No matter how much I pet them, my sheep crave attention. I have several who will stop at nothing for shoulder-scritches, up to and including the yearling ewe from my last blog post who now will try to stand on your chest for attention. Needless to say, but we are training her not to do that.
We have a little over a month of petting to distribute equitably before lambing begins right around the end of February. Already, the ewes are waddling more and standing less eagerly. We are expecting anything from 70-90 lambs in 2021. That’s a whole lot.
PET US NOW!
Not only do my sheep want attention and socialization, but I also do. I’m strongly introverted and happily go several days talking only to Matt. But even I have limits. It would be grand to have some visitors at the farm, socially-distanced of course. The barn is pretty open-air, so having visitors in the barn is at a comparable risk level to two masked, distanced people talking at the park. We also recognize that people NEED interaction of some kind to get through this terrible year. Sanity has value, too.
I want visitors to come because I want you to feel, in person, how wonderful baby lambs are. I want you to watch their spontaneous play, to coo over their snoozing, to sense their curiousity and learn to interact with them on their terms. I want children to develop a fascination with animals just as I did as a child. Nothing makes me sadder than meeting people for whom farm animals are an entirely abstract concept.
That said, news about new, more contagious variants comes out daily. Matt and I are relatively young (42 and 37, respectively), but Matt does have some risk factors for a more serious Covid experience. I am so keen to share our farm with you, but also rather anxious about it.
So I am interested in your thoughts: Should we do FB live lambing streams? Should we offer tours? Should we do both or neither? How would you want to interact with lambs and farms at this difficult time?
I have some entertaining pictures of recent sheep activity. After 45 days in the barn, the ewes express their restlessness with weird stunts.
Activity #1 – Fighting
BFL 129 Amelia and Border Leicester 1736 go head to head, with our resident ram lamb goading them on. Sheep flocks have a hierarchy, and apparently these girls do not agree about where they stand in the pecking order.
FINISH HER! A solid flank shot by Amelia. Luckily, ewes don’t fight to the point of injury, like rams do. These two went back to munching hay and gossiping about each other soon after.
I have to admit that I was laughing the whole time. I am sure this felt very serious to the contenders, but watching chubby, fluffy ewes do battle would amuse anyone. I wonder if this could be a pay per view channel?
And then this happened:
Perhaps you recall a story from last spring, where one of our ewes had quadruplets? The runt died and we gave the ram lamb away to be raised by a friend, but we kept two promising ewes from the set. When a young lady contacted me to ask about keeping some bottle lambs over the summer, I consented. She had tutelage from an experienced shepherd, and handing off some problem children was just what I needed at the time, so I gave her one of the quad girls and another bottle baby. This lamb, #174, came home in the fall. She just loves people, and last week decided that perhaps people would make entertaining climbing walls, too.
So here she is, standing on my thighs and peering me straight in the eye. We will gently train her not to do this, as it’s going to get exponentially less-cute the larger she grows. I love this pretty ewe, but it is not safe to have attack-sheep on premises.
The days here are alternating between grimdark gray and sunny and white. It is a beautiful but bleak season. With the sheep stable and some time to think, I am finally catching up on paperwork and hobbies. I really value this bonding time with the core flock. The ewes are all feeling friendly and loving, so I am bombarded with shoulder-itching requests and loving nudges from my friendly ewes during this time. At other times of the year, the ewes are either preoccupied with parenting or feeling free and feral in the fields. So I gather the sheep petting endorphins when I can while we wait for the coming of lambs in late February.
I’ll be the first to admit that we put off fixing the barn for too long. Though we have a wide-ranging array of skills, neither Matt nor I are woodworkers. Wood is a tricky medium – it warps, shrinks, grows and splits. Matt prefers metal, plastic and electronics, and I prefer spreadsheets and graphics.
So the barn went unmended for months as we pondered an approach. Finally, we decided it was time to cough up for outside help. On Saturday, exactly a year after the back of the barn tore in half, friends helped us replace the back and front panels of the barn. Our friend will be back to work on adding some wooden framing to solidify the canvas and reduce flapping, which should extend the life of the front and back panels. But since he is doing this after work, we’ll have to wait a few more days for the barn to be finished.
So an unfinished work-zone barn is the context we had when we saw the weather report calling for snow. A bit of snow at this time of year is commonplace, but when we woke up this morning, it was clear we’d had a proper snowstorm. Strong winds were blowing the falling snow across the landscape and our house was buffetted by whiteout gusts.
