The Trouble With Cows

Since the lambing went so smoothly this spring, the cows decided to step up to the plate and keep us stressed and busy. In early April, Clementine, who is our one Guernsey and our largest cow, was discovered during morning chores to be unable to stand. If you know anything about cows, that should strike fear into your heart. (Ok, maybe not fear, but cows that can’t stand up typically don’t recover).

We tried various methods to induce her to stand that morning, and she tried, but couldn’t get even half-way to her feet. It appeared that her hind legs were too weak to hold her weight. We then talked to a neighboring dairy farmer who suggested calcium injections and allowed us to borrow his hip clamp and cattle prod. The thing is, she was late lactation, being milked once daily, with no dietary changes, and due to calve in July, so the likelyhood of her predicament being of metabolic origin was low, meaning the calcium wasn’t likely to help. We tried it anyway, as we were getting desparate. It had no effect other than making her nervous about my coming near her. She also was perky, with a good appetite, so not sick. Her wooden manger had been busted up, so my theory was that she had slipped in her urine and manure that she likes to spread over her stall floor, making it too slippery for her to grip with her hooves, and therefore injuring herself in her attempts to rise. Anyway, we tried lifting her with the hip clamp, which hooks around the cows’ protruding hip bones, but she wouldn’t even try to put her feet under her once lifted, and just acted stressed. We finally bedded her deeply with dry hay, in as open of an area as we could get her(not very open, unfortunately, as she weighs at least 1000 lbs and together we weigh less than 300, so it was impossible for us to move her far), and let her relax and eat. She was acting very strange that evening, and we expected to find her dead in the morning. It was an absolutely awful day, and we dreaded to go to the barn next morning, afraid our beautiful cow would be dead.

The following morning she looked good! Not up, but perky and not dead!! We spent some time lifting her with the hip clamp that day also, but she would never even try to stand when we got her hind end up. It seemed that the clamp was hurting her instead of helping. After a couple attempts, we decided to just keep her bedded and fed well and see what happened. This goes against all professional advice, since a cow loses muscle mass and circulation rapidly once down for longer than 24 hrs. They recommend lifting daily to allow blood to circulate through their limbs. Clementine was regularly switching the hip she was lying on, so that seemed hopeful to us. She also continued to eat, drink, and poop somewhat normally.

I finally thought to look on the Keeping a Family Cow forum, to see what other people had experienced and tried with down cows in situations more like ours. Most of the accounts ended in tragedy, but there were a few incredible stories of cows down for weeks who got up on their own eventually. That gave us more hope. I talked to the vet after she was down for 5 or 6 days, and he suggested Banamine, which is a pain killer and anti-inflammatory. He also gave her a 10% chance of getting up.

By then, she had scooted herself down the whole length of the barn and was in an area of deep pack bedding where we had had sheep. That gave her a more comfortable bed, and better grip under her hooves since she couldn’t slide the bedding away from under her in her attempts to rise. I learned to hate concrete as barn floors during this time, as the slippery, hard concrete was such a hindrance to her recovery. We checked her multiple times a day, helping her keep out of corners and other problematic places. We had some cold, wet wind one night, so I covered her with a large blanket to keep her from becoming chilled. She thought that was a super weird thing for me to do to her, but it stopped her shivering!

After giving her the Banamine, she was noticeably trying harder to stand. She almost made it up a few times, but her front legs would give out when she tried to get them under her. Eight days after she went down, she finally made it up on all four legs! She was super weak, so I helped stabilize her for a little while, to keep her from just falling over. Once she was standing, it was clear that the original cause of her problem was an injury. Her hocks were very swollen and she wouldn’t put weight on one of her hind legs. She was clearly so happy to be up, and once she stood for some time, she started walking around the barn. Once it was clear she was steady on her feet, we gently led her outside to a dirt paddock to get her off that concrete. She got tired and laid down again for a while, but she was able to stand up later, albeit, clumsily. I can’t describe the relief we felt that day.

She had clearly lost quite a bit of muscle mass during her convalescence, but regained condition steadily with good feed and her recovered ability to walk around! Her limp disappeared completely in less than a week, and other than a small scab on one side where the hip clamp pinched her, you wouldn’t know anything had happened to her!

