Friday, December 18, 2015

My Sheep Can Dance

I never imagined  thirty-one  years ago when we bought our first four sheep that they would kick start my writing career, but they did. Three adult sheep books later, I have branched out into children's books. This year, Northcroft Press published My Sheep Can Dance, with wonderful water color illustrations by my friend Linda Christensen.

When I asked her if she wanted to do some illustrations, she said "I've never painted a sheep." I sent her a bunch of photographs and the results were outstanding. Linda combined ideas from different photos to create new scenes. I actually had no photos of children dancing with the sheep, but Linda painted one.

Her illustrations also changed the story. I had sent her a photo of Bob the ram because he was a good example of a colored sheep, not because I had written about him. I thought she'd just add him to the flock somewhere. But when his painting appeared in my mailbox, I added a stanza and a page to the book.

Bob, the ram, was a crotchety guy

You could tell he was mad by the look in his eye.

But when his sheep danced home, he welcomed them in
and danced as old Davy played violin.

Collaborations are great fun for the writer and the illustrator, and the resulting book, My Sheep Can Dance, is great fun for the reader.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Still not local

 We stopped in Iceland on our way home from England and were taken to visit an Icelandic sheep farm. Ingi and his sheep live at 66 degrees latitude and we live at 46 degrees latitude so they are much further north. They struggle with cold winters, but even more importantly, with fierce winds.  Their shepherding year is very different than ours. In November, Ingi brings the sheep into the barn, shears them and then breeds them to the ram.

For older sheep during shearing, they leave the wool on the rear end of the animal to help them withstand the cold. After shearing, the sheep don't go outside again until after they lamb in May. Even where the ground wasn't snow covered, I saw almost no grass. We did see plastic wrapped hay bales, so they had enough grass land to cut hay which they fed to their animals all winter. Then, in the spring, the animals are turned out onto the slopes of the mountains where they graze happily and completely alone (except for birds and nonpredatory  small animals.) In the fall, all the shepherds and their sheep dogs go up into the mountains to collect the sheep. They bring them to sorting areas where the animals are sorted by the marks on their ears that identify to which farm they belong.

On the other hand, we breed in the fall, shear in January and lamb in February and March. Our sheep are only restricted to the barn for twelve hours after shearing and during blizzards. Local farmers have told us  how important it is for the sheep to get exercise during their pregnancies, so we feed them hay all over the farm to force them to walk. Also, as much as I'd love to, we can't turn the sheep out into the federal land beyond our pastures because there are too many neighborhood dogs and coyotes. Our sheep must be protected not from snow and ice cold winds, but from predators. Farming is so local.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Farming is local

Many years ago, a friend suggested that I go to Peru to help the farmers there learn the best ways to raise guinea pigs. I declined because I knew nothing about guinea pigs.This fall I actually realized the wisdom of that decision. Not only did I know nothing about guinea pigs, but I knew nothing about Peru. Farming is local.

Dave and I just spent five days in a cottage on the south coast of England. The sheep and cows there grazed in small fields divided by dense hedge rows of bramble rose, gorse and holly. The pasture grasses were still abundant and green in the second week of November. Roses, cyclamen and small amaryllis bloomed in the gardens and the grass. The clouds hung low four out of five days, it rained everyday, and sea spray filled the air with mist when it wasn't raining.The fields were slanted at such steep angles that I doubt the farmer ever tilled them or possibly even ever cut them.

At home, by mid-November, the pasture grasses are short and brown, the leaves are gone from the trees and the flowers have all died. We cut our pastures several times during the summer to keep the grasses from blooming, setting seeds and then going dormant. I have never seen such luxuriant November fields as I saw in England. I'm lucky that the book I used to learn how to raise sheep, The Sheep Book, was written by a shepherd who only lived an hour from our farm. We were raising sheep under the same weather conditions, the same climate conditions, similar soil types and similar weed problems. I got my first shepherding advice from a local farmer. If I'd been reading an English shepherding book, I would have been really surprised. Farming is indeed local.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The death of summer

The Virginia creeper vine climbed a tree in the backyard and I knew that fall was coming. The five leaflets glowed brilliant red against the fading green of the box elder. Red sumac leaves are the first harbingers and the Virginia creeper turn shortly after that.

People talk about the maples that turn the entire world to fire and I do  love that peak of fall color, but for me, that garland of red Virginia creeper winding its way through the forest wakes my eyes up, almost like a neon light flashing "Look at me!"

Another season is passing, leaves dying, nutrition descending  to the roots to be stored until next spring when the first tiny leaves open to delight our eyes after the winter. I don't think of winter as a time of death. It's more like a breathing space, where the outdoor chores slow down. The weeds stop growing. The lawn doesn't need to be mowed. The garden's harvest is all in the freezer or the root cellar.

That streak of crimson in the woods and the golden glow of maples remind me that we're almost done canning tomatoes. Soon I will resume my winter activities - felting, knitting, writing. Fall isn't so much the death of summer as the resurrection of my creativity.

Saturday, September 26, 2015


We've been planting apples since we first moved to the farm. We tag each tree, but as years pass, tags fade or are blown away, trees die and are replanted with different varieties. Now, most of our apples are unidentifiable.

 We periodically pick an apple on each tree to determine when to pick the rest. Are the seeds brown? Is the apple sweet?  The Haraldsons ripen the latest and are best after a light frost. Only the apples on one tree ripen early, most years so early that we don't even notice until most of the apples are lying on the ground - a feast for the wasps.

This year that tress was covered in big, beautiful apples, no worm holes or hail dents or bird pecks. I vowed to enjoy them before the wasps did. I picked the first apple in mid-August. Bland taste, hard texture, white seeds. Not ripe yet.

