Friday, June 24, 2011

Farm Story for June 25, 2011

A Farm Story for June 25, 2011
Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

On Halloween last year we made a trip to Mars Hill in North Carolina to look at a pair of ewes I’d found on Craigslist. What had intrigued me about them was that they were Border Leicester crossed with Cotswold, both large breeds with gorgeous thick curly wool. We have chosen our sheep based on the variety they add to our nice handspinning flock.

Based on the information the owner gave us, we took two very large dog kennels in the back of the pickup truck. Because we were going up a mountain to almost nowhere, we did not take the horse trailer. Al is very competent at backing a trailer but we’ve discovered that there are some places where, no matter what your skills, it is just not possible to get in and out of with a trailer. It is a good thing we made that choice.

We found the pasture where the sheep were. They were down in a gulley on the opposite side of the road from the woman’s house. There was barely a foot path down to the pasture so we parked the truck on the very edge of the road and walked down with the owner. The sheep were in a pasture with a horse. The pasture was bare, eaten down to the very end of the dry weedy stems. The woman explained that she was leaving the farm and had not been able to get hay so had been feeding only grain lately. The sheep certainly showed that that was the case – they were grossly obese.

They did have long beautiful white locks. We were told they were named Betsy and Bitsy. Although they looked very similar from a distance we only needed to look at their ears to tell them apart. Bitsy had a little bit of the tip of her ear missing where her ear tag had been torn out.

After a fair bit of running, we were able to corner and catch the first gal. We had to walk her out of the pasture and up a narrow foot trail to the truck. The owner, Al and I all held onto her as we walked as she would have disappeared into the mountains had we let go. She was not accustomed to a lot of hands on contact so was quite skittish and tugged against us as we tried to guide her. We had set the dog kennels out onto the ground when we arrived so we managed to force her into one. There was room for her to stand and partially turn around but we had no idea when we planned our trip that the gals would be so grossly enormous! We managed to secure the kennel and then had to lift it up into the bed of the truck. By the time we were ready to lift, the woman’s companion had arrived. It took all four of us to hoist the full kennel into the truck. We repeated the process with the other sheep, tarped the kennels and prepared to leave. I asked their owner about the sheep’s vaccinations, lambing history and current diet. I never did find out how much grain the gals were getting each day but it was obviously quite a bit.

The owner said that the last person who had sheared for her had scolded her for their condition. There is a simple way to determine if a sheep is of the proper weight. You place your hand along its spine near the tail. Your middle finger runs the ridge of the spine and then you determine where your fingers lie in relationship to your middle finger. If your outer fingers drop lower than your middle finger the sheep is too thin, if all fingers are flat the sheep is in good condition and if your middle finger is the lowest of the fingers the sheep is overweight. Well, these girls were hefty. A middle finger trying to find the spine disappeared in a sea of fat.

Since it was the end of October, the bulk of our breeding season had passed but we didn’t want to risk any “mishaps” with these ewes. They were much too overweight to risk a pregnancy. We placed them as securely away from the rams as we could. We estimated their weights to be between 225 and 240 each. We put them on a hay-only diet which is quite sufficient for any sheep that is not nursing a lamb. They did get an occasional nibble of grain as we tried to gain their confidence. They were not really people-friendly, even with their original owner. In a few days they were becoming more and more curious about us, especially when they realized we did have a treat. As they became more interested in us, we used that to make them take walks. We would wander around the pasture with just a nibble of grain in our hands. They would walk and walk, hoping we would slow down and give them just a nip. When we first started this little game they would often be panting after just a few minutes. Their endurance increased as their weight dropped. Over time they became friendlier and healthier, probably losing about 30 pounds each.

Al sheared the gals in the spring. We knew they had dropped a decent bit of weight but were not surprised to find that they could still lose more. Sheep do not have hefty rear ends; these girls had fat folds rolling down on either side of their tails. They still have a good way to go to be truly healthy sheep but they are now grain-free and continuing to lose weight. Perhaps they will be in good condition to breed in the fall but if not they will be separated from the rams. Their health is our first priority so we will continue to work on it.

Bitsy and Betsy have earned a nickname here on the farm because of their tendency to try to force their way through gates as we are going from pasture to pasture. They are particularly persistent if the two have been separated. They have earned the name “The Sofa Sisters” because trying to get through a gate with them is like trying to squeeze between to very large fluffy couches.

