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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
 

An internal parasite eradication plan

Our flock grazing the Rock Pasture in late April of last year; this is one of the five pastures that will be grazed only by cattle this year until July 1.

I knew when we brought in our sheep from pasture last year that I’d have to develop a plan to deal with internal parasites this spring. I didn’t know at that time exactly what we’d be facing, but after the “perfect storm” for parasites last summer, I knew that dealing with its aftermath in 2017 would take some research and serious thought. It was my hope last fall that a harsh winter would provide some winter kill. Unfortunately for parasite control, this past winter was not anywhere near harsh. As our temperatures warmed to a lovely (but wet) spring, I dove into finding the best way forward for our farm and sheep.

I have several competing goals. I want to provide the flock the best possible feed, especially those who need the most nutrition. I would like to keep our out-of-pocket costs down as much as possible. I need to allow our ewes to instruct this year’s lambs how to graze — which plants are and are not safe to eat. I hope to set up our farm for several years of low-parasite grazing. And despite possible increased costs for this year, I hope to continue to coat our sheep and provide our customers with the best possible raw fleeces — which means smooth fencing (to protect their coats) wherever they graze.

The trick is finding a way to maneuver through this list, maximizing the positive — and I think I’ve worked it out. Unlike most years, when our sheep are out on pasture as soon as there is any green growth, our adult ewes and their lambs are still dry-lotted in the Sheep Barn and the driveway that leads to it. They are being fed the best alfalfa and a specially designed grain blend. Keeping them in meets two goals: the lambs have time to gain size and strength to fight off the onslaught of parasite larvae they will encounter once they go out onto pasture, and the lack of grazing allows the pasture to grow tall before the sheep enter. Parasites live in the lower 2″ to 3″ of grass. With a deep, dense pasture, it will take a while before the lambs get down to where parasites await them. The ewes can get a big enough mouthful to get down to the bottom, but the lambs won’t be able to for some time. Delaying the sheeps’ entry into the pasture means that the parasite larvae that hatched out early in the season have already died, never having been near our sheep. Although that alone is not enough to keep them safe, it is something.

In May the lambs and their mothers will be put out onto first one and then another of our seven pastures — the two that I suspect have the lowest parasite levels. These two fields have been in our rotation for the fewest years and have the widest variety of vegetation. They are also larger than the other pastures, so there is less grazing pressure (more space for each sheep, and fewer eggs dropped per square yard). After our lambs learn how to graze in these two pastures, we will wean them in the Sheep Barn, where we will also deworm them and clean them up for their next move.

About a week after weaning, they will join our yearlings and a couple of thin old ewes and be trailered to a friend’s farm, where they’ll be released into a four-acre field that has been grazed by only a handful of cattle. The perimeter fencing is smooth, and our wire panels will subdivide the four acres into four plots so we can rotate the sheep about once each week. The plan is to graze them there for about a month, beginning in early June. Since sheep and cattle don’t tend to share parasites, the cattle from the friend’s farm will come to our pastures. By about July 1, our own five fields should be relatively clean of parasite eggs and larvae, which will allow our sheep and the friend’s cattle to all return to their own fields.

A number of our adult sheep will remain dry-lotted and will not graze this year. The adult rams will be kept in one area, and the adult ewes will be divided into two groups by condition. Those requiring weight loss will remain at the Storage Barn on carefully measured rations of grass hay, while those needing to rebuild or gain weight will be housed in the Sheep Barn eating alfalfa hay and a bit of grain. We weren’t able to slim down the unbred adult ewes over the winter, because they were housed with last year’s unbred lambs who needed higher levels of nutrition for growth. With the yearlings out among the lambs, we will hopefully be able to slim down our adult “fatties” in time for breeding this fall!

Once our five fields have been vacant or grazed only by cattle for this first half of the year, they will be considered clean of parasites — and should remain so for a while, since we’ve been working on emptying our sheep of parasites. The two fields that the lambs and their mothers will graze in the next few weeks will be pulled out of the rotation as of June 1 and will remain vacant for the second half of the grazing season. They will not be open for grazing until next spring. Feeding out hay this summer will be an added expense, but no more than the cost of lambs lost to parasites last summer — and with a lot less heartache!

If you have questions, please ask away. I’ve given this plan a lot of thought, and I hope I’ve considered every angle. But there is no way to know whether it might work until the plan is tested — or questioned!

