Many of you who follow this blog know that Caseous Lymphadenitis has been an issue in the flock in the past. After an aggressive eradication campaign, the whole flock tested negative in March. However, my last CormoX ewe, Meadowlark, developed a very large and very concerning abscess on her cheek last week. Even though she tested negative for CL three times, I know that false negatives are not impossible and I didn’t feel I could risk having her cyst bursting, spreading illness around.
We separated Lark from the flock, but realized that we couldn’t just have her in the barn all alone. We had been on the fence about keeping Dalek after she had a premature single, failed to come into milk, and showed no signs of regaining any weight. We decided that it would be okay to let her go at this time also. So we transported both sheep back to the barn for a day. We had an on-farm slaughterer come and the deed was swift and stressless for both sheep. We got our answer about Dalek- massive lung damage from a bout with pneumonia. We had noticed her wheezing a bit, but our previous vet hadn’t heard anything in the lungs then. I assume that she had pneumonia at some point earlier in her life and was treated, but had sustained serious damage. If we hadn’t intervened, she would have died a slow and agonizing death.
I feel sad to lose such good ewes. Both were devoted mothers and herd leaders. I am so frustrated that this disease issue continues to worry the flock. I am committed to eliminating it, though, for the long-term wellbeing of the sheep in my care. I have to assume that any disease that packs the lymph nodes with nasty puss has to be painful as well as economically damaging. I will really miss them both.
The rest of the flock seems very happy out on pasture. The grass is rich and the ewes are gaining a bit of weight to counter the pounds they’ve milked off in the last few months. We also have our first new lamb in a while! Sheppenwolf had a single ram lamb this morning.
The grass ripened for grazing this week, and the sheep went on grass on Friday. I have been watching them every moment since then. I have been so anxious about putting the ewes and lambs out on pasture, which makes little since as we are a pasture-based farm focused on rotational grazing!
I worried that sheep will bloat during the transition from hay to pasture. Ruminant digestion relies on beneficial bacteria populating the gut of the sheep. They don’t adjust well to sudden dietary changes. If indigestion takes place, the sheep will develop painful gas in the rumen that can cause death in an hour or two. The rumen becomes so inflated that the sheep will suffocate! So I watched the sheep on pasture like a hawk, even training a high-beam flashlight on them at night to check for illness. So far, everyone has been fine.
Another anxiety is whether the lambs will understand to avoid the fence. Ideally, a lamb will touch the fence with his/her nose, get a shock, and jump back. Usually, they run off with an offended “BAA” and learn that the fence is to be avoided. But once in a while you get a special one who runs forward and entangles. So I have also been watching the fence lines for stuck lambs. Also, so far so good.
My final anxiety is about the season. I am worried about whether I have correctly matched the numbers of sheep with the amount of land I have. I am asking this land to support more than 70 sheep, but I am worried that I won’t have the fodder to support them. In short, what if the grass won’t grow? On this one, I am trying to just have a little faith that my instincts are good and the sheep will have feed enough. The lambs will ship just as feed runs low in the fall, so I think I am in better shape than I feel like I am.
Meanwhile, the sheep are filled with joy to be outside. They graze in the bright sun and ruminate in the shade. The lambs bounce and play a bit, but most are old enough that grazing is the focus of their day. Each paddock at this time of year is approximately 164ft x 164ft, more than a half-acre. The sheep move a little more than once a day, primarily because I am carefully watching the grazing rates. It is crucial not to allow the sheep to graze below the growth point of the grass.
The following is from Beef Magazine, but is relevant to my project:
Research shows when up to 50% of a plant’s leaf volume is removed, root growth stoppage is about 2-4%. If 60% of the leaf volume is removed, root growth stoppage escalates to about 50%. At 80% removal, the roots have no regrowth.
I want to have strong regrowth, so monitoring is constant. The sheep are really a full-time job right now.
