22 May, 2016

News round up: end of lambing edition

Whew! We went from expecting lambs to finally having them all, with the last one born while I was away at the Livestock Conservancy’s Service to Stewardship. Because sheep are unhelpful, that’s why.

The final count is three ewe lambs, more properly known as gimmers, and one little ram (or tup). An excellent ratio, pleasing to the shepherd. The little ram will most likely be wethered and stay here to produce wool.

The Service to Stewardship workshop, geared toward veterans and beginning farmers (and veterans who are beginning farmers) was amazing. Compared to the one two years ago there was a much higher focus on networking this time around. I was armed with spiffy new business cards from BrĂ¢n of Mydwynter Studios which I handed out with mad abandon.

Anyway, I learned really useful stuff, met some amazing people, and came home with a scythe from Larry Cooper of Gulland Forge. Larry was a really amazing presenter at the workshop and has me all fired up about the prospect of small-scale hay making instead of running a mulching mower over the front and back yards. Unfortunately because of the weather I won’t get a chance to go to work with the scythe for hay purposes until Tuesday.

At least waiting a couple days will give me a chance to rest up, since a combination of terrible weather and being on my feet for 2 days straight has me hurting. Do not acquire mysterious chronic pain problems, that’s my advice.

29 February, 2016

I’m being ever so patient.

From my previous adventures breeding goats, I’m accustomed to the face of a heavily pregnant ruminant who is severely regretting her adventures with a handsome male member of her species 5 months previously. I say “ruminant” and not “goat” because it has become apparently lately that in fact Soay sheep ewes get exactly the same face.

Here, Relationsheep and a friend will demonstrate:
Relationsheep, a moderately light brown ewe with a pale cream belly, stands with her body in profile to the camera and her face turned three quarters toward it. Her belly is enormous, giving her whole body an appearance of heaviness. Her eyes are narrowed and her ears stick out at an angle that implies that she's just done with everything ever, but especially rams and most especially being pregnant. Lying down on the right is a ewe who is a rich dark chocolate brown who has exactly the same look on her face.
Those are two ewes who do not want to talk to Ferrington, even though he had nothing to do with getting them in a lamby way. They do not wish to speak to energetic young wethers like Reuben and Urdo, either, or bouncy baby goats. They want to enjoy this here sunbeam and not be pregnant anymore.

In my experience with goats, once they start getting this look on their faces it is at most 4 weeks until babies make an appearance. I’m mentally placing bets with myself as to whether Relationsheep and her friend there are going to present me with twins or if they’re just the sort of sheep who look enormous when they’re pregnant with one tiny single lamb. It could go either way, really, I’m not familiar enough with sheep to say. What’s driving me absolutely nuts is that sheep carry their tails down unless they’re pooping and their udders are hidden under a generous layer of belly wool, so I can’t reliably check either their vulvas or their udders to get an idea of how close they are. And they’re definitely not going to let me get close enough to grope their tail ligaments so I can check for softening! They are only slightly more interested in speaking to me than they are in speaking with the rest of the world that isn’t pregnant ewes, i.e. if I don’t have a bucket of grain I can go to hell and stop bothering them and must I breathe so very loudly and stomp around like that?

So here I am, being very very patient and waiting for lambs without being able to do anything but stare at sheep who are busy giving me the evil eye right back while they cud and plot the demise of all rams ever because they’re so very tired of being pregnant. In fact I think the ewes at this point are more interested in seeing lambs than I am, since then they won’t be carrying them around anymore!

24 February, 2016

Ok yes I’ve been neglecting the blog.

I blame the angel investor who sent me a 4 foot wide rigid heddle loom. Ever since it arrived I’ve been weaving and spinning trying to use up several years of accumulated fiber before I suddenly have a huge pile of fleeces from my own sheep.

Attentive readers will also notice there’s now a “Shop” tab up there on the menu bar. Watch that space for fiber, handspun yarn, and handwoven textiles (sometimes using handwoven yarn!).

