usually varies between frosty mornings and clear days followed by several days of rain. Sometimes 'several days' turns
into many, many.
Since lambing will begin in February, one of the things we try to do in January (this may come as a surprise to some) is shear the pregnant ewes whose fleece is long enough and ready. Actually it's an excellent thing to do. Getting rid of the fleece makes more room in the barn, cuts down on moisture, and makes it much easier for the new lambs to find the udder and teats among all that dirty belly wool. It also virtually eliminates another problem where new moms with fleece accidently lay down on their new lambs, and smother them. Not having fleece makes sure they can feel them when they lay down.
The newly naked ewes can still go out on clear days and then come into the barn at night and during rain. Altogether it's a valuable management tool.
We bring the ewes in about 2 days early to get dried out (or stay that way). The first step is to tip the ewe over on her rump. When her rear legs are off the ground she can't get her footing she stays relatively still (providing the ewe and the shearer have both read the same manual). We usually trim their feet at this time too. The belly wool and wool on top of the head is pretty dirty so it comes off first and is separated from the rest of the fleece. The idea for the good part of the fleece is too get it off in basically one piece. We start with the left side of the sheep and then peel it off going around the sheep. Start with the left rear leg and then the shoulder.
Then lay her down and shear in long strokes along the back down to the backbone. Now we're half way done. Then the shearer picks up the ewe's head and works in cross strokes down the right side all the way to the rump. A short shearer usually holds the head in their lap. A tall shearer tucks the head between their legs and holds it that way. When you're done, the ewe is put in a holding pen. The fleece is carefully gathered up and then carried to the skirting table. The skirting table is made of either wooden slats or wire mesh (chicken wire in our case) and is designed so that when the fleece is spread out a great deal of dirt and short pieces of wool will drop thru. The dirtiest section of the remaining fleece will be along the edges of the table where they can be 'skirted' off. In our case we also evaluate the fleece at that point for cleanliness, lustre, breed character and consistency. We record this info for posterity and determining later what the best use of the fleece may be.
We thought we got the rams in early enough last summer to make a difference in lambing dates but 2008 was only one week sooner than last year. Oh well, the best laid plans ....... Margaret started off this year with 3 sets of twins in the first 36 hours. Margaret spends a lot of time, some of it at night of course, in the barn. Most of the ewes pop out their lambs, clean them up, and get them eating. Once in a while they need some help and that's why Margaret wants to be there. In either case, she dips the navel in iodine, weighs the lambs for the record book, and moves them into a small pen (4X5) called a jug. The ewes get a bucket of warm water with molasses added for a quick pick-me-up. The new ewes kind of sniff it out first before they try it. Then they inhale it. The older ewes start crying for it as soon as they go into the jug. They spend 3 days together there to firmly establish the bond they'll need out in a large pen or pasture full of ewes and lambs.
When the ewes and lambs get out of the jug, they first go into a fairly small pen with 1,2 or 3 other ewes and lambs. This is called a mixing pen and gets everybody used to a community affair. Then a few days later, they go in a big pen with maybe 10 or 12 or more ewes with their lambs. As lambing progresses, these groups get bigger and bigger. Attached to these pens is a 'creep pen' that has a 'creep gate' (fancy that) that only the lambs can creep through but not the ewes. Here they can find fresh grain and hay that the moms can't wolf down while the lambs are learning to eat solid food. They learn about these things while they're in the mixing pens but the moms just don't give them a chance to do more than steal a bite or two. But it's obvious to them that if Mom likes it, it must be good. So when they encounter it in the creep pen they can take their time and learn to chew, etc. In this picture, the lambs in front are in a mixing pen with 2 ewes. In back is the creep pen attached to a pen to the right. You can see the creep gate with the white tubing that will allow the lambs to creep through but not the ewes.
Usually lambing drags on into March but mostly the lambs are growing like weeds. As a rule, the lambs are having a ball. Anything to jump on, including straw bales or mom, is always fun. We have kids over to see the lambs occasionally but we're not sure who has the most fun, kids or their moms.
