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

The human headgate

Like any other endeavor, shepherding has its own share of equipment, some things that are fairly necessary and others that can often be worked around — and which category any one item falls into is often dependent upon the shepherd. One tool that many shepherds find useful is something called the headgate. This is a contraption that essentially holds a ewe with her head between two posts; she cannot move forward because her shoulders are too wide, and she cannot move backwards because her head is too big. When in the headgate (shown on the left), the ewe can stand up, lie down, and turn her head in either direction, but she can’t leave the area. We have never used one ourselves, but I’ve been told that they are particularly helpful when a ewe refuses to acknowledge or feed one or more of her lambs. Once stuck in the head gate, she cannot head-butt her lamb and cannot squirm away in an attempt to keep it from nursing. They quickly get used to their situation and, within a few days, are often willing to nurse all of their lambs, which allows the ewe to be freed from the headgate.

The reason I’m explaining the use of the headgate is that I currently have three very small Romney ewe lambs (born last year) who are in the lambing barn because they need a higher level of nutrition if they are to grow well. They are not getting as much as the high-nutrition group, but by being in this barn, they get alfalfa hay (which is higher in protein, making for better growth) and also a bit of grain. The problem is that they are so small that they can fit into places that no one would expect a sheep to fit.

This problem becomes particularly difficult when it is time to feed grain to ewes in the high-nutrition group. I currently have seven ewes getting grain, and because they are housed in the same barn as the many bred girls who do not get a grain ration, they eat that grain out of buckets. Each ewe has her own bucket in a particular color. The buckets are labelled so that we know which bucket belongs to which ewe (although by now, I know them all without looking at the labels). Each ewe has gotten to know her bucket color and generally comes when I lift it high for her to see. Occasionally one of the ewes will try to get into a bucket that isn’t hers, but since that has not worked for her before — and I won’t let her into it when she tries — she soon realizes that the forbidden grain in the bucket is keeping her from the alfalfa hay that her flockmates are devouring. She moves on and leaves the bucket to the proper ewe.

The problem is that these little Romneys are small enough — and their heads are pointed enough — that they can wedge their little heads into the bucket next to the adult ewe who belongs there. I know from experience that if any of the non-grain ewes happen to successfully get a mouthful while I’m not looking, they will repeatedly come back for more, making both my life and the life of the grain-fed ewe miserable. The key is to prevent them from ever getting that first bite. But these little Romneys (Quella, Quebec, and Qloe) are really good at this game, and I’ve been unable to keep them out.

The worst of the three is Quebec. After these many weeks, I’ve finally convinced Qloe that she will get her own bucket, so she now eats at the hay until I call her with her bucket raised. Quella is not nearly so polite and can at times be a bit of a pain, scooting under the ewe who’s eating and then sliding beneath her and into the bucket — or diving in right alongside the ewe while I am chasing another ewe off. Yes, Quella can be a problem, but the issues I have with her are fairly normal and are finally showing improvement. I think her behavior was so bad because she had been led by her friend Quebec, last year’s daughter of McKinley. And Quebec is making me crazy!

She is crazed over the grain, and she doesn’t care who knows it. She will leap onto a ewe’s back and slide down her neck to get to the bucket. She will wedge her little head into the bucket next to even the largest ewes. (Both Gabby and Heavenly are getting buckets this year, and she has been in the bucket with both of these big girls!) She pushes and shoves, climbs and jumps. There is no effort that is too much, as long as she has the possibility of getting a bite of some other ewe’s grain.

For a while, I thought that if I offered her grain before the others, she would happily eat and then go away. But no — she is in it all the way. She wants the grain from all of the buckets for herself, and for her own health, I cannot let that happen!

The human head gate in action: Qloe to the left and Quebec in the make-shift head gate between my legs.

So after weeks of pushing her away, flapping my loose glove in her face (as an annoyance), holding her back, distracting her, and using every other trick I know, I have finally found a way to control her: the human headgate. When she begins to make a nuisance of herself, I simply trap her head between my legs. Like in a purchased headgate, she cannot go forward and she cannot go back; she must stand or lie there, watching the other ewe eat. In the photo on the right, you will notice Qloe (usually the last to eat her grain) eating from her blue bucket. If you look closely, you will also notice Quebec’s little pointy head (to the right of Qloe) sticking out between my legs. Quebec is trapped in this position until bucket feeding ends to avoid her problematic behavior!

I will admit that this is the culmination of weeks of trouble with Quebec, but it sure does seem to work! Most years, it takes me only a  week or two before bucket feeding is a calm and peaceful time, with each ewe knowing her bucket color and coming when it is her time. This year it has taken me four weeks of struggle and chaos with stubborn Quebec, but finally bucket feeding is settling down. I keep telling Quebec that I will release her if she will just go, eat hay, and leave us alone — but so far, that is asking just a bit too much!

