Sometimes your day just doesn’t go according to plan. Especially when you have a farm!
This day started out with an early morning delivery of twin rams. We watch the birth, make sure they are both up and standing, weigh them, dip their navels, and make sure both are nursing. We put them in the lambing jug with the heat lamp to let them bond, assuming all will be right when we return in 45 minutes to check them.
When I go back to see how things are going 45 minutes later, you can imagine my shock to see mom head butting the second born (brown) lamb away from her -like seriously NOT happy with him! This was NOT in my plan for the day! I was hoping to go for a walk, plant potatoes, make dinner…NOPE! Now we have to figure out how to make this relationship work!
First we tried to squeeze them a bit tighter in the jug so that she wouldn’t be able to push him around so forcefully. She was still intent on taking him out, and extremely anxious, so after trying this for several hours, we finally succumbed to a head stanchion for mom.
Here they all have a bit more freedom of movement. She can lie down, but she can’t go after her lamb. He and his brother can nurse and play and move around. She still gets to see both for this time where she needs to work out that he is hers. Over the next couple of days she will get more used to him and his smell and will become more bonded…hopefully!
Not the best situation, but if all goes according to plan…IF(!) …this will be far better for him vs. bottle feeding him. She does still talk to him and will occasionally lick him – she’s just very confused. We are hopeful!
As of yesterday morning, just a little over one week into our lambing time, our humble flock at Morning Star Meadows officially doubled its number! Lambs number 13 and 14 were born to one of our tan ewes, Faith! We have had our share of ups and downs, learned many new things, and have been rewarded so far by many healthy lambs that, as you can see in the video, are truly enjoying life here!
We can’t say much for full nights of sleep, but the effort has been very worthwhile. The week started off with all of the ewes in a pasture adjacent to the barn and just beside the house so we could easily survey them day and night to watch for signs of ewes nearing labor.
We would get up every 2 hours or so to walk down with a flashlight to see the status of each ewe, hoping not to miss signs of an impending birth.
Our first birth was from Prudence (sire, Cyrano.) She is a big ewe, so we were surprised that she gave birth to a single ram, but not surprised that he was huge at 11 lbs! We all loved his beautiful coloration, and he was very soon christened “Bucky.”
Twins followed later that day from Filia (sire, Romeo) – a white ram and a white ewe lamb.
We got a little breather the following day, but the day after brought another set of twins, this time black, boy and girl, from Hope and Cyrano.
In the very early hours of the next morning, we awoke for our 3am check to a surprise! Sophia was standing in the middle of the pasture with 2 lambs near her. We went to check her to bring her to the barn, carrying the two lambs. One was very small and doing poorly, the other was strong and standing. As we were luring her to the barn with these two ram lambs, she was calling to them and faintly nearby we heard another lamb calling out! We were shocked that a third lamb had wandered away from her – actually ending up outside of the electric wire protection! Somehow this little guy – strong as anything, had made it past top security to explore the nearby strip of woods near our driveway! Sophia had had triplet boys, but sadly the smallest didn’t make it. The other two, one all black and one white with a black cap/cape, are doing great. Crazy enough the one who “escaped” – the white one – was the 7th lamb born at the farm and thereby earned the number “007.” The kids have named him “Bond” for his amazing pursuits! Cyrano is the proud father.
The following day brought another set of twins – this time both ewe lambs! Nina did a tremendous job bring them into the world, and Cyrano is their father. The smaller brown ewe lamb is a gorgeous and somewhat unusual color, and she has been named Mocha.
Another day off before a double hitter. That day we again had two sets of twins. Fay (sire, Cyrano) gave birth to a large ram lamb – a very beautiful burnt orange color, followed by a white ewe lamb. Sadly, despite all we could do, including mouth to snout respiration, we could not revive her. She never took her first breath. The ram is thriving, though!
Later, Bessie (sire, Romeo) birthed ram/ewe twins. Her ram lamb is black, and the ewe, white. All went well!
