Archive for the ‘sheep’ Category

In a spirit of great daring — or foolhardiness — we gave an interview to a local newspaper.  May God have mercy on our souls.  The conviction that real food is worth taking risks for fueled our intrepidity.

Today’s farm tour was much less stressful; the proprietors of Penn Forest Cemetery are adding a farm component to their green (read: ecologically sound) cemetery, and are interested in how rotational grazing can fit into the operation.  Take a look at their web-site; here is woodland interment without toxic embalming fluids or concrete vaults.  We spent several pleasant hours walking the pastures with Pete and Nancy, showing them our natural water systems and demonstrating rotational grazing patterns for our sheep and cows.


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Sunday, February 9, 2014:

   We grew up in Texas.  It gets cold there in the winter.  Sometimes there’s a frost.  Hauling round bales a mile each way in the rain when it’s thirty-five degrees out and you don’t own a winter coat, you find out just how warm a brown paper feed sack can be when you cut holes in it and wear it.  We aren’t sissies.

   But five degrees is too cold for baby lambs, maybe.  They were born around milking time, and the ewe wasn’t having anything to do with one of them.  The little ram lamb was clean and dry and walking well; the ewe lamb, on the other hand, was hunched, damp, and uncertain on her legs.  We didn’t wait too long before we brought her up, but her body temperature was already dangerously low.  There wasn’t any fight in her.  Fortunately, the good folks at Silo Fence Farm in Minnesota, who are also our valued in-laws, are lamb experts, and on their advice we learned just how good a thing for hypothermia is a bucket of warm water.  Hotter than you would bathe a baby in, and dunk the lamb up to her ears.  Hold her in it for ten minutes or more, rubbing her to get her circulation going.  Then hoik her out, rub her dry (this will require multiple towels), sit down in front of the woodstove with her wrapped in a blanket and offer her a bottle. Raw fresh cow’s milk with a little sugar in it is what the Minnesotans recommended; we added an egg to the milk because of our experience raising baby bulls – the albumin acts as a binder to slow the passage of food just a little, or so the theory goes.  It works for us, anyhow.

   Pretty soon the little girl was exploring under the furniture in the playroom.

   Meanwhile her brother, mama’s good milk notwithstanding, is finding the barn a little too cold.  We who were cold in Texas when it was thirty-five degrees don’t have any idea how cold is too cold for a baby lamb.  Ewe and ram lamb are in a cozy stall with eight inches of hay under them, but at two o’clock the children bring up the ram lamb to all appearances in the last stages of expiring – limp, almost non-responsive.  A finger inserted in his mouth finds it very cold.  Into the bucket of warm water with this one; he seems to be having spasms.  His eyes are rolling, and breathing is hard to detect.  After ten minutes we take him out and dry him but his mouth is still cold, so a fresh bucket of water is prepared and he gets another ten minutes, after which he is still alive, but only just.  We’re not beaten until we’re beaten, though, so we dry him as well as we can, being now soaking wet ourselves, wrap him in blankets, and deposit him in the lap of whichever girl child is in front of the heater.  Infifteen minutes he is guzzling warm milk from a pink baby bottle.

   Love those Minnesota medicine men.

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   The sheep and short yearling calves are on the white barn paddock, which is small and grazed seldom, making it a natural sacrifice paddock.  This means that we will hold them there and on the wooded hillside above for the winter, realizing that they will do some damage by grazing the grass too short and cutting up the turf when the ground is muddy, but preferring this to letting them graze at will on the five acre south hill pasture where they spend spring, summer and fall.  Additionally, since we feed them hay spread out on the paddock, they will be adding fertility and carbon to the white barn paddock, which, given a good long rest in the spring and early summer, may actually benefit by it.  We don’t know how much damage to expect they will do there, as we have not wintered sheep before.

   Daily thought must be given to the feeding of each animal – how much, where, what kind – as factors such as the cold, and their state of pregnancy, come into play.  Pigs are fed twice daily, one feeding usually being grain-based, either mash, corn, or  bakery waste (courtesy of the monastery), the other being mostly vegetables, thinnings from the low tunnels, cull potatoes and squashes, and whatever our super market salvage gleans.  Dry cows get a new section of grass daily; the lactating cows twice daily, or, in the evening, hay in the barn if the weather looks fractious.  Their ration of grain has gone up to five pounds daily, less than one percent of their body weight, but still more than we would like, but while the pastures are being renovated we have to supplement as necessary to maintain sufficient milk production.  Actually, as far as we know the all-grass dairy farmers in our neck of the woods dry off their animals in December or early January when yield drops below a certain level and the thought of going out in the cold for milking gets really unattractive, but we would not willingly do without our milk.

