There are people out there who think that farmers who raise livestock for any reason don’t love animals. Some people think we consider animals to be akin to machines in factories. Other people say “animals are friends not food.” No one wants to think about the one bad day that the animals on my farm have to experience. I’ve seen the constant bad days that animals in confined animal feeding operations (CAFO’s) have to endure. While they are not being tortured in CAFO’s, they sure aren’t getting to live out their lives in any sort of natural way while they are being raised to create a product.
In order to truly raise livestock humanely, ethically, and sustainably, I believe you need to love those creatures.
They all have personalities. They react to you and how you treat them and they remember what you’ve done, whether it be good or bad. They like to have fun and play. They have a different sort of intelligence.
Butcher days are never fun days. They are always the most stressful days on the farm. I worry that the animals will be stressed and scared. I worry they will be injured being loaded or unloaded from the trailer. I worry that something will go wrong in the process.
In the time it takes to raise an animal, you get to know them. You interact with them daily, multiple times per day. You talk to them, pet them…and you love them. You get to learn which animals are more trusting and which animals need you to talk softer and walk slower. You learn which pigs like back scratches and which prefer a scratch behind the ears. You learn to differentiate the ewes’ voices as they call out to their lambs.
My livestock are my livelihood. That doesn’t mean they are simply breathing products. They create products, but while they still breathe, they are creatures worthy of my respect. This isn’t a call to stop eating meat. It’s a reminder that your small farmer loves their livestock and truly cares about their needs while simultaneously understanding that they are here for our sustenance. Remember that your farmer takes care of the hard job of loving their livestock so you don’t have to. This is just a small reminder that while farmer is physically demanding, dangerous, and tiring, it is likewise mentally and emotionally demanding, dangerous, and tiring. And yet, I would not want to do anything else.
I prepared myself for the evening chores as I took a moment to change gears after work and let my phone charge for a few minutes. I had nearly decided to go change for my farm chores when, at 5:28pm, my phone began to ring. I stared at it on my desk. The number appeared on the screen before my phone was able to find the number in my contacts. Seeing the name on the screen brought my heart directly into my throat. “She only calls if they’re out,” was all I could think. I answered the phone, “Are they out?” My fears were confirmed and my clothes were changed faster than ever before.
I ran out of the house, planning my next moves as quickly as possible. I threw feed into a bucket, filling it far higher than for a normal evening snack. I ran to my truck and chucked the bucket into the back, then throwing myself into the truck and hit that gas, trying not to kick stones off the driveway. I barreled my way the 5.5 miles and pulled into my friend’s driveway. I found her talking to a man and rolled down my window. “Where are they? Did you see them?” I tried to be polite, but every second mattered. I had only two hours until it began to get dark.
They directed me as to where to go and gave me a phone number. The man asked if I had any ropes, which I denied. He told me he’d meet me there with some rope, so I thanked him and got myself turned around and back on the road. Thankfully, it was only a few miles up the road. But unfortunately, it was a few miles up the road!
I called the number as I drove into the driveway and was told that the man’s wife would meet me at the house. I threw the truck into park and leapt out, grabbing the bucket of feed on my way around the truck. The woman came around the front of the house, “They’re down here. You may want to drive.” So, back into the truck I went to drive over to the neighbor’s house one driveway up the lane. Those neighbors met us outside as I again grabbed my bucket of feed, coming round the back of the house to find my two fugitive cattle.
“They’ve been walking back and forth between our houses all day!” The neighbor began to explain to me. The first woman told me how she had called the police and animal control. “No one cared. I posted on facebook, but no one knew where they had come from!” We made small talk as we waited for the man to arrive with rope and I continued to give my heifers handfuls of feed to keep them nearby. One person suggested trying to put a rope around one of them. I tried the friendlier one, Black Licorice, but she became spooked and her sister even more so!
I went back to feeding them grain as the man with the ropes drove up. I explained what we had tried and the difficulty of these crazy cattle. He told me he had a trailer, but his truck’s hitch was messed up and couldn’t haul it. Another neighbor who had come over on her 4-wheeler stated that she had a truck that could haul it. So they went off on her 4-wheeler. She came back and laughed about letting a stranger drive off with her truck.
