Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Glitch Happens

So, if Murphy has never visited you, chucking his obnoxious little laws about like confetti, consider yourself one lucky farmer. Our day first lambing day of the season was rife with glitches, big and small. It was also a tremendous and utterly wonderful day.

It all began on a balmy spring Thursday. Dan was already at work, My nephews (5 and 7) were scheduled to spend the day, the turkey poults were due at the post office at any time, our seven ewes were looking positively huge.
A perfect storm was a brewing.

I went down to check on the ewes around six. Before I made it all the way down to the barn, I heard the squeaky bleat of a newborn lamb and the deep, "muffley" Ma-aa-aa of a new mama ewe. I peeked through the fence to find Daisy (AKA "Princess Daisy") drying off the second of her twins!

Daisy, having lambed twice previously, was an old pro, and she was actually showing a lot more interest and care than she had with her other two babes. I scrambled over the fence, picked the two up and, holding them at ewe's eye level, I backed into the barn with Daisy following and calling. Once she was locked in our "maternity ward" area to further bond, I cut and cleaned the lambs' navels. Two cute white ewe lambs, one with heavy phaeomelinin (peachy/coppery pigmentation that fades as a lamb matures) on the face and legs and one with "pinto" spots of phaeomelinin (possibly indicating that she carries the gene for spotting) Micah named them Caroline and Coraline.

I watched the trio a while, waiting to catch the reassuring sight of the lambs nursing. Nothing. Now, Daisy is a real mess. She is always a mess, the one ewe who's fleece is so consistently encrusted with mud and matts and vegetation it's hardly worth the effort, and after a muddy spring and delayed shearing, I worried that that fleece would prove impenetrable. The lambs did seem to be winding down, exhausted and shivery, poking around without success. I called my friend, Heather, who had offered her help, and together, we held Daisy still and clipped the matted, muddy fleece from around her udder and hind legs. Then we held the lambs to her side. They flopped down at first, then finally nursed strongly enough to get a dose of colustrum. It's possible they'd already nursed on their own and were simply spent from the whole birthing ordeal. At any rate, things seemed to be going swell. As glitches go, no sweat!

Then the turkey poults arrived. We took them from their packing crate (an ingenious little cardboard traveling box) and placed them under the heat lamp in their brand newly-built brooder box. The poults were feistier and bigger than chicks, and they commenced to peck at everything and anything in their paths, my right knuckle being the first casualty. They were pretty darn cute, I tell you!

My nephews arrived in the midst of all this livestockness and the 5 kids (All eight or under!) spent joyous hours playing pirates and desert island and building elaborate tracks for hot wheels cars and other wonderful-fun things. All of which needed near-constant supervision, mind you.

Then the power went out! Now, turkey poults must be kept at 100 degrees, free of drafts and temperature fluctuations. They are even more fragile than chicks, it is said. The day was sunny, but windblown and cool, nowhere near 100 degrees, nowhere near 70 degrees! I did what any self respecting turkey novice might do: I called the power company and registered my complaint. No, they didn't know when the power would be restored. No, they weren't responsible for the imminent death of my 15 poults (They don't "guarantee continuous service", after all). We were on our own. I poured the last water in our pipes into a large pot, boiled it up (Propane stove) and made makeshift water bottles out of all the old milk cartons and orange juice jugs in the recycle bin. The poults were quite happy with this strategy, they snuggled around these goofy heaters in fluffly little piles. I spent the next three hours refilling the water bottles, referreeing disputes between the five children, checking on Daisy's lambs, and making our very late lunch. Okay, Murphy, fine. Show me what you got. I am one resourceful flockmeister!

The power returned, right around the time that Penny, our four year old ewe went into labor. Penny is a first time mom, having come from Jager Farm by way of a small fiber flock. I suspected that she might have a difficult time, and shooed the kids inside to give her some privacy as she kept going all watchful and wary, her head zooming up to scan every which way at the cacophony of kidsounds. Penny's water broke, she paced and called to her unborn lambs, she sniffed the spot she'd chosen, pawed it, paced, called, pawed, paced. Nothing happened. Nothing.

