Monday, 31 August 2009

Observations: Sheep Move from Amphitheatre to Quail Paddock

On 27th August we decided it was time for the sheep to start moving into the Quail Paddock. There was still ample feed available but they’d been there since 19th August and we also felt it was time to give the plants recovery time prior to hot weather setting in. We opened the double gates in the south-east corner and left them to make their own way through. 6 mm of rain fell in the 24 hours to 9.00 am on 29th August. By mid afternoon on 29th August the mob had still not moved through the gates so we decided it was time to give them a helping hand. This blog post recounts various observations connected with and subsequent to the move.

Our approach in moving the mob (comprising ewes and lambs) was to take things slow and steady to ensure we did not place undue stress on any of the animals or leave lambs behind. For most of the way the ewes that had lambs stayed closely with their lambs. Smaller and weaker lambs took quite a while as they do like to sleep quite a bit. The older and stronger lambs (the first of the lambs were born on 12th August) seemed to have formed social groups of 10 to 20 and played together.

We’d noticed previously from a distance that one of the lambs seemed inordinately white. On close inspection we found that its coat was more hair than wool, presumably some type of reversion to the characteristics of a (possibly distant) ancestor. Another lamb has a black round marking of approximately 90 mm diameter on its back in between its shoulders.

In moving the mob we got to a point where a reasonable proportion of the ewes had entered the Quail Paddock and were spreading out, feeding enthusiastically on the fresh herbage mass in the paddock. Many had left their lambs behind, for the time being at least, and some of the lambs were running to and from the mineral trough located in the Amphitheatre Paddock - about 80 metres to the west of the gate we were trying to get them through. It was not clear whether they were going to the trough for minerals or for a drink of the water than had accumulated in the trough during the previous day’s rainfall. There were 4 ewes with very small lambs that were determined not to move with the mob, so a decision was taken to leave them and focus on getting all of the rest of the mob through the gate. The latter was due in no small part to the large number of ewes that had moved into the Quail Paddock and the large number of lambs that remained.

The rest of the move proved quite challenging due to several factors:
• Lambs had mobbed-up even more and were running enthusiastically in many directions
• Some of the lambs that had gone through the gate were running along on the other side of the fence – influencing those that had yet to go through the gate
• Some lambs were jumping through the hinge-joint fence – both ways
• Many continued to go back to the minerals troughs
• We suspect that some were trying to get back to the point were they had last seen their mothers, not understanding that those mothers were now in the Quail Paddock
• Our own lack of experience in herding lambs – they do not yet have behaviours as predictable as their mothers either.

It was dark by the time we had all of them (except the 4 ewes with lambs mentioned previously) through the gate. Chaos reigned supreme, with ewes looking for lambs and lambs looking for their mothers; all making plenty of noise. To assist in the reunion process we did go around all of the sheep and herd them back toward the gate where most of the lambs had congregated. Some of the lambs had lay down and gone to sleep, presumably to conserve energy. As there was nothing else we could do we returned home, and had a somewhat restless night wondering what the scene would be like in the morning.

On the morning of 30th August Phillip returned initially to the Amphitheatre Paddock and moved the 4 ewes with lambs individually into the Quail Paddock to rejoin the main mob. Fortunately none of these 4 ewes had lost any lambs that were with them the previous evening. During this process it became clear that one of the lambs Phillip had thought was a twin proved not to be – with the ewe pushing it away consistently, and tending to its own lamb. The rejected lamb continued to persistently try and drink from that ewe.

Whilst coming up over a rise in the Amphitheatre Paddock at one point Phillip disturbed a very large young Wedge-tailed Eagle. It was feeding on a recently dead or killed lamb carcass. The accompanying photograph shows the state of the carcass remains. There are many who are of the view that Wedge-tailed Eagles are aggressive takers of new lambs. We have no direct experience in this regard and at this point have chosen to think that they would focus on weaker animals that may not survive in any case. Interestingly, a Wikipedia article on Wedge tail Eagles states: “Their keen eyesight extends into the infrared and ultraviolet bands. This helps them spot prey and allows them to see rising thermals, which they can use to gain altitude while expending little energy.”
On approaching the main mob in the Quail Paddock it appeared that overnight all lambs had reunited with their mothers, and that there were no dead lambs or lambs on their own. Quite an achievement!

