We are in the midst of a pretty solid cold snap. Nights have been below zero Fahrenheit, and some days have passed without the temperature hitting the positive side. When your high is -10F, it’s a challenge to motivate. On the coldest nights, the sheep even forget about their complex social order and just snuggle with anyone available, even a herdmate whom they’d butt away from the feeder under other circumstances. We have blocked off some areas of the barn with haybales to reduce airflow and help maintain warmth.
We are now filling waters by hand with five-gallon buckets. It is too cold to use the hoses, but I am grateful that the frost-free pump has stayed true to its name. Many mornings, the buckets show a solid ring of frost from water evaporation. Some of the ewes like to eat snow on principle- a bit of a slap in the face for the person who slowly hauls 20 or 30 gallons of water into the barn twice a day! All of that schlepping has helped me get the right amount of exercise for my foot, at least.
Since we have quite a bit of snow, I had to clean off the roof of the barn. I use a standard roof rake, but instead of scraping the snow off the roof, I bump the underside of the barn cover. The snow usually slides right off with a whiff-wump sound. The sheep feel that this is terrible, even though they would probably agree that it is in their interests not to have the barn collapse from the weight of the snowload. They wait out in the run area, avoiding the sound and motion.
I am writing this on the morning when our first lamb of the year was born. A healthy little girl who got up and nursed without assistance. We didn’t have to pen them or anything. She’s completely loveable, with classic pink ears. She is a Border Leicester/BFL cross, so I’ll be keen to see how she grows up.
Now that I’m back on my feet more, choretime is a bigger proportion of my day.
In the morning, I first check the status of the bales we are feeding. Right now, we are feeding some mediocre first-cut hay, so we give the sheep pretty free-access to their chow. While they eat, I have the opportunity to look at them closely. Some of the older ewes show their pregnancy quite plainly, with sagging tummies and udders just starting to bloom. Others, especially the Border Leicesters, look like the same chubby sheep as before. Fred sniffs a ewe now and then, but even he seems certain that they’re all set.
If we need more hay, Matt will bring it in with the tractor. But I will check the water. Through trial and error, we’ve determined that “three” is the optimum number of 22-gallon heated waterers. The sheep always muck them up with hay after a few days, so I clean one or two waterers out completely every day to prevent slimy buildup. Yuck.
Outside of the main barn, we have two pairs of sheep in special quarters. Because Fred would fight our other two rams, “Bob Loblaw” and “Oliver” have a suite all their own with a cozy stall and a small outdoor area. Oliver has an intestinal issue at the moment, so he’s getting daily Pepto Bismol to top off his hay ration.
We also have two Border Leicester lambs that we noticed weren’t competing well for food. They are very timid and retiring and had become too thin. They now have a stall of their own where they can enjoy regular grain feeding.
A significant but pleasing change between this year and last is our ability to properly house our rams and separated ewes. Instead of a tent in the back yard, they have a safe, enclosed building that effectively breaks the wind. Because of this, we can maintain unfrozen water for them and monitor their health more closely. After losing a ram to bladder stones possibly caused by dehydration over the winter, we are glad to have the correct facilities now.
I am offering 20% off our scarves at Our Etsy Shop Offer code: FLEECENAVIDAD
The photos don’t quite do these justice. Five of the scarves are made from the last of my Cormo yarn and two from our natural-color Bluefaced Leicester. The softness, comfort and drape is unmatched. Even wool skeptics will find these scarves next-to-the-skin pleasant. Dad and I are really proud of these gorgeous scarves. We think they are a sustainable gift worth giving (or a gift to yourself- after all, you’ve worked hard this year!)
Please feel free to get in touch with any questions.
The last two days have been very hectic in preparation for the sheep going into the barn for the winter. You’d think, “We have a barn, so we’re good” but we had yet to complete the electricity, the end panels, the floor and a few other small details. My parents came and helped tremendously. They are a model of how to cooperate and plan a multi-task effort. Mom applied rabbit-fence to the large gaps on the bottom of the large cattle panels while Dad and Matt worked on installing the electricity and affixing the cattle panels to the barn walls. I was even able to help a little despite my broken foot by moving some hay around for bedding and helping Mom.
