A few days ago, we noticed that ewe 1417 had developed a hernia-like lump on her side. Heartbroken, we had to acknowledge that she ruptured her prepubertal tendon. Uncomfortable and vulnerable to pushing and shoving from other sheep, we placed her in her own space so she could eat and drink freely. We are very concerned with her comfort.
Based on our concern, we decided that inducing lambing would be a good choice for 1417. The lambs would certainly be viable, and she could get relief as soon as the lambs were out. We administered meds, and then the waiting began. For a while, it seemed like nothing was happening. Then, after delivering twins from Clementine, we noticed that she was discharging some goo. It was hard to see labor in 1417 – I assume that losing a key tendon might make her muscles function differently. So I reached in and found she was ready to deliver two smallish lambs. The first was a normal, healthy lamb, the second a smallish weak lamb. We rushed the weak one into the farmhouse while allowing the ewe to begin licking the stronger lamb.
While we were debating what to do with the weaker lamb, we checked on the ewe to find her slowly birthing a third lamb. We thought there might be more in there, but I hadn’t been able to identify them with my hands while examining. Triplets made a lot of sense given the size of the belly of the ewe. We borrowed lamb #1 for a bit and let Momma lick lamb #3. Normally, we would let Momma lick all of the lambs and only assist in drying the lambs a little, but we knew that the weakened ewe would struggle to keep up with too many lambs. After lamb #3 straightened out, Matt went to town for some colostrum replacer. The ewe had none, owing to being induced before her udder was prepared. We took some colostrum from Clementine, who fortunately had a huge supply. Colostrum is vitally important for normal immune function in lambs.
I went out to check on how lamb #3 was doing, only to find 1417 delivering lamb #4, a huge ram. It’s strange to admit this, but I felt better about the ewe’s injury knowing that with such an excess of lambs, she was in great danger of issues or injuries of some kind. Four lambs is simply too many.
Decision time: Momma ewe was not going to be able to raise four lambs in her compromised condition. We delivered the ram lamb to a friend who will raise him. We have the weakest lamb plus a second ewe lamb in the house, and Momma has one lamb to raise, which is about all she’s going to be able to manage. No sooner were the quads delivered but Chloe the BFL had twins, and at the 3am check I was up for an hour and a half caring for 1601’s new Border triplets. So everyone is exhausted and strugging and chugging coffee, but we’ve successfully started our first -ever set of quadruplet lambs here at Cloverworks Farm.
The forecast promised us warming temperatures this week. Perfect for lambing after a sharp cold snap. We awoke on 2/22 to find two perfect Bluefaced Leicester lambs waiting for us from Pearl.
These first lambs precipitated six more over the next four days. We assisted with one case of tangled triplets. The first lamb had his head backwards, so it just took a bit of help to get him oriented correctly. One of this trio of brothers needed a little warming.
This morning, I awoke to find a single ewe lamb snuggling with her mother, already warm and dry. Perfect! I got her situated and then ran errands in Hardwick. On my way home, a friend phoned to ask if I could come help with a difficult lambing. She had been working for an hour and couldn’t reach the vet. Sometimes we just need another set of hands on the problem. So I set off to assist with tangled twins.
We entered the barn to find the ewe lying down uncomfortably. In this case, the extra-large shoulders of the first lamb were blocking the exit, and his sister’s hind legs were also in the mix. Yikes! A gentle massaging of the cervix around the shoulders sent the ram lamb shooting into my waiting arms. Since it was hind legs from the second lamb, I pulled her out as quickly as I could so she wouldn’t take her first breath while still inside Mom. Both lambs seemed fine despite our intense ministrations and Momma ewe looked relieved. A cup of tea and a shepherd-to-shepherd chat session felt good after that.
Matt and I had plans to go to the Taste of Vermont event at Jay Peak this evening. I knew, though, that if I planned to go, lambs were sure to show up and sure enough, they did. As I completed the last session of chores before hopping in the car, I noticed that Frances had toes protruding. She’d had triplets last year, so it felt prudent to stay and observe. A decent-sized ram lamb appeared first, followed by a lovely ewe. Momma barely had time to start licking the second ewe when the third set of toes and nostrils appeared. Two ewes and a ram, all perfectly blue and very lovely.
