Blog (Prior to 2015)

This section of our website includes a copy of blogs written between the fall of 2009 and the end of 2014.  With the change of blogging format in December, 2014, many of the photos once included with these entries were lost. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014 What a crowd!

The health and well-being of our flock is always important, but never more-so than during gestation, beginning during breeding in the fall and extending to nearly April 1 when our last ewes deliver their lambs. Each ewe is pregnant for about 150 days, towards the end of which she can carry up to about 45 pounds of lambs plus lots of fluid and other supporting tissues. It is amazing how much some of these ewes carry!

During this period, the nutrition our ewes receive is reflected not only in the health of the ewes, but eventually also in the lambs they produce. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “You are what you eat.” Well, our sheep, too, are a reflection of what they eat and the nutrition they get through the year, particularly during gestation.

The first trimester, during the tail end of breeding and the period just after, is an important time for good nutrition because this is the time when all of the support structures for the pregnancy are laid in. Good nutrition means good placental growth – and it also makes sure the needed building blocks are present for those early systems to form (including  brain growth and the rest of the central nervous system, for example). The ewes don’t need much more than their maintenance ration – but this is not a time to reduce their intake or feed poor-quality hay. We usually let them continue to graze our fields and also provide high-quality hay in the barns. That way, as the pastures drop in nutrition after the ground freezes, they have another source of feed available.

The second trimester brings much differentiation in the cells of the fetus, and the various body systems are formed. By the beginning of the second trimester, most of the primary wool follicles are in place – these are the coarser fibers in the fleece. The groundwork for the lateral and secondary follicles is laid between days 60 and 100, encompassing most of the second trimester. This means that poor nutrition during this time can reduce the number of these finer-fiber producing follicles, producing less wool and coarser wool for the rest of its lifetime. In order for a sheep to produce the quantity and quality of wool that it is genetically programmed to produce, all of these genetically programmed follicles must be present – and that means that good nutrition is essential during this critical time, and then again in the months after birth when these follicles mature.

70% of fetal growth occurs in the last trimester, from days 100-150. If the ewe is carrying large twins or triplets (or more!), her rumen or fermentation stomach takes up less and less space as her future lambs make their explosive growth. The bottom line is that she can no longer easily eat enough hay to meet both her own needs and those of her lambs, so this is the time to consider more nutrient-rich feeds like a grain blend. If a ewe begins to burn her own internal fat in order to supply the needed calories, she can develop pregnancy toxemia (ketosis) and a good outcome becomes unlikely for both the ewe and her lambs.

As part of our feeding regimen, we provide our high nutrition group (those ewe lambs who are bred and those adults carrying triplets or more) with alfalfa hay during about the last half of their pregnancies and start them on a high-energy grain blend during about the last trimester. In addition, every year beginning at about the start of the new year, we put out a protein block (that is 18% protein) that they can access freely until their lambs are weaned in late spring. I put one of those blocks out in this year’s high nutrition group yesterday, and the crush of sheep to get to it was unbelievable!

Sheep crowd around the newly-placed protein block, Dec. 2014

Sheep crowd around the newly-placed protein block, Dec. 2014

I know from experience that the ewes really like the protein block when it goes out each year – but this year’s reaction surprised me a bit. Not only did the ewes crowd around the block, but they were crawling over each other, trying to get to it – something that hasn’t been quite so obvious before. As I thought about it, I suspect that it might be due to the fact that, this year, our first third or so of the alfalfa hay is a mixed grass/alfalfa blend rather than straight alfalfa. We use alfalfa because it is higher in protein, so this year’s bales to date have been lower in protein than our usual ration at this time of year. We are just about to start in on the pure alfalfa bales for the rest of the season.

I can’t help but wonder whether the crush this year to get to the protein block reflects the lower protein levels they have gotten so far in their hay and their desire to raise those levels via the block. I don’t know. What I do know is that the ewes in the high nutrition group spent about an hour yesterday eating bits off the block in two tiers: the bigger, adult ewes carrying three or four fetuses, ate standing while the bred ewe lambs (soon to be yearlings) crawled under them and ate from between their legs. I’m not sure how long this two-tier system lasted, but I checked back a couple of times, so it went on for a while! Thankfully, by today, the crush has ended and things seem to be back to normal!

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 29, 2014 A new look

This new look has been nearly a whole year in coming. First came the decision to switch hosting companies to one with a friendlier blogging format. Then came months of trying to figure out how to use the new system. By November, I was beginning to panic, since my New Year’s resolution had been to get the new website started up and the end of the year was no longer very far off. I finally found a local company to get me started with all of the set-up, which took a huge weight off of me. Finally, we would have the new hosting company with a better blogging format!

That’s when the folks doing the computer work suggested a new look for the new site, and although I had no idea what I had just agreed to, I went for it. A few weeks later, I got an email including the new look – and I loved it! I sent a couple of sheep photos of girls in our flock, and like magic, they appeared at the top of the page! The hardest part of the whole change-over was trying to decide how to include the old blog entries. I’ve heard from several people that they still find them useful, so we decided to include them as a separate tab. Please note, however, that the photos that were once included with the postings did not transfer, so there are no photos there. If there is something in particular that you need, just email me and I’ll see what I can do.

After getting the site all set up came a very steep learning curve, and now here we are, new site in place and the very first blog being posted. Since we are not yet quite into 2015, I will include these last couple of blog entries in both places: both in the pre-2015 pages and the current blog pages.  After Wednesday’s posting, all blog entries will be found only in the current  blog pages – I can’t wait!

Yesterday, I was out among the sheep for the first time since all of our holiday company had left. It was really the first time I had spent much time at all in the barn, so I took a good look around and made sure that nothing was amiss. As I was filling the hay feeders, I noticed that Harmony and Hannah, both white Romneys, were busy with what looked to me like “Girl talk.” Now, I know that it is very easy to push our human traits onto sheep, so I looked again. Harmony seriously looked like she was whispering into Hannah’s ear. Her mouth was right up against Hannah’s left ear and her mouth was moving. I literally laughed out loud, watching the two of them turn in my direction  with Harmony still “talking” to Hannah. As I got closer, I realized what it was all about. Hannah had been standing under the hay chute when I threw down the three bales of grass hay. Obviously, some of the hay had fallen onto Hannah’s head – and specifically the area around her ear. Harmony was not whispering to Hannah – no, she was actually eating the hay that Hannah had trapped on the top and left side of her head! So much for a whispering party between the two friends!

I hope you like the new look – and now that the blog will actually accept comments, I look forward to hearing from you!

Friday, December 19, 2014 Hungry ewes

Every morning as I exit the back door, my ewes are lined up at the fence calling me. “We’re so hungry!” they shout. “We need hay!” “Hurry! The feeders have been empty for a while!”

I’ve heard all of their complaints before. Every year, we get to the point where they are totally dependent on the hay we dole out into their feeders, and honestly, it’s never enough. Never. Feeding the sheep is much like feeding a child: I am responsible for not only their happiness, but also their health and well-being. As a result, I need to provide just enough of the right food – not too much nor too little, not too rich with nutrients nor too empty. It is a delicate balance, and the ewes never think I have hit the mark. To them, I always fall short.

It didn’t always work that way, though. When I got my first three sheep, I made them happy. I bought high-nutrition alfalfa hay and fed them all they could eat. I bought the best grain and sprinkled it out each and every day. There was no crying by my sheep as I walked by. The sheep were sated and happy each day, making me happy to provide. Aah, the good old days.

The problem was that when it came time to shear, my shearer made fun of my fat, roly-poly sheep. Once the wool was sheared off, you could see the rolls of fat atop the tail head, along the sides behind the front legs, and pretty much everywhere else. They were beyond fat – they were obese. Really obese! Because they were bred, I couldn’t just cut back. Doing so during pregnancy risks both the ewe and her unborn lambs. Eventually, after the lambs were born, nutrition had to be kept high for milk production – and then after that, they were grazing. No, it wasn’t until the next fall that I cut back on their feed – and looked forward to shearing to see if I had cut back enough.

The sheep made their way through that fall with few complaints. They were still fairly happy, munching on their alfalfa hay – but I did cut out the sprinkling of grain. I decided to only grain them after the lambs came, and provided alfalfa until then – lots of it. The shearer came again just before lambing, and once again laughed at my sheep: they were still way too fat. Their fat rolls were definitely smaller, but still there. I knew I had to cut back more.

And so it went, year after year, cutting back on both the quantity and the quality of the hay until I finally found a ration that met their needs without impacting their health. Fat ewes are less fertile. They have difficulty carrying and delivering their lambs, and, like fat humans, can have a host of health problems. If my ewes are fat, that is on me – I’m the one who feeds them. It is up to me to provide just what they need and no more – and that is why my ewes complain. They know I am the source of their food – and if I feed them just what they need, as far as they are concerned, it is never enough!

The flock has been divided into a high nutrition group, consisting of bred ewe lambs and adults carrying triplets (or more), and a low nutrition group that includes all the rest of the ewes, for the time being. They are separated because they have different needs due to their different situations. Over the next months, the girls in the high nutrition group will not be able to hold as much nutrition as they will need. They are carrying more lambs than their bodies can easily hold and still have room for the feed needed to keep them going. For this reason, they are on a high level of nutrition that, with time, will become more nutrient dense: more calories and protein in a smaller package. Once they deliver their lambs, this is no longer an issue, but until then, keeping them and their unborn lambs fed is a constant challenge.

The low nutrition group currently includes all of the ewes who carry singles and twins, and also those who are not bred (or, in sheep terms, are open). When I first began to feed out hay, the sheep had been getting an average of 3.8 pounds of grass hay per ewe each day – just about what a ewe requires when not bred. During the first and second trimester, there is little increase required, so although I swelled their allotment to 4.5 pounds per ewe over the past few weeks, their complaints fell on deaf ears. We don’t need fat sheep!

Now that we are nearing the last trimester for those ewes bred early in the season, this morning I opened up an area with an extra feeder and gave them an extra bale of grass. This has now increased their ration to about five pounds of grass hay per day – the ration they will get until we shear them two weeks before the first lambs are due. At that point, the bred ewes will join the high nutrition group and make a switch to alfalfa hay, still getting about five pounds per day per ewe. The increase in nutrition is necessary to prevent health issues. Regardless of how fat or thin a ewe might be, in the last trimester, a shepherd must increase the ration the ewes receive – otherwise the flock is at risk of pregnancy toxemia, risking both the adults and their unborn lambs.

In theory, this all sounds very good and scientific. In practice, the ewes are still shouting. Like children at a birthday party, they want more – always more. They are convinced that without another bale or two of hay, they will starve – and they make sure I know it.

Yes, being a good shepherd is about happy sheep – but this does not mean always doing what your sheep ask. It is about giving them what they need for a long and productive life, with an occasional treat that isn’t enough to ruin their well-being. It is about looking ahead and avoiding long-term pitfalls that they cannot know. It is caring enough to do what is hard because it is what is right for the flock. They are my friends, but they are also my responsibility – one that I take very seriously. Sorry, girls.

Please note that there will be no blog postings during the week of December 22 while we host Christmas for a houseful of out-of-state family. By Monday, December 29th, I will return with not only more stories from Peeper Hollow Farm, but also a whole new look for our website and a much more user-friendly blogging format. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I already do! Have a great week and a lovely holiday celebration, and I hope you check back on the 29th!

12:30 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, December 17, 2014 Ultrasounding

Many shepherds would consider ultrasounding of their gestating ewes an unnecessary extravagance, but to me, it is a critical part of our management. Not only do I know which ewes are bred (and will therefore need more feed as their gestations progress), but I have an idea of how many lambs each carries and a confirmation of the due dates I collected during our breeding season. The information we get is invaluable – at only $3 per ewe, I hate to imagine doing it any other way!

This year’s data included a few surprises. We usually see several of our ewe lambs (born the previous spring) bred in the fall, but this year, every one of our Romeldale/CVM lambs is bred – and even one of the Romney girls is carrying lambs! That Romney ewe lamb, named Noble, is carrying twins! All of the ewe lambs have been moved down to the Sheep Barn and are happily munching on alfalfa in what is now the high nutrition group.

These young girls have several older ewes joining them. Any of the ewes who scanned with triplets were also moved down into this group. Ilaina, Hope, and Ivy all scanned with three fetuses, so they are providing the adult supervision for this sub-flock. Ilaina may actually be carrying a bigger surprise, since the ultrasound tech told us to watch for a possible fourth lamb from her! If true, it would be only the second time we’ve had quads here at Peeper Hollow Farm.

I also brought January down to the group after remembering that last year she scanned with only two lambs and yet delivered three. Since she again scanned with twins this year, I started to have my doubts – so I enticed her out of the other group with a bucket of grain and walked her down to the Sheep Barn where she joined the other girls with triplets. I would rather overfeed than underfeed, so I felt a bit better about her there – we will see if I made the right move when her due date comes!

webassets/Natasha_face_2014.jpgAnother surprise from our scanning is little Natasha (in photo), a darker moorit Romeldale/CVM ewe lamb who scanned with twins. I had my doubts whether she would breed at all, since she is still fairly small – weighing only 86 pounds in September when we divided up the breeding groups. Since Natasha is  carrying more than the typical single that most of our lambs carry, I will be keeping a close watch on her to ensure she gets enough nutrition.

Overall, we are pleased with the results. I did find that my Romney boy, Nash, was too young to do his job early on in the breeding season. Although he eventually did get the hang of things, many of his girls were left open – and that is a disappointment. He will get another chance next fall, but in the meantime, I will have to watch the open girls to prevent them from getting fat.

Oh, and speaking of fat ewes, our girl Fern finally got bred this year – she is carrying a single! You may recall that she has been open for the past two years. I considered culling her last spring, but since I noticed that she was with the same ram both years, I thought it might have been the ram – perhaps he just didn’t like her. I gave her this year with a different ram, and sure enough, she is bred! Fern will be with us for some time yet – good news for Fern and for our flock! Hopefully she will slim down a bit with this pregnancy and then be ready to give us twins next year!

Now that scanning is finished, we can turn our focus to the holidays. It won’t be long before we are shearing and then preparing for lambing once again. Time begins to move more quickly now, as we become more and more busy – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I still have plenty of holiday prep to finish before our guests arrive!

10:27 am | link          Comments Monday, December 15, 2014 More on Norris

Only hours after I posted Friday’s blog, I got the following email from a fellow Romney breeder:
Dee – I just read your blog about Norris. One thing that immediately came to mind is that you and your helper were both female. The previous owner was male. It may be that Norris will treat males differently than females, especially around ewes in heat or someone who exhibits nervous behavior. Just a thought.
This was actually quite a good thought – and one I had already considered. Unfortunately, in my attempts to keep the blog short enough for public consumption, I often have to abbreviate the story and keep only the facts needed for a coherent explanation. My friend, however, made a good point – a point interesting enough to describe here.
Norris, like any living creature, is both a reflection of his genetics and the result of his interaction with his environment. It was possible that Norris might have had some interaction with a man at some point that had led him to feel differently about men than women. We have several rams in our flock who feel strongly about men not coming into their breeding groups during breeding season. They are fine with me or other women entering the pasture, but they can sense the testosterone of men and see them as “competition” – competition they don’t appreciate. Norris was among his breeding group of ewes the entire time he was at his previous home.
This fact raised two sex-related possibilities – possibilities that my fellow Romney breeder also recognized. One was that Norris might have seen his male owner as competition for his ewes and didn’t like that. It was possible that he expressed his displeasure by giving the man a hard time. The other possibility is that his dislike was not at all related to the presence of his ewes. He might dislike men due to some unknown previous interaction. In fact, it also might be that he just disliked this one man, again based on a previous interaction. When I picked Norris up on Thursday, I was considering all of these possibilities.
When I arrived home and Norris was so easy to manage, I was left with only a handful of explanations for his behavior – but that handful included all of these sex-linked possibilities. As a result, I put my husband Rick to work.
Rick is not really a farm-type person. He works in an office in town and helps me with the sheep when I need it – but he is not a natural when it comes to working with animals. This is something he has had to learn as we evolved. He seemed like the perfect person to test my young Norris, so when Rick came home on Thursday afternoon, I asked sweetly whether he would please go up to “check on the new ram” and perhaps look over the fencing, etc. Basically, I wanted him to go into the enclosure with Norris to see what would happen.
Rick’s report was enlightening: nothing happened. Norris was sweet and respectful, moving back as Rick approached, yet curious enough to hang back at a distance to watch what he was doing. Rick saw no aggression at all – nothing. This left me with the idea that Norris reacted either because a male approached Norris’s breeding group or Norris had a problem with his new owner in particular. And then one final possibility came to mind.
On Wednesday, October 15th, I wrote about selling most of a small flock that had gone wandering – and Norris was a part of that group. Somehow they had gotten through the fence and gone for a walk, eventually turning up at a neighbor’s property. I think this could actually be the cause for what his former owner saw as aggression.
The “aggressive” behavior that his owner observed could have been Norris continually ramming at the gate and fences. Sheep are creatures of habit. Once they figure out that they can escape, they are convinced that if the fence opened up one time, it will do so again. My suspicion is that Norris had found a way out at his new farm one time and then began to ram at the fences in hope that he could take his girls for another walk. What his owner saw as “aggression” was, in reality, single-mindedness. Norris had escaped before and figured that he could do it again. Norris may have just wanted to get out and explore.
Once I got him here, that ramming behavior stopped. Our gates are strong and our fences secure. Norris knows this from living here previously. There is nothing to be had by ramming at the environment here, so he doesn’t. It is very simple – but is this the final answer to my puzzle? I don’t know. I won’t know until I hear back from the man who saw his behavior firsthand – and that has yet to happen.

10:30 am | link          Comments Friday, December 12, 2014 Aggressive rams and Norris returns

I got a call on Wednesday morning from a recent customer. He had bought a small flock of three adult ewes and a single young ram lamb, Norris, in August. He was sorry to tell me that Norris wasn’t working out. The ram lamb had “turned mean” and I needed to come and pick him up. He was “very aggressive” and was just “so out of control.” I promised to come and pick him up as soon as possible – the next day, even. Mean rams are nothing to play around with. This was serious – and totally unexpected. I apologized and quickly adjusted my plans for Thursday.

Rams can go bad for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they can be genetically programmed to be aggressive. We breed for calm temperament and watch all of our rams closely, so this is seldom an issue with any of our boys. Having said that, it can still pop up from time to time, and we do guarantee our rams to be sweet-tempered, so we will make it right. Unfortunately, the only place for a mean ram is the meat market – they are a serious liability in any other setting. A mean ram is a very dangerous creature.

webassets/broken_fence_2014.jpgYet, even perfectly sweet-tempered rams can become mean for other reasons. We always warn our customers that as much as they may love their rams, they should generally ignore them. Small little ram lambs can be cute, but the more friendly they become with humans, the more likely they are to become mean as adults. No matter how much I explain this to new shepherds, I know it seems counter-intuitive and they often disregard my warnings. There is a tendency to want to “welcome home” the new ram, giving him treats, going for walks with him and generally being his friend. The problem is that this is exactly the behavior that teaches the ram that he has his new owner all figured out – that he can do whatever he wants and come out on top. After a year, I hear how wonderful this ram is, eating out of their hands and coming up for petting. Little do they know what is ultimately coming. Those little rams change as they mature.webassets/broken_fence_post_2014.jpg

It usually takes a couple of years – sometimes three. By two to three years of age, suddenly that sweet ram who ate from their hands decides that he is now in charge, that he will go where he wants and do what he wants. He often weighs in excess of 300 pounds and can do serious damage to both his environment and the people in it. (See the attached photos of the damage done by the adult ram of a friend as he tried to get out of his pen earlier this year.) This type of “mean” behavior can be prevented – but prevention starts on the first day a ram arrives at his new home. Rams turn out best when they are housed with a friend (either another ram or a castrated male called a wether) and essentially ignored except for the obvious essentials: food, water, salt, and health care. I always warn that if you must touch your ram, scratch him under the chin. At least this way he will approach with head held high – not with a lowered head, ready to ram you.

So when I got this call about Norris, I had to wonder what had gone wrong. He had been a sweet flock member (and a determined breeder!) here on our farm, yet now, after only four months or less at his new home, it didn’t sound good – not at all. Had he been dealt some aggressive genetics that we hadn’t noticed in his early life? Had he been treated too kindly and had already decided, at this young age, that he was in charge of his new farm? In fact, things were so bad that he wasn’t even at his new farm – I was to pick him up at the neighbor’s farm where they had “stronger pens.”

I honestly had no idea what to expect when I took a non-shepherd friend with me to pick him up yesterday. Norris was too heavy to load alone, so I had enlisted her help. I had warned my friend to beware – that dangerous rams were not to be toyed with. I told her I would somehow get him to the truck on my own to limit her exposure. Based on the call I had gotten, I had visions of the sheep version of a raging bull constantly on my mind as we drove over. I just couldn’t imagine!

When we arrived at the address, I saw all four sheep of the flock: the three girls and Norris stood at the gate and watched us drive in. No one else was around – the place was quiet and seemingly deserted. My friend and I walked over to the gate with a bucket of grain (enticement never hurts!), and I began to talk to the group in my typical ‘sheep voice,’ hoping Norris would recognize me – and he did. In a very short time, he seemed both at ease and curious about what we had for him in the bucket. I carefully unlatched the gate.

In short order, Norris walked through the slightly opened gate to the bucket my friend shook, and I caught him, holding him in place while she both latched the gate and got into lifting position. Norris did not swing his head (typical aggressive behavior) nor struggle. He stood respectfully as we jockeyed into position to load him. When we were ready, we lifted him onto the tailgate and he walked easily into the crate in the bed of the truck. The whole process was smooth, simple, and quick. I began to wonder what had happened to his previously described aggressive behavior. He truly seemed just like the boy I had sold and dropped off a few months ago.

I drove the forty or so minutes home with Norris in the crate. In the past, when I have had to transport rams, some will smash at the crate in anger or pace back and forth once they are penned. Norris did none of this. He was obviously afraid and alone, far from home; he stood and called out looking for a flock, but did nothing more.

When we arrived home, I pulled the truck up to the ram paddock where our young rams will spend the winter. There were five rams there to welcome him, but before he could enter, I had to change his coat. He had outgrown it in the months at his previous home. I opened the crate and let him out onto the tailgate where I held him with one hand and changed his coat with the other. He could easily have gotten away; he was 140 pounds of muscle being held in place by my weaker left arm (I am right-handed). I was certainly no match for what he could dish out, but he patiently stood there for me while I worked.

When I finished, I let him jump down to the ground, where he went over to the welcoming committee of young rams trying to smell him between the boards of the fence. When I was ready, I called him to the gate and we both went through, the other ram lambs gathering around to see who I had brought into their midst.

Throughout the entire transfer, I never saw Norris behave in anything but a respectful manner. When Marcus (the new yearling brought in during September) decided to ram at this newcomer for a bit, Norris simply sidestepped or ran. He never lowered his head or hit back. So now I had a puzzle on my hands. What had he done at the previous farm?

Norris was just as calm and respectful this morning while I fed the ram group as he was yesterday when he arrived. It is possible that I may see more aggression from him as he settles in during the coming days. I’ve sent an email to the man who bought Norris to try to figure out what went wrong there. Only then can I determine Norris’s fate. Until then, he has joined our winter ram lamb group, where he spends his days munching hay, cudding, and cavorting with “the guys.” Until I hear back from the recent owner, I’ll keep wondering what this ram lamb could possibly have done that got him into so much trouble.

1:18 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, December 10, 2014 Who will step forward?

Zoe has now been gone for a couple of months. I pass her grave every time I visit the sheep in the Timber or walk the dogs, and we chat a bit: how the flock is doing, how she would have hated the cold, and how much the flock’s lambs miss her. She may be gone, but she is not forgotten – not by me and not by the flock.

I know that when I say that she is missed by the flock, there are many of you who wonder how I can know that. Although I joke around with Rick about the fact that my sheep friends within the flock talk to me, there is a bit of truth to that. They don’t talk with words, but they speak volumes through their behavior. When it comes to Zoe, she is obviously missed.

Zoe wasn’t born here. I purchased her in a flock dissolution in 2006 when she was seven years old. At first she was just another of our Romneys; she didn’t stand out at all among the group of girls we brought in that year. It was only as time passed that I realized the gem I had in that girl. She outlived and outlasted all the others and eventually became the matriarch of our flock – and unquestionably so. It was obvious in the behavior of the other adult ewes of both breeds, and it was even more obvious in her behavior among the year’s new lambs. She always mothered the lambs, no matter who they belonged to or how they were doing. They were all “hers” and they were well mothered.

As the years passed, I came to depend on Zoe for this care. When we weaned our lambs, I put her among the babes to calm their fears. Surely with Zoe looking after them, showing them all the best grazing spots and playing with them on the manure pile, this weaning thing couldn’t be so very bad – could it? Although the mothers would cry in their barn, their babies would happily play king-of-the-mountain on the rock pile and sleep under the stars in the Timber, with Zoe and their llama, Martin, carefully watching over them.

Now that Zoe is gone, the position of flock matriarch is open, and I am on constant lookout to see who will fill it. A sheep flock is a matriarchal society since the rams are usually housed separately from the ewe flock. Eventually, it seems, some wise soul finds herself pushed to the top, becoming the matriarch by right of age or wisdom or, more commonly, a combination of both. I am watching for that to happen in our flock, and it hasn’t yet.

There are a few obvious contenders. Among our oldest ewes are Fern (a colored Romney), Grace (Zoe’s oldest daughter), and Gabby (our oldest Romeldale/CVM) – but the position isn’t a result of only age. It is a decision by that ewe to actually lead the flock and the ability to make good decisions in that role. I haven’t yet seen Fern or Grace step forward in that manner, and Gabby’s role has been very limited.

On the other hand, the current flock leaders don’t seem to have the respect of the entire flock. I often see Ivy, Koko, and Kaylen leading the way as the flock moves from place to place, so they may yet earn the position. But none of them seems to lead more than any of the others, and their role as matriarch will require more than merely moving the flock from place to place.

A lot will become obvious as this spring’s lambs arrive. Will any of these ewes show an interest in the welfare of the flock as a whole? Will one of the ewes of the flock naturally progress into a leadership role for not only her breed or her own kind (as our sheep often split off by color and breed) but for the entire flock? This is what Zoe brought to the flock, and this is a trait that cannot be taught – either it is there or it isn’t.

So for the time being, I wait, I watch, and I wonder who will step forward. There are so many possibilities. It could be almost any of them. But it takes a special ewe to lead a flock. In Iceland, they have found that within the Icelandic breed there is a subspecies of “leadership sheep” – about one of every hundred or so – who, when the time is right, step forward to lead the flock. In our flock, the time is now. They, too, wait and watch to see who will step forward to fill the void that Zoe’s passing has left. She has left big hoofprints to fill, but I know one of our girls is up to the challenge. But who will it be?

7:17 pm | link          Comments Monday, December 8, 2014 A maze of hay

Each fall, I estimate the amount of hay our livestock will require for the winter. We buy both grass hay for early gestation and alfalfa hay for later in the season, storing each in its own area based on where we will feed it out. The grass hay is stored in the loft of the storage barn and fed out in the lean-to attached to that building, while the alfalfa is stored along one side of the main body of the new sheep barn. Since the ewes don’t get the alfalfa until nearly all the grass is gone, we store it down where they will spend their time later in the season as lambing approaches.

So right now, all of the sheep are eating grass hay up around the storage barn. Once we ultrasound our ewes this Sunday, that may change, but for the past many weeks, they’ve all been on grass. Each morning I make my way up the ladder of the storage barn to the west end of the loft. Many years ago, Rick built a chute – essentially a hole in the floor – that allows me to drop hay from the loft into the north stall of the barn. Every day, I drop the day’s bales down the chute and then climb down the ladder to dole out the bales into the feeders, sheep crowding around me as I go.

webassets/View_from_ladder_2014.jpgWhen we first began feeding hay out of that barn in early November, the aisle from the ladder to the chute was very narrow and twisted – only about eight inches wide with lumpy sidewalls that required me to bend and stretch as I walked. I would turn sideways and slide my way through until I could finally get to the chute and drop the hay. Trying to maneuver fifty-pound bales from their original location and into the chute was quite a trick back then. There was little room for elbows and shoulders while trying to turn the bale and angle it into the chute, and I had to be very careful not to fall into the mouth of the chute myself. The whole thing was very tight and had a dark maze-like feel to it (see the view from the ladder with the aisle turning to the left nearly hidden in the photo, left).

This packing of hay into our loft isn’t unusual. We always load our loft with very little space to move for two reasons: we need a lot of hay to get through the winter (and there is nowhere else to put it but the loft) and it is eaten at a relatively fast rate, so I know it won’t be too crowded for long. We pack it in, and then when the ewes begin to eat hay, I work to clear the aisles first, making space as each day’s allotment is sent down the chute.

Originally when the loft was loaded with hay in late summer, every wall of hay reached the roof trusses, and the narrow aisle sometimes required that I bend a bit here or tuck a little there. When I pulled out the first bales, my goal was to use bales that were in my way as I moved about. Those that stuck out or made me bend in Gumby fashion as I walked were quickly thrown down the chute. At four bales each day, the aisle opened up and the stacks were less high. In very short order, there was room to move.webassets/Cats_in_loft_2014.jpg

When I left for Curacao, the area around the chute had opened up substantially. I could effortlessly walk down the aisle to the chute and turn easily, swinging my elbows out and squaring my shoulders to move the heavy bales. I had lowered the top of many of the piles, too, making it easier to see and feed the resident cats (photo on right). The whole west end was less claustrophobic and more open, losing the maze-like feel that it had when we first began feeding out hay in the fall.

webassets/West_end_of_loft_2014.jpgOf course, our farm help had continued to feed out hay during our absence, and when I returned I was surprised to find that the whole west end of the loft had opened up. I know I should have realized this would be the case, but walking into the area around the chute was no longer like walking down an aisle with low stacks of hay – it was more like walking into an open room with a few hay bales scattered about (see the view coming up the aisle in photo on the left, with the chute barely visible below the window)! What a change from the first day!

From this point on, moving the grass hay to the chute becomes easier and easier. There is no more trying to move bales down narrow twisting aisles – now, the bales are carried across cleared spaces in a big open room. Before long, that big room will include the top of the ladder, which is still currently surrounded by hay as seen in that first photo. It is hard to imagine now, but in another six or seven weeks, the remaining grass hay will be nearly gone, leaving the loft empty – a big open playground for our resident cats. And it all began as a tight maze of hay – 35,000 pounds of it – to feed our sheep for the first half of the winter season.

1:35 pm | link          Comments Friday, December 5, 2014 The mystery of the earth worms

I had an interesting conversation yesterday evening with my good shepherdess friend, Melissa. We were discussing internal parasites, and I mentioned that I had been having a worm issue for many years – although it wasn’t really about internal parasites, nor was it really a parasite problem, but it did have to do with worms. It was a mystery I have been trying to solve, quite unsuccessfully. This caught her attention and she asked me what the issue was. As I explained my mystery in detail, we decided that I should perhaps write about it here in case anyone is able to shed some light on the issue – so here it is.

Our sheep drink from automatic waterers all through the year whenever they are up near the barns. The ewe waterer is made up of an eight-foot concrete culvert buried vertically into the ground so that the widest end (the end with the flare that would connect to the next piece of pipe) comes above ground about 18″ or so. If you look into the top of the waterer, you see a bowl which fills with water. When you remove the bowl, you can look all the way down the eight feet of culvert to the soil at the bottom of the pit, seeing the water line running to the base of the pit where it angles off towards the house.

Every summer when we have a heavy rainstorm, I often find earthworms in the bowl of this waterer. This is a bit puzzling since I cannot figure out how these earthworms find their way into the bowl. This has been happening for a number of years – perhaps six or seven – and I have been contemplating how this happens for all those years. I can only see a limited number of options.

First, it could be that the worms crawl up on the inside of the concrete pipe – but to do so, they would have to crawl up eight feet of vertical concrete and then jump into the bowl from the top lip. The space between the metal siding of the waterer in the culvert, the top of the lid, and the bowl is so tight, I can’t imagine that this would be possible – so I eventually eliminated this option. I’m also not sure that worms can crawl up a vertical surface, much less eight feet of it. And finally, I don’t think that earthworms live eight feet below the ground – and they would have to come from that depth to get into the inside of the concrete pipe. One theory down, three to go.

webassets/Waterer_in_culvert_2014.jpgThe next option is that the worms are crawling up the 18″ outside of the culvert, crawling up over the outside of the waterer, and dropping into the bowl. In order to do this, they would have to hold on against the force of gravity for about 4″ where the concrete flares out at the top. Although I have much faith in the earth’s population of earthworms, I very much doubt that they can stick to a surface, holding on against the force of gravity as they crawl. For this reason, I again eliminated this second option. The problem is that now we’re left with, to my mind, even less likely scenarios.

The third premise is that they are coming down with the rain. I know this sounds improbable, but I have read stories of tadpoles raining down in thunderstorms; the eggs evaporated with the water and were held aloft until they hatched, dropping little tadpoles down with the torrential rain. The problem is that this doesn’t seem like something that would happen often – and our worms appear in the waterer bowl several times each summer. Also, they are BIG worms, not tiny ones. As a result, I don’t think the earthworms are raining from the sky and landing in the bowl, where the water breaks their fall. It seems improbable, at best. That leaves me with only one other option. webassets/Top_of_waterer_2014.jpg

The only way I can think that these earthworms appear in the watering bowl is that one of my sheep happens to play a game of gathering them up in the field and dropping them into the bowl. Yes, one of the sheep. Why they would do this, I have no idea – but the facts fit. I first noticed the worms in the bowl several years ago, which was not in the first years of our having the flock. If this were a natural phenomenon, it would have been occurring from the start – but it seems to have begun perhaps six years ago – which might be a clue as to the age of the culprit. The earthworms only appear in the bowl after a heavy rain that forces them out of the earth, where they can be easily found and the sheep could get them. I only find them in the bowl if the ewes have access to the waterer. When the sheep are in other, more distant pastures with other water tanks, this particular bowl remains free of worms.

So I am left with the crazy thought that one or more of my sheep is catching earthworms, carrying them in her mouth for some distance, and then dropping them into the water bowl where they drown – and doing this several times each summer. Why would she do this? What does she get from this odd activity? I don’t know. I can’t even convince myself that this is what is happening.

webassets/Waterer_open_2014.jpgI’m attaching photos of the waterer from a distance (above, left), the top view as it fills with water (above, right) and the inside of the waterer with the lid and bowl removed (left). I tried to get a photo of the inside of the waterer looking down the depth of the culvert without much luck (not enough light), but it is a straight shot down for eight feet – you don’t want to drop anything down there! I’m hoping that with the photos and descriptions, someone will email me with a more reasonable solution to the mystery. There has to be another answer. This option just seems too crazy to be true – doesn’t it?

In the meantime, Melissa and I will likely continue to chuckle over the mental image we now have of one of my ewes carefully carrying earthworms in her mouth across the pasture and up into the paddock by the barn where she deposits them gently in the watering bowl. They are never chewed or injured – but they are always dead from drowning. Believe me, I’ve checked! Seriously, doesn’t this mystery make you wonder?

11:50 am | link          Comments Wednesday, December 3, 2014 Back home

Rick and I arrived back home after dark yesterday evening from ten days in the Caribbean. I was, of course, eager to check in with the flock, even though our farm help had already finished the chores for the day. I knew I would not see the usual happy greeting from my sheepy friends; it was after dark and they were used to strangers coming to feed for the past many days. There was no way they could be sure it was me, so although I went up to check on them all, the welcome was tepid to say the least.

Before we left in November, I had closed off most of the pastures so that our farm help could easily check on the flock from one vantage point. Most of the remaining grazing was in those more distant closed-off pastures, so this morning I headed out to the flock to open things back up. Admittedly, this time the greeting was much more enthusiastic!

As I ventured out toward the flock, the girls were grazing the already eaten-down West Pasture. As I came through the gate, the entire flock began to run toward me, already recognizing my outline and gait. I felt the familiar trembling of the ground as nearly two hundred sheep’s hooves pounded the frozen earth, moving the flock of ewes in my direction. What a wonderful greeting!

Of course, my close friends all came forward to welcome me home, looking for a chin rub or an ear scratch. Kali and Ivy came first, nearly always at the head of the line, looking for treats. It is not that they are so very eager to see me, but they know I often carry a limited number of good things to eat, and they never want to come so late as to miss a tasty morsel. Koko, Gabby, Harmony, Kaylen, and Lisbeth all came by to check in. And Janaury always seems to bring up the rear. She has inherited her mother’s round figure, and it takes her awhile to make her way, carrying that big belly that’s likely already swelling with lambs!

This time I carried no food, but as I walked through the gathering flock, they knew my intention. As soon as I finished the meet-and-greet, we began to move toward the gate to the Timber, and they began to run. More food was on its way, and they knew it!

The grass in the timber doesn’t look like much. It has been frozen and snowed on. It has gone from a lush green to a sad yellowish brown. To most people, it wouldn’t look like anything that sheep might want to eat – it seems long past its peak of nutrition. The sheep, on the other hand, are happy to have the new space opened to them. They walk out twice each day to graze: once in the mid-morning when the sun has warmed the air a bit, and then again in the late afternoon before the sun sets. In between, they come back to the paddock to recline, cud and digest among friends – the sheep version of the Mexican siesta.

Our sheep have plenty of hay in the lean-to to fulfill their grazing needs – they really don’t need the grass in the Timber. On the other hand, sheep like to forage and graze. They like to stand in a field with their flock and pick up tasty bits with their nimble lips and grass-ripping teeth. Even if the grass is no longer lush and green, it still carries some nutrition – and it can certainly be considered “roughage.” Sheep need a certain amount of roughage every day, and standing out in the field, nibbling at the grass is an ideal way to get that. They love it!

So, now back in the house, I find myself often looking out of our west windows toward the Timber Pasture (see photo), checking on the sheep. As wonderful as it was to spend ten days in the sun and warmth of the Caribbean, I must admit that I am a farm girl through and through. I loved the vacation, but I also very much love being back home and all that entails. Every time I leave, it becomes more obvious to me that although it is fun to be away, there is truly no place like home and nothing better than the flock that welcomes me back.

webassets/sheep_grazing_timber_2014_web.jpg

2:38 pm | link          Comments Monday, December 1, 2014 Getting away

Trying to get away when you are responsible for a flock of sheep is never an easy thing. When Rick and I schedule a trip off the farm for more than a day, we have to find someone to tend the sheep. The biggest issue is that there just aren’t many people who know how to care for sheep anymore. The height of the sheep industry in the US came in the 1940s, when there were 56 million sheep across the country. Now we have barely 6 million, and the numbers keep dropping each year. In the 1800s there were states that averaged a half dozen or more sheep per person, so nearly everyone either had sheep or knew someone who did. Unlike today, few people at that time could say they knew nothing about sheep!

We have an entirely different situation now. Most of the volunteer help on our farm comes from school-age kids who, before they came here, had never seen sheep other than in children’s books. The farm kids who come to help enjoy learning about an animal with which they would otherwise have little contact (Iowa raises mostly hogs and cattle, with some chickens and turkeys here and there, but not so many sheep – particularly in the eastern half where we live!). On the other hand, the city kids who help us out from time to time like learning about livestock in general – something they typically haven’t done – and really appreciate the gentle nature of sheep. Depending on the time of year, tending the sheep can be as simple as looking them over daily and opening a gate to fresh pasture once a week, or as complicated as providing all of their food and water and delivering lambs 24/7. The latter situation requires an experienced shepherd, so we very rarely leave during lambing. In fact, our best travel times come either during mid to late summer when the lambs are older and many have already left for their new homes, or during October through December, when breeding season has ended but the ewes are not yet in the last trimester of their pregnancies. When we travel, we always leave a long letter detailing everything that needs to be done and when. I leave copies of the letter in each barn and in the garage, just in case. It contains not only the routine chores, but also descriptions of what to look for when checking over the flock, a list of things that can go wrong (and how to fix them), and a list of contact numbers for help if needed. In general, I feel like the more I can write down for our help, the less they have to remember. They just need to follow the printed instructions, and everything should go smoothly. Trying to get away over a holiday adds an extra complication: most of our farm help also wants to travel and visit family during those times. As a result, we often have trouble finding a single person able and willing to care for our flock. In recent years when this has been an issue, we’ve worked with several of our young volunteers to try to cover the period. If that doesn’t work, I look through our waiting list for next spring’s lambs; there is often someone who is relatively local and interested in picking up some experience with sheep before they have their own. For our vacation over Thanksgiving last week, we used a bit of both: one of our regular helpers came each day through most of our trip, but for the couple of days leading up to the holiday and for the Thanksgiving holiday itself, we found a couple of future shepherdesses to fill in. Between the three of them, they covered our ten-day trip with few issues. Thankfully, making arrangements to be away from our farm isn’t as impossible as it may seem. Even better, when we return we feel rejuvenated and happy to be home. Although everyone needs some time away, for me the best part of any trip is always returning home to the welcome of the flock and the company of my close sheepy friends!

12:27 pm | link          Comments Monday, November 29, 2010 Munching, munching…

It never ceases to amaze me how particular sheep can be about what they eat.  I guess maybe I feel that way because no one in my family is a particularly picky eater – perhaps if one of my kids had been so, I would be more used to the concept. During this time of year, with the sheep having full access to our acreage, they have a lot of plants to choose from.  If they get bored with their normal pastureland plantlife, they can choose from any of the trees or grapes in our orchard.  If the orchard becomes old hat, they can move on to the north and east sides of the house with its shade plants and raspberry beds.  And when that doesn’t hit the spot, they can sample the more sun-loving plants on the south and west sides of the house.  Since they have full run of the place, they end up sampling all different plants that they may not have tried in the past, and the results are sometimes quite funny – at least to me! Now, keep in mind that all of the plants that they are sampling are obviously now dead.  The frost long ago either killed them or sent them into their dormant period to wait out the winter.  What is left, however, can still be quite nutritious for sheep, whose four-stomach digestive system can produce animal protein from plant proteins, thanks to the millions of bacteria and micro-organisms that populate their digestion.  It may look like crumbling leaves and flowers to us, but the sheep obviously see something similar to a buffet table, loaded for their consumption! So it’s always interesting to me how they pick and choose….  Dusty Miller (an annual in this part of the country) is obviously not a sheep favorite.  Around each Dusty Miller plant in my pots or flower beds are mouth-sized bitten-off leaves that were sampled by members of my flock and found lacking – bitten and spit out within moments of sampling. The grape and raspberry leaves are a big favorite, however, as is the creeping phlox (a perennial).  In fact, the creeping phlox is such a hit with my sheep that I may not have any blooms come spring!  They have so decimated the plants that it may take a year or two for the plants to recover from their stripping.  Each time the sheep come to the front of the house, I see crowds around the creeping phlox – almost a tea party for sheep, with all the chewing and “sharing” going on! The sheep have also found the evergreens to their liking.  We have a windrow of white pine to the west of the house that our sheep have never touched in past years.  You may recall, however, that I gave them our Christmas tree last January to see if they might enjoy eating a bit of evergreen (see archives from Friday, Jan. 8th, 2010).  It took them a while to decide that they liked the Christmas tree, but having decided that it was tasty back in January allowed them to devour the lower three feet of our pine wind-row in just a couple of days!  The lower branches are all but picked clean now.  I have to admit that I’m happy that we had decided to limb up the trees a bit in the coming spring for easier mowing – otherwise, I don’t think I’d be too happy with the result! So, like most of us, sheep have preferences about what they eat…and who they eat with.  They are more likely to sample a plant if they see another sheep eating it.  Like our children, they are also more likely to resist eating something another sheep has turned down.  Although I have shepherded this flock for over ten years now, I have to admit that knowing which plants my sheep will and won’t like is still a mystery to me – one that I have just a bit of insight into during this week as they munch away at my trees, vines, bushes, and flowering plants.

9:57 am | link          Comments Friday, November 26, 2010 Sharing space

My sheep are learning to share their space.  Since I have opened all of the gates and allowed the sheep and llamas free rein to graze anywhere on the property, we have had to work out some issues.  The sheep, of course, are looking for the best grazing – which happens to be just about anywhere that they don’t normally go during the summer grazing months.  Those areas, however, are usually the places that our border collies consider “their” turf.  The lawn and orchard are prime grazing right now, but also the places that we normally think of as safe to run the dogs – not so anymore!So, we’ve had to figure out how to make this work….  Over the past couple of days, the sheep have begun to figure out our schedule.  They have come to realize that they may graze where they would like until about nine in the morning, when the dogs go out for their run – by that time, the sheep have all made their way back up to the paddock by the barn.  Shortly after the dogs return to the house for their mid-day snooze, the sheep can be seen making their way back down to the orchard and front lawn.  They stay there for the majority of the day until three or so, when the dogs are back out for their afternoon romp.  I’m not sure how the sheep determine the time, but by the time I’m ready to take the dogs out, the sheep are back up by the barn.  Shortly after the dogs come back in, the sheep are back out – and so it goes through the evening, with the sheep and dogs sharing the space that they now both desire. I suppose I should clarify – the dogs don’t really desire the space we’re talking about.  It’s just that they know from experience that this is the only space that I will allow for them.  The other spaces are usually filled with sheep and I don’t want the dogs to think that they can run willy-nilly among the sheep without my direction.  The only space that they are normally allowed to run on their own is the area up around the house – the area that the sheep have now invaded. So it seems that we have reached a nice level of sharing the space.  If the dogs run out when there are sheep in the area – which is rare anymore – the dogs wait while the sheep move back up to the barn.  Most of the time, this isn’t an issue: the sheep are usually long gone when the dogs come out.  Sometimes, it amazes me how smoothly things happen to work out….

2:58 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, November 24, 2010 Wandering sheep

Today is the first day of a really interesting week….  At the end of each grazing season (read, “right now”), we open all of the gates on our acreage, close the gate to the road, and let the ewes graze wherever they may wander.  It is the last of the last of the grass: there is no grass left in the pastures, but there is still a bit at the ‘edges’.  There is a fringe around the house, around the edges of the pastures, around the pond, and bordering the driveway.  It isn’t much, but it’s enough to feed my ewes for a few days – maybe a week. I have plenty of hay for the ewes at this point, but I see no reason to feed them hay if there is still grass for them to find.  They much prefer grass to hay, and it is likely more nutritious than the first-cutting grass that I have for them now.  Opening the gates saves us money on hay, but it does also cause some issues.  The sheep can now walk right up to my front porch.  They can eat our fruit trees and grape vines.  They have free access to the entire farm, so letting the dogs out becomes a bit of an issue. The good thing about it is that the sheep aren’t normally in these areas throughout the year, so they are a bit nervous there now.  If they see me driving in or out, or see the dogs come out of the house, they tend to run back to their paddock by the barn – a place that they feel safe and “at-home.”  For the next few days, it will take a bit of coordinating with the dogs and the sheep to make sure we don’t have a chasing situation develop.  Even so, allowing the sheep out to enjoy the last of the grass is a good thing.  It usually happens earlier in the fall, but we have been fortunate this year – the grass held out over a month later than we usually anticipate, saving us hundreds of bales of hay. So as we celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, we will have a lot to be thankful for: home, family, friends, good health, and many other things.  This year, among those many other things, we will remember to add our flock of sheep and the remainder of the grass that has lasted so far into the fall.  For that, I think even the sheep are grateful.

2:56 pm | link          Comments Monday, November 22, 2010 “I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10:14)

Sheep are interesting creatures.  They have a reputation for being dumb, but anyone who works with them knows that they are smart about the things that they need to be smart about.  You might say that they don’t waste their smarts. A study reported in National Geographic in 2001 showed that sheep can recognize up to fifty faces of other sheep, like flockmates, and can remember them for up to two years after they last saw them!  Having seen photos of sheep, they can picture them from the profile.  Other studies have shown that sheep not only know their shepherd, but recognize the faces and voices of their shepherd and/or previous flockmates for years after they have moved to another flock.  I can’t say that this surprises me.  In working with our sheep, it is obvious that they know me and that they know many of the other people who come into and out of their lives…. There are about five people besides me who work regularly with our sheep.  My husband, Rick, is probably with the sheep nearly as much as I am – at least during certain times of year.  It is interesting, however, that the sheep don’t respond the same way to him as they do to me….  Rick usually ends up out there with the sheep when there is a task to be done and I can’t do it alone.  It may be changing a coat on a big ewe or cleaning the bedding from the barn, but usually he is there for a specific task, and he doesn’t mess around.  Rick is pretty focused. Sheep don’t much like tasks.  They much prefer it when I work alone with them.  I usually feed (read this as “bring food”) or count ewes or lambs, or clean salt feeders, or generally take care of tasks that don’t involve handling them, but which result in something positive for the sheep.  The bottom line is that they like me.  I can walk from one point to another right through the flock and if I don’t make eye contact except with the ewes who come to greet me, they will stay where they are and continue to graze as I walk by.  This is not the case with Rick or any of our other helpers. flock_grazing.jpg Last week, I watched as Rick walked through the flock from the tractor to a pile of fencing that he needed to load  into the tractor bucket.  As he began his slow walk through the flock towards the fencing, the first ewes that he encountered began to part and run on either side of him.  Those ewes started others near them running and within a few seconds, all of the flock was split into two halves: those what were originally grazing to the right of his path, and those that were on the left.  Both groups were crowded into the corners of the pasture, waiting for him to complete his task and leave. Their response to our other five helpers is even worse.  My sheep know that when these people come, it is likely going to be a busy day of sheep handling….  Usually, we bring in help if we are deworming, ultrasounding, changing coats, etc.  One look at our help and the sheep run as far away as they can get.  Even if these friends carry grain buckets with them into the pasture, they cannot get the sheep over their prejudice – my sheep want nothing to do with them! Well, I can’t say that I mind though.  As it says in the Bible: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10:14).  There is something spiritual and comfortable in that fact.  There is something mutual and trust-based in this relationship that I have with my sheep: they trust me to provide for them and not hurt them, and I trust them to help provide for me (with their fleeces, etc.) and not injure me in the process.  Although, like any relationship, it doesn’t always work ideally, the spirit of the relationship is there.

10:14 am | link          Comments Friday, November 19, 2010 A Chance update and a Coda surprise

Regular readers may recall from my Wednesday, Nov. 3rd, blog that Chance began having unexplained seizures last month.  Although we had called the vet after the first one, the second one found Chance in their exam room for a full work-up to try to find the cause.  Although neither our vet nor I expected anything unusual to show up, we were surprised to find that his thyroid levels were borderline low – not out of the “normal” range, but nearly so. Our vet suggested we try him on thyroid medicine and see how it goes….Chance_2008_web.jpgWell, I am happy to report that Chance (left) is doing very well on his new medicine: no new seizures and lots of positive behavioral changes!  Suddenly, our “lab disguised as a border collie” is more border collie than ever before!  Chance has always been the odd one out: Lisa and Coda had energy to spare, while Chance spent most of his time watching them have fun.  He had the desire to work, but was more likely to be napping than chasing a ball or frisbee.  Now with his new medicine, his favorite game is keep-away: he will steal the toy that the other two are playing with and run like the dickens to prevent them from taking it back.  How different things are now that he has more energy!  I’m not sure Lisa and Coda are as pleased with the results as I am, but they’ll get used to it! So, this got me thinking….  Coda is Chance’s uncle: Coda’s sister is Chance’s mother.  For his entire six years of life, Coda has always “overheated” quickly when working or playing.  He has great desire to work the sheep and will do so when asked, but within minutes he looks exhausted.  Even when he plays with Lisa, within minutes you can see that he wants to keep playing, but his body is getting tired.  He will fight through that exhaustion to fulfill his genetic programming as a herder, but you can tell that he’s often struggling against a body that doesn’t cooperate. As I drove Coda (below, right) to the vet yesterday for his routine vaccine booster shots, Coda_2008_web.jpgI started wondering if perhaps his thyroid levels were also borderline low….  Perhaps the exhaustion we see each time he works is actually the same problem that we saw in Chance but exhibiting different symptoms.  By the time I got to the vet’s, I was convinced that we should at least test Coda to see where his thyroid levels were.  The test was not cheap, but the cost of not testing and continuing to work an exhausted dog seemed worse.
They drew the blood for testing and the results came in today. Just as I expected, Coda’s thyroid levels were exactly what Chance’s were – borderline low.  We decided to also start Coda on thyroid medication to raise his levels and see how he responds.  If he becomes hyperactive, drinks or eats excessively, etc., we’ll then  know that a low level is the norm for him and that raising those levels does him more harm than good.  On the other hand, this just may resolve Coda’s exhaustion when working, and allow him to more easily do what his ancestors have done so well over the ages: help us slow human beings to move and keep sheep.  After all, even he knows that’s exactly what he is genetically programmed to do….

1:20 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, November 17, 2010 Bringing such joy

I mentioned last week that because of a shortage of alfalfa hay this year, our adult ewes are being fed first-cutting grass hay during this stage of early gestation.  To be honest, they don’t much like it – it’s too stemmy and coarse for their tastes.  That means that, although there are four bales of hay always available for them to munch on, they spend most of their time out in the pastures – kind of like seek-and-destroy missiles locked onto the last remaining green grass of the season.Although the hay this time of year is stemmy, there are good leafy bits throughout, and I want to make sure they realize that.  Eventually the grass in the pastures will run out, and they will have to make the transition to the grass hay in the shelters, like it or not – it will be a matter of survival.  To encourage them to search through the bales, each morning I sprinkle two pounds of grain across the four bales.  It isn’t much for thirty-two ewes, but it’s enough to make them wonder if they won’t find a piece if they spend a bit of time looking.  And this isn’t just any grain – it’s covered in lots of molasses, and sheep just love the sweet taste of molasses! I’ve been doing this for about a week now, and they have begun to figure out my routine.  It’s quite obvious that llamas are either more intelligent than sheep or just more stomach-driven, because they figured out the new routine days ago….  By the time I have the grain weighed out, the llamas are already hanging around the hay feeders, waiting.  When I close the gate to the paddock as I come into the area to spread my grain among the feeders, the sheep perk up in their pastures and begin to walk towards the barn.  If I look out towards them as I am sprinkling the grain (careful not to let the three llamas plant themselves face-first into my bucket of grain!), I can see them picking up speed, running towards the barn at top speed and calling all the way. Once they arrive, I am already finished sprinkling, and they all crowd into the shelter attached to the barn where the hay feeders are stationed.  All thirty-two ewes crowd into this small twelve by twenty-three foot area, shoulder to shoulder, in hopes of finding a gem or two of molasses-covered corn.  I make sure to stand back and let them in – I have no intention of being bowled over by mobbing sheep!  I have to admit, however, that even though I have more chores to do, I find myself standing there every morning, watching my girls search for ‘sheep-gold’ in the hay, nibbling this bit of grass and that weed as they go.  There is something ultimately satisfying about bringing such simple joy to so many of God’s creatures….

9:50 am | link          Comments Monday, November 15, 2010 An ‘impolite’ ram

This weekend was my first without the back brace, and it felt wonderful!  I got the OK the week before, but I knew that it would take time to wean myself off of the support that the brace provided.  My intent, originally, was to continue to wear it while among the sheep, where I might get jostled.  Over the week, though, I realized that my balance was better without the brace, so by Friday I was pretty much brace-free – both among the sheep and elsewhere.I am currently feeding my sheep only grain because the hay is still too heavy for me to lift (Rick takes care of that).  The bred ewe lambs get about a pound a day each, about half in the morning and the other half in the evening, for a total of about ten pounds per day.  The rams and the adult ewes get about two pounds for each group – less than a fifth of a pound for each ram and nearly a microscopic amount per ewe, but we sprinkle it over their hay, encouraging them to nibble not only the grain, but also any tasty bits of hay they may run across while searching. My usual route has been to take all three buckets with me each morning: two pounds for the ewes, then two pounds for the rams, and finally about five pounds for the bred ewe lambs (and Zoe), in that order.  Unfortunately, this weekend, my routine changed…. I had just come from sprinkling the hay feeders of the adult ewes with their two pounds of grain when I entered the ram enclosure.  All of the rams were milling around, of course, knowing I carried grain – and also knowing from experience that my next stop was the enclosure next door: the ewe lambs and Zoe.  As I picked my way across the uneven and muddy ground, I did what I always tell new sheep owners to never do: I was concentrating more on my path than on the rams around me.  This was the recipe for disaster, and it  was only a matter of time…. As I picked my way to the shelter to pour out their grain, Fagin_face_2010.jpgI suddenly felt a hard hit to my right hip, which drove me straight to the ground on my right knee.  Experience told me that it wouldn’t be long before whichever ram had hit me made another run to finish me off – I had to get up, and fast!  I turned around to try to see how long I had to get up – and took a swing at Fagin with my bucket!  The darn ram had hit me – again! You may recall that he nailed me last January in the shelter as I dropped my spoon while filling the salt feeder (see blog archives from Monday, January 25, 2010).  Over the past year, I had worked on retraining him and thought I had been fairly successful.  I was so angry that he had nailed me again – angry at him for even thinking that he could, and angry at myself for losing track of where he was.  I should have seen it coming! The thing that really surprised me was that he didn’t come back for a second run.  Usually when a ram rams you, it’s only the beginning.  Once they decide to have at you, you’d better get up fast because usually the second run is only seconds behind, and then a third, perhaps more.  In this case, after the first hit, Fagin just meandered away – almost bored! So for the time being, no more feeding rams for me!  Unable to move most of the weekend because of back pain, my physical therapy had to be put on hold until today when I could finally move a bit.  For the time being, Rick will be feeding the rams – at least until I feel confident about my balance and don’t lose myself in watching where I step.  Hopefully, in the meantime, Rick will continue to work on teaching Fagin that regardless of the fact that there are ewe lambs cycling in the next pen, he may not ram the human that feeds them!  I can only hope….

4:10 pm | link          Comments Friday, November 12, 2010 Ultrasounding for two?

When we pull the rams out of the breeding groups, I usually call our ultrasound tech with the date.  That way, she knows that we will be ready to have our ewes ultrasounded beginning the next month on the same date – since the rams need to be ‘out’ for 30 days before she comes to ultrasound our ewes.  Unfortunately, last weekend was a busy one, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I finally got around to calling Carol Dodge (of Ewe Count ‘Em in Eau Claire, WI) to let her know we would be ready in early December. As we got to talking, I realized that she was going to be driving within just a few miles of our farm later in the day, and it gave me an idea….  You may recall that I bought two very thin ewes in August: Fiona (previously called Sophie) and Indira (see blog archives dated August 20, 25, and 30, 2010).  When we sheared them at the end of August, both seemed to have been bred; but once I was back from the hospital in late September and early October, they looked much less pregnant than they had when I left.  It occurred to me that it sure would be helpful to know whether we should be expecting lambs from them this fall, or whether they had aborted or absorbed their pregnancies months ago – which is what I suspected. I mentioned to Carol that if there was any way she could squeeze two more ewes into her schedule, I had two who we had been waiting and waiting for….  Perhaps she could stop by to check them out. I must say that Carol is a trooper!  She scans thousands of ewes each year and her schedule would be a nightmare to anyone else – yet she had no problem stopping by for my two ewes on her way north to Minnesota last night!  She warned me that it would likely not be early in the evening, and then gave me a call at about seven that she was about a half an hour from our place…. I had rounded Fiona and Indira up earlier in the day, just after talking to Carol around lunchtime.  The girls had to be kept from eating hay for about six to eight hours before the ultrasound, so I built a small pen right in their paddock and enticed them in with a bit of grain about noon.  By the time Carol drove up in her pick-up truck at about seven-thirty, we were ready to go: Rick had run extension cords and lights up to the pen so that we could see what we were doing now that it gets dark so early! The actual ultrasound took less time than the preparation (as is the norm, I suppose).  It took Carol a few minutes to get all of her equipment up and running, and then about one minute to scan the two ewes.  We did determine that somewhere along the way, they had lost their lambs and both are now “open” in shepherd’s terms – “not pregnant” to lay people.  Because they are still a bit thin (although not nearly as thin as they once were), we decided to leave them open for this year rather than exposing them to a ram in the coming weeks.  This way, they will put on a bit more weight this winter as they eat the “bred ewe” ration along with the other ewes, and they will then be ready for breeding next fall.  I would rather have them healthy and then bred, rather than bred and then eventually healthy…. So, many, many thanks to Carol for going out of her way for such a short visit to confirm what we already suspected.  It does give me some relief that I’m not totally crazy — yet!  The rest of the ewes will have to wait for their ultrasounds until December – at which time we will get a good idea of how many lambs we will likely be expecting in spring.  Because we no longer are worrying about imminent lambs from Fiona and Indira, they have been turned out onto the acreage to join the ewe flock and graze wherever they can find grass – and then eat hay at the barn when they can’t.  I have to admit that they seemed pretty happy when we set them free into the pastures last night!

9:15 am | link          Comments Wednesday, November 10, 2010 Pumpkins and Sheep

We have long been believers in “Waste not, want not,” and that philosophy also covers our work with the sheep.  Over the years, we have sometimes become creative in feeding our sheep.  They always have grass or hay available, but we try to also feed them in-season crops, or things we may have left over from various holidays.  You may recall our experiment last January when we tried feeding our Christmas tree to the sheep – and they loved it! (see archive from Friday, Jan. 8, 2010)  Well, today was pumpkin day for the girls….  I had three pumpkins left from Halloween (uncarved), so I decided it was time to feed them to the sheep! many_ewes_on_pumpkin.jpgI tried doing this last year, too, and it was relatively successful.  I basically take each pumpkin into one of the pastures, one at a time, and then smash them onto a relatively clean spot on the ground, leaving it in pieces with the inner flesh face-up.  Last year, I noticed that only the Romeldales were interested in checking out the pumpkins at first.  I find that they are the more adventurous breed, and they readily tasted their new snack.  Eventually, some of the Romneys decided to take a taste – they were not about to let those Romeldales have all the good stuff!  So I wondered whether any of the Romneys would remember this year that they had enjoyed the pumpkins last year, or whether we would have to begin the whole process over again…. Well, I was surprised to see that the Romney girls Genoa_with_pumpkin.jpgwho had tried the pumpkins last year were some of the first to run up and grab a taste again this year!  Even as I walked into the pasture, I already had a following of sheep, looking to see what I was carrying.  I hardly had the first pumpkin cracked open when I was overrun by these sheep and more trying to get a mouthful!  After I had finished smashing two pumpkins for the adult ewes and the other one for the ewe lambs (who are in a separate area with Zoe and Jake), I grabbed the camera and got a few shots, which you can see scattered through this blog. ewes_with_pumpkin.jpgOver the year, we have fed Christmas tree, yard bush and tree trimmings, carrots, apples, pears, and pumpkins to our sheep.  We never feed them so much of any new item that they would get sick from the fast switch to a new food – just enough so that they get a taste of something new that may supply trace nutrients from a different source.  Besides that, it’s just a lot of fun to bring a treat to friends….

10:28 am | link          Comments Monday, November 8, 2010 Hay vs. Straw

There was a time when we were not sheep people….  In fact, I knew nothing about any type of “livestock” when we moved to our acreage!  Rick had grown up in the city of Detroit (MI) and I grew up in the suburbs around Detroit – like most of you, neither of us knew anything about owning a farm when we first moved in. Eventually, we decided to buy a few sheep, and once those sheep moved into our barn, we realized that we would need to feed them over the winter.  We were told that we needed hay.  I got the number of a “hay guy” and called to buy some hay.  That’s when I learned that not all hay is the same….. The first thing that he asked me was what kind of hay I wanted….  I had no idea that hay came in different flavors (so to speak)!  It turns out that you can make hay out of just about anything that is green and leafy: alfalfa, grass, and pretty much any grain crop, if you cut it before it goes to seed.  I had no idea of all this, so I went back to my books to read more.  I eventually bought a little grass hay for the fall and winter, and then alfalfa hay for later in gestation (from Jan 1 to spring).  Alfalfa hay usually has more protein than grass hay, so it is better for sheep when they are building muscle or lambs, and the grass hay is great for average sheep – or sheep in very early gestation. This year, we couldn’t get any alfalfa hay….  First_cutting_hay.jpgThe weird weather that we had this past spring killed off a lot of the alfalfa fields in the area, so we ended up with grass hay – but not all grass hay is created equal.  In the spring, grass grows very quickly, and ends up being more stemmy than leafy.  This is called first-cutting grass hay, and the sheep really don’t care for it much.  They will eat it, though, and it is good enough to keep them full during early gestation – like now – so we ended up buying some of it to feed out until the end of December.  I took a photo of the first-cutting grass hay that we got this weekend – you can see it at right. Second_cutting_hay.jpgEarlier this year, we loaded our barn full of second-cutting grass hay that was baled in the early fall last year.  It is just what it sounds like – the second time the grass got tall enough to cut, they made second-cutting hay out of it.  This hay is leafier and much finer – less stalky.  The sheep love this stuff, and will gobble it up much faster than they should!  In fact, we ration it based on the number of ewes and the weight of those ewes so that they don’t get overly fat on it.  The photo on the left shows what the second-cutting hay looks like – much greener than the first cutting. And then there is the straw….  Most of the helpersStraw.jpg we get on the farm are not farm people – they just like to come out to the farm to help out every once in a while.  It usually takes several visits before they can remember the difference between hay, which sheep eat, and straw, which they dirty and pee on.  Straw is often made from oats or another grain crop once the heads of grain have been cut off and harvested – you will see few, if any, seed heads in the photo at right.  The rest of the stalk is then cut as straw and sold for bedding animals.  This year, we will need about 1500 bales of hay (combination of first- and second-cutting grass), but only about 150 bales of straw.  The more time the sheep spend out in the pastures, the less straw we need, so we encourage them to wander the property when the weather is decent to save us some money. So now if anyone asks you about the difference between hay and straw, you’ll have some idea what they are talking about.  In fact, if you ever decide to buy a couple of sheep to replace your lawn mower, you even know enough to buy them hay for the winter!  You sure would be a lot better off than the first time I called for hay…!

3:55 pm | link          Comments Friday, November 5, 2010 End of breeding….

We’ve made it through this year’s breeding season in pretty good shape….  According to markings from the rams’ harnesses, all of the adult ewes have been bred and some re-bred during their second cycle.  All of the ewe lambs have been bred during this last cycle except Jareau, which is just fine by me – she is a bit too small right now to think about having lambs in just a few months.  I would rather get a little size on her before we think about going there! All of this sounds really good, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the ewes are actually bred….  It does mean that most of them are pregnant – exactly which ones and how many lambs we are expecting will have to wait for the ultrasounding in a month or so – sometime before Christmas.  At this point, we only know that the crayon on the ram’s harness left an obvious mark on each of the ewes – we know he mounted her but nothing more. I have gotten some questions during this Josiah_and_Goliath_in_harnesses.jpgbreeding season about the harness and, since tomorrow I’ll be elbow-deep in eight marking harnesses and lots of soapy water in the washtub, I thought I’d try to give you a better idea of what this harness looks like and how it works.  The design of the harness is such that there is a waist-strap that clips around the middle of the ram.  In the center of the waist strap is attached a felt-backed plastic rectangle that holds a rectangular piece of crayon, about 2.5×5″ in size.  The crayon can be changed out to different colors.  We usually begin with yellow and move through orange, red, blue, and then end up at green. The top of the crayon then has two straps – one for each shoulder of the ram.  We run the straps up and over the shoulder, and then clip it to its mating piece, which hangs off of the waist strap.  Once it is correctly in place, the shoulder straps cross each other over the ram’s upper back, giving us a handy “handle” for catching rams, at least during this part of the year. marking_harness.jpgI took a picture of the marking harness that Geoffrey wore – it can be seen to the left, complete with green crayon.  I then took apicture of two rams wearing their harnesses (above) so that you could see how they fit.  On the young guys, like Josiah in the front, the extra straps end up getting tied into a bunch on their backs; the older, bigger rams, like Goliath in the background, don’t have this issue. The whole idea is to get that big piece of crayon to lie between the ram’s front legs so that when he mounts the ewe, the crayon rubs against her rump, leaving a big blot of color.  You can see in the photo below that the ewe on the far right is marked in red, and the younger one on the far left is marked later in blue.  The system of crayon marking during breeding works well enough that, along with the ultrasounding, we usually have each ewe’s due date within +2 days – which is pretty darn good! So, while you are going about your business tomorrow,two_marked_ewes.jpg enjoying the weekend and catching up from the week, you can think about us – we will be pulling the rams out of their breeding groups, taking off their harnesses for the year, putting all the ewes together, and then I will get to wash all the harnesses in the washtub in the house.  The first few washes (with laundry detergent) will turn the water totally black, but, after four or five times through the routine, they’ll begin to come clean.  Believe me, it’s nothing like washing other hand-washables!

1:01 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, November 3, 2010 Chance’s bad luck

We have three border collies to help me move and work our sheep.  The youngest of the three is Chance, at two-and-a-half years old.  Both of the other dogs were working by this age – integral parts of our sheep business.  Chance, on the other hand, has had a run of bad luck that seems to follow him around and just won’t quit. We usually train our dogs to herd by sending them to a friend in Wisconsin (Beth Miller at Tailwind Farm) when they are about a year old.  She usually spends about six weeks training them, and they come home knowing the basics.  We usually put them to work right away, and then spend the next year or so teaching them the specifics of how we like things done.  The next year, we send them back to Beth for another couple of weeks of “brush up” – unlearning bad habits that we have mistakenly taught them, and generally picking up good traits.  They usually come home at two years of age with lots of good working habits and not too much that we still need to work on.  This isn’t quite what has happened with Chance, though…. Chance went for training last summer and came home with all of his newly learned working dog commands – just like the other dogs.  Unfortunately for Chance, my Mom got sick shortly after he arrived home and I spent a lot of time running back and forth, visiting in the hospital and running errands.  Chance didn’t work much before the ewes were bred, and we don’t use our dogs much (especially a new dog) on bred ewes – so he didn’t get to practice what he had learned.  By this past spring, Chance had pretty much forgotten all that he had learned….  He had to go back. So, this past summer, we sent Chance back for “retraining” so that I could put him to work.  He was with Beth for about a month, and came home all excited to work our sheep and show us what he had in him.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready to work with him – you may recall that I spent nearly the entire month of September in the hospital!  Chance had just come home in late August….  Once again, without daily practice, he has pretty much forgotten all that he had learned.  He will likely be visiting Beth again in early spring ’11. So, right now, Chance isn’t really a working dog – he’s more of a couch potato – and his weight is beginning to reflect that!  He is a relatively small-framed dog, but he is beginning to get a bit round.  We are going to have to figure out a way to exercise this dog before he is absolutely chubby! It was with all this in my mind that I was getting dressed and ready for the day yesterday morning….  The dogs were, as usual, all underfoot – until they get their morning exercise after breakfast, they are continually underfoot.  At one point, I heard the unwelcome sounds of a dog vomiting – darn!  I am still in my back brace, so I cannot get down to the ground to clean it up!  This lack of flexibility has really been getting on my nerves!  But I soon forgot all of that – Chance went from vomiting straight into a full-blown seizure… something he had only done once before on Rick’s watch. As I rounded the corner from the bathroom, I was there quick enough to see him finish vomiting and begin dry-heaving.  Those dry-heaves went right into the seizure as he fell over and began to paddle his legs.  As the seizure became more violent, I made my way to the ground to prevent him from breaking bones against the hardwood floors.  I sat there and held him firmly, waiting for the spasms to end…but they continued on and on. The seizure lasted for at least two or three minutes – an entire commercial break, since I had no watch on yet.  As it passed and I held him in my arms, he began to focus on the world around him, and didn’t like what he saw….  The end of a seizure is usually followed by a state of confusion and/or poor muscle control.  Chance’s seizure didn’t seem to leave any problems with his muscles, but it was obvious he didn’t quite recognize me.  As soon as he saw me holding his head and body, he began to growl at me.  I spoke softly to him, trying to reassure him, but he drew back his lips into a full snarl – I decided to back up and leave him alone to come out of it himself. That didn’t end the threat, though.  As I backed up, he stood up, hackles raised and teeth bared, growling and snarling at me as a perceived threat.  Now, I will admit that Chance is Rick’s dog – even though I was the one who picked him out and cared for him each day.  For some reason, he has attached himself to Rick, and I am a distant second.  It may have been for this reason that, in his confused condition, he didn’t recognize me or he saw me as a threat.  In any case, I decided to retreat to the bed, where I sat quietly, hoping that he wouldn’t attack.  Chance slowly made his way forward to the edge of the bed, and I shook…. Suddenly, I got an idea – maybe if I made the day seem more normal, his brain would find some piece of recognition….  I quickly jumped off the other side of the bed, calling all of the dogs in my sing-song “morning voice” to come down the stairs with me to go outside for their morning romp.  It did the trick – Chance snapped back to his normal happy-go-lucky demeanor and followed the other dogs downstairs and outside.  The crisis had passed. Our vet later took blood samples to rule out treatable conditions that might cause seizures.  She assured me that Chance could still work, even if his seizures continued every few weeks and we were forced to put him on seizure medication.  We hope to get the bloodwork back today and will then have some idea of how to proceed. In the end, I can’t help but think, “Poor Chance!”  This little guy has had a run of bad luck.  Hopefully, things will turn around for him from this point and he will join the ranks of working dogs on our farm, putting his couch potato days behind him.

