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

The fallout from a crazy weekend

My life has been incredibly busy of late — which explains the recent absence of blog postings. I suddenly sat up in bed late last night, realizing that although I thought I had been almost keeping up with my to-do list, I had totally forgotten to post blogs on Monday and Wednesday.

Rick and I had an out-of-state trip planned for last weekend and early this week (Friday, December 1, through Wednesday, December 6), so I called our ultrasound technician last Thursday to check in. After so many years of ultrasounding our pregnant ewes, I knew two things for sure: I never get much notice of where we are on the schedule (we usually hear a day or two before she arrives; 4 days at best), and the date of her arrival usually falls about 45 days after we pull our rams. That 45-day date is next Tuesday, December 12, but because we would be away for several days, I wanted to confirm that we were safe in leaving.

Like always, Carol was in her truck and driving to yet another ultrasound stop. She answered the phone with “Oh, I’m so happy you called. You’ve been on my list of people to contact!” We made some small talk and then I mentioned that we would be gone over the weekend. Since it was already Thursday afternoon — and I had only pulled my rams at the end of October — I figured we were safe for the weekend. That’s when Carol replied, “Oh, that’s not good….” Whenever she says that, I KNOW it’s not good! And it turned out that we were scheduled to have our ewes scanned on Sunday afternoon. However, we had made a commitment to haul and deliver some lumber on Monday to our son and daughter-in-law in North Carolina, and there was no way to keep both appointments. We had scheduled this trip weeks before, based on everyone’s schedule, so it wasn’t something we could just reschedule at a moment’s notice.

The bigger problem was that, over the years, I have developed enough experience with ultrasounding to know how it works. I couldn’t simply ask Carol to reschedule us. Carol makes big loops through regions of the country between Iowa and Idaho, and she tries to catch each farm as she drives through at approximately the right time for their scanning (which must be scheduled so that the last-bred ewes are at least 30 days into their gestation and the earliest-bred are not over about 95 days gestation). If I were to reschedule, my first-bred ewes would be too far into their gestation at her next swing through to get any usable information, resulting in my paying for a service that gives me much less to work with. I knew that it was either take the Sunday scan or end up having to take my chances with no scans at all. I told her to please keep me on the schedule until I made some calls and called her back. I was hoping that I could figure out a way to still make it all work.

Needless to say, my mind was racing. Instead of laundry and packing late on Thursday (which was my plan for our early departure on Friday), I worked to arrange a trustworthy team for the ultrasounding. My first calls were to our farm helper Seth and to Josh and Emilly Brodeur of Brodeur Family Farms, all of whom have helped with our flock many times in the past. I knew that if this was going to happen on Sunday, I had to have at least one of these three friends on board. Thankfully, everybody was willing to help, and plans were soon underway to get my sheep scanned on Sunday. Although Seth, Josh and Emilly had been here for ultrasounding before, I worked to outline every step on paper so there would be no questions when the time came. I put together a list of helpers who agreed to come and catch sheep. I made lists for pre-scanning, scanning, and post-scanning. To collect the scanning data, I put together a clipboard that included descriptions of each ewe. I worked late on Thursday — not on lists of things to take on our trip, but on making sure that everything would move smoothly on Sunday for the ultrasounding. The trip was crowded out of my mind as the sheep took priority.

The next morning, with everything in place for the ultrasound, I finally shifted my focus back to the trip. Although we had planned to leave midday, we didn’t pull out until about 6:30 that evening. I wanted both Seth and Josh to see what I had prepared for them, so we waited until they could stop by after work to look things over and get a quick run-down. When Rick and I finally left, my mind kept running through my ultrasound preparations, searching for problems or things I might have forgotten. I hated leaving in such a rush — but at least I had found a way to get the lumber where it needed to go and get my ewes ultrasounded on the same weekend.

We’ll take a closer look at the actual scanning in Monday’s blog.

Ram-bunctious

Rams and ewes are often very different in how they interact with the world, and today’s blog is about one of these differences. Our adult rams overwinter in a paddock that shares a fenceline and a shelter with the younger ram lambs. The young rams have an automatic waterer, but I must fill the water tank for the older rams from a hydrant about forty feet from their shelter. The entire ram paddock sits on a ridge, making it very cold and windy in the winter. Since the older rams’ water tank would be prone to freezing in those conditions, it must be heated to keep water available. That means we need electricity up there — and that means trouble.

