When Jacob was three years old, I took him out in my lovely canoe along the shore of Lake Ontario. He wore his life jacket and his hat, and was eager and interested and already showing his great knack for balance. We went out a few times that summer, and he gained a sense of how to hold the paddle and the basic idea of paddling. The next summer, we’d barely launched when he pointed out with excitement that a huge hunk of the rock wall nearby had fallen over the winter. I carry lovely images of my son when he was older, out alone at sunset, peaceful with his fishing rod.
When Kyle was three, he had his first experience in the canoe too, following tradition. Also a natural athlete, his balance was easy, and both boys learned quickly to alternate sides, watching for fish or interesting lake bottom items. We tried fishing from the canoe that year and the next few – not entirely a success, as one or the other line constantly needed untangling. When Jacob hooked a big one, I insisted he was on bottom (wrong) and then we were all periously leaning over the same side. He landed the fish safely and I learned another humble lesson.
When our dog, Lucky turned three, she’d calmed down enough to learn her canoe lessons too. She loved it, learned quickly to recognize the word (as distinct from bike, walk, car etc) but would insist on riding awhile, then running the shoreline for awhile, then riding again.
Canoe lessons, age 3, tradition maintained.
When grandson Nathan turned three, I wasn’t in as good condition. However, it was important to me to do something special, just the two of us, and to maintain the tradition, so with help from my grown sons to launch, out we went. The Murray genes made it easy for him and he was intrigued by the strokes and the steering. The summer Nathan was four, Kyle’s pontoon boat was in the water, and he and I paddled out a couple of times, with my comfy chair as baggage, and had a picnic in the evening on the boat. The next summer he was allowed out on the end of a very long rope by himself, paddling and puttering and experimenting.
Now this summer, Nathan’s brother Mike has had his first time in the canoe, again when he was thrrrrreeee. (He has practised that lately.) He was not at all eager, but he wanted to do whatever Nathan and Nana were doing, and we were heading out. So, cautiously he joined us at my feet, sitting on a life jacket on the floor, wearing his own, while Nathan did most of the paddling. Nathan was generously willing to trade his seat in the bow – they passed each other like dancers, so easily balanced. Mike reveled in his position up front, and declared himself quite eager for another outing.
All four boys, and our dog, celebrating new freedoms, age three.
Farmers need flexibility. They plan constantly, but a tree limb down on a fence, an unpredicted brief rain, a tractor breakdown, An Emergency First Response call for Jacob, will put crimps in what appeared to be a clear plan for a day.
Take a recent day for example; Friday July 8th. The 3 full time workers at Topsy, Ian Chris and Don, meet every morning at 7 for about half an hour to pool ideas and discuss priorities for the day. They are now trying to make the best use of the remaining pasture within the Predator Control Fence, as the useful rains appear to have stopped for a time, and the pasture is no longer growing. We hope to keep the lambs protected inside the enclosure, which might mean an earlier than usual weaning, to move the ewes on to other summer pasture. Or not. Another factor is the need to intensively graze a field before it is left to regenerate. Otherwise, the sheep eat the favorite plants first, leaving the least favorite to reseed and take over the area. The need for prolonged rain is already strongly felt.
They are also juggling where to cut hay next, how much, and when. The priority is to cut first within fenced areas that may regrow later pasture. Ian calculates another 11 hours of cutting will accomplish that step.
We don’t want too much recently cut hay ‘on the ground’ when the weather is unsettled, as it has been often, this season. (It will be spoiled if rained on.) The hay must dry to below 20% moisture content, to slow or prevent growth of mould and bacteria. They calculate about 8 hours of cutting will require about 4 ½ hours of raking (turning the drying hay over to hasten the drying process and line it up for the bailer) then between 4 to 5 hours of baling.
So on Friday, Christopher planned, after checking the flock and feeding dogs, to rotovate (like a big rototiller behind a tractor) a field for one of our landlords and plant buckwheat, as per agreement. However he discovered that one of the large back tires on the tractor he was to use was flat. Several calls to repair or replace ensued. He was also struggling with the computer on the baler. Ian urged him to get help with that – looked out, and saw one of the sheep groups trampling a fence, moving themselves elsewhere. Time out to resettle those girls. Flexibility in thinking required.
Ian and Jacob had two haybines going, cutting hard and as fast as possible, as the nutritional quality of the forage will not be improving. Jake had a breakdown, tried to diagnose but had to call his dad who was also stumped. They towed that haybine to George our barefoot Island mechanic who made the repair – a new problem that had never before arisen. Later, Jake had to stop in time for one of his other jobs, organizing the first Waterside concert of world class caliber music of the season. He got his kids from the sitter, Ian came back for an hour with them before their mom came home from work in Kingston, while Chris took over cutting. After supper, Ian returned to cut til almost 9 pm. Again.
Meanwhile, Don continued his day of battling the burdocks and other noxious weeds, postponed his planned trip to town to get machine parts until the tire needs were solved, sorted out some discord within the group of guard dogs, and stole a couple of hours to finish the layout of the Island Beacon, a monthly newsletter published from our home for over 30 years.
We are about half way though haying, with 180, twelve hundred pound baleage bales made, and 750 hay bales, each weighing about 800 lb.
On Saturday, July 16th, just after the machinery dealer closed at noon, a bearing went out on our round baler. Sunday morning we rented a tractor and baler from a neighbour and, after about 130 bales Christopher smelled smoke as he ejected a bale. He started looking for the fire extinguisher but our neighbour didn’t have one on either tractor or baler – he hadn’t transferred our hefty extinguisher onto the rented baler. He phoned 9-1-1 and headed for our fire hall which was about ½ mile away. The fire was put out easily and we now have 2 balers to repair – the parts just got here Monday morning.
On Sunday, Jacob, a member of the fire department, got a text message from another fire fighter who is also on the road crew, saying that one of our hay bales was burning. The road crew helped Jacob put water into a couple of the fire department’s grass fighting back packs and also helped him put the fire out. Chris brought the bale home later – we’ll feed out what’s left. We can only assume that the fire was caused by lightning during the thunder storm that rolled through here at dawn.
Two fire incidents in 2 days – pretty low probability. Flexibility once again called for.
When the farm was first started in the early 70′s, the members had very little money and no credit.
We had to learn to make do.
We developed the skills needed to repair, patch our patches – both figuratively and literally – and that was a useful pattern to establish. We are still in that mode of thinking (although now allowing ourselves more than an inch of water in a bathtub and a few other ‘luxuries’).
When things don’t work, we really aren’t surprised.
We don’t take systems for granted.
We build in redundancy, so that when one tractor breaks down (one spectacularly broke an axle last week, sending Jacob leaping for safety) we have another that can make do.
We have also developed a range of ‘fixit’ skills, that aren’t pretty but generally work. Christopher has become a skilled vet substitute, and an able mechanic; Ian calls himself a ‘chain saw carpenter’; Don keeps systems for house and farm working, and is an able carpenter. Sally is good at darning and patching; Dianne is a great organizer, and sets limits to our ‘someday it’ll come in handy’ extremes. Jacob has started as an apprentice officially this spring, during our urgent time of year. He brings a fresh perspective, and the wide range of skills he has developed working for his own company (called Turvy, natch). Kyle works hard and fast, and fills in where needed, with fencing, barn work, and other chores. The most important skill for all is an attitude that says ‘well there’s a problem here; probably I can figure out how to fix it.’
The propane hot water tank in the Frame House (where Ian, Don, Kyle and Sally live) stopped working last week – the day before the hydro went out for about 30 hours. We scrambled with generators, having previously set up a wiring system that can minimally keep the freezers cold and water pumped to the flock. Our generator was working poorly, so we were able to take it to the Island mechanic and borrow two generators to provide the temporary power we needed. Pails of water from the lake flushed toilets. Sally’s feeding machine worked by battery the first night, and a neighbour whose hydro still functioned made his power available to recharge the battery.
That Island cooperation is deeply valued and something we nurture and to which we contribute.
