Monday, March 14, 2016

A Shepherd's Vocabulary

Now that I’m nearly six months into my year-long #sheep365 project, I’m realizing that many of the terms and phrases I use as a shepherd are entirely foreign to my non-sheep-raising friends.  Some words are familiar (like bummer and dry) but are used in an unfamiliar context.  Other words and phrases are entirely nonsensical to the uninitiated (like “sort off the bellies and topknots”).  As my friend Liz Hubbard (who raises sheep in southeastern Oregon) said, “No wonder my townie friends don’t understand anything I say!” Earlier this week, I decided that I’d do a blog post about these terms and phrases – and I asked my sheepherding friends on Facebook to include the words that they use.  We had a great time brainstorming – and this blog post is the result of our collective work.  I hope you find it as informative and amusing as we did!  I’ve not made this an all-inclusive list – in the hopes that my fellow shepherds will offer their own comments and essays!

As I tried to organize this post, I categorized many of the words by topic.  Every phase of my work (or any shepherd’s work) has a specific set of terms.  Sheep reproduction and husbandry, marketing, shearing, wool handling and marketing – each have a distinct (and often peculiar) vocabulary.  I’ll try to use these categories as I define the terms we use.  I’ll also define the terms I use, as well as some of the terms that my friends suggested (some of which were new to me).  And fair warning – some of our vocabulary can get somewhat ribald!  I suppose this stems from the fact that we’re in the business of managing and observing ovine sex, to a large degree! Sometimes our terminology and phrases reflect the dark humor that comes with realizing dead-stock are a part of raising livestock.  I don’t apologize for this (not in the least), but I do realize that some of you might take offense.

Since we’re currently in the midst of lambing, I’ll start with the terms that we use to describe the reproductive process in sheep.  Before our breeding season, most of us flush the ewes by putting them on a rising plain of nutrition.  In my experience, this works best when the ewes have been on low quality forage before flushing begins.  About a month before breeding, we’ll evaluate the ewe flock’s body condition scores (an evaluation of external fat cover and, therefore, nutritional status).  We’ll then put them onto better forage (irrigated pasture in our case) and add a supplemental source of protein and energy.  Flushing makes the ewe’s reproductive system think, “Wow – we’re going into good times!  We better ovulate like crazy!”  When we turn the rams (or bucks) in with the ewes, some of us say that the ewes are bucked up.    Some of us use a marking harness on the rams (a harness that fits around the ram’s brisket, which includes a waxy, colored block for marking the ewes he mounts).  Each ram gets a different color (or the colors are changed every 17 days to indicate which cycle a ewe was bred on).  Others might use a raddle system – a colored powder is applied directly to the ram’s brisket, which allows him to mark the ewes he’s covered.   Very few commercial producers use AI (or artificial insemination), since it must be done laparoscopically in sheep.  After we pull the rams, we allow the ewes to settle – we avoid stressing them to make sure that they keep their newly formed embryos.  Sometimes, we’ll hire a veterinarian or ultrasound technician to scan the ewes to determine whether they are bred and possibly how many lambs they are carrying.

As we get closer to lambing, the ewes will start bagging up – as they begin producing milk, their udders will swell.  For those of us who don’t scan our ewes, this is sometimes the first true sign that a ewe is pregnant.  If we raise breeds of sheep that are heavily wooled, we may crutch or tag the ewes just prior to lambing.  This involves shearing the wool from the ewe’s belly, topknot (to prevent a condition called wool blindness), udder, and rear end.  Crutching provides a cleaner environment through which the lamb is born (by removing soiled wool) and helps ensure that the new lambs find a teat rather than a lock of wool hanging from the udder.

As lambing approaches, we start going through the ewes twice a day, looking for problems.  We’ve never had this happen, but sometimes a shepherd might experience an abortion storm – generally a problem caused by disease or nutritional deficiency that causes multiple ewes to abort their lambs.  If this were to happen in our flock, we’d send the aborted fetus to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab at UC Davis.  A ewe that has aborted is said to have slipped her lamb.  During late gestation, we also keep an eye out for ketosis – basically a condition where the ewe’s digestive track is compressed by the lambs in her uterus such that she can’t get enough forage to satisfy her energy demands.