The fleece from their first shearing here is gorgeous. Each fat curl is at least six inches long. Although they are filthy when they first come off the sheep, they wash up to a lovely sheen. These gals were losing their home so we would have cared for them anyways but it is nice to be rewarded with such lovely wool. And with our very hot week, I am sure they are very fortunate to be nicely shorn and to have lost as much weight as they have so far.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Farm Story for June 18, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

Years ago we heard an expression that has proved over and over again to be the absolute truth, at least based on our limited experience. That expression is “If a fence won’t hold water it won’t hold a goat.”

The reason I bring that up is that this time of year we are often asked if we have a garden. We have free range chickens as well as numerous goats so we do not really have a garden. I grow a few herbs and sometimes fool with garlic in a small fenced area but the majority of our fresh produce comes from our sweet friends, Jeff and Kim of Iszy’s Heirlooms, our neighbor at the Saturday Market.

It is probably easy to understand how chickens could get into the garden. We do not trim wings so they can fly where they want. Since our birds are totally free range we want them to be able to get out of the way of trouble. Trimming a wing on each bird is a good way to keep them contained in a fence as they cannot fly well but even the notion of tracking down 300 hens, unfurling a wing on each one and trimming it with a pair of scissors sounds like a ridiculous task. When we lived in the suburbs of Jacksonville with just four hens we did contain them that way but no longer have to worry about the birds going off into neighboring yards now. And since the hens can fly they would easily find a way to a ripening tomato, an attractive squash or any other garden goodie that catches their eye.

Even if we could contain the chickens, the goats are another matter. There are several techniques that we’ve become familiar with through our years of trying to keep them contained. We do have good fencing around the whole property. It is a combination of high tensile fence and electric fencing. We also have a generator which, should we lose power for an extended period, we can use to keep the fence “hot”. We don’t mind living without power in the house for a bit but would prefer the animals stay here rather than wander down the highway and off into the surrounding woods. Most of the time the animals do not test the fencing but should one discover it won’t get shocked and can push on through it will not be long before everyone else follows along. It is a chance we’d rather not take.

So basically the perimeter of our property is fairly tight but we do have some issues with the cross fencing and gates within the property. And the goats are the first to find a weak spot. One of our funniest goats when it came to dealing with a fence was Baby Doll. Years ago someone informed us that they had a friend in Georgia who had to get rid of her Angora goats. We already had a few lovely angora goats and enjoy them for their gentle personalities and soft mohair so decided to go buy a few. We drove down, looked at the herd, chose a few and decided to come back in a few days with a trailer to retrieve them. As we rounded up the large, handsome goats we’d chosen we noticed a petite goat. She was obviously stunted compared to the rest so we hadn’t originally chosen her but as the pasture emptied out we felt sorry for her and bought her at the last minute. She was so tiny that we named her Baby Doll. Although she grew a bit more once she arrived her, she remained one of our smaller goats. She was a little pistol and quite the fence-tester. She would push on gates to see if they would scoot open just enough so that she could slide through. She would wiggle her way through our board fences as well. She had horns that curled back toward her ears so would carefully shove one horn through the space, turn her head and wiggle the other horn through before slipping between the boards. If she couldn’t just step through the boards she would wiggle her head through and then turn her body almost on its side so that one shoulder rested on the bottom board. She would then scoot one leg and hip through the fence, pushing the whole time with her hind legs to propel her forward. Once the first shoulder was through the narrow opening she would wiggle so that her other shoulder fit into the spot. A bit more pushing with her hind legs and her whole front half would be through the fence. She would then patiently pull herself forward with her front legs as she gradually wiggled one hip at a time through the fence opening. The first time I watched her do this I was fascinated and was sure it was just accidental luck that allowed her to squeeze through. That was not the case at all. This became her technique and one that she managed to teach all of her offspring through the years. Long after she had died of old age, we could tell if a goat was her son or daughter based on how they approached a board fence! Baby Doll’s daughters also taught their kids this amazing trick but I never saw a goat that was not related to Baby Doll manage the stunt.

