Bark like blood, bolusing and breeding.

The ewes are stripping the trees of bark even though the grass is not that dormant and they have plenty of hay available.  This makes the trees look like they’re bleeding.

We’re going to journey into the world of giving minerals via bolus next week and do a very late, long delayed breeding then as well.  We will probably do this one in Feb with the seven adult ewes and one with Shaft’s daughters in October or November.  I think that’s just how it’ll have to be and then we can see how both Bucky’s and Shaft’s daughters produce before beginning the work of closing the herd.

It’s sunnier lately, we’ve been quiet because we went back and forth about whether to keep going with the sheep.  We will, but probably go with things like the staggered breeding plan above.

Late summer lambs will be challenging, but Shaft was one and he turned out great.


Sheep are good, weather is not

It’s all soggy and and swampy.  The sheep are looking ok, but we’ll have to watch out for worm load.  With all the rain we are definitely learning what all needs to be fixed/patched during summer when it’s drier.  Still not sure how to deal with some of the soggy areas near the barn.

Everyone’s settled into the sniffles, and the baby has settled into not sleeping at night because that’s what little babies do best.

That’s all for now, I should try to get more pictures even with the rain because I need to set conditioning baselines for future lambs and pictures will help more than my soggy memory.

No lambs yet, the rain is terrible.

But on a brighter note, the grass is green enough that the sheep are eating less hay, so we probably are done with hay buying until the fall, unless we have a dry summer (not likely in our little microclimate).

Despite all their wool, the sheep are getting tired of the rain and are hiding out in the barn.

The ewes are also starting to roo, we may end up “shearing” them ourselves right after lambing instead of waiting on a shearer.  I put it in quotes because we’d be scraping the shedding top layer off the fresh new wool rather than taking both sets of fleece and leaving bare skin.  We weren’t expecting that we’d have to consider the skinning-knife approach to get their wool off, but it may be where we end up, at least for the spring fleeces.

Anyway I have to wash wool this weekend.  Then when it dries, I get to start the learning curve to combing fleece into roving.  Soaking in cold water first helps the fleece separate into locks, which is good to know.

I like wool, but I never really thought about how it gets off the sheep and into mittens and sweaters and wool diapers.  It’s interesting.

Sheep math, running costs edition

Our running costs for sheep look like they will end up about $150 per sheep per year.  This is hay, minerals, vaccines/vet, water and other consumables (including the shearer).  This isn’t counting infrastructure like the fencing or the hay feeder they eat out of.  All the sheep can provide one fleece per year, and the ewes are supposed to additionally provide 2 lambs average per year.

I am not sure how to assign the rams a cash value for fathering the lambs, so I’ll just note that the ram fleeces would have to bring in $150 apiece to cover their running costs.  To keep things really simple, the ram fleeces are likely to yield 5lbs of raw fleece after shearing and skirting of rough ends.  This means carding the fleece into roving (moderate level of processing, maybe three hours a fleece).  Roving sells for about $35-40/lb.  So we would have to do some processing with the ram fleeces to get enough per pound to cover their running costs.

Things are much easier with the ewes, who provide lambs and fleece and lamb fleeces!

The ewe fleeces will yield less, they were sheared late summer last year and the rams were never sheared at all (being lambs when we bought them).  The ewes should give about 4lbs of usable raw fleece after skirting.  For each lamb, 1.5lbs of raw fleece is a good estimate.  So each ewe ideally would give us 7lbs total to sell to cover running costs. Lamb fleece routinely sells for $25/lb raw, so that is $75.  Ewe fleece is more like $20/lb raw, which is $80 and covers running costs.  There’s just the skirting time, which is not much time at all.  So if the ewe twins, the fleeces can just about be tossed in a sack and sold to cover the running costs.

If the ewe has only one lamb, turning that fleece into lamb’s roving would get the same $75 (lamb roving is softer and gets closer to $50/lb), but would take an hour or so of carding labor.  And you could still sell the ewe’s fleece raw with no extra labor. So a young ewe that doesn’t twin in her first breeding could still produce enough fleece to cover her running costs with a relatively modest increase in labor.

We only have six sheep and we expect at least one ewe to single, so we are expecting to do some processing of wool this year along with our journey into the world of wool selling.  We have to make 12-14 fleece sales and plan for about a day’s labor carding and then we have from April to December to make those sales happen.

I was going to get into meat sales with the lambs, but I don’t think we’re going to sell more than a couple for meat this year.  With so few animals, we are likely to keep the lambs back to grow the flock.  We’re nervous about lambing, it’s already next month and the next few weeks will be vaccinating and putting down more straw in the barn.

The ewes seem to be doing well on the daily mineral and are less pale.  So here’s hoping they bear some nice healthy lambs to shear at all.



Sustainable Economics: A High Return Model

Over at Thoughtful Food’s farm blog, there’s been an interesting discussion about types of farms and various paths to earning a profit with farm income.

