Thursday, October 25, 2007

Vancalcar Acres

Summer 2007 Newsletter

It’s fascinating to listen to the good ol’ boys talk about the weather. This year was dry. Last year was wet. Winter was harder than usual. Crops don’t like the heat. After several years of this, I’ve come to the conclusion that there never is a really good weather year. There’s always something that goes wrong, and for someone, it will. Dry heat is good for the alfalfa. Lots of rains are good for the grass hay. There’s nothing to be done about any situation, and I think that’s why we spend so much time discussing it. Because we have no control over the ‘acts of God’ issues in our environment, it makes our entire career of farming a bit of a crap shoot. A critical piece of the puzzle and you have no control. It’s no wonder we tend to fixate on it around here.

As summer winds down, and the geese begin migrating, I realize how fast and far we’ve come around here this past year. Last summer, we struggled to maintain the health of both ewes and lambs who were fighting strong parasite loads and foot problems. It was a very hard year. This summer, we’ve had a drought to fight with. Ponds are low, and the wells are at critical levels. We’ve tried to be very gentle with water consumption, so the animals get what they need, but perhaps the garden could have done better.

This year we started out by lambing more than we’ve ever done. We exposed almost 300 ewes on Christmas Day last year, giving us a scheduled lambing of mid-May. After swearing we wouldn’t have lambs earlier, we actually managed to almost meet that goal, and only a couple of ewes lambed in the winter months. Pollinated. Then in April, we thought we’d give a try to adding milking to the farm, and picked up a flock of 40 or so milking ewes from a nearby dairy. Then the purchase of the equipment for that project fell through, leaving us with productive ewes but no milking equipment. We lambed them out a month before the main flock, and got almost 100 lambs out of those girls. Never saw so many triplets! A week after they finished, the main group began. We did not combine the 2 groups, because of several issues, but this meant that we now had 2 separate groups to maintain. The workload grew. By the end of summer, there was the dairy flock, the main flock, the lamb group, and a temporary adoption of some Rambouillet who needed a home, as well as the group of culls recovering in the barn yard… oh ya, and some pigs & cows J

Once lambing began in earnest, we were flat out around here for some time. We had hired on a high-school student to help out with lambing, chores, yarn, you name it – Casey did it. She’s still with us, and very helpful. After careful tagging of lambs up over the 250 lamb mark (not counting the first 90 some from the dairy flock), I admit we got a little tired. The lambing pasture was quite large, the girls were quite spread out, and it was almost impossible to move them to tighter pastures because of the number of lambs. We stopped counting/tagging lambs, and simply began walking the pasture to assist with problem births, or pick up ‘donated’ lambs to be added to the bottle-lamb group.

The farm had over 400 lambs born this spring. We were exhausted, and the summer was just beginning. Because of our decision to lamb later in the spring (warmer weather, better feed, easier on the shepherd) with a mild winter (until February when we got 9 feet of snow that is), we had more singles than expected…. and heavier lambs. Heavier lambs translated politely into difficult and sometimes traumatic lambing episodes. Typical newborn lamb weights should be around 7-8lbs here. We were seeing singles pushing 11-14 lbs. Moms were unhappy, and so were we. There were several new bottle lambs because of difficult and long labors – the ewe just gave up and had no energy to accept lambs, or walked away in shock. Some came into the barn and were penned with their lambs, recovered, and were fine. Others were lambs found in the pasture, with no idea who the mother was. Occasionally, I was even able to graft or force an adoption of one found lamb to a ewe who was lambing and now thinks she has twins. All in all, it was a hard lambing session on everyone.

Learning from the previous year’s parasite struggle and chronic foot problems, we began culling for repeat offenders in both categories. We started semi-regular foot baths through the chute to get ahead of foot problems and stop them before they started, and added several worming sessions to the flock over the summer. Costly all of them, but worth it in the long-run. As a very dry summer progressed, Eric was able to make all of the hay we would need for the winter himself and for the first time, we were not going to need to buy in hay. Usually, we would have grazed those hay fields a few weeks later as the grass grew back, but this summer was so dry that we were unable to come back to them until just a couple of weeks ago. This meant we leased a few extra acres from a farm behind ours, and grazed there instead. More than a mile’s walk at some points to go feed the dog out there! We definitely get our exercise around here.

