So, that long-awaited day is nearly here. At the end of this month our beautiful brood ewes and lambs will be sheared of their coats in preparation for lambing this winter. This year, we will be announcing the date (closer to the time, but roughly the last week in November) so that people can come purchase their fleeces straight off the animal. If you’re a spinner you can take your fleece with you. If you would rather buy your fleece and have it spun by a mill, we can help connect you with some local choices! We have white and a range of natural colors. Ewes and lambs. Sign up to our mailing list to be the first to find out when shearing day is happening.
Well, it was a busy winter. We were lucky not to have any snow to talk of this year, and minimal cold weather. It left time to research and purchase 2 llamas to guard our sheep. On a mild January day, my daughter and I drove up to Germantown, NY and went to a llama farm. We analyzed the llamas there on their attitude, their mother’s characteristics and their fiber and picked one silky llama (aged 9 months) that we named Hercules and one suri llama (aged 15 months) that we named Atlas. We also learned a bit more about llamas which are most curious animals for sure!
They have a 12 month gestation and only carry one llama at a time. Hercules’ mother is 24 years old and had not had a cria (baby llama) in 12 years. They didn’t even know she was pregnant until he just appeared one day! Both boys took some time to settle in and despite our friends thinking that the llamas would spit at them the boys are quite the opposite, running from most people at the beginning.
Then, February 28 our first lambs were born to Maggie. Being her 4th time lambing it was a very short labor and she didn’t follow ANY of the textbook rules! Typically sheep will separate themselves from the flock to labor and show various signs. Maggie looked a little uncomfortable and then I went back to check on her a half hour later and there were two wet lambs right next to the big outdoor hay feeder, with the rest of the flock and llamas checking them out.
Her two ram lambs were strong and stood right away (sometimes they can take as much as an hour to walk). Getting them to nurse reliably, though, took a couple hours. Within a day Maggie fully bonded to her babies and if unknown people visited her in her lambing jug (a small stall where new mom and lambs can bond and rest for a week or two) she would call her lambs next to her and stomp her feet to show her displeasure at visitors.
After two weeks we returned Maggie and her lambs back to the flock. It was worrying at first since the smaller ram was not nearly as adept as his brother at finding ‘Mom’ in the flock. And there is some ‘laying of ground rules’ among all of the sheep with this process, involving a few good head-butts between Maggie and a couple other sheep. Little Dude (as we call him) would often find Atlas and hang out with him. The llamas were immediately protective of the lambs, even protecting them from the other pregnant ewes.
Now, four weeks later, they are extremely tolerant of these boisterous boys who delight in chasing each other around the pasture, using the lounging llamas as springboards. And Little Dude still enjoys sucking on Atlas’ back hair when he is lying down. Why? I don’t know.
So, on our farm we don’t need guard animals as we are deer fenced but the sheep will leave the farm for 6 months a year to graze in larger pastures and they will need protection from the packs of coyotes that range our hills and mountains here.
We currently have three more pregnant ewes that should deliver in the next few weeks. As I write this blog post I am checking the cameras we set up in the barn to monitor the lambing. These certainly make for exciting times!
Farming, like any business, requires planning the year ahead while tending to daily tasks. The harvest is over now and we have been busy preparing for winter as well as planting garlic and cut-flower tulip crops for spring and summer. It has been a mild autumn allowing us to spread out these tasks in between cutting back perennials, cleaning up annual cutting gardens and cleaning the barn and coops one last time before winter.
The last batch of meat chickens was processed mid-November here on the farm and now we will soon place our order of chicks for springtime meat birds. The last of the egg layer chicks are now about 12 weeks old and have been moved to their winter location in the smaller brown coop as they are still too small to join the main egg-layer flock for the winter.
On this beautiful Sunday afternoon I took my camera outside to capture one of the last blissful days of autumn before winter’s sharp winds begin to descend upon us.
I have been very busy with the sheep for the last month. We are breeding our ewes this year and we leased a beautiful Romney Ram named Alex earlier in the month.
There was a chance he was infertile but we took a chance with the promise that if he turned out unable to impregnate the ewes we could swap him out for his sire (‘dad’). So, I suppose this is a good time for Sheep Breeding 101 as almost everyone who has come to the farm has asked about the strange marks on the ewes’ backs. So, here we go.
Ewes come into heat (i.e. they ovulate) every 17 days. We put a harness on the ram’s chest with a wax crayon attached. The crayons come in different colors and for different temperature ranges (so the wax doesn’t melt or conversely not mark). When the ram is released into the field with the ewes he runs around sniffing their posteriors and he can tell by scent when they are in heat. It’s a funny sight when sheep or goats sniff as they curl back their top lip and you can sometimes see their bottom teeth (they don’t have top ones) so it’s like they are kind of smiling.
The ewes will only be able to be made pregnant for anywhere from a few hours to a day. So the ram has to court the ewe and mount her, in that small time frame, usually many times. When he mounts her the crayon will mark her backside.
Fun fact for the day: Only dolphins and humans have sex for fun!
