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Snow Too Soon

I’ll be the first to admit that we put off fixing the barn for too long. Though we have a wide-ranging array of skills, neither Matt nor I are woodworkers. Wood is a tricky medium – it warps, shrinks, grows and splits. Matt prefers metal, plastic and electronics, and I prefer spreadsheets and graphics.

So the barn went unmended for months as we pondered an approach. Finally, we decided it was time to cough up for outside help. On Saturday, exactly a year after the back of the barn tore in half, friends helped us replace the back and front panels of the barn. Our friend will be back to work on adding some wooden framing to solidify the canvas and reduce flapping, which should extend the life of the front and back panels. But since he is doing this after work, we’ll have to wait a few more days for the barn to be finished.

So an unfinished work-zone barn is the context we had when we saw the weather report calling for snow. A bit of snow at this time of year is commonplace, but when we woke up this morning, it was clear we’d had a proper snowstorm. Strong winds were blowing the falling snow across the landscape and our house was buffetted by whiteout gusts.

Sheep will graze through a good amount of snow, but we don’t want them to struggle to find sustenance under difficult conditions. My first action was to move all three groups to areas with sheltering trees. What a slog – the wind was whipping past, making the fence tough to manage. I struggled to keep my hands warm and the snow was just deep enough to impede my stride. But at last, both the Border Leicesters and the Bluefaced Leicesters had trees to block the prevailing winds.

Then, we opened a bale of hay and transported it to the Borders pasture. We rolled about 1/3 of the bale out and warched the ewes go wild for it. As much as sheep love fresh grass, hay is a desirable “convenience food” when the grass is buried. Soon, all were munching contentedly. We picked up the remaining bale and brought it to the Blues, who dug in with gusto just as their Border friends did. Finally, we went to see the lambs, who are in a far flung field protected from the worst of the winds. The lambs came gamboling down to see us and dug right into the core of the bale.

We have another day of freezing weather and hay feeding before temperatures transition back into the 60s. Hopefully, the barn will be finished soon and the sheep will go into their shelter for the winter months.

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Running of the Rams

I felt grateful for a morning full of sunshine this morning. We’re well past our first frost and we know that snow is right around the corner, so it wasn’t surprising to step out to 35F temperatures and a crisp wind.

I usually get started by filling the water tank in the bucket of the tractor. We recently replaced our old Ford with a New Holland that’s 20 years newer. The Ford had a bumpy ride that irritates my internal scar tissue from past surgeries, so upgrading has really helped my health.

Aboard the tractor, I headed up to check on the BFLs who are in a breeding group pasture on our neighbor’s property. I spot two cyclists who are looking at me, then I see one of our off-duty rams running loose. That’s bad. Very bad. Our off-duty rams are in a horse pasture, and truthfully, they are not far enough from the BFL breeding group. We just didn’t have other options. So when I saw the off-duty ram heading for the ewes, ready to challenge the on-duty ram, I immediately worried that we would have a real ram-fight.

Fortunately, the electric fence succeeded in keeping the rams apart, so I contacted the cyclists. They told me that when they rode by, their cycles spooked the rams, causing Hermie the BFL ram to bust through the fence. They had been trying to keep Sam the Border Leicester ram inbounds while hoping that assistance would arrive. I’m so grateful that they stopped to help instead of leaving the situation.

I had some grain on hand to feed the ewes, so I tried to lure Hermie away from the girls. All amped up and nervous, he spooked at the grain bag sound instead of coming toward me. It was then that I noticed a large gash on his nose from challenging the fence. Poor Hermie! With grain-shaking getting me nowhere, I feed the BFL breeding group. That resulted in them ignoring Hermie, who responded by paying more attention to me. One cyclist returned with a bucket, and I was able to contact Matt for further backup.

It took slow, patient grain-luring to get Hermie back into his field. We were hoping to halter him, but he kept spooking and running in circles, so we concluded that our best hope was to feed out a little more grain in the field and to spray a sanitizing treatment on his wound there. Fortunately, we succeeded with that plan. Hermie now has a bold silver Aluspray blaze, and the fence has some new green stakes supporting the area where the the breakout took place.

