October 11, 2017

Fall apples and sheep.

Even sick, coughing and sneezing, rushing against a too long To-Do list, I am so grateful to be living on my farm at last. My heart lifts.

As it did last night. I was at school until 9:15 PM, showing my 8th grade history students an edited version of the film Twelve Years A Slave.

I show big-screen movies at night a dozen times a year, baking loaves of chocolate chip bread and spreading pillows on the carpeted floor of my classroom. It’s a lot of extra work every few weeks — baking, moving all the desks and chairs, showing the 2-3 hour film with pauses for explanations, then cleaning and restoring the room for another half hour — but I love to see the children make emotional connections to the material we’ve learned in class.

Last night as the students filed out after the film, they stepped over a piece of paper on the hall floor outside the doorway. I leaned down to pick it up.

I smiled. It clearly had been placed there by a ninth grader leaving his evening study hall. A 9th grader who was one of my heedless 8th grade history kids last year.

I love my job.

Who cares about coughing and to-do lists?  I am so lucky.


Number 22

June 5, 2017

It rained yesterday afternoon and after a trip to town to buy groceries and veterinary supplies, I finally had time to catch the lamb with the bad leg. He’s eartag 22: Pixie’s son, of this year’s first-born pair of twins.

It is mysterious. He definitely cannot touch the leg to the ground, but he continues to eat eagerly — which is why I didn’t drop everything, despite my crazy schedule, to catch him earlier. However, I could find no break. I don’t have experienced hands but surely I would feel the bone grating against itself or the leg bending in places it shouldn’t. The knee is swollen and warm. My guess is that it is a severe sprain. I sat in the rain with the warm, damp lamb and wished I had x-ray vision.

The spring grass is so juicy and wet that all the sheep have loose stools. Their fleeces are stained with manure, and so, soon, was I.

Still, it was peaceful in the soft rain, with barn swallows and tree swallows swooping over the grass and the sheep surrounding me watchfully. I left the SAM splint and vet wrap in my pocket, and took a deep breath.

Sheep Out for Spring

April 23, 2017

Though yesterday was a grey chilly day, I was able to get the sheep out on pasture. Once lambing starts in February, my sheep are indoors for the duration of the winter. I don’t have fencing for lambs that will work in snow. (With money from lamb sales, last fall I had bought galvanized panels and treated posts, and Damon brought his excavator to the farm, but his health crashed and we never got to that project.) Someday.

Moving young lambs is always tricky. The ewes and yearlings know the routine and immediately rush to follow me (and the grain can). The lambs dither in the barn doorway, bleating in fright. Because they are not worried, the ewes do not bother to answer their crying babies. The noise is piercing. Often, as yesterday, I end up having to carry out the last few lambs one by one. I am always puffing and sweaty by the end of this exercise.

The grass is only beginning to flush green. I will be feeding hay for at least a couple of weeks, and the sheep will come in at night. But my hope is that by getting the sheep out early, I will avoid any problems in transitioning to the summer feeding regime of being on pasture 24/7.

Given that it was a grey day — only a couple of hours later, fog would be scudding low over the ground — I didn’t bother to put the covers on the sheep shelters yet.

One of the girls took the opportunity to give herself a neck rub.

My ram, Royal, was very interested in the ewes who had been separated since shearing time. He pursued them, sniffing eagerly and licking his lips.


Though I had hopes that at least one of my three ewes who did not give birth this year was pregnant, just late, that does not appear to be the case.  I see no udder development at all.

I’ve been staring at sheep bottoms for a month. Though I could be wrong, I now think these girls are just fat.

This is a disappointment and the loss of their six lambs a discouraging financial hit. For the last two years I have sold all my lambs as breeding stock to other farms, usually in large groups as starter flocks.

However, I can’t change the facts. Onward! 

Shearing and a Mystery

March 11, 2017

The sheep are shorn! Yesterday felt like a long day. It was a wise decision for me to forego worming and hoof-trimming.

After driving Lucy to her ski race, walking the dogs, turning the cows out, and mucking the barn, just standing for 3.5 hours at Roger’s elbow — ready to take the clippers or pass them back (“Scalpel!” “Yes, doctor!”), bag fleeces, and rake up dirty wool tags — was about all I could manage between bouts of coughing and sneezing.

Roger is always quiet, patient, and calm. He seems to hold the sheep effortlessly, and even the frightened yearlings who’ve never been shorn usually relax under his hands. After he sheared Royal, my big ram, he kindly trimmed his feet. (I’ll trim the rest when I’m feeling better.)

