Saturday, 14 March 2015

shearing school

Last weekend, my husband and I took a road trip down to Freeport, Maine with my lovely friend Rebecca to attend a beginner sheep shearing class through the University of Maine's Department of Extension at Wolfe's Neck Farm.

Bob and I are ready to start!
As a wool producer, shearing is an important and exciting part of what I do. All the blood, sweat and tears of caring for my flock over the past year are paid back in full on this day when I dream about what will become of the twelve bags of freshly shorn fleeces lined up in the barn.

It was watching shearing of sheep as a young child that drew me to sheep in the first place. I don't know how old I was, but I know it was a very long time ago. I remember going to a big barn in Old Barns, Nova Scotia with my family and it was dark and cold outside. Probably February or March. We were in the bottom of the barn and the ceilings were so low that all the adults had to walk bent over so as not to hit their heads on the rafters.  There was one or two lights hanging on nails and sheep were everywhere. Some of them had had their babies recently and the smell of sheep and hay was thick and soothing. The sheep were being sheared by a gray-haired woman dressed in overalls, a buttoned up shirt and booties on her feet. I remember how softly she spoke to the sheep; how quickly and mindfully she manipulated the sheep between her legs as she sheared the fleeces. The sheep looked as if they were smiling and closed their eyes as if they were falling asleep in her arms. I remember the shearers smile and thinking that I loved the scene before me and didn't want to leave.

Most people think that the fleeces of all sheep are used to make woollen garments or other wool products and this is why they are sheared in the first place. This isn't always the case. Most sheep are raised for meat and as breeding programs work to create bigger, meatier breeds, wool quality is often sacrificed resulting in poor quality fleeces for today's wool standards. A lot of fleeces end up rotting in landfills. For those who think wool is always itchy, you probably haven't worn a garment made from a breed of sheep that has a nice fleece and can make the connection that not all fleeces are created equal.

My Shetlands are a primitive, "unimproved" breed and have a range of colour and fleece quality. As a primitive breed, they will naturally shed their fleeces over time if they are not sheared. Some of mine are pretty patchy now and if I don't shear them soon, I will lose some of the fleeces to the earth and the birds who gather their dropped fleeces to line their nests. The advantage to losing your fleece naturally is that you don't have a coat that continuously grows and gets heavier and heavier as the years pass. There was a Merino sheep in New Zealand known as 'Shrek the Sheep' who became famous for avoiding being sheared for 6 years by hiding out in caves. His fleece weighed 60 pounds when he was finally caught and sheared!

If a fleece isn't destined to become a garment, other reasons for shearing are to maintain health (lots of gross stuff can get caught in fleeces and could cause skin irritation leading to sores, parasites, infections and other nasty things) and to increase square footage per sheep by reducing the surface area of each sheep.

Shearing takes time and considerable effort to do yourself and money if you have to hire someone to come in. This has led to developments in sheep breeding programs to create 'hair sheep' that have hair rather than wool. The hair breeds take up less room than a wool breed in the same space and they naturally shed their hairy coats in the summer so they don't have to be sheared. A time, space and money saver for meat breeders.

Table shearing a Katahdin (hair breed) crossed with a wool breed. This sheep's coat was mostly hair, but because it was crossed with a wool breed, it had some wool mixed in so it can't shed it's whole coat naturally and needs to be sheared.

Shearing is hard work! They say that it is for someone with a 'strong back and a weak mind'. I have a terrible back and my mind never stops so I am afraid shearing isn't something I think I will ever get into. They also say you haven't learned to shear a sheep until you have done at least 100 and you don't get good until you've done at least 1000. I sheared 2.5 sheep over the course of the day and my back and legs hated me while I was doing it!

We learned the New Zealand/Australian method taught by three different shearers from Maine. This is the most used method in the world and having experienced it, I can see why!  When you know what you are doing, it is incredibly fast, efficient and easy on the sheep and the fleece comes off as one whole fleece rather than sections. All good things!

The following is by no means a step-by-step instruction that anyone should try to follow without the guidance of an experienced shearer, but more of a reflection for me to share and get set in my head

First, you have to catch a sheep!  I learned that once you have your hands on their head, they pretty much give up and you have them. Getting them to where you want them to go can be a challenge though! Each sheep will be different, but I learned the most difficult ones are best to move by holding their head and making them walk backwards. It's best to shear on a level piece of plywood so you have a relatively clean and firm, but not too hard, surface to work on.

