I’ve been sharing a series of pictures of ewes in the flock to help show people the individuals in the web of stories in the flock. I am enjoying sharing these images – I want people to know how we see our ewes as singular beings with their own personalities.
We have two ewes who are a little extra-special, though.
Their names are K and J. They are twin sisters, 10 years old, and just as darling as they surely were as lambs. They are smaller in size than their herdmates. I am not sure why – they do fight for their fair share of food and they aren’t underweight. They’re just smaller of frame. Both are down a few teeth here and there – this will be an issue down the line.
J has a serious look. She’s all business and doesn’t really want to be friends. She trundles right into the middle of the largest Border ewes intent on her share of feed.
K has a gentler face. She is less competitive, more tired, with a broken ear that no longer shows the BFL perkiness it once did.
In 2020, I will need to make a tough decision. As K and J slow down, I need to consider their place here. Can I give them a safe and sequestered place if they become uncompetitive? Each only raised one lamb last year, leaving us to raise an orphan from each. My heart wants to keep them forever, but functionally, we can’t afford to. The other temptation is to give them to a pet home where they could live out their days. Sadly, I have too often seen other people with older animals who fail to recognize when it is time to let a sheep go. I sympathize – it’s hard to recognize a discrete point in a slow decline when it is time to let an animal go. But my responsibility is to the welfare of the sheep, fundamentally, and I must adhere to that. With luck, they’ll keep chugging along and I can keep them here a little longer.
I recently read a conversation on the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association listserv on the topic of calculating a profitable lamb production enterprise. Some producers hadn’t calculated their production costs, while others weren’t sure what market prices looked like.
For our lamb enterprise, I calculated our cost of production and then did a bit of research on comparable products. Comparable products are lamb produced by other enterprise farms (farms where vegetable and animal enterprises make money, whether or not the farmer farms full-time or not). Local lamb in grocery stores counts, but not imported lamb. A quick google effort is all that is needed to see what other farmers are charging. I then deducted my cost of raising lamb from the prevailing price, and calculated how many lambs I would need to raise to make the amount of money I would like to from my lamb efforts. Lamb needs to pay about 2/3 of my annual income.
Predictably, I would need to charge much more for my lamb than the market would support to make something close to the median US income, but farm life has other benefits. We breathe fresh air, eat local food, do enough work to avoid needing a gym membership, and we get to spend our time together. It all comes down to what kind of lifestyle is enough.
I have a spreadsheet to share with any sheep raiser who needs a little help calculating the cost of raising their lamb. This calculator is only as good as the accuracy of the numbers you have, so be honest with yourself about how much the lambs cost to keep. If you are trying to calculate what it would cost to start a sheep operation, there are lots of resources online to help you estimate how much hay your sheep will eat and how much fencing might cost.
Please feel free to customize your copy with additional info pertinent to your farm and to share this resource. I love writing a good spreadsheet, so this is my gift to you. If the sheet that downloads has format problems for you, I am happy to send you a copy of the form in Google Drive – just get in touch with the form below:
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.
I have two BFL ram lambs and three Border Leicester ewe lambs available!
Dorward Highlander is a BFL ram with all the right stuff. He has lovely wool, great length and perfect blue coloration. His lines are Pitchfork and Magic, tracing back to Myfyrian Trueblue, Llwygy Black Mountain and Beechtree Bruce’s Stone. $500.
I also have Dorward Chieftain, smaller than Highlander but born a twin and handsome in his own right. He is registered and would be perfect for crossbreeding into a fiber flock. His coloration and wool are both perfect. $400
I also have three lovely Border Leicester ewes available. All three are white with good coloration and lovely Border fleece They are registered. Hardy and friendly, these ewes would make a perfect starter flock. $300 each.
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.
Fred has been the main ram in our flock for the last two years, so it’s time for him to find a new flock. What can I say about the ram who has sired all of our 2018 and 2019 lambs? The ram who still wants a few pets now and then, and who loves to strike a pose just for fun?