Six down, 35-40 to go (since we don’t know precisely how many yearlings are pregnant but due later in the season).
I often meet folks who are considering getting sheep. Many bashfully tell me that they only want a small flock and some seem to worry that they are wasting my time asking questions.
Questions are never a waste of time! Judging from the kinds of questions that I see in sheep groups on Facebook, more people should ask all of their questions first and obtain their sheep second!
So I thought I’d throw together a post about how to figure out if you are ready to become a shepherd. Naturally, it is my opinion that sheep are wonderful animals that will bring you years of joy. Care for 3-5 sheep is roughly equivalent to care for 2 dogs. The chores are different but the time and commitment are comparable. Like dogs, sheep are not a great choice for people who travel for long periods of time or who don’t like to spend time outdoors.
What will you feed your sheep? Sheep require fresh grass or hay daily. I am often asked how much land a sheep needs. Sources will tell you that you can have 2-5 sheep per acre. People think “perfect, I’ll start with 5!” and soon, their acre is denuded, their sheep are hopping the fence. Once the grass is gone, the sheep must eat hay year-round in a drylot. Probably not the bucolic life the shepherd imagined! So start small. If you have two acres, start with three sheep only. And remember, if you plan to breed, those lambs count towards your totals as they age.
Before you click away because you only have a half-acre of open land, consider this: We rented farms for 6 years before purchasing a property. You might have neighbors who would love to have the sheep come visit and do some mowing. As long as they don’t have loose dogs, sheep would be a benefit to them and their grass a resource for you.
Water is a similar consideration. Hauling buckets get tiring, but loading them in a vehicle or ATV works well. Sheep do need fresh water each day, about one gallon per sheep. This water is returned to the soil as urine, which promotes grass growth and health.
Sheep don’t need an elaborate structure to live in. A 3-sided barn or shed that shields the sheep from the prevailing wind and weather is plenty for most breeds, even in Northern climates. In fact, heated or insulated barn facilities can cause pneumonia. Sheep acclimate to outdoor temperatures readily. We used to use a Garage-In-A-Box plastic-canvas structures as sheep sheds – they worked very well and the sheep were always cozy. Winter feed storage is likely more of a concern, but that can go in a Garage-in-a-Box as well! Two good-sized structures, one for feed and one for animals will probably set you back $1000.
Non-farm folks picture sheep behind a classic wooden fence. Erase that idea from your mind – sheep are clever fence-evaders and that picturesque fence will be defeated in no time. We recommend a solid wire fence or an electric fence (or a combination thereof). Portable electric fences with solar chargers have advanced significantly in effectiveness in recent years. About $1000 will get you plenty of fencing for a small flock and a good charger that will keep that fence working. Consider that your fence needs to keep predators out as well as keeping sheep in – that is part of the impetus to consider electric fencing.
Sheep are pretty quiet and should not be noxious or odorous if correctly managed. Most neighbors should welcome picturesque and pleasant sheep. Trouble comes if your fencing isn’t sufficient and the sheep get into gardens. Likewise, dogs who wander over from the neighbors presents a serious threat to your sheep. Non-working dogs worry sheep and should not be permitted to access them. Similarly, sheep forums are full of stories of farm-owners own dogs turning on sheep and causing harm. Your sheep deserve safety – if you have dogs who don’t obey commands and who show prey drive, consider owning less-vulnerable livestock.
A friend pointed out that I should note that The Internet is not a veterinarian. Neither is a Facebook group, nor someone you know who used to have some sheep. Set yourself up with a knowledgeable veterinarian before your sheep arrive.