Creatures large and small

It’s been an interesting few days here at Peeper Hollow Farm. After Qallan’s injury in the Sheep Barn, we went up to feed the ewes without lambs only to find that the raccoon that had made herself comfortable in the ram shelter had decided that things were much more comfortable in the loft of the Storage Barn. Every time anyone entered the loft, she would respond from the mound of stored items with hissing and growling. Even worse, we got a load of 250 bales of hay on Friday that was supposed to be loaded into that loft. In a very short period of time, we had a very real issue – so I called a wildlife management company that specializes in humane relocation that very day.

The biggest issue for me was that the raccoon had chased out all of our barn cats and had possibly injured one of our lambs. We could possibly close out the raccoon from the Sheep Barn, but that would close out the cats, too. The barn cats are there with a job to do: they hang out in our barns, eliminating any growing mouse problem before it becomes a real problem. They move from one barn to the other – and sometimes into the chicken coop – looking for mice that like to hang around our grain. With the raccoon snarling in the loft, the barn cats circled the Storage Barn, wanting to enter to catch their allotment of mice, but knowing that if they did, the raccoon might make a meal of them!

We loaded the hay into the loft on Friday despite her best efforts to keep us out. The people from the relocation company came late that day and the problem was obvious even to them with three barn cats crying and circling outside of the barn. We went through all of our shelters, one at a time, and discussed the options – and I learned a lot about raccoons! I didn’t realize that they tend to stay where they were born – unless they are moved many miles away. This meant that if our little raccoon had kits here, we would have raccoon issues for many years. We decided that she had to go – but I was worried about moving her and her young – if they had already come – so that they didn’t die of starvation in my loft if we caught their mother in a trap.

The representatives told me that they would suggest a solution other than trapping – that trapping would be a last resort. They suggested that we spread the scent of male raccoon in all of our barns. It turns out that male raccoons kill all of the young that they run across, and the females know this, hiding away and out of sight until their young are older. This was likely the reason that she has been hanging around our buildings. The females usually scout out several dens so that they have back-up in case one has been compromised, so chasing her out of our buildings would force her to have her kits somewhere else in one of her back-up homes. My worry about the kits having already arrived was unnecessary – if they had been in the loft, we would have heard them. Oh, and if they were there and she smelled the male raccoon scent, she would simply move them one by one t0 the new home – if it worked.

I was told that it didn’t always work – particularly if the female was young and inexperienced. If it didn’t work, we would trap the female and then tear apart the stuff in the loft to find the young, relocating them together. They spread the male raccoon scent in the upper and lower levels of the Storage Barn, in the ram shelter, and in the Sheep Barn, hoping to push her out into the wild somewhere. I had no idea how long it would take, but I promised them I would text or call in a few days to let them know how things turned out.

Well, the raccoon moved out immediately. On Saturday morning, I arrived at the Storage Barn to find that our barn cats had moved back in overnight and were again living in the loft, catching mice that like to live in the stored hay. There was no sign of her anywhere – not in any of our three buildings! Even better, she has not come back – so I would say that this problem is solved!

The two steers have happily moved into our South Pasture; they will be joined by two bottle calves in a couple of weeks.

As a partial solution to our continued parasite issue from last year, I’ve decided to graze cattle on some of our fields for this first half of the grazing season – and the first pair moved in yesterday! Rascal and T-bone have found our South Pasture to their liking, and we are happy to have their help in killing off the sheep parasites in the fields. They will be joined by a couple of bottle calves once the calves are weaned in a couple of weeks. The four will then have access to five of our seven pastures for the next couple of months. Since the internal parasites on our fields are species-specific, the digestive system of the cattle will kill off the sheep parasites – and any parasite eggs that the cattle might drop will be killed in the larval stage by our sheep when they return to the fields. This is only a small sliver of our parasite plan for this year – I will lay out the entire plan on Friday!

That familiar feeling

There is a feeling that comes with being a shepherd. We all know it even though we don’t always want to admit it. It usually comes after a difficult experience, and particularly after the loss of one of the flock. As we make our way out to the sheep, we feel a mix of trepidation, queasiness, anxiety, and foreboding. It is irrational – there is no reason to believe that simply because something bad happened the day before, something equally bad or worse will come to pass today. Yet, it is there nonetheless. The loss of one flock member makes us realize how fine the line between life and death really is, and reminds us that death is constantly lurking just outside the flock, looking for an opportunity to enter.

Every lamb in this photo has blood on its coat – some more and some less.

It was with this feeling that I took Quaker’s bottles out to the ewes and their lambs on Saturday morning. After finding Qal lying dead the day before, I was acutely aware of the fragility of life. I shook it off as I passed under the evergreen trees that line the separation of space between the lawn around the house and the grazing spaces around the Sheep Barn. I knew after years of shepherding that one loss doesn’t immediately point to the next. And then I entered the barn.

