Transitions

The lambs are all out and things have been as brisk around here as the cold wind blowing this afternoon. We had a FABULOUS day of people stopping by on Saturday to pop their heads in the barn and visit the lambs. Each year we offer a day to come see the lambs once all are born. We had more visitors this year than any previous year, despite the gray and wet day. I’m going to go ahead and call it a great start to the season. 

Caught one of the last births on video.... 

 

  

Our lamb day comes in a close second to the actual lambing season itself. We had 46 lambs in 25 days and really no serious complications. Always grateful for trouble free lambing, of course you take what comes but the hope is always that you have done the work caring for and preparing your ewes with quality feed and clean, dry housing. Chores for sheep are currently very time consuming as we spend lots of time watching everyone and making sure no problems creep up, its also essential that we continue to “shovel the feed” into these girls. 

 Bahn's getting crowded!


We were asked several times yesterday if some ewes were still pregnant as they were still so big. Huge today is a result of these sheep stuffing themselves on the silage (fermented pasture forage) and filling all the space that held lambs 5 weeks ago… they just gorge and then sit back to chew cud for hours afterwards. Its quite a job to keep up with the demands from these greedy and voracious little udder suckers. Its all fun and cute until feeding time, then you better not get in the way. 

 

The “vibe” changes subtly each and every week as you get further and further from the births. Initially the lambs are only concerned about nursing so when all the ewes are getting fed they would jump and play and run about. As they are now getting into the 3-4-5 week old stage they are more apt to look for places to get in on the feeding action. They have and area just for them, known as the “creep”, which we now keep stocked with silage and alfalfa pellets. I counted 35 lambs chowing down on the forage at feeding time today, already more focused on feed than romping about. And that is essentially our job from now on; to get as much fresh, nutritious feed into these guys as possible and shape their behavior in such a way that they eat vigorously as a response to competition.


This Is What Happens

A week goes by in a flash... and with it have come many lambs. I have continued to grumble a bit about having singles but I have to say we have a vigorous and healthy little pack of lambs here none the less. As of this morning I think we are up to 31 or 32 with 7 ewes still to lamb. 

Each year I am so greatful for the atmosphere of life and vigor and excitement that takes over the barn. All fall and well into winter we have a pretty hungry and hunkered down group of ewes, all business and little play. And who can blame them with all that lamb building to do... but when those lambs come out and start to feel at home in the barn its quite a place. Jumping, chasing, playing, suckling, and generally enjoying life. I'll share the photos and videos of the last week and leave it at that. Thanks for following along. 

 

 

 

 

A Slow End To The Week

Where are the posts??!! I’m sure you have been wondering… well after a busy first week we are in what appears to be a little lul in the action. I think we are up to 18 or so lambs but have had nothing for a couple of days… all the jugs are empty signifying that we have had no lambs in the past 48 hours. I’m guessing that we had a bunch of ewes that were already cycling when the rams went in and now we are awaiting the lambs from ewes that only really began to cycle when the rams came into the picture… just a guess and probably not a very educated one at that… 

So here are some more photos and some shots of the last couple births (single lambs unfortunately!).I will try to get a video up as well… not so sure how to do that but I’ll see what I can do. 


Last word on Freckles… we decided that the end of the road had been reached with Freckles on Saturday. A full week after we induced her we put her down and removed her from the barn. She is now in her final resting place giving back one more time…. Every time we put an animal down it brings up the first time we ever had to do that. When we taught at The Meeting School and took over the farm management there we got a group of piglets our first spring on the job. We inherited a pig house and lots of great pastures to raise them in but apparently somewhere in the field or the house was a rusty nail and one of the pigs (guessing it was a nail but could have been something else… ) developed Tetanus. Like many areas all over New England and the country the number of vets that attend to “food” animals, larger animals like pigs and sheep and cows, were few and far between in that area of New Hampshire. 

 

So we had a fellow faculty member who had a small rifle, a .22 caliber that he offered for us to use to put the pig down. Not having done that before I told him I would prefer he do it but I would like to call the vet and just get confirmation that how I was planning to do the job would be effective. So I called a vet that I found in the phone book and explained my situation. He was not only not very helpful but was actually incredulous that I was planning on disposing of this animal in the manner I had chosen. I think the words he used were barbaric and primitive… he said that “we have better ways to do that kind of thing now”. I was new to the game at that point but still managed to hold my ground in asserting that we were comfortable putting the animal down and we would seek input elsewhere. 

 

I have often looked back and wondered how that man could have been so offended by my plan. Who would it have been better for if we had loaded that pig up, taken it in the back of the pick-up to the vet and then paid about $60 for “the shot”? As opposed to a quick and instant death right there in the field surrounded by all it had ever known..? Still makes no sense to me; for the same reasons that I wish we could manage to get a mobile slaughter house in this state… worst part of the whole scene around here is the day we have to load up and transport animals that have never been off the pasture. At any rate Freckles was in the barn eating some hay one minute, gone the next. 

Days 3 and 4.... A Mixed Bag

Thursday was quiet, day three. Lots of bottle feeding and catch up; nothing new lets us pay close attention to the new mom's and lets us assess who we think is next so we can keep an eye on them. A couple of our Clun Forest ewes look to be bagging up pretty significantly. The drop and push can not be far behind. 

THE COWS BELIEVE THEY TOO SHOULD BE GETTING SOME ATTENTION

 

The two little ones out of Freckles are doing well. They will nudge and nestle anything in sight at this point in hopes of a drink. Be careful as they will be at your feet constantly and can easily be stepped on... they get 4-5 ounces about 5 times a day at the moment. This will gradually increase in size and decrease in number as they age... long way to go at the moment... let's stop talking about that. 

