It’s not often we have lambs on the farm. However, a few years ago Andromeda and Victor got together unexpectedly and created Orion. He was an unusually large lamb and his sister Minerva was just under a pound. Fortunately I was home because Andromeda needed assistance with the birth.
It became clear that Minerva would have to be a bottle lamb. Orion however stayed with his momma. By the time he was a month old he was our peacemaker. If anyone was picked on he was there ending the issue and comforting anyone who was upset. Our orphaned lamb would cry and Orion would suddenly appear to lick his head.
Orion has grown into an impressive wether. He’s nearly three hundred pounds, gentle, and all his flock mates seem to enjoy his company. He’s also quite handsome. He’ll never be a cuddle bug like his sister or my Black Iris. But every day he let’s me pat his head and will bob his head in appreciation when he gets corn. Even as a grown boy he follows his mom around like an oversized shadow. However, he’s taken quite a liking to is Aunt Good Night.
His fleece is interesting. It’s a little longer than the other Merinos. However, it’s ALMOST as soft as a typical Merino. I’d guess his micron count is around twenty one to twenty four. His color pattern is what’s interesting. I was surprised to find him spotted with tricolor spots. He’s produced a fleece that has grey, black, and smokey patches with white spots. However, coco brown is the main color. The other colors are sporadic and just blend into the brown. His fleece also has a more typical merino clump and dense lock structure. However there is some crimp in it. I’m experimenting with his fleece some. So far I’m pleased with both combing and hand carding his wool. His woolen is super bounce. I love bouncy sock yarn, and his fleece is perfect for it! Since my drum carder is only set up for medium to corse wools currently I haven’t tried a drum carder. His fleece comes out well as either woolen or worsted. If you are interested in his fleece, check out the Etsy shop www.kindfibers.etsy.com . All proceeds go directly to caring for our resident sanctuary animals.
My thoughts on Merino Jacob Crosses
If you are interested in a Merino Jacob cross as a wool pet I can tell you that my crosses are wonderful, hardy, healthy, personable critters. The fleece type varies. However, the quality does not. I’ve been pleased with the fleeces and with the finished products. Or, if you decide to open your land up to grazers in need of a home, this cross is a good choice. Other than minerals, winter hay, water, and a yearly shearing they require little care and are suitable for a novice. As always, if you decide to take one on, make sure it’s a life commitment. They are sentient beings with complex emotions that effect their health.
I do love natural fibers. Nothing beats wool for warm winter clothing, garden mulch, or to sleep on. I enjoy spinning my flock’s fleeces in the grease, cleaned, carded, combed, or cloud. But that’s not why I shear our sheep.
Shearing season is finally behind us here in Serenity. I personally hand sheared all my sheep. It’s grungy, back breaking work. Some people think I shear just to have the wool, to make money, or because I’m greedy. I can tell you – sheep ranchers that don’t breed and sell lambs aren’t doing it for the big money.
I do love natural fibers. Nothing beats wool for warm winter clothing, garden mulch, or to sleep on. I enjoy spinning my flock’s fleeces in the grease, cleaned, carded, combed, or cloud. But that’s not why I shear our sheep.
These amazing animal’s unaltered cousins grow far less wool than modern domesticated wool sheep. My hair sheep naturally shed their wool when the weather warms up (and yes I collect and spin that, too). But most domesticated sheep have lost that trait. There are still a few breeds that roo (shed) their fleeces yearly. However, most breeds simply need a helping hand.
I shear my sheep for their health. Sure, they wouldn’t need shearing if man never got involved. But then again, we’d have an entirely different civilization, culture, and history as a species if it wasn’t for sheep and their wool. Somehow, along the way we became interdependent on each other. We needed the sheep for wool, milk, and meat, they needed us for protection from wild predators and eventually to clip the wool. I think overall humans ended up with the better hand.
People have asked why I don’t just leave my rescued sheep unshorn. Imagine walking around with an eighty pound, matted, felted, foot thick wool coat pulling at your skin in the dead heat of summer. Imagine lice and bugs nesting in your coat near your skin. Imagine seeds sprouting. Imagine itching and having no way to scratch. Not fun. Now imagine being relieved of a yearly coat as soon as it begins to warm. You just might leap for joy like a lamb.
