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Blog: From Ewe to You | Peeper Hollow Farm | Marion Iowa
Peeper Hollow Farm
Romney and Romeldale/CVM Sheep
Breeding Stock, Fleeces and Locker Lambs

Grace’s annual summer holiday

Grace is our oldest Romney, and has learned the ins and outs – especially the outs – of farm life!

Our oldest Romney Grace is ten years old this year, having been born in the spring of 2007 here on our farm. Over that decade, we’ve shared both good times and bad, coming to know each other well. I consider Grace a good friend, even though at times I also find her to be maddening – in a way that only a good friend can be.

Several years ago, Grace discovered that although our interior fences are electrified, our perimeter fence is not. She took this as an invitation to go see what the world outside our fences had to offer, and in the process, she discovered a true bounty. Not only were the roadside ditches filled with a wide variety of untouched forage and no manure, but crossing the dirt road to our south took her straight into a huge alfalfa field that our neighbor harvests for his dairy cattle. Surely, I’m sure Grace thought, he wouldn’t begrudge her a sheep’s ration of lovely tender alfalfa! After all, her share is much smaller than any one cow’s! As a result, every time we put our ewes into any of our pastures along the south roadway, Grace almost immediately makes herself at home on the roadside and then in the alfalfa field.

Of course, Grace is a smart sheep, and she knows that it is dangerous to be away from the flock once dusk comes. Besides that, once she is finished grazing and ready to ruminate in the shade, she misses spending that time with her friends in the flock. Although Grace can enter the pasture in the way she left it – through the wire fencing – she doesn’t like to return in this way. Over the years, I have tried to figure out why, and all that I can come up with is that the wires scrape along her legs and belly as she passes through. The incentive to get out is great enough that she is willing to put up with this – and knows that this is her only way out. On the other hand, she has much less incentive to get back in – and she knows that I want her in more than she wants to go back, so if she lets me know she wants to return, I will oblige her and take her there.

As soon as she is ready to go back home, she carefully follows the road (always walking on the right hand side, for some reason – does she think she is a vehicle?) to the eastern corner of our property, where she turns to the north and follows that road to our driveway. Standing across the street from our driveway, she will carefully watch and listen for approaching traffic from any direction, only moving across the street and onto the driveway if she hears and sees nothing that might be dangerous to a wandering sheep. Grace then follows the driveway to the house, walks up the stairs to our front porch and bangs on the front door with her hooves to let me know she wants to go back to her flock. As soon as I come to the door, she is already leading the way to the gate through which we must pass to take her back “home.” This same routine can happen three or four times a day, and honestly, I haven’t found a safe way to keep Grace from wandering; she needs to be free enough to get away from a dog or coyote, and that leaves her free enough to wander the neighborhood.

Last year, we solved this problem by taking Grace to visit some of her former flockmates who were by then living at Brodeur Family Farms about nine miles to the northeast. Josh and Emilly had bought a starter flock of both Romneys and Romeldales. They were gracious enough to offer to take her in last year, and although I don’t understand why, Grace was willing to stop her wandering ways while there. She happily stayed within their fields until she returned and we divided our flocks into breeding groups. We did make sure at that point to put her into a group that didn’t have road access, however!

You might remember that we didn’t put our ewes out onto pasture this summer until after July 1, so Grace stayed in with all of the rest until that point. Unfortunately, her old wandering ways picked up right where they left off as soon as we began rotating our ewes through our pastures again. I put up with it for a while, opening my door to visiting neighbors by saying, “Yes, I know that our sheep Grace is out again – we can’t help it!” In actuality, I could help it. Last week, we finally gave in and once again loaded Grace up for her annual holiday at Brodeur Family Farms.

I had to smile as she entered the field that day. Josh and Emilly made sure that their flock was in the front pasture to make unloading Grace and getting her into the flock easier. As soon as she saw the sheep, she was ready to join their flock – and it was obvious that the adults all remembered Grace. As she walked in among the group, they all came to greet her, sniffing and rubbing against her – hardly believing their good friend was back!

Once again, Grace will stay there until mid-September when we divide our flock into breeding groups – and Grace’s group will surely be in one of the interior fields with no road access! Until then, Grace is off on her annual summer holiday, visiting old friends at Brodeur Family Farms – thanks to Josh and Emilly!


Big paper II

On June 16 I wrote about my attempt to figure out how ovine spotting works. Researchers have told us that the S-locus is the genetic location that determines spotting and that one copy of the spotting gene causes top-of-head and tip-of-tail spotting, while two copies create much more than that. But how that is determined has remained a mystery. Spotting is always white in sheep, so the darker the sheep, the more obvious the spotting. In comparison to most sheep breeds, the Romeldales carry a lot of spotting — and that’s what drew me in. I kept looking at our new lambs and wondering how the white-spotted ones got that way. Where did all of that come from?

This twin looks exactly like his sire, both without spotting. All of the white you see is symmetrical and due to the pattern that he carries from the sire.