Oh, and, she had had mastitis that I was treating when she went down, so that certainly didn’t help anything!

While we were worried about Clementine, Bessie, our Jersey cow, decided she needed to get some attention beyond once-daily milking, and tore the tip of her left front teat nearly off. The injury thankfully didn’t cross the teat orifice, but it was very close. There was a nasty flap, and a big scab, so we picked up teat dilators to remove the milk from that quarter, since milking by machine or hand were either impossible or very unpleasant. After a week and a half or so, the injury had healed enough for me to milk her by hand, but now she had mastitis in that quarter. I removed the flap of skin, treated her with clay(which had no effect), and then with Pirsue(which knocked out the mastitis), and after waiting for the antibiotics to leave her system we were finally able to milk that quarter with the machine and drink the milk! It has been about three weeks since she first injured herself! Her teat isn’t fully healed yet, but the scab doesn’t crack and ooze, and everything is healing smoothly now.

We sure missed having her milk on those days we had to dump it due to the antibiotic treatment, and realized we don’t ever want to take a complete break from milking our cows. Not having dairy products isn’t worth the free time. Although, we are enjoying only milking one cow, once-a-day right now. It sure makes our evenings more flexible!

Next month Daisy(Bessie’s daughter) is due to have her first calf, so we’ll be back to making all the dairy products again. We miss having copious dairy options, such as cream, creme fraiche, sour cream, yogurt, kefir, fresh cheeses, and, of course, the endless fresh, creamy, delicious milk. No, we are not fat(the work with the animals keeps us trim!), but I would say we are dairy addicts. There are worse things to be, I guess!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Gnarly Details

Our 4th year of lambing out a flock of sheep has concluded. This year was MUCH smoother than the previous three – the lambs have been generally born healthy, strong, and without complications. There were three ewes who didn’t conceive, one lost pregnancy, one lost lamb, and 42 healthy, bouncing, fast-growing lambs.

I don’t know if I went into much detail about our former issues, but we were dealing with complications such as lambs born dead, vaginal prolapses, retained placentas, excessive malpositions, and then the results of those complications such as sick ewes, stressed, weak lambs, and inadequate milk production. We also had healthy lambs, but there were far more complications than in a typical flock.

I attribute our improved outcomes this year with the change in minerals we offer to the sheep. We had been feeding free-choice Sweetlix Lambmaker minerals from our local mill. After talking with a long-time breeder of Finnsheep, who had never seen, or even heard of this breed having the issues we were having, he recommended mineralized salt, so I decided to try the Premier1 trace mineral premix. It is mixed with plain salt, so doesn’t make them want to eat more than they need since it just tastes like salt. The Sweetlix minerals are ‘flavored for palatability,’ in other words, they taste good so the sheep eat more! The theory was that our sheep were consuming too much minerals, causing an imbalance, resulting in the complications.

Since vaginal prolapses were our most pervasive and perplexing issue, I’m going to go into a little more detail on our situation here, and what we did and why. The typical approach to vaginal prolapses is to remove offending ewes from the flock. After carefully analyzing our situation and discussing it with our vet, we strongly suspected that our prolapse problem was not of a genetic origin, so we did not cull the ewes who had manageable prolapses. (Notice, I said ‘manageable’. We did cull a promising young ewe who had had a bad enough prolapse we considered that it would be inhumane to take the risk of her suffering through that again.) With this mineral change, one of our previous offenders had so minimal of a prolapse that I wouldn’t have noticed had I not been watching her like a hawk. She also had more weight of lambs than in her previous two pregnancies(1/3 her body weight!), so logically she should have prolapsed more severely than before. The other offender did not conceive this year…so we wait until next year to to see if there is any change in her status. I do not expect them to revert back to NOT prolapsing; from what I’ve read, once there is a vaginal prolapse, those ligaments and muscles are damaged and will no longer properly retain the vagina under the pressure of pregnancy. We have retained a number of daughters from ewes who have prolapsed, and none of them have done so. If you are interested in discussing this topic or would like more details, feel free to get in touch!

