August 8, 2020
It's been a very long week! We've spent days clearing trees and trying to get the pasture fences repaired before the pigs realized they were basically free to roam, and before the bears realized nothing was electrified and all of our animals unprotected. Perfectly healthy trees were snapped, in half, 20 feet off the ground. The pigs are absolutely thrilled with all the acorns and hickory nuts that came down with the trees, and the sheep are loving the leaves. I imagine they all wished longingly for the tops of those trees, looking forward to Autumn, knowing the nuts and leaves would eventualy fall and be theirs for the eating- and then it happened- the tree tops were suddenly ground level! I'm glad someone is happy.
We have a generator that keeps all of our freezers at temperature but it can't keep up with our walk in cooler. It was a mad scramble to find refrigeration space. We created a fair amount of space by turning one of our chest freezers into a cooler, but we still lost bushels and bushels of vegetables. I abhor food waste, but the pigs were pleased as they got everything that we lost. Like I said, I'm glad someone is happy!
you can check out the sheep helping clean up the brush at the link below
August 1, 2020
Okay, I am back to whining about the lack of rain. In a good year we can keep the sheep on pasture, eating grass, until November. This year however, we will have to start feeding some of our sheep hay next week, unless it cools off a bit and we get some rain. Feeding the flock hay is less nutritious, and expensive. Rotating the sheep through the pastures keeps the pastures healthy, the grass growing, and breaks up the parasite cycles. We try to keep the sheep off each section of pasture, until the grass has regrown in that area. Right now the grass isn't growing, and we are running out of new areas to move them to, so our next move will likely be back to the barn. That's good news for those of you who watch our "sheep cam" - but bad news for me, and the sheep. Our pastures on Mountain Spring Road are doing much better presumably because there is much more shade to protect the pasture from being cooked to a crisp by the sun.
The pigs are happy with the wallows we created, and the baby chicks have settled in nicely.
July 24, 2020
We welcomed 50 new "day old" chicks to our brooder this week. They won't start laying eggs in any quantity, until next spring, but once they do we will, hopefully, be able to keep up with our egg sales.
This heat is stressful for the pigs, so we created wallows (giant mud puddles) for them. It's the only way pigs have to cool off, so they spend a lot of the day submerging and then re emerging, covered from tail to snout with dripping mud. It looks very satisfying.
In our own effort to stay cool, we tried to purchase a "kiddie pool" for the grandkids, but the stores were all sold out. Undeterred we put plastic sheeting inside our landscape trailer and filled it with water. It works amazingly well. I like to think of it as "good ole Yankee Ingenuity"- but I am afraid it's tilted a bit more towards "you know you are a Red Neck when..."
And just as the kids lined up along the fence to watch the pigs wallow in their puddle- the pigs line up along their side of the fence to watch us in our makeshift pool. - Let's just hope they stay on their side of the fence.
We dropped all our wool off at the spinnery in Eastford this week, and now start the process of planning what to make out of it all. Some of the fleeces are very long this year and we will probably make a Lopi type yarn with it.We started working with a fantastic weaver in Salisbury last year, (Under Mountain Weavers) so I am sure we will get lot's of yarn spun to her specifications, so she can continue to weave scarves for us. Some of the wool will go to the CT Blanket Project. We have about 100 pounds of wool to work with, so it's a lot of fun deciding what to have made.
July 18, 2020
We moved our sheep at Hill-Stead, to the the top of their pasture. We will try to keep them happily grazing up there for at least a couple weeks, in hopes that by the time we move them back down, their pastures closer to the barn will have regrown. In the process we discovered two fence posts that had rotted completely and snapped in half. We only installed those posts, and the 300 other pressure treated posts just like them, 6 years ago. That's pretty disheartening. In contrast, the cedar posts that my grandfather installed along our Mountain Spring Road patures, 100 years ago, are still visible, and in a couple cases still usable... We planted 100 cedar trees this spring, I hope they grow very quickly- and I wish I'd planted a couple hundred more!
