Thursday, April 28, 2011

Stud Muffin

**not one to mix my personal and professional life---this is indeed about SHEEP! **

We recently picked up our new ram from a farm not far away. This is the farm that has provided a great number of our lambs in the past. The producers have a gorgeous flock, and are some of the most entertaining folks we know.

They ran all the sheep up to the barn for our inspection. Since we were trading our other ram, they gave us “pick of the litter”. Oh, dear! How to choose? Mr. Producer ran them out in small batches, we cornered all that we wanted to consider, and worked down from there. Hmmm… This was really hard! My initial reaction was to choose the one that looked the most like the old ram. He was SO wonderful, I don’t know if I’ll ever quite “get over” Dude. Then, it was made evident to me that I needed to expand my horizons. If it looked just like the one we had, it was probably too close a match. The whole reason we needed change was a search for new bloodlines. Oh, yeah….but, I did love Dude.

We narrowed the field significantly. Tom pointed out one, the producer pointed out one. Wait, wasn’t that the same sheep? They all began to blur before my eyes. I would NEVER make it as a judge in the show ring! Okay, I think we picked one. We marked him. Oh, yeah…he’s nice.

Tom and Mr. Producer got talking. “I want these things outta here this weekend!” Mr. Producer was saying. Yikes! That meant go home, get the truck, and take our “babies” home. (I found this ewe lamb that I just HAD to have) Tom set off for home, while I stayed to visit. I love to visit with other producers…their stories are always far better than mine!

Later, I got thinking about our first trip to get a ram. While I truly hate to go for the corny joke, but looking back makes me feel SO sheepish.

We went to pick up the ram who would become “Mulligan” from a friend. She had a bunch of sheep at the time and was looking to down-size. We had absolutely NO clue what we were doing, but in order to breed sheep, you DO need a male and females. We did know that much.

She had several that she thought we should consider, but one in particular stood out. When we went to load him, she enlisted the help of yet another “sheep guy” who was actually there to build some fence. This particular fella is known for his great fencing, his leadership in the 4H and just for being an all-around good guy. We had never met him prior to this incident, but he has become one of our favorite folks in the area.

When E (the fence guy) and Tom were hauling the new ram onto the back of the pick-up, our friend asked, “so, what do you think of this ram lamb?” E pulled back, ran his hand through his hair (or maybe his beard) and said with his “Valley accent” “Waaallll, I reckon he looks like a real STUD MUFFIN to me!” ( oh, I wish I had a “Valley accent”!) Tom and I exchanged bemused glances behind everyone’s back. Wonder what in the world he meant by THAT?

When we got Mulligan home, he was indeed a “stud muffin”…he did his job, and did it well. And, thus began our sheep breeding adventures. Through the years we have learned a great deal…about sheep, shepherding, and the whole deal. Although, I must confess, I'm still not quite sure if I can define the term "stud muffin".

By the time we got the current ram home, I had dubbed him Waylon. That Josh Thompson song “Blame it on Waylon” was going through my head that day. So, lil miss ewe lamb had to be “Jessie”. All the breeding stock get names as they stay around here for quite some time.

Buyer’s remorse set in after getting home. Oh, dear, he’s so small, so young….oh, do you really think he’ll be ready to do his job in August? I hate when I get like this….and Tom probably hates it even more! I spent a lot of time at the barn, looking, worrying, and trying to get these wild babies to calm down. I even bothered A with my obsessing. She’s a very good judge of sheep, but she seemed unconcerned.

That was last week. Today, Waylon was holding court under a tree out front.
He looked good. Then, he squeezed his way into the creep feeder, where he looked even better in comparison to the other lambs. Okay, time to calm my nerves. He’s filling out and growing daily. It will be exciting to see what will happen come breeding time.

You know, I don’t even need to get the fence fella over and ask if he thinks this one is a “stud muffin".

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Our Farm Kids

April 27, 2011....Today our youngest turns 21. WOW!

With that in mind, I would like to share some pictures of our “farm kids” and the cool things they got to do while they were still kids.

Kids learn SO much growing up on a farm. They learn responsibility, teamwork, compassion, math, life science, biology, research techniques, and a whole host of life skills. The list of things learned almost by osmosis is nearly endless. The coolest thing about all this learning…they never even know it’s happening. They just think they’re having fun. Ha, score one for “farmer moms and dads”!