Why do I shear my sheep? Because I am their caretaker and I love them. The wool is just a by product of that love.
My sweet, blind Henny passed away this past week from what I believe was congestive heart failure. She was older, and I knew the inevitable was coming. As much as we celebrate life on the homestead, death, too, is our sober companion. If you are sensitive to reading about this subject I understand if you want to skip this post and I strongly advise it. I’m going to be very frank and open about how we handle the more practical aspects of an animal’s passing. It’s not pretty, but it is the reality of life.
Those of you who live in the country know that there are cemeteries tucked here and there down almost every road or behind most every old farmhouse. In fact, there’s one on our property so old that all the headstones have worn down to nothing and we aren’t sure exactly where it is. For small animals like cats, hens, geese, most dogs, and even smaller sheep burial is an option. We keep a small critter grave yard fenced off from the rest of the farm. Our gentle Dagny is buried at the center.
If your ground is like ours it’s full of rocks and clay. Frankly, I can’t dig more than three or four feet down. We also sit down in a valley and our water table is usually closer to the surface than two feet. Shallow graves are pretty much the norm. I usually wrap the body at time of death in a plain muslin cloth before riggamortus sets in to hold a sleeping pose. In short, I use this process as a method of compacting the body’s shape to better fit into the grave. I then wrap the entire bundle in an outer cloth, tuck in herbs, tie with string, and then place it in the grave. The outer cloths and herbs help to cut down on the smells that attract scavengers. To help further the grave being left alone I place large rocks over the grave for several months.
I dislike using plastic bags to wrap. It slows the decomposition process and puts toxins into the ground. We also make sure that any burial is down stream of our water source and out of grazing and growing areas. If an animal dies during the winter when the ground is frozen we store the bundled body in our freezer. It’s macabre, but effective.
I know some people with the right land type that use a back hoe to bury large animals such as horses and cattle. Unfortunately we don’t have that option. But, I think it’s preferable personally.
When Lambi died I chose to have her cremated. It was a tough decision. I really wanted her buried next to Dagny. However, Lambi was over two hundred pounds. Not only could I not dig a grave, I had no way to move her body. Two vet techs came out from our vet’s office and retrieved her body. They were as caring and kind as if they were removing a human body. It cost almost $300 total. Lambi now resides in a box next to the front door. However, she was my first lamb and slept next to me. It was the best option available at the time.
Death Pits and Scavengers
This is my least favorite method of dealing with death on the farm, but it is effective. Those who have room can have a pit dug in an unused corner of the farm. When an animal passes you simply remove the body to the pit and allow nature to take its course. At the old farm we had a another tenant’s ewe die. So, Kate and I dragged her nearly a mile to the pit in the dark. When a cow died after an animal attack up in the wood line it was left. There simply was no way to move it. Sometimes the most dignified thing to do is simply to leave an animal’s remains alone. When this is a pet it’s difficult.
Some people find this controversial. However, there is some practicality to this method of dealing with impending death on the farm. My cow Bossy has many years left in her. Daisy our matriarch ewe has less than five. I check their teeth yearly. When they can no longer eat hay over the winter they will face a long suffering death from starvation. Let me be clear: starvation in an animal is painful. They bleed internally. It can take weeks. It’s cruel. So, instead of allowing them to suffer I personally will attend to their slaughter to ensure it’s quick and as painless as possible. It’s one of the few situations when we kill and eat our animals. However, it is the kindest option. It’s not pleasant, nor easy, nor done lightly. I will process out my old friends and use every part of their bodies to feed and cloth our household. I guess it’s the Blackfoot and Apache in me that comes out in those instances, or maybe the practical Welsh. I simply find it more honoring than leaving them to starve and become food for the vultures and coyotes.
I know this topic has been anything but pleasant. But I hope you found it informative, especially if you’re new to homesteading and farming. We do our best to treat our animals with respect and dignity during life. We also do our best to extend that respect and dignity into death. As caretakers of the land and her inhabitants we have the incredible privilege of witnessing the grandeur of life and lesson of the ending. Each one of us will in turn face our own ending and return to the earth to nourish her and become nourishment. Nourish life, and celebrate the lesson our companion offers.
