This past weekend began that in-between period that is book-ended on one side by breeding season and at the other by the end of grazing and the eventual start of lambing. The length of this sweet period varies depending on each year’s weather and other factors, but it is most welcome when it arrives. The daily monitoring of breeding groups has ended, and the need to feed out hay each morning has not yet arrived. Instead it is a time of quiet walks in the crunchy fall leaves, enjoying the flock. And I’m not the only one enjoying the quiet of the season; the ewes and rams are also happy to once again live in single-sex groups without the complications that living with the opposite sex can bring. Overall, this time of year — however short or long — is a lovely intermission in the usually busy work of creating the next generation.
When we first pull the rams out of the breeding groups and merge all of the ewes into one large group, it’s not unusual for the ewes to do a bit of celebrating. After being split into different groups for at least six weeks, they are delighted to once again be together, connecting with mothers, daughters, aunties, cousins, and best friends. The mood is easily described as joyous — even by non-shepherding witnesses. The first day begins with a lot of nuzzling and standing side-by-side in near disbelief, but then generally ends with running and chase games where adult ewes join the lambs in gamboling up and down our rolling hillsides, kicking up their heels in delight. There is a feeling in the growing dusk that all is right with the world, and that anything else can wait until another day.
At the same time, the rams are not as enthused about their lot in life. Although they want to see their old friends, much has changed after so many weeks apart. What was once a smoothly functioning hierarchy — with a recognized leader, a second-in-command, and ordered ranks, down to the lowliest and generally smallest ram — now finds rams that have matured over the past few weeks and are now literally fighting to establish a new order. As a result, all of the boys re-entering male flock life go into a temporary “squeeze pen” where they have only enough space to eat, drink, lie down, and shove the others around a bit. There is purposely not enough room to back up, run headlong, and cause damage to a temporary adversary. This shepherdess is wise to the ways of rams and cannot abide such brutality; the squeeze pen stays in place until it is obvious that the shoving and uncertainty is over and all are safe.
This year, we brought in Luthor from Oak Creek Farm for one of our Romney groups, and he was quite content at first to play third fiddle to Nahe’s lead and Noa’s second-in-command. Yet, when the rams came back together, Luthor was determined to take the lead for himself, even if only for a couple of weeks until his ride back home. O’Connor, too, was a changed ram after breeding. Last year he he was too young and immature to breed and was eventually returned to the ram lamb group after only a few weeks. This year, however, he was a yearling and had the majority of the Romney flock in his group. He happily bred all but the youngest lambs and returned to the ram group looking bigger and much more mature than the boy we turned out in September. Despite the fact that all but one of the other rams were at least a year older, he was obviously looking to move upward in the hierarchy from very near the bottom to somewhere closer to the top. Yet after nearly two days, the rams settled into a calm and peaceful group, albeit with every ram sporting a newly split head!
The ewes are now rotating among what remains of our pastures, once again grazing in groups of friends and family. When I go into the pasture for my daily check, my old friends come to welcome me, looking for a chin scratch or simply a word or two. Less friendly ewes will look to see whether I’ve brought any graham crackers. They’ll come close for a bribe but look suspiciously at those who come to me for simple interaction. Yet every year I seem to add to my close friends in the fields. Of this year’s ewe lambs, Pierson and Patience are both eager to run to me as I enter the pasture. They get a face rub or a chin scratch and then are off to continue grazing as some of the older, slower ewes (like Kali, Kabernet or January) finally arrive at my side for the same.
Yes, this time of year is sweet for me. It includes friends, old and new, and not nearly as much work as other times of year. I walk among the colors of the trees and the colors of the flock (as I see the various colors of breeding crayon on their coats), enjoying the fall weather before Iowa is submerged into frigid cold. For now, it is a welcome respite from the workload that will begin in just a few weeks. It is a time to savor and enjoy.
Skirting progress: We sheared our market lambs in October, but because of many other farm projects, I hadn’t gotten to skirting them until earlier this week. I am now slowly working on getting them ready for sale, and will update you at the end of each blog until I have an estimated release date. Thanks for your patience!