Trimmed Again

Fall sheep shearing was last weekend; I intended to post this sooner, but the professional work requests have kept on coming. Not complaining at all…much like our bees need to pack their honey supers as much as they can while the flowers are in bloom, those of us who work in politics and opinion research must do the same in even numbered years (up until the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, anyhow).

For the shepherd of a fine wool flock like Icelandics, a good shearer is beyond price. It’s easy to get someone to fleece a bunch of meat-breed sheep whose wool is good for little other than insulation or tennis balls. It’s another matter to find someone who can pull a fleece off in a single piece and in a manner that maximizes its value for processing. Our “sheep shearing lady,” Lisa, is such a person. She’s been coming to our farm since we had just four animals (in late 2002), and from her home base in Indiana covers a wide territory. Now that we’re in Michigan, she coordinates our spring and fall shearing dates with those of other clients up here. Last Sunday was our day.

Lisa does much more than cut the fleece from the sheep neatly. She helps us inspect and evaluate each animal as she works with it; she’s seen and held orders of magnitude more sheep than we ever will, and is alert to potential health issues that we may not have noticed. A couple of quick examples: I’m well aware of two telltale signs of worm infestation. Last weekend, Lisa pointed out several more that we should be on the lookout for (not currently present in our flock, but that she’s seen elsewhere). Also, during last fall’s shearing, she identified a ram lamb with a hernia; she advised us not only not to keep him for breeding, but to butcher him before any other lamb — before the hernia could develop into a life-threatening condition. She also helps us identify the lambs whose body types and conformations would make them the best breeders.

I could go on, but you get the idea. For the adults and lambs we’re keeping as breeders, Lisa also trims their hooves and helps us de-worm them. In addition, she gives every animal a drench of about 20-30 cc’s of apple cider vinegar cut 50-50 with water. She also trims the hooves of all our dairy goats.

This time, we had a special additional task: removing the horns of one of our breeding rams. I can’t believe we still haven’t named this particular ram; we kept him as a backup breeder in case anything happened to Dilemma, but we never got around to naming him. He’s now over a year and a half old, and had developed a stunning set of horns. But there was a big problem: as frequently happens, the curve of the horn was starting to press against his face. If we let it go much longer, the growing horns would either crush his skull or prevent him from eating. Either way, we’d lose him.

So, just as we had to do with Dilemma this spring, we used a pair of halters to secure the ram between two rings in the barn doorway. At first he lunged and jumped and struggled to free himself. But once he calmed down, the procedure went off very quickly and without incident.

We used a metal cable to saw back and forth through the horn, and this time used a heavier material than we did with Dilemma. The friction of the sawing action creates so much heat, the blood flow through the horn is largely cauterized immediately. We applied bandages, and secured them with duct tape, to stanch the rest of the bleeding.

There are no nerve endings in the horns, so the sawing itself didn’t cause the ram any pain; his only discomfort came from being tied up and having the smell the burning horns being sawed off. As you can see, within minutes he was back outside and feeding with the rest of the flock (and note how nice Dilemma is looking – he’s the one right in the middle, facing the camera).

We sold Dilemma’s horns to a knife maker, who wanted to use them to make knife handles. I’m trying to locate a buyer for these horns now as well; if anyone is interested, please email me. We’d like to get $25 for the pair. That includes shipping to anywhere in the USA.

The Stinker Slips Away

We’ve had our share of tangles with skunks over the years, and I must say something: I’ve never smelled anything worse than what they let loose. I’m sure there’s something even more putrid out there, but I haven’t yet encountered it. They are nasty little creatures, nothing at all like the cutsie children’s book characters. Or Pepe Le Pew (who, for the record, is high on my list of most annoying cartoon characters. Right behind Tweetie Bird. But don’t get me started.)

Our first skunk was in Illinois, just a few months after we’d moved to the country. I spotted it entering the chicken house, where I had our first batch of 25 pullet chicks in a very vulnerable area. The thing could’ve wiped out the whole brood, easy. I ran into the house for my shotgun, and kept hoping it’d come back out. Instead, it wandered into a corner where it was trapped. I shot it once, but not with a direct enough hit to kill. It filled the air with its stink bomb, which I had to approach so I could line up a second shot. I smelled so bad, Mrs Yeoman Famer made me sleep in a separate room. I think I ended up burning the clothes I’d been wearing. And the smell was in my hair for days.