The hot water was out for 10 days – a new thermostat had to be ordered – so we were temporarily back to the one inch baths, hauling the hot. But no one got very upset by the snafus, because we don’t assume an entitlement to services. Ian spent his first 5 years on a farm in P.E.I. with no running water, phone or hydro, and learned from his dad the pleasure of systems that work – when they work.
We were fortunate that the sheep didn’t notice the power was out in the electric fences (we kept good pasture in front of them so they weren’t testing their limits.) Neither did the coyotes. We have rechargeable batteries for some of our fences, but not nearly enough for the miles (sorry, kilometers) we use.
And we are back to clean clothes and deep baths. (Photo of that censored.)
Today I’m a mechanic, yesterday a vet.
The storm is coming closer, 60% chance of getting wet.
Tomorrow it’s construction, repairing that old barn.
Every day is something different, when you wake up on a farm.
THE OLD LOADER AS EXAMPLE
About 1973, the farm acquired two Allis-Chalmers WD45 tractors, a ’53 and a ’52. One was bought from Islander Edwin MacDonald (Garnet’s father. Garnet died recently in his 80′s). The other, with a broken motor, was purchased from an acquaintance, Lloyd Claire, new to the Island. We bought another engine from a wrecker and ran it for awhile, but eventually combined the two, switching the first engine into the second because it had a loader.
The front end was scrounged from an Allis-Chalmers D17, and George Gavlas (Island mechanic) and Christopher put that on because it had power steering not “armstrong steering”. (George says now he’d never tackle such a tricky job again. Its still working.)
The roll bar Chris made from scrounged metal. Noel McCormick welded it for him.
The external hydraulics and the 3 point hitch and adaptor came new from Princess Auto.
The fenders came from two old stone boats, cut and bolted on, to replace the rusted originals.
The old loader continues as an important part of our ‘fleet.
It is still a challenging time at Topsy. The lambing is winding down, although the flock groups still have to be checked twice a day for problems.
The regular chores include a visual check of each ewe and lamb (it’s hard to see back ends, where most problems occur), as they are always curious, wanting to face the ATV. We have to ensure a constant supply of mineral in feeders and that water is always available. The guardian dogs are fed and patted. Other priorities – the fences need to be checked and repaired. The pastures are constantly monitored and the plan for moving to the next available grazing must be in place. The noxious weeds have to be controlled, as does the growth under electric fences.
Twenty-one foster lambs were sold to two good homes, where some will be raised to form a new flock. In addition, a few were adopted back into our flock.
However, all the lambs need health intervention now, and the field vegetation is suddenly leaping up and demanding to be grazed or cut and baled… all at once.
All lambs are born with long tails plus testicles on the males. If we leave the long tails on when we send the lambs and ewes to summer pasture, the flies will be hugely attracted to the dirt under the tails, will lay eggs, which hatch larvae, which eat flesh. (Fly Strike is an ongoing serious threat for ewes and lambs both, especially in damp, hot weather.) We know that the most humane way to ‘dock’ the tails is to use elastics that gradually cut off the circulation, and slowly wither the appendage. We can’t leave intact males in the flock, because they will become sexually active within a startlingly few months, producing endangered winter lambs.
So Don, Christopher, Ian and Jacob spent 5 longish days in the barn, with help from neighbour Kitsy some days, separating moms and babies temporarily, checking the well-being of each, ringing tails and testicles, and then reuniting the families, and giving them time to adjust . However, the long wet cool spring suddenly morfed into hot dry weather and the field growth needs to be cut before it passes prime. My allergies attest to the fact that the grasses are ‘heading out’ fast.
There are so many chores on a farm, competing for priority in the spring.
Last year we began making ‘balage’ – cutting hay younger, letting it dry only one day, then wrapping it in plastic so it will, in effect, pickle. The ewes eagerly ate last year’s product, and it saved us money as it replaced a lot of the grain. (We are still seeking recycle options for the plastic wrap.) The baling has to be done meticulously, as certain soil microbes can contaminate the silage, making it toxic to the ewes. Being able to start haying while the weather is still unsettled, but the grass is ready, reduces the farmers’ stress.
Further priorities: although all machinery is put away in the fall cleaned and serviced, there are always more mechanical needs in the spring. We manage on very old, rebuilt machinery, avoiding the debts some farmers shoulder for more modern equipment. Ian did the first small cut June 8th to test everything and we’re off.
The final lamb count, after the last group was ringed, was 1304 from 845 mature ewes and 290 replacement ewe lambs (first year mamas). With the rams, that gives us a flock of very close to 2461. “This ensures we will continue to provide top quality lamb for private sales, and to produce wonderful wool products, available on-line and at the farm store, the Wool Shed.
Meanwhile, the gardens are somehow getting planted, the glorious orioles are consuming an orange daily, the loon calls echo on the lake, and the spring entertainment (just watch a newly fledged robin for a few minutes) surrounds us, when we remember to stop and enjoy.
Bailage is hay cut earlier in the season, when conditions are still too wet to dry the cut for hay. It allows the farmers to get out on the land when they are chomping at the bit to get started, but forecasts are not yet for sufficient hot, dry weather.
But because of the moisture, it is vulnerable to rot. The bales once made are immediately transported to Christopher, who is demonstrating below the technique for wrapping bailage bales.
Bailage bales must stay clean and anaerobic, allowing fermentation.
The sheep consider it a huge treat in the fall and winter, and it saves us needing to purchase grain. Thus we continue to produce excellent lamb for private sale, and quality wool products, through our on-line store, and our at home outlet, the Wool Shed.
photos by Jacob
The snapping turtle below was the climax moment of the Derby Girls visit. Never seen one here, before or since. We herded all people WELL away. A fascinating visitor.
When a foster lamb is first introduced to the warmed reconstituted ‘milk’ (called lamb-o), it doesn’t taste right; smell right; feel right. Usually the first reaction is either passive resistance, or ptoooey.
The foster lambs instinct is to go under a warm ewe’s belly, to find a full but flexible nipple, to bunt hard if necessary to encourage the milk flow, and to sip often.
What they are offered is a powdered ewe’s milk substitute reconstituted with warmed water, a black rubber nipple, a beer bottle and people. (The beer bottle is used because we have a collection of old ‘stubbies’ which fit nicely in the microwave. Thanks to one Islander we have a lifetime supply.)
Here are our techniques to feed a reluctant lamb.
Hold the lamb under an arm, snuggled closely to the body. (It is easier on the lamb to not have struggle options.) Use the same arm to support the chin, using the thumb to open the mouth gently, and support the chin in line with the neck. Insert nipple. Wait patiently. Sometimes, Kyle baaaas gently, trying to find the note that mama might use. When the first trickle slides down the lamb’s throat, it may be all that is required for the lamb to start sucking eagerly. However, it often takes a lot of patience during the first feeding, occasionally squeezing the nipple to release a little more milk, just to get enough into the lamb to warm and encourage it. We are as gentle and comforting as we can, but it is obviously a foreign and scary experience. However, hunger is a great teacher, and most foster lambs are eager for the bottle (though still unskilled at finding it) by the next feeding. Ideally within a day or two, the lambs throng out of their nighttime cage, thumping eagerly at the knees of the person holding the bottle, and stand on their own feet to suck a bottle dry in no time.
What a difference a week makes.
We were all delighted to move the foster lambs operation out to the screened front verandah and wash the living room floor for the last time. We have two big dog cages on the porch; one for special needs. We change the newspaper bedding several times a day, and feed them four times a day – roughly every 5 – 6 hours. (Sally is up early; Kyle stays up late.) We also have a large outdoor pen for a ewe and twins, and a smaller fenced area for the fosters lambs to romp on the grass.
Although we lost a few foster lambs to illness, five fosters have now gone to one good home, and five more left yesterday. Some have been adopted back into the flock to a needy ewe, if Christopher can find one. Only one is at home at the moment, eagerly following the heels of anyone carrying a bottle, puppy-like.