Fridays we are generally pretty busy with the farmers market and our homeschool 'field trip day". After chores I took Joepye to the Maine Warrior gym which is and indoor obstacle course, fun stuff for a field trip. That left Laura to get ready for market with her mom Beverly's help, and oversee the farm until about 1. In classic lambing season fashion as soon as Laura was on her own two of those Cluns I mentioned earlier decided the time was right. When sheep go into labor it does not necessarily mean anyone needs to stay in the barn or do anything... its just that there is a process that needs to be complete and run its course before whoever is on duty can really focus on anything else with intention. You eat, you tidy up, you do other chores, maybe lay down for a bit... but you are not embarking on anything else of substance until those ewes are in the jugs and you know that all is well. 

 

Once the lambs are safely out, usually needing none of your help, you get them weighed, tagged, and jugged up with mom for a minimum of 24 hours.. usually 36 or 48. So that means the chords get dipped, the moms get food and water, and everything is recorded. If you have one sheep at a time going you can pretty much attend to those things as you go about your day. If there are a couple it gets a bit more difficult and its good to have two of us moving stuff around and getting everything settled. So Laura had all of that going for her plus they decided to birth right next to each other... so in no time there were four lambs and two moms screaming back and forth making certain they had their new babies and not those belonging to the other sheep. 

This is funny and cute for a while but then you have to jug them and if everyone is all tangled up you are needing to figure out which two of the four identical looking lambs should go together to the jug for the first ewe. To this day the most intense example of this came on a day when we had 4 sheep deliver twins in the course of two hours one spring. I was the home alone victem that day... 

But Friday was Laura's turn... mass chaos trying to jug the new moms by leading them to the other end of the barn using their lambs as the lure. In the end all was sorted out as it always is... well done Laura. Four new lambs today on day 4. 

 

 

Day 2

Freckles Update: still holding her own... eating and drinking but clearly not moving in the direction we had hoped for... in discussions about how we want this to end as it is clearly headed for an end. 

TWO OF OUR OLDER LAMBS... BORN EARLY FEBRUARY

Day two was what we hope to see more of moving forward. Two births, three lambs and everybody healthy and happy. During the last check in the barn Tuesday night we saw one of our Katahdin ewes just have that look… her udder was HUGE, her belly seemed to have “dropped” to be more low and deep as opposed to having a sidesaddle look on both sides of her body. It was clear that she would go in the night or the following morning. Its a look that we know well at this point…. and sure enough this was the reality in the morning... one lamb, 14 lbs! 

 

As cute and amazing as this lamb was I can not help but share some of my disappointment. We hope for twins each and every time, we have not been the most meticulous in our herd building so we know we have some ewes that should have been culled by now considering their habit of birthing single lambs. However, we are an emotional bunch and tend to think…. well maybe next year. I will say we are growing more determined and ruthless in our selection as we get into our 8th year….  I mean, enough is enough. I say all that because as we left the barn after looking at that huge ewe we were certain she would have at least twins. She has a habit of producing triplets so twins felt safe. To find that ENORMOUS single was a bummer… It is not often that we have a 14 lb lamb at birth… but she had triplets last year all over 10 lbs. I’m over it but it was a bit of a downer considering our goal of reaching 50 lambs this year for the first time with our own flock…. still on track but each single ups the ante… 

She is so big that she has already learned that its easier to eat lying down:

 

Later in the day we had a nice afternoon birth, some twins out of one of the new Cheviot ewes we bought in last summer. Small lambs… but mom did well, is attentive, and looks to have plenty of milk.


2016 Lambing Day 1

I’ve decided to blog this year about our lambing season. I miss posting and have had a hard time finding a time and a way to get back into it. I have been inspired recently by some blogs that I subscribe to and have been reminded of how important it is to post frequently and without some big agenda every time. Sending out daily updates around a long term process here is far easier than just coming up with a “topic” occasionally to write about. 

 

It's March 1st, this is the first day, technically speaking, when we could have lambs based on the 145 day period between when we put the rams in and when first birth is possible. We shoot for march 1st each year as we are generally beyond most of the long cold snaps of the winter by March. Not spring yet but certainly better than lambs in January or February. We have been on high alert anyway because we decided this year to, for the first time ever, induce one of our ewes. 

 

“Freckles” is our oldest ewe, one of 4 we brought here with us in 2009. We estimate her age around 12… she has been doing well but as she got bigger with lambs a week or so ago she stopped getting up. She has maintained a healthy appetite, generally an alert and purposeful disposition but just unable to stand. We have tended to her and she has generally kept up with all functions but has appeared to get weaker and weaker. So this past weekend we decided to call the vet and induce. Steroids are given and other injections to support the various processes and then you wait… usually 24 to 48 hours. Well, we passed the 48 hour mark Monday afternoon and were beginning to wonder what would unfold if she was not going to get those lambs out. We saw some signs of progress but nothing definitive. 

 

On the cusp of our lamb date and with this ewe in process we decided to get up at 2am to check on things Tuesday morning. Usually things are quiet until very early morning and we generally don’t go out until 4 as a routine. We used to alternate (Laura and I) 1:30 am checks all though lamb season but stopped doing that last year. Anyway….Laura went out at 2:30 Tuesday and Freckles had her sac protruding and was clearly in labor. Two of our other sheep were also in labor and each had a healthy lamb on the ground when Laura came in the barn. After coming to wake me up we went back to keep an eye on Freckles, while we were doing that we noticed that there was another lamb coming for one of the other sheep in labor. Didn’t take long to realize that something was not right, the presentation was odd.. looked like a back hoof but even that didn’t look quite right. The ewe was struggling mightily and we decided to help it out. 

