comfort from wool
We decided we needed an upgraded haybine for cutting hay, as our oldies had been patched again and again, and just were not up to the job. We use them constantly during haying to feed a growing flock, and also to keep pastures trimmed.
(New for us means anything made after 1950.)
Our farm reuses and recycles equipment.
Christopher found a New Holland Hydraswing haybine that was only 15 or 20 years old and bought it. This style (which we term “Gooseneck”) can cut on either side of the tractor, enabling the operator to work up and down each row, and in 12 foot swaths instead of the previous 9 foot. The longer windrows make the raking and baling more efficient too. The challenge was to get it home, considering the dealer delivered to a site relatively near our ferry on the mainland.
Men and machines assembled on mainland, preparing to lift the machinery onto wagon for transport.
Christopher crossed with one tractor on the 9 am Amherst Island ferry, traveled to the site and towing our new purchase along the road to a large township space to meet Ian and Don. They had crossed on the 10 am ferry with two more tractors, one towing an empty wagon. The haybine is too large to tow onto the ferry; it had to be loaded on its side with the swing arm out of the way onto the wagon to be towed home.
The photos show some of the steps involved in unloading. Three men, 3 tractors, one wagon and ingenuity, but our new haybine was home by 2 pm.
Welcome to our newest Topsy addition. May it last into the next generation.
How many disparaging phrases have you heard about sheep? “Led like sheep to the slaughter”; “The black sheep of the family”; “A wolf in sheep’s clothing”…
“Not fair” says our shepherd Christopher, and we agree.
Sheep’s instinct to herd is their protection.
Lacking speed, teeth or claws, hiding in a group is smart. It follows that when shepherds want them to go into a pen or through a narrow gate, the sheep understandably feel less safe, and simply don’t want the same thing the people do. That does not mean they are dumb.
They are individuals. A stranger looking at a flock might think they are all alike, but those of us close to the animals can clearly see their personal characteristics. There are mothers more skilled than others; confident leaders and obedient followers; ones who know the guardian dogs are to be obeyed fast while others are mavericks; the steeplechase jumpers who challenge all fences…
Some breeds have certain predictable traits. A black-faced Suffolk ewe or lamb will be more calm and steady, whereas a lamb bred by a Border Cheviot will be feisty, almost high strung, with great ‘survivability’ skills.
Personalities vary also. We fostered twins from one hour old, and one was far more skilled than the other at finding the food source. It was first born, probably by just a few minutes, and was more playful and clearly the leader of the two.
Lambs being fostered have a high learning curve. Their instincts say to go under a warm belly and feel for a firm warm teat, then drink milk of a certain flavour. When they are fostered, they have to learn quickly to seek a hard black rubber nipple up high, with reconstituted powdered milk that doesn’t taste quite right. A lamb who has been with a ewe for a few days will initially say ‘ptooey’ to the taste. However, survival instincts rule, and usually by the second feeding they will move toward not away from the person with the bottle, thumping energetically at knees, seeking food.
Our two older foster lambs know “go for a walk” and “into your pen”. (They like the first.) I started to save the last bit of milk in the bottle to reinforce the latter directive. After one repeat they knew what to expect, and now enter eagerly.
The next time you hear someone disparage sheep, do challenge it. Come and visit Topsy Farms and see for yourself.
Our sheep stay outside all year.
They are actually their healthiest in the cold weather – no flies, and internal parasites are not an issue. Not to mention, wool is both an excellent insulator and wool also dries out quickly, which is good for the sheep and excellent for our made in Canada wool blankets. We roll out large round bales of hay and silage every day for them. There are always a few days above freezing when there is a bit of mud but it’s not usually a problem. It is different when warmer weather arrives.
The frost coming out of the ground in late winter or early spring is the best of times and the worst of times. The best is the hope of spring in the air: warmth; frogs revving up; ducks and geese on the lake; snakes coming out of the ground; clothes on the line. The worst is the MUD. The time when the ground softens as the ground water turns from solid to liquid is always a problem. Until the ground is too soft, the feeding tractor carries a bale on the front and the back. The distance from where the hay is stored to where it is unrolled can be up to 600 ft. Feeding 6 bales a day and carrying 2 at a time takes a while. With soft ground, we can’t carry a bale on the front without getting stuck; so 3 trips becomes 6 trips. All the ruts have to be levelled out when the ground dries enough or the haying equipment takes a beating. The frost coming out also means that it is harder to find dry areas in which to unroll the hay.
