Sheep. One question we’re frequently asked is “if you care about the environment – why aren’t your lambs organic?” The answer lies in the susceptibility of lambs (more so than adult sheep) to a ubiquitous parasite, a roundworm known as Haemonchus contortus (AKA barberpole worm). This parasite, which lives in the stomach of sheep, feeds on their blood and – if left untreated – can account for substantial mortality of lambs. One of the life stages of this parasite involves a larval form that lives on grass. When sheep ingest the larvae during the course of grazing, they become infected. Once you treat a lamb by deworming it, it can no longer be sold as “organic”. It is possible to raise “organic” lamb. If you have thousands of acres of pasture, you can move them every few days to fresh pasture, not returning to the original pasture for at least six months. This may be practical in the western United States or in Australia, but not on the East Coast, where farms are smaller.
An alternative is to maintain lambs on a “dry lot”, where they are fed hay (on which barberpole worms can’t survive), never allowing them to graze (hence eliminating the potential for infection). This is a compromise we are unwilling to accept, as we believe the lambs’ quality of life would suffer. We check our lambs every week or two for evidence of parasites during the warmer months. We follow the most recent guidelines for parasite control, only deworming if we see evidence that lambs are suffering from a parasite load. We never deworm the entire flock, as this practice contributes to the development of dewormer-resistant parasites. Most of our lambs rarely if ever require deworming, both because of natural resistance/resilience, and because we practice rotational grazing. On the rare occasion when we do administer dewormers, we adhere to all recommended “withdrawal” times for the dewormers we use. Selection for parasite resistance by testing potential replacement lambs during the peak worm season helps a great deal in reducing the need to deworm lambs, as parasite resistance is a highly heritable trait.
Eggs. We have discovered a great deal of confusion as to what the terms “cage free”, “free range”, “pasture raised”, and “organic” really mean when applied to eggs. We frequently hear from customers who have previously sought out eggs from cage-free chickens, fed an organic vegetarian diet. The problem is that many such commercial flocks are not being raised in a manner that’s anything close to what nature intended. A recent article in the Washington Post reported on large industrial organic egg producers that never allow their hens outdoors, confining them to indoor structures at densities up to three chickens per square foot. Chickens raised in such tight quarters often resort to cannibalism, especially as controls on the composition of organic feed limit levels of certain essential amino acids below those required for the chickens (which are, by nature, omnivorous, obtaining these amino acids through consumption of animal (or bug) protein) to thrive. “Free range” merely means that the chickens be provided with “access” to the outdoors. This could be as simple as a screened porch; it doesn’t mean that chickens are really allowed to roam the outdoors, scratching in the dirt, being chickens. If you examine the carton of “pasture-raised” eggs you purchase (for several times the price of the most economical eggs), you might see claims that each chicken is allowed five square feet of pasture space. Some of our customers have even been sold eggs from chickens that are claimed to be “100% grassfed” or “grain free”. Chickens are not ruminants; they cannot survive on a diet devoid of grain.
Our own flock is released from their coop each morning, regardless of the weather. They roam our pastures and our orchard and (sigh) even our vegetable garden. They supplement their diet with whatever they can find – bugs, worms, grass, weeds. They also happily consume our leftover food, much of which (though not all) is organic, ranging from grilled salmon to leftover salad. As the bugs and worms on our farm are not certified as “organic”, nor are our eggs.