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Winter finally remembered us

I should have known when May gave us surprise kids that the weather was going to turn. Goats are infamous for kidding at the worst possible time and sure enough no sooner did she present us with her two adorable doelings than we’re suddenly having actually seasonally appropriate weather. This after spending Christmas Day running around outside in a t-shirt for the novelty of it!

Not that it’s actually been cold enough to freeze the waterlogged ground good and solid. May and her twins are still confined to a stall because the mud is four inches deep in places and I’m afraid the babies would get stuck in it like tiny unfortunate mammoths in a tar pit. Meanwhile I’m battling hoof rot with every goat except Ben and Stu (Nubian blood does goats no favors in the hoof department) and keeping a close eye on the sheep. I gotta love the Soays though, they’re charging through winter fat and happy with nary a limp, cough, or sneeze. The only change in their behavior has been a shift from hanging out in the shade to hanging out in the sun when the temperature plunged. These ridiculously hardy little sheep are a real delight.

Meanwhile the place is so much quieter with the Christmas geese gone. Ours was incredibly delicious. I told Daniel that it was the first time I’d eaten a food I only knew from Victorian novels and not been tragically disappointed! In fact we enjoyed it so much that we’ll be raising geese again. Their obnoxiousness is completely outweighed by their deliciousness, so there will be geese honking and hissing their way through the spring, summer, and fall again.

Alas for me, the sudden turn of the weather has aggravated my chronic pain issues and I’m spending more time huddled under my electric blanket and taking painkillers. Still, a hard freeze or ten (or twenty, or thirty) is what we need to reduce parasite burdens in the pastures, fleas and ticks in the dog yard, and hopefully let the black cohosh seeds I planted germinate.

Inside, dreaming of summer continues. The first sweet potato slip got big enough to come off the potato and go in a jar of water to develop roots, and there’s 5 or 6 more working on it. Those sweet potatoes will make an excellent accompaniment to the goose next Christmas.

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The best laid plans of mice and men…

Alas, this is not a post to show off my beautiful new ewes! Unfortunately both Kate-with-Soays and I have come down with some kind of terrible stuffy-nosed plague, and thus the beautiful new ewes will not arrive until next weekend, when I am hopefully feeling well enough to enjoy them.

Meanwhile, most of you are probably aware by now that May presented me with a pair of surprise doelings, Sugar and Spice. After doing the math I figured out that she somehow managed a liaison with Sanglant a mere 4 days before he was wethered. Sigh. Goats will find a way, I guess. May was supposed to be retired from breeding ever again but apparently she had other ideas about it. Still, they’re freakin adorable and I promise as soon as I can handle the html there will be pictures.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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“Slow food” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

It’s been a while since “slow food” was the food buzzword. Buzzphrase? Anyway. These days we’re all “locavores” but I found myself contemplating the slowness of food recently as I looked around my tiny farm.

Nothing really happens quickly in the agricultural world. Things move not in the scale of days, but months and seasons and years. For instance, I planted one small test plot of einkorn wheat this fall. I’ll plant another in January or February, depending on what the weather is doing, and the last one in mid-March most likely. The test plots will tell me the fastest way to get wheat (I’m betting on the fall plot) and all of this year’s harvest will bee conserved for seed. In 2017, we may actually have enough excess for us to use some of it, but not before. There’s also oats and rye (planted in spring) and sorghum (planted in summer) to experiment with in my endless quest to find out how much of our livestock’s food we can grow. Sorghum isn’t a usual grain addition to livestock feed, but evidence suggests goats find it extremely palatable, given that several of them went over a fence and ate the grain heads the last time I grew it.

The pregnant onions also probably won’t provide a lot of food this year, although hopefully I’ll have extras to share for seed onions. Permaculture beds generally take at least a year to get established, so it won’t be until next fall that we dig some onions for eating. Meanwhile I’m nibbling the tips of the greens periodically, and they are amazing: sweet, spicy, and complex. This is a variety traditionally grown in the south in the days before it was easy to order new onion seed every spring. Our ancestors knew deliciousness no grocery store can provide!