Years ago, when we had the hydrant installed, we had the electrician run power in the same trench as the water line. We put an 8-foot 4×4″ post just behind the hydrant and mounted an electrical box with an outlet for warming the water tank. We thought we had it all figured out at the time — but we were wrong. We didn’t know enough about sheep, and rams in particular. We didn’t know how ram-bunctious rams can be. But we’ve learned. Over the years, the project became an us-against-them situation in which the humans struggled to prove that we can outsmart our sheep.

The problem is that our adult rams sit up in that paddock all winter long with nothing to do but eat, sleep, fight with each other, and figure out how to destroy the waterer and its power source. Hitting a tank full of icy-cold water is no fun when the temps are cold — but destroying the electrical box is obviously great fun, based on the number of times we’ve had to rethink and rebuild that part of it.

To start at the beginning, in the early years, the rams decided that the best winter fun was to head-butt the 4×4 post buried about four feet into the ground. With regular ram head hits, the post became loose — most probably because it was a new installation into fairly loose soil. When it got to the point that you could almost pull the post out of the ground, we anchored it with a bit of cement. That held the buried part in the ground, but because it was so solid, it was much easier to break off. Which was the rams’ next move: they broke off the post at ground level.

Rick was quite peeved about this, since he figured we couldn’t put in another post without digging up the first one. I finally convinced him to bury another post just behind the first one and bolt them both together. That way, we didn’t have to rewire a new outlet; we could use the whole assembly of outlet, box, and post and simply bolt it to the new post. It was a simple fix, and we were pretty sure that we had lost a battle but now won the war. We were wrong. The rams tore the ground wire out of the box and shredded it.

The loss of the ground wire meant that we needed an electrician, who then buried a new one. He suggested that we put in a heftier box with a stronger cover to protect the outlet from the weather and the rams. We authorized the work and he installed the box and cover. We could lock the cover in place with a wire to prevent the rams from unplugging the tank and freezing their water. We again thought we had won the water tank war — but we were again wrong. The rams broke the cover off of the box and pulled the plug out of the outlet. The outlet was then open to the rain and snow – and to more punishment from the rams.

The view of the newly protected power box for the ram water tank from the south side

We thought about surrendering, but we knew the rams needed water. So we bought another box, and eventually another after that — and one more after that. I could envision my rams sitting up there day after day, trying to figure out how to destroy the power to their water tank. It must be boring up there all winter long, and the post with the electrical outlet box is an obvious source of entertainment for them. But since it must be working for them to have water, we kept trying to build the box bigger and better. We started putting a bit of plywood on either side of the box to protect it, but that was even more entertaining: the rams would smash the plywood until it looked like a pile of toothpicks and the box hung by its wire, the mounting screws broken off and plastic pieces scattered about like confetti. We began to realize that over these many years, we humans were not winning the water tank war — the score was approximately rams 18, us 0. And then our son Justin came to visit for Thanksgiving last week!

The electrical box protection from the north side

Justin has always been a pretty handy guy. He learned a lot of handyman stuff from his dad and a lot of just-make-it-work stuff from me — and he added a lot of his own innovation, experience and learning over the years. While he was here, he saw the mess that the rams had made of their electrical outlet; what remained hung there in nearly unrecognizable bits. He took on this project as both a favor to us and a challenge: could he come up with something that would actually outsmart the rams? Well, I think that perhaps he did. The photos show the result — and so far, so good!

The top view of the outlet box, carefully protected by both the wood and the water line that holds the wood in place

Auction day

Today officially ended the 2017 lambing year for Peeper Hollow Farm. Although auction day is a necessary part of what I do, it’s a usually somewhat depressing day. There are livestock auctions all over the Midwest, and our choice of the Kalona Sales Barn in the early years of our farm was based on many factors. At that time, we were selling few if any products directly to customers, which is our primary market today. At that time, we had begun breeding in hopes of adding lambs that improved on their parents. The lambs that didn’t make our cut had to go somewhere, and taking them all to a single place — like a livestock auction — had its benefits.