On a lighter note, we had retained 5 Texel/Finn ewe lambs last year to see how they would perform as production dams. We have been very pleased, and intend to retain all the decent cross ewes from this year too. The TexelX ewes all conceived to lamb at 1 year old, were perfect mothers, easily lambed(except for the ewe with the 12 lb lamb, but she was fine with some assistance!), and have been raising beautifully fat lambs. They are more thrifty and parasite resistant than the Finns, and are calm, friendly ewes. Honestly, my very favorite is a Texel/Finn/Shetland yearling. She had beautiful twins, was in very good condition when her peers were just ok, and is a good size. I know Shetlands traditionally don’t have any production value, but this girl’s dam has thriftiness and parasite resistance that she passed down, and THAT has value in our flock! She isn’t super small, and she raises fat lambs on par with our other sheep, so we will be crossing her with the Texel again for more hardy, thrifty, parasite resistant, meat producing ewes.

One of our TexelX ewes missed her date with the Texel ram and instead ended up with a 3/4 Finn lamb. He’s pretty goofy looking, but despite his low percentage of Texel, he is still beefier than the full Finn lambs. The rest of the X ewes had 3/4 Texel lambs, and they were all ewes! They are available, as we believe they will make good meat producing dams. We won’t be keeping them, as we have only one Texel ram, and don’t want to cross him over the same line again.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Lamb

Three and a half years ago, when we embarked on our sheep adventure, neither of us had much experience eating lamb, nor had we ever processed a sheep before. As we were disinclined to pay $75+ per lamb for someone else to slaughter and butcher our sheep for us, we rolled up our sleeves, and jumped in. Our first few took multiple days for us to arrive at less than perfect results, but the learning experience was invaluable and the meat tasted good – especially as I learned to cook it!

We started out with a cheap hand saw, inadequate knives, and a hand-crank meat grinder, watching Youtube videos during the process to figure out the cuts one gets from sheep, and how to break it down. It was a slow and cumbersome process and each carcass was overwhelming. With practice, our slaughter time has gone from more than an hour per sheep to less than 1/2 hour, and it only takes us a couple hours to butcher and package the meat from one lamb. Asking questions of the Yemeni families that come to our farm to harvest the lambs they purchase from us has also helped our knowledge, as they have a very efficient process, plus they use more parts of the lamb than we Americans are accustomed to, so that has been interesting!

My cousin, who has also been learning to butcher lamb, discovered and gifted us Adam Danforth’s book “Butchering Poultry, Rabbit, Lamb, Goat, Pork: The Comprehensive Photographic Guide to Humane Slaughtering and Butchery” and that was a game-changer for us. We learned better techniques for skinning, parameters for chilling and aging a carcass, a wide variety of cut options, and best packaging and freezing methods. I still reference The Book every time, but have become more familiar with how lambs are put together, and how I like to prepare them for our table.

As opportunity has presented, we’ve acquired a meat bandsaw, better knives(and are learning how to sharpen them!) and a motorized meat grinder. Sourcing affordable tools was crucial, as our budget was limited. Dan took his time and perused auction websites to find high-quality second-hand equipment. His favorite sites were Auctions International and NY HiBid Auctions, where he found many high-quality tools at rock-bottom prices. PCI Auctions was a good source for used restaurant equipment. We purchased knives and packaging materials from Webstaurant Store, and some of our other supplies from The Sausage Maker in Buffalo, NY.

When we put meat in our own freezer, it typically ends up being from the animals that have no value on the wider market – older ewes. This year we had six ewes that were not acceptable to keep in our flock for breeding stock or to sell for pets. Two were completely insane, inciting chaos in the whole flock, and had not produced lambs up to Finnsheep standards for the past two years. Another had had no milk for her lambs. Still another had prolapsed at the end of her first pregnancy. There was an older ewe who was obviously poorly, not gaining condition properly and just seemed ‘off’ for the past year(she ended up having growths on her organs, so we didn’t keep her meat, either). The last just wasn’t a good producer, with a narrow frame(indicating low meat producing potential) and had only one small lamb last year. She also lost this year’s pregnancy – so she wasn’t one I’d want to sell as a good ewe to another shepherd. These are just some examples of why we cull some animals, and in my opinion the most humane treatment is to end their life as painlessly as possible. Their meat tends to have a firmer texture and bolder structure than that from a lamb less than 1 year old, but it tastes delicious, and we appreciate the larger cuts.

