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!

The Beginning of Everything: Part 1-Auction Chickens

No one tells you anything about herding chickens. It’s like no one has ever had their chickens get loose before. Like I’ve mentioned before, I read a lot about chickens before getting them. Not one mention of herding the little dinosaurs. No author was ever like “if you’re chickens escape from their pen, here’s what you do.” Why do I keep bringing this up? It can’t be that hard, right? No, it’s not, once you know how they think.

When I came home from college, a switch got flipped somewhere in my head. I don’t know what happened, honestly, I don’t. I basically declared “I’m getting chickens.” So that’s what I did. I went to the small livestock auction, nervous as heck as this was my first auction ever. I got myself a number card and started perusing the auction floor, deciding the ones I’d be bidding on. I had decided I wanted bantams, which are basically just small breed chickens. However, I really had no idea how small or large a bantam was. Seeing these chickens in the flighty, feathered flesh, I had no idea what I was in for.

Bidding time came and it was like they had painted me red and tied neon lights to me. I had obviously never been to an auction before and I could see that knowledge written easily on the auctioneer’s soft smile and quick nod when I timidly raised my card. I went back and forth a few times with another bidder as I quickly attempted to decide how much these birds were really worth to me. Suddenly my bid was the winner and I was given the number of the cage of birds and the cost. I went away to pay and get my boxes, eager to take home my prize.

By the time I came back, all the animals had been sold and the bidding was over. I walked back and forth among the cages looking for my newly acquired chickens. I grew concerned as I looked, being unable to find my chickens. I began to panic a little, thinking someone had taken them. Finally! I found them! Uneasy and unsure of myself, I began the process of loading them up. I managed to get three in the box before one bounded away from me.

The little bugger went under the cages and every time I ran around one side, it darted away. I grew increasingly self-conscious as she evaded capture. An old, quiet farmer came to my rescue and deftly snagged her and put her in the cardboard box. He smiled and said “here” as he reached for the box. He took out a knife and cut a few air holes in it and then helped me load my last four chickens.

I was giddy on the ride home. I had my chickens! I’d done it! Two new experiences were had that day: Bidding at an auction and being the proud owner of 7 chickens. I truly had no idea what was in store for me, not in the next few days and certainly not in the next few years. I was entirely unaware of the brand new trajectory I had just placed myself on.

What’s Up With This Whole “Grass-fed” Thing Anyway?

You eat because you have to eat to live right? And because food tastes good too, of course! Healthy, delicious food sometimes looks just the same as some less healthy options. Grass fed beef and feed lot beef don’t look all that different and some people don’t find it to taste very different. It’s a subtle difference that can make a big difference to your health.

Grass fed, pasture-raised cattle at WPP aren’t stuck in a stall their entire lives, being handed all the food they need. The calves brought to the farm are only about 24-48 hours old after being sure to receive the necessary antibody containing colostrum from their mothers. This ensures that they are able to fight off potential illness and infection as youngsters. Once they join the flerd (flock/herd), they cattle are allowed to roam the pastures, starting to nibble perennial grasses and legumes.

Just about a month old!

Grass fed doesn’t mean they only eat grass. Clover, dock, plantain, and many other broad-leafed “weeds” as you might call them, make up the diverse diet of herbivorous ruminants like cattle and sheep in addition to the numerous species of grasses. The benefits of being out on pasture, eating what’s natural for cattle aren’t always measurable, but most of them are. So let’s get into what those benefits are and why on earth you should care!

Some benefits are related to the health of the cow, some to your health, and other benefits are for the earth itself! But today, in this blog post, we’re going to focus on YOUR health and how grass fed, pasture-raised beef isn’t just good for your taste buds, but your heart and other organs too!

I’m betting you’ve heard of how awesome Omega-3 is for your cardiovascular system, right? It is said to lower inflammation and increase heart health. Feed-lot beef is found to contain similar amounts of Omega-6, which is necessary, but it’s found to be in a ratio to Omega-3 that appears to have negative impacts on health. In lab tests, grass fed beef is found to contain up to 5.5x more Omega-3 than conventional beef.

She finally stood still long enough for a picture instead of trying to lick the phone!

Another important component of grass fed beef is in the fats it contains. Grass fed beef has more conjugated linoleic acid or CLA, a type of fat. This is linked to lowered rates of inflammation and aids in boosting the immune system. It’s also thought that CLA has cancer-fighting benefits. But grass fed beef also tends to have less fat overall due to the cattle spending more time moving around finding tasty plants to eat and the fact that grain tends to encourage packing on the fat, especially fat like saturated fat.

