It’s gotten to be that time of year that is hard on both man and beast. The pictures, taken in September, show an old ewe–one of the flock of Clun Forests I rescued from going to slaughter in the spring–that Craig and I have come to call “the skinny old Clun”. When you have quite a few sheep, they don’t all get names. She got hers because she was always among the first to be checking us out and asking, “what’s going on? New pasture? Fresh mineral?” While others flourished, her condition declined in late summer. I easily caught her, checked her inner eye membranes for signs of parasite-caused anemia, and though they didn’t look too bad I drenched her with wormer. It didn’t bring any change and by the time hay feeding season rolled around she was even thinner. Yet still very much in the forefront of the flock; when Craig drove out with hay, he would have to get off the tractor and move her out of the way so she didn’t get run over. We rounded up the flock about a week ago so we could take out the rams and ram lambs and give them grain, since they all had gotten so excited about breeding season that they simply weren’t eating enough, and my intention was to also sort out skinny old Clun and put her on grain. Craig and Newton brought in the flock and when I asked about her he said, “well, I wasn’t going to carry her” or something like that, so when we were done sorting I fired up the Kubota, went out, loaded her up, and brought her into the barn. She was able to follow me and the grain bucket into the barn and ate her fill and then bedded down in the hay I gave her. But, since then, she has mostly been lying down. We give her grain and hay and Craig carries warm water down to the barn for her and the goats. I really don’t have much hope for skinny old Clun. And sometimes I think, should I shoot her? Every livestock farmer, eventually, comes to this place of decision with individual animals and it is never an easy decision. I rarely euthanize. I’ve watched plenty of critters in their last days, even weeks, and they seem quite capable of facing death on their own. As long as they want feed and water, I will put it in front of them. When they decline, I will respect that. I will not inject them with antibiotics or drench them with nutrition. I hope the skinny old Clun chooses to endorse life and I will support her decision. I hope she makes it through until Spring. Ah, Spring! Many years when it comes, I feel so energized that I say, “I feel like an old ewe who has made it through the winter!” Only a little more than 3 long months until fresh grass, folks.
We sold the cattle in April to an organic dairy family in Minnesota. They have abundant pasture and a love for cattle so I felt good about this. We found a new home for Ollie the emu where she/he (we never knew for sure) will be a real pet. The John Deere 4030 was ailing so we bought a new used Kubota. A new pug, Frankie, joined the family in February and it soon seemed like she was a life-long friend. She has a great interest in herding sheep. Unfortunately, the sheep don’t take her seriously unless Newton the Corgi is at work. We bought more sheep. I found a flock of Polypay ewes and lambs that the owner was selling because of a health problem. I sold the Polypay lambs in the fall. I also found a flock of Clun Forest ewes that were going to be sent to slaughter. I really like them. They are very smart sheep, very alert, but not flighty. The new sheep were confused at first about how things work around here. When I would go to move the flock, the Polypays would run away and the Cluns would rush through the gate with no idea where they were going, while my original flock calmly followed as I led the way to a new pasture. In the summer, a roofing crew came and put new metal roofs on the garage and the “milk house” which is our solar center and feed room. We had a lot of bulldozing done on the farm this year. In the spring, clearing the box elders away from perimeter fence and then, in the fall, shaping a new field road and waterway where we had erosion over the years. Right next to the new road, our Amish builders have put the poles up for a new shed, which will store round bales and equipment when completed this year. It was a busy, but productive year here on the farm!
We put the rams in on October 26, 2014. This was one week earlier than my comfort zone, but I was leaving the next day for a two week trip to Seattle and California, so I decided to push the limits. Sure enough, Mother Nature showed me a thing or two and the first lambs this year were born out in the field in so much snow that I couldn’t get the truck or 4 wheeler out there so slowly trudged my way out to congratulate the mothers and tag the lambs on paths that the cattle and sheep had made. We didn’t lose any due to weather, and I was grateful that at least part of the flock (those who need shearing or first-time moms that I need to keep an eye on) were close up by the barn. The lambing percentage this year is truly amazing. Lambing percentage is number of lambs divided by number of ewes. Including the ewe lambs (who rarely have more than one but this year we have two successful twin mothers) they’re hitting the ground at 200%. Among the mature ewes, singles are less common than triplets this year. I don’t really have a good explanation other than to think they went into breeding season in good shape, the winter wasn’t super hard on them, and Craig kept them well fed with hay all winter. So, although I’ll be happy when the last 19 ewes have lambed and I can spend some more time cleaning my house (a shepherdess’ house gets pretty grundgy during lambing time!) it has been a very happy lambing time and I am grateful.
The cattle are dong fine, too. Although all winter Craig unrolls round bales out in the fields for the cattle and sheep, this time of year he puts the cattle hay in round bale feeders so they won’t damage the fields so much. I think they kind of like this lazy way of eating. Cows aren’t due to start calving until mid-summer and they still have their big calves from August with them.