A rough start to lambing

As in everyone’s life, we shepherds have experiences that don’t go the way we hope. Maybe a lamb gets pneumonia and dies, or a ewe has a particularly difficult labor. Attentive shepherds will look back over what happened, trying to glean what went wrong and how we could have achieved a better outcome. We know that if it happened once, it could happen again, and we want to be prepared. Even eighteen years into my shepherding life, I’m still learning, still trying to figure out why things went wrong and how I can prevent that particular disaster in the future.

Our first lambs were scheduled to come this week, and judging by the ewes we locked into the drop pen (where they are meant to drop their lambs), I was pretty sure Molly was going to deliver the first lambs of 2018. She was huge, and her bag was full of colostrum just waiting for little lambs to suckle. Based on her breeding markings, Molly’s due date was officially February 15th, but I was fairly certain she wouldn’t wait that long. When I went out to feed the flock on Monday morning (the 12th), I was not surprised to see her shunning all feed and standing in a corner with her head down, shifting her weight from one rear leg to the other to relieve her discomfort. These were all good signs of labor beginning.

By late afternoon, it was really obvious that Molly was in labor — and I was getting excited. She has given me a number of really lovely ram lambs in recent years, but I’ve been waiting for the right ewe lamb(s) from her, and statistics were on my side this year. After many boys, it was really time for some girls! I went in to dinner and kept checking her on the barn camera.

By bedtime, I wasn’t sure what was happening with Molly. Her labor was taking a long time, but it did seem like it was progressing, albeit slowly. She was now keeping the other ewes on the opposite side of the drop pen, and she was alternately digging a nest for delivery and wandering around, trying to find the exact right spot. Occasionally she would lie down to push, and this seemed to become more frequent with time. I was encouraged that perhaps I might see lambs from her sometime during the night. I went to bed early, expecting a long night, and set my alarm for 12:30 a.m.

When the alarm went off, I went outside to actually see what was happening. The camera system is great, but in cases where things are not progressing as expected, there is nothing like getting eyes on my subject. Once in the barn, I could see that her water had not yet broken (so the lambs were still safely tucked in the uterus), but she was pushing more and more often. This concerned me, but since the amniotic bags were still intact, I went back in for some more sleep and returned at 3:30 a.m.

This next visit started alarm bells for me. This was taking too long — way too long — and still there was no water bag or evidence of lambs. I put on an OB glove and lubed up to find out what was what. She was getting a bit swollen at the back end, but I soon found the cervix — barely open enough to get one fingertip inside. I couldn’t figure out why she was pushing so often. Usually a ewe only pushes once the lamb is in the birth canal. This felt all wrong — but again, since there was no fluid leaking and no signs of imminent trouble, I went back to bed.

When I arrived in the barn in the morning, I knew it was not good. Molly had continued pushing on and off through the night and was very swollen. I tried another internal exam but her tissues were so very distended it was hard to get my bearings to find the cervix. When I did find what I thought was the cervix, I could only get two fingers into the opening. I called the vet and got permission to give her two drugs: one to reduce the inflammation and the other to help soften the cervix. I used manual massage to try to open things up, but also asked if the vet could come to help. I didn’t want to do more harm than good, and as the swelling was constantly increasing, I didn’t know how long I could continue without losing my bearings.

The vet arrived within half an hour and took over. By that point, he could get four fingers into the cervix, so we were making progress. Molly was so very swollen that it was hard for me to even look at her back end. The vet finished the dilation and began to try to deliver the lambs. The first lamb was upside down with its head turned back, and after much effort, he was able to deliver this lamb — but it did not survive. It was a beautiful moorit ewe weighing 13 pounds. The sibling had a better chance, but it had also been through quite an ordeal. This lamb did not survive either — another beautiful moorit ewe, weighing 11.4 pounds.

Our focus then turned to Molly, who had survived quite a trauma by this point. She looked really bad, lying there in the straw. Her own blood from the delivery was mixed with the contents of the gallon bottle of lubricant that the vet had brought, so it looked even more horrible. When he finished, she was not willing to get up. She licked her dead lambs for a few minutes and then adjusted herself so they lay behind her. She knew they were dead. She lowered her head to the straw and looked like she was giving up.

We cleaned things up and moved Molly to a jug where she’d have hay and water within easy reach — and no other ewes to give her a hard time. Instead of the joyous celebration that typically accompanies the first lambs, our house and barn are in mourning — and hoping that the losses are behind us and that Molly recovers. Only time will tell, but there have been a couple of good signs. She is eating and drinking, and she is now getting up and down. She has a long road to recovery, but I am patient. What could have been a total loss of mother and two lambs may be limited to only the lambs. Yet I know that this one will haunt me. I know I’ll be turning it over in my mind for weeks to come. For each delivery through this lambing season, I’ll remember Molly’s difficult birth and worry about the next laboring ewe in front of me, even as I celebrate each small milestone of her labor. The line between life and death this time of year is a very fine one, and it takes so little to lose so much.