One ewe was dead, located against the northern fence near the entrance to the Spring Paddock but along the fence adjacent to the Arch Paddock. There was a big strong lamb attempting to suckle from it which ran away as the ewe was approached. On inspection of the ewe the following was evident:
• Proximity to (against it) the fence suggested that it may have been trying to get as far from the mob (separate due to illness) as possible or been trying to get into the Arch Paddock for something it wanted. NB: The plant species in the Quail Paddock are not that flash, being predominantly ‘weed’ species: Patterson’s Curse and Barley Grass. The Arch Paddock contains mainly native grasses and areas of exposed scorched earth (which may contain minerals). The Amphitheatre Paddock was far more diverse in species mix, being native grasses and many shrub and trees as well.
• It had been frothing at the mouth
• Skin colour was ‘poisonous looking’ (if there is such a thing), being pale, mauve, reddish through purple.
• The animal had been kicking its legs quite a bit whilst on its side prior to death
• The eye at the uppermost side of the head was clear and at that point had not been attacked by Ravens.
• Given that the animal had only come into the paddock the night before it looked as though it had died quite quickly.

The symptoms surrounding the death of the above sheep were materially different from the others that we’d lost since acquisition and were more alarming as it seemed the ailment might be evident in many others in the mob. Phillip contacted a neighbour and called around to borrow his two sheep disease publications: ‘Sheep Diseases’ by A Brightling published in 1988 and “Diseases of Livestock’ by T G Hungerford published in 1967. During discussions with this neighbour the following came to light:
• The neighbour Phillip saw and another adjacent one have both experienced unusually high ewe losses during this year’s lambing season.
• The main cause is thought to be magnesium deficiency in the pasture
• Older ewes are more susceptible to death when stressed than maiden ewes when lambing and raising lambs due to larger body weight, greater propensity for multiple births, and higher milk volume production – all placing more strain on the ewes when feed needs are not adequately met.
• Younger / maiden ewes, whilst arguably more susceptible to actually lambing difficulties, have more single lambs and have poorer mothering skills and instincts; meaning that they more readily abandon the lamb in the interest of self-preservation when under stress.

Jan studied the Sheep Diseases text with a particular emphasis on low magnesium caused ailments. This research suggested that the ewe probably died from Grass Tetany. The key symptoms and features connected with Grass Tetany are:
• Rapidly growing forage – we’d had 6 mm of rain which would have had a flushing impact on the green foliage in the Quail Paddock
• Animal under stress – the ewe was most likely separated from its lamb during the move and may have had extreme difficulty locating it
• Quick death
• Kicking legs
• Frothing at the mouth.

Fortunately the lick we have out for the ewes presently is designed to address magnesium and calcium deficiencies. A problem with licks, though, is that not all of the animals seek out and consume them.

Phillip is presently about half way through reading the book by Pat Coleby titled Natural Farming: A Practical Guide. This has made it very clear to us that the soils on our place on the arable paddocks (including the Quail Paddock) are really quite sick, evidenced by the high incidence of weed species, with deficiencies of both magnesium and calcium. All of the above suggests that we have a HUGE way to go in our endeavours to regenerate a large percentage of the soils on Ochre Arch.

The good news is that we think most of our ewes have in fact lambed, and the lambs do look healthy. Here is a photograph of just a few of the lambs.
Despite the fact that the lambs look good, we have decided to further increase the monitoring frequency of our mob of sheep.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Lambing Ewes – Observations So Far

The ewes we have currently on Ochre Arch began lambing in earnest on 12th August 2009, 11 days ago.

So far we have:

  • Lost 3 ewes prior to lambing, one in hindsight we may have been able to save by putting a splint on its broken leg.
  • Lost 2 ewes in the process of lambing. In both cases the lamb had died in the mother and the mother could not give birth. In one case we did came across the ewe before she died but could not get near her over a couple of days to help. With the other, the ewe died without us even knowing she was in trouble. The paddocks we have them lambing in provide excellent tree and shrub protection against the wind and rain, but a downside is that it is near-impossible to see all of the sheep in the mob.
  • Saved 2 ewes. In one case the lamb had died and was very difficult to ‘pull’, and in the other case the lamb lived, but curiously was the second of twins. Both twins lived as far as we know.
  • Picked up a very weak and apparently abandoned lamb, taking it home to poddy. Unfortunately it did not survive.
  • Observed probably about 15 or so lamb carcasses so far, with their deaths being for a variety or reasons. Most, if not all, we believe were either still-born or just not destined to survive.
  • Seen a mixture of single lambs through to in some cases triplets. At face value it looks like the overall lambing percentage and survival rates are pretty good. We won’t know the real story until lamb marking.
  • Observed Australian Ravens in amongst the mob. They seem focused on eating the after-birth and have ‘had a go’ at the lamb carcasses.
When the ewes are due to give birth they seem to deliberately distance themselves slightly on the perimeter of the mob. In the first paddock they were in (Poppy’s) those lambing were mostly on the highest elevation part of the paddock. While the new lambs are still ‘finding their feet’ for a day or two the recently lambed ewes do tend to be together, although spread out. Obviously, immediately after lambing the ewe and her lambs are less mobile and extreme care needs to be taken to try and not disturb them to ensure the mother does not abandon her lamb/s. Those that have not had lambs are both more densely mobbed and mobile, covering more area around the paddock. In the case of Poppy’s Paddock, they travelled to the lower sections and returned to the higher ground at night. Once the lambs have gathered strength after a couple of days they and their mothers rejoin the portion of the mob that has yet to lamb.

We’ve made minerals constantly available to the mob in two troughs. The mineral mix is an even (3-way) combination of ‘Medium Course Salt’ (Sodium Chloride), ‘Fine Limestone’ (calcium) and ‘Causmag’ (Magnesium Oxide). Some of the sheep are taking some minerals but the quantity being consumed is very low at present. We placed the troughs on the track (bare ground) just inside Poppy’s Paddock to begin with. In hindsight this was not the best place as we think it may have inhibited the sheep moving out of Poppy’s Paddock (see later).

After the sheep had been in Poppy’s Paddock for about 5 days we felt it would not hurt if they moved on voluntarily and progressively to the next (Amphitheatre) paddock. To avoid the risk of a rush through the gate with potential lamb abandonment we opened the gate when the mob were so far away from it that they did not see it occur. It transpired that none of the sheep either found the opened gate or went through it after 3 days. We ended up splitting the mob with as minimal disturbance as possible by walking through some thick timber that seemed to form a natural separation point. Once one half (vast majority were ewes yet to lamb or with more mature lambs at foot) of the sheep were in the next paddock we left them all alone. On return the next day we herded most of the balance through to be with the first lot. In doing so there were 4 or so lambs that looked as though they may have been abandoned. However we made the decision to leave them all just inside the ‘new’ paddock given we were confident their mothers were still alive and that it was possible those mothers would come back to get them. The next morning there were no abandoned lambs. It’s possible they were taken by predators, but who knows. It was on this next morning that we moved those few remaining ewes with new lambs to be in with the main mob. It was necessary to do this by individual ewe with accompanying lambs.

We don’t really know whether what’s occurring with rescues and losses and such like is good, bad, or otherwise. What we do know is that we are doing the best we can; balancing our desire to look closely at what’s occurring within the mob to identify problems early against the possible impact on lambs where the mothers might choose to abandon them in the event of being disturbed by our getting too close and looking.

Friday, 21 August 2009

History of our Earmarking Pliers

Earlier today we received our reconditioned sheep earmarking pliers in the mail from Hummelstad Earmarkers based at South Grafton. We decided to have this work done in readiness for lamb-marking – especially as the spring in the handle of the pliers was broken.

I rang Hummelstad Earmarkers to find out their account details so that I could pay the account and spoke to Tom; who happened to be the person who had done the work on the pliers. What follows is some of the information he passed on, which I thought was worth recording for future reference.

The process of reconditioning pliers entails:

  • Removing the centre pin from the two sections
  • Heating the metal to a temperature which removes the previous tempering (hardening)
  • Re-building and aligning the metal in the cutting section to a precision level where the pliers will cut paper (in the shape of the pliers)
  • Inserting (in our case) a new spring in the handle
  • Re-heating and tempering (hardening) the cutting section
  • Grinding and polishing the pliers

In reconditioning our pliers Tom noticed two specific aspects that caught his attention. Firstly, the initials ERH were stamped neatly and discretely near the inside of the hinge of the pliers. The initials were his great-grandfather’s, Eivan (pronounced Ivan) Raganvaldt Hummelstad. It was his practice to place his initials on all pliers he made, being very proud of his craftsmanship. Eivan emigrated to Australia from the Oslo region in Norway in approximately 1860 and in time established the Hummelstad Earmarkers business, which has remained in the family ever since. There is a region in Sweden known as Hummelstad, which may have been where the family first came from. Eivan died in approximately 1920, thus our pliers have to be at least 80 years old. Secondly, the pliers had “J P Cusack” prominently stamped on one of the handles. J P Cusack was the purchaser of the pliers at the time of manufacture. Mr Cusack was a farm produce merchant; a big man of Irish background who was a bully by nature. Eivan tolerated JP Cusack’s behaviour as he saw it as just a part of being in business.