With a little cleanup, today was the day to move the sheep into the barn. We figured they’d be really pleased with the opportunity since they stood out in the sleet all last night. But as Matt led the flock up the hill to their new winter quarters, two of the Border Leicesters decided that they’d rather be outside after all and led a few of their more gullible friends along as well. Oh well, we’ll try again! But the more we gathered the sheep and tried to get them in the barn, the more sheep began to refuse to cooperate. With only two people, only one of whom could walk, we could get most of the sheep in but couldn’t close the gate behind them, allowing several to escape every time we tried to pen them. We tried every configuration of gates and moving at different speeds and leading them in different directions to lure them, but finally we had to concede that we had 20 sheep in the barn and 16 on the lawn and there wasn’t going to be much we could do to make ground.
Matt was angry and frustrated and I was frozen and crabby. I began to feed the lawn-sheep little bits of grain to intrigue them to stay where they were. This was easier said than done, as the grain-lovers were all in the barn and the grain-skeptics in the yard were mostly avoiding me. While impatience made our situation worse when we were trying to force the sheep into the barn, patience and the fine art of pretending not to pay attention to the sheep eating the grain I was providing allowed me to hold the sheep in one place. Meanwhile, Matt gathered reams of Electronet fence and hauled it up the hill again and again to enclose the sheep. He is having some nerve pain, so schlepping fence around was about as comfortable for him as standing on one foot for two hours trying to be nonchalant about the timid sheep was for me. But within half an hour, he had set the fence up around us. He was hot and exhausted, and I was frozen and had lost feeling in my toes. But we got all of the sheep contained.
When we got inside, Matt asked me to prepare the mutton chops we had in the fridge. He felt he needed to eat sheep after an afternoon like this. I cooked the chops and they almost made up for how sore and exhausted we are. A brandy and pear tart I also made made up the difference.
Tomorrow, we have a couple of friends joining us to move the rest of the sheep into the barn. We should be able to do without moving the sheep outside of fencing. Hopefully, it will be a smoother process than today was.
I am part of a couple of sheep discussion groups on Facebook and on other social networks. One of the most common general questions is “What Breed Should I Raise?” Answers to this question can be trite or complex. “Whatever you think seems neat” “The Breed I Raise” and “Here’s a newly-available breed that people are talking about” are common responses, but these are not always the best way to find the sheep that are right for you.
Here is a rubric that might be helpful:
Are you a first time shepherd?
If yes, I wholeheartedly recommend just getting some mixed-breed ewes to start out with. They will teach you what you do and don’t want in a purebred, and you’ll be much happier if and when you do start raising a pure breed.
*Of note- a good friend corrected me that I shouldn’t appear to be recommending that new shepherds find random sheep from Craigslist. Your crossbred sheep should nevertheless come from a healthy flock, have good records and some ongoing assistance and mentorship from the seller.
What do you want to do with your sheep?
Just wool:If you just want a pet flock for wool, collecting wethers (neutered males) from a variety of breeds is the least expensive, lowest-maintenance way to have a fun spinner’s flock. Why wethers and not ewes? If you plan to breed your animals and have a variety of breeds on hand, you may find it challenging to keep large breeds fed without making small breeds obese, or to make sure that more dominant animals don’t “own” the feeder.
Just meat: If you plan to raise sheep for meat and don’t care about wool, hairsheep are a good choice. I am not knowledgeable about the different breeds of hairsheep and their characteristics, but I know that hairsheep and their crosses are growing in popularity among large- and small-scale sheep growers alike. I am sure that some breeds and strains are more or less suited to different climates and levels of grass quality.
What I am best prepared to address: Sheep for Meat and Wool for people who want their sheep as an enterprise more than a hobby.
If you plan to breed sheep and raise meat, but you want to enjoy wool too, things will get a little complex. It’s time to consider some economic and logistical matters.
