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Lambs Arrive

We’ve been preparing for lambs over the last few days. Ever-rounder ewes have warned us that it’s time to plan.

These are some of our most ostentatiously pregnant ewes:

We started by placing our order from Premier 1 Supplies. We bought fresh new bottles and nipples for the inevitable bottle lambs, smore syringes and needles, and a can of colostrum replacer. We like to have colostrum replacer on hand to “stretch” colostrum when needed. We’ll mix it with a bit of colostrum borrowed from another ewe. I organized our existing lambing supplies and ordered more ear tags. Lots of small things to think of and loose ends to tie off.

Preparing our supplies is one matter, but preparing mentally is another. I am a huge fan of Lambing Live, a show that used to run annually on the BBC. Episodes are available on YouTube. Even though some are missing or out of order, it’s still a valuable watch if you want to get psyched for several weeks of sleepless stress. Truly, watch this series a bit if you find sheep even remotely interesting.



What is the stress of lambing? It’s not an excess of physical work. We have our farm pretty streamlined from that angle. It’s not even a complete lack of sleep. We have barn cameras to help us monitor the barn without having to get up and clothe ourselves every time. It’s really the stress of responsibility. It’s the stress of constant decisionmaking that could result in the death of a lamb whose issues we might fail to recognize, or excessive intervention where patience is needed. Making these calls constantly tires me, and tracking every detail wears on my mind.

Two days ago, I took a walk up Creek Rd and played “stick” with my pal Nugget, the Border Collie. I told her that it might be the last walk for a while, as we were expecting lambs any time. She cocked her head in a BC manner, not understanding that it may be farewell for a short while.

How precient were my words, because this morning we were blessed with two little black Border Leicester lambs. I had a notion to check the barn cam as I lay in bed at 7, and there they were. Matt reviewed the video on the barn cams. The birth was concealed by a hay feeder, but the moment of birth is perfectly apparent when the loud cry of a lamb alerted and alarmed every ewe in the barn. Ears and heads all turned the sharp, high little baas. Oxytocin is flowing already, and we’ve only just begun.


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Lamb Open House – Y/N in 2021?

No matter how much I pet them, my sheep crave attention. I have several who will stop at nothing for shoulder-scritches, up to and including the yearling ewe from my last blog post who now will try to stand on your chest for attention. Needless to say, but we are training her not to do that.

We have a little over a month of petting to distribute equitably before lambing begins right around the end of February. Already, the ewes are waddling more and standing less eagerly. We are expecting anything from 70-90 lambs in 2021. That’s a whole lot.

PET US NOW!

Not gonna kiss that fuzzy face for cootie reasons.

Not only do my sheep want attention and socialization, but I also do. I’m strongly introverted and happily go several days talking only to Matt. But even I have limits. It would be grand to have some visitors at the farm, socially-distanced of course. The barn is pretty open-air, so having visitors in the barn is at a comparable risk level to two masked, distanced people talking at the park. We also recognize that people NEED interaction of some kind to get through this terrible year. Sanity has value, too.

I want visitors to come because I want you to feel, in person, how wonderful baby lambs are. I want you to watch their spontaneous play, to coo over their snoozing, to sense their curiousity and learn to interact with them on their terms. I want children to develop a fascination with animals just as I did as a child. Nothing makes me sadder than meeting people for whom farm animals are an entirely abstract concept.

That said, news about new, more contagious variants comes out daily. Matt and I are relatively young (42 and 37, respectively), but Matt does have some risk factors for a more serious Covid experience. I am so keen to share our farm with you, but also rather anxious about it.

So I am interested in your thoughts: Should we do FB live lambing streams? Should we offer tours? Should we do both or neither? How would you want to interact with lambs and farms at this difficult time?

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Sheep Behaving Badly

I have some entertaining pictures of recent sheep activity. After 45 days in the barn, the ewes express their restlessness with weird stunts.

Activity #1 – Fighting

BFL 129 Amelia and Border Leicester 1736 go head to head, with our resident ram lamb goading them on. Sheep flocks have a hierarchy, and apparently these girls do not agree about where they stand in the pecking order.

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A solid flank shot by Amelia. Luckily, ewes don’t fight to the point of injury, like rams do. These two went back to munching hay and gossiping about each other soon after.

I have to admit that I was laughing the whole time. I am sure this felt very serious to the contenders, but watching chubby, fluffy ewes do battle would amuse anyone. I wonder if this could be a pay per view channel?

And then this happened:

Perhaps you recall a story from last spring, where one of our ewes had quadruplets? The runt died and we gave the ram lamb away to be raised by a friend, but we kept two promising ewes from the set. When a young lady contacted me to ask about keeping some bottle lambs over the summer, I consented. She had tutelage from an experienced shepherd, and handing off some problem children was just what I needed at the time, so I gave her one of the quad girls and another bottle baby. This lamb, #174, came home in the fall. She just loves people, and last week decided that perhaps people would make entertaining climbing walls, too.

So here she is, standing on my thighs and peering me straight in the eye. We will gently train her not to do this, as it’s going to get exponentially less-cute the larger she grows. I love this pretty ewe, but it is not safe to have attack-sheep on premises.

