Scarves

I am offering 20% off our scarves at Our Etsy Shop   Offer code: FLEECENAVIDAD

The photos don’t quite do these justice.  Five of the scarves are made from the last of my Cormo yarn and two from our natural-color Bluefaced Leicester.  The softness, comfort and drape is unmatched.  Even wool skeptics will find these scarves next-to-the-skin pleasant.  Dad and I are really proud of these gorgeous scarves.  We think they are a sustainable gift worth giving (or a gift to yourself- after all, you’ve worked hard this year!)

Please feel free to get in touch with any questions.

 

Thoughts about Breeds

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.

Valais-Blacknose-Sheep-Swiss-Breed-herd
This post is inspired by the Valais Blacknose Sheep.  People on the sheep forum said “Cute! I want these” but don’t realize that they only really thrive in their native alpine climate, and their wool is generally described as coarse.  Coarse is fine, of course, unless you were expecting soft wool.

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.

Sitting Back is Hard To Do

It has now been almost two weeks since I broke my foot.

Matt has been out flat trying to keep up with the sheep work and the barn-building we need to do.   The issue is that we need to complete the barn this month, and we can’t seem to connect with interested friends on a day when we can get a person-lift and when enough people might be available.  We also recognize that it isn’t our family or friend’s job to be available on demand for barn-construction purposes.  We are working on alternative plans.

A friendly student from Sterling College is helping us move sheep right now.  Her name is Carly, and we are thrilled to have someone with knowledge of our fencing system and a cheerful demeanor come and assist us.   Yesterday, Carly and Matt made a effort to clean up some of the Border Leicesters who have had a touch of the runs.  The sheep weren’t very cooperative, but they made progress and we’ll keep trying.

The foot in question has turned into a rainbow of blues, greens and yellows.   I have a really intense charleyhorse in my calf muscle on that side, and I still can’t have the foot down for any amount of time without swelling and increased discomfort.  I’ve had it checked out with the doctor just in case it’s Deep Vein Thrombosis.  The fact that they haven’t called suggests it’s just a killer cramp.

So that covers the facts of the matter.  The feelings are that I HATE sitting still.  I feel restless and frustrated, and my days are just a blur of sleep and quiet sitting.  It is an issue not easily solved with company or food because I am naturally energetic and I can’t just sit.  Because I am wanting to move so much, it is very challenging to concentrate on the seated activities that I could be doing.  I would usually solve this by going outside and being active and then attempting the seated activity later.  Without that option, I’m kind of sitting here vibrating with energy but unable to address it.

I am also endlessly grateful: to Carly for stepping in at just the right moment and saving Matt’s mental health, to Julie for moving the last of the wood with Matt, to Tam who went grocery shopping for me, to Eric and to Mom for some interim employment, to Prin and Bianca at Sterling for helping us find Carly, to Erin and Mike for their how-to-be-broken supplies and advice.  Feeling grateful is the best way to fight the antsy-ness I feel.

20171016_125850.jpg
This is about how close I can get to the sheep these days.

Back to Rural Life

Living in Williston had its advantages.  If we forgot milk or butter, we could just go a mile to the store.  If we felt like eating Vietnamese food, we had three takeout options.   Friends were near.  World class events and shows were happening, too, but we are both shy about crowds so those mattered less.

Back out in the country,  circumstances feel different.  My years in Brookfield prepared me for the idea that anything we didn’t pick up on our grocery run could be unavailable for days.   Instead of choosing between 30 or 40 restaurant options, we will become regulars at one or two.  We are pretty fond of Cajun’s Snack Bar.  You can get alligator around here, but you’d be hard pressed to find good Italian food or Vietnamese.  Go figure.

Our saving grace is having a good general store.  I am completely in love with the Craftsbury General Store.   For a tiny store, they somehow have almost every grocery item I would ever need except white vinegar.    I mentioned that we were celebrating Matt’s birthday and the store attendant handed him a complimentary piece of cake!  I was also visited by another one of the shop folks who was driving by the sheep farm and recognized me.  I appreciate having the opportunity to spend my money locally, keeping my community vital and active.

20170822_130007

We can stay local purchasing our vegetables, too.  We are spoiled by the pile of gorgeous vegetables on hand at the Pete’s Greens farmstand.  I’ve been pickling and preserving my way right through their basil, green beans and tomatoes.  I’ve also been buying  produce from smaller farms at the Craftsbury Farmer’s Market as well.