I kept giving the heifers handfuls of grain as I anxiously waited for the trailer, worrying about how we might get them into the trailer. Eventually, someone brought out pretzels as dinner time was passing us by. The neighbors laughed about the cattle having taken up residence in their yard, enjoying the shade and the salt lick. “We brought them some water and could tell they were tame since they didn’t run off.” I told the neighbors about their skittish nature and the difficulty of loading them on a trailer; that they were friendly, but certainly not quite tame!
Finally, the trailer arrived. The cattle and I heard it at the same time. Their ears went back and their tails went up. Milk Chocolate was headed for the woods while Black Licorice grabbed one more mouthful of grain before trotting after her sister. We attempted to coax Licorice back towards the trailer as they opened the door. The group spread out to encourage them towards the trailer, but Licorice followed her sister out into the scrub. Two people got on 4-wheelers and one man grabbed a stick. I realized then that one woman was in flip-flops and a dress, but she was through the scrubby underbrush just as quickly as I was.
We circled around behind them, urging them back towards the trailer, but once they arrived at the edge of the scrub, they refused to cross the dirt path back into the yard. They turned and ran into the woods instead. One of the 4-wheelers went on the path through the woods and pushed them back out the other side. The group of us became more and more spread out as the cattle ran around the front of the house, away from the trailer. They ran down the hill, crossed a creek, and entered the neighboring property.
We managed to push them back across the creek while one man drove the trailer down into the field. He parked it and we encircled the two drooling, heaving fugitives. They stood with their sides pressed to one another’s, facing opposite directions to watch us. I used the “phone a friend” option and texted two friends for help. One responded that she was on her way. I was tired from running, but focused on my goal and racking my brain for solutions.
We all had our arms out to the sides, standing in a large circle around Milk Chocolate and Black Licorice as we urged them towards the open trailer. At times they pushed us back, but we slowly made progress. I attempted to lure Licorice towards the trailer with grain and made slightly more progress. But soon we were at a stalemate. I attempted to push them, a move that showed my desperation. I stood with my body pressed firmly against Licorice’s side, hip to hip, with my knees bent just in the off chance that she attempted to kick me. She wouldn’t budge, so I eventually backed away and we tightened the circle more.
At that moment, Milk Chocolate decided she had rested long enough and she tore through the circle. Licorice hesitated only a moment before leaping after her sister, the two of them racing down the hill, through the creek, and up the next hill. At this point, I was told that some of the group had to go and the one man said he needed his truck back, which meant the trailer had to go as well. One man suggested we just walk them home. I was skeptical, but flat out of options. Our group slowly disbanding, I ran after my cattle.
Reaching the top of the hill, exasperated and losing any hope of retrieving my cattle, I asked the man and woman on the 4-wheeler if they knew were the heifers had gone. “Into the woods.” It wasn’t the answer I was hoping for. “Know anyone with a tranquilizer gun?” I asked through gritted teeth. The woman pulled out her phone and made a call. I was doubtful, but she asked the person on the other end of the phone anyway, coming up empty. I checked the time and realized my friend should be arriving any second, so I quickly called to let her know that we were no longer at the address I had given her. She told me where they were and I ran down the hill to meet them at the cross street to direct them.
I made it down the hill and told them about the cattle running into the woods. We headed up the hill and suddenly I saw three people, arms outstretched, coming down the hill. In the dim light, that was all I saw, but I knew what it meant. “There are my cows!” I whisper yelled at my friend. “You can’t see them, but they’re there! They found them!” I directly my friend’s daughters up along the side to keep the cattle from going to the road before we were ready. One person was in a car, keeping traffic from coming up over the hill and hitting someone. However, the other side was not guarded for us, so two cars came upon the crazy seen of a hoard of people chasing invisible (all black) cows around the woods and onto the street. Apparently, the one person rolled up their windows before being able to drive away.
We managed to guide the cows down the hill, but the overshot and wen straight into the woods along the creek. Thanks to quick thinking, my friend had brought along her handheld spotlight. She and her husband hopped the ditch and ran into the woods, pushing the cattle back to the road. Again they overshot and we weaved our way back and forth before the two fugitives suddenly appeared to have an epiphany and began trotting down the long driveway towards their pasture. I had brought up my map and saw that this driveway would lead them straight home and yelled ahead directions. I called ahead to the land owners “Open the gates. They’re coming home! We are walking them back!” The gates were opened and the now fully freaked out fugitives ran through the gate and straight to the creek to gulp down fresh water. I nearly joined them!