As each sheep was shorn, I slipped over her/his head a collar and nametag. These are hard rubber neck straps from the Netherlands (61¢ each, but shipping from Europe brings them to $3) and nylon neck tags from Ketchum Manufacturing ($2.10 each). Ewes have black tags, rams red. I could have purchased simple numbered tags for $1.10, but I spent the extra $1 apiece to have my sheep’s names engraved. This was a frivolous expenditure on my part, and one I’m glad I made some months ago, as dollars are so tight I could not justify it now.

I’ve always wanted my sheep to have nametags. Many years ago a big breeder on our sheep list wrote contemptuously of “backyard breeders with six sheep with names.” I have eleven sheep, and they all have names. My hope is that my ewes will stay with me for a decade. I see them every day for years. Of course they have names.

They also all have eartags, and I can remember their numbers (“11, that’s Cider”) and most of their faces. But nothing is as easy for me as reading. So this is another of my experiments. I’m not sure it will work. The collars are snug on my bigger ewes even without a wool coat. We shall see.

Meanwhile, with the heavy wool removed I was shocked to find that the three ewes that I assumed were due to give birth any day have no udder development. In my records, Magnolia, Petunia, and Larch were all bred in early October and potentially multiple times after (the repeated blue smudges that made me lose track last fall). What could be going on?

It’s a mystery. I have never had such a long and strange lambing season. My ewes almost always become pregnant on their first breeding. Magnolia has twinned every year since she was two. Petunia had triplets last year.

What was different this year? I could only think of three things.

  • The girls spent the summer grazing on the farm, rather than at Betty’s.
  • I supplemented them with alfalfa pellets.
  • The hay I bought last fall from Rick (“I’m giving you second-cut for the same price as first-cut, and you know why? Because you’ve been such a good customer for so many years!”) turned out to be 1/4 inedible chicory stalks.

But would any of these have affected Royal’s fertility or the ewes’ conception?

I have now researched all three variables and have discovered that feeding legumes — alfalfa is a legume — can reduce conception rates. I fed alfalfa pellets through the end of October. Sigh. My mother used to quote my grandfather: “Live and learn, die and forget it all.” (I’ve never been sure of the exact meaning of this motto but have always found it vaguely comforting.)

It’s possible that these three girls and even one of my ewe lambs, all of whom had blue crayon marks, were bred again successfully in November or December. It could be that they are pregnant now, and due at the end of April or even early May. Who knows?

I imagine they know. But they can’t tell me.


A Windy Setback

March 10, 2017

As weather fronts collided yesterday morning the wind grew powerful. I believe the gusts were about 50 mph. I could barely stand up. When I latched the paddock gate open so the cows could leave the barn, the force of the wind ripped the 2-inch eyebolt out of the wood and slammed the gate shut.

More seriously, the wind peeled all the expensive ice and water shield off the back of the house roof. When I saw Nick at 4 PM, he was tired and discouraged. The howling wind conditions were not safe for him to be on the roof but he’d tied on a rope and gone up anyway.

The setback was not only one of time (which is also money) but of money in ruined materials. Nick said distractedly that he would have to replace the ice and water shield with something less expensive. I’m juggling expenses to the last nickel but I’m going to see if I can possibly cover the difference between the two grades of replacement material.


 *    *   *   *  

I am sick and miserable. Sneezing, runny nose, coughing to the point of choking, not sleeping.

Roger the shearer comes today. He has to be booked so far in advance, I can’t reschedule. Normally on shearing day while Roger shears, I worm the sheep and trim their hooves. It’s particularly helpful to do this on shearing day because Roger will always kindly take a few extra minutes to tip the big rams on their bottoms for hoof trimming — a feat that is beyond me, although I am bigger than Roger.

However today I am so exhausted I think it may be all I can do to muck the barn and shuttle the sheep through the various stalls on their way to and from their haircuts. I’m forgiving myself in advance.


March 5, 2017

I always have great ambitions for Lambing Organization. It should be easy. I put a crayon harness on my ram. He breeds the ewes. The crayon on his chest marks their wool, I write down the date, I know when lambs are due. Simple, right? For me, somehow it never is.


I put a blue crayon in a harness on my current ram, Royal (someday I must write a post about all my purebred rams), on September 21. Normally I put on the harness around Labor Day, but this year I was buried in contractor quitting problems, the start of school, building sheep feeders, finding a bull and a bull calf, plus wedding plans.

