Saturday, April 14, 2012

Babies Everywhere

Well, at last, babies everywhere you look.  Jet black Shetlands, mottled black and white corriedale x, white big babies with pink, bunny ears, and even one little black guy with a pink nose.

 This has been a baby year, with two sets of triplets, lots and lots of twins, and just a few singles.  Lots of colored Shetlands, black, deep brown, and mottled black and white.  Yolo, the ram I used last year threw mainly white sheep, so I am delighted that Moca, this year's Shetland ram, has endowed his babies with so much color.

In all of this, the old moms and new moms have to get used to being a family.  I am sad to report that Cookie, one of our favorites and a star with her fleece in the CSA offering, well, Cookie has been the worst mother of the lot!

Cookie can't find her babies.  They might be right underneath her nose, sleeping peacefully, but she has a tizzy fit, and bellows for them louder than any fog horn.  If I hear a momma calling ceaselessly for her babies, I usually come running to make sure everything is okay.   After dropping my trowel, my towel, my pen, or my shovel to dash to the pasture like a fireman for a fire and finding it another false Cookie alarm, I have retuned my emergency alarm to discount Cookie calls.  You can see below she has found one of her lambs, but the other, a male whom I call Harlequin, has disappeared.

Here he is, the black and white guy in the center.  He likes hanging out with his buddies, and who cares if Mom is worried.

 You can see Cookie with the good child, right next to her, just where a good lamb child should be.
I can just hear Harlequin thinking it is so fun to play with other little lambs, and not mind the calls of his mother!

Here he is sampling grass, regardless of the strident calls of his mother.

Finally, Cookie got Harlequin  back to her and promptly urged him to eat, eat, eat, like any good mother.

Here they are, with Harlequin looking resigned to be plodding along after his mother.


I have somewhat lost track, but I think we are up to about 35 babies, with about eight moms to go.  Whenever you have successes in the lamb barn, there are also tragedies.  Unfortunately, I think I have the problem with the Shetland sheep I had some years ago, a mineral deficiency that causes lambs flat with weakness at birth.  I lost one twin last week, but I did bring the other around, but now I have another little guy, so weak he can't stand up. His mother is a first timer but very gentle allowing me to milk her so I can feed the guy his own mother's milk.  It isn't doing much good, but he is just 36 hours old. He seemed to be doing better earlier in the day, but now he is so weak that he isn't sucking at the bottle.  All I can do is to try and keep him warm and fed, even if just with a syringe and hope that he makes it longer to gain a bit more strength.  The Davis Vet School is doing an autopsy on the first baby I lost, and I hope to learn what is causing this problem.

This wonderful late rain, good for the ground water total but terrible weather for lamb babies, has me worried, for the wild cold winds just off the Pacific tend to breed pneumonia in the lambs.  Even though I have vaccinated, I am looking forward to the weather change to a kindlier nature. Last night, at 9 pm, I found a number of moms making their babies rough it out in the swirls of rain and gusts of wind.  By the time I got everyone locked into the barn, I was sopping wet and sorely out of temper.  Inside the barn, it looked like an a shutdown airport with everyone sleeping in the aisles.  It was crowded!

What to do? I will have to think clearly about how many sheep this farm can hold with careful consideration of my stewardship of the land.  If the weather clears, and the sheep are back out in the night pastures, it won't be so bad, so surely this is a decision for another day.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Babies, at Last

Well, wouldn't you know it.  Here, by my dates, I was expecting the Shetlands to lamb first, but, of course, what do I come out and find but triplets from one of the Corriedales.  SURPRISE.  Working with animals always keeps you on your toes.  

You can see the two black ones and just the back feet of the one white one. After the lambs are born, mom and babies are put in a small pen, called a lambing jug.They stay in the jug for as long as it takes to make sure the mom and babies have bonded, and in the case of triplets, to see that all the babies are thriving.

Last night, the action started again, and I am going to show a few pictures of birthing for sheep.  I hope this isn't too graphic, but it is nature working.  I had no idea that I would become a midwife when I started working with sheep. They usually do the job themselves, but I like to be around, just in case a mom has trouble.  

When labor is starting, the ewe may pace around uttering quite pathetic cries, paw the ground, lie down, get up, and lie down again. The sound of her cries is absolutely specific to pain, and repeated so constantly, I stop what I am doing and find out who is starting labor. The first visible indication is the emergence of the water bag.

As labor begins, she lies down and starts to push.  This can take from 15 minutes to an hour.  Any longer, and you start to  worry that the baby won't survive, but you have to give the process time.

Here is the head just emerging.  The proper presentation is the head with the two front feed tucked just under the baby's chin. If there is only one foot, the other may be folded back, a problem.

Now, the head and shoulders are out, so the going is easier.

Here the baby is out, and I slid it around so she could start licking it, an important step in bonding.  I always make sure the nose is clear of the birth sack, so the baby can breathe. Usually, the baby shakes its head almost immediate, gasping for air, a good sign.  If not, then I try to clear the air passage.