Then it was dinnertime and my nephews went home and Dan (Thank god!) returned. He and I went back down to check on Penny's progress. Nothing. She was still pacing and pawing and calling. How long could this go on? We were three and a half hours in already! We called Barb Webb, who is as amazingly wonderful, helpful and knowledgeable a shepherd as you could ever hope to meet. She said we had to go in. The lamb could be breech or there could be some other hang up that needed immediate attention.

Ooookay... here we go again.
I had a serious flashback from last year when I reached inside Daisy without success to free her big lamb, James. Honestly? I did not want to do it. If I thought I could get away with hanging around and waiting on Penny another few hours, I would probably have done it. (Yep, this is seriously wimpy) But it was clear that something had to be done. Dan and I caught Penny and brought her into our second "maternity ward".

"The person with the smaller hands should do this." Dan said, noblely. Um, yep.... and that'd be... Me. I snipped my nails, sudsed up, and took a deep breath.
"Oh, Barb said she'll gush." Dan said. "You should expect that."

It took me a while to feel anything at all. At the risk of imparting too much information, I'll say that the inside of a sheep is slimey and warm and thoroughly unfathomable. Where was the lamb? There must be a lamb in there somewhere. I made contact with a tiny hoof, then another. Where was the nose? Lambs are born like little divers, their nose and hooves together. This lamb had the two hooves crossed demurely, but the head was far back somehow. I finally found it and was able to ease it forward. There is no way to quite describe the way it feels to come across a nose, a mouth and hard row of little teeth inside a sheep. Suffice to say it was a strange and strangely wonderful feeling. I was able to ease the nose and hooves forward. The legs were still a little more forward than they should be but I couldn't very well send them back in. I remembered the aforementioned episode with Daisy; our vet had grabbed that lamb and just muscled it out in one fell swoop. I could do that, I reasoned. No dice, though. The head was wedged tight. It was about 11:30 PM at this point and I saw how this thing could get ugly, real, real ugly before morning. I yanked and muscled and PULLED hard on those two little forelegs. Nada.

"Why are we doing this again?" I hollered at Dan (This is pretty much how all three of my own personal birthing scenes went.) "Just, PLEASE, tell me again why we wanted sheep. What the heck were we thinking?!"

Last ditch, Dan gave it a try and my better half, of vastly superior strength, was able to wrest the lamb free of its mama. (Smallest hands my foot!)

Our victory was short-lived, however, as the lamb appeared limp and lifeless. We rubbed vigorously while the exhausted Penny, with a surge of motherly instinct, licked the little gal's face and head. We dried the lamb best we could and it bleated weakly, barely lifting it's head. We provoked a sneeze with clean bits of straw poked into it's nose. (As instructed to do by various shepherding books) And, after what seemed a long ol' time, the lamb began to show some life. She was an adorable little thing with Penny's big eyes and clean white color, so different from the coppery beige of Daisy's two. Most adorably, she had dark markings, like eyeliner, around those big eyes. She stood to nurse and we assisted a little, just to make sure and cut away the matted fleece from around Penny's prodigious udder.

"Whew! I'm soooo glad we're on the other side of THAT!" I said. But the sheep gods (or maybe it was that durn Murphy again) had a little something else in store for us: As Penny swung her bum around to nuzzle her lamb, I noticed-- No, it couldn't, PLEASE No, it couldn't be-- another tiny hoof protruding from it. One tiny hoof. No nose, no nothing else. So here, we repeated the whole mussy thing, feeling up (literally) the sheep and yes, there was a head a little farther up, but the other hoof was was waaaay back there somewhere. I groped a while, remembering Barb's helpful injunction to imagine my fingertips had suction cups on them. I finally located a knee and was somehow able to straighten that sucker out. This time, the lamb came out pretty easily. Ta da! A solid moorit ram lamb! He was lively from the start and stood to nurse almost immediately.

