Saturday, December 31, 2011

Eating


At this time of the year, our ewes eat and sleep, eat and gestate, and eat. Their growing fetuses are taking up more and more space, to the point where the sheep can’t eat enough hay to fulfill their nutritional requirements. That’s why, about six weeks before the first lamb is due, we begin feeding corn.

The first week of corn, we feed one half bucket divided into sixteen feeders. It doesn’t look like much extra food for 50 animals. Every Sunday after that, well into lambing, we increase the corn by half a bucket until we are feeding six to eight buckets of corn daily.

The sheep love the corn. When they hear the first patter of corn kernels hit the surface of their plastic feeders, they maaa and rush around the barn to gather at the gate into the feed area. When we open the gate, they swarm in, claim a feeder (which they must share with three other sheep), and eat as fast as they can (because of the three other sheep).

Within minutes, the corn is gone and the sheep wander back to the hay feeders which we filled while they were eating corn. This morning, all but three animals stuck their heads into the hay feeders to continue eating – Kaylie the alpaca, the cashmere/ angora cross goat who wasn’t bred, and a single brown ewe who I suspect isn’t pregnant. I’ll watch that ewe during lambing, perhaps in the future we could use hunger as a pregnancy test.
Of course Cedar, my niece Leah’s pet goat, is the most ravenous eater of all, and although he looks it, he’ll never be pregnant; he just keeps eating.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Brown yarn


Last winter I sent off two batches of wool, 50# of light brown and 50 # of dark brown, to be spun into a variegated yarn, one ply of light and one ply of dark. In my head, it was a beautiful yarn.
When four big boxes arrived at my door ten months later I was disappointed. I opened the first box. The yarn wasn’t variegated. Even worse, it wasn’t very brown. The light wool with sun browned tips and the dark chocolate brown fibers had somehow blended to yield a yarn very similar to my silver gray yarn, with just a hint of milky brown, a little like a good cup of chai. I was so disappointed that I didn’t open any more boxes.
When I finally opened the last two boxes a month and a half later, I realized that my imagination hadn’t been playing tricks on me. The last two boxes held a dark brown yarn. The spinnery hadn’t understood my directions. I now had 120 skeins of chai colored yarn and 120 skeins of dark brown yarn, but not the variegated light and dark brown yarn I had imagined.
Fortunately, I don’t have to depend on a spinnery. I pulled a ball of warm brown alpaca roving and a ball of crimpy dark gray wool roving from my stash and began to spin. Sometimes you just have to do things yourself.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Inspiration


Somehow, I’ve created a life for myself that is overly full, scheduled more finely than the divisions on my daily planner. I love being busy, love the creative excursions I take while working on projects for the Library or the Multicultural Committee or the school. I love the physical exertion and the problem solving involved in raising sheep, and the creativity that is necessary for using their fiber, whether I felt, or spin my own yarn, or dye and knit my yarn after it has been commercially spun.
However, because my schedule is so full, I don’t take the time for much continuing education. I didn’t even realize that I was missing the education part of life until Athena, the publisher of my third book, From Sheep to Shawl: stories and patterns for fiber lovers, forced me to sell and autograph books at a fiber festival last summer. I sold and publicized my books – the point of the day- but more importantly for me, the other vendors at the festival opened my eyes to new fiber ideas. I admired beautifully felted people and animals, scarves knit out of wool roving instead of yarn, and dyed silk hankies to knit directly into scarves.
A silk hankie is an individual silk worm cocoon opened out into a thin sheet of silk fibers. Many, many silk hankies are piled on top of each other and then the sandwich is dyed a combination of shimmering colors. My immediate response to the dyed silk hankies was to want to go home and dye some myself. A few minutes serious consideration of my schedule persuaded me to buy several pre-dyed piles of hankies. The silk was lovely, one a square of gold and green, gleaming in the late afternoon sun, the second, like a window onto a watery world of blues and greens. They would be so fun to work with; but I would have liked to dye them myself. Dyeing really is my favorite part of fiber work and it had been a long time since I had done any experimental dyeing or even any dyeing for fun. I seem to have let other things creep into my fiber time. On the way home, I brainstormed ways to free up more time for dyeing, surfing fiber sites, trips to fiber festivals and shows, and especially time spent with other fiber people, gleaning new ideas and new techniques from them –inspiration for my imagination.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Chaos


I sat at the breakfast table, one dog leashed to one ankle and the other dog on a down stay beside me, Jasper in the high chair to my left and Kieran in a booster seat to my right. Each boy had a banana to devour or mash, depending on their inclination. I fed them cereal spoonful by spoonful alternating from boy to boy. The dogs kept checking for spills. The boys chattered unintelligibly and I grinned as I answered them, extemporizing on recognizable sounds.
We are so fortunate to be raising sheep that need only to be fed once a day at this time of year, rather than dairy cattle that must be milked twice daily. We are also fortunate to know Emily, a high school senior who cares for our sheep while we are gone. If I had to choose between spending time with Jasper and Kieran, my grandsons, and owning sheep, the grandsons would win hands down, even at a 6:30 a.m. breakfast with two whining dogs, two shouting boys, with bananas and cereal in everyone’s hair, and knowing that the next adventure with the boys will be just as chaotic.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving


When our kids were little we always had Thanksgiving at our house. Extended family members could join us; but that was our holiday not to travel. We pretended to be pilgrims. We cooked potatoes and cranberries and dried bread for stuffing over the wood stove. We didn’t watch TV or listen to the radio; we made our own music and our own entertainment. We used candles and lanterns when the sun went down instead of electric lights. Of course we used the electric stove for baking the pies and roasting the chicken, but we’d grown the apples and the pumpkins and chicken, so we felt that we were as close to pilgrims as we could get.
The fun thing about those Thanksgivings was not that we were playing pilgrim, but that we were working together to do something that we didn’t ordinarily do. When the kids got fussy, we smushed pumpkin for pie or put on warm jackets and boots to tromp through the snow to gather dried weeds for a table decoration. Everybody helped with the cooking; everybody helped entertain the kids. We were a family.
Our kids are grown with kids of their own, and we gathered this year in St Louis for Thanksgiving. No wood stove, no snow, no home grown chicken or pumpkin or potatoes. But everybody still helps with the cooking (even Kieran and Jasper), everybody still entertains the kids(even Kieran and Jasper), and if we use electricity for cooking and music and light, it’s okay. It’s the family together for which we give thanks.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Training a puppy


We began training Newton by reading the book Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson and enrolling ourselves in a puppy class that uses positive reinforcement for training.

Attitudes and techniques have changed so much since we trained Schwartz, our first dog, forty years ago. Schwartz learned well, but wore a choke chain all the time. Twenty years later, a choke chain wasn’t enough to catch the attention of Strider, our independent and enthusiastic Bouvier. We used a pinch collar on him. He wore it day and night for eleven years. I threw it away the day he died.

We are training Newton with a harness and a handful of cheese, using techniques originally developed by dolphin trainers. It is so much more fun, both for the dog and for us, to be rewarding positives with happy voices and food, rather than jerks and speaking forcefully to correct negatives. Newton has learned to “sit” and “lie down”, to “watch” us and “touch” our hand, to hand signals. We’re looking forward to “come” and “stay”. Some day in the future we hope to teach him “go out” and “come by,” the phrases necessary to herding the sheep.

But whether or not Newton becomes the sheep dog he was supposed to be, he has helped us learn more about positive reinforcement and training. “Yes! Good dog!” we say to Newton when he touches our outstretched hand with his nose. “Yes!” I say to Dave when he offers to stop at the grocery store on his way home from the lumber yard. “Yes! Good husband.” I think to myself.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Prairie


Last spring we planted eleven acres to prairie. We hired the elevator to spray our fields to kill the thistles and dandelions and then paid a custom seeder to plant prairie grasses and forbs. Two weeks later, Dave said “you know, that field doesn’t look like its been sprayed.” He called the elevator and learned that it hadn’t. The spray truck driver had tried to cross our ditch at the wrong place, broken his equipment and given up – without telling us.

We crossed our fingers and asked them to spray immediately. We had over one thousand dollars worth of seed planted. If it had already germinated, the spray would kill it. But if we didn’t spray, the thistles and dandelions would choke out the new seedlings. The elevator agreed to reimburse us the cost of seed and seeding the field if the prairie plants didn’t survive.