 

The result of our efforts was to remove from that ewe a pretty complete but clearly not well (or alive) lamb. Generally referred to as a “mummy”, once in a while you see lambs like this… something along the way does not develop properly and the ewe carries to full term a non viable fetus. We have seen one of these before… the difficulty is understanding what you are dealing with in the moment… is it breach? is it stuck? is it twisted? At any rate this one was removed and disposed of, mom and the healthy lamb were fine. 

 

About 4:30 we got the first lamb out of Freckles, nice and healthy, a female. Second lamb was slow in coming and had a poor presentation. Front feet were out as you would hope and expect but no head in sight. Its hard to describe just how difficult it is in those moments to understand what you are dealing with. Laura was feeling all around trying to assess but it was very difficult. Eventually she helped Freckles birth another healthy lamb, the head was turned back in presentation, so the nose was pointed the complete opposite direction from the two feet poking out. Makes for a very awkward passage down the canal but he came out and was also healthy. Needless to say Freckles was exhausted and we were seeing no signs of her producing milk. 

 

TWO HEALTHY LAMBS!

More to come... 

2013- Some Words, Pictures, and Numbers

All the pictures posted here are from the past 12 months. We love the chance this time of year to look back and digest the last 12 months a little. We have tried to create a post below that visually represents 2013 and provides some context and commentary between the images. Thanks to this great community and all who participate in Two Coves Farm! 

 

Dairy

Not sure where we would be without our Clover. She kicked off the new year with her second calf born here, a heifer we named Clementine. Throughout her lactation this year she has remained a glowing, healthy, steady specimen of grass fed glory. Needless to say we love Clover, her milk, her ways. The coming year will see another calf (due in June) and will also see her last, Clementine, get to breeding age and starting her journey into Mama Cowhood.  

Without our dauntless and careful crew of milkers we would certainly have encountered some problems. So thanks to Clare, Kate, Alisha, and Laura (their fearless leader). Process, cleanliness, and records are second only to consistency when milking a cow, hats off to the crew for their dutiful care of our family cow in 2013. 

We have bottled 11,305 pounds of Clovers milk since she had her calf January 2nd. That is a total of 1413 gallons of milk for our family and farm, not to mention the milk and colostrum she produced to grow her beautiful offspring. We have no way to tally that!! Biggest months were May and June at 1103 and 1105 lbs respectively. She produced 44 lbs of milk on about a half dozen different days... about 5 gallons. She was between 40 and 44 lbs of milk on over 35 other days in 2013.  Thanks Clover!

 

 Dogs

Not sure what I can say about these black and white dogs. I know I could never ask for better dogs; their dedication, courage, and desire to please are beyond compare or description.

The highlight of our year together is most certainly our demo, fair, and festival season. We "performed" at 5 demos here at the farm and took our show on the road to 10 other locations doing three shows a day for one to two days at each of those fairs or festivals. Sharing the work the dogs do is almost as good as having them help get the real work done here. 

 

 

 

 I think 2014 will see Two Coves take on another Border Collie puppy. 

Our guardian girl, Tess, just turned two years old. She continues to be a presence here on the farm and she continues to make progress knowing her job and minding her manners. I will not try to hide the fact that Tess has been a big challenge for us, getting to know her instincts, her body language, and thoughts has pushed us all. However, throughout she remains a dedicated, eager to please, sweet and beautiful animal. 

Kids

This past season's summer camps were fantastic. With a dedicated staff person in Clare and a home base away from the driveway and store we feel like camps are now manageable and sustainable. So much is added to this place and to the work that goes on by having the kids come. May it never end!! Their art and creations are everywhere reminding us how important it is to bring the farm and the young people together. 

We ran 4 camps this past year serving 3 different age groups and close to 60 kids!! 

 Pigs

Pork was a big focus in 2013. We got an offer last fall for 7 piglets at a great price. I had reservations about taking 7 pigs into the winter but it worked out great. All told we sent 13 pigs off to market in 2013. I think we could have probably sold at least a half dozen more. Pork is very popular and we have not really made any effort yet to reach out to restaurants. 

The trick with pigs that you will be raising on pasture is to find the pasture. We have been lucky to have offers from local folks to "foster home" our pigs this past year. We did raise 7 here but raised the following 6, which were processed this fall, plus the 6 we have now at a local property a bit further down the road. We also have an offer for a similar arrangement come spring. If you let pigs do their thing they need space and soil to root in, we have struggled here to come up with areas to manage that. At any rate, we love raising pigs and love having great pork to eat and sell. 

Belties

 I'm not sure it gets any better than cows on pasture. What a treat!  We sent 12 beef to market this year and hope to do the same next year. Between our store and your freezers that amounts to roughly 3600 lbs of frozen cuts and ground beef produced here at Two Coves. At our peak "occupancy" we had 16 beef cows grazing this farm and other local pastures nearby. Generally you figure a cow on pasture will eat 3% of its body weight per day. We estimate that when the spring grass was flooding out of the pastures our herd was consuming close to 400 lbs of forage daily, that's 12,000 lbs over 30 days. Lots of forage for sure. 

Speaking of forage... we had Seth from Crystal Spring Community Farm in Brunswick come and make us some large bales this year. We went out and cut the hay, our gorgeous second crop, and then Seth came over to bale it. Once the bales were made we wrapped them to create a fermented feed called silage. The cows love it, they have plowed through the lovely marshmellow bales and are now back to boring old dry hay, but it was great while it lasted. 

Sheep

We felt very good this past year about our lambs and the health of our sheep in general. We raised 50 lambs this year, we only had 28 here at Two Coves. The other 22 were purchased as just weaned lambs from other farmers who raise using similar methods and feed. We then raise those lambs for the remainder of the growing season and do the best we can to get them up to a decent weight. The lambs that we had born here really did terrific. Our average weight was up from a year ago and we had no significant health or parasite problems. When you raise lambs that is about all you can ask for! 