What a day!
The thing is, all these hard stressful crazy things are wonderful in their own way. I imagine that a few years from now, assisting at the birth of a couple of lambs might seem like any other farm chore to us. We'll do it and come back in time for supper with a shrug. But on this night, we were jittery and joyful. We had managed this emergency ourselves, we had four new lambs, a bunch of crazy little turkey poults in the garage and it was a beautiful, beautiful night.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hurry Up and Weight

There is no doubt now as to the effectiveness of our ram lambs' masculine endeavors. The seven ewes milling about in the pen beside the barn are, without doubt, in a serious family way. According our calculations, the lambs will be coming fast and furious any time from Wednesday on. I've got butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it! And yes, I know Icelandic sheep are terrific lambers, competent mothers, all that stuff. But there are exceptions to every rule, glitches that all the careful planning in the world can't account for.

Having been left high and dry by "Storey's Guide to Sheep" last season, we've got Laura Lawson's excellent "Managing your Ewe and her Newborn Lambs" and "Easy Detecting, Diagnosing, Treating Lamb Problems". We are already obsessively checking on the ewes, waking up extra early, going out at all hours. But, you know, glitch happens...

One already apparent glitch involves our shearer Andy. Andy is awesome and excellent and very, VERY busy. So busy in fact that he has yet to make it down for our flocks' semi-annual "haircut". The boys have taken matters into their own hooves and begun rooing. But the girls, having put all their energy into growing lambs rather than new fleece, are hot, dirty and matted. It is very likely, they will have lambs by their sides by the time Andy makes it down our way. Of course, I'm worried the lambs will have trouble finding the udders, that they'll suck on all those gross matted chunks hanging off the back ends of the girls (This is the stuff we skirt immediately) and that the girls will overheat in their extra layers. I've contemplated sudsing those burgeoning udders down, but stress is bad, very bad, for pregnant ewes. (My new books tell me so.)

Most likely, things will work out all right. And if dirty fleece is our one and only lambing glitch, Maggie's Farm will be a happy as well as happenin' place this spring.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Nobody's Business but the Turk(ey)s

An order of 15 turkey poults is set to arrive here at Maggie's farm the week after next, part of our foray into "conscientious omnivorism". We have quite a few "orders" from friends and family and hope to keep about five for our freezer, a full year of Turkey dinners. As we have no idea what the COST of keeping the turkeys will be as yet (We've heard that toms can eat about 100 pounds (yep--- ONE HUNDRED POUNDS!) of feed in 6 months, we don't know what the turkeys will cost yet. We are hoping to break even (minus the hours of turkey-care and in putting together a new turkey coop and run and brooder box, of course).

There are many folks with strong opinions about turkeys. We've heard they are "big dirty birds" and "lovely birds", "gentle and fun" and "demon critters that search out and peck eyeballs".

Well, we'll just see about all that.

Dan and I, as I've mentioned frequently on this blog, tend to jump first and ask questions later. Turkeys should be fun though, right?

Roo the Day

This is Charlie Bucket. Quite a hairdo, eh?

While we wait for Andy Rice, our excellent but very busy shearer, to arrive, Charlie's decided to take matters into his own hooves. He is "rooing", shedding his winter fleece for a coat of fresh spring finery. We didn't shear the ram lambs in the fall, so they wouldn't have to put extra energy into maintaining body temperature on those crisp fall nights and frigid winter days. Excitable teenage ram lambs can run themselves ragged with all that butting and breeding and general carrying on, and we didn't want to risk the health of our little triumverate.

Rooing is the result. We've plucked some of Charlie's fleece, but some of it is still stuck tight. Guess he'll just look a little ragged for a while.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dog and Rooster Show

Well, after much glaring and posturing and several feints in each others' direction, Luka (Our Icelandic Sheepdog puppy) and Batmandoo (Our big ol' rooster) had it out today.