This was a very healthy baby, and he was up and nursing quickly.  You can see the bag of water emerging for the next baby.  Having the mother sheared makes it easier for the baby to find the teat, and for me to know that the lamb is suckling the all-important colostrum, rich in antibodies and nutrition.  The colostrum is deep in color, thick and creamy.  I tried a traditional dish once, of baked colostrum  Cows have more colostrum than their calves need, and when baked, makes a custardy dish.  I didn't add sweetener or eggs or salt, and the custard was flat and bland.  If I were still breeding Jersey cows, I would try again.  Sheep don't have an excess of colostrum, and I want those babies to have every last drop of its protection.

Hooray, we have twins, healthy and happy.  Good news for the new family and the anxious shepherd.

The count is now about 16 babies, with two sets of triplets, a set born at 5:15 am this morning, and all three babies had a set of lungs for cries that penetrated to my bedroom and sent me out with the flashlight.  Lambing is exciting, but I don't make travel plans as I need to stay close by the farm.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Spring is Here

Even though the eucalyptus trees out my windows are swaying side to side in an Alaska-cold breeze, I can see that spring has come.  Suddenly, the weeds are shooting up out of the ground.  What was a low fringe of mallow weeds and rye grass  around the driveway threatens to become a thicket.  Tiny white nobs are appearing on the rose hedges lining the driveway, promising the first blossoms.  The cottonwood trees have green slivers appearing on their branches, and buds are breaking out of the grapevines, yet untamed by the pruning shears.

EEK! I haven't finished the fruit tree pruning, haven't planted, much less purchased the chestnut trees I promised to plant for my friend Sarah, who loves chestnuts roasted over etc.  I had thought to get some kiwi vines so I would have fresh fruit in January and February, but alas, none so far. Everything needs to be fertilized with those great piles of pellets in the pasture, left by the llamas and alpacas.  Where do I start?

Note the nettles growing up next to the fence

Here is just one, of thousands, of milk thistles, thriving, unfortunately

Table grapes neither pruned nor weeded

Still, the good news is that human-edible plants are growing, and California's amazing climate means  gardeners have year-round, delicious, home-grown vegetables to eat.  This time of year, I eat lots of salad and greens.  Unfortunately, all my potatoes are gone, but I can buy organic potatoes at the farmers market.

Fava beans can be planted from fall into winter.  On the right are beans planted just a few weeks ago, which I will turn over and bury for a green manure to fertilize the summer squash I will be planting in May.  This is a new bed, and I took a chance not putting wire underneath it to hinder the gophers.  I may regret that decision.

These favas were planted last fall, and I will save them to harvest the beans, both for eating and to keep as seed for next fall.  Fava beans pureed and seasoned make a super-delicious hummus.

Here is the garlic planted last fall.  It is growing very successfully, so much so I am beginning to wonder if I planted them a bit too close together.  Well, too late now.

Well, deep breaths, being a farmer in spring is all about loosing ground to mother nature's swelling fecundity, and I feel damage control is about keeping myself from flailing around, rushing to weed here, dig out thistles there, only half finishing any one thing. I try to remind myself to remember what I have done so far.  Progress is a state of mind for a farmer in the spring.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Barnyard Surprises

I am always surprised at the activities of my sheep.  Here, is one creative girl who thought the bottom of the barrel held a promise for her.  I must remind myself to never leave a feeding bucket anywhere a sheep might find it.  The good thing about this situation was the ease with which I could walk up and remove the bucket, a relief for the two of us.

I am on udder watch, waiting for the first lambs to be born.  Shearing the sheep allows the shepherd to watch the slow swelling of the udder.  As the sheep get closer and closer to birthing, the udder gets bigger and bigger.  The first time moms don't have much of an udder, but the older girls get a nice full udder.

Shearing also allows me to watch the progression of the pregnancy.  Here is a first time mom, and I am thinking by the look of a valise on each side of her, that she will have twins.

 Living on the farm is the Jersey cow Daisy with her grafted calf, Cowboy. Daisy adopts any calf she can, and Cowboy came to us from a neighbor when he was about four days old. As you can see, Daisy has a big udder, but what you can't see is that her udder has four teats.  Sheep have only two teats, and  I hope for twins to take full advantage of those duel faucets.  Triplets and oh heavens, quadruplets make trouble for the farmer, as usually, the smallest doesn't get quite enough milk, and that means bottles for the baby and a bit of extra trouble for the farmer.  

The result

Daisy at work
 Daisy likes to come in and clean out the feeders after the sheep have finished, and you can see she is good at what she does.  Of course, if she had a choice, she would come in before the sheep had finished.

Daisy hasn't had a calf of her own for about four years, but with modern milk cow breeding, she just keeps on producing that nutritious white stuff.  As you know, humans can do the same thing.

