Wits End Farm is a 22-acre family farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Rappahannock County, VA. We — Dave and Cathie (Cody) Shiff — moved out here from the Washington, DC, suburbs in the mid-1980s, when we were both professional firefighters in Fairfax County.
We are now enjoying the next phase of our lives, raising Border Leicester and Bluefaced Leicester sheep in a grass-based operation that emphasizes the production of quality purebred animals using sustainable agricultural methods.
While our careers were fulfilling and our farm is our source of renewal, the arrival of our grandson Barrett has brought an entirely new wonder to our lives. Our son, Matt, and his lovely and oh-so-talented wife, Shauna, are gifted parents, and we watch in pride as they gently guide their son from infancy into becoming a robust and enthusiastic toddler. We recently received the great news that Shauna is again expecting. We look forward to assisting them in any way that we can as their precious family grows.
At left: Our beautiful daughter-in-law with our grandson, Barrett. Photo by proud husband and dad, Matt Shiff.
The Goal of Our Breeding Operation
The goal of the sheep breeding operation at Wits End Farm is the production of quality purebred sheep suitable for seedstock use in a variety of production models. We emphasize sound skeletal structure, suitable size per breed standards, multiple births, excellent mothering, resistance to intestinal worms, consistent fleeces and efficient utilization of feed inputs by lambs and adults in production phases. We even consider temperament. We breed the best to the best, hoping to improve our get with each succeeding generation. To accomplish this, we aggressively cull animals with genetically-based defects, such as entropion or teeth problems, and those who fall short in the desired traits outlined above. This is the ‘hard’ part of animal husbandry, but we believe we have the responsibility to do this if we are to be responsible producers of purebred animals.
Animal Care at Wits End Farm
Every aspect of animal care at Wits Ends is based on the premise that a healthy animal cared for in the most natural way is more resistant to becoming ill. Using the best-quality and most natural inputs, we build strong immune systems in our animals, just like we build the fecundity of our garden soils using rich compost. Because we believe that sheep belong outside in the fresh air, the sheep flock is on pasture at all times. The need for protection from the hot sun of summer and cool winds of winter require that we provide adequate shelter and time our shearing schedule to protect these animals outside.
At left: A Bluefaced Leicester ram lamb on late fall pasture.
Only in the harshest months of winter do ewes in late pregnancy use the barn for a few weeks until they give birth, as this protective environment reduces stress on both ewes and newborn lambs. Weather permitting, newborn lambs go outside into protected paddocks with their mothers within days of birth.
At right: A proud Bluefaced Leicester ewe with one of a pair of ram lambs outside on a warm winter day.
If animals are in the barn for protection from extreme weather, the inside environment is clean and the air quality is healthy. Thus, our animals normally have no history of antibiotics. Lambs get a two-shot series of a three-way vaccine, and all adults receive their annual booster of the same. That’s it. We don’t vaccinate against the foot rot or the various abortion diseases because we have never had them.
At left: A clean barn keep animals healthy. Yes, the lamb is wearing a jacket; it’s an old Army blanket cut into a lamb coat. Commercial purists would guffaw at such ‘lamb coddling,’ but little ones can easily become hypothermic during the first 48 hours of their life. In late January cold, the jacket helps keep them warm and eating, we avoid the dangers (and expense) of heat lamps and the jackets give the shepherd more hours of worry-free sleep during the height of lambing. By the time they grow out of the jacket at about a week of age, it’s thrown in the washer and is ready for the next lamb birth. SIxteen jackets were made from a $1 auction purchase; what a deal!
If an individual sheep has a recurring problem, such as an apparent pneumonia, we isolate the animal and have its nasal secretions cultured in a lab before we begin any treatment. We have found that some ‘pneumonias’ turned out to be ‘sniffles’ from sheep with allergies, so a course of antibiotics would have been counterproductive. We also review how the animal is managed to see whether a change could resolve the current situation and prevent its return in the future. If it is found that the animal seems to have health problems despite the best possible management, the animal is removed from our breeding operation.
The Challenge of Intestinal Worms
Intestinal worms are the greatest challenge to sheep producers in the Mid-Atlantic region in terms of reduced productivity and lamb losses. The heat and humidity of our summers produce the perfect growing conditions for the worms, while our winters are sometime insufficiently cold and icy to control their numbers. The most effective nemesis of these tiny critters is a hot, dry summer, but that is devastating to our pastures and to area hay production. Moreover, it creates stress on our animals.
Overuse and inappropriate use of available wormers have resulted in ‘super-worms’ that are resistant to many of these medications. We have joined others in turning to an age-old strategy which was used for centuries before wormers were produced. We use our herd of three horses to ‘clean up’ worm larvae as we rotate them through fields where the sheep have been. We also utilize the fields where the horses grazed all winter as post-weaning grazing for our lambs, believing that these are the ‘cleanest’ fields on the property for the lambs during the summer months, when they are most vulnerable to the effects of the worms.
Consequently, we now use the FAMACHA methods of checking for worm-based anemia in our lambs, and only worm the individuals showing the most signs.We also cull lambs who are repeatedly affected and check bloodlines for positive or negative patterns of worm resistance and resilience. The results have been outstanding for us; we had lambs last year who were wormed just once during the entire growing season. Our yearling ewes have yet to be wormed this year.
How We Feed Our Sheep
Ours is a pasture-based operation. After weaning, the ewe flock is out on pasture all summer, with just a trough of clean water and a pan of mineral salt to supplement what they forage. The same is true for our rams. Summer for them is a time for rest and relaxation before breeding time in the fall and lambing time in the late winter.
At right: A Bluefaced Leicester ewe almost in full ‘summer mode’; she just lacks a trashy paperback novel and being shorn.
Lambs, on the other hand, have a lot of work to do during the summer months. The best ones will go on to show careers and breeding duties. They need to continue growing despite the hot weather. They will have been on grass since the first couple days of their birth, and they nibbled hay until the first green blades emerged in April. Because we prefer to leave all multiple lambs on their mothers, even triplets (bottle-fed lambs can have many health and socialization problems) we supplement the ewe’s diet during lactation with grain.We also offer a very fine grain mixture to lambs at a few days of age. By the time the lambs are eating it with gusto, the ewes appreciate anything that helps feed their always-hungry, fast-growing brood. As the lambs grow until they are weaned at approximately two months of age, they slowly increase their intake of grain until they are up to about one pound per day. At the same time, they are grazing daily and get the vast majority of their sustenance from grass. Therefore, when we say that we feed grain to our lambs, our methods have nothing to do with corporate agriculture in which hundreds of lambs are raised on grain in barren feedlots. At Wits End Farm, grain supplements the sustenance the animals receive from the grass and permits them to maximize their genetic potential. For us, that means more of them may enter breeding operations with fewer ending up in the freezer slaughtered for meat.
Another issue regarding grain is just what are we feeding our animals? Nothing that we would not eat ourselves. Using a mortar mixer, we combine grains, a vitamin-mineral mix, some calcium and some salt. It’s kind of an ovine granola, and right now the lambs are ‘pigging out’ on one pound per head twice a day. If it’s raining, they may miss one or both feedings. The mixture contains no growth hormones and no low-dose antibiotics. It is a conservative 14% to 16% protein because we want our lambs to grow at a sustainable rate so that they have strong, healthy bone and do not stress their joints. We do nothing fancy, nor have ‘secret ingredients.’ We want our animals to be healthy and our feeding results to be replicable by people who buy our sheep.
This may seem a rather ‘James Micheneresque’ introduction to our operations at Wits End Farm.However, these issues are important, and we strive to care for our animals in the best possible way.We welcome your thoughtful comments.