The first round happened as Joe and I were heading out for preschool. I'd run back inside for a forgotten lunchbox when Joe appeared on the porch with a panicked look on his face. This is a kid who is generally unflappable, so I boogied outside to find Luka and Batmandoo locked in mortal combat. Luka, having previously been chased under the porch and behind my legs decided (I'm guessing on this) that enough was enough. At any rate, she was a snarling ferocious little beasty and Batmandoo was no slouch himself. He was fluffed to the max and darting at Luka's face, his talons (normally called "feet") bared. I darted over, picked Luka up and put her in the house.

That afternoon, the combatants returned. Same place, same situation. This time, it was pretty obvious that, given a little time, Luka would win. She pinned Batmandoo for a quarter second and then another. I didn't want to see a massacree in the front yard, especially under the gazes of the three preschool children watching from the sandbox, so with much hollering, I separated the two with a rake. Luka immediately calmed. But damn if that crazy rooster didn't try circling around for another go. I guided him down the hill with the rake where he commenced to crow further challenges. (The preschool kids, though slightly shaken, were all right)

At dusk, the final stand off. This one occurred while Luka and I were doing our evening farm chores. Suddenly, Batman appeared like the gunslinger he is, silhouetted at the top of our hill (Well, maybe this is a slight exaggeration...) . A low growl rose in Luka's throat as she turned to face him. Crap! I Thought. But a quick command to "Leave it!" Broke Luka's concentration, or perhaps my words were the excuse she needed. At any rate, Batmandoo swaggered home to his roost, Luka and I fed and watered the sheep, and the sun set on another day at our little "Okay Corral".

Hopefully, there will NOT be a sequel.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

An Order of Chicks with a Side of Conviction, Please

So. You may or may not be aware that you can order day old chicks by mail. But you can. And what an experience it is! At Murray Macmurray Hatcheries, the on-line order form is quite menu-like. You can choose from this variety or that, each with a lovely picture and breed description. You then add and switch and substitute according to availability. If you order 24 chicks, there's a surprise in store: an exotic variety of mystery rooster. (Last time we did this, we ended up with Archie the Golden Laced Wyandotte demon rooster.)

I'm finding it increasingly difficult to justify buying meat at the supermarket. We don't eat a lot of it, but even the once a week chicken breast or ground beef is feeling very wrong to me. I don't like supporting factory agriculture and cruel practices and I can't afford to buy all our meat from the local co-op. The ground ram in our freezer only goes so far. So this year, we are trying something new; we are raising some meat variety chicks and also some turkeys. With any luck, the 16 meat chickens (all hopefully identical and unnamed) and 15 turkeys will keep us in dinners for most of the year. We also plan to buy our beef from Wheel View Farm, a local and more humane option, and eat one or two of our own lambs this year. It is another big step on the farming and self-sustaining continuum.

I know it won't be easy to, um, "process" all this poultry and there will be more than a little soul-searching and foot-dragging along the way. But it seems right anyhow. Store-bought poultry, is "processed" too, and treated much less humanely, injected with who knows what and just plain all-around miserable.

You may recall we'd considered buying a couple of feeder pigs this year, but this step will have to wait. We don't feel quite ready to plunge into pigs. At least not this year. (And anyway, you can't order them online!)

Anyway, it is great fun to go through the Murray Macmurray online catalogue and choose a little of this variety and a little of that. The frustration comes when you get to the "check out" and find that this breed is out until May while that breed is not available until May and so on. You switch the order around and suddenly, THIS variety is no longer available, etc. etc. Before you know it, ordering the dang chicks has taken up a whole morning. And you've ended up with a whole different assortment.

So here it is, the Maggie's Farm 2008 Chicken order:

16 cornish and cornishX rock meat chickens

Plus a variety of interesting egg and dual purpose females: red leghorns, anconas, buff minorcas, speckled sussex, golden campines, salmon faveroles, buttercups, partridge rocks, and black austrolops.
The names alone are wonderful, aren't they?

The chicks will arrive in mid May. And to be sure, we'll put some pictures up.