I’d had to build feeders because back in 2014, when my college helper Luke was home on spring break, I’d hired him to help me finish the sheep addition. First, while I was at work he had carefully followed a pattern and built the front dutch door. This required a lot of math because the addition is shorter than the main barn, so the door had to be shrunk proportionately. Together, we hung the result. Luke did a beautiful job.


Next, we had sweated to carry the sheep feeders out of the main barn. My farm plan at the time was to raise foster dairy calves for beef, which meant moving my sheep flock entirely to the addition. Each feeder, made of treated wood, treated plywood, and galvanized wire panels, weighed a ton. But together, puffing inch by inch, we got them in.


My farm plan had worked like a dream until suddenly everything went wrong at once: cows calved with milk fever, then ketosis; finally the foster calves brought in a vicious dysentery virus that threatened to kill every calf in the barn. All of this happened during the frigid temperatures of lambing season 2015. I was driving down to the farm every few hours day and night, loaded with meds for cows, bottles for lambs, and a drenching syringe with quart jars of warm electrolytes for calves, around the clock. In between I mucked stalls like an automaton. I never stopped working and I rarely slept.

Then within one 48-hour stretch, Allen died. Three lambs froze and died, simply because I wasn’t there. A foster calf was crushed into a wall by Moxie and despite my desperate efforts, I could not save him.

My heart was numb. When I could think again, I realized that my farm plan — a dozen cattle and fifteen sheep with their attendant lambs — was not workable for a lone farmer with an outside job. My new plan is to (eventually) keep two beef cows and calves, plus a smaller flock of ewes. I dismantled the steer stalls and turned them back into a single large sheep stall in the main barn. But: now there were no feeders. I certainly could not, by myself, drag the weighty feeders back from the addition. Anyway, it would be good to have two sets in two large stalls. I could move the flock from one stall to another depending on need. So, month by month, I slowly purchased the materials. And last September, after work, I built the new set.


At last I had the two new feeders finished and open for business.


It was at this point that I struggled to get my ram, Royal, into his marking harness. “All is well though I barked my knuckles which bled profusely,” I wrote to my friend Alison. “I’m only three weeks late — who knows who he has already bred but you know it is the (organizational) thought that counts.”

In breeding season, ewes come into estrus roughly every seventeen days until they are bred. On a well-run farm, the crayon in the marking harness would therefore be changed out for a new color every couple of weeks. That way, one could tell if a ewe were being bred repeatedly and not getting pregnant.

I had a second crayon on hand — red. However, October was even busier than September. Wrestling the 200-lb ram into new clothing did not make the cut. Thus all fall I was left peering at blue-smudged rumps and wondering, “Is that a new, darker blue mark?” I had been dutifully writing down breeding dates but as fresh smudges proliferated, at last I threw up my hands and said to myself, The lambs will come whenever.

Still, I foolishly assumed no one had been bred early. As it turned out, Pixie was — she lambed with twins the evening we moved down to the farm, February 13. I thought nervously that I might be in for a deluge of lambs from other ewes bred early, but days went by and no more appeared. After three days in the jug, I turned Pixie and her lambs into the addition. In the past Pixie would have been shrieking and frantic with loneliness, separated twenty feet from the flock, but motherhood has settled her. She munched hay and fed her babies.


At last, over a week later, Geranium lambed. She had a pair of big, strapping ram lambs. This is nothing new. Geranium is not quite six years old. She has given me ten ram lambs in a row.


This is only frustrating because Geranium is such a good mother, I’d like to keep one of her daughters someday. It doesn’t seem statistically probable that this will happen.

Another week went by. When one is anxiously rushing to check the barn multiple times a day, only to find nothing is happening, it is easy to get the idea that nothing will happen. There will never be lambs, your brain whispers. However, again on the 8th day, Cranberry lambed just before evening chores. Another pair of big twins, a ram and a ewe.


Cranberry is a daughter of my dear first Clun Forest ewe, Blackberry, and is the only offspring I ever kept from my ram Cadbury. I actually sold Cranberry as a six-month lamb and drove her to Vermont for delivery. However, after an unnerving interaction with the potential buyer, I changed my mind. The sale was off. Cranberry waited in a crate in the car while Lucy and I went to the dentist, and then came home again with us. Cranberry is five years old and has twinned every year.

This past Friday I was due to drive south to look at wholesale hardwood flooring. Damon was going along for the trip, for an opportunity to get out of his house. We had to leave by 9 AM.

“Don’t be late!” he growled.

“I won’t,” I promised.

Naturally, when I arrived at the barn I discovered that my smallest ewe, Cider, had lambed with triplets! The sheep are late being shorn this year and from what I could see of her figure under her heavy wool coat I had not imagined Cider even to be close to lambing, much less with triplets. For ease of handling I’d divided the sheep stall in half — and I’d put Cider in the half with the ewes due later. Oops.

