30 October 2007

"How do you learn to do all this stuff?"

My Aunt Sharon asked that question today.

I was always a city girl, as she knows, and now, here I am: living in the country, building sheep shelters and fence line feeders, shearing sheep and spinning wool. The Reluctant Farmer is a computer geek like me ... but at least he grew up in small town Saskatchewan, and had relatives who did a bit of farming. He, at least, knows how to fire a rifle. :)

Back to the original question: How do you learn to do all this stuff? The answer is: with a lot of help.

I have done a lot of reading: books like Barnyard in Your Backyard, The Western Canadian Sheep Producer's Manual, magazines like Mother Earth News and Countryside Magazine, and an awful lot of web surfing. One of the best resources is the wonderful online community at Homesteading Today, where you can ask even the most clueless of questions and get answers from generous folks who have been there, done that. There are people there who will patiently explain how to build a fence so it won't fall over, ease your anxiety the first time one of your ewes is in labour and you have no idea what to do, or talk you through the steps of handspinning even if you're not sure which end of the spindle to hold.

There are ideas all around us, too: I find myself slowing down to check out people's farm layouts, looking to see if there are features they have that would work for us. The fenceline feeder we have was inspired primarily by a plan I found online, but the thing that gave me the push I needed to actually build it was a farm not far from here that has something similar for their sheep. Seeing one in action made it really easy to imagine how well it would work here.

We also have a wonderful real world community, particularly our 4-H families. Everyone has shown great patience in helping a city girl learn how to do simple things like order the right amount of hay for the winter, catch a chicken, or trim a sheep's hooves. I'm sure many have laughed at our efforts ... but they've at least been gracious enough to do it when we can't hear them, and really, everyone has been very encouraging. After all, everybody learns somehow ... and not all of us grew up on farms. The 4-H kids did think it was pretty funny that I hadn't ever ridden in a tractor, and that I had no idea what it meant when someone said they were "graining their steer" (turns out it's like carb-loading: feeding a young lots of grain so he'd grow), but they seem to think it's pretty fun to teach a grownup how to do things.

Our 4-H leaders are a great help, too: our previous sheep leader taught us how to give a sheep an injection, loaned us equipment, and even gave The Boy bottle lambs to raise. She's always available if we have questions or need help - when we had a ewe with a troublesome delivery, she and her son dropped everything and came right over, and called in a local sheep expert when the problem turned out to be more substantial than it had appeared.

Other families have shared hay bales with us when we ran low, described methods of tightening fence wire or building gates, and told us where to find good deals on feed. We've had lots of construction help from neighbours, and we are tremendously grateful for all of it.

Hopefully, someday, we'll be able to give back to our community too.

The rest ... well, the 4-H motto is "Learn to do by doing", and that is really what we do. We try things, and they don't always work very well, so we tweak and try something different. Standing out in the pasture this past spring it became really clear where the hay ought to have been stored, and where the fences should have been, and where a fenceline feeder should go.

It's a long journey from city girl to shepherd, but I'm getting there, a little at a time ... and with a lot of help along the way.

28 October 2007

This is what a septic tank looks like

Ever wonder what a septic tank looks like?

Well, here is the one that the Reluctant Farmer's house is connected to.

Now you know. :)

Hay and Happy Sheep

We got our hay delivered today, and the sheep are very happy about this!

The pasture grass has been getting awfully sparse and brown, given that fall is well underway. Some friends from 4-H grow hay and straw (and deliver it!) so we bought a load from them which should hopefully last us most of the winter. The bales came on a big flat bed truck that lifts up, sliding the round bales out in a neat row. The bales had to be dropped off in the road, as the truck couldn't get up into the area where we plan to store the bales. This wasn't a problem, as The Reluctant Farmer used the bobcat with it's fork attachments to move the bales to their proper storage place, right near the fence line feeder. He's had lots of practice with the bobcat lately, and is getting quite proficient. He spent much of today moving a pile of dirt left over from the excavation of the basement and getting everything levelled out by the house. It looks great, and it's nice to have something approximating a yard at long last.