When I was looking for an auction house, I had a number of criteria. It had to be within a reasonable distance so the sheep wouldn’t have to sit in a trailer for a long drive. I then visited several places to see how the animals were handled — although I cannot control their lives after they leave our farm, I could control how they were handled at the auction house. I was looking for cleanliness and friendly people, and I wanted the sheep treated with kindness and respect. Not all people who manage livestock consider this important, but it is to me, and so it also became important in my selection of an auction house.

I also wanted a place that attracted a good-sized group of buyers, because if I was going to sell my sheep this way, I wanted to get some competitive bidding for the effort. Once I was satisfied that Kalona was my chosen auction house, I called and spoke to the owner, asking about the details of dropping off my sheep. I also asked about the various sales seasons, because I wanted to manage my year and bring in as much income as possible based on seasonal cycles.

In the early years, nearly all of our lambs and ewes who didn’t stay in our flock went to auction; now, many are sold as culls, lawn mowers, pets, or non-breeders, likely ensuring a better life than what the auction might bring. Although many of our auction sheep do sell for breeding, the truth is that I don’t know where they will go — some will end up in the meat industry, and that hurts. What we call “Tuesday-loading-day” is never a happy day, and I go about my work with pain in my heart.

This year I didn’t go alone as I usually do; I took a new shepherd with me so that he could scope out the auction and see how things work. Because I leave around dawn, I always load my sheep the day before (always well before dark so that they can adjust to their new space and feel comfortable before darkness falls). I usually struggle a bit on the way to the auction, and the sheep-related conversations during the hour-long drive took my mind off the fact that I would shortly be saying goodbye to my ten friends in the trailer.

When pulling up to the building, the challenge shifts from thoughts of goodbye to actually lining up the trailer to unload. The door where the sheep must enter is only just a bit wider than the trailer, and the idea is to back up into the opening — with two to four older Amish men standing around, watching and laughing. My friend offered to take care of this task for me, and once the trailer was in place, things moved very quickly. I long ago learned that the most efficient way to get the sheep out of the trailer is to train them to come to a bucket of grain, shaken as the trailer door opens. There is nothing worse after the misery of the drive and saying good-bye than having a group of sheep in the trailer that won’t leave, that I have to physically move out of that space — and then often have to watch  jump back in again! As the lambs exited the trailer, I gave each a chance at the grain bucket, and they moved calmly and easily into the lower portion of the auction house. The deed was done.

We stayed to watch the auction, which began about an hour later. After a few minutes, the first one of mine to come onto the floor was Romney ram lamb Qi, who sold quickly for a relatively good auction price. The next group were the smallest four that I had brought; I looked them over carefully for signs of stress, but they looked fine. The third group was the larger four ram lambs, and they were followed by our largest Romeldale ram lamb, all of whom seemed to take the walk through the sales floor in stride. When my sheep had all been sold, I went to get my check and we left.

I know from dozens of these types of runs that the painful period is the time from loading until they are sold. During this time, it is a battle between my mind and my heart: my mind knows that our flock will be that much better, healthier, and stronger going forward if the “bottom of the barrel” are removed — but I am attached and my heart argues. These are animals I have spent months trying to keep happy and healthy, nurturing them through good times and bad. Knowing that their trip to the auction might be the beginning of their end is a great sadness. Yet I also know that my focus is and always must be for the flock of Peeper Hollow Farm, and there is a limit as to how many sheep we can keep. I must do what is right for those that remain, to keep the flock strong. They trust me with their lives, and if the home flock goes down, we all lose. There is peace in that once I leave the auction house, yet the wound to my heart is still recent and the healing only begun. I know it will get better with each passing day — until my next trip to the sales barn. I know from experience: that’s just how it goes.

The road well traveled

Sheep are creatures of habit who stick to their routines even if, from the human vantage point, those routines don’t make much sense. I have ewes in my flock who were fed from a particular color bucket years ago, when they needed grain supplementation during gestation, and they still get excited when they see me walking with the same color bucket . They are sure that it’s theirs, despite the intervening years.

