Passages

Spring is always a time of new beginnings on the farm, and that’s certainly been true this year. In early March, before Spring even officially got here, we had over a dozen goat kids born. It’d actually been a long drought; the kids were way overdue. We woke up the morning of March 6th, still with zero kids. By the evening of March 7th, we had SEVEN. Two sets of twins, and our first-ever set of triplets. Over the course of the next week, the rest of our goats delivered. They ended on the evening of March 13th, with another set of triplets. Here they were, trying to warm up in my office, the morning of March 14th:

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One of the males was very strong and went right back out to his mother. The female unfortunately had been born in very poor shape, and she didn’t make it past the first day. The other male was in-between; he was in poor shape, but just strong enough to pull himself to his feet, stand, and take a few steps at a time. He stayed in my office for several days, hanging out with the dogs. I actually grew adept at bottle-feeding him at my desk, while checking email. (The Yeoman Farm Children were bottle-feeding a couple of others, out in the barn.)

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To say we had our hands full was an understatement. We certainly didn’t need a dozen goat kids; what we really wanted was the milk, and a few females to keep as replacement milkers. One of our goats in particular, Button, was getting really old (she was our last surviving goat to have made the move from Illinois nine years ago), and had been looking especially worn out after this most recent kidding.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer got in contact with the woman who serves as the goat coordinator for our county’s 4-H program, to see if they had any interest in our males. (The Yeoman Farm Children themselves haven’t participated in 4-H; we think it’s a fine organization, but we’ve simply had too many other things going on.) The goat coordinator was delighted and relieved to hear from us. As it turns out, they’d been unable to get kids this year from the large goat producer who usually supplies them. With the weird weather last fall, it seems everyone’s goats had gone into heat late. That meant kids were late this year. She had a long list of 4-H children who were wanting goat kids to raise; MYF’s call had come just in time.

All our goat kids are mixed dairy breeds, which is fine for our purposes, but it means the males don’t get especially large – and they’re not especially valuable as breeders. So, we let seven of the males go for ten bucks each. We gave away the frail one for free. And we even threw in what was left of the milk replacer that we’d bought.

All told, financially, we barely broke even (the 22# bag of milk replacer alone cost over $50) — but that wasn’t our goal. We wanted those bucklings gone, and we wanted to help out some local children. Above all, we wanted the milk. And are we ever getting milk: at least six quarts at each milking. That’s twelve or thirteen quarts a day. (Yes, that’s more than three gallons.)

Our eldest daughter, who’s taking a year off after graduating a year early from high school, has basically turned the kitchen into a cheese factory. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer has been assisting, especially with the hard cheeses; her press has been running more or less non-stop.

As if that weren’t enough, March decided to truly go out as a lamb: on the very last day of the month, we had our very first ones of the year born. FletcherBelle delivered a healthy set of twins (a male and a female), and has been doing an excellent job raising them.

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We had another set of twins born two days ago; in fact, they arrived while I was out in the barn taking care of early-morning chores. The female was very strong, and immediately thriving. The male was barely alive, and looked like he hadn’t fully developed in utero (his eyes, in particular, were badly deformed). I wrapped that one in a towel, took him to my office, and made him comfortable in a box near the furnace. I also held him in my lap from time to time. We knew he wasn’t going to make it, but got some satisfaction from knowing his few hours with us weren’t spent abandoned on the floor of the barn.

It hasn’t all been joy and rebirth. Life is a cycle, and we’ve had some sad reminders of it lately (much sadder than the loss of a couple of newborns). A week ago Sunday (March 26th), we lost our very oldest animal, a sheep named Conundrum. She was nearly thirteen years old, and the last couple of winters had been difficult for her. She hadn’t produced a lamb in a while. In recent weeks, she was getting more unsteady on her feet. We really should’ve butchered her last fall, but none of us had the heart to do it — she’d just been with us so long, and was such a fixture in the flock.

Conundrum had the distinction of being our first lamb born to a ewe that’d been born on our property. She arrived on a Saturday morning: April 17, 2004. I was in California, on a business trip, when I got the call from Mrs Yeoman Farmer. I remember being so happy, and so proud, I wanted to pass out cigars to my clients at our meeting. I can’t find any pictures of her as a lamb, but this was her as a yearling:

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And this was her in the Spring of 2014, at the age of ten, with the last two lambs she produced (she had a premature stillbirth the next year, and did not lamb last year).

