Monday, October 27, 2008

Fall is Here

It has been a very busy summer. I have learned a lot in the last two and a half months.

I am trying to learn and practice managed intensive grazing. The sheep made one and a half trips around the fields before the grass ran out. I was able to give the lower field some attention: a whole lot of lime, some minerals (iron, etc.) and some seed to fill in some of the blank spots. The middle and upper fields still need a lot of attention: this year all they got was a grazing and a good, through mowing.

The lower field has a small hill, most of which has very spotty clumps of grass and a little bit of clover. I overseeded with clover and orchard grass. I also got about a dozen 40 pound bags of compost. I spread these very thinly in the bare patches over the seed. I was hoping that the compost would help capture and retain a little bit of moisture and aid in germination. I was also wanting to add some organic matter to the soil (it is rather sandy/rocky in that area - we live in the "granite state" after all). It appears to have worked. For a couple of weeks after seeding, there was no germination. Then we (finally) got a few hours of rain and within a couple of days there was massive germination where the compost had been spread. In the other areas, there was some germination but probably only one percent as much. My next grass project with the middle and upper fields is to apply lime and overseed.

We moved the sheep every day or two. Each time, we set up electro net fence around the next paddock, flop the fence down between the old and new and the sheep hop to the fresh grass. Catherine worked on training the sheep to come to a shaken can of grain, and it worked (especially with the ewes) - any time the sheep got loose or we had to move them between fenced areas, we enticed them with grain. This is definitely lower stress than trying to herd them to the right place.

We have 42-inch fence, but we found that the Blueface Leicester has no problem hopping over it. One of the lamb ewes went for fresh grass on her own whenever we didn't move them soon enough. We also found that our engergizer is not strong enough. With just one section of fence, we had in excess of 5K volts (a good deterrent). With four sections of fence, we had 2.5K volts (not a very good deterrent) - I often saw the sheep grazing fresh grass through the fence! I bought a much stronger energizer a couple of weeks ago, but didn't get a chance to hook it up before we ran out of grass. I picked the strongest one the supplier sold (and the only one with which they are trying to upsell warning signs).

I have some ideas about how to ease the process of moving the sheep around the fields - I will discuss those another time.

As the grass was running out, I built a second permanent pen near the barn. We moved the ewes to the large pen and the rams to the small (new) pen. I am now in the process of building a combination sheep shed and chicken coop. The shed is adjacent to the large pen, and I will just take down a section of fence to provide access to the shed.

The sheep are now on hay. I am able to get hay in small volumes all winter from a nearby horse facility at $6.50 a bale (for now). This is cheaper than the local grain store ($7.25 a bale). It looks like they are eating about a bale per day. I am flushing the ewes with whole corn right now and plan to mate them in about three weeks.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

I am a Shepherd

How the heck did this happen?

The girls are really into fiber arts, so it seemed to make sense to grow our own fiber. We have had English Angora Rabbits for about a year now, but angora is too warm to spin by itself. So for the last couple of years we have been searching for the ultimate fiber-producing animal.

Alpaca was the first choice, but the ridiculous economics make that impossible. $20,000 for one animal is just plain silly.

So, we turned to sheep. But then the question is which breed.

Catherine's initial thought was Merino. They have very fine wool and it doesn't itch. But they are ugly animals.

Then, Catherine got her hands on some BFL roving. She had no idea what BFL stood for, but she fell in love. It is very soft, long fibers and lots of luster. We had found the breed we wanted, if only we could figure out what the heck a BFL was.

It turns out the BFL in this context does not stand for "Body-for-Life" - not sure what that is, but it has nothing to do with sheep.

BFL is short for Bluefaced Leicester (pronounced "les-ter"). It is a breed from England. There are not many in the US, but after a long an arduous search I found some.

It turns out the place to go for the best Bluefaced Leicesters in the US is Beechtree Farm in Michigan. Brenda Lelli runs the show there, and she is GREAT! She is constantly importing the best genetics from the UK (via artificial insemination).

I contacted Brenda a couple of months ago, and she was ready, willing and able to set me up with a starter flock. I had the problem of how to get the sheep from Michigan to New Hampshire (an 18 hour drive). But aside from that, it looked like smooth sailing to get our own BFL flock.

I managed to solve the shipping problem via A wonderful horse lady by the name of Erin McNeely did the job.

Last Thursday, I flew into Chicago (on the way home from business in Austin, TX) and drove to Beechtree Farm. Brenda showed me around and gave me a quick and thorough introduction to the BFL. I finalized my purchase (2 rams and 7 ewes) and when Erin arrived with the trailer, we loaded them up and off they went. I hopped back in my car and headed back to Chicago to catch a Friday morning flight back home. Erin arrived Friday night. Unloading was relatively uneventful and everyone got settled in their new home.