Looking Under the Hood

This post is going to be about meat and finances.  If you are mostly here for the cute lambs, that’s totally cool, of course, but this post doesn’t have any of those.  We will be back to our regularly-scheduled programming next post.

***

We are excited to announce that we will be having lamb sausage made in mid June.  We will have Garlic Parmesan sausage available for sale at our farm and hopefully at a few select locations in the state.  Delivery is possible, for those that want it.  That said, my thoughts about how to sell this sausage and my lamb crop generally are a bit mixed at the moment.

Here’s the skinny: The most I can make selling a 45lb lamb is selling one to you, whole or half, at my current price, $10/lb.  Even thought I pay the butcher and often do the transport, that is my longest dollar.  While sausage is a food that anyone can cook and enjoy, your sausage yield from that same 45lb lamb might only be 25 lbs of ground meat, yielding 30lbs of sausage once some pork fat is added.  The price per pound has to go up, and that’s hard to do with a meat format that most people view as cheap.

I have several years’ experience marketing Vermont specialty foods.   Both products I sold were high-priced, specialty offerings so I am pretty familiar with the Vermont market for pantry staples with long shelf-lives.   Meat is different- it is perishable, and unless you’ve really spent your time branding, a lot of customers view it as interchangeable.  Both products I sold in the past were for special occasions and were giftable.  Meat is a staple for most people and would be a rather non-standard gift.  What then, in their minds, is the difference between one farm and another when the product in the clear plastic wrap looks the same?

The Vermont food market offers an unending array of specialty foods but has probably achieved saturation in some areas.  Non-diet-specialized baked goods and sugary foods are saturated sectors.  I’ve been told that specialty hot sauces and mustards  the truth is that many people who buy lamb have a friend or neighbor who can sell it at hobby-scale prices.  It is fine with me that farms do that, but I know that it reduces my ability to sell meat in Vermont at prices that will sustain our farm without us also working full-time off-farm jobs.

Some of the common mistakes and a few brilliant moves are known to me.  I am not as familiar with perishable meat sales and distribution, though, and I worry about making similar mistakes to the ones I have seen.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of things I shouldn’t do when I try to sell my lamb:

  • Under-price my product such that I wind up in a position where I lose customers when I correct the price later.   I knew a company that delivered their product for free and didn’t factor their debt into the price.  When they went back and recalculated, many purchasers reduced or eliminated the product from the shelves.  They simply could not bear the price increase and replaced the product with another that generated more turnover and revenue.  Pricing correctly requires a lot of calculations, sometimes with numbers that I don’t yet know.  It’s intimidating!
  • Put my eggs all in one basket.  Another company I heard about was lining up a large contract with a national retailer.  They halted marketing efforts because the retailer was going to purchase 75% of their product output and invested in specialized boxes that the vendor required.  The retailer only took about 1/3rd of what they projected, and the company had to scramble to move the rest of their product in a very short timeframe.   With a relatively small output of lamb this year but hopes for much more next year, I need to focus on sending lamb to growth areas and establishing relationships, but not running out of product!  Yikes!
  • Neglect my marketing.  One of the best efforts one of my prior companies made was to put lots of effort into reaching out to magazines and media.  They created their own niche by having a stronger media presence than some of the first-to-market competitors with smaller budgets.  It was really impressive to see the effects of that effort in sales effectiveness.  I haven’t focused enough on this because I don’t plan to market in my immediate vicinity.  Frankly, my immediate area is generally very low-income and might possibly find my prices and my Animal Welfare Approved certifications offensive or off-putting.
  • Fail to utilize my social media presence.   This farm has almost 500 Facebook followers and has over 1000 Instagram followers.  Woohoo!  It makes me incredibly happy to know that so many people care about the goings-on on this little farm.  But I think that I have more folks who love pictures of sheep than I have people looking to buy our yarn or our meat.  And the meat issue is especially touchy – I don’t post about meat because I don’t want to offend folks who would buy the yarn but not the meat, but the reality is that meat income makes this farm viable.  I started raising animals for meat because I wanted to eat meat raised to the very highest standards after 10 years of being vegetarian.  So I am not ashamed of it, but I am also unable to mobilize my social media effectively because I have a product that enough people just don’t want to see or think about.
  • Allocate my time and product incorrectly.  I want to build a presence mainly in the Boston and/or New York City markets, because I see that the Vermont market is pretty well saturated for lamb, generally.   But I also need to make the “longest dollar” for my efforts, which means capturing a maximum amount of retail sales.  The irony is that if I sell at a local farmer’s market, I will capture more retail dollars, but I will cut into my future salespower by not growing my market where growth can be achieved.   Does that make sense?  Let’s say I produce 30% more than I can sell at Vermont food co-ops and a farmer’s market, that 30% of my output might only last 3 or 4 weeks at a market in Boston.  Whereas if I sold my whole crop to one or two markets in Boston, that might ultimately result in no leftover lamb.  But then we are back to No-No #2, putting all of our eggs in one basket!
  • Making your sales work for you as money and media: I have a distributor in Boston that is interested in my meat, but I can’t afford to sell at the price they are currently offering.  When the sheep have reached a full population, perhaps I will be able to use them as an outlet.  The meat would also have their label, not mine, which doesn’t contribute to promoting my products effectively.