So in mid-June I started tracing certain family lines and the spotting they carry. I used a huge piece of paper and dozens of colored markers in hopes I’d unlock the relationships between the various spotting displays. Instead, I spent a LOT of time drawing out the many spotted lambs and their very convoluted family relationships, only to realize that nothing was resulting from all of that work. I tore up the multicolor-marked paper and placed a couple of strong rubber bands around the markers, hiding them in a bottom drawer. I decided I needed to think about this further and determine another approach. Life got busy, but every once in a while I would find myself lost in thought, trying to make connections between those spotted genetic lines.

This spotted twin carries exactly the same pattern genetics as his brother, but he also inherited white spotting from both parents — even though I believe his sire’s spotting has remained hidden until this generation.

Last week my life calmed down a bit and I decided to once again tackle the spotting inventory I have accumulated for my flock in Excel. I wanted to add a couple of lambs born this year. These lambs were interesting to me because their sire was already in my database and did not carry obvious spotting. Their dam was also in my database and carried only head-and-tail spotting. The two brothers, however, were very, very different! One looked identical to his sire and carried no obvious spotting, but the other was extremely spotted. Both brothers carried the same genetic patterns and coloring, so they should have looked identical, but the spotting made them look very different.

This pair crystallized my frustration with the spotting locus: even the spotted lamb could only carry one copy of spotting at S because his sire was not spotted — yet look at him! Rick came home at just the right time for me to vent my frustration. I needed a way to visually see the interrelationships between different types of spotting, and couldn’t figure out how to do that. I sat him down in the kitchen and began to rant. My brain was too small, I told him; I couldn’t hold all of the necessary information to do the needed comparisons. He suggested I try a familial chart. But I had already done that — so I continued to rant. Every few minutes, he would come up with another suggestion, and every time he did, I felt even more frustrated because I had already tried that too! I started to think that even his “looking in from the outside” wasn’t going to help me — but then he did. He asked whether I had tried a Venn diagram for each type of spotting to see if and how much they overlap. That suddenly launched me in a whole new direction!

My first attempt at the Venn diagram that led me to realize that the spotting on front legs is gated by that on the back legs.

This was it; I knew it. This was what I had been missing all along — and I once again needed my big paper! I first sorted my database by head-and-tail spotting, which is the primary indicator that spotting exists. Of the 326 lambs in the database, 170 were spotted and had head-and-tail spotting. I drew a circle with a 16.5″ radius, proportional in area to 170 lambs. Since every lamb who carries spotting has this type of spotting, every other circle I would draw would lie fully within this original circle. I next looked at front-leg spotting — for no specific reason; I just randomly picked that area. There are 22 lambs with front-leg spotting, which created a proportional circle (with a 5.9″ radius) within the bigger circle. I figured I’d stick with the legs — and that’s when things got interesting. There are 49 lambs with rear-leg spotting, so I drafted a circle with an 8.8″ radius. When I looked at the overlap — the front-leg circle within the rear-leg circle — I discovered that all of the lambs with front-leg spotting had rear-leg spotting. This was my first major breakthrough in months! From this new Venn diagram, I could see that the rear-leg spotting was somehow a type of gating mechanism for front-leg spotting. If there was no spotting on the rear legs, then front-leg spotting could not express. Front-leg spotting needed rear-leg spotting!

As I added circle after circle, I eventually realized that I couldn’t continue my work on the big paper. I needed to be able to shift circles around to create the necessary percentages of overlap with other circles. That’s when we decided to move the whole project onto the computer. Thanks to Rick, I was able to get the circles set up relatively quickly in an easily movable format. In fact, I have a lot to thank Rick for! Without his input, I would still be stressing my brain, trying to remember all of the data I needed instead of laying it out in a very visual and easily understandable series of Venn diagrams. Thanks, Rick!

Boy parts

This is the time of year when nearly everything I do is focused on the coming breeding season. In the process of setting up our breeding groups, I try to select rams and ram lambs who will not let me down, who will go into their breeding groups focused on the ewes before them. The month before breeding is all about getting ready: getting the rams into coats that fit well; getting them up to a good weight, so that when they stop eating to chase ewes, they don’t drop from starvation; and making sure they aren’t in need of any other attention from me before we begin. I need to make sure I carefully match each ewe to the right ram and that we have enough different rams working in each breed to produce small starter flocks that aren’t too closely related. There is a lot that goes into a successful breeding season, and it begins long before the rams get into their groups with the ewes.

In the past we fertility-tested each boy slated for a breeding group a week or two before turning them out among the ewes. It was a relatively expensive process, and each of our rams always tested “highly fertile.” After a few years of shelling out a couple of hundred dollars for testing and then getting the same results year after year, I decided to take our chances without testing. (Although there are other ways of getting better-than-average odds of success, I’ve never felt the need to go there.)

Common knowledge among shepherds — based on scientific research — is that scrotal circumference is directly linked to fertility in male sheep. The bottom line is that the bigger his boy parts, the more sperm a ram will produce — and the more sperm, the more likely he will settle his ewes (the shepherding term for getting them pregnant). I’ve heard about the link between scrotal size and fertility for many years, but I’ve never actually measured any of our rams. Usually I’d just take a good look at each of my guys from the back. After looking at hundreds of rams, I felt pretty confident that I knew what a fertile ram looked like.

