The “Shovel” Problem

Are Bluefaced Leicester (BFL) sheep hardy enough?

I’ve been talking to Lisa, a long time Bluefaced Leicester breeder.  We both agree that we are tired of some of the misconceptions about Bluefaced Leicesters – that they are just for small-scale hobbyists, that they don’t have a sustainable genetic presence in the US, and that “Every ram is sold with a shovel.”

It’s the last point that I was considering tonight.  We are having a blizzard at the moment.  A foot of snow has fallen, and it looks like more is yet to come.   Temperatures have fallen to -25F some nights in the last month, and we know we aren’t done with cold temperatures.

We knew that the Border Leicesters would be fine.  They have thick wool that protects them from virtually everything and are a popular breed in this climate.  But come to find out, the BFLs are no less game for the weather.  While I was out doing chores, they were out in the snow.  Inside, others had snowfall piled on their backs, unmelted by body heat; a sure sign that they are fully weather-insulated.  They seem happy and healthy.

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This ewe is black, in case you can’t tell.

I have noted in the past that it is a challenge to keep some of my Bluefaced Leicester ewes in top body condition.  I’ve recently learned that there are some bloodlines in the breed that carry this trait, but that it is possible to avoid those lines.  Some of my sheep who are leanest carry those lines.  Now I know!  Fortunately, Fred the ram is a the easiest of easy keeper, so we can select our way away from this tendency.  We also have more than 50% of the flock without those lines.  One might think that the fleece fancy has caused this issue, but I believe that it was an honest mistake.  It is possible that the ram was just well-fed and appeared more adequate than his genotype turned out.  The solution to this problem is improved, standardized recordkeeping, not the blame game.

Admittedly, some Bluefaced Leicesters are kept mainly for fleece.   Their fleeces are light, though, and while some sheep are kept as pets, the cost and challenge of finding rams means that most flocks that are larger breeding operations have a meat operation, too.  The difference is that when you are catering to fiber lovers, it can be awkward to co-market your meat.  So many farms that do both separate the marketing in a way that farmers with sheep raised purely for meat don’t need to.  The goal is the same, but the conversation looks different.

In Britain, they are fond of the saying that “every Bluehead Ram is sold with a shovel” so you can bury him when he dies.  British sheep management is much different than ours, and it’s not really a surprise that more sheep die when there is no shelter, and when a ram is put in with 60 or 80 ewes to breed.  Are Blues reasonably hardy?  Yes, absolutely.  Are they as hardy as Scottish Blackfaces?  Perhaps not quite, but they have more lambs, more meat and nicer wool than a Blackface.  A little shelter and basic care isn’t too much to pay for that.  So I don’t take British grousing about BFLs too seriously.

I am raising Bluefaced Leicesters because I think they have one of the strongest suits of genetic and economic potential among breeds that have desirable wool.  I still feel this way, and I hope I can help others see it too.

 

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Choretime

Now that I’m back on my feet more, choretime is a bigger proportion of my day.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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.

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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.

A Day about Pigs

We are having a little piggy-roast next weekend in honor of Matt…getting older, let’s say.  We brought a live pig home last week.   She was cute as could be – a 60lb gilt (young sow) with endearing eyes.  She loved the apples and sheep grain I offered and would batt her long eyelashes at me.  When Mary Lake came to dispatch the piggy with adorable son Hugo in tow, I felt more hesitation than usual.  We don’t have facilities to keep a pig, however, and the thought of crackling pork was enough to go on with the matter.  Mary said that our little pig had some parasite damage to her liver and kidneys and wouldn’t have been a good candidate to bear many litters of piglets.  That’s some consolation, and we will revisit the idea of raising pigs in our farm plans for next year.

Our first act after slaughter was to figure out a way to remove the hair from the pig.  The skin of a slaughtered pig is the tastiest part, but no one wants scruffy hairs all over their plate.  Youtube to the rescue – we found a technique where you put a towel on the carcass, pour boiling water on the towel, and then scrape the hair off.  Easier said than done!  We were having high winds, and the towels cooled rapidly.  The hair was as attached as ever and the knife shaved the pig more than it epilated it.  We tried a few more water-pours, but didn’t make much progress.  Time to throw in the towel, as it were.

So we moved on to Plan B.  When Plan B involves a blowtorch, you know it’s a good plan.  I dutifully torched all of the remaining hair off that hide.  The smell was terrible, but the job was oddly satisfying.  Matt and I had to neaten up quickly as we had a date at a restaurant that we love that is closing this fall.  Wouldn’t want to go to a real-tablecloth restaurant reeking of blood and scorched hair.

The pig is hanging in our cellar fridge, but we have had a little advanced sample of the liver today.  I’m keen to do a better job of using our animals nose-to-tail to honor their sacrifice.  I found a promising recipe for liver pate that came out very well.  The pate is quite rich and satisfying, featuring the mineral-y liver flavor very favorably.   The kidneys were cooked up for the chickens this time, but I’d be keen to hear any good recipes for those if you have them!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Saving the Best for Last

Our New Place

To our surprise and delight, the house we thought we might have to walk away from has been freed from bureaucratic encumbrance, and is ours again to buy.   Some poor file clerk pulled the file again, found the missing document, and suddenly we were good to go. We close on Friday.

