored by Tahoe Cattlemen's Association. Click here to register!
Once you've registered for each webinar, you'll receive a Zoom link that will allow you to participate. We'll also post videos of each webinar on the Ranching in the Sierra Foothills YouTube Channel.
Can any of us remember a summer like this?! The work of ranching continues - irrigating pasture, checking livestock, preparing for calving or breeding season. And yet the COVID-19 pandemic casts a pall over everything we're doing. Market disruptions - including increasing demand for direct-to-consumer meat products - add to the uncertainty we're all grappling with. I'm wearing a mask when I go to the feed store and limiting my trips to town. And, as I write, this, my youngest daughter is starting her last year of high school - from home.
Given the continued rise in COVID cases here in Placer County, our UC Cooperative Extension staff continues to work from home. But while we're not in the office, we are still out and about serving our communities. Our 4-H staff is working with our volunteer leaders and 4-H members to start the new 4-H year. Our nutrition staff continues to work with schools throughout the community to provide school gardens and nutrition/healthy lifestyles information for kids and adults. Our Master Gardeners have developed some incredibly innovative online educational opportunities. Check out our website at http://ceplacer.ucanr.edu/ for more details!
Our agricultural programs are also ongoing! I am working with colleagues at Davis and elsewhere to put on a bi-weekly webinar on a variety of grazing and livestock production topics. Our Working Rangelands Wednesdays series has covered topics like drought, targeted grazing, water quality, and fuel load reduction. You can register to participate in these webinars here.
I've also been collaborating with Ryan Mahoney of Emigh Livestock on a weekly podcast called Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know (available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts). While our focus has largely been on sheep industry topics, I think you'll find that many of our episodes are broadly applicable to all livestock production. If there's a topic you'd like us to take on, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Research projects aren't standing still, either - we are wrapping up our early weaning project at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center this fall. I'm continuing to collect data on predators and livestock guardian dog behavior on the Tahoe National Forest this summer. Our northern California irrigated pasture research continues, and we're about to start a collaborative forage variety trial with specialists from UC Davis and farm advisors from throughout the state. I find that I especially enjoy the days I get to spend in the field!
We are planning a number of virtual workshops this fall, including our "So You Want to Start a Farm or Ranch" workshop and our Beginning Farming Academy - stay tuned for details. And I'm working with the Tahoe Cattlemen's Association to organize a beef production workshop or webinar in late September. Watch my website for more information!
If you're on Instagram, you might check out my IGTV channels - covering a variety of topics from forage production and management to livestock guardian dogs. You can follow me on Instagram at @flyingmule.
Finally, I am available by phone, email, and in person! If you have a pasture, livestock, or range management question, call me at (530) 889-7385 or email me at email@example.com. I'm always glad to get out in the field, so don't hesitate to contact me!
These are strange times, to say the least. Stay safe, and stay positive. I hope to hear from you!
I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to get a fair bit of formal education - from my undergraduate days at UC Davis studying agricultural economics to the online coursework I took while obtaining my master's degree at Colorado State University. The certificates that hang on the wall in my office attest to this formal education; my membership in professional societies (like the Society for Range Management and Western Association of Agricultural Economics) gives me access to continued learning. My formal (and continuing) education has driven my intellectual curiosity.
Thankfully, I've also had the opportunity to learn from experience - my own and that of others. Much of what I've learned through my own experiences has been from mistakes that I've made! In many cases, I've learned what NOT to do next time. I've also had the good fortune to learn from others - from mentors (ranchers and colleagues). This informal learning is interesting - while there are times when it confirms what I've learned from books or in classrooms, it often makes me question my formal instruction. And it certainly drives my intellectual curiosity, as well.
Early on during our shelter-at-home experience this spring, my friend Ryan Mahoney, a sheep producer from Rio Vista, approached me with the idea of starting a podcast about sheep production. While Ryan operates at a very large scale (and we have a much smaller operation), we felt like we could both learn from one another. We also felt like taping a podcast would give us something to do every Wednesday afternoon! And so Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know was born! We've now produced 12 episodes in our first season, covering topics like risk management, the effects of COVID-19 on the sheep industry, and livestock guardian dogs.
"The best sheepherder gets the most out of the land by getting the most into the sheep."
As we continue producing Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know, Ryan and I hope to interview other producers to learn from their experiences. We'll also be talking with experts in animal health, livestock nutrition, marketing, and business management - learning from their experiences, and having fun along the way!
You can check out our podcast HERE! And let us know what topics you'd like to learn more about!/span>