Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Heading out to pasture

It's nice having time off from work, being home on the farm this time of year. On this beautiful almost summery day, I decided to start working towards getting the sheep out on pasture, and also to have a go at "shared milking" with the three thin ewes that are getting extra feed. They are already trained to separate from the flock at feeding time for their special mix of grain and alfalfa pellets...the only ewes that have any grain since sometime last spring, when I started supplementing with alfalfa hay instead of grain.

It's important to add fresh forage to the sheeps' diet gradually, so they have time to adjust. Too much at once, esp. legumes like the white Dutch clover growing in the lanes, can cause bloat, which can be fatal. I've always been careful, and thankfully have never lost a sheep to bloat.

I penned the "special" ewes with their morning treat, then ran the other ewes and lambs in the "barn flock" (early-birthed moms of twins and triplets who are getting some extra hay) out to join the "main flock". I carefully set up an electric gate across the north end of the main lane out to the pasture, and released them into it. Oh happy, happy sheep! What a lovely picture, frolicing black and white lambs racing though eagerly gorging ewes. The lane was small enough they couldn't overeat....

But then I got distracted. And when I went to drive them back in a couple hours later, they had knocked down the electric gate and were eagerly chomping away at the best of the best all over the entire pasture. And some of them were VERY round, their left side actually higher than their backbone.

I quickly ran them back into the pen. By myself. It turns out some of the Suffolk cross ewes are determined to kill the Border Collies, now that they have lambs to protect. This morning one of them actually charged ME when I tried to protect the dog. My ewes may try to kill the dog if it's a few feet from their lambs, but these big descendents of Flint Hills coyote-killers are going after dogs 20 feet away, not just threatening the dog but trying to repeatedly slam it into the ground. Poor dogs!

Freckleface, the llama, disdained to leave the pasture. I was worried enough about the sheep to let him suffer his own consequences. I could probably have spent all afternoon chasing him, and still not gotten him in until HE decided he wanted to be in.

No one was showing obvious signs of distress, other than puffing a bit from a brisk jog on a warm day, and being a bit miffed at having to leave the pasture. But they were SO swollen! All the local large animal vets were out on farm calls and couldn't be reached...I had a brief vision of them wandering about together on some "pasture" chasing a little white ball with a bunch of sticks. I can'tremember which apprentice borrowed my "laymans" sheep care book. The Sheep Industry Handbook, for being 3" thick, listed every health problem EXCEPT bloat. I finally found a fellow shepherd that was home, and she looked through her more extensive, better organized library. We talked long enough that some of them were starting to lay down and chew their cud, and determined that if they could chew their cud, they were able to expel stuff from their rumen, and thus whatever incipient bloat they were experiencing would settle itself. Whew!

After the three "special" ewes had been separated from their huge 1 1/2 month old lambs for about 10 hours, I milked them. I won't describe the details of the ordeal of milking three ewes for the first time in 4 years, with inadequate confinement facilities. There will NEVER be videos in my barn! I will just say that I got nearly a half gallon of milk, NOT counting what ended up on me and the barn floor.

Sheep's milk is delicious. "Half-and-half with honey in it!" exclaimed a friend who had grown up on a cow dairy farm, when she first tried it many years ago.

At this point, I'm just going one day at a time with the milking. That's the beauty of "shared milking", where the lambs are separated from their moms in the morning, the ewes are milked in the evening, and then the lambs are returned to their moms. At this age the lambs are eating a lot of solid food, and as long as they have their buddies they are OK without Mom most of the time. Sort of like sending the kids to kindergarten...there may be a bit of bawling the first few days, but then they will get used to the routine.

WHY am I milking, a certain reader probably is wondering. Am I NUTS, with all else that needs done? One good reason is to not have to buy another $55 bag of milk replacer to raise this new bottle lamb (who is growing by leaps and bounds). Another good reason is to replenish my stock of frozen milk for making sheep milk soap. The 4-year-old frozen milk that I've been using works fine for soap-making, but I like the idea of having fresh...and sheep milk is pretty seasonal, at best. Around July 4, the combination of heat and the stress of fireworks will drastically reduce the milk production.

Probably as much as anything else, I like milking the sheep, and the relationship that it builds with them (AFTER we get the routine down!). Many of the older ones learned (and still sometimes respond to)their names through my old milking routine. I stay more in touch with their body condition...hard to judge at a distance, once they start growing their wool back. I noticed today that my geriatric favorite, Eider, is missing some of her front teeth...all the more reason to be giving her extra feed, and if I've got to confine her and wait while she eats, I might as well be doing something productive, right?

Plus, sheep's milk is good quick "energy" food for me this time of year. It's also an excuse to try out the yoghurt maker someone gave me last year, before the garage sale we'll be having in May....

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