July 10, 2020
The Shiitakes have been loving this weather, perhaps a little too much. Every 7 weeks, we systematically soak each log for 24 hours . The soaking "forces" it to fruit and produce mushrooms, but it needs those seven weeks in between soakings to rest, and regrow the mycellium inside the log. (The mycellium is the plant, the mushroom is its fruit.). When there is a lot of rain, the logs get soaked naturally and fruit on their own, and we end up with more mushrooms than we can sell. Worse than that, is it stresses out the mycellium, and shortens the life of the log. ( a well tended log can last 6-8 years). So we cover the tops of the piles of logs with tarps. Enough shelter to keep off most of the rain, but not so much that they dry out completely.
We are expecting more piglets soon, so we need to separate the sows from the rest of the pigs. It is very hard to convince a pig to do something it doesn't want to do, and clearly they want to stay together. The smallest piglets are learning about the electric fencing, and in the process of trying to get back to whatever side they would rather be on, they take down the fencing - with much shreaking - and all the pigs, large and small, end up back together again. There is a Yiddish saying "Man plans, God laughs" - it could just as well be "Farmers plan- Pigs laugh"
July 4, 2020
This rain has been heavenly! It's revived the pastures and replenished the watershed, out of which our little stream flows. The pigs again have mud to wallow in, and since, contrary to the old adage - pigs really can not sweat, they need the mud to stay cool. The chickens are thrilled (in their own chickeny kind of way) with all the insects that flourish after a good soaking rain. Ants, worms and beetles come out above ground, where they are "easy pickings" for the foraging hens. The sheep, have new growth in their pasture, which whenever given a choice, they much prefer over the old.
There is a retired Roman Catholic Priest who visits our sheep at Hill-Stead, as he has done for the past 15 years. Our beliefs diverge on a great many things, and probably could never be reconciled, so we avoid those discussions, and instead, have found common ground in our love of farming and all things "nature". While his beliefs are certainly Biblical, and mine are solidly Ecological, we both appreciate the gentle rain, and find joy in all the perks that a good soaking can bring. Whenever we part, he says "May God be with you" - and I often respond "I'm a farmer, Joe, that goes without saying"...
June 26, 2020
This dry, hot weather has slowed down the pasture growth substantially. It's nice to not have to mow the front lawn, because the grass isn't growing, but it's another thing to hope your animals don't run out of food, because their pasture isn't growing. Very soon, we will start picking up the left over vegetables each day, from a couple of local farmstands. The vegetables, along with what they forage from their woodland pasture, will keep the pigs well fed all summer. The sheep however, rely on grass all summer, and for that we are hoping for rain. A nice gentle rain a few nights a week, just enough for our pastures to grow, but not so much as to interfere with your picnic...
June 20, 2020
When I heard about the enormous meat packing plants shutting down becuase of Covid 19 - I felt bad for the workers but not for the mega corporations that own the plants. It never occured to me that their "misfortune" would trickle down to me. Many of those animals that couldn't be processed by the huge plants, were either euthanized or trucked to smaller plants around the country. Farmers who normally used the smaller plants to process their animals, are now shipping their animals to the micro plants that we normally use. Where as I usually made processing (slaughter) dates a couple months in advance - I now need to make them 16 months in advance. I am making appointments for animals whose parents haven't even been born yet. And instead of driving 20 minutes to drop the animal off, we will now have to drive 2 hours in both directions hauling a livestock trailer, and then back again 2 hours in both directions to pick up the finished product.
June 13, 2020
Silvopasture is the practice of combining forestry and livestock grazing in a mutually beneficial way. Our Mountain Spring Road pasture has become a wonderful example of this. The combination of pigs, sheep and chickens being rotated through the area (that was once so heavily infested with multiflora rose I couldn't walk through it)- has now become an extraordinarily rich pasture happily coexisting with a fairly dense forest canopy. Pocket ponds, created by the pigs wallowing in the mud, are now filled with water and provide drinking holes for the sheep, and habitat for frogs. It's a lot more work to keep the fencing maintained in a forested area, but it feels like the effort is finally paying off. It makes my heart sing!
