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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
Roy then took the Mantis tiller down the row.
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:
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!!
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!
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!
We’re hoping to be harvesting this spring mix lettuce after our daughter’s wedding later this month!
Here are our early plantings of beets, carrots, chard and kohlrabi. As the plants get larger, we’ll be able to mulch them better.
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!
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!
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!