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She’d been especially unsteady on Saturday, despite the extra attention we’d been giving her. I checked on the flock late Saturday, before going to bed, and she’d seemed alright. Then, when I came out the next morning, I found that she’d left us sometime overnight. Hauling her body out of the barn was terribly sad, but I was grateful she hadn’t lingered in pain. And I did give thanks for all that she’d provided us over her nearly thirteen years.

We closed out that week by losing Button, our oldest goat. As I mentioned above, she’d been tired – and having twins had taken a lot out of her. She was still nursing her female, and we weren’t taking any additional milk from her; our idea was to keep this female as Button’s replacement, and build her as strong as we could by letting her take as much milk as she wanted. Button had seemed to be holding her own, despite being tired, but sometime in the early hours of Saturday … she wasn’t able to keep going.

I found her when I came to do chores that morning, and quickly moved her body from the barn. Our eldest daughter was very fond of Button, and I knew she wouldn’t want to find her like this. She’d want to remember her the way she was, like in this photo from nearly seven years ago (note the lopsided horns – Button was always getting herself stuck in fences, so we trimmed the right horn back to make it easier to free her):

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Disposing of the bodies of dead animals on the farm is always a challenge. Digging graves for mature sheep and goats is tough without a backhoe, so we prefer to give them a “Viking Sendoff” (minus the boat). Early last week, one of the Yeoman Farm Children and I built a large pile of logs and tree branches, and placed Conundrum atop it to incinerate her remains. This past Saturday, we did the same for Button.

It’s a bit sad: we’re down to exactly two animals, both of them sheep, which made the move with us from Illinois at the end of 2007. Soon there will be none. But that’s all part of the cycle of life on a farm, I suppose.

And it’s certainly something to contemplate as we bottle-feed Button’s beautiful little orphaned doe kid, and think ahead to when she’ll be producing kids — and milk — of her own.

Surprise Caboose

We’d thought lambing was done for the year. Most of them arrived in early to mid April, with one delivery in May. That’s usually about as long as lambing goes for us; any ewes who haven’t delivered by then, probably aren’t going to deliver at all. Icelandic ewes tend to come into heat in the Fall, not in the dead of winter.

Yesterday, we got a surprise. Pachelbelle, one of our older ewes (and one of the few remaining sheep that came with us on the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels” from Illinois) delivered a beautiful little ewe lamb.

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As you can see in the photos, the new lamb is very healthy and alert. She’s already following her mother out to pasture and back.

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Given the five month gestation period, Pachelbelle must’ve been bred the first week of January. What most likely happened is that she came into heat earlier, but was either (1) missed by one of the rams, because they were so preoccupied with breeding other members of the flock or (2) bred, but didn’t achieve a pregnancy, so came into heat again.

The absolute latest in the year we’ve had a  lamb born is August, when one of our very old ewes truly surprised us. In her case, extreme age seems to have thrown off her normal reproductive cycle; we thought she was past being able to lamb.

Our oldest current ewe, Conundrum, is now now the same age (twelve) as the one who made an August delivery a few years ago. Conundrum didn’t lamb this spring. So…who knows what surprises may still arrive this summer.

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.

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?

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!

Feeding Runty

I always hate leaving the property during lambing season; you never know what you’ll find when you come home. Still, you can’t simply suspend the rest of your life. So, after getting the flock as well-situated as we could yesterday morning, we went to my father-in-law’s house and enjoyed a nice Sunday afternoon visit and dinner. (Including a leg of lamb from last year’s flock, which we did up in the Crock Pot with potatoes from last year’s garden.)

As nice as the visit was, I was anxious to get home and check on the sheep. Last April, over the course of a 48-hour period early in the month, we had something like a dozen lambs born. It was pure chaos in the barn. If a deluge like that was coming, I wanted to be there to help manage it.

