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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.

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The Reality of Yarn

Don’t get me wrong.  Playing with yarn gives me great joy.  I love the texture, the sheepy scent, the slight dust of it.  I love the whole sensory experience and I am always happy to have more yarn.

This year, instead of having our yarn made into pre-measured skeins at the mill, we elected to have it delivered on huge cones to be made into skeins at home.  Matt built a skein winder that automatically spins and measures each skein.  Such a winder would normally cost $350-400.  He made ours out of spare parts and some pvc pipe for about $150.

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But please understand that this is Day 12 of winding skeins.  I have rewatched the entirety of Ken Burn’s “The Civil War” (11 hours and 30 minutes, for those counting at home) while winding skeins, and that just covered winding the white BFL and 1/3 of the white Border Leicester.  I watched Ken Burns “The Roosevelts” as well.  I also watched the whole “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series (23 hours 20 minutes!) while making the natural color Border Leicester skeins and white mini-skeins needed for new patterns that will be released soon.

Each skein comes off the line frequently enough to make tasks more complex than television impossible.  Likewise, my hands need to stay clean, precluding anything like cooking or dyeing other yarn.  Watching something informative makes me feel like my brain is engaged with something meaningful.  I know I’m letting my nerd flag fly by admitting to my preference for documentaries and straightforward storytelling.  The current selection of human-failure-intensive prestige dramas don’t appeal: to me, the world has enough genuine sorrow and pain.  I cannot enjoy watching people suffer for entertainment.  I left human services forever in 2010 for a reason.

I am happy to report that I am winding skeins from the final cone of natural-color Border, and I am really, really happy to be so nearly done.  Stay tuned for 2019 yarn!20190521_092711

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Goslings Arrive

We have goslings!

The geese sat patiently on their eggs for most of April.  One goose set herself up beneath some haying equipment, allowing us to leave her generally alone.  Approaching the tarp-covered implement would invariably elicit a hiss.

The second goose laid her eggs in the ram barn, right next to the rams who still needed regular feeding.  So she honked, hissed and snapped at us whenever we fed the rams until they were let outside.

The under-tarp goose hatched her eggs first – seven eggs yielded just 2 goslings.  We think that maybe one or two were taken or that the eggs were predated.   The goslings came out and have been playing in puddles while following their parents around.

Yesterday, Matt came in to say that the second goose’s eggs had begun to hatch.  This morning, he counted six little goslings, one egg still pipping, and three eggs with no apparent activity.

I am eagerly awaiting the new little geese joining the older two, and our entire goose family enjoying the sunshine together.  Hats off to our patient geese, who sat for so long while the ganders cavorted about.

A photographic compendium of Goose Rage:

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Making a Few Changes

I’ve had a long-term struggle with this website and blog that I am finally ready to talk about.

There is a conflict between my efforts to sell yarn and my efforts to sell meat.  It seems like the folks who are here to see the sheep and the yarn aren’t always keen on meat, and the folks who want to know more about the meat might not have a whole lot of interest in the yarn.  I have two audiences and splitting the difference seems to be hurting my bottom line.  In order to make my farm viable, I have to market my lamb and yarn effectively.  To sell lamb, I have to talk about lamb and lamb recipes.  At the same time, I also want to talk about yarn and sheep for all of my friends who love sheep stories and fiber arts.

So I have come up with a compromise.  I know that most of my visitors read my blog posts when they show up on my farm Facebook page.   I now have a second Facebook Page, Cloverworks Farm Kitchen, where I will share blog posts that are about cooking, recipes and lamb.  Cloverworks Farm Kitchen is also available on Instagram.  So folks who like yarn and sheep can follow Cloverworks Farm, meat fans have Cloverworks Farm Kitchen, and if you love everything we do, follow both!  If you follow this blog using RSS, you’ll get all of the content to enjoy.

I would love to hear thoughts and feedback about this – it takes a lot of pressure off me to constrain my writing.  I have recently had a lot of thoughts about our current cooking culture, so I am eager to have both projects on hand.

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A sample of my recent “simple recipes” inspiration.

 

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Lambing Mixup

So my prayers for “not lambing” during our deepest cold last night were not answered.

At maybe 2:30am, Matt woke me to say that he needed help in the barn.  It was -15F out and one of our oldest BFL ewes, Kay, was lambing simultaneously with Wild Thing, a Border Leicester. Kay is 9, which is an age where sheep get a little marginal in their ability to manage lots of lambs and to compete at the feed bunk.  Kay is sturdy and healthy, but I can tell she is at risk of falling behind under strain.

When we got to the barn, we had a pile of white lambs in front of us, but it was not at all clear whose were whose. Kay was licking up a nice, big, rather Border-y looking ram lamb, while Wild Thing was mothering a suspiciously blue-headed ewe. There were two other lambs – one that was clearly a blue-tinged BFL and another that was hard to evaluate due to the pink of her ears.  Sometimes BFLs are born looking a tad pink.  Such lambs typically blue-up as they age.

We brought the two unclaimed lambs in for warming. The obvious BFL died, sadly. Sometimes they are just too far gone and she was the runt.  This was our first lost lamb born alive.  It is a painful failure to lose a valuable ewe lamb like that.  We were left pondering about the ‘ownership’ of the little girl before us.  Her pink ears have gray patches, which Borders typically don’t have.  Her ears are also very high-set, desirable in both breeds but more conspicuous in my BFL stock.

After a long discussion, we came up with a theory of the case – K had triplet BFL girls, one of which was claimed by Wild Thing. Meanwhile, Wild Thing’s big, vigorous lamb wandered over to K. Sometimes ewes make decisions when faced with lots of lambs that they don’t think they can manage and raise.  Ewes may choose one or two of the litter to focus on mothering, instead of dividing their effort too much and losing all lambs to the cold.  So perhaps Kay thought that Wild Thing’s ram was her most vigorous lamb (he is about twice the size of the triplets) and chose him.

The outcome is that Kay is raising a Border ram, Wild Thing is raising a very nice BFL ewe, and we are also raising a BFL ewe since there were no claimants to the other lamb. In this cold, it’s not really worth the risk or the battle to foster her onto a ewe. Plus, who would we choose? Try to convince an unfriendly, aptly-named Border to accept a lamb that’s definitely not hers? Or put her with her real mom to make her compete against a huge ram lamb for sparse milk? We would have ended up raising one or two of K’s triplets in any case, given her age.  She didn’t lamb with enough milk to support more than one big lamb or two small ones.

So that was our night.  I got maybe an hour of sleep – the wash cycle with the dirty lamb towels took longer to complete than the amount of sleep I got.  This morning, I was greeted with…surprise!  More lambs.  A single from an experienced mom, fortunately, so I can feel comfortable that they will manage with less help.

Mercifully, this cold snap will soon break and everyone will be grateful.

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