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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
 

The trick of transport

Nearly every summer we find a need to move sheep into or out of our flock across several states — in other words, we need sheep transport. We have a truck with a large crate that fits in the box, and we have a trailer, so moving sheep for our own business is well within our capabilities. The trick is trying to get those sheep moved without breaking the bank. Since moving a full load in the truck or trailer spreads the cost over more animals — making it less expensive per sheep — we sometimes provide transport for other flocks. But although it saves money, the logistics can get rather tricky.

Our sheep are free of the diseases that sheep are prone to, and we are very careful to purchase only from farms that value disease resistance. Sheep that cross a state line are required to have a health inspection within 30 days of transport, but this inspection can be minimal, depending on the vet. Since we are also transporting our own sheep, the last thing we want is to introduce some foreign illness during movement, so we purposely limit our transportation to those sheep who come from farms that are as careful about health as we are.

Most people who want to buy sheep and transport them across the states, want to know how much the transport will cost before they sign on or make a full commitment. Yet at the early stages of the process, we don’t have any idea how many sheep we’ll be moving. Will we have enough to fill the crate in the truck in both directions, or will be have only a couple going one way? Will we need to use the trailer, which reduces our gas mileage by about 40%? What will the gas prices be for the days or weeks of our trip? Will we be able to take a direct route to only one or two stops, or will we be meandering all over multiple states? When we first book transport, we know none of these answers. All we know is that we will be moving sheep and we’ll minimize the cost as much as possible for all involved.

Once we are within a couple of months of our transport, we must begin giving people a firm price quote to move their sheep. At that point I often still don’t know how many sheep, but I make the decision about the trailer — either we will take it because I think we can move enough sheep to cover our costs, or we won’t. I begin to map a route based on the people who have already contacted me, and I estimate a total gas cost based on expected gas prices. If most of the sheep are heading into the same region, I divide the gas expense across the total number of sheep, but if some are only going for half the distance, I count them at only half the rate. In this way, a per-sheep price begins to take shape.

Although food and lodging will factor into the equation, that doesn’t happen in this preliminary stage when I’m trying to cover our biggest expense— gas. If the transport cost is too high, people will drop out, which makes the per-sheep cost go up for the rest of us. As that price increases, more people drop out, until eventually we are paying for the entire trip ourselves to bring in one or two sheep — and that is counterproductive. My entire goal is to move the sheep for the lowest possible price by keeping as many people in on the deal as possible. I figure the price per sheep, and I round up a bit to make sure we are covered for gas, in case gas prices go up in the interim period.

Once the price has been established, I let everyone know that we are transporting sheep to and from this list of states for this specific price. The quoted price doesn’t cover our food or lodging, but it does cover our gas and hay for the sheep (which isn’t much but is included in my rounding up) and perhaps just a little more. Once the price is set — and it’s usually an attractive price — I often begin to hear from more people who want sheep moved. These late additions help to cover our cost for wear and tear on the truck, lodging, and meals. If I don’t get any late additions, then those costs are ours to cover — but since I would be making this trip for our own sheep anyway, those costs would have been ours. In the end, I hope for a full vehicle in both directions. If that happens, then all of our expenses are covered and we end up paying the same transport rate ourselves that I quoted everyone else.

This year we are bringing in two sheep from out of state for our own flock: Sterling, a two-year-old moorit Romeldale ram who caught my eye as a lamb when we visited Marushka Farms in central Pennsylvania two years ago, and Balsamic, a ewe lamb at Fry Sheep Farm in southern Pennsylvania who I noticed while collecting spotted-lamb photos for my study of spotting-pattern genes. Both will need to catch a ride into Iowa. We also have four sheep from our flock who need to be moved east into Pennsylvania and southwestern Virgina. Another transport trip is in the works!

Dirt

As a shepherdess, much of my work with the sheep occurs outside in our barns or fields. I know that such work can be dirty – that fact is a part of the picture that I accepted long ago. Yet even that knowledge sometimes falls very short of the facts. It just still amazes me how very much dirt I must deal with on a daily basis!

