I’ll be the first to admit that we put off fixing the barn for too long. Though we have a wide-ranging array of skills, neither Matt nor I are woodworkers. Wood is a tricky medium – it warps, shrinks, grows and splits. Matt prefers metal, plastic and electronics, and I prefer spreadsheets and graphics.
So the barn went unmended for months as we pondered an approach. Finally, we decided it was time to cough up for outside help. On Saturday, exactly a year after the back of the barn tore in half, friends helped us replace the back and front panels of the barn. Our friend will be back to work on adding some wooden framing to solidify the canvas and reduce flapping, which should extend the life of the front and back panels. But since he is doing this after work, we’ll have to wait a few more days for the barn to be finished.
So an unfinished work-zone barn is the context we had when we saw the weather report calling for snow. A bit of snow at this time of year is commonplace, but when we woke up this morning, it was clear we’d had a proper snowstorm. Strong winds were blowing the falling snow across the landscape and our house was buffetted by whiteout gusts.
Sheep will graze through a good amount of snow, but we don’t want them to struggle to find sustenance under difficult conditions. My first action was to move all three groups to areas with sheltering trees. What a slog – the wind was whipping past, making the fence tough to manage. I struggled to keep my hands warm and the snow was just deep enough to impede my stride. But at last, both the Border Leicesters and the Bluefaced Leicesters had trees to block the prevailing winds.
Then, we opened a bale of hay and transported it to the Borders pasture. We rolled about 1/3 of the bale out and warched the ewes go wild for it. As much as sheep love fresh grass, hay is a desirable “convenience food” when the grass is buried. Soon, all were munching contentedly. We picked up the remaining bale and brought it to the Blues, who dug in with gusto just as their Border friends did. Finally, we went to see the lambs, who are in a far flung field protected from the worst of the winds. The lambs came gamboling down to see us and dug right into the core of the bale.
We have another day of freezing weather and hay feeding before temperatures transition back into the 60s. Hopefully, the barn will be finished soon and the sheep will go into their shelter for the winter months.
I often meet folks who are considering getting sheep. Many bashfully tell me that they only want a small flock and some seem to worry that they are wasting my time asking questions.
Questions are never a waste of time! Judging from the kinds of questions that I see in sheep groups on Facebook, more people should ask all of their questions first and obtain their sheep second!
So I thought I’d throw together a post about how to figure out if you are ready to become a shepherd. Naturally, it is my opinion that sheep are wonderful animals that will bring you years of joy. Care for 3-5 sheep is roughly equivalent to care for 2 dogs. The chores are different but the time and commitment are comparable. Like dogs, sheep are not a great choice for people who travel for long periods of time or who don’t like to spend time outdoors.
What will you feed your sheep? Sheep require fresh grass or hay daily. I am often asked how much land a sheep needs. Sources will tell you that you can have 2-5 sheep per acre. People think “perfect, I’ll start with 5!” and soon, their acre is denuded, their sheep are hopping the fence. Once the grass is gone, the sheep must eat hay year-round in a drylot. Probably not the bucolic life the shepherd imagined! So start small. If you have two acres, start with three sheep only. And remember, if you plan to breed, those lambs count towards your totals as they age.
Before you click away because you only have a half-acre of open land, consider this: We rented farms for 6 years before purchasing a property. You might have neighbors who would love to have the sheep come visit and do some mowing. As long as they don’t have loose dogs, sheep would be a benefit to them and their grass a resource for you.
Water is a similar consideration. Hauling buckets get tiring, but loading them in a vehicle or ATV works well. Sheep do need fresh water each day, about one gallon per sheep. This water is returned to the soil as urine, which promotes grass growth and health.
Sheep don’t need an elaborate structure to live in. A 3-sided barn or shed that shields the sheep from the prevailing wind and weather is plenty for most breeds, even in Northern climates. In fact, heated or insulated barn facilities can cause pneumonia. Sheep acclimate to outdoor temperatures readily. We used to use a Garage-In-A-Box plastic-canvas structures as sheep sheds – they worked very well and the sheep were always cozy. Winter feed storage is likely more of a concern, but that can go in a Garage-in-a-Box as well! Two good-sized structures, one for feed and one for animals will probably set you back $1000.
