12 August, 2015

How smart are sheep?

When I asked on Twitter for my followers to inspire today’s blog post, two people almost immediately wanted to know: are sheep as stupid as people think they are?

All five Soays march toward me in a determined fashion, led by Urdo the wether.

It’s a little bit of a complicated question. The short answer is no, sheep are in their own way bright and curious creatures, if flighty as hell compared to goats. Sheep can be trained, and while a flock is at first glance a mindless mob, there’s actually some really interesting social dynamics going on.

But they’re not, y’know, geniuses. Let me demonstrate with an anecdote. Periodically when we’re moving fences, a couple Soays escape. We’ve set up a sheep trap consisting of a 4 foot tall puppy exercise pen with a dish of grain in it and a long string attached to the door so it can be closed from a distance. Inevitably (and quite quickly now that they know about the grain) if I sit quietly on the milk stand, the escaped sheep will walk right into the sheep trap and I will pull the door gently shut behind them.

This trick wouldn’t work on goats. A goat would remember where the door is and charge it, and given that I’m holding it shut with tension on a long rope cobbled together from pieces of baling twine, the goat would escape. The sheep, however, totally forget where the door was and spin in confused circles, so we latch the door, lean over and grab the sheep, and take them back to the flock. It works every time, and in fact the more it happens the easier it gets, because the escaped sheep beeline for the trap and its dish of grain. Supposing I did manage to trap a goat, they’d never set foot in that pen again. Goats have great memories and hold a grudge; sheep brains seem to be easily short-circuited by a pan of sweet feed.

At the same time, none of the Soays have ever gotten their horns caught in the hay feeder, whereas any goat that can get their horns through it will, and then will forget how to get their horns back out, leading to us taping a Stick of Shame to them to prevent them getting trapped.

Frankie, a brown and white wether, has a Stick taped across his horns and extending three or four inches out on each side. He does not ahead to be amused.

So the question of sheep intellect isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Certainly they are smarter than people think they are, but a really bright sheep still isn’t all that smart. But they are curious, gentle creatures, and a pleasure to keep.

10 August, 2015

Planting for Fall

It’s still quite warm here in the Virginia piedmont, but nonetheless the days are growing shorter. That means time to start thinking about all kinds of cool weather crops: the ruminants are getting hormonal, soon my rabbit buck will no longer be heat sterile, and it’s time to start getting fall crops in the ground.

Due to some unfortunate fencing failures in late spring, the goats demolished the garden. On the one hand the relentless destruction of everything we planted was incredibly discouraging, but on the other the garden got a fallow season and we’re starting with a blank slate.

Cool weather crops we can put in the ground now include the delicious and useful peas, greens such as kale, collards, and lettuce; hardy root vegetables such as beets and turnips; and over-wintering crops, among them grains, garlic, leeks, and old-fashioned multiplier onions I want to establish in a permanent location.

The peas will be done shortly after the first frost, but after a light frost the collards will be at their most sweet and delicious. The over-wintering crops will grow a little and then slumber the winter away, while root vegetables will hang on until the first hard freeze. Kale and leeks will keep going all winter with a little care, as will lettuce if I decide to plant it. Nothing beats the winter blues like a fresh salad, after all! Fresh greens also make a nice treat for the goats and sheep, who will be on dry lot all winter so we can reseed the grazing areas and let them recover from a long productive season.

Farming even on a small scale like I do it requires a split vision, constantly assessing the needs of the present while simultaneously planning at least one season out. Here at the tail end of summer that means monitoring hormonal livestock to ensure the males survive the breeding season and preparing garden beds while making sure female livestock gets adequate nutrition to carry a pregnancy to term and raise healthy offspring and we have a solid plan for what to put in the beds starting early next month.

If a fox hadn’t relieved us of half the poultry flock earlier this year we’d also be looking at selecting roosters for slaughter. As it is we’ll up the grain ration for ducks, geese, and turkeys, to get them nice and big by the time the holiday harvest rolls around. There’s also a pile of guinea keets and Old English Game bantam chicks in the brooder. The Schaumburg pest control at http://www.bigfootpestcontrol.com/ have proven themselves incredibly useful in controlling insect pests, and we find that OEGB hens make some of the best broody hens and mothers. Next spring when these birds are grown up, we’ll stick them on nests of full-size eggs to increase our flock size.

