Our dairy sheep are East Friesians, a breed that originated in Northern Europe. They are large and beautiful sheep, known for their prodigious milk production. Our ewes, who average 200 pounds when they are full grown, have lovely, sleek, wool-less faces, and skinny rat-like tails. Because their tails stay clean on their own, they do not need to be docked for hygiene.
To increase the hardiness of our sheep, we have bred in a bit of Katahdin genetics. Katahdin sheep are descended from African hair sheep. Unlike most sheep, hair sheep shed their wool every spring, so they don’t need to be sheared. Katahdin sheep are quite resistant to diseases and parasites. We have found that a bit of Katahdin blood in the East Friesians makes them more hardy and healthy, and even enhances milk production.
Our sheep come in two colors, black and white; most of our black sheep have some white markings. We like the black color because black ears and faces reduce the incidence of UV-induced skin cancer, which affects some of the white sheep. The black sheep are black at the skin, but their wool bleaches in the sun to a lovely brown. After shearing, they are black again!
I manage our flock with the help of my ranch manager, José Dolores Cortez (Lolo), and ranch-hand Lisa Radke, who are involved in every aspect of veterinary care, lambing, and milking.
The health of our sheep is our top priority. We have biosecurity protocols in practice at our ranch to prevent the introduction of common sheep illnesses that can be transmitted through dirt or soil from other sheep ranches, and a vaccine program as well to keep our sheep safe from preventable diseases.
Our ewes perform well in the milking parlor, with many producing over 1000 pounds of milk in our 5 1/2-month milking season, after having first nursed their lambs for 5 to 6 weeks. During the years that we ran the dairy commercially (2009 to 2016), our practice was to meter their milk production once a month during the milking season and only save the daughters of our best producers. We select as well for good mothering and good udder conformation. Every spring we have some of our best ewe lambs and ram lambs available for sale as breeding stock. And in the fall we often have some of our ewes available for sale as well, either bred by our rams or unbred. If you are interested in buying breeding stock, email me and I will send you prices and availability.
Our sheep generally don’t have enough Katahdin genetics to shed their wool, so we have them sheared twice a year. Fellow shepherdess Jackie Post, from nearby Vacaville, has found that our East Friesian wool felts beautifully, and she buys most of our wool and makes it into beautiful felted products, which she sells through her business, Sheep to Shop.
To protect our sheep from predators, we have three Great Pyrenees livestock-protection dogs, Oso, Orbit and Shep. They were all born with sheep and raised with sheep, and much prefer the company of their sheep to that of people. They live with the sheep full-time and are very professional, always on guard and ready to fiercely defend their charges. Having been bred and selected for countless generations for their sheep-protecting behavior, the Great Pyrenees need no training whatsoever to do their jobs. I consider them to be partners in our operation, because while we don’t have to tell them what to do, they are intelligent dogs who carefully observe our operation and do what we need them to do on cue. If we open a gate and start rounding up the lambs, Oso knows we are going to the corrals for lamb-weighing, and he leads the way. If there is one lamb separated from the group, or otherwise particularly vulnerable, the dog with the lambs will keep careful watch over that lamb, while still remaining vigilant about the rest of the flock.
Thanks to their expert protection skills, we have never lost a lamb to a predator, although we have a resident mountain lion on the ranch and packs of coyotes who we hear howling every night.