Non-farm folks picture sheep behind a classic wooden fence. Erase that idea from your mind – sheep are clever fence-evaders and that picturesque fence will be defeated in no time. We recommend a solid wire fence or an electric fence (or a combination thereof). Portable electric fences with solar chargers have advanced significantly in effectiveness in recent years. About $1000 will get you plenty of fencing for a small flock and a good charger that will keep that fence working. Consider that your fence needs to keep predators out as well as keeping sheep in – that is part of the impetus to consider electric fencing.
Sheep are pretty quiet and should not be noxious or odorous if correctly managed. Most neighbors should welcome picturesque and pleasant sheep. Trouble comes if your fencing isn’t sufficient and the sheep get into gardens. Likewise, dogs who wander over from the neighbors presents a serious threat to your sheep. Non-working dogs worry sheep and should not be permitted to access them. Similarly, sheep forums are full of stories of farm-owners own dogs turning on sheep and causing harm. Your sheep deserve safety – if you have dogs who don’t obey commands and who show prey drive, consider owning less-vulnerable livestock.
A friend pointed out that I should note that The Internet is not a veterinarian. Neither is a Facebook group, nor someone you know who used to have some sheep. Set yourself up with a knowledgeable veterinarian before your sheep arrive.
Here comes the awkward part: Based on seeing hobby-scale farms come and go and struggle, it is my opinion that if you intend to breed your sheep, you need to have a plan for your excess rams and low-quality ewes that involves the freezer. Too many hobbyists want to breed but do not want to slaughter any sheep. Such hobbyists soon find that once all of their friends have a few pet wethers, there’s nowhere else to send the results of their breeding activity. Too many neglected livestock in backyards are not well-fed or well-managed as pets. I would sincerely discourage anyone from thinking that offering their animals on Craigslist or Facebook as “Free to a Good Home” will get them a good home of any kind. So that’s my advice to you- either breed and eat or don’t breed and have some fiber pets. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Managing your animals for wool takes more effort and dedication than a layperson expects. If only it were as simple as buying sheep, feeding them, and getting perfect wool each spring. Wool is susceptible to many ills. The most common one is hay damage. Any wool with hay on it or in it will make poor yarn and fabric. Any hay feeder that is above the height of the back of the sheep will cause some amount of hay to be deposited on sheep backs. The best feeders direct sheep to eat from a low height (which is natural for them anyway, as that’s where grass grows). Designs for feeders that keep wool clean aren’t hard to find. Consider that plants in pasture, like thistle and burdock, can also cause damage to your sheep’s wool.
Poor nutrition is the next cause of damage in wool, followed by shearing at incorrect times. If you are breeding your sheep, shearing should occur ahead of or just after lambing to avoid a break in the wool that occurs from maternal stress during birth. If you have no interest in wool from your sheep and want to reduce maintenance effort, hair breeds are great.
Which breed you choose is probably the least important thing about your new sheep. It’s natural, though, to be excited as you go to a fair or read online about the wide variety of sheep breeds available. If you have already decided not to breed, there’s probably no reason not to get one or two sheep from a variety of breeds so you can enjoy all kinds of sheep and fiber. If you do plan to breed and keep sheep, a single, purebred breed will get you the most consistent lambing results. We raise two pure breeds so that we can plan on how much feed they’ll need, what kind of behavior to expect and what kind of wool we will see. Here’s a bit more about breeds, for those interested.
So you think you might want sheep after all this? Great!
If you have more questions, here are some great resources:
Me – get in touch and I’ll answer any burning questions you have. I enjoy helping, so don’t be shy.
Yesterday got a little hectic, I won’t pretend otherwise.
At the farmer’s market, a family of five came by and expressed interest in joining us for our Chef Dinner. I was feeling prepared for our small contingent, but almost doubling the guest list meant we needed to kick into high gear. I was so excited by the prospect of our new guests that I went to another market vendor and commissioned some bouquets. When Peggy from Newfield Herb Farm came by with her flowers, she spontaneously offered to run to the local nursery to pick up some chrysanthemums for me! She kindly brought me back three ‘mums about 45 minutes later.