In other news, we treated GWAR for a bit of footscald with a mediboot. We caught her on pasture and put some nice treatment goop between her two toes and then stuck the embarrassing blue boot on her foot. GWAR hopped away, bereft of dignity but will hopefully feel much better in a couple of days.
Yesterday, our high temperature was 45F. Today, we hit 63F with bright sunshine. That’s pretty toasty-warm for February!
Predictably, this shrank our snowpack from about a foot to mere inches with large bare spots. We’ve lost snow in all of the locations where the sun shines directly and where the wind doesn’t bank the snow. The road also thawed, so the sound of dripping and flowing water was punctuated with the sound of the grader and dumptrucks struggling to keep Creek Road passable.
I took the opportunity to walk around the land as much as I could. I am interested in seeing what areas thaw and dry first. I also need to familiarize myself with the wettest areas so I can plan to exclude the sheep from those areas as long as necessary. I noted that water flows from the uphill side of the road, under the culvert, and across our land. It was rushing down the swale area and bouncing down the hill into the wooded area that we’d most like to clear for additional pasture. Good to know.
We also have a gentle stream that flows from our spring down to the little kettle where one of the sheep got trapped last year. The water here is flowing more slowly- I’m guessing this will stay wet longer than any other area.
As the day went on, the sunshine turned to a drizzly rain. I have been walking up and down the road trying to increase the numbers of steps I take each day to help prepare my foot for the busy season. I noticed areas of deep, squelching mud. Trucks coming by me weren’t outpacing my walking by much and struggled not to lose momentum on the extra-deep parts.
So it was no surprise when we noticed stationery headlights on the road. Matt took the Ford tractor out to have a look. He came back saying that some travelers from Massachusetts in a 4wd CR-V were stuck in the road. Matt was able to help them move their car back to pavement. We expect that the spring will furnish more such experiences as it comes.
I don’t know why I don’t like conferences. Maybe I’ve been to too many with poorly-trained presenters, or too many that are barely 60% relevant to what I am doing or want to be doing, or maybe it’s just the tables and the notepads and the boring small-talk.
The Vermont Grass Farmers Association Conference is different, somehow. They really understand how to balance the presenters at a conference, and how to respond to community needs. I was lucky enough to go to both days of the conference last week. It’s a fine opportunity to connect with other farmers facing the same opportunities and challenges as me.
The Friday panel of speakers addressed marketing, with a panel that included four farmers doing direct-marketing of their products in urban environments and one registered dietitian who studies the nutritional benefits of meat. While the four farmers gave great tips for managing sales and customer relations in a fast-changing environment, the dietitian had lots of useful information about how to sell and how not to sell grass-fed meat. I did not know that while the Omega-6/Omega-3 proportions are much better in grassfed animals, both fats still make up a tiny amount of the total fat in red meat and are not really nutritionally relevant relative to, say, Salmon.
While some Vermont farms are really adept at modern marketing strategies, many more have neglected websites, no social media presence, and an expectation that people will come to them for product. Some of us are farmers because we enjoy being out in the woods, not crafting messages for a suburban marketplace. Many of us are farmers because we eschew the harried urban culture that our customers belong to. But we ignore current culture at our peril – we need to make our products as available and ubiquitous as conventionally-farmed meat and processed pseudo-foods are now. Several presenters at the conference had unlocked that market.
The panelists also addressed how to handle displeased customers and how to talk to people who question the value of animal agriculture. While most of my own customers have seemed satisfied with my lamb and wool products, I sometimes encounter a self-appointed animal rights crusader who is appalled that we slaughter and eat sheep. While I don’t mind explaining why I do what I do to anyone who will listen, the presenters pointed out that for some, animal rights has transcended the idea that animals should have good lives and moved on to the idea that animal agriculture shouldn’t exist in any form and furthermore that we need to use synthetic substitutes for all of the animal products in our lives. She then suggested that we should respond to such opinions as we respond to any kind of closed-minded zealot – just block and move on. That was a relief to me.