9:28 am | link          Comments Monday, November 1, 2010 A quick switcheroo

I looked outside on Friday and noticed that one of the Romney rams, Geoffrey, was lame – very lame.  In fact, he was so lame that he was grazing with his chest on the ground, standing only on his rear legs.  Because he has half of the Romney flock in his breeding group, this was not a good situation!  Most of his ewes had already been bred, but it was important that he be able to breed any of the ewes who may not have become pregnant yet.  A lame ram doesn’t chase after the ewes – like poor Geoffrey, they tend to stay in one spot, grazing on what surrounds them. Lame sheep are not unusual on our acreage, although it never has anything to do with bad hooves or disease.  Our problem stems from the many ground squirrels and gophers that populate our pastures.  You can’t walk far without finding a deep hole between the grasses, and running sheep do not watch for holes….  A ram courting a ewe in heat is especially vulnerable when it comes to these holes as he follows closely behind her with his attention focused on desire and not where he steps.  Now, Geoffrey needed some time to heal in the barn.  We had to switch rams. The obvious replacement for Geoffrey was Goliath – they are half-brothers and share many similar traits.  Also, I had used Goliath last year and was very pleased with the lambs he gave us, so allowing him in to replace Geoffrey had little risk involved.  Once Rick got home from work, we would need to put a marking harness on Goliath, load him into the trailer, and drive him over to Geoffrey’s pasture.  The plan was to get Geoffrey into the trailer before letting Goliath out – that way, Geoffrey would be more willing to get in since he would not be alone in an empty trailer. Well, Rick didn’t get home until nearly six, so we got a late start.  My hope was to get this project done before dark, but it wasn’t looking good….  We hurriedly went up to the barn to get Goliath harnessed up and loaded into the trailer.  Thank goodness, I keep extra everything including harnesses and crayons.  We pulled a blue crayon for the coming week and pinned it onto the harness, then adjusted the harness to approximately Goliath’s size.  At that point, we went into the stall to put the harness onto Goliath…. As I mentioned earlier, Goliath had experience last year as one of our breeding rams, wearing his marking harness and having the crayon changed every week or two.  As I held him in place, Rick worked on clipping the harness onto Goliath’s frame.  As soon as Rick put the waist straps in place, Goliath seemed to suddenly realize what was happening….  He began to chortle in that odd noise that rams make to ewes as part of their ‘foreplay,’ and that ewes make to their lambs.  At first, we wondered if he had lost his mind – maybe he thought that Rick was a ewe – but, no, he was actively looking for the ewe in the stall.  It was almost as if he knew that the marking harness meant ewes, and all he had to do was to find them! We continued to adjust the straps and clip on the harness as Goliath chortled away, constantly looking for the ewes he knew went with the harness.  As we finished, he ran to the door to the next stall, hoping to find the hidden ewes there – but no luck.  I opened the door to the stall so that he could walk into the body of the barn – which he then did, still searching.  He then ran out the front door of the barn and straight into the trailer… still searching for his ewes. This project might be easier than we had at first thought! Within a few minutes, we were standing in the pasture next to the trailer, with Goliath chortling and banging away within.  Now, all we needed to do was to get Geoffrey in and Goliath out!  With a little help from Coda, we got the entire group of ewes plus their guy, Geoffrey, to walk over the the back of the trailer.  Rick grabbed Geoffrey and held him by the harness, right where the trailer door opened, as I pulled it back.  Believe it or not, Geoffrey hopped in as the door opened, and Goliath hopped right out! The sun was nearly set, and our job was done: Goliath was in the midst of the larger Romney breeding group, still chortling and running from one ewe to the next.  Geoffrey, on the other hand, was on his way back to the barn for a well-deserved rest and rehab of his lame leg.  And we – well, we were happy that we were able to get everyone where they needed to be for the night – and we were ready for dinner!

11:50 am | link          Comments Friday, October 29, 2010 So, who is smarter?

Rick was gone on business this week, so I thought it would be a good time to train the dogs….  We are in constant disagreement as to why the dogs have certain bad habits, so when he leaves, I work on eliminating the easy ones.  This week, it was their inability to come back to the door when we let them out for the last time each day.  For some reason, they think this last time out is a free-for-all to run rampant around the acreage and neighborhood, and I just don’t see it!  I figured that by the time Rick got home today, I would have them going out, doing their business, and returning immediately to the door like the good dogs that they can be….You see, I know these dogs.  I know they can be bribed.  It’s true that Lisa (the oldest) is not easily bribed with food in general, but she does love her cheese – and so do the other dogs.  My thoughts last Sunday when I started this project were that I would call and treat with string cheese any dog that came to the door immediately after I called.  Any dog that ignored my call would get no cheese.  It seemed simple.  It also played into their greed, and let me tell you, there is plenty of doggy greed in those twelve legs!So, the first couple of nights, I sent them out and watched to make sure all dogs were finished with business before I called.  Two dogs got cheese treats, and each night, one dog did not.  By the third night, they were all coming back for cheese – I had it licked!  I was nearly ready to celebrate!  The next night was just as good – all dogs accounted for within seconds of my call.  It couldn’t get better!  All I had to do was show Rick how easy this was when he returned – no more waiting half the night for the dogs to return!  And then we got to last night…. Thursday night was my last night alone before Rick returned from his business trip.  After two nights of really good returning when called, I was complacent – I had it licked and I knew it.  I had proven that I really was smarter than the border collies!  So when I let them out last night, I didn’t expect anything different than what I had gotten the two nights before.  I did notice when I let them out that although Lisa and Coda went to their typical potty spots far from my sight and near the pond, Chance stayed right up near the house.  Hmmmm…. I called the dogs back and Chance came running up the front stairs for his piece of cheese – which I happily handed over – and then he went past me into the house, as planned.  Lisa came up the steps next, and I handed her a piece of cheese.  As I opened the door to let her into the house, however, Chance ran back out into the front yard – Lisa, good girl that she is, still came into the house.  Now, Chance came running back up the stairs and sat for another piece of cheese….  Hey, didn’t I just give him a piece of cheese?!  I split Coda’s cheese down a bit and gave Chance another little piece of cheese and put him back into the house.  Oh, and here came Coda! So, I gave Coda the last piece of string cheese and opened the door so that we could enter – of course, you have probably figured out by now that our entry was met by Chance’s exit once again….  Coda and Lisa were inside, and Chance was out.  What a mess!  So now, I called Chance again – and he came up the stairs, sitting just out of my reach.  I, of course, had no more cheese in my hands.  Realizing that his ploy did not look so promising this time, Chance left for a fun run while I went and got more cheese….  I can’t believe it! Eventually, I did get Chance to come back; he did get another tiny piece of cheese; and I did grab his collar to take him into the house with me.  Both Lisa and Coda were already upstairs, waiting for us, none the wiser that Chance had outfoxed me in the cheese department.  OK, so maybe I’m not really that much smarter than the border collies….  Just, please, don’t tell Rick!

9:22 am | link          Comments Wednesday, October 27, 2010 Getting reacquainted….

Bottle lambs are a mixed blessing, when we have them: they are both a lot of work and a lot of fun.  They are usually weaned by late May, and then they are either sold or they join the rest of the ewe flock for the breeding season in fall.  Either way, over the summer the emphasis becomes more on the lamb and less on the bottle, so that by the time they join a breeding group in the fall, they are sheep.Every once in a while, one of our bottle lambs seems to retain some of her early memories of us in some distant crevice of her brain – Harmony, for example, will still come running to greet me when I walk into the ewe group.  As soon as she realizes that I have no tasty apples or carrot pieces, however, I am no longer so interesting and she goes back to her sheep friends.Two of this year’s bottle lambs are still here this fall (January and Jareau), having taken their places in our ewe flock.  Because January was the first lamb we have ever had in the house for any period of time, I doubt she will ever fail to see me as her mother – she still comes running whenever I am near.  Jareau, on the other hand, has fully integrated into the ewe flock, having made friends with newcomers, Juliet and Jada.  It has been months since she spied me and behaved in any way other than that which I would expect from any other lamb this time of year – totally disinterested.  Months, that is, until today. As part of my daily routine, I walk among each of the breeding groups to identify any newly bred ewes from the crayon markings that the ram leaves on their rumps.  When I do this, I also try to check on their water and salt supply, noting the pastures that need more of either for Rick to refill when he arrives home.  More often than needing salt, I find one or more groups just needs their salt stirred up a bit – in the damp fall weather, it clumps and fails to come down in the feeder where the sheep can get to it.  If it has accidentally been several days since I have checked, there may be a crush of sheep at the salt feeder once I get the salt flowing.  To avoid injuries, I usually try to pull salt from the top and pour it into a small dish (always in my pocket) for more sheep to access.  This was exactly the situation in the South Pasture this morning as I made my rounds…. The South Pasture is a bit unique this year: last week, I combined two Romney breeding groups into one group with two rams.  Each of these ram lambs had bred his own ewes on the first cycle, but then I had put them together to see which of the two was the more dominant, and also to give the girls a bit of a choice.  Both ram lambs have very similar genetics, and there are likely few ewes in either group who are not yet bred, so there isn’t much at risk.  Besides, each ram lamb is wearing a different color crayon so that I can see which ram bred which ewe as things unfold. It so happens that all of the Romney ewe lambs are in this combined group – I thought that the weight of a ram lamb might be easier on them than Geoffrey’s full-grown weight, so they were originally split between the two groups that are now united.  As I got the salt feeder to work, the inevitable crush began, so I scooped some salt into my little dish and offered it to some of the ewes farther back in the crowd.  Once most of the larger ewes were nearing their fill, I moved to the smaller ones, including lambs Juliet, Jada, and Jareau. Typical to her personality, Juliet totally avoided me, choosing to come for her salt after I left the scene – Juliet is something of a princess, very high-headed and proud, and definitely too good to be eating out of a human’s hand! Jada was very near Juliet, so I offered her some salt next….  Again, Jada responded as I would have expected – she first pulled back to assess the situation, but then came forward to see what I had in my hand.  When she realized that she could get salt from my dish without the shoving still occuring at the salt feeder, she was sold!  She not only helped herself to my salt then, but also came back again and again for just a bit more! Jareau_on_the_run.jpg As I finished with Jada, I looked for my last lamb, and the smallest of the group: Jareau (see photo above).  Although the crowd at the salt feeder was diminishing, there she was, still trying to push her way in to the front of the line.  As I offered her my little dish, she sniffed at it to see what I had, and then gave up her place at the back of the mob to nibble from my small salt supply.  After a few minutes, she seemed to have had her fill, so I turned back to the other ewe lambs. That’s when the connection was made.  There was no recognition in her eyes before this, but suddenly it was there.  Jareau_jumping.jpgLike months before, when she was the smallest of the bottle lambs wanting their bottles, Jareau began to jump up with her front legs on my thighs to get my attention.  Her wooly head hid her shiny black eyes as she jumped up again and again, with the same small bleating cry, and tiny, sharp hooves.  It was as if the clock had been turned back – my little Jareau suddenly connected my feeding her salt today with those earlier bottle feedings from months ago.  Even when she no longer wanted the salt I had, she followed me around the pasture, rubbing against my hands and my legs.  Somehow some long-forgotten connection between us had been recovered, and Jareau now remembers who I am. Fall begins a period when I spend more and more time with the ewes – culminating in their lambing in February/March.  I have no doubt that if Jareau remembers me now, she will continue to recognize our connection throughout this fall and winter – I will be around too often for her to easily forget.  Although the thought does bring a smile to my face, and I enjoy the idea of yet another ewe who sees me as “Mom,” I must also admit that we will need to somehow figure out some other sign of recognition besides those sharp little hooves digging into my legs!  Or, at least we can try….

4:40 pm | link          Comments Monday, October 25, 2010 A dangerous season

In general, we work hard to have really nice, well-behaved rams.  Along with many other traits, we look for family lines and individuals who we can trust to respect our “space” and not ram us the minute we turn our backs.  Having said that, I must also say that we never work among the rams without a great deal of attention being spent on where each one is, and what they are doing.  It only takes one ram an instant to cause a great deal of bodily damage, so we take no chances.All of that is fine and good, but breeding season – this season – tends to bring out the worst in rams…all rams.  This is the season in which they get a chance to pass on their genetics to future generations, and Mother Nature has given them a very strong desire to make sure that it is their own genetics that get passed on – not those of the next ram in line.  This is the time of year when rams in groups end up with bloody and swollen heads from fighting each other over the ewes on the other side of the acreage.  And it is for this reason that we have to take special care in choosing breeding groups that share a fenceline – we need to make sure that one ram will not intimidate the neighboring ram from doing his job.Another reason for our careful selection of neighboring groups is fighting ‘through the fence.’  With groups on either side of the fence, you would think that fighting would be eliminated, but you’d be wrong….  Rams will run at each other even with a fence between them!  This is especially hard on a fence, and we’ve had to repair numerous fence sections over the years for exactly this reason. Although rams fighting over ewes is typical at this time of year, there is another aspect to this rush of testosterone that is even more difficult to work with….  I make the rounds of the breeding groups each day to see which ewes have been bred in the previous twenty-four hours.  I used to take Rick with me, but have found that this is a very bad idea….  You see, rams are particularly aware of testosterone during this time of year – they can sense a rival suitor for their ewes.  Even though Rick is obviously not a sheep, as an adult male he does have testosterone running through his system,  and the rams know it!  All he needs to do is get close to a breeding group, and the ram will come running to defend his ewes! Several years ago in late September, Rick and I were separating the ewes and rams into their breeding groups.  We had them all divided, but realized that we had mistakenly put the wrong ram in with the wrong group – we needed to switch the rams.  I brought out the dog and moved one of the groups of ewes away from her ram and into a holding area, planning on bringing the other ewes back down to this ram.  Rick decided to just wait with the solitary ram, but it turned out that this was not such a good idea…. The ram must have thought that Rick was responsible for the disappearance of “his” ewes, and took a run at him.  Rick ran to the gate and reached it just as the ram reached him.  Rick jumped onto the gate just as the ram rammed the gate with the top of his head!  Every time Rick jumped off the gate to try to open it, hoping to get out, the ram would again charge Rick, hitting the closed gate.  Although it was a hilarious sight as I came back down with the correct group of ewes, it was also a very serious situation – rams have been known to kill people through a combination of ramming and stomping. Since I am still not allowed to carry bales of hay, etc., Rick still has to do the hay feeding and other heavy jobs.  He moves quickly this time of year, and is very aware of where the ram is and what he is up to.  Most of the work is in close quarters (in one of the shelters, with all of the sheep crowded around for a nibble of the fresh bale), so the ram has little chance of getting a good run at him.  Even so, he knows that letting his guard down is inviting danger. This year, I have been making the rounds of the breeding groups by myself most days.  The rams, for the most part, allow me to walk around the pasture, checking their ewes.  The older rams will put themselves between me and any of the ewes in heat, so there is no way to check the eartag numbers in this situation – I usually figure out which ewe it is by a process of elimination.  I can get close enough to all of the other ewes, and then just figure out which is missing from the group – that must be the one with the ram.  Bringing Rick with me makes the whole situation unmanageable, though – and dangerous.  If I need help, I end up calling a female friend. Within the next few weeks, we will be breaking up our breeding groups and putting the sheep back into male-only and female-only groups.  This will improve the situation, and time will do the rest.  By the end of the year, our rams will have settled back down, and will once again be the sweet boys that we normally see – no more threatening, and no more ramming.  For the time being, however, we don’t let our guard down….

10:23 am | link          Comments Friday, October 22, 2010 A new friend

On Wednesday, I promised to tell you about Jake, and why this little guy is still here when all of the other sheep destined for the Kalona auction went yesterday.  Believe me, this was not the original plan – the plan was that all of the market lambs and culls would go at the same time – but sometimes life gets in the way of plans, and this is one of those times….As you know, we sheared all of the auction sheep last Saturday (and I am still trying to find time to skirt all of the fleeces – stay tuned for updates, but they won’t be available for sale before the end of next week, at the earliest).  Because most of the lambs are pretty wooly by this time of year, and because they have spent the last few weeks – during our breeding season – out in the timber at the back of our property, shearing is somewhat a revelation: when the fleece comes off, you can really see which sheep have gained well, and which are underweight!We knew the ewes would be overweight (and they were!) – most were being culled because they could not feed their lambs this past spring, but they still ate with the ewes who did.  Those extra calories ended up on the ewes’ bodies rather than in their lambs, and it showed!  The lambs we sheared had all gained well on pasture over the summer, too – they had good-sized frames covered by nice, round muscling; all, that is, except Jake. I knew when Jake was born that he was going to have problems….  Jake was Heather’s son (who was also culled this year), and was born with what most people call a “parrot mouth” – his upper gum pad (sheep have no upper teeth in front; only a gum pad against which the lower teeth can rip off grass) came way forward of his lower teeth.  Since the upper and lower jaws did not line up, I knew he would have real problems tearing off and eating grass.  Although Jake had lovely fleece and a very nice conformation (build), there was no way I could allow him to be sold for breeding, so he was castrated at one week of age and was destined for the auction once fall arrived. Over the summer, Jake lived with all of the other lambs, rotating and grazing among the pastures of our farm.  Every day, I would go out to look over the flock, and although Jake was thin, he seemed to be holding his own.  That was about all I could expect, I guess.  When we sheared Jake, however, it was obvious that his level of nutrition was not as good as the other lambs: he was boney-thin and pretty pathetic looking. Under the circumstances, I hesitated to load him up with the rest of the sheep for the auction….  He was so small and frail that I was afraid that the jostling in the trailer or the head-butting that is so common immediately after shearing (sheep don’t seem to “recognize” each other after they are sheared, so they once again work out their “pecking order”) would kill him.  I knew it would take only a few weeks of the right diet to make him strong and rounded like the other lambs.  On the other hand, I also knew that feeding him for those weeks would be an added expense that we likely would never recoup.  I struggled with what to do – take him to the auction with the rest of the sheep, knowing that he may not make it alive, or feed him for a few weeks and then take him to auction on his own, knowing I would have extra feed and gas costs with this choice…. Jake.jpg Well, you know what I decided in the end.  Although this is a business that has to keep an eye on the bottom line to remain viable, I also have a responsibility for the welfare of my sheep.  A dead lamb brings no income at auction, and exposing Jake to that type of danger does no one any good.  Jake has found a place with Jagger’s breeding group – they pretty much ignore him, yet he has a group of sheep around him to keep his stress level down.  He is getting two feedings of high-protein creep feed each day – something he doesn’t need his front teeth to eat – and all the hay he can eat.  He already looks a bit smoother and rounder, although he still has quite a way to go. Honestly, this was a hard decision.  I knew that if I kept Jake here to gain some weight, he would still end up at the auction being sold for meat – that is about the only end result for a wether who can’t eat grass.  I also knew that if I kept him here to feed him and get him stronger, that I would become attached – really attached – making a difficult decision even more difficult.  But sometimes it isn’t a matter of making the easy decision – it is a matter of making the right decision – and for Jake, the right decision was to get him to a point that he was a strong and fit lamb before we did anything else. So, Jake is now living up at the barn for the next few weeks.  Every time he sees me in the yard, he calls to me to remind me that he really likes the grain that I bring – of course, it has lots of molasses, so there isn’t much to dislike!  He eats his grain from the blue pan that I hold for him to keep the other sheep away while he eats.  After the past six days, I am already attached, and I will shed many tears when this little guy goes to auction… but that is weeks away, and this is now.  For now, I have made a new friend, and his name is Jake.  He loves apples and creep feed with molasses, and he greets me every time I leave my house. Our bittersweet friendship has only a few weeks, so I plan to enjoy it while I can.

10:17 am | link          Comments Wednesday, October 20, 2010 The Kalona auction

Well, this was the big day….  The local sheep auction takes place in Kalona, Iowa, every Wednesday morning – including this morning.  After shearing our market lambs and cull ewes last weekend, our next step was to sell them at the Kalona auction – but that involved more than it may seem….Trying to get our cull ewes and market lambs to the auction always involves lots of planning, and this year was no exception.  We were taking a total of twenty sheep: one yearling ram, six adult ewes, a small group of ewe lambs, an almost identical number of ram lambs, and one wether (a castrated male).  The first issue we faced was trying to decide when to take them: we usually plan on getting them to auction sometime in December.  Most farmers in Iowa take their unwanted lambs to auction when the growing season ends – like right now – so the prices take a bit of a dip in fall.  By waiting until December, we allow the prices to rebound a bit and our lambs to grow a bit more.  In fact, the prices actually spike a little higher than most of the year because most lambs have been sold earlier, and new lambs are not yet arriving on most farms, creating a demand that can’t be met.  We aim for this mini price peak to give us the best prices for the lambs we have to auction.  It doesn’t always work, but that’s usually the plan.This year has been a little different, though.  Prices for lambs have been at an all-time high for months now.  Not knowing how long this peak will hold, we certainly have had  an incentive to take our sheep to auction now, while prices are still good.  If we kept them until December, we would still have to provide feed at a cost per bale of hay and per pound of grain.  If prices fell to last year’s levels, we would never recover the additional feed costs – something to seriously consider. In addition, if we kept this group of sheep here on the farm, we would have to figure out where to house them….  We are currently running seven breeding groups, with three other small groups of sheep (a ram group, a ready-to-lamb ewe group, and a small group of lambs still waiting to get to their new homes).  Keeping these cull ewes and market lambs would mean that we would have to figure out someplace to put them – not an easy task when we already have ten individual groups to feed and house! So, over the days since shearing on Saturday, Rick and I have been debating: do we take the entire group to the auction today, or do we wait until December as usual?  Taking less than optimal prices for our sheep would mean shorting ourselves on cash that will buy feed for the long winter ahead, so this was serious business.  We finally decided that we would take them this week….  It was an issue of that bird in the hand vs. the two in the bush – the one in the hand will pay for a lot more hay for our sheep than the ones that we may or may not catch in the bush. With the decision made, we had to get them there.  We have a two-horse trailer for transporting larger numbers of sheep.  We have never filled it before – in previous years, we have either had fewer sheep to sell or have taken multiple loads, so we had no idea how many the trailer would hold.  We decided to try to load the entire group into the trailer yesterday evening, giving them two or three bales of hay and a bucket of water for the night.  By doing this, we could get on the road to the auction by seven, and hopefully unload them there by shortly after eight – early enough that we could stay to watch them auctioned off. The sheep loaded well, with little room to spare.  We now know that our trailer holds a total of twenty sheep – either all lambs or lambs mixed with some adults, but not all adults.  They devoured the hay that we gave them so that by this morning, there was no sign of the three bales we had put in last night.  When we got to the auction, the sheep were ready to get out of their tight quarters and hopped out nearly as soon as we opened the door to the trailer – a first for us! The sheep all sold at well over the expected price – I usually use last year’s pricing in my planning, and because of the high prices this year, the actual numbers were well above our expectations.  Even the adult ewes brought in decent income.  All in all, I am pleased that we decided to take them today – the benefits far outweighed the risks of waiting.  Although seeing so many of my flock sold at auction wasn’t easy, it is finally done.  There is no more looking at the cull list, and no more second-guessing.  It is done. OK, so maybe I haven’t told you the whole truth….  It is almost done….  Back in the far corner of the north stall in the barn is one more little lamb who will eventually go to the auction, too, but he didn’t go today.  His name is Jake, and he missed today’s trailer to the auction.  On Friday, I’ll tell you about what why Jake is still here….

2:33 pm | link          Comments Monday, October 18, 2010 Difficult decisions

Shearing our market lambs and cull ewes is always a bittersweet time – there are generally so many conflicting emotions surrounding this event, so it’s not surprising that we’re always exhausted by the time the last sheep is sheared late in the afternoon.  Peeper Hollow Farm is a business, and must be handled as a business – there is not so much money to be made in sheep that one can fritter away dollars here and there based on emotions – but it sometimes isn’t easy to do what needs to be done.  This time of year brings those thoughts forward in a big way…. The lambs will all go to auction along with the ewes.  Although some do end up as unregistered breeding animals in small flocks in Eastern Iowa, I am sure that many end up in the meat animal system, ending up on someone’s dinner plate.  This isn’t an easy issue to face….  I have spent the last eight months helping to birth, care for, and feed these lambs.  I know each by name.  I have done all that I can to make sure that they have been happy and healthy lambs.  Sending these young ones to auction is always a difficult move, but we run a business, and if we keep these, there is no room for next year’s lambs. In short: they must be sold. It is also seldom easy to let the cull ewes go.  Admittedly, we do occasionally cull for “disposition” (not nearly so often anymore as we used to – there is no longer a need) and those sheep are not hard to let go – you only need to get banged around by a big ewe a few times before you will happily lead her to the trailer for the auction house – but most of our sheep go now for other reasons.  It isn’t easy to sell off ewes who have worked well for your flock for many years, which is the situation we have again this year.  You get attached.  Regardless of how hard you try not to, you simply get attached. Our cull ewes headed for auction this week include Celeste, whose fleece has won Iowa State Grand Champion Fleece for us many years in a row, and whose beautiful offspring are being used for breeding from Montana to Texas – including our place.  Camille is also in the group – her lambs have also found breeding homes, not only here, but also in surrounding states, and her fleeces have also won multiple awards over the years.  They go together as friends who have weathered life together, and we felt it only right that they take this step together, too, to make it less stressful on either one (see the archived posting from Monday, Feb. 22, 2010).  Gretta is a relative new-comer to our flock, and has produced four lambs in her two years here: Indira is replacing her in our flock, and Jamoca represents our breeding ewes in another breeding flock to the north.  Her fleece is just a bit coarser than the breed standard, although both of her daughters have gorgeous fleece. I could go on, but I think you get the picture….  All of these ewes have worked hard for us over the years, and they are a part of our flock – part of us and what we are all about.  It isn’t easy to just load them up here and unload them at the auction without questioning many, many times whether this is a necessary move – do they really have to go?  The answer, however, is “yes.”  Each of these ewes, for one reason or another, is holding our flock back from what it could be….  Celeste and Belle, for example, lost part or all of their bags in the soremouth outbreak in 2008, and have had bottle lambs ever since.  All of the ewes on the list are there for good reasons – yet I still look at the list one more time to be sure….  Maybe they don’t all need to go….  In the end, the list is what it is – these are the ewes and lambs we will load up on Tuesday evening for Wednesday’s auction, to make room for the six ewe lambs that we have added to our flock this year, and the many lambs that will be born next spring.  The decisions have been hard to make, but they are also a necessary part of the business we are in.  That said, maybe I’ll look at that list just one more time….

10:59 am | link          Comments Friday, October 15, 2010 I’m trying to be a patient patient on a busy weekend….

This weekend is a busy one at our place: tomorrow we shear our market lambs and cull the ewes (fleeces won’t be available for a week or two, though, so keep watching this blog for updates), and then we’ll meet one of our customers half-way to deliver a Romney ram lamb in Minnesota.  Normally, both of these “projects” would be relatively straightforward, but being only three-and-a-half weeks after my back surgery, this weekend will be a bit tricky. Normally, we only line up help for our January shearing of the breeding ewes.  That is our largest shearing, and the one where the additional help keeps things moving along smoothly.  Usually, Rick and I – and maybe one other person – are able to keep things moving along for the other two shearings….  Rick usually catches sheep and my job is to identify the fleeces, partially skirt them on the shearing floor, and then bundle them for final skirting later.  We sometimes have someone else sweep the shearing floor, but at other times I do that too.  Unfortunately, our usual system won’t work this year – I can’t bend or squat down to skirt or pick up the fleeces.   The best I can do is the sweeping. I have to be honest: this lack of involvement makes me a bit nervous….  Nobody knows my sheep or my fleeces the way I do, and handing over control of that part of the process to someone else isn’t something I relish.  To be fair, however, my friend Deb has worked with my sheep nearly as much as I have in recent years.  For this shearing, I will wield the broom and Deb will likely take over the job I normally do.  Thankfully, we will all be working so closely together that we can all help each other as needed. Once we finish with shearing tomorrow, we will load up Joram for the first half of the ride to his new Minnesota home.  Once again, my surgery will complicate things a bit….  Normally, a four- or five-hour trip to deliver a sheep is no big deal, but this time it will take a bit of doing.  As with any surgery, there is a heightened risk of blood clots in the weeks that follow.  Sitting for hours in a truck is exactly the type of situation that I was warned against so – according to my surgeon – we will need to stop every hour or two to get up and walk for five or ten minutes.  The stopping and walking will definitely prolong the trip, but it is also definitely better than the alternative – we will be stopping periodically to walk! And as if that isn’t enough, if there is any time left, we will begin to skirt our newly sheared fleeces.  This is something I normally like to do myself, but know I can’t this time.  I am currently limited as to the weight I can lift, and each of our fleeces will likely be well over the limit.  That will mean that, although I can skirt the fleeces myself, I will need someone here to lift them onto the table and dump them out of their bundle.  At that point, I can take over to skirt – but will need help again when I get to the next fleece. So there is a lot going on here this weekend, and nearly everything is a bit more complicated because of my recent back surgery.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that I’m eagerly awaiting the day when the restrictions are lifted, and I can go back to a simpler way of doing what I do.  Until then, however, I am doing my best to follow my post-surgical instructions to make sure to have the best possible outcome.  After all, there is no point in getting this far and then undermining the benefits of the surgery!

11:16 am | link          Comments Wednesday, October 13, 2010 Grace digs in….

When our lambs are born each spring, I take a lot of time evaluating what I see and feel as we handle them: how they are built, what their fleece looks and feels like, how they move in the field.  Every year there are several lambs who are particularly impressive.  Some of these we sell as breeding stock over the spring and summer, and the others are kept as part of our own breeding program. The lambs we keep for our flock are eventually placed into breeding groups in the fall.  Not all of the ewe lambs will be bred, but we give them that possibility in order to see which do breed and are therefore “highly fertile” – they have a better chance of staying with our flock into the future.  The ram lambs are also placed into breeding groups in the fall.  Nearly all of them do end up working, breeding the ewes in their groups – and those that don’t are sold at auction in late fall.  I like using ram lambs (rather than full-grown rams) in our breeding groups for two primary reasons: our best sheep are usually the youngest, since we improve our flock every year, and it gives me a chance to evaluate in a smaller group how well the ram lambs do their jobs – before they have half the flock to work with. As ram lambs, I don’t give them a lot of ewes – they get four or five – just enough to see what they can do.  It takes most of these little guys a bit of time in the beginning of the season to figure out what it is that they are meant to do….  They have the desire and drive, but not the experience.  During the first few days, we see crayon marks (from the harness that they wear, which marks the rumps of the girls when they breed) on shoulders, etc.  After two or three days, they figure it out and all future markings are around the ewe’s tail.  Maybe I should qualify that….  All future markings are around the ewe’s tail unless they decide that they really, really like that ewe…. Such was the case when I went out to the pastures yesterday afternoon to check on crayon markings for the day.  Jotham, one of this year’s promising ram lambs, has five ewes in the South Pasture.  All of them have been marked, but we suspected that several of the markings were from “playing at breeding” rather than from actual breeding – they were marked the first day they were turned out together, and the markings were not strong and obvious.  We kind of figured that at least a couple of the girls would be marked again with their next cycle – which is about now. Yesterday, as I walked up to the shade shelter in the South Pasture with my apple slices, most of the ewes got up and walked over to see what I had.  Grace, however, did not move from her spot.  You see, it was Grace that interested me the most – she seemed to have a lot of orange (the marking crayon color of the week) on her coat.  As I came closer, I began to laugh….  Grace did, indeed, have a lot of orange crayon on her coat – but that was not all!  There was orange crayon everywhere! Obviously, Jotham had decided in the last twenty-four hours that he really liked Grace….  She had orange crayon on the top of her head, down her nose, on her shoulders, and all over her coat, with the biggest, darkest smearing of crayon over her rump.  Here she lay, underneath the shade shelter, with her tail-end pushed tightly against the shelter support pole, unwilling to stand up, even for apples.  Oh, and there was Jotham, her unrelenting suitor, lying with his head pillowed on her side, sleeping but knowing he would  be awakened when she stood again!  Poor Gracie! As soon as I stepped closer to Grace to give her a couple of my apple slices, Jotham awoke and the courtship began anew.  He stood and pawed at her with his front leg, trying to get her to stand.  Around and around her he went, chortling at her in that rammy way, trying to convince her that there was no other ram in the world for her except for him.  Grace, on the other hand, was having none of it….  She was obviously no longer in heat, and wanted none of this attention.  She had dug in against the shelter support and was not leaving – at least for the time being!  She had obviously decided to wait him out, nibbling on my apple slices and grazing on the grass around her as she lay there. Although this situation is not the norm during breeding season, it does happen at least once or twice each year.  Inevitably, the ram or ram lamb in one of the breeding groups will crazily mark one of his ewes, nearly covering her with marking crayon – even when he knows how it all is supposed to work.  Why this happens, I don’t know.  But it always makes me laugh at both the determination shown by the ram and the indifference shown by the ewe – at least by the time that I find them!  I can almost hear her telling him, “I’m sorry, honey, but you see, I have this really bad headache….”

11:37 am | link          Comments Monday, October 11, 2010 A four-legged audience…

The roof on our house is not that old: we built the house in 1996 and, since we bought 30-year shingles at the time, we expected them to last a while.  Unfortunately, the shingles were faulty and have needed to be replaced for about the last five years or so.  In fact, there is a class-action lawsuit pending against CertainTeed which would cover part of the cost of replacement, but we can’t wait any longer – we really need a new roof before winter weather hits, so we found a company to do it and today is the day! Actually, Friday was the day but the crew got hung up in Oxford Junction.  They then told us they would come on Saturday….  Two of the crew got here on Saturday morning only to hand Rick a phone – the voice on the phone told him that no, it was too late to start on Saturday: they would be here to replace our roof on Monday.  Well, that’s today and, believe it or not, they are here! Although I know that the roof really needs to be replaced (we have been losing shingles in every storm for at least a year now) and it is always fun to watch work crews do their thing, the most interesting part of our roof replacement – at least to me – is watching the sheep!  You have to keep in mind that nothing much ever happens here on the farm during our days – nothing of real interest.  I quietly go about doing my chores, talking to the sheep or chickens, cats or llamas, but other than that, it’s pretty quiet. As I left the house this morning to do what chores I could in my brace, I saw the crew up on the roof.  I waved to them and continued on to the barn.  That was when I noticed it….  All of the sheep (fenced into breeding groups around the barn and house) were all lined up, either lying or standing, watching the men on the roof.  It was almost as if the sheep were the audience for a house-top play! I don’t know whether the men even noticed – they were all sitting at the peak, looking out over the countryside from a great vantage point.  The sheep, on the other hand, found nothing so interesting as watching these men sit there on our roof, getting ready to begin their day’s work. It didn’t take long for the spell to be broken….  As soon as the men began to move around and remove the old shingles, some of the sheep went back to grazing; others to cudding; and yet others to the business of making next spring’s lambs.  Yet, stored in my memory was that one long moment when the roofing ballet had a rather large – but polite – four-legged audience. Fleeces from our October shearing will become available in late October – watch for updates and an exact date here at the end of each blog entry!

11:01 am | link          Comments Friday, October 8, 2010 Oh, the possibilities….

It is that time of year again when we buy and store the hay we will need for our flock over the coming winter.  Last weekend, we took delivery of about five hundred bales of hay and another 120 bales of straw – all of which we loaded into our small barn.  This brought up quite a bit of discussion about the size of the flock and how best to meet their needs over the coming winter…. We have finally reached our maximum flock size: forty or so breeding ewes, and four to ten rams.  For this group, we will require about fifteen hundred bales of hay and another hundred and fifty or so bales of straw – all of which must be stored somewhere here for our use.  Several years ago, when our flock was smaller, this was not such a big issue – there was lots of room for sheep, hay, straw and grain in our small 24’x40′ barn.  This year, however, it is becoming obvious to us that we have to figure out another way. The problem is that we have taken delivery on about one-third of what we will need and our barn is nearly full!  It is important to use the very best hay that you have during the later part of gestation and lactation so that the lambs get the very best nutrition.  Unless we store our hay here at our farm, we don’t know that this will happen….  As the winter progresses, the available hay becomes of lower and lower quality because the good stuff gets sold to others. Last year, we bought about half of our hay and stored it in the barn for use during that very important late-winter period.  I then bought about thirty bales at a time all through the fall and winter, bringing it home in the bed of my pick-up, and feeding it out to the sheep in the following days.  When that load was nearly gone, I would go pick up another load.  This was a time-consuming way to manage our hay, but it did work. The problem is that, this year, we need even more than we needed last year because our flock is a bit larger.  As we watched the hay wagons lumber up the drive, we began the conversation about how we would manage things this year.  We never did find a good solution, but in the process, we began a second discussion about the possibilities for next year – and that one seems more promising.  You see, we basically came down to the conclusion that we need another building to store our hay.  Another building would also give us some flexibility during lambing time when our poor little barn is filled to the max – we could possibly offload some of the sheep into the new building.  Suddenly, lots of different possibilities opened up to us – there are so many possible uses for sections of a new building!  The only thing it does not allow us to do is to increase the size of the flock – our land has set that size – but suddenly, there are options, and so many of them! So, who knows whether next spring will bring a new building or not, but the conversation is still alive with possibilities.  We are studying, measuring, and planning for what might be next year….  That is all fine and good, but there is one small problem – we still haven’t figured out how to manage and store our hay for this year!  Maybe we had better put first things first….

1:34 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, October 6, 2010 Breeding season so far….

I mentioned in a previous posting that our rams wear marking harnesses so that when they breed one of the ewes, they leave a brightly colored crayon mark on the ewe’s rump to let us know that she has been bred.  We walk the pastures at least once each day, writing down which ewes have been bred during the preceding day, which then gives us due dates for those ewes – for Romneys, we know their gestation length is 148 days, and for the Romeldale/CVMs, we use 150 days. Each ewe cycles about once very 17 days until she is bred – which also means that if he marks her but it doesn’t “take,” he will mark her again two or three weeks later.  We keep the rams in with the ewes for somewhere around six or seven weeks, in hopes that during that last cycle, none of the ewes will be marked.  If that happens, it means that all of the ewes were bred during the earlier cycle – a good thing for us, as it means that our lambing season will be a short one, with all of the lambs coming during the same few weeks! Of course, there are always exceptions….  Jareau, one of this year’s bottle lambs, is still very small – very small!  Although she is in Jotham’s breeding group, it is highly unlikely that she is big enough to be cycling.  Our hope is that she will not breed – but if she does, we will have to work extra hard to get her up to size to safely deliver the lamb in early spring. We have another couple of this year’s lambs who may or may not breed this season.  Although they are young, they are big enough that if they did breed, they likely wouldn’t have any problems.  The Romeldale/CVM lambs nearly always breed in their first year, whereas the Romneys are not such a sure thing – they are more likely to breed later in the season (in those last couple of weeks) because they are more seasonal breeders than the CVMs. We prefer that our ewes first deliver as lambs, and we give those who do a preference in our flock selection criteria….  Ewes who deliver as lambs develop mammary tissue differently than their open sisters, so that they can produce more milk and bigger lambs for the rest of their lives – a good trait for us!  They also produce more lambs over that lifetime, so it ends up being a double bonus! So by this weekend, we will be two weeks into our breeding season and nearly past the first cycle. Of the forty ewes divided into our seven breeding groups, we have already had thirty-one marked as of yesterday’s rounds.  This season seems to be going much better than last year’s when, at this same point, the rams had only just begun marking the ewes, with only about four ewes marked!  So far, this seems to be a good year….  We’ll know a lot more as we get into the second cycle!

1:06 pm | link          Comments Monday, October 4, 2010 Welcome Catrina!

We’ve had a rough year when it comes to our llamas: we lost two of the three this spring and summer.  Although we were luckily able to replace both of them as guardians of our flock, we came to a sudden realization….  We absolutely NEED three llamas to protect our sheep.  We have plenty of coyotes who hunt in this area, and the llamas have proven to be very effective in keeping our flock safe. Every time we have lost a llama, we have had to scramble around in the midst of our loss to find a working replacement.  This started us thinking that perhaps we might be smart in buying a fourth llama….  He/she wouldn’t necessarily need to work right away – we do have three llamas to cover our flock.  Having a fourth llama, however, would allow us to shift that llama in as a replacement as needed, giving us time to find another. We spoke to Brenda and Dan Harting of Wolf Creek Farm, who have sold us several of our llamas, including Summer, and they thought they might have just the llama.  It was a young female llama who was being shown in 4H as we spoke during the summer, but who would come available at the end of the season.  She would likely not work much at first – she is still quite young – but she could bond with our sheep and learn her job “on-site.”  We struck a deal and promised to come back sometime after the State Fair to pick her up. Catrina_arrival.jpgOf course, “after the State Fair” became quite a bit after the State Fair, since I ended up in the hospital for nearly a month. We finally got a chance to drive up there to pick her up yesterday afternoon. Her name is Catrina, and she is a dark beauty (you may find some of her fine black fiber in our Dark Chocolate CVM blend in coming years!).  Although she is relatively small, she is not yet full-grown so will still put on some size in the next couple of years.  There is nothing small about her bearing, however.  She is constantly alert to her surroundings, checking out every sound and every movement – just what we like to see in our guardian animals! Catrina has settled in nicely.  We put her into one of our seven breeding groups – one located in the center of our acreage. This way, she and her group are protected on all sides by our other llamas.  She is in Josiah’s group – Josiah is one of this year’s ram lambs, so she doesn’t have to be bullied around by one of the bigger rams, yet there are enough ewes with him that she gets to meet a good portion of the flock.  She seems to have befriended at least a few of the ewes and has been grazing with them today. It’s hard to say whether, over time, Catrina will settle in as a fourth working llama on our farm – all we can do for the time being is to set things up for success and hope for the best. And she seems to have made a good start….

12:14 pm | link          Comments Friday, October 1, 2010 How could it be fall?

It just doesn’t seem possible….  I had a bad evening one late summer night, went to the ER at our local hospital and was admitted, and the next thing I know, I am released to find trees changing colors and pumpkins decorating doorsteps.  How did this happen?  How on earth did I miss so much time that it is now fall? Even though I missed the end of summer, I thankfully did not miss raspberry season.  When we landscaped our yard after building the house, we planted four scrawny sticks from the local Menard’s Home Improvement Center that were labeled as raspberry plants.  At the time, we had little hope that they would grow – they had no evidence of anything green – but I knew that if they did happen to take off and begin to sprout, and if we didn’t frame them in, they would try to take over our yard! We planted them between the garage and the walkway, and they have happily filled in that entire area every year since. Red_Berries.jpgWe get our first small harvest of raspberries in June, just after the plants put on their first big growth spurt.  As they reach their peak of this early season harvest, we are happy to be able to fill a cup-size container, but the early berries are always eagerly awaited.  They are quickly joined by so many other garden gems that they are soon lost in the sea of produce. It is the  later harvest of the raspberries that really stands out – it is both larger and at a time of year that we relish every berry.  When this harvest first begins, we simply stand in the midst of the canes and eat to our heart’s content.  A few weeks later, there are too many raspberries to just stand and eat – we collect and then can preserves for the winter when warm toast spread with the sweet berries of summer brightens the whole day. Eventually, we have enough preserves that we can hold out two to three cups for a fresh raspberry pie – and believe me, this is the very best pie you have ever eaten!  It can be made with fresh strawberries, blueberries – any kind of berries – but my favorite is made with raspberries!  It is incredibly easy…. Fill one graham cracker crust with your washed berries of choice (hulled, if using strawberries).  In a small saucepan, mix three tablespoons of cornstarch, three tablespoons of flavored Jell-O (the flavor of your berries of choice), one cup of sugar, and one cup water.   Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until boiling – boil one minute, then remove from heat.  Let cool just one or two minutes, then pour over the berries in the pie crust, covering all berries, and filling holes between berries.  If the heated glaze does not flow to the bottom, tap the filled pie pan onto the counter to help it fill the crust.  Refrigerate for several hours to set, then serve topped with whipped cream.  Yum! It may be fall, but thank goodness, the raspberries aren’t finished yet!

6:21 pm | link          CommentsWednesday, September 29, 2010 A walk in the pastures…

It has been a long time since I have taken a walk through my pastures.  When I was first hospitalized, on the better days, I would ask Rick for an update on what was going on in the pastures.  I was inevitably disappointed in the report I would get – it was usually something like “all the sheep are fine, but I have to refill salt tomorrow….”  For someone who lives and breathes sheep, that was just not enough!  I soon stopped asking, but not because I didn’t want to know – I just came to realize that others don’t look for the same things that I do when I walk the pastures – the only way I would get the information I wanted would be to walk them myself! And so it was that when I had my surgical staples removed at my neurosurgeon’s this morning and they gave me permission to “walk in the yard,” I saw my opportunity!  I don’t think they had any idea at the time what they were giving back to me!  I came home, took a quick rest, and then went to find my “work shoes” for the trek.  I was on my way! Now, don’t think for a minute that things are entirely back to normal….  I couldn’t go alone, so Rick came to accompany me in case I got into trouble.  I also had to take along a walking stick, since my left foot is still numb from the surgery and balance can be an issue.  I decided to take along a bag of apple slices for my girls – it had been a long time since they had gotten any kind of treat!  It was armed with all of this that I made my way to the pastures. This time of year, all of our rams wear marking harnesses. The harness holds a wide “crayon” that marks the rump of the ewe as the ram breeds her, allowing us to check the breeding dates of each of our ewes.  We change the crayon each week, usually beginning with the palest color (yellow) and working our way through the rainbow to end up with the darkest colors (orange, red, green blue, black).  I was unable to help put the groups together last weekend – other than listing them on paper for those who did the hard work – so the rams went into their groups sporting red crayons instead of the usual yellow.  This was a very small oops in a very big job….  We are thinking that we may use yellow this coming weekend, but we’re still debating! My first stop was in the temporary pasture in front of the house where little Jebb (Romney), who is not so little anymore, has his group of five Romney ewes.  I look out at them multiple times each day, but I wanted to see them up-close for a good look.  Jebb’s harness has been dangling around his head and shoulders for the past few days, so if there was any crayon marking at all on any of the ewes, I considered them marked – I couldn’t imagine how it could possibly work in its current configuration, but there was Juliet with three stripes of red!  That was good enough for me!  Four to go for Jebb!  And I moved on to the East Pasture, north of the house and barn. The entire area north of the barn had been designated for the Romeldale/CVM breeding groups. The East Pasture is where Fagin has his breeding group of five ewes.  I’ve divided my Romeldales among four rams this year for a variety of reasons, so none of them has a big group of ewes.  Fagin has the ewes he has because I want to determine whether his color is dominant or recessive.  He was quick to get started this year – both Gabby and Heidi are already marked on the rump with bright splotches of red! Apples_from_the_Shepherdess.jpgAnyhow, I shared a few apples with Fagin’s group and moved on to the Upper Paddock where Hodgins (Romeldale) had his small group of four ewes.  Like Fagin, Hodgins has already been at work, having marked two of his girls: Hartley and Gabby.  This small group has been pulled off of pasture and are being fed hay in the lean-to.  I shared lots of apple slices and moved on to the West Pasture where Josiah, this year’s promising CVM ram lamb has his group. I was a little worried about Josiah’s (Romeldale/CVM) group….  Josiah had been known over the summer for his uncanny ability to get through our fences.  In fact, we purchased more electronic mesh fencing this week to make sure that we had enough to keep him in!  His usual trick was to get out of whichever field we hoped would hold him, find a few ram-lamb friends, and then return to his field, friends and all.  Now, during breeding season, this could be bad – I did not want any of his Romney friends ending up in the field with him and breeding his Romeldale/CVM ewes! Yet, when I entered the West Pasture, that is exactly what I found – Josiah and his six ewes, plus two Romney ram lambs who didn’t belong!  Rick and I quickly removed one of them, but the other was a bit more determined to stay.  Rick insists that they were not there yesterday, and also insists that by the time our neighbors (who have volunteered to ‘help with the sheep’ this evening) leave tonight, the pasture will be Romeldale/CVM only! The West Pasture is also where I found January…  After a nice welcome, and a bit of face scratching (yes, January still loves for me to scratch her face and chin), I had to leave for the Fire Circle Pasture where Goliath (Romney) has his group – at least, so I thought!  As it turned out, I came back for a little more scratching three times before she would let me go – each time I got a good distance towards Goliath’s group, January’s plaintive cry would pull me back for just a little more attention…. I finally did get to Goliath’s group…. Hungry_for_Apples.jpgHe has the largest group of all, with ten ewes to breed this year.  As I stood there, feeding apple slices to his ewes, I could count three ewes marked with bright red splotches: Fern, Geode, and Honesty.  I don’t know why, but Goliath was the only ram interested in apple slices.  The others don’t know what they are missing! Once I finished with Goliath’s group, I had only one left to go: Jotham’s (Romney) group in the South Pasture.  Jotham and Jebb are sharing half of the Romney flock this year, with Goliath taking the other half.  Both Jotham and Jeb are untried ram lambs who are impressive now, but are not yet fully grown.  I decided to give each of them their own small group to see what they would do and what their lambs would look like.  Jotham has gotten a good start with three bred ewes to date: Etude, Grace, and Zoe.  It is interesting to me that this little ram lamb (OK, not so little, but still….) has bred the three biggest ewes in his group first!  The remaining ewes are all smaller than those he has already bred!  Now, I know that he doesn’t have a lot of choice in the matter – he breeds them when they are in heat – but it just strikes me as funny, and a bit over-achieving. And so the tour ended – seven rams have so far bred twelve ewes.  I’ve visited my sheep-friends again, and watched the swallows group together and dive for their dinners in the setting sun.  I watched for anemic noses (none) and gopher holes (lots).  And, in the end, I came away with so much more than a walk in my pastures….  Once again, I found my place in the world, and it was right.  It can only get better as I heal and take over more and more of my role as shepherdess of Peeper Hollow Farm!

7:15 pm | link          Comments Monday, September 27, 2010 I’m back home!!!

I can’t believe it, but after three-plus weeks in the hospital, I am back home where I belong! I am incredibly thankful to all who who helped us out while I was in the hospital – from those who helped Rick with our flock to those who cooked meals to keep him going; from Karen, who kept the blog going for me over all that time, to all of those people who sent prayers and good wishes for a speedy recovery….  These past few weeks have brought out so many people who have been so incredibly generous in keeping us going, even during those darker moments when things seemed pretty bleak. There is no way that I could ever thank or acknowledge them all – it has been truly amazing! Although I am now back home, complete with a nice row of staples in my lower back and a nice brace that makes me look ever so trim (very similar to the corsets of old – you just pull on the strings and you become suddenly oh-so-trim!), I don’t have a lot of mobility.  I am trying to get around the house a bit, but I can already see that this is going to take a bit of practice!  I have to regretfully inform all of you that there probably won’t be many photos in the blog for the next few weeks unless someone else volunteers to take them!  I have a hard enough time just getting to the kitchen to get something to eat, much less getting outside and up to the barn or out to one of our pastures! Thankfully, all of our ewes and their intended rams were put into breeding groups this past weekend – right on schedule!  I came home from the hospital early yesterday morning, and once I was quickly settled on the daybed (now moved into the parlor for my recovery), Rick went out to finish separating the sheep – a job that he, Deb, and some of our younger helpers had begun on Saturday.  I was so happy to be here on the daybed – I could see four different groups from my vantage point, and could also watch some of the sorting still going on in the barn!  Oh, how I had missed my sheep! We are still trying to figure out when to bring the dogs home.  They have been kenneled since Sept. 3rd to simplify Rick’s life – after all, while I was in the hospital, he still had to work his “day job,” then would visit me in the evening at the hospital, and would eventually come home to work my job by answering e-mails, caring for sheep, etc.  Even without the dogs at home, he worked very long days trying to keep things together and running relatively smoothly. I have to admit that I’m still amazed that I am finally home!  There were times that I really wondered if this would ever happen….  But here I am – home!  Yes, there is still pain, but now it’s a good pain.  This is a pain that comes with healing, and that makes all the difference.  Besides that, things are never so bad when I can at least see my sheep! Things will only get better from here!

1:03 pm | link          Comments Thursday, September 23, 2010 Surgery good news

I just got an email from Rick. Instead of paraphrasing his news, I think I’ll do a cut and paste: “Surgery went very well.  Right after the surgery the right leg – the one with the pain – was basically pain free.  The left leg – the one that was numb – was showing some signs of spot feeling so there is hope that the nerves will regenerate. “Right now she is feeling the healing effects of the surgery.  The back pain is different and focused on the surgery site.  Tonight when I visited on my way back into town she was sitting up eating dinner and was able to get up and use the restroom with a walker and get back into bed.  From where she was a week ago I would declare it a miracle!!! “She is very tired – but that is to be expected with only 3-4 hours of real sleep.  She usually needs between 8-9 hours a night and enjoys one day a week with maybe sleeping in and getting 10 hours.  She is looking forward to getting home but she now has a bit of a fever and we will have to see if they release her tomorrow – that is the current plan.” My fingers are crossed that we’ll be seeing a post from Dee sometime soon! : )

9:54 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, September 22, 2010 Coda’s visit

Coda_Visits_Dee_4.jpgHi, all. I hoped to have specific news about Dee’s surgery – scheduled for yesterday – but I haven’t heard from anyone ‘in the know’. Rick had to leave on Monday for travel (his job requires a fair amount of it and he could postpone no longer), so Dee’s mom was to be with her for the surgery, post-op recovery, and initial physical therapy. Rick plans to return sometime tomorrow. He will be home with her next week, and their son Justin is visiting late the following week and plans to stay for 8 days. Rick kindly uploaded some photos of Coda’s visit to the hospital last Friday. The visit was originally scheduled for Thursday, but Dee had a very bad day, so it was postponed until the next day. He said it was “a real emotional time Coda_Visits_Dee_2.jpgfor Dee, Coda, and everyone who watched.” Rick also said it was clear who the real caregiver was! Although Rick hasn’t had time to look at the comments posted to the blog, I do check periodically. If you have some well-wishes for Dee, please consider leaving them as a comment. I’ll cut and paste all into an email for Rick (along with the names of the commenters), which he can then print out and take into the hospital to read to Dee. I’m hoping she’ll be home this weekend – or next week at the very latest.

9:17 pm | link          Comments Friday, September 17, 2010 Quick update

I have a renewed respect for Dee. Doing a three-times-a-week blog is not easy! How she juggles sheep and a household and a blog — I’ll never know. (A pause here while we all picture Dee juggling sheep….) Since all you regular readers are familiar with the animals of Peeper Hollow Farm, I thought you’d appreciate this news from Rick: “On Monday evening Dee had a visit from the therapy dogs and she went crazy.  As you can imagine, the therapy dog coordinator is now scheduling an ‘in-service’ here at the farm to see our dogs work the sheep!  You just can’t keep Dee down for a minute!  So based on that, I am taking Coda to see her for a few minutes.  It will do her a world of good and will probably help her “baby” as well.  He hasn’t seen Dee for over two weeks now.  Of course the word is out and there will probably be 1000 nurses in her room to see Coda!” Meanwhile, back on the farm: Rick has had to quarantine a sheep who developed an abcess, and she’s not happy. Although she’s in her own trailer with a friend and is eating a half-bale of hay daily, she misses being with everyone else. He concluded: “Sounds a lot like Dee!” I haven’t heard an update on whether Dee will be home this weekend, and as far as I know, her back surgery is still scheduled for Tuesday. Please continue to keep her in your thoughts.

3:45 pm | link          Comments Tuesday, September 14, 2010 Surgery on the horizon

Yup, Karen again. Dee has always been so meticulous about posting every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Now, she’s in the hospital for a bit and the whole thing falls apart! Or perhaps that’s an over-reaction to being a day late. Still…. I heard from Rick late last night, and it looks like Dee’s back surgery is scheduled for next Tuesday (the 21st) – if all goes according to plan. She remains in the hospital and is working through all the pre-surgery difficulties. Rick pushed relentlessly at the insurance people to review Dee’s case, and as a result Dee’s surgery will be happening a bit earlier than originally planned. For that, we’re thankful — but to paraphrase Rick, the disappointing part is that it could have (perhaps should have) been sooner. This is a time of year with noticeable changes in the natural world: the corn plants are turning dry and golden-brown, dusk is arriving early. I’m sure Dee will feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle when she returns to Peeper Hollow and sees the changes that have happened in her absence!

7:24 am | link          Comments Friday, September 10, 2010 Escapees at the wall

Karen again, but at least today we have a photo and a corresponding sheep story! First of all, Dee is still hospitalized. She’s having a bit of a set-back this morning since her muscles seized up overnight. Back surgery is very tentatively planned for the 28th, but everything hinges on insurance approval — a very slow process that neither Rick nor doctors have been able to expedite, despite their best efforts. An update on Indira and Fiona/Sophie (whose stories have appeared in the blog periodically between August 20th and 30th): You might remember that they were sequestered in the barn, in quarantine while awaiting test results. The results arrived yesterday and the two are officially in good health. Rick opened the barn doors and the two newest members of the flock finally got to meet the other ewe lambs. I’m sure Indira and Fiona are enjoying our recent cool breezes and the autumn sunshine! And speaking of the ewe lambs, we come to today’s photo and story. The ewe lambs are currently grazing near the barn, and one area of fencing divides the pasture from the farmhouse’s lush, green lawn. (I bet you can already see where this is going!) Escapees_at_the_Wall.jpgIt’s almost time to move the ewe lambs to a fresh pasture, which means that the current one is fairly grazed down. The grass is, very literally, greener on the other side of the fence. And on the other side are also raspberry bushes, the leaves of which are evidently a delicacy. So the lambs have been making occasional forays under the fence to enjoy the lawn and berry bushes. Dee’s mother phoned her in a panic to say, “Half of your flock has escaped!” To which Dee calmly replied, “Are they running?” Her mom admitted that, no, they were staying put but were all over the lawn. Dee knew that when the lambs were startled – by the dogs, a human, or a vehicle backfire – they’d scoot back under the fence. So she told mom, “Clap your hands.” In the blink of an eye the lawn was cleared! Dee notes that the ewe lambs have almost grown to the point where slipping under the fence will no longer be an option. Poor lambs when they realize the tender grass and the delicious raspberry leaves are permanently out of reach!

9:39 am | link          Comments Wednesday, September 8, 2010 Patience

Sorry — Karen again. (Won’t we all be happy to see Dee back on these pages?!) Rick has done a wonderful job of keeping me apprised of Dee’s condition so that I can share the info with all of you. The most recent update is that although Dee remains in the hospital, she is in good spirits and is looking forward to returning to the farm. Unfortunately, the current reality is that the docs are having trouble finding meds that will adequately manage the pain at home. I know we’re all hoping for a speedy and pain-free resolution to this Life Experience that Dee is having. And many thanks to Rick for keeping us updated!

10:08 am | link          Comments Monday, September 6, 2010 Hospital update

This is Karen again. Although Dee hoped to be home by today, that has not come to pass. Rick tells me that the medical folks are still trying to get the oral medications balanced. Since Dee is still having back pain, she’s getting some narcotic meds — and the hospital has a policy of a patient being narcotic-free for 24 hours before release. I’m sure we all hope that Dee is home in time for the Wednesday blog posting!

7:07 pm | link          Comments Friday, September 3, 2010 Hospital visit

Hi all — this is Dee’s friend, Karen, writing today’s post. If you’ve already read Wednesday’s entry, you know that Dee has been struggling with increased back pain since her spinal testing a week or two ago. I just heard from Dee’s husband, Rick, that she became unable to even lie comfortably in bed. She was admitted to the hospital early this morning. They’re hoping to find a pain management approach to the problem, since medications don’t seem to be making much of a dent. Dee, ever forward-thinking, plans to be posting her own entry on Monday. I’m hoping the hospital stay will be short but effective, and I know she will appreciate all healing wishes sent her way.

8:36 am | link          Comments Wednesday, September 1, 2010 A frustrating situation and a possible solution

I am flat on my back.  For nearly five years, I have been plagued with back and leg pain and numbness resulting from the day in December 2005 when I rolled my pickup truck on icy roads.  The truck rolled twice and came to a stop upside-down on the side of the road.  The truck was totaled, and I was lucky to be alive, but have struggled with pain ever since. The funny thing is that it didn’t seem to affect how much I could lift or what I could do, other than the fact that I only had about six hours each day to do it.  After about six hours of being “up,” my back was finished and I was done for the day – I spent the rest of the day flat on my back, trying to reduce the pain enough that I would be able to sleep that night.  This has been my life for almost five years now: a window of productivity six hours a day.  I’ve gotten used to it, and have worked my life around that schedule.  Of course, I dream of a time when my days were longer and I had no pain, but after all this time I had pretty much given up on the idea that  that day would ever come.  My life is what it is. A few weeks ago, my doctor at the pain clinic sent me back to my neurosurgeon for further evaluation – he felt that perhaps there was more that could be done than just trying to limit the pain.  My neurosurgeon eventually sent me for further testing.  Last week, I went to the hospital for a diagnostic procedure to determine whether we could identify the disc that was causing the problem.  The procedure was a success, and we now know the source of the numbness and pain that has become an integral part of my life – and I am scheduled for back surgery during the last week of September to fuse that disc – Hooray! Although the idea of fixing my back is nearly mind-boggling after all this time, it does raise some issues….  I have sheep, llamas, chickens, cats, and three border collies under my care.  Taking six to eight weeks off to fix my back leaves me with a whole lot of work that will need to be covered somehow.  The animals can’t just take care of themselves! In addition, this procedure has left me flat on my back – and I don’t know for how long!  Testing the suspicious discs has irritated the nerves enough that I can no longer sit or stand – I am stuck here on the sofa or in bed, lying flat on my back for the entire day.  Thank goodness I have a laptop! The good thing is that fall is breeding season, which is not nearly as intense or as work-filled as late gestation and lambing season which begins in January.  By that time, I should be returning to some semblance of normal.   The sheep will hopefully be grazing for another month or two yet, so handling hay isn’t yet an issue.  I guess that if I had to choose a time for back surgery , summer or fall would be the best time. So as we work our way through September, I hope that I regain some of the mobility that I have had over the past few years so that I can continue to work with my sheep for those six hours each day, putting them into breeding groups and watching for ewes who are bred.  That may or may not happen, but either way, by the end of the month, I am scheduled for back surgery to get me back on my feet and return me to a large part of my life that I’ll be missing while on the sofa.  And what a thought: I might have a full fourteen hours a day to get things done! It’s almost hard to remember what that would be like. Yes, what a thought….

4:48 pm | link          CommentsMonday, August 30, 2010 Sophie and Indira surprise us

Last Friday I drove out to Boone, Iowa, to meet my shearer at his place and have him shear both Sophie and Indira.  As I mentioned in last week’s post, neither had been sheared for quite some time, so they had a lot of fleece covering – it was very hard to find the sheep under all that wool! I had transported them in the back of our pickup truck, and had brought a ramp with side-walls so that they could get into and out of the truck on their own….  Well, that’s not completely accurate.  Sophie had so much wool on her that she would get stuck between the side-walls of the ramp.  To get her down to the ground, we had to push her from behind as she clambered and pulled herself along. Sophie was the first one sheared on Friday afternoon, and as Mason ran the clippers over her tender pink skin, it became more and more obvious that Sophie was very thin under all of that wool.  As the last of the wool fell from her body, she had trouble getting her legs underneath herself and getting into a standing position – her balance now was so very different than it had been just a few minutes before! Indira came next – so eager to get out of the truck that she jumped off the ramp and began to run across the yard, looking for freedom!  Quick on his feet, Mason soon had a good hold of her and brought her back to the shearing floor in the front yard underneath a big ash tree.  It wasn’t long before she, too, began to lose all that wool that had grown since birth.  In Indira’s case, we had a different sort of surprise….  She too was very thin, but she also had a very big, round belly…it sure looked like she was bred!  After talking to her previous owner, it turns out that her Romeldale/CVM ram had jumped the fence in either May or June, and obviously found Indira to his liking! So, both of these girls are now much smaller than they were when we got them – no problem getting up or down the ramp to the pickup anymore!  They are both still in quarantine in the barn while bloodwork, genetic testing, and fiber testing are underway.  They have been cleared of internal parasites (as of their test on Saturday), and we are now working on putting some meat on those bones – especially for Indira, who should drop her lambs sometime in October or November.  Sophie has been re-named in line with our system of naming our sheep based on their year of birth – in our records, she appears as Fiona/Sophie, but for our purposes, we will call her Fiona to help us remember that she was born in 2006.  Both Indira and Fiona are slowly settling in and getting to know us and our routines.  And, I have to admit, I love the idea of fall lambs!

11:05 am | link          Comments Saturday, August 28, 2010 What a bad day….

Bad days are always better when there is a little time between you and them.  Or maybe it’s just me….  Maybe it’s my bad memory that makes them a bit more bearable after a few hours or days have passed, and we are well into better times.  Whatever it is, that’s where I am now.  Yesterday was a bad day, but somehow the fact that it is now two a.m. on Saturday morning rather than still being Friday makes Friday look much better – much more tolerable.You will notice that although I have been posting on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays since October 2009, I did not post a blog entry yesterday – Friday.  The day got away from me before I could do much about it, so let’s call this yesterday’s posting, shall we?Wasp.jpgThe first bad thing that happened to me was the fact that I got stung by a wasp.  That doesn’t really count as a bad thing for Friday, because it happened on Thursday while I was painting the trim around the second floor windows and just under the soffits.  Our second floor jogs back just a couple of feet near the southwest corner.  How was I to know that a big wasp nest awaited me just around that jog?  So, as my brush expertly spread the thick white paint onto the trim board, the wasps made their attack, and I ended up stung on the left upper arm.  I suppose I was lucky not to end up with multiple stings, but I didn’t feel all that lucky – only itchy and in pain!The reason that this was a bad part of my day on Friday was that I had to go to the doctor’s office for cortisone – I happen to be allergic to wasp stings.  It’s not like my throat swells shut or anything (yet, anyways!), but the swelling gets bigger and bigger unless I get cortisone to stop it.  No matter how much Benadryl I took by mouth or spread onto the swollen area on Thursday, it just kept getting bigger.  As soon as I woke up Friday morning, I called the doctor’s office but, true to this unlucky streak, my doctor was not in the office on Friday – he was working at the walk-in care facility next door.  I couldn’t make an appointment to see him, but I could stop in next door and wait in line – something I didn’t really have time to do on Friday; but then again, I didn’t really have time to let my arm swell so that I could no longer bend it either.  I went to the Immediate Care Center in Marion and waited in line….The line was slow.  I waited for almost an hour before they called my name.  They took me into the exam room where I gave the nurse all the pertinent information and then waited some more – another half hour, to be exact.  I was beginning to pace.  The room was only about six by nine feet, but that was enough room for me to pace, so I did.  Eventually the doctor came in, looked at my arm, and faxed a prescription for cortisone tablets to my pharmacy.  Thank goodness Rick could pick them up then drop them off at the house over his lunch hour, because I had a busy day ahead of me.  In fact, with all the time I spent at Immediate Care, it was now going to be busier that I had thought. As soon as I got into the truck, I headed for the vet’s office.  On Thursday, I had found one of our ram lambs down in the pasture, unable to stand but pedaling his legs as he lay on his side.  He looked bad, so I took him to the vet who gave him a couple of shots and ordered some electrolyte/energy mixture that was supposed to come in on Friday.  My next stop after the doctor’s office was to pick up the medicine for the ram lamb – I hoped it was in.  I was a little surprised that he was still alive when I checked in on him before I left for the doctor, so I wanted to do what I could to keep him that way.  I dashed into the vet’s office, grabbed the bag of stuff and headed for home – I had too much to do to stay and chat! Once I got home, I mixed up a portion of the ‘Alfalfa drench’ that I had gotten from the vet with warm water and ran up to the barn to dose the lamb.  He still didn’t look good, but I was doing what I could (and still am, for that matter).  The bottom line is that on Friday afternoon, I started dosing him with this gooey drench using an old turkey baster; four cups every couple of hours – what a mess!  I will admit that, as much as I love my sheep, this aspect did add to my bad day… I always feel frustrated and sad when any of our sheep are not well and we can’t take immediate action that guarantees their recovery. As soon as I was finished with that little guy, I had to load the two new ewes into the transport crate in the bed of the truck.  I left the farm at about 1:45 p.m. for our shearer’s place in Boone, IA.  I needed to buy gas for the truck and still be at his place by 4:30 p.m. when he got out of work.  Shearing these girls had become a health issue and something that could not be put off  – the fleeces had to come off, and soon!  Thankfully,  Mason (our shearer) had also graciously volunteered to trim their hooves while we were there, so that was another health issue that would be taken care of at the same time.  I only had to get them to him in Boone. I think that was the worst part of the day, actually.  I have severe lower back pain since I rolled my pick-up truck one winter almost five years ago.  It has been five long years of medical procedures,  surgery, and pain, with little improvement, but lots of prayer and hope.  This past Tuesday, I had one more procedure added to the ever-expanding list, and my back has not yet fully recovered from that – the back and leg pain is still strong and constant, especially when I have to sit for more than just a few minutes. I had a nearly three-hour drive to the shearer’s place, then I unloaded the heavy ramp for the pick-up so that the sheep could walk out onto the ground from the bed.  After shearing and hoof trimming, the ewes walked back up the ramp and I loaded the three pieces of the ramp into the bed of the pick-up and headed home – another nearly three-hour drive.  The biggest problem I had was that I didn’t want to take my prescription pain medicine when I knew I would be driving.  Also, any of the over-the-counter stuff raises my blood-pressure, so I can’t take that.  Essentially, I had lots of pain and no way to relieve it except to get done as soon as I could and get home so that I could take something. It was a long and painful drive, made worse by the fact that cortisone always gives me the jitters and a bad headache – this time included, since I had taken the first dose just as I left the house for the drive to Boone.  I finally got home to unload the girls from the truck at nearly nine, and I could hardly move: my back was incredibly painful, my arm was swollen to double its size between my shoulder and elbow, and I felt like I’d had twenty cups of coffee due to the cortisone.  It wasn’t a pretty sight! The two new girls are thin, but much more comfortable now that they have shed their heavy wool coats.  We enticed them back into the barn with a bit of grain in a bucket – no complaints from them….  They came right in like they owned the place.  As for me, I staggered into the house and took my pain medicine.  It didn’t help much – between the back pain that radiates down my leg, the cortisone jitters, and the itching, swollen arm, I’m still wide awake at nearly four in the morning.cute_lambs_resting.jpg Some days are like this….  Not all of our days here at Peeper Hollow Farm are sun, fun, and fluffy sweet animals.  When I worked at a “normal” job in town, I used to take sick days when I didn’t feel well.  Now, even when I have a “sick day” because I am sick, I still have things that I have to do, regardless of how I feel.  I still have lots of animals that depend on me for their health and wellfare – I can’t just go to bed for the day and deal with it all the next day. Sometimes Rick can take over some of it.  Sometimes my friend, Deb, pops by to handle a couple of my chores when she knows I am not functioning well.  In general, though, I am responsible for three border collies, three llamas, a dozen or so barn cats, about fifteen chickens, and currently about one hundred sheep – regardless of how I feel.  It’s a lot…but honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  As is true for everyone, some days are just bad days any way you look at them….  They do look a lot better in the past tense, though – and that’s where things are headed right now!  I think I’ll try for a little sleep, since it won’t be long before the sun comes up and I begin another day….

3:58 am | link          Comments Wednesday, August 25, 2010 Indira and Sophie prepare for freedom

An interesting drama has been playing itself out on our farm over the past few days.  A good friend of mine has decided to sell off her entire flock of sheep, and I made the decision to buy two of them – both of them coming through our farm in the past.  I have already written about Indira (last Friday’s post), who was one of our lambs last year – the other one is a white Romeldale ewe named Sophie, who I actually brought to Iowa in a group purchase of a flock in Ohio several years ago.  I bought about fifteen sheep at that time, and sold off one ram lamb and two adult white ewes – Sophie included – and kept the rest for my flock.  This friend has been dabbling in sheep for a number of years, and her personal situation is such now that all of them must go, so I bought both Indira and Sophie for my own flock. The problem is that although my friend has been caring for her sheep as far as feed and water, she has had little time for some of the other things that sheep need – namely shearing, trimming hooves, and those “personal hygiene” things that shepherds have to take care of.  Both Sophie and Indira need a bit of attention – to say the least. Neither of these two ewes has been sheared since January 2009 – well over 1 1/2 years.  Both are Romeldale/CVMs, so their yearly staple length (the length of the fleece they carry at the end of the year at shearing) is typically four or five inches.  When you part their fleece, you see that it is more like eight to ten inches long!  That’s incredible for this breed!  And imagine the weight that they carry! Sophie_and_Indira_Aug_2010.jpg The problem with fleece that long is that it is very hot for them over the summer, plus the fleece begins to felt, making it unusable.  We won’t know how badly it is felted until we get it sheared and get a good look at it off of the sheep.  We also won’t know what kind of condition the sheep are in – thin, fat, or just right – until that fleece comes off: it is so long and dense that it is very hard to gauge how big the body is underneath it.  In fact, Indira has never been sheared – she was a lamb last year, and if she had stayed on our farm she would have been sheared in January 2010.  At the other farm, that didn’t happen. So, I have made arrangements to take these two ewes to our shearer in Boone this Friday afternoon so that he can shear them and trim their hooves.  I have already dewormed them, and so can do our first fecal sample on Saturday to see if they are free of parasites.  Once their fecal comes back clear, and they are sheared, coated, and have their hooves trimmed, they can go out with our flock to graze.  Imagine how they will feel having left nearly thirty pounds (each, and maybe more!) of their fleece behind them on Friday!  It will certainly be a freeing moment….