It has been a long fall season for me. I haven’t kept up with the blog because I’ve been trying so hard to be nimble with Cloverworks yarn sales opportunities and busy with Bobolink Yarns efforts. It genuinely has been a hard year – I had hoped that this would be our breakout Rhinebeck year. We’ve learned that our yarn sells really well when people can touch it, but that we can’t rely on online sales as a substitute for in-person sales opportunities. That’s a tough realization, for certain.

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Lamb Shearing Day

Two day’s worth of preparation went in to getting 35 lambs shorn in an organized manner, but it was worth the effort for a smooth and pleasant experience.

First, a bit about why we shear lambs in the fall:
Last year, we fall-sheared lambs who would be “getting on the truck,” as it were. We ended up shearing a few Border Leicester ewe lambs who, when shorn, ended up having great breed character and structure. So we kept two shorn lambs over the winter among the unshorn “keeper” lambs. We carefully observed the shorn lambs for signs of discomfort, but all of them looked perfectly content and comfortable. By October, they had a good cover of wool and by November, a thick coat of wool covered them to keep them warm. Come spring shearing, the wool from the shorn lambs was picture-perfect and clean. Meanwhile, the unshorn lambs gave damaged fleeces with excessive growth, some of which were too felted to be usable. More importantly, the huge growth of wool disguised the thinness of some ewe lambs. Not what you want to find after a winter of feeding! The BFL over-wintered fleeces were cotted at the tips and challenging to clean and use, as well. So this year, we thought we’d try shearing everyone.

The first step was gathering the materials. We have a shorting chute that uses sheep psychology to gently organize and restrain the sheep. They are inclined to follow the curve and form a single-file line to get through. It’s gentler and less stressful than grabbing each sheep one by one. We used the chute as a “lamb dispenser” for Mary, our shearer. She’d complete one shearing, tidy up, and then we’d raise the gate and the next sheep would be queued up, right there.



Mary shears gently and swiftly. She removes any belly wool first, tidies the bum, and then gets on with the work of shearing all of the usable wool. The first stroke goes up the chest, and then Mary shears the front of the sheep, gradually peeling wool away using gravity. She goes down one side, around the back, and then rolls the sheep to access the other side. We had a few naughty lambs who kicked and put up a fuss – bad lambs! Our little bottle lamb, Sausage McWiggles, kept coming by for extra pets. She sniffed and investigated Mary while Mary was trying to shear other sheep. We did have to dismiss little Sausage.

After shearing, all of the lambs ran off baaing. As soon as they realized they were naked, they invariably got to work grooming and nibbling the little itchies that they’d been unable to address for months.



Once the fleece was off the sheep, it went straight to Donna Druchunas and husband Dom. They removed any dirty or undesirable wool straightaway and packed the fleece up. Sending Donna home with her favorite fleece of the day seemed like little payment for such great work, but that’s what she wanted most.

In prior years, we have used fall-shorn fleece to make roving and extra yarn. This year, with no Sheep and Wool Festivals happening in-person, we are going to sell this wool as raw fleece. It’s been a little while since we’ve offered raw fleece! I think you’re going to love the tiny ringlets of the BFL and the gorgeous crimp of the Border. We have white and natural Border and we have white BFL. We did not have many natural BFL lambs this year and those we had were sold.

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Excited for the Great Northern Yarn Haul

What a year for us to have decided to focus on getting more visitors on the farm, eh?

We’ve given a lot of thought to the risk factors in having farm visitors this year. Matt has risk factors, so we know we need to be careful. But that said, visitors will be walking outdoors with masks on in a context where remaining 6 feet or further apart presents no problems. No Covid-positive sheep are yet recorded, so there’s another worry sated!

Our plan involves showing visitors the nearest group of sheep by walking or briefly driving to their location and showing. After that, we also have an outdoor yarnshop set up on our back deck. We’ll be on break from grilling so we can have yarn out for you to enjoy in the open air. This also helps to keep product sanitary from group to group, as ultraviolet rays from the sun(the same ones that cause sunburn) are nature’s own disinfectant!

