Sunday, April 29, 2007

From the Eye of the Storm

Every few years the fairly random timing of lambs results in a "lamb storm"...several births taking place at the same time or in very quick succession.

I returned home from work tonight and found one young ewe showing a bag of water, another with remnants of undelivered afterbirth. A bit of a search by flashlight turned up the missing lamb on the pasture: pure white, perfectly formed, but very small (4 lbs.--half normal birth weight) and a bit premature. Cold and thoroughly dead. The ewe gets credit for being a good mother: the lamb was quite clean and dry.

I moved the two young ewes to the derelict barn, and rigged up a light. A third young ewe was already in a pen in the barn, being treated for an infected foot (due to injury, not foot rot). She looks like she's ready to lamb any time, too.

The one with the water bag--an obvious Lucy daughter--was not in heavy labor yet. The best thing to do in such a case is SOMETHING ELSE...some ewes just won't lamb with an audience. So I checked the other ewes...nothing happening...came in the house, read e-mail, etc. for awhile....

When I went back out, the ewe was laboring more. I watched for awhile, not sure if this one will require intervention or not, wondering if it's another preemie because the ewe isn't very "bagged up" (i.e., very little udder development). I heard a lamb crying out in the main sheep pen...probably one of Lucy's, who are ranging further and further from Mom each day....

I kept hearing the lamb cry, and finally went to investigate...sometimes the small ones "leak" through a fence and can't get back. There was a small lamb wandering alone in the middle of the pen...but wait a minute! This isn't one of Lucy's! It's a newborn!

Then I heard more newborn voices behind the big round bale of brome... and there was Berry two OTHER lambs for a total of 3! Two rams and a ewe, pure white and wagging typical East-Friesien cross tails. So I moved her to the barn., too. These new triplets are even more active than Lucy's, though small.

Right after the lambs are born is another good time to DO SOMETHING ELSE, so I'm fortifying myself with the essential Extreme Moose Tracks ice cream, and thawing some of Bertha's extra colostrum for them. That first meal is so essential to lambs...within the first few hours of life they are better able to absorb the antibodies that the ewe transmits through her first "milk". Without those antibodies, their chances of survival are slim. With triplets, and especially small ones, I like to "tube" them with 2-4 oz. of colostrum (from their dam, or frozen from a previous birth) so that I know they each got a fair share.

"Tubing" was a scary thing for me at first, esp. since I learned it from a book and some important details didn't quite sink in. Now, it's a quick, easy, no-stress operation. I kneel with the lamb between my knees, facing away from me. I tip its chin up and insert the tip of a rubber catheter in its mouth. Gently I push the tube in as the lamb chews and swallows, an instinctive reflex to having something in its mouth. When the tube is mostly inserted, I listen to hear the gurgling of the lamb's stomach--assurance that the tube is not in the lungs. Then I secure a 60CC syringe (no plunger) to the catheter and hold the lamb's head, the catheter, and the syringe with one hand while pouring the colostrum into the syringe with the other. If the colostrum is thick enough it doesn't drain through on its own, I gently blow into the top of the syringe. If it's really thick, I dilute it a bit with warm water. When all the colostrum is in the lamb, I give a last blow to make sure the tube is clear. Then I quickly whip the tube out of the lamb's mouth, to avoid leakage into the airway.

The lamb shared between Bertha and Eider did finally figure out Bertha's enormous teats--partly because I kept them milked out and flacid. He's now pretty much Bertha's. But I did milk out a good supply (2 lbs.) of colostrum, which I froze immediately. Colostrum is always thawed in hot water, never in the microwave which would destroy the crucial antibodies and enzymes. (Does that say something about microwaving our foods?)

Now I'm heading back out. More later...but probably not before I get some sleep.

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Most Beautiful Lamb, and A Mystery

When I went out to check the sheep this morning, two ewes had two oldest, who are each 11 years old and were born the first year of lambing at Pinwheel Farm. When I was milking my sheep, they were two of my top producers. Each has her own unique story of leaving the farm as a lamb, and then returning--back in the days before I understood "biosecurity" and the importance of keeping a closed flock.

There were three lambs born. One was stillborn--the "caul" or membrane still over its nose. Pure white and perfectly formed. There is another white lamb, with light tan "brockling" on its hind legs: a ram, large (nearly 15 lbs.) and robust but with extra teats. And a smaller (8.7 lbs) ewe lamb, with the most striking markings. She is coal black, with a broad white face and chin. Her front feet are white to the ankles. Her backlegs are white from just above the knees down to the ankles, black from the ankles down. And the lower half of her tail is white. What a beauty she is! She appears to be a culmination of years of selection and breeding--everyhting I've been working towards. Her relatively short, highly mobile tail demonstrates her East Friesien (dairy sheep) heritage. Her fleece is curly like a young Lincoln sheep, and promises to be long and silky like a Lincoln's. She is black (not grey), a highly desireable color and VERY rare in a Lincoln-type fleece. She has two relatively large teats (many of my best milkers have extra teats, which are annoying at milking time and can exacerbate hygiene and mastitis issues).

But--which lamb is whose? Eider (a "Judy-daughter" Finn/Romney/California Variegated Mutant cross) seems clearly to be the mother of the black ewe; she nickers over it with that special sound ewes only make to beloved newborn lambs, and nuzzles it tenderly towards her teats. Plus, Bertha has seemed to be very dominant white genetics, while Eider has had several black lambs. Bertha (99% Lincoln) smells the beautiful ewe lamb, then tucks her nose under and gently but decisively bunts her away. Bertha bawls for something she is missing, searches and searches. The ram lamb approaches Bertha and nuzzles at her udder, but only connects with Bertha's "extra" teat which is as large as many ewes' main teats. Bertha's huge, pendulous teats (which make her such a joy for hand milking) just don't even seem to register as "teats" in the minds of newborn lambs. (I shudder at thinking of the lengths I've gone to, to get lambs to use the right teats. A custom sheep-bra that left only the proper teats exposed. Superglue to prevent the extra teat from being accessible to the lambs....) Bertha encourages the little guy to nurse. Since he's not getting much out of the extra teat, he wanders over to Eider. She sniffs him, finds him acceptable, and allows him to nurse. So BOTH ewes think this is their lamb. I think it is Bertha's, and that she had a single, and the dead lamb is Eider's. But it's hard to tell. All three lambs have that Lincolnish fleece...a legacy of the sire's Lincoln heritage.

In most cases, I would separate them and make a decision myself about the mother. In this case, I'm letting them be. Both ewes are on my list to cull this summer, because of their advanced age. Commercial ewes are culled at 7; these gals have far exceeded that. Though both have always been on the pudgy side (Bertha's first name is "Big"), they have not kept weight well this past year, a sign of decline. If they want to mother the lamb together, I'll leave them in peace. I know he is getting plenty of colostrum from Eider, one of my best milking ewes. I'm milking colostrum from Bertha for storage (frozen) in case of emergencies with other lambs; the first milking yielded over 2 lbs. which is an incredible yield for a sheep. I will probably send Bertha to the processing plant with some other cull ewes & extra rams in early May, and leave the shared lamb with Eider. Till then, I'll milk Bertha out enough to keep her comfortable....

OK, I confess, milking out colostrum has whetted my appetite for sheep's milk and reminded me of how much I love the process of milking the ewes. So I'll milk Bertha out enough to supply myself with delicious sheep's milk (tastes like half-and-half with honey in it) for a few weeks...and I don't have to decide until May 8 which sheep are going to become my next batch of equally delicious summer sausage....

If my blog entries become more sporadic, it's not because nothing's happening here! Probably more to do with too much taking on a milk routine with no functional barn, and a full-time off-farm job....

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Misty Morning's Work

Awoke to a fine mist this morning, so mild I could pretend it wasn't raining, but enough to have me soaked by the time I finished chores and sheep work....

As of this morning, I'm down to just 3 separate groups of sheep. As of last Friday, there were 5: Ewes with older lambs, ewes who hadn't lambed yet, Dudley (the 3/4 Suffolk ram), Buddy (the black killer ram), and Lucy and her brood. Now, Lucy and lambs are in with the pregnant ewes, and the rams are peaceably cohabiting after a lengthy transition. Each group means hay to feed, mineral to keep stocked, a water bucket or tank to keep filled, fences/sheds/gates/etc. to mind. The two groups of ewes are on automatic waterers and big round bales of hay, so they're easier that the little groups that require special attention.

I'll have more groups again, as the second wave of lambing gets into swing...soon, I hope. Idon't always sequester new moms with their lambs in individual "lambing jugs" as many operations do, but it isn't uncommon for me either. I watch the new family and see how they are doing before making that decision. Usually, the ewe will keep her and her lambs separate from the flock for a few days, naturally, and they bond well. But sometimes the ewe doesn't really want all her lambs, or two ewes lamb about the same time and get confused about who's who. Or, a very pregnant ewe may try to steal another ewe's newborn.

