Winding up Wednesday: Why I Shear My Sheep

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.

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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.

Until next time,

Craft no harm,

Moriah

 

Friday’s Flock – The Mighty Ox & How NOT to Handle Mucking the Sheep Pen

The Mighty Ox

 

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.


Mucking 

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.

In all you do, craft no harm

Moriah

Friday’s Flock: Mighty Minerva and Dagging 

Mighty Minerva 

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.

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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.

Dagging

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.

Moriah

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Friday’s Flock: Drenching  

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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.

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Lambi’s Boy Broccoli

The Comforter

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.

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Drenching 

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,

In all you do, craft no harm.

Moriah and the Flock