Wednesday, February 3, 2016


The first week of lambing this year reminds me a lot of our first ever week of lambing thirty-one years ago. Then we had no idea what behavior to expect of our sheep. We had watched them grazing and eating through the fall and winter, but we hadn't watched them sleeping. The first time I went out to the tiny shed we were using for lambing, and saw one of our ewes lying down and grunting, I assumed she was lambing. Dave was at work for the week, so I called an interested friend, and we spent the night sitting in a cold shed watching four sheep chew their cud, sleep, and grunt.

A week later, the first ewe lambed.

Over the years, Dave and I trained ourselves to recognize imminent lambing and the most common lambing problems - hypocalcemia and pregnancy toxemia. We knew to look for ewes who lagged behind the flock,for ewes who appeared sunken just in front of their pelvis, for ewes who seemed jittery, for ewes whose breath smelled like ketones. And we learned the techniques we could try to help the ewe lamb successfully.

A week ago, we began checking the ewes every three hours. That first night, Orange 20 wouldn't get up when I went into the barn. All the other ewes surged to their feet when I approached them; orange 20 just lay there. She came out when Dave fed them corn and hay, moving a little uncomfortably, but still moving, but at night, I really struggled to get her to her feet.  By Thursday night, I was really worried. A simple urine test would tell me if she had pregnancy toxemia
I found the keto sticks in the medical cupboard in the barn and slid one out of the tube. If I could catch a urine sample, I could test it for ketones. I pushed Orange 20 to her feet, She staggered a few steps forward and then paused, and peed. I pushed the slip of plastic under the urine stream, counted fifteen seconds and checked the chart on the bottle. The little pink square changed from a pale pink to a muddy dark pink. Positive.

Rats! Pregnancy toxemia happens when advanced pregnancy with multiple lambs makes a sheep's stomach too small to eat enough calories. The ewe can't get enough calories from her feed, so begins to metabolize her own fat for energy. That releases ketones into the blood. The ketones can cause brain damage, fetal death, lethargy and lung damage. Ewes often die from pregnancy toxemia. It is not a disease to ignore.

Dave and I gave her a shot to chemically induce labor and then gavaged her with a liter of water and propylene glycol for energy so that she would no longer have to metabolize fat. We would continue gavaging her twice a day until she lambed in 36 to 48 hours.

 Twenty-four hours went by. Dave left for a workshop in the Cities. Every three hours, day and night, I checked the sheep. I also began doing pelvic exams every time I checked Orange 20. At 1:30 A.M., thirty-six hours after we induced her, I began to worry. I checked our lambing books again. No new information suddenly appeared. I still expected Orange 20 to lamb soon.  I checked her half a dozen times in the next three hours; why was nothing happening? At one point I even considered doing a ceasarean section on this  poor defenseless ewe, even though I didn't actually know how to do one - where to cut, how deep to cut, how to hold down the ewe when I did cut. My mind was grasping at improbable straws.

And then on my sixth or seventh trip over night, Orange 20 stood up.  The next time I returned to the barn, she stood. And the next time. She wasn't afraid of me, she didn't run away, she just stood there. I grabbed a keto stick and checked her urine. Normal. No ketosis.

No ketosis, no delivery, but either Orange 20 was feeling better or we had trained her to stand up when we approached her.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Controlled (?) Chaos

Shearing is potentially the most chaotic day of the year. I expect an unknown number of volunteers (ranging from three one year to a possible 25 this year); I have no control over the weather; and I have no control over the events of the day. No matter how hard I try to be ready for everything,  I always spend a lot of time running back and forth to the house for missed items, coffee break goodies, extra mittens for whoever isn't warm, antibiotics, soldering iron, extension cords, barn records, etc.

Once when I went to the house for coffee and cookies at 10 am, I realized that I hadn't started the crock pot. The stew was thawed but not hot by noon. Fortunately, we had the microwave and lots of sandwich fixings.This year when I went in for a third extension cord, Newton, the dog, had had diarrhea in the front entry way, the kitchen and on the carpet. I wiped up the mess and ran back to the barn.

