Raising Sheep Is Our Business
HAVE you ever worn a woolen garment or bought a skein of wool? Did you ever stop to think where the wool came from? Or what is involved in raising the sheep who supply your wool? Maybe we can help you. Why? Because, with my wife, Barbara, I run a sheep farm way down in the South Island of New Zealand.
Sheep are interesting creatures—docile, timid, and often plain stupid. And yet I remember one ewe who controlled her lambs better than any other mother in the flock. Others would lose track of their little ones, but not this ewe. What was special about her? She was blind. But she compensated for her blindness with her acute senses of smell and hearing. She knew exactly where to find her lambs. It was a joy to watch them suckling, their tails wagging as if about to drop off!
I have lived with sheep most of my life here in the South Island. My father has been a sheep farmer for 60 years. Now why do I say “sheep farmer” and not “shepherd”? The popular concept of a shepherd is that of a person who tends a migrant flock of sheep. In our case, we have sheep farms. Our sheep are tended on a fixed piece of land and just moved from one field, or paddock, to another. Instead of dozens or hundreds of sheep, we have thousands. And yet, by New Zealand standards, ours is a small farm. Nevertheless, our work is on an industrial scale. So what does it entail to raise so many sheep?
Multiply and Be Many
Whereas some sheep farmers breed just for the meat, we breed for the wool as well as the meat. Visitors are often surprised to find that New Zealand has some 70 million sheep, mainly from 19 different breeds. Sheep are not native to our country but were introduced from other lands. The big merino sheep, originally from Extremadura, Spain, and the Romney, Leicester, and other English breeds were usually brought in via Australia.
Our sheep are Romney, tending to be tall and big bodied, giving good wool. But getting to that final product involves a lot of hard work and planning. First of all, we have to raise a productive flock, and that means good breeding stock. I buy quality rams each year to bring my total to about 35, and in April they are sent out to inseminate, or tup, as we say, the ewes. Over a period of three weeks, the rams will have tupped anywhere from 60 to 80 ewes each. Lambing time is in September, and that is the period that Barbara and I enjoy the most. But how do we keep ourselves busy until September?
Here in the Southern Hemisphere, our winter is from May onward. The pasture growth then is not good, so we have to take feed out to the flock. And I say “we” because Barbara is kept busy helping me. We divide our fields, or paddocks, with electrified wire into blocks of about one and a half acres [half a ha] each. Just setting up the electric fences is a big job in itself. Now why do we need to do this? Because the sheep are going to have to be moved each day from one block of pasture to another, and we have to cart the hay and other feed out to them. “Other feed” can mean barley and nuts, especially just prior to lambing when the ewes need extra nourishment. We also feed swedes (rutabagas) to the hoggets, year-old sheep. And where do we get the swedes? We have to grow them, which means we are also into agriculture, not just sheep farming. But let’s get back to the happy work, the lambing.
Acting as Midwives
Come September, Barbara and I are running around the pastures on our motorbikes. No, this is not a race. It’s our means of transport for getting to all the ewes giving birth. We try to visit the ewes about to give birth four or five times a day in order to assist any having difficulty. Most give birth without any complications, but we still have to mark the twin lambs so that if one gets mislaid, we can put it back with its twin.
Some of the ewes have a hard time, and that is where the motorbikes mean swift aid when needed. For example, if a lamb is coming out headfirst without the feet protruding, it could get choked. Then, we move in as midwives and help nature to take its proper course. For anyone not used to it, it can seem a messy business, but to us, witnessing new life coming forth is a yearly miracle.
Most ewes give birth to twins. Eventually we put a colored ear tag on about 500 female lambs that are kept for breeding. This distinguishes their age. After three or four months, the males and the surplus females are sent to the freezer factory for meat. By the way, we have special terminology to distinguish ages. A one-year-old sheep is called a hogget and a two-year-old is called a two-tooth. You see, sheep grow only eight teeth, two per year. When a ewe is a two-tooth, she is ready to breed.
Let’s not forget the main reason we are raising all these sheep—for their valuable coats, their wool—which brings us to an intensive period of really hard work.
Sharing the Shearing
Although a good shearer can turn out about 300 to 400 sheep in a day, I’m not in the same league. My average is about 150 a day. Most of the sheep are sheared once a year, but some get done twice a year, as hoggets in October and as two-tooths in March. To make shearing later a little easier, we dock the lambs’ tails, which helps to keep their rear end clean.