I always wanted a pony growing up. I’m a good rider, and I trained hunter/jumper. I’m also good at using a horse to round up, drive, and cut cattle. I was never horse obsessed, but I was definitely horsey. So, I was excited to get my first horse. Then I was relieved to rehome her. Living with a horse and riding a retired champion are very different experiences. Somehow I expect them to act more like cattle.
So, when Bossy had a calf in 2016 I decided we needed an ox. Duke just isn’t cut out for life as a riding ox. He knows every command, he loves to do what you tell him. But, he’s a hot mess on his top line with a shark fin down his back. If you’re looking for a year old Jersey to pull, I have a deal for you!
So, a few months ago I decided to train Asset as an ox. He’s my little bottle mini Jersey. He has always looked and acted more like a little doe than a steer. He isn’t especially bright either, but he’s sweet, calm, loves me, and has a smooth back. He just can’t figure out right from left.
A few weeks ago we were walking through the woods. He heard a squirrel in the bushes and jumped between me and the bush, pawing in a challenge. Yeah. That’s my boy and his heart of gold. He’ll never be big and strong, but he’s my mighty ox.
Oh mucking! It’s the great challenge of keeping animals in a barn. Be it horses, cattle, ducks, geese, chickens, or chinchillas, somehow all that wonderful fertilizer has to get out of the barn an be transformed into usable compost. I use composted manure in my garden. It makes gorgeous, healthy, disease and bug resistant plants. People say my tomatoes are excellent. I tell them to thank the sheep.
Like many homesteaders I own all most every Joel Salitan book written. He has some wonderful ideas. One idea is to let everything stay in the barn until spring and muck it out in with a tractor or skidder. The hay and the flock’s deposits are supposed to break down into beautiful compost. I don’t have a tractor or skidder. I think that was my first mistake.
The second was thinking my gang of mutannous hooligans would actually eat their hay instead of pulling it out and using it as bum fodder. In Joel’s defense we do have some gorgeous compost absolutely. However, the day I realized my head was even with the barn loft, I decided to abandon ship.
Now, you’d think I would just get in there with the shovel and rakes and the truck and be done. After all, it’s only twelve sheep, not one hundred. After three hours and several truckloads the pen floor is now three inches lower. Yep, one inch an hour. Keep in mind it usually takes me five minutes to rake out the pen daily. Five minutes of raking versus an hour of heavy shoveling. This definitely did not save time, energy, or my neck.
So, for now I’m back to raking out the top layer of bedding everyday and spending an hour or two every week hauling compost to the garden. I expect to be dug out by summer – just in time to haul bags of gorgeous, clean compost to the farmer’s market.
The problem with perfect fleeces or “Did you have to tell me that?”
If you’ve been following this blog then you know I have a policy of no fleece left behind. Simply stated there are no trash fleeces in my world. However, like so many sectors of Western culture, wool processing has become severely detached from reality. There’s an unvoiced expectation that raw fleeces are fluffy, free from vegetable matter, long in staple legnth, and cheap. Any other fleece is simply unworkable and unworthy. This puts pressure on both the producer and the sheep. Remember the sheep? You know, those cute prey animals we’ve bred to produce wool, some to the point of wool blindness? Those darling lambs who love nothing more than to play in brambles and don’t mind sleeping in their own berries? Those cuddle bugs that burp fermented grass and smell, well, like a barnyard? Yep, they’re pretty gross when it comes to personal hygiene.
The reality of keeping sheep coated, changing those coats four times a year, and acting in best interest of the sheep is more complex. Have you ever tried to dress a toddler that doesn’t want to be dressed? Now imagine that toddler is the same weight as you, or more. Ever dressed a two hundred pound toddler? I have. It’s not exactly easy. Then there’s the ethical considerations of adding weight and heat to an animal in the summer along with increased risk of injury if the coat fails (fancy a broken leg anyone?). Or, you can just leave the sheep on pasture away from the hay and hope they aren’t eaten or just horrifically mauled. So, that leaves the majority of fleeces with higher vm than most drum carders can handle with just a pass or two.
What to do!
