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Raising sheep in northwest Washington

Feb 5th, 2013 | Category: Animals, Skills

Part 1 of 2

by Jessica Gigot

I did not grow up on a farm, but from a young age I was fascinated by sheep. It might be because my last name is French for ‘leg of lamb’ or that I have had a life-long obsession with sweaters, mittens and all things wool, not to mention the elusive pecorino, but I find sheep to be wonderful creatures to have around.

Sheep can be good lawn-grazing pets or an essential part of a small or large scale farm enterprise. These animals can be more high maintenance than other small ruminants, like goats, but are excellent grazers and can provide meat, wool and sometimes milk. While sheep can live on grass primarily, winter supplementation of grains (barley, corn, oats) is recommend. PHOTO BY JESSICA GIGOT

When I was in college my freshman English teacher had his unsuspecting students spend a night in his family’s sheep barn to help with the spring lambing and to reflect on this experience in writing, of course. I stayed up all night and watched several births (truth is the sheep did all the work, so they didn’t need my help) and came back to help repeatedly. I fell in love with sheep during this experience and have been learning about them ever since those cold, April nights.

Sheep can be good lawn-grazing pets or an essential part of a small or large scale farm enterprise.  These animals can be more high maintenance than other small ruminants, like goats, but are excellent grazers and can provide meat, wool and sometimes milk.  Despite local resident Ryan Stiles advice to “never trust sheep,” they are smart and gregarious animals that tend to stick together and are generally docile. The intelligence of sheep versus goats is always called into question and I am too biased to address that here (although I do like to say that while goats have a head, sheep have a big heart). When first considering any additional livestock to your yard or farm do an assessment of available grass, space, shelter and water to make sure that you can offer this animal a healthy home. Sheep are susceptible to many toxins, like copper, so make sure that you have a reliable water source and that structures on you property, like posts, are not treated with copper-base products. Sheep can live to be 10 to 12 years, so if you are not planning to slaughter your animal, know that you have the resources to offer a good home.

Your next step will be to assess what you are looking for (lawnmower, friend, local meat, wool) and then determine what breed will be right for you.  Common pure and cross breed meat sheep in Washington are Cheviot and Katadhin, while wool breeds are Dorset, Romeldale (CVM), or Shetland sheep.  Common milk breeds are Lacaune or East Friesen. In some cases you will get decent meat and wool quality out of most crossbreeds. Some sheep, like Katahdin, lose their fleece naturally and are not a good choice if you are looking for wool.  Do research on several breeds before moving forward. There is an organization or society representing most breed that will give you a lot of useful information.

Permanent fencing is always preferred, but there is an array of electrified, portable fencing options that can help someone to rotate sheep in an effective and safe way. PHOTO BY JESSICA GIGOT

For a small homeowner looking for some lawn management it will be good to consider the breed you desire and space you have available. One to two sheep can consume a lot of grass (they graze for seven hours daily, on average) and that might be all that you need.  While sheep can live on grass primarily, winter supplementation of grains (barley, corn, oats) is recommend.  Transitioning sheep on and off of new feeding regimes is a delicate process and it should be done with a step-wise approach, otherwise they may experience some disruption of the rumen or bloat.  Food needs will depend on the animal’s stage of life and breed of the animal and you will have to decide as well how much supplemental feeding (hay, grain, minerals) is appropriate.

Permanent fencing is always preferred, but there is an array of electrified, portable fencing options that can help someone to rotate sheep in an effective and safe way.  For larger herds, permanent fencing and pastures rotation systems need to be in place before you take on a several animals.  Also, predators, like coyotes or unleashed neighborhood dogs, can be a serious danger, especially for smaller ewes and lambs.  Perimeter electric fencing is recommended if you live in a rural area.  Companion guard animals like donkeys or alpacas are also recommend as well as larger, dog breeds with guarding instincts.

While sheep are fairly cold tolerant, they do need some form of shelter.  A finished barn is always preferred, but a simple lean-to or manger will be enough to protect sheep from rain and wind. In the Pacific Northwest, our wet climate is not ideal for wool quality or hoof rot management.  Having a dry place for sheep to retreat to on a regular basis is necessary.