We also retained 5 of our best little ewe lambs, taking our breeding group up to 25 now. Our goal is to produce 50 of our own lambs each season, eventually doing away with the need to purchase any from other farms. 

Our Family

Well there are lots of things that come to mind when I consider our family and 2013. We had a great year. Foremost in my mind as I write this is the fact that it would appear our homeschool days are over. Yvette started at the new charter school in September, Harpswell Coastal Academy. All fall we were aware that a profound shift had occurred. The dynamic at home was different, the challenges seemed more significant and harder to overcome. Laura and I have struggled mightily to run the farm and homeschool at the same time... one certainly adds to the other, but there have been serious conflicts as well. Yvette going off to school seemed to open the flood gates to other changes. As I sit here today it is the second day the house has been empty and quiet... Joepye and Muriel began attending the local elementary school after the holiday break. While we are somewhat disoriented, we are also thrilled that they are excited and enthusiastic. Hard for us to not also be excited... 6 hours a day to plan and accomplish the work of running this house and farm!! As Joepye would say: "Wow, just wow". 

Getting By With A Little Help From My Friends

I just ended another of my Wednesday business sessions with a friend of mine. He is the former CEO of a pretty large (actually mind bogglingly large... but not like Chase Bank large... really big OK!?) business and has the mind and experience in business that I lack. I am making serious strides, with his help, but still feel pretty "Simple Sam" when it comes to business. Anyway, he has really made a huge difference for how we do things around here regarding the money, accounts, invoices, reports,etc. We have systems and routines that are finally generating some data that help us make decisions and "work smarter". 

The more I work with him,  where he rubs off on me the most is just in terms of keeping it all in check, in perspective. Its funny, people generally think I am a pretty laid back cat... anal and serious... but laid back. People like this buddy of mine (and another I will mention in a minute) actually know I am a pretty tight ball of stress a great deal of the time. Too much of the time. I don't like to admit this, but its true and most of it stems from anxiety related to the management of the business side of the equation. Its like no matter the evidence to the contrary I can always find a way to see the "worry" in the situation. Its not quite a "glass half empty" mentality, but close. Its more like a "Yeah, that looks good... but I think I can probably screw it up and turn it into a less positive and more (financially) tight situation". 

I don't want to get all deep into my business management psychosis... but the fact is that I am having to develop and become comfortable with a whole different host of realities around money now that I am operating as an independent business owner. The variables are vastly different, the flow of money is vastly different, the number of things I have to pay attention to and see shift and flux are vastly different (as compared to when I was collecting a pay check). So for me, its really amazing to see and be with someone who has been in and out of so many situations, business situations, that he simply is not phased. Granted, we meet to talk and work on my business and my money... but still its palpable.

Corny I know, but true.

Today is a good example. In the course of our discussion we hit on a pretty significant "blip" (lets call it a blip, shall we?) in how my taxes were filed this year. Now I have been looking forward to my tax return for some time, and feel confident in my projections for the size of that return based on past years. I also have to admit to having a pretty loose idea of how it all works ("loose" = very little idea if any at all). So what we saw today could have quite an impact. That realization almost sent me into anaphylactic shock ( stifled... well disguised... and partially denied shock, but shock non the less). I can not seem to escape the frame of mind that I am one step away from ruin at any given moment... no matter the evidence to the contrary. Furthermore I am usually 100% guilty of tossing the baby,  the tub, washcloth, drain plug, and the floor tiles out with the bath water if something looks like its going in the wrong direction.  

I love being around this guy simply because his presence is calming and steady and it forces me to call myself out on being addicted to anxiety around the business management. It also forces me to take a real close look at what it is that I am afraid of and how, if I were to let my experiences see the light of day I would begin to ease away from this precipice I constantly place myself on related to the business. 

I mean, its not appropriate anymore but I can't seem to let it go.  Like in the first couple years it was OK, maybe even justified. I didn't know squat... just farming. I also had not history, no customers, no track record. I also had no experience with these types of issues or decisions so they ALL stressed me out. Its not like that anymore, and I am making progress... but this particular friend shows me how far I still have to go... At least he is generous and humble... its not like he sits around telling me to "shut up and relax". 

That job falls to my other friend. If this were the perfect world I'd just toss their names around but you never know what might develop so I'll maintain confidentiality. So the other guy actually tells me to shut up and relax quite a bit. I need that too. He came for a 3 hour drive with me last Sunday to drop off some pigs. That right there tells you quite a bit. Three hours... on a Sunday afternoon! Destination... a cold, dark, "end of the line" establishment (so to speak). And the whole trip he is telling me how I got it made, the kids, the farm, the life! And he's right... but the reminders are so helpful and necessary! Why? Because I spend too much time in my head that's why, in my head with the spreadsheets and numbers... and the worry! 

So these guys.... I just would not be able to do it without them. 

The Hardest Part

I posted some pics of these guys when they came to the farm back in the fall. Yesterday we moved them to their 48 hour temporary home en route to the processor this afternoon. I won’t say this part is not hard, its always hard. I’m just thankful that I get to be the one handling these pigs right till they get to the slaughterhouse door. 

Remember When?My How You've Grown

I had a couple experiences early in my farming education which made quite an impression on me. The first was the hurried, hectic, forced stuffing of a couple large pigs into a horse trailer for a trip to the processor. The school I worked for at the time, in New Hampshire, did not have a trailer, so we paid the butcher to come out and get the pigs. He was late, had no patience, and took it out on the pigs. He was a very large man, muscular... not fat. When he got tired of trying to “whack” the pigs in the right direction into the trailer he simply lowered his shoulder and tried to tackle them in. It was pretty awful. Not sure if you have ever gotten up close and personal with a full sized pig, these are not animals that go easily where they do not want to go.

