Monday, December 26, 2016

Simple gifts

We are spending a quiet Christmas at the farm this year - just Dave and I, his Mom, Newton the dog, Oolong and BC the cats, thirty eight sheep, one alpaca, and six chickens.

We give the gifts of corn and hay to the sheep and alpaca, cat food and dog food to the cats and dog, and chicken laying mix to the chickens. The sheep will soon gift us with their fleeces and their babies. The cats and dog share our lives on a more intimate basis. Oolong spreads herself in front of the wood stove and decorates the living room with her elegance. BC and Newton vie for floor space within stroking distance of either Dave or me.The chickens gift us with three eggs nearly every day. I love reaching into their nest box to find the smooth, brown ovals, cool to the touch and beautiful within. The egg yolks are firm and dark yellow, almost orange, with a wonderful flavor.

It has been raining most of the day. A thin crust of ice coats the snow drifts. As I write, the lights flicker once, twice, and go out. Probably ice on the electric lines. I find the candles and light them. Dave cleans the chimneys on the kerosene lamps and sets one beside each of us. Grandma Alice continues her crocheting. She knows the pattern so well that it doesn't matter that she can barely see.

The wood stove keeps us warm; we have ten cords of wood in the back yard. We have water stored in the basement. I'll cook our sweet potato casserole in a cast iron fry pan on the wood stove and ham slices on a griddle on the wood stove. After Christmas dinner, Grandma Alice and I will sing along as Dave plays  carols on his fiddle. We have no internet access, no radio, no TV. It doesn't matter. We have warmth and food and family - simple gifts.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The fox and the chickens

I enjoy having chickens around. They are industrious, not bothered by much, colorful, funny, and they lay eggs. Pretty good for something that costs less than $5 at Farm and Fleet in the spring.
We've had chicken off and on for years, but rather more off than on until lately. Several years ago, we delivered two lambs to a friend and came home with half a dozen chickens.

They were fine for a week or two, and then over a three day period, they all disappeared. Something had discovered them.

Dave  built  a chicken vault,  a wonderful coop, in the barn with corrugated steel on the bottom three feet, and hog panels on up to the ceiling. As I was filling the feeder, our barn cat jumped to the top of the corrugated metal wall and wove his way back and forth through the spaces on the hog panels. Obviously, hog panels weren't secure enough to keep the cat out.  I shooed him away and laced chicken wire to the hog panels.

The next morning, half  the chickens were gone. I searched for openings and tightened up a couple of spaces between wall and wire that might have been the problem. The next morning the rest were dead. Dave found one body stuck in the barnyard fence, but the rest had disappeared.

That night Dave set a trap. He put the dead chicken back into the coop and at dusk, he hid in the barn with his rifle hoping to catch the culprit in that act. It wasn't until full dark that he identified a soft , persistent background noise as chewing. "It must be out on the compost pile," he thought. Dave walked silently to the barn door and stood there, watching and listening. No, the sound came from above him. Dave pulled the door shut and a racoon fell to the ground in a litter of chicken bones, dashed across the barnyard , through the fence and up a tree.

Completely disheartened, I emptied the feeder and waterer. Dave filled the hole in the base of the racoon tree with chicken wire to discourage the coons. We gave up on chickens for the year.

In the spring we ordered an automatic chicken door and Dave installed it. Our grandson Jasper and I went to Farm and Fleet to buy chickens. Jasper chose two each of four varieties We released them into the coop with a brooder lamp to keep them warm. The chicks prospered until I began thinking that they were just about big enough to lay eggs. The next morning, half the chickens were gone. We checked the chicken door. It closed at dusk and opened at dawn. It should be working. The next morning, the rest of the chickens were gone. Obviously, whoever was eating our chickens worked after dusk or before dawn. Again we gave up on chickens for the year.

 Last summer, when grandsons Kieran and Simon came to visit, we decided to try chickens one more time so that the boys would have a chance to select them and play with them while they were still cute and cuddly. We  tightened up the coop again and unplugged the door. We would manually let the chickens out when the sun was well up and put them back into the coop in late afternoon while the sun was still out. One day, we were late putting the chickens back in the coop. By the time we thought of them, there was only one hen left, cowering in a corner.The next morning, six more appeared, but the eighth one didn't ever come home.

I set six foot hog panels around the coop, sectioning off an area of the barn for chicken use only. It wasn't as fun as giving the chickens the run of the barnyard, but it was still nice to step into the barn and hear them chattering.