Rain plus wind plus cold equal hypothermic conditions for newborn lambs. Just as the flock was at its peak of lambing for the first heat cycle, the awful weather conditions hit.
A newborn lamb needs to be licked thoroughly and nudged towards the udder to get a bellyful of warm colostrum in the first half hour, for best survival. If the ewe is birthing twins or triplets, or the ewe is inexperienced, sometimes one or more lambs have to cope with less than ideal mothering. The species has survived through the eons with good instincts.
Unfortunately, one of those instincts is for the mom to save the first born, to put energy into keeping one alive, under cold driving rain conditions.
Its our job to rescue the hypothermic abandoned baby.
Christopher and Jacob and sometimes Ian have been checking each group of the flock, about 5 times a day (which translates into almost constantly, with breaks to deal with problems discovered and for much-needed food for the shepherd.) When they find a lamb that is just too cold, with an empty tummy, they get involved. One technique is to milk the ewe right into a big syringe; stomach tube the lamb; get two or three syringefuls of warm colostrum right into its tummy, then bring it back to the Frame House.
Kyle and Sally are caring for the foster lambs, but others get involved. For the first few days, the big dog cage was in the living room, with a heater and a couple of Rubbermaid containers and a shopping box pressed into service for the coldest lambs as snuggly cribs.
We ran out of old towels, flannelette sheets and old blankets when we were inundated the second evening with a ‘lambalanche’ of cold wet foster lambs. I called a neighbour in desperation. She came rushing over with 10 absorbent towels, sat on the floor in her bare feet and old clothes, and helped rub and cuddle a cold shivery lamb.
She’s an ordained Anglican minister, and as she sat in the midst of our muddle, with Kyle rubbing three sleepy ones to stimulate circulation, and Sally trying to feed a needy one, she said “This is my idea of heaven.”
Some photos post shearing:
Don, unrolling hay for “ewe lambs” – they were lambs last year; now hopefully pregnant
Newly shorn lambs, crossing in front of our yard in evening light, on their way to shelter
After shearing we had 80 eight foot bags (from this year and some left from the previous year) packed firmly with quality wool, and 15 bags of belly wool and off cuts.
The next task was to get the wool bags to their destinations.
The first group to P.E.I.; some bags for landscape mulch; and the rest to the Canadian Woolgrower Co-operative in Carleton Place, Ontario.
Trucking costs a great deal, and over time we’ve tried lots of alternatives. We’d hoped it would be straightforward to find a potato-hauling truck heading back to that other Island, empty. Wrong. We’ve hired trucks ourselves and tried sharing space with our neighbours. One truck that had hauled cattle showed up unwashed, festooned with souvenirs of the previous load. We’ve had drivers phone us from 15 minutes away on the 401, expecting tractors, wagons and at least 3 helpers to magically materialize on the mainland. This year we hired a company from Quebec, and the results were the best yet.
But there were glitches.
Ian made arrangements to park our wagons with the wool carefully tarped at the Township Roads depot, where there is space for wagons, tractors and a transport. On Wednesday, he hauled one wagon by tractor to the ferry and then to the Township site. He waited for the next boat then returned on the tractor. He next brought two wagons in tandem to the ferry and, with help from the crew, got them both onto the deck then off and rehitched, thence to the depot. It was a long day, but a relief to have the wool all on site, waiting. The trucker was due on Friday.
However, Thursday was the day of very extreme winds (sufficient to blow the doors off two cars, locally). We received a call saying our tarps were tearing off the wool bags. Kyle and Ian rushed for the boat to find out that the eight foot waves were preventing docking on the mainland side.
We could not get to the mainland to save our wool.
Kyle sat in the lineup for hours, calling a friend on the mainland for emergency help. That friend somehow managed to wrestle the tarps in that heavy wind over the wool to give it some protection. It could have been destroyed if soaked then left sitting. The ferry was back in action later in the day, and Kyle managed to cross, and join his friend to anchor the protection securely.
Ian and Jacob joined Kyle the next morning off the 7 am ferry, and met the trucker, who showed up on time and with a clean trailer. He was unilingual francophone, but the language of smiles and helpful hard work is universal.
We’ll hire that company again.
Ian’s favorite picture of the year is the sight of the full truck, departing for its destination. (Sorry, I can’t show you – they were too busy to click.)
Most of our wool is shipped back to us according to our order as roving (washed and carded wool), either dyed or natural, cheeses of pencil roving, yarn, (30 colours and 4 tones of natural) and blankets and throws. All of these and much more are available at the farm store, the Wool Shed, or on-line.
Now, to deal with the 15 bags….
The first 3 sheep were on their bottoms on the shearing floor Friday morning at 8 am. (That is the position for shearing to begin – belly wool removed first.) We had a lovely day to get started, although forecasts warned us to be prepared for nasty weather to come. We’d prepared the best sheltered pasture with water, grain and fencing for the almost 500 sheep that were to be shorn the first day. Instead of pasturing, we decided to snuggle the newly naked ewes in the “New Barn” the first night. Cold, wind and rain are potentially hypothermic conditions to be avoided. The sheep yet to be shorn were all accommodated inside the “Grey Barn”, to keep them dry for the next day.
The top shearers can completely shear one sheep with no nicks in less than 3 minutes.
They direct the completed ewe through a swinging door that leads to a ramp down and outside. Each shearer has a catchment area, so they click a counter for one sheep done, grab the next, set her on her bum and start again. Meanwhile, a roustabout has to grab the fleece in a particular way so it can be flung right side up on the skirting table. Another ‘rousie’ has to sweep the shearing floor, keeping out of the way of the shearer. This, for all three shearers, each producing another fleece in less than 3 minutes.
It is active out there during shearing.
The fleece is ‘skirted’, i.e. all dirty bits removed and separately bagged. The fleeces are then bundled into an 8 ft bag suspended below the floor. Carl packs them firmly by climbing in and bouncing, then sews up the filled bags with baler twine and a sharp curved needle. He hauls each one up with a block and tackle, laying it on the floor. While he is doing this the skirted fleeces pile up, so we have a second overflow bag suspended on a frame. Anyone available climbs the ladder to dump in the mountain of accumulating fleeces until Carl is ready to accept more. The filled bags are each manhandled out the door and down to the farm wagon below. Once the wagon was filled, it was tarped and another moved in.
We loaded 3 wagons with a total of 80 bags.
Each bag weighing about 140 lbs. This included some of last years’ wool clip that wouldn’t fit on the truck when we shipped last year.
Dianne provides 5 meals a day. The shearers and Christopher get a hearty breakfast before going to the barn just after 7:30. She hauls hot water for washing, as well as coffee, tea, water, juice, fruit, and 3 kinds of home-baked snacks to the barn (upstairs) twice a day for mid-morning and afternoon breaks (called ‘smokos’ by those down-under). She provides a hot dinner for all the helpers and shearers at 1pm; and dinner for the shearers and Chris in the evening. That is very much part of the shearing labour.
Don, Ian and Jacob move the sheep up into the shearing holding pens before 8 am, add more sheep during each break, and move those already shorn to their destinations in the middle of the day and the others after shearing ends at 6pm. The days are long and active, as each smaller holding pen has to be watched and kept replenished.
Saturday poured all day. April showers bring shepherds headaches. We managed to keep the sheep to be shorn all under cover, and to provide shelter for the newly shorn sheep. We finished Sunday mid-morning.
We invite the public to come to watch shearing at Topsy Farms for free.
I wish I could send a sound track with this little story. Sheep are quiet when grazing, but quite vocal when disrupted. They have an impressive range of alto to deep bass voices. The guardian dogs too, are uneasy when routines are disrupted, and hang around, tails tentatively wagging but foreheads furrowed.
At the end of the day, when all were tucked away, our teenage dog, required to stay in the barnyard as he is too rambunctious, sang his mournful dirge to the sky.
