Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Sheep: The Original Homesteading Livestock

by S.C.
 It is my opinion that survival in a long-term, system-down situation will require a lot more than stored food and water. Survival may boil down to being able to produce food in a sustainable manner with little more than natural resources. Many people seem focused on “bug out” plans, food storage and gardening, with seemingly little thought to the long-term survivability of their plan. While gardens will provide sources of nutrition which are very necessary, the higher calorie and protein needs cannot be satisfied by gardening alone.

Eggs, milk and meat are good sources of protein with caloric benefits that vegetables cannot meet. Many people who share their “plan” seem to think that wild animals can be easily harvested to meet their needs. However, if one adds up all the people who plan to “live off the land,” there is an evident shortfall. I have spent the past several years experimenting with various types of animal product cultivation and I have found that, regardless of the fact I was raised on a farm, I have had a lot to learn. During the past year, I have tried my skills with sheep and found myself in wonderment of the most original homestead animal. In this article I am going to highlight some of my experiences and provide some information about vital reference materials.

Throughout the Bible, analogies and references to sheep were used to illustrate certain behaviors, scenarios and offerings. Jacob was given a “coat of many colors” which was spun from sheep’s wool. Abraham was asked to offer a lamb for sacrifice. Jesus was referred to as the “Lamb of God.” Sheep were so interwoven with early human culture, that their characteristics provided a source of analogy for many of the Bible authors. We have learned through thousands of years of example that history has a tendency to repeat in certain patterns. And throughout ancient history, sheep and humans played a coexistent dependency. I do not think I fully understood many of those Bible analogies until I made the choice a year ago to add sheep to my homesteading experience. Sheep are, for good reason, the original choice of livestock in the history of humanity.

Sheep provide a plethora of resources, while the overhead of raising them can be quite nominal. Wool can be used for spinning into clothing, blankets, rugs and other useful accessories. Sheep’s milk can be used fresh, in cheese or other recipes. Lamb is a delicious delicacy, which is both nutritious and healthful. Sheep can also help control weeds and provide fertilizer, as well as being a great source of entertainment. The understanding sheep and how to keep them alive could prove very useful in a situation where modern conveniences are disturbed.

When I purchased my starter flock of sheep, I was rather naive and I did not do much research. But I found an older gentlemen who was eager to share his knowledge, and wanted to thin down his little suburban flock, due to neighbor complaints. His passion was for the Border Cheviot breed, but his daughter had started their small flock with Suffolk’s which were part of her FFA project. So, I purchased a mix of purebred Border Cheviot with Suffolk. It meant little to me at the time, but I have been learning the importance of the breed. One of the best overall references I have found, and use constantly, is Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep. This book has a very good section on breeds of sheep.

Selecting the breed of sheep is a rather important step in getting started. There are sheep (referred to as “hair sheep”) who do not need to be sheered, because they shed their wool each year, and their primary purpose is for meat. Right now, wool is not worth very much, so this seems an attractive option. There are sheep, such as the Suffolk, whose selling characteristic is the fast growth of lambs for meat, but their wool is not very desirable for spinning. I have been told, all of the black-faced breeds of sheep are not considered desirable for wool. The white-faced sheep, such as the Border Cheviot, have softer, more desirable wool. The Moreno breed is considered to be the best for wool production. There seem to be three major categories of traits for sheep: Wool, meat and heartiness.

I found the Border Cheviot to be flighty and difficult to deal with at times, but stronger and heartier than some of the other breeds. They are also quite small, so not as good for meat, and sometimes they have a hard time producing enough milk for two lambs. But the ewes have strong maternal instincts and rarely abandon a lamb. Some breeds are known for large numbers of offspring each year. They tend to have more problems raising the lambs themselves, with shortage of milk and apathy toward the big family, but are good for production of both milk and lambs for meat. The various breeds of sheep all have a set of attributes and drawbacks, so diligent study should be done before deciding on a breed to raise or cross-breed.