In the old days, shearing was done with blades or shears. Today we have electric clippers, but the job is still strenuous and demands specialized skills. Depending on how you hold the sheep, your job can be easier or harder. I hire shearers who are paid according to the number they do each day. Usually we get from 10 to 12 pounds [4.5 to 5.5 kg] of wool from each ewe.
The next job is preparing the wool for shipment to the wool merchants. We have to pack it tight in bales that weigh about 400 pounds [180 kg] each. But how do we guarantee good quality wool? There is another phase of our work that is essential to getting good wool.
Taking a Dip
Sheep pick up ticks or lice from one another, and these parasites cause them to itch. The next thing you know, the sheep are spending their time rubbing themselves against fences instead of eating. So they lose weight and spoil their wool. How do we counteract this? We dip them into a chemical bath once a year. This too is a period of intensive work, as a foreign visitor to my farm noticed. This is how he described it.
A City Man’s Viewpoint
“When I arrived at the scene, the dipping had been in full swing for several hours. What I first saw with my untrained city eyes was a scene of pandemonium. Men were shouting; dogs were barking. Some sheep were coughing; others were panting. Dogs were literally jumping across the backs of the frightened sheep in order to head to the front of the group to break up a bottleneck. Soon I saw the logic behind what was going on.
“Hundreds of sheep were in holding paddocks, waiting their turn to be guided, about a dozen at a time, into a narrow chute area. There one of the sheep farmers was waiting beside a small pool of a chemical mixture that was shielded from the sheep’s view by loose sacking. As soon as each animal reached the waiting man, he pushed it unceremoniously with his knees through the sacking and, splosh! into the murky liquid. The animal’s first reaction was to try to get out, and it started to swim toward the narrow exit. On each side, however, were other farmhands waiting with long poles to push the sheep under the dip and thus make sure that all the wool, from head to toe, got soaked. As the animals climbed up and out of the filthy mix, they coughed and spluttered and shook themselves vigorously, sending spray into the air. When some were ready for release from the exit pen, they were allowed to return to the field, which most seemed to do with relief and alacrity!”
The Fight Against Ticks and Worms
It is interesting for me to hear an outsider’s description of what we do. You might wonder what chemical solution we use in the dip. It is called Grenade, and its active ingredient is Pyrethroid, with 5 percent Cyhalothrin, which kills the ticks or lice. These parasites are not the only natural enemy that sheep have. They also get intestinal and lung worms, which means we have to drench the sheep on a regular basis. This involves bringing the sheep home to the yards. We put them into a narrow race, about four feet wide [1.2 m], that holds some 50 sheep. Then they are drenched by forcing down their gullets a chemical mixture that kills off the worms. We wear a backpack containing the liquid and use a tube and nozzle to squirt it down their throats. At times we also have to administer penicillin to act against blood poisoning.
Do our sheep ever get foot-and-mouth disease? No, thanks to the stringent controls by the immigration and agricultural authorities at New Zealand’s ports and airports. Many foreigners are disconcerted when they arrive at our airports and find that the plane cabin must be sprayed before they can get off. But that is one reason we do not have some of the diseases here that afflict animals in other countries.
The Indispensable Dogs
My story would not be complete without some reference to our sheepdogs. We have half a dozen at our farm and use two kinds of mixed-breed dogs that have collie in them. We have what we call the huntaway, or barking, dog. They will bark and maneuver the sheep by running across their backs to get to a strategic position. The other type is what we call an eyedog, or heading dog. It will go right up to a sheep and look it in the eye, intimidating by looking rather than by barking. There is no way we could do our work without these faithful animals. They will work until they drop from exhaustion.
That, briefly, is a rundown on our life here in Mossburn, New Zealand, caring for sheep. So the next time you buy a nice woolen garment, spare a thought for the sheep farmers around the world who have carefully nurtured the animals that provided that wool.—As told by Bruce Cournane.
[Picture on page 16]
Nineteen different breeds on display at Agrodome, Rotorua
Agrodome Rams on Stage
[Pictures on page 18]
Above: Sheep going into the dip
Bottom right: Sheep shearing is a backbreaking job