 And the thing is, they are not stupid... the more they sense your stress and angst to “get them in” the less likely you are to actually get them in. Think about it... your whole life spent out in the fields, in the sun... then some stranger shows up with a huge metal house on wheels and wants you to get in. Are you out of your mind?

 Much later I found myself here in Maine, working on what I hoped would be the farm I someday took over. It was an older gentleman’s grass farm. He raised beef, pork, chickens, and turkeys. Beautiful spot. His method was to put his pigs in a long “hallway” in one of his old dairy barns. Then he would back up his trailer so the pigs had no choice but to step up and into it. Lots of whacking here too... the first time we went to load pigs together he handed me a fiberglass fence post... “Here,”: he said, “you’ll need this”. The pigs that resisted going over the threshold of the trailer got repeatedly whacked on the nose... I used my legs to shorten the space they had to move around in rather than participate in the use of the fiberglass rods. I kept willing them: “Just get on!”.

Getting right to work

 I hate loading animals under stressful conditions. It sucks for me and suck for them. Plus, who needs that? Why spend all that time and energy providing for these animals, making sure they have a pleasant and stress free life only to ramp it all up at the end and make it miserable. Not me, not as long as I can help it. 

 Our routine is to move the pigs a couple days ahead of time. Let them acclimate to the new space, get used to the trailer... their new “home”. By the time the sun went down yesterday I had seven pigs lounging around in the trailer that will transport them today. Lots of winning here. 

 I win because I don’t have to wrestle or whack any pigs. I fed them this morning in the trailer. I will let them eat, move in and out of the trailer, enjoy the day.  I will feed them in the trailer again this the afternoon, this time I will shut the door and hook up the truck. Off we go.

Its kind of nice in here.

The pigs win because they get to spend their last couple days in a fresh spot.. rooting around and having fun. They also win because the whole routine substitutes time for stress. Ok, ultimately they loose.. I get that. But like I said; I’m just thankful that I get to be the one handling these pigs right till they get to the slaughterhouse door. 


The Longest Mile

Our ewes are starting to take on that look they get after a long winter inside followed by a lamb or two and now constant milk production. Its a hard time of year. There is a cycle that begins when they hit the ground in the spring, they begin to build back up their condition and their systems. So we are essentially at the tail end of this cycle, when they look their worst. Its not so much about how much food they are getting either, its more about their ability living indoors to convert and maximize the dry forage that sustains them. When a small animal, a ruminant, spend five months building its offspring, so to speak, the draw on the body, the demand on the system is very high. It amazes me though how much more the demand seems to be once the milk starts flowing. 

 

Right before lambing they all look so big and full. They actually have a glow of sorts, like any expectant mother. But once that pup comes out, or pups as the case may be, their milk production gets all the food. Do you know that a healthy and perfectly normal look for a dairy cow is to have some ribs showing? Nature and man have combined to push these animals to convert all they eat into milk. That’s essentially what we are seeing now with our sheep... its all going into the udder. Its hard to see, some of them look so pathetic, especially the older ones. We know they are healthy, and we know we could spend additional money on highly concentrated feeds of various kinds. But we also know that they will make it, and rebound nicely, once the grass greens up and they hit the out of doors. 

 

So I call these long and slow weeks where spring comes into focus the “Last Mile”. Its soooooo long... between March 1st ( when you feel like the worst of winter HAS to be over) and when the grass is ready for the animals... mid to late May. Long not only because of how you are starting to see the impact of winter on the critters. But long too because you are just sick of it all... lugging the hay and water, dealing with the ice and cold, slogging through the mud. You start to fret and worry too, at least I do... can we make it? Will the hay last? Will the pastures come back to life? Will the animals rebound? 

 

Then it comes into view... unannounced... the finish line...  just over the horizon. 

Last Year's Finish Line Coming Into View

The Heart Of The Matter

I am fascinated by the evolution of our diet in this country. There is so much to talk about and so many things that could be discussed. What intreagues me most is how far food has come from the family farm and what has casued the migration away. As our system has been industrialized the consequences have grown ever more clear. Like many of you reading this... I am a product of the industrial system. The milk and meat that I grew up eating and drinking are the kinds of products that we now know to be causing damage to our bodies. The scary part is that those foods still account for most of what you find in the grocery store... little has changed.

My mother had a heart attack last month. She is fine, a couple of stints were put in and she is doing very well. Born and raised in the forties and fifties my guess is that her early years were full of food grown and processed very close to her rural Ontario home. As the world shifted in the years after WWII I am sure my mom's diet shifted as well. Industrial food was blowing up all accross the country, convenience was winning the day, emerging adults like my mother could not wait to "get off the farm", away from the manure and stink and into the ease and convenience of the suburban supermarket. Who could blame her?

My mother has stories of growing up with her 12 siblings.. sharing beds, older kids caring for the younger, the whole bit. But it wasn't a "bit" at all, it was life. And like so many others my mom changed with the times, looked at the benefits and bonuses of affluent post war America (she had moved to Detroit by the late 60's) and thought it was great. And it was great, huge progress and improvements in a country that had defeated evil and saved the world. We would be silly and short sighted to look back and judge anyone for jumping on that train, I would have been the first one to grab a seat. 

So its hard now, and complicated, to see through food the consequenses of those transitions. How do we account for the world we are creating and the health we are endangering 50 years from now? Can we? The arteries and veins on the front of my mothers heart were completely clogged, and if you asked me at any point in the past 25 years I would have told you that my mother was a pretty healthy woman. And I think she is.. but I guess the question is how healthy can you be if even the good food you eat is not actually good?

