Now that I’m back on my feet more, choretime is a bigger proportion of my day.
In the morning, I first check the status of the bales we are feeding. Right now, we are feeding some mediocre first-cut hay, so we give the sheep pretty free-access to their chow. While they eat, I have the opportunity to look at them closely. Some of the older ewes show their pregnancy quite plainly, with sagging tummies and udders just starting to bloom. Others, especially the Border Leicesters, look like the same chubby sheep as before. Fred sniffs a ewe now and then, but even he seems certain that they’re all set.
If we need more hay, Matt will bring it in with the tractor. But I will check the water. Through trial and error, we’ve determined that “three” is the optimum number of 22-gallon heated waterers. The sheep always muck them up with hay after a few days, so I clean one or two waterers out completely every day to prevent slimy buildup. Yuck.
Outside of the main barn, we have two pairs of sheep in special quarters. Because Fred would fight our other two rams, “Bob Loblaw” and “Oliver” have a suite all their own with a cozy stall and a small outdoor area. Oliver has an intestinal issue at the moment, so he’s getting daily Pepto Bismol to top off his hay ration.
We also have two Border Leicester lambs that we noticed weren’t competing well for food. They are very timid and retiring and had become too thin. They now have a stall of their own where they can enjoy regular grain feeding.
A significant but pleasing change between this year and last is our ability to properly house our rams and separated ewes. Instead of a tent in the back yard, they have a safe, enclosed building that effectively breaks the wind. Because of this, we can maintain unfrozen water for them and monitor their health more closely. After losing a ram to bladder stones possibly caused by dehydration over the winter, we are glad to have the correct facilities now.
My doctor made Physical Therapy sound optional, but given that I’m already in physical therapy for abdominal issues, I’m hardly going to skip making sure that my feet will be okay for years to come. It’s no surprise that my physical therapist observed that I am really, really strong, but have little flexibility. Labor that involves restraining animals and lifting heavy loads will do that. This is a good time for me to focus on my overall body capabilities so that I start farming again at the top of my game.
I am just starting to walk comfortably into the barn and out of it. Without good control of the ball of my foot and my big toe, I have to take it easy. I am not confident that I’m going to be able to control the clutch of the tractor sufficiently, so I am holding back on doing tractor work for the time being.
Matt has done a fabulous job with the sheep. It almost seems like a boon – he’s developed his own handling habits and ability to evaluate the sheep. Without me to help, he’s harnessed his own observational skills and grown his confidence. I can’t thank Matt enough for managing everything while I’ve been on the couch.
The sheep also recognize Matt’s work, as they now run to him first for petting and attention. I don’t think I’m a stranger in their eyes, but I can hear the “where have you BEEN” in the way the sheep respond to me. I wish I could go headlong into handling them and feeding them again, but I have to be very cautious that I don’t twist my ankle or get my foot stomped. I am still fragile, and it stinks.
Some scenes from the barn, now that I’m back in it:
I am part of a couple of sheep discussion groups on Facebook and on other social networks. One of the most common general questions is “What Breed Should I Raise?” Answers to this question can be trite or complex. “Whatever you think seems neat” “The Breed I Raise” and “Here’s a newly-available breed that people are talking about” are common responses, but these are not always the best way to find the sheep that are right for you.
Here is a rubric that might be helpful:
Are you a first time shepherd?
If yes, I wholeheartedly recommend just getting some mixed-breed ewes to start out with. They will teach you what you do and don’t want in a purebred, and you’ll be much happier if and when you do start raising a pure breed.
*Of note- a good friend corrected me that I shouldn’t appear to be recommending that new shepherds find random sheep from Craigslist. Your crossbred sheep should nevertheless come from a healthy flock, have good records and some ongoing assistance and mentorship from the seller.
What do you want to do with your sheep?
