Mucking out

Although the sheep have access to our pastures nearly the entire year, during the nastier months, they are also allowed access to some shelter. Giving them shelter means not only providing the roof over their heads, but also bedding to keep them warm, dry and comfortable. In order for that bedding to continue to keep them dry and comfortable, we must either muck it out when it gets soggy or layer more dry bedding on top – and depending on the time of year and our position in the production cycle, we decide which of these options will best clean things up. It may seem a simple decision, but many things go into the option we choose.

In the early years of our flock, we cleaned the shelters way too often. A good pack of bedding actually provides heat as the lowest layers become wet and begin to decompose. Layering more bedding on top of the old allows the ewes to lay on dry straw while that bottom layer generates some warmth for the shelter. The problem is that we can only layer so much before the feeders seem to sink into the bedding and my head begins to skim the roof rafters. It also affects the doors through which I move to feed each day; they begin to stick on the raised level of bedding and eventually get stuck in the open position, letting the sheep into areas where they shouldn’t be. All in all, there is a limit as to how long you can continue to layer bedding. The solution is to muck it all out and begin again – but the timing of this clean-out needs some careful thought.


Ewes eat hay and Christmas trees while waiting to return to their clean shelter.

There are certain times of year when we want to avoid cleaning out all of the bedding in the barn. We typically avoid the time just prior to shearing and also the weeks of lambing (or when very young lambs are present). I know that it seems like these are times when you would want a clean barn, but actually they are the worst times to clean out—for very different reasons. During shearing, we’re trying to harvest the fiber from an entire group of sheep. If we clean out and put down fresh bedding just before the shearer comes, that bedding is dry enough that the straw will cling to the fleece of the sheep. If the sheep are coated, this only happens in the exposed areas, but once shearing begins, the dry hay often migrates from the belly onto the areas of better fleece, contaminating the wool. The better option is to clean out the barn some weeks before shearing, allowing the bedding to pack down before the shearer comes. This way, we can avoid the contamination of good wool with fresh straw.

The other time we avoid cleaning out is when there are very young lambs present. The sheep are in the shelters because it is cold outside. To clean out, we need to move them outside for an extended period (see the photo of our ewes out in the East Pasture today while we clean out in preparation for shearing at the end of this month). Pushing very young lambs outside into the cold is risky business. For this reason, we clean out once several weeks before shearing and then again in the few weeks between shearing and the birth of our first lambs. After that last cleaning, we layer bedding deeper and deeper for weeks while our lambs are born and gain in size, and we finally clean it all out again once the weather breaks in the spring and the lambs are a bit bigger. As soon as we get a relatively warm day, we let all the ewes and their babes out into a nearby field and clean out the entire lambing barn. Before that, we simply spot clean and layer up the bedding pack.

So today is cleaning day for the lean-to of the storage barn where the lower nutrition group currently resides. We put the ewes out into the pasture this morning with a couple of bales of hay and will bring them back after the barn is cleaned – most likely after about three or four hours of heavy work. You can tell from the photo that the girls are not unhappy to be out – they are wearing heavy coats that insulate against the cold and have fresh feed to work on while they wait. I guess it’s a lot like us waiting at the car dealership for our oil change to be finished: if they provide good snacks and a warm, comfortable place to wait, we have few complaints!