Posted on

Shearing 2020

Shearing!

We had the sheep shorn today. Though it feels early in the year, we know we need to have the sheep shorn before lambs are due. The forecasts calls for continuing mild weather, so we aren’t concerned about cold or wind for now. The ewes were eager to itch all of the itchy places they couldn’t reach beneath their fleece. We watched each of them craning their necks around to reach that One Spot and then shaking in relief.

Mary Lake at CanDoShearing shears our sheep. Mary and I have parallel sheep journeys. We were housemates back in 2012 and 2013. She had just finished an internship on a sheep farm when I was in the middle of my goat-milking years. We were both struggling doing hard jobs under challenging circumstances. Mary has always been helpful and deeply honest about my sheepraising, so it felt wonderful to be able to show her a flock of healthy, chubby ewes with great wool. I am endlessly grateful to Mary’s patience and wisdom through all of these years.

Enjoy these naked ladies prancing around on our farm! We were thrilled to see how plump and ready for lambs our flock is. 51 sheep shorn today – the only ones still wearing wool are the Two Old Ladies – we think they’ll do better with a bit more wool on.

Posted on

Winter Chores

We have arrived successfully at the quietest time of year.  The ewes are eating and gestating, quietly growing and waiting.  The rams have calmed down and decided to get along again.IMG_20191226_105829

Every morning, I put on my coat, hat and gloves and head to the barn.  The ewes are eager to see me.  They have picked at the caged round bales all night and need me to remove some of the wasted stems so they can get to the good stuff again.  We have three feeders so that everyone can have a fair shake at eating without waiting for more dominant ewes to fill up.  With three 600 lb bales in the barn at a time, we don’t even have to feed the sheep daily.

Sometimes, Louise the Kitty decides to explore the barn.  In the summer, it’s one of her favorite places to hang out because there is shade but no sheep.  Though I have seen many photos of cats and sheep cohabitating happily, my cats and my sheep are more adversarial.  Louise attracts sheep attention and gets assaulted by noses within moments of arriving.  I had to rescue her, much to her chagrin because she hates being picked up and carried.  I bet she would hate being sniffled to death more.

IMG_20191226_110054IMG_20191226_110007

In sunny weather, the ewes use their loafing area to sunbathe and to scheme about how to bust the fencing apart so they can go eat fallen apples.  They were out under the apple tree when we came home from our Christmas visit to my sister and her family.  It’s embarrassing to admit that we are somewhat losing this intellectual arms-race with the sheep.  If the land beneath the loafing area were permiable, we would put in some posts and be done with it.  Since the land is quite hard and compacted, we have to make some alternate plans.  The ewes know that the green alpaca panels can be rubbed until one lifts out of the linkage with the other.  We solved that temporarily by pinning the linkages together, but the ewes have found that they can reorient the fencing and defeat the pins.  Frustrating.

IMG_20191226_105901

 

Posted on

Pregnancy Checks and some Updates

With temperatures in the low single digits today, we are surely in the thick of winter.  Last week, we finally received the replacement barn-ends that we ordered after the back of the barn tore in half during the Halloween storm.  Unfortunately, Matt and I concluded that we won’t actually complete the repairs until spring.  Neither of us want to battle stiff, uncooperative materials in terrible weather while the barn is filled with pregnant sheep.

Speaking of pregnant sheep, our vet Dr. Emily came out yesterday to ultrasound each of our ewes to check for pregnancy.  The news was mostly good- lots of multiples, ewes look generally healthy, and we even have a few pregnant ewe lambs!   We sent each ewe through the chute for a fairly low-stress exam.  It was a perfect opportunity to check on some of the ewes who are skillful at avoiding us under most circumstances.  I am so pleased with how chubby and healthy most of the flock is.  I really feel like I have that aspect under control at the moment.  I think the biggest factor is that Matt made all of our hay this year, and the ewes eat it with great gusto.