7 August, 2015

A Paradigm Shift to Conservation Breeding

Previously in my livestock endeavors, I’ve been making specific selections for traits (or collections thereof) that I really like in animals, as farmers have been doing for millennia. So I’ve bred for goats with nice, moderate conformation; good hooves; feed efficiency; and milk production. I’ve turned the chickens loose to free range and selected for hardy, wily birds that reproduce well. I’ve selected rabbits for those that thrive in a colony situation on a varied diet.

But then came the Soays. The gene pool is so limited, globally, that if breeders were to start selecting for conformation, or wool production, or meat, or whatever, that we would quickly and disastrously run out of genetic material to work with. This is especially true in the US, where the original population of Soays was just six sheep. Although the gene pool has been augmented since the original herd by imported semen from the UK, we’re still working with a severely restricted gene pool, a tiny slice of an already small pie.

An elegant Soay ewe, long-legged, lean, and small compared to modern sheep breeds. She has a warm brown-auburn fleece, small horns, and dark patient eyes.

Breeding Soay sheep therefore becomes an entirely different game: preserving the genetic legacy of each healthy animal. You might cull for health, but not for color or conformation or quality of wool or fast growth. Instead of looking at fleeces, you’re looking at pedigrees, trying to find the furthest outcross available to you.

A sad knock-on effect of this from my point of view is that small flocks like mine can rarely keep a ram more than two years. As soon as any of his daughters are retained, a ram needs to move along to spread his genes elsewhere. So while I do adore my ram Ferrington, he won’t be here for the long term like the ewes and wethers.

Ferrington stands side-on to the camera. He has a heavy body, a mahogany fleece, and a long black ruff of guard hairs on the front and back of his neck. His horns are exactly what you think of when you think of ram horns. His face is black, with white under the chin and striking white eyebrows, and he has a Roman nose.

It’s an interesting mental shift for me from selecting for production to preservation, but very rewarding work. I spend my time studying pedigrees of the three Soay flocks nearest to me, looking for someone who might have a ram for me in 2017, and balancing distance against the genetic diversity of my flock. Someday maybe I’ll be able to import semen to artificially inseminate my own ewes, and more actively contribute to helping preserve these tiny woolly jewels.

14 November, 2014

Welcome, noisy pest control

This past summer we added two new varieties of critter to the Manor of Mixed Blessings: rabbits and guinea hens. The idea behind the rabbits was a more reliable supply of meat than poultry, and the idea behind guinea hens was improved insect pest control, but sometimes it doesn´t really work so we hire a local pest control expert to do the job perfect. New residents quickly learn that rodent control Tampa is necessary when living in Florida, and having a reliable company to handle an infestation is crucial.

People will tell you that guinea hens are noisy, not nearly as bright as chickens, and prone to strange panics. When my guinea fowl were younger, I was quite smug because they were quiet and relatively well-behaved residents of the Manor. Clearly, either my guinea fowl or my husbandry skills were superior.

Gentle Reader, nature will make liars of us all, and smugness is unbecoming in a farmer. The guineas hit maturity and the summer began to shift to fall and oh dear.

The first crisis for the guineas was that leaves began falling from the trees. Every time the wind blew and leaves cascaded down, the peaceful air of the Manor was disrupted by the alarmed shrieks of guineas, who would immediately bolt for cover. The chickens usually went with them, I guess on some sort of general Poultry Solidarity Principle.

Just when the guinea flock became accustomed to falling leaves, temperatures got cold enough that I shifted to my cool-weather hat and coveralls. This was the occasion for more alarm, because evidently recognizing people no matter what they’re wearing is not a guinea strong suit. The chickens seem to have no problem with it, but guineas? No, not them.

They’ve also had severe problems learning where the door is on the run they sleep in. When we go out in the morning to let them free range, there’s often at least one or two (this is an improvement, previously it was the whole flock) who will relentlessly beat their heads against the wire trying to get out of the pen. The pen they entered through the door they now cannot locate. The strange disappearance of the door provokes more piercing calls of alarm, because when you’re a guinea being separated from the flock is the Worst Thing Ever.

The Second Worst Thing Ever is to not have a black chicken to follow around. I’m not even sure what that’s about; it’s just that they’ve latched onto “black chicken” as their savior. There are three of them in the flock, and the guineas get incredibly distressed if they can’t find one to follow around. It’s a mystery.

They haven’t been all bad, though. They eliminated an infestation of Japanese Beetles in the corn patch, have eliminated poultry losses to aerial predators, and the one that Sid the Wonder Dog killed when it decided to play in the dog fence was freakin delicious. At this point I’m severely tempted to buy a batch of French Guineas, which have been bred for meat production, to stick in the freezer in lieu of spare roosters.

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