By the first of September, the seeds were brown, the texture was mealy and the taste was still bland. Wonder why we chose to plant a bland mealy apple? Oh well, I thought, they'll make good apple sauce. However, in spite of the blandness, they didn't fall apart when I cooked them unless I completely covered them with water and boiled for an hour. This made runny, applesauce completely lacking in heat labile nutrients like vitamin C.

Then the apples began falling - fast. We gathered them by the bucket, quartered them and cooked them in the pressure cooker. A quick trip through the Squeezo strainer made nicely textured applesauce with no flavor. Alice, Dave's mom , was visiting and we cooked up a pan of her honey crisp apples. They made wonderful apple sauce - sweet and tangy.

Then Dave, the winemaker in the family, had a brilliant idea. He looked up the concentration of malic acid in honey crisp apples and figured out how much powdered malic acid we would need to add to our bland apples. (Malic acid just happens to be one of the useful chemicals that wine makers keep in stock). The newly adulterated apple sauce was delicious and all we had done was to add a little bit of what makes apples taste like apples.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


                                             photo by Jesse Walker

Everything changes all the time, but we seldom notice. Weeds bud, bloom and spread their seeds. Socks develop holes in their heels. Lambs grow to be ewes. Our friends'  faces wrinkle and their hair grays. Most changes are so subtle that we don't notice them day to day.

Last month my fourth grandson, Caius, was born and suddenly our lives changed. Such a tiny focus for that change - a little over eight pounds, he hardly had any weight in my arms, but the space he occupies in my heart is huge. As a parent, I had no idea of the emotional impact my children had on their grandparents. In the instant when I first held each one of my grandsons in my arms, I realized that each little boy would grab my heart in his tiny hands and I would be changed forever.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Leaving the farm

At the end of last month, I left the farm in Dave's capable hands and drove north to Ely to spend time with college friends, most of whom I hadn't seen since we all turned 50, 17 years ago.

My shift in perspective was startling. Sheep sales, wet hay and weeds had been my focus for two months. Suddenly, I was looking beyond the fence lines and the world sparkled.

Gretchen identified rabbit tail clover, a plant that I found along the edge of the road. Melissa taught me about Solvay, a heat sensitive surface used to glue small pieces of fabric together, Laurie and I talked past canoe trip routes and the joy of paddling. Linda, my junior year roommate, introduced me to Fibonacci quilt patterns, wonderful repeating designs based on the Fibonacci series, a mathematical construct. Linda, my freshman year roommate, and I proudly sold My Sheep can Dance, a children's picture book which I wrote and Linda illustrated, and began planning our next collaboration.

Four days away allowed me to return to the farm full of creative ideas, looking forward to Dave's and my next canoe trip, and ready to bale our next crop of hay.

                                             Laurie, Gretchen, Joanie, Melissa
                                             Linda, Linda

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Chickens come and go

We bought our twenty chickens just in time for our grandsons to learn the joys of baby chicks. Kieran and Jasper the older two, cradled them gently in their cupped hands, satisfied just to watch them and feel their fragile bodies beneath the fluffy feathers.

Dave and I enjoyed walking out to the barn first thing in the morning to let them out into their run and returning to the barn every evening to shut them up safe. We checked on the sheep and talked to the chickens on each trip. It was very bucolic, perhaps too bucolic. I was actually looking forward to the day the last chicken learned to fly so that they could use our automatic chicken door that closed at dusk and opened at dawn.

And then one morning when Dave went out, there were only three live chickens left in the coup. A critter had climbed the fence and found her way through the automatic chicken door. What ever kind of animal it was, the critter must have been working for weeks to find a way into the coup and had finally succeeded.

Dave shut off the automatic door and reinforced the fence, but the next morning the last three chickens were dead.

I was stunned at how sad I felt, way out of proportion to the amount of love I thought I had for those chickens. But I cared. I had treasured the joy in Kieran and Simon and Jasper's responses, the expectation of someday gathering eggs, the pleasure I got from watching the chicks change from fuzzy balls of down to scraggly adolescents, to beautiful adult plumage  in black and white and brown. We would have been butchering our soon. But to have something else butcher them, and not to even eat them all, that was so sad.

Dave and I are working on plans for a more secure chicken coop. Next spring, we'll begin again. After all we should have remembered, chicken lives are fragile, they come and go.

Monarch Festival just down the road

                                                                                               photo by Glen Larson

Why do butterflies matter?

For over a year now, several of our friends have been working on the Monarch Festival in Fergus Falls, to find ways to show as many people as possible the answer to that very question.

Their answer has grown into something wonderful. The Festival, which is going on this week includes music, art, literature, community conversations, talks by local experts about monarch butterflies and prairies and butterfly gardens, puppetry, several art workshops, and the premier of The Butterfly Effect, a documentary film by Deb Wallwork. Every one of the events listed on their web page is worthy of your time.

The Monarch Festival is brought to you "by people who are giving their energy and heart to the effort to save this magnificent and mysterious  insect,  a symbol of the simple, carefree joys of summer,
whose very existence  is now in jeopardy."

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Lake Region Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage fund.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Prairie Grass

                                              photo by Glen Larson

Several years ago when we began planting prairie grasses on low lying, frequently wet  parts of our hay field, I recognized two different prairie grasses - Big Blue Stem with tall purplish and three flower stalks (the reason for its common name, Turkey Foot), and Side Oats Gramma, a distinctive shorter grass with all its seeds dangling from one side of the stem. I was ecstatic when I first saw the tall purplish grasses in our fields.

As that first summer progressed, I keyed out the flowers expecting to find the prairie forbs I knew we had planted - Black-eyed Susan, Purple Prairie Clover,  and Yarrow. I found the Yarrow, but all the other flowers were volunteers, not the species we had planted, and most of the blooms were thistles. This summer was completely different. Not only did we have prairie flowers, but I could identify them all, and hardly any were thistles

So, I decided to key out the grasses, hoping to find more than Big Blue Stem. My books were unhelpful. One key differentiated between reeds, sedges and grasses. Sedges had triangular stems. Grasses had round stems. That was as far as the key went. After a collecting walk, I had ten kinds of round stemmed grasses, all very different.