Sheep have to be shorn once a year. It’s as regular as taxes. In earlier years the clip could provide a good income for a farm, but now represents a significant health expense. Ian initiated the Wool Shed to sell our wool as yarn, and blankets. All products are now available on-line too. We were facing yet another cost increase, and hoped that by selling our own wool and wool products, we could balance. That has worked – if you don’t count labour.)
The ewes are shorn while pregnant but not too close to birthing time.
(We don’t want to cause miscarriages.) If they are nearly naked when the lambs are born, they are more likely to seek shelter on a cold windy wet day, thus protecting their lambs. We also want to avoid the danger of a ewe with a thick wooly coat accidentally rolling on a small lamb without being able to feel its presence. For these reasons and others, we plan shearing as late in April as possible, since lambing is due to start after the first week of May. We hope by then it has warmed up.
We invite the public to come to watch. We hope they are hardy souls.
Since we seek the best shearers available, and they organize their touring geographically, we take what timing we can get. This year we thought it was to be the few days before Easter weekend, but now apparently, it is to be Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We’ll celebrate rebirth our own way, I guess.
One big advantage of that change of timing is that the forecast for Wednesday was heavy rain.
Shearers cannot, will not, shear wet sheep.
Think of the logistics of keeping about 1100 sheep dry (also fed and watered) on rainy days before shearing. It is our most stressful time of the entire year.
It takes quite a team of ‘roustabouts’ to support the activity of the three shearers during shearing. Changing the dates to include Easter weekend may cause ructions. It is flaming cold and windy and wet this week, 5 days in advance. We’re watching the forecasts avidly – as though there was much of anything we could do. All shelters are prepared.
The shearing area is empty 362 days of the year, so that’s the storage space for the Wool Shed. Ian has spent the last few days, checking inventory, amalgamating boxes, topping up the Wool Shed supplies, and cramming the inventory into Don’s woodworking room. Life on the farm is not dull.
Walking our roads in the past few weeks has been, well, interesting. The gravel seems to have been entirely swamped by mud, alternating with ice and ruts. It is hard to watch my feet though, as there is so much to see and hear and smell right now.
The cold weather until recently caused the ice on the lake to continue its booming, vibrating expansion. There was the occasional loud zing, as another pressure crack provided more room. Two weeks later however, the colour is changing rapidly from silver to dark grey and it no longer looks safe. The next big wind may give us liquid waterfront once again.
The Robins and Redwing Blackbirds arrived in hoards heralding spring.
The males come first, battling and complaining. They joined the squawking legions of Blue Jays and the nearly silent, diffident Mourning Doves near our feeder. The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers (Don is convinced we have an ‘Uppy’ too) enjoy our homemade suet cakes from range-fed pork fat, as does my grandsons’ dog Diego, who comes to lick the bottom of the container on rainy days. I get chills from the wilderness sound of the geese gossiping in their V’s overhead; spring returnees.
The deer regularly come near the roadways, gleaning food.
We occasionally have grain spills on the north side of the barn, when we auger our grain mixture from various bins into the hopper on the tractor, or the ‘snacker’ pulled by the ATV. (That’s a royal ‘we’ there – Don and Chris do almost all of the grain feeding.)
Each morning Christopher reports deer, fox and rabbit tracks in the snow – now in the mud.
One morning I was about to set off for a walk, but paused, so as not to scare the 3 deer, calmly enjoying the treats of a grain spill. Soon they will disappear again, as more food become available in the woods.
As I’m writing this, a pheasant just took a stroll across our yard, then posed peacefully under our grapevine. (I tried to sneak up behind our old sauna to get a picture, but no luck.)
Drainage here in spring is a constant problem. We’ve put in a lot of labour and money, trying to deal with the fact that the gardens and barn and barnyards and our shop are downhill from the land.
The wool and sheepskin products in the Wool Shed (also available on-line) are threatened by the spring flooding.
I’m told that the culvert is frozen solid, so our careful drainage efforts have resulted in water flowing in the south door of the barn, mainly freezing solid, then trickling out the north door. Don has rigged an ingenious siphon, which has made quite a difference. Sump pumps in basements are working overtime.
The sheep and dogs are thriving this winter. We just brought the main flock of ewes back through the woods from the wintering grounds. We constantly battle hoof rot, so want them to be on higher, dryer ground. Hopefully they are all pregnant, due to birth starting the first week of May. We’ll be shearing all the sheep on the farm in the last week of April. More on that later.
The scent of warming earth stirs the yearning for the garden within me, giving the necessary boot to get me sorting last year’s seeds, putting in a new seed order, and starting the first flat of ‘plant them indoors and early’ types. Finding indoor space for them all will be the next pleasant dilemma.
Meanwhile the snowdrops are in full bloom.
We need our guardian dogs at Topsy. There’s a bumper sticker that says ‘Eat Canadian Lamb: 10,000 coyotes can’t be wrong.” Some seasons it feels as though most of those coyotes have found their way, over the winter ice to Amherst Island. We have three significantly large sheep farms here, and lamb is a favorite food.
We have a variety of methods to try to counteract predation.
Our guardian dogs help keep coyote predation losses down.
We tried donkeys some years ago. We gather they are useful for very small flocks that don’t move often. For us, Golda (named after G. Meir) was harder to herd than the entire flock and a huge hassle when she needed her hooves trimmed.
After trying one very large Komondor dog, Bear, we decided that the long dredlocks were just not suitable for fields with burrs and brambles. Until his old age, he wanted to be a lap dog – not always convenient during picnics. He smelled in his old age.
We’ve tried Akbash and Maremma breeds, liking their general attitude of defensiveness, rather than aggression. There’s lots of variation within each breed of course – lots of individuality. We’re now moving mainly to Akbash, as their coats are shorter, and have less knots and burrs. They live with the sheep year ’round, being fed and patted once a day.
At the moment we have 10 Guardian dogs:
Lucy was given to us, as she was rough on cats in the suburban area where she was first raised. She’s an older dog, somewhat skittish and matronly. She chums with…
Pollux. According to Christopher our shepherd, he’s a ‘portly old gent’. He’s stable and enjoys Lucy’s company.
Marcus is a lovely big, handsome, affectionate dog. We’ll have to watch his food intake as he’ll have a tendency to get too large.
Nichola spends time with Marcus – her brother. She’s much more skittish. We bought both from another sheep farmer. She raised one litter which included Mr. Purple. Don has seen her jump the perimeter fence (over 5 feet).
Leo is an older, quietly affectionate dog – Chris considers him our most useful dog.
Blackie is a much younger dog, bred here on our farm. He’s already reliable at not yet 2 years old, spending lots of time with Leo.
Trixie birthed 2 litters for us, before we decided she should be spayed. She’s the mother of Blackie and Tweedledum.
Tweedledum is a promising young dog who has been slowed somewhat an unfortunate injury last year, breaking a back leg badly, when jumping a fence. The vet bills were impressive.
Jack is Trixie’s brother. He is now top dog. Despite his size, it took quite q while to assume that roll from Marcus.
Mr. Purple is our youngest pup-in-training. He used to sneak bites of food from the older dogs who tolerated it until just recently, when they gave him a sound lesson in manners.
Young pups are patted regularly, though we are cautious to ensure they are more attached to sheep than people. They spend time first with rams who teach them basic manners. Each dog in the field is patted daily when fed, though most are somewhat shy. Their greatest dread is the annual trip to the vet clinic. They are also somewhat uneasy when we move the flock to different pastures. Their ‘backyard’ is now the 250 fenced acres of the home farm.
Our guardian dogs are important workers on Topsy Farms, doing their best to help protect our flock from the coyote predators.
Here’s a video featured on Canadian Geographic talking to the shepherds at shearing time at Topsy Farms.
Ian has been wrapping up haying, working to bring home the bales from all the far-flung fields that we rent, while Don and Chris have been working hard on sheep handling (checking feet, separating those that need any treatment, vaccinating, keeping a daily eye on all flocks, watching the pasture they are in and having a checkerboard plan of the next move to greener eating, keeping water available at all times etc.)
