Lambing Season is Here

Our first ewe lamb of last year, Cotton, kicked off lambing season this year with a ram lamb of her own.  Ryan walked out to the winter pen to feed the sheep one evening and discovered a newborn lamb resting by the barn!  He knew it belonged to Cotton, as he had been monitoring the ewes and knew she was closest to delivery.  Sure enough, Cotton kept running back over to where she had left her lamb to check on him.wp_20170125_19_54_30_pro

We decided to get all the ewes into the barn, and separated from the ram, so the kids could play safely with the new lambs.  (Ever since the ram knocked me over, I trust him about as far as I can throw him!)

A few days later, we awoke to find that Poppy, our largest ewe, had twin ram lambs in the night.  Both mom and babies were doing well and nursing by the time we entered the barn.   wp_20170130_14_02_21_pro1

Lyla, who we were confident would deliver twins, disappointed us when she delivered a singleton.  This combined with the fact that she had trouble shedding out her winter coat last summer (a major fault in hair sheep), has us questioning if we want her genetics in our flock.  So far, Lyla is the only mama who has delivered a ewe lamb this year.wp_20170130_19_02_43_pro1

Statistically, we should get about 50% rams and 50% ewes.  The “girl” team has some catching up to do!

We are getting pretty accurate at predicting when a ewe is about to deliver, and I think we’ll have the third member of our original ewe trio, Olive, deliver shortly. Her udder looks huge and full, a good sign that lambing is imminent.  We are expecting twins from her, as well.  Olive gave us such a nice ram lamb last year, and we’d be delighted if she could produce a nice ewe or two for us to add to our flock.wp_20170130_18_55_36_pro2  Olive always looks healthy and strong, plus she shed her hair quickly last spring, an indicator of good genetics and health in hair sheep.

All the new lambs are doing well and we are enjoying stealing a few snuggles from them when we can.  They are so cute and playful!wp_20170125_21_15_34_pro1

The weather has been so nice and mild for a Minnesota winter that it makes spending time out in the barn with new lambs much more enjoyable.wp_20170130_19_02_00_pro1

I get a few questions from people wondering why in the world our lambs are arriving in January.  Admittedly, nature’s way is for new babies to arrive in spring, when there is plenty of new grass and sunshine.  The simple answer is because that is what the farmer who owned the sheep before us did, so that is what the sheep are accustomed to.  We never separated our ram (we didn’t have a good place to put him last year) so we simply left it all up to the flock, and we aren’t surprised they stuck to their old pattern.

Since our farm came with a handy barn and horse stalls, we have decided that winter lambing isn’t too bad.  The lambs are never in danger of freezing or becoming a hungry predator’s lunch while safely tucked inside the barn.  Also, since these are meat sheep, it gives the lambs a few more months of growth before the fall slaughter.wp_20170130_19_02_30_pro1

The arrival of new lambs is always a much-anticipated event on the farm.  They grow so quickly!  In just a few short months, they’ll be grazing right alongside mom on green pastures.



Winter Water Solution

Winter is my least favorite season of the year.  We’ve already experienced periods of severe arctic temperatures (-27 degrees!) and time spent outside has been reduced only to what is necessary to complete basic animal chores.  I prefer to spend the bitter-cold months of January and February under a blanket with a mug of hot tea in my hands.  For the animals, though, having access to clean, fresh water in liquid form can be a real struggle in winter.wp_20170105_14_08_55_pro

Having the pond makes the water solution for our bird flock pretty simple during winter months, as long as the pond is kept from freezing. We purchased an electric de-icer to place in the pond to prevent the water from freezing.

To keep the ducks from dirtying the water over winter, Ryan placed a cattle panel over the pond to keep them out, while still allowing access to drink. 