What breed of sheep you raise should follow what climate and grass you have. I will describe the situation with an example: Shetlands were developed on Shetland island, eating sparse, rough foliage and seaweed. Suffolks and Hampshires were named for the rich, grassy, bountiful bottomlands where they originate. If you put a Suffolk on Shetland Island, it would probably starve fairly rapidly because it simply cannot gather enough nutrition to survive. A Shetland in Hampshire, allowed to graze as much as it pleases, will grow chubby and its famously soft wool will coarsen if it is able to eat lots of excess protein. Yet, in the US, many small-scale sheepraisers don’t take the suitability of the breed to their land very seriously. We have breeds adapted to the Western Range, to the Humid Southeast, to intensive grazing in the rich lands of Ohio and Indiana, and to the mediocre pastures of Northern New England. While exotic breeds may seem nice, you could wind up fighting an uphill battle against climate, diet or parasites.
So how can you tell how good your grass is? Your extension service can help, because every climate has different species with different levels of nutrition available to them. Talking about grass is beyond the scope of this quick post about breed selection, but I have some information about grass management and about rotational grazing.
It is my inexpert, personal opinion that many beginner Vermont shepherds underestimate their ability to raise sheep off the bat and choose something advertised as “hardy.” Hardy is great, unless it also means that they produce mediocre wool or single lambs instead of twins. I had this experience on a farm that had good land, but raised a breed associated with the barren highlands of Scotland. The sheep were fat and happy, but the lamb only covered the cost of keeping the sheep and nothing more. In most Northeastern flocks, the value of one lamb covers the mother’s room and board, while the second lamb represents the profits. This isn’t as firm a rule in other parts of the country where land is less expensive.
Another area of my again inexpert personal opinion: when slaughter cost is high on a per-animal basis, farmers aiming to raise sheep profitably need to raise the largest-finishing animals they can. Some breeds of sheep are small, especially ones developed in regions where food is scarce. Breeds like this will grow to full size and maturity rapidly and often fatten easily, but they may not have a heavy enough carcass to make lamb profitably. If your breed of sheep makes lambs that weigh 120 lbs at 7 months of age, you should get 50 lb carcasses worth $400-500 dollars. Cost of slaughter will be about $100 in my area, leaving $300-400 to cover costs and provide income. Now imagine your lambs weigh 80 lbs at age 7 months. You may get a 35 lbs carcass from such a sheep. You are still paying $100 for inspected slaughter, but will only get $250-350 from the carcass, leaving only $150 to 250 to cover costs and provide income.
I was incorrect about a couple of the considerations I now mention when I initially wanted to raise Cormos. Here are some things I didn’t consider or know:
It is not possible to “upbreed” mutt sheep into registerable Cormos by using Cormo rams for multiple generations. So you either have registered stock, or you don’t.
Pure Cormo wool doesn’t tolerate the moisture in our climate if the sheep don’t have complete shelter from rain available at all times. Mine all had algae in their wool.
Finding Cormo rams was going to involve driving across the country now and then.
This final point is worth addressing, as I’ve repeated my error with the Bluefaced Leicesters: Finding the right genetics to complement your efforts when you are raising an unusual breed and you may find yourself traveling long distances at great expense to manage your gene pool. Do not underestimate this expense, and also make sure that within the breed you are considering there are like-minded shepherds with the same goals as you. All of the literature I had read about Cormos suggested that they should regularly twin, but it didn’t seem that other shepherds raising the breed were actively working towards maintaining their lambing rate. I was finding that the more Cormo breeding my sheep had, the fewer lambs tended to have. With the Bluefaced Leicester, there is a group of breeders within the breed working to maintain the high lambing rate while improving the vigor and thrift of the breed. I am happy to drive to Ohio for sheep that I know align with my flock goals.
And if you would rather not drive so much, why not raise a breed that is common and successful in your area? My Border Leicester flock fits that description. Border Leicesters do well in our climate and are popular. They grow large enough on grass alone to carry a grass-based farm plan, and while their wool isn’t the softest, it is still useful and valuable.
