Cyrano and Romeo

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!

IBC Rain barrel 2.0

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.

Spring sheep maintenance

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!

Vaccine and records ready for recording

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.

A home made sheep chute is both effective and relatively inexpensive to make

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.

Intensive Rotational Grazing

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.

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.

Deep mulch gardening 2.0

Our second year of having a hay covered garden, and we couldn’t be happier!

Last year we worked the hay in around the plants, but this year we are working the plants into the hay.  There is a bit of initial sweat labor invested in preparing the rows, but we have decided it’s well worth it, to avoid watering and weeding later this year.

We first push the hay away from the area we want to plant.  This can be done in spots for each individual plant, but we have decided to clear entire rows.  It’s so wet and wormy under each row, that it helped that we let the area dry out a little overnight before working the soil.

IMG_2323

Roy then took the Mantis tiller down the row.

IMG_2317

For our peas earlier this spring we simply pressed them into the wet soil after hoeing it up a little, and it actually worked out quite well!  Here they are:

IMG_2316

After Roy tilled the row, I was able to easily plant our cucumber seedlings.  We then gently worked the hay back over the row and carefully mulched each plant with the more decomposed and wet hay from the bottom of the hay that’s been on all winter.  Praying for no late frosts this year!!

IMG_2318                                IMG_2319

Below are our potatoes.  The first picture shows them covered.  We planted these a few days ago.  The second picture shows the uncovered potato.  They will grow under this hay as if they were under a few inches of soil.  As they grow, we will cover them with more hay, similar to “hilling” done with soil – and a lot easier!

IMG_2322                               IMG_2321

Our little garden is doing great.  Here you see the onions doing nicely, and the garlic well on its way.  We’ll be looking for garlic scapes before you know it!

IMG_2325

We’re hoping to be harvesting this spring mix lettuce after our daughter’s wedding later this month!

IMG_2326

Here are our early plantings of beets, carrots, chard and kohlrabi.  As the plants get larger, we’ll be able to mulch them better.

IMG_2328

Another success story is our rhubarb!   Fertilized with compost early this spring as they were just emerging, they have really taken off, and the deep hay around them has prevented the multitude of weeds we had last year!

IMG_2329

Hope you get to try this method of gardening too!

Time again for gardening!

Ugh!  I feel so guilty that we have not blogged for such a long time – like maybe all of winter?  But life on the farm truly does slow down from a farming point of view in those winter months.

With all that lack of activity, Roy and I finally bit the bullet and joined a gym to keep us moving through the slow winter months.  Between that and the day to day activities of raising our large family, we have been kept busy for sure – but nothing really farm-blogworthy!

We have started gardening – some indoor and some outdoor.

Our garlic from last fall has done quite well.  Our parsnips survived the winter and are providing us with a sweet spring harvest!  Onion sets are planted, and after the proverbial onion snow, have started to truly take off!

Early spring plantings of lettuce, carrots, chard, beets and kohlrabi are all in the small garden.

Last year’s compost has beautifully fertilized our rhubarb.  Planted from transplants from a friend’s heirloom patch, they are truly thriving here this year and have already budded flowers which we quickly removed to allow more energy to the stems and leaves.  Hopefully we’ll be harvesting when the strawberries are ready – they are already flowering!

We have already sampled the sprouting asparagus.  It will be a while before we harvest enough that there is some to bring up to the house.  For now it provides a wonderful snack while we’re planting!

Squash seeds have been started indoors and have exceeded our expectations — like, they are going so crazy in here that I’m afraid they’re going to have to go in the ground before I’m ready to put them there!  Hopefully there will be no late frosts!  Cucumbers, spaghetti squash, butternut, and zucchini are all  thriving, as are the watermelon!

Sun flowers were to be started today, but met with a sad fate.  Happy daughters ventured out in the fleeting sunshine today to fill cell pots with potting soil, and while turned to work on that, Mr. Finnley stole the seeds and quickly ingested the lot of them!  Guess the girls will learn a lesson.  The less couthe boys started to wonder if the seeds might sprout better in Finnley’s, ahem, “fertilizer”!

