I never meant to be a sheep farmer


All is quiet on the lambing front. We have had 10 so far and expect more in the coming weeks. I thought I would take this time to answer a few questions that are often asked of me – how I got into sheep, what breed I raise, and what do we do with the sheep.

The sheep were only supposed to be at the house for a couple of days.

Back in spring 2006, I had a friend whose daughter was, let’s say, a bit bratty, and the father was looking for a way to teach her that the world did not, in fact, revolve around her.

Beatrice and her twin Annabelle were my first sheep.

Beatrice and her twin Annabelle were my first sheep.

My obvious suggestion was animals. Children raised around livestock learn about priorities at an early age. Animals get their breakfast first, cows are milked before Christmas presents can be opened, vacations (if this is even a possibility) are arranged around lambing or pigging or planting or harvesting, and animal needs trump a child’s wants when it comes to a family budget. I don’t think most farm kids complain about this or find it unfair; they know that is how it is, how it has to be. I think most know too how lucky they are to be raised that way, how much they gain from that lifestyle, so a few sacrifices are worth it. I remember saying that I wanted a 4-wheeler or snowmobile like a friend had and being told, “Sure. We’ll just sell your horse.”

“Uh, nevermind.”

“Get her a couple of lambs and put her in 4-H,” I said. “She will learn that someone else comes first. And if it doesn’t work, you can eat them.”

Her dad was on board and purchased twin ewe Southdown lambs from a local farmer, but things were kind of slow in getting a sheep shed put together. He needed just a couple days to finish up a stall for them, so they were going to be housed briefly in my barn. Well, after a brief oh, four months or so, the girl had lost interest, and I had fallen in love. I paid the parents for the lambs and informed them I was keeping the sheep. The girl had named them something like Fluffy and Snowball (psshht, amateur), but they were Annabelle and Beatrice to me. I liked the calmness and friendliness of the Southdown breed, but there are so many sheep breeds out there to try. Breeds fascinate me – how man has selected traits to create these very distinct breeds, whether you are talking about sheep, horses, cows or even dogs. They all started from the same base animal, but breeds within the same species can be vastly different. Some people are totally devoted to one breed and will never be convinced that any other breed could possibly be better (again, it doesn’t matter the species). Me? I wanted to try them all!

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From back to front – Charlotte, Beatrice and Emma

I started experimenting with sheep in fall of 2006.

Sheep #3 was Charlotte, a Romney from another local farmer. Romney’s have nice wool and good size for meat. They are also extremely annoying until they have their first lamb, and then they are such good mothers that you forgive everything.

Dorothy

Dorothy

Then there was Dorothy and Emma. I had declared my sheep were to be for wool purposes only. I did not care if you ate lamb, but you were not going to eat mine. (This would change before long). Southdowns were a poor choice for wool sheep, and I started researching other breeds. Shetlands sounded appealing to me – small, lots of color. I found one in Uncle Henry’s (a swap or sell it guide if you’re not familiar) and traveled to Vassalboro to see her. I had already talked to the farmer and learned that she (the sheep, not the farmer) was not fertile. A vet had removed her uterus after a difficult birth. I didn’t care. I wasn’t concerned with breeding at the time. She was black, and I wanted black wool. When I got there, I immediately fell in love with the large Cotswolds also housed there. They had long, curly wool. One pen was full of these small-horse-sized sheep with blue markings on them – they had been marked for culling. And there was Emma (if you haven’t noticed by now, we are going in alphabetical order. Fern and Grace followed, but after that things went awry.). She had blue on her head, her wool hung over her eyes, she had large hanks of wool hanging off her neck, making her look like she had mange or something, but really it is where she had stuck her head through the fence and rubbed off the wool.

Dorothy wasn’t much to look at either. She was of indeterminate age and origin and was nearly wild, but I am a sucker for a ragamuffin – you never know when you’ll fnd that diamond in the rough. Plus, they are cheap, but in this case I got what I paid for.

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Emma. The size of the Cotswold doesn’t fit with my flock, but they are such nice sheep and have such beautiful wool. I might need to get a couple.

I believe Mother’s exact words when I pulled in the dooryard with my most recent sheep purchase were something along the lines of, “What the hell is THAT?!” She was referring to Emma – she was homely and HUGE. Her baas were more like camel belches. You could not have picked two sheep who looked any less alike than Emma and Dorothy, but they were best buds. It wasn’t long before I learned why Emma had been culled. When she got pregnant, she went through the complete pregnancy, but when she should have had the lambs, she never had them but absorbed them back into her body. Nature is kind of gross like that sometimes. After I had Emma put down, Dorothy wanted nothing to do with the other sheep. She was a miserable sheep to begin with, which just made her more endearing.

We had moved the sheep across the road by that time, and chickens were living in the old sheep shed. Dorothy, though stoic, was

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Sad little Dorothy hiding in her cupboard.

obviously heartbroken, and we allowed her to roam around the property as she wanted. She was never a sheep to like change, and she attempted to move back into her old home with the chickens. When it was clear she would never be accepted by the chickens, she decied to live in a cupboard. Our sheep barn is a converted house, which is why I will usually refer to it as the sheep HOUSE. The kitchen cupboards are still in there, and while running free, Dorothy did some exploring and found that she could fit in one of the larger, ground-level ones (she wasn’t on the sideboards getting into the upper cupboards if that’s what you were envisioning). When the wind would blow, she would curl up way in the back of the cupboard, and you couldn’t even see her in the darkness.

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An assortment of colors this year.