Quaker was there to meet me, poking among my legs for the bottle nipple she knew I brought. Her coat was covered in blood, and I panicked seeing it. I felt her all over, but the blood didn’t seem to be coming from her – and she was panicking at the fact that I wasn’t giving her the expected bottle. I settled into my position on the hay feeder and as she began to make quick work of the bottle, I began to look over the flock. The horror of the scene took a few seconds to register. Before me was blood, and lots of it – everywhere. There was blood on the hay feeder upon which I sat, and on each of the other hay feeders in my sight. There was blood on at least half of the other lambs’ coats, and on the adults as well. January came to greet me with a face half-covered in blood – yet she was not injured. I could feel my heart begin to beat faster, and I purposely calmed my breathing to prevent the panic from rising. I called for Rick and our farm helper Seth – I couldn’t move while feeding the bottle, but couldn’t quell the dread until we figured this out!

There was blood on the feeders and on the sheep!

The more I looked around, the more blood I saw. Every single hay feeder in the barn was smeared with blood, as were the walls. I could see blood on the walls up to about 40″ – the height of our metal dividing panels; higher up it had been splashed or sprayed, and the lower sections had been smeared. Everywhere I looked, there was blood: the grain feeders, the hanging cloth hay bags in the creep area, and on each of the water tubs. As Quaker continued with her second bottle, I scanned the straw looking for a lamb either dead or dying, but I saw none. There was nothing to indicate the source of the blood. Soon after, Rick and Seth arrived and stood in the doorway in shock until I urged them to begin looking for a dead lamb. As soon as Quaker finished, I joined them in the search, but we could find nothing but more areas of drying blood. What was this?

Seth began to scan the fields, wondering whether a coyote had come into the barn and eventually dragged off its prey, yet he saw no small white sheep coat lying anywhere around the barn. Rick and I got all of the lambs up and moving – and they all seemed fine. They all moved away from us; there was no one left when the sheep would clear any given area. You would think that any lamb that had lost so much blood would be obvious, but we could find nothing. Nothing.

We began a concerted effort to find the problem, checking each lamb and ewe one at a time, and that’s when we found him. Qallan is a reddish brown son of Molly, and that was why the source of the blood was not obvious – but he was covered in it. It was obvious that it was coming from his head, and it was still dripping at a good rate, so I called the vet to tell them we were coming. We loaded him up into the crate in the truck and I took off for the clinic.

Qallan, with the cauterized crater in his head, hides the red blood well with his reddish-brown coloring.

I won’t go into the whole scene at the vet – I will spare you all of that. It seems like he may have been eating grain at the grain feeders in the creep area when the raccoon came in to eat. Knowing Qallan, he likely wanted to see whether raccoons head-butt any better than cats, and challenged the new mama raccoon to a head-butting contest – and the raccoon likely let him know that although she can’t head-butt well, she can certainly bite and scratch! Somehow, Qallan had opened up a serious section of his head and broken off the scur (a small, unformed horn) on one side. Head wounds bleed a lot, and his was pretty big, so he bled a lot. The vet decided to cut the scur off of the hanging skin, and then cauterize the whole area. Needless to say, I didn’t think Qallan would be doing much head-butting for a while. It was horrible, but the bleeding stopped. By the time we got home, I gave him a healthy dose of pain-killer and he was ready to nap a bit. It had been a long morning!

Now, three days have passed since our panic with Qallan, and he is essentially back to normal – including head-butting anyone who he thinks is in his way: sheep, lambs, cats, or whatever. He looks terrible to me – like someone scooped his head out with an ice cream scoop – but he doesn’t seem to notice anything off. He is back to his old self – minus one scur and a chunk of skin. As for me, I am still going out to the barn with this same little sense of dread – that well-known queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that the blood smears did not help to alleviate. I still look over the lambs each day and hold my breath. I know this, too, shall pass – I just need a bit of time.

 

A shocking find

On Wednesday evening, I was out feeding Quaker her evening bottle just as dusk was falling. As she rhythmically sucked down her warm milk replacer, I sat on a hay feeder and watched the flock, keeping eyes and ears open for anything unusual or out of place. The only way to know the true state of the flock is to spend time there, and bottle feeding is just one more way of my keeping track of what was going on.

As I watched, I noticed twin Romney ram lambs Qal and Qi playing a variation of the how-high-can-you-jump game: they stood facing each other and took turns leaping straight up into the air and bouncing a bit on the return to earth. First one and then the other showed off their leg strength and coordination, seemingly always wanting to out-jump the other. I smiled at the game, since these two have been very sweet and mellow boys – the most stoic of an already stoic breed. It was good to see them up and at play on this warm spring evening!

