It has been a LONG time since I've written anything in the blog. This was mostly because we'd created a page on Facebook, and that sort of took over as the place to find updates and photos. But I didn't want to totally abandon the blog, and this seemed like a good time to come back to it because starting in the new year we are changing directions a bit at Birchtree Farm.
I'll say first off that we love our Icelandic sheep. Their personalities are unique, their intelligence undeniable (well, for sheep ;-). They have beautiful fleeces that come in many color/pattern variations. They produce great-tasting lamb. They are great mothers, rarely need help lambing, and bond well with their lambs. If there was one thing to complain about with regard to producing lambs, it would be that they are seasonal breeders, and do not breed year-round as many other breeds can. But that is not really much of a drawback.
Below is one of our "keepers" from this year. A black spotted ewe lamb with really nice conformation and lovely fleece.
The biggest concern with Icelandics is that you must make sure to watch them carefully for signs of anemia caused by barberpole worm. There are many kinds of stomach worm, but the barberpole (Haemonchus contortus) is the worst. They suck blood. You wouldn't think a tiny, barely visible worm could do much damage in that regard, but get a heavy worm load in a particular sheep, and that animal can be drained of blood in a very short time. Iceland has no barberpole worm so these sheep never needed to develop resistance during their long history there.
As many other breeders are doing, we select for resistant sheep. These are sheep that seem to have some level of innate resistance to the worms. It is a long process however, and it is easier to do if you have the ability to keep a larger number of sheep, so that you have the stock numbers to do strict culling and still have some sheep left over! If you cannot keep larger numbers of sheep, then your progress is slower, because you end up keeping animals that are better, but maybe not the best, in terms of worm resistance. They are the best you have, but perhaps not as good as they could be.
We have some resistant animals. They rarely or never need worming. But genetics are a crapshoot, and even good parents can produce so-so offspring. We've had trouble with lamb growth, mostly due to fighting worms. We are still working to get our new pastures in good shape to provide the best nutrition. This also means we have limited pasture (because they eat what is there relatively quickly), so must feed hay for at least part of the summers. This means a lot more input in terms of dollars. Hay is no longer cheap feed. Good hay especially is not cheap, and so-so hay is a waste of money because the sheep pick through for what's edible and waste the rest. And if you have to supplement with processed feeds like alfalfa pellets/cubes or sheep pellets, that adds to the cost. We have never made money doing this. Our goal was to have the sheep be self-sustaining at least, but that has not been possible so far.
All this has brought us to the decision earlier this summer to stop breeding sheep with the goal of creating good breeding stock for other people to buy. This year was actually the first year since we moved here that we sold any breeding sheep at all. Even with those sales, plus sales of some wool and meat this fall, we will probably not break even, although we've come closer than any year thus far. Some might say that we're headed in the right direction; we should not give up now! But another part of this is that we want to enjoy our sheep. We don't want to be pouring money and TIME into them that we could be using to fix up the house or the property or do other things that we'd like to do.
For us then, the best thing to do is cut back on our numbers, so that we can better utilize the pasture we have available. So that we don't need to spend as much time and money keeping up a flock to produce sheep that no one is going to buy (or at least that no one is willing to pay reasonable prices for). So that we aren't feeling so stressed about them all the time. We aren't stressed about our chickens and ducks, and that is what we want from our sheep as well. Also, I've found that I'm not really cut out to be a business person, or that at least this is not something that I want to do business in. I suppose I got caught up in doing what I thought I "should" be doing (because everybody else seemed to be doing it). But what I/we should do is what we have time and energy to do, and what we enjoy doing. I will leave creating great breeding stock to those who have the time, energy, creativity and resources to pursue it, and wish them all success (because after all, we may need new genetics someday!), and we will just keep sheep as part of our homestead. We'll still try to breed the best sheep we can, but it will be for our own use and satisfaction. Maybe that sounds selfish, but it's what we need to do for our own sanity and finances.