We’re in a slow season right now. I’m waiting VERY PATIENTLY for lambs to arrive and also for the Soays to start shedding their fleeces so I can get the rewards out to last summer’s generous crowd funders. Peas and root vegetables will go in the garden if we ever get some dry weather. Right now sugary little seed peas would just rot in the cold wet ground.

The pastures are soups of mud except in the areas built up by waste hay, and while the water-resistant sheep aren’t bothered by all the rain the goats are complaining violently. Meanwhile the rapid settings from cold to warm to cold accompanied by rain are kicking off my weird chronic pain condition something fierce.

I hope you all are holding on through the last of winter! I’ll try to be better about this blogging thing…

3 February, 2016

Pasture Maintenance Pigs

Another question from Twitter: “Other than meat, what purpose do pigs serve on a farm?”

Well. I can’t speak for a lot of other farmers, but I refer fondly to my sounder of mini pigs as “pasture maintenance pigs” because the bulk of their work is in fact pasture maintenance. You see, a previous owner of my little farm scraped up all the topsoil and sold it, which means that the bulk of our land has nothing but severely compacted clay subsoil on it where plants struggle to gain a foothold. My little pigs are excellent at rooting through the top few inches of soil, turning it over and breaking it into large clumps. The poultry has quickly learned to follow behind the pigs, and they break the big clumps up into smaller and smaller clumps, until what’s left is a nice layer of loose, aerated soil. Because the goats and sheep and pigs and poultry are also constantly pooping, the top layer of soil is slowly turning back into proper topsoil as the pigs and poultry mix organic matter and manure in, restoring fertility and allowing better pasture to grow for the goats and sheep.

Mr. Piggy Bank and his crew reduce hay waste; while they will eat directly from the bale they’re also happy (possibly even happier) to root through the layers of spilled hay that goats and sheep have deemed unfit for consumption, eating the spillage and the bugs living in it. In the process, they help break down the layer of waste hay into (you guessed it) good topsoil with a little help from the chickens and guinea fowl.

The pigs also have another important job to do in reducing the parasite load on the ruminants. Pigs are terminal hosts for the barberpole worm, a vicious parasite that lives in the abomasum of ruminants and feeds on blood, causing anemia, weakness, and eventually possibly death. But pigs aren’t ruminants and don’t have an abomasum, so the barberpole larvae that get eaten by pigs can’t complete their life cycle and die off. Pigs are also a terminal host for meningeal worm, the parasite that nearly killed Queen May last year. While it can do a great deal of damage to goats and sheep, it can’t get a hold in pigs and thus again they make the world safer for ruminants.

Their last job is to be adorable, personable, and smart. My little sounder of pigs is a joy to interact with and unfailingly makes me laugh when I scratch their sides and they fall over with little grunts of happiness to say “awww yeah, THAT’S the itchy spot. Scratch that spot some more.” They come running over oinking with enthusiasm when they see me coming with food, and a pig on a mission has a hilarious business-like trot that covers ground surprisingly fast for animals that are basically shaped like sausages on legs.

1 February, 2016

Why learn Welsh?

I whined on twitter about my lack of blogular inspiration, and got asked why I’m learning Welsh.

There’s a lot of reasons!

Number one, because it was at one point a relatively endangered language and while it’s getting better as more schools in Wales teach the language, there’s still only 431,000 people in Wales who can speak, read, and write the language as of 2011. That’s a pretty tiny number to preserve a language!

Number two, I am an enormous history dork with an interest in pre-Roman Britain. Welsh is the descendent of the Brythonic Celtic language spoken in Britain before first the Romans and then the Anglo-Saxons came charging in to take over. As such, it’s not a Romance language unlike every other language I’ve learned at least a bit of (French, Spanish, and Portuguese). Romance languages, being descended from Latin, are all pretty regular and easy to learn. Welsh is at least an Indo-European language so it’s not totally unfamiliar, but it shares many of the features of irregular verbs etc with English, which makes it a bit of a bastard to learn but incredibly interesting from a historical perspective. For example, the Welsh word for window is “ffenest” which is clearly taken from Latin (fenestra). This suggests that ancient Britons didn’t have a specific word for “window” until the Romans came along and taught them one, and indeed many (most?) of the pre-Roman houses excavated in Britain don’t even have windows. But the Welsh word for sheep is “dafad” which is unrelated to either the Latin “ovis” or the Anglo-Saxon “sheep” or even the French “mouton”, so clearly ancient Britons had sheep.