The girls might have been back home, but things weren’t safe just yet. The mystery of their escape still needed to be solved. My farmer friend began walking with some others and her bright light, checking the fence while I asked to be taken back to my truck. I found a ride back to my truck and came back to fix the fence. We found two spots the deer had destroyed, one spot where they came in and one were they left, dragging the electric fencing with them at a spot where the woven wire fence was pushed down.
I thanked my friends and neighbors and went home for supplies for the demolished fence. I hurried back, checked to be sure I found both sets of eyes and then re-secured the fence. Before I left, I scolded my crazy heifers and thanked them for coming home, asking them to stay home for just six more weeks. They looked at me, bored and worn out. I finally went home to calm myself down and get to sleep after the 4 hour ordeal of a new version of rodeo.
The sun rose high in the sky, repeating its unending cycle. Early in the day, it had already been hot enough to cause sweat to bead at the back of the neck and within every fold of skin just by standing outside. Like the sun’s continuous rise and fall, the heat too felt constant and unwavering. There were few clouds to give any momentary shade. No rain came to cool the dried, hot soil. Day after steaming day, the cosmic rays beat down upon the earth, beating down both plant and animal alike.
The small farmer, with piecemeal tools and limited supplies, pushed back against the sun’s ravaging rays. With soaker hoses, sprinklers, and buckets, eat plant received its turn for water. The animals struggled through the hot days; the heat emanating from the ground as much as from the sky. Shade could only do so much. Despite this, one of the greatest assets on the farm was protecting what little water remained in the ground: the mulch, both living and recycled.
For the animals, even straw-covered ground was better than bare dirt. The best was grass, which was cooler still, but at midday, the coolest place with shade was now under constant use and no grass would grow there. The plants that were thriving despite the long last heatwave were those surrounded by mulch. Even though the last rain was nearly two weeks past, those places with mulch were found to still have moist soil below the shredded paper, layers of pulled weeds, or piles of grass clippings. Even those plants still growing amidst a sea of weeds were doing better than those with no protection as although the weeds may take up some water too, they still shielded the ground from the powerful glare of the sun and created cool, damp pockets at the base of the plants.
Once the rain finally did come, gravity quickly pulled the rain down into the thirsty soil. If the plants could be heard, their songs would be loud and harmonious. The sheep and calf stopped panting and relaxed in the middle of the field, chewing their cud peacefully. The poultry no longer needed to hide among the shrubs to find a cool breeze. The rain would be taken up quickly by the plants and the mulch will continue to hold in every last drop to provide the plants with a far longer period of water than without it.
It is certainly no easy task working with mother nature at times. there is no controlling the weather and despite man’s best guesses, the forecasters remain ever unable to truly tell the future. However, by watching nature and mimicking those same strategies, gardens can flourish even during the most difficult of days. Growing plants and raising livestock is essentially about caring for the soil. When the soil is cared for properly, it is more resilient and capable of dealing with whatever weather it must endure, allowing both the vegetables and the livestock to grow fast and be healthy.
The past month has been a whirlwind of activity out here on the farm. The grass has been growing like mad, meaning I’ve been trying to keep up, but I’ve been thankful for the extra grass to give to everyone! Literally all the animals are keen on a little green in their diet! The pigs have been gulping down mouthfuls. The rabbits nibble on bits. The sheep and cows, of course, are mad about fresh cut grass, as one can tell by the green faces of all the sheep-hard to tell such on the black cattle. Even the poultry like to come and scratch about the grass clippings for tasty morsels once the sheep have had their share!
May 15th is the estimate last frost day, but it’s looking like May 12th will a golden opportunity this spring. That means I’ve been tilling to get the ground ready in time, between storms that is! The plants that are already in the ground are getting prepared to take off! Soon the radishes and lettuce will be ankle high and ready for chopping into your salad! More transitions and moves are ahead as well.
The broiler chickens have been out on the grass for a few weeks and have been enjoying their spacious and green digs. The ducklings are with them and appear to be growing just as fast as the chickens! I’m preparing a new place in the garden for all of the ducks as they will be my pest control company this year. I’ve never done this before, so it will be an interesting experiment. The two yearling cattle will be moving to a bigger pasture down the road so they can get all the grass they could possibly eat and more, while Grover, the holstein calf, learns to eat grain and grass and join the flock of sheep.