Lambs are like a box of choc- o -lates.

So, what breed of sheep do you have? When asked this question, I have to take a deep breath, “Well, …”

Of all my original sheep, I only have Beatrice (Dorothy eventually died of old age) and have only kept her for sentimental reasons. I don’t breed her. As I looked into the Southdown sheep, I learned of the Olde English Southdown breed, also known as Babydoll sheep, but I don’t like that name. It makes them sound like they aren’t real sheep, and people started breeding them more for pets. I don’t like calling them miniature sheep either. They are the originals. Southdowns, like many sheep were bred to be bigger over time to produce bigger cuts of meat. The short, stout build suits me and my needs though. They don’t need grain, they are hardy, and they are easy to handle. The thing I do not like is that wool tends to grow over their eyes and you have to keep trimming the wool back for them to see. While their wool is better than the American Southdown, it’s not the best. They also tend to have difficulty lambing. Many people think we should keep the Olde English breed pure, and part of their purpose in breeding the sheep is conservancy of an old breed, but I thought they could be improved upon. Those purists would probably be pulling their hair out at all the breeds I have crossed.

I had fallen in love with Dorothy despite her many faults, and was thinking about crossing the two breeds when I found Fern and Grace. I

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My ram Dixon – he was a larger Olde English Southdown, and his offspring and their lambs tend to have the same long body he had.

have mentioned them before – they were an accidental breeding, and they were Shetland x Olde English Southdown crosses. At the same time and farm in Kentucky, my sister bought a full-blooded Olde English Southdown ram (Dixon – I eventually bought him from her). She also purchased a ewe in Pennsylvania. Jodi was always better about saving her money and could afford the $400-$600 pricetag that comes with “Babydoll” sheep. That fall she bought another ram and two more ewes. I could afford the $100-$200 crosses, and I have found them to be better quality than the full bloods, of which I have kept one ewe (Ceilia). I also kept Dixon until he got too aggressive at age 7 or 8.

Olde English Southdowns are laid back – almost lazy, and Shetlands can be nutty. Combine the two and you get a pretty nice mix, although sometimes one breed shines through more than the other. You also get a stout sheep with a longer wool than a Southdown and a little denser than the Shetland. Southdown meat tends to be sweet, while a Shetland tastes more like venison. I haven’t had another Shetland ewe after Dorothy but have used three different Shetland rams.

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Cymru – the daughter of Ceilia (an Olde English Southdown) and Dudley (a Shetland).

I have also added other breeds in, including Corriedale. My favorite sheep are probably a combination of the three – perfect size, perfect wool for Mom to braid her rugs, even better than the Southdown x Shetland, and good mothers. Corriedales are amazing, worry free mothers. They are stern but gentle with other ewes’ lambs, which is important to me. I hate to see a lamb get nailed by someone else’s mother.

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The beautiful Corriedale, Sadie, that was hiding underneath two years worth of wool.

My first Corriedale was Sadie. She was a small, old-style Corriedale. She and her adult lamb, a wether (castrated male), were set to become sheep sausage when my cousin told me about them. They hadn’t been sheared for a couple of years because the owners’ shearer had retired, and they hadn’t known who else to call. They were sketchy looking sheep, but I had done a little research about Corriedales and couldn’t pass up a free ewe. When I parted Sadie’s wool to shear her, there were green sprouts growing, but once I got all the wool off, she was the most beautiful sheep – always had a judgmental expression on her face but still beautiful and an amazing mother and well-behaved, good tempered sheep. She was everything I look for in a sheep as I breed for personality as much as anything else. And Hank, her son, served well as a bell wether. He watched over all the girls. When we had the pasture cleared, one of the loggers even commented that Hank would stand there all day, staring him down. I don’t really know how old Sadie was when I got her. A few years later, when I told her previous owner that she had just had lambs, his response was a bug-eyed, “She’s still alive?!”

Corriedales are known for their longevity, and I know she had to be 12 to 13 years or older when she finally did die. During her time here, I bred her with Dixon and got two long, thick-bodied ewe lambs. She had others, but those are the two that I kept. I have bred them with Ceilia’s son – a half Shetland, half Olde English Southdown, and we have several of what we refer to as “Tyddyn Sheep” as they the perfect fit for us.

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Shannon – a product of Sadie and Dixon.

Just like there are certain breeds of dogs that certain people mesh well with, there are certain breeds of sheep we have found we mesh well with, and ones we do not. We did not mesh well with Romneys, and Charlotte’s line has been stopped. I also tried Oxfords once and Icelandic. And some Dorsets. The only one I liked was Jersey – a colored Dorset type (not full) who is an amazing mother and a pretty friendly sheep. Her wool isn’t stellar, but once we cross her, her lambs tend to have nice wool, or like this year and a couple years ago she had broad, stout ram lambs that are excellent meat sheep. I replaced Dixon with his and Jersey’s son.

A few years ago, I bought five Corriedales, but they were long legged, big-boned things, not like Sadie at all. That same fall, I bought five large Rambouillet ewes. At the time, I was thinking I needed a sheep that would produce market lambs that would grow faster. Because I raise smaller breeds, they mature slowly. I love that I don’t have to feed them grain and they can thrive on a grass and hay diet, but I have to keep the ones I will butcher 18 to 24 months. They taste great, and are meaty for their size, but I started looking at my sheep through others’ eyes. A butcher who had bought some of my lambs wanted bigger chops because they looked better in the case, no matter what they tasted like. Another buyer who was looking to start his own flock was looking for bigger sheep. My argument is that you can’t eat a long leg bone, and pound for pound you are getting more meat off a stout sheep. But everyone has a different opinion about what constitutes a “good looking sheep.”