4:22 pm | link          Comments Monday, August 23, 2010 A long trip for Jethro

This was a very fun weekend for me, even through it involved a bit of driving.  Over the past few months, I have been in conversation (mostly via e-mail) with Kim Goodling of Grand View Farm in Vermont in hopes of finding the right ram lamb for her flock of Romney sheep.  In the end she settled on our Jethro, the son of Grace and Goliath, and the grandson of Zoe – all wonderful dual-purpose Romneys with an emphasis on fiber. The biggest challenge we faced was trying to get Jethro from Iowa to Vermont….  We explored several options, but knew we had it figured out when she mentioned that she had a friend traveling to the Michigan Fiber Festival in late August.  Now, to most people, Michigan is still quite a ways from Iowa for a delivery, but to me – I LOVE sheep and wool festivals!  Michigan is just around the corner – a trip I would happily make to visit another festival and see how they do it in Michigan! So the plan was that I would load Jethro into the back of the pick-up truck and make the drive to the southwest corner of Michigan for the Michigan Fiber Festival this past weekend.  Once there, I could enjoy the sights, take in the competitions, and eventually connect with Bonnie, who was hanging around the goat barn with her angora and pygora goats.  I actually connected with Bonnie as soon as I got into town on Friday evening.  I gave her all of Jethro’s paperwork and got him a pen at the festival for the weekend – I figured that it would be a lot cooler out in the open with fans blowing over the area than he would be in the back of my pick-up truck!  This way, I was free to leave for Iowa whenever I was finished, and he could continue on with Bonnie whenever she left. Although I was originally from Michigan as a child, I had never been able to make it back there for the festival once we had our own sheep here in Iowa.  Because we compete in the Iowa State Fair competition each year, and because all of the winning fleeces at the State Fair must remain on display through the entire week of the Fair, we have always been busy picking up our fleeces from the State Fair on the weekend of the Michigan Fiber Festival.  This year, however, I made special arrangements with both the Fair and a good friend to have this friend pick up our fleeces. This way, I could take Jethro to meet his ride and finally get to the Michigan Fiber Festival!  Hooray! Saturday morning started out pretty rainy, which probably didn’t help the attendance figures – at least at first.  There were plenty of vendors, though, and the sheep competition ran nearly the entire day in the Sheep Barn.  Although I didn’t want to spend my entire day watching the sheep competition (I planned on leaving Sunday morning to drive back to Iowa, so Saturday was my only day at the festival), I did come and go so that I wouldn’t miss the longwool sheep, who were scheduled for the end of the day.  Most of the competition classes were relatively small, but the sheep were nice representatives of their respective breeds.  I was also happy to meet several people who I have corresponded with via e-mail but never met. In the end, it was a fun weekend – even with the six-hour drive each way!  I came back with fun “sheep stuff”: a long-sleeve t-shirt, salt and pepper shakers, and a tote bag.  I also made connections with people who, I hope, will continue our conversations via e-mail or phone.  And best of all, Jethro is well on his way to his new home and a whole flock of ewes.  Hopefully, he’ll represent us well!

10:51 pm | link          Comments Friday, August 20, 2010 The one that got away…. Indira

We don’t often add sheep to our flock this late in the year.  Usually if we are looking to add a ram or ewe to our flock, I am already searching for that animal in spring before lambs hit the ground and have identified our choice by sometime in May – or maybe June, at the latest.  Adding a new flock member in August is a totally new and different experience for me.Not only that, but there are honestly very few flocks in this country or elsewhere from which I would buy sheep.  I will be the first to admit that I am very picky about the sheep that we add to our flock and the farms from which they come.  They must come from a shepherd(ess) that I trust and from a flock both disease-free and well maintained, so that I know that the animal I purchase is in good health and will likely stay that way when entering my flock.  I do not want to pay to bring in an animal that will share some illness or nasty parasites with the sheep I already own.  I have a responsibility to my own flock and to our customers to keep disease and illness away from our animals.If I do find a flock that I trust and am willing to purchase from, then the animal also has to be really something….  I’m looking for a sheep that is well-put-together, that carries an “amazing” fleece, and that has that certain “it” that is so hard to describe.  The individual must have that certain carriage or gait that almost looks proud to be alive, like the sheep knows that it is something special.  That’s a lot to expect from a sheep, but not all that I look for.If we get this far, I also want genetics that will enhance our flock: fast growth rates and relatively good resulting size, fleece colors or patterns that I don’t already have in abundance in my own flock, and genes that will provide the sheep and its offspring with genetic resistance to scrapie – a sheep disease that is similar to mad cow disease.  Proof of these genetics require data – either data taken during the life of the sheep on the farm or, in the case of scrapie resistance, data compiled by a testing lab.  This kind of data is either time consuming or costly – or both.  Believe me I know, because we compile all of this data ourselves and it isn’t always easy.  A lot of farms don’t want to monkey around with collecting this information.  The problem is that I don’t normally want to deal with a farm that doesn’t do it – or won’t do it for our purchase.All of this leads me to the amazing fact that yesterday we added another ewe to our flock to replace Gretta.  Her name is Indira, and she comes to us from the farm of a friend of mine who lives only a few miles from our own place.  Actually, that is only partly true….  I picked her up from Denise’s place in my pick-up, but she originally came from our own farm – she was one of our own 2009 lambs! It turns out that Indira was the one that got away….  Denise was looking to purchase a “worthy” ewe lamb in the spring of 2009, and Indira was a gem.  She had all of the traits that I normally look for in replacement lambs for our own breeding ewe flock.  At the time, I had made the decision as to the number of new ewe lambs that we could handle in our flock for breeding that year, and I just couldn’t justify one more….  Someone had to go, and it ended up being Indira, as much as I liked her. So now a year has gone by, and I had heard not too long ago that Denise was looking to sell off her entire flock – including Indira.  After a short telephone conversation on Wednesday, we struck a deal and made arrangements for me to pick her up yesterday at Denise’s farm.  When I arrived, I went directly back to the barn to take a look at Indira, who I had not seen in a long time – since she was just a lamb.  She had grown to be a lovely dark yearling, with the size and grace of her mother and the gorgeous fleece of her sire – all that I had hoped as we evaluated her as a lamb. As any new animal to our flock discovers upon arrival, Indira will be quarantined in the barn for a few weeks while we eliminate internal parasites and ensure that she isn’t harboring any unexpected disease.  She will have Ivy, her old “buddy,” there with her to keep her company while she awaits her release.  It was fun to see both Indira’s and Ivy’s reaction to each other as they met again in our barn after over a year apart – they obviously had some memory of their time together as lambs since they seemed to fall easily into their previous friendship.  Somehow, it seems right that Indira should come back at a time when we were looking to add a yearling to our Romeldale/CVM flock.  Sometimes, things just seem to work out perfectly….

9:30 am | link          Comments Wednesday, August 18, 2010 Mowing and barn swallows

Whenever we move sheep to a new pasture, I mow the area that they have just left.  My thinking behind this is that the sheep have eaten down all of the plants that they like, and now the plants that they don’t like are taller, and therefore shading out the good stuff.  By mowing it all down, I am putting all of the plants at the same level of growth – and the weeds don’t grow particularly well at three inches, so it gives the grass the advantage.  Over several years of doing this, our pastures have improved dramatically – they are now filled with grass and clover instead of weeds and thistles.That means that I am mowing a pasture at least once a week during most of the growing year.  I fill up the tanks of my little riding mower, grab my iPod, and hop aboard for a couple of hours or so of not-so-quiet time to think and enjoy my surroundings.  I laugh aloud watching the ground squirrels run from one hole to another to get away from the noise of the mower, and every once in a while, I am treated to the view of a bald eagle riding the air currents and looking for a meal.  There is a lot to watch, and somehow, I am never bored.  I actually love my mowing time!There is one aspect of my mowing that always tickles my fancy….  After I have been mowing a bit I am joined, slowly and one at a time, by barn swallows swooping down on all sides of my mower.  Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the mower must be throwing insects out of the chute along with the cut grass, and that some of these insects must stay airborne in their tumbled and confused state long after my mower has passed.  They must make for an easy, tasty meal for the barn swallows that build their hanging nests on the walls and rafters in open farm buildingsI was mowing the West Pasture this past weekend and couldn’t believe the number of barn swallows that accompanied me on my mower – there were over a dozen birds, swooping and diving around and around me as I made strip after strip of freshly cut pasture.  More and more continued to join the group until there were so many that I could no longer count them.  Some came so close to the mower that I could nearly have reached out and touched them in mid-flight, but I didn’t try – I didn’t want to disturb them and possibly cause injury.  They were too beautiful in their task; too breath-taking in their maneuvering around the moving mower.My husband really dislikes mowing.  To him, it is a chore that never ends – it seems like we just finish mowing one area and then another needs it: either lawn or orchard or pasture.  To me, mowing time is magical.  It is a few hours each week that I have to myself to relax.  When I mow, there is nothing pulling at me: no phone, no crazy schedule, no other tasks.  It is just me and the mower…. and the barn swallows that always come to join me.

11:36 am | link          Comments Monday, August 16, 2010 This Year’s State Inspection

Because we participate in the Voluntary Scrapie Eradication Program in the State of Iowa, we must be inspected once each year by our state veterinarian.  It used to be that we had our inspection sometime in the mid-winter, but because it was always so difficult for her to get here on snowy and icy roads, our state vet, Dr. Sharon Fairchild, once mentioned that it might be a good idea to change our inspection date to a warmer month.  We changed our inspection month several years ago to the month of August, so now we usually have to deal with incredible heat instead of incredible cold!  She usually has no trouble getting here, though. This year, we had initially scheduled my inspection for last week, but since my trip with mom up to the Mayo Clinic ran well past mid-week, we ended up rescheduling to this morning at ten.  In order for our inspection to move along smoothly and for us to spend the minimum amount of time in the heat, I take one of the dogs out about an hour before she comes to bring all of the sheep in from the pastures and put them in the paddocks up near the barn.  At nine this morning, Coda and I were out there moving the sheep! Getting them in was really no big deal.  I did notice, as the rams and ram lambs came trotting into the upper paddock, that one of them looked a bit anemic – most likely due to internal parasites, so I decided to deworm the boys while I waited for Dr. Fairchild.  The plan, once she arrived, was to continue to use Coda to crowd the sheep into a small area and then identify each sheep on her list by finding that sheep in the crowd.  Since Coda is more efficient at this work than Chance is yet, I decided to use Coda until the vet left, then switch to Chance to return the two groups to their pastures. As expected, the inspection took only about half an hour, and once Dr. Fairchild drove off, I switched dogs and began to try to coax the rams and ram lambs out of their paddock.  This should be a simple thing to do, but because Coda has taught them fairly well that if they move out of the corner, he will chase them, they no longer like to move out of any corner – including the shelter.  Unfortunately, Chance has the same bad trait that we just dropped from Coda’s routine, so when I finally coaxed the rams out into the West Pasture, Chance chased after them until the rams were back in the shelter.  What a pain! I continued trying to work with Chance, but eventually I knew it wouldn’t work – as he continued to chase the rams back into the shelter I realized that if it were up to him, we’d likely still be out there this evening!  I took him into the house and brought out Coda, who was now cooled off and refreshed.  It still took me another hour to convince the rams that they could come back out without fear of the dog, but eventually they did come out, and Coda and I walked them back to the South Pasture where Chachi was waiting for them.  At least that part of the task was done! Next, I had to put the girls back into the Rock Pasture.  There was just one problem, which I had noticed this morning, when I moved all the sheep up near the barn: some of the ram lambs had figured out how to get to the ewes.  Because we are coming into breeding season, the rams are much more determined to get to the ewe flock, so we reinforced two of the fences between the rams and ewes with temporary net fencing when we moved the sheep last.  At the time I thought that would be enough, but when I found these ram lambs so close to the ewes, I decided that before I put the ewes back into the Rock Pasture, I would have to line the third side of their pasture with more electric mesh fencing – just to make sure that the rams stayed away. Once the fencing was in place, Coda and I came back in for another quick drink and cooling off.  Even though today is much cooler than it has been, when you are hiking back and forth across multiple pastures, you warm up very quickly.  Before long we were back outside, moving the ewes and ewe lambs.  They didn’t require much convincing – once I opened the paddock gate, the bulk of the flock ran for the Rock Pasture.  There were a few that trailed behind, choosing to walk rather than run, and then there was January, this year’s bottle lamb, who walked at my side in spite of the fact that Coda was on my other side.  We walked this way all the way to the Rock Pasture gate where I said a quick good-bye to January, rubbing her face and under her chin, and watched her rejoin her flock-mates. This “quick job” that I thought would take no more than an hour or two this morning ended up taking from nine this morning until two this afternoon!  By the time Coda and I came in at two, we were both hot and tired to the bone!  Unfortunately, I still have corn to freeze and plum jam to cook down – but all of that can wait until I finish this blog.  But seeing I’m at the end, I guess it’s time for the corn….

4:48 pm | link          Comments Friday, August 13, 2010 A sweet day at the Iowa State Fair

The Iowa State Fair opened yesterday with scorching temperatures and high humidity.  When the New York Times came up with “The 1000 Places to See Before You Die,” the Iowa State Fair was on the list – it is big, it is loud, it is crowded, and it’s a whole lot of fun!  The crowds were a little light yesterday because of the heat – temperatures at or above ninety degrees with oppressive humidity – but the folks that were there weren’t going to let a little heat stop them from having fun!Rick and I needed to get a few things done at the farm before leaving, but the drive was uneventful and we pulled into the fairgrounds at about 2:30 p.m.  Once we found parking, we walked around a bit and took in some of the other agricultural buildings before coming back to the sheep barn to unload our fleeces for the competition.  I was thrilled to see that Daryl Mickelson of Mickelson Hampshires had once again come through the competition for the biggest ram at over 450 pounds!  These big ol’ rams are really something to see – I have no doubt that I could ride one with very little strain for the ram – and that’s saying a lot!Eventually, we unloaded our six fleeces (three Romney and three Romeldale/CVM) and found some seats to watch the fleece competition.  As the competition got underway and my nerves tightened up, it was fun to converse a bit here and there with friends who were also there to see how we fared.  Our shearer, Mason Kolbet, had brought his family to the fair for the day, and couldn’t help but hang around the fleece competition to see how we fared.  I can’t tell you why, because we have entered so many fleece competitions over the years that this kind of thing should be second nature to me, but for some reason I always get nervous when the judging begins!  Always!So I sat there and watched as the judge went from fleece to fleece, pulling out samples, testing strength, comparing lengths, and hefting the bags.  Our six fleeces were spread out over five of the six classes that were judged, with Gabby’s and Hodgin’s fleeces competing against each other in the same colored finewool class.  I had not originally planned on taking Hodgin’s fleece to compete at the Fair, but after its good showing at the Iowa Sheep and Wool Festival this past June, I thought I would throw it in and see how it did.  In the end, all of our fleeces took first place in their classes except for Hodgin’s fleece, which came in second to Gabby’s.  Even better than that was the fact that Gabby’s and Hodgin’s fleeces took Grand Champion and Reserve Champion Colored Handspinning Fleeces – sweeping their Handspinning Colored Fleece division, and then Gabby’s fleece went on to take Overall Reserve Champion Fleece of the 2010 Iowa State Fair!  As if that wasn’t already enough to get my heart racing with excitement, Harriet’s fleece also won Grand Champion White Farm Flock  – the top in her division – and then went on to win Overall Grand Champion Fleece of the 2010 Iowa State Fair!  What a show!We didn’t get on the road until almost eight in the evening, but what a day we had!  It was almost too good to imagine – this was the second year in a row that we had swept the Fair’s fleece competition! All of our fleeces ended up placing well enough that they are on display in cabinets in the Sheep Barn for the duration of the Fair, which ends on August 22nd.  If you happen to be in the Des Moines area over the next week or so, the Iowa State Fair is a must-see on your way past – and don’t forget to stop by the Sheep Barn to take a peek at our fleeces!  You can’t miss them – they are right behind the Mickelson’s biggest ram. When we pulled out of the parking lot, Rick and I had about a two-and-a-half hour drive to get home, but there was no lack of conversation.  We rehashed nearly every moment of the competition, both good and bad.  Our daughter Ashleigh and I used to attend multiple sheep and wool festivals over the summer – competing from Maryland to Oregon, and lots of places in between – and years ago we developed a tradition: if we won, we’d stop at Dairy Queen and each get a small Blizzard to celebrate.  Well, last night Rick and I were thinking of Ashleigh when we pulled off the highway in Grinnel, IA, to celebrate at their Dairy Queen.  It was that sweet note that ended a sweet day – and I’m already thinking about next year’s Fair!

12:32 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, August 11, 2010 A change in focus….

I find it amazingly cool that the Mayo Clinic has computers available for public use.  Quite honestly, if they didn’t, I don’t know that I would have a blog entry for today.  As I mentioned in last Friday’s post, I am here with my mother, who hasn’t been feeling so well lately.  We made the three-hour drive here last week in hopes that they would be able to help her, then went back home for the weekend, and came back again later on Sunday.  So, here I sit, waiting for word on how her procedure has worked out and what they found….

Today is my last day here – the Iowa State Fair fleece competition is tomorrow – so my brother is on his way to meet me here this afternoon to take the next ‘shift.’  Making this shift change is rather complicated, though.  He is flying in to Cedar Rapids from West Virginia, taking a cab to our farm, and then driving my truck the three hours to meet me here.  Once I give him all the pertinent information and keys (hotel, my mom’s car, etc.), he will hand over the truck keys, and I will drive the truck home while he takes my place here at the Mayo Clinic with mom.  I have to admit that I am not looking forward to the three-hour drive home – especially as tired as I already feel – but I am looking forward to being home!

It’s been four days since I checked on my sheep or worked with the dogs – a long time for me.  My good friend, Deb, has been doing the farm chores for me.  Since this is the slow time of year for us, it’s fairly easy for people who aren’t very familiar with the sheep to take over for me, and Deb knows more than most people about what we do – she and her daughters are frequent helpers at our farm.  Even so, I do miss my four-legged friends….  It will be good to be home! I have to admit, though, that I won’t be there for long….  I will get home fairly late tonight, and then will be leaving with Rick pretty early tomorrow for the State Fair in Des Moines.  We have six fleeces entered in the evening competition, and are looking forward to a day of reconnecting with friends who we sometimes  see only at the Fair.  Tomorrow evening will be another late one, as we make our nearly three-hour drive home after the competition.  The ride home is always more fun if we have done well at the Fair – wouldn’t that be nice?! When all of our ewes’ fleeces were posted in February, we made arrangements with some of our friends who bought fleeces to show those fleeces at the Iowa State Fair.  The fleeces we select to use in competition aren’t always our “best” fleeces – they are just the ones that are convenient to keep for a while because we know the people who bought them!  We skirt all of our fleeces as show fleeces, so it really doesn’t matter which ones end we end up pulling for show – they are all candidates as we skirt!  So this year, we have Aimee’s and Harriet’s fleeces showing as White Farm Flock fleeces, and Gabby’s, Hodgin’s, Zoe’s, and Grace’s fleeces showing in the Colored Handspinning division.  It will be interesting to see how they place once it is all over – I will keep you posted. So here I sit in the waiting room, getting ready to end my time in the medical community and move back into my life on Peeper Hollow Farm with my sheep, chickens, llamas, and dogs.  I’m hoping that, before I leave, I will get the results of the procedure my mom had today, just to know that everything is well with her  – and then I’m off!  I’ll be driving home accompanied by thoughts of fleeces, sheep, and breeding groups – what good company!

9:36 am | link          Comments Monday, August 9, 2010 He did WHAT with a marrow bone?

It was late Saturday as I lay in bed, ready to read a bit and then drift off to sleep, when I heard Rick’s desperate call from downstairs.  I couldn’t imagine what could have happened that would rattle him so – he was going to let the dogs out and then come up to bed himself.  I jumped out of bed, willing to help with whatever he needed.Once I got downstairs, I saw nothing wrong….  Earlier in the evening, we had given each of the dogs a “marrow bone” to chew on while we watched TV.  By this time, all of the bones looked more like one-inch-wide rings of bone with all of the marrow chewed out of the center.  For the first time, there had been no fighting over the bones – each dog had finished his or her own bone without the normal growling and posing for a fight.  Now Coda and Lisa were playing with the rings that were left – I could see no situation that called for concern….As I turned towards Rick, I noticed that he Chance_with_bone.jpghad Chance’s collar in his hand – and that’s when I saw it.  As Chance struggled to get free of Rick’s grasp, I noticed a thin rim of bone under his chin (see photo at right)….  Rick then explained to me that, as he called the dogs to go outside, Chance had obviously been worried that the other dogs would take his bone while he was gone. As a result, he had made a mad grab for the circle of bone and his lower jaw ended up going through the ring, the front canine teeth locking it in place!Chance seemed to be both a bit panicked and quite proud of his accomplishment.  He had found a way to protect his bone – the problem was that he could no longer chew on it, or even stop drooling as it sat locked over his jaw!OK, the first thing was for Rick to hold him snugly so that I could get a good look….  Rick held on, but Chance fought hard – he was not about to give up his prize to anyone!  I just needed to get a good look….  Rick held on tighter, and I finally got that close look that I needed.  This bone was wedged on there tightly – it was not coming off easily!  It was just wide enough to cover his jaw, and it seemed much too small to fit over his canine teeth.  Although I dreaded the cost of the 24-hour emergency veterinary service, I also knew we couldn’t have him drooling all night!  We went to get the keys to the truck. We’re lucky to have a 24-hour veterinary service in our area.  We called ahead to let them know we were coming and we got into the truck, with Chance drooling away in the back seat.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether we would get there before the entire back seat was wet with bone-drool….  All we could do on the way to the vet was laugh – I couldn’t imagine how this had happened or that this was a common occurrence!  We have been giving our dogs marrow bones for years, and had never seen anything like this! As we pulled up to the vet, there were still a few dry spots in the back seat.  The staff told us that this kind of thing happens all the time – who knew?!  They took him back almost right after we entered – I guess there aren’t a lot of emergencies at nearly one in the morning!  It wasn’t long before the doctor came out and told us that she had inspected Chance’s bone and that he would have to be sedated to remove it – it was very tightly stuck around his jaw.  They would reverse the one medication, but he would still be woozy when he came out due to the second medication for pain relief.  Pain relief?!  He was just chewing on his bone! Granted, it was not your typical grip for chewing, but pain relief? Chance_bone_gone.jpgWell, it wasn’t long before a fairly drunk-looking Chance came wobbling out of the back room, leading the technician.  He was certainly happy to be back with us, and he didn’t at all seem to miss the bone that had caused us so much trouble – and cost!  In the end, that fifty-cent marrow bone – used as a distraction while we watched TV – cost us not only a couple of hours of sleep, but also a couple of hundred dollars!  But Chance was feeling good – no pain at all.  He swayed back and forth in the back seat all the way home: eyes closed and head hanging – not sleeping, but certainly not all there.  Believe me, the next time we give the dogs marrow bones, we will be measuring each of them for size, making sure that all of them are either too big to get stuck or too small to fit over their lower jaws.  No kidding!

10:08 am | link          Comments Friday, August 6, 2010 Sheep festivals and travel – when will I return home?

Summer on our farm is generally a leisurely time: we move the sheep to new pasture periodically, but other than moving sheep and filling water tanks, there isn’t much else that the sheep need.  My summers are usually filled with keeping up with the fruit in season, making jellies, jams, sauces, and such, and traveling to visit sheep festivals and family. Because I love talking sheep, and most people don’t know a thing about them, sheep festivals are one of my favorite places to be.  Once you get into either fiber or sheep, you come to realize that there are sheep or fiber festivals in a lot of places over the spring, summer and early fall – something I guess I never realized when we were sheepless!  Although the festival in Maryland in May is one of the largest in the country, one of my favorite is the Wisconsin festival in September. In addition to lots of vendors, classes for fiber artists, and a great fleece show and sale, the thing I like best about the Wisconsin festival is that it also has sessions for producers with lots of information to help us do better what it is we do!  I’ve attended sessions there about parasite management, pasture management, growing a better wool clip, guardian animals, and lots of other interesting topics.  It seems that there is nothing about sheep that they aren’t willing to delve into! In past years, we’ve also attended festivals in Minnesota in May, Colorado in June, and Oregon in late June – all of which were definitely worth the trip.  The problem lately has been that with gas prices and the economy what they are, we have had to trim down our travelling budget and keep our trips closer to home.  In the past couple of years, we’ve limited our trips to the Iowa Sheep and Wool Festival, the Iowa State Fair, and the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival (above). This year, however, I convinced Rick to let me use some of his frequent flyer miles to get me out to the West Coast in September to meet in person my online friends at Tawanda Farms, and then make the trip to the Puyallup Fair in Washington with them.  I’m especially eager to hear the talk there about recessive color inheritance in the Romney breed – something I have been working on developing in our flock for the past six years or so.  It’s really encouraging that so many other flocks are realizing the advantages of recessively colored sheep, too! So, for me, this late summer and fall will be filled with travel – I am currently writing from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where I have brought my mother for testing in hopes that they can help her feel a bit better.  In just under a week, Rick and I will make the trek to the Iowa State Fair to compete in the fleece competition.  Shortly after the competition, I will load up the truck to deliver a ram lamb to the Michigan Fiber Festival (another new sheep festival for me!), and spend the weekend absorbing all that they have going there. I get back only to leave again to visit our son, Justin, in Raleigh, NC. for a weekend and then travel with Rick to Washington, D.C., for his work.  I love going with him on business because there are no interruptions while I work on paperwork at the hotel.  I don’t have the time to make this trip often, but I try to go along at least a couple of times each summer.  After this trip, we get a brief respite from travel over the Labor Day weekend, and then I make the trip to the Wisconsin festival in mid-September, followed by my trip to the West Coast. It’s a crazy schedule, but all of it fun, and nothing that I would want to eliminate!  For most of my trips, Rick will be home to cover things there, so I need not worry about the sheep, llamas, or the dogs.  I’m really looking forward to each and every trip, even though I know I will be exhausted by the time I am done.  After all, nearly every trip has to do with my favorite subject – sheep!

1:56 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, August 4, 2010 Pear butter, eggs, and other things….

Once every few weeks, it’s time to make my rounds.  Here on our farm, we have chickens who lay nearly a dozen eggs each day – more than we can use in the summer.  We also have pear, apple, plum, cherry, and peach trees, as well as grape vines, raspberry plants, and currant bushes.  Not all provide fruit each year, because I refuse to spray them (the birds and bugs deserve some, too), but we get enough fruit that, when it comes, we are swamped for a week or so as each fruit ripens.This year, we’ve already had the summer run of raspberries, but the plants are now loading up with berries for fall – which will be our big harvest for the year.  It also looks like we will have a very good year for grapes – the vines are loaded, and the grapes are big and round; perfect for making our homemade wine.  The cherry tree did a great job of feeding the birds – we were gone when they ripened, and by the time we got back, they had all been eaten.Last week, the pears began to ripen.  I hate to waste any of our fruit, so Alex and I spent some time trying to decide what to do with them once we had eaten our fill.  We made pear butter one day – two different batches: one with rum and one without.  It turned out really tasty (both batches), so today I’m boiling down the last of the pears from the tree to make one more batch.  It looks like next week we will be overrun by plums – I have yet to figure out what I want to do with them!The nice thing about all the canning and freezing we do – and believe me, when you make thirty-three gallons of applesauce like I did last year, you are doing quite a bit of canning and freezing! – is that you have plenty to give away.  Every few weeks, I make the rounds of neighbors and friends to deliver what we have in excess – this morning it was eggs, last fall’s frozen applesauce, and last week’s pear butter.Making deliveries is always fun – it gives me a chance to catch up with  the families and with what is new in the neighborhood.  I often hear from someone at our stops that they need to somehow “repay” our generosity, but what they don’t realize is that I have already been repaid by their friendship and warmth.  As I see it, what goes around comes around, and even if it didn’t, these friends are helping us to use what we, alone, cannot – they are putting to use the excess that overwhelms us.  There is only so much that my freezer can hold, and only so much that my cupboards can bear – there are only two of us living here now, and we are blessed with so much each summer. So, I made my way around the “neighborhood” this morning – I smile as I write neighborhood because I’m sure the city people reading this imagine me taking a bag or backpack and walking from door to door.  When you live out a-ways like we do, the neighborhood spans a couple of miles in each direction – our nearest neighbor to the west is over a quarter of a mile away.  To make my rounds, I load up the truck and drive from stop to stop, covering several miles in my journey. I’m back now, having chit-chatted several times along the way, and merely setting the items at the door at other stops.  I had to make sure that my conversations didn’t take too long this morning – I had a blog to write and the last batch of pear butter to boil down before my appointment in town this afternoon.  It all worked out OK, though, as the pears are now boiling and here I sit – finishing up the blog for the day, with plenty of time to spare. As I hear the pears bubbling on the stove, I can’t help but think about our friends who will, on some cold winter’s day, break the seal on one of our small jars.  They will dip their knives into the pear butter that boiled months before on my stove – a small taste of summer in a house surrounded by snow and cold.  It is an image that I hold in my mind and heart as I go to stir the pot and the pears boil down….

11:39 am | link          Comments Monday, August 2, 2010 The ‘boys’ are coming home….

Coda_with_Beth_09.jpg Tomorrow I travel to Tailwind Farm in Wisconsin to pick up my two herding dogs, Coda and Chance, who have been training there for the past three weeks or so.  I always look forward to my trips there because it gives me a chance to catch up with my good friend, Beth Miller, whom I have known since the first time I took a border collie there for training six years ago.  A lot has happened in that time: our first trained dog, Lisa, is now retired; Beth’s kids and mine are now all grown and gone from home (although her daughter – still in college – comes home for summers); and we are, of course, six years older….
From the very first meeting, Beth and I seemed to hit it off.  I had a crazy dog to train, and I came to Beth’s bearing lunch in hopes that she would take Lisa on as a project.  Over lunch, we got to know each other and discussed the possibilities.  After lunch, I went out to see some of her dogs-in-progress, and to watch her work.  It was awe-inspiring….  First of all, anytime you get to watch a well-trained border collie working sheep is awe-inspiring!  The way they can so calmly gather the sheep and move them through obstacles and into pens is amazing!It was also quite something to see Beth working with the beginner dogs….  She has the kindness, humor and patience that I knew was what I was looking for.  I left Lisa there that day for a six-week stint, and Beth has trained all of our dogs over the years since.  Each visit begins with lunch and conversation, and ends either with my leaving a dog there for her to train, or with my taking a dog home who is so much more help than when I left it!This time, Coda went for an attitude readjustment….  He is currently my number-one dog, but after years of herding my very strange sheep (who won’t move until he comes in very close and then nearly fly across the entire pasture until there is nowhere left to go!), he was obviously beginning to think that our herding problems were his own rather than those of our sheep.  I am hoping that after working Beth’s sheep for three weeks, he will come back with greater confidence in his own abilities and the knowledge that we just have peculiar sheep!Chance, on the other hand, went for his basic training last year and went back this year for a brush-up.  We always send our dogs when they are quite young – often before they are a year old – and then send them back the next year, when they have a bit more maturity, to smooth out and reinforce what they’ve learned.  I’m looking forward to getting Chance back as a working part of our farm, and to having him relieve Coda’s long working days and pair with me as a team for working our sheep.So, I sit here today looking forward to a nearly three-hour drive (one way) to have lunch with a good friend, and then see what my dogs can now do.  Beth and I don’t catch up that often, yet always seem to continue where we left off the time before, no matter how long it has been….  I think that’s a sign of true friendship: when time and distance doesn’t seem to impact the relationship between you.  And although I’ve gotten reports about my dogs along the way, it is never the same as actually seeing them and working with them to gauge their progress. And then we will make the long drive back home!
It’s funny: I know that the return of Coda and Chance will once again bring more dog hair and dirt into the house, and will result in a lot less peace and quiet.  Yet I look forward to their coming home as if they were my own kids – which, in a way, I guess they are….

2:25 pm | link          Comments Friday, July 30, 2010 Rain, rain, go away – come on back another day!

It is the end of July in Iowa and you would never know it to look around….  Usually by this time in the summer, the grass has slowed its growth. However, this year I’m still mowing the lawn every five days, and I leave enough cut grass in the rows that we could almost make hay from it – it is so tall when I cut!  For the third year in a row, we have had incredible rainfall throughout the summer!  Depending on location, we are between three and nine inches above average in rainfall for the month – a month that typically only gets about three inches of rain in total for the month!Now, you would think that this is a good thing for people like us who depend on grass to feed our livestock.  Rain in the summer is good: it allows the grass to keep growing so that our sheep can feed themselves in the pastures and we don’t have to buy expensive hay to keep them fed.  The problem is that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and I think we are there when it comes to rain – again!  This is the third year in a row that we have had this ‘problem.’For us, too much rain in the summer creates several problems….  First of all, we currently have three pastures with areas that are totally ungrazable because portions have literally become swampland.  The sheep won’t go in there to graze because they know that their legs will sink into the muck, and I’m sure they fear that they won’t be able to get out!  In fact, I worry whenever I need to walk into those areas that I won’t be able to get out!The second issue is that, with the ground so wet in most areas, any place that the sheep tread more than a few times becomes a muddy trail or puddle where the grass no longer grows.  When we have less rain, the paths are not as sensitive, and although the grass may disappear in commonly used pathways, as soon as the sheep are rotated out of the pasture, it begins to grow back.  This is not the case with the big, muddy paths and loafing areas that we have right now.  It will take some work and planning to get these areas back to their original grassy conditions.Lastly, it is much more difficult to keep the sheep’s fleeces from getting filthy dirty.  Yes, our sheep are kept coated year-round, but the mud and muck that they lie in when cudding (chewing their cud to continue the digestive process) can soak through their coats. Because we spend so much time each year changing coats in order to produce high-end fiber, it’s very frustrating to have it all spoiled because it won’t stop raining.  Another aspect of the fleece issue is the constantly damp fiber – this hot and wet weather is the perfect condition for mold to set in to some or all of the fleeces.  It’s a constant worry, but there isn’t much to be done about it!So I’ve quite honestly been wishing away the rain – at least for a while!  It isn’t the beach or my summer activities that I’m thinking of….  It is my flock!  Like most things, rain is good in moderation.  Unfortunately, moderate rain has once again gone out the window this year.  Let’s just hope things begin to dry up a bit in August….  And hoping is about all we can do!

10:10 am | link          Comments Wednesday, July 28, 2010 Alex helps out

Today marked the mid-point of my nephew’s week-long stay with us.  Alex, my brother’s son, is twelve and seems to be interested in all of the many things that we end up doing on our farm – or at least he is very talented at making me think that he is interested, even when things get to be a bit boring!  I’m actually getting used to having him around to help, and am going to miss him when he returns to West Virginia….The task for today, when we got up this morning, was to catch one of our ewe lambs for delivery to a farm in LaPorte, Iowa.  It seemed like a simple enough task when we originally made the plans….  We were going to get up, catch the lamb before things got too hot, put the ewe lamb into the crate in the bed of the pick-up, and leave the farm by about ten this morning.  We didn’t anticipate the heat, though!We got up at a decent hour and were finished with breakfast and ready to go by nine – ready to go into the pasture, that is!  We took Lisa, the only dog that is currently here (the others are in WI for herding dog training), and put her into the cab of the truck as we loaded up for the short drive to the pasture – just in case we might need her.  The walk back to the house to get her felt too far, in the humid conditions that we faced.  I knew that, in the heat and humidity already evident as we got into the truck, this was not going to be a particularly fun event….We parked the truck at the gate to the pasture where all of the ewes and ewe lambs are currently grazing.  The plan was to lure them to approach us using bag of sliced apples, then try to spy Jayne, who was our target.  Following this plan, once we found Jayne, whoever was closest to her would grab for her coat and try to hold her there until the other could also get a good hold.  In the end, since we planned to do all of this just inside the pasture gate, we thought we would just carry her to the pick-up and pop her into the crate that was all set up for her travel.  I only wish things had gone as planned!The first problem was that Lisa was in the truck and as soon as she saw sheep that she wasn’t allowed to herd, she began to bark – LOUD!  No sheep in his/her right mind is going to walk up to a gate next to a truck with a big, barking dog in it – no matter how tasty the apples may be!  We had to move our plans farther into the pasture – much closer to where the sheep were and farther from the crazily barking Lisa.  The next part of the plan that also didn’t work was that only the adult ewes came over for our apples. The lambs knew that they would most likely walk over to us in the heat and humidity, and then the ewes, who are so much bigger, would likely push them out of the way anyhow.  We fed out nearly all of the apple slices and still had not yet seen one ewe lamb except for January – who doesn’t even like apples!So we had to go in search of the ewe lambs rather than wait for them to come to us – which led us even farther from the truck.  I slowly walked into the very brushy area of this pasture where the ewes typically spend the night, hoping to see Jayne.  I did find the ewe lambs there.  The problem is that Jayne looks very much like six or seven other ewe lambs from this spring’s lambing.  I had to get a good look at their relatively small eartags to identify which lamb we were after.  By this time, all of us – sheep included – were hot and sweaty and not in a very good mood.  My walking among them was rather suspicious, so many of the ewes were beginning to get nervous and move away from me – which made me move back towards where they went.  This little dance went on and on, with Alex and me moving towards the ewes, and them moving away. Eventually, after about a half-hour of searching for Jayne, I spotted that lovely number 0398 in her left ear!  Now, I only had to catch her and get her to the truck!  Catching her was not a problem – by this time, all of the sheep were hot and didn’t want to move too much.  I snuck up behind a tree next to where she stood and grabbed and, thank goodness, I got a good handful of her coat!  I had her!  Now, we just had to get her to the truck, a full fifty yards away…. At first, I had no idea how to get her there.  I picked her up to carry her, but she is a big girl – there was no way that even the two of us could carry her that far!  Then the idea came to me: Alex could hold her in place while I went to bring the truck closer!  Alex has very little experience holding sheep, and Jayne had lots of desire to get away, so I wasn’t sure this was going to work.  It was our only option, though, and Alex was game to give it a try – as he has been for many different things since his arrival!  I gave him a short tutorial on how to hold Jayne firmly but not so tightly as to hurt her, and left to get the truck.  When I started my trek back to the pick-up, Jayne was lying on the ground (easier to make sure she didn’t get away), and Alex had one arm under her head to keep her from going forward, and had the other hand firmly on her hip to hold her down on the ground.  I only hoped she would still be with him when I got back! As I drove up with the truck a few minutes later, they were both still there!  Granted, Jayne had figured out how to stand, but it was obvious that there was no way that Alex was going to let her get away.  He had a firm hold on the front of her with one arm, and was holding tight to her coat with the other.  Jayne kicked and jumped, but she was going nowhere if Alex had anything to say about it!  I quickly stopped the truck and jumped out to help.  Within seconds, we had her safely in the bed of the truck, ready for her trip north!  Alex and I were not so ready, though….  By the time we got into the truck, we were soaked in sweat and smeared with all manner of dirt and grime – it was time to get cleaned up before we took to the road! This is just one small example of the many ways that Alex has been such a trooper this week.  He’s been a quick study when it comes to sheep, chickens, crazy border collies like Lisa, and even canning pear butter!  He just always seems to be where he is needed and happy to lend a hand!  I’m going to miss this guy when he leaves; I’ll be back to working alone, again.  But I do have him until Friday!

9:26 pm | link          Comments Monday, July 26, 2010 Summer can be a pain….

We spent all of last week at a small cabin in Door County, Wisconsin, far from reliable phone or Internet service.  It was wonderfully relaxing, and we came back from the week refreshed and ready to go!  In addition, we brought back Alex, my brother Greg’s son, to help us out for the week.  Good thing, because the minute we put our son, Justin, and his girlfriend, Shayna, on the plane back to North Carolina, we were overwhelmed with all we needed to do before this morning (when Rick once again returned to work at Rockwell/Collins).First of all, there was lots of mowing to catch up on – the lawn was overgrown from all the rain that came during our week away, plus it was also past time to move the sheep, and we always mow the pasture as the sheep leave the area (to keep inedible weeds down).  I started mowing with the riding mower yesterday morning at ten and didn’t finish until about five in the afternoon!  Rick, thankfully, took care of the hand mowing (as opposed to my riding mower) and the weed whacking to give the place a more finished look.Once we got all of the mowing under control, it was time to begin to work with the animals.  The sheep needed new pasture after spending a week and a half in the same place, and we needed to dose the llamas with their monthly dewormer.  We figured that while we were getting all of that done, we might as well take advantage of the help we had arranged (both Alex and some friends who came over to help) and change coats on those lambs that needed it, then divide the lambs into ewe and ram groups, adding them to the adults at the end.Up until about the first of August, we run three separate grazing groups: the lambs, who are first into a pasture, then the ewes, and finally the rams.  Eventually, the ram lambs become interested enough in the adult ewes that they begin making their way under fences to find the adult ewe group.  Once that happens, we know it is time to pull the ram lambs out and add them to the adult ram group – their minds are no longer on nursing and are now on procreation!  We’ve had this problem for the last week or two, so we decided to deal with that, too, while we were moving sheep around.Although we expected the moving of sheep to be the big challenge of the evening, it turned out that Summer, our newest llama, stole the show!  When it’s time for their monthly deworming, we usually try to “trap” the llamas in a corner of the pasture among their sheep so that they cannot move easily with sheep under and around their legs.  At that point, we can easily hold the llama in place with a harness while we give them the necessary injection to prevent meningeal worms – and also an oral dewormer, as needed.Summer_on_the_run.jpgLast night, Summer decided that she did not want any part of our planned deworming!  Although the other two llamas were very cooperative, and we had lots of assistance in the pastures to help in the chase, Summer constantly found new ways to escape our grasp….  At one point, Rick actually got a lead rope around her neck, but even that didn’t stop her from running – and a llama can outrun a person any day of the week!  Rick did his best to hold on and keep up, but within only a few yards, he was forced to let go as Summer dashed along the fenceline away from the small army of workers looking to deworm her! In the end, we were forced to resort to our back-up plan:  We moved Summer and her ewe flock all the way around the acreage into the barn and confined them there while we worked.  In the smaller area of the barn, catching Summer became a much easier task.  It was only minutes after we moved them in that we were once again moving the group back out to their fresh pasture.  It put the hour we had spent chasing her into an even more frustrating light! We finally finished all of our sheep-work after two-and-a-half hours at 9:15 p.m. –  well after the sun had set.  The advantages of working in the evening far outweigh the disadvantages – the workers and the sheep stay cooler as we move, and the sheep don’t lose valuable grazing time because they have usually eaten what they need earlier in the day.  It does make for a long day, though, and by the time we were finished and came indoors, we were past ready for showers and bed.  I do wonder whether Summer was as tired out by the experience as we were….

2:53 pm | link          Comments Friday, July 16, 2010 Jolt and his friend – continued

It has been a very hot week.  The sheep are each drinking over a gallon of water each day, and spending their days lying in the shade to keep cool – all their grazing is taking place in the early hours after sunrise and then late in the day as the sun sets.  Jolt and his friend, Janus, came up to the barn on Monday because of parasites, and spent the week keeping cool there. The advantage to putting them in the barn on these hot days (besides the fact that they are near to the house!) is that the barn is purposely built into the side of the hill to keep it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.  We added a ventilation fan to suck out the hot air through the cupola when it was built, and we run it most of the summer to keep the inside of the barn fairly cool.  It does seem to work pretty well, as our thermometer tells us that it is typically about 10-15 degrees F cooler in the barn than in the shade outside of it.  In addition to having to medicate Jolt and Janus, we decided the heat was another good reason to keep them in the barn until we saw a nearly-complete recovery. Since my niece, Heidi, has been staying here with us all week, her job has been to collect eggs each morning, and she has been taking a side-trip to the barn at the same time to check on the two ram lambs.  Every morning, we have celebrated the fact that they seemed to be making progress, eating hay and generally looking perkier….  Every morning until yesterday, that is.  When Heidi went up to the barn yesterday morning, she hurried back down to tell me, “Either Jolt is sleeping really deeply or I think something is wrong.”  My heart fell as I ran up to the barn to check. Heidi was indeed correct.  Jolt had died just a short time before we checked the barn yesterday morning.  As a result, Janus was quite nervous with no other sheep to “flock” with.  Even as I mourned Jolt’s passing, I knew I had to act quickly due to the heat we expected later in the day. I bundled Jolt up in a tarp to protect him from flies and turned my attention to Janus – we had to return him to the flock in the pasture, and we had to do it before it got hot.  As you may recall, he didn’t have near the anemia that Jolt had when we brought them in – Janus was ready to return to his flock-mates.  I caught him, picked him up, and carried him to the bed of the pick-up where I loaded him in.  When our lambs are this small/young, we just put the cover over the pick-up bed and load the lambs into the covered bed – they are small enough to be able to stand in the bed with the cover above them, and  I feel confident that they can’t get out.  In the warm temperatures that morning, I knew I couldn’t leave him there for more than a few minutes, but we were only going 1/4 mile to the pasture gate to release him – we had plenty of time. Janus happily rejoined his flock-mates when we opened the tailgate.  Later in the day, we decided to deworm the entire lamb flock to make sure that there would be no surprises of anemia while we have others caring for our flock in the coming week (since we are leaving the farm to friends and family as we go on vacation tomorrow).  As I dewormed the lambs in the pasture, I checked inside their lower eyelids to see whether there was any other lamb in the group as anemic as Jolt.  They all looked fine….  I did have a few that were slightly anemic, but there was nothing severe – nothing needing specialized attention in the barn. So, in addition to learning about all of the many jobs on a farm like ours, Heidi also got a lesson about life and death.  We had a bit of a talk as we processed what had happened yesterday – how we bring life to the world in the spring when the lambs come and celebrate each one, then we celebrate again as select lambs leave for their new homes as breeding animals.  Along the way, we sometimes lose one or two, and that is part of the way life works – eventually, everything dies, and we mourn those lambs who are with us only a short time – and are happy that there aren’t many.  We shed a few tears and then get back to work because there is always something that needs to be done – and the work helps. Last night, as the sun began to set and we dewormed the remaining lambs, we took a short break to look around and celebrate those lambs that are still here with us.  In fact, that was about the time when January came up and began chewing the hose for the dewormer – a reminder to get back to work and finish up so that we could focus our attention on her!  The presence of a bottle lamb always seems to help, too!

4:17 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, July 14, 2010 Jolt and his ‘friend’

It was later in the evening on Monday when my niece, Heidi, and I were out in the Fire Circle Pasture checking on the lambs and looking to spend some “quality time” with January (one of this year’s bottle lambs).  Because the lambs are still young enough to be more curious about our presence than fearful – and the fact that I only have Lisa at home at the moment (see the post from Monday, July 12th) – we took no dogs out with us.  We simply walked into the pasture and waited for the lambs to begin to come to check us out.It wasn’t long, however, before some of them were running towards us, others running away from us, and yet others were standing around us watching as we scratched January’s face and belly.  As I watched our lambs’ movement, I noticed two lambs who had obviously been battling cases of scours (or, in human terms, diarrhea).  This is something I watch for in hot, moist weather because it is one sign of internal parasites, which love the hot, sticky weather we’ve been having.As I watched the lambs move and graze, I noticed that although one of these two ram lambs seemed to want to keep up with his friends, he looked a bit wobbley on his feet – not a good sign for a lamb.  It wasn’t long before Heidi noticed it, too, and mentioned that he didn’t seem to be feeling well.  I got a good look at his eartag to make a note of which lamb we were after and went to work.  We were after Jolt, number 0433, a Romney ram lamb born to Italie near the end of lambing.  It was time to catch him and check things out a bit….Jolt_face_July_2010.jpgIt didn’t take us long to get our hands on him, and the problem soon became obvious.  When I pulled his lower eyelid down, looking for the usual pink inside of the eyelid, all I saw was very white-white tissues – a sure sign of a bad case of anemia.  I also looked at the inside of his mouth – and found the same thing.  Poor Jolt had a terrible case of anemia – to the point where he could hardly keep himself on his feet.  As we lifted him into the bed of the pick-up truck for a ride to the barn, he lay there like he had used up all of his energy to merely stand when we had examined him.  It didn’t look good….Because a single lamb isolated in the barn becomes very stressed over its situation, we decided to nab the other lamb who was also scouring.  We checked his lower eyelid and gums, too, but his parasite load was not nearly as heavy – no obvious color loss in his tissues.  We did take him along in the truck, though, thinking that perhaps we could get his scours under control while he kept Jolt company in the barn.  We got them both up to the barn and into a stall, where we could try to make things better for them.Working on a farm is a lovely idea, but not everything we do is quite so romantic as it may sometimes seem….  The first thing we had to do was to deworm both lambs, which involved squirting about ten cc of dewormer into each lamb’s mouth, in hopes that they would swallow it.  When that didn’t happen so well with Jolt, we had to guess how much he had let dribble out and then give him that much more.  I wish it wasn’t so gooey when you get it all over your hands, but it is!  After the dewormer, we turned to the obvious result of the parasite problem – their foul fleeces over and around their rumps. Leaving the lambs with such a mess at their rear ends would only invite fly strike – an invasion of flies laying eggs in the moist fleece, with their larvae burrowing into the already fragile skin beneath.  Fly strike is not pretty when it happens – it makes me absolutely squirm when I see it, so I do all I can to avoid the whole mess.  I would rather trim manure-coated fleece for days rather than deal with fly strike for just a few hours – so we did.  Not for days, though – it only took about half an hour for me to trim away all of the really nasty fleece under the tail and around the back of the legs of these two ram lambs – not a bad investment to keep away something as nasty as fly strike!.  I know this was not what Heidi envisioned when she said that she wanted to visit our farm for a week, but she did say she wanted to help with the animals while here, so she got to hold each lamb as it took its turn.  Again, not a pretty job, but a necessary one. We filled a few hay feeders with alfalfa/grass hay, and made sure the boys had clean water and a nearly endless supply of salt (at least for two lambs!).  We finished our doctoring by giving Jolt about an ounce of an energy-rich, vitamin-and-mineral supplement that we hoped would keep him going.  There wasn’t much else we could do, so we hoped for the best and went in for the night. I was not sure that Jolt would be alive in the morning when we first went out to check on the two ram lambs yesterday morning.  He had been so weak the night before that my confidence level was very low.  In fact, I sent Heidi back to the house to bring out the supplement just in case the news was not good – she didn’t need to see that he had died with her own eyes, I thought.  It would be bad enough to hear about it after I had gone into the barn first.  Jolt surprised us all, though.  As I peeked into the stall in which we had left the boys, he was standing at one of the hay feeders with his head up – he looked pretty darn good in comparison to how he looked in the pasture!  His buddy, too, seemed to be enjoying the hay with little competition. Jolt isn’t out of the woods, yet, but he seems to be holding his own for now.  We gave him a shot of B-12 yesterday afternoon, in hopes that it would help inprove his appetite and just generally keep things going in the right direction.  He is also still getting an ounce of the energy/vitamin/mineral supplement each day, too.  So, right now, the scours are gone, and we just need to make sure that they have hay, water, and salt always available.  My hope is that within a relatively short while, we will begin to see a bit of color come back into his tissues to prove to us that he is, indeed, on his way to recovery.  For the time being, however, we can only hope that both of the boys are improving in health during their barn time with us.

9:47 am | link          Comments Monday, July 12, 2010 Getting ready

This is an unusual week for us….  Next week, there will be no blogs written and no Peeper Hollow Farm business taking place here – it is our annual “Retreat Week” when we leave everything in the hands of good friends and family and go recharge ourselves.  We make sure that we are out of reach of Internet and cell phones for the entire week, knowing full well that the farm and the sheep will be well taken care of.  We can be reached in case of emergency, but other than that, we spend the week just unwinding, thinking of nothing having to do with sheep or work….OK, that last bit is only partially true….  I have to be honest in saying that even at my most relaxed and remote, I do still think of the sheep.  The difference, though, is that I don’t worry.  For one week, it is not my problem!  I may consider different possibilities for breeding groups as I sip my drink, sitting in the Adirondack chair at the side of the bay, but I don’t furiously take notes of my musings on napkins or write them on the inside of my hand, as I often do while at home!So this week is even crazier than usual for us!  This week is the week before we leave, and we need to prepare so that our house-sitters (who are vacationing themselves – experiencing farm life first-hand) aren’t overwhelmed with things they need to do.  Farm life is hard enough without having to mow the lawn, pick up feed, etc.  That means that, this week, we need to get ahead of the game.Before we leave we will not only have to clean the house for our guests, but we will also need to move the sheep into pastures that will sustain them for about ten days – over double what we normally expect of our fields.  We will need to set up enough water troughs so that they will have enough water for that period, too.  We will need to get the lawn and the already-used pastures mowed before we leave – to eliminate the need for mowing while we are gone.  And, in the end, we will need to take a careful look at each of the sheep and llamas to make sure that there is no obvious medical issue before we leave – this way, we can at least give our houseguests a heads up as to what the issues may be, and get any necessary treatments started before we leave.What is really fun is that, this week, I have extra help in getting ready for our trip!  My neice, Heidi, who is ten years old, took the train out from West Virginia this past weekend and is here for the week, helping us in any way she can.  She will stay with us through this week and then come with us on vacation, where she will meet up with my brother (her father) and head home with him.Having her here was invaluable yesterday when we went out to see the lambs.  We soon discovered that Jolt, one of the ram lambs, was not doing well….  After catching him (and Jude, just to keep him company), we took them both back to the barn to determine the problem.  It didn’t take much checking to realize that Jolt is suffering from a bad case of anemia due to internal parasites.  Heidi was a good sport, holding this poor, dirty, sick lamb as I doctored him.  Both he and Jude got a fair dose of dewormer and then a trim around the tail where the fleece was nasty and soiled – to keep the flies away and make them more comfortable.  We hung a few hay feeders full of alfalfa hay for them to nibble, and Jolt also got a dose of Nutri-drench, which provides energy, vitamins and minerals to weak sheep.  All we could do at that point was to hope he would still be alive this morning – he was terribly sick. I have to admit that it was with much trepidation that we approached the barn this morning to see how the boys had survived the night.  Neither of us really wanted to find Jolt dead, but we also knew that yesterday I had put his chances of survival at only about 40%….  I even sent Heidi back to the house on some errand this morning so that I could approach the barn alone – preventing her from getting the possibly bad news visually.  As it turned out, Jolt is just fine today!  He still has a long road to recovery, but he is now stabilized and beginning to improve.  His chances have jumped to about 90% now, so we no longer need to hesitate as we approach the barn! So, Heidi and I are off to run errands today.  We need to stock up on food for the chickens before we leave – otherwise they will run out while we are gone.  We also have several other important stops to make before we head off to more fun activities.  This will be a busy week for us, but I know that, in the end, it will all be worth it!

10:38 am | link          Comments Friday, July 9, 2010 Gone for training

I am posting early this morning because I’m on my way out of town for the day.  Coda, Chance and I are off to visit my friend, Beth Miller, who also happens to train our border collies as working dogs. They will likely spend two to four weeks there, which will leave me with no workers for that period.  Actually, that isn’t totally true – Lisa will still be here with us to help out as much as we will let her.  That’s exactly the point, though – we don’t really want Lisa’s help….Lisa was our first working dog, born in November of 2003 and flown to us as an eight-week-old pup from Texas.  Between my not knowing much about choosing or training working dogs, and Lisa’s odd temperament, we’ve butted heads plenty over the years.  It was a happy day when I could finally retire Lisa in favor of working with Coda….  Lisa is just much too eager to work – and wants to work only for herself.  She is not a team player and, unfortunately for me, herding is definitely a team sport!  The human and the canine need to work as one, directing the sheep together to move them as needed.  Lisa never quite got the hang of that, so she has been “retired” for a couple of years now.   Chance, Coda, and Lisa in front of our house last winter dogs_2009_2.jpg Coda, on the other hand, is a natural!  When we walk outside to work the sheep, he can instantly read the situation and often knows what I want done before I give the command for him to do it.  Early on in our relationship, I thought that he must somehow be reading my mind, but over time I have come to realize that he is just very tuned in to me and my non-verbal communication.  Even before I realize that I’ve figured out what I want him to do, he has already gotten that information from the way I stand or where I look, and is ready to go!All of our dogs go to Beth in Wisconsin for six weeks of training when they are a year old. Then we take them for another two weeks or more the next year to clean up and smooth out any unwanted traits that they have picked up from me over the interim year.  This year is Chance’s second training year – after that, he will move into a regular working slot on our farm.Although we have a relatively small flock, we use our dogs a lot….  My guess would be that we use a dog to move sheep at least four times each week – sometimes to change pastures, sometimes to change coats on sheep, and sometimes to separate a sheep out for medication.  But regardless of what we need to do with the sheep, if we need them moved or caught, we will use a dog.This time of year, when the humidity and temperatures are high, we could often use more than one dog.  We will use Coda until he begins to overheat, at which point we take him into the air conditioning and use a fan. This is when another dog would be handy, but for the past couple of years, we’ve had to wait until Coda cooled off before using him again – Chance just wasn’t ready and I wasn’t up to fighting with Lisa.  It will ge good to have Chance as a backup for Coda beginning next month! But, while both dogs are away, we will still need to move sheep.  We’ve been puzzling this out for a while.  It certainly has taken us back to the days before we had working dogs!  We did discuss taking only one dog to see Beth, and then taking the other when the first returns. The drive is fairly long, though, and taking them both at the same time is just simpler. So, this weekend when we need to move all of the sheep into new pastures, both Coda and Chance will be gone.  The working solution will be to put Lisa on a long line and take her out to help move the sheep.  At least if she is on a long line, she can’t get into too much trouble before I pull her back!  Lisa has a tendency to treat the livestock roughly – something I don’t tolerate.  With the long line, I can pull her back before she makes contact with the sheep – something I learned long ago when working with Lisa! In addition to not having dogs to work with, I think the other big issue will be how quiet the house will be….  All three of our dogs live inside with us, and I wouldn’t consider them quiet.  They consider themselves to be part of our “pack” and it has been a long time since we had only one dog in the house with us.  It will be a very unusual few weeks with only Lisa….  I’m already eager to get the boys back!

8:17 am | link          Comments Wednesday, July 7, 2010 Decisions, decisions…

It is at this time of year, when there is little work outdoors among the sheep, that I begin to plan for this year’s breeding season.  I’ve chosen the ram lambs who will join our ram flock for the coming winter, and I’ve identified the cull ewes and the ewe lambs who will replace them.  It is now time to determine which of the group of ten rams will actually have a breeding group this fall, and which of the ewes he will get. Using ram lambs to breed ewes during the first fall after the males’ birth is a bit controversial – and not because this is some kind of Mrs. Robinson thing!  The issue is that they are not yet full grown.  Although we have seen how they’ve grown during those first six or eight months, we still don’t know what they will look like as adult rams at two or three years of age.  Using such a young ram risks putting unwanted genetics – that haven’t shown themselves yet – into your future lamb flock.  Even a yearling ram gives you a much better idea of what that ram will look like and the fiber he will produce, compared to the first-fall ram lamb. On the other hand, our lambs contain our very best genetics to date – or should!  We strive for genetic improvement each year, so the faster we can get those lambs into service, the faster we will continue to see improvement.  This goes for both ewe lambs and ram lambs – one of the reasons that we do breed our ewe lambs. So, it is with these thoughts in mind that I sit here trying to decide what to do with Josiah, one of this year’s Romeldale ram lambs.  He has a lot going for him:  he is beautifully built, with nice straight lines and a regal stance.  He is the son of Hope, a brown ewe, so he likely carries brown genetics that I would like to spread further among my flock.  He seems to have gotten the better fleece traits of both of his parents, with a gorgeous luster to his fleece and a lovely handle. An interesting trait among the CVM/Romeldale breed is the fact that they darken with age.  Usually, colored sheep are born black or brown and then lighten with age, adding more and more white fibers to their fleece.  This is similar to people, who go grayer and grayer with age as our hair coloring fades out.  In the case of this breed, they are born looking very similar to any of the other breeds, but usually will add more color as they age. Josiah_side_web.jpgThis is definitely true of Josiah, who was born with a badger pattern* and a lot of spotting, as you can see in his birth photo at left.  The fleece on his back was a creamy white with little or no color to it.  At a very young age, he was identified as a possible future flock ram, based on his genetics, rate of growth and his conformation.  The problem was his very pale coloring – if I wanted a white fleece, I would select a white ram!  We decided to wait and see what happened with his fleece in the first year.  When we sheared him with the rams in June (just in case he darkened and we might decide to use him this fall), it was already obvious that his fleece had begun to change color.  All of that white fleece on his back was infused with light and dark gray “freckles,” creating a variegated fleece (see current photo at right).  Josiah_back_July_2010.jpgI suspect that, by the time we shear him next June, his fleece will be a variegated gray fleece with very little of the white that was so dominant at birth….  But that is only my suspicion.  I cannot at this time be sure what he will look like!  I only know what I am seeing now. One thing I can be sure of, though, is the fact that he wants to work!  For the past several weeks, he has been escaping from the lamb flock and making his way over to the ewes.  The Romeldale/CVM ewes are very likely already cycling and are ready to breed, and he knows it.  Josiah seems to have discovered some time ago that he is a ram and that they are not, and he knows just what to do when he gets there.  If we have fall lambs, we will know who sired them – we have had to remove Josiah from among the ewes several times, already!  He is now trapped within mesh fencing with the rest of the lamb flock to keep him from escaping yet again…. So, here I sit, wondering whether Josiah should have his own small breeding group this fall to see what he can produce, or whether the better plan is to use the two other adult rams that I have and leave Josiah for next year when he will be a yearling.  He does have the desire.  He does have the fleece and the color.  And he does seem to have the rate of growth and the build – at least at this point in time.  Well, I think I will let him have a few girls and see what he does….  We can only hope that he will prove himself, and we will end up with a wonderful group of lambs who all inherit his best traits – we can only hope! *Josiah’s badger markings consist of dark eyes, dark muzzle, striping down the sides of his face, a dark underbelly, and dark legs. Some sheep display one or the other of the remaining two badger markings: dark chest from chin to underbelly, and/or dark area under the tail.

11:34 am | link          Comments Monday, July 5, 2010 Quite a scare

We originally got our first sheep to have something to help keep down the height our grass…lots of grass.  Those first three sheep could in no way keep up with our acres and acres of grass, but now, with eighty-six sheep currently grazing my fields, they are getting pretty close at times!  We’ve taken the ten or eleven acres of grass that lie around the house, barn, pond and timber and divided them into eight grazing areas through which we rotate the sheep. Hopefully, next year we will add enough permanent fencing that we will subdivide some of the bigger areas so that we have ten pastures to use – but that is then, and this is now.  We currently have our eight. One of the better pastures is directly in front of the house – between the house and the pond, bordered by the driveway and the east fence of the West Pasture.  Over the years, all of our pastures have picked up names; this one is called the House Pasture, probably because it is only about thirty feet from the front porch of the house!  The biggest problem with this pasture, however, is that it has little fencing around it – this is one of those future projects that we need to get to! On Friday night, in anticipation of our upcoming vacation, we moved all of the lambs into the House Pasture, as part of their rotation. Because the north and south boundaries are not fenced, we set up temporary net fencing that we bought from Premiere 1 Supply about eight years ago.  It is very easy to set up, and I love to use it with the adult sheep.  The problem is that we’ve had issues when we’ve used it with the lambs. In years past, we used this fencing a lot – we had only two pastures fenced at the time, so we used the temporary net fencing whenever we grazed any of the other parts of the acreage.  The problem we encountered was that sometimes lambs decided that there was better grazing on the other side of the fence – kind of our own version of “the grass is always greener….” One time, I went to check on the lamb flock, only to find one of our lambs entirely caught up in the net fencing: head, legs, and body.  This fence is energized to deliver a strong electrical charge periodically to make sure the sheep stay back.  The lamb lived but she was weakened, and it took nearly a week of nursing in the barn before I could return her to the flock with confidence that she was OK.  It is the long wool on our lambs that keeps the shock level low enough that they attempt to find a way though. There was also another time, years ago, that we found a lamb tangled in the fencing, and that lamb did not survive.  It was that summer, with two lamb entanglements, that we decided to use the mesh fence either not at all or on a very limited basis with our lambs: only when there was exceptionally good grazing inside the fencing, and only if the fencing was installed at the side of a driveway or mowed area where the grazing was not enough to entice a lamb to push their head through the openings in the mesh. We no longer use this fencing with young lambs (as we did that summer), only after lambs hit about 70 pounds. And even then, I am outside checking the fence and their grazing multiple times a day so that I can, hopefully, prevent any problems from becoming severe.  house_pasture_2.jpgAll of this was on my mind yesterday as I walked out onto my front porch (to the view at left) to let the dogs out and to check on the lambs in the House Pasture…. When our three dogs leave the house, they barrel out of the door, barking and yelping.  I know that sounds crazy, but we have a fox den across the road and, long ago, that fox would occasionally find its way into our yard.  One day, years ago, the dogs came out to find the fox near the chicken coop, so they chased it back to the timber across the road.  Ever since then, they seem to think that the fox is still out there waiting for them to chase him, so they come barrelling out – just in case! And so it was, yesterday, when I let the dogs out to do their business while I checked the lamb flock.  As the dogs barrelled out of the house, barking and yelping, the sheep (of course) all ran to flock together at the far corner of their alloted pasture, afraid that the dogs were after them!  They all grouped together in the far southwest where the dogs could not get near to them.  All, that is, but one small lamb who continued to lie there, unmoving…. I was a little concerned at this point, but not yet terribly frightened….  Many things came to mind, including the idea that this lamb could merely be sleeping.  The problem was that the sleepng idea lasted for only a few seconds, and then the other options came full-force into my brain; things like electrocution by the fencing, a coyote or stray dog, heat stroke from the high temperatures, and on and on…. I walked over to the edge of the fence closest to the lamb and hollered for it to get up and rejoin its flock.  The dogs, of course, came to help me, so the lamb was treated to a chorus of yelling, yelping, and barking,  but it just lay there, looking pretty darn flat.  Flat is not a good thing for a lamb.  When they are found dead, they always look pretty flat to me – it’s like when the life leaves them, there is nothing to keep the body together, and they just flatten out.  Anyhow, now I was really worried….  If this lamb wasn’t getting up for three dogs and a person within about twenty feet yelling at it, then this was not good! I got the dogs back into the house and turned off the electric fence so that I could climb over.  Martin, Zoe, and all of the other lambs were still bunched together in their corner, wishing – I am sure – that I would just go back into the house so that they could continue grazing….  I made my way over to the flat lamb to find out what on earth had happened.  I couldn’t believe that we had lost a lamb – we just don’t lose lambs when we’ve gotten them this far!  As I got to within about five feet of this black ram lamb, he suddenly popped up, looked around for his friends in a panic, shook his head to clear the cobwebs, and ran, skipping and leaping, to rejoin his flock!  So much for having lost a lamb!  Thank goodness! This whole story does underline a fact of life here on the farm, though.  Life to us is extremely precious – be it lamb, or sheep or dog or chicken or person!  Life is something to be preserved.  It can also be fleeting.  I’ve learned that death is a natural part of life.  Regardless of my efforts to sustain life and keep death away, it sometimes comes uninvited to rob us of some of that life we hold so dear.  The boundary between life and death can be suprisingly narrow – at least in my experience.  I have come to acknowledge that death is a part of farm life, but believe me, it is the one part that I still struggle to accept.  The good thing is that, this time, I was wrong.  This time, instead of facing death, that little lamb got a good, sound sleep – a much happier alternative!

1:13 pm | link          Comments Friday, July 2, 2010 Bottle lambs in general, and January in particular

Bottle lambs are a fact of life on most sheep farms.  Most shepherds – myself included – avoid bottle lambs when at all possible, but the sad fact is that things happen and, occasionally, you end up with a lamb or two who must be bottle-fed.  Many shepherds will sell or give away their bottle lambs to avoid the work and hassle that is involved, but we have always worked through any issues that arose, trying to keep those lambs around.  Over the years, when this situation has come up, we have become creative in trying to push the bulk of the work back onto our ewes…. One time, we “grafted” the lamb to another ewe who delivered only a single – fooling her into thinking that this was her own lamb by sliming it with her own fluids during delivery, and tying three of its legs together for the first ten minutes or so.  The lamb was wet and struggling like a newborn trying to stand – she took him as her own and then greeted her own true lamb, who was actually born minutes later.  We always thought it funny when, at times, she seemed almost proud of her very “smart” firstborn who was so “advanced” in comparison to her second son. Other times, we have – when necessary – fed lambs by bottle, but housed them with their mothers in the barn.  The mothers still raised the lambs, teaching them all things sheep-like, as we provided nothing more than the nutrition.  Harmony was one of these lambs two years ago – Celeste had lost function of half of her bag, so only had enough milk for one of her twins: Heavenly.  We began bringing bottles out to Harmony that first day, but Celeste was still her mother, and still raised Harmony as a sheep – albeit a friendly one! This year, we ended up with three bottle lambs for various reasons.  Jasper was unwanted by his dam so we had to act fast – bottle rams can turn mean as adults, inevitably ending up in the meat industry as lamb or mutton.  We castrated Jasper (to avoid the meanness issue) and adopted him out to Hailey, who had lost her own ram lamb, Joshua, at about the same time.  The adoption was not one of our most successful placements, but Hailey took over Jasper’s care for a while at least.  She no longer had any milk, so we provided the bottles, but she watched over him and cared for him for several weeks.  He definitely had no illusions about the fact that he was 100% sheep! Jareau was Celeste’s single lamb this year and encountered the same problems that Harmony had two years ago: Celeste had no milk for her.  Celeste did, however, take very good care of Jareau, mothering her and teaching her to be a sheep.  Although there will always be a connection between Jareau and me, it is definitely the connection between a sheep and a human, and always will be.  We are friendly, but we are not the same.  She has her flock, and I am only occasionally part of that life. And then there is January…our sweet January.  January was also refused by her overwhelmed mother who had triplets this year at her first birthing.  January was the last born, white after two black lambs, and her mother immediately decided that she was the odd one and an intruder.  Within minutes of birth, it was obvious that January had to be moved away from her mother (who continually bashed her into the walls of the pen).  As tired as I was that day in the middle of lambing, her new home became a box in the laundry room of our house.  In essence, January became my baby – at least for a couple of weeks. While all of the other bottle lambs in our past were mothered by a sheep, January is our first “house raised” bottle lamb.  By the age of two or three weeks, she was back in the barn with the other sheep, but by then, she had already figured out that they were sheep and that she was not. She was my child, and I lived in the house – where she had been raised! It has been for months, now, that our sheep have been out on pasture with very little human contact.  Jareau has mentally become fully a sheep, grazing with the rest of the flock and skittering away when I come near.  If I call her, she will look at me, but will no longer come forward.  It is only the enticement of food that will pull her to my side, away from the flock – and then usually only when Harmony and some of the other more friendly ewes come forward at the same time. But even after all this time, January is not really a sheep….  If she hears my voice outside, she immediately scoots under any fences and runs across pastures until she finds me.  If she can’t get to my side, she calls, waiting to hear my voice in reply.  When we move sheep for grazing, Zoe and all the other lambs run ahead, knowing they are going to fresh, clean pasture, with Coda (my border collie)  and me bringing up the rear of the group, Coda on my right…. Oh, I forgot to mention: January is also in that picture…  She’s the one walking happily on my left! Coda has long since learned that he is not allowed to bite January  – even lightly – to “teach her” to move away from dogs.  She will put up with a lot of biting to be able to walk at my side, and it became pointless to try to teach her otherwise.  Coda and January have since fallen into an uneasy agreement that shows itself whenever we move sheep: Coda walks on my right, and January keeps close at my left.  Coda will not look at January in that position – it is too much of a failure to him to have a sheep so unconcerned with his close proximity!  January, on the other hand, is convinced that Coda must be another of my “children” and keeps trying to make eye contact with him.  The interaction – or lack thereof – is endlessly entertaining as we walk the sheep to their new pasture every few days! As to how this whole situation with January will turn out is anyone’s guess.  I really thought that, by now, January would only have a few fond memories of her time as my bottle lamb.  In actuality, she is now more like a dog than a lamb.  If I should stop as we are walking together, she will stop with me.  If I walk out to the mailbox from the house, she will run from the far timber to join me, and walk with me to the road, staying close at my left side.  Whenever she first joins me, I welcome her by scratching her face, neck, and belly – if I forget, she jumps up onto me with her front hooves on my legs, wanting her “loving.”  In fear of what this behavior will turn into as she approaches her adult size, I have begun welcoming her immediately when she arrives, and scratching her only if she keeps all hooves on the ground….  The last thing I will want/need next winter would be a two-hundred pound pregnant adult ewe jumping up on me with her hooves to get scratched hello! When, after some time together, it’s time for me to re-enter the house, I walk January back to the nearest fence in the direction of her flock.  Somehow, once I do this, she knows it is time to return to the sheep world that she normally inhabits, and she begins her trip back to the flock, scooting under fences and through pastures.  I usually stay and watch until she returns to the fold, with the llama greeting her at the fence. I would hate to think that a stray dog or coyote might get her before she found her flock, so I stand there and watch – and I find myself remembering. Years ago, as my children walked themselves into their first school, I stood there at that time and watched, too.  Even then, I was making sure that no ‘predators’ would harm them along the way.  Maybe there’s a good reason she still thinks I am her “mother”….

