Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Slogging South

Here in Western Mass, we've had more snow than you can shake a stick at. More snow in two weeks time than in the whole of last winter, or at least it seems that way. And so, like any self respecting fair-weather shepherds, we are heading south for a few days!
Really, its hard to quit all this sludging, shoveling and general sheepkeeping, but our annual trip is a family tradition. We drive to Florida to visit family come hell or high water. We let the chips fall where they may. And let me tell you, the chips ALWAYS DO fall where they may. Each year is a whole new adventure! Once, all five on us got the stomach flu in the Carolinas. (In a nicely ironic touch, we were sick in the hokey "South of the Border" amusement stop.) Another time, we got the plain old flu-flu... bad. 104 degree-blow-airconditioning-on-that-child-and-sponge-her-with-icewater-from-the-cooler bad. And one year, our old minivan broke down on the side of the road just south of Jacksonville the day before Christmas.
And the chips also fall back on the farm: The floor of the chicken coop fell out our first trip away. (Our wonderful farm sitters managed to put it back together before any predators struck) and, in the biggest tragedy we've encountered, Diego our beautiful moorit mouflon ram lamb died. (We got the call Christmas morning, on that one) So.... maybe we're due for a nice, calm, healthy visit. Whatever the case, I won't be posting for a little bit.

To get myself in the Florida spirit, I thought I'd share some recent snowy pictures. (Otherwise I might never leave this place.)
Here is our picnic table BEFORE the last big snowstorm:

And here it is AFTER:

The ewes pay no mind to the weather (They pay no mind to the wether for that matter :) and venture out in rain, sleet and snow

Kids and canines too

Happy Holidays Everybody!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fools Rush In

Today was one of those (many) days in which I wish I was a a more seasoned shepherd, or at least a shepherd with a little more time, farm gear and common sense. A shepherd with a clue.

It all started reasonably enough. Here in New England, we are expecting a big storm-- oodles of snow they say, just oodles!-- and this on top of the foot already down! Sheesh. Dan and I figured we better take advantage of the lull in the weather. He went to the dump (one of those small-town necessities that I find actually really like and appreciate. (I'll have to explain that one sometime, eh?) and then he "snowblew" (Now THAT is one awesome new verb!) the driveway. This on top of my Friday morning 4 AM shoveling and his Thursday night shoveling. Like I said: we got A LOT of snow this week.) Then he made several runs down the hill to buy hay. All we have to cart hay bales is a minivan, so this process involves removing all the seats in the minivan, sliding down the snowy hills to the hay farm, loading up, barely skidding back up the hills to Maggie's Farm, dropping all the hay bales in the driveway (As attempting the steep driveway down to the barn is utterly foolhardy), putting three bales at a time on the kids' sled (As the ATV is in the shop) and sliding them down the hill until done, and then heading back down to the hay farm for more, etc etc. While all this fun was going on, I thought I'd take the kids into town to stock up on a few groceries (in case we get snowed in longer than Sunday and also because we've been HOME TOGETHER, mostly inside, for the last 5 or so days and I needed-- really NEEDED-- to get OUT!) The plan was for Dan and I to meet up around evening chores and figure out the best way to secure the sheep for the storm and batten down whatever hatches needed battening.

Well, The kids and I took longer than expected and a friend stopped by and, long story slightly shorter, Dan and I ended up down at the barn around 8 PM (kid bedtime, in our household) puzzling over our latest shepherding conundrum. You know that old puzzle about a farmer trying to get across a river with a bag of grain, chicken and fox, but he can only take two items at a time? Well, we felt just like that guy. We didn't want to leave Franklin (See "Don't Need a Wether, Man") and James with only a semi-three sided shelter for the upcoming blizzard (The picture above is of Franklin and James, before the last 3 snow/ice falls). But we knew from past experience, that little James, our smallest ram lamb, would get clobbered if we opened the door into the barn and allowed James, Franklin, Charlie Bucket and Daisy to freely mingle. Also, although we were pretty sure Daisy had already been bred, we weren't sure how Franklin and Charlie would get along. Also, there was no chance in hell we'd catch Franklin in the dark with a foot of snow on the ground. As I said, he's one wiley, wiley dude.

