hypoallergenic wool bedding
“Thanks for staying in touch! The throws are on couches and are used daily – wool blankets on the beds – and wool blankets in the tent when camping; could not be more pleased!
Fabulous stuff this wool is!”
– Bill, BC, June, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
“I set out for a Sunday adventure to find a warm woolen blanket and ended up buying a full bedding system from Ian. Not only did I find a warm blanket but my heart was warmed as well by the generous hospitality you all showed me. The willingness of each of you to share your time with a wandering American working in Canada is appreciated. It was an extraordinary day. I had the best night’s sleep in my bed ever using your system. Congratulations on great products!”
– Gardner McBride, October, 2006