Thursday, January 30, 2014


Dave was excited when he came in from feeding the sheep. “Put on warm clothes,” he said, “I want to show you something, a surprise.” I bundled up and when we got to the barn told me to shut my eyes and led me in. Dave pulled me across the barn. I could hear the chickens muttering to each other. When I opened my eyes, there was a ewe in a jug and two heat lamps shining down on two white babies.

Obviously, that quick trip Winnie the Two had made over the fence in early September had been long enough. Most of our pastures were sere and brown by then, a combination of a hot dry July and August, and our not getting out to cut the warm season grasses so they wouldn’t go to seed. We try to cut each pasture just after the sheep have grazed it so nothing goes to seed before we put the sheep back on it. The sheep don’t like old, mature grass as well as young fresh grass, so the older grasses just keep maturing and when they go to seed, they stop growing and make no more young fresh grass leaves. If we can keep the pastures cut, each pasture lasts longer into the summer. By September, there was only one pasture that was moist enough to still have fresh green grass, the one right next to the ram pasture.

Our fences are old, but the ones around the ram pasture have been reinforced so many times that we thought they were impenetrable. We were confidant that the ewes would remain chaste even though they were grazing right next to the rams. The day we left for a ten day canoe adventure, Winthrop decided he needed an adventure too. He put his front legs on the fence, about three or four feet off the ground, pushed it down a foot or so, and hopped over. We’ve never had a ram as tall as Winnie before. Kate, our animal care person when we’re gone, saw that he was in the wrong pasture. She called a friend for help and together they put a leash around his neck and led him back home. He wasn’t happy, but he went. Then Kate reinforced that fence line with jug panels and 2X4’s.

Several days later when Kate went out to check on the animals, everyone was missing. Kate finally found Winnie and his ladies in the far west pasture. She called another friend and together, they drove the sheep back and separated Winnie out. Kate reinforced another part of the fence line. Winthrop hadn’t been with the ewes for an entire 24 hours, surely everything would be fine. January 26, we realized that we had been overly optimistic.

Monday night was not a good night for new lambs. The temperature had dropped to -21°F over night. The lambs were really cold. The male's ears were frozen and the wool on the girl’s legs was crispy with ice. We dried them off, slid a couple of baby pig warmers under their pen, hung two heat lamps a small electric heater – an accident waiting to happen. That’s not foreshadowing. We didn’t set the barn on fire.

The lambs seemed to warm. They drank colostrum from a bottle enthusiastically, but didn’t nurse on their mom. They weren’t very active lambs, but still, they weren’t shivering, were hungry and ate well.

We checked on the new lambs every three hours. They always drank well from the bottle and didn’t want to drink from their Mom. Dave fed them at 3 AM. When I went out at 7 neither lamb drank much and they both looked lethargic, ill. I left for a meeting and Dave went out to check their temperatures. The first lamb’s temperature was 94°, 10° below normal. He immediately called me home and filled the kitchen sink with hot water. My car didn’t start and when I finally got home an hour later, the first lamb was warmed up but the second lamb had died. We took the first lamb back out to his Mom. We were consoled by the fact that he was looking great.

Two hours later he was dead.

Dave talked to Dr. Weckwerth. Was this a repeat of last year’s problems, or was this hypothermia? Usually severely cold lambs don’t stand up, don’t nurse well. These lambs both nursed well. On the other hand, it didn’t seem like this could be hypothyroidism, the ewes had been on iodine for the last 9 months. What if it was something else entirely? What if it was something in our ewes or in our ram, in our land that produces our hay, or in our water? In his quiet, thoughtful way, Dr. Weckwerth said we didn’t have enough information yet to know what was going on. We’ve got two lambs that died. That’s not enough to see a pattern. It was really cold. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Emotional preparation for lambing

I woke up yesterday morning worrying about lambing. Last year began so well, two sets of healthy quadruplets. What a wonderful sight in the barnyard.