If everything goes according to plan, sometime around 145 days after the rams were turned in with the ewes, our first lambs arrive.  A ewe that is in early stages of labor will be restless, and may start to vocalize (baa).  As labor progresses, she’ll usually lie down and push – and often we’ll notice maternal grunting, or vocalization associated with pushing.  Once her first lamb is born, a ewe will commence to nickering at the lamb – this sound, along with the sense of smell (for both ewe and lamb) will cement the maternal bond.  If it doesn’t, we might have to jail

or jug the ewe with her lambs.  A jail or jug is a small pen (usually in a barn) where the ewe and her lambs can get used to one another.  In our pasture lambing system, we rarely use these.  Our ewes, if left alone, will stay on their lambing beds (a circle within 20 feet of where she gave birth) for as long as 24 hours.  On larger range operations in California, we’ll sometimes use lamb hobbles to keep a set of twin lambs together and close to the ewe.  These are short bits of rope with leather straps that allow us to connect the foot of one lamb with the foot of another.  The lambs can still move around, but they can’t get separated (and confuse the ewe).  On big operations, I’ve used a small trailer pulled by a four-wheeler to move ewes and lambs from the pasture back to the jugs in the lambing barn.  We called this the lambulance – a friend in southeastern Oregon calls it the lambie bus.  If the maternal bond doesn’t happen (sometimes a ewe can’t count past one), or of something else happens, we have a bummer lamb, which we take home to bottle-feed.  Large operations will often have a bummer pen where these lambs are reared as a group.

At times, the birthing process doesn’t go smoothly.  Mostly these are simple problems to fix – a lamb might be shoulder-locked or elbow-locked in the birth canal.  In these cases, we catch the ewe and pull the lamb (by pulling on the front legs, which emerge first along with the head in normal presentation).  Sometimes this is more complicated, however!  Sometimes, we might have a two-headed lamb (not really! This just means that both twins are trying to come out at the same time).  We might have a breach lamb (coming out backwards).  Sometimes lambs are born with a leg back or with the head back, in which case we have to try to re-position the lamb.  On occasion, we’ll have a big-headed lamb that takes a long time to be born.  These lambs seem to suffer from oxygen deprivation – it usually takes them a day or two to figure out how to nurse.  We call these dummy lambs – other producers call them big dumb bastards (technically accurate, as we often don’t know which specific ram sired a particular lamb).

Soon after lambing season begins (the timing depends on the operation), we start marking lambs.  On our operation, this means that we apply an ear tag (in the left ear if it’s a ewe lamb we’re keeping, in the right ear if it’s a ram lamb or if it’s a ewe lamb we’re selling).  We also dock the lambs using an elastrator (or bander) – sheep with long, woolly tails can accumulate manure on their tails.  This may lead to a condition called flystrike, where flies lay eggs in the manure and the larva (aka, maggots) begin eating into living tissue.  Some folks think docking is inhumane; I feel like flystrike is much worse!  The male lambs that we don’t wish to save as rams are also castrated at this time – they become wethers.  Finally, we dip the umbilical cord in iodine and put the mother’s ear tag number on the lamb’s left side using scourable paint (paint which will wash out of the wool).  Twins and triplets get this number in red; singles in blue.

Collectively, ewes with lambs at their side are called pairs (regardless of how many lambs they have).  When we check them – and especially when we move them to new pasture – we make sure they are paired up or mothered up.  In our operation, we check the flock at least 3 times per day to make sure lambs are mothered up.  We also check for cold lambs – it doesn’t take long for a lamb to get hypothermic in stormy weather if it’s not nursing regularly.  In polling my fellow shepherds for this blog post, I learned a new term for cold lambs – frogged or froggie lamb.  These cold lambs are often wet, slimy, and have their hind legs splayed out behind them – just like a frog!

At some point (usually when the lambs are 7-10 days old), the lamb races begin.  Gangs of lambs will chase each other around the pasture – another term I learned this week was lampede!  Sometimes these little hoodlums will play a game we call “tag the guard dog” – they’ll sneak up and touch the guard dog and then run away – it’s hilarious!

