Thursday, November 25, 2010


The first time I saw an alpaca I fell in love with the species. They have beautiful, soft, fuzzy looking fleeces, gentle, inquisitive faces and big golden eyes. The first time I saw an alpaca run, I was entranced. They move like liquid flowing across the ground. Their heads stretch forward and their bodies glide, apparently without effort just above the ground. The first time I saw a newly shorn alpaca, I laughed out loud. He looked exactly like a Muppet – topknot, long skinny neck, tiny body and bodacious long legs. The laughter has stayed with me. Just watching Kaylie, our alpaca, gives me joy.

I never considered buying an alpaca. They are out of sight expensive. I couldn’t make back the cost in fleece sales and I am not interested in selling breeding stock with all the showing of animals and public relations involved. But when a friend asked us to board some of his animals, I accepted without a moment’s hesitation. Just the chance to have alpacas on the farm was a good exchange for feeding them. When he sold those animals to a breeder, he gave me Kaylie in exchange for our feed and time. I’ve never had a better deal.

When I look out over the flock, Kaylie’s slender black neck and head rises above the sheep. She places herself between strangers and the flock. In fact, when Dave and I move the sheep into the barn, she tries to stand between us and the flock. When we work with the sheep in the barn, coating them, giving shots, or during shearing, Kaylie keeps up a constant humming. We’ve never figured out if the sound is reassurance for the sheep or warning to us. Perhaps it’s both. Alpacas spit with amazing accuracy and disgustingness when they are upset. They can also kick with their hind legs hard enough to seriously injure anyone unlucky enough to be standing behind them.

Kaylie acts as a guard animal for our flock. One day we took Buddy, a visiting dog, out to the barnyard to see how he responded to the sheep. Kaylie took one look at Buddy, laid back her ears, and screamed. The sheep disappeared around the corner of the barn; Kaylie stood her ground; and Buddy strained at the end of his leash, as far away from Kaylie as he could get.

When ewes lamb, Kaylie sniffs the newborns and then checks them out in their jugs as they sleep curled at their mothers’ sides. She is always aware of us, always on watch, a part of the flock, and much more.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Picky eaters

Our sheep are picky eaters. If we leave them on a single small pasture for a week, they eat everything down to about 2”. That’s the ideal. If the pasture is too big, they eat the best grasses and leave the rest. If we leave them on a pasture for longer than a week, they keep eating the best grasses as they regrow, leaving the rest to go to seed. And that leaves us with pastures full of overripe grasses that don’t have very much nutritional value and taste even worse than they did before they became overripe- judging by the sheep’s refusal to eat them.

In the summer, Dave cuts the long grasses that then grow back nice and juicy and the sheep eat them. In the winter, the sheep have to make do with what they get. But so far this fall, when we’ve fed them grass hay, they’ve chosen to eat the old grass in the pastures rather than grass hay. So next we gave them oat hay, baled from our very own oat field last summer. They liked that enough to mine it for grains of oats, but not enough to eat the leaves and stems.

We only have about 700 bales of our own alfalfa hay and that won’t get the sheep through the winter. So, late this fall, we found a source of nice alfalfa hay and bought 400 bales. The farmer delivered. In order to keep the number of trips from his farm to our farm as low as possible, he loaded his wagon and his pickup with an unimaginable number of bales. The wagon listed to the right; the pickup (eleven bales high)was riding on its springs. It looked like something out of a Dr Seuss book. I was exhausted just looking at it. Then the farmer and his brother helped Dave and I put the hay in the barn so that they could take their wagons home that night. It was the best deal we’d ever had on hay and the sheep are happy too.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hunting season

The hunters have been out for the past few weeks. I’m sure they appreciate the warm weather; I know I do. I haven’t unpacked my long underwear or winter coat yet. The sheep are still grazing pastures instead of eating hay. We have had time to finish farm chores – install a drain behind the barn, spread manure, take down and store the temporary electric fencing.

But there are disadvantages to the warmth. We still have flies. Dave kills dozens a day – their black carcasses litter the windowsills. Even worse, we still have mosquitoes! Absolutely unheard of for mid November. And we still have active deer mice.