It appears that Lucy may have been bred prior to the second intentional coupling. When I took wethers (neutered male market lambs) to be processed in February, it turned out one of them had a single testicle. Under his long, thick fleece, it hadn't been visible...though I had noted with some confusion his unusual aggression with the ram he and his cohorts were penned with. Sometimes during castration a testicle slips up into the body cavity and is sealed there by the castration; such a "cryptorchid" is sterile because body heat kills the sperm. But this boy had a proper scrotum, according to the slaughterer, so he could have been fertile. I had innocently housed the market lambs with the breeding flock to consolidate chores, assuming the wethers were all really wethers....Silly me, when so many other things around the farm were done haphazardly by the former tenants.

I'm trying to get the ewes out on grass as much as possible. Since the permanent fences are in considerable disrepair after my absence from the farm, it's a boot-strap sort of affair. Each day or two I try to patch or repair or reinforce enough fence to get the girls some fresh grass. This helps manage the grass, and keeps them from putting too much pressure on the pen fences.

This morning I set another 165' of electronet fencing out in the "corner pasture". It's a love-hate relationship. One little twig, or even a weed stem, can keep the whole bundle of fencing from playing out in an orderly fashion as I walk the new fence line. Then trying to reach it to untangle it usually means I get my boot caught in the mesh of the fence, and tangle things even more. It requires the practice of much patience. It requires the practice of deciding to NOT be in a hurry even though my time is limited...because hurrying will only sow the seeds for more delays, more tangles borne of carelessness. "Haste makes waste"...wasted time, for sure, as I disentangle the same stick a second time because I didn't throw it far enough from the fence line the first time.

But when the electronet is laid out, and erected, and connected to the feed wire--how nice it looks, embracing a green sward of delicious grass and clover for the sheep! How happy they are when they first rush into a new area! Their first act is always to run all over the space, gleaning every yellow dandelion flower they can find like children in an Easter egg hunt.

Jesus said to become like little children. Maybe that includes being like sheep, looking for the pretty, tasty, nourishing yellow dandelions. Eat dessert first! Gather wildflower bouquets! Even in the rain!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Lucy is still mothering all three lambs very nicely, and they are growing noticeably. All three have very mobile tails that they can lift over their backs...a legacy of their East Friesien heritage.

I've seen two June bugs in two days. June bugs! In April! Global warming, I guess...or as I'm referring to it after the "Easter freeze", "global weirding". I also thought I saw a lightening bug tonight.

The other day a redtail hawk perched on the roof of the bike shed, not 30 feet from the kitchen window. Does this explain some of the missing hens? Minor predation continues to be a problem in the hen flock. No carcasses or feathers...I almost suspect a human predator.

Strategic Planning

Several weeks ago I heard someone talking about "needs" vs. "strategies". She pointedout that we tend to confuse them a lot in our thoughts, prayers, and actions. A strategy is a way of meeting a need, but it isn't really the particular strategy that's important, it's having the need filled that's important.

For example, if I have a need to be warmer, I may think I NEED to turn up the thermostat, but actually I could also meet that need for warmth by putting on a sweater, moving around, snuggling with a person or pet, sitting in the sun, going someplace else, etc. So often people pray for a particular outcome, a particular strategy. When we do that, then we are basically telling God what to do, instead of giving Him the freedom to use His infinite creativity to find often unique and unexpected strategies to meet our needs...of which He is of course perfectly aware.

These ideas really help me look at various situations in my daily life in a new light. Learning to live according to God's time, not mine and not the world's, has been a big lesson for me these past two years of sabbatical and upheaval. What I once perceived as a need to live in one place, I now understand as a need to feel secure--a feeling that I've learned does not depend on place, so much as state of mind. Doubtless my farm is exactly where it "should" be, according to God's plans, if not mine, despite the damage left by the former tenants. When I can stop being angry then I can begin to see how repairing the damage will allow me to rebuild in new, better ways I would not have been free to do if the tenants had left things in better condition. This upheaval has been God's strategy for meeting my need to change how I do things, to become more sustainable in my daily life on the farm. In this case, this way NOT a need that I wanted to acknowledge!

I'm noticing that focusing on identifying needs first, then brainstorming strategies to meet those needs, tends to help me transition to more sustainable living in a more sustainable way. Instead of thinking, I HAVE to mow the lawn without using any fossil fuels, I can focus on my need for the lawn to look neat with a minimum of energy expended. I have several strategies for making the grass short and neat: grazing it with sheep or poultry, or mowing it. I have several strategies for mowing it: the Austrian scythe, the hand reel push mower, the gasoline push mower, a young neighbor, a neighbor with a tractor and brush hog, etc.

Each strategy has its pros and cons. Each is sustainable in different ways; each fills different needs in addition to my need for the grass to look nice. Hiring someone to do it nurtures my relationships with neighbors, and helps support their ownership of specialized equipment. Using the scythe gives me one kind of exercise; using the push mowers gives me a different kind. Using the reel mower lets me mow in the dark at night, and feed the clippings to the livestock; the power mower currently doesn't let me bag clippings but mulches them which returns them to the soil. Grazing feeds the livestock.

Focusing on the needs allows me to choose different strategies at different times, as my needs change. If I'm in a hurry, I'll use the power mower. If the sheep are hungry, I'll use the reel mower or graze the lawn.

But some needs are answered by only one strategy. And right now I need sleep!

Monday, April 23, 2007

It's Potato Planting time!

Every year, I watch the previous year's potato beds for those inevitable lost tubers to sprout. That's my sign that the soil is at optimum conditions for potatoes to grow. Planting them before conditions are right just invites them to rot, and stresses the plants if they do grow. Although they will usually resprout if killed by a late freeze, why hurry to plant them conditions where they'll grow slowly?

Every year, I think the volunteer potatoes will never come up. Probably they all winter-killed. Maybe I did such a good job digging them that I didn't leave any. Maybe the mice got them all....

Probably this line of thinking reflects conventional "wisdom" that the "proper" time to plant potatoes is a month earlier than the potatoes think it is time to grow!

At any rate, today was the first day I noticed volunteer potatoes in last year's beds. So it's time to plant potatoes.

Instead of planting potatoes early, I "pre-sprout" them in the house. This year I remembered all the details (I think):
  • Remove them from the net bags they come in, quickly, because the sprouts will grow through the bags and break off when the bags are moved.
  • Place them in ventilated containers (I'm using heavy plastic flower bulb crates) so they won't rot.
  • Line the containers with a layer of newspaper to prevent sprouts from growing through the containers.
  • Label each variety that's sprouting.
  • Keep in a warm, somewhat light area for several weeks before planting.

When planted, the sprouted potatoes come up and grow really fast since they have already broken their dormancy.

I plant potatoes into a thick mulch. This year, it's the area still mulched from last year's tomatoes and peppers. Since it wasn't tilled, but was heavily mulched last year, it should be great for potatoes this year: light and leavened by millions of worm and ant tunnel.

Planting potatoes is a "no-brainer". I set a marking line down the middle of the bed. A "planting board" about 60" by 10", cut from a scrap of Lexan, is centered under the marking line. Arrows on the board indicate plant locations for 12" zig-zag centers down the row; stars mark 24" centers. Potatoes get the 12" centers. At each mark, I dig a hole and put in a seed piece, sprouts facing up, and gently cover it with soil and then mulch.

Pre-sprouted potatoes are easy to cut for seed, because you can easily see the active eyes. I cut them so there are at least 2 active eyes per seed piece. Depending on the number of eyes and size of potato, I sometimes make the seed pieces smaller than recommended--because the sprouts are already so well grown, they don't need as much energy from the seed piece.

If they aren't pre-sprouted, I try to cut the seed pieces the night before and let the cut surfaces dry to prevent rot. But with ideal growing conditions and pre-sprouted seed pieces, rat isn't a big concern.

I usually try to save the volunteer potato plants and grow them out, either in the place they appear or transplanting them. These are varieties that are especially freeze and rot resistant (mostly fingerlings--Purple Peruvian is the star so far). Eventually I want to try planting potato beds in the fall or during winter thaws, to come up in the following spring. This will give me planting work that I can do during the "off" season.

I've found that potatoes for seed store well in the entryway--somewhere at cool room temperature, in the light. If they are partially enclosed they won't dry out too much. Storing seed potatoes as you would eating potatoes just encourages them to make long leggy sprouts that get broken off, and then they have to sprout again. Stored in a cool light place, they make stout, strong sprouts.


Living in hope actually paid off this time. In this case, a sacrifice of cole crops yielded a rich harvest of ideas for improvements.

By daylight, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sheep had not eaten the onions, garlic, etc. to the ground. Instead, they concentrated mainly on certain weeds in the garden: bromegrass and dock. Since these are such horrors in the garden that they are listed as "Pinwheel Farm Noxious Weeds" in the Pinwheel Farm Environmental Policies, I was better able to take in stride the destruction of some of what coles crops (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower) were still limping along after the terribly cold weather last week. One of the "community gardeners" at the farm sustained some damage to cole crops as well.

