Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Derby at the Farm

This weekend, Julia, The Farmer and I headed down to northern CT to pick up a new ram. I made Julia go so she would see we aren't the only people in the world raising sheep - she is 15 now and not very interested in what her parents are interested in. She still can't figure out why she has to live on a sheep farm and doesn't live in the suburbs. I won't go on much about this but she is like a lot of farm kids - she can't wait to move away. Some kids love living on a farm and some kids don't. Unfortunately, I have one of those who wants to leave the mud and the dirt and live with asphalt and shopping malls. To each his own. 

Back to Derby at the Farm...... Our sheep farming operation's main purpose is to raise lambs to grow into meat for our farmer's market lamb business. There are other reasons we grow sheep but I will not go into them here now. Every farm needs a crop and here, our lambs are our crop. Over the years The Farmer has developed his own cross-bred homegrown breed of sheep. He is always trying to better the farm and the flock and hope it turns a profit. This is not a hobby farm so animals have to pay their way or they go away. I know most of you don't want to hear that - as I never could understand when I was fresh from the NJ suburbs. That is the way it is here and on most working farms. We do not have deep pockets - in fact, at this point they are incredibly shallow.

The Farmer is constantly researching sheep and methods to raising them. He is what I call a Sheep Geek (I just coined that - I think I like it!). The easiest way to change the breeding direction and body type of a flock of sheep is to introduce new genetics to the flock. Change the boys and you can have a new body and wool type in a year with resulting babies. It then takes another year or more to see how the babies do on our particular land and how they re-produce. It is all science and biology. Most people like to think about the bucolic parts of raising sheep - fluffy white grazing animals, heads down to the ground - but in the end it is science.

Sheep grazing last year - our grass is not this long yet

We have experimented with many different breeds over the years - beginning with Romneys (when we were primarily interested in the wool).... (These are our very first sheep and our dog Haida who was a Sheltie cross) in front of a big maple tree at the farm in Bernardston. It is amazing to think that from these animals, all the rest have come. Multiplication for sure.)


We've had other ram breeds -  Rambouillet, Border Leicesters..... 

(This one came from New Hampshire via Rhode Island) [Border Leicesters have beautiful open heads and long wool. They are used in the UK a lot to produce cross-bred ewes for breeding flocks]

Our Border Leicester Ram

(This handsome ram came from Launie York's farm in Shelburne) [Cheviots are rather jumpy and are very tough sheep - the lambs thrive when they hit the ground. They are very quick too so if we don't catch a lamb on the first day, we might as well forget tailing them because they are un-catchable. Love the perky upright ears. Their carcass is rather small and they put on fat quicker than other breeds.]

The Cheviot Ram this winter
.....Dorset, Polypay, Dorper/Texel, and more which I really can't remember. The rule of thumb is you need one ram per 50 sheep although depending on the age of the ram, this can differ. Older boys sometimes can have trouble mounting and younger boys may not be quite fertile enough, nor be able to fight off the competition of the larger boys. Basically, it is National Geographic in real time around here - you know - sheep sex, gestation, life and death - that is what a farm is. 

A couple years ago, we bought a Polypay ram - he came from the University of Wisconsin. We met him on the side of Rt. 91 as he had hitched a ride from an Ohio Sheep Sale with another farmer from New England. Here he is heading out on his first day with the girls in 2011. He has sired some very nice ewes who are in their first year of breeding now. He isn't the most handsome fellow - he is getting on in years. His genetics have increased lambing % and the size of our sheep. He is docile and easy to be around and his wool is quite fine. Rams can get nasty and be dangerous. If they do - they do not stay around here - we get rid of them very quickly.
The Polypay Ram the day he arrived in August 2011
 On Sunday we went to a farm owned by Rachael Gateley in CT. Rachael is a vet and a long time sheep breeder - and only in her mid-20's. Her sheep are her passion - as with many sheep breeders. The Farmer found out about Rachael when he began looking for a Texel ram. Because we are now mainly selling lamb meat, we need bigger animals with a larger, meatier carcass. Enter the Texel. They were developed in Holland and are now being used worldwide as "terminal sires." That means that all the lambs that the Texel ram sires will be used for meat, not for breeding stock. So that is what we were after.

I love meating (oops) sheep people - they are always interesting and smart and really into their animals and farming. Rachael has been raising sheep since she was young and even her mom, who we met, raised sheep as a child. Long time farm farmily. 

Here is what we found - a pen full of beautiful two to four month old ram lambs. Can you see those muscles? Wow - what gorgeous lambs.