 

All of these thoughts seem to lead me in endless circles.  How to I launch in a place that I no longer know, with a level of sophistication that I no longer cultivate in myself, but do it in a way that I can continue to grow this business and sell more lamb in years to come?    Fundamentally, this is an issue of scaling up in a deliberate and planned way, which I understand is much easier to do with factories and widgets versus living beings.  Is it possible to make my longest-dollar by doing more retail in the short-term, while simultaneously selling to a distant market on a wholesale basis?

I would be interested in anyone’s thoughts and comments!

13254415_892095397604033_7331159822532353561_n
Lamb sausages are really delicious.

Pasture and Fear

The grass ripened for grazing this week, and the sheep went on grass on Friday.  I have been watching them every moment since then.  I have been so anxious about putting the ewes and lambs out on pasture, which makes little since as we are a pasture-based farm focused on rotational grazing!

I worried that sheep will bloat during the transition from hay to pasture.  Ruminant digestion relies on beneficial bacteria populating the gut of the sheep.  They don’t adjust well to sudden dietary changes.  If indigestion takes place, the sheep will develop painful gas in the rumen that can cause death in an hour or two.  The rumen becomes so inflated that the sheep will suffocate!  So I watched the sheep on pasture like a hawk, even training a high-beam flashlight on them at night to check for illness.  So far, everyone has been fine.

IMG_20180511_125308_619
Pasture, Day 1

Another anxiety is whether the lambs will understand to avoid the fence.  Ideally, a lamb will touch the fence with his/her nose, get a shock, and jump back.  Usually, they run off with an offended “BAA” and learn that the fence is to be avoided.  But once in a while you get a special one who runs forward and entangles.  So I have also been watching the fence lines for stuck lambs.  Also, so far so good.

My final anxiety is about the season.  I am worried about whether I have correctly matched the numbers of sheep with the amount of land I have.  I am asking this land to support more than 70 sheep, but I am worried that I won’t have the fodder to support them.  In short, what if the grass won’t grow?  On this one, I am trying to just have a little faith that my instincts are good and the sheep will have feed enough.  The lambs will ship just as feed runs low in the fall, so I think I am in better shape than I feel like I am.

20180513_084112
Pasture, Day 3

Meanwhile, the sheep are filled with joy to be outside.  They graze in the bright sun and ruminate in the shade.  The lambs bounce and play a bit, but most are old enough that grazing is the focus of their day.  Each paddock at this time of year is approximately 164ft x 164ft, more than a half-acre.  The sheep move a little more than once a day, primarily because I am carefully watching the grazing rates.  It is crucial not to allow the sheep to graze below the growth point of the grass.

The following is from Beef Magazine, but is relevant to my project:

Research shows when up to 50% of a plant’s leaf volume is removed, root growth stoppage is about 2-4%. If 60% of the leaf volume is removed, root growth stoppage escalates to about 50%. At 80% removal, the roots have no regrowth.

I want to have strong regrowth, so monitoring is constant.  The sheep are really a full-time job right now.

In other news, we treated GWAR for a bit of footscald with a mediboot.  We caught her on pasture and put some nice treatment goop between her two toes and then stuck the embarrassing blue boot on her foot.  GWAR hopped away, bereft of dignity but will hopefully feel much better in a couple of days.

