We’ve been having a few eye issues in the flock of late.
Chloe, a beautiful ewe from Maryland, developed a cloudiness in her left eye recently. It looked like she managed to get a solid poke in the eye, and our vet comfirmed such. So we are giving her some eye ointment that might increase her healing rate and comfort. Unfortunately, Chloe is already on the shy side, and we were only able to sneak in and get her about four doses before she wised up and began to assiduously avoid us. I have often wished that there were a way to communicate to sheep that they’ll be happier with the help. We’ve abandoned chasing Chloe for now, especially as the treatments we did manage clearly helped a lot and she is still making progress.
The other eye case is a little weirder and more complex. One of the lambs born last Friday had strange-looking eyes. He was newborn and gunky, so it was hard to pinpoint exactly what was going on. Gradually, it became apparent that he had some sort of eye issue. Our first thought was Entropion, where the lower eyelid is folded inward so the eyelashes irritate and injure the eye. But we couldn’t find any sign of lower eyelashes at all.
The vet came to look at both sheep. Part of being Animal Welfare Approved is providing treatment when treatment is needed, not leaving animals to “fend” and suffer. Our vet felt like the lamb had some defect or issue in-utero that is expressing itself outside. The little ram does play with his friends and is active, but does behave as though he is not completely sighted. So we have been treating him with ointments, drops and antibiotics, trying to improve his condition. Like Chloe, he now avoids us like the plague and associates us with mean stuff. It’s so hard to do what is right but sometimes uncomfortable for the animal. He is on the mend, as demonstrated by his increasing ability to evade me, so I know that the medications are helping.
Everyone else looks fantastic. The lambs are bouncy and jolly, and I can see on the shorn ewes that most are in fantastic condition. Fred has been showing off his lovely conformation and I finally got a good picture to show you the difference between 2 month old Agnes and a 5 day old lamb (probably the brother of our cloudy-eyed guy).
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.
Everything seemed fine with the lambs this morning. They had a pleasant shade-tree and lots of vetch and clover in this pasture.
When we got back from the Caledonia County Fair, however, I found our homebred ram lamb, David Tennant, dead beneath the lovely shade-tree. My mind raced- though I was upset to find his corpse, the critical thing at the time was to determine a cause of death and prevent any further loss. Could he have had Urinary Calculi, like his sire? I would need to separate my other ram lamb from the group right away. Clostridium would be the worst situation – the whole flock could die of a digestive system infection. Could he have simply rolled incorrectly and bloated, unable to stand up? Matt and I thought that the small indent where we found him should have been easy to exit.
As we loaded him into the tractor, we noticed that his head swung excessively and strangely. Could this sheep have broken his neck? Maneuvering his neck answered our question- I could move his head anywhere and I could feel a harsh *click* moving his head and upper neck from side to side. This poor fellow broke his neck, instantly paralyzing and killing him. Very sad, but fortunately not a contagious condition!
We believe that he may have been trying to climb higher than this low trunk of the apple tree in their pasture. We found him just beneath it in a weird, crumpled position. Not a responsible choice, but he was the sheep equivalent of a teen boy.
An ex-sheep. RIP to my very promising ram lamb.
We didn’t butcher him, even though he seemed pretty fresh. But I did try to get some wool from him so that he wouldn’t go totally to waste. It’s a small, completely insufficient compensation for the loss.
Needless to say, we removed the sheep from the paddock with the tree and we will not allow them access to the tree in the future.
In my last post, I mentioned that we are actively gearing up to buy a farm, make our own hay, and raise sheep full-time.
Yesterday, we went to the Rene Fournier Equipment Auction to search for useful implements for our farm.
Picture a huge lot filled with new, used, and well-used equipment. A few title-less cars, some random firehouse, a municipal bus, and tractors, rakes, tedders, mowers and other implements of all kinds. Lawn tractors, skidsteers and chicken coops went up on the block.
And by “block”, I mean they drove a truck around slowly, while a man with sign with a down-arrow that said “Selling this item” indicated various items for sale. Irreparable items sold for scrap prices, generally. Manure spreaders went high, and small balers were almost free for the taking. Antique tractors like this one didn’t even make their reserve and went unsold.
Finally, after hours of watching irrelevant items go by, our desired item finally came up for bid.
We had carefully scoped out the round-baler situation. Several round-balers were for sale. One was large and from a company (Gehl) that no longer offered parts for their now-defunct agricultural division. The John Deere baler we saw seemed likely to go for a high price, and there were two Case balers that would work. We also noticed a New Idea-brand baler with an electric mechanism for opening the baler hatch and dispensing a bale. Our tractor only has one rear hydraulic attachment, so that would be a huge help to us – otherwise, we would have to get off the tractor each time to release a completed bale, or we would need to put a splitter on our hydraulic output, slowing both hydraulic operations somewhat.
Matt and I conferred and made a pact- We knew that a baler on Craigslist would sell for about $4-5000, so anything under $3000 was good, and under $2500 was ideal. We would bid up to $2500 and then read the lay of the land. We were ready to come home with nothing, if need be. We watched some handy limespreaders pass us by for not too much money. Maybe next time, lime spreaders.