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Luna was the only Rambouillet of the bunch that I really cared for. All the lambs would flock to her.

Rambouillets were said to do well on poor forage, so I thought they would do really well on our good hay, but there was very little I liked about them. They were skittish and their lanky lambs weren’t hardy like my little ones. When I bought the 10 larger sheep (Rambouillet and Corriedales combined), I never thought I would keep them all. I wanted to breed them to Dixon or his sons and keep their ewe lambs and then breed them to another one of my short, broad rams. I was looking ahead a couple of generations, and I have kept the best of the best – four beautiful yearling ewes born in the year of herbs and plants – Elder Berry, Tansy, Dandelion and Willow. I will still have to keep the lambs longer, but they’re tasty and are dual purpose. In Wales, they market lamb as slow-maturing. I’m waiting for that to catch on here and am going to keep raising the sheep I want to raise, not what others want me to raise. That may not be a wise business choice, but that’s why I have a day job.

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Our “meat style” lambs.

People put more value on full-blooded sheep, but I find the crosses to be more valuable. I look for the qualities I like in a sheep, not the papers that go with them. Besides, lambing can be so boring with full-bloods or even just a single cross. If you breed Ewe A with Ram A, you’re going to get Lamb A. Or Ewe A and Ram B are going to produce Lamb AB. So predictable. BUT, if you are breeding Ram FJK with Ewe WPL – it’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. Although now, we are starting to see a certain style of sheep emerge from our crosses, but that’s exciting too, because that has come to be because of our breeding selections.

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Our ram Bear as a lamb. So far, two of his ewe lambs are black with a similar white patch on the top of their head.

One of my best rams now, I don’t even know what his mother Brownie was. She was the product of sheep trading. Her wool was beautiful and a dark chocolate black brown. I am seeing her first grandbabies this year, and they have beautiful color. My feeling is that every sheep breed out there was developed through trial and error, crossing this with that, so nothing is a purebred.

You don’t eat them, do you?

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When someone asks me what I do with my sheep, I know they are thinking, “Please don’t say you eat them.” But we eat them. Some of them anyway. But most are used for their wool. Mom braids rugs from the raw wool. We don’t dye it, but even white sheep vary in color from yellow to white to gray and can make some beautiful patterns. This year’s lambing has been so exciting, mostly because of Brownie’s descendants – so much color, and you can already see the long wool of the Shetland’s influence. We have even had a truly brown ewe lamb, a first for us, and her mother is a Corriedale cross, so we have high hopes for her wool.

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Quik (as in Nestle Quik) – A promising Corriedale x Shetland X Olde English Southdown ewe with chocolate brown wool.

Fortunately, most of our color has come in the form of ewe lambs this year, and we will keep those. All my “meat mothers” who gave me those strong ewes last year have given me equally gorgeous ram lambs this year, which is what I wanted. I have no less love for one type of sheep or the other. They all have an important purpose, and I am grateful to all of them. I tell myself every year that I will not get attached to the ones I know are destined for the butcher’s, but ram lambs tend to be the friendliest, and they like to be made of and I won’t begrudge them a scratch on the chin. I have had bottle lambs that ended up going on the truck, though I kept some of them longer than I should have just because I couldn’t bare to see them go. I can’t keep every sheep though, they all have a purpose and have to pay their way. If I wanted pets, I would have started a hamster farm.

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Letting nature take its course

Excuse some of blurry, fuzzy lamb pictures. The lighting in the barn isn’t the greatest, and lambs rarely stand in one place for me.

Titcomb and Toblerone were my first ewe/lamb pair of the lambing season.

Titcomb and Toblerone were my first ewe/lamb pair of the lambing season.

I try not to question nature when something happens. Nature always gets it right. Instead, I look to how did I go against nature to cause this? Or was it supposed to happen, and I just have to trust that it was meant to happen that way.

We started lambing on Wednesday, March 11. I was expecting lambs when I went to the barn, and I was not disappointed. The night had been warm, so I was not too concerned about lambs freezing, and I had left the barn open, letting the ewes choose if they wanted to stay in or out. Titcomb was outside with a big boy lamb, already dried off, alert, moving around. (We are going with a candy theme this year – so Titcomb’s boy was quickly named Toblerone, “Toby” for short.)

I did have three ewes shut inside because while I do not usually grain my sheep, even during lambing, these were older ewes and I wanted to make sure they were getting enough to keep themselves and any lambs going. There were three lambs in the pen. Jersey, a black and white Dorset type, had another big boy (Jujube), also dried off. Then there was a stout little black boy (Goober) and little white girl with a black nose (Gum Drop) – all wet and crying. The girl was a classic “Gracie baby”, but Grace wasn’t claiming her or her brother, which was strange because she’s always been a good mom.

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Grace (right) showed a little interest in Gum Drop and Goober, but didn’t want to care for them.

I got my first sheep in 2006. I bought Grace and her twin sister Fern off a farm in Kentucky when they were just lambs in 2007. They were mistakes. The woman raised Shetlands and Olde English Southdowns, and the two got mixed in together and she had a bunch of accidental crosses, but they turned out to be just what I wanted. Last fall, I debated whether or not to breed Grace. I had given her and Fern the previous year off. The year before that, Fern had given birth to triplets, which is a lot for a sheep, and she seemed tired, so I wanted her to have some time to recoup before breeding her again. And Grace and Fern do everything together, so I didn’t breed either one. Grace is getting pretty sway back, and I thought about retiring her, but she always gives me good lambs, and I can’t afford to support a bunch of retired sheep, I told myself. And when breeding time came, she went right to the fence and asked to go in with the ram – Nature knows best, and it was in her nature to reproduce.