So, if the ewe is not in heat the ram will not mount her. In 17 days from the date of the first ewe to be marked we change the color of the crayon. If the ram re-marks the ewe it means he did not make her pregnant the first time. Unfortunately for Alex, he remarked the girls so we swapped him out for Timmy the day before Thanksgiving. Timmy has been a reliable ram for 4 years so we don’t have any worries now.
In the meantime, I also purchased two more ewes, Maggie and Sciuto, from Alder Brook Romneys here in Connecticut. The girls are both 4 years old and Maggie is already bred and will lamb in March before the other ewes. These girls are an exciting addition to our flock as they are natural color Romneys (as is Timmy) and they bring genetics from Tawanda Farms in California.
We are expanding our sheep flock so that we can provide local meat and fiber. Maggie will lamb in March and the rest of the ewes should lamb in late April/early May. Romneys are a great dual purpose breed providing large carcasses for food as well as a lustrous, strong fiber that comes in a range of colors from a very dark brown, through grey, oatmeal and white. The rams that are destined for the freezer will be ready at the end of November. The natural color sheep will make wonderful un-dyed yarn but also provide a wonderful base for making soft, heathered colors with the botanical dyes I use.
And as the sun sets now on this day I am working on the materials for our winter workshops, beginning January 16 with ‘So you want a cutting flower garden’. There is never a dull moment here on the farm!
The abundance of June has a way of sneaking up on you. It’s not the obvious overabundance like that of August, when you have so many tomatoes even the average home grower feels like a commercial farmer with pounds and pounds of tomatoes. No, it’s something more subtle. With a very late spring like we had, I am constantly aware that we are behind previous years. I am anxious that the sweet peas did not put on enough growth before the heat is arriving and might not reach their full potential before they are defeated by our intense heat.
And even though I just sowed the french beans two weeks ago, when I scroll through the pictures on my phone I can see just how much has been accomplished in the last few weeks and how much things have grown. The meat chickens practically look like mature hens and roosters now and 7 egg layer chicks are happily feathered out now in the barn.
From the garden we have harvested 14 pints of the most tender strawberries, an abundance of mixed green salads, enjoyed the scent of the first garden bouquets and have resumed the endless exploration of fresh herb uses. The roses are in full bloom and seem to be loving their sheep manure mulch this year. Most of the seedlings from the greenhouse are now in the ground and new seeds have been sown.
Of course there are always more seedlings than garden space so I went searching for a few more feet somewhere convenient and useable right now And it was serendipitous that I reconnected with a friend who is loving her first straw bale garden then year. I kept seeing her Facebook posts about it and finally it clicked that a straw bale garden would be an excellent use of this space I have that will not be a long-term vegetable garden space but is perfect for such a use this year. So, although late to the game, I am in the process of conditioning my bales.
For those of you not familiar with the concept of straw bale gardens, the general principal is that straw (unlike hay) is a hollow tube that holds a lot of moisture. You feed the bales with a high-nitrogen fertilizer initially (you can choose organic or not; I used Milorgonite for my nitrogen source as I didn’t want to attract our animals or excess wildlife with bone meal or feather meal. You fertilize and water over a course of 12 days in general and during that time the bacteria present in the straw feed on the nitrogen and start decomposing the straw. Once the initial heat from this dissipates you can plant your seedling plugs or seeds for whatever you are planting. I plan to try a few different types of plants just to explore this growing method.
At the end of the straw bales’ life (either one or two seasons) you have a lovely mass of biological activity and organic matter to add to your compost pile.
One of the main feature of this method is that you can start the bales really early in the season and the heat of the decomposing straw allows you to plant much sooner. And you can encapsulate this heat with a plastic tent like a little greenhouse as well. So, this will be a fun experiment.
Talking of experiments, we moved the sheep to the chicken field this month. The chickens and turkeys were actually keeping the grass down this season until a couple weeks ago. So, I decided it was time to take the sheep off their current field. It’s a good practice to rotate your sheep grazing pastures as it helps to break the parasitic worm cycle and gives the grass a chance to regrow. And this way the sheep would graze 24/7 and even getting rained on would wash out some of their extra lanolin in their fur. Win win.
Well, the sheep clearly missed their mid-day naps in the barn so they adopted one of the chicken runs as their house. It was quite a funny site but they seemed rather content.
Unfortunately they discovered how good foraging on shrubs was. We circled the shrubs and young fruit trees with 4’ hazard fencing supported by 4’ posts. This kind of protection would not work at all for goats but for sheep I thought it would be fine. They’re meant to be grazers (eating down low) and goats are browsers (eating at the middle height level). Well, it was ok for about 10 days and then Millie figured out how to just lift up the hazard fencing with her head and how to bend the metal posts by putting all of her weight on the fencing. That’s a goat move. The final straw was when she knocked off 60% of my Whitney Crabapples which was fruiting for its first year. When I discovered her mid-Crabapple destruction I managed to get the sheep set up with a run of electric fencing in a new field off the barn within minutes. And once back in the barn, the sheep resumed their demands for two meals a day of grain.
I saw a poster the other day and sadly could relate too easily. It said “I live on a funny farm, ruled by a small army that I created.” Oh well, best to admit when you are beaten. I must be off to feed the sheep their evening grain now.