Watching a group of ram lambs walk away often gives me insight into the size of their “boy bits” without measuring.

However, we had many ewes who failed to breed or deliver lambs during the past production year due to the parasite issue that we eventually brought under control. One bad year is workable, but if we have another year like this last one, the financial hit could cripple us. It’s important that a large majority of our ewes breed this fall and deliver healthy lambs next spring. Besides that, some of our best genetics are in this past spring’s lambs, specifically in the Romneys, and I would like to use one of those boys in a breeding group. But only if he can get the job done. In addition, our yearling ram Prague has been returned to us because he did not breed many ewes last fall at his new home. I really want to know whether he is fertile, but I don’t want to risk a number of open ewes if he is not. I’ve considered a breeding soundness exam (fertility testing) for him, but don’t want to waste the money if there are other ways to tell whether he will or will not work.

The adult rams are always quite a bit bigger than the ram lambs, as is evident in this photo.

For a while, I’ve been thinking about using scrotal circumference to figure out what’s what among my ram flock. I’ve heard from other shepherds that the threshold for fertility sits around 10.5″ for lambs. That is, if his scrotal circumference measures at least 10.5″, he will likely do the job. If he measures smaller, it isn’t worth the risk. (If you are interested in the whole table of values, I found it online.) I had help for various farm tasks this past Saturday, so I added scrotal measuring to the list. We had a new helper named Nate, a sweet guy about thirteen years old, who couldn’t wait to help with the sheep. As we walked towards the ram group, I told Nate and Seth that our goal was to catch specific rams and surround their “boy bits” with a piece of twine, then convert the resulting length of twine into number of inches by holding it against a tape measure. The look that flashed on Nate’s face was priceless, but like a true professional, his look disappeared almost as soon as I saw it. Nate then got to work holding rams, unfazed by what lay ahead!

The first ram we caught was Quest, the ram lamb I really want to use in one of my larger Romney groups. He has a lovely combination of traits that are unequaled in our flock, and he is quite large for his age. Nate held him in place as I measured; Quest wasn’t quite sure what it was all about and was very happy to be released. According to the online table, an 8- to 14-month-old ram lamb must measure 30-36 mm (or 11.75″ to 14.25″) to be considered “satisfactory” for breeding. At five months of age, Quest measured 12.5″ — well into the middle of that range. Since Romneys are so notoriously slow to mature, I’m feeling much more confident about our chances of success with Quest.

After that, we turned our sights on Prague. It turned out that Quest’s measurement was about equal to the lowest measurement required of a “satisfactory” adult ram (over 14 months), so with Quest standing next to Prague, I simply did a visual comparison. I hadn’t really looked at Prague’s scrotum since he returned to us last month, but when I compared him first to Quest and then to the other adult rams in our flock, I had the answer I needed. Prague is very likely of low fertility; his scrotal circumference is no larger — and likely a bit smaller — than Quest, who is a full year younger! Because of this, Prague will be sent to auction in the coming weeks, and I will send his previous owner another of our Romeldale rams or ram lambs next spring, per our agreement.

The rest of the adult rams ranged from the very top of the satisfactory grouping into the exceptional category — pretty much as I would have expected. Now that I’ve identified my possible breeders for this year, it’s time to finish putting together my breeding groups on paper. After all, our breeding season begins in about four weeks; there is no time to lose!

More about breeding groups

On Monday, I began to discuss how we put together our breeding groups and had gotten to having put together the framework – the rams in columns and the ewes in rows – of our breeding charts. The next step is to determine the relationship coefficient between each of our rams of a breed with each of the ewes of the same breed. Yet, I think before we discuss the coefficients, we need to talk about inbreeding and linebreeding, both of which are important tools in any livestock breeding program. There is a fine line between inbreeding and linebreeding – and an old joke that says that the difference is simply one of success: if you end up with some terrible result, that was then called inbreeding, but if the resulting lambs were good quality, then we can call it linebreeding.

The difference is actually more one of degree than of results; if you are breeding close family members (like father to daughter, half-siblings, or any other immediate family relation), it is considered inbreeding, while the breeding of more distant family members within a family line is linebreeding (like cousin to cousin, grandfather to granddaughter, or aunt to nephew, for example). There are definite advantages to close breedings, but also inherent risks. The closer the breeding, the higher the risk – and the higher the risk, the higher the possible benefit, too. The closer the breeding, the more the genetics of the duplicated sheep will be doubled up at any one location, making the resultant lamb(s) more likely to breed true and accentuating positive or negative traits. That’s great for positive traits since we have a better chance of seeing those positive traits in the next generation, but if there is something truly bad in there, that trait could well threaten the viability of the lamb (there may be no next generation!).

Close breedings – either linebreeding or inbreeding – are useful when trying to lock in particular traits. By breeding two closer family members and having an offspring with numerous genetic duplications gives us a higher chance that the offspring will continue to produce future generations with the desired trait. Yet, breeding too closely or linebreeding less closely but for multiple generations can have other negative impacts on the newer generations of the flock. Close breeding and higher inbreeding coefficients (which reflect how much duplication appears in the pedigree of any one flock member) can result in a depression of fertility, growth and/or adult size, and health. The general rule of thumb is that too much inbreeding causes this type of depression – but there are exceptions to every rule, too. If one decides to use this tool, that shepherd needs to watch carefully for signs that new blood is necessary for the vitality of the flock.

