Sunday, December 23, 2007

32 words for snow

There's an old saw that some of the native people of the Arctic
tundra have lots of words for what we call snow. So do I. Most of
them have four letters and aren't suitable for use in a PG-13 space
such as this.

But over the last few weeks of this very early onset of persistent
snow cover, it has been interesting to learn again how different snow
conditions can be from storm to storm, and even how much snow can
change from morning to afternoon -- even when it's just sitting there
on the ground.

Sheep can do a certain amount of grazing though deep snow, if it's
light and fluffy and the pasture under the snow is longish and of
good nutritional value. But once the snow becomes heavy and packed
down or if the pasture is poor quality, the amount of energy they
expend getting to the feed by pawing the snow away can exceed the
amount of energy they get from eating the pasture, and they start to
lose weight.

So the first thing a shepherd notices about the snow is whether the
sheep can graze through it or not. So far, even though there's nearly
30 inches of snow on the ground, my sheep are still finding ways to
get at a few tasty morsels when they can. But the quality of the
pasture isn't adequate, so I have started to feed them stored feed --
the oat and pea balage that earlier entries have described.

That means using a tractor in the snow. When it's cold (like 10
degrees F or lower) snow is very slippery. When it's closer to
freezing, it's actually a really good surface to operate a tractor on.

The coming week is supposed to be warm and sunny, with temps above
freezing every day. I expect we'll lose a lot of snow, maybe even
most of it. I'll cry no tears. Sorry skiers.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

34 Days

It's almost time to start breeding the ewes for next spring's lamb crop. The rams have spent the last 321 days keeping each other company, finding things to do and eat. They're fat and spunky and aware of the short days and cool nights. They're ready for their annual month of procreation.

Most breeds of sheep are seasonal breeders. That means they will breed in the late summer, through the fall, and into the early winter. As days start to lengthen, the ewes stop ovulating and the rams lose some of their libido. The farther you are from the equator, the more pronounced this effect is and the shorter the breeding season is. What triggers the hormonal changes in seasonal sheep is a little bit confusing. It's not exactly day length, although day length plays a part. It's the rate of change in day length that does it. So as you go farther north in the Northern Hemisphere, the difference between the length of daylight on June 21 and Dec. 21 gets greater and greater, the rate of change gets faster and faster and hence the breeding season gets more and more compressed.

"So what? Who cares?" you might be tempted to ask. Shepherds do. This is one of the coolest things about sheep production -- it could almost make you believe in intelligent design if it weren't so perfectly explained by evolution. There comes a point in the breeding season where everything just lines up perfectly. Here in the mid-latitudes, seasonal ewes start to ovulate in late August. It'll just be a few to start with, say 15 percent of the flock. Seventeen days later, most of these ewes will ovulate again, and a few more will join them. As we move into October, nearly all the flock will be ovulating, but their cycles will be scattered. By the end of October, however, "the dormitory effect" will start to kick in.

The dormitory effect gets its name from the fact that, generally speaking, groups of female mammals living together will tend to synchronize their ovulation cycles. By late November, all the ewes are cycling, and they are all fertile within a day or two of one another on each cycle. If they are not bred, this will continue for several weeks, probably until early January when days start getting longer again. Then some of the ewes will stop cycling, and gradually the synchronization will start to end and by sometime in late Feburary or early March, the ewes would no longer be ovulating at all.

But in those weeks at the end of November and early December, it's possible to have so many ewes fertile at the same time that rams can breed dozens of ewes every day. I had one North Country Cheviot ram that had bred 30 ewes within his first 45 minutes of his introduction to them. This leads, 145 days later, to a lot of ewes lambing at the same time. And lo and behold, 145 days after the beginning of this peak of fertility is the onset of grass growth and the beginning of warm weather.

Shepherding a group of lambing ewes, and later, their lambs, is much much easier if all the ewes are lambing at the same time. We introduce the rams at the time of year when the most ewes are fertile at the same time, and they can breed the whole flock in two cycles, or 34 days. There's enough variation in gestation length that all the ewes don't lamb exactly 145 days later, but there's a definite peak about 10 days after lambing starts, and a valley a few days later, followed by another, smaller peak about 27 days after lambing starts, representing ewes that were not bred on the first cycle.

