Peeper Hollow Farm
Romney and Romeldale/CVM Sheep
Breeding Stock, Fleeces and Locker Lambs
 

Breeding rams and temperament

One would think that determining the temperament of a ram would be a relatively easy thing, but as regular readers know, most issues surrounding sheep end up being more complicated than they might seem! Ram temperament is one of those things. First, as with people, temperament can change with age and life experience. Unlike with people, I have seldom seen ram temperament get better with age; it seems as though a ram who is too feisty as a lamb will only get worse as an adult. There is an exception to this rule, however. If a ram lamb learned at a young age that intimidation works, that humans will leave him alone if he acts aggressively — for example, if the humans fearfully leave his area when he lowers his head — he can be taught that this behavior no longer works.

Several years ago, we had a couple of rams come in from Wisconsin who had learned, through their life experience, that if they lowered their heads and pawed at the ground (much like the bulls in cartoons, actually!), the shepherds would get scared and leave the rams alone. The rams learned this lesson well, and when they arrived here, they looked like mean and aggressive rams — at first. Within a very short time, however, I noticed that they never went beyond the threat. And when I called their bluff, they were obviously surprised! For a week we would only leave their paddock after they gave up and walked away. By the end of the week, they no longer lowered their heads or pawed the ground. They had learned that this behavior no longer worked to their advantage, that if they turned and walked away, we would soon leave. They had been retrained.

Rams generally develop their temperament over the first three years — whatever you see in years one and two can still develop into a “mean” or aggressive ram in year three. After the age of three or three and a half, rams pretty much stay as they are, so a mellow three-year-old ram will usually remain that way for the rest of his life — and the same with a dangerous three-year-old.

Yet a very mellow ram can still be a bit aggressive during breeding season, and the shepherd must decide how much aggression they are willing to deal with. Some people believe that any aggression from a ram is too much, no matter the time of year, while others are willing to breed a ram who is looking to kill them any time of the year! (As an aside, I had a ram pass through here once on his way to Wisconsin who wanted to kill every human he encountered. I had to feed him by throwing hay into his stall, where he responded by bashing his head against the door as I worked. His new owner told me that he was willing to put up with it because of the ram’s many good traits. I cannot imagine trying to work with this type of ram! He couldn’t possibly have enough positive traits to offset my possible death by his actions.)

I guess when it comes to rams and temperament, I fall somewhere in the middle: if the ram is mellow for most of the year but is very protective of his ewes while in a breeding group, I’m willing to overlook his protectiveness. We run more breeding groups than we have guardian llamas, so there are always two or three groups that have no llama for protection. In that situation, the ewes are dependent on the protective nature of their resident ram — and I need that ram to do what he can to dissuade a predator and keep his ewes alive. In other words, I need at least a few of my rams to aggressively protect their girls.

As I bring in new rams, I watch them closely. They must be even-tempered through the non-breeding season, or they won’t be allowed to breed in the fall. Temperament is hereditary, and I don’t want a whole flock of dangerous rams and ram lambs. On the other hand, as breeding season approaches, I begin to notice which of the new fellows seem to be more protective. The experienced rams have already been tried, so I know which of them will and won’t protect. When our groups are put together, the llamas go in with the mellower rams; the rams who have a more protective nature go out on their own. If, as breeding begins, I notice that one of my rams without a llama is not protective enough, I will often pull a llama from a more protective ram to cover that group.

ObiWan is now two and a half years old, and he’s suddenly becoming much more protective of his ewes — as is Pine. Both were very mellow fellows until they got into their breeding groups, and they were fairly easygoing as the ewes began to cycle through heat. Yet this has changed as the season has progressed. Neither of them want me out in the field with them. When I enter to feed out their grain, all is well — but when my feeding is done, they have no patience for my filling their water tanks. Both Obi and Pine will press their heads against my leg and push, trying to move me towards the gate. I’ve been trying to keep the water tank between us as I wait for the tank to fill, but Obi is getting frustrated by this keep-away game.

I’m willing to allow this behavior for the time being — after all, neither is trying to hurt me at this point. Yet I’m hoping that this is protective breeding behavior and not a reflection of a change in overall temperament. It had better stop at the end of breeding when things go back to “normal.” If not, one or both of these boys may be short-timers here on our farm. I have no patience for problem rams.

Selection and sheep

An online dictionary defines selection as “carefully choosing something as being the best or most suitable.” When it comes to sheep, there are many factors that go into the process and, in one way or another, some sheep are going to be selected for or against. A shepherd can’t avoid selection; the question is who will be selected and according to which standards.