Vincent is another goat who is not bothered by fences. He came from Split Creek Dairy and is the offspring of a LaMancha mother and a Nigerian Dwarf father. He is one of our largest goats and has the teeny tiny ears of a LaMancha. Because of his funny ears we named him Vincent VanGoat and have simply adored him. He is about ten years old but is still quite spry. He does not have any fence tricks. He just takes a step back and jumps them. He can easily clear every fence on the property and that is just a problem we’ve learned to deal with. When we need to unload feed from the truck to the stable we usually just pull everyone out of the barnyard and into one of the pastures. Vincent compliantly follows the herd as we move them into a pasture, waits for us to lock the gate and then just jumps back over the fence to try to eat open the bags of sweet feed or chicken feed as we unload them. In order to contain Vincent we have to lock him in a stall and it has to be one of the stalls with metal bars that go almost all the way to the barn ceiling.

Some of the other goats are just gate testers. They seem to push up against any locked gate on the chance that the chain did not quite fall into place and they can push it open. Once a gate is open and a single animal moves through it everyone has to follow. Just this week I came out to find four adult goats, three kids, three adult sheep and a few lambs in the tractor shed where we store square bales of hay. They literally were having a hay day climbing the bales and eating as fast as they could. It seems the last person to feed hay had not dropped the end of the chain that holds the gate shut all the way down into its little notch so that when a goat pushed up against the gate it opened enough that the crew slipped in. Fortunately most of the hay from the tractor shed had already been fed out but they were still making a mess of the remaining hay. I was frustrated but not surprised to see them in there. I flung the gate all the way open to chase them out. The very friendly sheep and goats mostly ignore me when I try to chase them but I had an empty bucket on my arm as I’d been on my way to gather eggs. I threw a few sticks and rocks in the bucket, shook it and ran. Everyone assumed I had a bucket of feed and quickly raced out of the hay. I tossed the bucket ahead of me, waited for the flock and herd to run by me and doubled back to properly chain the gate. Once everyone realized there was no grain they wandered off. I picked up my bucket and continued on to gather eggs to complete my fairly normal day.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Farm Story for June 11, 2011

A Farm Story for June 11, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

Our lambs started coming in early February. Now that about four months have passed their mothers are starting to wean them. We allow all of our animals to dam-raise which means that we do not separate the babies from their mothers and we let the mothers decide when it is time to start pushing the little ones away when they try to nurse. That time is rapidly approaching.

Our Shetland sheep are our smallest breed with most of our ewes not much larger than a medium sized dog. These fifty pound mothers are getting tired of their lambs, who are now about three quarters of their own size, zipping up next to them, ducking down and smacking their udders. Lamb instinct is to rapidly butt their head on mama’s udder to let down the milk. When the lamb is small the system works perfectly but when the lamb had grown to the point that it is almost as tall as its mother the let down bump sends mama’s hind feet off of the ground. I can almost sense mama flinching as she sees a hungry almost-grown lamb approaching. The poor lamb has to lay on its belly in order to get its head low enough under mama’s belly to nurse. It is definitely time to stop and the ewes are beginning to rapidly pull away from their lambs and even gently kick at them when they try to nurse.

It seems the harder the mothers try to wean their young, the more desperate the babies become. Although the babies wander fairly far away, they seem to keep one eye on mama, waiting for her to stand up after a nap so that they can shoot towards that udder. Now the babies are not doing this out of hunger. They have been eating well for quite some time as they graze the pastures, have all day access to lovely fresh oat hay and get a daily ration of grain. Nursing on mama is a nice treat but also a reassurance that they are still loved and protected. Often when a baby is startled or suddenly looks up from where it has wandered and realizes that mama is not right next to it it will bawl and run up underneath its mother. It may take a quick nip as if to nurse but seems just to be comforted to be snuggled in a cozy familiar place even if it has grown too big to barely fit into that place.

The kids and lambs become more daring as they grow up. When they are tiny not only do they want to stay close to their mothers but the mothers often don’t let them go far, gently nudging them back should they wander. The instant a small baby is out of sight its mother bawls and anxiously searches for it. This connection is something we use all the time when a lamb or kid is born. We can walk a mother all the way up the hill, across the pasture and through several gates into a cozy stall in the barn just by holding her newborn at nose level and walking a few steps ahead of her. She really picks up the pace if the baby should cry out for her. Walking slowly and dangling a baby from the pasture to the barn is a lot easier on us that trying to carry or drag a newly delivered mother any distance.

