Rising to the Challenge

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!


Why Should You Eat Lamb?

Lamb meat sometimes has a reputation for being “smelly” or just being “gross.” Unfortunately, what may have been labeled as “lamb” might really have been “mutton.” The difference is only in age. Lamb is categorized as a sheep under one year old. Mutton comes from any sheep over that limit. There’s some leeway there, but that’s the general rule of thumb. Older sheep, like any animal, tend to have more flavorful meat. The body accumulates a number of compounds, minerals, and micronutrients in the muscle and fat. These leads to a more robust flavor, whether that’s good or bad is usually down to preference.

Lamb meat is mild in its flavoring. It has a very similar taste and texture to that of beef, but there is a richness to lamb meat that beef just doesn’t have. Grass fed lamb isn’t just a delicious Sunday dinner. There are also many environmental and health considerations that make lamb a worthwhile purchase. There are benefits to eating lamb that other meats aren’t able to always match.

Lamb is considered a “complete protein” and contains all nine of the essential amino acids along with CLA in higher quantities than you would find in beef. CLA is considered to have many health benefits. In lamb, you will also find high quantities of vitamins and minerals such as B12, Zinc, Iron, and bioactive nutrients and antioxidants. Some of these include creatine, taurine, and glutathione. These are good for heart and muscle health. Overall, lamb packs a lot into a small space, providing an easily-digested protein that contains more beneficial nutrients than many other meats or vegetable proteins.

Environmentally speaking, lamb meat is a positive choice for regenerating the soil and improving pasture. More farmers are turning to sheep as a method for reducing parasite loads in both cattle and sheep, increasing variety in pastures, and improving soil health. Most sheep are raised on grass and do well even with poor-quality forages. Katahdins, with their goat-like qualities, also make do with browsing on low-hanging tree branches and chomping down on bramble leaves. While not as effective as goats, sheep can help to clear pastures of unwanted plants.

The split hooves of sheep also loosen soil and allow pasture seeds to gain a strong connection to soil and water, allowing thicker swards and a thicker sward means more CO2 absorption. Their manure is formed into small pellets that absorb into the ground slowly and don’t smother grasses. Running sheep and cattle together, either in the same paddock or one trailing after the other, reduces parasites since most parasites are species-specific and provides a more evenly grazed pasture since sheep and cattle prefer different plants.

In some places, sheep have their tails docked or their skin “crutched” on their rear to prevent flies from laying eggs in poo stuck to their wool. Katahdins, who have no wool, only hair, do not require tail docking. Crutching, now considered a cruel practice, is never done on the WPP farm. Male lambs are castrated humanely within two weeks of their birth so they have minimal discomfort. In addition to being a healthy protein source and a positive environmental support, you don’t have to worry about whether the lamb you buy is treated ethically and humanely when you buy from Wise Produce and Proteins.

How They’re Raised-Sheep

If you haven’t read the beginnings of how I ended up with sheep, first go read that story!

I chose hair sheep after long and careful consideration. Being a small farmer, starting with a single ewe and her lambs, it would not have been easy to deal with the yearly or biyearly shearing of a few sheep. Nor would it have been cost efficient. Shearing a trio of sheep could cost $30 and the wool could end up being worth nothing if it wasn’t cared for appropriately while the sheep was wearing it! I knew I wasn’t ready for that, so I found the breed “Katahdin.”

These lovely hair sheep lose their coat every spring. During the summer, their coat is coarse and short to repel rain and keep them cool. In the winter, the grow in a soft, woolly coat up to three inches thick. Like wool sheep, this coat of hair repels moisture through an oil known as “lanolin.” This oil keeps the rain and snow from wetting them down too much, helping to keep them warm. The three inch deep hair then insulates them so well that snow doesn’t even melt off their backs!

Katahdin sheep are easy keepers: They eat grass and a few handfuls of grain and give you beautiful lambs in the spring with nary a single cry other than to ask “Where’s my snack?!” It’s a pretty darn exciting thing to walk up to the pasture on a cold February morning, still dark, with snow covering them ground to find your ewes lambing, unassisted, and cleaning off their newborns with their only worry being to dry off that little lamb and get it standing and eating. They are incredible creatures and wonderfully instinctive.

I provide my sheep with a shelter from the elements, but they aren’t often inclined to bother with it. On hot days, the sheep find a breezy, shady spot to pant for the afternoon. On raining days, they’ll be out eating grass in the pasture. When it’s snowing, they’ll be laying out there chewing their cud, entirely not bothered. Just about the only time they mind the weather is when the wind starts howling on the colder or wetter days. Then they’ll gratefully use the shelter.