2:54 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, June 30, 2010 A difference in perspective

OK, it’s time to be totally honest….  Writing this blog has changed my life – well, I guess to be really totally honest, it’s not so much my life that has changed, but how I perceive my life.  You see, before I started writing this blog last October, I was pretty much like any one of you who is reading this….  I got up each morning, did what I do all day, and then went to sleep at night, never really looking at or thinking about what it was I did between getting up and going to sleep.  I just went about my life, doing my thing….Now, I write a blog three days each week.  I need to have three different topics each week, and I don’t want them to be so terribly boring that I am writing only for myself.  That fact, in itself, means that I now go through life really looking at what it is that I do.  Even the most routine or mundane occurrences take on a whole different look when you view your life through the eyes of people who don’t live it with you!Take, for example, yesterday evening….  Most people, by seven-thirty in the evening, are at least thinking about dinner, if they haven’t already finished the dinner dishes.  We, on the other hand, were just getting started!  As I have mentioned before, we move our sheep to new pasture every few days – the lambs enter a pasture first, then a few days later, they are moved out and the ewes come into the same pasture to clean it up.  A few days after that, the ewes are moved out to follow the lambs, and the rams come in for the last few days to finish it off before I mow it down.  We do this with all of our eight pastures all summer long.  Summer, to me, looks like an endless string of sheep moving and pasture mowing.When spring leaves us and summer arrives, Iowa gets hot and humid.  Moving sheep in the heat of the day – especially when it is hot and humid – is not a good idea.  Some of our sheep are already carrying nearly ten pounds of wool on their backs right now, and getting them running during a hot and humid Iowa summer day is not a particularly healthy idea.  That is why, at seven-thirty last night, we were just heading out to begin moving our sheep to new pasture, while looking forward to getting our own dinner sometime after that!The interesting thing about moving sheep right now is that we have two relatively new llamas, too, and they must be moved with their own group of sheep.  Martin, who arrived in April, is still trying to understand why his pasture is only “his” for a few days before he must go somewhere else.  Summer, who arrived only a couple of weeks ago, still doesn’t understand that she has to move at all!  She is totally against the idea and runs all over her pasture to let us know that she doesn’t want to leave.  Chachi is the only llama who has been here for other summers and who knows that every move means tender, new pasture – fresh, new food!  Chachi is so happy to move that he runs ahead of us to each closed gate, scooping up fresh grass on his way and waiting for us at the gate as we come along behind at only human – not llama – speed.So, days before this move, we prepared….  We knew what we would face, trying to convince all of the sheep and llamas to move.  Coda, my border collie, could convince the sheep to move fairly easily, but the two newer llamas would take some convincing.  We called for reinforcements: my friend, Deb, and her three girls came out to help us rotate the pastures, arriving right on time at a little after seven.  By the time we had explained the whole plan, it was seven-thirty, the sun was getting low in the sky and the warmth of the day was abating – we were ready to begin! We never move a group into a pasture that adjoins the pasture they just left – the reason being that we don’t want the trailing group to be so close that they could duck under the fence and mix groups.  That means that when we move a group, they go quite a ways across the acreage!  We also have to be careful because, like yesterday, the rams and the lambs had to move counter-clockwise around the property while the ewes were going clockwise.  We have to make sure that we don’t end up settling one group in a pasture, only to find out that another group needs to move through that pasture to get to their new spot.  I know this all sounds very complicated to you, but I assure you it is much more complicated than it seems!  It is with military precision that I cook up the battle plans for the evening so that it all falls into place smoothly once we get going.  Oh, I should also mention that when it comes to battle plans, I am the general and, although there may be many general wannabes in attendance when we move, there can be only one general…. me!  This, however, is a fact that seems to be easily forgotten! So, the total move last night took seventy-five minutes from start to finish, not including the necessary mowing of the pasture that the rams finally vacated.  It did include removing ten lambs from the ewe group (they had found their way to the ewes by traveling under fences over the previous days – most were ram lambs suddenly realizing that they are male in a world that now contains adult females!), changing Hailey’s coat, which she was now wearing as a skirt around her waist, and chasing both Martin and Summer until they finally realized that there were too many of us chasing, and not enough of them to outrun us! Moving sheep used to be a routine part of my day that I never really thought about.  Now that I write a blog, it suddenly came into my conscious mind and became a topic that I know is not the norm for most people who work nine to five in town.  So here I sit at five-thirty, ready to go out and mow that pasture that the rams left last night, but finishing my blog that was delayed by tasks earlier today.  It’s really funny to think how oblivious I was to the many unique goings-on in our lives at Peeper Hollow Farm before I began writing my blog.  It’s a difference in perspective that I now treasure – thank you!

5:32 pm | link          Comments Monday, June 28, 2010 Paperwork and planning

This is the quiet time of year for our farm….  The sheep are pretty self-sufficient, grazing in our pastures and regaining the weight they lost while nursing their lambs.  Rather than a daily list of tasks to get through, this time of year is one of weekly tasks: moving the sheep to new pastures, filling water tanks when they are grazing away from the automatic waterers, and making sure the salt feeders stay full.  Every couple of days, I go out to each group of sheep and take a close look for possible injury, illness, or unusual behavior that could signal problems.  Other than that, things are pretty slow this time of year.Because a lot of my time isn’t being taken up by the more lengthy fall/winter/spring chores, I have time now to focus on planning for our two flocks.  Although we run all of our ewes in one group, in my planning, I need to consider them as two flocks: the Romneys and the CVM/Romeldales.This is the time of year that I do a lot of paperwork and planning for the breeding season that is just around the corner in fall.  I finalize my plans for which ewes will be culled and sent to auction, and which of our ewe lambs will replace each departing one, leaving me with a flock of twenty breeding ewes of each breed, or forty ewes total.  I also try to keep as few rams as possible for each breed, but still retain enough so that I have sufficient genetic diversity in bloodlines and color pattern inheritance.Once the final selections are made as to which rams and ewes will stay the winter – the stage that I have finally reached in the last few days – it’s time to begin putting together our breeding groups for the fall on paper.  There would be no point in putting the sheep together yet. The ewes are only somewhat fertile, if at all, through the early summer months.  Because their fertility peaks in October, we will wait until then to put our planned breeding groups into action.For the time being, the breeding groups begin to take form on paper, establishing the two or three rams of each breed who will have a group to breed this fall, and then placing each ewe with the correct ram to bring out the best traits in her lambs and improve the worst ones.  Putting the groups together involves calculating relationship coefficients so that the ewe and her ram are not too closely related, but realizing that sometimes the best lambs come from a matched pair that have a single strong individual who appears in both pedigrees.I guess when you get down to it, putting together breeding groups is part science and part art, and your results are better if you acknowledge both parts.  For the first time at Peeper Hollow Farm, we will be running three rams for each breed this fall.  Within the next few days, I will finalize which of our rams will have his own group – based on a quick look at what I need in my flock for fleeces in the coming years, which patterns are in high demand as breeding animals, and which conformation traits best complement my newly determined ewe flock.  After that, I will begin the process of assigning each ram his ewes – something that I will continue to work on, on and off, for the entire summer.  I will find myself shuffling and re-shuffling the ewes to get the very best combination – until the time comes when there is no more time left for re-thinking the plan. Eventually, the day comes when the plan, until then residing only on the computer, needs to be printed out and the sheep divided into their breeding groups.  Before I know it, that day will come, but right now it’s only June; and since we don’t separate the sheep until September, I have time….  Lots of time (or so it seems now!) to put together the ideal combinations for this fall….

7:28 am | link          Comments Friday, June 25, 2010 Welcome Juliet and Jada!

I mentioned last week that we took a delivery of sheep from the West Coast on Thursday afternoon.  Five of the group will be continuing on their journey to their new home in Wisconsin tomorrow, but two were headed here, to our farm, to replace a couple of the ewes in our breeding flock this fall.  Since this is 2010, we are on the tenth letter of the alphabet in naming this year’s lambs, so both of their names begin with the letter ‘J’: welcome to Juliet and Jada!Juliet_face_june_2010.jpgJuliet is a sweet, recessively colored lamb from Tawanda Farms in California.  We bought three rams from them last year and have been especially pleased with both their conformation and their fleece.  Juliet is a doll – well built and carrying a wonderfully soft, dark fleece – sure to be in high demand at shearing!  She is thought to carry two different pattern genes to add to our flock – both the English Blue pattern (note the white teardrops and white rimming to her ears that are typical of this pattern) and the recessive solid color gene that is so useful for producing dark fleeces. Jada_face_June_2010.jpg Jada (Formerly known as Edna at her previous home) comes from North Valley Farm  in Oregon.  This is our first purchase from NVF, but we are thrilled with both Jada’s conformation and fleece.  Her coloring is much lighter than Juliet’s – her genetics, although colored, are on the brighter end of the spectrum.  Her fleece is already very high luster, and I am sure it will also be in high demand at her first shearing in January!We usually quarantine our lambs for a couple of weeks or until we clear them of internal parasites – whichever is later.  Both of these ewe lambs were cleared of parasites on Wednesday of this week, and with the heat today, we decided to let them out into fresh pasture with the rest of the lamb flock where they could get a bit of shade.It is always interesting to me to watch new lambs join our flock.  Lambs always integrate so much more easily than adults – within just a few minutes they had each already found new “buddies” to graze with, and who will eventually show them where the water and salt are kept.  Both Juliet and Jada are well on their way to becoming integral members of our flock!

5:30 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, June 23, 2010 Spring storms

It’s been stormy for well over a week now, in our area.  Oh, we’ve had a few hours here or there without rain, but basically, we’ve been getting rain and storms every day.  For most people, that can be an inconvenience – they get wet running from the car to the store, or maybe they have a power outage occasionally.  For us, it is a real problem for more than one reason….First of all, I work outside with the animals.  In order to continually improve our pastures, I rotate the sheep every few days, giving the lambs a fresh, new pasture, putting the ewes into the pasture that the lambs just left, and putting the rams into the pasture that the ewes just left.  Once they are all moved and all have water and salt available, I mow the pasture that the rams just vacated left so that all plants are down to the level of the most edible plants – the ones the sheep ate down.  This way, the weeds and other plants that the sheep don’t eat won’t have a head start on the good stuff and won’t have the opportunity to crowd the good stuff out.  Over time, our pastures fill with more and more of the “good stuff” and the plants that the sheep don’t eat end up dying off.When it’s raining and storming each day, I just don’t feel like going out to move sheep, and I really can’t mow.  I have been keeping up with it all lately, but it is very hard to predict, and so it’s hard to plan my days.  I pretty much end up hanging around the farm, just in case I get the chance to move the sheep and mow the needed section….Storms also bring an additional problem that most people don’t usually consider.  We keep three border collies to help us herd and move the sheep.  If we didn’t have the dogs to help, we wouldn’t be able to keep the flock we have – the dogs are a big enough help that they make the difference between our being able to continue as a functional farm and not.  The problem is that they are all, to varying degrees, afraid of storms!Most, if not all, border collies are storm-phobic – at least in my experience.  With Lisa, our oldest, we didn’t realize what was happening until it was well entrenched.  We tried all kinds of tactics and medicines in an attempt to keep her semi-sane during a storm.  We eventually settled on Xanax for her when we know a storm is coming.  Before the Xanax, she would hide behind the toilet, shivering, salivating all over the floor, and then when the thunder came, so would the urine.  By the time the storm passed, Lisa would be lying in the powder room in a huge puddle – it was not nice, and neither was clean-up.Now, if we get the Xanax into her before the thunder starts, well, she still doesn’t like the storm, but she will lie in a dark corner of that powder room and wait it out – no salivating, no shivering, and no urine.  She is not so calm that she will go outside or work sheep, but at least we can avoid the mess and she is reasonably comfortable.
With Coda, we caught it much earlier and started him on Xanax at the first signs of trouble.  As long as he is near me, he is fine in a storm.  In fact, he will even work in a storm, if need be, to move the sheep to shelter – as long as he works with me.  For whatever reason, he needs to see me to know he will be OK – he becomes my shadow, and as long as I allow that, he is fine.Chance, our youngest dog, has his own way of dealing with thunder, and his tactic is probably the worst of the three.  Chance also gets Xanax before the thunder begins, and he gets a double dose even though he is the smallest of the three.  Even with that dose, however, as soon as the thunder starts to roll, he frantically looks for “high ground.”  Now, you and I know that is counterintuitive: high ground just takes you closer to the lightening!  Chance isn’t being logical, though – he is being panicked; his instinctual reaction is to head for high ground – the higher the better.If we are sitting in our parlor, watching TV when the storm hits, he will immediately jump onto the sofa with us and begin to climb.  His goal is the ceiling fan, and his way of getting there defies rationality and gravity….  He jumps onto the sofa, then tries to climb onto one of our heads – whoever is closer to the lamp on the end table – because his next landing place is the top of that lamp!  If he gets near the lamp, his eyes turn to the door frame behind it as he begins to try to scramble up the wall to the top of the door – which is only a ten foot jump to the ceiling fan!If Chance can’t get to the fan that way (as you can imagine, we don’t often cooperate with his initial plan!), the next attempt is to climb the floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcase in the same room.  While he is climbing, he is crazed – totally unable to listen to commands or see the obvious.  With the Xanax, he is a bit more relaxed and can be distracted from his goal.  He still wants to climb to a high point, but is willing to accept someone’s lap as “high enough” if he gets enough attention – although he will still try to climb with each clap of thunder.We had storms during the night last night, and all three dogs were medicated…  Lisa hid under the bed and was fine.  Coda jumped up on the bed and as long as he was touching me (he curled up behind me on the bed), he was fine, too.  Chance, on the other hand, was convinced that the only way to be safe was to jump on the bed, climb onto the headboard (we have a brass bed with a tall headboard), and then try for the ceiling fan!  Of course the best boost up to the headboard of the bed was my head, and I was not very cooperative with his plan!  We spent much of the night wrestling over whose plan would win out….So, to be honest, I’ve really had enough of spring storms!  The calendar now says summer, and it seems to me that it is time to move away from the seasonal spring storms.  Unfortunately, the local meteorologist doesn’t agree with me because we are supposed to continue getting storms rolling through today.  There is hope for tomorrow, though!  The current forecast has both Thursday and Friday clear of rain and storms!  You know where I’ll be – out moving sheep and mowing – my usual summer pastime.

11:41 am | link          Comments Monday, June 21, 2010 A big storm and welcome to Summer

spring_storm_2010.jpgThis past weekend on our farm could in no way be considered quiet or routine….  First off, our area was hit by fierce storms on Friday evening that brought sixty-mile-an-hour straight-line winds, hail, lots of rain and lightening.  Thank goodness all of the animals had some sort of shelterAfter_the_storm_2010.jpg, and we were tucked away in our house, but it was definitely scary at times!  Rick ran outside just before it hit to take a picture of some of the cloud formations as we waited for the rain to begin (I’ve included one of them to the left) while I, on the other hand, went out for photos only after it was over – my photo of the brightening western sky is below Rick’s.We were lucky in that even though the storm was noisy and fierce, we suffered little damage – it could have been much worse.  The creep building must be rebuilt – it could not take the terrible winds – and we lost one young but good-sized ash tree near the barn.  Broken_tree_2010.jpgThe worst part about the tree is that it is strategically positioned to be used as a hand rail for the stairs that lead up to the barn.  Losing that tree will mean that we either need to build a handrail, or we need to replant the tree.  We decided to cut it off just below the break and wait until fall to see if the tree will send up sprouts near the top of the old trunk, essentially growing into a new tree.  If not, we will have to dig it out and replant – a job I’m not looking forward to doing!Summer_2010.jpgAfter cleaning up a bit of the storm debris on Saturday morning, we left to pick up our new llama, Summer!  Because of Vinnie’s recent death, we were once again looking for a guardian llama, and it sounded like Brenda and Dan Harting of Wolf Creek Farm had just the llama for us.  After a brief visit to their farm in LaPorte, IA, we were on our way home with Summer, a five-year-old female llama.  As soon as Summer arrived, she was eager to meet the sheep and get out in the pasture to work.  We sure hope that Summer will have a long, happy life on our farm!  And, what better weekend to pick up a llama named Summer than the weekend before the official start of summer!  Happy Summer, everyone!

10:16 am | link          Comments Friday, June 18, 2010 A big day

Yesterday was a big day for us – there was a lot of excitement in the air!  First of all, one of the local TV stations came out to film on our farm, and then shortly after that, we took delivery of two recessively colored Romney ewe lambs that came from Oregon and California.  The fact that both of these big events took place within hours of each other made for one big ball of excitement for us yesterday!Our local TV news on  KCRG does a summer feature called “Farmer Josh” where their meteorologist, Josh Baynes, takes on various farm jobs in the region to highlight some of the different types of farms in the viewing area (see some of the past clips at http://www.kcrg.com/features/farmerjosh).  We thought it might be fun to have Farmer Josh come out to help with something ‘sheep-related’ since there are so few sheep farms in this area, and even fewer that consider wool/fiber a product.  Shortly after contacting the station, we were communicating with Josh himself and arranged for his visit to help change coats on our lambs.We have been stuck in hot, muggy, stormy weather for a while now; yet thankfully, we were relatively lucky with the weather in that it didn’t rain for the filming yesterday morning.  Let me be clear, though – it was hot, and it was quite humid, so after a few coats, both Farmer Josh and I were pretty hot and sweaty.  Coda did his job in rounding up Zoe and the lambs – the group we needed – so at least we didn’t overheat trying to get them up to the barn!  In the end, we changed a total of fifteen coats – the rest seemed to fit well enough to let them go until next time.  Josh got a chance to learn how to catch the lambs in the pen, how to hold a sheep so that it doesn’t take off running, how to both remove and put on the coats, and some of the differences in fiber, etc.  It was a fun experience, and it will be interesting to see how our two hours of talking and working will be pared down to a few minutes of air time….Shortly after Farmer Josh left our farm, we got a call from JoAnn Mast of Southern Oregon Romneys – she had left Oregon on Monday with a trailer full of sheep headed east.  We had arranged for a couple of those spots on her trailer to bring out two recessively colored Romney ewe lambs that we had purchased; one from Christiane Payton of North Valley Farm, OR, and the other from Maggie Howard and Carol Pasheilich of Tawanda Farms, CA.It turned out that, shortly after we had made our transport arrangements, we were contacted by another Romney breeder, Maureen, in Wisconsin who also wanted to bring several animals on the same transport, but would not be home to take delivery – she asked whether we would mind taking them to our place until she could pick them up.  Normally, we would not bring animals onto our farm from unknown farms because of the biosecurity issues, but since these sheep were all coming from Tawanda Farms, we knew they wouldn’t bring anything in that we weren’t already getting with our lamb from the same farm.  We agreed that keeping them here for a few days would not be a problem.transport.jpgIn the end, JoAnn and her travel companion parked on the road in front of our farm (photo on left) to tranfer the sheep.  We first tranferred the ram going to Maureen’s into the small section of our trailer.  After that, our two ewe lambs took a ride in the bed of the pick-up, and Maureen’s four ewes and ewe lambs took the bigger section of our trailer.  Once the transfer was done, JoAnn and her crew left for Springfield, IL, while we took our delivery around the corner to home. All of the new sheep are now in quarantine in our barn.  Maureen will be here before long to pick up her sheep, and we will focus on getting our two ewe lambs ready to release into the flock.  We always quarantine for at least three weeks to prevent any newcomers from unknowingly releasing a disease into our flock.  new_ewe_lambs_2010.jpgDuring that time, we work with our vet to eliminate the internal parasites that all sheep carry in their digestive systems.  Over the years, many farms have developed parasites that are resistant to the available dewormers, and we want to make sure that we don’t bring those parasites into our fields!  Working with parasites that are susceptible to the available dewormers is complicated enough without adding resistance to the mix!  So, we have at least three weeks – or as long as it takes – to rid these two ewe lambs (seen in photo on right) of their internal parasites, and then they can join our flock…. By the time the storms began at the end of the day yesterday, we were ready for them: all of the new sheep were settled in the barn, our own flocks were in pastures with shelter from the storms, and the dogs were in with us for the night.  Looking back on it, yesterday contained a lot more exitement in one day than we normally have in a week, but it was fun while it lasted.  What a big day!

10:31 am | link          Comments Wednesday, June 16, 2010 Zoe’s brush with death

I mentioned in one of last week’s postings that Zoe, one of our older Romney ewes, would eventually become our “forty-first ewe,” having earned that slot as a pampered retiree on our farm.  Don’t get me wrong; at this point, at the wise old age of eleven-and-a-half, Zoe is still a productive member of our ewe flock!  We just know that eventually, age will catch even Zoe, and at that time, she will be allowed to stay on the farm and finish her days in peace on pasture and grass.We bought Zoe in 2006 when a friend of ours dispersed her small flock of Romney and Romney-cross sheep.  At that time, we purchased three of the friend’s ewes: Zoe, who was already fairly old at seven; her daughter Belle, who was in prime breeding age at the age of four; and crossbred Brit, who was a good friend of Belle’s and the same age.  Within a couple of years, Brit was sold, but Zoe and Belle have been here since their purchase.Seven years old is considered pretty old for a ewe. Many flocks will sell off their ewes at that age because the ewes may stop producing lambs, or the lambs may be small and not grow well.  We thought we’d give Zoe a chance – she had (and still has!) lovely fiber, so we hoped she would give us a daughter to carry her legacy in our flock – even just one daughter would be enough, I thought!  So, that fall of 2006, we bred Zoe to a big recessively colored ram named Duncan and hoped for a ewe lamb in the spring….As Zoe’s due date drew near, I began to watch her closely so that if, because of her age, she had problems, I would be there to help deliver her lamb(s).  One day in February, 2007, it became obvious that her time was near.  I locked her into the barn to make sure the lambs were not born outside, and checked on her just before I went to bed at about 10:00, planning to come back every couple of hours until she delivered.  Since there was absolutely no sign of labor by my bedtime, I rushed down to the house to get a bit of sleep before my next check at midnight.My next check in the barn was horrific!  I peeked into the stall to find Zoe lying in the straw, stretched out on her side with one lamb lying behind her, fully encased in its sac, and the other lamb half-way out – all three looked dead!  I rushed to Zoe’s side, feeling her ribcage for breathing, but there was no movement.  I put my hand in front of her nostrils, but I felt no warmth – no breath.  She was gone in so short a time!  I couldn’t believe it!Then, my attention shifted to the lambs….  The one that was fully out and encased was obviously cold and dead – it had suffocated in its sac since Zoe had lacked the strength to get up and tear open the membrane for the lamb.  It was a perfectly formed ewe lamb – what a shame.  Dead lambs always leave me feeling sad and hopeless even though I know that I did what I could.  The other lamb was still warm, though, from Zoe’s body, and its face was not covered.  There was a chance that this lamb still had some life in it, so I began to work.  I finished pulling the lamb from Zoe’s womb and began to rub and dry its lifeless body…. Ever so slowly, I began to feel a bit of resistance in its limbs and then, suddenly, she took a big, ragged breath!  I knew that, at this point, I had a good chance of keeping this little ewe lamb alive. Zoe had traded her life for this daughter that I had so wanted; and sitting in that barn with Zoe and her dead firstborn daughter at my side was incredibly bittersweet. Slowly, the little lamb – now named Grace – began to cry for her mother.  She was weak from her ordeal, so her cries were barely above a whisper at first, but as time went on, they grew in strength – this was a little fighter!  It was terribly sad, though, because there was no mother to answer her calls.  My plan was to try to milk Zoe and also several other ewes who had just delivered to get the colostrum, or first milk, that this lamb would need to survive.  As I was making a mental list of what I would need to milk the ewes, I realized that one of the ewes in the next stall was answering Grace’s cries!  It was very soft – hardly an answer at all – but it was there.  Ewes don’t normally answer another lamb’s cries, so I was not surprised that the sound was so soft.  It seemed that this ewe just couldn’t ignore a lamb calling for her mother – she had to reply.  I went to the door of the next stall to see who was answering…. But when I looked into the next stall, all of the ewes were sleeping peacefully – none of them were answering the desperate lamb, who was now trying to stand.  Yet, every time Grace called, there was a definite reply – it was very soft and weak, but it was there. Where was that reply coming from?!  Then, suddenly, I realized that it was coming from Zoe!  She had heard her lamb’s cries and those cries had brought her back from wherever she was!  I put Grace in front of Zoe’s nose so that she could smell her lamb.  Within seconds, Zoe took a big, shuddering breath and began to slightly open and close her mouth, trying to coordinate licking movements in order to clean her lamb! Zoe’s recovery from the brink of death was slow – it took her about ten minutes to even be able to lift her head.   I dosed her with a high-energy supplement, which helped once it took effect.  I must admit that it was nothing that I did that really brought Zoe back – it was her lamb.  I am convinced that it was the sound of newborn Grace crying for her mother that brought Zoe back.  By the time I returned to the house after 3:00 a.m., Zoe had been up on her feet, feeding Grace her first meal of colostrum, and then both had bedded down for some sleep in their freshly cleaned pen.  Zoe had given me that daughter I had wanted so badly for my flock, and had survived the process.
Both Zoe and Grace are still producing parts of our flock, and we have several of their daughters and granddaughters as well.  Zoe not only mothers her own lambs, but also cares for all of the lambs of our flock as their adult leader after weaning.  Sheep don’t normally care much about lambs that are not their own.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for them to butt away other lambs.  Zoe, on the other hand, will step in to defend a stray lamb from our working dogs, or will reply to a lamb calling for its mother after weaning.  She has worked her way not only into our flock, but into our hearts, and it is for this reason that one day, Zoe will be our forty-first ewe.

9:31 am | link          Comments Monday, June 14, 2010 2010 Iowa Sheep and Wool Festival

Well, the Iowa Sheep and Wool Festival is once again finished for the year, and we’re already planning for next year’s festival!  Even though it was not originally our plan, Rick and I were able to attend both days – Saturday and Sunday.  The festival was held in Adel, IA, so it was more than a two-and-a-half hour drive for us – we left Saturday at 6:00 a.m. in order to make it there in time for the fleece competition.Because all of our ewe fleeces sold out so quickly after shearing last February, the only fleeces we had to show were our ram fleeces that we sheared the weekend before the festival.  I haven’t yet finished skirting them, but I made sure to finish at least a couple last week so that I had something to take!  I knew that our chances of placing well would go down a bit with ram fleeces (because of the testosterone, they tend to be coarser than ewe fleeces), but that was all we had!We also loaded three rams into the bed of the pickup the night before the show.  The plan was to take them along with us in the morning and see if we could sell them there.  Ink, Jumanji, and Jubal all came along and spent the day in the truck munching hay.  We brought along a sign to post on their pen in the truck, giving basic information and pricing for each.  We could only hope that they would find good breeding homes – they are all impressive rams!We arrived at the festival just in time to find a good parking place for the truck where the rams would be seen, and then register our two fleeces – both in the Colored Handspinning Division: one a Romeldale fleece in the Finewool Class, and the other a Romney fleece in the Coarse/Longwool Class.  Fleece_Competition.jpgI ended up helping out during the judging by writing the judge’s comments on the entry cards as feedback for the participants (that’s me, head-down, on the right of the photo) – I’ve done this many times and it is an ideal way to learn about fleeces and fleece management.  In the end, our Romeldale fleece came in first place in its class and second overall, but it was the Romney fleece that was really interesting!  Although it measured 35.8 microns in average fiber diameter and had six inches of staple length (both of which should have put it well into the Coarse/Longwool Class where it was entered), it got recategorized into the Medium Class by the judge because it was “too soft” for the Coarse/Longwool Class!  Even though it was now competing with Corriedales, etc., it still ended up coming in at third place!  I don’t usually get too excited about third place, but under the circumstances, I was pleased!After the fleece competition, Rick and I had some lunch, then went to a producer session about parasites.  After reconnecting with some friends and showing off our rams in the truck a couple of times, we decided it was time to take the long drive home – we planned on staying home on Sunday to catch up on some things around the house….It didn’t happen, though.  As soon as we arrived home, we got a call from one of our customers telling us that she had decided to purchase Jumanji for her flock if we could deliver him to the festival on Sunday.  Well, I have to admit that I was originally disappointed in the fact that I would be missing the Sunday talk about ewe nutrition.  After talking it over with Rick, our plans changed to include another trip to the festival around mid-day on Sunday – just in time to get there for the talk I wanted to hear and then drop off Jumanji before heading back home! It was a weekend with a lot of driving, but in the end, we came back with a lot of good information, two ribbons from the fleece competition, and the joy of having sold a really impressive ram lamb into a breeding situation – it doesn’t get much better than that!

5:12 pm | link          Comments Friday, June 11, 2010 The forty-first ewe

Last week, I discussed the difficult decisions we have to make in culling our flock, and also how we select replacement lambs to fill the openings.  When we bought our first three sheep, I had no idea how many sheep our acreage could support, nor how many sheep we could manage time-wise.  Over the past ten years, we have developed a “feel” for our flock and can pretty well answer both of those questions now….We’ve come to the conclusion that our optimum flock has about forty ewes, four to ten rams, and the associated guard llamas.  We expect all of those animals to earn their keep – they each have a job to do: the llamas protect the flock, the ewes each produce award-winning fiber plus a couple of lambs every spring, and the rams help in producing those lambs as well as giving us wonderful fleece.  Any animal that doesn’t produce ends up being replaced by another who will.  This is a business, and the only way to protect the bottom line is to keep up production – a harsh reality of life.Now, having said that, we acknowledged long ago that, although this is a business, I do get attached to the sheep and llamas.  I don’t think you can really be a good shepherd(ess) without some sense of attachment.  It is that attachment that pushes me to do my best for each as an individual, and to worry about them when things go wrong.  I know all of my sheep by name, and they know me.  I know their likes and dislikes, their personalities and their traits.  When I walk into the pasture alone, they all crowd around to see what I have brought them.  When I walk in with a stranger, they are much more wary – they trust me, but not this new person!We have known all along that we would eventually become so attached to one or more sheep that we wouldn’t be able to let them go to auction.  Keeping an unproductive sheep runs against business sense.  On the other hand, some sheep produce so well throughout their lifetimes that I feel they have earned the right to a decent, well-fed retirement.  We made the decision years ago that we would keep one spot on our flock – the forty-first ewe – as an honorary retirement spot.The decision was to keep only that one spot for an unproductive ewe who we felt had earned her right to remain with the flock until her natural death.  If we eventually had two ewes who fit the bill, we would have to choose – we still have a business to run!  The forty-first ewe would take on the role of “granny” to the lambs, giving them a leader once they were separated from their mothers at weaning, and just generally offer the leadership that comes from experience.The fact that this granny would be housed with the lambs will provide her with a higher level of nutrition, and generally a better situation in life. Since our lambs are exceptionally well cared for – in hopes that they will gain well and quickly – sharing space with the lambs is perfect for an old, retired ewe! Zoe_2008.jpgWe don’t currently have a forty-first ewe in our flock, since we currently have no unproductive sheep and most of the ewes have not earned that special spot in our hearts.  I say most because there is one particular ewe who will be the first in our flock to eventually take that forty-first spot: Zoe.  She did not spend her entire life on our farm….  Born in 1999, she spent the first seven years at another farm before coming to us.  We bought her in 2006 with her daughter, Belle, and her life with us over the past four years has earned her the right to an on-the-farm retirement.  Next week, I will explain some of the reasons why Zoe will retire here….

12:04 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, June 9, 2010 Finally, the hooves are done!

Every spring we have a huge list of tasks that we must complete before we can relax a bit for the summer.  Even through the summer, we still need to move sheep from pasture to pasture, mow the pasture the sheep have left, change too-tight coats, fill stock tanks with water, and fill salt feeders with salt.  The nice part about summer, though, is that the sheep pretty much feed themselves, and as long as we take care of that short list, we can pretty much do what we want the rest of the time. That’s true, but not until we finish the list that begins when the lambs arrive in late winter….  New lambs bring a lot of work – both physical work and paperwork – and it takes a while to get all caught up and be able to enjoy the summer!  There are things like registrations of new lambs, weaning, drying up the ewes, vaccinations, and various other tasks on the list, but the worst task of all has to be trimming hooves.  It has to be done each year, and we do it in the spring. Trimming sheep hooves is nothing like trimming horse hooves or dog’s claws….  A horse will cooperate with you by picking up its foot and standing there while you work.  A dog will lie down for you and – even if they struggle a bit (like mine!), it’s still a fairly safe procedure for the trimmer.  The biggest job in trimming sheep’s hooves is getting them to lie down to cooperate with you – and, believe me, I use the word “cooperate” very loosely! I used to do the job myself when I was years younger, but lately I’ve recruited help.  The process works like this….  You go after a ewe who doesn’t want to be caught because she can see you coming at her with a pair of hoof shears – a tool – and she already knows that tools are bad.  To sheep, tools are never fun or tasty, so they are something to avoid!  Once you, as the trimmer, catch your victim, you must get her to lie down on the ground.  There is a technique that shepherds eventually learn that will pull a sheep down to the ground, but I have several sheep who know the trick and how to thwart me.  They run around and around me backwards until I am so dizzy, I forget about trimming hooves.  For that reason, when I trim hooves, I’ve given up doing it alone and work with a partner: they hold the sheep in place while I sit down next to the sheep.  I grab the far two legs and pull them towards me while pushing her side away from me with my head.  This technique does nothing beneficial for my hair, but it is effective in getting the sheep to lie down on its side in front of me – we’ve finished step one! Now that the sheep is lying there, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea….  The sheep does not just lie there quietly for us.  We have to quickly immobilize her to the point that she knows there is absolutely no way she can get up – at all!  If she has any doubt about the fact that she might be able to twist around and get up, she will kick her pointy hooves, and thrash around with her hard head, and just generally cause a lot of mayhem.  Inevitably, this struggling hits me, the trimmer, who is seated just between the four pointy hooves. Over the years, we have found the perfect hold for trimming: holding the head/neck of the animal firmly to the ground, put pressure from the other arm on the hip and hold the bottom rear leg up in the air.  In this position, they are fairly comfortable, but they KNOW they can’t get up. When I trimmed hooves by myself, I would just get them down and lie on them with my head at their head while I did the front hooves, and head to tail while I did the back hooves.  The problem was that the big ewes could still get up and lift me right off the ground.  The ride was not fun, and I can’t count the number of times they smashed me into a tree or a fence post.  I have sworn off solo hoof trimming – it is now a team sport! So, once I have my sheep-opponent down on the ground in the correct position, my teammate is responsible for keeping the sheep down while I trim hooves.  The actual trimming takes only a few minutes….  sheep_hoof.jpgIf you look at the diagram of a sheep hoof on the right, the areas to be trimmed are numbered 1, 2, and 3.  The idea is to trim them to the level of 4 and 5, but not too deep, because otherwise they will bleed – you’ve cut the quick.  If you have ever cut too much off a dog’s nail, you know how it bleeds – it seems like it will never stop.  I very seldom cut too much anymore – there is no point….  I will have to trim them again next year, no matter how much or little I take off, so I’ve learned to trim it just level for good footing. You might wonder why it is that we even trim hooves….  Wild sheep don’t have a pedicurist come out once a year, do they?  Well, wild sheep bounce around on those rocky mountainsides and wear down their hooves fairly well.  Domestic sheep typically graze on lush green pastures – soft, lush green pastures.  There isn’t any way for them to wear down the hooves themselves, so they need to be trimmed once a year or so. Because trimming hooves is such a project (imagine, fifty sheep each needing four hooves trimmed – two hundred hooves to trim and four and a half tons of sheep to flip down onto their sides), I put it off and, inevitably, it is the last task on our spring list before we can move into relaxed summer mode. Well, I did it.  Today, I had my very hard working friend, Noah, come out to help me trim hooves and we finished the last of them!  Believe it or not, all two-hundred hooves are trimmed, and summer fun time has come to Peeper Hollow Farm!  And not a minute too soon!  Happy summer!

4:20 pm | link          Comments Monday, June 7, 2010 Another loss….

Vinnie_head.jpgVinnie had been fighting an illness for a long time.  When he was sheared in April, we noted that he was thin and needed to put on some weight.  We put him in with the lambs, knowing that they get the best pastures and that, as messy as they are with their grain, Vinnie would get some of that, too.  We looked forward to his putting on some weight and spending many more happy years with us. In early May, we took him in to the vet for the removal of a tumor on his side.  He was still thin, but not so much so that the vet was concerned.  The tumor removal went well, and it was benign, so we again looked forward to many more good years of his company and service – and hoped he would gain some weight. Every few days for the past couple of months, as I would move the lambs to new pasture, I would go and help move Vinnie along with them.  Before long, it started to become obvious that he was not gaining any weight – even with the lush pastures and the spilled grain.  I began to worry and to read more about llamas and their illnesses.  We continued to deworm all of our llamas monthly, so I knew his weight problems were not parasites.  I was perplexed, but not panicked – he was still playing with the lambs and generally doing OK.  He was just thin. Then last Friday, I went out to again move the lambs into “greener pastures” and things were not so good….  Vinnie did not want to move with the lambs.  He was obviously thinner than he had been just a few days before, and he was disinterested even in the grain I offered him.  I immediately came into the house to call the vet, as I knew this wasn’t a good sign.  I decided to e-mail someone who knew more about llamas than I did, and awaited his reply. I was right – Vinnie was gone before the vet could even make it out to our place.  Unlike earlier this spring when Luca was running with the lambs in the morning and then was found dead within an hour, Vinnie went downhill very slowly over a long period of time.  Did he have other tumors that we couldn’t see that weren’t so benign?  Did he have other digestive issues that we just didn’t understand?  We don’t know.  All we know is that he is gone, and that we miss him. Prey animals all share one trait that makes it difficult to help them medically: they will not show weakness until things are really dire.  Instinctually, they know that weakness will make them easy prey to predators, so they “act” normally, even though they may be very ill.  Once you see the weakness or illness, you seldom have much time to react and help – things are usually pretty dire.  Such was the case with Vinnie. We will all miss him.  Once again, the lambs are constantly looking for their friend who will not return.  Once again, we humans must accept another loss of a friend and of a co-worker in our goal of nurturing and protecting our ovine flock.  Two such losses within a few months feel like just too much to deal with in such a short time….  But we have no choice.  We have hooves to trim, and fleeces to skirt, and life continues on.  We did take the weekend, however, to bid a fond farewell to Vinnie, who will be sorely missed….

12:49 pm | link          Comments Friday, June 4, 2010 Selecting our replacement lambs

Choosing from among this year’s lambs to find our replacement lambs is a bit of a project.  Usually I have some idea of which ewes will likely be culled as we come into the end of the lambing season.  My job then is to choose an assortment of ewe lambs to take the place of those ewes removed from our flock.  Many people assume that we select our best lambs as replacements, but actually, that isn’t really how we do it….The first thing you need to know about our selection process is that, for the last few years, we have  had a waiting list for our spring lambs.  The people at the top of the waiting list have usually been there since the summer before the lambs were born, and they are eager to hear what we have available as soon as we have any information.  I like to have the lambs for our own flock selected before we send out information to others, so that means many of our replacement lambs are chosen even before they are weaned.  Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t!As our lambs are born each spring, I keep an eye on them as they grow.  Every month, beginning at the age of about 30 days, we weigh and evaluate each of the lambs.  At thirty days, that first evaluation checks for teeth alignment, good conformation (build), a cursory fleece evaluation, and good weight gain.  They are still so young at this age, that it is hard to get an accurate idea of what they will turn into as adults.  But we do find some – even at only 30 days – that are not meant to be breeding stock.  They may have an under- or over-bite.  Perhaps their legs or their topline is not correct.  At this age, we don’t evaluate which animals will be breeding stock – we evaluate which ones we already know will not be used for breeding.Thirty days later, the lambs are usually already weaned, and we evaluate them again.  This time, they are a bit older and we can see a bit more what they may be like as adults….  We look for eight specific conformation traits and four fleece traits, scoring each lamb on a scale of 0-5 in each trait, with 5 being exceptional.  By this time, we have also done genetic testing for inherited resistance to scrapie, a sheep disease that the U.S. is trying to eradicate with voluntary and mandatory programs. It is now that I begin to select our replacement lambs, both ewe and ram.We select each sex on different criteria.  For the ewe lambs, I choose one of the cull ewes and determine which of our ewe lambs will replace her.  I take a number of factors into consideration: conformation, fleece quality, genetic testing, and the family line they come from.  I try to select a ewe lamb who is equal or better to the cull ewe in every one of these areas – which isn’t difficult to do because the cull ewe, you will remember, is the weakest link of our breeding ewe flock, and our average lamb will be better than our average ewe (we breed for yearly improvement).Let me give you an example….  Aimee is being culled this year because she lost half of her bag to mastitis a couple of years ago and cannot fully feed her lambs on her own.  In addition, her fleece is relatively coarse in comparison to the current Romeldale/CVM average in our flock. As far as pluses, she is white,  has a great build with lots of room for lambs, and passes on the resistance to scrapie to every one of her offspring.  I knew that I would want a white lamb to replace Aimee because our Romeldale/CVM flock has few white ewes – only three.  We had two white lambs this year, either of whom could have been chosen to replace Aimee: January, and Juniper.  January was one of our bottle lambs and, because I was already somewhat attached to her, I evaluated her first: January is genetically RR in scrapie resistance, so she, too, would pass that resistance to every one of her lambs.  In this trait, she is equal to Aimee.  She is a daughter of Genoa, and should have similar fleece – a big improvement over Aimee’s coarser fiber!  Her conformation evaluations were as good as Aimee’s, or better, and her fiber evaluations were nearly all fives, with one four.  Substituting January into our flock in Aimee’s place will raise the flock average because January is an improvement over Aimee in several areas – we have filled one spot in our new fall flock! I go through this process for each of the ewes leaving our flock, looking for a ewe lamb who is an improvement over the ewe who is leaving.  After having lived with our flock, there are certain bloodlines I look at first because I like them, or certain lambs that I might evaluate first because I like their color pattern.  If I find a good replacement among that group, I don’t even look further – I go with one of these, leaving a possibly “better” lamb in the group for sale.  I cannot allow a ewe lamb to replace a cull ewe if she is less in any trait – she must be equal or better in each trait that we look at.  If I cannot find a lamb that equals the cull ewe in all traits, then that ewe is not culled – we wait to cull her until next year when we may have a lamb to meet our standards. In the end, I have between four and eight lambs replacing the same number of ewes.  If someone comes along and falls in love with one of our replacement lambs, we will sell her if we can find another remaining lamb who can replace that same cull ewe.  The lambs we choose are not necessarily “the best” of what we have – they are merely an improvement over the ewe that is leaving. For ram lambs, our standards are very high.  I will usually keep two or three ram lambs that, again, are an improvement over their sires, and see how they grow out.  As yearlings, I will select one or two to keep in my flock.  I don’t have a particular formula for choosing a ram lamb except that he must be exceptional in every way – fleece, average daily gain (ADG), and conformation better than our lamb flock average, and better than the ram I intend to replace.  I will sometimes use a ram lamb to breed a number of ewes in the fall, to see how he works, and how his lambs turn out.  Then I really know whether I like him well enough to keep him! Choosing replacement lambs is an important decision that cannot be done in a hurry.  If all goes well, these lambs will be a producing part of our flock for ten or twelve years.  If not, they may be the weakest link next year and will be culled at only eighteen months of age.  Our replacement ewe lambs this year are January, Jenna, Jypsi, Joy, Jareau, Juliet, and Jaidyn.  This group includes four Romeldale and three Romneys, giving us a flock of twenty of each breed going into the fall breeding season.  As for the ram lambs, we will be keeping Jagger, Josiah, Jebb and Jotham (two Romeldale/CVM and two white Romneys), who will replace Ignatius, Iverson, Ink, and Hodgins.  We will be somewhat heavy in rams, having eight or nine for the year, but at least I know I will have the rams I need when breeding season comes!

4:28 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, June 2, 2010 An interesting phone call….

I know that I promised to write today about choosing replacement lambs for our flock, but something came up yesterday that was so interesting that I want to write about that and leave the replacement lambs for Friday.  I apologize to those of you who were looking forward to that topic….Yesterday was one of those days when I had so many little things to do that I was not sure what to start on first – I spent much of the day in and out of the house and barn, taking care of details.  Occasionally, when I came into the house, I’d notice that there was an unknown long-distance number trying to contact us, but I figured that it was somebody selling something and ignored the calls – they could leave a message if it was important.By late in the afternoon, I had finished my outdoor work and had come inside.  Once again, the phone rang, and caller ID showed this same long-distance number.  I decided to pick it up and turn them away personally to prevent further calls from interrupting our evening.As I answered the phone, the man on the other end said to me, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I have a strange question to ask….”Always up for strange questions, I asked him to go ahead.  He asked, “Are you Peeper Hollow Farm, and are you missing some sheep?”  Well, I had just come in from taking photos of our lambs, and I knew for a fact that all of our sheep were in our pastures.  I told him that all of our sheep were accounted for.  Then, it occurred to me that he was not calling from Iowa – the caller ID area code was for another state.  I asked him why he thought we were missing sheep.”Well, I’m at my parents’ place, and they have four of your sheep in their front yard!” he answered. I immediately realized what had happened: whenever people buy their first sheep, they never know for sure if their fences are sheep-proof until they try enclosing their new additions.  Sheep, and especially lambs, are uncanny in their ability to find the smallest openings to squeeze through – the grass always does seem greener on the other side of the fence, you know!  So, it made sense that these four might be some of the sheep that had just recently been sold to new owners.  I quickly explained what I thought had happened and asked him where he was located. As I had thought, his parents lived very near one of our recent sales.  When I called the new shepherdess and asked if they were missing some sheep, you could hear the relief in her voice as she admitted that, yes, they had been searching for them for some time!   I put the caller in touch with the new shepherdess, and before long, the sheep were on their way back to their new home. So, how did the man who called know that they were Peeper Hollow sheep?  Well, I would love to say that he could tell simply by looking at their fabulous conformation and amazing fleece, but I would be pulling your leg….  The fact of the matter is that our farm name is on the ear tag, and it was just a matter of getting close enough to one of the lambs to read the name and then finding contact information for us on the Internet.  This is the first time such a thing has happened, and it’s been pretty entertaining!  And Friday, we’ll talk about choosing those replacement lambs….I promise.

10:53 am | link          Comments Monday, May 31, 2010 Difficult decisions

This is the time of year when work on the farm usually begins to lessen a bit….  Once we shear the rams during the first week or so of June, and finish trimming the hooves of our breeding rams and ewes, the sheep become fairly self-sufficient – at least for a while!  The sheep all feed on the grass of our pastures, and all we need to provide is a fresh supply of water and full salt feeders – they do the rest themselves.  As for the llamas, once a month they need to be dewormed, but they, too, become pretty easy to keep over the summer.So you might think that we can pretty much turn our thoughts to things other than sheep for the summer, but you would be mistaken: this is the time of year when some of the most important and difficult decisions are made.  It’s over the summer that we evaluate last year’s breeding flock and begin to make decisions as to how that flock will change for the coming fall breeding season. Once we know that, we will need to determine breeding groups for this fall… but that can wait a bit!  Right now, I’m working on making the choices that will finalize our breeding flock.We cull (or remove) about 15% of our flock each year – sometimes a bit more, and other years a bit less.  This year, 15% of the flock means that six ewes will need to be removed.  We cull less than 15% only if we do not have enough ‘worthy’ lambs to replace the ewes who need to be culled, and this doesn’t happen often.  Each spring and/or summer, I look over the flock of breeding ewes and try to pick out the “weakest links” in our breeding flock “chain.”  Sometimes, there are ewes who obviously have to go for health reasons: they can no longer deliver healthy lambs in the spring, or they no longer produce a high-quality fleece – either of these is an automatic cull.In addition to any animals that have health issues, we also cull based on a three-strikes system – I assign strikes for various unwanted traits, and once a ewe has three strikes against her, she is out.  I give strikes for various negative traits all through the year; things like lower fleece quality, mis-mothering, poor average daily gain (ADG) of her lambs, hard-to-manage or poor disposition when handled – just about any trait that I don’t want genetically passed along will earn a strike.  When I sit down to evaluate my breeding flock I look at strikes, and those with three or more strikes are the first onto the year’s cull list.Although many flock handlers give a strike for age, we do not.  As far as I’m concerned, if I have a ewe who is well into old age and is still producing twins each year in addition to a lovely, high-quality fleece, then that ewe has earned her spot in my flock – she can stay, regardless of her age.  In fact, I would love to have a flock where I knew that each of my lambs would be so productive well into her teens!  Most ewes cannot produce so well for so long!  In our flock, each ewe is evaluated on her own merits and faults and, in the end, the ewes with the most strikes, regardless of age, are cut for sale at auction.  These ewes will be replaced by ewe lambs, either from our own flock or purchased from other flocks, for the coming breeding season.This year, the most obvious weak links in our breeding flock are Aimee, Belle, Celeste, and Inniah.  This group is nowhere near 15% of our flock, however, so I will need to take a closer look at our computer records to determine which other ewes will be leaving this fall to make room for our replacement lambs.  I will assess the pertinent facts about each of our ewes by using a computer print-out that does not show the ewe’s ID. That way, my decision is not biased by any emotional connection to the ewe herself.  It is a tough decision to make, and I want it based on the strengths of the ewes and for the benefit of the flock, not  on which ewes I like or will miss.On Wednesday, I will continue this conversation by discussing how we decide which lambs to keep for our own flock, which lambs are to be sold as breeding stock, and which lambs are headed for the auction.  These are major decisions, both for our flock in general and for the specific lambs now running in our fields.  It is not a decision I take lightly….

11:23 am | link          Comments Friday, May 28, 2010 An easy day…?

Today was supposed to be an easy day on the farm.  The plan was to have brunch with my friend, Karen, then pick up some bigger water tanks for the sheep on the way home, and finish up the day by writing and posting the blog.  Compared to most days, that sounded pretty “light,” so I awoke eager to start the day! Before I could leave for brunch, I, of course, had to do the morning chores: exercise the three dogs for twenty or thirty minutes and feed the lambs a five-gallon bucket of grain.  I figured I would do the grain first and then finish with the dogs and leave for brunch, but I was wrong.  On the trip out to the lamb pasture, I noticed one of the lambs drinking from a puddle – not a good sign!  I checked the water tank and discovered that it was bone dry.  I should have guessed that this small tank wouldn’t keep up with all the sheep that drank from it!  For a while now, we have been planning a trip to buy bigger tanks for most of the pastures. Once I saw the lamb and puddle, I had to readjust my plans….  I now had to exercise the dogs while filling the water tank in the back of the truck, and then fill both stock tanks (the lambs’ and the ewes’) from the truck’s water tank before I left for brunch – thank goodness Karen called and was running late! I had the presence of mind to throw my clothes and shoes for brunch into the truck and drove out to the pastures to fill the sheep tanks with water.  I didn’t dare wear my good “brunch clothes” until I finished because, inevitably, I end up fixing a coat, moving a lamb, or in some other way getting mud or manure all over me.  I was pleased with the fact that I had thought to bring the clothes with me to change in the field.  As I changed, I noticed that the pasture was eaten down to the point that we needed to move the lambs into a new pasture and shift the ewes into this one.  Well, OK…. Later.  I would have to find time later.  Right now, I had to get changed and get over to meet Karen.  Basically, the clothing switch all worked as planned, but then I opened the gate out to the road and unknowingly got dirt on my hands, which I then quickly transfered to my clothes as I brushed them off….  Oh, well.  Maybe Karen wouldn’t notice…. So, off I went to brunch at Perkin’s.  Our brunch is always full of laughs, lots of catching up, and just general good things, and today’s was no exception.  While I was there, my hay and straw supplier returned my call and made arrangements for me to stop by later today to pick up four bales of straw for the weekend.  OK – no big deal.  I figured I could pick it up later this afternoon, after the blog.  I left Perkins at about 1:15 p.m., planning on a quick stop at Tractor Supply to pick up the three stock tanks we obviously needed, and then home to the dogs by three. Unfortunately, Tractor Supply had only one tank that was one foot high, two feet wide, and six feet long, for a total of seventy gallons.  We can’t get the two-foot-high version because the smaller sheep can’t reach the water.  Well, I figured one was better than none, so I payed for it and pulled up to have it loaded into my truck.  Darn – the stupid tank had a hole in it!  There was really no point to buying even the one tank if it had a hole in it!  I had to go back inside to return my purchase… another twenty minutes wasted!  It was now nearly two thirty, and I still had no stock tanks. All I could think to do was to call Theisen’s in one of the outlying towns – I was afraid the one in Cedar Rapids would cater more to townfolk than to those of us who have farm animals.  The one in Anamosa is located right in the middle of farm country, so I figured I had a better shot there.  According to the guy I talked to, though, they had no “short” stock tanks at his store, but the Cedar Rapids branch had two in stock.  I had done all my calling sitting in my truck on the shoulder of the road, so I put down the phone and headed for the Cedar Rapids Theisen’s in hopes of still getting at least one sheep stock tank for the pasture and getting home by three. Well, as I drove up, I was lucky enough to talk to one of the Theisen employees in the parking lot, who assured me that they had what I was looking for.  I rushed into the store at quarter to three, and headed straight for the farm equipment section.  After looking and finally finding help, I was told that they didn’t carry the size I was looking for and never did!  Now, what was I going to do?  Amazingly, the lady who was helping me suggested we look at the catalog from the company that supplies their stock tanks – maybe they could ‘special order’ what I needed, and then I could either wait the four weeks to get it or I could go pick it up myself. Long story short, the company did have exactly what I was looking for.  All I had to do was pay for three tanks, then bring the receipt to them and they would load them into the back of my truck.  No problem.  Except….  I did have to drive up to Manchester to pick them up today.  I had to be there by 4:15 p.m. or it would have to wait until…next Wednesday.  It was now three o’clock.  Manchester is a good hour’s drive from Theisen’s, and I had no idea where in Manchester I was going.  I still had dogs to deal with at home – they had been in their crates for nearly five hours.  I called a friend to let the dogs out, and I went to pay for the tanks.  Timing was going to be tight! I should know by now that when I’m in a hurry, everything goes wrong!  I have an ATM card for farm purchases.  The machine at the check-out wouldn’t take my card.  No, there was nothing wrong with my card – the machine had been “acting up” all day, I guess.  We ran it five times.  We had the same problem each time.  Minutes were ticking by, and I still had to be in Manchester by 4:15.  It was beginning to look hopeless…until I thought to use it as a credit card.  Eureka!  That did the trick, and I was on my way to Manchester with my receipt in hand! The trip was uneventful.  I made it there at exactly 4:15 p.m.  The guy loaded up my stock tanks, and I turned around and left for home.  It was nearly five-thirty when I arrived.  Still on my list to do: move the lambs into the timber, move the ewes into the rock pasture that the lambs just left, then move the lambs into the fire-circle pasture (I couldn’t move them directly there because the ewes had to pass through the fire-circle to get to the rock pasture).  Coda was ready to go, but Martin (our new llama) was not.  We got all of the lambs and their llama, Vinnie, moved into the timber in short order, but the ewes and Martin were another matter entirely.  Martin was sure that they were under attack by Coda, and he defended.  It took us nearly two hours to move all of the sheep and fill two of the three troughs (the ones in the  occupied pastures). At 7:30 p.m. I came inside to write the blog.  I have yet to pick up the four bales of straw for the barn cleaning tomorrow – that’s my next project.  Then I think I am done for the day.  My “brunch clothes” are now dirty and stained – I forgot to change them when I brought the tanks back.  I’m sunburned from my time outside, and I’m a little hungry – brunch ended quite a while ago.  I’m looking forward to a hot shower after I get the straw…. This was supposed to be an easy day, and it has been absolutely crazy!  Hopefully tomorrow – which is pretty full – will be easier than this!  Tomorrow’s list is twenty-four items long, but we have a couple of teenage boys coming to help out…. At least that way, I know I’ll get lunch!

7:57 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, May 26, 2010 An early morning scare

There are times when I make a decision that seems so good, reasonable, and well thought out at the time, only to have it blow up into a mess when it actually plays out.  That’s exactly what happened this morning.  Let me explain…. Lisa is no longer much of a herding dog.  She was my first working dog, and I made all of my mistakes with her.  Even after training and retraining, I realized that the biggest mistake I had made was in the disposition I had chosen for my dog, and so I eventually retired her at the ripe old age of about six years.  Lisa has a mind of her own and, unlike Coda or Chance, is not at all interested in working as a team with a human partner.  Actually, I don’t really think she wants to work with any partner.  Lisa likes to do what she wants to do at any time or place that she wants to do it.  She has finally agreed to generally follow my household rules, but not in order to please me (which seems to be more the case with my other two dogs) – instead, she follows my rules because she knows that punishment awaits her if she doesn’t.  She will still push the envelope as far as she can, though, punishment or not! You should also know that all of our dogs are afraid of thunder – mightily afraid.  We do medicate them for storms, and we actually began doing so early enough in their lives – in the case of both of the boys, Coda and Chance – that they will actually work the sheep in a storm if need be.  It doesn’t happen often, but it sure is comforting to know that if I need to bring the sheep in during a fierce storm, I won’t be trying to do it myself!  Of the three, Lisa is the most storm phobic – there is no way she would help me in a storm…. no way! So, this morning, thunderstorms were popping up on the weather radar all over our state – most were very limited in size, but they created a lot of thunder and lightning as they went by.  I was gettting ready to go outside and finish my chores when I saw the western horizon darkening – I knew a big storm was on its way in a short period of time.  I still had to exercise the dogs for at least twenty minutes before they went to relax for a while in their crates, and I also needed to fill the creep house with grain for the lambs to eat at their leisure during the day.  I didn’t want to get caught in a downpour walking the dogs, but I also didn’t relish the idea of filling the creep house as buckets of rain dumped down around me, either. I decided that the thing to do was to try something I had done many times in past years when I had a similar situation: take the dogs on a walk and frisbee-catching session as we moved closer and closer to the rock pasture where the lambs were grazing.  Once I got near the pasture, I could put them all into a “down-stay” and go in myself to fill the creep building.  Once I was finished and out of the pasture, I planned on releasing them from their stay and continuing on the walk.  This way, I could kill two birds with one stone – both walk the dogs and feed the lambs – before the worst of the storm hit! Unfortunately, Lisa had her own plans for the morning….  We began the walk as usual for our morning routine: I threw the frisbee and walked, while the dogs retrieved the frisbee and did their ‘business.’  We all slowly worked our way away from the house and towards the back of the property.  This time, however, I was carrying the bucket of grain for the lambs as I walked, and we were accompanied by the sound of distant thunder.  The thunder was obviously making the dogs ill at ease, but they were still willing to walk and fetch, so we moved towards the rock pasture. It didn’t take long before Lisa figured out that we were headed for the rock pasture and the lambs, and decided to “help out.”  As she raced into the pasture where the lambs grazed, it was obvious that she was up to no good: our dogs are taught to wait at the gate for us to enter first, but she threw herself under the bottom wire of the fence and immediately ran for the lambs, barking all the way.  The commotion caught the attention of the other two dogs, and all three began running around and through the group of lambs, panicking the flock.  What a mess! I called.  I threatened.  I tried not to scream at them (it gets the dogs too excited and tense), but I can’t say that it didn’t happen.  I ran to try to catch them.  When something like this happens, there isn’t really much you can do….  The dogs are too fast and too smart to be caught.  Eventually, the fun for Coda and Chance wore off, and they obeyed when I asked them to lie down and then to leave the pasture.  Lisa, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with me!  This was fun for her and she had no plans of stopping! I watched, helplessly, as she charged the group of lambs again and again, scattering them to the corners of the pasture, only to regroup them and start again.  It was hot and muggy, even for morning, and this crazed running was really not good for any of them, dog or sheep.  I was getting more and more worried….  And then it happened.  I watched as Lisa charged the group of lambs yet again, and this time, one of the black ewe lambs dropped onto her side in the tall grass and did not get up.  Oh, I had to stop this, and fast! It took me several more minutes before I could get Lisa’s attention – it was finally a good strong clap of thunder that drew her attention away from her quarry.  When it broke her concentration, she suddenly felt the rain and wind, and heard the storm all around her as it gathered strength.  Suddenly – and thankfully for the lambs – all she had on her mind was to race for home to get away from the storm, and that’s just what she did! Oh, … and that black ewe lamb?  Well, as soon as the coast was clear, she lifted her head to take a good long look around.  Seeing that the crazy dog had indeed left for home, she hopped right up and rejoined her flock-mates like nothing had happened.  When I, too, turned away and left for home, she was the only sheep in that pasture that wasn’t panting heavily after the early morning run.  Who says sheep aren’t smart?!  At the ripe old age of two months or so, she has already figured out that the best way to avoid trouble with Lisa is not to play her games!   If only I could figure out a way….

9:23 am | link          Comments Monday, May 24, 2010 A bittersweet weekend of travel

After loading up both lambs and yearlings late Friday evening, we left Saturday morning for Wisconsin to begin our deliveries.  Our first stop was the delivery of just one yearling CVM ram in Belleville, Wisconsin. He, thankfully, hopped right out of the trailer, happy to see fresh grass!  There were also a number of other sheep in the pasture with him, so we had no problems convincing Ignatius that this was to be his new home.  Within less than an hour, we were back on the road to our second stop – right on schedule! Happily, our second stop took us to Brodhead, Zoller_delivery.jpgwhich was less than an hour’s drive.  There were three Romeldale lambs and a yearling CVM ram to drop there as a starter flock.  The lambs were easy to move out of the trailer – they are still small enough that we could carry them to the paddock where they would live (see photo on right).  The yearling ram was not so simple….  It did help that his traveling buddy, Ignatius, had already left, and now most of the lambs had also been taken from the trailer.  We opened the side door to his compartment, and with a little coaxing, we got Iverson to jump out of the trailer and into the paddock that will be his new home for the time being. Sheep don’t much like to be alone – they are flocking animals and feel very uncomfortable without a group around them.  Iverson called and called to find other sheep, but for whatever reason, the lambs that we had just off-loaded into the adjoining paddock did not answer – they were too interested in eating the tall grass!  Iverson was getting more and more nervous as he called and called to a seemingly empty field.  Just as he seemed about ready to give up hope, the three lambs that we had just delivered ate through some of the vegetation between the two adjoining areas.  They could see him, and he could see them!  The lambs were much more comfortable with an older sheep there with them, and Iverson was no longer alone!  Once the paperwork was done and all questions were answered, we hopped back into the truck for the drive to our next stop in Sheridan, Illinois – our last stop of the day. Although it took us several hours to travel this leg of the trip, it was a good time for Rick and me to discuss all of those things we somehow never seem to have time to get around to hashing out at home.  Before we knew it, we were at our last stop to deliver twin Romney ewe lambs – one black and one white.  Carrying them to their new home from the trailer was easy enough at this age.  We had delivered a ram lamb, Grissom, to this same farm in the summer of 2007.  It was especially fun to be able to see Grissom again, as we had only seen one picture of him in the spring of 2008.  It is always interesting to me to see how our breeding animals grow up because we often only see them as lambs….  Grissom has grown to be an impressive Romney ram – quite muscular and well-built, with a gorgeous gray fleece!  It was hard to take my eyes off him as we stood at the fenceline – but we had to be on our way home to spend the night and to reload the trailer with lambs for Sunday’s trip! We got home late (nearly ten), so decided to load up Sunday’s lambs in the morning before we left.  Unfortunately, because we knew we were going to be gone much of the weekend, we had put all three dogs into the boarding kennel for the weekend – that way, we didn’t have to worry about arranging for someone to let them out during the day.  Well, with no dog available Sunday morning, loading the lambs we needed into the trailer became quite a project!  If Coda had been home, we would have been finished in ten minutes.  As it was, the loading process took us over an hour as we tried to outwit rather than outrun the lambs we needed. Heistad_delivery.jpgEventually, we had the five lambs rounded up (plus two extras), and we were on our way to Reinbeck, Iowa.  We arrived just after lunchtime, and almost immediately unloaded the lambs.  We had brought two ram lambs for a final decision on-site, and also January to keep the unchosen lamb company on the trip home, so we only had to unload five of the seven we had brought.  Once the five purchased lambs were carried to their new barn and pen, Rick and I were able to sit down with the Heistads to finish paperwork and talk sheep for a bit.  Buying a starter flock is a big deal, and we try to share as much information and answer as many questions as possible before we leave.  If we miss anything, there is always e-mail or the phone – we try to be available as questions come up during that first year or so. By mid-afternoon, it was obvious that they had just about hit information overload, so we said our good-byes and headed for home, knowing that all of the lambs delivered over the weekend had gone to wonderful new homes.  This is always a bittersweet time of year for us: saying good-bye to the lambs that we have worked so hard for, yet knowing that, unless they go to new homes, there will not be room for any more lambs next year!  So, as we made our way across Iowa, bound for home, we began our list of “K” names for the 2011 lambs.  It really helps to keep looking forward…..

5:17 pm | link          Comments Friday, May 21, 2010 The first lambs ready for delivery!

Lambs_in_paddock.jpg This weekend is a big one for us – many of our lambs will be going to their new homes in the next two or three days!  As simple as that sounds, there is a lot of preparation that goes into getting them sold and settled in, and it started weeks ago….Beginning at about five or six weeks of age, we gave our lambs their first immunizations for tetanus and a couple of common sheep diseases.  Trying to catch lambs of that age for anything can be a trick: they run so quickly and jump so high that we’ve had to develop a method to our madness in trying to catch them!  We have found that locking them into a small area – like a stall in the barn – works much better than any other option.  We need to give them a booster shot after about three weeks, so, between coats and shots, we handle the lambs a lot in those first weeks!We also try to clean them up a bit before we turn them over to their new owners….  We make sure that if they are going with coats, that the coats will still fit for at least a couple of weeks, and that they are not torn and fairly clean.  If the lamb has manure tags from grazing rich grass, we try to trim them off – it is important to make a good first impression, even if you are a lamb!There is a lot of paperwork that needs to be put in order before a sale, too.  Every lamb we sell comes with not only a registration, but also a print-out of all of the computerized information that we have collected on that lamb since birth.  That includesweights every month (beginning at birth), every notation we’ve ever made when handling the lamb (when it was dewormed, immunized, medicated, etc.), any color genetics that we have been able to figure out from the sire and dam, any illnesses or injuries (not common), etc.  Thank goodness the paperwork is computerized!  I can’t imagine having to sit down and write it all out longhand – including the five generation pedigree!My last task, besides loading the lambs up for transport tonight, is to mix up creep feed for their first week or so in their new home.  Sheep, and especially lambs, require a pretty consistent feed ration – dramatic changes will really throw off their digestion.  Because of that, I make sure each lamb goes with about seven pounds of creep feed to slowly make the transition over to whatever their new owners will feed them.  Our ration is not a ready-made mix – we mix it ourselves for our lambs each day.  That means that I now have to mix enough in my little buckets for well over a dozen lambs for at least seven days or so.  Needless to say, it’s going to take a little time!Once we leave tomorrow morning to deliver the first lambs, it will be exciting!  There is nothing like watching a family welcome home a small flock of little lambs – especially when there are children involved!  At that point, all of the preparation is suddenly worth it, and we drive away knowing that not only are our lambs in good hands, but we’ve also likely made new friends with their new owners in the process.  It won’t be long now….!

11:28 am | link          Comments Wednesday, May 19, 2010 Our working dogs

I have to admit that I couldn’t do what I do with my flock of sheep without my dogs.  I know that a lot of shepherds say that they can move their flocks using a bucket of grain, but my sheep are too wary to fall for that.  Most of them will come in, but a few stay back and watch to see what we have planned.  When the others see the few outside, they become nervous and run out of the barn, too, so that we then need to get more grain to try to bring them back in.  We eventually got to the point where we knew we could not move the sheep reliably, so we got our first dog, Lisa. Lisa_2008_web.jpgBecause she was our first dog, I made a lot of mistakes with Lisa – both in selecting her and in her training.  She is still around now, seven years later, but retired, having gotten to the point where she is more trouble than help.  Because border collies need a productive job to maintain their sanity, she has developed the task of protecting me from the rooster when I collect eggs from the nesting boxes.  This isn’t something I would have thought of on my own, but she has embraced it as her task in life since her retirement and, since it has created a kind of peace in the household, we go with it. Coda was the next dog to arriveCoda_2008_web.jpg and is now, at five years of age, our main dog.  Although I am constantly reminding him to slow down while he’s working, he can do just about anything I need with little instruction.  He is tough enough to move the most ornery rams, and yet can be gentle and patient enough to move even the youngest weaned lambs.  I am afraid that he is a once-in-a-lifetime dog: he is just that easy to work with.  I used to think that he read my mind, but I have come to realize that he must read my body language and often knows what I need him to do even before I even tell him. Besides being so good with the sheep, Coda also knows to steer clear of the llamas.  We have one llama protecting each group of sheep.  When I take Coda into an area to move sheep, he keeps an eye open for the llama and, although he will move my sheep as needed, he will also keep from being killed by the resident llama.  Chance isn’t so savvy and the llamas are my major issue with him right now…. Chance_2008_web.jpgChance is the youngest and also the smallest of our three dogs.  Being two years old, he doesn’t yet have the experience that Coda has developed, and I don’t think he realizes that being too close to the llamas is a danger.  He becomes so involved with working the sheep that he loses track of where the llama is – and that can be fatal!  When I take Chance into the flock of sheep, I have to keep an eye out for him, to keep him away from the llama.  I am hoping that, eventually, with more experience, he will figure all of this out for himself the way that Coda did – but he hasn’t done it yet.  Right now, it can still be a heart-stopping experience to let Chance work the sheep. Of our three dogs, Chance has the most unusual personality.  If you were to meet him in the house, you would think he’s still a puppy – he’s much too playful and immature for you to consider him a working dog.  Yet, if you take him in among the sheep, all of that silly puppy behavior drops away, and the working dog comes to the fore.  If you met him in the pasture with sheep, you would have a hard time reconciling the dog you saw indoors with the one you met in the fireld – he is that different. Many people ask me if I have a favorite from among our dogs….  In fact, I do have a favorite.  The problem is that my favorite changes by the day.  Actually, it probably doesn’t take that long to change from one to another – it can be minutes!  Coda is definitely my favorite for certain tasks with the sheep, but Chance is actually better at other times in moving the flock.  Lisa can be a doll – or a stinker, depending on her mood.  Overall, life with three border collies isn’t easy – they have way too much energy to simply be household pets.  Yet, for our lifestyle, I can’t imagine doing what we do without them.  Their intelligence and drive make working the sheep infinitely easier, and our lives away from the flock infinitely more interesting…..

8:17 am | link          Comments Monday, May 17, 2010 A bittersweet reunion

Saturday marked the final weaning date for all of our lambs.  The oldest lambs were done a few weeks ago, but since we wean in two groups, the lamb flock still had the mothers of the youngest lambs in with them.  The project this past Saturday was to pull out all of the adult ewes – except for Zoe, who would act as “granny” and provide leadership for the lambs – and put them into the timber with the rest of the ewes.We then planned on splitting the lambs into two groups….  The youngest lambs who would be weaning this week would stay in the barn with the lambs who will be leaving for new homes next weekend – both of these groups would get a little extra attention this week, so keeping them close just made sense.  The rest of the lambs went with Zoe to a new, fresh pasture.Our bottle lambs, Jasper, January, and Jareau, were weaned with the first group in late April, so they ended up being split up between the two groups: Jasper stayed in the barn because he is leaving next weekend, and January and Jareau were intended to go with Zoe’s group out to the pasture.  At the last minute, January got in with the barn group, so we decided to leave her there as a companion for Jasper.  One more lamb eating hay is no big deal, and she seems like a fixture in the barn – it would almost be odd to go to the barn and not find January there, getting into places and things that she wasn’t supposed to!That left Jareau in with the older lambs in Zoe’s group, going down across the lawn, through the orchard, across the ram pasture, out across our small foot-bridge over the wetlands, to the newly opened south pasture.  All of the lambs moved easily, following Zoe with llama Vinnie in the lead.  The remaining lambs at the barn were given lots of hay and water, and then barricaded in so that they couldn’t take off to find their mothers in the timber.  The day’s project seemed done, and I went inside the house to call it a day at about five in the afternoon. However….It wasn’t long before I noticed that there was a lamb outside of the enclosure around the barn!  This really couldn’t be possible, as we had used the same barricade that we used a few weeks ago, and that we knew was lamb-proof!  How could a lamb have gotten out?  I turned off the TV news and went to investigate….It turns out that our barricade is indeed escape-proof – no lambs had gotten out: they were all still inside their enclosure.  There was a lamb outside, though, poking her head into every nook and cranny, but she had not come from inside – she had come from Zoe’s group in the new pasture!  It was Jareau!  Missing her two bottle-lamb friends, she had decided to strike out to find them, rain or shine, over high ground or wetlands.  She had obviously taken the hard route, as she was wet and filthy, but happy to have found her friends.  Her biggest issue now was that they were inside and she was out – but she was determined to change that!January and Jasper, on the other hand, were the cheering section inside the panelled fence, calling and calling to their friend, Jareau.  By the time I got up to the barn, Jareau had put her head into the only opening into the area and gotten stuck there with Jasper and January jumping onto her and rubbing against her, encouraging her on.  The whole scene made me smile – these three friends, of two different breeds, had become ‘family’ only because of chance – they all had to be bottle fed to survive.  Yet, they are now so connected that separating them into distant pastures had caused such a scene. So what could I do?!  Jasper leaves next Sunday for his new home, so I decided to let them have their time together this week – what is one more lamb eating hay in the barn?  So now, January, Jasper, and Jareau have one more week to celebrate their friendship.  When I went out this morning, the three of them were busy chowing down a flake of hay from the same hay feeder, keeping all of the other lambs at other feeders – this was “their” feeder, and they worked in unison to defend it.  I know that their time together is short, and that this is the way life on the farm goes, but I am going to be sorry to break up this little trio….  I am happy that two of them will have a permanent place here, and that Jasper has found a good home, but I can’t help but feel just a bit of sadness each year as our lambs leave our care and disperse to start their new lives. As always, I wish them well.

11:26 am | link          Comments Friday, May 14, 2010 Into the shepherd’s arms….

