The Secret of Sheep
~A chapter from ... "Confessions From My Earth Mother Days",
publication due 2007?
I can’t tell you how or when we made the decision to raise sheep, but it seemed
the most natural decision. It was the early 80’s, and we wanted to live on a
small self-sustaining farm. Our children were young, and we wanted them to know
where their food came from, where their roots touched the earth, and how the
earth supported us all. These are lessons beyond the scope of books. So to embrace all these concepts, we needed to raise some
animals that could teach the lessons. Cows were too big, rabbits too
fluffy and small, goats had no respect for fences, and that left sheep. According to every
old timer I had ever talked to, sheep paid their own way. Steeped in the
history of America and the world, from my Scottish ancestors to the pastures of
Montana where I grew up, sheep baa-a-a-a-d across the ages, beckoning me to open
the gate and let them in. My husband and I began our journey to mother earth by going through
the sheep barn.
The first decision was whether to raise wool sheep or meat sheep. I tended to
want the wool sheep because I like to become attached to my animals, give them a
name, and not eat them, but my husband felt that a meat breed was a better way
to go because there was a ready market in our area. We lived just a few miles
from the Dixon Auction where one could buy and sell sheep readily. Every Tuesday
was sheep day at the auction. And after all, this was to show the connection to
the land for our children. In fact, after many years and knowing numerous
families doing sheep and goats and gardens and all the other earthy things, they
all claimed their children in their vicarious adventures.
Black-face are the classic meat sheep, and Suffolk is the premier breed being
used in America these days. Most of the lamb you find in the supermarket
probably has at least a little Suffolk blood, if it is home grown. Imported meat
may have less. Suffolk have a black face, and they are big and bold and
independent – at least compared to the white-face breeds. They have a long loin
(lamb chops) and big hind leg (leg-of-lamb), and produce a meaty, lean carcass.
Go to any county fair and look at the market lambs being raised by the 4-H and
FFA kids, and you will see the majority of lambs are Suffolk.
White-face sheep, on the other hand, are a motley crew from many breeds. In most
commercial flocks you will see combinations of Merino, Rambouillet, Romney,
Dorset, Columbia… and many more. They produce wool, and at one time wool was the
reason for raising sheep. But since the rise of synthetic material, wool is
seldom worn and the price has plummeted to the point that if you sell your wool
for more than you pay the shearer, you are doing well. At one time, closer to
the turn of the last century, wool was a big cash crop, but no more, at least on
a commercial scale. So most big sheep producers will have white-face ewes to
maximize the wool production and to take advantage of the fact that white-face
do very well on pasture. They then use black-face rams to produce meaty lambs
for market. Because the black-face don’t fair well on pasture, the rams are
replaced almost every year.
We began with about 300 head of ewes of every conceivable breed combination, and
a few rams. We were running by the seat of our pants, learning as we went. Every
week we went to the Dixon Auction and in the beginning, bought sheep. Old ewes,
a few young ones, white, black, short, tall, wooled, unwooled, ewes.
Now the Dixon Auction was one of the largest sheep auctions in the western US.
And it was one of a kind. The building was old and had seen many a hoof through
the gates. When you stepped into the main part of the auction building where the
ring was located, there were rows of bleachers surrounding the central corral
area. The sheep entered from the side and were moved about the ring with the
handlers as the auctioneer cried out the bid. Hundreds of sheep would go through
the ring in a day. Old ewes headed for slaughter, feeder lambs to be sold for
pasture and finishing to growing up and return as market lambs finished and
ready for the table. Bummer lambs with no mother. Ewes with lambs at their sides
as breeders…. Rams. Wethers. White face, Brockle face, black face, and once in
awhile a goat.
Sitting on the bleachers and standing in small groups were the rag-tag bunches
of buyers there to place their bid. More often than not they were old men with
overalls and suspenders, and a chaw of tobacco in their mouth. The bids were
discrete, a nod, a finger flick, a small wave or wink. SOLD! At first glance one
could not see who was bidding because all the old men standing in groups were
laughing and talking and seemingly not paying attention.
Charles and I were in awe. We knew nothing. But we wanted to raise sheep and our
strategy was simple. Buy low and sell high. Easy. And our competition were these
old farmers. We would buy better than the farmers and then sell our great buys
back to them at a profit. We were going to make some money. So while we were in
the buying mode to get our flock up and running, we began our research into the
how’s of the auction so that we could sell well when the time came.