When lambing is brief, the nutritional needs of the flock through the winter are consistent and manageable. The lamb crop is ready to be weaned at the same time in late July or early August, and all the lambs are close enough to the same age that they can be managed in a single group from then until market.

When lambing is long and drawn out, some ewes are very close to lambing and have much higher nutritional needs than their fellow ewes bred later, who may still be months from delivery. The shepherd faces a choice of segregating sheep into different groups based on estimated lambing dates, or splitting the difference in their nutritional needs and hoping for the best. And hoping for the best is never very successful in shepherding, let me tell you.

The only way to control lambing time is to keep rams separated from the ewes for all but a carefully selected period of time. Put the rams in with the ewes in very good condition, let them breed for 34 days, and take the rams out. If you have ewes that haven't gotten bred in that time, don't keep them around. Within a few years, you'll have a flock of ewes that lambs in short order in the spring. My flock took just 18 days from the first lamb to the last in 2007.

I have four rams right now. Technically speaking, that's two and half more than I really need to breed my flock of 75 ewes. But having more rams allows me to produce distinct lines of ewes and market lambs, and ensures a little bit of genetic diversity in my flock. For 331 days of the year, these guys rest and relax, fight and feed, but for the other 34, they ensure the continuation of my flock and my sanity at lambing time.

Shepherds use a five-point scale to describe the condition of sheep. A 1 is emaciated, 5 is obese. I aim to have my rams at about 4 or even 4.5 at the beginning of breeding season. It's not uncommon for rams to lose two condition score points during breeding season, as they are too distracted to eat very much, and they're burning lots of calories herding their ewes. So eat up guys. November 30 is fast approaching, and I want you well rested and ready to party.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Verbing weirds language

Gift is a noun. It is a thing that one person gives to another person. One person does not "gift" another one. Gift is not a verb. Give is a verb. If you want to give someone a book, that's fine. But do not, under any circumstances gift someone with a book. Or gift a book to him.

Thank you for your attention. That is all.

(Verbing weirds language is a direct lift from Calvin and Hobbes.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Dirt Farming continued

The lambs have been on the turnips and kale for a week and are getting the hang of it as a feed source. We measured the yields today and I was pleasantly surprised. The turnips yielded 9,900 lbs of dry matter per acre (not counting bulbs!), and the kale yielded 5,700 lbs.

There seems to be more waste with the turnips. I haven't measured residue yet, so the net yield isn't known, but it appears that the turnips will have a major advantage over the kale.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Where were you when ...

They say every generation has this moment. For my parents, it was where were you when you learned JFK was dead. Until six years ago, it was where were you when we landed on the moon. But Sept. 11, 2001, is a date of bifurcation that eclipses many other dates across generations.

I was pulling up to a steep embankment in Surry, where I was scheduled to move a group of 100 sheep that day. A bulletin came over NPR that a commercial airliner had crashed into one of the towers of the world trade center and burst into flame. When I got back into the truck, another bulletin said that a second plane had crashed. It was becoming apparent that this wasn't an accident.

Everyone on the East coast remembers what a beautiful clear day it was. It's almost maudlin to mention it now. But it was. It was one of those days -- even before people filled with hate flew planes into buildings -- that I took a moment to simply enjoy being alive.

Now this particular embankment that I was preparing to graze is part of a Federal flood control project. Before I finished preparing the site, the ranger's truck pulled up and informed me that all Federal facilities had been ordered into a lockdown because a plane had hit the pentagon. Another plane had crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania.

But when sheep are out of feed, you have to move them.

I stopped in at the house to see what was on TV, and watched the plane hit the second tower. Over and over again. And again. I still have nightmares sometimes with images of little specks falling from the flaming buildings, and realizing that those specks were human beings: somebody's lover, sister, father, somebody's baby. Then watching the tower fall.

But when sheep are out of feed, you have to move them.

I had an appointment with a friend who was going to help me move these sheep. Under most circumanstances, this is my favorite bit of work. The sheep go from one set of fields over a footbridge and along a snowmobile trail and power line right or way and over the top of the flood control dam. It's about five miles, and takes between 2.5 and 4 hours, depending on the fitness and cooperation of the sheep. The bridge is the hardest part.

Then I remembered that my friend had a son living in Manhattan. I expected I wouldn't see her, but she showed up.