But from then on our year deteriorated. Our lambs grew weaker and began to die. They didn’t nurse well, they were cold even right after they were born. It was April. We normally lamb in February. There was no reason for them to be cold. We warmed them, fed them colostrum, rewarmed them, gave them antibiotics. Nothing helped.

We lost one third of our lambs before we even finished lambing. In desperation, I took two lambs to see Dr Weckwerth, an amazing vet. I took in a three week old who just seemed to be failing and a new born who just seemed to be failing as well. He listened to their hearts, felt folds of skin, took their temperatures, and drew blood for tests. As we were standing there, talking about what I’d been doing for the lambs I mentioned that several of them had lumps on their necks. He was instantly alert.

Hypothyroidism. Goiter. He still sent in the blood test, but he knew without even looking, our lambs were deficient in iodine and thus had hypothyroidism. I went home to check out our salt. It wasn’t iodized. How many years had we been feeding un-iodized salt. My recipe for mixing the coccidiostat said “mix with iodized salt”. I had always assumed we had iodized salt.

When I called around, only the elevator in Barnesville had iodized mixing salt. So I drove to Barnesville for salt. We began feeding iodine that day. When we were sure that everyone had gotten their fill of iodized salt, we wormed everyone and moved the lambs and ewes onto pasture.

A month later, we started losing lambs again. Lots of lambs had diarrhea. I took fecal samples to the vet. Worms. We wormed again. We wormed four times in a month. Some of the diarrhea cleared up, but some of the lambs were starving. The worms had done so much damage to their intestinal tracks that they lost blood and nutrients continually. DAve did some computer research. Turns out the ewes recover when you give them iodine. The lambs that were in utero while their thyroids were developing, never recover. They just didn't have enough thyroid function to fight off the worms.

Finally, in October, the dying stopped. We had lost over half the lambs and most of the rest never got beyond 65 or 70 pounds. Fortunately our buyers like animals in that weight range for barbeques.

I don’t know that I will survive another year like this last one. Hopefully with all the iodine we’ve been feeding and our move back to lambing in the winter, so we won’t have the lambs pasturing on worm infested ground in May and June - they’ll be out on clean pasture- we should have healthy lambs. We’ll know in 28 days. Lambing should begin February 26.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


Last fall, the Nature Conservancy Magazine ran an article about the shepherds in Patagonia, a part of Argentina on the southern tip of South America. They graze their flocks on a treeless highlands, constantly scoured by the wind. Decades of overgrazing have degraded the land until there aren’t enough grasses to hold the soil when the wind blows; until there aren’t enough grasses to shelter the ground birds or feed the sheep.

Over grazing our pastures is something I worry about, especially in late summer. In June, we have more pasture than we need. I try to rotate the sheep through each of our ten pastures as rapidly as possible, to get every plant grazed so that it doesn’t go to seed. The goal is to leave the sheep on a pasture just long enough for them to eat every grass down to about 4 inches and then move them on to a new pasture. Sheep are constantly trying to mess up our rotational grazing. They like the taste or mouth feel or something of some grasses more than others, so they start complaining as soon as they have eaten the good grasses. If we give in and move them as soon as they complain. The not so tasty grasses just keep growing and eventually go to seed. Once they’ve gone to seed, they don’t grow anymore. That means, that in the heat of August, when the tasty cool season grasses have gone dormant, there are no grasses growing for the sheep to eat. Our pastures are done for the season until we get some good rains.

If, on the other hand, I made the sheep eat the not so tasty warm season grasses when they were grazing a pasture, those grasses wouldn’t go to seed and would keep growing even through the heat of August, giving us a steady source of feed all summer and fall.

The rotational grazing works because the sheep can eat only what I give them, not what they want. On farms where the sheep are put out on one big pasture in the spring and allowed to eat whatever they want, the number of desirable plants decreases and the undesirable species take over because the sheep just keep eating the new sprout of the tasty plants and eventually kill the plants from overgrazing.