Just wool:If you just want a pet flock for wool, collecting wethers (neutered males) from a variety of breeds is the least expensive, lowest-maintenance way to have a fun spinner’s flock. Why wethers and not ewes? If you plan to breed your animals and have a variety of breeds on hand, you may find it challenging to keep large breeds fed without making small breeds obese, or to make sure that more dominant animals don’t “own” the feeder.
Just meat: If you plan to raise sheep for meat and don’t care about wool, hairsheep are a good choice. I am not knowledgeable about the different breeds of hairsheep and their characteristics, but I know that hairsheep and their crosses are growing in popularity among large- and small-scale sheep growers alike. I am sure that some breeds and strains are more or less suited to different climates and levels of grass quality.
What I am best prepared to address: Sheep for Meat and Wool for people who want their sheep as an enterprise more than a hobby.
If you plan to breed sheep and raise meat, but you want to enjoy wool too, things will get a little complex. It’s time to consider some economic and logistical matters.
What breed of sheep you raise should follow what climate and grass you have. I will describe the situation with an example: Shetlands were developed on Shetland island, eating sparse, rough foliage and seaweed. Suffolks and Hampshires were named for the rich, grassy, bountiful bottomlands where they originate. If you put a Suffolk on Shetland Island, it would probably starve fairly rapidly because it simply cannot gather enough nutrition to survive. A Shetland in Hampshire, allowed to graze as much as it pleases, will grow chubby and its famously soft wool will coarsen if it is able to eat lots of excess protein. Yet, in the US, many small-scale sheepraisers don’t take the suitability of the breed to their land very seriously. We have breeds adapted to the Western Range, to the Humid Southeast, to intensive grazing in the rich lands of Ohio and Indiana, and to the mediocre pastures of Northern New England. While exotic breeds may seem nice, you could wind up fighting an uphill battle against climate, diet or parasites.
So how can you tell how good your grass is? Your extension service can help, because every climate has different species with different levels of nutrition available to them. Talking about grass is beyond the scope of this quick post about breed selection, but I have some information about grass management and about rotational grazing.
It is my inexpert, personal opinion that many beginner Vermont shepherds underestimate their ability to raise sheep off the bat and choose something advertised as “hardy.” Hardy is great, unless it also means that they produce mediocre wool or single lambs instead of twins. I had this experience on a farm that had good land, but raised a breed associated with the barren highlands of Scotland. The sheep were fat and happy, but the lamb only covered the cost of keeping the sheep and nothing more. In most Northeastern flocks, the value of one lamb covers the mother’s room and board, while the second lamb represents the profits. This isn’t as firm a rule in other parts of the country where land is less expensive.
Another area of my again inexpert personal opinion: when slaughter cost is high on a per-animal basis, farmers aiming to raise sheep profitably need to raise the largest-finishing animals they can. Some breeds of sheep are small, especially ones developed in regions where food is scarce. Breeds like this will grow to full size and maturity rapidly and often fatten easily, but they may not have a heavy enough carcass to make lamb profitably. If your breed of sheep makes lambs that weigh 120 lbs at 7 months of age, you should get 50 lb carcasses worth $400-500 dollars. Cost of slaughter will be about $100 in my area, leaving $300-400 to cover costs and provide income. Now imagine your lambs weigh 80 lbs at age 7 months. You may get a 35 lbs carcass from such a sheep. You are still paying $100 for inspected slaughter, but will only get $250-350 from the carcass, leaving only $150 to 250 to cover costs and provide income.
I was incorrect about a couple of the considerations I now mention when I initially wanted to raise Cormos. Here are some things I didn’t consider or know:
It is not possible to “upbreed” mutt sheep into registerable Cormos by using Cormo rams for multiple generations. So you either have registered stock, or you don’t.
Pure Cormo wool doesn’t tolerate the moisture in our climate if the sheep don’t have complete shelter from rain available at all times. Mine all had algae in their wool.
Finding Cormo rams was going to involve driving across the country now and then.