The afternoon session on the first day of the conference addressed how to write your recipes for how consumers cook now. I have to admit- I cook entirely on cast-iron and enjoy making all-day recipes and eating old-fashioned stuff. Since cooking was all I could easily do for entertainment while my foot was broken, I experimented with all kinds of cooking that people don’t do at home, like puff pastry. I had never actually touched an Instant Pot and didn’t know what they did. Now, I almost want one. Not quite, but almost. And I know that recipes I write need to address the popularity of this implement. I need this occasional reminder to address my marketing to the prevalent cooking practices in society.
Day two of the conference was on Saturday and attracted a broader crowd. I spent my morning at a chat about Beef Cattle Genetics Management. Those of you who know me personally are aware that genetics are my nerdy happy-place. Even though I don’t really have plans for cattle, it was good to understand the genetic challenges faced by our cattle herd and how breed stock producers are encouraging farmers to strive for genes that will finish in a grass-based management system. Many cattle owners are making the same mistakes I did with my original flock- diluting hybrid vigor into unmanageable genetic stew. The result is tall cows and small cows and efficient and inefficient eaters. The presenters gave strategies to avoid this. They also had tips on evaluating feed efficiency. This is the project that I need to complete with the Bluefaced Leicesters- I need to take all of their amazing traits and add grass-feeding thrift without losing the rest.
In the afternoon, I participating in a panel of three presenters talking about opportunities for beginning farmers to access land. One of my co-presenters talked about her experience on a cooperative, group-owned property, and the other spoke about a dairy farming internship. I spoke about my journey raising sheep on rented land before we were able to settle in our current location. While our panel was well-organized and effective, I am not sure that our audience had that many people looking to enter farming. Have we passed through the golden moment of young people entering farming? I hope not.
The final session I went to concerned weighting and RFID animal management techniques. It was a little glimpse into the future of what we will be doing, where we can see if an animal is sick just by being alerted to interruptions in weight gain! Sheep hide illness, so this is a fantastic tool to improve humane practices on the farm.
Going to the conference also allowed me to connect with other farmers. On Friday, I carpooled with Maria Schumann of Cate Hill Orchard. We talked sheep and marketing all the way down, and all the way back up. It feels so good to make a sheep connection.
I am part of a couple of sheep discussion groups on Facebook and on other social networks. One of the most common general questions is “What Breed Should I Raise?” Answers to this question can be trite or complex. “Whatever you think seems neat” “The Breed I Raise” and “Here’s a newly-available breed that people are talking about” are common responses, but these are not always the best way to find the sheep that are right for you.
Here is a rubric that might be helpful:
Are you a first time shepherd?
If yes, I wholeheartedly recommend just getting some mixed-breed ewes to start out with. They will teach you what you do and don’t want in a purebred, and you’ll be much happier if and when you do start raising a pure breed.
*Of note- a good friend corrected me that I shouldn’t appear to be recommending that new shepherds find random sheep from Craigslist. Your crossbred sheep should nevertheless come from a healthy flock, have good records and some ongoing assistance and mentorship from the seller.
What do you want to do with your sheep?
Just wool:If you just want a pet flock for wool, collecting wethers (neutered males) from a variety of breeds is the least expensive, lowest-maintenance way to have a fun spinner’s flock. Why wethers and not ewes? If you plan to breed your animals and have a variety of breeds on hand, you may find it challenging to keep large breeds fed without making small breeds obese, or to make sure that more dominant animals don’t “own” the feeder.
Just meat: If you plan to raise sheep for meat and don’t care about wool, hairsheep are a good choice. I am not knowledgeable about the different breeds of hairsheep and their characteristics, but I know that hairsheep and their crosses are growing in popularity among large- and small-scale sheep growers alike. I am sure that some breeds and strains are more or less suited to different climates and levels of grass quality.
What I am best prepared to address: Sheep for Meat and Wool for people who want their sheep as an enterprise more than a hobby.
