The early snow has pretty much all melted and we got one batch of ram lambs back out on our triticale pasture regrowth. We made sure they were all pretty full with hay before putting them out and made an aisle of electric fence to prevent too much pugging of the permanent pastures. We’ll bring them back in to the corrals at night to reduce predator pressure. Our plan is to replant this to permanent pasture in the spring so any pugging that happens now won’t matter and I’d rather the feed go into sheep rather than be wasted.

This brought up an interesting dilemma regarding labeling of food products. I’ve already explained why I consider USDA Organic regulations to be cruel and inhumane for livestock. However, there are other labels that we might qualify for that we have so far not used. Terms like free-range, cage free, no hormones, vegetarian diet and the like are all potential ways to describe our products.

Grass-fed has up until now not been regulated by the federal government. That has changed and there is now a new Federal grass-fed standard. I’ll talk a bit more about it in a later entry.

The American Grassfed Association has developed a very strict interpretation of grassfed that limits feeding of stored forages and use of winter corrals. It’s a nice idea but we’ll never qualify. The sticking points for us are “All livestock produced under this standard must be on range, pasture, or in paddocks for their entire lives. This means that all animals must be maintained at all times on land with at least 80% forage cover or unbroken ground.” and “AGA grassfed ruminant animals cannot be fed stock-piled forages in confinement for more than 30 days per calendar year. “

The limit of 30 days confined feeding is not necessarily enough to protect our pastures from severe pugging and erosion in wet, muddy times. Our attempts at feeding hay on our pastures resulted in destruction of the pasture in that area for a year or more. Our heavy clay soils are the most likely culprit in the problems and compaction we experienced. The people I know who are successfully meeting those restrictions either have sandy soils or have large areas they can plow for annual crops and so use those for their feeding of stored forage on pasture to meet the no confinement requirement. I had hoped to be able to do this on our farm with a multi-year rotation that would include brassicas and small grains like oats and triticale as pasture for our sheep. In addition to providing feed during our summer slump it was also going to help extend the grazing season into fall and provide a way to feed hay on pasture in winter reducing VM contamination of our wool.

Unfortunately we learned by trial and error that plowing our fields only plows up a new crop of rocks. We’ve been talking to people who have tried no-till but so far everyone has said that nothing they’ve tried works in our soils with our huge rocks. The giant rock walls that ring our pastures haven’t really made a dent in the rock component of our soil. There is a reason that our mesa has always been planted to perennial crops like fruit trees, hay or more recently wine grapes. So we use our winter corrals as places to put sheep when the pastures are too wet or muddy to safely graze and use stored hay forage as needed when pastures are dry or not growing. Now if we sold primarily lambs we could get them to qualify as from birth to harvest they would meet all those restrictions. But our primary product is mutton, an older sheep that for us is usually 18-36 months old and has experienced at least one winter here. Many of our butcher animals are old ewes or rams who have performed other jobs for us and now go on to their final and in many ways most important job, providing tasty mutton for our customers and ourselves.

The new federal grass-fed standard requires that animals get 99% of their feed from pasture or hay and that they are on pasture from the time of the last frost in spring until the first frost in fall. So what does it mean when we pulled sheep off before first frost because the pastures were too wet, and yet now after a major frost have some back out on pasture? I would maintain that long term sustainability means we take good care of our land so that it continues to be productive for generations. A rigid standard that ignores individual farm conditions seems counterproductive. Certainly other farms in our valley can plow regularly and can plant crops without encountering huge rocks. But those farms are on the other side of the valley, not here. Yet our farm is highly productive when I work with the soils growing permanent crops with only very rare plowing. Shouldn’t labels designed to promote healthy food and better land stewardship be flexible enough to account for what’s best for an individual farm?

What about other labels like free range or cage free for poultry and no hormones or antibiotics?

