And another thing about riches

In order to understand the title of this blog, you need to understand my writing process. I usually come up with an idea and then try to find a good title for the topic. Once I have a title, I sit down at my computer, enter the blog site, type in the title, and begin to write about the chosen topic. This is how it is supposed to work — how it usually works — but it’s not always what happens. Sometimes, like two days ago, the process takes over and refuses to follow the plan, instead finding its own path.

When I wrote Wednesday’s blog, my intention was to write about the rich pastures we have this spring — the large quantity of clover that is in the fields right now, making our pastures very high in protein and almost too much for our sheep. When I typed in the title of the blog, ‘Oh, the riches’ and then began to type an entirely different blog than what I had originally intended. The title took me in an entirely different direction.

This was fine, actually. Sometimes I have trouble coming up with something to write about (writer’s block and I are quite the companions on some days!), so having more than one idea is always a wonderful situation to be in! Yet my substitute writing left me with a topic but no title — hence what you see in the title spot above.

Here in eastern Iowa, we’ve had plenty of rain this spring. The vegetation in our fields is growing nonstop, and although we have a good number of sheep out there grazing it down, the fields have no trouble staying ahead of our sheep — and that’s pretty amazing! In fact, I only need to walk onto our front porch and take a deep breath, and I can tell how much grazing we have in our fields: the air is heavily scented (almost sickeningly so!) with the sweet aroma of clover.  First it was the spring wildflowers and now it is the clover, but there has been a constant scent of flowers; and that means that regardless of how much our sheep are chewing and swallowing, there is still enough growth in the fields to go to seed. This time of year, with so many mouths to feed (most of our breeding stock that has been sold to other farms is still here), that is saying something!

Although there is plenty of grazing now, I dare not take it for granted. We’ve had two years recently that brought major drought later in the summer, leaving our sheep with dried-up fields and only hay to eat in the barn. I haven’t forgotten what it was like to worry about their next meal — and the one after that. No, even with the surplus, I am pushing the flock to eat everything in the field before they leave (down to about 3″). We’ve slowed our rotation to take advantage of every bit – allowing some of the fields to get ahead of themselves, heading out in seeds that scatter in the wind. Yet, seeds are not a bad thing. Although they are not a favorite of our ewes, they will eat them when pushed. Besides that, there are always other plants in the lower stories that seed out later in the year, and many of the current grass seeds will land on the soil and germinate there, producing thicker vegetation in coming seasons.

Slowing the rotation is better for the lambs in other ways. With as many pastures as we have in rotation, slowing down means that the sheep may not return to a field for 8 weeks or more, well past the 4-6 week point when parasites are at their peak, waiting to be ingested by a grazing lamb. This makes for a lower parasite load and less required dewormer.

But best of all is watching the lambs graze. The lambs are always the first to enter a field. They eat off about 1/4 of the available feed before they are moved to a new field, so they have their choice of the very best each has to offer. After they leave, the ewes move in to the very same pasture, taking the growth down to about 3″ high. Even those tall 24″ seed heads now waving in the breeze are chomped off, leaving only a tasteless stem that I will eventually have to mow. When the ewes go on to the next field, there is little left behind for the rams — but there are so few of them that they always have enough to eat. They eat a bit of the regrowth and whatever they can find. Some of our rams have come to prefer food sources that the ewes shy away from: duckweed floating on the shallow waterway, the bark of young trees, or the leaves on tree limbs just above their heads. (They walk on their hind legs, catching the leaves in their mouths and tearing them from the tree.) In a few days, they move on to the next field and leave me to mow what they have left, mostly seed stems and thistles, with an occasional outcropping of taller grass that surrounds a manure pile. None of them will eat next to a manure pile!

So for the time being, our fields are full and rich, providing our lambs with nutrition for exceptional growth and allowing our ewes to bounce back from lactation in record time. How long this lovely situation will last is anyone’s guess, but my flock and I find ourselves celebrating our good fortune each day. I stand and watch them in their overgrown fields, and I feel a sense of peace. For the time being, at least, my sheep are feasting — and those couple of years of drought and famine are behind us for now.

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