My wonderful Romneys

Early in December of 2017, Rick and I bought a home in Hillsville, Virginia, in hopes of retiring there later this year. At the time, the decision was rather impulsive; we had decided to retire “someday” nearer to our children who live in North Carolina and Florida, but we had been browsing the real estate market for quite some time without actually buying anything. When we made the offer on the house in Hillsville, we had no reason to believe that it would go any further than the offers we had put in on many previous homes — but this one was different. In the end, we bought this one, and that fact nudged us into actually thinking about what our retirement would look like and when it might occur. We’ve been working to figure it out ever since, with fairly firm plans now in place. We’ll be moving this summer.

There are many parts to this relocation, since we are moving not only ourselves and our three working dogs, but also the llamas, at least some of the sheep, and a couple of barn cats. There is work to be done on the new home before we move in, fencing to erect, and a barn to build, and we’ve been working hard to get all of that put together in time for our relocation. Although I’m not planning to retire from shepherding, we decided that we’ll need to reduce the size of the flock by about half — both for transport and to reduce the workload once we arrive. Shepherding is hard enough, and neither Rick nor I are getting any younger. If done right, fewer sheep will mean less work, and that sounds like a good step towards semi-retirement.

I will admit that I’ve struggled with this decision to reduce the flock. The sheep are not only my work and my income, but over the years, many have become my close friends. We’ve birthed lambs together and survived crises. We’ve lost good friends and welcomed new ones. Shepherding is a way of life for me, and it wouldn’t be possible without my ovine friends. Yet I understand the importance of cutting back, and I’ve tried to balance two different aspects: reduce the flock to create the least work for us in our semi-retirement, yet keep enough sheep to supply our fleece and lamb markets and to continue my work in sheep color genetics.

Princess’s fleece this year is only one example of a stunning Romney fleece with both high luster and beautiful crimp.

After a bit of thought, I realized that cutting each breed’s numbers in half was not the answer. Reducing in this way would still mean keeping the same number of rams and running the same number of breeding groups each fall. Yet it would leave us with few breeding lambs for sale each spring, since we only sell a small percentage of our lambs as breeders. Cutting each breed in half results in too-small numbers for much of anything. Even my work in color genetics would be severely impaired due to the low numbers that I’d have available for testing my ideas.

No, the better option is to sell off one of our two breeds and keep the other. This will allow our small business to continue in that remaining breed — lambs, fleece, and research into sheep color genetics. The next decision is which breed would stay and which will go. I purposely approached this decision without thinking about specific sheep; the generalities make the decision easier, while the specifics make it nearly impossible.

In the end we made the decision to sell off our Romney flock and to move the Romeldales to Virginia. Although this was not an easy decision, it’s the right one for us. I have about thirty Romneys in our current flock, plus the breeding lambs they now carry (and will begin to arrive starting this week!). They are a combination of white color carriers and colored sheep of various patterns. All will be sold off over the coming months, except for one or two who I know won’t sell — either because of age or genetics — and will therefore move with the Romeldale flock to Virginia. Because I want to continue my work with color genetics in the Romneys, I will maintain my membership in the American Romney Breeders Association and my work on their associated Science Panel, at least for the time being.

Romney Kali often comes for a face scratch or a short conversation as I do my chores. Here, we share a secret in 2013.

This decision was not an easy one. There is nothing lovelier than a contaminant-free high-luster Romney fleece that opens into finger-sized staples as it is rolled for sale. There is no sheep mellower than the stoic Romney, many of whom will stand calmly as I change their coats without having to hold them in place. I love the breed, and I love the individual Romneys in my flock. My decision was based on many factors and considerations, and it was only possible because I know that my Romneys will all go to good homes where they will be appreciated for what they have to offer. Thankfully, we have enough of a reputation for quality breeding that I needn’t be concerned for their futures.

I’ve begun a waiting list for people looking to buy our Romney sheep. This posting is the first public announcement of our decision, so I expect that list to grow. This year’s skirting has been bittersweet as I prepare our Romney fleeces for sale — they are the loveliest ever, and this will be the last shearing at our farm for nearly all of these ewes. This lambing, too, will be a combination of both excitement in seeing the exceptional lambs our Romney flock produces, and sadness in knowing that they will be good productive sheep elsewhere — not here, and not for us. I will end by saying this: I love my Romneys, and I hope that some of you will too!

I will be releasing our fleeces for sale next week (February 19-23) and will post the date/time at the end of a future blog. Please keep an eye on the red statements at the end of the Wednesday and Friday entries. Thank you!



Fleece, fleece sheets and our working dogs

Each of the fleeces that we shear in our Sheep Barn must be brought into the house for skirting, and we do this by bundling each into an old bed sheet. By keeping each separate in this way, I can identify the sheep that it came from (we staple an identification card to the corner of each sheet listing the sheep name and number, the breed and color) and eventually record the information about the fleece on that sheep’s records.

