A New Breed

In my last post, I acknowledged the issue that has persisted in my flock for a number of years.  I haven’t succeeded in getting them to be as productive as they need to be, and I’ve concluded that I’ll be better off working with a pure breed intended for the kind of farm we are starting.

Instead of picking a breed and then searching for good breeders, I’ve done the opposite – I’ve picked a great breeder and concluded that the breed meets my needs.

Sue Johnson has been raising Border Leicesters since the mid 1970s.  She started with two 11 year old ewes, and told me that she’s been looking for straight backs and wide hips ever since.   It shows.  I decided to buy her ewes when I realized I couldn’t pick out any individuals in her flock that I *wouldn’t* happily own.  They are beautiful and uniform, and Sue’s complete commitment to quality shows in every aspect of these sheep – right down to the color of the horn on their feet and the color of the skin on their eyes.

So we are buying 14 of them.  Sue is reducing her flock significantly, and she has entrusted me to continue her progress.  It’s almost like I’m adopting her children or arranging a marriage – we’ve discussed values and opinions of various practices to reassure ourselves that we are making the right choices.  I’ll be calling Sue often to consult, especially when I’m trying to find rams in as limited a gene pool.  I’m very grateful that she has entrusted her life’s work to us.  I hope we can rise to the challenge!

*****

Regarding the continuing CL issue, we retested and got our results on Friday.   Bobolink, Moose and Marianne had the same results as before.  Amid some tears, Mary Lake dispatched Bobolink today.  She had a cyst forming, and we just couldn’t risk keeping her any longer.  Her meat is edible, but it’s small consolation for the loss of a really wonderful ewe who gave and raised twins as well as amazing gray fleece every year.  Happy trails, Bobolink.  I’m sorry to have lost you.

Progress

20170409_122530So we’ve gotten some results from the first round of testing.

Little Moose and Marianne are on the low side of positive for CL. Bobolink is also on the borderline between exposed and potentially positive.  Obviously, these are not the results we wanted to see.

I admit that I considered some pretty drastic action.  Do we need to depopulate the flock completely and start over?  Do I need to throw away all of my sheep keeping supplies?  It was hard to look at the matter calmly.  I worried that I wouldn’t find the balance between doing too much (eradicating the flock) and doing too little and permitting CL to persist in the sheep.

So I turned to some shepherding and goat-herding contacts.  People who have shipped all of their beloved animals and started over, people who are good at thinking through complex conundrums, people who just lent a sympathetic ear.  Gradually, I calmed down, and Matt and I thought through a reasonable plan.

Here is our CL elimination plan:

  • Retest the negative ewes twice over the summer season to confirm that they are negative.
  • Keep and monitor the positive ewes until weaning. Cull immediately if any cyst develops.
  • Vaccinate all lambs, all-CL negative adults, and vaccinate any incoming animals.
  • Maintain a comprehensive vaccination schedule for 3 years, but stop vaccinating young stock in year four.  Test all un-vaccinated young stock at age 1 and age 2.  Continue routine testing until all stock are clean for two years.  Then institute random testing of 10 animals/year until clear for 5 years total.  Any positives during this time will be culled.  Any animals developing abcesses or inexplicably losing body condition will also be culled immediately and without question.  All abcesses will be tested post-mortem.
  • This plan can be shortened if results are good, or prolonged if CL persists.

Perhaps most importantly:

  • Matt and I are buying a farm this year and moving out of Williston.  Our goal is to finally expand and grow this operation into a profitable business that maintains one or both of us without off-farm labor.  This is our golden opportunity to eliminate persistent CL in the sheep’s environment.  We will destroy all wooden items and other porous items that cannot be sanitized.  We will sanitize all non-porous items according to veterinary recommendation, or destroy them if that is recommended.  Don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about the experience of trying to sanitize my truck.

I ran this plan by my discussion network, and it is being considered by our veterinarian currently.  I am optimistic that we can keep this year’s lambs, and that we’ll be able to responsibly introduce stock from other farms this fall so that next year’s flock will reach an economically significant size.  We are currently looking to purchase about 15-20 registered Bluefaced Leicester ewes to really launch our operation.

This Week in Review

Content Warning- Real Farming.

If you’ve read my Facebook Page recently, you’d know that we had a really fabulous and successful lamb open house.  My goal for the open house was to share the joys of lambing with the public, and I would say “Objective Achieved.”