Enough about the tough stuff – let’s talk about the cool stuff!

We’ll be offering our own yarns as well as our Bobolink Yarns lines. This is your chance to learn a bit more about our new project and sample our three current Bobolink yarns side by side.

We’ll be premiering a new pattern by KnittyMelissa – the Apricity shawl is a gorgeous, charming shawl with a weave pattern along one edge. Originally made from our Greensboro Bend BFL Fingering, it would look amazing in either the BFL or the Derby Line Border Leicester Sport. Let your creativity go wild!

Apricity!

But Wait, There’s More!

Readers of the blog may know that we saw Meadow Moon by Jennifer Steingass and fell in love. We are offering $25 off 9 skeins or more of our Derby Line Border Leicester Sport to encourage folks to follow our lead making their own gorgeous sweater for Fall. I’m not just tooting my own horn when I say that our yarn really suits this pattern. Soft, drapey, easier to handle than the pattern-suggested two strands of laceweight: We don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Meadow Moon

Don’t worry – if you aren’t up to a shawl or a sweater, we have some fun kits and patterns for you to peruse.
And sale yarn – don’t forget the sale yarn!

So we are confident that we can invite you to enjoy our farm and our view without exchanging aerosols, and we look forward to seeing you!

And if you are not going out right now or would rather shop from home anyhow, internet visits count, too! Just be sure to leave a note or send me an email that you are part of GNYH.

More info about Great Northern Yarn Haul.

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Responding To A World Without Festivals

Recently, I wrote about our anxiety about the cancellation of VT Sheep and Wool Festival and Rhinebeck. I’m glad the festivals were cancelled – we simply cannot risk joining each other in crowds during a pandemic.

We’ve spent several weeks reimagining our sales efforts. We can’t rely on folks to come find our yarn, touch it and fall in love, so we need to focus on visuals to really bring the yarn to you. Here’s what we’ve come up with:

For our Derby Line Border Leicester, we went searching for a flattering pattern that’s just right for all of the extra knitting time many of us have working at home. Dozens of patterns later, I fell in love with Meadow Moon from Jennifer Steingass. It’s a simple, modern sweater design that flatters a lot of shapes and sizes. The pattern is highly-rated and clearly written. The pattern is on sale at the moment so now is a great time to nab this cute pattern. You have the whole summer to knit this sweater that will be your go-to sweater all Fall.

With a pattern in mind, I chose my colorways carefully. I would need dark, rich semi-neutrals that would look good in a large colorblock and contrasting light colors to contrast. Of course, you could always choose a light sweater color with a dark contrast, too!

We’ve also created some fun variegated colorways – there’s no rhyme or reason, just ideas that I had and carried out:

For the BFL, I focused on colors for our favorite shawl, the Vermont Maple Shawl from Melissa Beyer, aka KnittyMelissa. This shawl is grand and simply gorgeous. Our soft and drapey BFL yarn compliments the flow of the garment perfectly.

We have several yarns and sets that would be amazing options for this gorgeous shawl.

And if these patterns aren’t your jam, there are still thousands of gorgeous ideas on Ravelry. I always love seeing what folks make from our sheep flock’s hard work!

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A World Without Festivals

We just got news that DCSWF, commonly known as Rhinebeck, will be cancelled for 2020. Clearly, this decision makes sense: Dutchess County has a high caseload of Covid-19, and a festival where 60,000 attendees walk around in close quarters could be an invitation for disaster. From a vendor perspective, Rhinebeck is an expensive and time-consuming show to attend. It would have been challenging to attend Rhinebeck in a context of building occupancy limits or limited attendance and still have made the revenue we need to cover expenses. Earlier in June, we were informed that VT Sheep and Wool Festival was also cancelled for 2020. While we have signed up for a few other shows, those were our main events and an important source of revenue .

