How They’re Raised-Sheep

If you haven’t read the beginnings of how I ended up with sheep, first go read that story!

I chose hair sheep after long and careful consideration. Being a small farmer, starting with a single ewe and her lambs, it would not have been easy to deal with the yearly or biyearly shearing of a few sheep. Nor would it have been cost efficient. Shearing a trio of sheep could cost $30 and the wool could end up being worth nothing if it wasn’t cared for appropriately while the sheep was wearing it! I knew I wasn’t ready for that, so I found the breed “Katahdin.”

These lovely hair sheep lose their coat every spring. During the summer, their coat is coarse and short to repel rain and keep them cool. In the winter, the grow in a soft, woolly coat up to three inches thick. Like wool sheep, this coat of hair repels moisture through an oil known as “lanolin.” This oil keeps the rain and snow from wetting them down too much, helping to keep them warm. The three inch deep hair then insulates them so well that snow doesn’t even melt off their backs!

Katahdin sheep are easy keepers: They eat grass and a few handfuls of grain and give you beautiful lambs in the spring with nary a single cry other than to ask “Where’s my snack?!” It’s a pretty darn exciting thing to walk up to the pasture on a cold February morning, still dark, with snow covering them ground to find your ewes lambing, unassisted, and cleaning off their newborns with their only worry being to dry off that little lamb and get it standing and eating. They are incredible creatures and wonderfully instinctive.

I provide my sheep with a shelter from the elements, but they aren’t often inclined to bother with it. On hot days, the sheep find a breezy, shady spot to pant for the afternoon. On raining days, they’ll be out eating grass in the pasture. When it’s snowing, they’ll be laying out there chewing their cud, entirely not bothered. Just about the only time they mind the weather is when the wind starts howling on the colder or wetter days. Then they’ll gratefully use the shelter.

They have full run of the pasture right now, but this winter, they will be confined to the front section to help the pasture heal. Once the grass starts growing, I’ll begin rotating them through the pasture, paddock by paddock. Rotating them around the pasture rather than giving them free reign to the entire area encourages them to eat more than just the “candy grass” and makes them eat a more rounded meal. Some grasses taste better than others, but has more sugar, while others have more nutrients and taste less delectable, so the sheep skip that on the first pass if they have access to the whole pasture.

In September, I take off the ram’s silly apron that prevents accidental lambs, and let him get down to business. In the past, Sam would have completed his duties in a few days and in February, I’d have lambs all on the ground in a week or two. This year, Cork is in charge. Being a young fella, we will see how he does with completely his duties. Hopefully, the lambs won’t be born too far into the spring, but again, Katahdins are good at what they do, so I don’t think there will be much of a problem.

During the months the ewes are in milk with their lambs, I feed alfalfa pellets to give them the necessary protein they need to stay in good condition while caring for the hungry babies. Once the lambs are gone or grown and the cold sets in, out comes the real good stuff, the grain! Sheep go crazy for grain! They will trip over each other to get to the grain bucket and potentially take out the food-lady to get their share! The sheep get a few cups of grain per day to help them stay warm through the cold winter nights and give them the extra calories through the duration of their pregnancy.

Once the lambs are born, I give them a few weeks to build up their strength before I manhandle them too much. But once they are found strong and healthy, the boys go from being rams, to being “wethers,” meaning they don’t get to keep their testicles, which lead to meat having quite a bit of flavor. The lambs grow to about 9 months old, and the ewe lambs are kept behind with their mothers and the wethers head to the butcher. Sheep are considered “lambs” until they are one year old. So when you see “lamb” for sale at the store, it’s not a little baby they slaughtered, it’s a sheep who is often 75% full grown, but just under a year.

The sheep on the farm here at WPP get to stay with their mothers until the day they go to the butcher. I allow the ewes to decide when to wean their lambs. For the most part, the ewes get tired of being thrown around when their nearly full grown lambs head butt their udders in an instinctual effort to encourage more milk production. I’ve seen ewes with their back legs up off the ground from getting head butted so hard! The mothers then usually call it a day and stomp off!