One of the most important choices a person must make is the Ram (or Rams) that will be used to produce next years’ crop of lambs. I was guided into purchasing a well-bred Suffolk ram, and I am happy for that guidance. My lambs this year are bigger and growing faster than the ones from the Border Cheviot ram last year. The Suffolk ram is also quite docile and not as aggressive as other rams I have seen. Although he does challenge me from time to time, he responds well to reprimand and he has not attacked me. The biggest challenge with rams is to make sure they do not hit you from behind. They wait for an opportunity, because they enjoy smacking other animals with their heads. I treat my ram cautiously because I know he could become quite dangerous, if not kept in check. I do not pet him on the head and I keep the relationship somewhat distant. Rams feel that friendship involves head-butting. The ram determines not only the type of lambs you will get, but also their personality and the mood of the flock.

My first major lesson in being a shepherd came when my costly young ram started looking depressed. He went off alone and lied under a tree for a day. I figured I would keep an eye on him and hope he was better soon. He went downhill fast. By the time I got him to the veterinarian, it was discovered that he had a massive infestation of worms. When I asked if they had seen one this bad before, the veterinarian replied, “not in a living sheep.” He died shortly thereafter and I spent the evening digging a deep hole with a shovel. That was when I became educated on the most deadly threat to sheep – parasites.

There are a number of worms that will infest sheep. Roundworms are the most common infestation, and the culprit in my lamb loss. Initially, I used the chemical wormer, sold to me by the veterinarian. But I wanted to find a naturally sustainable way to manage this problem. The worm infestation runs in a cycle. Millions of eggs are passed in the feces of the sheep, later hatching and becoming worms that are ingested. My first strategy is to encourage my chickens to spend more time in the field, feeding on the eggs and worms. To do this, I changed their grain feeding pattern. I only feed a small amount of grain in the evening before they roost so they forage during the day instead of waiting around for food. But this will only help slow down the cycle.

The second part of my strategy has been the use of garlic juice. Initially, I was using powdered garlic in their grain. I had the veterinarian test a sample of feces from the sheep and it was found that there was a significant population of worms. It was recommended that I use the chemical worming solution immediately. I did a little reading and decided to hold off on the chemical solution. I bought a large quantity of whole garlic and put it through my juicer. I stirred the juice into the grain and fed it to the sheep. I repeated the treatment a week later, and then had another test done. The worm population had decreased, but there were still worms. So I continued with treatments for another month and tested again. Although still present, the number of worm eggs in the feces has diminished to a point that is not considered dangerous and chemical treatment is no longer being recommended.

Another type of worm of particular concern, especially for dog owners, is the tapeworm. It can be transmitted to dogs through ingestion of feces or meat. However, natural treatment for this type of worm turns out to be much less complicated. I have been mixing a couple of tablespoons of food grade diatomaceous earth with the sheep salt, and tests have found no presence of tapeworms. I purchased a 50 lb. bag of this miracle solution at Amazon.com for an affordable price. A little diatomaceous earth goes a long way and it has many uses.

In addition to garlic, I have found apple cider vinegar to be of use in both controlling worms and aiding in the overall health of my sheep. I add several cups of vinegar to their water from time to time. Runny noses dry up and the sheep look healthier. The health benefits of vinegar for sheep, chickens, and even humans, are numerous. I use vinegar regularly for all of my animals. Sheep, like most animals dependent on our chemical treated culture, have a number of health hazards that are important to know how to treat. I am learning daily and I imagine the learning will continue as long as I have sheep. My friend, who has commercially raised sheep for 30 years, says she still learns something new every day. She recommended a book that is no longer in print, but I was able to buy it used on Amazon.com: A Practical Guide To Sheep Disease Management, by Norman Gates.

Sheep are more economical with feed than many other four-legged creatures. However, quality of feed is very important for sheep. I have a high quality pasture grass with gravity flow irrigation. My sheep get very upset when I flood irrigate each week, but it creates a healthy growth of grassy nutrition. During the winter months, I feed premium alfalfa hay. When ewes are pregnant, the size of their stomach can be reduced by the space needed for the growing lambs. This can cause severe health problems, if proper nutrition is not provided. I grain my ewes daily during the last few months of pregnancy. A friend told me of her first year raising sheep wherein she lost more than half of her ewes due to lack of nutrition during pregnancy. It has crossed my mind how difficult it would be to sustain any of these creatures without the hay and grain so readily available in today’s world. But it was accomplished during Bible times, so I’m sure it could be done again.