It’s really hard to envision exactly how we will sell our yarn in a world without fiber festivals. Customers need to feel the yarn. Yarn is a tactile experience . I am convinced that exposure to natural textures makes fibercraft as relaxing and soothing as it is. Moreover, fiber festivals connect our customers to the sheep. At the VT Sheep and Wool Fest, customers would often pet our sheep and then buy the wool the sheep gave, creating a beautiful, complete circuit. If one in one hundred visitors considers raising sheep and a few of those folks follow through, the future of sheepraising is a little more secure.

Both festival directorships are currently planning a digital festival. I very much hope that it will help fibersellers salvage this year. At the same time, I worry that with online shopping as their only option, fiberists and fiberistas will not branch out from familiar vendors and yarns. It’s easy and tempting to stick to old favorites, and reassuring that superwash Merino is as predictable as the sunrise. I hope, though, that our patrons will take a little risk to try something new even when touch is unavailable. It would be a great shame to see smaller self-raised vendors die off.

Just so we’re not leaving on such a glum note, I have two creative solutions to my worries above. One is that we offer samples of our yarn. I’m happy to send you a few yards to touch and knit up so you can touch the yarn before committing to a larger purchase. Second is that I offer simple websites to folks who need a helping hand getting their fiber flock online. I can also advise folks about setting up a webstore and choosing a platform. Get in touch if you are a fiber-seller who needs a little help getting online.

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Tours and a Sheep FAQ

We are relaunching tours here at Cloverworks Farm! We want to share our sheep and our vision of a more sustainable food and textile future with you. Enjoy our beautiful scenery and meet our charming sheep!

We will be offering tours by appointment. Tours will be entirely outdoors. Tours will be socially distanced – visitors will be asked to stay at least 6 feet away from us. Out of state visitors must meet VT quarantine requirements to be eligible to visit. We want to share the farm with you, but we have to keep ourselves safe and healthy for the farm to function.

Sheep FAQ

We get a lot of similar questions from folks about our sheep – Here are all of the questions you’ve been wondering about but haven’t wanted to ask:

How often are sheep shorn?

Some breeds are shorn twice a year, but we shear our adults only once per year in early Spring. We shear early so that the ewes are wool-less at lambing time. That helps us see the ewe’s labor, helps the lambs find the teats, and encourages the ewe to lamb in shelter rather than out in the snow!

Does shearing hurt the sheep?

Shearing is just a haircut. Once in a while, a sheep might get nicked but overall, the sheep always seem relieved of their heavy wool. Mine go straight for fence post and scratch all of their itches that have gone unrelieved for a few months.

Do you spin your own yarn?

With over 100 pounds of wool from our sheep each year, we cannot possibly hand-spin our yarn. Our yarn is locally mill-spun. We offer batts and roving to handspinners who enjoy spinning BFL and Border Leicester wool.

What do all of the sheep terms mean?

  • Ewe: A female sheep
  • Ram: An intact male sheep
  • Wether: A neutered male sheep
  • Lamb: any sheep under 1 year of age. A 9 month old could weigh 150 pounds and still be a “lamb”
  • Breedstock: Sheep of high enough quality for breeding. Not every sheep born meets this definition.
  • Flock: A group of sheep
  • Herd: A group of goats, cattle, or other non-sheep ruminants

How can you tell sheep from goats?

Most sheep have wool and no goats do, but some sheep have hair that can resemble the coat of a goat. Most easily, goat tails point up and sheep tails point down.

What is wool?

Once upon a time, sheep had dual coats with guard hairs on the outside and insulating wool beneath. Shepherds grew tired of having itchy hairs in their wool garments, so they gradually bred sheep not to have guard hairs any more. Wool is the insulating former-undercoat that sheep grow. It is structurally distinct from hair or fur and shouldn’t be referred to by those terms. Only sheep grow wool – other fiber animals grow fiber such as cashmere and mohair from goats or alpaca and llama from camelids.

I have a few acres that I want mowed – should I get sheep?