They have full run of the pasture right now, but this winter, they will be confined to the front section to help the pasture heal. Once the grass starts growing, I’ll begin rotating them through the pasture, paddock by paddock. Rotating them around the pasture rather than giving them free reign to the entire area encourages them to eat more than just the “candy grass” and makes them eat a more rounded meal. Some grasses taste better than others, but has more sugar, while others have more nutrients and taste less delectable, so the sheep skip that on the first pass if they have access to the whole pasture.

In September, I take off the ram’s silly apron that prevents accidental lambs, and let him get down to business. In the past, Sam would have completed his duties in a few days and in February, I’d have lambs all on the ground in a week or two. This year, Cork is in charge. Being a young fella, we will see how he does with completely his duties. Hopefully, the lambs won’t be born too far into the spring, but again, Katahdins are good at what they do, so I don’t think there will be much of a problem.

During the months the ewes are in milk with their lambs, I feed alfalfa pellets to give them the necessary protein they need to stay in good condition while caring for the hungry babies. Once the lambs are gone or grown and the cold sets in, out comes the real good stuff, the grain! Sheep go crazy for grain! They will trip over each other to get to the grain bucket and potentially take out the food-lady to get their share! The sheep get a few cups of grain per day to help them stay warm through the cold winter nights and give them the extra calories through the duration of their pregnancy.

Once the lambs are born, I give them a few weeks to build up their strength before I manhandle them too much. But once they are found strong and healthy, the boys go from being rams, to being “wethers,” meaning they don’t get to keep their testicles, which lead to meat having quite a bit of flavor. The lambs grow to about 9 months old, and the ewe lambs are kept behind with their mothers and the wethers head to the butcher. Sheep are considered “lambs” until they are one year old. So when you see “lamb” for sale at the store, it’s not a little baby they slaughtered, it’s a sheep who is often 75% full grown, but just under a year.

The sheep on the farm here at WPP get to stay with their mothers until the day they go to the butcher. I allow the ewes to decide when to wean their lambs. For the most part, the ewes get tired of being thrown around when their nearly full grown lambs head butt their udders in an instinctual effort to encourage more milk production. I’ve seen ewes with their back legs up off the ground from getting head butted so hard! The mothers then usually call it a day and stomp off!

While I still might see 9 month old lambs nursing from time to time, it becomes pretty infrequent by that point. Other producers may only let their lambs nurse up to 3 months, sometimes 4 months before they separate the lambs from the ewes. I find Katahdins don’t need the separation and it’s hard to see them go through that process unnecessarily, so I don’t do it. These sheep might lose some condition and be a bit bony by the middle of summer, but they gain it all back before winter so they stay nice and warm with some fat covering.

So there you have it, raising sheep in a nut shell. There’s always so much more to sheep than meets the eye! My sheep are shy at first, but they know a bucket of grain when they see one and will run to even a stranger, though wary at first. My sheep truly know my voice and come when I call out “come on sheep!” They are eager to be near me and see what treat I may have brought them. It’s such a calming experience to spend time with the sheep. They come to nuzzle me and get a gentle scratch behind the ears or under the chin. The best moments are when Cindy, my matriarch ewe, sways back and forth as I scratch her back. Even sheep love a nice back massage!

Symbiosis on the Farm

If you have been following WPP on instagram, you may have noticed a recent picture of a chicken standing on my heifer, Black Licorice. I titled it “Symbiosis in the Barnyard.” Symbiotic relationships are incredibly important on the farm. In order to keep animals healthy and ensure that their environment mimics what life would be like for them if they lived on the open range in the wild, symbiosis is an absolute necessity.

You have probably seen nature documentaries of animals such as water buffalo with wild birds perched on their backs or buzzards hopping around a pack of lions chowing down on their prey. Birds of all kinds are crucial to success of the ecosystem whether they are cleaning up after herbivores like cattle or sheep or carnivores like lions and tigers.

Chickens, in this case, serve in their vital role in a couple of ways. The cattle are not only tolerant of the chickens, but are practically blind to the chickens! This has upsides and some serious downsides. The simple downside: Chickens are mighty prone to getting stepped on by the blundering giants who have no clue that stomping on chickens is not going to go well for the chicken. Thankfully, chickens are pretty quick to hop out of the way in most cases. The positives of this awesome relationship are numerous though!

Chickens aren’t vegetarians. Did you know that?! They are serious omnivores and eat a huge variety of foods. Chickens nimbly peck at seed heads on the pasture plants but also scratch around for insects. The most fun to watch is a a chicken carefully snatching gnats out of the air! When chickens snag a bug too big to swallow in a single bite, they will essentially play “keep away” with one another as they try to find a safe space to break apart the bug and much down their prize. But how does this apply to sheep and cattle?!