Ian can move 29 bales at a time, stacked two wide and two high on two wagons.
On a very rare day when nothing is pushing him for finances, house, me, The Wool Shed, laundry etc, he can manage 3 loads. With over 1400 bales out there, that’s a LOT of hauling to get the haying finished.
Yesterday, Chris was able to join him for part of the day (his wagon holds 23) and plans to again today, while Don does the dirty job of cleaning out one of our huge grain bins, to ensure that it contains only the fresh grain mixed appropriately for our lambs. At first they don’t like the grain much and have some difficulty digesting it. We purposely give them oats, their least favorite so they just nibble, and gradually adjust their digestive systems. In another month, we’ll be changing the ‘mix’ of the grains they receive but cautiously as there is such a thing as ‘grain overload’ which will make them very ill. It doesn’t seem possible with Canadian conditions to ‘finish’ a pasture-born lamb without some additional nutrition as the pasture fades. This year we will be adding our ‘baleage’ to the mix for the first time, so we’ll have a learning curve there too. We are hoping it is easier for their digestion, and also that our costs will be less (eventually).
I helped with my first big sheep drive in ages.
We were taking the lambs from the corner called Emerald, where the Front Rd turns to gravel and there’s a turnoff, south. They were in McCrimmon’s pasture there, but had run out of grass. We took them south to the first corner at the Second Concession then turned them east quite a long way to get to the ‘Beehive Field’ about 4.5 kms. We had our 3 men on ATV’s and a neighbour on his; Carl joined us on his bike, and I was in my car. One severe danger is the blind hill that approaches that intersection. I parked my car with flashers on at the verge near the top, then stood in the middle of the road where a driver would see my head first – also where I could help turn the sheep at right angles along the Second.
It all went smoothly. We started at 6:30 – not wanting to move them in the heat of the day – as a solid red ball of rising sun was trying to cut through the mist. Everything was dew wet and shimmery. The small hills and curves of land around the homes were so lovely. The sheep were eager for fresh grass, and kept trying to cut through someone’s lawn or open laneway or sagging fencing to grab mouthfuls. (Before the ATVs we used to have an army of kids on lousy bikes.) It was a deep pleasure to be a part of it all again; by driving in the back, I freed Christopher to take off on the ATV, skirting the herd, chasing in the most adventurous. I stopped off at Shirley and Keith Miller’s for a brief visit.
Meanwhile, Ian’s meat chickens have been suffering badly between a very clever raccoon and the heat. Some years we’ve actually processed more chickens than the 225 three week old chicks we’d purchased (they count generously.) It won’t happen this year. They’ll go to the butcher this Friday and next. Meanwhile, I’ve been contacting our list of customers, as we try to sell as many of the first load of 150 as we can, to make freezer room for the rest. Somehow, Ian’ll have to find time to defrost all 3 freezers in the next few days…
The Wool Shed had a really good month in August, despite our only going to the Sheep Dog Trials – not a weekly Farmer’s Market. Just didn’t have the people power. I get bothered some times, when folks show up during my 2 hours off in the morning or the brief lovely evening time I’m not hooked up. On the other hand, we’ll miss their income next month. Ian will start the Queen’s Farmer’s Market in Sept sometime.
Christopher is on a government advisory committee – I think this is his 6th minister of Agriculture, and is very active in the provincial sheep marketing agency (OSMA). He’ll be off to England again in Sept to visit his mom. Don’s off next week to see his folks on their anniversary, but only for 3 days.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to set up our big private lamb marketing organization. We’ve over 300 names on our list now, that I contact annually, most of whom I talk to 3 or 4 times each. All potential new customers take a long time to advise, so they can get what is most appropriate for them. It keeps me occupied as my beloved garden winds down.
Right now its utterly lovely. We’ve bees and hummingbirds and butterflies abounding, as well as scads of flowers and lots and lots of veg. I’ve done a deal with the newly reopened Café in the village. They get weekly bouquets and tomatoes, and my kids get a credit to spend at the café. And I get to feel a part of it all.
I wish you all could be here. I’ve just gotten a good start on a garden veg soup – potato, onion, scarlet runner beans, broccoli, zuc, tomatoes, basil, oregano carrots, kale – all of which I picked this am. I’ll add in the lamb stew Ian made a couple of days ago with garlic, wild mushroom and a bit of other frig stuff, and it should be good. Smells it.
We finished haying yesterday, so now the fall activites begin. Chris does good work overhauling farm equipment in the winter, and this year so far, there have been no really long or really expensive equipment setbacks. One major breakdown was solved by scrounging a major part out of a tractor that’s been retired for parts that was compatible. He’s just learned these skills on the job. (A guy by the way who read animal husbandry at the masters level in Cambridge, whose parents were both medical docs and who just likes the lifestyle. He’s now advising the Minister of Agriculture – the 4th Minister he’s worked on and may run for the chair of the Ontario Sheep Assn).
We’ve ended up with 349 bailage bales wrapped in plastic and 1100 and some hay bales, all in the neighbourhood of 3/4′s of a ton each.
The bailage will be fed our animals for the first time this winter. Its kind of pickled grass, cut at a higher moisture content, kept scrupulously clean, and wrapped within a few hours of reaching the acceptible dryness level. All three men work like fiends, bailing (usually Don) hauling from most often the other side of the island (usually Ian) and wrapping (Chris.) Its intent is to be more digestible for the lambs, and high nutrient, and cut the grain costs which are ferocious. We’ll see….
Other fall activities include getting into preserving garden produce time. That does not please me, as its an acknowlegement of the approaching autumn. I’m just so much healthier in the outdoors, mentally as well as physically. I’ve raced the birds to the elderberries. Ian helped me pick the last huge tray full last evening. They can have the rest. They hang in big umbrells, so I can sit on my outdoor couch, and pull berries off their stems at leisure. I’ve brought in all the garlic (whatever I miss will just send up shoots in the spring which I will then spread out and plant) and have about half the onions in. I usually make a long braid of those whose stems are still strong enough, but that takes figuring out how to sit without wreaking my back.
I’ve been providing bouquets for our newly opened village café (been closed 3 years) and have a deal where I provide extra produce and they keep a credit for Jake or Sue to spend. Nice to be a part of it.
The birds love the masses of sunflowers, that are getting passed the beauty peak and nicely to the seed for birds time. I wish I cooked more with basil as I’ve got scads.
My friend Mary was coming to the Island – to a gorgeous retreat house area off the grid she and her ex built – with a group of women friends. She invited me to join them.
I did in the later afternoon, carrying chair, two heat pads, flowers, water. Delivered flowers to table, and carried on. Spent GORGEOUS two hours in the late light by the water on a calm evening, with challenging, interesting, involved women. I do miss being a part of a group like that, but sure sucked up the time. Several of us went skinny dipping, and sun dried (the commercial fishermen drifted closer and closer); there were discussions on how neat the subjunctive verbs are in Spanish, the community backing for the demo trying to stop the cows leaving the prison farm, the “plant a row” organization that’s doing a fab job getting fresh food from source to those who need it; lots of music.
I left as a great feast was being prepared, and they sang me out.
One of the rather glorious aspects of being the caregiver for foster lambs, is that it requires me to sit quietly outside, morning and evening and just take in the world. (The daytime feedings are often more hectic with lots of visitors or events on the go.)
At six in the morning, during this stretch of high pressure calm weather, the birds are trying to outdo each other with the mating calls and rituals. We have at least two nesting orioles and two nesting house wrens, and their music alone is spectacular. Yesterday, a loon calling in the lake nearby brought me quietly down to watch 3 young loons, diving and skittering on the surface, and already showing an impressive capacity for underwater time and distance. Then a big water disturbance in the cove proved to be very large carp, mating.
The foster lambing experience this year has been quite different.
The warm calm days are magnificent for tiny wet lamb survival – although it is creating nightmares for the farmers who are increasingly concerned about pastures and hay production.