Each year, as we end up with more and more lamb and mutton in our freezer, I get better at preparing it. I have even come to the point where I prefer the meat of the ovine to that of the bovine. I’ve been experimenting with new recipes and have started replacing beef and pork in recipes with lamb. Merguez sausage is now a favorite. I used lamb instead of the pork in our favorite breakfast sausage recipe, and the results were delicious! Did you know ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ is better made with lamb? And beef burgers don’t even compare with succulent, flavorful lamb burgers. Ok, maybe it is just me that loves it this much, but at every meal of lamb I am glad we decided to get sheep when we started out.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Short Story

Our daughter tried to put a halter on one of our wilder sheep(Belladonna), but was only able to get it looped around her neck before the sheep escaped. She was unable to get near her again to remove the halter, so it hung around Belladonna’s neck as she wandered about the pen. As Dan fed the flock, Belladonna stayed off to the side with a younger ewe, Minky. As we watched, Minky started to nibble at the halter while Belladonna held her head low and still. Gradually she moved the rope up her neck, and then lifted it past her ears. Belladonna dropped her head and the halter fell to the ground. Both of them looked at it, then went to eat with the rest of the flock.

Who ever said sheep were dumb?

(In case anyone is worried, the halter wasn’t going to stay looped around her neck – I was going to remove it shortly. Sheep do become incredibly dumb when they feel trapped, and can kill themselves with panic, so we try not to leave anything in the pen than they can get tangled in.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Countdown To Lambs

Our first ewes are due on the 24th of February, so we have begun preparing for the expected flood of babies. Five are marked down for the 24th through the 27th, and a few I didn’t get dates for look like they might also join in for that time frame, thus the expected ‘flood’. Haha!

Eighteen of our ewes were exposed to the Texel ram for the month of October; both the ram and the ewes were in very good health, so we were able to remove him after 36 days with good confidence that everyone was pregnant. The round bellies in the barn are evidence of everyone’s vibrant fertility. Another factor of fertility is litter size – typically we have a couple singles, mostly twins and triplets, and a quad or two. Last year we even had a litter of sextuplets! We won’t know for sure until they are born, but I do enjoy guessing how many each ewe will have! So far, it looks like we’ll have plenty of twins, triplets, and more!

We bred only 7 ewes to a Finn ram, and most of them aren’t due until April. I prefer to only lamb for a month, as it is an intense time, but this year our second registered Finn ram was infertile due to a parasite infestation that got away from us. We try to treat at the earliest symptoms, but we missed them, and thus he was compromised too much to breed the ewes this year. Next year is his turn to shine!

As we get into the last 6 weeks of pregnancy, we begin to increase the ewe’s feed, and introduce grain. The lambs do about 70% of their growing during the last 4 weeks of gestation(source). This means we need to keep up their intake of nutrients so the lambs can be born strong and vigorous and the ewe stays healthy, without needing to use her stored nutrients to grow the lambs. If she has to draw from her own reserves during pregnancy, that can cause a serious issue called pregnancy toxemia. On the other hand, a shepherd doesn’t want to feed the girls too much rich feed, as that can cause the lambs to grow too big to fit through the birth canal. This isn’t much of an issue for Finnsheep, as they naturally have many very small lambs.

Texel sheep though, can have this problem. They are muscular, thrifty sheep, so feeding grain during the last weeks of gestation can cause the lambs to grow too large. We have crossed the two breeds, and are expecting 5 of those cross ewes to lamb in March, at a year old. We have noticed that they keep better condition than the pure Finn ewe lambs, though the two cross ewe lambs that are 1/4 Shetland are even thriftier. One in particular, Princess, has been in very good condition when some of the others were more thin. Her belly is large, and she looks uncomfortable already, so we are limiting her grain to reduce the chances of her lamb/s being too big(this involves my daughter putting her on a halter and holding her back while I feed the flock).

