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…

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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.

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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.

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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!

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!