And number three, genealogically speaking, a good chunk of my ancestors came to the US from Wales, so why not learn Welsh? Irish Gaelic is the descendent of an older Celtic language, so it might tell me more from a historical perspective, but I’m mostly Welsh so what the heck why not learn it.

25 January, 2016

We interrupt this blog for TOO MUCH SNOW

Like most of the mid-Atlantic, we got hammered by a prolonged misery of snow this past weekend.

A tall bay goat with spots stands in snow just below his elbows. A golden sheep with black trim is nearby, the snow up to her chest. In the background a small black and white goat stands with snow halfway up his sides. Just behind him a group of sheep stands in a spot that's been trampled down.
For reference, Sebastian there on the far left is just over three feet tall at the shoulder.

We didn’t get as much snow as they were predicting, thanks be to whoever watches over the Piedmont and steered the storm east. The sheep are doing a great job keeping paths trampled down so that the pigs and baby goats and Ben and Stu can get to the hay bale, and we moved water and grain dishes into the trampled down area so everyone can eat. Sebastian just got kind of excited to see us Saturday morning and came charging out through the snow.

The guinea hogs got up to eat and drink and then burrowed back into their generous pile of straw. I’m so glad we moved them into the pen that formerly held geese, their old enclosure is under enough snow that it would have buried them.

And in the shed, the rabbit kits are fat and happy and warm, as are the adult rabbits. There’s seven in the New Zealand doe’s nest and five or six in the Silver Fox nest. I think there’s at least two blue, one black, and one chocolate Silver Fox, a nice mix. Maybe there’s even an elusive lilac lurking in there? I’ll have to get pictures now that they’re fuzzy and attractive and their eyes are starting to open.

The power stayed on throughout the storm, mostly because it never got as warm as predicted and thus the snow stayed light and powdery. You will almost never hear me say “thank God it stayed below freezing” but…here you go. We had the chimney nice and clean so the wood stove was ready to go, but since we didn’t need it for emergency heat I plan to fire that sucker up and make the living room hold a temporary summer for me.

Hopefully my east coast readers had a similarly easy blizzard! How did y’all do if the storm got you?

22 January, 2016

20 January, 2016

They’re breeding like, well, rabbits

There were two nests of baby rabbits waiting for us on Saturday morning, an awesome treat. Unfortunately both mothers are pretty defensive and let’s face it, baby rabbits aren’t that attractive until they grow some hair. But we’re excited about both litters, although for vastly different reasons!

The first nest is NZ x Flemish Giant. These combine the larger size of the Flemish with the meatiness of the New Zealand, and they have two to four months to enjoy themselves before they’re harvested for meat. Rabbit meat is delicious, a lean white meat like chicken but with rich undertones of pork. You can use it as a one for one substitute in any chicken recipe and get a more delicious meal. Rabbit is also especially high in taurine, which makes it a nice meal for cats on raw diets. The second nest is purebred silver fox. The mother is chocolate carrying the genes for dilution (Blue or lilac) and the father is black but carrying the genes for chocolate and dilution. What this actually means is that there’s a possibility of all four colors of silver fox showing up! The silver fox was the third breed of rabbit developed in the US, and is listed as threatened by the Livestock Conservancy. It was developed as a dual purpose rabbit for meat and fur and the fur is absolutely gorgeous with its silver hairs scattered throughout. This nest of silver fox babies will probably get to live for a year until next winter when their furs are prime. Any dilute rabbits (blue or lilac) stand a good chance of being added to my breeding program, whereas blacks and chocolates will become stewing rabbits.

18 January, 2016

Sometimes I’m the goat grinch

There’s been an article going around Facebook about a farm here in Virginia that’s soliciting volunteers to help provide round-the-clock care to the approximately 90 baby goats they’re expecting this spring. People are very enthused, and last I heard the farm had way too many volunteers after their plea for volunteers went viral. And in the middle of people being very enthused, here I am, very disgruntled.