The weather is mild enough here in western Washington that we can shear pretty much year round. The yearlings going on the 'show circuit' usually get sheared in March or April. This keeps them cool for the summer and gives about the right amount of fleece to trim up properly by the August show season.
We've been going to the Shepherds Extravaganza for almost 20 years. Followed it from Monroe to Puyallup. Margaret has had a booth and sheep there for many years. And for many of those years we were on the planning and 'doing' committees. However a show like this takes lots of planning and meetings and the distance finally got to us for all those trips. The folks who do this every year deserve all the thanks, but seldom receive it.
The lambs are a joy to watch now, whether outside running, or inside begging! They also are big enough to sneak into the feeders with the ewes (if they can get away with it).
Shearing in early April is when we look for fleeces to go to the fairs and shows.
Our friend Nancy DeMattos took this picture of the sheep at the shelter barn thru the cherry blossoms. Look pretty comfortable don't they?
Thought maybe those of you who don't live on a farm (or even those who do), would like to see and read a little of how we're set up. The farm is much longer than wide and has a 5 acre chunk cut out of the north-east corner. Before we moved in we decided, based on experiences at the last farm, that we wanted a 14 ft. runway running from end to end on which to move animals and equipment. This way we can rotate pastures or bring any group to the barn without moving another. The pastures all lead off the runway in about 1 acre paddocks (except one).
The barn sets about 1/2 way along the distance. The first picture is looking up the north runway from the barn location. The second looks down the south runway. The gates are 14 ft. so we can control movement into the pastures from the barn. Unfortunately, we don't have two-way opening gates (I mean the kind that have clever combination hinge/hasps and will open from either end, they're very expensive) so we also have crossing panels along the runways to keep us from walking so far sometimes (you can see one closed a little way down the south runway). The path from the barn to the runway leads first to the divider gate (shown in the third picture). This gate allows us to move the sheep north, south, or along the runway from one end to the other. It's a tremendous time saver.
The entire exterior of the farm is enclosed with 8 strands of New Zealand type, high tensile fence. This wire is stretched very tight and acts as a physical barrier. Since it's so tight, posts can be quite far apart, not the regular 8 feet needed with stock fencing (the kind of fence with small rectangles all along). THEN, along with the physical barrier, it is charged with 2 or 3 thousand volts of low current electricity. Doesn't kill anybody, but it sure wakes them up. It's primary purpose is to keep out the many coyotes that roam here as well as the stray dogs. It also keeps the sheep in. I know I shouldn't say it out loud, but we haven't lost a sheep or lamb to predators in 17 years. I think Margaret's biggest worry is the occasional eagle that cruises over looking at lambs. The interior fencing is 6 strands (see the next picture with the lambs). Each pasture also has a frost-free hydrant and a water tank.
I'll try to add some more 'farm' stuff later.
Since Margaret and Marsha are shearing next week (well Marsha shears and Margaret and I handle the fleeces, both busy jobs), I thought I'd keep these next 2 pictures for you. The lambs selected for show usually get sheared in early May so they have just the right amount of fleece to trim up nicely (called fitting, see July) by August. Although the lambs fleece we take off is very soft, it's also short and not too clean (lambs, like kids can get awfully dirty). If we leave it on, it just doesn't fit up well later for the shows.
A young man came by ready to take a long bike trip down south and wanted some comfort for the trip. What better way to get comfort than a nice sheepskin seat cover.
Margaret can't do everything around here, no matter what she says. She gets some help from Sena, the Great Pyrenees guard dog who scares off all the coyotes. Also from Joy, the Border Collie who loves to herd them sheep. Maybe not always where Margaret wants, but why be picky.