Well, herbivores make a lot of poo. Fibrous grasses and legumes are digested quite efficiently by these animals, but it still makes for lots of raw fertilizer. What likes poo too? Flies. Flies are quick to lay eggs in cow patties. Dung beetles also get to work on breaking down the excrement. Chickens have an innate understanding of this and go searching for the little critters that have found their way into the piles. Chickens scratch apart the piles of poo in search of any bugs they can eat. Sure, it sounds gross, but this is what chickens were designed to do.

In addition to eating the fly larva and other bugs, the act of scratching the patties up means that the grass it has smothered can see the light of day again and allows the ground to more easily absorb the nutrients from the poo. It leads to a healthier pasture and fewer insects that will bother the sheep and cattle. Chickens will not just eat insects from the poo, but also eat them off the backs of the sheep and cattle and generally help keep them away.

Even the sheep are known to allow some back scratching from some brave chickens from time to time! During the winter, the sheep have thick, warm coats that insulate them so well that snow generally doesn’t even melt and freezing rain will form ice on their backs. The chickens are keen to lend a helping hand by pecking the ice chunks off the backs of the sheep for some water and even scratch snow off the sheep. Now, while the sheep don’t need this, it certainly seems that they don’t mind. I think they might even enjoy a nice chicken back scratch!

On a farm that allows symbiotic relationships, everyone benefits! The chickens get easy, healthy food and gain some extra daytime protection from hawks who are less inclined to snag a chicken with such large body guards. The herbivores deal with fewer insects and less stinky poo. Even the pasture benefits by being able to absorb the nutrients more efficiently! It’s a good life when they can all enjoy it together!

Ten Things Books Don’t Teach About Being a Farmer

Despite everything I’ve read in books and online, I’ve found that there’s just some things that books either don’t even bother to mention or they are dead wrong! So here’s a list of things I’ve learned that no book bothered to tell me before I jumped in with both feet into the farming world!

1. There’s a method to herding chickens. Yes, they can be herded, but no one tells you this. Chickens have a “flight zone” like other prey animals and running is NEVER the answer. Unlike some animals, arms and sticks can be enough to move a chicken, just a little show of spirit fingers can even do the trick to push a bird a touch more in the right direction.

2. A book once told me that I could stick a bucket on a pig’s head and then maneuver said pig with its tail. This is a LIE. I had the crescent-shaped bottom of a bucket bruise on my thigh for a solid three months to prove how wrong this was.

3. Like I’ve mentioned before, snakes LOVE hanging out in the warmth of the hay bales. No one thought to bring that one to my attention before I nearly ended up with an arm-full of baby garter snakes!

4. To teach a rooster that you’re in charge, you have to be the more aggressive creature. There’s no kindness in the world that can change the mind of an aggressive rooster. Some birds will never change their minds and you’ll forever hear the steady stomping of feet behind you as a nasty roo attempts to catch you off guard before leaping into the arm and slicing open your legs. I’m not sure if any creature is quite as mean as an un-trainable rooster out for blood.

5. Sheep love chin scratches, but they love back rubs even more. It’s a pretty silly experience to have a ewe swaying back and forth nearly lulled to sleep by a back scratch.

6. Groundhogs can and will devour your entire crop of lettuce, spinach, kale, and beets in a single night. A rabbit will spend a week eating your carrots from the tops down to the very tip of the carrot so cleanly that you’ll wonder if you imagined that you were growing carrots there in the first place.

7. A chicken can jump straight up more than two feet without every spreading her wings. She use this skill to steal an english muffin right off your plate when you go out to enjoy some chicken tv on a cool spring morning.

8. That same chicken will then be the most adorable creature on the planet and hop onto the bench next to you to fall asleep resting against your thigh in the sun.

9. You aren’t a shepherd or a farmer or even a person. You are the magical being that brings food. Your mere existence, whether you are carrying a bucket or not, will rile the animals up into a mooing, baaing, clucking frenzy. They will all come running to sniff and stare at you to determine whether the magical food bringer has an offering. Once it has been decided that you have let them down, they will ignore you. Unless you walk away. Then it’s obviously to go and bring them food, so they must remind you exactly every 4 seconds by screaming while standing next to the gate.

10. Being a farmer is the most frustrating, sad, invigorating, exciting, relaxing, fun, exhausting, and rewarding profession that has ever existed. From the loss of nearly the entire batch of broilers to heat stroke to the 6am lambings that go so smoothly, you didn’t even need to help and from the freshly tilled ground waiting to produce for the season to the early mornings spent chasing a loose cow or sheep around the country side, farming is never dull. Farming evokes the entirety of the emotional capacity of the human existence and rewards the farmer in the most unique and delicate ways possible.

