First Year Reflections

. . . or What Not To Do

With the conclusion of our second breeding season, I thought perhaps I should take a few moments to look back on our first year as an Icelandic sheep farm, and think about where we’re going from here. It has certainly been a grand series of ups and downs, but I wouldn’t trade this adventure for anything! Never a dull moment, that’s for sure! Here’s how our first year went: We got all our foundation stock to the farm. THEN we had a visit from the USDA Scrapie people, because they found discrepancies in our Health Certificates. We had a total of three visits from them, and some hints about possible fines and/or “other” disciplinary actions – what we ended up with was a warning letter, and threats of really bad stuff if we ever violate The Codes again. SO all you would-be “across-State-lines” purchasers, be sure your Health Certificate identifies your animals properly, and that the critter you have on your truck matches the description! What a pain! Our next challenge was finding a shearer for the Fall clip. This may be easier to do in other parts of the country, but in the Midwest shearers are in short supply. We finally located someone who was willing to clip a small number of sheep, and we got the job done. We left fleece on the ram lambs and most of the weanling ewes – our usable fiber from this clip was small due to the “burr coats” that most of the girls had developed in our pastures. This is how we discovered that if you cut burdock off, it will send out spindly side-shoots near the ground, and grow wonderful burrs on those. Never a dull moment! After shearing, we started putting together our breeding groups, including the weanling ewes. We chose to expose our younger girls to a ram because not doing so would skew our prolificacy stats. What I mean by that is that many of our foundation gals who were bred as weanlings produced offspring – it would not be fair to compare the prolificacy of an un-exposed ewe lamb to these gals, nor did we think it fair to deny our young girls the chance to shine. This choice was made after reading about all the pros and cons connected with one-winter ewe birthing; at this time, we made a management decision to supplement the ewe lambs with grain, instead of relying totally on hay for their development. We fed one cup of a shell corn/lamb pellet mix per head per day. We continued feeding grain while the girls were in breeding groups, but discontinued the practice once the ewes were all back together. The only hay we were able to locate last winter was 100% alfalfa, so we didn’t think the girls would be short on protein. As it turned out, this hay caused us problems at lambing – the hay was very dry due to the 2005 drought, so the leaves would fall off, leaving a mat of inedible stems. The girls would lick up all the leaf fragments, but still be hungry SO we would feed them some more bales. The last three months of their pregnancies, the girls had an almost straight protein diet, with hardly any roughage. As a result, we had 2/3 of our lamb crop weighing more than 9 pounds at birth, when the desirable weight is between 6 and 6.5 pounds. More on that later. We kept the breeding groups together from the first of November to the 15th of December, and hoped that The Boys had done their jobs. I think Icelandics are rather reserved about courtship, for although we saw a lot of chasing and heard a lot of “growling”, we never saw a single ewe get bred. So far, I haven’t seen one this year, either! If you have a nervous stomach, or suffer from tension headaches, this aspect of Icelandic sheep is not good. A marking harness would go a long way toward building confidence that the ram is successfully wooing his gals, but they’ve always seemed like a lot of trouble to me. Maybe I’m a closet masochist. In any case, by the 15th we were getting pretty tired of hauling buckets of water and dragging bales of hay around, so we were ready to disperse the groups. We didn’t want lambs born after the first week of May, since they seem to get a better start when the weather is cooler; also I could predict that after a month of getting up in the wee hours to check the flock that I’d be ready for a break. So we put all of The Girls back in the Big Barn, and wrestled The Boys down the hill to the “Horse Barn”. In order to re-unite the rams with the least amount of damage, we built a small holding pen in a corner of the barn and put the three boys in there, along with two old tires. They had enough room to turn around and lie down, but not enough room to back up and charge. The tires made for unstable footing, too, so we had no scrapes or contusions on any of The Boys. We left them in the pen for 24 hours without food or drink, and released them in the late afternoon. All they were interested in by that time was getting to hay and water, so we had no fights that night at all. I don’t have any proof, but I think penning our Pygora buck, Matisse, in with The Boys also helped…he really has a stench during the rut, and all The Boys could smell was GOAT! In any case, our first week or so went very well in the ram pen – after that, Ilex and Ash started bullying Rubus and keeping him from the hay. At this time, Rubus was still much smaller than the other two, and also very laid-back, so as a consequence he started dropping weight. Our solution was to put him and Matisse in a separate paddock and to give them both some grain. Within a week, Rubus was rounding out again, and after that he began a growth spurt that made him the equal of Ash and Ilex by the time he hit his May birthday. This was my first opportunity to see how rapidly Icelandics can gain weight on elevated nutrition, and I was suitably