The impact of the sudden cold on our flock

Yes, winter in Iowa can be cold, and some days are obviously going to be colder than others. Much of this year has been relatively warm, setting records in December for both the average temperature (higher than ever before) and the amount of rain. But that has now changed, and we’ve seen highs in the single digits. It is cold!

When things go from warm to cold so quickly, stuff happens — and many are things that most people wouldn’t think of. As a result, here’s a list of some of the odd things we’ve recently had to deal with. Enjoy!

  • On the first very cold day after a warm stretch, I found Lolita with no coat. After a bit of investigation, we found her coat frozen to the ground, with some portions under an inch or more of ice! No wonder Lolita had left her coat behind! It had frozen to the ground overnight, and the only way she could get up the next morning was to tear herself out of the coat, leaving it embedded in the frozen ground!
  • Changing any ewe’s coat when the temps are near zero is usually an interesting proposition. When you get the leg strap off of the back leg, you usually find that the coat has frozen to the wool. The sheep is so well insulated by her fleece that although it is nice and toasty at the skin, at the outer edge it is well below freezing in the cold air temps. As a result, you must pull back the coat slowly and melt the ice as you go, using the warmth from your hand to release the coat from the wool.  Honestly, you can only do a couple of coats at a time before you risk frostbite of your own hands from the process! Thankfully, we have helpers who are willing to freeze their hands too, allowing us to change more than just a couple of coats at a time!
  • We always hope for sunny, dry weather in the days before shearing. Otherwise we have to lock our sheep in the barn to thaw and dry them off before the shearer arrives. Squeezing that many ewes into one barn can create so much moisture (as they pant from overheating in their heavy wool coats) that it “rains” from inside the barn roof — even if we keep the four windows and two of the doors open! The condensation drips down just like rain — and the sheep pretty much never dry.
  • Any wet fleeces when we shear must be taken into our finished basement, where they are laid out to dry for a day or two by the gas fireplace before skirting. Otherwise, they hold so much moisture that their weight can be off by as much as 30%!
  • It seems that the mild weather in the past months may have had a positive impact on our fleeces. From what I can see right now (with the fleeces still on the sheep), I think our staple lengths may be longer than usual this year. If this is the case, I suspect it’s a result of our ewes not needing to burn so many calories to stay warm through the end of 2015, thereby making those calories available for wool growth. Stay tuned for confirmation of this after we shear and have accurate staple lengths!
  • It’s not unusual to see ewes who “carry water with them” — more than one of our ewes can be seen sporting an icicle beard after dribbling a bit of water from her mouth after drinking. Water freezes very quickly when it’s near zero outside!
  • Although it helps to close the ewes into the barn to change coats or give booster shots, doing so in this cold weather becomes more of a challenge as the barn door and pasture gates all freeze to the ground — usually in a position opposite the one you need. This time of year, our most important tool is often the pick-ax: the only method that chips away enough ice to make hinged things swing again.

We hope the bitter cold won’t last too long — but if it does, I’m sure we’ll have more interesting tidbits for you to mull over. In the meantime, keep warm!

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