By late July we were really discouraged. The only plant we could see in our newly planted prairie was pigeon grass – not one of the varieties we had planted and not one that we wanted. In fact, pigeon grass is a terrible weed whose seeds work their way into fleeces and need to be cut out.

Last month, when we took our new puppy out exploring, I suddenly lost track of him. When I heard a whimper, I turned back. He was completely immobilized by pigeon grass. His legs, chest, belly and head were wrapped in grass stems and held fast by seed heads. He literally couldn’t move. We broke the stems, carried him home, and spent the next hour and a half combing seeds out of his fur.

Last week we talked to Doug, a friend who specializes in prairies for the DNR. He told us that they often spray for weeds within ten days of planting prairie seed. “Go out and look,” he said. “You should see prairie grasses now.”

When we walked out into the prairie, at first all we saw was pigeon grass, but then I spied a small sunflower plant and then side oats gramma and switch grass and Canada wild rye. We do have a prairie!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Soybeans

The soybeans have been harvested. All that is left on our fields is a scattering of green dandelion plants, a few drifts of cream colored soybeans where the combine missed the truck, and the shredded remains of the soybean plants. Almost nothing.

Experts recommend leaving 30% of the soil surface covered with vegetable matter over the winter. Our fields look much barer than that and they haven’t been tilled. The seed was drilled in last spring, disturbing the soil as little as possible. But soybeans as a crop leave so little behind that we may run into problems with wind erosion this winter until we get snow cover, and we may get water erosion in the spring from snow melt. Of course, we won’t get nearly as much erosion as if we’d actually broken the ground this fall.

The Land Stewardship Newsletter reports experiments showing erosion of no-till soybean fields on a slope in Iowa. Because of heavy rains, the farmer lost 11 tons of topsoil per acre in 2008. When he planted 10% of the field to strips of native prairie grass, his loss of topsoil dropped to hundreds of pounds per acre.

Our fields are all hills. This summer’s experiment with soybeans reminded me of why we try to keep them in pasture and alfalfa. We’ve planted two small fields to native prairie grasses, but in the future, we may look at planting strips of prairie in our other fields. And for the present, we’ll hope for early snow cover to slow wind erosion and a gradual melt in the spring to slow water erosion.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Make new friends


The first thing that Newton did upon arriving at the farm (after getting his ears taped so that he grows up to have proper Bouvier ears) was to look for a friend. The first animal he met was BC, the barn cat.

















A few sniffs, a few exploratory mouthings and a reprimanding swat or two...
and now they both watch for each other, firm friends.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Wearing wool


Sock models (from left to right) Dawn, Alice, Becca, Dave, Glen

I just finished reading Sheepish a wonderful book by Catherine Friend. She writes about all the wonderful qualities of wool; things I have known but forgotten. Qualities like the fact that wet wool still keeps you warm, in fact, wet wool fibers actually give off heat. And the fact that the bacteria that make cotton, nylon and polyester clothing stink after a single days wear, don’t survive in wool. Or the fact that some wools, like Merino, can be spun and knit into undergarments as fine and easy to wear as cotton or the man-made fibers.

On our annual canoe trip this fall, I wore a wool tshirt. After four days of paddling and portaging, it still didn’t smell bad, unlike the cotton long sleeved shirt that I wore over it. I had to wash the cotton shirt twice in the lake. The merino shirt won’t last forever like a polyester one, but it feels much better against my skin and doesn’t smell.

I wore my wool socks under sandals. We portaged five or six times on most days, jumping out of the canoe, clambering through the shallows to shore, carrying our gear across the portage and then stepping into the water again to reload the canoe. My feet and socks were wet most of the time, but my feet were only cold when I took my socks off.

Catherine found several American companies that use American wool and I found several more. Try Ramblers Way Farm, Wigwam Socks, Pendelton, Smartwool and Ibex, or even better, knit something yourself.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Shepherds


When our daughters, Amber and Laurel, were young, we sent them out to check the flock, to make sure that none of the ewes had their heads stuck in the fence and that the waterers were full. We asked their help when moving the sheep from one pasture to another, or when, heaven forbid, the flock escaped from their pasture to explore the hayfield or the road to town.

Once the kids graduated and left home, herding the sheep became more of a challenge. I have insanely frustrating memories of trying to coach neighbor kids how to herd sheep as we were herding the sheep, or even worse, to coach them over the phone from 600 miles away. “Stand here and don’t let any sheep past you,” we’d say. Or after the flock had flowed around them, “stand here and wave your arms and shout when they come toward you.” Or even “walk down the drive way and try to look as if you are as fat as the driveway.”

We talked for years about getting a herd dog. Most of the herd dogs I’ve watched take their owners directions much better than Dave takes mine (or, for that matter, than I take his). We even tried to teach Strider, our dog before Carly, how to herd. He should have been able to learn, his breed herds – cattle especially. But we failed. It was undoubtedly our fault, as he was an intelligent dog. We did teach him to pull hay bales on a sled to the next pasture, but he decided it was too much work and finally just lay down in the snow. (See, I said he was an intelligent dog.)

Now we have another chance. After a dogless year we bought a puppy, a cute, fuzzy Bouvier de Flandres. We have pledged to each other that we will train this dog, both in normal dog skills like not biting, not eating the furniture (or wool), and urinating and defecating outdoors, and in the extra skill of sheep herding.

So far, we are batting zero for four. But our grandsons, Kieran and Jasper, haven’t learned to herd sheep yet either. We’ll give all three of them a little more time and a lot more training. I fully expect to have three wonderful sheep herders by next summer.

Monday, September 19, 2011

WInthrop in detention



I drove four hours to Windom Minnesota to pick up Winthrop, our new ram, and four hours back. Dave had to work that day, but it was the only day that I had free and Winthrop’s owner had free that week and I wanted the ram at our farm so I could observe him for awhile before putting him in with the ewes on October 1, thus my solitary trip, with MPR as my only company– fortunately it was a good day for MPR. I learned about the uses and misuses of suspension and detention in the public schools.

Winthrop’s’ home pastures in Windom had been dry and closely cropped; we had stockpiled forage in the ram pasture for him to eat during his enforced solitude or detention, so he jumped out of the pickup happily to begin grazing.

Within an hour of arriving home we realized that there would be no solitude and no enforcing. Winthrop didn’t believe in detention. He jumped right over the 6 foot high fence dividing the ram pasture from the home pasture, then cleverly found the almost open gate from the home pasture to the south central pasture, and was tracking ewes as they grazed back and forth in the south central pasture - one flimsy fence between them. It was dusk. Winthrop had just jumped our tallest fence. We were leaving soon to visit Kieran, our grandson, and his mom and dad, as well as pick up a new puppy. There was no way in the world that Emily, our animal sitter, would be able to corral the ewes, separate Winthrop, then move him to a new pasture, and detain him if he went over the fence again.

Dave and I looked at each other and shrugged. Like the experts had said on MPR, detention just doesn’t work. We decided right then to introduce Winthrop to his new ewes immediately instead of in two weeks and as a result, begin lambing two weeks earlier in 2012.

When we let Winthrop into the ewe’s pasture, he immediately began sniffing ewes, trying to figure out who was the most receptive, who was ready to breed. The next morning, all the ewes were lying down, not quite ready to submit to Winthrop’s affections, but he was not discouraged and continued to stride from ewe to ewe, sniffing and pawing – behavior that he would continue until every ewe was pregnant and he could lay down at rest, actually looking forward to his enforced solitude and detention.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Luck


Last March, as lamb after lamb died practically in our arms, Dave and I struggled to find a cause. Not the hay, not the corn, not lead based paint in our unpainted barn, not a metabolic problem or an infection. Finally, after veterinary examinations and an autopsy, we were left with only two possible reasons for the loss of 20 lambs – either bad luck or bad genes.

Luck we could do nothing about; but bad genes compounded by inbreeding, we could rectify. We’d been using the same rams for four years. Most of our ewes were young – daughters, grand-daughters or even great grand-daughters of those rams. Several years of faulty ear tags that either fell out or broke meant that we no longer knew the exact parentage and thus genetic background of each ewe. We could easily have been breeding them to their fathers, grand-fathers, even great grand-fathers. Most small farmers don’t worry about inbreeding. It can yield an equal number of outstanding animals or defective animals and most of the young show no effects.

