13 July, 2016

I’ve been putting off writing this post

Not long after lambing season kicked off, our regular hay guy ran out of hay. No big deal, I thought, we’d just use another supplier to get us through the couple of months until his first cutting was ready. I found someone else who could deliver round bales and thought my hay problems were solved.

And then sheep started dying. I looked for parasites, I looked for subclinical illness, I wracked my brain and laid awake at night going over every detail and came up with nothing. Sheep kept dying. I dreaded doing the chores because I didn’t want to find another one down.

Finally in desperation I sent hay samples out for testing. It was the only thing that has changed. And changed it had. Results came back showing levels of copper much, much too high for sheep. The lab said the overall profile of heavy metals etc was common for hay fields that had been treated with biosolids – aka dried sewage. The hay from those fields is fine for cows but lethal for sheep. I hadn’t even thought to ask when buying the hay, and as a result of my mistake I lost two Soay ewes and their lambs plus my little Rambouillet wether.

I’m still grieving my sheep. I hate that when I make mistakes, it’s my animals who pay, sometimes with their lives. The only recourse in this matter I might have is small claims court but that’s a roll of the dice and I don’t have the time or energy to pursue it. I did leave the guy a message telling him not to sell hay to shepherds anymore.

The happy ending is that my regular hay guy had a fabulous first cut after a wet spring, and with healthy hay, summer grazing, a protein tub, and slightly increased grain rations the rest of the sheep are recovering beautifully. The goats thrived, their mineral needs are more similar to cattle than sheep and they require amounts of copper that will kill their ovine cousins (I normally provide it via rumen bolus).

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!

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?

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.

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.

8 January, 2016

Well that was unexpected

Some months ago we had three Silver Fox rabbit does get loose in our shed, where the rabbits are currently living because the colony is escapeable. There are two black does and one chocolate, and we leave food and water down for them.

A couple days ago, I moved the Cinnamon doe in with Norm the Silver Fox buck to get pregnant, so her cage has been empty.

This morning, I went in to feed and water rabbits, and was filling the feeder for the rabbit in the Cinnamon doe’s cage when my sleepy brain registered that the cage should be empty and I did a double-take. As it turns out the loose chocolate Silver Fox doe had climbed the stack of cages to get to the empty one and moved herself in, at which point the latch had fallen shut (doubtless due to jostling).

I guess it’s time to assemble that extra cage, since I am now one cage short…

24 December, 2015

A new year, new ewes

Excitement! My friend Kate-with-Soays (not to be confused with my friends Kate-the-author or Kate-with-cats-and-soap and yes Kate-with-Soays needs a website) hit upon a fabulous deal on Soay ewes, at less than half their usual sale price, and graciously shared it with me! You may in fact have noticed the latest round of crowd-funding to expand the herd.

The new ewes have genetics I don’t already have, and have been sending time with an equally worthy ram. This will mean at least five but potentially eight ewes unrelated to Ferrington will be here, opening up the possibility that I can isolate his daughters from him and keep him an extra year before I move him on. Which would be nice, because I’m fond of Ferrington. He’s small for a ram and mellow and good with goats, sheep and humans (pigs occasionally drive him to violence and have learned to avoid him). So another breeding year with him would be no hardship, really.

The three new ewes are mouflon-patterned like my current flock, but come from South Carolina. And that is the extent of what I know as Kate-with-Soays will be surprising me with three of the six she picked up when she made the trip to get them. Unless of course the rain here in the southeast stops and she gets a chance to get pictures — cross your fingers!

At any rate, they will be here in January and then there will be an unstoppable deluge of pictures over on Instagram (they also get automatically broadcast to the farm Facebook page), so stand by.

Other things to look forward to: lambing should start in February, so cross your fingers that the winter stays mild. Ella and Mabel’s lambs will be raised for meat, Soay lambs get to live and grow wool. There may also be piglets around the same time, all of whom will be available as pasture-maintainers, pets, and meat. And of course now that rabbits are back up and breeding like, well, rabbits, there will be an endless assortment of meat bricks, a few of whom will get held over to provide prime furs next winter.

15 December, 2015

Math is hard?

Yesterday was exciting in a bad way, as we discovered several baby rabbits born on the wire in their mother’s cage. This wasn’t her fault but mine, I had miscalculated her due date and didn’t have a nest box and hay waiting for her. Luckily all of them but one were still alive and kicking, so I tucked them in my shirt to warm them while we got a nest box set up, and then installed them. The mother went immediately to work putting the nest in order (humans are apparently very bad at making rabbit nests) and hopefully I’ll find them still in the land of the living when I check on them in the morning.

Normally, of course, baby rabbits would be born in the colony, but it’s severely in need of rehabilitation at the moment. Once the Christmas geese are harvested this weekend work on converting the former large poultry pen into rabbit spaces can begin in earnest, including putting down wire around the edges to prevent young rabbits from escaping via digging out. The trick will be to escape-proof the colony areas while simultaneously allowing rabbits to do things like dig, which make them very happy and also prevent losses to the ungodly warm and humid southern summers.

My incompetence aside, it’s nice to have baby rabbits around again. Rabbits are a faster and more reliable source of meat than poultry for us, most especially since to have chickens ready for harvest as quickly as rabbits are I’d end up raising mutant meat chickens and I refuse. I don’t want animals who can’t enjoy their lives while they’re here, and meat chickens most assuredly have problems doing much beyond eating and sleeping if you want them ready to go in 8-12 weeks.