And yesterday, just a little over a week before this all began, Faith (sire, Romeo) gave birth to boy/girl twins. The ewe lamb is white, and the ram lamb has gorgeous markings, including brown ears like a bunny, and what looks almost like eyeliner!
And today we await the last of the ewes (Joy, Felicity, Charity and Grace) to reach their hour! Things have gotten a little easier for us shepherds. When we began this process, our barn camera was directed at the lambing jugs so we could watch the new moms and lambs. About midway through we had some nasty cold, wet weather and decided to bring the remaining moms-to-be into the barn. We didn’t want new babies born on the pasture, exposed to harsh weather. We turned the camera around so that we could now watch the ewes 24/7 from the house. Last night was the first night we actually stayed in bed the whole night!
I guess you could ALMOST say we go to sleep counting sheep, as this is commonly the view on our phone or Ipads (below is actually a current screen shot of the camera view of the ewes who are still expectant.) We promise to update you as soon as all the ewes are delivered, and as soon as we are back in a higher state of conciousness after a few full nights of sleep!
For the next few weeks we will be spending a lot of time with this mob! We are pretty certain that at least 11 of the 12 are pregnant! Now we wait for the “when” and “how many!”
Today, after a crazy spring blustery snow squall, we finished preparations for our maternity wing and labor and delivery ward.
This is a relatively small area where we can keep close tabs on the girls as they approach their due dates. Tomorrow marks the first potential due date, counting from the time the rams were introduced to the ewes back in November. The girls are close to the barn where we have set up lambing jugs, as we mentioned in our last post. When we see signs of impending labor, we will bring that ewe in to the barn and isolate her in a quiet stall so that we can keep an even closer eye one her, and where she will be on camera for us to watch from the house on our wireless barn camera set up.
As for now, all had health checks today. Some udders are much larger than others, and some ewes are waddling a bit slower than others, but none are showing any signs of labor. They are happily chowing down on hay and minerals, and getting used to their new location.
This week we also started to learn the process of examining their manure for evidence of harmful parasites. Generally we check each animal’s mucous membranes for evidence of anemia using a color chart. This is a quick and easy way to assess parasitic disease when we bring them through the chute . But some sheep actually have more parasites than their membranes reveal. When we do a fecal exam for parasite eggs, it takes a lot longer and requires a microscope and a special slide that allows you to count the number of eggs per gram of feces, but this added procedure gives us a much better picture of how big a worm burden the animal has. More eggs shed by the animal does not necessarily mean an animal that is sicker. It can mean an animal that has a high resistance to the worms which can be an asset passed on to their offspring. Of course some will show extremely high numbers of eggs, and sometimes a shepherd will cull (remove) that animal from the flock because they are source of parasite exposure to the rest of the flock. Our counts today were low, which we expected for this time of year. The parasite we worry about most, the barberpole worm (named for it’s barberpole appearance due to the sheep’s blood in its alimentary canal), goes into a sort of winter dormancy, but will soon be making it’s presence known as the days get longer, warmer and more humid, and especially in the ewes after lambing when their systems are more stressed.
Well I won’t bore you any further with manure and worms! Time to get some rest before our days and nights start to blur into one when those lambs begin arriving! I’m hoping to get some great photos and videos to share with you all! If we had better internet (which I was able to actually get set up in the barn today using our wireless camera system!), I would definitely do a Facebook live for you! Sadly, the quarantine will keep us from having guests here for lambing this year. I love sharing the moment of birth of an animal – it never fails to amaze me!
As much of the world hunkers down in fear, isolation and quarantine in the midst of a global pandemic, we feel so blessed to be (mostly) together as a family on our 35 acres.
We have been home here for over a week, with only the occasional venture over the ridge and through the woods to Grammy’s house to exchange food and hijack her more reliable internet. If we weren’t watching the news, we would have no idea about the pandemic affecting the world, except that our mailman is delivering packages with gloves on today!