We are no longer using the typical chicken waterers for our flock, which eliminates time spent filling them in sub-zero temperatures.wp_20170105_14_07_49_pro1


We also purchased a de-icer for the water tank in the sheep and cow pen.  Last year we had to break up the ice that formed on their water each day with a 2×4. Then, we’d pour very hot water into their tank to melt the remaining ice and keep their water in a liquid state for as long as possible. The de-icers have gone a long way in making animal chores easier this winter.  wp_20170105_14_08_36_pro

We are still experiencing one problem: we have to refill the animals’ water daily and we don’t have access to an outdoor water source in winter as the spigot and hose are frozen. Ryan is forced to bring two 5-gallon buckets into our house, fill them with water from our bathtub, then haul them out to fill the pond and water tank. He usually has to repeat this several times until everything is replenished. In case you are unsure, he can confirm this task is not enjoyable, while I can confirm it usually disrupts the kids’ bath time schedule.wp_20170103_18_55_20_pro1

The simple solution to this problem is to dig a well near the barn with a hand-pump that will allow us to fill buckets outside, saving the hassle of an icy trek to and fro with heavy buckets.

Digging a well will be an added expense for our tight budget, but we’d like to explore the possibility of completing the project this year. We’ll begin this spring with getting some estimates. I will love having a hand-pump well not only as a solution to the winter water problem, but year-round as a back-up water source. Currently, we are dependent upon electricity to power the well that supplies water to our home. We had the power go out last fall for several hours and we couldn’t flush a toilet or wash our hands. (We ended up traveling into town and eating our dinner at a restaurant, partly because I wasn’t able to finish cooking it in my electric oven, and partly so we could have access to a bathroom!) I will feel very relieved and comforted with the addition of a new well on our farm, knowing we will always have access to fresh, clean water, independent of the power supply.


Beef and Lamb

A few weeks ago, we reached a milestone on our farm that I’d like to share: we harvested our first beef and lambs.wp_20160723_20_15_58_pro

Ryan butchered our two ram lambs on the farm, along with help from his dad. This was his first time slaughtering and butchering anything larger than a chicken, and he was grateful for the help, as the task felt overwhelming. The lambs met a quick, painless end with a bullet to the head, then were bled out via a cut to the neck. They were then gutted, skinned, and allowed to age for two days while hanging in the cold garage, before being cut up and wrapped in freezer paper.

Our steer was taken to a local meat shop for processing. Ryan unloaded him at the butcher shop, and two weeks later we picked up hundreds of pounds of meat. Our Dexter steer hanging weight was 350 pounds. We got over a hundred pounds of ground beef, and the remainder in steaks, roasts and stew meat.

Meat is neither a fast food, nor a cheap, easy meal. (If the meat you are buying is cheap and easy, beware the hidden costs!) It has taken a year of planning, preparation, financial investment and lots of hard work to get us to this point. We’ve learned a wealth of skills and information along the way. We set out to see if we could produce not just healthy, but tasty and tender, red meat on our farm using pasture and hay alone, without the addition of grain. We were rewarded with satisfying, wholesome, delicious and healthy food.wp_20160723_20_15_50_pro

The belief is prevalent that meat must be finished on grain for “marbling” or adding fat into the meat to produce a tender, juicy product. After our experience, we can confidently say this is not always true. You can raise beef and lamb on grass alone, without sacrifice during the dining experience. I feel we experienced success because of two key factors.

1.  We purchased livestock well-suited for a pasture-based farm. I feel we would be disappointed with our meat had we tried to bring in a breed of animal that has been developed around the grain industry. Many of the modern cattle and sheep breeds reach an astonishing amount of production compared to breeds of old, due to selective breeding on a grain program with health interventions. Had we stocked our farm with these, expecting success on a grass-fed, minimal intervention program, we likely would not have experienced such positive results. Upon examining the carcasses of our lambs, we noticed a very reassuring amount of fat which tells us they were getting plenty of nutrition on pasture grasses alone. Our lambs were born on our farm, stayed with their mamas their whole life (we never forced weaning) and never fed grain. I’ve prepared lamb tenderloin, lamb stew and lamb roast. It is mild and tender, and the kids cheer when it’s on the dinner menu.