We are therefore going to keep just enough to produce our own meat and wool. And with the goal of producing good growing lambs, we have brought in a new breed. We're not giving up the Icelandics, but we are adding in Gulf Coast Native sheep. You can read about them here: http://albc-usa.org/cpl/gulfcoast.html so I won't go into detail except to say that they have a natural resistance to barberpole worm. In talking with another shepherd who kept both Icelandics and GC sheep, he said that the cross-bred lambs seemed to grow better than their purebred counterparts, had better worm resistance than purebred Icelandics, and had fleece that was closer to Icelandic fleece in nature than GC fleece (though GC fleece is pretty nice too). So for him it was a win-win-win situation.
So, say hello to our newest flock members, Katniss (ewe) and Southport (ram). They are half-siblings, from a certified organic farm where dewormers were never used, and indeed, never needed.
And stay tuned as I'll be updating the blog more regularly, I promise!
We have finally finished our fencing project and have pasture for our sheep!
We have had pasture-envy for these past nearly 4 years, since we moved from NY to NH. Every time we pass an open and unused green field we try not to drool, and we wonder why no one is using it for anything (like sheep!). When we came here, we knew it was going to be work. There were no properties in this area that were of suitable size and ready for grazing animals. All properties of 10 acres or more (our minimum requirement) were wooded, OR were so far out of our price range as to be ridiculous. Yes, if we'd won the lottery we could have purchased a turn-key situation with barn and outbuildings and pastures and a nice house, but that will run you half a million around here, at least. So, we settled on a property of just under 12 acres, mostly wooded, with a house that needed lots of work, and no barn. That was in late 2007, with our final move in the spring of 2008. There was enough open room to put in a large paddock and have a little grazing area for occasional "salad bar" grazing, but hay has been the staple, and we use hoophouses for shelter - no barn available. We were blessed to have someone who let us borrow their pasture for the summers, and we did use that when we could, gratefully.
We finally got it logged in 2009, which cleared out the big timber, but left a huge mess. We were starting to clean it up in spring of 2010 when Ken threw out his back and that effectively stalled the project for several months. Eventually he recovered and by fall we started clearing fenceline and putting in posts, until the ground froze.
A long cold spring delayed the snow melt and the ground thaw, but finally we got back to work on it this spring, and yesterday we opened the paddock where it joined the new runway/alleyway/"on-ramp" to the pasture, and led the sheep through. I think we had about 8 bales of hay left, so it was just in time. A lot of native grasses and forbs have come up without any help from us, now that the sun can get through to the ground, and there is also ton of browse for them. We did seed some as well, but will need to do more liming and seeding in the future.
It's maybe about 4 acres - hard to estimate given the irregular shape. I know that would seem really small to some people. Many folks have single pastures that are bigger than our entire property, but it's a really big deal for us, and it's plenty big enough for the number of sheep we have or will ever have. It still needs a LOT of work. The sheep will help with some of that - keeping the shrubby bits and tree sprouts under control - but there's still a lot of slash to pick up and tops of trees left behind that need to be cut up for firewood. But this whole place is a continuous project/work-in-progress. Maybe by the time we get too old to deal with it anymore it will be one of those places worth half a million. One can hope. ;-)
As is so often the case with sheep, joy and sadness intermingle. This year our oldest and favorite ewe, Penny, lambed first. I never do guess correctly who is going to lamb first. Last year I was sure it would be Liadan, and it ended up being Niamh. This year, I knew that Penny, Liadan, and Niamh were in a race for first place, but didn't think it would be Penny. They always keep me guessing.
Anyway, on March 30 in the evening I noted that Penny was closer to lambing, but when I went out for a last check at 12:30am, nothing seemed to be going on, so I went to bed. At 6:30am I woke up and trekked out to the paddock to see what was happening. There was Penny, with a tiny lamb at her side, and she was giving Aileen some good knocks as Aileen appeared to be trying to get around Penny to the lamb. Penny wasn't having any of that and kept herself between Aileen and her baby.