Photographs are really useless in a grass guide except for Big Blue Stem and Side Oats Gramma - perhaps the reason I can recognize them. Line drawings turned out to be much better for identification. I tentatively labeled one specimen Switch Grass because of the airy spray of tiny, delicate pinkish flowers at the end of each stem. Fantastic. Now I had nine unidentified samples labeled "grass."

Then I found University of California -  Davis' guide to grasses online. It was a real field guide with a real key. I got out my magnifying glass and began:
1) seed heads close to stem or standing away from stem
2) leaves clasping stem with a slit, overlapped, or continuous overlapped
3) nodes or no nodes on stem
4) shape of leaf as it meets stem
5) shape of flowers - tube-like or not
6) root structure

It was a new world. Differences I had never noticed jumped into view when I looked carefully. Switch Grass turned out to be actually Reed Canary Grass,  just as  the yellow daisy like flowers with dark centers which I had identified as Black-eyed Susans  differentiated into both Black-eyed Susans and Grey headed Cone flower when I studied them up close.

From a distance, the prairie is a beautiful sea of waving, undifferentiated flowers and grasses like something nebulous from a poem or a landscape painting. But up close,  each grass is a little miracle, flowers designed to release pollen to the winds and shoots sinking deep into the earth to ensure survival during droughts and prairie fires. Beautiful in form, function and utility.  I'll never look at grasses in the same way again.

Friday, July 31, 2015


Our praiire this week is a mass of purple and gold. And yet, I didn't go out there. I knew that the purple was thistles and if they were blooming, it was too late to cut or spray them. They would be going to seed no matter what we did. But I needed  a prairie photo for my next blog posting, so yesterday morning I walked across the hayfield, forded the ditch, pushed my way through head high grasses and emerged into the prairie.
                                             photo by Dave Ellison

It was so beautiful! So beautiful! I just kept saying it over and over as I stared. I was standing in the midst of a sea of black eyed susans, sunflowers, vervain, wild bergamot and yarrow. All in bloom. It was so beautiful I could hardly catch my breath. This land that had been a wasteland of thistles only a few years ago was now the most beautiful thing I had ever seen (with the exception of my daughters and my grandsons).

Our friends Doug and Mike had assured me that the prairie would take over the thistles, but I hadn't really believed them until I saw the flowers with my own eyes. Golden black eyed susan, pale purlpe bergamot. So beautiful.


photos by Kate Andrews

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


We've been baling hay for 31 years (It really just feels that way, actually we've been baling hay for two weeks a year for 31 years) and it doesn't get any easier. The machinery breaks down and Dave repairs it. The skies fill with rain clouds every few days and wash the windrows. A few of our part time employees realize how much hard work baling is and suddenly discover that they need to be elsewhere. Dave and I bale three wagon loads by ourselves after the dew has dried. I build the first half of the load while Dave drives the tractor. When my arms and back run out of energy, Dave takes my place on the wagon and I drive the tractor.  We call three or four high school boys to help us unload the wagons in the evening.

Those things happen every year and this year was no different. What was different this year was the big river of smoke that drifted from the wild fires in northwestern Canada, keeping the dew point high and obscuring the sun. Mornings and evenings the sun glowed, an orange red sphere on the horizon. "What's wrong with the sun?" the boys asked as we rested after unloading a hay wagon. "Why doesn't the hay dry?" Dave asked as he turned windrows. "When will we ever be done haying?" I complained.

And then came the day that is marked as a personal best on my internal checklist of such things, the day I built a load of 80 hay bales all by myself. I'd never made it past 40 bales in the past. Normally, I couldn't boost very many bales up four feet onto the top layer. Normally, I couldn't keep up with the speed that the bales came off the chute of the baler. But this summer wasn't normal. It was a perfect year for me to build an entire load. The smoke kept the heat down. The field we were baling  was mostly grass and thus made for lighter bales. and the field also needed to be fertilized so the plants were shorter and the bales were fewer so the bales came out of the baler more slowly. Even with all those excuses, I felt strong and triumphant as I pulled bale number 80 onto the wagon and Dave turned off the tractor.

Of course, the next mornings bales were so heavy that I could hardly lift them at all. I drove tractor and Dave built the entire load. But it didn't matter because yesterday, I, a sixty-seven year old woman, had built an entire wagon load of bales, all by myself.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Up close and personal

                                                                                     photo by Kate Andrews
When Budd and Kate began taming our lambs this spring, I never considered the  repercussions.
Having Kate and Budd feed the bottle lambs when we were gone was an obvious plus. Having the bottle lambs come when we call the sheep is another because the rest of the lambs tend to follow the bottle lambs.

 We knew that friendly lambs made everybody happy to visit the barnyard. Our grandsons really appreciate them...

There  are, however, some disadvantages to friendly sheep. They don't know their own strength, and as they get bigger they are also stronger. They have no interpersonal boundaries. Your lap is their lap. And they will happily follow you anywhere.

                                                                                    self  portrait by David Fluegel

The biggest disadvantage comes the day someone shows up at the farm wanting to buy that cute little lamb for supper. The lamb standing beside you because it trusts you. The lamb you've hand fed since it was a newborn. The lamb that you couldn't add to the flock even if it had a nice fleece because it's a boy. When you raise sheep and then tame them, the consequences of being a farmer are much clearer because you know each animal personally.

I can't keep all my lambs. They would rapidly outgrow the amount of pasture we have and the amount of hay we can bale. So every summer we sell most of our lambs. With 40 or 50 lambs, we usually don't get to know them. But this summer, because Kate and Budd have taken the time to tame our lambs, we do know them and we do love them.