Most of the habits and routines are, from my vantage point as the shepherdess, neutral — neither good nor bad, they just are. Yet there are others that make me wonder: how did this particular behavior take root and come down through the ages? These are the routines that seem counterproductive or seem to work against the health of the flock. Routines that, after so many millennia, should have been lost to history like many of the other not-so-great traits of ancient sheep — such as shedding their fleeces, which forced the shepherd to gather wool from branches and off the ground.

I’ve decided that their movement habits fall into this counterproductive category. When sheep move, they form a long, strung-out line with a lead sheep deciding the path and the rest of the flock following (like in the picture for last week’s Thanksgiving blog). The lead sheep will generally follow a very particular path — even if we can’t see it — taking the flock over the same ground day after day. Grass doesn’t survive heavy foot traffic, so eventually the grass dies in the flock’s path and we’re left with a muddy trail, over which the flock tramps again and again. Mud isn’t very good for hoof health since it holds all kinds of nasty bacteria against the foot, much like a poultice — a particularly unhealthy poultice. It’s much healthier for the sheep to walk on grass, but as a shepherd, I know how hard it is to keep grass growing underfoot!

Notice the beaten down path of the sheep coming from the Rock Pasture into the Fire Circle Pasture (where I am standing to take the photo). It isn’t even the shortest path between the two points!

The only way to keep the grass healthy in the pathway areas is to limit the amount of time the sheep have access to any one path. I took the photo on the left the other day. You can see that the sheep have been taking a particular path from the barn to their grazing in the Fire Circle Pasture. If I stand at the right spot, I could get an equally good picture of the beaten-down path from the West Pasture to the Rock Pasture. We have this type of pathway coming and going to all sorts of places on our farm. Because sheep don’t like mud, they’ll skirt the muddy spots like the one at the gate — but then they come back together to create another muddy pathway! Our sheep are nothing if not predictable in their walking!

I know that these areas need rest to bounce back and produce grass during the next growing season. The grass is now dormant, and the sheep have essentially eaten down whatever grazing our pastures have to offer, so I’ve stopped giving them access to the fields. The sheep are stuck in the paddocks for the winter, where their resting and movement won’t kill any more grass. We won’t let them out onto the fields again until the grass is has grown in thick and healthy, even on the walkways. If we allowed them free access, these trodden paths would soon be permanent, forcing our sheep to walk in mud for most of the year.

If the sheep didn’t insist on walking the exact same ground as the sheep ahead of them, or if they changed up their pathway from one day to the next, this would not be a big issue. But as I’ve said, sheep are creatures of habit, and the path to any particular place on our farm is fairly well established at this point. Animals don’t typically continue a behavior that doesn’t pay off in some way, but I can’t figure out the pay-off in this case. Looking at the paths, they aren’t the shortest distance between the two points; some meander all over the place. They aren’t over the most level ground, nor do they offer any other particular asset. They’re just the sheep’s favorite trails. And I guess, for them, that counts for a lot.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Since last weekend, our home has been filled with the sounds of good conversation, warm laughter, and the babbling of our young granddaughter as she explores the whole new world of Peeper Hollow Farm. With plans for a big bonfire in the Timber with friends and family today, Thanksgiving tomorrow, and all sorts of activities here on the farm on Friday, my next blog posting will be on Monday, November 27th, after our home returns to its usual quiet. All of us – Rick and I, the three dogs, five cats, nine chickens, four llamas, and seventy-seven sheep – wish each and every one of you a very happy Thanksgiving! We are so very thankful for the many people who, in ways large and small, support our flock and farm. Thank you, thank you! Happy Thanksgiving!

Big flocks of birds

We’re at the time of year when many local birds avoid our harsh Iowa winters by flying south for fun in the sun. Those birds that overwinter will flock together and seek places that are a bit more sheltered than their usual nesting spots. Over the years, we have come to have a large flock of mixed bird types overwinter in the evergreens behind our house. It is an awesome feeling to walk below those lower evergreen boughs near dusk and hear the fluttering of hundreds of wings just above our heads. Of course, for obvious reasons, we try to never walk underneath unless we’re wearing a hat or a hood!

