Friday, June 29, 2012
9:00 am | link
Sometimes I see behavior in my sheep that is very reminiscent of people in similar circumstances. When
I see and describe this behavior to others, I am often accused of anthropomorphizing my flock - which I usually try very hard
not to do. As a result, I am often sceptical of attributing what I see to the sheep themselves, and instead often figure it
is only my imagination that has brought all of the circumstances together. Sometimes this is true, but often I find that I
am not the only one who sees behavior that spans our two species.
Just recently, I had two friends watching my
flock while I was away on vacation. One evening, I got a frantic call from them that one of my sheep had died during the day
and was lying in the shade at the edge of the field. What was interesting to me were the observations my friends made in conjunction
with their very sad find - observations that I have made in the past under similar circumstances, but attributed to chance;
observations that make my sheep seem much more human than usual.
First, my friend said, they knew something was
wrong as soon as they arrived at the pasture gate: all of the sheep came forward to them as if they needed help - something
they had not done on previous visits that week. As soon as my friends entered the gate, the sheep "took them" to
their dead flockmate - there was no question where she was, since the flock headed there right away - and then stepped back
to allow the substitute shepherds access.
Since my farm-sitters called me as soon as they discovered the death,
I mentioned to them that they would need to wrap the body in a tarp and remove it from the pasture to prevent any possible
infection from spreading to the rest of the flock. Their reply to me also echoed behavior I have previously witnessed: they
told me that keeping the sheep away would be no problem since once the body was discovered, the rest of the flock was keeping
its distance, watching all of their activities from a semi-circle many yards away.
Sheep have a reputation for being "dumb" animals, but I have not found this to be the case at all. The issue, I
believe, is that they think like sheep, and we think like people - and that is not the same. Like most animals, sheep do understand
the idea of death, and I am fairly sure that in this case, they knew their friend was gone. They also know that their shepherd
can often help them if trouble arises, so coming to my friends in the sheeps' time of need does not surprise me. They knew
these friends would not be caring for them if they were not sent by me - and that, in itself, brought a level of trust. Unfortunately,
neither I nor my friends can overcome a death in the flock. The best we can do is to wrap and remove the body as respectfully
and quietly as possible and allow the flock to grieve and return to its normal function minus the missing member.
A death in the flock is always a sad event, for both me and my sheep - and in this case, my substitute shepherds. Sheep
grieve quickly, going back to their routine in a very short period of time. In shepherding and among the flock, death is an
inevitable part of life - one that must be accepted and put behind us if we are to celebrate the life with which we are blessed.
And in the end, it is that celebration of life that must take priority. In my flock, the focus has again made a shift: this
death is in the past, and it is the workings of life that are again at the core of my flock.
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
The creature returns
10:01 am | link
I posted last week that I was at war with an unknown creature living in my storage barn. It was raiding
my henhouse, upsetting my chickens, and eating any loose grain it could find - and I was hoping to catch whatever it was to
relocate it far from our farm. Unfortunately, I am finding that creature-catching is a bit more complicated than I would have
Because we live on a farm and occasionally have animals that need to be trapped (feral cats needing
to be spayed, muskrats digging holes in our pond, etc.), we once bought a live-trap that would theoretically allow me to catch
and relocate whatever it is that is disturbing my chickens. Like many of our seldom-used pieces of equipment, the biggest
issue was trying to locate where we had put it! Eventually, I did find the trap in our storage barn loft, and I set it that
first night with a lovely dish of chunky peanut butter. I couldn't imagine that any wild creature would be able to turn away
from one of my favorite snacks - but I was wrong!
It was several nights before the peanut butter was even disturbed.
I had honestly given up hope that there was any attraction at all. I had set the trap in the barn where the creature seems
to live, but I began to suspect that the creature is much smarter than I had at first considered. I knew it was big, and seldom
do our wild neighbors get very large unless they have the intelligence to avoid capture and keep themselves alive. This one
obviously had those smarts!
Thankfully, it eventually did decide to go after the peanut butter, but when I found
the dish nearly empty in the trap the next morning, the trap was unsprung - the creature had figured out how to eat the bait
without springing the trap. I had a mental image of it sitting there for three nights while it figured out just how to get
to my peanut butter without stepping on the obvious and nearly unavoidable trigger. This was obviously going to be more tricky
than I had thought. I was terribly busy that day, so I just left the trap, thinking that the bit of peanut butter that remained
might still bring it back for more that night.
And it did, but again, the trap remained unsprung. This was becoming
frustrating! I was determined to catch it, but honestly had to rethink my choice of bait. The next night, the trap was un-baited
as I reconsidered my options - and I think that was a mistake. I had also tightly protected all of the grain on the farm,
so now the creature had few options as to its next meal: in addition to raiding the henhouse for eggs, it killed its first
chicken on our farm. Now I was really angry.
Within twenty-four hours, I made two discoveries, however, that will
hopefully help me catch this thing. First, I talked to a neighbor who came to look at my evidence: droppings in the barn,
the eaten bait, and the dead chicken. This neighbor was convinced that my creature was a raccoon. At least now I had some
idea as to what I was trapping!
Secondly, another friend of mine told me the best bait for raccoons is hot dogs
and marshmallows; obviously, this was going to be a bit more involved than I had at first thought! The trap is now baited
with a junk-food junkie's dream: cheap hot-dogs and old marshmallows. So far, this resident raccoon is much better at stealing
the bait than at springing the trap. If nothing else, I hope the food will keep it focused on the trap and keep it away from
my captive chickens!
