Walking the pasture

Very rarely do I perform one task at a time. More often, I go about my day doing one thing while also incorporating several other lower-level projects. I am all about efficiency, and I see no reason not to get multiple things done at once.

This past Saturday, our primary goal was to clean out the Storage Barn, where the low-nutrition group has been housed for the past weeks. I had to climb over the bottom Dutch door in order to get into the barn, since the foot-deep bedding prevented it from opening. With extra time due to the shearing postponement and with incredibly warm temperatures for this time of year, we decided to clean it all out — which necessitated moving the sheep out of the way. I decided to take them out to the Timber, where they had not been since June. The grass was tall when the ground froze, so I knew they’d enjoy a few hours of digging through the ice and snow to see what delicacies they might find.

My walk with them was not only for moving the flock. Spending time with them always involves the process of assessing the flock. I look each of them over as we walk. Which sheep are pulling up the rear? Anyone besides January would require an extra look: Why are they so slow at this time? Is there a problem with their legs? Their stamina? Their breathing? (January is always last – and she knows enough to come to me when she is feeling ill, so I don’t much worry about her health when she brings up the rear!) I look to see whether any of the sheep are limping, or whether they’re separating themselves from the flock. In short, I look for anything amiss. Moving sheep is a great time to get a good look at problems and note which sheep might need attention.

Once I’ve had a good look at the sheep, my eyes turn to the fields through which we pass. I take note of the droppings — we want mostly pellets and fewer big clumps. Smaller pellets break up faster, fertilizing the soil and indicate healthy sheep; big clumps of manure indicate a faster passage through the digestive system, causing less efficient digestion. This can come from a change in feed, from parasites, or from a variety of other causes.

My findings from Saturday’s walk: two thistle seed heads, a corn cob with husks but no corn, and a piece of blue trash

I also look at anything that stands out or that shouldn’t be there. During Saturday’s walk, I came across several noteworthy discoveries, including two thistle seed heads. We have essentially eradicated thistles from our acreage, but our neighbors to the north are still overrun by them. Sheep will not eat thistles unless they are very hungry and the thistles are very young and tender. Beyond that stage, the plant takes off, shading the grass and reducing grazing. Thistles spread not only through the seeds but also through their root system, and they’re very difficult to get rid of. We’ve spent fifteen years at war with thistles and have only been winning over the past couple of years. These seed heads break off of the mature plants in our neighbor’s fields and are carried by winter’s north winds onto our acreage. If I find them, I pick them up and discard them in our trash; any seed heads that I miss will plant themselves in the spring and require me to work that much harder to get rid of them in the heat of the summer. My eyes are always roving, looking throughout the winter months for thistle seed heads along our north boundary.

As my eyes swept the fields, I also noted something bright blue against the mostly tan and black background. As I came closer, I realized it was some sort of trash, so I picked it up and pocketed it for disposal with the thistle. This is a good time to clear trash from our fields, since it is much easier to see without the lush growth of spring and summer. The sheep would probably leave the trash alone, but I know that before long, the lambs will be in these fields — and the last thing I want is for a lamb to try eating it.

I also came across a corncob and husks. Unlike the thistles, corncobs don’t just blow into our fields; they are generally carried in by raccoons or other creatures who appreciate a nice ear of corn in the late summer and fall when these are plentiful in Iowa fields. I generally make a mental note of such a find, since it’s an indicator that there is either a raccoon or an opossum in residence somewhere nearby. A small number of corncobs is not an issue, but if I begin to find a good number of them or they end up appearing around our barns, it’s a sign that we have an intruder and I need to begin setting up the live trap once again.

This clump of hair could indicate that we have a new predator present in our fields – I will have to keep watch for more information.

My last find on Saturday’s walk was a bit more disturbing: a big clump of hair. I found this in the West Pasture, one of the first fields that our new lambs will visit in spring. Clumps of hair are generally an indicator of predators in that field, eating their kill. If I could figure out what this hair came from, it would help me narrow down the predator. If from a rabbit  or other small animal, it is likely a fox or raccoon, or even one of our cats. But this didn’t look to be rabbit fur, since it was quite coarse. The hair itself could be directly from the predator — perhaps a coyote or neighborhood dog — but it was too weathered to make a good identification. If this predator was not just passing through, I will certainly stumble upon more evidence to help me figure it out. For now, this hair has put me on alert to watch for other signs that we might have a problematic new resident.

Although this was a single walk, so much was accomplished. Oh, and the sheep had a great time digging around in the Timber — and now the Storage Barn is nice and clean for another few weeks. Saturday was a good and productive day!

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