So, thought we, let's just see what happens if we put them all together. What harm could THAT be? Well, it was a jungle out there. The new group milled about excitedly for a few seconds. Charlie and James (half-brothers and old chums) seemed to be alright, but Franklin, as we'd suspected, went ballistic, banging everybody around. I don't think he realizes he can't, um, that he has no, um. Well, you know. Experienced shepherds, out in the barn at their kids' bedtime starting at a fractious little flock of sheep that somehow had to share a shelter through the humongoid blizzard bearing down on them might know just what to do but we didn't. We had no clue. Dan was of the "Oh, they'll work it out just fine. Let's leave them be" persuasion and I was of the "They're going to kill each other! We must do something at once!" persuasion. We hemmed and hawed and wondered if maybe one of our handy dandy sheep books might provide some guidance (Right!) Oh, and also, rookie Icelandic sheepdog, Luka, went a little nutso herself watching the sheep conk heads and Maggie, an old veteran (at least when it comes to the inaction of her humans), pounced on Luka whenever she got too forward. Which made the whole thing just that much wilder. (Sheepdogs just HAVE to control things. If left to their own devices, Maggie and Luka could probably have gotten the mess untangled all by themselves.)
Finally, Dan and I decided that we ought to do something, at least about James, who was obviously the weakest, and most vulnerable, link. Unlike Franklin, he was easy to catch. Dan just reached into the mess-o-milling-sheep and yanked him out. Then he carried James to the empty stall in the barn. So, now James is alone but safe (We reasoned that "alone" however miserable for a sheep was better than injured or dead) Then, we mulled over Franklin and Charlie Bucket for a while. Franklin is bigger, and he seems to turn into the sheep equivalent of "The Incredible Hulk" when in the vicinity of a juicy ewe, but there was really no way to get him out of the group without a few hours worth of sliding around in the snow and even then, it was not likely. So we had to leave them to work it out on their own.

But that's not all: We checked on James before we went back to the house. He looked a little forlorn, and so I gave him some extra hay and a handful of grain. Now, let me preface this by saying, James has never in his life had a handful of grain all to himself and grain is the sheep equivalent of candy here on Maggie's Farm, and so little James in scarfing his grain pellets, managed to choke himself but good. He was bucking and staggering around in his stall and drooling gobs of grain and spit out of his nostrils, and I was sure he was going to drop dead right there. Dan was already out the door and halfway up the hill by then. I called him back and we stared at the poor little guy who was now standing very still, breathing in shallow little pulls and dripping green-brown slime out of more than a few orifaces. "We have to do something!" I said. "I remember hearing about this. What was it Ally did when this happened to her? We have to do something!"

Dan said. "Oh, he'll be alright. He's breathing." See a pattern here?
If we were more experienced shepherds, if we could remember the details... something about a tube, a temperature... maybe we wouldn't stand there in the barn (twice in one night!) trying to buy a clue. Thankfully, James solved this one for himself, burping up a big glob of slime, sneezing and then going back to his happy pile of grain all fine and dandy. (That's sheep for ya.)

Dan and I trudged up the hill. We opened the door. It was just too quiet in the house. Where were the children? Micah was reading her Calvin and Hobbes comic book, Anna called from the bathroom, and there was little Joe, hiding behind a chair. "It's so peaceful in here!" I said. (Really, the hiding behind the chair thing should have tipped me off) In reply Joe said. "I'm sorry, Mama." That's when I noticed the spilled soup all over the floor, two bowls of it. No biggie. But it could have been worse, much worse.

This is one of the toughest things about newbie shepherding (and newbie mothering) there is never a perfect solution. There are solutions sure, but all of them involve sacrifices and risks. I go down to the barn and hope I've taught the kids well enough to manage for a few minutes. I leave the sheep to their own devices (too much perhaps?) and hope they'll muddle through. Maybe a few years from now, Dan and I will cease to be surprised by all these complications. Somebody chokes on some grain and we'll be right there with the sheep (or human) heimlich. A wether forgets he's a wether and we'll just... we'll just... Well. We'll know what to do by then, won't we?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wintery mix!