We decided to purchase Dexter cattle for our farm, due to their reputation for thriving on pasture alone, and producing tender, flavorful meat without grain.  We watched our steer grow big and meaty on our pasture and he remained in good health for the entire time he was at our farm. While we did not get to see the carcass of our steer (in the future that is something we’d like to ensure) after tasting some steaks and ground beef, we can see the meat is well-marbled, tender and flavorful, and easily the best beef we’ve tasted, grass-fed or otherwise! wp_20160723_20_15_55_pro

2.  We graze our animals in a high-density pasture rotation. This means our animals are not spread out. They graze together in a group, and only have access to the amount of pasture they can eat in a day, sometimes two. This forces the animals to not pick and choose too much. The choice leaves and blades of grass get eaten along with the weeds. The animals get moved to a fresh, clean, rested piece of pasture daily (or every other day) where the plants are healthy, strong and optimal for consumption having been allowed time to grow back from the last grazing. This keeps the animal eating nutrient-rich, leafy plants all throughout the growing season, adding fat to the animal and producing a tender product, which mimics the movement of herds and flocks in nature. Because we move the animals so often, over time, the pasture should improve. The manure fertilizes the soil and is evenly distributed over the entire pasture instead of being concentrated in the animals’ favorite hangouts. The animals do not obliterate the good plants while allowing the weeds to grow uncontrollably and spread seeds (another good reason to mix species, as they each have their own flavor palates and will graze the pasture more evenly). As the pasture improves, we can stock a higher number of animals in each paddock, increasing our production and efficiency.  wp_20160723_20_15_08_pro

The best thing about raising your own meat or buying it from someone you know who is producing it as carefully as possible, is not having to wonder how healthy the dinner actually is when placed on the table. We don’t have to worry about the kids ingesting chemicals or traces of drugs, whether the animal was fed GMOs and what effects that may have on our health, or even whether the animal was healthy, treated well, or lived in misery. This is why we don’t feel guilty or sad about butchering our animals. We enjoy observing the animals run, kick and play or when they come over to us for a scratch on the head. We know we are giving them a healthy, stress-free and happy life, full of green grass and fresh air, along with a humane, quick end. They are taking part in improving the soil and plants on a small piece of earth and garden, as well as allowing us independence from the conventional food system and the fossil fuels it necessitates. We feel confident we are being good stewards of creation while enjoying the nourishing and healthy food that our family worked and prayed for together.


Winter Fence Completed

Sunday afternoon we finished putting up our woven wire fence that will winter our grazing animals.wp_20161016_16_56_33_pro Putting up a fence is no small task and we’re happy to have the project behind us. Our project went rather quickly since we were able to utilize a vast majority of posts already in place. The hardest part was getting the woven wire fence taut.wp_20161016_16_54_36_pro  We rotationally graze our animals in tight paddocks with portable electric fencing (Electronet) through our small pasture. We can have about 20 paddocks in our 3 acre pasture. The “flerd” (flock+herd=flerd) has just finished up a full rotation and we think we can run them through the pasture once more this fall, which would allow us to graze them into November, even though the growing season has now ceased. We still have green grass in the pasture where our animals haven’t been in weeks. wp_20161019_16_24_37_proThis benefits our bottom line. The longer the flerd grazes on free, nutrient-rich grass, the less purchased hay they will consume.

This winter fence will not only be utilized in winter, but it will contain our ram during summer when we’d like him separated from the ewes. This year we had no satisfactory way of separating our ram from the rest of our sheep, which gives us no control over when our ewes will lamb. The other problem this creates is that our ram is always with the sheep when we want to interact with our ewes and lambs, who are quite friendly. wp_20161019_16_22_50_proWe enjoy petting the ewes and holding the lambs. Up until last week, interacting with our sheep with the ram present was a non-issue.wp_20161019_16_22_54_pro

We are new farmers, but we have the sense to stay away from a ram when the ewes are in heat. We thought that had already come and gone. However, the past couple weeks, the ram has been a bit bossy around food. Ryan had told me the ram “nudged” him on the arm while he was bringing pumpkins to the sheep. I had also watched the ram head-butt the ewes if he was trying to eat a special treat they wanted. (I much prefer the chivalry of the roosters who serve delicacies to the hens rather than the rude ram who hogs the good stuff for himself.)