Monday, June 25, 2012
Big bale back-up and home-made hay feeders
8:56 am | link
As you know from previous postings, our pastures have dried up and we've been brainstorming ways to provide
our sheep with the feed that they require. This "game" has been a nightly occurrence at our house lately, as Rick
and I sit together in our parlor and come up with new and innovative scenarios for feeding our sheep. Finally this game may
have actually paid off.
The other night as we were in the midst of this new pastime, Rick brought up the idea of
getting several large round bales of hay to put in the pastures to supplement what little grass is still growing. With one
bale per pasture, each group would have hay as a backup to their difficult grazing. Although it sounded like a possible option
at first, as we thought more about the details, it began to sound more and more unworkable. To start with, this whole area
is fighting a drought, so the idea of finding a good deal on hay - actually any kind of deal on hay - seemed unlikely. In
addition, even if we got the bales, we had no big-bale feeders in which to secure them, so the sheep would end up fouling
and wasting most of it, walking through it and dragging it across the pastures.
When we brainstorm, we consider
all ideas, no matter how "out there" they might be: finding a reliable raindance, installing irrigation, moving
to a more northern climate near water, or teaching our sheep to eat wood. Yes, these ideas may bring a chuckle, but when we
get down to reality, they don't get us very far. We had a problem that needed a solution - now. In the long run, the big-bale
idea was the only one that sounded even remotely possible. Since our only seemingly workable solution was to use big bales,
I made some calls to our hay supplier. Unfortunately, he had only first-cutting bales available, which tend to be of lower
nutritional value: perfectly sufficient for our rams and maybe even our ewes (although I would like to see them get a bit
more since many are still rebuilding their bodies after gestation and lactation). For growing lambs, however, first-cutting
hay falls far short of what is needed for growth. On the other hand, when compared to starvation, first-cutting grass sounded
just fine. I guess a lot depends on your perspective. I continued the conversation.
As we spoke futher, I realized
it wasn't quite so simple: the first-cutting bales he had were from last year. That was even worse. Baled hay loses nutrients
as it ages. First-cutting grass was already not my preference, particularly for the growing lambs, and now I had to also consider
that it had been degrading for a year or more. The loss in one year isn't huge, but it was enough - about 15%. It seemed like
this option of ours was getting worse by the minute.
But once again, I brought my thinking back to the fact that
there were few alternatives. I kept reminding myself that this was preparation for an emergency and hay was our contingency
plan. If there was something better to graze, the sheep could do that; these bales were there to provide feed if fresh grazing
ran out - if there was nothing to eat. It was this or starve. In this light, the option did seem much better. There is very
little fresh grass in any of our pastures, and what is left is dry, yellow, and also very low in nutrition. If I could arrange
for these big bales to be delivered into three different pastures, one for each group (lambs, ewes, rams), then I could make
sure the lambs would go into the pasture with the best grazing, falling back on the bale only if there is no other alternative.
That left me with the problem of big-bale feeders to keep the sheep from climbing in and fouling the hay. When I visited
my friend, Beth, last week, she showed me how they make big bale feeders out of hog gates and farrowing pen sides. I made
a mental note of the design and ran out later to scrounge materials and compare prices on the parts I had to buy. Each store-bought
big bale feeder cost $300, and wasn't really designed to allow sheep to gain access to the bale. It would likely require some
modifications, which would require time and possibly more expense. On the other hand, I could pick up the parts for Beth's
feeders for about $150 per bale - half the cost of the official version! In my mind, there was no comparison!
I spent most of one day late in thet week acquiring all the parts, taking delivery of the bales, and putting together the
feeders. It is amazing how simple it was to build these feeders and how well they seem to work. The best part is that as the
sheep eat the big bale, the feeder collapses via the pressure of the sheep as they eat, always providing just a little more
access to fresh areas of hay in the bale. What an ingenious design!
So, now my three groups of sheep each have one big bale in a working bale feeder in their pasture, along with
some small bits of fresh grass. The lambs are currently in the Timber, which harbors nearly all the grass that remains on
our acreage. Finally - for the first time in at least a week or two - I am not constantly worrying that my sheep will starve.
I can shift my thoughts to other things that are a great deal more fun. For that reason, if for no other, these bales and
our new big-bale feeders were well worth the time and trouble it took to get them here. Finally, I can exhale and begin to
think about more fun activities like my summer travel plans!
Friday, June 22, 2012
How high can lambs eat?
8:40 am | link
Living with lambs surrounding your house is an interesting experience. As I wrote earlier this week,
on Saturday I released my lambs into the yard from their pastures so that they would have vegetation to graze/browse. Our
pastures have dried up and are no longer producing much. Having my lambs now roaming the grounds close to the house has introduced
us to situations we hadn't originally considered, but which are now providing a bit of humor.
The first night,
as darkness fell, I was closing the shades in the kitchen when I noticed a nose and two dark, reflective button eyes looking
in at me. Loralei had decided that what was going on inside was much more interesting than anything happening in the yard,
so she was watching us, similar to us watching television in the evening. I was almost surprised that she didn't request some
popcorn to munch on while she watched her very own reality TV!