Perhaps the most important thing is a good work ethic. While this is not something that is consciously taught, it is vital to life on a farm, and is admirable in any other chosen field. Our girls aren't afraid of hard work and they will definitely stick with a job until it's done. Many older adults have commented on this over the years. Farm girls are sure good workers!


Both our girls are both grown now….old married ladies as it were. But, to my mind they will always be “farm KIDS"!

Here’s to you, kiddos…..keep being awesome!



Sprint Season

“Sprint season” arrives without warning. I don’t know why it comes as a surprise, but it always does. After what seemed to be an interminably long, cold winter and then a wet, cool spring….suddenly, there it is …the moment has arrived when EVERYTHING seems to need some sort of attention all at once!

There are things to plant, seeds to start, tomatoes to put in bigger pots, lambs to wean, sheep to get to market, weeding, planting, tilling, bugs to battle, broilers to process, market to prepare for and attend, shadecloth to apply, weeds to pull…. (oh, wait…I’m starting to repeat myself).

In order to keep from forgetting anything, we do a ‘walk-about’ on Sunday afternoons, with notebook in hand, identifying the things that need attention in the upcoming week. Once we get back inside, we attempt to prioritize the list.Sometimes the list gets out of control and we decide to shorten it. The ability to cross off completely jobs during the week really helps morale. (particularly on my part!)

A friend once suggested that a “got-done” list should be written instead of a “to-do” list. The suggestion being that one would wait until week’s end and compile a list of accomplishments. She may have had a point, invariably there are numerous jobs that escape notice during our list making that somehow become priorities during the week. I may just try that approach sometime soon. The only fault in this system is the number of accomplished jobs I would invariably forget…that blasted “senior brain”…!

This past week, we planted potatoes,
took ewes to the stockyard, weeded the worst of the garlic beds (the rest are waiting ‘til this week). Tom mowed all the grass surrounding the gardens, while I started LOTS of seeds; we picked up two new lambs, picked and packed for the Market, and then attended the Market. Somewhere in there, we also did the town/feed store run, went to the repair shop with the tiny tiller AGAIN, had a family gathering, attempted to keep up with laundry and farm book work, prepared and ate meals…and actually got some sleep!

Despite feeling somewhat frantic and frazzled, I really like this time of year. It is easy to see the accomplishments. I actually like the feeling of tired muscles, provided they are tired at the END of the day…and not first thing in the morning. We both enjoy having more and more variety and amounts for the Market come Saturday mornings. Best part…our customers REALLY appreciate our hard work!

A long time ago, another friend used to quote a movie line this time of year…I forgot the movie, and will probably misquote the line, but, it was something like….”Run more (or was it faster?)….sleep less!” Either way, it sounds appropriate for “sprint season”!

“Sprint season” may be a misnomer; we won’t begin to slow down until fall. Perhaps we are entering Marathon May (June, July, August…)!

The “to-do” list, even the shortened version, is growing exponentially, on a daily basis!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Country Traffic

Having grown up in Northern Virginia, the change to the pace of life here in the Valley was one of the biggest adjustments Tom and I have ever made.

It would cause uncontrollable laughter when a resident would complain about sitting at a stoplight while 6 or 8 cars went through. We knew what it was like to sit for HOURS on a regular basis to go a very short distance.

After all these years, we’ve adjusted….adjusted just fine. Trucks hauling farm implements and tractors with hay wagons may slow traffic down, but they are a welcome part of the landscape. There is a feeling of camaraderie with farm trucks that greet drivers with a neighborly wave.

During the summer, I spent a frustrating day of driving to Charlottesville and back. So, I was absolutely THRILLED to "be stuck behind" a pick-up truck with calves in the back of it on my way home to the farm!

I love it….I love traffic in the country!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

One Trough, Lots of Waiting

A creep feeder is one of the pieces of farm equipment that makes a farmer’s life just a little easier. Designed to allow the smaller animals constant access to feed, it improves growth rates dramatically.

Prior to the purchase of the creep feeder, we designed a pen in the barn with a special gate to provide essentially the same thing. The biggest downfall of this system was that the feeder was fairly small and had to be re-filled almost hourly.With a larger number of lambs, the task was going to become a round-the-clock ordeal.

The new creep feeder contains a big bin which holds 600 or more pounds of feed. As the lambs eat out of the feeder tray, the grain automatically refills. While it does require some type of monitoring, it doesn’t need to be re-filled more often than once a week, if that.