While I still might see 9 month old lambs nursing from time to time, it becomes pretty infrequent by that point. Other producers may only let their lambs nurse up to 3 months, sometimes 4 months before they separate the lambs from the ewes. I find Katahdins don’t need the separation and it’s hard to see them go through that process unnecessarily, so I don’t do it. These sheep might lose some condition and be a bit bony by the middle of summer, but they gain it all back before winter so they stay nice and warm with some fat covering.

So there you have it, raising sheep in a nut shell. There’s always so much more to sheep than meets the eye! My sheep are shy at first, but they know a bucket of grain when they see one and will run to even a stranger, though wary at first. My sheep truly know my voice and come when I call out “come on sheep!” They are eager to be near me and see what treat I may have brought them. It’s such a calming experience to spend time with the sheep. They come to nuzzle me and get a gentle scratch behind the ears or under the chin. The best moments are when Cindy, my matriarch ewe, sways back and forth as I scratch her back. Even sheep love a nice back massage!


Symbiosis on the Farm

If you have been following WPP on instagram, you may have noticed a recent picture of a chicken standing on my heifer, Black Licorice. I titled it “Symbiosis in the Barnyard.” Symbiotic relationships are incredibly important on the farm. In order to keep animals healthy and ensure that their environment mimics what life would be like for them if they lived on the open range in the wild, symbiosis is an absolute necessity.

You have probably seen nature documentaries of animals such as water buffalo with wild birds perched on their backs or buzzards hopping around a pack of lions chowing down on their prey. Birds of all kinds are crucial to success of the ecosystem whether they are cleaning up after herbivores like cattle or sheep or carnivores like lions and tigers.

Chickens, in this case, serve in their vital role in a couple of ways. The cattle are not only tolerant of the chickens, but are practically blind to the chickens! This has upsides and some serious downsides. The simple downside: Chickens are mighty prone to getting stepped on by the blundering giants who have no clue that stomping on chickens is not going to go well for the chicken. Thankfully, chickens are pretty quick to hop out of the way in most cases. The positives of this awesome relationship are numerous though!

Chickens aren’t vegetarians. Did you know that?! They are serious omnivores and eat a huge variety of foods. Chickens nimbly peck at seed heads on the pasture plants but also scratch around for insects. The most fun to watch is a a chicken carefully snatching gnats out of the air! When chickens snag a bug too big to swallow in a single bite, they will essentially play “keep away” with one another as they try to find a safe space to break apart the bug and much down their prize. But how does this apply to sheep and cattle?!

Well, herbivores make a lot of poo. Fibrous grasses and legumes are digested quite efficiently by these animals, but it still makes for lots of raw fertilizer. What likes poo too? Flies. Flies are quick to lay eggs in cow patties. Dung beetles also get to work on breaking down the excrement. Chickens have an innate understanding of this and go searching for the little critters that have found their way into the piles. Chickens scratch apart the piles of poo in search of any bugs they can eat. Sure, it sounds gross, but this is what chickens were designed to do.

In addition to eating the fly larva and other bugs, the act of scratching the patties up means that the grass it has smothered can see the light of day again and allows the ground to more easily absorb the nutrients from the poo. It leads to a healthier pasture and fewer insects that will bother the sheep and cattle. Chickens will not just eat insects from the poo, but also eat them off the backs of the sheep and cattle and generally help keep them away.

Even the sheep are known to allow some back scratching from some brave chickens from time to time! During the winter, the sheep have thick, warm coats that insulate them so well that snow generally doesn’t even melt and freezing rain will form ice on their backs. The chickens are keen to lend a helping hand by pecking the ice chunks off the backs of the sheep for some water and even scratch snow off the sheep. Now, while the sheep don’t need this, it certainly seems that they don’t mind. I think they might even enjoy a nice chicken back scratch!