  A few days later while we were washing dishes, Dave said "There's a fox in the pasture." Then he threw down his dish towel. "He's got one of our chickens!" We both rushed outside. The fox disappeared through the fence, but the chicken was already dead. Her warm brown feathers moved a little in the breeze, but her neck was broken, her head limp. When we stepped into the barn, six chickens flew back into their pen. Okay, so they could fly over a six foot fence.

Dave and I stretched three lengths of the temporary electric fencing that we use for the sheep when they are grazing our hayfield around the inside of the barnyard fence. That night, Dave woke to the sound of a fox crying, little short barks that went on and on in the darkness. In the morning, the fence was pulled out of the ground and tangled. The fox must have come through the woven wire and gotten caught in the electric fence.  Two days later, the entire fence was lying on the ground or leaning against the old woven wire fence, covered in ice and snow. If the wind blew the electric fence onto the woven wire fence once it was electrified it would short out immediately. This was not a good solution either. We tied the woven wire fence to the electric fence, hoping the extra wires  would produce a more impenetrable barrier.

That was a week ago. We still have six chickens. They still fly out of their pen and roam the barnyard. Yesterday we had a blizzard, restricting the animals to the barn. The chickens will be out again as soon as the sheep walk a path into the barnyard.

Hopefully, the fox learned it's lesson. But probably not. Yesterday we found two eggs in the barn garbage can. What a thrill.  We are agreed, we really enjoy having the chickens in our life.

For the rest of this winter, we'll appreciate every egg, every encounter with the chickens for as long as they live. Next spring, as soon as the ground is thawed, we'll wrap our barnyard in fencing with smaller holes so the raccoons, the foxes and anything else that threatens the chickens can't get in. It's worth it for the fresh eggs, warm and brown, but mostly, it's worth it for the enjoyment we get from the chickens.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Not noticing much

I walk the fields every morning with our dog, Newton. BC the barn cat  follows us. Each day, I look for something new, some change. In the spring I see the first furled alfalfa leaf rising through the grasses. In summer, I watch for new flowers in the prairie. This fall I've been listening to bird calls, trying to identify them, judging which birds are moving south by the calls I hear in the air.

Every morning, I write a haiku as I walk. Haiku are a form of short Japanese poetry, generally with a natural theme. Traditional haiku are 17 syllables long, set out in three lines of 5 syllables, 7 syllables and 5 syllables.  Seventeen syllables of noticing the world.

This morning Newton and I heard gunshots in the distance as we walked up the driveway. It's deer hunting season and the shots mean we have hunters beyond the edges of our property. I won't risk taking a deer colored dog further than  our driveway. He'll get the rest of his outdoor time sitting with BC on the deck.

Then I began to worry. Would a hunter see just a glimpse of Newton and not notice the human walking behind him on our driveway and shoot thinking he'd seen a deer?

What would I do if Newton got shot? Would it be better to shout and scream so the hunter knows I'm there? Or to rush silently back to the house and call 911 to report a hunter shooting across our property without our permission so that the police could arrest him? Should I pick the dog up and carry him down to Dave in case he's dying (as if I could carry a 100 pound dog) or should I just shout for Dave and hope he hears me above NPR?

A car was parked across the road from the top of our driveway. A hunter in the neighbor's woods.
What if the shot came from that direction? If I ran down the driveway after the shot, I could tell the police all about the car.

Wait a minute, what could I tell the police? The car was white, no, silver. Maybe it was a light gray. Do they make light gray cars? It looked like a station wagon from behind, but hardly anybody has station wagons anymore, so with no other cars to judge size by, it was probably something bigger. I think I made out  the letters KIA on the back of the car.

Newton BC, and I turned around and headed back down the driveway. If Newton got shot from behind on our way down the drive, I could tell the police that I saw a white, silver, or gray car that might have been a KIA and might have been bigger than a station wagon, but with the same kind of square shape, with Minnesota plates of which I could read none of the numbers or letters without going a lot closer. I wasn't getting any closer.

In the mystery novels I enjoy, someone always gets the color, make, and license plate number of a car speeding away from them. I obviously would be a useless witness if a crime was committed with a car. No crime was committed at all while Newton and I returned to the house, but I edited and tuned my story all the way down the drive just in case. Back at the house I sat down to write my haiku and realized that I had spent the entire walk inside my head, not even really seeing the car which was the one thing I had actually noticed.

I walk this beautiful world
not noticing much

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

For hope there must be imagination

photo by Amber Walker

There must be imagination...