And now to why I sat down to write today before heading out to mow the lawn.  Our Ruth Stout garden practices seem to be quite successful!  Last year we mulched around all of the plants with a very thick layer of old hay from the old barn across the street.  It was a wonderful summer with little to no weeding and no watering except for newly emerging seedlings!

At the end of the growing season, we blanketed the whole garden (except the strawberries) with a thick layer of hay.  We even unrolled round bales and added old hay from the sheep’s leavings, complete with their manure.  A couple of weeks ago we opened up a row to put peas in.  I kid you not – every handful of soil beneath that composting hay was filled with 5 to 10 worms -red wigglers, nightcrawlers – TONS of worms!  THAT is how I measure the success of the Ruth Stout method!  The soil was cold and wet and rather clumpy when we tried to till it.  It was a mucky job, but we ended up getting the peas in – either pushed into the soil or covered with 1 1/2 inches of clumpy muck.  We waited to see what would happen, and happily they have sprouted!  Yesterday we planted the remaining peas.  This time we decided not to till – just to push them into the soil.  When these get tall enough, we’ll push the hay back around them!

One of the things Ruth Stout did that both impressed and intrigued us was to plant her potatoes with no tilling or soil handling whatsover.  Her book was written many years ago, so I thought by now there would be plenty of gardeners out there who have tried her technique.  We watched this video (they have quite a few wonderful instructional videos, by the way) and were convinced it was worth trying.  Ruth said that she simply put the potatoes on the ground and covered them with straw or compost of some sort – enough to cover them from sunlight.  We had quite a few sprouted potatoes left over from last year, and they are now nestled under the hay.  When they begin to rise through the hay, we will “hill” them with more hay!  When we want to check how they’re doing, we just lift the hay and peek – and even sneek a new potato or two if we wish!

Enough for now.  Time to mow.  Pennsylvania is so beautiful during the springtime – partly because of the lush green pastures!  The sheep will mow their part – and I’ll mow mine!

 

Big IS better!

This fall has been a series of experiments in how to feed the flock during the fall/winter/spring period when the grass is not growing.  Our preference is to use “stockpiled” pasture, which is uncut/ugrazed pasture, and requires no machinery to harvest, therefore consumes no diesel or gasoline, and takes no space to store.  Our main concern was – could the sheep eat through snow or ice to get at the stockpiled feed?  We were pleasantly surprised that indeed, even with six inches of snow, the sheep happily searched out the plants below, and apparently also supplied themselves with water from the snow.  But we have been also giving the sheep  some baled hay, since in very cold weather, especially when it is snowing, the sheep seek  shelter and don’t spend time grazing.  We were carrying small square bales of hay from the barn to the sheep daily to ensure that nutrition is maintained for these young, still growing ewes.

In an earlier blog, you may remember that we harvested both small square bales as well as some large round bales off the front pastures.  Small square bales only weigh about 30-40 lbs, are easy to store, but require a lot of handling and space to store under cover to prevent spoilage.  They also need to be carried out to the sheep on a daily basis.  The large round bales, on the other hand, weigh about 800-1000 lb and can be stored outside under a tarp.  Moving them can be a challenge, of course, and we covered that in an earlier blog.  But once moved out to the sheep, the question was:   Would the sheep eat from them, and how would we prevent spoilage for the 3-4 weeks they would be exposed to moisture/snow?

One thing we did was to position the bale onto a small tarp to prevent wicking up of moisture into the hay.  Once we moved the bale into position and unwrapped the mesh that was around it, we pulled off the outer 3 inches of hay that was rotted and mouldy.  This was a bit concerning because we were uncertain about how deep that bad layer was, since these bales had been left out in the field for about 2 months before we moved and covered them.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that the underlying hay was sweet and dry!  No hay went to waste, either.  The rotted hay was used to mulch the garlic bed!  Then the next issue was that snow was likely to pile up on top of the bale, dribbling down through the entire bale when the sun melted it.  We therefore devised a small “shower cap” of a tarp wrapped tightly around the top tied with baling twine (what would we do without that!).

