- Author: Dan Macon
This principle, I think, is especially applicable at lambing time. There is an art to lambing in a pasture (or really to any lambing system) that can only be learned by experience. Moving slowly - both in a physical sense and from the standpoint of watching and waiting - is critical during lambing season. A couple of examples:
- Several weeks ago, we moved the entire flock onto new pasture. A handful of 2-3 day-old lambs decided it would be great fun to stay back in the old pasture. Rather than try to catch them or chase them, I worked with Mo to quietly and slowly herd them ahead to the rest of the flock. Mo was incredibly patient - herding young lambs is worse than herding cats - and I tried to quietly help Mo follow his instincts. We finally got the lambs close enough to the new paddock that their mothers found them and led them the rest of the way.
- Late one afternoon, I came upon a lamb that didn't seem to have a mother. She was dried off and energetic, but her mother was nowhere to be found. I tried putting her with a ewe that had another lamb, thinking that perhaps she was a twin. The ewe ultimately rejected her, but I decided to leave her in the pasture until I came back for my evening rounds. She was still by herself when I returned, but I tried putting her with another ewe that had a single lamb. Bingo! The lamb was her missing twin, and when I left tonight both lambs were following her and nursing regularly.
- Yesterday, we moved all 190+ ewes and their lambs (well over 400 animals in total) about three quarters of a mile through three gates and onto fresh pasture. Without lambs, two dogs and one shepherd could accomplish this task in about 15 minutes. With lambs, it took us more than an hour – and the dogs and I even had two extra human helpers! When moving pairs (ewes with lambs), I’ve learned to go slowly and let the ewes double back to find their lambs. Had we tried to haul the animals rather than walk them, it would have taken all day (and been much more stressful on everyone).
Much of my time at lambing is spent waiting and watching - waiting for a ewe to deliver her lambs on her own or watching to make sure that a ewe has bonded with her lambs. If I move to quickly at this point, I risk disrupting the ewe-lamb bond by pulling a lamb or increasing my labor requirements by bringing a lamb home to be bottle raised. I’ve developed little ways to trick myself into waiting – if I come upon a ewe in labor, for example, I’ll force myself to go build fence before intervening. Going slow, in this case, means less work!
- Posted By: Foothill Farming
- Written by: Dan Macon
While my wife and I have raised sheep for nearly 20 years, we've been doing it a commercial scale since 2006. As part of a team that puts on a beginning farming class, I recently looked back at how we got started in the sheep business. This formal look back helped me to realize how much I didn't know when we started Flying Mule Farm.
So much of small-scale farming is skill-based. Farming takes an immense amount of knowledge, yes; but it also takes a wide variety of physical, observational and mental skills. For example, take stockmanship - the ability read, understand, and handle livestock. A good stockman understands livestock behavior and is able to quickly observe subtle changes in this behavior. A ewe with droopy ears, for example, may be sick. A restless, pregnant ewe may be getting ready to give birth. Animals that are laying down and chewing their cuds contentedly probably have had enough to eat.
We purchased a small group of feeder lambs when we first moved to Auburn in 2001. They were extremely wild - so wild, in fact, that we took to feeding them in a small pen so that we could be sure to catch them when we were ready to have them processed. The combination of their wildness and our inexperience was probably stressful on the sheep; it was certainly stressful on us! Fast forward to last November. Our border collies and I loaded 60 sheep and goats into our trailer in a cul de sac - no fences, no pens - just good dogs and a more experienced stockman.
I've benefited from the experience and knowledge of a number of mentors. Our local farm advisor, Roger Ingram, has taught me a great deal about stock handling and animal behavior. Our friend Ellen Skillings has helped me understand how to use dogs effectively and how to evaluate the health status of a group of sheep. Much of what I've learned has come from simply trying and failing (and sometimes succeeding). Based on what I've learned in the 20 years that we've had sheep, I'm sure I have a great deal more to learn, as well!
The practical aspects of sheep-raising, I think, must be learned by doing. College courses, workshops, and other formal situations are useful introductions, but real skill development comes through repetition and through trial and error. I suspect other types of farming are similar. While these skills were once passed from one generation to the next when kids worked alongside parents and grandparents, most young people who are interested in farming today don't have this opportunity. To me, on-farm internships and apprenticeships are critical in filling this need. Unfortunately, the informal system of farm internships is threatened by legal issues surrounding compensation and workers compensation insurance. Hopefully, educational institutions (like community colleges and nonprofit organizations) will partner with farms like ours to provide this experiential learning opportunity to more aspiring farmers!
Note: Special thanks to fellow farmer Mary Yates for these great photos!
Dan Macon, Flying Mule Farm, Auburn, CA