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


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.