Mac the ram

The warning signs were there and I should have heeded them. I brought some butternut squash that had been bruised or nibbled on by garden critters to the sheep. I usually just throw it in and leave. But that day I decided to enter their paddock and hold one of the squash while the sheep ate. The ram was busy in a different corner eating a squash lying on the grass. Elijah also climbed into the paddock with me. We were having a great time scratching the lambs and ewes behind the ears while they happily nibbled the squash we were holding. We each had a crowd of lambs and ewes surrounding us and we were thoroughly enjoying watching the adorable sheep, their noses and lips turning orange from the squash. After a few minutes, I noticed the ram had left his half-eaten squash and was standing near us, watching. I didn’t trust him, but I also didn’t expect what was about to happen.


He came up and quickly nudged me on the arm, similar to what Ryan described with the pumpkin the other day. The nerve of this ram to “bite the hand that feeds” irritated me but then I watched him take a few steps backwards with his gaze fixed upon me. I knew what was coming, but I had no time to react. He ran towards me and rammed me right in the gut. I was on the ground before I even knew what happened. I got up quickly, fearing he would come at me again while I was still on the ground. He didn’t. He walked away and I instructed Elijah we were to leave immediately. I was surprised more than hurt, though my wrist was sore from instinctively catching myself when I hit the ground. It remained stiff through the following day.

wp_20161019_16_26_58_proI now trust the ram less than ever. I used to feel sorry for him when we talked about separating him from the sheep. Sheep are flock animals and are happiest with other sheep. I was concerned he would get lonely and depressed if we separated him.  I may or may not care a whole lot less about the ram’s emotional state since getting knocked over by the small, gutsy beast. 🙂 He needs to be separated when the new lambs are born, as well. I won’t take the chance of one of the kids getting hurt by him while visiting the lambs.

It’s good to have a trusty, permanent fence on the farm for a variety of situations.  Although the fence is complete, Ryan still needs to build a hay feeder for inside the fence.  We also have to begin stocking our hay shed for the winter.  These tasks are next in line on our project list for fall.  .


An Addition to the Flock

To increase our flock of sheep, we purchased three ewe (female) lambs from the same farm from which our small flock originated. These new lambs are also 50% St. Croix, 25% Katahdin and 25% Dorper, a good hybrid of prolific, hardy, parasite-resistant hair sheep breeds.

Meet Clover, Buttercup and Apple Bloom


Aren’t they adorable? They are also a tad skittish.  We enjoy interacting calmly with our animals so we hope once these little ewes adapt to their new life on our farm, they’ll settle in nicely and warm up to us.

The flock meets the new lambs for the first time


They are slowly transitioning into the flock. Some animals are very motherly toward youngsters and will readily adopt and nurse babies not biologically belonging to them.  Sheep are not one of these animals.  Although the resident lambs are curious and somewhat accepting, our new arrivals are getting no maternal place holder from among our ewes.  Everyone needs to learn the hierarchy of the flock and the adult ewes have no reservation making sure the youngsters know their place…which is usually a good space away from a ewe.  Wander into her personal bubble and her head will drive that point home.

We’re confident they’ll integrate seamlessly into the flock over time.WP_20160504_14_48_53_Pro For now, the three newbies can usually be found together or with the ram, who is happy with the addition of new ewes.  By this time next year, all our ewes will be busy raising new lambs and the flock dynamic will change once again.

Occasionally all the lambs will graze together. WP_20160504_14_10_32_Pro

But normally you can find each of our original lambs grazing or napping alongside mama.

Fluffy with his mama, Olive


Poppy chews her cud while Ivy naps

Sometimes a person has to take a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of life to stop and drink in the serenity of pastured sheep quietly grazing on a sunny, spring afternoon.WP_20160504_14_05_41_Pro



WP_20160504_14_10_59_ProCall it preventive medicine.