Up close and personal is not the way most people want  to view their supper; but this summer I have realized that more than ever before, up close and personal is the way I want to raise my sheep.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Baby chicks

"Grandpa, when you hold a baby chick, you let it sit on one hand and then you put your other hand in front of it so it can't jump off," Jasper told his Grandpa Dave. "And you don't hold it too tight."
                                           photo by Dave Ellison

Dave and I have been talking about buying baby chicks  again for the last few years. We like having chickens running around the barn yard, but we don't like losing them to racoons, weasels, skunks and our very own dog. This spring we've had our grandson Jasper here for five days and our grandsons Kieran and Simon will be up next week for seven. It seems the perfect time to get baby chicks. The boys will learn about baby chicks and Dave and I will have to critter proof the chicken coop so the boys can  experience the chickens.

Jasper and I emptied the coop of everything we'd stored there in place of chickens. Then we forked out the old bedding. Jasper learned how to use a pitch fork and I learned how to avoid the tines on Jasper's fork. Next we rebedded the coop with fresh straw. After nap time, we drove to Detroit Lakes. The chicks were stored in three foot long stock tanks with heat lights hanging overhead. Jasper and I picked out five yellow ones, five brown ones, five speckled one and five black ones. They peeped loudly in a box on the back seat next to Jasper on the way home. Then we took them out to the barn and one by one let them loose under the big metal umbrella shaped brooder. We turned on the heat lamp, filled a waterer, and then  filled a feed trough with chick starter. The chicks immediately began exploring. They dipped their beaks into the water and then tipped their heads back. A little drop of water glistened on the tip of each beak as they swallowed.

One at a time Jasper and I picked up each chick, held it carefully in our hands and felt their fuzzy heads with our cheeks. We looked at their eyes and their beaks. Jasper kissed each one on the top of the head. We all bonded.

When our friends Budd, Kate and Marguerite came to see the lambs today, Marguerite followed Jasper into the barn to see the chicks. As I set a little yellow baby onto her hands, she smiled, and her fingers curled instinctively around the little puff of life just as mine did when I first picked a chick up and as Jasper has learned to do. Marguerite remembered the chicks they had as a child and the chick in her hand brought her joy.

By the time Jasper returns to the farm in a month or so, the chicks will be unrecognizable - almost full grown chickens, but he'll have the memory in his hands and his mind and on his lips of baby chicks and that memory will be with him forever, bringing him joy.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A real shepherd

                                                                          photo by Kate Andrews

Kate is a friend of ours. When she moved back to Pelican Rapids to help care for her elderly parents, she offered to farm sit for us, caring for the dog, cats and sheep. She has become quite a good shepherd.

Kate feeds hay and corn to the sheep and checks the animals daily when we are gone. A year ago, while we were in Missouri,  our rams got into the ewes' pasture a month early. Kate led the rams back to their own pasture and then repaired the fence. Last fall she taught dyeing at our fiber day. This winter she helped with shearing. This spring she  recorded  while Dave and I inoculated lambs. In the last month, Kate has brought Budd,  her father, to visit the lambs nearly every day. He's 94 years old and is slowing down, forgetting things, perfectly happy to drowse on the sofa for much of the day. But Kate shepherds him off the sofa, out of the house and into the car for a trip to the farm. Then she and her dad sit in the sun and love the bottle lambs. The lambs nuzzle their hands, chew on their shoe laces, and rub their heads against Budd's knees. While they sit and watch, some of the lambs' energy rubs off on Budd. He returns home full of joy about the experience and memories of the sheep he had when he was a child.

Kate spends the time at the farm beside her father observing the sheep. "Number 3 blue is limping,"
she told us when we returned home from playing with our grandchildren. "Number 31 is breathing real fast," she said on the phone last night, "Even when he's lying down. I watched him for half an hour."

Dave and I would eventually see the limp and the rapid breathing, but not as fast as Kate has. We don't take the time to sit and watch our sheep at this time of the year. We're too busy with other things. Even though she hasn't birthed a lamb in the middle of the night or baled hay or cut off a tail, Kate is a real shepherd. She carefully watches over the animals, the true definition of shepherd.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Climate change

Our trees are finally leafing out and we can assess how they weathered the winter.

It was a hard year for the apples. Last spring we planted a dozen apple trees and set up a drip irrigation system. Late June, a hailstorm stripped leaves and bark from the new trees and old trees alike. When Dave  checked them this spring, half of our old, well established trees had many, many dead branches and obvious signs of rot where the bark had been stripped from the trunks by the hail. Dave pruned them heavily and burned the branches. Three quarters of the new stock had no leaf buds and the branches snapped when we bent them, obviously dead. Dave ordered new stock. It will be  half a dozen years before we can expect a good harvest our own apples again, if the micro-climate around our trees hasn't changed too much.

It was a very dry winter, hardly any snow. We tapped our maples early because the weather had been so warm this spring and we didn't want to lose any sap. But it didn't matter. Out of 170 taps we only ended up with 40 quarts of syrup. We should have had close to 170 quarts. The weather didn't follow historic patterns of warm days and cold nights during March and April. We'd have a week of cold when the thermometer didn't top 32 and then a week of warm when the temperature didn't drop below freezing. About six trees produced sap during those days. Even on the few days when the temperature dropped below freezing at night and rose above 32 degrees during the day, a perfect day for the sap to run, our biggest sap collection was 35 gallons, far short of the 100 gallons we expected on a good day.  Was the ground still frozen down deep? Did we pull our taps before the sap really began to run? Were the trees drought stressed? Maples can only tolerate about ten days above 90 degrees in a summer. Did we have too many summer days when the thermometers topped 90 degrees? We don't know. All we can do is hope that next year will be more normal and that the climate has not  changed so much that the maples are dying.

