For five years, I have been driving a 2003 Tacoma 4×4 V6 with a series of terrible truckcaps. We bought a truck in 2013 when we accepted the fact that we needed to stop putting livestock in our Nissan Versa. Those of you who know me in person or who meet me should ask about what it’s like to drive a Nissan full of ducks from Randolph to Craftsbury in a compact hatchback.
From the start, I loved everything about the truck- I loved being able to drive in mud season, I found that I was able to improve my car propriaception with the vantage point that the cab offered me. With a cap on the truck, we were able to move sheep safely, move manure, move supplies, move trash, move everything. In 2014, I moved myself from Brookfield to Essex Junction and then to Williston. Then we filled the truck every morning and moved to the home we bought.
We have gone through many repairs and updates. The frame and many frame elements were replaced in 2014 when a rust hole was found. We have a sweet custom rear differential case after the original developed a hole. There are some zipties on the bumper. It’s a Vermont vehicle.
But now we have a stock trailer so we can move more than a few sheep at a time. That trailer and sheep together just about hit the maximum towing capacity of the truck. Before I learned about motors from Matt, I assumed that towing too much weight damaged the engine. Now I understand that it actually grinds down the breaks and strains the engine cooling capacity, while putting strain on the frame and suspension as well. Since we will be transporting sheep to Maine, we need something newer, more powerful and more reliable. The Tacoma has never let me down, but I don’t want it to kick the bucket somewhere on Route 2.
So I sold it for $2400 today to Craftsbury Garage, hoping that I can keep a few dollars local as we go to find an F150 with the right array of options- good for towing, but no fancy bits.
Midnight: Matt tells me that Chloe is starting labor – she has a bag protruding and is restlessly shifting. I set an alarm to wake up in 90 minutes.
1:44 – I can see on the Barn Cam that Chloe has birthed one black lamb. Out to the barn I go to find a large, handsome ram lamb. I set Chloe up with a pen, and I notice a foot sticking out of Chloe. Usually, lambs are born in a crouched position, front legs forward. The sole of this hoof was facing upward- clearly the hind leg of a lamb coming out backwards. Lambs can be born backwards, but it is usually smart to help; the umbilical cord will break before the lamb’s head is out, prompting the lamb to breathe. If the lamb tries to breathe while its head is still inside, it can drown. I locate the second leg and a thin white lamb slips right out. She coughs and splutters and finally manages a big inhale and a tiny “maaahhh.” I towel her and her brother off, as it’s quite chilly out and they can chill before they muster the energy to stand.
Back in the house, I set an alarm for 2 hours.
3:44 – Despite my hopes, the lambs have chilled and aren’t standing well. Chloe doesn’t look great herself, spending an unusual amount of time lying down. I focus on the lambs – I bring them in, mix them up some stored colostrum and give them a quick first meal to help them along. I’ve found that often, a little energy boost gives them what they need to stand up and learn to nurse. Failure to intervene would likely result in hypothermic or dead lambs in the morning. I warm the lambs by the fire and feed each one. Both respond well, and soon they have little coats on and are headed back to Mom. I know that they can make it through to morning on this feeding, even if they don’t decode nursing on their own.
Back in bed at 5am.
At 8am, Matt goes out to do morning chores. Usually, this is my job, but Matt has kindly agreed to let me sleep given all of the hustle and bustle overnight. He comes back immediately, reporting that the ram lamb is bleeding out! I had noticed that the ewe lamb was bleeding more than usual from her umbilicus, but I didn’t really register it as an emergency. When Matt brought the ram in, however, he was weak and shaking, with a massive sausage-like bruised mass of an umbilicus. (I’m putting the photo of this at the very bottom of the post- it will be educational for shepherds but it’s more gross than I usually show). The vet confirms my suspicion – it didn’t look like a hernia where all of the intestines are coming out. I tied the umbilicus off with six inches of button thread from Matt’s sewing kit and we offered the ram lamb some electrolytes. In minutes, he was up and more alert. Success!
