It has been a LONG time since I've written anything in the blog. This was mostly because we'd created a page on Facebook, and that sort of took over as the place to find updates and photos. But I didn't want to totally abandon the blog, and this seemed like a good time to come back to it because starting in the new year we are changing directions a bit at Birchtree Farm.
I'll say first off that we love our Icelandic sheep. Their personalities are unique, their intelligence undeniable (well, for sheep ;-). They have beautiful fleeces that come in many color/pattern variations. They produce great-tasting lamb. They are great mothers, rarely need help lambing, and bond well with their lambs. If there was one thing to complain about with regard to producing lambs, it would be that they are seasonal breeders, and do not breed year-round as many other breeds can. But that is not really much of a drawback.
Below is one of our "keepers" from this year. A black spotted ewe lamb with really nice conformation and lovely fleece.
The biggest concern with Icelandics is that you must make sure to watch them carefully for signs of anemia caused by barberpole worm. There are many kinds of stomach worm, but the barberpole (Haemonchus contortus) is the worst. They suck blood. You wouldn't think a tiny, barely visible worm could do much damage in that regard, but get a heavy worm load in a particular sheep, and that animal can be drained of blood in a very short time. Iceland has no barberpole worm so these sheep never needed to develop resistance during their long history there.
As many other breeders are doing, we select for resistant sheep. These are sheep that seem to have some level of innate resistance to the worms. It is a long process however, and it is easier to do if you have the ability to keep a larger number of sheep, so that you have the stock numbers to do strict culling and still have some sheep left over! If you cannot keep larger numbers of sheep, then your progress is slower, because you end up keeping animals that are better, but maybe not the best, in terms of worm resistance. They are the best you have, but perhaps not as good as they could be.
We have some resistant animals. They rarely or never need worming. But genetics are a crapshoot, and even good parents can produce so-so offspring. We've had trouble with lamb growth, mostly due to fighting worms. We are still working to get our new pastures in good shape to provide the best nutrition. This also means we have limited pasture (because they eat what is there relatively quickly), so must feed hay for at least part of the summers. This means a lot more input in terms of dollars. Hay is no longer cheap feed. Good hay especially is not cheap, and so-so hay is a waste of money because the sheep pick through for what's edible and waste the rest. And if you have to supplement with processed feeds like alfalfa pellets/cubes or sheep pellets, that adds to the cost. We have never made money doing this. Our goal was to have the sheep be self-sustaining at least, but that has not been possible so far.
All this has brought us to the decision earlier this summer to stop breeding sheep with the goal of creating good breeding stock for other people to buy. This year was actually the first year since we moved here that we sold any breeding sheep at all. Even with those sales, plus sales of some wool and meat this fall, we will probably not break even, although we've come closer than any year thus far. Some might say that we're headed in the right direction; we should not give up now! But another part of this is that we want to enjoy our sheep. We don't want to be pouring money and TIME into them that we could be using to fix up the house or the property or do other things that we'd like to do.
For us then, the best thing to do is cut back on our numbers, so that we can better utilize the pasture we have available. So that we don't need to spend as much time and money keeping up a flock to produce sheep that no one is going to buy (or at least that no one is willing to pay reasonable prices for). So that we aren't feeling so stressed about them all the time. We aren't stressed about our chickens and ducks, and that is what we want from our sheep as well. Also, I've found that I'm not really cut out to be a business person, or that at least this is not something that I want to do business in. I suppose I got caught up in doing what I thought I "should" be doing (because everybody else seemed to be doing it). But what I/we should do is what we have time and energy to do, and what we enjoy doing. I will leave creating great breeding stock to those who have the time, energy, creativity and resources to pursue it, and wish them all success (because after all, we may need new genetics someday!), and we will just keep sheep as part of our homestead. We'll still try to breed the best sheep we can, but it will be for our own use and satisfaction. Maybe that sounds selfish, but it's what we need to do for our own sanity and finances.
We are therefore going to keep just enough to produce our own meat and wool. And with the goal of producing good growing lambs, we have brought in a new breed. We're not giving up the Icelandics, but we are adding in Gulf Coast Native sheep. You can read about them here: http://albc-usa.org/cpl/gulfcoast.html so I won't go into detail except to say that they have a natural resistance to barberpole worm. In talking with another shepherd who kept both Icelandics and GC sheep, he said that the cross-bred lambs seemed to grow better than their purebred counterparts, had better worm resistance than purebred Icelandics, and had fleece that was closer to Icelandic fleece in nature than GC fleece (though GC fleece is pretty nice too). So for him it was a win-win-win situation.
So, say hello to our newest flock members, Katniss (ewe) and Southport (ram). They are half-siblings, from a certified organic farm where dewormers were never used, and indeed, never needed.
And stay tuned as I'll be updating the blog more regularly, I promise!