impressed. Meanwhile, back at The Barn…I was closely watching The Girls for any signs of impending motherhood, but they looked the same to me. By February I had decided that all my rams must have been either infertile or too short to mount the mature ewes, and that I was going to be a bust my first year as an Icelandic breeder. In hindsight, I don’t know what I expected to see under all the fleece, but I had many moments of despair. Fortunately, Laurie B-G was (and continues to be) a most excellent mentor, and tried to help me develop a “wait and see” attitude. We had the shearer out the last weekend in February, and lo and behold, there were signs of small udders developing on some of the older ewes! We were all really excited, and couldn’t wait to have our first HolliBerri lambs born. At this time, we gave CDT boosters, BoSe shots, wormed the flock with Ivomec (which doesn’t always work anymore) and trimmed feet. Never a dull moment. We spent the next week building lambing jugs, and waited for the offspring to arrive. Not understanding the nature of the beast, I thought that lambs would start dropping right around the middle of March. We had twins born the last week of March, but the majority of our mature ewes lambed the second and third weeks of April, with a few of the one-winter gals giving birth into the first week of May. These sheep are VERY seasonal! Our first set of twins was born with no problems, but after that, the over-abundance of protein in our flock diet came in to play, and we started having some lambing challenges, most particularly with the one-winter ewes. We had quite a few lambs that had to be pulled because they were just too big – this is how we lost Kalmia. We also had several retained placentas in our gals that had a long, hard labor. It is possible that they suffered from a lack of selenium (even though we gave them a BoSe booster), but its just as likely that their poor little bodies got too tired for any more pushing after the lamb was born. We gave each ewe with this condition one 4 cc shot of BoSe, and then 9 cc of CalMag paste, 5 cc of ProBiotic, and 9 cc of penicillin every morning until the placenta dropped. Aralia gave us our only set of triplets; the ram lamb was coming breach, so it was fortunate that I was out in the barn doing my 3:00 AM checkup. We had two sets of one-winter twins out of Mt. Laurel and Inkberry – you go girls! On the down side, both Jasmine and Briar gave birth prematurely (who knows why) on the same day, at the same time, within a few feet of each other. Neither lamb could be saved. We were sad about this, but thrilled with the fact that we had a 99% conception rate for 2005 – only Willow failed to breed. I sure would have worried less had I known how great my young boys were! As the ewes lambed, we brought each new family in to the barn, and gave them a lambing jug for the first 24 hours (some longer if they had problems). This was when I discovered a major management flaw. As the grass greened and the ewes went to pasture, I had started them out in the paddocks closest to the barn, so every pasture rotation took them farther and farther from the lambing jugs. By the time they were actually having lambs, their pasture was at the very end of our 10-acre plot. Wait ’til you try to carry two struggling, wet lambs at arms’ length, walking backwards really slowly 900+ feet, with no guarantee that the ewe will keep following you! Never a dull moment! I finally devised a semi-successful system where I would strap one lamb into the weighing sling that I got from Premier, hang it at arms’ length in front of the ewe, and tuck the second lamb (if there was one) under my other arm. This worked better since I didn’t have to walk backwards, but I still had some spooky gals who would get half-way to the barn, then spin around and return to the birthing site looking for the lambs. I found it interesting to note my change in attitude: I started out lambing season in a tizzy of anticipation, and by the time I hit the middle of it, I was longing for it to be over! This year, we’ll start from the back, and graze toward the front! Each lamb at birth got 1 cc of BoSe, and we checked the inside of its mouth to be sure it was warm (which indicates that it has nursed). We also stripped both of the ewes’ teats to make sure that colostrum was coming out both sides. Initially, after the 24-hour bonding period, we tried putting the new mom and her lambs back out with the other ewes, but we found that the “aunties” were so curious that the lambs would get separated from their dams and knocked down by the over-lookers. Fortunately we have a smaller paddock just off the upper end of our barn, so that became the nursery, and we gave each new family 3 or 4 days out there to get used to a more spacious environment. This system seems to have worked very well, so we plan to do it again this year. At approximately 6 weeks old, the first-born lambs got their initial CDT vaccination – two weeks later, the rest of the lambs got their first shot and the older lambs got their last shot. Everybody got a BoSe booster at this time, and we wormed with Valbazen, which I thought would work well on our farm since I had never used it. Unfortunately, one of the gals that I purchased must have carried parasites immune to this wormer, so even though I thought I was doing the right thing for my flock, I didn’t kill the parasites, and we paid for it a few weeks later when the heat of Summer hit. Shortly after this, we discovered that we had a problem with our GEOTEK high-tensile electric fencing system. Although we had followed manufacturers recommended construction for sheep, it became apparent that 5 wires would keep out predators, but they couldn’t keep in