Becoming a shepherd….

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Appletree Farm is a small farm in the Willamette Valley in the heart of wine country. Our animals graze about 7 acres of pasture, that is slowly being improved but that is definitely far from being optimal as I am writing this post.

Our barn is also in constant stages of being developed. We have 2 larger stalls where our sheep spend the bulk of their time when they are at the barn, and 3 smaller stalls that I like to use for lambing, to isolate animals for heath reasons, feed a few sheep more if needed and other similar reasons.

All of the stalls open up on a grassy area that is small, and fully fenced in. That is where I bring in all the ewes and lambs at night time.

We supplement good quality local hay, Eastern Oregon Orchard grass and alfalfa for about 1 month before and a couple of months after lambing. The dams get a bit of grain to keep them socialized, to move them around and to condition them if needed.

The perimeter of the farm is fully fenced with an electric line running along the fencing. We practice intensive grazing, which means that we move our groups of sheep with portable fencing (that attaches to the main electric fencing) on small parcels. The idea is that the sheep eat it all, whatever they don’t eat we mow down, then we move them to another area and let the previous area grow again. Of course this system has its limitations as well because we do not irrigate, which means that at some point we run out of grass!

The goal within the next couple of years, as we keep improving pastures, is to mostly grass-feed, for as many months as possible. I really feel that a worthwhile investment that will give back a lot is PASTURE IMPROVEMENT.

I keep a really clean barn as it is small and not optimally ventilated. I muck daily and freshen things up daily. 1/2 of the barn has a packed dirt floor (which I adore) and 1/2 has a cement floor (which I like less). From roughly May (when it starts drying up) to roughly end of October (when it starts getting wet), I do not put any bedding down on the dirt floor. I simply rake it daily and when the animals come in at night they lay on packed dirt. It works wonders to keep their fleeces free of vegetable matter. The rest of the year I use hay that I get from farmers. It is usually hay from the past year and I can get it for $5 per bayle. It is the most economical way I have found to get bedding.

My feeders sit on the ground. They are square wooden boxes with a screen on top to hold the hay, orchard grass or alfalfa down. This way the sheep pull at it like they would pull and eat grass in the field. It makes for very limited waste and mess. I do not recommend feeders on the wall at all with longwool sheep (they will pull everything down on themselves and the other sheep).

I keep the sheep watered with buckets that I diligently keep filled and fresh throughout the day (sometimes 3 times a day). I have found that sheep like clean water.

The goal within a year is to build a large covered area off of our barn to increase the covered space in the barn/corral area whilst keeping the sheep outside.

The wethers and rams are kept outside all year round unless there is inclement weather. I bring them in for shearing and for inoculations/deworming and a few other reasons. They have a sheltered area and they live in a pasture. I recommend a pasture with real, solid fencing (versus portable fencing) for the rams. I have definitely found them outside the electric portable fencing and it can be dangerous especially if you have kids around.

We have a large hoop house that we use to grow produce (2/3 of it) and to raise sheep (1/3 of it). The lambs that are raised for meat live there from roughly June though November-December. The rest of the time I use it as needed. It is a nice covered temperate extra area.

I’d say one of the challenges of raising sheep for wool is to keep their fleeces clean, which will in turn pay back: customers like clean fleeces. The fleeces we harvest in the Fall are by far our nicest fleeces as the animals have been out on pasture all summer and when they come back to the barn they are on a dirt floor, hence there is very limited amount of vegetable matter. One thing to keep an eye on in the pasture is seeds. It is amazing how seeds will get into longwool and make a mess of it all within hours!

Note: Gotlands cannot be blanketed so I pay extra attention to the quality of the fiber throughout the seasons.

I’d say another challenge that I am taking on in raising sheep is to do it in a way that is somewhat sustainable. I am not in the business of hording sheep. I am careful with my numbers. I try and keep the best animals to provide the best Gotlands to shepherds and the best fleeces to fiber artists. These Gotlands are phenomenal animals in the sense that they are a no waste breed. They provide beautiful wool, excellent meat and amazing pelts. They are perfectly suited for the family homestead, the small working-breeding farm and even the large producers. They might represent an investment at first but with careful planning, organizing and care they give it back.

Here is the perspective of one shepherd in the Willamette Valley. This is all from my experience, that I do not consider “one and only”, just one perspective, one way of doing things. Hopefully you can glean a few ideas from it.

Thank you for reading and happy shepherding!