Well, that’s the news from the farm
We cut the ties with the grid in the summer. There’s been a lot of opportunity for learning since then. What I have found most gratifying is that I’ve become more aware of what’s happening out there everyday; I simply pay more attention! At first, I got glum about cloudy days, like having the generator run was some sort of failure on my part. But now I am just more accepting and embracing of what the sun is offering. We could have more batteries in our bank to try to store up more solar power for cloudy days, but I have come to believe that our system is sized well, and that when the generator needs to run–as it has a couple of hours daily during the recent cloudy spell here in December–it isn’t using a whole lot of LP to charge up the batteries. And, of course, we adjust our activities to the sun. On a cloudy day, I sweep. On a sunny day, I vacuum and wash clothes. The needs of our animals predominate. If it’s a cloudy day and Craig needs to plug in the tractor to be able to feed hay, he’s going to do it. We were fearful that the tractor heater would put too much of a demand on the solar but it’s no more than running the well pump, which is a steady need for providing water to the sheep and cattle.
A friend asked me, “Why did you go off-grid rather than grid-tied? Isn’t there an anti-social element in that?” I have to admit that my decision to leave the grid (even though the cost was perhaps double what a grid-tied system would have cost) was a gut-type decision. I simply wanted this farm to run on our own solar-supplied sun power. Some folks have asked me about “payback period” and my answer is that the payback is the gratification that I feel during my lifetime and in what I am leaving for my children.
So, besides the solar, it was a good year here on the farm. Lambs came early (they started coming out on the snow while I was in Seattle in February–bless you, Craig!) because of some escapee Icelandic ram lambs late last summer, and calves came late, because our beloved bull Fuzzy Bear lost his virility and we had to call in a replacement bull. But it all works out. We had enough lamb to supply our direct customers and the fantastic (can’t say enough good about this place!) Driftless Cafe, and even though our beef customers were limited to a 1/4, we had beef for all of them. We didn’t have enough meat to justify going to the Farmers Market full-time and had to quit providing lamb to the local coop, but that’s just the way it had to be. The goal on this farm is to produce as much as the land–the sun?–provides.
2014 also brought the goat and chicken presence into play more noticeably here on the farm. The chickens have been with us quite a while but the flock grew as our egg consumption declined so in 2014 I developed an egg market in Viroqua. Now I make enough from egg sales to pay for our own eggs, and to feed Henry’s emu, Ollie, and the six ducks I’ve acquired. Maybe the ducks will provide eggs to sell, but until then it’s just because I love ducks. Good thing only one of the four does bred because goat milking takes some getting used to. Troubles, the doe who freshened in April, provided me and Craig with yoghurt and chevre for many months, along with fresh milk for a child who can’t drink cow’s milk, and one kid went to the conventional market in Fenimore and one’s in the freezer (curried goat shanks for tomorrow night’s supper). Next year, maybe four goats wil freshen; that will be a new chapter!
Another positive 2014 development was that I found a fantastic tannery for our lambskins. Bucks County Fur Products in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. They do a great job. As far as other woolly things, I thought, for a brief time, that I might want to get out of raising wool sheep because it was hard to find a good shearer and I just couldn’t keep up with burdock control on the pastures, but I’ve decided that if I take it slow enough I can shear my own darn wool sheep and also, taking it slow enough, control the burdock. I just can’t give up having wool sheep.
It was a good year. Craig never seems to waiver in his ability/stamina to do the big stuff (making sure we have enough wood, growing lots of vegetables for us, feeding the critters hay and dealing with waterers that freeze when the temps get too low) but I’m a bit wimpier. My winter chores are taking care of the poultry, milking the goat and giving grain to lambs and calves. It got icey in November and I found myself floundering about and clinging to fences as I went about my chores. Then I bought some clamp-on ice grips for my boots (Nelson Agri-Center in Viroqua) and now I can go out on any surface and do my chores.I really recommend these things. Buy the “professional” type that has a strap that goes over your boot.
Life is good. Thank you to all who buy my beef, lamb, and wool products! Happy New Year to all my farm friends! I find that many people are interested in our solar and think that it would be fun to have a solar open house sometime. Maybe in late February? Let me know if you would be interested in coming out for a visit then.
I hosted a little gathering today. A weavers’ gathering. I’m not much of a weaver yet….I always get side-tracked by my knitting projects….but I enjoy getting together with these real weavers and I hosted the December gathering. Not many came because the roads were icy, but I enjoyed welcoming them into my home…..because it was CLEAN.
Now, I don’t feel like I live in filth or squalor and we don’t tend to have much clutter since it’s just me and Craig, but I don’t give regular attention to cleaning beyond regular sweeping and the occasional moppping, so when I do a “deep cleaning”–by that I mean paying attention to ALL surfaces–it takes time (like one day per room) and the result is really noticeable, and pleasureable.