On a farm that allows symbiotic relationships, everyone benefits! The chickens get easy, healthy food and gain some extra daytime protection from hawks who are less inclined to snag a chicken with such large body guards. The herbivores deal with fewer insects and less stinky poo. Even the pasture benefits by being able to absorb the nutrients more efficiently! It’s a good life when they can all enjoy it together!

The Beginning of Everything: Part 1-Auction Chickens

No one tells you anything about herding chickens. It’s like no one has ever had their chickens get loose before. Like I’ve mentioned before, I read a lot about chickens before getting them. Not one mention of herding the little dinosaurs. No author was ever like “if you’re chickens escape from their pen, here’s what you do.” Why do I keep bringing this up? It can’t be that hard, right? No, it’s not, once you know how they think.

When I came home from college, a switch got flipped somewhere in my head. I don’t know what happened, honestly, I don’t. I basically declared “I’m getting chickens.” So that’s what I did. I went to the small livestock auction, nervous as heck as this was my first auction ever. I got myself a number card and started perusing the auction floor, deciding the ones I’d be bidding on. I had decided I wanted bantams, which are basically just small breed chickens. However, I really had no idea how small or large a bantam was. Seeing these chickens in the flighty, feathered flesh, I had no idea what I was in for.

Bidding time came and it was like they had painted me red and tied neon lights to me. I had obviously never been to an auction before and I could see that knowledge written easily on the auctioneer’s soft smile and quick nod when I timidly raised my card. I went back and forth a few times with another bidder as I quickly attempted to decide how much these birds were really worth to me. Suddenly my bid was the winner and I was given the number of the cage of birds and the cost. I went away to pay and get my boxes, eager to take home my prize.

By the time I came back, all the animals had been sold and the bidding was over. I walked back and forth among the cages looking for my newly acquired chickens. I grew concerned as I looked, being unable to find my chickens. I began to panic a little, thinking someone had taken them. Finally! I found them! Uneasy and unsure of myself, I began the process of loading them up. I managed to get three in the box before one bounded away from me.

The little bugger went under the cages and every time I ran around one side, it darted away. I grew increasingly self-conscious as she evaded capture. An old, quiet farmer came to my rescue and deftly snagged her and put her in the cardboard box. He smiled and said “here” as he reached for the box. He took out a knife and cut a few air holes in it and then helped me load my last four chickens.

I was giddy on the ride home. I had my chickens! I’d done it! Two new experiences were had that day: Bidding at an auction and being the proud owner of 7 chickens. I truly had no idea what was in store for me, not in the next few days and certainly not in the next few years. I was entirely unaware of the brand new trajectory I had just placed myself on.

Farming Misnomers, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies

Grass fed. Pastured. Organic. All Natural. Cage Free. Hormone free.

I’m sure you’ve seen all the various “natural” labels that have been added to egg cartons and packages of meat in all the grocery stores. They serve to encourage the consumer to purchase the blue package over the red package or yellow package. It screams “I’m a healthy product. These animals were treated right!” But is it? Were they?

“Greenwashing” is a term used to describe the labels on these packages of products that may or may not be entirely what they say it is. Ever hear of “vegetarian fed” chickens? I find this label to be the oddest of all. Chickens aren’t even vegetarians! Chickens love their bugs! There’s not much better than watching “chicken tv” and seeing an episode of “keep away” with a grasshopper in the beak of a hen as she tries to find a quiet spot to eat her morsel in peace; all the while, she’s chased by other hens who see her prize and want their own nibble.

But all of these labels are misleading or really just downright lies. Cage free and hormone free are interesting ones when it comes to buying chicken. Many people don’t even realize that broilers have always been cage free and hormones haven’t been used or allowed by the government for over 50 years for poultry. There isn’t even a growth hormone that can be taken orally! The thousands of chickens contained within one broiler operation would need to receive numerous injections for growth hormones to even work. So, while it’s not a lie, it’s massively misleading.