Next, you have to flip the sheep onto it's hind end. This was something I wanted to learn. I have had very few reasons for flipping my sheep over, but it's an important thing to know how to do when you need to trim their feet (very important to do at least twice a year) and if you need to do a good body check for whatever reason. It was easier than I thought and learned that once you have them upright, you can easily move them around depending on where you place your feet and legs. They also are quite calm too!

Me clearing the belly of the first sheep. This is a pregnant female who will deliver her lambs by the end of the month.
Bob clearing the belly of his first sheep. She was so sweet!  I love her face!

The first areas to be sheared are the dirty, sticky, smelly bits on the belly and crotch. The wool in these areas are often too yucky to be used and when done first, can be easily discarded before getting on to the good fleece. Starting at the brisket at the top of the belly, you shear using downward 'blows' of the comb carefully avoiding the udder in females and the pizzle on males. Then you move onto the insides of the lower legs and crotch between the udder/testes and the anus. With a few shuffles of the feet, you move onto the outer left hind leg clearing up over the top of the leg. 

Next, you move up to the neck. This part really scared me and just about everyone there. This is the only part of the sheep that you are really doing blind. However, all went well for everyone and although I'll probably always hold my breath when I do that part, it's not as daunting now. Once you clear the neck, you go up around the ear and behind the head and getting the front left arm in the process, do a few short blows up along the arm to the back of the head. By this time, you can lay the sheep right down on it's side and it will just lay there as you go from the hind end right up the back to the top of the shoulder until you clear right over to the other side of the back bone.

Using this method of shearing allows for the whole fleece to come off in a contiguous fleece and makes it easy for skirting and rolling up for storage.
After you've clear the backbone, you lift the sheep back up onto it's haunches and start working on clearing the other shoulder. By the time the shoulder is clear, my back is killing me, I'm sweating like crazy, legs are shaking and I'm trying to catch my breath! The good thing is that you're almost done!

Bob clears the shoulder on the right side. Almost done!

Using short blows going from the inside to the backbone down the right side of the sheep, you clear the side and finish on the right leg and hip. Done!


It would be a lie to say that there was no blood. It happens. However, the sheep didn't seem to notice and no one was seriously hurt. It's quite miraculous really!

Other things I got some one-on-one instruction was how to trim feet and identify foot rot (one of the sheep was starting to get it from being in a soft floor all winter); skirt a fleece (remove all the undesirable bits from a fleece before washing and carding for use); and how to table shear (not as effective, but has it's place).

We had a great group, with lots of observers, helpers and stories to share. It was a place to connect with like-minded folks and learn together. It was fantastic and definitely would like to attend more workshops like this. Great day!

Great day with a great bunch of folks

A good day's work has come to an end!

Thursday, 5 March 2015

whispers of spring

Our prayer flags in the breeze

I hung laundry out on the line yesterday. The first time since November. A sure sign that Spring is coming!

I do love Winter, and really don't want to rush it.... but.... I do so love hanging laundry out!

The above freezing temperatures accompanied with a light breeze and sunny skies couldn't have come at a better time because everyone (except me) woke up yesterday morning, sick with the flu.


I really don't enjoy cleaning (passionately despise it...). However, one must have some standards, so unless company is coming, illness in my house is the only other circumstance when I really give my house a good clean from top to bottom. And I mean thorough! If I have to throw all my daydreaming and tinkering aside for cleanliness, then I'm going to give it all I've got!

It might take me more than one day to really do the job to my satisfaction, but my first steps include windows getting opened wide; clutter reduced; floors and surfaces gone over and most of all - laundry, laundry, laundry!

If my loves aren't feeling well enough to get outside (and I can't go out because I have to tend to them...), then I do all I can to bring the outside in! Even though they might have to be under a pile of blankets and sleeping bags to stay warm, I make sure the cool, fresh, clean air touches everything in my house to "get rid of those germs" and coax those congested sinuses and lungs to get better fast! It makes for a lot of complaining and grumpy sickies, but mama knows best!

Last load of the day. Our dog Taiga in the background on the peak of our tallest snowbank.
When I went out to the porch to hang that first load, I quickly learned that I was going to have to be strategic in my hanging. The snow piles under the line are extremely high this year and that meant I had to pretty much double-up every long item or it would be dragging in the snow. It also meant that I couldn't put out a full line. So, I just hung out a load and then brought it down off the line to make room for the next load.

Some of the chickens venturing out into the driveway to soak up those last rays of sunlight on this glorious day of mild weather.

