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 useĀ 

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.

Keep your goals in sight

In the sheep world, there are probably as many different ways of raising sheep as there are sheep farmers. Emphasis is often on number or lambs produced and the weight of lambs produced  (i.e. revenue) and often little attention is paid to ease of production  (i.e. costs). It can be easy to get caught up in the drive for more, more, more and forget about the costs of these increases. It’s also not as cut and drug as: this change= this cost/benefit. Each situation and each year are different. Not to mention that one change may lead to others which may have other costs and benefits. All this means that it can be hard to decide how to raise sheep. I have learned to approach it with a few principles which I consider important and am therefore unwilling to compromise on. Those principles have led to goals within the flock. 

This ewe is a perfect example of what I strive for. She is a moderate size, docile ewe with excellent body condition from forage only. She lambed unassisted, is a good mother with a good udder and has 2 excellent lambs. Seeing her is a good reminder of my goal of an easy keeping, low cost flock of productive pasture based ewes.

Coyote update

The predation issue has been significantly improved. There have now been five adult coyotes and one den removed, plus one adult that was hit on the road. The kills have all but stopped, with only one in nearly three weeks. There are still coyotes in the area, we hear them regularly and see them occasionally, but the main culprit seems to be gone. The dogs seem to be back to their usual selves and are noticeably less tired. Hopefully, we can now return to our peaceful coexistence.