During the past week, we’ve also had a large flock of crows hanging around the acreage. Unlike the birds in the evergreens, these bigger birds swoop in as one big flock and land in one of the fields. At first I wondered what they were doing, since they seemed to spend quite a bit of time in whichever field they chose that day. At first I thought they were grazing — but the sheep have eaten down almost everything green, so I began to doubt that grass was their goal. They always seemed to spend time in the ewes’ fields, so I then thought that perhaps the crows were finding something they liked in the pellets that the sheep dropped. Yet as I walked the areas, I noticed that the pellets seemed undisturbed, so the crows’ fascination with our fields remained a mystery.

Several of our fields contain thousands of pumpkin seeds scattered throughout the dormant grass, all looking like these. Obviously the crows enjoy these pumpkin seeds as much as the sheep — but only the insides!

Yesterday I finally figured it out as I walked the Fire Circle Pasture — a field that these birds particularly seem to enjoy. I was in that area because I’m still breaking pumpkins for our ewes there; and as I walked, I began to notice the pumpkin seeds from the previous days’ broken pumpkins. And those seeds answered my question! Once you see this photo, you’ll understand what the crows are doing in our fields. Obviously, they love pumpkin seeds!

A guy thing

As part of my work as a shepherdess, I’m occasionally called upon to make some equipment repairs. This is usually easier if the equipment has failed outside of the sheep area, but the location of the failure is not always under my control. Over the years, I’ve done repairs almost everywhere on the farm — and it seems quite common for some pieces of equipment to fail while in among the sheep. Our mower has done this several times, as have various waterers, feeders, and an array of other things. If the equipment is small and mobile, I can move it to the shop in the barn or into the garage; but if it’s large (like a mower) or unable to be moved (like an automatic waterer), I must work on it in place.

The other day, the automatic waterer in the young-ram pen needed attention before winter. I fed the rams and then hurriedly tried to get as much done as I could before the rams were finished eating. I knew that if I didn’t do this, I would eventually have “help” during the project. I pulled the waterer apart and began to address the issue.

Rams crowding around the broken-down mower in May of 2011. This interest occurs whenever the mower breaks down in the ram’s field. If it happens in the ewes’ field, the girls couldn’t care less.

It wasn’t long before my “help” arrived. Within minutes I was surrounded by a shoving, jostling crowd of ram lambs and adult Korbin, all wanting to see what I was doing. Now, some people will argue that perhaps they were not there because of my work, but were actually thirsty and wanting water — but I know this was not the case. I use the same feeding routine daily, and although their waterer needed work, it was still providing water, so they hadn’t gone without. The water had been turned off for all of about five minutes when my group of helpers arrived, and they never come to drink as a group like this. Most of the time, the rams eat their grain and then head over to the shelter to fill up on the grass hay I had just put out. This time, they headed straight from the grain to the waterer, more interested in my work and the disassembled waterer than in the hay waiting in their feeders.

Even after I had put the waterer back together, a crowd of rams remained, pushing and shoving to get a good view, and perhaps hoping that I’d come back to take it apart again.

And this brings me to my question: what is it about broken equipment that attracts the male of a species? When the mower breaks down, the rams crowd around to take a closer look, often getting partway onto the mower itself to really ‘get the feel’ of the thing. When the mower breaks down in the ewes’ field, the girls essentially ignore it as if it was a big rock. A few of the lambs might use it for a game of king-of-the-mountain, but that’s all the attention it gets there — very unlike its reception among the rams.

When the ewes’ waterer required the same winterization that I performed on the ram waterer, no help arrived to peer into the open unit. The only company I had was Sweet Pea, who obviously wanted a drink. (She stayed until I was done and then got the water she had come for.) Yet here I stood, trying to maintain my position at the ram waterer as they all pushed and shoved around me, trying to get a closer look at the opened unit. I finally got my work done, but it was a constant battle to keep all of my tools nearby and all of the crowding noses out of my line of sight. The group didn’t dissipate until I had closed the unit and stepped back to take the photo you see here. At that point, the party was over and they had begun to leave. Yet some of the boys lingered just in case I might have more work to do. None of them drank any water. They simply wanted to see things taken apart and put back together. I don’t get the fascination, but at least in the ram world, it must be a “guy thing” — they do love their broken equipment!

More rams?

We generally keep more rams than needed for a flock of our size, but for good reason. First, since we sell breeding stock and starter flocks, we require rams who are unrelated to small groups of ewes. This is accomplished by using two or more breeding rams each fall (and a good bit of record-keeping). Using only one ram per breed just won’t work for this.