All of this is going on while Covid-19 still has its grip on the world. I’ve risen to a great number of challenges in the past, but this is certainly one none of us have ever experienced before. This year, I’m rising to meet this new challenge and facing new struggles: Pork will be going to the butcher a month later than planned. It’s certainly not ideal, but it will have to be that way. Now here’s hoping the cattle aren’t delayed in the fall too.
The butcher might be delayed, but the crops are still growing. The hens are still laying. The broilers are still eating. Some things Covid-19 just can’t delay. Despite that, another challenge has arisen: An influx of customers looking for safe, reliable food. I will supply everyone I can with what I grow and raise. But there is only so much I can produce. One way to make sure you get vegetables, eggs, and meat every week is to join the CSA. CSA shareholders are guaranteed first cut of all of the produce. If you want to join the CSA, please just let me know. There is still a few more spots available!
And, as always, the farm is a safe environment to spend a calm afternoon, picking up some Vitamin D and laying down some stress. Come visit, pet a lamb or a calf. Pat the dust off a happy hog. Hold a chick or try to catch a duck! You can even come weed some veggie rows if you just need to get your hands in some dirt! These are challenging times and sometimes we just need to take a breather. I’ll rise to that challenge too and continue to offer my farm as a safe haven for you to get out of your quarantine zone, get some food, and de-stress!
Now that food is flying off the grocery store shelves, I know many people are turning to local food to fill in the gaps. The concern of potentially infectious food is also at the front of many people’s minds. But the question frequently comes up: “Why is local food so expensive? Shouldn’t it be cheaper since it doesn’t have to travel as far?” Or the statement “I grow tomatoes in my garden and it only costs $1.59 for more tomatoes than I know what to do with. How can you possible charge $3.00/lb?” There are a lot of factors, but there are some main areas including “the economy of scale” and “living wage.”
Economy of scale is a term that refers to the ability for a producer to increase profits by spreading costs across a greater amount of goods. Large commodity farmers are able to purchase supplies in bulk, such as seeds, at a discount. Their cost per seed is lower for a farmer buying a 50lb sack compared to someone who is only buying a one pound bag of seed. It is also easier to bulk harvest and deliver to a single buyer rather than attend multiple farmer’s markets and running a CSA delivery service.
A living wage for a farmer means that the farmer must calculate his or her time into the equation of what they need to be charging for goods. If it takes an hour to harvest tomatoes, 30 minutes to drive to deliver them, and 30 minutes back to the farm, those two hours have to be factored into the equation. But the time to prepare the ground, plant the seed, cultivate the ground, and care for the tomatoes also accounts for a large chunk of time. The large scale crop farmer trucks a tractor trailer of tomatoes directly to a distributor with no other time factored into the income and cost equation.
Here, though, there is a catch. That commodity crop farmer that sells in truckloads rather than pounds and quarts, is earning pennies on his goods. In 2018, the USDA reported that farmers received just 18.4 cents for every dollar consumers spent on produce. This is actually a decrease of 5 percent in just one year. When you buy produce directly from the farmer, lots of hands are removed from the money pot: grocery stores, commodity crop buyers, trucking companies, etc. The farmer decides the price based on what they need to earn a living wage to continue to provide the amazing produce for their customers!
By purchasing your food from a local farmer, you are putting them in the driver’s seat of their income and their lives. Farming is one of the most important industries (and relies on a vast network of other very important industries) and is most certainly a “real job” which has been shoved to the margins of society as food as become cheaper and so readily accessible. It takes a wide array of skills, knowledge, ingenuity, grit, and artfulness to be successful at farming. We aren’t trying to get rich, we are trying to live the American dream and do what we love. The reward of farming isn’t in the money, but we do need to charge enough to keep doing what we love.
I know it has been just over a month since I last shared a new blog post and the last post wasn’t the most uplifting. I did not intend to go silent, but between lambing and getting everything ready for planting and now our present reality of dealing with an invisible, yet dangerous force of nature, life has been taking me for a ride. It is never a bad ride! Just a ride, with ups, downs, and crazy turns and loops!
I’ve written about that being one of the things that keeps me farming…no dull days! Whether it is a good day or a bad day or a busy day, it’s never boring, never just mundane. This spring has been that for certain. Lambing started beautifully, but quickly became a different lambing season entirely, before wrapping up with a final gorgeous little ewe lamb. Talk about a ride!
