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Simplified Shepherding for the Over-50

Originally published in the Spring 1995 issue of The Fiberfest Magazine.

"I'm seeing five gentlemen every day. As soon as I wake up, Will Power helps me get out of bed. Then I go to see John. Then Charlie Horse comes along, and when he is here, he takes a lot of my time and attention. When he leaves, Arthur Ritis shows up and stays the rest of the day. He doesn't like to stay in one place long, so he takes me from join to join. After such a busy day, I'm really tired and glad to go to bed with Ben Gay. What a life!" (Anonymous author, Farm Show Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1994, page 5.)

Same old story, what started out years ago as a 4-H project for the kids has turned into an obsession, a way of life, and even a source of income for me. I'm now over 50 years old, the kids are grown, and my husband is still interested in hunting and fishing, not sheep.

Over the years we must create adjustments to make shepherding easier and still be enjoyable. Sheep handling equipment or a well-trained dog can facilitate the entire process, but so can ingenuity and common sense. I'm not a big woman and not especially strong either, but very determined. Working full time outside the home, and running the household and a sheep operation can be a real balancing act. Good planning and organization does pay off. Sure, we could hire someone to do some of the farm chores, but why not hire someone to do the housework and free me to go to the barn?

Say good-bye

Paramount to simplicity in shepherding is to cull all the problem sheep. Be ruthless. This means get rid of the animals that don't fit: the hard-to-catch people-haters; the ones that don't like to be handled; the ones that are always getting through the fence or getting their heads stuck in the fence; the poor mothers; the ones that have recurrent bouts with mastitis, pneumonia, diarrhea, acidosis, etc. Basically, get rid of any that have to be treated differently or specially. (It is probably best not to sell these problem animals to anyone else.) By just keeping the congenial easy-keepers, life becomes a whole lot better.

Halter training

Time spent halter training a young lamb will pay off throughout its life, and the practice should be considered an investment in the future. Our lambs are all haltered for the first time at a young age, normally about two weeks after weaning, when they are about 10 weeks old. It is best to train several lambs at a time, since misery loves company. Besides, halters are cheaper by the dozen. Halter the lambs and tie them to a sturdy fence at about their ear height and right next to each other in a row. Let them stand there for only 10 minutes. They will fight, rearing, and bucking, some will even throw themselves on the ground, but they won't hurt themselves. After 10 minutes, gently release them. Repeat the process the next day, and you will be amazed at how much better they behave. Start to handle the lambs individually as they are standing in a row. Pat or rub their bodies and even pick up their feet. Soon they will stand patiently while their feet are trimmed or they are sheared. Lead training comes next, usually with two lambs at a time. It does help to have someone walk behind them to encourage them along. Our Border Collie loves to help with this part.

Hoof trimming

While an animal is haltered and tied, its feet can easily be trimmed like a horse's. With the sheep between you and a fence, place your knee against its shoulder; then, while you face the rear of the animal, reach down, pick up the hoof, and trim it. Place your knee against its flank to trim the rear feet. Even I can halter and trim the feet of one of our big old mature horned rams whenever necessary. Hoof trimming is easier when the hooves are wet from dew, rain, or snow. The small, but very sharp, Shear Magic hoof or pruning shears, are perfect. They fit small or arthritic hands and are efficient to use.

Shearing

With 13 years of practice shearing my own sheep, the procedure has become an art form. Shearing school has given me the tips and techniques necessary for proper sheep and clipper handling. A trimming stand is not necessary. In fact, the clippers get mighty heavy, holding them up to shear a sheep on a stand. I always found myself climbing onto the stand when my arms got tired.

Remember to shear with the skin pulled tight--don't pull on the wool--and use sharp equipment. There really is no law that says the fleece has to come off in one piece. Besides, an open-type fleece won't hold together anyway.

Part the fleece over the withers. Starting at this point, shear down to the top of the front leg, then shear one long strip toward the back, along one side of the backbone, to the tail. Allowing the fleece to fall open, make another long strip from the front shoulder to the tail area. Continue making these strips along the side as far as is comfortable.

Set a cardboard box next to the sheep and allow the wool to fall into it. Or at least lay a clean mat alongside the sheep to keep the wool out of the straw or dirt. With your hand on the shorn area, pull the skin taut as you shear in downwards strips toward the belly. Repeat this procedure on the other side of the sheep, and the prime part of the fleece will fall in the box. Just shake out the unavoidable second cuts and the fleece is skirted. The fleece that is still on the sheep is just skirting, so shear it off as best you can.

Lamb in manageable groups

Many gray hairs appeared last year after lambing all our ewes in January and February in a small barn, when the temperature was constantly below zero. In fact, the average high for the entire month of January was only 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Later, since the lambs were weaned and the pastures greening fast, a ram was turned into the ewe flock mid-April for only three weeks. As a result, half of the ewes were bred and lambed the later part of September. Now only half the ewes will lamb in January and February and we will have some nice senior lambs as well as juniors.

Think like a sheep

Much can be learned from Bill Kruesi's books and articles on sheep behavior and handling skills. Good handling techniques minimize stress and ensure safety for both you and the sheep. Knowing when an animal is not feeling well is important, too. By spending quiet time with your sheep on a daily basis, you become familiar with the way sheep behave normally. An animal that is not feeling well or is injured will be very easily noticed. The sooner you can determine what is wrong and start treatment, the sooner that sheep will be feeling better.

Shepherding keeps one young and fit, and hale and hardy. Besides, all those hungry old gals bellowing at the gate at dawn give you a very good reason to get up every morning.

Remember, at our age we begin thinking about the hereafter--you know, when you find yourself standing in the bathroom or kitchen or barn and ask yourself "Now, what am I here after?"

Pardon me, it is time to curl up with Moe Trinn for an afternoon nap.

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