Regardless of what the shepherd does, there’s also the matter of natural selection. We lose a few lambs every year to things such as illness or being cast on a hillside, and sometimes to a high level of internal parasites or birth defects. I do everything I can to save those lambs, but in the end, there will always be a few that die. Quite often these are lambs that I’ve wanted for our flock because of traits that I hope to incorporate in our breeding. Yet if the lamb dies for any of the above reasons, nature has selected against that individual — it was too weak, too prone to illness, or not smart enough to avoid physical dangers. This same selection occurs in the wild, and the flock is stronger for it. A coyote will often select the smallest, most anemic, or weakest of the flock as its target — a case of natural selection. In the long run, maintaining the weakest members only weakens the flock as a whole.

A shepherd learns to select from among the lambs born to the flock. In the early years when a shepherd is building a flock, many keep every ewe lamb that’s born. The flock as a whole does not generally improve during this stage; it only grows in number. Eventually the shepherd will come up against a limitation of resources — time, space, grazing area, or finances — and the flock will be as large as it can be, given the circumstances. At that point, the shepherd must decide to either stop breeding the ewes or begin some type of selection program. Once new lambs are born into a too-large flock, the shepherd must decide which sheep will go. The more lambs that are integrated into the flock, the more adults that must move out to keep the numbers steady. This selection, if done wisely, will begin to improve the flock’s traits. It’s not an easy thing to choose between keeping old friends or cute little bouncy lambs, but it is an integral part of what a shepherd does.

So how do we choose here at Peeper Hollow? First, there are traits that go towards making a good sheep: correct legs that don’t toe in or out and are are parallel from the knee down on the front legs and essentially perpendicular to the ground from the hock down on the back legs; a straight topline with smooth transitions at the shoulder and neck (lumpy shoulders can get caught in the birth canal, so it’s not a trait you want passed down!); narrower at the shoulder, good wide hips, and good capacity for lungs, digestion, and reproduction (particularly in ewes); and an easy and safe interaction with humans (a dangerous young sheep will generally only become worse with age). Any sheep with a fault in any of these areas will cause problems for the shepherd and the flock. The first selection is for good, sturdy sheep.

The next selection should be for the breed standard, if the flock is purebred. Because the flock’s breed standard(s) helps set the goals for selection, a new shepherd should have the standards essentially memorized. For example, the breed standard for Romeldales calls for an annual staple length of 4-6″ (in some places, it’s listed as 3-6″). When I bought my first Romeldales, only one ewe had an annual staple over 3″, so one of my first goals in this breed was to increase staple length. In the ten years that we have been working with the Romeldales, I’ve selected strongly for longer staples; our annual measurements now generally fall between 4-5″ and sometimes longer. We have found that slow but steady progress is much better than a sudden jump in one lamb, since that sudden improvement seldom migrates into the next generation.

It’s important to note that selecting against a breed standard is different than selecting against the traits that make a good sheep. The breed standard describes the traits that make the breed identifiable — those traits that have made that particular breed important in the sheep industry and different from other sheep. An individual sheep may not reflect the entire breed standard, but the goal is to have enough of the standard evident to easily identify the breed of the animal — and to continue to breed so that the conformation to breed standard is constantly improving within the flock. While it is critical to have good sheep, it’s a goal to have each one perfectly reflect its breed’s standard.

Selecting is not an easy thing to do as a shepherd, but if we don’t actively make a selection, eventually someone or something else will make the selection for us. If we select only our “favorite” or “friendliest” sheep to stay, based on temperament, we may find that our flock is no longer filled with good sturdy sheep and instead brings a growing history of health issues, poor weight gains, and/or poor wool production. In the end, we get what we select for. We may as well reap the benefits that astute selection can bring.

A distinct red glow

One of the exciting parts of feeding at this time of year is scanning the flock and finding the ewes that have been marked by the ram in the previous 24 hours. Red is the color this week, and I can’t help but imagine the coming lambs when I spy a new red marking on the back of one of the ewes’ coats. Each new marking means another one to three lambs, and as I look at the dam, I begin to put her positive traits together with those of the ram in that field, imagining healthy lambs, gamboling in the spring sunshine. The reality doesn’t always play out as well as my imagination, but this time of year is all about the hope of what might be and a look towards a future that is full of possibilities.

Osiris with an obvious red glow from marking Obella in the past 24 hours.