I think the funniest part of their new grazing environment is seeing where they graze. Since they have free rein over the
entire yard around the house, they have made themselves at home. They first ate the vegetation they most preferred, of course
- much like those children who are turned loose in a restaurant to order their own meal and choose ice cream instead of broccoli
as a side-dish. Our lambs immediately zeroed in on the grape vines (left) and fruit trees (below) - and one particular type
of weed that grows readily in our flower beds (and I can't say I am saddened to see those stripped!). Within twenty-four hours,
these were pretty well decimated. And the feast goes on!
It's funny to see the horizontal line of demarcation. When you now look across our front yard, you can determine
just how high a five-month-old lamb can graze. Our oldest lamb is just that age, and as you look across the lawn, you see
much of the vegetation cropped to that level. The younger lambs are not nearly so tall, so they must be content to browse
the lower branches; the older lambs, however, can reach branches only available to them and the llamas, and they are taking
full advantage of their reach, setting the line in the branches above which no others forage.
Thankfully, the small
bit of rain that we got on both Saturday and Wednesday nights (about 0.18" total) wet down the lawn and vegetation enough
that these areas are still supporting some growth, continuing to give our lambs a healthy and varied diet. I will admit that
I have a number of poisonous plants in our yard, too; I did not plant around the house to feed sheep, but rather for the beauty
of sights and scents that the plants provide for the humans. Yet, the fact is that my sheep are now foraging there. They have
thankfully steered clear of the most poisonous plants, preferring instead to nibble on the greenery that is less bitter, and
therefore most safe.
Grazing in the yard is nearly at its end; with less and less to eat in this area, the temptation
to munch on the poisonous plants will grow. I must move the lambs from the area before we begin to see illness or losses.
Hopefully, our sheep will then move to eating big round bales of hay while our pastures try to regrow. For now, however, my
lambs continue to nibble and eat what they can reach, and based on what I see when I look across the yard, it looks to be
pretty much everything tasty under forty inches.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
A creature in the henhouse
8:53 pm | link
There is a creature in our henhouse - and the problem is that it isn't a chicken. I call it a creature
because I have no idea what it is; I haven't seen it. I have only seen the aftereffects of its presence. Each morning, when
I enter the henhouse to collect eggs, I find only an empty feeder, broken-down nesting boxes and bits of egg shells; the chickens
are distraught and there are no eggs to collect - the creature has eaten them. This creature's species has remained a mystery.
It all actually began several weeks ago when I noticed that occasionally, one of the eggs in the nesting boxes was
broken and the inner portions eaten. I didn't think too much of it because sometimes chickens will eat each other's eggs.
They are, after all, omnivores and eggs are full of protein and other nutrients.
The number of eggs lost, however,
increased weekly until last week, when I found that if I didn't collect the eggs before dusk, there would be no eggs to collect
in the morning. At about this same time, all of the nesting boxes began to be destroyed each night: the removable box floors
would be strewn onto the bedding and the liners would be dragged halfway across the coop. This was beginning to look more
I also began to notice a change in my chickens: they became much more nervous. Now, I have to admit that
chickens always seem a bit nervous to me as they dart around with their jerky movements. Yet, over the past few weeks, they
seem even more nervous than usual. I believe they are under attack at night, and I believe it is this creature who is causing
all of the problems.
Although I don't know what this creature is, I do know where it lives. It has moved into our
old storage barn. I know this because some animal tore up all of the remaining bags of grain for the lambs before we could
put the grain into containers for storage. I know it is a bigger creature: perhaps a raccoon or a very large opossum because
it ate a lot.
Our chicken coop contains a closet in which we store poultry feed and extra equipment. This morning
when I entered the coop, I found not only the normal disturbance of the nest boxes, but also that the door of the closet had
been chewed through, destroying the bag of grain within. The hole is about one foot wide by five or six inches tall, so that
should give me some idea of the size of this thing. I think I am still left with raccoon or opossum. Regardless, I've got
to do something about this thing!
So, the plan now is to set a live-trap to catch the creature. I plan to use peanut
butter as bait to lure it into the trap. Honestly, my fear is that I will catch it. I know that
is the goal, but I have to figure out what to do if and when it ends up in my trap. Once I have it, I must figure out where
to release it. Even before that, I need to muster the courage to get close enough to pick up the trap and load it into my
truck. Honestly, I think it is this latter part that intimidates me the most: the release seems much easier to me than the
approach and the carry.
Regardless, I have to eliminate this threat to my chickens. After all, I am in charge,
and this creature is doing my chickens no favors. It must go. Now, if I could only pull together enough courage to make it
Monday, June 18, 2012
Marauding bands of lambs
8:53 am | link
We have reached the point of desperation here at Peeper Hollow Farm. We have many, many mouths to feed
and our pastures are exhausted. We have had so little rain for such a long period of time that there is nothing green left
in our many pastures. Even if we got rain now, it would take literally weeks to rejuvenate our acreage for grazing - and I
still have nearly one hundred sheep needing to eat each and every day. The only word that seems to fit is "desperation."
