Spring Sheep Herding

We sure enjoyed some spectacular weather over the weekend. Homeschooled Farm Girl and I got out for good rides on Saturday (55 miles) and Sunday (34 miles), and then for another 22 or so miles yesterday. In addition, HFG has been taking the lead on getting the garden worked up for planting; between doing all that work with hand tools, and logging all those long miles on the road, she’s probably going to be able to ride circles around me at Calvin’s Challenge this coming weekend.

The pasture is almost ready to turn the animals out on … but not quite. We want the grass to get some good growth before the sheep and goats begin munching it down. Problem is, they can see all that nice grass just on the other side of their fence. They know it’s there. And they’re sick of hay. And we’d sure like to save some of that hay for next winter. What’s a farmer to do?

The answer was literally right in our back yard. This weekend, the lawn behind the house was getting quite long, and definitely in need of trimming. I’d gotten the lawn tractor out of mothballs, fired it up, and was going to have the 13-year-old begin mowing.

And then I wondered … why should we let all that good grass go to waste? Why not turn the sheep loose on it? The only danger was them getting into the front yard, and eating Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s shrubs. So, they had to be supervised. No biggie. I parked a couple of our cars sideways across the driveway, to discourage them from even thinking about heading toward the front of the house. I got a couple of kids to help with the supervision. And then I opened the gate.

The whole flock came charging out, bellowing at the tops of their lungs. The 23 lambs didn’t know quite what to make of it; most stayed close to their mothers, some danced all over the place, and all of them made a lot of noise.

The kids and I positioned ourselves at strategic points in the yard, to prevent the sheep from going where they shouldn’t. That turned out not to be necessary. They were so busy with the fresh grass, they barely looked up.

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This time of  year, when dandelions are emerging in full bloom, I’m always amused by the people walking around their yards and hitting each yellow flower with a shot of herbicide. Who needs Round Up when you have a flock of sheep? Besides, one person’s weed is another person’s sheep food. Within minutes, we didn’t have a single dandelion anywhere in our back yard. The sheep absolutely love those tender greens, and the flowers.

Did supervising the sheep take time? Sure. But I actually kind of enjoyed watching them. It’s unbeatable entertainment. And the boys started tossing a Frisbee around as they helped. It was time well spent.

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As yesterday was a work day, however, I didn’t have a lot of extra time to tend sheep. The flock was no less hungry for fresh green stuff, though; the grazing experience had definitely whetted their appetites. Every time they spotted me through the gate, they would bellow and complain.

The solution: our power push-mower. Every time I needed a little break from work, I fired the thing up. Using the grass catcher, it didn’t take much time to collect a nice load of clippings. The grass (and dandelions!) on the garden pathways were getting especially long, so I focused on those first. I positioned some large tubs just over the garden fence, in the livestock area, so it was easy to dump the grass clippings straight into their feeders. I got some for the sheep, and some for the goats. When at one point I had to walk through the sheep area, they absolutely mobbed me trying to get at the stuff in the grass catcher.

On my various breaks from work, I began chipping away at other places where we couldn’t turn the flock loose. The edges of the hay field are especially good for mowing this way. We can’t harvest hay that’s too close to the fence — but we can certainly cut it with the lawn mower. Having this nicely-mowed strip along the fence also makes it easier to access the hay field later in the spring, when the grass in the field gets really high.

When you live in the Midwest, and you’re enjoying a a 78-degree April afternoon, you have a pretty good idea what might be rolling in that evening. Sure enough, the thunder began rumbling around 9 or 10pm, just as forecast. The sheep are really good about coming in to the barn (from their fenced enclosure right behind the barn) when it rains, so I didn’t worry about them. By 11pm, when I was getting ready for bed, it had begun raining pretty hard. I knew I should make one last check of the animals, and secure the barn doors, just in case.

I sprinted through the driving rain, lightning flashing on the horizon (fortunately, the most intense part of the cell passed to our north). All appeared normal in the sheep part of the barn, so I closed and latched the door. However, the more I looked, the more something didn’t seem quite right. I called and called, but there was no sign of the little runty lamb we’ve been bottle-feeding. Usually, when a human enters the sheep area, she comes running. Ditto a second little lamb, that we’ve also had to bottle-feed.

