Friday, September 28, 2012

Modern Shepherding

When I wrote the description of our farm for last year's KVMR Celtic Festival, I started with the phrase "combining Old World traditions and modern technology" to summarize our approach to raising sheep.  As we prepare for this year's festival, I've finally given some thought to what I meant by this.

In his essay “Let the Farm Judge,” Wendell Berry proposes allowing the farm (that is, the land and its associated resources and topography) to play a role in selecting the right type of sheep (or other livestock) for the farming operation.  While he concedes that the “industry standard,” as represented by the show ring and the processor, is important, he also advocates for local adaptation:

“Intelligent livestock breeders may find that, in practice, the two questions become one: How can I produce the best meat at the lowest economic and ecological cost?  This question cannot be satisfactorily answered by the market, by the meat packing industry, by breed societies, or by show ring judges.  It cannot be answered satisfactorily by “animal science” experts or by genetic engineers.  It can only be answered satisfactorily by the farmer, and only if the farm, the place itself, is allowed to play a part in the selection.”

In our own operation, we’ve tried to balance the need to meet the demands of our customers for flavorful, tender grass-fed lamb raised without antibiotics or added hormones with the demands of our land.  Our operation exists entirely on rented ground, which means that we don’t live on the property where our sheep graze.  Our customers are mostly the end users of our lamb, which means we receive direct feedback from the people that are eating our product.

Based on our observations, we need sheep that will meet the following criteria:

·         Our sheep must be able to utilize a wide range of feed resources – from irrigated pasture to annual grasses to invasive weeds to brush.
·         Our customers want moderately sized cuts of lamb, so we need lambs that will finish at 90-110 pounds.
·         Since we finish our lambs entirely on grass, we need medium-sized sheep that do well on our feed resources.
·         We lamb in our pastures rather than in a barn.  Because we operate on rented land at some distance from our home, we cannot be with the lambing ewes around the clock.  This means that we need ewes that can lamb on their own without our assistance.  We need lambs that can get up and nurse quickly, and we need ewes that can produce sufficient milk from grass.
·         We lamb in the early spring.  Out-of-season breeding is not emphasized in our system.
·         The bacteria that cause foot rot and foot scald seem to be endemic in the pastures that we lease.  We’ve noticed that sheep with black feet seem to have more resistance to foot rot.
·         To optimize our profitability, we need ewes that will produce a 150 percent lamb crop with little or no external feed inputs.
·         To reduce costs, we need sheep that are resistant to internal parasites.
·         While wool is not a significant product for us (at least economically), we do want sheep that produce fleeces of sufficient quality and quantity to cover the cost of shearing them.

In the "new" world, I think we've largely lost the ability to raise the type of livestock that our "place" requires - we largely raise the same sheep as everyone else.  At Flying Mule Farm, we've tried to walk a different path.

From a stock handling and sheep management perspective, we're also fairly traditional.  We rely on our border collies for many different tasks, including moving sheep from pasture to pasture, catching ewes and lambs for medical treatments, loading the trailer, sorting sheep, and other activities.  We've invested significant time improving our dog handling skills, as well.

Our predator protection system is largely based on systems developed in Eurasia - especially in Turkey.  We rely primarily on livestock guardian dogs that come to this country from Turkey and from the Basque region. These dogs - Akbash, Anatolian Shepherds and Great Pyrenees - evolved with herding cultures and fill the "large canine" niche in our environment.  I may jinx myself, but we've never lost a sheep where we've had a guardian dog protecting them.

Speaking of tools, we use several traditional tools in our day-to-day work as well.  During lambing season, I rely on a traditional shepherd's crook to catch newborn lambs for processing (ear tagging, etc.).  Since we lamb out in our pastures, we must catch each newborn lamb before it's 24 hours of age.  A crook (and a dog) make this possible.  Throughout the year, I use a sheep hook (or a leg crook) to catch a sheep that needs medical attention.

Our marketing program is probably more traditional than modern as well.  We market many of our lambs (and some of our mutton) directly to people we know.  In this sense, we're probably closer to the Old World model - our neighbors and friends purchase their lamb (and more recently, their yarn) directly from us.

Finally, we rely on the oldest transportation technology around - walking!  In the last 10 days, I've moved 200 ewes more than 2 miles total.  I've also moved 175 lambs about 1.5 miles.  In both cases, the sheep walked - as did I!  Shoe-leather is much less expensive than petroleum!

Switching gears, we also rely on very modern technology in our operation. Since most (if not all) of our leased pastures are not fenced for sheep, we rely on portable electric fencing systems.  Our electro-nets are powered by New Zealand electric fencers and solar-charged batteries.  Occasionally, we use solar-powered water pumps to provide stockwater to our sheep.  This technology allows us to graze properties that would otherwise be inaccessible.

I've recently purchased an iPhone - and I've added apps that allow me to estimate pasture acreages and to update my customers on new products.  We now accept credit cards for payment at the farmers' market, thanks to an iPhone app.  Each application makes me more efficient!

Finally, this essay represents a use of modern technology.  While I rely on the "old" approach of marketing directly to the folks who eat my lamb and wear my wool, I stay connected with these customers through my blog and through social media (

I find this mix of old and new to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work.  I love the day-to-day work of sheep raising, and I also love being able to connect my work with the larger community.  I'm also reassured by the fact that if all of our modern technology disappeared tomorrow, I'd still be able to raise sheep!

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