Raising sheep is more intensive and complicated than just putting them on a pasture and leaving them there to eat. I recommend sheep for people who are interested in maintaining open land AND who are passionate about animal care and management. Using a lawnmower is less overall work compared to an equivalent number of sheep.

Are we eating baby lambs?

Not really. Sheep are fully mature at one year old. Lambs that go to slaughter are not tiny babies -they are well-grown “adolescents” who weigh over 100 pounds.

What does a “Sheep Year” look like?

  • In March, our lambs are born. The ewes raise their lambs for three months. At the end of three months, most lambs weigh 50 pounds or more and are ready for independence. Remember, prey animals have to grow up fast in order to be less vulnerable to predation.
  • Our sheep graze on grass all summer long- we rotate them to new pastures daily. The hunt for tasty grass is mentally stimulating to the sheep and optimizes their nutrition intake, too.
  • By fall, most lambs weigh more than 100 pounds. We only need one ram for every 20 ewes, so we only keep the very best rams for that job. The rest go in the freezer.
  • Breeding season also takes place in the Fall. We separate the ewes into breeding groups and send a ram in with each group. This allows us to pure-breed our Border Leicesters and Bluefaced Leicesters for pedigree purposes.
  • After breeding season, the ewes go into the barn and the rams to their separate shelter area. The sheep eat hay all winter.
  • Sheep gestation lasts 5 months. Our sheep typically have twins, but can have singles, triplets and even quads. We prefer when they have twins because that ensures that all of the lambs get plenty of milk from their ewe’s two teats. Sometimes, one of the triplets in a set gets less than the others, meaning we have to intervene to feed the weaker lamb.
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How to get your Lambs Out

Background: It’s spring. The grass is finally up after several late-season snowstorms and you can see your BFL former-bottle-lamb Sue with a mischevious glint in her eye. She’s tested every inch of the loafing area fence for weakness and now she’s just waiting, WAITING for someone to latch it wrong so she can make her bid for freedom. In past years, the sheep have, in fact, dismissed themselves from confinement and spread out across our generous front lawn area to graze. We do use the lawn for grazing, but only after blocking sheep from accessing the wellhead. Nothing spells defeat like having to shock your well because your sheep dropped a few ewe-berries into it.

Step 1: Stress out for a week trying to think of possible exigencies. Could the ewes turn left and run up the driveway and into the road? Could they turn right and run down to the rich wet area full of burdocks? Will there be a cold rain that could hurt the smaller lambs? How will we deal with the lambs that are in the isolation ward? This kind of preparation is not my strength. I’d rather make five complicated spreadsheets in an hour than try to develop a step-by-step physical plan.

Step 2: Phone a Friend – Dom and Donna Druchunas seem to like visiting my sheep, so it seemed only natural to press-gang them into wrangling the sheep out of the barn. They cheerfully said yes to my request for assistance, unaware…

Step 3: Have you ever tried to secretly build a fence? If your sheep baa because you’ve approached the garage where they know the grain is kept, then you’ll understand why I took pains to sneak around with fencing so they wouldn’t serenade me for the whole 90 minute setup time. I reserve the right to enjoy my podcast-listening-time.

Step 4: The Shuffle – With a little quick thinking, we took the lambs away from the ewes in isolation. We then took Sam the ram and two cull ewes out of the main group. Then we blocked off the creep area and removed all lambs from it so they can’t hang out in there.

Step 5: Chaos. We opened the fence and opened the gate with some portable gates blocking the sheep from running up or down the driveway. The ewes all exited in a huge mass. They ran, pronking and kicking out, onto the grass and set to work eating. Their lambs did not, though. The lambs have never left the barn before, so they were reluctant to run out, even to follow their mothers. They stayed behind, bawling. Dom and Donna were assigned to shuffle lambs forward, but the lambs really gave them a run for their money. Lambs dashed to try to get into the creep, and they thwarted every attempt at predictable herd behavior. Bottle lambs followed us like dogs while confused general-population rams ran in circles, crying. It took a lot of yelling, shooing and regrouping to try to get all of the lambs out. Lambs knocked down temporary blocks and a few got out of the barn and loafing area completely.