IMG_20191218_154504
I hold a sheep, Dr. Emily scans, assistant Allison evaluates

On the downside, we do have three open adult ewes.  Ewe lambs get a pass on not breeding their first year, but 1616, Beth and Eilis all scanned empty, much to my disappointment.  Sadly, we are reasonably sure that Eilis is dying, so we are preparing to euthanize her soon.  Two vets, endless exams and many treatments have all yielded no improvement in her condition.  Dr. Emily and her former owner agree that cancer is not unlikely.  I am so, so heartbroken that after all of the TLC we provided to Eilis, we have no offspring from her or from her sister, Beth.  Beth has been fat and healthy the whole time, but just won’t settle a pregnancy.  We are blood-testing her for a final chance that maybe her pregnancy could have been missed, but I am not holding my breath.

Posted on

UnGlamorous

This is the unglamorous time of year.  The two big Sheep and Wool festivals we do are over, and it’s time to get back to routine farmwork,

20191029_120453

All but the most stubborn leaves have blown off the trees and hit the ground.  Frost has ceased the growth of the grass, so all grazing now is merely a victory-lap of somewhat palatable but less-nutritious grass.  Even breeding season has abated – the rams have settled most of the ewes for March lambs, as best I can tell.  Unlike goats, rams woo ewes quietly and subtly.  They grumble gently and nudge ewes while sniffing to determine who might be in heat.

20191029_120705

One major job awaiting me was the ram barn.  We clean the bedded manure pack out of the main barn with a tractor, but because the rams live in a converted horse stall, removing their bedding is a hand-shoveling job.  If we bedded them with shavings, shoveling would be easy, but we mostly bed them with waste hay.   Waste hay plus manure creates a substance that I term “Crap-thatch”.  Crapthatch is challenging to shovel because the long strands of hay do not want to disengage, while the moisture in the pack makes every scoop you can move very heavy.

20191029_150450
Keep on scoopin’!

It took three long days to complete the shoveling job.  We added most of the manure to the manure pile, but we brought one down to the village of Albany to share with some folks who let us rent their land for hay.  Matt deposited the scoop of poop straight on their garden for use next year.

20191029_150432

At least we have a nice stack of hay bales to see us through until spring.  It’s hard not to get anxious about my hay math – it’s expensive to be 20 bales short in April!  That said, I think we are in the clear.

 

Posted on

Doner Kebab

Have you ever experienced the magic that is a vertical stack of meat, slowly rotating and barbecuing, then shaved into a pita or flatbread with lettuce and sauce for eating?

I have.  In a perfect word, I would have a vertical Doner Kebab spit, but this is not a perfect world and I don’t tend to favor “unitasker” kitchen implements anyhow.

When I discovered the Spruce Eats “shortcut” Doner Kebab recipe, I was elated.  And friends, it works.  It’s not QUITE like the vertical spit kind, but it’s crispy and good and close enough to fill that void in my life.  And it’s so simple: in short, make a spiced lamb loaf, then finely slice and fry the slices.  Nothing elaborate needed, no special skills required.

Here are my lamb loaf slices, cooking up crisp.  I didn’t have good pitas available, so I just ate it on bread like a sandwich – delicious, nevertheless.

We have ground lamb available in all of our Lamb Boxes – order today and I’ll deliver as soon as I am in your area in NH, MA or VT.

20190820_192155

Posted on

Berry Picking

Many days leave me feeling utterly spoiled.  Even with a huge bruise on my leg from handling a lamb who didn’t want to be medicated and scratches on my arms from moving through rough brush, I feel like the most fortunate person alive.

After a long day of work, I took a moment to walk slowly around my property, gathering berries.  Black raspberry season is just wrapping up – I was able to find about a cup of sweet, crunchy berries on my walk.  We do not have a large population of true blackberries with their vicious thorns and inevitable large spiders (what is it with the large spiders in the blackberry patches?).  Black raspberries are my favorite for saving for later.  In the depths of winter when nothing is in season, they are my go-to for a milkshake to boost my vitamin levels and shake the blues a bit.