Some may wonder why we feed grain at all. I am not going to get into the whole “ruminants don’t need grain” debate. Suffice it to say, we want a superior product. We have found that adding grain along with vitamins and minerals consistently produces the quality we demand.

When we first set up the creep pen, the lambs couldn’t begin to figure it out. That wasn’t surprising; they are sheep …for goodness sake! Once they realized there were goodies inside, they quickly got the hang of it. Unfortunately, the ewes figured out if they stuck their heads in at just the right angle, they could get the goodies, too!

Tom to the rescue! A couple of well-positioned pipes, and it became ewe-proof. The lambs are quite adept in using the feeder now; they are thriving.

Yesterday, we moved the creep feeder to a new location. It wasn’t a big move…maybe 20 feet. But, when the lambs came back to the barn, they stopped, looked around and went to the original spot. One lamb began baa-ing loudly. Several others figured it out, and everyone got to eat. That is just proof that sheep are not known for their intelligence.

One great feature of a creep feeder is that the opening can be adjusted to accommodate any size animals. Since we are trying to give the smaller ones an added advantage, we are not increasing the size of the gate. As the lambs have grown, fewer can go inside the feeder easily. That is the beauty of the design. The younger, smaller lambs are at the bottom of the “pecking order” and cannot compete with their larger counterparts. The creep feeder allows them to eat as they need or desire.

This afternoon, I watched as one of the “big boys” attempted to get in. First he tried walking in. BANG! He hit the gate. Then he tried butting it. BANG! He hit the gate. He then backed up, put his head down and put it through the gate. He was momentarily stuck until he pulled first one ham and then the other through the small opening. He worked so hard to get in there, it was fun to watch. I hope he doesn’t eat too much; we may never get him out!

Last week, we had a “lamb jam” when ten of the lambs got in the feeder and were wedged into place. I had to physically remove a couple before a normal traffic pattern could be re-established. I did grab my camera first in order to provide photographic evidence. You can’t make this stuff up!

They are growing well, due in part to the new creep feeder. We’re about 60 days from the first of the “lamb chop crop”. I can’t wait to see how this experiment plays out.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Quiet Country Nights

In an attempt to FINALLY move the sheep out on grass and wean the lambs, we put them all out in the upper front paddock yesterday after breakfast. The move was uneventful, although they all seemed quite happy with the deep green grass.

A word about the upper front paddock…it is right in front of the house. This makes for picturesque views from the front porch in the summertime. It also makes it easy to check on any troubles that may arise. There are several paddocks out front, and once weaned, the lambs will be rotated between them.

Everything was fine at dusk when I went out to close the chickens in for the night. (They are closed in their house as a protection from predators). The sheep were grazing, snoozing…just being sheep. .

About one o’clock, I heard a lot of noise outside. (I made the mistake of drinking two glasses of sweet tea while we were out to supper and sleep was eluding me. I was finally beginning to doze on the couch.) I recognized the noise, but my brain was just sleepy enough to be quite slow in processing data. …the SHEEP! Then, the dogs began to bark.

Jed has an incredibly bad habit of lying in the front yard and barking at odd noises in the night. His present irritant is the family of foxes that live in the woods down the hill by the creek. They can be heard yipping in the night, and Jed barks at them constantly some nights. Tom finds this horribly annoying. I’ve had words with Jed, but to no avail.

The barking was a different tone than his usual woofing and then Ellie Mae joined in. Their barks sound like the rumble of thunder and then become full-scale barking when they sense a real problem. I got up to see what I could see. As it was a full moon, I could actually see a lot. It appeared that one, or possibly several lambs, had gone back to the barn for a drink from the stocktank. This is normal behavior. Unfortunately, the lamb must have realized it was alone and panicked. When it called out, the mother answered from far away. Then the lamb really flipped out. It began screaming and running. Suddenly, sheep everywhere were baaing, and the dogs were both barking. The ruckus got the neighborhood dogs going. The peace and quiet of the country night was utterly destroyed.