 “I hope we find some bones.” (They did.)
“I hope we can dig this tree out of the ground.” (They did!)
“I hope we can find our way back to the house.” (They did.)

We have spent the summer playing with grandsons and we have had such a good time. Six years old, five and three, they play with chickens and lambs, cats and dog.  They run the fields, explore the woods. They build forts in the pasture from old branches. They do archeological digs where ever they find a piece of metal. They excavate rocks from the driveway using the hose and shovels. They strap on backpacks and take their lunches on adventures.
In addition to a week at the farm, their great grandma took them to see Pinocchio at the Children’s Theater, a version of Pinocchio that required a lot of imagination. The actors were all dressed as house painters, their scenery hung from construction scaffolds. The boys were entranced.  After the play we all went out for dessert.

“I hope we get ice cream.” (They did.) 

Across the street from the ice cream shop, was this wonderful piece of graffiti. For hope, there must be imagination.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Bridge to joy

My husband Dave built me a bridge for our anniversary, a simple hump backed bridge from our east hayfield, over the drainage ditch, to our prairie. To me, it's a bridge over a stream, a bridge from work to joy.

The hayfield is definitely work. It means worry about weeds . Will the thistles overtake the alfalfa?  Is the leafy spurge taking over? Is that shepherds purse or hoary alyssum? It means worry about the weather. When is the next rain predicted? Is the alfalfa dry yet? When can we start cutting hay? It means the absolutely exhausting work of baling.
Will we have extra help? Can we do it by ourselves? When is the next rain predicted? Will the tractor keep working, the haybine, the baler?

There is joy during baling - the blooms along the edges of the field as we  roll past on the hay wagon, the swallows that follow the baler scooping up insects suddenly deprived of their cover, the joy of night fall when we can't bale any longer and we get to lie down and not move for eight hours, and the biggest joy of lifting the last bale off the last wagon load and sitting down in the alfalfa leaf dust on the wagon, sweat running down our faces, through with baling for six whole weeks.

On the other hand, the prairie is all joy. When we converted 10 acres of hayfield to prairie it meant we had ten fewer acres of hay to bale. Our friends with prairies have assured us that the few remaining thistles will eventually give up and die. And every time we walk through the prairie, we find something new. Narrow deer trails wander seemingly aimlessly. Dried purple cone flower seed heads harbor blue bodied dragonflies. Bright green yarrow leaves force their way through last years dead grasses. A bobolink balances on a dried sunflower seed head, singing its heart out.

It's not that I hate baling, it has it's moments, but when I see that simple bridge from the hayfield to the prairie, I smile.

Sunday, June 5, 2016


We took lamb number 52 to the vet. He was old enough to get his vasectomy and become a permanent part of our flock as a teaser, the ram who was responsible for getting the ewes ready to get pregnant.

Our truck had had a close encounter with a wild turkey and was in at the shop having a new windshield installed the day of 52's appointment, so we transported him in the back of the car. Specifically, we transported him on Dave's lap. Number 52 was a bottle lamb. He was easy to catch and fairly easy to hold in the back seat (at least from my point of view). He didn't complain until I took the corner at the end of our road a little too fast, and that was just a small bleat.

Every one at the veterinary office was impressed by him. They slipped a leash around his neck and he followed them happily down the hall. Three hours later, after he recovered from his anesthetic, Dave picked him up and held him in his lap again. We stopped at our friends Budd, Marguerite, and Kate's house so that he could get some head rubs and scratches. There he sampled dandelions, yard grass and a few flowers.

"What's his name?" Kate asked. "If he's a permanent part of the flock, he has to have a name."

We all looked at Budd because he knew number 52 better than any of us having spent numerous hours bottle feeding him. "George," said Budd. "He looks like a George."

One more good bye scratch and then Dave, George and I climbed back into the car. George was about to meet his destiny. We opened the gate and let him into the ram pasture. Three huge rams ambled over to sniff him. George baaad. The rams turned aside. He was no threat to them. George wandered to the fence and gazed longingly at his friends back in the lamb pasture. "Baaa." He would be back with the ewes in three short months, but for now, he was bonding with the rams, learning what it took to be a George rather than just a number.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The first flowers

When spring comes, I search for flowers. I have to look hard to find the pasque flowers in the Lake Region Electric Coop prairie. Their buds are the same pale parchment color as the dried debris of last years prairie. If the old stalks hadn't been cut and raked, I wouldn't have seen the pale purple petals just inches off the ground.

