Ewe Lambs On Hay
We kept hearing the ewe lambs saying they didn't have enough to eat and they don't tell you politely. This usually happens the time when sheep are changing what they eat: from pasture to harvested forage. It's a difficult time. We permit the sheep hay free choice (always available). If the hay is more nutritious—you never know—usually the sheep are quiet and good citizens.
But they wern't. To quiet the sheep down, we fed them an extra pail (~20 lb) of whole oats and after they finished, they loudly swore to hurt our ears and hearts , "%b#a$a&a@".
Perplexed if not ashamed, the next day we fed them another pail and we listened—it was silent—the beauty of silence. We were smiling at nothing.
Being cussed out by sheep is no laughing matter.
Buck's County Fur: The Tannery
On Thursday I went to Quakertown, Pennsylvania to pick up seventeen sheepskins from Buck's County Fur. Some of the hides were purebred Saxon Merino ram lambs; they were taken from Springfield Meats to the tannery the same day as they are near one another. Brian—the chief tanner—says, "Springfield does a good job."
These tanned sheepskins were worth every penny they were priced at; most importantly they were as fine as Saxon Merino lambs should be.
It's great to come home and find sheep.
Intrepid lambs coming down from the shearing shed on day 2 of shearing. We'd hoped for warmer temperatures (the nights had lows of single digits) and no falling or fallen snow, but who knows when you join the rams in October of 2014 what the weather will be in February and March of 2015. It can be warm and suitable for shirtsleeves or it can be snowy like last year.
We always shear three weeks before lambing.
We moved the ewes a quarter mile uphill to an old dairy barn we call the shearing shed. They will be shorn on the first Monday of March. Our sheep spend their days and nights out of doors all year round. But if you value your wool, you can't shear wet sheep; we shelter them during the time they are being shorn.
And all the ewes are pregnant. For lambing, which begins three weeks after shearing, we bring the newborn lambs and their dams inside—rain or shine—at night we leave the door to the barn open so the ewe can enter and choose a comfortable place to lamb. When the ewe has lambed we move her and her lambs into a 4' x 4' bonding jug. After several days inside together—if they look healthy—we let them go outside until the next shearing.
A micron (a micrometer) is one millionth of a meter. Microns, expressed as Average Fiber Diameter (AFD), are how the wool of sheep is measured and valued. AFD's of fewer microns are always more dear. The Saxon Merino produces the most expensive wool per pound in the world.
New York's climate—its annual rainfall—suits Saxon Merino sheep in the United States. I imported 5 world-class Saxon Merino rams for breeding from Australia in the early 1990's.
Saxon Merino sheep are found exclusively in the higher rainfall country of southern Australia, especially in the highlands of Tasmania, the cooler and wetter regions of Victoria and the tablelands of New South Wales.
Physically the smallest of the Merino types, cutting the lowest weight of wool (3-6 kg.), the Saxon Merino is without peer in the quality of wool produced, e.g. a sheep producing 14 microns would cut 3 kilos and a sheep producing 17.5 microns up to 6 kilos.
Specifically, this wool is extremely bright and white in colour, soft to handle and fine (i.e. narrow) in diameter.
From the website of the Australian Association of Stud Merino Breeders.
Strong—opposed to fine—wool prickles and makes the skin itch. Wool of an AFD over 30 microns has a Prickle Factor but wool of a finer AFD—below 16 microns—pills on wearing it; however these extremely fine wools are suitable for blending with other fibers.
I wanted to be somewhere between the prick and the pill but I wanted the wool to be fine. In New York I breed Saxon Merino sheep with an AFD of 16 to 18 microns; this wool is superfine and soft to the touch but the fiber is broad enough to resist pilling on a garment.
The AFD is determined by shearing a sample, 3" x 3" x the staple length of the wool, from the side of the sheep (see the ewes pictured) and sending the sample to a wool testing laboratory for laser examination.
Graph of an Examined Wool Sample
The ascending scale on the right hand side of the graph shows the number of fibers counted and the bottom horizontal scale shows the microns measured.
The data on the graph reports that a Saxon Merino 10 month old lamb, eartag 14, has a 17.6 microns AFD. Sheep will have higher AFD's as they get older. The AFD is a selected average throughout the body of the sheep (the wool of the side is finer than the wool of the rump) and, as you can see, a true average throughout the sample tested.
We side sampled and tested 393 purebred Saxon Merinos; the averages were,
Lambs, 16.4 microns
Ewes, 18.6 microns
Rams, 18.7 microns
The samples were tested by the wool laboratory at Texas A&M in San Angelo, Texas.
The lambs are one color; the difference you see is wetness of the wool; when sheep sleep out-of-doors their body temperature of 103F melts the snow beneath them.
It has been below freezing for about 2 weeks; the snow doesn't melt, it drifts with the wind. With the 45 hp tractor we can't get to 2 round bale feeders to feed hay because of the depth of the snow.
This cold weather is fine for the sheep—the lambs cavort and gambol in the snow—but things become expensive for the shepherd; we fed a bale without a feeder—the hay goes faster—but no matter the expense, you must care for your sheep; listen to Bob Dylan sing you Gotta Serve Somebody.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ram
This evening, the ewes had no visible predators—no coyotes near—they were calm, they were eating and they didn't issue any directives to me. For example, they will tell you that they don't want canines lurking in the brush just outside the fence—hungrily eyeing them—and be very "baa" blunt about it. They look in the direction of the threat, then they look in your eyes for the briefest moment and they look at the threat again, then they go back to grazing. You know.
132 Yellow walked over to me; I extended a hand and touched her on the head. She's a sweetheart.
Sheep have invisible predators too. Coccidia are single-celled organisms that infect the intestine. The infection causes a watery diarrhea that is sometimes bloody, but before that, it is dark. Coccidia usually infect lambs as sheep become immune as they get older; untreated, Coccidia are life-threatening. Coccidia are not visible to the naked eye but they are detectable with a 40 power microscope in the fecal examinations that I routinely perform.
The sporulated oocyst breaks open and releases eight sporozoites. Each of these sporozoites finds an intestinal cell and begins to reproduce inside it. Ultimately, the cell is so full of what are called merozoites at this stage that the cells bursts, releasing merozoites that seek out their own intestinal cells so the process begins again. It is important to note how thousands of intestinal cells can become infected and destroyed as a result of a single oocyst.
A fecal examination floats the Cocci-oocysts in a saturated sugar solution (which has a greater specific gravity than the oocysts) against a cover slip that is placed on a slide to be viewed under a microscope.
There is more than meets the eye when it comes to sheep predation.
From Wikipedia and from experience.
We'll be at pasture soon. Because of the lingering cold weather, we're late getting to grass this year. When the daytime temperature gets above 70F the pastures will rapidly grow. But this Spring is cool; last week the highs were in the 60's with night time lows in the 40's.
A shepherd has many considerations; not only to protect the sheep but to protect the sward on which they graze. Letting sheep on a pasture not yet ready for them will ruin it: they'll slow it up even more by eating the leaves inhibiting the early Spring photosynthesis and by trampling the fledging pasture plant into the soil.
A small group of rams will go out this week and a larger group of yearlings will go out next week. We'll wean the lambs from the ewes on May 24th and the ewes will join the yearlings in the farthest pasture out of earshot. The lambs call for their mothers but they forget after a couple of days: their new world is so interesting.
Sheep love grazing and shepherds love it too.
At a hay feeder outside the shearing shed.
Dominique brings the Saxon Merino ewes up to the to the shearing shed, but because the snow is so high when she passed the ram yard, 4 rams jumped the fence and joined the ewe procession thinking they were going to get fed.
We will shear the ram group the day after we shear the ewe group and easily put the 4 vacationing rams with their brethren when that group comes up to the shearing shed in a week; it's bringing the mountain to Mohammed.
Driving the 4 rams back down the hill wouldn't work so well. All the ewes are bred so they want little to do with them. Everybody is fine in the shed for a week.
We're a week from shearing the pregnant Saxon Merino ewes who will lamb in a month. Monday we will move them a quarter mile up to the shearing shed (last year) with a carrot and a stick: a tempting pail of oats before them and Poem dog behind, after plowing a wide lane up the hill in the 2 foot of snow that had fallen this week. There they will stay inside and dry until they're shorn.
