This is kind of long but I want to share some of the things I've learned about raising sheep since acquiring my first two lambs about 15 months ago. I've tried to break it up by topic so you can find what you're interested in.
Right now I can sum up my feelings about sheep pretty easily: I love sheep, but sometimes I don't. Why, you ask? Sheep are a better alarm system than any dog or machine. They are still in their pen in the old garage which is way too close to the house. They have hay and fresh water in front of them at all times but twice a day we give them grain. They expect us to grain them before we do anything else in the morning. We tiptop from our bedroom to the other end of the house in the dark to avoid waking them. If you let the dogs out at 5 or 6 AM you better be very quiet and hope the dogs stay in the front yard. At the first sign of life from us, including the dogs running by their pen, it starts.
BAHHHHHHH!!!!!! BAHHHHHHHH!!!!! BAAAHHRRR!!! BAHHHHHRRRHH!!!
And on, and on, and on again. First one or two, then all 10. They all have different voices and I can tell many of them by their special call. The will not stop until you feed. They are so loud even moving to the couch in the living room doesn't let you escape. You have to wander out there in your PJs and give them what they want. Now of course I hope this entertains you but please take note - I'm not exaggerating and I will keep this behavior in mind when I plan sheep housing in the future.
Moving on... we sheared the sheep for the first time last month. I helped a little but a couple of our friends were nice enough to bring their shearers and do the hard work. We laid each sheep on her side and sheared it before flipping her and doing the other side. Those professional shearers make it look so easy, especially the way they sit the sheep on their rumps, but unless you're way stronger than us I would say you need at least 3 or 4 people. Plus a good amount of cold beer if it happens to be a hot day. ;) The sheep were much more comfortable after having the wool removed. I also trimmed their feet and vaccinated everyone about the same time. They look a little funny now with their fancy haircuts!
My Mom dropped the wool off at Zeilinger Wool Co. in Frankenmuth for me. If you'd like an idea on how much wool processing costs it was $150 for the wool from 4 adult ewes. 2 ewes had been growing their wool for 14 months, and 2 were growing for about 7 months. That price is more the wool to go in dirty, fresh off the sheep, and come back cleaned and made in to roving. Roving is when the wool is pulled out in to a long continuous piece, like a soft rope, all ready to be spun in to yarn. My Mom has been learning that art and now she has a lot of yarn to practice on.
Did anyone catch that I said 10 sheep instead of 9? Remember, we had 4 moms and 5 babies. Brian's stepsister brought us another ewe last week. She is an oddball, being born in May of 2008, and the only one she had that was related to her ram. We'll just give her a lamb next year to trade. The new one has settled in very well already. Her name is Molly. She has not had her first lamb yet so we will breed her this fall.
I wish I could say we've done this. All the books I read said to band the ram lambs as soon as their testicles descended, around 10 days old. We decided to keep one of the ram lambs intact and hope that he makes a nice ram for us. The other ram lamb I just let grow for awhile. We don't band our calves' testicles until they are a few months old so we thought we had plenty of time. I tried to band the lamb when we sheared the moms and guess what... his testicles are WAY TOO BIG to fit through the band. I can't even get one through. They are bigger than calf testicles at twice that age. HUGE. I don't mean to dwell on it, but we were all just shocked by this! This was a tough lesson to learn because we want to butcher that lamb and he might have an odd taste now (hopefully not). We could probably still castrate him by other methods but I feel that would be very stressful for him (and us) and I'd rather see how he tastes without so we'll know for sure. So lesson learned - castrate at 10 days as recommended.
We experienced this with Angel, one of the ewes we bought already bred from the MSU sale. She was one of the last ewes to lamb. When the first ewes delivered we separated them in to small pens, called jugs, to bond with their babies. When we tried to reintroduce them to the flock Angel was very aggressive toward the lambs. I watched her for awhile and when she slammed the baby against the gate with her head I jumped in and pulled the baby back out. Eventually we put Angel in a jug by herself so the lambs and ewes could all be together. We were very relieved that when she had her own lamb she showed great mothering ability and acted normally. We reintroduced her to the flock with high hopes. She immediately tried to go after the other lambs. We were out there disassembling the jugs so we let her go for awhile to see if she would settle down. Gwyneth, the mom that had twins, stepped up and put a stop to Angel's behavior. She pinned her ears like a mad horse, scraped her foot like a bull, and charged Angel. I watched in amazement, since they weren't really hurting each other, I wanted to see if they could work it out on their own. Angel would sniff around at the lambs. Gwynny would watch her suspiciously, following her around. Angel would start to charge a lamb. Gwynny would charge her and Angel would run away. Angel was just starting to mind her own business when we got the last jug taken apart. With the jugs gone, the size of their pen was doubled. With a combination of more space and Gwyneth's defensive behavior, Angel relaxed and hasn't bothered anyone since. At least no one has shown any injures and I haven't seen that behavior. I was very relieved since keeping her separated would be very stressful on her and the logistics would be nearly impossible. Lesson learned: give new moms plenty of space and give them a chance to work it out.
We'll be moving them to pasture sometime (I've been wanting to do that since April...) so hopefully I won't have any real exciting stories to share about sheep fencing. The plan is to wean the babies when we move them. One group will go to a neighbor's pasture and one group will stay on our farm.
Overall, the sheep are the one animal that Brian and I both really, really like. They are super easy to keep and watching them grow is very rewarding. I highly recommend you try it if you've been on the fence. If you have any questions or want advice on a topic I didn't cover here I'll try my best to help, just ask!
Check out all my other posts about sheep.
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