As they grow, the babies branch out and most of the mothers relax so that they don’t mind if their little ones wander a few yards away for a while. Now that the babies are a few months old they are becoming quite independent. There are several gates that the babies can slip through but that the adults cannot. One of the areas that the babies now congregate is in a building we call the tractor shed. It is now almost filled with hay and the bales are stacked within about a foot of the rafters. As the hay is fed out to the sheep the stack of bales ends up as stair steps all the way to the rafters. And it is up at the rafters where I’ve found quite a few little lambs and kids climbing lately. Sometimes they stop and nibble along the way but mostly they seem to want to practice scaling the huge mountain of hay bales. Occasionally I will hear a baby crying for mama from the tractor shed. It is usually temporarily stuck up high and uncertain how to wind its way back down from its perch. Mama will come to the gate of the hay shed to offer encouragement but cannot slip through the gate so is forced to watch her little one experiment with ways down or wait for me to climb the bales to gently nudge it down a safe path. Fortunately, an accidental tumble just results in a distressed baby landing safely in a soft pile of hay.

Usually the wandering is not a big problem but we now have one little buckling twin who has taken it too far. His brother is a climber but he is our escape artist. He started by slipping through the fence to the neighbor’s field which is loaded with poison ivy, a special goat snack. A few weeks ago I returned from town to find a young lady standing in my driveway with the white kid in her arms. She said she’d pulled him out of the road. He had wandered all the way from the neighbor’s back pasture to the highway. And he got into trouble again on Wednesday.

I walked out for a quick trip to turn off a dye vat. That trip turned into an hour outside. On my way to the stable I heard a baby bawling. The little white fellow was on the neighbor’s side of the fence knee deep in poison ivy. I was hoping I could reach through the fence, sacrificing as little of my skin to the poison ivy that I could, grab him and hoist him up and over the fence while trying to avoid the strand of hot wire at the top. He would not cooperate, avoiding me as I reached through the fence. After lots of attempts I called my sweet husband to tell him of the predicament. I did not want to go over to traipse around the neighbor’s property as poison ivy does not agree with me. Al offered to come home for a late lunch and to grab the little guy. I was afraid to leave him alone for fear he’d end up walking along the far side of the fence and ending up in the highway again so I stood in the hot pasture and talked kindly to him for the half hour it took Al to drive home.

Al did manage to wade into the poison ivy and grab him but only after he’d tried to come under the fence one more time. This time he caught the tip of his ear on the barbed wire that runs along the bottom of the fence. He panicked, jerked back his head and pulled the tip of his ear right off. Because of the way the tip of his ear folds he tore a little upside down “v” in the end of his ear. He bled a bit and bawled for his mother who was quick to comfort him once he was back to our side of the fence. I found the tiny tip of his ear, no bigger than my fingernail, still hanging on the jagged barb. The next morning I checked his wound and it was already scabbed over. It was easy to find him as he was tightly nestled against his sleeping mother’s side as his brother scaled the hay bales in the nearby tractor shed. I am hoping he won’t be wandering again anytime soon but we shall just have to see. And I immediately scrubbed well with dish soap and have no signs of poison ivy so far.

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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Farm Story for June 4, 2011

A Farm Story for June 4, 2011
Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm

Although we do make an effort to observe a quiet Sunday there are times when things just come up on the farm. This last Sunday we added an amusing bit of work to our day of rest. Our friend, Jeff, who is the farmer behind Iszy’s Heirlooms at Saturday Market, texted to ask if we’d like a little animal food. He had mentioned to me on Saturday that the excessive heat would be making his romaine and Chinese cabbage bitter. He wanted to know if we’d like to come get it for the livestock. Since we work hard to give everyone a little variety in their diet we took Jeff up on his offer.

We loaded up a wheelbarrow, work gloves and lots of ice water. Jeff had mentioned that he had a fair bit to pull out so we came prepared. There were two long rows. I twisted the heads off at ground level and Al followed behind to load them in the wheelbarrow and then cart them back to the pick up. In a very short time we had all the lovely greens cleaned up. Although we didn’t keep an exact count there were about 150 heads which filled the entire bed of the truck. We tarped them so as not to leave any along the highway on our trip home.