The Farmer had to choose one - he chose #5 who was named Derby. How did he choose? Besides the breed which he had already chosen, he looked at the head size. Derby had a slim head (some of the Texels have very large wide heads) and he thinks that will make for easier birthing for our mamas. 

"Hurry up - put that camera down."
We popped Derby into a large dog crate and headed back to the farm. He rode good - it was only a little over an hour. The Farmer got him out of the crate and carried him to the greenhouse. Here he is getting to know his new friends. Smelling is as important to sheep as it is to dogs!

Derby is 2 months old. The lambs that are around him are less than a month and different breeds. 

So far, so good for Derby. It is always dicey when you pay money for an animal like this - things can happen - they can get beat up and then not be able to breed. Ram lambs are unproven - they might not be fertile (yes, that happened to us a few times). They can get sick and die before even breeding. But we know this going in and just hope for the best. Derby is a looker for sure.

The Kentucky Derby is coming this weekend - will you be celebrating? We are going to a party and I am bringing deviled eggs - recipe here. Tis the time of year. I guess this Derby weekend we have another reason to celebrate - the arrival of our Derby. I'll keep you posted on Derby's growth as he matures. It's always interesting around here.


madingley said...

I'm in the middle of reading a new book about sheep husbandry in the UK, so your post is even more interesting to me! The author is more focused on meat than wool production, and is fascinated with breeding. I have to confess the beautiful cover sold me on the book....http://www.amazon.co.uk/Counting-Sheep-Celebration-Pastoral-Heritage/dp/1846685044

Kristin Nicholas said...

Thanks Madingley - I just ordered. I had heard about this book and forgot to order it. Sounds good and right down our alley.

cockney blonde said...

Love reading your blog and learning about the sheep farming. So much to learn and having watched a series recently in the UK I recognised some of the breeds you mentioned. Good luck with your new ram, x

Leslie said...

One of the things I really appreciate about your blog is it isn't "just" knitting and yarn. Following the life of a farm, sheep business, lamb sales, product development posts -- they all make you a well rounded and educational read. Thanks. Best of luck with Derby.

Tina said...

As always, such an interesting and well written post Kristen! All it really needed was a good Derby HAT. I kept on hoping and hoping, right to the last word! :)

Unknown said...

Love the blog and learning something new each time I visit. Spent the day at Churchill Downs, fancy hat and all, and managed to lose only a few dollars :-) The racetrack is an amazing place and the horses are spectacular. Now back to my small town life...

Anonymous said...

I can totally relate to Julia as I grew up on a sheep farm in Australia and couldn't wait to move away (now living in your region of the world). I have fond memories of growing up and helping with the moving of sheep, shearing and tailing. Love reading your blog as it takes me back.

Anonymous said...

I understand about the diversification of the stock. Very important on a number of fronts. What about the wool?

The diversification must affect the wool. Does it for the most part help or hurt your wool production? Or does it not matter because you are designing the sheep to be food.

I know that some sheep have better wool than another type of sheep. What do you do with the wool after you shear them?

Just very interested in this stuff.


Kathleen C. said...

Just curious... If the new genetics mixed into your flock show up in a year or so, what do you do if an undesirable trait shows up too? I suppose you would have to identify the carriers and take them out of breeding? And then change rams? A big loss probably. It must be a little nerve-racking adding a new type and hoping it brings out the best traits only. It is not easy being a farmer (duh).
Also (only slightly related) a good friend has just ventured into small time sheep raising. We purchased almost a whole lamb's meat from her... WOW! I never knew pasture raised, local, fresh lamb could taste so good! It's the best lamb we've ever had! I wish I could tell everyone up around your Farmer's Market that.

katherine said...

Great post. It is wonderful that you are taking time to share and educate folks about the sheep industry. We are a farming family and raise a small flock of cross breed lambs/sheep - our 5 children have or do show sheep at our county fair and it is the highlight of their farming year and has helped pay for the two oldest way through college, both getting Ag degrees! Love the National Geographic analogy, ha! And understand about pocket problems...farming is a rough and tough business, my husband works full time to help support our farming, hum?
Your operation looks tops and we wish you success with your new ram. Best Regards Kathy

Lizy Tish said...

So interesting to learn about the rams. Thanks for sharing the info and the pictures.

Pottery, Digital Divide + Interesting Videos

Two vases - one from 2019 and one from 1997 Thank you so much everyone for the support of my ceramics. On Thursday, I added 32 new piece...