20180512_090951
Sue is still Sue – diving under the fence to get to the new pasture first.

 

Fertility

We bought our farm as a foreclosure, for those who may not remember from last year.   Some of the fields had been grazed by a pair of horses, and other areas were hayed for a few years.  As best we can tell, no inputs were added because after we took a cut in late July, the grass wasn’t ready for a second cut in September!  That is really, really slow.

Soil testing revealed the rest – deficiencies in phosphorus and potassium in all fields, and nitrogen is needed, too.  Last year, Matt and I moved horse manure over the mountain from Lowell to spread on our smallest and most depleted field.  This spring, as we watched our neighbor’s field grow twice as fast as ours from the benefits of his manure-spreading, we decided to go on Craigslist and see what we could find.  We were in luck- folks in Cabot were selling pure rabbit manure!

20180508_113119
The sweet scent of…fertility.

So Matt and I made five 1-ton trips to spread our second-most-depleted field with bunny berries.  We hand-shoveled manure out of the truck to fill the spreader.

 

20180508_113128

Whew!  The good news is that rabbit manure breaks down rapidly for a quick and solid nutrient boost to pasture.  It’s greener already out there.

20180507_152201
The last picture of sheep indoors until next November!  Look how big Meadowlarks lamb has grown.

Wool Culture

I am a frequenter of Ravelry, a knitters’ and crocheters’ forum with 7 million users worldwide.  I have a favorite group with a mostly social focus that I like to participate in, but I also read other discussions to keep tabs on what people want from their wool products.  I want to make sure I am providing the wool people want.

Recently, a poster asked a question about the modern wool market.  She noted that when she was a child, knitting was a functional skill more like being able to cook and drive than a fancy craft for leisure time.  Certainly, it was a space for self-expression in color and pattern, but knitting was undertaken for the simple fact that hats and sweaters and socks were not easily obtained in other ways!

Like my previous post about the globalization of meat, fabric and textile changed massively in the age of petroleum and globalization.  Synthetic fabrics have replaced wool in many applications, even though wool often performs better and is more sustainable.  The effort of properly caring for wool has turned many people away while others have been scared away from wool by misinformation about sheep and agriculture in general in our culture of increased fearmongering.

20180424_121021.jpg

At the same time that people were using free time in different ways or having less free time to knit, cheap, imported, mass-produced wool and non-wool items began to appear in stores.  It soon became equally or more expensive to knit a wool sweater than to buy one.  How is this possible?  Economies of scale, lack of environmental regulations where the clothing is made, cheap labor, mechanization, and commodity bulk wool.   When the time wool subsidies ended in the 1980s, growers of mid-grade work-wear type wool from Down breeds and Medium breeds couldn’t find as many outlets to sell to.   Farmers that used to raise Down breeds have turned to hair breeds, as the cost of removing the wool from the sheep is greater than the value of the wool on the bulk market.  More than half of the US wool clip is finewool today, where once there was a greater diversity of breed types.   Sheepraising on the whole, for wool and for meat, has declined precipitously since WWII, effectively pushed out in the modern era of industrial farming.   Sheep simply don’t industrialize well.  They need to graze on extensive lands and are susceptible to disease in confinement.  Even though there are confinement lamb finishing operations in the US, these operations are declining and struggling to compete with cheaper grass-fed lamb from New Zealand and Australia.  Only the direct-to-consumer and direct-to-store markets in the South and Northeast are growing for lamb in the US.

With respect to yarn: as the generation that knit for need disappears, knitting is much more of a leisure craft activity that consumes extra money and is fed by some degree of nostalgia, plus the satisfactory feelings of accomplishment when a garment is created.  As a wool seller, I know that the stories I share on this blog become part of the wool I sell and the crafts and garments you create from it.

This is the finale of what I wrote responding to the question:

The hard truth is that even though we’ve chosen to join this community of makers here on Ravelry, the number of people who cook, sew, knit or quilt by necessity has shrunk significantly in the last 50 years. All of the people who didn’t enjoy those activities but needed to do them to save money have been bailed out by fast food, by cheap clothing, by synthetic fabrics, by cheap bedding. The people who are left often will spend more money for quality, hence the “boutique-ification” of the yarn, fabric and food markets.