When we first moved to the farm, we planted almost 100 walnuts to grow a college fund for our grandchildren. We planted trees in low spots and high spot,s on the south sides of hills and the north. We used stock from the DNR as well as sprouts from local trees. The trees have done well, producing an ever increasing crop of walnuts. They are growing in circumference and will probably be ready to harvest for lumber in 12 years when Kieran, our oldest grandson, is ready for college, if the climate cooperates. We have had very high ground water levels over the last half a dozen years. Last summer the township ran a culvert under our road to drain the pond across the road into our east fields. We have a small slough in that corner of the property, so the extra water was absorbed by the slough, but the row of walnuts closest to the slough have already succumbed to the high ground water levels. Hopefully, the trees planted on higher ground will keep growing, building our college fund.

The University of Minnesota just published a study on the importance of diversity for successful grasslands. Three years ago they published similar findings for forests, prairies and crops.We began diversifying our hay fields last year, adding red fescue, a grass, to our alfalfa mix.  Several of our pastures need replanting, we'll sow a  variety of grasses and clovers. Diversity in our tree crops seems to be the next direction we should go. We will plant more varieties of apples and in more diverse locations.

As the world warms, weather is predicted to be less predictable. Farmers will need to take this unpredictability into account. People working in the field of sustainable agriculture are already diversifying their farms. They recommend raising animals and grains, using their land for pasture and hay fields as well as other crops. Their farms are beginning to look like Old MacDonald's. With diversified farming, perhaps we can spread the risk of crop failure across many crops and phase out the dependence of most big  farmers on publicly funded crop insurance. Right now, diversification looks to be the best defense against the unpredictability of climate change.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Questionable truths

This afternoon while listening to America’s Test Kitchen on Minnesota Public Radio, I heard Michael Moss, a reporter for the New York Times, discussing US Department of Agriculture research on meat animals. His story made me rethink a lot of the things we do as a matter of course on our farm.

Breeding for twins and triplets was one example. When a ewe has multiples babies, the chances of her having troubles during lambing increase with tangled twins, ruptured uterine ligaments because of the sheer mass of babies, and increased calcium demands which can lead to hypocalcemia and problems with labor, nursing, and as we learned this year, death. A single ten pound lamb is a big baby. Three six or eight pound lambs seems impossibly big and yet that is not unusual. Three big lambs probably reduces the number of years a ewe can be healthy and pregnant, just from wear and tear. I know that single lambs get to sale weight faster than twins and triplets, so why do I breed for multiple babies? Because I read thirty years ago that twins double your income per ewe. This is only true if those twins mostly graze and don’t require medical intervention.

Another “truth” that I learned when we first started lambing was that I should dock (or cut off) all our lamb’s tails so they wouldn’t get manure on their tails if they get diarrhea. The manure is inevitably followed by maggots which feast first on the manure and then on the lamb. We’ve had maggots only twice and both times it was horrifying.  They don’t dock lamb tails in the British Isles or in Europe, why do we do it here? I’ve always said that they don’t have the cold winters we have and thus don’t change their animals feed. When you change an animal’s feed, they sometimes get diarrhea. But when I look at it rationally, I’m not sure the if/ then aspects of the decision make sense.

Finally, we castrate all our male lambs. The lambs cry out when we dock their tails, but the females don’t stop eating or running around their pens. The tool that crushes their tailbones also crushes the nerves and theoretically, the pain is intense, but very short lived. When we castrate lambs however, the boys lay on the ground for the next few hours, obviously uncomfortable. We castrate the males so that our job is easier, we don’t have to worry about ram lambs getting the ewes pregnant before we are ready to breed them.

It would take a small change in management and a small improvement of our fences to keep the ram lambs away from the ewes in August and September. Two changes that we could make next lambing that might improve the well being of our lambs or might decrease it if they get diarrhea or if the ewes lamb in the depth of January cold when we weren’t expecting them to lamb for a number of weeks yet. 

What is the right decision? I don’t know, but it is something to think about.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Resons to celebrate

 The last lamb of this lambing season was born the morning after Dave proclaimed that the possibility we would have any lambs overnight was very small and besides,  Ervatunjum, the ewe the I 'd been waiting for, didn't look pregnant.

                                            photo by Kate Andrews
The next morning Ervatunjum greeted me with a beautiful, healthy black and white lamb. Healthy is the operant word for my response to this year's lambing. Every healthy lamb is a plus. We had way too many unhealthy lams and ewes.                                      
Fortunately, unlike some bad years in the past, this year we have figured out what the problem was. Our ewes, and thus their lambs, weren't getting enough calcium. That meant that the ewes weren't hungry, didn't eat enough, and had unproductive labors. That meant we had to do caesarians or pull lambs. Some lambs died in utero, others in the next few days after they were born and way too many had fragile bones  from lack of calcium.

                Colorful splints by Kate Andrews

The ewes began improving as soon as we added another calcium source to their diet. The lamb's legs are healing and nobody is sick now. Even the lambs who still have splints on their legs are dancing around the pasture. These are all reasons to celebrate. So with the help of photographing friends, here is a selection of celebratory lamb photos.

Smiling  kid by Jenny  Ellison                                           Kiss Kiss by Jenny Ellison

                                Cedar and Harte feed lambs

Monday, March 9, 2015

After dawn

My favorite time to check for new lambs is first thing in the morning. The sun is just rising, the air is clear, the ewes and their lambs sleep peacefully in the straw. Even during the bad times, walking from the house to the barn at dawn renews me, hope seeps into my bones.

Friday morning, I stepped in the barn door and saw Mouse, one of our Jacob ewes, with a grapefruit sized mass protruding from her vulva where a golden bag of amniotic fluid should have been. Rats! A prolapse.

