Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Kristin Nicholas: Ask the Farmer

I'm a Storey author of craft books, including Colorful Stitchery (2006) and Kristin Knits (2007). For most of my life, I have been involved with knitting, sewing, crocheting, and all things wool related. In my "other life" my husband Mark, daughter Julia, and I live on a sheep farm in western Massachusetts. We have a commercial flock of over 200 sheep, a chicken coop of exotic birds, a guard llama, a guard donkey, cats, and two very hardworking border collies.

Before I got involved with writing books for Storey, I knew them only through the many books we had on our library shelves. Storey's great books on animal husbandry, including Storey's Guide to Raising Sheep, frequently are on our kitchen table for months at a time. They are great basic books for anyone interested in caring for animals.

Right now, we are in the midst of lambing. It's cold here, and there are all kinds of challenges when you're trying to bring little newborn lambs into the world. I've been chronicling our lambing season on my blog "Getting Stitched on the Farm." A couple of weeks ago I opened the blog up for questions for my husband, whom I call "The Farmer," to answer. There've been all kinds of great reader interaction from people all over the country and world. You might like to take a peek at the whole series so far.

Here is part one of Ask the Farmer, being reposted here with permission.

Part One of Ask the Farmer:

Question: Why do your sheep lamb in the winter when it's so hard to be outside for the extra needed time? Is it because you have them more contained in the barn? Wouldn’t spring or fall be easier on you?

The Farmer Says:
I started lambing in the winter for two reasons: First, because winter is a slow time of year for me and I have the time to concentrate on it. The other reason is that in the past we have tried to have lambs ready for Easter when the price is the highest.

We have found that there is a huge demand for local pasture-raised lambs, so we're getting away from targeting the Easter market. Instead, we are direct marketing finished lambs (about 100 pounds live weight). In the future, we may breed part of the flock to lamb in the spring.

Question: I am wondering about the rest of the farm — do you grow other crops? Do you have a large (or small) vegetable garden/plot?

The Farmer Says:

We have a medium-size garden. Most of our land is used for rotational grazing of our flock of sheep and for growing hay. We also have a sunflower field with around 20 different varieties of sunflowers, which we sell to people at a roadside stand on the honor system.

Question: How did you get started as a farmer?

The Farmer Says:
I grew up on a dairy farm, which my brother David now operates. In my junior year of college, I went on an exchange program to Oregon State University. While there I took a class in sheep production — the best class I ever took. In 1979 Kristin and I bought four Romney ewes from Bob O’Brien in Tunbridge, Vermont. Thirty years later the flock is around 225 ewes, and lambing season still excites me.

Question: This is probably not a question worth answering, but I am wondering. I know you raise your sheep for eating, but what do you do with the fleece?

The Farmer Says: If you are interested in buying a fleece, let Kristin know, and we would be happy to send it to you.

Kristin Says:
Please don’t e-mail because I will lose your note. I am going to be more organized this year and have a farm open house where we will sell the fleeces. Of course, it will be announced here on the blog so stay tuned. What all spinners should know, though, is that our sheep are not “coated” and the fleeces are from sheep that range all over the hills.

I have a 15-year-old friend who has been breeding Shetlands and the occasional Cheviot or other breed for fleece and meat as part of a 4-H project. She is doing great — she’s very dedicated and has won numerous ribbons. She’s thinking she’d like to raise animals when she grows up. How best can she do this (besides marrying a farmer!)?

The Farmer Says:
If your 15-year-old friend would like to raise animals when she grows up, then it sounds like she is off to a good start. As for how best to do it, there is no best way. Just stay open to opportunities (available land to rent), and be willing to take baby steps. Farming success doesn’t have to come in the next six months. With our own farm I tend to farm on the 200-year plan.

Thank you for sharing your lives with us like this. I’d also like to know how you came to be a farmer. Did you take over a family farm? Switch types of farming? Or come to it from a completely different way of life?

The Farmer Says:
As I said earlier, I grew up on a dairy farm. Sheep farming was a way for me to use my agriculture degree and have an off-farm job. My real passion is improving marginal land. Well-managed pasture rotation with several hundred sheep does an amazing job of improving the grass-growing capacity of that land. The smartest thing a farmer can do is get down off his or her tractor and see what is happening in the soil.

Question: I am interested in how the farmer became the farmer, too. I have a lot of farming in my lineage, although it only took a bit with me (garden and chickens). Is there a political urgency with the farmer? Does he get discouraged at the lack of concern on the part of the governments of our lands (I’m Canadian, but I am aware it is much the same)?

The Farmer Says: My political urgency goes way beyond political. You ask if I get discouraged at the lack of concern on the part of the government of our land. If it was only the government’s lack of concern, then that would be a relatively good day at the office. What bothers me is the lack of concern for our lands by just about everyone. The disconnect between those who produce the food we eat and those who consume that food is disheartening. I could go on for pages about this subject. For now I’ll just say that if I am a success at anything, I would like for it to be a real connecting between myself as a small farmer and those who buy the farm’s products that Kristin and I raise.

I’d like to know more about how ewes identify their lambs. What leads them to reject one? Also . . . I came across a mention of a shepherd placing a seemingly dead lamb in a small oven in the house to warm it up during lambing season. I’m such a city girl. To be honest I pictured the lamb being tucked into a toaster oven with its little hooves hanging out. That can’t be right, but can’t you say something about the art of reviving lambs?

The Farmer Says:
Ewes identify their lambs by smell. When a ewe rejects one of its lambs, it's usually because of some kind of stress that occurred during the initial bonding period. I don’t like to bring chilled lambs into the house for more than a few hours at most because if I keep them in overnight, chances are good that the ewes will reject them.

Yesterday, I had a ewe whose lamb had died shortly after giving birth. I had an extra lamb who could use a good mother, so I skinned the dead lamb and tied the skin to the live lamb. The mother then accepted this lamb as her own. This doesn’t always work, but we were lucky yesterday.

My approach to treating chilled lambs is sort of a public health approach. Have well-fed mothers, provide a dry, draft-free place for them to lamb, and those lambs will easily be able to withstand zero-degree temperatures. That said, I still treat a few lambs that get chilled. If they are less than 8 hours old, I put them in a bath of very warm to hot water (not so hot that you scald them). As their temperature rises to 100 degrees, I dry them off and make sure they get some colostrum (which I milk out of the mothers just after birth). If they are older than 8 hours, I inject a solution of dextrose and warm water into their abdomen before warming them. If you don’t give them the fast-acting sugar to raise their blood sugar, you will kill them by warming them.

Question: How much husbandry does The Farmer do? Shots, preventive medications, castrations? I’m more familiar with horses and cows than sheep, though I’ve raised several sheep for 4-H. But that was just a few months of care and then they went back to the sheep farmer. He’d give me a baby sheep that lost its momma to bottle feed. I was a teenager, so that was many years ago.

The Farmer Says: My approach to giving shots, medications, etc. is to do as little as possible. I believe strongly in the public health approach in that I try to provide an environment for the animals to thrive and then let Mother Nature do the rest. I used to vaccinate for various things but don’t anymore. I do treat the sheep for internal parasites (worms) at certain times of the year. We do not castrate the ram lambs. We do dock the lambs’ tails.

All photos by Kristin Nicholas

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