The sheep were thrilled to have hay to eat: the new ones recognized the sight of round bales and were right up by the feeder, waiting to be fed! As The Reluctant Farmer hauled bales from the road to the storage location, I took the strings off one of the bales and filled up the fence line feeder (you have no idea how relieved I was to see that my friends use baling twine rather than that horrible netting ... twine can be cut and pulled off much more easily than the netting, which gets embedded in the outer layer of hay and freezes in place come winter, when round bales are challenging enough to deal with on their own).

The fence line feeder was one of the summer's big jobs, and I'm very glad that we took the time to make it and to plan for more convenient hay storage. A little bit of planning can eliminate a lot of work: last year, we had round bales stored some distance from where the sheep were fed, and we had only a small makeshift feeder to put hay in. This meant a lot of extra work, unloading hay from the bales onto a tarp, pulling it to where the sheep were fed, and filling the little feeder twice a day (more often when it was really cold). The fenceline feeder allows all fifteen sheep easy access to the hay, and holds enough to last for at least a couple of days even in the coldest weather. The feeder is about three feet high and two feet deep along a full 32' run of fence. It takes a little while to get it filled up, but once it's full, it should last awhile. In addition, the hay is stored just a few feet away, making it easy to unwrap a bale and fork hay directly from the bale into the feeder. At minus twenty, even a few steps can seem like a long way!

Our load today included three bales of straw. The sheep snack on straw, but it's primary use is as wonderfully warm bedding that also helps keep fleeces in good condition. The Reluctant Farmer drove the bobcat into the pasture with one full bale on the forks and dropped it off by the sheep shelter. I filled the shelter with nice fresh straw, and spread the rest of the bale out wherever the ground has the potential to become a muddy mess. A layer of straw goes a long way to preventing the mud from becoming unmanageable - after all, bricks are made from straw and mud!

The chicken coop got a bit of a renovation today as well, with new perches and a nice deep layer of straw on the floor. As the weather cools down, the chickens will spend more time indoors and the straw will help keep them toasty warm, as well as providing a clean base for the inevitable messiness of a coop. Lately they've been laying eggs anywhere but in the coop, so I'm hoping the addition of a nice fresh layer of straw in the nesting boxes will entice them into cooperation. I only have six eggs in the fridge, this is almost cause for alarm. :)

20 October 2007

Fibre Day

Today was an entire day dedicated to playing with fibre. How much fun is that, eh?

Princess Girl 'helped' me most of the day, which was quite entertaining.

I ordered some lovely black Corriedale wool awhile back, and was awaiting the arrival of the drum carder before doing much with it. Well, the drum carder is here, so it's time to play! Black sheep usually have wool in a few different shades - this particular fleece has everything from chocolate brown/black to mocha brown to gray, and when it's all carded together it makes for a beautiful heathered black look. I can't wait to see the resulting yarn!.

While we were playing with the drum carder, we dug out the Kool-Aid dyed wool that we did back in the summer, teased the locks open with the dog comb (you have to loosen them up a bit before putting the wool in), and ran the purple stuff through the carder. It wasn't very nice wool to begin with, so even after drum carding it's kinda slubby and weird, but it spun up into an interesting thick/thin/slubby yarn that Princess Girl would like made into a scarf. She helped with the entire process: dying the wool, getting it ready for the carder, and spinning. (Okay, her 'help' in spinning consisted of sitting beside me and playing with two little plastic ponies in the batts of fibre, but hey, she was there for all of it!). I cast on a few stitches of the spun singles and will get that scarf made up quickly - weird slubby yarn tends to look reasonably good when done up in garter stitch on really big needles. And it goes quickly!