I also found a few raspberries.  We have raspberries near the murderbarn.  I am not sure if they were intentionally planted or if they are wild volunteers, but the berries are not as sweet as I would like.  I only located and picked a few.

Our apple crop is out-of-control this year.  Our property contains dozens of old, shaggy apple trees dotted with mealy, dry, feral apples.  Only one tree produces tasty fruit, so I watch that tree carefully.  Last year was an off year, with only a few apples on the good tree.  This year, the tree is weighted with the bulk of crisp, lovely apples.  I’m already digging up that apple chutney recipe that was so delicious.

Our land does not support blueberries, which need a very acidic soil.  I am spoiled, again, from having access to wild mountain blueberries back in New Hampshire, where I grew up.  Planting cultivated ones doesn’t really appeal to me.  To me, cultivated blueberries are sour, not sweet, and lack the rich flavor of the wild-type berries.  So I will go to New Hampshire for blueberries and leave the cultivated ones for others to enjoy.

We do, however, have gooseberries.  I don’t recall the gooseberries fruiting before this year, but we have quite a few plants.  Anyone know what to do with these weird, blandish berries?  They have a texture like a kiwi and a bland sweet/tart flavor.  I’m open to ideas!

Posted on

A Trip to the Museum

If you know me in real life, you’re probably aware that I am pretty nerdy.  So a day trip to a local historical society and museum was just the thing to share with Matt and my mom.  We decided to check out Old Stone House Day at the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, VT.

Much of the grounds was given over to a farmer’s market, pie auction and activities for children.  We rapidly found our way to the historical agricultural tools barn, where we looked at an old sheep-powered treatmill for small tasks like churning butter or running other simple devices.  We learned that there were once many more sheep in Orleans County – hard to imagine now, as there are only a few large sheep farms in this area.

Here are some pictures from our day at the museum that I found particularly compelling:

This cutie was my first stop, for obvious reasons.  Not sure if I petted Danny or Mr. Wrinkles, but these two chill guys were taking it easy under a shade tree.  Touching their wool, I am brought straight back to why I abandoned my efforts to raise finewool sheep in Vermont.  They both had damage to the wool on their backs from our humid climate.

 

20190811_130245 (1)

This picture speaks for itself regarding changes to the farming economy in Vermont.  Whether you support conventional dairy farming or not, the farming infrastructure that comes with it is vital to the success of all of the small farms in the state.  We lost another 10% of our dairy farms in 2018 due to milk prices again lingering below the cost of production.

For those who care about this particular opinion, Ben & Jerry’s was MUCH better ice cream before Unilever bought them.  It hurts to see the chain of consolidation moving on up.  Jasper Hill and Vermont Creamery (dealing in goat’s milk, owned by Land’O’Lakes) are doing the same thing with the cheese market.

Here is the display on wool from the museum.  Under the sign, there was a picture of a UK-style Border Leicester.

 

 

Of note to longtime readers – if you recall two years ago when we were hunting for a home to buy to use as a farm, we almost bought a property in Brownington, only a mile or so from the museum.  We drove by the home we had considered buying, only to find the 1810-era farmhouse torn down and replaced with a modern home and a horse barn for pleasure-horses.  Such a loss, though small in the grand scheme, is nevertheless a blow to valuable agricultural land and to preservation of historic homes.   It was sad to see.

 

Posted on

Our BFL Yarn is Here

I am so happy with the BFL yarn that came back from Battenkill Fibers this year.

In past years, our BFL clip has been too small for me to send it to a mill.  Bluefaced Leicesters are bred to have light fleeces.  In the UK, this was done with the idea of reducing the fleecy bulk of Cheviots and Scottish Blackface ewes.  The ewes from these crossbreedings are known as mules, and they are famous for having better wool and more lambs than their mountain dams, but more fleece and ruggedness than their BFL sires.

