Talk of trade wars in the news gave me some thoughts. I’m not going to wade into politics, but I will wade into farming.
Given their intelligent, social nature, I feel comfortable saying that pigs are some of the most abused animals in factory farming. According to a recent article in Civil Eats, 75% of breeding sows in the US live in tiny crates without room to move or socialize
So my first thought about the trade war and possible damage to the conventional pork industry was “Good! Maybe this will decrease the amount of factory farm pork and improve the prospects of pastured pork, where pigs can engage in natural behaviors. As I read more, though, I realized there was a problem. China isn’t buying whole pigs at low-cost. Most of the US pork headed for China consists of offal and parts that most Americans don’t seek out like tails and ears. I considered that even though many cultural groups within the US may seek these parts, would they go to waste without China buying them, downgraded into pet food. That’s part of why pastured pork goes hand in hand with eating nose to tail. Could we convince more Americans to eat ears, tails and offal? I am still enamored of the liver pate that I made last year.
Soybeans offer a similar conundrum. On the Chinese market, they are human food and feed for animals. In the US, most soybeans are fed to animals in confinement. If soybean prices crash, will we increase the amount of meat grown in confinement, fed soy? The answer, according to the recent Planet Money podcast I listened to, is that Europe will buy it to feed their farm animals. Thus, we move carbon and other nutrients around the world using more carbon.
It isn’t lost on anyone that China can read an electoral map and chose to target economic sanctions in areas that voted for the current administration. How will people affected by price changes view this change and how will they respond?
For five years, I have been driving a 2003 Tacoma 4×4 V6 with a series of terrible truckcaps. We bought a truck in 2013 when we accepted the fact that we needed to stop putting livestock in our Nissan Versa. Those of you who know me in person or who meet me should ask about what it’s like to drive a Nissan full of ducks from Randolph to Craftsbury in a compact hatchback.
From the start, I loved everything about the truck- I loved being able to drive in mud season, I found that I was able to improve my car propriaception with the vantage point that the cab offered me. With a cap on the truck, we were able to move sheep safely, move manure, move supplies, move trash, move everything. In 2014, I moved myself from Brookfield to Essex Junction and then to Williston. Then we filled the truck every morning and moved to the home we bought.
We have gone through many repairs and updates. The frame and many frame elements were replaced in 2014 when a rust hole was found. We have a sweet custom rear differential case after the original developed a hole. There are some zipties on the bumper. It’s a Vermont vehicle.
But now we have a stock trailer so we can move more than a few sheep at a time. That trailer and sheep together just about hit the maximum towing capacity of the truck. Before I learned about motors from Matt, I assumed that towing too much weight damaged the engine. Now I understand that it actually grinds down the breaks and strains the engine cooling capacity, while putting strain on the frame and suspension as well. Since we will be transporting sheep to Maine, we need something newer, more powerful and more reliable. The Tacoma has never let me down, but I don’t want it to kick the bucket somewhere on Route 2.
So I sold it for $2400 today to Craftsbury Garage, hoping that I can keep a few dollars local as we go to find an F150 with the right array of options- good for towing, but no fancy bits.
Cloverworks Farm is pleased to announce that our farm is now Animal Welfare Approved! We are excited to join the program and proud that we’ve been able to meet their requirements. We were granted a derogation to continue long-docking tails for breeding ewes. It feels good to have recognition of our humane efforts in not castrating or docking rams or non-breeding stock ewes.
Some local farmers are a little nervous about “Claim Proliferation” on labels. Claims like “Gluten Free” on fresh celery and “Farm Grown” on Lay’s Potato Chips (as opposed to wild caught?) are rankling some consumers. But the more I talk to people outside of our farming community, the more I realize how much we do need to communicate these facts that feel obvious to us. When I am not talking to the consumer directly, labels like Animal Welfare Approved convey the information I need to share. I want buyers in New York or Boston to know that my lambs were raised to the highest standards of welfare.
I don’t know why I don’t like conferences. Maybe I’ve been to too many with poorly-trained presenters, or too many that are barely 60% relevant to what I am doing or want to be doing, or maybe it’s just the tables and the notepads and the boring small-talk.