When the serious mud arrives and the fields are mostly wet, it is time to move the sheep to a drier field much nearer hay so there’ll be fewer ruts. So, on March 18th, it was time to move the mature flock from their wintering grounds on Lot 64 back to the home farm – Field 4-2. Christopher, Don, Nathan, Michael and Ian on 3 ATVs herded the sheep on the Lot 4 laneway through the woods and 4 fields to the field where they will stay until the pastures have grown enough for them to start grazing.
It was a beautiful morning and everything went as well as we could have hoped. The only wrinkle in this operation was the sheep moving off the laneway to avoid a large puddle of water – sheep do not like to get their feet wet.
Story and photos by Ian
Topsy Farms produces beautiful washable wool products including sheepskins, six point wool blankets, wool for knitting and felting, and some of the finest local lamb in Ontario.
Our son Jake wrote this song last year.
These pictures show his dad Ian, and his sons, Nathan and Michael, on this year’s Christmas tree outing down our laneway. This lovely tree gave us two sturdy six foot fenceposts, a few pieces of firewood that may also be used for our aeromatic red cedar squares for storing woolens, and a floor to ceiling tree, perfuming our livingroom.
Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to all from the Topsy Farms folk.
SCRUFFY RED CEDAR
G Em D C
DECEMBER, MY FAMILY, TROMPING THROUGH THE SNOW
MY DAD HAS THE CHAINSAW, MOMMA HAS MY BROTHER AND ME IN TOW
I’M 9 YEARS OLD, AND I’M COLD, BUT IT DOES NOT BOTHER ME (hang on G)
D C G
THIS IS MY SPECIAL MEMORY, FINDING THE PERFECT CHRISTMAS TREE
D C G
THAT SCRUFFY RED CEDAR, MY FAMILY CHRISTMAS TREE
WE FINALLY PICK ONE OUT AND DRAG IT HOME, BUT IT’S MUCH TOO TALL
THIS OLD FARM HOUSE, MY HOME, HAS ONLY 8-FOOT WALLS
THE EXTRA, DAD LOPS OFF, IT’LL BE A FENCE POST IN THE SPRING (hang on G)
THAT SCRUFFY RED CEDAR, MY FAMILY CHRISTMAS TREE
OUR TREE DOES NOT LOOK LIKE ONE YOU MIGHT BUY IN A STORE
SURE IT’S A LITTLE ‘CHARLIE BROWN’, THE CEDAR SMELL I ADORE
WE GET OUT THE OLD STAR, THAT GRAM AND GRANDPA PASSED TO ME (hang G)
D C G
TONIGHT WE PUT THAT GOLD STAR UP ON TOP, OF A SCRUFFY CEDAR TREE
THAT SCRUFFY RED CEDAR, MY FAMILY CHRISTMAS TREE
A GOOD TWENTY YEARS HAS PASSED BY, NOW I’M A GROWN UP MAN
THIS TIME OF YEAR IS CRAZY, MY WIFE AND I DO THE BEST WE CAN
THIS YEAR FOR DECORATING, NO SPRUCE OF PINE WILL OUR 2 BOYS SEE (hang G)
D C G
WE’LL TAKE A SAW AND THE TOBOGGAN, FIND A SCRUFFY CEDAR TREE
THAT SCRUFFY RED CEDAR, MY FAMILY CHRISTMAS TREE X 2
(OUTRO) G D C
TROMPING THROUGH THE SNOW, LOW, LOW, LOW, LOW x 4
© Jacob Murray 2009
It is breeding time at Topsy Farms – the boys go in with the girls. We have 4 teaser rams (those with vasectomies), 5 very young Suffolk rams of our own breeding, and 22 rams in their prime. We have 413 first year ewes and a mature flock of 820. We don’t want to put the rams to more than about 50 ewes each, increasing the probability that every ewe will be pregnant in the spring.
Christopher says that it takes 4 months 3 weeks and 4 days to complete gestation.
Last year, spring was awfully cold and wet and late, and we are calculating when to put the boys in with the girls, based on probabilities about the weather and pasture growth in early May.
In order to encourage ovulation, the teaser rams have been in with the first year potential mamas, the ‘replacement’ flock. All the hormones are stirred up and the young females are more prepared to stand to be bred.
