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We've been busy!
January 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.
February 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.
In March 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 omletes and Juevos Rancheros. We'll let you know how it goes....
April 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.
May 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 to low.
In June we continued to work on fencing, both permament and temporary. We tagged all the lambs and checked their eyes for signs of anemia. Most were extremely healthy, as evidenced by their complete unwillingness to have their ears tagged. Tagging is required by federal law. Each sheep has to be identifiable, individually and by farm of origin. We also use different colored ear tags each year, so we can tell the age of a sheep at a distance. We name our sheep according to the letter of the alphabet that corresponds with the year (2019 - the letter "S" is the 19th letter of the alphabet) so all lambs born this year have names that begin with the letter S. - and yes all of our animals have names, even if they are eventually destined for the dinner table. It seems respectful, and it's easier for me to remember a name than it is an eartag number.
We have also been acclimating our new Border Collie "Claay" to the sheep. She thinks the daily pasture walk is a whole lot of fun, but is a little unclear what the purpose is. I'm hoping we eventually figure out how to work together, but for now the walks, and lessons, are enjoyable, if not terribly productive...
In July, 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.
August 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.
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 preperation 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
October 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 visited. 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!
November 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.