Shetland Sheep: Rich in History, Rich in Textiles

Shetland Sheep: Rich in History, Rich in Textiles! Our farm mission is to enjoy and promote the wonderful diversity of the Shetland breed by fully utilizing to the best of our ability all they have to offer historically. We believe the best preservation and management of this breed includes it's full spectrum of history. We encourage old and new shepherds alike to join in the fun by engaging in fiber arts, especially spinning and knitting, as this breed is so intimately linked with those aspects of the arts.

Friday, September 28, 2012

General Wool Quality Cont. and market

A question came up about how to prevent so much chaff and vegetative matter from getting down to the skin line.  Preventing that is really daily management.  I know parasite experts would have a heart attack at this, but I never feed my sheep via feeders when feeding hay.  Sheep, like horses MUST have their bodies working in a certain way and there are reasons to this that are not so obvious.  As humans, we like to have our food neatly up and in it's own little place, but this actually creates problems for livestock.  We feed all of our hay on clean ground for horses, sheep and goats.  I move hay piles around to prevent excessive wear on the soil, to give options of 'feeding stations' (so that they can decide who they want to eat with or change their minds if they want), and I feed indoors if it's really muddy.  If the sheep are circled around a pile of hay, they look like spokes on a wheel.  That's exactly what you want because sheep on pasture will lift their heads and look around while eating to keep an eye out for predators or a stronger sheep.  They NEED to be able to do that.  If the sheep are around a pile of hay like spokes on a wheel, they can lift their heads and look around and the hay falls in the empty space between bodies.  Understanding this can be a tremendous tool for the shepherd who wants to raise high quality fleeces!  The worst thing you can do is bring the hay up off the ground, and force the sheep to eat in a lineup.  It's very unnatural, causes stress, and loads their fiber up with junk and matts.

Another tip is this, don't overfeed!  This is especially true with Shetlands, who carry the majority of their body weight low.  Shetland toplines are naturally bony, unlike a sheep raised with only meat in mind.  If you overfeed, all that little stuff in the hay falls in the bottom of the feeder and creates a disaster for sheep.  Sheep love to rub on things, so they rub on the feeders as they press into them to get the most hay.  Later, they rub on the feeders for a good scratch.  Sometimes they try to run through the feeders, but knock their knees and fall into the feeder.  All BAD for wool (and knees)!

To understand how to better avoid this, I took my watch out to pasture on several days and just watched how long the sheep grazed from the time I let them out, to the time they began loafing around, chewing cud, and lying down.  It typically runs somewhere between 1 to 2 hours for my flock.  Using that information, I now only feed enough hay to keep them busy for just 1--2 hours.  If you sneak a peak at them during this feeding time, things are peaceful and natural.  Sheep are taking mouthfuls, looking around, and gently changing places, just as they would if left to raise themselves.  This works great!  Why?  When I come back to check on them later, there is not a blade of hay left in sight anywhere.  They've very efficiently cleaned up every cent I paid for their meal.  Then, they lay down and contentedly chew cud.  Perfect.

Now, I have cleaner fleeces that have little or no exposure to neighborly mouthfuls or small bits of stuff getting pressed or rubbed into the wool.  There is nothing to trip through, get stuck in, or rub on.  I have efficient feeding with no waste.  I have happy sheep with cleaner fleeces.  Perfect!

Everyone has their own management style, and many different things can work great.  But if you want to raise high quality wool, you have to think about every movement the sheep make in a day that might threaten that wool.  You have to think about daily weather and ground conditions.  You have to think of vegetation in your pastures and be cautious who you buy hay from.  You also have to try mimicking natural conditions as much as possible.  It also helps to have tips on your fleeces.  Tips shed stuff, and act as a barrier to the hide. When the kids were shearing their meat lambs for fair this summer, it was easy to see how the blockier stapled fleeces were harder to keep clean.  Some sheep had skin conditions from the irritation and filth.  Others had sores from hard chaff rubbing on them.  The fleeces were very short, tangled, matted, filthy and ruined.  All of the sheep (that I saw) were fed in straight on feeders free choice hay (with waste laying in feeders and all over the ground).  Unfortunately, many of those sheep were also not healthy and came to fair in substandard condition...

Targeting high wool quality means viewing your sheep as a comprehensive animal.  Every part matters.  Every part counts.  Every day is a fleece growing day!  That's what we do, and while my fleeces are not 100% VM free, I do have very little to deal with.  I hope this answers some of those questions and that we are of some help!

Also, we are not at market this weekend due to special, different festivities that are held on this weekend each year.  It's going to be a beautiful autumn weekend with warm sun and colorful trees to enjoy!   Don't forget, you can always call or email if you know of yarn you'd like to get before we're back!   Hope you all have a wonderful autumn weekend and we'll see you next Saturday!

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