I opened the door back up, and waited for lightning to flash. When it lit up the outside enclosure, I looked carefully. No sign of either lamb. Another flash. Still couldn’t see either one.

I couldn’t go to bed not knowing where they were. I sprinted back inside, again getting drenched. I grabbed a flashlight, and sprinted back to the barn. “Little lamb!” I called, as I walked around the outdoor enclosure. At last, I could hear a BLEAT in reply. “Little lamb!” I called again. Another bleat. It took me a moment to figure out where it was coming from: she’d crawled inside an empty, tipped-over, rubber trash can. She now stood in the opening, bleating at me. I jogged to the can, and found both lambs inside. Both were dry, but not real happy. I hugged them both, and hustled them into the barn with the rest of the flock. Only then did I go inside, dry off, and call it a night.

It’s funny how, soon after we began our farming adventure, both Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I made the same observation: the agricultural images and parables in the Bible make so much more sense to us now. Now we understand a lot better why Jesus used examples such as the parable of the Lost Sheep. Any of his listeners would have identified with it. When you have a flock, and the littlest and most vulnerable one or ones is missing, you don’t hesitate. You put everything else on hold, and you go searching — because you can’t rest until you’ve found the missing one. That’s such a great image of the love that God has for each one of us. Each of us is, at some point in our lives, that pathetic little lamb that can’t even find his or her way fifty feet back into the barn. But God doesn’t give up on us, any more than a good shepherd would give up and go to bed without doing everything he could to track down what was lost. When you have a flock, it’s just what you do.

I’m glad we got that grass cut yesterday; it’s far too wet to mow today. Looks like we’ll be feeding hay for a little bit longer. Hopefully soon we can get the flock turned out to pasture for the rest of the spring. We’ll just have to make sure every single one of them makes it safely back to the barn each night.

Full Cycle

My new novel has just been published!

Full Cycle tells the story of eleven-year-old Alex Peterson, whose physical disability makes him the least-athletic boy in his school. When he first hears about the 200-mile Seattle to Portland (STP) bicycle ride, he’s immediately intrigued and inspired — and begins dreaming of how he might somehow be able to take part. He soon discovers that the key lies in getting his father, Rob, to return to the sport and train with him as a partner. Over the course of the next year, the two of them end up on an adventure (both on and off the bike) to places that neither could have gotten to on his own.

Full Cycle Front Cover

Is this a story about cycling? Of course. But, more than that, it’s a story about growing up. About growing together as father and son. About overcoming what we think are disabilities. About supporting and encouraging our kids when they strive to push beyond their limits. It’s a story about pursuing a crazy dream — and how much more meaningful that pursuit can be when it’s shared with someone else. Above all, this is a story about family. It’s a story for everyone, no matter how many or how few miles you rode your bike last year.

Every novelist draws on his or her own experiences when writing. I’ve been an avid cyclist since my youth, and loved the freedom it gave to go as far as my own efforts would take me. However, when kids started coming along, I found it increasingly difficult to put in the training miles necessary for the ultramarathon events I’d been doing. Late in the year our second child was born, I chose to hang the bike up. Only when the kids grew older, and became interested in riding, did I reconsider. We ended up buying a tandem, which proved to be the perfect way to ride together.

Homeschooled Farm Girl got bitten by the long distance cycling bug as badly as I did as a young adolescent, and her enthusiasm got me back in the sport full force. By the time she turned ten or eleven, she was already wanting to travel with me to Seattle to ride STP. She got her wish when, the year she turned twelve, our whole family went to the Pacific Northwest for a summer vacation. She did 130 of the 202 miles with me on our tandem — and would have done the whole thing, if her brothers hadn’t wanted their own turns. In many ways, her dedication inspired me to tell the story of Alex and Rob.