Sheep will graze through a good amount of snow, but we don’t want them to struggle to find sustenance under difficult conditions. My first action was to move all three groups to areas with sheltering trees. What a slog – the wind was whipping past, making the fence tough to manage. I struggled to keep my hands warm and the snow was just deep enough to impede my stride. But at last, both the Border Leicesters and the Bluefaced Leicesters had trees to block the prevailing winds.
Then, we opened a bale of hay and transported it to the Borders pasture. We rolled about 1/3 of the bale out and warched the ewes go wild for it. As much as sheep love fresh grass, hay is a desirable “convenience food” when the grass is buried. Soon, all were munching contentedly. We picked up the remaining bale and brought it to the Blues, who dug in with gusto just as their Border friends did. Finally, we went to see the lambs, who are in a far flung field protected from the worst of the winds. The lambs came gamboling down to see us and dug right into the core of the bale.
We have another day of freezing weather and hay feeding before temperatures transition back into the 60s. Hopefully, the barn will be finished soon and the sheep will go into their shelter for the winter months.
I felt grateful for a morning full of sunshine this morning. We’re well past our first frost and we know that snow is right around the corner, so it wasn’t surprising to step out to 35F temperatures and a crisp wind.
I usually get started by filling the water tank in the bucket of the tractor. We recently replaced our old Ford with a New Holland that’s 20 years newer. The Ford had a bumpy ride that irritates my internal scar tissue from past surgeries, so upgrading has really helped my health.
Aboard the tractor, I headed up to check on the BFLs who are in a breeding group pasture on our neighbor’s property. I spot two cyclists who are looking at me, then I see one of our off-duty rams running loose. That’s bad. Very bad. Our off-duty rams are in a horse pasture, and truthfully, they are not far enough from the BFL breeding group. We just didn’t have other options. So when I saw the off-duty ram heading for the ewes, ready to challenge the on-duty ram, I immediately worried that we would have a real ram-fight.
Fortunately, the electric fence succeeded in keeping the rams apart, so I contacted the cyclists. They told me that when they rode by, their cycles spooked the rams, causing Hermie the BFL ram to bust through the fence. They had been trying to keep Sam the Border Leicester ram inbounds while hoping that assistance would arrive. I’m so grateful that they stopped to help instead of leaving the situation.
I had some grain on hand to feed the ewes, so I tried to lure Hermie away from the girls. All amped up and nervous, he spooked at the grain bag sound instead of coming toward me. It was then that I noticed a large gash on his nose from challenging the fence. Poor Hermie! With grain-shaking getting me nowhere, I feed the BFL breeding group. That resulted in them ignoring Hermie, who responded by paying more attention to me. One cyclist returned with a bucket, and I was able to contact Matt for further backup.
It took slow, patient grain-luring to get Hermie back into his field. We were hoping to halter him, but he kept spooking and running in circles, so we concluded that our best hope was to feed out a little more grain in the field and to spray a sanitizing treatment on his wound there. Fortunately, we succeeded with that plan. Hermie now has a bold silver Aluspray blaze, and the fence has some new green stakes supporting the area where the the breakout took place.
It has been a long fall season for me. I haven’t kept up with the blog because I’ve been trying so hard to be nimble with Cloverworks yarn sales opportunities and busy with Bobolink Yarns efforts. It genuinely has been a hard year – I had hoped that this would be our breakout Rhinebeck year. We’ve learned that our yarn sells really well when people can touch it, but that we can’t rely on online sales as a substitute for in-person sales opportunities. That’s a tough realization, for certain.
We have a whole passel of bottle lambs in 2020. We have the two remaining ewe lambs from the quadruplet situation. We have a BFL ram lamb who never caught on to nursing his mother. We have a Border ram lamb who was rejected due to having sharp teeth (we fixed the teeth but couldn’t repair the relationship. Then, we have triplet BFLs whose mother just can’t keep up with their needs.
Almost all bottle lambs start out in the house. Because we can’t feed them as frequently as a real sheep mom, we choose to keep them indoors where they will be warm enough to not suffer chilling and hypothermia. Hypothermia causes most needless deaths of young lambs – lambs who are too cold won’t nurse or digest milk, resulting in a downward metabolic spiral. We try to give the lambs motherly attentions that they would receive from a real mom – ewes don’t hold their lambs, but they mutter to them and nuzzle and groom them. Petting and stroking the lambs meets their need for attention.