We love his all-over strength and the rapid, balanced growth of his lambs. He gains and maintains weight on moderate feed – the challenge is keeping him from getting overly fat! He has classic BFL wool character with a purled fleece that has commanded over $20/lb each year. Fred’s grandparents are Trueblue, Ward Reva, Black Mountain and Ward Bonnie. The only thing I would change would be to lengthen his neck a tad and raise his ears a smidgin – otherwise, I don’t know that I’d change a thing.
Fred’s lambs are just as good- they consistently display his quality wool and correct blue coloration. As a bonus, they have fun, sweet personalities that make them pleasant to work with. Fred carries natural color.
It would be my strong preference that Fred to go a flock for purebreeding purposes. We are located in Irasburg, VT but can travel with him if needed.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested!
Most years, I have sent my wool to the mill with the expectation that my yarn might come back just a few weeks before the festivals I regularly attend. Usually, that was just enough time to count it and dye it while Mom might knit a sample or two.
This year is different. Our mill, Battenkill Fiber, has a different reservation system that allows me to place my wool earlier in the queue by making an earlier deposit. This saves me a lot of stress and hassle in the fall; a time of year when I am busy with lambs and farmer’s markets as well as yarn.
Our yarn came out wonderfully, once again. The Border Leicester wool we sent in became our Derby Line Sport-Weight yarn. We also sent our BFL to the mill and got back stunning, drapey, glossy fingering-weight yarn. It’s all dyed up, but I haven’t gotten it into the online store yet. Ditto for some hat kits we will be offering- there’s lots to look forward to!
As you read about in The Reality of Yarn, getting the yarn off of the cones and into skeins took a lot of time and patience. Choosing colors and dyeing the yarn relies a bit more on some of my experience. I took careful note of which colors appealed to people and which ones just sat. I really like orange, but I’ve eased-up on orange a bit this year in the Derby Line. I have also made more solid shades and fewer semi-solid. I did choose to make semi-solids and multicolor yarn with the BFL. It was BORN to be an art-shawl, cowl or scarf, so having an art yarn is more appropriate. Overall, I am pleased with the palette I’ve made and eager to see how customers receive it!
I admit that I am a bit selfish about dyeing the yarn. Even though it would be a potentially fun group activity, I hoard it for myself. Dyeing is the one place where I can do a bit of artwork in a profession that is otherwise mostly physical, so I make an afternoon of it with the radio on, a glass of wine, and a drawerful of powerful dyes and my dedicated pots. I hope that my creative outlet will be your crafting inspiration!
Don’t get me wrong. Playing with yarn gives me great joy. I love the texture, the sheepy scent, the slight dust of it. I love the whole sensory experience and I am always happy to have more yarn.
This year, instead of having our yarn made into pre-measured skeins at the mill, we elected to have it delivered on huge cones to be made into skeins at home. Matt built a skein winder that automatically spins and measures each skein. Such a winder would normally cost $350-400. He made ours out of spare parts and some pvc pipe for about $150.
But please understand that this is Day 12 of winding skeins. I have rewatched the entirety of Ken Burn’s “The Civil War” (11 hours and 30 minutes, for those counting at home) while winding skeins, and that just covered winding the white BFL and 1/3 of the white Border Leicester. I watched Ken Burns “The Roosevelts” as well. I also watched the whole “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series (23 hours 20 minutes!) while making the natural color Border Leicester skeins and white mini-skeins needed for new patterns that will be released soon.
Each skein comes off the line frequently enough to make tasks more complex than television impossible. Likewise, my hands need to stay clean, precluding anything like cooking or dyeing other yarn. Watching something informative makes me feel like my brain is engaged with something meaningful. I know I’m letting my nerd flag fly by admitting to my preference for documentaries and straightforward storytelling. The current selection of human-failure-intensive prestige dramas don’t appeal: to me, the world has enough genuine sorrow and pain. I cannot enjoy watching people suffer for entertainment. I left human services forever in 2010 for a reason.
I am happy to report that I am winding skeins from the final cone of natural-color Border, and I am really, really happy to be so nearly done. Stay tuned for 2019 yarn!
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.