Spice, a tan baby goat with a black blanket, black knee stockings, black nose, and nifty black diamonds over her eyes heads toward me with a mischievous look on her face.
Baby goats: more weirdly fragile than you think.

The first reason I’m disgruntled is that this isn’t a non-profit farm that’s asking for volunteers. This is a for-profit goat dairy that is asking for people to do work and not get paid. I have no idea what actual labor law says about this, but ethically it’s a goddamned nightmare. They’re separating mothers and babies at 24 hours after birth so that they can maximize the profit they’ll make by maximizing the amount of milk they take. In short, they are making money off the unpaid labor of these people, and that’s not ok. They also have no idea where these people have been or how well they understand biosecurity. Lord only knows what a big pile of volunteers is going to bring in on their shoes and clothing that may harm baby goats.

The second reason I’m disgruntled is that this is actually a terrible plan for caring for baby goats. It’s incredibly easy to kill a baby goat by over-feeding them, for instance. Baby goats will literally drink enough milk to kill them. If they’re using formula instead of milk, having differently mixed formula from meal to meal (eg one batch a little weaker, one batch a little stronger) is another great way to make a baby goat sick. Unless you’re monitoring every single volunteer (which then means you’re getting up every four hours to supervise the feedings, and they’re trying to get out of the lack of sleep that comes with raising baby goats) you are risking the health of the kids in the name of profit.

They could, of course, choose to leave the mothers and babies together for two weeks and then separate them overnight, milking the mothers out first thing in the morning. This would give the babies the best opportunity to be healthy while letting the owners get sleep during the early weeks of baby goat life and wouldn’t require a bunch of people to supply unpaid labor. But it would also cut into their profits. Margins are already tight on dairy farms, so they may not feel this is possible.

In short, this isn’t a warm fuzzy feel good story. This is about a for-profit business engaging in practices that endanger the goats and exploit people for free labor. No bueno. There’s a reason I offer to barter with my friends who come to help out.

14 January, 2016

So much new life in the pasture

Let’s do some photos, shall we? At two weeks old, and with the mud finally freezing, May’s babies are getting out of the barn and doing some exploring. And of course last weekend Kate-with-Soays dropped off 5 beautiful new Soay ewes! With seven new faces in the pasture I don’t know where to turn my camera, honestly.

A leggy sheep with fleece in shades of gold and sharp black trim walks toward the camera, pursued by two tiny goats. One is white with a red blanket, dramatic red eyeshadow, and black highlights on her legs. The other is pale tan with a black blanket, black knee socks, and sharp black diamonds over her eyes. They both have long floppy ears and are soft and fluffy.
Ella was rather dubious about her tiny entourage, as you can tell by the set of her ears and the way she angled her head to keep an eye on them.

The tan and black baby goat, Spice, sucks on my fingertip.
Spice pauses in the middle of exploration to find out if my fingers are food. Spoiler: they are not.

A tiny sheep, about knee high on your average human, nuzzles at my hand. His body fleece is golden-red-brown, while his face is a complex mix of cream and ash brown hairs that yield subtle stripes from his eyes to his muzzle.
Reuben seeks reassurance that despite all the new animals, he’s still my favorite Soay. Of course you are, little buddy!

Three Soay ewes rush past side on to the camera. They are varying shades of auburn brown, made darker by the angle of the light. Their bellies and insides of their legs are creamy pale, and there are markings around their eyes in the same color.
The new ewes are still in Confused Sheep mode, which means they stand still and stare at things then rush off. Here three are rushing between sets of grain dishes because a pig got too close to them. I love their graceful, high-stepping gait. Horse people will probably notice that the one in back is pacing (the legs on each side move together, rather than diagonal legs moving together). So far I’ve identified three or my seven ewes as pacers, which is intriguing. Unfortunately it’s not something the scientists on Hirta are studying. However it’s probably genetic, and if you study pics of Soays found online you can identify a lot of pacing sheep. To complicate matters, my pacing ewes sometimes trot. If I ever win the lottery, I’m funding a grant to study the locomotion of the population on Hirta.

Older Posts »