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.
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.
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
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.
Order your lamb, meats and cheese now for delivery to Arlington, MA on Monday, 4/27. We are looking for $400 in orders to ensure that the 8 hour round trip is worthwhile for us (UPDATE: Order size has been met – thank you!). Your purchases support two farms whose farmer’s markets are currently closed. We are both full-time farmers and not usually in the transport and distribution business, so your patience is appreciated. Thank you so much!
If you would like delivery to a location other than the address provided, please note this at the time of purchase. If access to your residence is restricted, please also note that so we can coordinate handoff. Deliveries will take place on Monday morning, 4/27. Yarn orders can also be delivered along with food, but orders of only yarn will ship separately.
FAQ: Can I order chicken? – We only have one farm that sells federally inspected poultry and they are sold out of most products at the moment. I cannot legally bring you poultry that is not federally inspected.
What about veggies? – Veggies are not yet in season in Vermont’s cold climate. We will carry them if we can as they become available.
Where can I learn more? What if I have a special request? – Please Contact Us with further questions and additional requests!
We have a whole passel of bottle lambs in 2020. We have the two remaining ewe lambs from the quadruplet situation. We have a BFL ram lamb who never caught on to nursing his mother. We have a Border ram lamb who was rejected due to having sharp teeth (we fixed the teeth but couldn’t repair the relationship. Then, we have triplet BFLs whose mother just can’t keep up with their needs.
Almost all bottle lambs start out in the house. Because we can’t feed them as frequently as a real sheep mom, we choose to keep them indoors where they will be warm enough to not suffer chilling and hypothermia. Hypothermia causes most needless deaths of young lambs – lambs who are too cold won’t nurse or digest milk, resulting in a downward metabolic spiral. We try to give the lambs motherly attentions that they would receive from a real mom – ewes don’t hold their lambs, but they mutter to them and nuzzle and groom them. Petting and stroking the lambs meets their need for attention.
Of course, bottle lambs in the house are adorable. We show you the cute pictures of a lamb snoozing in a corner, but we don’t show you the mess they make. Lambs do not potty-train, so we do upwards of two large laundry loads of towels each day just trying to prevent indoor lambs from destroying our floors and furniture. Diapers aren’t really in the lamb’s best interest as we don’t want to leave manure in contact with their wool for any length of time. Finally, scampering lambs need space which is best found outdoors in the barn. They need playmates and guidance from ewes, too, so they learn to be good flockmembers and not frustrated wannabe-humans.
We gradually introduce houselambs to life outdoors by sending them out to the barn for short periods and then not bringing them back into the house eventually. We then must train these lambs to use the nursing bucket instead of the bottle. We use a Pritchard teat initially to facilitate nursing initially to facilitate nursing. Once the lambs are larger, however, they are too strong for small rubber teats. At that point, teat-bucket feeding becomes more practical.
The bucket is a competitive space, but we work to ensure that all lambs get the milk they need without overfeeding the aggressive ones.
We have set up a lamb creep as well. A creep is an area of the barn only accessible to lambs through a gate that admits only small sheep. In the creep, we offer grain, nice hay to nibble on and a sunny, dry floor. It takes the lambs a few days to discover the space, but once they do they really take to having a clubhouse just for them. We do feed some grain at this stage to help out the many triplets we have. Not all ewes can provide enough milk for fast-growing triplets, so this is our most practical option to grow them out effectively without overtaxing Mom.
So that’s the news from the lamb barn. We have 71 lambs bouncing about and only a few more ewes expecting. We are tired but finally beginning to catch up on sleep.
Even as the economy and some degree of social order collapse around us, there is still time for admiring playful lambs.
We had our lamb open house last weekend. My friend Betsy and her spouse came up to just to help as a steady stream of visitors came to enjoy our 68 little lambs and tender sheep moms. A steady stream of children, parents and curious adults visited all day long. We answered questions about lambs, sheep and wool while the lambs danced and dozed. Small children helped us bottle-feed the four orphaned and rejected lambs who are “on the dole”, as it were. We took necessary precautions and didn’t touch anyone needlessly or stand near each other.
I am glad that we got our open house done before the threat of Coronavirus drew nearer. Social isolation is a way of life for me, but I understand why others are struggling. It took a while to get used to seeing fewer people, to keeping my own council, and to relying on my knowledge and ability routinely. I know that folks who are now home with kids and restricted from public areas are scrambling to find suitable activities for themselves and their kids. If you like us on Facebook, you’ll get advanced notification when the livestreams will occur.
I am also grateful that we have a huge stock of staple foods and supplies on hand. I know that having huge chest freezers doesn’t make sense in a city, but at the same time, the way grocery stores look now nationwide reminds us that local food systems and food sources have a lot of value. We’ve been getting takeout from our favorite restaurants and trying to lend support to other small businesses. We could all use the boost right now.
To that end, don’t forget that we are happy to deliver yarn or lamb in a sanitary fashion. We are also doing some virtual trunkshows instead of in-person trunkshows for our Bobolink Yarns project. Interested? Get a sample here and tune in to our livestream
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.