The hard thing for me to acknowledge as a farmer is how much I depend on the small number of people who care more about how their food and clothing was produced than about the price at the register.  Small producers are waging an uphill battle against globalized pork, corn subsidies that secondarily subsidize factory-farmed chicken and pork, petroleum clothing and the petroleum that brought that clothing across the ocean to our stores, and the devaluation of the art of making.

20180405_110610
Some handiwork – find more in our store!

What are your thoughts about current trends in knitting, spinning, crocheting, cooking and making?

 

 

A Sick Lamb, Part Deux

An update on Steven gets…scatological.

When last we left our heroes, Steven the lamb was on the couch, looking a little perkier but not really ready to go back out.  Even through my “everything needs to be economical, this is a business” mindset, Steven has really touched my heart, so what follows reflects my failure to follow my own advice.  I really wanted Steven to be okay.

Our first thought about his symptoms was to assume pneumonia because his breathing did seem labored.  But as time went on, we realized that gastric upset might be the more correct diagnosis.  If you have four stomachs, gastric upset is a big deal.  We noticed that Steven was grinding his teeth, which indicates acute discomfort.  He was also lethargic and his eyelids were very pale, indicating anemia.

So Matt and I decided to fetch him an iron supplement, and we also worked on getting him eating more hay.   Finally, some farts and ball-bearing-like pellets indicated that he wasn’t obstructed.  Pellets aren’t hard to sweep up and a little cleaning spray and we are in business, so we kept monitoring Steven inside.  A few hours and dozens of pellets had Steven looking brighter, but certainly not well.  I treated him with the usual constipation/bloat treatment- some olive oil to get things lubricated and moving again.

Matt had posted this adorable picture on his favorite discussion website:

r7jn4poful99qk4sazj3

 

And another user had made the comment “Wait, you have a lamb with gastric upset INSIDE YOUR HOUSE?”

As we pondered those prescient words, Steven started to baa.  His tummy gurgled and we tried to bring him over to the mats beneath the parrot perches where bird droppings land.  But he didn’t make it, and soon a jet of absolutely rank manure came straight out.  We had the idiotic idea of putting him in the tub, but he’s large enough and tall enough to get out.  So we had the obvious idea of *taking the lamb back outside where it clearly belongs* and we did so, post-haste.

I was still really worried, so I got up at 4:30am to check on Steven.  He was fine, and more energetic than before.  He had clearly, ahem, continued to empty his digestive tract but was happily munching a bit of hay.

Today, Matt and I were smarter.  We realized that it was really too much to expect Steven to cope with weaning while competing with adult sheep, so we put him in a less-competitive environment- in with the other two bottle lambs.  Despite the inconvenience of removing him from the pen so they can be fed without harassment, Steven can now eat his hay without being pushed aside, and he can more easily reach and drink the water he needs from a correctly-sized bucket.  We are withdrawing them from being Certified Grassfed and will give them creep feed to help them gain weight without a mother’s TLC.  Steven looks happier already, and I’ve already washed the floor again.

A Sick Sheep

I did chores as usual this morning- I fed hay to the rams, bottle fed the two lambs, checked and changed everyone’s water…

But then I noticed that everything was too quiet.  Our older bottle lamb,Steven was not baaing for the “cookie” he gets each morning . Usually, he would be insisting on my attention.  The cookie has oats, cornmeal, molasses, salt and vegetable oil, so just a bit of extra energy so he won’t have to bad a setback from being weaned off milk.

Today, I found him lying down next to another lamb, looking poorly.  When I got him up, he was lethargic and sad, with drooping ears and a sad posture.  I’m thinking he has pneumonia and a touch of anemia – just too much stress from weaning.

20180418_100443
Sad Steven!

I brought him in to the house, where he drearily half-followed me.  Time for some penicillin, some Nutri-Drench, and a little TLC.  I admit that I gave him a bit of milk, hoping that the hit of nutrients and hydration would offset the potential for an upset tummy.  And he did perk up with the milk, but he certainly isn’t out of the woods.

So if you have a moment, please spare a thought for Steven.  I think he will recover, but nothing is guaranteed.  We are watching Great British Bake-Off and petting him on the couch.

20180418_122413
Perking up, eating some hay.