Above all, I’m indebted to my kids (and HFG in particular) for helping me discover that sports don’t have to be a wedge that divides parents from kids. Sports don’t have to be something that parents pursue on their own. Sports don’t have to consume the family’s time and attention, as parents shuttle kids all over creation to practices and games. Sports, done right, can bring parents and kids together.

And in that vein, I wrote Full Cycle to be enjoyed by parents and kids alike. It’s completely G-rated. It includes no profanity, no sensuality, and no violence. I wanted to be able to share it with my own kids. It is not a “young adult” (YA) novel, however; it has an adult-level vocabulary and length, and does not follow YA conventions. It’s an adult-level book. But, that said, adolescents and pre-teens who enjoy reading beyond the typical “YA” genre will enjoy it a lot. It’s a fast-paced story, and a quick read.

Full Cycle is available in print at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and in Kindle format at Amazon.

Picking up Chicks

Our baby chicks continue to do well in the brooder, and if the weather is nice we should be able to get them outside into pasture pens early next week (when they are about two weeks old). They grow very fast, and are already beginning to feather out. With temps in the 60s, and even warmer than that in the barn, I’m not sure they even need the supplemental heat from the heat lamp at this point. But I like to make sure they stay as comfortable as possible. Happy chicks eat a lot, and grow a lot. Chicks that shiver and huddle together don’t. And they burn a lot of energy just keeping themselves warm.

I mentioned in the previous post that we got our chicks from the “local feed store.” I should probably elaborate on that, and preface this whole post by saying: there are lots of great sources for chicks. Even though chicks are among the easiest livestock to raise, we’re still learning things and refining our technique after 15 years. So, whether you’re planning on raising your first batch, or your twentieth, I wanted to share a quick thought or two about sourcing your birds.

The first several years we raised baby poultry, we always ordered directly from the hatchery. They would give us an availability date, so we could be ready. The chicks would be shipped via US mail, and we would get a call from the local post office the morning they arrived. We would then jump in the car, drive into town, and get them. A big, nationally-known hatchery like Murray McMurray has a dizzying selection of poultry, waterfowl and game birds; if they don’t have a particular breed, you’re probably only going to be able to get it from a highly-specialized breeder. Just browsing the McMurray print catalog was lots of fun for new farmers like us. We could dream about trying every imaginable kind of bird.

McMurray’s biggest problem was cost; their stuff isn’t overpriced, but it isn’t cheap either. The more other farmers we got to know, the more we heard about lower-frills hatcheries like Cackle, which tended to have better prices. (And their website has now gotten very good.) We still had a wide variety of birds to choose from, but now we knew a lot more about what we wanted. Cackle also tended to offer more special deals on things like assorted heritage-breed turkeys, etc.

In recent years, I’ve gotten less adventurous about trying exotic breeds. We’ve settled on a couple of basic breeds of egg layers (Barred Rocks and Buff Orpingtons) which have worked well for us. We alternate breeds each year, so we can easily keep track of how old the birds are. And for meat chickens, nothing beats the Cornish cross (and variants). We haven’t bought ducks in a long time, because our flock has reached critical mass and hatches their own replacements.

We also got tired of paying the steep shipping costs to have a custom order of birds shipped directly to us. The birds must go airmail, and the rates have gotten expensive. We’ve settled on a good local alternative: our local feed store at the town’s grain elevator. Starting in the winter, they put out catalogs from a hatchery in the Grand Rapids area, a couple of hours away. We place our order with the feed store. They aggregate all the orders into a single big order, and all the birds arrive on the same day. We’re guaranteed to get exactly what we want, on a day we can plan for, at a bulk discount rate,with no shipping. A lot of local grain elevators do this kind of thing, so it’s worth keeping your eyes open.

That same hatchery supplies chicks to lots of big farm stores (the ones in larger towns, with a huge selection of everything you might need on your rural property) across the region. If you walk in to a Farm & Fleet, Tractor Supply, or Family Farm & Home, at this time of year you’re likely to see lots of big tubs with live baby poultry for sale (under heat lamps, of course). The prices are alright, and you can take them home that day — but if they’re sold out of what you want, you’re out of luck. Maybe they’ll get more the next week. Maybe they won’t. For this reason, we’ve tended not to rely on big farm stores for our chicks.