Of course, bottle lambs in the house are adorable. We show you the cute pictures of a lamb snoozing in a corner, but we don’t show you the mess they make. Lambs do not potty-train, so we do upwards of two large laundry loads of towels each day just trying to prevent indoor lambs from destroying our floors and furniture. Diapers aren’t really in the lamb’s best interest as we don’t want to leave manure in contact with their wool for any length of time. Finally, scampering lambs need space which is best found outdoors in the barn. They need playmates and guidance from ewes, too, so they learn to be good flockmembers and not frustrated wannabe-humans.
We gradually introduce houselambs to life outdoors by sending them out to the barn for short periods and then not bringing them back into the house eventually. We then must train these lambs to use the nursing bucket instead of the bottle. We use a Pritchard teat initially to facilitate nursing initially to facilitate nursing. Once the lambs are larger, however, they are too strong for small rubber teats. At that point, teat-bucket feeding becomes more practical.
The bucket is a competitive space, but we work to ensure that all lambs get the milk they need without overfeeding the aggressive ones.
We have set up a lamb creep as well. A creep is an area of the barn only accessible to lambs through a gate that admits only small sheep. In the creep, we offer grain, nice hay to nibble on and a sunny, dry floor. It takes the lambs a few days to discover the space, but once they do they really take to having a clubhouse just for them. We do feed some grain at this stage to help out the many triplets we have. Not all ewes can provide enough milk for fast-growing triplets, so this is our most practical option to grow them out effectively without overtaxing Mom.
So that’s the news from the lamb barn. We have 71 lambs bouncing about and only a few more ewes expecting. We are tired but finally beginning to catch up on sleep.
I often meet folks who are considering getting sheep. Many bashfully tell me that they only want a small flock and some seem to worry that they are wasting my time asking questions.
Questions are never a waste of time! Judging from the kinds of questions that I see in sheep groups on Facebook, more people should ask all of their questions first and obtain their sheep second!
So I thought I’d throw together a post about how to figure out if you are ready to become a shepherd. Naturally, it is my opinion that sheep are wonderful animals that will bring you years of joy. Care for 3-5 sheep is roughly equivalent to care for 2 dogs. The chores are different but the time and commitment are comparable. Like dogs, sheep are not a great choice for people who travel for long periods of time or who don’t like to spend time outdoors.
What will you feed your sheep? Sheep require fresh grass or hay daily. I am often asked how much land a sheep needs. Sources will tell you that you can have 2-5 sheep per acre. People think “perfect, I’ll start with 5!” and soon, their acre is denuded, their sheep are hopping the fence. Once the grass is gone, the sheep must eat hay year-round in a drylot. Probably not the bucolic life the shepherd imagined! So start small. If you have two acres, start with three sheep only. And remember, if you plan to breed, those lambs count towards your totals as they age.
Before you click away because you only have a half-acre of open land, consider this: We rented farms for 6 years before purchasing a property. You might have neighbors who would love to have the sheep come visit and do some mowing. As long as they don’t have loose dogs, sheep would be a benefit to them and their grass a resource for you.
Water is a similar consideration. Hauling buckets get tiring, but loading them in a vehicle or ATV works well. Sheep do need fresh water each day, about one gallon per sheep. This water is returned to the soil as urine, which promotes grass growth and health.
Sheep don’t need an elaborate structure to live in. A 3-sided barn or shed that shields the sheep from the prevailing wind and weather is plenty for most breeds, even in Northern climates. In fact, heated or insulated barn facilities can cause pneumonia. Sheep acclimate to outdoor temperatures readily. We used to use a Garage-In-A-Box plastic-canvas structures as sheep sheds – they worked very well and the sheep were always cozy. Winter feed storage is likely more of a concern, but that can go in a Garage-in-a-Box as well! Two good-sized structures, one for feed and one for animals will probably set you back $1000.
Non-farm folks picture sheep behind a classic wooden fence. Erase that idea from your mind – sheep are clever fence-evaders and that picturesque fence will be defeated in no time. We recommend a solid wire fence or an electric fence (or a combination thereof). Portable electric fences with solar chargers have advanced significantly in effectiveness in recent years. About $1000 will get you plenty of fencing for a small flock and a good charger that will keep that fence working. Consider that your fence needs to keep predators out as well as keeping sheep in – that is part of the impetus to consider electric fencing.