“Organic” has been a term that has found its way onto grocery store shelves in stores big and small across the country. There are multiple organizations that seek to certify organic producers and you will often find that logo alongside the word organic. But what’s the deal? What does that even mean? It’s meaning less and less the more common it becomes. Organic was originally intended to mean that the vegetable or animal was produced without the use of man made chemicals, without scientifically genetically modified organisms, and labor-intensive pest and weed control.

Instead, what we have seen, is numerous methods to skirt around the heart and soul of this term. Plastics are being used by the mountain-full to keep down weeds. New pest-control sprays have been created to kill bugs that utilize naturally-occurring bacteria and fungi. The water has been so muddied in regards to this term that it’s hard to really know what it means anymore. Not to mention that many organizations that certify that farmers and producers are organic allow self-reporting and rarely inspect these farms. That is not to say that all certifying organizations are shady or don’t do their due diligence, but it takes effort to know which ones to trust.

Then there’s “grass fed,” “free range,” and “pastured.” How much grass does a sheep or cow need to eat to be grass fed? A couple handfuls per day? As much as they want? Only grass and no grain? “Pastured” and “free range” sounds like that means they live full time out on the pasture. Does it? Can we really be so sure? Does an hour or two per day count? Many people hear “grass fed” and imagine cows idly chewing their cud while other cattle shove delicate grass blades into their mouths with their long and flexible tongues.

Unfortunately, this is sometimes far from the truth. Eggs labeled as coming from “free range” hens in the United States may never have even seen the outdoors. They may have never eaten a blade of grass or hopped after a cricket as it fled away. Grass fed cattle may eat chopped hay indoors day after day and only get out on grass for a few hours. They may eat mostly grain or silage.

When presented with all of these labels and phrases, it can be hard to know the truth behind them. What’s far simpler is knowing your farmer.

When I say that my sheep and cattle are grass fed and pastured, I’m pretty darn serious. When my first two cattle spent their days planning prison breaks because they thought the field at the bottom of the hill (acres away, not my property) looked far greener, I had to lock them up for a few weeks before they could be moved to more secure pastures. But while they were locked up in the barn, they received daily bales of hay and I scythed as much fresh, green grass as I possibly could. I would drag tarps full of heavy, wet grass and weeds to those two and load them up with all their rotund bellies could handle. So when I say “grass fed,” I’m serious.

When I say that my hens are pastured, free range, and cage free, I mean that I can barely even contain them inside the pasture. They find holes big enough in the fence to slip out; they fly over; they straight up climb the fence. They have two acres to roam, but they choose their own destinies around here. I’m just surprised I haven’t found any in my kitchen yet. Sure, my hens are subject to the predation that is typical of any farm that has free ranging chickens. Sometimes hawks, foxes, weasels, and raccoons will take some of my hens. But I understand that the best of life has risks. I won’t shut my chickens up like bubble boys and girls because the world is a dangerous place. I do my best to protect them, but aside from a secure coop at night and Abel to guard during the day, there’s not much else I can do unless I were to hold their wing all day and all night.

The final term I want to discuss is “all natural.” This one is a doozy and it’s one that I frequently use. It’s unfortunately rather ambiguous. What’s “all natural” mean? I’m not sure what those great big companies being sold at Giant food stores intend it to mean. To me, it means as close to what mother nature intended as possible. It means rotational grazing. It means fertilizing with real fertilizer (you know, the stuff that comes out the backside of an animal). It means using pigs to till up the ground so I can plant more easily. It means attacking pests by removing them by hand. Same with weeds. Sure, on rare occasions, I will use some naturally-based sprays to combat some of the more nefarious critters, but it’s certainly not the first resort. All natural, to me, means working WITH mother nature. She’s kept the earth in balance pretty well until we thought we were smarter. Diversity and rotation are keys to success when it comes to all natural farming and sustainable agriculture and while I’m no master just yet, my focus is to keep improving and keep providing the most delicious, wholesome food my little farm can produce.