However, I wasn’t willing to take the chance again. I couldn’t sell what I wouldn’t use myself, so in August we trucked our rams to the butcher. Our butcher created four varieties of “Bad Dad” sausage from those animals, enough to fill our freezers and keep all our friends and relations in sausage for the next year.

Then I searched the internet for a new ram – one that was a twin, who had a fine crimpy fleece, and who was mature enough to impregnate fifty ewes in three weeks. We found him at the Thiesen Farm, a two year old Columbia ram with a proven track record. With Winthrop's new blood in our flock, if we’re lucky, lambing next spring will be easier, more joyous, and all good.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Gourmet tomatoes


Little orange grape tomatoes grow fantastically in our garden. We eat them for lunch and supper. I even snack on their bright sweetness when I walk through the garden or the kitchen

I don’t can those tomatoes, I save them for drying. Sliced in half and arranged on the circular trays of our dehydrator, it takes about 36 hours to turn three or four quarts of plump, juicy tomatoes into thin golden wafers – essence of tomato.

On our yearly canoe trip to the Boundary Waters or Quetico in Canda, the dried tomatoes provide vitamin C and bright flavor to our camping meals – an assortment of rice or noodles with variously flavored cheese sauces – alfredo, parmesan, and American, all selected not for their taste, but because they are light in weight, prepackaged, and only need to be boiled in water for 7 to 10 minutes to produce a filling meal. Our camp cooking isn’t gourmet until we add those dried tomatoes.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The long view


Last week, Dave cut down the cotoneaster hedge on the west edge of our yard, as well as three young box elder trees sharing the space. We can now see across our driveway, the barnyard, three pastures and into the state “waterfowl protected area” land beyond. We can see the sheep in four of their nine pastures, grazing quietly against the hills and ponds of Otter Tail County. It’s a beautiful view that we have missed out on for thirty years because of that hedge.

We have spent the last several weeks discussing the purchase of ten goats. We bought all of our hay this year, so we know exactly how much it will cost to feed an animal over the winter - $150 for hay and $25 for corn. That means if each doe has two kids, we have to sell each kid for at least $90 to break even assuming we have no other expenses. Worming medications and vaccinations will cost about $5 per doe. And the kids will eat creep, need ear tags and vaccinations themselves.

Hashi, our student, isn’t sure that the Somalis he knows will pay that much for a 100# kid, and we don’t know how fast our kids will gain weight. When will they reach 100#s?

Once we figured out these statistics, we realized that they fit our own flock as well. I’ve always justified our low lamb prices because we also shear a fleece off of each ewe and that is eventually added income. But most of the fleeces need further processing before they can be sold, so the wool is a part of our long range planning. Each ewe should also produce two babies.

This year, for the first time we have made over $100 for each lamb sold. We are learning to value our work. Perhaps taking the long view will mean that we can actually make a reasonable amount of money off the flock

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mutton busting (Fair kept eating)

I first heard about mutton busting, a sport where kids ride or attempt to ride sheep in a rodeo type atmosphere, a week or so ago on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. I first tried it myself a good twenty-five years ago. I wrote about it in my first published book, Shepherdess: Notes from the Field. That experience taught me to leave sheep riding to the kids. Fortunately, there are no photographs to comemorat6e that event.

“From a distance, Fair’s udder looked unusual. One half seemed very large and dark. Fair was a friendly and hungry ewe. She was always ready to eat, which is why she weighed more than 200 pounds. I walked into the pasture with a bucket of grain. “Hay, ewes” I called, to let her know I was there. Fair’s big head rose. I rattled the grain bucket. Fair started into a lumbering run, her ears flapping out to the side. If she didn’t weigh so much, she could fly with those ears.

I dumped the corn onto the ground. Fair gobbled as fast as she could, completely unconcerned about what I was doing. I was trying to take her down. I knelt beside her, reached under her body with both hands and grabbed the legs on the far side. Fair kept eating. I pushed my shoulder against Fair’s shoulder and pulled on her far legs. Fair kept eating, but nothing else happened. I needed more leverage. Still holding Fair’s legs, I climbed from my knees to a squat. This time, when I pulled on her legs and pushed on her shoulder, she crashed to the ground. Hurriedly, I lay down on her body to keep her from getting up again. Fair stretched her neck toward the corn and kept eating.

I lay facing Fair’s head. Everything I needed to do was at the other end, so I carefully and slowly swung my body around until I was facing her rear end. I felt her udder. Half was hot and hard. Definitely mastitis. Twelve cc of penicillin intramuscularly first. I pulled the syringe out of my pocket and slid my body forward until I could brace my arms on her pelvis. I stabbed the needle into the big muscle of her thigh. Then I slowly injected the drug. Penicillin stings as it goes in and I didn’t know how Fair would react. My muscles were tensed, ready to counteract any move she made. Fair kept eating.

I pulled the needle out and laid the syringe on the ground beside me. Next I needed to milk Fair to empty all the parts of her udder where the bacteria might be growing. I slid closer to her tail and reached around her hind legs. I began massaging her udder, first the top, then the middle, then the bottom. Fair kept eating. I couldn’t reach the top of the udder as well as I ‘d like, so I sat up and slid closer, my legs going around her body. Finally I pulled my fingers down her teat, milk squirting out. The udder was noticeably softer by my third pass.

Suddenly, I felt Fair’s muscles tense. I grabbed her back and her hind leg and thought heavy thoughts. Her muscles heaved and she struggled to her feet. I was still on her back, legs dangling six inches off the ground on either side. My hands dug into her wool, fingers clenched. Just as I shifted my body to slide off, Fair lumbered forward and then broke into a run. We passed the empty bucket at a gallop.

My fingers were saying “Hold on, hold on!” My feet were saying “Get off, get off!” And my mind was gibbering. I pressed my head against Fair’s back and watched the fence stream by. At that rate, she would have soon been in the woods and I’d be scraped off on a tree. That thought did it. My fingers relaxed and I threw my body to the left. Fair ran right out from under me. I hit the ground with my knees and elbows, sliding to a stop. I lay on the hard ground, tears of pain and frustration starting in my eyes. Suddenly, I heard whuffle. I opened my eyes. Fair’s ears blocked out the sun as she began munching the grass in front of my face. I got painfully to my feet and limped out of the pasture. Fair kept eating.”

from pp 36 – 39, Shepherdess: notes from the Field.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mentoring


This summer, Dave and I are mentoring a young man who is part of the sustainable food production program at the local college in Fergus Falls. Hashi lived the first twelve years of his life as a nomadic goat herder in Somalia. The next fifteen he spent in a refugee camp in Kenya. His dream is to manage a farm. Right now, he lives in an apartment with his wife and four children and works part time for us when he isn’t in school.

Hashi’s memories of goat herding in Somalia include searching for water, leading the goats to food, and protecting them from lions, tigers and hyenas. In Pelican Rapids, he has learned to repair gates, kill thistles, drive a tractor and haybine, and perhaps most importantly in a garden on our farm, has learned what plants grow well in west central Minnesota. His children don’t like the lettuce that has grown so spectacularly this summer. He’s not sure what to do with the broccoli, romanesco, and cauliflower even though I’ve given him recipes, because his wife has never cooked from written recipes. They are really looking forward to the tomatoes and the melons and squash in the fall.

About the time he harvests his first American squash, we will add ten South African Boer goats to our flock, and next summer, Hashi will help us sell kids to Somalis as well as lambs to the Bosnians as he teaches us how to be goatherds.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Compost to cantaloupe


We compost our garden waste, our kitchen waste and our barnyard waste. We have two twenty foot long compost piles. Each year we spread the oldest one on the fields and start that pile over again.

Every weekend all summer, when each lamb buyer is done, we clean up after them – salt the skins and throw the lungs, feet, and sometimes stomachs and intestines onto the compost pile. Then we cover the remains with some of the manure pack from the barn and let nature take its course, converting the remnants of dead animals to wonderful, rich compost that looks amazingly like the potting soil you buy at the store (except for the occasional leg bone or ear tag).