It was a pretty typical spring storm in Iowa: the wind was bending the trees to the point of breaking, the rain was hammering down in sheets, interspersed with bits of hail, and arcs of lightening lit up the sky.  It was evening, and it was beginning to get dark – I knew that the lambs had to come in to the barn to get out of the storm….  Cold rain is not good for young lambs, and several years ago, we lost a lamb in a lightening storm – I certainly didn’t want a repeat!Most of the lambs had come in when the storm first began, but a few of them had gone to graze in  outlying areas earlier in the day, and now couldn’t get back on their own.  So, there I was in my yellow slicker, trying to bring the lambs home for the night.  The first one that I noticed had obviously crawled under the seven-wire fence and was grazing with the rams.  Jake had figured out how to get to the ‘greener pastures’ on the other side of the fence, but now couldn’t figure out how to get back.  I quickly turned off the power to the ram’s fence, hopped it to pick up Jake, then came back over it with Jake in my arms.  It seemed easier to carry him to the barn than to get one of our herding dogs out in the storm to teach Jake how to cooperate with a dog – a lesson better left for a calmer day!  When I got to the paddock at the barn, Rick opened the gate, and I set the ram lamb on the ground to run into the barn.  One down, and five or six lambs to go….Next came the group of lambs who had crawled under the west pasture fence into what we call the Rock Pasture.  I was hoping that all I had to do was to open the gate adjoining the two fields and the lambs would be smart and run for the barn.  The rain and hail was now really pelting me, and although the slicker was keeping my sweatshirt dry, my sweatpants were soaked through, and I was getting cold.As I opened the gate that I hoped would bring the lambs in, I realized that Gianna and her daughter, Jezebel, were two of the sheep in the rock pasture, and rather than come back up to the barn, Gianna slipped back under the fence to the timber where her fellow flockmates were riding out the storm.  That was fine for her, but Jezebel followed her into the timber….  I would have to find her later.  There were still three other lambs in that same rock pasture who I had to bring in – and this time, I couldn’t just carry them!As I walked into the middle of the pasture, with one lamb to the west, and two more in that same field to the south, I was trying to figure out how to get all three moving towards the barn.  I was afraid that the single lamb who had been grazing with Jezebel and Gianna would try to follow them into the timber.  And as I walked towards him or her, that was just what he/she was trying to do!Then, I noticed that this lamb was pretty small in comparison to our other lambs….  And it was wearing a new, white coat – I had just yesterday changed Jareau’s coat for a new, bigger one.  I wondered, could this be my little Jareau – the bottle lamb who, at one point, would come to the sound of my voice calling her name?  As I walked, I began to call Jareau in the high-pitched call that I had always used to call her for her bottle, hoping against hope that maybe it would convince this little lamb not to take off for the timber in this nasty weather…..Believe it or not, it worked!  Fighting my own disbelief, I continued to call, and not only did Jareau stop trying to find a way under the fence, but she also turned to look in my direction.  As I called again and again, she began to run as fast as her little legs could carry her in my direction!  When we met in the middle of the rock pasture, she was so excited to see me that she was like a gleeful pet dog, jumping up on me and rubbing her soggy head against me – all she wanted was for me to pick her up! I popped open my slicker and tucked her under as much of it as I could manage, protecting her from the worst of the downpour, while she nibbled on my chin and nose – Jareau was obviously happy to be at least partially out of the storm.  Now, I had to shift my attention to the other two lambs to the south….  As I began to walk towards them, the oldest of the two suddenly realized that I had opened the gate that stood between them and the barn.  All it took was for me to give them a little incentive to get moving (by walking towards them), and the two ram lambs took off for the barn, with Jareau and me bringing up the rear. It wasn’t long before all of the lambs were safe in the barn and out of the nasty weather.  With all of the lambs warm and dry for the night, I headed for the house, reflecting on all that had just happened.  It still amazes me that even weeks after her last bottle, little Jareau heard her name, knew that it signalled an end to her misery in the cold, and came running to me for help.  This is just another one of those stories that makes the tough parts of what I do completely worth it.

12:31 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, May 12, 2010 The ewe lamb clubhouse

You wouldn’t believe how often sheep do things that remind me of the human experience.  Actually, that is probably why the Bible draws so many parallels between people and sheep, but that’s a whole other blog…. Girls_at_tree_2010.jpgYesterday, I went walking out in the west pasture to check on one of our ram lambs who recently has had a cough.  I noticed that there was quite a group of lambs hanging out under the mulberry tree, so I thought he might be there with them.  The lambs were resting under the tree – most just lying there, snuggled up close to another lamb on one side or the other, and cudding (chewing their cud).  It was a little unusual to see such a big group of lambs and not see any playful head-butting or mounting behaviors….  They just seemed very relaxed, enjoying the spring weather! Unfortunately, as I drew closer I startled the group (even moving slowly), so many of the lambs stood up, ready to flee at any sign of ‘equipment’ – dewormers, needles, fresh coats, or anything else that required them being handled.  That’s when I snapped the above picture, because as I drew near enough to see who was under the tree, it surprised me….  All of the lambs lying around the mulberry tree were girls! I had obviously stumbled across the ewe lamb clubhouse!  No wonder there was no tussling going on!  We tag all of our ram lambs in their right ears (we remember it with the statement, “boys always think they are right”), and it was easy to see that none of the lambs under the tree at that moment had a right eartag!  As I scanned the pasture, I could see many examples of typical rough-and-tumble lamb play – by the ram lambs – but not under this tree.  These girls had decided that they wanted some time to themselves with no boys alllowed! I eventually did find my coughing ram lamb (who was fine), but I couldn’t stop thinking about the group of ewe lambs under the tree….  It reminded me of days gone by when our kids used to make forts that allowed entry to only their own sex.  I guess the ewe lambs decided yesterday that enjoying the spring day did not include playing with the ram lambs.  I bet they will be changing their tune by fall when breeding season begins!

10:45 am | link          Comments Monday, May 10, 2010 The continuing saga of Jezebel and Jewel….

As most of you may remember, Jezebel and Jewel have been our escape artists this year, finding their way to their mothers so often after weaning that we had to “jail” them to keep them from finding the ewe flock and nursing.  The last time we let them out was last Monday morning, and by afternoon, they had again found their way back to the flock of adult ewes.Well, it has been one week since their last release and, according to my vet, ewes dry up their milk if they are not milked for a week, so we thought we would try letting them out of their pen again.  It has actually been over two weeks since we weaned them, but now it has been a whole week since they’ve last been with their mothers.  My normal routine is to fill the lambs’ creep feeders in both the morning and early evening, so I thought I would open Jewel and Jezebel’s pen after I filled the creep this morning.  My thinking was that they would, hopefully, become so engrossed in the creep feed that they would forget about going to look for their mothers….The plan seemed to be working when I opened up their “jail” this morningJewel_Jezebel_release.jpg – as you can see in the photo at right, both Jewel and Jezebel headed straight for the nearest grain feeder and away from the door (behind me as I took the photo).  As I went about my routine, I could peek in and see them filling up their tummies – a good sign!Unfortunately, it didn’t last long, though.  When I finished my barn chores and took the dogs out for some exercise, I suddenly noticed two little lambs – one black and one whiteLast_escape.jpg – making their way across one pasture after another, running full-speed for the adult ewe flock in the timber.  It took only minutes, and by the time I got my camera out of my back pocket, they were just reaching the last fence, with llama Martin standing guard, ready to greet them!  If you look closely at the photo on the left, you can see two little white dots (their coats) running towards Martin, who is just to the right of the big group of trees – they were already nearly a quarter-mile away!Quite honestly, I’m not planning on fetching them back again – I am done with that game!  Their mothers’ milk is drying up, so I don’t have to worry about having to wean them again.  We will be weaning the last group of lambs this weekend, so we will move Jezebel and Jewel back with the lambs at that time – until then, they can graze with the ewe flock, I guess.  When you work with livestock, sometimes you just have to call it good enough and move on – I think this is one of those times… but wait until this weekend!  I’ll get them back then!

11:19 am | link          Comments Friday, May 7, 2010 Jubal likes his grain….

When I got out to the barn for my morning check of the lambs, I noticed that one of our lambs had lost its coat: the leg strap of the coat had obviously gotten caught on one of the posts of the hay feeder and somehow the lamb had struggled out of it – the coat laid there where it had been abandoned.  The problem here is that the lambs like to stand in the feeder to eat – not really how it was intended to work – and as the level of hay goes down, their leg strap can get caught on one of the upright posts.  Some of you long-time readers may remember that we had this problem almost daily with Ivy last fall, and she seems to have finally figured out that she needs to eat from outside the feeder!  Well, obviously we now have another lamb who is doing the same thing, again!So, with the untangled coat in hand, I went out to find the “naked” lamb.  Since I also had a bucket of grain for the lambs and the few ewes who are still lactating, I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone and feed the sheep, drawing them all in towards the barn so that I could recoat the lamb at the same time.  Well, the grain did the trick, and the entire flock of lambs and lactating ewes came running to the paddock near the barn to gobble their daily grain.You have to understand that there is grain available at all times in the barn for the lambs.  It’s even sweetened grain, with molasses in the mix, to entice them to eat, so there is no reason why they should run like the wind to come and eat what I am feeding the ewes.  No reason, that is, except that they are sheep, and sheep do things together as a flock….  Plain grain eaten with the flock is so much more enticing than sweetened grain eaten alone in the barn.  So they all run in and help the ewes eat up their grain, and then the lambs will run into the barn and finish filling up on the sweetened grain with their lamby friends.  I’m sure the ewes would rather that the lambs didn’t help them eat their grain, but there isn’t much to be done about it.My plan this morning was to try to catch the naked lamb while he or she was eating, unsuspecting, at the trough with the rest of the lambs and ewes, and then try to put the coat back on.  This isn’t always easy to do by myself because the lambs aren’t always as cooperative as I would like!  They usually struggle to run away, pulling and pushing in my hands….  I was game to give it a try, though, so I poured the grain and watched the flock mob the feeders, looking all the while for a lamb with no coat.Jubal_face.jpgWell, he wasn’t hard to spot, with his dark wool exposed while the other sheep passed me, all coated in white – Jubal was missing his coat!  I grabbed him as he lowered his head into the trough for the grain, and instead of struggling to run off, he stayed put and just ate!  I pulled the neck of the coat over his head and found that as long as I continued to let him eat, he really didn’t care what I did!  I pulled up one back leg to put it in the strap, and he stood there, eating on three legs.  I pulled up the second back leg for the other strap, and he still stood there, eating.  When I finished, I straightened the coat on him and, believe it or not, he hardly moved – other than his lips and jaws, of course, which continued wolfing down grain from the trough!It wasn’t until the grain was gone that he looked up, saw me standing nearby, and ran for the barn to get away from the “threat” I posed – and, of course, to find that sweetened grain that his friends had already found in the creep area!  I don’t know what he thought I might do that I hadn’t already done, but I guess now we know that Jubal sure likes his grain – a lot!

12:18 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, May 5, 2010 We win weaning, round one!

Weaning time is a difficult time for us – we want to let all our sheep go out into the pastures and enjoy that great grass that is growing all around our acreage, but at the same time we know that if we get the lambs too close to their mothers, they won’t stay put!  They will take off under our fences and end up in the adult ewe pasture with their moms.Right now, the ewes are all the way on the opposite side of the property in the timber, and the lambs have been a quarter-mile away in the east pasture.  The problem is that the lambs (and the ewes still nursing their lambs) have eaten down what was in the east pasture so that there is really not much left for them there.  I have had the option of opening the west pasture gate for them so that they could graze there, but I’ve been reluctant….  You see, if they go into the west pasture, they are in direct sight of their mothers in the timber – only two high-tensile wire fences stand between the west pasture and the timber, and most of the lambs have already figured out how to scoot under the bottom wires.So, I’ve been procrastinating moving the lambs and have been feeding them alfalfa hay instead.  All good things come to an end, though, and the alfalfa is almost gone.  I don’t want to use it all up because in a week and a half, I will be weaning the rest of the lambs, and I will want to close the lambs into the barn again for the first couple of days.  No more alfalfa to feed now means the lambs and the few ewes with them needed to be moved, but oh, I was scared!I never move sheep in the early morning – the old-timer’s rule of thumb is to never move sheep into a fresh pasture when the grass is wet.  The point here is avoiding the dew, not rain, and the idea behind it is that if they are coming from a low-nutrition area (as they would be in an eaten-down pasture) into a high-nutrition area, you want them to do so after they have filled themselves up a bit on the poorer stuff.  Too much high nutrition feed on an empty stomach can make for digestive problems in sheep, so I waited until about noon yesterday before I opened the west pasture gate and closed off the east pasture to regrow.My fear, of course, was that as soon as I opened the gate, all the lambs would run to the far side of the west pasture, see their mothers in the timber, and then scoot under the two fences to be with mom.  I watched and waited, but it seemed like all the lambs who moved into the pasture were too busy eating to look for mom – a good sign, but not necessarily an indication that all would stay put!  The question was, what would they do once their tummies were full?So, it was with a lot of trepidation that I went out yesterday Martin_with_ewes.jpgevening for a head-count in the ewe pasture.  I fully expected to find at least a half-dozen of our lambs who had made it across the open terrain to mix with the ewes.  If so, I would have to bring the truck and a dog, and begin sorting them out of the group to bring them back.  I called my sheep to the gate and they came – and there were no lambs (see photo at right)!  The rest of the group must have been grazing a great area, because they straggled behind the first rush of sheep, but they, too, had no lambs with them!  This was incredible, but after most of the day in clear sight of their mothers, none of the lambs had made the trip to rejoin them!  I couldn’t believe my eyes!  I was elated!  We had won this round of weaning – admitedly with two lambs still in “jail” in the barn, but that was a small price to pay!Even better, by dusk, the lambs in the west pasture rediscovered their old pastime: playing on the manure pile.  It has been weeks since we’ve watched them run up and down the pile at dusk, playing king-of-the-mountain!  Without access to the pile, they continued playing their version of tag in the east pasture, but no more running up and down, jumping and twisting in the air – until yesterday!  No, they had not forgotten their fun times!  So, after a long day outside, Rick and I spent the last half-hour or so of sunlight relaxing and watching the fruit of our labor – our 2010 lamb crop – celebrating spring!

3:09 pm | link          Comments Monday, May 3, 2010 Jewel and Jezebel are released – for now!

Well, Jezebel and Jewel have spent a few days in their homemade jail in the creep area, and I have begun to feel sorry for them.  They stopped calling for their dams on Saturday, and they have been model citizens since then, resigned to their lives in their “jail.”  So after checking on them again this morning,  I decided to allow a sort of ‘parole’ and let them out to see what happens!  As with any parole, I expect them to check in with me – like all the other lambs – when I come out to refill the creep area twice each day.  If they are missing for this afternoon’s head-count, I will know that they have taken off to find their dams again, and will have to put them back for another few days….Of the two, Jezebel is indeed the leader: Jezebel_and_Jewel_released.jpgwhether it is new food and water or an open pen door with a chance to escape, Jezebel always seems to be leading the way.  This morning, when I unclipped the many carabiners that held their pen door closed, it was Jezebel who came to investigate what I was up to – and Jezebel who took the first steps into the creep area to freedom! (see right)
Now, don’t get me wrong – Jewel is not a stay-at-home!  She was right behind Jezebel coming out of the pen!  Jewel just isn’t quite as brave as Jezebel when it comes to new things.  Like a smart lamb, she would rather watch Jezebel take the risk, and then follow if things turn out well!  Jezebel, on the other hand, has very little sense of caution – she will blunder in and face the consequences, hoping that they won’t be too bad….  This is something we will need to watch until she gets older, to make sure she doesn’t get herself into trouble that she can’t find a way out of!So, at least for the time being, all of our lambs are back together.  It is nice to walk among them and see them all frolicking in the sun or filling up on creep feed in the barn.  A flock of lambs is always good for a smile – there isn’t a time that I go out to see the lambs that I don’t come back feeling renewed and happy.  It won’t be long before people from all over the country begin to arrive to pick up their choices for breeding stock from among our lambs, so I guess I had better enjoy their antics while I can!<Several hours later….>  Well, a quick head-count at the afternoon check-in told me I was missing two lambs.  I took a quick stroll around the grounds and found no lamb out of place or unable to come in for a check, so I had a strong suspicion that I knew who was missing…. Could it be my little escape artists, Jewel and Jezebel?I took the truck out to the timber on the far side of the property – about a quarter-mile from where the lambs are currently grazing.  This is the area where we’ve hidden the ewes – it has lots of grass, and is far away and out of sight of the weaned lambs.  I had hoped that it would be enough to keep everyone where they belonged – I obviously underestimated the desire in these two lambs to find their mothers!As soon as I got the truck out into the trees on the far side of the property, I noticed two very small ewes running among all of the big girls….  Sure enough, when I got close enough to see faces and read ear-tags, it was just as I had suspected: I could see that Jewel and Jezebel had once again escaped and traveled cross-country to get to their mothers – let me emphasize the AGAIN part!  I still can’t believe it!  Even with that nice pep talk I gave them as they left their jail this morning!Jewel_and_Jezebel_return.jpgSo, I caught them both and put them into the back of the pick-up for the ride back to the barn, and the return to jail (see photo at left).  Even though I hated doing it, they are back behind bars tonight for an unknown period of time – until I can be sure that the next time they escape, they will find their mothers dry.  It is times like this that all I can do is sigh….

11:21 am | link          Comments Friday, April 30, 2010 Jewel and Jezebel Go to Jail

All of our older lambs have been weaned for nearly a week now; all, that is, except for Jewel and Jezebel.  No matter how tightly we build the barriers between them and their mothers, no matter how much distance we put between them, they seem to find a way into the ewe pasture and nurse.This has been going on for nearly a week now.  Every morning, I wake up to a beautiful view of our pastoral ewes grazing, and – WHAT?! – there are two lambs out in the ewe pasture!  Once again, after a careful perusal, I realize that it is Jewel and Jezebel.  Somehow, they have found a way back to their mothers – again!So this morning I decided to take matters into my own hands….  Rick has been helping me catch the lambs and take them back every evening.  No more nice shepherdess!  I am determined for them to wean so that they can go to their new homes and greener pastures!  That won’t happen unless I can keep them away from their mothers.  There is only one thing left to do – jail them!WinkJewel_and_Jezebel.JPGSo, when I saw them out this morning, I got the rest of my chores done and went to work building some kind of a container to house these two escape artists!  I know that Jezebel is a jumper at her young age….  Many lambs will jump when this young and then later never leave the ground – Jezebel is likely one of them, since her mother, Gianna, was too.  Whatever I built would have to have a top on it to keep Jezebel in.Jewel’s trick is to find any small opening and squeeze her nose into it, letting the wedge-like shape of her face open the space to allow the rest of her to follow.  Her structure would have to have openings or spaces  with limited ability to expand – otherwise, she would find a way out.I headed to the barn and got creative.  We still have panels left that were used to build lambing jugs.  Most of them are currently being used to reinforce the board fences during weaning, but I had five four-foot panels left unused.  With a little ingenuity and a lot of carabiners (those colorful little clips you can see in the photo below), I assembled  a jail to house the errant lambs.sheep_jail.jpgI am hoping that they won’t have to stay in their little jail long….  I hate having them separated from the rest of the lambs, but I could think of no other way to ensure that they would stay out of the ewe pasture.  At least the pen is housed in the area where all of the other lambs come to eat.  I am hoping that a few days in the pen will convince them that there is no use in trying to make a run for it – and that they will then stay with the rest of the lambs.  I guess only time will tell….

8:51 am | link          Comments Wednesday, April 28, 2010 Squawkers shows his true colors

Every few years, our chickens get old enough that they essentially stop laying eggs, and we know it’s time to replace them.  We drop the old chickens off with some friends of ours in October, and in the spring, we get a box of day-old chicks in the mailbox from McMurray Hatchery.  We only order hens because we want the fresh eggs, but McMurray always throws in a free rooster with every order.  When our order came last year, we had some school-age girls here to help get the chicks settled, and they named the rooster “Squawkers” because every time they touched him or picked him up, he would squawk.Well, Squawkers Squawkers.jpggrew up to be a fine looking rooster (see photo at right), and we had high hopes that he would live here for many years, alerting us when dawn broke and just generally adding his own personal flair to the chicken yard.  Oh, we had no idea then of what was waiting in that little package!Squawkers is now a full-grown rooster and he does, indeed, let us know when dawn breaks with a “cock-a-doodle-doo” that carries throughout the neighborhood.  He also lets us know that the sun is out, in general  – and I mean it!  He cock-a-doodles the entire day, from sunup to long after sundown!  If there is any light sighted from the chicken coop, he will let us know!But worse than that is that Squawkers is not a friendly rooster….  He knows that I will check for eggs at least twice a day, and he lies in  wait for me.  As I come near the chicken yard, walking towards the gate, he walks along the fence with me, strutting and pecking at the fence.  He lets me know that he is up for a fight, no matter how big I may seem!Yesterday, when I went to collect eggs in the late afternoon, he was nowhere in sight – and I thought I might be able to sneak up and get into the chicken coop without his seeing me!  As I opened the chicken-yard gate, a flying beast launched itself at my head from around the corner of the coop, claws and spurs extended!  I don’t know if you have ever seen the spurs that roosters grow on the back of their legs, but his are over an inch long – and very sharp!  I ducked out of the way, but he got my arm on the way down – and I still hadn’t made it to the coop for the eggs!I quickly dove towards the coop door, but not quickly enough because Squawkers came back for another assault – this time, at my legs.  I was wearing heavy jeans and I kicked back, figuring that a moving target would be harder for him to hit, but by the time I made it into the chicken coop, a circle of blood was slowly seeping through the denim.  So much for the protection of heavy jeans!I slammed the chicken coop door so that he would have to go around to the other side to enter the smaller chicken doors, giving me time to collect eggs.  I finished quickly and cracked the door open to see if my path to safety was clear.  He was nowhere in sight, so I decided to make a run for it – with thirteen eggs held in sling created from the front of my shirt!  I must have been some sight: eggs bouncing in my shirt, my head down and running, closely followed by a crazed rooster with plans of mayhem on his mind.  I don’t suppose anyone has a need for a “spirited” rooster?

10:49 am | link          Comments Monday, April 26, 2010 Weaning – or so I thought!

Weaning day is always a big event – for the lambs and for us.  For the last couple of years, we have split our lambs into two groups – the early group and the late group – and weaned each group at a different time.  Because there is a six-week span from the first-born lamb to the last straggler, we thought it might work better to wean the first, larger group last Saturday, and then wean the last dozen or so lambs in three weeks.There are a couple of advantages to dividing it up like this.  First of all, when the lambs are weaned, they miss more than just the milk.  In fact, the milk is the smaller part of what they miss, in my opinion.  It seems that the biggest problem is the lack of adult leadership and “mothering” from their moms.  By weaning in two groups, we leave the later-lambing ewes in with the lambs, allowing them to continue to provide that leadership for the whole group of lambs.  That way, the lambs are not out there alone in the dark of night without an adult to assure them that it is all OK.And, of course, they do miss the milk a bit.  By six weeks, though, they are not drinking much milk at all, and what they drink has dropped in nutrition over the weeks to provide very little of what they need – they are actually better off without filling up on the milk, and instead filling up on the grain and alfalfa or grass.So, Saturday we weighed and evaluated all of the lambs for breeding and pulled out about three-quarters of the ewes, sending them to the south pasture – which is almost as far from our east pasture as you can get.  This was important because although we were locking the lambs and the remaining nursing ewes into the barn for the weekend, after that, we knew they would be grazing the east pasture – we didn’t want any escapees making their way back to their mothers in the south pasture!After sending the ewes off to their south pasture to “dry up,” we enclosed the area right in front of the barn with sheep panels (42″high made up of 4″ squares) to keep the lambs in for the weekend.  We gave them bales of alfalfa and dishes of grain and called the job done – or so we assumed!The first problem appeared within an hour, and it was named Gianna.  All of our lambs learn at a very young age that they can get under our high-tensile fences because the bottom wires are not electrified.  I actually kind of like this because they can get to very nice grass that the ewes can’t eat up, and they always scoot right back when we come along.  They never go far from their flock, so I don’t really worry about them.  Eventually, they grow big enough and old enough that they don’t continue their fence trick – they stay within the fences…that is, except for Gianna!  She learned the Houdini trick as a lamb and continues to this day to make her way out of the pastures to graze.  Like the lambs, she doesn’t stray far, and she scoots right back under when we come to “talk to her” about it, so we haven’t worried about it much – until Saturday!Gianna is a very protective mother – the kind we really like.  She takes very good care of her lambs, and both she and her lambs always have exceptionally lovely fiber – which is why she is still here!  This year, her daughter, Jezebel, is no different: she is our largest lamb with extraordinary fiber, and an overprotective mother!  As soon as we got Gianna over in the south pasture, she began making her way under the fence, across the swamp, under another fence, across the pasture, under the last fence, and up to the enclosure where Jezebel waited, calling and calling.  You have to understand, they hadn’t even been separated for an hour yet!Gianna_escapes.jpgThank goodness, we had the foresight to enclose the lamb area within the panels (See the photo at left of Gianna outside the panels with Jezebel jumping inside, trying to get out!)  Otherwise, moving Gianna back to the south pasture would have been that much harder!  As it was, it took two people and a dog to convince her that it was time to return to the ewes….  And it took three more times before dark, as she kept making her way over to the barn.  Finally, once it got dark, her better instinct prevailed, and she decided that it was too dangerous for a ewe to be traveling cross-country alone – but that was no longer true at sun-up on Sunday morning! All day on Sunday, we had the same problem.  Luckily I found that if I sent Coda, my main dog, out to push her back under the fence before she crossed the swamp, that he could do so without my even leaving the front porch.  All of Sunday morning, that is exactly what we did…..  And then, in the afternoon, I realized that he no longer even needed to go down into the swamp to push her back in – she would go in on her own when she saw him in the front yard, on his way over.  Before long, she would pop back under the fence as soon as the front door opened – and then it got dark and we had a reprieve for the night! I have to add that, during all this time of trying to keep Gianna in, the lambs were doing fine!  The ewes called their lambs, and the lambs called their moms for the rest of the day on Saturday, but by Sunday the ruckus had pretty much stopped.  By this morning, even Gianna had given up and all was peaceful, so I decided that I could let the lambs and the few ewes with them out onto the east pasture to graze a bit.  What a bad move! As soon as I opened the panels, a whole flurry of lambs ran for the west pasture gate and scooted under….  This was terrible!  The rest of them moved into the east pasture as I had hoped – that was the gate that I had left open for them.  Those that made it into the west pasture were only two fences and a swampy area away from their moms!  What a mess! I quickly put up panels over the west pasture gate so that no more lambs could get through, and took Coda out to convince the lambs that hadn’t yet made it under the first fence that they had to go back.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t catch them all… six lambs had gotten all the way through to their moms in the south pasture.  Grumbling, I hooked up the trailer, and Coda and I went for a “ride” (Coda’s word) to the south pasture. Luckily, the lambs are still young and small enough for me to pick up and carry.  I caught each one, including Jezebel (who weighs nearly 50 punds), and put them into the trailer.  While we worked, Coda and I had to keep watch for Martin, our new llama, who is now in that field.  As one of the sheep’s protectors, Martin is not used to the fact that Coda is allowed to work the sheep and is not a threat, so we had to begin that training, too, as we gathered up the lambs.  Within about 45 minutes, all of the lambs were in the trailer on their way back to the east pasture. So far, so good – no lambs have escaped since Coda and I dropped off the six about an hour ago.  I can only hope that now, when I say that a good number of our lambs are being weaned, that it is still true, and that I have no more trailer trips in my near future!  So, now to begin planning that final weaning group….

2:42 pm | link          Comments Friday, April 23, 2010 Vinnie goes to the vet

Last weekend, when Tom delivered Martin (our new llama) to the farm, he also brought Nick along to shear our other two llamas.  It all went very smoothly until Nick discovered a lump on Vinnie’s side as he was shearing.  Now you have to understand that we haven’t sheared our two llamas in a couple of years, so there was a lot of fiber there this year to shear off.  There is no way that we could’ve seen this lump through all the fiber, but now that he was sheared, it was really obvious. At the time, I kept trying to think whether I had done anything that might have caused an abcess in that place….  I had given them their immunizations for the year, but I knew it wasn’t in the middle of his side!  I usually give them just behind a front leg, so that the movement of walking will dissipate the fluid of the injection.  I couldn’t think of anything that might have caused this big lump – it was as large as a good-sized egg! So, on Monday morning, I called our vet and scheduled an appointment for Thursday afternoon for Vinnie to be seen.  Now, taking a llama to the vet is not at all like taking a dog or cat.  You can just pop your dog or cat into the back of your vehicle and away you go – the llama, on the other hand, is too big to put into the back seat of the truck.  He is even too big to put into the crate that we sometimes put together to transport sheep in the bed of the pick-up.  Besides that, how on earth would we load him into the bed of the pick-up?!  He must weigh over 300 pounds!  So the answer seemed to be our trailer. This, however, was no minor task….  We had to pick up the trailer from storage, then catch Vinnie out in the pasture and get a halter on him.  Our llamas are used to having their freedom, and are not liable to walk right up to you when you are carrying a halter.  They are pretty smart – they know the halter is not a good sign.  It usually means a shot, or shearing, or any one of a number of not-so-nice alternatives.  Yesterday was no exception – Vinnie did not want to be caught!  We, on the other hand, had a secret weapon working for us….  We had a bucket with grain in it.  Our llamas may like their freedom, but if there is one thing that they actually like more than that, it’s grain!  And Vinnie, in particular, is a bit on the thin side, so the grain was a major enticement! Before too long, we had him in the trailer, and Vinnie and I were headed to the vet’s.  Once we got there, it didn’t take long to determine that the lump was not an abcess – it was a tumor.  Without cutting it out, there was no way to know for sure what type of tumor it was – benign or malignant.  Having just lost Luca a couple of weeks ago, I was not ready to lose another llama!  I felt we had no choice but to go ahead and remove it to find out what we were dealing with.  I couldn’t imagine Vinnie carrying around a malignant tumor without our knowing or doing anything about it. Thank goodness, the tumor may have been large, but it was benign.  Vinnie has a few stitches that will need to come out in a couple of weeks, but generally he is doing just fine.  It was amazing how cooperative he was throughout the surgery and the ride home.  We need to keep him well-protected by using fly spray for the next week or two, but it looks like our Vinnie will be as good as new once he heals up from the surgery.  And let me tell you, I suspect that the next time I show up in the pasture with a harness, Vinnie will likely think twice about whether the grain is really worth it….

12:06 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, April 21, 2010 Rick’s latest project

It seems like every spring since we started our flock, we’ve had a fairly major project on the drawing board, and this year is no exception.  As our flock has grown, we have had to graze early spring pastures farther and farther from our house to find enough grass for our ever-increasing flock.  We have plenty of grass for all of them, but the problem is with what we shepherds call “the creep.”Because lambs are growing so much faster than even the yearling ewes (our lambs put on an average of nearly a pound a day), they need a higher level of nutrition than their mothers.  To feed them this higher level of nutrition and prevent their mothers from gobbling it all down before the lambs can get to it, we set up what is called a creep area.  The entry into this creep area is usually a panel with which  we can adjust the size of the opening, making it just large enough for the lambs to enter, but too small for the ewes.  This way, we can leave pans of grain and open feeders of alfalfa in the creep area without worrying that it will all be eaten by the ewes within minutes of our leaving.The problem that we’ve had these past few years is that our creep area has been in our barn, and when the sheep graze in the more distant pastures, we need to leave all the pasture gates open so that the lambs can move to and from the barn for the creep.  When we leave all the gates open, the sheep graze not only the pasture we want them to, but also all of the pastures on the way there and back.  This prevents those pastures from regrowing and ends up reducing the grazing we have available for our sheep.  It’s hard to rotate the sheep among different pastures (to aid in preventing parasites) when most of your pastures are being eaten down by ewes and lambs traveling to and from the barn….So Rick’s project this year was to “invent” and build a creep building that would keep the ewes out, let the lambs in, be light enough for us to transport, and keep the feed inside dry if it rained.  That doesn’t sound so bad until you try to come up with one!  He has been busy, hunched over his design and mumbling to himself for the past month or two – I knew enough not to interrupt his thoughts!Last weekend was the culmination of all that muttering.  Rick borrowed the truck on Friday night to get materials, and then locked himself into the barn for two days, coming out on Sunday night announcing that the building was ready to be moved into position after work on Monday.  I was almost afraid to find out what he had come up with…..  You see, I am more involved with the sheep than Rick is, and there are times when he comes up with great ideas that just won’t work with the sheep because of…well, the way that sheep are.  I figured that I would find out very soon how this project would work in practice.New_creep_house.jpgWell, as you can see from the picture on the right, he has come up with a wonderful little building for our creep feeding!  It is lightweight enough that one person can move it by herself.  It keeps the creep feed dry from the rain, and allows only the lambs to enter either end via the same creep gates that we use in the barn (see the blue end panel in the photo).  It is even tied down via stakes that are pounded into the ground, so we don’t have to worry about finding it in the neighbor’s field after a storm!  It’s a wonderful answer to a problem that has plagued us for years!So now our lambs can still get their creep feed, yet don’t have to walk the quarter-mile back to the barn to get it, and we can just fill the troughs in the little building once a day to keep them eating grain on demand.  What a great job, Rick!  Now, I’ve got this other idea for a project….

10:18 am | link          Comments Monday, April 19, 2010 Welcome, Martin!

Things have not been the same since we lost our llama, Luca – not only have the lambs missed him terribly, but my concerns for weaning next weekend switched from worrying about where to put the different groups (lambs, ewes, and rams) to worrying about the safety of our sheep once they are divided up with only two llamas to cover three groups.  Just the thought was enough to send me into a tizzy! But we have been very fortunate….  A friend of a friend made contact with a llama breeder on our behalf to convince him to part with one of their geldings – Martin.  Tom, the breeder, was not really looking to sell Martin, who had won his heart long ago, but after some discussion, he decided to send me an e-mail.  We e-mailed….  Then we talked….  Then we e-mailed some more….  And in the end, Martin has a new home here at Peeper Hollow Farm, and we are no longer short a llama for weaning next weekend! Tom arrived with Martin in his trailer yesterday afternoon.  The trailer door opened to reveal a gorgeous, but nervous llama – Martin had never been trailered before his hour-long trip!  It didn’t take much time, though, before he noticed the ewes and their lambs in the nearby paddock, and wanted to go investigate.  Martin had never seen sheep before, so this was another first! He may not have had prior sheep experience, but Tom had mentioned on the phone that they had two goats on their farm who Martin had been trying for some time to befriend.  Unfortunately for him, the goats were not the friendly-to-llamas kind, so Martin had put up with a bit of butting from them as he attempted to become buddies.  The fact that Martin was so determined to befriend these goats convinced me that he would love our sheep – so here he was, pulling us towards the sheep in the paddock. Martin_meets_lambs.jpgWithin minutes of arriving in the trailer, Martin was out in the paddock, making friends with our sheep!  The lambs, especially, were interested in exploring this new, big friend.  Martin very carefully maneuvered around the lambs, sniffing each in turn and moving towards the pasture where the rest of the flock waited.  It seemed like he was making his introductions one at a time, leaning over to sniff each sheep as they ventured near!  Of course, I was so enthralled by the sight that I totally forgot my camera in my pocket!  I had planned on taking so many pictures, but got only one good one of Martin greeting one of the lambs as Chachi looked on from behind – not a bad photo, but it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story! All in all, it was a great day – Tom brought a friend, Nick, along to shear our other llamas for the summer, and we added a wonderful new llama to our group of guardians.  It just doesn’t get much better than that!  Welcome, Martin! – and thank you, Tom and Nick!

10:02 am | link          Comments Friday, April 16, 2010 Spring feeding

It is really spring here in Iowa, so our feeding routine needs to change as the available feed changes.  Only a week ago, I was still feeding out about 300 pounds of hay each day in addition to forty pounds of grain.  Now that our pastures are green with the new grass, even our alfalfa hay doesn’t entice the sheep anymore – fresh is always better than dried, and they spend most of their time grazing out in the pastures.  I’m down to feeding only a couple of bales (50 pounds each) every few days – if that. Ewes_running_feeding_time.jpg We still need to check on the flock each day, though, to make sure that each of the lambs and ewes is healthy and well.  We do this when we feed grain up at the barn in the late afternoon or early evening.  Unlike the rest of the year, this is the one period of time that I don’t have to send a dog out to bring the sheep up to the barn!  All I need to do is call out, “Hey, girls!” and usually they will all come running (see photo above right, taken today at the paddock gate).  Of course, if it is windy, I also have to bang the bucket on the board fence so that the sound carries far enough to be heard, but they all come running the quarter-mile to the barn.Usually, I shut the gate to the paddock area where the filled feeders await so that all of the ewes get to the grain at the same time – otherwise, the fastest ewes would eat all the grain before the slower ones (including the ewes with the youngest lambs) could even get there.  Once all the ewes are impatiently waiting at the paddock gate, I open it up and they all charge in to get the “best” spot at the trough.The lambs, too, take their part in this choreography.  Many of them now know that when the paddock gate closes, I am filling the grain troughs, and they run to reach the paddock first.  Unlike the ewes who are too big to creep under the closed gate, the lambs can run right into the paddock and fill up on grain as I fill the troughs and the ewes wait their turn.  This way, the nutrition goes to those who need it the most, and there is still plenty there for the ewes when I open the gate.As the ewes and lambs all run through the gate, I spend a few minutes looking them over…. Are there any ewes limping?  Any that don’t look interested in the grain, which might signal illness?  Any coats torn and need replacing?  Any lambs who have outgrown their coats?  Any coughing that might signal pneumonia?  I watch for anything that seems odd or out of place.  Sheep, being prey animals, will not show illness or injury unless they have no choice – illness and injury signal weakness, and to a predator, that is a signal to attack.  Sheep hide their illnesses and injuries well, so I have to be extra vigilant to spot a problem before it kills the sheep.  Feeding time up at the barn is the perfect time to look for issues that need to be addressed.Once the grain is gone, most of the ewes will get some fresh water and head back out to the pasture.  The lambs often stay behind to take advantage of the food that is available only to them in the back section of the barn.  This area is entered through two “creep gates” that allow only the lambs through – one of our teen barn-helpers calls them “sieves” and I must admit that the word is a pretty good description of how it works.  Anyhow, the lambs can get in out of the sun and nibble the best alfalfa hay and all the grain they can eat – without the pushing and shoving of the adult ewes.  This helps them to put on the weight and growth that reflects their genetic potential.Eventually, near dusk, the lambs group into their groups or “gangs” and begin to run in and out of the barn, up and down the manure pile, and ’round the mulberry tree in the pasture.  As dark falls and the lambs run out of energy, they reunite with their mothers in tha pasture and settle down for the night, protected from harm by Vinnie and Chachi – our two remaining guardian llamas.  Another day at Peeper Hollow Farm has come to an end, and all is well.  Hopefully, tomorrow will go as well as today….

10:46 am | link          Comments Wednesday, April 14, 2010 Mowing, mowing, mowing….

The mowing season has begun!  And for us, mowing is a big undertaking.  We mow not only our lawn (which isn’t really that big – thank goodness!), but we also mow our pastures in rotation.  I say “we,” but I am really the one who mows in our family – Rick does the walk-behind mowing around trees, and the edging of the lawn.  I have a good-sized riding mower, which helps a lot, but the mowing still takes time.The way it all works is like this….  The ewes and their lambs are put into one of our seven pasture areas to graze.  Our pastures are a natural mixture of bluegrass, clover and whatever weeds and plants happen to do well out there.  The sheep will eat down the area in a matter of days.  At that point, we rotate the ewes and lambs (plus their llama) into the next area, and move the rams into the area the ewes just left.  The rams get that field for the next rotation, taking it down a bit more until they are moved several days later to keep following the ewes and lambs.The ewes get an area first because they need the nutrition at this time of year more than the rams.  After all, they are still lactating, so they need nutrition not only for themselves, but also for their nursing lambs.  The rams get what is left – and there’s always plenty left for them.  There are only eight rams and one llama in that group, so they don’t need nearly the grazing quantity that the ninety ewes and lambs need!  When the rams are done with the pasture, we mow whatever is left down to about two or three inches – in other words, pretty short.  What is left is what the sheep don’t like.  By mowing it down to this level, we make sure that whatever the sheep don’t like doesn’t have the advantage over the grass and clover that were eaten down.  As the plants regrow, they all begin at the same level.  In fact, by mowing the pasture after the sheep leave it, we have actually improved the pastures to include more grass and clover, and less thistles and other weeds that the sheep won’t touch.  It’s been an inexpensive way to improve our fields over the years.  Inexpensive, that is, in cost, but not in time!So, every five days or so throughout the grazing season (April through October), I mow one of the pastures, which each average about an acre in size – not including the lawn!  The lawn is on its own schedule, needing mowing once a week, more or less.  This time of year, the lawn gets mowed every five days or so, but in the heat of the summer when it goes dormant, it only needs it about every two weeks.I mow a lot, but I like mowing.  Sitting on the mower, I can take the time to watch the flock as they graze, taking note of any sheep I need to check for unusual behavior or illness.  It is also a time to take a good look at our pastures, making sure that the combination of plants is high enough in nutrition for grazing lactating ewes – with no plants that could be toxic to young lambs.  Sitting on the mower, I have time to myself in the beautiful outdoors – and it’s always beautiful!  You can’t really mow when it’s bad out!  It is a chance to settle myself and enjoy my surroundings. I can watch ground squirrels, swallows, snakes, eagles – all kinds of wildlife – while I’m on the mower.So, the mowing season has started, and I am off to mow….  We moved the rams out of the east pasture last night, and it needs to be mowed down today.  While I’m out there, I might mow the lawn, too –  it looks pretty shaggy!  I hope I have enough gasoline….

11:45 am | link          Comments Monday, April 12, 2010 Knock, knock…… Who’s there?

“May I go up and see the sheep who wear clothes?” the elderly woman asked after I opened the door last  spring.  Seriously, this time of year we get lots of people who happen by our farm, ring the doorbell, and just want to see the sheep and llamas.  I’d estimate that we get about two a week through the spring and early summer!Giving “tours” of the farm wasn’t something I actually planned on or even thought about until people started stopping and asking; but now it’s a regular part of what we do – as imbedded into our schedules as cleaning stalls or trimming hooves.  Seldom do I talk about my animals without inviting that person to come out and see the flock for themselves.You see, Iowa is a meat-breed state.  We started ten years ago with dual-purpose sheep who provided us with fiber and meat (market lambs), and were told it would never work.  Fiber production is geared towards a lost art, I was told by sheep producers and university sheep experts alike.  There was little encouragement for fiber production from anyone involved in the local sheep industry at the time.But we started our flock slowly, building it as we built our customer base.  In the process, I learned a lot, and I realized that some of the negative attitude that I had met was the result of a lack of information and understanding of today’s fiber market.  That’s when we started giving tours…. And giving demonstrations to school children….  And bringing young people in to help around the farm.  We found that the more people who came here and understood what we were doing, the more sense it made to them, and the more supportive they became!So, the bottom line is that we encourage people to stop by and see us – well, come and see the sheep and the lambs, that is!  Now that the guardian llamas are out in the fields instead of hunkered down in the barn away from the foul Iowa winters, they attract lots of attention, too.  The fact that they are shy and not really “touchable” only adds to their mystery.Lambs_on_manure_pile.jpgLast Friday, I had to have blood drawn for some tests, and as the technician tied the band to my upper arm, we talked about what I do and my sheep.  One of the technicians mentioned that she is an avid knitter, and by the time I left the office, I had invited Julie out to see our sheep and the source of some of her knitting yarn.She came at the perfect time on Saturday evening – about six o’clock.  Our bottle lambs get one of their twice-daily bottles at about that time, and that’s also around the time of day that the lambs begin to run in their little “gangs.”  After feeding the bottle lambs, Julie and I leaned against one of the board fences adjoining our west pasture and just watched the lambs – they ran and jumped, gamboling from place to place.  It’s hard not to smile as you watch them enjoy the dying sunshine at the end of the day.  There is just something so joyful, pure and innocent, that it can’t help but lift you up a bit.Sunday evening, we were surprised by the doorbell at about the same time of day.  It was a woman whose daughter was at the farm next door, working her horse.  Andrea figured that she had time to kill and brought her young neighbor over to see if they could meet the sheep and llamas.  We spent over an hour feeding the bottle lambs, letting the adult ewes eat out of our hands, and getting a closer look at the llamas. To me, it’s important for people to understand what it is that we do here at Peeper Hollow Farm.  There is a lot of untrue information out there about farming and animal management, and letting visitors peek into our daily lives gives them a better idea of our reality.  So, sure, come on over and let’s take a look at those clothes-wearing sheep – and don’t be surprised if you come away with a smile!

1:55 pm | link          Comments Friday, April 9, 2010 The day for genetic testing

It’s been a big day at Peeper Hollow Farm – a very big day!  Today was ‘blood test day’ for the majority of our lambs, and the preparation started early.  You see, there is a disease among sheep, called scrapie, that is similar to mad cow disease – it is contagious from a ewe to her offspring, and also within the flock. The USDA has two different eradication programs – one voluntary and the other mandatory – in which we participate, but there is also a way to breed for genetic resistance to scrapie.  We’ve decided to work both approaches: participating in the USDA programs, but also working towards a flock where all of our lambs will not only be genetically resistant themselves, but also will pass on that resistance to every one of their offspring.  For those of you who want to get into the technicalities of this, we are working towards all of our animals having the genotype RR at codon 171.  This is still a ways off, but we are working towards that long-term goal.So every spring, I set up a day for the vet to come out and take blood from all the lambs who are not known to be fully resistant (RR).  This year, we had twelve lambs who did not need testing because both dam and sire are RR – that means all of their offspring will be, too.  We had another thirty-two who needed to be tested, and we had to make sure to have them rounded up and confined in the barn’s stall before the vet got here at 11 o’clock – no small task!To make sure that I could get all of this done on time, I chose to schedule the vet on a day that the area kids were off of school – that way, I could hire in some help.  I have three young friends – Kate, Nicki, and Megan – who are great at catching lambs and, in general, helping with the sheep.  This was a parent-teacher conference day, so they woke up early and got here by about eight to get started.The first thing we needed to do was to separate the ewes from the lambs – no easy task!  Some of the lambs are now six or seven weeks old – old enough to get away from their moms for hours with no problems.  There are others, though, who are still only two weeks old, and even an hour away from mom gets both lamb and ewe panicky.  We figured that if all went well, they would be separated at about nine, and back together again by noon – if all went well, that was an acceptable time of separation….So, by eight-thirty, the girls and I were out among the sheep, trying to move them towards the barn so that we could lock the flock inside.  There was no way that they were going to go in for us – they knew something was up, and that it would happen in that barn – so we brought out Coda, my number one dog.  Because we have so many little lambs right now, the ewes are more likely to fight the dog than to move away, so Coda needed to be extra patient and gentle.  Also, the lambs had never seen one of our dogs – this was the first time…. He had to show them that he meant business without being too harsh – after all, they are still just little lambs!  He couldn’t lose his cool – even when a few dozen little lambs surrounded him to see what this new creature in their barnyard was all about!It took Coda about half an hour to get the entire flock into the barn so that we could close them in and begin to sort lambs from ewes.  We closed off two stalls for the lambs, and the other stall and lean-to for the ewes, catching the lambs and carrying them to their area.  Once we set them down in front of the barely-open stall door, and they could see all of their “friends” in the stall, it didn’t take much to convince them to join the party.  By nine-thirty, we had all of the lambs separated from the ewes, in their own area – we changed a few coats on the ewes and let them go out to graze.  Of course, the newer mothers were not at all interested in leaving their lambs behind, so they stayed in the barn, crying for their lambs – but at least the rest of them left for the pastures!Once the majority of the ewes were gone, it was time to do all of the “lamb tasks” on my list for the weekend. I figured that if we were going to be handling lambs today, we might as well do at one time all of the things that needed to be done….  We had immunizations that needed to be given to twenty-eight lambs, and twelve of those also needed to be weighed and initially evaluated for a possible future as breeding stock.  We completed all of these tasks by ten-thirty – just enough time left to sort out the lambs that didn’t need blood drawn and send them out to their mothers!  That meant freedom for quite a little crowd!By eleven o’clock, we were ready….  We took about a five-minute break in the sun, and saw the vet drive up the hill to the barn – it was time for the main show to begin! I had put together a list of lambs who needed to be tested, in numerical order by eartag.  Basically, the way we worked it was this….  Megan took care of the clipboard with the list.  As I was handed a lamb, I called out the eartag to ensure that it was on the list for testing, and Megan marked it as tested.  I held the lamb as the vet drew the blood from one of the neck veins – a very quick and simple procedure.  When he finished, I made a pink ‘X’ on its coat (to make it easier to spot the untested lambs), and released the lamb back into the stall around us.  Either Kate or Nicki then handed me the next lamb and we did it all over again…and again…and again!  We finished testing thirty-two lambs in about thirty-five to forty minutes – not bad, I would say!  As the last lamb’s test-tube filled, we opened the stall doors and let lambs and ewes reunite minutes before noon – still on schedule! Now I had thirty-two test tubes of lamb’s blood that had to be chilled, packaged and shipped before the post office closed.  Forms had to be filled out, and the chilled tubes packaged in paper towels (so that if they break, the box won’t leak) and held together by rubber bands, all popped into Zip-loc bags, and packaged into a styrofoam-lined box with ice packs.  The whole thing was then shipped for testing at Gene Check, Inc. in Colorado.  We always test on a Friday and ship that day, so that the package makes it to Gene Check on Monday, still cooled by the enclosed ice.  I’ve done it this way for three or four years now, and it works great for us! So, the package is gone, and I can sit back and enjoy the idea that another big milestone has been passed for this lambing year: the genetic testing is done!  Hopefully if all goes well, by next Friday we will know which of our lambs carry resistance to scrapie, and which will pass on that resistance to all of their lambs.  In the meantime, though, I think I’ll celebrate this milestone and take a little time to enjoy the lambs – the “lamb gangs” are out in force on this sunny day, having forgotten the stress of being separated from mom, and are running up and down the manure pile.  This seems like the perfect time to have a seat out on the back deck and watch the lambs play!  Have a great weekend!

6:51 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, April 7, 2010 Changing coats and more coats…

When you have a flock of coated sheep, changing coats is a way of life.  Usually, an adult sheep will wear two to three coats through the year, from shearing to shearing.  When the old coat comes off, I wash it, mend it, mark it with the size, fold it up, and put it back in the correct bin in the barn to use again.  It’s a lot of work, but the resulting fleece, in my opinion, is worth it. And then there are the lamb coats….  The newborn lambs are much too small for even the smallest commercial sheep coat, so, as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog (Friday, Feb. 12), we make our own out of old sweatshirt sleeves and sweatpant legs.  These baby coats work well for those first couple of weeks while the lambs are still very young and less active – hanging around their mothers, for the most part, but usually spending a lot of time under the hay feeders.  By the time they are two to three weeks old, most of our lambs have grown enough that we can put them into their first “real” sheep coat.  We have two choices for that first coat, depending on how large the lamb is at the time that we put them into it: an XS Powell Sheep Company coat (which measures 22″, neck to tail, from Powell Sheep Coats, P.O. Box 183, Ramona, CA 92063. 760-789-1758.) or the smallest size Matilda coat (that measures 28″, neck to tail). Putting them into that first coat begins a process that spans the entire spring and summer – I am constantly changing coats when I am out with the sheep.  Most lambs will stay in that first coat only about two to three weeks.  When the coat begins to be tight, I need to catch the lamb, change the coat to the next larger size (after the 22″ comes the 28″ Matilda, then the 30″), wash the coat, mend it, mark it with the size, and return it to the bin in the barn for the next lamb.  If I don’t change the coat in time, it can actually deform the growth of the lamb.  Changing coats is serious business, and I do it constantly. Yesterday, I saw one of Fern’s lambs in her now-tight sweatshirt coat and decided to change it out for one of the Powell coats – she was still too small for a Matilda coat.  I had changed several other coats out earlier in the day, so I had lots of dirty Powell coats up at the barn, but no clean ones.  I decided that, rather than run down to the house to get the clean ones, I would simply re-use one of the dirty ones – she would only be in it for a couple of weeks, and I could wash it then…. Well, that didn’t work so well.  I got her changed into her new coat just fine, but when she ran back to Fern to nurse after the stress of being handled, Fern took one whiff of her and butted her away.  No amount of crying by the lamb would convince Fern that this was her lamb!  It was obvious that I couldn’t take this short-cut.  I realized I have to wash each coat between lambs – used coats could not be reused without washing.  I came down to the house, grabbed the freshly laundered coats from the dryer, and went back up to re-coat Fern’s daughter into a clean coat.  Once finished, Fern welcomed her like a long lost lamb – lesson learned!  No more unwashed recycled coats! So, every day when I go out to feed, I change coats….  I don’t always change  alot of them at once, but if I don’t do it every day for at least a handful, I suddenly need to spend an hour or more catching lambs to recoat.  And that’s a pain!  Every few days, I run a washer load of lamb coats.  Each lamb will have worn about six coats from March to September.  By the end of the summer, the lambs will all be in a 34″, 36″, or 40″ coat, depending on breed and fleece.  They will wear that coat until shearing in January, at which time they will likely be fitted with a 34″-36″ coat to begin the next year – much like many of the adult ewes.  They will still grow a bit in the next year to their adult size, but the coat won’t change nearly as much in that second year – maybe twice before shearing, saving me a whole lot of work.  But don’t worry – by then, I will have another batch of lambs, starting the whole process over again!

11:46 am | link          Comments Monday, April 5, 2010 A Sad Loss

Luca_front.jpgI knew when I went out to feed that something was wrong….  My usual routine this time of year is to sneak out to the gate that separates the paddocks around the barn from the pastures, and slam it as quickly and quietly as possible, trapping all of the grazing ewes and llamas away from the barn – that way, I can dole out the feed without interference, and then just let the whole crowd in when I’m finished.As the crowd gathered at the gate after I had slammed it, I was missing one llama – Luca was nowhere to be seen.  Now, you need to understand that although I don’t know a lot about llamas, in general, I do know about our llamas.  Our llamas are all grain-hounds – if any animal is getting grain, they will do what it takes to be there, just in case they might get a bit!  The fact that Luca hadn’t responded to the closing of the gate was not a good sign.  My primary task at the time, though, was to feed the sheep – finding Luca would have to wait.  I am still feeding both alfalfa hay and grain to the ewes because most of them are still lactating heavily (and there isn’t much pasture yet), and the creep feed for the lambs is increasing daily and hopefully, helping them to quickly grow to their potential.  When I finished putting all the feed into the feeders and went to open the pasture gate, I was already on the look-out for where Luca had gone – and I didn’t have to look far.  Out in the middle of his favorite pasture lay our gentle giant, obviously having died earlier in the day from unknown causes.  He did not die in the heat of battle with unseen coyotes in the night, nor fighting off neighbor’s marauding dogs – he seemed to have died peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by the sheep that he had protected for years.Our farm cannot go for long without at least three llamas….  When you walk out onto the front porch at night, it isn’t silence that you hear – it’s coyotes!  It won’t be long before those coyote mothers need to teach their new pups to hunt, and lamb is near the top of their list of favorite foods.  No, we need to replace Luca with a new llama quickly – so we’ve begun the search, both via Internet and word-of-mouth.Yet at the same time, our hearts are heavy for our favorite llama – any animal so gentle with our newborn lambs immediately wins a special place in our hearts. (You can see more about him at the March 24 posting).  Luca will be exceptionally hard to replace.  You can’t just order a llama “off the shelf” with the many positive attributes he possessed – he found joy in playing with even the smallest lambs; he was gentle enough to run with them, but not step on them, and even kept our lambs warm at night as they slept huddled tightly under his heavy coat.  Yes, Luca will be sorely missed….

10:16 am | link          Comments Friday, April 2, 2010 A sigh of relief….

Some of you may remember how much I agonized last fall about our order for hay (see the blog for Nov. 13th).  Getting it just right isn’t easy – especially when the numbers of sheep change each year.  Our flock has been growing since we bought our first sheep.  This winter of ’09/’10 is the first in which our flock is at full size, so it is really the first winter in which we have used the amount of hay that will become our standard order from here on out.  Ordering this past year, though, took a bit of math and a whole lot of guessing.Basically, I estimate how many lambs each ewe will carry, calculate the weight of hay and grain based on the numbers of ewes and lambs, and multiply it all out, using grass hay until the last four weeks or so of gestation, and then switching over to alfalfa.  Then, all I have to figure out is when we will likely have to begin to feed hay in the fall – when will the pastures go dormant?  September?  December?  We never quite know….  I also try to guess when the grass will green up and grow in the spring – another huge gamble!  March?  May?  Usually, I figure that we will need hay for six months: begin feeding hay Oct. 1, and put the sheep on pasture April 1.The other problem in buying hay is that it comes by the bale (which weighs anywhere from 35 to 55 pounds), and we feed out our hay by the pound, having calculated approximately how many pounds our flock will need each day.  I assume that the bales will average 45 pounds, and sometimes that is true, but sometimes not.  When the bales are light, we feed out more bales per day and, in the end, we run short.All of this is leading up to the fact that we are in crisis….  We have run out of hay for the ewes and there is not yet enough grass in the pastures to support thirty-nine ewes, forty-nine lambs, eight rams, and three llamas.  In the past week or so, I started to ration out the hay, feeding the ewes who delivered in mid-February the poorer grass hay, and keeping the alfalfa hay for those who still have very young lambs and need to produce lots of milk.  That helped a little, but when you are almost out of hay – with only half a dozen bales left in the big ol’ loft – it doesn’t really matter what you feed to whom.  It’s pretty much gone, regardless.So, I started calling hay producers and checking the newspaper, but last year was a bad hay year, and this late in the spring, pretty much all the hay is spoken for.  I found nothing.  I really felt backed into a corner: we were so close to having enough grass in the pastures, yet not close enough, and I couldn’t find enough hay to squeak by.  I was beginning to panic.And so it was when I stopped by my friend Denise’s place to drop off some lambing supplies that I had borrowed.  I finished lambing last weekend, and Denise is due to begin any day now, so I wanted to drop off the stuff before she needed it.  As usual, our small-talk covered the weather, our kids, and our livestock, and in the course of conversation, she just happened to mention that they had overestimated their flock’s needs for alfalfa hay for the season and so were going to put an ad in the paper to sell a hundred bales.  A hundred bales!?!  Oh, my gosh – I could really use that hundred bales!Within twenty-four hours, we had picked up the first thirty bales – to get us through this week.  The rest will come this weekend.  At least now I have more than enough to get my flock into the grazing season – in fact, I suspect that by the end of this weekend, there should be enough grass that we can stop feeding hay!  The extra hay will not be wasted, though: it will be used for any animals that we need to quarantine over the summer (new purchases, etc.), and the remainder will be fed out as we begin feeding hay again in the fall.  The fact that we now have enough hay to get us to green pastures is a huge relief!

11:17 am | link          Comments Wednesday, March 31, 2010 Lamb Gangs

As we all know, sheep are flocking animals, being very uncomfortable going through life on their own.  In fact, when we bought our first two sheep, they really didn’t settle in until we brought in a third – I guess, to them, two just weren’t a flock, but three were…. lamb_gangs_corner.jpgSo as lambs begin to grow, they look for the company of other sheep.  For the first week or so, they are content with the company of their dam and their siblings, but before long, they are looking for more.  That’s the stage that we are in now – all but a very few of our lambs have made it past that one week point, and they are beginning to flock together into little groups by age – we call them “lamb gangs.” The term actually fits what we see in our pasture very well.  The older ones begin by hanging out at fence corners (see the photo above), attracting other lambs of a similar age to join them.  Usually our gangs span about a two-week age group – beyond that, I think there is too big a difference at this point regarding their physical abilities, so the younger ones form their own little gang (usually near the feeders where their moms eat their grain – see photo below).  lamb_gangs_feeders.jpgThese younger gangs are more loosely organized, with only three or four lambs in any one group.  Once we get two or three of the bigger, older-lamb gangs going in our pastures, it is a lot of fun to watch! It seems that the whole purpose of these lamb gangs is just to belong and have fun.  One gang will take over the manure pile, and suddenly the other will try for a take-over, with lots of pushing and king-of-the-mountain play in the process.  Eventually, they all give up on the mountain and take off in a race to see which group can make it to the barn first.  It is amazing to watch them run at top speed, with some extra twists and kicks in the process, and yet there are no collisions – no accidents.  It is very much like a flock of birds flying in formation, turning and twisting in the sky, yet never getting in each others’ way. These gangs of lambs are more likely to form at certain times of day.  Sometimes while the ewes are eating, some of the younger lambs will form up into their gangs; but the older lambs have already given up flocking at that time – they are more interested in eating alongside the flock at the grain feeders than playing with their friends.  The most common time to see the lamb gangs in action is just before dusk.  Beginning about an hour before dusk, they gather their friends and begin to run and play.  I suppose that they have eaten their fill all through the day and, by dusk, have energy to burn! It’s amazing how fast these little lambs are – there is no way to catch them by just running after them.  If you need to catch one, you need to outsmart them rather than outrun them.  They run for the joy of running, stopping here and there to catch their breath or to spar with another lamb within the group.  Like with children’s play, lamb play prepares them for becoming adult sheep, teaching them to move within the flock, work out disagreements, and generally become a cooperative member of a large group of sheep. I must say that – whatever the reason for lambs ganging together this time of year – for us, it is great entertainment!

10:06 am | link          Comments Monday, March 29, 2010 The last lambs

It is a beautiful spring morning with bright sunshine on this first day outside for the newest members of our flock.  We are finally done lambing for this season, with a total of 54 lambs born to our 31 ewes – not as many as usual, but good enough for this year!  We would normally have seen about 62 lambs for that number of ewes, but with the abnormally cold breeding season last fall – well, let’s just say you can’t control everything!Our last lambs were born on Friday to Geist: twins, one ram and one ewe, both white.  Yesterday, we let them mingle with Fern and her twins (again, one ram and one ewe, both white) within the barn so that they could figure out how to find their mom in a “crowd.”  OK, so that isn’t much of a crowd, but it is much less scary to find them in that small group than if we turned them out among the twenty-nine ewes and fifty lambs who are waiting for them outside!So after a day or so of figuring things out in the small group yesterday, I opened the barn doors for them today and they slowly made their way out into the world outside.  Normally, jobs like this are done quickly and efficiently because I have so much to do during the day.  I would normally have opened the panels that held them in, disconnected the panels, and put them away, heading back for the house in minutes.This time was different, though.  I was fascinated by the little lambs squinting in the morning sun – their first outdoor experience.  Although their mothers were being called by the green grass in the pasture only yards away, they waited as their new lambs adjusted to a new world.  Slowly, after several minutes, the lambs’ eyes adjusted to the bright outdoors, and their mothers began to slowly move towards the  pasture, stopping every couple of yards to call for their lambs in that special gurgle that they use for only their own young offspring.  As the lambs arrived at their sides, legs spread wide to walk on the uneven ground, the mothers would move again, constantly trying to encourage their babies towards the grass.It took nearly twenty minutes for the ewes to coax their lambs across the paddock to the gate at the pasture – the lambs were still unsteady on their feet on this new surface – but they finally made it to the green blades that are beginning to poke up in our fields.  The lambs took that as a sign to frolic in the new grass, the ewes began to graze, and suddently I realized that the last of the lambs really were out in the pasture with their flock, and the barn was empty for the first time since January.  In those few minutes outside, watching these two ewes and their lambs, it suddenly occurred to me what a huge milestone we passed today:  the lambing season of spring 2010 is finished at Peeper Hollow Farm!

10:24 am | link          Comments Friday, March 26, 2010 Romney and Romeldale fiber comparison

In the blog dated Friday, March 12th, I mentioned that not only were the fleeces of the Romneys and the Romeldales different, but that I had calculated this year that the length of gestation was also different between the breeds.  I’ve had several people ask me since then if I could explain a little about the difference in fleeces between the two breeds, so I thought I would try to do that here today. We started our flock with the Romneys, and that’s how most people begin to spin, too – with the Romneys.  Romney sheep are considered “longwools” because their fleeces grow so quickly that you can see staple lengths (the length of a piece of the fiber) of up to about nine inches – at least that’s what we sometimes see.  In general, the longer the wool, the coarser the fiber – but not always!  Romneys are some of the finest of the longwools, but still have a fiber diameter of over 30 microns, and that is important to know. People often talk about wool being itchy, or that they are allergic to wool because it makes them itch.  Most of the time, the itching has nothing to do with allergies – they itch from the wool because they are choosing to wear wool that is too coarse for next-to-the-skin wear.  Most people begin to itch when the fiber reaches 30 microns in diameter, and the further below 30 microns you get, the more comfortable the fiber feels.  The other issue, though, is that the lower the fiber diameter, the less durable the fiber – so you are always balancing durability with comfort. Romneys are specified by breed standard to between 29 and 36 microns, so even the finest Romney will still have fibers over 30 microns (remember that fiber diameter on an animal, when measured, is represented as a bell-shaped curve, so there are fibers present both above and below the stated median).  This makes Romney yarn a good, durable fiber that works well for socks, mittens, hats, scarves, and sweaters that would be worn over other clothing. Fern_staple_09.jpgBecause it is a longwool, it has a lovely luster, or shine, to the fiber and a very distinctive crimp (the little waves in the fiber).  The photo at the left shows representative staples from Fern’s fleece last year.  In this photo, you can see not only the length of fiber (which is fairly typical of our Romneys), but also the Romney crimp and luster.  Romney fiber is easy to spin, so many people begin with it, but it is also lovely enough that many experienced spinners come back to it again and again. The Romeldale/CVM breed was developed in the last century from a combination of Romney, Corriedale, and Rambouillet sheep.  Selection at the time the breed was developed was for fine, next-to-the-skin fiber that was longer in staple length than typical from some of the other breeds – on a good quality meat animal that was very fertile and had strong mothering traits.  Kind of sounds like they wanted it all, doesn’t it? Well, so did we. And after looking for a breed that was similar in management to the Romneys, but would produce a finer fiber on a dual-purpose animal (meat and fiber), we settled on the Romeldales/CVMs.  They are a critically endangered breed, and I liked the idea of conserving the genetics for future generations.  I have not been disappointed!  They are as easy to take care of as the Romneys, are a bit more fertile (on average) for more of the year, and produce a lovely, fine fiber. The breed name(s) can be a bit confusing, though…. Romeldale is the name of the breed, and CVM is the name of a particular color pattern within that breed – specifically, the badger pattern that includes dark eyes, dark muzzle, dark striping on the face, dark belly, dark legs, and a dark chest (only five of these traits must be present for a Romeldale to be considered a CVM), with other areas being a paler color.  You can get CVMs from two Romeldale parents, and you can also get a colored or white Romeldale from two CVM parents.  All CVMs are Romeldales, but not all Romeldales are CVMs – confusing, I know, but after a while, it does sink in!Heidi_staples_09.jpg So, when comparing Romney fleeces to Romeldale fleeces, the first thing you notice is that the Romeldale fiber is softer/finer.  By breed standard, Romeldale fleece should measure between 21 and 25 microns – well below the 30 micron itch-zone.  Because the fiber is fine, it is also much less durable than the Romney.  The samples in the photo on the right are from Heidi’s clip last year – you can see that not only is the fiber shorter than the Romney, but the crimp is also much smaller and higher frequency – which is another hint that the fiber is likely finer in fiber diameter.  A Romeldale/CVM fleece near the bottom of the breed range (at around 21 microns) would be lovely even for baby items, but if you made socks out of it, you would spend a lot of time and effort on socks that would wear through quickly – quite a disappointment! Because the Romeldale fiber is finer, it is shorter in staple length – usually from three to six inches in a year – as you can see with Heidi’s staples.  Also the scales on the shaft of the wool are smaller, and therefore don’t reflect light as well – causing the Romeldale fleece to have less luster, in general, than the Romney fleece.  Purebred Romeldales also come in more colors than purebred Romneys, since you can find them in not only black, shades of gray and, of course, white, but also in browns and tans – something yet to pop up in the Romney genetics, if it is hiding there at all. Overall, one breed isn’t any better or worse than the other – they are just different, and their fleeces can be used for different purposes.  Their management is the same – at least on our farm! – and the ownership of the two breeds has provided us with a great combination of animals that can provide fiber for nearly any purpose.  If you have any additional questions, please let me know!

11:06 am | link          Comments Wednesday, March 24, 2010 “Uncle Luca” as babysitter

Over the past couple of years, our three guardian llamas have not only guarded our flock – they have also developed certain roles within the flock based on their personalities.  Each has unique traits that we have recognized and tried to use to our advantage during the flock year.  For example, Vinny is our tough guy – he’s not afraid of much, or if he is, he sure doesn’t let on!  He can hold his own easily with the eight or ten rambunctious rams that we keep, so that is where he spends his time – with the rams, and usually out in the timber.  Chachi was raised with Vinny, but he is much better around lambs, stepping carefully around them as they dart between his legs.  Chachi is particularly good at keeping track of sheep – he somehow knows when one is missing and brings her back to the flock before trouble can arise.  He has been assigned to the ewes, to keep them safe and keep the flock together.Of the three, though, Luca has turned out to be the gem this time of year.  Luca_with_lambs.jpgLuca’s strength is that he loves little lambs.  Unlike Chachi who just puts up with them and watches out for them, Luca just loves to be around them.  As soon as the first lambs are born inside, beyond the half-doors of the barn, Luca is already humming to them and leaning in over the partition to welcome the new members of the flock.Once the lambs are outside, the fun really starts for Luca.  Of course, the lambs are cautious at first – llamas are big animals, and when you are so small, it’s good to be wary!  But before long, Luca has won them over and convinced them that he is no threat.  In fact, this time of year, we refer to him as “Uncle Luca” – his joy in being surrounded by lambs is obvious!Lambs enjoy Luca’s company in many ways: they love to curl up for a nap tucked in under his long warm fleece on chilly days, they can’t wait to play king-of-the-mountain on his broad back, they find the alfalfa leaves that have dropped onto his fleece a special treat, and they get a kick out of playing tag or just racing with such a big friend.  Luca’s patience with our smallest flock members never ceases to amaze me!In fact, the photo above was taken yesterday while I was feeding.  Luca was napping in the sunshine when a couple of lambs came to join him, folding themselves against his fleece near his tail.  Then, one of the patterned CVM lambs came up (in front of the photo) to see if there were any “goodies” to eat in Luca’s fleece.  As I watched, a second CVM lamb decided to get a better look at Luca’s face, now that Luca was closer to the ground!  Luca stayed very still through all of this, even though his nap was ruined, and he could easily have just gotten up and left the lambs behind….Yes, the fact that our three llamas do such a good job guarding our flock is a great thing, but even better is the fact that “Uncle Luca” also provides our flock with such a good baby-sitter!

9:44 am | link          Comments Monday, March 22, 2010 Jayne meets Tippy

This time of year, I’m surrounded by “Kodak moments.”  There is nothing so cute as one or more lambs discovering the world.  The problem is that these moments are just that: moments.  They usually last only an instant or two, and then they’re gone. They last long enough to register in my mind, but often not long enough to call Rick’s attention to it or to take a good photo.Because Rick knows exactly what I mean by this, he bought me a Canon Powershot SD780 camera last year for my birthday.  It does pretty much everything I would ever want to do with it, and it’s small enough to fit easily into a jacket or jean pocket.  Now I carry it with me whenever I’m going up to the barn – just in case!exploring_cat_1.jpgSo, when I was up in the barn on Saturday feeding the sheep, I had it with me – and a good thing that I did!  As we began to feed the adult ewes, I noticed that Jayne, one of the CVM lambs, had gotten out of the creep area and had discovered Tippy, one of our barn cats, sleeping on some straw.  That’s when I began to snap pictures….Jayne was fascinated at this new creature that she’d never seen before.  At first, she approached Tippy from the right, sniffing and prodding with her nose as she explored.  exploring_cat_2.jpgTippy is used to new lambs checking her out – this happens every year, and she wasn’t about to lose a good nap over it!After realizing that the right side was safe and rather boring, Jayne ventured over to Tippy’s left side to get a better look there.  On this side, she had to climb the straw to get close enough to really get a good look, but that didn’t deter her – just a minor inconvenience, as far as she was concerned!exploring_cat_3.jpgAfter a bit of checking Tippy out from the left, I think Jayne noticed how very cozy that straw was, and how warm Tippy was.  Within a few minutes of joining Tippy on that straw pile, Jayne had cozied up to Tippy and made herself comfortable for a short nap – and I was still snapping pictures!We have so many “Awwww” moments this time of year – I am just happy to have captured this one on film!