The pasque flowers aren't flashy; they don't overwhelm you with bright color or scent or their vast numbers. It's the persistence of the plant, the fact that it forces its way up through ground just barely thawed, that impresses me. Any plant that blooms while the nights still freeze regularly and the days hover around 40 degrees must be a survivor. And yet, the pasque flowers just barely survive. They don't compete well with sod forming grasses. They need prairie grasses that grow in clumps, leaving space for the prairie flowers in between. They need the prairie grasses that emerge when conditions are warmer to allow the early spring sun to reach the pasque flowers, heating their patch of soil and building sugars in their roots.

Once the prairie grasses grow, the ephemerals like pasque flowers can't compete for light and they die back, conserving their energy for next spring when the soil warms and the fragile buds push their way up into the sunlight again in a pattern that will continue as long as there are prairies.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Our grandsons, five year old Kieran and three year old Simon helped me feed the lambs.  Two little boys against eight hungry lambs delighted everyone.

After feeding the lambs, we looked for new babies. It had been nine weeks since we had expected our first lamb; there was one ewe left. Dave an I knew that Empress was pregnant. Her udder was plumping up and her abdomen eventually spread outward into that distinctive pregnant sheep shape. She was an experienced mom, but we checked  every three hours, hoping to finally see her with a new lamb at her side. The boys found Empress in the barn lying in an open jug, straining. It was finally time.

I settled the boys in the corners of the pen behind her. Then I leaned against Empress and looked at her back end. "These are his feet." I touched each hoof as I spoke. "And this is his nose." The boys were probably completely confused, the hooves and nose were almost the same color - off white- and covered with a clear shiny membrane.

"I'm going to pull on his foot to help him come out." The boys nodded. Empress groaned.
"You're hurting her," Kieran said. Empress groaned again. "You're hurting her," Simon said.

"We have to get the baby out," I explained. "It's a big baby, so we have to help. It will hurt for a little while and then she'll feel better." I pulled down and out on one hoof.  I grabbed the second hoof and pulled. This was tighter. I eased the legs sideways, pulled. I slid my fingers behind the lamb's head, hoping to ease it out. Empress groaned again.

Then I felt the give as the lamb's head passed through the cervix. Yes! It was a big, big lamb. I dragged it out into the air and swiped my hand across it's mouth and head, clearing the membrane from its nose and mouth so it could breathe. The lamb didn't move. Empress didn't turn to look for him.

This lamb has to  live, I thought to myself. I can't have Kieran and Simon watch me deliver a dead lamb.

I shook the little body. No breaths.

I dropped it gently to the floor. No breaths.  But he did lift his head slightly. I set the lamb down and ran to the cabinet for towels. Then I began rubbing the lambs abdomen and chest, hard. After every couple of rubs I'd pause, watching for breaths.

A flutter. Then another. Yes! As the lamb began to breathe easily on its own, I handed the towels to the boys. "Rub him dry," I said. "He's a nice big, healthy lamb."

I checked Empress for another lamb but she was done. She struggled to her feet and turned to lick her baby. I clipped his umbilical cord, dipped it in iodine and then stripped the milk from Empresses teats, explaining to the boys as I worked.  Then Kieran filled a bucket of water for her. Simon dropped some hay into her pen. I tied the pen shut.

The boys both looked over the pen again before we left the barn. Empress' lamb was standing, nursing. Outside, the bottle lambs mobbed us, hoping for one more drink of milk.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Fresh snow

Dave and I lay in bed this morning admiring the fresh snow. "It always makes me feel like Christmas when the ground turns white," Dave said.
I agreed. "I always think maybe it will be a snow day and we won't be able to go anywhere."

Whether it was memories of Christmas or the thought of the illusory freedom of a snow day when all we can do is curl up and read while we watch the snow pile up foot after foot, we both jumped out of bed in great moods, ready to spend a day walking the paths in the sugar bush - collecting sap, cutting wood, splitting wood and feeding fires. Fresh snow in the spring always means the sap will rise in the maples at least one more day.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Monday morning fog

Monday morning fog. The trees fade into the distance and disappear. The bottle lambs do not appear. They're not out back; they're not in the barn. I set the bottles into a lambing pen and there are the bottle lambs, still in the pen into which we dropped them as they finished feeding last night to make feeding less insane. No wonder there are three ewes in the barn maaing for their babies.

When we finish feeding all eight lambs Dave takes a bucket of water to the rams and I feed and water Amy who lambed yesterday morning. The bottle lambs swirl around my ankles. I know from experience that they will follow me right to the pasture gate and that two of them are still small enough to fit through the wire grid on the gate.  Instead of the straight forward path, I sneak out the people door of the barn and run for the gate.