Second, I’ve also come to realize that no matter how good a particular breeding ram is, you should keep a back-up just in case. It’s not unheard of for a ram to go down the night before breeding, and when that happens, it’s good to have his understudy waiting in the wings — otherwise you’ll be forced to accept pretty much any ram as a fill-in. Due to these two reasons — and two different breeds in our fields — I now overwinter a minimum of eight rams in our paddocks.

I also tend to keep additional rams from among our one-year ram lambs. Even if a ram works only one year, he will sire a large number of that year’s lambs; and if he works for several years, he can easily sire one hundred or more lambs, even though we typically run multiple smaller groups. When I choose one of our ram lambs for breeding, I want to know that he will genetically improve what we see in our lambs. If I keep only one promising ram lamb and, when I look him over closely at one year of age, find that his conformation or fiber testing is disappointing, what could I do? I’d have already invested an entire year in him and left myself with no other options. To counteract that possibility, I keep more ram lambs than I will use. If they all work out, I can sell them as yearling breeders; if some of them fall short, I have improved my odds of getting a really great ram by keeping the others.

Yet another reason to keep more rams is because people like to buy adult rams for fall breeding. If I’ve kept only those we intend to use ourselves, I’ll have nothing to offer these sheep buyers — and that isn’t good business! As a result, we normally overwinter about a dozen rams in any given year — and this year there are a few more than that! It was a particularly good year for Romeldale ram lambs, and our group in the paddock reflects that.

With so many rams already in our paddocks, I figured there was no room to fit more into the line-up. But whenever I say such a thing, something comes up to change my mind. A good friend on the West Coast had sold a couple of rams to a farm in New York a few years ago. The boys had done good work there, and the current farm decided to keep some of their sons to replace the older guys. After looking over her records, my friend on the West Coast decided that she wanted to incorporate them into her own breeding program — but how to get them there? All of these decisions had been made fairly late in the season, after most of the shows and other events that attract both shepherds and sheep transport companies.

When I heard of the problem, I offered another solution. If they could find transport to a destination within a few hours of our farm, I would pick up the two rams and overwinter them here (halfway to the West Coast) and then schedule transport for the rest of their journey in the spring, when we had better chances of finding a hauler. They left New York early last week, and I got a call yesterday evening that the boys were in Iowa — it was time to go and get them.

I did my chores quickly this morning, put the dogs in their crates, hooked up the trailer, and headed the hour-and-a-half to West Union, Iowa, where they had spent the night. They were on the farm owned by the man who had moved them from Kentucky to Iowa, and last night on the phone, he made a point to mention that they are unusual rams. They had arrived with the rest of his show sheep, who were returning home. The rams were nearest the door of the trailer, so he couldn’t unload his own sheep without letting them out first. They hopped out and stood in the aisle of the barn while his sheep were unloaded. He had intended to keep them in the barn overnight, but as soon as the trailer was empty, they hopped back in and spent the night there.

Cary (in the foreground) and Sangria (eating pumpkins) are settling into the barn this afternoon.

When I arrived this afternoon, the rams were still in the trailer. He haltered one, and I led him out of that trailer and into the back of mine. The second ram took off for a minute, but when he realized that his travel buddy had hopped into my trailer, he came running back and hopped in too. The transfer took about ten seconds!

We got home late this afternoon, and I got the boys settled into our quarantine pen. They know from both sight and scent that the ewes are right next door. The boys have fresh hay, water, and a pan of broken pumpkins in their pen. These Romney rams are gentle and kind, and they’ll hopefully come to enjoy their time with us, until the long last leg of their journey next spring. Their two weeks of quarantine will be over before they know it, and then they’ll find lots of rams to befriend in the ram pen. Welcome, Cary and Sangria!

Happiness and pumpkins

We have a whole garage full of pumpkins, and our flock gets an allotment each day after their grain feeding. The rams get their pumpkins in the paddocks where they are going to overwinter, but the ewes get theirs out in the fields. The ewes get their morning grain in the East Pasture near the wooden Storage Barn, and then I hop into my truck and drive to the most distant pasture to put out fifteen or so big pumpkins — and the ewes know it! When they hear the truck in the garage start up, they are already finishing their grain and on the move, trying to get across the fields before anyone else. After all, the first arrivals will get their pick of pumpkins — and during this time of year, there is nothing better!