I did learn that the Lexan rowcovers, in addition to protecting the cole crops and lettuce from freezing, protect against rabbits and sheep. So do floating row covers jurry-rigged from old "sheer" window curtains. I'll plan to cover all cole crops in the future, because the adversities they've faced so far will almost certainly be followed by onslaughts of cabbage butterflies with their hungry caterpillars, and harlequin bugs in colorful hords

Cole crops tend to do well as fall crops in this region, and by then maybe we'll have all the "bugs" worked out of gates, row covers, etc. So this will motivate me to try fall cole crops for a change.

It also motivates me to try growing related crops (kale/collards/rape) especially as spring and fall forage for the sheep, since I remember them making a beeline for the cole crops during garden raids in previous years.

I fixed an additional gate in the barn, to provide "secondary containment" against incursions from that direction.

Finally, I set up an Electronet portable electric fence in part of the garden so that they can graze on the brome and dock in those areas until I have time to mulch them for tomatoes, pleasing their palates and helping control weeds at the same time.

It all adds up pretty well, considering the odds.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Living in 1% Hope

There have been several times during these past few years that I have encountered a situation where I spent a weekend, or a day, or an hour, living in the 1% chance that a situation would reverse itself "at the 11th hour." Most notable was the weekend before I was formally terminated from my MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) voluntary service in Canada, slightly more than 2 years ago. I had been told on a Friday that my 2-year service agreement was being ended after a mere 1 1/2 months, and I was being "sent home" for unexplained reasons. My requests for conflict resolution and mediation were denied, even though this organization is a reknown leader in these peacemaking skills. I had already taken the matter to my supervisor's superior. As a final effort to redeem the situation, I asked to speak to the director of MCC Canada. I was told there was little he could do given the stage to which the decision had progressed, but that he would meet with me on Monday.

Monday can be a very long way from Friday, when one's entire living circumstances hang in the balance. How easy it would have been to spend the weekend in seething resentment, assuming that the situation was a "done deal"--or to obsess about that upcoming "last straw" interview with the director--or to replay the events leading up to the situation over and over in my head, second-guessing my every decision. There was a 99% chance that I would be "fired"; I could spend the weekend in that 99% or in the 1% of uncertainty and hope. Fortuitously, I had made arrangements to attend a retreat with some Quaker friends at Riding Mountain National Park. I decided not to breathe a word of the situation to anyone--to live entirely in that possibility that all would be well. And I enjoyed every moment of the weekend with new friends. I hiked alone in the snowby the frozen lake, found out what songs Canadian Quakers sing around campfires, slid down the hill on an inner tube with a spry 80-year-old ex-American gentleman who now lives "in the bush" in a remote part of central Canada, stayed up until 1 in the morning working with several others to complete a jigsaw puzzle that had been deemed "impossible" at the previous year's retreat, and rode home in a blizzard. What a wonderful weekend! And without fretting, obsessing, seething, etc., a clear answer to the situation came to me effortlessly: If they were firing me, they couldn't tell me what to do anymore. And therefore I could choose to stay in Canada and have a vacation, and see what other sorts of service I could do, without MCC. If I was going to be homeless and jobless, I could at least turn it into an international, cross-cultural adventure! I'm sure I never would have found that calm, clear answer if I'd been living in the 99%.

Tonight I'm living in the 1% again. I came home from work, after dark, and the flock of ewes who have already lambed--10 ewes and 17 lambs--weren't in the barn. Nor were they bedded down on the corner of the pasture I'd cordoned off for them with portable electric fence. Where WERE they? Had they been stolen? Had they somehow gotten off the property?

And then I hear a quiet "baaa" from the vegetable garden....

An obscure gate in the barn had been left unhooked, and they had somehow realized they could PULL it open and find their way into the garden. And sheep are supposed to be stupid? Lucy wasn't even implicated in this, since she and her lambs are in a separate pen (though I suppose she could have observed the gate and suggested the advantages of the situation to her cohorts, even though she couldn't actively take part in the breakout).

I couldn't really even see them out there in the garden, just sensed that there were more pale and dark shapes out there than usual. A few quiet words to the Border Collies, a rattle of a feed bucket, a call of "Come, sheep," and they quietly gathered into one of the garden lanes and came to me in the barnyard with a minimum of frenzied tearing through the garden. I've learned from past experience that trying to get them out of the garden quickly can damage the garden worse than anything. I let them back into their barn pen and counted ewes; I didn't hear anyone calling for lost relatives so assumed that no lambs were left behind.

Tonight I'm living in the 1% hope that they did not destroy the few crops that survived the hard freezes last week. It's too dark to see much, I'm tired from this morning's Farmer's Market and driving the bus this afternoon, and there's nothing much I can do about the situation anyhow, except more replanting. So I'm going to eat a bowl of Extreme Moose Tracks ice cream and go to bed.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Lucy with Lambs

Here's Lucy with her 3 lambs, just a couple hours old! The smallest is the one looking for the teat--6 lbs. The largest is the one at the back--8.7 lbs. The other is 7.5 lbs.
So far she continues to love them all--hooray! "Bottle lambs" are only fun for about the first hour, once you know how much work they are, so hopefully Lucy will be good this year.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Lucy Causes More Trouble...

Ah, Lucy! She started life with the name "Lucky" because her eartag number happened to be 13. Her mother was Lina, an old Lincoln/Finn/Karakul cross ewe I got from long-ago mentor Judy Love...the first person I ever knew who had sheep.

Lincoln = long, lustrous silky wool. Finn = multiple births (pure Finnsheep may have litters of as many as 7 lambs). Karakul = somewhat "primitive" Middle Eastern breed adapted to survival in harsh climates.

Adapted to survival. Lina, and Lucy in turn, have taken the matter of survival quite seriously. A fence between them and the best grass? No big deal. Those two caused more trouble than all the rest the flock together, and passed their crafty ways to their children. But I've respected, tolerated, and refrained from culling them because of their scrappy intelligence and excellent productivity. (Lina lost her life several years ago in a tragic accidental hanging incident.) "Lucky" was renamed "Lucy" by the end of her first year--short for "Lucifer." She was TROUBLE.

She was small, but bred early, and had a difficult first pregnancy due to her petite stature. She prolapsed badly--I had a lot of prolapses that year, which I attributed to a problem with the mineral supplement regimen (not enough calcium, esp. for a "teenage mom"). Since then, she's done well--though she rarely mothers all three of her usual triplets without resisting. When I was hand milking some of my sheep, she was one of my top producers, and is very easy to milk. She is now in her 9th year...quite an old lady, for a sheep, though I have two other ewes about to lamb who are in their 11th year...the number of years since my first lambing season.

Her udder has been huge for weeks, but lambs weren't due until about now. About a week ago, I noticed she was prolapsing again this year...the ligaments in her vagina were slack, allowing pressure from advanced pregnacy to force her partially inside out. This time I was better prepared, and quickly applied a "ewe spoon" ("prolapse retainer") to hold her insides where they were supposed to be, and a webbing "prolapse harness" to hold the retainer in place and prevent her from expelling it. Usually these devices can be loosened after a few days, once the ewe's condition stabilizes. Theoretically, they can deliver lambs right past all this equipment, but I'm skeptical.

This morning, I decided to remove the retainer. I put the harness back on, to hold things in place from the outside.

When I checked the sheep moments before leaving for work, she was showing classic signs of beng in labor. A good reason to incur an attendance point, since the prolapse at her age could foreshadow potential problems with delivery. Also, her history of having triplets and rejecting one meant it would be prudent to be on hand to see that they all got an even break at the start. So I removed the prolapse harness, then called in to work and took the day off.

Within 45 minutes of that phone call, the first lamb was born (while I ran in the house to get the digital camera). Soon, two more were born. The firstborn was up on its wobbly feet even before its siblings were born. The second lamb had its front legs tucked back under it, instead of coming out "two toes and a nose" in a normal presentation. But Lucy (Loosy?) managed to birth it as far as the ribs while I ran for the "lamb puller", and so a gentle tug was all the assistance I gave. Even that wasn't really needed. This was a small ewe lamb, and a bit weak, so I really encouraged her to work on it, and helped out with a towel a bit.

After the third lamb was born and Lucy started to pass the afterbirth, I milked out some colostrum and used a "tube feeder" to give each lamb 2 ounces, to be sure they got off to a good start. I also gave Lucy a bucket of water with dried stock molasses mixed in, as an extra boost. It's warm this afternoon, and she was panting a bit...rare in sheep.

Although the little (6 lbs.) ewe lamb was slow to stand on her own, she and her two larger brothers (7.5 and 8.7 lbs.) they are all three up and finding the udder. So far Lucy seems to love them all.....but I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Such a beautiful day for being born! Tonight I'll try to post some of the photos I took. Meanwhile, you can find out more about some of the equipment "mentioned" above at Premier is THE source for equipment and information for sheep care, in my opinion.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Vacations with Animals

At a recent gathering of would-be sustainable farmers, someone lamented, "We want to have livestock, but we want to still be able to take vacations, too!"

Livestock IS a 365-day-a-year commitment. Yet, one can have days off and even weeks off IF enough forethought is given, and relationships with like-minded neighbors are built and carefully maintained.

