Monday, January 2, 2012

Shepherding Skills

Much of the work involved in caring for sheep involves a blend of knowledge and skills.  For example, knowledge about ruminant nutrition must be combined with the skill of moving electric fencing in our system.  Knowledge about shearing sheep is meaningless without developing the skills necessary to safely operate a shearing machine or the skills to humanely restrain a sheep during the shearing process.

Knowledge can be gained in many ways - by reading books and websites, taking classes, or talking to other sheep producers.  Skills, in my estimation, can only be gained by doing.  The only way to get better at flipping and holding a ewe for shearing for example, is to do it many times.

New and aspiring shepherds have a tremendous amount of knowledge-building resources available.  One of my favorite books on the subject of grass-based sheep production - More Sheep, More Grass, More Money by Peter Schroedter - offers a wealth of knowledge about everything from breed selection and pasture management to predator protection and lambing systems.  Similarly, the Sheep 201 website ( managed by Susan Schoenian from the University of Maryland is a tremendous resource for folks new to the business of caring for sheep.

Without developing hands-on skills, however, the knowledge contained in these and other resources is useless. The best vaccination program, for example, is worthless if a shepherd doesn't know how to give an injection safely.  In previous years, Flying Mule Farm has offered an apprenticeship program to give 2-3 individuals an opportunity for intensive hands-on learning.  While we feel that our apprenticeship program has been successful (at least three of our apprentices now raise their own sheep), we've decided to take our educational program in a new direction in 2012.  This year, we're offering a series of Shepherding Skills Workshops, in which we'll combine knowledge transfer and hands-on skill building opportunities.  Our first workshop, on January 22, will cover vaccination programs and preparations for lambing.  Participants will have a chance to learn about our vaccination program while they are learning how to give injections.  We'll also cover the types of supplies and equipment we'll have on hand once we start lambing in February.  Future workshops will cover lambing, shearing and wool handling, vegetation management, grass finishing and stock handling.  For a complete schedule, go to our website at

At one time, most shepherds learned the skills of the trade by working in the family business.  For many of us, these opportunities no longer exist.  I hope that our Shepherding Skills Workshop Series will provide an opportunity for the type of hands-on learning and mentoring that used to be common in our industry.  Stay tuned!

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