Safety for Sheep and Shepherd

By Linda Poole, Regenerative Grazing Specialist

When NCAT’s Livestock Team recently held a series of webinars for people considering a new livestock enterprise, many folks indicated they were thinking of getting sheep. Sounds good to me! Sheep were first domesticated 11,000 years ago, and for centuries women and children tended sheep or goats while men managed larger, potentially more dangerous stock, such as cattle and horses. Today, sheep can be handled without a lot of expensive infrastructure, and well-socialized sheep are friendly, calm, and fun to be around.

But with their small size and cute-and-fuzzy-factor, it’s easy to underestimate sheep. It’s also a fact that they can maim or kill you. This is not intended to cause you to fear sheep; it is fair warning to respect them. Safety is especially important if you’re working sheep alone, without someone to watch your back or lend a hand if things start to go sideways.

Safety with sheep is a topic better suited to books than blogs, but by paying attention to these common-sense guidelines, shepherds can work more safely:

  • Source your sheep from a reputable breeder. Those cheap sheep on Craigslist or at the auction barn might harbor health or behavior issues that you just don’t need in your life.
  • NEVER turn your back on a ram, and this goes double during breeding season. Tame rams can be the worst, going from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in an instant when their hormones surge during breeding season. Don’t play with or pet rams. Petting a ram is like feeding a bear – neither usually ends well for the animal.
  • Ewes can thump you, too, especially when they have baby lambs. Stay attentive to the body language of sheep around you.
  • Keep your head up and eyes open when you bend or kneel to eye level with sheep. This can invite a charge, and it puts you right where a sheep can inflict maximum damage.
  • Instill respect in your sheep. I train sheep to keep at least a few feet away from me unless I invite them in closer. My tool for this is a plastic grocery bag tied to the stout handle of a 6’ long leg crook. Working the flock, I hold the stick still beside my leg until I want the sheep to move off, then I gently wiggle the bag low to the ground. If I want more energy in the sheep, I lift the stick higher and give the bag a stronger shake. If necessary, I can use the stick as a prod to repel a disrespectful sheep. To catch a sheep, I herd it into a stout fence corner, and then use the crook to carefully catch its leg without ever getting my head down where I could get rammed.
  • Always be alert, fair, and firm. Practice low-stress stockmanship. Good stockmanship is essential to safety for sheep and shepherd!
  • Many old shepherds, myself included, have bad knees and sore backs from foolishly trying to block or catch a running sheep. Use your brain, save your body: set things up to keep sheep from stampeding in the first place. And if they do, step aside and let them go. Then start over, this time keeping things calm.
  • Working yards don’t need to be large or fancy, but they must have good footing, good visibility, and sound fences in a sheep-smart layout.
  • Implement biosecurity. Some diseases are communicable between humans and sheep. Good hygiene practices reduce the risk of passing diseases between species. If you develop an unexplained malady, tell your doctor that you raise sheep.
  • What’s your emergency plan? Do you have an escape route? Got your mobile phone? Does someone know where you are, when to expect you back, and what to do if you don’t show up?
  • One of the most useful references on safety for shepherds is (ironically) the Beef Quality Assurance Handbook. For sheep-centric information, consult the guide Safe Sheep Handling.

Small ruminants are wonderful creatures and can be the basis of a rewarding, fun, and profitable business — so long as you always think of safety first.

Interesting Tidbit on Winter Feeding…

Feeding methods cost:

A three year wintering investigation was conducted at Dickinson Research Extension Center in North Dakota to determine the effect of hay feeding methods on cow wintering cost. The average amount of hay wasted needs to be calculated when determining how much hay to provide to cows every day or when making forage purchases. A conventional method of rolling round bales out on the grounds was compared to either shredding rounds hay bales on the ground with a bale processor or feeding hay in a tapered-cone round bale feeder. The cows used in the study were in the third trimester of pregnancy and were fed for an average of 59 days during the test period. This study compared cow wintering performance, hay consumption necessary to maintain cow body condition, labor inputs, wintering cost, and hay waste, when hay was either rolled out on the ground, shredded with a bale processor on the ground, or fed in a tapered-cone round bale feeder.

