Barreca Vineyards

Barreca Vineyards

From Vine to Wine since 1986

Home on the Range

If you met Chris Wujek on a mountain trail, your attention would immediately go to his companions: 2 Llamas, 22 Goats, 4 Sheep and a Yak. Technically these are “pack animals” which are allowed to graze on trails and certainly do, but more realistically, this is a coherent group that depends on each other for survival. They follow Chris without being tied with ropes or being fenced at night. During the summer months and into early fall, goat milk provides the majority of the daily calories. Wild vegetables including onion, nettle, biscuitroot, and yampa are cooked with milk over a fire. Fruits, nuts, grains, and berries are eaten fresh and dried for winter use. Chris can live for months on the trail without packing much more than some simple camp gear and spices for himself as well as salt and kelp for the herd. But he loves coffee and wheat more than he should, so some extras usually come along, especially if he’s close to town.

Surviving in this style is human tradition going back thousands of years. Doing it with animals whose ancestors come from around the globe is a more modern twist. Each animal has a role to play. The toughest characters in terms of what they will eat and how long they can go without water are the llamas. A member of the camel family, llamas can extract more nutrition from their feed than even the thrifty goats or sheep. The yak prefers grass but will eat in a similar matter to the goats, eating Oregon Grape, young fir bark and needles, and dry grass seed heads when more palatable forage is covered with snow. Goats are the least hardy of the animals because of their lack of wool, but are the most personable and curious. Ironically, the llamas are afraid of the goats and given the chance, will stay at the back of the pack train while the goats stay right behind Chris. Llamas are also the most protective of the group when it comes to warding off predators. So bringing up the rear while Chris is in front suits their role.

Chris’s role is much more than meets the eye. He picks out prime places to graze and camp. Although he doesn’t carry a gun, he protects the herd. Cougars have killed a couple of his goats but he also drove off a cougar by throwing an apple at it. He kept the carcass of one goat for himself, the other went to the cougar. Especially in cool weather, he can hang goat meat and eat off of it for some time. He has trained the herd to be wary of fire but also to take advantage of its warmth at night. He sleeps with the animals carrying only a felt blanket and a tarp for cover. He also has some chickens that ride in cages on the llamas when they travel, hang out around camp eating scraps, bugs etc. and roost in the trees at night. So you can add eggs to Chris’s diet.

While the role of plants feeding the herd is obvious, the benefit of the herd eating the plants is not. Deer eat down the Oregon Grape plants on my farm when the snow gets deep. But Oregon Grape is very tough. It bounces back in the spring, survives from just its roots when dug up and pops back in the forest after the ground is covered in wood chips. Similarly,  grass rebounds after being eaten but less so if eaten repeatedly. The nitrogen and other nutrients in animal urine and manure promote healthy soil and nutrient cycling.

He was not born into a nomadic herding family. He studied the lessons of Andre Voisin, Joel Salatin, Allan Savoy, and Greg Judy. Savory, a Zimbabwean ecologist and livestock farmer, originated the Holistic management system. His methods have helped to turn extensive acreages in Zimbabwe and other overgrazed desserts around the world into thriving grasslands that support large herds of livestock. Wujek did something similar to an overgrazed ranch near Umatilla, Oregon with a group of friends using rotational grazing. Rotational grazing is the practice of moving livestock between pastures (often called paddocks) as needed or on a regular basis. (Wikipedia) Over the course of 7 years Chris and his partners turned land that an agricultural agent had written off as having no legumes but a lot of houndstongue and poison hemlock (poisonous invasive species that the agent suggested be killed with herbicides) to a lush bottomland pasture. They did this by moving cows and sheep every day using two lines of electric polycord.

This experience gave Chris a keen sense of what animals would graze on in a given amount of time. In the right-sized paddock they will eat down thistle and other weeds. Too big a paddock leaves weeds behind, too small and you move animals twice a day. After they are moved, the grasses bounce back and eventually crowd out the weeds. Unfortunately bringing the ranch back to life also brought its value back higher in the real estate market. It was sold out from under the young herders.

Having experience is one part of the formula for surviving as a herder. Having the right animals is another. Chris likes long-haired cattle with significant horns, like Highland Cattle. They can protect themselves and ward off the cold. He wants to reduce the number of goats and increase the number of sheep for similar reasons. This is not an occupation that needs mountain trails to exist. Chris sees endless opportunities in the lowlands. Overgrazed and undergrazed land both exist in abundance. Animals are born on the trail from equinox to equinox so there is plenty of milk. But winter pasture without baled hay also works.

On private land, Chris deploys a solar-charged electric fence. This keeps the animals concentrated in an area, often just a fraction of an acre, so that they eat both the plants they like and those they don’t prefer but will tolerate. It also gives Chris a chance to attend to other business such as looking for a shepherdess.

The herd enjoys a wide variety of grass, shrubs, and trees (including the bark during the winter), Himalayan blackberries, all thistles, knapweed, and many more that Chris doesn’t know. Many toxic plants can be eaten in smaller amounts, including houndstongue, poison hemlock, and hoary alyssum. Nettles can be found in the right places at any time of year. Fiddlehead Ferns and Bracken Ferns are good for both herd and herder. Chris is familiar with a wide range of edible wild plants. For instance he collects Wapato, also known as “Indian Potato” from shallow waters of Lake Coeur D’Alene in Idaho by dancing barefoot in the water until the tubers rise to the surface. Biscuitroot, bitterroot and wild onions are all part of his meals seasonally. Groceries are not a big expense. He has a small truck and trailer to move his animals and a cell phone, but not much else.

From an environmental point of view, this is a fantastically good lifestyle, good for the health of the herd, the health of the land, the ecological economy and Chris’s personal health. But what struck me most dramatically about his work is how much he enjoys it. Chris is one happy dude. Living without a lot of media, money, possessions and projects really means that “seldom is heard a discouraging word” and you really can be at home on the range.

If you want to get in touch with Chris looking for animal management services, see resiliencelandcare.wordpress.com

One Response to Home on the Range

  1. […] critters were not here but were spotted by Forest Service rangers travelling with Chris Wujek, who I wrote about last year, camping in the Kettle Range.  Son-in-law, Tony Houston, sent pictures of the camels and the rest […]

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