When I first started lambing, I went out every couple of hours during the night to check on everyone. Now, I check just before I go to bed, and first thing in the morning.  I rotate the older ewes out of breeding, hoping to keep just the young and hardy sheep in lambing.  The older the ewes, the greater the possibility of trouble, and as I don't spare the expense of vet care with my sheep, the larger the vet bills.

Often, the sheep lamb during rainstorms, nature's way of assuring a greater possibility of survival, with the hope that the predators would be holed up nice and dry in their dens.  I am leaving the barn open at night, for often, the sheep will lamb inside if given the opportunity. Once the babies start, they really start, so I am on tenterhooks, waiting for the first one, and hopefully two, to arrive.

Any day now, I hope.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Piles and Piles of Fleeces

Shearing day has left piles and piles of fleeces. John Sanchez sheared seventeen Shetland ewes, twenty one corriedale-cross ewes, three Shetland rams, one Wensleydale ram, and one Shetland wether. He started close to 10am and he was done at 1pm. Although he works fast, he takes time with each sheep and unlike many shearers, almost never nicks a sheep. As a plus, he is so calm and careful, the sheep, for the most part—there is always at least one complainer—placidly let him waltz them around to rid them of their lovely wool.  While I worked with Johnny on the floor of the barn, we had two skilled fleece skirters, Gina and Patricia, working the tables and Marlie helping visitors by explaining the process and selling the fleeces.  Skirting is the process of examining the fleece and taking off the bits with vegetable matter, short hairs from the legs or edges, or stained fleece.

Long ago, when I first began farming, I was entranced with the coated fleeces that I saw at county fairs.  Consequently, I bought, at great expense, a large number of coats for my sheep, twenty I think, in a variety of sizes, and began the process of fitting the sheep with coats the moment they were sheared, changing out the coats after three or four months as their fleece grew, and refitting them into larger coats just months before shearing the next year. 

Of course, the process was not smooth and well regulated.  I would come out to find a sheep stumbling around with the coat half off.  That sheep had to be caught, the foot, front or back, eased into its proper position, and then sent on its way.  Then there were the sheep, not so hog-tied, to mix metaphors, with a coat torn half-off, flapping in the wind, scaring the poor sheep.

Well, after about six months of catching ill-coated sheep, trying to repair torn coats, and a constant flow of language ill-suited to a loving shepherdess, I abandoned coating my sheep.  When I realized the benefits of shearing before lambing: you can see how soon the ewe will be lambing, you can see the lamb suckling, and you can see the udder, to check for mastitis, and the sheep are smaller, the better to fit them in a small barn during the rainy season, and they dry faster, among a myriad of other benefits, I discovered the fleeces were naturally clean as well.

We started out the shearing with a special breakfast for our CSA members.  ( For more information on our CSA, check out  Although early-spring-nippy, the sun was warm and we sat outside in the courtyard for our farmers’ breakfast of fruit salad, Marlie-made quiche from Windrush eggs, garden-fresh breakfast potatoes, and sausage from a Chileno Valley farmer’s pigs, all the emphasis on local.

Johnny arrived  set up his shearing equipment in the barn,  and soon had on his special shearing "mocs"

Gina and Patricia, both fiber artists who have spent a lot of time on the farm and buy and wash fleeces were amazed.  Last year, with the rains, the fleeces were clear of vegetable matter, but dirty from the bog in the pastures from all that wonderful rain.  This year, that was not our problem.
The fleeces were grand this year.  The early rains and the long dry periods provided just the right combination of rain-washing and air dry-cleaning with the result that the fleeces glowed with luster and came out spic and span with no vegetable matter.

We started off the shearing with the rams, which I had shooed up from the bottom pasture and lodged in the barn. When they were done, Johnny sheared the sheep Marlie and I had chosen to make the yarn for the CSA members.  Cookie, Vanilla, and Chocolate gave up their fleeces for the cause.  Last week, Marlie and I added a couple of lambs' wool fleeces to make sure we had enough to fulfill all the expectations of our CSA members.

Lots of folks, big and small, loved getting their hands into the fleece.

Marlie and I were so pleased to have met new spinners, and some people came with projects made from LOCAL PASTURES wool.  We were thrilled. 

What a day!  Lots of people came, with many spinners new to the farm, and the most fabulous potluck lunch ever.  We could have fed an army with all the generous donations to the potluck, and such delicious things!

We  opened the farm store, and Marlie brought one of her designs she is working on for a Local Pastures knitting kit.  Coming soon, so keep checking in.

At the end of the day, we had lots of well-shorn sheep and a mountain of wool. This wool community is just the best.  Thanks to all of you!  We plan a May Lamb Day on the farm so everyone can come  meet the lambs and have a great spinning day on the farm. Knitters welcome, of course, in fact, any and all fiber people and their families.  May Day will be on Mother's Day this year, Sunday, May 13th.