Qal, son of Nali x O’Connor, is gone at the age of thirty-three days

When I came out to feed the sheep Thursday morning, I was shocked to find Qal lying dead in the outdoor pen. It had been only about fourteen hours since my witnessing his game with his brother. I knew there were only a few diseases that could claim a lamb so quickly, so I made the decision to have him necropsied as soon as possible to determine his cause of death. In the sheep world, this is the basic equivalent of an autopsy. The vet surgically evaluates the lamb and looks at all major organs for a cause of death. If an accident is suspected, they will also look at the spine for possible injury, and if desired by the shepherd, they will draw samples for later analysis at a veterinary lab. It is an expense that I know saves lives, so I hurried with my chores and dropped him off at the vet before his body was too far into decomposition to make any such investigation pointless.

Many people choose to skip a necropsy when a sheep or lamb dies. It is an added expense that doesn’t add to the bottom line, but I find that it can often warn of what you might call “coming attractions.” If I know what killed this particular lamb, then I can watch more closely for any others who might come down with the same thing, perhaps offering life-saving treatment. If the cause of death is obvious, like if a lamb has been treated for pneumonia and hasn’t responded, or I see them head-butting friends and suddenly one goes down dead, then I don’t bother. However, if the cause isn’t readily apparent, I take them in for a necropsy.

The result of Qal’s necropsy was almost as shocking as his passing: he died as the result of clostridial disease, which is caused by a bacteria that is commonly found all around us in our environment including soil and manure. After symptoms appear, it can kill in as little as two hours. Knowing this, we vaccinate all 0f our adult ewes with what we call is called Essential 3+T about three to six weeks before delivery so that not only are they covered, but their colostrum carries antibodies against this disease that will be passed to their lambs. It has always been my understanding that this will cover the lambs for months after birth, although their immunity is strongest in the first four to six weeks of life. We vaccinate our lambs at about a month of age for this very reason, and then give them a booster three to four weeks later.

Most of our lambs have already received their initial vaccinations, with the late born lambs slated to get their vaccinations today. The vet told me that this seems to be a bad year for clostridial disease, as their office has already seen more than a couple of cases. This information alone sent me scurrying out to the barn armed with my syringes of vaccine! Shortly after talking to my vet, I went out and vaccinated the last dozen or so yesterday evening, thinking that sooner had to be better.

Wanting to eliminate any increased levels of clostridium bacteria in our environment, I also bleached all of the feed troughs and replaced the cloth hay bags in the creep area with new ones. Finally, I grabbed a few disinfecting wipes and cleaned off Nali’s teats to prevent Qal’s higher levels of the bacteria from transferring to his twin. You should have seen the look at Nali’s face as I was wiping her up (it was priceless!), but she stood there and allowed me to do it. When I finished, I called a friend who is a vet and discussed where things stood.

My friend has assured me that I have done all that I can do at this point. With so much false information out on the web, I discussed our vaccination plan with her to verify that we were doing all that we can to keep our lambs safe, and she confirmed that our plan is currently in line with the best available science on the subject. We now watch and wait – and hope that Qal’s is the last we will see for a very long time.

Sharing – or not

One pair of our hay bale feeders after this morning’s filling – four adult ewes (can you find them?) try to find a great spot between the lambs, with Queso (R) in the foreground.

The lambs are either well past or rapidly approaching their one month birthdays. At this age, they are well into familiarity with solid feed in addition to their mothers’ milk; high quality alfalfa and a custom grain blend are always available in their creep area where the ewes cannot enter. Although the digestion of the youngest flock members is not quite what it will be in a couple of weeks, the oldest lambs are digesting well and beginning to dig into the feed that we provide – some gaining at near or just over one pound per day.

Although we provide unlimited feed in their creep area, it never ceases to surprise me how very much they want to eat just what their mothers eat. We provide the ewes with grain and alfalfa, too, but the alfalfa is a bit less green and also a bit stemmier than what the lambs get, and the grain is the creep blend cut 50/50 with corn, providing more energy and less protein. When I pour the grain into the troughs for the ewes, the lambs swarm the feeders, trying to get as much of it as they can before being pushed out of the way by the bigger ewes – and the same happens with the hay in the hay feeders. The lambs want in and the ewes want them out!