Bunchy onion tops, each one a small explosion of green pointy tubular leaves, ranging from 3 to 6 inches tall, growing in an otherwise empty bed with a few dead oak leaves.
Grow, delicious little onions! Grow!

Garlic is the fall-planted fast food of our garden this year, ready to eat in summer. Mainly this is a function of the fact that I still haven’t figured out exactly when collard greens and kale like to be planted for fall harvest. By the time I got them in the ground the conditions were already off for germination and the days too short for the few that germinated to grow. We do however have pea vines to nibble. The humble pea is a wonder, it wilts a bit in the heart of summer but otherwise is a mainstay of the garden, giving us edible greens, young pods, and of course the delicious globes of ripe peas. It’s another fast food, shooting up in weeks and flowering in just a month or two in the spring.

On the meat side of things, the fastest food we have is rabbit. Since beloved friends have hooked me up with meaty beasts, I only have to wait 28 days of gestation and then another 8 weeks of growing before I can have rabbit pot pie. Cornish Rock broiler chickens could match that speed, but I’m morally opposed to raising birds who have to be slaughtered before they’re adults because otherwise their bodies will overwhelm their joints and circulatory systems. Heritage breed birds generally need to go 4-6 months before they’re a decent size to eat.

Provided Ferrington has been able to settle my two non-Soay ewes without a step ladder, there will be lamb next year, after nearly a year’s wait. Sheep have a five month gestation period and need to be five months old or more before they’re of a size to make slaughter worthwhile. Slow food, indeed. Pigs average out about the same, with a roughly three month gestation followed by a longer grow out, although I short-circuited that by getting eating pigs who were already 8 weeks old. I’m hoping they’ll be of a size to go for slaughter in early spring.

All these wait times apply not only to people like me, of course. When you pick up a package of pork chops at the grocery store, the same months-long wait is behind it. The same goes for your bag of flour. Most of us are just totally divorced from this process of waiting that I either find peaceful or tedious depending on the day. Right now I would really like some rabbit, and the twelve weeks between putting a buck and doe in together and getting my rabbit pie seems ungodly long.

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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 by hiring the best Board On Board Fence Contractor. Whichever way it goes, they are delightful to have around, and also adorable, and some people also decide to bolster their roofs with help from residential remodeling houston tx to prepare for the winters with companies as http://www.palmbeachroofingexpert.com/tequesta-roofing/.

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.

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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! If you also need services like pool maintenance seattle wa, visit kriscoaquatechpools.com for more details.

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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Shepherd’s Calendar

“We are as gods to beasts of the field. We order the time of their birth and the time of their death. Between times, we have a duty.” — Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

It’s time to start building lambing jugs, which despite the name are not actually jugs. They’re small pens, in which a ewe gives birth and is confined for a few days with her new lambs, so that they’ll bond and the shepherd can monitor them all to make sure both mother and lambs are healthy. I don’t really expect the Soays to need them, you don’t survive for a couple thousand years on a tiny rock in the North Sea, the farthest west of any of the Outer Hebrides, because you have a tendency to forget you gave birth and wander off without your lamb. But there’s Ella the American Blackbelly sheep and Mabel the Southdown ewe, both of which are more modern breeds that may require some assistance in remembering that yes, this small bleating woolly thing belongs to them and requires their care.

A small rocky island formed from the tip of an ancient mountain rises from the North Sea. Its sides are steep and its top is wreathed in mist. There's a carpet of grass, but no shelter to be seen.
Inselsoay” by Olaf1950Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

The Soay Island that Soay sheep come from. When you were bred to survive a rock in the North Sea, Virginia weather is laughably mild and you tend to remember that you gave birth.