So, we’ve so far had way fewer fosters than in any previous year I can remember. (One rather over prolific year, with triplets the norm and quads and even surviving quints not unknown, I had 162 foster lambs to raise.) So far, I’ve handled 5 lambs, of whom three found adoptive ewe mamas. That of course is the ideal. If the lamb isn’t raised by a sheep, it doesn’t know the flock behaviours, and just won’t thrive if returned to the flock.
The lambs raised for meat must be top quality, so they will have been raised by their mamas, not by me.
Our policy has always been to find potential homes for them first, then set that limit to the number we could raise. (In the foster lambalanche year, we had a goat farmer who weaned her kids just in time to pick up our lambs to be raised by the goats. That worked beautifully.) This year, we have had requests for 14 lambs, and it doesn’t look as though I’ll be able to meet that number. That of course, is good news for our flock – that most are being raised by the ewes.
There is such a variation in the skills shown by each lamb.
It has to adjust to the foreignness of rubber nipple, powdered milk (designed for their digestion), and being held. (It would be better for the lamb to learn to eat standing on its own feet, but my back can’t cope with that.) I try to move gently and speak softly around the little guys, warm the ‘milk’ just so, and snuggle them up. I hold them comfortably under my left arm, with my left hand supporting the chin and if necessary opening his mouth (just by sliding my finger in the corner of his mouth a bit). My right hand guides the nipple in, and supports the chin, so the milk flow is all lined up. For some, that first warm taste of food is enough – they are sucking eagerly, if inefficiently. (I had to change a nipple for a much smaller opening for one scrawny little guy, who was trying to drown or choke, he was so eager.) In other cases, I have to gently squeeze the nose to push in a few drops, stroke the throat, tickle rub the back of his back (the area a nursing ewe can reach.) One female took an hour to consume less than 2 oz. Occasionally, the ewes can detect that there is just some developmental problem in the one of the three they reject, and we are slower to discover that difficulty.
The ewe and twins who are living in the front yard are pleasant company for the fosters, who live in a smaller cage (so I don’t have to chase them) inside the much larger penned yard area. The ewe will emit her soft nicker when I first bring them outside in the morning, will check them out, but knows they aren’t her responsibility. Her twins were almost certainly sired by two rams. One is very Suffolk-y – with lovely patch brown/black markings all over. The other, almost for sure, is Canadian Arcott. (That name is derived from Agricultural Research Centre, Ottawa). The former tend to be calm steady mothers; both have excellent meat conformation. Anyway, they are feeling full of the joys of spring; in the morning and evening especially, they cavort, boinging straight up, all 4 legs stiff, leaping and tumbling occasionally and just expressing the joy of being alive.
Our shepherd, Christopher, says that the gestation period for lambs is 4 months, 3 weeks and 4 days. We calculate when to put the rams in, based on when we want the birthing to begin. (Ideally, once the weather has warmed and there is sufficent pasture to keep the flock groupings well fed – the second week of May.) However, that turned out to be on the weekend that was very cold – there was snow in Ottawa and Kingston – and the ewes appear to be able to ‘cross their legs’ – holding off the birthing for a day or so. Its a wonderful survival skill in the wild.
So, the first year lambers, called ‘replacements’, started lambing first, and a few days later the mature ewes followed their example. Ideally, we hope a first year mama willl raise a good sized single lamb, and the mature ewes will raise an average of two each. (Some are able to raise triplets successfully; others only have a big single.)
Sometimes a ewe will choose to nurture one or two, and will ignore one, for no apparent reason. Very occasionally, a lamb is stillborn. Chris does his best to arrange an adoption. If a lamb is hungry and there are no prospective adoptive mothers, or if an adoption fails, the lambs will come to me to foster.
The first lamb was a big, hungry beauty. His large frame splayed off both sides of my lap, no matter how we tried to cuddle. He didn’t recognize either the black rubber nipple, the stubby beer bottle, the sounds of comfort I was trying to make, nor the initial taste of the formula on his lips. But once the nipple was inserted and he got the first glug, he certainly recognized food when he tasted it! The enthusiastic sucking made me tighten my grip on the bottle. He came up once for air, then didn’t know how to find the source again. With help, he was able to find what he wanted and downed the entire bottle. His tummy was no longer concave. He slept for the night in a big dog cage on our front porch, then after another enthusiastic feeding, spent the day outside in a small wire pen, enclosed within the larger pen for the ewe and twins due to arrive.
He thrived on the four feedings a day, filling out visibly. He was calm enough to take a feeding from my 5 year old grandson Nathan, with “help” from his brother Michael. Once solidly established, our shepherd put an elastic ring around his tail and testicles. It is the most humane way to dock and castrate, as the circulation is gradually cut off, and the part atrophies and falls off, unnoticed. He also received the required ear tag.
After a day of quiet recovery and lots more food, he was picked up by his doting new owner who will raise him in company with a few other sheep and a llama.
Unexpectedly there was a few lambless days interval, which was welcome as I was preparing lots of pots of plants for the Island long weekend market.
With perfect timing, the second male lamb was brought to me on Sat. of the long weekend. He was rejected by his first mom, then had a failed adoption, so he’s a little weaker; a much less assertive eater. He is very quiet to hold, but doesn’t yet seek the nipple. Fortunately we now have company for him, as a big ewe and her twins are in the big front yard penned area. She sounds the quiet protective nicker each morning when I bring him outside, ensuring he’s alright – but knows he isn’t hers. He’ll eat half a bottle at a time. I’m trying to give him small amounts, more often, until he feels stronger.
Why the beer bottle you might ask? The old ‘stubbies’ fit nicely into the microwave if the formula, a powdered lamb milk replacer, needs to be warmed. Whatever works, on a farm.
We are lambing entirely on pasture. The fields are glorious in this early spring, with the sheltering trees well leaved out, and the lake, to the west and the north of the fields, shining with deceptive warmth. The pasture is early, but already showing the effects of the lack of rainfall, especially on our shallow soil.
We used to lamb in the barn which was much more labour intensive, but we are all still working hard.
Christopher, our primary shepherd, checks the ewes in the several fields at least at dawn and sunset and after lunch. He is looking for any birthing challenges; any ewes in difficulty needing help, or any new lambs that are apparently not getting enough to eat. Time is challenging, as the ten guardian dogs must be fed and patted and checked, regular chores done, and labour continues intensely on the Predator Control fence that we’ve been erecting around the approximately 4 km perimeter of the home farm. Brush and limbs were cleared, post holes drilled and posts erected and braced at the corners, the 4 feet of woven wire has been strung and tightened and attached – so at least we can keep the sheep in. Now we are finishing adding 18″ of electric wires, (total height, 5′ 6″) and building gates. Its a big undertaking, trying to reinforce the dogs’ efforts to protect the flock from the coyotes.
But the weather has stayed glorious (easier for lambs in warm dry weather, but ominously dry for the abundant hay crop we always yearn for). We have the “ewe lambs” – first year mamas, bred to a smaller ram known for it ‘survivability’ characteristics, so hopefully, each first year ewe will have a single good sized lamb with not much birthing difficulty. They are grouped in two fields, not adjacent, so if a lamb slips through the fence, it can be retrieved and returned to its mama.
The mature ewes (ages two to about seven or eight) are in three other fields. We breed these ewes to purebred rams who have the genetic qualities we seek in our flock – good birthing, good mothering, good meat confirmation, good fleeces, good milk production etc. Each breed tends to have one or two of these strengths, so our females are now a mixed “Topsy” breed.
When possible, Chris will organize an adoption, if there is a feeding problem with a lamb. Most often this will happen if a ewe has triplets, and one of the three is much larger or smaller. The ewe may not nurture that one well. He’ll take that hungry lamb and convince a new mom with a single that she’s actually had two. There are various techniques for this – a little more challenging in the fields.
If that is not successful, and the lamb continues hungry but otherwise healthy, it comes to me as a foster lamb, to be bottle fed until it is well enough established to go to a new home. More on that in the next instalment.