The animals continue their daily routines, the chickens are giving us more eggs as the days lengthen, the spring flowers are opening, seeds and onion sets are waiting to be planted, the rhubarb and garlic is sprouting, and soon we’ll see asparagus break ground. We must continually remind ourselves that outside of our little haven, the stores are empty, many businesses are closed, thousands of people are laid off and struggling each day, and more people are getting sick from COVID-19.
We are trying to stay healthy and keep ourselves ready for caring for newborn lambs and their moms in about a month!
Today we rounded up the ewes for the first time since late December when we separated them from the rams after breeding season. They have survived a very mild winter. Most of the time, when they weren’t gorging on round bales of second cut hay or ruminating near their shed, they were taking themselves out to enjoy the stockpiled pasture. Sometimes it’s difficult to say what they enjoy more, but it is safe to say that grazing is a strong instinct, and they will keep grazing even when presented with an abundance of hay.
Roy has been setting up the barn with lambing jugs to contain a ewe as she approaches her time. These will be bedded with straw. There she can be separate from the flock, undisturbed as she labors and delivers and cares for her new lambs. She will remain there for a day or two after giving birth, and then another ewe will take her place.
And no, I didn’t climb up in the rafters to take that picture! I took that picture as a screenshot on our IPad which now bears a program that communicates with a camera in the barn! Yes, we are going high tech with our new farm (or lazy, you might call it) and instead of wandering down to the barn many times through the night, we will be watching our sheep from the house! I know – some shepherds WE are! Imagine that Bible story retold, “While shepherds watched their sheep at night, remotely from their tent on their IPhone 11, an angel appeared to them!” Yeah – just doesn’t seem right, does it?
So our goal today was most importantly to vaccinate the ewes prior to the birth of their lambs. The ewes were due for their annual booster vaccine against clostridial diseases, including tetanus and a few others that are dangerous to sheep, and this vaccine will carry immunity into the colostrum that their lambs will drink and thereby receive what is called passive immunity for their first weeks of life. The lambs will then need a vaccination when they are ready to produce their own immunity at about 4-6 weeks of age.
Also, to prepare these girls for the big day, we trimmed hooves and gave them a dose of a vitamin/mineral paste which includes Vitamin E and selenium, which is very scarce in the soils of our area, and therefore in the food that they are eating. Deficiencies in these can cause problems for the ewe and for her newborn lamb.
We also weighed them all, checked their eyelid color for signs of parasite caused anemia, and checked their udders for signs of development indicating possible pregnancy.
As you can see above, Roy also tried ballottement of their abdomens to try to feel lambs in the uterus. He holds his hand firm on the animal’s left over their rumen, and then bounces his hand over the right side in an attempt to rock the uterus in the fluid of the abdomen in hopes that a lamb in the uterus would bounce off the inner wall of the abdomen under his hand. One day I hope we will have an ultrasound machine so this all becomes a lot more definite and scientific!
The ewes have returned to their winter pastures, and in a few weeks we will move them closer to the barn. At that time we will bring the rams in for vaccinations, hoof trimming, weighing and physicals.
While we continue to quarantine and wonder what the future holds for our country and for this hidden enemy virus, we wait not with fear but with hope – and with joyous expectation for the new life that will hopefully grace our farm in a month’s time! We ask that God protect you all — that you stay safely away from ALL illnesses – and that you stay tuned for many photos and hopefully videos of the miracle of life on the farm!
Well, you can see from the photo above that the weather was absolutely perfect for today’s nuptuals! Above you can see Romeo pursuing one of his harem. She looks totally unimpressed! Everything went fairly well. We did have one “runaway bride”, but I think she’s learned now to stand by her man and hopefully won’t stray again!
In the video below you’ll see us bringing the rams over to the “meet up” venue first. It’s only right that they be waiting for their ladies, and not the other way around.