Gourds frequently grow on the compost pile, but this year, a melon plant is blooming there. If we can keep the lambs off the pile, we should have a big crop of delicious cantaloupe in about a month.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Farming on shares


This spring we decided that our hay field needed to be replanted. We have never invested in planting equipment or in harvesting equipment for anything besides hay. We contacted local farmers to see if anyone was interested in planting our fields on shares. Planting on shares means that we invest the land and some other farmer invests time, seed, fuel for his tractor, fertilizer and herbicide if necessary. Then we share the crop.

We had hoped to plant oats or wheat, feed that we could use for our sheep during lambing, but only one farmer had the time or the interest in our land, and he only wanted soybeans. Roundup ready soybeans, drilled into the ground and sprayed with Roundup to control weeds. Roundup Ready soybeans have had a gene added to their chromosomes that makes them resistant to the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate).

We needed the weed control badly, but we had not imagined using a genetically modified seed to do it. The first time our share farmer sprayed for weeds, Dave had marked the edges of the field, but we still lost lilacs, raspberries, walnuts, several apple trees, an apricot tree, and part of our lawn. Last week he sprayed again. The soybean plants were six to twelve inches high and a lush green before the spraying. They were still lush green after the Roundup application, but the weeds in the rows between the bean plants rapidly turned brown and shriveled.

In 2010, the Land Stewardship Newsletter ran an article about Roundup Ready crops that was very disturbing. Glyphosate has been considered safer for the environment than the pre-emergent herbicides that it replaces, based on the belief that it is chemically unstable and only remains in the environment for a short while, not long enough to create human or environmental problems.

Now research implies that the herbicide glyphosate may make the soil itself unhealthy for growing plants. In a summary research paper, Don Huber, a plant pathologist from Purdue University reports that glyphosate changes the nutrient availability and plant efficiency, either directly through toxic effects or by changing soil organisms.

One of the indirect effects of glyphosate use is that it ties up the micronutrients in the soil necessary for healthy plants. The plants seem to mature earlier, thus not gathering as much energy as possible before they shut down. Huber feels that glyphosate does build up in the soil and will continue to cause problems long after it has been applied. He cites research that shows that fields which have been sprayed with glyphosate for ten years yielded 46% less wheat than a field where glyphosate had been used for only one year.

We have found a different farmer to plant shares with for next year. He wants oats or wheat for his animals and will till the soil to control weeds rather than spraying with Roundup. It will be nice to share with a farmer whose agricultural philosophy is closer to ours.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sound of rain


Sound of rain all night long. The sky is overcast and the air is moist and cool. A perfect summer day for gardening.

Our vegetable garden is burgeoning. I’ve harvested four big heads of broccoli in the last four days. Dave had sprayed the plants with bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) at just the right times this year and there isn’t a cabbage worm to be seen. The spinach and leaf lettuce are also at their peak. So we’ll have broccoli and home made bread for supper one night and a chef salad the next for as long as the greens last.

The cucumbers are climbing the arch and although they aren’t blooming yet, they look healthy, as do the squash and the corn. The weeds have been hoed and intimidated for the time being.

My flower garden has not done as well. Somehow, between my weeding in early May, and mid July, the grasses took over. They now tower over everything. Dave and I attack the garden with shovels for an hour or two every day and are pleased to find bare ground when the grass is removed. Yesterday I bought a pickup truck load of wood chips to spread over the bare ground. The mulch will give our gardens a more formal look than I like, but I think four inches of mulch will slow down the grass and that will save my sanity.

Today, with the breeze from the east and the sun hidden behind a solid blanket of clouds, is the perfect day to dig grass and then spread mulch. I’ll download an audio-book and get to work.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Milkweed


Many years ago, following one of Euell Gibbons books and advice from a wild foods friend, I harvested a lot of milkweed buds along the side of our gravel road. I boiled them in three changes of water and served them with salt and pepper.

The soggy, dull, gray-green clumps neither looked, nor tasted appetizing. Even the surface texture was a little odd, sort of suede-like. By popular demand, I didn’t pick anymore milkweed.

However, the milkweed moved from the roadside to my garden and I love seeing it there. The buds change from a light moss green to a greeny pink as they swell. A tiny cross appears in the surface, and then the tiny pale pink flowers appear, hanging almost like droops on their heavy stems. I delight in the Monarch butterflies that rest on the blossoms, build their gold tipped chrysalis’ on the underside of the leaves and then, as caterpillars, feed on the plant.

The story of the monarchs fascinates me. How in the fall, the insects gather in huge masses on trees and then fly south across the United States, across the Gulf of Mexico and into the highlands of Central America where they hibernate over the winter. The next spring, it takes several generations of butterflies to get back to the milkweed plants on our farm.

The milkweed beside the road are cut by the township as part of their weed control effort. But I save the milkweed at the sides of our fields and in my gardens for the monarchs. And I now savor them also.

For the last two years, I’ve been a part of a collaboration by the Friends of the Pelican Rapids Library, the Pelican Rapids Multicultural Committee and the Pelican Rapids School District to create a book of stories and recipes. In that time, over 100 people contributed recipes to the project. The recipes came from farmers, hunters, fishermen, young people and old people, new immigrants and old immigrants. We collected recipes from 25 countries. We interviewed the recipe contributors and wrote stories about them for the book. Finally we tested all the recipes.

One of those recipes was for a milkweed bud gratin. That recipe is delicious! The buds, although cooked three times, are bright green and beautiful, the gratin is smooth and cheesy, and the taste experience is wonderful.

All the recipes in the book Many Cultures, One Community; a book of stories and recipes, are delicious, and the stories are as moving as the story of a monarch butterfly migrating across a continent and an ocean to find a new home.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Scent of peony


Every nice weekend during the summer, we sell lambs. This Fourth of July weekend, morning two men came. “White lambs,” they said.

“The white lambs are small,” I explained. “They cost $105 if they weigh less than 70#. The black lambs are a better deal because they weight more.”

The youngest buyer climbed into the pen and began feeling hips and spines. “What about that one,” he said, pointing to the largest lamb in the pen. I explained that the one with two tags was already sold. He continued checking lambs. “Too skinny,” he said, “you should feed corn.”

“I don’t like to feed corn,” I told them. “I don’t think it’s as good as grass for the lamb.” I could also have said that the price of corn right now would force up the price of my lamb, or that feeding corn might increase the number of nasty bacteria in the lamb’s gut, or that most of my buyers told me that they liked the taste of pasture fed lamb better.

They finally chose the biggest white lamb without two tags. “Aren’t you going to weigh it?”

I shook my head. “The biggest white lamb weighted 65 pounds yesterday and I sold that one. I know this one is smaller.” I went into the house to write up a receipt. When I got back, the lamb was dead. “$105,” I said.

“I already pay you,” the younger man said with a grin, looking up from the body of the lamb.

“You did not!” I said, hands on hips. He shook his head and handed me the money.

The next day, the young man came back with three friends. We put the lambs in the barn. “You can’t buy the lamb with two tags,” I reminded him as I left to find my weighing bag. When I got back, the younger man pointed. “That lamb is bleeding,” he said, “Can I buy it?”

That lamb had had two tags yesterday. It was bleeding today because it had either gotten its tag stuck in the fence and pulled itself free, or someone had torn a tag from its ear. “No,” I said. "That’s the lamb with two tags. I already sold it.” After a bit more discussion in Bosnian, they chose three white lambs. When they were done butchering, they honked their horn to call me back to the barn yard.

“Now, a lamb for me,” the younger man said. “Your husband promise me $85 because I bring you so much business.”

“No, he didn’t!” I said, by now quietly furious. “$105 for any white lamb that is left except the one with the torn ear.”

He shrugged and selected a white lamb. “What about a flower for my wife? Your husband promised,” he said as we carried the lamb out to the barn yard.

“I’m pretty angry at you right now,” I told him.

“Why? What I do?”

“You tore that tag out of my lamb’s ear,” I said.

“No I didn’t. It was like that when we got there.” He looked at the other three men. They shook their heads. “No, he didn’t. “He didn’t” “No.”

"I hope that’s true,” I said, as I left the barnyard, “I didn’t want to believe that of you.”

Dave had asked me about the peony several weeks ago when the younger man had last bought lambs. They had been in full bloom then, their fragrance filling the yard. Now they were done blooming. The flowers dried and brown, still clung to the ends of their stems. I don’t like digging up flowers, but it seemed unfriendly to refuse. And if the lamb really had torn out the tag on its own, I felt guilty of accusing him of the deed. I dug up a small peony with its rhizome and potted it for him, leaving it next to the driver side door of his car. When they left, they left the potted peony beside my peony bed.

