I realized last weekend that I hadn't posted any updates to my Livestock Guardian Dog journal for some time. Elko, our new pup, is growing quickly - and his behavior is evolving, too. As you might recall, we'd placed Elko in a paddock with an older ewe and several ewe lambs. One of the older ewe lambs had apparently decided Elko was her lamb, which was intimidating for the pup. At the same time, Elko had taken to trying to play with the younger ewe lambs. We decided that we needed to move him - both for his safety and comfort, and to help him understand that he shouldn't play with the sheep. We put him in a smaller paddock with two of our rams, which seemed to help. He's more respectful of the sheep, but the rams don't intimidate him like the ewe lamb did. We'll keep monitoring his behavior - he may go to the ranch to live with our entire ram battery once we separate them from the ewes. We'll also consider putting him with one of the older dogs for a few weeks (with sheep).
On Saturday, I also had a chance to observe some interesting behavior with our older dogs. We combined breeding groups last week, so both dogs are in the same paddock at the moment. Reno, who is approaching 10 years of age, is a neutered Anatolian male. Bodie, who will be 2 early next year, is an intact Anatolian-Maremma cross.
On several occasions in the past, Reno has killed raccoons that come into his paddock. If you've been around raccoons, you'll know that they can be fairly vicious - most dogs give them a wide berth. We always keep an eye on Reno after we find a raccoon to make sure he doesn't develop infections from bites. On Saturday morning after I fed the dogs, they both trotted to the far end of the 3 acre paddock and began barking at something in a small tangle of blackberries. As I approached, I realized that whatever it was they had cornered was snarling and defending itself.
Here's a video of what transpired:
I made several observations:
- Reno is definitely still the alpha dog in this group. He took the lead in investigating and challenging the intruder to the paddock.
- The sheep responded to the alarm raised by the dogs. Whether it was because they didn't like the barking or because they knew the dogs were communicating that there was an intruder, they decided to move away from the commotion.
- Once I decided to move the sheep into a new paddock (to allow the intruder to escape - if you've watched the video, you'll know why), the dogs both decided to stay with the sheep rather than continue to try to get at the intruder. However, both dogs remained focused on the blackberry patch on the other side of the fence).
The literature I've read suggests that livestock guardian dogs may fill the ecological niche typically filled by wild canids in our environment (mostly coyotes in the foothills). The behavior I observed last weekend would fit this hypothesis, I think. Over the course of the next several months, I'll be using game cameras and GPS collars on both sheep and dogs to test this idea further - stay tuned!
Keeping track of production records, income and expenses, grazing use, and other key information is an important function for any ranching business. These records provide critical information for decision-making and operational planning. As I've realized recently, they can also provide essential documentation in case something happens to me. My family - and others involved in our sheep operation - could use these records to pick up my work if I somehow become incapacitated.
Record-keeping requires discipline - for me, this means recording activities and expenses when they occur (I find that I'm easily distracted - if I don't record these things immediately, I forget them). I've tried handwritten journals with limited success - we keep and handwritten journal during lambing to record each lamb's birth, but I have never been good about recording other day-to-day activities in this manner. Usually, the diary gets left in the truck or on my desk at home - and eventually it's forgotten or misplaced.
Several years ago, I decided that my smart phone might offer a more readily available method for recording these activities - after all, I have my phone with me at all times (not always a good thing, but helpful in this case). Smart phones also have the ability to take photographs, which can aid in recording detailed information. After several attempts at using journaling apps that my family and my partner could also use, we decided to create a "secret group" on Facebook. With a secret group, only members of the group can access and post information - and those of us in the group control this access. Nobody else knows about it or sees it on their feed. Since it's Facebook, we can post as many photos as we need to. We can search for specific terms or dates. We can post photos with the serial number and expiration date of the vaccines we use. And each of us can see what the other members of the group have posted.
Ours is not the perfect system - I sometimes worry whether anything in the cloud is truly private. But it does help me be more disciplined about recording my activities. It has provided a detailed record of where the sheep are, what we're doing with them, and what kinds of financial transactions we're making. The combination of photographic and written records is useful for comparing forage conditions and sheep management from one year to the next. For us, it's become a virtual day book that everyone involved in our business can contribute to and see.
Modern electric fencing systems can be incredibly useful in a variety of settings. Single-wire portable systems can help producers manage grazing on irrigated pastures or crop stubble. Multiple-wire fences and electro-net systems are used to control sheep and goats in targeted grazing situations or on properties without permanent fencing. Multiple-wire systems can also be used to temporarily fence riparian areas and other key sites in rangeland settings. Finally, these systems can also help protect livestock from predators.
Unlike the physical barrier of a barbed wire or woven wire fence, electric fence is a psychological barrier. As such, animals need to be trained to respect electric fence - and we humans have to be trained to install, maintain, and use it correctly! And as with any management tool, efficiency is critical to making portable electric fencing systems work from a labor and cost perspective. At one time or another, we've used electric fencing in our own operation to contain sheep, goats, cattle, horses, mules, chickens and hogs.