With the sheep must come their accouterments: the hay feeders, the oat feeders, the mineral feeders, the water tubs and the electric fence to protect them. The hay feeders and the mineral feeders are frozen solid in the ground down in their yard, the grains feeders are buried under snow at the foot of a hill where we bred them. The water tubs are easily movable—I hope—and we'll stick in a portable electric fence in the snow—I guess—at night in the barn we'll leave an AM talk show blaring on the radio to ward off the coyotes. They fear the human voice no matter what it's saying.
In the meantime we'll feed and waste hay without feeders until they thaw-out—then move them up to protect the bales, dig out the oat feeders and move them to the shed Monday and feed minerals in barn tray feeders until the formal feeders are free from ice and movable.
Yesterday in Union Square I was talking to Rick Bishop about the snow storms in Sullivan County, where his farm is, and he said, "With the snow it takes so much longer to do things; you never seem to have enough time." I nodded in agreement.
800 lb. round bales of hay are harvested on the property in June or July and placed in rows until needed to feed the sheep in the Winter.
With an implement on the front end loader of the tractor I spear the bales and transport them to a hay feeder in the sheep yard.
Dominique cuts the twine that holds the bale together and Poem holds the sheep away from the bale until I can put it in the feeder.
Later: Two sides of the hay feeder collapse inward as the sheep eat the hay keeping them off the bale.
Sunday has it's chores too but we like to keep them minimal after a day in Union Square at Greenmarket. Sunday is a day of rest. Dominique looked at the sheep and determined the number of round bales of hay to be fed: the sheep were fine, there was hay in all feeders and we could wait until tomorrow to feed hay.
After walking through the sheep Dominique got into the passenger seat of the warm F150; I kept it running as the temperature was single digits at 11 AM. The sun was shining brightly on the sheep in snow who don't mind the cold having 3 inches of wool on them.
We discussed the day in New York yesterday: not bad considering that it didn't get above freezing, and we discussed what work we had to do in the coming week: I had to call the tannery to see if the 20 sheepskins that I dropped off 3 weeks ago were ready—I might have to go to Quakertown to pick them up Thursday; she said he had yarn dyeing to do on Monday which always means another day too, plus feeding the sheep their oats. We're busy now and we slow down to make sure we get it right. Then there all sorts of things that come up with gestating ewes lambing March 23rd, and before that, shearing the flock (with 3 shearers) on February 24th, 25th and 26th. Time must be set aside for the unexpected as it will occur.
Then we discussed the new sausage that we will have on the grill to sample next Saturday: I said Capers have not been used in a lamb sausage and she suggested Sun-Dried tomatoes would go good with them—but what about other spices—maybe some wine I said, and she suggested parsley to give the sausage that fresh taste and "to flake it with bits of green." Perfect! Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Capers and Parsley.
Later Sunday I'll email our new lamb sausage idea to Bobby at Quaker Creek (where I have a NYS 20-C) and his spice library to have them made (Bobby loves concocting new recipes). We will pick-up the new sausages this Friday for Saturday's market and we will be another week closer to shearing and lambing.
We awoke to a foot of freshly fallen snow; another inch or two of snowfall and the sheep would have been stuck, unable to put their feet down solidly—they couldn't move. I would have had to use the tractor to make them a path along which they would have walked, orderly in single-file, following my tractor tracks to their hay feeders.
I do for you and you do for me.
To walk easily through the snow today I had to follow the narrow serpentine path the sheep had made by ambling over the snow and packing it down.
You look at sheep to see how they are; the more often you look at them the more you can see—you get to know them—what you're looking for is a sheep who is not quite right or not as well as they were a week ago. It could be something as simple as a foot problem—the sheep favors it—requiring a foot-bath or something more serious such as an electric fence that is down: an entrance for coyotes.
Generally when looking at sheep we notice nothing—but you never know—you always look when you haven't been around them for a while—it's your responsibility—and good for you and good for the sheep.
Apuleius speaking to Marius, outside of Rome about 150 AD,
What then? Has nature connected itself together by no bond, allowed itself to be thus crippled, and split into the divine and human elements? And you will say to me: If so it be, that man is thus entirely exiled from the immortal gods, that all communication is denied him, that not one of them occasionally visits us, as a shepherd his sheep—to whom shall I address my prayers? Whom, shall I invoke as the helper of the unfortunate, the protector of the good?
Marius the Epicurean 1885, Walter Horatio Pater
The breeding groups will disband on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. It's all over but the tiny baaing of their newborn lambs in 5 month's time. The rams will go back with their fellows and the ewes will gestate as a group winter-grazing a 20 acre hay field for a month or two. The rams and the ewes have been together for two 18 day ovulation cycles but most of the breeding happened early on in the first cycle.
Before breeding we quartered the ewes next to the rams, separated by two electric net fences, to get them yearning and yearn they did. The double fencing, each fence was about 40" apart from the other, discouraged jumping as the sheep knew that if they jumped the first (only 34" high) they would land on the second. They stayed put exchanging longing looks over the fences but what a party they had when together; I blush like Saint Valentine to think of it.
Pre-breeding is a busy time on the farm. We trim all the ram's and ewe's feet which takes 2 people 2 days; then on following days we marshall the sheep with Poem, a Kelpie herding dog, through a chute with 14 feet of a 5 inch deep footbath trough filled with wet wool (to keep the sheep from splashing as they dash along) and an antiseptic solution.
Depending on the availability of help, and after we've determined where the breeding groups will go we fence the areas with Electronet, put out water tubs with automatic fill valves and minerals feeders which have in them a mix of salt, calcium and trace minerals, adjusted to the forage that the sheep eat. Depending on the weather, i.e. the rainfall, the temperature (meaning the growth of the grass) over the next several weeks we will alter the mineral composition, when the sheep have eaten the grass available as it stops growing, and are eating a different forage, i.e. round bales of hay and whole oats (to supplement the protein required for a gestating ewe raising healthy lambs). The seasons are more predictable than the daily forecasts hence this will happen about half way through the 36 day breeding period (two 18 day ovulation cycles).
But first we must determine who gets bred by whom. All the ewes on the property are purebred Saxon Merinos. This week, in the chute, I selected the best wooled Saxon Merino ewes to breed to selected purebred Saxon Merino rams of the finest wool quality. We record the ewe eartag numbers and spray mark their heads with a scourable maker. On Tuesday the 23rd we will sort the spray marked Saxon Merino ewes at a head gate and put in the Saxon Merino rams. Breeding begins. The Saxon Merino ewes not selected will be bred to Corriedale rams; their vigorous, large and fast growing offspring will be for lamb.
We keep track of the eartags at shearing so the purebred Saxons and their wool are kept together for the fine yarn I will spin and to separate the coarser, crossbred wool that will be sold to another yarn maker.
The sheep are ready to breed. Sheep are phototropically sexual; when the day begins to shorten they want one another. A ewe ovulates for a day and she seeks out a ram; she stands close to him, if he moves North, so does she, if he stops, so does she...sheep dance in courtship.
To separate the groups we installed a 2nd 34" high electric net fence 40" from the first so that if a sheep would try to jump the first they would be sure of landing on the second. Sheep are smart, they don't jump. Having the ram and ewe groups next to one another gets them ready to breed and they will on the 23rd of this month when we combine the groups.
I took the photo above with my iPhone and tweeted the following but what's been running through my mind is that Twitter is for people who have nothing to say and who say it all the same. I'm afraid, I'm one of them.
Evening sheep check: "Not a mouse stirring," said Francisco to Bernardo waiting for the Ghost in Hamlet. pic.twitter.com/UO7gq1cf
The sheep pictured are bred Saxon Merino ewes who will be shorn on Monday March 4th as they were shorn 12 months ago on the first Monday in March. The average fiber diameter of the wool will be 17 micron; it will yield 65% of clean wool upon scouring and will have a staple length of 3.5 inches. No one else, outside of Australia, can boast of such figures.
The barn on the horizon is our shearing and lambing shed. Next week we will slowly lead the ewes up the hill with a Kelpie sheepherding dog, Poem, following attentively behind. We are preparing the barn to house them inside in case of rainy weather over shearing. You can't shear wet sheep. The rest of the year they live outside under the stars, rain or shine.
About 20 days later, on the 23rd of March we will formally begin lambing but every year there are several early arrivals the week before which is good for us as we are able to get our 'lambing system' running smoothly for the scheduled deliveries of about 12 lambs a day for the first 18 days then lambing will slow to an average of 6 births a day for the next 18 day ovulation cycle.
