The lambs are about 7 weeks old, now – give or take. They are all growing quickly, and their moms are eating and drinking plenty to try to keep up with both the hot weather and the nutritional needs of their lambs.
Every 3 days or so we move the ewes and lambs onto a brand new section of pasture adjacent to where they had been. Usually by the end of day 2 or definitely on day 3, we can’t walk past them without them loudly voicing their desire to be moved. Oftentimes it is too early to be moved, but they tell us anyway! As you know, the grass is always greener on the other side!
In the first video, they are still in the mob grazed section. They have definitely mowed it down well, eating weeds and grasses, and leaving mostly fibrous stems of the flowering parts of the grasses. When they see us with the UTV starting to move the fence into the next area, they know moving to the new area is imminent, and they get particularly vocal about it!
It brings a shepherd an element of joy to wake up on moving day – especially this Italian shepherd who loves to feed people (and sheep!) We know that the sheep will go to a nice clean and nutritious location for the next few days – no internal parasites and plenty of nutritious forage! Thought you might like to have a snapshot of what makes us happy!
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!
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.
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 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…
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!