I called my 'hay guy' in hopes that he could save us. There is still hope, but even he can't do anything until
tomorrow, at the soonest. Perhaps tomorrow, he can bring me three big round bales of hay to feed my sheep for a while. It
isn't high quality hay, but at this point, I'm no longer fussy - I will take what he can bring. The problem, he told me, is
that even his first cutting of hay this year was only half what he usually cuts. He was already behind projections then. Those
harvested fields have not grown at all, so the next cutting isn't looking promising. He has already suggested I might want
to look elsewhere for this winter's hay - he will likely not have enough for us. So now, not only do I worry about what to
feed my sheep in the near future - I also worry about where I will get hay for the winter. Great.
So, keeping all this in mind, you can likely understand my brainstorm on Saturday morning when I looked at my list of things
to do; topping the list was to mow the lawn. I hadn't mowed the lawn in quite some time because I was afraid that driving
the heavy mower over the dry and crispy sections of grass would kill it off permanently. On the other hand, there are many
areas in which weeds and crabgrass are the primary species - and they do pretty well in a drought. Our lawn is a country lawn
- a poor distant-cousin of those lovely manicured lawns in town. Sections of our lawn are now dormant, but others really needed
to be cut. And that's when I got my idea.
My lambs really need good feed right now, but they are getting
very little. They need variety and pretty much anything green - and lots of it. On the other hand, I had a lawn full of crabgrass
and weeds that needed to be trimmed. I also have lots of other tasty plants like raspberries, grapes, and such that are currently
very lush and green. I suddenly realized that perhaps I could take care of two issues with one swift movement. I could open
a gate and allow my hungry lambs to do some of the work for me in cutting the lawn - and they might even prune the other growth
at the same time!
It was that decision that created the marauding bands of sheep who are currently invading my lawns
and flower beds.They have been out there since Saturday, finding what they can to curb their hunger. They were timid at first,
but once they realized that the dogs weren't going to chase them out, they came, large and small, gregarious and timid; they
flowed out onto the green sections of lawn to fill the emptiness within.
Lisa is currently the only
dog at home, since the boys left on Friday for further training. Needless to say, she is not happy with the current arrangement.
Sheep are supposed to stay in their pastures, according to her, and she would like nothing better than to put them there herself
- but I will not currently allow it. She sulks from window to window, hoping to catch the eye of some poor hungry little lamb
and send it back to its home - but the lambs don't look at the windows; they are too busy tearing and gulping greenery as
quickly as they can. They don't know how long they have before they no longer have access to such good feed. They make the
most of every bite and focus on the task at hand.
The lambs run as groups of friends, exploring this new world that we've opened to them. Some love the raspberry plants; we
find these often caught in the many overlapping thorny vines at the side of the house. Others much prefer standing on their
rear legs to reach the bottom branches of the pine trees. As I watch them graze and forage, I see them dart in their small
groups from place to place, hardly believing their good luck; so much abundance after having had so little for so long.
I sit in the kitchen and watch the groups move from one place to the next, and I smile. I am happy to see
them eat. When my sheep hunger, I ache. In opening our lawns to these pint-sized marauders, gobbling up my ornamental plants
and pruning my low-hanging branches, I am feeding my flock - really feeding my flock - and that
feels good. The lambs need to grow, and for this, they need high-quality food - something that has been missing from our fields
for a while now. With these two opened gates, I have found a way to temporarily provide them with what they need. For me,
there is nothing better.
So, I sit and I watch and I hope for rain while lambs eat and eat more. Lisa
stares out the windows in frustration, waiting for the day that sheep return to their rightful place and once again predictably
stay there. I wait for that day, too - not because the lambs will once again be "put away" in their pastures, but
because I will have figured out a way to provide them with better feed there, back where they belong. Until then, not much
will change, and we will all have to learn to deal with the marauding bands of lambs.
Friday, June 15, 2012
I pray for rain.
8:14 am | link
It has been dry for a very long time here in eastern Iowa. With little snow cover over the winter to slowly
seep into our soil as it melts and with very few spring rains, the soil is now very dry - too dry. Looking at only these past
couple of weeks, we are already now two inches behind in average rainfall for the month of June - and that doesn't say anything
about the rains in April and May that didn't come. Sure, I have a well, and I have lots of hose, but that doesn't solve my
problems. My problems are not here around the house - my problems are out there, in the thirteen or so acres of fields where
my sheep live.
Sheep are herbivores: they eat grass and other green plants. Actually, they eat lots
of plant material: the average ewe will eat about 12.5 pounds of fresh vegetation each day. I currently have fifty-one adult
sheep grazing my pastures (since I've sold a good number of adults this year that have not yet gone to their new farms).
Doing the math, those fifty-one sheep eat about six-hundred forty pounds of grass each day - not including what the forty-five
remaining lambs are packing away (about three hundred pounds a day, total)! The bottom line is that nearly 1000 pounds of
grass is disappearing out of my pastures each day - and currently very little is growing back. These days, as the sheep leave
a pasture, what is left is brown and dry - basically, there is nothing nutritive left.
I know that pastures
shouldn't be eaten down so far. I know the sheep should be moved when there is still about three inches of residual growth;
that way, the pasture recovers more quickly and the sheep can come back within a few weeks and graze again. Unfortunately,
I have nowhere else to send them - the next pasture hasn't regrown from the last grazing, so all they have to eat is what
remained when they left that pasture the last time. This is not a good situation - not for the sheep, not for the pastures
and, in the end, not for me.