The Vermont Grass Farmers Association Conference is different, somehow. They really understand how to balance the presenters at a conference, and how to respond to community needs. I was lucky enough to go to both days of the conference last week. It’s a fine opportunity to connect with other farmers facing the same opportunities and challenges as me.
The Friday panel of speakers addressed marketing, with a panel that included four farmers doing direct-marketing of their products in urban environments and one registered dietitian who studies the nutritional benefits of meat. While the four farmers gave great tips for managing sales and customer relations in a fast-changing environment, the dietitian had lots of useful information about how to sell and how not to sell grass-fed meat. I did not know that while the Omega-6/Omega-3 proportions are much better in grassfed animals, both fats still make up a tiny amount of the total fat in red meat and are not really nutritionally relevant relative to, say, Salmon.
While some Vermont farms are really adept at modern marketing strategies, many more have neglected websites, no social media presence, and an expectation that people will come to them for product. Some of us are farmers because we enjoy being out in the woods, not crafting messages for a suburban marketplace. Many of us are farmers because we eschew the harried urban culture that our customers belong to. But we ignore current culture at our peril – we need to make our products as available and ubiquitous as conventionally-farmed meat and processed pseudo-foods are now. Several presenters at the conference had unlocked that market.
The panelists also addressed how to handle displeased customers and how to talk to people who question the value of animal agriculture. While most of my own customers have seemed satisfied with my lamb and wool products, I sometimes encounter a self-appointed animal rights crusader who is appalled that we slaughter and eat sheep. While I don’t mind explaining why I do what I do to anyone who will listen, the presenters pointed out that for some, animal rights has transcended the idea that animals should have good lives and moved on to the idea that animal agriculture shouldn’t exist in any form and furthermore that we need to use synthetic substitutes for all of the animal products in our lives. She then suggested that we should respond to such opinions as we respond to any kind of closed-minded zealot – just block and move on. That was a relief to me.
The afternoon session on the first day of the conference addressed how to write your recipes for how consumers cook now. I have to admit- I cook entirely on cast-iron and enjoy making all-day recipes and eating old-fashioned stuff. Since cooking was all I could easily do for entertainment while my foot was broken, I experimented with all kinds of cooking that people don’t do at home, like puff pastry. I had never actually touched an Instant Pot and didn’t know what they did. Now, I almost want one. Not quite, but almost. And I know that recipes I write need to address the popularity of this implement. I need this occasional reminder to address my marketing to the prevalent cooking practices in society.
Day two of the conference was on Saturday and attracted a broader crowd. I spent my morning at a chat about Beef Cattle Genetics Management. Those of you who know me personally are aware that genetics are my nerdy happy-place. Even though I don’t really have plans for cattle, it was good to understand the genetic challenges faced by our cattle herd and how breed stock producers are encouraging farmers to strive for genes that will finish in a grass-based management system. Many cattle owners are making the same mistakes I did with my original flock- diluting hybrid vigor into unmanageable genetic stew. The result is tall cows and small cows and efficient and inefficient eaters. The presenters gave strategies to avoid this. They also had tips on evaluating feed efficiency. This is the project that I need to complete with the Bluefaced Leicesters- I need to take all of their amazing traits and add grass-feeding thrift without losing the rest.
In the afternoon, I participating in a panel of three presenters talking about opportunities for beginning farmers to access land. One of my co-presenters talked about her experience on a cooperative, group-owned property, and the other spoke about a dairy farming internship. I spoke about my journey raising sheep on rented land before we were able to settle in our current location. While our panel was well-organized and effective, I am not sure that our audience had that many people looking to enter farming. Have we passed through the golden moment of young people entering farming? I hope not.
The final session I went to concerned weighting and RFID animal management techniques. It was a little glimpse into the future of what we will be doing, where we can see if an animal is sick just by being alerted to interruptions in weight gain! Sheep hide illness, so this is a fantastic tool to improve humane practices on the farm.
Going to the conference also allowed me to connect with other farmers. On Friday, I carpooled with Maria Schumann of Cate Hill Orchard. We talked sheep and marketing all the way down, and all the way back up. It feels so good to make a sheep connection.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!