I purchased ear tags to mark each lamb, so we know who belongs to who. We will stock up on molasses for an energy drink that I give the ewes right after they lamb, we have milk from the cows, in case a lamb needs supplementation, there is cow colostrum in the freezer in case a ewe doesn’t have any, we have lamb coats in case it is cold, gloves and lube in case some lambs get tangled on the way out, and antibiotics and other emergency supplies in case of those types of complications.

Soon we will be spending many hours with the sheep, monitoring labor, setting up lambing pens for new moms to bond with their babies while they figure out nursing and walking, taking care of emergencies, and taking pleasure in the innocent joy of new life. In the meantime, we try to make sure we have emergency supplies on hand, and extra sleep stored up(is that even possible?).

This is my favorite time of year, filled with joys and heartbreaks. Each year we hope and pray for a smooth lambing season, and each year brings its own challenges. So far everyone looks great, so we are hoping for lots of healthy lambs, uncomplicated births, smooth recoveries, and plenty of milk. But there will be something that goes wrong, and anyway, without challenges, we don’t learn anything, right?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Mud

It has been a very wet year, and on top of that, the early winter was unseasonably warm. Our soils don’t drain well, so our place was a muddy cesspool from November until early January. The pigs were impossible to manage, as they take moist soil and turn it into deep sucking mud in short order. The cows were kept in the barn, as their weight and hooves tear wet sod into deep mud. The sheep were also kept in the barn; even though they don’t do as much damage to the sod, they do nibble the grass too short, ultimately damaging it for next growing season and ingesting too many parasites themselves.

As we don’t have a concrete pad for the pigs, this wet year caused us to remove them from our program. We really liked the Guinea Hogs, as they were gentle, friendly pigs with delicious meat and an appetite that took care of any and all waste ‘food’ we could come up with. Any milk that went bad, skim milk, offal from slaughter, hay, grass, and more was enthusiastically utilized by the pigs. When the weather was dry, they did very little damage to the sod layer, preferring to graze the grass and only turn over an area for a wallow to cool down in. Combining the very wet year with our clay soils that don’t drain, this fall into winter was awful for the pigs. We tried moving them to new pastures regularly, but with how wet it was, they would turn it into all mud within a day. We gave them access to the compost piles, which helped them get out of the muck themselves, but it was misery for Dan to feed them as all around the pile was boot-sucking mud.

This was a day where the mud was mostly frozen, but you can see how utterly mucky it was.

Ultimately we decided to sell or butcher all the pigs. Our freezers are full of delicious pork sausage, chops and lard, which we have been relishing, and a few new people are now experimenting with raising Guinea Hogs.

Despite all that, we have had a positive association with mud recently. We have begun using Bentonite/Montomorillonite clay as medicine. I applied ‘mud’ or clay magma to one of our cow’s udders to treat subclinical mastitis. In three days she was completely clear, and has remained clear since. We have also successfully used the clay powder internally to improve our gut health, and the clay magma externally to treat an infected sliver. We haven’t yet had other opportunities to experience the healing properties of clay, but have been convinced that that particular ‘mud’ is truly wonderful. If you would like to learn more about therapeutic clays, I recommend checking out greenclays.com.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Wrapping Up 2021

I know it is only November, but for us, it feels like the year is drawing to a close. We are wrapping up our fences and water hoses to store for winter. The garden is harvested, the barn is ready to house animals, and our schedule is full of butchering and putting away instead of pasture management and growing lambs. The year was a good one, full of progress, with improvements in sheep management, pasture management, and our own schedule.

It was also a year of breakage. Our car blew a head gasket, the truck had a number of problems, our well pump kept shutting off, our washing machine quit, our dryer had an internal gas leak, our roof sprung some leaks, the bush hog wheel broke off, the finish mower repeatedly threw its belt, the PTO clutch on the tractor stopped working, and I’m sure there were more. Most breakages were fixed, patched, or replaced, and we are hoping next year isn’t quite as full of that kind of learning!

