So it's winter. I'm still hibernating, but it is time to start planning for the coming year.
This means figuring out when I want birds coming in, when to start hatching, cleaning out the barn to build the brooders, etc. We have a lot on our plate.
One of the tough decisions, is deciding which of our ewes doesn't make the cut and gets to leave the flock. This is where our wonderful mutton breakfast sausage comes from. But it's also hard to say goodbye.
In years past, the decision sometimes made itself: Shirley and Alice were getting very old and were ready to retire. Velma and Gertude only dropped single lambs and were PAINS in the BUTTS! Always jumping fences and getting into trouble! Trouble, though a sweetheart to me, often would violently butt Shannon. Some were bad mamas, always abandoning their ewes, some just skipped breeding seasons.
I have metrics that help me determine who gets to go, but this year I am really struggling. The engineer in me says "let's look at the data!"
This is a chart I manage for my flock, it shows all my current mamas, plus Shirley, who is my guide stick for the best ewe we ever had.
They go in age, with oldest to the left, and youngest to the right.
This shows basically their actual production (blue) and their potential production (red). It's based on lamb weight, and the weight is normalized to their age. A 6 month lamb should weigh less than a 9 month lamb, so they are given credit here. The ewes with blue bars - the blue is the normalized lamb weight they have already given to the farm. The red is the potential they have left - based on their past performance and the amount of time they have left to hit the same age Shirley was when we said goodbye. The ladies with all red are my youngest ewes who have either not produced yet, or have, but their lambs have not gone to the processor, so we don't have weight data. Until they have their own data, their red is calculated from the flock average.
As you can see, some of my mamas have the potential to be even better than Shirley. We have Peppermint Patty, Sharon, Dancer and Persephone as front runners to beat out Shirley (all but Dancer are actually related to Shirley herself, with Patty and Sharon being daughters, and Persephone being a grand daughter).
Then you can see the low performing ladies - Angel, Frigg and Hattie. Some of the other gals are too young and deserve at least a second round. They typically only have singles their first time, and they don't grow as big. Mom gets better at producing milk as she gets older, and a higher likelihood of having twins after her first time.
So here is my struggle. Angel and Hattie are the SWEETEST ewes. They are easy to handle, good mothers, they just tend to produce singles, and not very big babies.
Then, for the rock stars I previously listed - 2 of them have had mastitis, one lost an udder from it, one of them has now abandoned one of her twins two lambings in a row, and the fourth had her last lambs with issues at birth where they could not hold up their heads - something possibly genetic.
So if my decision is based purely on production - I may be saying goodbye to Angel or Hattie, who are absolute sweethearts that I just adore. If I make my decision based on behavioral issues - I may be turning away some of my best producers, but producers with issues like mastitis or abandonment. In the years past, my cull decisions were always fairly obvious to me. It didn't take a lot of mulling about - that's not to say it wasn't easy. Trouble was also a very sweet ewe - but she hurt MY little lamb and that was not OK. I hated to see her go. And in other cases, the lack of production was coupled by either behavior issues - like troublesome sheep who caused a lot of issues on the farm, or abandonment of their lambs. One or two ewes have always had a reason to be on the cull list. This time it's mixed. If this was a purely business decision - based on metrics and math, Angel would go. She's the oldest of the least productive bunch, so she doesn't have very many years left anyhow. But my gosh she is just SO DARN NICE! If abandonment was my issue, Dancer would be on the block. But she is so very productive!
I told myself that if Patty had twins, and lost an udder and couldn't support them both, that she would be next. She did lose an udder, but she only had a single. She can't support him well, either, and he is 50% on her 50% on the bottle. Should she be next? I like her too, and she's super productive, but if she does have twins next time, I will likely have 2 bottle babies on my hands. So maybe Patty is next. I am at the point now where almost all my ewes were born here on the farm. I have an attachment to them all, I know their mothers, I've been with them their entire life. it gets harder and harder to make the cull decision.
Of course, you may ask why I would cull at all. I've said this before and I will say it again. Animals passing away peacefully in their sleep is a fantasy. Rarely any critter has a quiet, peaceful death. They usually end up sick or injured at the end, and they suffer. I would LOVE to let all my animals retire, and live until a ripe old age and pass away peacefully. But that's not what happens. I do feel that it is better for them to have a quick and controlled passing, one where they do not have to suffer. And then to honor them even MORE by having their bodies become food to nourish someone else - instead of rotting in a hole in the ground (OK, I guess that becomes food for worms, but you get the point). They don't have to die for no reason and they never have to suffer.
That doesn't make my cull decision any easier on me, though! Even after writing all of this out, I still don't know who we will say goodbye to, who we will have move over to make way for a younger ewe to take her place on the farm.