On Thursday, November 9, we will be holding our first Electric Fencing Field Day at Robinson Ranch in Penn Valley, California, beginning at 8:30. You'll learn about the principles of electric fencing, get hands-on experience with a variety of fencing systems, and learn how to troubleshoot problems. Thanks to our co-sponsor, LiveWire Products, you'll have a chance to learn about the latest fencing technology!
For more information, or to register for this free workshop, click here! Or email me at email@example.com for more information!
The Placer County agricultural community has lost a number of key members in the last several years. Several, like my friends J.R. Smith and Jim Bachman, passed away after lengthy illnesses. Others, like Eric Hansen and Tony Aguilar, were taken from us unexpectedly. In each case, our community lost a leader and a good farmer. In each case, their farms and ranches have undergone significant and largely unanticipated transitions. And with each loss, I've realized that I need to do a better job at preparing my own ranching operation for the unexpected.
Farms and ranches are, in many ways, living organisms. Even when the farmer or rancher is incapacitated or gone, the lives of our operations continue. For some, this means caring for trees or vines. For my ranching enterprise, this means caring for sheep and guard dogs. I've realized over the last several months that the day-to-day work of running the ranch is largely (and inappropriately) in my head.
Recently, I've started taking steps to remedy this situation. The starting point, at least for me, has been to think about the questions that my family might have if I were no longer around. I've organized this into daily and monthly (or seasonal) tasks. Every day, the livestock guardian dogs and border collies must be fed. The condition of the sheep and the quantity of forage in their paddocks must be checked. From April 15 to October 15, the irrigation water must be moved. On a seasonal basis, the sheep must be moved to different properties. We flush the ewes in September, turn the rams in October through mid-November, vaccinate the ewes in January, and shear the ewes in May. I've started by writing all of this information in one place.
After thinking about my daily, monthly and yearly activities, I started considering the people my family would need to contact. I have all of the contact information for our pasture leases in my phone; it needs to be in my written plan as well. I purchase supplemental feed and minerals for the sheep; these suppliers' information and the types of feed I purchase should be in the plan. I handle the marketing of our wool and most of our lambs - contacts for our sheep shearer and wool buyer and lamb buyers should be in the plan. We graze on land owned by more than 15 different landowners - I need to put their contact information in one place. I also think about the unexpected things I've had to deal with on the ranch. If a water line breaks, I need to turn off the irrigation water - where's that valve? What's the password to the computer where I keep my financial records?
After writing this basic information down in one place, my next step has been to share it with my family and with my partner to see what I've omitted - I expect that they'll have questions I haven't considered. I'll also show my plan to a fellow rancher - I'm certain she'll see things I've missed, as well. Finally, I'll print out a hard copy for my family and for my partner.
For most of us (myself included), thinking about our own mortality is usually unpleasant (or at least uncomfortable). Personally, I've found it helpful to think of this exercise as a process of ensuring the life (and lives) of my ranch will continue after I'm gone. I've found it helpful to think about making things easier for those who might have to care for our livestock and our land when I'm gone. And in some ways, working on this project feels like I'm honoring the legacy of those good farmers who've left our community. I suppose I'm still learning from them.
If you're interested in learning more about planning for the continuity of your farm or ranch - and in sharing your experiences - join us for our next Farmer-to-Farmer Dinner at the Auburn Veterans Hall on Wednesday, November 1, from 6 to 9 p.m. Please register for this event at on this web page! This free event is supported by grants from the USDA Risk Management and Farm Service Agencies.
About 12 years ago, we acquired our first livestock guardian dog from a ranch in eastern Yuba County. Scarlet, as we named her, came to us as a 6-month old Akbash-Pyrenees pup. We were neophytes in the world of livestock guardian dogs, so we immediate put Scarlet with our breeding flock. The following February, when the first lamb hit the ground, Scarlet promptly decided that the lamb was hers; she chased the ewe away and cleaned the lamb. As we learned, maternal instinct can be a powerful force - in sheep and in dogs. A few days of watching her closely and scolding her when she tried to mother a lamb seemed to fix the problem.
This weekend, we experienced the opposite relationship. Our youngest daughter has her own small flock of sheep that she breeds for fair lambs. This fall, she's taken in a number of additional ewes from folks that want lambs from her ram. These sheep are in a pasture adjacent to the paddock where Elko (our LGD pup) is living. Emma also has several ewe lambs from this year that she recently sold; we're working on arrangements for the buyers (who are in Twin Falls, Idaho) to pick them up. The oldest of these ewe lambs came into heat this weekend, and her maternal instincts kicked in. Yesterday, we noticed that she was taking a keen interest in Elko. As we watched her, we realized that she was treating Elko like her lamb. She'd paw at him to get him to stand up (which ewes will do if they want their lambs to nurse). She licked him vigorously like she was trying to clean afterbirth off him. And she'd knicker at him like a ewe will do to call her newborn lamb.
Elko was intimidated by her behavior. He'd yelp if she backed him into a corner, and he'd nip at her if her licking became too aggressive. We decided that it would be best to separate them; we put the ewe lamb into a different paddock. Elko seems to be fine with the rest of the sheep in his pen.
I'm curious if others have observed this kind of behavior! What have you done when something like this has happened?