At 9am, we are noting that the ewe lamb isn’t nursing. Matt and I take some time trying to nursing-train her. We get her to latch, but she didn’t drink a lot. We are still concerned about Chloe, and it occurs to me that she could have a mild case of Milk Fever, which happens when the body deploys too much calcium to provide milk for the lambs, leaving the ewe’s calcium levels low. We ground some Tums in our coffee grinder and added water to make a drench. Some Tums and hot molasses-water had Chloe looking brighter.
We debated what to do about the ewe lamb- would she be better off on the bottle? How much intervention is too much? How do we provide just enough help without lessening her chances of ever nursing from her mother? Even after seven years of kidding and lambing, I always ponder this question at length. Matt and I agree that if she is too weak, we will bring her in for warming and go from there.
I go back to sleep after this- it’s now 11am.
I’m a little vague on times after this, but Matt went back to keep working on getting the lambs to nurse. Once the ram wasn’t bleeding, he was up and at-em, nursing away. But the ewe still needed help. He milked Chloe into a bottle and fed the ewe lamb, but couldn’t get her to latch.
At 3pm, I was up for the day and went out. Finally, after lots of patient guidance, the ewe lamb latches and suckles for several minutes. I let her go, and she latches herself and nurses again! Doing a victory dance in the middle of their bonding pen would have been counterproductive, so I saved that for my announcement of the news to Matt back in the house.
We will keep monitoring this little family, but finally, I am comfortable that everything is headed in the right direction.
Here’s the hemorrhaged umbilicus, for those who want to see it:
I thought you all might appreciate some bonus photos of the lambs in the barn. Every time I got to do some chores, they are up to something silly:
But sheep-raising as a living is more than just cute critters. I’ve been working through pounds and pounds of wool from shearing. We sent 40 pounds of raw wool to two different mills, hoping to see which will make the yarn we like the best. Most will be white Border Leicester yarn, with some natural colored Border yarn and some CormoX, too!
My usual approach is to categorize wool into four piles: the cleanest wool goes for raw Handspinning fleece. Acceptable but not ultra-clean wool goes to the mill. Wool that is too dirty for the mill will be hand-picked and hand-combed by me until it will make a good batt or roving. And finally, if I can’t clean it or if it is britch or belly wool, it goes to compost. I’m pretty picky, so we also have 30 pounds of wool in the compost category.
I’ve been madly cleaning and carding, resulting in lots of lovely batts. YouTube has given me a few tips, so stand by for some roving! I am especially excited to try the techniques. So far, the Bluefaced Leicester is clearly much softer than the Border Leicester, but both are lovely and will be a joy to spin. The Border Leicester has finally showed me its beautiful luster! My picture of the natural Bluefaced Leicester Batts isn’t completely true-to-color – the wool is a rich coffee-bean brown with gray highlights.
I hope you will take a moment to check out the shop to see our array of wool products!
We’ve been having a few eye issues in the flock of late.
Chloe, a beautiful ewe from Maryland, developed a cloudiness in her left eye recently. It looked like she managed to get a solid poke in the eye, and our vet comfirmed such. So we are giving her some eye ointment that might increase her healing rate and comfort. Unfortunately, Chloe is already on the shy side, and we were only able to sneak in and get her about four doses before she wised up and began to assiduously avoid us. I have often wished that there were a way to communicate to sheep that they’ll be happier with the help. We’ve abandoned chasing Chloe for now, especially as the treatments we did manage clearly helped a lot and she is still making progress.
The other eye case is a little weirder and more complex. One of the lambs born last Friday had strange-looking eyes. He was newborn and gunky, so it was hard to pinpoint exactly what was going on. Gradually, it became apparent that he had some sort of eye issue. Our first thought was Entropion, where the lower eyelid is folded inward so the eyelashes irritate and injure the eye. But we couldn’t find any sign of lower eyelashes at all.