I've had several invaluable mentors who helped me with all the crises that arose during my early years of shepherding. Lambing assistance, referrals to specialists, information on equipment, loans of supplies, commiserating over deaths...there's no substitute for friends who are in the same business. If you are considering having livestock, start cultivating such mentors as soon as possible. They are priceless. Then when you are experienced, share that expertise and assistance with others to keep the community growing.

Chief among my mentors is my neighbor, B. Without her I would not have sheep, I'm sure. Over the years we've traded chores many times. She visits family for a week every Christmas, and often in the summer as well. During those times, I drive the 4 miles to her farm twice a day to feed her horses, sheep, and poultry. It's just part of my yearly cycle...a part I enjoy. In turn, she gives me a week here, a weekend there to visit out-of-town friends and family or attend workshops. So we are both able to enjoy our families and other activities free from worry about our animals.

Even more valuable, though, is knowing that if anything happens to me there is someone out there who could step in at a moment's notice and see to the well-being of my livestock if I were incapacitated, and vice versa. In fact, one Sheep Shearing Day several years ago I fell ill with the flu during the event, and she and other friends just sent me to bed and carried on without me, doing my chores for a couple days until I was on my feet again. Her name is in my wallet in case of emergency.

Some of my regular out-of-town events require careful planning. Lambing is always scheduled with the state fiber arts conference in mind...I calculate breeding and lambing dates, and separate the ram from the ewes to allow for a two-week lamb-free window around the conference. This also keeps lambing from being an unsustainable marathon for me...I get a break in the middle. But it also means planning that trip more than 5 months in advance!

Preparing for a week or even a day out-of-town can take a lot of time and energy. All supplies must be on hand and organized and labeled. Containers must be labeled. Measurements must be defined. Hazards must be minimized. Instructions must be written down, and emergency contact information updated. All equipment must be in working order, with spares for anything that could possibly break. Routines must be as streamlined and simple as possible to avoid undue burden on the caretaker. In short, you have to fix all the inconveniences that you've been putting up with, or the caretaker won't be able to manage things while you're gone. The caretaker must be trained anew for each event, since routines invariably shift according to season and operational changes.

It sounds overwhelming...and it can be. But the real benefit of going through all this work to take a vacation isn't just the vacation. Since you had to get everything in order for the caretaker, it's in order when you get back. Over time, your whole operation becomes more organized and streamlined if you travel reasonably often (not too often, to avoid overwhelming your caretaker!) The important thing is to NOT leave all these preparations until the last them well ahead of time to avoid stress.

A surprise to me was realizing that the stereotype of farmers having "time off" in the winter was misleading. In fact, winter with livestock and a woodstove is demanding, and I'm pretty tied down. I've learned that my "free time" is late July and early August, when it's simply too hot to do anything anyway. The sheep are on pasture, watered with automatic waterers. The lambs are big and sturdy and grazing themselves; the ewes are at the end of lactation. No essential feeding of hay or grain, just checking the watering equipment twice a day, and checking mineral supply and fences daily. Farmer's Market slows down a bit during that time, and so I don't plan for huge crops during that time and it's ok to miss a market if necessary. Since I don't irrigate my vegetables, I don't need to worry about that while I'm gone.

So I've just about talked myself into scheduling another trip to Canada this summer...the $$$ being the main question...along with solving the dilemma of whether to re-visit the organic farm on the west coast, or attend Canadian Yearly Meeting on the east coast. Time travel? Cloning? I made such a wealth of friends during my sabbatical travels!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Something there is that doesn't love a wall...

Thus begins a favorite poem by Robert Frost, the source of "good fences make good neighbors" if I remember right.

Sheep are definitely one of the "somethings" that don't love fences. And they are NOT good neighbors to a garden or a pasture if they are longing for fresh greens. Sheep invented the philosophy of the grass being greener on the other side. They resent fences. They challenge fences. They can, and do, overcome fences, when given ample time and incentive.

My fences, at this time, are a mute testimony to the power of "livestock pressure". Last year the pasture was unusable because it was infested with a weed, dodder (more on this nightmare in the future), which the sheep could have transported into the vegetable growing areas of the farm, wreaking long-term havoc. Keeping sheep where they can see green pasture, but not graze it, results in extreme pressure on the fences as they try to get through to the delectibles on the other side.

Some of my fences were designed with this level of pressure in mind, with sturdy welded rod cattle panels. Others simply weren't. The fences between the garden and pasture were designed assuming that sheep would be on the pasture side, grazing red clover and orchard grass to their heart's content, with little interest in the mulch and vegetables on the other side. For these fences, I used "Wedge-loc" hardware and T-posts to build corner braces--some with a diagonal brace design, some with a "floating brace" design. The braces were on the garden side of the fence, where sheep wouldn't rub or put their feet on them. I watched the fences for signs of stress from livestock pressure, ready to install electric "scare wires" if needed to keep the sheep from pushing through the fence wire, and "top wires" if needed to keep the llama and sheep from trying to reach over the woven wire.

But last year the tenants dry-lotted the sheep in the north quadrants of the garden area. The sheep tried to climb the braces and fence wire to get at that forbidden grass on the other side. Scare wires weren't installed, though they would have prevented a lot of damage. Eventually, most of the diagonal brace posts were knocked down, and the corner posts pulled inward as the sheep pushed their heads through the woven wire. The electric top wires were broken by the sheep, or badly sagging from the loose corner posts.

I wanted to set up portable electric fence in an unused portion of the garden today, to let the sheep (still banned from the dodder-infested pasture) graze down some weeds and small trees. To do that I had to get electricity to that side of the garden. That meant repairing all the top wires on the damaged Willow Row fences. That meant doing something about the crippled corner posts. But what? It seemed like I would have to start from scratch, take out the old fence and completely rebuild and replace it...a huge amount of work.

Last night I suddenly thought of using the come-along (probably my most-feared non-power tools) to pull the corner posts back into position. Today I tried it out, and it worked beautifully. I even realized that over the years I have actually become proficient at using this awkward tool that has the potential to seriously damage or even remove fingers!

I hooked an automotive tow strap to the base of the corner post across the lane, then hooked on the come-along. The other end of the come-along was hooked to the top of the corner post. Slowly I rachetted the post into its correct position, east-west.

I replaced the damaged 45-degree angle Wedge-loc fitting at the top of the diagonal brace (a T-post). Then I reset the lower end of the floating brace on its brick base, and rigged a new brace wire from the lower end of the brace post to the bottom of the corner post. The brace wire assembly is a loop of smooth high-tensile fence wire, tightened by a Hayes-style "strainer" which is like a miniature come-along with a removable handle. I'll need to periodically check and re-tighten this brace wire. The brace repaired, I released the come-along, everything stayed in place, and not a scratch or crushed finger in sight!

There was already a conveniently-placed post to hook the come-along to in a similar manner to pull the corner back into north-south verticality; otherwise, I'd have driven one temporarily to have something to pull against. This side of the corner was a diagonal brace--a T-post held at the top of the corner post and the bottom of the next post by 45-degree Wedge-locs. It took a couple tries to get the post to stay in place while releasing the come-along, but in the end I succeeded.

On both corner braces, I used plastic cable ties to secure the diagonal braces to the woven wire fencing, to make them less vulnerable to being walked down by the sheep. I'll keep a close eye on the clever beasts if I have sheep in those pens, in case I need to protect the corner braces with electric scare wires.

This corner is near the new bee hive, so as I worked an occasional honeybee buzzed over to see if I was any threat. I stayed still and explained to them what I was doing, and they buzzed off again.

Then I cut down several small trees that had grown up into other sections of top wire, re-connected the top wire to the functioning portion of the electric fence system, and tested the voltage. It's running at 5000 volts, which is good. At about 3500 volts, my sheep stop respecting the electric fences. Then I began laying out the Electronet portable fencing. Tomorrow I should be able to finish the details and give the sheep a tasty treat of garden-grown bromegrass.

It's a LOT more work (and expense) than just running a lawnmower. But I feel so happy seeing the sheep happily munching--a deep sense of "God's in His heaven, all's right with the world". Though I've learned to enjoy the "happy purr" of the power mower, it just doesn't measure up to a smiling sheep!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Does A Bee Care?

Isaac Asimov poses that question as a title to an intriguing short story about alien plant-like beings using human space explorers to transmit pollen from one planet to another.

Today, honeybees came to Pinwheel Farm! Of course there have always been bees buzzing around the flowers here, but we've never had a known colony living here. Now there is a hive setting near the Torii, right by the main lane at the west end of the east Willow Row.

Beekeeping has always been a part of the grand scheme of things for the farm, but I'm no beekeeper. I know enough about beekeeping (counting a number of beekeepers among my acquaintances) to know that there is a lot to know about beekeeping, and that it has its own calendar that would have to be fitted into the calendars of the other enterprises at Pinwheel Farm: Sheep, vegetables, Farmer's Market, crafts, etc.

My hope was to find someone who would keep their bees here, that I could watch and learn from over time and eventually start my own hives. I talked to some area beekeepers, but no one was interested. Eventually I gave up and completely back-burnered the dream of having bees here....

