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How to get your Lambs Out

Background: It’s spring. The grass is finally up after several late-season snowstorms and you can see your BFL former-bottle-lamb Sue with a mischevious glint in her eye. She’s tested every inch of the loafing area fence for weakness and now she’s just waiting, WAITING for someone to latch it wrong so she can make her bid for freedom. In past years, the sheep have, in fact, dismissed themselves from confinement and spread out across our generous front lawn area to graze. We do use the lawn for grazing, but only after blocking sheep from accessing the wellhead. Nothing spells defeat like having to shock your well because your sheep dropped a few ewe-berries into it.

Step 1: Stress out for a week trying to think of possible exigencies. Could the ewes turn left and run up the driveway and into the road? Could they turn right and run down to the rich wet area full of burdocks? Will there be a cold rain that could hurt the smaller lambs? How will we deal with the lambs that are in the isolation ward? This kind of preparation is not my strength. I’d rather make five complicated spreadsheets in an hour than try to develop a step-by-step physical plan.

Step 2: Phone a Friend – Dom and Donna Druchunas seem to like visiting my sheep, so it seemed only natural to press-gang them into wrangling the sheep out of the barn. They cheerfully said yes to my request for assistance, unaware…

Step 3: Have you ever tried to secretly build a fence? If your sheep baa because you’ve approached the garage where they know the grain is kept, then you’ll understand why I took pains to sneak around with fencing so they wouldn’t serenade me for the whole 90 minute setup time. I reserve the right to enjoy my podcast-listening-time.

Step 4: The Shuffle – With a little quick thinking, we took the lambs away from the ewes in isolation. We then took Sam the ram and two cull ewes out of the main group. Then we blocked off the creep area and removed all lambs from it so they can’t hang out in there.

Step 5: Chaos. We opened the fence and opened the gate with some portable gates blocking the sheep from running up or down the driveway. The ewes all exited in a huge mass. They ran, pronking and kicking out, onto the grass and set to work eating. Their lambs did not, though. The lambs have never left the barn before, so they were reluctant to run out, even to follow their mothers. They stayed behind, bawling. Dom and Donna were assigned to shuffle lambs forward, but the lambs really gave them a run for their money. Lambs dashed to try to get into the creep, and they thwarted every attempt at predictable herd behavior. Bottle lambs followed us like dogs while confused general-population rams ran in circles, crying. It took a lot of yelling, shooing and regrouping to try to get all of the lambs out. Lambs knocked down temporary blocks and a few got out of the barn and loafing area completely.

Step 6: Technically, we won. Even though getting the lambs out took a solid half hour and left us all sweating and gasping for breath, we only carried five lambs to pasture bodily. Last year, the carried-lamb-count was 30. So that’s a win, I guess!

Step 7: Bonus Content – the exertion of going out onto pasture was just enough to send 1616, last seen actively breeding with Oliver on pregnancy-scanning day, into labor. In a half an hour, she had squeezed out adorable BFL/Border cross twins! She’s doing well and the lambs are healthy.

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Pasture and Fear

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.

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Pasture, Day 1

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.

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Pasture, Day 3

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.

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Sue is still Sue – diving under the fence to get to the new pasture first.