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Soil Affects Sheep & Wool

By Henry Stewart

From The Shepherd’s Manual, 1879

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The selection of a suitable farm should be the first care of a person who intends to devote his time and capital to the rearing of sheep.

To become a successful shepherd, requires that a person should have a liking for the business, and possess tact, patience, and perseverance sufficient to resist the temptations which may arise at seasons of depression to abandon it for some other temporarily more promising pursuit.

Having a determination to stick to his flock, he must have a farm suited to its special needs or it will not thrive.

Sheep cannot bear damp; and undrained pastures are fatal to their welfare. Luxuriance of herbage is not generally favorable unless the land is heavily stocked and the pasture kept short and closely cropped.

Old permanent meadows, in which a variety of grasses are found, are better than artificial meadows which form part of a rotation with other crops.

With a portion of such permanent meadow, there may be many cultivated crops grown upon the other portions of the farm-upon which the sheep may be folded-with benefit both to themselves and the land.

The land most suitable for sheep is one that is naturally drained, with a sandy loam or gravelly soil and subsoil, and which bears spontaneously short, fine, herbage, largely mixed with white clover. It should be rolling, and maybe hilly in character rather than flat and level.

Any low spots or hollows in which aquatic or marsh plants grow, are very objectionable, and should be thoroughly drained. One such spot upon an otherwise admirable farm may infect a flock with deadly disease. No domestic animal is more readily affected by adverse circumstances than the sheep, and none has less spirit or power to resist them. Virgil, the ancient poet, a close observer of such matters, says of them, “Oves semper infelix pecus,” (Sheep are always an unhappy flock), and many shepherds since his day have found reason to hold the same belief.

But the experienced sheepmaster has no fear on this score. He knows that a reputation for success with sheep is “never gained without merit, nor lost without deserving,” and that failure is not want of luck, as is so frequently declared, but the consequence of ignorance or bad management.

The careful shepherd will not wait to cure, he is prompt to prevent ; and every defeat is made a new lesson for study and an example for future avoidance. It is by long experience that shepherds have learned that the first requisite for success in their business is, the choice of a farm upon which their flocks will enjoy perfect health, and that dryness of soil and of air is the first necessity for their well being. By a careful and judicious choice in this respect, most of the ills to which sheep are subject, with all their contingent losses to their owners, are avoided.

Soils & Sheep Character

The character of the soil upon which sheep are pastured has a great influence in modifying the character of the sheep.

Upon the kind of soil of course depends the character of the herbage upon which the flock feeds.

Certain soils, such as those consisting of decomposed granite or feldspar, and which are rich in potash, are not generally favorable for sheep. Even turnips raised on such lands sometimes affect the sheep injuriously, producing disease under which they waste away, become watery about the eyes, fall in about the flanks, and assume a generally unhealthy appearance.

Upon removal to a limestone, or a dry sandstone soil, sheep thus affected, improve at once and rapidly recover.

The lambs, as might be expected, are most easily affected, and many are yearly lost by early death upon lands of an unfavorable character.

As a rule, lands upon which granite, feldspathic or micaceous rocks intrude, or whose soils are derived from the degradation of such rocks, should be avoided by the shepherd. Such soils are, however, not without their uses, and fortunately are excellently adapted to the dairy.

The soils most to be preferred are sandstone and limestone lands, of a free, dry, porous character, upon which the finer grasses flourish.

The soils which are derived from rocks called carboniferous, which accompany coal deposits, or are found in the regions in which coal is mined, are those upon which sheep have been bred with the most success.

The original home of the Leicester sheep, as well as that of the famous Shropshires, is on the red sandstone; the Lincoln is raised on the alluvial soils based on limestone; the Cotswold has had its home for centuries on the limestone Cotswold hills; the Southdown, Hampshire down, and Oxford downs, are native to the chalk hills and downs of southern England; the Scotch Cheviot and the hardy blackfaced Scotch sheep thrive on sandstone hills and mountains of trap rocks which rise amongst them; the fine wools of Yorkshire are produced on magnesian limestone soils; and to come to our own soils, we find the American Merino reaching perfection on the limestone hills of Vermont, beneath which fine marbles are quarried.

Unfortunately this is the only instance we possess of having given a local habitation to a race of sheep in America; but how soon we shall have produced or acclimated several breeds of sheep, which will take their peculiarities from the locality in which they are bred and raised, is only a question of time.