Usually by this time in the fall, Oolong the cat and Dave have accounted for all the mice that attempted to winter indoors. But this year, they haven’t gotten torporous yet and an endless stream of little tan and white mice with big eyes and ears and long soft tails finds their way into the house.

Last night, sound asleep in bed, I heard a light scritching and a metallic thump. Suddenly, I was sitting bolt upright, eyes wide open, completely awake. “Mouse!” I announced loudly enough to wake Dave. “I heard it run across our headboard and jump to our metal lamp.”

Dave padded out of the bedroom and returned with Oolong. She snuggled down beside him and then jumped to her feet, intent on the bookshelves along the wall. Dave and I drifted back to sleep as Oolong waited patiently for the mouse to venture out again. We were awakened by a short flurry of squeaks and then silence.

I’m waiting for freezing weather, for an end to mosquitoes and flies and outdoor chores for the year. Oolong is still enjoying her long, extended hunting season.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Coats on the sheep

We raise wool for hand spinners. That means our fleeces have to be immaculate – no burdock burrs, no sweet cicely spines, no thistles, no tiny bits of alfalfa leaves. To meet this goal during the summer, we dig and spray the noxious plants in our fields. In the winter, we protect the fleeces by feeding small square bales of hay that the sheep can’t burrow into like they would a big round bale; and we coat our sheep. When sheep eat, they invariably take a bite of hay from the feeder and then chew it over the back of the sheep beside them. Little bits of alfalfa fall out of their mouths and drift down into the wool of the next sheep. Those little bits of alfalfa don’t wash out or card out. They are there forever to make unsightly bumps in an otherwise perfectly smooth handspun yarn.

Shepherds who sell their fleeces to commercial wool buyers don’t have to worry about weed seeds or alfalfa bits because the commercial woolen mills use an acid wash or high heat to destroy any veggies in the wool. However, those methods also change the surface of the wool fiber, making it feel scratchy and itchy.

So hand spinners are willing to pay extra money to buy clean, non-chemically altered wool that can be spun into smooth, even yarn with a people friendly texture. And for that extra money, I’m willing to spend an afternoon putting coats on my sheep. This year, it took three of us three hours. Not a bad exchange to be able to sell my fleeces for $10 per pound instead of $0.50!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Without Carly

The farm is different without Carly. Dave works nights this week and the house feels very empty. Oolong the cat is still here of course, but she is bonded more closely with Dave and rarely makes contact with me. I miss the ritual of feeding Carly and letting her outside during the day. I miss having someone to talk to. I even miss her labored breathing.

The most obvious sign of Carly’s absence is the presence of wild turkeys in the yard. After the leaves fall, we frequently see the huge black birds scuttling through the woods or across the fields. They can weigh between 6 and 24 pounds - not something I’d want to tangle with. When I come down the driveway after a run, the turkeys pause in the woods, freezing into the autumn camouflage of brown, beige and gray. If I stop moving for long enough, the turkeys eventually go on their way. I saw my first turkey roosting high up in an oak tree while I was standing perfectly still, just watching.

Carly didn’t stand still and watch when she saw turkeys. She barked and ran toward them, chasing them rapidly out of range. She didn’t spend a lot of time out doors, but it must have been enough to make the yard smell like dog or in some way seem dangerous, because they never came near the house. With no dog on the property now, the turkeys are advancing.

First we saw one on the roof of the pickup truck. Next a pair strutted over the wood pile. This morning, the entire flock of eleven stood under the radiant crab right outside the living room window. They stretched their ugly, bare necks up and plucked apples from the tree. Turkeys have beautiful plumage in shades of gray and brown. I’ve found turkey feathers on the driveway. The colors on the huge pinion feathers form crisp black and white stripes. The softer, smaller down feathers are more subtle blends of brown and gray. For some reason, the feathers stop at the bottom of the turkeys neck and wrinkled gray and pink skin covers their heads. Up close, in the autumn, with their feathers sleek against their bodies, turkeys are ugly birds. Next spring, when breeding begins and the males spread their tails to reveal the iridescent bronze and blue and green feathers, the males, at least, will be beautiful. Without Carly to scare them off, we may see those magnificent displays up close.