11:26 am | link          Comments Friday, March 19, 2010 The good and the bad about feeding bottle lambs

We use Merrick’s Super Lamb Milk Replacer for our bottle lambs.  We’ve used other brands, but this one not only mixes up easier and smells better, but the lambs seem to like it better, too – and since the point is to fatten up the lambs, that’s the one we use.  It’s a bit sweet and smells like coconut. Since we have to get up at all hours to feed lambs, it’s kind of nice to imagine that you’re in some tropical paradise, smelling the coconuts and feeding lambs – even if the temperature is below zero and the blizzard is howling outside the barn!The thing is, we hardly ever have just one or two bottle lambs.  It seems like we either have none of them, or we have three or more – don’t ask me why, that’s just the way it works out. This year, I’ve been telling you about our three bottle lambs: Jareau, Jasper, and January.  Have you ever thought about how we feed three lambs?  With only two hands, juggling three bottles can be a trick!Sometimes, we get lucky and Jasper and January are in the barn, waiting for their bottles (they’re always in the barn, waiting for their bottles!), and Jareau is outside with her mom, Celeste.  If I stay quiet and don’t talk too much, I can feed Jasper and January before Jareau realizes that I am there, and things go fairly smoothly.  Unfortunately, I am not often so lucky….Usually, all three of the bottle lambs figure out that I am on my way to the barn with bottles when I leave the back door of the house.  They come running to meet me, and when they get to me I am enfolded in a tangle of wool and hooves and tongues, all jumping and sucking on anything they can get their mouths on.It’s possible to feed all three lambs at once if they cooperate.  If I can get them to grab a nipple one at a time, then I can carefully hold three bottles in two hands: one in the right, one in the left, and one precariously balanced between the two, with fingers of each hand holding it in place.  The problem with this is that the lambs are too eager.  I cannot tip the bottles bottom up for feeding until they have latched on – otherwise, that sticky, sweet coconutty milk begins to dribble out all over the place.  Sometimes it drips, but most of the time it’s more like a small stream of milk, flowing out over the lambs, the straw, my legs and feet.  I don’t want to waste it, nor do I want to be covered in it, so I can’t tip up the bottle until the lamb has latched on.  And, if I tip up too late, the lamb will give up and let go, looking for another nipple that works, increasing the chaos.So, I have three little lambs, all searching for nipples at the same time, with sticky milk flowing each time I mis-calculate, and then maybe, finally, one gets it!  The problem then is that the other two are still searching – even more frantically because they now hear that one sucking away happily on his/her bottle.  Usually, in that frantic search for their own nipples, they bump up against the one with the nipple and push that one off – again causing more milk to coat my pants and their faces – and I need to start all over again.This whole scenario goes on and on, with more and more milk pouring onto the four of us and not into the three of them.  I usually fill each bottle with a couple of extra ounces for spillage.  In the end, though, I can usually get every one of them onto a nipple and get enough milk into their tummies that they are satisfied for several hours.  When they’re finished, they usually walk away with big, round bellies and curl up together in the corner of the creep area to sleep it off.We do have the alternative of using our self-feeding bucket – a bucket that you can fill with milk and that has nipples evenly spaced around it so that multiple lambs can feed at will all day, without us having to be there.  The problem with the bucket is that you need to somehow teach the lambs how to get milk from the bucket. Lambs don’t normally walk up to buckets and figure that they are full of milk:  “If only I could figure out where the teat is on this thing, I could get the milk out!”  No, if they even think about sucking on the bucket, they have to suck quite a while before any milk comes out of the nipple, and they usually give up well before any milk arrives.  Besides that, there is no way to know if they are actually getting any nourishment from the bucket…..  Unless you see them sucking at it, they could be starving and we wouldn’t know until they started looking thin – way too late, if you ask me!  So when at all possible, we use bottles and monitor how much each lamb is getting at each feeding – that way, we know they aren’t over-eating or under-eating.As I stand there in my pajamas, feeding lambs in the early morning hours, I must admit that I fantasize about having enough hands to hold all of the bottles and serenely feed all of the bottle lambs at one time.  How much fun would that be, though?!  There is something exceedingly pleasing about looking at three adorable little lambs when they’ve finished eating – with dribbles of sweet coconutty milk stuck to their faces and fleeces, and dripping from their ears, their cheeks, and their mouths – that helps me drift back to sleep once I get back into bed.  It won’t be long before they are weaned from the bottles and this stage will be over – so I am treasuring every (sometimes messy) minute!

10:58 am | link          Comments Wednesday, March 17, 2010 Understanding the search for lambs

Bottle feeding is one of those love/hate things.  There is something so sweet about going up to the barn and having three little lambs run up to you when you enter.  Of course, the down side is that you are totally responsible for these three little lives, and must feed them whenever they need it – not only when you have time or want a bit of that sweet feeling.And so it was when I went up to the barn yesterday with my three bottles for the noontime feeding.  I really would rather have gone to lunch with a friend or something similar, but on the other hand, I was looking forward to seeing January, Jasper, and Jareau before I began the routine of feeding the adult sheep.  January and Jasper hang out in the creep area together, both having been abandoned by their mothers, and so are always the first to greet me.  Jareau, on the other hand, is still being mothered by Celeste, and so spends much of her time with mom out in the pasture.  It is much easier to feed two lambs than three, seeing as I have only two hands, so I don’t worry too much about where Jareau is – I knew that I only have to call her name and she will hurdle sleeping lambs and grain feeders to get to me.So, when the two motherless lambs finished their bottles, I put away the empties and got out the full bottle for Jareau, calling out her name.  Normally, this takes seconds, and after one or two calls, I can hear her little bleating noises as she comes running at top speed to find me.  This time, though, my calls were met by quiet.  It was a terrible, sad quiet that I hate to hear in the barn.I continued to call, but I thought that perhaps she was so far away that she couldnt’ hear me, so I began to move around, calling Jareau over and over again.  Still I got no reply.  No nudging little wooly face.  No squirming little happy body, pressing against me like a cat in overdrive.  No matter where I went, Jareau did not answer – and I became afraid.In that moment, when I realized that something was definitely wrong, a fear so cold and so complete wrapped itself around my heart.  I know this is a lamb – a sheep.  I know that I should not get attached.  But this little life depends on me, and now I couldn’t find her.All of these terrible thoughts ran through my mind – an eagle or a big hawk could have swooped down to snatch her up for a quick meal…. Perhaps a coyote got past the llamas and dragged her off – she would be just a few bites.  We have many panels and pieces of lumber – maybe one could have fallen on her – or perhaps the top of the manure pile fell over, burying her.  The more I looked and called, the more frantic I became, searching in every corner, picking up every lamb that I saw, trying to convince myself that this was all just some silly mistake.A while ago, I blogged about Honey’s frantic searches for her lamb, Jypsi, and now I know how she feels.  It seemed impossible for this sweet little lamb to totally disappear, but that was also what seemed to have happened.  I had looked everywhere, and I couldn’t find her.  She was gone.  My sweet little Jareau, who I had hoped would carry on her mother’s genes in my flock in the coming years, was gone.I walked through the barn to gather my things and head for the house, but continued to call, just in case.  As I entered the south stall, the pile of six lambs in the north corner startled, and ran to their mothers….. And there, underneath the pile, was Jareau, just lifting her drowsy head from a deep sleep!  I cannot tell you the relief I felt to see that black, fuzzy little head!!Jareau_sick_March_2010.jpgAlthough Jareau is now found, there are reasons that she did not hear me: she is fighting an infection and was trying to sleep off her elevated temperature.  I’ve been treating her with antibiotics in hopes that she can fight this off. Hopefully, modern medicine will prevail, and she will be back to her bouncy ol’ self in no time! But after all this, I must admit that I have a new understanding….  I am the shepherdess, and I have much more control over this flock than any one ewe.  Yet even knowing that, here I was, frantic, just like Honey searching for her only surviving triplet, Jypsi, or Hope calling and calling for her single lamb, Josiah.  I used to smile when I heard their frantic cries.  Then, when one ewe began those frantic calls, the others eventually joined in, searching for their own lambs, hoping that their lamb was spared whatever terrible fate took the lost one.  I’m finding that I’m not much different….  The biggest difference is that the ewes become frantic over one or two of their lambs, and I can become frantic over any one of the now forty-nine lambs that have become a part of my flock.  May they continue to be safe and happy – for their sake and mine!

9:10 am | link          Comments Monday, March 15, 2010 Friday’s Jolt

It was late on Friday afternoon, and Italia was in trouble…. Her water had broken earlier in the day, just before feeding time at noon, but unlike usual, active labor had not followed.  Italia had no idea what was going on: she was a lamb, herself, and didn’t understand the dramatic changes that had taken place in her body over the past months.  Now, all she wanted to do was to eat, trying to settle the discomfort she felt throughout her body.I knew better, of course.  She was in labor, and the single lamb that she had ultrasounded with was coming, whether she wanted it that way or not.  Because things had not progressed since late morning when I found her with remnants of the water bag hanging out, I called the vet and then a good friend, who came to help hold her down for the internal exam.  Yes, there was a lamb way down in there, but no, it was not close to being born.  The vet suggested that I give her two cc’s of oxytocin to get things moving along.  Thank goodness I stock up every spring on the medical supplies that our vet might ask me to use during lambing, so I had the oxy on hand.Within about twenty minutes of the oxytocin shot, her labor started in earnest and about an hour later, we could see one hoof and a nose peep out whenever she would push.  During one of her pushes, I went to check out where the problem lay, because the lamb did not seem to want to move forward.  This lamb was presenting with one leg and its nose forward, unlike the usual two front hooves and nose, but that wasn’t usually a big deal – I had helped deliver a lot of lambs with one leg forward in past years, and they all came out just fine.  This little guy was fairly big, though, and Italia was becoming more and more exhausted as time was passing, so I decided to help her get him out.With the next few pushes, we got the lamb’s head and the single presenting leg out of the birth canal, but that’s when things came to a grinding halt.  This was a big lamb, and no matter how I positioned my hand next to him, there was just no space!  No space to find that other turned-back leg.  No space to release the caught shoulder. Just no space! There are bones everwhere surrounding the birth canal, and this lamb’s shoulder was obviously hung up on one of them.  My friend, Deb, and I began to worry that this could end badly – so we called the vet to come and help.The problem with calling the vet for help is that, for something this critical, he is still a substantial twenty minutes away!  This lamb might not have twenty more minutes….  His blue tongue was already flopping out of the side of his mouth and he had stopped responding to us – not good signs.  We continued to try to free the stuck shoulder, pulling one way and then the other.  We even tried to push the lamb back inside, hoping to grab the missing front leg, but this lamb was not going back in – it was like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube!The more we tried, the more frustrated we became, until we finally gave up and decided to wait for the vet.  We were never so happy to see him as we were late Friday afternoon as he came rushing into the barn to try to set things right.  Unfortunately, he came to the same conclusions that we did: the lamb was stuck, most likely at the shoulder, on one of the ewe’s bones.  The lamb was also too big and too far out to push back in, and was likely already gone.  The best we could expect from this situation was to try to save the ewe.  But he had to pull the lamb out to do so.So he pulled – HARD.  He blocked his legs against the ewe, and his muscles shook as he pulled on that lamb.  After a bit of pulling in this way, we suddenly heard a POP, and the lamb came free of the ewe, falling limply behind her.  My vet apologized again for not being able to save the lamb and began to leave.I don’t give up that easily, though.  Yes, that lamb had been through probably the worst situation as far as a birthing, but he was still warm – and until I know for a fact that the lamb has no speck of life within, I don’t give up. So I moved it up near Italia’s head and started rubbing it and cleaning it off.  The more I rubbed, the less floppy the lamb felt underneath my towel.  Within a few minutes, the lamb took its first shuddering breath!  So I kept rubbing…..  Then came another breath, and another, and the lamb was breathing on its own!As he took those first breaths, this little lamb lay at the entry to the creep areaItalia_Jolt_welcoming.jpg, where all of our lambs congregate to eat and relax away from their mothers.  It was interesting to me how fascinated many of the lambs in the creep area were about what was going on right next door – many of them came over to lick at or talk to this new member of their club.  If nothing else, he definitely could see that he was not alone (see photo at right)! Slowly, as he gained more awareness, came the usual shaking of the head and flopping ears – what a good sign!  It took Jolt (named for the jolt that brought him out into the world) hours to stand on his own – he was weak and uncoordinated at first – but he is a fighter!  By late Friday night, he was nursing on his own, and by Saturday afternoon, he seemed almost like any other lamb.  I say almost because he does have one difference: his voice.  I don’t know whether it was the pulling or the lack of oxygen while in the birth canal for so long, but his voice is very soft and angelic – definitely something you notice when entering the barn.  Other than that, though, he is in every way a perfectly normal lamb. In fact, if the nicer weather holds, I may let him get his first exposure to the outdoors tomorrow or Wednesday – that way, he can join in the sunshine with the lambs who welcomed him into the world….

10:55 am | link          Comments Friday, March 12, 2010 A little math

We’ve had our Romney flock for nearly ten years now, so we’re fairly familiar with their management and needs – there is little anymore that totally surprises us in working with them.  That is not so true of the Romeldale/CVMs: we’ve only had them a few years, and only the last one or two years in any appreciable numbers.  Because of that, every once in a while we discover something new – something different – when we didn’t have any idea! This lambing time has brought just such a revelation….  We have come to that point at the end of the lambing season in which I sit down and begin to evaluate how things went, mathematically.  There was one thing that I’ve wanted to check out since the first week of lambing – something I started to notice in the very beginning.  Five of the first six ewes to deliver were Romeldales, and I noticed that only Grace, the Romney, delivered her lambs at about 148 days.  The others came later… some much later. It was many years ago – probably the second or third year with our Romneys – that we determined that the gestation period for our Romneys was 148 days.  Actually, that isn’t quite correct….  We originally determined that the Romneys’ gestation period was 146 days when we were shearing after lambing.  Then, we switched to shearing before lambing the following year and discovered that it added two days to their gestation period, producing plumper and stronger lambs at about 148 days. We made the assumption that the Romeldales’ gestation period would be the same….  Romeldales include Romneys in their genetic breed make-up, so we just figured – well, we just figured wrong!  In the past couple of years, I don’t think we had enough Romeldales to make the difference obvious to us, but this year we have nearly half of the flock delivering late – it’s been pretty obvious! So yesterday I sat down with my handy calculator and looked over the Romeldale flock, determining every ewe’s actual gestation period this year – the time from her marking by the ram to the day she delivered – then added up all the time periods, and divided by the number of ewes to get the average gestation.  The results were just as I expected: the Romeldales have averaged 150 days gestation this year rather than the 148 days of the Romneys. This will be a good thing to know for next year.  I can factor that into their due dates so that I’m not hanging around, waiting for them to deliver for two days before they would even reasonably do so!  When lambs are coming several times each day, it doesn’t matter so much; but when there are a couple of days or more between (in the beginning and at the end of the season), then it’s easier to know when I can and cannot schedule appointments if I have more accurate due dates. People sometimes ask me about the similarities and differences in the two breeds.  Overall, they are very similar – other than their fleeces, of course – but they are about the same size, they eat the same, move the same, and have similar dispositions.  I guess the one difference I can now tell them is that the Romeldale gestation is a couple of days longer.  Good to know! And by the way, speaking of Romeldales delivering, at the early bottle feeding this morning, I was greeted by Ivy and her new little lamb, Joy (who was not so little at over thirteen pounds!).  Although Ivy is not quite yet a yearling, she did a wonderful job cleaning up her new lamb and making sure she had fed – a very nice surprise at the crack of dawn!

10:45 am | link          Comments Wednesday, March 10, 2010 The dreaded feeding time

It’s almost time for the daily battle with sheep here on Peeper Hollow Farm.  For those of you who don’t have sheep of your own, you probably have no idea what I am talking about; but those of you with sheep know that I am referring to feeding time.  This is the worst time of year for feeding sheep: the ewes are lactating, feeding their lambs, and desperate for as much nutrition as they can get.  We, on the other hand, are at the end of the hay-feeding year, hoping for grass to begin filling in the pastures. Our hay supply is dwindling, and because we don’t want to run out, we weigh the hay that we feed and make sure not to feed more than they need; doing so might cause us to run short.  That is something that we can’t allow to happen…. So when we go up to the barn to feed, the sheep all know it and are anxious for their share of the hay and grain – so anxious, in fact, that they will do just about anything to get that first mouthful into their bellies – and I mean just about anything!  It is much easier when there are two of us doing the feeding because the chaos is divided, with about half the flock attacking each of us as we carry the hay to the feeders.  During the week though, like today, I am on my own, trying to do what I need to do while under attack by about thirty desperate, lactating ewes, and nearly twice that many lambs! To feed the sheep, we toss hay bales down the chute from the loft to the first floor of the barn.  The bottom of the chute is about five feet off of the floor, so the sheep can’t get to the hay (thank goodness!) until we pull it out of the chute.  The problem is that we need four bales at each feeding, and can only stack two bales into the chute at any one time.  I usually drop two down into the chute, climb down the ladder, wade in among the frenzied sheep, and pull the first bale from the chute. By this time, the sheep are not only milling – they are climbing!  They climb each other and they climb me, trying to get to the bale of hay I carry in front of me.  I need to maneuver the bale and myself out the door of the barn and over to the first bale feeder – which I have prepared in advance to accept the bale.  Hopefully, when I get there, there is no lamb in the feeder (they like to jump in and see what their moms have left behind), and I can then lower the forty- to fifty-pound bale into the feeder – avoiding all of the ewes’ heads in the process, of course! Once the first bale is into its feeder, I have to go back for the second bale in the chute.  This one becomes a bit easier because at least eight ewes have decided that they already have a front-row seat at that first bale, so they drop out of the chaos….  The second bale goes into the feeder next to the first. Once I have the first two bales into the feeders, I position grates on top to prevent the ewes from pulling out more hay than they can eat (reducing waste), and I remove the twine that holds the bale together.  I don’t pull the twine earlier because there are just too many crazy sheep pushing and climbing until the first two bales are in place. The photo at right was taken last weekend as Rick Rick_feeding_hay.JPGwas moving the second bale from the chute to the hay feeder – notice the teal grate in one hand and the alfalfa bale in the other….  You need to look closely because nearly all you can see is the crush of ewes trying to get a mouthful of hay! If I can extricate myself after the second bale, I head up to the loft for the next pair of bales, which go easily into the chute.  Pulling the second pair of bales out of the chute and getting them into the feeders is in some ways easier, but in some ways harder than the first pair.  This time, I have many fewer ewes to fight with (they are all eating!), but this time all of the lambs gather around to see what all the fuss was about….  Trying to manage a forty- to fifty-pound bale of hay while dancing around forty or so lambs (and a few ewes) is another challenge I have become quite proficient at!  It often does feel like a dance, with lambs leading and me following their moves, making slow but steady progress towards the feeders. Thank goodness, once I get all of the hay into place in the appropriate feeders, I can close the panels across the barn entrance, locking the ewes and lambs in while I spread the grain into the grain feeders.  Until just recently, I had to pour the grain out with ewes underfoot – just like the hay feeding – and it was always a contest to see whether I would get more grain in the feeders (where it belongs!) or on top of the ewe’s heads, as they angled for the perfect position under the bucket….  Now, with them safely locked into the barn, I can spread the two buckets of grain into the four long grain feeders at my leisure, opening the panels when I’m finished and getting out of the way.  You can see the eews eating from the long grain feeders in the photo below. Ewes_at_grain_feeders.jpgI used to worry that the lambs would get trampled in the frenzy of the ewes getting to their grain, but I have come to realize that it works much like a flock of birds – they are all moving and somehow know how to stay out of everyone else’s way.  There is no way I could do that myself, but the lambs somehow manage to avoid being trampled. Once all of the lactating ewes are fed, the worst is over and I can focus on the ewes yet to deliver, the unbred ewes, and the rams, all of whom are in their own areas with their own feeders.  Because each of these groups is relatively small in size, none of them pose the challenge that I face with the lactating ewes.  I can peacefully move from one group to the next, feeding out their hay, topping off their water, and just plain checking everything out to make sure that all is well. Every day, as the noon feeding time approaches, I begin to dread the pushing, pulling, and shoving that is so much a part of feeding the lactating ewes at this time of year.  On the other hand, I know they need to be fed to strengthen up their roly-poly lambs.  It is at this time of year that I really look forward to spring – lush green grass in the pastures and sheep grazing in the fields, caring not one iota what I am carrying in my hands as I move among the feeders.  Aah, those will be the days….

11:01 am | link          Comments Monday, March 8, 2010 Dangers vs. freedom

This past weekend marked an exciting but scary time in our annual farm cycle….  There comes a time every spring that we must make the decision to let the new mothers and their lambs out of the barn, and Saturday was that day.  We always want to protect the lambs for as long as possible: in the confines of the barn, we can control the temperature, we know that no eagle will swoop down and take off with a lamb, nor will a coyote help him or herself to a tasty meal, and we can keep track of whether all the lambs are warm and fed.  Once we release them to the outside world, we have much less control and many more threats and worries – it is a hard decision to make….On the other hand, when the weather begins to warm up and the sun shows itself, it’s hard to feel good about keeping the lambs confined.  By the time they are a week or two old (which is now true of most of our lambs), they really want to run and play with their “friends” – and they need space to do so.  Trying to run and gambol under the hooves of their dams is hard to do without getting stepped on or worse, so the pressure is there to let them out.Although this freedom was not our Official Plan for Saturday morning, it was a lovely day, with bright sunshine and moderate temperatures melting the snow. It was just impossible to feel good about keeping them locked in any longer….  By ten in the morning, we were removing panels to give the ewes and their lambs access to the great outdoors – and they loved it!Before long, we welcomed friends to our farm who came to see our lambs run and play, and the lambs did not disappoint!  Because of the beautiful weather – at least for Iowa in March – the lambs began to gather together and run in groups, jumping and twisting as they went.  I have never watched lambs play in this way and not had a smile on my face.  It’s a really hard thing to photograph (I am still trying!) but once you’ve seen it, you are hooked!  It is this joy for life displayed by the young lambs that can drag a sheep owner into the world of sheep breeding!lambs_on_hay_feeders_2010.jpgFeeding time brought another first: lambs discovered that when their mothers go out to the outdoor feeders for grain (for the first time since giving birth), the lambs have the hay feeders to themselves!  For a few minutes, there is no pushing or shoving by the bigger ewes to get at the feeders, and the lambs took full advantage!  Some were actually interested in eating the hay, but others were more interested in jumping on top of the feeders, using them as part of their play.  Either way, watching their antics continued the joy of having set them free….It didn’t take long, though, for the lambs to tirelambs_first_time_outside_2010.jpg – they are still very young, remember – so many decided to take advantage of the weather and found a cozy place to nap in the sunshine in front of the barn. Even the presence of the big llamas didn’t intimidate them. Both Luca and Chachi are good with lambs, although Luca enjoys them much more than Chachi does.The lambs and their moms have all had access to the bigger world for two days, now.  All lambs are still accounted for, and the ewes all seem to be continuing to shoulder their part of the responibility of keeping their lambs safe – with the help of the llamas, of course.  With only five ewes left to deliver their lambs, my job is beginning to shift from lamb delivery to sheep care.  I continue to walk through the barn, checking on sleeping lambs (to make sure they are still warm and not suffering from hypothermia), watching that all of our new arrivals are moving normally (nobody got stepped on), and that all is well.  It won’t be long before they sample their first taste of fresh grass in the pasture – at that point, it will be impossible to keep them in at all!  They will live in the pastures, and if I want to check on lambs, I will need to visit them there!  But that is at least a few weeks off yet – for the time being, I can still enjoy seeing them just a short walk from my back door.

12:10 pm | link          Comments Friday, March 5, 2010 Dodging a bullet

It’s getting late in the lambing season: I am tired, working on a perpetual lack of sleep (bottle babies and midnight barn checks don’t help), and the workload is the highest of the entire year with so many mouths to feed and bodies to care for – many of them individually penned.  Much of what I do is done on automatic: weighing out grain, filling water buckets, checking lambs, etc.  At this time of year, it seems endless some days.  Although I try to keep my mind in the game, I have to admit that by this stage, my mind sometimes just wants to sleep….So Wednesday afternoon, I was taken aback:  when I opened the front door to the barn for the noon bottle feeding, I found that the ewes waiting to deliver (currently housed in the deepest part of the barn) had made a jail-break!  They were loose in the “people areas,” rummaging through grain buckets, looking for anything they could find to eat. How could they have gotten out?! I must have failed to latch their pen gate – or they figured out a way around the latch.  In any case, they were loose and gorging on anything they could find….Now, you have to realize that it’s not as if they’re starving!  We not only provide our sheep with the highest quality alfalfa during gestation and lactation, but they actually get more than they need – we feed them extra so that they can select the best parts and leave the rest!  These are some really spoiled sheep we are talking about!  So for these four girls to make a break for it and gobble down grain like they were victims of starvation – well, it was just plain crazy!But sheep are like that….  A couple of years ago, we had four ewes who had just delivered their lambs  break out of their pen (in that case, they had figured out how to unfasten the latch) and gobble down the grain that had already been measured for that day’s feeding – about 15-20 pounds of it.  We didn’t know which one ate the most, or whether they all had eaten equal amounts.  An overload of grain can kill them, and it doesn’t take much.  One of them must have eaten only a little – she fared pretty well with a nasty case of indigestion for a day, and then she returned to normal.  Two others got pretty sick for nearly a week, but we kept dosing them with bi-carb, and they eventually pulled through.  The last of the four was not nearly so lucky….  We worked with Faye, frantically dosing her with bi-carb and other medicines from the vet that might help, but after four days she passed away, leaving twin ram lambs who ended up as bottle lambs – a really sad situation.  It doesn’t take much grain to cause a nasty case of acidosis that can end up taking their life – as in Faye’s situation.So, when I saw these four ewes – Ivy, Ireland, Gretta, and Geist – cleaning up the grain at the bottom of the five gallon weighing bucket, all I could think of was that I was going to lose one or more of them, too, and maybe their lambs, because of this stunt.  I was furious!  Ivy has been the source of trouble in the past (see some of my blog postings last October that dealt with some of Ivy’s antics), and  all I could think of was that she had led the group into a situation where I could lose all four of them, plus their six lambs!  It was nearly unbelievable!  I couldn’t remember how much grain I had left in the bucket, and I had no idea whether that grain had been eaten by one or all four.  It was a mess!But, in the end, it has turned out OK.  I have been watching them like a hawk since it happened, and it seems like the best possible outcome to this bad situation.  There must not have been much grain in the bucket, and they must have shared it fairly equally….  All four ewes are behaving normally, and it has now been nearly 48 hours since their “grain raid.”  We have since added a double latch to the pen to prevent any future escapes – which, of course, makes feeding and caring for the flock that much slower when I need access to the sheep.  I need to protect them from themselves, though, and this latching is the only way to make sure they stay where they need to be during this crucial time.  Before too long, they will have had their lambs and will be back out with the rest of the flock, far from where we weigh and measure their feed – the best place for them to be.  But until then, we’ll do what we can to keep them safe – and we’ll remain thankful that, this time, we dodged a bullet….

9:53 am | link          Comments Wednesday, March 3, 2010 Playing the odds

I have delivered a lot of lambs throughout the last ten years….  I didn’t think there was much that could surprise me anymore, but I was wrong.  Yesterday, when Celeste went into labor, the whole experience was one huge surprise! But let me set the scene before we get to what happened.  A couple of years ago, two weeks before we began lambing, our shearer brought in a disease, soremouth, that spread like wildfire throughout our flock.  The disease itself is very similar to chicken pox in people, but the lesions tend to come out most heavily around the mouth (hence the name).  Once the ewes got it from the shearing equipment, they spread it to their lambs as they licked them off at birth.  The lambs eventually got it so badly around their mouths that they couldn’t suck, but before it got that bad, they infected their mothers’ teats with the sores.  Those sores on the teats then caused mastitis (an infection of the mammary tissue).  As a result, that year we lost lambs who wouldn’t suck, and we lost a lot of bags (or at least one side) on many of our best ewes.  It was a mess – one I would love to forget! Last year, we culled out (sent to auction) the ewes who had lost their entire bag in the soremouth outbreak and could no longer feed lambs. Bottle lambs are just too much work and too expensive to make a habit of it.  We did keep, though, three ewes who had lost one side of their bags – they were all good ewes, and we hoped to get another ewe lamb from each one before we sent them along to auction, too.  We figured that they could at least feed a single lamb – or one of twins, and we would then bottle feed the other.  Celeste is in that group – she lost half of her bag to mastitis in the soremouth mess, and milk tends to come in very slowly on the other side.  She carries recessive color, although we have never had a recessively colored lamb from her.  She has also won Grand Champion Fleece at the Iowa State Fair more than once – I would love to have a recessively colored lamb from her, to pass those genes down to more ewes…. So, last fall, we bred Celeste to our new recessively colored ram from California – Goliath.  We had a 50% chance that it would be a ewe lamb, and a 50% chance that it would be colored.  Remembering back to my statistics class in college, I think that meant that we had a 25% chance of getting the colored ewe lamb I wanted – not a strong likelihood, actually.  On the other hand, if we had sent Celeste to auction last fall, we would have had no chance, so she is still here!  We knew she ultrasounded with only one lamb, so there would be only one chance to get that colored ewe lamb – it was a yes or no shot, and whatever it was, I knew I would most likely have to bottle feed it for at least the first few days. When Celeste went into labor yesterday, things started out pretty typically….  She kept digging like mad to make her labor and delivery nest, and kept lying down and standing up because she couldn’t get comfortable.  Usually, after a bit of this up and down, the amniotic sack will break and the ewe will move on to pushing the lamb out – otherwise, she pushes the intact water bag out ahead of the lamb, and you eventually see that instead of the lamb.  One way or another, you see either a gush of water or the water bag.  At least that’s the way it’s always been – but not yesterday.  I waited for hours, watching her dig less and push more, but all that I could see was an occasional glob of thick, paste-like stuff.  This was definitely not normal! I decided that the only thing I could really do was see if the lamb was coming down the birth canal by gloving up and going in – something I do without much thought anymore.  I’ve done it so many times, and the result is always the same: you either feel the lamb, or you feel the water bag (like a water balloon) preceding the lamb.  Yesterday, however, I felt nothing…. further back, more nothing…. and then eventually I got to something that felt like Astro-turf!  I kid you not – it felt just like indoor-outdoor fake grass – kind of crunchy and crinkly.  Definitely not what I thought I should feel!  I decided to call the vet: I had too much riding on this one lamb for something to go wrong.  Of course, my vet was tied up, but they sent out good ol’ Doc Robinson, who was helping to cover the office. Celeste_and_Jareau_birth.jpgThe funny thing is that Doc Robinson thought I was crazy – I could see it on his face as I told him the problem – until he reached in there himself!  Even he admitted that this was the strangest situation he had seen in a while!  He finally figured out that the crunchy stuff that we felt was, indeed, the amniotic sack – he broke it and delivered the single lamb: a recessively colored ewe lamb!!  I don’t know how we got so lucky, but we did, and both Celeste and Jareau are fine.  I was up most of the night carrying bottles up to the barn for Jareau, but thankfully, we had several ewes deliver yesterday, so there is plenty of colostrum to go around. So, thank you, Doc Robinson, and thank you, Celeste, for defying the odds and bringing us this beautiful colored baby ewe lamb.  To be honest, it isn’t often that I take this kind of gamble, and even less often that it comes out in my favor!

12:27 pm | link          Comments Monday, March 1, 2010 A good time to be a shepherdess….

This time of year is hard to explain to people who don’t have sheep….  It is most certainly the busiest time of year, being on call twenty-four hours a day to help deliver, dry, and settle our flock’s newest members.  Quite often, my sleep comes in two-hour increments as I continue to check on a laboring ewe throughout the night in our cold, sub-zero Iowa temperatures.  Yet, this is also probably the best time of year: a time to watch as our flock grows overnight — and as the many life and death struggles most often favor life, as that spark in each lamb pushes to live.This week, we have passed the peak of the bell curve of births: nicki_with_lambs.jpgthe majority of the lambs have now been pushed into the world, and ewes are no longer going into labor in groups.  We were able to take time this past weekend to clean the barn a bit and enjoy the fruits of our labors to this point.  Several friends stopped by to see our new arrivals (see Nicki cuddling with our two bottle lambs at left), and we found time to breathe again – something that, last week, seemed a far-off dream!We have had thirty-eight lambs born so far this spring, with another sixteen yet to come (likely twelve this week, and the other four spread out through the rest of the month).  The barn is filled with “lamb piles” during nap times as the lambs share not only company, but added warmth.  Sometimes, they pile tightly together, one on top of the other like puppies in a litter, keeping warm as the barn temperature drops.lamb_pile_2_2010.jpg  There are times, like in the photo at the right, when we look at one of these piles and have to pause to figure out which body part belongs to which lamb, sorting out the legs and heads of each in our mind’s eye!  Even when the barn is at a toasty fifty degrees, lambs will sleep in close quarters, unwilling to spend time alone even in sleep, reflecting just how deeply ingrained a sheep’s herding mentality is.lamb_pile_1_2010.jpgThe best place to see these groups of lambs is in our “creep area,” so called because the lambs can creep through the gate into the area that is constructed to keep the ewes out.  This is a lambs-only area that has the highest concentration of heat lamps, the most light, the best grain, and the finest alfalfa hay – everything to attract the lambs to come in and stay awhile!  We’ve purposely put this area within easy view of the the barn’s entrance so that we can easily keep on eye on our flock’s youngest members.The ewes, of course, are not always happy with this arrangement….  They would mostly prefer that they had access to this area, too – not only because they want the feed that they can see but not touch, but also because they cannot get to their lambs!  In fact, last night at about midnight, I was awoken from a deep sleep by a ewe calling and calling for her lamb….  It was obvious to me that she was frantic, and I became worried that perhaps the lamb had spent too long a period outside without nursing (which can cause a lamb to die of hypothermia).  I rushed out to see if the lamb was OK, or if help was needed.  Honey was literally panicked at the fact that she could not find her lamb – running to and fro, calling and calling, and searching every corner of the barn.  Well, I discovered that we had appropriately named her lamb, Jypsi – she was on her own, wandering among the lambs in the creep area, totally ignoring her mother’s frantic cries!  Once I encouraged her to at least go out to show her mother that she was well, Honey calmed down and we all were able to go back to sleep….So, although our six weeks of lambing is a tremendous amount of work, it is also a tremendous amount of joy….  Once we get enough sleep to open our eyes, it is impossible not to get caught up in the magic of the moment.  Our flock of forty-eight two weeks ago now numbers eighty-four, with more to come!  Little lambs born just a few days ago take their first taste of alfalfa chaff and find it delightful – they kick up their heels, gamboling their enthusiasm.  Young lambs play King-of-the-Mountain on top of the resting ewes, pushing each other off, and dancing with joy at their victory.  I could go on and on….  Yes, it’s definitely a good time to be a shepherdess.

10:47 am | link          Comments


Friday, February 26, 2010 January

When faced with an intense lambing season like we have had this year, with many ewes due on the same day, sometimes all you can do is the best you can and hope that it all works out….  Sometimes it does, and at other times it seems that everything is working against you.  Although we spent hours trying to save Joshua, even with four ewes delivering yesterday (or was it the day before? — it’s all starting to run together!), Joshua finally gave up the fight and died yesterday morning.  No matter how many times we experience death or how prepared we think we are, each death brings sadness and guilt – wondering whether we could have done anything else…. But in the middle of lambing season, we don’t have the luxury of taking a lot of time to wallow in sadness or self-pity!  There are more lambs to deliver!  And in the last two days, they have been coming and coming….  In a twenty-four hour period, Belle, Geode, Honey, and Genoa delivered a total of ten lambs!  It is starting to become an issue of where to put them all – but we finally figured it out! But, again, all of these lambs didn’t come without issues….  In general, things went pretty well, but Genoa wasn’t going to let things go that easily!  After delivering two black ewe lambs, she delivered a third white ewe lamb who looked just like Genoa did as a lamb.  As she cleaned them up, everything seemed to be going well – or so we thought!  But as they started to dry, Genoa began to favor the black lambs, June and July, and ignore the late-coming white one, January.  Before long, she was not only ignoring the white one, but had decided that January was not her own lamb – butting her away every time she tried to nurse. Now keep in mind that although our barn temperatures are hovering between thirty and forty degrees (F), that’s still pretty cold for a newborn lamb who is not getting the nutrition it needs.  We tried several tricks to get Genoa to take January back: rubbing her against the other two to blend the scents, taking the other two away for a couple of hours so that the only lamb she has is the one she doesn’t much like, and switching the coats in hope of mixing up the look and scent of each lamb.  But nothing seemed to work.  By late yesterday, it was clear that if we left January with Genoa, the lamb likely would not live long – so we brought her into the house. January_in_house_birth.jpgI don’t normally like to bring lambs into the house….  Doing so ensures that it will have no ewe to look out for it once released back into the barn.  Also, we have three dogs in the house, so trying to keep a little lamb safe is no small feat.  On the other hand, a little newborn lamb needs to be fed on demand for the first couple of days, and with as little sleep as I have been getting, I figured that it would be a whole lot easier to hear her crying for her bottle if she was here where I could hear her. So, January is officially a bottle lamb.  Geode and Honey were kind enough (through a bit of wrestling) to donate some of their colostrum (the rich first milk that comes in for the first couple of days after birth, before the true milk that follows) – without it, January would likely have died.  She is beginning to understand that when she calls, it will take a few minutes for me to get there.  And she’s also beginning to get the hand of drinking from a bottle – something that doesn’t come naturally to lambs. The plan is to get her on a schedule in the next couple of days, and then take her back out to the barn on Sunday or Monday and let her mingle with all of the other lambs in the “creep area” – where lambs can come (and ewes cannot) to get high-nutrition grain and pellets, and the very best alfalfa, helping them to grow to their potential. Oops – I hear January calling for her next bottle!  I’d better go answer her cries!  I’ll give you an overall update on lambs on Monday….

10:16 am | link          Comments Wednesday, February 24, 2010 Joshua

Early Sunday morning, as I sat in the barn waiting for Harriet to deliver her twins, I heard a mother ewe calling to her lamb.  Now, please understand that it’s not unusual during lambing season to hear a mother calling her lamb, but in this case it caught my attention.  The reason that this time was so different was that I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from….  All of the ewes with lambs were in the adjoining stall, and the sound should have been much louder than it was.  Also, please remember that I was working on a minimum of sleep, since I had been up the night before helping Holly with her lambs, and here I was in the barn again early on Sunday morning, helping Harriet. That little sound kept echoing in my mind, and it bothered me; it just wasn’t right….  Joshua_front_birth.jpgSuddenly, I realized that it might have come from outside the barn – maybe one of the ewes still outside, waiting to deliver, had had an early delivery!  I rushed outside to find Hailey with a very well-cared-for single white ram lamb, who we later named Joshua (since 2010 is the year for J names here on our farm).  I helped the pair into one of the waiting lambing jugs (or pens), and they settled right in, with Hailey being a very attentive mother to her first lamb. I really thought all was well.  For two days, Joshua was probably the cutest lamb in the barn, with visitors quickly noticing his activity and his ever-present “smile” – something that seems to run in his family line.  That is why, when I routinely checked the barn yesterday near noon and found Hailey frantically trying to wake him without success, I was shocked.  What on earth could have happened to bring him down so fast?  At my two earlier checks of the barn on that same day, he had been his usual bubbly self!  There was no time to think back on it right then, though – he needed help, and fast. Joshua_whirlpool.jpgWhen I find a young lamb down and not moving but still alive, the first thing I do is check whether they are suffering from hypothermia – easily done by putting my finger in their mouth.  If things are OK, I should feel a warm mouth sucking on my finger.  In Joshua’s case, all I felt was ice cold.  I quickly bundled him up inside my Carhartts and ran him down to the house.  The easiest way to bring a lamb’s temperature up is to float them in very warm water, so that was what I did: I filled the washtub with warm water and held Joshua’s head up, hoping he would have the strength to come out of this…. Unfortunately, that was the first of two tub soaks, and Joshua is still in the house today.  I have been milking Hailey and feeding him with a stomach tube, in hopes that if he does recover, he will still want to nurse from his mom – lambs who are fed by bottle often lose the desire to nurse because the bottle is so much easier.  It’s a lot more work for us, though, and it would mean that he could never be sold for breeding (friendly rams nearly always turn mean in their adult years). Even this morning, Hailey is still frantic to have her son back – it hurts me to watch her mourn, thinking that I have stolen her son.  And Joshua just can’t seem to keep his temperature stable.  At times, he runs very cold, and then at other times, his temperature rises dangerously high.  Our hope is that he will stabilize over the next few hours and that we can then take him back to Hailey in the barn.  But, for now, all we can do is check him regularly, feed him when he needs nutrition, and wait – and pray – that he will come out of it and entertain us again with his little lamb antics and cheery smile.

10:46 am | link          Comments Monday, February 22, 2010 Celeste and Camille

Celeste came to us from Anchorage Farm in Saugerties, NY, in spring of 2004.  She did not make the trip alone – we drove out and picked her up with Camille, who came from the same farm.  As usual when we bring in two or more new animals, they established a friendship on that trip across the states that has served them well over these past few years in our flock.Like friendships in people, they spend much of their time together: they eat near each other, sleep near each other, and generally hang out together.  In fact, over the last few years, I have always placed them into the same breeding groups, too – they have the same body types and fleece types, and very similar genetics, so they end up in with the same ram.  Until this year, that is.  This year, they were in breeding groups in adjoining pastures – and they spent much of their time with each other on opposite sides of the fence, walking back and forth and calling to each other.  They are just that close!Since they’ve been here, their cycles even coincide so much that they lamb during the same week – often within a day or two of each other – so they end up closed into the barn together at the same time to have their lambs.  In fact, as I recall, they have even had their lambing jugs (or pens) next to each other for the past couple of years.  These two have basically been together since their arrival six years ago…..Until this past weekend, that is.  On Saturday afternoon, we moved Camille and the other unbred ewes – all of whom were in with Ira (who only bred three of his ewes) – up to the shelter on the ridge, where they can spend the time while the other ewes are in the barn lambing.  They don’t need the high level of nutrition that the bred ewes are getting, and they don’t need the shelter of the barn for lambs, so we separated them off into their own area.  That means that we broke up the Celeste-Camille pair, though.  Unlike Camille, Celeste is still down at the barn, waiting to deliver her lambs later this week.Actually, that is where she is supposed to be.Celeste_calling_Camille.jpg  Truth be told, Celeste is not spending a lot of time there.  Instead, she is keeping a vigil for her friend, Camille.  She stands in the paddock near the barn, looking up to the ridge, calling for her friend (see photo at right).  Most of the time, she is out there alone.  Sometimes, a few of the other bred ewes join her to see what all the fuss is about.  All of the time, though, she is calling.  Calling for her friend.  And, although I know she is just fine, and so is Camille, the whole thing makes me a bit sad.Regardless of whether you are human or ovine, friendship is important, and although Celeste has made other friends within the flock over the years, there is no one like Camille for her.  In a few days, Celeste will be closed into the ‘delivery room’ in the barn to have her lambs, and hopefully that experience will distract her enough that she will relax for the two to three weeks that she will spend inside.  After that, she can resume her vigil and visit with Camille through the adjoining fence, introducing her new family to her best friend.I am sure she’ll be thrilled when that day arrives, but for now, things just aren’t the same without Camille at her side….By the way, over the weekend, Holly and Harriet had their twins (Holly had a CVM ewe and a white ram, and Harriet had a recessively colored ewe and a similarly colored ram), and Hailey had a single white ram lamb, bringing our total lamb count to twelve.  We expect things to pick up this week, with about fifteen ewes due by this Sunday.  I’ll continue to keep you posted!

1:55 am | link          Comments Friday, February 19, 2010 Tales of lamb tails: docking

I mentioned in the last posting that I had several kids who were here helping to dock (remove) the tails of our newest lambs.  To those who don’t have a lot of experience with sheep, the obvious question is, “Why dock their tails?”  Little baby lambs are so cute with their long tails wiggling behind them while they nurse – why not leave them be?  This is a question even I asked when our first lambs were born – but actually, there is a very good reason to dock tails in sheep.Granted, there are some breeds that are born and live all their lives with naturally short tails – like the Shetlands, Icelandics, or Finns – and just don’t require tail docking.  The rest of the breeds, however, are born with long tails – sometimes almost reaching the ground when they stand – and these are the tails that will eventually cause trouble….

If you were to visit a typical flock of sheep when their fleeces (wool) were long, you would notice that, around the tail area, the wool builds up a coating of manure.  This usually isn’t severe, nor is it damp, so it doesn’t typically cause problems.  If the tail is long, however, the manure builds up on the tail and the urine keeps it damp.  This situation is the “perfect storm” for fly strike – something I’ve seen only once, but that was enough. I now do all I can to prevent it ever happening to my flock!  Now, let me warn you, if you are squeamish, skip the next paragraph – for those of you who really want to know what flly strike is and why it is so important to dock tails, read on….Damp, dirty wool is the ideal place for different species of flies to lay their eggs.  Within as short a period as eight hours, the maggots begin to hatch out.  They immediately look for nutrition, and find it as they feast on the flesh of the sheep.  Unlike what you hear about hospital use of maggots for cleaning away dead tissue and leaving the healthy tissue, these maggots burrow deep into the sheep, eating everything in their path.  This all happens very quickly, and before long, the lamb or sheep loses interest in food, and can die as it is eaten alive by masses of squirming maggots.Cleaning up fly strike is a nasty, distasteful job.  I helped do it once and hope to never have to deal with it again.  By docking our lambs’ tails, we make it harder for fly strike to occur in our flock.  I have seen sheep come to the auction with their big, thick dirty tails hanging behind them, and I have to admit I have always felt a bit sorry for them – their tails looked a mess, and I couldn’t help but wonder in which other ways they had been neglected….As for the actual docking, it can be done a couple of ways.tail_docking.jpg  The tail can be simply crushed and then cut off – but that can involve bleeding, and seems unnecessarily harsh to us. We use the elastrator method….  I always explain it to the kids this way:  Do you remember when your teacher always told you not to put that rubber band tightly around your finger because you would cut off the blood and it would fall off?  Well, that’s essentially what we do – we put a very small, strong rubber band around the tail at about the point that we need it removed, and within a couple of weeks, the tail and the band fall off. (See photo at right – can you see where the bands have been placed and where the tail is narrowing – where it will eventually fall off?).If tails are docked too short, you can harm the musculature around the rump, making the sheep – particuarly ewes – more prone to prolapse.  We always dock “long” (something that is not a good trait for the show ring, known for wanting very short docks for a ‘cleaner look’) so that we don’t eliminate one problem but create others.We also always dock tails at between 24-36 hours of age.  When lambs are this young, their nervous systems are still immature, and they feel much less pain for a much shorter period of time than when they are older.  We usually see them shake their behinds a bit, then find their moms – and that’s about the extent of their discomfort at one day of age.  When we once tried docking at closer to a week of age, the lambs were miserable for hours (depending on age and size) before they settled back into their normal behavior.  I couldn’t stand to watch them in pain for so long, so now we always dock right after the end of the first day, and typically see very little discomfort.I used to dread tail docking – I didn’t want to do it wrong, and I didn’t want to cause unnecessary pain to my lambs.  I’ve come to the point, though, that I’ve seen the alternative, and we now can do it with minimal discomfort to the lamb because of when we do it. It is part of our first day routine: immunize for tetanus, take pics of the lamb from every angle for our records, check the navel, and dock the tail.  It’s simple, and a necessary part of good sheep management.

11:32 am | link          Comments Wednesday, February 17, 2010 So tired….

I have to admit it: I am really tired.  Although we have our ewes’ daily schedule set up so that we shouldn’t have lambs in the middle of the night, there are no guarantees.  And because there are no guarantees, I don’t sleep very well through the night, worrying about lambs being born at the near-zero temperatures that we are having at night. I find myself waking several times each night to check the monitor in the bedroom to see if all is well – and every time, it is!  That doesn’t make me sleep any better, though.  I wish it did. There are many sheep people who accept lamb losses as part of the job, factoring in a 10% or sometimes even as high as 15 or 20% loss factor into their operation.  I have gotten used to the idea that some lambs do die.  I know that – I do.  Some sheep die, too, and most of the time, there is nothing I can do about it – if I could, they wouldn’t die, because I wouldn’t let them.  We work hard to save each and every life.  To me, that life force is precious, and I don’t give up on it easily.  These sheep are my friends, each with her own personality, and I watch closely to keep them from harm. So, when it is this cold, and I know that a ewe is due to lamb, or very close to due, I sleep through the night in two-hour increments.  Years ago, when we didn’t know how to avoid late-night lambs, I used to set my alarm for every two or three hours, but I don’t need to do that anymore – there are no lambs during the night.  Even so, I wake up on my old two- to three-hour schedule all through lambing season and can’t fall back asleep until I check the monitor or the barn – it’s crazy! Well, maybe not totally crazy….  Most ewes have no problem delivering their lambs, cleaning them up, nudging them back to the correct place to nurse, and generally mothering their lambs – but sometimes things can go wrong.  All of our ewes are great mothers.  That’s a fact.  We don’t keep ewes who don’t do their job.  For that reason, we don’t really have an issue with mis-mothering.  We have had an issue, though, with very big lambs – which creates the problem of long, hard labors, which then means that the lamb is born in poor condition, and the ewe is exhausted.  This is not a good situation for lamb survival. Because of this problem, we lost six lambs last year.  Our average birth weight last year was about thirteen pounds, and we had mostly twins, with a few triplets thrown in.  Thirteen pounds is a lot of lamb to move through the birth canal when the whole ewe weighs only 140 pounds!  Losing six lambs last year was horrible – especially when the only reason they didn’t take a breath (and I was there!) was that they were second in line behind a lamb who took too long to be born.  It was enough to make me rethink whether this was something I wanted to do….  It was just too much death. So, this year, we changed rams, to produce more “normal” size lambs that would still grow as quickly.  And now I wait for those lambs, hoping that they will all – or nearly all – survive.  In the process of waiting, though, I don’t sleep.  I check the barn.  I check the monitor.  I watch the ewes like a hawk for the early signs of labor.  And through it all, I try to think happy thoughts of spring flowers and gamboling lambs and healthy, happy ewes.  But I’m still tired…. Gem_and_lambs_2010.jpgBy the way, I should also share that Gem did finally have her lambs between about eight and nine last night: twin ram lambs.  The first, Jules, is solid black, just like Gem, and the second is a CVM named Jumanji (again, by kids who were here to help dock tails and give shots to Georgia’s lambs).  Both little rams are big and healthy and strong, and doing well – even in the cold night in which they were born!  I’m off to bed for a two-hour nap….

10:44 am | link          Comments Monday, February 15, 2010 Lambs and more lambs!

Well, our first lambs of the season arrived this past weekend! Grace_Jethro_Jenny_birth.jpg Although both Georgia and Gem were technically due last Friday, on Saturday morning, Grace decided not to wait her turn and delivered twins: a ram lamb now named Jethro, and a ewe lamb now known as Jenny (the photo on the right is of Grace with both lambs, and the photo below is a close-up of Jenny).  We do try to give community members who would like to watch the birth of lambs the chance to do so, and we had a friend of mine here with two of her daughters to watch the birth.  We also have a tradition of allowing the “spectators” to name the lambs (as long as they follow our system of naming by year, with this being the “J” year), so the girls went with an NCIS theme for Grace’s lambs. Jenny_face_birth.jpgWhat was really exciting for me is that both displayed the white teardrops that are an indication to us that their color is recessive – something that we have been working towards for the past several years.  The surprising thing about these two is that they look so very Romney – at least to me! – even at their very young age. Even though we expected more lambs yesterday, everything remained quiet all day – but it sure did look like Georgia was ready to pop!  She waited until this morning, though: as I walked into our bathroom to brush my teeth, I took a quick look at the TV in the bedroom that is now set to our lamb-cam, giving us four different views of the inside of the barn.  It was obvious that Georgia had finally decided that it was time to deliver lambs.  I threw on some sweats and headed up to the barn. When I got there, Georgia was intent on pawing the ground, digging a huge “nest” for her coming lambs.  This kind of behavior is typical in a laboring ewe (it’s that nesting thing we all hear about at the end of a pregnancy!), and most of ours will dig up half the stall, if I let them!  Georgia dug furiously for about an hour and a half, then began alternating digging with lying down and pushing.  Eventually, she delivered triplets, and considering that she only weighs about 150 lbs., their combined weight of almost 32 pounds is quite impressive! All of the ewes and lambs are doing well in spite of the cold winds that began to blow today; we have them well sheltered in the barn until they gain a bit of size.  Still waiting in the delivery room are Gem, due last Friday, Hattie, due today, Hope, due tomorrow, and Holly and Heidi, both due on Friday.  I’ll keep you posted!

5:08 pm | link          Comments Friday, February 12, 2010 A serene lambing start date, and lamb coats

At 5:30 this morning, soft snow was falling, creating a gentle layer of silence over the pre-dawn landscape.  Normally, I would still have been sound asleep in my toasty warm bed, surrounded by the soft breathing of our three border collies who sleep in the room with us. This morning, however, is technically the first day of lambing, and someone needed to do the first barn check – that meant me.Typically, Rick does that early morning check on his way to work, but this year, he is so busy that he will be unable to help me until later in the month – so I quietly pulled myself away from my dreams, bundled up in the Carhartt’s and heavy boots, and trudged up through the barely lightening morning to see if there were any surprises awaiting me in the barn.  There is something incredibly peaceful about that early morning walk through the falling snow that leaves me with a nugget of calm that lasts all day, regardless of what the day may bring.Both Georgia and Gem are due today, but could wait to deliver anytime between now and Sunday evening – or maybe Monday morning, but that would be stretching things.  We no longer check the barn during the night: the last barn check is at about 10 or 11 in the evening, and the first comes at about 5:30 or 6 in the morning.  We discovered several years ago that we could influence lambing time by adjusting feeding time – so we do!  We have found that if we feed in the early afternoon (between 12 and 2), then the lambs will all be born between about 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.  If we feed much earlier or later, we have to check the barn in the middle of the night, because we could very well find lambs at 2 or 3 in the morning!Once a lamb is born, it is essential to get it dry and make sure that it gets its first feeding of colostrum – that first thick, nutrient- and antibody-rich fluid that the ewe produces before the milk comes in.  Once dry and fed, a newborn lamb can survive incredibly cold temperatures (as long as it is not drafty), but a cold, hungry lamb will succumb very rapidly.  That is why we make sure to welcome as many of our lambs into the world as possible – we help to dry them off and watch to see that they get that first meal.  After that, we weigh them, dip their cords in iodine to prevent infection, and return them to their mother who, by this time, is usually frantic that we stole her lamb!And believe it or not, every newborn lamb is outfitted with its very own colorful coat!  We collect outgrown or heavily-used sweatshirts and sweatpants, and make our lamb coats from those – they are warm and soft for the lamb, and come in enough colors that, even without eartags (which we insert at one day of age), we can keep track of which lamb belongs to which ewe.  I find that the children that come to help or to watch lambs being born love to see their old clothing keeping our newborns warm!coats_step_2.jpgFor those of you with sheep who would like to try making some, the coats are very easy to make: 1) begin with a child’s or adult’s sweatpants or sweatshirt, 2) cut the sleeve or pant leg off at about the length of a newborn lamb, coats_step_4.jpg3) slit along one seam nearly to the cuff, then 4) cut a slit on each side of the cut seam at about the center of the new “coat.”  We use shoelaces to tie the coats at the belly because they are soft, but you could use just about anything to tie them on (see the photos at left which show the early and end stages of the lamb coats). The lamb’s head goes through the cuff, with the legs having freedom to move at the split seam.  The coat ties under the lamb’s belly, and the rump is open to allow the ewe to identify her lamb.Our new lamb coats are finished, and all is ready and waiting for our first lambs.  Most of the fleeces from the shearing two weeks ago were shipped to their new owners this week, so we can fully shift gears and focus on the lambs in the barn now.  All we need are the lambs!  Everything is ready – except maybe Gem and Georgia!  I’ll keep you posted!

9:00 am | link          Comments Wednesday, February 10, 2010 Updates: Christmas tree, Gianna, Delivery room….

When I sit down to post to this blog, I tend to go over the past day or two and try to find something that might be of interest.  Sometimes I forget that although I started a story on a particular day, I possibly couldn’t finish it that day because it was ongoing. I forget, that is, until someone e-mails me or otherwise reminds me that they are waiting to hear how things turned out.  So this is one of those “catch up” entries to bring you up to date on a few of my past entries. eaten_tree_2009.jpgYou might recall that, over a month ago, we fed our Christmas tree to the sheep because I had read on-line that evergreens had important trace nutrients for sheep.  They had eaten the needles and some small branches off of the tree, but that was where I had left off.  Well, I must say that I have discovered that my sheep LOVE Christmas trees!  I am attaching a photo that I took of the tree this afternoon so that you can see that they have eaten not only all of the smaller branches, but have also stripped the bark all of the way around the tree!  This is definitely something that we will do again!  In fact, I may hit up a few of my friends for their used Christmas trees next year! I know that some of you have been worried about Gianna, who last week came down with a terrible upper respiratory infection.  She has been on antibiotics since then, and is doing better.  Although she has improved, she is not breathing normally yet – which concerns me a bit.  Usually sheep recover within a few days of beginning antibiotics, so when I am done posting this entry, I will need to call the vet again to see where we go from here….  We may just need to continue the antibiotics for another few days, or maybe he will want to switch to another type.  I’ll keep you posted, but for now she is improving! And the newest topic on our farm is imminent lambing!  delivery_room_2010.jpgI know that I mentioned last time that Gem and Georgia had been separated into our delivery room stall because they are due on Friday of this week – but could deliver as early as today…..  Well, neither one is showing signs of delivering today, but I can tell they are close.  The photo to the right shows the delivery room with Gem, Georgia, Grace, Heidi, Hattie, and Hope all enjoying today’s fresh bale of alfalfa hay.  These six ewes are all due within the next week, and will share this delivery room, filling it with their lambing jugs as the time comes.  You can see one lambing jug already set up on the far right in the photo – it awaits the first ewe to lamb this year.  Once she has delivered, we will clean an area and build another jug for the next ewe, and so on until the entire stall is filled with six small pens for these six ewes. Once the last ewe in the group has had time to bond with her lambs in her lambing jug, we will take all of the removable panels down and allow these six new mothers to mix with their lambs, getting used to finding their lambs among many in a smaller group before begin mixed into the larger flock. In the photo, Georgia has her back to the camera: you can see where we have pinned her coat up on her back to prevent the leg straps from hanging down.  Last year, we lost a lamb trying to nurse when she got caught in her dam’s leg strap and strangled. Now we pin up all loose leg straps as the ewe gets close to delivery – there’s no point in taking chances when the prevention is so simple! So the delivery room is full and we are back to checking them every few hours – especially in the very cold weather of the next couple of days – to help any ewe or newborn who might need it.  Friday’s posting will fill you in on how we handle deliveries and newborn lambs – hopefully we will have at least a couple of babies by then!

3:29 pm | link          Comments Monday, February 8, 2010 Preparing for lambs

Our first ewes are due to lamb on February 12th, and I suddenly realized this morning that those lambs could come as early as this Wednesday.  Oh, my!  Since this is Monday, that’s pretty darn soon!  Usually, I like to have things set up for our lambing ewes so that things go as smoothly as possible, so today was the day….Usually, because we use the marking harness on the ram to mark the ewes when he breeds them, we have a pretty good idea of when each ewe is due – 148 days from the marking.  Since we then ultrasound them too, that only serves to confirm the due date that we already have.  Sometimes the ultrasound date is weeks different than the marked date – when that happens, we have to assume that we missed a mark (sometimes the crayon doesn’t show because it is full of gravel, or maybe the crayon has been so well used that it’s almost gone when he marks the ewe), and we change the due date to the one indicated by ultrasound.  This doesn’t happen often, and we have found that when the ultrasound date and the marker date are within a week or two, the marker date is the most accurate.So with these first ewes, we have a marking harness due date of Feb. 12th.  Ewes will typically deliver within about a day or – at most – two days from their due date.  Any further from their due date and the lamb will be so premature or overdue that there will be difficulties, and the likelihood of a live lamb at the end goes down dramatically as days from the due date increase.  This is another way of saying that we are fairly certain of when those ewes will deliver – within a day or two of their marking harness due date.Both Gem and Georgia are due on the 12th based on the marking harness – they were marked literally as the ram was put into the paddock with them.  I actually was rather hoping at the time that he would take his time and wait a day or two before marking any of the ewes – we usually aim for Feb. 14th or 15th as our first lambing date.  But this year I had to begin moving sheep early to get it all done for the 15th, and these two are the result of that.  Gem is carrying the typical twins (according to her ultrasound) but Georgia ultrasounded with 3+, meaning that she has at least three – maybe four – lambs inside of her.  Looking at her now, I doubt there are four in there, but I suppose anything is possible!To prepare for lambing, Rick cleaned all of the stalls last Saturday with the help of a teenage friend, Noah, and his friend, Drew.  They put down barn lime as a base on the stall mats – which helps to keep things fresh – and lots of fresh straw.  They left the “delivery room” closed off for me to fill sometime this week with the ewes close to delivery, and today was the day.  As I fed the ewes their ration of grain today, I enticed Gem, Georgia, and Grace (who is due on the 16th) into that area and closed the door behind them.  I hope to get Hattie in there tomorrow (she is also due the 16th), which will round out our first group.In the delivery room, we have already built up one pen (normally called a “lambing jug”) about 4×6 feet in size, into which we will put the first ewe and her lambs.  Once she goes into labor, she will choose an area in the stall (the delivery room) in which to have her lambs.  When she is finished delivering the last lamb, I will help to dry off the newborns and then move them slowly into the lambing jug.  Once they are moved and the ewe has followed them in, I can spot-clean the area in which she lambed, avoiding any possible contamination by the ewe’s amniotic fluids of ewes yet to deliver.  I will also then build the next jug, which will sit empty for the next ewe, and so on until the stall is full of jugs.I like to put the ewes into the delivery room at least three days before they are due – just in case.  Since they are all sheared now, they tend to choose to rest within the shelter of the barn anyways, but this way I know the lambs won’t be born in a snow drift.  I don’t like to take chances with lambs!Georgia, Gem, and Grace are happily resting in the delivery room tonight.  Ewes are usually happy to be there once they look around because there is more food available and less of a crowd to fight to get to it.  It is kept very clean for the new lambs, and because the other ewes can’t get in, it is never crowded.  As these three or four (with Hattie) deliver their lambs, we will bring two or three more ewes into the room, until the entire stall is divided into lambing jugs, filled with ewes with new lambs.  This is a wonderful time of year on the farm!

6:49 pm | link          Comments Friday, February 5, 2010 Gianna is sick

When I went out to feed the sheep yesterday afternoon, I could hear someone having trouble breathing – someone really congested.  Sheep are normally very healthy animals.  Even when they aren’t healthy, they try to act like it…. As prey animals, they know instinctively that being sick is a weakness, and weakness will often lead to death if a predatory animal is around.  So sheep do all they can to not act sick (one of the reasons that so many shepherds never know an animal is sick until it is dead).The fact that, as I came up to the flock, I could tell there was illness up there among the sheep meant not only that one of the sheep was sick, but that she was very sick.  She had lost the desire to hide the fact – she had pretty much given up.  This was not good.Gianna_feb_2008.jpgAs I walked among my sheep, patting this one and talking to that one, I found Gianna.  She stood there with her head down against the side of the barn, just trying to breathe.  When a sheep stands with her head down, you know it’s bad.  When they press their head against a wall while it’s down, that’s even worse.  As I got close to Gianna, I could see the problem: she had a huge flow of mucus coming from each nostril.As a shepherdess, I have learned to do a lot of the vetting of my flock on my own.  If I called a vet for every thing that went wrong, we would be out of business – it is just too expensive!  I went into the barn to get my stethoscope to listen to her lungs.  Oooh, what nasty crackling I heard!  Between the nasty stuff coming from her nose and the crackling sounds in her lungs, it was obvious that Gianna was fighting an infection, and at that point, she was not winning.What she really needed was help in the form of an antibiotic.  A quick call to the vet told me which would be the most effective ones, and which were safe for this point in gestation – after all, we have to consider the lambs she is carrying, too!I keep a small refrigerator in the barn full of a variety of necessary medications: antibiotics, immunizations, painkillers, etc.  That way, when the vet tells me what we need, I don’t have to drive all over the county trying to find what he specified – I already have it on hand (I hope!).  In this case, the antibiotic he specified was right there….  I just drew up the liquid into a syringe and went to find Gianna.Fortunately, she felt bad enough that she wasn’t going to fight much.  Some of our ewes will buck and kick and run all over when they know a shot is coming.  Gianna made it clear that she would much prefer to get her shot in the rump rather than in the neck.  We usually try to give intramuscular shots in the neck muscles, but for our breeding ewes who won’t be going anywhere in the coming months, the rump works just as well.In this case, she ate the grain I had brought her, and I poked her with the needle – a few seconds later, she was still eating and I was done.  It usually only takes a day or two for an antibiotic to kick in and begin to work, leaving the sheep feeling much better.  For Gianna’s sake, I hope that today is that day!

10:34 am | link          Comments Wednesday, February 3, 2010 Making progress

It takes a long time to skirt thirty-nine fleeces, but things are moving along!  With the help of my friend, Kris Franklin, who flew down from Hibbing, MN, to help with the skirting this week, we’ve actually finished all but four fleeces!  The rest are mine to do on my own, though, as I just dropped Kris off at the airport for her flight home.  Thanks, Kris, so much for your help!Dining_room_day_four_skirting.jpgYou might think that with only four fleeces left to skirt, the dining room would be returning to normal – but you would be wrong.  Until the last fleece is finished, and we begin boxing for shipment, things don’t get much better….  If you look at the photo to the left, taken this morning, you can see that it doesn’t look much better than the one taken over the weekend in Monday’s blog!
Yes, there are fewer fleece bundles, but now we have trash bags full of filthy fleece and manure, etc., under the table, and big bags of skirtings leaning against the wall all over the place.  Some of the bedsheets that were originally used to bundle fleeces are doing double duty now as protection for the dining room carpet from second cuts and nasty tags that tend to drop off the edges of the table.
Hopefully, by the end of today, I’ll get the last fleeces skirted and begin the process of writing up descriptions of each fleece, pricing, and sorting photos.  We’ve been working eight- to ten-hour days standing around the table, skirting fleeces since Sunday morning, so it will be nice to be able to spend a few hours sitting while I type things up!  I am not normally one to sit around much, but after skirting, I’m always happy to sit down to do the computer part of the job!
So, the bottom line is that I’m making progress.  Those of you who are eagerly awaiting our fleece list can expect us to release it on Friday with our normal e-mail communication.  Please don’t contact us before then about specific fleeces, etc. (unless we e-mail you!) because it will only slow things down….  Just know that you will hear from us soon, and keep watching your e-mail on Friday!

11:33 am | link          Comments Monday, February 1, 2010 Taking it one fleece at a time…!

Saturday was a huge day for us at Peeper Hollow Farm – it was shearing day for our thirty-nine breeding ewes!  Now, before everyone begins to e-mail us about this or that fleece, please know that: (1)  I am skirting as quickly as I can, (2) it is too late to request a particular fleece (we put a hold on the request list twenty-four hours before shearing), and (3) the e-mail notification of the available new fleeces should go out to our customer list sometime late this week.  This is the craziest week of the year for us! ewes_before_shearing_2010.jpgewes_after_shearing_2010.jpg The nice thing, though, is that there is now LOTS more room in the barn for the ewes to move around. Where we used to be able to fit a dozen sheep, we now see somewhere around eighteen, with more space between (see the before and after photos above) – but the down-side is that there is MUCH LESS room in my dining room!  You see, when we shear in the middle of the winter like this, it is much too cold to skirt the fleeces in the barn.  In fact, even in the summer, I don’t skirt in the barn – I skirt outside, because the light in the barn leaves a lot to be desired.For those people who don’t know what skirting is, let me explain….  When the shearer shears a sheep, he/she begins by “opening up” the fleece at the belly, and then working back from there to remove the whole fleece in one intact piece (if done well).  It is easiest to imagine those footy pajamas that kids wear in the winter with a zipper from one leg up to the neck – that’s how the fleece comes off, too.  Once it is sheared, we put it into an old, clean bedsheet and eventually it works its way up to the dining room in the house (or the skirting table outside during the summer).When skirting, I open the bundle of fleece, dump it onto the dining room table (or skirting table), sheared side down, and try to spread it back out as it was on the sheep – with the head on one end of the table, the tail at the other, and the four legs hanging to the sides.  The idea of skirting is to remove all of the wool at the edges (or the skirt, as it hangs) that are the most contaminated with straw, manure, etc.  That hanging portion is the part that was not covered by their coats, so it is the nastiest.  When we take all of that off (called skirting) and pick off the bits of hay and straw that may have found their way onto the rest, what is left is gorgeous, bright wool, clean enough to spin in the grease (without washing first).That is what I am in the midst of doing right nowfleeces_in_dining_room.jpg – skirting all thirty-nine fleeces in order: white Romeldale (finished yesterday), white Romney (hopefully finished today), colored Romeldale, and then colored Romney.  We skirt them in that order because, although we clean our table after each fleece, I don’t want to contaminate any finer fiber with something coarser (Romeldale with Romney), and I also don’t want to contaminate white with colored fiber – getting a few fibers mixed from fine into coarse or white into colored is not nearly so bad.Rick brought all of the fleeces down to the dining room yesterday (see photo), and I am now trying to slowly regain the dining space!  The goal is to finish skirting by Thursday evening, and then write up all of the descriptions on Friday, getting the e-mail out to our customers on Friday evening.  That is the plan.  But you all know how well plans work sometimes!  However, I am slowly working my way through them.  Right now, I need to take it just one fleece at a time….  In fact, I’d better get back down there!

10:15 am | link          Comments Friday, January 29, 2010 Shearing jobs and other details….

We shear our breeding ewes tomorrow. Shearing day is a big day on our calendars – much of our operating budget will come from the fleeces sheared tomorrow. And there is so much to do on shearing day that there is no way the two of us could do it ourselves – we need help, and lots of it! Our team tomorrow consists of twelve to thirteen friends – both new and old – who are willing to brave the cold (temperatures will start out in the morning below zero, and make it up to a toasty thirteen degrees by the time we finish up!) and work hard for part or all of the day to help us harvest our year’s worth of ewe fleeces.  We don’t allow an audience, simply because there is not enough space in our small barn for the working team plus people who want to watch. If you want to watch, you have to work, too! We assign jobs specifically so that anyone coming to help can also take time to watch the goings-on. As usual, we have a total team of about twelve – which seems like a lot, but has proved to be the magic number. Three people are on the catching team, scheduled to catch the ewes for shearing. Their responsibility is to catch first the white ewes and then the colored ewes, one at a time, holding each ewe near the shearing floor and removing her coat. When the shearer is ready, they hand him the ewe and go back into the stalls for another. We put three on this team so that they can cycle through, with only two working at any one time, allowing the third to rest and watch the shearing.  This is not an easy job! Regardless of how mellow sheep seem when grazing in the field, very few run excitedly onto the shearing floor, throwing off their coat on the way!  It would be a great thing but, unfortunately, it takes a bit of wrestling know-how to get this job done…. As the ewe is handed off to the shearer, one of that catching team announces the tag number (and I shout out the name), so that everyone knows who is being sheared.  All of our efforts are organized by sheep name and number, so this step is very important – as you will see…. While the ewe is being sheared, there is a lot going on in the background.  One volunteer is responsible for getting the “packaging” ready – they spread out one of our many old bedsheets on a clean area of the barn floor and then find the pre-printed card with the ewe’s name and number.  They staple the identification card onto the corner of the sheet and wait for the fleece.  Another volunteer is checking “sample bags” that have been prepared in advance to see whether this is one of the ewes that needs fleece samples sent for fiber testing.  We send fleece samples from all of our yearlings, and from a small assortment of older ewes to compare against their yearling samples.  If this volunteer finds that the ewe being sheared needs to be sampled, she notifies the shearer and both a britch and side sample are pulled from the fleece as it is being sheared. Also while the ewe is being sheared, there is one volunteer (usually me, but sometimes another trusted person) who works with the shearer to skirt the very worst wool and/or hair off while in the barn. The fleece from the bellies and tops of heads – the dirtiest parts – is pulled off as it is shorn so that it doesn’t contaminate the remaining fleece. We also pull off the fiber sheared from the legs and faces – these are usually quite hairy and short, and will contaminate the remainder of the fleece if allowed to be packaged together.  We also try to get any second cuts that we notice (fleece bits that were cut the first time, and then cut closer to the skin the second time, leaving these very short bits – or second cuts – stuck to the useable fleece) – without getting in the shearer’s way!  All of these bits and pieces of fleece are collected and sent to the weighing station after the ewe is finished – her records will include one entry for all fiber sheared from the animal, and another entry for the fiber that ends up in the bedsheet – and then another for the “after skirting” weight of the fleece.  We keep a lot of records because they help us in determining which ewes will remain for another year, and which ewes will be culled (not make the cut) and sold at auction. Once the ewe is sheared, one of the workers (usually me) picks up the fleece in one piece and places it in the center of the sheet that has been marked for this ewe.  The volunteer who takes care of the sheets and cards ties all of the corners of the sheet into a bundle and hands the bundle to the volunteer at the scale for weighing.  After the fleece is weighed, the bundle is placed into one of four piles: Romney white, Romney colored, Romeldale white, Romeldale colored. Before she knows it, this volunteer will need to go back to ready the next sheet. At the same time, there is also a team of three who take the ewe from the shearer once she is sheared. This team is responsible for finding the right size coat for the now-much-smaller ewe, and giving any immunizations that she may need.  This year, we have thirteen ewes who will need to be immunized with their annual shots on shearing day (some others got theirs last weekend, and yet others will wait for a week or more, all based on their expected lambing date).  Once the ewe is coated and immunized as necessary, she is released back with the rest of the flock. In between all of this work going on in the barn is the sweeper, whose entire job is to sweep the shearing floor.  This sounds really simple, but it takes some experience to know what/when to sweep and when to just wait….  We want the shearing floor to be free of the straw that the sheep drag in when they come from the stall, and also any fiber from the previous ewe so that we don’t mix fiber from one animal into the fleece of the next.  And we want to sweep up any second cuts that may occur, if we can get them before they go into the entire fleece.  On the other hand, we don’t want to be in the way of the shearer or the skirter – a very tricky balance to find! Finally, we also always try to have an extra person on stand-by who takes care of food, beverages, and filling in for restroom breaks.  This extra person goes inside early and puts the food in the oven, and just generally helps out where needed.  We’ve tried shearing without this extra person and it can be done, but it works out so much more smoothly when we have an extra that we just always try to find one. So in the end, we have three catching, three coating, one skirter, one weigher, one taking care of cards and sheets, one sampling, one sweeping, and one person filling in as needed.  One year, we had two shearers come to shear at the same time, and tried to work it all out with twenty helpers – it was a mess!  Not enough help, not enough space, and way too much chaos! So, we’ve got less than twenty-four hours before we begin shearing.  The jobs are assigned, the lasagna is ready for the oven, the pies are made, the paperwork (cards, sample bags, and recording lists) is done, and the barn is cleaned.  The ewes will be fed and locked in as soon as I post this entry so that they can finish drying off overnight.  It seems that another shearing is upon us!