Nadav and Bru arrived around 3:45 to set up. I had gathered all of my most quaint and charming items, but I am not really much of a decorator. Bru swiftly set up my mason jars, straw bales, lamb fleece and photos to create more ambiance than I have ever seen in any other hastily-tidied carport.
The apples and the leaves strewn artfully about was 100% Bru. It was really a treat to get to chat a little and get to know Nadav and Bru while we worked to get this set up. There’s something magical in taking ordinary objects and arranging them artfully so they lend gravitas.
Soon after the table was set, we received an unfortunate phone call. The family of 5 was having a family emergency and would not be attending. We appreciated their call but it was hard not to feel a little disappointed.
Our joy was renewed, however, when our first guests arrived. Dan and Marda have been friends ever since I worked at Fat Toad Farm in Brookfield. They purchased and refurbished the drafty old farmhouse I lived in during those years into a house with the same charm as the old place, but with modern conveniences and full insulation. They are kind and generous people, so getting to show them around my sheep farm dream, realized, was a real privilege. Dan and Marda raise bees, harvest apples and boil maple syrup, among other endeavors.
Then Matt and Reeni arrived. They are friends of Matt’s from before he and I knew each other. Matt and Reeni also appreciate the journey Matt and I have taken in our relationship and in creating this farm as it stands today. Matt works in management at a large food co-op in Chittenden County, so he has perspective on the other side of food-dom. Reeni’s family is Egyptian, so we got to discussing her family lamb recipes with Nadav, who is Israeli-American. Reeni is interested in writing a recipe book that we can offer alongside the lamb we sell. She would get paid per-book, and we would have recipes at-hand to help people get the most out of their lamb orders.
Seeing our friends was wonderful, but I imagine you’d like to hear about the food:
Our first course was braised lamb riblets over a fall salsa with a currant glaze. I am completely in awe of how Nadav made the riblets so tender, yet crisp. I usually get one or the other. The salsa, entirely sourced within 10 miles of the farm, provided a sharp, tangy contrast to the lamb.
Our salad course provided another flavor and texture contrast with three layers of vegetables. On the top, a variety of the freshest local tomatoes. In the middle, lightly wilted greens with a subtle dressing. On the bottom, local brussels sprouts over discs of beet and carrot. The carrot was braised in beet juice, creating a delicious and original flavor and texture. The sprouts were sauteed in lamb sausage fat and apple cider, which eliminated the bitter undertones and left a pure brassica bliss. On top, crumbled lamb sausage and goat cheese. Delicious!
The main course was Nadav’s most creative venture yet. We were advised to play with our food, and handed a little glass of opaque pinkish-orange juice. We learned that the juice was raw tomato water. The tender, thin, ravioli revealed tomato puree inside. Underneath was a subtly-seasoned pulled lamb. So we mixed our ravioli and lamb while drizzing tomato juice on top.
You know that tangy, sour flavor you get from cooked tomatoes? That canned flavor? Imagine lamb with tomato sauce where the tomatoes don’t have the slightest hint of that sour, metallic, “cooked” flavor. Just pure lamb with pure, fresh, bright tomato. I didn’t really think that there could be a new way to put lamb with tomato, but Nadav found one and it was amazing. Real creativity in cuisine is a marvel to behold.
How to top this series of lamb revelations? Why not have a generous slice of apple pie with local ice cream on top. Nadav said that our apples are as good as he’s found.
I am very grateful to Nadav, Bru, Dan, Marda, Matt and Reeni for coming to celebrate our harvest of lamb and apples. Next time, you should join us!
If you are interested in learning more about Chef Nadav and his farm dinners and private chef services, check out his website: http://chefnadav.com/
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Last night, we could hear the logging trucks trying to drag their loads up the temporary road. At the top if the hill, the skidder helped pull the truck onto the ice-covered road using its chained tires. The logging job is almost done, but our logger is scrambling to get the crop off the field before the thaw starts to create mud. We are pleased by their work- the sheep will have plenty of grassy areas interspersed with shade for the hottest days.