June 6, 2020
We have animals on pasture in 3 different locations, which means every day we spend time, in each place, walking through the pasture checking fences for faults and breaks, checking that the animals all have water, and plenty of grass to eat. One of the most important things we do each day is to "simply" observe. - Each of our animals has a way of letting us know when it's not feeling 100%. For pigs, the easiest indicator is their tail. A straight tail means the pig is stressed. It could be a momentary spat with a sibling (being chased off a prime feeding spot) - once it's resolved the tail goes back to being it's happy curly self. Or it could be a sign that human intervention is needed.
With our sheep I can tell by their ears. Shetland Sheep have normally "perky" ears , If the ears are drooping it means something is seriously wrong. I can also tell something is wrong, if they are slow to get up when I move the Border Collie past them, or if they are off by themselves, away from the flock. Happiest for me is when they are all quietly, chewing their cud in the shade, having eaten all they can for now.
Regardless of the daily checks, each month we pen them up and check their inner eye lids for signs of anemia- which is a visible clue that they have a significant parasite load and need to be treated with a dewormer- and it's also a sign that we need to speed up our pasture rotations in order to stay ahead of the parasite cycle. Last week we penned them all and tagged all the ears of lambs born this year. It's a federal requirement , in an effort to keep track of all the sheep in the U.S. - and it also helps us keep track of the genetics, and general health of each animal.
May 29, 2020
All the lambs have finally been weaned. They aren't happy about it, but it's for their own good and crucial for the sake of my sanity. Now all of our sheep are on grass. No more hay until late fall. Yay!
The shiitakes are in full swing, no more of the prized "donkos", which are a product of cool nights and stressed out shiitakes. Every day we soak several logs and then set them out to "fruit" - It takes about a day of soaking and then a week of "pining" for them to finally produce the mushrooms. After the logs have fruited, they get restacked and then rest (so the mycelium can regrow) for 7 weeks before they get soaked and forced to fruit again. We have 7 stacks of 100 logs each (700 logs total). It's rhythmic, orderly and predictable- which is a welcomed relief from the chaos that comes naturally with raising animals.
May 22, 2020
Our sow "Baby Pig" had piglets. She was only a day overdue but was so enormous my brother suggested I wear safety glasses when I went near her, as I was clearly in danger of getting showered with piglet shrapnel when the time finally came. 7 healthy piglets, no explosion, no shrapnel....
The pastures at Hill-Stead are finally starting to grow, so we spend a lot of time each day setting up temporary fencing and moving the sheep between pastures. Claay our Border Collie is finally getting some "work" time after taking the last couple months off for lambing.
We built a walk in cooler by making an insulated room off our shop and installing a Coolbot and air conditioner. The cooler will be an enormous upgrade for storing eggs, shiitakes and all the produce we buy in each week from other farms.
May 15, 2020
We finally let the sheep out on fresh grass, after months of hauling and feeding them hay, we are almost as happy as they are to have them eating grass again. The bottle fed lambs are almost weaned, and then we just have to reaquaint them to the rest of the flock and teach them to act like sheep again.
And we were interviewed by NBC news.
May 8, 2020
We now have Anne's daughter, and son in law, and our 20 month old grandson living with us. - Just when we thought life couldn't get any more chaotic! Having him tag along makes all our chores take twice as long, but a thousand times more wonderful. Just when I had settled in for the evening, with an after dinner cup of coffee - he hands me my shoes and announces "sheep " - so out the door we go, to check on all the animals again.
May 1, 2020
We are expecting a couple of litters of piglets in May. The sows are starting to show signs (we'll just leave it at that) of their expectations, so now is the time to separate them, and provide them with a nice shelter in which they can build their farrowing nests. Our sows definitely prefer to make their nest in an area "au naturel", if they feel too constricted they'll choose a spot out in the open with no protection at all. The more the sow is confined, the more likely she is to accidently lay on her piglets and crush them. Most sows in this country are confined to "farrowing crates" . Designed so that the sows can't move around, and the piglets don't get crushed. I'd rather not have pigs.
April 24, 2020
36 lambs and a record number that need extra help. We have 6 bottle fed lambs that we have to bottle feed every 4 hours. We had the vet out (for the first time in years) to see if he could figure out what was going on. We normally have an extremely healthy flock, but this spring seems to be a never ending rotation of unhappy ewes and unthrifty lambs. The sooner we can get them on fresh grass the better.