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red in tooth and claw

Friday, November 15:

   The dogs have been killing sheep.

   Some predator killed a ram lamb a month ago.  Since then the pony has shared the sheep’s paddock and there had, until two days ago, been no trouble.  But we are approaching the season when we feed hay out on the pasture, to spread fertility (noun concrete) more evenly and to spare ourselves the chore of moving fence all winter, and for the past two days the sheep have had the run of the home pasture, sometimes wandering far from bossy, cantankerous Bridget.

    Our six-year-old, who is small and moves softly, sees things which change or move away before we larger, heavier folk arrive.  He saw two coyotes and a skunk on the wooded edge of the back pasture Monday night while two of us were up there mending a water line.  He walked up on a hawk with one of our half-grown ducklings clutched in her talons, giving us later a description of the event which might have come from a naturalist on a field expedition, his prose lucid and untutored, guiltless of plagiarism since he cannot read.  Today he witnessed canine pack predation.

   Narrating events from the dogs’ hunting spree this afternoon he draws a animated picture before the mind’s eye:  the three dogs spread out, closing on the sheep flock, pressing it here and there; the lead ewe taking two steps out and stamping a warning foot; the dogs’ dart and bark; then the lead ewe steps too far and they cut her out, drive her down the hill.  They hound her up and down the creek bed, biting, pulling, the six-year-old shrieking and bringing down his stick on any dog within reach; the chase grows hotter and the ewe more exhausted until she collapses in the shallow water under the bridge.  The son beats away the dogs with his stick.

  When we arrived, summoned by his shrieks, the ewe, less hurt than terrified and exhausted, scrambled to her feet.  At once the dogs closed in again, chivying and biting like animals possessed, deaf to shouts and threats that would under normal circumstances have sent them into retirement under the front porch.  Even when by our combined efforts we beat them away and the ewe, limping and shivering, took refuge with the two June calves, who sniffed and licked her in stolid reassurance, the dogs still circled, half an eye on us and the greater part of their attention on their prey, looking for a chance to dodge in and cut her out once more.  Like the drive to reproduce which consumes the male dog in proximity to a female in oestrus and enables him to overcome any obstacle, the feral instinct overcomes domesticity.

   We know of no cure for the dog who hunts livestock.  We are in mourning.

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early november

Saturday, November 2:

   Three nights ago blew in a gusty rain, southerly, but shredding the rusty leaves from the trees and revealing the brown backs of these Appalachian foothills.  In the ditches and along the riverbanks, though, the sumac is still red, if it is the small, five-year variety, or gold, if it is the tall, twenty-year kind.  Five-year sumac has cones of dark red berries held upright over drooping compound leaves like palm fronds; twenty-year sumac trails wads of winged brown seeds like dirty cobwebs.  Both are weed trees which spring up in rocky, sour, or waste soils, and add brilliant color to our autumn show.

   We burned the late fall bonfire last night, the weather giving of its best, dry, cool, and windless.  Along the lane the torches that topped each fence post smoked and flared, and the bonfire itself sent sparks seventy feet in the air.  The summer kitchen was the center of a crowd gathered there for hot doughnuts, cider, and cocoa, and on the lawn people sat in folding chairs and on blankets and held long conversations about the dead, and the future.  Prayers were offered for both.  It is almost winter.

   Today we planted hoops over the winter beds of greens, carrots and beets; next week these will be covered with plastic sheeting to protect them from the frosts that are getting more frequent.  The pig pens had to be forked out, and the Massey-Ferguson in its big shed swept free of chaff and dead leaves and covered with tarps to keep off the snow.