What we don’t know is when, where and how my father originally came to own the pliers and thus where they may have been in the intervening period from the time J P Cusack first bought them from Eivan Hummelstad. Tom suggested that the volume of earmarking pliers sold to JP Cusack was such that they may have been owned by him for many years prior to purchase by the first person who started using them.

Hummelstad Earmarkers is currently owned and run by three brothers. In addition to making and servicing earmarking pliers they also manufacture brands: hot, freeze and oil based.

Monday, 17 August 2009

First Ewe Assisted in Lambing

Earlier today I received an email from a close relative who lives in Perth which read in part: “Glad to hear lambs are being dropped, have you had to deliver any as yet? I would like $10 for everyone I have back in the mid sixties.” My response read in part: “(Touch-wood) I’ve not had to deliver any lambs to this point. It may happen in time, but I think that the ewes are in just the right physical condition for lambing, coupled with the fact that, as I mentioned, this is their 4th time - with any that have not raised a lamb previously having been culled. We’ll see.”

Jan and I have been checking the lambing ewes regularly and, you guessed it, I spoke too soon in sending the above reply.

We saw a ewe not far from the mob but out on her own with the head of a lamb visibly protruding from her behind. She lay down and immediately a couple of Australian Ravens were focusing on her rear. Whilst we were quite a distance away it became clear that something was ‘just not right’ with the lambing process so we edged our way around to the other side of the paddock to were she was, trying to minimise the disturbance to the rest of the mob, most of which that were close to her were ewes with lambs at foot.

We ended up assisting in the birth, the process of which is termed locally ‘pulling the lamb’.

The main points / observations were:

  • It was not difficult for us to catch the ewe. She seemed quite prepared for us to come up to her slowly and only made a dash for it at the end. It was a relief that we caught her quickly as we don’t have dogs and wanted to minimse the disturbance.
  • The other ewes with lambs moved away, but not that far really, and watched from a safe distance.
  • It was immediately apparent that the lamb was dead. Its head and right foot were protruding and the Australian Ravens had inflicted some damage around the mouth area.
  • We lay the ewe on her side. It was much harder to pull the lamb than we’d expected.
  • On removal, the lamb was enormous. I think this was a factor of genetics as well as swelling from the ordeal.
  • The smell of the lamb was, shall we say, not pleasant.
  • Immediately post the removal the ewe lay there for several minutes, recovering from some level of shock I suspect. After that she stood up and wandered away gradually.
  • Only a few days ago my mother told me that my father had found rubber washing-up gloves very useful for assisting ewes with birthing. We were pleased to have heeded this advice given what we experienced.
  • Jan and I have agreed that we will replicate if need be what we did today. That is, I will ‘pull’ the lambs, and Jan will clean and disinfect the gloves.
  • I took the lamb away from the area and disposed of it in the adjacent paddock.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Keeping our Farming Business Simple

One of our goals is to keep our core agricultural activities as simple as possible. We define agriculture as the capture, packaging and marketing of sunlight/photosynthesis derived products. On Ochre Arch this is currently the business of growing grass which is directly accessed by livestock to produce progeny, meat or fibre.
To reduce the risk of stock poisoning we’ve been working on getting rid of the Oleander (Nerium oleander) shrubs just to the north of the cottage near where the original house. In this photograph you can see the results of a full day’s exertion, removing the branches and leaves.

An attempt was made to dig out the roots and base stems of one of the shrubs. To say this was a significant challenge would be a gross understatement as the base is akin to some species of Bamboo. In the digging process we uncovered the three bottles you can see in the following photograph.

The beer-bottle was manufactured in 1935, which lead us to think that maybe the Oleanders were planted then by the Bokeyar family. They purchased the farm at about that time.We then allowed the Oleanders to re-grow for a short period and applied a well-known Glyphosate based product; however before too long the re-growth was thicker than ever. Rather than hire or call in help in the form of a tractor or similar our latest approach has been to cover the remaining Oleander shrub with tarpaulin as you can see in this photograph. Eliminating solar energy flow to the leaves and reducing access to water should hopefully do the trick in at least killing the plants. In time it should also be easier to then remove the remaining stumps.

