Inherent desire 

The weather has been unseasonably warm and the snow is all but gone again. We are feeding all the livestock, but I have been surprised by the amount of grazing they are doing. While some of the pastures have some stockpiled grass, others have little because of the dry growing season. The amount or quality doesn’t seem to deter the animals however. They seem to be eating only the best hay and leaving everything else, preferring instead to move around the pasture and pick at the dormant grass. 

Watching this makes me wonder what it is that urges the animals to do this. They could easily get their fill by staying at the hay, so it is unlikely hunger that moves them on. It may be that these dormant grasses are quite tasty, or it may be some inherent desire that makes grazing animals want to graze. They have evolved to do just that, so it maybe should not come as a surprise that they prefer it, and feel content to fill a good portion of their time by moving across the land in search of feed. I also have to wonder if animals which are not given the opportunity to graze have the desire to do so, even if they are given ample feed. 

On the other side of this is the grass. I have rarely worried about winter grazing, and usually encourage the animals to do so, but this year, with some pastures having very little late season growth, I worry that we are taking too much of the grass and may impact the growth next year, particularly if we have a dry spring. I will be moving the sheep off one particular pasture soon, and try to balance the health of the pasture with the animals which rely on it.

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November update

Another month has nearly passed. The calves are weaned and settled into their winter quarters and the cows and sheep are bale grazing in their perspective pastures. The first batch of pigs has gone for slaughter, and the rest have moved into the straw filled shed. Winter routines are starting to take hold.

Also this month, another pup (herding dog this time) has arrived. Tess is a Kelpie x Border Collie and is about 4 months old now. She is a fairly mellow pup, and seems to be quick to learn. 

We are also thrilled to welcome another family member, with my sister and brother in law having another daughter. It will be exciting to watch her grow and change over the next few months and years.

Snow days

We had hoped to continue to use some fall regrowth to stretch our grazing season and to prevent getting into our winter feed, but mother nature had other plans. A considerable amount of snow fell this week, and while we are glad to see the moisture, it is making grazing difficult for the animals. Sheep are quite efficient at grazing through snow and will paw it away to reach the green growth, while cattle use their nose to push into the snow or grab onto the tops of the grass and pull it out.

Sheep grazing. You can see the ewe on the left is pawing the snow away.

After this blast of snow, I was unsure the sheep would be able to get enough by grazing, as their pasture did not have large amounts of tall grass. The other day I took them a couple bales of hay, and they quite quickly ate them all up. That solidified my decision to bring them closer to the yard where they are easier to feed. This afternoon, I set out to move them. 

First I spread some hay in their new pasture, then proceeded to go collect the sheep. The few bales I had taken them previously reminded them about being fed, so when I arrived in the pasture, it only took a few moments for them to start to move towards the tractor. They began to follow, until I reached the space where I had taken down the electric wire. They knew exactly where that fence had been, and it took a few moments for them to determine it was safe to cross.

The ewes are just deciding whether to cross the invisible line

Once the first ewes cross over the place where the fence was, the rest quickly follow.

While most stick to the tracks, occasionally one ewe branches off the path

We headed across another piece between their old pasture and new one. I wasn’t sure if they would want to explore this pasture, but they were mostly content to see where I was taking them.

As we reached the hay, the ewes ran past to their feed, although as I followed, I still saw some sheep nibbling at the grass uncovered in the tracks.

And while the sheep are happy to have feed, the dogs like hay for other reasons.


Change for a rest 

Winter is making an early appearance this year. In a matter of a day, temperatures have sunk below zero and we have snow on the ground. The first sight of winter always means a rush to do the last minute preparations and brings with it a change in what must be done each day, as making sure animals have access to feed and water becomes paramount. But winter also brings with it a quietness and restfulness. The days are shorter, meaning any outdoor work happens within those fewer hours of daylight, and some jobs are just no longer doable. This relieves the pressure to get those jobs done, and after a busy fall, it feels time for a rest.

Fall colours

Fall is certainly upon us. There is a chill on the air and the days are noticeably shorter than even a few weeks ago. Most of the trees have lost their leaves, and green is a rare colour. 