Immediately following shearing, we bring all of the bundles in and stack them around our dining room by breed and color for easier skirting, since I go in order by breed, and within that breed, by color. As each fleece comes to my attention and I flip it out onto the table, I drop the bed sheet that once held the fleece over the side of the barrier (an X-pen for dogs) that keeps our three working dogs away from the wool. Eventually, when I have a full laundry load of sheets, I collect the pile and run the load – until then, they lie there stacked up, awaiting more sheets.

I know that for our dogs, there is nothing so enticing as the scent and taste of wool – in any form. In the early years of our flock, I didn’t block off our dining room during skirting, and our dogs would sneak in and ‘steal’ entire bundles of wool, dragging them off to various hiding places around our house. Even after I began blocking off my skirting area, I noticed them trying to sneak bits of wool through the barrier, digging at the small bits that littered the dining room floor.

Several years ago, I accidentally left the door to my office open, and Chance found his way in. I went looking for him after noticing him missing, and found him in my office, happily having a one-dog party. He had burrowed deep into the big bag of dark chocolate Romeldale combed top, tearing off pieces and throwing them high into the air. The entire room looked like the once beautiful bag of combed top had exploded, dropping bits of dark brown wool everywhere: they were scattered over the desk and table, gathered up in the corners, and even hanging from the ceiling fan! Obviously, Chance has very good taste in wool, since this is one of the most difficult colors for us to produce (the other is deep cinnamon brown) and the most expensive fiber product we sell!

All of our dogs are now getting on in years to the point that even the youngest (Chance) is an old guy at nine years of age. Unlike earlier years, they have now lost most of that pent up energy and spend most evenings lying around and dozing: Lisa and Chance on any one of our oriental rugs, and Coda on his orthopedic mattress. As our main working dog, Coda has serious issues with arthritis and has obviously decided that the mattress gives him more mobility when he gets up.

Coda shifted closer to me as I took the photo, but Lisa, seeing no reason to move, remained with her head near the wonderful aroma of the fleece sheets.

The other evening as I went to get myself a beverage, I noticed that Coda was not on his mattress as usual, so I went to find where he had gone. I didn’t have to look far – and I should have known. Both Lisa and Coda were lying on the several fleece sheets that I had dropped on the floor headed for the laundry. I’m sure that Chance would have been there, too, had Lisa let him, but because of their on-going feud, he lay in the laundry room where I had a small pile of towels from the barn.

Yes, there is no better place to rest when you are a working Border Collie than the heavily sheep-scented pile of sheets or towels – surrounded by such great smells, I suppose their dreams are filled with misbehaving sheep and very strict Border Collies – and probably lots of snuggles from the shepherdess afterwards for a job well done!

Continuing skirting

I’ve been really focusing on skirting our recently sheared fleeces. With fifty-three fleeces to skirt, there is plenty of work to do, and I really want to reclaim my dining room! On the first day after shearing, we loaded all of the fleece bundles along the four walls of the room: white Romeldale to the east, colored Romeldale to the north along the sliding door, white Romney to the south, and colored Romney along the west wall under the window. Ever since then, I’ve been working to clear the walls, one at a time. As of today, I’m finally on the west and last wall, skirting colored Romney fleeces – and they are beautiful!

One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve skirted is that this year is a greasier one than usual. There is no way to know why this might be, but it is obvious as I handle each fleece – there is a lot more grease in them this year. I have yet to find a disappointing fleece. Some of the older ewes’ fleeces are showing their age with reduced crimp, but I’ve expected that – and honestly, most of them are better than I expected.

So far, I’ve had only one lamb whose fleece impacted by that terrible weekend last summer when I was out of town and our farm sitter “forgot” to feed our sheep for three days. All of the Romeldale lambs came through the experience well enough, producing beautiful, strong fiber in their fleeces. So far, I’ve only skirted one Romney fleece – that of Qianti, the daughter of Kabernet. Qianti’s fleece is a beautiful multi-shade silvery/gray fleece with incredible crimp, but if I look closely, I can see a disruption in the crimp about halfway down the staple. If I pull at the staples to test for strength, I feel a bit of crackling – it doesn’t break, but the crackle tells me that there is weakness within the staple. Every time I pass her fleece (currently sitting on the counter), I feel sadness, both for her in her terrible experience, and for her beautiful fleece that is so stunning-yet-slightly-weak. It is a good example, however, of the fact that no matter how careful we are about the care of our sheep, things can happen. We never know how any one fleece will turn out until after we shear it – things can happen at any time to reduce its quality.

I am off to continue skirting, but I leave you with a few pictures of Romeldale fleeces I’ve finished – just a tease as to what is to come!

Qashel’s fleece is quite stunning with lovely crimp – and the color of the cut side is a bit of a surprise after seeing the much paler other side in the previous blog!