Over many years trees of various species have regenerated on the fence-lines. Whilst these do provide valuable habitat they also create additional cost and time wastage through damaging the fences. Examples include trees growing through the netting and around the wire, contact accelerates rusting, and branches and in time the trees themselves fall on the fence. Given that we are seeing and permitting tree regeneration in the paddocks themselves we’ve decided to progressively kill those trees that are on the actual fence-lines by either lopping or ring-barking. Here you can see one of the White Cypress Pine trees we’ve ring-barked.
What we found particularly curious about this tree was that it took in excess of 6 months before the tree showed any signs of being ring-barked. We’d expected the impact to be evident in just a few days.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Single Sheep Rejected by the Mob

On Friday 10th July we moved the sheep from the Valley Paddock to the Big Pine Paddock. Our approach is pretty standard now in that because the sheep are so good at mobbing-up we don’t bother going looking for strays. The Valley Paddock does, however, have a very dense thicket of White Cypress Pine; referred to by conservationists as an Invasive Native Species (INS) due to the prolific way in which it can regenerate in particular seasons and in response to fire.

On Monday 13th July we had some visitors and took them on a bit of a farm tour. Whilst showing them the sheep in the Big Pine Paddock we noticed a single sheep still in the Valley Paddock. This seemed most unusual given past experience. With sheep having very strong herding instincts, to the extent that they will fret on their own, we decided to move the single sheep from the Valley Paddock in with the rest of the mob. Whilst doing so we all noticed that the behaviour of this single animal was unusual: it tripped at one point, allowed me to walk right up behind it and touch its back, and when we had it in the Big Pine Paddock it seemed like it just didn’t want to be there and went over and lent against the fence and started shaking. Another observation was that it seemed to have a small amount of wool near the front of its left shoulder that had been pulled, and we assumed that a fox may have had a bit of a go at it.

In the interest of getting the animal settled as quickly as possible we went and herded the mob of sheep from where they were at the southern end of the paddock to where the single sheep now was. As the mob approached the single animal (that as little as 3 days ago was a part of the mob) none of the main mob would go within 3 metres of the single animal, with the sheep closest to the single animal standing around it in a circle and ‘baaing’ at it as if to say ‘stay well away from us’.

As luck would have it one of our visitors was our niece, Kim, who just happens to be studying Veterinary Science. She is in her 4th year of study, although she had not yet completed the sheep module which she was due to commence in the up-coming semester. We decided to catch the single sheep and see if there was anything else noticeably wrong with it. Given the earlier ‘tripping’ event Kim went through a process of checking the eyes, ears and mouth looking to see any discolouring which may indicate a neurological (nervous system) problem. All clear. It was then that we noticed on the left shoulder an abscess that had been filled with a yellow-green puss-like substance and had just burst. This was where the loose wool had appeared previously. Further inspection brought to light a similar / mirror abscess on the other shoulder. Kim drained this carefully using what we could find on hand from the medical kit we keep in the car – specifically a safety pin and some surgical scissors.

The accompanying photograph gives an insight into what the abscess looked like as part of Kim applying her surgical skills.

We left the sheep where it was and returned to the house as it was late and getting dark. Kim checked out a website used widely by Veterinarians and it seemed that the single sheep most likely had what’s commonly called ‘Cheesy Gland’. That being the case I decided it was best to return to the sheep the next day and kill it to eliminate further suffering and to protect the rest of the mob from potential further spreading of the disease. When I returned to the single sheep early on the morning of the 14th July nature had taken its own course and the animal had died overnight.

Subsequent to the above we have learned several more things. The local fellow who helped us with renovating the cottage was a shearer for 37 years and refers to the abscesses as ‘Yolk Boils’. They occur normally in sheep mobs at the frequency of roughly 1 in 1,000 and are pretty messy to have to deal with when shearing and (when not noticed) the hand-piece cuts through them. Under normal circumstances the sheep are left in with the mob and recover. Another local believes they can be a natural response to vaccinations, which makes sense given we’d vaccinated them not long before-hand. I also spoke with the local Veterinarian based out of the Lachlan Health and Pest Authority. She recommended that we closely monitor the rest of the mob and to let her know if there was any reoccurrence. So far so good! Another person we know commented that sheep tend to ‘separate’ from the mob for one of two reasons: when lambing, and when sick. This is quite natural, it seems.