The hens started laying eggs once the warmth hit and the days got a little longer again. The grass is finally starting to grow, as are my seedlings both indoors and out! It’s good to see the garlic making its way through the straw to find the sun. Chicks arrived just this morning and I know before too long, they’ll be out on that wonderful green grass, which is showing just how much it needed the help of chicken fertilizer all last summer; it is green and growing in thick!
While all these things are going so well, it has been difficult to turn to the news and see the hard reality of what is happening all around us. This invisible thing, Covid-19, has taken hold of the world. It has our full attention like an alien invasion. I wish I had solutions in a world full of uncertainty, but it simply isn’t realistic for us all to find shelter in the woods or in the middle of the ocean. We are a connected people, and I’ve seen how difficult it is for us to steer clear of one another, even though we must.
The world is quickly changing right in front of us and I am seeking to do what little I can in my tiny corner to be part of the change for good. I started my CSA (food subscription delivery service-Community Supported Agriculture) last year and didn’t ever think about how it could serve to help keep potentially high risk populations safer. Now that Covid-19 has hit the scene, it’s at the forefront of my mind.
I want Wise Produce and Proteins to be a light in the darkness in whatever way I best can make it. Food delivery, in this moment, seems to be one of the better avenues to help keep people safer. I am committed to continuing to produce safe and healthy food to nourish your family and keep you and yours out of the grocery stores as much as possible. We may find that we limit trips to the store for the rest of our lives, buying in bulk more often so we can go less often.
Getting a delivery from WPP means that you don’t have to come into contact with other people. You can pay upfront or via an online service and never worry about dealing in cash that has been touched by hundreds (thousands?) of hands. Like I’ve said before, I am a one woman operation: I’m the only person who touches your food from planting to delivery. I am committed to safe food handling practices and intend to keep it that way and even make it better if I possibly can!
During the uncertain times of life, you can be certain that your food is healthy and safe. Why go with a meal delivery service that has numerous people handling your food before you get it? Go with a delivery service where you know exactly who touched your food and how it was handled! You can ask questions and even come see the operation yourself, rather than wondering how your food was handled and how many different people touched it all before it reached your door.
The hard days of farming. It isn’t the rain or the snow. It isn’t necessarily the heat or drought of August. It’s not a low sale day at the market. Those days can be rough, for certain. But ask a livestock farmer what the worst day was for them. I’ve had animals escape. I’ve had structures destroyed by weather. The worst days weren’t those, as hard as they were. No, the hardest days were days when I lost an animal or a group of animals. Those days stick very firmly in my mind. Taking an animal to the butcher isn’t like losing an animal. You know that day is coming long before it comes. You separate that animal in your mind and begin removing the emotional attachment.
The days that break a farmer’s heart are those days; days when broilers die under the intense sun after weeks of cooler temperatures. Or when a young hog dies unexpectedly. Those days cause an ache in the chest. Even more so though, are the days when you’ve tried all you knew to try and it just wasn’t enough.
That was a day I experienced today. I knew that my two year old ewe, Yin, was struggling with her lambs. I didn’t know what was wrong. I threw all I had at her last night. I gave her calcium for milk fever. I gave her sugar for ketosis. I gave her antibiotics for infection. I spoke with the vet. I examined her. I walked with her. I sat with her. I prayed with her. And then I cried with her and hugged her tight before turning in for the night.
I hoped for something good this morning. But when I entered the pasture, I knew it wasn’t to be. I took care of everyone else’s needs first and then entered the barn where I had contained her for the night. I knew right away when I saw her that she had passed in the night. She would have had two big ram lambs had something not gone wrong. But she couldn’t tell me something was wrong. She wouldn’t say because she is a prey animal. Prey animals will hide their illness until they just can’t keep going. By the time I knew, it was already too late for her, and still I didn’t even know it.
Yin was just a sheep. But she was a great sheep. She was friendly. She was motherly. She was a beautiful sheep and had many excellent years left to live. But it wasn’t meant to be. Yin was more than just a sheep to me. Yin always wanted a back scratch, just like her mother. This is a hard day to be a farmer. These are the days we all hope to avoid. Nevertheless, we mourn, we accept our losses, we learn, and we move forward. We never forget the hard days though. They stick with us. It’s the sad part of farming, but a reality of life.
Ever since I found that the livestock will know the electric fence is off before I do, I’ve been fine-tuning my electric fence skills. I first started using electric fence when I got my first feeder pigs. Electric is the easiest way to keep pigs contained and yet also be able to rotate them through various areas so they don’t destroy an area and end up living in a mud pit. At my first farm, I eventually found that I liked to keep the pigs in the wooded area, which meant it wouldn’t work to install hardwired electric fencing and so I went with solar. That also meant that where I needed to put the solar charger in a location where, for half the day, trees blocked the sun.
