Thursday, February 25, 2010

Today, a lamb could be born

Today is the first day a lamb could be born, but it is not actually the beginning of lambing. That’s good, because I have six meetings today.

When Dave fed the sheep yesterday, he noted the ewes with big udders, but none of them seemed sunken in front of their pelvic bones. “Are you sure we can depend on them being sunken in front of their hips before they lamb?” he asked.

I really don’t know. That sunken look may only apply to older ewes who’ve lost abdominal muscle tone after years of lambing. Or it might only happen when the ewes are a little thin. Or it might only happen to ewes carrying twins or triplets. I just remember that ewes who look sunken lamb soon. The reverse may or may not be true, that ewes who are going to lamb soon always look sunken.

So, today we will check the sheep morning noon and night. Tomorrow the same, but by Saturday, I will begin to worry, and we’ll increase our checks to once every four hours. We probably won’t begin going out in the middle of the night until one of the ewes is obviously in labor at the 10 pm check, or until the first lamb is born.

At that point, lambing will officially begin and our lives will focus down to the sheep and the farm, to the exclusion of outside meetings, projects and trips, even to the grocery store on some days.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


With fresh snow on the ground, I can see the tracks of predators – cats, dogs, hawks. Only the howl of a coyote in the depths of the night makes me more aware of the vulnerability of our flock than the wing print of a hawk in the snow. Of course, we have no lambs yet, and a hawk could certainly not carry off a ewe. But the hawk print does remind me that fences do not necessarily make a safe refuge.

When we had chickens, the weasel, the skunk, and the raccoon were not even slowed down by our fences. Each of them was able to decimate a flock of chickens in a single night. We don’t know that a hawk or eagle has carried off a lamb, but sometimes lambs go missing and we don’t know why.

When the snows drift high along the fence line, and winds harden the drifts until even I can walk on them, I worry that wild dogs or coyotes will be able to jump over the fence to get at the flock. We have had dogs of our own who got into the pasture through a gate we left open, and chased the ewes, stressing them to death. We have had lambs squeeze through the fence to be met by our dogs who wanted to play - fatally. We have had neighbor dogs, running as a pack, who breached a fence and attacked one of our goats, who successfully fended them off with his three foot rack of magnificent horns. But as near as we can tell, we have never lost an animal – chicken, sheep, goat or lamb, to coyotes or wild dogs.

My worries about predators are a part of farming, but not a large part. And so, I appreciate the outline of the hawk’s feathers in the snow. I try to imagine what he was hunting, and whether or not he caught it. And I think how lucky I am to be able to see the impression made by a feather in the white, crystalline surface left after a night of frost.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Pregnancy tests

Pregnant? no!

Pregnant? Probably not.

Pregnant? Yes!

Most of my sheep are pregnant. I’m quite sure of that. But I’m not exactly sure when they are due. I know the date I planned to put the rams in with the ewes. They should begin lambing about February 23 if we actually did put the rams in with the ewes that day. But I have this little niggling feeling in the back of my mind that we were late by a day or two.

What’s a day or two? Well, two days is twelve trips out to the barn to check for new babies – at least four of those trips at night. So, it would be nice if I could remember the exact date that we put them together.

Barring that, it would be nice that we had a pregnancy test that could tell us how far along the fetuses have developed. I know there are portable ultrasound machines that University shepherds use on their big flocks. But I’ve never actually known a shepherd who used anything beside the calendar, observation, and some common sense.

145 to 156 days is the normal gestation period for sheep. So we expect lambs to be born anytime between February 23 and March 27. When I look at the flock, Cedar is the animal that looks the most obviously pregnant. Unfortunately, he has never been pregnant and he never will be. He is just fat.

Most of the ewes have barrel shaped bodies right now, not showing much fetal development, like a woman at 5 months rather than 7 months. And I have learned that barrel shaped bodies might mean the sheep are pregnant or it might mean that they have been eating like a pregnant ewe all winter but aren’t actually pregnant.

The next clue I look for is a developing udder. Older pregnant ewes definitely have udders. Those I can pick out. But the yearlings and the two year olds often don’t have much udder development until just before or even after birth. When I look at my flock as they file past me on their way to the corn feeders, I see older ewes who are definitely pregnant and young ewes who may or may not be pregnant. I won’t know about those ewes until the end of lambing.

It’s nice that winter has moderated. Without a pregnancy test, I’ll just have to walk out to the barn six or seven times a day, to see who looks pregnant, and who has lambs – the best pregnancy test of all.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


Last Saturday, we sheared. Half a dozen friends joined us for the event and I think everyone had a good time.

Glen came for the exercise and the memories. he and his dog, Katie, just enjoyed being in the barn, working with the sheep. Katie kept the sheep in check, sitting just outside the holding pen, head erect, ears pricked, her entire attention on the sheep. Glen and Dave caught sheep and trimmed hooves. They worked the hardest of everyone and by the end of the day, both were stretched out on the living room floor, sound asleep.

Meg, Katy and Kimberly came to experience farm life and to play with the wool. They all spin and love the look and the feel of wool fibers. They gave shots, gathered up and bagged wool after Tom, the shearer, finished shearing each sheep, and skirted fleeces.

When the shearer finished with a fleece, he kicked it out of his way, and we gathered it up and tossed it out on the skirting table, a big grate hanging from the ceiling. Then we pulled out the dirty bits, the manure caked locks, the section of wool around each sheep’s neck that was matted and full of hay from her sticking her head in the hay feeder. On the uncoated fleeces, we pulled out the wool that lay down the center of each sheep’s back because of the amount of dirt and hay bits buried there. And we grieved each time we discarded a bit of fleece.

The colors were so beautiful – deep black shading to a warm, sun touched brown, or a blend of light and dark gray, and lots of creamy white. The individual fibers were even more entrancing – fine, soft strands of wool with dozens of little waves per inch, crimp in fiber speak.

Our fingers played with the wool, stretching the fibers, knowing in our hearts, our heads and our hands that this crimpy, fine, white fleece would spin into a wonderful, fine, soft yarn that we could knit into a garment of incredible softness, warmth and drape. As the fleeces passed under our hands, we talked and shared stories; stories about sheep, stories about past fleeces we’d spun, and stories about what we imagined we could do with the wool we were stroking. Even the near zero cold didn’t cool our enthusiasm.

Zaida kept the coffee and cocoa warm. When Tom ran his shears off the last sheep, Zaida had lunch ready for the crew.

Shearing gives city folk a taste of farm life. But beyond that, it gives fiber lovers, spinner, knitters, crocheters, felters and weavers, an intimate understanding of exactly where their wool comes from. They know the flock, what the sheep looked like before and after they were shorn, and the fact that beautiful yarn doesn’t come from a factory. It starts in a barn, on the back of a sheep, the product of a year’s growth and care.