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Shearing Day Arrives

Again, credit to Lee for distilling all of the good advice I’ve gotten about how to really share my farm with others into one useful phrase.

We spent Wednesday evening setting up for shearing. We have learned that if we set up morning-of, the sheep get all nervous and suspicious. Nervous sheep do not go into pens willingly. So we set up the pens the night before so that the sheep can inspect them, grow bored of them and move on. At 4pm, we rolled out the last bale of hay for the ewes to gorge on. The ewes will breathe much more comfortably during shearing if they don’t have full rumens.

“Sniff Sniff – what’s all this?”

Yesterday morning, we penned up the ewes first-thing. I tripped and fell carrying the grain bucket. Not a good idea! Before I was crushed by a stampede of hungry, grumpy ewes, Matt took the bucket from my hand and distracted the horde. Thanks, Matt!

Once the sheep were tucked into their pen to await shearing, we added three fresh bales to the barn. That way, freshly-shorn sheep could head straight for the buffet and fill up on good, tasty hay.

Mary, our shearer, arrived and set to work. Matt encouraged sheep to enter the sorting chute, and each sheep dispensed leapt straight into Mary’s waiting arms. I am often asked why I don’t shear my sheep myself. Shearing takes real expertise, skill and physical strength. Mary has all three in spades. She’s taller than I am, which helps, but more critically, she has shorn thousands of sheep at this point and has the skills necessary to restrain the sheep humanely, shear carefully, and carry on a partial conversation all at the same time.

Hungry sheep, waiting for Mary

Shearing is a time to evaluate sheep health. Shorn of their wool, we can finally see if a ewe is thin or fat, pregnant or potentially open, healthy or ill in some notable way. We noted that Chloe’s udder has a bad side. We can plan to have her only raise one lamb. Most ewes were quite fat, we noted, but a few of the yearlings could do with some more chub. We’ll make sure that we make it easy for the littlest sheep in the flock to get their fair share of feed.

Queued and ready!
Mary asking nicely for more cooperation.
Mary at work

I’ve buried the lede a bit here, but we had a guest of honor at shearing this year. Laini Fondiller, from Lazy Lady Farm, came to shearing this year. An artisan cheesemaker and goatherd, Laini is solidly the busiest person I know. She has been running Lazy Lady Farm for 35 years now, making some of the finest goat cheese to ever grace the counters at Murray’s Cheese and other fine establishments. We’ve been friends for a decade now, collaborating on dairy goat genetics and commiserating about running small farms. It was really a treat to get to spend a day working together – we so seldom can find that kind of time.

Laini sorting our wool.

This year’s wool varied in quality. The BFL was clean and lovely. My only concern is the prevalence of some felting in the longer locks. We have a few BFLs whose wool is not quite up-to-standard. We’ll make sure that such ewes meet a ram with amazing wool every time. The Borders were more of a mixed-bag. Some ewes had lovely fleeces, others were rough and matted. Several fleeces had to be rejected outright due to cotting and felting, which is always a disappointing outcome. We have some amazing jet-black Border Leicester fleeces from our lambs. I’m going to make something really, really special with that wool.

After shearing, we enjoyed some homemade seafood chowder outdoors together. Mary and Laini departed, and Matt and I picked up the sorting pen and then stowed the wool, which will wait until I can make a trip down to Battenkill Fiber Mill.

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The Last Four Days

Friday: I was cleaning up the house and buying groceries in anticipation of shearing on Sunday and my mom coming up to celebrate her birthday among the sheep.

Saturday: At 8am, Mom calls to say that Grandma is dying.  I try to keep personal stuff off this blog so I haven’t talked extensively about this, but Grandma has been sick with dementia and heart failure for the last five years.  She went into comfort care at the end of February.   I finish chores and hop in the truck, but I get to New Hampshire about 30 minutes after Grandma passed.   We spend Saturday together as a family, just trying to comfort each other after such a long journey with Grandma’s illness.  We toasted Grandma with white wine with ice cubes in it, as was her preference and shared memories of her.

I had called Mary, our shearer to cancel shearing, but I realize that some distraction is just the right thing for the family.   So I asked Mary if I could un-cancel our shearing on Sunday morning, so we could still have Mom’s birthday activity.  This may sound a little heartless, but I hope you will believe me when I say that there was little left to process in this passing.  We all were able to say our farewells to Grandma and we’ve been mourning every loss of memory and capacity as they have transpired.  Her passing was a release and a reprieve from suffering.

Saturday at Midnight:  I drove 3 hours back to Vermont and arrived at 10pm.  Matt let me know that Pearl the BFL was in labor.  At midnight, she delivered a ewe and a lamb.  We checked them throughout the night, and on little sleep I woke up early to prepare for shearing.

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Just born. Our barn lighting is that bright- it really is midnight!

Sunday Morning When I got to the barn at 7am, I found Amethyst the BFL in labor as well as Ohio-72!  Ohio-72 had two rams at 7:30 and Amethyst had a ram and a ewe at 8:30.   Matt scrambled to repair a broken lambing jug so we could house all of these new lambs.

I prepared the pen for shearing and lugged our shearing board out to the barn.  Needless to say, we weren’t entirely ready for Mary when she arrived to shear, but she knew we’d had a long weekend already.  We were up and running in about 20 minutes.  It took 4 hours to shear the whole flock.  The ewes all looked relieved to be free of their hot fleeces.  Meadowlark stopped panting.

We all enjoyed lunch together, dining on the breakfast sandwiches I had meant to make in the morning!   Then we sat and relaxed for a bit before going to to the garage to sort some fleeces.  Mom and I have an arrangement to get the wool to one of the mills we plan to use this year and we know we need to get it to them ASAP.  We started skirting the 13 white Border  Leicester fleeces and made it through 9 of them.  The necks and backs of the fleeces were dirty and we threw away all of the britch wool, but the sides were perfect.

By evening, I was starting to feel a little scratchiness in my throat.  We feted Mom with a lamb loin roast and brussels sprouts and potatoes.  We had all of the ingredients for the cake I had meant to make on Saturday, but Mom wasn’t really feeling the need for more food, so we just ate the oranges instead.  None of us had slept properly in the last few days, so we were all in bed by 8pm.

Monday: I woke up on Monday feeling very poorly.  Mom and I got it together to finish the wool skirting, but Mom felt like she’d rather leave early than contract whatever was brewing inside me.  I took to the couch and wrapped myself in blankets, and Mom headed home.  Poor Matt has had to do all of the animal management for the rest of Monday and the beginning of Tuesday.

Tuesday: I felt much better after a good lie-down and a sound sleep.  Despite still feeling weak and headache-y, Matt and I did our routine to release ewes and lambs from the bonding jugs where they’ve been getting used to each other for two days.  We dosed each lamb and all of the ewes with Vitamin E and BoSE, and trimmed the ewes hooves.  We docked tails only on BFL ewe lambs, leaving the tails long enough to cover the bum.  Neither ewe lamb squirmed, so I think we were successful at minimizing discomfort (docking early and banding between the bones of the tail makes a huge difference).

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Matt wins, but barely.  This ewe will feel better once she has her vitamins and pedicure.  Some people go to spas for that!

We are now relaxing after too much stress, sorrow and sickness.  We didn’t want to go to Town Meeting in case my illness is contagious, so that will wait for next year.  It looks like Summer the ewe will have her lambs very soon, so the excitement continues even as we try to sit down for a minute.   The farm never sleeps, even if the farmers would really like to.