The New Idea baler came up first- not ideal for our strategy, as we would have no sense of competing buyer’s moods for buying round balers before jumping in on the one we would want the most. But Matt had a secret weapon. the New Idea had a control panel and a tangle of wires and tubes. We considered whether the crowd here might opt for something similar…
Bidding started at $4000. No takers. It dipped to $3,000, 2,000, and then 1,000, when Matt opened bidding. Another person we couldn’t see joined in, and they gradually rose until they reached about $2400. Matt and the other man then slowly bid upwards in $50 increments until Matt bid $2650. An anxious minute, and then the other bidder relented. Suddenly, a crowd that had correctly identified us as newbies welcomed us and congratulated us on our purchase. We watched the Case baler sell for more than $4000, and immediately felt some pride when other farmers said “You bought the better baler, and for less!”
Matt and I drove home happy. He swapped out of his car and took my truck up to pick up the baler, proud and pleased to own a very vital piece of equipment for less than we had planned to spend.
The sheep have gone out to pasture, and we are still moving through the testing program.
The vet came on Friday, and we are keen to see how the test results compare to the last set. Bobolink has a small lump on her chin that will be biopsied, and I am hoping and wishing that there are no new indications of infection in the flock. We are not hopeful for Bobolink’s future with the flock. We can’t risk having a CL cyst on premises that could threaten the lambs. Consequently, she will have to be shipped. I am heartbroken.
The more time I’ve had to settle with this disease and the changes I must make to my flock, the more clearly I am seeing a new and different direction.
Sadly, CL has been most concentrated in my small group of Cormo crossbreds. With Bobolink leaving, I will have one Cormo and three BFL/Cormo ewes. At this point, it is plain to me that I should accept all of the lessons that the Cormo sheep have taught me and move on. Meadowlark and the three half BFL ewe lambs will always have a home with me, but with deep sadness I intend to discontinue raising Cormo crossbred sheep.
It’s hard to be excited in the midst of so much sorrow and so many changes, but I have some exciting things coming this summer. Matt and I intend to do the following:
We are working on buying a farm. We are looking for 50-100 open acres and a habitable house.
We are buying haying equipment to make our own hay in the future.
We are buying 10 more BFLs and possibly 8-10 Border Leicesters to start farming without off-farm jobs.
We will still be raising lamb and wool, but we’re thinking we might like to change the name of the farm to something…fancier? Better? I’m looking for something as memorable and loveable as Sheep and Pickle, but that prompts fewer questions about pickles and seems more professional, too.
We had a really long night with Eleanor’s little ones.
Eleanor had her lambs on Wednesday night. When Matt went out for the midnight feeding, he called me right away to let me know that two little white lambs were staggering around the barn. We penned them up and fed Eleanor, but the lambs were losing energy quickly. It’s fairly easy to detect failing lambs: droopy heads, slow blinking, loss of ability to stand. The ewe lamb was looking okay, but the boy gradually started looking poorly. We brought both lambs into the house.
Rapidly, the boy started looking very pekid. His eyes closed and he looked very ill indeed. We wrapped him in a heating pad and I got out the tubing supplies. Knowing how to tube a lamb is a real confidence booster. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t worried about this little guy going down hill, but as soon as he started moving and getting antsy again, I knew I could get some sustenance down the hatch. I fed him some colostrum from his mother along with some milk replacer. A few ounces in, and he was ready to sleep it off. I kept him on by tummy, heating pad on low. Meanwhile, his sister had taken several ounces from a bottle with no trouble, and she was soon ready to go back to Mom. Out she went, and we saw her successfully nursing on the lamb-cam soon after. Phew!
Around 3am, the little boy was finally up and at-’em, so out he went to be a sheep once again. He brightened a little more every day, and he’s looking just fine now.
Last Saturday, I was handling the sheep when a sedan pulled up. Two men came by looking for a sheep to slaughter according to halal practices. I’ve been getting calls and texts for months from the Burlington area looking for sheep, but this was the first group that just plain showed up. Yosef and Hamid came out to look at the flock, and I offered Meadowlark’s ewe lamb to them. She has grown out with poor conformation, and with no record of good production from her mother, I was willing to part. That, and considering the underwhelming pasture season this year, I need the spare hay.
We led Chickadee out with little event. Yosef recommended that the flock not watch, so Matt fed them some grain while the tractor hid the action. The end was swift, and it took about an hour for our guests to skin, gut and butcher the sheep into roasts and stew-able chunks. Matt and I helped when we could, but mostly our visitors were determined to do their work themselves. I learned that Yosef and Hamid are from Saudi Arabia and live locally in Williston. I haven’t gotten to know my neighbors as well here as I did in Brookfield, but this is progress!
When they were all done, they let me know they were planning to leave and we agreed that everything was cleaned up enough and in good shape. As turned to go to the house, Hamid called my attention. He offered me a generous area of leg meat.
“Taste what you’ve raised,” he said. I accepted the still-warm meat and roasted it all afternoon in broth with potatoes and onions. Delicious.
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.