Finally, sometimes we try to graft an orphan lamb (or one of a set of triplets or quadruplets) onto another ewe.  I’ve never had much success with this, but sometimes a granny ewe will take it upon herself to “adopt” another ewe’s lamb.  Sometimes this is great (as with bummer lambs); other times it can be a problem (as it confuses the lamb’s true mother).  And the last ewes to lamb are called tail-enders.  There always seem to be a few stragglers in every flock!

Let’s turn our attention to shearing and wool!  I hope my friends who are more knowledgeable about wool will add to this section, but here’s a few of the terms we use.  We use a bull-pen set up at shearing – 8-10 ewes are run into the shearing pen, where one of us catches each ewe for the shearer.  Our shearer uses a shearing machine (an electric motor which turns a shaft attached to his handpiece).  Where electricity is unavailable, you might still see a shearer use blade shears (the scissor-type hand shears).  We sort off the bellies, topknots and dags (belly wool and topknots generally have more VM – or vegetation – contamination, and dags are the manure-soiled locks of wool from a ewe’s rear-end).  By sorting off these lower value parts of the fleece, we get more money for the more valuable wool.  We also check each fleece for staple length (the length of the fiber – short-stapled wool is less valuable because the fibers are more difficult to process) and for wool strength.  Wool is said to be tender if it breaks in the middle of the fiber – this is called wool break.  Wool break is caused by health or nutritional stress.  Sometimes, each fleece is skirted on a skirting table – this allows the second cuts (short fibers resulting from a second pass of the shearer’s handpiece) to fall through the slots on the table.  It is also the point where the wool grader determines wool quality.  On large operations, the grader sorts fleeces into like kinds – and these like kinds are baled together using a hydraulic wool press.  These compressed bales weigh 400-600 pounds!  On our smaller operation, we roll the fleeces after skirting them and put them into a burlap wool sack suspended from our wool sack stand.  As the sack fills, somebody stomps the wool to compress it in the sack.  We can usually get 175-200 pounds of wool into these 6-foot long sacks.  We sew the top shut with a sack needle.  These finished sacks are sometimes called sausage packs.  Wool can be said to be fine or coarse, strong (as in coarse or as in strong fibered).  We judge wool by luster, crimp and handle.  Individual clusters of wool fibers are called locks.  Most of us sell grease wool (wool with the lanolin still in it) based on the grease weight (clean wool yield is typically about 50 percent of the grease weight).

Having shorn my fair share of sheep, I prefer a ewe that is smooth (in good body condition) but not too fat to bend.  I like open bellies, clean heads and clean legs (no wool on these hard-to-shear parts).  I don’t like sticky ewes (where the lanolin is cold and/or sticky).

After shearing, we typically wean the lambs (separate them from their mothers).  During this operation, we’ll also mouth and bag the ewes – we check to make sure they have all of their teeth and handle their udders to make sure they haven’t had any mastitis.  A broken-mouth ewe can’t convert grass to milk, wool and lambs.  A ewe with a hard bag won’t produce enough milk next year.  We’ll cull these ewes.  Sometimes, we’ll sell otherwise healthy ewes – these are attitude culls.  A ewe that won’t stay in our electric fences is a good candidate for an attitude cull!  One friend calls this, “treating the ewe with a dose of trailermycin” – in other words, hauling a problem ewe to the auction!

Keeping sheep healthy (or the failure to do so) brings out dark humor in many shepherds.  One of my friends speaks of suicidal sheep, which he defines as the “ability of sheep to snuff it without any input.”  Another friend described the 4-S syndrome (sick sheep seldom survive).  In reality, sheep are very stoic creatures – we sometimes don’t realize they’re sick until they’re on death’s doorstep.

One of the most challenging aspects of keeping sheep healthy is dealing with internal parasites.  We use the Famacha system to determine whether our sheep have intestinal and stomach worms.  If they do, we’ll drench them with dewormer (basically, administer a liquid medication orally).  We’ll watch for sheep that are off their feed (not eating), that have bottle jaw (swelling under their lower jaw – another sign of parasites).  With lambs, we watch for scours (diarrhea) and bloat (caused by over-rich forage).  A dead sheep is said to be upside down or legs up in the pasture.