When I am on my way out to work with the sheep, I always stop off in the laundry room and put on my work gloves to protect my hands. I have several different pairs of work gloves, multiple gloves of multiple types meant to be worn for specific jobs – but I always wear gloves when working. Yet as soon as I return to the house and strip off the gloves, I find dirt under my nails. Literally every nail is edged with a rim of dirt! Where does this come from? I can’t figure out whether I haven’t cinched the wrist straps tight enough or whether the dirt finds its way through the cloth backs of the gloves, but regardless, my hands must be washed and nails scrubbed with a brush each time I return from my work outside.

But that isn’t all of it! I cannot tell you how often I come in and either hit the restroom or disrobe to take a shower and find hay, straw, chaff, or dirt in my underwear! OK, now that is really beyond reason! When I make my way outside, even on the hottest days, I am wearing a top that layers over the top of my shorts or jeans so that it covers my phone in my back pocket. Anything trying to get into my clothing would have to go under the t-shirt and over the top of the jeans in order to get in, and that seems impossible to me. Yet the facts are what they are – I often find bits of barn work inside my underwear once I’m inside, and I can’t imagine how that happens!

My work areas outside are generally kept neat, but I cannot say that they are clean. I do clean them often, using a wet rag or disinfecting wipe, but it only takes hours before there is a thin film of dirt over everything. I’ve come to the conclusion that this makes some sense when there are sheep in the barn; perhaps they kick up dust in the pens that then lands in layers over everything. But what about when the barn is closed off, windows and doors closed tightly because the sheep are living on the fields in the summer? The layers of grime appear even then, and I have no explanation for that! We’ve begun to store all containers upside down so that the dirt will layer over the top surface and not the inside of the container. This way, we only have to wipe out the cobwebs on the inside. Yet, I can’t help but wonder where all the dirt comes from!

Anything sitting out in the barn ends up with two different types of dirty stuff that must be continually cleaned. We do have some birds who nest in the barns, so it is not unusual to find nesting materials scattered hither and yon as I begin my work. This can be feathers, bits of straw or grass, or even bits of fabric or wool; pretty much anything that might attract the attention of a bird can end up on my work surface. I will admit that I don’t mind these, since I find it interesting to see what they have found to make their house a home.

It is the layers of dirt that are most puzzling. This stuff is a combination of road dust and some other grime that settles on any horizontal surface so quickly that I can wash things off one day and find a thick dirty coating over everything two days later. I usually can’t simply wipe it off because it tends to smear and leave a very fine residue – it is much easier to use a wet or damp cloth to wipe it up. But I can’t help wondering where this comes from and why we can’t seem to stop the accumulation.

Yes, shepherding can be a very dirty business, even when the sheep are outside in the fresh clean air, grazing in the fields!

Eye up high

I wrote on Monday how I had come home after a trip away to find that my sheep had not been fed and my animals not cared for by our farm sitter who forgot to show up. Because the entire lamb flock was not doing well on Sunday afternoon, even after feeding, watering, and administering medicine to reduce the single-celled organisms that had flourished during this high-stress period, I was still concerned even late in the day. I spent much of my time after feeding and before dark making the trek out to the barn to look everyone over, hoping to catch disaster before it happened. Even a half-hour inside made me antsy, and I would look at my watch, realize that some time had passed since my last barn check, and get my shoes on to head back out. It was a stressful time when only the presence of the lambs around me lessened my dread.

Yet, I also know that too much of the shepherdess can, in itself, be a bad thing. Like most creatures, sheep very much like their habits and routines, and as the sun set, my continual opening of the barn door was beginning to wear on them. I could tell. It is somewhat like this. Imagine your neighbor – the one you really like – begins to come to visit your house, ringing your doorbell and starting some very pleasant conversation. After a few minutes, they leave and you go back to what you were doing. A half hour or so later, they come and do the same thing and leave again. Another hour later, they are back at your door, ringing yet again. No matter how much you might like this neighbor, eventually, you just wish they would go away and leave you alone! This, I believe, was how my lambs were starting to feel about my many trips to the barn to check on them. As I walked back to the house at about 7:30 p.m. Sunday evening, I decided that I needed to stop my frequent visits. I was doing nothing but making myself feel better at the expense of the lambs. My lamb flock needed peace in addition to food, and they were not getting it with my constant monitoring.