I grabbed the flashlight, put on my boots and went out back. Ellie Mae seems to think it’s wonderful when I come outside in the dark. She was cavorting about, eagerly accompanying me to the barn. The light of the full moon made it easy to see that there was nothing amiss at the barn, so I headed out front.
(those glowing orbs are sheep eyes)

When the light from the flashlight swung around the paddock, I still could find nothing wrong. The older ewes seem to remember that the flashlight means food on early Market mornings. They all came running toward me. They all proceeded to the barn, where they continued to fuss for some time. It looked like they were all present and accounted for. I headed back to the house.

After a few minutes, they realized they weren’t getting grain as a “midnight snack” and they headed back out to the paddock. End of adventure…quiet returned to the farm. Ahh!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Weather Woes

When you make your living by direct marketing produce from the land, you find yourself checking the weather forecast repeatedly. The NOAA site is my homepage. The first thing I check every morning is the weather forecast.

When your make your living by direct marketing produce from the land, you do NOT want to see this…

as the forecast for the one day you have to make your living. Do you see that....? 1.96 INCHES! Yikes!

Rain is NOT our friend on Saturday mornings between 5am and 1pm.

Any other time, we love rain. We pray for rain. But, Saturdays we constantly pray for rain-free selling times. It does not look like this Saturday will be what WE wanted.

As soon as the dismal forecast was posted, the phone calls began. As the manager of the Saturday market, Tom has the responsibility of keeping track (somewhat) of the vendors. Many don’t want to take the chance with the weather; some have products that can’t withstand wind or torrential rain. Others are fearful that the customer flow will not be enough to warrant their trip to town.

While we are not thrilled with the forecast, and have discussed various options, we will be headed out first thing in the morning regardless of the weather. It’s our livelihood, we have no other option.

So, if you’re heading out…we’ll be there! Bring your umbrella and your hip waders, the lettuce will be waiting!

A Shady Deal

As everyone knows, the earth’s elliptical trip around the sun causes the days to become longer and the sun to feel hotter in the Spring and Summer. The inverse is true during the Fall and Winter. While we welcome this annual progression, particularly in the Spring, it can wreak havoc on the greenhouses and hoophouses if we are not careful.

The plastic covering of the hoophouses provides a wonderful break from the wind. It also allows heat to collect. Heat which can be helpful in promoting growth in the cooler seasons. But, with the greater amounts of sunlight, heat can kill. There has to be a way to control the airflow and maintain a somewhat constant temperature.

Enter SHADECLOTH! The black knit fabric offers different percentages of shade when applied over the plastic skin. This can make a difference in temperature of up to twenty degrees on a hot summer day. Coupled with the ability to roll up the plastic sides, the temperature and airflow can be regulated.

One might wonder why this is important. Without the shade, or the lowered temperatures, the hoophouses would be relegated to growing only hot weather crops. If we shade the houses, we can grow lettuce and other tender greens all summer. Last summer we added irrigation to the hoophouses, and the quality of the produce greatly improved. Overhead watering can lead to disease and plant loss, especially when in combination with high temperatures.

The shape of the house also affects the heat retention. The semi-round shape of hoophouse #1 combined with the lower roof height, makes it a warmer environment year-round. So, once the sun reached a certain point, it was time to apply the shadecloth.

As with most everything around here, we go low-tech. We even put to use the old jolly ball that was once a horse toy for A’s pony. The pony may be gone, but that toy is really useful!

Ropes are attached to the cloth; the cloth is pulled over the house, and ta-dah! the house is instantly cooler!

With #1 shaded, the lettuce should flourish without the worry of bitterness caused by high temperatures. Now, we need another "still" day to cover #2 and the two greenhouses.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

New Workboots

One of the difficulties of being a lady farmer…no, wait, one cannot be a lady AND a farmer…

One of the difficulties of being a woman farmer is the scarcity of comfortable, long lasting, affordable work boots. Most work boots are made for men, most have steel toes, and they are very expensive.

I have been wearing work boots for fifteen years now, and I have a brand I love. They fit right out of the box, and they last a long time. Sneakers and “cute shoes” just won’t work on the farm. I must admit, I used to wear little slip-on shoes when it was really hot. One evening, a flighty heifer changed all that. She got spooked by something, came down on my foot, and mangled my little right toe. While the pain was intense and it took a long time to heal, I did have the interesting ability to accurately predict any incoming weather system for at least two years! The farm is full of learning opportunities.

