Zuko’s death and general post-weaning and husbandry issues

Our little bottle lamb Zuko had to be put down a couple weekends ago.  We took him off milk almost a month earlier and didn’t do additional monitoring and so took too long to catch his ongoing lack of weight gain.  By the time we caught it, isolating and treating him for the accumulated parasite load and loss of muscle wasn’t enough for him to rebuild the lost muscle, so my husband gave him a painless death.  It’s been hard to write this because it was so painful to lose that little guy to such a mistake on our part.

Good genetics are a bit double-edged.  He took a long time to show signs of illness or poor health and he had an extremely strong will to live, something I had never seen in my experience of farm animals.  Up until the very end he was still trying to eat and drink when he couldn’t move.  We had a lot of household stuff going on around the time we took him off milk and by the time all that was dealt with, it had already been a couple weeks and when things became really obviously bad with him, it was instantaneous, which again I’d never seen with the livestock I was familiar with.  My experiences with farm animals had always been that they showed poor health steadily and gradually and also just kind of gave up on living relatively quickly as well.

The basic lesson for us was that even if non-animal things are hectic, it’s still necessary to find a few minutes every week to check all the animals over.  Also, I am pretty non-interventionist by nature, but with bottle lambs, you’ve already intervened, so you have to pay a little more attention to them anyway and not just treat them like the other lambs.

We’ve also had to reassess how bad our pasture is.  We knew it was pretty bad, but the lambs are such efficient grazers that they have to be treated as adults after weaning, which we didn’t originally plan on.  When we took Zuko off milk, the other lambs were also pretty weaned.  They still try to nurse, but it’s obvious those udders aren’t letting much of anything down.  So for us that means healthy, nursed lambs=adult sheep around 10-12 weeks.  Weaning is a big milestone and we were cavalier in not considering it such with the other lambs too.

Post-Zuko, we went out and looked over the remaining 13 animals to see if there were any others lagging and it turns out Bart and Lisa, the two lambs from our second-biggest ewe Black and Tan, are starting to fall behind.  And while Wingus, our grey ewe’s aggressive nurser is already slaughter-weight at 4 months, his runt brother Dingus could use a little help.  Dingus was ahead of the younger lambs due to being born earlier, then stunted out, then started to recover, but since the pasture’s been decimated and we’ve had to really step up the hay, he’ll need some extra monitoring too.

What we have cleared cannot support 13 adult Icelandic sheep, and even if the rest were cleared, we couldn’t support that many ewes and their lambs.  So we’ll have to break up the sheep into grazing groups and talk to some of the neighbors with overgrown acreage next spring.  It’s too late this year to do so.  On the other hand, if we continue to see such vigorous lambs in later breeding seasons, we’ll have slaughter-ready lambs at 4-6mos as a norm.  So hopefully we see that next spring.

Lisa is not in any major trouble, she favors wool production and that accounts for a fair amount of her fall-back, as her fleece is in excellent shape and noticeably better and longer than the other ewelambs’ fleeces.  But she is a little smaller than she ought to be.  Bart, though, doesn’t have a glossy long coat to explain his fall-back, and neither does Dingus, so those two we will definitely keep an eye on between now and slaughter time in the fall.

The adults are basically fine, the ewes have regained their conditioning and recovered from lambing and nursing, and the two rams are in good shape with good fleeces coming in.  We are a few weeks behind on hoof trims, and should be caught up this week, and will probably do some vitamins in the next few days for the three lagging lambs, but they are lagging only a little and if they are parasite-heavy, we’ve caught it a lot sooner than with poor Zuko.

The general 2-3 month age range where the lambs naturally would be getting weaned is a time to really keep an eye out, with special attention to bottle lambs.  Because all the lambs transition to living on grass/hay and the occasional pellet snack differently and some will need a little helping hand of vitamins or wormer (or herbal equivalents).

We really didn’t understand that if you’re new to the animal, you almost have to put in time like they are pets until you really get to know the little signs that each kind of livestock has.  We did buy well-bred animals from decent breeders, but that just means they take longer to show total collapse and have subtler signs of poor health.

This is pretty rambly, but in short, we need to keep better records and have scheduled checks of major life milestones for the flock(s) so we don’t face another Zuko situation again.

Sheep genetics are tricky

Our rams are both yearlings now and it’s interesting to see how different they look.  Shaft is a giant brown puffball who will produce a long, soft, really nice fleece for the fall shearing.  Bucky is a big hunk of ivory colored muscle and density, who will provide an excellent dressing percentage when his breeding days are over.

Even though both rams were “bred for good fleeces and solid meat conformation”, they each clearly favor one trait over the other.  Wool and meatiness as traits are sadly not all that complementary.  A lot of breeders spend years on end and multiple breeding groups trying to thread the needle and get a Bucky-level of meatiness with a Shaft-like soft, high-value fleece.  Sometimes they get there, but just seeing the starkness of the difference was valuable.

The two traits work against each other to some extent because growing lots of wool takes away from building up muscle, as both require protein.  Milkiness or milkability (not the same, the latter is a group of traits really) are more complementary, as we have some serious milkiness in our ewes despite fleece quality ranging from felt to possibly fall-level ok in a spring fleece.  And temperament is much the same– Bucky is a very gentle ram and we will totally work to keep that going in the flock, as a jerkish ram is a lot more trouble than a jerkish ewe.