And then an idea came to mind! I have barn cameras that deliver three or four very clear images to the monitor in our bedroom. If the few lambs that I worried about most were that hard to distinguish on the monitor, then they were obviously doing well and didn’t need me to come any closer than the bedroom – and if there was something seriously wrong, then I would see that, too. The camera system that we normally only use during lambing was a great way to once again keep tabs on the sheep without disturbing them – a kind of eye up high with an overview of the entire Sheep Barn. Even better, the night-vision would allow me good monitoring even in low light conditions, since the images were most clear during the night and spanned the entire west side of the barn where the lambs were housed. If I went out in person, I would have to wear a head-lamp, limiting my vision to only the area within the circle of light – and it would likely scare them terribly. The barn-camera was the perfect solution!

Thankfully, I never saw a problem among the lambs the entire evening. Whenever I was in the bedroom, I would take a look, but there was no way to single out the troubled lambs. After I had treated them, they had settled into their hay and eventually found a comfy place along the walls to digest in peace. Only one ewe lamb continued to stand throughout the night, according to my cameras up high in the barn rafters.

Now that some time has passed, I’ve begun to relax a bit. There are still a few lambs that are in pretty rough shape, but it seems that most will be OK. Yet, now I have a problem leaving my farm in the hands of others. We have for a very long time had several farm sitters who we trusted to care for the flock in our absence. It never occurred to me that they might not come – but now, I can’t get the thought out of my mind! As a result, we’ve decided to ask our farm sitters to text us when they get to the farm to feed our sheep – every time they arrive. At least this way, I will know if they forget and will be able to find a substitute immediately.

I never want to go through this again – ever!

Saying goodbye

This is the time of year when we reconfigure our flock for the coming breeding season. I constantly tell new shepherds that hard decisions must be made for the good of the flock and its future. Without those choices, the flock doesn’t move forward and cannot remain competitive in the market, which will eventually threaten their livelihood. One of our first steps when making these decisions is dividing the lambs into groups: those that will stay to breed, those that will be sold to breed elsewhere, and those that will not be considered breeding quality. The latter may be sold as fiber animals or at auction this fall. Our adults, too, are carefully considered. Some of them are put onto sale lists because they are wonderful producers but genetic duplicates within our flock. Others end up on cull lists because they have done their work too well, producing lambs that are improvements on the parental traits and that will replace them in our flock. Other ewes or rams will end up at auction because they have some unexpected fault that should not be passed on to the next generation or to the next flock or shepherd. These are the hardest for my heart, since I know their long-term prospects are poor.

Every sheep on our acreage is considered and reconsidered: what would they bring to the flock and/or the next generation? Do they represent our farm well (since they will wear our eartags for the rest of their lives, no matter where they live)? Do they carry a trait or bloodline that we need to keep, or are they duplicates of other productive members? I sift and sort and try not to let my heart influence the results. After seventeen years, I know how important this process is. After all of this work is done and all the “extra” sheep are sold and gone, I look out over the flock every year and realize that, yes, we are once again better off with those sheep moved out. My goals are always for the best interests of the flock as a whole. And as much as it might hurt, I cannot allow the interests of a single ewe to come out ahead of the interests of the flock. If the flock fails, the entire group goes down and is no more — and that is something I cannot allow to happen. As their shepherdess, I must hold the good of the flock above all else, although it pains me to do so sometimes.

So I work my way down the lists, playing matchmaker between people looking for sheep and those sheep that I have available. At this point in the summer, our first deliveries are being made, and at least once or twice a week, I am hugging one or more of our beloved sheep and saying goodbye. I load them into a truck or trailer, and tell them that it will be a good change for them, that I have carefully chosen the best placement for them, and that they will be okay with new friends and a new home. The hardest to load are the older girls who have been here all of their lives. They don’t know what is happening, and they do not understand why I have pushed them into this strange vehicle. Where are all of their friends? My heart aches as I tell them goodbye and tears spring to my eyes, but again I keep telling myself that I’ve found them a good place (which is always a challenge with the old ones, but I keep working at it until I do), and they will be well-loved. It is a less than satisfying truth, however.