After that, we're finished. The preceding October, 5 months ago (the time of gestation), we separated the rams from the ewes after two 18 day ovulation cycles.
It's now the 1st of May; the grass is green and growing. Another year has begun.
Lambs in Lamb's Quarters at Dusk
I photographed the lambs and walked over to the ewe's camp but they weren't there and they are always there at this time of day—maybe something was wrong—I got on my tractor and drove to look for them. The flock was a half mile out in the far field, they seemed normal from a distance, I called but they ignored me—I shook my head and looked at them as if to say, "If you want to spend the night out..."—I turned and drove back to the barn through thick brush beside their camp.
But hearing me approach, a coyote ran out of the brush—it was fast, the light was dim—at first I thought it was a low flying bird but it was too big and too fast. It ran about 35 yards across the nibbled down ram paddock and stopped to look at me: its front legs straight, rear legs in a crouch, back arched, ears erect...looking intently. Damn! I had no gun, I yelled, that spooked it; it ran 20 more yards then stopped to look back at me. I stood and raised my Nikon to my eye but before I could click the shutter it was gone into the dimness.
That's why the ewes weren't in camp; if they didn't see the coyote they sensed its danger lurking in the brush next to the camp where they have water. Something was out of order, they felt threatened, they left.
I stopped and got off the tractor, gingerly stepped over the hot fence into the ewe's deserted camp and started to walk out to them wondering if they'd come back in with me.
As I approached I called out the litany they know so well, "Sheep, sheep, jong sheep. O jong (young), O good, O beegs (big) O sheep..." I got to within 50 feet of the leaders then I turned and walked back toward their camp. The leading sheep began to follow me—it worked—the leaders were followed by the flock; I was lucky, even if they hadn't followed, I was lucky to have sheep. Up the slight rise to the camp we walked; beside me I heard breaths and many hooves softly impacting the damp ground, the younger ones dashed past me and ahead they frolicked, they cavorted, they jumped and turned in air. They were there. I was there. I was in a bouquet.
Ewes At Evening In Their Camp
Sheep always spend the night in the same place, it's called a camp. It smells of them, of fertility, of sweet earth; it's damp and cool.
I like the aroma however common flies, bothersome external parasites at pasture, don't like it and stay away from their camp.
I replaced the automatic valve on the ewe's water tub and they quench their thirst on a 90F day.
The ewes spend the night by the house where they feel safe from coyotes who are wary of human habitats.
Ewes In The Late Afternoon
I visit the sheep twice a day. They are talkative and if they need something they'll tell you, but you'll have to guess what they're talking about.
The ewes were quiet this afternoon; one must assume they had everything they needed, even the visit.
We pulled the 4 Corriedale, 3 Shropshire, 2 Oxford, 1 Tunis and 1 Ile de France rams from this group of purebred Saxon Merino ewes on Friday, 40 days, or about 2 estrus cycles, after they had joined the ewes. There was much sexual activity for the first 2 weeks they were together; that tapered off to almost nothing now meaning that most of the ewes got bred sooner rather than later. This is syndicate mating: many rams on many ewes.
In 5 months less 40 days we'll know who's who by looking at the lambs at lambing: tall lambs that have a black nose will have been sired by the Corriedale rams, black faced lambs will have been sired by either the Shropshire or the Oxford rams, red headed lambs will have been sired by the Tunis ram and stocky lambs will have been sired by the Ile de France ram. This is terminal sire breeding; the lambs will be crossbred and very healthy; they will exhibit heterosis, or hybrid vigor, and get to market weight quickly.
We had a second breeding group that was comprised of the best-of-the-best purebred Saxon Merino ewes but older than the elite purebred Saxon Merino rams we joined them to; the staggering of ages maximised heterosis as it prevented line breeding, where related siblings breed, in the purebred Saxon Merino line.
Saxon Merino Rams 062 & 074
These Saxon Merino rams were chosen as sires for their superior wool quality, their conformation and their size. They were born in the spring of 2009; the elite Saxon Merino ewes they were bred to were born in 2008 or earlier. Of these ewes we have an eartag list to determine, when it comes to the lambs, who's who as everybody lambs in the same paddock.
The lambs they sire will have wool with an average fiber diameter (AFD) of 15-16 microns at one year of age when they are first shorn; this exquisite wool will be spun serarately to produce an ultrafine Saxon Merino line, finer than the line we now offer. Look for our first ultrafine line in late Spring of 2012; it will be comprised of the clip of purebred Saxon Merino lambs born 2 years ago (shorn last year and now in storage) and the lambs we shear in March that were born last year.
A Corriedale yearling ram investigates one of the several hundred Saxon Merino ewes at the rear of the crossbred breeding group to see if she's cycling and ready to breed. The young fellow doesn't know yet that when a girl is ovulating she'll find a ram and stand next to him: if he moves 3 steps to the right, she moves 3 steps to the right, if he turns around, she turns around...thus the mating dance goes until she's bred or her cycle is over.
Her cycle lasts about 24 hours and occurs every 18 days. We keep the rams with the ewes for 36 days or 2 cycles.
To breed the Saxon Merino ewes in the crossbred breeding flock, we're using Corriedale rams because they sire a large lamb who gets to market weight sooner than the purebred Saxon Merino lambs; but we won't keep their wool as larger lambs have coarser wool, much coarser than the Saxon Merino wool we spin into yarn.
As always we have another breeding group, a wool group. We selected 50 elite purebred Saxon Merino ewes and are breeding them to 2 excellent purebred Saxon Merino rams: their lambs will be, as far as fine wool is concerned—the best of the best—purebred Saxon Merinos yet they will be smaller and slower growing than the crossbreds.
One breed does not offer excellence in all sheep traits; fine wool and large size are negative correlations.
I walked to the center of the ewe flock's 12 acre paddock; the sheep were nowhere to be seen. It was eerie. Where were they? I thought of domestic dogs gone wild driving them through the fence or of tobacco chewing rustlers herding them up a ramp onto a semi. Being unable to find something sets fly the imagination. I stopped and began to sing my sheep litany: "Cheep, cheep, jong cheep. Jong? O jong..."* certainly not as melodic as plainchant but it is a song they know well. Faintly—to my relief—I heard the "baa" of a ewe 50 yards away to the north, I walked in that direction but I couldn't see any of the sheep until I was upon them. And surprisingly it wasn't in response to me the ewe had baaed, it was to her newborn lamb.
It seems that five months ago, plus or minus a day or two, a ram jumped the fence and bred the ewe and maybe even others. I won't know how many new lambs I have until the ewes eat the grass down; then I can see the flock as a whole and get a better count.
The lamb was healthy—the ewes have plenty to eat—mother is making ample milk and is quite attentive to her baby.
*Sheep, sheep, young sheep...
Two days later, we find the newborn lamb in question; and in question he is: this is the first time he's seen a human, strange beings we must be to his fresh eyes.
I took this photo with the camera of my iPhone as I walked through the flock on this 97° day; the sheep were in the shade of a tree—they'd eaten the understory—where they camp on hot afternoons.
Blessedly there was a good breeze blowing that kept everyone cool.
The lambs were moved to a fresh paddock; last night I went to see if they liked where they were. They ignored me—good I thought—they have much to graze.
Yesterday we moved the ewes to fresh grass. Here they chew their cuds under the shade of a tree in the heat of the day. It's a good day to be a sheep.
I walk the paddock looking at the grass growth, noting how much the ewe flock has eaten to determine when I should move them to fresh pasture.
The skies were glorious that afternoon after the rain.
"Baa, baa..." and with a clap of the hands we train the lambs to scurry away from us. If Poem hears this, even away from them in her kennel, she'll bark; they'll hear her and that speeds them up. With that bark they run from the look, real or imagined, that Poem has in her eyes.
She wouldn't hurt them, but she can't let them know that.
These are the ewe lambs in an iPhone snapshot, or now that they are a year old, these are the yearling ewes at pasture on the first day of the grazing season. They love the growing grass brought forth by the warm sun. No more costly oats (which they also love) for these girls this Summer. Sheep and shepherd rejoice.
The Spring has been cold and wet, and that we know by the many times in recent weeks we've left the barn open at night so the lambs and their mothers could take shelter from the cold killing rain driven almost horizontally by the wind from the northwest.
When lambs are older and stronger they can take the wet and cold as well as their mothers can given the plane of nutrition that we provide them.
