Ryan Mahoney, a 5th generation California lamb rancher welcomed our busload of bloggers to Brown Road Ranch in Rio Vista. Mahoney explained that when his family emigrated from Netherlands they settled in the Montezuma hills, off in the hazy, smoggy distance, and have been raising lamb ever since.
Today, the operation has moved down into the valley where ranches owned by cousins and friends crisscross the wide open spaces. Mahoney currently ranches 5,000 mother ewes who give birth to 10,000 lambs every year. He’s also president of the Solano County Farm Bureau- quite a feat for a religious studies major from St. Mary’s College!
Each set of twin lambs are born in October through December, and stay with their mothers until about May. Then the young lambs are allowed to graze on pasture until June. If the lambs have gained enough weight from the clover and rye grass pasture feed, they go in to production in July and are sold as grass fed, antibiotic-free American Lamb via Superior Farms.
Lambs that don’t gain enough weight in pasture are transferred to a feed lot for a few months and fed corn until they gain enough weight to enter production as antibiotic free American Lamb. Should a lamb become ill at any point during this process, it is removed from the herd, treated appropriately with antibiotics and then sold to another production company to be sold as conventional American Lamb.
Like most agricultural operations, the small margins mean producers need to diversify to stabilize income. Mahoney explained that the cows are not just your ordinary cows, they are raised in contract with Snake River Farms to breed American Wagu beef.
The sheep and cows can pasture together because the sheep tend to be more discriminating eaters, picking only those grasses and plants they select, while the less picky cows follow after them, scooping up whatever is left.
Apparently the lambs stick together and take turns tucking their heads under each others bodies for a little bit of shade in the middle of the valley. It was over 100 degrees during the tour, so I didn’t blame them a bit. I did wonder how the coal black cows were faring in the scorching heat and blistering sun.
Other ways Mahoney has diversified his operation including selling wool from his ewes as well as extracting and selling blood from his ewes for hospital use. He explained that many human blood and other medical tests require animal blood for processing. Much like a blood drive, blood is collected from the ewes to be sold to hospitals all over.
Since there’s always a need for this animal blood, it’s a stable source of income. Prices for lamb, however, can fluctuate between $2 and $0.85 per pound. Quite a range given that each lamb or ewe costs about $130 to raise per year. Sold at about 100 pounds, you can see why diversification is an absolute must.
As we continued to drive through the hazy fields, we observed cranes, great blue herons, jack rabbits, moths, butterflies and countless field birds. The rice industry claims to be the bed and breakfast for California waterfowl, well, Mahoney certainly seems to be running a pleasant oasis for other wildlife as well.
Our visit with Mahoney ended with a discussion of the difference between American and imported lamb. In the US, sheep are bread for the best fat/yield ratio, meaning that the lambs have a good ratio of fat to muscle. In Australia and New Zealand, most sheep are bred for Merino wool production, and therefore tend to provide a smaller product.
In general, Mahoney said, the actual breed of sheep, or cross breed, comes down to the individual rancher. His rule of thumb, however is the cross a white faced ewe with a black faced ram for a good meaty lamb.
Next, we drove to West Sacramento to Yolo Brewing Company. Named for the county, not the “you only live once” meme that was briefly popular, this local craft brewery was the setting for a beer making tour by head brewer Phil, a lamb butchery demonstration by Don Watson, kabob tasting and beer pairing.
What always impresses me about meeting farmers in person is how real, how humble and how earnest they are. They have to be. Working the land and taking care of animals is a labor of love. It’s grueling work with low margins and especially when dealing with animals, is often met with a lot of disdain, misinformation and incorrect assumptions.
Mahoney is no different. He knows each flock of lambs he raises will ultimately end up someone’s dinner, but he focuses on giving them the best lamby life he can while they’re in his care. His goal, he said was that each and every lamb leaves his ranch “smiling ear to ear and fat as a tick.”
And after the delicious lamb-sandwich lunch on the bus, the lamb salami and lamb kebobs and beer at the brewery, it was basically how I felt by the end of the tour!