Summer is normally a time during which both my work load and my worry load
are lessened. The way it is supposed to work is that our flock is at its largest in the spring when the grass is normally
most plentiful. By the time July and August roll around, the grass slows down its growth, but most of our lambs and sold sheep
have been delivered, so the demand for grazing is also down. I don't have to buy or haul hay, since our pastures keep up fairly
well with the needs of the flock - and I am left to do other things like travel or get to those many projects I put off during
This year is different, though. Much different. For the first time since we started our flock, I am watching my pastures literally
dry up in June. Our pond is lower than I have ever seen it this time of year (see photo - the trees you see normally stand
in the water!). We aren't ready for this yet - we still have a big flock of sheep who need to eat their one-thousand pounds
of vegetation each day. If this were August, I would not be so concerned, but now ... this is only June and this is a big
The weather report each day is a tease: each forecast predicts rain sometime within the next
seven days. The next day, the rain has moved one or two days farther out - and the same the day after that. It is always there,
but just out of reach. When I walk in my crunching pastures, I look to the sky, hoping to see one or two dark clouds. Heck,
I'd even take white clouds at this point - maybe the evaporation from the soil would slow a bit if it were cloudy. But no,
each day is sunny, warm (or hot), cloudless, and often breezy: a perfect day for most people, but for me, it's only perfect
for drying the soil in my pastures even more.
So, I sit and worry. I can't do anything about it. I wish
there were some rain dance or chant that would bring the rains, but there isn't. If we get to the last pasture and have no
more grass, I will need to buy hay and begin feeding hundreds of pounds of hay each day to our sheep. There is no other choice
- our sheep must eat, and without pasture, we are left with feeding hay. This time of year, when I feed out a bale of hay,
I feel like I am pouring money into the hay feeder for them to consume. Feeding hay this time of year when we have seven lovely
pastures fenced around our acreage seems like such a waste - yet, this year, it may come to that. The sheep must eat, and
hay may be our only alternative.
I still watch and pray for rain.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Friends come and friends go
9:18 am | link
When I sell sheep, I sell them based on their traits and the needs of the customer looking to buy. Those
lambs with amazing fleece generally go to those customers with a fleece business, and those with impeccable structure and
fast growth generally tend towards breeding in the commercial meat market. My goal is the placement of my lambs into positions
where they will live good, long, productive lives. I feel this is a responsibility that comes with shepherding, and I take
it seriously - for the good of both our customers and our lambs.
What I cannot take into consideration when I make
these placements is barnyard friendship. Like many mammals, sheep make friends. Sometimes they connect with the lambs born
the day before or the day after, and who are penned in the jug next-door; their first communication occurs literally in their
first hours of life as they sniff each other through the mesh panel between them. Others befriend lambs with a temperament
similar to theirs, or perhaps another lamb who looks like them. It is hard to know exactly what draws lambs together into
a tight-knit group of friends, but I see it all the time. Inevitably, they each make at least two friends (and often more)
who end up grazing, playing, and resting together. The formation of these little groups of three or more lambs is predictable;
by the time the lambs are weaned, they all have a small group of friends with whom they meet the world.
as our lambs continue to leave for their new homes, these groups begin to disintegrate. Slowly, these little groups lose members
and those remaining begin to form new groups among those lambs who are left. In the end, the lambs I keep for my own flock
are the last remaining group, and they either befriend each other or they find a group of the adult ewes to join.
This past weekend, I caught eleven lambs for deliveries to other farms and loaded them into the trailer. Two of them would
return to our farm, since I brought them only to keep the ewe lamb I was picking up company on her trip home (I don't like
to transport lambs alone for trips over fifteen or twenty minutes - it's too stressful for them). These two "extras"
would make the round-trip, so were just along for the ride. Unfortunately, when I randomly caught the two round-trip lambs,
I caught Lilac, who happened to be a good friend of Lucy's. The unfortunate part is that Lucy's other friend, Lucia, was also
on the trailer, on her way to delivery to her new home. This meant that for the first time since birth, Lucy felt all alone
in the world: both of her friends had been scooped up for transport at the same time.
Honestly, I did consider
releasing Lilac and catching another lamb. The problem was that it was late when we finished - and very hot. I didn't think
I had the energy to try to find and catch another lamb in the open pasture now that it was dark. Lucy would have to deal with
it - and deal she did. Lucy spent the entire night at the fence closest to the loaded trailer, "talking" to her
friends and listening to their replies. It made for a long night - I could easily hear her in our bedroom on the other side
of the house.
In the morning, we pulled out to get on the road early and were accompanied by Lucy running the fenceline
alongside us. I know this is not a "professional" thing to admit, but I hate it when this kind of thing happens.
I feel for my sheep, and I felt bad for Lucy. On the other hand, I knew something she didn't: I knew Lilac would soon be back,
and she would be accompanied by a new Romney friend. I knew it would be OK.
Several hours later, when we returned,
Lucy ran to meet the trailer at the fence - alone in her enthusiasm for our return, as the rest of the flock grazed or lolled
in the shade. I off-loaded the "extra" ram lamb first, who immediately scampered off to find his friends. I then
off-loaded Lilac and her new friend, Loretta, who we had just bought. Already traumatized by sudden weaning and transport,
Loretta was stuck like glue to her new friend, Lilac, who was happily getting reaquainted with Lucy.
