farm chores

Essential farm tools: the ATV – it can drive around the world!

One of our ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) – the 2004 Suzuki Eiger – has just gone over 40,075km.  That is the distance around the Earth at the equator. Not bad, considering all but perhaps one kilometre was done on Amherst Island. The kilometre-age(!) is actually higher because the speedometer cable was broken for a few months. Also when the machine is in reverse, the metre runs backwards.

Don's ATV 'Old Faithful' showing odometer reading - photo by Don Tubb

Don’s ATV ‘Old Faithful’ showing odometer reading – photo by Don Tubb

We currently have 4 ATVs (all Suzukis)… 2 Eigers, one smaller King Quad, and one larger something-or-other. The total distance travelled on these and our previous ATVs would total over 200,000kms. The ATVs are absolutely vital in allowing us to farm as we do. We check sheep in several fields, and feed the guardian dogs daily (and I mean daily… come rain, shine, snow, sleet, hail, ice storms… you name it).  Depending on the season they may be in up to 8 fields, often distant from each other. Some winters we feed the sheep grain, towing a self-unloading grain cart with 800 lbs of corn. (We used to do that by hand from bags.)

tractor-pulled ATV doing chores - by Jake

In heavy snow the tractor pulls the ATV with ‘snacker’ to feed grain. photo by Jake

We do sheep drives, build and maintain fences, control weeds, and haul firewood plus a lot of day-to-day activities. Even doing basic repairs around the buildings, the first tool you reach for is the ATV because the other tools are up in the shop and you’re going to forget something.

ATV's have a wide variety of other uses, including getting our 'Charlie Brown' Christmas tree.  photo by Sally

ATV’s have a wide variety of other uses, including getting our ‘Charlie Brown’ Christmas tree. photo by Sally

Now it’s not all sweetness and light with these machines… during our peak usage period, one or more breaks down or is thinking about it. And, repairs are not cheap! We do most of our tractor repairs, but these ATV motors are specialized.  We ordered repair manuals for all, and deliver them to our Island barefoot mechanic for fixing.  Most of the year, all four are in basic running order.   They are fabulous machines and make virtually everything more efficient… for example: long, long ago (in the ‘good old days’), we used to do sheep drives on bicycles!  ATVs are faster, can handle rougher terrain, and you’re not as likely to be wounded or winded at the end of a long drive.
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Topsy Farms is located on scenic Amherst Island, west of Kingston, in Lake Ontario. Our sheep farm has been owned and operated for over 35 years by 5 shareholders, and involves 3 generations of the Murray family. Our flock of about 2500 sheep graze on tree-shaded pastures, protected by over 20 miles of fence and numerous guard dogs. Natural farming methods without spraying pesticides, or using growth hormones, chemicals, or animal by-products, produce animals of the highest quality.

A “New” Haybine for the sheep farm

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 haybine onto wagon

Men and machines assembled on mainland, preparing to lift haybine onto wagon

Men and machines assembled on mainland, preparing to lift the machinery onto wagon for transport.

Chris and Ian rolling wagon underneath

Chris and Ian rolling wagon underneath

Chris heading to the ferry, towing wagon with haybine chained firmly

Chris heading to the ferry, towing wagon with haybine chained firmly

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.

Chris, directing 2 tractors as they lift haybine.

Chris, directing 2 tractors as they lift haybine.

Chris, pulling wagon out from under haybine

Chris, pulling wagon out from under haybine

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.

Christopher, Don and Ian under the swing arm of the ‘new’ haybine

Christopher, Don and Ian under the swing arm of the ‘new’ haybine

Welcome to our newest Topsy addition. May it last into the next generation.

Winter on an Ontario Farm: Yes, the Sheep Are in the Field All Year

Ewes avoiding the big puddle in the laneway though the woods on Lot 64.

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.

Nathan and Michael waiting for their grandfather to put away the camera and get mobile again. Christopher coming along behind.

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.