The adult ewes are often willing to share with their own lambs, showing them what is palatable and which plants are not such great eating. Yet, the lambs of other ewes are pushed away – the ewes know that they need this nutrition if they are to provide milk for their own lambs, and both lambs and ewes are ravenous! The lambs know that this is how it works, and when younger and smaller, will stay close to their dams, trying to find a place at the feeders.

For this reason, we always provide more feed and more feeder space than our ewes need at this point in production. There is no way to know how much the lambs are eating out among the ewes rather than in their creep area, and I do want them to eat – and to learn from their mothers. Providing too little feed space in the common area forces the ewes to become even more forceful in pushing the lambs out, and to me, this seems counter-productive. I want the lambs eating as much as they can, and I also want them learning what to eat – and what not to eat – from the adults in their lives. We burn through a lot of hay this time of year – but I view it as an investment in the future of the flock: in our lambs.

The older lambs have become more intent on finding a way in. They stand at the top of the bales, even knowing that most of the ewes have little patience for this and will push them off. Once pushed off of one bale feeder, they immediately hop onto the next, playing a continual game of king of the mountain on their feed.

The little lambs find access through the sides of the feeders where the ewes stand above them and don’t even notice them below. Because the hay is alfalfa hay with the best nutrition in the fragile leaves, these side-feeding lambs get some of the best of the bale, eating below the ewes who keep knocking leaves down into the bottom of the bale as they eat.

As the bales are consumed, the ewes become more and more insistent that the lambs find elsewhere to eat – and this forces the lambs into their creep area and its all-you-can-eat buffet. When I leave the barn in the morning after feeding, nearly all of the lambs are crowding the feeders as in the photo above, but when I am back out for the last check of the day at dusk, there are few lambs to be seen in the common area that aren’t dozing along the walls – the rest are all crowded into the creep area, nibbling at the lamb-sized feeders of hay and grain, climbing on straw bales provided for that purpose, and head-butting or mounting the other lambs in practice for their adult roles.

It won’t be much longer before I let them out onto pasture to learn how to graze – but I need to finish my internal parasite plan for this year before we allow them out. I have nearly completed the overall plan, with one piece left to fall into place. It is my goal to have them out and grazing by the end of the month or the first weekend in May at the latest. Until then, I will keep loading hay and grain into their feeders!

 

Back home

Emily and Rick having a chat during our visit on Saturday, April 15th.

Rick and I spent the last few days visiting our granddaughter Emily – oh, and her mom and dad (our son) – in North Carolina. I flew home late today knowing that I still needed to pick the dogs up from the kennel and make it home in time for our bottle lamb Quaker’s bottle at about 7 p.m. When I left last week, I had weaned her down to two bottles per day with our farm helper Seth feeding her the morning bottle when he fed the rest of the sheep on his way to work construction. Our good friends Emilly and Josh Brodeur of Brodeur Family Farms picked up the evening bottles for us, so both bottles were covered for the entire five days of my absence.

Honestly, I really like feeding the bottles myself, but there was no way I was missing the opportunity to see our granddaughter in North Carolina, so I had Josh, Emily and Seth each come to see how I prepared the bottles and how I fed them out. I knew that she would drink less milk during my absence than she would if I were here, since this was also true when Rick fed her bottles – she never drinks quite as much for anyone else as she does for me. Yet, I really hoped that she would relax and give them a try – I hated the thought of my bottle lamb thirsty and wondering where I was.

This evening, I got home just in time to get the dogs settled and make up bottles for the next 24 hours. The weekend before I left, she was drinking about 1 1/2 bottles per feeding three times a day. When I shifted her to two bottles early last week, she was drinking nearly two full bottles each time, so I left instructions for them to always take two full bottles out with them for Quaker at each feeding. I knew that this is a time when the available creep feed also begins to look enticing, so I didn’t expect her to drink more than two bottles at a time – but I was really hoping that she would take the two – at least from someone!

The remains of Quaker’s evening bottles when I returned to the house – she was obviously happy for my return and downed nearly all that was available!

Unfortunately, I heard from all three of my bottle feeders that she never drank more than about a bottle and a half from any of them at any feeding. As I prepared the bottles tonight, I wondered whether I should simply make three bottles – one and a half for tonight and another one and a half for tomorrow morning – but I made two for each and headed outside. As soon as she heard me talking to the ewes outside, I could hear her start to call me from within the barn. When I got to the entry to the sheep pen, Quaker couldn’t contain her excitement, jumping into the air as I tried to step over the panels to enter (I didn’t want her to run out by mistake – she was way too excited!).