April 17, 2020
Twenty eight lambs on the ground and just a few more to go.
Now that the shearing is done, it's time to skirt all the wool. Skirting means removing the little bits of hay and "vegetable matter" from the fleeces. Any wool that is too matted, or dirty, gets tossed on the compost pile- and left for the birds to make nests out of. Once it's skirted we will take it to a mill in Eastford CT to be cleaned and spun into yarn. The yarn is then sent to various artist to be woven or knitted into the wide range of products we sell. Hats, gloves, mittens, scarves, socks, rugs, blankets...
We started our first pasture rotation with the sheep on Mountain Spring Road. After a winter of eating nothing but hay, they seem very pleased to be on fresh grass. Hill-Stead's pasture is growing more slowly, so we impatiently wait until we can graze the sheep there as well.
April 10, 2020
Encouraged by the warm daytime temperatures, the first of our shiitakes are starting to produce, and as the night time temperatures remain cool, the mushrooms "stress out" and become slightly dehydrated. The stress causes the caps to crack, and the white fissures that develop create a "flower like" appearance. These Spring Donkos are highly prized in Asian cooking. Welcome Donkos!
The lambs continue to keep us insanely busy, and tired. It's a very good thing they are as cute as they are, it makes the 2 a.m feeding a little less painful.
We hired a professional (and wonderful) shearer, in March, to shear our Hill-Stead flock. The Hill-Stead flock consists of most of our pregnant ewes - but that still left 20 yearlings and rams on our farm to do.We finally got them all shorn this week. We have never left it until so late in the season, but oh well, they are naked now. I find shearing the rams much easier than the ewes, as the horns give me plenty of "handle bar" to hold onto!
April 3, 2020
We have 12 lambs so far, with at least another 10 to come. We also have 3 batches of newly hatched chickens, and another batch in the incubator. Keeping everyone warm, fed and happy is a full time endeavour. So life goes on, and we muddle on, regardless of what obstacles the virus throws in our path.The pigs don't want to hear about supply chains- they want dinner exactly the same as always - Now!
The shiitakes, though far less demanding than the pigs, need some attention now as well. As soon as the nighttime temperatures start getting favorable, our first strain of shiitakes (appropriately named "Bellweather") will start to fruit.
As I monitor the pastures and the mushrooms for signs of progress and growth, my mantra has been "Grow Baby Grow" (technically though, with all the expletives frequently thrown in for good measure- it's totally non "zen", and therefore non mantra like at all)
March 27, 2020
Pandemic or not, the lambs are arriving and with them come stressful days, sleepless nights and equal parts joy and chaos. We wouldn't have it any other way- but it is tiring.....
March 20, 2020
For years I have been assuring Anne, "pretty soon, things will settle down, life will be calmer and we can have a cup of tea in the middle of the afternoon" - I had no idea it would take a pandemic for those words to come true, but there it is, tea in the middle of the day...
March 13, 2020
Our fiber festival, like most everything else, has been postponed. We still need to shear the sheep, so we will livestream the shearing.
We are planning to continue our delivery service, as long as Anne and I remain healthy (which we fully intend to do!)
I think a small scale delivery and distribution service, such as ours, of local farm fresh foods, can offer some comfort to our friends and family. So let us know if we can do anything to make your lives less stressful. - No we won't start stocking toilet paper, but we did just get in a half ton of pig food, and are picking up another half ton tomorrow. We all have our priorities, and while yours might be the finer paper products, our priorities lie with keeping our pigs from going ferral and our friends and families well fed.
March 6, 2020
The lamb cam is live! Now we just need to find a way for it to pay for itself.... - and lambs- we definitely need some lambs.
We have been busy with "sugaring"...Collecting sap, boiling it down, finishing the syrup. If we kept track of our hours, which we try hard not to do, it comes out to $10 an hour for all the work that goes into a gallon of syrup. There are more profitable ways to spend our days - even farming!- but what would Spring be like if it wasn't mostly spent inside the steaming cocoon of our Sugar House?