I got through the gates and walked up toward Penny, wondering if she had singled again like last year. Except for her first breeding as an ewe lamb, she's always twinned, up until last spring, but I thought that was probably because she was not in great shape the fall before, due to nursing a lamb on poor pasture. I thought maybe she had just had another single this year. I started to look for the afterbirth, and as I turned my head to the right, there was the small still form of a white lamb laying on the ground. This lamb was slightly bigger, and nothing apparently wrong with it, but it was dead. It looked like it had been cleaned off, but there was a lot of hay and manure on it, and the head was twisted back under the body as if it had been tossed around.
Penny saw me looking at the lamb and came over, nickering. She knows she had two, but one is gone, and she is now mostly concerned with the living one. I started wondering if Aileen had had anything to do with the dead lamb. It's not nice to contemplate but it seemed possible that she, a two year old who'd never lambed before and herself the daughter of an ewe who was a bully, had attacked this lamb and killed it while Penny was in labor delivering the twin.
I took the dead lamb, and removed the pelt, and there seemed to be an inordinate amount of blood under the skin in the neck and chest region. I then did a very quick necropsy to see if the lamb had nursed at all. Penny is very good at getting her lambs up and nursing quickly. If this lamb had been born healthy, it would likely have nursed before she started giving birth to the second lamb (and actually, I don't know which was born first). If it had been very weak or stillborn however, it would not have been able to nurse. As it turned out, I could see no evidence of colostrum in its digestive system. So although I still don't totally trust Aileen, and we are keeping her separated for the time being, it seems less likely that she had anything to do with the death of the lamb. Lambs that are slow getting up are often pawed at by their mothers to try to encourage them. That might explain the blood under the skin, and the fact that there was dirt, hay and manure on top of the lamb even though it looked like she had licked it clean.
Two years ago, Penny also had twins with one born dead. I hope that it is not something wrong with her, but I suppose if she twins again next year and it happens again, then we'll have to consider the possibility that while she can carry two to term, for some reason one is dying just before birth. I'm not sure why that would happen.
So that is probably enough of the sad part. Let's get on to the happy part. The surviving lamb is a black grey ram, who weighed almost 7lbs at birth (a normal size), and he was born the day before the nasty April Fool's Day snowstorm we just had. So he's spent his first 36 hours pretty much confined by his mother to the hoophouse. She's a smart girl, that one, and didn't bring him out at all once the snow started falling late last night.
And here are the photos!
You can't see his horn buds, but they are there, and the white flashing shows he will be a grey. This means that his sire carries grey under his white pattern, which is good to know.
No one lambed during the snow storm which was a relief. Now they have a clear weekend and hopefully either Niamh or Liadan or both will lamb soon, then it will probably be at least another week before any of the other three have their turn.
As long as the weather holds out we will keep working on clearing fenceline. We are more than halfway done at this point, and even have some posts in. We are focusing however on getting the rest of the clearing done before we go ahead and install more posts. I say "we" but Ken has done a lot of it by himself. I did help today though. :)
Today we cleared about another 100 feet, across the north end, east of the logging road. It's not just taking out trees but also clearing slash left by the logging last year. In several cases, small trees were just pushed over with their roots still in the ground. There were a few stumps to get through as well.
Here are a few photos of our progress. The first two are of the west side fenceline, taken back on November 20th. The first one shows some of the fenceposts (looking south), the second photo was taken from the same spot, but looking north up the line to the northwest corner.
This photo was taken from the northwest corner, looking south. The stick with the orange tape is approximately where the corner of the fence will be.
This photo was taken from the logging road looking back west to the northwest corner.
This was what we worked on today, from the logging road east.
And finally, this is the view from the northeast corner of the planned fenceline looking south. You can just see our hay shelter in the center of the photo. The fence will actually angle down the hill about to where those long trees are lying before continuing south along the east side of the property.
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