Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Matter of Perspective: Sheep vs. Farmer

Red, the ram, got "out" yesterday, although from his point of view he was finally "in". I had just let the girls onto the hay field as a gesture of good will - also, because all the yummy grass was down to the nubs in the barn field.

The hay field runs alongside Red's ten month, off-season quarters. Before I left for town, I noticed Red and Piglet, his son and BFF in exile, leaning on the fence and making rude gestures to attract the girls. Thinking back, it was only a matter of time. If you weigh over 200 pounds and lean long enough on the only gate separating you from your harem, the baling twine used to secure it for the last few years will eventually give way.

This must be why I found the gate wide open last night and a huddle of sheep at the far corner of the field with Red standing sentinel, even after I rang my Pavlovian dinner bell again and again and again. Ultimately, I had to walk out to the pasture in the dark with a flash light (the recent time change has messed with my feeding schedule) to shoo the renegade group to the barn for the night. Red did not win any kind thoughts from me on the hike back.

The following morning, after his surely ribald night, I debated trying to cut Red out of the group. The hassle of chasing him down and separating him seemed more than it was worth. Who wants to stand between a horny ram and hornier ewes and tell them they need to wait a little longer? Besides, Piglet was also free and having the time of his life surrounded once again by his sisters, his mother, all those aunts, and lots of ewe lambs! I had never checked my castration job with him when he was smaller and now I was having my doubts. Balls or not, Piglet seemed ready for anything.

Red's introduction into the flock two weeks early means we should start to have lambs in March. I guess this is okay except that March is a nasty month for rain and damp cold. It is also a nasty month for slipping and sliding through knee-deep mud to scoop up newborns and bring them back to the warmth of the barn. How nice if the mothers actually birthed their babies under the loafing shed on the side of the barn, but then, that would be too easy for the farmer. Once again, it is a matter of perspective. Are you the sheep looking for a safe, quiet place at the edge of the field or are you the farmer who has built a barn for just this purpose?

Red is the king of the mountain for six more weeks. This should give us time to solve the gate issue with something better than baling twine. I am thinking a gate that opens and closes on demand could be highly useful at that point in the fence, since I have tried several times to unsuccessfully squeeze between the panels and climbing over is precarious at best.

Too bad our U-Latch gate latch is not designed for this type of panel gate or it would be easy to secure. I suppose we could always buy a new gate, but from a farmer perspective this seems like a waste of money when the gate works as a fence most of the time. Here, the sheep perspective would likely concur. "Save your money. Use baling twine. After all, the gate works as a fence...most of the time (translated: just give us a fighting chance!)"

Top: Red, with a full neck ruff like a lion, a golden red color to his hair in summer (hence his name), a full chest and long legs. Bottom: Thinking about "it".

Copyright 2008 Scottie Jones. All Rights Reserved.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Choosing the Biggest Lambs

I don't name my lambs that go to market on purpose. I don't want to have an emotional connection that might make me falter when we select which lambs will go to slaughter and which might end up as someones' pets. After all, this is our business...and I do love the taste of lamb.

The other day, I culled the first 15 of our 30+ lambs for their end-of-life trailer ride. This is the second year I have had to choose which lambs will live and which will die that day, instead of sending the entire group off as a lot.

The biggest lambs were the focus of my attention because I have a new buyer with certain expectations and I wanted to 'put my best lambs forward', so to speak. Without a scale, I asked my neighbor, Allen, to judge weight. In our highly unscientific method, he would grab a lamb I pointed out in the group of 60 moms and their offspring, drag it to a clear spot in the pen, and then hoist it off the ground. Okay, so how did this one weigh compared to the last one? Was it more or less? Did he think it weighed at least 80-90 pounds? The sheep were not amused at this process and bunched on top of each other in the farthest corner of the large stall. With 60 sheep, it was a large bunch.

As male lambs tend to be a little larger than female, we looked first for the boys. At birth I tag all the lambs so I can link them with their mothers. Additionally, if the tag is in the right ear, the lamb is a boy (think Ram). If the tag is in the left ear, it is a girl (think Lucy). Okay, so I use mnemonics to remember what I am doing!

Allen knew my system, but I neglected to tell him some of the ewes came with tags in their right ear because not everyone uses this system, besides which I didn't either the first year-or-so I was learning the business. At first, he reached for the largest sheep and the ewes, at 150+ pounds, pulled out of his grasp, running back to the impossibly dense pack of compressed animals.

I pointed. "Allen can you grab that tan lamb there between the smaller white one and the black ewe? Sorry, not that tan lamb, the other one with poop on its ear". Allen waded through tight bodies, packed together like a football crowd waiting for their favorite team and, when he reached my pick, grabbed it, one hand weaving into the wool, the other grabbing onto the head, pulling it between, or even over, the surrounding sheep.

This is wild, soggy, sweaty work because once we have a lamb fitting our selection criteria, we then have to convince it to run through a gate into a separate stall. The lamb rarely runs on its own. More likely, we have a person at its head and a person goosing it from behind, as we drag the uncooperative lamb, with legs braced straight in front, across the now slippery, pee-soaked straw floor. To visualize, imagine an old cartoon drawing with a reluctant donkey. Now put a sheep in its place.

From here on in, the lambs cooperate as little as possible. Adrenalin is pumping. They fly around the smaller stall, leaping straight into the fencing, crashing into each other, as we try to calm things down. The cull is completed. They settle down. Now all we have to do is wait for the pick up.

This year, the hauler backed his trailer right up to the barn door. We pushed the lambs from their stall into the large barn aisle, only to have them change their minds and dash back for the stall door. It wasn't happening. There were five of us. I had learned several years earlier what can happen if you only have two adults and a young girl. A trampled girl and escaped lambs! The lambs had no intention of getting into the trailer. Were they being precient or just obstinant? The hauler picked up the closest lamb and put it in the trailer. The rest followed. Just like sheep.

As the livestock trailer pulled out of the barn yard and onto the dirt road, the remaining ewes and lambs, not chosen in this go-round, were turned back out to pasture, most scrambling over each other to get out of the barn, some nibbling at the bales of hay meant for night feeding. In two to three months time, the remaining lambs should be heavy enough to go to market and we will repeat today's procedure, minus the weight guess.

For a short time we will have only ewes and then our next batch of lambs will be born. And on and on it goes. The wonders of springtime and birth, a summer and fall full of growing and play, and winter where life ends abruptly one day. And on and on it goes.

Photo of large lambs in stall - actually separated out from flock because they are ram lambs, not going to market

Copyright 2008 Scottie Jones. All Rights Reserved.

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