We built temporary sheep pens and ramps for the shearing event, which will take place inside the barn, at Hill-Stead. (March 21). The pens have to be sturdy enough to keep in the sheep (that will definitely want out) and keep the kids out (that will definitely want in) and the railings for the pen have to be removable and freestanding so as to not damage the historic integrity of the Museum's barns.
Freezing night time temperatures and warm daytime temperatures signal the magic that is sugaring season. We tapped the sugar maples that surround our sugar house, and are busy collecting sap and boiling it down.
We set up a solar panel, battery bank and inverter for our electric fence at Hill-Stead. For the 15 years we have had sheep at Hill-Stead, we have had to swap out new batteries, daily, bringing the old batteries home to recharge. Not anymore!!! After a few minor tweaks, the system seems to be working well.
We are also in the process of setting up a livestream camera for lambing season. We have been trying to navigate the intracacies of bringing wifi to the barn at Hill-Stead. Convincing the cable company that it's a legitimate enterprise is our biggest hurdle at the moment. "you want to live stream sheep?". I'm sure they have had odder requests, but for the moment - they act stumped. We will get there, as we are nothing, if not persistent.
Early spring is the ideal time to cut and innoculate mushroom logs. This year we will innoculate 300 shiitake logs and will try our hand at oyster mushrooms, as well. It will be fun to see how the oysters work out, but we won't know for 6 months (to a year), as that is how long it takes for the myceliium to spread through out the log, and for the mushrooms to appear (or not!).
We also transplanted several hundred trees, mostly conifers, to create a hedge between us and future developments but also more mulberries and hazelnuts.
Winter is perfect for fixing miles of fencing (on 3 different properties) - and for cutting, splitting and hauling, firewood!
We also splurged and bought a brand new livestock trailer. Over the years we have had 3 pigs escape from our old trailer. One was on our farm, which was annoying but basically inconsequential, and 2 escapes were at the abattoir, which -both times - was enough to make me want to get out of the pig business for ever. I shall never forget trying to retrieve a 600 pound pig from a commuter jammed intersection in downtown Bristol, Anne holding a large trash can over the pig's head while I pulled on it's tail in an effort to convince it to walk backwards ,out of traffic, and back into our trailer.... So our shiny new trailer may never pay for itself, but in terms of my sanity, it's worth every penny we paid (and more).
We spent most of December fencing and preparing for various Holiday sales events.
The power company trimmed trees along the power lines this summer and we asked them to deliver all the 16 foot length logs to our property, so again this year we cut and split 10 cords of wood. We heat our house primarily with wood and so far this year, we have only used 4 gallons of oil!
November 2019 was spent, recovering from October, and collecting several tons of pumpkins from a couple local farms. We feed the pumpkins to the sheep and pigs (and the chickens like them too). The extra boost of nutrition helps ensure the sheep go into the breeding season with the best body condition possible.Flushing (boosting nutrition prior to breeding) is a technique farmers have used for generations to encourage the number of twins born.
October 2019 was an unusually busy month. We decided to host a last minute event at Hill-Stead. We called it "Meet the Sheep" and invited people to come visit the flock, pet a couple of our "bottle babies" and throw their left over pumpkins into the pasture, for the sheep to eat. Over a thousand people came, and met the sheep (and us). It was completely overwhelming and wonderful. We rebuilt a haywagon that had been in one of the barns for the last 50 years. The rebuilding was extremely satisfying, but a little rushed. To watch this long neglected symbol of Hill-Stead's agrarian past get towed out from under the barn, and brought back to life, was a dream, and hopefully an omen of great things to come. The hayride was a perfect addition to the day, shuttling people back and forth between the parking and the barns. The highlight of the day, for me however, was that we set a Guiness World Record. I had applied for a new category "the most people knitting in the company of sheep at one time" (since it was a new category - any number of knitters would have broken the record) We had 15 knitters who sat in the pasture knitting and talking, making new friends with other knitters, and with the sheep that would wander over and check them out. We will do it again next year, and break our own record!