We bought an old metro bus via auction to use as a livestock transport(much cheaper than a trailer) as we were considering grazing the flock remotely. Then we sold the bus, after realizing it wasn’t going to happen this year and we needed the money to replace our car. A few months later Dan got talking with the craigslist seller we bought our replacement dryer from, and ended up leasing 30+ acres of pasture! It is comprised of some recently seeded fields on a hillside about 20 minutes away. We paid someone to haul our market lambs out there as a trial run this fall before putting all our sheep out there next year, and have been rotating them through the fields since September. They have grown fat and healthy out there on the diverse, decent quality forages. We go check on them every 2 or 3 days and move them to a new paddock. We built a box for the back of the pickup that can carry about 10 lambs, and it works just fine for moving them ourselves, though it is more tedious than a trailer.

On top of the hill in West Valley
Unloading the lambs after bringing them home.

If all goes according to plan, we will have only our breeding stock and 6 lambs reserved for next July on the property by the end of November. We have struggled to move market animals and culls in a timely manner, but have been attempting to improve on that this year. It is costly to keep animals around longer than necessary – since they need to eat every day!

The most difficult part of the year for us was the last month and a half; my dog, Horatio, fell ill, and after fighting for a number of weeks, succumbed to what we think was Leukemia or another cancer. He had lived a full 12 years, and loved his life on the farm here. He was the best dog ever – gentle with children, fierce with varmints, suspicious of strangers, devoted to me, respectful of our farm animals and rules(usually), and my friend for the last 11 years. He was my buddy before I met my husband and had my children, and had been with me through so many transitions. He is buried in the back yard, and his grave overlooks the main part of our property. We miss him sorely, but are thankful he is no longer fighting a miserable illness. On top of that, our cat, Charlie, did not return from his rambles last week. It really sucks.

Our year wraps up with breeding the sheep in October, and that went better than ever this year. The ewes were healthier than in previous years, and were ready for the ram when we put them together. Our lambing season in March promises to be intense, but short, if the activity of the ram with the ewes is any indication! We put 19 ewes in with our Texel ram, Sebastian, and 7 registered Finn ewes divided between two different Finn rams. The demographics of our flock will be swinging heavily towards white meat crosses, as opposed to colorful Finns. We have been very pleased with the Texel crosses, both in the pasture with parasite resistance and ease of gaining weight, and at the butcher, with meaty carcasses.

Towards the end of October we sheared the ewes, trying out a change in shearing schedule to both ease congestion in the barn by removing the large amounts of moisture-holding, dirt attracting wool, and to get the highest quality fleeces, as fall shearing harvests the wool after being out on clean grass and washed by the rain all summer. I had a small crew helping the day we sheared them – my cousin trimmed hooves and wrangled sheep, a friend learned to skirt fleeces and did most of them, and another friend brought lunch, helped with skirting, and learned what to do(and not do) with her own new flock of sheep. I was able to shear a record number in one day, 21! They also had very few nicks, and were pretty smooth. I unfortunately hurt one when she twisted out of my grip, but I learned from my mistake, and will do better next time. She is healing, thankfully!

Today it is snowing and cold, so the green grass won’t be around for much longer. The flies are gone though, and that is always nice! I don’t like the cold, but am looking forward to the wintertime change in pace. Maybe I’ll post more here – who knows!

Posted in Sheep | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Texels and Crossbreds

The lambs are looking great this year, and the Texel cross experiment has convinced us to add a flock of Texels to our program. Originally we intended to use the Texel as a terminal sire, meaning all his lambs get eaten, not kept for breeding. After talking to a couple breeders, one of which came to purchase a different lamb and took a TexelX ram lamb instead, and another who has been breeding Finnsheep, Texels, and their crosses for quite a while, we realized that the TexelX lambs have potential as breeding stock themselves. With the muscularity of the Texel, and the prolificacy of the Finnsheep, they have the potential to produce high numbers of good market lambs, especially when bred to a meat sire. The ram lambs also have the potential to be a good producer of market lambs or production ewes.

Sebastian, our handsome Texel ram.

Our experiment with the Bluefaced Leicester/Finnsheep cross as production ewes is continuing, though in a limited fashion, as we have realized the BFL has little to no resiliency, and is mostly redundant to the Finnsheep. Our first BFL/Finn ewe lamb was bred last fall, and performed on par with the second year Finn ewes, with total 90 day weaned lamb weight being 108 lbs while she herself was 100 lbs. We will be keeping 3 BFL/Finn ewe lambs from this spring, evaluating their performance, and then deciding whether or not to continue with that cross.