This portion of my Romney table shows the red “danger” combinations, the yellow “think twice” combos, and the green “yes, this is the one – for now” pairings. The blue squares are back-up pairings in case I pull out the ram in the fifth column from his group.

It is important for me to carefully consider how closely I want any one pairing to be – and that is why I must fill in each breed’s annual breeding chart with the coefficient of relationship for each pairing. The coefficient of relationship increases for each ancestor that the pair has in common, with more immediate ancestors weighted more heavily than those that are more distant. This coefficient ranges between zero (not at all related) and one (full duplication of genetics like a sheep to itself), with 0.5 being the coefficient of relationship that occurs between full siblings. I have found over the years that the ideal range for any given breeding pair is not – as one would think – zero. We find that our best combinations do have some relationship to each other, and that the common ancestor is one in which the traits that we really want to see in the lambs were very strong. In general, we aim for a coefficient of relationship of 0.06 to 0.18, but will run a pair as high as 0.35 or even a bit higher if the common ancestor was an impressive sheep.

Calculating this coefficient would be tough going if I were doing this by hand, but once I identify one of my rams as a breeder, my sheep tracking software will calculate the coefficient of relationship for each breeding ewe of my flock. I simply need to fill in the chart for each individual ram and ewe pairing. Once entered, I usually fill the background of those cells that hold unacceptably high coefficients of relationship (0.45 and higher) in red, and those that are higher than I normally like in yellow. I am then ready to begin to put together my groups.

The first step is to determine how many of the rams in this particular breed will be running a breeding group. To do this, I quickly scan the yellow and red cells; if any one ram has quite a lot of these “danger” cells, I usually hold him until a future year when this is not the case. Each of the rams in the chart is here for a reason – he has traits that I hope will bring next year’s lambs closer to achieving one or more of my goals. I try to figure out which three or four rams of this breed will bring me closest to each of my goals while offering me enough genetic distance that each of my ewes can find a ram from among the group. This year, for example, I’ve decided to run four Romney groups (although I have six rams available): Korbin, ObiWan, Osiris, and Quest will each have a group. I’m still working on the Romeldale groups, but honestly, these charts seem to be a work in progress pretty much until the night before we put the into their groups. Beginning now, gives me time to adjust and readjust multiple times until I know that I am happy with how our groups have been arranged. After all, I still have four and a half weeks to think about it!


The approach of breeding season

It is hard to believe, but breeding season is less than five weeks away, beginning for us this year on Saturday, September 16th. Everyone goes about setting up their breeding groups in a different way. Some shepherds will keep only one ram, and every ewe they own will go in with that one guy. They might continue this for two or three years, eventually breeding him to his own daughters and granddaughters before selling him and buying a hopefully-unrelated replacement. Others will run two unrelated rams and alternate, breeding one ram’s daughters to the other ram and vice-versa. This extends the breeding life of either one of the rams at that particular farm, but usually does little to really improve the flock since all decisions are based on relationship instead of traits. Ideally, the shepherd will have several rams who each run a breeding group, and the ewes are placed with the ram who has the best combination of genetics to improve her weaknesses and bolster her strengths. There are probably nearly as many ways to put together groups as there are shepherds, but over the years, we have fallen into a routine that seems to work well for us regardless of breed – and that says a lot, since one of our breeds is a very common one, and the other is critically endangered. We needed a technique that worked equally well for both breeds and situations.

The first selection criteria for our breeding groups has already taken place by this time of year. For the past six months, I have been looking over all of the sheep on our acreage, choosing those that will overwinter here and remain in or become part of our breeding flock. After lambing this past spring, we had a total of thirty-seven rams and seventy-three ewes on our acreage. From among that group, we have at this time selected fourteen rams and forty-five ewes who will find a slot in our flock this year.

Each of these has been chosen because of the traits that sheep brings to the flock, and how they fit into the goals we have for flock improvement. There are certain “deal breakers” that, if present, immediately remove a sheep or lamb from our breeding list, and then there are other traits that we consider to be negative, but that will still allow such a sheep on our breeding list. Improperly formed legs, for example, will immediately remove a sheep from our flock, while a coarser fiber diameter is an acceptable compromise if everything else is in place. I might summarize these decisions in this way: the first list of criteria determines whether this is a good functioning sheep, while the second measures that sheep against the ideal representation of the breed. If it is a good and sound sheep, they may still find a place in our flock while we work to bring that family line closer to our ideal breed representative. On the other hand, if the sheep is not correctly structured, there is no point in looking any further – they will go to auction or the meat locker. None of our ‘keepers’ is a perfect sheep, but each has the possibility of bringing the next generation closer to that image of breed perfection.

The rams are selected more carefully than the ewes because their genetics in this one year – after this one annual selection – could very well be spread among a dozen or more lambs. Our ewes take many years to produce that number of lambs and so will be held up in comparison to their flockmates many times over those many years. I am more willing to compromise on a ewe than on a ram – our rams are always much closer to our ideal than any one of the ewes.

