Friday, June 24, 2011

Farm Story for June 25, 2011

A Farm Story for June 25, 2011
Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

On Halloween last year we made a trip to Mars Hill in North Carolina to look at a pair of ewes I’d found on Craigslist. What had intrigued me about them was that they were Border Leicester crossed with Cotswold, both large breeds with gorgeous thick curly wool. We have chosen our sheep based on the variety they add to our nice handspinning flock.

Based on the information the owner gave us, we took two very large dog kennels in the back of the pickup truck. Because we were going up a mountain to almost nowhere, we did not take the horse trailer. Al is very competent at backing a trailer but we’ve discovered that there are some places where, no matter what your skills, it is just not possible to get in and out of with a trailer. It is a good thing we made that choice.

We found the pasture where the sheep were. They were down in a gulley on the opposite side of the road from the woman’s house. There was barely a foot path down to the pasture so we parked the truck on the very edge of the road and walked down with the owner. The sheep were in a pasture with a horse. The pasture was bare, eaten down to the very end of the dry weedy stems. The woman explained that she was leaving the farm and had not been able to get hay so had been feeding only grain lately. The sheep certainly showed that that was the case – they were grossly obese.

They did have long beautiful white locks. We were told they were named Betsy and Bitsy. Although they looked very similar from a distance we only needed to look at their ears to tell them apart. Bitsy had a little bit of the tip of her ear missing where her ear tag had been torn out.

After a fair bit of running, we were able to corner and catch the first gal. We had to walk her out of the pasture and up a narrow foot trail to the truck. The owner, Al and I all held onto her as we walked as she would have disappeared into the mountains had we let go. She was not accustomed to a lot of hands on contact so was quite skittish and tugged against us as we tried to guide her. We had set the dog kennels out onto the ground when we arrived so we managed to force her into one. There was room for her to stand and partially turn around but we had no idea when we planned our trip that the gals would be so grossly enormous! We managed to secure the kennel and then had to lift it up into the bed of the truck. By the time we were ready to lift, the woman’s companion had arrived. It took all four of us to hoist the full kennel into the truck. We repeated the process with the other sheep, tarped the kennels and prepared to leave. I asked their owner about the sheep’s vaccinations, lambing history and current diet. I never did find out how much grain the gals were getting each day but it was obviously quite a bit.

The owner said that the last person who had sheared for her had scolded her for their condition. There is a simple way to determine if a sheep is of the proper weight. You place your hand along its spine near the tail. Your middle finger runs the ridge of the spine and then you determine where your fingers lie in relationship to your middle finger. If your outer fingers drop lower than your middle finger the sheep is too thin, if all fingers are flat the sheep is in good condition and if your middle finger is the lowest of the fingers the sheep is overweight. Well, these girls were hefty. A middle finger trying to find the spine disappeared in a sea of fat.

Since it was the end of October, the bulk of our breeding season had passed but we didn’t want to risk any “mishaps” with these ewes. They were much too overweight to risk a pregnancy. We placed them as securely away from the rams as we could. We estimated their weights to be between 225 and 240 each. We put them on a hay-only diet which is quite sufficient for any sheep that is not nursing a lamb. They did get an occasional nibble of grain as we tried to gain their confidence. They were not really people-friendly, even with their original owner. In a few days they were becoming more and more curious about us, especially when they realized we did have a treat. As they became more interested in us, we used that to make them take walks. We would wander around the pasture with just a nibble of grain in our hands. They would walk and walk, hoping we would slow down and give them just a nip. When we first started this little game they would often be panting after just a few minutes. Their endurance increased as their weight dropped. Over time they became friendlier and healthier, probably losing about 30 pounds each.

Al sheared the gals in the spring. We knew they had dropped a decent bit of weight but were not surprised to find that they could still lose more. Sheep do not have hefty rear ends; these girls had fat folds rolling down on either side of their tails. They still have a good way to go to be truly healthy sheep but they are now grain-free and continuing to lose weight. Perhaps they will be in good condition to breed in the fall but if not they will be separated from the rams. Their health is our first priority so we will continue to work on it.

Bitsy and Betsy have earned a nickname here on the farm because of their tendency to try to force their way through gates as we are going from pasture to pasture. They are particularly persistent if the two have been separated. They have earned the name “The Sofa Sisters” because trying to get through a gate with them is like trying to squeeze between to very large fluffy couches.

The fleece from their first shearing here is gorgeous. Each fat curl is at least six inches long. Although they are filthy when they first come off the sheep, they wash up to a lovely sheen. These gals were losing their home so we would have cared for them anyways but it is nice to be rewarded with such lovely wool. And with our very hot week, I am sure they are very fortunate to be nicely shorn and to have lost as much weight as they have so far.

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