No matter how much I pet them, my sheep crave attention. I have several who will stop at nothing for shoulder-scritches, up to and including the yearling ewe from my last blog post who now will try to stand on your chest for attention. Needless to say, but we are training her not to do that.
We have a little over a month of petting to distribute equitably before lambing begins right around the end of February. Already, the ewes are waddling more and standing less eagerly. We are expecting anything from 70-90 lambs in 2021. That’s a whole lot.
PET US NOW!
Not only do my sheep want attention and socialization, but I also do. I’m strongly introverted and happily go several days talking only to Matt. But even I have limits. It would be grand to have some visitors at the farm, socially-distanced of course. The barn is pretty open-air, so having visitors in the barn is at a comparable risk level to two masked, distanced people talking at the park. We also recognize that people NEED interaction of some kind to get through this terrible year. Sanity has value, too.
I want visitors to come because I want you to feel, in person, how wonderful baby lambs are. I want you to watch their spontaneous play, to coo over their snoozing, to sense their curiousity and learn to interact with them on their terms. I want children to develop a fascination with animals just as I did as a child. Nothing makes me sadder than meeting people for whom farm animals are an entirely abstract concept.
That said, news about new, more contagious variants comes out daily. Matt and I are relatively young (42 and 37, respectively), but Matt does have some risk factors for a more serious Covid experience. I am so keen to share our farm with you, but also rather anxious about it.
So I am interested in your thoughts: Should we do FB live lambing streams? Should we offer tours? Should we do both or neither? How would you want to interact with lambs and farms at this difficult time?
I have some entertaining pictures of recent sheep activity. After 45 days in the barn, the ewes express their restlessness with weird stunts.
Activity #1 – Fighting
BFL 129 Amelia and Border Leicester 1736 go head to head, with our resident ram lamb goading them on. Sheep flocks have a hierarchy, and apparently these girls do not agree about where they stand in the pecking order.
FINISH HER! A solid flank shot by Amelia. Luckily, ewes don’t fight to the point of injury, like rams do. These two went back to munching hay and gossiping about each other soon after.
I have to admit that I was laughing the whole time. I am sure this felt very serious to the contenders, but watching chubby, fluffy ewes do battle would amuse anyone. I wonder if this could be a pay per view channel?
And then this happened:
Perhaps you recall a story from last spring, where one of our ewes had quadruplets? The runt died and we gave the ram lamb away to be raised by a friend, but we kept two promising ewes from the set. When a young lady contacted me to ask about keeping some bottle lambs over the summer, I consented. She had tutelage from an experienced shepherd, and handing off some problem children was just what I needed at the time, so I gave her one of the quad girls and another bottle baby. This lamb, #174, came home in the fall. She just loves people, and last week decided that perhaps people would make entertaining climbing walls, too.
So here she is, standing on my thighs and peering me straight in the eye. We will gently train her not to do this, as it’s going to get exponentially less-cute the larger she grows. I love this pretty ewe, but it is not safe to have attack-sheep on premises.
The days here are alternating between grimdark gray and sunny and white. It is a beautiful but bleak season. With the sheep stable and some time to think, I am finally catching up on paperwork and hobbies. I really value this bonding time with the core flock. The ewes are all feeling friendly and loving, so I am bombarded with shoulder-itching requests and loving nudges from my friendly ewes during this time. At other times of the year, the ewes are either preoccupied with parenting or feeling free and feral in the fields. So I gather the sheep petting endorphins when I can while we wait for the coming of lambs in late February.
We have a whole passel of bottle lambs in 2020. We have the two remaining ewe lambs from the quadruplet situation. We have a BFL ram lamb who never caught on to nursing his mother. We have a Border ram lamb who was rejected due to having sharp teeth (we fixed the teeth but couldn’t repair the relationship. Then, we have triplet BFLs whose mother just can’t keep up with their needs.
Almost all bottle lambs start out in the house. Because we can’t feed them as frequently as a real sheep mom, we choose to keep them indoors where they will be warm enough to not suffer chilling and hypothermia. Hypothermia causes most needless deaths of young lambs – lambs who are too cold won’t nurse or digest milk, resulting in a downward metabolic spiral. We try to give the lambs motherly attentions that they would receive from a real mom – ewes don’t hold their lambs, but they mutter to them and nuzzle and groom them. Petting and stroking the lambs meets their need for attention.