   The three little children went out to shift the home paddock and were gone an hour and a half.   Bridget, the sorrel mini, was feeling the seasonal shift and broke out of the paddock where she is nominally in charge of the sheep to go charging up and down the south pasture chivvying chickens and squealing like air escaping from a balloon.  The sheep got out, too, to go surging up and down the hill, and even the two July calves got into the act, galloping to the top of the steep pasture and requiring to be brought down again when the new paddock was ready.  The animals are grazing their way up the middle section of the pasture and have grass enough for another two or three weeks; when hard frosts put the grass into dormancy we will begin feeding them hay.   The sheep are due to begin lambing in a couple of weeks, anyway; time to go into the barn, out of reach of coyotes and stray dogs.

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Thursday, August 29:

   The young calves and the sheep are together again in a paddock at the bottom of the south hill pasture.  For two weeks we have been moving the sheep across steep hillside where ragweed, asters and lemon balm offered mixed forage for sheep, but nothing for the little steers and the heifer calf; now at last they are back with the steers.

   Some of us are particularly glad because we will no longer be moving two paddocks in the home pasture, on top of the two at the monastery:  one in the front pasture for the lactating cows, where the whole herd passed in June and the regrowth is green and lush, and one for the dry cows on the back of the monastery hill, where the grass is coarse and fibrous and there is still much cane to be trampled down.  In total, there are now three paddocks, with a total of four moves, most days, because the lactating cows get a new paddock after every milking.  This sounds like a lot of moving fence, and it is, but because the paddocks are small, the time involved is not more than we can manage right now.

   Actually, it is sometimes the part of a job which would seem to make that activity a cert for the scrap pile – like walking a quarter mile out to the dry cow paddock and back, twice a day, to watch for one of the heifers to go into heat – that ends up contributing the greatest benefits.  The top of the monastery hill gathers in breezes like a seine gathers in fish, and each one passes through our sweat-soaked hair.  Sun on our backs and the feel of the ground coming up through our boots, damp and soft or dry and sunbaked, tells us about the weather, the condition of the forage, whether the cows need to be moved to a shady spot, and the expectations for autumn regrowth.  The long swing of legs in boots is different from the shuffle of sandals across the kitchen floor, and the difference is welcome to our feet and hips as the sight of the distant horizon is welcome to our eyes.

   And the pause, hitched up on the top of a water hog, while a small stock tank fills for the spring steers, is not a taking-out from work time, but a built-in moment of alertness and meditation and relaxation.  There is a feeling of accomplishment when one tends animals which is satisfying on a level not like the satisfaction of a perfect baking of bread, or a thick layer of rich black compost spread across a garden bed, or a cheese knocked out of the hoop and set to dry on the cheese rack.  All these are good; together they are very good.  Variety:  it is a nourishing thing, like Hopkins’ pied beauty or Whitman’s praise of the labor of hands.

   The tide long ago turned on the basement shelves, and the neap tide of empty jars has become a spring tide of full ones, of salsa – over forty quarts in the last two evenings – and sauce, peaches, a bumper crop, jam of several varieties, something like twenty quarts of honey, more than dozen old laying hens, ditto broth – food for many occasions to come.  And we are just getting started; the tomatoes are only half in, and the green beans for canning won’t start for another week or so.  There is cider to be put down, as much as we can squeeze out of the small, sweet apples that grow in the south hill pasture.  There will be beets to pickle.  The onions and garlic are drying in the summer kitchen before we braid them and hang them in a cool corner of the basement.  And in the cave, the small, dry, dirt-floored cellar under the east end of the house, there will be winter squash and pumpkins on long shelves of plank and cinder block.

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Wednesday, July 3:

    They got the roof on the milking shed at the monastery, at least as far as the roofing felt, so the sisters will be under cover while we are at the wedding.

   All those home-hatched chicks are doing well; I think the count is over twenty-five, which is about half what I need this summer, seeing that fifty percent of these will be little boys.

   Sleeping bags in the playroom and bodies on the sofa; boys in the camper and families camping in the boys’ dormitory; we have a full house.

   Rain every few days, and not in paltry tenths of inches, but great deluges of an  inch, or one and a half, or even two; the garden is lush even to decay.

   When the lambs’ electric fence is left off they somehow know it and slip out.  Eight Katahdins skim around the south hill pasture like a school of  silver fish, baaing now and then in the throes of their agoraphobia.  When the paddock gate is opened they surge, hesitate, and then rush in, glad, perhaps, to see their options reduced.  We are often the same way ourselves.

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