Sheep earn their keep on a steep slope

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Lisa and John Finch of Guttenberg have been raising sheep on their property for the past 11 years as an eco-friendly way to keep invasive weeds, brush and small trees under control. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

Small-scale agricultural practices continue to grow in popularity in the United States. Raising sheep, with their small stature and gentle nature, makes them especially suitable for homesteaders. 

Lisa and John Finch of Guttenberg have been raising sheep on their property for the past 11 years. "My dad raised sheep when I was very young, and then switched to hogs and beef cattle. My sister continues to raise beef cattle on the family farm," said Lisa, who grew up on the family farm about four miles outside of Guttenberg. "I have always loved animals, but never thought I would be raising livestock. I was a member of 4-H, but never raised animals as projects or took them to the fair," she added. 

An eco-friendly way to keep invasive weeds, brush and small trees under control inspired the Finch’s to consider animal husbandry. "The idea was my husband John’s. He thought that the grazing sheep would do a good job keeping small trees and brush from growing up on the side of the hill overlooking Guttenberg. He was right! We no longer need to climb down the hill to cut new growth.  Sheep were chosen versus goats, as they are much easier to coral. Goats can be talented escape artists," she said with a smile. 

"We have enough space to over-winter six adults. This year we only have five ewes, but they have just finished lambing and all had twins, so we have 15 temporarily," she reported. 

The sheep's gentle nature and economic benefits are a plus for the urban farmers. "The sheep are John's hobby. Beyond their usefulness at keeping growth down, they are animals that are very sweet and easy to get along with," she said. 

"In the fall we keep enough ewe lambs to replace any older ones that we lost over the year, so that we stay at six adults. Others go to a local farmer in exchange for borrowing one of his rams and to expand his flock.  The ones that are left go to market. In this way the hobby comes pretty close to paying for itself," she explained 

The Finch’s created a safe space for the sheep to graze. "We have lots of fencing to divide different pasture areas. John built the majority of it, and it is made of woven wire, hog panels and boards," she commented.  

They house the sheep in protective shelters. "We have two small sheds for shelter and hay storage, with a solar or battery-powered light. One shelter is set up with two separate stalls for lambing. We have electric horse buckets for watering in the winter," she noted. 

The couple uses special tools for tagging the lamb's ears and docking their tails. She said, "We have a head bracket to hold them in place when we need to, and a shearing tool that looks like a big dog clipper. A local small-scale farmer taught John how to shear the sheep, which we do in May." She went on to say, "We also trim their hooves a bit at that time. Only the adults get sheared and trimmed. They all behave pretty well even though it’s probably not a lot of fun for them.  I save the wool to send to a woolen mill near Des Moines and have it made into yarn."

The hobby farmers rent a ram in the fall for breeding. "The rams are bigger and stronger than the ewes, and a bit more aggressive. When the ram is in the pasture I stay out. John and I have both been butted by a ram and I prefer to avoid the possibility." She further explained, "The ram stays with the ewes for about two months. The gestation period is five months. We keep the ewes that look like they will give birth first in the shed with the lambing stalls and rotate them between the two sheds as needed."

Colder temperatures can create problems for the flock. "Cold weather is the biggest challenge to lambing. We have had a couple of lambs that did not make it – even after being warmed up in the house. One had her ears froze off, and this winter we had two ewes and their lambs living in the garage next to the car during the bitter cold," she commented. 

Other problems can occur during the lambing process. Lisa told The Press, "John has had to pull large lambs that were stuck in the birth canal several times. Occasionally a ewe will reject a lamb for a variety of reasons, and then you are bottle feeding four times a day for a couple of months. I make sure we have lamb milk replacer on hand as we get close to lambing just in case. Most of the time the ewes and lambs seem to figure things out on their own, but we like to milk the ewes a little and feed the lambs with a syringe right away to make sure they get a first meal." She continued, "We keep the new families locked together for three or four days before letting them out with the rest of the flock. We tag ears, rubber band tails, and give vaccinations at about two weeks of age."

The flock's overall health is stable. "They have the occasional abscess, and we lost a lamb to worms once, because we didn't know to look for them. Once in a while a lamb is stepped on and gets a leg broken.  They get a cast when necessary and heal very quickly. Overall they have been healthy," said Lisa.

A simplistic feeding regime keeps the sheep well-fed. She described, "In the winter they eat hay and a little corn every day.  After the lambs are born, and the ewes are nursing, we increase the corn amount. Once the grass gets going that is all that they need. We do provide a rare treat of corn in the summer, so they keep the habit of following the corn bucket. It is very useful to have a way to lure them in any direction you need to. We usually have a mineral block available, and always fresh water of course. It is amazing how early the lambs start eating solids. Within the first week or two most of them will start nibbling at hay.” 

She concluded, “Between friends, relatives, and Youtube we have learned a lot and continue to learn more every year.”

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