Posted in Sheep | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Our Finnsheep

We started out with Finnsheep with the idea that despite their small stature, they would be efficient meat producers since they have multiple lambs each spring. After raising them for a few years now, we have adjusted our expectations somewhat. They are incredible mothers, but have very little muscling when compared with a meat breed, so despite large numbers of lambs, they don’t produce comparatively large amounts of meat. Another issue with the breed is that they come in wide variety; some weigh less than 100lbs, others reach 200lbs; some have long, coarse, wavy wool, others have finely crimped, soft locks; some can barely feed one lamb, others can raise 4; some have terrible structure and struggle to carry their lambs or even to walk, others are strong and solid even with a belly full of 6 lambs! This lack of uniformity makes it very difficult to sell the breed as anything with commercial viability, or even source a decent flock from multiple farms. Despite all these drawbacks, we believe there is great potential in Finnsheep, so we are working towards improvement of the breed with a focus on production, structural integrity, and health.

Temperament is an additional selection consideration for us, since we closely manage our sheep year round. If our sheep hurt themselves trying to get away when we come near, that is a problem, since we are near them constantly!

We are culling a number of our ewes this year; keeping the sheep with strong, correct structure who produce multiple lambs and the milk to feed them. We use a three-strike system to decide to stays and who goes. If an animal has a single flaw, we don’t remove them from the flock unless the flaw reduces quality of life. We don’t sell culls as registered animals, nor do we sell culls with health or structural issues – those ones go to our freezer to eliminate any chance of a dishonest buyer breeding an animal with problems. Some animals we cull since they don’t adhere to the Finnsheep breed standard, and those we may sell as unregistered animals, since some of them make great pets!

Some of our favorite ewes are pictured below. We love these ewes because they have solid, balanced structure, good width on the ground(an indication of muscling), fantastic maternal instincts, good milk production, are easier to keep in decent condition, and don’t die of parasites. They each have their flaws, as there is no perfect sheep, but the key is complementary breeding. The ram we pair with these ewes will not carry the same flaws, in order to give their offspring a chance of being an improvement on both parents!

Bernadette during the summer.
Astrid and 1115, our extremely prolific ewe. She has had litters of 4, 5, and 6 the past three years!
Barley, 1115’s daughter.
Our biggest, ugliest ewe, Astrid, who is built like a tank. She has had triplets every year and her daughters have done wonderfully. Bernadette is one of her daughters.
Posted in Sheep | Leave a comment

Our Summer So Far

It has been a while since I posted an update, and that is not because I forgot to! June and July have been interesting and very busy.

Clementine had a beautiful bull calf on May 25th, and has become a good milk cow. She is a great mother, and we experimented with leaving the calf on for a while. After a month, he was extremely difficult to catch, but looked fantastic since he was drinking most of her milk! We separated them, and he had to learn to be tied and how to drink from an artificial nipple instead of his mom. Now that he associates us with food he is catchable, and we can use him to ease milking duty when necessary! We recently put him back on his mom for a couple days so we could take a quick trip. His help was invaluable, since it is hard to find a person able and willing to fill in for milking!

We planted a good-sized vegetable garden this spring, which is very exciting, as we have missed having our own vegetables the past 3 years we have not been able to do a garden. The vegetables are starting to come, and they are wonderful! Homegrown new potatoes, cucumbers, garlic, onions, kohlrabi, zucchini, and herbs have been our harvest so far. We have been relishing them!

June was dry and our area was considered to be in a mild drought. We have been implementing intensive rotational grazing this year to improve both pasture and animal health, and have been mowing paddocks after grazing, spreading fertilizer, moving the temporary net fences daily(and thus moving watering systems daily, and those really could use some improvements in efficiency)! We learned that lime application is crucial for quality forage in our area since it allows the grass and legumes to access the nutrients already in the soil. Raising the pH also is supposed to suppress the weeds, of which we have far too many. We discovered that the green grass-like plant covering our fields that the animals don’t eat is nut sedge, which is a persistent weed with no feed value.

