Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Even Sheep Have Jobs on the Homestead

Hilda, Mac, Etta and Ian
Our sheep have three main jobs on the homestead. First and foremost they are here to perform fire mitigation by keeping the grasses under control.  The West is known for its cycles of drought, fire and flood and we are definitely moving into another drought cycle. In the 23+ years we have lived in this high elevation valley the mountain range that defines the valley’s western border has had four forest fires. Three of those fires, in 1993, 2011 and 2016, have come knocking on our door. 

Forest fires are a part of the ecology of western forests but their nature is changing due in part to the changing climate and to past fire suppression which completely altered the dynamics of the forest. In the past the fires would rarely burn more than 500 acres; this summer’s fire consumed nearly 18,000 acres in the blink of an eye.

For now our sheep will be grazing in the areas where we don’t want cattle – around the house, in close up pasture areas, along roadways, and in riparian zones. By rotating through these areas their impacts are limited to light grazing, minimal soil disturbance, and natural fertilizing.

Hilda, I see you!
Our sheepie’s second job goes hand in hand with their grazing – helping us build healthy soils. Grazing, light soil disturbance and manure pellets are the keys to recycling nutrients back into the soil to feed the microorganisms that nourish the soil and feed the plants. While some people consider purchased hay as an expensive input, we see it as additional nutrients that are recycled through the sheep and spread on the pastures.

Etta's 2016 fleece
And their third job – well that’s the beautiful wool they produce which when spun into yarn will feed my desire to be creative. For years I’ve wanted to learn to weave. Now I have the wool makers.

Beautiful Shetland yarn from OK Acres, WI

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Sheep Join the Homestead

Ian, Hilda, Etta, and Mac
Depending on how you look at it, 2016 was either the year we started a new livestock adventure or lost our minds. Adding sheep to our homestead was not a decision we made lightly. We spent years researching breeds, handling requirements, pros and cons, and anything else we could find. In April we finally took the plunge and brought home two ewes and their lambs in the back of our 26 year old Toyota truck. 

After information overload from the internet and talking with other sheep people, we decided on the Shetland breed. Shetlands are small (about half the size of standard sheep) so handling would be a little easier. They are very hardy having been developed on the Shetland Islands north of Scotland and probably bred from sheep left on the islands by the Vikings. Shetlands are also known for the beautiful and very fine wool so they have excellent economic value. And they are incredibly cute. 

Our two ewes, Etta the whiteish one and Hilda the black one, are registered Shetlands. Their lambs are crossbreds. Did I mention that Shetlands are naughty (the breeders' term for their disposition)? Etta's lamb, Mac (named for my Scottish grandmother's family name - MacGinnis), is the result of an unintended breeding to a Soay ram, another very hardy, primitive breed. Hilda's lamb, Ian, is the result of a secret breeding to a Black Welsh Mountain ram. 

After a short period of adjustment, we started them on their main summer job - mowing. Using electrified netting, we move them all around the house and close up pasture areas where we can't or don't want to graze cattle. They are dainty little grazers and fertilizers.

In June they lost their heavy winter fleeces. Initially we thought that might be a job we could learn but have watching numerous YouTube videos we thought better of it and hired a professional shearer. In fifteen minutes Tom had them slick and ready for the summer weather. 
Tom, Etta, and Don
Tom and Hilda
Etta's fleece

My cousin, Margaret, is a long-time spinner and weaver so I sent her the two fleeces. She's washing, carding, and spinning and will return half as ready to use yard. Next year we'll have fleeces from Mac (a beautiful rich brown) and Ian (black, black) and maybe one or two additions to the flock.

Over the summer we've learned more about their grazing preferences and what they consider barriers to movement. Initially we ran temporary fencing along the creek to keep them from crossing or floating away but we've realized that they don't like to get their feet wet so we can use the creek as a "fence" which allows even more grazing opportunities.

Their first home was more of a mobile home - the livestock trailer which provided a safe location for the evenings. From dusk to dawn they are locked in the trailer. When the sun is up they are out on grass. In June we started building their own barn and it should be ready for occupancy in September. 