Obella with the red crayon marking from her recent breeding.

My first stop each morning is at Osiris’ Romney group down in the Sheep Barn. He has a small group of Romneys who spend their days inside the barn eating hay and doing nothing but eating, sleeping, cudding and, hopefully, making lambs. When I entered this morning, a quick glance made it obvious that last night had been a busy night. My eyes immediately fell upon Obella. It was obvious that she had come into heat since yesterday morning — and that she had been well marked! She literally glowed red from the Osiris’ red breeding crayon!

Yet Obella wasn’t the only one glowing red. As my eyes scanned the sheep in the group, looking for more red, my glance happened upon Osiris. That boy had certainly been busy overnight! Not only was Obella sporting a heavy marking of red crayon — so was Osiris! His whole front half was covered in a definite red glow that matched Obella’s! I couldn’t help but smile — and to hope that the crayon (which has certainly has made its way through the weave of the coats) will wash out of their wool when shearing time comes! Happily, I’m left imagining the beautiful lambs they may have just created.

Ingenuity and shepherding

We shepherds are an interesting lot. Although my college education made me an electrical engineer many years ago, I’ve done many things and reinvented myself several times over my lifetime to date. I was an engineer at first, then a stay-at-home mom to our two kids for a time and doing contract engineering work when it fit in. When we moved to Iowa, I stepped back from the workforce to draw up the plans for our new home and supervise the build. Almost right after the house completion, I was asked to “fill in” as a teacher’s aide at our local school where our kids attended classes – and ended up staying there for years. Eventually, I got a few sheep and worked with them “on the side” as I got a job at our church as the director of religious education, and then went on to get a master’s degree in religion. Finally, I ended up rolling my truck on an icy December morning and could no longer sit for long periods – and that pushed me to enlarge our flock and work with our sheep full-time. I now am a shepherd, and it is not so much a job as a lifestyle. I essentially spend every waking hour thinking about, working with or reading about sheep and their fiber, pushing to increase both my knowledge and the boundaries of what is possible with our flock.

Over the now-seventeen years in which we have raised sheep, I have learned a lot and met a lot of people – people who, like me, found their way to sheep in round-about ways. I don’t think I’ve ever run across someone who inherited the farm and the sheep from their family, continuing a family legacy. Most of the shepherds I know came into shepherding because of a personal desire to work with sheep or livestock or to produce wool, although there are a few who got sheep to “make money.” Honestly, shepherding is a lot of work for the money we make, so this latter group usually doesn’t stay in sheep too long. It is enjoyable and interesting work if you like working with animals, and particularly if you love the wool sheep produce, but if the only reason a person gets sheep is to make money, there are many other ways to reach that goal that likely require a lot less work, a lot less soap and laundry detergent, and probably less time, too.

Those of us who are shepherds because we find the work interesting and rewarding (and make a bit of money, too) usually find ourselves in a situation sometime in the first few years of our newfound efforts where we come up short. A situation arises that we don’t know how to resolve. For the good of one or more sheep in the flock, we need to do something, but we aren’t quite sure how to proceed. Those who are in it for the money generally shrug their shoulders and walk away – there is no obvious answer, so they move on. The rest of us find ourselves caring about the outcome and struggling with how to accomplish what needs to be done – and that’s when shepherding ingenuity steps in.

Oh, sometimes the beginners get lucky and call on an experienced shepherd who then helps them solve the issue – but eventually everyone comes up against something that seems somewhat unique – something they have to solve themselves. A shepherd worth the title will generally go about their business in this situation, but be constantly thinking back to the problem – how could I work this out? What could I change or fix or make that might help? What would someone else more creative than I am do in this situation? We start to think out of the box, and eventually something incredible happens and we come up with an answer to our problem – sometimes purely by accident. Once this happens the first time, we are more likely to keep with it the next time a problem raises its head. We get caught in a positive feedback loop that rewards us for thinking about and finding solutions.

I can think of dozens of examples and don’t have nearly the space for that here. We made grain feeders from 8-10″ diameter PVC pipes that were 12 feet long. We split them lengthwise with a saw and then screwed a couple of pieces of 2″x4″ onto the bottom for legs to keep them from tipping over. They worked great – and were much less expensive than many alternatives. Many shepherds now use electrical alligator clips to eliminate entropion (inverted eyelids) in young lambs – and this is much easier and less expensive than having the vet come out to do it. In climates that are much drier than Iowa in the summer, an easy salt feeder can be made from PVC plumbing parts that cost about $15. the list goes on. When we heard of a friend’s ewe who the vet had given up on because she was “too far gone” with hypocalcemia (also known as “milk fever” – a lack of calcium in the blood), I suggested that she crush up Tums tablets and make a paste to force-feed. I just remembered being pregnant and my doctor suggesting I eat a couple of tablets each day to make sure I was getting my calcium. I couldn’t go to help, but I suggested the tablets – and the ewe lived, surprising us all!