This process is stressful both for the sheep and for me, but it is a necessary evil that cannot be avoided. If we are to continue breeding, some sheep must be sold away to make room for the new lambs. We are lucky to sell most of our sheep to repeat customers who keep me updated on the sheep they buy from me. Other sheep go to new friends, people who are excited to be at the starting gate of a new venture and excited to bring in this new flock to get them going. Since I offer to mentor each of these new shepherds, I often hear of newborn lambs and friendships made within these sheep that were once my own. It warms me to know they are doing well as the years go by.

Saying goodbye is never easy, particularly when the previous years have been all about befriending my sheep and keeping them happy and well. Yet it is a critical part of what I do. I just can’t expect it to be easy as I continue to say my goodbyes this summer.

Good farm help

I spent a good part of this past weekend at the Iowa Sheep and Wool Festival, mostly helping out at the fleece competition and the fleece silent auction that came afterwards. Before I had sheep, I didn’t have any idea that there are so many of these summer events all around the country, but now I try to get to at least a few each year. Yet in order to be able to do so, I need some farm help to cover for me when I’m gone. The sheep and chickens don’t stop eating and drinking just because I want to meet some friends, see some sheep and wool, and generally have some fun!

Going to a sheep show makes finding good help even more difficult. Normally when we leave town and need someone to cover for us, we have a list of people that we can call to fill in. Yet going to a nearby sheep festival means that many people who might be interested in doing chores for us will likely be going themselves. Earlier this summer, I had arranged with a young helper to cover for several of our trips: one earlier this past week in Washington, DC; this weekend for the festival; and a future trip to visit family out of state. We went over the exact dates of each trip and taped a to-do list inside the garage so that if the helper had a momentary lapse of memory, the chores were listed there. I also left a list of telephone numbers, just in case. I always want to make sure that if there is any kind of issue with the flock, it can be taken care of promptly.

I was very surprised when I made my way into the barn for my morning chores, after returning from the festival late last night. As walked across the backyard toward the barn, the sheep were calling particularly loudly for their food. When I entered the Sheep Barn, which houses the lambs and the younger ewes, I was hit with a particular odor that signals stress and illness. I knew that something was very wrong, but I had no idea what it was. I went about my chores quickly, knowing that the faster I moved, the faster I could figure out what was wrong and fix it.

As I went to empty and refill the hay feeders, I noticed that everything had been eaten — EVERYTHING! The lambs are normally fed enough hay that they leave some of the less palatable hay at the bottom of the feeders. Yet there was nothing left, and many of the lambs were picking at bits of feed that had mixed in with the dirty bedding on the floor. I quickly looked over at the adjoining adult group, and the ewes looked very thin and sunken as they called for me to come and feed them. The only reason why they could be so thin was if their rumens — their internal fermentation chambers that are the first step in their digestion process — were empty. My sheep had obviously not been fed since before I left early on Friday morning!

I had gotten a call from another farm helper the day before. He had been out of town for a while, but I asked him to stop by my farm sometime during the day yesterday to take care of a maintenance issue that I knew the person who was feeding couldn’t manage. When he called me, he asked whether I wanted him to feed my sheep, but I assured him that, no, I had arranged for someone else to cover that. Yet I remember thinking that it was odd that the feeding person had not yet arrived. But since my deadline for feeding the sheep had not yet passed, I assumed that things would be taken care of. Obviously I had assumed incorrectly.

The fact that the sheep hadn’t been fed explained a lot. Without anything to eat, the lambs would have become stressed, bringing on the diarrhea that I had smelled when I walked into the barn. Making things worse, eating off of the dirty ground would have increased the single-celled organisms that cause the stress illness. There was only about a cup of water left in the lambs’ water tub, and it was tainted with manure, making matters even worse. I immediately began to treat the problem and called on a couple of friends to stop by and help hold the lambs while I trimmed the soiled wool at their tail stubs and hit them with some fly spray.

As I fed my starving sheep, I couldn’t help feeling guilty. While they waited in hunger at home, I was out having a good time with friends. Realistically, I know that I shouldn’t feel guilt about this, since I made all of the arrangements to cover my chores well in advance. But emotionally, I have agonized over what happened. And, I will admit, I harbored a bit of anger at my farm sitter for letting me down.