Quiana is the daughter of Ilaina, who was sold to another flock last summer. Quiana’s fleece did not disappoint with its soft gray coloring and much lighter tips

Qai’s fleece is one of my favorites with its bright white and contrasting deep gray areas

Gabby is our oldest Romeldale, but her fleece shows little evidence of her age – it is still quite stunning!

Shearing and skirting

We sheared our ewes on Saturday, January 27th, and I’ve been working on skirting and preparing the Winter Shearing fleeces ever since. With fifty-three fleeces to skirt, this will take some time. Skirting, evaluating, and photographing the fleeces is the final step in our year-long production of top-quality wool, and I honestly would have trouble turning this part of the process over to anyone else. Not only do I maintain total control over the quality of our product, but I also learn a lot about the health and well-being of the flock itself. In the same way that our hair can reflect our level of nutrition, our health and/or illnesses, and our daily habits (environmental damage, etc.), the wool that we harvest from our sheep can tell me a lot about the needs of our sheep. This last step is critical in so many ways!

My skirting work actually begins on the shearing floor, where I minimize contamination of the fleece by the very messy top of head and back of neck and by second cuts (when the shearer cuts the fiber too far from the skin of the sheep and goes back for a closer cut; these short pieces then fall into the sheared fleece). When the shearer finally frees the fleece from the sheep, I know it will make my skirting work indoors easier if I carefully gather the fleece into my arms without twisting or folding it. I simply “scrunch” it together and gently carry it to the bed sheet already spread out and labelled with the sheep’s name, number, breed and color. I get the best results indoors if I carefully toss the fleece onto the sheet, allowing it to naturally open and spread a bit before bundling. We then gather the corners of the sheet to bundle the fleece, load it into the truck and, eventually, bring it into the dining room for skirting.

I usually skirt our fleeces in the same order that we sheared them, once again trying to avoid contamination  from one fleece to the next. I begin with white Romeldale, and then move on to the colored Romeldale — in approximate order of depth of color — ending with the darkest charcoal or black. In this way, the colored wool does not contaminate the white. I clean all of my work area thoroughly before switching to the Romneys, which I again skirt in the same color order.

If I’ve done my job correctly during shearing, the fleece will lie cut-side up when the bundle is opened on the dining room table. I remove any second-cuts and contaminants that might have been missed earlier, and then with a flick of the wrist, I flip the fleece onto the table, releasing it from its bundle. A good shearer like ours will remove the fleece in one piece, so my first project is to spread the fleece out with the neck on one end of the table and the dock at the other. Generally, the wool from the belly, poll (top of the head), and back of the neck has been removed in the barn. This wool is usually heavily contaminated with bits of hay and even kernels of corn. Failing to remove these sections will scatter all of those contaminants throughout the fleece, so I will usually pull off the belly, poll, and neck fleece as the shearer frees them. The wool on the neck is often some of the nicest on the sheep, however, so if I want to keep it for processing into combed top (which removes these contaminants), I shove the beautiful neck wool into a pillow case and include that in the bundle. In this way, the wool can be weighed and credited to the ewe (and prepared for sale as combed top) without it contaminating the rest of the raw fleece.

Once I’ve spread out the fleece on the dining room table, you can easily visualize the sheep that carried it. This is Qashel’s fleece just after I spread it out. The top-of-head and back-of-neck wool  (at the left side of the fleece) were removed in the barn during shearing.

Once the fleece is spread out on the table, I can begin skirting in earnest. First I remove all wool that is too short for use — less than 2.5″ for Romeldales, and under 3″ for Romney. What is left is all usable fleece, so I go back around, separating any wool that is dirty or weathered. This removed wool is set aside for processing into roving (Romney) or combed top (Romeldale) for our processed fiber customers. I pull samples of fleece from a minimum of five different areas to photograph against a ruler (to show our customers the variation within the fleece) and then test for strength. If there is a weakness in the fleece, I identify whether that weakness is in a well-defined area (and if it is, I simply skirt this section off), or if it is found across the entire fleece. Even with the best of care, we will occasionally end up with one or more fleeces that are weak due to environmental factors. This year, for example, I expected to find problems in our yearling and lamb fleeces due to the disaster weekend last summer when we were out of town and our flock-sitter forgot to come and feed our sheep. Thankfully I’ve so far found only one fleece that was partially weakened, and I simply removed that section since the rest of the fleece was strong.

Our ultimate goal in producing wool is to end up with fleeces that are so uniform in length, crimp, and handle that it is difficult (if not impossible) to determine which end is the front and which the back. The wool should be the same everywhere! Not all of our fleeces achieve this goal, but we are working in that direction. Although our fleeces this year are a bit greasier than usual (no idea why, since most of the ewes have produced for us before and were less greasy in previous years), they are also the nicest we’ve had. I think they’re absolutely stunning! I know our customers are going to be thrilled with what we have to offer — when I am finally finished skirting and ready to sell! That is still at least a week away, but I’m working at it. Stay tuned for a better estimate early next week.