Every year we have some old hands at shearing and some novices. Dave teaches how to give shots and trim hooves. I explain how to label bags and sweep the shearing floor. But I spend most of my time teaching people how to skirt fleeces. Even with coats, the fleeces still need to be skirted. We pull off the dirty wool that was around the sheep's rear ends. We look for veggies in the wool around the ewe's necks. We sorrowfully throw out complete fleeces if the sheep lost their coat between coating and shearing.

I work around the skirting table advising and correcting and demonstrating good skirting technique. I run to the house and back. I help drive sheep into and out of the shearing pen. I try to talk with everyone in the barn.

This year, Ann Arbor Miller, a wonderful photographer, joined us in the barn and I was able to see shearing through her eyes, a completely new view. I saw Greg concentrate on trimming hooves, watched as Tom, the shearer finished a ewe and rose to release her. I saw the silvery simplicity of Tom's tools and watched the concentration on Betsy's face as she skirted.

On a day when the temperature was 6 degrees below zero, twelve people worked in the barn in complete comfort, enjoying the job, the company, and the sheep.  The chaos was all in my mind.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Beautiful color

"I don't know what colors are in," I moaned as I fingered my dye sample yarns.
"I could never be a fiber person," Dave said. "All I know about color is to say 'that looks nice on you.'".

I know what colors I like to wear - teals, purples and blues. But I'm so far from reading fashion magazine that it's embarrassing. I  love dyeing. At the beginnin of each year, with luck before we shear, I use up the old fleeces. I do a final skirting to make sure they are free of debris, wash them and then either send them to Chris at Dakota Fiber Mill to be carded and spun into yarn or dye the fleeces and then send them off to Chris to be carded into roving for spinners and felters.

This year, I had a backlog of fleeces to use up. Dave and I washed 100 pounds of white wool and sent the resulting 50 pounds of clean white wool to Dakota Fiber Mill to be carded and spun into a 2 ply sport weight yarn. Then I began transforming my old 2 ply white yarn. Six skeins dyed red, six dyed orange, six yellow, six bright green, six dark green. Before I realised it, I had dyed my entire stock of  2 ply white yarn. I was sad that I hadn't been able to complete an entire rainbow of colors.

Then I got a commission to dye eight skeins of bulky white yarn a rich sumac color. It took three trials to get the color right. The first skein, dyed with one tablespoon madder orange dye and tablespoon wattle bark dye, was too light. I used up the left over dye in the pot (also called exhausting the dye) on a pound of raw wool and then doubled the amount of dye for the next trial. The second skein was too orange. I exhausted that dye bath on another pound of raw wool. I began again, using two tablespoons of wattle bark dye and two tablespoons cranberry dye for each skein of yarn. When I pulled the skeins out of the pot, the color was deep and rich. I knew the woman's husband would say "that looks nice on you."

After the yarn was finished, I dumped a couple more  pounds of raw wool into the dye bath. When I take those three batches of dyed wool to be carded into roving, the end result will be a vibrant, deep orange red. It really doesn't matter if that particular color is "in" or not; people will buy it because it is so beautiful. And even if they don't, I will use it for felted sunrises and sunsets, for poppies and maple leaves, for pomegranates and sumac berries. The oranges may not be my favorite colors to wear, but they are still beautiful.

Friday, December 18, 2015

My Sheep Can Dance

I never imagined  thirty-one  years ago when we bought our first four sheep that they would kick start my writing career, but they did. Three adult sheep books later, I have branched out into children's books. This year, Northcroft Press published My Sheep Can Dance, with wonderful water color illustrations by my friend Linda Christensen.

When I asked her if she wanted to do some illustrations, she said "I've never painted a sheep." I sent her a bunch of photographs and the results were outstanding. Linda combined ideas from different photos to create new scenes. I actually had no photos of children dancing with the sheep, but Linda painted one.

Her illustrations also changed the story. I had sent her a photo of Bob the ram because he was a good example of a colored sheep, not because I had written about him. I thought she'd just add him to the flock somewhere. But when his painting appeared in my mailbox, I added a stanza and a page to the book.

Bob, the ram, was a crotchety guy

You could tell he was mad by the look in his eye.