Sheep are pretty quiet and should not be noxious or odorous if correctly managed. Most neighbors should welcome picturesque and pleasant sheep. Trouble comes if your fencing isn’t sufficient and the sheep get into gardens. Likewise, dogs who wander over from the neighbors presents a serious threat to your sheep. Non-working dogs worry sheep and should not be permitted to access them. Similarly, sheep forums are full of stories of farm-owners own dogs turning on sheep and causing harm. Your sheep deserve safety – if you have dogs who don’t obey commands and who show prey drive, consider owning less-vulnerable livestock.
A friend pointed out that I should note that The Internet is not a veterinarian. Neither is a Facebook group, nor someone you know who used to have some sheep. Set yourself up with a knowledgeable veterinarian before your sheep arrive.
Here comes the awkward part: Based on seeing hobby-scale farms come and go and struggle, it is my opinion that if you intend to breed your sheep, you need to have a plan for your excess rams and low-quality ewes that involves the freezer. Too many hobbyists want to breed but do not want to slaughter any sheep. Such hobbyists soon find that once all of their friends have a few pet wethers, there’s nowhere else to send the results of their breeding activity. Too many neglected livestock in backyards are not well-fed or well-managed as pets. I would sincerely discourage anyone from thinking that offering their animals on Craigslist or Facebook as “Free to a Good Home” will get them a good home of any kind. So that’s my advice to you- either breed and eat or don’t breed and have some fiber pets. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Managing your animals for wool takes more effort and dedication than a layperson expects. If only it were as simple as buying sheep, feeding them, and getting perfect wool each spring. Wool is susceptible to many ills. The most common one is hay damage. Any wool with hay on it or in it will make poor yarn and fabric. Any hay feeder that is above the height of the back of the sheep will cause some amount of hay to be deposited on sheep backs. The best feeders direct sheep to eat from a low height (which is natural for them anyway, as that’s where grass grows). Designs for feeders that keep wool clean aren’t hard to find. Consider that plants in pasture, like thistle and burdock, can also cause damage to your sheep’s wool.
Poor nutrition is the next cause of damage in wool, followed by shearing at incorrect times. If you are breeding your sheep, shearing should occur ahead of or just after lambing to avoid a break in the wool that occurs from maternal stress during birth. If you have no interest in wool from your sheep and want to reduce maintenance effort, hair breeds are great.
Which breed you choose is probably the least important thing about your new sheep. It’s natural, though, to be excited as you go to a fair or read online about the wide variety of sheep breeds available. If you have already decided not to breed, there’s probably no reason not to get one or two sheep from a variety of breeds so you can enjoy all kinds of sheep and fiber. If you do plan to breed and keep sheep, a single, purebred breed will get you the most consistent lambing results. We raise two pure breeds so that we can plan on how much feed they’ll need, what kind of behavior to expect and what kind of wool we will see. Here’s a bit more about breeds, for those interested.
So you think you might want sheep after all this? Great!
If you have more questions, here are some great resources:
Me – get in touch and I’ll answer any burning questions you have. I enjoy helping, so don’t be shy.
We had the sheep shorn today. Though it feels early in the year, we know we need to have the sheep shorn before lambs are due. The forecasts calls for continuing mild weather, so we aren’t concerned about cold or wind for now. The ewes were eager to itch all of the itchy places they couldn’t reach beneath their fleece. We watched each of them craning their necks around to reach that One Spot and then shaking in relief.
Mary Lake at CanDoShearing shears our sheep. Mary and I have parallel sheep journeys. We were housemates back in 2012 and 2013. She had just finished an internship on a sheep farm when I was in the middle of my goat-milking years. We were both struggling doing hard jobs under challenging circumstances. Mary has always been helpful and deeply honest about my sheepraising, so it felt wonderful to be able to show her a flock of healthy, chubby ewes with great wool. I am endlessly grateful to Mary’s patience and wisdom through all of these years.
Enjoy these naked ladies prancing around on our farm! We were thrilled to see how plump and ready for lambs our flock is. 51 sheep shorn today – the only ones still wearing wool are the Two Old Ladies – we think they’ll do better with a bit more wool on.
We have arrived successfully at the quietest time of year. The ewes are eating and gestating, quietly growing and waiting. The rams have calmed down and decided to get along again.