At WPP, cattle are also never given hormones, steroids, and rarely, if ever, given antibiotics or vaccines. Conventional cattle are injected under the skin with a hormone that is slowly released over their short life to boost growth rates. Due to the unsanitary conditions of feed-lot beef, cattle are often given antibiotics and steroids. Out on the pasture, however, this is unnecessary as they are able to move away from their own excrement and the chickens that they co-exist with move in to spread out their piles of dung, eat the bugs, and allow it to be absorbed into the ground more quickly.

Sometimes they get some treats like freshly mowed grass or corn leaves and stalks.

Sometimes, it is necessary to use antibiotics if an animal gets an illness or infection and some cattle are given vaccines to prevent against things such as tetanus. For instance, the first steer brought to the farm was given a tetanus shot when he was banded to become a steer rather than a bull since this process can allow for that bacteria to enter his bloodstream, but since that point, none of the cattle have received vaccinations. At one point, I was concerned about the potential infection that could have sprung to life through the one calf’s naval as it was slow to heal. For that, I bought long-acting penicillin, but waited to see if it would be necessary. Thankfully, her naval did heal on its own, so I never needed to use the penicillin, but I would have used it to save her life if I had to because to not do so would quite simply have been animal cruelty.

There are so may more benefits to grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, but we won’t get into all of those today. We will go into more benefits in the post “How it’s Raised: Cattle” when that gets written. We will also talk more about rotational grazing and how it impacts the environment and the animals. For now, though, look forward to winter 2020 when beef will again be available!

They’re pretty friendly creatures, too!

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.

Snakes! Don’t Run Away!

My twice daily task, moving the broiler pens and loading them back up with copious amounts of food and water. The go through both immensely fast; faster than any of my other animals. Their growth and therefore their respiration are far greater than most chickens. They need water to digest their food, just like any of us and they eat more food per pound of body weight than most all of us. Out their backside then comes more waste than all of us. This demands that they be moved twice every day to a fresh 100 square feet.

So, on this particular day, the older group of broilers had the luck of being up by the locust, maple, and cherry trees. It’s cooler there. I think they enjoy that. They are very toasty creatures as they get older. Chickens are already warmer than us, but broilers put out even more heat, their little hearts beating so fast to pump blood to all the growing muscles. The bugs are different too. Fewer crickets. More pill bugs. Diversity is good. Even chickens like different snacks now and then.

I took the food pans and set them up on top of the pen. Pulled out the waterer and set it aside. I slide the wheels under the edge of the chicken tractor and then pushed it into a new area. I slide the wheels back out and set them aside so I could move the younger batch of broilers once I had finished up with these guys. I turned to refill their water and heard a shuffle and flapping of wings and sharp squawks from the pen. I spin back around and see the birds splayed out in a semi-circle, giving something the side-eye, nervously inching away, yet keeping their heads steady.

I’m intrigued and confused. What could make them act like that suddenly? I came to a conclusion before even needing to see it: A snake. For sure. Chickens and snakes are not usually on the best terms. Although it could have been a toad as I do have some mighty big fellas hopping around the farm slurping up slugs. But they would have seen a toad. Snakes are better at lurking. I’m sure he wasn’t keen on suddenly being stepped on though! Sure enough, it was a small garter snake, curled and ready to strike these, to him, terrifyingly large adversaries. Thankfully, my poultry catcher was nearby and it is shaped much like a snake pole. I reached in and pulled out the little guy and set him free to slither back to a safe space.

But this little garter snake hasn’t been the only snake to grace my presence on the farm. The first snake was actually a four foot long black rat snake with a broken tail tip. He made his way high up into a tree with amazing precision. I was very impressed with his abilities and snapped multiple pictures of him as he wound his way up into the tree to lounge on a thick, horizontal branch for some thorough sunbathing. I was cautious while walking under that tree once it got windy that even!

This giant girl easily found her way up this tree.

The second snake was another giant black rat snake, IN MY HOUSE. Yes, not even joking. He stayed in my ceiling, showing just a part of himself out of a small section of my ceiling that had been removed for renovations. It only took me 24 hours from the moment I saw him to the moment I managed to fight him out of my ceiling with the aid of my poultry hook. He wasn’t too pleased at his eviction and fought with all his might to stay. Once I finally wrestled him free, I took him up to the field and released him to go back to catching field mice and rats.

This is post-eviction. Thanks to the first snake’s damaged tail, I know that they were two different snakes.