The ewes, in their new home, can be seen on the far left. These are ruts that we don’t want to make worse. The hoof prints of over 800 sheep can be seen.

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.

These are the ONLY RUTS that we’ll have to go through to feed the sheep . We hope that there will be some dry weather – but not too dry. The farm house and farm buildings can be seen in the background. Note the mud on the ATV’s tires. The ATV is in front of some of the hay that will be fed to the ewes in the next few weeks.

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
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Topsy Farms is located on scenic Amherst Island, west of Kingston, in Lake Ontario. Our sheep farm has been owned and operated for over 35 years by 5 shareholders, and involves 3 generations of the Murray family. Our flock of about 2500 sheep graze on tree-shaded pastures, protected by over 20 miles of fence and numerous guard dogs. Natural farming methods without spraying pesticides, or using growth hormones, chemicals, or animal by-products, produce animals of the highest quality.

Time to Recycle Old Farm Equipment

One of our survival secrets at Topsy Farms is that we don’t purchase new and efficient – and expensive – farm equipment.

We make do and recycle the old.

That translates to all the workers, but especially Christopher who has most machinery know-how, spending hours and hours patching and rebuilding and scavenging parts to eke out ‘just one more year’. One cost of that is occasional breakdowns during haying season, and the frantic rush for repairs and parts. (They never break in winter.)

Chris, deciding where to cut

Chris, deciding where to cut

We are now officially retiring two very-well used machines – the oldest of our old farm equipment. Every bit will be recycled. The combine was purchased from an elderly neighbour. Garnet and his father bought it new in 1950, and was state of the art at the time. We traded hay baling for it years ago. But our shallow-soil sheep pasture just isn’t good grain -growing soil, and we’ve seldom been able to harvest a decent crop. We tried to give this combine away two years ago, but its 10 foot width and the ferry limitations and distance and hauling costs meant it was too expensive as a free gift.

Our first round baler did wondrous service. Ian remembers it arrived when I showed up, over 30 years ago. (I’m not sure which was the most noteworthy event.) We kept it going at least 5 years after it was pretty much worn out. We also wanted to switch to a machine that could use net wrap (that we recycle) on our hay bales. It is well adapted for making silage bales also. The old baler has been retired for awhile now. We salvaged parts we might be able to reuse including the PTO drive train, springs, tongue, wheels, stub axles, and the hydraulic cylinders.

So, we ordered a dumpster, which has a width of 8 feet, to accommodate both – plus other metal flotsam. One form of honourable retirement: every bit will be recycled, and will generate at least a little welcome cash.

The trimmed down machine just barely fits

The trimmed down machine just barely fits

An oxyacetylene torch was used to cut parts off the combine so it could fit, and two tractors manoevered it into position then pushed it in with almost 2 inches to spare on each side. Later, Kyle positioned, pushed and lifted to somersault the baler in front of the combine. Nice fit. Ian had first salvaged the grain-storage bin from the combine with the intention of using it in his new, improved hen house (to protect the grain from scavengers).

tight squeeze

tight squeeze

Kyle is lifting the baler with the forks, to flip it upside down into the bin.

Kyle is lifting the baler with the forks, to flip it upside down into the bin.

The processes for tidying up activities on the farm are a bit different from in your home. However, as everywhere, it feels good to have storage space increased and clutter reduced.

Lots more room for smaller, metal items destined for recycling.

Lots more room for smaller, metal items destined for recycling.

Lots more room for smaller, metal items destined for recycling.

Need Flexibility – No Predictable Days on the Farm

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.

The constant goal is to raise happy healthy sheep, to maintain our standard of excellence in the lamb we sell and the wool we produce and offer on-line and at the Wool Shed.

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.

POST SCRIPT

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.

Amherst Island weather

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.

Nous vous invitons à communiquer avec nous en français à info@topsyfarms.com, ou par téléphone: 1-888-287-3157. Demandez à parler à Sally.