This final point is worth addressing, as I’ve repeated my error with the Bluefaced Leicesters: Finding the right genetics to complement your efforts when you are raising an unusual breed and you may find yourself traveling long distances at great expense to manage your gene pool. Do not underestimate this expense, and also make sure that within the breed you are considering there are like-minded shepherds with the same goals as you. All of the literature I had read about Cormos suggested that they should regularly twin, but it didn’t seem that other shepherds raising the breed were actively working towards maintaining their lambing rate. I was finding that the more Cormo breeding my sheep had, the fewer lambs tended to have. With the Bluefaced Leicester, there is a group of breeders within the breed working to maintain the high lambing rate while improving the vigor and thrift of the breed. I am happy to drive to Ohio for sheep that I know align with my flock goals.
And if you would rather not drive so much, why not raise a breed that is common and successful in your area? My Border Leicester flock fits that description. Border Leicesters do well in our climate and are popular. They grow large enough on grass alone to carry a grass-based farm plan, and while their wool isn’t the softest, it is still useful and valuable.
Certainly, this post isn’t comprehensive, but I hope that it prompts some thoughts as you consider raising sheep.
Mom and I went to Rhinebeck last weekend to represent Bluefaced Leicester Sheep as best we could. With my foot broken, this is largely a story of other people doing things for me. Matt loaded Fannie the BFL lamb at 5:30 for my departure. Down 91, picked up Mom in Brattleboro, across on 90 and down the Taconic and we were in Rhinebeck. Again, wonderful helpers helped Mom unload Fannie into her pen, where her new friend Chloe was waiting. I had reserved Chloe months ago from BlueLand Farm in Maryland. I had a pleasant chat with Meredith as we signed over the papers for Chloe.
Saturday saw steady waves of people coming up. Most just wanted to see some sheep and learn a little, but a few were interested in becoming future shepherds. By noon, people could barely shuffle by. There were more people in that barn than live in my town, easily. A big treat was a visit from the New England Border Collie Rescue folks and the chance to meet a few of the members of a Ravelry group I really love.
Sunday was a little calmer, and we were able to have some one-on-one conversations with representatives of yarn shops and a few more members of the public who are considering sheep. A lot of the questions I was asked concerned selecting breeds when you start your farm. There are some misconceptions I want to address with that, so I am thinking of writing some posts about breeds. What questions or thoughts do you have about selecting breeds of sheep?
Every year has been a little different at the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds in Tunbridge, VT, September 30-October 1. Even if you don’t knit, it’s a ton of fun with great food and lots of opportunities to learn more about fibercraft.
In the past, I have brought natural-color Cormo X yarn – soft yarn in natural white, gray and brown shades. Additionally, I’ve brought some hand-processed batts for handspinners and felters.
This year is a little different. The last run of Cormo X yarn will be for sale, available in eight (yes!) attractive and wearable colors plus three natural shades. We will be debuting our Bluefaced Leicester yarn, which is soft and silky with a subtle sheen. I hope you are as excited as I am to touch this awesome yarn. Our BFL yarn comes in two natural colors and supplies are limited.
We will also be offering raw fleece in several formats. We have small packets of hand-selected Bluefaced Leicester and Border Leicester locks for crafting. Border Leicester fleece is on offer in larger volumes. I know many handspinners with they could sample more fleeces with a little less commitment to a whole sheep. I have chosen to offer fleece in smaller purchase units so that you can enjoy a pound or three of quality fleece without being tired of it by the end. I’ve been there.
Additionally, gorgeous and intriguing pelts made by Vermont Natural Sheepskins will be on offer in both white and natural shades.
So please come by our booth in the animal barn. Friendly lambs want to nibble you, and I want to hear what you think of this blog.
Each day, we take down the old paddock for each group of sheep and build a new one in its place. Simple enough. I spend my time picking up Electronet, laying out Electronet, setting up Electronet.
But we have one sheep who makes the whole process trickier. Nevermind that the adult ewes haven’t figured out that moving willingly out of the old paddock will be rewarded with a new paddock in short order. There’s no reasoning with some critters. But the lambs have a problem child: Sue Perkins.