Which leads me to wonder…..if I get so much joy out of having a sparkly clean house, why don’t I clean more often? There seems to be a seasonality to my cleaning. It’s before and after pasture season. Right now is clearly the “after”, although the sheep haven’t acknowledged this. Craig has been unrolling round bales out in the fields for well over a week and plopping them into the bale feeders in the corral so that the cattle get comfortable coming in there in anticipation of the big early winter cattle handling day (tomorrow hopefully), but although the cattle appreciate the hay, the ewe flock still mostly grazes since the snow hasn’t been deep. Spring cleaning? I realize that I do this between maple syrup season and lambing time. Summer is a time that the house gets ignored. Newton the Corgi is the only one who spends time in the living room in the summer. So that by the time I do my early winter deep cleaning, the crevices in the couch are filled with Corgi hair!
Well, here’s to house cleaning. I highly recommend it. Seasonally, so it is fully appreciated!
I’m 64 years old. A few years back–I don’t even remember what the “new” thing was…something about my Ipad perhaps?–I recall saying to my son Henry, “I don’t like learning new things.” Somehow, when you get a little older, you seem to want things easy, smooth, predictable, and with little chance of triggering anxiety. Any of you “older” folks able to relate to that? Or, maybe, it’s just an extension of my temperament, that desire to have everything under control at all times.
So, this said, why the heck did we go solar? And, beyond grid-tied solar, why did we go “cut the ties with the power company” battery-stored solar? On sunny days–I call them “wash lots of clothes, vacuum, and run the food dehydrator” days–I don’t ask myself this question. The state of charge of the batteries gets up to 100% before noon, and I shift into a get-er-done/use that sun mode and wash, vacuum, bake, dehydrate to my heart’s content.
But, today was cloudy and rainy and the weather forecast says we’re going to have more days of the same. The state of charge was only somewhere in the 60% range when I was last down to check and every once in awhile I open the door to hear if the generator is kicking in, as programmed, when we get down to 50%. Yes, it’s a bit stressful yet. We are still new to the off-the-grid life, haven’t gotten the well guy to come and install the new “soft-start” pump I bought, and we’re watchful that the system doesn’t throw a fault because the generator (impacted by the high demand of the well when it goes on to meet the needs of drinking livestock) provides excess power.
We had a “situation” last weekend. We had a contingent of delightful Islamic Indian folks here on the farm celebrating a festival–which meant using more lights than usual and a meat saw in the garage–and suddenly the place went black. We had overdrawn the power and the power center shut off to protect the batteries, since the generator didn’t kick in as it should have. The good learning experience for me was that the power center is ready to protect the batteries. Everything was worked out.
I’m confident that we’ll work out the kinks. But, still, the question remains…..why did I do this? Subject myself to learning a new way of thinking about power usage (friend Roger Bertsch said, “You have to realize that you’re your own power company now, Bonnie”) when I’m at a time in my ife when I just want everything to be mellow?
Because it’s just so gratifying to be producing our own power almost all of the time. To think that we are pumping the water for the animals and humans, electrifying the fences, cooking the food, dehydrating the food, keeping food frozen or refridgerated, running this computer, on the power of the sun! I’m willing to adapt on cloudy days, to worry a bit as we get the last kinks worked out in the system. I’m willing….yes, I’m willing….to learn new things!
The “snow lambs” were a hardy bunch and grew well on this summer’s bountiful pastures. We had a butchering of ram lambs in September and will have another in mid-November. Ewe lambs that aren’t being saved for replacement stock will likely be butchered in March and May.
Because the requests for both Pine Knob beef and lamb have been growing faster than expansion of the beef herd and the ewe flock–in recovery from the heavy culling that was necessary with the drought of 2012–we’ve been not able to fully meet demand this year. We did not take on any new beef customers; we did not sell beef retail; and even returning customers who wanted more only got 1/4s. In 2015, we ought to be able to meet the needs of current beef customers and in 2016, we should have beef for a few more.
The 2014 lamb crop should be sufficient to meet the needs of current customers and a few new ones. We have, with regrets, quit offering our lamb through the Viroqua Food Coop. Customers who have been used to purchasing lamb through the coop should feel welcome to contact us to see if we have the cuts they need. I deliver to Viroqua on Fridays.
I am nothing short of thrilled that our lamb is regularly on the menu of the Driftless Cafe in Viroqua. Owner Luke Zahm is a delight to work with; I’ve never before imagined feeling so appreciated as a farmer! And the ways he and his crew prepare my lamb are so fantastic that they have me going in there, looking for lamb on the menu! Bless you, Driftless Cafe, for you are truly a boon to the Driftless region.
So, let me know if you want lamb, and we’ll see if we can meet your needs. Beef, too. Although, at this point I can’t promise much more for 2015, I am on the lookout for beef feeders that meet my specifications, and will do the best I can to meet my customers’ needs for good grassfed beef.