The last 3 days have gifted us with two incidents of what is euphemistically called "icing". And, oh boy is it fun! I slide down the hill to feed the sheep (Literally: slide, hugging up on tree limbs and fenceposts along the way to slow myself) and I knock around like a hockey puck while loaded with hay and water and whatnot. The sheep don't seem troubled by the think layer of ice coating their backs and the trees are (so far) dealing. But my commute has been tough. Monday was a complete wash and Wednesday involved Dan and I digging the car out of the snow after it skidded off the driveway in the early AM hours.

Sometimes, I fear I am not cut out for this life-- all the chopping and carrying and skidding, knocking ice out of waterbuckets the catching, detangling, dequilling and midwifing recalcitrant sheep. But then, later, I feel so envigorated.

Even now, as watch the snow having a field day outside my window, I feel strangely content. I know, we'll handle it somehow. The kids and sheep , chickens, dogs and Dan (Who is Canadian and unimpressed by New England weather) will be just fine. And we'll laugh about it too, perhaps not today, or while digging out at 4AM tomorrow, but, someday...

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Coming Soon to a Barn Near You:

Dan and I finally got all the sheep into their breeding groups last week. It took quite a lot in the way of shoring up fences and jerry-rigging shelters, hay feeders and whatnot. Everybody is squared away and showing that ol' interest: the rams curling their lips and tapping the ewes ever so gently with their forelegs, the ewes wagging their tails and peeing so fetchingly. Ahhhh, sheep love!

We've learned a lot in our first two years of shepherding (At least we like to think so) and I'd like to think this will be our break-out year for breeding and lambing. We'll see... Farming has a way of humbling such lofty dreams!

Our first year, we were utter newbies with two ewes (Copper and Daisy) a ram and a wether. The plan was to separate Daisy, as she was still a "ewe lamb" and we'd read that there could be all kinds of complications. We'd planned on wether, Franklin, hanging out with her throughout the breeding season. Sure. No problem, right? Well, November came, and we didn't have our separate living arrangements arranged and Gus, being the big ramly ram that he was, took the matter out of our hands. Contrary to popular wisdom, Daisy had no difficulty lambing at all. In fact she did it out in the pasture mid-April and just got up and went on with things like a pro. (If only I'd started out mothering half as competently. My first few days were more like this: "Do I really have to leave the hospital and go home now? What will I do with this child? Who will take care of me?") Anyway, that first year, Daisy did alright, and Copper had a lovely set of twins as well. We felt like such successful shepherd that year. What pros! We were sure we could do any farming thing. Lambs? Hey, no problemo!

Well, the next year was quite a reckoning. We had 6 ewes and figured on up to 12 lambs. "Quite a crop," we told our friends and neighbors. "We'll be 'Lamb Central' come spring!" Hah! Ya see, there were some issues that year. First our new ram, Diego, died while we were on vacation. We think it happened when he and Franklin were sparring (As I've mentioned in "Don't Need a Wether, Man", Franklin isn't keen on breeding activity going on under his watch.) and, little did we know, none of the ewes in with Diego ended up being bred. Gus' group had issues of its own. Louise, our super flighty ewe, miscarried at the very top of lambing season. I was home alone (of course!) trying to squeeze in my farm chores while readying the kids for school when I discovered her halfway through the miserable process. I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, it was not a positive experience, and I spent all day re-learning and revisiting pregnant ewe care. I called Barb Webb, an amazing resource, and wrote to the Homesteaders discussion group and generally, wrung my hands. Copper had a single ram that year. Then Snazzy had a tiny (I mean TINY!) lamb that seemed, to my inexperienced eyes, like the most vulnerable creature on Earth. Of course, I was home alone for that as well, and fretted over whether the teeny thing was getting any milk and whether Snazzy, an inexperienced and obviously perplexed new mom, would develop a clue. But it worked out okay somehow. Lastly, Daisy, who had lambed with ease as a yearling, ended up with complications. Dan was home with me for that one (Thank God!) and I'll have to write that whole story down one of these days. It is pretty amusing (in retrospect) Suffice it to say: not fun. Not fun at all. Little James did survive however. And all's well that end's well. right? All together, Dan and I got a good dose of "just about everything that can go wrong" that lambing season and our confidence was shaken. Who said lambing was a piece of cake anyway?