I didn’t realize that this was as much an issue as it was until I showed up to the farm one morning to the sight of two of my six pigs charger straight for me far from where they should have been. After chasing them around for what felt like an eternity, I realized that the four boys were satisfied with staying in the pen and the two girls were so food motivated that they chased me into the pen when I ran away from them with a bag of feed! Once I got them back in the pen and the fence fixed back up, I realized that I’d need to rig up a light for the panel at night to keep it charged enough. I ran four extension cords all 400 feet out to that panel to light it up at night for the next month until butcher day arrived.
Electric fencing is a modern day miracle. Solar electric fencing takes it a wondrous step further. It makes electrifying fence far from an outlet a snap. But it always has its challenges. Electric fence is often taken out by deer, grounded by wet plant matter, or sags against the woven wire field fence, all of which mean the shock goes into the ground rather than into the curious nose of livestock. But no matter what grounds it out, if the wire is grounded or the charger has run out of juice, the animals will know and they will work to find a way out as soon as they get bored or hungry.
I managed to make it through 9 hours without the cattle realizing the fence was grounded, and I’m hoping to make it another 9 before I can turn it on again. This time, I only had to run three extension cords to the panel so I could plug in a light to charge the panel at night. Unfortunately, it had also been grounded due to help from a buck who had gotten caught in the fence and destroyed a section of fencing, both field fence and the electric wire fence, so it was fully dead. With fingers crossed and the light shining, here’s hoping for a fence with some power to it in the morning!
This winter, I made the decision to try out a very different breed of pigs, the Idaho Pasture Pig (IPPs). These pigs are built for grazing first, rooting second. Standard pig breeds are designed for predominantly rooting and turning over the earth. Their noses are long and angular. They are made for moving and shaking and have definition to their muscle groups. IPPs are nothing like that. They are chunky and more like barrels with stubby little legs. They go from butt to face without so much as an indent. Their noses are short, upturned and stubby.
So while I wanted to try out this new breed of pig, I still wanted to get some standard pigs so I could compare the meat and see just how different it might be. Plus, one of the main reasons I put the pigs where I do is so that they will till up my garden for me and eat roots, grubs, and hopefully some weed seeds. With all those factors, I decided to get two IPPs and two standard pigs. The difficulty arose, however, when I had trouble finding standard feeder pigs due to the time of year. It’s a little harder to find feeder pigs in the start of winter.
By the time I found two feeder pigs, Biggie Smalls and Mr. Wattles were getting pretty large. As luck would have it, the feeder pigs I found were also decently sized. I was wary about getting them, remembering the terrible experience I had the year prior with overly large pigs. But I figured, if they would fit in the dog crate and one person could catch and carry them to the truck, I could do it with my farmer helper who was meeting me at my farm. We got them into the crate, in which they promptly found a weak spot in the plastic bottom and began to tear it apart, using their powerful neck muscles and angular noses.
I got my two new pigs home and prepared for the fun. Pigs are a crazy variation of livestock. Pound for pound they may just be the strongest animal you could have on a farm. I’m always shocked to see how much fat they actually have on their carcass at butcher time because they are such strong and fast creatures, even at 300lbs. These two feeder pigs were maybe 50lbs. But carrying a 50lb bag of feed and carrying a 50lb living and terrified pig are two very different things.
I wrestled a pig at a time out of the crate and my friend and I each grabbed an end. We staged a child at the crate and at the pen as we dropped the first pig into the pen with the IPPs. We watched for a moment as the IPPs came to investigate. It was obvious the new pig was quite scared of these bigger piggers. My friend and I hurried off to grab the second pig, but before we could, we heard “it’s out!” The exact words I did not want to hear.
As I’m having near flashbacks to last years insanity of chasing pigs, we ran back to see this poor pig, in an attempt to flee from the IPPs and get back to something familiar, he had gotten himself firmly struck in the electric netting fence. We rushed to try to make him back up, but it was too late, he forced himself through, tearing the netting. We circled around him as the kids helped get the fence back up to keep in the IPPs. The escapee stopped to take a breather thankfully and my friend attempted to lure him closer with a scoop of feed. He was inching away, so we put pressure on him, causing him to suddenly run back into the pen. We again secured all the fencing, putting up an extra row of physical fencing and ran off to get pig #2.