As I get out of my truck at the gate to the Fire Circle Pasture, I can hear them calling as they run towards me. Even after all of these years, the sound still makes me smile as I drop the tailgate. If I don’t hurry, the crowding of the ewes will make my work that much harder. With the sheep still running, I can drop the pumpkins just inside the gate or fence. They usually break as they hit the ground, or they roll for a bit further into the field. Once the sheep arrive, however, I’d have to throw the pumpkins over their heads to land on the grass beyond them. Since each pumpkin weighs from 20 to 50 pounds, throwing them that far is difficult to impossible. Every day I rush to beat the fast-arriving flock.

The sheep are running four or five abreast as they cross the fields, and they must narrow down to pass through each gate. Once they’ve passed through, the flock widens again on the other side. It is a perfectly choreographed movement that reminds me of flocks of birds in the air — each one knowing where to be and when, avoiding what would be a terrible accident as they rush towards their goal. The oldest ewes know exactly what’s happening, but not the ewe lambs. They simply run because everyone else is running, and running is fun! They often gambol on their way, kicking up their heels and twisting in the air before coming back to earth. The pumpkin run is fun for all, even if they don’t know why they’re running.

By the time the sheep begin to arrive, I have heaved the heaviest of the load over the pasture fence. Most of the pumpkins have broken from the impact, and the ewes swarm around them, each with a particular preference. Some ewes like only the seeds — they’re among the earliest in the field, knowing that the seeds will be gone first. They run from one broken pumpkin to the next, ignoring those that haven’t split open.

Other ewes prefer the outer portion of the pumpkins, including the rind, and if I pause in my work, I can hear their gum pads squeak against the rind. (Sheep have front teeth only on the bottom jaw; the upper jaw has a gum pad that allows them to efficiently pinch and tear off blades of grass, their most common food source.) Others want only the meaty portion below the rind, and so they hang back until the seed-eaters finish and begin to move away — their perfect pumpkin isn’t available until those nasty seeds are gone. The final group of ewes — like January — prefer the previously frozen pumpkins. When these hit the ground, they burst open into what looks like a pile of orange spaghetti mixed with seeds. The ewes who prefer their pumpkins this way do a bit more slurping than the rest. Watching January gorge on pumpkin reminds me of young children slurping long spaghetti noodles that slap against their faces on the way in. And again, that makes me smile.

The ewe lambs are beginning to understand these orange mounds that appear in the fields once daily. For the first week or so, they totally ignored them, not recognizing the broken pumpkins as food. After running with the ewes day after day, some of them began to look more closely and noticed that the ewes were eating the piles of orange. Eventually one or two took a bite — and others joined in the next day. As of today, about half of the ewe lambs are eating pumpkin, having discovered the joy of the seasonal treat. By next fall, they will no longer wonder — they will know — and they’ll join the rest of the flock in the mad scramble to find a good spot.

As the ewes eat, I continue to throw pumpkins from the bed of the truck into the fields every time I see a clear area. Eventually, all of the daily allotment has been tossed into the field and I stand there, watching and listening to my friends. There is something incredibly fulfilling in watching my flock this way. They are fed and happy — and that makes me happy. I watch them turn their orangey faces towards me, and I listen to the squeaking of gums against rind. After the last bits of pumpkin are claimed, some of the ewes come to say hello — or maybe it’s a thank you! After a quick scratch on the head or pat on the nose, they are off to rejoin the flock, and I’m off to continue my day, knowing that tomorrow morning will be another pumpkin day. A happy pumpkin day both for the flock and for me!

