Notes from Windward: #55

Taking the lambs to market

Market day actually starts the day before. If we're selling kids, then usually that means a three hour drive to Sunnyside, WA for a Saturday sale that starts at 11 AM, which makes for an early load time and a long day. In order to be loaded up, tied down and on the road by 7 AM, we have to have the selected animals already penned up and ready to load come first light.

Even then, sometimes it doesn't work since the herd has a mind of its own. We had originally planned on making this run two weeks earlier, but the night before, the herd just didn't come home. That was the only time in months that the herd elected to spend the night in the woods, and they didn't show up back here until 11 AM, just a bit too late to load up and still make it to the sale on time. I'm not saying that the herd knew what was going on and stayed away on purpose, but I wouldn't argue with anyone who did.

The newborn kids nurse on their mothers for a couple of weeks and then we send the boys, and most of the girls as well, to the sale in late spring. Since we're raising goats for the milk, it isn't cost effective to feed that milk to the kids. The best market for lambs is once they reach between 110 and 125 pounds; since we don't grain feed the lambs, it takes them most of the summer to get to market weight. We lose about a 10% premium on the market price by being late in the season, but we feel that's better than spending money on grain.

Much of modern agribusiness relies on the use of comestible (i.e. human edible) grains to grow meat, a practice which vegetarians often point to as a waste of good food, a point on which we would agree. In sustainable practice, it doesn't make good sense to feed animals things that people could eat more efficiently. Instead, we take advantage of the fact that by using their rumen, sheep and goats can digest things that humans can't. The transformation of grass and leaves into milk and meat is part of the essential magic of sustainability. Rushing the process by feeding grain feels like cheating.

Another alternative to the long drive to the Sunnyside sale on Saturdays is the Monday morning sale in The Dalles, OR. Since it's only an hour away, and starts an hour later, it's much more convenient than the Sunnyside sale; the hangup is that it generally isn't as profitable. Livestock sales are auctions, and the larger the market, the better the price. If we're sending twenty kids to market, as we often do in the late spring, we just about have to make the long trip since that many kids would overwhelm the smaller local sale. At an auction, once the demand is met, the bottom falls out very quickly.

There's a steady market for fat slaughter lambs, and the commercial buyers will take everything that's brought in, so while the price may fluctuate a few cents, we can be confident that we'll get close to the fair market price for our finished lambs. That price peaks in June, and slowly erodes as more lambs come to sale.

As for the animals that aren't "finished" yet, well they're a bit of a crap shoot. The kids that we brought in weren't up to slaughter weight, and so either someone will have to put them out to "finish" or move them on the ethnic market. A number of immigrant cultures place a high value on goats, and young ones are especially prized. If I had more time, it would have been worthwhile working out a trade with one of the orchards in the area. Most of the agricultural workers in this area are of Mexican ancestry, and it's not difficult to trade a kid for a pallet of apples, pears, etc. Often selling animals for money is the least profitable way to go, although when time is at a premium, it does have the advantage of being quick.

The critters catch on quickly as to who's up for market and who's not. The ones who are staying seem to take the whole process as just another bizarre thing the two-leggers do. Once they figure out that we're not interested in them personally, they tend to hang around while we're loading up the others. Through it all, we strive to ensure that the process is as stress-free as we can make it. At it's best, market day is hard enough on all of us. In the final analysis, this is something we have to do in order to keep animals; it isn't something we have to like.

Sometimes we use the camper shell to contain the animals and protect them from the wind, but this fall is a warm one. The lambs' winter wool coats will protect them, and the kids are smart enough to hunker down out of the wind. Indeed, with so much of their wool aready grown out, the lambs are at a greater risk of overheating than of getting chilled.

At the sale, the animals are unloaded into a series of chutes which lead to an array of holding pens. The sheep tend to stick their heads in a corner, probably on the theory that if they can't see you, then you can't see them. Then they're treated to the indignity of having a self-adhesive sticker afixed to the the top of their head, sort of like a numbered hat. It's not very dignified, but at least it enables the auctioneer to be sure of just which animal he's selling. Especially among the Suffolk sheep, it's pretty difficult to tell one ewe from another.

The goats respond to the sale yard in an entirely different manner. Being goats, they're not intimidated by all this one bit. In fact, they're a little miffed at being cooped up in a stall, and will tell anyone who happens to come along just what they think about the situation.

Unfortunately for us, it appeared that Windward wasn't the only place around here that had summer births. There were two lots of weanlings ahead of us, one of six kids and the other of eight, so it was easy to tell that the kids wouldn't be bringing much money today.

Each auction has it's own order of sale. At this sale, it's pigs, sheep, goats, calves, horses and then lot after lot of cattle. Ours was the fourth lot of lambs to be sold, and I was very pleased that ours brought seventy-eight cents a pound, only one penny under the best lamb price of the sale. It's easy to see your stock as having extra special qualities that make them stand out, but that perception is often missed by the buyers. In a sense, the price your stock brings at sale is an excellent comment on the quality of your stock.

After the bidding is over and a price agreed on, the lambs are hustled out the door at the opposite end of the sale ring. This door leads into a holding room that is actually an overgrown scale. Since all four lambs went to the same buyer, they don't bother to weight them individually. After a minute or so, a bell rings and the weight appears on a sign board over the auctioneer.

For finished lambs, the ideal weight is between 110 and 125 pounds. At an average of 125 pounds, ours were just right. While it takes a bit longer on grass feed for them to reach market weight, the lower total cost makes the slower route more profitable for us.

And finally, it was the kids' turn. They were as curious about the sale ring as they were about the rest of the place, and would have been quite content to explore every nook and cranny. Since there were a dozen kidlings before them, ours didn't bring as much as we'd hoped for, but that's the way it goes in the critter business. It always hurts to part with them, but that's the way it has to be.

Fall is in the air, the does are coming into heat, and more kids will be along before you know it.

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