July is preparation month for the upcoming show season. The lambs are eating everything in sight. We're trying to evaluate lambs and yearlings for the show circuit and get some fitted and ready to go. We use these hand shears to smooth them out and look nice for the judges. The blue fitting stand gets them up to a more comfortable height and saves backs (ours). The little white plastic chain fitted loosely around their neck keeps them from jumping off the stand and hurting themselves, or us. After a time or two, they get really used to it. 'Wool' sheep are not washed for showing like the 'meat' breeds because scrubbing would change the beautiful structure of the wool that the judge is looking for. The 'meat' breeds are only judged on bone and meat structure so they shear them down and scrub 'em up. The last picture shows some ewes waiting their turn for fitting.
August is full of fairs for us (see Show Season schedule page).
One of these is the Kitsap County Fair where Margaret is the
wool superintendent. This shows the Wool Booth where the judged Wool Show occurs and
there are demonstrations of spinning, carding, and finished goods. Thanks to some great help
from Joyce Harrell (and often daughter Leah) and Marybeth Nightingale and daughters Katy,
the booth won the Kitsap Superintendents Award in 2002. Joyce and Marybeth are asst. Superintendents.
August is also the beginning of the breeding season. We use 4 rams usually and the ewes are carefully divided up to get maximum benefit from the characteristics of each. As you might guess, this is the high spot of the year for the rams!
September has two fairs separated by the whole state (about 300 miles) and only a couple of
days. We start out at Puyallup, down near Mt. Rainier, on the weekend after Labor Day. The
first picture is a winnng ram and the last is a big time winning fleece. Then we get
out on Tuesday and need to be in Spokane on Wednesday thru Monday. Center picture is the
Spokane pens. In recent years, Gary has skipped
Spokane and Margaret's dear friend Joyce Harrell made the trip.
The rest of the month is spent checking on breeding progress. If it's a typical summer, the grass is probably gone and we're feeding hay (believe it or not, it doesn't rain everyday in Washington).
October is pretty laid back except for one major event (No, the Mariners didn't make it to
the World Series, but Gary is patiently waiting) Every year we clean up the
barn (it's a good excuse) and bring all our products down for what we call 'The Harvest Sale'.
We open up all day on the first Saturday and advertise a little so folks can come by and see sheep and what they produce.
We usually invite some spinners and other sheep or crafts folks to join us, and Marcia always comes and shears a few
sheep too. Hope you can join us.
Margaret has been experimenting with some left-over mohair roving from our Angora Goat days and spun it up to ply with some sari silk waste yarn she purchased. The result is shown here and it's really dramatic. Daughter Lori has started a scarf with some of it too. The yarn will be for sale on the yarn page soon.
November is normally our long travel month to the midwest. Quite often the weather is still good, but there are several
good reasons to go to the midwest in November. Number one is our
grandson, Liam Kerrigan. He lives in Ohio with some pretty nice folks, our daughter Katie and son-in-law
Bil Kerrigan. Another good reason is the North American International Livestock Exhibition (NAILE)
in Louisville, KY. Margaret has shown a few of her Natural Colored Romneys and fleeces
there for several years.
Once again Margaret did well with her fleeces (see the ShowSeason page for 2006, until I get it replaced with 2007)
For the last few years we've stretched the trip out to visit Gary's home state of Missouri and
visit various aunts, uncles, and cousins for Thanksgiving.
Despite the good weather during the trip we came home (actually couldn't get home the first night) and found 10 inches of snow. We couldn't get down our steep lane so parked at the top and walked down. I brought the tractor up later to bring down the luggage and then bring our farm sitter, Nancy, up to the car and deliver her home. I know 10 inches is a light dusting to some of you midwest and east coast folks, but it made a big mess here that lasted for several days. It froze into a worse mess on the barn roofs and later rained on it, to bring it sliding down the roof and tear off the gutters.
December continued our weather problems by freezing so badly we broke pipes and fittings in the barn. A few heavy wind
storms didn't help either. Altogether I was pretty sick of weather problems. However, we realize that in comparison to
some folks here and elsewhere who got hurt much worse, we made it through OK.
In December, we got another opportunity to show off some of our products in person. Like last year, we joined several other vendors and farmers at Jenny Watkins, Ananda Farm down the road from us. It was a cool, somewhat grey day but we had a good time.