It should be noted that most of our 5-6 week old lambs are able to endure these weather events without problem, but there are always a few who are slow or weak and command the shepherd's attention. These are the lambs that usually get temporary names like "Minny" or "Milky Way" when we talk about treating them, and they are lambs from mothers who have little milk or who are not as attentive to their young as we would like them to be.
When you have a flock of sheep—we must have close to 450 ewes and lambs in and around the lambing barn—you tend to pay attention to the lambs who are the 'weakest links' and manage the flock to what those lambs need. To make sure a weak lamb has adequate nutrition in a communal feeder you might overfeed his hearty fellows, or over care for them, to the financial detriment of the farm. But what's money for?
Even when it's not raining upstate one must wear a coat outdoors for all but a few hours in the early afternoon—it's still that chilly and it feels colder when wet. This is the time of year of mud. The Spring rain makes a boot sucking mud of the recently thawed soil,
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
The Wasteland T. S. Eliot, 1922
It was Saturday. New Yorkers do not know mud; the city is paved and there are cement sidewalks to stroll upon. Before driving to Manhattan, I put on my Blundstones and looked down to see semi-dried mud caked on them. It was 5:30 AM, it was too late to wash my boots: my feet would be wet during the cold morning hours. Instead I would take the farm with me to the city on the soles of my boots. I was going there to sell, to see and not to be seen, I told myself.
And I should do something other than hang out at the stand in Union Square as I usually do. I have competent sales help at market; they really don't need me there. Maybe I should take in a Chelsea gallery or two, see an exposition at one of the uptown museums or even go to a downtown movie, one that will never play upstate...I brought The New Yorker along to see with what kind of city idyll "Goings On About Town" could tempt me.
The low this evening will be 12° F. The ewes are warm in full fleece, 10-12 lb of wool with a staple length of 3-1/2". We are shearing in 2 weeks and they will start lambing in about a month. The ewes are in good condition—not too thin and not too fat—to have their 6-7 pound healthy lambs in easy, unassisted deliveries.
The ewe walking toward me is coming over to see if I've learned something from Dominique about sheep etiquette and have a pocket full of grain from which I can produce a handful for her to eat.
We feed the sheep round bales of hay in the evening. I knew I would have to wait for Hans bringing the bales down from the upper barn so I took my camera out to the hay bale feeders and the sheep.
I took 83 photographs in 7 minutes. This one was taken at 5:30:41 PM, 9 minutes after sunset, using a Nikon D700 mounted with a Nikon 50 mm lens opened to f/1.4 at 1/200 sec with the ISO at 1000, set automatically, and processed in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
You can hear the head-on collision when rams butt from almost 1/4 mile away. They butt to prove dominance and it's their way of having fun, I guess. Mature Saxon Merino rams weigh about 225 lb. Challenged, they back up several paces then charge rolling their heads down just before impact like fists of prize fighters maximizing the blow; this goes on until one ram, with a yielding gesture, quotes the beaten Roberto Duran in the Sugar Ray Leonard fight, "No mas."
There is a victor and a victim. There is no way to stop them; the minute you leave after trying to separate them they are back at one another.
They have another method of attack and to stay with boxing jargon let's call it a clinch: After a butt or two they get beside one another, lower their heads dropping a horn, then with a powerful rotation of the neck they bring it up rapidly into the rib cage of their opponent.
Most of the time the rams are at peace with one another and they are gentlemen around us; they know, having learned from when they were lambs, that a shepherd is dominant.
Sheep sometime spin their own wool while going about their business; here we see a spun lock over this ram lamb's right eye.
On the way to the farm I was struck by the vastness of the fiery sky; but I realized I couldn't get to the sheep before the sun had gotten too low to photograph this ever furtive light behind them. As I drove toward the sun, the colors evolved, the dark clouds were ablaze as if an arsonist had torched the sky.
Beauty is communal, it must be shared to be realized. There was a sense of aloneness to this splendor; there was a need to picture it, to tell someone about it.
Sheep like snow; they eat it rather than drink from their water tub.
A ten month old purebred Saxon Merino ewe lamb with an average fiber diameter of 14 microns.
Good sheep like this one know they're good. They're royal. I don't know how they know but they know. She's got that look; and like royalty, she treats you as her equal. You'll always be indebted to her, you'll never be as pure as she is.
While it's still light out I go look at the sheep making sure they are ready for the night and I always take my camera.
I'm using a Nikon 50 mm f/1.4 lens (1/800 sec at f/8.0, ISO 400) here. At the stand last week I spoke to a photographer (he'd stopped to buy a Rosemary Lamb Sausage) with a Leica film camera mounted with a fixed focal length lens around his neck. We talked photography and the difficulty of shooting animals. He said using a zoom lens is lazy because you remain stationary and frame with the lens rather than by moving your body and camera to a different angle as you must do with a fixed focal length lens.
I hadn't realized how static my imagery had become using zoom lenses. I hadn't understood how by using a fixed focal length lens I could enrich my photographic language. My 50 mm lens was always buried deep in my lens bag—but no longer—now it's mounted on my camera in anticipation. These new images are not only more dynamic, they are fresher—almost like they were taken by another photographer.
Last night we got about 18" of snow at the farm. Sheep can't move when the snow is deeper than their legs are long which is about 12". But they are quartered on a plain swept by the wind and this prevents snow accumulation.
The leaders walk in a single file making a path for those who follow.
I put a Nikon 70mm-200mm f2.8 VR zoom lens on a Nikon D700 FX camera to shoot portraits. Using a longer lens I don't frighten the sheep by getting too close to them. This photograph was taken hand-held about 12 feet from the subject: 1/400 sec at f11 with a focal length of 105 mm and at ISO 400.
To demonstrate how good the Nikon 70-200 mm lens is, I enlarged a portion of the photo in Lightroom to show you the shadow of the ewe's eyelashes on her cornea. In the original at a file size of 14 MB the shadow is even more demonstrative than in this smaller web version of 400 KB.
Note: The yarn photos are taken with my studio camera, a Nikon D80 DX with a 18mm-135mm f4.5 zoom lens, a camera with a smaller capacity. As you can see the yarn photographs are not quite as sharp even though the camera is mounted on a tripod.
8 Months of Age
The dye studio/shepherd's room is several steps from the ram paddock. While waiting for a dye pot to boil I took my camera from the truck, stepped over the Electronet fence and photographed the rams as the sun went down.
On the right is a Correidale ram and on the left is a Saxon Merino ram. In the rear are crossbred ram lambs from Ile de France rams over Saxon Merino ewes.
There is a muskrat now living with the duck in the pond behind the rams. He swims surreptitiously with his eyes just above water barely making a wave—when he sees you—he dives to disappear as if he were never there. His name is U-boat.
Dominique brings the Saxon Merino breeding group (117 ewes with 5 rams) up to the handling area so we can separate the rams and put them back in the ram flock. These are the elite Saxon ewes of the flock as judged by their wool quality; the lesser merino ewes were in other groups being bred by either Corriedale rams (the cross will be a dual purpose breed called a Cormo) or Ile de France rams (the cross will be larger and faster growing).
Now things settle in for the Winter—we gestate—until the 1st of March when we get busy again and shear the flock about two weeks before we really get busy and have the 1st of 300 lambs expected in 36 days (the time the rams were with the ewes).
It's rare that I get a shot with the sun high in the sky that I like, preferring the sloping light of mornings and evenings, but this one interests me and maybe I've learned something: in the future, I'll shoot toward the high sun as I did here at midday and see what I expose.
The dye studio is right across the fence from these ewe lambs and they are talking a lot now about transcendning to a hay based diet from a pasture based diet that they've enjoyed since April. The grass dies back with the night temperatures dropping into the high 30's. We're on pasture for 6-7 months and harvested feed the rest of the year. I was looking for my gloves this morning; soon the first snowflakes will fly.
Jeff called and said there were some big Corriedales for sale at the Big E in Springfield. Monday before last I drove up listening to The Counterlife by Phillip Roth on Audible. Roth rivets you with his characters in continual conflict with others or with themselves. I may re-read his Sabbath's Theater soon to remind myself of his mix of high and low registers as pointed out by James Wood in his How Fiction Works. I wasn't sure where I was driving until I saw a big ferris wheel arc from the trees to come down and disappear into the low buildings. These must be the grounds; I must be there. I parked and found the the sheep barn that smelled of sheep on alfalfa.