Last week an acquaintance called to inquire whether he might move his beehive to my farm. He came out this afternoon to look at the space, and came back soon thereafter with the hive. I used the Austrian Scythe to mow the tall grass from the area, and he put down a sturdy pallet, then the hive on top. The door faces east, so they'll get the morning sun, and the willows will shade them from the afternoon sun. There's easy access by vehicle, when needed, but it's a quiet spot where people and bees won't disturb one another. They can drink from the sheep's water tank. A fence will keep the sheep from disturbing them. They can forage on the pasture, the wilderness areas beyond, in the garden, in the neighborhood where there are so many fruit trees and flowers.

He pulled the rag out of the door, and a few by a few the bees began to emerge. They began to fly tightly around the door of the hive, then venturing further and further away, circling. It was powerfully moving to watch them. I was overwhelmed with respect and love for these beautiful, talented, wise beings who had just come to live at my farm.

We can care for the bees: provide a house, feed them, shelter them from the elements, treat them for parasites and diseases. We can harvest the honey they make, the pollen they collect. We can work with them by understanding their ways and using those ways to acheive what we want. But we cannot control them. They are independent beings. They, and they alone, will decide where they will fly and forage.

All you bees, welcome to Pinwheel Farm! May your colony live here in peace for many years to come, and help to make this truly a land flowing with milk and honey! May we humbly respect you and provide wisely for your simple needs!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Clean Sweep

The short answer is yes: I can tear down the Farmer's Market booth, go home, unload and put away perishables, and be at work on time. It makes a long day, a full day, but a rich one.

Opening day started with snow (not sticking) and ended with glorious sunshine. Customers came as the morning wore on (we were starting to wonder, at first) and I sold nearly all the eggs I took. My spinning wheel went with me, and I finally finished the last 10 minutes of spinning work on the yarn that I was spinning on Closing Day last year. It was great to spin again, to show the process to kids and parents, to talk about the eggs and the farm. New faces, old faces, shivering, smiling, shaking our heads, ranting about the recent weather.

Coming home from driving the bus, doing chores, feeding the dogs, eating something, checking emails and messages...finally it's done and I'm half asleep on my feet.

But I pick up the broom, and begin to sweep the main rooms of the house, beginning in the livingroom and working towards the front door in the entry room, on the other side of the kitchen. Not because I have to (though it needs it) but because I want to be doing this contemplative task. It's a post-Canada habit.

It began in Sorrento, when I was volunteering on the kitchen staff of a church conference center. The last task of the night was always sweeping the floors. I looked forward to it because it meant everything was in order for the breakfast crew, and we were nearly done for the day.

When I started volunteering at the organic vegetable farm, I found myself restless in the evenings. It was a very different situation than the conference center. When I arrived, the floor hadn't been swept in awhile. 3 large dogs, +/- 5 people, and a couple cats were constantly tracking in dirt from the fields. Really, sweeping it seemed pointless. But I felt like doing it, so I did. It became a habit, but more than that, a meditation. It was partly about seeing how nice the rooms looked when swept, but mostly it was about simply the doing of it.

After a few days, Sue commented on the futility of my self-appointed task. By then I knew how to answer her: It was like the tide of the ocean. The dirt came in, the dirt went out. The dirt came back in again. By sweeping it out, I wasn't trying to fight the dirt--the winner was obvious from the start. Rather, I was dancing with the dirt in a long, slow dance like the tide of the ocean.
Dirt is a fact of life on the farm. It is the source from which I draw a portion of my existence. Without dirt, there would be no farm.

When I empty the dustpan, I pick out any man-made bits--rubber bands, bread bag tags, scraps of paper--and throw the rest of the sweepings (dirt and dog hair) onto the flower bed outside the front door, returning the farm to itself.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud...

...and NONE of it is in the pullets' feed pans!

A local business's signboard last month read "It wasn't raining when Noah built the Ark." Well, yesterday, when we built the "porch roof" for the Brooder House, was a perfect sunny spring day. Today, according to a coffee can sitting near the shed, we've had over an inch of rain (note to self: install rain gauge soon). With all the rain we got earlier this week, it's just sitting around in puddles...not usual for our sandy silt loam soil. The ducks and geese are happy; the hens are stoic. Chickens just don't look right wading around in puddles.

Our work was not only well-timed, but effective. The ground in the pen is mostly puddle, but the feed pans on the grating under the roof stayed perfectly clean and dry, and the ground under the grating is fairly dry as well. Since the "porch roof" also covers the new access ramp for the chicken door to the Brooder House, the inside is dryer, and the eggs are very clean for these weather conditions. It's gratifying to see that a half day's effort made such a big step forward.

The rain has been threatening to turn to snow all day, but so far it hasn't...quite. It was sort of splattering on the bus windshield as if it might. Tomorrow morning is the first day of Farmer's Market...just seems WRONG with the weather we've been having.

All I will have at Market is eggs and wool yarn, and promises for more to come. But it will be great to see the other vendors and the customers again! My main goal is to simply get there, sell some eggs, figure out what's been borrowed from the "Market Box" (my portable office) over the winter, that I'm not noticing, and determine how feasible it's going to be for me to do Farmer's Market, unload everything at home, and get to work on time.

Typically the night before the first Market is an all-nighter, like the night before Sunrise Service. Tonight I finally got all the materials and tools together to sew the new tablecloth for the new table, and will STILL get some sleep tonight, so that's progress.

But only if I stop writing and go to bed!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Changing Plans

This morning I had a long list of things I hoped to accomplish with my apprentices, Meghan and Mae Rose, today, including checking the equipment for Farmer's Market, learning to lay mulch for potatoes, moving tomato cages, working with the sheep, etc.

Building a roof over part of the "Brooder House" pen wasn't even on the list. But after recent rains, with more rain in the forecast, and a bright sunny day today, it was a project whose moment had come.

Some background: I was left with a flock of about 40 pullets (young hens just starting to lay) in addition to my usual 40-some-odd hens when the tenants left. They were raised in the little shed I call the Brooder House because it is well suited to raising baby chicks. But in the past, the pullets always went to the hen house after a couple months, when they got big. Now, the hen house is full, and there's nowhere for the pullets except to keep them in the rather small Brooder House.

Most of the time that worked OK this winter, when everything was frozen, and the pullets wanted to be close together for warmth. But as we get heavy spring rains, the pullets are mucking the pen into a muddy mess. I collected bags of leaves that folks had raked up and set out for the city's yard waste collection program; putting those down in the pen for the pullets to scratch in helped somewhat. But spilled feed is beginning to ferment in the mud--yuck! Smelly! As the weather warms up, flies could become a problem. The last straw was finding the feed pans more full of mud than of feed this morning...and knowing that we will be getting yet more rain.

I've been thinking about this project--roofing over a portion of the pen to give them more dry space--for awhile, but didn't have a clear idea how to proceed. Today we just sort of jumped in and made it up as we went along, using materials on hand. It was a good project to work on our first day of all three of us working together, getting to know each other a bit and learning each other's ways of working. I'm thrilled that these two young women want to learn more about farming, and to have the chance to share what I've learned. What we built today will defintely improve the pullets' lives. And our effort will definitely show longer than if we had spent the day moving tomato cages!

Since this is a temporary project (the ultimate solution will be building a new, larger hen house with a pen cross-fenced for rotational use, giving it time to rest and dry out), I didn't want to spend a lot on lumber. And there's a grove of small elm trees in a neglected corner of the garden that needs cut down. So we pounded T-posts into the ground, cut forked saplings the right height for the roof support posts, and tied the saplings to the T-posts with baling twine. Long poles went horizontally between posts. We attached a sheet of plastic across the front of the brooder house, tied some of those 3' x 8' pieces of used hail-damaged Lexan onto the horizontal poles, and then pulled the plastic around the Lexan to seal the seams and hail-holes. I'm hoping that with a little "tweaking", the plastic will channel water from the roof away from the pen, maybe even into a rain barrel that I can use to fill the pullets' waterer....

Underneath, I set some metal grates (I've had them for years, and they've served many different purposes) up on concrete blocks under the new roof, and put the feed pans on those. So the chickens have to wipe their feed before they eat!

Checking the equipment for Farmer's Market, learning to lay mulch for potatoes, moving tomato cages, working with the sheep, etc., will all get done. Just not according to the schedule I had planned. And as I look at the forecast again, with a possibility of 1-2 inches of snow tomorrow and Saturday, I do think maybe God might be giving me a little nudge to not be in TOO much of a hurry to plant potatoes in this wet, cold soil....

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Hay for Four/Fourteen/Forty

This morning was taken up by rearranging hay feeders.

It is so easy to think "this will only take a minute." It is so easy to think "feeding big round bales means I won't have to spend time dealing with hay." Two hours later, I have 10 minutes left to divest myself of barnyard slime and don my work uniform before riding my bike down to the bus stop to go to work. And I still haven't got the mulch unloaded from the back of the truck!

As the fourteen ewes (7 ewe lambs, 7 aged ewes) that I bred in November near the beginning of their lambing time, they are obviously consuming more and more hay. And the ewes that have already lambed are voracious; they are all heavy milkers and their lambs are growing fast. Altogether the ewes are eating for a total of probably nearly forty lambs! I'm feeding them a diet of free-choice alfalfa hay in big round bales, and brome hay in big round grain. I've done the calculations based on Sheep Industry nutritional/life cycle data, and it all pencils out that be feeding part brome and part alfalfa, the ewes will get all the nutrition they need for late gestation and early lactation.

