The connection between a shepherd and her sheep
Observing a mother and her new born is a heavenly site. We respond based purely on emotions, whether we've actually "mothered" or not. At the moment you lay your eyes on this site all the world around is a blur and all that matters is the true love that halos around them. It is such a pure connection that under no circumstances one should want to come between them, right?
A lot of the methods used in sheep farming are about "management" of the flock. The larger the number your trying to manage the harder it is to keep "order". Orderliness becomes a goal for efficiency. Efficiency adds to profits. Follow me? This is a slippery slope.
Weaning is one of those "management" tools. According to reference books, lambs should be removed from their mothers at 8-10 weeks old. The reasons are mainly that the needs of the lambs for maximum market potential are different then the mamma's. Growth of the lambs requires richer, higher protein grasses or grains which the mamma's don't need. The only way to accomplish such a task is to separate them. The other argument we found (didn't read it in a reference book) to support weaning is the mothers will give and give until they are basically spent. We find the heat of the summer, coupled with the very selfless nature of mom's takes everything out of them and begins to compromise their own health.
For these reasons one might wean.
Wean:accustom (someone) to managing without something on which they have become dependent or of which they have become excessively fond.
Now that I've given you a bit of knowledge about weaning I'd like to share our journey with this decision.
We began this farm knowing we would make choices about the care of our animals based on our experiences, not just because everyone said so. Many topics of care and handling were researched and we found enough disparaging information that we felt strongly our decision to observe first was a worthy one.
Many of our farming practices were established by observing, educating ourselves, then we'd established our way. Weaning the lambs was one really challenging task. Now 8 years later, after going back and forth, this year, we're not weaning again. The first three years we didn't wean. I wish I could tell you why we decided to wean the 4th year but I'm betting we succumb to the "text" book ways. Most other shepherds around us weaned which made us question our decision even more. Our farm was growing and as often happens after you've immersed yourself in something you loose some of your "curiosity" or better yet, the luxury of time to remember to be curious and ask questions.
So, we spent a few years weaning. It is a very difficult task, not physically challenging, just heartbreaking really. They cry and baa for easily 48 hours. The mothers also. Eventually they all settle in but gosh it never felt right. As often I'm guided on this farm, if it goes against nature my heart cannot find peace with it...this is one of those lessons.
With most industrial farming models, maximum growth of the lambs became the shepherds primary goal in order to get those lambs to market fast and efficiently. Is fast and efficient our ultimate goal. Those that know this farm know our answer to this question is NO. We strongly believe you sacrifice so much in order to achieve those fast/efficient goals. It is this very reason that so many breeds of livestock are in danger of being lost for good...they don't meet these industrial models!
In summary, we've have some of the best looking, healthiest lambs ever, happily growing on mothers milk...there must have been some divine wisdom in that!
As farmers, we've been told over and over, your #1 asset is your soil.
It makes sense, the soil is the foundation of everything on this farm. For us and most sustainable livestock farmers the pastures feed our sheep by daily spring, summer, and fall gnashing and in the winter its fed as hay. That's all pretty straight forward, right.?
Prior to my farming life my familiarity with grass was only my own "city" lawn. The lawn that framed my house and defined my space....the lawn I had to mow. Almost every week-end in the summer I knew I'd be rolling out the self propelled grass eating machine to "manicure" my lawn. Just like everyone else in the neighborhood I kept my 9 to 5 schedule during the week knowing yard work, long moments with coffee and the religious newspaper experiences were all part of my upcoming, predictable, always looked forward to week-end. I don't recall ever worrying about the grass other then it's color or the number of dandelions that emerged. I probably could have done more to beautify my lawn but that wasn't my thing. I was all about my garden beds and the pots that adorned my entrance or patio. As long as my grass was "groomed" I didn't do much else to my lawn. My next door neighbor, now he was into it. Every evening after work he was ready to work some more... in his yard. His week-ends were spent fertilizing or amending something. He had the lawn! You know, the kind you imagine running barefoot through. Everyone knows the lawn I'm describing, like a green carpet with perfectly shaped edges.
I drove in and out of that neighborhood with all the perfectly manicured and aspiring to be lawns and never thought twice...it was all I'd ever known.
if I knew then what I know now.
As a farmer working directly with mother nature I see so much I never realized.
She speaks in so many visible ways.
Naturally, as grasses grow then die back with the seasons, the soil is replenished with decomposing nutrients and a layer of "mulch" for protection. If we mow the grass or take the grass for our livestock or "manicured" lawns we've robbed the soil of it's natural sources for replenishment .
Simply put, "taking" the grass
impacts the soil's fertility. Whether we mow a lawn or graze a pasture we are interrupting the natural process.
Because we depend on the grasses on our farm we learned very quickly the choices we had available to keep that grass healthy and growing! If we we're going to take her natural source of nutrient we had to give something back.
Our choices? Natural or Synthetic. The nutrients in both types of fertilizer are much the same. The differences lie in their source, quantity, availability to plants and long term effects on the micro life of the soil.
Natural fertilizers sources come from plants, animal waste and natural minerals. They also provide micro nutrients such as boron, copper, iron and manganese. Synthetic fertilizers contain nutrients made from fossil fuels.
See this beautiful pasture? Just as green and lush as you can imagine. It's kept that way at a tremendous expense. Every year the farmer applies synthetic fertilizers and every year it looks like this. What could be wrong with this? Just like my "city" neighbor applying all those synthetic fertilizers on his lawn, the results are gorgeous and we're conditioned to want them that way.
So golly, why not?
The synthetic fertilizers are like steroids, they feed the plant but interrupt the symbiotic relationship between the plant and the soil. The plant can no longer depend on the soil to feed it.
Eventually, the grass, without another application of those same synthetic fertilizers won't even green. The natural flora of the soil is gone. Believe me, I've seen it, even on this same pasture not far from our farm.
Our other option and the only sustainable solution... we rebuild and/or replenish the soil with natural sources of nutrients.
Why isn't the natural solution the most chosen method?
First, we've been conditioned (brainwashed) to dependency on the commercially available options. Second, it takes an investment of time and effort.
It takes years of applying natural sources of nutrients back to your soil for the perfect balance to be achieved. It takes testing your soil to know what's absent. It takes sourcing the nutrients or in our case creating them from sources here on the farm. We collect the leaves and gather our kitchen scraps. We trek our barn waste to our collection areas along with all the other valuable waste materials and layer them together to age. In this way we build our own dark rich compost that we refer to as gold. We apply that "gold" to our pastures and our soil has what it needs to do what mother nature intended...GROW GOOD STUFF!
So, it takes first admitting the need to do it for the health of our soils and ourselves and second the commitment to the investment of time and labor.
Are we willing to make that investment?
Can we afford not to?
Come out to our farm and see first hand how my immediate boss,
, whispers in my ear, pokes me in the arm and sometimes slaps me upside the head...
As I write this post I feel proud that we've taken the time and ever prouder of that dark, rich, healthy soil we give back to our soils........