So now, with two years under our belts, we are hopeful and eager for a nice crop of lambs. Five of our ewes will be first time moms and two are old pros. We are upping the selenium in our minerals this year and adding kelp. We are making those ewes WALK to their hay rather than delivering it closeby. We are hoping all the things we learned in the last two seasons have prepared us for whatever will happen in this one.

And so, with hopes a flyin' and oodles of drum rolls, I present our three fine breeding groups:

In group one, the polled group, we have mellow Bombadil, our black gray ram lamb with an amazing fleece and interesting black gray coloring. Bombadil is long bodied and broad and we like him lots. Lots.

Bombadil is hanging with Maya, she of the fine, cinnamon/rusty fleece and subtle mouflon patterning...
and Louise, queen of "structure", also long-bodied and broad, (though a bit of a basket case personalitywise). and Acorn and Penny (big broad ewes with Jager and AI bloodlines) Also, Acorn has the sweetest temperment ever!

In group two, we have Harry, a black mouflon ram lamb with great fleece and meaty build. Harry's horns are not terrific (too small and close) and we may not keep him very long, but we'd like to add his genetics to our flock. He has AI blood (Kostur) and the longbodied build we are breeding for.

Harry's hangin' with Copper our veteran ewe, and the most sensible sheep ever. Copper is white, but "white" doesn't really describe the beautiful oatmeal tint of her fleece. All her lambs have been fast growing and well built.

and Leela, a badgerfaced moorit ewe with one of the nicest, most terrific fleeces we've seen. It is highly crimpy and that warm oatmeal color.

And lastly, we are trying our hand at linebreeding. We have Charlie Bucket, a calm, beautiful, fast growing and super parasite resistant ram lamb

with Daisy, Copper's daughter, also with a nice broad build and a terrific personality (as sheep go)

So there you have it folks. With any luck, we'll have 7-14 lambs-- in a sheepy rainbow of colors and patterns-- come spring.

(And if you want more specific information about any of these wonderful Icelandics, feel free to visit the business end of the enterprise ant

Thursday, December 6, 2007


I've mentioned I commute have I?
The topic isn't exactly sheep or farm related, but commuting is a big part of my life-- a big CHUNK of my life for the last few years. I feel guilty about it: How can I even TALK about sustainability when I drive over 100 miles to get to work (Yup, really. Over a hundred miles.) To reduce my gas guzzling, I've pared down from a ridiculous Nissan Pathfinder to a Subaru Wagon to the teeny Toyota that I now enjoy. (We considered the Prius or some other hybrid, but, as virtually all my miles are highway miles, the Prius, would not make any difference in total mileage.) And 600 some miles, however you slice 'em, is a heck of a lot. So yep. There is the guilt (slightly off-set by all the ecofriendly things we do here on Maggie's farm)

There is also the TIME: Two hours minimum. Time for our cool local radio, the Writer's Almanac, Boston NPR, then, when that grows tiresome, wonderful books on tape. Our local library is my friend. (Check out the "running Booklist" down the right side of this page to see what we're reading)

Last, but certainly not least, there's the horrendously early wake up time. I get up at 4AM and am out the door by 4:45. Yup. Really. (All those who knew me in high school just can't believe this) And here's the really weird part: I LIKE it. I really, really like to wake up early. I step off my porch and take a minute to look at the full sky of stars overhead. the air is crisp and new, even in summer. And it is so quiet.... at least until our current rooster, Batmandu, hears me walking around and decides that sun or not, it must be morning after all and starts crowing down in the coop. You know you are up early when you WAKE UP your rooster! There are always deer on the road, and often, other critters I've seen foxes, coyotes and skunk, tiny deermice that skitter across our dirt road in the headlights. I've seen many, many screech owls. By the time I hit Boston, the sun is just rising. I zoom down Route 2 and catch the whole sparkly city laid out before me with the deep orange sunrise behind it.