12:10 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, January 27, 2010 Winds, snow, ice, and wet….

We’re getting a beautiful, fluffy snow today, as everything is once again coated in white.  Our last snow came on Monday, but I don’t think anyone would have called that snow beautiful or fluffy – it was fierce!  Monday’s snow only came to about an inch and a half, but there was really no way for us to tell: the snow didn’t fall – it was driven by twenty-five mile an hour winds, gusting to forty-five. What a mess it made for us!I don’t mind snow.  Really!  In fact, I kind of like snow in winter – it makes everything look so clean and fresh.  If I have to put up with the cold temperatures, I’d just as soon do it with some snow.  But Monday’s snow was more than just a bit of snow.  It was horizontal snow that wouldn’t stop!The day started out just a bit windy with a little snow coming down.  Snow this time of year is not a great thing for us because we are shearing on Saturday, and the fleeces need to be dry when we shear.  Usually, we open up the stalls in the barn and lock the sheep inside for about 24 hours so that they can dry off overnight.  Because of Monday’s snow, we may need more than just an overnight….When I went up to feed the sheep in the middle of the day, it was obvious that we had problems. The wind was incredibly strong, and the snow was moving horizontally, sometimes so thick that you couldn’t see more than a few feet.  The first problem I noticed was Celeste, whose fleece has taken Grand Champion Fleece at the Iowa State Fair twice. She was lying outside with no coat, and with icicles and mounds of snow covering her fleece.  There was no way I could let her stay that way until Saturday – her fleece would have been ruined!  So, I grabbed a fresh coat, caught her fairly easily (as it turned out that she was dragging her coat under her – the hole for her neck still around her neck), and tried to get the old coat off and the new coat on.  The problem was that I didn’t want to put all the ice and snow that was on her fleece under the new coat.  It took me a while to remove not only the snow/ice but also the hay that had accumulated and was hidden under the cold stuff.  Of course, taking hay out of a sheep’s fleece is not something I can yet do with winter gloves on – it takes too much dexterity – so most of this work was done with bare hands.  In forty-five mile an hour gusts.  With snow pelting both of us.And that’s when I noticed that Ireland needed a fresh, larger coat badly.  Getting the coat wasn’t too bad, and catching her wasn’t bad either – she was in among the masses of sheep in the lean-to, and there was nowhere to run.  Once I caught her, I realized that there was a bigger problem than just needing a new coat.  Her old coat was frozen to the fleece underneath!  I have never seen anything like it!  Eventually, what I ended up doing was using my hands to melt the frozen layer of fleece just under the coat so that I could separate the coat from the fleece, folding it back a little farther as each section thawed.  After ten minutes of this, I was able to remove the entire coat – but what a job!  Her new coat went on easily, with a safety pin to size it better for her, but the fact that the surface of her fleece was pure ice is not a good thing.  I had other problems, though.ewes_hiding_from_blizzard.jpgIt was so COLD!  When I finished with coats, I put my hands back into my gloves and all I could feel was pain – no soft warmth – just pain.  Oh, was I cold!  So then, as I turned to the rest of the flock, I realized that they were all way too snowy and icy (see photo at left).  I decided to open up the two stalls in the barn a few days early so that the girls could get inside and begin to defrost.Then it occured to me that I still had the high-octane girls on the ridge with even less shelter.  Sheep are fine all through the winter if they have plenty of hay and a wind break.  That’s pretty much what the girls on the ridge have – we give them lots of hay each day (way more than they need – feeding what they leave to the rams the next day), and they have a shelter that is open to the south.  The problem was that, once I went to look, I could see that the entire shelter was filled with snow – and the ewes were completely covered!We would normally bring these ewes down and mix them with the rest of the ewes at the barn the day before shearing, Friday. We keep them separate to give them a higher level of feed, and once we mix them, we begin feeding them their extra allotment individually – which is very time-consuming.  That’s why we delay that mixing as long as we can.  After seeing how snowy and icy they were on Monday, however, I decided it was time to mix – now!  I opened the small gate that connects the ridge paddock with the paddock at the barn, hoping the few ewes up on the ridge would realize they could join their friends and come on down.Ewes_caravan_to_ridge.jpgWell, no such luck.  Nothing ever seems to go quite as planned….  Instead of the few ewes up top coming down, the entire flock of ewes down at the barn decided to flock up to the paddock on the ridge (photo at right) to see what great food they were getting up there.  Of course, since I was moving those girls down, there was no food up there!  Eventually the whole flock, including the girls from the ridge, turned back around and came back down to the comfort of the barn, where I had wanted them in the first place! So, now I have a barn full of snowy and icy sheep who must be dry and ready to shear on Saturday morning.  The weather forecast predicts that today’s snow will be the end of precipitation until after shearing, which will help.  I will likely have to lock the ewes in a bit early so that they will warm up enough to thaw and allow the moisture to evaporate.  If that doesn’t happen, we will need to mark the damp fleeces and spread them out to dry before skirting. Each fleece that needs to dry will need an area about four feet by six or eight feet – especially the bigger ones.  We will have thirty-nine to forty-one fleeces (haven’t quite decided on whether we want to shear a couple of the new rams, yet), so that makes for a lot of space, worst case.  I used to spread them in the house, but with so many possible damp fleeces, there is no way that we will have enough space.  I have made arrangements with a friend to use one of her outbuildings if it comes to that.  What a mess that would be, having to cart all the bundles of fleece over there, spread them out for a day or two, and then go back to re-bundle them and bring them back to skirt.  I really, really hope they dry on their own by Saturday! So, I sit here and watch the light, fluffy snow come down and count my “sheepy” blessings: All of the sheep are warm and slowly drying in the barn, I have shearing scheduled for Saturday and a dozen volunteers to help, we have many customers already waiting for the e-mail notification of available fleeces, and I’ve found a place to dry the fleeces if necessary.  The best blessing of all in this sheep world of mine right now would be if the ewes’ fleeces dried off by Saturday morning.  I can only hope….

10:36 am | link          Comments Monday, January 25, 2010 Keep your eye on the ram…. Always!

Well, I’m beginning to heal from my Friday altercation with Fagin, our newest ram. I am bruised from mid-back down and am walking very slowly, but at least I’m moving around! Most people don’t realize how dangerous rams can be, and how ewes are very nearly the opposite….The problem with rams is that they are very big – often three hundred pounds or more. At the Iowa State Fair last summer, the biggest ram came in at 432.5 pounds (to get more information, see the article in Farm News), which is nothing to sneeze at! Any animal that size could create problems unless very mellow! We have no idea how much our Fagin weighs, but I know he is big: he doesn’t fit into our scale right now with all his fleece. The last time we tried to weigh a large ram, we had to shear him before squeezing him into the scale. Even then, his rump was resting on the door and his back feet were off the ground. In that position, the scale read 320 pounds – and we knew that with his back feet in the air, that weight was not fully accurate. Fagin is of a similar size.
The other problem with rams is that they have very thick skulls – their major method of defense and/or aggression is ramming with the tops of their heads. A ram’s skull is covered by very tough skin, and that is about all – very little padding. Every fall during breeding season, when the rams begin fighting each other over their preferred ewes (who are all in a separate pen, by the way), we often see several rams with their heads split open from combat. The sound that they make when they hit each other head-on is indescribable, but is enough to make you cringe. They hit hard and often with a dull thump that would likely kill another less-well-built animal. Rams have very strong heads, necks, and shoulders, built to take this incredible force.Ewes do not ram, as a general rule. And neither ewes nor rams really bite. In the front of their mouths, they only have teeth on the bottom, with a hard gummy pad on the top that helps them to rip the grass as they graze. They do have molars on both top and bottom in the back of their mouths, though, so I suppose if you pushed your hand in far enough, they could bite you. But you would need to make an effort to get bitten by a sheep!So ewes are only dangerous because of their size: they can jostle you – especially when you are surrounded by a whole flock – and maybe knock you over. Other than that, ewes are not really dangerous. Rams are  another matter entirely.Once a ram first rams you, they usually aren’t done. In my experience, the ram seems to always want to back up for a second and maybe third hit. So once you’re rammed, it’s a very good idea to pull yourself up and get out of there, no matter how much you hurt! You won’t feel any better after the next hit….So, you may ask, are all rams this dangerous? Well, not really, but the rule of thumb is to never turn your back on a ram. We breed for docile rams, and for the past three years we haven’t had a dangerous ram in our flock, but I always tell our kid-helpers to keep all the rams in sight anyhow, at all times, just in case. Now that Fagin is part of our ram flock, the kids will not be allowed into the area – which is unfortunate. We have many kids who come to help with our sheep.Rams can become dangerous for two reasons: either they are born with genetics that make them dangerous and “rammy,” or they are raised in such a way that they become so. When we choose rams to use for breeding, we select heavily for temperament. When we buy rams, we  selectively avoid badly behaved ones. Fagin will not breed any ewes here unless we find that we can change his ways. A ram who is genetically a dangerous ram, in our experience, cannot be retrained to be mellow. They continue on their dangerous path – and, on our farm, end up at the auction. Rams who have become dangerous because of handling can usually be retrained to keep their distance – we give those a second chance. What will happen with Fagin remains to be seen….So, you might now ask, how do you treat a ram to make him dangerous to humans? It’s really a very simple mistake that is quite often made by first-time shepherds. When you have only a few sheep, it’s very easy to treat them like pets: feeding from your hands, petting them, and just generally letting them get very close. This is not a problem for ewes (we have several who think they are pets and follow us around like dogs!) but for a ram, this friendliness could mean the difference between life and death. A bottle-fed ram is usually a dangerous ram, for this same reason – they become too friendly, and will eventually ram.It seems counterintuitive to think of a “friendly” ram attacking. However, a well-adjusted ram needs to respect people and the space around them. I knew immediately when we unloaded Fagin that he was going to be a problem. As soon as I got him into his stall and went to fill his hay feeder, he came over and rubbed the top of his head on my leg – a very bad sign. In the same situation, my mom would think, “Oh, how cute! He loves me!” My immediate thought was, “Oh, darn! He has no respect for the space around people, and will eventually ram me!” And that’s what happened the moment my guard was down.Rams do not need to be afraid of people. In fact, if they are, it makes things more difficult – we need to be able to catch them for deworming, immunizations, hoof trimming, etc. If they are afraid, then all of these things become very difficult (due to running away, squirming and jumping when caught, etc.) and dangerous (from flailing limbs, etc.). Fear works against us. What we want to see is respect. I want my rams to respect my space. I want to be left alone when I am in the rams’ paddock, and not pushed around. If I walk toward a ram, I expect him to move away from me. If he is at the waterer and I need to refill it, I should be able to walk toward it and he should move back or away. This is typical ram behavior with a well-behaved ram. It is not what you see with a spoiled ram. A spoiled ram will move towards you rather than away. He will think of you as a friend – and ram friends spar by ramming. With a ram as a “friend,” you are in for a rough time – and this is something that we just can’t allow. You can usually tell if you have a problem ram before they actually ram you. Some signs to watch for are a ram who: rubs against your legs, pushes against you, lowers his head or paws the ground while facing you, or runs towards you with head down and then pulls back at the last minute. All of these can be interpreted as the ram “playing” with you, but he is not playing…. He is practicing.  Watch this ram very carefully – he will eventually try to ram you, generally at the first available opportunity. Sometimes, if the problem is not genetic, a ram can be retrained. Usually, I use a spray bottle of vinegar and water to spray him in the face whenever he comes too close. Eventually he realizes that if he keeps his distance, he won’t be sprayed. I don’t like to do this during our very cold winters, which is why Fagin is still out there behaving the way he does – he came in during the very cold weeks of December. Hopefully, we will be able to retrain him in the spring. So the bottom line is that rams, when well bred and well managed, are usually fairly safe to move through – but never turn your back on them; always know where they are and what they’re doing. The first time I was rammed by a large ram, I thought I’d been hit by a car – I was looking around to find how a car could have gotten into our barnyard when I realized that the ram was coming at me for a second hit. My son saved me, and I didn’t walk for four days.  Not all shepherds are so lucky – I have known people who have been killed by their rams. Always, always know where they are and what they are doing – even when they are sweet and mellow, as ours normally are….

11:09 am | link          Comments Friday, January 22, 2010 Slam, bam, thank you, Ma’am…?

When I fed last time, I noticed that both the rams up on the ridge and the ewes near the barn needed more of their salt/mineral mix, and I had none already pre-mixed in the barn. I had enough time this morning to mix the salt with the di-cal and the “Sheep Blend” (purchased from Bear Lake Enterprises, Inc. in WI), so I got it all together and decided to fill up both feeders.Filling the ewes’ salt feeder is relatively easy, since it is in the barn and there is no hay feeder nearby (meaning few sheep to bump me!). Ewes are relatively gentle, so I’m seldom concerned about my safety when working in their area. The rams’ feeder is something else, though. It is in the back corner of the rams’ shelter, with the hay feeder only a couple of feet away, and eight rams jostling around it. It’s a tight fit!Whenever I go into the ram area, I keep a close watch on each of the rams, both where they are and what they’re doing. Most of our boys are quite well behaved, but I have noticed over the past month or so that the biggest of the two new boys that we brought in during December is not to be trusted. He has made it a habit to rub his head on my leg, and at other times he comes up forehead-to-forehead when I am cleaning out the hay feeder – both of these are signs that the ram is way too comfortable around people and could ram, doing serious harm. We don’t keep dangerous rams, as a rule, so my plan has been to retrain him this spring to respect people and recognize a “bubble” around us that is out of bounds. If I can’t do that, he will go to auction – I don’t want to continue dangerous genetics.So, once I finished filling the salt for the ewes, I headed up to the rams to do the same to the feeder in the back of their shelter. As I started fillling that salt feeder, I was surrounded by rams at the hay feeder behind me, which was not unusual. Just as I dropped my salt-filling spoon and began to bend to pick it up, I was SLAMMED in the lower back and pushed into the shelter wall! Although it felt like I’d been hit by a truck, I knew immediately that it must have been a ram. I also knew that he was likely not finished with me – that I had better pull myself up and together because if I didn’t react appropriately, another hit was on its way! I quickly pulled myself up and turned with my salt bucket and spoon, just in time to see Fagin – our biggest ram (the one in the center of the photo below) and the one I have suspected this whole time of wanting to slam me – back up and paw the ground for another hit.rams_and_llama.jpgThere was no way I was going to let him hit me again.  I knew that he had to connect this hit with a very bad experience in order for me to have a chance of teaching him not to ram people. On the other hand, my back was in agony and my left knee had been rammed into the stud in the shelter wall and was swelling fast. As he came forward again, I used the bucket and started to hit him over the head and shoulders with it. Considering how hard a ram’s head is, the force that this bucket was applying to the ram was almost nothing (it was a plastic bucket, nearly empty), but it made LOTS of noise and created lots of chaos that scared him. When I finished, he was moving away, out of the shelter and away from me.In order for me to get out of the shelter myself, I had to pass right next to where he had decided to settle. As I moved that way, he turned and stared at me again, beginning to lower his head. Oh, no, I was not going to let him get away with that! So I started on him with the bucket again, yelling and making lots of loud noises to add to the pandemonium. He backed off and ran around the corner of the shelter to get away from the chaos. I thought I was surely safe now, but as I lifted the latch to the gate, I noticed that he was back out in the open and staring at me, lowering his head and pawing the ground.For one last time, I started at him with the bucket, and he once again ran around the corner of the building. As I hobbled my way through the gate, he gave me one last look, but as our eyes met, he looked away and backed up. Finally, the reaction I needed to get from him to show me he understood!So, here I am, battered and bruised, and moving very slowly. It’s incidents like this that reinforce the often-offered advice to never turn your back on a ram – ever! I have watched this ram for weeks, knowing that he had the desire to ram someone, and the one time that I dropped something and took my attention from him for literally seconds, he chose his moment to attack. I have known people who have been seriously injured and/or killed by charging rams. Believe it or not, I’m feeling pretty lucky right now – sore, but lucky…

11:04 am | link          Comments Wednesday, January 20, 2010 Ice everywhere!

We are in the midst of an ice storm this morning. It is supposed to leave us with more than a quarter-inch of ice over everything. At first I was thinking that maybe we would dodge the storm, but now there can be no doubt – there’s a thin coating of ice visible even from the house windows. Normally, ice is not a big problem for us – not nearly as bad as deep snow. As long as the sheep can remain indoors (to prevent falls this late in their gestation), our routine isn’t much affected. In general, ice can come and we just throw another log on the fire. Unless there is a power outage, that is. Broken power lines are an entirely different problem! When we lose power, we lose water: all of our waterers are fed from the well that provides water to the house. Without power, the well pump stops running and there is water for neither man nor beast. This late in their gestations, the group of ewes is drinking forty to eighty gallons of water each day – a lot of snow to melt next to the fireplace! I’ve read that sheep can eat snow if they don’t have water available, but they don’t eat enough snow to provide them with the water they would normally drink. Plus, the ice coating over the snow makes it even harder for them to get a mouthful. This is not a good situation this late in their gestation – we want them drinking and eating what they need to keep themselves and their lambs going! But so far, so good. The ice isn’t too thick, yet, and we still have power. I’ve filled the tub upstairs in case we do lose power and I need to haul water out to the barn. At this point, it is a matter of waiting to see what the afternoon brings…. So I guess I will just throw another log on the fire and relax – for now!

11:23 am | link          Comments Monday, January 18, 2010 Messy, messy sheep….

Ooooh, I dislike this time of year! There is fleece everywhere, and it drives me crazy. Everywhere I look, I see signs that it is time to shear…everywhere!Celeste_wool_blind.jpgFirst of all, there is Celeste. Celeste is a white Romney ewe with gorgeous, lustrous fleece, who has won many awards for her fleece at various shows across the country. She also has what is called a “closed face,” meaning that she has so much wool on her cheeks and nose that it closes off around her eyes and, at this time of year, it’s amazing that she can even see! (see photo left) For some reason, her lambs luckily don’t inherit this trait, but unfortunately, she still has to live with it. I sometimes trim the wool on her face for her, but we are now within two weeks of shearing and she can still see (believe it or not!), so I’m leaving her be until shearing – less stress that way, for her and for me! Every time I look at her, though, I wish we were shearing tomorrow – the overly wooly look that she gives me makes me crazy!Messy_Zoe_2010.jpgAnd then there is Zoe, and probably another dozen sheep who have the same issue that Zoe has: neck wool that is rubbing off and dragging down her front. (see photo on right) This looks really messy, and I hate to look at it. Sometimes, if I can get close enough while feeding, I will see if I can quickly remove some of it so that it doesn’t look so bad. This isn’t easy to do – you can’t just pull on it, because it is all matted and felted together into a very tough glob of wool and hay. To remove it, you need to grab it at the base and then again at the end and see if you can separate it somewhere in between. If I just pull at it, it will hurt the sheep – which is not good shepherding – so usually it stays right there until shearing…another very good reason to shear soon!The other messy problem that all the ewes share right now is that all of the exposed fleece looks a mess.  Thank goodness, what is under their coats looks lovely, but the rest of the exposed fiber is covered in hay pieces, both small and large.  As I walk among the sheep, I am constantly picking pieces of green and golden plant matter from the tops of their heads and the backs of their necks.  It is a futile project – there is just way too much of it for my little bit of picking to make any difference, but I just can’t help it!  It looks a mess and I can’t just walk past – so I pick!frosty_fibers_fence.jpgSome of the ewes have lost bits of that fleece hanging from their necks on their own. I find tufts in the feeders, and either tufts or stringy fibers on the fences where they have rubbed. In fact, this morning we had a thick hoarfrost covering everything – including the fibers clinging to the fences! I never before noticed how very many of our fences are covered with these stringy pieces of fiber! (see photo  left for hoarfrost on fibers)
So, I am waiting for shearing. Really waiting for shearing! I just want to have it all sheared off and start all over again. Clean the whole mess up, skirt all the fleeces to nice clean and tidy bundles of gorgeous fiber and have my nice, tidy sheep back again. Boy, am I happy we are shearing soon! It can’t come soon enough for me!

3:28 pm | link          Comments Friday, January 15, 2010 A surprise in the chicken coop!

Most days, I’m fairly present in the moment when I feed the sheep and chickens, enjoying their company and their antics. On other days, I’m caught up in my own thoughts and I do my chores more automatically, as a well-patterned routine. That happened to be the case when I walked into the chicken coop on Wednesday afternoon to check the levels of their feed and water and then collect eggs, all the while thinking about the many other things I had yet to do that day. On my way into the chicken yard, I worked a bit on the gate – the snow had piled up so high in the last storm that we couldn’t close the gate – there was too much snow in the way. Because it was above freezing on Wednesday, I was able to easily clear the snow, which allowed the gate to close once again. This was a big relief to me, as I had been worried about raccoons and other animals making their way into the yard and then into the coop to steal our eggs and chickens. As usual, once I got into the chicken yard, the dogs were “helping” me in their own ways: Coda and Chance were running at full speed in an oval around the chicken fence (I am still not sure how that “helps”!), and Lisa stuck her head into the small chicken door to distract the rooster while I went in the large back door to do my job. I noticed that when I opened the large door, unlike most days, I was not met by the flock of sparrows that typically finds its way into the coop to eat the chicken feed. I was so distracted by my thoughts, I hardly took note. As I got into the coop, I did notice that three of the four nest boxes were empty – only the bottom left box had a chicken in it. Usually at this time of day, I encounter three or four boxes full of chickens, so I was a little surprised. There was still plenty of water and food in the coop, though, so I only had to collect the eggs and close up. As I went to gather eggs, I noticed that both the top boxes contained broken shells, and partially eaten eggs – not a good sign! I scolded the chickens about this bad habit that they seemed to have picked up, and moved to the other two nest boxes on the bottom row. There were no eggs in the right-hand box, so I reached into the left box to slide my hand under the chicken and pull out any eggs that she may have been warming. As soon as I got my hand into the box, I heard a hissing noise coming from within – this was no chicken sitting on eggs!  Chickens don’t hiss!! As I really looked into the box, I realised that I had reached my hand under an opossum!! Oh, my gosh! I pulled back fast and tried to figure out what to do! Opossums not only eat eggs, but they eat chickens, too! They have plenty of sharp pointy teeth, and this one was not shy in showing them off! I had to get him out of there! Opossum_in_box.jpgI thought maybe the sight of my dogs would scare him out, so I brought all three dogs over to the big door in hopes that he would run out the small chicken door – but, no, he had no interest in leaving. I ran into the house to call Rick, who was on his way back from out of state – he suggested I call a trapper that we know.  Unfortunately, the trapper whose card I had on the ‘fridge had died, and his wife knew of no one who did that kind of work. Now what was I supposed to do? I called the Humane Society, but they were closed until Friday. I was kind of at a loss as to who else to call…. I finally called the dispatcher at the sherrif’s office – she suggested I call the DNR contact.  Unfortunately for me, he was not taking any calls “for the foreseeable future,” according to his voicemail. I was back at square one…. So I thought maybe I could convince the opossum to leave – or maybe he had already left. When I left the chicken coop to make phone calls, I kept the chicken yard open in hopes that he would decide there was too much activity and leave – but no such luck. When I got back out there to close things up, he was still there. So I decided to try to scare him off myself and got a broom. I spent some time sweeping at him and poking into the box, trying to chase him out, but he was determined to stay. Frustrated, I went back to call sheriff’s department dispatch again. This time, she sent out two officers to help. possum_removal.jpgI have to admit that I felt pretty silly taking two officers from their normal duties to come and deal with my opposum, but they took it all in stride and within a few minutes of their arrival, they had removed the opposum from the chicken yard and carried him across the street, where they released him into the wild. Our hope is that he won’t get back in because the gate is now closed and latched. I only hope he isn’t into ‘breaking and entering’! I did learn a lesson, though…. From now on, I plan to make sure that my mind is fully present before I stick my hand (or any other part of me!) near any animal. I can still hear the opposum’s startled hiss as I tried to reach under him for an egg!

10:33 am | link          Comments Wednesday, January 13, 2010 What is pregnancy toxemia in sheep, and why do I care?

One of a shepherd’s concerns near lambing time is the possibility of pregnancy toxemia in the ewes. We’ve been lucky – and maybe a bit smart – in that we’ve avoided this problem during the past few years. The basic issue is that, with the ewe nearing the end of her gestation, she’s not able to take in enough nutrition to both support the growth of her lamb(s) and maintain nutrition for her own bodily needs. When this happens, the ewe’s body begins to break down its own reserved fats. When these fats are broken down at a high enough rate, toxins are released into the bloodstream and the ewe suffers from pregnancy toxemia.  If it gets bad enough, it can be fatal to the ewe and the unborn lambs. Usually, this problem comes up in ewes carrying twins (it’s often called “twin’s disease”) or multiples, as they require more nutrition and there’s less space in the rumen (sheep’s stomach) for hay and feed. Often, the first sign of a problem is that the ewe begins to lose her appetite – which is obviously only going to worsen an already bad situation. The only way to totally solve this problem is to deliver the lambs – that way, the ewe’s rumen can again hold more feed, and the drain on the ewe’s reserves is reduced. The problem is that lambs that are born more than a couple of days premature are usually dead lambs. Unless the ewe is within just a couple of days of her due date (and you know this with some certainty), it is usually a better idea to treat the symptoms in hopes of making it to the end of her gestation. But treating the symptoms is not easy either…. We have successfully treated ewes with this condition before, and it takes a lot of time and patience. The best approach is to get the ewe eating again – and eating high-energy feeds. Initially, there is a solution (propylene glycol) that is energy-dense, and can be force-fed to the ewe every few hours to give her the boost she needs. Based on the reaction from several ewes, however, it must not be very tasty – it is always a battle to get it into them. When we force-feed propylene glycol, we do it with a very large syringe (without the needle) and squirt it into the back of the mouth where it triggers a swallow. You have to squirt very slowly so that it doesn’t go down the wrong way and choke the ewe – which means that it seems to take forever! The other problem is that propylene glycol reduces the desire in the ewe to eat – it makes them feel full – so, in a way, it is defeating the whole intent of getting her eating on her own again. We try to catch toxemia at the very beginning so that, hopefully, just a touch of the stuff will give her enough energy to eat for herself and turn the whole problem around. Otherwise, we may end up – as we did with Rosie years ago – feeding the stuff every few hours for four or five weeks until delivery. This is definitely something we’d like to avoid…. The way we try to thwart toxemia altogether is to ultrasound our ewes to know about how many fetuses they are carrying and then feed them accordingly, making sure that those with multiple fetuses get feed that is densely packed with the energy and nutrition they need. We watch carefully every time we feed to make sure that all of the ewes are running to the feeders to eat. Any ewe who moves slowly or seems disinterested is separated from the flock with a “friend” (sheep can become depressed if separated from other sheep – they are flock animals and need at least one friend with them) and fed in their pen where there is less competition for feed. Usually, this move will bring back their appetite to the point that they can be released back with the flock only a few days later. If the same problem comes up a second time for the same ewe, we get her eating again and then provide extra grain for her in a bucket after all of the flock is finished with their grain.  The last thing we want is a toxemic ewe! We are now in the last month of gestation for many of our ewes, so we are just coming into the high-risk season for toxemia.  When I fed yesterday, I had to laugh to myself when I saw so many big, old ewes – who are carrying fifteen to twenty pounds of fleece plus two or three fetuses within their bellies – come running out of the barn, kicking up their heels at the thought of the grain that I carried.  So far, I’d say they all look fine….

12:03 pm | link          Comments Monday, January 11, 2010 Winter lessons learned

Winter_sunset.jpgWe are definitely in the dead of winter now, and when I look outside at the accumulated snow, it makes me think of the many lessons we have learned about dealing with the ice, snow, and cold during this season on the farm. You have to remember that Rick and I are both “town kids,” having grown up in (Rick) and around (Dee) the city of Detroit, Michigan. How to get through the winter on our acreage with minimal problems concerning our farm animals has taken some learning- and believe me, we’ve had our share of mistakes! Like the winter we decided to push all of the “extra” snow into piles along the fencelines – once the snow and ice began to melt, the piles acted as dams and caused the snow-melt to back up behind the piles, flooding the barn and lean-to with over six inches of dirty water – right at lambing time! The worst part was that we knew this entire problem was our fault! If we hadn’t blocked the drainage with piles of snow, it would all have been fine…. We now move the snow well away from the barn – to prevent the flooding, and also to keep the piles from slowly closing us in as the winter progresses. We’ve learned to use straw bales to build wind-break walls during blizzards (as I did last Wednesday), keeping the bulk of the wind and snow outside our shelters. After losing one of the automatic waterers under snow drifts for weeks, we now flag them to keep track of their locations, even when they’re under the snow. Speaking of losing things, over the years we’ve begun to count sheep each time we feed so that we know we have them all accounted for…. We don’t want to lose one because it fell asleep outside and was covered by a drift, or became caught somewhere and couldn’t rejoin the flock. We’ve also learned to shear in January before lambing (even though it’s really cold) so that the ewes feel the cold and come into the barn to deliver their lambs – preventing “lambsicles” frozen to the ground. The added benefit is that the lambs are born an average of two days later and two days bigger, making for higher survival rates. With much trial and error, we’ve decided to feed bred ewes in the early afternoon because we found that doing so will prevent middle-of-the-night lambs – which eliminates the need for middle-of-the-night barn checks: a big plus for the warm and toasty sleeping shepherdess!  We’ve learned to always keep plenty of food on hand – cat, dog, chicken and sheep – since it’s really hard to run to the store or get delivery when it’s icy or snowing.  We’ve also learned to clear the driveway after every snow – even if another snow is coming in just hours – because you never know if you’ll have an emergency and need to get out – or get help in – despite deep snow. And most important of all, we’ve learned that no matter how bad things seem at the moment – broken tractor, snow at wading depth, ice everywhere, loud animals insisting on food even though they still have food in their feeders (!) – if we just continue to do the best we can and keep moving forward, spring is just around the corner and we’ll get through.  I have to smile….  After weeks of sub-zero temperatures and snow everywhere, the sun is out and the snow is melting a bit – a very encouraging sign….

11:33 am | link          Comments Friday, January 8, 2010 Reading about Christmas trees

I do a lot of reading. I guess I’ve always read a lot, but several years ago I started reading a whole lot more. I was in a truck roll-over in December 2005 and still need to rest my back for hours each day, so I read for much of that time. It makes the time pass more quickly if I have the right material to delve into. I have a variety of interests, but one of my favorites is sheep-raising.All types of sheep topics interest me – color and pattern inheritance, the inheritance of horns, management, nutrition, predator control – well, you get the idea. The problem is that I read so much that when I do run across something intriguing or useful, by the time I try it out and realize that it was good information, I often can’t remember where I read it.That’s exactly what has happened with my Christmas tree information. Somewhere, at some point in the past year, I read that evergreens contain trace minerals and other nutrients that are beneficial to sheep. I put that together with the fact that we throw our live Christmas tree away each year and decided that, this year, we would try feeding it to our sheep.Now, don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I chopped it up and put it in their feed trough. I just decided that when we were done with the fresh-cut tree this year, we would get it out of the house before it was all dried up and then tie it to the fence in the sheep area to see what would happen.  According to other reading I’ve done (BEHAVE by Utah State University), sheep try new foods by taking just a nibble or two and then waiting to see how it settles with their digestion. If the new food doesn’t digest well or causes problems, they will not try it again, but if all goes well, the next time they will try a bit more. This continues until they eat the new food as part of their normal diet.Well, Christmas tree is definitely a new food to my flock – any kind of evergreen would be new, as a matter of fact. This year, we bought a Frasier fir; thinking ahead, I thought the softer needles might be easier to chew up and digest once we moved it into the sheep area. We put the tree up in the house on the weekend before Christmas, and it came down two weeks later, still holding its needles.Christmas_tree_2009.jpgAs soon as we got it out of the house, we tied it to the board fence and waited. Every day I checked the tree as I fed the sheep and, for several days, they hardly looked at it. I was fairly convinced either that my sheep did not need the evergreen’s nutrients or that sheep just didn’t eat evergreens, because day after day there was no change. This was fresh feed – not dried hay…. They should have gone for it!Then suddenly on Wednesday afternoon, after four days of being strapped to the fence, the tree seemed to be a bit smaller than I remembered. For a more accurate record, I took a photo on Wednesday (left) so that I could compare this slightly smaller tree with what it would look like on Thursday or Friday.sheep_chewing_Christmas_tree.jpgWhen I got up yesterday morning and made my way to the bathroom without my contact lenses, I noticed that the tree (which I could see from my bedroom window) seemed really big…. It turned out that, once I got my contacts in, what I thought was the larger tree was actually the same tree with several sheep around it, eating its needles! (see photo at right) They were/are definitely enjoying the taste of Christmas tree!So now, here I am, watching my sheep finish devouring this Christmas tree and wondering where on earth I’d read about sheep eating evergreens – and why I never thought to try this before! There is so much information out there to help us in our lives – whether or not we have sheep. The internet is full of information – but how can we tell the good stuff from the crazy stuff or the just-plain-wrong stuff? I wish I knew because, as I mentioned in the beginning of this posting, I do read a lot. The only way I have found to separate the good from the not-so-good is to use my common sense and then to carefully try it and hope things don’t go too wrong.  I guess that, in the case of feeding Christmas trees, I’ve found another winner!

7:09 am | link          Comments Wednesday, January 6, 2010 Jumping rams and the tractor….

Well, now we have a problem, and it’s a big one.  Rick was outside in the extreme cold yesterday, moving snow in the ram area, and the tractor quit.  Now, let me say right off: moving that snow drift was a must – the drift was tall enough that the rams could climb it on their side of the enclosure and then hop over the remaining foot of fence to get to the high-octane ewes’ side (holding the ewes who get much more hay and grain because they are carrying multiple fetuses). This is not a good thing, for several reasons.  First of all, the rams who have found their way over the fence only need about half the feed that the ewes are getting, so if I leave them on the ewe side, the ewes will get less than they need and these rams will get much more.  I don’t have to worry that the rams will breed any of them because they are all already bred, and due next month.  But that leads us to the next problem….  The ewes are all due next month, and additional stress at this time could cause them to miscarry – something we really want to avoid!  The last thing these ewes need is a frantic 300-pound ram jumping all over them, trying to breed ewes who are already bred!  The rams being over there is not a good thing…. So, we tried just moving them back with their rammy pals and calling it a day – but that didn’t work.  Sheep may not be hugely smart, but they aren’t stupid!  These rams have found a way over the fence into an area with lots of food and girls – what more could they ask for?!  So as soon as we moved them back, they immediately jumped the fence again.  That meant that, before we moved them back another time, we had to dig the drift away from the fence – at least a couple of feet back, so that the rams couldn’t stand on it and run or jump over to the other side.  So, Rick went digging with a variety of tools: the basic snow shovel, the typical snow-blower, and the hugely useful tractor with drag blade and front-end loader. drift_2009.jpgThat’s when problems started….  The snow-blower wouldn’t cut into the drift because it was too icy and packed down.  He pulled the tractor into the area, and as he pulled out to get a better angle, the tractor died.  It cannot be restarted.  This is really bad!  Rick finished digging out the fence by hand, but now the tractor sits in the field, looking more like a monument than a piece of functional machinery, with wind chills below zero and no one who wants to go out there to work on it.  I wish we had the know-how to fix what needs fixing, but we need an expert, and the experts don’t want to come.  At least the drift is dug out (see photo, left) and I can put the rams back, but now we have to deal with the tractor…. Some of you might wonder why the tractor sitting there is such a big deal….  People lived for many years without tractors.  Well that may be, but here the tractor is nearly essential.  We are expecting five to eight inches of snow tonight, with blowing and drifting tomorrow. The tractor would have dug us out so that Rick could get to work and I could get to the grocery store (I have, instead, stocked up with groceries today, and Rick will have to take the four-wheel-drive truck to work tomorrow). By this weekend, the sheep on the ridge will need more hay, and we usually fill the hay storage building with fourteen bales of hay for them every weekend – with the tractor.  This weekend, it looks like we will be moving it up there through the drifts by wheelbarrow.  You can imagine our excited anticipation for that task! Within the next week or two, we also need to clean out the stalls in the barn in preparation for shearing at the end of the month – again, a task that is most easily done with the tractor.  We normally hand-shovel the dirty bedding and then use the front-end loader of the tractor to move all the soiled bedding from the lean-to out to the compost pile – this takes about ten loads.  If we need to do it with the wheelbarrow (as we did in the days before the tractor) through the drifts, it will take us at least thirty trips – most likely more – to clean that area.  Each load will weigh over a couple of hundred pounds.  Just the thought makes me want to go back to bed….stuck_tractor_2009.jpg So, the number one task on our list right now is to get the tractor fixed (broken tractor photo on right).  We are busy calling every place and any place that might have someone who could/would come out to fix the problem for us.  I pray that, before long, the tractor will be back up and running, and we can again not care at all where we last saw that darn wheelbarrow….

1:09 pm | link          Comments Monday, January 4, 2010 Busy, busy, busy…

The next few weeks will be very busy for us.  Not only do we have to get ready for shearing at the end of the month, but very shortly after that, we expect to begin delivering over fifty-five lambs!  Shearing always marks the beginning of lambing season for us – it is healthier for the ewes and for their unborn lambs to shear them before the end of their gestation.  It is also better for the fleeces we sell: the stress of delivery can, at times, cause a weakness in the fiber at that point in time.  If we shear very near delivery, the weakness will be at the very tip of the new fleece where it cannot cause the problems that a weakness in the center of the staple would cause. shearing_floor.jpgSo, shearing comes first. This year, we have Mason Kolbet scheduled to come out on Saturday, Jan. 30th, to shear thirty-nine breeding ewes.  Before he comes, we need to clear the shearing floor.  Because we use every bit of space to the max, our shearing floor has been our straw and hay storage area for the past month or so. All of the bits of straw and hay that fell to the floor will need to be cleaned up (and the last few bales removed) and the straw that has been stored in one of the stalls will need to be moved into the loft. cluttered_barn.jpgAll of the clutter that has accumulated since October (see photo at right) will have to be moved to make room for the shearing crowd. We will have at least a dozen people here to help with shearing, and our entire barn only measures 24’x40′ – not a lot of space for forty sheep and a dozen people, all moving around!  The stalls will need to be cleaned at least a week before shearing (you never want fresh bedding down for shearing – it sticks to the fleece and contaminates the final product!) so the weekend of Jan. 16th has been set aside for that task. Cleaning stalls then will keep the floors clean enough that the volunteers’ boots won’t be a mess, but the bedding won’t stick to the fleeces, either. All the coats waiting for mending will need to be sewn up and returned to their bins in the barn.  The coats the animals are now wearing will be removed at shearing and thrown into the hamper to be brought into the house for washing and mending.  Once sheared, the animals will be fitted with a fresh coat – that means that forty animals will shed forty coats for cleaning and mending, and then will be fitted with forty fresh coats from the bins.  We will need every single coat we have to be able to get every sheared sheep into a clean coat!  I plan on finishing the mending of coats today, if all goes according to plan. At shearing, we place each shorn fleece into an old, clean bed sheet (oh yeah, I need to count our shearing sheets, too, to make sure we have forty!) with a card identifying the source-sheep stapled to a corner of the sheet.  We then tie the sheet into a bundle to be brought into the house for skirting.  We need to print two copies of these cards before we shear: one to be stapled to the sheet, and the other to be kept with the skirted fleece, for photos. In addition to cards, before shearing we put together a packet of Zip-loc bags for fleece samples.  We send away both “side” and “britch” samples for each new ewe in our flock, once she reaches one year of age. Each bag must be labeled with information specific to that animal, and we make sure that all bags are ready to send out for testing as soon as the sample is sheared.  This year, we will be testing seven animals (five new and two repeat), making for a packet of fourteen bags to label before then. And finally, we will need to put together a team of volunteers to help with shearing.  We have so little space in the barn in which to move during shearing that we do not allow “sight-seeing” unless the person is willing to help in some way with shearing – there is just no space for onlookers! We usually plan for a dozen people: the two of us and ten volunteers.  Typically, we end up with people who come for a variety of reasons: friends who like to work with sheep, spinners who want to see the fleeces as they come off the sheep, kids who typically come to help with our sheep throughout the year, etc.  Luckily, we never seem to have too much trouble getting together enough people to help with shearing! So, our goal now is to prepare for shearing at the end of the month.  Much of what we do here on the farm this month will be geared towards that and towards lambing, which comes shortly after.  This is a really busy time of year for us, but also exciting: first, we get to see all of the fleeces that we have been guessing about for the entire year, and then we get to see the new lambs!  What fun!  I wouldn’t trade it for anything….  Maybe that’s why, after nearly ten years, my flock is still growing, and I still happily schedule my life around this flock of sheep.

10:51 am | link          Comments Friday, January 1, 2010 Happy (Cold) New Year!!

cold_winter_clothes.jpgThe New Year came creeping in with cold, cold temperatures last night. Although the sheep are warm in their big wooly coats, the rest of us shiver and search for more clothing to try to keep warm. The temperatures have dropped from highs in the 20s to single digits, and lows well below zero – and the wind-chill makes it feel even colder! This morning, we finally decided it was time to break out the very-cold-weather gear, including the one-piece Carhartt’s and the snowmobile boots. You can compare the photo at right with the one taken about a month ago in Dec. 2nd’s blog – things are much more crowded in our laundry room now! Usually, the biggest problem we face in this type of weather is keeping fingers and toes warm – you can pile more and more clothing on the rest of the body, but there is only so much you can put on your hands and still work with them, or on your feet and still walk without tripping.  We do what we can, but in the end, we always come back in with nearly-frozen fingers and toes! rams_fog_breath.jpgWhen it gets this cold, it can be really hard to get good photos, too. You can see why when you look at one of the pictures I took of the rams in the stall the other day (left): I eventually had to hold my breath to prevent the condensation that you see in this photo from interfering with the picture I finally posted.  Speaking of condensation, by the time Rick comes in from outside, his mustache looks like something Frosty the Snowman would wear – totally frosted over with condensation from his breath! The cold weather can get to the sheep, too. We don’t see that too much with the ewes, who are currently in full fleece and scheduled for shearing at the end of the month. The issue is more often with the rams this time of year.  Some of them were just sheared in October, and they have much less protection against the cold. Because of that, we feed them a bit more hay to get their rumens (stomachs) working more, which then produces more body heat. I often worry about wind-chills below -20F and frozen ear tips, etc., but have never had a problem with them – likely because we do provide at least a wind-break for every group. For us, the New Year marks the beginning of the last “trimester” of gestation for many of our ewes, which means a change in their feed. Most of the fetuses’ growth occurs in this last six weeks of gestation, so we need to provide the ewes with nutrition to support that growth. They all really love this aspect of the coming of the New Year, even though they don’t recognize the calendar….  The “high octane” ewes on the ridge (ewes carrying triplets or more, or ewe lambs who are bred and still growing themselves) are today being switched over to an alfalfa/grass mix hay that has about 15.5% protein, while the rest of the bred ewes will move to an alfalfa hay with about 13.5% protein. This is an increase of about 2% for each group – for now! Once we get to mid-February with lambs beginning to arrive, we will again improve the hay (for all bred ewes) to a higher-quality alfalfa that measures about 17.5% protein – necessary for them to produce enough high-quality milk for fast lamb growth, whether they have twins or triplets. So, the New Year brings with it some changes for us, in both weather and sheep management. It also signals the need to begin getting ready for our busiest time of year: shearing, followed by lambing. We are currently scheduled to shear at the end of the month, and the lambs begin coming within two weeks after. If we are not caught up with all of our sheep tasks by the end of January, we know we won’t catch up before summer – it gets that busy around here! On Monday, I’ll give you an idea of what we need to complete to be ready, and how our spring usually unfolds. Meanwhile, let’s take some time to celebrate the coming of another year, and all the promise that it brings. From all of us here at Peeper Hollow Farm, we wish you a safe, healthy, and happy New Year – with, hopefully, a bit of warmth!

10:32 am | link          Comments Wednesday, December 30, 2009 Big little Genoa

Genoa_Dec_2009.jpg

Genoa is not typically a very big Romeldale ewe.  She and her twin sister, Gem, have the genetics to be larger, but they were a surprise birth in late June 2007, and our summer lambs always end up a bit stunted: too many parasites and flies, and too little attention from the shepherdess (who is off to fiber festivals at that time of year).  So we know that their lambs can be good sized, but Genoa and Gem, themselves, are relatively small.  Most of our Romeldale ewes are currently wearing a size 40 coat (measuring from back of neck to tail), and typically, so are Gem and Genoa – but theirs are loose when compared to the normal snug fit of the others’ this time of year.So, when I noticed that Genoa’s coat was snug the other day, I was a bit surprised.  Now, I need to explain that Genoa is up with the “high octane” ewes – those ewes who are getting a much higher level of nutrition because they are carrying triplets or more.  Genoa is one of the two ewes who could possibly be carrying more: her ultrasound indicated at least three fetuses.  She is still about seven weeks from delivery, though, so the lambs should not be too big, yet.  The final six weeks in a sheep’s gestation is similar to the final trimester for humans – it’s a time of phenomenal growth for the fetus, and that’s when we see the girls begin to get really round.Since Genoa, however, still has those seven weeks ahead of her, I was quite surprised to notice that her size 40 coat was getting snug.  She normally does not have enough fleece to snugly fill a size 40 coat.  When we got the chance this morning, we grabbed the next size (44) and went to catch her in order to switch out the tight one. Usually, when the sheep outgrow their coats due to wool growth, they outgrow both the length and the width – it basically gets small all over. But once we had Genoa there in front of us, it became obvious that the length of the coat is not an issue at all.  This coat was small only in width.  All of the elastic on the sides had been totally stretched out and the sides of the coat had crept way up Genoa’s sides, obviously not enough fabric to get around her.This kind of thing just doesn’t happen!  Believe me, we have changed lots of coats in our years as shepherds, and our sheep just don’t outgrow coats in only one direction, never just through the middle.  But that is exactly what has happened to Genoa.  In fact, not only has she outgrown the size 40, but even the size 44 didn’t fit well – we needed to go to the largest size we carry – a size 48!  The size 48 gives her enough fabric to cover her around, but it actually has too much length for her.  Because she has so much fleece on her right now, we can make it work, but it started me thinking about what was going on with Genoa….I really don’t know for sure what’s happened this year as opposed to other years – causing Genoa to require such a large coat – unless it’s because of the number of lambs she’s carrying.  We’ve never before had such a small ewe require such a large coat, but we have also never before had a ewe carry more than three fetuses to term – perhaps that’s what has made the difference this time.  I did check to see if Genoa had gained so much weight that the extra circumference was due to fat, but her condition was good for this point in her gestation.  I wonder if, just maybe, she is carrying enough lambs to create the large size, even this early.  I don’t know….So, all we can do is wait and hope – hope that all turns out well, that this is not a bad omen for Genoa.  I hope that the number of lambs won’t overwhelm her body and that all will be delivered safely.  It doesn’t always turn out that way, but often enough, it does, and we can only hope that this is one of those times.  Keep thinking good thoughts for Genoa and her lambs….

11:49 am | link          Comments Monday, December 28, 2009 Bringing the rams together

It’s time to incorporate our two new rams into the ram flock. Actually, they could have been integrated a week ago if they had cooperated by supplying a fecal sample, but they didn’t, so they are still in the barn. You see, I need to verify that they are clean of internal parasites – or as clean as possible – before I turn them loose on our pastures. Sheep are almost never totally free of internal parasites.  When you buy a sheep, you are also buying the parasites that reside in the sheep. When you raise sheep on pasture, you are also raising sheep parasites in those pastures.  The idea is to do a great job raising sheep, and to do a poor job raising the parasites – giving the parasites little access to the things they need to multiply and grow. So whenever we bring new animals onto the farm, they go into quarantine for three weeks so that they don’t pass along any disease they may be carrying. They may be quarantined longer if we can’t clean them of internal parasites. If we let them go into our flock prematurely, these rams will be dropping their parasites’ eggs all over our pastures – parasites that we don’t know a great deal about because they are foreign to us and our fields. Right now, we know which dewormers are effective against our home-grown parasites, and we still have several choices for products to use. Many farms are not so blessed, though, in that they have parasites resistant to most, and sometimes all, of the choices for deworming. That’s when things get really tricky! So, I would rather deal with our own parasites than someone else’s, and we make sure that the incoming sheep test free of parasites before we turn them out into our own flock. The problem is that these two rams don’t want to give us a sample to test. For the past week, I’ve gone out to their stall once or twice a day with a zip-loc bag for each, waiting for at least one of them to drop a fresh sample – but no luck!  With no sample, they are still in the stall, and we wait. This is getting old, though.  Because they are in their own area, they must be fed separately each day.  We have to make sure that their water and salt are both available. It’s just extra work for us, and I don’t need more work!  So today is the day. I am going on out there and am going to wait for them to drop a sample for me…. {A couple of hours have passed since that last paragraph….} Well, I got my samples and both of the new guys are clean of internal parasites! I ran the test myself, and then, to be sure, I took it to my vet – this is the first time I have run the samples myself, and I wanted to make sure I did it correctly. Both tests agreed that the samples were clean, so the new rams can be incorporated in with our own ram flock. We can’t just put them into an area together, though. Rams fight to establish hierarchy by ramming each other. If the size difference is great or if they get a good run at each other, the bashing can become lethal. To protect our guys, whenever we introduce new rams, we move the entire group into a small area – just big enough for them to eat, drink, and lie down or stand up one-next-to-the-other. With such tight quarters, there is little bashing to be done, and the conflict is resolved mostly in pushing and shoving – not particularly dangerous to any of them. We leave them in that area until they seem to have the new hierarchy worked out; then we move them back to the ram area on the ridgetop. (Another break in time…..)rams_united.jpg This afternoon, we moved all the rams into the stall in the barn to work out their issues.  My first impression is that they won’t take too long to work things out – they seemed much more interested in the hay feeder than each other (see photo). If all goes well, tomorrow we’ll be able to move them back up to their shelter on the ridge – otherwise, they will get another day in the stall to work things out. Once they become one integrated flock, we can stop worrying about feeding two separate ram groups. Hooray for less work! Now, if we can just get to that point….

3:28 pm | link          Comments Friday, December 25, 2009 Merry Christmas!

Having strong European ties, we have always celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve in our family. We begin with a day-long fast, and then eat a traditional meal with all the family at the appearance of the first star. By this time, chores are done for the day, and we can relax with family and enjoy the time together. Christmas.jpgAfter our multi-course meal, we retire to the Christmas tree and the gifts, with the youngest family member handing out the packages under the tree. Unlike many families, we have traditionally opened the gifts one at a time, beginning with the youngest in the family. It takes a while to get through everyone, but in this way, we can all exclaim over each gift as the wrapping paper is torn away. By nine in the evening, all the gifts are opened and we sit and reminisce while, in most years, the children play with their new toys on their way to bed. There is an old superstition that at midnight on Christmas Eve, animals can speak to each other using human language.  For years, this thought intrigued our then-young children.  I remember giving permission more than once for a quick trip up to the barn at midnight to hear the animals talk in the darkness of the night.  Wouldn’t it be something if Harmony (Romney) could verbally greet me as I come to the paddock, or Gabby (Romeldale) could ask whether I had brought apples with me rather than just search through each of my pockets?  Although I am obviously no longer a child, the thought still fascinates me each Christmas. Perhaps that is the point to keep in mind at this time of year: that regardless of our ages, at Christmastime we lose our sense of the impossible and become like children, seeing what could be or might be, rather than what can never be.  On this Christmas Day, my no-longer-talking sheep and I wish all of you, young and old, near and far, a very merry Christmas, and a child-like anticipation of possibilities.  To quote Dickens’ Tiny Tim, “God bless us, every one!”

10:48 am | link          Comments Wednesday, December 23, 2009 Predicting the weather

We are a family that watches the weather forecast on TV like clockwork.  Three times each day, we are glued to the TV….  Our local stations are usually pretty good at letting us know what is coming – maybe not a week away, but they hit it pretty well when we look at the next few days.  It’s not that we can change what is coming, but I like to know what we can look forward to, and try to work our schedule around it.For example, for the last few days the weather forecasters in our area have been predicting rain, ice, sleet, and miserable weather beginning today and lasting through Friday or Saturday.  With our son, Justin, here for the week, we have been wanting to get out into the timber to cut down some dead trees and broken limbs. Youthful, strong, free labor is hard to pass up! So, based on the forecast, we bundled ourselves up and went out yesterday morning for a few hours.To be honest, I was really not in the mood yesterday to fight my way over snow drifts, just to get to a dead, broken down limb and point. Whereupon Justin sprang to action, climbing up the tree with the chain saw, and dropping the limb to the ground.  We did this over and over until I didn’t think I could climb another drift!  Thank goodness we removed most of the worst offenders: the dead branches near the ground that snag and tear the sheep’s coats.  Now, all we need to do in the spring is drag the downed limbs into a burn pile and burn them to ash.fence_icicles.jpgMeanwhile, the weather is living up to the many predictions of earlier this week: the driveway is covered in a thin coating of ice, there are icicles hanging from the fencing, and the sheep are miserable and soggy. They wander around the upper paddocks, looking for a good resting place to lie down and chew – a spot where they won’t slip or slide down the hill.Indoors, we are dry and merry, finishing the last-minute wrapping of packages and the cooking of our traditional foods; getting ready for our household celebration of Christmas on Christmas Eve, and then again on Christmas Day.  According to the forecasters, the weather will give us a window of higher temperatures and melted ice this afternoon, just enough time for the rest of the family to slip in before it all gets slippery yet again.  We have plenty of food, gifts, and good cheer, as well as an assortment of beds for those not willing to fight the weather to head home for the night.  What more could we ask for?

10:40 am | link          Comments Monday, December 21, 2009 Little miracles

It’s beautiful and white outside today.  Sunset_farm.jpgWe got another two inches of snow yesterday, covering everything with a clean, white blanket of fluff.  It was already snowing when I awoke, and I noticed the ewes still lying in the paddock behind the house were all covered in white, while the ones already up had shaken clean and were working on the hay in the lean-to.  Although the common sounds from birds and sheep could be heard, everything was rather hushed by the new coating of frozen white. Yes, it was Sunday, but work on a farm cannot skip a day. Animals still need to be fed.  Eggs still need to be collected. Although we make time in our day for worship at church on Sundays, I often wonder whether the worship in the routine of our days doesn’t mean more….  Seldom do I feed the sheep and not marvel at the goodness of our lives with them as they contentedly chew their hay. It seems that, daily, I find myself giving thanks for the small hidden blessings that are mine to find as I go about my chores feeding and watering: the new batch of kittens born in the loft (but yet unfound), eyes still closed, and mewing for their mother’s milk; the ewe who comes from the rest of the flock to nuzzle my hand, looking for a piece of apple or carrot; the chicken who nervously allows me to reach under her in the nest box for her egg, without pecking my hand away; the swallow’s nest built inside one of the barn stalls that still holds broken eggshells from the last hatchlings, long gone. These are the routine happenings on a farm that, for me, are far from routine.  I could go through my daily chores so focused on what there is to do that I miss these treasures – but that would be such a loss! These small daily miracles are the reasons that I choose to work as I do rather than in an office in town.  As a degreed engineer, there are many options open to me, but this is my choice.  I head to my “job” today, up the hill behind the house; I pause and listen to the quiet of the blanket of snow, and the crunch of my boots and the sheep’s hooves on the ice below and wonder at the many little miracles that await me.

11:43 am | link          Comments Friday, December 18, 2009 Juggling triplets and quads….

Having ultrasounded our ewes earlier this week, we did end up with a couple of interesting possibilities…. Two of our two-year-old Romeldale ewes ended up ultrasounding with “three plus” fetuses – a first for our farm! What this means is that rather than seeing only three fetuses in there – which, by the way, are plenty of lambs for any ewe! – Carol could easily count three, and had reason to believe that behind those she had already counted, there was another hidden fetus. So, they were “3+” in the records, and will hopefully give us at least three healthy lambs…. Hope_2006.jpgWe’ve had more than a few sets of triplets over the years, but have never had a set of quads. All of the triplets born here on our farm have been raised by their own dams – our ewes are chosen for strong mothering ability and good milk output, so there was no issue in having them care for three.  Four will likely be a different matter, though. When we see the possibility for four, I immediately look at our lambing schedule to see if there is another ewe due shortly after the possible quads  who is carrying only a single lamb and might possibly adopt one of the four, giving her twins to raise.  This would divide the lambs more equally among the ewes and allow each one of the lambs to have access to enough milk for good growth. The other option would be to bottle feed the largest of the lambs.  The problem with this is three-fold: bottle feeding is costly, time consuming, and often results in smaller lambs.  Small lambs can have lambing problems when mature, so we avoid bottle feeding unless we have to.  Also, in the first days of life, lambs must be fed every couple of hours around the clock, and the milk replacer is not inexpensive.  Overall, a lamb is far better off with a ewe as opposed to a bottle, so adoption becomes the favored option. Adopting a lamb out to another ewe is not always easy.  Ewes bond strongly to their own lambs during the birthing process, and are usually unwilling to share their own lamb’s milk with an “interloper.”  We have had success, though, in placing an orphaned lamb with another ewe if we introduce the lamb to the new ewe when she is in labor, pushing out her own lamb.  We wet the existing lamb with fluids from the coming lamb and tie three of its legs together (so that it has trouble standing up – like a newborn lamb).  We place this older lamb just under the ewe’s nose as she is pushing her own lamb out; usually she will accept the introduced lamb as her own, and then welcome her own lamb as well. You can get into trouble doing this, though, if it turns out that the laboring ewe has multiples, herself.  That is why we look for a ewe who ultrasounded with only a single….  An additional lamb to make twins will not be a problem for her, and it is unlikely that we missed two lambs in the ultrasound, so she will have twins, or at most triplets (if we missed one) – both of which she should be able to handle. In Genoa’s case, her ultrasound this week indicated “3+” and she is due on Feb. 25th.  It turns out that Hailey, one of our Romney ewes, is also due that same day with only a single.  If she delivers after Genoa, Hailey may be in a position to adopt one of Genoa’s lambs if Genoa has quads. In Georgia’s case, however, we have a bigger problem – Georgia is one of our first ewes to deliver, and all of the other ewes due near the same date are carrying twins.  Deciding how best to handle her situation will take some thought. Thank goodness we have another couple of months to consider how best to handle Georgia’s lambs when they come! These next couple of months will be filled with preparations for lambs: shearing, sorting, setting up lambing jugs (pens), etc.  On Monday, I will explain why it is that we shear in the dead of winter – January – for the sake of the ewes, their fleeces, and their lambs!

12:16 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, December 16, 2009 Counting our chickens – um, make that lambs – before they hatch….

We had been waiting for this day for nearly three weeks, and it finally came.  I got a call Monday evening from our ultrasound technician to schedule the ultrasound of our breeding ewes.  This is not something that we have always done, but found several years ago that it gives us an incredible amount of useful information that we would otherwise not get in such a timely fashion.  So when she called and said that she could come Tuesday afternoon, I jumped on it!  I called around for kid “helpers” and called her back to confirm.ultrasound_area.jpgGetting ready for the ultrasounding is pretty easy.  I just don’t feed the sheep at my normal time (because they need to be empty for the equipment to work well), and instead confine them all to the lean-to on the side of the barn.  When Carol, the technician, gets to our place, she sets up her equipment in the same confined area and we’re ready to go.The process is basically this: the kids are given the eartag number of the sheep to be scanned, which they find and drag/walk over to the equipment.  They hold the sheep next to Carol while she positions the hand-held part of the ultrasound unit just in front of the ewe’s back legs (where the fleece is thinnest) on her belly.  It takes just a few seconds for Carol to give me the fetal age and the number of fetuses being carried by that ewe, which I then record, and then the ewe is released as we move our attention to the next sheep.  It took us less than an hour to ultrasound thirty-nine sheep, at which time we moved into the warmth of the house for pizza and hot cocoa!The very small inconvenience and cost of the ultrasound are worth the important information it provides. Since we now know both the number of fetuses and their fetal age, we can  divide the ewe flock according to the nutritional needs for their gestation – saving on feeding costs for those carrying only one fetus or for those ewes who are open (unbred).  Also, knowing the stage of gestation confirms the accuracy of our due dates based on the rams’ marking harnesses.  This year, we had no surprises as to due dates; but we did have three ewes for whom we had no markings recorded, yet it turned out that they were each carrying one or two fetuses – a good thing to know as we near the end of gestation and nutritional levels rise quickly!With only that limited information (number of fetuses and length of gestation), we can also draw other important conclusions.  As I looked at the results last night, I noticed that we had six open ewes, and many of them were bred to the same ram lamb.  After a bit more checking, I found that all of our open ewes were in the same group with the same ram lamb – he bred only one third of his small group of ewes over the five weeks of the breeding season.  Because of his poor track record, he will be sent to the auction next week, saving me the cost of feeding him through the rest of the winter – another cost savings coming from the ultrasounding.Because we now know the number of fetuses being carried by each ewe, we can also estimate the number of lambs expected for each breed this spring, giving us important information about how long a waiting list we might be able to handle.  In spring 2010, we expect somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-three Romney lambs and thirty-one CVM/Romeldale lambs, for a total of about fifty-four lambs.  That is about twenty Romney lambs fewer than we had hoped, before we knew our ram lamb didn’t do his job.The last helpful aspect of ultrasounding is the fact that, once lambs begin to come, we have some idea of how many to look for.  For example, when Genoa goes into labor and delivers a nice pair of twins and then seems to stop pushing, I know to check her to see if there is a problem – Genoa is carrying at least three fetuses and maybe four. She should not be giving up after two, so I will know to keep checking her and help if she needs it.  Knowing the number of fetuses allows me to continue monitoring the delivery until all lambs are born, even if there is a long break between deliveries.So, our flock is now ultrasounded and ready for these last weeks of gestation.  In the next couple of weeks, we will begin dividing the flock into groups by needed nutrition, and then eventually by due dates.  Our first lambs begin to come around Valentine’s Day, and the last will come at the end of March.  It won’t be long now….

10:22 am | link          Comments Monday, December 14, 2009 Doing chores and finding the waterer….

Well, good news!  Rick dug the snow up around the sheep most of the day Saturday and then again yesterday, and not only did he remove enough snow so that the sheep can move around and walk out into their pastures again, but he also found the lost waterer!  It was, of course, just where we had left it before the storm since it resides in a concrete culvert that is set about seven feet down into the earth.  It obviously had not moved. but with the disorientation of losing all of our usual landmarks , including some fences (since they had all slipped beneath the heavy snow), we just could not find its exact placement.  This is not the first time that we’ve lost the waterer, so I have finally learned from my experience and am on my way to the toy store to buy one of those tall flags for bikes – and, now, for our waterers!
As of today, I’m back to doing the chores myself – the first time since the arthroscopic knee surgery on November 18th.  Our chores are pretty simple, but do take some time.  First, I make sure that our cat feeder in the barn still contains enough dry cat food for another day.  If not, I fill it back up.  A full feeder will feed our barn cats for about three days or so, depending on the weather and their hunting/hunger.  There are about a dozen cats in the barn right now, and we hope to keep it that way.  In the near future, we will be catching the cats for a trip to the vet for spaying or neutering, but that is another story for another day….After the cats have been fed, I move on to the sheep.  We currently have sheep in four different areas: Zoe and her “little girls” share the lean-to at the hillcrest with the flock of rams.  There is a divider that splits both the lean-to and the paddock to keep the two groups separated.  Below that, near the barn, are all the adult ewes, and quarantined in the barn are the two new rams from Ohio.  Zoe’s group numbers six; there are ten rams out and two more in quarantine, and a total of thirty-three ewes.Because the adult ewes are closer to the barn, I begin with them….  We currently have one whole section of the first floor of the barn being used to store grass hay.  Because the ewes eat three to four fifty-pound bales each day, the pile is shrinking quickly.  The plan is to feed out all of the hay on the first floor by the middle of January.  When we first loaded it in during mid-November, I honestly thought I had made an error in my calculations – there was no way they would eat it fast enough to open the space for shearing!  I was wrong, though.  It is only mid-December and it is over half gone already….mobbed_ewe_feeders_2009_2.jpgSo, when I feed the ewes, I first move three or four of the fifty pound bales of grass hay into the bale feeders in the shelter on the west side of the barn.  I make sure I cut all the twine holding the bales together and pull them out to either trash or use later – leaving them in the fed bales allows for the possibility that pieces of the fiber will rub off into the fleeces, contaminating the wool.  It is better to be safe than sorry, so I always remove them.  As I finish with the ewes, I check to make sure their waterer bowl is still clean and that their salt feeder is flowing freely.  We use home-made salt feeders made of PVC pipe, and they work great except that when the air is damp or if it has been raining, I need to run a stick around in the opening to loosen the salt so it flows again.After the ewes, I move to the two rams confined in the barn.  They, too, get grass hay.  We used to feed them the appropriate amount each day, but they are housed in a stall in which we are also storing some hay – it is surrounded by several sheep panels.  Well, the rams figured out how to “self feed” through the panels and I can’t say that I mind.  With this new arrangement, I only need to check to see that their water bowl (in the waterer) is clean, and that their salt is flowing well.Next come Zoe and the young ewes: before leaving the barn, I measure out six pounds of grain for them.  Because they are young (or, in Zoe’s case, very old), they need more nutrition than the others, and the alfalfa hay they are getting is a very late cutting with not enough protein or energy for them – hence the grain.  When I enter the area, I pour their grain into a long trough – this keeps them focused on the trough and not on the hay feeder where I need to work.I move into the ram’s area, remove the grate at the top of their hay feeder, and then slip back to the little ewes’ area.  Because the little ewes can’t/won’t eat the alfalfa stems, I throw those over the partition into the rams’ feeder – the boys will eat them with no complaints!  I move another fifty-pound bale of alfalfa into the little girls’ hay feeder (every other day – they only need about twenty to twenty five pounds a day, with the llama), and then a fifty-pound bale of grass hay into the rams’ feeder on top of the alfalfa stems – they will get them as a treat after they have finished their grass.  After checking both of the salt feeders in these two areas, and making sure the girls’ waterer bowl is clean, I have only the rams’ waterer to deal with.The ram area is the only one that currently does not have an automatic waterer: we use a heated bucket, and fill it each day.  Every few days, we need to empty the bucket to remove all the comtaminants that work their way in (don’t even get me started on how that happens!), and then refill the bucket.  Once that is done, I can move on to the last stop on the chorelist – the chickens.In the summer and the very cold days of winter, we need to check the chickens for eggs at least twice each day: in the summer because they will spoil, and in the winter because they will freeze and break.  Whenever I check for eggs, I also make sure they have food in the feeder (which holds about thirty pounds), and water in the waterer(s).  In the winter, we use only one large waterer that we have to fill about every third day.  It sits on a heater in the coop to keep it from icing up.  In the summer, we actually use three waterers outside – they stay cleaner this way, and there is less hen-pecking to determine who gets priority at the water.  It seems very silly to us, but the chickens take this pecking order thing very seriously – you can tell who’s at the bottom of the order by looking at tail feathers.  The lower in rank, the fewer tail feathers…. So, all together, my chores take me about forty-five minutes if I just rush through them.  I don’t usually do that, though, as chores involve more to me than just getting the food, water, and salt to the animals.  It is also looking for illness or injury, and making sure the social interactions are status quo – major changes in socialization can signal health problems that are better off caught early.  So usually when I am doing chores, I do them at my own pace, talking to the sheep, taking photos, handing out apples, teasing this one or that one, and generally enjoying myself.  I wonder if the sheep enjoy the time as much as I do….  I’ll have to ask them next time I’m out there….

10:28 am | link          Comments Friday, December 11, 2009 We sure have a lot of snow…

Yes, we do. People in the city are complaining because the plows had to push much of the snow into windrows in the middle of the streets, planning to dig it up and haul it off in the middle of the night when there is less traffic.  Now, we don’t have that problem here in the country outside Marion – we have different snow problems.  Like, for one, we can’t find Zoe’s group’s waterer…. anywhere! I know it’s up there near the upper gate, but it’s totally under this snow, and we’re still trying to find it to uncover it for the girls. I have been told that sheep will eat snow if they have no reliable source of water – at least we have lots of that to keep them hydrated until we can find that #$%&* waterer! dogs_fetch_blizzard.jpgWe also have three border collies who are pretty much confined indoors right now – never a good thing! The problem is that we usually walk them around the acreage playing fetch at least twice daily to wear them down a bit. I don’t work them much this time of year – there is nowhere to move the sheep and since the sheep are bred, there is no point in introducing a dog if it isn’t necessary. That means that we need to exercise those dogs…. The field that we usually walk in has drifts at least four feet talll, so I am not really happy about walking there right now. All I could think to do is throw the frisbee from the garage and let them run through the drifts trying to bring it back. Even the truck bottomed out on the way out of the garage yesterday (see photo of the dogs laying in the garage door opening)! Running the dogs from the garage works OK for a while, but they won’t play that way long. That means that now our house is full of energetic dogs who don’t know how to use their “indoor voices”…. We also have other snow issues. We must, of course, plow ourselves out. The county takes care of plowing out the roads, but getting to that road is up to us. So, Rick got on the tractor yesterday and plowed out the driveway as far as the road.  It took him two hours and he was half-frozen, so he gave up plowing at that point.  Today, I am hoping that he will be able to snow-blow the walkways and plow out the sheep, but he may only get one of the two done.sheep_deep_snow.jpg I know – you are probably wondering about “plow out the sheep.” Let me explain…. When it snows heavily or we have drifting snow, the sheep tend to congregate near the barn or the building where they are fed hay. As the snow falls or drifts, they mill around that area, tramping down the snow in that small enclosed space. As more snow falls and drifts, they continue to keep the immediate vicinity relatively free of snow. That means that right at the edge of this area is – eventually – a wall or mound of snow that is much deeper than what they can walk over, so they end up penned into a small area about as big as a small paddock. They’ve been this way since late Wednesday when the winds backed down a bit – trapped by their own creation, actually. Having said that, I must admit that they have ventured out a bit today, trying to find low spots through which they can escape their incarceration, but they haven’t made much progress. What they really need is for Rick to warm up the tractor and plow an opening through the drifts so that they can move around – maybe get out and go for a bit of a walk! Whatever they decide to do with their freedom, they can’t do it until we release them from their own imprisonment, and hopefully, that will be this afternoon. As far as they are concerned, at this point they either need more hay (to make staying near the barn more entertaining) or a cleared path so  they can get out. When we feed in another hour or so, I hope they will get both! My biggest goal right now regarding snow is to punch a walkway through all the drifts between the house and all the places I routinely go: the chicken coop (the chickens are also under house arrest in their coop until we shovel them a way out – hopefully also today), the barn, the front door, etc. Usually, I just walk through the drifts and eventually I create a path with my feet. This year, though, I have a bad knee, and am constantly being reminded by well-meaning friends that I have to avoid doing all the things that inhibit the knee’s recovery.  Like feeding the sheep.  Or like bodily plowing through drifts.  I keep telling them that they are taking all the fun out of what I do, but they are probably right – that’s why I still have no path to those places…. So, for all the people complaining about the latest snow, I hear you, and I agree.  We have too much snow, and it’s creating issues for man and beast.  Hopefully, by the time you read this, we’ll have at least found that waterer….

1:57 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, December 9, 2009 It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…?!

It is not unusual, this time of year in eastern Iowa, to get a dusting of snow for a day or two.  Typically, it comes and very soon melts with little effort on our part.  As we drove home from Ohio on Monday, we encountered this kind of on-and-off snow, and arrived to find a bit of white between the grass blades – very much the norm for December in Iowa. What we have gotten since yesterday is definitely not the norm!  I noticed it beginning on Tuesday morning, when I awoke to find everything covered by a coating of white, fluffy snow.  When I say everything, I really do mean everything – sheep included!  You see, this time of year, most of our sheep (definitely all the breeding ewes) are in full fleece, meaning that many are carrying around twenty to twenty-five pounds of wool, with the fibers being anywhere from three to nine inches long! I’m sure you can imagine that if you were covered in a nine-inch-thick wool coat, with hat, gloves and boots to match, that you might not mind a bit of cold and snow….  It would probably be a welcome respite from the typical overheating that you feel at the milder winter temperatures!  At this time of year, with that much wool, most of our sheep are actually feeling hot – you can often see them panting like a dog to release the heat, and they almost never decide to sleep inside the lean-to (even though there is usually only a couple of degrees difference between the lean-to and outside!). sheep_in_morning_snow.jpg More typically, our ewes will find themselves a nice comfy place outside the lean-to, surrounded by their friends (the other ewes), and spend the night there.  That was what they did on Monday night.  When I awoke on Tuesday morning, there were mounds of snow in the paddock, under which were my sheep.  They would simply get up, shake off, and walk away!  If you look closely at the attached photo taken Tuesday morning, you can see one of the bare spots where one of the girls spent the night.  Just behind and to the left of the oval spot is Harmony, who – again, if you look closely – has not yet gotten up for the day, and is still covered with what is left of the night’s snow even though it had been melting for hours already!Snowy_blizzard.jpg We are due to have up to a foot of snow by the time this storm leaves us about the middle of today, with up to fifty mile an hour winds.  I am not a huge fan of snow, but I do like a bit of white cover for Christmas. As long as I don’t end up with an eight-foot drift between the house and the barn like we had most of last winter, I guess I won’t complain too much. When I took a photo out the front door (to the south) this morning, the whole world looked dark and covered in white – I couldn’t take a picture to the north because I could not keep the camera lens clear of snow! With just over two weeks before Christmas, I suppose a little snow helps set the mood – the problem is that we now have way more than just a little for mood! I guess you could say that it’s beginning to look a LOT like Christmas!