Yet there is no point in living in the past; what’s done is done. I’ve arranged for my usual helper, Seth, to cover my upcoming trip(s) . He’s very reliable, so I feel comfortable knowing that he will be around for our remaining trips. I’ve filled all of the sheep’s feeders today and provided extra hay to all of the groups to make up a bit for the shortfall. I only hope I can get everyone back to health in short order. The treatment for the scouring/diarrhea takes five days, so it will be a while before I can once again feel that the risk has passed.

Big paper

Here and there over the past weeks, I’ve been trying to understand how spotting works in sheep — particularly in the Romeldales, who are known for their sometimes extensive spotting. I’ve discussed this before, showing examples of some of what I have seen in our lambs and explaining that although the experts tell us the workings of the spotting genes, things don’t seem to work the way we’ve been told. I’ve put together a database of almost three hundred lambs, detailing their sires and dams and inventorying their spots, hoping to figure out the genetics that the experts don’t realize are not yet explained.

For weeks I’ve been sitting at my computer, sifting and sorting the data, hoping against hope that at some point I would organize it in just the right way so that the mechanism would suddenly become obvious. Unfortunately, that has not happened, and in spite of all the interesting things I have learned about spotting, I’m still as puzzled now as I was when I began. Like many similar adventures, the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t yet know — and so I keep pushing on!

Josiah’s belly and legs should be solid black but are instead heavily spotted with white — he is an early son of Hope.

As I was re-sorting my database this past weekend, I suddenly had an aha moment! In my search for answers, I had put together a little chart centering around our breeding ewe Hope. I knew that although Hope is not particularly heavily spotted, she has brought a LOT of spotting into our flock. I have come to realize that sheep can have lots of spotting and can pass on lots of spotting to their offspring even if they themselves don’t show a lot of it. There is a trigger involved, and if that particular sheep doesn’t have the correct trigger, we never really know how much spotting might be hidden in their genetics, just waiting to pop up in the lambs of the next generation who inherit the trigger from the other parent. Hope is one of these, I believe. She isn’t heavily spotted herself, but her sons prove that when the trigger — whatever it might be — is applied, the white spotting is nearly overwhelming. The photo on the left proves that her son Josiah obviously got the trigger!

My chart for Hope’s line — a tiny part of what I hope to put on my “big paper”!

I drafted the chart of Hope’s breedings and lambs to try to figure out how the spotting passes. I put her name in the middle and listed my abbreviations for her spotting just below her name. I then began to draw arrows from her to her lambs. Each arrow stood for one pairing with a particular ram, whose name was put along the arrow. Each lamb has its areas of spotting listed below their name. I was certain that this could help me figure things out — and I was kind of right. It helped me visualize what was being passed in Hope’s line and which spots appeared only occasionally.

In the process, I also realized something else — there is a pattern. I can now look at a photo of a spotted lamb from one angle and pretty well predict the other locations in which I will find spotting. Obviously my brain has subconsciously noticed a pattern that still eludes my conscious mind — a fact I find particularly frustrating because a logical awareness of the pattern is my goal. Yet the frustration is also pushing me forward. I know that there is a pattern; now I just need to figure it out.

And that leads me to the big paper. At some point last weekend, I suddenly realized that I was on the right track with Hope’s little chart, but I needed more — a lot more. I needed to somehow do the same thing for all of our sheep — all fifty Romeldale breeding ewes who have produced the lambs in our inventory/database, plus all of our nineteen breeding rams with whom they were paired over the years. Exactly how to put all of this together on one single chart was not clear to me, but I knew it needed to be done. It also needed to be color-coded so that the passing of the genes could be seen in an overview of the chart. The scope of this project seemed huge, but I know from experience that every huge project begins with a single step — in this case, a BIG piece of paper. Where the heck could I get a piece of paper that big?

So I did what any modern woman might do: I went to Amazon! I typed big paper into the search window, and suddenly there was the solution to my problem — a single roll of paper that was four feet wide by fifty feet long! I ordered it and began looking for sets of markers for the colored portions of the project. Minutes later, I had ordered those too!

I’ve been waiting for my shipment of paper and markers to arrive like a kid waiting for Christmas — and I just heard the delivery vehicle bring them up the drive and the postal worker set them on the front porch. My huge project is ready to get underway! I’ll begin with an 8’x 8′ piece of paper, putting the oldest ewes and rams in the middle and working my way outwards, ending with the most recent lambs on the outer edges. Who knows how large the finished chart might be.