I admit that on the best late-winter laundry days, conditions are so nice that I would rather be outside going for a walk with the dogs; watching the day's farm animal antics or sitting down by the fire with some form of wool in my hands and a coffee by my side.... but..... there is something about the laundry and the act of hanging it on the line that keeps me on task. I know my work will be rewarded at the end of the day.

After all the sheets, pillow cases and quilts are brought in off the line, I give them a fluff and a tad more drying time in the dryer with a couple of wool balls to relax them just a bit then make everyone's beds. Despite how miserable and grouchy everyone was from missing out on such a nice day, they all fell asleep quickly and, I think, more soundly in their fresh-air scented beds.

You can't bottle that smell.

The smell of Home...

The smell of the breeze inviting you to be well and peaceful....

The smell of Spring....just around the corner....

Sunday, 1 March 2015

snow, snow and more snow!

We've got a lot of snow this year! Everyone in the Maritimes and New England States knows what I'm talking about...

I know not everyone agrees, but I'm loving it!!!!

We're pretty lucky to have a neighbour who plows us out after every storm.  For me, that makes all the difference in my attitude toward snow. We have a pretty expansive driveway and I couldn't imagine having to shovel it out by hand. It just wouldn't happen and I would probably end up a snow hater this year.

However, we still have had to do a lot of shovelling around the farmyard to make sure we can get to everyone easily for feeding times and so the animals can get to where they need to go in the run of a day. Most of our snow came in waves of several big storms over a matter of a few days back in late January and February. So far, I've dug the 3-5 foot deep trails for the the sheep and the birds out twice as it all blew in again after the first time when the next and biggest storm hit a few weeks ago. My back is taking a beating, but it's important to me that everyone is able to at least get a bit of room to roam outside on these nice days. I would hate to have to be cramped up inside, so I do what I can to make sure that doesn't happen to my animals.

Our tom turkey has been spending more time in the coop with the chickens than with his more adventurous turkey hens. He's about 30 pounds and finds it pretty challenging to get through the deep snow.

All this snow has got me thinking about what is going to happen when it melts. The sun is getting stronger and I know that it is just a matter of time before the snow will start to crust over making it possible to walk on top if you're light enough.

With the way the snow has drifted around the barns and the paddock, the snow is only inches from the top of the fence and even over the top in some places. Not only am I concerned that my sheep might find a way OUT of their paddock, but that the coyotes and stray dogs might find their way IN. There is just too much fence line with too deep snow to dig out around the fences so I've decided to shut the sheep in the barn at night and hope for the best that the coyotes aren't too hungry to start coming around.

The sheep enjoying a bit more room to move around outside after I finished the second major excavation of digging out their trail to the sheep shed in the paddock. The trail is between 2-6 feet deep.

This is the sheep shed built from pallets and set on pressure-treated skids. This is what the sheep use for shelter on pasture in the summer and I can pull it from one field to another using the truck when I rotate their grazing areas.

This is all the room the sheep had to move around in outside before I dug the trail to the sheep shed.

This is where Flint, our miniature donkey, earns his keep.  I like to think of Flint as our insurance policy. For such a small fellow, he is incredibly fast with an impressively long and loud voice. According to some of our neighbours, the coyotes haven't been seen or heard around our place since he arrived with the sheep. He's a young thing and a bit too rough on the sheep so I have to keep him separated from them by a fence, but he sticks close by them as they graze in the summer and gets quite upset if they get too far away for his comfort. So far, so good....

Flint only has a mini donkey-sized hole dug just outside his stall to sun himself. Poor Flint!
My kids are loving the snow too! Lots of great sliding, tunnelling, house-building, etc happening in the back yard this year.

Bob packing down sliding trails with his snowshoes. The fence posts in the back ground are between 4-5 feet tall to give you an idea of the depth of the snow.

Our pond

For now, there is sunshine and very little snow in the forecast over the next few days and everyone is dug out as best I can. I'll put away the shovel until next time and spend as much time as I can out enjoying the snow on snowshoes, our toboggan and playing with my family in our beautiful, winter wonderland.

Friday, 27 February 2015

It all started with a little red hen

This is me and Sweetie.

Sweetie arrived at our place with 11 other chickens that looked just like her in February 2012. Her flock originally belonged to my brother and sister-in-law, but they were looking to downsize so I eagerly took them on.  I had never raised chickens before, but they had been on my mind for quite sometime and now I finally lived in a place where I could have them!