But this year, a friend alerted me to an interesting aspect of farm store chicks: when a fresh shipment is about to come in, the farm stores really want to clear out the unsold birds from the previous batch. You don’t want week-old birds running with the newly hatched ones. So, the older birds get marked down — sometimes significantly. This friend says he’s begun collecting bargain chicks like this from multiple farm stores. This approach not only saves money. It also saves having to feed the birds for a week!

I was driving past a Family Farm & Home yesterday, and thought I’d check it out. Sure enough, they had about 20 nice meat breed chicks that were a week old. Seems the big regional hatchery had delivered to them the same day they’d delivered to our local grain elevator. Sure enough, the chicks were marked down from $2.49 to two-for-three-dollars ($1.50), because a new delivery was about to come. I bought about a dozen of them, and took them home to add to our brooder. We’d had a few of our original order die in the brooder, and I was already thinking we hadn’t ordered enough birds in the first place. This was a perfect way to get our new little flock up to full strength, at very little cost. Maybe we’ll get even more of our chicks this way next year.

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As I said…fifteen years of doing this, and we’re still learning new little tricks.

Spring in High Gear

In the most recent post, I cautioned that blogging would be slow for a bit because everything else was promising to be so busy. That sure turned out to be an understatement. I can’t believe a full week has gone by since them. But that’s life on a farm in the spring. It can be a blur. Especially when my professional work (you know, the stuff that actually pays the bills) gets very busy at the same time — which it did.

Soon after putting up the last post, we had the year’s first (and so far only) set of triplet lambs born. It’s hard to get a good picture of newborn triplets, because they all tend to be in motion in different directions. It’s a bit hard to seen, but the third lamb is solid black and underneath the mother. All three are males. Here’s one of the best picture I could get:

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All three are doing quite well a week later, and their mother has been providing plenty of milk. We’ve had a few more lambs born since, and I believe we’re now in the neighborhood of two dozen. I say “I believe,” because it got so chaotic out there it’s hard to know for certain.

The runty lamb has now moved back to the barn full time. I’d been bringing her into my office overnight, but that’s no longer necessary. She’s definitely still an outcast in the barn, and doesn’t fit in with the rest of the lambs. She doesn’t run with them or play with them. Part of it is her malformed leg; she can walk around alright, but she doesn’t have as much mobility as a typical lamb. Our goal is to get her to a reasonable butchering size as soon as possible. She is taking milk replacer from a large bottle really well, so I have no doubt we’ll be able to get her there.

We’re bottle-feeding one more lamb. Sunday morning, I noticed he was crying and sitting by himself in the corner a lot — and no mother sheep was coming to check on him. Since I was out there feeding Runty, and had some milk left in the bottle, I offered him some. He hungrily sucked down everything I had. His weight felt good, and he was able to stand and walk just fine, so I think we caught him in time. The 13 year old isn’t crazy about having a second lamb to feed, and is especially frustrated that the new little bummer is still so clumsy with the bottle. But at least Runty is taking milk like a pro. Hopefully the second one will get it figured out, too.

Soon after I put up the most recent post, we got a call from the local feed store. The chicks, which were supposed to come in the next day, had arrived a day early. We were now scrambling to get the brooder cleaned and set up; I’d thought I was going to have more time. Homeschooled Farm Girl was a big help in getting things started, and then I put the finishing touches on it. The six year old drove with me to the feed store to get the chicks, and for him it seemed like the exciting adventure of a lifetime. I let him hold the box of chicks on the way home, and then he got to “help” hand the chicks to me for placement into the brooder.

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The brooder is about 4ft by 4ft, and 2 feet tall. For litter, we use scrap hay. It has a large waterer, and feeder. I won’t have to refill either of them the whole time the chicks are in the brooder. We got 30 cornish cross meat chicks, and 15 Buff Orpington pullets to keep as replacement egg layers. The local feed store does a bulk order from a hatchery that’s a couple of hours away, which brings the prices down quite a bit. The birds cost us just $2 each, and there’s no shipping. Pretty good deal.