I grabbed her ankle and pulled her down. For such a little ewe (barely 60 pounds) she was incredibly strong. I lay on her body and tried to examine the prolapse. I couldn't even see it from where I lay, much less manipulate it. I would have to wake Dave. After a month of waking for an hour or two at 3 a.m. every night, his body had shifted to a schedule, waking around ten in the morning. Dave struggled to open his eyes when I kissed him awake, but put his feet on the floor and began to dress.

We caught Mouse and Dave held her down, a job he could almost do in his sleep. I washed my hands and pushed the prolapse back into place. The inside of a ewe's vagina and uterus is soft and warm. Folds of firm tissue make up the vagina. The inside of a uterus feels more like my fingers are searching through silken veils. My hand was definitely inside Mouse's vagina. I ran my fingers across the surface, feeling for a lamb part - leg or head, but instead found a tiny button, her unopened cervix. No wonder she had a prolapse. Her cervix wasn't effaced, or thinned, and the opening through her cervix was less than a fingertip in diameter. No way a lamb could make its way through that opening.

I pushed my finger tip into the center of her cervix, steadily pressing, hoping to enlarge the opening. Half an hour later, I had two fingers through the vaginal side of the cervical opening, but I could feel the opening on the uterine side still tightly closed. Dave and I traded places. My fingers ached.
Dave worked for another half hour. "I think I have a fingertip through the second opening," he said. "but I'm not making any progress." I took over. Finally I had two fingertips through the cervical opening, but as hard as I tried to spread my fingertips, I couldn't seem to make any more progress.

I laid my head on Mouse's thigh. "Okay, let's make a decision here. We don't know exactly how long she's been in labor, but we've been working for over an hour. If she has had unproductive labor, we could be getting to the end of the lambs' tolerance. I think we need to make a decision on whether or not to do a caesarean." I squeezed one of her nipples. A stream of milk squirted out. "She's close enough to have milk. If we call Dr Weckwerth now, we might get a live baby. If we wait, we might lose everything."

The ewe we lost to a caesarean last weekend cost us $500 in vet fees, as much as we would earn from selling five lambs. She had had two babies and they were both doing well and would each bring about $100. We had just bought $500 worth of feed with added calcium in an attempt to solve our problems. This had been an expensive lambing with fewer lambs than normal. We really couldn't afford to spend any more money on the sheep.

And yet, Mouse was a beautiful gray and white spotted ewe. Her fleece was soft and variegated, just the kind of fleece I had been breeding toward all these years. I couldn't bear to lose her. If we did nothing, we would certainly lose her. Calling Dr. Weckwerth gave her a chance. 

I slid across Mouse's body, my weight partially over her shoulders, and partially supported by my right arm. My left hand controlled her horns. Dave ran to the house to phone the doctor. 

Mouse and I lay there, and lay there, and lay there. Eventually, I began to worry that she was bloating, her abdomen filling with air. If that was happening, she might not be able to breathe. My weight might be making things worse. I grabbed a horn in each hand and we surged to our feet. Then Mouse and I fought our way across the barn to the hospital pen. I pinned her against a wall with my body and dragged the pen open. Then Mouse and I squeezed through. I released her horns and she surged forward, but she was trapped by 6 foot mesh walls. I straightened and relaxed. 

While Mouse and I waited for Dave and Dr Weckwerth, I fed the bottle lambs, fed the ewes in the jugs and the group pen, and let the rest of the ewes out into the barnyard. When I finished, I looked back at Mouse. She had a single black and white hoof protruding from her vulva!

I raced to the house. "She's lambing," I gasped. "Call Dr. Weckwerth and tell him not to come."
I dashed back to the barn, gathered towels and prepared for a delivery. Dave grabbed Mouse and wrestled her to the ground. I washed my hands and knelt behind her.  I felt around the single foot. It disappeared into the centimeter wide opening of her cervix, an opening just wide enough for a foot, still not open enough to deliver an entire lamb. 

"Call Dr. Weckwerth and tell him I was wrong, we still need him," I said to Dave.
"You call him," Dave said. "I've already called twice.  I'll feed the sheep." 

Dr. Weckwerth arrive an eternity (actually 15 or 20 minutes) later. We explained our thought processes. "We'd really like you to try to save her lambs," I said, "but also her if at all possible." Dave held Mouse down again. Dr. Weckwerth knelt behind the ewe's small body, splashed disinfectant water over her vulva and inserted his hand. He looked up at us and began to grin. Then he pulled a black and white spotted lamb from her womb.Her cervix was effaced and open. The lamb kicked. I grabbed a towel and began rubbing her speckled body. After a moment, she took a shuddery breath. I looked up as Dr Weckerth pulled a second lamb. He handed her to me across her mother's body and Dave's body. 

As I dried the lambs and Dave held Mouse down, Dr Weckwerth stitched her vulva almost closed to keep her uterus from prolapsing again. "Will we be able to breed her again?" Dave asked.
"I think this prolapse was due to the calcium deficiency, not to structural problems," Dr Weckwerth said. "I think she'll probably be fine next year."

We left the barn at 11 am. Mouse was on her feet, sniffing her lambs as they learned how to nurse. No dead moms, no dead babies. The sun was high in the sky. Hope grew in my heart.

Monday, March 2, 2015


Why don't the ewes eat as much hay as we expect?
Why don't the ewes eat their salt and mineral mix at the right rate?
Why are most of our ewes lambing in the last week they could possibly lamb?
Why do we have five lambs with broken legs this year?
Why does our sink have three days worth of dirty  dishes piled next to it?

Everything, including the dirty dishes, may be due to an insufficient intake of calcium, phosphorus and/or vitamin D, a result  of decreased hunger for our salt and mineral supplement combined with the oat hay we are feeding this year.

