A busy beginning – the 2018 lambing

Lambing season 18 (Mar 2018)

You would think that I would have written a load of blog entries for this year considering the amount of farming adventures that have happened, but it is just because of these adventures that my time has been eaten up.

We are almost done with our lambing, we have lost our ducks, we have bought chickens and pygmy goats, dealt with a surprise storm that brought a surprising amount of snow. I’ll break all these adventures up into blog entries, because most are unique experiences worth reading about, nothing out of the ordinary for most farmers, but worth noting regardless.

The first twin lambs born this year.

The kids and I were abroad over Christmas and New Year, and we slightly jolted out of our holiday bubble when Kevin called to tell us that our first lamb had been born, a few days after the new year. We fretted slightly as we were not present to mind the lamb, my daughter got reassurances that her dad had indeed put the ewe and new born lamb into the shed. When we got back the lambing came in regular intervals, one ewe after another.

There is a surprising aspect of farming that I had not expected, the more I learn the more complicated it gets. I am able to deal with more problems and issues, but they seem to be appearing more often than before. For some reason we haven’t had much trouble with the lambing previously, but this time round there has been more intervention needed than ever before. As always, the intensity of the learning curve for me is staggering and exhausting.

As we only have a modest flock of sheep, the new born lamb and mother are brought into the shed, to better be able to observe them and to increase the lamb’s survival rate in the cold winter months. Getting the ewe to move away from the birth place is not always the easiest thing to do, but I have over time learned a few tricks. I make sure the mother and lamb get time to bond before I grab the lamb with a bit of hay, which slightly masks my scent, and entice the ewe to follow, stopping every few metres to make sure she gets to sniff her lamb and continue towards the shed.

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Not the best of mothers, but we still got her going.

Apart from the bonding with the ewe the next thing high on the list at lambing is making sure the lamb gets the colostrum, the first milk, rich in antibodies and nutrients. This first milk will define the lamb’s growth and health, and I spend plenty of time making sure the lambs latch on.

One of the ewes was under strict supervision this year, last year she showed a significant lack of motherly dedication when she continuously walked away from her lamb distracted by greener grass, you can read about it in my post “Farming reality slapped me in the face”. The dehydrated and weak lamb died in my arms as I tried reviving it. Looking back at the pictures and knowing how she’s acted this year, I can conclude that she didn’t let the lamb feed enough as well.

The only reason she was kept is that she is one of my daughter’s pet lambs and hand reared by them. As she was a first-time ewe, we agreed that she would get a second chance. So, once she started showing signs of oncoming lambing, she was put into her own pen in the shed. The lamb had to be pulled out but was healthy and strong. I noted that the lamb wasn’t drinking yet but decided to give them the night before I intervened.

The morning after the ewe kept going around in circles trying to avoid the thirsty lamb. When I checked the ewe’s udders and could feel that they were hard with milk and slightly hotter than they should be, intervention was now necessary.

The ewe was pinned against the wall and I pushed the lamb towards the teats. This also not the easiest thing to do, you’d think the lamb would throw itself with gusto and drink up easily: no, lambs dislike being pushed into the teat and you have to patiently guide it that direction by slowly bumping the lamb’s bottom. Thankfully the lamb latched on and emptied a teat but would not empty the other. Fearing a possible infection due to milk stuck in the teat, I had to hand milk the ewe.

Now, let me tell you that milking a cow is a lot easier as you can get a right hold of the teat and use your full hand to squeeze out the milk (see my post on hand-milking Raw milk in the house). You’d be lucky to get three fingers around a ewe’s teat and milking by pinching is fairly hard work. As this milk was possibly high with colostrum it went into the freezer, as a precaution for future complicated lamb births.

Little Emmy  loves visiting the lambs.

I have taken a good few rounds of pinning the ewe, two to three times a day, for us to feel more comfortable that she will let the lamb drink it’s fill. After a few days it was enough that I got into the pen and she’d let the lamb suckle; today I was happy to see that the lamb was suckling away without my presence in the pen. I did have to milk the ewe again, a few days after the birth, and that milk was used to do the white béchamel sauce of a very tasty lasagne. I might not want to drink the creamy and thick sheep’s milk and there would not be enough to make cheese, but I certainly wasn’t prepared to waste it either.

We are still undecided it she will have to go, once she’s out on pasture we will have to continue to observe her unreliable mothering instincts. It is touch and go and would be completely go except for two facts; one, she is one our girl’s pet lamb, two, she actually has really good fleece for spinning and wool projects (read our post on wool adventures, Making use of all my wool). If not for these two points she would be sold as she requires a lot more work. She will not ever be let out into pasture until we are confident that the lamb can almost fend for itself or at least be strong enough to demand a feeding.

A day at the mart

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I missed posting on the blog the last two weeks, this is because of all the farming activities we have been tied up with. This farming craic can be pretty intense, let me tell you. On the upside, apart from all that I have learned and experienced, I now have enough blog material for a good few weeks.

The best news is that we finally sold our bullocks and just in time. The last two day’s they were at the farm they were making a right nuisance of themselves. They broke out a good few times and we had to go hunting for them in all kinds of terrain. It was an easy decision for all to decide it was time to bring them to the next cattle mart in Ennis.

We got up at day break, to make sure we would have plenty of time for any eventualities, both on the farm and in the mart, we got them smoothly into the trailer and could take it handy as the mart was almost empty when we got there. In the almost empty car park we were hailed by the hay and straw salesmen, wishing us good luck at the auction. Now came the part where a bit of knowledge and experience comes handy.

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Unloading the bullocks at the mart.

How do you sell the bullocks? One by one? All of them together. In separate groups? Which ones go together? Because in the end it is about getting the best possible price at the auction.