Author Jessica Gigot (below, middle) and two donkeys for the sheep herd. PHOTO COURTESY OF JESSICA GIGOT

Like all livestock, there is a suite of disease issues that can affect sheep. Regular de-worming for sheep is necessary and a rotation of de-wormer products is advised to avoid resistance in your parasite populations. The primary internal pathogens of sheep are nematodes and these are what many common, broad-spectrum de-wormers are aimed to manage.  However, in our late, wet springs, coccidiosis can be a chronic issue in flocks (especially young lambs) and management of this protozoa can be done with direct oral treatment or water treatment available over the counter at many farm supply stores.  Consult a local large animal veterinarian on the best disease management approach. External parasite, like keds or lice, are also important to watch out for as they can be irritating to the animal and cause wool lose and damage.  Scrapie is a fatal, degenerative disease affecting the central nervous system of sheep and goats, and is an important disease to monitor for in our country.  Volunteer registration of sheep is advised through APHIS (http://www.eradicatescrapie.org/).

Healthy hoofs equal healthy herds.  Hoof and foot rot are two primary issues in sheep that need vigilance and awareness. Regular hoof trimming (every 4 months, ideally) is necessary to keep hoofs healthy and regular checks for hoof and foot rot and other foot issues are important for all breeds of sheep. Hand-held hoof trimmers are available at a reasonable price and there are still many farriers in the area that will help with sheep hoof maintenance.

Tagging sheep in general is a good way to keep track of your herd, should you want to have more than a few backyard grazers.  This is also a part of the scrapies monitoring program, mentioned above. Overall, record keeping is essential for both disease prevention and animal well-being so that you can keep up to date on changes in the sheep and to document health routines.

Composted sheep manure makes a nice addition to the garden. PHOTO BY JESSICA GIGOT

Sheep can offer delicious local meat options for your family and community. There is no legal definition of lamb, although many chefs prefer the quality of meat from lambs that are 6-8 months. Lambs over a year are generally considered mutton and our saying on the farm is “there ain’t mutton wrong with it,” to combat the negative stereotype that mutton has in this country  Mutton can add an excellent flavor to soups and stews and is preferred meat in many ethnic dishes. While mutton still has a bad rap in the US, refer to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking for many great recipes featuring mutton!  For the home raiser of sheep, there are several private processors that can help you with your meat should you want to raise them for your own consumption.

The Pacific Northwest has a great community of sheep lovers and friends. Be sure to reach out to sheep keepers in your area to learn more about these pastoral animals and the special role they can play in your home and family.

Jessica Gigot is owner/operator of Harmony Fields in the Skagit Valley. See www.hfproduce.com.


Part 2 of 2

by Jim Collins

Shearing, the process of cutting or shaving the wool off of a sheep, needs to be done at least once a year. Sheep are usually sheared before lambing starts or in the spring time. Sheep with long fleeces may be sheared twice a year.

For anyone new to shearing, it’s just like getting a haircut. The process, however, is not as simple. Shearing requires skill. It does not hurt a sheep, but the process of shearing needs to be done quickly so that the animal and shearer are safe and the fleece is removed in good condition.

Jan Hodnet, of Acorn Spring Cotswolds in Everson, submitted this photo of her Cotswold sheep, a large wool breed. Their fleece is long and curly, and crafters love it for doll hair and santa beards. For more about the breed, visit www.cotswoldbreedersassociation.org.

Shearing can be done using manual shears (scissors or hand blades) or electric shears. If you have no experience shearing, seek the help of a professional shearer first and/or enroll in a sheep shearing class or school.

A professional shearer may be hard to come by, so when you find one you like, treat them well and stick with them. If you are unsure of where to start looking for a shearer, ask your local veterinarian office that services livestock or visit your local farm or country store. They will lead you to someone serving your area. A professional shearer can finish shearing a sheep in less than a minute or two and remove the fleece in one piece. Once your sheep have been shorn, be sure to provide them extra protection, especially in our wet northwest weather. It typically takes up to six weeks for the fleece to come back to a length that keeps sheep sufficiently insulated. Sheared sheep also need more feed to keep their body temperatures regulated.