Buying was easy. We would arrive early and sit quietly in the upper stands,
until the bidding began, and then with our hearts beating fast and adrenalin
rushing, we would raise our hand. SOLD! We bought our first sheep. We took them
home and we watched them go out onto our pasture and begin to graze. So the next
week we bought more sheep. And then more, and all the time we continued to
examine our competition. It was obvious that we could make money here. None of
those old sheep farmers had much formal education in any at all, and there we
sat with a lot of years in graduate school and several degrees between us,
including a PhD. So we began as we would on any project, taking notes, reading,
forming hypotheses, and colleting data.
For several months or better we sat in the stands on Tuesday afternoon and wrote
down what came through the ring and the selling price, and bought a whole bunch
of sheep. We learned all the breeds and classes of sheep and what was a good buy
and bad buy. We read the market reports so that we had a bench mark to compare
the prices. Charles would go home and figure out the standard deviation, the
range, median, mean – in short a complete statistical analysis of the sale for
the day. Then we would determine what the max price could be to make a profit
when feeder lambs came to market on what kind feed with conversion rates of hay,
grain, grass… and the cost of the feed. And what we discovered is that those
old, uneducated farmers in overalls and chewing tobacco, bidding nonchalantly
with a nod or wink while drinking coffee and carrying on a conversation with an
old friend, not even watching the ring but just glancing over once in a while as
a new bunch of lambs entered - were bidding within ½ of 1% of the mean every
day. Furthermore, we discovered that we would be hard pressed to feed the
feeders to market and do anything but break even IF we could sell at the mean
market price. We were way out of our league.
So we decided that we would not buy and sell feeders. Instead, would buy sick
sheep (always very cheap), take them home and nurse them back to health and
resell them at a profit. Thus began my affair with Merck’s Veterinary manual. We
also had a background in disease, having completed a lot of work on diseases in
birds. So we bid on some older sheep that needed some loving care and
rehabilitation planning on nursing them back to health and fitness, put some
weight on them and bring them right back to the auction in a few weeks and sell
them for a lot more than we initially paid.
Merek’s became our bedside reading. Each night we read about a different
disease, and sure enough, we would have it within a week. And we would treat it,
and sometimes the sheep would survive. We learned about masititis, tetnus,
overeating, bloating, foot rot -- and just plain old age. We learned to give
shots, lance absecces and put in ear tags. And we learned that an old sheep is
an old sheep, and brings no more money if it runs into the ring or barely walks.
We learned that once a sheep has mastitis, it usually in not much good for
breeding, and those old boys could spot it out of the corner of their eye as
they sipped their coffee. And we learned that to bring a very old ewe to the
slaughter plant, it had to be able to walk off the trailer and up the ramp
before dying, or we would not be paid.
But our reputation at the auction was growing. Sitting in the stands, every
Tuesday, we were looking for more sheep. One day a blind sheep ran into the ring
and smack into the wall. No one bid. The auctioneer tried and tried to get the
bidding started. He was asking $1.00 for this sheep. Then he stopped, stepped
from behind the podium and looked up to top row of the bleachers and directly at
us and said, “Well? Everyone should have a blind sheep.” Everyone in the entire
place was looking at us, and grinning. What could we do? We bought the sheep.
Finally we stopped reading Merek’s, and that helped in and of itself.
We were not getting rich on sheep. But the ewes that we had purchased were doing
well on pasture and were about to being lambing. Our hopes soared! Furthermore,
we strategized that if you buy sheep for $20.00 and sell it for $20 and you
realize you’re not making any money, you need to buy and sell more sheep. So we
went into partnership with a couple of friends. Our sheep were running on the
stubble of the fields across Yolo County and getting very fat and finished. In
fact, whenever a sheep got out in the entire county, the sheriff had our number
on speed dial. And we had sheep drives from one pasture to another, which is
really a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Pasturing sheep is more difficult than one might think. We soon realized that
there was a reason for sheepherders. You loose sheep unless someone there 24
hours a day to care for them. Between the fields were irrigation ditches and
coyotes moved freely across the countryside. And coyotes love lamb. So began the
battle to protect the sheep.
Someone told us that donkeys hated coyotes. And indeed I can still see our
donkey that we tried to run with the sheep, put his ears back and head for the
back fence where two coyotes were passing with his mouth open and eyes flashing.