 But don't we know better now? I guess. In some things... but look at the debate raging about labelling GMO's and the like. The jury probably will not be in on that sucker for 30 to 40 years; not until, like my Mom's heart, the consequences present themselves. I guess I don't realy have a point here... just some random thoughts on health, food, and the human condition. 

Nobody Said It Would Be Easy (Part 2)

Sometimes its funny how and when you learn that you have some experience, when you acknowldge that it's not your first time around the block. I have a great friend who has been helping me try to get to this point with our business. Get me to the point where I am not rattled everytime I encounter a bump in the old business management road. He has so much experience and has been bouncing around numbers and ideas for so long that its all part of the deal for him.... just another problem to be solved. 

So there I was, surrounded by sick pigs. A couple things to understand about pigs before I proceed. First of all pigs have one stomach, like us. They are similar to humans in lots of ways and are succeptable to many of the same things we are in terms of digestion. The second thing to remember oabout pigs is that they live very close to the ground. It is almost impossible to keep their snouts out of the mud and muck as that is where they prefer to be doing their eating. 

As much as I wish I could say that my only concern was for the health and well being of these pigs... I would be lying. I'm a farmer. I raise pigs to sell pork. I keep them healthy and raise them naturally because I think that is the best way to raise the happiest pig that will produce the most flavorful and healthy meat. So part of what I was thinking / feeling at this moment was.... holy $#it I have about 7 grand out here in these pigs.... aaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!! What if? What if? What if? I'm sure you can imagine. 

When I found the pigs in this state a couple weeks ago it had been super wet and turning to mud season. So I had been struggling for a couple weeks to keep their house and surrounds dry with mulch hay. But pigs love to root and eat, so anything you put down eventually gets "tilled in" by these guys... so you need to stay on it. If you remember, we had just finished a pretty busy month with the lambs. I did feel like I had been keeping up well with the chores related to pigs. Anyway, consider the stage set. 

So I have seven pigs about 6 months old, sick as can be. As I said, they were not interested in the food at all. I tell the kids I work with here on the farm all the time... these animals can not talk to you but they can TELL you quite a bit by how they behave. Pay close attention to what goes in and what comes out. Obvious sign something is wrong??.... they don't eat. ESPECIALLY for a pig. As alarmed as I was, this is the moment where I realized I have some very valuable experience. Two things popped up on the radar through the fog of alarm and worry. Take the feed away and completely refab the house. 

I started by gathering up all the feed dishes and bringing them up to the barn with the grain I had just lugged out to the pigs. Even a sick pig may decide that he wants to eat... but if you don't eliminate that feed as a variable it can hinder your ability to eliminate possibilities for what is causing the problem. Once the grain and dishes were gone I came back down and kicked all the poor guys out of the house and into the muck... I picked up their house (corner by corner, a little bit at a time) and moved it to a new spot, relatively clean... shoveled the little bit of snow out, covered the floor with dry pine shavings, then I spread two bales of nice green second cut hay all over the floor, nice new nest. 

A couple purposes were served here. First of all by taking the food away I knew that if the feed was the problem I was eliminating it for the time being, even if it was not the problem I did not want to feed any more into these sick guys only to fuel their fire (so to speak). They were not hungry anyway so a real no brainer there. Completely redoing the house assured me that if they were sick from something in their old nest I had just removed that as a possibility as well. Finally, the second cut hay is the pig version of ginger ale and saltines. Simple, sweet, comfort food to ease the belly, also some fiber to get everything right again. 

At this point I am simply interested in getting to the bottom of the problem and fixing it. Several possibillities crossed my mind... one was that they had just been worn down by the wetness and the sloppy conditions. We raise our pigs naturally of course (duh!) so I know that parasites were a possibility as well as we do not give them chemical wormers. That would have been quite a surprise though as we have never had parasite issues with our pigs, plus generally parasites do not result in the symptoms we saw, not in 6 month old pigs anyway, only piglets. Several diseases were also a possibility... but again this would have been a great surprise as most of that type of thing comes from issues related to confinement and crowding or when a new pig is introdiced to an established group. None of that fit with our situation. 

What was striking to me about this scene was that all the pigs had it at once. That is very unusual when you consider something like parasites or disease. Usually you see it show up in the weakest animal first... then spread. This was like.... BAM! So that was actually reassuring in a way. My suspicion was that it had something to do with their feed. 

In the meantime I had to guard against dehydration. So I went and got a livestock electrolite solution and mixed it up for the boys that afternoon. It was a mix of a powder and warm water, to this Laura and I added a bunch of whey from cheese that we (ok, she)  had made that morning. The pigs slurped it down in tremendous fashion. Good sign. That afternoon I also got a load of compost (waste vegetables and fruit) from our local supermarket. I picked trough it for some apples, melons, beets, and grapes (Anybody want to know how much perfect food is tossed out of this one market every week?).  Most of the pigs came out and nibbled on this fare... another good sign. I was also starting to see the second cut hay disappear... another good sign and more evidence that we had a feed issue on our hands. 

The bottom line is that I still am not 100% sure what caused this to happen, but 48 hours later my pigs were fine again. My suspicion is that they were reacting to a slight difference in the feed. Pigs (like chickens) are domestic livestock that rely on grain for about 60% of their diet. As many of you know, what I love about cows and sheep is that you can toss them out on a field and they can harvest their own meals. Not so with pigs and chickens, these animals depend on the high protein of concentrated grains like corn and soy. I calculated that I could get through most of the life span of these feeder pigs with one grain order. We ended up using some of that order to feed our new layer hens in the month before their eggs began appearing. One consequence of that was that we were short on the pig grain. So I had to go out and get another half ton to get these guys through till their date with the butcher on March 25th. 