The farmers have been working steadily in preparation for breeding time, checking each member of the flock for readiness and well-being, and putting new ear tags in the yearlings who lambed this spring for the first time. All the females had to be divided into several different groupings so each smaller group is with the appropriate rams.
The first year girls are bred by Border Cheviots, whose lambs are smaller, and have feisty self-sufficient ‘survivability’ characteristics. They also tend to have lower prolificacy (fewer lambs). We hope for an average of one healthy lamb per first year mama. We don’t want them to be strained by bearing or raising too many or too large lambs.
The mature ewes are divided according to their dominant breed characteristics. The primarily North Country Cheviots (good pasture sheep, big framed and hardy) will be bred by Suffolk Rams (good meat characteristics). The rest of the flock (Suffolk, Dorset, Hampshire, and Rideau Arcott strains still in the mix) will be bred by our North Country Cheviot rams. Three new ones were purchased this year from Quebec. We will subdivide in about 6 groups. Those groups plus the animals in the barnyard make a lot of chores in the next few weeks, and increased challenge for the guardian dogs.
The heat cycle for breeding lasts just 16 to 18 days. After that, almost all of the ewes should be bred. The groups will then be amalgamated and the action, though abated, continues. One of the ways the rams can show overwork is by damaging their front feet as they ‘dismount’ onto hard frozen ground. Their back feet get sore too.
By next spring there will be more pure wool from shearing for our on-line store products and through our Wool Shed on the farm. By next fall, there will be more delicious lamb available for private sales.
We hope for no wild blizzards during that period putting the rams off their stride so to speak.
November 9th was positively balmy. Ian left on the 7 am ferry, headed for Queen’s University Farmer’s Market. Don was watching the weather reports before heading out to do chores; Christopher was dealing with Ontario Sheep Marketing business. I went for a walk with my grandsons’ dog, Diego.
There were flocks of ducks and geese on the lake, gabbling and gossiping and apparently deciding that migrating wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A Loon call vibrated down my spine. The grass is still vividly green and the hay bales perfumed the air as I passed. (For recent information on Island birds see this blog.)
The fields are once again populated with our sheep.
They are in carefully separated sub-flocks. I walked the kilometer or so of roadway west to the end of the road, where our other house is located. I could see the Beacon light flashing and the Picton headland through the mist. I was lucky enough to join Chris as he went for a walk back towards our house. He explained about the flock groupings we passed.
The first bunch were 21 mature rams, resting and fattening up for their mighty task ahead of tupping the ewes. In an adjacent field young ram lambs were grazing, especially bred from our own Suffolk rams and ewes. Their characteristics include really good mothering, and good meat. We intend to keep the best four of the group of 30 or so; will sell one to a neighbour; two will become ‘teaser’ rams with vasectomies and the others will join the market flock.
There are three new rams on the farm, recently purchased from Quebec. Newcomers have to be kept separate from the other rams until they are put with the ewes in season (and much too distracted to battle for position). They are North Country Cheviot rams, purchased to increase that breed strain in our flock. (They came originally from the Cheviot hills in England. During “the clearances”, some were taken north to Scotland, were bred to be larger, and become the “North Country Cheviots”. The ones who stayed are called Border Cheviots. The Borders are generally a smaller ram, and are put to the first year girls. Their lambs have a feisty ‘survivability’ and do well on pasture.)
We expect to develop excellent quality of lamb for customers, and a resilient medium-staple wool with minimum chaff for weavers, spinners, felters and all who enjoy our wool products available through our on-line store.
The ewe lambs that will be bred this fall for the first time are grazing a few fields back, nearer our woods. The mature ewes are still ‘down the road’ getting low on pasture in the rented fields where they have been for a few weeks. They have just started to need hay to supplement the grasses.
As we neared the Frame house, the good sight of the market lambs spread out over a couple of fields, quietly grazing, was pleasing to the eye and the heart.
At Topsy Farms, we are caretakers of our land.
We work in many small ways to save resources and protect animals, people and the environment.
You’ve already heard the story of changing tractor tires, and of our old Allis-Chalmers tractor, rebuilt from many scrounged bits. Here are some other miscellaneous activities.