Pig #2 was a touch bigger than the first and put up an even greater fight than his brother. We managed to wrestle him into our arms and haul him to the pen, where we unceremoniously dropped him into the pen as carefully as our weary arms could. The two new brothers ran to each other and struck close as the IPPs began teaching the intruders who was boss. On and off for hours, the IPPs attempted to bite and chased the two new pigs. We finally decided that this didn’t seem to be ending, so we made a straw bale fence and set up a small shelter for the new pigs so they would have somewhere to sleep out of the cold wind away from the IPPs.
Two things happened. 1. The IPPs showed me that they could fly by leaping over the straw bale. 2. The new pigs appeared to be afraid of shredded paper and dug out a low spot to sleep in for the night. Thankfully, everyone did go to sleep on their separate sides and it seemed all was well.
In the morning when I fed them, the one IPP again showed me that he could fly and magically appeared on the wrong side of the straw bales, leaving his brother by himself. Since it seemed pretty fruitless, I took apart the straw bale wall and left them to continue getting to know each other, hopefully in a kinder, gentler way this day. And so it was. The IPPs still hounded their new brothers a good portion of the day, but there was no more biting or attempts to injure anyone. After a long and stressful 24 hours, it seemed all was well and after a week, it was hard to tell they had even just met. They were interacting just like litter mates would.
Some sheep producers know when their ewes will lamb. They know the window of time that each ewe will drop a little one, two, or three. These shepherds often use a “crayon” so that the ram marks each ewe as they are bred and the day can be recorded. Or the shepherd may put the ram with specific groups of ewes on a certain day and have a span of a week or two when their ewes will lamb. A few days before lambing the shepherd will close the ewe who is close to lambing in a “lambing jug” where the ewe is able to lamb in peace where her lambs will not wander away and she can bond with them for a few days.
Some shepherds prefer their ewes to give birth on pasture so long as their sheep are safe and their lambs won’t be eaten by dogs or coyotes or the dreaded black vulture that chooses to prey on the living rather than on carrion. My sheep fall into this group who lamb outside. I thankfully have high fences, lots of electric wire, and the scent of a big dog, Abel, to keep the hungry hounds away and there are few black vultures who come nearby.
The breed of sheep I chose to raise, Katahdins, are motherly and calm. They bond with their lambs quickly and have strong maternal instincts. When Cindy lambed last year, I found that she had pawed through the snow into the hay below prior to giving birth so that her lambs would land on dry, clean hay rather than the hard, cold snow. Fawn gave birth a few days later, choosing to lamb inside the shelter due to the increased wind that morning. These wonderful mothers knew just what to do to make sure their lambs entered the world safely.
Once the lambs were on the ground, they were quickly cleaned and urged onto their feet to nurse. And nurse they did! When lambs nurse, their tails flap all over the place! That’s how you know they are getting milk, those happy tails! All three of my ewes gave birth around 6am last year. By evening, every lamb was clean, dry, and well fed, following their mother around. Being the awesome mothers that they are, but terribly unable to count, the ewes frequently called out for their little ones. It seems though, that even if both lambs are stood by their mother replying to their mother’s low baa, their mother will still search for another lamb. She may stare at both of them and then call again and spin around until she is satisfied that all of her children are with her.
My choice of allowing my sheep to follow their instincts and lamb on pasture or in their shelter also applies to my seemingly “lax” breeding system as well. Generally, I know when my ewes are cycling as they get a bit feisty and begin to head butt one another and get into little spats more often than normal. My ram spends a lot more time following them around. But I don’t take off his apron until the time is right. I have a broad window of when my sheep may give birth, but I at least choose the start date for that window! I prefer my ewes to lamb in early February, so I take off the ram’s apron, which prevents unwanted breeding, in September.
My previous ram was older when he was first introduced to the flock and I was sure of his ability to provide lambs. However, this year my ram is a young fella and although feisty and insistent, I can’t be as sure of when my lambs might be born. So I watch for the signs, wait, and check off another day. I lift their tails to see if udders are producing milk and hug their round bellies hoping to feel a hoof. In prior years, I’ve seen the lambs kicking even! It seems that ewes so often lamb in the foulest of weather, so maybe I’m just waiting for the first bad snow of February. So until then, I’ll watch and wait.