Notes from Windward: #61


Milking Pia

Pia on the shearing stand
I think it's worthwhile to tell the story of how Pia came to be our first "milking ewe" since it will give you an idea of how we deal with the ever changing mix of situations and options that crop up along the path towards sustainability.

Dolly and Hinde both had twins this year, and since they're both getting older, their instinct was to pick the stronger of their two lambs, and to let the weaker one die. We don't hold that against them, first of all because that's nature's way in such things, and also because it wouldn't make any difference. They're going to do what their instincts tell them is the right thing to do, and that's that. None of the four-leggers are much impressed with the sentiments that the two-leggers bring to the business of being a sheep

On the other hand, our task as animal husbanders is to modify the path while preserving the outcome. By intervening, we can save those two lambs, thereby saving the resources that went into bringing them into the world. By protecting the productivity of the flock, we thereby insure the viability of the program. The natural process is a very wasteful one in which countless young are born and die in a ruthless process which advances the overall strenghth of the line. Our job is to salvage that productivity without diminishing the viability of that line.

A new removable front
for the shearing stand
The desire to save those two lambs comes easy enough; it's making it happen that's the trick. In previous years, we've had surplus goat's milk that could be used to bridge the babies over the three week period between birth to where they're ready to start eating solid food.

The first need is for the colostrum, also called "first milk," which helps to get the lamb's digestions system going. Fresh colostrum also contains antibodies which help protect the newborn from infections during the first two months until its own immune system starts to kick in.

While powder colostrum will help the newborn get their system cleaned out and running, it doesn't confer this important level of protection. The upshot is that we haven't had much luck saving lambs using only powdered colostrum and milk products. That doesn't stop us from trying, but it's usually an emotionally draining exercise.

This year, Bob2 and Cindy kept the goats from breeding since given the challenges of moving the goat operation to a new location, they had a lot on their plate without the added stress of having a hundred babies hit the ground. One unfortunate outcome of that decision was that we didn't have access to goat's milk on which we could feed these two lambs.

We've been careful to cull the poor mothers, because if we step in and do their mothering for them and then allow their daughters to join the herd, those daughters are likely to be poor mothers too, and so the problem would get worse each year. By only keeping the daughters of good mothers, we've built a flock in which the mothering instinct is strong. The result of that effort is that out of more than twenty ewes who've given birth so far, we've only ended up with two bummer lambs.

Another bit of two-legger sentiment is that we keep our senior ewes for as long as they live, and that can be as long as ten or eleven years. This is completely unlike a commercial operation which would shipped them to the sale by the time they had turned six. The downside is that we have ewes giving birth long after their "prime", and so if they decide that they're just not up to the task of raising twins, we don't hold that against them, and stand ready to do our part to help create a positive outcome.

Pia looking foward to
her morning milking
In this case, Pia's lamb was born at about the same time as the two bummers. Unfortunately, the lamb had some sort of birth defect involving its umbilical cord, and bled to death soon after it was born. These things happen. In an effort to snatch something good out of the loss, we moved Pia up to a special pen in the upper garden, and using the shearing stand acquired at this year's Pine Grove auction, I started to milk Pia, so that Heather could use that milk to save Darla and Susie.

Pia was a bit confused at first, but she didn't seem to mind the milking, especially since there was grain involved. The other reality is that an overly full udder is a very uncomfortable thing. The motherly instincts are such that mothers want to do those things which are needful for the survival of their babies, and giving her milk is certainly part of that package.

You'll notice in the picture that Pia is waiting for me at the part of the pen closest to my arrival. If she didn't want to be milked, I can assure you that she's be at the far end of the pen.

What, no more grain?
On the other hand, the shearing stand made a pretty poor milking stand. It was designed to hold the ewe's head on one position, something which was as demeaning as it was uncomfortable. Our ewes have their pride, and we don't like to do things which might tend to break their spirits. And so, I got to work on making a removable facade for the shearing stand, one that constrained the ewe but still let her move her head up and down as she wished to.

It also changed the dynamic of the process. One reason that ewes and does like the milking routine is that there's tasty rolled grain involved. As it was before, Pia had to wait until the milking was completed before she got her ration of grain, something which made her rather impatient with my fumbling around with her udder. The design of the new milking rack enables me to give her the grain as soon as she's locked into position, with the result that while I'm milking her out, she's enjoying a ration of tasty rolled barley.

Like so many things, this is another similarity between two-leggers and four. One of the "tricks" of managing a committee is to make sure that they have tasty things to eat while you're having the meeting. It's really amazing how much more willing people are to agree to a proposal while they're nibbling on tasty things to eat.

Darla and Black-eyed Susie
Pia's production is between 30 and 40 ounces of milk a day, and while that may not sound like a lot, it's pretty good for a ewe, and it's the difference between life and death for those two lambs. Now that the lambs are coming up on a week old, they're out of the risky zone and are starting to nibble on "creep feed," a pelletized form of ground grain and mollasses that will help them make the transition to solid food as quickly as possible.

Having a milking ewe around the home is rather neat. Heather says that the milk is especially sweet, and Cindy's looking forward to a couple of weeks down the calendar when there will be enough milk for her to do some cheese making. Many cheeses such as feta and rouquefort were traditionally made from ewes milk, and it will be interesting to see how they compare to the same types of cheese made from cow and goat milk.

Part Two: three weeks and milking