Agriculture: Sheep Walking a Tightrope

Sheep Walking a Tightrope
Hi all, Mark here. 

Yesterday my sister texted a comment on a picture Troy and Victoria had posted. “Love this expression on Orhan,” she said of a shot of our flock wether, Orhan the Second. Interpreting the expressions on animals’ faces is always a tricky business. While I agreed that I loved the picture, and I perceived that anyone looking at him would find him entirely lovable, I also couldn’t help but read into his facial expression something of a lost feeling, an uncertainty about the future that carried with it considerable trepidation.To understand the immediate circumstance giving rise to the image, you have to understand a bit who Orhan is. He is the designated successor to our only previous flock wether, Orhan the First. That Orhan was half of a set of twins, the first lambs born on the property. He was partially bottle fed because his mother had inadequate milk for two lambs and often kicked him away from her udder. Orhan the First became understandably attached to us as the source of his food, and we to him as the source of unmitigated devotion. Because he was castrated (therefore, a “wether”), we could keep him without fear of in-inbreeding and without concern about rivalry with whatever ram happened be rotating through our flock at any given time.The advantage of a wether like Orhan was that he was bonded to us in ways that enabled us to control his behavior somewhat better than other flock members. Because we could get him go where we wanted him to, he could start movements that led the rest of the flock to follow, so he served as something of a natural leader. It is a time honored tradition to use wethers in such flock leadership roles. Put a bell around his neck, and he becomes a “bellwether,” an expression which entirely makes sense once you understand its origin.Orhan was with us for about 15 years until his death. When he died, Peter and I discussed replacing him with another similar flock leader. Serendipitously, along came Orhan II. Orhan II was not a bottle fed lamb, he was more than adequately nourished by his mother and grew large quickly. But he bore a physical resemblance to Orhan I, particularly in wool color, and he was also incredibly personable with us. He came over to be petted, and, though to a lesser extent than Orhan I, hung out with us sometimes in the barn. We elected him the new flock wether and honored him with Orhan’s name.Last spring a new generation of lambs was born, and recently Orhan started to perform one of the wether leadership functions he was selected for. A couple of months ago, Troy and Victoria isolated all the younger male lambs destined for market in a pasture to the northeast of the barn, and they placed Orhan II with them to serve as leader and manager. This week, those eleven lambs did go off to market. Perhaps some of the expression on Orhan’s face reflects his sudden dislocation as his companions of the last month or two suddenly disappeared. Now he must reintegrate into the rest of the flock. There is a hint of bewilderment.But there’s a larger context as well. Perhaps Orhan could be concerned with the larger threat to the continued existence of sheep. This week the New York Times published a full section supplement on how to eat to combat climate change (“Your Questions about Food and Climate Change, Answered”). It follows on reports from such organizations as the UN Environmental Programme, whose 2018 Annual Report which points out that agriculture accounts for a huge proportion, perhaps a third, of human environmental impact, that a big part of the problem is overconsumption of meats by rich countries, and that of all the meats one might eat beef and lamb result in the greatest impact on the environment. Beef and lamb require far more resources to produce a unit of protein than pork or chicken; tropical rain forests have been destroyed to create grazing land for cattle on a large scale,accelerating global warming; and the gaseous stomachs of ruminants like cows and sheep produce methane, a damaging greenhouse gas, in significant quantities.No wonder Orhan might get the feeling that his very existence is in the cross-hairs. Animals like cows and sheep were not species that ever existed in nature. They were selectively bred by humans to serve human purposes, and if no longer raised for food they would have neither purpose nor capacity to survive in a non-domesticated state.Each time one of these reports comes out I find myself rushing to the defense of my beloved sheep. They have only half the impact on resources of cows, and their methane creation is lower. Methane creation is lower still if grain is a small or insignificant part of their diet. In this region, we are not destroying valuable rain forests to graze animals.Further, I am firmly of the impression that many of the environmental benefits that come with raising sheep don’t get computed into the balance sheet of environmental impact. Soon we will be moving our young ewelings to the front yard for the summer and fall. There, they will graze the lawn and nearly eliminate the need to use a gasoline powered mower to cut the grass. The gasoline savings is never figured in to the impact estimates. Their fleeces, when shorn, become felt and yarn, creating garments and rugs and insulating materials that might otherwise be made of petrochemical fibers. Another unaccounted for benefit. And as I have previously written, the compost made from their manure is a valuable natural fertilizer, also substituting for petrochemicals. Indeed, that compost, if spread thickly on pastures, may vastly improve the use of pastures as carbon absorbers, a huge environmental benefit.So far, few organizations or scientists are advocating the complete elimination of sheep. They simply say we should reduce our consumption of lamb. Indeed, substituting lamb for beef would substantially reduce the environmental impact of red meat eating, while retaining the nutritional benefits. I think there will be place for lamb for the foreseeable future. I wonder, if I reassure Orhan with these facts, whether the expression on his face will change.
THIS WEEK’S OFFERINGSHORSERADISH ROOT: $5/LBRHUBARB, $5/LBSORREL, LIMITED QUANTITIES, $2/BAGMINT: $.75 a bunchFROM LAST FALL’S GARDEN HARVEST:FROZEN SQUASH (SHREDDED, TROMBONCINO), GREAT FOR FRITTERS, $2/LB.EGGS: Production is now in overdrive. We can handle all your orders. $5/dozMEATS: We keep some on hand, but it helps to order ahead in case we need to retrieve from our stash in the big commercial freezerGEESE: One remaining, about 8.5 lbs. $10/lb.TURKEYS: A few small ones left over and frozen $11/lb .GUINEA FOWL, We are sold out!ROASTING CHICKENS – Freedom Rangers, $6/lb, range of sizes, mostly in the 4 to 5 lb. rangeLAMB: Ground lamb $7/lb, shoulder roasts at $10/lb, riblets $8/lb, small and larger leg roasts $14/lb, lamb stew $7/lbPORK: Loin pork chops, $12/lb (2 to a pack, btwn 1 and 1.5 lbs), Jowl (roughly 2 to 3 lbs each), $12/lb, 
Spare ribs and country ribs $7/lb 
baby back ribs $8/lb 
fresh ham roasts (2 to 3 lbs), $12/lb 
picnic or Boston butt roasts (roughly 2 lbs) $12/lb 
smoked bacon, $12/lb 
Kielbasa $8/lbDUCKS: Two years ago we did Pekin ducks. The males are not so different in size from the females, and these are nice meaty birds, most between 5 and 7 lbs. Also $7/lb. We have to retrieve these from the big freezer, so please order a week ahead.COMPOST, $6/Bag, approx. 40 lbs.
FARM PICKUPS:Email us your order at, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Regular pickup times are Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., other days by arrangement. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call at 518-537-3815 or email.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.