We set up temporary fencing to help guide them across the driveway, then pushed them right up into the handling yards.
After getting them into the race, we marked them each with a homemade version of a raddle marker. This will serve to mark the ewe when she is served by the ram. That helps us when we can’t keep eyes on them all the time so that we can try to establish breeding dates. In the past I’ve made this by mixing powdered tempra paint with vegetable shortening, but this time the store didn’t have the paint, so I went with the next best thing – Koolaid! Just a note, though — Koolaid powder does not readily dissolve in Crisco, so I had to wet it first! At least this smells more interesting – cherry and raspberry!
We then put each ram in their own pen using the sorting gates as they come out of the chute. They really didn’t like being separated, but they soon won’t mind one bit!
Here come the brides!
And, keeping it friendly for all audiences, here’s Romeo with his girls in their new pasture. There is so much lovely stockpiled pasture there for them to eat that he’s torn between chowing down and making himself better known to his brides!
And now we will watch and wait. Hopefully the girls will take a shine to the boys and all will be over quickly and without a hitch!
The girls are about to meet their “husbands” in a couple of days, and while they won’t be getting blood tests like we do, they do get a quick “once over” health check before tying the knot, so to speak.
This will be the first time we have tried the new weighing facilities and yards, so we were as anxious as the ladies for this to work out well!
We were pleased at how easily they complied with entering the yards, and now that they were contained, we needed to see them enter and pass through the race.
The first attempt yielded 6 of them easily pushing into the race. Maybe they already know that they will be divided into 2 groups for the 2 rams, who are eagerly awaiting the nuptuals!
OK! Piece of cake! These girls went through their paces with ease! I guess that although one is not supposed to discuss a ladies weight, in this case we will make an exception. We were very pleased to see that these yearling ewes had gained from 30-50 lb since June on a diet of pasture alone. Now they are ready to meet Cyrano and Romeo (yes, really!) in the next day or two.
We will try to video the meeting and post it, while making sure that we keep this blog for “general audiences”, if you get our drift!
Meet the newest members of our flock! Cyrano and Romeo will be dads to our crop of lambs in the spring! They are registered purebred Katahdins bred and raised in New York at Gibraltar Farm by Etienne and Isabel Richards. They are 100% grass fed, and we will be relying on their fine genetics to complement that of our 12 ewes.
They arrived in September and have not yet been introduced to the ewes. We have kept them near the barn, far away from the ewes. Our intent is to introduce them later this month. Each ram will have a harem of 6 ewes until early next year. Lambs should start arriving mid April.
Roy has been working on extending their paddock area, as they have been munching through the pasture since they arrived in September. In the picture below you can see them watching Roy as he is just about to finish the last stretch of fencing. The weather was gorgeous yesterday, in the low 60’s, but we knew that snow and an Arctic temperature plunge would come today. Roy had built them a little shelter that he had in this new paddock, and he wanted to get them moved to it yesterday so they would have access to the shelter in this snowstorm.
Well, the best laid plans of sheep and men…below you can see their pile of hay, covered with snow. They’d rather eat that nice green grass under the snow! And as for the shelter? We found them BEHIND it, huddled together as the snow and wind were coming at them earlier today!
Believing that sheep, like any animal, are hard wired to survive, by sheltering from the elements, we were amazed to see them NOT entering their shed to get away from the wind and driving snow. So how do you entice a ram to enter a shed and be more comfortable? We can’t use food, since they seem to ignore the hay, and have no idea what to do with any other foods. For example, the ewes don’t even acknowledge the presence of delectable things like apple peels or leftover squash from the garden. And if we caught them and put them in there, they would likely see it as a bad thing and never go near the shed again!
I guess we just have to leave them to discover it themselves. We do know that they have superior genetics. Hopefully some of those are devoted to creating sufficient brain cells to discover the entrance to the shelter before the weather gets seriously bad in February. In a few weeks thay join their respective harems. Perhaps their wives will be able to show them how to use that threatening opening in the shed. At least the girls seem to be able to understand how to keep warm. Or maybe these boys are just like any adolescent males, even human ones, who, it sometimes appears, seem unable to accept advice to make their lives easier, and have to work it out for themselves!
