Marking Spring Lambs

Spring is a glorious time on the Rock Farm.  Blossoms are on the trees, the slow combustion stove is finally allowed to go out and is laid up for summer, and lambs are frolicking in the paddocks.

These gorgeous animals require little in the way of health and welfare checks – but even such low maintenance sheep as Wiltipolls require some intervention.  And when the city cousins come to stay, it provides the perfect opportunity to bring in the lambs.

It is always a good idea to stay abreast of best practice – particularly for something we only do once a year.  After a quick brush up on the animal welfare standards, we were ready to go.  The standards are available online at:   http://www.animalwelfarestandards.net.au/sheep/

Marking lambs is a necessary part of raising sheep.  The lambs receive important vaccinations and are drenched.  The males are castrated, and all lambs have their tails docked.  All the other sheep receive vaccination boosters and are drenched too.

We use rubber bands to castrate the males and dock the tails.  This is the most humane and cost effective option available to hobby farmers.

The vaccine we chose prevents clostridial diseases in cattle and sheep such as Tetanus.  These diseases are frequently fatal.  They are caused by anaerobic bacteria and are widespread in the environment – especially in the soil.  Protection is provided when all the herd is vaccinated.

We also drenched the sheep with a triple combination drench.  The product we chose provides protection against gastro-intestinal roundworms, lungworm, Nasal Bot and Itch Mite.  It also provides important trace minerals such as selenium and cobalt, often deficient in Australian spoil.

Cell grazing is another technique to reduce the worm burden in sheep or other livestock.  Whilst I would love to develop a cell grazing system on the Rock Farm, this requires a significant investment in fencing and is still a few years away at this stage.

The final job was to put an ear tag in our lambs.  These tags are marked with our unique Property Identification Code (PIC), and will stay on these lambs for life.  This, in combination with movement declarations, ensures a full audit trail for livestock movements in Australia.  The ear tags are also colour coded, and 2017 lambs will wear a white ear tag, allowing easy identification and sorting of stock based on age.

A couple of likely lads also decided to take a couple of tags.  They politely declined my offer to put a tag in their ears, but did agree to marking their hats!

And so our marking was quickly over.  We let the sheep settle in the yards for a couple of hours with some delicious oats before we released them back into their paddock.  All done – until next year 🙂

Which is best for mustering? Horse or Motorbike…

A couple of days ago we celebrated a massive milestone for the Rock Farm.  We sold our first lambs!!!  Three adorable ewe lambs were sold to a delightful family not far away for their hobby farm.

I could go on about the virtues of the magnificent Wiltipoll and how suitable they are for small farms like us, but that is not the purpose of this post.

With two wannabe stockmen in the family, it was a perfect opportunity to put their mustering skills to the test!  It also was an opportunity for the Little Helpers to compare their preferred mustering method… horse or motorbike!

In no time at all, the boys had checked the boundary and confirmed all the sheep were enjoying a mid morning nap in the shade.  Unfortunately for the Little Fisherman, the sheep are very quiet, and assume the motorbike might also be associated with a bucket of oats, causing a slight hold up in proceedings.

The horses however were a less familiar proposition for the sheep, and they quietly pushed the sheep out from their shady mid-morning siesta.  The horses both have far more experience than either of their riders (The Little Helper and myself) at this game, and put themselves in exactly the right place to push the sheep gently towards the yards.

The Little Fisherman had a great time on his motorbike, but found it hard to match his speed to the sheep.  He also had the added complication of having to ride around obstacles that the horses just stepped over.

A last-minute dash for freedom by a couple of cheeky ewes was quickly rounded up by the ever watchful horses, and a moment later all the sheep were safely ensconced in the yards.

Job done…

Well nearly.  Whilst the Little Fisherman wheeled his motorbike up to the shed, switched it off and isolated the fuel, the Little Helper had a couple more jobs to do.  Our trusty steeds, Mater and Dusty were given a refreshing shower and rub down before being put back in the paddock.

And so the debate still rages in our family as to which method of mustering is best.  The horses have a natural intelligence that means they naturally will work the stock and keep them together.  The motorbike however just sits in the shed until you need it, and doesn’t require anywhere near as much maintenance as the horse.