Side view of Elisabeth’s sling with the lamb eating – what a great idea!

Sometimes, shepherds go above and beyond to help their flockmembers. My friend Elisabeth has a young ewe lamb who was hit with a horrible case of anemia a few weeks ago – so much so that the lamb could no longer stand. Lying prone for long periods is a real problem for sheep, but this lamb was too weak to hold herself up; it meant that her legs were not getting the circulation that they needed if she were to recover. I suggested some type of sling – even for just short periods each day – to try to keep her going until she got stronger. Elisabeth brainstormed and then went to work, sending me the photo on the left and below right – a picture of the

The same sling as above, but from the front – with the lamb resting her chin on the resting bar.

sling that she and her husband created for the weak ewe lamb. She could lower her head to eat or rest it on the bar if more comfortable. At last report now three weeks or so later, the ewe lamb is getting stronger and the color is returning to her tissues – and she is standing better in her sling. This is true shepherding ingenuity at its finest. We are nothing if not a creative lot if our flock needs us! Good job, Elisabeth!

Color changes and rams

Since we are in the midst of breeding season, every weekend typically brings a new crayon color to our marking harnesses. The recommendation is to change color every cycle or 2-3 weeks, but we’ve found over the years that this doesn’t work well for us for several reasons: 1) the crayon is often very nearly used up after only one week, meaning that the second and third weeks may bring many breedings without readable markings; 2) after just one week, we often have enough markings of that week’s color to make it hard to keep track of which ewes were marked before and which are new that day – changing to a new color resets the count starting with that new color, and 3) even if the crayon is not used up, it isn’t unusual for it to be covered with dirt and gravel after one week, making for some hard-to-see markings. A new crayon brings clear markings so we change the crayon pretty much every week unless there is a good reason not to do so.

This year, we didn’t change from yellow to orange after the first week since I knew we would be gone the following weekend. Instead, we changed from yellow to orange after about 11 days – mid-week, just before we left. We had few markings in the first week, and the crayons all still looked good. Changing later meant that to get back to the weekend schedule, today became red-crayon day. It was time to change from those well-used orange crayons to the next color in the sequence (red).

I usually try to change out our crayons on my own with the assistance of my dog Coda if needed. Rams are the sheep version of men, and they come with just as many different personalities and temperaments. Of the five rams I have working here this year (I have three others temporarily working on our ewes at another farm), probably the award for the most difficult for crayon changing would be a tie between Romney Osiris and Romeldale Sterling. Neither of these guys is bad-tempered – they are just shy, and shy equates with difficult-to-catch. Each provides his own set of challenges.

Osiris is housed with his group inside the Sheep Barn. Because of the close spaces, I can’t use a dog in this setting – the sheep and dog would have to be too close together. In this situation, it is more likely that the sheep would attack the dog rather than move away from him, so I am on my own there. I must convince Osiris that I have something very good in my bucket so that he will come close enough that I can grab him. He doesn’t look like much (he is still young and not fully grown), but he has incredibly strong muscles that allow him to break free, even when I am holding him with two hands. When I am changing the crayon in the harness, I must hold with only one hand and use the other for clipping off or on the harness. Osiris wants nothing to do with people – only to leave for the distant corner. This trait can make for a true challenge when I am holding the harness and trying to clip it in place as Osiris makes for the other end of the barn.

Sterling’s issue is similar, but different. He is in a big open field with his big group of ewes. Like Osiris, Sterling is shy and does not like to be too close to humans. He stands off to the side of the feeders as I pour their grain, waiting until I leave before he comes forward. Because he is in a big field, I can use Coda to crowd the group at one corner, then dive in to catch Sterling while he is boxed in by the ewes. I finally caught him today, but as I unclipped the first buckle of his harness, he saw his opportunity and bolted forward and away across the field. Although I tried, I eventually gave up my attempts and waited until Rick got home; he could hold Sterling in place while I unclipped the harness, removed the pins and the orange crayon, then slid the red crayon into place and replaced the pins on either side of the crayon. It didn’t take long, but I hate not being able to do this myself – this is not Rick’s job, since he works in town. It is mine – but some things are just much easier with four hands working instead of just two.