I can't say I mind commuting. I like driving. Actually, I went through a phase (in my twenties: the ideal age for all phases, near as I can tell) when I wanted to go to trucking school and drive a semi. The fact that I can't seem to "get" stick shift didn't phase me. Time has worn that old dream away. Though I still long to pack up and take the family on a year-long, hands-on road trip. Dan is, um, shall we say "not too crazy" for that idea. And neither are the sheep, dogs, chickens, or guineas. (However, Lovey the rat says "Okay, by me.")

This was the view from my driveway on Wednesday morning, at the start of a long (but rewarding) workday. If I stayed home on the farm full-time, I know I'd go stircrazy as all get-out. (That, and the financial house of cards that is always threatening to come crashing down around our ears, WOULD come crashing down around our ears.) I love my work and my farm. I could say the distance between them is the price to be paid for having it both ways. Or that I have one foot on the platform, the other foot on the train, Or, as my Grandmother used to say, "You only got one little tush; ya can't be in two places at one time", Or that I am certifiably insane. And every one of these would be true. (Except, maybe, the part about the little tush.)

Anyway, for now, I'll take to the road.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Don't Need a Wether, Man

This is Franklin, our leadersheep wether.

When our original little flock of four first set hoof on the good dirt of Maggie's Farm, Franklin was indispensible. He kept Gus, our big ramly ram, company when we separated the pregnant ewes. He and Gus got along famously, no squabbling at all. And Franklin, being an Icelandic leadersheep, kept a watch over things. He led the flock to green pasture and shelter and also through any little gap or weakness in the fencing. (He also led them back home again.) He noticed anything unusual and kept an eye. (He was especially troubled by one of my goofy, octopus-like winter hats. Couldn't take his eyes off that thing.)

For a sheep, Franklin is capital S smart.

But, times change and Franklin is now quite dispensible. We have three rams who can keep each other company very well thank you, and Franklin has decided that, though he is wethered (i.e. castrated), he will not tolerate any breeding going on around him. As he is bigger (and wilier) than any of our ram lambs, he is no longer welcome in any of our breeding groups.

Dan and I discovered this intolerance yesterday after we spent about an hour and half chasing down, dragging and otherwise "separating" the sheep into their respective breeding groups. We sat back, feeling that exhausted sense of accomplishment that farmers know well, watching our new breeding groups um, "becoming acquainted". There was trouble in the smallest group. Franklin couldn't bear the sight of Charlie Bucket and Daisy, um, you know. He actually knocked Charlie down mid, um, you know.

So in we swooped, the dynamic and hapless farming duo, and we separated Franklin from the group. Well, actually, Franklin separated himself, knocking through the halfbuilt stall that SOMEONE had left open for him.

Actually, the whole thing went down this way:

Dan"One of us has to climb in there and get Franklin."

Me: "Okay, how about you do that honey."
Dan climbs in, leaving the stall door just slightly open. Franklin, being exceptionally intelligent (as I've previously noted, but happened to forget in the actual moment) , comes bounding through the opening and sizes up the situation, his back to the wall, while the rest of the flock hangs out peacefully.

Me: "^%$#!!! You let him out!"

Dan: "Well, catch him! Don't let him pass you!"

Me, standing in the half-built (see Rampage) gate between the devilish Franklin and the great wide world: "Are you kidding? How do you expect me to do that?"

Before we can take this rare spat any further, Franklin proves my point by propelling himself past me with the force of a freight train. He knocks over the gate and slams my hand pretty good in the process. (I held it out in front of him in a futile grab for one of those prominent and attractive horns of his.)

