Conferences

I don’t know why I don’t like conferences.  Maybe I’ve been to too many with poorly-trained presenters, or too many that are barely 60% relevant to what I am doing or want to be doing, or maybe it’s just the tables and the notepads and the boring small-talk.

The Vermont Grass Farmers Association Conference is different, somehow.  They really understand how to balance the presenters at a conference, and how to respond to community needs.  I was lucky enough to go to both days of the conference last week.  It’s a fine opportunity to connect with other farmers facing the same opportunities and challenges as me.

The Friday panel of speakers addressed marketing, with a panel that included four farmers doing direct-marketing of their products in urban environments and one registered dietitian who studies the nutritional benefits of meat.  While the four farmers gave great tips for managing sales and customer relations in a fast-changing environment, the dietitian had lots of useful information about how to sell and how not to sell grass-fed meat.  I did not know that while the Omega-6/Omega-3 proportions are much better in grassfed animals, both fats still make up a tiny amount of the total fat in red meat and are not really nutritionally relevant relative to, say, Salmon.

While some Vermont farms are really adept at modern marketing strategies, many more have neglected websites, no social media presence, and an expectation that people will come to them for product.  Some of us are farmers because we enjoy being out in the woods, not crafting messages for a suburban marketplace.  Many of us are farmers because we eschew the harried urban culture that our customers belong to.  But we ignore current culture at our peril – we need to make our products as available and ubiquitous as conventionally-farmed meat and processed pseudo-foods are now.   Several presenters at the conference had unlocked that market.

The panelists also addressed how to handle displeased customers and how to talk to people who question the value of animal agriculture.  While most of my own customers have seemed satisfied with my lamb and wool products, I sometimes encounter a self-appointed animal rights crusader who is appalled that we slaughter and eat sheep.  While I don’t mind explaining why I do what I do to anyone who will listen, the presenters pointed out that for some, animal rights has transcended the idea that animals should have good lives and moved on to the idea that animal agriculture shouldn’t exist in any form and furthermore that we need to use synthetic substitutes for all of the animal products in our lives.  She then suggested that we should respond to such opinions as we respond to any kind of closed-minded zealot – just block and move on.  That was a relief to me.

The afternoon session on the first day of the conference addressed how to write your recipes for how consumers cook now.  I have to admit- I cook entirely on cast-iron and enjoy making all-day recipes and eating old-fashioned stuff.  Since cooking was all I could easily do for entertainment while my foot was broken, I experimented with all kinds of cooking that people don’t do at home, like puff pastry.  I had never actually touched an Instant Pot and didn’t know what they did.  Now, I almost want one.  Not quite, but almost.  And I know that recipes I write need to address the popularity of this implement.  I need this occasional reminder to address my marketing to the prevalent cooking practices in society.

Day two of the conference was on Saturday and attracted a broader crowd.  I spent my morning at a chat about Beef Cattle Genetics Management.  Those of you who know me personally are aware that genetics are my nerdy happy-place.   Even though I don’t really have plans for cattle, it was good to understand the genetic challenges faced by our cattle herd and how breed stock producers are encouraging farmers to strive for genes that will finish in a grass-based management system.  Many cattle owners are making the same mistakes I did with my original flock- diluting hybrid vigor into unmanageable genetic stew.  The result is tall cows and small cows and efficient and inefficient eaters.  The presenters gave strategies to avoid this.  They also had tips on evaluating feed efficiency.  This is the project that I need to complete with the Bluefaced Leicesters- I need to take all of their amazing traits and add grass-feeding thrift without losing the rest.

In the afternoon, I participating in a panel of three presenters talking about opportunities for beginning farmers to access land.  One of my co-presenters talked about her experience on a cooperative, group-owned property, and the other spoke about a dairy farming internship.  I spoke about my journey raising sheep on rented land before we were able to settle in our current location.  While our panel was well-organized and effective, I am not sure that our audience had that many people looking to enter farming.  Have we passed through the golden moment of young people entering farming?  I hope not.

The final session I went to concerned weighting and RFID animal management techniques.  It was a little glimpse into the future of what we will be doing, where we can see if an animal is sick just by being alerted to interruptions in weight gain!  Sheep hide illness, so this is a fantastic tool to improve humane practices on the farm.