Korbin continues to stand in place, chewing his graham cracker bits after his crayon change.

The easiest ram for crayon changing is definitely colored Romney Korbin. I walked up there this morning with the new crayon and replacement pins in case I lost any. He met me as I opened the gate and I offered him a few graham crackers. He stood there and chewed as I untied the straps and unclipped the harness. I changed the crayon over the board fence where he stood and offered him a few more crackers when I was ready to put the harness back onto him. He continued to stand and chew, sometimes turning his head sideways as if to ask how much longer it would take – but he didn’t move from his spot on the concrete pad. When I finished, he got a couple more crackers to entice him to come back again next week – and I was done, snapping a photo as I pushed back against the gate. I would love a whole flock full of rams like Korbin – he is a really mellow guy.

Each of the other rams here (Romneys Quest and ObiWan) fall somewhere between these two extremes; I can change the crayons myself, but I must hold them in place as I work to keep them from walking away. They aren’t determined to leave, nor are they particularly pleased to stay there with me. They exude the attitude of having other things to do and impatience at my keeping them from doing them. They are all business, but know that if I have my hand under their chin, they are to stay in place – and once caught, they will do just that!

Red week started here today and will end next weekend when we will change to green. It’s hard to believe that we are already about halfway through our breeding season, but the darker colors make that obvious.

One marking, two markings, red markings, blue markings…

So if I am honest, the title perhaps overstates the current marking situation of our breeding season since we have only gone through two different crayon colors at this point: yellow and orange. Yet things are looking up, with more markings in our groups every day. Regular readers might recall that we got a very slow start this year in all of our eight breeding groups. That fact got me thinking about why our ewes might not be cycling already in mid-September, and when I put that together with the thin condition of many of our girls, I realized that the issue was likely due to the protein content of our fields this past summer.

As a result, I decided to begin daily grain feedings within each group in hopes that not only would the ewes regain the weight they had lost, but also provide what sheep people call flushing (feeding ewes an increased level of feed for about two weeks before breeding to cause higher ovulation rates that would otherwise occur). Basically, I was hoping the the added nutrition would not only put my ewes in better condition for the coming winter, but also increase the number of markings we are seeing and eventually the number of lambs that we would expect.

Colored Romney Kabernet was marked in orange by Quest’s crayon when I fed yesterday morning.

As of today, our flock has been getting grain for two weeks – the recommended flushing period to see improved fertility (once started, flushing should continue throughout breeding season). Because our markings began to increase after about ten days of grain feeding, I’m fairly certain that the uptick in obvious breedings is related to their diet as we expected. Ninety percent of the Romeldale adults are now marked (with several ewe lambs also marked), and that leaves only a few ewes scattered among the groups that are yet awaiting their first breeding. For those already bred, the question shifts to see whether they actually did get pregnant. If the ram marks them again in the next few weeks, we will know that they did not settle and the new marking becomes the one we will use to predict their due date. If they remain unmarked for three weeks past their initial marking date, we can assume that they are pregnant and we will look forward to ultrasounding in December to determine how many lambs to expect from them.

The Romneys are much more seasonal in their cycles and therefore usually a bit slower to exhibit those all-important crayon markings. Although we had a very slow start, things have picked up there, too: sixty percent of the adult Romneys are marked as of today, with new markings appearing almost every day. Even better news is the fact that Romney ram lamb Quest – the only lamb working in our groups this year – is definitely working in his group, having now marked seven of his sixteen ewes. Using a ram lamb in a breeding group can be a bit of a risk when it comes to Romneys. First, this breed is slower maturing than many others, so it isn’t uncommon for ram lambs to lack the necessary maturity to breed a group of ewes. Second, even if the ram lamb is willing and able, that doesn’t mean that the ewes are willing to stand for him.

Like many animals both wild and domesticated, the females of most species are looking for the biggest, strongest, most virile males to sire their offspring. A ram lamb falls short in so many ways: he is small in size and much weaker than an adult ram who may be breeding other ewes in the next field over. The ram lamb has less testosterone because of his youth – and that results in less pheromones released to entice the ewes. This last point translates to the fact that a ram lamb is nearly never as “smelly” as an adult ram – and the stronger the smell, the better the ewes like their man! A ram lamb is generally at quite the disadvantage when it comes to breeding season, yet Quest has impressed me enough to give him a try – and it seems as if he is coming through for us. In fact, since last Friday, he has marked seven of his ewes, so he has been one busy boy!