Certainly, this post isn’t comprehensive, but I hope that it prompts some thoughts as you consider raising sheep.
Mom and I went to Rhinebeck last weekend to represent Bluefaced Leicester Sheep as best we could. With my foot broken, this is largely a story of other people doing things for me. Matt loaded Fannie the BFL lamb at 5:30 for my departure. Down 91, picked up Mom in Brattleboro, across on 90 and down the Taconic and we were in Rhinebeck. Again, wonderful helpers helped Mom unload Fannie into her pen, where her new friend Chloe was waiting. I had reserved Chloe months ago from BlueLand Farm in Maryland. I had a pleasant chat with Meredith as we signed over the papers for Chloe.
Saturday saw steady waves of people coming up. Most just wanted to see some sheep and learn a little, but a few were interested in becoming future shepherds. By noon, people could barely shuffle by. There were more people in that barn than live in my town, easily. A big treat was a visit from the New England Border Collie Rescue folks and the chance to meet a few of the members of a Ravelry group I really love.
Sunday was a little calmer, and we were able to have some one-on-one conversations with representatives of yarn shops and a few more members of the public who are considering sheep. A lot of the questions I was asked concerned selecting breeds when you start your farm. There are some misconceptions I want to address with that, so I am thinking of writing some posts about breeds. What questions or thoughts do you have about selecting breeds of sheep?
It has now been almost two weeks since I broke my foot.
Matt has been out flat trying to keep up with the sheep work and the barn-building we need to do. The issue is that we need to complete the barn this month, and we can’t seem to connect with interested friends on a day when we can get a person-lift and when enough people might be available. We also recognize that it isn’t our family or friend’s job to be available on demand for barn-construction purposes. We are working on alternative plans.
A friendly student from Sterling College is helping us move sheep right now. Her name is Carly, and we are thrilled to have someone with knowledge of our fencing system and a cheerful demeanor come and assist us. Yesterday, Carly and Matt made a effort to clean up some of the Border Leicesters who have had a touch of the runs. The sheep weren’t very cooperative, but they made progress and we’ll keep trying.
The foot in question has turned into a rainbow of blues, greens and yellows. I have a really intense charleyhorse in my calf muscle on that side, and I still can’t have the foot down for any amount of time without swelling and increased discomfort. I’ve had it checked out with the doctor just in case it’s Deep Vein Thrombosis. The fact that they haven’t called suggests it’s just a killer cramp.
So that covers the facts of the matter. The feelings are that I HATE sitting still. I feel restless and frustrated, and my days are just a blur of sleep and quiet sitting. It is an issue not easily solved with company or food because I am naturally energetic and I can’t just sit. Because I am wanting to move so much, it is very challenging to concentrate on the seated activities that I could be doing. I would usually solve this by going outside and being active and then attempting the seated activity later. Without that option, I’m kind of sitting here vibrating with energy but unable to address it.
I am also endlessly grateful: to Carly for stepping in at just the right moment and saving Matt’s mental health, to Julie for moving the last of the wood with Matt, to Tam who went grocery shopping for me, to Eric and to Mom for some interim employment, to Prin and Bianca at Sterling for helping us find Carly, to Erin and Mike for their how-to-be-broken supplies and advice. Feeling grateful is the best way to fight the antsy-ness I feel.
Today is the third day of convalescence for me with this broken 4th metatarsal.
Every day living is a lot more work without a working left foot. My day starts with just trying to get down the stairs. My crutches stay downstairs, so I hop around in the bathroom or crabwalk to get around. The hardest part is getting up from the floor using just one leg. Matt has to get my clothes for me, and then I bump, bump, bump down the stairs on my bum.
My crutches are right at the bottom of the stairs, so I stagger over to the couch, exhausted from the work. Matt is kind enough to feed me some breakfast and coffee before he heads out to manage sheep. Even going to the bathroom is a huge exertion, since my body is putting a lot of energy towards healing. I’m finding I’m very sleepy throughout the day.