No baas of bottle lambs in pursuit. I climb the gate and walk the driveway toward Dave who is feeding the rams. He grins and gesture. Lamb number 76 has followed me through the gate after all. I return the lamb to the pasture and tie a hog panel across the gate with baling twine. The wire grid of the hog panels blocks the openings in the wire grid of the gate, but it also keeps me from climbing the gate.

I climb an interior fence to the feed area and then climb the stile, hoping to lose or at least confuse the lamb. She follows me into the feed area and stands at the bottom of our perimeter fence staring at me standing at the top of the ladder like stile. If I descend and start across the yard, the lamb will follow me because our perimeter fences have an even bigger wire grid than our gate.

I stand at the top of the stile hoping that the lamb will lose interest and wander off before I lose patience. "Go back through the barn." Dave shouts. Duh! Talk about early morning fog. I climb back down the stile, walk through the barn, leave by the people door, run across the barnyard, climb over the stile and am out of sight before number 76 stops looking for me in the barn. As long as  Dave is smarter than the lambs, we can still outwit them. The sun burns the fog away before our next feeding.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Sometimes when you least expect it...

Thursday I told a friend that we only had two ewes left to lamb and that it would be a couple of weeks before they did.

Friday began like an ordinary morning. I mixed up four bottles of lamb milk replacer and walked out to the barn. Eight lambs met me at the barn door, tripping over each other and tripping me as they vied for first chance at a bottle. I select the two biggest and strongest lambs to nurse first. When they are done, they'll wander off and the smaller, weaker lambs will get their chances to nurse.

Two at a time, they suck vigorously, completely intent on eating. The other bottle lambs try to steal the nipple away, climb onto the backs of the nursing lambs, wedge their bodies between me and the nursing lambs. They try, but if the nursing lambs and I concentrate on what we're doing, each lamb eventually gets his or her full seven ounces of milk.

Just as I finished feeding the last lamb, I heard the flutter of bird wings against a window. The sparrows sometimes get trapped in the barn when we close the big doors, but those doors hadn't been closed in several days. I turned to see a large bird desperately beating the window with its wings. Usually it's easy to brush a bird out of the window and give it a chance to reorient. I started across the barn to help the bird when I saw a little black lamb with a tail nursing on a white ewe.

Okay, which is the most immediate need, I asked myself, to free the bird or to catch and pen the new lamb and it's mom? Another flutter of wings decided me. The bird was frantic and I was afraid it would hurt itself. When I got to the window, I recognized the hooked beak of a hawk. I was not going to try to brush a hawk out of the window with my hand, even a gloved hand. I grabbed my crook and moved it across the window. The bird cowered in the bottom corner, the light brown speckles on its  breast trembling as it panted. The crook scared the bird even more than I did. Next I grabbed the step stool from it's hanger near the ceiling and set it up in front of the window. I unfastened two of the three toggles that held the window in place and pulled the plastic away from the opening. I stepped back and the bird slipped out to freedom.

Then I turned to find the new lamb and it's mom. They had left the barn. I followed them out into the barn yard, but the lamb was easily keeping up with its mother and they both easily kept ahead of me. We'll have to wait until both Dave and I can go out to the barn to corral the new family and dip the lamb's umbilical cord in iodine. We won't jug them, they are obvious doing fine, but the iodine is really important to keep the bacteria of the barnyard from entering the lamb's navel and causing all kinds of problems.

Yesterday, I declared that we had two ewes left to lamb. We still have two ewes left to lamb. This lamb was a surprise. I can't believe that we miscounted pregnant ewes, but somehow, we did. It's always nice to have more lambs than you expect.

I've never needed a bird identification guide in the barn before, but this morning I did. I was so focused on rescuing the bird that I didn't look at it closely. What color were its eyes? Did the speckles cover its entire body or just the belly and shoulders? This was the closest I've ever been to a hawk and I almost didn't  pay enough attention to identify it. I never in my wildest dreams expected to find a a sharp shinned hawk in the barn.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

When images are better than words

You may have already seen this video. It shows a young child helping a ewe give birth. I'm speechless. She is so cool.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

20 orange

Yesterday, 20 orange lambed. It was almost anticlimactic; it had been  over three weeks, since I'd spent 36 hours worrying that she would die  if I didn't figure out what was wrong with her.