We have been busy at work putting up a new building to house our sheep handling facilities, as well as working at some fencing, as well as the other routine fall tasks.

Some of the rams relaxing under the newly naked trees.

This green field is an anomaly in the area. We seeded this field with an annual plant mixture in mid July, but quite a bit did not germinate and grow until it received rain in early August. This picture was taken late September when the sheep had just been moved onto the field. It provided some very good feed at a time when much of the other pastures are hardening off in preparation for winter.

A complex system of perpetual life

On a routine pasture check of the cows, we discovered a cow that was stuck in the mud. We knew she was lame, but had been keeping up with the herd so we were not overly concerned. She was an older cow and likely had developed inflammation and arthritis, which is very difficult to treat in cattle. It appeared that she had gone to drink and had been unable to get herself back up off the bank. If this wasn’t bad enough, the resident coyotes had found her, and determined she was an easy meal. When we arrived, she was alive, but had lost a lot of blood and was obviously very weak. We quickly decided the best thing to do was to euthanize her and bury the carcass. We made a quick trip back to get a gun and a tractor, but by the time we returned she had died. It was a tough reminder that nature can be cruel, and is ultimately in charge. Fittingly, I came across an article this evening about the morality of raising animals, which ended with this quote:

We are part of nature, a complex system of perpetual life, and forget this at our peril. Death, too, is part of nature, and in ignoring or avoiding it we deny the reality of the world and perhaps even our own mortality.” (The aricle by Megan Perry is available at http://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/sacred-life-sacred-death/)

Death is an integral part life, and while we spend countless hours trying to control it, it takes something like this to realise that we can not.

Tools to use 

This year, and hopefully for the foreseeable future, I’ll be attempting to use a new tool on the farm; a microscope. I purchased this microscope last year after having trouble with parasites in the sheep. My idea is to use this microscope to monitor parasite levels in the flock to show when they need to be treated with a dewormer, and also to select rams with lower levels (more resistant to parasite infection) which will then lead to a more resistant flock over time. 

An example of a parasite egg seen through the microscope on the left. The large black circles are air bubbles.

In the past, recommendations were to deworm all your sheep at prescribed times of the year. While this helps prevent death loss and performance losses, it has led to the worms becoming resistant to the dewormers we can use. So over time, they become less effective, and eventually will no longer have much impact at all. The most up to date recommendations (to my knowledge) are to treat only when parasite levels reach a certain threshold, and preferably treat only the animals which themselves have high levels. Determining which individuals need treatment is not easy, as often parasite loads increase quickly, and the animals affected don’t always show clinical signs. In a perfect situation, you would take fecal egg counts of each animal, but with 1000 animals, it is not practical. There are some animals which generally are more susceptible, such as lambs compared to ewes, which you can focus on. This summer, I have been collecting and analyzing fecal samples from a few random lambs at key times, and before we have brought the animals in to handle. This gives me an idea of the parasite infection level in the flock and whether they need to be treated. This summer the levels have been low enough that I have only dewormed a few animals which show other signs such as anemia and poor body condition. This has cost and labour savings which has paid for the microscope several times already.

There is a lot of genetic differences in the susceptibility of individual sheep to parasites. In years that are dry such as this one, the parasites do not survive well so levels in all sheep are pretty low. In wetter years, the variability increases and susceptible animals are easier to pick out. My goal is that over time, by selecting more resistant rams, I will be able to continue to improve the flock and minimize the number of animals requiring treatment. 

I joined in a webinar just the other day which focused on genetic selection to improve resistance to parasites. The slide below shows the big difference a sire can make, especially in a wet year (2004 in this case). 

Sire differences. FEC stands for fecal egg counts, which give an idea of level of parasitism (higher numbers meaning more parasites) and PCV is packed cell volume, indicating level of anemia (lower numbers meaning more anemic).

This tool is something which with a bit of practice and training, any producer could use to reduce the parasite levels in their flock. It would lead to less reliance on commercial dewormers, meaning those would be useful for a much longer period of time.