The third 100-year flood in 10 years has hit the Driftless Region. It is sad to see pictures of the flooded towns along the Kickapoo, but the real heartbreaker is to consider how much topsoil has headed down river. This region has never been suitable for extensive row cropping, and now, with weather extremes, it is less so. Over the three decades I’ve lived in this area, I’ve seen contour strips removed from fields and the corn covers entire hillsides. Wake up, America! Your diet of grain-fed meat and high fructose corn syrup is consuming our precious resources.
This farm, all in sod except for Craig’s gardens, handles a lot of water in events like this. We have six raging rivers running down towards the pond. Except for flattened fences, we suffer little damage. The most damage–seemingly from the fastest flowing water–is from water that comes from the east. The farm to the east has conventional crops on the hilltop and overgrazed pasture adjacent to us.
The morning after the big flood day I woke up with one word in my mind as I shook off my sleep: floodgates. I wonder what the result would be if, everywhere on this farm that the flood’s rivers smash our fences, we took out the permanent fences and installed panels that could be opened during heavy thunderstorms. Would the water build up in the pond even faster and go over the dam with more force? I don’t know, but I think I’m going to talk to my friends at NRCS about it.
Speaking of NRCS, I am so grateful for the waterway/field road project they funded here last year. As you can see in the pictures, the road lost gravel and the brand new cattle lane fence suffered damage, but the clover sod handled the rush of water without gullying.
When we bought this place about 25 years ago, all the tillable was in corn and tobacco. As you look at the pictures, imagine what this place would look like if we hadn’t transformed it into a rotationally grazed livestock farm. Our conservation easement will maintain this.
Almost July, and there is SO much pasture for the sheep this year. When I sold the cattle last year, I bought a couple of small flocks to expand mine, but we’re still nowhere near carrying capacity of the farm. That’s okay, for that allows me to do a little more experimentation with pasture rotation. I started grazing early–April 1–because the lambing ewes really needed fresh grass to eat, and we’re now rotating back to pastures that have been rested for 2 1/2 months. The forage is not so vegetative, but I am allowing them to “waste” more. Lambs are growing well and the ewes are in good shape.
There will be two educational events here at the farm this summer. On Saturday, July 16 I’m teaching an all day Driftless Folk School class on “Raising Sheep” and there will be a MOSA Field Day here on Tuesday, July 26 from 1-4pm.
I have come to love meditation in the past year. I subscribe to Headspace (they have a free intro) and do 20 minutes most every day. The meditation period itself calms me-which is important, since I have a neurological issue, cervical dystonia–but it does a lot more than that. It helps me be more aware of my “tendencies”, both positive and negative, throughout my day. Rather than always being swept away on an emotional or intellectual thought train, I feel that I am gaining a better perspective on my thoughts and feelings.
Perhaps this is why I’ve noticed a particular thought/feeling reocurring in regard to my relationship with farming. It is simply that I perceive my farming work as play. Which, in a way, doesn’t make sense. It’s work! I really do have work to do each day–feeding chickens, feeding orphan lambs, milking goats, putting up and taking down fence, moving water tanks, moving sheep, dealing with one crisis or another as they manifest in unexpected ways–and I get tired and dirty. But it is also, somehow, playful. Each morning at choretime, I load up the Kubota with whatever I need and Frankie the Pug (who gets really upset if she gets left behind in the house) and we set off on our morning adventures. Most days, things are just routine, but even in the routine there are many moments of appreciation. Of the beauty of the misty morning and the green, green growth. Of the excitement of the chickens over their typical morning feeding. The joy of the flock as they move on to a new pasture. New goat kids! That’s what we’re anticipating anytime now.
My life is so full of blessings. Yes, I’m getting old. I have cervical dystonia. I have knees that supposedly need replacing. But I am so happy to have this playful farming life.
Lambing is almost done, only 6 ewes left. It started out pretty challenging, since early April saw snow and freezing rain and my first ewes to lamb were Cluns and Polypays I had purchased last summer that were not able to raise lambs. I think they had CLA, an untreatable wasting disease that maybe came onto the farm with some purchased rams about 5 years ago. Their lambs had to be revived and orphaned. Luckily, my main flock, and the Cluns and Polypays that lambed later, seem to be immune. With a 200% lambing rate with my main flock, I also had to take some triplets as orphans so now I’m raising 14 orphans! I discovered that orphan lambs do much better on yoghurtized lamb milk replacer so that is a happy development. With a crew of 9, we recently trimmed hooves, FAMACHA scored, gave garlic and copper boluses as needed and docked tails on wool ewe lambs. The donkeys got their hooves trimmed and are now out on pasture with the sheep. Hooray!
All the remaining meat lambs from 2015 are spoken for or destined for restaurants or farmers market sales. I am taking reservations for the first butchering of 2016 lambs, probably in October or November.
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.