And then suddenly,
Lucy noticed Loretta standing there beside Lilac. As I stood and watched, it was obvious the moment she realized there was
another, unknown sheep there. It was interesting to see how Lucy slowly walked all the way around this new lamb, sniffing
here and there - like some form of inspection that Loretta had to pass. When Lucy came back around to her original position
in front of the pair, Lilac and Loretta, she stopped and looked Loretta straight in the face. Lucy has a very distinctive
machine-gun type voice which she now used to vocalize at Loretta: eh-eh-eh-eh-eh. I smiled as Loretta replied in her young
voice, and it was done - the two remaining friends, Lucy and Lilac, had welcomed Loretta into their group. It wasn't long
before the three of them bounded away, gamboling and kicking up their heels as they raced off to graze in the pink glow of
the setting sun. Lucy, once again, had a group of three with which to meet the world.
Monday, June 11, 2012
Hot days and cool refuge
11:53 am | link
As in much of the country, Iowa's summer can get pretty hot - and often steamy. It isn't technically summer
yet, but we have seen our share of hot weather already. And, unfortunately, little rain.
the sheep manage fairly well in the heat. They graze in the early morning and late evening when the temperatures tend to be
a little more comfortable. They spend much of their day in what shade they can find - even if that shade is cast by a fencepost!
I have never figured out how a fencepost can keep them any cooler, but evidently it does, because when it gets hot, I will
inevitably see one or more sheep lying in its shadow!
The lambs figure out how to deal with the heat
early on. They are usually weaned long before our temperatures get very hot, but they are genetically programmed for survival
so they figure it out on their own.
At the end of last week, as our temperatures climbed to the
mid-nineties, our lambs found themselves in the Pond Pasture, with several large trees and many areas of shade. I have a good
view of this pasture from the house and could see them lazing in the shade and cudding what they had grazed earlier. I was
suprised, that first morning, when it didn't seem as though they were all there. I began to wonder where the rest of the lambs
As a result, I headed out on my daily check of the pastures, determined to figure out where
all my lambs were. I had visions of coyote attacks and holes in the fence as I made my way to the pasture gate. Unlike my
usual routine, which is to call all the sheep to me as I approach, this time I moved with stealth, hoping to find the lambs
wherever they might be. If they were hiding, I wanted to know where, so I moved quickly and quietly, latching the gate behind
me and moving quickly across the dewy grass.
It didn't take long before I came across my missing lambs. They gave away their position as they heard me move across the
bridge that spans "the swamp" - a normally wet and mucky area that feeds our pond, now nearly dry from lack of rain.
As I stepped onto the bridge, first one and then several more lambs darted out from underneath, obviously thinking there was
an attack on their hideaway.
I hopped off the bridge and looked underneath. There in the dark, I saw
them - twenty or more lambs in all: an assortment of ears and noses and legs and shiny eyes reflecting the light around me.
I could make out the white lambs and light coats in the deep shadows beneath, but by the time I took my photo, most of them
had scampered off, their hideout no longer as safe after having been discovered. Those that remained obviously were debating
whether they should stay or go - enjoy the cool here and risk capture, or run into the heat and hope to find other shade elsewhere.
I quickly retreated, leaving them in their cool oasis. They had claimed prime territory to escape the heat
and there was no reason to evict them - they deserved their little spot in the shade as a reward for their resourcefulness.
As for me, I too found a cool place: I returned to my air-conditioned house, happy to observe my sheep from the cool comfort
of my own kitchen through the big front window.
Friday, June 8, 2012
The inevitable tug-of-war
12:59 pm | link
A number of our lambs leave this weekend for their new homes, and tonight we'll load up over
a dozen sheep and lambs for an early departure tomorrow morning. This time of year is always somewhat of a tug-of-war. On
the one hand, this is a great opportunity for them, but on the other hand, I will miss them.
is a great thing to sell our lambs for breeding - I know that they have every chance of leading long and productive lives
on their new farms, usually grazing on lush pastures and frolicking in open fields. They will breed and eventually deliver
their own lambs. For a sheep, there is no better life, whether they're breeders, pets, or fiber animals.
On the other hand, in many cases I've helped to bring these lambs into the world. I helped dry them off in the shivering
cold of early morning. I made sure they were healthy and well-fed. I've fought their internal parasites and kept them safe
from predators. I guess what I'm saying is that once again, like in every year before this, I've gotten attached.
When I walk into the lamb pasture, even if I don't say one word, my lambs come to me. I am enveloped by fuzzy faces, floppy
ears, and prancing hooves - eager lamby faces looking to see what I have or who I will pat. These lambs, who only weeks ago
looked to their mothers for nearly everything, now look to me. I am their shepherd and the trust that has been built between
us is a sacred thing to me. And now, many of them are leaving.
I tell myself that this is
a very good thing. I do not have space for all of these sheep in my own flock - they must find other homes. There is not enough grass - not enough space. The sale of these lambs will pay for feed
this winter that will keep the remaining flock alive and well-fed. Selling our lambs is a very, very good thing. If our lambs didn't sell, our flock wouldn't survive: only if we sell lambs
and fiber can we continue to do what we do.
I know all of this. My brain repeats the mantra
to my heart, over and over, "This is a very good thing you are doing for these lambs. This is a very good thing...."
My brain knows this and the other blatant facts well. My brain engages in the realities of finance nearly every day, and the
lesson has been well-learned. Lambs must be sold. We must move on.