I usually get started on some of the computer work that I am trying to get done while I’m confined to sitting. Elvis the kitty has gotten a lot out of my need to sit. She’s been cuddling up quite a bit. Lucky the parrot doesn’t understand why I can’t come and get her right now.
I miss spending time with the sheep. I miss getting sheep cuddles and chin-scritches and the smell of their sheepy bodies. I trust Matt completely, but it’s hard to let go anyway. Matt has been giving our injured ewe pills in marshmallows. Apparently, she is an expert at eating only the marshmallow and tossing the pills as much as possible.
I tried to cook dinner last night. I lost my one-legged balance and fell down, so we decided to improvise a little more creatively. Here I am cooking on a chair.
The orthopedist says I am off the foot for six weeks, at a minimum. I never thought I’d say that it’s a best-case-scenario for a ladder accident, but I won’t need surgery and it looks like healing should be fairly straightforward. The doctor examined the foot for tendon damage and thinks I may be in the clear for that, too.
We are still looking for an intern who’d like to help Matt move the sheep. We’ll train our helper on rotational grazing and we can pay in meat or wool. Room and board might be available for the right person, so please let me know if you are interested, because Matt’s already exhausted and we’ve got quite a while yet to go.
Every year has been a little different at the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds in Tunbridge, VT, September 30-October 1. Even if you don’t knit, it’s a ton of fun with great food and lots of opportunities to learn more about fibercraft.
In the past, I have brought natural-color Cormo X yarn – soft yarn in natural white, gray and brown shades. Additionally, I’ve brought some hand-processed batts for handspinners and felters.
This year is a little different. The last run of Cormo X yarn will be for sale, available in eight (yes!) attractive and wearable colors plus three natural shades. We will be debuting our Bluefaced Leicester yarn, which is soft and silky with a subtle sheen. I hope you are as excited as I am to touch this awesome yarn. Our BFL yarn comes in two natural colors and supplies are limited.
We will also be offering raw fleece in several formats. We have small packets of hand-selected Bluefaced Leicester and Border Leicester locks for crafting. Border Leicester fleece is on offer in larger volumes. I know many handspinners with they could sample more fleeces with a little less commitment to a whole sheep. I have chosen to offer fleece in smaller purchase units so that you can enjoy a pound or three of quality fleece without being tired of it by the end. I’ve been there.
Additionally, gorgeous and intriguing pelts made by Vermont Natural Sheepskins will be on offer in both white and natural shades.
So please come by our booth in the animal barn. Friendly lambs want to nibble you, and I want to hear what you think of this blog.
I didn’t think it would be easy to find a farm. But I didn’t think it would be this hard, either!
Matt and I have been looking at farms for over a year at this point. We know that we need about 50 open acres, and we just want a modest house. Our budget is lean, but we are willing to put up with some issues or inconveniences. We want land without a barn, ideally, so we can avoid retrofitting old dairy properties. Old wooden dairy barns are not easily adapted to a sheep operations. The concrete floors with gutters, the low ceilings and any stanchions in place are more of a liability than an asset for a sheep operation. Ever since I worked at Fat Toad Farm, I’ve been really in love with the open, bright feeling of a greenhouse-type building with plenty of clear space inside and have found that animals appreciate the dirt floors, sunlight, and copious fresh air.
Here are a few types of properties that we’ve found that are just a little off-the-mark for us.
– Nice small houses on too few acres.
– Nice small houses in the woods, on cliffs, or down by the river.
– Large, cumbersome, decrepit farmhouses on prime land.
– Trailers on tiny patches of prime land carved from a large, old dairy property.
– Plenty of gorgeous land but with a huge new mansion on it.
– Too much land with no house at all.
Even a look at Vermont Land Link, set up to help farmers find land, has a lot of huge properties and a lot of teeny properties, but no mid-scale ones. 8 acres is not very helpful to us, but 800 is more than we can sustain and manage.
We think, however, that we have found the right place, so stay tuned for updates!