Grab a lock of your fleece and a hand carder, or a dog slicker if you’re starting out.
Place the carder on your lap.
Now it’s just like brushing hair. Start at the tips, and work up.
When you get past the middle, turn the lock around and do the same on that end.
Or watch me do it on YouTube for a bit more details:
*Yes, there are cats in the house since it’s extremely cold. Lily’s fleece is being used for personal garments, so I’m not concerned about contamination. My studio is animal free!
That’s it. Once you’ve done every lock your fleece is ready to card or spin from the fold. You’ll loose some wool, but if you’re paying a fraction of the cost, or nothing, it’s worth it. I’ve done this on fleeces less than two inches in staple length. Yes, there were a few sailor impressions along the way, but it was worth the time and skint knuckle. Here’s a pro tip: don’t attempt this before coffee or four a.m.
And that’s it for this Wednesday! Don’t be afraid of those lower end fleeces with real potential. A little work, a little patience, and you’ll be amazed what you end up with!
Our smallest lamb has grown into our smallest ewe. She weighs only twenty five pounds compared to the average one thirty in the rest of the flock. She was our bottle lamb, and in her opinion chores are a natural part of a sheep’s routine. It’s always sweet and humorous to watch her follow us around and discuss the day’s issues. She also understands gates.
So, the other day, when I was tired and hungry I closed the main gate to keep the sheep in the barn paddock instead of the main pasture that currently is without fences. Before I could turn around and head to the house, the entire flock spilled out from behind the barn, gambling and leaping into air at a full run, straight into the pasture. Minerva led the charge, and kept leading the charge until we finally got out the lawn mowers and rounded them back up.
Once all back in the barn lot and the back gate secured with a t-post I watched as Minerva started gumming the latch to open it again. This time she failed. She then began pushing on it. Over came Black Iris, Night, and Loral to investigate. After some none verbal communication the four of them began pushing on the gate. I was impressed both with group effort, and the intelligence. We often sell animals short, but clearly there was serious communication and collaboration at work. Minerva may be small, but she’s a smart cookie, like the rest.
The word “dag” first appeared in Late Middle English at the start of the sixteen hundreds. It originally meant a pointed hanging part, or sometimes, a challenge. The Australians applied this word to shepherding, specifically the hanging bits of dung matted into the wool on the backside of a sheep. I think it’s a brilliant use of the word – it hangs, and is a challenge. The word was also transformed from a noun to a verb. These days, we dag sheep, or as this week’s blog is about, we learn about dagging.
Why dag? Well, those nasty bits hanging off the end of the wool sheep are a perfect place for flies to lay eggs and begin inflicting fly strike on the sheep. It can ruin the wool, and kill the sheep. Heavy wool bearers are the most at risk for developing fly strike because the wool goes all the way to the bum. It’s a messy, nasty job, and it’s my job twice a year to trim up the dag end of my sheep.
To demonstrate, I grabbed my buddy Black Iris. He wasn’t overly happy about it, but we made up later.
In days gone by shepherds used to cut the skin off the back of the sheep in order to prevent fly strike. Fortunately that custom is dying out and dagging is becoming the norm. I use simple house hold scissors for this chore. If I had a large flock I would hire our local shearer, but with only twelve I can spread it out over a couple of weeks. For us, since we don’t dock our sheep any longer, this is an important part of our management.
And that’s dagging.
Have a lovely week, and we’ll see you next week when we clean out our sheep’s pen after a failed experiment.
Until then, In all you do, craft no harm.
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Welcome to our first installment of Friday’s Flock. If you’re here for weekly stories about the animals you’ll love the first segment each week, and if you’re squeemish you might want to skip the second segment. If you’re into the animal care and vet information you’ll find that in the second segment. This week’s topic is drenching.
This past February I lost my first pet lamb. I was inconsolable. This sheep was a bit mad, got into all sorts of trouble, and had no fear of water. She was more dog like than sheep like, and we adored each other. Whatever I was doing, Lambi was in the middle of it. She loved looking under the hood of my truck as much as she loved taking a ride with the windows down. She could flat out run, and even when she was pregnant we’d have races, and I’d loose every time. If I clapped my hands and chanted “Lambi dance” she’d stomp her foot, Bob her head and start bucking in place. She’d even get into the creek with us. I loved my Lambi.