Peat or marsh lands are unfavorable for sheep farms. Salt marshes near the coast, however, may be excepted from this general condemnation, as the saline herbage acts as a specific against some of the parasitic diseases-the liver-rot mainly-to which sheep are subject upon marshy pastures.

The Romney-marsh sheep of England are bred successfully upon the alluvial soils of reclaimed marshes, and produce good wool and a heavy carcass.

The gigantic Lincoln, the largest sheep bred, originated and thrives in perfection upon drained alluvial soils.

The dry, friable nature and porous character of the soil has as much to do with the health and growth of sheep as the geological character of the rocks upon which it is based, or from which it has been derived.

The census returns of England show that the highest percentage of sheep to the 100 acres, is found precisely where the soil is naturally drained and dry, and the lowest, where clay abounds and damp, cold soils with rank, coarse herbage are general.

In our own country, although the time has been far too short as yet for this condition to operate largely, we find the same fact curiously developed, and Ohio and western Pennsylvania, with their extensive coal bearing formations underlying dry rolling fields, possess more sheep than any other district, while New York, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, which cover an extensive deposit of limestones and sandstones, with naturally dry soils, come next on the list.

The vast stretch of prairies in the Mississippi Valley, and of plains west of the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains, chiefly underlaid with limestones and sandstones, and especially remarkable for a dry, porous soil-which bears a rich carpet of the best sheep pastures in the world-have already proved themselves to be well adapted to the successful growth of flocks bearing fine and medium wools.

The rich alluvial valleys of the eastern rivers where naturally or artificially drained, have been found to be fitted for the production of large bodied sheep bearing the lustrous combing wools. All these localities with the hills and valleys of the Middle States will in course of time have their flocks suitable in character to the circumstances in which they are kept.

But it will only be in consequence of persistence in careful breeding and culture, that the final type for each locality will be reached; for while the effects of soil and locality are unavoidable and imperative, the shepherd must be able to discover these effects and aid in giving them their due development if early success is to be secured.

But in whatever locality it may be, if the soil is not naturally drained, profitable sheep farms may be sought in vain.

The profit from sheep raising as a special business will not permit of high-priced lands.

Where sheep are kept only as a branch of general farming, it may pay to drain the soil artificially; but without drainage, natural or artificial, sheep cannot thrive.

The sheep must have a dry foot or disease follows.

Weather Exposure

The exposure of the pasture is another important consideration. Long continued cold winds are productive of great discomfort and sickness, and often cause serious loss amongst the flock.

On the sea coast, exposure to the moist sea breezes injures the quality of the wool, and renders it harsh and deficient in quantity.

Of two adjoining flocks upon opposite aides of a hill facing north and south, the sheep exposed to the north winds will be several pounds less in weight, and their wool will be whiter, harsher, more uneven, and less healthy looking, than those of the flock upon the south side.

This experience is very common.

The lambs will also be less thrifty. Of this, many notable cases occur every season where sheep and lambs are pastured and fed for the markets. The small size of sheep raised upon mountain pastures is a case in point.

Water Supplies

The supply of water is of the greatest importance.

A living spring or a clear flowing stream with dry gravelly banks is the best source of supply.

Wells are better than ponds or pools.

Stagnant water is exceedingly objectionable.

Hard water is better than soft, and water containing much saline or other mineral matter, is a valuable help to the pasture as furnishing many necessary substances. When water is exposed to the atmosphere it deposits the greater part of any mineral matter it may contain, and becomes soft. It is then rendered of less value for stock purposes.

There are some waters that contain potash, lime, soda, magnesia, iron, and sulphur in combination with oxygen, carbonic acid, and chlorine to the amount of 15 to 20 grains per gallon, and such water is a source of nourishment to sheep.

Pond or marsh water is highly injurious, as is also running water in which aquatic plants are found. It is from drinking such water, as much as from pasturing on undrained soils, that the liver flukes, parasites always accompanying the disease termed the rot, gain access to the stomach and intestines of the sheep.

A deficiency in the necessary mineral matters may be obviated by giving the sheep stated supplies of a mixture of common salt, sulphur, saltpeter, sulphate of magnesia, (epsom salts), phosphate of lime, bone-dust, or fine bone, with a small portion of sulphate of iron, (copperas). A small teaspoonful of this mixture given once a week to each sheep will help greatly to a healthful condition, and resist the tendency to disease caused by inferior pasture or soft water.

The study of the plants suitable for a pasture, the character of soils, and the water, should be part of the education of every shepherd.

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