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All about sheep

I'm sure all my readers are dying to hear about the 5 hours I spent on Saturday at the University of Illinois Extension office learning about sheep and goats. Right? Right? Ok, I'll try to keep it interesting and know that not all of you have burning questions about shepherding.

I ended up not stopping to see the farm on the way home after all. The workshop ran a little long even and I had promised the kids I'd get home before bedtime. Plus, I had a 3.5 hour drive from Chicago where I got to stare at the absolutely flat, treeless, silo-covered landscape. And I realized a few things. Sheep are adaptable to almost any environment. What am I doing thinking we should try to setup new pastures in bean and corn fields? That's prime ag real estate that would be a little unwise when we could go find some hills, trees, and rolling farmland elsewhere. If I'm going to settle down somewhere for a few decades of hard work tending animals...the view out my barn door better be a good one! I'm sure folks who live downstate thrive on the prairies and plains. But what is with the complete lack of trees? Oh. My. God. It would make me want to shoot myself in the head if I had to look out every morning across nothing but flat for miles. Probably rules out a few other states, come to think of it.

Ok, on to the sheep...there were 20 of us there including several women. Only one person who was into the fiber not the meat though. A mix of newbies and old-timers. It was interesting to have more knowledge about them than some of the old-timers even though I've never actually raised them. It's amazing what you can learn from books. (Also amazing what you can't!)

The day was broken into let's say, roughly, hour sessions with a lunch (fajitas? Really?!) So each session had a different speaker from the extension or a local goat farm. The wife from the goat farm is also a veterinarian.

The intro was some basic health highlights. The vet would later focus mostly on breeding and lambing/kidding, but she had some good general thoughts on the health of the flock, vaccines, de-worming. Even though she and her husband raise goats, almost all the info can be applied to sheep other than a few issues. Very similar animals.

Talk number two was about predator control and fencing. Especially with fencing in regard to keeping animals from digging, running into, etc.. I learned a lot here. That badgers are gaining ground in IL. Llamas make better guard animals for a flock than dogs (though dogs are cheaper to get, apparently). We're not really looking to stay in the state necessarily and I have to say that I was surprised by the process farmers have to go through to get a permit for nuisance wildlife on their property. Common sense, to me, is that if a coyote takes off with one of your lambs...time to get the gun. Call me old-fashioned. But at least in IL you're advised to call a wildlife officer first because you can't legally do much until you get permission. Why I need to jump through hoops for a predator costing me money is beyond me. Other states don't have such restrictions.

The highlight, for me, was the agronomist. Which just made me sound super nerdy. The talk was on pasture management so he had lots of great info on stocking rates per acre and it was an intro to rotational grazing for those unfamiliar with it. But he went super, super in depth about plant preferences by animals, the growing cycles of grasses, how to soil test, how long to graze animals. It's a little boring to read about in a book and I got a ton out of it during the lecture.

The next two sessions were by the owner of the goat farm. His first bit was on the economics of sheep and goats. Primarily on the feeding costs end where he went into great detail about analyzing the content of your hay to make side-by-side comparisons. So we talked a lot about not wasting money overfeeding, nutritional needs, how to supplement. That part was helpful. Nothing against the gentleman, he's got a PhD and is allowed to farm how he wants, but I found him a little too cold for a few topics. Not that you can be unreasonably warm and squishy about your livestock as pets. I mean that in our farm philosophy, I think it's about more than dollars and cents and choices about culling and keeping are multifaceted. Which he admitted. And I definitely think decisions about what animals go on the trailer are going to be among the hardest for The Mama and myself. It's complicated and if you don't just go by bottom line I can see where there are going to be pros and cons for almost any animal.

Anyway, the last session was mostly about marketing. Which, oddly, I'm not too worried about because I believe in the power of the internet. Ha! Their discussion was very focused on the traditional trip to the slaughterhouse or sale barn. They had some experience trying to sell to restaurants with their goats...mixed success. But I think with dual-purpose sheep there's so many options that it doesn't come down to one strategy. I had a few questions just to pick their brains, but ended up not starting the discussion just because it was a very side topic I could e-mail them later.

Overall, the trip was well worth it and I gained a ton of insight. It was a long way to go for what is, at this point, just theoretical information. But each of these seminars I'm attending gets us a little closer to maybe one day owning our flock...and managing it effectively.

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