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Grace’s baby belly a couple days before she lambed.

During the last stages of her pregnancy, her sides poked way out. At this point, the ewes aren’t eating all that much to a time because the lambs take up so much space. My hope was grain would pack a little more nutrition for her. After she had her lambs, her sides were sunk in, and she didn’t look great. I tried to get her to take the lambs, but she would sniff them and walk off and even knocked the lambs away with her head. I finally gave up. I thought Gracie was telling me she was too old to take care of any more babies. And when I bred her last fall, I had said if we had to bottle feed the lambs, that would be fine. We had done it before. Sheep age about like dogs, and some breeds have better longevity than others. I had an old Corriedale ewe (remind me to tell you the tale of Sadie some day) who had her last lambs at 12 or 13 years old. She may have been older even. Her history wasn’t all that clear. Corriedales are known to live and continue to produce at a ripe old age. I told you about Mason in a previous blog – her grandmother was still having lambs at 14!

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Jersey allows Grace’s lamb Goober to have a drink of milk. Jersey’s lamb Jujube is not sure he’s OK with that.

You may also remember me talking about Jersey who likes to steal lambs from ewes who gave birth before her. Well, this time, instead of trying to take someone else’s lambs away from her, I was trying to GIVE her someone else’s lambs. I put Grace into her own small pen to let her eat and void herself of afterbirth. I dried off her lambs with a towel and pushed them over towards Jersey. I asked Mom to bring her Border Collie in next to Jersey’s pen, so that she would be protective of the orphan lambs. Jersey did herd them away from Gus, but she still wasn’t sure she wanted to claim them as her’s. When her lamb would drink though, she was content to let the other two share the other nipple. Jersey has the biggest udder of any of my sheep. Her teats are pretty big, too. Almost too big for the little girl, but I knew she had gotten enough to drink that I wasn’t too worried. I left them all together and went back to the house for a little while. Probably 45 mins later, I returned to the barn, thinking I would check on things one more time before heading to work.

Grace had passed her afterbirth, so I was going to let her out with the other sheep, but she went right to Jersey’s gate and made mother noises to her lambs. Apparently, she wanted them after all and just needed a little break to recover. I put them all back into the smaller pen, and babies went to drinking happily. All’s good. The lambs were active, and Gum Drop was already showing her personality – curious, outgoing, held head high like all Gracie babies. We often called Grace “Princess Grace” because she carries herself like she is a little better than most sheep.

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Quill with her lambs.

We had more lambs Thursday morning – twins for Quill. She had a beautiful chocolate ewe and a white ram lamb. She was a good mum and no worries. The next morning (Friday the 13th) was cold, and thankfully no one had lambed in the night. It was about 5 a.m., and Gracie’s boy was crying. Standing next to his mother, telling her to get up, but she wouldn’t. It was early though. I made note of it and asked Mom to keep watch during the day. I left to get ready for work. When I got home that night, Goobers was crying again. Mom had given Grace grain, but Gum Drop was sleeping curled up in the bucket and Grace wasn’t eating. I moved the girl out, and Grace still didn’t eat (she would nibble it out of my hand). I thought maybe her disinterest in the food was because Gus was in the barn, and she didn’t want to take her eyes off him.  While I was there, the black ram got a good, long drink off his mum and stopped crying. I tried to push the little girl over to the other teat, and I thought it looked like Grace maybe moved away from her. I tried again, but Gum Drop lay down and wasn’t crying. I assumed she had already had her fill and just wanted to sleep.

When I got to the barn Saturday morning, there were no new lambs, and I went to check on the others. When I looked in Grace’s pen, my heart dropped. The little white girl with a black nose, a mini replica of her mother, was lying out flat, stiff and cold. Grace had lain on her, smothering her to death. This happens, but not to Gracie babies, not with my good mothers. I picked the little girl up and snuggled her under my chin like she was still a breathing, cuddly lamb. It may seem morbid, but it’s so hard to believe such a soft, sweet looking thing is really dead. Sometimes you think, maybe if I hold it, cradle it long enough, it will start to breathe again, maybe it’s not dead, just close to death and can recover. Maybe by some miracle, love alone will make this tiny creature start breathing again – the influence of too many Disney movies perhaps.

Was nature telling Grace she couldn’t raise two lambs, and she chose to keep the larger, stronger lamb? I had checked her udder, and she seemed to have plenty of milk. When her sister Fern had triplets, Fern was a good mother to her two biggest lambs but would push away the third – the runt. I didn’t blame Fern or call her a bad mother. It was her natural instinct, saying you can only support two lambs, and the two biggest have the best chance of survival. We bottle fed Faith but left her with her mother and siblings, and Fern was good with that arrangement. She was never mean to Faith. She just did not feed her.

Did Grace’s natural instinct tell her to lay on the girl, or did she just not know the tiny lamb was there? Was it a conscious decision?

I am kicking myself, telling myself I never should have put those lambs back in with Grace, Jersey could easily feed three lambs with her udder. I never should’ve moved Gum Drop out of the bucket; if she had just stayed there, Grace never would have lain on her. Should I have read more into the signs that Grace was giving me and known that she wasn’t feeling up to motherhood? Should I have left the babies with Jersey? Should I take the boy away, or does Grace feel she can take care of him? Does Grace need me to do something for her?

