Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Shrewd King 2.3: Limits of Sheep Production

Mo Pockets was drinking a cup of coffee with Mrs Pat Treadwell, the source of John Wilder’s future seedstock. John Wilder had a goal of producing woolen clothing sufficient to clothe a million people.

Samantha Wilder had “suggested” that he take a can of coffee with him the next time he visited. The Wilders hoped to make Mrs Treadwell a trusted partner in their future venture and were putting their best foot forward.

Mrs Treadwell almost did handsprings when he pulled the can of coffee out of his ruck and she insisted that he share a cup with her.

“Mr. Wilder has big plans.” Mo said. Mo was almost thirty and was prematurely bald. He adapted well. He had many cousins and uncles who were bald and he knew all the jokes. As a practical matter, he wore a hat. Sunburn and bug bites are no fun.

“And what are those?” Mrs Treadwell asked as she bustled about her kitchen.

“He wants to have a quarter-million sheep in ten years and a million in twenty.” Mo said.

That gave Mrs Treadwell pause.

“It is good to dream big.” she finally responded.

“Meaning you don’t think it is possible?” Mo said.

“Meaning he is going to run into a lot of things that will make it almost impossible.” Mrs Treadwell said.

“He seems like a focused and resourceful guy.” Mo said. He was not about to throw his new boss under-the-bus.

“But he is only one person.” Mrs Treadwell said.

“Yeah, about that. One of the jobs he gave me was to be on the lookout and recruit good people.” Mo said. “I am going to lean pretty heavily on you to help me find shepherds and sheep shearers and the like.”

“That is not going to be the thorniest problem, though.” Mrs Treadwell said as she put the coffee pot on the gas hot-plate’s burner.

“So, what are the hard-stops you are talking about?” Mo asked.

“Two of them, really. Worms and trace nutrients.” Mrs Treadwell said.

“OK, I know about the worms. We are going to rotate pasture with cattle and cut hay to break the worm’s reproductive cycle.” Mo said.

“That is a good start but I am not sure that is going to be enough.” Mrs Treadwell said.

“The trace nutrients will be a tougher nut to crack. It is almost impossible to manage your way out of it.” Mrs Treadwell said.

“You said ALMOST. That is the first time I ever heard somebody suggest that.” Mo said.

Mrs Treadwell shrugged. “Everybody looks at the oldest breeds of sheep and rejects them because they rarely have twin lambs. It is hard to turn a profit unless most of your mothers are produce twins and triplets.”

“Producing and nursing lambs places a lot of demands on both the ewe and the lambs.” Mrs Treadwell said.

“Why would anybody think that those people in ancient times were so stupid that they didn’t realize that two lambs produce twice as much meat as a single lamb?” Mrs Treadwell asked. “There must have been some other reason that those people, or Darwin, selected for mothers that produced single lambs.”

"Even if shepherds in ancient times selected replacement ewes by random chance it would have favored ewes that produce twins-over-singles by a factor of two-to-one every generation. SOMETHING gave single births an advantage over twins, otherwise it would be impossible to find a ewe that produces singles." Mrs Treadwell said.

“One reason could be that the ewe did not have access to enough of some critical trace element. She had enough to birth and nurse a single lamb and still produce a full wool clip” Mrs Treadwell speculated "but not enough to wean two lives lambs."

Mo said “Go on. This is interesting.”

“Look at selenium, for instance.” Mrs Treadwell said. "Our soil is deficient in selenium. Ewes that don’t get enough selenium produce lambs with something called ‘white muscle syndrome’. The lamb’s muscles don’t work well enough for the lamb to stand and nurse.”

“I would rather have one live lamb that weens out at sixty pounds than two lambs that die three days after they are born.” Mrs Treadwell said.

“I need to think about that a little while.” Mo said.

“Are there any other management tricks to stretch out trace nutrients?” Mo asked.

Mrs Treadwell shook her head “No, not really.”

“Oh, wait a minute. I suppose you could lamb later in the season, that would minimize the need for selenium.” Mrs Treadwell said, contradicting her earlier statement.

Mo’s brows furrowed in consternation. “Excuse me. How can you minimize the need for a trace element?”

“Selenium and Vitamin E are synergistic. More Vitamin E means what little selenium there is will be used more efficiently. Green grass has lots of Vitamin E. Hay that has been stored all winter has very little.” Mrs Treadwell informed Mo.

Mrs Treadwell served the coffee.

"There are also differences in selenium uptake in different species of forage." Mrs Treadwell said. "Alfalfa is efficient at pulling selenium out of the soil. Timothy grass is not."

"Much of it is going to be trial-and-error." she sighed. "Sulfur is antagonistic to selenium absorption. A plant can be selenium rich but it gives you little benefit if it is also rich in sulfur."

"That is one reason why drenching selenium works better than selenium in trace mineralized salt. A big dose of selenium, all at once, can overwhelm the effects of competing with sulfur." Mrs Treadwell said.

Once again, Mo was glad they had chosen a commercial sheep breeder as a source of seedstock. This level of expertise would have been almost impossible to find in "hobby" farmers.

Mo shook his head. He was going into information overload. He fully supported his boss’s direction to bring in local talent. Even enterprises as simple as grazing sheep had a lot of little parts once you started looking closely.



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