Cow growth, body condition, hay intake, fat depth, and waste data were collected for three years. Cows were weighed, visually condition scored, and measured for rib fat depth using real-time ultrasound at the beginning, middle, and end of the 59-day study between the 12th and 13th rib. Hay waste was estimated manually and with GPS special mapping. Cows were fed to maintain or improve their starting body condition prior to calving.

Cows fed using the conventional method in which bales are rolled out on the ground gained less than when cows were fed with either the bale processor or tapered-cone feeder. Starting, ending and condition score change differed between years, but there were no differences due to method of feeding hay. During the first two years of the study, cows fed using the tapered-cone feeder had greater rib fat depth increase than either the roll out or bale processor methods. There was no difference among feeding methods in the third year. Hay intake to maintain body condition was greatest for the cows fed with the bale processor and lowest for the tapered-cone bale feeder. On average, when compared to the tapered-cone feeder, 5.0 and 15.3% more hay was fed per cow using the roll out and bale processor methods, respectively.

Waste contributed to the increased amount of hay required among the roll out and bale processor cow groups to maintain body condition and subsequent production. This study indicates that if you are feeding hay on the ground, add at least 15 percent to the total amount fed or purchased to compensate for waste. For example, if you normally feed 28-30 lbs per head per day, increase that amount to 33-35 pounds of hay to ensure that adequate nutrition is provided to the cow on a daily basis. If you are feeding on mud, then doubling the amount will help compensate for waste. When calculating the amount of hay needed to feed the cow herd during the winter, remember to compensate for waste.

Source: Landblom, D.G., G.P. Lardy, R. Fast, D.J. Wachenheim, and T.A. Petry. 2006. Effect of hay feeding methods on cow performance, hay waste and wintering cost. Dickinson Research Extension Center North Dakota State University 2006 Annual Report.

When Is It Safe To Graze Alfalfa Fields?

Grazing alfalfa in the late fall can be a great economical feed source. However, with these warmer fall temperatures (or lack of hard frosts) and high cattle and lamb prices can create a situation where bloat could be very costly. There are no “for sure” rules to determine when alfalfa is “safe” to graze, however below are some things produces should consider when turning out on alfalfa fields: 

1. Use caution when alfalfa plants are just beginning to show frost damage, this is when alfalfa grazing can be the most dangerous for bloats. Hard frost/freeze ruptures alfalfa cell wells, resulting in more soluble protein being immediately available for consumption by the animal. The increase in the soluble protein increases the rate of rumen fermentation, thus increasing the risk of bloat. Alfalfa generally becomes “safer” to graze after several consecutive frost in the 20’s that cause visible plant damage and drydown. 

2. Fill calves or lambs up with good quality hay prior to moving onto alfalfa fields. Not only will this help reduce animals from gorging themselves, but is also important to allow the ruminal microbial population to adapt to higher quality feeds. This is especially important if animals are coming off low quality forage (corn stalks, dry grass/range pastures). Animals should be turned out in the late morning or early afternoon, rather than early morning.  

3. Provide bloat blocks or bloat preventing additives in the water for several days before and after the start of grazing alfalfa fields. Monitor cattle several times per day when animals are turned into a new pasture.

Submitted by Sarah M. Smith

March Madness

March is the month when January planning and February preparing begins to pay off. The lambs and kids have begun to arrive by now as have the piglets. The seeds I ordered, after pouring over the seed catalogs, have also arrived and will soon all be nestled in the soil germinating. The chickens have begun to lay, so now the routine of checking on and turning eggs in the incubator has been added to the day.