Here comes the awkward part: Based on seeing hobby-scale farms come and go and struggle, it is my opinion that if you intend to breed your sheep, you need to have a plan for your excess rams and low-quality ewes that involves the freezer. Too many hobbyists want to breed but do not want to slaughter any sheep. Such hobbyists soon find that once all of their friends have a few pet wethers, there’s nowhere else to send the results of their breeding activity. Too many neglected livestock in backyards are not well-fed or well-managed as pets. I would sincerely discourage anyone from thinking that offering their animals on Craigslist or Facebook as “Free to a Good Home” will get them a good home of any kind. So that’s my advice to you- either breed and eat or don’t breed and have some fiber pets. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Managing your animals for wool takes more effort and dedication than a layperson expects. If only it were as simple as buying sheep, feeding them, and getting perfect wool each spring. Wool is susceptible to many ills. The most common one is hay damage. Any wool with hay on it or in it will make poor yarn and fabric. Any hay feeder that is above the height of the back of the sheep will cause some amount of hay to be deposited on sheep backs. The best feeders direct sheep to eat from a low height (which is natural for them anyway, as that’s where grass grows). Designs for feeders that keep wool clean aren’t hard to find. Consider that plants in pasture, like thistle and burdock, can also cause damage to your sheep’s wool.
Poor nutrition is the next cause of damage in wool, followed by shearing at incorrect times. If you are breeding your sheep, shearing should occur ahead of or just after lambing to avoid a break in the wool that occurs from maternal stress during birth. If you have no interest in wool from your sheep and want to reduce maintenance effort, hair breeds are great.
Which breed you choose is probably the least important thing about your new sheep. It’s natural, though, to be excited as you go to a fair or read online about the wide variety of sheep breeds available. If you have already decided not to breed, there’s probably no reason not to get one or two sheep from a variety of breeds so you can enjoy all kinds of sheep and fiber. If you do plan to breed and keep sheep, a single, purebred breed will get you the most consistent lambing results. We raise two pure breeds so that we can plan on how much feed they’ll need, what kind of behavior to expect and what kind of wool we will see. Here’s a bit more about breeds, for those interested.
So you think you might want sheep after all this? Great!
If you have more questions, here are some great resources:
Me – get in touch and I’ll answer any burning questions you have. I enjoy helping, so don’t be shy.
We had the sheep shorn today. Though it feels early in the year, we know we need to have the sheep shorn before lambs are due. The forecasts calls for continuing mild weather, so we aren’t concerned about cold or wind for now. The ewes were eager to itch all of the itchy places they couldn’t reach beneath their fleece. We watched each of them craning their necks around to reach that One Spot and then shaking in relief.
Mary Lake at CanDoShearing shears our sheep. Mary and I have parallel sheep journeys. We were housemates back in 2012 and 2013. She had just finished an internship on a sheep farm when I was in the middle of my goat-milking years. We were both struggling doing hard jobs under challenging circumstances. Mary has always been helpful and deeply honest about my sheepraising, so it felt wonderful to be able to show her a flock of healthy, chubby ewes with great wool. I am endlessly grateful to Mary’s patience and wisdom through all of these years.
Enjoy these naked ladies prancing around on our farm! We were thrilled to see how plump and ready for lambs our flock is. 51 sheep shorn today – the only ones still wearing wool are the Two Old Ladies – we think they’ll do better with a bit more wool on.
Readers may recall our previous post about two older ewes we have and our concerns for their ability to bear their lambs in 2020.
Well, I am happy to report that most of the flock is doing really well. Ewes are gaining weight and gathering strength. Now is the point in gestation where the demands of the growing lambs are increasing, so we are increasing the amount and quality of feed. Soon, we’ll be offering some grain along with hay and haylage.
K and J, however, are doing a little less well. I noticed last week that K was losing a bit of weight and was clearly being outcompeted at the feeder by bigger, stronger ewes. J is still holding her own, but I know that as the other ewes grow stronger still, she could begin to lose out as well. So Matt and I decided to take action. We tidied up a disused portion of the ram barn and set out thick bedding. We ran a cord for a water de-icer and we picked up some of the best hay from the most popular bale in the barn. Then we ran out to the feed store. Here is where I need to thank horse-loving folks for prompting our feedstore to carry a plethora of tempting, palatable foods that horses and sheep alike would appreciate. We chose a bag of finely chopped alfalfa for our gals, knowing that a lack of teeth (J has two, K three) won’t prevent them from utilizing the nutrition.