And yet, in spite of
all of this firm knowledge, my heart is a bit saddened today. Two of our adult ewes are also leaving in this load: Genoa and
Hartley will both go to another farm to breed. Both were born here; Genoa was the first Romeldale lamb born on our farm, and
Hartley's birth on Valentine's Day so many years ago marked the birth of our first CVM. They've given us lovely fleeces each
year and many lovely lambs who are now part of our flock. It will be hard to let them go - but I know their genetics will
be appreciated elsewhere, and that is good.
Yes, I've gone through my activities today a
bit torn. I know that dispersing our lambs is a good thing. I know this is how it must be. After all, I run a business, and
businesses sell their products to others in order to survive. It is the way of the world. That is how it works.
In my business, however, my primary products are lambs
and sheep. They have personalities, likes and dislikes. We have built a relationship, they and I, whether over weeks or years.
And most of them must eventually go, so that the others may remain. That is how it is. I know this. But I am allowed to feel
the hurt of their leaving - to work with a heavy heart as I do today. I honestly don't think I could do this any other way
with a clean conscience - so for today I go about my work, and because of my affection for them, I feel the loss.
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
The Summer solution
10:45 am | link
I am not usually very busy this time of year, but my summers are filled with moving sheep. Every few days,
I spend an hour or two moving the lambs to fresh pasture, the ewes into the pasture the lambs left, and the rams into the
pasture the ewes left. Then I mow the pasture the rams just vacated - down to about 3" to set back the weeds the sheep
don't eat. This task is one of the routines of summertime on our farm, and becomes as integrated into my week as picking up
the mail or running the dogs.
The sheep have come to the point, over the years, that they move quite
easily. Usually the only encouragement Zoe needs is my opening the gate and calling to her and the lambs in my usual, "Hey
sheep! Let's go, sheep!" and they come - quickly! I stand behind the gate and they run for the next open pasture. Within
minutes, my lambs have moved to their new pasture, with Zoe and llama, Martin (and for the time being, Howie) leading the
The adult ewes are nearly as easy to move. They rush the fence when I call, and move easily into
their new pasture, knowing the grazing will be much better than the place they leave. Orbit, the
llama with the ewes, is less eager to leave - not because he doesn't look forward to his new pasture, but because if he resists,
I bring out the bucket of grain. He knows that he is allowed to nibble at the kernels if he walks slowly behind me as I lead
him to his new grazing, so there is no need to run there with the sheep: he essentially has his own escort.
rams typically need more assistance in the move, but that is why I have working dogs. I bring out either Coda or Chance and
move the rams without issue - they happily run into their new pasture when the alternative is eviction by the dog if they
don't move willingly. Within seconds, they decide it is time to graze in a new place and make their way past the gate where
All of this sounds very efficient, except that I have left out the biggest problem we have
with moving sheep: Summer. Summer is the llama we keep with the rams. She is big and she is bad - seriously bad. If she wasn't
such a good guard, she would long ago have been returned to the farm where we got her. She is an excellent guard, though,
so she stays - nasty attitude and all!
Summer never wants to move. Never. It isn't that she doesn't
want the new pasture - she does. She just enjoys the distraction of playing with us. Her refusal to move gives her something
to do for an hour on a hot and boring summer day. To her, "I refuse to go" is the best game of all.
me, on the other hand, Summer's refusal has been a big annoyance. I have better things to do with my time than chase Summer
around the pasture. The only way I have moved her in the past is by chasing her on foot until she gets bored and gives in.
She can obviously outrun me with her long legs, so it wasn't a matter of speed - in that department, she would win. My weapon
of choice has been patience: I continue to walk toward her, pushing her with my presence toward the open gate. After about
an hour of continual walking toward her as she turned and ran way, she would get bored and I would win. Always. In the end,
she'd look me straight in the face and flick her mane as she turned and walked - slowly - into the waiting pasture. She seemed
to let me know she wasn't going because I forced her - she was going because she had won, although she could have gone on
forever. I always lost.
That brings us to the present day and my Summer solution. I now own a red ATV.
I am now as fast as Summer, if I want to be. The rules to our game have changed, and rather than walk at a snail's pace to
outwit my opponent, I can now fly across the pasture as quickly as she can. It's a new game.
moved the sheep yesterday, it all went according to previous moves - except for the last step: Summer. As she began her run
around the pasture, I mounted my ATV. I zipped across the pasture and caught up with her as she stood looking at me. She dodged
the other direction, but I kept up with her. We both stopped mid-pasture and looked at each other - at my perch on the ATV,
our eyes were level, looking squarely eye-to-eye.
Summer dodged one more time in the other direction,
but once again I kept up with her and stopped dead in front of her when she came to a stop. Again, we gazed into each other's
eyes, and I noticed that she was a bit winded, catching her breath as we stood, staring. I was ready for her next move. I
waited and I watched.
And it was then that she surprised me: Summer tossed her head and sulkily walked
away towards the open gate, headed to the rams already grazing in their pasture. Obviously, the game was over and, for the
first time in years, I had won.
It is clear that the game has changed. First of all, I now enjoy
the game - more than Summer, I think. Not having walked for an hour, I came back to the barn refreshed and ready for my next
task. Without realizing it, this new toy of mine has turned out to be the Summer solution I have been looking for! It actually
makes me look forward to the next move of our sheep - how crazy is that?!
update: I will be releasing a handful of ram fleeces for sale tomorrow afternoon to our e-mail notification list
- most likely late in the afternoon.