Besides these many physical traits, we also consider temperament of our breeding animals – and this is again a more difficult hurdle for the rams to overcome than the ewes. I will happily keep both shy ewes and friendly ewes, removing only the ewes or ewe lambs that I find to be wild and hard to handle. In the ram flock, however, I will remove the wild and hard-to-handle rams, too – and also any that show a somewhat aggressive nature or those that are particularly friendly as lambs. Both of these latter groups will more than likely become too difficult to manage as adults, and I know that temperament is hereditary. Any rams kept in our flock as breeders have already passed this selection criteria and convinced me that their temperament is one that I want multiplied in future generations within our flock.

Once we had our list of possible breeders for this fall, I assembled my list of flock goals for the coming season. Our goals change very little from year to year, but as old goals are met with each breeding season, they drop off of the list and others move up in priority, with new goals typically added at the bottom and eventually coming up in priority as years pass. Each fall, I make a chart for each of our breeds, listing the ewes of that breed down the left side and all of the same breed’s rams across the top. I add information pertaining to our breeding goals for each sheep in the appropriate line or column. For example, this year we are still working on average fiber diameter (AFD) in the Romeldales, so I have every ewe’s AFD listed on her line and each ram’s just above his name in his column. For the first time this year, we are also working on the coefficient of variation (CV) of their fleeces, so the CVs are listed right with the AFD. Adult size is another trait that we are working on moving up a bit in the Romeldales, so that, too, is indicated for each animal. Once the entire chart has been put together for each breed, I can begin to fill in the center of the chart – but details about that will need to wait until Wednesday when we’ll further discuss exactly how I figure out our breeding groups!


Growing up

Oyster as a five month old lamb in 2015: note the wooly face

Oyster in 2016: note that she has a cleaner face, but still some tufts at the cheeks like her mother, Fern

Oyster this summer with her new “clean” adult face – quite a surprise!

Every year, we add a number of new lambs to our ewe flock in hopes that they will eventually help to produce future generations. Some of them breed the first fall, but most will wait to breed in future years. I generally expect to feed these young girls well throughout their first year or two and then evaluate what they have to offer the flock once their lambs begin to arrive years down the road. I have said many times that the value of a sheep is not only in what characteristics she brings to the flock, but more so in the characteristics that she passes to her lambs – and these aren’t always the same!

Every fall, I take a quick look through my electronic records where I have a photograph of the face of each sheep. These photographs help our volunteers to find sheep within the flock when we are working, so I really need them to be fairly current. I make a list of the sheep that I know have changed over the year since last August (when I last took face photos), and then grab my camera and head out to the ram flock and the ewe flock to update my records. It usually takes me several trips to get each and every photo that I need, but eventually, the photos in my records well identify the sheep in our fields.

As I’ve done this year after year, I’ve begun to notice some interesting facts. For example, many of our Romney lambs have wool on their faces for their first year, only to lose much or all of that face cover as they mature. If you look at the photos of Oyster (Fern’s daughter from 2015) at the top of this blog, you can easily see that she had a lot of wool on her face in August of 2015 when she was only a few months old. This wasn’t particularly surprising to me since her dam, Fern, had bits of tufty wool on her face even as an adult, and wooly-faced sheep often produce wooly-faced sheep. Wool on faces is a work in progress, since it is genetically tied to so many positive wool traits.

As I looked through my records, however, I noticed that in 2016 Oyster had much less face cover – and now at the age of nearly two-and-a-half, she has a “clean” face with no wool. I think the difference is surprising and a big reason why I don’t let a bit of face cover in our Romney lambs keep them from joining our flock (as many breeders do). I find that it is very often a temporary issue that is a sign of immaturity of that animal.

Odelias markings are set at birth in 2015, but her face will change dramatically as she matures!

In the fall of 2015, Odelia still has the same markings, but is looking much different than just a few months before! ————————–

As a yearling in 2016, we can begin to see Odelia as she will look as an adult ewe.

Odelia is now (2017) two years old, but she will not be full grown until about this time next year.

The Romeldales, too, look much different each year for the first few years. Although they tend to keep most of the markings present at birth, their faces elongate and change enough that annually updated photos are required until they reach about 3-4 years of age. This breed, too, tends to lose some of the longer fiber that is present in the head at birth – particularly on the cheeks, under the chin, and on their ears. In fact, I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an adult Romeldale with heavy cover on their ears, but nearly all of our lambs are born with it (see what I mean in the photos of Odelia).

These are just a couple of examples of how very much our sheep typically change over their first few years. These changes are also very obvious in their weights. Our average lamb weighs just over 11 lbs at birth, but by the time we get to September of their first year, they have reached nearly 100 lbs. By the next summer when I am taking their yearling photographs in August or September, their weight has increased to between 110-150 lbs for ewes, and between 120-190 lbs for rams. The next year at two years old, the ewes weigh in at between 130 and 170 lbs, and when full grown, they span 145-210 lbs. Our rams are typically heavier, weighing 150-210 lbs as two-year-olds, and between 175-230 lbs as adults.