Our breeding season will continue until at least October 28th, and possibly as late as November 4th, depending on how things go. If we see a lot of re-markings, we will likely give them the extra week. On the other hand, if things get really quiet and there is a longer stretch of no new markings, we will likely pull the rams out on the earlier date. At this point, I just sit back and let our rams do what they are here to do, and I will figure out the rest when the time comes!

 

 

No blog today

We were out of state visiting family over the weekend, and our return flight was delayed. As a result — and with so much to catch up on when we get home — there will be no blog today. However, I’ll post as usual on Wednesday.

A May-December romance

I am an observer of life. I enjoy seeing the world in action and understanding how and why things occur as they do. This has been a big help in my work with the sheep, since the only way to keep sheep healthy is to observe symptoms and treat accordingly. Also, my drive to make sense of what I see has pushed me to better understand sheep genetics, leading to many interesting discoveries.

Humans have a tendency to assume that the animal world mirrors our own feelings and motivations. I try not to do this with my sheep, since respect comes from accepting others as they are. There is nothing gained by making my sheep “more human.” Sheep are sheep, and a big part of the joy of shepherding is the interaction between humans, ovines (sheep), camelids (llamas) and canines (herding or guardian dogs). Yet every once in a while I observe something in our flock that leaves me wondering just how much we may or may not have in common with our ovine friends. Yesterday was just such a day.

I was outside the Sheep Barn in the West Pasture, filling the water tank for the Romney breeding group that’s grazing there. The group is led by ram lamb Quest, who has sixteen ewes, one of the largest of this year’s groups. Since there have been very few markings in any of our groups so far, I haven’t been particularly worried that Quest has not yet marked any of his ewes. He has been making all of the right moves, but either he hasn’t figured out exactly how to consummate this newly discovered breeding ritual or his girls haven’t been willing to stand for him to achieve that end. In either case, I am nothing if not patient — at least for a bit longer — and so I’ve been checking daily for that first exciting mark that shows us he’s working.

As I filled the water yesterday, my eyes scanned the ewes in the group for any possible issues: a torn coat, a leg that has slipped out of a leg strap, a ewe breathing hard or coughing — pretty much anything that would give me a heads-up that a problem is arising. At the back corner of the building, I noticed Grace obviously enthused about something. As I watched her, she reminded me so very much of her mother Zoe, a great sheep-friend of mine who has now been gone for several years. At the time of her death, Zoe was fifteen years old — an old ewe in anyone’s book — and Grace is now ten. I saw that Grace was energized, strutting and twitching her little tail stub in the air — obviously flirting with a ram that I could not see from my vantage point.

This scene was exactly what I would often see from Zoe during breeding season. No matter what group I chose for her, Zoe would set her sights on the ram that she wanted and, when she was in heat, would flirt with him across the fields — calling to him, sashaying back and forth, and twitching her little tail stub. Eventually I realized that if I wanted lambs from Zoe, I needed to put her into the group that she chose — she would stand for no one else.

As I watched Grace going through the same breeding rituals, I immediately suspected Korbin, the older Romney ram in a small group up at the Storage Barn. His group has a very short common fenceline with Quest’s group, and I suddenly had visions of Korbin hurling his big bulk against that fence or its gate and gaining access to Quest’s ewes. I turned off the water and made my way to a better vantage point for the unfolding scene.

I realized that Grace’s show was not for Korbin, but for young Quest. Just around the corner of the building stood Quest — all 110 pounds of him. As Grace’s display ebbed and flowed, Quest provided his part of the interaction, walking around her and rubbing up against her as he did so. Eventually he came to stand at her left side with his head just behind her left ear, chortling to her in that flirtatious way that we so often hear during breeding season. Grace turned to peek at him over her left shoulder, and Quest raised his front leg to paw at the ground next to her, a ritual that is instinctual in sheep.

I had seen most of this before from Quest. He obviously knew how to woo a girl, yet there were still no markings in his group. I was curious whether this time might be different, since this was the first time I had seen him making these moves with a ewe who was obviously receptive. If his attention strayed at all, Grace was right there, bringing his attention back to her and only her! As I kept an eye on them, I realized that the two of them were doing everything together: grazing side-by-side, drinking together from the newly refilled tank, and resting in the shade in what could only be described as “spooning for sheep.” It was a sweet extended romance, but when I left the field at dusk, there was still no yellow marking on Grace’s coat.