Sadly, one lamb was dead. It appeared to be the last lamb born and never to have lifted its head from the straw. (This happened to Geranium last year. Do these last triplets somehow smother in utero? I don’t know.)  Cider’s other two small lambs were hunched in the deep cold.

The cows and sheep were all roaring for breakfast. It took me twenty minutes to get everyone calm and fed, to tag the ears of Cranberry’s lambs and let them and their mother out of the jug, and to catch Cider and her lambs and get them into the jug. (I buried the poor, dead, perfect ewe lamb in the compost pile.)  Cider’s triplets weighed 6.7 lbs (dead ewe), 6.4 lbs (ewe), and 7.11 lbs (ram). After the 11-lb giants I’d been handling, the two surviving triplets felt like Tinker toys. Cold Tinker toys, too cold even to shiver in their jackets. They seemed stunned.

When I went to clear her teats I discovered Cider’s milk had not come in. Not a drop. Meanwhile I realized I’d been in such a hurry that I’d automatically let Mel Gibson, my bullock, out to nurse Moxie. There was no way I could muscle aside a six-month-old bull calf. I’d have to buy some milk replacer. Luckily, last year a Tractor Supply store opened only twenty minutes away. However, I didn’t think these lambs could wait another hour for me to make the trip. Jackets and heat lamp were not enough. The little ram lamb had collapsed on his side and lay with his eyes closed.

I raced up to the garage apartment and mixed electrolytes in warm water in a bottle. I fed each lamb 2 oz of warm electrolytes. I commanded, “Don’t die now!” and was just about to pull the barn doors shut again and head for Tractor Supply when I realized that my young ewe, Rose, was bawling her head off.

“What’s the problem, Rose?” I inquired, and then noticed the birth sac protruding from her rear end. Oh, dear.

I quickly cleaned the second jug, grabbed my crook, and pulled Rose out of the stampeding flock and into the jug.

In town, I picked up Damon at his house. “You’re late!” he snapped as I stowed his wheelchair in the truck, but then laughed. Needling me is one of his favorite entertainments.

We drove to Tractor Supply, then back to my house so I could mix the milk replacer, then back to the farm. I ducked into the barn while Damon waited in the heated truck.

“Rose had a big pair of twins, a boy and a girl!” I ran out to report, before getting to work toweling, iodining navels, and pulling on jackets. It was so cold that I decided to give Rose’s twins each a slug of warm replacer also, to make sure they got off to a good start. I hated to leave all these new babies. One of my two heat lamps had been fried in the recent power outage, so I had only one. I decided to give it to the two little triplets.

When I returned at 3 PM, everyone was alive but hunched in the cold. Rose’s twins were both husky but seemed not to get the hang of nursing; they simply stood miserably. By evening Cider’s milk was finally coming in, but her lambs, too, did not understand the program. It was due to drop below zero. I knew I would be feeding these lambs through the night.

Yesterday the high was 2°. I kept the cattle in the barn to share their body heat, but still water froze in all buckets in under an hour. After a midnight feed, I bottle-fed the lambs again yesterday morning. However, by evening (when it was due to drop to -15°) I’d witnessed all the lambs nursing on their own.

Cider and her wee lambs…


… and Rose and her two big bruisers.


They’ve all turned a corner and tomorrow the bitter cold is due to break. Hooray!

Five ewes down, four to go.

Snow and More Snow

November 21, 2016


It snowed all day yesterday and we got about ten inches of heavy, wet powder. Hooray for the land (we have been in a frightening drought) and for our small tourist town that depends on skier traffic to survive.

I worked outside in the weather in two-hour bursts. Though the temperature was only slightly below freezing, my clothes were soon soggy and in the wind it was not much fun. Luckily, the ground is not yet frozen and I could still drive T-posts. I set up a snow fence in the knoll field with numb fingers.


This is my attempt to avoid the drifts that sweep off the knoll to bury the barn paddock fence in a normal winter. Here’s February, 2015:


Breaking out the fence every day before work to keep a charge in the lines normally adds a sweaty and tedious half hour to my day.


I am not sure the snow fence will solve the problem. The packaging says to set the fence 60 feet from the area to be protected. Online sources recommend double that. I compromised on 80 feet. We shall see.

The animals were not particularly happy to be out in the blowing snow. Here is my ewe Geranium giving me a “Really?” look shortly before I brought them all in early for the night at 3 PM.