Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Speaking Leadersheep

Just like with fossil fuel lawnmowers; if you're using livestock to mow grass; you need to keep careful track of how much fuel they have available.  An empty tank on your gas mower - means running out of fuel in the middle of a job, possibly far from more gas.  An empty tank on your grass-fueled mower - means sick sheep, low growth rates, and possibly dead animals in the winter.  So - we keep careful track of how much graze is left in the paddock.

Right now our sheep are mowing under our main nut producing chestnuts- both to eat the burdock down to zero again, depleting the root systems so we can hope to prevent seed formation; and also to eat volunteer chestnut seedlings, which will confuse our data- and which the horses will not touch.

The sheep also avidly eat chestnut leaves they can reach; which we appreciate- it makes it possible to move in the grove.  And they strip invasive tartarian honeysuckle completely, and most other invasive woody plants also.  They don't touch mature chestnut bark.

The Leadersheep genes in our flock means - the sheep tell us the state of the graze; whenever we walk by.  Literally.  The first picture below is how they greeted me just now, as I came to check.  Supreme indifference.  Meaning; graze is ok at the moment.  But- the two top ewes both spoke to me; both Minnie and Bridget gave me one "baaa" each, as they lay down.  On a new paddock, they will not speak.  Two leaders speaking means, specifically - "It's ok today; but we can see it's going to run out before long."  Meaning; the paddock will need to be moved tomorrow; or the next day for sure.

And in the picture below - you can see the flock simply expressing interest in me.  They got up and came to see what was going on; when I stayed at the fence, came a bit closer, and started taking pictures.  A little more baaaing, but not much; and very casual behavior.  They understand the entire process of moving the paddock- and are interested.

In the normal course of things, when I repeat my inspection tomorrow, instead of just Minnie and Bridget baaaing, there will be 5 adult sheep speaking as soon as they see me: which translates as "We'd appreciate a new paddock today; but it's not exactly urgent."  If they're in the same paddock on the next day - the entire flock will speak - loudly- as soon as they see a human.

It's very, very useful.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Step 1 - Moving The Flock To "Registered" -

Meet "Cable", our new, and officially Registered, ram.  We're very happy with his ancestry- which, since he's registered, is all laid out to see.  Registered Icelandics are not cheap; which is why the Shuttleworth Flash Grant was needed to allow us to make this step- but; aside from providing really certain genetics, registering our animals in the future will basically double the value of animals we can offer for sale as breeding stock.  Our goals for our flock include developing the potential for them to add to farm income, directly as well as indirectly.

Yes, he is this year's lamb- but Icelandic ram lambs can be counted on to "function" fully in their first year.  We're picking him up in August, from Lydia's Flock, good careful breeders whose starting genetics were quite different from our own, but who also have a focus on Leadersheep, a sub-breed within Icelandic sheep that we definitely want.  You can learn about Leadersheep easily here, on the front page of Sunrise Sheep And Wool, another first rate Icelandic farm in Minnesota (but whose flock genetics are generally much closer to ours.)  We already have Leadersheep genetics in our flock.

Leadersheep were carefully maintained and bred in Iceland, apparently right from the beginning (1,000 years ago.) Basically, they did not have their wild intelligence entirely bred out of them.  Virtually all other sheep have been bred into proverbially non-intelligent creatures.  But Leadersheep notice the world around them, bring flocks in out of storms or if a wolf howls- and bond to their humans, helping with flock management.  We need that intelligence here; we depend on the flock to be sensible.  That doesn't mean they have human brains; they are sheep.  But they are not silly.  If you look at Cable's photo - you can see it; he's alert, aware, not timid- and interested in you.

When I first wanted to try sheep in the nut crops, Megan was not at all enthusiastic.  Her opinion of sheep, based on growing up on a ranch with thousands of commercial breed sheep, was that they are "wooly turnips."  It took a while- but- Megan is now an Icelandic sheep enthusiast.  They have personalities- at least our flock with some Leadersheep genes in all of them, certainly do.  And we've never lost an animal to coyotes; though they are abundant- and they know the flock is there.

We started our flock with animals that were registered, or registrable; good genetics.  But during the trial stages, we were not always meticulous about which ram was responsible for which lamb; for about 3/4 of the lambs we are sure of the sire, but...

Now; with the help of the Shuttleworth Foundation; we're upgrading; and we'll have the ability to keep rams and their ewes separate during the breeding season, so we'll know.  We'll have 3 great rams available this year; 2 registered and 1 registrable- and we know which ewes should go with which ram to block inbreeding.  At the moment, we're a little more inbred than I like; "line breeding" is a standard tool in animal breeding; but always carefully and with limits; we're at the limit, I think.

We do also have a few "excess" ram lambs- in case anyone is interested in a "grade" (non-registered) Icelandic ram with excellent genetics.  We have, I think 6 ram lambs; 2 of which we banded, as wethers, 4 of which looked so promising as breeding stock we did not castrate.  But we don't really need; or want; 4 more rams- we'd like to keep 1, probably, for future breeding.  The other 3 will likely be castrated later- unless- someone out there wants a ram...

We intend to get good pictures of the flock, including available ram lambs, before too long.  But they don't exactly stand still for their portraits...