And finally we introduced the sheep to it.  It was a bit worrying for a while since the sheep initially regarded this new “monster” in their field with grave suspicion, and we saw no activity near the bale for two days.  In fact, the first night they hunkered down in a small wary clot as far as they could from the blue headed beast.  But soon, curiosity got the better of them, and after a few tentative nibbles, they were chowing down!

We hope this will be the feeding method for the future, because after we have bred up to a flock of 100 ewes, dealing with 60 large bales will be logistically challenging, but nowhere near as big of an issue as stacking and storing the equivalent of over 3,000 small square bales!

If you give a farmer a book…

If you give a farmer a book to read on a pleasant fall day, she’s probably going to want to go outside and sit in the sun to read it, in hopes of having an afternoon of quiet nothingness.

And if she goes outside in the sunshine to enjoy that book, glancing up from time to time to admire the farm, seemingy at rest as we approach winter, she’s probably going to remember those carrots that she wanted to dig up on a day such as this.

And when she goes to dig up those lovely carrots…

IMG_0807

She’s going to see that the garlic has finally started to sprout and make a mental note that they will soon need mulched for the winter.

When she goes over to the well pump to wash the carrots, she will glance over at the big garden and remember the nice kale that has been growing over the past few weeks of nasty weather and think how nice it would be to pick some.

She will leave the carrots soaking, and go into the garden for the kale.

She will see some small kohlrabi that a critter has been chewing on and throw them to the dog, then commence picking lovely kale.

While she is picking the kale in her arms, because she doesn’t have a container (because she never planned to pick kale until she started reading that book), she will hear a strange noise coming from the distance, and realize it is one of the normally very quiet sheep and know that something is not right.

She will call out to her hubby inside for reinforcement and drop the kale and head off to find out what’s wrong with the sheep, quickly learning that Bessie has crossed over the fence, thinking the grass was greener on the other side, and now misses her flock and is calling for help.

As she goes to open a gate to bring Bessie back in with the flock, her husband will call out to say that she just squeezed through the fence on her own.

Knowing she did this with relative ease, we will both realize that the electricity must not be charging the wire.

Realizing this, hubby heads to the barn to check the problem, and also realizing that the grass IS actually greener on the other side, we both decide it is time to move the sheep to where Bessie wanted to go earlier, so the trip to the barn becomes a trip for supplies, and 30 minutes later, with fences and gate all in place, we move the sheep.

Now back to the top of the hill near the kale garden, the farmer previously involved in kale picking goes back to the garden to resume picking, albeit now 45 minutes later.

IMG_0808

Kale in her arms, she returns to the soaking carrots (Ha!  Thought I forgot them, didn’t you?) to finish cleaning them to bring them in.

AND on the way in she realizes that the garage door has been open this entire time and her crazy lab has been chewing up papers he found there and gathers them in her arms full of kale and carrots.

IMG_0809

Bringing these all into the kitchen, she sees her book – the book that was to bring her a relaxing afternoon of  nothingness – and realizes that on the farm, there is no such thing at all, but she is happy nonetheless!

Kicking the Hay Habit

As we’ve mentioned previously in our blog, our farm will be strictly forage fed (no grain), and we have a goal of stockpiling forage for feeding throughout the winter when conditions permit.

After a recent ice and snow storm, we were able to turn the ewes out on our stockpiled pasture to test all we’ve read about ruminants seeking out forage beneath the snow.  The ewes happily left their shelter pasture (where we had confined them during the storm) with available hay for feed, and sought out fresh grass and other forages beneath the snow.

A couple of days have passed, and there is still ample feed available for weeks to come.

Here they are, happily munching away at grasses, sedge grass, and weeds that are still available to them after ice and snow accumulation and subsequent melting.

They do have their favorites out there, but after observing them for a while, I was amazed at the variety of things they try as they move along – esp. the stemmy sedge grass!