We quickly settled down at one of the hay feeders in my usual routine: I held the bottle on its side between my knees and she grabbed the nipple as I tipped it up to start the milk flowing. The rhythmic sucking began as many of my old sheep friends came to welcome me back home – it was good to see them all! It wasn’t long before Quaker was done with her milk for the evening, downing both of the bottles that I had brought out; they had been filled to the top, so each held well over 18 ounces! I guess she did miss me!

It is good to be back – and as much as I will miss Emily, our son and daughter-in-law, I look forward to catching up with all of the farm’s other residents when I make my rounds of chores tomorrow morning. For now, though, it is simply good to relax and watch the sun set in the west, hearing the ewes call their lambs to settle down for the night.

Time off!

I’ll be taking today off from blogging to enjoy some time with my family, and will return with a new post on Monday, April 17th. Have a wonderful weekend and I’ll see you back here on Monday!

A welcome guest – for now

I wrote on Monday that when I had fed up at the ram shelter the other morning, I had heard some chittering and hissing whenever I came near the back wall of the shelter. I included a photo of the masked intruder who was the source of the ruckus, knowing nothing more at that point that you did: two beady eyes were staring out from between the boards at the rear of the building, and anytime I got close, it would begin with the threatening noises. I left well enough alone and continued on my way feeding my sheep.

The view within the wall where the raccoon has made her home.

Yet, when I came back to the shelter on Tuesday, the raccoon was still there – in exactly the same spot. Now, this presented a whole different issue. I didn’t mind this raccoon making itself comfortable within the walls of the shelter, but I didn’t want it dying there. Did it not leave because it was injured? Because it couldn’t get out? Or simply because it liked the environment and had decided to move in? Not knowing terribly much about raccoons, I had no idea – all I knew was that it was still there, hissing and chittering at me on Tuesday morning – so I called Animal Control.

Now, even though I live in a relatively rural section of Iowa, it turns out that we don’t really have an Animal Control department. My call was transferred to the local Humane Society, who immediately referred me to the County Sheriff’s Department. The dispatcher at the sheriff’s referred me on to a private wildlife rehabilitator. By that time, I was seriously wondering whether this was all worth it – but I didn’t want the raccoon to suffer, so I continued on with my search.

A better view of our newest guest where she has decided to raise her family

Before I called the wildlife rehabilitator, I started to realize that unless he came all the way out to our farm, he would have no clue what I was trying to describe, so I psyched myself up, got out my camera, and went back up to the shelter to get some better pictures. I knew that the top of the wall was open, and if I could climb across on the boards on the wall, I could get the camera high enough to get a shot inside the wall behind the boards that you saw in Monday’s blog. My thinking was that this view would give him a better idea of what this was all about. I knew the raccoon would be mad, but I really didn’t know any other way to get the info. After all, a picture – or at least a good one – is worth a thousand words!

I did get the pictures, and by the time I called the rehabilitator, I was able to email him both the photo from Monday’s blog and those that I’ve included here today. From these few photos, he was able to assure me that the raccoon was likely not injured – it looked to be a female, and his guess was that she was pregnant and looking for a place to have her kits! She likely found the shelter that kept her out of the rain, and was protected from other intruders by nearly a dozen big rams. This location was close to many food sources (including my creep feed in the lambing barn!), and so worked nicely for a new home.

After this picture, she had had enough; she jumped at me to encourage me to leave – and she didn’t have to ask twice!

His bottom line was that moving her now would likely stress her out – particularly since it was possible that she could begin delivering her babes at any time. The more humane thing to do would be to let her deliver her young and then wait until they were old enough before relocating the entire family. I honestly am not quite sure how I feel about that, but I am too much of an animal lover to stress a new mom – even if it is a raccoon.

Several years ago, we had a big momma raccoon move into our barn, and then within a week, she ate all of our chickens and many of our barn cats. We happened to be on vacation when this happened, but found pieces of our chickens and cats lying around the acreage for weeks afterwards. It was all terribly sad and depressing. I eventually moved her and all of her young out to a wildlife area north of our farm, but it took us a long time to replace the chickens and the cats. I was always afraid of having the same thing happen again, so it took me a while to be willing to replace what we lost.

Yet, this little raccoon knows none of that history. She has somehow stumbled across our farm and its several shelters, and chosen the most out of the way spot for a new home: at the back of the ram shelter. She has helped herself to some of our lamb’s creep feed, but honestly, not so much that I must cut her off. And although she is not at all happy about my appearances each day, we have called a truce between us: I am steering clear of her section of the back wall while she hunkers down and ignores me while I do what I have to do. Unless she begins to make more trouble for us, I suppose she is welcome to that small section of wall and whatever grain she can find. The accomadations aren’t grand, but I suppose to a raccoon, this new home has its charming features!