My boots see a great deal of use. I wear them daily. I’ve put thousands of miles on some of them. In addition to the miles walked around the farm, I find it therapeutic to walk back country roads. When the girls were at home, we walked miles and miles talking over life. My boots get stained and paint-splotched and stepped on. But, they are what I reach for no matter where I may be going.

My current pair of boots has been ready for retirement for about 6 months now. All that time I have been searching for a suitable replacement. From time to time, the brand I like is suddenly no longer available. This is completely disheartening. My feet are short and wide, making a good fit something of a challenge. I’ve bought other boots, only to have them cause blisters, hurt my feet and back, or wear out far too quickly.

But, I found them online last week. Oh, it was a day of rejoicing! I even got to order them from a company with a great name….SAFETY GIRL! I found the name amusing and the deal unbelievable.

They arrived yesterday. They are beautiful. It is hard to believe that my current boots ever looked so nice.

My current problem….I am almost afraid to wear them. I know that as soon as I put them on, they will begin the slow, sad descent to…

my “poor, old work boots” that need replacing!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

April Showers

Tuesday morning we woke to the sound of rain…not the gentle showers usually associated with April, but the sound of a torrential downpour, that has become all too familiar. This sound is magnified by the fact that there is a plastic greenhouse attached to the back of our home. Thunder boomed as well. A peek out the window revealed Jed attempting to get UNDER the backporch. Interesting beginning to the day…

The plan for the day, prior to the rain, had been to take the old ewes to the stockyard. Prices are running pretty high right now, and a few less mouths to feed would be a good thing. The rain put a stop to that. It was doubtful we could get the racks on the truck and the truck to the loading ramp in the downpour. Unfortunately, if you don’t make the Tuesday sale at the stockyard, you don’t make the sale. There is a sale on Friday, but that one is generally cattle, and we can’t lose the time we could be harvesting. We will have to wait ‘til next week.

We are STILL trying to get the potatoes planted. The rain definitely postponed that job, too! A look at the forecast revealed that the planting may have to wait a long while!

The dump run still needed to be done. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or not, you can almost always go to the dump! Farm bookwork is always looming out there, threatening to take over my desk. So, we wouldn’t be bored.

Tom has been wanting to put in another gate to the garden area. The rain-soaked earth will aid in that particular job. So, the plan for the day was to go to the dump AND get the supplies to put in the gate.

The rain let up some and we headed out to do chores. By the time we got to the barn (which is only about 70 feet from the house) the heavens opened. We spent some “quality time” in the barn surrounded by wet cats, dogs and sheep, waiting out the rain. Between the rain on the metal roof and the very vocal complaints from the sheep, it was a very noisy place. Thankfully the rain let up before we lost our hearing and our minds.

In the half hour that it took to do chores, we got another half inch of rain. My coveralls were STILL soggy when it was time to do afternoon chores! Slogging through the mud and rain is not my idea of fun.

The heavy rain made it impossible to let the sheep out to pasture after they had their grain. We are still keeping the sheep in the barn at night. The grass growth is still not robust enough to handle that type of grazing pressure. If we were to leave them out to graze all night, we would end up with paddocks of mud. I don’t think they were interested in going out anyway. They ate their grain and headed back into the barn.

When that rainstorm finally passed, I let them out to a new paddock. It’s funny when they go in a new paddock, the first one in just starts eating…right at the fence line. They all pile up trying to eat in the same little spot, until one finally breaks through and they spread out through the field. It’s kind of like a levee break when the water suddenly flows free.

All day, we had passing storms. When we looked at the “potato garden” around midday, there was water standing in the furrows. Definitely won’t be doing that job for quite some time.

There was yet another line of storms that rolled through about six o’clock. There were reports of hail with this one, although we didn’t see any. Hail is a dreaded weather phenomenon for farmers. You can lose an entire crop in a matter of minutes. So, we were grateful for “just rain”.

At the end of the weather event, we had over an inch and three quarters in the rain gauge. Everything is soaked; the ground is soggy and slippery. It will be days before we can consider getting back in the gardens. We need a stretch of at least three days for things to dry out enough to get those taters in the ground. Looking ahead at the weather forecast, I don’t see that happening, as more rain is predicted for the weekend. Big rain!

So, we’ll wait….we’ll do other jobs either inside or in the hoophouses, waiting for the rain to stop and the sun to shine.

One thing we will NOT do…we will NOT complain about the rain. Rain is better (in some ways) than drought. Although, we may want to start looking over plans for an ark!