Category Archives: Musings
The other day, Maeve and I were driving along in the pickup, and I was explaining the concept of “habitat.” She said, “Oh…like our family’s habitat is the ranch!”.
Ideally, this time of year, we are done shearing and are on the trail to the lambing grounds, north of Dixon. It is critical that the ewes be sheared before lambing starts, yet this is proving increasingly difficult. It has a lot to do with the really dysfunctional H2A program in the Department of Labor, which facilitates the non-immigrant program for foreign agricultural workers. For us, this includes our valued and essential Peruvian sheepherders. For the shearing contractors, it allows them to hire highly skilled and highly paid sheep shearers, mostly from New Zealand, and sometimes Australia and other countries. The program has become so unwieldy that many shearing contractors have given up, and the remaining shearing crews are having difficulty in getting the wool off the ewes in a timely manner. This has resulted in a backup throughout the sheep herds in the Rocky Mountain West, and most producers, like us, are facing shearing during lambing–a process which is difficult for shearers, sheep producers, and is very hard on the heavily pregnant or recently lambed ewes. Nonetheless, here we are trailing ewes, still in the wool, to the lambing grounds, where we pray our shearing crew will show up very soon, and we pray that we will not have a loss of lambs to pay for the incoherent federal immigration politics.
As I said, we were WORKING! Pat, our son-in-law and meat purveyor Chris Abel and I were on the panel that discussed “Food Production and the West.” We were joined by California “urban farmer” A.G. Kawamura, and Family Farm Alliance Executive Director Dan Keppen. Since our roundtable was scheduled at the same time as Baxter Black’s show, we were wondering if anyone would show up. We visited with Dr. Black in the Green Room before the show, and I told him I hoped we didn’t draw away from his sold-our, lottery only show. Luckily, a goodly number of dedicated issue junkies showed up (or maybe those who didn’t draw a Baxter Black ticket–but, hey, a girl can dream!).
This is the time of year when we hold our breath. We hope all the cows and sheep and various critters for whom we are responsible have enough to eat, enough to drink and enough body fat to withstand the cold weather. We assume that the bulls and bucks have done their jobs. We hope that the Good Lord sticks with us with weather and sends enough snow, but not too much; enough cold, but not too much. We hope that the cows and the ewes are all pregnant, and will hold those pregnancies to term, and raise a baby. We hope that predators–mostly coyotes, but bears, mountain lions, ravens, crows and maybe wolves–will find something else to eat besides our critters. The sheep eat snow and we depend on having the right amount–not so much that it will cover the grass and brush, but not so little that we are chasing drifts in draws. The cows need “wet water” and we expend a lot of energy and resources to make sure it’s available.
It is also the time of year that we try to ensure that we have enough help lined up for spring, summer and fall. Our sheepherders come on h2a visas which allow them to stay for three years with at least three months at home in Peru. We try to plan so that about one third of our crew returns to Peru in the winter, when we need less help. The process is so dysfunctional that we need to request about twice as many “new guys” as we will probably need, because there isn’t much rhyme or reason to who gets approved. Even returning employees are not assured of getting approved, so it is a challenge to plan.
So far, the winter has been cooperative. This will allow us to engage in one of our favorite vacations: traveling to Elko, Nevada–at approximately the same latitude as our home (read Deep Winter) for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. We will be hosting a discussion on Food Policy. After all, to have cowboys, we need cows, and to have cows, we need consumers: the Three C’s. That said, it is nearly a week of solid poetry, music, art and discussion which is nothing but fun.
The bucks will join the ewes on December 15th so that they will start lambing on May 10th. We want both the ewes and rams to be fat and happy for this occasion. We need snow (but not too much snow) because the sheep depend on it for winter water. They can survive by eating snow, and there’s not much live water on the Red Desert, especially during the frozen winter months. We also depend on feeding corn during the bucking season, which will last until the beginning of February–two heat cycles for the ewes. The government-mandated corn ethanol program has been devastating to the livestock sector, as it drove prices to new highs in 2013. Corn prices are down some, due to a bumper crop. In any case, there is no substitute for corn as a nutrition-packed supplement to support the ewes as they survive often harsh conditions, conceive lambs, and grow next year’s wool crop. It is amazing that they can convert desert grass to food and fiber for people!
Here’s a link to some words of wisdom from that wise old farmer.