When sheep are out of feed, you have to move them.

She was carrying her cell phone, just a little crazy about the fact that she hadn't heard from her son, but also aware that he wouldn't usually be anywhere near the World Trade Center and hoping that he hadn't made a special trip that day. And hoping that he'd be able to get a call through to her to let her know he and his were all right. Of course, the cell phone had no signal on the mountain.

We moved the sheep, and when she got home there was a message from her son that he was okay.

Over the next few days, the thing I remember the most was how quiet it was in the places where I was working -- mostly power lines two or three miles from the nearest roads and houses. No airplanes. I had a lot of time alone with my thoughts. I raged at the monsters that did this; I ached for the people who were lost and for the ones left behind. I thanked my lucky stars that none of my own ones had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I raged at the President for his inept and inarticulate response -- something I still do today -- and I wondered if there were other shoes fixing to drop.

What struck me was that in my job, which at that time was full time shepherding, I was one of the few people I knew whose job didn't more or less come to a standstill that week. Other farmers of course -- cows still need milking, and when sheep are out of feed, you have to move them. I was also one of the few that had very little access to the TV news. I usually left the house at first light and got home in the dark with just enough energy to shower and flop into bed. I probably only saw the tower fall 50 times, unlike most folks who probably saw the clip hundreds if not thousands of times during those first few days.

People have said that stupidity is the most powerful force in the universe, but I think it's hatred. If you think about the hate that started the attacks that we've come to call nine-eleven, and the changes it -- and the reciprocal, aimless hatred that it engendered, it's pretty hard to think of something more powerful.

I don't really have a point in all this. Just thoughts rattling around in my head.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Where wool comes from

An amusing ad for the Los Angeles County Fair ad. I wonder how many folks in the target audience will get the joke.

Duh, Ashley, all wool comes from cows

Monday, July 30, 2007

Phase II of the dirt farming project

Using a rented no-till seeder and tractor (a Case-IH 685 -- a very nice tractor with a wheel under each corner and a low center of gravity), I planted the turnips and kale on July 28. The turnips are on one side of the field, and the kale on the other, with a strip of Italian ryegrass in the middle. The ryegrass will serve to provide fiber and a more familiar source of energy while the lambs adjust to the brassicas (also known as a "runback" area -- the lambs can run back to familiar feed while learning about eating their turnips and kale).

The no-till seeder didn't do a great job. It frequently clogged up with trash from the oats and peas that were harvested earlier this month, so I had to slow down and lift the seeder out of the ground to allow it to empty out. This leaves a combination of unplanted areas and big piles of straw. The seeder wasn't equipped with coulters, which would have sliced the trash into shorter pieces that could have slipped through the seeder points.

As always, pics to follow.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Recipe for fun

1 Border collie puppy
1 recycle bin

Mix and serve

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The final tally: 72 bales

The oats and peas are cut and baled, despite a couple of equipment hiccups. Good thing too, because the monsoon seems to have moved into central New England.

I estimate that these bales weigh about 1,200 lbs. at about 50 percent DM (will be determined by feed testing later this summer, after the bales have cured). So 600 lbs DM times 72 bales equals 43,200 lbs DM stored, or about 7200 sheep/days of feed. That's enough to feed 60 ewes from January 1 through April 30. (I'm estimating consumption at 6 lbs DM per head per day; on the high side because the material is mature and stemmy and there will be significant waste).

Another measure is that it's just shy of 3300 lbs DM/acre.

Pics to follow.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Down for the count

The oats and peas are finally mowed! Baling will start tomorrow.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Still standing

We're still waiting for a break in the weather to get the oats and peas harvested. They're now six feet tall. The oats are getting hard, and the peas have pods. I'm getting very concerned about being able to get the brassicas planted in time.

Humiliation at the sheepdog trials

Anyone who has competed at a sheepdog trial knows that it can be a humbling experience. By their very nature, sheepdog trials expose the faults of a dog and his handler: it's a pressure-cooker situation designed to seprate the excellent dogs from the pretty good dogs from the so-so dogs from the biscuit-eaters.

Even when I was going to a lot of trials, I was never a really good handler. I think of dog trials as social events with an opportunity to figure out what training I need to work on with a particular dog. For the past few years, for various reasons, I have been out of trialing, and now that time and life circumstances are allowing me a little more time for myself, I decided to dip my toes back in the water.

