Thursday, May 11, 2006

Growing the sheep enterprise

It’s springtime and the grass is growing. We got some rain this week, first time in quite a long while.

While most of the country gets a spring flush where rain is abundant and the grass grows like crazy, spring here is a crap shoot, but many years is marked with drought.

We are just South of the normal West to East weather systems that the largest part of the country gets.

Here rain is reliable only in the summer when things heat up enough to give us our typical afternoon convection thunderstorm. That starts about June and ends about October or November. Then we get a LOT of rain.

Typically things are clear at dawn, temperature already over 80 degrees, humidity high. The sun heats the air over the land more quickly than over the water, we are on a peninsula a little over 100 miles wide. This warmed air rises up drawing in cooler even moister air from over the ocean. This process continues and builds on itself. By noon puffy popcorn clouds appear everywhere, by two or three they become big cumulous clouds and by five or six have developed into huge thunderheads that cut loose with heavy rain, often over an inch in about half an hour. The evening is steamy and the whole deal starts again the next day.

I have about 30 acres of very good pasture. I have about 20 adult sheep plus lambs being born now. I have two heifers, one about to calf in the next month of so, one open. I have one geriatric mare.

At this stocking rate I can pasture all the livestock, fill my barn with hay, and still spend a good part of the summer clipping pastures just to keep them from getting rank and overgrown.

I’ve been talking to some friends who also raise sheep. Unlike me, they are overstocked. I was up there (about 50 miles north of me) last evening. They have about the same amount of land as I do, but they did their lambing in January and now have over two hundred head of various sizes on their place. They have no grass at all and are still feeding hay, hay they have to buy.

This gives me an opportunity to buy some good production-breeding ewes at prices that are not often seen in a positive market like we have now. I’m buying 20 of these ewes.

Then we made an interesting side deal. I’ll explain the deal but I need to give some background.

You see everyone knows you can’t raise sheep in Florida. Just as the county agent, pick a county, any county, they will tell you pretty much the same thing. It is not true of course, but it is true that very few people do it.

Four or five hundred years ago the Spanish brought sheep here. They were the sort of sheep commonly raised in Spain at the time, closely related to the Tunis breed of today.

Some of them got loose and went native. Most did not survive, but those that did became very well adapted to the climate. They tolerate the heat and humidity of course, but their main claim to fame is that they are resistant to/ tolerant of parasites. They are now called the Florida Native, sometimes the Gulf Coast Native breed.

For many years the University of Florida Ag school had a flock of these sheep. They did studies on them, and at one point had not wormed any of them for thirty odd years.

Aside from the flock at the university, only a very few “pioneer” flocks exist. The breed is very rare. They are smaller and less prolific than the commercial breeds that are commonly raised. Agribusiness has no interest in them.

Well sometime last year the University decided to get rid of their Florida Native flock. Instead of selling them to any of the few sheep producers here in Florida, they just destroyed them, sent them to a sale up in Georgia is what I heard. I guess they couldn’t figure out how to patent the genes and get a zillion dollar grant from Monsanto or whoever.

One of the only other pioneer flocks belonged to a man named Jim Wing. His sheep were descended from the flock his grandfather had raised. There was little or no outside blood brought in during all that time. Jim was very old and sick, and last spring he died.

Most of his flock was then sold to the same folks I’m buying the new ewes from. They want very much to keep them, but of course they don’t have enough grass to do everything they want to do.

I told you I would explain the side deal, you were wrong to doubt me, but I appreciate your patience.

I’m going to take a dozen or so of these ewes over here and when the time comes breed them to a non-related Florida Native ram they also have. It’s a share crop deal, I keep the ewe lambs, and they get the ram lambs.

So this summer instead of running twenty head on the place (last years number), I’ll run seventy some odd, including the lambs.

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