The corriedales were big, very big. They were still lambs, spring lambs, not yet a year old, and they weighed almost 200 pounds, they weighed what my mature merino rams weigh, and they stood taller at the withers by close to 6", very big boys indeed. Jeff said that when fully mature they would weigh 300 lbs.
I needed carcass size in my lambs and Corriedales seemed to have the genetics of what I was looking for.
The Corriedale is an in-bred half-breed with Merino on the dam's side and the English Lincoln longwool on the sire's side. The name Corriedale was chosen to be the proper name for the breed in 1902. The New Zealand Sheep Breeders Association began publishing Corriedale pedigrees in 1911; however, it was 1924 before a flock book was published by the Corriedale Sheep Society of New Zealand.
The Corriedale was developed in an effort to establish a true dual purpose breed, combining the best traits of the wool breeds and the meat breeds. The result is a sheep that excels in total commercial returns, yielding a heavy valuable fleece and a high quality carcass. Additionally, Corriedales are known for their mothering ability and their ability to forage under a variety of climatic conditions.
In 1914 the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture appointed Professor F.R. Marshall, head sheepman of the Bureau of Animal Husbandry, and Frank S. King, of Laramie, Wyoming (representing the National Wool Growers Association), to begin a search for a new dual purpose sheep. They traveled to New Zealand, where they selected and imported 65 ewes and 10 rams to the government experiment station in Wyoming.
From the website of the American Corriedale Association.
I bought three rams. Putting big Corriedales on my little superfine Merino ewes should give me larger market lambs and give me wool I could keep and spin a new more durable line of yarn, or so I hope. The lambs I will have bred with the Corriedales will be Cormos, another cross breed using Merino mother stock: 1/4 Medium Merino, 1/4 Lincoln Long Wool, 1/2 Superfine Merino. As far as the carcass characteristics go, we will see what lambs sired by the Corriedales look like next spring, examining their sizes, their weights and their growth rates, etc.; and more importantly, we will class the lamb's wool, looking at its fineness, its color and its yield, etc. to see how much wool quality we had to give up to get bodysize; that should determine if we want to grow out some of the offspring and continue this breeding experiment.
The rams go in with the ewes on the 12th of this month.
Note: this year the majority of my Saxon Merino ewes will be bred by Saxon Merino rams. I am, and will always be, a Saxon Merino breeder.
What you like to see coming upon a newborn at pasture is blood on the lamb's nose meaning that it was at the udder getting milk. And it's good to see a ewe who is calm and attentive like this one. Nature works if you let it.
A spooky day in a new field of high brush that could hide the approach of wild dogs; sheep know there is safety in numbers and they flock to look bigger as a group than they individually are.
"I am still a learner, not a teacher, feeding somewhat omnivorously, browsing both stalk and leaves..."
Henry David Thoreau, 1817–1862
Sheep, having no upper teeth, grip the grass between their lower teeth and upper gum then, with a quick move of the head, they pluck the grass. 100 plucking sheep are noisy.
124 came over to me and tugged at my pant leg as I photographed the sheep in the downing light. The grass is almost depleted; but so are many weeds which is why I left the sheep grazing this field longer than I normally would. Like kids they'll eat what they like first; today I'm moving them into a grassy lane. Everybody will be happy, 124 too.
They know sunrise, the loud rain, the bless of breeze, the crazy snowflakes and they know sunset.
Friday, after I load the truck for market, I make sure the sheep have minerals in their feeders, that their water tubs are clean, the electric fences are up and pulsing and that they have enough grass to last them until at least Monday, because after a Saturday in New York all I want to do on Sunday is to hang out with them for an hour or so. Then I'll ride my bike, read a little, but mostly daydream and listen for the presbyters of the village who ring the church bells congregating their flock. Sunday mornings are as promising as Sunday afternoons are sad.
Monday I usually move one or more of my three groups of sheep, either the rams (25 hd), the ewes (300 hd) or the lambs (225 hd) born in April of this year to an adjacent paddock with fresh grass which has re-grown to about 10-11 inches. The sheep will be moved from there when they've grazed it down to 3-4 inches; the pasture needs time to grow and recover and that will take about 3 weeks in mid-summer.
Saturday, after the stand is set up and the staff is there to serve you, I sit at a table in the park, before the statue of Charity, a drinking fountain, by Karl Adolph Donndorf done in 1881 which is directly behind the truck and read. My current book is Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse. I'm enticed by her stream of consciousness style, a form of free indirect discourse, that she uses so interestingly. I love the kind of sentences she writes; they're long, complex, full of dependant clauses with noun and verb phrases that are conditional or subjunctive and always wandering through, while talking about, the internal adventures of the characters in the novel.
After a hot day lolling in the shade of a tree the hungry sheep begin to graze when the sun goes down.
I think of Ramadan when Marrakech came alive at night after a day of fasting. The fireflies are kif pipes lit in the dark and narrow ways that puzzle through the souk as the sundown horns shriek from the mosques to send the faithful and hungry rushing home for harira,* a thick, peppery lamb soup to break their fast.
Salman Rushdie captures the vibrant Arab night well in The Satanic Verses.
*Harira: lamb shoulder browned in olive oil with salt, garlic & onion added to lentils & water with Harisa, saffon, cinnamon & coriander on low heat until it thickens. One of many ways to make it; no matter the recipe, it's always better the next day.
The new man, a girl really, shyly walks away from the camera following her mother. She was born at pasture 3 days ago in the midst of 300 ewes; a surprise, as her parents were 7 month old lambs at the time of her conception, "too young to breed," but I guess they didn't read Ron Parker's The Sheep Book.
I came upon mother and her newborn daughter during an early evening sheep check, lambing ewes are easy to see as they separate from the flock to lamb. I went back to the barn to get an ear tag and the tag pliers; 479 is small for a lamb, but she is getting along and growing as she stays close to her mother who feeds her well.
When the day is over, their bellies full from grazing, the lambs come up near the barn where they repose for the evening and I'm reminded of that Randy Newman tune about the 'promised land' with the line "You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day" as I watch them dreamily chew their cuds.
But they want no church and they need no bar.
Lambs lounge under a shade tree next to a runoff pond that would appear as it is, algae green, if it were not back lit by the sun getting lower in the sky.
The lambs are under the trees near the pond after a shower. One sees colors like these only at this time of year. The greens of Summer are drier and more brittle even after a rain while those of the Fall are darker and silent.
Today was the day. We had to get the lambs down the hill from the lambing barn to the paddock of green grass we'd fenced for them to begin their Summer of rotational grazing. The grass was getting tall, taller than the smaller lambs; and it was starting to loose some of it's nutritive value, I feared. The way down was unfenced and the tall grass would trip the smaller lambs so with a 5' rotary cutter behind the old Massey I cut a 15' swath, a path wide enough for the 200 plus lambs.
But they needed a leader. From the lower farm, we took a yearling ewe; we haltered her, tied her down in the back of the truck, and for insurance Sarah rode with her holding on as I drove up the bumpy hill to the lambing barn.
We got the ewe off the truck and in with the lambs, so far so good.
In theory, Sarah was to shake a grain bucket to tempt the ewe with feed who would follow her and the lambs would follow the older ewe—or so I hoped—as would never the lambs follow us for any reason. After a couple of playful lamb revolutions in the yard with the chasing dog (that made me doubt my theory) we got the ewe started down the path following Sarah's bucket, the lambs began to follow the ewe down the hill—it worked—and I brought up the rear with Poem.
When I saw this shot in Lightroom, I realized these two rams (walking side by side, heads down) look like they'd been drawn by Bruce Eric Kaplan (BEK) for a cartoon in The New Yorker.
Then I had to come up with a caption and I'm not very good at that so maybe you can help me.
Hats for Haiti
Get a free skein of worsted yarn to knit or crochet at hat when you suggest a caption to the photo above. We'll sell the hats you make at the stand and send all the money to a worthy charity in Haiti in the name of the knitters, the buyers and the sheep.
The work of rebuilding Haiti has just begun; they need our help now.
Click the "Add a comment" link below to leave your caption; I'll contact you and provide you with a skein of yarn for free.
It's 10 AM, Wednesday. It just started to snow. It's relatively warm, just below freezing; this is a wet, Spring snow with 6 more inches expected. The wind picks up as the day wears on; most of the snow should blow away on the flat where the flock is quartered for the winter.
The sheep have 3'' of fleece. They are warm and their wool protects them from the wind. We will shear the flock on March 1, 2 & 3, two weeks before lambing begins.
