Backyard Ewe

Twelve is old for a sheep. We’ve had just a few of them survive to that age, and they seldom last much longer — but we’ve got one now who’s intent on seeing how far she can get.

Licorice, a black ewe, is easily the oldest animal on our farm; she turned twelve this April. She arrived in just the third of our lambing seasons, and she’s the last surviving lamb we have from Dot, our flock matriarch (who died in 2011, just days after her own twelfth birthday). Licorice has the distinction of being one of only two remaining animals which made the move with us from Illinois at the end of 2007.

As special of an animal as she is, we have no illusions about keeping Licorice over the coming winter. It’ll be hard to do, but we will definitely have her butchered this fall; it just wouldn’t be right to try to make her go through another winter in the condition she’s in.

Her biggest problem is that she’s lost most of her eyesight. If she were a person, she’d be classified as “legally blind.” Even so, she gets around remarkably well. She keeps her head lowered most of the time, and sort of feels her way along by evaluating what her horns bump into. Coming back from the pasture, when she comes to a fence, she feels her way along it until she finds the gate. Then she walks slowly in the direction of the barn … until she runs into it. Then she feels her way along the barn until she finds the open door. And then she comes in with the rest of the flock. In the morning, she does the reverse to go out to pasture. It’s actually kind of fun to watch.

The challenge is that the mid-summer pasture is now getting pretty well picked over. The sheep are having to look harder for good stuff out there … and our legally-blind grande dame is having an especially tough time doing so.

Our backyard is a different story. We’re leaving some sections with good clover unmowed, and there’s also an abundance of leafy weeds like burdock around the edges of the yard. Best of all: our apple tree has been dropping quite a few windfalls lately. For a sheep, this is a wonderful smorgasbord feast. What we usually do is bring the entire flock to the backyard for a time (perhaps 15 minutes or so), and let them hit it hard.

flock back yard.jpg

Then, before the flock can move on to destroying the flower beds or grape vines, we move most of them out to pasture.

Licorice, however, gets to stay for the rest of the day. This would not be possible with any other sheep: they usually get agitated when separated from the rest of the flock, or when they realize the rest of the flock has wandered away. They start bellowing, and look to see where everyone else has gone. Not Licorice. She’s way past caring. She just grazes along her oblivious way, feeling with her mouth from one delicacy to another until it’s time to just sit down and ruminate for awhile. Then she’ll get up and do it all again.

Licorice back yard.jpg

I do go out and check on her from time to time, and we make sure she has a bucket of water (and that she knows how to find it). And we do bring her back to the barn each night, so she can be with the rest of the flock.

Here’s hoping that this will all be enough to pull Licorice through to October. It’ll certainly be a little sad taking her to the butcher, but satisfying to see her “go the distance” — and to know that we’re sparing her the final rigor of a Michigan winter.

In the meantime, we’re enjoying watching her enjoy the backyard feast!

Burdock Time

What’s a weed, and what’s a resource? On our property, we have a plant that’s both: burdock. It grows everywhere around here. Through most of the spring, it develops lots of broad leaves and just looks kind of ugly.

It’s not until the arrival of summer that burdock becomes more of a problem: as it goes to seed, it develops lots of burs. Toward the end of summer, as the reproductive cycle completes itself, these burs get quite large and dry and pull off the plant easily. They cling to anything, especially any article of clothing, that even brushes against them.

The sheep and goats love eating burdock leaves — but god forbid the sheep get into a patch of mature burdock toward the end of summer. Their wool will be jammed full of burs, all of which will have to be removed before the wool can be processed. Something similar happens to the goats: their “beards” will get so loaded with burs, it can become one solid mass (not to mention the stray burs that cling to the rest of their coats).

This isn’t usually an issue. The sheep and goats instantly mow down any burdock plants that might sprout in their pasture; the tender young leaves are among their favorite treats. So, we never get mature burdock out in the pasture. However, there are lots of burdock plants growing elsewhere in the yard — especially behind my office, or along the edge of the hay field. If the sheep or goats happen to get loose in the yard, or if we want to turn them loose in the yard (supervised) to eat weeds, disaster can easily ensue.

The burdock seed heads are just now beginning to develop, which has gotten me thinking about this issue. It’s also led me to get out the pruning shears, and go on a massive burdock hunt. Over the last week or two, I’ve taken down several large stands of the stuff. The sheep see me lugging armloads of it toward the pasture, and word spreads quickly. They come running, and soon the whole flock is feasting as I toss the cut plants over the fence.

I got most of the big stands right before the seed heads began showing. In the last few days, as the nascent burs are beginning to become evident, my burdock hunt has taken on a greater urgency.

maturing burdock.jpg

Yesterday, and into this morning, I’ve been lopping off every last burdock plant I can find. It’s not necessary to take down the entire plant — just the primary, central portion. I don’t mind if some of the leaves growing from the bottom portion of the stalk remain. When we turn the sheep loose in the yard next week, the flock will gladly finish these leaves off.

cut burdock.jpg

While I was at it, I took down a few other leafy weeds. Before long, I had a nice pile of fresh green stuff for the sheep and goats. Given how picked-over their pastures have become, they mobbed me as I came with this enormous armload.

Pile of burdock

It’s may be a cliche to say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. But here on the farm, it’s true beyond a doubt that one man’s weeds are a ruminant’s feast.