Culling for mastitis

I got an email the other day from a friend who was debating what to do with a lovely ewe with mastitis. In part, the email read:

Can we talk mastitis? As [someone experienced with sheep] I know what my answer is, but let’s say you have a nice two year old ewe who has some color genetics you want and otherwise is pretty awesome. Good momma, highly sought after fleece, friendly, etc. who, of course has gotten mastitis in one half of her bag shortly after giving birth. She was off feed and sick but was treated and bounced back quickly. She has two lambs on her, and we are supplementing the one (who has also found out how to sneak drinks off everyone else!). Do you breed her again next year? Pretty much I need you to tell me what I already know. Thank you.

Whenever we face these difficult decisions, it’s always easier to think straight after a discussion with friends — and that is what the author of the email hoped for. Yet my answer may have surprised her. In part, I wrote:

Well, I’ve gone in both directions on this, so I’ll try to explain how I look at it and why. I’m just not a cut-and-dried type of girl, I guess.
I had a gal who gave me a pair of stunning Romney ram lambs some years ago. She was young but lost literally half of her bag to mastitis after delivering her boys. She was a really great ewe but was, I realized,  unrelated to most of my flock — and genetically, I had gotten the traits I wanted in her boys. Their sire, too, was a ram I used only that one year — and besides the ram lambs, I had kept only one daughter. I knew that keeping this half-bagged ewe would mean future bottle lambs and possible ewe lambs who would be related to these ram lambs (one of which I had decided to keep for breeding). When a woman came along looking for a fiber sheep, I moved the half-bagged ewe out, and in hindsight, I am happy with that decision.
On the other hand, I currently have a lovely Romeldale ewe who has only half a bag. She is old (born in 2007), and she lost her one side in 2014. Although I have one daughter, she does not have all of the genetics I hope to get. The daughter I’ve kept is okay, but not exactly what I could possibly get from the ewe if I am patient. I’m willing to deal with the expense and labor of bottle-feeding in hopes that I might yet get the lamb I so want from her. She is carrying twins again this year, so we’ll see.
So, I might not be a good one to ask. It becomes, to me, a question of the benefits and cost: if the benefits can or will outweigh the costs, then I invest. If not, then I move on. I reassess every year, since over time, how strong the returns vs. how high the cost can change.
She then replied that her reason for being hesitant to keep the ewe is that she had a similar situation in the past and had retained the ewe in her flock. She explained:
I knew she was sick and I had [tried everything] to get her better. One night I was sitting in her stall and she literally came over and laid down beside me, put her head in my lap and died. Of course, I was devastated and felt it was my fault since I bred her again. Since then, I have learned a lot but I swore I would never do that again. Most sheep don’t die from mastitis but mine did. 
After eighteen years of shepherding, I knew just how she felt. I’ve struggled with this type of decision before and know I will again, so I told her:
Here’s another bit that might give you a different perspective. It is an understanding that has evolved over time and has really gelled for me in the past five years or so.
It is my belief that most adult ewes love having lambs. Once they have had the experience, the drive to disperse their genes into the next generation is incredibly strong, and generally they take very good care of their lambs (although I do select for this trait, so it should not be a surprise that this is so in my flock). I’ve tried over the years to keep my retired ewes out of my breeding groups and have found that they seem to resent what they are missing and rebel against my decision. They seem particularly unhappy during both breeding and lambing, making it obvious that they want to join the ewes in breeding groups and eventually in the lambing barn. (I’ve actually had ewes stop eating until I put them into a group, even though they were in a small group of wethers and lambs for company.) I’m now of the opinion that ewes are happiest when they participate in normal flock activities including breeding and lambing, regardless of age (once they’ve lambed at least one time). 
I do everything in my power to ensure their pregnancies are successful, but if they die in the process, they’ll have died as they lived: doing the things that sheep do, and being a full part of the flock for their entire lives here. I’ve come to the point that I know life and death come together, and a high quality life for them is more important to me than the longest life possible. I prefer both, but if someone were to ask me, I’d very much prefer to go out of this life doing what I love. So in my flock,  that’s what I offer my sheep. The one thing I know is that they are as happy as I can make them — and my heart will have to deal with being occasionally chipped or broken. This is the life of a shepherd… and I am at peace with it. Not always happy, but at peace.

Benevolent rams

Sheep temperament is hereditary. That is not to say you will always get a sweet offspring from two sweet and gentle parents, but the parentage certainly doesn’t hurt! And like most traits that have a hereditary component, the more strongly you select for a trait among your flock members, the more likely you are to get what you’re selecting for — in this case, sweet lambs that grow up to be well-behaved and respectful adult sheep.

