There is no such thing as a business that goes untested, and I would say that agricultural enterprises are more tested than others. In point of fact, the past three years have been deal-breakers for many in the animal husbandry sector, and we have been hanging on by our fingertips. We’re still standing, but it has been rough.
The Summers of both 2010 and 2011 in the Midwest were awful for farm animals, especially sheep with all that wool. We had weeks on end of heat indexes over 110 and high humidity – no wind and no relief after sunset. Between the two years, any of our Icelandics that could not tolerate extreme temperatures went to Valhalla to be with their ancestors – I have come to see this as a positive thing, since our flock is now comprised of Summer-savvy individuals, but at the time I was devastated, especially as we lost some bloodlines that were precious to me. Moral of the Story: you can bring an Icelandic to the Midwest, but you can’t make him live, unless he has the right stuff to handle it. Survival of the fittest, and all that. On we go.
In addition to the hot weather, both 2010 and 2011 saw us hit with unbelievable flooding – in 2011 it was so bad that we lost bridges, roads, and people. That year, we had part of the flock at a rental property. It took us 3 hours to make a 20-minute drive because of all the washouts. Fortunately no sheep lost, no fences down, and no injuries. On we go.
And why have you not heard about all this sooner? Well… in the Winter of 2012, I opened an e-mail which was supposedly from Fed Ex. It wasn’t, and I watched in horror as all my programs disappeared one by one from my desktop. Some days you can’t pull the plug fast enough – I imagine I looked like a terrier in a rabbit hole as I dove under my desk to try to prevent Armageddon…alas, my computer suffered terminal damage from the virus I released, and I have just recently purchased a new one. This is why there is no “Sheep for Sale 2012” or “Lambing 2013”. These events happened, they just didn’t get recorded. I used my daughter’s laptop to keep informed, but was not technologically confident enough to try to do web pages on it. I am in the process of transitioning from Sitebuilder to this WordPress program – very progressive of me! – but rather slow-going as I learn how to use it. At least in this, I can say for sure that things will get better! On we go.
In the early part of 2013, there was a lot of talk on the ISBONA list about minerals, in particular cobalt. It turns out that this trace mineral is necessary for the rumen to make usable energy out of the food that ruminants consume; apparently without enough of it, the animal can’t manufacture Vitamin B, and slowly starves to death on a full stomach. Thinking myself a seasoned shepherd, able to deal with all and sundry health issues, I didn’t pay much attention to this information. My bad. Not very good for my sheep, either. As most of you know, 2012 was The Drought From Hell – hay prices went through the roof, and we took whatever we could get because nobody was willing to sell. Early on, we were able to purchase alfalfa-mix haylage bales which were of good quality. As the drought progressed, we ended up feeding CRP baleage bales which were pretty much grass with some weeds thrown in. We have never done nutrient testing on our forages, which I now think was a mistake, at least for 2012, and I never really considered that in order for a plant to absorb minerals, it needs water to dissolve said mineral in. PLUS the Midwest is notoriously deficient in most trace nutrients. I thought I had this under control by adding Kent Sheep Mineral with extra selenium yeast to our Winter grain ration, but apparently we did not add enough for a drought year. Our sheep for the most part looked healthy and plump – pregnancy progressing apace and no signs of illness (except for the few that kept getting thinner – it was that cobalt thing that I was too wise to pay attention to). One month out from lambing, we found a slipped lamb. Then another one. Then a set of twins. I was like OMG, what is happening? THEN we had a ewe start staggering with dilated pupils. I knew what THAT was – it was calcium deficiency, which in the past had only shown itself as milk fever AFTER lambing. What the H E double hockey sticks? So I started injections of CMPK solution (calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and calcium) and raced to the feed mill to buy more mineral. That day, I came home with 150 pounds of mineral and put it out free choice – in three days it was gone. Our flock continued to consume mineral at this unbelievable rate for almost two months; believe me, I felt like the worst shepherd EVER! Mineral intervention came too late for many of our animals – all told, we lost 2 dozen lambs prematurely, 11 ewes, and 2 rams – the ewes that I did save needed oral CMPK every two hours along with Ensure and water, all of which I had to give with a large syringe since they were too weak to eat or drink on their own. None of this would have been as bad if the ewes hadn’t been pregnant – lambs take a huge amount of resources from their mothers, which just made things worse. Once all the lambs were born, AND we had plenty of mineral available, things got back to normal; all the rain that fell in the Spring really made the grass grow – the sheep were ecstatic! I was pretty happy too, especially since my mentor shared with me the Mayo Animal Health website in Ireland and we were able to get trace mineral boluses for both the ewes and lambs. We can see that these supplements are making a difference – the lambs are growing faster now and the ewes look fabulous. Heading into the breeding season feeling much more confident. On we go.
One thing I can say for sure – our flock has come through hell and high water over the past few seasons, and a person would be hard pressed to find a tougher group of animals – and perhaps a tougher group of people. On we go!!!