If you plan to breed sheep and raise meat, but you want to enjoy wool too, things will get a little complex. It’s time to consider some economic and logistical matters.
What breed of sheep you raise should follow what climate and grass you have. I will describe the situation with an example: Shetlands were developed on Shetland island, eating sparse, rough foliage and seaweed. Suffolks and Hampshires were named for the rich, grassy, bountiful bottomlands where they originate. If you put a Suffolk on Shetland Island, it would probably starve fairly rapidly because it simply cannot gather enough nutrition to survive. A Shetland in Hampshire, allowed to graze as much as it pleases, will grow chubby and its famously soft wool will coarsen if it is able to eat lots of excess protein. Yet, in the US, many small-scale sheepraisers don’t take the suitability of the breed to their land very seriously. We have breeds adapted to the Western Range, to the Humid Southeast, to intensive grazing in the rich lands of Ohio and Indiana, and to the mediocre pastures of Northern New England. While exotic breeds may seem nice, you could wind up fighting an uphill battle against climate, diet or parasites.
So how can you tell how good your grass is? Your extension service can help, because every climate has different species with different levels of nutrition available to them. Talking about grass is beyond the scope of this quick post about breed selection, but I have some information about grass management and about rotational grazing.
It is my inexpert, personal opinion that many beginner Vermont shepherds underestimate their ability to raise sheep off the bat and choose something advertised as “hardy.” Hardy is great, unless it also means that they produce mediocre wool or single lambs instead of twins. I had this experience on a farm that had good land, but raised a breed associated with the barren highlands of Scotland. The sheep were fat and happy, but the lamb only covered the cost of keeping the sheep and nothing more. In most Northeastern flocks, the value of one lamb covers the mother’s room and board, while the second lamb represents the profits. This isn’t as firm a rule in other parts of the country where land is less expensive.
Another area of my again inexpert personal opinion: when slaughter cost is high on a per-animal basis, farmers aiming to raise sheep profitably need to raise the largest-finishing animals they can. Some breeds of sheep are small, especially ones developed in regions where food is scarce. Breeds like this will grow to full size and maturity rapidly and often fatten easily, but they may not have a heavy enough carcass to make lamb profitably. If your breed of sheep makes lambs that weigh 120 lbs at 7 months of age, you should get 50 lb carcasses worth $400-500 dollars. Cost of slaughter will be about $100 in my area, leaving $300-400 to cover costs and provide income. Now imagine your lambs weigh 80 lbs at age 7 months. You may get a 35 lbs carcass from such a sheep. You are still paying $100 for inspected slaughter, but will only get $250-350 from the carcass, leaving only $150 to 250 to cover costs and provide income.
I was incorrect about a couple of the considerations I now mention when I initially wanted to raise Cormos. Here are some things I didn’t consider or know:
It is not possible to “upbreed” mutt sheep into registerable Cormos by using Cormo rams for multiple generations. So you either have registered stock, or you don’t.
Pure Cormo wool doesn’t tolerate the moisture in our climate if the sheep don’t have complete shelter from rain available at all times. Mine all had algae in their wool.
Finding Cormo rams was going to involve driving across the country now and then.
This final point is worth addressing, as I’ve repeated my error with the Bluefaced Leicesters: Finding the right genetics to complement your efforts when you are raising an unusual breed and you may find yourself traveling long distances at great expense to manage your gene pool. Do not underestimate this expense, and also make sure that within the breed you are considering there are like-minded shepherds with the same goals as you. All of the literature I had read about Cormos suggested that they should regularly twin, but it didn’t seem that other shepherds raising the breed were actively working towards maintaining their lambing rate. I was finding that the more Cormo breeding my sheep had, the fewer lambs tended to have. With the Bluefaced Leicester, there is a group of breeders within the breed working to maintain the high lambing rate while improving the vigor and thrift of the breed. I am happy to drive to Ohio for sheep that I know align with my flock goals.
