Monday, August 19, 2013

Shorter Days

Sunday morning we realized it was the middle of August. The days are getting shorter, the sun lower in the sky and on a sheep farm that means that the ewes will begin cycling and become fertile. Most sheep are seasonal breeders which is why there are "spring" lambs. When the lambs are born depends on when a ram is introduced into the ewe flock. Gestation for sheep is 5 months so babies should begin arriving mid-January 2014.

We are using three rams this year - a big old Polypay, a very feisty Cheviot, and our new Dorset ram who is actually only about 7 months old. The big old Polypay is a gentle fellow and he went onto the trailer easily. He came from the University of Wisconsin 3 years ago and was probably handled more than most of our sheep. We moved him into the largest ewe flock. He is getting rather old (7) and it will probably be his last year breeding our flock since we will begin having trouble with in-breeding. His lambs have been beautiful - nice carcasses, fast growth rate, and fine wool. 

Rams can get mean and they are large animals. I help but mostly I stay back a bit from these big animals. No place for an expensive camera when moving these boys. Nessie and Kate were on board for help. Nessie can stand up to a ram. We keep Kate away from them so that her confidence won't be shaken.

The Cheviot ram is a total nut case. He came from Launie York's gorgeous flock of Cheviots in Shelburne and he throws beautiful, strong and hardy lambs that hit the ground running. He is three years old now and ornery and big (although he hasn't started knocking people over yet - that happens - he's gone from here). He jumps like a deer and he is stubborn. It took two tries to catch him and then quite awhile to get him into the trailer. My comment is that if he knew what awaited him, he'd be moving right along but I guess sheep aren't that smart.

The new Dorset ram

The Dorset Ram came from western Pennsylvania early this summer. He was the easiest to move because he was tamer than the other two boys. We put him in with a smaller flock (number wise) of ewes that are grazing a field in the middle of our small town. 


The Farmer doesn't want to stress him out since this is his first official breeding season. Let's hope he is fertile. There have been years that we have had no lambs because of that. He was disoriented and not sure where to go. 

Luckily we had the help of Nessie and the landowners to get him in where he belonged. After moving the big boys around town, we sorted lambs to take to the processor. Kate was a huge help. She is getting less timid about moving the sheep and is keen to be in the fray. We were able to pick out 12 decent size lambs and they will become part of the Farmer's Market product.

A couple weeks ago, I linked to this article in the NYTimes. It is interesting to read the comments that people have written. Farming is a 24/7 job. As someone who has lived on a working farm for decades and who has a husband who was raised on a farm, I have been completely amused by all the buzz about the new farmers and the recent growing adulation that farmers have been receiving. Don't get me wrong - it is awesome that this is a trend and it has made selling our lamb meat to the public a reality. That there is a market for family farm raised small agriculture is an amazing development in the American culture. The big question in my mind is "Do the new farmers really know what they are getting into?" I think that the outside non-farm world puts a very romantic kind of spin on a farm family's life. It is really easy to do... pretty pictures of animals grazing, perfect flowers growing in neat rows, corn standing straight with silk plummeting out of the tops of the ears tucked amongst the tall stalks, ripe fresh berries, red shiny apples, cows and sheep grazing. Those pictures (and for one - I am guilty of taking and posting those pictures) - make farm life become a dream in many a city or suburban dweller. I grew up in northern New Jersey and I too had the dream.

Thirty years in ..... I will say that the dream is so far from the pretty picture. The reality of farming is not what most people could even dream of. The truth of the matter is farming is dirty, very dirty - not football playing, green grass induced, mudpie making dirty - a different kind of dirty. Farmers have a relationship with the earth in all forms. Our farm depends on the dirt below it, the air above it, the rain coming down or not coming down, the entire ecosystem. I am not disappointed by the reality. It makes me a better person and I have what I consider a rather healthy view on what life is. I love where I live in a beautiful area of New England. I love that I have fresh eggs to eat and bake with and 9 freezers full of lamb that we can sell to like minded individuals who are interested in where their food comes from. 

The reality of farming is that it is a very difficult way to make a living in a country that has become so slanted towards big business, imports, cheap prices, expensive colleges, and corporate profits. I was at a friend's house the other day, and she was totally surprised that we didn't make our living farming. We try very hard to - we make good decisions based on years of experience, reading, networking with other farmers and the bottom line. Every purchase is considered with the farm's best interest. The reality of this farm is that we cannot live off our farm work and our animals. It costs a huge amount of money to farm - even sheep. We have two other businesses that help to contribute to our family's income. It is a real struggle to pay the $1700 health insurance bill that comes monthly. I do not have the time right now to form my words into a proper essay. Maybe one day it will come pouring out but I have another book to work on right now. I do not know where this farming life will take my family next. I do know that it is almost impossible for me to leave here to travel for work or take a vacation (what's that?). 

If you are thinking of going into farming, I suggest you read up on it - as many books as you can by honest farmers who don't sugarcoat the realities. I liked this book by a different Kristin who is a real farmer. I do know that you have to have a tough exterior and that any dreamy farm sentimentality just goes out the door. When I was getting ready to go cook samples at the Amherst Market the other day, I looked out the bedroom window to see a freshly killed leftover ewe carcass that Winston had dragged up through the fields. (He does that - he finds the dead animals after the coyotes kill them.) The coyotes have been preying on our the sheep here and although Winston helps some as do the expensive fences, we still find remnants of animals that the wild animals are feeding their young with. I guess it helps me to know that we have a few hundred animals out there but still. Unfortunately I have become quite used to seeing bits and pieces of carcasses of dead sheep and no longer have trouble picking up the pieces and heaving them into the woods. 

I have got to go back to work now - the book work that I am loving. At the end of the week, we think we will be shearing the rest of the ewe flock. I hope it isn't on Thursday when it is going to be 90 degrees. Just waiting for the call from the shearers. 

I thank you all for reading my ramblings and I hope you have a great week - before September rolls in. Eat some corn. I made some corn chowder yesterday and it was delish.


Auntie Shan said...



Nell said...

I can't imagine a book that would do a better job than your blog to chronicle the "real" life of a farm family. I have read your blog for years. A trip back through your posts about sheep farming and a good editor would be a good read in book format.

Gracey is not my name.... said...

I have never had illusions to the running of a's messy work that never ends...I could never do it and applaud those that can....

Wallace said...

Well said Kristin! And when you get hurt or have surgery, you get rid of animals because there is no one but you to do the work.

Esther said...

I discovered your blog about a year ago and now I savor each of your entries. Thank you for your openness and honesty on all subjects. To meet you someday would be an honor.

Benita said...

So true about farming. I grew up on a dairy farm, and when people ask why I don't raise sheep myself since I buy so many fleeces each year, I just tell them that having been raised on a working dairy farm, I've done the livestock thing and would rather buy from shepherds than raise sheep. Milking twice a day and raising all our feed and hay for the first 20 years of my life is enough for me.

Anonymous said...

You can take your rams to the vet and have them semen tested. It is not that much money to know you have a ram that works. Roy and I in the past had any where from 1-50 rams, it helps you make decisions, like bad ram, sell it. It costs a lot in labor and feed to keep around a free loader.

Elaine said...

Is your soil good enough for soy beans, corn, wheat, oats and any other grains that are saleable?

Anonymous said...

I love yarn and all things 'sheepy'. My husband has often said I probably wanted to put a couple of sheep in the yard. I tell him I have no such wish. I'll buy my wool. I don't have enough information, time and energy to take care of even a couple of sheep. Farming ain't for wimps or fools. More power to you and your family! Helen