Sustainable grazing can actually increase the number of animals grazed while increasing the biodiversity of a pasture. In the grasslands of Argentina, farmers who are practicing this new holistic pasture management have seen increases in stocking rates, increases in plant diversity, increases in wild birds and mammals, and decreases in wind and water erosion of their ranches.

A century and a half of continuous grazing has converted 20 million acres of lush Argentine grassland to desert. Ovis XXI, a local group of Patagonian ranchers, the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, and Patagonia, Inc., an American outdoor wear company with a focus on conservation, have been collaborating on a project to restore and preserve 10% of those grasslands. The ranchers have been experimenting with new sustainable grazing techniques. The Nature Conservancy helped Ovis XXI develop GRASS (Patagonian Grassland Regeneration and Sustainability Standard) a voluntary system in which ranches that reach specific environmental goals earn certification from Ovis. The Nature Conservancy has also been supplying up-front costs to help with planning and changes such as fencing to help ranchers make the transition from continuous grazing to holistic management. Patagonia, Inc. has helped with up-front costs and is shifting their wool purchasing from traditional sources to wool which has been sustainably raised and is certified.

I’m not a big enough wool supplier to sell my wool to Patagonia, Inc. Besides, the Argentine grasslands need restoration and protection far more than my 80 acres. But I am always trying to learn new techniques that will make my lands healthier than they were when we began farming. Holistic management is based on learning your pastures, watching them and responding to their needs as well as the needs of the sheep. Last summer, we nearly ran out of pasture. We were only a few days away from feeding hay, when the rains came and the grasses greened up. This summer, I hope to do a better job of rotating pastures for the sake of the sheep and of the pasture grasses

Friday, January 17, 2014

My knit swirl sweater

photo by Dave Ellison

My knit swirl sweater is finished. Only 12 months in the making. It’s beautiful and I feel so good wearing it. Good as in warm, but also as in elegant. The knit, Swirl! pattern by Sandra McIver makes a wonderful sweater. However, this simple pattern has reminded me that I must keep track of every row and I must read the pattern carefully.The sweater is knit all in one piece from the bottom up. The sleeves are knit from back to front and from cuff to cuff as stitches added on to the body. When I began the sleeves, I read K2tog (knit two together) instead of slipping the first edge stitch of each row. That is a sloppy mistake to make. I can’t even imagine how I made it, but I knit 30 rows K2tog at the beginning of each row. My subconscious knew there was something wrong. I kept trying to figure out what shape the cuff of the sleeve would be with all those decreases. However, I didn’t listen to my subconscious until I got to the middle of the cuff and the pattern didn’t tell me to add all those stitches back. It was obvious then that I was doing something wrong. I reread the pattern and saw my mistake immediately. I ripped out those thirty rows and reknit them.

But I wasn’t done with mistakes. I also chose not to shorten my sleeve. Even though I’m only 5’2” tall, I persuaded myself that I had average length arms so that I wouldn’t have to do the calculations for how to shorten the sleeves. When I sewed the last seam on the sweater and slipped it on, the sleeves dangled six inches below my finger tips. Okay, I thought, I really am short. I could cut off the sleeves or turn them back, but I would no longer have an elegant sweater.
The other problem was that even though I had tried on a sweater in this pattern and size at the yarn store, my sweater didn’t fit me well. It had too much sweater in the underarm area, almost a dolman sleeve. There was no way I could wear my sweater under my winter jacket.

I went back to the yarn store for help. “Is it worth taking out the entire sleeves, upper back, shawl collar and upper bodice to correct the sleeve length? Can you help me figure out how to decrease the amount of sweater in my underarms at the same time?”

Now comes the really wonderful thing about buying yarn from someone with whom you have a connection. “Let’s see,” the sales woman said, putting down her knitting and picking up my sweater. “I think that you get your sleeve length by gradually adding stitches at the underarm. The longer the sleeve, the more stitches you add. Let me get my pattern.” She dug through her knitting basket and emerged triumphant. “Yes, to decrease the sleeve length, you add fewer stitches in the underarm. If you rip out half your sweater, and reknit it, with these changes to the pattern, it should fit perfectly.”
And it did.