So while we have breeding goals, we aren’t expecting to get exactly what we want with a specific trait just because we picked stock with “good genetics”.  It’s also been instructive to see Bucky’s offspring and the range there between his genetics and those of the mothers.

Tricky stuff, genetics.

The sheep are happy.

We put the rams in with the ewes for a little while since everyone is out of season and this is a strongly seasonal breed, so winter birth is low risk.  They are going back to their own pen this weekend though.  It gave the grass in the ram pen a chance to recover.

The ewes did start weaning, but the lambs still have a pull now and again.  It’s very gentle compared with how the local deer wean (chasing the fawns until they stop coming up).  The ewes mainly just walk away at shorter and shorter intervals.

It’s colder than we thought it would be a lot of days this summer, but this is the easy time of year with sheep.  They don’t have anything to do except grow their fleece out and get bigger in the case of the lambs.  And in the case of our sheep, take out massive amounts of bramble.  They are covered in blackberry switches, but it’s totally worth it, they are demolishing the Himalayan and native brambles that we opened up for them.  I had heard Icelandics were great with bramble, but I didn’t think they would make so much progress in such a short time.  So that’s a nice bonus.

Scenes from my first week combing out raw Icelandic fleece


What I started with, some rooed locks that have been washed and picked of most of the VM, but there was still a little left.

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Closeups of what I finished with.  Not sure if this is what I am supposed to end up with, but that’s why it’s a learning process.


This is the fluff left behind that is too short to do anything with but use as stuffing or kill mulch.  It looks like a higher loss rate than it is.



The lambs’ first maintenance weekend

This past weekend we did maintenance for all the sheep, with some much-needed assistance from a local acquaintance. It was the first time for the lambs. They all got their very first vaccines and hoof trims and dose of wormer.  From the look of things, we will need to do some soil testing, as the lambs grazed in a pretty different area to the ewes and the FAMACHA checks were quite different in both groups.  We also found out Bucky has better parasite resistance than Shaft, though Shaft has clearly better fleece.  Something to keep in mind for the future.

We had a couple cases of lamb hoof scald from the lambs grazing in the running seasonal stream.  Scald is a precursor to hoof rot, but is not necessarily a sign that there is rot in the field.  We foot bathed and are doing very clean straw, even out in the muddy entrance.  We weren’t skipping straw before, we’re just doing the recommended extremely dry bedding level for scald/rot in the flock.

Anyway, since there was no limping (the scald was mild enough that it could have been missed in a larger hoof trim group), we didn’t bust out the antibiotics.  We’re really trying to keep use down to a minimum where that makes sense.

There was a plan to do more fencing, but hitting a water line derailed that and the time was instead spent fixing that problem.

The lambs had some odd growths from walking and skipping on uneven terrain, nothing bad, very likely just the normal course of things when there aren’t enough scraping rocks around.  We are working on putting some out in the field to help reduce having to trim by hand.

Nobody looked nutrient deficient, so that was nice.

Lamb weight estimates

So far it looks ok.  Our biggest (ram) lamb looks to be pushing 50lbs or so, and the rest are 35-40lbs, which is about right for this breed.  Optimally they’d all be up another five or so pounds, but that is with excellent pasture and our pasture is definitely not there yet, although there’s no signs of deficiency or inadequate forage in the sheep.  It’s just not at peak condition since we didn’t take care of it properly last year.

So if we want to slaughter as early as possible, the two oldest ram lambs should be 90lbs+ by July and the other two should be there by August.  We’re still going back and forth on it, we might just wait until September, but we’ll see how they look through the summer.

The biggest lamb is comically huge because he was greedy and with only one teat, he got a majority of the milk.  His brother started focusing on grass at about 3 weeks of age or so, which is definitely not something we want to repeat in the future, since that little guy is about 30% smaller despite being 25% larger at birth.  We’ll have to look into how to manage our one-teat ewe to equalize the milk, if that’s possible.  Thankfully she is plenty milky and has had no udder issues.

Our bottle lamb should be 18-20lbs by now, but I haven’t weighed him in almost 2 weeks, so I’ll have to take care of that by this weekend.  We’ve dropped him down to a morning and a night bottle this week and he complains mightily around this time of day (such as right now while I write this).

All the lambs are good foragers and doing well and getting quite big.  There are some nice fleeces coming in as well.  So right now things look ok.

Wet wool woes

We’re going through some rainy times and not really enough hours of dryness to leave wool outside to dry.  So I am going to start the process of washing up the spring wool and drying it all indoors, which I was hoping wouldn’t be my only option starting this early, but them’s the breaks of living in the Maritime Northwest.

Hopefully by next week I can start the combing out and see what I get.  I might get some usable roving, which would be some beginner’s luck, but it’s possible since what I’m starting with is actually in great shape for spring wool.

We don’t have a hay problem, we have a “never let your rams roam if you want to spare yourself a lot of VM picking” problem.  Which we solved with the power of cattle panels.  Ugly but so great at containing rambly rams.

I was hoping to try out advertising raw fleeces, but the shearer sheared in strips and that’s not what people looking for raw fleeces specifically expect.  It’s not a big deal, but it’s something to keep in mind as we have more fleece and more animals.  Spring fleeces are chancy to sell as it is.  The ones we have look ok, but they do have the wool break’s new growth in them, so that will have to be separated out.  If the fleeces are all they appear to be, this will happen after a little soaking in plain water.  Otherwise I have a lot of felting fleece to experiment with.