The vet came to look at both sheep. Part of being Animal Welfare Approved is providing treatment when treatment is needed, not leaving animals to “fend” and suffer. Our vet felt like the lamb had some defect or issue in-utero that is expressing itself outside. The little ram does play with his friends and is active, but does behave as though he is not completely sighted. So we have been treating him with ointments, drops and antibiotics, trying to improve his condition. Like Chloe, he now avoids us like the plague and associates us with mean stuff. It’s so hard to do what is right but sometimes uncomfortable for the animal. He is on the mend, as demonstrated by his increasing ability to evade me, so I know that the medications are helping.
Everyone else looks fantastic. The lambs are bouncy and jolly, and I can see on the shorn ewes that most are in fantastic condition. Fred has been showing off his lovely conformation and I finally got a good picture to show you the difference between 2 month old Agnes and a 5 day old lamb (probably the brother of our cloudy-eyed guy).
Friday: I was cleaning up the house and buying groceries in anticipation of shearing on Sunday and my mom coming up to celebrate her birthday among the sheep.
Saturday: At 8am, Mom calls to say that Grandma is dying. I try to keep personal stuff off this blog so I haven’t talked extensively about this, but Grandma has been sick with dementia and heart failure for the last five years. She went into comfort care at the end of February. I finish chores and hop in the truck, but I get to New Hampshire about 30 minutes after Grandma passed. We spend Saturday together as a family, just trying to comfort each other after such a long journey with Grandma’s illness. We toasted Grandma with white wine with ice cubes in it, as was her preference and shared memories of her.
I had called Mary, our shearer to cancel shearing, but I realize that some distraction is just the right thing for the family. So I asked Mary if I could un-cancel our shearing on Sunday morning, so we could still have Mom’s birthday activity. This may sound a little heartless, but I hope you will believe me when I say that there was little left to process in this passing. We all were able to say our farewells to Grandma and we’ve been mourning every loss of memory and capacity as they have transpired. Her passing was a release and a reprieve from suffering.
Saturday at Midnight: I drove 3 hours back to Vermont and arrived at 10pm. Matt let me know that Pearl the BFL was in labor. At midnight, she delivered a ewe and a lamb. We checked them throughout the night, and on little sleep I woke up early to prepare for shearing.
Sunday Morning When I got to the barn at 7am, I found Amethyst the BFL in labor as well as Ohio-72! Ohio-72 had two rams at 7:30 and Amethyst had a ram and a ewe at 8:30. Matt scrambled to repair a broken lambing jug so we could house all of these new lambs.
BFL/Border twin rams
Some BFL twins
I prepared the pen for shearing and lugged our shearing board out to the barn. Needless to say, we weren’t entirely ready for Mary when she arrived to shear, but she knew we’d had a long weekend already. We were up and running in about 20 minutes. It took 4 hours to shear the whole flock. The ewes all looked relieved to be free of their hot fleeces. Meadowlark stopped panting.
We all enjoyed lunch together, dining on the breakfast sandwiches I had meant to make in the morning! Then we sat and relaxed for a bit before going to to the garage to sort some fleeces. Mom and I have an arrangement to get the wool to one of the mills we plan to use this year and we know we need to get it to them ASAP. We started skirting the 13 white Border Leicester fleeces and made it through 9 of them. The necks and backs of the fleeces were dirty and we threw away all of the britch wool, but the sides were perfect.
By evening, I was starting to feel a little scratchiness in my throat. We feted Mom with a lamb loin roast and brussels sprouts and potatoes. We had all of the ingredients for the cake I had meant to make on Saturday, but Mom wasn’t really feeling the need for more food, so we just ate the oranges instead. None of us had slept properly in the last few days, so we were all in bed by 8pm.
Monday: I woke up on Monday feeling very poorly. Mom and I got it together to finish the wool skirting, but Mom felt like she’d rather leave early than contract whatever was brewing inside me. I took to the couch and wrapped myself in blankets, and Mom headed home. Poor Matt has had to do all of the animal management for the rest of Monday and the beginning of Tuesday.