At first, the ewes were naturally nervous due to their separation from the flock. Oliver the ram was concerned that we had taken some of his gals away. But as soon as each noticed the big bin of hay and the tasty treats on top, they soon forgot about anxiety and began to fill up. We are taking the feed-increase slowly so we don’t cause bloat or laminitis (which sheep can develop). Hopefully, we can reverse the decline in K’s condition and prevent J from following suit. When I checked them a few hours after moving to their new luxury suite, both were contentedly chewing cud with nice full bellies to show me.
2019 represented a turning point for our farm. With our yarn sales, we’ve reached a point of some sustainability. We are really grateful for everyone who has supported us in this by buying yarn, sharing a post or just by offering encouragement. If we are going to turn the climate crisis around, we need people like you who value local, sustainable and biodegradable clothing. On the meat side, progress hasn’t been quite as dramatic, though we’ve made some breakthrough connections that we hope to continue. We are focusing on lamb box delivery while we are also moving a lot of lamb through our partners at Pete’s Greens, City Market and the Craftsbury General Store.
So what will 2020 bring?
We are cautiously optimistic that we will have more of both our Derby Line Border Leicester Yarn and our Greensboro Bend BFL available in 2020. Avid readers of this blog will know that Bobolink Yarns launches in February. We are expecting our first Bobolink Yarns product back from the mill then. I have not let readers know that 300 additional pounds of wool went to the mill in December. We are partnering with Sheep to Shawl to offer our unique yarns in their 2020 yarn club. Donna tells me that her yarn fans love unique wools with stories to tell.
On the sheep side, we are keeping our flock size similar to this year. We’ve concluded that until the land fertility begins to improve significantly, we can’t really add much to the number of ewes we manage. We will keep 8 or so ewe lambs from this coming crop and we may have yearling ewes to sell to buyers. If you are looking for breedstock, this is a great year to look at our Border Leicesters in particular. I have two fantastic unrelated rams. Buyers could buy compatible ewes and rams from us. Get in touch if you are thinking about getting sheep in 2020.
We have arrived successfully at the quietest time of year. The ewes are eating and gestating, quietly growing and waiting. The rams have calmed down and decided to get along again.
Every morning, I put on my coat, hat and gloves and head to the barn. The ewes are eager to see me. They have picked at the caged round bales all night and need me to remove some of the wasted stems so they can get to the good stuff again. We have three feeders so that everyone can have a fair shake at eating without waiting for more dominant ewes to fill up. With three 600 lb bales in the barn at a time, we don’t even have to feed the sheep daily.
Sometimes, Louise the Kitty decides to explore the barn. In the summer, it’s one of her favorite places to hang out because there is shade but no sheep. Though I have seen many photos of cats and sheep cohabitating happily, my cats and my sheep are more adversarial. Louise attracts sheep attention and gets assaulted by noses within moments of arriving. I had to rescue her, much to her chagrin because she hates being picked up and carried. I bet she would hate being sniffled to death more.
In sunny weather, the ewes use their loafing area to sunbathe and to scheme about how to bust the fencing apart so they can go eat fallen apples. They were out under the apple tree when we came home from our Christmas visit to my sister and her family. It’s embarrassing to admit that we are somewhat losing this intellectual arms-race with the sheep. If the land beneath the loafing area were permiable, we would put in some posts and be done with it. Since the land is quite hard and compacted, we have to make some alternate plans. The ewes know that the green alpaca panels can be rubbed until one lifts out of the linkage with the other. We solved that temporarily by pinning the linkages together, but the ewes have found that they can reorient the fencing and defeat the pins. Frustrating.
With temperatures in the low single digits today, we are surely in the thick of winter. Last week, we finally received the replacement barn-ends that we ordered after the back of the barn tore in half during the Halloween storm. Unfortunately, Matt and I concluded that we won’t actually complete the repairs until spring. Neither of us want to battle stiff, uncooperative materials in terrible weather while the barn is filled with pregnant sheep.