In the autumn, our focus includes marketing lambs.
They were weaned in the third week of August, giving their moms a much needed rest. The lambs blatted for a bit; the ewes gave one token call then bent to graze, a look of relief on their faces. As the lambs were rapidly catching up to their moms in size, and many ewes were still nursing twins, the physical demands were becoming too much.
In September, the lambs were very gradually introduced to grain, starting with the oats that they like least. That means they just nibble a bit here and there, very gradually adapting their digestive systems to grain. Since we were blessed with such gentle weather in October and November, the grazing continued abundant, there was no loss of body heat due to cold and wet, and the lambs grew beautifully. In the first week of November, all the lambs traveled to our barn and moved through the chutes, so our shepherd Christopher could assess their condition, and look for any health concerns. He feels the loins (the backbone area behind the ribs) of those who appear close to market weight, wanting to be able to feel the backbone (not too fatty) but not a great ridge of backbone (not yet ‘finished’). Then they are weighed and if appropriate, marked with paint. The lambs get very used to this routine, as they travel through the chutes weekly from November through March and appear not in the least stressed by the activity.
We’ve been challenged this fall by the fact that our ferry has been sent to Wolfe Island from Thanksgiving to the end of December, while their ferry is overhauled. That means we use the very much smaller Glenora ferry, which in turn greatly limits the size of trucking or trailer vehicles allowed on deck. Once we tried on a Sunday morning loading a larger trailer, pushing it on with a truck on the Island, unhooking, then unloading with another truck previously parked on the mainland. That was not a great success, delayed other traffic and wasn’t repeated. We make do with smaller vehicles. In the big winds of early December the ferry was tied up for much of three days (we considered the rest of the world was cut off, not us). We’ll all rejoice when our big sturdy boat returns to us before freeze-up.
We’ve had over 500 lambs this season deemed likely to grow to over 100 lbs weight. With the increasing interest in eating locally, we hope to sell most of them privately or to local butchers in the Ottawa/Kingston/Toronto area. Another hundred or so will be sent live weight to Toronto, where Topsy lamb always gets premium price.
In the second week of December, the ‘teaser ram’ was put in with the ewes. (That means a male with a vasectomy.) This makes the ewes come into heat more rapidly, tend to ovulate two or more eggs and to do so in greater sync. Next week the 19 rams will join the over 900 ewes (in carefully selected sub-groupings) and the process will be repeated.
Yesterday, my grandchildren, Nathan and Michael helped me dig the rest of my crop – boys and carrots make a good combo. N loaded them into a milk crate in his ‘jeep’ he’d brought specially for the job. Then we dumped them all and pulled off the green tops, with N passing me tough ones that needed cutting. Then M decided we needed a break and headed off to visit the tractors. Unfortunately he remembers a couple of weeks ago getting his feet stuck in the mud, and going down on his hands in the muck so he won’t walk ANYWHERE that looks even damp. Firm headshake and backing up. So we found the most acceptible route, and I lifted him over the ‘scariest’ patches. vrooom vrooom steering together time. Then back to the carrots.
N pushed and shoved the heavily loaded jeep through the long grass to the walkway, then we took a much needed time out for them to eat my homemade popsicles while I rested my back. Their dad and grandad were there, fixing a computer cable between the two houses (Jacob way up in the bucket of a tractor) (Sue was working on the computer connection from home) then taking down the netting and scarlet runner beans that cover my south window in the summer. We all visited while J ate a piece of my sweet potato pie.
Then N drove the jeep to the water hydrant, and we gave the carrots an initial scrub, laughing and rather soaking ourselves. I’d experimented with one new type and won’t do them again. They got monstrously fat. I was backcatcher as he lobbed the cleaner ones to the carton on the jeep. Then he pushed it back to the patio where Ian carried the carton of carrots up to my couch.
I thought that was the last of my assistants’ work. I set myself up with our blue tub with clean water, another brush, and a clean container. Carrots on one side, water on the other. Michael picked up one carrot, walked carefully around my couch and my splayed boots and gleefully splashed it into the water, returning for another. Nathan scrubbed diligently, then put that carrot into the container. The assembly line didn’t need me! I took the filled container inside, explaining I was going to sort them in the sink into good shaped ones to keep and deformed ones to be put through the grating machine. When I returned, N had figured out a second clean container and was doing that sorting as well. Aside from the minor disadvantage of being in the way of splashes when M threw the carrots into the water, I was resting on my laurels, applauding my team to their dad and grandad.
M went home for lunch and N stayed with us, having the lunch he chose on the patio, then playing in a pile of sand. I told them both how very much their help was appreciated. N is 4 1/2; M is 1 1/2.
Life has been hectic with planting and foster lambing and hosting the hoards of visitors who come during lambing time.
My first foster appeared about a week after lambing began, May 10th. He was a lovely looking piebald, part Suffolk, with a black nose and one eye and one ear, and splotches elsewhere. His mom was a 7 year old who had triplets, and just couldn’t cope, so he was HUNGRY. I just had him a day, then Chris made a hopeful adoption, which failed after a couple of days, then he came back. He got the runs, from the double change in food, but we stoppered him up.
Meanwhile, three others appeared. Two were just hungry and cold; one’s mom just loved the other one; one was a tiny triplet, and I don’t remember about the third. The small pretty white one just never decided to live. I’d milk a mouthful into her, stroke her throat to get her to swallow, wait awhile then repeat. No luck. The other two lept forward, starting to fill saggy baggy coats. Yet another came who really had problems. Both eyes were sore, and he needed regular bottom washing (and the cage papers and my clothes constant changing.)
So the first foster lamb buyer came twice, took the two healthy ones, then agreed to take the vulnerable one free, along with two others. It just needed more care than I felt able to give. (He reports a week later that all are thriving, though the eyes are still sore.)
I’ve been super lucky that Kyle was home, as well as Will and Haley. Kyle stays up late, so the babies can get a warm tummy full in this cold weather, and Haley enjoys cuddling and feeding. Sharing the job of foster lambing is so much nicer. Ian does backup, disposing of soiled papers and doing my laundry.
So, the next lot came on fast. That wet and cold weather is not healthy for newborns. We had one huge triplet (the smaller pair stayed with mom), one whose mom got mastitis, one whose mom died during birthing, and two who were really hypothermic, who just didn’t get up to get that crucial first feed. The 3 were ok, the other two were touch and go.
I was having too many visitors and getting really tired. Nathan was an enormous help with the visitors, taking them to the Wool Shedhttps://topsyfarms.com/wool-shed when I was washing up; “come on guys” invitations to see hens, tractors, sheep drives as I sold items or talked one on one to more seriously interested folks. It was getting really hard to feed in the morning and wash the cage floor, then get myself hooked up for the morning feed, to be finished in time for the 10 am visitors.
My 2nd set of customers were teenagers – they were planning to do a 4H project. 14 people arrived at the same time – 3 groups – and I needed to teach the new owners. Nathan to the rescue again. The really cold baby made it, thanks to constant cuddling by every visitor who sat down, as well as my wearing it inside my coveralls (another change of clothing thanks Ian). It could only take 1 swallow every 5 minutes at first, but the report today is that it is gambolling up and down the hallways.
It can truly be a miracle. Its a joy to be part of it. Its a relief to have it over for another year.
One of the teens reported in:
It was an interesting long ride home and everybody is doing fine. The weak boy is taking a little bit more from the bottle and is kind of walking. I think the weak girl is my mom’s favourite she cuddle right up to her at feeding time. We have been feeding the weak ones often and are planning on going at 8pm, 10pm, and I will be waking up at 2am to feed just the weak ones again. It is quite the adventure to have 5 lambs and a great experience. Thank you once again!
We have three healthy foster lambs now. (We lost a couple, and 6 have gone to another home on the Island where they will be raised all summer.)