Every morning, I put on my coat, hat and gloves and head to the barn. The ewes are eager to see me. They have picked at the caged round bales all night and need me to remove some of the wasted stems so they can get to the good stuff again. We have three feeders so that everyone can have a fair shake at eating without waiting for more dominant ewes to fill up. With three 600 lb bales in the barn at a time, we don’t even have to feed the sheep daily.
Sometimes, Louise the Kitty decides to explore the barn. In the summer, it’s one of her favorite places to hang out because there is shade but no sheep. Though I have seen many photos of cats and sheep cohabitating happily, my cats and my sheep are more adversarial. Louise attracts sheep attention and gets assaulted by noses within moments of arriving. I had to rescue her, much to her chagrin because she hates being picked up and carried. I bet she would hate being sniffled to death more.
In sunny weather, the ewes use their loafing area to sunbathe and to scheme about how to bust the fencing apart so they can go eat fallen apples. They were out under the apple tree when we came home from our Christmas visit to my sister and her family. It’s embarrassing to admit that we are somewhat losing this intellectual arms-race with the sheep. If the land beneath the loafing area were permiable, we would put in some posts and be done with it. Since the land is quite hard and compacted, we have to make some alternate plans. The ewes know that the green alpaca panels can be rubbed until one lifts out of the linkage with the other. We solved that temporarily by pinning the linkages together, but the ewes have found that they can reorient the fencing and defeat the pins. Frustrating.
This is the unglamorous time of year. The two big Sheep and Wool festivals we do are over, and it’s time to get back to routine farmwork,
All but the most stubborn leaves have blown off the trees and hit the ground. Frost has ceased the growth of the grass, so all grazing now is merely a victory-lap of somewhat palatable but less-nutritious grass. Even breeding season has abated – the rams have settled most of the ewes for March lambs, as best I can tell. Unlike goats, rams woo ewes quietly and subtly. They grumble gently and nudge ewes while sniffing to determine who might be in heat.
One major job awaiting me was the ram barn. We clean the bedded manure pack out of the main barn with a tractor, but because the rams live in a converted horse stall, removing their bedding is a hand-shoveling job. If we bedded them with shavings, shoveling would be easy, but we mostly bed them with waste hay. Waste hay plus manure creates a substance that I term “Crap-thatch”. Crapthatch is challenging to shovel because the long strands of hay do not want to disengage, while the moisture in the pack makes every scoop you can move very heavy.
It took three long days to complete the shoveling job. We added most of the manure to the manure pile, but we brought one down to the village of Albany to share with some folks who let us rent their land for hay. Matt deposited the scoop of poop straight on their garden for use next year.
At least we have a nice stack of hay bales to see us through until spring. It’s hard not to get anxious about my hay math – it’s expensive to be 20 bales short in April! That said, I think we are in the clear.
I recently read a conversation on the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association listserv on the topic of calculating a profitable lamb production enterprise. Some producers hadn’t calculated their production costs, while others weren’t sure what market prices looked like.
For our lamb enterprise, I calculated our cost of production and then did a bit of research on comparable products. Comparable products are lamb produced by other enterprise farms (farms where vegetable and animal enterprises make money, whether or not the farmer farms full-time or not). Local lamb in grocery stores counts, but not imported lamb. A quick google effort is all that is needed to see what other farmers are charging. I then deducted my cost of raising lamb from the prevailing price, and calculated how many lambs I would need to raise to make the amount of money I would like to from my lamb efforts. Lamb needs to pay about 2/3 of my annual income.
Predictably, I would need to charge much more for my lamb than the market would support to make something close to the median US income, but farm life has other benefits. We breathe fresh air, eat local food, do enough work to avoid needing a gym membership, and we get to spend our time together. It all comes down to what kind of lifestyle is enough.
I have a spreadsheet to share with any sheep raiser who needs a little help calculating the cost of raising their lamb. This calculator is only as good as the accuracy of the numbers you have, so be honest with yourself about how much the lambs cost to keep. If you are trying to calculate what it would cost to start a sheep operation, there are lots of resources online to help you estimate how much hay your sheep will eat and how much fencing might cost.
Please feel free to customize your copy with additional info pertinent to your farm and to share this resource. I love writing a good spreadsheet, so this is my gift to you. If the sheet that downloads has format problems for you, I am happy to send you a copy of the form in Google Drive – just get in touch with the form below: