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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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On Farm Dinner

Join us on the farm for a dinner celebrating the harvest.  Craftsbury chef Nadav Mille will be preparing a tantalizing menu of foods using lamb from our farm and other local ingredients.  Chef Nadav’s cooking is vibrant with flavor and creativity – I sincerely hope you will consider joining us for this special evening.

If you can’t join us, we have plenty to lamb for sale!

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Out to Pasture

*bang bang*

My eyes open.  Matt says, “Someone is at the door, I think?”

My phone says it’s 5am.  It can’t be anything good.

*bang bang*  Definitely someone here.

I’m bleary-eyed and quasi-dressed when my neighbor at the door tells me that our sheep are out and she’s worried they’ll be hit in the road.  I thank her and she’s off on her commute again.

Time to get up!

I had set up most of the fencing for a starting pasture.  The ewes noticed the fencing coming out and baaed incessantly as I worked.  It was probably seeing the fencing that prompted them to somehow unchain their gate (I am still not sure how this was accomplished without thumbs – I am baffled).  Matt gathered the ewes farthest afield, and soon we had them all in the fenced area.

But the lambs had never left the barn before and had no experience with electronet fence or following their mother outside of an enclosed space.  Many were still in the barn, calling for Mom but afraid to go out.  We realized many years ago that acting as a herd is a skill sheep learn.  They have a basic instinct for it, but still have to learn the particulars.  So as we chased the lambs, they scattered.

We lured the lambs into the creep and then shut them in.  One by one, we caught the stragglers and then hand-carried each lamb from the creep in the barn to the pasture in front of the house.  Carrying heavy, struggling lambs exhausted us both.  An hour after the knock on the door, though, all of our sheep were neatly in pasture, eating up a storm.

Lambs under a shade tree

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Waiting for Spring

It’s almost May.

The grass has been taking its time in growing, but the lambs haven’t.  It pains me to see my tired ewes nursing their enormous lambs.

We began vaccinating our flock for Clostridium C+D plus Tetanus last week.  Matt and I hauled in the scale he built us and weighed each lamb.   Our lambs ranged from 60 lbs to 20, with the smaller lambs being younger.  In order to have some data that’s more useful than strict weight, I made a spreadsheet comparing days in age to current weight.  I admit I omitted birthweight.  Aside from animals born clearly outside the norm (huge or tiny), birthweight hasn’t been that helpful as a general measurement for me.  In any case, the sheep ranged from .49 to .99 in growth rate.  Meaning some weigh a pound for every day of age, others a half-pound.  Even my non-standard metric shows us a little bit about who is thriving and who isn’t.  We’ve begun efforts to supplement all of the lambs on the low end.

To double down on my New Sheep Math, I’ve also gone through and added up the total lamb-growth for all moms.   It seems like a helpful way to look at which ewes are working the hardest, feeding up to 1.81 lbs of lamb growth/day in a way that controls for lamb age (vs total weight, which would make the oldest lambs look better than the youngest).  Have I mentioned how much I love a good spreadsheet?

While we wait for pasture, I am lucky enough to have my 2019 yarn back from the mill.  This year, we asked to have it unskeined, on cones.  So I have massive cones of yarn to skein, wash, dye and organize.  It’s good, clean fun while I agonize about our hay supply and the ewes yearning for fresh grass.  By the by, I need to shout out my friend Laini Fondiller, who connected me with a neighbor of hers with some extra hay.  It’s just enough to stave off starvation and rioting in the barn, so I am grateful for a good farmer friend.

And of course, for those wondering, Dad is going really well.  This week is a pile of appointments, but he is looking and feeling stronger.

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Patient Bethlehem wishes I’d just let her go outside
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Is it just me, or does Chloe look like a victim of cabin fever?
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This cute fella wants to romp and play- grow faster, grass!
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How to Have A Goose Day

20180626_0827526am- Up with the Sun!  Time to come out from under the chicken coop to greet the day.

7am- Processional time.  Hint, a lot of a goose day will consist of traveling in procession with great importance, to nowhere in particular.

8am- The farmer is out!  Approach her when her back is turned to remind her that geese like a bit of sweet feed from the bucket she carries to the bottle lambs, but if she turns, RUN FOR NO REASON!  Can’t be too careful when you are a goose!

9am- The farmer filled our bucket with fresh water and moved it to a fresh spot so we don’t have to stand on the manure-ring around yesterday’s bucket location.  Time to fill this bucket with dirt, down and crud as fast as we can!

10am- Processional!  Down to the lower pasture to find some tender grass shoots.  Let’s not forget to defecate all along the road instead of fertilizing the grass for the farmer.

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11-1pm – Lunch of fine grasses in a shady locale.

2pm – We’re running across the lawn, wings outstretched, imagining that we are capable of flight.  If only our bums were a bit smaller…

3pm – One of us saw a lamb out and decided it needed pinching.  Farmer told us not to.  We resent her, but our water is cleaned and refilled again, so …

4pm – Standing in the driveway as a car pulls in.  Don’t get confused about who rules this roost, car!

5pm -7pm More grazing.  Be sure to mock the meat chickens in their chicken tractor.  Suckers.

8pm – Let’s think about bedding down – Chicken coop again?  Why not?

11pm – We are inexplicably out gabbling when the farmer does the night feeding of those cows she brought.  Midnight snack.

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Pasture Progress

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Before and After!  A comparison of one day’s work on invasive Greater Celandine

I have to confess that I am a grass nerd.  Today, I was exuberant to see how perfectly my sheep ate and enjoyed the grass at their disposal.   Every blade appeared to be nipped only to the growth point, no further, allowing for optimal regrowth.  A field of vetch and clover had only unwanted mint left behind.

We bought this farm on June 30th, 2017.  In one year, we reclaimed rank overgrowth, cut back invading saplings, seeded new pasture onto denuded areas, and hauled out huge pieces of trash left by prior residents.  The fertility of the land has grown – sheep exposure plus added purchased manures have increased the carbon sequestration in the soil.  Our soil is darker, richer, and less inclined towards runoff than before.   With all of this effort towards improving the pasture, I admit we haven’t had a moment for the house interior.  Sure, our boxes are mostly unpacked, but we don’t have any plans for the unpainted pantry or removal of some of the tackier, ill-applied wallpapers we inherited.

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Sheep Trails – they walk in lines to hide their numbers, I guess.
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Left side is grazed, right side is about to be grazed.  The sheep leave the long seed stems but love the leafy undergrowth.

But we are happy, and the sheep are happy.  We are rotating pasture daily – each paddock is about a half acre.   As this is our second rotation around the farm, I am following the sheep’s grazing with the brush hog to knock down the larger weeds and suppress the parasites a bit (parasites like it moist- mowed grass gets dry in the sun.)

After reaching their nadirs nursing their lambs, our ewes are starting to pack a few pounds back on.  This afternoon, they lounged contently in the sun after a morning of serious munching on the fresh grass.  I’ve been busy worrying about the sad condition of one of the lambs that came from Ohio, wondering if I was doing anything right at all.  The main flock of girls reassured me that I was doing just fine indeed.

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And yet, no one ate the mint.  Do sheep have a natural aversion to mint?
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More Goodbyes

Many of you who follow this blog know that Caseous Lymphadenitis has been an issue in the flock in the past.  After an aggressive eradication campaign, the whole flock tested negative in March.  However, my last CormoX ewe, Meadowlark, developed a very large and very concerning abscess on her cheek last week.  Even though she tested negative for CL three times, I know that false negatives are not impossible and I didn’t feel I could risk having her cyst bursting, spreading illness around.

We separated Lark from the flock, but realized that we couldn’t just have her in the barn all alone.  We had been on the fence about keeping Dalek after she had a premature single, failed to come into milk, and showed no signs of regaining any weight.  We decided that it would be okay to let her go at this time also.  So we transported both sheep back to the barn for a day.  We had an on-farm slaughterer come and the deed was swift and stressless for both sheep.  We got our answer about Dalek- massive lung damage from a bout with pneumonia.  We had noticed her wheezing a bit, but our previous vet hadn’t heard anything in the lungs then.  I assume that she had pneumonia at some point earlier in her life and was treated, but had sustained serious damage.  If we hadn’t intervened, she would have died a slow and agonizing death.

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That lump under her ear is bad news bears.  There is no recommended treatment for CL

I feel sad to lose such good ewes.  Both were devoted mothers and herd leaders.   I am so frustrated that this disease issue continues to worry the flock.  I am committed to eliminating it, though, for the long-term wellbeing of the sheep in my care.  I have to assume that any disease that packs the lymph nodes with nasty puss has to be painful as well as economically damaging.  I will really miss them both.

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The rest of the flock seems very happy out on pasture.   The grass is rich and the ewes are gaining a bit of weight to counter the pounds they’ve milked off in the last few months.  We also have our first new lamb in a while!  Sheppenwolf had a single ram lamb this morning.

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What a cutie!