Ewe pedicures

Shepherding is filled with tasks that few non-shepherds would recognize, and one of the biggest of these is the trimming of hooves. Hoof trimming isn’t required for sheep in the wild because of a perfect balance of environment and genetics: they have been selected by nature such that their normal hoof growth is easily worn down by the terrain in which they live. Domestic sheep, however, have been selected for thousands of years for other traits, and their hooves grow at a much faster rate. In addition to that, their environment is typically limited to soft, rich soil and lush vegetation – neither of which do much to wear down excess hoof growth. As a result, each of our adult sheep requires a hoof trimming at least once each year. With a total of fifty adult ewes currently on our farm, that means two hundred hooves that recently needed attention, and that is a lot of work!

Actually trimming a hoof is pretty simple, but requires us to work in pairs when we trim the ewes (we trim the rams at their shearing). We catch the girl, and while one person holds her in place, the other person – the trimmer – gets on the ground and reaches underneath to grab her two far legs. The trimmer then pulls those legs towards themselves while pushing against her body with their head or shoulders, gently flipping the ewe to the ground. Once down, the person holding the ewe is responsible for making sure that she doesn’t get up – or even try to get up, since any attempt to do so sets her hooves to flying and pummeling the trimmer, who is sitting at her belly between all four hooves. We have found that once the ewe is on her side, the way to keep her in place without struggling is to firmly hold her head to the ground while keeping one or both bottom legs lifted just off the ground. If she is firmly held in this position, she will usually relax and allow her hooves to be trimmed without leaving the trimmer bruised and bleeding.

The actual trimming then goes very quickly, but some hooves are easier to trim than others. Once the hoof becomes exceptionally long, the hoof wall can fold over underneath the foot, trapping manure or mud into a pocket against the sole of the foot. Very long hooves can also begin to curl up at the front, looking more like pointy up-turned elf shoes than hooves. Once either of these happen, it isn’t unusual for part of the hoof to break off or crack, sometimes causing bleeding, pain, and limping. All of these issues can and should be corrected by correct trimming. The idea behind the job is to trim back all of the excessive growth, revealing the bottom of the hoof and making sure that the hoof edge is perpendicular to and in contact with the ground when she walks. The front should no longer curl, and is trimmed flush with the bottom of the foot. No more elf shoes!

You can imagine, however, that giving fifty ewes their pedicures would take a bit of time. Most years, we get a whole group of friends together and work in pairs to get the job finished in a single morning. The advantage to this is that the job gets done quickly and no one trimmer does so many hooves that they have a lot of big blisters to show for it. Besides, working as a group towards a common goal is a lot more fun than sitting with one other person in the hot sun for hours trying to simply get done! The down-side is that there is a lot of information that can be garnered about the ewe and the overall flock from doing this on my own with one person holding. As each ewe has her turn, I can check to see whether the ewe is anemic or has a heavy parasite load, and whether she has gotten into the wild parsnip that our sheep so love, but leaves nasty blisters anywhere the oil has been absorbed. Finally, I can make a mental note of those ewes who may need an additional trim during shearing because their hooves just grow way too fast for a single annual trimming.

Rick helped hold the sheep for me for two of the four days it took to finish the job, and Seth did the same for the other two. This is one of those tasks that no one likes; it is dirty, manure-laden work that seems endless as the sheep are caught and flipped one after the other. Yet, I knew it had to be done – and the weather was beautiful for this type of work with highs in the seventies. Our goal is always to get the job finished before breeding season; ewes who have overgrown hooves can hardly carry their own weight, much less that of the 200+ pound ram when she is bred. This is the very reason we trim at this time of year – by doing so now, we know that their hooves will be in the best condition possible for breeding season. Thankfully, the job is now finished, and the ewe flock is standing tall and pain-free. That is one big job that I am happy to have completed. Until next year.


How white is white wool?

There are many things that go into making a great fleece, and selling raw wool is much like matchmaking. It is primarily about finding the right fleece for the right person, since a “perfect” fleece depends more on the project it will be used for than the fleece itself. For handspinners (our primary market), who understandably don’t want a bunch of chaff, burrs, and other vegetative matter (VM) in their wool, the key is a clean fleece. Any specification regarding crimp, fiber diameter, color, or staple length will depend on what they want to do with their wool. But first and foremost, they want it clean.

Yet some traits definitely help when it comes to selling fleece, and color is one of them — especially when it comes to white wool. Both Romneys and Romeldale/CVMs come in white, and a bright white fleece influences sales. The dingy whites just don’t move as well. This leads me to believe that many buyers may not know that the color of a fleece in the grease is not the color of that the same fleece once it’s washed. A raw fleece contains a lot of suint, the natural grease, sweat, etc., that is found in the wool. Acting a bit like moisturizer, suint protects wool from weathering while it’s on the sheep. Although there are those who spin a fleece in its raw form to incorporate the water-resistant properties of the grease into their garment (think fisherman-knit sweaters), they tend to be few and far between. Most of our customers wash their wool before working with it, so the off-color due to the suint is gone.