Tuesday: I felt much better after a good lie-down and a sound sleep. Despite still feeling weak and headache-y, Matt and I did our routine to release ewes and lambs from the bonding jugs where they’ve been getting used to each other for two days. We dosed each lamb and all of the ewes with Vitamin E and BoSE, and trimmed the ewes hooves. We docked tails only on BFL ewe lambs, leaving the tails long enough to cover the bum. Neither ewe lamb squirmed, so I think we were successful at minimizing discomfort (docking early and banding between the bones of the tail makes a huge difference).
We are now relaxing after too much stress, sorrow and sickness. We didn’t want to go to Town Meeting in case my illness is contagious, so that will wait for next year. It looks like Summer the ewe will have her lambs very soon, so the excitement continues even as we try to sit down for a minute. The farm never sleeps, even if the farmers would really like to.
Many of you may be wondering how Steven Jr., our bottle lamb, is doing. I’d like to report that he is doing very well. He was born on February 23rd, early in the morning. By that Sunday, he was finally getting up and walking on his own.
We gradually moved him to the barn. Living indoors isn’t healthy for sheep and he needs to learn to live socially with other sheep. We left him alone outside for one hour and brought him in. We then tried two hours out and four, and finally an overnight. He adjusted fine to the temperatures, as we’ve had quite a thaw in the last little bit. Getting used to other sheep has been harder. He baas a lot and seems to irritate them with his lack of lamb social skills, but they are patient and generally kind.
He found a friend in Ohio-65’s ram lamb. They are the same size and age, and their common interests are sleeping in the sun and play-butting each other. Steven isn’t really big enough to run around with the bigger, older lambs, so he sticks with his buddy. He has also grown impressively – we are pleased with how well he is doing on milk replacer. His mother, Dalek, doesn’t seem to acknowledge him, so there was no possibility of him returning to her care.
I was very worried about him when he was born- a lamb that can’t stand has very poor prospects unless it can make huge gains quickly because they can’t digest their food properly lying on one side. Steven completely surpassed my hopes for his recovery and I’m happy to have this cheerful little fellow in the barn.
We have 10 lambs on the ground and we’re waiting for more. With all of the girls pregnant and rather waddly, I took the opportunity to tackle a long overdue project: Identify my Border Leicesters and put names to faces.
Sue Johnson sold me 14 lovely prime-age Borders- 5 black and 9 white. One of the white ones succumbed to an irreparable leg injury, leaving 8 white ewes. The ewes have small flock-tags with four numbers, and round, white USDA Scrapie tags. The issue is that the flock tags are small and the scrapie tags are grubby. Some ewes are missing their flock tags altogether. This flock is pedigreed and registered, so I wanted to figure out which sheep needed replacement flock tags and how I might keep track of the new tags.
Sheep move quickly and though the flock has calmed down considerably since the week when we tried to get them into the barn, most still won’t let me get within 4 feet of their ears so I can read dirty tags. Nevertheless, I was able to determine that I had 7/8 white Border Leicesters that I should have. But I also had a mystery. I had a ewe on hand tagged as 1620, but she wasn’t on the purchase list. I also had no sign of ewe 2507, even after matching the scrapie tags all up. I let Sue know, and we soon realized that she had accidentally sent me the wrong sheep. She was embarrassed to have mis-loaded a ewe, and I was embarrassed to have not known for six months, so we called it even and had a good laugh.
Here are some photos from my ewe-ID adventures:
I have a bit more to say about Sue Johnson’s flock: She has many more sheep to sell as she downsizes to a more manageable flock size. These sheep are really fine animals and are perfect for flocks managed as an enterprise. They have desirable wool and grow out large (Sue had some ram lambs dress out at 70 lbs!). Too many Vermont sheep farms lose money because they raise breeds that finish too small, making it challenging to recoup the cost of slaughter with just 35 lbs of meat. These Border Leicesters are productive and very easy to care for. They have sweet personalities and jolly little faces.
We would like to find someone who would like 10 or more and who would keep them purebred for both meat and wool traits. Sue has provided me with helpful mentorship. With another nearby farm with similar goals, it would be much easier to justify bringing expensive but high-quality rams from flocks across the country.
Could you be the shepherd for this flock? Get in touch: