Summer and early fall are the slower times of the shepherding year. Once the lambs are weaned and out on pasture, the intense work of spring gives way to the slower-paced days of summer. By this time of the year, my typical chores include a daily walk through the pasture to check the health and well-being of each flock member and to monitor the height of their pasture forage. Every few days to two weeks, when the pasture becomes sufficiently grazed down, I open a gate and call all of the sheep in that field to new pasture. Because they are generally eager to have fresh grass, it usually doesn’t take more than a few minutes to move each group. And then I return to my daily welfare check and pasture monitoring until the next time I must move them. Although my winter work involves a lot of heavy lifting and physical strength, my summer and fall work is more about walking and enduring the heat of sunny eastern Iowa.
Because my workload is so limited, it’s much easier to find someone to take over my chores during the summer and fall months, allowing me to get away from the farm for a bit. And there are few places that can draw me away like a good sheep and wool festival. Most people would be surprised to learn how many of these festivals exist across the US — and how many of the visitors come from the general public. The best festivals include activities not only for shepherds but also for many others, broadening their base and making for a better show.
I will admit that I love a great sheep festival — and there are several that spring to mind as I write this. Probably my favorite is the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival in Jefferson, Wisconsin, in early September. Not only is this a huge show, drawing thousands of attendees, but there is something for everyone, making it a great place to network with other shepherds, llama breeders, guardian and/or herding dog breeders, and equipment suppliers, among others. It is one festival that I just won’t miss.
The Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival is in early May. Although this sheep festival is different from the one in Wisconsin, they are both large and each has its own appeal. I also very much enjoy visiting the Estes Park Wool Market in Estes Park, Colorado, and Black Sheep Gathering in Eugene, Oregon — both scheduled for late June each year. Finances and schedules dictate that I must choose between the Colorado, Oregon, and Maryland festivals, and since it has been a while since I’ve gone west, tomorrow I’m off to Black Sheep Gathering with my friend and fellow shepherdess, Melissa of Oak Creek Farm.
While Melissa and I are gone, our husbands will take over our chores — a huge blessing since they have been around sheep for long enough to likely identify whether something is really wrong. Leaving our flocks is much easier when we know that they’re in good hands — and the guys should do fine as stand-ins in our absence.
Melissa and I are both very much looking forward to seeing many of the breeders with whom we have had so much interaction online. The shepherding community is spread across the country, and it is at these festivals that we come together and discuss the many topics that impact what we do — from fiber production to lambing, from marketing to flock purchases. Getting other shepherds’ perspectives on these issues broadens our own approaches, making each of us more successful.
This trip is about more than networking, however. Melissa and I have set some big goals for our flocks in the coming year(s). We believe that our flocks include color genetics that have yet to be identified — by anyone. There seem to be dark color patterns — at least in the Romeldale/CVM — that have yet to be identified. Our goal this fall is to put together breeding groups to begin the process of identifying these patterns, to determine what we’re seeing and how to recognize it in a newborn lamb. Honestly, it is a big and lofty goal that feels a bit intimidating, even to me. I have done this work before, but the other patterns were associated with more obvious markings. In contrast, these patterns would be a challenge for anyone, which is why Melissa and I will be working together. While out west, we will also swing by Tawanda Farms to visit with my good friend, Maggie Howard (author of The Coat of Many Colors: a Survey of Sheep Color Pattern Expression and I Am A Shepherd) and encourage her expertise as well.
The coming week will give us time to pool our resources. We’ve each prepared by gathering the evidence within our flock and consolidating the photos onto carefully laid out photographic pages that we can share with each other. We’re hoping that by putting our data and our heads together, we can sort out a planned approach for breeding groups this fall. We’re hoping that three heads will be better than one.
So the next week is a big one, including both Black Sheep Gathering and work on our latest project. I have done my homework, and I’m packed and ready to go. I’m sure you will hear more about how it all plays out.