Another small March snowfall this morning frustrated my outdoor work but served to remind me of how much I need to do for spring. Each time it snows, the branches and berry canes etched in white loom all the larger, shouting “we need pruning.” I felt a bit overwhelmed walking by the blackberry patch. The feeling intensified as I pitchforked a wheelbarrow full of muck from the barn floor and saw again how much remains to do. It feels like I might just as well have thrown the hay bales directly on the floor, and skipped the intermediate stage where the sheep tear it out of the manger to eat.
And the hay supply is running low. In the fall of 2021 I over-bought, and ended up with hay left in the barn when spring arrived. As a result, in the fall of 2022, with a fairly constant number of sheep, I adjusted my buying down, and now it seems I have only about two weeks supply left. With at least six weeks before the pasture can serve as the main food source for the sheep, I’m going to have to bring in more hay in the next week or so to bridge that gap.
I’m not sure this really represents a misjudgment on my part. In 2021 the hay I bought was “second cut” (the late summer cutting), fresh and tender, and the sheep tended to consume it thoroughly. This last fall, there was no second cut hay available to buy, as a result of our midsummer drought. The first cut hay I was able to find was stalky, dryer and coarse, not nearly as attractive to the sheep. The result has been much more wasted hay left on the barn floor, much more mucking of the floor for me, and much quicker depletion of my supply of hay bales because they are really only being partially consumed.
I made the best choice I could in buying that hay, and, thankfully, the sheep don’t complain. But I do perceive a slightly higher degree of frenzy when they get their daily grain treats: a little more aggression about knocking each other out of the way to get at this scarce resource. The herd dynamics have led to a certain degree of debate around here about how best to handle feeding time. On that subject, I am far less certain about which way to go.
Many of you will recall the birth of Doodle, the little lamb rejected by his mother last July. Doodle is doing fine. Most of the day he hangs with the herd. He plays and hops around like a standard healthy little lamb. He is, unsurprisingly, affectionate toward humans. But, probably as the result of his near death experience just after birth, he is still quite small, even when compared with his twin sister, who his mother did not reject. It seems that his fate, as a smaller creature, is to be emphatically knocked out of the way when the sheep compete for their daily grain treat.
My solution has been to keep Doodle with me in the barn when I exclude all the others in order to set up feeding. He accompanies me outside as I trundle the wheelbarrow up to the compost heap. He follows me back in to the hay storage room, he follows me when I put out the herd’s mineral supplement, and, most of all he follows me when I put the grain their feed bowls. In essence, he gets a huge head start on the other sheep in consuming the grain. I justify it by recognizing that once everyone else comes in, he is going to get knocked out of the way.
But my approach turns out to be controversial. Eric, being a consummate human resources professional, urges me to abandon this most favored treatment of Doodle so that he will develop sheep life skills. “Doodle has to learn to compete,” says Eric. “He’ll never be able to do it if you give him a free pass.”
My possibly soon-to-be housemate, Steve, also criticizes my approach. Steve is something of a shrink manqué, and much as he analyzes the dynamics of the human denizens of Turkana Farms he ventures deep into the realm of sheep psychology. “If the others keep seeing Doodle through the fence getting special access,” insists Steve, “they are going to resent him. He’ll be an outcast.” But in contrast to Eric, Steve’s solution when he does chores is to take Doodle aside while the others are busy scrambling for the grain bowls and to let him eat out of his hand.
I’ve expressed my doubts that sheep have complicated enough minds to experience jealousy or resentment. Those, I feel, are uniquely human emotions. Steve disagrees. “They’re simple emotions, just as basic as feeling love or the need to be loved,” he tells me. “They’re part of the territory.”
To be sure, sheep are by nature desperate to belong to the herd. They need each other’s company and are miserable in isolation. They have enduring feelings of attachment; ewes who lose lambs are despondent and cry for days. If that’s love, they have it. But even if I concede to Steve that sheep have jealousy and resentment too, I don’t get how feeding Doodle by hand would avoid those feelings. Won’t the herd resent that privilege? Or is Steve right to think they’re too busy eating to notice?
There you have it, three approaches (my give him the food, Eric’s give him the skills, and Steve’s sneak him the love) that probably say something about our respective characters and life experience. But as to which one serves Doodle best, I could use some guidance.
“Prune me, please” say the blackberry canes Photo by Mark Scherzer
WHAT’S AVAILABLE THIS WEEK: LAMB AND EGGS
EGGS ARE BACK! Nature destroys but it also regenerates. Egg production is back in full swing. Choice of rich concentrated young pullet eggs or regular size eggs, either way $6/dozen
TIME TO ORDER LAMB Order a whole or half lamb, cut to your specifications, $7/lb hanging weight. Lambs go to market Mar. 20, so you need to get your cutting instructions in now.