1:25 pm | link          Comments Monday, December 7, 2009 Thoughts from the road

I’m on my way home today after having driven to Ohio to pick up two Romeldale/CVM rams. I think I mentioned in a previous blog how important the right ram can be to a flock: essentially half of your flock genetics eventually come from your choice of ram, so it is important to choose carefully.  Although we weren’t specifically in the market for new rams, we always look if we hear one is available – you never know when a really great animal will come along with genetics unrelated to the rest of the flock.  In a rare breed like the CVM/Romeldales, that doesn’t come along all the time, and somehow even less often when you are looking! So we picked up two very nice-looking rams from our friend, Chris Spitzer, at Yellow Creek Cottage.  One of the two is a three-year-old ram originally from Washington, and the second is one of his sons born in 2009. When we travel to pick up animals, we have the choice of either bringing the two-horse trailer, or loading the “crate” in the bed of the pick-up truck. Obviously, if we can fit them into the crate, we do – the gas costs of dragging that trailer in two directions are not minor, while the added drag of the crate is very small. web_RAM_744_side.gifThe crate is not especially big.  It fits well in the bed of the truck, measuring about four by six feet.  Usually, bringing two sheep back in the crate is an easy task….  In fact, I’ve brought back up to four younger sheep in that crate with plenty of room for them all.  So, we were totally shocked when we loaded up the big ram and realized that we had to tilt up the bale of hay (for them to eat) so that there was enough room to add the younger yearling ram!  In the end they both fit with enough room to lie down, turn around, and stand at the hay or water, but that big ram is BIG! Buying sheep via e-mail is not easy unless you trust the breeder.  When the animal you are looking at is across the country (which tends to happen to us a lot!), the best you can do is ask for pedigree information, size/gain, number of animals in the birth (for multiple births in the future), pictures, and fleece samples.  We also like to get specific color and pattern information not only for the animals in question, but also for any animals in the pedigree.  Getting this information helps us to form an idea of the color genetics that the animal will pass on to its lambs.  Many people don’t consider this important, but to our breeding program – which emphasizes the many possible colors and patterns of each breed – it is good to know how the color we see on the outside has been passed in the genetics. So we get as much information as we can, and then we make a decision, and we try not to let that decision rest on the costs. This is not an easy thing to do, but with the ram bringing in so much of the genetics of the flock, we are particularly careful to try to base our ram decisions on merit rather than cost.  Then, once the decision is made, we still have half the work to do!  We now have to arrange to get that animal (or those animals) from wherever in the U.S. it may be, back to Peeper Hollow Farm in Marion, IA.  Sometimes, this is an easy task, and sometimes it seems overwhelming! If we are lucky, we can arrange for transport.  Unbeknownst to most “city people,” there are those who make their living by transporting farm animals across the country.  They have their own trailers, and sell space on trips to and from various places based on need.  This kind of transport can be pricey, increasing the cost of the animal, but it can also be very reasonable when you compare what it would cost to drive round-trip from the Midwest to California to pick up a ram – as was the case earlier this summer! This time – because of time of year, availability, location, and cost – we decided to drive out to Ohio and pick up the two rams.  I can’t say I love driving that far, but we broke it down into three palatable days and left! With the dogs at the kennel, we drove as far as mid-Indiana on Saturday, got up Sunday morning and drove the rest of the way to Ohio, picked up the rams, and returned to the same hotel for the night.  This morning, we again packed up and started the drive for home.  At the hotel last night, the rams had their hay to munch on in the truck, and a bucket of water to wash it down.  We don’t leave water in the back with them while we drive, but stop every couple of hours to give them a drink. So, when we get home, the new boys will go into confinement for three weeks, to prevent any unseen contagion from spreading to our flock.  They will be dewormed, ear-tagged, and watched until their quarantine period is over.  At that point, if we have eliminated any internal parasites they might have harbored, they can be integrated into our ram flock. We can’t just put them in with the others, but must move the whole group into a small area (like a horse stall for ten rams) so that they can work out their “pecking order” safely.  When in such a small space, any butting, shoving or ramming is more like jostling, since they can’t really take a run at each other – safer for all during the adjustment period. After a day or two, they will have all worked out who is in charge, etc., so we can let them out to return to the ram area outside.  About two-and-a-half months after the purchase process started – so, just after Christmas – we hope to have these boys in with their peers.  But for now, we drive….and drive… and drive… trying above all else to get home safely to feed the flock by three this afternoon.  We left with plenty of time, even with the predicted snow.  And guess what we talk about on the way?  Sure!  The sheep – of, course!

7:16 am | link          Comments Friday, December 4, 2009 Great fiber comes from happy sheep!

Most people don’t realize that it’s not enough to just feed and water sheep if you want to get great fiber….  Like all living creatures, sheep require food, water and salt to survive. But sheer survival is not all we want here on Peeper Hollow Farm – each year, we expect our sheep to produce an average of over two lambs per bred ewe plus a truly beautiful fleece.Heavenly.jpgA good, strong fleece fiber is dependent on the health and nutrition of the sheep. An animal that is poorly fed or cared for will reflect that negligence in its fiber: along its length, the fiber diameter will be thinner at the point of neglect.  If the sheep stops eating for a long enough period (and this can be just a few short days), you can actually see the thinning of the fiber to the point of “tenderness” or breakage in that area.  Sheep need to be fed not only the right amount of food daily, but also on a regular basis – they are creatures of habit, and expect their rations at regular times of day.It isn’t only the amount and timing of food that is important, but also the overall care of the sheep….  “Why?” you might ask.  Well, if sheep become ill or stressed, they can lose their appetites – kind of like some people who stop eating when under stress.  If one or more sheep become so stressed that they stop or greatly reduce their eating, their fleece is at risk.  Because of this, we try very hard to keep our sheep happy!  A feeling of well-being in our sheep is important to us because if they have it, they maintain their diet and continue to grow uniform fleece – just what we want!Ivy, mentioned in a previous blog, is a great example of this. When we first tried to wean our lambs this past summer, Ivy became an escape artist.  She would get so stressed each time we separated her from her mother that she would eventually find her way back to where her mother was grazing.  After several tries, we just left Ivy in with her dam to reduce her stress.  She was finally separated from her mother just after breeding, when we separated the bred lambs from the older mature ewes.  She still cried for her mother, but this time they shared a board fence, and were able to touch through the fence.  It was in this way that she became used to being separated from her mother and is now a happy bred ewe lamb integrated with the rest of the bred lambs.  Had we insisted on separating her from her mother at weaning, I suspect we would have had to discard her fleece this year – the stress was causing her to stop eating, and would have resulted in fiber tenderness.  Again, a sense of well-being in our sheep pays off with beautiful fleeces!A similar experience occurred when we separated Zoe from her adult daughter, Belle.  We had bought both of them from a farm not far from us, and they had spent the summer as two of a threesome who all came from the same farm.  After breeding, we found Zoe “losing condition” (dropping weight), and decided to move her in with the better-fed ewe lambs, leaving Belle with her adult peers.  Belle called and called for Zoe for days, refusing to eat and running back and forth across the shared fenceline.  Zoe had found the better hay and was no longer interested in hanging around the fence with Belle.  I believe it was that year that we had to throw away Belle’s fleece due to the tenderness within an inch of the cut end – exactly where it would have been growing out about the time of their separation.  It was that year that we learned how important it is to maintain our sheeps’ sense of well-being!I have to smile every time I see the commercial on TV about the “happy” California cows. I don’t know if that is really true about cows, but it is certainly true about sheep: happy sheep with a sense of well-being produce more and stronger lambs, and more uniform, higher quality fleeces.  Here at Peeper Hollow Farm, we work very hard to be able to say that we have “happy sheep!”

1:37 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, December 2, 2009 Thoughts of cold….

I had to complete one of those farm jobs today that we all do to some extent.  It’s just that when we do it, it is done in a big way….  Every time the weather changes, we break out new clothes, and I’m not talking just winter coats here!  The high today dropped over twenty degrees from yesterday’s high, and the winds were whipping along our fields at a pretty good clip.  There was no way that I was going to wear for today’s feeding the thin windbreaker that I wore yesterday!  I would have frozen – so out came the cold gear.jackets_winter_2009.jpgJust like we do late every fall, I happily dragged out the cold weather wear: the lined jackets, lined gloves, and caps that we use when the temperatures begin to dip below freezing.  All of these items are tough, designed for working rather than fashion.  At this time of year, we still keep out the huge overalls that we wear all spring and fall – we buy them huge so that we can layer our “normal” clothes underneath them, with room to spare for a sweatshirt or long-johns when it gets colder.  Most of the clothing in the box I pulled out today is lined, and is put out in addition to the warmer weather stuff that is still hanging in our laundry room.  This time of year, you just have no idea how cold or warm an upcoming day may be – it could be fifty degrees or it could be in the low twenties.  For that reason, we keep all options open and, as a result, the laundry room is full of work clothes waiting for the appropriate day.You may have noticed in that last paragraph that I “happily” pulled out all the cold weather wear.  There is a reason for that: pulling out this cold weather gear foreshadows the day coming soon when I will pull out the very cold weather gear.  Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I love cold or very cold weather (although I do like a bit of snow!) – but I’ll get to that in a minute.  First, though, let me explain about what we consider very cold weather gear….Once it gets “really cold” – and that could be anywhere below about ten degrees – we bring out the heavy-duty cold gear: snowmobile boots, one-piece lined Carhartt coveralls, super-duty mittens (and the chemical warming packs!), scarves, and lined hats.  I don’t use a lot of that until after the ewes are sheared and I’m outside for something other than feeding – if I go out for regular chores, I usually work up enough heat during the work that I don’t need a lot of warmth, so my lined jacket and gloves are usually enough.  In fact, last winter, I wore my unlined rubber boots all but three days!  It just never got cold enough to need the insulated ones!Most of that stuff is used more during the lambing season in February and March than during any other even-colder times of the year.  You see, during lambing I need really warm clothing because I may end up sitting or standing in the unheated barn for hours without doing anything much except for watching a labor or drying a lamb. That is what really gets me cold: standing around watching the ewes do what they know how to do!  In mid-February, when those early spring blizzards hit, I am typically standing around in the barn, watching lambs being born, anytime of the day or night – an amazing scene, no matter how many times I have watched – and I can guarantee you that, regardless of what I am wearing, I am COLD!I have somehow bought just about everything you can think of to try to make the experience a bit more comfortable, but come lambing, I know I will be cold — and happy!  Inevitably during lambing, I walk around perpetually COLD… and smiling like I have this wonderful life.  Because I kinda do have a wonderful life… a really cold wonderful life.  How many people do you know who can say they got up in the morning, went out to the barn, and spent the entire day watching little baby lambs being born, learning to stand, and nuzzling up to their moms for their first taste of milk?  But that is exactly what I do some days!So today, as I unboxed all the cold-but-not-terribly-cold weather gear and hung it on our “barn pegs,” I had to smile, because I know this is the first step to the coldest, happiest part of our farm year: lambing.And I love lambs!

6:18 pm | link          Comments Monday, November 30, 2009 Why I Stay Home….

People often ask me whether I go along with my husband, Rick, when he travels for work – the answer is ‘not usually.’  I got most of the travel-bug out of my system before our kids arrived, and I guess I’ve become a bit of a homebody over the years.  It also takes a bit of organizing and extra work to be able to take off when you are leaving behind three border collies, a dozen or more barn cats, fifty sheep, three llamas, and fifteen chickens!  Someone is going to have to care for all these animals, and that someone isn’t always easy to find – especially due to the short-notice trip planning that Rick is often forced to do! We will both be leaving soon to pick up the two rams we recently purchased in Ohio, so I am in the process of making arrangements for us both to be gone for several days.  Our dogs nearly always stay at Canine Corner and Cats Too in Cedar Rapids – they always have lots of fun and come home exhausted (a wonderful benefit when you have energetic border collies!), so that is where they will be going for this trip.  The rest of the animals have to be cared for in their own environment, so we need to find someone who will come to our place to care for them in our absence. Luckily, I have a few friends who all have animals of their own and are willing to come in – either for the same kind of help when they need to leave their animals, or for some other trade.  They will have to feed and fill the waterers for the chickens every couple of days, plus collect the eggs daily.  They will also have to fill the automatic cat feeder in the barn every couple of days – especially because we now have one cat who likes to dig all the cat food out of the feeder, and then none of them will eat it once it hits the floor!  What a mess!  I wish I had a good fix for this, but we are still working on it! Finally, whoever comes out to help with the animals will need to feed three different groups of sheep a total of about two-hundred fifty pounds of hay, one group about three pounds of grain, and fill the ram’s water bucket – all done every day that we are gone. Feeding the sheep is not something that just anyone can come out and do, though.  There is more to “feeding sheep” than just dumping food into troughs or feeders….  Sheep are notorious for not showing obvious signs of illness until they are nearly dead, so whoever feeds them must always be looking for signs of illness: sheep who don’t move with the group, sheep who keep their heads down, who are maybe limping or moving oddly, or sheep who shake or rub or cough or….  Well, you get the idea.  Feeding time is the perfect time to check them all out because they are all milling around while waiting for the feed, and whoever is feeding can get a good look at them up close – something that isn’t always easy when they are out in the field. We don’t necessarily do much the first time we see a sheep “acting off” but we note it down for the next day.  If that same sheep is again not acting normally at the next feeding, we quarantine them and take a closer look.  This is the reason that many farmers will tell you that “A sick sheep is a dead sheep.”  Usually, by the time they are obviously sick, they are near death.  As prey animals, they understand that any sign of weakness will be locked onto by a predator, so they keep illness to themselves until they are too far gone to hide the symptoms.  To catch it early, you need to be vigilant and look very carefully.  We have found that if you can catch the problem early, most of the problems can be resolved fairly quickly, and the “sick sheep” can return back to the flock as a picture of health! So to get back to the original point, no, I don’t travel a lot with Rick.  We try to arrange trips so that one of us can stay and take care of the animals.  There are usually too many arrangements to make before we leave together, and we don’t usually make them unless we’re both traveling for a holiday or some other special trip – or unless we’re picking up sheep! Well, I’d better get back to making those plans for our ram pick-up trip….

10:28 am | link          Comments Friday, November 27, 2009 Celebrating and Being Thankful

Thanksgiving at our place is much like Thanksgiving at most homes across the U.S. – with one rather unusual addition….  We not only celebrate with a big turkey dinner ourselves, but we also make sure that all of our animals have something to celebrate, too. It all begins early in the day, just after our stuffed turkey goes into the oven.  Because we eat our big meal in mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving, we try to get all of our chores done early, giving us time to relax before and after the meal.  As soon as we’ve got the turkey cooking, we head up to the barn to give each sheep and llama a small amount of grain (about a quarter-pound per sheep), scattered on the remnants of the day-before’s hay.  We can’t give them too much grain, because a sudden change in diet like that could make them all quite sick, so we give them just a taste to celebrate the day. A few hours later, we go back out to the sheep to finish our chores:  feed out 200-250 pounds of hay, a bit more grain for the bred ewe lambs and Zoe, and refill the ram’s water.  Then we can enjoy our own Thanksgiving Day dinner! After the big meal, we pick the turkey carcass as clean as possible, putting all “pickings” into one of three containers: human food (leftovers), dog food, and cat food.  When we are done dividing, we add a bit of filler (like bread or pasta) to the cat dish, and send it out to the barn with one of the children (this year, Heidi took Wednesday’s pre-Thanksgiving cooked turkey entrails up to the barn, and Alex took Thursday’s turkey skins, cartilage, etc. up there).  It always helps to call the cats when feeding them so that the huge meal is eaten by more than two or three cats who are hanging around the barn, so the kids are told to shout out, ‘Heeeeeere, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty!’ at the top of their lungs.  Inevitably, the kids are amazed at how many cats come running from all corners of the barn and through the many doors. The dogs, too, get to celebrate in the house.  We divide the turkey-picked dog food into three relatively equal portions in dog dishes and let each dog have their share.  I’m not sure, though, which they enjoy more: the turkey or the whipped cream they get for dessert.  It has long been a tradition in our household that after the pie is served for our own dessert, each of the dogs gets a squirt of canned whipped cream in their dish to top off their doggie-meal, and the dogs  await their treat as soon as they hear the sound of the first piece of pie being topped with whipped cream.  It is funny to watch them try to control their eagerness as they wait for their turn for the cream! So, as another Thanksgiving fades into memories, I can’t help but again count my own blessings.  I find myself thankful for the more obvious ones: Rick, my family and our many friends (especially Karen, who is not only a close and treasured friend, but also edits this blog for me, correcting any errors), for my health and ability to continue doing what I love, and for my home that is not only a roof over my head, but a place to experience the wonders of life and death with my flock, and also to rest and restore myself.  As I consider my many thanks, though, I find that I am also thankful for things that are not so common…. I am thankful for my three border collies: Coda, who will work with me to move my sheep in ways that a human being alone never could, and will immediately step between me and a charging ram to take the hit meant for me when he could just as easily have run and saved himself. Lisa, who first taught me the joys of working in partnership with a dog, and who teaches each new puppy “manners” that no one else can.  Chance, who is still (at nearly 18 months) such a goofball that he keeps us laughing many an evening – whether he ever herds my sheep properly or not!  I am thankful for Luca, Chachi, and Vinnie, our llamas, who live with our sheep, guarding them day and night against the many coyotes and other predators looking for a quick meal.  And I am thankful for our sheep, who have filled my life with joy, lambs, and fleece.  Who could ask for more!?

11:29 am | link          Comments Wednesday, November 25, 2009 Reminders of the Past

With my niece, Heidi (9), and my nephew, Alex (11), here for the week, I once again have live-in help!  It has been a lot of years since our two kids, Justin and Ashleigh, lived here and helped with chores – I had forgotten how much fun it could be to share the ins and outs of our sheep business with a younger generation! Alex_carrying_hay_209.jpgOur theory has always been to allow kids of any age to help to the level of their ability – with adequate supervision, of course!  That hasn’t changed, so when it comes time for chores each day this week, I have always asked the kids to come and help….  Inevitably, both Heidi and Alex have come along, with Greg, my brother, following along with the camera.  It is amazing how much help two relatively young assistants can be! In the past couple of days, they have climbed both of the piles of hay in the stalls and dropped hay bales to the ground that were just too high for me to reach.  Yesterday, Alex carried 200 pounds (in 50 pound bales) from the storage in the stalls out to the feeders and loaded them in!  Not to be out-done, Heidi carried her own 50 pound bale over to the closest feeder, too.  This whole hay-carrying competition reminded me so very much of days gone by when our own children competed to see who could carry more, who could trim the twine the fastest, and anything else they could think of!Alex_hay_2009.jpg Both Alex and Heidi learned the importance of keeping the sheep out of the area while working with hay, loading the bales with knots on top (so that the knots don’t get caught in the hay underneath when you are removing the “strings!”), and then how to clip and remove all the twine from their bales.  Alex then also learned the difference in both the look and feel of alfalfa hay vs. grass hay – he caught on surprisingly quickly! Heidi found that she could hand-feed the llamas some of the grain blend – something none of us has been able to do, although I must admit that we also haven’t tried very hard….  The kids also learned how to move the llamas using their bodies for blocking – another technique all of our helpers learn right away. Heidi_flying_2009.jpgAlong with all the work that our chores involve, there is always time for finding the fun waiting for us….  Neither of the kids consider kicking or flipping down bales from the tops of the piles work – they would knock those bales down all day, if we had enough space for them all near the ground!  Heidi also found  it to be lots of fun to “fly” out of the split door that closes off the stall with all of the grass hay.  Somehow, no matter how important or difficult chores may be, kids can somehow also find the more entertaining aspects, too. It’s been quite a while since I did chores with our own young kids, but I must admit that having Alex and Heidi here with us this week sure takes me back….

10:26 am | link          Comments Monday, November 23, 2009 With New Eyes

I am here feeding sheep, changing their coats, giving llamas injections, and generally working on this acreage to some extent every day.  Because of that, I forget some of the “cool” aspects of what it is that we do here.  One day begins to fade into the next, and pretty soon, they all tend to seem the same…until we get company!  There is something about looking at what we do with new eyes that brings out the interesting and the unusual – and it has already begun! With Thanksgiving coming this week, my brother (Greg) and his two kids (Alex and Heidi) have driven nearly halfway across the U.S. from West Virginia to spend the week here with us on our small acreage in Iowa, and to visit “Oma” – my mother, who lives in Cedar Rapids.  It’s funny how, suddenly, our routine has become interesting, and the “norm” has become exciting!  Whether it is bringing in the eggs from the chicken coop, or changing coats on the ewes who have torn them in the timber, there are things to show, explain, and watch! Heidi_hay_2009.jpgWe loaded the rest of the hay into our barn last Thursday, so all of the stalls are filled to the top with grass hay, which will be fed out four bales a day for the next month or two – a perfect “mountain climbing” experience in the flats of Iowa when you are nine or eleven years old!  Hiking out to the timber holds many possibilities – last time they were here, they brought back cattle bones that they had found, dating from over fifteen years ago when cattle grazed our property. Now that Rick is back at work (and not helping me with chores, as he did after my surgery last week), the daily project will be making sure all of the sheep have enough food, water, and salt/mineral mix for the day.  With my right knee still slowly recovering from the surgery, I need help getting the livestock fed – and, hopefully, our visitors will help fill that role for the next few days.  At this time of year, I am feeding out two hundred pounds of grass hay and fifty pounds of alfalfa hay each day, making sure all salt feeders are filled (if not, that’s another twenty-five pounds to carry out to the feeder!), and filling the water for the rams, who don’t have an automatic waterer like the ewes. I am sure that, in the process of completing the “chores,” we will also find some fun.  I have found that there is something about the presence of kids….  They seem to notice the new, the novel, and the fun/funny in places that the rest of us normally don’t even look.  I’m sure that will be true this week as we enjoy our visit with Greg, Alex, and Heidi, and see our farm and our lives through their eyes.

10:24 am | link          Comments Friday, November 20, 2009 I’m always “just looking”

Rams are an easy part of the flock to ignore, but are also very necessary for the health and growth of the flock.  It seems like every time I think I am “all set” for rams, I find that something comes up and my ram flock is changing again…. I currently have eight rams: four Romney and four CVM/Romeldale.  The four Romney include Ira, our “homegrown” white ram lamb, and three recessively colored rams from Tawanda Farms in CA: Graham, Geoffrey, and Goliath (originally named Theo, Tommie, and Brutus, but renamed according to our system of naming by year of birth). The four Romeldales include Ivan, a ram lamb whose sale ended up falling through so he is again waiting for a new home; Hodgins, who is also for sale; and Ignatius and Ink, the “homegrown” ram lambs I used in breeding the Romeldale flock this fall, and that I’m thinking of keeping for a while. I like to use at least two different rams for each breed so that prospective buyers can put together a “mini-flock” consisting of a small group of ewes and an unrelated ram.  It also allows me to keep ewe lambs from either ram and still be able to use those same rams the next year without breeding the ewe lamb to her own sire. Because the Romeldale breed is so rare, it is sometimes difficult to find good quality, unrelated rams to breed our flock.  Any ram that we bring in must be top quality; his genetics will likely become part of our flock for years to come!  This is true, not because he will necessarily have a place within our flock for that long, but because his genetics will be part of each lamb crop for as long as he is here.  Since our replacement ewes come from our own lambs, his genetics, as carried by his daughters, will continue on in our flock long after he is gone.  For this reason, it is important to choose our rams carefully! 932_front.jpgSo, when a good friend in Ohio decided to sell off her entire flock of Romeldale/CVMs a month or so ago, I did think that perhaps I should look at the rams she had – just in case there were any remarkable rams there. But with hay to get into the barn, breeding season ending, and my knee surgery coming up, it fell between the cracks, and I missed the opportunity – or so I thought!  It wasn’t long after the ewe flock sale that she e-mailed me: it turns out that she has two rams that, at least on the surface, might interest me. They are both recessively colored, carry genetics resistant to scrapie (a deadly sheep disease), have great fleece, and very correct conformation. I really don’t need a new ram though….  I like the guys I used this year – they fit all my criteria for our flock rams, and they are still young.  But on the other hand, should I ever pass up unrelated rams without even looking?  Not really, so I looked.  Just to see what she had….  You never know – they might be just too good to pass up! 744_front.gifWell, I’m sure you figured out that, in the end, I didn’t just look, but also bought these two rams who are totally unrelated to most of my flock in the last four generations.  One is a solid dark brownish-gray, and the other is a CVM.  Each one has a gorgeous fleece and is very well built, with a nice blocky look to him. So now, I get to plan a trip to Ohio.  I hate long drives, and this will be one of them.  On the other hand, it will be good to see my friend, Chris, again when we pick them up at her farm.  So much for “just looking” – I should have known better!

12:05 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, November 18, 2009 Zoe Leads the Lambs

Zoe is our oldest sheep, older than most sheep ever get to be on other farms, but we don’t routinely “retire” sheep here based on age.  Our sheep continue to breed and produce fleece until they no longer do it well.  Zoe was ten years old this past spring and still produces a soft, lovely colored fleece every January in addition to  two or three wonderful lambs each spring.  She produces enough milk that her lambs grow well, so Zoe is still here, happily living and producing on our farm.  Because of who she is, she will likely be here until the day she dies, production or not – she has earned a special place in our hearts.Zoe_2008.jpg
We bought Zoe and one of her daughters, Belle, from a small place just north of us in the summer of 2006.  Zoe and Belle tended to keep to themselves that first summer, not wanting to mingle with the rest of our flock – and that was OK with us, if that was how they felt.  Once the breeding season came and went, however, I realized that although Zoe had been bred and was carrying twins, she was also losing weight rapidly while in with the adult ewes – not a safe condition for her or her lambs.  Since that was our first year breeding ewe lambs and they were getting the higher protein alfalfa hay rather than grass hay, I decided to put Zoe in with the ewe lambs to give her the extra nutrition.  Belle was left in with the adult ewes eating the grass hay – she was doing fine there!
Oh, my, what a ruckus that caused!  Belle had never before been separated from her mother  – even by a fenceline (although she was an adult four-year-old ewe at the time!) and wanted us all to know how miserable she was!  Belle “cried” – bleating for her mother – for days, walking back and forth along the common fenceline and refusing to eat.  Zoe, on the other hand, started out by calling for her “baby,” Belle, but soon realized that there was alfalfa in the hay feeder in the barn, and abandoned Belle for the hay within hours.  Eventually, Belle, too, gave in to hunger and actually became one of our adult ewe flock.  They still enjoy each other’s company when they are together, but they are no longer “glued together” like they were back then.
It turns out that putting Zoe in with the bred ewe lambs that year was a stroke of genius!  Not only did she bring her weight back up so that she was once again in good condition, but as an older, mature ewe, she had a lot of patience and experience to share with the young ones that surrounded her.  She is now the only sheep in our flock that actually has a job: she teaches the bred ewe lambs how to become producing members of our flock, and she excels at her job!
Young sheep are known to be “skittish” – they tend to bolt when afraid, and they seem to be afraid of almost anything – especially our working dogs.  They are also often unsure about hay feeders when they come out in the fall – these lambs have spent their lifetimes eating grass from the pasture, and are not initially comfortable getting their nutrition inside the lean-to or barn from these big rectangular boxes.  Zoe helps take care of all of these issues and more!  The ewe lambs rightly see Zoe as their sub-flock leader, and she leads them by example to do the things they need to do.  She teaches them to move easily away from the working dogs rather than running at the sight of them.  She teaches them to come into the lean-to to eat hay when the grass is dwindling.  She is like a “granny sheep” to them, helping them cope with that confusing first year….
Zoe is not the most outgoing sheep on our farm, nor is she particularly nervous.  She has just about the perfect combination of healthy suspicion and curiosity, keeping her out of trouble but allowing her to enjoy new foods and experiences.  Because of those traits, she is the perfect leader for her young sub-flock of ewe lambs, teaching them about danger, but also showing them how to enjoy some of the occasional perks.  Every year, we marvel at what a great job she does with the “little girls,” and hope that she has at least another year in her – and so far, she has not disappointed us.
This year, Zoe has five ewe lambs in her “little-girl-flock,” which includes her own 2009 daughter, Itasca.  At least four of them (including Itasca) have been bred and are carrying one or two lambs of their own, and I expect that Zoe, too, is carrying twins.  Because of her many wonderful traits, we have kept many of Zoe’s daughters in our flock and sold many others as breeding animals.  Belle, Grace, and Hannah, are all Zoe’s daughters from previous years, and also part of our flock.  I only hope that, when the time comes, one of them can fill her mother’s hooves as the “granny” to the “little girls.”

1:55 pm | link          Comments Monday, November 16, 2009 Harmony in the Pasture

Many people seem to be surprised when they hear that not only do all of our sheep have names (based on the year of their birth, with 2001=A, and the coming 2010 lambs to be named beginning with J), but that I can also recognize each of them as I walk in the pastures.  Sheep are a lot like people in that they each have their own personality – some are cranky, some shy, and yet others are very friendly or outgoing.  As our lambs mature into adult ewes, their individual personality begins to come through so that, by the time they deliver their first lambs, they are easily recognized by face/build and by behavior. Harmony_2009.jpgAnd, like within a group of people, certain personalities stand out….  Harmony is the first of these that comes to mind.  She is a white Romney among a lot of white Romneys in our flock right now.  As a lamb, we had to supplement her with a bottle from time to time because she was born the year that the shearers brought in sore-mouth (which is thankfully now gone!) and her dam, Celeste, lost one side of her bag to sore-mouth and mastitis.  Celeste was able to feed one of her twins, Heavenly, but did not have enough milk for Harmony, so she would get occasional bottles from us.  Harmony learned at a young age that people brought good food and warmth in the midst of a cold, cold spring – her outgoing nature had her running to us each time we appeared in the barn with bottles, hopping into our laps and snuggling in under our open coats to enjoy her bottle and some love. Harmony is now a one-hundred sixty pound ewe, but has not changed much!  Whenever I enter the adult ewe pasture or paddock, one white ewe will immediately separate from the flock and come running across the field toward me calling and bleating her welcome.  It reminds me of those romance movies where the long-separated couple run in slow motion across the field into each other’s arms – the difference being, of course, that Harmony is not a person, she does not run in slow motion, and we’ve usually only been separated twelve hours at the most! Although it can be intimidating to stand in place as an adult ewe runs full-tilt at you, Harmony has never run me over.  As she gets close, she will lock her legs and come to a full stop just  inches in front of me, leaving four tracks in the grass as evidence of her rapid stop.  She will only welcome me this way if I am alone, as strangers do intimidate even her.  What she really wants when she gets to me is a scratch under the chin, a piece of apple or carrot, or a nibble of grain.  She loves to follow me around as I attend to my business, even if I come empty handed.  She is probably the most outgoing of our “girls” right now, which is unusual, even for a bottle lamb – and unusual because her mother, Celese, is very stand-offish, and sheep often inherit their disposition from their parents. Many people love coming home each day to be greeted by their dogs or cats, who run up to meet them at the door – my “greeter” is Harmony, and there is never any question as to which sheep she is!  Harmony is the white sheep bounding across the pasture with her 20+ pounds of fleece flopping in the breeze – just like she’s in a love story!

2:40 pm | link          Comments Friday, November 13, 2009 Hey, I’m Thinking Hay!

There are a lot of things that are important when you have a flock of sheep: a good vet, other shepherds and shepherdesses for advice, good starter animals, good fencing, etc.  There is one thing that really stands out this time of year, though, and that is good hay!  During the summer months in Iowa, our sheep have a variety of pastures through which we rotate – all of them are lush with bluegrass (a flock favorite) and clover.  We don’t worry much about what they are eating during the spring, summer, or fall – we know they are out there in our own pastures, building themselves up on all that new growth. There comes a time every fall, however, when the grass begins to slow its growth and I begin think about hay for the winter.  Our acreage is not so big that we can feed our sheep all summer and also make some of it into hay for those non-grazing months.  We buy our hay from Triple H Hay Farm in Springville, Iowa, and have for years.  Many years ago, our daughter (Ashleigh) bought a very old and very thin horse who was very fussy about his hay.  As we searched for high-quality hay that he would eat, our vet suggested we try Triple H, and we’ve bought our hay there ever since. When I first started buying hay, I couldn’t tell the difference between grass hay and alfalfa hay – in fact, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t tell the difference between hay and straw, if we’re really being honest!  In our first year with livestock, we made our own grass hay for our sheep and horses, and bought maybe thirty bales of alfalfa for the sheep’s gestation and lactation.  We’ve come a long way since then!  Now, I can even tell the difference between different types of grass hay, and we buy somewhere around nine hundred bales of grass and alfalfa hay for each winter! This time of year, I somehow can’t stop thinking hay….  I worry about whether they will be able to get that last cutting of alfalfa that we typically buy.  I worry whether I have bought enough of each kind: grass and alfalfa.  I worry whether we can get it all into the barn – if we can’t, I worry about whether the weather will allow us to get the second load in when we need it (we always seems to run out during the January snow storm!).  I worry about whether we’ll be able to find anyone to help load the hay into the barn – we’re getting to the point where we’re breaking down about as fast as some of our equipment, and help is becoming a must!  I worry whether, when I test the various loads of hay, our alfalfa will be high enough in protein, or whether I will have to purchase a grain blend to supplement during gestation and lactation.  Basically, this time of year, I do a lot of “hay worrying.” It is a good thing that all of this worrying is almost over!  Next week, the rest of our hay will be delivered.  We think we have figured out a way to put the entire winter’s hay into our small twenty-four foot by forty foot barn: mostly in the loft, with some of the grass hay (that is eaten first) into the stalls that we will eventually use for shearing in January and then lambing in February.  The plan is for the sheep to eat all of that grass hay stored in the stalls before we need the space early next year – we will see how this plan turns out! Somehow, once the hay is loaded in and the samples sent out for testing, I don’t worry so much about hay anymore. At that point, the decisions have been made, for better or worse, and there are other things to think about: my knee surgery is next week, followed closely by Thanksgiving.  After that, we will be ultrasounding the bred ewes in early December to get fetal counts for each ewe and determine late gestation feeding from those results.  And on, and on.  Hay will become something that we have to ration out to the flock each day and nothing more…. But for right now, I am thinking hay.  Whenever someone asks me what I’m thinking, that’s what it is – did I get enough alfalfa?  Will we actually get six hundred bales in the loft?  At least, at this point, I know that this week, my thoughts can turn to other things, and the hay will be put up for the winter.  So, do you think I should have gotten more grass hay…..?

5:07 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, November 11, 2009 The Trip to the Sales Barn

It took a bit of effort yesterday, but I finally did get the two yearling rams, and then the ram lambs and wethers into the trailer, headed for the sales barn.  I decided to put a partition into the trailer to separate the older guys from the smaller ones so there would be no aggressive “ramming” while they waited overnight for the trip to the auction.  I actually ended up having the most trouble getting the older guys in! The yearling rams that had to go have been biding their time with my other adult rams in a paddock near the barn.  The problem I ran into yesterday was that I needed only two of the ten rams currently in that paddock.  Initially, I thought I would try to get them all into the trailer, and then off-load the ones I didn’t need, but after several tries, it became obvious that there were a few who just didn’t want to take the step up into the trailer.  I finally got one of the guys I needed (Hayden), along with a friend, so I called that good, barricaded Hayden in behind the partition and pushed the friend out.  Now, I just had to get Hosea, the other yearling ram who had to go. Hosea does not like the dogs.  He grew up on a farm where they never, ever saw dogs, so Hosea is very dog-sensitive.  As soon as Coda came out to work in that paddock, helping me to get the rams into the trailer, Hosea jumped through the electrified seven-wire fence into the neighbor’s pasture.  He then spent all of the time it took to get the other guy into the trailer crying and baa-ing at us to let him come back – although he didn’t want to be near the dog, of course. So that gave me an idea….  As soon as I got Hayden into the trailer, I took Coda and we went through the fence, too!  As soon as Hosea got one look at us on the same side of the fence, he was convinced there was no better time than the present to go home, and jumped back through to our side!  The only hard part was when I came back through and forgot that the neighbor’s fence isn’t electrified at the third wire like ours is – his is electrified at the fourth wire – OUCH! Once Hosea, Coda and I were back on our property with the trailer, Coda and I simply caught Hosea, walked him (struggling, of course) over to the sliding door of the trailer, slid it open, and when he saw his buddy in there with no dog, he was convinced that it was the best place for him – and he jumped right in! After all that, the little boys were fairly easy to load – Coda shepherded them over to the open back of the trailer (by now, I had both other rams secured behind the partition), and when I shook the bucket of grain – since it was feeding time – they hopped right in!  I got hay bags and water for everybody at the barn and left them to relax for the night. We drove to the auction early this morning – in order to be on the road to the Kalona Sales Barn by seven with all my chores done, I had to get up at five.  I wanted to get there relatively early so that I wouldn’t have to wait all day to see them sold.  I was in luck, though: I actually got done early enough that I was on the road by 6:45 a.m., and they were sold by ten! The worst part of taking my sheep to auction is not knowing where they will be going, but coming a close second is having to back up the truck with the trailer so that the back of the trailer hits the “off-loading area,” which is none too wide….  Every time I go, there are guys standing around inside that area, watching as I back the trailer in.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of experience in backing up trailers, so I inevitably turn the wheel the wrong way, resulting in the trailer getting way off course!  Today was no exception.  I’m just glad they don’t make any comments when I walk back to unload the sheep! In the end, this trip was a great success, with all of our sheep selling for a much better price than I had expected.  We usually keep our lambs until December when prices are a bit higher (since most shepherds will sell off their lambs once grazing is done in October/November), but with my arthroscopic knee surgery next week, we decided to take them before I had health issues keeping me away from the fields.  It turned out to be a good decision, and now we can go ahead and buy the rest of our hay for the winter!  Things are falling into place – for now anyway!

6:23 pm | link          Comments Monday, November 9, 2009 Trying to Outsmart Chachi

Dry, clear days are always better than wet ones on our farm.  I do have to admit that we need a certain amount of moisture for our grass to grow for the sheep to graze, but we have had an overabundance of rain this year and I really, REALLY appreciate these nice, sunny days! Today’s project was to move our guardian llama Chachi, currently living with the market lambs, into another area.  This sounds pretty simple, but sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t!  The last time I tried moving one of the llamas out of one group of sheep and into another was when I tore up my knee chasing Luca in September.  Because of that experience, I went into my project today allowing plenty of time, and choosing a nice dry day…. I’ve known for the last week or so that I needed to move Chachi: the ram lambs and wethers (castrated ram lambs) who are currently still grazing in our timber will be going to auction very early on Wednesday morning.  To get them there early enough on Wednesday, I will be loading them into the trailer on Tuesday afternoon/evening.  Rick is out of town, so Coda and I have to do it ourselves – unless I hire one or two kids to help – certainly a possibility, but I’d like to try to do it myself.  Chachi_with_lambs.jpg Anyhow, in order for Coda to be able to help me get the lambs onto the trailer, I need to get the llama out of there.  Chachi does a nice job guarding the sheep, but he isn’t so good at following Coda’s orders to load into a dark trailer, and I can’t afford to have him lead those lambs astray…. During this time of year, I feed that group of lambs several pounds of grain each day to fatten them up a bit for the auction.  Chachi likes grain, so I thought I might bribe him into the adjoining pasture with the grain bucket.  Once I got him in there, I could just close the gate behind him and open the gate to where the girls are grazing, letting him join them at his own pace.  It was a good idea, but Chachi is getting to know me too well: if I am offering him grain without offering it to the sheep, he gets suspicious and won’t cooperate. So, once that failed, my second plan was to get him eating grain with the ram lambs out of the feeders that  happen to be next to the very same gate.  Since Chachi feels uncomfortable near people, I was hoping I could keep walking towards him, opposite the open gate, “pushing” him through the gate with my presence.  Another good idea, but, by now he knew something was up and just outran me, circling back to the feeders and his friends, the ram lambs. OK, so if I didn’t get him moved today, tomorrow was never going to work – I knew he would prevent the ram lambs from entering the trailer tomorrow, so I HAD to get him out of there.  I finally modified my second plan by doing something my mother always told me NOT to do: I ran with sticks in my hands. Please don’t tattle on me!  In fact, it was two sticks, one in each hand.  I grabbed two long branches, which extended my reach, and again tried “pushing” Chachi towards the open gate. This time, he couldn’t so easily outrun me, as my arms were each now about ten feet long, thanks to the branches.  I also had an advantage because I had accidentally left the empty grain bucket in that same adjoining pasture.  The combination of me running towards him with my “huge arms” and the unsupervised grain bucket was all that it took: he ran into that area to check out how much grain was left in the bucket.  There was none, but I slammed  the gate closed behind him as I had planned, and I had successfully separated him from his pals, the ram lambs. Now, the project tomorrow looks do-able: get eleven ram lambs and wethers into the trailer for a good meal of hay and a trip to the auction.  We usually don’t make this trip so early in the fall, but with my knee surgery now scheduled for next week, things will be much simpler for whoever will cover for me after the surgery — if I can only get those eleven lambs loaded tomorrow!  Keep your fingers crossed for me…..

6:38 pm | link          Comments Saturday, November 7, 2009 Amazing Guardian Llamas

Sheep are a uniquely defenseless animal, bred by man over the centuries to be calm and docile.  Because of this, sheep are eagerly hunted by many predators in the U.S., including coyotes (63% of losses), dogs (16% of losses), mountain lions (4%), eagles (3%), bears (2%), foxes (2%), bobcats (2%), and others (8%) [for more information on losses and other statistics regarding this topic, go to http://www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/PM1527.pdf]. There are many ways to protect sheep, and here on our farm, we use a variety of methods to ensure that our lambs will grow to adulthood and that our sheep are safe.  Besides the seven-wire high-tensile fencing with two electrified wires around each pasture, one of the biggest safeguards we have are the guardian llamas we purchased nearly two years ago.  Their sole purpose is to live with and protect the sheep. There are several animals that are used as guardians for sheep in the U.S. – dogs are, by far, the most common, but donkeys and llamas have also been found to work well.  Because of the statistics, we started with a Great Pyrenees dog, Abby, in 2004, but although we worked with her for three years, we found that our acreage was not large enough nor the right shape for her to work only our farm.  After three years and much soul-searching, we placed Abby into Great Pyrenees Rescue of Eastern Iowa (http://www.petfinder.com/shelters/IA164.html), where she found a new home on a larger acreage in southern Iowa, and we replaced her with our three guardian llamas – Vinnie, Chachi, and Luca. We purhcased gelded males, who have been shown to be the least expensive and most effective option.  Because they are guardians rather than fiber animals, their fleeces are hairy and not particularly desirable, so we shear every other year – not for the fleece, but for the comfort of the animal. The llamas are an interesting bunch….  They hum as a form of communication.  They “air spit” at each other, at people, or at other animals as a form of warning.  They don’t actually spit at people, usually, but are willing to spit at other llamas as they fight over resources like food.  They are independent thinkers, not inclined to follow the sheep so much as lead them.  They are normally separated so that each is in with his own group of sheep: Vinnie is in with the rams, Chachi is in with the ewes, and Luca stays with the lambs.  At this time of year, when last spring’s lambs are sold and gone, and the ewe lambs are brought in as part of the adult ewe flock, Chachi and Luca work together to guard the females of our flock, while Vinnie remains with his rams. It is not uncommon to see one of the llamas grazing with a sheep at his side or underneath him.  When Coda, our Border Collie, runs out to move the sheep, the sheep will immediately run to their llama for guidance and protection before settling down to move for the dog.  Thankfully, two of the three llamas have been trained to move for our dogs, so only Vinnie needs to be caught and haltered to move from one area to another – the others move with the sheep. I have seen these llamas do incredible things.  One day, as we watched out of our kitchen window, Chachi began to run towards the timber while Luca swept around the ewe flock and herded them up to the barn.  When the ewes were settled around the house and barn, Luca ran out to the timber at top speed to help Chachi.  As we humans ran to the timber to see what was causing the commotion, we found the two llamas facing off against our western neighbor’s dogs, who had come through the fence looking for entertainment.  It was an amazing sight – especially since these same dogs had, years before, harrassed our sheep and caused several injuries in the days before our guardian animals. Another time – on a beautiful, cloudless day last summer – I noticed that Vinnie’s coat was wet on one side.  Since this was one of the few dry days last summer, I came closer to investigate what he had gotten into….  I ran my gloved hand along his side, and came to realize that he was not wet with water – it was blood!  A closer inspection revealed that it was not his blood – he had tangled with some other animal that he obviously considered a threat to the flock!  We never found the remains, but it was obvious that the other animal had not fared well in the battle…. In our region of Iowa, coyotes are a common sight on the roads and in fields.  Coyote tracks used to abound as we took walks around our acreage, and their howling is/was a common interruption to quiet summer nights.  Since first Abby, and then the llamas have been standing guard over our flock, we have not lost any animals to predation – a record we hope to continue!  At least I can sleep well at night, knowing that our sheep are well protected by our trio of llamas. Vinnie, Chachi, and Luca are hard at work – and humming!

11:21 am | link          Comments Wednesday, November 4, 2009 Every Problem Has a Solution – Eventually!

OK, I admit that I spend a lot of time with my sheep, and sheep are not known for being the brightest bulbs in the animal kingdom.  I am also getting to that age where you might say that I’ve passed the end of my warranty – and like a vehicle in the same situation, I find myself with one or more things starting to fall apart, and I’m constantly needing to repair parts of myself….  My next anticipated “repair” is arthroscopic surgery this month on my right knee, which gave out a couple of months ago.  I am currently wearing a knee brace just to keep moving: carrying hay to feed the sheep, climbing the steps to the barn, etc.  The knee works, but cannot carry a lot of weight and my balance is not so good right now. (Remember those two facts.) So, a couple of days ago, I found myself in an unusual position….  I had a small group of market lambs grazing in an unfenced area of our “front yard” – a big two-acre area in front of the house that we have not yet enclosed.  I kept the sheep there using temporary fencing that was connected to the corner of one of our permanent pastures.  The temporary fencing was thirty-six inch tall mesh, attached to the corner post, and wired electrically to the hot wires of the permanent fencing. I had arranged the 650 feet of mesh so that it was somewhat like the letter P, with the base of the P attached to the corner post and the sheep grazing inside the loop at the top of the letter.  This worked out great, but to get to all of the rest of my sheep, I had to cross the mesh fencing that ran between the permanent fencing and the market lambs – the base of the letter. I had decided to take some pictures of the flock, but didn’t plan on getting into the pastures with the sheep, so I didn’t take my cell phone with me.  I basically grabbed the camera and headed for the sheep.  When I got to the mesh fencing, I did what I’ve always done for these many years: I slung my right leg across the electrified fence, careful not to touch it for fear of being ZZAPPED!  Electric fences are good in that when you’ve touch them once, you never forget to avoid them – ever again! It was in this position, with one leg on either side of the fence, that I came to a sudden realization….  My right leg was now in a brace and unable to support my weight as I tried to bring my left leg over the fence!  Worse than that, I am one of those people who leads with the right leg, and so did not have the balance to bring my right leg back over the fence to where my left leg stood.  Here I was, trapped with one leg on either side of this electrified mesh fencing, and no way to move either leg over to the other side!  DRAT!  And the fence was ON!  Double DRAT! So there I stood….out standing in my field.  By now, all the market lambs had come over to watch my predicament – at least somebody was amused!  All I really needed was to hold onto something – either to maintain my balance so I could return to where I began, or to help carry a bit of weight on my right leg as I lifted my left to the other side.  I just needed to hold onto something, but there was nothing nearby – nothing.  I waved at cars passing on the road – they all waved back.  We live in a very friendly area.  I knew Rick was out of the country for a few more days – I couldn’t stay stranded there until then!  I had to figure a way out of this mess! Well, eventually, I did realize that I could very carefully walk down the length of the mesh fencing to either the top of the P or to the base where it connected to the permanent fencing.  Once I made it to the permanent post, I could carefully hold onto the top of the post just enough to swing one leg over.  I had finally found a way out of my predicament! OK, so I never claimed to be that smart…. (You remember my first sentence? That sheep are not so bright and I spend a lot of time with them….)

2:11 pm | link          Comments Monday, November 2, 2009 Wild Barn Cats and Cider

Like most farms in this area, we have a number of barn cats in our barn to help control rodents.  I say “a number” because we have no idea how many are there….  There are people from “in town” who, when they get tired of their cats or their cats become sick, drop them off “in the country” to fare on their own.  Most of these town cats unfortunately end up dead because they don’t have the skills – and often the claws! – to survive on their own, but occasionally, they get lucky and wander onto a farm with a sheltered barn.  And sometimes, a very few of them end up on farms where the people actually put out food for their barn cats, like we do – they have a self-feeder of dry cat food that we refill when needed.  The wild cats much prefer what they can catch to the dry, so usually the dry is only eaten when their hunt is unsuccessful. The first cats in our barn new barn in 2000 were cats that had been abandoned near our home, and that our daughter, Ashleigh (then in high school), would find in the fields or timber.  As long as the kids were still here in the summers, they would spend enough time in the barn to tame any kittens.  Unfortunately, the kids are now adults and gone, and our barn cats are fairly wild as a result of their isolation – with the exception of Tippy and Gwendolyn (Gwennie), who are hold-overs from the old ‘kids-at-home’ days. Being so wild makes it a problem when one of them gets sick beyond the slight sniffle or superficial scratch.  There is no way to handle these cats easily, and the only way to catch them is in a ‘fishing net” or the “live trap” that we keep in the loft of the barn – they are just much too wild to handle! So, with that background, all of last week, every time I went into the barn to measure grain or get bales of hay for the sheep, I could hear a very sick cat: coughing, wheezing, and having trouble breathing.  I kept looking for the cat with the problem, but there were just too many nooks and cranies in the barn for cats to hide, and I had no luck.  Finally, yesterday afternoon, I found the cat…. Actually, she is only a kitten.  By the time I found her buried in the hay in one of the currently unused hay feeders, she was in really bad shape: barely breathing and then her breath was raspy, with both eyes and nose full of thick discharge.  This kitten was only a baby – maybe six weeks old would be my guess – and I couldn’t just let her die in my barn….  The vet’s office was closed, but I knew that an anti-biotic was part of the answer, so I got Rick to hold her and gave her a bit of Polyflex (an anti-biotic I eep on hand and use for the sheep).  She is so small that I didn’t want to overdose her, so I gave her the smallest amount we could get into the syringe and brought her into the house. Cider_Nov_2009.jpg To make a long story short, “Cider” is now temporarily living in our powder room next to the garage, eating heated canned kitten food, and drinking kitten formula from a bottle three times a day.  The Polyflex has done a good job knocking the infection down, but we have an appointment at the vet this afternoon to possibly get something more appropriate for her.  I figure we will get her feeling better and get a little more weight on her (she is very thin….), and then take her back out to the barn. The interesting part of this cat story is the fact that (1) I am allergic to cats and must not let them into the house – except this time, I guess, and (2) Cider has her own sentry/guard at the powder room door!  I’m not sure, however, whether the sentry is so much to protect the occupant or, more likely, to consume the occupant….  Lisa has been camped out, with her nose against the space under the door, since Cider came into the house. Lisa, who has an extremely strong prey drive, is very dangerous around cats.  Our cats know that their domain is up near the barn, and the dogs (especially Lisa) know that they are not allowed near the barn unsupervised – they must stay near the house.  This “truce” has worked fairly well over the last seven years.  I am a little concerned about Cider becoming too comfortable near the house, but we brought her down in a box, and will take her back that way, too.  Hopefully, that way she won’t connect all this good food and warmth with the house! We have gotten her to love attention, though – as much as Tippy or Gwennie.  She sits in my lap and purrs as I talk to her and pet her.  We’ve had to be very careful with her in the house, with Lisa so close.  She has won our hearts, though.  I wonder if she will take up Tippy’s habit of sleeping on top of the sheep during the winter….

12:45 pm | link          Comments Saturday, October 31, 2009 Coats, Coats, and More Coats! It seems a simple thing to coat sheep….  You get some sheep coats, you catch the sheep, you slip one coat on each sheep, and you are done – right?  Well, not exactly.  You will find that shortly after you’ve completed the last step there, problems begin to arise.  Sheep whose coats seemed to fit when you put them on are now stepping out of the legs of their coats.  Or, they have found something, somewhere, that tore or punctured their coat.  And, on top of all that, the younger sheep quickly outgrow their coats  – well, you get the idea.  It seems that changing, washing, and mending coats is a very big part of keeping coated sheep for handspinners! In getting ready to dissolve our breeding groups and once again group our sheep by sex (rams in one area, and ewes in another), we have been putting fresh coats on those who need them.  That job ends up being spread out over several days, as we check each breeding group for too-tight or too-torn coats.  Once we remove the old coats, they go into a hamper in the barn, and eventually, they find their way down to the house. The first thing that we must do with these used coats is to wash them – I use the household washing machine for this,  but must do just three or four coats at a time (depending on the size and the amount of grease) so that they actually get clean without rubbing off the UV coating on the inside of each coat.  After they are washed, we once again mark each one with the size in two places: the middle of the back, and on the right rear leg.  Why two places?  Well, we hope we will be able to see the size on the middle of the back (which tends to be the cleanest area of the coat) so that when we need a bigger size, we don’t have to use trial and error to get the right one.  The size on the right rear leg allows us to read the size when the coat is folded up, and gives us a second place to look if the middle of the back has faded in the sun. In any case, once the coats are marked with size, they are either folded to return to the barn, or they are put into the mending pile.  This time of year, the mending pile seems to grow each day.  The pile resides in my dining room (where I do my sewing, so that we can eat at the kitchen table), and after a while, walking past that room begins to become overwhelming.  The elastic across the dock, and at the sides of the coat are only good for about an average of two to three years, so replacing elastic is a very common project.  Also, regardless of how much we eliminate sharp corners and other places that might tear their coats, our sheep still find places to rip them up.  Certain sheep are more prone to tears than others, and for some reason, Celeste’s daughters always seem to tear their coats, no matter where they are!  I always end up with at least four or five coats that are perfectly fine as far as elastic, but that require major sewing to close up holes and rips.  I currently have about twenty coats waiting for washing, another pile on the dining room table (in the photo), and two loads of clean coats in a basket waiting for me to size and sort them. Once the coats are clean and back in one useable piece, they are folded up and go back out to the bins in the barn where they are sorted by size and wait until they are needed to cover the sheep.  A lamb will typically wear seven or eight coats in the first year, not including any additional coats needed for replacing torn coats – those seven or eight are merely to cover their quick growth.  The adult Romneys will wear about three coats in a year, and the Romeldales will wear two – the change in size due to their fleece growth over the year.  That makes for a lot of coats being processed each year: being changed, washed, sized, mended, and stored.  Now you know why many breeders do not coat their sheep!  It’s a lot of work – but we think the fleeces we get at shearing are worth it! 6:00 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, October 28, 2009 Of Border Collies and Chickens Border Collies are energetic dogs – very smart, but even more energetic than smart!  I love my Border Collies, and I couldn’t do what I do on this farm without them, but we don’t honestly need all that energy every day!  Some days, we need one or two of them to work nearly the entire day, but then on other days, we don’t do much at all….  I should rephrase that – I don’t do much at all.  The dogs still do plenty!  If I don’t find jobs for them to perform to burn off the energy, they will find things for themselves to do.  Not always good things.  In fact, usually not good things. There was the time that Chance decided to redecorate the house with toilet paper while I was on the phone….  Or the time that Lisa rearranged all of the furniture in our parlor – moving the sofa and love seat, along with the miscellaneous tables and chairs!  I think she wanted to see what was behind them, but regardless, the furniture was all moved to the middle of the room!  It’s odd that they are both into redecorating….  Coda doesn’t find much to do until we go to sleep at night – if he has too much pent-up energy at that time, he will play ball with himself and the others, throwing his tennis ball over our bed for hours.  It is a good thing to find them jobs before they find their own! So, twice a day, we have them chase frisbees or tennis balls, go for long walks, and then – well, they “help” with the chickens.  Our chickens are enclosed in a fenced-in yard around their coop.  Twice a day (if not more!) I go into the area to check for eggs, fill up their water, and top off their grain.  Lisa has put herself in charge of the rooster, who is definitely not one of the nicer roosters we’ve had!  She keeps his attention at the fence while I slip into the yard and make my way to the coop.  She does her best Border-Collie-stare to intimidate him, and he stands between her and her “dinner.” Coda and Chance have a different job – one that has developed over time.  They “herd” the chickens together so that they can’t “get away” while I’m in the area.  Now, you’ve got to realize that the dogs haven’t yet figured out that the chickens are confined within the fence.  When I check on the chickens, Coda and Chance spend the entire time running at top speed around the chicken yard, keeping the chickens in!  It’s great for burning excess energy!  In fact, if you look at the background of the first photo above, you can see a black & white blur passing the gate in the fence in the background – that is Coda, making his rounds! Occasionally, Lisa and the rooster will actually come to blows.  Usually, Lisa will start it, although the rooster is becoming more and more sure of himself, and is starting more of their attacks.  Thank goodness, the fence is there to protect each of them, so it is pretty much all for show.  The concentration that Lisa puts into watching the rooster is enough, though, that she comes in pretty well tuckered out. Chance is definitely the one who benefits most from “chicken herding” – he runs around the coop at full tilt, banking on the curves to the point that he brushes the grass with his shoulder (What grass?!  They’ve beaten down two “racetracks” for their rounds!).  No matter how many pictures I have taken of him, I cannot get a clear shot – he is always a blur!  You can see what I mean in the picture above – Chance is the blur on the outside track, and the inside track is the one Coda uses. Chicken herding may not make a lot of sense, but it sure keeps the house in one piece with three Border Collies in the house! 10:51 am | link          Comments Monday, October 26, 2009 Goliath Gets Stuck It is nearly the end of the breeding season for the sheep on our farm, and the rams know it.  There are very few ewes who are still cycling – most have been bred in earlier weeks, being marked with yellow, orange or red crayons by the ram who bred them.  We are now in our last week, with most rams now wearing a green crayon, but we have seen no green markings – a good sign, meaning that there are no ewes left unbred. Goliath, in the west pasture, is getting pretty desperate in his search for unbred ewes.  When I made the rounds of the pastures to check on things this morning, I found that he had become interested in the ewes in the east pasture and upper paddock; the Romeldale ewes shared by Ignatius and Ink.  He obviously felt that he could do a much better job than they had, and had started an altercation at the fence that the two groups shared. That fence is a four foot tall, four board fence, with each board measuring six inches wide and a full inch and a half thick.  The spacing between the boards is also only six inches – too narrow for the adult sheep to get their heads through, but big enough that the lambs can pass easily when they are young; otherwise, we would be having to save stuck lambs constantly through the spring and summer, and the adult sheep through the rest of the year.  We’ve never – until today – had either problem! Unfortunately, when we built the fence, we didn’t anticipate that we would have a ram quite as determined as Goliath, trying to get through the fence!  I found him this morning with his head stuck in the six inch gap between the bottom board and the next one up – about a foot off the ground.  We built that fence ourselves, and it is times like this that I regret the fact that Rick builds things so that they never, ever come apart!  Goliath had obviously been “ramming” the gap between the boards, trying to get to the ewes on the other side, when the force against the boards allowed his head to slip through the gap.  Without that “ramming” force, I couldn’t move the boards enough to get his head back though!  The only thing I could do was to find a way to take apart the fence…. I found the electric drill, a saw, a crowbar, and miscellaneous other tools that I thought might come in handy at Rick’s work bench in the barn.  Of course, he is out of the country until tomorrow!  I was able to remove one of the screws that held the end of the board above Goliath’s head.  Unfortunately, he was also very curious about what I was doing, so would not move away from where I worked, but insisted on getting a “good view”!  No matter what I did, I could not back out the other two screws – they have some type of glue on them so that they are pretty permanent….  So, I then tried sawing through the screws, but his big sheepy head was way too close to my saw to make a safe attempt.  I finally took the crowbar and put some weight into it, prying the board off the post, and releasing his big ol’ head.  I have no idea how long he had been there, but it had been a while! I couldn’t just leave it that way either – he might actually find a way to get to those other ewes!  To finish the job, I used the crowbar like a baseball bat to reseat the board onto the two screws that I had pulled through, and used the drill to screw the one screw back in to hold the board.  I figure I might as well not anchor that board it too well – I may have to save him from the same plight again before breeding ends on Saturday!  Nobody ever said sheep were brilliant! 12:38 pm | link          Comments Thursday, October 22, 2009 The Unusual Egg and Skirting Fleeces We had a newspaper and TV reporter here today to see one of our eggs!  A couple of weeks ago, Rick (my husband) came into the house with an enormous egg.  Thinking that it was a “triplet egg” with three yolks, I put it in the ‘fridge until I was ready to bake bread later in the day.  My bread requires three eggs, so I thought I would use the ‘big egg’ in place of the three eggs needed.  When I broke it open, imagine my surprise when I found another complete egg inside, along with the white and yolk of the big egg!  I did crack open that smaller egg that lay inside the big one and found the normal white and yolk. As if that was not enough, two days later, we found another of these huge eggs.  Since I had told my Mom about the first one, I thought she might like to have the second one, and gave it to her.  She hard-boiled the egg for 25 minutes, and then was looking for a way to saw through the whole thing so that you could see all of the layers inside.  We eventually did cut through the outer shell and white so that you could see the whole egg inside, plus the white and yolk (on the left in the photo).  With my Mom living in a retirement community, this egg has become a popular attraction among her friends, and somehow, while I was in NY, the media heard about it! Dave Rasdal came out from The Gazette to interview us, see Henny-Penny (the chicken who we believe laid the egg), and take a few photos.  There was also a photographer, who took both still photos and video, since it seems that our local KCRG TV is also interested in this story!  From what we were told, the story should come out next Wednesday, October 28th, so stay tuned! After all of the egg excitement, we put ourselves to work skirting fleeces.  A couple of the lamb fleeces were just too short to do anything with, and there was another with a break in the fiber, so we ended up with nine market lamb fleeces that skirted enough fleece to sell. All are white and high luster in comparison to past years – our breeding program continues to improve our fleeces every year!  Tomorrow, I will work on putting descriptions together and uploading photos, and perhaps by late Friday or early Saturday, we will have the list to send to our e-mail list of interested artisans! 5:55 pm | link          Comments Sunday, October 18, 2009 Fun in New York, and Going Home! We’ve had two wonderful days at the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival!  Although the weather was very cold both Saturday and today (there was even snow, on and off!), the welcome we received in the Breed Barn was very warm.  I have met and talked to so many people – both new acquaintances and old friends – that we got back to our hotel room tonight exhausted and “talked out!” I made a quick call home tonight to find out how the flock has been faring since my travel began.  Today was the day to change the marking crayons on the rams, and Rick, my husband, had to find help to get the new colors into the harnesses. He called up our friends, the Stockmans, to get the girls to help him catch and/or hold the rams so that he could get the harnesses off, change out the red crayons for blue or green, and then re-fasten the harness for another week. My understanding is that it was not a quick project!  The Border Collies are all at the kennel, since I am not there to work with them, so Rick and the girls had to “sneak up” on each ram, in turn, to try to grab him by the harness before he ran off.  I am so happy I only heard about this job rather than taking part!  I’ve tried similar things in the past and it sounds much easier than it is – it is amazing how quickly those rams can move when they want to!! Tomorrow, Chris and I will make the long drive back to Akron, Ohio, with the three little ewe lambs.  I will spend the night at the hotel there, and will take a flight back to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, getting home just in time to pick up the dogs from their “vacation spot” at Canine Corner and Cats Too .  It will be good to see them again after almost a week on the road, and then get home again to the flock!  It seems like it is always fun to leave for new places and new adventures, but then it is just as good to get back home to those we love! 9:24 pm | link          Comments Friday, October 16, 2009 Festival Prep Well, we made it to New York!  In order to get this booth together, I spent Thursday morning flying from Iowa to Canton, Ohio, to meet up with Chris Spitzer of YellowCreekCottage.com . I spent the rest of the day yesterday with Chris getting the display booth ready for the Breed Barn at the NY State Sheep & Wool Festival this weekend.  First thing this morning, we pulled out of Akron, Ohio, headed for New York! Of course, with both of us being CVM/Romeldale breeders, much of our conversation focused on the animals and bloodlines we have in common.  The time passed really quickly – I suppose that happens when the conversation is non-stop!  It ended up being about a nine and a half hour drive, and we arrived about 5:30 p.m. at the festival site. We brought three very young CVM/Romeldale ewe lambs along with us for the animal pen.  Since both of us are currently dealing with knee issues, it seemed like a good idea to go small – these girls were born this past June.  As it turned out, small was very good – none of the three were willing to come out of the crate in the back of the pick-up, and I ended up having to climb in to drag them out.  In the end, I carried them into the stall – it just seemed easier than trying to walk them on the halter!  Small turned out being VERY good!! The display looked really great with all of the beautiful items that various fiber artists had made for the occasion and allowed us to bring.  There is a drawing for a free denim shirt embroidered with the National CVM Conservancy logo – anyone interested can sign up at the Conservancy website.   I hope that those of you who will be visiting the festival will come on over to the Breed Barn and say hello!  I look forward to meeting at least some of you in person! 7:58 pm | link          Comments Wednesday, October 14, 2009 Poor Ivy Because I am leaving tomorrow morning for the NY State Sheep and Wool Festival (www.sheepandwool.com ), my mom came out this afternoon to help me get everything together.  She and a friend, Deb Stockman, have also volunteered to come out and note which ewes are bred while I am gone – looking for the tell-tale crayon markings.  To give my mom an idea of how I go through each paddock, feeding out apple pieces and noting markings, we went out this afternoon on a kind of “trial run.” The ewes were, of course, shy around a new person, so didn’t want to come over to get the apple slices that we had with us.  Eventually, their hunger and greed overwhelmed their caution and they came running over.  I noticed, however, that little Ivy, one of the ewe lambs born this past spring, was not among the group.  Ivy is easy to spot right now because she has a very obvious blue crayon marking – the only one of the group!  No matter where I looked in the pasture, I could not find little Ivy, who would normally be fighting with all her might to get her share (or more!) of the apple pieces. I also had to fill the hay feeders for this Romeldale/CVM group because their pasture is about done for the year, so I trekked up to the lean-to to get that done.  As I came to the top of the hill where I could see into the lean-to, there lay poor Ivy.  She has had a habit of standing on top of the filled hay feeders to eat her hay, and although I had chased her out several times yesterday, she had obviously gotten up there at least one more time.  Here I found her lying on her side next to one of the feeders, with the back leg strap of her coat caught on the clip of the hay feeder!  I hurried to free her, but was afraid that I might be too late – she was not moving, and had obviously been there for quite a while. As I freed her from the feeder clip, I felt a bit of movement in her leg – She was still alive!  It is so easy to lose a sheep to illness or accident – we were very lucky that I had found her in time.  I helped Ivy to get to her feet – she was wobbly and weak, but looking stronger with each breath.  By the time I had the feeders filled, she was walking fairly well and nibbling the fresh grass hay.  I did notice that she is no longer jumping up onto the bales of hay, though.  Maybe she has learned her lesson – I can only hope! I did take photos of the group munching their daily ration of hay in the lean-to; both because you can easily see many of the crayon markings (including Ivy’s blue), and because it is such a funny mob scene – you’d think they were starving, even though they still do have some grass in the pasture (just not the type of grass they prefer!).  Hope came over specifically to say hello and take a closer look at the camera – I’ve included that photo, too! My next post will be on Friday from New York! 3:15 pm | link          Comments Monday, October 12, 2009 Shearing! Well, our shearer, Mason Kolbet, from Boone, IA, showed up mid-day Sunday to shear our remaining market lambs.  We had twelve to shear, and this was his first time at our farm.  It usually takes us a while to fall into a rhythm with any new shearer, where the shearer knows how we want them sheared, and we know how the shearer likes things set up.  We shear in the center section of our barn, with extra lighting added for the occasion.  It wasn’t long before Mason was shearing, and I was doing the initial skirting, right there on the shearing floor! We found Mason really easy to work with – he knew we were particular about the way we wanted the sheep sheared, and was willing to work with us as we went along.  He kept second cuts to a minimum, and before long, we had a dozen bundles of wool on one side of the barn, and a dozen much smaller ram lambs in the stall on the other side.  We are looking forward to having him back for the shearing of our breeding ewes in January, 2010! Now the real work begins!  All of these individually bundled fleeces will need to be heavily skirted to become the fleeces that we will sell.  Unfortunately, that probably won’t happen this week, as I am off to the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival, beginning early Thursday morning, and won’t return until Tuesday, October 20th.  I have lots of things to get ready for the trip, so the skirting will have to wait a bit….  I hope to have them all skirted by the end of next week. As for the NY Festival, if any of you are going to be there, stop by the Breed Barn to say, “Hi!”  Chris Spitzer, of Yellow Creek Cottage in Ohio (www.YellowCreekCottage.com), Marie Minnich from Pennsylvania, and I will be at the CVM/Romeldale display there all weekend.  I’m looking forward to seeing both old friends and new – we don’t often get that far east!  Hope to see you there! 6:27 pm | link          Comments Saturday, October 10, 2009 Shearing – Almost! Shearing is one of those things in the sheep business that is really hard to nail down.  We normally shear during the first weekend of October, which would have been last weekend.  Unfortunately, our shearer’s harvest was not in, so he couldn’t get away to shear our market lambs, and we postponed until this weekend. This shearer is new to us and fairly local.  It would be a great thing if we could find a shearer from Iowa who could shear our sheep for their fiber, and not just to get the wool off the sheep.  We have recently been bringing a shearer up from Missouri for our big January shearing, but have still been trying to find a good local shearer during the smaller June and October shearings.  Once we find someone local who does the job the way we need it done, we can bring him in for the January shearing, too.  We’ve tried at least a dozen shearers to date, and have only found one – the guy from Missouri – who shears for fiber rather than sheep: a totally different emphasis! To prepare for shearing today, we moved all of the rams who are not in breeding groups into the barn in advance so that their fleeces would be dry for shearing today.  We cleaned the shearing floor (also known as the auxiliary lambing floor, and the extra storage area) so that the fleeces would not be contaminated as they were sheared.  We also cooked up a storm for our helpers – we can’t expect help to come out in the snow (Yes, we had snow this morning!) and help for free without feeding them! So, we are all ready to shear and now we’ve gotten a phone call from the shearer that he is caught at an auction this morning, his horse has not yet sold, and he won’t make it until very late today – can he come tomorrow?  Well, we do need these sheep to be sheared, so tomorrow will have to work.  We have called all of our help and rescheduled them, put the stew in the ‘fridge, and are off to feed the rams in the barn.  Hopefully, it will, indeed, happen tomorrow! 12:25 pm | link          Comments Thursday, October 8, 2009 Breeding Season! The rams have been in with the ewes for nearly three weeks, now, and this breeding season is unlike any other that we have had.  Not only is it much cooler and wetter this year than usual, but something is going on with the rams and/or ewes!  Usually, at this time of year, all or nearly all of the adult ewes have been bred – this year, it has been a bit slower.  As usual, we have separated our sheep into four breeding groups: two Romney groups, and two Romeldale/CVM groups, each having their own ram or ram lamb. Every breeding ram is fitted with a harness that holds a large 2 1/2″ x 4″ waxy crayon between his front legs.  When he notices that one of his ewes is ovulating, he will mount them, and the crayon in the harness will leave a mark on the ewe’s rump, indicating to us that she has been bred.  I go through the pastures once or twice each day, looking for newly marked ewes and make sure to keep our list up to date.  The lambs are due 148 days after the ewe is marked.  We have to change the crayons every week or two to a new, darker color – both because the ram uses up the old crayon (or it gets rubbed off and covered in dirt), and because a new color means you can forget remembering who was already marked in the old color. The one Romeldale/CVM group in the South Pasture got busy right away.  Ignatius is the ram lamb assigned to that group, and he marked two of his ewes the very first day.  He has a group of eleven girls and has marked all but two – Ireland, who was born last spring and may be too young to breed this fall, and Hope, who is a yearling CVM, and will hopefully be bred soon. The other three guys are not quite so efficient this year.  Usually, at this stage, all but the very youngest ewes have been marked, but this year, only a handful of the ewes in those other three groups are sporting crayon colors.  Poor Ink, the other Romeldale ram lamb, had a rough start trying to figure out what to do in the East Pasture.  I came out on his second day in the group to find his ewes covered in yellow crayon – everywhere but their rumps!  We found yellow heads, yellow shoulders, yellow sides, etc.  The poor guy obviously knew he had a mission – he just had to figure out how to make it all come together!  After about a week, he finally got his act together, and we got our first correctly marked ewe in his group.  Thank goodness he has only six girls in with him! The other two groups are both Romneys, with Ira, a white ram lamb in the smaller group in the Rock Pasture, and Goliath, a recessively colored adult ram, in the larger group in the West Pasture.  Goliath started marking his girls about a week ago, and is well on his way to having them all covered.  Poor Ira, however, is still thinking it all over and trying to decide what to do, it seems. Yesterday, his pal Irish decided to slip away from the “unused” rams in the timber, crawled under the fence, and joined Ira in his group.  As I came through the pastures to check on markings, I noticed Ira calmly grazing at one end while this white interloper was running from ewe to ewe, sniffing and mounting as if it were a race and he was losing.  Of course, we couldn’t leave him in there to breed the girls meant for Ira, so Coda (my working Border Collie) was brought out to move him back to the timber.  Hopefully, Ira watched all the goings on and has figured out his role in that group! The goal here is to have all of the ewes bred in the next couple of weeks for lambs in late February and March – hopefully, the sheep will cooperate! 11:11 am | link          Comments