And if you would rather not drive so much, why not raise a breed that is common and successful in your area? My Border Leicester flock fits that description. Border Leicesters do well in our climate and are popular. They grow large enough on grass alone to carry a grass-based farm plan, and while their wool isn’t the softest, it is still useful and valuable.
Certainly, this post isn’t comprehensive, but I hope that it prompts some thoughts as you consider raising sheep.
If you are buying a farm, reclaiming a pasture, or even just considering getting into small ruminants, please join us for a pasture walk at Cloverworks Farm!
Join UVM Extension and the VSGA at Cloverworks Farm in Albany, where farmers Katie and Matt have moved their operation from rented pastures to their own place with 40 Border and Bluefaced Leicester sheep. Learn how to identify your pasture’s needs and deficits and learn to plan an improvement strategy through haying, mowing and rotational grazing. Careful application of soil amendments will also be covered. Light refreshments served. Please wear booties provided for biosecurity.
Location: 4558 Creek Rd., Irasburg, VT 05845
To register, call Katie Sullivan at (802) 324-2039 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Each day, we take down the old paddock for each group of sheep and build a new one in its place. Simple enough. I spend my time picking up Electronet, laying out Electronet, setting up Electronet.
But we have one sheep who makes the whole process trickier. Nevermind that the adult ewes haven’t figured out that moving willingly out of the old paddock will be rewarded with a new paddock in short order. There’s no reasoning with some critters. But the lambs have a problem child: Sue Perkins.
Sue was hand-raised by us, and views humans as friends. She is especially fond of Matt and comes running to his special Sue-call. But she also views herself as an exception to general sheep rules. She feels that she can approach us for petting anytime, even when we are trying to drive the sheep from one place to another or dealing with an emergency. She is first on the scene if someone has a bucket in their hand just to check on whether there is grain inside, so carrying medication or other non-food items must be considered from a Sue-attack context.
And when it comes time to move fence in the lamb area, she has this irritating habit of testing the fence delicately with her nose to see if it is on, and then diving under it to get on the new pasture while her friends pace at the fence line.
Yesterday, I caught her in the act- totally busted! She didn’t go low enough and is actually caught in the lowest wire. Clearly, I need to think through some ways to teach this valuable ewe some respect for the fence!
Today, 14 beautiful registered Border Leicester ewes joined the flock at the farm. Sue and Bruce Johnson came up from Hinesburg with some of their finest yearling and two-year-old ewes. The sheep are wide, square, clean and lovely. They represent decades of careful breeding and it’s really an honor to have them here.
Sitting in the field, I saw before me the flock we’ve been waiting for. Beautiful sheep, ready to transform this grass into fleece and meat. This is the dream I barely began to formulate in 2012. Now, the dream is literally wandering around before me, confused but contented.
After an hour or so, they settled in.
Because my life is action-packed at the moment, tomorrow, I will get my yarn for 2017. This will be the last year that I’ll have the CormoX yarn, so stock up! We are excited that some of the new ewes have fleeces that will go to the Sheep and Wool Festival, along with a couple of lambs fleeces. Stay tuned for more.
July 1-4 – I am at a retreat at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, coping with the fact that we just bought a house in Albany, VT, just north of Craftsbury and Hardwick.
July 5-12 – Every day, I wake up in Williston at 8, handle the sheep, cat and birds, and pack the car until 11ish. Then I drive to Albany and unpack. Matt is busy making the water run, installing a hot water heater, and bringing the electrical systems up to code in Albany.
July 12-20 – We have moved most of the house items to Albany, but we are still living in Williston in a ever-more-empty room. Matt still has many repairs to work on. We are starting to move large items, like the tractors and implements. My mother comes and helps us move the cat and the birds. We also move the flock up to Albany in two trips in my truck. The back of the truck still smells. I’m glad I’ll never have to move the sheep en-masse again.