This time it was obvious that she was in labor, not just tired of being pregnant. She groaned and grunted. Her head went up during each contraction. When I did a pelvic exam, I didn't feel baby lamb parts, just the thin, filmy tissues that float around a lamb in the uterus. She wasn't quite ready to lamb yet.

I fed hay to the ewes and milk to the bottle lambs. I poured corn into buckets for each ewe in a jug and refreshed their water. Then I rechecked 20 orange's status. I could feel feet at the tips of my fingers.

I moved the dirty straw out of jugs we had just emptied of sheep. I rebedded those jugs, ready for the next moms to lamb. I hung a heat lamp over the jug I would use for 20 orange. I rechecked her pelvis.  Way back as far as my hand could reach into her uterus I could feel two hooves and a head. They weren't positioned correctly and I couldn't reach far enough to determine if they were all part of one lamb. When I pulled on the hoof, it pulled back. No matter how hard I pulled and how hard I held on, the little hoof slipped from my fingers

20 orange had now been in labor for at least two hours. I start to worry after about half an hour for experienced mothers. Two hours was way past my worry date. When Dave came out to see how we were doing, I turned the obstetrician's job over to him.

Slowly, steadily, Dave pulled on the lamb's two front legs. The head moved with them. "I think they all belong to the same lamb," he said. "Yes."

I watched from 20 orange's head as he pulled the lamb from her vulva. He handed the baby to me and I laid her in front of her mom. Then I grabbed a towel and cleaned the amniotic sack, mucus and amniotic fluid off the baby's face so that her first breath would be air.

20 orange began to lick her lamb. She licked whatever part was closest to her tongue. I moved the lamb so that she would be working on it's face as I rubbed it's abdomen to encourage those first shuddery breaths.

"This next one is tangled," Dave said. He worked one handed, eyes closed in concentration.When he pulled her out of her mother's uterus, she looked perfect, but her body was limp.  She didn't have a heart beat and I couldn't make her breathe, even by swinging her over my head.

"There's something wrong with this lamb" Dave said as he eased lamb number three out into the cold air. It was definitely dead. Small and dark brown, it hardly looked like a lamb. Dave sat back on his heels, head down.

"Well," I said, speaking through my sorrow, "at least we have one live lamb. That's really more than I was expecting after giving her the dexamethasone to induce labor all those weeks ago."

Dave slid his hand back inside of 20 orange one last time and pulled out a small brownish lamb covered with muddy brown mucus.  This lamb wasn't limp. It's body twitched. She swung her head up and sneezed. When I rubbed, she shuddered and began to breathe. In minutes she was standing, looking for her mom's udder.

Even though we use it to induce labor, the bottle of dexamethasone warns not to give it to pregnant animals. Three weeks ago when I realized that 20 orange was not going to lamb any time soon,  I began to worry what the effect of that drug would be. We'll never know why out of four lambs, only two were live births. We'll never know why one of the dead lambs seemed grossly malformed and why one looked perfect and yet they were both dead. We'll never know how the little brown lamb survived in an amniotic environment that looked more like mud than anything that belongs in a living animal.

The one thing we do know is that after thirty years of lambing and hundreds of births, we still don't know what to expect when we go out to the barn to help a ewe give birth to a lamb.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The trouble with teasers

A teaser is a ram with a vasectomy. We turn the teaser in with the ewes 17 days before we turn the fertile ram in. The teaser will, being a ram, begin mounting ewes and the ewes will begin cycling into estrus. When we take the teaser out of the pasture and put the ram in, the ewes will get pregnant rapidly.

Teasers are just like rams except for the fertility part. They are aggressive toward people. You never walk into a pasture with a ram in it without keeping an eye on the ram. They are also aggressive toward other rams. One minute they can be sharing their morning corn and the next minute they might be trying to kill each other. And finally, teasers and rams will frequently go over or through a fence to get to a flock of ewes in estrus. We spend a lot of time repairing fences that the rams have torn down.

The final trouble with teasers is that you don't realize how important they are until it's too late. Our teaser died several years ago. We didn't replace him and didn't think anything of it. Our ewes always lambed right on time.

This year, we planned lambing early so that we could go hear our daughter Laurel sing with the St. Louis Symphony on February 28. When the week of January 15th came and went without any lambs, I redid my calculations. I'd been a week off. Our first lambs weren't due until the 22nd. By February 14, only three old ewes had lambed. Finally, on February 15, 21 days after we should have had the first rush of lambs, three more ewes lambed. This morning, we had thirteen lambs in the barn. By 2 P.M., we had 16. Lambing has actually begun.