There was a two-day open trial at Merck Forest and Farmland Center July 7 and 8, and I entered with Tweed. The weekend served double duty as a getaway for Lynn and me. The scenery at Merck Forest is spectacular. You should go. Really. It's open for hiking, there are rustic cabins. Just go sometime.

These are Sufflok Punch draft horses. The stallion is in the foreground, and three mares that are in for service are in the background.

But anyway, on to the trial. The title of this post indicates a little bit of what happened. Humiliation. Specifially: was it humiliating that Tweed crossed over on his outrun both days (something he never does)? Yes. Was in humiliating that on Saturday he got the lowest recorded score (other than the dogs that retired or were disqualified)? Yes, in a way. Was it humiliating that on Sunday an angry ewe tried to ram Tweed, and faced with the choice of disqualifation or taking the long walk, I took the long walk? Yes it was.

But all of these on-the-field insults were minor compared to something that happened off the field. As I was standing back, watching the last few runs before I was up on Sunday, a spectator came up to me and said, "You're Jon Katz, aren't you." Note the punctuation -- she didn't ask a question, she made a statement.

If there is someone who I am not, and who I do not aspire to be, or be anything like, it is Jon Katz. I sincerely hope I am not as fat, stupid, and arrogant as he is, although I certainly realize that I harbor each of those faults to some extent. Katz is a self-appointed Border collie expert who actually doesn't know biscuits from shinola. He would never show his face at a real sheepdog trial because there'd be a serious danger that he might learn something or get punched in the nose. Or both. He has published a string of books so full of bad information about Border collies that it's hard to even know where to start criticizing the specifics of his writing. One feels like the quantum theorist Wolfgang Pauli who, upon reading a paper that was so vague and misinformed that it couldn't be supported or disproved, said: "This isn't right. This isn't even wrong!"

Being wrong is forgivable. Being not even wrong is not. Being mistaken for someone who is not even wrong -- well that just sucks.

Here's the high point of the weekend as far as trialing went. Tweed lining up his sheep for the pen on Saturday. He was one of just two or three dogs (out of 54 that ran) who had a perfect 10-point pen. Not surprising when you consider what Tweed and I do: we put sheep in pens. But these sheep were not interested in going into pens, and many dogs and handlers had their runs ended without getting the sheep in on Saturday -- the sheep would end up circling the pen until the handler's time ran out. So what does this mean? It means that Tweed can do well if we practice.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


A nice, gentle, steady rain is falling and is supposed to continue all night. It might be too late for the annual ryegrass I planted on Canoe Meadow, but we can always hope. This is the first measurable rainfall we've had for about three weeks here, although it has rained as little as three miles north and south of us.

I know there are parts of the world where no rain for a few weeks is normal, and other places where they wish it had only been a few weeks. I should -- and do -- count my blessings. But in those places plants, animals, and production systems are geared for dry spells. Here they are not. If we go a week without a soaking rain during the growing season, I get uneasy.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

My life as a dirt farmer

As an experiment this year, I rented a 13-acre field that had been used for silage corn production since Jimmy Carter was president and decided to produce two crops on it. The first crop will be harvested as silage for winter feed. It's a blend of forage oats and field peas. Once the they're harvested, I'll seed one half of the field with turnips and the other half with kale. I'll fatten lambs on these brassicas this fall and see whether there's any difference in rate of gain, forage production, and economic yield between the two. This experiment is partially funded by the USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.

I had the field plowed and disked by a local farmer. I had the fertilizer dealer blend the seed in with the fertilizer and it was spread with a bulk truck. After that, I rolled the field with a cultipacker. Here's how the field looks on July 1, 55 days after planting. I would have liked to have harvested the field at this stage for the best forage quality, but because I am at the mercy of custom operators, it's currently scheduled to be harvested on July 9. Let's hope for good weather.

The whole seeding process happened about a week later than I would have liked (again because I relied on custom operators), and as a result the seed went down into very dry soil. Cultipacking was difficult because the soil, which is very light, often rolled in front of the roller, burying the seed rather than pressing it into the soil. Where this happened, germination was thin and the plants didn't do a very good job of supressing weeds as shown in the photo on the left.