20190810_150206
We just love our BFL sheep!  Here, Sally gets all of the petting she wants from farmer Matt.

In the US, where BFLs are not used as much for creating mule ewes, the small fiber clip is a bit of an issue for mill processing, which requires minimum amounts.  This year, with 17 adult ewes contributing, we finally have plenty of lovely yarn to sell.

The yarn itself is something else.  I have never had yarn so smooth, shimmery and soft, while not being ropey or hard at all.  I love how it shows off the dye efforts I’ve made.  It’s easy to envision this yarn as a luxury shawl or treasured scarf.  Slouchy hats would also be a great use for it.  I’m not saying that your BFL socks won’t stay up, but I am saying that this yarn deserves to be used doing what it does best, which is draping beautifully without pilling.  I chose colors that I thought would lend life and interest to single-color projects, though the colors complement each other well, too.

Our BFL yarn is fingering weight, 200 yards per skein.  

20190807_144408

Cloverworks Farm Greensboro Bend Yarn

Posted on

How Haying Works

By request, here’s a basic primer on how haying works!

First, some definitions:

Hay is grass and grass stems that animals eat.  It’s cut from fields that could also serve as pasture.  Correctly made, hay provides most or all of the nutrients an animal needs to survive the winter.  The best hay is greenish in color.  Whether fresh or in hay, the leaves of the grass provide the nutrition, while stalks and stems are roughage that animals often avoid eating.

Straw is the leftover stalk after a grain is harvested.  Oat straw and wheat straw are the yellowed, leftover stalks that the seedheads we know as oats and wheat grew on, respectively.  Straw is not a nutritious or complete ration for animals.

Silage is any crop that is stored in an anaerobic environment, effectively “pickled” for animal feed.  Commonly, corn is used as silage.  Corn growing at your local dairy farm isn’t palatable for people, but when the whole stalk is ground up and ensiled, cattle love it!  Corn silage is not safe for sheep, but Haylage, which is hay that is wrapped and slightly pickled is good feed for sheep.  Haylage and silage both require special storage to prevent pathogens that can cause catastrophic illness.

In all of the climates that have a dry season or deep snows, animals need some kind of forage for the period of time when grass is unavailable.  Winter forage production (both hay and root crops like mangels) and storage governed how many breeding animals could be overwintered, both before mechanization and now.  There was no use keeping an extra cow if she was just going to starve in March, so farmers took winter feed calculation seriously.

Making hay requires ripe grass and dry weather.  Ripe grass is a whole separate treatise, but a simple rule of thumb is that leafy species should have three leaves, and grass is best before the plants in the pasture go to seed.

Prior to mechanization, farmers cut hay with a scythe.  An efficient scythe operator might cut a couple of acres of hay in a day.   Without weather reports, farmers had to trust their wisdom and experience to predict the likelihood of 3-4 days of good dry weather.

Once the hay was cut, it needed to be raked up into windrows (long, linear piles) and then raked out again.  This ensures that the hay dries evenly, preventing damp spots that could rot your hay (and even cause fires) and excessive drying.  Hay that is too dry will crumble to dust during the baling process and be lost.

Before mechanization, hay was stored in stacks.  Most of us have seen childish renditions of farming where there are yellow haystacks everywhere.  That cultural idea is a relic from before the invention of baled hay.  Creating a haystack is a special skill that has all but vanished, though it is discussed in the book Far From the Madding Crowd, incidentally, a worthwhile read for anyone interested in historical sheepraising.

After two days of drying, with sessions of raking hay to spread it out and then raking it into windrows, modern hay is baled.  Bales are a nice, portable format to move hay around the farm to the animals that need it.

Three types of bales are common – small square bales, large square bales, and large round bales.  In the Northeast, small squares and large rounds are most common.