Lambi’s last lamb, Broccoli, now lives with us as a pet. He’s not quite as crazy as his mother, but he is so much like her in some ways. The hair sheep genetics came out in him and his fleece is nothing but short fuzz that even I think might be unworkable. But he’s Lambi’s boy, and holds a very special place in my heart.
Tuesday evening I was looking over the flock and giving out chin scratches when Broccoli came over for his nightly affection. He’s like his Grandfather Charlemagne Bolivar that way, gentle and sweet. However, he doesn’t like his chin scratched. He likes his entire neck and chest scratched. I petted him for a while and then turned my attention to Black Iris who was patiently waiting for his hug. Broccoli had a Lambi moment, stomped his foot and bucked his head. I laughed and returned my attention back to Iris. Then Broccoli did something he’s never done before but his mother did routinely: he made a sweet bleat and put his muzzle to my face. I started crying and hugged him.
As sweet of story as that is, what happened next really touched me. From across the pen Orion came over, and laid his head over on me and bleated in conversational manner. I’ve watched Orion settle difference in the flock and escort a lost lamb to its momma many times. Whenever one of the sheep seems upset it’s always Orion who sees to them. However, he’s not one for human contact. I pulled Orion into a little group hug with Broccoli. We stayed there for a moment, and then Lilac decided she was next for her nightly attention. Orion, our brute, is also our comforter. I feel privileged to be considered part of his flock. When I visited the next day and every day since, he has wanted a chin scratch.
Drenching is the most common way to administer dewormer to sheep. Around here we only deworm when necessary. I prefer the FAMACHA system coupled with fecal testing. The FAMACHA SYSTEM involves pull the eye lids down and checking the mucus membranes every two to four weeks. This is something you really need to learn from your vet, because if done incorrectly it can hurt your sheep. However, it is the cheapest way to keep an eye on the more distructive worm population in your flock. We have the vet check samples twice a year in late spring and late fall. No worms, no drenching. Pretty simple system.
I’m fortunate that most of the flock are primitive breeds or crosses. They tend to have a higher resistance to worms and diseases overall. We usually drench once a year in late fall or early winter.
Worms can kill a flock, especially pregnant ewes and lambs. They cause anemia. Wire worms, round worms, and hook worms are typically the most distructive. For what ever reason tapes dont bother the sheep too much, but I do worm for tapes as well since we have cats and dogs on the property. Oh, yeah, and humans.
Drenching really isn’t difficult when you have a willing participant. However, an unwilling sheep can be difficult. Please remember that sheep have teeth, and those teeth can cause cuts deep enough to require stitches. Some people use a drenching gun. They are handy, but with only twelve fairly tame sheep I still opt for a syringe. Also, carefully read the medication instructions and figure out the math before catching the first ewe.
The first step is to corral the sheep. Do not try this in the open pasture. The second step is to put the bottle of dewormer and the syringes in your pocket. Third is to catch the sheep. This step gets more difficult as the drenching goes, and if you’re looking for a great high intensity workout, this may be just your thing.
Now that you’ve caught your sheep, straddle her. Skirts are actually helpful in this case. They keep the sheep from backing out from between your legs. Otherwise, welcome to the real thigh master workout. While holding the sheep firmly between your knees pull up the correct amount of dewormer into the syringe and then put the bottle back into your pocket. Here’s the dangerous part, well, outside of catching them or getting kicked. Carefully slide your thumb between the front teeth and the molars while holding the lower jaw firmly. Your sheep will grudgingly open her mouth just enough to get the syringe in while shaking her head. Now, push down the plunger without letting her spit everything out or letting go of the syringe. Finally, let go of the sheep, and repeat as needed.
To set up your own drenching schedule, make sure you consult a good farm vet who is knowledgeable about sheep and the parasite load in your area. There are organic methods for parasite treatment, and breeding parasite resistance into a flock works better than treating over the long term. However, if you are not interested in breeding, internal parasite treatment is key to sound flock management.
Next week the flock is slated for their biyearly checkup and dagging to prevent over winter fly strike. Until then,