It’s a good possibility that when you hear “flip a sheep” you conjure up an image similar to cow-tipping. In fact, flipping sheep is a relatively peaceful animal husbandry practice that allows sheep to remain calm while being sheared, getting his teeth checked out, or getting his hooves trimmed. I say “relatively” because in my experience, sheep are rather frantic animals. It probably doesn’t help that I’m not a sheep whisperer.
In any case, once you successfully flip the sheep, it really is entirely peaceful. There is something about a sheep sitting on his behind that makes him go almost into a trance. They stop resisting your presence and really just chill out (remarkable!). This allows for quick, safe practices such as the ones listed above to be carried out without much hassle to either party.
Shearing sheep not only allows the wool to be used for socks and mittens, but it also helps keep a sheep cool & clean. Sheep can also go wool blind, which means the wool grows so long around their eyes that they have trouble seeing, and this affects their ability to properly find and graze grasses.
Just like cutting your own finger and toe nails, hoof trimming is important for overall foot health. While you are trimming, you also dig out the mud and dirt in their hooves to make sure they are dry and do not get infected. Just like humans, the longer the hoof, the more dirt you can hide up there! If a sheep’s hooves get too long, they will cause sore feet and sheep will not walk on them properly, leading to bigger problems.
Don’t be alarmed! Sheep do not have top front teeth. More on that at another time…
Checking teeth is important in any livestock or domesticated animal. Since they don’t brush twice a day, its a lot easier for things to go wrong. Checking teeth can tell you the age of the sheep (like seeing baby teeth, or how many adult teeth have come in so far, or how worn down they are can signify elderly sheep). Some sheep are also born with strong overbites (parrot-mouth) or underbites (Monkey-Mouthed). This affects their ability to chew properly and can mean it is harder for them to get the proper nutrition they need. If a sheep has particularly bad mouth structure, you will not breed them to avoid passing it on to the offspring. Similarly, if a sheep has gotten to the point that they have bad mouth health, it may be time to send them to market before their sore mouths become a great discomfort, or worse, the sheep begins to go hungry instead of chewing on sore teeth.
So, now that we know 3 main reasons for flipping sheep, how is it done?! First, you have to catch the sheep you want to flip. Sheep are EXTREMELY gregarious and do not like to be separated from their flock, so this is often one of the more challenging aspects. It is helpful to catch the sheep firmly around the stomach and around the chest (to keep it from running forward). There are a few different techniques, but for little people like me, this is one of the easiest:
Step 1: Catch your sheep.If right-handed, Stand on it’s left side with its head to your left
Step 2: Wrap your left hand gently but firmly around the muzzle and push its head to it’s right hip (don’t worry, their necks are very flexible and they can naturally touch their nose to their hindquarters)
Step 3: Reach your right hand around the sheeps back and reach for its front left leg (you will really have to wrap yourself around him to do this).
Step 4: Pull it’s left leg towards its right one to get it off balance, and guide it into the “sitting” position. Slightly recline him so that his back rests against your legs and waist.
Step 5: Remember to do all of this in one fluid motion or the sheep will run away laughing at your clumsy antics.
Hurray! Now that he is contently daydreaming, you can reach around to his hooves/teeth/whole body to get your chores done! If you are effecient, you can shear, trim, and check teeth in under 3-4 minutes! To return the sheep to his flock, simply push him forward a bit, you’ll be amazed how he jumps to life and leaves you in the dust for his buddies.
This professor demonstrates how to flip a sheep in slow motion. Notice that she stresses doing it faster and not dallying…you could get kicked if they try to outwit you. Also notice how he just sits there like a bump on a log once he’s successfully flipped. If only they could be so nonchalant all the time…
Spring of my sophomore year at VT I began one of the first courses for my major: the Introduction to Animal and Poultry Sciences course & lab. This course is designed to discuss basic principles and terms involved with animal husbandry of beef cattle, swine, sheep, poultry, and horses.
The terminology was the area I felt most disadvantaged. Who knew there were 4 genders, and none of the 4 includes “male” and “female”? Of course I had heard of pigs. They were pink with curly tails and adorable smushed up snouts. They said “oink”. You could have boy and girl pigs. It was simple, right? Wrong. Pigs are the young ones, and there are no “piglets”, except in Winnie the Pooh. Hogs are adults. “Swine” encompasses the entire species. Sows are the sexually mature females, usually mothers. Boars were the sexually mature males. Gilts were young females, and barrows were castrated males (G for girl, B for boy is how I remembered it). Each species of animal has their own set of 4 gender descriptions. I might have heard the word boar before, and been able to tell you it was the male, but I certainly wasn’t going to tell you if it had testicles or not…it wasn’t my business to look! Compared to the farm kids, my head was spinning just trying to keep them all straight, let alone how the feed rations and weight goals were different for each group.
