Notes from Windward: #57

Selling the Kids

The does spot the arrival of strangers
It's a strange irony; that in order to keep sheep and goats, you have to sell them. Since a well managed flock or herd will triple every year, the hard math says two-thirds of them have to go every year, or you'll fall victim to "goatflation," something which is more responsible for folks getting out of the business than any other factor. In this, as in so much more, it's our sucesses that endanger us more than our shortcomings.

On average, each doe produces a son and a daughter. The guys aren't a problem, since the realities of sexual reproduction dictate that most of the males are surplus, but deciding what to do about the girls is difficult both logically and emotionally. In a dairy herd, the focus is obviously on milkers, and the question centers around whether to keep the mother or the daughter.

doe kids at play
The argument on behalf of the daughter is that since you're working toward a rising genetic plane, the daughter has more potential than her dam. This is especially telling if the dam has fallen victim to some injury which limits her capacity to function, or if she's in the lower third of the pecking order and habitually losing out on her share of forage. There's also the argument that there's never any guarentee that there'll be a daughter to consider next year. All living things die, and life is chancy at best. Perhaps it's better to keep this daughter than to gamble on replacing the doe next year. Additionally, it's easier to place a four year old doe than one who's six. There's a market for proven does who are reliable milkers, and we're generally able to place our older girls - just as long as they're not too old.

Cindy separates the doelings from the young bucks
The prime argument on behalf of the dam is that "a bird in the hand beats two in the bush." There's no guarantee that the daughter will be as good as her dam, or that she'll even be fertile. In addition, the dam's online right now, and the daughter will have to be fed and housed for more than a year before she'll put her first gallon of milk into the pail. The ideal is to keep both the mother and daughter, thereby delaying the decision until you have a chance to see whether the daughter is fertile, and just as importantly, how her udder will develop. The rule is that the udder is half the goat, and there's no way to know what will develop until after the fact.

When an important bloodline is at issue, we'll try to delay the decision until we can evaluate both the dam and the daughter, but otherwise, the call is generally made before the birthing. While we try to make our decisions rationally and for the best of reasons, there's also a real need to cope with the emotional involvement that inevitably comes with caring for these remarkable creatures. By arriving at the basic plan for the year while the does are still gestating, we can steel ourselves from becoming too attached to the ones who need to go. It's a strategy that doesn't always work, but when you're heading into a demanding emotional situation, it's really important to do all you can to deal with the emotional stress as early as possible.

time to get down to business
One way we cope is to do all we can to see that our girls find good homes. There's always a steady market for cabrita, the Mexican version of veal, but with luck and effort, we're often able to do better than that. This year, we're delighted that our surplus girls are heading to Arlington, OR to found a new herd there. Our herd is some nine years old, and our girls have evolved as strong milkers who are capable browsers. They're not barn queens or show girls who live pampered lives so that they can go for milking records or show ribbons; rather, they're solid, dependable girls with positive attitudes.

the larger does ride in the horse trailer
I've heard the figure that some 80% of two-leggers find jobs, not by answering ads in the newspaper, but rather through word of mouth from a friend of a friend who knows about a job opening somewhere. This year, that's sort of what happened. These folks were looking for some good founding stock. They stopped in at the co-op feed store in Goldendale, and asked about herds in the area. If you want to know what's out there, and who's taking good care of their animals, the guys at the feed store are the ones to ask. Since the inquirer was looking for good working goats (as opposed to show goats or pets), they were given our name.

the younger does ride in the back of the pickup
A visit was arranged, and after meeting our does, they took all the doelings we were willing to sell. A few minutes of rounding up, a couple of quick calculations, and that was it. While it was sad to see out babies heading down the road, that was more than offset by the knowledge that they were going to a good home.

they quickly figure out who's going and who's staying
With sheep, there's much the same choices, but there are a few wrinkles that are different. The key has to do with whether your focus is on meat or wool. If meat's your goal, then sheep work much the same way as goats, but wool's different. In that case, it's the whethers you want since their wool is the best. One of the ways that paleoanthropologists can tell when primitive peoples settled down and started to engage in the manufacture of textiles (something which happened before the start of recorded history), is that the majority of bones in the middens switch from female to male.

Wool is almost pure protein, and it's quality is very dependent on the health of the animal and the diet it was enjoying when the wool was produced. During gestation, the needs of the fetus take precedence over the growing of wool, and so the fleece of a ewe is lessened from what it otherwise could have been. The fleese from the males is even worse since they're constantly paying more attention to the ewes than to eating. This problem is so bad that the dominant herd male in many species often pays for this season of precedence with his life. The "loser" males have lots of time to graze and put on fat for the coming winter, thereby having the resources to make it through the winter to try again next season.

Young bucks lounging in the morning sun
Early herdsmen learned that by neutering most of the males, they could insure that the wool produced was of the highest quality. The result is that fiber herds, be they wool sheep or angora goats, often break down to something like 10% bucks, 20% ewes and 70% whethers. This compares with a dairy ratio of 10% bucks, 90% ewes and no whethers.

Stress can also trigger wool problems, and we're seeing some of that with our ram. He came down with something comporable to a stomach flu, and totally lost his appetite for a couple of days. With two-leggers that's serious, but for rumanents it's truly life-threatening. We nursed him through it, and he seems to have fully recovered, but now a month later, we're seeing the result in his wool. The episode created a break in his wool, and now he's shedding. He's looking quite ragged as tufts of the wool that grew back since the sheering are coming out in haphazardly. He'll soon recover his manly fleese, and it's important that this wool be lost so that he can regrow a sound fiber, but in the meantime, it does give new definition to "having a bad hair day."

Lambie's bald patches
While this is unsightly for now, it would have been much more of a problem if it happened in the fall. The sheep depend on their wool coat to keep them snug, warm and dry during the tough winter season, and if they lose their coat, they'll soon burn up their fat reserves trying to stay warm. Quartered animals are always at risk from pneumonia, and it doesn't take much of a chill to get that going.

It's also bad from the standpoint of its impact on the utility of the wool. The long staple length is an important feature of quality wool, since short fibers can't be spun into fine, strong yarn. If this had happened in November, it could have put a weak spot right in the middle of the fiber. It's bad enough if the weak spot is severe enough that the wool starts to sluff off, but it's even worse if it's only severe enough to put a weak spot in the middle of the year's growth. That can result in a fleese that looks just fine, but will keep breaking during the spinning process.

When examining a fleese, the standard procedure is to take a tuft of wool, and stretch it out. This will allow you to examine the fineness of the fiber, the amount of crimp it has, and most importantly, it's structural integrity. It the fiber won't hold together, it's not worth trying to spin. By close examination of the wool, you can get a good idea of just what kind of a year it's been.

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