Ugly ram, ugly lambs?

Last year we weren’t sure that our ram was up for the job, he may have done the job but no one would be looking forward a lamb-less spring if he wasn’t up to it. So to make sure this spring would be packed with cute and fluffy lambs, we got a loan of a ram.

It is not age that has us doubting our own ram, he is fairly young and has performed well since we got him. The problem was that the hot damp weather in September landed me with numerous cases of maggot infestations.

I will not go into the details of a maggot infestation, just saying the words paints a disgusting picture anyway. The ram came out fine, but there is always the worry that sickness could render them sterile and thus resulting in no-lambs-for-spring, which was not something I was willing to risk. So while our own ram convalesced we introduced a new one.

Now, I’m delighted to have the second ram and he has caused absolutely no problems. He’s quiet and shy, less of a bully than most of my sheep and gets along fine with our own ram. The fact that the two rams don’t fight speaks volumes about our own ram’s performance capacity; there simply doesn’t seem to be any competition for the new ram.

The new ram is a muscular Texel breed, which will give lambs of great market value. We are all for that, but, and I am well aware that this is not a relevant complaint, this new ram is butt-ugly. He has the Texel breed characteristics of course, but for some reason his snout is a lot shorter; this ram is literally the sheep variety of a bulldog and I did wonder if I would end up with a flock of ugly lambs. Is that even possible?

Which is the handsome ram?

My helpful neighbours, who always steer me away from my city-girl madness with logic and a firm hand, completely brushed aside my superficial worries pointing out the shanks of the new ram and the muscle he carries. Not that I seriously worried about ugly lambs, but I had never expected to see such an ugly sheep either.

Pretty is not really a main concern with any animal, the key is good genes and for me also good temperamennt. I simply would not be skilled enough to deal with an aggressive animal, I will forgive the smallish head-butts my ewe, “The Angry One”, gives me when she has a lamb, but that is as far as it goes.

There are only two ewes left to lamb, and with several pairs of twins, I have a wide selection of lambs on the farm. I can’t fully verify which ram is the father, I’m sure it will show eventually, regardless of that, I can with relief say that the lambs are beautiful.

Normal looking ewe and the Texel ram.

The lambing season is here

The blog fell on the wayside, not only because we had a busy year with plenty of guests at Casa Ceoil, but simply because it slipped down the very long long long list of to-dos that we have. New projects, old projects, family commitments, and just life. But we are giving it another breath of life, and no time is better than when the first lambs are born.

So at the first most intense week of the year, I decided to get back to the blog. Intense as the lambing has started and this week, I have had two sets of twins and a single. Unlike other years, not only do I have a better eye for when a ewe is due, but I have lovely stalls organised for them. I keep them out as much as possible, but under a watchful eye as a gauge their due time by checking udders and a few more signs.

One set of twins were born in our top field, a favourite place for the lambing ewes. As my gear demands more hands than I have, I decided to facilitate the transport of the lambs by simply stuffing them in a bucket. Problem solving through a spur of the moment inspiration is my bread and butter on this farm. When moving my lambs I now always carry:

She doesn’t look it, but this one is a fairly fierce and protective ewe. Her name, simply…The angry one.
  1. Bucket of feed to entice the ewe to move away from the birthplace (often a difficult enough task).
  2. Large lamb bucket (in case of twins), with straw.
  3. Straw for the bucket and when I pick up the lambs (to avoid transferring much of my own smell and possibly cause the ewe to reject the lambs).

This prep makes the process a lot simpler. Not only can the ewe follow the lamb or lambs in the bucket easily, we can also move quick enough. One of my ewes bucks me every time I come close to her lamb, a good mother but makes it hard to handle the lambs. As this was the first lamb and it was also pre-lamb bucket inspiration, I had to walk backwards most of the field keeping the lamb between us, all to avoid getting headbutted by the annoyed ewe.

Billy the visiting billy goat

I’m also waiting for my pygmy goats to deliver, which I think will be early to mid-February. We had a loan of a very friendly puck from a very friendly couple in west Clare. While the puck was no trouble, I was more than happy to not own one, I have never come across such a strong-smelling animal. “Don’t pet him” was my neighbours’ advice, but it didn’t help, his pheromones were so strong it was enough to stand beside him and his smell stuck to you; a very strong smell of overly ripe goats’ cheese.

To our dismay the smell stuck even after washing your hands with dishwasher liquid and heavy scrubbing, never mind the clothes. Some research, after spending a day or so of constantly smelling goat cheese (and not the good kind!), I found the solution; wash your hands with a bit of toothpaste or goat’s milk soap.

Last year saw plenty of changes, while only one of our four cows had a calf, we discovered that this cow in particular (Oprah) is a high yield milker and a good foster mother. Oprah reared an additional two calves along with her own, plus is currently with two more, but she will, of course, get a break.

The land of rainbows.

Re-organising a bit, I decided to swap two cows for four calves. While it is periodically labour intense, we will have calmer periods as well. Another plus is that all the calves are heifers, so no crazy young bullocks for me. If you don’t know my history with the male side of cattle, have a read of my blog “Frenemies on the Farm” and you’ll understand.

Our poultry population has dwindled as well, thanks to Mr Fox. The only good thing the fox did, was to target the hen that was pecking the eggs and thereby saving me the hassle of trying to figure out which of my identical looking hens was the culprit. I never got to try the “fake egg” trick on them, but I have them saved in case there is another instance of egg pecking. Supposedly putting fake eggs where they lay will teach them a lesson.

There may be plenty to do, but the rewards are immense and few things are as satisfying as seeing the delivery of healthy animals. It startles me at times, that I am living this very down to earth and very real type of life, not something I expected growing up in the city. I would not change it for the world.

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.

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.