We raise sheep; for wool, for meat, and in the future for breeding stock. California Reds to be exact. These are our animals. We take care of them, they take care of us. They allow us a chance to earn a living off a section of our ground that would be cost prohibitive to grow anything else. They supply us with a nutritionally dense product - meat, and wool fiber for clothing and arts & crafts products. We try hard not to raise them as pets, not just because they serve a purpose other than companionship, but because in our opinion their independent temperament warrants that respect. Our job is to provide them with a quality place to live, with appropriate & sufficient food stock, and care for their health as well. We want them to thrive on grass, some supplemental alfalfa protein (from our Organic field) for a timed weight gain, some minerals and water. We only feed Certified Organic grain for a few days as a treat to new dams right after lambing, and that is only because as former dairy owners we have a hard time shaking the belief that grain helps the dam's milk to drop. We do not have issues with feeding grain, and refuse to believe there is anything inherently wrong with it - feeding too much grain is what we take issue with. Our market lambs do not receive any grain, they do not need it. However, we focus on a pasture based management method because it fits our farm philosophy, our product market, and we just know our sheep - it's how they prefer it.
As sheep breeders, one of our goals is to have no bottle babies. Bottle babies are those lambs who's mothers have either rejected them, passed away at lambing, or simply can't produce enough milk for more than one lamb. It is our opinion that ewe's not raised by their dams have a higher propensity toward being problem moms and also rejecting their own future lambs. Whether this is factually true or not remains to be seen; time, observation, and health records will tell . Bottle babies however, have a knack for becoming pets.
Enter Little Annie. Her mom rejected her when she was 2 days old, but kept her brother. We bring our fresh ewes & their lambs in to the barn for a few days for close monitoring and health care. It also helps the new mother bond with her lambs. Rejection - who knows why this happens (who really knows the mind of sheep?), but when little Annie's mom started to violently head butt her away, we knew we had this year's first bottle baby. We've had some bottle babies over the years, but none as quick to bottle train as Little Annie. She is sharp as a tack & very friendly. Studying her interactions with the flock is both fascinating and sad. Bottle babies bring out interesting aspects of flock behavior and hierarchy. She doesn't have a mom to run to like the other lambs, so she runs to us, follows us, always underfoot, searching for that nonexistent udder. We always give her a handful of alfalfa hay to nibble on as a treat when we're in the corral.
That is one sheep's story in a nut shell, but here's another. Ewe #816, Marge: healthy, good mothering instincts, good milk producer. Her lamb was dead at birth. She sat next to that dead lamb for 3 hours out in the pasture. As a new parent myself, I was heartbroken for her. I brought her a water bucket & an alfalfa flake. She ate & drank, and sat there for another hour, then reluctantly left. As I watched her, just to make sure her after birth would pass completely (no 2nd lamb), I pondered what I should do. There were 3 options. First, just leave well enough alone, let nature take it's course. Second, hover around her too closely in hopes of sympathizing with her, but that would only stress & agitate her. That wouldn't be for her benefit, only my emotional benefit. Third, go in and remove the dead lamb and bury it to help her out of her vigil more quickly, but that just seemed too cruel. Again, would that be for her benefit, or just my emotional benefit? I opted for leaving well enough alone. The next day, she stopped bleating for her dead lamb and was just one of the flock again. I will have to milk her off a bit, a couple times a day for a few days to help relieve the pressure in her udder so that she can dry off again without any health complications to her udder. Left to nature, she would most likely be pregnant again in a couple months, but we will give her a rest and place her with our ram this November for a march 2013 lambing.
Such is animal husbandry. Having grown up in dairy life, leaving for college and city jobs/life for 14 years, I never in my wildest dreams would've believed that I'd return to it all over again. Turned out it was in my fate after all, and it really ain't so bad.