Saturday, August 24, 2013


Our fences are old. Some of them are thirty years old, some only twenty and a few interior fences, dividing one pasture into two, are only ten years old. But our fences are failing.

All but one of our exterior fences are woven wire stock fencing stapled onto wooden fence posts. The woven wire is designed with smaller openings on the bottom (2” high by 6” wide) and larger openings on the top (up to 6” by 6”). This clever design is to keep animals from sticking their heads through the fence and getting stuck and in the process destroying the fence. This clever design works really well for sheep, but not so well for goats. The goats put a lot of pressure on our fences.
We practice rotational grazing which means that the animals are restricted to one small pasture until they have cleaned it up and then are moved to another small pasture, repeating this schedule all summer long. This means that the best tasting grass is always in the next pasture and the goats are smart enough to know that, so they stick their heads through the fences to eat the fresh grass on the other side.

Over the years we’ve repaired a lot of holes in fences.

We also have one strand of barbed wire at the base of each exterior fence and two strands at the top, to keep dogs and coyotes out of our pastures and our animals in. Our interior fences don’t have barbed wire anywhere. They were made by stretching four foot high woven wire stock fencing onto metal fence posts designed for the purpose. Those metal posts worked well for about twenty years and then we began to run into problems.

After awhile, the wire began to sag. The four foot high fence became a three foot high fence in the middle between some posts. The sheep don’t often jump a fence; the goats reliably do. Every time a goat jumped a fence, she dragged a little on the woven wire. The fence got even lower. The sag combined with the patched holes meant that the fence was no longer stretched. It became increasingly easier for goats to force holes in the fence with their heads, then their shoulders and finally their entire bodies. Once the goats had made holes, the lambs followed. A good mother will follow her lamb anywhere, so the ewes followed the lambs.

Some of our fences are completely porous to animals. It’s been a hassle, but not a catastrophe on the interior fences until Bucklet, the cute, tiny ,bottle kid we added to our flock last year, became sexually mature. Yesterday we moved Bucklet and Winthrop the ram to the farthest pasture from the ewes and the goats and the lambs. By the time Dave had walked back across three pastures to the lamb pasture, Bucklet and Winthrop had rejoined him. We collected our fencing supplies and moved the two males back to their pasture. Then we wove wire and stapled until we were sure the hole was closed.

They rejoined us five minutes later. We led them back to their pasture and spent half an hour actually inspecting the fence and checking for all possible holes. The males were back with the lambs by lunch time. We left them there. The lambs are too small to get pregnant yet, and the ewes are still two pastures away in a well fenced pasture and we need a little breathing room to figure out what to do next.

We have walked every foot of our fence line in the last month. It looks thirty years old. We were thirty something when we first learned how to fence. Now at sixty something it seems a much bigger job. Maybe that’s why farmers retire, they can’t bear the thought of refencing.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Nine vultures

photo from

Nine vultures circled our pastures. Something bad had happened. I wasn’t surprised that there might be a dead animal out there. Lamb #59 had been getting weaker and all the intestinal wormers, coccidiostats and antibiotics had made no difference. We could see his backbones and his pelvic bones. He looked and acted like he was starving.

Nine vultures seemed a little extreme for one tiny lamb. It wasn’t just lamb #59; six lambs were dead.

Vultures are scavengers, not predators. We did not lose six animals to vultures, the vultures were benefiting from our losses. Why were lambs dying? The animals were in four different pastures. They all had access to fresh water, to shade for part of each day, to grass. We thought we had a basically healthy flock on luxuriant pastures. This was supposed to be the easy time of the year for the sheep.

However, a fair number of lambs had diarrhea. We took a fecal sample in to the vet. They found lots of round worms, a high enough concentration of which can kill lambs. We had wormed our lambs three weeks previously, they should have been protected for several months. Why hadn’t we had this problem before? What was the difference?

One month seemed to be the difference. Normally our lambs are born in February and March. We feed them creep feed for the next month or two and they are ready to wean and turn out on fresh pasture by the end of May. This year, our lambs were born in April and we didn’t wean them until the end of June so they’d have two months of creep feeding. They spent an extra month in the home pasture, a place where intestinal worm cysts had been collecting all winter. They had eaten so many worm cysts, that a single worming was not enough. I should have realized that diarrhea meant there was a problem. The first lamb I lost twenty-nine years ago was infected with Haemonchus contortus, the barberpole worm. I thought I had learned that lesson forever, but this year, my mind was somewhere else when I watched lambs with continuing diarrhea. . The diarrhea dehydrates the lamb. The worm also causes irritation in the gut lining and protein leaks from the cells of the lining, starving the lamb. My lambs didn’t have a chance. They depend on their shepherd to make the right decision and this year, I hadn’t.

We wormed our lambs again. Fewer have diarrhea, but we’ve lost another lamb and two more still look like they are starving. They are on fresh pasture and hopefully will recover. I am ashamed that it took nine vultures to alert me to a problem that I should have recognized immediately. The next time we change anything about the way we lamb, we will try to keep our brains engaged.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The price of lamb

The price of lamb is down this year. For years, we’ve ignored the market price of lambs at the stockyard because we sold our lamb for $1 per pound, a price that the Bosnian refugees, who had so little to remind them of home except traditions like roast lamb, could afford. It wasn’t until several years ago that we increased our price to $1.25 per pound live weight at the suggestion of our CPA. It followed the market price to $1.50 the next year and two years later to $2 per pound. Our lamb sales stayed steady. Obviously, our Bosnian friends were doing well in their new lives. Our lamb sales were finally covering the cost of feeding a ewe and raising her lambs.

This year, the first man who called for lamb told us that the stockyard price was $1.25 a pound in South Dakota. Dave said our price was $2 and politely suggested that he buy his lambs in South Dakota. The second man who called also said $2 per pound - $140 for a lamb roasted and eaten on a Sunday afternoon - was too expensive. In theory, I agreed with him. In practice, I need my lambs to bring in enough money to pay for their upkeep.

“If nobody buys them because they’re too expensive, we’ll have to sell them at the stockyards,” Dave said, “and who knows what the price will be then. I think we should sell them for $1.50 per pound.”

“We’re losing one quarter of our lamb income,” I said. “We sold all our lambs last year at $2 per pound. If we sell them all this year at $1.50 our income will be down 25%. You’d quit your job if they docked your pay 25%.”

It was a true statement, but hardly relevant. Selling lambs allows us to pay for the upkeep of our sheep. We “pay” ourselves nothing. If we dock our “pay” by 25% it doesn’t change a thing - 25% less than nothing is still nothing. However, the farm wouldn’t pay for itself in 2013.

Prices paid by farmers rarely go down. Farm prices fluctuate all over the place and the farmers have to absorb the difference. One of our successful business friends told us that lamb was a luxury and we should price it that way. If we drop our price by 25% we move from the luxury market into the commodities market, those necessities which are priced like milk and corn. Lamb isn’t like those commodities; the government won’t pay me a subsidy to make up for low prices.

Dave and I talked and talked over the problem. Neither of us could persuade the other.

We sold our first lambs to two of our oldest local customers, friends. Dave made the sale. They wouldn’t have complained about $2 per pound, but he only charged them $1.50. We couldn’t charge them $2 and then drop the price for the rest of our customers if the lambs didn’t sell. So this year, our price for lamb is $1.50 per pound. I feel like we have taken a giant step backward. Our farm on which we expend so much effort, so much time, so much money, looks like a hobby instead of a business, just because of the price of lamb.