I needn’t have worried, though; Quest came through in the end. On my rounds the next morning, Grace’s coat was well marked by Quest’s yellow crayon. His attention had moved on to another sweet girl, and Grace was once again happy to graze with her female friends. I’ll wait to see whether she comes into heat again in another two to three weeks — if she isn’t pregnant already!

Lisa update

Lisa, our oldest working border collie, had a stroke last Thursday morning. It unfolded as I watched, beginning shortly after I came downstairs for the day, and it slowly took away many of the functions we tend to take for granted. The first thing I noticed were the tremors in her eyes, which brought on nausea and motion sickness as her compromised brain tried to steady her world. Not long after, Lisa lost her ability to hold her head level and then to walk. This dog, who has been so much a part of my life for the past thirteen years, slowly but surely retreated into herself, unable to do even the most basic things. She urinated where she lay unless I moved her outside periodically so she could relieve herself in a more appropriate place. I was truly worried that she would not have enough cognition left for any quality of life.

Yet my vet assured me at the outset that if I could keep her alive through the weekend, she would most likely bounce back. It was this thought that kept me going, hoping that Lisa would find her way back to us. Thankfully, by Saturday afternoon the eye tremors had ceased — the milestone my vet said to watch for as the first sign that things were turning around.

Since then, Lisa has made steady progress back to us. Before we knew it, she let me know that she needed to go out, and she stood in place to urinate outside. By later on Sunday, Lisa was walking fairly well on level ground, still a bit wobbly but getting from place to place on her own. Due to her arthritis, Lisa had long ago given up going downstairs; afraid of falling, she allowed me to carry her on the stairs. But by Sunday evening, she was going up a short set of stairs. That was certainly more than I had expected. On Monday morning, she followed me from place to place as I went about my chores and even got excited about playing frisbee with the other dogs. And the improvements have kept coming!

In fact, Lisa now appears to have awareness of herself and her surroundings. She has been drinking well throughout the week, but eating has been a problem. She refused to eat early on, seemingly afraid that she might choke — but that no longer seemed to be the issue. A visit to the vet Monday afternoon brought a diagnosis of pancreatitis, which might be the cause of her aversion to food. She is now on three additional medications to reduce the pain and nausea of this illness, but she has yet to eat a bite on her own. Her last free-choice meal was a week ago today. We brought home some low-fat dog food from the vet’s on Monday, which should help reduce the inflammation of her pancreas — but Lisa won’t eat it. She simply turns her head away when I set the bowl in front of her.

Lisa has several times in the past refused to eat for long periods, but this time I cannot allow it. There is too much riding on this one. Her health is at stake, and she will be in the care of others this weekend. If I can get her to eat each meal through Friday, skipping a few meals over the weekend won’t be as big a problem.

Despite my misgivings at pushing the issue, I’ve begun to hand-feed her — perhaps force-feeding would be more accurate. I pry open her mouth and smear the well-ground canned food onto the roof or sides of her mouth. She closes her mouth quickly once I release her and then sits there, drooling, trying not to swallow. Eventually, the drool in her mouth mixes with the food paste I’ve spread inside, liquefying it, and forcing her to swallow it as it slides around her mouth. As soon as I see her swallow, I pry her mouth open again, and repeat the process. I’m hoping that at some point she will begin to eat on her own, but until then, we are playing this game where she tries to either spit out her food or hold it in her mouth while I’m doing all I can to make her swallow.

As an odd aside, post-stroke Lisa has become a kinder, gentler version of her former self. She used to be a killer. All small creatures — cats, ground squirrels, birds — were in danger if she was free in the yard. She decided many years ago that our youngest dog, Chance, was among her targets, and over the nine years he’s been with us, he’s had multiple sets of stitches due to Lisa’s aggression. Yet since the stroke, Lisa is a new dog. She leaves the cats to wander the yard; she comes in alongside Chance without so much as a grunt. She watches the chickens with a calm and contented look on her face. Is this really my Lisa? I’ll admit that I like this new and improved version of my old friend; it allows me to leave her free in the house to wander where she likes and to interact with all of us as she desires.

I don’t know how this will all end up for Lisa or for us, but we’re taking it one day at a time. Lisa enjoys watching TV with us in the evenings and spends time outside watching the chickens or hobbling along after the frisbee as I do chores. It’s obvious that she has joy in her life, and in the end, isn’t that what is most important?