In other news, the warm, mild winter continues. We’re sleeping with windows open to avoid overheating because it’s not quite warm enough to need air conditioning but not cool enough to keep heat from accumulating in our snug little house. The onions, garlic, peas, and other fall-planted crops that were meant to go dormant are instead having a grand old time with the rain and gentle sun. The one exception has been the einkorn wheat, which has gone surly and sleeping just as it’s supposed to.

30 November, 2015

The rabbit colony still lives!

Many months ago we moved juvenile ducks outside into the large covered poultry pen, which turned out to be a terrible idea. Two of them promptly went through rabbit tunnels between the colony and the main section and proceeded to make a terrible mess of the colony, which meant that we got no rabbit meat at all this summer.

I was just beginning to ponder moving the last two rabbits, Nahadoth and Syenite, out of the colony and into cages when lo and behold, we spotted a tiny Naha look-alike hopping around in there. Hooray! Whatever the ducks did, the colony is recovering! If this little guy makes it to adulthood we’ll probably use it in the breeding program just on the general principal that as the first survivor, it’s a tough little booger.

Meanwhile the Christmas geese are the last feathery occupants of that pen, and one they’ve been slaughtered we’ll be converting it to a hybrid cage/colony set up for rabbits. I’ve found rabbits to be easier, cleaner, tastier, and more productive than poultry in general, so while we’ll continue to keep a free range flock to help with pest control and composting, rabbits will be responsible for the bulk of our protein production.

But I digress! Look carefully at the cinder block on the left side of the photo:

image

You can see Naha, my black and white colony buck, catching some sun in the house. His lady Syenite is behind him but since she’s black and in shadow you’ll have to trust me on that. And there peeking out of the cinder block on the left is a tiny black and white rabbit, like a miniature version of Naha. Evidence of resurrection!

16 November, 2015

Winter makes you laugh a little slower…

I’ve been remiss in blogging as winter settles in here in the piedmont. Part of that is starting on the hard part of work with my shrink and desensitizing myself to all the terrible memories I brought home from the war in the hopes of achieving something more like sanity. It’s tiring. Part of it is that, well, fall and winter don’t bring a heck of a lot of news, especially when compared to the dramas of spring and summer.

Still, there’s a few noteworthy things going on! For instance, we have Mr Piggy Bank the teeny tiny boar and Maggie the tiny pig staying. They may end up being here forever, or may go home if their previous person gets her fences pig-proofed. Whichever way it goes, they are delightful to have around, and also adorable.

Two small pigs cuddling in the sun. Closest to the camera is the tiny boar, who is about 10 inches tall standing, or half the size of the sow. He's golden with black spots, she is white with black spots.

The sheep are all getting woolier every day. I give them little pep talks about growing nice fleeces. Most interestingly, Jane the Soay ewe is growing in her fleece with a substantial amount of white sprinkled in it, like roaning on a horse or goat, so yarn spun from her wool will be naturally heathered.

There’s even a little excitement in the vegetable world. While the einkorn wheat has gone dormant for the winter, the pregnant onions that I’m getting established into a permanent onion patch are still growing like the blazes.

Onion tops ranging between two and six inches tall growing in thick, enthusiastic clumps.

I broke off the tips of some of the tallest greens for us to taste and they’re amazing, sweet and spicy and flavorful. I can’t wait to actually try a couple onions next summer, although large harvests will have to wait a while unless the onions go really nuts. Pregnant onions are an old, old variety grown before the advent of easy to purchase seeds. The large onions will spawn young onions, which will grow into large onions the next year and split off into their own children. They can be harvested at either stage, as long as you leave enough in the ground to propagate.

The garlic got planted a couple months later than onions, but is coming up anyway in its bed of composted rabbit manure.

Small, thick green shoots poking up through what looks like dark fine soil with a few recognizable globes of poo.

This is nothing fancy, just the California Early Soft Neck garlic you find in grocery stores. In fact, it’s cloves from a grocery store bulb, as I thought I should experiment with cheap garlic before I try growing one of the more fiddly heritage varieties. Still, freshness makes a serious difference, and a bulb of garlic dug five minutes ago has a far superior flavor to one that’s been stored, as we learned after managing to grow one bulb on our first try. As it turns out, the feed store was setting us up for failure selling seed garlic in spring. This really is a fall-planted crop, and in summer will be adding its deliciousness to home-cooked meals.

Things I don’t have pictures of include the expanded rabbitry. The colony is a no-go right now, having had ducks move in this past summer (long story, but not on purpose). Duck feces in the soil are not compatible with successfully raising litters of rabbits, so right now I’m working with a standard caged system and working on building tractors so rabbits can move around more and do a little grazing while the colony gets dug out and planted and rested in the hopes that I can return rabbits to it in spring or summer. Meanwhile two of my friends hooked me up with breeding stock, and there will be purebred Silver Foxes for pelts and meat starting this winter. Which means I need to get on tanning the hides I’ve already accumulated!

Meanwhile of course, late fall/early winter Virginia means the weather is all over the place and my mysterious chronic pain condition and migraines are complaining about it. I spend a lot of time sitting in the sun with the goats and sheep and pigs, soaking up the last of the warmth and enjoying my little peaceable kingdom.

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