We had a decent ice storm, causing traffic snarls in the more populated counties and causing us to go looking for the ice-devices for our boots. Having fooled around with Stabilicers, YakTrax and other similar items, we have gone hardcore. We use these:
So the rule is “no walking on the deck or stairs with the ice devices on”. Predictably enough.
The sheep, geese and chickens have taken the storm in stride. While we chip away at frozen metal, the geese walk with confidence. Did you know that they have little claws at the ends of their toes? Ignore the webbing for a moment, because those claws are sharp and can do damage! The geese appreciate that warmer temperatures have kept their water thawed and entertaining.
I appreciate that Matt went down to the woodchip pile created by the loggers. He hauled some chips back, and used them to treat our driveway when we ran out of salt. I have to say that the chip-traction is even better than the salt-traction. And a little friendlier to the earth, too.
The sheep are protected from the grim weather as they enter the final stretch of pregnancy. They have been relaxing, eating and growing ever-wider. I’m really hoping for lots of healthy lambs.
If you follow this blog or my Instagram feed closely, you know that we got geese this year. They started as nine tiny weird-ducks. We let them outside, they lived with the lambs for a while, and then we left them to their own devices.
Thus freed, the geese spent their days honking about the yard. While nibbling grass and “contributing fertility”, they rewired the hay baler a bit and nibbled on the trim of Matt’s car. They came out to intimidate strangers, but also ran at the slightest hint of anyone trying to catch them. A few times, they took off from the height of land where the house is situated, trying to fly. Our neighbor commented that if they were planning to fly south, they weren’t likely to get much further than South Craftsbury (10 mi away).
Some research and a bunch of intent goose-staring led us to conclude that we had the usual straight-run combination of 2 geese and 7 ganders. There’s no use in keeping so many ganders. On a cold, sleety morning at 6am, we rounded up our geese in the dark and tried to ID our two females. We picked them up and tossed them out, then loaded five ganders into some pet crates to go to Masse Poultry, where we said our goodbyes. While geese and ducks are often challenging to pluck clean, ours came out fantastically tidy.
On to the cooking. After being honked at and harassed by our own livestock, I was ready to try eating a goose for the first time. Consulting the internet, I decided to go for “low and slow” to achieve a perfect medium cooking on the breast meat, and took the internet’s advice about separating the legs from the carcass and cooking them longer. Readers: Charles Dickens was right. Goose is amazing! Overcooked, I’m sure it would taste like an old shoe, but done just medium, it’s like extra-rich roast beef. And the grease is nothing to waste! I cooked brussels sprouts and potatoes in the grease I ladled from the pan. They were heavenly – rich and decadent but still somehow light.
Having acquired our final group of ewes we plan to purchase, our flock is at full strength. Such numbers require that I move pasture frequently, especially with the dry summer we have had. Grass growth is stunted and we are moving the sheep off our land and onto land borrowed from neighbors.
Meanwhile, one of our Rhode Island Red hens took the depopulation of the flock from raccoon predation seriously enough that she decided to sit on a clutch of eggs. We were afraid that engaging in social media would jinx this, especially since RIRs are not well-known as broody hens, but she was a determined lady and now we have nine little chicks! I have never had a successful broody before, and we’ve been checking them like excited children would.
We’re ramping up to breeding season with a concerted effort to improve everyone’s nutrition and plans for a hoof-trimming day tomorrow. I’ll be going to bed early tonight to ready myself. The rams are banished to a distant patch up the road to keep them from hopping the fence to talk to the girls. Our plan is to put the BFLs in the barn feeding on hay, and the borders in the fields eating the last of the grasses as winter looms. We will keep them outdoors until the ground freezes (we can’t put the portable fenceposts into frozen ground- I know from experience!). More lambs are planned for March!
So the other major preparation for breeding season is cleaning out the barn. We’ve let the bedded pack dry and ferment as long as we could under cover, but now it needs to go out. We considered our manure pile placement very carefully, selecting a place far from drainage areas and where any runoff would be primarily absorbed by the soil before hitting waterways. Matt likes some good tractor work now and then, though this task is no easy feat.
Our skies are hazy with smoke from Western fires. Earlybird trees are starting their transition. We are also making final preparations for some fiber festivals coming up.