Speaking of pregnant sheep, our vet Dr. Emily came out yesterday to ultrasound each of our ewes to check for pregnancy. The news was mostly good- lots of multiples, ewes look generally healthy, and we even have a few pregnant ewe lambs! We sent each ewe through the chute for a fairly low-stress exam. It was a perfect opportunity to check on some of the ewes who are skillful at avoiding us under most circumstances. I am so pleased with how chubby and healthy most of the flock is. I really feel like I have that aspect under control at the moment. I think the biggest factor is that Matt made all of our hay this year, and the ewes eat it with great gusto.
On the downside, we do have three open adult ewes. Ewe lambs get a pass on not breeding their first year, but 1616, Beth and Eilis all scanned empty, much to my disappointment. Sadly, we are reasonably sure that Eilis is dying, so we are preparing to euthanize her soon. Two vets, endless exams and many treatments have all yielded no improvement in her condition. Dr. Emily and her former owner agree that cancer is not unlikely. I am so, so heartbroken that after all of the TLC we provided to Eilis, we have no offspring from her or from her sister, Beth. Beth has been fat and healthy the whole time, but just won’t settle a pregnancy. We are blood-testing her for a final chance that maybe her pregnancy could have been missed, but I am not holding my breath.
I’ve been sharing a series of pictures of ewes in the flock to help show people the individuals in the web of stories in the flock. I am enjoying sharing these images – I want people to know how we see our ewes as singular beings with their own personalities.
We have two ewes who are a little extra-special, though.
Their names are K and J. They are twin sisters, 10 years old, and just as darling as they surely were as lambs. They are smaller in size than their herdmates. I am not sure why – they do fight for their fair share of food and they aren’t underweight. They’re just smaller of frame. Both are down a few teeth here and there – this will be an issue down the line.
J has a serious look. She’s all business and doesn’t really want to be friends. She trundles right into the middle of the largest Border ewes intent on her share of feed.
K has a gentler face. She is less competitive, more tired, with a broken ear that no longer shows the BFL perkiness it once did.
In 2020, I will need to make a tough decision. As K and J slow down, I need to consider their place here. Can I give them a safe and sequestered place if they become uncompetitive? Each only raised one lamb last year, leaving us to raise an orphan from each. My heart wants to keep them forever, but functionally, we can’t afford to. The other temptation is to give them to a pet home where they could live out their days. Sadly, I have too often seen other people with older animals who fail to recognize when it is time to let a sheep go. I sympathize – it’s hard to recognize a discrete point in a slow decline when it is time to let an animal go. But my responsibility is to the welfare of the sheep, fundamentally, and I must adhere to that. With luck, they’ll keep chugging along and I can keep them here a little longer.
I had checked with my neighbor Maria Schumann about wool recently. Maria and her husband Josh Karp own Cate Hill Orchard. There, they raise sheep for meat and dairy, cultivate apples, and run a wide variety of small enterprises. I am continuously amazed by their ingenuity and creativity developing new products. Maria’s family founded Bread and Puppet Theater, a famous Vermont puppetry theater. To me, she’s local royalty.
As much as Maria loves beautiful fiber, the effort to mill and market their wool has gotten away from them. Two year’s worth of wool awaited me in Maria’s old, charming barn. Walking through the barn, I saw old mirrors, toys, spare wood, cob webs, and every other spare tidbit and old tool that old barns contain. Sometimes I wish our tube and canvas barn had some spare corners where old wonders might accumulate.
The wool is truly beautiful – clean and long-stapled. Since East Friesian dairy sheep are typically selected for their milking ability and not their fleece quality, the fleeces do vary between individuals more than you’ll find with other breeds. I don’t think that variety is going to hurt, though. The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook suggests that variation in fibers ranges from 26 to 37 microns, meaning that the fiber can range from near-skin soft to outerwear-only. By comparison, my BFL sheep probably only range from 23-28 microns flockwide.
So now, we just need to decide exactly what to spin from it.
Images from my trip- these are Maria’s lovely sheep and her wool coming home, all piled up in the back of the truck. Looks like perhaps 150 lbs.