Saturday, July 11, 2009

Day Labor

Well, sort of. Today was the beginning of the beta test phase for the vineyard sheep. We're starting them in a small patch of the vineyard (four rows of the new 2009 vines) to see how they do and how best to use them. Use Them? That sounds terrible! I know, but really it's a win-win. They love weeds. I hate weeds. Grapes hate weeds. The sheep could care less where they are as long as they have something to eat. They might as well be in my vineyard.

These sheep are so funny to watch. You really only have limited options in how to direct them or get them to cooperate with you. Mainly, that involves, again, the food and the bucket. They will pretty much go in the same general direction as you, as long as you have the bucket and are shaking the feed in it. They startle easily though, and will go scattering off in all directions. They hate to be apart from each other so as soon as the perceived danger passes, they clump back into a big woolly blob again.

Greg went out to the vineyard this morning and made some final adjustments to the hot wire and came back to the house. I figured he could follow us and sort of push us along if things didn't go exactly according to plan when I let them out of the gate.
We fed Sophie and took her out of her pen on her leash, opened the main sheep enclosure gate, and I started shaking the hell out of that bucket. We walked as a group toward the pasture gate. I opened it, walked out and off we went. From the gate to the vineyard is about 400 feet or so, straight down the north fence line. Greg and Sophie brought up the rear and when one or more sheep stopped to eat on the way, he encouraged them forward. We all walked out to the vineyard, through the gap in the hot wire and down one of the vine rows. Once they were all in, Greg closed the gap, completing the circuit of the hot wire. I dumped the feed on the ground and stepped back. They swarmed the little pile of food and I scooted around them and stepped over the hot wire, which is about 12 inches off the ground. He has it pulled taut and it's definitely live.

Once the sheep finished their snack, they got to work eating the weeds (an overwhelming task at this point because we did not spray these four rows to kill the weeds when we sprayed the other 8 rows). They ate, and ate, and ate, and ate and then took a nap. Then they ate, and ate, and ate, and ate, and then took another nap. So it goes. They work when they want, and when they need a break, they just take one. I think these are Union sheep. When one flops down for a nap, they all do. It's hot today and I realized that there really isn't anything out there that provides them with shade so I took an 8 x 6 blue tarp and some bungee cords, and rigged up a nice shady tent for them, using the four posts of two adjacent H-braces on the north end of the vineyard.

Greg and I watched for a while to see which one of them tested out the hot wire first. My bet was on Cocoa. He has been the most inquisitive of the three lambs, and can't seem to keep from poking his nose into anything new that enters his environment. Like the other day with my tool belt. I had set it down on the ground and he immediately came over and checked out each pocket.

Anyway, it didn't take long for him to get pushed into the hot wire by the yearling wether I named Tebow. From the moment these sheep got here, Tebow has been head butting the lambs all over the place. He does it if they're in his way, or if they're trying to eat out of the same food pan, or just for the heck of it. He has a thing about ramming them. They just seem to take it in stride, like it's a normal thing. He does it to Jill too but she just turns around and knocks him right back, and I think she has at least 40 lbs on him at this point. She is a much more docile sheep but she is definitely at the top of the pecking order in this little flock.

Tebow knocked Cocoa into the hot wire and he actually went under it, and it zapped him. After a few moments of panic, he managed to leap over it back into the row, none the worse for the experience. Sheep hate to be singled out so once he was outside the hot wire, all he could think about was getting back in. The adult sheep seem to understand the hot wire already. It looks just like the hot wire at the farm they came from. The lambs apparently will need a few shocks before they figure it out. Later in the day, Tebow knocked Pancho into it and Pancho was touching two or three other sheep at the time so I think they all got a dose of it.

We are keeping Sophie tethered up there so she doesn't blunder into the hot wire. As long as she's there, the sheep should be safe. I don't think I will leave them unattended up there until we see how this is going to go. From what we've seen today, they will need to be out there a lot in order to gain control of the weed situation. Next year, we will start putting them in there a lot sooner and they should be able to keep things from getting out of hand.

There is one weed species that gets a very early start, and in fact it goes dormant but does not die over the winter, and then comes to life, even before all the snow has melted. It is the only green thing in the vineyard in March. Even the grass is still dormant at that point. The sheep should be able to clean those weeds up pretty quick so they don't become the problem they became this year. They started off as cute little dark green plants, and by the end of March had put out lovely white flowers that made the vineyard look like a postcard from Burgundy. Then, almost overnight, out came the seed pods. We did not deal with these particular weeds early enough so of course they got away from us and released their seeds. We'll be seeing them again next year as a result, but next year the sheep will be ready for them.

The other thing I will need to do is run the mower through the rows the sheep are currently working on, cutting the grass between the vine rows pretty short. I'll probably only have to do it this year because the sheep should be able to keep up with the weeds and the grass if I put them out there in late March or early April. I noticed that the lambs were focusing on the grass instead of the weeds, and I think by cutting the grass very short, they will look for more interesting things to eat in the vine rows. This is one great big experiment and some things will work and other things won't. We'll just have to try different things until we figure out how best to work with these sheep. You cannot make them do anything they don't want to do. If there is a sheep user's manual, that statement is on page one.

They seem pretty content to stay in there for now, and as long as there's something they want to eat, I shouldn't have any problem containing them with just the one strand of hot wire.

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