Icelandic lambs( we owe our neighbor for some raw hay). We added two strands to the perimeter fence, and found out that the post spacing for “normal” sheep might work fine, but it won’t work for Icelandic lambs. SO we ordered more posts. Before we could get them installed, we lost a leaderlamb to rubber poisoning out on the road. He was very tasty. We also learned that, while your standard electric fencer will keep in horses and cattle, it will not keep in sheep or goats. So we bought a fencer that will knock you “ass over teakettle”, and the sheep no longer challenge our system. Meanwhile, Summer of 2006 proved to be the Year of the BBP (barberpole worm) – all conditions were perfect for proliferation. We had really cool nights, which gave us really wet pastures even into the afternoon, and we had really hot days which were a burden to the immune systems of our flock. I know all of this in hindsight, and am better prepared for parasites this year. The first sign that we had a problem didn’t make an impact on me: Daphne and Summersweet started laying around in the barn instead of going out to pasture. I thought this was due to the hot weather, and failed to check their condition. A few days later, neither girl would get up when I walked toward them, and when I grabbed them to check eye membranes (according to the FAMACA scale), they didn’t even struggle to get away. Neither girls had any milk left for their young, and their skin EVERYWHERE was as white as snow. We wormed both girls with Valbazen again, and when their condition didn’t improve, we wormed again with Ivomec – it was all we had on hand. I also gave both girls every vitamin I could think of, and dripped vinegar water down their throats with a baster. Nothing seemed to bring about an improvement. I believe that we might have pulled both girls through if it hadn’t been so blessed hot, and if I had realized that we had a problem sooner. I also didn’t realize that it may take 4 or more days after worming for any color to appear in the eye membranes, and that internal bleeding can be occurring even after the death of the parasites through all the little puncture holes – it is possible that we compounded the problem by over-worming. On day two, Daphne died, and on day three, Summersweet died. We lost Andromeda’s white gal a day after Summersweet passed, and then I called Laurie to find out what was going wrong. It seems that the list of ineffective wormers is growing, but we knew Cydectin pour-on for cattle at a 1.5cc per 20 lb. dosage given orally was working for many shepherds. We wormed the whole the flock with this, checking eye membranes as we went, and found many gals in the “pale pink to white” area. Two weeks later, we wormed again, and found to our delight that we had no white membranes left, and only a few light pink gals. To this day, we haven’t lost any more sheep to parasites, but Summer is right around the corner! Never a dull moment! Before going any farther, I want to mention that we salvaged the pelt from each animal that died (even Kalmia), and had it processed through Bucks County Furs. It is not an easy thing to do emotionally – let’s face it, you’re skinning your “friends” – but if you’re in business, you’re in business, and your goal is to make money. What we discovered is that the lamb pelts are so wonderful that my plan to shear before butchering has been scuttled, and we will process hides instead. This year, we will be worming with both Cydectin, and a wormer called Supaverm, which is used extensively in Europe to combat barberpole worm, but is only used in koi ponds in the USA to kill flukes. Go figure. For info in this go to: www.noahcompendium.co.uk/Janssen_Animal_Health/Supaverm/-34009.html Go to “next” at the top of the page for usage info. Dosage is 1 ml per 11 pounds – weigh sheep before dosing, since this product can cause reactions if overdosed. We will also be using copper boluses to give a more natural control to the flock. To read about copper, and what the lack of it does, go to: _http://www.saanendoah.com/copper1.html Valley Vet supply sells both the Copasure calf boluses and the gel-caps. We gave all the sheep boluses based on weight – 1 gram per 40 pounds (get a cheap pocket scale on-line through Topline Digital Scales), and all our eye membranes are brilliant red now, plus some of our “silvering” ewes are growing in darker wool under the faded strands. To better understand the life processes of the parasites that will rob you of your profits, go to: www.nationalsheep.org.uk/health/WormControl_BW.pdf It will shock you how few parasite will cause a critical condition to develop! I look at my flock in a whole new light, and can’t believe how truly hardy these animals are given all the factors lined up against them. Never a dull moment! As I write this, the wind chill is -36, and even the sheep have hidden in the barn. Spring (believe it or not) is right around the corner, bringing a new lambing season with new challenges and surprises. We were fortunate this year to sell every lamb that we wanted to sell, and met some fabulous people because of our sheep. Thanks goes to all our clients and other “brethren of the flock” for making our first year as an active Icelandic sheep business a fulfilling one. I can’t find the words to express how valuable our relationships through our flock are to us. Well, as usual I have rambled on way too long. I hope that sharing some of our tragedies can help you avoid the same problems. Every day is a learning experience with these animals, and with every challenge, we grow that much more capable. Remember that once an organism stops growing, it starts dying, so embrace the process and stay young!!! Never a dull moment! Love and Hugs, Hol