Sue was hand-raised by us, and views humans as friends. She is especially fond of Matt and comes running to his special Sue-call. But she also views herself as an exception to general sheep rules. She feels that she can approach us for petting anytime, even when we are trying to drive the sheep from one place to another or dealing with an emergency. She is first on the scene if someone has a bucket in their hand just to check on whether there is grain inside, so carrying medication or other non-food items must be considered from a Sue-attack context.
And when it comes time to move fence in the lamb area, she has this irritating habit of testing the fence delicately with her nose to see if it is on, and then diving under it to get on the new pasture while her friends pace at the fence line.
Yesterday, I caught her in the act- totally busted! She didn’t go low enough and is actually caught in the lowest wire. Clearly, I need to think through some ways to teach this valuable ewe some respect for the fence!
Everything seemed fine with the lambs this morning. They had a pleasant shade-tree and lots of vetch and clover in this pasture.
When we got back from the Caledonia County Fair, however, I found our homebred ram lamb, David Tennant, dead beneath the lovely shade-tree. My mind raced- though I was upset to find his corpse, the critical thing at the time was to determine a cause of death and prevent any further loss. Could he have had Urinary Calculi, like his sire? I would need to separate my other ram lamb from the group right away. Clostridium would be the worst situation – the whole flock could die of a digestive system infection. Could he have simply rolled incorrectly and bloated, unable to stand up? Matt and I thought that the small indent where we found him should have been easy to exit.
As we loaded him into the tractor, we noticed that his head swung excessively and strangely. Could this sheep have broken his neck? Maneuvering his neck answered our question- I could move his head anywhere and I could feel a harsh *click* moving his head and upper neck from side to side. This poor fellow broke his neck, instantly paralyzing and killing him. Very sad, but fortunately not a contagious condition!
We believe that he may have been trying to climb higher than this low trunk of the apple tree in their pasture. We found him just beneath it in a weird, crumpled position. Not a responsible choice, but he was the sheep equivalent of a teen boy.
An ex-sheep. RIP to my very promising ram lamb.
We didn’t butcher him, even though he seemed pretty fresh. But I did try to get some wool from him so that he wouldn’t go totally to waste. It’s a small, completely insufficient compensation for the loss.
Needless to say, we removed the sheep from the paddock with the tree and we will not allow them access to the tree in the future.
We’re now a few weeks into living and working our new farm. Huge changes continue.
We separated the ewes and the lambs again. This time, it’s so that we can breed the adults for January and February lambs and breed the ewe lambs to have babies in May, when their bodies will be more mature and prepared. This does mean that we will have some Border Leicester/Bluefaced Leicester crosses
The house desperately needed a new roof, so we found a roofer and got the job done. The lambs baa’ed at the poor roofers all day long.
We got chickens! We are very excited to have eight lovely Rhode Island Reds and a very handsome rooster of a breed that I can’t recall the name of. He looks similar to a Welsummer and we appreciate his gentle (so far!) personality.
The land here has been transformed by our mowing efforts. We bought a house with overgrown fields and small shrubs starting to come on. Now, the fields are moving away from goldenrod and ragweed and back to clover, orchardgrass and forbs.
Matt made a first cutting of hay – 30 bales isn’t a bad haul! The hay is crummy, but hopefully we can add some fertilizer
I am in love with the beautiful Border Leicesters who came to the farm. They’re so bright and healthy. Mary sheared three of them and we now have some lovely wool to play with. I am mixed on offering the white for sale as fleece or making some batts.
We shipped four ram lambs to meet our fresh lamb orders. Two Cormo/BFL crosses dressed out at and above my goal weight- hooray! The other two were a little scrawny, but I know that they didn’t get everything they could have with the move and other factors in play.