It must therefore come down to other attributes…  The horses were put back to work manufacturing quality garden fertilizer by processing pasture hay – which is something no motorbike could ever do!

You can shear a sheep many times, but…

One of the reasons we moved to the Rock Farm was to ensure our kids have a well rounded understanding of our food supply chain.  One part of this food chain includes the raising of sheep for meat.  And whilst we could sell our sheep through the regular sale yards, and buy our meat from a butcher, I think we have a responsibility to teach our kids about what meat production actually involves.  By slaughtering the lamb ourselves, we reduce the stress on the animal significantly and save on food miles.

I appreciate that many people may feel uncomfortable with this process, and indeed many people make the choice not to eat meat at all.  I understand and respect those choices.

But I also feel that meat production often gets an unfair portrayal.  We are told it is bad for the environment, however I know that the Rock Farm has an incredible range of biodiversity that you don’t find on mono-culture cropping farms.  We have hundreds of native animals, lizards and birds, native grasses, shrubs and trees that live in harmony with our small scale sheep production. I also know that all who raise animals have a social responsibility to ensure the stock are raised in a humane, healthy manner.  I see small scale poly-culture or permaculture that works with the natural environment as being our future.

You may notice one sheep above that doesn’t look like the other ones.  Most of our sheep are wool shedding Wiltipolls, however the fellow with a full clip of wool is a first cross Meriono/Suffolk wether.  Despite his size, he still has a mouth full of baby teeth, meaning he is still a lamb.  He had been raised as a poddy by the boys, but we had always told them that his job (every animal has a job on a farm) was to feed us, and he was now ready.  His wool was also long enough to shear, and whilst it will never win any awards, the first cross wool is usually handy enough (medium fine) to make the effort to shear.  It did remind me of the old adage that “You can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin them once.”

Butchering a lamb is a skill, and it had been many years since I had last butchered a couple of lambs.  I found a few moments to enjoy a cup of coffee refreshing myself with the excellent words of John Seymour in his Self Sufficiency guide.

The first thing to do with the lamb was to shear him.  Thankfully friends down the road kindly agreed to shear the lamb, and also give the Little Fisherman a lesson in shearing.  This is definitely something I cannot do, but Jimmy made it look easy.

After shearing, it was important to slaughter the lamb quickly and humanely.  Again I learnt from Jimmy, who after many years has perfected the skills of cleanly slaughtering and butchering sheep.  The principles were as described in John Seymour’s book, however Jimmy was unbelievably quick and in no time at all we had skinned and cleaned the carcass.

We then hung the carcass in a cool room for 10 days, before running it through a band-saw.  With the legs and shoulders making great roasts, we cut most of the rest into chops.  It took under ten minutes to turn the carcass into meals.

It was then a relatively simple process to divide the meat into meal size portions for the freezer.  The dog also managed to do extremely well out of the offcuts.

And the verdict?  Delicious 🙂

There are few rules that apply to home butchering in NSW.  The basic premise is that meat that is butchered at home is not able to leave the property.  You are not able to sell, swap or barter it, or even give it to family and friends.  This is to protect us all from disease and parasites that used to be common place in yesteryear.  Making sure the meat is well cooked is a good start, but you also need to wash your hands frequently, make sure you dispose the offal properly and keep vaccinations and dog worming up to date.

A huge thank you to Jimmy for his guidance, and patience in bringing me back up to speed.  It was much appreciated.

Mineral supplements for sheep

Australian soils are often described as ancient weathered soils,  poor in nutrient and often have very little organic matter.  Here on the Rock Farm, we take it to another level, with our Ordovican shale bedrock often just below the surface of our thin gravel based lithosols.

There is an old adage  that states ‘if you want to run ten sheep, you feed the sheep until you can run ten sheep’.   This means that the food you feed your sheep becomes the manure that increases your soil fertility until you can run ten sheep.  In essence, your sheep become a vital part of the composting cycle where the imported food is converted to fertilizer.

And when you feed your sheep, mustering becomes a whole heap easier, as they come running to you!

In this good wet winter, our problem isn’t enough food.  There is plenty of bulk in the native grasses at the Rock Farm, but like Burke and Wills, I didn’t want our sheep starving on full bellies.  With mineral deficiencies common, we are experimenting with a salt lick or mineral supplement block.