I’m committed to running this farm open-source, so that others can learn from my experiences.  In that spirit, I will share the following:

The Fourth Doctor died on Friday night.  We checked him at 6 and he looked completely fine.  At 10, as we settled down to sleep, we heard strange sounds from the ram shed.  I threw some pants and a shirt on to go and look, and found him in agony, straining.  We called the vet, 45 minutes away, and I sat with The Doctor, trying to comfort him in his suffering.  Matt went for supplies and Mom came over from the B&B to lend emotional support.  When the vet arrived, she diagnosed a Urinary Calculi blockage.  We catheterized him to see if we could break up the blockage and allow him to pee, after cutting of his urethral process (really adding insult to injury for his situation).   The catheter went all the way in, but nothing came out but a little blood.  One option was to access his bladder via a hollow needle from the side and attempt treatment that way.  When Cat, the vet, said that the odds of success were less than 50%, we decided that it would be unkind to continue treatment.  The Fourth Doctor was suffering badly and continued to moan in pain under sedation.  We said a hasty goodbye to him, with final hugs and kisses.  Fred, the other ram, was distraught at his companion’s pain and confused to find himself living with the girls again.

So we were feeling pretty terrible, recognizing that having the ram’s water freeze over regularly probably contributed to this loss.  Then we got worse news.

Valentine, the last of my first set of lambs born on my farm, tested positive for Caseous Lymphadenitis.  Gut Punch.  We had noticed a weird cyst on her cheek and her wool break earlier and decided to look after it.  Well, the news came on Wednesday afternoon, and we’ve been in emergency mode since then.

  • I cancelled all of my breeding stock reservations this year.  No one would thank me for potentially introducing a serious disease into their herd, so all of my handsome little rams will stay here this year.
  • Tragically, there is no good treatment for CL.  I made the crushing decision to slaughter Valentine and Peggy, too.  Valentine for testing positive, and Peggy for potentially showing symptoms.  This leaves three lambs as orphans.  Peggy’s lambs were already being fed by us, but poor Pencilvester is lost and distraught.  Still, the risk of transmission if Valentine’s cyst were to burst was too much to allow.
  • The vet came today to test the remaining sheep for CL.  At $50/sheep, this will be a painful and expensive exercise, but well worth it.  Our next steps will depend entirely on the results of the test.  A few positive ewes can be culled with minimal negative effect, but if the illness is widespread, we will have to do a long-term control plan involving having a “clean” flock and a “positive” flock that will have to be biosecure and separate  Here’s hoping for option 1.
  • I have also contacted everyone to whom I’ve sold a sheep in recent years.  Having to tell someone that their flock may have been exposed is worse even than receiving that news about your own flock.  I would rather have my own flock potentially sick than know that I’ve exposed others, but in my case both are true.  The feeling is terrible.
  • All ram lambs will be future meat this year.  I will keep the crossbred ewe lambs just to keep stock numbers growing and to see how they perform overall.

This experience reminds me that my commitment is to the flock, not to the individual.  The sacrifice of Valentine and Peggy for the good of the flock overall feels terrible, but justified. I may be called to make more such decisions.  Fortunately, CL is not highly transmissable from ewe to lamb, so the lambs may be okay.  They are too young to test accurately, anyhow.

Recovering from this will be a multi-year process.  Nevertheless, I will persist.  I have tremendous gratitude for all of the responses I’ve had from friends and other shepherds helping reassure me that I’m not a terrible shepherd.  It’s hard not to feel like a terrible shepherd after a week like this one.

Talking about Solace

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I’ve been feeling sad for the past week or so.  Even though the attack in Orlando feels very personal to me, it’s not one particular event or situation that’s upsetting me.  I think that it’s the tone of conversation I’ve seen over Orlando, Black Lives Matter, Brexit, the presidential election, and even topics that are important but not ultimately tremendously significant, like merging local school districts.  I’m less upset that terrible things happen than I am at how poorly, shortsightedly, and provincially we handle them.  I am most upset at how people talk about other groups of people.  When we forget that large groups are made up of individuals who are as complex and contradictory as we all are, terrible words and decisions follow.

So I turn to my sheep in search of peace.  In June, I usually find them relaxing under their shade, taking pleasure in the comforts of home and company.  An ear shakes off some flies with a quick flick.   They turn to see me and usually baa an acknowledgement.  Sometimes they all get up, hoping I’ll set up a new pasture.  But sometimes, I can just sit down, and a few will come and visit, and gradually we’ll all sit down together.

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