Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Is It Time?

Spring is here, finally. For a few days we skipped over spring and headed straight for summer. But now we are safely back in spring. The barn is overfull of sheep. The cows are nibbling the sacrifice pasture they've wintered in to death. (A sacrifice pasture is one that will be tilled up and planted to something else, so you don't really care that it gets overgrazed and ruined.)

Speaking of ruined, we like to give the pastures a head-start on the animals. Spring growth is phenomenal, but the pastures have to be to a certain stage before you turn the animals loose on them, or they will be stunted for the season. 

This pasture is not ready yet. 


This pasture is getting close.


We will let the sheep out this Friday, April 29, at 4:30 pm. If you'd like to stop out and watch this annual rite of spring, feel free to come. We are at 13275 Blair Street in Holland, Michigan.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

You Lose Some, You Win Some

The lambs have been coming in fits and spurts. It's been a good year, but not without some losses. Where there is life, there is also death. 

About three days ago we had a burst of babies, and one lamb was not accepted by his mother. The Farmer has tried several different scenarios, including grafting this lamb onto another ewe. Sheep aren't very open to the concept of adoption. If it's not their lamb, they don't want anything to do with it.

So this little one has been a bottle lamb. The Farmer made sure it got the colostrum--the first milk--that all lambs need to live. Since then, it's been drinking lamb formula out of a garage sale baby bottle with the hole in the nipple cut a bit larger. 

This morning a yearling, a first-time mom, needed help with delivering her single stillborn lamb. The Farmer assisted with the birth, and realized that this was the perfect opportunity to graft the bottle lamb onto this young ewe. But remember, sheep aren't really open to the concept of adoption.  

He quickly took the stillborn lamb which was full of afterbirth and rubbed it all over the bottle lamb. Now the bottle lamb smelled like her newborn. But at three days old, he is spunky and full of energy--not at all like a newborn which struggles to stand at birth. So The Farmer gently tied the front legs of the bottle lamb together--not to hurt, but just to hobble. The lamb was unable to stand, and lay quietly while the ewe licked him off. The Farmer stood back, observing. 

After a while, he took the still-hobbled lamb and put it by the ewe's udder, sort of on its knees, so it could drink. It figured out the system quite quickly and had a second breakfast. The ewe allowed it. 

The next step was to untie the lamb's front legs and leave the two alone for a while. On a trip back through the barn, this is what The Farmer found:


See the wiggly tail? That is the signal for "I'm getting milk, and I'm so excited!" The red hue is the remainder of the afterbirth.

Grafting is a tricky business. You have to fool the ewe, and the timing has to be just right. We think that we had success today, and that makes the loss of the stillborn lamb a little easier to take.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Spring Brings New Life

The past few days have been rather mixed, weather-wise. Very little of our mixed weather has been pleasant. But when babies are ready, they come, even if the weather is not great. Some of us believe that babies come especially when the weather isn't great. 

This little guy was born a day before the snow. At least he had a chance to get acclimated to his new surroundings in two steps: 1) Outside world, decent weather. 2) Outside world, snowy weather.


But this little guy--calf #2--was born during the snow that came this past weekend. This picture was taken during a lull. We got more snow after this. His mama had the sense to drop him on a pile of hay, fortunately.


Since then, we've had sheep delivering lambs left and right. Fortunately for them, they are in the barn. This ewe is delivering her first lamb of the year.


And about 30 minutes later, she has finished delivering all three of her lambs.


This is a busy time for The Farmer, but he tends to clear his schedule at this time of the year. It's far too wet to do fieldwork right now, so he has nothing pulling him away from the barn.

Because I suspect there will be some people wondering, I'm going to answer a question before it's asked. Why are the cattle outside and the sheep inside? We have chosen to raise our cattle organically. National standards require that organically-raised animals have access to the outdoors every day. Our cattle are Belted Galloways, a hearty, double-coated breed that tolerates weather well. So they are outdoors all the time. If weather is truly evil, they shelter near trees or a building.

The sheep are not certified organic, though they are raised using mostly organic practices. Since they are not required to have access to the outdoors, we choose to keep them inside most of the winter and early spring. Pastures quickly turn to mud, and it's easier to keep an eye on over 100 ewes when they are in the barn.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Shearing Day Wrap-Up

Shearing Day 2016 dawned cold and with a fresh layer of snow. As we made the final preparations, we felt a misty rain begin. Not exactly what we'd hoped for--on Shearing Day we'd rather not have ice and we'd rather not have mud. But we don't get to choose the weather. The show must go on. 

We had approximately 100 pregnant ewes to shear, and this is what they looked like while they waited for their turn. 


Timothy sheared for us again this year. We hire this job out to people who are skilled at this task. He makes it look easy. Trust me. It's not.


The ewes took their turns being queued up and waiting in the chute.



We shear just before lambing for two main reasons: lamb survival and wool quality. When the lambs are born, it is cold yet in Michigan. If the ewe has her full coat on, the lamb can't benefit from the body heat of the ewe (and perhaps the ewe doesn't even think about that the lamb might be cold--she's fine!). In addition, the lambs will suck on nearly anything, and a clean-clipped ewe makes it easier for the lamb to find her udder, instead of a dirty bit of wool, which gives no milk.


As for the wool quality, pregnancy and lactation is hard on a ewe. The wool will often have a weak spot in the wool fibers where this stage of growth happens. If we clip near the end of pregnancy, the weak spot will be at the cut end of the wool, and any breakage will happen very near the end, leaving fibers 3-5" long. If the weak spot happened in the middle of the wool fiber's growth, we end up with much shorter fibers, due to the breakage. Long is better than short, when it comes to wool.


This year we had between 250-300 people attend our shearing day. Our work crew (many return each year to help) was amazing.


There were lambs to hold and lots to look at. I think most people had a good time.


If you missed it this year, no worries. We do it every year. Mark your calendars now for the first Saturday in March of 2017. See you then!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Lambing Season

I'm emerging slowly from the fog that was brought on by our biggest on-farm event of the year (Annual Shearing Day) last Saturday and Michigan's Presidential primary election three days later (my day job has to do with elections). I will blog soon about Shearing Day, but here's something to tide you over until I am more fog-free.

The Farmer has been busy for about a month with lambing. We like to have about 30 ewes deliver before our Shearing Day, for the cuteness factor. The clipboard in the foreground of this photo helps us remember who needs to be where in the jugs, seen along the wall in the background. (Side note: I don't know why the bonding pens are called jugs.) After a ewe gives birth, she and her lamb(s) are placed in a jug for a day or three. The length of time varies based on how many lambs she's had, and whether or not someone else needs the jug. 


Most of the ewes take their jobs very seriously, as evidenced by this ewe's cautious stare and the sign we chose to put up above the lambing jugs on shearing day.


Once the lambs are a couple of days old, they are very curious. This space in the jug wall is called a headgate. In the open position, it allows the ewe to reach out and eat the hay we've placed just outside the jug for her. Placing the hay outside keeps it from becoming bedding and part of the bathroom facilities. In the closed position, the headgate restrains the ewe gently and temporarily, so that we can work on her baby, or care for her, or help with a difficult delivery. 


Curious lambs have been known to hop through the open headgate and go on walkabout. This results in frantic baa-ing from the ewe, who can't follow and is calling her lamb to come back. Part of The Farmer's job is to return those lambs who are on the lam (sorry, couldn't resist), and the clipboard in the first photo helps him keep things straight.

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