I always take Poem to the sheep at dusk to work her as I look over the flock over before nightfall. This afternoon the temperature is 20°F and a 20 MPH northwesterly wind blows ice crystals across the plain. The sheep seem more comfortable than I am. I put my gloved hand up to break the wind cutting my face.
Since Poem has been staying at the farm, her demeanor around the sheep has improved. Rather than charging into them as she would often do, she now works calmly and adopts slow, moving postures (she is a grave mime) in relation to the sheep, anticipating their movements, frightening them, offering them an escape only in directions of our chosing. When moving sheep, there are rules we observe: sheep always go toward other sheep, they never go toward people, they prefer going uphill rather than going down, and so on. When she understands my intention, Poem positions herself to pressure the sheep away from her; their angle of flight has to do with where I stand, where the flock is and the direction it moves.
Poem has an innate geometry that she lets come forth when she moves in relation to sheep; she is a silent cue ball banking off the green cushion for the "click-click" of a perfect carom. A dog at work is uncanny to watch; and to be in the midst of this play of vectors is special. We call a herding dog's talent instinct, a word to describe a part of being that either we do not share or that we can not rationally explain. It is something that simply is.
These two mallards flew in last week; they waddle after the sheep everywhere they go; and like the sheep, they don't like the dog.
Dominique sits in the bucket of the tractor holding a ewe who was found cast, meaning she was over on her side; down in the slush, she couldn't right herself being in full fleece. A wooled sheep on a slope with its back lower than its legs, can not get its feet on the ground to get up; even the slightest inclines like those around woodchuck holes in the Summer cause problems. A down sheep will die in several hours; its rumen begins to malfunction and that affects other internal organs and processes.
When you stand a cast sheep up, it lists and circles to the same side it was down on and falls; you continue to stand it up until it can remain standing on its own.
This ewe was wet and cold. She had been down in the slush for some time and she couldn't stand for long; she was shivering so we gave her a ride up the hill to the barn and offered her dry hay with some oats (she was hungry which is a good sign) to warm her up. Later, she was able to stand and will rejoin the flock tomorrow.
A shepherd must keep looking at her flock.
Foolish me—trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear—and what a fine sow's ear my dog Poem is. Not a go-to-town gal, she's a down-on-the-farm dog, a sheep herding Australian Kelpie. Her predecessors in my life, Miss and Shade—mother and daughter—are gone now; they were Kelpies who lived in the house and went to the sheep with me.
Poem is different. She is not a house dog (we tried; she would work Jet & Stripe, the house cats, hour after hour to the detriment of her training) she is not a companion animal in the traditional sense but we are becoming a team when working sheep.
She now stays in her kennel at the farm and seems happy there. When, twice-a-day, I come to take her to the sheep, she is happy to see me, as happy as I am to see her. We need the distance, we need a reason to meet, a reason to be together, we need the sheep.
When she and I were together all the time (this truly can breed contempt), I had to shout commands to her, over and over, as if she were deaf. I tired of yelling. I now speak quietly to her, "Go round, come behind, easy, down..." In the clamor of moving sheep, her big ears listen for my voice, she attends, she minds me.
Poem you are my dog, but my dog your way—I'm learning—proof you can teach an old dog new tricks.
When the pasture growth slowed as the days got shorter and the daytime temperatures dropped, the ewe flock (~200 hd.) was fenced into an acre and a half. Not only do we manage the sheep to keep them well fed but we manage the pasture to keep it vigorous by protecting it from overgrazing. A healthy pasture is a varied ecosystem; it has many interdependent species growing in it; some of these plants, like the grasses, the sheep will eat and other plants they will avoid because these plants contain toxins that are harmful when consumed in quantities sufficient to provide adequate nutrition to a sheep.
Sheep must be removed from a pasture well before their only eating choices are species poisonous to them, which they will begin to eat if they have no other option. Pastures are vulnerable too; when the grasses and clovers have been overgrazed the soil in which they grow is exposed to seeds of toxic plants that will germinate, and grow to crowd out the grasses diminishing the amount of useable nutrition in the paddock as the years go by.
Until the grass grows again in the spring, the sheep are fed hay harvested on the farm; and a grain mix of whole oats, cracked corn and soy flakes. Hay in round bales is provided free choice meaning it is always available to them. The hay crop was poor this year as the summer rains prevented timely harvest; we supplement the hay with 1 pound of grain per day per sheep. The sheep love a little grain.
Much is being made of "grass fed" (grain free) livestock; like "organic" it has become a brand regulated by the USDA and that troubles me. As far as I can tell, there is little science behind the grass fed health claims, either for humans or for livestock, and the extant science seems to be primarily anecdotal: Yes, 100% grass (pasture raised) is better than 100% grain (feedlot raised)—or any large grain/grass ratio for a ruminant accustomed to grazing—you'll agree after having read food guru Michael Pollan. His Power Steer cast light on the darkness of feedlots of factory farms; I laud him for his gastronomic common-sense and pleasing writing style.
Tell me this, Michael: Is 100% grass fed better than 85% grass/15% grain, or 90%/10% or another similar ratio favoring grass to grain, a ratio commonly fed by most small farms? Where is the study, where is the science, where is the proof?
There is none.
Sheep always tell the truth. And if Dominique is not quick to back away from the ewes, they'll knock her into the feeder and there, butt-up, head-down, ear to ear with the greedy ewes—their molars loudly cracking corn—she'll find herself, proof that a little grain is good for sheep.
To move the ewes in the open, Dominique leads them with a partially filled pail of grain singing to them as she walks; I follow the flock with Poem.
What Dominique sees looking backward
What Poem sees looking forward
Here the ewes cross a small bridge on their way to a classing yard near the silos on the far left. We classed (evaluated) the ewe's 2009 lamb crop earlier in the day and picked stellar individuals as measured by their size, vigor and wool quality. The 60 dams of these elite lambs will be bred back to the same sires we used last year, hopefully replicating the get.
The dams of the lambs that didn't measure up because the lambs were smaller, less vigorous with wool faults (for example an open or not-dense fleece) or generally unthrifty (perhaps too inbred*) to my classing eye and hand will be terminal sired for market lambs this year being bred by our new Ile-de-France rams. These crossbred offspring will exhibit hetrosis or hybrid vigor; they will be larger, meatier, more thrifty and faster growing than the purbred merino lambs, but they will have coarser wool (Ile-de-France sheep have medium wool, yet I'm hoping for an average fiber diameter of 21 microns on the offspring which is still considered fine wool) that we will sort at shearing, keeping it separate from the finer purebred merino wool (16-18 microns) that is to be spun into knitting yarn, and have blankets woven from it.
*Next year I will import merino semen from Australia, sourcing different bloodlines to outbreed the merinos, increasing the hetrosis of my lines while maintaining our noted, ultra-fine wool.
This yearling ewe is the second victim of the dog attack; she almost died even though her original injuries were less severe than those of 313. I found her two days after the attack. The body areas, where I'd clipped the wool away, were covered with maggots, 1000's of them. The flies found her before I did; they are attracted to wounds beginning to heal. I didn't see her when I looked the flock over on the day of the attack; the bites were superficial and hidden by her wool.
She was bitten in the four places you see iodine: the upper flank, the belly, the hock and the dock. I noticed her during the daily, mid-paddock flock check with my herding dog Poem; she didn't get up when I walked toward her—something was wrong—she looked at me helplessly, then I saw the flies around her dock. Taking hold of her, I parted the wool over her tail; I saw several maggots, then more squirming away from the light. I detest flies. Treatment for fly strike is to clip all the wool away from the affected area exposing the maggots, bathe the area in peroxide, dress the wounds with iodine and administer a fly repellant—this took almost 2 hours—I was surprised how far from the dock (where the flies first laid their eggs) the maggots had spread under the wool.
Being alone and having no tailgate on my farm truck, I took her in the cab with me and drove her back to the special care area with my free arm around her neck in a loose headlock in case she jumped around. But weakened by the ordeal, she went along for the ride; the truck smelled of iodine.
Dogs play with sheep, they chase them and bite them—sometimes ripping the flesh away to expose tendons and bones—and before finishing off the sheep, the dog will leave because it's bored or hungry and go home for a bowl of Puppy Chow in the kitchen. Playful dogs kill sheep slowly; their victims are eaten alive by fly larva, death in the warm Summer months comes in about 3 days. "Where is Puff, Spot?"