 

An unexpected slip

Keeping sheep is not generally considered to be a very dangerous activity. Of course, as with anything else, I’m aware of the possible dangers and keep my wits about me as I do my daily chores. Rams are in their breeding groups now, and so they’re particularly protective of their girls. When I enter any field containing a ram, I keep him in my sights so I know where he is and what he’s doing at all times. Our rams are known for their friendly disposition, but it takes only one accident to create a very dangerous situation. I pay attention, keep my cellphone in my pocket, and then hope for the best.

Because our ewes went into this year’s breeding season thinner than usual, we’ve been feeding grain to each of our groups. I’ve set grain feeding troughs in each field, but as of the end of last week, I found that the group in the South Pasture needed more trough space. Rick was out of town last week until Friday, and he went to work on building more troughs as soon as he got home — but that still left me feeding grain to that group on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday without additional troughs.

The problem with feeding grain from too few troughs is that there isn’t enough space for every sheep in that field to have good access to the grain. In such a situation, desperation sets in because only the biggest, meanest girls find a place at the trough. The smaller, sweeter girls are left to run around, looking for space to push in and eat.

Desperation triggers more aggressive behavior. By Friday evening, when I went out to the South Pasture to feed grain to Sterling’s group, I could see desperation in the faces of my ewes. Sterling stood back from the crowd, as he usually does. I am still a bit unfamiliar to him, so he is happy to observe and only comes forward for grain when I leave. But as my 4-wheeler came to the gate nearest the feeder on Friday, the sixteen ewes crowded around, figuring that if they could get some feed from my bucket, they’d have less fighting at the feeder.

Unfortunately, that sudden surge knocked me off of my feet and into the feeder. I knew that the pain of the fall was nothing in comparison to what I would feel if I could not get up. Although the sheep were all pushing in, trying to get at the bucket, I held it tight to my body with my left arm while I tried to figure a way to get my feet onto the ground. The more I struggled, the harder the ewes fought to get to the bucket. I grabbed with my right hand at any ewe I could reach, trying to pull myself up as they all pushed me down. I flailed with one arm, trying unsuccessfully to grab a coat or a head or something to give me enough leverage to pull myself up — and that flailing led to the next problem.

From Sterling’s vantage point, the human suddenly disappeared and then his girls surged forward to push into the feeder — the usual indication that the feed had been poured. But this time the ewes didn’t spread out to eat; instead they all crowded around one point at the feeder. Besides that, something was flailing and grabbing at them from the center of the group. His protective nature came to the fore, and Sterling decided that his girls needed his strength — and he came charging in to help. Sterling’s assistance came in the form of a strong ramming from behind, straight into my right shoulder. After the first hit, I knew that he would return — that he was likely backing up to come at me again. It would require as little as one good hit at the back of my head or neck to cause permanent injury, and I was seriously afraid for my life.

With no access to grain, many of my ewes backed away to allow their ram to do his work. Still a bit dazed from the fall and panicked by the hit from Sterling — yet knowing that he would come at me again — I quickly grabbed at the only ewe still within reach of my right arm: January, my good friend. I desperately reached out and pushed my arm over her big head, grabbing her coat on the other side of her neck. I pulled with all of my might, which with January’s bulky 180 pounds planted on four strong legs, gave me enough leverage to pull myself to my feet. I dragged my backside out of the feeder just as Sterling charged, missing only because of my last-minute movements. As he stopped and looked the situation over, you could suddenly see the look of surprise cross his face, “Oh, it was you in that feeder? I didn’t realize. Sorry!” He made his way back to his usual spot to await the pouring of grain into the trough.

It took me a while to gather myself. I was left bruised and bleeding, but with no permanent damage. I finished feeding the sheep and hopped on my 4-wheeler to return to the house. I spent much of the weekend recovering. The crush of ewes has now stopped due to two new feeders in that field; they know there is space enough for everyone. As for me, I’m moving a bit more slowly for now — it will take a while to fully recover. Rick noticed that in some places, my bruises seem to have bruises!

Sometimes it takes only one unexpected slip to change everything. And that’s why you always need to keep your wits about you when around sheep. You never know when everything will come together just right — or really, just wrong — to create an unexpected situation. A situation where you must think and react in an instant. Once again, I was very lucky.

Lisa update: Lisa is doing much better and will be the topic of Wednesday’s blog. Stay tuned!