Not all discoloration will wash out of raw wool. Sometimes staining (permanent discoloration) can be due to the carotene in the corn we feed or the darker grease that sheep can produce when it is exceptionally hot or they are stressed. A friend is experimenting with the possibility that this same yellowish staining can come from brown color genetics that lay hidden in some white sheep. I’ve chased the cause of yellow staining for years, and it sometimes happens in situations where I have no idea what caused it. In some sheep it pops up one year and then never again; and in others it happens a lot. I’ve been told that it’s genetic — and that may be — but I have one white Romeldale line in which the dam stains quite easily (most years), while her daughters stain very rarely. This is something that we are trying to better understand.

When I’m skirting a white fleece that is quite dark and off-color, I always take samples from the worst areas and wash them. I need to be able to let my customers know whether the fleece is permanently stained or whether the discoloration is merely suint and will wash out. I’ve gotten to the point where I can usually tell just by looking, but I still wash a bit just in case I’m wrong. This habit allowed me to discover something interesting.

Three white Romney ram fleeces (L to R): Martin, O’Connor, and Osiris

We currently have three white Romney rams: Martin, O’Connor, and Osiris. When you look at the raw wool in the bag (photo above), you’ll see three different colors of fleece caused by variations in suint. Martin’s is the whitest, closely followed by O’Connor’s. Osiris’ fleece is clearly a darker, dingy color. Most people wanting a white fleece would buy either Martin’s or O’Connor’s. In fact, seeing the color of Osiris’ wool made me question whether I want to use him in this fall’s breeding. Although beautiful in fiber length, crimp, and luster, its color is a bit ‘disgusting’ when looking for a white fleece. As I marveled at how different they looked, I decided to wash some of the worst locks of both O’Connor’s and Osiris’ fleeces, to see how they would look with suint removed. O’Connor’s fleece came out sparkling white — and so did Osiris’ locks! I was shocked.

O’Connor’s fleece on the left and Osiris’ fleece on the right, displayed with the washed staples of each


Even more surprising was the next realization. I put O’Connor’s and Osiris’ washed locks onto a white paper towel and compared the two to each other and to the white of the paper towel. The conclusion: Osiris’ fleece may look dingy and dull in the bag, but his fleece is actually the whiter of the two! Once washed, it was bright white with a gorgeous luster and a lovely soft handle. Of the three white Romney fleeces, I much prefer the wool from Osiris to either of the others, once they’re all washed. So, contrary to my initial impulse when I compared the three bagged fleeces, Osiris will be used in a breeding group this fall!

I know that the color in the bag matters, since that’s what buyers see when they’re deciding on raw wool. But — for both for the fleece buyer and for the breeder — it should be only one factor in the evaluation. In light of Osiris’ many other positive traits, he deserves a shot at showing us what he can produce. As I’ve told many new shepherds, a breeding sheep’s worth is not just in how it looks, but in what traits it might produce in offspring. Let’s hope that when Osiris is paired with some of our ewes, their combined genetics will give us lambs displaying the beauty of his fleece with the ewes’ less-dark suint. Only time will tell!

Happy memories of a good friend

In the fall of 2014, Zoe — the beloved 15-year-old matriarch of our flock — died peacefully. She is buried on our acreage with a plaque above her grave, and I still talk to her as I walk by, telling her about the flock and her many friends and family who still reside at Peeper Hollow Farm.

Zoe’s fleece was a rather dark gray with tips that were sun-kissed to a rusty color. One side of her had an area of white, which was blended into the overall yarn.

Not only did my good friend give me her many descendants; she also left behind one other gift: her last fleece. Instead of shearing her as usual in January of that final year, we waited until the weather warmed in spring, wanting her to be comfortable during Iowa’s coldest months. I couldn’t bring myself to think of selling her final parting gift, and so I tucked her fleece away in my office.

Every time we’ve sheared our flock since then, we’d haul the fleeces up to the office, where I would again find Zoe’s fleece sitting in its bag. I knew I wanted to do something with it, but I honestly wasn’t ready to part with it, even for the few weeks it would take to have it spun into yarn. What if it got lost in the mail on the way to or from the mill? What if I never got it back? As I came and went from my office, I’d sometimes pull out the bag and admire the depth of color present even in her old age, or I’d put the fleece to my face, inhaling what remained of Zoe’s scent. And then it would be carefully put back into the closet where it sat, year after year. I just couldn’t get to the point where I was ready for it to leave the farm.

This past spring I decided that it was finally time to have Zoe’s fleece processed. The grease had hardened a bit, and I was worried that I was ruining the fleece by keeping it in its raw state for so long. Washed wool can be kept indefinitely, but raw wool can go bad in so many ways. The grease and lanolin that sheep produce to condition their wool “on the hoof” can dry out and get gummy as it sits for long periods, making it hard to remove. Raw wool is also an attractant for moths that can destroy it; this is also true for processed wool but not to the same degree. I knew I had to do something with this fleece — but what?

After we sheared her final fleece, I remember thinking that maybe I’d have it processed into yarn. With such a big flock to manage, I no longer have time to spin, but maybe I could knit as I found time, perhaps making a cozy sweater to keep me warm. After all, this same wool kept Zoe warm and toasty during our cold Iowa winters — maybe it could do the same for me. I decided to combine it with a bit of alpaca to bring out its softness and a bit of bamboo to bring out the natural Romney luster. I didn’t want to change the character or color of the wool, so the percentages of alpaca and bamboo were small. The final yarn would still be overwhelmingly Zoe’s Romney wool.