For those who follow this blog, you may remember an ill-fated attempt to capture water from the roof of the house to water the garden. Below is the photograph of the IBC (Intermediate Bulk Container), which collapsed under the weight of the water we collected (an IBC can hold 275 gallons which at 8 lb a gallon for water is over a ton!). Apparently the metal frame surrounding an IBC (absent from this one which we found laying around on the property) is more than just decoration and is critical to maintain structural integrity!
Below is the finalized construction of our latest attempt to collect water from the metal roof of the barn for the sheep. It looks complicated, but the concept is quite simple and I will describe the reason for each component. Note the metal framed IBC which we bought to replace the collapsed one with no frame!
Firstly, we had to position the IBC around the corner from the downspout because that side of the barn has quite a steep slope on which it would be very difficult to position the container without digging a significant foundation. This apparently small concession to gravity necessitated using expandable, flexible pipe to pass around the corner. The next issue was that the downspout measured 2×3 inches, which is smaller than most house gutter downspouts which measure 3×4 inches. The importance of this will become clear with the next photo. But suffice it to say that we had to pass from a smaller to a larger opening. Also, we wanted to install an easily cleanable filter at a couple of points and this created an opportunity to place one between the white and brown components. The joint is supported by a metal brace, and there are wires holding it together that are loose enough to easily remove to access the filter. But why have that smaller 1 inch pipe from the side of the brown downspout?
The image below shows the reason for this interesting structure. At the opening of the 3×5 inch brown pipe is a close-fitting rubber trough with a hole through the middle. Water passing through the downspout fills the trough and exits into the small round flexible pipe that we plumbed into the center of the green lid on the IBC. The reason for the central hole is that if the IBC is filled or there is a blockage of the pipe, the water can pass through the hole and not back-up onto the roof causing leaks. The block of wood is the same thickness as the metal frame, ensuring that the trough remains horizontal and the hole stays open underneath. The slight lack of efficiency of water collection (with some water falling through the hole missing the trough) is outweighed by the peace of mind resulting from knowing that the aparatus will not cause problems upstream! This very useful aparatus (including the pipes and drill jigs to place the rubber insert into downspouts) is available from stores such as Home Depot, or can be obtained on-line. Note that this is made only for a 3×4 inch downspout, thus creating our need to expand our fitting from the original 2×3 inch downspout. Dontcha just love plumbing incompatibility issues!?
Another view from a different angle below. Note the frayed white edges of a second filter we inserted at the beginning of the flexible black pipe. The two filters are cleaned by simply removing them and shaking them out whenever we use the water to fill secondary containers to transport water to the sheep or chickens.
Finally, after a good rain, we have collected about 100 gallons of water! All we do now is attach a hose to the IBC outlet at the bottom and let gravity fill a 55 gallon drum, plumbed with a faucet and hose that we strapped into the back of the Kawasaki mule side-by-side that we can drive into the fields to fill water troughs and buckets! Note that this is from just one corner of the barn We can do the same thing to each corner downspout, potentially quadrupling our capture of life-giving water!
As we increase our flock this will become really important, since sheep will drink up to 2-3 gallons of water a day in the summer. For 150 sheep (including lambs) that adds up to almost 500 gallons a day, an amount that our house well may not be able to produce.
Today was the day to try out equipment Roy has been busy making over the fall and winter. He has built a set of yards to work the sheep, including a capture chute that has a scale built into it. Many thanks to Gibraltar Farm for the great advice on building all of this! Purchasing this equipment would cost many thousands of dollars, and this homemade version, while a little “clunky,” is perfectly adequate.
It’s time to see how much weight these girls have gained since joining us at Morning Star Meadows. Also time to boost their vaccinations, check feet and overall health.