     The renewing of life as spring fast approaches is a delightful time and a hectic time. The first fleeces are off the sheep. I always try to shear before the ewes lamb for two reasons. First, it makes it easier to watch over their progress toward lambing and secondly, it makes for a premium, clean fleece to work with. Now the dilemma is over which fleeces to sell raw, which to make into batts or roving and which go into my private treasury.

     March is also the month for marketing to be kicked into high gear. The annual farm letter goes out to alert our loyal customers that they need to place their orders for meat animals for this year. Web and print advertising go full scale as we are weekly adding Breeding Stock available for sale and soon the spring’s first crops of fleece and seedlings as well. It is wonderful to have the explosion of production and now is the time to share this with our customers.

      Amidst all this activity there is the list of preparations for spring planting as well as fence repairs on all the paddocks. I swear there are gremlins riding the deer who delight in breaking wires and pushing posts over in the spring thaw.

     This is the time of year when I often allow the excitement of renewal to turn into worry over all that needs to get done and finding the time to do it. This is when the planning and preparing of January and February becomes the ever growing “to do” list of spring. Having a Check List on the fridge helps me track my progress, keeping me feeling like I am gaining on the tasks at hand.

     I often remind myself that Christ said, “Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Keeping my focus on the tasks of today leads to enjoying the delights of spring from the first returning robin to the first tomato sprouts. This is the way to relish a farmer’s life in the midst of all the activity that spring brings.

Welcome to Solace Farm

I am blessed to be a farmer and a shepherdess who shares my life with three generations here in the Pacific Northwest.  My days are filled with caring for my family, land and animals. Over the years I have been mentored by many knowledgeable and creative individuals and feel it is only right that I share the wisdom and skills that my life has grown around. 

My goal is to pass along my experiences in the hopes of brightening your day, encouraging your creativity, and possibly saving the lost arts of living a self-sufficient life in harmony with our world. 

I will cover many topics including Farming, Cooking, Gardening and the Fiber Arts to name a just a few. 

The products of our farm will be listed in our Farm Store and I hope to eventually to be able to put together some tutorials. 

Thank you for stopping by and spending a moment or two with me.

Selenium and Lamb Growth

Increased Selenium Dosage Boosts Growth and Immunity in Lambs

In a new study published in the Journal of Animal Science, Oregon State University (OSU) researchers show that maximum selenium levels permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may be too low for sheep to reach optimum growth and health.

Selenium is essential for cellular function in animals and aids development. Large selenium doses can be toxic, but too-low levels can impair growth and compromise the immune system.

“When sheep don’t grow to their potential or have weak immune systems, it can be a sign of insufficient selenium,” said Gerd Bobe, co-author of the study and an OSU professor. “Our research shows higher levels of selenium can result in healthier animals that grow bigger and that can improve returns at the marketplace for farmers and ranchers.”

A challenge is that the range between selenium deficiency and selenium toxicity can be narrow; current FDA regulations limit the amount of dietary selenium supplementation for animals grazing on selenium-scare soils to 0.7 mg per sheep per day or 3 mg per beef cattle per day.

In OSU’s experiments, pregnant ewes were given selenium doses up to five-times higher than the FDA’s allowed level – an amount of supplementation researchers determined to be not harmful to sheep. The element is carried into the bodies of offspring, helping young animals during development.

At the highest selenium doses, ewes gave birth to lambs that grew to be 4.3-pounds heavier than average after 60 days. Furthermore, survival was 15-percent higher in lambs receiving the highest amount of organic selenium supplementation. As farmers look to sell sheep at five to six months old, weight and health metrics are keys to profitability.

A new generation of OSU research is attempting to determine how much selenium and in what form is best for optimal growth and health of sheep and cattle.

Feedstuffs Slide Show

Ever wander what type of hay to feed and what other feedstuffs you can use to supplement the forage you have?

This Slide Show by Jeff Semler of University of Maryland small ruminant program gives a general over view of commonly available feedstuffs for your sheep, goats and cattle. Click on the Link below to access the slide presentation.

                                                            Feedstuffs

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