I have no idea how this is going to turn out, but I guess that, for now, we are hosting a masked guest. As long as she doesn’t begin to take that mask seriously and turn into some type of nighttime marauder, injuring others of our farm’s residents, I am happy to let her stay. I guess we’ll just take this one day at a time.

Putting two and two together

Unlike during lambing, this time of year is one where the work load is still fairly heavy, but in well-defined chunks of time: I feed all of our sheep in the morning, checking on health and well-being as I dole out hay and, in some cases, grain.Then I make a bottle run for our bottle lamb Quaker in the early afternoon and again in the evening just after dark.

Whenever I am among the flock – any part of the flock – an understood part of my work is to monitor the sheep in that area for illness, injury, or trouble of any kind. As I listen to the rhythmic sucking of Quaker at her beloved bottle, I am also listening for coughing, looking for limping, doling out pats and scratches, and generally looking over the flock around me. In fact, I find that the best time to do this is at the last bottle of the day. By then, most of the sheep have found a nice comfy spot for the night and everything is fairly quiet. If there is any rattly breathing or coughing, it is much easier to hear in the silence of the still night air.

As part of this flock monitoring, I have learned to notice and mentally record changes of any kind among the sheep and their behavior. Although not always an indicator of trouble, I have more than once looked at a particular activity and wondered to myself when that specific thing began to happen – if only I had noticed the beginning, I would have had much more information to work with down the road. As a result, any changes from the norm end up filed away for future possible use – no matter what it might be.

It was in this way that I initially noticed that the ewes and their lambs were a bit less settled than normal beginning about the middle of last week. We have a number of barn cats that live in either of our two barns, and their coming and going is not normally paid any attention by our sheep. At this time of year in the Sheep Barn, there are so many young curious lambs and protective adult ewes that I leave a window open at the back of the barn to allow the cats access. By coming in through this window, they have a shorter trek across “lamb land” where the young ones will chew on tails or ears, head-butt to see whether cats butt back, and generally annoy our resident cats. I have many times sat in the barn in the evening only to hear a ruckus in the back of the barn, and turn to see one of our barn cats jump up into the open window, sharpen its claws on the wooden frame there, and then make a dash across the straw on the floor, headed to the off-limits-to-sheep hay stack where the mouse population somehow never reaches zero. Although I have turned to watch a cat make its way in, the sheep continue to lie and cud as if this intruder were a figment of my imagination.

Yet, in the middle of last week, I was in the Sheep Barn feeding Quaker her last bottle of the day when I heard the familiar calling of my cat Allegro, and then the thumping of his jump up to the window. This time, however, instead of totally ignoring his entrance, the sheep panicked and all ran for the front of the barn and onto the dark driveway where we have extended their space. I thought it odd that they would suddenly be so afraid of the cats, and wondered what else might have scared them – but it wasn’t long before I returned to listening to Quaker’s sucking on the bottle and forgot about the whole thing.

On Friday, I was filling the creep feed for the lambs in the Sheep Barn, setting out flakes of hay and then filling the four grain troughs in the creep area when I noticed that one of the troughs was empty – totally empty. Now, I know that lambs begin to increase their intake of grain at about this age, so I wasn’t totally surprised, but it was a bit odd for them to eat so much all at once. I usually see a gradual increase in the amount of grain I set out rather than a suddenly empty feeder. I filled the feeder and topped off the others, and on Saturday, the lambs were back to their usual intake – but the whole empty feeder seemed odd to me, and I thought about it several times over the weekend.

Then, this morning I was finishing my chores up at the ram shelter, emptying hay feeders and looking the boys over when I heard a strange noise. I paused to listen more closely, but all I could hear was the sound of heads crashing together outside the shelter where the rams were celebrating the imminent appearance of their daily hay ration. I got a bale of hay out of the storage building, and brought it back into the shelter to load  it into the hay feeder when I again heard what sounded to be a soft chittering sound. Once more, I paused to listen more closely, but the sound again disappeared before I could identify its source. I finished with the hay and walked outside the building, looking at the three walls and the roof, hoping to figure out what I was hearing, but there was nothing there. Nothing.

The view this morning of the north wall of our ram shelter – can you find the interloper? Look carefully…

Finally, I again entered the ram shelter with the last hay bale and loaded it into the feeder when I suddenly heard a different sound – this time a definite hissing that sounded nothing if not threatening. There was something very unhappy with my presence in the ram shelter – and when I finally found the something, everything I have mentioned here suddenly made so much sense! I’ve attached a photo that I took of the shelter – can you find the source of the sounds, the nervous young lambs and their mamas, and the disappearing grain? Look closely! I guess it’s time to clean up my traps again.

