This summer seems to be riddled with questions. Or at least in my mind. I have been waiting to do assessments on the ram lambs for sale. It was only today that I realized that the oldest of them were now just four months old, the youngest ones three months.
This would normally be the time I would be weaning, but thinking we would be in Oregon in June I had decided to try weaning early this year. Actually, it seemed to make no difference in the development of the lambs. They all did just fine. The only problem is that I have had to wait to see who's developing into a better ram prospect, and who may have to go to the butcher.
Many, many shepherds have been talking about cutting back on the numbers in their flocks. I get the feeling that people are trying to cut back due to rising hay costs. Here in our part of Arizona, grass hay goes for $20.00 a bale plus tax. I have switched my sheep to mostly pelleted hay. It seemed more costly at first, but there is no waste and they pellets can't be blow about in the winds. I figured I lost 50% of the hay I fed last year due to stemmy grass, contamination of one sort or another, or the sheep just being picky and eating the best bits. They eat every single pellet put in from of them. And pellets don't get into fleeces like hay does. Win-win.
But the biggest question is wether or not to stay in the USDA Voluntary Scrapie Flock Certification program. The USDA has three divisions of tracking scrapie (a chronic wasting disease in sheep much the same as BSE in cattle). The first program is one in which every sheep in the US gets an ear tag or other identification mark, like a tattoo, that follows the sheep from birth to death. A slaughterhouse can track a sheep back to where it came from, or so the idea goes.
Next is the voluntary program to become certified scrapie-free. I joined this program when I got back into sheep. You had to be in this level to use artificial insemination on your ewes at that time. Since I joined this program, the rules have changed and now you need not be in this program to be able to use AI.
The third level is now called "Export" status. As one could guess, this is the toughest level with more intense government snoopervision. Producers at this level are allowed to ship sheep to other countries.
My conundrum comes in that the program I have been in now requires me to submit the head of any sheep I have die to the nearest USDA approved lab for assessment. Normally, I wouldn't have a problem in anyone trying to track down and stop this disease. However...the government would like me to cut the heads off my sheep (only IF they die, Folks) and send the head to their lab at my cost. At my cost... (My cost for the overnight shipping of the head as well as getting a vet to come remove the head if I choose not to do it myself)
Not only do I have a problem with submission of heads, but the thought of them wanting me to pay for the privilege isn't sitting well with me. A bigger conundrum is that in Feb. '09, I could be the first ever certified scrapie free flock in Arizona. Naturally, they would like me to stay in the program, siting that my having a "scrapie-free flock" is a marketing tool. The problem there is that I don't know of anyone who has had any success in using this as a marketing tool.
Normally, I am all for eradicating diseases. I allow the USDA inspectors free access to the sheep and records during their annual visits. But this head-removal is going a bit above and beyond in asking producers to submit to these measures - especially since we pay taxes to have these institutions do this themselves. Like everything else, funding is getting cut short and states are not able to pick up the burden. But should I be willing to let that burden be transferred onto me? Especially since any sheep entering the food chain is inspected and samples are taken at slaughterhouses to keep an eye on this disease. And I do understand that a disease can be harbored in a small flock, so it gets back to the funding of it, I suppose.
Adding to this was the delivery of a rather large box about 10 days ago. It was an empty box, only lined with a thermal retaining material and two empty plastic bags inside. Oh, yeah...the instructions for removing and shipping a sheep's head was also in there.
So, while my sheep have nothing to hide, I still find myself getting angry at the extent the small producer has to go through at this point, knowing full well that as soon as the government changes staffing down the line, this will all change all over again. Most other producers in the VSFCP are dropping back to the Mandatory level. And I may follow suit. I just can see where the benefit for my operation comes in.
...and we who keep Shetland sheep come to think of them more as pets with great fiber to spin. But I can also see both sides of the argument....now if these devils will just get off my shoulders and let me make a decision...