Spotting, beware! I’m now armed with big paper and lots of colored markers. The days of mysterious spotting are numbered — I hope — but only time will tell!

Helping out

Over the years, we have sold a lot of breeding animals to other shepherds across the US, both near and far. Many of these people have been new to shepherding, knowing little about the new world they had entered with their ovine purchase. I well remember that feeling when we purchased our first sheep – that combination of excitement and fear. I knew nothing about what we had gotten ourselves into – the world of sheep might as well have been the surface of Mars; both Rick and I were city kids, never having even considered keeping livestock before we suddenly were keeping livestock. We had a very steep learning curve, and no one to turn to. We were on our own, and it was a terrible place to be.

It is for this reason that I decided those many years ago that I would do my very best to prevent others from feeling that same way. We offer mentoring with every sale we make, trying to understand each shepherd’s goals and then trying to help them get there. In fact, there are also a few shepherds out there that just stumbled across us because they needed help, and I’ve never turned anyone away. Eventually once I feel that they have acquired enough experience, I do encourage each of these new shepherds to try to manage on their own, but I also confirm for them that we are always here if they really need us. Help is but a text, an email, or a phone call away.

This all sounds really nice in theory, but in practice, we do the best we can. Some times of the year – like lambing time or when sheep sales begin to peak – are particularly difficult as I get calls and emails from shepherds near and far asking for advice or help. I have to set boundaries, and my own flock must come first. After that, I prioritize by urgency: a life-or-death situation always takes priority over an I-was-just-curious question. Any request coming in ends up categorized: health issues take priority over color genetics questions, and sales questions take priority over curiosity or non-critical questions. As the seasons change, my to-do list ebbs and flows, and eventually, I catch up and have no one waiting for me to get back to them.

I will admit that this does add a load to my workday – but in the end, it comes back to the sheep. Shepherding isn’t the type of thing that most of us go to college to understand. It is usually a business on the side or, for some, a hobby. In any case, there are very few people who come into this work well-educated as to all that is or can be involved – and bad information is hard to separate from the good when you read it all in a book or on-line. I know how much it helps to have people to ask and experienced shepherds to talk to. As a result, I seldom turn anyone away if they really need help – their sheep depend on them, and in turn, whoever they have turned to for help.

In the end, I am a shepherdess. As such, I understand the needs and behaviors of sheep, and have accumulated an incredible amount of information on the topic over the past seventeen years. Over that time, I’ve had many successes and failures, and have tried to learn from each, perfecting my ability to care for our flock. With every loss, I come away knowing more. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee that I can save another sheep with similar issues the next time, but I will do better and get closer to success than I did the previous time. I know you can’t save them all, but I know that I can certainly try – and that is why I feel a responsibility to new shepherds. The only thing they have to fall back on is luck in those first couple of years – and that is a scary thing. I’ve been there. When experienced shepherds help these new flocks, these new shepherds then have our own vast experiences to fall back on, moving them forward more quickly with a higher level of confidence.

Any new undertaking can be scary, and facing the unknown alone just makes it worse. When our sheep go out into the world to other flocks, I want to know I have done all I can for them both here, and also there at their new homes. Helping their new shepherd figure things out is simply an extension of that. I can’t do it all – but I do try to do what I can. After all, I am a shepherdess, and caring for sheep is what I do.

 

 

A feeling of satisfaction

Because of Iowa’s climate and the limited acreage that we have for our flock, our sheep must eat harvested forage in the form of hay for about six months of every year. During that time of year, I haul hundreds of pounds of hay each day, moving it from our hay storage areas to the wooden feeders where our sheep pick through the bales. The next day, I clean out the bits that the flock found to be inedible and repeat the process. Once all of the bales have been fed out for the day, I take a few moments to enjoy that feeling of satisfaction that comes with knowing that all of our sheep are well – that I have looked over the flock and concluded that all are happy and healthy, and that their needs have been met for another day.