With the sheep and horses running in the same paddock, we had to pick a mineral supplement that doesn’t contain urea.  Most cattle and sheep supplements contain urea.  Urea is toxic to horses, due to the differences in the gut.  The urea provides nitrogen for the the microflora that lives in the ruminant (cattle and sheep).  Horses only have one stomach (like us), and the urea may cause non-protein nitrogen poisoning.

We put the lick out in the paddock, and soon had the sheep wandering up to check it out.  Actually they were checking out the bucket of oats – and looking for a feed.  The benefits of bucket mustering are obvious when they come when you call!

This is obviously a very broad solution to a specific problem.  With a bit more time and effort, we could put out a range of different specific minerals, and see which ones they take.  This will indicate strongly which minerals our land is deficient in.  We hope to get to this point in the future, but in the meantime, the scatter-gun approach will have to suffice.

As an aside, you can see the bands of dead grass in this photo.  The ground has been sprayed in preparation for planting of trees in spring.  Whilst I am generally against chemical use on the paddocks, this is the most effective way to establish trees.

We spread the oats around the lick.  The sheep crowded around it – and devoured the oats. I am not sure how long it will take them to work out the benefits of the mineral supplements now available to them.  We have gone back a couple of times over the past week to encourage the sheep to check out the lick.

I don’t know how successful this will be – but we will see.  Hopefully the sheep will seek out any mineral deficiencies they crave.  Any minerals their bodies don’t require will pass through the sheep and become part of the mineral bank in our soil.  It will take us time to work out what the best way to manage our resources on the Rock Farm… but that is what it is all about.

What are the best sheep for hobby farming?

We often get asked what stock we are running on the Rock Farm?  Whilst the property had previously run cattle, we chose to run shedding meat sheep for a couple of reasons:

  •  Shedding sheep do not require shearing and are less susceptible to fly strike than their wool bearing cousins
  • We don’t need to invest in shearing infrastructure or arrange transport to and from a shearing shed annually
  • Sheep are quicker growing than cattle
  • We are able to slaughter our sheep without external assistance (cattle are much larger and difficult to slaughter on farm)
  • Lamb is one of our favourite meals.

Shedding meat sheep have risen in popularity in Australia over the past ten years or so and many breeds are now available.  With plenty of choice available, it is hard to know which is the best sheep for hobby farming.

In my mind, the best sheep for hobby farming must be hardy, quick growing and a proven performer on native pastures.  They must also be easy to manage and low maintenance.  We asked many producers in our local area what type of sheep they were running, and eventually settled on the Wiltipoll.

Wiltipoll Sheep

The Wiltipoll is a breed developed in Australia.  They are large easy care sheep, and may weigh up to 125kg in reasonable conditions.  The ewes breed seasonally and are known as good mothers, with a high percentage of multiple births.  They are also known to perform well on poor or rougher country that normally carries Merino wethers. They seemed to be the perfect sheep for hobby farmers like us.

Based on that information, we contacted a nearby Wiltipoll Association member, and ordered 15 hogget ewes (2 adult teeth, approximately 12 months old) and one ram.  The Wiltipoll Association website is: http://www.wiltipoll.com.au/

A short time later, we received a call from the breeder to let us know our sheep were ready.  A little nervously I hitched up the ancient horse float for the trip.  Thankfully all 16 sheep fitted into the float with no spare room at all – and they were soon eating a fire break in our fresh spring pastures.

These sheep are hardy sheep, bred for meat production.  They shed their wool naturally, meaning they are low maintenance and ideal for the hobby farmer like us.

The first priority was to teach them to come to me – also known as bucket mustering.  A 4 litre bucket of oats was given to them daily for the first couple of weeks, and it didn’t take the sheep long to come when I called.

Even now, at least once a week I give them a small amount of oats, just to keep them coming to me.  It was worth all the effort just once when I found them in the neighbour’s place.  A quick call, and all our sheep were back on our side of the fence – allowing me to repair the kangaroo hole.

Sometimes going for walks in the paddocks means you have a few friends though 🙂

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We haven’t lambed yet – but when we do, I’ll be sure to post more about our wonderful Wiltipoll sheep here.

Please let us know what your thoughts on the Wiltipoll sheep are, or if you have any questions by leaving us a comment below.