A peek at fleeces

I spent a bit of time this afternoon out among the lamb flock. Although it was quite hot out, it was a good opportunity to change some coats and, at the same time, get a good look at some of the fleeces our lambs are carrying. The heat tends to work in our favor — the lambs don’t want to run around in the heat any more than we do, so they tend to let us catch them a bit more easily. We just walk behind them and, in a very short time, they stop moving and allow us to change their coats.

Sadly, nearly all of the lambs who we handled today currently have a weakness or break at the base of their wool.

Most of the lambs that are left in our fields at this time of year are staying in our flock or have already been determined to be on their way to auction this fall. I’m not so interested in the auction lambs, but I still check their fleeces to see whether I should reconsider this particular lamb. Those who are already slated to join our flock are of great interest. Since I choose our lambs very early in the game, I have little idea exactly what they will produce. I make my decisions based more on family line than on anything specific in a particular lamb. I look at growth and fleece color, and I hope that the fleece will reflect what I would expect from the sire and dam, but I don’t know until midsummer how that will all work out.

Today I looked at the ear-tag number to confirm each lamb’s identity, and then I parted the fleece for a look. Some were lovely — and others were a bit disappointing. Nearly all had the exact same problem: an obvious weakness or break in their wool, either right at or a bit above the skin line. That told me that four to six weeks ago, something happened that so impacted their lives that it caused them to shift resources away from wool production and into staying alive.

Regular readers will recall that we had a bit of an issue in mid June when Rick was out of town and I went to the Iowa Sheep and Wool Festival, leaving our sheep in the care of a farm helper. Our usual helper Seth was not available, so we turned to someone who had covered for us on other occasions. However, she forgot and left the sheep locked in the barn with no food for a long weekend (see the June 19th blog titled “Good farm help”). It was a terrible experience that will continue to haunt me when I need to leave the flock in someone else’s care. It was not only a health issue at that time — it has obviously had lasting repercussions.

Sheep produce wool like we produce hair. Imagine the stress required to make you lose all of the hair on your head — usually an occurrence that accompanies a life-or-death situation, such as a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy. Of the seventeen lambs of both breeds that we looked over and put into new coats today, all but one had damaged fleece. It takes four to six weeks for wool to form and come through the surface of the skin, and the Iowa Sheep and Wool Festival ran from June 16-18, or about five weeks ago.

The results will also be a heavy financial burden next year for the farm. Our sheep pay their way for the year through wool production. Because of the weakness or break in the staple, those fleeces will not be worth nearly what they would have been otherwise. The dozen or so lambs that we will shear next spring will bring no income to the farm, but they will still need to eat, and the money for the hay will need to come from sources that are earmarked for other expenses. Feed is a first priority, and the rest will have to wait.

I mention this not because there is anything that can be done about this type of situation, but because I don’t think people realize how very easily things can go from good to bad in this type of an operation. A fleece grows for twelve months. At any point along the way, someone can forget to show up or an ice storm can knock out power so there is no water, or some other mishap can suddenly put the entire year’s careful work and special care on its ear. Producing lovely fleece is always our intent. Lovely fleece can only come from healthy, happy sheep. And as much as we try to make sure that our sheep live well, sometimes stuff happens. Thankfully, this time it was only the fleece that is ruined; the sheep are once again happy and healthy — although they will be wearing their former suffering on their sleeves until we shear in spring.

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  • Jane M says:

    I wondered if that would happen. … What to say? Words about hirelings compared to true shepherds or something….

    • Dee says:

      Yeah, I had hoped that only the very worst cases would end up with this issue, but it seems that even those not appearing to be at death’s door at the time were still in very bad shape. By the third or fourth lamb, I honestly teared up all over again reimagining what they had been through. My poor babies…

      • Abbie says:

        Do you think that the adults will have the same issue?

        • Dee says:

          Not that I have noticed at this point. We changed a number of coats today when we combined our ewe lambs with our adult ewes, and our ram lambs with our adult rams.None of the adults I looked at seemed to have any fleece issues that this point – but remember that it takes 4-6 weeks (on average) for a section of fleece go from formation to pushing through the skin, and the terrible weekend occurred five weeks ago today. We aren’t out of the woods yet with any of the flock, although I doubt we will see any issues with the rams – they happened to get too much feed before I left, so I think their fleece will be fine.

  • Elaine Chicago says:

    This is just all so sad and unacceptable. I feel so badly for the poor babies and the anxiety they must have experienced. With all the love and care you give them I would imagine that they run to you in the barn and in the field for reassurance.

    • Dee says:

      It is funny how the lambs and ewes will happily come to say hello to me when I enter the field alone – and they will also often do this with Rick or Seth – but when any of us come together, they all hang back. They know from experience that one friend is lots of fun and maybe treats, but two or more friends mean that there is work to do and the flock will likely be the focus!

  • Janice says:

    I wonder if the heat will cause problems with the fleece. I recall a judge suggesting that cause for problems a few years ago.

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