Not all patterns fit all body sizes and shapes. Not all pattern designers are good designers. Some samples are made to fit the model for photographs by using strategically placed clothespins out of the camera’s view. But my knit swirl sweater, when made by following the pattern, fit me perfectly. It was a joy to knit and is a joy to wear.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Phantom spring

The last few months have been relentlessly cold. With that cold comes the spare beauty of frosted branches. The chickadees fluff their feathers, insulation against the wind. The wild turkeys come into the barnyard for grain. Fox venture down our driveway. In the stark white landscape, three deer stand out against the woods across the field. Life is tenuous in the cold. We keep the bird feeders full. Dave checks the chickens and sheep and goats when he feeds them, judging the cold by how much hay or grain they’ve eaten since the day before. We worry about the drain field freezing. Our wood supply is dwindling faster than normal.

Having said all that, I love winter. Days like today, with the sun shining and snow sparkling, I wish winter could go on for ever. Winter is proof that we are strong people, able to withstand adversity. Today, winter is teasing us. The temperature was 33 degrees above zero this morning when we woke. The breeze feels almost warm on my face. Dave ordered garden seeds and apple trees. The lettuce in the green house is growing again. The days are noticeably longer. I could almost believe that spring is nearly here.

And yet, the snow is still deep. The ice on the lakes is strong. The ground hog hasn’t even rolled over in his nest
under-ground, much less opened his eyes. I know that the temperature could just as easily drop to 33 below as stay at 33 above. Even if the ground hog sees his shadow in two weeks, dooming us to six more weeks of winter, just the hint of warmth gives us hope. This may be a phantom spring, but the real spring will come.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A day in the country

“Would you join me for a day in the country?” Dave asked Tuesday morning as we snuggled under the covers in our cold bedroom.

Dave built up the fire in the wood stove while I walked Newton up the driveway. The snow crunched under my feet and tiny branches of buckthorn stood out black against the white snow. Newton peed every few steps. The sun was just washing the horizon with peach when we returned to the house.

Breakfast was granola made with our maple syrup. Topping options included chopped dates, raisins, craisins and dried cherries as well as four kinds of nuts. The fragrance of bergamot filled the air from my fresh Earl Grey tea. We washed the dishes while we watched the red ball of the sun creep above the trees.

Dave spent the day in his shop, milling red elm for stair treads and counter tops. In the house, I worked on a new felted landscape, trying to reproduce the look of trees against the snow. Outside, the temperature which had started at 18 below slowly climbed to almost zero. After lunch, we sat in the living room listening to a podcast of On the Media and watched the wood peckers at the feeders The red patches on their heads glowed in the winter sun.

Late in the afternoon, just before sunset, we snow-shoed across the fields and sloughs for exercise. Newton followed every scent trail he could find. The air was still. In the distance, our sheep milled around the barn yard, searching for the best mouthful of hay, certain that their neighbors' pile was tastier than the hay in front of them.

Just before bedtime, we walked Newton up and down the driveway again. The night sky was bright with stars. The constellation Orion hung over us, the three stars in his belt brilliant points of light. The wind was rising and the blades of our wind generator whispered on the air.

It had been an idyllic day in the country.

Not every day is like that. Today, we bedded the shed in the ram pasture with loose straw so that Bucklet, the goat, will stop shivering. Dave carried the straw. I followed him armed with a 2”X4” to protect him from Winthrop,the ram. Fortunately Winthrop was more interested in the straw than in Dave. My fingers tingled as the cold seeped through my lined leather barn gloves until carrying bales warmed me. I spent the rest of the day in the basement doing the year-end inventory on my wool. Dave worked in the cold garage, turning more logs into boards. Still a day in the country, just not so picture postcard perfect as yesterday.