Of course, bottle lambs in the house are adorable. We show you the cute pictures of a lamb snoozing in a corner, but we don’t show you the mess they make. Lambs do not potty-train, so we do upwards of two large laundry loads of towels each day just trying to prevent indoor lambs from destroying our floors and furniture. Diapers aren’t really in the lamb’s best interest as we don’t want to leave manure in contact with their wool for any length of time. Finally, scampering lambs need space which is best found outdoors in the barn. They need playmates and guidance from ewes, too, so they learn to be good flockmembers and not frustrated wannabe-humans.
We gradually introduce houselambs to life outdoors by sending them out to the barn for short periods and then not bringing them back into the house eventually. We then must train these lambs to use the nursing bucket instead of the bottle. We use a Pritchard teat initially to facilitate nursing initially to facilitate nursing. Once the lambs are larger, however, they are too strong for small rubber teats. At that point, teat-bucket feeding becomes more practical.
The bucket is a competitive space, but we work to ensure that all lambs get the milk they need without overfeeding the aggressive ones.
We have set up a lamb creep as well. A creep is an area of the barn only accessible to lambs through a gate that admits only small sheep. In the creep, we offer grain, nice hay to nibble on and a sunny, dry floor. It takes the lambs a few days to discover the space, but once they do they really take to having a clubhouse just for them. We do feed some grain at this stage to help out the many triplets we have. Not all ewes can provide enough milk for fast-growing triplets, so this is our most practical option to grow them out effectively without overtaxing Mom.
So that’s the news from the lamb barn. We have 71 lambs bouncing about and only a few more ewes expecting. We are tired but finally beginning to catch up on sleep.
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.
We had the sheep shorn today. Though it feels early in the year, we know we need to have the sheep shorn before lambs are due. The forecasts calls for continuing mild weather, so we aren’t concerned about cold or wind for now. The ewes were eager to itch all of the itchy places they couldn’t reach beneath their fleece. We watched each of them craning their necks around to reach that One Spot and then shaking in relief.
Mary Lake at CanDoShearing shears our sheep. Mary and I have parallel sheep journeys. We were housemates back in 2012 and 2013. She had just finished an internship on a sheep farm when I was in the middle of my goat-milking years. We were both struggling doing hard jobs under challenging circumstances. Mary has always been helpful and deeply honest about my sheepraising, so it felt wonderful to be able to show her a flock of healthy, chubby ewes with great wool. I am endlessly grateful to Mary’s patience and wisdom through all of these years.
Enjoy these naked ladies prancing around on our farm! We were thrilled to see how plump and ready for lambs our flock is. 51 sheep shorn today – the only ones still wearing wool are the Two Old Ladies – we think they’ll do better with a bit more wool on.
We have arrived successfully at the quietest time of year. The ewes are eating and gestating, quietly growing and waiting. The rams have calmed down and decided to get along again.
Every morning, I put on my coat, hat and gloves and head to the barn. The ewes are eager to see me. They have picked at the caged round bales all night and need me to remove some of the wasted stems so they can get to the good stuff again. We have three feeders so that everyone can have a fair shake at eating without waiting for more dominant ewes to fill up. With three 600 lb bales in the barn at a time, we don’t even have to feed the sheep daily.
Sometimes, Louise the Kitty decides to explore the barn. In the summer, it’s one of her favorite places to hang out because there is shade but no sheep. Though I have seen many photos of cats and sheep cohabitating happily, my cats and my sheep are more adversarial. Louise attracts sheep attention and gets assaulted by noses within moments of arriving. I had to rescue her, much to her chagrin because she hates being picked up and carried. I bet she would hate being sniffled to death more.
In sunny weather, the ewes use their loafing area to sunbathe and to scheme about how to bust the fencing apart so they can go eat fallen apples. They were out under the apple tree when we came home from our Christmas visit to my sister and her family. It’s embarrassing to admit that we are somewhat losing this intellectual arms-race with the sheep. If the land beneath the loafing area were permiable, we would put in some posts and be done with it. Since the land is quite hard and compacted, we have to make some alternate plans. The ewes know that the green alpaca panels can be rubbed until one lifts out of the linkage with the other. We solved that temporarily by pinning the linkages together, but the ewes have found that they can reorient the fencing and defeat the pins. Frustrating.