Our region has a number of resources for sheep keepers, including an annual Shearing School put on through the Washington State University (WSU) Extension, since 1977. Held last year in Stanwood, the school will take place this year at the Grant County Fairgrounds in Moses Lake on April 1-5 (beginners school) and April 6 (advanced tune-up session). In addition to learning shearing and how to care for the necessary equipment, the session provides information about how to handle and market the wool and basics of sheep husbandry.

Sheep drive through Lopez Village during the annual Annual Lopez Island Lamb Wool and Goat Festival. This year’s event takes place Saturday, May 11. COURTESY PHOTO

Registration for the school must be received by March 15. Enrollment is $150 for Washington State Sheep Producers (WSSP) Members and $200 for non-members. (Membership is $50 per year.) Advanced Tune-Up School is $45. Besides the obvious skills you learn, this school gives you the chance to get to know folks from the WSSP and fellow sheep keepers in the state. The Columbia Basin Wool Growers Association will sponsor a shearers dinner Friday evening during the school, another good time to meet other sheep keepers.

For more information about the school, contact Sarah Maki Smith at (509) 754-2011, ext. 413 or e-mail smithsm@wsu.edu. The full application is available at http://county.wsu.edu/grant-adams/agriculture/ and click on Shearing School.

Another resource coming up is the Puget Sound Purebred Sheep Breeders Association’s annual Sheep School on June 8 at Stanwood High School. Registration starts at 8:30 a.m. and classes are from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a lamb luncheon put on the by Stanwood FFA. The day is available to folks of all levels, from those just getting started to people wanting to learn more. Speakers will be producers active in the sheep field as well as professionals in related agricultural industries. They will talk about sheep care of all ages, breeding, veterinary care, selection, wool and meat production, marketing, and what to expect throughout the course of a year on the farm. For more information or to register, contact Jessica Nemnich at (425) 319-9624 or rjnemnich@gmail.com, or Margaret Olson at (360) 929-6572 or maolson@stanwood.wednet.edu.

Hood trimmers and hand shearers. PHOTO BY JESSICA GIGOT

The annual Lopez Island Lamb Wool and Goat Festival is another great event that takes place on Lopez Island, this year May 11. It features a sheep drive into Lopez Village, and a full day of demonstrations and activities for those interested in sheep and wool. You must get to this event if you’re interested in how to raise sheep and use wool. Organized by Maxine Bronstein or Debbie Hayward at Island Fibers, these local ladies have pulled together a fantastic event that keeps growing each year. This is also all-ages and free of charge to view, so it makes for a great introduction for youth and families as well.

Roving from sheep’s wool. PHOTO BY JESSICA GIGOT

Sheep are rewarding to raise and use for wool (or meat), but like all animals, require a lot of responsibility and need proper housing, food, and veterinary care. Be sure you have enough space and resources to care for sheep, and remember that if you are new, you have A LOT to learn. Make an effort to contact the local resources in our area and you will definitely be headed in the right direction. Happy sheep keeping!

LOCAL RESOURCES

Puget Sound Purebred Sheep Breeders Association’s annual Sheep School: June 8 at Stanwood High School, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Open to people of all levels. Speakers will be producers active in the sheep field as well as professionals in related agricultural industries. Discuss sheep care of all ages, breeding, veterinary care, selection, wool and meat production, marketing, and what to expect throughout the course of a year on the farm. For more information or to register, contact Jessica Nemnich at (425) 319-9624 or rjnemnich@gmail.com, or Margaret Olson at (360) 929-6572 or maolson@stanwood.wednet.edu. See the Association’s website at http://www.pspsba.org/

WSU Shearing School: Held this year at the Grant County Fairgrounds in Moses Lake on April 1-5 (beginners school) and April 6 (advanced tune-up session), this annual school shows the basics of sheep shearing and care. Registration must be received by March 15. Enrollment is $150-$200, and Advanced Tune-Up School is $45. For more information, contact Sarah Maki Smith at (509) 754-2011, ext. 413 or e-mail smithsm@wsu.edu.

