It’s been a long spring for both the flock and for me. Rather than turning them out to graze in the early spring and rotating them through our many pastures through this entire growing season as in a typical year, we made the decision months ago to allow only the lambs and their mothers to graze two pastures in May. The remaining sheep have been on hay since last year, waiting in the barns. The lambs were weaned over Memorial Day weekend and they and their mothers rejoined the sheep in the barns. The goal had been that they learn how to graze, but we had only two fields available for them this spring, and weaning marked the end of grazing in those fields.
Since then, the sheep have all been eating hay and waiting. All of us, Rick and I included, have impatiently awaited the red-letter date on the calendar of July 1 – that seemingly magical date when all of our vacant fields could be proclaimed free of sheep parasites. And that date has finally come! At times, it seemed a lifetime away!
The scientists tell us that after sheep shed parasite eggs in their pellets, those eggs lie there waiting. When the weather conditions are right, the eggs hatch into larvae that climb up on the grass blades and wait to be ingested by the next sheep to come along. If the fields remain empty or are grazed by other species, those parasites eventually die off, climbing up and down those grass blades each day in hopes that a sheep will pick them up. If the fields have been vacant since January 1 as ours have, then by July 1, they are essentially clean of parasites – and that’s what we’ve been waiting for!
In order to release the lambs, I added Gabby to their group so that they would have a bit of adult supervision. Llamas Martin and Howie were already waiting in the field when I was fashioning a funnel to move the lambs from their spot within the Sheep Barn across the driveway and over to the gate to the West Pasture. I would normally have had to worry that the llamas might come out the gate when I opened it, but the grazing was so good – so lush – that they hardly lifted their heads before lowering them back for another bite. The gate hung open without the threat of escape this time – the grass was too good.
When I opened the run I had fashioned from lamb pen to pasture, the most inquisitive lambs entered immediately, followed by the rest of the lamb flock and finally Gabby bringing up the rear. I thought for sure that Gabby would be at the front, but she took her job seriously, leaving no lamb behind and nudging those that weren’t sure this was for them. She knew were they were going – she had seen my preparations for the past couple of days, so she knew that some group would be moving out to the pasture soon. She could hardly believe her luck that she was one of that group! Her help at the back of the group of lambs was critical, it turns out. When the lambs came to the gate, they had to cross a wooden walkway, and the sound of their hooves on the wood was unfamiliar and gave them pause. With Gabby at the back of the narrow run, they could not go back – only forward. It took several seconds for the lambs in front to feel the pressure of the lambs behind them who could see the grass and could not understand the delay. They began to push forward and the first few lambs soon forgot the wooden walkway and hopped forward, taking the least steps possible over the wood and into the pasture.
The gate to the pasture was a narrow bottleneck, but the lambs swarmed through like a liquid spreading as it pours from a horizontal bottle. As the lambs slowly realized that they were once again grazing, free to roam and run, play and explore, they began to gambol in their delight. Gabby and the llamas continued to grab mouthfuls of grass, not seeming to mind that it was a bit over-mature this time. Eventually, they will find that the growth closer to the ground where the clover and alfalfa is to be found is more tender and tasty – but for now, it didn’t matter; it was fresh and not harvested, dried and baled, and that was enough!
So the lambs and Gabby are out. In a few days, I will move them into the next pasture and let the ewes needing higher levels of nutrition out into this same field to eat what the lambs will have left. In this way, we will begin our pasture rotation for the year – months later than normal, but this year so much safer for our lambs. The parasites are gone for the time being. Eventually, the levels will once again build, but for this year and likely next – and maybe the year after that, too – we can focus on nutrition instead of parasites. The lambs are happy in their freedom, and I am happy to have one less group for which to haul hay. Today, is a day for celebration!