Unlike most years, this year our sheep were pulled in off of our fields at weaning in response to the residual parasite issues that we anticipated after last year’s hot and wet growing season. They got in about three weeks of good grazing in two pastures that will now remain vacant until next year. I carefully counted my hay bales and purchased hundreds more to make it possible to keep our sheep in and around the barns until about July 1, when the remainder of our fields would be clean of parasites and their larvae. As a result, I’m still feeding out hay to the flock – even now in mid-June – after a short three-week break while they grazed.

I find it a bit odd, however, that I don’t get that same feeling of satisfaction after feeding them now. Normally, when I visit the flock for my daily welfare checks out in our pastures during the growing season, I watch our lambs gambol and play, and the ewes ripping up big mouthfuls of grass, and that feeling is there. The flock is well and happy, and as a result, so am I. When I feed out their bales beginning in fall and continuing through the winter months, my pause at the end of feeding to check over the flock brings up that same familiar feeling, too. Yet, this year when I am hauling hay for them inside my barns prior to their grazing restarting in a couple of weeks, I get no such feeling of satisfaction – and I honestly am a bit surprised.

For many days now, I’ve been trying to figure out why that familiar feeling has left me – and I can only think of one thing: I know my flock is not as happy as they could be if they were out on pasture. Somewhere deep inside, I know that sheep are meant to graze and wander – and right now, that isn’t happening. Oh, sure, many people keep sheep “dry-lotted” – kept on concrete or in a barn or on a small piece of land that is eventually so eaten down that all nutrition must come from hay that is hauled in. This is not an unusual thing in this industry – but it is for me and my flock! My sheep normally get fresh air and good exercise as they wander their pastures, trying to find just the right combination of plants to make their days great. After they have eaten and the sun begins to slip low in the western sky, they celebrate the day, running up and down manure piles or hopping onto and off of the rock pile or tree stumps – anything to release the joy that has built up inside!

Anyone coming to see our flock would look out across their space in the barn and see what appears to be a happy, healthy flock – and they are. Yet, I know that on the day that I open the panels and release them into the pastures to once again graze in the sunshine, lifting their faces to the summer breeze – well, that day will be the beginning of true happiness for my ovine friends! And honestly, that day just can’t come soon enough for me!

A coming drought?

There have been rumblings for several months that we could very well expect a drought in this region this year. I’ve heard it from old-time farmers and from meteorologists, from hay producers and amateur forecasters. When we had such a very mild winter followed by a very wet spring, I recognized this pattern as the same one we saw a few years ago – the one that ended up in a heavy drought that summer, burning up our fields and forcing us to import hay from northern Minnesota, trucking it in on several semis. It was an expensive lesson that I remember well – so this year, I’ve paid close attention to the musings of those who might better predict that I.

When you depend upon the land for crops or livestock feed, the weather can be friend or foe. My mom often teases me that I am much like Goldilocks with her discoveries in the bear’s house and even harder to satisfy: it’s always either too much rain or not enough. Isn’t there ever the just-right amount? In a way, it’s true. Too much rain causes my sheep to stand in water, grazing the grass blades that poke up out of the newly-formed stream that was once their dry pasture. These conditions can cause erosion within our fields and a change of forage to plants that are less palatable to our flock. Too little rain, however, dries up the forage that nature provides for our sheep, preventing them from harvesting their own feed and causing us to have to purchase feed that has been mechanically harvested – both an expensive and less environmentally-friendly proposition, not to mention the required labor to get it out of the pile and to the sheep.

Yet, the flock must eat, and we will do what we have to do to keep them fed, happy, and healthy. Actually, the fact that we had the parasite issues that we did last year has helped me to better prepare for a possible drought this year. Since I had made the decision to leave most of our acreage ungrazed until July 1 this year to eliminate the parasite larvae in those fields, I made arrangements earl  this spring to buy up local hay. We usually buy all of our hay from one source who has been our “hay guy” since our initial annual purchase of 70 bales in the summer of 2000. Because I know that our now usual annual purchase of about thirty tons of hay is essentially all of the second and third cutting hay that they produce, I started nosing around for other hay sources for our sheep this summer in case we had to lock them in for the entire grazing season. And yes, you read that correctly – I move about 30 tons of hay into and out of our barns by hand each year for only the non-grazing months – the reason that I must look elsewhere if I need more for the remaining months of the year.