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This weekend, I got the lawn tractor out of mothballs and fired up. It’s running well. The grass is definitely growing, but not quite ready to be cut. A local repair shop is servicing out push mower, and should have it back tomorrow. I’m planning to use it, as much as possible, to “harvest” grass trimmings for the sheep and goats. They’re getting tired of hay, and our hay supply is dwindling anyway — but the pasture isn’t yet ready for them to be turned loose. The push mower, with its bag, is a good interim solution. I can go out and collect all the fresh stuff they can eat.

And then there’s the garden. That’s not my department, but there’s a lot that’s been going on out there. Homeschooled Farm Girl has been spreading all the stuff that came out of the barn last fall, working up the soil, and getting things ready for planting. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer has been starting seeds, and spent a lot of time outside on Saturday.

Best of all, we finally got nice weather this weekend. Temps have been in the 70s, with plenty of sunshine. After the nasty, cold, rainy weather we’d been having for so long … this is absolutely wonderful. In between all our other responsibilities, Homeschooled Farm Girl and I managed to log many miles on our bikes the last several days. I think we might just be able to get in shape for our big event at the end of the month.

Lambing on a Sunday Morning

Blogging will be light this week, as I’m extremely busy with projects for work. Plus, we have our chicks coming tomorrow (and I still need to get the brooder set up for them). I wanted to post a quick update about the lambs, however.

First, the runty lamb is thriving in my office. She’s getting around great, and has become a sort of house pet in my office building. We’ve transitioned her to milk replacer, and she’s taking a good amount of it with each feeding. The 13-year-old boy has been put in charge of this job, and he’s mastering the technique well.

I’ve been waiting for nicer weather before we put the lamb back in the barn with all the rest. It’s just a little too cold, and I think she’s just a bit too small to hold her own in that increasingly crowded space. For now, this is the typical scene under my desk as I work:

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We had three new arrivals on Sunday. One of our younger gray ewes had a singleton, who is doing well:

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One of our more mature ewes had twins. She’d delivered one shortly before I came to check on the flock, and was dutifully licking it off. From what was hanging out of her rear end, and the way she would stop to paw the ground as she licked, I knew we had another twin incoming.

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While she did some initial pushing, she used her muzzle to draw the first lamb close and make sure he didn’t wander away. Note the hoof that’s visible in the amniotic sac. The hooves always come out with the head in a normal delivery.

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She continued laboring, and soon the little lamb’s head emerged. The whole time, she never stopped licking off that first lamb!

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Soon, the entire lamb was coming out…

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…and tumbled to the barn floor:

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Only then did she stand up, break her attention from Lamb #1, and begin cleaning the newborn.

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Both are male, both are horned, and both are thriving two days later. And why wouldn’t they thrive, with such a great mother sheep?

Lamb Deluge

At last, the expected flood of lambs is beginning. After being stalled for several days with just four, we had six more lambs born yesterday alone. Two sets of twins, and two singletons. What’s interesting is that the gender split is now a perfect five-and-five.

Before introducing the new arrivals, I want to give a quick update regarding Runty. She’s the tiny lamb which has been teetering on the brink. In the last couple of days, she’s begun improving significantly. It helped that we gave her an injection of 5cc of Bovi Sera (goat serum, essentially). I also noticed that she was having trouble getting enough milk out of the bottle, and I started to wonder if the hole in the nipple was too small. After carefully enlarging that hole, the lamb’s feedings improved dramatically. She’s now sucking down more milk, more quickly, than she had before. As a result, she has more energy and is getting around better. She’s still going to be living in my office for a while, but I feel much better now about her survival.

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Note the way her right front leg angles outward at the knee — so far this has not impeded her mobility, but it definitely marks her as a cull if she can survive to the fall. Is it a little sad, knowing the ultimate fate of the lamb we’re now working so hard to bottle feed? Of course. But that’s life on the farm. If we weren’t able to deal with it, we wouldn’t be raising livestock.

