- Posted By: Foothill Farming
- Written by: Dan Macon
While my wife and I have raised sheep for nearly 20 years, we've been doing it a commercial scale since 2006. As part of a team that puts on a beginning farming class, I recently looked back at how we got started in the sheep business. This formal look back helped me to realize how much I didn't know when we started Flying Mule Farm.
So much of small-scale farming is skill-based. Farming takes an immense amount of knowledge, yes; but it also takes a wide variety of physical, observational and mental skills. For example, take stockmanship - the ability read, understand, and handle livestock. A good stockman understands livestock behavior and is able to quickly observe subtle changes in this behavior. A ewe with droopy ears, for example, may be sick. A restless, pregnant ewe may be getting ready to give birth. Animals that are laying down and chewing their cuds contentedly probably have had enough to eat.
We purchased a small group of feeder lambs when we first moved to Auburn in 2001. They were extremely wild - so wild, in fact, that we took to feeding them in a small pen so that we could be sure to catch them when we were ready to have them processed. The combination of their wildness and our inexperience was probably stressful on the sheep; it was certainly stressful on us! Fast forward to last November. Our border collies and I loaded 60 sheep and goats into our trailer in a cul de sac - no fences, no pens - just good dogs and a more experienced stockman.
I've benefited from the experience and knowledge of a number of mentors. Our local farm advisor, Roger Ingram, has taught me a great deal about stock handling and animal behavior. Our friend Ellen Skillings has helped me understand how to use dogs effectively and how to evaluate the health status of a group of sheep. Much of what I've learned has come from simply trying and failing (and sometimes succeeding). Based on what I've learned in the 20 years that we've had sheep, I'm sure I have a great deal more to learn, as well!
The practical aspects of sheep-raising, I think, must be learned by doing. College courses, workshops, and other formal situations are useful introductions, but real skill development comes through repetition and through trial and error. I suspect other types of farming are similar. While these skills were once passed from one generation to the next when kids worked alongside parents and grandparents, most young people who are interested in farming today don't have this opportunity. To me, on-farm internships and apprenticeships are critical in filling this need. Unfortunately, the informal system of farm internships is threatened by legal issues surrounding compensation and workers compensation insurance. Hopefully, educational institutions (like community colleges and nonprofit organizations) will partner with farms like ours to provide this experiential learning opportunity to more aspiring farmers!
Note: Special thanks to fellow farmer Mary Yates for these great photos!
Dan Macon, Flying Mule Farm, Auburn, CA