‘I hate selling lamb to the Roma, the Gypsies,’ I thought. But my mind ran a self check. I knew some Roma who I trusted to pick out their own lambs, weigh them, and leave the money, even when I wasn’t home. I was characterizing an entire culture based on the actions of one man.

‘Okay, I hate selling lambs to the Bosnians,’ my mind muttered. But I have lots of Bosnian friends, so I can’t generalize like that either.

‘It’s the refugees,’ I thought, ‘I can’t communicate with them.’ And yet, some refugees seem to communicate quite well with their hands and their smiles. The young man who had started my thought train communicated with sly grins and mis-truths, an entirely different thing.

‘No, it’s the immigrants. They do things differently.’ It’s true, the immigrants do have different cultures than Americans, but they are gradually adapting to us as we adapt to them. Without the immigrants, I would be hauling lambs to the stockyards in West Fargo, a process I gladly gave up sixteen years ago when we began selling lambs to the immigrants. Now, our lambs are killed quickly and humanely in my barn yard, no sales barns and hot pens in the merciless sun, no frightened animals and manure bedded feed lots, no assembly line into the abattoir. Just a quick catch, a short carry and a quick death.

It’s not the immigrants, the refugees, the Bosnians or the Roma that I hate, it’s the selling. I’m not a good salesman; I just don’t enjoy it. But if I’m going to have the joy and wonder of baby lambs, it is my responsibility to see to their deaths, and that means selling lambs. And occasionally, replanting a peony

Monday, June 20, 2011

Home again


Dave and I arrived home to find the gate lying on the ground and the ram pasture empty. Rats! Escaped animals always meant forging through the poison ivy, circling the pasture fences and when we finally found the sheep, patiently encouraging them through the woods and around the perimeter of the pastures until they reached a gate.

At least this time we were only missing the three rams, not 50 ewes and half a hundred lambs. Dave walked south and I walked north up through the woods, just like we have done many times over the years. But the big difference this time was that we both had our cell phones. I had just trudged through the first poison ivy patch when my phone rang.

“I’ve got ‘em.” Dave said. “We’re heading north toward the gate to the home pasture.”

I ran back to the house. If I stood smack in the middle of the drive way, the rams might turn left when they came out of the woods, onto the path to the home pasture, instead of continuing on up the driveway.

They ambled into view, placidly turned left and continued into the home pasture where they immediately began grazing. Perhaps they were just as glad to be home as we were to have them home.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Lines of communication


Our regional electric cooperative hires a forester to help protect the power lines from tree damage, thus cutting off the flow of electricity. I think it’s a great idea. I always assumed that it was just some guy who decided to rip up the trees along a power line, without regard to the effects. I was glad to hear that a professional forester was in charge.

Our area of the cooperative was due for cleanup this summer. Dave talked with the forester, walked through our woods from the road to the house with her and discussed the best ways to do things. They could either trim branches, remove branches or cut down trees that directly affected the power line. Trimming branches meant they’d have to come back in a few years to trim branches again. Removing branches gave them a slightly longer time span before repeating the process. Cutting down the individual trees made the most sense from the point of view of the power company. Since none of the trees they would cut were landscape trees and most were box elder, a soft maple that isn’t a particularly nice wood for carpentry or carving, removing the trees seemed the best path to us too.

They began with one truck and a small grove of trees in the middle of our hayfield. It would be a relief to have those trees out of the way. I always dreaded driving the tractor-baler- hay wagon procession around the clump. I frequently lost bales to the low hanging branches and dreaded the day I would lose one of our employees. And furthermore, it was hard to judge how close I should be to the trees to meet up with the proper row of cut hay on the other side of the grove.

Next day we were vaccinating lambs in the barn. I heard the growl of machinery all morning, but was still stunned to see an white and yellow cherry picker bucket up at the top of one of the trees behind our house. As I watched, the man in the bucket raised his chain saw one handed over his head, made a slice, and grabbed the branch with the other hand to guide it’s path to the forest floor. The bucket lowered slightly and he repeated the gesture. It was mesmerizing.

After six or ten branches, he lowered his bucket to the ground. That was when I noticed the other vehicles in our woods. There were two cherry pickers, a chopper and at least one miscellaneous truck. This was not the one man with a chainsaw carefully pruning the trees in our woods that I had imagined. This was a crew creating a superhighway through our property.

What were they doing? Why? I walked down into the trees, trying to control my anxiety. It’s okay, I told myself, Dave okayed this, I thought. Would they stop cutting before they reached our plum tree, the one that had never produced fruit in thirty years, but still every year I hoped for white flowers and small purple plums? I was almost too full of emotion to speak.

I knew that the trees were a problem for the power line, but couldn’t they have talked to us about laying underground lines down our driveway before they ravaged the woods? If you have big machinery, you use big machinery. My vision of the single man with a chain saw was due to my lack of imagination, not their attempt to mislead me. They couldn’t imagine taking down a tree with a single man and a chainsaw. I couldn’t imagine driving four large vehicles through our woods.


To the background roar of the chopper and two chainsaws, I talked to a man in a yellow hard hat with a clip board. He put me at ease. First, they were chopping the branches and spreading the mulch on the forest floor - a really good idea. Not only would it decompose back into the forest, building up the topsoil and returning the nutrients to the earth, but it covered up the old strands of barbed wire fence that had lain on the ground since long before we bought the property. Second, they were stacking the logs they cut so that we could burn them in the wood stoves next winter. Box elder isn’t one of the long burning, high energy woods, but it would be great for spring and fall when we didn’t need quite as much heat. Finally, I realized that they had built their superhighway through the scruffiest part of our woods. Only the violets bloomed there in the spring, none of the other wild flowers that I had found or carefully transplanted to bring back the ecological richness and diversity to a woods that had been lumbered over one hundred years ago and then grazed by cattle for many years. My wild ginger, bluebells, trilliums, wood anemone and rue anemone, Dutchmen’s britches and showy orchis were safe.

I had thought I knew what was happening to our woods and they thought we knew. It was no one’s fault that even though we were talking, we really weren’t communicating. It was a good lesson for me on how what one hopes doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with reality, and also on watching and listening a little longer before I say something. The woods will recover. The apple trees in our yard are no longer overshadowed by the box elder trees in the woods behind them. The extra light in that section of the woods may bring new spring flowers. We have some wood cut for winter and it is only the beginning of June. The actual outcome is exactly what I would have imagined, if the lines of communication had included telepathy.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In my peony bed

a shriveled phlox
in my peony bed
herbicide drift

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

This is a lawn


We have an unusual lawn. We use a human powered push mower to cut it, so our yard isn’t very big, but it is lovely and functional. The forget-me-not seeds blew off the tables at our daughter Laurel’s wedding seven years ago. The lamium grew beyond the edges of our shade garden. The dandelions volunteered from the hayfield to add yellow accents.

The dandelions will be dug. The lamium and forget-me-nots will be mowed. As will the grass. As the summer progresses, a few more forget-me-nots will bloom and the lamium will creep further into the lawn. But I don’t care; I’ve never had such a beautiful lawn!

After we mow it, the lawn works fine for walking on, for picnics, for kub and whip darts and blowing bubbles. What more can you ask of a lawn?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fields of dandelions


I never expected that the result of twenty-seven years of carefully tending our farm would be a field full of dandelions. Somewhere, we went wrong. We aren’t alone with the problem, I’ve heard others bemoaning their dandelions, but we are on the extreme edge. One of the problems of limiting spraying with herbicides and keeping our fields in alfalfa as long as possible is that weeds do have a chance to become established. The dandelions are way beyond established, they are close to dominant.

This spring we decided that we had to dig the fields and replant the alfalfa. With our dandelion situation, we didn’t see any way to only replant half of our acreage. The blooming dandelions on the unplanted field would easily re-infect the clean fields.

Unfortunately, you can’t replant alfalfa in a field in which alfalfa has been growing. It is auto toxic, meaning that the old alfalfa plants left a toxin in the soil that inhibits alfalfa seed. It makes no sense to me, but may account for past crop failures. So we will plant something else this year and alfalfa next year. Our first choice as a crop for this summer was oats. We used to feed oats to our sheep, but we can’t buy them any more – hardly anybody plants oats because they can make so much more money on soybeans and corn.