Yet like people, sheep come in many “flavors.” Some are friendly and gregarious while others are stand-offish and shy; some are curious and into everything while others mellow and stoic. We track many qualities in our lambs, and probably one of the most important is how they interact with the world. I know from experience that certain lamb behaviors tend to lead to specific undesirable behaviors in adults. All lambs are cute, so I know I must harden my heart a bit if I expect to have a well-behaved flock. In the end, I cannot keep a lamb simply because it’s “cute” — it must also be, physically and mentally, a good fit for our flock.

Once our lambs arrive, I pay particular attention to the rams, because honestly, the wrong ram can be dangerous. They generally grow to be quite a bit bigger than the ewes, and a threatening ram is an entirely different situation than a somewhat wild ewe. It is actually kind of cute to see a very young ram back up and lower his head when someone reaches out to touch him. “What a tough little guy,” people often say. Yet that behavior will lead to issues in an adult. When a 300-pound ram lowers his head, paws the ground, and readies himself to run at you, it’s no longer cute — it’s dangerous!

Pine (shown in August 2017) is much bigger now — and quite shy!

That potential for aggression motivates my initial decisions regarding which ram lambs to keep. I look for boys who don’t immediately lower their heads and step back as I approach. A ram lamb who is curious and brave enough to face what comes without fear and aggression is one I want to watch, since if he meets my other criteria, he is quite likely to find a place in our breeding flock.

I also watch how they interact with each other and the world as they mature. We generally don’t interact with our young rams more than we have to, because familiarity with humans tends to make them less respectful and more aggressively playful. I am not a ram plaything, and for safety’s sake, I don’t ever want them to get that impression. I gravitate towards rams who are just a bit shy, like Pine or Martin (now sold and breeding at another farm). They see me as part of their environment, but because they also view me as a somewhat unknown entity, they prefer to give me a bit of space. When I enter their area, they watch my movements from a slight distance, feeling more comfortable if they have a way of escape if required. Honestly, I feel the same way! I, too, like to have that bit of space for reaction time. These shyer rams give the space we need to feel comfortable.

Parker (August 2017) is one of our more playful moorit rams.

Sterling (August 2017) is another of our extroverted moorit brown rams — but he is happy to stand back and away from me as I work.

In the Romeldales, I find that the brown or moorit sheep (like Parker or Sterling) tend to be a bit more ‘extroverted’ than the black-based portion of the flock. It’s hard to find the correct word to describe this behavior. I debated about aggressive (too strong), feral (too wild), and curious (too weak), and finally decided on extroverted. These sheep are curious (looking for treats in my pockets, for example), intelligent (watching me to learn how to open our gate latches and carabiners), and playful (stealing my tools and taking off with my gloves, hoping for a game of tag!). They can be a pain, but they’re also very entertaining. Yet this streak must be carefully monitored in ram lambs since it can lead to a problematic adult who plays too roughly without meaning to do harm. Their lack of intent is meaningless if I end up in the hospital!

Each of our rams is an individual who interacts in his own way with me and with the world around him. Each has been determined to be “safe” based on his behavior and history since birth — but it is an ongoing assessment. If something changes and I begin to feel afraid, the future of that particular ram makes a major shift towards leaving our flock. There are enough well-behaved rams in our flock, just waiting to do their work. And since my flock depends on me staying safe and healthy, only well-behaved rams will be allowed to stay.


Shearing 2018

My shearer called in the middle of last week to let us know that he was coming on Saturday, January 27th. My immediate reaction was relief, since I no longer had to worry about the many things that can go wrong when shearing is delayed until after lambing. That relief was quickly replaced by a rush of panic. There was so much to prepare! And I had no idea what the weather might bring.

Peeper Hollow Farm ewes await shearing while locked in our barn overnight on Friday to ensure dry fleeces for shearing Saturday morning.

The next few were a blur: volunteers recruited, food prepared, paperwork updated for immunizations, preps for fleece samples and fleece weights, coats washed and mended, and the ewes locked in the night before. Although there were some last-minute glitches (like illness causing our shearer to proceed very slowly since he was still on the mend, and four of our eleven helpers having to cancel at the last minute), the Winter Shearing of 2018 came and went fairly smoothly, all things considered. Fifty-three ewes were sheared on Saturday, and their fleece bundles now line the walls of my dining room, waiting to be skirted and prepared for sale.

I was able to take a short break as my good friend Melissa worked the shearing floor for me (removing second cuts and keeping the fleece uncontaminated by hay and straw) as the shearer worked.

This was the last of our big ewe shearings in Iowa, and as such, it was bittersweet. I made a lot of quick observations as the day passed, and I will leave you with some of them, accompanied by some of the photos taken throughout the day. Enjoy!

— The weather was perfect on Saturday: sunny and cool but not too cold. Many of us took off our jackets mid-morning and worked in shirtsleeves until late afternoon. The wind from the day before helped ensure our fleeces were dry!