The days here are alternating between grimdark gray and sunny and white. It is a beautiful but bleak season. With the sheep stable and some time to think, I am finally catching up on paperwork and hobbies. I really value this bonding time with the core flock. The ewes are all feeling friendly and loving, so I am bombarded with shoulder-itching requests and loving nudges from my friendly ewes during this time. At other times of the year, the ewes are either preoccupied with parenting or feeling free and feral in the fields. So I gather the sheep petting endorphins when I can while we wait for the coming of lambs in late February.

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Running of the Rams

I felt grateful for a morning full of sunshine this morning. We’re well past our first frost and we know that snow is right around the corner, so it wasn’t surprising to step out to 35F temperatures and a crisp wind.

I usually get started by filling the water tank in the bucket of the tractor. We recently replaced our old Ford with a New Holland that’s 20 years newer. The Ford had a bumpy ride that irritates my internal scar tissue from past surgeries, so upgrading has really helped my health.

Aboard the tractor, I headed up to check on the BFLs who are in a breeding group pasture on our neighbor’s property. I spot two cyclists who are looking at me, then I see one of our off-duty rams running loose. That’s bad. Very bad. Our off-duty rams are in a horse pasture, and truthfully, they are not far enough from the BFL breeding group. We just didn’t have other options. So when I saw the off-duty ram heading for the ewes, ready to challenge the on-duty ram, I immediately worried that we would have a real ram-fight.

Fortunately, the electric fence succeeded in keeping the rams apart, so I contacted the cyclists. They told me that when they rode by, their cycles spooked the rams, causing Hermie the BFL ram to bust through the fence. They had been trying to keep Sam the Border Leicester ram inbounds while hoping that assistance would arrive. I’m so grateful that they stopped to help instead of leaving the situation.

I had some grain on hand to feed the ewes, so I tried to lure Hermie away from the girls. All amped up and nervous, he spooked at the grain bag sound instead of coming toward me. It was then that I noticed a large gash on his nose from challenging the fence. Poor Hermie! With grain-shaking getting me nowhere, I feed the BFL breeding group. That resulted in them ignoring Hermie, who responded by paying more attention to me. One cyclist returned with a bucket, and I was able to contact Matt for further backup.

It took slow, patient grain-luring to get Hermie back into his field. We were hoping to halter him, but he kept spooking and running in circles, so we concluded that our best hope was to feed out a little more grain in the field and to spray a sanitizing treatment on his wound there. Fortunately, we succeeded with that plan. Hermie now has a bold silver Aluspray blaze, and the fence has some new green stakes supporting the area where the the breakout took place.

It has been a long fall season for me. I haven’t kept up with the blog because I’ve been trying so hard to be nimble with Cloverworks yarn sales opportunities and busy with Bobolink Yarns efforts. It genuinely has been a hard year – I had hoped that this would be our breakout Rhinebeck year. We’ve learned that our yarn sells really well when people can touch it, but that we can’t rely on online sales as a substitute for in-person sales opportunities. That’s a tough realization, for certain.

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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.

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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.

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Two Old Women

I’ve been sharing a series of pictures of ewes in the flock to help show people the individuals in the web of stories in the flock.  I am enjoying sharing these images – I want people to know how we see our ewes as singular beings with their own personalities.

We have two ewes who are a little extra-special, though.

Their names are K and J.  They are twin sisters, 10 years old, and just as darling as they surely were as lambs.  They are smaller in size than their herdmates.  I am not sure why – they do fight for their fair share of food and they aren’t underweight.  They’re just smaller of frame.   Both are down a few teeth here and there – this will be an issue down the line.

J has a serious look.  She’s all business and doesn’t really want to be friends.  She trundles right into the middle of the largest Border ewes intent on her share of feed.

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J, right between two of my largest Border ewes.

K has a gentler face.  She is less competitive, more tired, with a broken ear that no longer shows the BFL perkiness it once did.

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Sweet and gentle K

In 2020, I will need to make a tough decision.  As K and J slow down, I need to consider their place here.  Can I give them a safe and sequestered place if they become uncompetitive?  Each only raised one lamb last year, leaving us to raise an orphan from each.    My heart wants to keep them forever, but functionally, we can’t afford to.  The other temptation is to give them to a pet home where they could live out their days.  Sadly, I have too often seen other people with older animals who fail to recognize when it is time to let a sheep go.  I sympathize – it’s hard to recognize a discrete point in a slow decline when it is time to let an animal go.  But my responsibility is to the welfare of the sheep, fundamentally, and I must adhere to that.  With luck, they’ll keep chugging along and I can keep them here a little longer.

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Our Bountiful Wild Harvest

At Cloverworks Farm, we raise lamb as an enterprise plus chicken and ducks for our own use.  We also have some wild foods on the farm – you may recall that a few months ago, we were hastily picking a variety of berries.  Now is the harvest time for our apples, crabapples and rosehips.

We are overrun with apples this year.  In all seriousness, we have literal tons on the trees, and they are more than I can physically pick or utilize.  We are considering getting some clean tarps and gathering all we can to bring to local cideries.   We considered cider presses, but I don’t think we can justify adding another significant enterprise to our farm at a time of year when we are already fraying at the edges with hay and breeding season planning.

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We have had an embarrassment of apples this year.  Last year was a poor year for apples, but this year has made up for it and then some.  We have thousands of apples, some small and scrawny, other juicy and snackable.  It feels a shame that I can’t pick every one – I hate to think of them going to waste in any way, since I imagine we even have more than the wildlife can handle.

We have one particular tree that is clearly not a wild field-apple.  It has a dwarf habit, an identifiable graft, and the juiciest, best apples in the whole place.  I feel a special connection to this tree, so I carefully protect it from the sheep.  This year, it has already given at least five bushels of apples, while more apples await on the top.

I feel guilt for the apples that have hit the ground.  Wasting a food resource is anathema to me.  Feeding apples to livestock feels fine, but leaving them to rot on the ground feels so painfully wasteful, but yet I cannot physically cope with the tonnage of apples here.  That said, I have made and frozen several pies, I have donated apples to be made into cider, and I intend to have a little cider made so we can add yeast and enjoy the consequences.

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We also have rose hips on hand.  I juiced these rose hips with crabapples to make another batch of my favorite jelly- crabapple rosehip.  The rosehips lend a floral richness to the pungent crabapples.  Crabapples grow right under our deck.

Not everything I put up in the last week has been my own – I traded apples for these tomatoes, which proved to be absolutely wonderful in flavor.  Just a little tomato puree in the freezer to help beat the winter blues later on.

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Lamb Enterprise Calculator

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I recently read a conversation on the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association listserv on the topic of calculating a profitable lamb production enterprise.  Some producers hadn’t calculated their production costs, while others weren’t sure what market prices looked like.

For our lamb enterprise, I calculated our cost of production and then did a bit of research on comparable products.  Comparable products are lamb produced by other enterprise farms (farms where vegetable and animal enterprises make money, whether or not the farmer farms full-time or not).  Local lamb in grocery stores counts, but not imported lamb.  A quick google effort is all that is needed to see what other farmers are charging.  I then deducted my cost of raising lamb from the prevailing price, and calculated how many lambs I would need to raise to make the amount of money I would like to from my lamb efforts.  Lamb needs to pay about 2/3 of my annual income.

Predictably, I would need to charge much more for my lamb than the market would support to make something close to the median US income, but farm life has other benefits.   We breathe fresh air, eat local food, do enough work to avoid needing a gym membership, and we get to spend our time together.  It all comes down to what kind of lifestyle is enough.

I have a spreadsheet to share with any sheep raiser who needs a little help calculating the cost of raising their lamb.  This calculator is only as good as the accuracy of the numbers you have, so be honest with yourself about how much the lambs cost to keep.  If you are trying to calculate what it would cost to start a sheep operation, there are lots of resources online to help you estimate how much hay your sheep will eat and how much fencing might cost.

Download Your Lamb Enterprise Calculator

Please feel free to customize your copy with additional info pertinent to your farm and to share this resource.  I love writing a good spreadsheet, so this is my gift to you.  If the sheet that downloads has format problems for you, I am happy to send you a copy of the form in Google Drive – just get in touch with the form below:

 

 

 

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Lamb Frustration

This year, I have a few naughty lambs.

Border Leicester #125, who is a really pretty ewe lamb, and her sidekick Border Leicester #151 persistently wiggle their way out of our electric fencing.  Sometimes, Border Leicester #122 joins in.

For a while, it really was my fault.  We only had a 1 joule charger on a large amount of fence, and the charge simply wasn’t hot enough.  Worse, we were using some old, slightly droopy netting that was easy for lambs to slip beneath.  I could watch them slide their little Roman noses under the wires and then shuffle under, awkwardly.  Sometimes, a lamb would inadvertently pull the fence out of the ground while shimmying, releasing the rest of the flock.  Having your sheep at-large will ruin your reputation in the neighborhood pretty quickly.  We needed to take action.

Then the arms race began.  We bought a hotter charger with twice as much power.  Still, 125 and 151 would sneak out.  We stopped using the older fence and even bought $600 worth of new fence.  Still, 125 and 151 were out-of-bounds somehow.

So at weaning, I went nuclear.  We are fortunate to have a neighbor’s hard-fenced horse-pasture available.  We tightened up that fence and then deposited the weaned lambs in there.  After a hard day of lamb separation, we were keen to prevent the lambs from escaping and running off to find their mothers.  Every possible escape-route was blocked and bolstered.

Yet still, this morning, the lambs are loose.  They knocked down some of the fencing in the process of escaping – fortunately, the main group of lambs was well-behaved and did not try to escape.

So our new policy is that those lambs are just “out”.  They are out, at risk of being eaten by coyotes, but they are not putting the main flock at risk.  They’ll also be on the first trailer out of here.  I am so, so frustrated at being outsmarted by two five-month-old lambs!  Unbelievable.

Some images of our at-large delegation:

 

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They are quite a ways from home, so I drive if I am carrying something large.

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Good lambs to the left, naughties to the right.

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Trying not to show their faces.

 

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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.

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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).

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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.