Guess when they started to eat the new grain? Yup... 1.5 days before barf-o-rama. Just about enough time to have a systematic reaction / rejection of their new feed. Looks the same, smells the same, same protien and carbohydrate content... but just different enough to mess with their sensitive pig system. At least that is my conclusion. They are back, by the way, to their happy and healthy ways and their systems have adjusted to their new grain. Infact, they are so big and healthy that I have to play tricks on them to get out to their food dishes in the morning withouth getting upended into the muck! 

 

Nobody Said It Would Be Easy (Part 1)

I had a "moment" a couple weeks ago, a moment where I was shaking my head and wondering what the hell I was doing. Probably happens to everyone, and everyone probably imagines like I did that "stuff" (for lack of a more appropriate word) only happens to them. Reader discretion is advised as I am about to graphically describe some events here on the farm that might impact one's appetite and imagination. 

We had a really awesome lambing season. We did not get as many twins as we would have liked... in fact we are about 5 lambs short of our estimates. That is significant and will cause us to seek out more "feeders" to get the numbers we need to meet demand (and in all honesty we will still fall a bit short... if you want a lamb you better let us know quick!). But the lack of twins this year was far out weighed by the health and vigor of the lambs and the good condition of the ewes. Births were normal, milk was flowing, nobody needs to be culled, and we did not loose one lamb. Feeling great about that. 

So we get to the end of our lambing season and we are exhausted but feel great. Exhausted because part of the lambing routine is a 1 or 2 am trip to the barn each night to make sure nobody is in trouble. We are excited to have that come to an end and are excited about putting the worry away for a while. In fact, nothing on the horizon for about a month except daily feeding and watering, observations and general farm upkeep. Starting to wonder about the warnings at the beginning of this post? Well your wait is over. 

On the day after, literally the next day, after our final lamb birth... I go out in the morning like I always do to feed the pigs. Not one pig comes out to greet me. I can not tell you how unusual this is... The regular scene is that 7 big black pigs start running around, squealing and snorting in anticipation of their morning cereal. My stomach drops. What's wrong? Where are they? ... I edge my way around to see inside their house... they are all in there.... I start to notice the piles of diarrhea around the house entrance. Still nobody is moving. I am holding buckets of grain and nobody is moving.. not even a sniff! 

My shock turns to utter disbelief and bewilderment when a couple of the pigs do get up, come out of the house, and start to vomit. Now, I have seen quite a bit  in my time as a farmer. However, I have never seen a pig vomit. Not only have I never seen a pig vomit, but I have never seen a pig with diarrhea vomit, nor have I seen 7 pigs all sick at once. Eventually they all got up, came out of the house and let loose from both ends. I was dumbstruck. 

Mud

Well, the mud is here. We are slogging about each day in an effort to keep everybody relatively dry, fed, and watered. Its an interesting time of year, the promise of warmer weather is in the air but winter holds on and reminds you of its impact. I was thinking the other day about how this winter has gone... we have made it through all kids of weather, avoided any real serious disasters, and find ourselves planning the season ahead. 

When we first started this operation I would look around in horror this time of year, wondering how I would repair the mess and muck created by our daily traffic and chores. I have since learned that nature does much of that mending for us, the power of the worms and the plants to break through and repair the damage is amazing. We have come to see this time of year as another example of the living and breathing earth beneath our feet. Nature will reclaim the destruction and the damage, the tracks and the ruts. 

The animals are another story, wet usually is not a good thing. Thankfully we have spots on the farm that remain high and dry even this time of year. The sheep remain inside... so that takes care fo them. The pigs are in a bad spot for this type of season, but the truth is that they go off the farm in about a week. We can keep them dry until then. The cows need to keep moving those feet and its good for them to have a place to retreat to that is reactively dry. We try to move the feeder around so they can "nest" in the leftovers. 

Lots of dry lambs in the barn if you have a chance to stop by want to brave the mud! 

PIGS IN THE MUD! 

Farm Life In The Cold

If you have taken time to read any of these sporadic posts of mine (If you have ... I thank you   :-)) you know that I am very much into working in the weather. Outside is where I long to be, more often than not.

I wonder about that desire on days like this. Man,  it is cold. When you live on a farm you are in touch (hopefully) with everyone's welfare on a daily basis. Most days that means food, water, some observation and "attending to things". The rest of the day can be spend knowing that things are in order and your charges are healthy and cared for. When mother nature asserts herself it can mean that you do little else in a day beyond caring for the needs of animals and family. Cold like this can bring issues to the surface that you did not know were there.

MILL COVE THIS MORNING

We have a sheep today that can not get up. We separated her yesterday when we noticed how weak she was, it was clear this morning that she had a rough night. Without energy she can not fight off the cold, no vigor. It may have been a mistake to separate her, with the group she could bundle with others on the deep bedding pack to stay warm. Giving her her own space could have been a detriment. We'll see. Our thinking was that we did not want her to have to compete for feed, we wanted to keep an eye on her and be able to give her special food and attention.

I bought her last year, for nothing. I knew she was old, I knew she looked poor. We kept and eye on her and she seemed to settle in. She gave us a ewe and a ram lamb last spring. She seemed to get her condition back on the grass this season but as this year's lamb(s) grow in her you can tell it is taking a toll. I have been giving her special servings of grain (high energy protein as opposed to the lower energy but more affordable and consistent hay) for the past week or so. Until yesterday she was seeming to hold her own. I fear that initial interventions that would normally be just the ticket may have backfired in light of the frigid temps. Time will tell, she is acting normally in everyway... except she does not have the energy to stand.

Almost time to go back out and check on things. I need to collect eggs, if the hens get off an egg today it freezes pretty quick. I'll collect eggs probably 6 times today, precious little things. 77 yesterday... no reason not to come by and pick up some eggs now, they're back!

I'll post an update about the ewe, we're certainly doing what we can... might need to consider bringing her in tonight... it would be a first.