A grumpy half hour of "chase" the sheep rattle the grain bucket, "Here, Franklin. Here, boy!" ensued. Oh, the farming life! (All this as our first real winter storm erupted overhead-- Of course!)

Well, before long, Franklin decided enough was enough and trotted back into the pasture all on his own, and Dan and I were immediately chummy again.

Also, we decided then and there that Franklin is free to go now. That is: He is for sale. So, if you need a wether to keep your ram or ewe company, or think it'd be nice to have a watchful and wily leadersheep in your flock, or have a yen for beautiful, naturally colored fleece. Or whatever else. Please contact us at Maggie's farm ( or here on this blog. We'll make ya an offer you can't refuse.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Last Gasp for Apples

The apples are pretty much done for the year. A week or two of on-and-off below freezing made sure of that. It was a tough year for apples altogether. The Empire Macs were small, really small, and several of our Jonagold trees took the year off entirely. The Mutsu muscled through though, as usual. And as usual, they were the hardiest in withstanding the cold. Above, we have a little poetic license along with a fine batch of mitsu apples bathing in our sink, awaiting the juicer. We canned about five big jars of juice and that was that. The unprocessed apples on the porch, the ones we meant to turn into pies and applesauce and whathaveyou: toast. Frostbitten toast.

We don't sell our apples, as we have an agreement with a local orchard: They care for the apples all year and, aside from the reasonable number of trees we request, they collect and sell them at their farm store. Someday maybe we'll have the equipment and time to make a go with the apples, and to grow them organically, but for now, they are a hobby at best, the source of a multitude of yellowjackets at worst. This year, we gave a ton of our apples away to friends and family and also invited the kids' classes to come out for a day of applepicking, but we didn't ever get serious with our own harvest. We were SO busy, occupied with unexpected events of every stripe, AND the ATV (used for trucking carts of apples) is broken indefintely AND all Dan's scant spare time has been tied up in building the sheep shed forever (See "Any Day Now") AND, antlike, we've been trucking loads of (very expensive) hay up the hill in the minivan whenever we have a chance. This year's apples just got lost in the shuffle.

Next year we'll do better, we'll be more organized, perfect our cold storage room down in the barn, can applesauce and applebutter, make and freeze dozens of pies. Right? um, right.

Here's to facing next year with high hopes, anyway...

Any Day Now…

It’s cold. Real cold. But beautiful in that gray, old leafstrewn, chunks of ice in the water buckets kinda way. Farm chores are a lot more taxing in this weather. Wet gloves stick to metal gates, water spilled on one’s pant legs freezes into a nice hard sheet of ice before you make it back to the house, you get to knock the ice out of the buckets a few times a day and listen to the sad baaas of sheep as you head back up the hill. All this and more. Once we have a few feet of snow on the hill, chores can be downright treacherous.
We’re expecting a snowstorm tonight. The bare trees look almost dingy, and sky is that heavy, heavy gray. You want to yell “Get it over with, already!”At least, once the snow starts, we can cuddle up beside the woodstove and not go anywhere or do much of anything without the accompanying guilt. What else is there to do? (Aside from cooking, cleaning and kidcare that is...) Also, snow is pretty, especially when viewed from a window.)

Dan’s been working on our new sheep shed. We have two beautiful, cozy barns, but we have three beautiful breeding groups this year. So SOMEBODY—in this case veteran ewe, Copper, ram lamb, Harry, and the lovely, badgerfaced Leela—will be out in the cold unless we get the durn thing built. And the sooner the better, as Charlie has been tailing around after his little half-brother James with an unmistakable posture of ramly intention. Here they are in a less testosterone infused moment:

While Dan was out pounding nails in the 15 degree weather, I strolled by to take a few photos of the status quo. (In my defense, the exactitude required by building doesn’t fit with my “looks good enough/let’s just try it and see” sensibilities. Dan and I have worked out an equitable division of labor that does not require me to mess up--- er, build—many of the farm construction projects.)

It's going to come sooner or later. So, I say (halfheartedly) let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!