Shearing is a great opportunity to get a good, close look at each sheep. At no other time during the year do I spend so much time focusing on individual sheep. For the rest of the year, I typically have a whole flock milling around as I go about my business. Focusing on a single sheep in those circumstances is a challenge, unless I catch the individual to check on whatever concerns me. And even if caught, our sheep spend most of the year encased in wool, and those natural padded suits hide many possible issues. The wool is also covered with a coat to keep it clean and undamaged, and the coat, too, can hide a multitude of ills. Examining a specific sheep to really see what is happening is a rare privilege!
At shearing, each ewe comes through individually with coat removed, and eventually the wool is removed too. At the end of the process, she stands there for my critical assessment: Is she still physically fit? Is she over- or underweight? Is she still pregnant and looking to be due as scanned? Are there any skin issues under the now-removed wool that need attention before the fleece begins to grow back? Is this ewe in need of any special attention before once again becoming one of the many, lost in the flock as Mother Nature has intended?
This year the surprise was Harmony, a nine-year-old white Romney who has seemed fine at every barn check. Yet with coat and wool removed, Harmony was obviously thin — too thin. Among the unbred ewe group, she had been getting carefully rationed grass hay, and she obviously needed more. As our shearer finished with her, we took a closer look. My first instinct was that perhaps she had lost some teeth in the past year. When ewes lose some but not all of their front teeth, the grass and hay can slip through the toothless spaces and fall back into the bale. Sheep need those front teeth to bite off their feed, and when they have some of those teeth missing, it’s called a “broken mouth” and they have trouble keeping their weight up. They actually do much better with no teeth in front — called a “gummer” — since they can pull the hay or grass into their mouths with their gums and then chew them with their remaining molars.
Yet when we checked Harmony, she had all of her front teeth. Something else was wrong, so we l00ked further. As our shearer felt for her back teeth, he thought he felt gums where molars should have been — another possible issue! Although I know that sheep molars are like razor blades — they must chew down fibrous grass into mush for further digestion — I also knew that if we didn’t find out what Harmony’s issue was, we couldn’t really help her. While the shearer held her head tipped back and mouth open, I carefully stuck my index finger into the back of her mouth. I can say with certainty that not only does Harmony have her molars, but they are correctly aligned and very sharp — my index finger still has the slices, both top and bottom, that came from my “checking”!
Without any obvious issue to be found, we put Harmony into the bred ewe group getting a higher level of nutrition. In the days following shearing, I began to feed her a bit of grain from a bucket but found that after the first day or two, she refused it. This left me wondering whether she perhaps had one or more sore teeth that couldn’t crunch the hard kernels in the grain blend. I then bought a bag of “sheep feed” for show sheep — not sufficient as the sole source of nutrition but good as a supplement to our alfalfa hay. It is basically ground grain and alfalfa made into small pellets that dissolve with moisture. As soon as she realized that I had switched her bucket of grain to this bucket of sheep feed mixed with a little grain, Harmony was all too happy to polish off the contents of the bucket!
I’ve been steadily increasing her bucket ration for the past week and a half or so, and she seems to be doing well. Exactly what the problem was is still a mystery, but at least Harmony has the opportunity to gain a bit of weight and return to healthy condition — and at her age, I can’t ask for much more than that!