20170822_124910
The wall of squash at Pete’s Greens

Another thing to get used to up here is the lack of gas stations.  The ones we do have use 70’s era pumps without card slots. This is a place where store proprietors trust people not to drive off, as you typically pump first and then pay.  I assume that a shotgun behind the counter reduces the risk.  I have had to re-acclimate to the inevitable gun-beside-the-door in homes I visit.  Anyway, I have to plan my gas carefully.

I am very much looking forward to rejoining a very solid community.

Sheep Become the Job

For the last few years,  I have worked full time (and more), fitting the sheep in on mornings, evenings and weekends.  I am used to making do, making sheep wait for later, making what I had work.

Now, the sheep are right in front of my life.  We’ve really had to adjust our schedule, but mostly we’ve had to change our mentality.  It is critical that we solve issues immediately.  Emergencies aren’t just inconvenient- they are now a much larger factor in whether our venture succeeds or fails.  Matt and I have had several intense conversations establishing our expectations in this regard.  We could work on this farm every minute of every day.  But we also have a few decades under our belts and I am having a return of some health concerns that are slowing me down.  So we make sure that we take periods of rest.

Some things we have accomplished since we started:

  • We knocked down all but one acre-ish of standing, overgrown milkweed and goldenrod to promote grass growth.
  • We met two more neighbors- a former sheep-farmer and a dairyman with 40 Jerseys who hays the field adjacent to our fields.
  • We acquired an adorably small manure-spreader.
  • We added 90 more bales to the 30 bales Matt made.  Only 60 more bales are needed for the winter. 

  • We ordered and received our 60′ x 30′ barn.  We have yet to build it.
  • We have stacked some, but not all, of our wood.
  • We haven’t stacked all of our wood because we’ve been shoveling free horse manure into the back of my truck and spreading it on our smaller hayfield.
  • I have taken soil samples around the land, so we will soon know how much of which nutrients we will need to import to the land.
  • I am now keeping a daily flock journal.

This year, we are breeding the adult sheep for January lambs, so Fred is hard at work charming the ladies.  The lambs have been growing steadily with some grain in their diet, and at Mary Lake’s recommendation we’ve finally purchased and begun to administer BoSE (a Vitamin E and Selenium supplement) to the flock to improve their health.  Here’s to a brighter and healthier future for the sheep.

Still in Limbo

I’ve been away from the farm blog and our Facebook page dealing with sheep lately.  We’ve been working hard at buying a farm, and it hasn’t gone particularly smoothly.  I mentioned a farm in Brownington.  It would have been a great farm, but we couldn’t come to an agreement with all of the parties who owned it.  Three were ready to sell it, but one seemed hesitant.  While we were waiting to hear about our offer on the Brownington house, we went to look at other houses in case the whole plan fell through.  We found a different house in Albany during our search, and because we had not heard from the other sellers in a timely fashion, we changed direction and made an offer on the Albany house.

Things were going well with the Albany property, which has many appealing features and is more modern than the first property.   When we started the title search process, however, we hit a serious issue.  The property was surrendered in lieu of payment to the bank, but the paperwork wasn’t completed correctly, and the error would potentially leave a new purchasers (us) potentially liable for debts incurred by the prior owner.  So now we are waiting for the paperwork to be redone, and there’s a chance that the re-doing could uncover other issues that would delay our ability to buy the house indefinitely.

I feel like my life is on hold.  I can’t prepare much for the move or finalize the sheep situation until we have a place for them to go.  I have five more Bluefaced Leicesters coming in July 22-23, a ram from Terra Mia farm in Oregon being delivered on July 4,  and 14 Border Leicesters under the patient care of their current owner while we wait for a barn and field to be available.  Not to mention the barn builders and the roofer who await a timeframe from us on owning the house.  I admit that my stress level has been pretty high, as we don’t have a lot of appealing property options in our pricerange if we can’t make this purchase.  We will farm somewhere, but it could be less than we had hoped for.

20170618_130443

How to Evaluate a Potential Farm

I didn’t think it would be easy to find a farm.  But I didn’t think it would be this hard, either!

Matt and I have been looking at farms for over a year at this point.  We know that we need about 50 open acres, and we just want a modest house.  Our budget is lean, but we are willing to put up with some issues or inconveniences.  We want land without a barn, ideally, so we can avoid retrofitting old dairy properties.  Old wooden dairy barns are not easily adapted to a sheep operations.  The concrete floors with gutters, the low ceilings and any stanchions in place are more of a liability than an asset for a sheep operation.  Ever since I worked at Fat Toad Farm, I’ve been really in love with the open, bright feeling of a greenhouse-type building with plenty of clear space inside and have found that animals appreciate the dirt floors, sunlight, and copious fresh air.

