So far, so good. I’m coming up on my one year anniversary on this project. I got the sheep in August of 2009 as ewe lambs from a cutting-edge breeder down in southern Missouri. One note of importance is the critical issue for any 100% grassfed program is to MAKE SURE your genetics are right. Most sheep flocks are not geared for thriving on grass alone, and most are not geared for a low-labor program.
What I mean by low-labor is cutting out much of the work in raising sheep (and animals, for that matter). I have a hair-type sheep breed (St. Croix), so no shearing. I don’t clip their hooves, I don’t dock their tails, I don’t worm them (they are parasite-resistant), I don’t feed them grain, I don’t help them with their lambing, I don’t call the vet out for every issue. While some may consider this inhumane, I consider it a program of restoration. Restoration in this instance and in my opinion is getting farm animals back to a status of health and productivity without a lot of human intervention and cost. I always ask myself: “If I wasn’t here, what would they do”? The truth is, wild sheep do quite well. Somehow they manage to live without worming, tail docking, hoof clipping, lots of grain, barns, and lambing assistance. Those that can’t adapt, die — and don’t pass on those genetics that won’t thrive in that environment.
Now, I know I’m generalizing. There are always specific instances where my broad-sweeping statements don’t apply. HOWEVER — all I know for sure is once I got my genetics right and my mindset right, my sheep herd thrived. I breed them in December for a May lambing. This means their third tri-mester finds them on grass (late March into April) right when their nutritional needs are the greatest. They give birth on grass during a time when it’s not too hot, the grass is growing. The lambs that I’m setting aside for my meat sales will finish in November, right when the grass is not growing (and I don’t have to feed hay). These sheep came from a parasite resistant flock in the same climatic zone that I live in, so they are geared to thrive in humid environments (sheep traditionally have been raised in dry, cool, arid climates). If a ewe or ram doesn’t do well in my program, I sell her or him. I’m ruthless with this, because if I’m sympathetic and introduce a lot of medication or labor, then eventually I won’t have a low-labor sheep herd.
The greatest part about these sheep is that they will graze the dead grass in winter, and dig down through the snow and ice to eat it. I didn’t feed any hay last year, and we had a very hard winter. The sheep stayed outside, ate grass all winter, and thrived. That mean their manure and urine was deposited on the pasture, not in the barn (where I would have to clean it up, put it in the manure spreader, and take it out myself). Interestingly enough, so many people thought I was crazy to not feed hay. They almost got angry at how I was such a bad shepherd. In looking at my sheep now, I’m amazed at how healthy they look, their lambs are fat and growing, the ewes are contented.
Bottom line: since they graze during the winter, I don’t have to make or buy hay (reduction in diesel fuel, equipment repairs, capital expenses). I don’t have to haul manure (reduction in my time spent cleaning, diesel fuel for tractor to pull manure spreader, equipment repairs, capital expenses). I don’t have to put up expensive buildings to house the sheep as my herd grows (reduction in capital expenses). Diesel fuel is the life blood of US agriculture – cut that off and the farm economy comes to a screeching halt. One of my goals is to create a farming system that approximates low labor, little to no reliance on diesel fuel, environmentally-sustaining and economically viable.
So far, so good.
Filed under: Animals, Grazing/Pasture, Uncategorized, sheep on July 20th, 2010 | 8 Comments »