Expect more from your livestock

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Jacob sheep
Jacob sheep hit the trail from their night pen, at Farei Kennels, in Maine, in October 2020. (Courtesy of Farei Kennels)

I have mentioned it before. Expectations — they affect how livestock guardian dogs grow, learn and work — but what about the livestock? The more I see people returning to small scale, sustenance farming, the more I ponder our expectations of our stock.

I run three types of sheep: Jacobs, with their hardiness, food efficiency and willingness to eat anything; Navajo Churros, with their sweet demeanor and wool production; plus a little side project I am working on, fondly known as “Tarma Sheepies.”

Just like my livestock guardian dogs, I expect livestock to have intelligence and an innate ability to care for themselves and their young. The animal areas are currently split about 50-50 between grazing and browsing. Any animal here must be willing to eat whatever is available and thrive on it.

Lambing

I pasture breed and lamb, which means babies are born from mid January through March, which are some of the coldest, snowiest months in Maine. I do not jug, or pen, the ewes and lambs during the season. I rely on the dogs to alert me and regular checks on first time moms.

Here are my expectations for my sheep: You must be capable of cleaning your baby and getting it off the ground and on its feet before it freezes. For lambs, once you are on your feet, you must be smart enough to keep track of your mother when she brings you back into the flock, where the food and shelter are.

This aspect of my breeding program was brought home when I moved the flock to its new winter quarters. It is a new pen, the back of which pushes up against coyote territory only recently reclaimed, as I utilize more portions of the property. I sorted out the few milk goats and called the sheep to follow their shepherd, armed with a grain bucket and a cattle dog.

They followed with commendable docility, and we moved them to their new quarters, and breakfast, with little fanfare. I stood and watched as they milled about bleating and refusing to settle. I shook my head and headed off to finish chores, which included moving “their dogs,” along with their breakfast, down to the new area.

I left the dogs behind when I moved the sheep, because humans always know better — obviously. I wanted to walk boundaries and talk to the dogs about their new pen.

Smart sheep

As soon as I brought the dogs in the pen, however, the sheep settled. The immediacy was evident even to a dense human like me. Most of my sheep grew up with the dogs. They understand the relationship and service they provide — even the rams, which I do not pull.

I have, on rare occasions, brought in adults to add genetics to my program. They typically flounder about a bit at first, but most of them do learn. When you tell me sheep are dumb, I will ask you what environment and expectations have led you to that conclusion.

All of this got me thinking about human intervention and expectations — humans change livestock, and not always for the better. Now, don’t misunderstand me, human involvement has its place, and it can be an important part of progress and our food chain.

But just like choosing a livestock guardian dog, environment and expectations should play a crucial role in the livestock we choose as well.

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