Coated lambs

It is not uncommon for farms that produce high-end wool to coat their sheep. It is less common, however, for them to coat their lambs. Coating lambs is quite an investment, both in time and in the many coat sizes that they will wear from the time they are born through their first year – or until they leave the farm. We have been coating our lambs for many years, now, and I hardly think about it anymore. Like most routines, it has become an integral part of my days each spring, looking over the lambs in the barn and making changes or adjustments to their coats as needed.

Qremlin models his sweatshirt coat – born at only about six pounds, he will wear this style for a while yet!

Our lambs begin with what we call “newborn coats”: sweatshirt sleeves or sweatpant legs that have been cut and adapted to fit lambs that weigh between about 4-20 pounds. Any of you who want instructions how to make these coats can search past blog entries and find a set of step-by-step instructions, complete with photos. People often ask how long our lambs stay in this size, but it isn’t so much based on age as on size. A lamb born weighing in the neighborhood of fifteen pounds will only stay in this type of coat for a week or so, while a lamb born weighing only six pounds will be in a newborn coat for weeks – perhaps four or five, depending on gains.

Queisha models her size 19 Powell coat, which is still a good fit for her

Once the newborn coats are getting tight and look more like vests than coats, we switch them to the first true sheep coat in a size 19 (measuring from the neck to the tail, it is 19″ long). I have them from several different manufacturers, even though I think that today, you can only get them from Rocky Sheep in Colorado. I have many from the now-gone Powell Sheep Company, and I like these best, since the leg straps are wider, so stay on better than the Rocky Coats. If I need to, I will use a giant safety pin (made for this purpose) to adjust the fit until the lamb is big enough that they don’t need it – but if I use the Powell coats, I seldom need to pin. You know you need to pin it if the leg straps fall down below the hocks – and this is true of any coat of any size!

Qapp in his new size 27.5 Matilda coat this morning – we mark each coat with its size in inches to make fitting the next size easier.

The size 19 coats don’t fit for long – and it’s pretty obvious when they need the next size. If their tail sticks out the back, you know it won’t be long – and if their rump is sticking out along with the tail, it is time for a bigger coat! At that point, we move them into the smallest size Matilda Coat (the SSA – 27.5″ sold by Sheepman Supply), again pinning them for fit, if necessary. After laundering, we mark each of our coat with its approximate size in inches (28, 30, 34, 36, 40, 45, or 48), both just above the right rear leg, and in the center of the back with permanent marker. This makes knowing which size a sheep needs next much easier than it used to be!

Qorianka with her fresh 30 coat – pinned for the time being, to keep it in place

Although we once kept a variety of coats from different manufacturers, this is now only true for the first coats (the size 19) – after this size, all of our coats are manufactured by Matilda. I find that they fit better for longer, requiring less coat changes because of the elastic at the neck, the dock, and at both sides. Now that I have figured out a no-sew replacement for when the elastic goes bad, they are my coat of choice. Once the lambs outgrow what we call the 28, they move into the 30 (actually the SSB 29.5″). This morning, I changed our first two 28 coats into 30’s – both Quade and Qorianka were ready to move up, although I did end up pinning Qori’s coat.

We’ve been buying Matilda coats for so many years that we have gotten them in about five different fabrics, and some fabrics fit larger or smaller than others. As a result, I find myself having to pin some coats while those of the same size in other fabrics might fit quite well. Overall, though, even a pinned coat only stays pinned for a few days; with our lambs gaining at well over half a pound a day at this stage, it isn’t very long before I can remove the pin and the coat fits well! I’m thinking that by Monday or Tuesday, Qori’s pin will be ready to come out.

By this fall, each of our lambs will have worn the newborn coats, then the 19″, and then moved through Matilda sizes 28, 30, 34, and into a 36, where they will usually stay until shearing – although sometimes our Romney lambs will move into a size 40 around December. That means that each lamb will wear up to six or seven coats in their first year here. With most lambs in the same sizes at the same time, and our usually having up to eighty lambs in any given year, you can see how we would end up keeping a lot of coats on-hand! In my last coat inventory a couple of years ago, I had a total of nearly 500 coats either on the sheep or washed and folded in their containers by size – and it seems like I always need more!

Honestly, the quality of the wool from a coated sheep just can’t be beat – and by coating our lambs from birth, they get to know from a young age that these coat changes are simply a way of life, making adult coat changes easier than if they hadn’t been coated so young. It’s a system that has and continues to work well for us!