A newsletter reader, a dog lover judging from her email address, demanded that I unsubscribe her from the mailing list after the first installment of The Crying Game—she didn't comprehend the unhappy irony of happiness is a warm gun—and I did take her off the list without making comment on her prayerful advice to me about my fences on my property; but I must dedicate this to her dogs in hope they never stray from her.
I know all there is to know about the crying game
I've had my share of the crying game
First there are kisses, then there are sighs
And then before you know where you are
You're saying goodbye
Don't want no more of the crying game
Don't want no more of the crying game
The Crying Game, sung by Boy George, written by Stephens, Geoff.
The Monday before last we put the ewe flock (~200 hd.) into a new 7 acre paddock, their last rotation of the year as growth slows this time of the year; the forage was 4' tall and weedy with golden rod and other late-season growth. A Cornell Cooperative Extension agent had come out to look at the pastures; after walking through the brushy paddock, she said, "Yes, let the sheep in here, they'll eat what they want and leave the rest."
But what scared me about that paddock was its height; I couldn't see what was in there and when the sheep entered it I wouldn't be able to see them when they moved away from the fence lines that had been cut the day before with a roaring 15' rotary cutter behind a 125 HP John Deere tractor. I hoped the noise of the farm machinery would tell any unseen predators in the brush that man was coming and they should "be gone!"
Tuesday morning when Dominique arrived at the farm she noticed that 30 odd ewes had knocked the fence down, gone over it and were in another paddock—this meant trouble—inside the brushy paddock, she found the rest of the flock; they were agitated. She saw that 313 had been severely maimed. She called and I rushed over with Poem. Forensically, I wanted to know what she'd come upon, where the sheep were, where the fence was down, where 313 was bitten, where in the paddock had the attack occurred, and most importantly were there other victims of the attack.
On command Poem gathered the flock to us as she does and we looked everybody over as they milled around us; at that time, we saw no other victims. 313 was off to the side hobbling; I called Poem away and we loaded the ewe into the back of the truck; Dominique got in and held her for the bumpy ride back to the barn where I could more closely examine and treat her.
Based on the evidence: that 313 was bitten in the hind quarters, that only one sheep was attacked, that the she had been bitten many times and not killed, that the attack lasted 10-20 minutes I determined that the attack was by a dog not a coyote.
Horror of horrors, it looked like we may have fenced a dog into the paddock with the sheep—in the 3 1/2 years on this property this was the first predator attack—there have been no fence transgressions. My electric fences are considered the most effective type of fence at keeping coyotes and dogs out; but unfortunately, they would be equally effective at keeping them in, and this is what probably happened as the ewes had been in an adjacent paddock for the last 3 weeks having had no problems there.
The dog was gone when we got there, it probably got out where the fence was down. I supposed (hoped) it got hit by the fence while trying to escape and this shock(s) would discourage it from coming back—only time would tell if I was correct. It was late in the day; I had no place to put the ewes but based on the facts as I sifted them, I decided to keep the sheep where they were. Yes, this was a gamble, but it was the only bet I had.
My rifle and hand guns hadn't been cleaned for years; I might need them now. I drove to a late-night gun store to buy solvent, oil & patches; and I bought ammunition for my stainless steel .357 SP101 Ruger revolver; I loaded it and drove back to the paddock at nightfall, the time when predators stalk and kill. I wasn't going there to kill—doubting the dog would return so soon and in daylight—I was going there to make noise; .357 's are loud hand guns. My purpose was to shoot and scare away all bad guys within earshot. I fired rounds into the ground pointing the revolver at the points of the compass directing the gun-sound 360 degrees. The sheep looked at me like I was crazy—round and round I went in my death-defying dance—then with hope in my heart and an empty gun in my hand I bid the girls good night, Poem and I drove home. I slept well; what would happen would happen, I had done what I could. But at dawn when we headed back to the paddock—getting closer and closer—my heart began to pound as loudly as my .357. When I saw them, the ewes were quiet and chewing their cuds with that dreamy look in their eyes; I felt silly, but I felt good like I'd survived a natural disaster.
Just driving up to the paddock and honking the horn may have worked as well as firing my revolver there; but I like to shoot the .357. With the hammer cocked the slightest pressure pulls the custom trigger; it is incredibly accurate for having a 2" barrel and it really kicks. Morning and night, for several days, I went there and shot up the ground, firing in all directions, seeing myself playing drums of the spheres, "POP, pop-POP, pop-POP" or "pop-POP-pop, POP, pop," I varried my 5 shot tattoo. The dog hasn't come back, maybe I was right, maybe the fences are still effective, or maybe it wanted nothing to do with the beat of my dancing gun.
Next: Another victim.
The film (by Neil Jordan) begins as a psychological thriller; IRA foot soldier Fergus (Stephen Rea) and a unit of other IRA members, including a woman named Jude (Miranda Richardson), kidnap Jody (Forest Whitaker), a British soldier. They want the release of jailed IRA members and threaten to execute Jody in three days if their demands are not met.
While Fergus guards Jody, they develop a bond. Jody says he knows that Fergus won't kill him because it's not in his nature and tells him the story about the frog and the scorpion: the scorpion, wishing to cross a stream, asked the frog to let him ride his back over the stream. When the frog asked the scorpion how he could be sure that the scorpion would not sting him, the scorpion replied that if he did sting him, it would mean death by drowning for both of them. The frog complies, carrying the scorpion on its back across the stream. Before they reach the other side, however, the frog feels pain and realizes that the scorpion has stung him.
The frog asks, "Why did you sting me, Mr. Scorpion? For now we both will drown!" The scorpion replies, "I can't help it, it's in my nature."
The sheep asks, "Why did you maim me, Mr. Dog?" The dog replies, "I can't help it, it's in my nature." They say a good shepherd's nature is to turn the other cheek; but caring for sheep, my nature had to become different.
I found the ewe, tag # 313, in the morning; she had been bitten many times by a neighborhood dog; it gnawed her left rear leg to the bone at the hock; the attack must have lasted 20 minutes or longer judging by the number of wounds. The dog was playing with her, ripping at her hind quarters as she tried to run away; a coyote would have taken the ewe by the throat and killed her in seconds. I respect the nature of coyotes, they kill efficiently, they don't mess around, they kill to eat.
I clipped her wool with a hand shear to expose the bites, I cut the torn skin away with a scalpel to expose the flesh preventing infection. I applied iodine to her wounds and I put her on penicillin to be administered IM for 10 days.
She will recover but probably walk with a limp.
Shepherds in Virginia say, "A dog never crosses my property."
"Happiness is a warm gun," sing the Beatles.
At sunset the rainbow disappeared.
Dominique takes the special care lambs to her place; these lambs are weak or are lost or have been deserted—often times they are at death's door. When they have recovered well enough to join the flock she will bring them back.
With a scourable spray Dominique marked the recent returnees—123 is sprayed like a hot cross bun—so they can be easily monitored from a distance; not that 123 needed to be marked, when you're walking among the lambs, she follows you everywhere you go.
We take a break from the cold while innoculating the ewes with CD/T vaccine. I go to my idling truck, the heater blasting, to warm my hands and get my camera while Dominique huddles in with the sheep protecting herself from the 35 MPH gusts of Monday with afternoon temperatures that fell into the low 20's.
Pink grease-marks on noses tell us which sheep have been vaccinated. When all noses are marked, we let the sheep go to join the already vaccinated on the flats behind us; we then bring another 25 into the treatment pen keeping them bunched closely together to prevent them from moving which is easier on them and easier for us.
Gestating ewes must be vaccinated with CD/T several weeks prior to lambing to pass clostridium antibodies on to their lambs in colostrum, the first milk from the udder. This vaccination is crucial to lamb survival as the lambs' immune systems don't begin to develop until six weeks of age.
CD/T (Clostridium Perfringens Types C & D plus Tetanus Toxoid) is a commonly used vaccine that is also approved for use in certified organic sheep; it guards against tetanus infection and enterotoxemia (overeaters disease) which is a painful, gastric affliction that is untreatable and causes a lamb's death usually within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms.