I also had no clue about what the animals are fed. Straw right? Anything in a big round bale or a small square bale was the interchangable: Straw = hay. “Hay is for horses”, so then was straw. It all was the stuff you could put in your scarecrows, long pieces of dried up grass…or something like that. Man, did I get laughed at for that idea. Straw wasn’t really edible, it was a source of bedding. Feeding straw would be like feeding a hamster wood shavings.
And I thought the Southern accents were the language barrier.
This is my first blog. All the information below will also be on the “About” page for easy reference for those who may join this blog later, but to get things rolling, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to also use it as my first post. I welcome any comments, feedback, or questions from anyone (beef/ag side or average grocery store Joe). This is a learning process, and there’s no reason you can’t learn with me.
I grew up in cities from North Carolina all the way to Asia, and although I believe I’ve become very well-rounded and culturally sound, I had never really interacted with farm animals or farmers until I began college at Virginia Tech as an Animal & Poultry Sciences Major.
I thought I would become a vet for small animals. Little did I know what I would learn, or the love I’d find for the lifestyle, practices, people and animals involved in food production.
I have always been an animal lover. When I was 2, I asked my mom for my first pet. I wanted a “baby cow”. My mother was baffled. “Why not a kitten or a puppy, Valerie?” “Because Mama, they are all alone in the rain and no one takes care of them to bring them inside”. Since we moved a lot when I was little, I was never allowed to have real pets. So instead, I collected snails after it rained and named them all. I saved turtles from the middle of the road. I would send half of my 50¢/month allowance to the Save the Tiger Foundation. I have always been dead set on taking care of every animal I’ve ever come across, even the worms.
So you can imagine my family’s surprise when I came home one semester and announced that not only did I no longer wish to be a veterinarian, but I wanted to work with the animals that were raised to be killed; to be put on my plate. (At this point in time, I didn’t even eat pork products, because after seeing the movie Babe, I didn’t want to eat a piglet. EVER).
But I had come to realize something. Well, a lot of somethings. There was nothing ill-willed about raising animals for food. In fact, everyone I’ve met who is involved in raising livestock is completely dedicated to their animals. The “blood and guts” part of animal science- sickness, disease, slaughter: all of that was no surprise. I had been dissecting roadkill with long sticks for years trying to figure out how everything worked. While it was a big change to think of Bessie the Cow as my hamburger, that part was far less of an adjustment for my mind to wrap around. It is the people that really strike me. Even more than that, it’s the lifestyle. It is the realization that bringing up animals you know will become a meal for someone does not mean you are heartless, or even indifferent to the animal’s well-being. It is the knowledge that animal practices are done for scientific reason instead of cutting financial corners.
People seem to think that the more you find out about your food source, the more disgusted you will become. It seems that recently everything I hear on the news or from people in coffee shops is how horrible farmers are to their animals, or how unhappy and unhealthy farm animals are in their living conditions. That farmers and large cooperations are just pumping animals, milk products, and meat full of drugs and hormones to make a quick buck. Well, let me tell you something: There is no quick buck to be made in farming. These people are not outside every day to make money, or to poison your food. It is so much more than that.
In this blog, I will attempt to share an “outsider-going-insider” insight to the many fascinating aspects of raising our food in America today. It will be a compilation of known facts as well as my thoughts, pictures, observations, and questions. Agriculture and animal husbandry are not perfect practices. But there are so many things about it that even I was completely oblivious to until 3 years ago. I am not an expert. I come from good ol’ rich Suburbia, with our nice cars and manicured lawns. I have no financial incentive for changing people’s minds about how they view Agriculture. I just simply have fallen in love with it all. So if you don’t believe what you hear from someone who does make a living off this stuff, maybe you’ll take it from me. Because I’m leaving my cushy lifestyle and big-money-making career goals to fight my way into this industry. I’m looking for jobs on those dreaded feedlots. My animal-loving, fluffy-hearted self could not dream of a better life than raising cattle and being outside in some of the most beautiful landscapes on this Earth, providing a great food option for people worldwide.
So let’s look at food production in a different way. Not through a cowboy’s eyes, who couldn’t think of it any other way, but instead… “farm” the start.