The ecological foundation of our operation are our annual rangelands. From November through mid-April, our ewes graze in the oak woodlands near Auburn. Our grazing land is composed mostly of annual grasses and broadleaf plants, along with several species of brush. I've written elsewhere about the relative values of our forage species; for my purposes in this essay, I'll just say that our rangeland plants exhibit a variety of nutritional value and grazing palatability, and that these factors vary spatially and seasonally.
During the summer months, we have access to irrigated pasture. In our Mediterranean climate, we don't have green grass in the summer months unless we irrigate it. This green forage provides much greater nutrition than the dry annual grasses during the summer and early fall. We use this forage to put weight on our lambs (as a grass-fed operation, we don't feed any grain to our lambs) and to prepare our ewes for the breeding season (October 1 - November 15).
We also operate almost entirely on land without fences or other facilities. Consequently, we rely on portable electric fencing systems and the herding ability of our border collies. We lamb on our pastures (rather than in a barn), and we rely on our ewes' maternal abilities and our livestock guardian dogs to keep lambs safe from predators.
In past years, we've marketed the majority of our lambs as grass-fed meat through our local farmers markets. More recently, we've shifted our focus to selling lighter weight, grass-fed lambs during ethnic (mostly Islamic) holidays. In both scenarios, we want a moderate-sized lamb that will finish (that is, deposit sufficient muscle and fat) on grass (without any extra grain or concentrate feed). We also market our wool (sometimes directly to the end user, other times through a broker) - so we want sheep that produce a quality fiber product as well.
Finally, having suffered through significant footrot (footrot is a bacterial infection similar to thrush in horses - it causes severe economic losses for sheep producers) problems in the past, we want sheep that have natural resistance to this infection.
Given these criteria, here's what the Ideal Ewe looks like for our operation:
- She will conceive her first lambs at 18 months of age and deliver her first lambs at around 2 years of age (we don't push our ewes to breed as ewe lambs - we let them grow to their mature size before they are bred).
- She will deliver 10 to 12 lambs during the course of the next 6 years (we want one crop of lambs each year - some producers push this to get 3 crops of lambs in two years. Economically, the cost of this type of operation doesn't make sense for us). We prefer twins - triplets are not ideal, because we either have to bottle raise one of the triplets at home (expensive) or the ewe loses substantial body condition trying to produce enough milk for 3 lambs.
- She will be an outstanding mother! We evaluate every ewe (and every potential replacement ewe lamb) for her ability to deliver her lamb(s) without assistance from us, for her maternal attachment to her lamb(s) (which is related to her ability to protect her lamb(s) from predators) and for the vigor of her lamb (which is related to her milk production). A ewe that doesn't make the grade is marked for sale once her lambs are weaned in the late spring.
- She will have sound feet that require minimal trimming - and that resist footrot!
- She will respect our electric fence and our border collies. A ewe that gets through the fence - or that fights the dogs when we need to move them - is more trouble than she's worth!
- She will be calm and easy to handle in our corrals - we don't want sheep that are annoyingly tame, but we also don't want sheep that try to run to the next county when they see us.
- She will produce 5-6 pounds of wool with fibers that are at least 5 inches long. Some breeds produce far more wool; the breeds that we use seem to produce about this amount. Because our wool is on the coarse side (that is, it is larger in diameter than Rambouillet or Merino wool), it also tends to have less lanolin in it, which means our yield percentage is higher than these fine-wool breeds. Six pounds of our "grease" wool will yield around 3.5 pounds of clean wool; 6 pounds of Rambouillet grease wool will yield about 3 pounds of clean wool.
- She will produce lambs that will have sufficient muscling and fat cover to grade choice at 100 pounds liveweight. This is smaller than the average commodity-market lamb in the U.S., but it fits our market perfectly. This means we want moderate frame size and easy fleshing ability in our lambs - large-framed sheep need more feed resources (including grain).
Our daughters have both shown sheep at our county fair. While I'm always interested to hear what the judge has to say about their lambs - and about the few breeding animals they've shown, I'm always struck by the realization that this "industry" standard has very little relationship with the kind of sheep that I've found most profitable for our farm. Wendell Berry, an author and a farmer, writes:
“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.”Our farm passes judgement on our abilities as managers and livestock breeders every year. The ewes that meet all or most of the requirements I've outlined above stay in our flock - and pass their genetic potential on to subsequent generations. I'd be interested to learn what other shepherds look for in their Ideal Ewe!