— It’s much easier to keep up with one shearer than two. With his family still weak from the flu, our shearer worked solo this year, and that allowed us to work with a much smaller crew in the barn.

— Our helpers are among the best — every year! They include a combination of shepherds, fiber artists, and people who have an interest in sheep and what we do. They come from near and far (this year, our farthest came from 150 miles away!) to help us harvest the wool and to participate in this amazing process. And we couldn’t do it without them. We will miss them, and we really appreciate their help!

Since we move through the flock by breed and color (white first, then colored; Romeldale first, then Romney), January’s fleece is the first sheared and the first skirted (on the table).

— For the sixth year, Romeldale January (born 2010) stood at the gate to volunteer for shearing as our shearer set up. Interestingly, her granddaughter Qash (born 2017) stood there to watch January’s shearing — but after a bit, she decided shearing was not for her and headed to the back of the barn. Our helpers were able to gently convince her that it wasn’t so bad — and when she rejoined the flock freshly sheared, she jumped for joy in spite of the single lamb she carries!

— This year’s fleeces look to be among our best! Whether from constantly improving genetics as we fold our young lambs into the flock or whether from a combination of management improvements and weather — or from all of these — they are stunningly beautiful!

Our youngest helpers made sure the random bits of wool got picked up and cleared away. They were a huge help!

Our shearer catches his breath during a short break on the shearing floor (with Romney Kali).

Skirting will begin today, and will likely continue for a couple of weeks, but I will keep you posted! I cannot wait to open the bundles and get  to work!


A ram leadership transition

On Wednesday, I described how Romney ram ObiWan had taken over as leader of our ram flock last fall after breeding. After I picked up two new Romney rams — Cary and Sangria — for a winter layover on their way to the West Coast, I gave them a quarantine period and then put all of our rams into a squeeze pen in the Storage Barn to work out any issues, determine leadership, and integrate the flock. The two new rams made a concerted effort to unseat ObiWan as leader of the ram flock, and the pounding continued late into the night.

When I went about my chores the next morning, the dynamics in the squeeze pen had dramatically changed. ObiWan rested in a corner, head facing the wall, defeated and looking at no one. Cary and Sangria had assumed joint leadership of the ram flock and mingled with the other rams. Cary, the younger of the two, was the lead ram, but old-man Sangria acted as his “muscle,” stepping in to help Cary if needed. When I opened the stall doors to allow all the rams back into the ram paddock, no longer did ObiWan strut in the lead, nor did he raise his head to look for me. He walked with head lowered, looking at the ground, careful not to get in the way of the two new Romneys.

It has now been a couple of months since this leadership transition, and although I think I understand what has happened, it still surprises me. ObiWan had earned his leadership after breeding season, but he wasn’t leadership material. He seemed to have little confidence in his ability to do the job, so he was continually looking for situations in which to prove himself — picking fights with other rams over small slights, and looking to do the same with me. He ended up winning a position he really didn’t want, and his lack of confidence created daily misery that came out as anger. In hindsight, I think he was unhappy with the constant need to prove himself every day.

Cary and Sangria have no such issues. Now that Obi is simply part of the ram flock, he can relax — he no longer has anything to prove. Even more interesting, if he tussles with the other rams and then suddenly turns towards me, it takes only a single glance from Cary to bring ObiWan’s nose to the ground and his attention away from me. In the early days, this dropping of his attention was not so quick — and that’s why Cary and Sangria punished him. Cary has let all the rams know that the shepherdess is off-limits. None of the rams are allowed to lower their head in my direction — ever. If they do, both Cary and Sangria charge from separate directions. No ram can win such a lopsided battle, so the lesson has been well-learned and I am safe once again.

Even more interesting is the fact that ObiWan actually seems happier. I once offered him a bit of cracker when he was lead ram. He didn’t even sniff to find out what I offered, but instead backed away and lowered his head, shaking it from side to side and pawing at the ground in readiness for a run. Everything, including a cracker, was a threat; there was no safety for him. I remember immediately moving behind another sheep for protection, having learned my lesson: no treats for the rams! Yet under Cary and Sangria, this is a non-issue. I can come and go, offer treats or not, and none of the adult rams even considers acting aggressively. The leadership of the flock is everything when it comes to the rams, and a good leader sets the tone for the group, keeping a structure in place where all are safe and protected.

I will be sad to see Cary and Sangria leave in spring, and I’m hoping that when the time comes, Sterling, Pine or Noa will take their place. The Romeldales are a bit more active in their approach to the world than the Romneys, but these boys have a good healthy respect for humans. Having watched them grow up, I believe that any of the three would be a strong and benevolent leader — and hopefully keep me safe, as only they can do. But we won’t know how that will turn out for months yet. In the meantime, I’m happy to have Cary and Sangria here for the winter. After they leave, we’ll just have to see how it goes.