Going to the conference also allowed me to connect with other farmers.  On Friday, I carpooled with Maria Schumann of Cate Hill Orchard.  We talked sheep and marketing all the way down, and all the way back up.   It feels so good to make a sheep connection.

 

 

 

Lambcicles

It was 3F out this morning when I took a look at the barn video system.  1610’s lambs were snuggled in the hay, and I could see Agnes II bouncing around.  Scanning to the Northwestern corner of the barn, I saw one lamb standing and another little white blob near, with Meadowlark attending the standing lamb.  New lambs!  Even with the lowish-resolution barn cam, it’s not hard to pick out the only CormoX ewe in the flock.

I raced out the door towel-in-hand to find two very fresh, new lambs, a ram and a ewe.  The ram was up and ready to get going.  He seemed to have attracted most of mom’s attention.  I started drying the ewe a bit, and then I put together a lambing jug.  We had a lot of “helpers”, mainly the very curious BFL ewe lambs, so I was keen to give Lark and her babies some privacy.

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Once the lambs and the ewe were in the pen, I noticed that the ewe still hadn’t gotten up on her own.  The main issue with being born in extreme cold is that the lamb uses up its energy just trying to keep warm while it waits for Mom to dry it off.  When it’s time to stand up, find the teat and learn to nurse, it is out of oomph and risks hypothermia.  With Meadowlark still intent on her son, I milked off some of her colostrum.  I grabbed the ewe and went indoors.  The ewe lamb wasn’t really protesting like an energetic lamb would, so I felt more justified in my decision.  My only nagging concern was whether or not Lark would want her back.  But in we went, and soon the little lamb was warming by the fire.

How to warm a cold lamb

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The little ewe had ice on the fur of her legs, and her little ears were like ice cubes.  I rewarmed the colostrum.  As soon as the lamb started to become active again, we fed her with a bottle.  The bloom of new life overtook her and her lethargy vanished- baa’s started to erupt as she beat her little legs around trying to stand on our hardwood floors.  Once her little legs, back and tummy were all dry, we brought her back to Mom.  To my delight, Lark was happy to see her.  The lamb started searching for Lark’s udder, and we knew we had succeeded.

Cloverworks Farm lamb BFL Border Leicester
Warm, safe, fed and dry, finally.

About an hour later, we grabbed the boy and melted his wool, too.  Even though he had fed well, he was struggling against the cold.  Half as much time was all he needed.

Now that everyone is dry and fed, I can finally finish my coffee.

Taking a Walk Through the Fields

From our vantagepoint, we can clearly see the expanse of all of our fields.  I noticed that we have many tracks going across the fields, so I thought I’d have a look.

After the thaw last week, the snow as a perfect weight-bearing crust.  We can walk with ease across all of our land.  Atop the crust is the lightest dusting of snow, the perfect medium for tracks.    Even better, our land never lacks for a slight breeze, so it is very evident which tracks are one or two days old.  After that, they are fully obscured.

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The tracks I followed, with a size medium glove for scale.

Yesterday, I noted some tracks coming from the northwest of the property.  Two canid tracks, heading southwest.  I followed them, intent to determine if the tracks were dog or coy-wolf.  I would much rather they were coy-wolf tracks than loose dogs, as we’ve already dealt with enough dogs for a lifetime.   Coy-wolves are possibly more dangerous to the sheep, but are predictable in their behavior.  The tracks beelined to a brushy area and then sniffed around there.  A urine mark was evident beside a tall clump of grass and then the tracks proceeded south-southeast.

Following along, I could see that the dog/coywolf tracks took an interest in some deer tracks.  I took an interest in the deer tracks, too.  Following their trails, I came upon two deer beds.  Notice the perfect leg-prints.  The deer have kept to the field edges, wandering around where stray, ancient apple trees drop a few fruit.  Seeing them, I thought I’d give some of our apple trees a shake to let down some of the remaining hanging apples.

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A deer bed.