With temperatures in the low single digits today, we are surely in the thick of winter. Last week, we finally received the replacement barn-ends that we ordered after the back of the barn tore in half during the Halloween storm. Unfortunately, Matt and I concluded that we won’t actually complete the repairs until spring. Neither of us want to battle stiff, uncooperative materials in terrible weather while the barn is filled with pregnant sheep.
Speaking of pregnant sheep, our vet Dr. Emily came out yesterday to ultrasound each of our ewes to check for pregnancy. The news was mostly good- lots of multiples, ewes look generally healthy, and we even have a few pregnant ewe lambs! We sent each ewe through the chute for a fairly low-stress exam. It was a perfect opportunity to check on some of the ewes who are skillful at avoiding us under most circumstances. I am so pleased with how chubby and healthy most of the flock is. I really feel like I have that aspect under control at the moment. I think the biggest factor is that Matt made all of our hay this year, and the ewes eat it with great gusto.
On the downside, we do have three open adult ewes. Ewe lambs get a pass on not breeding their first year, but 1616, Beth and Eilis all scanned empty, much to my disappointment. Sadly, we are reasonably sure that Eilis is dying, so we are preparing to euthanize her soon. Two vets, endless exams and many treatments have all yielded no improvement in her condition. Dr. Emily and her former owner agree that cancer is not unlikely. I am so, so heartbroken that after all of the TLC we provided to Eilis, we have no offspring from her or from her sister, Beth. Beth has been fat and healthy the whole time, but just won’t settle a pregnancy. We are blood-testing her for a final chance that maybe her pregnancy could have been missed, but I am not holding my breath.
This is the unglamorous time of year. The two big Sheep and Wool festivals we do are over, and it’s time to get back to routine farmwork,
All but the most stubborn leaves have blown off the trees and hit the ground. Frost has ceased the growth of the grass, so all grazing now is merely a victory-lap of somewhat palatable but less-nutritious grass. Even breeding season has abated – the rams have settled most of the ewes for March lambs, as best I can tell. Unlike goats, rams woo ewes quietly and subtly. They grumble gently and nudge ewes while sniffing to determine who might be in heat.
One major job awaiting me was the ram barn. We clean the bedded manure pack out of the main barn with a tractor, but because the rams live in a converted horse stall, removing their bedding is a hand-shoveling job. If we bedded them with shavings, shoveling would be easy, but we mostly bed them with waste hay. Waste hay plus manure creates a substance that I term “Crap-thatch”. Crapthatch is challenging to shovel because the long strands of hay do not want to disengage, while the moisture in the pack makes every scoop you can move very heavy.
It took three long days to complete the shoveling job. We added most of the manure to the manure pile, but we brought one down to the village of Albany to share with some folks who let us rent their land for hay. Matt deposited the scoop of poop straight on their garden for use next year.
At least we have a nice stack of hay bales to see us through until spring. It’s hard not to get anxious about my hay math – it’s expensive to be 20 bales short in April! That said, I think we are in the clear.
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/
If you’ve ever ridden in the car with me, you probably know that I’m a bit of a public radio buff. I am a huge fan of VPR, and particularly of Brave Little State, which is a podcast about questions about quirky Vermont topics. Recently, a question I asked was featured on the program!
Matt and I spent a lot of time driving all around the northeastern part of Vermont on our search for a suitable farm to buy. We noticed Star Pudding Farm Road in Marshfield more than once, so I wanted to ask about it. Turns out that the answer brought a tear to my eye because sometimes it feels like my farming efforts are rewarded with dining on wind pudding.
Our other major media effort is a new children’s book about lambs growing up on our farm. April and May: Two Lambs at Cloverworks Farm tells the charming story of two lamb sisters who explore their surroundings, with educational commentary for adults to enjoy. The book is appropriate for pre-readers and early readers. Buy a copy through the link above, or come see us at the Craftsbury Farmer’s Market on Saturdays!
In other farm news, Mary Lake came to shear the lambs who aren’t slated for retention yesterday. We got over 50 pounds of top quality fiber, so I am debating whether to have roving made or whether to hold out for more yarn….what do you think?