This is the basic set up with the chute and a number of simple panels made from 2x4s that connect either with rebar or good ‘ol baling twine!
Bringing the sheep up from their pasture was easy, as the girls are quite used to us and to being moved. In fact, they will call to us when they want to go to the next pasture!
Getting them to move into the chute was quite simple. In fact we had more trouble stopping their friends from trying to double up!
Once in the chute it was simple to record their weight, give them a quick health check and administer their yearly vaccination.
Everyone gets a turn to inject a vaccine. This is the multivalent vaccine covering Clostridium perfringens types C & D and tetanus.
And finally we noticed that with all the rain we’ve been having, some of their hooves had overgrown (walking on the soft ground, not wearing them down), and they needed a bit of a pedicure before letting them back on to the pasture. It was relatively simple to catch them as they exited the chute and tip them onto their rear for a few seconds of toenail sculpting.
One of the most important aspects of feeding ruminants entirely on grass these days is variations on the theme of intensive rotational grazing. This means that the animals are moved regularly, according to some preconcieved pattern and specific timing.
But why bother? Why not just let the animals graze wherever they want, whenever they want? Because both research and experience have shown us that this will result in poor pasture utilization, overgrowth of unwanted plants that are not as palatable or nutritious (aka “weeds”), thriving parasite populations, less healthy animals, and ultimately, a low stocking rate due to all of these factors. Counterintuitively perhaps, by concentrating on “farming the grass” rather than farming the livestock, you will develop a more abundant, safe, natural, and nutritionally complete diet for your livestock and increase the health and well-being of your animals.
In the photographs below, you will observe two pastures; the “after” grazing pasture, and the new “before” grazing pasture into which the sheep have just been moved. We try to size the pastures so that the sheep move every 3-4 days, since the nematode parasites that plague many flocks take about that amount of time to develop from eggs into the infective larvae ready to be ingested. By moving them out just when the parasites are ready to infect, we can attempt to break this cycle and keep the animals healthier.
There’s always one in the flock that doesn’t quite get it!
New pasture to the left, recently visited to the right.
Close up of grazed, trodden pasture.
Another important aspect of the moving time is to “size” the pasture so that during that time, approximately half to two thirds of the grass is eaten or trodden down. This will firstly ensure that there is sufficient grazing pressure that most of the plant species are impacted and that the more palatable species are not selectively mowed down, resulting in an overgrowth of less palatable “weeds”. Secondly, the treading will mulch some of the longer stalks allowing them to break down and supplement the topsoil. In addition, the treading will help bury the seed heads helping with regrowth later in the year. Lastly, we cannot forget the natural fertilization that occurs when nutrient rich manure and urine saturate a small area while being trodden into the topsoil. A well known grass farmer and advocate of this form of grazing, Joel Salatin, equates manure with gold, going so far as to post a picture of a cow patty with a dollar bill placed in the center!
Finally, grazing so that there is still sufficient grass blade left to harness the sunlight for photosynthetic incorporation of atmospheric CO2 more quickly, allows for deeper roots and quicker regrowth, resulting in better topsoil development and much hardier, drought resistant regrowth of the sward. We will not bring the animals back onto these areas for at least 60-80 days. allowing for the death of some parasite larvae, and robust regrowth of grass with building of the topsoil in the process. For those ecology-minded folks, this process, done properly, creates a huge net carbon incorporation and builds the pasture while creating efficiencies that allows almost twice the number of animals to be grazed per acre.
The advantage of all this is that we can raise twice the animals, eliminate parasite problems without chemicals, build the pasture without fertilizers, and help save the planet (if you buy into the whole global warming due to excess carbon thing… about which we are more than a little skeptical). And as a final advantage, the sheep LOVE moving into the next verdant smorgasbord. It always gives us a kick to see them baa-ing at the gateway, as we prepare the next portion for them to move into.