Our next skunk came some time later, still in Illinois. I had a large batch of goslings I was brooding in an outbuilding. They were young and quite vulnerable. I was about to call it a night, and was taking one last look at them, when I noticed some kind of dark shape moving aggressively inside their pen. The goslings were in panic, running every which way. In the fading light, I managed to spot the white stripe down the animal’s back and tail…and again sprinted for my shotgun. (I can’t repeat often enough what an essential farm tool a good twelve gauge pump is.) This time, I took the thing out with a single shot. Unfortunately took a gosling or two out with it, and the skunk had already managed to kill a gosling or two, but the rest of the brood was safe. Covered with skunk stench, released as pieces of shot tore the animal open, but safe.

Here in Michigan, we’ve had a skunk visit our property occasionally. At 9pm or so, when coming in from my office, there have been several nights where the smell of skunk has hung heavy in the air. I imagine it released the scent when a dog or cat had startled it. Regardless, no matter how much I searched the yard and under the porch with a flashlight, I never managed to actually spot the skunk itself.

Until last night. I awakened at 2am, and couldn’t get back to sleep. There was a certain project from work that I couldn’t get off my mind, and couldn’t shake a gnawing anxiety that I may have done a particular thing wrong and allowed a particular error to get into my data. At 3:30, unable to get back to sleep, I decided I might as well go out to my office and check the data.

I got dressed, went downstairs, got my spotlight, and switched on the back porch light. The instant I stepped onto the porch, I spotted the skunk. There was absolutely no missing the white stripe and angular body. He was running up the slope toward our barn, about 50 feet from where I was standing. I shone the spotlight on him, and he looked back. And then ran faster.

I sprinted back upstairs, retrieved the shotgun, and hoped I’d get back down before he disappeared. Fortunately, he was now up against the barn and moving slowly toward the six foot drop-off that our firewood pile is currently stacked in. But I had a special challenge with him that I wouldn’t have had with a raccoon or possum: get too close, and even a perfect shot means I get covered with skunk stench. So I kept my distance, and tried to position myself for the best possible shot.

Where he was right then, a shot would’ve blown holes in the barn door. As he moved toward the woodpile, he crossed in front of a window. Didn’t want to blow the window out — killing a skunk isn’t worth all that. Then he was on the woodpile, and dropping six feet or so from it to the ground. That would’ve been a perfect time to have blasted him, except my nice huge metal pot was sitting there on the ground, from butchering chickens earlier in the day. Didn’t want to blow holes in that.

He continued moving, and was about to disappear into the high weeds along the barn, and I knew I was running out of time. The big problem now was my spotlight. I had a clear shot, but couldn’t fire a twelve gauge one-handed while holding a spotlight in my other hand. I tried putting the spotlight between my legs, but couldn’t keep the beam focused. (Note to self: You REALLY need to get an aftermarket tactical light to mount to this shotgun.) Figuring this was my only chance, I lined him up as best I could…and pulled the trigger. And waited for the smoke to clear.

And soon realized he was still moving. And definitely disappearing unhurt into the high weeds. Not wanting to get close, I swung wide around the barn and tried to see if he’d emerge, but there was no sign of him. Never saw him come back out, on either side. My light now getting dim, I decided I should count my blessings: even with the noisy report of the shotgun, the skunk didn’t let loose with a stink bomb. And hopefully I scared him enough to stay away for awhile. And he stayed outside; the barn had been closed up securely enough to protect our livestock.

Out in my office, I quickly put my mind at ease about the project; everything was fine. I headed back to the house, scanning the barnyard one last time as the last of my battery power faded, but the skunk was nowhere to be seen. I plugged the light in for a recharge, and then headed upstairs to catch a few hours of recharging for my own body.

And dreamed about someday finally actually getting to take that skunk down once and for all.

The Concentration Camp Isn’t Really that Bad

In an interesting followup to this summer’s story about massive egg recalls, the NY Times takes a look inside some of the more modern egg plants and the methods they’re employing to manage manure. The conveyor belt system sounds fascinating, and I imagine it saves an enormous amount of labor. It also seems to keep the facility much cleaner.

But this is the quote that struck me:

“We’ve had to completely change the way we look at things,” said Mr. Krouse, who is also chairman of the United Egg Producers, an industry association. “Thirty years ago, farms had flies and farms had mice, everything was exposed to everything else. They just all happily lived together. You can’t work that way anymore.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a fan of flies or mice or any other vermin. What bothers me is the industrial scale of these operations, and the necessarily attendant obsessiveness with making them “sanitary.” If you’re going to have 381,000 hens living under one roof in a concentration camp eggery, you can’t have everything exposed to everything else. You must compartmentalize, and obsess about sanitation. Otherwise, you quickly lose control.

