Sorting Sheep

written by

Drausin Wulsin

posted on

July 9, 2020


In late June, we process lambs born in May.

This yearly event is when we take a close look at how the crop of newborn lambs is faring. In the field, we see them from a distance, but not up close, because they scatter when approached. In the sorting pens, we physically handle them, and see them intimately. This is a rewarding and somewhat arduous task.

We bring groups of 20 or so into a corner of the sorting shed, catch a lamb by the nape of the back, and carry it to the station for eartagging and banding.  The lamb is placed between our legs and on top of our feet, so its legs waive in the air and do not have traction for resistance. Females are given a green tag in the ear with the year and a sequential number on it. Males are given an orange tag, with a sequential number, and are "banded". Ram lambs we want to keep for breeding are given orange tags in each ear, and are sorted from the flock within a few months to prevent out-of-season lambing.

Banding entails placing a strong rubber band around the scrotum, so testicles will lose supply of blood and fall off. This causes mild discomfort at the outset but the lambs seem hardly phased by it. One reason we wait a month to process lambs is so testicles are developed enough to find them. If both are not in the scrotum, the lamb will remain fertile and will begin breeding ewes at three months of age, as they mature very quickly. This process may seem crude from a distance, but it is a necessary step in managing livestock and keeping chaos somewhat at bay on the farm. 

Here, Mike and Clark are at work processing these lambs, and they do an excellent job. We are fortunate to have such effective managers on our team.

Eartag numbers tell us how many lambs we have processed. Our total headcount was close to 140 lambs out of 100 ewes. Lambing in barns with stored feed and high labor approximates yields near 200%. Lambing in fields with low labor, generally results in about 110% lamb crop. So, at 140%, we are feeling pretty good. This is higher than in the past two years, but we have had ideal weather this year in comparison. Clark has also done an excellent job of slowly moving the flock through pastures, so pastures receive rest and parasites expire. 

In the above picture, you will notice some lambs lying down. Those are the boys, after treatment. They don't lie down for long, and within hours are back to normal behavior. Notice as well how clean and full all the sheep look. This is a healthy flock. 

In pictures below, you see paddocks after grazing and before. Note how tall and diverse forage is at this time of year. It is amazing how much the flock impacts a paddock. Forage is head-high before entry, yet by the time they leave, little is left standing. They trample much of it onto the surface, creating a mulch, which is invaluable for retaining moisture during periods of heat-stress, such as we currently experience. The brown spot in the foreground is where shade mobiles were placed for two days. It will recover rapidly, given the nutrients left behind.

The issue of the day has suddenly become the heat. Ninety-five degree days quickly catch our attention and bring most living matter to a stand still. We try not to fight it, by making sure livestock have enough shade and water. Our shade mobiles help a great deal, as do pockets of trees around the farm. We try to do our work early and late and in short spurts. Keeping hydrated is critical. It looks like the next ten days will bring more of the same.  

Cool season grasses stop growing in this temperature, which include fescue, orchard grass, blue grass, and various clovers. Fortunately, we have also seeded in pastures warm season grasses, which keep growing in heat. These include switch grass and big bluestem, primarily. Cows are now moving into those pastures. They are currently congregating beneath trees and in a cool woodlot. Tomorrow they will be back to shademobiles. Below is a picture of switch grass that has grown two feet tall and is ready for grazing.

One of the challenges in heat is what to eat that is satisfying. Every summer we rediscover vichyssoise soup. It is great either hot or cold, and is made from chicken stock, leeks, potatoes, and cream. Very easy and very satisfying. We can provide chicken stock by ordering here. We are pondering making the whole product and selling it frozen.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, we traveled for the first time, to see my daughter, Mary, and young family in eastern Pennsylvania. She is great with child and great with a one-and-a-half year old, who is totally adorable. Because of restrictions, we hadn't seen them since Thanksgiving, and before Covid shuts us down again, we wanted to arrange the visit. So, we did, and it was like a trip to heaven. 

Part of the heaven was we brought with us and grilled a boneless leg of lamb. Susan marinated it beforehand in olive oil and honey. Unfolded on the grill with uneven surface makes for great grilling, in that some turns out rare and some well-done. If you would like to try this out, you may order one here.

Susan's herb garden.

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