The yarn business has continued to grow. Last fall, I had no idea we would be doing this, the sock kits were almost a last-minute idea for Rhinebeck and I had a whopping 13lbs of sock yarn in stock. This year, we’ve just over half way through a year-long Sock Club, have new sock kits, a shawl kit, and 2 new sock yarns. In stock now? Sock yarn in the triple digits. What a difference! And what a struggle. Both sheep and yarn are a full-time job, when you add in the household and my daughter Nora. I began doing the dyeing at night after she would go to bed, dyeing yarn until midnight, and managing farm ‘stuff’ during the day. Although, I must say that occasionally when we’d dye during the day, she would often dye her own yarn and she really produced some lovely painted yarns! Some folks say that Nora should have her own line of yarns, but every time I think of putting them up for sale… I falter. Forgive me for wanting my daughter’s yarn in my own stash for a while J Maybe someday.

Some things that were in the plan for this year, never came into being. Farmer’s markets were one. We had plans of being vendors with at least one market, and we did apply… and I’m grateful now that they put us on a waiting list. As the salesman of the family, I think I might have had a meltdown adding this to the weekly chore list. I try to put out four newsletters per year, and I know we’re short on that this year. Milking sheep? Quite relieved that never happened. We would have started milking just about the same time lambing was in full swing for the main group of sheep. Nothing like 4am to slave in the barn for 3 hours to start an already sleep-deprived day! We still need to pick up several bottle calves to raise for beef, and I’m afraid we are already 6 months behind on that project. Knowing it will take 2 years to raise them out on grass means we are really behind the curve on that one… The dye-day on the farm weekend almost happened. The dates that looked good conflicted with to many interested folks, and so it’s on the drawing board for next spring, depending on lambing dates which have not been decided yet.

All in all, this was a long and difficult summer. We learned our limits and ways to cope with those limits. We learned that the proper equipment makes all the difference because we finally purchased critical chute equipment rather than spend another summer jerry-rigging things together. That helped quite a bit and without that, I’m sure you’d have found us trampled under the mob at some point. I’ve also learned that it’s getting a little harder to recover from long days, followed by long nights dyeing yarn! We will not speak of how the realization of my actual age came to me one night, and that I’m not a teenager anymore, and that’s all we’ll say!

We sacrificed a lot of ourselves this summer. There wasn’t any time to really enjoy what we have here as a farm, to do the things we wanted to, to take any time off… But wait. Perhaps you didn’t know either what we’ve just really realized: This is the life of the farmer. Not the hobby farmer, who can have the neighbor feed the 6 pet sheep in the barn for a 3 day weekend get-away, but the farmer who worries when he hears the coyotes singing and the guard dog barking. Who learns that if at that point, even though they are a mile away, if you don’t hear sheep also baa-ing at the same time, then everything is as it should be. If you suddenly hear the sheep as well… then you’d better get your pants on and find the flashlights because something bad is going on and it’s your job to take care of it or lose stock. Perhaps even a guard dog doing their job. There’s no sleeping in. There’s no vacation. There’s no time off. There’s hay because the rains are coming, and bottle lambs depending on you twice a day to survive. And there’s a four year old who gets to feed ‘her’ bottle lamb, and help it escape from the pen to run up & down the barn with her, following behind like Mary in the Nursery Rhyme. And then having to explain to her why he got sick.

Well, I didn’t realize quite what a book I’d be writing here, or how mildly stressful it may seem. We have had a busy summer. It wasn’t all good, and it wasn’t all bad either. There were beautiful sunsets, and there were lighting storms and rainbows. There were lambs, and helping lambs being born, and four year olds who show the visiting customers’ children the baby pigs and just-hatched chicks. And there is even the four year old who one day, crouched behind her horse stuffed animal named ‘mommy horse’. I asked her what she was doing, and she shushed me and whispered that she was “helping this mommy”. She reached under the mommy horse’s tail, and said “I feel a foot”, and then proceeded to pull out the smaller horse (named ‘baby horse’) she’d hidden under the mommy. Don’t ask my daughter where babies come from, she figured it out for herself when she was three. I am amazed and awed by this life, wouldn’t trade this past busy year for anything. I’m sure some changes will occur so we are not quite so flat out next year, but that’s what you do when you learn and grow; you change.

Thank you for sharing this year with us, even if at some times you might have felt like we’d forgotten about you… we didn’t.


Jennifer, Eric, Nora, Oscar the sheepdog, Mia the Guard dog, and to many sheep to count.


Pat said...

Holy cow! I knew you were straight out but I still had no idea just how much. I'm beyond impressed with you and your family. And I think you should be Wonder Woman for Halloween even if it is typecasting. Way to go Jennifer!

Jennifer said...

Thanks Pat, but even stuffing the barn clothes down my shirt aren't gonna make me look as good as she did!! :)

Astrid said...

What an amazing post, Jennifer! It's such a shame that so few people have any connection to the real farming life these days. Thanks for sharing the highs and lows, and especially the story about Nora and her baby horse. Awww!