Arrivals

I am always blown away when nature takes over and gets things done. Huge surf, a big storm, blazing sunshine, new life. I think what happens is that I feel in touch, there are so many things between people and nature that get in the way. Once in a while the natural order of things makes itself known, and we are blessed in some way. 

I checked on Clover last night around 11:15. Our usually docile and calm milker was all worked up, mooing, shifting endlessly around, breathing heavy, looking behind her for the calf that had not yet emerged. By the time Laura went out again at midnight there she was, talking to the new arrival and working diligently to lick her off and get her dry. 

CALF IN A BLANKET

What got me (ok I got choked up, I admit it) was how Clover worked herself, delicately, into a position where she could lay herself down with her calf (already on the ground) between her front legs. This is no easy task for an 1100 lb cow in a 9 X 9 stall. But she did it beautifully and was then in a position to warm her calf with her huge front shoulders and neck. It was really amazing... she was clearly concerned about the cold and anxious to warm up that little pup. 

These animals, the natural world in gerneral, has so much to offer us, to teach us if we will only pay attention. Today is all about life, new life here on a farm that births a calf a year at most. So its special, but remember too that there is lots of death on this farm as well. I say that only because they are inseparable companions. My kids know this, because they see it, they live it... all the tears and all the joy. Its a package deal and its essential information. 

BAGS OF PLENTY

Starting All Over Again

Our cow Clover is close to calving again. We have not had her delicious milk since September 27th. We are excited and anxious for this birth to commence. The range of due dates that we had based on when we got her bred were the 25th to the 29th. Obviously she is on her own calendar and will have her calf when she is ready. Could be a week for all we know... but she does look close.

We watch the udder and the composition of her hip and "pin" bones. The pin bones are the pointy bones on either side of her tail. They move apart a bit as she gets ready to "freshen" (ag lingo for the birthing of a new, baby bovine). You will also see some mucus start to flow... that is what we saw first as Christmas approached. Her udder has also been steadily getting bigger... I would say it looks bigger today than it has, the increase in size has been steady but minimal. Today it seems to really be filling out.

I know the iphone photos are pretty bad... but you can see a couple things in this one in particular. First of all the udder is now "bagging up" to the point where it is taking its shape and pushing out between the back legs. You can also see, less clearly, that her vulva is swelling a bit and has that really slack, "I am about to have to open wide to let the calf out" look. You know the one, right? Suffice to say that it does not usually take up such a large and prominent postiion under the tail.  I am sorry I do not have any good "before" pics for comparison.

There is also the Murphy's Law element. That law would dictate that she will have her calf on the coldest, windiest day of winter... another potential vote in favor of tonight.... but Wednesday looks down right bitter! We'll see.

In The Moment

There is no way to plan the days around here sometimes. Today was one of those days that just took off leaving no prisoners. I was up at 5.30 making Coq Au Vin with some young roosters we dispatched right around Thanksgiving... chores and some bacon and eggs later the kids were off to do some charoling with their homeschool group at a local nursing home. The rain and sleet were oppressive as I tidied up some of the sloppiness outside with this wetness. It was a crazy blend of go go go all morning. 

On the tail end of that morning one of our best customers came by to give us her order for 2013... we ended up chatting about all sorts of things. At 2pm I was off to deliver some of last year's order to another customer who had yet to get her beef. We too had a great chat about all manner of things... she also oohhed and ahhhed at the color of the beef she was getting. I love that! Not to mention her informing me that she will be repeating her order again next year!

Awaiting the return of light

So then I get back home, dive into the cold, wet chore routine... and come back to the house to find more customers who have gifts and cards to give us as they pick up eggs, liver, etc. Just a very great day of interactions with these wonderful people who support us and inquire as to our health and happiness. I feel like I have been working towards this my whole life... extremely rewarding. The season are blending together, the line between customer and friend is becomming wonderfully blurry as well! Love it... abundance and satisfaction. 

Letting The World In

I took the kids today to a little rollerskating event for homeschoolers. We had a ball. I was aware all morning of how long its been since I did something like that with the kids. Its been too long, for sure. The Little Man was pretty overwhelmed initially. All the people, many of whom he knew, the scariness of getting some wheels on your feet and heading out to a disco lighted roller floor... yikes! Couldn't blame him, by the end of the two hours he was moving himself around the rink having a ball, ended up sad to leave. 

The girls could not have been more in their element. They love to dance. They love to sing. They love to rollerblade. They love to be with large groups of people at an "event". It was really great to be there with them. I think next month I will go for rollerblades as the 4 wheel rollerskate was not doing me justice, I am an "in line" kind of guy, I guess. 

We came home and did some stuff around the farm, Laura was with her mom at the weekly farmers market where we sell in Topsham. I cut some wood, the kids played in the house and out in the barnyard. It has been an amazing development around here the last couple months to see Yvette and Joepye hang out for long stretches of time. She is wonderful with him, they were that way today. Muriel was running her own Farmers Market stall in the living room, selling various trinkets. I was present all day to how lucky I am not only to have my fabulous kids but to have a life that lets me be with them.

I started chores around 3.30.  I called a neighbor to check in, he has been feeling a bit under the weather. In the course of our conversation he talked about the events of the day making national headlines. I have to say that I immediately resented the world for finding its way into my day. I enthusiastically and blissfully avoid hearing, seeing, or reading the news. I think somewhere in the course of the past three to four years I decided that nothing good could come of it. Does that make me ignorant or naive? Does that mean I have given up or copped out?

I will pour my heart into my life's work, into my community, and into my family. I don't think I have anything left after that. I can affect what is around me and fear that knowing too much of what happens beyond my reach will jeopardize my ability to work hard at HOME. I come face to face with this on a day like today.