Lambs should start arriving in February, if Ferrington has done his job. I was slightly worried at first that he was incapable, since I’m used to goats and let me tell you, male goats make sure you know that they have a penis and like to use it. More experienced shepherds have reassured me that rams are much shyer creatures, preferring to woo the ladies at night when no inquisitive shepherd is around to watch. Unlike goat bucks, rams also don’t pee all over their own faces to make themselves attractive to the ladies, and in the absence of another ram with whom to have junk-measuring contests, you may never actually see a ram’s reproductive apparatus beyond his enormous, dangling testicles. The more you know.

But I digress. The lambing jugs will be built in the barn, so that ewes and lambs are sheltered from the occasional winter storm. Adult sheep are extremely weather resistant and the Soays honestly barely seem to notice rain unless it’s absurdly heavy, but lambs are small and their surface area to volume ratio is much more conducive to hypothermia than it is for adult sheep, even with their woolly fleeces to keep them warm. While some shepherds with breeds and flocks selected for being excellent mothers choose to let ewes lamb in the fields, I’m more conservative, especially since this is the first time for both me and the ewes. I’ve handled goat births no problem, but sheep are startlingly different animals for all that they and goats are nearly indistinguishable skeletally. And I have a duty.

Every sheep is more than a sheep; it is all the sheep it has ever been, and everything we have done to them, and everything they have done for us. — Elodie Under Glass

After lambing, round about April or so, comes rooing the hair sheep and shearing the wool sheep. Rooing a sheep means simply to round it up and pluck the shedding wool from it so that humans can use the wool, rather than leaving the sheep to scratch the wool off on trees and the barn. In the days when Soay sheep were the cutting edge of farming, rooing would have been a social affair: the sheep would have been rounded up in their winter pastures and brought down to pens near villages, and everyone would get together and have a fine time plucking sheep. At the end, the newly naked-er sheep would have been taken to their spring pastures, and village life would have moved on to planting.

Rooing is surprisingly hard work, mostly because you have to catch the sheep and set it on its butt (which causes sheep to relax and go immobile) and then pluck, and pluck, and pluck, pausing to stash your precious handfulls of wool in sacks. Do it too early and you’ll be doing it all over again later, do it too late and you’ll be scavenging wool from tree branches, fence posts, and the sides of your barn and hay feeder. Shearing is much more convenient, at least for the shepherd, because timing isn’t so very important. Gather up the sheep, shave them bald, and call it good and move on to processing the fleece. When you need privacy fencing, you can go to https://www.longfence.com/residential/fence/privacy-fence for more details.

Damp weather shows off crimp and increasing length of beautiful red-brown Soay fleece.
At least the Soays are small, so rooing them will be much faster than Ella and Tyson.

Every man can tell how many goats or sheep he possesses, but not how many friends. — Marcus Tullius Cicero

In summer the spring lambs are reaching the age where they’re old enough to be sold. Sometime in June, Ferrington’s sons will hopefully head off to spread their genetics into new herds of Soays, preserving the gift of DNA that ancient shepherds left for us on the small rocky island in the North Sea. Ferrington himself will also be seeking a new herd, as his daughters will remain here to build my own little flock of Soays. I’ll exchange him for a ram as unrelated to my ewes as I can manage to find. The Soay cross lambs from Mabel and Ella, on the other hand, will stay here and get fat on pasture and hay. In summer one or two of them will probably be slaughtered for the table and to keep the load on our pastures low. The rest will eat, and may be offered to one or two shepherds who want to experiment with adding Soay blood to their flocks. Honestly, it depends on whether I need cash or meat more.

And then a few months later, at the start of fall, the remaining extraneous lambs (including any of Ferrington’s sons that didn’t head for new homes) will go to slaughter, as we pare down the flock to only the animals we want to support over the winter. Hay costs double with cold weather and a lack of pasture, so it’s important to keep flock size to something supportable. And thanks to the growing demand for local food, there’s good odds that I can manage to sell some of the meat provided I can afford to use a USDA inspected slaughter-house.

Meanwhile, the young ewes will be separated so that they don’t get pregnant too young, the older ewes will begin cycling and growing in their wool, and the entire calendar swings back to the beginning, with the exception of lambing jugs already being built.