Small squares are probably what you are picturing if someone says the words “Bale of Hay”.  They are usually about 3/4 feet long, 18 inches wide, weigh about 35-45 pounds, and are easy to move with a bit of muscle.  We used this format of bale before we began making our own hay.  It was easy to load some in the bed of the truck, drive them to our farm and gradually feed them to the sheep.  For about 10 ewes, small squares were perfect.

However, when you start to manage large numbers of sheep, small bales become exhausting and impractical.  Back during my years working on a goat farm, we would feed upwards of 12-15 square bales a day for five to six months.  That’s a lot of bale-schlepping!  For my comparable numbers of ewes, we feed two round bales every other day.  Much less work for us since we have the tractors to do the heavy lifting for us.  We wrap our round bales in plastic to make those “marshmallow” bales you commonly see.  Not ideal, obviously, so we are looking for solutions that are better for the earth but ideally don’t require an enormous barn to store the bales.  We wrap the bales to protect them from damaging water, which can destroy a hay bale completely.

*****

For people interested in making hay, there are a wide variety of equipment options that cater to larger and smaller scales, different kinds of terrain, and personal preference.

We have two tractors, a 27 Horsepower Ford 1720 and an 80 Horsepower Zetor Major 80.  The Ford can power everything except our large mower and our baler.  The Zetor does those larger efforts, plus tough jobs like moving bales around and doing barn cleanout.

This is our smaller mower for small fields.  We have two drum mowers, one for small fields and one better suited to large fields.

20190629_143547

The drum mower spins at high speed, allowing small cutters to cut the grass evenly.  We prefer this mower to a disc mower because hitting a rock is less potentially catastrophic with this design.

20190629_143603

This is our side-delivery rake.  It’s a basic old rake – try to picture the two discs turning, causing a motion that always directs the grass leftward.  It neatly sweeps the cut grass into windrows.  I learned how to rake recently and I have to say that I enjoy the work.

20190629_143411

This is our tedder.  It is in a folded-up position right now – in operation, the spinning circles are in a line perpendicular to the tractor.  The tines on spinning circles pick up the mown hay and fluff it around, allowing it to dry evenly and breaking up clumps.

20190629_143431

 

Posted on 1 Comment

Summer Arrives

Summer arrives to find the bobolinks have fledged from our neighbor’s hayfield.   Three streaky brown birds making little plink calls were flitting and bouncing around the pasture I set up for the sheep.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to provide habitat to this struggling species.

20190621_131452IMG_20190620_143328_393

We are so close to weaning time.  I know the ewes are ready to send their lambs off on their own for a while.  Some have probably already weaned their babies without my help.  For others,  it’s adorable yet concerning to see lambs who are nearly the same size as their mothers still nursing.  The ewes need pedicures and a spa treatment (or hoof trimming and some Selenium supplementation, depending on your perspective).

IMG_20190621_125233_651

We have two especially naughty lambs who have figured out how to slip under the electric fence.  They taunt the other lambs by eating the grass I am saving for later meals.  Sadly, one is a ewe lamb that I would have considered keeping, but I don’t really need troublemakers.  Worse, in the process of slipping out, the lambs have occasionally knocked down the fence and allowed other sheep to escape.  We do not want loose sheep in roads and on neighbor’s land.

Our haying efforts have produced 75 round bales so far.  We have several more fields waiting for first-cutting, but Matt is struggling with equipment breaking down.  First, the round baler wasn’t operating smoothly, so he needed to adjust the tension on the belts that roll the hay into a snowball.  Then, one of the bearings on the new mower seized, causing extensive damage to a part that is no longer made.  Good thing Matt is a decent welder.  He’ll need to replace the gnawed-off metal with in-fill, and then use a lathe to make it smooth and round again.  Yeesh.

I have learned how to rake the hay into windrows that the baler then scoops up and rolls.  There is a satisfying rhythm to it, like mowing the lawn.  Would you like to know more about how hay is made?  I’ve been debating whether or not to write a post explaining hay, so let me know if an explainer would be useful for you.