Does she need something a vet could provide? Or was there something wrong with Gum Drop, something I did not pick up on but Grace did? I don’t know. I am not a sheep, and they can be a difficult animal to read.

When you have a farm and animals, you are surrounded by life AND death. The two go hand in hand. One helps us cope with the other. Death is never easy, not on the ones left behind, but it becomes easier to accept I think. When you have animals relying on you and new life coming into the world, you have little time to let sadness set in and take over. Life goes on.

My 11-year-old dog, Tucker, died last week. He had aged rapidly the last couple of years, and this winter was hard on him. I knew it was coming. I took the day off work, took him for a ride in the truck (his favorite thing to do) and went to visit his Uncle Adam, my best friend, for one final goodbye. Adam had flown out to Wyoming when I was ready to move back home in 2005, and he and Tucker and I drove back together.

IMG_20141004_103138178_HDRTucker went in the best possible way – we had a good last day together, and then he chose the time he was ready to go, and I didn’t have to make the decision for him, for which I am grateful. He also chose to go just when new life was coming onto the farm, and I was able to busy myself with that, and not dwell on how much I missed my dog. As I am writing this, and my tears are blurring the screen, my cat (also a memento from Wyoming) has jumped in my lap and is rubbing on me. He knows I am sad, and he’s trying to comfort me (I think, or he’s just rubbing his spit on me). Animals just KNOW. They listen to their intuition much better than us humans.

DadDeath is what brought me home. I had moved to Wyoming a year after graduating college and was living on my own, 2,500 miles from home. I had been there 2 1/2 years when my dad passed away, and I felt like I needed to come home and be with my mom. Not that she wasn’t capable of caring for herself, I just needed to be here. I often think where would I be if Dad hadn’t died? Would I be in Wyoming? Would I be traveling elsewhere in the world? Would I have come back to Maine? Of course I am not glad that my father died, but I am happy with the life I have. My father’s death is why I am here – why I moved home, why I have sheep and why we have a milk cow (I wanted one when I moved home). If I had not moved home, I would not have met the man with whom I fell in love. I would not have the job that I do. I would not have this life, this life that I love. Would I be as happy in another life that could have been if my Dad hadn’t died? I would have my Dad, and that would make me happy. But honestly, my Dad is still very much involved in this life. If he were physically here, I don’t think so many lambs would have been allowed to spend so long in the house, and they definitely wouldn’t have been able to come back in for a visit every now and then after they moved to the barn. It’s not just that I feel my Dad is around us still, it’s that he raised me, he had a profound influence on me. I am the person I am because of who my father was. How I care for my animals, my patience with them, my love for them is because of my parents, how they raised me, what they taught me.

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I like to use tarot cards sometimes. They help me to settle my thoughts. But when I talk about them with others, they say, “Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that. I might get the death card.” The death card is nothing to fear though. It just means an end, an end that must come before something new begins. It rarely actually refers to a physical death. It can simply even refer to an outworn way of thinking. Life is one big circle. Something dies and something new moves in to replace it. It’s nature’s way.

And life goes on. This morning (March 15), we had a new beautiful little ewe lamb – Cadbury.

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Babies are coming! Babies are coming!

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Aggghhhh! What was I thinking?!

I know exactly what I was thinking. I was thinking we were going to have an early spring. Well, February turned out to be pretty brutal, and while the first few days of March have seemed warm – above zero and sun – we are expecting wind and snow tonight.

Spring of 2014 wasn’t too shabby, and we had late lambs, mostly coming in April and May. We LOVED it. No lamb blankets, no buttoning up the barn, trying to block any bit of wind from blowing on the newborns. We were so smart. I also bred only a fraction of the ewes.

Then last fall, I was all gung-ho and rearing to go. In all my earth goddess, all-natural, mother nature knowing -ness, I just knew this spring was going to come off warm early. I based this hypothesis on nothing but a gut feeling. And now, on March 3, 2015, I am in full panic mode.

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Our Shetland ram Brutus loving up on Gillian.

Last fall I got a new Samsung tablet, and I was super organized (totally not my usual) and wrote down the date that every ewe went in with her ram, who bred whom, when they acted in heat, when I saw the ram actually mount the ewe, if I caught them in the act. Then I let those dates sit there and kept telling myself that I would check an on-line lamb gestation calculator for the due date of each ewe. I knew I had put the first ewes in with Bear or Brutus in mid-October. A sheep’s gestation is ABOUT five months, so I started telling myself that lambs would be due mid-March. This became solidified (in my mind) as lambs were due starting March 15. I have already planned to take that week off work, and I have calmed my worried mind with the FACT that I have still have two weeks.

I finally took the time to consult a gestation calculator today. I put 10 ewes in with two rams on Oct. 14. Looks like I only have ONE WEEK, and if the ewe did not consult the gestation calculator, she might decide to go any time, as in, there could be a lamb being born at this very moment. And then we’ll have a break, and then more ewes will lamb. I still haven’t done a final count.