Sheep need a certain amount of calcium for their muscles to contract properly, for their nerves to work properly, for their bones to be strong enough. Our working hypothesis is that our hay didn't have enough calcium. We thought we had it covered by feeding them a salt and mineral supplement with calcium. But I read last night that when the sheep have to eat snow or drink very cold water, they don't take in as much water and so they cut down on their salt. That means they haven't been getting enough of the minerals that we add to their salt. Not enough minerals means they become hypocalcemic (low calcium levels). Hypocalcemia means that they lose their appetite, can't labor as well,  and sometimes just lie down and die.

If the ewe's hypocalcemia lasts long enough or is severe enough, she can't provide enough calcium for her babies' bones when they are in utero or when they are nursing. Then her babies have fragile bones and stand with hunched backs because they are uncomfortable. They don't nurse as well because they are uncomfortable and that means they don't grow as well. It seems to be a vicious cycle with no exit.

After blood tests, x-rays,  and long conversations with Dr Weckwerth, our local vet, we hope that we can start reversing the problem. We will supplement the ewes' feed with calcium, phosphate and Vitamin D as well as adding soy meal for protein and molasses for palatability. We will start feeding the lambs their creep feed as soon as it is delivered in stead of waiting until they are three to six weeks old. That way we can increase their calcium concentration too.

As for the dishes, I washed enough before breakfast so that we could eat our cereal. It's a start.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


Behind the black silhouettes of the trees, the rising sun stains the sky gold. As I approach the barn, I hear the low grumbling mutter of a ewe with a new baby. I step inside the door. Three  lambs circle their mother, tiny moons revolving around their own mother earth, tethered by her calls.

These lambs are up on their feet, well licked, healthy. I move them to a jug and their mother follows, calling to them the entire way. Clip, dip strip. I hang the water bucket in the pen and drop in a slice of hay. Then I inject each lamb with 0.25 cc's of selenium. Chores done for the moment, I open the big door to let in the day. A fresh breeze eases around the corner of the barn, lightly touching my cheeks.

I pause, take a deep breath. The weight on my shoulders eases.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Lying awake

Saturday evening a lamb died.
Saturday night, a second lamb died.
Sunday afternoon a third lamb died.
They all died for different reasons and they all died for no reason.

First, was the littlest triplet who never stood well. His belly was full and he was standing, sort of, at 7 pm. I was pleased that he was standing. At 10 pm he was dead.

Second was a twin who wouldn't nurse and wouldn't take a bottle. His body was stiffening and jerking at 10 pm. I gave him warm milk by gavage tube, but I had no hope. He was gone by 3 am.

Last was another triplet who cooled from 103 degrees at 2 pm when he was born, to less that 100 degrees three hours later. He wasn't born on a cold day; he hadn't had a hard delivery, he just couldn't keep his temperature up. In past years we would have carried buckets of warm water out to his pen to warm him, but we'd finally learned that unless the lamb is cold because he was outside in the cold for too long without milk, that we can't save cold lambs.

And so I lay in bed, drifting in that half asleep, half awake, 100 percent worrying state that  makes you feel terrible, from 5 am to 7 am. I was afraid to go to the barn, afraid I'd find another dying lamb. In my mind, I went through all the possibilities.

Iodine deficiency like we had three years ago? No. We were feeding iodized salt and none of the lambs had goiter, that swelling in the neck indicative of iodine deficiency.

Copper toxicity? No we were feeding oat hay from our farm and corn from a reputable mill. When we'd had problems with our feed four years ago, the Mill had sent an inspector out inspect our farm for possible problems - no lead based paints on buildings, no contamination of the well from manure ponds, nothing in the hay.

Could it be the hay? Oat hay is lower in calcium than alfalfa hay, but the minerals we mix with their iodized salt should have enough calcium to make up the difference.

Could it be genetics? Last year's lambing had been real good. If it was genetics. we would have had problems last year too because it was the same ewes bred to the same ram.

At 7 am I dragged myself out of bed, warmed up a bottle of milk and went out to the barn. Inside, a lamb was curled up on her mother's back, all the other lambs were sleeping peacefully, bellies round and full of milk. I opened the big garage door on the east side of the barn. The sun was just rising over the trees. Mist hung in the air. I decided to check our barn records to see if the ewes who lost babies in the last few days had lost babies in the past.

I had forgotten that after an amazing beginning to lambing last year, we had lost  lambs in the last week. Dr Weckwerth had suggested that we supplement the newborn lambs with selenium. It had worked.

Dave and I gave selenium shots to all the lambs who looked cold or hungry - who stood with hunched backs. So far, they are fine. They still look cold and hungry, but I think that is because all three suck poorly so they don't get enough milk. We have been supplementing them with lamb milk replacer.

The set of twins born since then are fine. I don't know that we won't have further problems, but having a solution to try means that I don't lie awake at night.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

With a little help

Most sheep lamb completely on their own. They go into the barn to get out of the weather, find a quiet corner and lamb.

Every once in awhile, yearlings, ewes in labor for the first time, have no idea of what is happening to their bodies and need a little help. That's why we close the sheep into the barn every night, so yearly ewes don't have their babies on the manure pile on a moonless night where a shepherd won't find them, or under a dripping corner in a rainstorm, or in the sweep of the winter wind as it rounds the barn from the northwest.

Most ewes lay down in the straw and birth their babies easily, one after another, every twenty or thirty minutes until her placenta follows the birth of the last lamb and the contractions stop.

But some moms need help. The first lamb may be very large and barely fit through the pelvic opening. Or one of the lambs presents in a more difficult alignment, not front hooves and head first. Or twins and triplets may be tangled, one lamb's head presenting with another lamb's front feet. After a long labor, the ewe may even tire out, unable to deliver her last lamb.