IMG_0570

Catching up!

Well, its been a while since we have blogged.  When you combine the escapades of 8 children and each of their developing lives, and add in the building of an infrastructure of a farm, it can’t help but be a really busy summer and fall!  But we still try to enjoy ourselves and relax on occasion.  The picture below was taken during such a rare moment; hopefully you can feel at least a modicum of the peace and tranquility of a summer afternoon in the country.

IMG_0389

One of the things that has been consuming us this year is fencing and gates.  There are  creative solutions to both of these, and we have been discovering many alternatives.

Below you see a gate along our boundary fence where we expect challenges from predators; especially coyotes, but also possibly bears.  The gap is about 20 feet, so standard gates are a fairly expensive option.  This alternative is both cheap and effective, and very easy to make.

We took two 6 foot lengths of 2x4s and screwed in insulators along the length at an appropriate gap to insure contact with any decent sized predator. Spanning the gap with 1/2 inch electrical fencing tape completes the gate, and attachment to the adjacent electrified fence completes a pretty secure structure.  The bottom of the 2x4s slide into a wire sleeve, and tension is gained by pulling the top part tight with a piece of baling twine (after duct tape, the most essential farm material for fixing things!) around the post.  This gate is easily opened and closed after removing the electrical contact, and is a great and really affordable solution for any farm with electric fences.

IMG_3273

Our sheep are going to be entirely grass fed and grass finished.  So during spring, summer, and most of fall, it is fairly simple to rotationally graze the flock through a series of permanant and temporary fencing.  But during winter, there are a number of challenges to overcome, such as how to provide shelter.  Although our sheep will be nomads most of the year, providing them a more permanent shelter and a heated water source to prevent freezing, means that we will need to locate them closer to the house for much of the winter.

Below is a small shelter of around 80 square feet we constructed mostly of free wooden pallets (slid down over T-posts to provide a sturdy foundation) obtained from a local recycler. This simple construction only takes about half a day to put together and is completed with cheap corrugated plastic sheets for the roof and Tyvek sheathing around the outside!  This is perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing structure to grace a farm, but is is easy, cheap and fiunctional!

IMG_0081

Finally our starter sheep flock arrived in August!  We were really impressed with the folks from whom we bought these sheep.  Gibraltar Farm in New York is managed by extremely professional, caring, and giving shepherds, who taught us a lot during the time we visited their farm, and personally delivered a group of 12 ewes to us as our foundation flock.

IMG_3195

The girls (12 ewe lambs born this past spring) can be seen below enjoying the pasture on Morning Star Meadows in the late afternoon.  Lying beneath those amber waves is a large amount of feed that we have stockpiled for them to consume during the winter.

IMG_0491

Our pasture is definitely not an herbicide-sprayed monoculture of one type of pasture grass devoid of weeds, but instead consists of Orchard grass, Blue stem (a warm season grass) and Timothy, combined with clover and a variety of “weeds”, which are mostly devoured by the sheep.  The brown stemmy grass seeming to dominate this field in the photograph is the previously mentioned Blue stem, and can provide a good protein source, although is not as palatable once it goes to seed and browns off in the fall.

During the winter months, we hope to be able to continue allowing the ewes to graze this stockpiled pasture and so we have constructed a “corridor” (below) bordered by electric twine from the shelter area (note the Tyvek sheathing) and the unfrozen water source, to the field of stockpiled grass shown above.

Now we just have to run them up and down between them for a few days to help them remember the route, which is only about 80 yards away.

And finally, on a different note, our other work this summer and fall has been in the garden.  We obtained a wonderful yield of vegetables, as demonstrated by this truckload of butternut squash!  About 25 plants yielded almost 250 lb of sweet orange deliciousness!  We hope it stores well in our cool, dry basement and we will use it during the winter months for all sorts of soups and stews!

IMG_3629

Hopefully it won’t be as long before our next blog, and we can update you about our continuing adventures as we prepare for our first winter with the sheep!