The coyotes left fast. But I also remember watching the donkey trying to get to
the hay that we laid out to supplement the pasture as he grabbed the sheep by
the back and flung them right and left. We even received a call from a concerned
citizen driving by saying that we had a donkey with our sheep that was eating
the sheep. Fearing the wrath of PETA, we found the donkey a new home and tried a
scarecrow. To the scarecrow we put a radio that played full blast so that the
coyotes would think there were many people having a party with the sheep. Of
course a scarecrow with a radio attached to play all night works pretty well,
provided you remember to check and see if the radio station really plays all
night. Duh! Mules seemed more inclined to accept the sheep, but we learned that
a halter on a mule can kill the mule if it gets tangled in an old rake that is
laying in the field, and dead mules don’t chase coyotes. All in all, the coyotes
were getting the best deal.
The coyotes were too many to leave the lambs in the field until they well able
to keep up with the flock. Bby this time we had a few barns built and were
getting set up on our farm to handle livestock. So whenever a ewe was ready to
lamb, she was brought out of the stubble fields to our property.
Now on our property, we had a pond. It was a lovely pond with ducks and geese.
And around this pond were banks of clay. We did not know it, but in the clay
lived “no-see-ums”. What is a No-see-Um. Good question. They were invisible, or
nearly so. No one sees them! Hence their name. But they are a tiny tiny Black
Flies that carries a virus for sheep called Blue Tongue. So as each ewe began to
bag up (the udder fills with milk just before the lamb arrives), we were
bringing the sheep in to a place where they immediately caught Blue Tongue.
Blue Tongue is a nasty virus, transmitted by these tiny insects. It does not
kill the sheep outright, but causes swelling of the feet. It hurts to stand. So
the sheep don’t stand. And within several days, the tendons on their feet begin
to shrink. So by the time the virus is gone, they can’t stand because their
tendons are shortened. Sheep have a very low threshold for pain! Then they die
because they cannot feed if they won’t get up and walk. When a sheep does not
want to stand, it doesn’t. But with tender loving care, the sheep were
surviving, and then refusing to walk. Being very inventive, it was determined
that if we could get the sheep to stand, their tendons would not shrink. Then
they would walk and could go back to being a sheep when they were better. What
We suspended the sheep with a wide belly band hanging from the rafters of the
shed so that their feet would touch the ground, even if they didn’t want them
too. This induced exercise of that tendon. At one point I had a dozen sheep
suspended with a wide belly band from the rafters of the barn with their feet
just able to support them. It kind of worked. And we won’t even discuss the
dynamics of getting a 130 lb sheep into the belly band and hoisted into the air
with a come-a-long. In the corners of the barn were sheep laying down with their
feet and legs protruding from white PVC pipe to keep their pasterns extended and
not allow the tendons to shrink until the virus passed. It kind of worked too.
What finally solved the solution was a vaccine and not bringing them to the
ceratopogonid infested banks unless they had a vaccination.
Of course, it was back to the auction every Tuesday. At one point, one toothless
old guy waved to me from the bleachers where he sat a few feet to my right. I
scooted over to see what he wanted. He grinned and said, “Honey, do you want to
know the secret of sheep?” AT LAST. Someone was willing to share the secret. I
“Well, you have to understand that from the minute a lamb hits the ground, it
walks around looking for reason to die. All you have to do is stop it from
We did a lot of stopping sheep from dying. But still we were not rich. This was
not the entire secret.
So we once again changed strategy. It was obvious that if you have a sheep
that is bound to die, and you are therefore loosing money on your sheep, you
should buy more expensive sheep. We decided to raise market lambs and sell purebred Suffolk. Of course
purebred sheep cost more money to buy, but we were getting some confidence. Then
we quickly learned that the more a sheep costs, the more likely it is to die,
like the costly purebred ewe, champion at state fair, pregnant with twins that
ruptured her pre-pubic tendon that supports the uterus. After surgery, saving
the lambs, and bringing her home from the hospital – she died 3 months later of
Still, we continued. Our little flock grew, and we began to almost break even
– if you didn’t count our time or labor or any capital expenses such as fencing,
barns, pasture or medicine or feed or equipment or shearing. It was progress.
It was a life style.
For the next 15 years we raised sheep and worked with 4-H, providing many a
market lamb and quite a few champions. Our children all had sheep, and grew up
with a depth of appreciation for animals and life that made our profit margin go
over the top. And we learned the real secret of sheep: Profit and success have
little to do with money. Sheep are a wonderful investment many times over.