We have a tractor, a haybine for cutting hay, a baler for baling hay, a disc for lightly scraping the fields and a rotary mower for cutting pastures. We’ve never bought equipment for seeding or harvesting grains. We don’t intend to. Our land is hilly and our fields are small. It isn’t good land for growing grains. June rains wash the seedlings and the topsoil down the hills. The big new planters and combines are too big for our steep hills and sharp curves.

So we have to find someone else to plant and harvest our grains. They will take most of the crop in trade for their work. No one would plant oats for us, but a neighbor offered to plant Roundup Ready soybeans. These genetically modified soybeans can be sprayed with the herbicide Roundup and not be hurt. The soybeans have the advantage of allowing us to spray the hell out of the dandelions on our land and still get a crop this year.

It has the disadvantage of going against everything we’ve been trying to do on our farm. Yes, Roundup is one of the less horrendous herbicides, even useable on organic crops, but I am not happy with the research I’ve read lately about how using Roundup changes the soil and decreases yields over time. If we use it just this once, and then not for ten years perhaps we will be doing as little damage as possible for the best outcome. I just wish there was a clear cut, unambiguous solution to the problem of fields of dandelions.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A flash of color

photo by Alice Ellison

I saw a flash of yellow in the woods. Of course, it moved too fast for me to locate it again, but once I started looking, there was color everywhere.

A scarlet tanager paused on a branch high above and then was gone. A hummingbird hovered over a purple ground ivy flower – guess that noxious weed is good for something. A pair of shocking orange and black orioles argued over the oranges Dave set out for them.

Now, when our eyes are tired of the subdued tones of winter, just as the leaves are beginning to open, we are so grateful for variety; everything is intense. The colors of summer can never be as brilliant as these spring displays. Or perhaps it is the juxtaposition of black and color, the sharp demarcation between wing and back feathers that delights our eyes. Whatever it is, that flash of color in the woods is like water to the thirsty, or food to the hungry. That flash of color sings in our hearts like the birds or the spring peepers – joy, joy, joy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

From Sheep to Shawl


My newest book has been released!

Fiber people occasionally have contests during which a group of women (usually) begin with a sheep and end up with a beautiful shawl. A shearer shears the sheep; spinners spin the wool into yarn; weavers weave the yarn into fabric, and by the end of the day, the group has produced a beautiful woven shawl - from sheep to shawl in one day.

My book was twelve years in the making. It tells the stories of sheep, of shepherds, of spinners and weavers and knitters and felters and crocheters, of fiber people in general. The book is a slice through the life of a fiber person, a peek into my brain as I move through life.

I only entered one sheep to shawl contest, back when I was a beginning spinner and mostly only knew beginning spinners. Our shawl was dreadful - lumpy and heavy. The folks we were competing against spun and wove a beautiful lace piece. The day was spoiled for me by the competition (and I guess by the fact that we lost.) In general, I love the fact that fiber folks support each other, help each other learn, the exact opposite of competing to see who is best. But still the concept of "sheep to shawl", encapsulating the entire process in a single day, is attractive.

And so I present From Sheep to Shawl: stories and patterns for fiber lovers, encapsulating the entire process in a book.

For more information or to order the book, contact the publisher, Athena Gracyk at www.wanderingminstrelpress.com

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A perfect day


Today was a perfect day in the sugar bush. It didn’t matter that the sap wasn’t really running. This Easter Sunday, like nearly every Easter Sunday for the past 26 years, we spent our day in Budd and Marguerite Andrew’s sugarbush.

The sun glistened off the waters of Grandrud Lake. The call of the loon echoed through the woods. Drifts of pelicans glided just beyond the trees, to settle on the lake. The air was full of the sound of people laughing and talking and making music.

We hung intricately decorated eggs in trees. We found bright wire baskets holding plainer eggs in trees. We hid eggs in hollows in trees, under logs, and around corners. Kids and adults ran or strolled from one bright spot of color to the next, adding eggs to their baskets. When they had found all the eggs that they could, they rehid some of their eggs for the next group of hunters.

We ate ham and fresh bread, strawberries and jicama, hot cross buns and peeps, hummus and vegetables, and of course, eggs – chocolate, malted milk, deviled, and just plain hard boiled.

It was a sweet day.
It was a bittersweet day.

Today was our last day in the sugarbush on the shore of Grandrud Lake. Next year, we will be in a new sugarbush on another piece of property. We will begin to learn new paths through a new woods. We will discover the biggest maples and where the wild leeks grow. We will explore a whole new ecosystem for signs of beaver, coon, otter, fisher and squirrel. We will learn where the bloodroot blooms, and the crimson cap fungus first appears in the spring. We will search for sumac to carve into spiles and pussy willows to harvest. We will locate new sources of grape vine and bittersweet for baskets. We will begin to name the trees. There will never be another Lacey, that huge, gnarled old maple whose branches are dying, but who is still one of the best sap producers in the woods, but we’ll find another tree to begin building legends around.

In a new sugar bush we won’t have to scavenge as far as we’ve had to the last few years for dead trees; there will be lots of wood for burning where-ever we set up our sugar camp. On the other hand, we will have to build a new shed to store our gear and find a new place to hang the kitchen cupboard. But maybe, we’ll finally build the roof over the fires that we’ve always dreamed of, so that even on rainy days people will be comfortable out in the woods. And then, as we stand around the fires, splitting wood, toasting bread or making pudgy pies in pie irons, we will tell the stories of the years in the old sugar bush, and begin creating new legends.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A shepherd's blessing


Bottle lambs find a special place in our hearts. They learn to recognize the sight of our coveralls and the sound of our voices. They come running when the gate rattles and butt our legs, vying with each other for the most advantageous spot to be first at the nipple. With three bottles lambs and only two hands to hold bottles, it is a bit chaotic when the lambs try to force each other off the nipple.

When Amber’s sister’s in law, Avalon and Jianna, came to visit, their big brother taught them how to bottle feed the lambs. Avalon fell in love with #62 and named him Max. She fed him, carried him around, and hugged him as often as possible during the five days of their visit. When they left, Avalon cried. She won’t see Max again; we don’t keep any of our own ram lambs for our flock. But her memories of a loving white lamb will remain with her forever.

I just wish that Max had been a girl. I love to keep bottle lambs. It isn’t smart. They might be bottle lambs because their mom couldn’t figure out how to be a good mom, or because she couldn’t feed as many lambs as she had – neither of which is a very good trait to add to the flock. But in general, if we have a bottle lamb that we bond with who also has a nice fleece, we keep her. Dave and I make the same connections with bottle lambs that Avalon did. We recognize their bleats. We can locate them in the center of the flock. We scratch their fuzzy heads and when they are small, we hold them next to our hearts to feed them. We don’t forget bottle lambs either.

A good blessing for a shepherd might be ‘May all your bottle lambs be girls.’

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Signs of spring


There are so many signs of spring. Today, five grabbed me and shook me, shouting ‘Look at us! We are spring!’

Crocus flowers have opened in all their purple and golden glory – bright splotches of color in the still brown gardens.

Today we heard the echoing laugh of the first loon.

The odor of a skunk passing by lingers in the air long after his body has disappeared from the neighborhood.

Wild leeks appear, bright green in the brown woods, their pungent flavor just perfect for potato soup.

Pussy willows bloom soft and fuzzy under my fingertips.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Nine lives


The lamb with the broken leg died yesterday morning. His injuries were more severe than I imagined.

This morning when I went out to the barn I saw through the window, a black ewe lying on her back. I dashed around the barn, heart pounding. It was Christmas! She had been there awhile; a small pile of sheep pellets lay behind her. I turned her over and she staggered to her feet. Her lambs immediately started trying to nurse.

I knew that the lamb with the broken leg was facing an uphill struggle, that there was a good chance he would die. I know that Christmas is old and weaker than the younger ewes. I know that one of these days I will go out to the pasture to feed the sheep or to move them to a new pasture and Christmas will not follow.