Kevin decided they would be sold in two groups and handed me tags for two and three. He went off to get a few things and I was left to pair them up, never mind that they pretty much look all the same to me. Lucky me, the early start gave the lads in the mart plenty of time to kindly help me and the girls out. The two angus bullocks were paired, and the three mixed breeds left where grouped for the auction.

We wandered around the empty mart making sure we knew where our bullocks had been penned, then it was time to go home as we would later receive a text letting us know their placement in the auction and approximate time of the sale.

The text came through within a couple of hours and we headed back in excitement. By now the mart was packed, both the car park and cattle pens. There were two rings doing non-stop auctions, one ring for milk cows and one for bullocks. There were a good few groups of cattle to be auctioned out before ours, so we took the opportunity to have a good solid lunch in the restaurant canteen in place.

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Early morning Ennis cattle mart


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Full mart in the afternoon

There were a couple of things about the whole procedure that made an impression on me. The obvious one and most expected, was the fact that there were hardly any women at the auctions. The few women I saw were accompanying their husbands or partners, they were in the restaurant and in the offices, and there were no women working with the cattle on the floor.

Another thing that truly astounded me was that all eyes were on the auctions, the cattle being sold, the weight and the sale. There were no bored farmers passing time looking at their smart phones, in fact there were few smart phones to be seen and during the 3-4 hours we spent there I hardly saw anyone using a mobile phone at all and it felt like stepping back in time.

In the mart, you get the distinct impression that this is the way things have been done for a long long time, it is an Ireland of old. If you ever get the chance to experience it I would tell you to go for it, unless you grew up in a farming environment this is another world altogether. I can tell you for sure you will feel lost as it’s not easy to figure out.

To be honest it is hard to understand the process of how the bids are being done. The cattle auction ring is surrounded by farmers, there are no show of hands and as a spectator is difficult to see who is bidding. If you pay very close attention, you will every so often see someone flick a finger and the price goes up. I was duly impressed by the skill of the auctioneer, that not only continuously belts out the current price, encourages buyers by name, knows who is bidding for what and can also say something sales worthy of each group of cattle being auctioned, but does this endlessly for hours.

Our bullocks may had looked big and lumbering in our fields, but in the mart they looked small compared to the truly large breeds. At 450 and 410 kg, they didn’t do bad compared to the 600+ kg of the other breeds. They were also a rare breed in the mart that day, while we were there we saw no other Angus cattle being sold. I still don’t know if it was a good or a bad thing.

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A warning for the unwary.

As they were finally ushered off, we saw the last of Blackie, Brownie, Calypso, Sparrow and Hercules. Our proud girls could go to the office and sign them away, get praised by a lovely lady there and be promised that the cheque would be in the post by next week.

You might think we had a party with the sale, which was substantial enough, but alas no…the money is going directly to pay for the three cows in calf we have bought. But that is another story.

Frenemies on the farm

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My relationship with our bullocks is less than cordial. Kevin grew up with cattle and there was never any doubt in him that he had to own some on the farm. Having a city upbringing, I am always open to any new farm activities but I must say that bullocks have broken my heart.

For our girl’s first communion two years ago, they received 5 young calves from their proud dad. To their father’s horror they named them all and wanted assurances that while they would be sold for a profit, they would not be eaten. We explained that we are not a hobby farm and what we raise and work with will at some point end up on a plate, the key is to give them a good life. We made a vague promise that we probably would not be the ones to eat them.

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Sparrow  as a calf, with his eye patch.

This was our girl’s and my first close experience with calves, and to my distaste I had never
realised how slobbery, poopy and clueless they are. There they are, Angus bullocks that remind me of rambling hippopotamuses – Blackie, Brownie, Calypso, Hercules and Sparrow (after John Sparrow, the pirate. See his eye patch?).

I bucket fed them milk, making sure everyone got his share, treated their ringworm and made sure they had plenty to eat, always putting up with their drool, poop, piss and general rough behaviour. Our relationship started souring when they once too many times broke into the shed and left a mess getting at the feed, but what truly broke our tenuous bond was when they raided my polytunnel.

Now, farm animals breaking into gardens is just part of country life; it may break your heart and make you want to chew stones in frustration, but it is part the package. What I can’t forgive our bullocks for, is the fact that they chewed their way straight through the middle of the plastic of the polytunnel.

“I want those walking steaks sold! I’ll kill them myself if I see them in my tunnel again!” I roared at my husband, who promised he’d replace the plastic and pointed out it was probably time for it anyway.

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“Are you looking at me? What if I’m eating the grass of you lawn?”, says Hercules with a blank stare.

Now, I did get lovely new plastic out of it, but what astounded me and truly makes me doubt the intelligence of these animals was the last time they broke out around the tunnel. Ignoring all the new fresh grass around the tunnel and the beautiful broccoli growing inside, the idiot bullocks started nibbling on the corners of the polytunnel plastic.

“What’s wrong with these animals?”, I have asked my husband and any cattle farmer I have met, the only answer I ever got was just a shrugging of shoulders  and no show of surprise. It seems you can expect anything from cattle.

I am finally getting my wish; the bullocks will be sold soon. The downside of the sale is that three cows in calf have been bought to replace them. My hope is that the females of the species are smarter than the males, because the intelligence of bullocks leave much to be desired.

The new calves will be born in a few weeks and they just might melt my hardened heart. I’m also hoping to give milking a go, even though Kevin has made it very clear that milking will not be in his repertoire, at all, but if I want to learn I can “knock myself out”.

You might consider taking a break in our holiday home, Casa Ceoil, and experience a slice of country life in the West. Spring is so lovely to see, with new calves and lambs enjoying the green fields and paddocks around the house. I will proudly show you the lambs, but probably point dismissively towards the calves.