We've learned our lesson and already selected a lamb to be our next teaser. Not having a teaser will not be one of our troubles in the future. It remains to be seen whether we finish lambing before the 28th. Twenty ewes need to lamb in the next ten days. It's possible, but not something over which we have any control. Maybe that's the real trouble with teasers, they are just one more thing over which a shepherd has very little control.

Monday, February 8, 2016


Introducing reluctant lambs or reluctant ewes to nursing requires an immense amount of patience. Dave has it, I don't.

We trap the ewe in a corner, I use all my weight to press her shoulder against the wall. Dave kneels beside her and leans against her rib cage, pressing it to the wall also. Then he presses his head into the angle between her spine and her pelvis, leaving him two free hands  to manipulate the nipple and the lamb.

Sometimes the ewe tries  to escape repeatedly. Every movement of hers twitches the nipple from the lambs mouth. Sometimes the lamb doesn't suck. Dave wiggles its jaw, he wiggles the nipple, he expresses a little milk into the lambs mouth. He refuses to try the ewes most successful technique for recalcitrant lambs - lick the lambs bottom.

Although we enjoy bottle lambs, they make a lot more work for the shepherd. This year, our first two lambs became bottle lambs because their mom's udder touched the ground and the lambs couldn't find her nipples. Six times a day for the last three days, Dave has patiently connected each lamb to it's moms nipple. Sometimes they nurse and sometimes they don't, so after each sucking session Dave expresses more milk from the udder and we feed that to the lambs with a bottle.

Tonight for the first time, the little boy finally nursed enthusiastically on his mom. Her udder is tightening up and the nipples no longer touch the ground. If we can keep  moms milk supply up,  we may eventually wean these lambs from their dependence on the bottle, and give Dave's patience a chance to recharge.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


The first week of lambing this year reminds me a lot of our first ever week of lambing thirty-one years ago. Then we had no idea what behavior to expect of our sheep. We had watched them grazing and eating through the fall and winter, but we hadn't watched them sleeping. The first time I went out to the tiny shed we were using for lambing, and saw one of our ewes lying down and grunting, I assumed she was lambing. Dave was at work for the week, so I called an interested friend, and we spent the night sitting in a cold shed watching four sheep chew their cud, sleep, and grunt.

A week later, the first ewe lambed.

Over the years, Dave and I trained ourselves to recognize imminent lambing and the most common lambing problems - hypocalcemia and pregnancy toxemia. We knew to look for ewes who lagged behind the flock,for ewes who appeared sunken just in front of their pelvis, for ewes who seemed jittery, for ewes whose breath smelled like ketones. And we learned the techniques we could try to help the ewe lamb successfully.

A week ago, we began checking the ewes every three hours. That first night, Orange 20 wouldn't get up when I went into the barn. All the other ewes surged to their feet when I approached them; orange 20 just lay there. She came out when Dave fed them corn and hay, moving a little uncomfortably, but still moving, but at night, I really struggled to get her to her feet.  By Thursday night, I was really worried. A simple urine test would tell me if she had pregnancy toxemia
I found the keto sticks in the medical cupboard in the barn and slid one out of the tube. If I could catch a urine sample, I could test it for ketones. I pushed Orange 20 to her feet, She staggered a few steps forward and then paused, and peed. I pushed the slip of plastic under the urine stream, counted fifteen seconds and checked the chart on the bottle. The little pink square changed from a pale pink to a muddy dark pink. Positive.

Rats! Pregnancy toxemia happens when advanced pregnancy with multiple lambs makes a sheep's stomach too small to eat enough calories. The ewe can't get enough calories from her feed, so begins to metabolize her own fat for energy. That releases ketones into the blood. The ketones can cause brain damage, fetal death, lethargy and lung damage. Ewes often die from pregnancy toxemia. It is not a disease to ignore.

Dave and I gave her a shot to chemically induce labor and then gavaged her with a liter of water and propylene glycol for energy so that she would no longer have to metabolize fat. We would continue gavaging her twice a day until she lambed in 36 to 48 hours.

 Twenty-four hours went by. Dave left for a workshop in the Cities. Every three hours, day and night, I checked the sheep. I also began doing pelvic exams every time I checked Orange 20. At 1:30 A.M., thirty-six hours after we induced her, I began to worry. I checked our lambing books again. No new information suddenly appeared. I still expected Orange 20 to lamb soon.  I checked her half a dozen times in the next three hours; why was nothing happening? At one point I even considered doing a ceasarean section on this  poor defenseless ewe, even though I didn't actually know how to do one - where to cut, how deep to cut, how to hold down the ewe when I did cut. My mind was grasping at improbable straws.