But the problem with emphasizing the sanitation strikes me as possibly designed to convince the public that “that makes it okay” to produce eggs in this way. Sure, we have 381,000 hens under one roof. Yeah, they’re crammed into little cages. No, they don’t ever see the light of day. But we have some really great manure removal systems, and the eggs are really really clean. And the hens get vaccinated against all the diseases you’d expect them to catch while living in this kind of environment. So, eat up! Nothing to see here.

As for the Yeoman farm family, we’ll take the “messy” eggs laid by hens happily living together with the ducks and the geese and the sheep and the goats. The eggs that sometimes get manure on them, and that we have to wash. The eggs laid by hens that keep the barn mouse-free because any time one appears, they gang tackle it and use it as supplemental protein for their diet. As they do with the flies and the crickets and even frogs.

You can get away with that kind of “messiness” when you’re farming on a small scale. On a human scale. Producing outstanding food for humans who appreciate it.

Thanks for Your Service

Now that my professional work has gotten caught up, I’ve been turning my attention to getting long-postponed farm projects caught up as well.

My number one priority: the old laying hens.

We color-code our breeds, so it’s easier to tell how old the birds are. Once hens are mature, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish a yearling from a three year old. Hens have a productive laying life of about two years, and drop off dramatically in the third year. Our approach is to raise a batch of one breed in the spring of Year 1, which will start laying in the fall of that year. When then start a different colored breed in the spring of Year 2. In Year 3, we either try another new breed or go back to what we had in Year 1. Either way, in the fall of Year 3, we butcher the hens from Year 1.

If we repeat the Year 1 breed in Year 3, as we did this time with Barred Rocks, we must race against the clock to butcher the old hens before they become indistinguishable from the new pullets. The key features are the size of the comb and wattle on their heads. Also, younger birds tend to have yellow feet but older birds’ feet tend to get white with age. And once you pick up an older hen, it’s often obvious from the weight and fattiness of the belly that this bird has been around for awhile.
My work was so busy in recent months, I put the butchering off way too long. The pullets’ combs are starting to grow out, and I’m worrying that I may kill some of them by mistake. With the nice weather yesterday, I knew I had to get caught up. Homeschooled Farm Girl helped me chase down and catch six older hens, and then assisted me as we butchered them. Five are destined for the freezer, and we started a stock pot immediately with the sixth. Overnight, it turned into some of the richest and most delicious chicken soup imaginable. I had some for lunch today, and it’ll be the centerpiece of tomorrow’s dinner.
This morning, I managed to pluck an additional four hens off their roosts. Guess how I’m going to be spending my sunny Wednesday afternoon?
There may be a few more older hens to butcher after today, but I’ll need to wait until tonight (when they again come home to roost) to get a good look. In the meatime, we appreciate all the wonderful eggs our Barred Rocks gave us. And we’ll appreciate the chicken soup just as much.

Surprises never Cease

First we had Dot’s surprise, out-of-season lamb. We’re still hopeful that she’ll get big enough and wooly enough before winter sets in. Thus far, she’s been doing great.

This new situation, however, was perhaps even less expected:
Yes, that’s Lucy Goosie. And she’s made a nest. In October. Out in the middle of the pasture.

I wasn’t even aware she was laying eggs, but she’d been quietly collecting them out there. She now has about a half dozen. A few days ago, she went broody and will only come off the nest for quick breaks.

I don’t want to move the nest into the barn; she’d almost certainly abandon the eggs if I did. I’m not even sure the goslings are developing, given the cold weather we’ve had. And even if they hatch, what are their odds of survival in late October or early November?

I can be certain of this: if I trash the nest, they’ll die for sure. If I don’t trash the nest, we may get some surprise goslings. The thing I’m most concerned about is Lucy Goosie’s safety out there in the middle of the night. In Illinois, we lost a few broody geese to coyotes. Fortunately, there aren’t any of those around here. Foxes, raccoons and possums are a concern, but an adult goose defending a nest is a pretty tough fighter.

I’d lay my bets on Lucy, if it came to that. And her nest is near enough to the house, I’d be able to hear her alarm honk and come to her assistance.

Still, it’s tough to shake the feeling that this isn’t going to end well. But we’ll see. Around here, we never seem to run out of surprises.