All of these ewes need a little help from their shepherd. When we realize that labor is not progessing as it should, we can ease extra large lambs through the pelvic opening by adding a gentle pull to mom's pushes. We can rearrange lamb mis-presentations, moving a head until it centers over a pair of front hooves, or searching about inside the mother's uterus with our fingers, to locate the front legs that are actually attached to the head ready to be pushed out the vaginal opening. Sometimes we wash our hand and arm and insert it as far as we can into the ewe's uterus looking for a last lamb, which we then pull out.

Even lambs occassionally need help. Our ewe Dolly has a low hanging udder, her nipples almost touch the ground. It took her lambs almost 24 hour to stop looking high on her udder for nipples. With a bit of our help, they didn't starve to death while they were learning. Abi, the newest black lamb, bonded with Abi, the apprentice, immediately after she was born. We bottle fed the lamb until she learned that she could get  milk immediately from her mother but would have to wait for three hours for Abi the person to come back to the barn. The smallest triplet born so far this year has been bottle fed since the -20 degree night she was born. She had trouble standing and was weak after she was born and struggled to stand and nurse. Without a little bit of help, she wouldn't have survived.

Dave checks the sheep at 3 a.m. We both do the 10 p.m. check and I wake up and go out to the barn for the seven a.m. check.  Friday evening when we realized that we had several ewes lambing, I sent Dave to bed because I had Abi to help me deliver lambs, dry new lambs, clip and dip their umbilical cords and strip their mother's nipples so that they could nurse easily. Two and a half hours later, Abi and I staggered into the house and dropped into bed, knowing that the ewes were okay, the lambs had either nursed or been fed with a bottle and that Dave would be alert in less than three hours to care for the babies in the pens and any new babies. With a little help from Abi, I got to bed before Dave woke up for the next lamb check.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cold lamb

"I always slow down when I get to the barn door," I explained to Abi as we walked toward the barn. "If the ewe is a first time Mom and is frightened or if she's have a hard delivery and she's anxious, I don't want to scare her out of the barn. It's much easier on her babies to be in the barn in this cold."

21 orange was neither frightened nor anxious. She stood just inside the door, a gangly white lamb standing beside her. 21 orange licked her lamb. The lamb shuddered.

Cold lamb! Not surprising, it was still below zero outside.

I grabbed a couple of towels from the cabinet and handed them to Abi,  then  hung a heat lamp over a pen and turned on the light. I untied the corner ties on the front panel of the pen and fluffed up the straw on the floor. Then I picked up the new lamb and carried it to the pen. I walked slowly, backwards, holding the lamb down for 21 orange to sniff and follow. "Come on Mom," I murmured. "We'll get you into a nice warm pen."

21 orange is an old ewe; she knew the routine. When I set her baby down and moved away, she walked right into the pen and began licking him again. I gestured Abi in after him. "Dry him off with the towel." Once the lamb was dry, I cut his umbilical cord and dipped it in iodine. Then I stripped milk from his mother's teats. Abi filled a bucket with water and hung it on the pen wall. I added a slice of hay.The lamb was still shivering, so we hung a second heat lamp.

When we returned with the barn to introduce Dave to our newest addition, the lamb was still shivering.  I ran back to the house for a thermometer and a lamb bottle. Dave milked 21 orange into a jar while I took the lamb's temperature. Normal. The shivering was probably due to the cold, not to an inability to keep his temperature up, a problem that has haunted us for several years. If we could get him nursing, he'd be fine.

Dave put the lamb onto his mother's nipple, holding mom in place with his shoulder and the lamb in place with his hands and knees. The lamb sucked a little, but got distracted easily. Finally, Abi poured the fresh milk into the bottle and held the lamb while I fed him. He nursed well. When we left the barn his shivers were almost gone.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Waiting for lambs - learning to dye

Abi, a high school senior, loves knitting and wool. She came to stay at the farm this week to learn about raising sheep. It should have been a perfect time-  one week into lambing, the barn should have been full of new babies. We should be cutting umbilical cords, checking for third lambs in mother's uterus', feeding lambs and their moms in their pens. We might even have had a bottle lamb to feed. We should be busy. Very busy.

This week, however, no one has lambed. We have no bottle lambs. In fact, no lambs have been born since February 7. All we have to do is check the sheep every three hours and that doesn't fill up much of a day. So Abby and I have been playing with wool. We skirted and washed a couple of fleeces on Sunday. On Monday, we dyed a fleece navy blue and began experimenting with space dyed yarns.

Most yarns are dyed before they are spun. Color variations are a part of the spinning process. But space dyed yarns have two or more color variations that are created by adding color after the yarn is spun. Sometimes the variations are simple but regular and produce a regular pattern in the knitted garment.

Sometimes the variations are complex and regular, but the knitted garment doesn't necessarily reflect that regularity. The regularity makes it easier to reproduce the pattern again and again on different skeins of yarn.

Sometimes the dye patterns are very complex. Abi introduced me to Koigu yarns on the Internet. They have absolutely wonderful color variations. We decided that reproducing those yarns would be fun. I got out my old space dyeing experiments for examples, but I'd never tried any space dyeing with such complex patterns.  We spent the entire day adding six or eight different colors to a skein of yarn. Then we steamed the yarn to set the color, let it cool enough that we could judge what we had created to learn what worked well and what didn't, and then began on the next skein. In spite of short breaks to check the sheep and eat, we only finished three skeins. Time flew.
 Space dyeing yarns is addictive. We wanted to do more. The knitting that Abby had seen from Koigu yarns had each stitch a different color. Those yarns come in dyelots of 22 skeins. That means that they only guarantee that 22 skeins will knit up in exactly the same collection of colors. They must have found some way to make their seemingly random color choices reproducible.

Dave helped us design a  machine to make our space dyeing more repeatable. We finished it last night. Today we'll try to create a repeatable pattern in lots of colors, while we wait for lambs.