Thursday, September 8, 2016

on the matter of sheep

I have been asked to relay a bit of the knowledge  I accrued farming sheep for a few years. I can't claim to be an expert, but I did learn a few things.

Sheep are a nearly ideal small-farming project. They require very little care, very little upkeep, and only a moderate investment. Virtually any task required in sheep raising can be done by a confident 12-year-old girl.

Sheep are grazers, not browsers, they tend to ignore anything (except rose bushes) above ground level. Unlike goats, llamas or horses, they won't destroy your orchard or vineyard. The best feed for sheep is grass. Plain old green grass. When green grass is not available they next best is decent quality grass hay. Not the $14/bale hay at the feed store, the $150/ton stuff on craigslist. If you can avoid it, don't feed them alfalfa, straight clover or other legume hay. It's too high in protein, and the stems tend to get caught and embedded in the fleece. It won't kill them, but it's hard on the kidneys and can contribute to management problems.

Unlike most ruminants, sheep accumulate copper in their systems. When you buy mineralized salt blocks (and you really need to provide salt and other minerals in some form, blocks are both the cheapest and easiest), make sure you're using one designated for sheep. Unlike alfalfa, copper poisoning will kill them, after ruining the fleece and tainting the meat.

Sheep don't need grain at all, but it's a good idea to teach them to associate you with grain. Give them a couple of ounces each week and they will flock to you.

If at all possible, learn to physically handle the sheep yourself. Paying someone else to worm or shear a small flock is inordinately expensive, and leave you at the mercy of their timing. A largish breed of sheep can easily carry you on her back, so you must learn how to throw them. Reaching under the sheep, grab the opposite side back leg and pull it across under the sheep, and up. This will flip the sheep onto her back.

BE RUTHLESS IN CULLING. Keeping or breeding a management problem ensures other management problems. A ewe who has a difficult birth is not only likely to do it again, her daughter is likely to as well.  A ewe who refuses to feed her lamb is signing her own death warrant. A lamb you have to coax to eat is simply not a good prospect to keep. Know your sheep. If you have a hard time tracking, write it down.

In many ways, raising sheep is really raising grass. Know how many ewe-lamb pairs your pasture can support, never exceed it. Know when the grass will run out. Grass tends to stop growing in hot weather. In the NW, the rain stops about July 7 and returns sometime in September, the grass will run out by Aug 1. By that date, you should be down to the number of animals you pasture will support in that season of the year. An over-grazed pasture will take years to recover and will directly affect your ability to make money. In my part of the country, irrigating the pasture can triple the number of animals you can support in late summer, no joke. Consider replanting your pasture. The right mix of grasses will seriously extend your pasturage season.

You will often hear that a ram is half your herd, and it is true. You usually hear this in regards to such qualities as fleece and meat, but rarely in regards to attitude. Rams are inherently aggressive, but very much aggression cannot be tolerated. A 200lb ram is perfectly capable of breaking bones or even killing a person. On one memorable occasion, I paid $180 for a huge 350lb Rambouillet ram with a beautiful fleece, and we wound up eating his liver 3 days later. He had tried to attack my 8-year-old son, hitting him through the fence hard enough to knock him backwards several feet. Whatever his other good points, and even though I could ill afford the expense at the time, I also could not afford not only having a ram around that might get through the fence next time, I could not afford to have a batch of lambs descended from him, who would pick up at least some of his aggression.

Learn to slaughter and butcher your own meat. You have a responsibility to an animal under your care not to induce pain or fear, even when you're killing it. The only way to be sure you're meeting that obligation is to do it yourself. I've tried having others do it, and was not impressed with the results. If you find yourself unwilling, all the more reason to proceed. On a sheep, a single .22 round behind the ear into the brain pan will suffice. Do NOT attempt this from a  distance, or from the front of the animal. I've seen a sheep shake off a .30-30 round right between the eyes from 50 feet.

As far as butchering, well, it's all just meat on bones. If the pieces look odd, they'll taste just the same, and with each animal you learn to do a better job. Meat cutters (around here they are usually game butchers for weekend hunters) charged upwards of $1/lb when I was raising sheep 20 years ago. I'm sure it's higher now.

BTW, you will not ever find a better tasting meat than lean ewe mutton. Even elk pales in comparison.

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