Lambing can be a stressful time for both the sheep and the shepherd. Depending on when they are bred, sheep tend to lamb between February and April. In many parts of the country, this is a cold, blustery time of year. Some sheep are naturally good at pushing out healthy lambs, while others are going to need help. I am not going to cover all of the things that can go wrong, because that would be an article in and of itself. However, I am going to say that, from what I have learned, being ready to take a gloved hand and feel around inside a sheep is part of the business. And I say “gloved hand” because, I am told there that as a woman, there are diseases which I can get from sheep without the use of gloves during birthing. Some breeds of sheep are natural with the lambing process and some will require a lot of help. I have had to “pull” two lambs this year from first year ewes that had trouble. It was a trying, but worthwhile experience.

Lambs need to nurse within the first hour of being born, or things can go sideways. If a lamb has not nursed properly, its mouth will go cold. This means the lamb is in trouble. Colostrum needs to be given to the lamb quickly to avoid death. The easier way to avoid this scenario is to hold the sheep and try to get the lamb nursing. Lambs need special treatment for the first 10 days of their lives, so separate enclosures with good shelter is advised. I had two pens with huts I purchased used from another breeder. It worked well for my six ewes. The new lambs should have their umbilical cords treated with iodine until they dry. They will also need to monitored carefully to make sure they are nursing properly and staying healthy. Books have been helpful, but I have found there is almost no better resource than a person who has spent a number of years raising sheep and is willing to share knowledge.

Lambs are also mentally weak. They will literally lay down and die if they think things are bad. My veterinarian put it this way, “remember the four S’s of sheep raising: Sick Sheep Seldom Survive.” And most of the time, the ones that sick are the lambs. Recently, one of my lambs was somehow interpreted by my guard dogs to be a buddy that wanted to wrestle. Although there was no blood or obvious physical injury, the lamb thought this was the end of his life and just gave up. His neck seemed to have had some sort of whip-lash type injury from the incident, but he was otherwise healthy. I spent a hectic week trying to keep him alive and convince him to nurse again. My secret weapon turned out to be a mixture of water, honey, egg yolk and garlic juice, plunged down him from a syringe. He perks up substantially after a half cup of the concoction. However, without the intense care, he would still have given up at times because his neck hurt.

Predators are another big threat to lambs and sheep. I have my acreage surrounded with near-predator-proof fencing. I have watched coyotes and foxes stand at the fence and gaze hungrily at my animals. They have only a few places where they can get in around my gate, with some effort. And when they do get in, I have two 120 pound. German Shepherd guard dogs who will try to kill them. So predators are, for the most part, not much of a problem. However, in a situation less secured, there are dogs (such as the Great Pyrenees) who are capable of killing even a wolf to protect the sheep. Devising a predator plan is a very important part of a sheep operation.

Setting up my operation has been a somewhat costly venture, but I have found some significant tax advantages in doing so. Because I am raising livestock for a profit, the costs of setting up the pastures, fences, facilities, and purchasing of the initial stock has provided a significant tax deduction for several years. I will probably make a “profit” on my sale of stock this year and have some tax liability. But, so far, the benefits of the learning and the improvements to my small farm have proven to be a good move for taxes.

Lamb is a sheep of less than a year old. Lamb is considered to have a more “mild” flavor than mutton, which is the meat of a grown sheep. I “culled” a problem ewe last fall, by adding her to the butcher list. The “lamburger” and meat from the mutton sheep has been as popular with my customers as the lamb. My favorite ingredient for everything I cook with lamb is rosemary. Rosemary seems to sweeten and enhance the flavors, so I raise several rosemary plants in my kitchen and use it regularly. I recently marinated a leg of lamb in my sauce for 24 hours before roasting it on the barbeque grill, with terrific results. I often use the marinate sauce as a base for gravy. I have received some rave reviews from friends and family.

Rosemary Marinade Sauce
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup dry red wine
¼ cup fresh rosemary leaves, minced
¼ cup fresh garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper

Preparing to live without modern conveniences is a lifestyle. I have made many sacrifices to live in my homestead. And raising animals can be very challenging while holding down full time employment. I imagine the thousands of years of history when human survival hinged on a herd of sheep that were watched over while they grazed on the hillside. The stories of the wolves and the battles to keep the sheep safe have become more meaningful for me. I have fortified my little farm to resist threats, both four-legged and two-legged. I believe long-term survival could mean that protecting a flock of sheep and a homestead might include dealing with people who are “bugging out” and need to be sent down the road. I strongly urge people to change their way of living now and move to a sustainable lifestyle.

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