But when his sheep danced home, he welcomed them in
and danced as old Davy played violin.

Collaborations are great fun for the writer and the illustrator, and the resulting book, My Sheep Can Dance, is great fun for the reader.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Still not local

 We stopped in Iceland on our way home from England and were taken to visit an Icelandic sheep farm. Ingi and his sheep live at 66 degrees latitude and we live at 46 degrees latitude so they are much further north. They struggle with cold winters, but even more importantly, with fierce winds.  Their shepherding year is very different than ours. In November, Ingi brings the sheep into the barn, shears them and then breeds them to the ram.

For older sheep during shearing, they leave the wool on the rear end of the animal to help them withstand the cold. After shearing, the sheep don't go outside again until after they lamb in May. Even where the ground wasn't snow covered, I saw almost no grass. We did see plastic wrapped hay bales, so they had enough grass land to cut hay which they fed to their animals all winter. Then, in the spring, the animals are turned out onto the slopes of the mountains where they graze happily and completely alone (except for birds and nonpredatory  small animals.) In the fall, all the shepherds and their sheep dogs go up into the mountains to collect the sheep. They bring them to sorting areas where the animals are sorted by the marks on their ears that identify to which farm they belong.

On the other hand, we breed in the fall, shear in January and lamb in February and March. Our sheep are only restricted to the barn for twelve hours after shearing and during blizzards. Local farmers have told us  how important it is for the sheep to get exercise during their pregnancies, so we feed them hay all over the farm to force them to walk. Also, as much as I'd love to, we can't turn the sheep out into the federal land beyond our pastures because there are too many neighborhood dogs and coyotes. Our sheep must be protected not from snow and ice cold winds, but from predators. Farming is so local.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Farming is local

Many years ago, a friend suggested that I go to Peru to help the farmers there learn the best ways to raise guinea pigs. I declined because I knew nothing about guinea pigs.This fall I actually realized the wisdom of that decision. Not only did I know nothing about guinea pigs, but I knew nothing about Peru. Farming is local.

Dave and I just spent five days in a cottage on the south coast of England. The sheep and cows there grazed in small fields divided by dense hedge rows of bramble rose, gorse and holly. The pasture grasses were still abundant and green in the second week of November. Roses, cyclamen and small amaryllis bloomed in the gardens and the grass. The clouds hung low four out of five days, it rained everyday, and sea spray filled the air with mist when it wasn't raining.The fields were slanted at such steep angles that I doubt the farmer ever tilled them or possibly even ever cut them.

At home, by mid-November, the pasture grasses are short and brown, the leaves are gone from the trees and the flowers have all died. We cut our pastures several times during the summer to keep the grasses from blooming, setting seeds and then going dormant. I have never seen such luxuriant November fields as I saw in England. I'm lucky that the book I used to learn how to raise sheep, The Sheep Book, was written by a shepherd who only lived an hour from our farm. We were raising sheep under the same weather conditions, the same climate conditions, similar soil types and similar weed problems. I got my first shepherding advice from a local farmer. If I'd been reading an English shepherding book, I would have been really surprised. Farming is indeed local.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The death of summer

The Virginia creeper vine climbed a tree in the backyard and I knew that fall was coming. The five leaflets glowed brilliant red against the fading green of the box elder. Red sumac leaves are the first harbingers and the Virginia creeper turn shortly after that.

People talk about the maples that turn the entire world to fire and I do  love that peak of fall color, but for me, that garland of red Virginia creeper winding its way through the forest wakes my eyes up, almost like a neon light flashing "Look at me!"

Another season is passing, leaves dying, nutrition descending  to the roots to be stored until next spring when the first tiny leaves open to delight our eyes after the winter. I don't think of winter as a time of death. It's more like a breathing space, where the outdoor chores slow down. The weeds stop growing. The lawn doesn't need to be mowed. The garden's harvest is all in the freezer or the root cellar.

That streak of crimson in the woods and the golden glow of maples remind me that we're almost done canning tomatoes. Soon I will resume my winter activities - felting, knitting, writing. Fall isn't so much the death of summer as the resurrection of my creativity.