Grazing with Electronet Fencing

Yesterday was the big day. We finally released our grazing animals out on green grass to…well, graze. They’ve been stuck in a small barnyard eating hay since we purchased them in January. We’ve been waiting four months to see this, not to mention the years we’ve been dreaming of this day. It was a beautiful sight.WP_20160427_07_56_18_Pro

We modified our previous fencing plan. We decided we would not fix up the current, permanent electric fencing around the perimeter of our front pasture as it would be a waste of time and money. We will be repurposing some of the posts and the wire for other fencing projects we have on our to-do list, including a new winter barnyard area. Our grazing animals will be rotated across our whole 10 acre property with just the moveable electronet fencing. We purchased four 164-foot fence rolls. We’ll use two fences at one time to create an 82’ x 82’ paddock.  When we are ready to move the animals into their next paddock, we’ll set up the second set of fences and transfer the animals in through an opening between the two. After a couple transfers, the animals will be well-trained and eagerly waiting for their new green buffet to be served each day. Our fencing arrived yesterday and we were anxious to get outside after dinner to set it up.WP_20160426_19_00_34_Pro
First, the rolls of fencing need to be laid around the perimeter of the chosen area to graze.WP_20160426_19_17_46_Pro

Next, the fence posts need to be stepped into the ground and corners need to be secured to strong support posts that also push into the ground.WP_20160426_19_14_28_Pro

Once the fence is up, it gets connected to the portable solar-powered energizer. WP_20160427_07_59_36_Pro The energizer will run on a battery during the night and cloudy days. There is also a plug-in to charge the battery if it gets low.
We also purchased a voltage detector to be able to test our fence and make sure it is working properly. Ryan went around and tested several spots in our fence and all were kicking out 4,000 volts.

The final step, add the animals. WP_20160426_19_51_19_Pro
Our animals were so excited to be on fresh, green grass. They immediately began grazing. After a few minutes satisfying their craving for new spring shoots, the friskiness set in. WP_20160426_19_54_18_ProThe lambs leapt. The cows kicked up their back hooves. The farmers looked on in satisfaction and contentment. There is something so peaceful about watching animals happily graze on green grass.

(Side note) You can see in this picture how our hair sheep are shedding their winter coat.  It falls off in clumps, revealing a shorter, thinner coat.  It will stay this way all summer.

With the electronet, anything is pasture. The current paddock the animals are grazing is my future vegetable garden. The animals will mow it down, fertilize it, then we’ll till it and plant our seeds (a project we hope to complete very soon). This evening we’ll move the animals onto a new fresh piece of pasture. This is high maintenance management, to be sure. However, it is ideal for grass-fed animals and the soil. It mimics wild, grazing herds in nature. They never stay stationary. They eat, poop and move on. Under these conditions, the soil, plants and animals thrive.
The shock from the electronet provides enough pain to deter predators and keep our animals safely in the fence. We watched for a few minutes as the animals began testing their new boundary. I think the cows were the first to learn respect for the fence. They would unsuspectingly nose the fence and ZAP! They would jump back. Not surprisingly, our steer needed to repeatedly learn this painful lesson. He ran to a few different areas of the fence, cautiously inching his nose forward until ZAP! You can actually hear the voltage transferring to the animal. After a few times testing the fence, all the animals learned to mind it. We read reviews from users online that attest to the fence’s ability to keep out coyotes, stray dogs and anything else that may threaten the safety of our animals.

We feel so excited and relieved to finally have our fencing plan and infrastructure up and running. The animals are happy, too. WP_20160427_07_56_20_Pro



Busy but Fun

The warmer weather has brought an overwhelming amount of projects to the farm. Now that it feels like spring, we are juggling a number of outdoor projects as well as the kitchen remodel and racing to get the top priorities completed before moving on to the rest.  The top priorities at the moment include constructing the broiler pen, getting our grazing animals on our pasture and out of the barnyard and planning the garden.  Unfortunately, the kitchen remodel will have to take a back seat for now.

Ryan will be constructing the broiler pen during our free evenings this week with the hope we can get our broilers out of the brooder and onto fresh grass very soon. This keeps them healthy, happy and they are able to supplement their diet with bugs and greens.  The broiler pen we will be building is modeled after Joel Salatin’s chicken tractor.

Joel Salatin moving his chicken tractor

We will be modifying ours a bit and making it a little smaller.  It will be about 8’ x 8’.  Joel uses aluminum corrugated roofing on his and we are having a hard time finding it.  It looks like we’ll have to special order some, which delays our project even more.  If anyone knows where to find some, let us know! 🙂

The sheep are itching for the fresh spring plants they see growing on the other side of the barnyard fence. WP_20160417_19_25_24_ProOur pasture has 3 strand electric fencing, but that is not enough for sheep, neither is it in very good condition.  We are adding two more strands of high tensile wire fencing plus we’ll need to replace a couple of posts.  Our fingers are crossed the electric connection and pre-existing wiring will work once we flip the switch.  If not, our project will take up much more time.  In addition to the perimeter fence, we are going to be making moveable paddocks with electronet fencing.