Free range is federally controlled. The definition of free range for poultry is that the birds must have “access to the outside” No indication of for how long, or how much and certainly no real requirement that they be outside once they are done brooding. And since the time from the end of the brooding period until the time to slaughter for most commercial broilers is so short even if they were outside they won’t get very much time there. In short, many birds can be labeled free range when all that it was was an open door at the end of a broiler house for the last week or so of their lives. Since free range doesn’t mean what people think it means we have generally avoided it unless we qualify it by explaining that our birds are “really free ranged” and explain the legal defintion plus what we do. We have picked a slower growing commercial cross that we don’t butcher until 14-16 weeks of age. Our chickens are outside during the day but penned at night for predator control. When outside they are free to get into everything and do. Our birds range freely over the farm eating all sorts of stuff.

Cage free only means no cages. Most birds are now raised cage free. But they are still in indoor confinement sheds with thousands of birds. Cage free does not mean outside access. So be aware when you purchase eggs or meat from “cage free” birds.

Vegetarian diet is another one that is commonly used. For ruminants like our sheep a vegetarian diet is the natural diet. Geese too are almost exclusively vegetarians and will only rarely eat insects. But what about chickens or ducks? One of the best fly controls is to have chickens range behind the grazing ruminants and scratch and eat the fly larvae and adult flies on a regular basis. Ducks can be important in preventing liver fluke infections by eating the snails that are an intermediate host. Using these natural parasite controls only makes sense but doing so means those birds can no longer be said to be raised on a vegetarian diet. Yet vegetarian diet is promoted as natural for chickens when it isn’t really their preferred way to eat.

No added hormones is a difficult one as well. It is illegal to add hormones to poultry or pig feeds or to give them any so a no added hormones label on either pork or any poultry is irrelevant. Yet it does make sense for ruminants like cattle and sheep. Dairy animals are the ones most commonly given additional hormones and many people prefer to avoid them. So whether the label is meaningful depends on species. For the record we do not give our sheep hormones except when used to bring them into heat for artificial insemination, a procedure we use very rarely and so far only with imported semen from UK rams.

What about no antibiotics? Poultry is routinely given antibiotics in the feed from birth to death. Pigs too are often given low levels of antibiotics in the feed. They are also used in ruminant feeds. All of these applications are potential problems. While they do increase weight gains, and therefore farm income it’s certainly not in the best interests of the animals or the consumer to eat constant low levels of antibiotics. Yet if an animal is injured or sick antibiotics are a necessary part of humane care. For us here is a recent example. One of our ewes, Ann, got severely injured. We found her with the inside of one front leg with no skin from the knee up to her elbow. The missing skin area was as if someone had skinned her leg. She was put in a small pen and the injury bandaged. There was no skin to put over the wound, it was gone, so as a precaution she was on a course of injected antibiotics for 10 days with pain medication as required to keep her comfortable. We also used an antibiotic and antifungal ointment on the wound at each dressing change to prevent any problems. She is making a full recovery, there is no nerve damage and there is good scar tissue over the whole area. We fully expect her to be fine in another couple of months. She raised two lovely lambs for us and is a wonderful young ewe that is worth the extra effort and care. However she will eventually be a slaughter animal. We hope it will be many years but there is always the chance she will do something that puts her on the butcher list, fails to care for a lamb, starts eating trees, causes a significant problem with her behavior or the final cause, getting so old that she has lost too many teeth to be able to eat. When that happens she wil be put on the trailer to be processed into mutton for our customers or ourselves. Should we prevent her from ever fulfilling her final job due to an injury and succesful treatment years earlier? By all the rules of all the various labels she could never be used for meat due to the antibiotic use while treating her injury.

The bottom line for us is that we want our customers to ask questions and talk to us about how we produce and care for our animals. We automatically double the federal slaughter withdrawal from any drug, dewormer or vaccine we use but we will always provide the best and most humane care we can for our precious sheep. But we are unlikely to promote federally regulated labels unless there is no way we would ever have to compromise those standards. For us the higher goal is long term sustainable food production given the limits and challenges of our particular farm, soils and climate.