This past March, I finally pulled all of the pieces of my project together, boxed them up and shipped them to Dakota Fiber Mill for processing. Since my daughter-in-law loves to knit, I typically send out at least one of our fleeces for processing each spring. When I sent the raw wool for processing for her summer birthday this year, I sent Zoe’s as well. It was the first time in the past few years that I could part with it — and I ran it to the post office as soon as it was boxed up, just in case I changed my mind. Then I waited. It took long enough that I actually forgot about it, except for those times when I walked into my office and saw the empty shelf where it used to sit.

Zoe’s yarn definitely reminds me of my dark-gray friend — the color is perfect!

My shipment from the fiber mill came yesterday, with three different bags of yarn inside the box, as expected. There was the big bag of fawn-colored worsted yarn for my daughter-in-law’s future afghan, and the bag of Ilaina’s soft-gray yarn that I will likely sell on our website. Finally, in the bottom of the box was a bag of beautiful dark-gray yarn with a slight brownish tone. It was so obviously Zoe’s, and I cannot describe how happy I was to see it. I had chosen both the alpaca and bamboo in colors that would maintain the accurate color of Zoe’s wool, and the results were perfect. All day I found myself walking past the bag in the kitchen, putting my hand into the yarn and remembering my friend. Heaven knows when I will find time to knit the sweater that is part of my big plan, but at this point, it doesn’t matter. Zoe’s last gift to me is back here where it belongs. And all the rest will fall into place when the time is right.

Working alone and creative shepherding

For most of my work with our sheep, I’m working alone to keep everyone safe, healthy, and happy. It sounds quite lovely when I say it that way, but it can also be frustrating in some ways. How does one give injections to a sick-but-still-running sheep or load a big ram into the box of the pickup truck? How about trimming hooves or taking birth photos? There are many things that seem like two-person jobs on first glance, but believe it or not, I’ve done pretty much all of them by myself at one point or another.

Now, let me be clear: if I can get the help, it’s always much easier to accomplish these types of tasks with another set of hands. In fact when looking at a job like trimming the hooves of our ewe flock, the more people we have, the faster the job goes! Yet pretty much anything can be done alone if you give it some creative thought. My mother always taught me that “if there is a will, there is a way!” and I’ve found that to be true when it comes to most sheep chores.

The other morning I got a phone call from a young shepherdess who needed help holding a lamb for an injection. She was home alone and needed to give her sick lamb an intramuscular (IM) medication. Unfortunately, I was awaiting the vet at my place for a health inspection for transport, so I couldn’t help — but I gave her instructions on how to go about it solo. For an IM injection, I usually back the sheep up against a wall or panel so that they can’t back up any further, then straddle the sheep (both of us facing the same direction) and hold them with my legs — at the waist for lambs or just behind the shoulders for a bigger sheep. I then hold them under the chin with my left hand so they cannot go forward or move their head from side to side. Now the injection can be given into the muscle of the neck with the right hand (reverse right and left here for lefties!), but you must inject quickly, since the sheep isn’t going to be happy once they realize what you are doing — you may end up taking a bit of a ride if you’re straddling a large sheep!

Since Rick travels a lot for his work, my early years as a shepherd were filled with trying to figure out how to do things myself. I was often home alone when I felt I needed two people. I found that I could trim hooves on my own if I flipped the big sheep down and then lay on them, holding most of my body weight on my elbows and knees. If my head faced the head of the sheep, I could work on the front hooves, and by spinning around to face the dock, I could manage the rear hooves. The only thing I needed to remember was to always have the neck of the sheep held firmly to the ground (with one arm or leg) and one of the bottom legs (those laying on the floor) raised off of the ground (using another arm or leg of mine). Once I had that covered, the sheep would basically lie there and wait for me to finish my work!

Loading a big ram into the pickup was a bit more challenging — until I found a ramp at a used-equipment auction. The ramp is made for specifically this purpose and comes in three parts: the bottom that hooks onto the tailgate (or onto the box with tailgate removed) and two side panels that slide into place to keep the sheep going in one direction, either up or down. I’ll admit that this can still become a bit of a wrestling match if the sheep is big and doesn’t want to go up. I usually use a bucket of grain to entice them to the top of the ramp, stationing myself behind them, pushing them up with my knees, and holding onto the sides to make sure we keep moving forward. Once they have reached the tailgate, I move the bucket into the crate in the truckbed, and they generally go right in to get the grain! It might take some time, but I’ve never had a situation where I didn’t get a sheep loaded. (Unloading is usually easier, since they all want to leave the truck at a certain point!)

Shepherding has been accomplished throughout the centuries by single shepherds out in the fields among their flocks. There were no cell phones to “phone a friend,” nor were there fast vehicles to bring other people out to help. It was much as it still is today: a shepherdess and her flock, establishing trusting relationships and using all the creativity she can muster to get things done when the need arises. It’s just how it is!