Cloverworks Farm is pleased to announce that our farm is now Animal Welfare Approved! We are excited to join the program and proud that we’ve been able to meet their requirements. We were granted a derogation to continue long-docking tails for breeding ewes. It feels good to have recognition of our humane efforts in not castrating or docking rams or non-breeding stock ewes.
Some local farmers are a little nervous about “Claim Proliferation” on labels. Claims like “Gluten Free” on fresh celery and “Farm Grown” on Lay’s Potato Chips (as opposed to wild caught?) are rankling some consumers. But the more I talk to people outside of our farming community, the more I realize how much we do need to communicate these facts that feel obvious to us. When I am not talking to the consumer directly, labels like Animal Welfare Approved convey the information I need to share. I want buyers in New York or Boston to know that my lambs were raised to the highest standards of welfare.
I’ve been talking to Lisa, a long time Bluefaced Leicester breeder. We both agree that we are tired of some of the misconceptions about Bluefaced Leicesters – that they are just for small-scale hobbyists, that they don’t have a sustainable genetic presence in the US, and that “Every ram is sold with a shovel.”
It’s the last point that I was considering tonight. We are having a blizzard at the moment. A foot of snow has fallen, and it looks like more is yet to come. Temperatures have fallen to -25F some nights in the last month, and we know we aren’t done with cold temperatures.
We knew that the Border Leicesters would be fine. They have thick wool that protects them from virtually everything and are a popular breed in this climate. But come to find out, the BFLs are no less game for the weather. While I was out doing chores, they were out in the snow. Inside, others had snowfall piled on their backs, unmelted by body heat; a sure sign that they are fully weather-insulated. They seem happy and healthy.
I have noted in the past that it is a challenge to keep some of my Bluefaced Leicester ewes in top body condition. I’ve recently learned that there are some bloodlines in the breed that carry this trait, but that it is possible to avoid those lines. Some of my sheep who are leanest carry those lines. Now I know! Fortunately, Fred the ram is a the easiest of easy keeper, so we can select our way away from this tendency. We also have more than 50% of the flock without those lines. One might think that the fleece fancy has caused this issue, but I believe that it was an honest mistake. It is possible that the ram was just well-fed and appeared more adequate than his genotype turned out. The solution to this problem is improved, standardized recordkeeping, not the blame game.
Admittedly, some Bluefaced Leicesters are kept mainly for fleece. Their fleeces are light, though, and while some sheep are kept as pets, the cost and challenge of finding rams means that most flocks that are larger breeding operations have a meat operation, too. The difference is that when you are catering to fiber lovers, it can be awkward to co-market your meat. So many farms that do both separate the marketing in a way that farmers with sheep raised purely for meat don’t need to. The goal is the same, but the conversation looks different.
In Britain, they are fond of the saying that “every Bluehead Ram is sold with a shovel” so you can bury him when he dies. British sheep management is much different than ours, and it’s not really a surprise that more sheep die when there is no shelter, and when a ram is put in with 60 or 80 ewes to breed. Are Blues reasonably hardy? Yes, absolutely. Are they as hardy as Scottish Blackfaces? Perhaps not quite, but they have more lambs, more meat and nicer wool than a Blackface. A little shelter and basic care isn’t too much to pay for that. So I don’t take British grousing about BFLs too seriously.
I am raising Bluefaced Leicesters because I think they have one of the strongest suits of genetic and economic potential among breeds that have desirable wool. I still feel this way, and I hope I can help others see it too.
Have you ever wondered what, exactly, sheep do all day?
Maybe not, but I’ll tell you anyway.
Sheep are ruminants, meaning their primary feed is grass and small leafy plants. Each sheep has a rumen that holds a couple of gallons, and they need to fill the equivalent of a 5-gallon bucket with feed each day. Much of their time is absorbed with this effort. When the feed is good, they can fill their faces with large mouthfuls, gobbling hay down. When their preferred feed is mixed with stems and tough hay, they gradually nibble their way through it, carefully selecting only the tenderest bits of hay. While casual observers may think that all grass is created equal, there are actually tremendous differences in the nutritional profiles and digestibility of different species of grass at different times. Haymaking is its own science – we are just beginning to dip our toes into it.
Not only do the sheep need to eat a five gallon bucket of hay, they then need to re-chew all of that hay. After they eat the first time, the hay ferments in the rumen and the fiber begins to break down. The sheep then regurgitates small mouthfuls of grass for additional chewing with their powerful molars. Only once or twice have I accidentally caught a finger in the back of a sheep or a goats’ mouth while administering pills, but those occasions were memorably painful! The sheep chews each cud bolus for a few minutes, swallows, and regurgitates another. The cud smells vaguely like an old ash-tray.
As sheep are somewhat crepuscular, in my observation, they tend to eat in the morning, chew cud in the afternoon, and then eat again as evening falls. Unlike humans, sheep doze in small amounts throughout the day and night but don’t engage in a lot of deep, long sleep. If you thought wolves might be out there ready to eat you, you wouldn’t, either! Our lamb-cam bears this out- we see a lot of quiet time at mid-day and through the night, with lots of active eating in the morning and evening.
While adult sheep aren’t often playful, lambs and even yearlings and two year olds can get a little riled up now and then. A lot of sheep play seems to be centered on exuberant bouncing and joyful movement. I even saw our ram take a solid leap a few days ago, on a very sunny day. We have recently purchased a toy for the sheep to enjoy. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy bopping their ball around. In winter, the sheep love sunshine and appreciate the southward orientation of their loafing area. In summer, they can’t get enough cool shade.
Sheep social order is complex. Families stay together, as do members of small groups who are oriented into larger groups. Often, our bottle lambs are a bit “socially awkward” when they have to live in the main barn full time as sheep. It’s clear that mama sheep do a lot of social training of their youngsters that farmer-raised sheep miss! Larger sheep usually dominate smaller ones, so we have to plan to offer enough feeding space that our biggest gals can’t “own” it.
Rams have their own rules. Ram society is very “winner take all” but yet it is cruel to house a flock creature alone. So we make a big effort to make sure that both of our rams out in the ram house have an opportunity to eat and can share their shelter. So far, so good, though Bob Loblaw definitely dominates Oliver at the feeder.
Sheep really love the stimulation of grazing. I know we are only halfway through winter, but we are all looking forward to the days and weeks of spring and summer ahead.