We were greeted by the oxen who just have a sense when we are pulling into the driveway with something edible. Zeb and Gates are in a front pasture and simply dance whenever we pull in with a new load of hay, culls from Jeff’s or any other treats. These same steers couldn’t care less when I come and go throughout the week but when I return from Saturday Market they watch closely to see if I pull on of the cull buckets from the back of my car. They are especially enthusiastic during tomato season as Jeff culls his tomatoes to very high standards, often leaving us with a few nice big bucket loads of juicy treats. The oxen are spoiled as they usually get the first serving of any goodies we bring home to the farm. This time they got an entire wheelbarrow load of cabbage.

The geese got some romaine. They are a trio of Pilgrim geese, a heritage breed, who are so particular when it comes to food. They will eat romaine but not cabbage or collards. They honked and pranced around as they saw me coming with three gigantic heads of lettuce. They tore them to shreds and devoured them. They always have grain available and plenty of other good food but this was special.

Throughout the rest of the afternoon we distributed seven wheelbarrow loads to the other creatures around the farm. By evening the only signs of their feast were a few dirty roots in the pasture and lots of creatures contentedly chewing cud.

I was expecting a chicken delivery this week. When I’d placed my order several months ago I wasn’t thinking about this being a holiday weekend. Our day-old birds are shipped from Iowa and usually arrive on either Monday or Tuesday morning to our local Pelzer post office. I get a six a.m. phone call telling me to come to the back door to retrieve my birds. Obviously, I did not get a Monday call as the post office was closed. I assumed I’d get the call on Tuesday morning but Tuesday morning came and went. I was out gathering eggs Tuesday afternoon when my cell phone rang. It was someone at the postal distribution center in Greenville. He told me he had my birds and they would be delivered to Pelzer the next day but they’d arrived at Columbia that morning so he thought I might want to drive to Greenville to get them rather than let them sit in their shipping box for another day. I called my sweet husband who works in Greenville. He swung by and retrieved them at the end of his work day.

Since Tuesday was one of our ridiculously hot days, I was not worried about the birds maintaining temperature once they were out of the air conditioned postal facility. They require temperatures of 90 to 100 degrees for their first week of life which is why we hang heat lamps above the birds. We unloaded the little gals into their brooder box, not bothering to turn on the heat lamps as it was almost nearly 100 in the barn. We immediately gave them water and chick starter feed. I had ordered 100 pullets (female birds) so we counted them out as we unloaded them from the shipping box. We had 102 live birds and one poor little girl dead in the corner of the box. Although a dead bird always makes me sad, it also amazes me that the tiny birds can routinely survive their air, truck and car trip from half way across the country. In no time these new gals were noisily and busily checking out their new home. At nightfall we plugged in the heat lamps and left them to themselves as they were huddling down in small groups and going to sleep for the night. So far they are doing just fine. I think they are enjoying the high temperatures more than anyone else on the farm this week and I don’t mind not having to have the heat lamps on all day long.

The birds are in the stable which is also where I have a stall set up as my dyeing studio. I have been very busy this week dyeing lots of wool and new yarns for Market so I’ve spent lots of time checking up on the little ones. I love to hear their constant baby noises as I work. They have three waterers which I clean often. We’ve bedded them with oat hay which they manage to continually kick into the water as they are scratching around looking for interesting things to eat. They have starter feed in feeders but since their instinct is just to search everywhere I also just scatter some feed in the hay. It is funny to watch a two day old working so diligently to feed itself. They are independent little ladies as long as I do my job and keep them fed, watered, warm and dry.

The heat has been fatiguing. I am spending extra time constantly checking water troughs around the whole farm. We have some automatic waterers but in intense heat I don’t fully rely on them, preferring to keep the water all the way to the top of each trough so that even the shortest or smallest animal can easily reach a drink. I fear the laying hens may go into an early molt and quit laying as well because of it. We have fans and misters set up in the areas where they congregate but they still lay sprawled across the ground looking pitiful. We have plenty of laying boxes but some gals just insist on doubling up and setting two to a box. Often both are panting, breathing rapidly with their beaks wide open. On a normal day I ignore them but on hot days like these I walk around plucking the spare gals out of the boxes. When I set them on the ground they usually just shake, rearrange their feathers and walk away as if nothing had happened. I guess they don’t realize I’m spending a lot of time doing silly little things like this to keep them comfortable and healthy.

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