Step 6: Technically, we won. Even though getting the lambs out took a solid half hour and left us all sweating and gasping for breath, we only carried five lambs to pasture bodily. Last year, the carried-lamb-count was 30. So that’s a win, I guess!

Step 7: Bonus Content – the exertion of going out onto pasture was just enough to send 1616, last seen actively breeding with Oliver on pregnancy-scanning day, into labor. In a half an hour, she had squeezed out adorable BFL/Border cross twins! She’s doing well and the lambs are healthy.

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Waiting for Grass

Everyone on the farm is waiting for grass right now.

Every time we step outside, a sheep in the barnyard notices and starts to baa. Soon, a resounding chorus of baaing joins her, and I endure a jeering crowd as I walk to the garden. They can see that the grass has emerged and that it’s green. What they can’t see is that it is so short that it would last them half an hour, max. So we wait for the grass to grow without being able to tell the sheep why. And they resent us, slightly.

Most ewes lambed in February and early March. The stragglers were about done by mid March and we were grateful to return to a normal sleep schedule at that point. Just today, though, one of our yearling ewes dropped a sweet little ram lamb who reminds us that the sassy, leaping lambs were once tender baby lambs.

I’ve started a garden for the first time in years. I’m not immune to the gentle surge of our culture back towards self-sufficiency. We’ll have peas, potatoes, lettuce and cilantro of our own to enjoy. I did go straight to the things we eat the most- the garden is only 15x15ft. Matt admonished me not to bite off more than I could chew, as is my tendency, so my huge garden bed got whittled down to something we are sure we can manage.

Here’s that new lamb:

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Obligatory Covid Post, I Suppose

To tell the truth, not much has changed for us in a world without social interaction. We focus on the ewes and lambs at this time of year. We have 73 little lambs, most thriving and gaining and a few special ones that we’re trying to nurture.

But even though social distancing is just how we live generally here and even though our area has had only 9 cases during this whole situation, we can’t deny the changes afoot.

We have seen a surge in meat orders as people look to local again to feed them. There’s nothing like seeing whole megacorp meat plants being shut down due to illness and contamination to remind you that local and decentralized sourcing minimizes the hands that touch your provisions. Personally, I think it’s time to consider that the consolidated model will be a problem every time a new disease emerges, and that Covid-19 will not be the last disease we see. We are running low on lamb right now

Preventing egg shortages starts at home, says this tiny Brahma chick.

We have also gratefully enjoyed a huge surge in yarn purchases. Our 2020 yarns are back from the mill and I am skeining and dyeing like mad. We have a new shawl pattern coming up from KnittyMelissa that we’re very excited to launch. I’ve also made some gradients that will go wonderfully with the Vermont Maple Shawl we featured at Rhinebeck last year. We have more new patterns in the works, too!


Speaking of Rhinebeck, there’s a lot of “what if” out there about the likelihood of large gatherings like Rhinebeck going forward, now or in the future. I admit I am scared. I depend on big shows like Rhinebeck and VT Sheep and Wool to help me sell product. Yarn is tactile – people want to touch it, see it knitted, feel the fabric. I hope that they will adjust to a world of trying new yarns online. I wonder if samples would help – I used to offer yarn samples for $1 that came with a dollar-off coupon if you bought the yarn, but I never had many takers. Maybe now is the time to try that again?

More broadly, I wonder what the new normal will look like. We have had an uptick in lamb sales, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Just like in the Great Recession, folks seem to be remembering that being self-sufficient and capable really matters when our fragile distribution systems break down and fail. I’ve never been more grateful for our freezer full of stocked-up food now that continued shortages are projected. Centralized systems for transport and food are failing and centralized spaces full of people are where the illness has spread the most. With companies considering whether working at home might be the new normal, now is a great time to return to the countryside where you can have the goats, sheep and chickens you’ve been wanting. Homes are cheap and much of the land wants for good stewardship and a bit of care. Supply chain disruption shows us that “city conveniences” have been illusions all along.