We still have a lot to learn but I can say this much - the sheep are really enjoyable to have around. They can be naughty and are definitely characters, but they have filled a void I didn't realize I had. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

No. 3

We've had cattle grazing here every summer for the past 10 years or so. They've always been someone else's cattle - a neighbor down the road with cows and calves, a nearby rancher and his yearling replacement heifers, unwanted feral bucking bulls (that's another story) and so on. When we had horses, the cattle and horses grazed together. We've never had one we actually owned until last summer.

Last April the nearby rancher (and now good friend) mentioned that he had a yearling steer he couldn't sell to his normal buyer because of a couple of antibotic shots the steer received for an infection 
when he was a young calf. Did we want him? Over the years we've considered buying a steer to grass-finish and put in the freezer at the end of the grazing season but we've always resisted because neither of us were entirely sure if we would end up with a freezer full of homegrown beef or a 2000 pound pet oxen. We decided that 2015 was the year to give it a try.

No.3 (his ear tag number) arrived with his half-sisters in early May to graze away the summer. I always work with the cattle over the summer because I enjoy it and it makes them easier to handle. In an attempt to keep our relationship professional, I resisted the urge to scratch No.3's chin, give him a pat on the back or even eye contact, something most of the heifers enjoy. 

About a month before "the End" I started enticing No.3 and an older, barren cow into the corral to enjoy a handful of alfalfa pellets. It didn't take long before they would come in on their own for their little treat. 

In June a new butcher shop opened in town offering on farm processing - the perfect solution to a stress-free experience for everyone involved. On "the Day" we walked No.3 and his friend into the main corral to enjoy their pellets. Then I quietly moved No.3 and his pan of pellets into a smaller corral where the butcher ended his life with one rifle shot. Of course I stood on the other side of the barn. 

I like to think that No.3 enjoyed his last six months of life. He had the company of his siblings, shelter and lots of fresh grass, and then it was over. No time spent at a disgusting feedlot, fed a massive quantity of grains that cause great intestinal distress and illness; no cramped trailer ride to a slaughterhouse when the smell of fear and death permeate everything. 

When I go to the freezer I think about No.3 and thank him for his sacrifice. I also think about how fortunate we are to have meat that was raised in a healthy and humane manner and whose footsteps and manure will help improve our soil for future grazers, both domestic and wild. 

From Fleur Creek Farm

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Shelter from the Storm

What makes a house become a home? I know some people use those terms interchangeably but to me they are very different. 

To me a house is just a structure where people reside but a home is something more.

A home is the place that welcomes you back and wraps its arms around you as you enter. A home is the place that shelters you from the storms, both physical and emotional. A home is the place where you feel more content than any where else. 

On this winter morning as I walk up the path to the front steps, I know that I am at home. And what a wonderful feeling that is.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Pygmy Rescue

A loud thump caught Don's attention several mornings ago. This sound usually means a bird has flown into one of the windows so he hustled outside to discover a tiny Northern Pygmy-Owl face down in the snow. Don gathered the little owl up to assess its condition only to be glared at by piercing bright eyes. After five minutes of calm and warmth snuggled into Don's gloved hands the little guy regained its senses and flew off.

The Northern Pygmy-Owl may be tiny (about the size of a bluebird), but it's a ferocious hunter with a taste for songbirds. These owls are mostly dark brown and white with long tails, smoothly rounded heads, and piercing yellow eyes. They hunt during the day by sitting quietly and surprising their prey. As a defensive measure, songbirds often gather to mob sitting owls until they fly away. Mobbing songbirds can help find these unobtrusive owls.

These owls are found in forests ranging from deciduous woods along streams to high-elevation fir and spruce forests at timberline. They also live in cottonwood, aspen, and mixed-conifer forests. In winter, Northern Pygmy-Owls move to lower elevations and may come into towns to hunt songbirds at bird feeders.

Like other cavity nesters, pygmy-owls need standing dead trees as nest sites. Forest management practices that remove dead wood can reduce habitat quality for them. Pygmy-owls rely on other species to excavate holes for them which makes them indirectly dependent on populations of woodpeckers.

Most sources list the Northern Pygmy-Owl as relatively uncommon in Colorado. This is the second time we have seen one on our place. We feel pretty lucky to have enjoyed these special encounters.