Even though our trail camera captures photos of coyotes, foxes, raccoons, bobcats and bears- we have been mostly successful at keeping all our animals safe. However the change in daylight and weather triggers a need for most predators to starty packing on the pounds in preparation of winter. Bears need to consume 20,000 calories each day in the fall - and that makes our sheep look all the more attractive and vulnerable to them. So as the days get shorter, we need to find those extra hours- which we don't have- to redouble our fencing effort. The change in day length also signals the beginning of sheep breeding season, which means bringing the chosen ram to Hill-Stead and removing the young ram lambs. We also filled our hayloft with 400 bales of hay, which will get us halfway through the winter.
August 2019 brought us a litter of piglets, and dozens of baby chicks freshly hatched from our incubator. Claay is making huge steps forward in her herding lessons. It's wonderful to watch her instincts awaken.
In July 2019, as summer cranks into full swing, we pick up left over vegetables at two area farm stands. Every day we pick up a partial truck load of whatever is blemished or past its prime. The pigs love everything. Corn and tomatoes are the definite favorites- Jalapenos and eggplants are the least favorite. The sheep are happy on the pasture, and the chickens free range - spending most of their days hanging with the pigs. Pigs offer them a high degree of protection from predators, and some pretty swell leftovers.
May 2019 was spent monitoring our 32 lambs, 3 of whom needed bottle feeding and lots of extra attention. The "Bottle Babies" are weaned now, and back with the flock, and in theory, learning to be sheep.
The Shiitakes are in full production and need daily attention. Every day, logs are removed from the soaking tank, and laid on racks to "fruit". Logs from the previous week are harvested, and restacked. New logs are added to the soaking tank. There is a quiet rhythym to shiitakes, it's very methodical and predictable. - A nice change from the chaos of pigs, sheep and chickens.
The grass is growing and we have to keep moving the "temporary netting" in order to rotate our pastures. In the wild, herbivores are constantly being moved to new areas, chased away by predators. Unpleasant for the herbivores, for sure, but really healthy for the pastures. The grasses get grazed, but not over grazed. Since we fence out the predators (hopefully) - we have to take their place, by moving the flock along ,periodically, to their next area, before they graze it down too low.
April 2019 was spent fencing - trying to stay at least 2 steps ahead of the bears, coyotes, and teenagers. While the pasture we lease at Hill-Stead is out in an open field, the rest of our pastures are in mainly wooded areas. The forest is awesome for the animals, lot's to eat and forage, and the pigs love the shade, but the maintenance is constant. Trees are forever shedding limbs and flattening the fencing. We spend a lot of time walking the fence line and making repairs.
We also planted 50 Mulberry trees. Pigs absolutely adore mulberries - and anything that keeps a pig happy, is well worth the effort! The trick will be keeping the trees protected until they can tolerate the abuse.
In March 2019 we innoculated over 400 shiitake logs, using several new cold weather strains. Once the shiitake mycelium colonizes the entire log ( in about a year), we hopefully will have extended our shiitake production by 2 months in the spring and in the fall as well.
We sheared our sheep at Hill-Stead and over 200 people came to watch. It's a very long day, but it's really nice to be able to share it with so many people. We now have roughly 100 pounds of raw wool that we will "skirt" (remove the most aggregious filth), and then we'll take it to the mill in Eastford, CT to be cleaned and turned into yarn, and various finished products.
March also marks the begining of lambing season. It's a wonderful and exhausting time of year- there is always at least one lamb that needs bottle feeding, through out the day and night. This year is no exception. With the arrival of spring, our hens have kicked production into overdrive.We now seem to have an over abundance of eggs and a dirth of hay. Last year's wet summer impacted the local hay supply and everyone is scrambling to find the last bales of hay they need to tide them over until the pastures can be grazed again. We found ourselves 200 bales short this spring and as we drove to Litchfield each week to buy overpriced hay, I contemplated feeding the sheep omelets and Huevos Rancheros. We'll let you know how it goes....
February 2019 was, as always, maple sugaring time. We tapped 40 of the sugar maple trees that my grandfather planted (over 100 years ago), collected 400 gallons of sap and boiled it down to 10 gallons of syrup. It's a ton of work and schlepping, and it's probably the least profitable of all our ventures- but I can't imagine marking the emergence of spring without it.
January 2019 found us lugging bales of hay, dealing with frozen water troughs, and trying to convince the chickens to lay. We cut and split 10 cords of wood for maple sugaring, and to heat our house.