I made a couple of comments offering an example of a high return model that would yield enough farm income to pay off even a 400k house and barn on 5-7 acres in under a decade.  The model was specialty wool and meat production from sheep.  There are several breeds of sheep whose wool is highly valued in the specialty wool (handspinning, felting, crafts, etc) market.  The meat can often be sold at a modest premium compared to regular lamb, and there’s also the breeding stock/pet fiber animal possibilities for further income.

With specialty wool, the top end is currently right around 90/lb for finished yarn in skeins and the bottom end is around 10/lb for raw fleece, usually skirted (trimmed of the worst poop bits and leaves/etc).  An adult ewe yields 8-12lbs of wool annually after washing and skirting, depending on the various specialty breeds out there.  Twinning is usual, so those two lambs yield 2-4lbs combined of lamb’s fleece, added to the ewe’s total.

Lowballing, that’s 10lbs of wool per ewe per year.  That’s 100-900 dollars per ewe per year.  Not all ewes will have fleece that can go to the highest-value yarn.  So the midpoint there is 500 dollars per ewe in fleece sales to account for wool sales having such a wide range per pound.

At  500 in wool per ewe, the two lambs will yield 300 each at a modest premium as meat and 400 each as breeding stock.  So that is 600-800 in lamb sales per year per ewe.  Now we’re up to 1100 per ewe per year in wool plus lamb sales.

Five acres can stock  25-35 ewes, six 30-40 and seven acres can stock 35-50 ewes.  This gives 55k/yr at 50 ewes and 33k/yr at 30 ewes.  I am handwaving the ram issue for now, but there is room to grow into an aggressive program of getting 70-90/lb for wool sales and selling meat animals at breed stock prices.  And with hitting those aggressive targets, on five acres stocking 30 ewes, getting 1600/ewe is pretty close to 50k/yr off less than 3 dozen animals.

This is a labor intensive model, no sugar coating on that one.  Carding, picking and cleaning wool is challenging, as are the husbandry techniques to minimize skirting and dirt accumulation and the practices to get excellent quality wool production.  But the customer base exists and the sales are good enough that shepherds can come close to the higher-end numbers for pure fiber flocks, no meat sales.  That is nearly 1k/ewe just for wool alone annually.  And ewes live 15-20 years.

This is just one example of a high-labor, high-return model.

We found the hoof trimming shears…at the feed store.

Yeah, we searched everywhere and as it turned out, they can’t be found anywhere in the house, barn or garage.  So I picked up a new pair and we will do the deed for all the animals on Saturday.

Having the goats and sheep contained together is pretty nice.  They are not as a group racing through the hay right now, but in fact are still working on their original bale, so I’m hoping we are good to go for the time we need to give hay.

And that is a thing we’ll have to figure out. We have a ton (literal ton) right now, we’ll see how it goes.  We’re getting in more fencing so we can expand their range.  Right now we’re not going to obsess about the best grazing strategy, we just want to get onto a maintenance schedule and hopefully make it to a lambing season with a half dozen or dozen lambs (the latter would be a banner crop of pure tripletness).

Unfortunately, because of our own illnesses and the whole fencing fiasco, we have to trim this weekend when the ewes might be a little bit pregnant, which is not the best time to do it (right before, but not once they conceive).  OH WELL.  Chalk it up to a learning experience.

Hopefully it goes ok, we get all the animals caught up on trims and the ewes conceive and carry to term with no hassles.  They’ll be on deep litter as we head into winter, so that will help reduce stress around first time pasture lambing.

Highway 2 is a long and lonely road

We recently went on a horrifyingly long road trip to check out some rams to breed with our girls.  We took Highway 2 because the map said it was fewer miles than shooting down to I-90.  It is shorter, but there are a lot of stops early on due to various small towns scattered on the outskirts of ‘day trip for Seattlites’ like Leavenworth and the land of aplets and cotlets.

Anyway Highway 2 also takes you through Wenatchee, which has fine people, but it is itself surrounded by ugly brutalist basalt hills.  And then it’s just mile after mile after mile of wheat fields and Big Sky isolatedness, farms where you need a vehicle just to “walk” your land until Spokane.

Interestingly, it is a historical accident that Eastern Washington has so much wheat going on.  The  early settlers tried cows because the land was so flat and suited for grazing cattle, but the cows died during a particularly bitter winter, so there went that idea.

After a miserably rainy drive with angry little kids, we got to our destination and my husband got a crash course in how to physically assess sheep for conformation while looking over the stock in the howling wind and rain.  We settled on two excellent ram lambs who will be of an age to breed around the time we get them down here in a few weeks.  This is wonderful because it’s the same time the ewes will be entering their heat.  The one I thought was pregnant just has odd conformation, a little too barrelly, but nothing really bad.  Helps with delivery and gestation anyhow.

Finding rams is difficult, because once you have a good one, you can generate your own and a good ram is worth many ewes, so people are not rushing to sell them all at once.  Many breeders end up doing the old schlep across county and state lines to find a high quality ram to start their flocks with, so we’re just following normal procedure.

The breeder was a font of useful information and has been in the Icelandic game for almost 20 years, which is amazing, since the breed has only been in North America for a little longer than that.

The long and short is that we expect some lambs next year from all four ewes.  I hope that happens.