 

 

Getting Through Lambing

Twenty of our thirty-three ewes have lambed so far at Cloverworks Farm.  Thirty eight lambs have been born, with thirty six surviving.  One loss was a little BFL ewe lamb who failed to nurse overnight with her mother.  Another was 1627’s lamb, whom we had indoors and who just faded away, likely from pneumonia.  Though some amount of loss is usual, I am still disappointed with my failure to keep these lambs alive.  I’ve been intervening more since the first loss, feeling that I could have done more to warm and feed the lost lambs.

But the sad part aside, we have 34 healthy little lambs in the barn and two bouncy lambs in the house. Due to weather and mis-mothering, we have one lamb each from the recently-born triplets in our custody.  With Steven Jr. weaned and on his own, we can deal with lambs in the house again.   The lambs in the barn are happy and bouncy.  Since the oldest lamb is now four months old,  we have quite a range of sizes.   Some of the youngest lambs still haven’t figured out how to home in on their mother, so I’ve been helping 123 find her mom, 264, often.  All of the adults are struggling to tolerate the shear number of lambs who want to climb on their backs.

We are still waiting for the snow to melt and the pasture to start to green.  Not much by way of spring weather yet, other than a few days with highs in the 40’s F.

20180408_151422
Starting to look crowded in the barn!  
20180408_152315
The lamb with the bright yellow tag is three and a half months younger than the lamb in the foreground facing us.  That fella is about 2/3 the size of his mother right now.
20180408_151437
Some of the newest arrivals
20180408_153118
The bleakness of early spring.

 

Six Inches of Button Thread Saves a Life

Midnight:  Matt tells me that Chloe is starting labor – she has a bag protruding and is restlessly shifting.  I set an alarm to wake up in 90 minutes.

1:44 – I can see on the Barn Cam that Chloe has birthed one black lamb.  Out to the barn I go to find a large, handsome ram lamb.   I set Chloe up with a pen, and I notice a foot sticking out of Chloe.  Usually, lambs are born in a crouched position, front legs forward.  The sole of this hoof was facing upward- clearly the hind leg of a lamb coming out backwards.  Lambs can be born backwards, but it is usually smart to help; the umbilical cord will break before the lamb’s head is out, prompting the lamb to breathe.  If the lamb tries to breathe while its head is still inside, it can drown.  I locate the second leg and a thin white lamb slips right out.  She coughs and splutters and finally manages a big inhale and a tiny “maaahhh.”   I towel her and her brother off, as it’s quite chilly out and they can chill before they muster the energy to stand.

20180319_021533 (1)
They are blurry because I didn’t have my glasses on, and because the wiggling wouldn’t stop

Back in the house, I set an alarm for 2 hours.

3:44 – Despite my hopes, the lambs have chilled and aren’t standing well.  Chloe doesn’t look great herself, spending an unusual amount of time lying down.  I focus on the lambs – I bring them in, mix them up some stored colostrum and give them a quick first meal to help them along.  I’ve found that often, a little energy boost gives them what they need to stand up and learn to nurse.  Failure to intervene would likely result in hypothermic or dead lambs in the morning.  I warm the lambs by the fire and feed each one.   Both respond well, and soon they have little coats on and are headed back to Mom.  I know that they can make it through to morning on this feeding, even if they don’t decode nursing on their own.

IMG_20180319_045454_451 (1)
Getting toasty – you can see the bleeding issue a little in this photo.
20180319_044900 (1)
Momma is happy to see them again.

Back in bed at 5am.

At 8am, Matt goes out to do morning chores.  Usually, this is my job, but Matt has kindly agreed to let me sleep given all of the hustle and bustle overnight.  He comes back immediately, reporting that the ram lamb is bleeding out!  I had noticed that the ewe lamb was bleeding more than usual from her umbilicus, but I didn’t really register it as an emergency.  When Matt brought the ram in, however, he was weak and shaking, with a massive sausage-like bruised mass of an umbilicus.  (I’m putting the photo of this at the very bottom of the post- it will be educational for shepherds but it’s more gross than I usually show).  The vet confirms my suspicion – it didn’t look like a hernia where all of the intestines are coming out.   I tied the umbilicus off with six inches of button thread from Matt’s sewing kit and we offered the ram lamb some electrolytes.  In minutes, he was up and more alert.  Success!