The New Arrivals

First up, the singletons. Paint Bucket (so named because her black head and neck contrasts so sharply with the rest of her white body, it looks like she got her head stuck in a bucket of black paint) had a horned male. He’s virtually all black, with just a few little white fringes around the head and ears.

PaintBucket 2016

Licorice also gave us a male, but it appears he will be polled. Like Licorice herself, he’s virtually all black. On the top of his head, however, he has a small tuft of white. This interesting little color pattern surfaces from time to time, and we call it “The Mark of Buddy.” Buddy was one of our first two rams, is the sire of Licorice, and he had this color pattern. Anyway, Licorice is our second-oldest ewe; she’s one of the few remaining who came with us from Illinois eight years ago. She’s usually had twins or triplets, so I wonder if the singleton is a sign she’s slowing down in her old age.

Licorice 2016

Now, the twins. First to deliver was CleoBelle; we named her that because the dark markings around her eyes remind us of Cleopatra, and because she’s descended from a line of ewes that all get the -belle suffix. The larger of the two is a male, and it appears he will be horned. His sister is a bit smaller, and she will be polled.

CleoBelle Twins 2016b

Late last night, the other set of twins arrived. If I hadn’t checked the barn one last time before going to bed, I would’ve missed them. Both are male, both are horned, and both are virtually all black (with a few white streaks, and possibly the makings of a white or gray undercoat). The mother is a sheep we named FletcherBelle. Yes, she also descends from the -belle line. And as for “Fletcher”? It’s an amusing story. (Short version: it’s because she’d fallen … and she couldn’t get up.)

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Bottom line: We’re now up to ten lambs! With the notable exception of the pet lamb in my office, all appear to be doing well, and are nursing well. Nice to see the lambing season getting off to such a great start.

Pet Lamb

Monday evening, we had to make a tough call regarding the runty lamb born over the weekend. She was not making any move to nurse on her own, and was not taking a lot of milk each time we went out to feed her. Nasty cold weather was moving in, and the draftiness of the barn was beginning to take a toll. The lamb was expending so much energy just keeping herself warm, she’d never get to the size needed to thrive. Worse, she squeezed out of the separating pen and wandered off to various corners of the barn on more than one occasion.

I really didn’t want to move her out of the barn. That’s a last-resort option, especially for the lambs, because the mother ewes virtually never take a lamb back after it’s been gone for more than a few hours. That’s why I left her out there as long as I did. But by Monday evening, it was getting clear she’d likely die if we just left her there. And since she wasn’t nursing directly on her own, there wasn’t much of a “relationship” left to disrupt.

So, here she is, living in my office building.

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We got a large box, and lined it with an old towel. I got another old towel, and swaddle her with it for each feeding, in case she decides to pass something out her rear end while I’m holding her (it happens).

Getting her warmed up has definitely helped. She’s still not eating as much as I would like, but she’s taking anywhere from an ounce to two ounces at each feeding. Yesterday afternoon, she walked all around my office exploring it. She’s urinating and defecating, so something is definitely moving through her system.

Even so, she’s weak. She curls up and sleeps a lot. She’s not terribly steady on her feet. Her right front foot skews outward at an incorrect angle. Everything about her screams “cull,” and I suppose we’re silly for not finishing her off right now.

But I just can’t do it. It’s the Principle of the Thing. For whatever reason, we’ve been given stewardship over her. As long as she’s willing and able to take a bottle, I’ll give her one. We’ll cuddle her in our arms as we watch television. Bottom line: we’ll let this thing play out, and see where it goes.

If there’s any upshot to the situation, it’s that we’re getting to milk Cocoa Puff. We still have her in the separating pen, meaning we’re able to give her extra feed (including a little grain, to keep her milk production up.) Yesterday afternoon, Homeschooled Farm girl got a full quart out of her – with plenty left over for the healthy lamb. HFG is planning to make yogurt out of that quart of sheep milk, which is one of Mrs Yeoman Farmer’s favorite treats.

And, in the meantime, all three of the other lambs are thriving. I just kind of wish the rest of them would hurry up and get born!