In my head I know these hard facts of raising animals. But in my heart, in my bones, I wish the animals I care for to be ageless. When the lamb died, I felt grief and relief. One of his best case outcomes would have been to only lose his leg. As sick as he was, I would have been gavaging him with lamb milk replacer 4 or 5 times a day to keep him nourished and he still might have died of a bone infection or gangrene. When she was pregnant, Christmas ruptured the ligaments that hold her uterus up. I will not be able to breed her again. If I was a shepherdess with her eye on the bottom line, I would not feed Christmas through another winter. But my heart speaks much louder than my bottom line. As long as she survives she is a part of my flock and I will feed her, care for her.

I just wish it didn’t hurt so much to lose animals I care for.

After I was sure that Christmas was doing all right, I climbed up into the barn. BC (that is, Barn Cat), greeted me, purring and winding back and forth between my legs. She loves us almost as much as the bottle lambs do. More actually. BC purrs and asks to be petted even when her food dish is full. I sat down beside her and began running my hand across her back, across her head. Just sitting and petting, letting my mind run free. In that five minutes of sitting and petting, my mind slid away from grief, slid out from under my lists of things to do. I just sat and petted, enjoying the feel of sleek fur under my fingers, enjoying the quiet in the hay mow, the sounds of sheep and lambs eating just outside. I just sat and loved BC. She is a gift from the world. She came to us in the middle of the winter and Dave tamed her. She is a friends, uncomplicated. I can love her without restraint. It’s nice to bond with an animal that has 9 lives.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The mist hangs heavy


The mist hangs heavy in the air. It froze last night and the temperatures is predicted to reach the 40's today. A perfect day for the sap to run in the sugar bush. I should be happy.

I have a sick lamb in the barn. He broke his leg last week and Dave and I set it. He followed his mother just fine and was practically running with the rest of the lambs. Then he got his splint caught in a feeder and in struggling to get free, broke his leg in a second place. This was a bad break, a compound fracture with 3" of bone sticking out. Way beyond my area of expertise. Dr. Magnusson cleaned up the bone and the tissue and set the break. But the possibility of infection is high, and the blood vessels and nerves for that leg were badly damaged. When I took the lamb home, I knew it was an iffy proposition.

I set up the group pen again and bedded it with clean straw and laid the lamb under the heat lamp. His mom wasn't actively looking for him and wouldn't come unless he baaed, which he wasn't up to doing right then, but she would search out his sister if she called.

So I caught his sister and set her next to him in the group pen. She baaed and mom came running. This morning, mom and sister are quietly eating hay. The lamb with the broken leg hasn't moved. He won't drink from a bottle. I fed him milk replacer by gavage last night, but this morning, I can't get the tube into his esophagous, it keeps going into his trachea. He coughs and I pull the tube out.

He's only had 6 ounces of milk since I brought him home from the vet. I have to figure out a way to keep him nourished. I am not optimistic. My heart is heavy.

Monday, April 4, 2011

From here to there and back again



If they were fish, we'd call it schooling. If they were birds, we'd call it flocking. With lambs, Dave calls it a lampede. They're not frightened, in a panic, or going anywhere in particular; they are just full of energy and joy.

The lambs have to be old enough to hang out with each other instead of their mothers. We don't have grass in the pastures yet so they aren't running toward food. The lambs need to be full and warm. They don't often run like this on cold rainy days, but any sunny day will find up to 30 or 40 lambs running. Other lambs join them as they pass, pronking with all four feet off the ground - another sign of joy.

Both Dave and I walk out to the barnyard and lean on the gate just to watch the lambs run from here to there and back again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Surprise!


The wind was roaring through the trees when I walked out for the 7 a.m. lamb feeding yesterday. I stepped around the Nankin cherry bush at the edge of our driveway and saw what looked like a fur hat riffling in the wind on top of the garbage can. It took me a few seconds for the image of fur hat, black and white fur hat at that, to rearrange itself in my mind to SKUNK!

I backed quietly toward the house. By the time I returned with Dave, the fur hat was gone.

Later that morning, when Dave fed the ewes, he noticed that one of the ewes didn’t come up for corn. She was pawing at the hay in the field. That’s not normal behavior for a sheep at this time of year. They’d rather eat corn than hay. When he went down to investigate, he found she was in labor. Ten days after our last set of lambs and we have new babies in the barn!

Two surprises in one day; almost more than a person can stand. Nobody got sprayed and nobody died. The best kind of surprises.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lights glowing in the night

Dave and I were first introduced to headlamps on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area last summer. Jesse, our son-in-law, used a head lamp to navigate us across a lake at night in a storm. He found us a campsite and avoided all the rocks in the way. It was amazing! When we got home, we ordered one for each of us to use during lambing.

Lambing checks at night can be a spooky proposition. The flashlight only shows a small area of ground at a time, so we have to sweep it back and forth. Also, most of our flashlights are constantly in need of new batteries. And if you want to work with a flashlight, you have to stick it in your mouth to leave your hands free. And if you set that flashlight down in the barnyard before you stick it in your mouth...

Several years ago I gave up on regular flashlights and bought some hand crank flashlights to save on batteries and to always have a flashlight that worked. But, as Gautam, our other son-in-law says, hand cranked flashlights only work in theory. The light beam they shed isn’t very bright and you do have to crank fairly often, which you can’t do with your mouth if you need to free up your hands.

So, the Petzl headlamps looked to be a wonderful improvement with hands free operation, and a good, bright light over the exact field of view of our eyes.

The first night I went out with my headlamp, it was snowing. Everywhere I looked, the air was filled with glittering crystals. It was so beautiful, I stood there entranced. Then I stepped into the pasture. Dozens of pairs of little green lights glowed in the distance. Most of the sheep were out enjoying a nice winter evening. Their eyes glowed green in reflection. When I stepped into the barn, dozens more green lights looked back at me. The headlamp had completely changed our grubby, late winter, manure – covered barnyard into a fairyland at night. My light woke the sparrows nesting in the barn, which fluttered around in the rafters, until one hovered in front of me, tail feathers spread, wings spread, staring into the beam of my headlamp. A fairyland indeed.

Last night, when Dave went out to feed the bottle lambs, he noticed a pair of glowing green lights beyond the barnyard fence in the south pasture, watching the barn yard. Dave walked toward the lights, expecting them to disappear. They continued to glow, steady, watching him now. Those eyes didn’t belong to sheep, they were in the wrong pasture. They didn’t belong to deer or any of the other animals that are afraid of people. They could have been dog or coyote. Either was bad news for the flock. Dave shut all the animals in the barn and closed the gate into the next pasture. By the time he was done, the glowing eyes were gone. But where had they gone?

Predators are always of concern on a farm. This morning, Dave checked the snow beyond the gate. No tracks. Whatever had been watching the barnyard hadn’t tried to come any closer to the barn. We will leave that gate closed until we have a chance to check our south fence lines. There can be a dark side to fairyland.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Freedom's just another word for...


Today we let the last set of lambs and ewes out of the group pen. For the ewes, the open door meant freedom and they rushed out. For the lambs, the open door meant nothing, but they rushed out all the same just because everybody else was rushing out.
The lambs immediately realized that they were someplace strange and called for their mothers. Most of the ewes realized almost immediately, that their babies were missing and came back to the barn to find them, maaing. Some ewes expected their babies to come find them. Those moms and babies called from opposite sides of the barnyard and never seem to get any closer.

For an hour or so in our barnyard, freedom's just another word for cacophony.

Eventually, all the moms and babies find each other and only call periodically when they can't actively see each other. They call, for example, if they are on the other side of the barn from each other, or if one is inside and one is out, or if they are standing next to each other, but one is facing north and one is facing south.

There are good reasons why sheep are thought to be dumb animals. Of course, I can also remember my kids and I doing the same thing - we just used more complicated sounds to call each other.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Clip, dip, strip


Clip, Dip, Strip is a mnemonic that we use in the barn to make sure we remember to clip every lamb’s umbilical cord, to dip the stub of the cord into iodine and to strip the first milk from the ewe’s teats. I think most shepherds use something similar. Those first actions go a long way toward ensuring a new lamb’s survival.

We clip the umbilical cord to shorten it so it’s less apt to trail in the manure of the barn floor and pick up bacteria. We dip the stump to help it dry up faster and further protect the lamb from nasty bacteria. Lamb’s don’t start making their own antibodies for several weeks; they depend on the antibodies they receive through their mom’s milk. If they don’t have enough antibodies, or if the number of bacteria to which they are exposed are high enough, young lambs can develop fatal cases of diarrhea. And finally, we strip the ewe’s teats to make sure she has milk and to expel a plug of dried milk that might make nursing harder for the lamb.