By February you’re dreaming of Spring, you've had enough of Winter, the cold hands, the wet feet, the slippery ice, the layer upon layer of bulky clothing—the frigidness never ends—but when it does, Spring will seem to have come too soon with its warm temperatures that turn January snow into March rain to become seas of mud that you slog through, going slowly from chore to chore, wearing slip-on rubber boots to keep your feet dry, step by cautious step, trying not to step out of your boot when it sinks in and gets stuck above the ankle, because if your foot does come out of your boot, to keep your balance, you’ll have to put that stocking foot down in the icy, umber muck (half mud, half manure) to not fall face dowm into it—and there you'll be: one foot in and one foot out, one foot dry and one foot wet (the cold goo oozes between your toes)—and you can't put that foot back into the boot (it'll be ruined if you do); so, one boot in-hand, one boot on-foot, you hobble to firmer ground, foolishly dreaming of Summer.
Tonight the low will be 12°F and tomorrow the high will be 41°F; this looks to be the beginning of a warming trend.
Temperatures in the 50's consitute a heatwave for sheep in fleece. But still, I want it warmer than it's been for them: we shear the flock March 2nd & 3rd; that's 24 days from today—the 10 day forecast is sunny days with temperatures in the 40's while nights will drop into the 30's—and we need dry shearing weather too; but this is unlikely in March which, if not the cruelest month, is certainly the wettest.
This is cold work, your gloves get wet and your hands scream...sheep are not bothered by these temperatures with their 2½ inches of fleece as long as they've had enough to eat. You curse the frigid bitterness and the ewes look at you curiously.
Last night was to be 12º, I fired up a propane space heater in the shepherd's room to keep the market garlic from freezing.
Tonight will be a little warmer with a low of 16º and on Wednesday it will be much warmer with a high of 56º.
"It’s this crazy weather we’ve been having:
Falling forward one minute, lying down the next."
Houseboat Days, 1977
There have been few really bad Saturdays days so far this year, but this looks to be a zero-sum day. Rain won't hurt the wool as it dries out and unsold lamb comes back frozen; but vegetable growers lose sales and their harvest too—vegetables are perishable—when they're ripe and ready, you pick'em or lose'em, raindrops to come or not.
Merino ewes have a flock rule: no direct eye contact. They like to be alone when they are together. Mistakenly or not, if a ewe catches another ewe staring at her, she will butt heads with the voyeur. Back and forth they go—Don't look at me, I wasn't looking at you, Yes, you were, No, I wasn't—but the girls butt gently not violently like the rams who will draw back 15 feet or more and charge full force. Just before contact the rams lower their heads, like boxers rolling their fists, to maximise the blow. They will butt heads until one is as dazed as Brett Favre, backs off and signs with the Jets.
I came upon this ewe resting among chewed-off wild carrot greens when I walked into the flock this morning. She let me approach to get a close up of her; but still, she kept an eye on me.
We had another inch and a half of rain yesterday on top of the inch we had two days ago. Last week the grasses were dying; they were dark, crispy underfoot, and holding their breath; with the new rainfall the fields let go; they exhaled and blushed green.
The day after drenching, the sheep should be moved to a fresh paddock; here they are, over their heads in a weedy field that they will devour in a week.
*There was a man named Jabez Stone, lived at Cross Corners, New Hampshire. He wasn't a bad man to start with, but he was an unluckyman. If he planted corn, he got borers; if he planted potatoes, he got blight. He had good enough land, but it didn't prosper him; he had a decent wife and children, but the more children he had, the less there was to feed them. If stones cropped up in his neighbor's field, boulders boiled up in his; if he had a horse with the spavins, he'd trade it for one with the staggers and give something extra. There's some folks bound to be like that, apparently. But one day Jabez Stone got sick of the whole business. He'd been plowing that morning and he'd just broke the plowshare on a rock that he could have sworn hadn't been there yesterday. And, as he stood looking at the plowshare, the off horse began to cough-that ropy kind of cough that means sickness and horse doctors. There were two children down with the measles, his wife was ailing, and he had a whitlow on his thumb. It was about the last straw for Jabez Stone.
The rams were in a loose flock about 75 yards away from us when we entered the field. Poem and I have been working on direction. "Go round" means go around the sheep in a clockwise direction. "Go over" means go around the sheep in a counter-clockwise direction.
We walked toward the flock; when I stopped, Poem sat and looked intently at the sheep awaiting my command. "Go round," I cast her, wanting her to cover the 75 yards, stay to the left and circle the sheep clockwise; but she veered right to circle them counter-clockwise.
I was about to stop and correct her, when I realized that instinct told her to go right, to go between the sheep and the electric fence, to drive the flock away from the fence, and not drive them into it as following my command would have her do, when she circled them. I had cast her in the wrong direction. She was 20 yards from the sheep when I yelled, "Poem, go over," correcting myself. Without hesitation, Poem continued round the sheep counter-clockwise. When she had the flock held between us as was proper, I called her off and to me. I stroked her head and said, "Good dog."
Good dogs make good masters.
Thursday night was cold, in single digits. To water the sheep 50 gallon tubs are kept ice-free by 1500 watt submersible water heaters. But as expected the above ground water lines (a good grade of 5/8” garden hose) to the tubs froze preventing automatic refill of the tubs as regulated by float valves and water levels when the sheep drink. Sheep need about a gallon of water a day; Friday they were out of water.
There is a secondary line that runs parallel to the primary one so the tubs can be manually refilled when the primary lines freeze. The source for both lines is in the barn 100’s of feet from the tubs. After the tubs have been manually filled, the secondary line must be drained so that it doesn't freeze during the cold spell, which may go on for a day or a week or two. Draining the line is done by walking its length slowly while passing the line over the shoulder to let gravity empty it. This is cold, wet work; work to dread, but do; and feel good about when done. It's about the sheep.
Saturday at market was warm with a high of 43, good weather for selling wool. My cell phone rang about 1 PM; it was Clara back at the farm telling me that ewes from the breeding group were walking out on the frozen pond. When I heard this I saw sheep plunging through the thin ice like children. The horrific thing about frozen pond rescues is that more often than not the rescuer falls in and dies too, or this tragic aspect is what makes it news.
Clara said she shook a feed bucket at the sheep and they came off the pond, but when they realized the ruse, several walked back on the ice again. Clara didn't know what to do. I knew what to do, but I couldn't fence them back from the pond until tomorrow. I wouldn't get back to the farm until after dark.
But what to do now?
Then it hit me, "Break the ice!" around the edge of the pond, I told her, and that should keep the sheep on shore. Use heavy stones, a sledge hammer... She said she would try; I went back to my market customers preoccupied with visions of foundering sheep.
I called Clara back at 3 PM; she said the ice was too thick to break but she was keeping an eye on the sheep and so far they were all well. I thanked her. When night fell, Dominique and I packed up. It had been a good day at market. We got back to the farm about 8 PM detouring around a maddening traffic jam in Jersey.
On the way to the barn we drove past the pond. Dominique gasped, "Look, the ice is broken." My heart sank like a sheep. But when we got closer what we thought to be broken ice was thinner, darker ice near the pond's overflow. The ice on the pond was intact. The ewes were safe. We looked at each other and shook our heads in either belief or disbelief, I'm not sure which.
The day had begun at 3 AM but it wasn't over yet, we had to feed grain to the sheep. We carried pails of oats to the ewes illuminated by the headlights of the truck. When we stepped over the net fence the hungry sheep swarmed around. Their long shadows flashed across the yard disorienting us like a disco strobe.
Sheep being fed are loud and cacophonous; with a pail in hand they will rush you, bang into your knees, knock you off balance then sometimes push you face first into a trough feeder all the while desperately telling you how hungry they are, and butt in the air you will cuss them. It was good to be home.
A shepherd must look at his sheep everyday. Oddly this ram sauntered over from his breeding group to have a look back at me. It's rare that sheep who haven't been turned into pets will approach humans; truthfully I felt honored to be considered inhuman by this non-human. On my way back to the barn, I noticed the electric line between the charger and the net fence was down. The feed truck must have hit it earlier in the week; the sheep had been in a un-electrified enclosure for 2 days and nights. Dangerous because at night the coyotes are close in, but they've been stung by the fence and keep a respectful distance; even more dangerous because a ram, believing “the grass is greener…” can easily tangle his horns in an un-electrified net fence that he no longer respects as he sticks his snout through the opening for a frozen blade or two. Struggling to free himself he will take the net fence down opening the flock to the coyotes. I like to look at sheep, it’s the best part of my job.
November 23, 2007
Now that the pasture has stopped growing, the sheep must be fed until the grass grows again in the Spring. Into what are called hay racks or feeders, with the front end loader of a large tractor, we put big round bales of hay that were harvested here on the farm in July; each bale weighs 750 lbs. and will feed about 40 sheep for a week.