Qash and the smart factor

I often hear from people that sheep are dumb creatures – too stupid to bother with. This generally comes from people who once had sheep themselves – or perhaps their parents had them when they were young – and I usually then get too hear a tale in which the sheep failed to perform some seemingly simple task for the shepherd. Whatever it is that they failed to do properly is usually one of a very short list – and is most often something like staying in a home pasture that isn’t well fenced. Of course, they should know to stay home! I usually end up thinking that the sheep in the story were the smart ones, figuring out how to get out of a fenced field where the grazing is poor and hightailing it over to the neighbor’s field that has not yet been mowed or grazed. I find that the usual problem is that these people tend to want the sheep to think like we do, instead of thinking like sheep. Yet, to respect the animal, we must respect their way of thinking, too. Of course they will escape to better grazing if they can find a way! If you were sitting in a diner in which you knew they served sub-par food, wouldn’t you get up and leave for the gourmet restaurant next door?

Having said that, smart sheep are not necessarily a good thing! My flock has a variety of sheep with various mental abilities and all have different personalities – and although the smarter sheep are much more entertaining to watch, they are also more trouble. For example, it is funny and interesting to watch certain of my ewes play with the gate latches when they get bored. You can often hear the click-click-click of the latch pin dropping in the housing as one or more ewes play with this very interesting “toy” – and watching them do this with their very nimble lips can be entertaining as you wile away time filling water tanks or other such tasks. Yet, it is not so fun nor is it so entertaining when you realize that the sheep have opened the gate and made off for the neighbor’s front lawn! Smart is not always good when it comes to sheep.

There are some generalizations to be made about which of our sheep are smarter than others, but keep in mind that all generalizations have their exceptions. In general, the Romeldales are smarter than the Romneys, the moorit-based (tan/brown) are smarter than the black-based (gray/black), and any of the colored sheep are smarter than the whites. Most people tell me they want smart sheep, but in reality, most people are actually really happy with dumb sheep. Dumb sheep don’t challenge their surroundings, don’t really like to escape, and don’t take things out of pockets, steal tools, or become annoying in these many other ways that smart sheep tend to enjoy.

Romeldale ewe lamb Qash is likely to be among the smarter ewes of our flock once full-grown.

The whole reason for this blog comes from my observations this afternoon of one of our ewe lambs, Qash. She is the white Romeldale grand-daughter of our ewe January, and from her behavior today, I now believe that she will be one of the smart ones in our flock as she matures. When looking to my generalizations above, she does fit the expected to a degree: she is moorit and not black-based – but she is white like her mother and grandmother. I also like that she has a very expressive face – every thought that goes through her head seems to be expressed by her face and behavior.

When I saw her this afternoon, the entire flock was out on the lawn to finish the grazing season. She was under the pine trees behind the house, and as I glanced out the back window, I noticed that she was standing there under the trees, cudding, while the rest of the flock was mostly recumbent in their cudding – so she caught my eye. As I watched, I could see her look up above her head at the evergreens slowly moving in the breeze. Our sheep very much like evergreen boughs and I thought she might try to stand on her hind legs to attempt to reach the lower branches. She did not – although she looked like she was going to pull up onto her back legs, the thought was fleeting as she obviously realized that she could not reach them that way.

Qash then walked forward coming downhill a bit where the branches are just a little lower to the ground – possibly hoping that this might get her within reach. As she stood there looking at the lower branches, she once again looked as if she might pull back up onto her back legs, but again, she must have realized that even here, the branches were too high. She then walked just a step or two further and came to Koko, who was lying underneath the pine trees. Her eyes opened wide as she first surveyed Koko’s back and then up to the lowest branch above – and then back down to stare at Koko’s back. I chuckled as I realized that she was sizing up Koko as a step-stool to help her get some height – but even with Koko under her, Qash was still too short, and it wasn’t long before she was trying to find another way.

It took a while, but eventually Qash did get her nibble of evergreens. I had long since given up on watching Qash and her evergreen project, going back to straightening up the house. As I passed the back window yet again, I happened to glance out at the sheep under the pine trees and noticed our llama Martin enjoying a bit of evergreen, having pulled one of the lower branches down to his level. That branch was longer than he realized, however, and at the far end (which was much closer to the ground than what a llama would require) stood Qash, having grabbed at the green tips when Martin had pulled the branch down. Now that she had a hold of that branch, there was no way she was letting go until she had her fill or the branch she could reach was stripped. With every bite, she held on, not wanting to lose her prize. And, on her very expressive face, I seemed to see a self-satisfied smile; she had learned a new trick to add to her “smart sheep” repertoire – one that pays off in pine needles!