Monday, June 4, 2012
New improvements to a nasty job: hoof trimming
4:51 pm | link
As of last Friday, we still had one big job ahead of us before we could consider this lambing year finished:
trimming hooves. Of all the tasks I have throughout the year, I think this is the one I dread the most - for various reasons.
Trimming hooves is one of those jobs we've found are best done after the lambs are weaned. But that
also means that the weather is usually warm, and getting hot. Since we don't have a tilt-table (to tilt the ewe and raise
her legs to table height), it means that we have to get down on the ground where the hooves are - and that is also where the
Trimming hooves is a physically demanding, dirty job that no one enjoys - yet it is a necessary
part of raising sheep. If we don't trim their hooves at least annually, the hooves will grow out and change the way the sheep
stand and walk, creating skeletal issues that will impact health. Also, that over-grown hoof is perfectly placed to trap bacteria
and harbor infection, which can then spread. All in all, we have to trim hooves, whether we like it or not!
found last year that it was a much easier task to accomplish if I called for some help. We used to trim all the hooves of
our flock by ourselves: Rick would help "tip" the sheep onto its side, and I would trim with our hoof shears (much
like pruning shears). By the time I finished the hooves of nearly fifty sheep, my hands were full of blisters and neither
of us could move our arms. Last year, I got a friend to come and trim and several others to help tip the sheep, and I only
had to trim half a flock: a dramatic improvement!
So, building on our success of last year, I called even more friends this year, and believe it or
not, they came! We had three people trimming and five others catching and tipping the sheep (see some of us at work in photo
above). We trimmed the hooves of all the ewes - currently forty-seven in all - in about two-and-a-half hours; not bad at all!
We also made another improvement: trimming in the field, rather than in the barn. Each sheep produces an average
of about five-and-a-half pounds of manure a day, and we typically have forty or so adult ewes. After two to four hours of
standing around on the concrete pad of the barn last year, we were working on an accumulation of about eighteen pounds of
new manure spread over about a 12x20 foot area - much too messy for anyone's preference! In the field, we could continually
move over a bit to avoid the worst of it, and the job was much cleaner.
So the last big job is now finished.
Our adults are ready to summer in our pastures, filling out on the grass and forbes they much prefer to hay. Our breeding
lambs are beginning to leave for their new homes, and the others are gaining and growing by the day. Each day brings me closer
and closer to our "slow" time of year: the lazy, hazy days of summer. It won't be long now!
Friday, June 1, 2012
The weather, lambs, and pneumonia
6:00 pm | link
We have had some crazy weather so far this year. All of our lambs are now weaned and many of
them have already been sold to other farms. For the time being, it is up to me to make sure they stay healthy and happy until
they are picked up or delivered to their new homes - much as I do with the rest of our flock. The weather has not been helping
me in that part of my work, however.
Last weekend it was exceptionally hot in Iowa. Temperatures
here on the farm climbed to over ninety-five degrees on Saturday. Whether you are human or ovine - whether you wear clothing
or wool - ninety-five degrees is hot!
Then yesterday - only five days later - the temperatures
were unable to climb over fifty degrees - a cold front had come through, finally bringing rain but also chilly temperatures.
Although we desperately needed the rain for our pastures, the cold temperatures after the heat of the weekend created problems.
Occasionally as I walk my pastures, I will hear a lamb cough. This is not necessarily reason for
alarm, but I do immediately look in that direction to see which lamb or sheep is coughing. Sometimes lambs cough because -
like us - they eat too quickly and swallow incorrectly. At other times, they get their coats caught on a shrub or nail and
when they pull loose, it temporarily blocks their airway and they let out a cough. They can inhale a bug or a seed. There
are many reasons besides illness for a lamb to let out one little cough - but I still look. Once I know which lamb coughed,
I watch to see if this was one random cough or whether there are more coming from the same lamb. One cough can be explained
away - more can signal problems.
Temperature fluctuations such as those of this week are
the perfect storm for pneumonia. A lamb can often fight off pneumonia on its own under normal stable weather conditions. It
is when the temperatures fluctuate as they have that lambs and sheep sometimes find themselves under attack by bacteria that
mean them harm - and under these conditions, I join their battle with my arsenal of meds.
My medicine of choice for summer pneumonia - the illness we are discussing - is Excenel.
Normal treatment involves one injection daily for three days. If the lamb is still showing any signs of illness on the last
day, I treat for two more. Very rarely do I still see signs of illness after five days of treatment, but if I do, my vet gets
a call and we continue treatment with another antibiotic. I have learned from experience that summer pneumonia is nothing
to fool around with - it can bring death to a bouncing, happy lamb in literally hours.
morning, Lucy (shown here) - who I had been watching all week with an on-and-off cough - had finally been overrun by the pneumonia
she had been fighting. The sudden drop in temperatures obviously had worked against her, and when I caught her, she had a
fever in addition to a pretty steady cough. I treated her as usual, and I'm hoping that by tomorrow she'll be as good as new.
Hopefully, there aren't any more sick lambs that I missed.
I am usually a fan of cooler
temperatures (my theory is that I can always put on more clothes to keep warm), but in light of this issue with pneumonia,
I have to admit, I'm ready for the lazy, hazy - healthy - days of summer!