At 9am, we are noting that the ewe lamb isn’t nursing.  Matt and I take some time trying to nursing-train her.  We get her to latch, but she didn’t drink a lot.  We are still concerned about Chloe, and it occurs to me that she could have a mild case of Milk Fever, which happens when the body deploys too much calcium to provide milk for the lambs, leaving the ewe’s calcium levels low.  We ground some Tums in our coffee grinder and added water to make a drench.  Some Tums and hot molasses-water had Chloe looking brighter.

20180319_152739 (1)
Fruity tums-drench.  Blecch.

We debated what to do about the ewe lamb- would she be better off on the bottle?  How much intervention is too much?  How do we provide just enough help without lessening her chances of ever nursing from her mother?  Even after seven years of kidding and lambing, I always ponder this question at length.  Matt and I agree that if she is too weak, we will bring her in for warming and go from there.

I go back to sleep after this- it’s now 11am.

I’m a little vague on times after this, but Matt went back to keep working on getting the lambs to nurse.  Once the ram wasn’t bleeding, he was up and at-em, nursing away.  But the ewe still needed help.  He milked Chloe into a bottle and fed the ewe lamb, but couldn’t get her to latch.

At 3pm, I was up for the day and went out.  Finally, after lots of patient guidance, the ewe lamb latches and suckles for several minutes.  I let her go, and she latches herself and nurses again!   Doing a victory dance in the middle of their bonding pen would have been counterproductive, so I saved that for my announcement of the news to Matt back in the house.

We will keep monitoring this little family, but finally, I am comfortable that everything is headed in the right direction.

 

 

 

Here’s the hemorrhaged umbilicus, for those who want to see it:

 

 

 

 

 

Bloody umbilical stump in lamb, bleeding abnormally.
This was pretty messy, but a tie-off and electrolytes saved the day!

 

 

Fiber and More Lambs

I thought you all might appreciate some bonus photos of the lambs in the barn.  Every time I got to do some chores, they are up to something silly:

20180310_095035
Lambs pestering…
20180314_121554
More lambs pestering…
20180314_121555
You can’t blame a ewe for retaliating!

 

20180315_113653
Ewe friendships warm my heart.
20180309_103245
Lambs cuddle up for warmth.
Ewe and her twin lambs, cuddling
Family time!

But sheep-raising as a living is more than just cute critters.  I’ve been working through pounds and pounds of wool from shearing.  We sent 40 pounds of raw wool to two different mills, hoping to see which will make the yarn we like the best.   Most will be white Border Leicester yarn, with some natural colored Border yarn and some CormoX, too!

My usual approach is to categorize wool into four piles: the cleanest wool goes for raw Handspinning fleece.   Acceptable but not ultra-clean wool goes to the mill.  Wool that is too dirty for the mill will be hand-picked and hand-combed by me until it will make a good batt or roving.  And finally, if I can’t clean it or if it is britch or belly wool, it goes to compost.  I’m pretty picky, so we also have 30 pounds of wool in the compost category.

I’ve been madly cleaning and carding, resulting in lots of lovely batts.  YouTube has given me a few tips, so stand by for some roving!  I am especially excited to try the techniques.  So far, the Bluefaced Leicester is clearly much softer than the Border Leicester, but both are lovely and will be a joy to spin.  The Border Leicester has finally showed me its beautiful luster!  My picture of the natural Bluefaced Leicester Batts isn’t completely true-to-color – the wool is a rich coffee-bean brown with gray highlights.

I hope you will take a moment to check out the shop to see our array of wool products!

20180318_172017
Wool drying by the fiber- it’s getting crowded in here!

Some Lamb Pictures

Pictures of some of our lambs at Cloverworks Farm.

We now have 16 lambs born, out of 9 mothers.   Here are some pictures!

IMG_20180306_151057
We love the pattern on this sweet girl.  She is a purebred BFL who will be registered.
IMG_20180306_151034
Another view of the ewe with the “Fancy Face”, as Matt termed it.
20180306_172044
Just before these three sillies started bouncing.  This is Steven, with his friends, Ohio-65’s ewe and ram.
IMG_20180306_151328
Nibble, nibble
20180306_165917
This picture gives just a hint of the size differential between the one and two month old lambs and the new ones.  It it is striking in person.
IMG_20180306_150706
Everyone likes a touch of sunshine.