Don’t get me wrong, this is my favorite time of year. I just wish I had a few things in place. The barn needs to be cleaned out for one thing, but it’s been so cold. We haven’t had a thaw, and that $#!+ (literal) is froze in solid. We are supposed to have a couple warm days this week, but I will be in my office 60 miles away, which doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for farming. Sheep aren’t like horses or cows, we don’t clean them out daily. They waste hay, and that piles up as bedding, keeping things clean and providing some warmth during the coldest days. I really don’t have to worry about sheep being warm. They love winter – their woolly coats get thick. It’s harder to keep sheep cool in the summer (which is well-reflected in our electric bill in the summer months as I run fans). They do not like wind and will stay in the barn when it starts blowing. But if the wind isn’t blowing, the sheep choose to stay outside, round the clock. In the summer, however, they spend most of their time languishing in front of the aforementioned fans.

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Our sheep barn is actually a converted house. The big brown sheep with white markings in the middle is Jersey. Ceilia is second in from the left in the front. Mercy is over by the fence, facing away and pouting because she is not the center of attention. Keep reading, I mention those three.

 

And so begins the lamb checks every few hours, lifting tails to check for ugly, pink puckered tuppies, and reaching between hind legs to check for bagged up udders. I’ve noticed that it’s getting harder to move around the ewes. Their widening bellies brush the backs of my legs and drag me along or push me out of the way when I meet them in a doorway.

I’m hoping that Jersey has her lambs first. If she doesn’t, she’ll try to steal another ewe’s lambs and then it’s just a big ol’ mess. We try to separate the new mother and her lamb(s), and Jersey’s pushing her way in, cleaning the babies off, talking to them. We have to get a little forceful with her, but she just pushes right back. She’s convinced THOSE are HER babies, and you are not going to keep her from them. One year, I accused her of stealing lambs when they actually were hers. Jersey is black. Her first year, she gave me two black lambs, and here she was cleaning up the two whitest babies I had ever seen. I was saying, “Jersey, you idiot, those aren’t your babies!” But I looked all around and it was obvious that no one else had given birth. But they were so WHITE!

The next year was a complete disaster. It was a Sunday, and it happened to be April Fool’s Day. I went to the barn. Thank goodness it was a warm, sunny morning because I had new lambs in the pasture and no one was sure who their mother was. The first I noticed was Junie B. She had obviously just had a lamb, but Jersey had claimed it, and Junie B. was confused. She was a first time mother and didn’t know what had happened. Then there was a second lamb, and no one seemed to have claimed that except for a ewe that was in the earlier stages of labor and hadn’t actually had her lamb yet, but she wasn’t certain that one hadn’t come out of her, and Jersey who was bouncing back and forth between the two babies. I figured out who the mother was – Ada (another first timer) – but she seemed all too happy to let Jersey have her lamb. We got the pair united, but Ada never was a very good mother, and it was a long struggle to get her to accept Abraham. Junie B. adjusted all right, but poor Caity wasn’t sure if she had given birth yet or not. She finally lay down and started to push, but it ended up being a big ram lamb and we had to help. She was a good mum though.

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I was laughing at myself this morning, remembering our first lamb being born. We had actually gone to Bangor that day. It was late February, a much warmer February than this year. The wind had picked up and the temperature dropped by the time I got home though, and I was worried about any possible newborn getting chilled, so I went to the barn as soon as pulled in the dooryard. I stepped into the barnyard, and I heard a baby blat. The blat made me jerk in that direction, and I slipped on the ice and went down HARD. I was lying flat on my back, wind half knocked out of me, whole body in pain, and the lamb cried again. “I’m coming baby,” I called, but I was still immobilized and wasn’t sure if I COULD move. Slowly, I rolled over and started to crawl toward the cry. I hadn’t needed to worry. Her mother was Celia who turned out to be an excellent mother. She’s not a lovey sheep, tolerates humans,  but she’s a good mother and she behaves when we need to do anything with her.

Her first lamb, Cookie, was the first lamb born to the farm, and I swore that she would remain on the farm until the day she died of natural causes. But she turned out crazy and was a horrible mother, wanting nothing to do with her baby, and I shipped her. Cookie was adorable as a lamb though, but oh so bratty. We had Celia’s sister-friend Meme who was pregnant at the same time (they were named after my grandmother whom we call “Meme” and her sister-in-law). Cookie would paw at Meme’s belly like she was trying to get the lamb to come out and play. When Meme’s lamb, Muffin, was finally born, it was a hard birth for Meme. She rejected Muffin (which will sometimes happen after a hard labor, but Meme was good with her lambs the following years) but would let Cookie drink off her. Muffin was a scrapper and would sneak in from behind to drink. We eventually started bottle feeding her, and Cookie was roly poly fat drinking off two mothers.

Muffin always makes me think of Mercer and vice versa. I mentioned in my last blog that I am a believer in reincarnation, and they are one example of that. Muffin was our baby, but we ended up losing her when she was a couple years old. None of Meme’s babies ever turned out right. That was a painful loss, but having Mercer who looks so much like her and acts so much like her made the loss a little easier. Mercer’s entrance into the world wasn’t all that happy of a moment for us though.

Mason was another one of our favorite sheep. She had come from Pennsylvania. My sister actually bought her, as well as our ram Dixon. Dixon came from Kentucky, so Jodi named them for the Mason-Dixon line. For her breed, Olde English Southdown, Mason was rather slender. After she lambed, her body condition did not come back like I would have liked. Whenever we gave her grain to fatten her up a bit, she would get diarrhea. Anyway, I decided to give her a year off and let her put weight back on, and didn’t know if I would ever breed her again. Well that year, Celia had little peanut lambs – one boy, one girl. I left the little ram lamb in with her and the other ewes for too long. He was so LITTLE; I didn’t think he could breed anyone, but rams can start breeding at 4 months. Apparently size does not matter. This is also how I got those very white babies from Jersey.

