Saturday, September 1, 2007

Summer's End

Summer's End

Parched leaves sway and lift.
Mockingbird’s sweet, liquid song:
Long-awaited rain.

By Nancy Chase

As cleanly as tearing off a calendar page, summer ended today. As soon as I stepped outside this morning, I felt it. The texture of the air against my skin was different, the flavor of it in my nostrils.

The humidity was gone. The sky---a crisp, pleasant blue---seemed farther away than it had yesterday, as if summer had lifted the lid off the pressure cooker that has enclosed us for the past 4 months.

It was a perfect day for working outside, which was good. After rearranging a few portable fence panels to make a catch pen, Ken and I gathered up the sheep and administered their worming medicine and vitamin drench, a task that neither the sheep nor the humans particularly enjoy.

We usually do this about once a month throughout the summer. Since one month from today will be October, this may be the last time we have to do this chore until next spring. Hurray!

Another end-of summer event happened today as well: the separating of the rams from the ewes. Icelandic sheep are seasonal breeders, and will not breed until late October. So the rams get to go out in the pasture with the ewes all summer.

Then, in early September, we separate the rams into their own paddock away from the ewes. From now until breeding season, the ewes will get extra feed to bring them into optimum condition for breeding. On the same diet, the rams would just get fat---after all, they've done no work all summer to put any strain on their bodies, unlike the ewes who have been nursing babies all this time.

The other reason we separate the sheep at this time of year is because of something known as the "ram effect." If the ewes are separated from the rams for a significant amount of time, and then placed back with them at the start of breeding season, it supposedly triggers the ewes' hormones and encourages them to all come into heat and breed right away.

The advantage of this is that the lambs are born earlier and lambing season is not spread out over as many weeks (which makes it a lot easier on the shepherd). Personally, I haven't noticed a lot of "ram effect" happening in my own flock, but who knows? It doesn't hurt to try.

The day the rams get separated also marks the time when I need to start planning the sheep's breeding groups for the winter. Which ewes will I breed to which rams for the best combination of traits? Which combinations will give me the best meat conformation without sacrificing fleece quality? The most salable colors without sacrificing heat and parasite resistance?

Choosing the breeding groups is a complicated, detail-oriented process that involves long lists of records and bloodlines and several rounds of charts showing possible choices and likely results. But it is a joyful task because it turns my mind to the lambs-to-be that will be created based on my decisions.

We are blessed to own our senior ram, Nicholai, who has fantastic heat and parasite resistance, and passes it on to his offspring. He has not needed any worming for two years now, which for this climate is extremely good.

magnificent fellow with huge curling horns and a gentlemanly temperament, he is the last son of the ewe Solee, who was in the very first group of Icelandic sheep ever to be imported to the United States.

Our finances are really scraping bottom again. Or perhaps I should say, "still." Ken's brother generously paid our overdue electric bill to help us out. My sister Donna---who runs her own small farm in northern Maine and really doesn't have any money to spare---sent some money too. I had intended to put that in my stash that I'm saving to finish paying for the two new ram lambs I'm purchasing this fall, but it ended up having to go to make the car payment instead.

We have just a couple days' worth of hay left, and we've been putting off buying groceries as long as we can. Even the cats, who have been raised on Iams brand cat food their entire lives, have now been switched to Friskies to save money.

So it was particularly welcome news today when a very nice couple who'd put a deposit on one of our ram lambs earlier this year came to pick him up today, and paid the remainder of his sale price. That money will help us buy groceries this week!

I've been very grateful that our lambs have sold so well this year, and that Icelandics command such high prices compared to many other breeds of sheep. My lambs generally sell for about $500-$600 each. Of course, some of the breeding stock I bring in from other states costs me in the $800-$1,000 range, so I'm not even charging top prices for my lambs.

I only have a few lambs left for sale now, and a few potential buyers still thinking about buying. If only the horses would sell this easily, I'd be all set!

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