July 21-24 – Mom and I travel to Ohio and back in three days to purchase five more registered Bluefaced Leicesters. Day One is just drive across New York State, Northeastern PA and Ohio. Just rolling hills terminating in flatness. We reach a hotel just outside Cincinnati by 9pm. We spend the following day just stretching our legs, touring Cincinnati and preparing for the long slog. We got to meet Lowell Bernhardt. He has a beautiful flock of sheep nestled among the corn and soy fields. On Sunday, we got up at 5:30, grabbed some coffee and loaded the trio of lovely ewe lambs from Lowell. We set off for Howard, Ohio, to meet Anne Bisdorf and Lisa Rodenfels. Anne owned the ewes I was buying. Lisa no longer keeps sheep, but her flock was a major influence on the breed in the US. She was kind enough to drive a distance to see the lambs that descended from her flock, as both Lowell’s and Anne’s flocks originated with Lisa. Mom and I then drove back to Vermont, sheep baa-ing away in the back. The rest of the drive took 14 hours, and we arrived in Albany after midnight. We are both wiped and the sheep were sick of each other in their tight quarters in Mom’s van. Matt has been managing all of the animals for three days. He’s tired, too, so Monday is a rest day.
July 25-July 30th – Matt and I complete our move out of Williston. We took down all three of our Garage-in-a-Box outbuildings in one day and moved the chicken coop in an epic struggle with four of our best friends helping. I have put 2500 miles on my truck doing this move, with half of those towing heavy weights. We finished cleaning the house at 8:30 Saturday night and turned over the keys.
The flock is adjusting well to their new home. The grass here isn’t as good as the grass was in Williston. The soil here has been robbed of nutrients for too long, but we’re already moving forward on improvements. There is still much to be done just to make the house work, but the roofer starts next Monday and we have the chimney repairs scheduled too. We’ve ordered the barn, and we’re working on our Current Use enrollment.
To our surprise and delight, the house we thought we might have to walk away from has been freed from bureaucratic encumbrance, and is ours again to buy. Some poor file clerk pulled the file again, found the missing document, and suddenly we were good to go. We close on Friday.
About our new farm:
Some of you who have been in shepherding for a long time remember the debacle in the 90’s involving some sheep, legally imported from Belgium, who became the subjects of a USDA investigation. The sheep were confiscated from one farm, but another chose to fight and engaged in a multi-year legal battle with the USDA. Our new property is the farm where the sheep were removed immediately. Their heartbroken owners rented out their cheese facility for a number of years but after a fire in the cheese room were unable to continue. The bold, deep blue interior of the house has a mournful quality that brings to mind abandoned dreams. It is both beautiful and sad.
Our hope is to restore this property and renew the hope of sustainable sheepraising on it. Despite a history of loss, the property still has tremendous potential for pasture-based lamb-raising and perhaps endeavors like pigs, chickens and ducks. The land slopes gently away from the home, awarding us a clear view of any animals at any time. A trickle of a stream segments the property vertically, promising water in dry years and drainage in damp ones like this summer so far. The land is fertile but not fertile enough for demanding crops like corn or rich enough for dairy cows. It is exactly the kind of land that should be designated for sheep enterprises. We have a view of the Lowell Wind Project, which I don’t mind at all.
While I am grateful for all of the opportunities that farming in suburban Williston has provided, I am excited to return to small-town living. I am excited to have a town and a region to contribute to and to form long-term relationships with. I am excited to meet the other shepherds in the area. Matt is excited to have a garage where he can work on implements with his tools organized and his work area clean and uninterrupted. The rescue parrots we have will be excited by the high ceilings and great sunlight in the house. The property has a defunct cheese plant on it with a dual septic system, a walk-in cooler and many other neat goodies. Sadly, the state of disrepair means that we’ll need to invest a large chunk of money in this building to get it off the ground as a rental cheesemaking facility or renovated on-farm slaughter facility.
I am also excited to paint some of the blue wallpaper in a bright, sunny yellow shade. We are ready to renew.
Stay tuned for some tales of sheep-moving and some new adventures.