Fortunately, the lambs appear to be taking their time and spacing themselves out for now. None was born while we were gone. After getting hay for the sheep and goats, I climbed into the makeshift separating pen we’d built yesterday morning for Cocoa Puff and her twins. The larger twin seemed to be doing quite well. The smaller one was looking much worse. She was curled up in pretty much the same place where we’d left her in the morning. I picked her up, and she seemed very weak. I knew it was time to intervene.

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I got a pan of warm, soapy water. I then used a towel to clean Cocoa Puff’s udder thoroughly. The warmth has the added effect of helping the udder relax and the milk to let down. I held Cocoa Puff securely, and HFG milked about two cups of colostrum into a bowl (leaving plenty in the udder for the larger lamb). After milking Cocoa Puff twice a day last year, HFG knew exactly how to do it. It was just like old times, and those two cups of colostrum came out in a flash.

I found one of the bottles and nipples that Little Miss Sweetness had used in the NICU as an infant, filled it with fresh colostrum, and sat down to feed Runty. My fear was that she would be too weak even to suckle. Fortunately, we’d gotten to her in time. As soon as the first drops reached her tongue, she went right at it. Within a couple of minutes, shIMG_20160404_111650265e’d taken all 2.5oz. I refilled the bottle, got her back on the nipple, and she took another half ounce or so.

Just to make sure that everything was going well with the other new arrivals, I offered the bottle to all three of the other lambs. I caught each one, sat down with it, and put the nipple into its mouth. None was the slightest bit interested. And that was a relief! Combined with how substantial each of the lambs felt, their disinterest in the bottle confirmed for me that they’d been getting plenty of milk from Mom.

Runty took another bottle before I went in for the night, and one this morning when I came out to do chores. (No lambs were born overnight, BTW.) I just checked on them again at 11:30, and gave her another bottle. She’s not really strong, but she did take 2oz. I’m definitely concerned about her small size, and not terribly optimistic about her long term prospects. But as long as she’s going to keep fighting, I’ll keep feeding her. For me, it’s a difficult emotional balancing act: I want to do everything I can for her, while not getting too attached. That’s tough to do sometimes, when you’re working so closely with a little creature.

While she was feeding, her twin sister nursed directly from Cocoa Puff. That was good to see. I put Runty down, and Cocoa Puff sniffed her all over. Then she did the same with the other lamb. This is a bonding ritual, and the primary way a mother sheep recognizes which lambs are hers. When she sniffs one that isn’t hers, or that she’s rejected, she typically head-butts it away. Cocoa Puff didn’t do that with either lamb, so that’s a good sign. If we can get Runty big enough and can teach her to nurse directly, that would be excellent — and, for her part, it’s looking like Cocoa Puff will take her back.

In the meantime, it’s looking like Runty is going to be a bottle baby. And that’s okay. Cocoa Puff is a very milky sheep, so this will mean a good bit of milk — and sheep cheese — for our family.

Sunday Twins

We had two more lambs born early Sunday morning, this time to one of the black polled ewes. Both are females. One is a distinctive white-and-black color, but the other looks just like the larger female born last night to Cocoa Puff. (Cocoa Puff’s other lamb was also female, and solid brown, but so much smaller that it’s easy to distinguish.) On top of it, all four of the lambs born so far appear to be polled. We can’t feel even the slightest beginnings of horn buds on any of their heads. There was so much chaos in the sheep pen this morning, including considerable confusion by all four newborn lambs, it wasn’t clear any of the lambs would be able to bond with its mother. We had to take action quickly.

For starters, the 13 year old helped me build a makeshift separating pen in a previously unused portion of the barn. It’s not pretty, but it’s going to get the job done. We moved Cocoa Puff and her twins into it. We gave her some hay and water. Already, she seems more calm, and the lambs are doing a good job nursing. This is really important, because that one lamb is so runty, I’m a little concerned. She needs to get her mother’s full attention.IMG_20160403_111717832

We can’t make another separating pen for the other ewe, but we’re hoping that getting Cocoa Puff out of the way will help. She’s definitely attentive to her lambs. She licked them off all the way, and she’s staying near them. When they bellow for her, she comes. Here they were, this morning, when I first came out:

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And here are the two of them, once they’d gotten up on their feet:

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We’ll see how they do today. Hopefully all will be well. If necessary, we may have to swap them out of the new separating area with Cocoa Puff.