Finally, the most alarming snakes I’ve found this year on the farm haven’t even been in my house or very large. This winter, I secured my sheep and calves 8 hay bales weighing 600lbs each. Covered under a huge, white hay tarp, this hay has stayed green and dry since February. It only took until July before my hay became a den of snakes. The flakes that come off these bales is 3×4 feet and the hay is double stacked. Pulling a new flake from the top bale means reaching up into the hay tarp above my head and blindly pulling the flake down towards myself. This time, it also meant I had pulled a nest of young garter snakes down too. Thankfully I didn’t try to ease this particular flake of hay down and simply let it drop. The snakes went all about my feet, fleeing to new dark spaces. I kicked the hay flake a few times before quickly throwing it over the fence. That wasn’t the last time snakes came pouring out, but at least I was prepared after that shocking incident.

After all these stories of snakes, I can hear you asking me, while shaking your head, “why wouldn’t you kill them?!” Long story very short: Rats are terrible. Where there are livestock, there is livestock feed. Where there is livestock feed, there will be rats. But if you have snakes, (along with a solid feed management plan), rats and mice are kept to a minimum. Two rats can create a happy mischief (applicable name for a group of rats, huh?) of 1,250 rats in one year. Delightful, isn’t it? So, I am a steadfast advocate for snakes. Snakes may eat chicken eggs, but it isn’t a common experience. I’ve never yet lost an egg to a snake. But I’ve lost eggs to rats. Snakes may look scary, but they just want to sun bathe and eat mice and rats, so I’m willing to share my space with them.

Using a Cast Iron Dutch Oven

The Best Bread You’ve Ever Had

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Why on earth would you want to go back in time and use such a heavy, bulky thing like a cast iron dutch oven…I can just hear you asking me now. There are a million reasons! Some you might already know! For instance, you’ve probably heard that the heat is more even when using cast iron. But the uses and benefits don’t stop with even heating; I can assure you! I’m not going to go into all the benefits right now, there’s more on that another time. I’m here to focus in on something that you are bound to love.

Dutch ovens are pretty cool, but a cast iron dutch oven will complete your kitchen. Want to make soup? Dutch oven. Want to make a roast? Dutch oven. Want to make BREAD?! Duh, dutch oven! What? Yes. You haven’t eaten bread until you’ve eaten bread from a cast iron dutch oven. Some of my CSA customers have heard the whispers of bread next season. The rumors are true. Bread may very well be slated to go on the docket for 2020’s CSA!

But I’m not going to keep the awesomeness of bread baked in a dutch oven to myself or prevent you from learning the secret either! If you want to have a go at it, it’s pretty simple. Bread only really needs four things: Wheat, water, yeast, salt. I’ll leave finding the perfect recipe up to you, but I’ll tell you how to make that recipe absolutely perfect by baking that delectable loaf of bread in a dutch oven.

First though, you might need a dutch oven. This one has shown itself to truly be up to the challenge. It’ll help you to create the best loaves of bread you have ever had the chance to butter up!

So, now I’m sure you’re hoping I just get around to telling you the tips and tricks to getting that loaf absolutely perfect. Okay, okay, it’s really not that difficult. First, follow your recipe and come back when your loaf has risen. Ready for the next step? Get that dutch oven preheating! Most vessels made for the oven aren’t built to be heated empty. The cast iron dutch oven can withstand this pressure without cracking, so don’t use just any oven safe pot. The preheating is the most important step, I promise! Why? How?

It’s all in the steam. The dutch oven provides the perfect chamber to capture all that moisture contained inside your raw dough. But it has to be fully heated and up to temperature before you gently plop that dough into the dutch oven. You see, your conventional oven lets all that steam float around the oven and away from the loaf of bread. As your baking dough expands, the crust is already becoming hard, preventing your bread from being the delicious, crusty loaf it was meant to be! By using a dutch oven inside your actual oven, it contains all the moisture from within the loaf, keeping the crust malleable and soft as the loaf expands.

That’s not the end of the story, though. Let’s get into a little bread dough science. That humidity inside the dutch oven goes up and out of the dough, right? This cast iron dutch oven is designed with little dimples on the lid. These dimples cause the steam to fall back onto the dough. Liquid water is cooler than water vapor, which cools the crust. This causes something really neat (and tasty)! The water droplets give the bread time for the yeast enzymes to keep working their magic in turning starches into sugars. Your bread then ends up with a crusty exterior, and an insanely soft interior.

Now that you’re bread is baked, I’m sure reading the rest of this is pretty much out of your thoughts. But if you haven’t even gotten a dutch oven, just rest assured that bread will be getting tested all winter to prepare the best loaves for your CSA share in 2020.