Electronet fencing

We can simply move this fencing around wherever we want our sheep and cows to be inside our pasture.  We plan to move the “flerd” every day to a new paddock of pasture.  Not only does this improve the current condition of the pasture by allowing it to rest between grazings, but it keeps the animals healthy as they won’t be back to a particular paddock until after the parasite life cycle is broken.   This keeps the parasite load under control.  Hair sheep are naturally parasite resistant and ours are 50% St. Croix, which is the most parasite resistant breed of sheep around, but by the time any eggs hatch and are ready to find a host, our flerd will have moved on and won’t be back for weeks.  We can even use the electronet fencing to move our flerd around the yard to mow for us.  Releasing those animals out on fresh pasture for the first time will be an event here at the farm.  I can’t wait to see it.

Our Jumbo Cornish Cross broilers continue to increase in size and unattractiveness. WP_20160418_14_56_14_ProThey are feathering out, but you can see right to their skin.  Our Red Broilers, on the other hand, look fantastic.  WP_20160418_14_53_38_ProThey are getting reddish-brown feathers that cover all their skin and appear large but still athletic, however they are not as big as the JCC.  The size difference is becoming more obvious now.  The RB have much more personality compared to the JCC.

This RB noticed I left the door open and is stretching his neck out to investigate this gateway to a new world.

When we walk into the coop, the RB come and sit on our shoes!  They are able to fly a bit more than the JCC, which don’t get off the ground these days.  If I was picking a favorite, it would be the RB.  I can visualize them doing quite well free-ranging the whole property with our heritage birds.  The final decision will come once we see them both on pasture, compare the time it takes to get them to market weight and of course, the taste test.

Our heritage chicks are so much fun. The kids and I enjoy walking into the coop each day and just spending time with them.  They have gotten so friendly and sociable.  We’ll squat down to look at the chicks and they will fly right onto our knees, arms and shoulders!

Turkey poult and a Dominique sitting on my leg

WP_20160418_14_55_31_Pro The Dominiques seem especially inclined to do this.   I think Elijah had 3 or 4 Dominques on him yesterday.

A Dominique pullet, said to be the USA’s oldest chicken.  They will have beautiful black and white barred plumage.

One pullet flew onto my knee the other day and sat there while I petted her head and back like a cat.  They’ll settle in and get comfy on you, too.

We’ve released the ducks from the brooder and allow them to free-range during the day. WP_20160416_13_24_54_ProWe dug an old water tub, courtesy of the previous owners, into the ground to function as Duck Pond 1.0.  WP_20160416_13_58_33_ProThey’ve pretty much outgrown it, so we’ll get a kiddie pool at Walmart to function as Duck Pond 2.0.  WP_20160416_13_52_47_ProOnce we don’t have so many projects waiting on our to-do list (bwa ha ha), we’ll dig and line an actual pond for our ducks’ bathing and swimming pleasure.  I love the ducks.  Not only are they about the cutest thing on our farm, they are so entertaining.  Are you having a bad day?  Come to the farm.  Watch the ducks.  They’ll turn your frown upside down.

Apparently an abandoned hula-hoop makes an irresistible impromptu nest for a flock of ducklings.

One thing I wasn’t expecting is how much the ducks will follow us around the homestead.  When the kids go jump on the trampoline, the ducks follow.  When we walk to the chicken coop, the ducks follow.  When we sit down around the fire pit, the ducks follow.  They love to be near us, but they don’t want to be held.  Sometimes I just want to grab one and give it a squeeze, but that would scare the ducks so I refrain.  The first day we let the ducks out, the cows and sheep stopped what they were doing, walked over to the fence and stared at them with ears pricked forward.  I found it interesting that they would notice a small creature they’ve never seen before and move closer to study it.  I love being around these farm animals.  They are interesting, entertaining and I keep learning new things about them.