Since the beginning of July we have been getting copious amounts of rain. The first week we got a storm that dropped 2 inches of rain in about 3 hours. Our soil was dry and unprepared, so more ran off than soaked in. The creek flooded more than we had seen, and it was helpful for us to observe the ‘flood plain’. Thankfully no animals were pastured near the creek that day and the only damage was that a fence energizer was submerged. Thankfully, the energizer was able to be cleaned up and continues to function! After that storm, we continued to get daily small amounts of rain until last week when we received another 2.5 inches of rain in a morning. The creek once again flooded, dismantling some net fences we had across it. No animals were harmed, although half the ewes were out for some time. A few days later we got another 2 inches of rain! That rain took all day to fall, and the creek did not get as high as the other two times, though we were fully prepared for a higher flood this time! The soil is very wet now, and mud is everywhere, but our pastures are growing! The excessive moisture brings its own set of issues, but we are thankful that we are no longer in a drought.

This summer has brought a few educational experiences in regards to medical care of the sheep and cows.

When Clementine calved, the rubbing of her new udder on the insides of her legs caused large sores to develop. The poor cow was very uncomfortable, and I tried a variety of treatments on the side that just didn’t want to heal. It even oozed fluids down her leg to where the flies could get to it, and they caused a new, nastier sore to form lower down! She was very cooperative, allowing me to lift her hind leg up and out so I could reach in between her upper leg and her udder to clean and apply salve. I kept applying BluKote to the lower sore to help dry the oozing and try to keep the flies at bay, and eventually she healed up. I don’t know if there is a reason she developed such sores while our other first-calf heifer did not, but now we know to keep an eye out for such complications!

Daisy, one of our yearling heifers, gashed her side on something in the paddock. We discovered the injury in the evening, so after-hours for our vet. We weren’t sure if stitches were necessary, or if we could care for it ourselves and an emergency call would be a waste of money and our vet’s time. Dan called his sister, who happens to be a large animal vet in another state, and she gave us some instructions for care, and reassurance of the healing capabilities of cows. We flushed it with betadine, and gave her a shot of penicillin. Now she is scared of me, but with daily penicillin and betadine, we hope to stave off infection so her body can heal despite the best efforts of flies and bacteria.

In the midst of our rainy July I noticed one of our ewes off by herself while the others were busily eating(a sure sign of an issue!) I grabbed her and took a look at her. She was twitchy and uncomfortable, and as soon as I took hold of her leg I guessed she had a fever by how hot her skin was. Lo and behold, in the wool on her side and back were thousands of maggots! This is called ‘fly strike’, and I did not expect it since I had read it is usually caused by diarrhea in the wool around their tail and she was clean! I promptly sheared the area, and rinsed the maggots off with a saline solution. As soon as the maggots were removed, she relaxed and her temperature came down. They had not caused much damage to her skin, thankfully. I think they may have got started by her having a scratch from a thorn or something similar that attracted the flies to lay eggs in the area. Also, all the warm wet weather apparently that provides perfect conditions for incubating fly larvae! Yuck! Dan and our girls carefully removed every maggot with combs and brushes, and the next day Button(the sheep) was totally back to normal other than looking silly with an incomplete haircut!

We sold our meat rabbits after getting frustrated with the buck having health issues that interfered with his performance. We also would rather invest our time into other aspects of the farm right now. Our oldest child was disappointed, since she enjoyed the bunnies, but in less than a week a customer gave us some pet rabbits that they were tired of caring for and those work much better for our daughter’s desires than the unfriendly meat rabbits.

Bessie, our first Jersey cow, had her third calf on July 19. We had been anticipating her calving for about a week, watching her daily and worrying that something would go wrong. She is a small cow, and her udder became quite gigantic! We also took a quick trip to VT to pick up a new Finnsheep ram lamb a few days before her due date. Thankfully she waited and didn’t calve during the major rainstorm while we were gone! He is a gorgeous brindle Angus cross. She had him secretly, and when I went to the pasture to get the cows for evening chores, there he was, up and bouncing around! This picture is him at 2 days old, Mom checking on him hidden in the long grass. He is super cute and little, and our children are enjoying him!

Altogether, the farm has been operating smoothly this summer and we and our critters are thriving!

Posted in cows, Uncategorized | Leave a comment