Thursday, February 24, 2011

Workin' the sheep

Tom and I spent President’s day working the sheep. (Holidays don’t mean a whole lot around here…as the animals can’t read a calendar, and would probably eat one if we had one in the barn!)

We make a pretty good team, and now that it’s just the two of us, that’s a real good thing. Tom handles them….I keep records, administer shots and meds, and “band” the boys. In the past, the sheep were the one venture around here that could make Tom cuss out loud. It was a matter of management. I recently heard an animal behaviorist say “You need to think like the animal you’re working.” Humph! Sheep are notoriously stupid….why does it take SO much thinking to get them to do what you want? Maybe that was the problem…maybe we were thinking TOO hard.

Over the years, we have amassed some equipment to make this job easier. After completing the job this time, it looks like another equipment purchase is in our future. Yippee! Some women want pearls and pretty things….I get excited over livestock scales and handling facilities. It takes all kinds, I reckon. Several years ago, Tom bought the livestock scale without telling me. I had wanted one for quite some time. It makes tracking weight gains and figuring out dosage amounts so much easier than our old “tape-measure method”. The UPS man was somewhat taken aback when I met him at the gate and proceeded to cheer when I figured out what he had delivered.

Working the sheep involves a number of steps. In hopes of furthering understanding of our operation, here’s a quick run-down on working the sheep.

As I have said before, the thing sheep do best is die. Knowing that and the ways to prevent it are crucial in being a shepherd. When we first started this venture, we figured it couldn’t be too hard. I mean, folks have been shepherding since before the Flood. Right? True, but the world is a mite different now, and farming practices have to take those changes into consideration. Please don’t go all “animal rights” on me, or decide that ALL pharmaceuticals are evil before hearing all the facts. Yes, our sheep get some medications…and yes, we dock tails and castrate the ram lambs. From my perspective, these are positive management decisions that ensure we have a crop to “harvest”.

Within the first forty-eight hours of our lambs’ lives, they are checked over thoroughly, given a shot of Bo-Se (a selenium supplement…our area is extremely deficient) ear-tagged, and have their tail banded. Lambs are born with long tails. Remember, Mary’s little lambs’ “wagging their tails behind them”? The long tails catch excrement and get filthy. Then, fly-strike becomes a problem. Fly-strike is awful. The flies lay their eggs in the filth, the eggs hatch, and the larvae grow there, eating into the animal’s flesh. UGH! It makes sense to remove the source of the grotesque problem. It is a simple process, using a strong rubber band. The tail withers and falls away. One management problem solved.

If you're wondering why we's an identification method. While I may be able to pick out "that cute lamb with the big round eyes", they all look the same to Tom. So, they all get numbers. We record these and can keep track of which ewe had which lambs, how they are growing and so forth.

At two days, the lambs and ewes are turned out in the barn with all the other sheep. When the lambs are about one month old, we come back and vet again.

This time, we run all the sheep over the scales, castrate the boys; give all the lambs a shot of CDT (Clostridia and Tetanus vaccine) and a dose of anti-helmintic (de-wormer) to the ewes and lambs. Yes, yes, I’ll explain the meds…

When we first began shepherding, I was totally opposed to any type of medication. Trained as an herbalist, I really felt that allopathic medicine had some big flaws. I still feel that way about certain areas of medicine. But, keeping the animals parasite free is essential to raising healthy animals.

Early in our shepherding days, we lost a great number of lambs to parasitic issues. One of the very saddest episodes ever occurring on the farm was the death of “George” the Cotswold lamb who succumbed to parasites due to a lack of management on the part of the shepherd. I will never forget that year and how horrible it was to watch him die because we didn’t know enough to keep up with the de-worming schedule. We lost some other lambs that year as well; “George” was just special. The “all-natural” methods just didn’t prove effective. So, a couple times a year, we de-worm the sheep. We do not use antihelmintics without thought or caution, and only when necessary.

Many folks are concerned with the use of antibiotics, steroids, hormones, and other things that sound frightening and unnecessary being used in the production of food. I share that concern. I think there should be complete transparency in food production. But, there also needs to be some education of the public. Some of those terms that the layman doesn’t understand are simply vitamins or naturally occurring substances that aid in good health. Just for the record…We do NOT use hormones, steroids, or other growth enhancing products.

We use antibiotics only when absolutely necessary. If a sheep is sick, it must be cared for quickly or it will die. Antibiotics are generally only used in the case of pneumonia. That doesn’t happen too often. Whenever drugs are used, there is a pre-determined withdrawal time, assuring that only the sheep gets medicated, not the consumer.

The CDT shot prevents tetanus (as well as a couple of other clostridrial illnesses). Tetanus is a horrible disease. Any dark, dirty wound can harbor it…and it does KILL. My family lost a member long ago due to tetanus. Death is prolonged and painful. Remember sheep live in a barn, or outside where there is animal excrement. One shot of a vaccine will protect them throughout the year. This does not carry through to the consumer.

We castrate the ram lambs for two reasons. The first is a management issue. If we leave them all intact, they will become aggressive and fight with one another….and us. There is also the possibility of unwanted, unplanned pregnancies. Reproduction is another area where we need to have control. The other reason we castrate is to assure that all the meat tastes the same. There is some discussion as to whether the testosterone affects the meat. I really don’t know, nor do I wish to experiment. From personal experience, it definitely does in pork!

So, that’s what workin’ the sheep entails.

Oh, I forgot to mention….we end up smelling like sheep for the rest of the day, too!

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