However, in places where the seed took well, the crop is thick, lush, and well over three feet tall. Weeds don't stand a chance, as shown in the photo on the right.

Here's the stage of maturity on July 1: oats have started to head out, and the field peas just starting to bloom but have not produced any pods yet.

Look out, world! Here comes Fern

My friend Dee Woessner wrote a haiku called "On Starting Dogs." It's about the experience of working with a Border collie puppy and the process of taking a little ball of fluff and raising it to be an indispensible co-worker and boon companion. I'm embarking on that journey with Fern, a split-faced bitch that I got in April from Maria Amodei.

Fern is the smartest pup I've worked with in nearly 15 years, and she's a joy to be around. If she's inherited the traits that I want from her parents, she'll be a hardworking sheepdog, working directly and taking control of her sheep. It's too soon to tell if she'll live up to her pedigree -- buying a puppy is always something of a crapshoot, although we try to load the dice by choosing pups from parents with a history of producing good workers.

In these photos, taken on June 30, 2007, Fern is roughly four and a half months old. She's just starting to "see" sheep -- by which a shepherd means that she's showing interest in them and starting to show some form and purpose in her approach to them. Although she can run like the wind, Fern doesn't have the physical ability to really work sheep yet. More importantly, she doesn't have the mental capacity to handle the pressure if she's challenged by the sheep or her handler, so there's really no training going on at this point. I'm just exposing her to sheep and helping her out when things get hairy -- mostly by getting her out of her own way!

In this photo she has just noticed that the sheep are moving away from her, and she has dropped her head and tail into the classic Border collie working pose as she continues to walk up on the flock. She's not showing any interest in circling the sheep to head them yet (although she did do so a little bit today when I didn't have a camera). She is looking purposeful and probably most important and unusual at this age, thinking about what's going on.

When these two lambs realized that they had been separated from the rest of the flock, all hell broke loose -- they were calling and running. All the activity caught Fern's eye and she went into chase mode. No harm came of it -- the lambs rejoined their mothers and Fern thought she had saved the day. But this sort of situation is why it's risky to work puppies on larger groups of sheep. If she had tried to head off the lambs, they almost certainly would have gone over her which could have rattled her confidence and put off the day when she's ready to start real training.

Hey, wait a minute! This sheep smells like a dog!

On Starting Dogs
By Dee Woessner
Needing diamonds
we incubate stones
and hope

Fern is one of the nicest stones I've ever attempted to incubate.

Zeus on guard

On Memorial Day weekend, my wonderful livestock guard dog Ed (shown on the right in a 2005 photograph) left his sheep, I presume to run off a coyote. Three days later he was hit by a car and killed nearly eight miles from the flock. I was bereft -- it was hard to go and check on the ewes and lambs and not have Ed greet me and give me the status report. But there was also the scary fact that my sheep were without one of their two lines of defense against predators. The electrified net fencing would work for a while, but eventually coyotes would probably find a way to defeat it unless I found a dog to replace Edward.

I put out the word through a number of Internet communities, and got a response from Kelli Fogg at Shuttleworth Farm in Westfield, Vt., that they had a dog to spare. Zeus (shown to the left in a photo taken June 30, 2007) came to me about two weeks after Ed's untimely demise, and has picked up where Ed left off without missing a beat. Zeus is much more flock-bound than Ed was -- which I am hopeful means that he will not feel the need to persue his enemies so far that he can't find his way back to safety. I'm grateful to Todd and Kelli for responding to my need with the right dog at the right time. I was also overwhelmed by the outpouring of sympathy and offers of help ranging from free puppies to extended loans of dogs that other shepherds offered me in my hour of need.

Meet the lambs

Lambing at Edgefield Farm started on April 24 and ended on May 20. With the exception of a few hoggets that were intentionally bred late, the entire flock had lambed within 18 days. This was our first year with some purebred Coopworth ewes, and they've produced some decent lambs for us. This is a Coopworth ewe paying very close attention to her twins.

In addition to the Coopworths, we also bred a group of crossbred ewes to a Texel ram. We also keep a few purebred Texel ewes. Here's a Texel ewe and her lamb. Texel sheep are prized for their meaty carcasses. They're not the prettiest sheep in the field, but they're gorgeous on the grill!

Here's the whole flock heading out to graze. All these photos were taken June 30, 2007.