I ended up in touch with two other hay producers in April and May, and arranged to buy up much of their hay, too, figuring that if we didn’t need it, I could always sell what we couldn’t use. Besides that, I have also arranged with several other shepherds to buy out the hay they have left from last year. Overall, I think I have enough to feed all of our sheep for the entire summer and then enough to continue through the non-grazing winter months – but the key is the “I think” part. We won’t know how much hay they will cut and I will get, until they cut it – and that will be rain dependent. Less rain means less hay – and although I think I have made arrangements enough, only time will tell.

Yet, my real hope is that I won’t need all of this extra hay and pre-planning – that my efforts will be unnecessary as the clouds build and bring rain to our fields. Not too much rain or too little. I’m really hoping for “just right” this time!

 

Raising a nestling sparrow

I’ve written in the past weeks about the bald little baby sparrow that Rick and Seth found lying on the concrete floor of our barn the day before Mother’s Day. Knowing nothing about baby bird care – particularly bald little baby birds – we took it in, looked up on the Internet how to care for this tiny creature, and tried to do what we could to keep it alive. Now, nearly four weeks later, I am surprised to report that the little bird – originally named Herkie – is still alive and thriving. As the feathers came in, it become more and more obvious that this was a female sparrow, so her name slowly shifted to Margie.

I will admit that I had little hope in the beginning of keeping this little creature alive, but it has gone surprisingly well overall. As time passed, we figured things out as we went along. Once she began to look like an adult bird, I started a checklist of things Margie would need to know for eventual release. At first my list was pretty short; it included only learning to drink water and eat seeds on her own. In a relatively short time, though, she had begun to drink from the shallow pan of water I always included in her cage, and she began to eat first the seeds I offered, and then was soon picking them up out of a small dish for herself.

As each milestone was reached, others were added. She needed to learn that cats and dogs were scary and how to bathe herself. I hoped she would figure out temperature regulation, puffing up when it was cold and smoothing her feathers down when too warm. Margie had learned to fly in her little cage, but I needed confidence that she could soar from tree to tree to get away from predators. Every day that passed brought new milestones achieved and others to add to my growing list. My son asked me on the phone last week how long this was going to continue – was I going to be a “bird mama” forever? I really had no answer for him. I hadn’t rescued this bird only to see it perish as food for our cats. My ultimate goal was release, but I wasn’t sure we would ever achieve all that was needed.

Most of the lessons were relatively easy, but others were not. Margie learned the hard way that cats are not to be trusted one day last week when I placed her cage out in the yard for some fresh air. On that day, our barn cat Allegro must have figured out that this new lawn ornament housed a tasty meal. As I was working in the barn, I suddenly heard the cries of a panicked sparrow and came out running out to find Allegro climbing the side of the cage and Margie fluttering around within. Margie must have seen the cat and thought it was feeding time, coming close to the sides of the cage for her food. Although Allegro couldn’t get in or pull Margie out through the very small openings, he could easily grab Margie’s head – which he did. When I came to the rescue, my poor little bird had drops of blood on either side of her head where Allegro’s claws had gotten her. After that, I could check off the entry on my list that read, “Understand that cats and dogs are dangerous!”

By this morning, my entire release list had been checked off. After my morning chores, I loaded Margie up in her cage and took the entire assembly out to our Timber where we have a nice population of wild birds. I set the cage out in the grass and Margie seemed to know that this was it; she immediately started trying to escape through any unfamiliar opening that she could find. I was still worried that she wouldn’t make it on her own, but I said my good-byes, knowing that freedom comes with risks. It had been nearly four weeks since this little bird came into my life, and we had come a long way, always with a goal of eventual freedom. As a nice breeze rose from the northwest, I lifted the lid of the cage, and Margie took flight. Although I had set the cage under a grouping of mature trees, she headed to a group of trees some forty or so feet to the south, making her own choice for a landing spot. Although I went looking there to see whether I could find her, I found only a group of wild sparrows that took to the air as I ventured near. Was my Margie one of that group? I don’t know, but I like to think so. I saw no sign of her there when I reached the trees, so I have to think that she is now once again free and having fun with her newfound friends. And I am no longer tied to frequent bird feedings – I, too, am now free to return to my usual activities. Yet, I will likely always look at our sparrows a bit differently, wondering at each female whether this one might be the one we saved.