They stay in a big blanket-covered dog cage on the verandas at night. The wind still blows cold off the lake, and this gives them warm cuddle space. I move out there about 6:30-7 am, with my coverall pockets stuffed with warmed milk replacer, and my balaclava on my head (almost the end of May!).
When I opened the cage this morning, two lambs jumped into my lap in the big old scruffy armchair. The whiteface lamb is a Cheviot cross, whose sire breeds smaller lambs than the others we seek. We always put him to the first year ewes, for easier birthing. Another characteristic of this breed is their feisty, eager life force. This little guy sucks so hard he tends to aspirate the liquid, so I had to change to a new hard nipple with a tiny hole to keep him from drowning. He is thriving now, and almost too eager to get what he wants. After a few minutes intense pushing, he settled down on my lap, downing his bottle.
The black faced lamb is a Suffolk cross. They tend to make good calm mothers, and are very steady. A Suffolk lamb tends to be a bit dozy at first, slow to learn to recognize the nipple, and to open his mouth. Once I convince him that this IS what he is looking for, he’s like a steady little vacuum.
The third lamb this morning was new yesterday. Mom had three, and he just wasn’t getting enough milk. (That’s our most common reason for getting fosters.) He didn’t recognize me or the bottle yet as the source of all good things, so I had to burrow into the cage to lift him out. The best position for feeding a lamb is to tuck him under your left arm (if you are right-handed) with your hand under his chin, and thumb lightly around his nose. Usually I have to tuck a finger into the side of the mouth of the learner, as the rubber nipple doesn’t feel right to his instincts. Nipple inserted, I hold his muzzle gently but firmly, so he can’t lick or chew, but has to suck. Sometimes I’ll squeeze just enough to trickle a bit of milk replacer into his mouth. Today, that did it. He was off and sucking, and downed the entire bottle.
The other two meantime were kicking up their heels on the veranda, cavorting in that utterly joyful lamb-like way.
The three are outside now, wind-protected, enjoying morning sun. They’ll be calling for more in a couple of hours.
During lambing at Topsy, we often have ewes who birth triplets-potential foster lambs. Some ewes who are in great shape and have lots of milk, are able to raise all three. This only works if the lambs are of similar size. If one is much bigger, or more frequently, much smaller, one must be taken away for the health of the others. Chris, our main shepherd, has been very successful in arranging adoptions with a ewe who only had a single lamb. Occasionally, a small hungry lamb has no acceptable mother. So, our son Kyle and I are back in the foster lamb business. One Mother’s Day present was sitting with a blatting baby curled up on my lap (butt end wrapped in an old blanket) learning to suck, then proceeding to do so, busily. I started at 5:30 am on a gorgeous spring morning, sitting outside, listening to the dawn chorus of birds and watching their busy mating rituals and (for the early birds) nest building and/or feeding squawkers. There is so much COLOUR right now. Our huge wild plum tree is a mass of white flowers, that are just starting to scatter its confetti-like petals when the breeze hits. We have a big wire dog cage set up on the front verandah for overnight warmth for the foster lambs, and put the babies outside in the daytime in a small pen with the front yard ewes and lambs nearby. The second day, a couple of three year olds and their moms came to visit the Wool Shed. Kyle gave them all bottle-feeding lessons, then they trailed after him, Pied Piper-like, as I visited with their moms in the Wool Shed. Grandson Nathan was leading the tour to visit the egg-laying hens, but stopped at the highest point of interest, a parked tractor, and announced “that is the Alice Chalmers 185 but we don’t climb in it as it has a tippy seat.” (He just turned three.) Day three, we have 5 healthy fosters.
The 4 fields have now been prepared for seeding , called fitting land. We hired some of our neighbours with bigger land working equipment to help us get the land worked properly. The first field was sown this afternoon but rain prevented more work being done.
Fitting land – as it is called – is really like preparing a lawn or garden but on a large scale. Ploughing is akin to spade work. Disking is akin to hoeing or rototilling. Cultivating is akin to raking. A cultipacker or roller is used after the seeding to compact the soil around the seed.
This is a very expensive process and we avoid it as much as possible. There is, however, a real feeling of accomplishment when one looks at a well worked and planted field. Once a field is planted there is the waiting to see if there will be enough moisture for good seed germination followed by enough sunlight and rain for growth but not too much of either.
A direct consequence of not being able to use our barn for lambing until it has been sterilized is that the sheep are all lambing on pasture.
We have been blessed – our luck is changing I think (knock-on-wood) – with weather that is close to perfect for lamb survival. The 10 day stretch of fantastic weather in mid-April has produced the best early growth of pasture that we’ve seen in our 36 years of farming here.
Christopher is finding that pasture lambing has a lot to recommend it. We may never go back to using a barn for lambing.
Yesterday, Ian started to disc up some land that we first started to rent last year. We haven’t worked land in a while as all the rest of the farm is in permanent forage. One of our friends says that this is a form of permaculture as it is sustainable indefinitely. Our mostly shallow and poorly drained soil on our drought-prone island is not suitable for grain growing.
The weather event we most dread – other than twisters and hurricanes which are pretty unlikely here – is freezing rain. The forecast yesterday was for up to 10” of snow followed by wind followed by freezing rain followed by more snow. We made preparations to deal with these threats. What we got was a sifting of snow, some wind, some freezing rain, and now its raining again this evening but it is staying in liquid form. The ice wasn’t too bad to deal with and was already softening when we went out to do chores.
The worst part of the day for Don was getting the net-wrap off the 4 bales that he was feeding. Hehad to beat on the icy surface with a shovel handle that travels with me in the tractor cab for just that purpose. Net-wrap is very light plastic webbing that we have started to wrap our large round bales with. It holds the hay in snugly so that a thatch is formed that prevents rain from going more than a ½” or so into the bale. This allows us to store bales in long rows – we call it tootsie-rolling – rather than having to tarp the hay. A lot of labour is saved with this technology and we will no longer have to buy the large tarpaulins that we’ve used since 1978. We should make the time to repair all our tarps and store them away for future use. We have been stuffing the used net-wrap into heavy duty plastic garbage bags and we hope that it can be re-cycled.
Ian took a van load of our products to the Queens Farmers Market at Queen’s University in Kingston. This once-a-month market was requested by some students last fall and has been pretty successful. We were invited to set up a booth for the January event and did ok. The 2 things Ian learned in January were: make sure people know that we can take Mastercard and VISA; and there quite a few young people knitting. So this time Ian put up the charge card signage and brought lots of yarn. Sold 42 skeins of yarn and made 3 credit card sales. All the natural – white, brown, light grey and dark grey – were bought. Three young women, representing a group called “No Sweat” as in no more sweat shops, bought the last of the natural yarn. They intend to learn some knitting skills for empathic reasons, I think. It was nice change from sitting on a tractor and rolling out hay. Don got to do all the chores so he had a busy morning.
Amherst Island is, I’ve been told, the most drought prone area of Ontario. It can be very frustrating in the summer; standing in a parched field watching the clouds open up on the mainland to the north of us. Or to see the large cloud banks to the south of the lake soaking the aptly named Watertown in New York State. It’s not so bad in the winter though as we seldom have more than a foot of snow on the ground. This allows us to keep our sheep outside all winter.
We roll hay out on pasture and hay fields and that creates a rich mulch for the next growing season. It also means that we do not have huge quantities of manure to move in warmer weather when there are lots of other things to do. The sheep are able to stand a lot of cold provided they are well fed and can find shelter from the wind behind bushes, trees and rocks. They are healthier in the cold weather as the various tiny critters that harm sheep are inactive.
The dogs do not seem to mind the cold much either although some of the older dogs usually find a sheltered spot to rest in. The bitch that we bought from a ranch in Colorado whelped 7 puppies last month. They are now quite active and are solid little fur coated barrels. We hope 4 of them will find good homes in working environments – we won’t sell them otherwise. Three more dogs will bring our total guard dog numbers up to 15. There are also 2 Border Collies and 3 pet dogs on the farm – lots of dog food required.