I loved caring for them and although they really did all look the same to me, Sweetie stood out because she was missing a toenail on one foot for some reason and had a really curious and friendly disposition that set her apart from the group. When spring came, I tried free-ranging the girls and one day while I was sitting cross-legged in the grass watching them look for bugs and other chicken delicacies, Sweetie came over and set herself down between my legs as if she was going to lay an egg!

That was it! My she found a special place in my heart.

They say chickens are a gateway to having other farm animals. I believe it. The more I watched my chickens and enjoyed their fresh eggs, the more I longed to add other animals and dreamed about growing my own veggies. I started reading up on homesteading and raising farm animals. I always dreamed about these things, but there never seemed to be the right opportunity to try. I finally felt like I was in the right place to go for it. My gut said "Yes!"

It's funny how once you've convinced yourself of something, the stars start to line up. I found myself randomly meeting people who were either already farming small-scale, had experienced it previously or were working towards building their own self-sustaining farms too.  I was exposed to permaculture and then the gears really started going!

In autumn of the same year, my dad and I built a chicken tractor to free-range the hens the next summer. I raised a small batch of meat kings in that chicken tractor and before I knew it, I felt empowered to live a more self-sustaining and meaningful life than I ever did before.

Good thing I built the chicken tractor, because in March the next year we had to kick the chickens out of the coop and into the chicken tractor to welcome seven Shetland sheep and a miniature donkey. They were soon followed by six unexpected lambs (four of the 6 females were unknowingly pregnant), 18 wild-turkey crosses and more meat king chickens.

I went from nothing to all of that in just over a year. I don't recommended it. It was too much and a strain on my whole family to add all of that so quickly. I don't regret it though. 

There is more the tell about what has happened between the day Sweetie arrived and now, but I'll save it for another post.

Back to Sweetie though. We sadly had to say goodbye to Sweetie in November of last year. She was four years old. That's pretty old for a generic laying hen, but she laid right up until last summer and she was sweet as ever right up to the end. I won't ever forget her and although I am thankful for her eggs, I am most grateful for her sweet nature and the memories of her adventures on our little farm. 

Rowan, Rhys and I with Sweetie before her last few days in front of our farm sign with gardens, wild turkeys and the A-frame chicken tractor in the back.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Beginning

There. I've done it. I've started blogging!

I never thought I would do this. I am one of the least technical people I know and a vocal advocate for minimizing screen time. I know it's kind of ironic, but somehow I feel like it's ok. I tell myself that this is just another form of adventure - and I have been craving it for awhile. I think I am ready...

So, what has brought me to blogging?

I have been following a blog called SouleMama by Amanda Blake Soule for several years now. I don't know Amanda personally, but she and her family have been a huge source of inspiration for me since I have become a mother. It all started when I picked up Amanda's book, "The Creative Family" in 2008. My daughter, Rowan, was a little over a year old and she was on the move, exploring her world. Like many new parents, I wanted to explore with her, but felt pretty awkward and unsure of my abilities to support her in her discoveries. So I kept my eyes open for inspiration and that led me to Amanda, her book, and her blog.

Having been somewhat nomadic the last 15 years following my education pursuits; exciting work opportunities; and most currently, my husband's career and the unpredictable twists and turns of life, Amanda's blog has been an almost constant and dependable (almost devotional) daily visit from a friend that doesn't know I exist. It might sound a bit creepy, like I'm stalking her, but I promise my following her has been purely for inspiration and knowing there is someone out there with similar values that has helped me feel less alone in pursuing my dreams.

So this brings me to MY blog. Why am I doing this again?

I guess it is because I feel the need to record certain aspects of my life in a journal-type format and don't do well with pen and paper. Also, I like to share my thoughts and experiences with others in hopes of inspiring, affirming and challenging anyone who might find what I have to say interesting as they pursue their own passions and dreams as I try to do. Maybe some people will read my blog and feel connected and inspired as I do by Amanda and her stories and reflections that she shares on SouleMama. As I make my dreams come to life I have had, and will continue, to have both huge and small challenges with the random times of sweet victories along the way. Through the act of sharing these moments through blogging, I hope to experience a greater depth and be more mindful and better able to reflect on them as I come to these often-times pivotal points on my path.

So, what am I going to blog about?

Probably about a bunch of stuff. My farm adventures mostly (hence the blog name, Little Red Hen Farm), but likely a mish-mash of whatever I feel the need to share I guess. I don't want to limit myself, but must be clear that what I share is in the spirit of love, empathy and inspiration. I'm sure there is more to add, but will leave it as is for now. :)

I'm not sure how often I will blog. Perhaps this is it. I'll just have to see where this goes.


Let's just see where this goes for now!