Eventually, we get to market our lambs (and get paid!).  My favorite marketing term comes from the daughter of my friend Lana Rowley in southeastern Oregon.  She calls finished lambsfat bastards” – again, this is a technically correct use of the term, since we often put more than one ram with each breeding group of ewes!  Finished lambs are fat lambs (as opposed to feeder lambs, which may require additional feeding to reach finished weight).  In terms of meat, at least in the U.S., lamb is meat from an ovine animal of less than 12 month of age.  Anything older than this in the U.S. is called mutton.  Other countries have intermediate classifications – meat from animal from one to two years of age is called hogget (my favorite by the way – tender like lamb, but incredibly flavorful).  We ship lambs to send them to market.  If we’re selling to our processor, we usually get paid based on double the dress weight (live weight is generally twice the hanging, or hot weight of the carcass).  We also pay attention to the pelt value (pelts are sheepskins) – this has a bearing on the overall market.

Some of us graze our lambs on stubble (grain or alfalfa fields that have been harvested).  In the fall, we graze on crop aftermath (pumpkin fields, usually).  We might bring the sheep into our corrals to be sorted through a cut gate (a gate on our alley that has 2 or 3 openings leading to separate pens.  Some shepherds use tilt tables (a type of squeeze chute that restrains the ewe and can be tilted on its side to allow access to the sheep’s feet).  I use a much lower-tech method – I simply flip sheep and rest them on their rumps (similar to the starting position for shearing) to do things like trim feet and administer injections.  If I need to catch a ewe in the pasture for some reason, a good dog and a leg crook do the trick.  For catching lambs, I prefer a wider neck crook (which actually allows me to catch a lamb around the chest).

One of the most enjoyable parts of putting this question out via Facebook was connections I made through friends with shepherds in other countries.  If you think American shepherds speak a different language, check out some of the UK terms I learned from John Wilkes, who is originally from Shropshire.  Other parts of the UK have different terms (or variations on these): 

·  Yaw – ewe
·  Dagging – “arse wool removal”
·  Hefted – “yaws on open ground not leaving their patch due to maternal passed-down knowledge”
·  Glatting – “mending a hole in a hedge that a yaw escaped through”
·  Breaker – “a known escaper”
·  Tiddlin – bottle lamb
·  Cade lamb – orphan lamb
·  Teg – a hogget in Shropshire
·  Thrown her bed – a uterine prolapse
·  Black bag or garget – an udder explosion (“employ the shovel, rest in peace)
·  Gathering yaws – “fetching them off the hill”
·  Sheep walks – “paths trod by sheep for hundreds and hundreds of years
·  Pitch mark – “an owner’s mark”
·  Draft yaws – ewes that are taken “off the mountain for a couple more years at lower elevations”
·  Swids – swedes, a root crop grown for forage
·  Grubs – maggots
·  Drovers – “the fellas that took the yaws to market – wonderful, endearing country folk – mostly alcoholics, thieves and murderers”
·  Sheepwash – “special place in a river where sheep were cleaned before hand shearing”
·  And some especially colorful phrases from the Clun Valley:
o   “You be wooden yeaded like an awld Clun tup” - translation: you’re of questionable intellect, much like a Clun ram.
o   “All corned up like a September tup” – translation: gosh, that young fellow would appear to be all dressed up and looking for a young lady to squire for the evening [I won’t add what John said the young man might have in mind for later on in the evening!]

As I finish this post, I’m realizing there are many terms and phrases that my friends shared that I simply didn’t have room to include!  I hope they’ll offer blogs of their own (you know who you are!)  And I haven't even started to include the vast vocabulary of the sheep dog handler (which usually includes a number of inventive combinations of swear-words).  

This post was fun to write; I hope it’s as much fun to read!  In the meantime, I’m off to check the sheep – we’ll finish marking as soon as the tail-enders drop their lambs!

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