I thought Mason was finally putting on weight. I was so happy with how she looked through the winter. But one morning, Mom went to the barn. I was getting ready for work and she called me over. I could tell it wasn’t good. When she called me, she didn’t even know who the sheep was who had just lambed – she was so thin. By the time I got across the road to the barn, Mom had figured out it was Mason. She was so weak. I spoke to Mason and she lifted her head. Mom gasped because it was the first real sign of life Mason had shown. I sat down beside her  and held her. There was no way that Mason could care for her lambs. Even if she hadn’t been on death’s door, she hadn’t produced any milk. Mom hurried the lambs off to the house and told me to stay with Mason. We didn’t lose Mason that day, we nursed her back … sort of. She never did really recover. It ended up being one of those cases where we should have put the animal down, but we keep them going – more for us than for them because we think we can heal them if we just have a little more time. We did have the two most hilarious house lambs that year though. Mercer and Madison would run up the stairs and then jump off the side into a recliner. Then they started jumping on bureaus, and we eventually had to move them to the barn.

Mercer and Madison kind of took over the house.

Mercer and Madison kind of took over the house.

Mercer will have her first lamb(s) this year. You always wonder what sort of mother a sheep will be, especially when they were a spoiled bottle baby. You never know.

Mercer and me this winter.

Mercer and me this winter.

Good Tidings from Good Tyddyn

IMG_20141116_153207Writing has always been my thing. This is why I got a degree in journalism. Of course, blogging is ruining journalism. Anyone can have a blog. There’s no accountability, and many people get their information from blogs – be it wrong or right information. They can be unreliable and downright false. But they can also be useful. They allow the writer to tell his or her story, and that story may be of value to you, even if it’s just entertainment value. We can share our experiences with one another and learn from each other.

So, here’s my story … parts of it anyway. I don’t have scientific or evidence-based information to give you, only my own observations. I am not a doctor or dietitian, I will not give you advice on health or nutrition. I am an expert on very little, but I might help you to see things differently or answer a few questions for you.

I work for Maine’s dairy farmers in the area of communications/social media. My job has made me appreciate all different farms, big and small, traditional and organic. They all have a different way of doing things, but it all comes down to what is best for the animal. And yes, profit is a deciding factor, too, but sick, depressed, uncomfortable, scared animals will not make you a profit.

It seems as though everyone is taking sides these days. You’re either with us or against us. I’m a Libra; I am predisposed to see both sides of an argument, which is both a curse and a blessing. It can make me indecisive, but it also makes me understanding. So, this blog is probably not for those who are on the extreme left or right of any argument. This is for the people who are in the middle, who just aren’t sure and need a little more information before they decide which path to take. I am not going to try to convince you one way or the other. I am just going to speak about my own experiences and hope it gives you a little more understanding.

And in all honesty, this might start out as a serious, heartfelt blog, but will probably end up being a series of freaking adorable sheep photos.

This is Mercer (aka Mercy). You'll see a lot of her.

This is Mercer (aka Mercy). You’ll see a lot of her.

Warning: Sometimes I overdo the … and ( ), but I write how I think.

So, here it goes. Blog No. 1.

I Love Animals, Therefore I Eat Them
If animal agriculture did not exist, if we did not eat animals or use animal fiber or drink milk (real milk) or eat cheese or use horses and mules for work, there would be no reason for those animals to exist, and that would be a sad world. Yes, there would be wild animals – mountain goats, bison, yaks, etc., but man would not interact with them like we do with the domesticated versions every day. And for those of us who are farmers – livestock farmers – our existence would be lonely and depressing, subpar at best. A common sentiment amongst horse and livestock owners is, “I like my ______________ (pigs, sheep, goats, cows, horses, chickens, etc) more than I like most people.”

I don’t really like calling myself a “farmer” (I don’t like labels in general, but they do have their uses). I don’t know that I have Straitearned the title of “farmer”. I’m not up at 3 a.m. milking cows every morning. I don’t spend hours on a tractor. I don’t harvest any crops beyond a family-sized vegetable garden. I have a job off the farm, and the majority of my working time is spent there. But I have 50 sheep. We also have a couple of horses, a milk cow, beef critter, couple pigs each summer, laying hens, and meat birds every fall. It’s more of a homestead than a farm. In fact, we call our property Good Tyddyn. Tyddyn is a Welsh word for homestead or small farm – so it was perfect for us. Plus, we are pretty Welsh. (I will eventually get to who “we” are). We pronounce it as Tiding – you know, good tidings and all – because we figure that’s how most Americans would say it. In Welsh, it’s pronounced  Tuthin – the “th” is like in “there”.  I will say here that I do not like the term “hobby farm”. A hobby is something you love to do, something you probably spend way too much money on, but it is also something you can choose to do or not to do. When you are dealing with animals, there is no deciding to just skip a day.

So, we have all these critters, and we are animal lovers. Now, here’s where some would say “How can you love animals and eat them?” Or I am always getting the question, “How can you name something and then eat it?” I used to answer, “How can you not?” But I have realized that isn’t fair. I have realized that not everyone is equipped to care for livestock, and I don’t just mean they don’t have the land or barns. I grew up with animals, caring for them, meeting their needs — this is natural for me. The knowledge I have learned through experience and from listening to the family and friends around me who also farm – I took it for granted, believed it to be common sense. But I have also seen eyes glaze over when I start talking breeds and cross breeds and diets and treatments for ailments and symptoms of ailments. It’s like me when a mechanic talks to me about the workings of my vehicle.