Every day, I step outside and breathe in fresh air. I look at the sheep, and I realize that I don’t have to make any compromises in my efforts to meet their needs. If I need to change something or move them, I can do what I need to without hesitation. We can finally invest in the sheep as deeply as we need to without thinking about mobility. Our land is sunny and breezy. Our home is quiet and peaceful. I have abundant gratitude for everything we’ve been given. I hope that Pete would be pleased with what we’ve done.
This is our new name, and our new logo. As I mentioned before, we’ve been overdue for an updated, improved name and logo. I feel that this name better reflects what we do: we improve our land to help our sheep thrive. Even now, we are planting improved pasture mix to improve our pasture.
Other entertaining happenings on the farm:
-Matt made 30 bales of hay with our new equipment so far. He’s been assiduously fixing up our bargain haying supplies, and his efforts have paid off. Those 30 bales are worth about a grand. On the downside, he blew a tire on the smaller blue Ford, so we had an entertaining adventure trying to get a tractor wheel into the back of my truck.
-We also sent the ram lambs to their final destination. The crossbred lambs had a huge advantage in size and weight, but they were also older and one was a single. It’s hard to say what was a larger factor, but this has also been a terrible summer for parasites, to boot.
-Our yarn came in! It looks lovely, and I’ll be dyeing some of the Cormo for the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival. I can’t wait to show off the amazing BFL yarn, too – the natural gray is especially luscious, and supplies are limited!
July 1-4 – I am at a retreat at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, coping with the fact that we just bought a house in Albany, VT, just north of Craftsbury and Hardwick.
July 5-12 – Every day, I wake up in Williston at 8, handle the sheep, cat and birds, and pack the car until 11ish. Then I drive to Albany and unpack. Matt is busy making the water run, installing a hot water heater, and bringing the electrical systems up to code in Albany.
July 12-20 – We have moved most of the house items to Albany, but we are still living in Williston in a ever-more-empty room. Matt still has many repairs to work on. We are starting to move large items, like the tractors and implements. My mother comes and helps us move the cat and the birds. We also move the flock up to Albany in two trips in my truck. The back of the truck still smells. I’m glad I’ll never have to move the sheep en-masse again.
July 21-24 – Mom and I travel to Ohio and back in three days to purchase five more registered Bluefaced Leicesters. Day One is just drive across New York State, Northeastern PA and Ohio. Just rolling hills terminating in flatness. We reach a hotel just outside Cincinnati by 9pm. We spend the following day just stretching our legs, touring Cincinnati and preparing for the long slog. We got to meet Lowell Bernhardt. He has a beautiful flock of sheep nestled among the corn and soy fields. On Sunday, we got up at 5:30, grabbed some coffee and loaded the trio of lovely ewe lambs from Lowell. We set off for Howard, Ohio, to meet Anne Bisdorf and Lisa Rodenfels. Anne owned the ewes I was buying. Lisa no longer keeps sheep, but her flock was a major influence on the breed in the US. She was kind enough to drive a distance to see the lambs that descended from her flock, as both Lowell’s and Anne’s flocks originated with Lisa. Mom and I then drove back to Vermont, sheep baa-ing away in the back. The rest of the drive took 14 hours, and we arrived in Albany after midnight. We are both wiped and the sheep were sick of each other in their tight quarters in Mom’s van. Matt has been managing all of the animals for three days. He’s tired, too, so Monday is a rest day.
July 25-July 30th – Matt and I complete our move out of Williston. We took down all three of our Garage-in-a-Box outbuildings in one day and moved the chicken coop in an epic struggle with four of our best friends helping. I have put 2500 miles on my truck doing this move, with half of those towing heavy weights. We finished cleaning the house at 8:30 Saturday night and turned over the keys.
The flock is adjusting well to their new home. The grass here isn’t as good as the grass was in Williston. The soil here has been robbed of nutrients for too long, but we’re already moving forward on improvements. There is still much to be done just to make the house work, but the roofer starts next Monday and we have the chimney repairs scheduled too. We’ve ordered the barn, and we’re working on our Current Use enrollment.