Rejoining the canine tracks, I continued to observe their straight trajectory.  More and more suggestive of coywolf-tracks.   Finally, a scat and a urine spot told me that this was a female, subsisting on fuzzy animals based on the grey fur evident in the scat.  Some internet friends were already thinking coywolf.  The couple left the property at the middle of the south boundary.  I’m glad we were able to identify the species.  I know to have an eye out for trouble now.

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Friends, I give you: A Coyote or Coy-wolf Butt-print with a tail drag.

Other tracks observed on the property include turkey, rabbit, various little scurriers, and the small wingbeats of a bluejay near the chicken coop.   I’m looking forward to taking more walks and learning more about the animal activities happening on our land.

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Turkey, two ways.

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A wee little hopping bird on our deck.

 

 

Our Spring Projects

While we wait for more lambs to show up, I thought I’d share some of our anticipated spring projects for this year.

As usual, I am full of ambition to try all kinds of small-scale livestock endeavors.  With an unlimited budget, I’d get two bobcalves to feed up, a handful of pigs, more chickens, turkeys, fruit trees, nut trees, berries, maybe a garden….

But our budget is not unlimited, and neither is our time.  We have to focus on what the farm needs most.  After we got our soil tests back, we realized that we could add fertility with fertilizer, or we could raise some chickens for meat and let them do the fertilization work with a net gain of some humanely-raised chicken.  Instead of raising Cornish Cross chickens, we are going to raise the Slow White broiler.  Predictably, Slow White broilers are slower-growing meat hybrid.   Unlike Cornish Crosses, Slow White broilers’ normal metabolisms allow them to forage, perch and engage in normal behaviors.  Manure from the chickens will add huge amounts of phosphorus to the soil, which our land needs very badly.   Plus, tasty chicken!  If you are interested in learning more about meat chicken breeds, I wrote an article in 2015 on just this topic.

To top off our phosphorus-enhancement plan, we are also adding turkeys and a breeding flock of geese to our plans.  The turkeys will follow the sheep.  Hopefully, they’ll help clean up parasites.  Matt talks often of the pet turkey his family had while he was growing up.  Turkey Lurkey inspired Matt’s disproportionate love of turkeys relative to other fowl.  I hope he finds a friend in our brood this summer.

Most exciting to me, we have an order for ten geese in our queue.  I’ve never raised geese before, but their predilection for eating primarily grass and their entertaining antics tempt me to give them a try.  If we like them, we’ll keep a few over the winter.  Researching geese has been really enjoyable.  If you are interested in having a Christmas goose (or a goose for any other occasion), let us know!

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Chores at 10F Below

We are in the midst of a pretty solid cold snap.   Nights have been below zero Fahrenheit, and some days have passed without the temperature hitting the positive side.  When your high is -10F, it’s a challenge to motivate.  On the coldest nights, the sheep even forget about their complex social order and just snuggle with anyone available, even a herdmate whom they’d butt away from the feeder under other circumstances.   We have blocked off some areas of the barn with haybales to reduce airflow and help maintain warmth.

Cloverworks Farm

We are now filling waters by hand with five-gallon buckets.  It is too cold to use the hoses, but I am grateful that the frost-free pump has stayed true to its name.   Many mornings, the buckets show a solid ring of frost from water evaporation.  Some of the ewes like to eat snow on principle- a bit of a slap in the face for the person who slowly hauls 20 or 30 gallons of water into the barn twice a day!  All of that schlepping has helped me get the right amount of exercise for my foot, at least.

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Since we have  quite a bit of snow, I had to clean off the roof of the barn.  I use a standard roof rake, but instead of scraping the snow off the roof, I bump the underside of the barn cover.  The snow usually slides right off with a whiff-wump sound.    The sheep feel that this is terrible, even though they would probably agree that it is in their interests not to have the barn collapse from the weight of the snowload.  They wait out in the run area, avoiding the sound and motion.

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Some remaining ice-crusts on the other side of the fabric.

Cloverworks Farm

I am writing this on the morning when our first lamb of the year was born.   A healthy little girl who got up and nursed without assistance.  We didn’t have to pen them or anything.  She’s completely loveable, with classic pink ears.  She is a Border Leicester/BFL cross, so I’ll be keen to see how she grows up.