Living and working as a co-operative for over 35 years, with five adults (in two houses) is an efficient way to pool skills and thinking. The fact that three of the next generation have chosen to live here, and contribute their abilities helps enormously. The grandsons (3rd generation) already help wind wool skeins, herd sheep, talk with farm visitors and dig and delve in the gardens.
The Wool Shed and the on-line store were conceived as an attempt to cover the rapidly rising costs of shearing in the face of the very low price of raw wool. It accomplished that long ago, and now helps to contribute to the good name of our farm. We sell woolen products , created from our own fleece, as well as cotton-encased wool bedding and sheepskin products. We have also sold top quality fresh-frozen lamb by order for over 35 years.
Our three-story farm house is heated almost entirely with a wood furnace in the basement. All wood is harvested from our own farm, culling dead or dying trees only.
The farm uses a very small pickup truck, and wherever possible we drive the ATV’s rather than tractors or other vehicles, as they are far more fuel efficient.
We have our own egg-laying hens, which consume the kitchen garbage from three houses, produce enough for us to sell the excess in the summertime, and for our consumption during the months with less light. We barter our eggs, receiving homemade bagels and yoghurt from Ian’s daughter Leah’s home.
Our meat poultry is raised free-range, and we sell the extras to more than cover the costs.
The string that binds our bundles of yarn from MacAusland’s Woolen Mills yarn is saved and used for many purposes, including tying up newspapers for recycling or staking energetic tomato plants.
Our yard is certified as a Monarch Way Station by the University of Kansas, which encourages the planting of a variety of host and nectar plants enjoyed by the Monarch and other butterflies. This growing season the sufficient rain has produced an abundance of milkweed in the fields.
I grow a ‘green screen’ on the large south-facing window of my room. The intense summer heat is reduced, so I rarely need a fan. The hummingbirds and bees cluster to the Scarlet Runner Bean flowers. We eat some beans, and save the seed for next year. We eat some beans, and save the seed for next year.
Both homes grow significant gardens, and preserve the produce, contributing extras to Kingston’s soup kitchen, Martha’s Table, or as trade to the local café, for credit for snacks.
We are certified by Local Food Plus, a group that establishes extremely high standards for care of environment, people and animals, while producing healthy local food. A 40 page questionnaire and an all day on-site investigation were rigorous, but we easily qualified for their endorsement.
We started very poor, needing to save money and resources. By tackling problems and learning to repair and to ‘make do’, we’ve avoided much waste. By caring deeply about our animals and wanting our partnership to succeed, we became caretakers of our land.
Kyle, building the next compost pile frame
Putting seeds in good soil and watching them grow is deeply satisfying to me. Any day when I have soil under my nails and earth stains on the knees of my pants is a good day.
Our part of Amherst Island is primarily limestone and rock-hard clay soil, requiring a great deal of organic matter to improve tilth. That’s where our good sheep by-product comes in. We started gardening with old manure laid on top of the clay, gradually working on the soil quality and texture. Ian double dug the increasing number of raised beds one back-breaking spring. That made a big difference, working the good soil deeper so roots could stretch.
I found I was weeding the pathways too much so tried mulching with old hay. We quickly discovered that was an invitation to all the voles in the neighbourhood to a free lunch. Plastic looked awful, so my sons and I gradually gathered rocks to cover it. Years later, we have a healthy organic garden, overflowing with flowers and vegetables and herbs and fruit, the raised beds separated by stone walkways. (Now both sons are occasionally employed, building beautiful walls and walkways with stone.)
We put heavy hay mulch in a waste area near the parking area, burrowed, filled with compost and old manure, and planted mini tomatoes and cucumbers for our Wool Shed visitors to pick, as the plants climbed a fence erected for that purpose. Turns out I’d crossed labels so I have climbing pumpkins as well.
The old raspberry bed was out of control for weeds and being drowned by spring runoff. We laid a layer of thick cardboard (boxes from MacAusland’s Woollen Mills used for shipping our wool transformed into blankets, yarn and thows) then unrolled an entire hay bale for mulch to stop the canes regrowing. This year we added compost (from the barn scrapings from shearing plus old hay) and more manure. The bed is at least a foot higher and very fertile for gardening as the squash mountain picture shows.
Our Island chiropractor, carpenter and beekeeper has some of his hives in nearby fields. It is a lovely symbiotic arrangement, as his bees pollinate the garden and fruit trees, and we sell his entirely organic honey in our Wool Shed: essence of my garden.
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.