Here are a few types of properties that we’ve found that are just a little off-the-mark for us.

– Nice small houses on too few acres.

– Nice small houses in the woods, on cliffs, or down by the river.

– Large, cumbersome, decrepit farmhouses on prime land.

– Trailers on tiny patches of prime land carved from a large, old dairy property.

– Plenty of gorgeous land but with a huge new mansion on it.

– Too much land with no house at all.

Even a look at Vermont Land Link, set up to help farmers find land, has a lot of huge properties and a lot of teeny properties, but no mid-scale ones.  8 acres is not very helpful to us, but 800 is more than we can sustain and manage.

We think, however, that we have found the right place, so stay tuned for updates!

The Problem with Sheep and Pickle

Matt and I are making steady progress in buying a property and establishing an enterprise on it.  We have 25 more sheep reserved, we have found a property we are hoping to buy, and we have much of what we need to begin making hay as soon as we see some promising-looking land.

 

There are a few less-tangible things that also need to change, though.  We are going to continue our wool enterprises, of course.  That a huge part of the joy of raising sheep!  But in order to sell 150 to 175 lambs each year, we are going to need to focus on selling meat a bit more intensively.   We need to sell it to people who don’t know us personally and don’t know what we do.

 

Having a farm called Sheep and Pickle Farm has been really fun, and most people seem to think it’s really cute.  But the invariable “Where’s the Pickles” questions plus the general weirdness of the name just won’t work in the broader marketplace.  I’ve been selling specialty food for about 7 years now, and I’m here to tell you that a good name and logo makes a real difference, especially in markets outside of Vermont.  Vermonters don’t care about slick marketing, but your label has to really yell to get attention in the crowded gourmet grocery stores of Boston.  Sheep and Pickle just won’t do that.  It also won’t tell people that our lamb is grass fed, that the breeds we raise are special, and about how much we care about the health and wellbeing of our flock.

 

So a new scale and a new venture demands that we rechristen this farm.  We are working on names that are unique, purposeful, wholesome, values-driven and just a bit cheeky.  Vermont has plenty of farm names that include trees (Maple Hill, Maple Grove, Maple Lane), adjective or verb – animal (Fat Toad, Fat Rooster, Does’ Leap, Turkey Hill).  Sheep puns are also pretty thoroughly claimed (Ewe and I, Ewe-who, Ewe Rock) and I want to make sure that our name would make sense if we were to branch out into raising turkeys or pigs.

 

We have a thought brewing right now, but I’m also open to other people’s ideas.  What catches your eye at the meat counter?  What colors stand out to you?  What annoys you about marketing?

 

I am eager to hear!

A New Breed

In my last post, I acknowledged the issue that has persisted in my flock for a number of years.  I haven’t succeeded in getting them to be as productive as they need to be, and I’ve concluded that I’ll be better off working with a pure breed intended for the kind of farm we are starting.

Instead of picking a breed and then searching for good breeders, I’ve done the opposite – I’ve picked a great breeder and concluded that the breed meets my needs.

Sue Johnson has been raising Border Leicesters since the mid 1970s.  She started with two 11 year old ewes, and told me that she’s been looking for straight backs and wide hips ever since.   It shows.  I decided to buy her ewes when I realized I couldn’t pick out any individuals in her flock that I *wouldn’t* happily own.  They are beautiful and uniform, and Sue’s complete commitment to quality shows in every aspect of these sheep – right down to the color of the horn on their feet and the color of the skin on their eyes.

So we are buying 14 of them.  Sue is reducing her flock significantly, and she has entrusted me to continue her progress.  It’s almost like I’m adopting her children or arranging a marriage – we’ve discussed values and opinions of various practices to reassure ourselves that we are making the right choices.  I’ll be calling Sue often to consult, especially when I’m trying to find rams in as limited a gene pool.  I’m very grateful that she has entrusted her life’s work to us.  I hope we can rise to the challenge!

*****

Regarding the continuing CL issue, we retested and got our results on Friday.   Bobolink, Moose and Marianne had the same results as before.  Amid some tears, Mary Lake dispatched Bobolink today.  She had a cyst forming, and we just couldn’t risk keeping her any longer.  Her meat is edible, but it’s small consolation for the loss of a really wonderful ewe who gave and raised twins as well as amazing gray fleece every year.  Happy trails, Bobolink.  I’m sorry to have lost you.