Many stockmen I've described this arrangement to shake their heads. "They'll never eat the brome if they've got alfalfa," or "They'll eat themselves to death." But they do eat the brome...even if the brome bale is 75 feet from the alfalfa, they'll deliberately go over there. The closer they get to lambing, the more alfalfa they eat, as if they are intentionally (instinctively?) matching their changing nutritional needs.

I do encourage them to eat the brome. I leave it loose (after carefully removing the twine or net wrap), so it's easy for them to pick through it and find the best parts. I don't care how much they waste, because I'll use it for mulch in the garden. Since it soaks up a lot of the urine and catches a lot of droppings, it's really as much "sheet composting" as mulching. So I use the sheeps' leftovers to fertilize, control weeds, and manage soil moisture and temperature...for free, if I allocate all the cost of the hay to the sheep.

Alfalfa is a different story. For one thing it's hard to find big round bales of decent alfalfa hay. Most folks put it up in small squares for sale, or in big bales for their own use only. Then, too, alfalfa is significantly more expensive than brome. And, the waste doesn't work as well as mulch--too stemmy to block weeds well, and too rich if applied that heavily with so much manure/urine in it. Finally, the wool is really damaged if the sheep are allowed to wallow in the alfalfa bales.

So I use some sort of feeder for big round alfalfa bales. In the past, that's been sections of welded wire "cattle panels" clipped together. The holes are just barely big enough for the sheep to stick their heads through. But I've found that the panels really take a beating, and end up broken and deformed. Every now and then a sheep gets its head stuck. Not good.

This year I'm trying tubular steel "economy" farm gates, and really liking the results. Quite an investment...until I compare them to the cost of the hay that isn't wasted, and the cost of the grain that isn't fed because I'm feeding alfalfa instead. And if I ever decide not to use them for feeders, they will be good gates! So far they are holding up well. The sheep get their heads in and out easily. As a bonus, the lambs can slip through them to get the best feed access.

I'm trying out various connectors. For connecting cattle panels, quick links work pretty well but tend to either jam so that a wrench is required (or, rarely, bolt cutters), or work themselves loose. "Carabiner" style "gate hooks" work better. For both these connectors, the panels must be aligned "just so". A better approach is a quick link or carabiner attaching a snap hook to one panel...this gives some flexibility to the alignment.

For the gates, short chains with brass snap hooks attached by quick links work best, but cost as much as $4 or $5 apiece to assemble, and each enclose requires 8 at a minimum (2 per "seam")! Baling twine works well, but tying and untying the knots gets old. The new method of using 1/8" polyestercord tied through a snap hook seems to work best for the money, and works no matter what I'm tying to what.

The system still takes near-daily monitoring and maintenance. Picked-through stems will build up and block the ewes' access to the main bale; that has to be cleaned out now and then. As the ewes eat the bale down, they're less able to reach it through the gates, so I have to rearrange the gates to make the enclosure smaller. I also cover the alfalfa bales because they don't shed water as well as the brome does, and they spoil faster. So I have to adjust the tarp or plastic that's spread over them and fastened to the gates, too....

"Hey for Four" is the name of one of my favorite "figures" in contra dancing, a long-time hobby I don't get to indulge in enough these days. It's a weaving/circling move performed with four dancers. Working among the nosy sheep who are trying to get at the bale I'm rearranging is, I suppose, as much dancing as it is a melee....

Monday, April 9, 2007

Easter Sunrise

The sun rose bright orange this Easter morning over a pasture glittering with heavy frost. Myself and one other person were there to watch...unless you count the numberless chorus of birds--cardinals, robins, meadowlarks, mockingbirds shouting jubilant Easter greetings from the trees and fields--and the two Border Collies making the most of this unusual early morning romp in the pasture. They are puzzled by our sitting there, ignoring them...but both of them are known to truly enjoy listening to people singing, and they stop pestering us for attention fairly quickly.

I always feel like I'm cheating by inviting folks to come for the service a mere 20 minutes before sunrise. By then, the day is surprisingly light.

The real magic happens in darkness, a couple hours earlier, when I'm still awake working meditatively on the various logistics and other details of the occasions. I clean the kitchen and prepare the house for guests, knowing that quite possibly no one will show up on such a cold morning, despite the best of intentions. That's ok; the real guest of honor will be Christ, and then, of course, me. I make dough for hot cross buns to pop in the oven as soon as the service is over and we return to the house for breakfast (scrambled eggs with local bacon and fresh green onions, and the hot, light, perfect buns). I review the order of service (silent meditation interspersed with Taize chants and scripture readings). I carry extra chairs and blankets out to the site (a circular area at the junction of several rotational grazing paddocks in the middle of the pasture). The frozen leaves literally break like potato chips as I step on them, walking out to the pasture. As I move about slowly yet constantly, I realize that the cold is really not that awful. Of course, Carhartts influence my experience significantly.

There is a particular moment that I realize I've been hearing the first robin's morning song for several minutes now. There is the first deep orange glow in the eastern sky that I realize isn't the night sky brightness of the phosphorus factory nearby. There is the rooster crowing with a very slightly different cry than his sleepy night-time voice.

One of my preparations is to take the legs off the Weber kettle barbeque grill (rescued last summer from someone's trash pile) to make a safe, portable "fire pit". I place it on a much larger piece of metal, to make sure not to set fire to the dry residue of last year's weeds on the pasture. I lay a fire in it, ready for a match when we return for the actual service. With the temperature somewhere in the high teens or low 20's (at some point you just don't want to know), a "bonfire" is an essential item for sitting out there half an hour.

I realized I hadn't selected scriptures for the service yet, and the one about Peter huddled around the fire in the courtyard, denying Christ 3 times before the rooster crowed, seemed just perfect.

How often we deny--not only Christ or whatever sort of Power-Greater-Than-Ourselves we acknowledge, but other essentials: leaving the door open & thus letting the dog escape; leaving the leaky hydrant on so the pump runs all day; those sorts of things. They are always mysteries that had nothing to do with us.

We deny other essentials: our own courage, dignity, and worth; that of others; our inability to control just about anything outside our own skins; our real, abiding love for someone we're angry at (or hurt enough by) to "hate"; the reality of our inability to "do it all by ourselves". We deny our denial.

The sad thing is, other than this verse of scripture, there usually isn't anyone around to awaken in us the awareness of our denial or tell us what to do with it. We not only deny our own denial, we tend to deny others', and they, ours...or at least politely let it pass. Or, if we mention it, we do so out of meanness...which lets the receiver deny the validity of the criticism.

When we are aware of our denial, then we must accept it. It's hard and humbling to admit that we aren't perfect, that we've had our head in the sand about a lot of things. Humble doesn't get a lot of good press these days...but the farm is teaching me that it's highly underrated. I'm getting much better at humble...pride is so easily bruised, and humble seems infinitely resilient.

Then how do we act on that awareness and acceptance of our denial of things dear to us? Peter went out and wept. Sometimes I need to do that, too...just weep at my inability to do the very things I insisted I could, so, do...the three-year-old in me is alive and well and throwing temper tantrums! At one time, that was the end of sitting there weeping and wringing my hands at my obvious failures in apparently simple tasks. But now something moves me beyond, far beyond, to the next I can ask God for help in doing better the next time, and at the same time understand that what happened this time is part of His work in my life. Sometimes the outcome is clearly God saying, "Yes, I know you wanted ____ but my answer to your prayers is this instead." Sometimes it's not worrying about "What did God have in mind with this?" or "Why would a loving God let THAT happen?" but rather resting secure and confident in the knowledge that whatever I'm going through, God is there with me right in the middle of it.

He will not deny me the way Peter denied Christ.

It's probably in my best interest (ego aside) not to deny Him.

Saturday, April 7, 2007


I've noticed that most people have a "default" approach to building, fastening or repairing things. Some folks go for some scrap metal and the welder. Some folks head for the woodpile with a cordless drill and a pocketfull of screws; others head the same direction with hammer and nails. Some grab a stack of cardboard and a roll of duct tape.

My "default setting" betrays my roots in the fiber arts: I tie things together. Usually, when I have a farm in my life, with baling twine. As proof, just notice how often I mention this material in my blog entries!

I'm referring, primarily, to the heavy plastic twine used on small square bales: by far the highest quality. In addition to carefully removing it from bales, I purchased two new spools of it. They should last for decades. The heavier grades of twine used for round bales are also OK. Some of the lighter grades don't hold up under sustained use.

I started out securing fence panels with plastic-coated clothesline wire. It was easy to work with, but after a couple years the plastic cracked and fell off, and metal fatigue was a problem in gate-type installations. It was easy to undo, but hard to re-twist reliably.

Fence clips are good for "normal" fencing, but not appropriate for many of my non-standard applications. They also require the use of fencing pliers: a marvelous, ingenious tool that is to blood blisters what utility knifes are to cut fingers and hammers are to mashed thumbs.