Annual Lopez Island Lamb Wool and Goat Festival: Saturday, May 11 at the Lopez Center for Community and the Arts, Lopez Village. Sponsored by the Lopez Center for the Community and the Arts. Free outdoor and indoor events include: Sheep shearing demonstrations; Sheep dog demonstrations; Various breeds of sheep and milk and fiber goats on display; Sheep-to-shawl demonstration; Vendors of local fleece, yarn, textiles, meat, & other sheep and goat related art; and Cheese-making and meat-cutting demonstrations. Evening feast beginning at 5:30 p.m. All proceeds from the dinner go to the Lopez Farm-to-School Program. The sheep drive through the Lopez Village will be held Friday, May 10. For information and dinner tickets, contact Maxine Bronstein or Debbie Hayward at Island Fibers: fibers@islandfibers.com or (360) 468-2467.

Washington State Sheep Producers (WSSP): www.wssp.org

Books & Websites

Living with Sheep: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Flock, by G. Hansen and C. Wooster. Lyons Press, 2007.

Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep, by P. Simmon and C. Ekarius. Storey Pub., 2009.

www.sheepandgoat.com

www.sheepusa.org

www.sheep101.info/201/

SHEEP SPEAK

Ewe: Adult female

Ram or buck: Adult male

Wether: Castrated male

Lamb: A sheep less than a year old

Ewe lamb/ram lamb: Indicates lamb’s gender

Hogget: A young sheep 1-2 years old

NEXT GENERATION

A look at how one family raises sheep for wool.

by Samantha Schuller

Seventeen-year-old Autumn Dennistoun is expecting her flock of 20 Border Leicester sheep to almost double by March. “We have 9 pregnant ewes right now, so we’ll have about 18 lambs soon,” she said, adding twins are typical for these sheep. She spends two to three hours among the expectant ewes each day as lambing approaches, checking their conditions and keeping an eye out for labor. “Once they give birth, we make sure the lambs are healthy and nursing,” she said.

Adora. PHOTO BY SAMANTHA SCHULLER

Dennistoun began raising sheep three years ago, in 2009. “My mom and I both spin and knit, and we were buying a lot of fleeces from other farms. We decided it would be fun to raise our own sheep for their wool,” she said.

The family raises Border Leicesters, a breed familiar to most from the movie Babe. “They have curly fleece and those cute Roman noses,” Dennistoun said affectionately. She does admit to having favorites within her flock—foremost of those being Cherry, who is especially affectionate. “I bottle-fed Cherry, so she’s very friendly with me. I can call her name and she’ll come running, like a puppy. If I sit in the field, she’ll sit next to me.”

Each fall, the sheep are shorn and the fleeces are sent to mills for preparation. Some are sent to a local mill in Snohomish to be carded into fiber batts for Autumn and her mom, Heidi, to spin. Some are sent to a mill in Oregon to be commercially spun into yarn, and some to yet another mill to be made into Pendleton blankets.

Dennistoun and her family were not new to raising animals before their first sheep arrived; she and her brother, Christian, began raising rabbits in 2002, when she was just six. “Raising rabbits got me into 4-H, which I’ve been a part of ever since,” she said. “I’d say 4-H is probably the best resource anyone could have available while they learn to care for animals.”

Her advice for those considering raising sheep: build a good fence. “Sheep don’t need a hot-wire fence like horses or cows, they need wire netting that will keep them in and coyotes out.”

When she’s not trimming hooves or spinning wool, Dennistoun is completing high school at Northwest Academy and Everett Community College, earning prerequisite credits she hopes to bring to Oregon State University when she graduates. “I’d like to study animal nutrition and get my degree in animal sciences,” she said.

Autumn Dennistoun began raising sheep three years ago. She and her brother started with raising rabbits and became interested in the 4H program. PHOTO BY SAMANTHA SCHULLER

These days, Dennistoun’s paying close attention to the nutrition of her pregnant ewes. Adora, the first lamb born to her in 2011, is now one of the expectant mothers, due any day. Dennistoun is already busy coming up with enough names to bestow on a whole new generation.


This feature was printed in two parts in our January and February 2013 issues.

2 Comments to “Raising sheep in northwest Washington”

  1. tara mietzner says:

    I am desperately looking for a sheep shearer for my 6 ewes. the shearer I typically have used is too busy. can you refer me to someone ASAP? much appreciate! tara 425-870-8090

  2. Sarah dinger says:

    hi there I am needing some super curly wool for Santa beards. I live in Alaska but also have a home in Bellingham where I will be next week. I would like to purchase from you. Please let me know how we can make it happen! Thanks much, Sarah

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