I was planning to post this series of photos with just a sentence or two about why the sheep were still spending each night in the barn, but then I realized some of you might look at the pictures and wonder where all the lambs are.
I haven't been up to writing about that just yet. I've been telling myself that the story wouldn't really be complete until we picked up our mail and got the check, but that was just an excuse. So I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you what's been happening.
More photos and story below (hover over each image for a description). . .
As I mentioned the other day in this post about raising chickens and eggs, we've been working really hard to simplify things around here. And because sheep farming is, for us, a lot of work that, despite how hard we try, simply doesn't pay, last week we had the guy who hauled most of our 2012 lambs plus a bunch of other sheep off to the livestock sale barn last May bring his big trailer back and do it again.
This time we sold a total of 28 sheep, including 11 ewes (some of whom were my favorites, all of them really good mothers), along with one of our two rams and 16 of this year's 19 lambs. (We only bred half the ewes we'd planned to last fall because I had been under the weather all summer and we were trying lessen my workload come spring).
I'm still sort of in shock that they're gone. And sheep prices are so low I don't even want to think about how little they brought.
But taking good care of the flock will now be easier, and we won't need as much grazing pasture or hay. This is good, because although we've thankfully been getting some rain (the creek is running and it's raining as I type!), the grass in the fields still hasn't grown as much as it should have by now.
A better business person would have simply sold all of their sheep a year ago, when it was clear that there wasn't enough grass and the drought was only going to get worse, rather than spend more than the entire flock was worth at the time buying hay (because we wouldn't be putting up any of our own) to feed them through the winter. But I couldn't do it.
A cattle farmer friend who buys and sells livestock all the time and couldn't understand why I wasn't just selling all my sheep said, "You can always go out and replace them next spring."
Yes and no.
We don't consider ourselves hobby farmers, although our small flock is miniscule compared to the ranchers who run hundreds or thousands of sheep. We're actually trying to make a living raising livestock (before I moved in with my sheep, Joe raised hogs and cattle but was put out of business by Big Ag and drought), but that doesn't mean I don't get attached to my animals.
For us, living on this beautiful 240-acre piece of land in the middle of nowhere is a way of life we've chosen. It's not only about the money.
So now we're down to just 15 breeding ewes, one ram, and five pets (including Baby Cary, who turns seven next week!), plus two wethers headed for the freezer next month, and another three butcher lambs we'll raise up for next year.
I haven't had this few sheep in at least 10 years (I had cut my flock way back before moving in with Joe 13 years ago), and this is the first time I haven't kept a single ewe lamb to raise up for breeding stock. There were some really good looking ones too.
After 18 years, I still don't consider myself a sheep farming expert, but I know that I have gotten pretty good at this job. Last year we had 34 lambs and didn't lose a single one. This year nine ewes had 20 lambs, and 19 of them survived. Many people have told us that our naturally raised, grass-fed lamb is the best they've ever tasted.
I know cutting back the flock even more was the right thing to do, and I know that we can always build it back up if we want to. But that doesn't mean my heart doesn't ache. It isn't just all the rocks I've found that make me call this place Heart Farm.
As for why the sheep are still being locked in the barn each night, it's because three of the mamas don't have lambs on them anymore (the other three each have one lamb still nursing), and they need to have their feed reduced so they stop producing milk.
Usually we would pen them up and just give them hay, but the only hay we have left are a few bales of the really rich alfalfa that we bought last summer. So instead, everybody is grazing on medium quality forage up by the house and along the creek bed for a limited amount of time each day. This also gives the front field a chance to grow up some more before we let anybody out on it.
It's not the best solution, but we're keeping a close eye on the moms (especially Frenchie, who was nursing triplets plus two bottle lamb milk thieves), and so far it's working out okay. The sheep aren't exactly thrilled, especially since they have to splash through the water hazard to get to and from the good stuff, but they're not complaining too loudly.
I think they're just happy to still be here. I know I am.
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© FarmgirlFare.com, the way too woolly foodie farm blog where the good news is that I think we may have found somebody to come out next month and shear the sheep. I've been semi freaking out since I learned back in January that our longtime shearer was retiring. Keep your hooves and fingers crossed!