Pasture Passion…It’s Not What You’d Expect

I finished herding the last few chickens into their coop, shutting the door and turning off their nightlight. Who knew chickens were so afraid of the dark? Rightly so with all the predators out there! I left the coop to check on my flerd of cattle and sheep and locate Abel as he made his run around the pasture. Before I had time to give Fawn a chin scratch, thick thuds erupted from within the flerd.

It’s an unmistakable sound. I knew even without seeing it that it was the sound of two hard headed sheep having a ramming match. This was a new development though. I found Cindy and Larry squaring up. Ears back, chins down. Another thud. Cindy backed up to hit him again, but suddenly Cork joined the fight! Hitting Larry from off to the right, Cork made a soft hit, Larry defending his space. Larry backed off and attempted to find cover from this unfair fight. Cindy gave him a moment, but Cork wanted his turn.

Cork got in another ramming and backed up to go again. The rest of the sheep were watching idly while the cattle ignored all of the scuffling happening nearby. It seemed that the more violent the three of them became, the closer the group huddled together. Cork was about to make another run towards Larry when Yin gently stepped forward in front of him. She rubbed her face against his and pawed at the air. It seemed she had decided Cork should leave this fight to the Matriarch, Cindy. Cork gave in to her request, but rested his head on her back and stared at Larry.

Cindy had given Larry enough of a reprieve and forced him to square up again. Again and again they went head to head, blow after blow. For a little guy, half Cindy’s weight, he sure could hold his own! This was the little scrappy fella who had picked a fight with Sam the Ram though too, so he wasn’t exactly a stranger to unfair fights! And Sam was a good three times his size, four times when he was packing the summer weight.

I watched Cindy and Larry continue to square up while the sheep appeared to grow bored with the two of them. I glanced over at Fawn who was getting awfully close to one of the young ewes, Cindy’s spring lamb, Greta. I lifted an eyebrow with interest and waited. Sure enough, Fawn leaped on Freya’s back, alarming Greta to the point that she galloped away. Fawn fell away and acted like nothing had happened.

With that final hurrah, I decided I’d watched enough of this circus for one night and called Abel to leave. Abel, always excited to move onto the next fun activity, came tearing across the pasture, completely oblivious to the chaos that the fall breeding season had brought into the pasture.

Hair Sheep-The beginning

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A few years ago, I picked up a guide to raising sheep. I go with Storey’s guide books every time. They are a beginner’s crash course on your animal of choosing. I own ones for rabbits, cattle, pigs, and chickens too. I own one for dairy goats, but goats are still just far too good at getting out and causing trouble for me to head down that road just yet. I always pick up at least one book about the animal I’m looking to start raising before I get that animal. I need to know what I’m in for!

So I got this book on sheep. It took me a little while before I really figured out the direction I wanted to go and made that leap though. I spent some time yearning, some time online researching breeds, learning about what they needed to thrive, and yearning some more. I then spent weeks searching for the perfect sheep.

Finally, I found Cindy and her two lambs, Tippy and Fawn. I drove all that way out to Elizabethtown in the middle of the countryside and found Cindy with her adorable little twins. Of course, I knew I wanted her as soon as I saw her. After getting some background info on her and learning more about her and her little ones, the couple loaded the trio into the back of my truck. Nervously, I ventured back towards home. As I drove, I nearly watched the shadows of those three sheep more than the road! I attempted to stop gently and start rolling slowly, but it seemed they were more than able to keep themselves upright regardless of my sometimes necessary less careful stops.

Fawn, Tippy, and Cindy

Having three living creatures with free reign of the back of your pick-up truck is a nerve-wracking experience. I could hear their hooves stomping on the bed of the truck as I followed the winding country roads towards their new home. They shuffled around, attempting to understand the predicament that they suddenly found themselves in, having gone from a comfortable straw-filled barn to a loosely hay-covered truck bed.

After nearly two hours, I arrived home in the dark of a cool spring evening. It took two people to get Cindy into the truck and now I was alone with three sheep. I never do think about this portion of things. Suddenly flustered, I simply stared at my three new beautiful sheep. Eventually, I figured I could likely set up a ramp on my tailgate and with a halter on Cindy, walk her down and then take the lambs out and they would follow her. Now, normally, this sort of thing never works out quite like that for me. I set up something that seems perfectly logical and the animals give me the middle hoof and do anything that seems to be in complete opposition to my plans.

