Reflections on “Working with Nature”

In farming–as in the rest of life–the best-laid plans often become good fodder for future stories. Our sheep plan for this first year was to keep the ram separate from the ewes until early December, when we would allow them to commingle, producing a spring crop of lambs in time for pasture green-up in May. But, in mid-August our ram decided that he much prefers the company of our ewes than of the castrated male sheep who were keeping him company. He has jumped electrified fences and gotten hopelessly tangled in a (thankfully unelectrified) fence just to be with them. Now, that’s love… or libido. “Unacceptable!” we farmers cried. “Sheep gestation is only 5 months, and we have no shelter for lambs born in January!”

Following that declaration we made several YouTube-worthy attempts to corral the lusty ram back in with his buddies. (thankfully there were no video cameras present.) When those didn’t work, we tried a ram apron, a strategy we read about online. Think of it as a “chastity apron,” a cut-off feed sack around the ram’s middle, tied just behind his shoulders. The idea is that it physically prevents him from doing his business with the girls. “Brilliant!” we farmers thought. “That way we can keep him in with the ewes–which simplifies our management–but still have control over when breeding happens!” And so our Plan B was born.

ram apron
Our ram made it clear immediately how he felt about his chastity apron.

Plan B lasted all of 10 minutes. It was shredded to pieces before our eyes, as the unhappy ram kicked and ran and got tangled in his new apron. We managed to catch him and remove the offending item and then gave up for the evening. Chasing sheep around a pasture is just one way we livestock farmers get our exercise. We’ve read that sheep remember bad events for up to a year, and our ram hates us now.

We hung our heads as we walked back up to the house after our failed attempt to control sheep breeding. We berated ourselves. “We’re terrible shepherds! We have to redesign the apron and try again!”

Then we stopped, and remembered words from a recent article by Eric Noel in the Small Farm Quarterly, titled “The Calves Come Home: How to Calm Down, Observe Nature, and Supercharge Your Results“. Eric wrote in reference to an early bad experience he had with grazing: “I had forced my own time-wasting, stressful situation. I let my ego, my belief that things were supposed to be ‘just so’ get in the way. Life, and farming in particular, does NOT require struggle to be successful.”

With those words in mind, by the time we had walked up the hill to our home, Plan C had taken shape. We had already been planning to build a hoophouse this year (basically a large unheated greenhouse), though we were debating the timeline for it, and we were intending to fill it with cold-weather greens for a late Winter harvest. Instead, that hoophouse will be built by November, and may very well be filled with a lamb crop in January or February. Or perhaps our sheep will surprise us and wait to breed until later in Winter because they’re not actually ready for pregnancy yet. Either way, we’ll be prepared to work with whatever nature throws at us. We hope.


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