At first, I used baling twine in desparation, because it was on hand when I needed it. But over the years, I've really come to see it as the best option in many situation. It is strong, flexible, easily cut and fastened (once you learn the knots that work in it...not all of them do), cheap, lightweight, generally inert and safe, UV resistant, waterproof...what more could you want? (Other than a nicer selection of is the most common twine color in this area, and my overall least favorite color of the rainbow.)

So my fences are attached to posts with baling twine. Tarps are tied down with baling twine. Gates are hinged with baling twine. Temporary structures are tied together with baling twine. My bicycle cart hitches to my bicycle with baling twine. I even designed a crocheted pot scrubber from baling twine (they last for years). Some years ago I sold them at Farmer's Market; I learned to recommend that wives buy two of them, because so often husbands took them out to the shop and wouldn't bring them back.

Baling twine is also hazardous. I've tripped myself up on stray twine more often than I like. It's ruinous to lawn mowers and rototillers, and annoying when it becomes involved in hand digging, raking, or pitchforking. Numerous animals have had narrow escapes from being strangled by baling twine; a lamb lost a foot when stray baling twine cut off the circulation.

Few things irritate me more than loose baling twine strewn helter-skelter or draped over a fence post, waiting to ensnare a sheep or passer-by. The rule on the farm is that baling twine must be restrained at all times. With the uncut loops from small square bales, it's a simple matter to twist them into a little skein, like yarn, that is tangle-proof but easy to undo when needed. The strings from big round bales are cut and pulled off in twos or threes, and wound into a 6" diameter coil with the end knotted around it.

But as I return to the farm after my sabbatical, seeing it with a stranger's eyes, I find myself moved to try to break the baling twine habit. It just looks messy, no matter how practical. So I'm experimenting with white 1/8 nylon/polyester cord. One piece installed as a gate latch at least 3 years ago has held up well, so I'm trying other applications. An 8" loop tied through the eye of a snap hook seems to make an excellent quick connector for the fence and gate panels that I use as feeders for big round bales of alfalfa. So, little by little I'm transitioning away from the orange stuff. But I can't image going "cold turkey" --the farm would literally fall apart!

Friday, April 6, 2007

Living in Hope

One of the passages of spring is taking the portable scale that I use to weigh produce at Farmer's Market to Pendleton's to have it certified for the year. The "Scale Man" schedules us randomly, and usually there's only a few days' notice. I look forward to it each year with a mixture of feelings. Will I somehow miss it, and have to drive the scale to Topeka to get it certified? Have I already missed it? Will it be before Farmer's Market starts? Will it be a convenient day, or will I drop the scale off the day before and pick it up later?

The smell of Pendleton's back room on Scale Day is indelibly etched in my sensory memory: eucalyptus from Karen's flower arrangements, and the coffee and donuts that are traditional for Scale Day. It's a kind of communion, I suppose--a remembering of community among the market vendors who haven't seen one another for months of winter hibernation on our own farms, and will soon be to busy to do more than wave on our way to the Porta-Potty at Market. This year Scale Day happens to fall on Maundy Thursday, when many Christians commemorate the "Last Supper" that Jesus shared with his disciples, from whence comes the practice of communion. Pendletons are the only growers there when we arrive, but the other vendors are represented by their scales, off-kilter stacks of them around the room.

The scales are stacked higher than usual because most horizontal spaces in the room--indeed, the entire building--are covered with flats of morel mushrooms. It's a little mind-boggling, the sheer volume of them. All mushrooms sold in the state of Kansas must be inspected by an official Mushroom Inspector, and Karen is one of them. They also buy mushrooms for resale at their farm store. Passengers on my bus route have been talking about morel season lately, but while many have gone looking, few have admitted to actually finding any. It's another traditional passage of spring. Ask them where they're looking, and the subject of conversation will mysteriously shift into their cousin Bill's old dog that had to be put to sleep, or something like that. No one talks much about finding morels, only about looking for them.

Iwalked out to the pasture to begin getting things ready for Pinwheel Farm's traditional Easter Sunrise Service. I think this will be the 5th one. It began when Peace Mennonite Church was looking for a place in the country to hold theirs, after the usual host moved to town. Now, it is an ecumenical Pinwheel Farm event that gathers a small, ecclectic group of folks. Those who have attended in the past tend to ask me about plans for the upcoming one in hushed, eager voices, as if it is something mystical, which it is, in a most extraordinary commonplace way. Preparation isn't much--this year, mainly mowing with the scythe some of the tall dead weeds we'll walk through, and checking that the rustic benches are sound. A personal, private passage of Spring for me is the odd vigil I know I'll inevitably keep on Easter eve, thinking of more and more details to attend to and working almost all through the night by the light of the just-past-full moon. (Easter's date is actually keyed to the phase of the moon based on the Jewish lunar calendar, since the Last Supper was connected with the celebration of Passover.)

This year's Easter preparations come at an interesting spell of weather; this may be the coldest Sunrise Service yet. Today Pinwheel Farm apprentice Mae Rose and I walked through the vegetable garden, trying to assess the damage wrought by temperatures in the mid-20's last night and the night before, knowing that there are several more days of frigid temperatures ahead of us. Planting, of course, has come to a standstill. It's hard to tell at first what's been killed. Frosted leaves have an odd, lusterless droopy look, but some of them will turn brown and frost-bitten in a few days, and some will look as if nothing had happened. The cole crop transplants are looking good, many of the seedling (lettuce, Asian greens, radishes, kale) appear to be pretty bad off. The fruit trees are still covered with buds and flowers, apparently undamaged, but the leaves have that frost-bitten droop to them that bodes no good. It may be a year of almost no local fruit--how sad! But this is a time for living in hope, for expecting that all will be lost and preparing to be amazed if some of it isn't. The waiting and wondering is part of the season--of Easter, and Spring.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Research, or Gambling?

Kansas weather at its best...last week, 80 degree afternoons; this week's forecast is for night time temps down in the lower 20's. What's a gardener to do?

It's always a risk, the weather is. And farming...actually just an unregulated form of gambling. But, there is nothing like them for building FAITH...and exercising HOPE...and all other sorts of spiritual blessings. I think it is no accident that my spiritual journey as a Christian started hand-in-hand with my farming adventure.

There have been years that I planted corn seed into rototilled land (before I knew better) that was as dry and powdery as flour...and the sprouts were standing straight and tall in perfect rows just a week or so, with no rain. There have been years of hard freezes after the fruit trees bloomed, yet they bore fruit. Even though one crop might fail, there is always another that thrives. It all balances out. There is always enough...for me, for the insects, for the wild rabbits, for the mulch. God provides for me, and for the bugs and sparrows and rodents, too.

So it was with a sense of adventure and curiousity, rather than panic, that I went out to the garden after my bus-driving shift to see what I could do to protect plants from the cold that's supposed to set in tonight. It's all a big experiment in crop protection.

Some of the cole crop transplants (red cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower) that we put in Sunday and Monday, I covered with sheer curtains I've collected at thrift stores. They act like a "reemay" type row cover but are much more durable, and I think better ventilated. The farm I visited in BC the last two summers used a row cover imported from Europe that was similar in texture, that is supposed to protect the plants from insects without building up so much heat, which the cole crops don't like. So the idea is that not only will the curtains help the plants weather the frost, they will protect the plants from the lovely white butterflies flitting around looking for host plants for their "cabbage worm" babies. I'd rather not spray, even Bt (a microbial pesticidethat targets caterpillars). Expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive to the ecosystem.

Another farm had given me a huge stack of badly hail-damaged sheets of Lexan twinwall greenhouse glazing, some 3' x 8' and some 2'x 8'. I drilled holes in pairs of them and tied them together with heavy string. With the edges held in place by rebar tomato cage stakes (which I won't need for cages for a month or two), they make very nice little greenhouse tents over some of the other cole crops. I also covered some of the mizuna and arugula, and the earliest-planted bed of lettuce, with these recycled covers. I even stuck an indoor-outdoor thermometer that records maximum and minimum temperatures in one of them! The down side of these covers is that rain water won't get to the plants. I'll have to watch and see if the soil gets too dry. But, the plants are very small, and the soil is holding as much water as it can from recent rains. So they should be ok for a week until the weather warms up again.

I didn't cover all of anything...that way I can compare how well various covers worked.

The walking onions that are picture perfect, ready to market, I surrounded with bags of fall leaves to build walls almost as tall as the onions around the bed. Half of that, I put an old sheet over, weighted down with spare T-posts.

Most of these crops I wouldn't worry about freezing at all, except that they are used to 80 degrees! While many plants can withstand very cold temperatures, they need time to adapt. And Kansas weather doesn't always give that.

If the cold weather wins out over my tiny plants, I'll replant most things. I plan to plant more of most of these crops anyhow, and I've saved some of my more expensive seed for the later crops. I try to sow various things at various times, and rarely plant two beds of the same thing at once, so that I'll have a variety of produce over a long span of time. What I learn from these experiements now will be helpful in the fall, when we again face frosty nights.