And then on my sixth or seventh trip over night, Orange 20 stood up.  The next time I returned to the barn, she stood. And the next time. She wasn't afraid of me, she didn't run away, she just stood there. I grabbed a keto stick and checked her urine. Normal. No ketosis.

No ketosis, no delivery, but either Orange 20 was feeling better or we had trained her to stand up when we approached her.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Controlled (?) Chaos

Shearing is potentially the most chaotic day of the year. I expect an unknown number of volunteers (ranging from three one year to a possible 25 this year); I have no control over the weather; and I have no control over the events of the day. No matter how hard I try to be ready for everything,  I always spend a lot of time running back and forth to the house for missed items, coffee break goodies, extra mittens for whoever isn't warm, antibiotics, soldering iron, extension cords, barn records, etc.

Once when I went to the house for coffee and cookies at 10 am, I realized that I hadn't started the crock pot. The stew was thawed but not hot by noon. Fortunately, we had the microwave and lots of sandwich fixings.This year when I went in for a third extension cord, Newton, the dog, had had diarrhea in the front entry way, the kitchen and on the carpet. I wiped up the mess and ran back to the barn.

Every year we have some old hands at shearing and some novices. Dave teaches how to give shots and trim hooves. I explain how to label bags and sweep the shearing floor. But I spend most of my time teaching people how to skirt fleeces. Even with coats, the fleeces still need to be skirted. We pull off the dirty wool that was around the sheep's rear ends. We look for veggies in the wool around the ewe's necks. We sorrowfully throw out complete fleeces if the sheep lost their coat between coating and shearing.

I work around the skirting table advising and correcting and demonstrating good skirting technique. I run to the house and back. I help drive sheep into and out of the shearing pen. I try to talk with everyone in the barn.

This year, Ann Arbor Miller, a wonderful photographer, joined us in the barn and I was able to see shearing through her eyes, a completely new view. I saw Greg concentrate on trimming hooves, watched as Tom, the shearer finished a ewe and rose to release her. I saw the silvery simplicity of Tom's tools and watched the concentration on Betsy's face as she skirted.

On a day when the temperature was 6 degrees below zero, twelve people worked in the barn in complete comfort, enjoying the job, the company, and the sheep.  The chaos was all in my mind.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Beautiful color

"I don't know what colors are in," I moaned as I fingered my dye sample yarns.
"I could never be a fiber person," Dave said. "All I know about color is to say 'that looks nice on you.'".

I know what colors I like to wear - teals, purples and blues. But I'm so far from reading fashion magazine that it's embarrassing. I  love dyeing. At the beginnin of each year, with luck before we shear, I use up the old fleeces. I do a final skirting to make sure they are free of debris, wash them and then either send them to Chris at Dakota Fiber Mill to be carded and spun into yarn or dye the fleeces and then send them off to Chris to be carded into roving for spinners and felters.

This year, I had a backlog of fleeces to use up. Dave and I washed 100 pounds of white wool and sent the resulting 50 pounds of clean white wool to Dakota Fiber Mill to be carded and spun into a 2 ply sport weight yarn. Then I began transforming my old 2 ply white yarn. Six skeins dyed red, six dyed orange, six yellow, six bright green, six dark green. Before I realised it, I had dyed my entire stock of  2 ply white yarn. I was sad that I hadn't been able to complete an entire rainbow of colors.

Then I got a commission to dye eight skeins of bulky white yarn a rich sumac color. It took three trials to get the color right. The first skein, dyed with one tablespoon madder orange dye and tablespoon wattle bark dye, was too light. I used up the left over dye in the pot (also called exhausting the dye) on a pound of raw wool and then doubled the amount of dye for the next trial. The second skein was too orange. I exhausted that dye bath on another pound of raw wool. I began again, using two tablespoons of wattle bark dye and two tablespoons cranberry dye for each skein of yarn. When I pulled the skeins out of the pot, the color was deep and rich. I knew the woman's husband would say "that looks nice on you."

After the yarn was finished, I dumped a couple more  pounds of raw wool into the dye bath. When I take those three batches of dyed wool to be carded into roving, the end result will be a vibrant, deep orange red. It really doesn't matter if that particular color is "in" or not; people will buy it because it is so beautiful. And even if they don't, I will use it for felted sunrises and sunsets, for poppies and maple leaves, for pomegranates and sumac berries. The oranges may not be my favorite colors to wear, but they are still beautiful.