About our new farm:

Some of you who have been in shepherding for a long time remember the debacle in the 90’s involving some sheep, legally imported from Belgium, who became the subjects of a USDA investigation.  The sheep were confiscated from one farm, but another chose to fight and engaged in a multi-year legal battle with the USDA.  Our new property is the farm where the sheep were removed immediately.  Their heartbroken owners rented out their cheese facility for a number of years but after a fire in the cheese room were unable to continue.  The bold, deep blue interior of the house has a mournful quality that brings to mind abandoned dreams.  It is both beautiful and sad.

Our hope is to restore this property and renew the hope of sustainable sheepraising on it. Despite a history of loss, the property still has tremendous potential for pasture-based lamb-raising and perhaps endeavors like pigs, chickens and ducks.  The land slopes gently away from the home, awarding us a clear view of any animals at any time.  A trickle of a stream segments the property vertically, promising water in dry years and drainage in damp ones like this summer so far.  The land is fertile but not fertile enough for demanding crops like corn or rich enough for dairy cows.  It is exactly the kind of land that should be designated for sheep enterprises.  We have a view of the Lowell Wind Project, which I don’t mind at all.

While I am grateful for all of the opportunities that farming in suburban Williston has provided, I am excited to return to small-town living.  I am excited to have a town and a region to contribute to and to form long-term relationships with.  I am excited to meet the other shepherds in the area.  Matt is excited to have a garage where he can work on implements with his tools organized and his work area clean and uninterrupted.  The rescue parrots we have will be excited by the high ceilings and great sunlight in the house.  The property has a defunct cheese plant on it with a dual septic system, a walk-in cooler and many other neat goodies.  Sadly, the state of disrepair means that we’ll need to invest a large chunk of money in this building to get it off the ground as a rental cheesemaking facility or renovated on-farm slaughter facility.

I am also excited to paint some of the blue wallpaper in a bright, sunny yellow shade.  We are ready to renew.

Stay tuned for some tales of sheep-moving and some new adventures.

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!

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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.

Off to the Auction

In my last post, I mentioned that we are actively gearing up to buy a farm, make our own hay, and raise sheep full-time.

Yesterday, we went to the Rene Fournier Equipment Auction to search for useful implements for our farm.

Picture a huge lot filled with new, used, and well-used equipment.  A few title-less cars, some random firehouse, a municipal bus, and tractors, rakes, tedders, mowers and other implements of all kinds.  Lawn tractors, skidsteers and chicken coops went up on the block.

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And by “block”, I mean they drove a truck around slowly, while a man with sign with a down-arrow that said “Selling this item” indicated various items for sale.  Irreparable items sold for scrap prices, generally.  Manure spreaders went high, and small balers were almost free for the taking.    Antique tractors like this one didn’t even make their reserve and went unsold.

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Finally, after hours of watching irrelevant items go by, our desired item finally came up for bid.

We had carefully scoped out the round-baler situation.  Several round-balers were for sale.  One was large and from a company (Gehl) that no longer offered parts for their now-defunct agricultural division.  The John Deere baler we saw seemed likely to go for a high price, and there were two Case balers that would work.  We also noticed a New Idea-brand baler with an electric mechanism for opening the baler hatch and dispensing a bale.  Our tractor only has one rear hydraulic attachment, so that would be a huge help to us – otherwise, we would have to get off the tractor each time to release a completed bale, or we would need to put a splitter on our hydraulic output, slowing both hydraulic operations somewhat.

Matt and I conferred and made a pact-  We knew that a baler on Craigslist would sell for about $4-5000, so anything under $3000 was good, and under $2500 was ideal.  We would bid up to $2500 and then read the lay of the land.  We were ready to come home with nothing, if need be.  We watched some handy limespreaders pass us by for not too much money.  Maybe next time, lime spreaders.

The New Idea baler came up first- not ideal for our strategy, as we would have no sense of competing buyer’s moods for buying round balers before jumping in on the one we would want the most.  But Matt had a secret weapon.  the New Idea had a control panel and a tangle of wires and tubes.  We considered whether the crowd here might opt for something similar…

Bidding started at $4000.  No takers.  It dipped to $3,000, 2,000, and then 1,000, when Matt opened bidding.  Another person we couldn’t see joined in, and they gradually rose until they reached about $2400.  Matt and the other man then slowly bid upwards in $50 increments until Matt bid $2650.  An anxious minute, and then the other bidder relented.  Suddenly, a crowd that had correctly identified us as newbies welcomed us and congratulated us on our purchase.   We watched the Case baler sell for more than $4000, and immediately felt some pride when other farmers said “You bought the better baler, and for less!”

Matt and I drove home happy.  He swapped out of his car and took my truck up to pick up the baler, proud and pleased to own a very vital piece of equipment for less than we had planned to spend.

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