All three of those actions help ensure a new lamb’s survival. With the mnemonic, they all get done even if the shepherd isn’t thinking in top form at all hours of the day and night. And we don’t, think in top form that is.

One night, before his 3 a.m. barn check, Dave sat on the edge of the bed for an embarrassing length of time, trying to figure out which opening of his sweatshirt he should put his right leg through. Sunday morning, I lay in bed telling myself that because it was daylight savings time, I could wait until 8 a.m. to do my 7 a.m. barn check. My reasoning made perfect sense. We were supposed to move our clocks one hour forward, so from seven to eight, and I hadn’t changed mine yet. The fact that I had been out in the barn until 2 a.m. with an old ewe and two new babies might explain why my brain wasn’t working quite right.

Last night, I was disappointed to find several sheep and a lamb outside at the feeders because I had hoped to lock them into the barn again. But it was really quite a mild night so I set aside the idea of herding them into the barn in the dark. As I headed back down the hill, the lamb followed me, crying. I picked it up and checked its number. 61. Hmm, that lamb should be still in a pen. But a ewe at the feeder called and the lamb responded. Then another ewe called and the lamb responded. Okay, I reconsidered, that was a 16 not a 61. I set the lamb down and he ran off towards the calling ewes.

I went to bed. This morning, I noticed that the lamb sleeping curled in the corner next to the waterer (a favorite place because the water heater warms that corner), was white instead of black number 45, the usual inhabitant. I checked to make sure it wasn’t 29, our sometimes bottle lamb, but the number showing on the tag was a one. So I went on with my barn chores, giving the penned moms fresh water and hay. I also checked to make sure that every baby in every pen stretched. When I got to 24 red’s pen, I paused, there was only one lamb where I expected to see two and the one lamb was tagged with the number 60.

My heart sank; I ran for the barn records. Yes, 24 red should have had two lambs, number 60 and number 61. I picked up number 61 from his spot next to the heater and put him in his mother’s pen. She sniffed him; he headed for breakfast. When I checked his belly a few minutes later, it was round and full.

If we can just think of mnemonics for the all the rest of our lambing actions – like “can” means “check all numbers”, or “slot” means “short leg openings = tshirt” we would have perfect lambings.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The storm




Friday night when I did my 11 p.m. check, all the sheep were in the barn. The wind howled as I rounded the corner and faced into the wind; tiny pellets of snow cut at my face – ‘not a fit night for man nor beast’. I pulled the barn door shut and trapped all the animals in the relative warmth of the barn – at least they were out of the wind. By morning, it would be degrees warmer inside than outside.

Orange number five had not been able to adopt a new lamb. She licked it, but when we tried to move her away from her dead lamb, she left the new lamb for the dead one. We didn’t want to have her lick the new lamb and completely change its odor, and then abandon it, so we returned the live lamb to its real mother who was birthing her third. I guess Dave and I really aren’t risk takers. Fifty yellow, the mother of the triplets is a good mother, they will all thrive under her care.

When I opened the door at 7 a.m., four more ewes had lambed. I was grateful that we hadn’t had to search for those babies in the storm.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The first thing


The first thing I found when I walked out to the barn this morning, was a cold lamb, lying at her mother’s feet on the ice. I ran back to the house, filled a bucket with warm water, grabbed some clean towels and went back to the barn.

The second thing I saw when I walked out to the barn this morning, was the mother of the cold lamb and a black ewe both sniffing another little white lamb lying in the straw. Which ewe did that lamb belong to? I set the cold lamb in the bucket and figured out how to prop its head on the side of the bucket. Until the lamb warmed a little and started to struggle, she should be safe. I needed to figure out which ewe the new lamb belonged to and get the pair penned so they could bond in peace. I headed toward the back of the barn and our last two open jugs.

The third thing I saw this morning before I got to the back of the barn, was a white ewe and the black and white spotted baby thief arguing over two big black lambs who still had their tails – obviously newborn.

I spread fresh straw in the jugs and turned on the heat lamps. The white lamb was nursing on the black ewe. The cold lamb hadn’t moved in the bucket of warm water. I picked up the two black lambs and backed down the barn. The baby thief and the white ewe both followed, the baby thief inserting her body between the babies and the white ewe, no matter how I twisted and turned. I set the babies down in front of their pen and looked carefully at both ewes. The white ewe had a few bloody splotches on her udder; the baby thief’s udder and legs were clean. I wrestled her out of the way, opened the jug panel and slipped the babies onto the straw under the heat lamp. The white ewe pushed in after them. I closed the panel and the baby thief threw herself against it. I tied it tightly and then did a quick pelvic exam on the white ewe to make sure these really were her babies. Her nipples had milk and her uterus had mucous. Even though the babies were black and she was white, I was fairly certain that I had guessed correctly.

When I went back to the cold lamb, she was dead.

Now I had to figure out which ewe the live white lamb belonged to and it was more important than ever. If I gave a lamb to a pregnant ewe, she might not be able to nurse it yet and it would die. Both ewes had amniotic fluid shining on their udders. The white ewe had blood staining her udder, her vulva, and her legs. I had seen her licking the cold lamb. Both ewes were licking the live lamb. But the lamb was trying to nurse again on the black ewe, I chose her as the mother and carried the lamb to the last open pen. Both ewes followed, but the white ewe circled back to her dead baby when I closed the pen on the black ewe and the lamb. I checked the black ewe for milk and mucous in her vagina. She had definitely lambed recently and in spite of the fact that I had two black lambs with a white ewe, and one white lamb with a black ewe, I felt comfortable with my decision. It didn’t matter in the long run, because I had no record of the genetic history of either mother.

A fourth ewe was going into labor. She was a big ewe. If she had more than one baby, I could maybe graft her second baby onto the mother whose baby had died. If we laid the live baby next to the dead baby, maybe she would transfer her interest.

The last thing I saw when I left the barn this morning for a quick, late breakfast, was ewe number 5 orange licking her dead baby.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Eye of the storm?


We’ve gone 24 hours without a new lamb. This must be the eye of the hurricane, or the lull before the storm, or the quiet on the eve of the battle. Whatever you call it, we often get a few days of quiet during every lambing. We really appreciate the break, and maybe the sheep do too.. Dave and I catch up on projects, update our record keeping and take naps. The sheep sleep in the sun, gaze at their navels and out over their world.

It has been a hard lambing so far. In the ten days since the first lamb was born we have had 25 ewes lamb, 50 babies born, and 8 babies die. That last statistic breaks my heart. Eight beautiful, big lambs who should have been able to stand, should of been able to maintain their body temperature, but for some reason, couldn’t.

After the third or fourth death, my emotions sort of shut down. I can’t keep grieving with each new baby who can’t stand. There isn’t room in my heart for that much grief. After we had considered every medical possibility in every sheep book we owned, talked to our friend Glen, a retired shepherd, and consulted with our veterinarian, there was nothing more to do. As I drove back from the diagnostic lab at NDSU, I felt as if the burden of these lamb deaths was now on someone else’s shoulders.

Of course we keep trying to figure out the problem. Right now, our thoughts are running along genetic lines. For several years, we used ear tags to identify our animals which turned out to be defective. Most of the ewes tagged in those years lost their tags and their identity in my record books. For the last three years, I may have been breeding ewes to their fathers. I had no way of knowing. In retrospect, I should have replaced my rams the year we lost so many tags, but it didn’t occur to me. I know that inbreeding can be dangerous, resulting in babies with mild to severe problems, but it can also give you some outstanding individuals. It just never occurred to me that the negative side would be so overwhelming. Some animal breeders may use inbreeding to improve their strain, but I will never consciously do so again, whether that turns out to be our problem or not.

And so we wait, impatiently, for the results from the diagnostic lab. We have gone 48 hours without a lamb death. It is unlikely that the dying is done, but in this little pause, I appreciate going out to the barn not to worry about a dying lamb, but to celebrate the joyous pronking of the lambs just released from the group pen, and to savor the quiet contentment of a mother and her baby or the patience of ewes waiting to lamb.