You can look at it all as gambling. But because learning I can apply to future crops is more important to me than just the crop I produce this year, it's a win-win proposition.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Choosing Death

Twister was doing comparatively well this morning, but not well enough to be on his own during my 7 1/2-hour-plus-commute workday with only one feeding. Though stronger, he was not standing on his own, and not even really connecting with the bottle on his own...I had to hold his head and insert the nipple into his mouth before he would suck. And the sanitation issue (keeping him reasonably clean of poop and pee) was not insignificant. The few folks I could think of that might be willing to be involved with his care were busy or (wisely enough) reticent. Weighing all the factors, I took him to the vet. The vet diagnosed spina bifida (which I'd suspected) and concurred with my decision to euthanize him.

It was not the first time I've watched the life slip away from a lamb at my command. My second year with sheep, a heavy outbreak of barber pole worms (haemonchus contortus if I remember right) took its toll on the flock; of the first two obviously (to my neophite eyes) sick ones, the first dropped dead in front of me, and the other was so near death from anemia that the vet euthanized it to do a necropsy to positively identify the parasites. A few years later, a lamb apparently healthy at birth declined a couple weeks later; after more than a week of round-the-clock intensive care and several local shepherds scratching their heads, I took "Mr. Misery" to the vet school at KSU for euthanization. Though it was obvious he was very ill, nothing seemed amiss in the necropsy. I still suspect tetanus presenting uncharacteristic symptoms, but I'll never really know.

In a sense, I chose to be a party to Twister's death by simply choosing to raise livestock to begin with. Premeditated death in all its routine and surprising manifestations is a simple fact of animal husbandry: Taking the market lambs and culled breeding stock to be slaughtered; taking critically ill lambs to be euthanized;"putting down" the worst casualties of a dog attack on a neighbor's sheep flock; realizing that a randomly vicious cat was an unredeemable safety hazard to children. So is unexpected, uncontrolled death: A lamb whose neck was broken while trying to untangle it in the womb at birth ; a ewe with a ruptured spleen; a ewe chased into and entangled in an electric fence by bumble bees; a ewe who ruptured her uterus and spilled her lambs into her abdominal cavity, then "birthed" the uterus; a ewe who hung herself; a goose whose entire body cavity was filled with infection from an unidentified injury.

I do not find that I'm numbed to death through these experiences, though I am calmer about it. I simply do not fear death any more--not for the animals, not for my loved ones, not for myself. It is no longer unknown to me, at least second-hand. It is a familiar passage, though I cannot see beyond the door. If anything, I am awakened more and more to death by each witnessing of an animal' last breath, or each finding of an animal's lifeless body. I become more aware of my own mortality, and that of the people around me. I value more deeply the gift of life that can so quickly be taken away.

I try to think of vet bills as tuition in the school of lay veterinary medicine. Being a livestock grower requires one to have a lot of responsibility for, and involvement in, both routine and emergency health care of the animals. The more I can learn from each experience, the more value I get from the costs, both the loss of the animal if one dies, and the loss of the money spent. Each experience allows me to make better decisions in future situations, as my experience of extended intensive care with Mr. Misery informed my decision about Twister. In this case, I learned that spinal bifida can be feed related...which means I'll never know why, because this lamb was conceived before I had care of the flock. A weed in the hay? An herbal supplement? A wormer administered at the wrong time? God, and God only, knows. But I'll be even more attentive than before to proper pre-conception and pre-natal care of my ewes.

More and more, I trust that it is not always my place to know such things, but to simply be in awe of God's mysterious workings.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Imperfect Gift

Lambing is like Christmas: you never know what's inside the package until it's finally time to open it.

But sometimes the gift is damaged. If it's really bad, you can return it. But sometimes, you have to look at the ding or chip on some unique, out-of-stock, discontinued item, and decide, should I keep it and try to glue it back together, or should I just throw it away, and not spend the time and energy to try to glue it back together?

Yesterday, while I was driving back from the soils workshop, twin lambs were born, one apparently normal and one with a birth defect. My evening chore person found them and was doing what he could when I got home.

There are obvious, but not in themselves apparently lethal, deformities of the lamb's tail base and lower back. My first concern was whether the lamb's "plumbing" was correctly hooked up internally; observation showed that things were flowing as they should. So the main problem was, and remains, the lamb's weakness and incoordination.

In a case like this, the humane choices are basically to provide supportive care and see what happens, or to euthanize the lamb right away. With supportive care, the choice to euthanize may need to be made anyhow at some point, if the lamb seems to be declining or suffering unduly. Supportive care means feeding, extra fluids if dehydration is apparent, drying him off, keeping him warm, and just generally making him as comfortable as possible. And figuring out solutions for each challenge as it arises.

This guy's head and right front leg had a strong will to live, though the rest of him barely moved. He couldn't stand, even when steadied, or put weight on his legs. His head pitched around somewhat at random. But he would suck vigorously on my finger. I milked the ewe (after a short rodeo adventure) and fed him with a stomach tube. Maybe a good meal would get the rest of him going?

Later, I tubed him again and then still later bottle fed him. Since he couldn't move around, whenever he peed, he was just laying in the soaked hay. So today, I gave him a nice warm bath, dried him off, and figured out a way to diaper a boy lamb (incontinence pads bound on with pieces of old t-shirts). A wool "lamb jacket" cut from an old wool sweater kept him warm while he finished drying.

At each feeding, I hold him up to try to practice standing, hoping this will strengthen his legs. As a shepherd, not only do I end up being my own vet a lot of the time, I'm now an ovine physical therapist! He is noticeably stronger each feeding, but has a long ways to go.

Tonight I rigged up a sling in a plastic milk crate so that he can practice standing without my holding him the whole time. He seems to stand much better in the crate than on the uneven hay of the shed, so maybe moving him and his family to a different area with a hard surface would help.

I'm keeping him with his mom and sister in hopes that if he does become mobile, he can be part of his sheep family rather than being a "bum". At this point it's doubtful that the ewe will let him nurse when he can stand, but perhaps she will at least tolerate his company. I try hard not to raise lambs that bond to humans and think they are pets. Sheep that act like dogs are very confusing to the Border Collies!

The looming cloud is that he is certainly not breeding stock, and doesn't promise to have a very interesting fleece. So the time, inconvenience, etc., of providing such intensive care is all with the knowledge that in the end his purpose in life is lamb chops. There's a certain irony in keeping an animal alive at such great effort, only to eat it later.

But then, how many painstaking loaves of Christmas bread have I lovingly baked for friends, only for it to be gobbled up, even if it did come out a little flat on one side? For now, he is a gift, a responsibility, a challenge. And I'm glad to see him improving with each feeding.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

A Bountiful Table

The soils workshop was affirmation of many of the principles I've established through various readings, as well as my own observations of my land and other land.

The greatest gift of the workshop, to me, was a new insight/understanding/analogy/parallel that seemed to crystallize sponanteously from comments by several growers throughout the workshop. The process by which this happened was almost as fascinating to me as the concept we discussed various aspects of soil biology over the course of a couple hours, one or the other of us would comment on connections between that concept and the analogy we were building.

Rhonda Janke, soil specialist from KSU, mentioned early in her talk that we could think of the soil as a giant stomach, referring to the vast community of micro-organisms, naturally present in healthy soil, all busily digesting organic matter (including each other). Since the dominant stomachs on my farm these days are sheep stomachs (processing something on the order of a ton of hay a week), the parallels between a ruminant's internal processes immediately struck me.

Like a sheep's rumen, the soil breaks down cellulose/organic matter (OM) through the symbiotic relationships of a complex community of micro-organisms. Factors that influence this process include temperature, pH, the type and quantity of OM present, etc. The breakdown of these materials makes the nutrients in them available to the beneficiary of the system: sheep, for the rumen, or plants, for the soil.

One of my observations/insights this past couple years has been that one simple principle is perhaps THE key to the success of my farming system: Generosity. The soil and the livestock both respond to generous feeding with vibrant health. Stinginess begets disease.

But it must be a dependable generousity, a bountiful table spread at all time. Poverty and want must be only rare things, if present at all (occasional fasting is not necessarily harmful to beings who are in robust good health, and many traditions swear by it as a technique for physical healing and spiritual growth.)

When we are dealing with a poor soil, trying to amend it with strong chemical fertilizers, it is easy to create imbalances. Deficiencies are obvious. Reactions are quick but not sustained. We must keep testing, fine-tuning, micromanaging, reapplying chemicals at intervals. If we stop, things quickly revert to their original situation. In livestock, if we try to feed them a concentrated diet, we must be careful that it meets all their nutritional requirements. It's also critical to feed metered amounts at regular times. If we skip a feeding, the animal's system gets out of whack. If we suddenly over feed, the animal can get sick and even die, because the sudden abundance overwhelms the animal's digestive system. The microbes need time to adjust to changes.

If instead, we feed that soil generously, year after year, with a diverse banquet of OM, then the soil will have a diverse, self-balancing abundance of micro-organisms releasing a wide range of nutrients and micro-nutrients from the OM on an on-going basis.

If we spread a bountiful table for the soil, the plants and the livestock that eat them will thrive, and spread a bountiful table for us in turn.