It went okay this time! The lambs didn’t run off, Cindy didn’t leap away and break a leg. Getting Cindy and her lambs from the driveway to the field was a different story. Cindy wasn’t used to wearing a halter or being told where to go by means of a rope attached to her face. I’d never lead a sheep anywhere, ever. I pulled, I pushed, I cried with frustration and concern that I might be hurting her. Inch by inch, we worked our way down to the field before I could finally shove her through the gate.

With that tiresome bit finished, I took the halter off of Cindy, made sure she had some hay and grain and fresh water. I watched them for a moment with a tired smile before reluctantly retreating back to my truck to drive myself home. My first night with sheep. There’s a sigh that fits the end of a successful day of farming. When the farmer can finally stop holding her breath for something to go wrong or something to go right at last, and take that big, deep, slow breath in to let it back out with a mixture of relief, pride, and hopeful satisfaction.

Every Precious Drop

Setting out on my own. A rented farm. Fresh ground to manage as I saw fit. It was exciting. Who am I kidding, it was exhilarating! I had farmed my parents land and worked out a deal with a neighbor to start raising broilers, but after three years and no room left to grow, I knew it was time. Besides, I really wanted some pigs and mom said “no” before I even had the words all out of my mouth. I had managed to sneak chickens onto the property, so I can’t complain. I grew quite a little operation in those first three years. It was a safe place to start.

But I needed to expand, so off I went! The rented farm was lush with opportunity and I was downright giddy to get started. Before long, I was raising 4-6 pigs per year. I hit some some struggles with the broilers. Predators are always hungry. Especially when they have young to feed. But I learned, built stronger defenses, worked some offense. The layers were working their magic and I grew my flock from double digits to triple. Somewhere in there I had amassed over 100 chickens for the purpose of laying eggs to sell.

Things were going okay as a young farmer, just getting her feet wet. But that dried up one day when the well pump failed. Due to extraneous circumstances and a strangely wired house, it was impossible to get the pump going again. For two long years, I muddled through. I lugged six 5 gallon water jugs from my second floor apartment to the truck to trek to the farm. In the winter, I carried these jugs through three feet of snow. In the summer, on especially hot days, I made three trips instead of two, bringing a grand total of 90 gallons to the farm rather than only 60 gallons.

I put a stop to my broiler operation as 100 broilers will go through 15-30 gallons per day. Predators took care of my laying flock, bringing me well under 50 hens. Between fledgling red tailed hawks being trained in the art of the buffet line of chickens, raccoons, and some extremely hungry foxes, the flock was hit hard. I allowed my hen numbers to stay low, taking care of the problems mother nature had thrown my way (thanks Abel!). I had fewer animals to water, but I still had crops to water.

Getting seeds to germinate is hard without adequate water. Carrots hardly grew as frequent, even watering is absolutely essential those first few weeks. With only 5 gallon jugs, it was impossible to water them well enough. I didn’t have enough time to drive back and forth from the farm into town and back, filling all those jugs and water all those crops. Half never even sprouted from the ground the first year. The second year, I planted less and grew more.

But I’m stubborn, I must admit. If I couldn’t have broilers, I’d get sheep. Three or four of them wouldn’t drink much and I was growing fewer crops, so I had some wiggle room. So I sprung for a ewe with two lambs and later found Sam the Ram to join the show. Then I thought, “why stop at sheep? I have these ruminants, why not add some calves?!” So I did. I found two calves, a heifer and a steer, both around one month old. Maybe stubborn isn’t the word for it. Crazy might be better served in this context.

Word came later that year though that I needed to move on. Might my water woes be over?? Indeed. I found a safe haven for my creatures, a place to grow some veggies, and watch water flow from a hose again. Those two years without water taught me some valuable lessons though. I don’t take water for granted like I used to when it flowed so easily from the hose at my parents’ home. Even now, at this third farm (fourth if you count my childhood home), every drop is precious. If the hose leaks, a bucket goes under the leak to catch it or I find a new hose. If I can collect some rain water, I do it.

I know how much my animals drink on hot days and cool days, in the middle of winter while eating hay and the long days of summer when they are on the wet, green grass. I know how much the broilers will drink in the shade compared to full sun all day. When water flowed freely, I just filled up the water bowls without thought. Once that water stopped though, I had to bring out the calculator while watching them drink every drop to make sure they would always have just enough. Even now, I don’t pick just any day to plant, I watch the weather and wait. When rain is fully expected that night or the next day, you will see me in the field, planting madly all the seeds I can when the time comes. Tonight, I’m watching the weather to see when I’ll be planting my spinach seeds.