My love for lambs and all they give started back when I was very young. Those first two sheep, aptly named Sweet and Heart, began my to date almost two decade love story with the wooly ones. Heart was named first because of a distinctive heart shape patch of darker wool on his shoulder and Sweet, well just had to be named Sweet. Heart, being a neutered male, was a companion for Sweet who would be the one to begin the foundation of my own flock. As the years went by and my flock grew, Sweet had a girl named Sugar, Sugar had Spice, Spice then had SpiceGirl and so on. The other main foundation sheep was Edelweiss who was my first little bottle lamb. She had been rejected by her mama sheep (who had triplets) at my mentors farm and needed intensive care to recover from internal injuries and starvation–and that new mama was me. So, Edelweiss lived in the house and went everywhere with me. Her tightly contracted tendons in her legs began to stretch as she romped with me outside and her skin grew pump and full from the milk she drank every hour. Finally, after many months she was able to live with the other sheep in the barn and pasture, but if she was given a chance she would still follow me into the house. The next two foundation sheep were Muffet and Tuffet. White head to toe and sisters, they were very different from each other. Muffet was a sweetie that held back a bit while Tuffet had her own opinions and let them be known as she stamped her foot if she didn’t approve. Today, almost every sheep in my flock can be traced back to these foundation girls–and their particular characteristics still shine through: Sweet the big girl, Edelweiss the sweetheart, Muffet the wallflower, and Tuffet’s attitude.
“But why sheep?” is likely the most common question I answered over the years. What started out as a cheaper alternative to alpacas, really was the smartest, most rewarding decision my mother could have guided me into at that point in life. I learned about alpacas first before sheep because well, they were interesting to my young mind. You could train them to do things like be a pack animal and do agility courses. To me, that was a cross between a horse and a dog–both I really wanted in my life too but would have to wait a while on. And they have this amazingly soft fleece that had so many potential possibilities to learn too! But, a mountain of research and books later, the reality of the alpaca dream was that they cost between $2000 and $7000 each. Yes, each. And as a 11 year old getting their first animals to take care of, that was not about to happen. So in waltzed the idea of sheep with the motivating factor of being only $60 each. I then launched myself into a new mountain of research instead now on sheep and honestly haven’t emerged since. Their personalities and sheep-ness captured my heart and as such, I’ve built my life around them.
Sheep really are an amazing creature. They are one of the only animals that gives such a vast diversity of product to their shepherd. Every person who raises sheep likely has their own opinion for what they are most suited to provide, be it wool, pelts, meat, or milk. There are a number of sheep breeds that are very specialized in each category like the prized Merino for their wool, the Gotland for their pelts, the Dorset or Hampshire for meat, and the East Friesian for highest milk production for example. But when you study the nature of sheep, their uniqueness is the fact that all provide milk, meat, pelts, and wool (except for the hair sheep that look almost like a goat). So, why not pull together the right genetics to create a sheep that is not only adapted to my climate but also capitalizes their full sheep-ness offerings. My goal was a sheep that produced a soft, long lock of wool; that had a hearty carcass for quality cuts of meat; and that could support nursing their lambs plus providing milk for my dairying interest. It took me roughly 16 years to get to that point of feeling like my flock was no longer a miss match of crossed genetics and actually had a congruent look amongst animals. But, it’s a work in progress and I am constantly looking at what to improve.
My latest endeavor is to shift my lambing (birthing time of year) from the spring to the fall since all of farming is basically planned parenthood. This shift opens a lot of better flock management possibilities: birthing before it gets cold and after our busy summer schedule, extra time to devote to flock care and dairying, and by the time summer rolls around the lambs are big and can graze without worry of internal parasites. A most definite win all around. Fall 2018 was the first experiment and even though not as many got bred as I had hoped, it allowed me to witness what did work and how to improve for next year.
Beyond just the joy of caring for the sheep, I also embraced learning how to creatively utilize their wool right away. I found joy in learning how to wash and card the wool and then on to felting, spinning, and dying yarn. But, I quickly realized that I would eventually be working with a woolen mill to provide these services as the wool started to pile up over the years. We now work with Ewetopia Fiber Mill located in Viroqua, WI, to process our roughly 600 pounds of wool annually and it is most definitely a relief to start the creative process with clean and often already dyed wool roving and yarns. In the last few years, I was able to start having all pelts from the meat-producing animals tanned at an area tannery for stunning pelt rugs and projects–the final step of complete utilization of the sheep’s gifts.
Dancing Lamb Studio was born from all this as a way to fully celebrate the sheep and my artistic creations. Thank you for joining me on this journey.