And I have seen things go horribly wrong when someone underestimates the dedication and knowledge required to raise animals. I have cute sheep, and they act like pets, but they are far from a dog. I used to say that everyone can at least raise chickens, but I was proven wrong. Some just aren’t made for it.

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The girls and their rooster.

You don’t have to come from an agricultural background to be a farmer. Some fall into it or are drawn to it. I have come to the conclusion that this is just how some of us are hard-wired. I would not want to be a doctor, to have someone’s life depend on my skill and steady hand. I would not want to be a nurse – being around sick people all day, cleaning up after them. I can do this for animals, but not for people. I would not want to be a cop and have to deal with dangerous people or be responsible for protecting my community and solving crimes. People are just drawn to different things; they can deal with issues that the rest of us cannot comprehend. We all have our talents and skills and things we enjoy.

I like to give animals the best care and the most love possible. You want their time on Earth – brief as it may be – to be happy and healthy. You want their life to be good, and then they might have one bad day, that last day they go to the butcher’s, but you try to make that as good and stress-free as possible, too.

I don’t even think I could be a butcher, which I know might sound hypocritical, but I look at the raising of the animal, the life of the animal as my responsibility. I have a friend who won’t eat meat because he wouldn’t be comfortable killing an animal, especially one he raised. I totally respect that, but I don’t think it is necessary for everyone to follow that rule. That’s what the farmers and the butchers are here for – the people who are hard-wired to raise animals and to harvest them. And being able to harvest an animal doesn’t mean you are heartless. It just means you are someone who can deal with that, who can be practical about it all. We raise the animals, we feed them, they feed us. We are thankful for their sacrifice. We don’t take it for granted.

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Molly is our milk cow. Milly was her calf. We butchered Milly when she got old enough, but we made sure she was spoiled while she was with us.

Animals are awesome. We can make connections with them. They can heal us. Look at the good therapy riding programs do.

I put claim to Cocky from the moment I saw him, and he was mine for 23 years. No, we don't eat horses. I can't explain the difference in eating a cow or a horse. It's just how it is, but I don't think people who do are horrible people. It's all how you look at things, I guess.

I put claim to Cocky from the moment I saw him, and he was mine for 23 years. No, we don’t eat horses. I can’t explain the difference in eating a cow or a horse. It’s just how it is, but I don’t think people who do are horrible people. It’s all how you look at things, I guess.

Prisons rehabilitate inmates through wild horse training programs, or I even saw that there is a dairy farm in California that uses inmates for the labor. In news articles about these programs the inmates talk about how dealing with animals has helped them work out their people issues. What about troubled inner-city youth? They take them on a field trip to a farm, they have them shovel some poop and hang out with the critters, and these kids are loving it, smiling, talking about wanting to go to vet school.

I take photos of cows all the time, and they are hilarious. They are curious, often goofy, often beautiful, sometimes uppity. Our milking shorthorn Molly has eyes like a golden retriever, which is probably why we are always giving her treats. I couldn’t imagine a world without cows. I couldn’t imagine a world without sheep. I couldn’t imagine MY world without them. When I need to calm my mind, I go and sit in my sheep pasture. It does not take long before I have sheep coming up, wanting to be made of. Often they will lie down beside me, the sound of them chewing their cud is better than any new age meditative music you can find. Then they burp and totally ruin the moment, but it keeps me from taking things too seriously.

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Beatrice – my first sheep. She is now 8, but she’ll always be my baby.

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Laurus – one of our 2014 lambs. He was standing on me when I took this photo.

Lambing season is better than Christmas for me. I am exhausted, but I can’t wipe the smile off my face because those lambs are so freaking cute, and I fall in love even more with my ewes when I see what good mothers they are. We can’t all operate like sanctuaries, relying on donations. Selling animals for food or using them to produce food or fiber, or in the case of a small homestead, consuming them ourselves, is how we support ourselves and pay for the animals. Many, like myself, have off-the-farm jobs to help because often the cost is more than the income.

I love animals, therefore I eat them. And sometimes I cry (OK, I usually cry) when it is time to send them to slaughter. I will hug them and ask them to come back to me (I’m a believer in reincarnation, so if what I do is cruel, I will get mine in the next life. Just saying it here so that no one else will have to). I had a ram that was getting aggressive if you didn’t give him all your attention. If you were petting him, he was happy to stand by your side, wagging his tail, rubbing his head against your leg. He had always been a love, but when he reached 7 or 8 years old, you couldn’t turn your back on him. He was becoming a danger, so I decided to ship him. The first time I ate a Dixon burger, I cried, but he tasted good, and I ate more.

This was Dixon - the ram by which I rate all rams. Yes, he was a bit chubby in this photo, but he always got in shape right before breeding time.

This was Dixon – the ram by which I rate all rams. Yes, he was a bit chubby in this photo, but he always got in shape right before breeding time.

I have a friend who is always saying “That’s the best damn lamb, so tender.”

“It’s the love,” I say. And I am being completely serious.

This is where I might sound a bit woo woo, but I totally believe that the energy of the people raising the animals and the energy of the property where they live goes into those animals. Just like the energy of all those sweet lambs or goofy cows or an affectionate, patient horse has an effect on us, we have an effect on them. It’s our job to make it as positive as possible.
OK. I am ending my first blog right there. I have much more to say, but I think you all need a break for the moment. Please come back and read more in the future.