Let's see, what else did we do? We washed some of the wool from my Cola, the Icelandic/Southdown lamb - and had our first unanticipated felting. I should've known better - Icelandic is finicky for felting, but I wanted it to dry quickly so I put it in the washer just to spin out the water. I've done this before with Southdown, which is almost entirely resistant to felting, but it's clearly a very bad idea for something as fussy as Icelandic! So ... we now know that Icelandic/Southdown fleece felts beautifully. Ah well, it wasn't the whole batch of fleece, so we washed up some more and laid it out very, very carefully on the drying racks. The good news is that the stuff from the washer wasn't a complete loss - I was able to rescue quite a bit and card that up into big fluffy (very fluffy!) batts.

I've been very interested to see how the crossbreed fibre spins up, so I can make my breeding plans appropriately. After all, if a particular cross yields yukky wool, we're not gonna want to breed more of them, this is a handspinner's flock! So, on to the experiement: the resulting singles are rather fuzzy ... this wool is like the thel part of Icelandic wool (the soft inner stuff) with hardly any of the tog fibres (the guard hairs). Now if I could spin a nice loose single on my wheel, I bet it'd be beautiful, but I'm not that good yet. I'll see what it turns out like after plying and setting the twist. Hmm, maybe I'll try spinning some on the drop spindle ... I can get loosely spun singles that way, but can't quite do that with the wheel yet.

Speaking of plying and setting twist, last night I spun up a second bobbin of purebred Icelandic (from the rovings I got done at the mill) and plyed that up. Today I washed and whacked it*, and it's drying on the racks with the raw fleece. It ended up as a 9 WPI** bulky yarn, which is waiting for me to decide on a use. I may see if I am able to spin up enough to make something larger (shawl? sweater, even? I certainly have lots and lots of roving...), but I'm still very new to spinning, so it'll be interesting to see if I can recreate that 9 WPI on the next bobbins.

So... after a day of playing with wool, I have a box by my wheel containing several batts of Southdown fibre (which doesn't spin up so well thanks to my less-than-ideal-shearing, but the batts are still good for pillows and quilts), a couple of batts of black Corriedale (that I cannot wait to spin!), some pink KoolAid dyed commercial wool batting (which we ran through the drumcarder just to open it up a bit), and a few batts of some 'mystery sheep fleece' that was a gift from my sister back when I lived in the city. I wish I knew what kind of sheep it was, because the wool is wonderful! And I have a ball of purple slubby weird yarn that is on it's way to becoming a scarf, and a third of a bobbin's worth of Icelandic/Southdown singles.

Whew. What a day! We sure had fun, though.

And I bet a few of you learned some wool processing terminology out of the adventure, too!

* washed and whacked: this is that 'setting the twist' thing mentioned earlier - after the wool is spun and plyed, you wash it one more time ... this relaxes the fibres a bit, and then as it is almost dry, you whack it on the floor a few times to felt the fibres together ever so slightly ... this sets the twist in the yarn so it doesn't unwind or go all fuzzy later in it's life

**WPI = Wraps per Inch, a measurement used to identify the thickness of handspun wool

18 October 2007

Fibre Night

We had one amazing fibre night!

The drum carder arrived: a gift from The Reluctant Farmer. A drum carder allows me to take wool from the sheep (washed first) and run it through the carder to make batts, which are then useful for things like quilt filling or as raw material for spinning. This takes the place of hand carders and is much, much, much faster and produces far better 'stuff'. We tested it out! You can see Princess Girl wearing one end result on her head, Dinosaur Boy wearing one as a Santa Beard, and The Boy holding someof the raw material in his hands. I have the tool used to pull the finished batts off of the carder, it's a wicked sharp thing.

The wool I sent out for processing also came back from the mill yesterday: I had sent in wool from Natalie and Brownie (the Icelandic ewes) and some of the wool from the pile of Columbia and Hampshire "junk wool" given to me by a friend. My goodness, did it ever turn out nice! I spun up some of the Icelandic and it is soft and fuzzy and beautiful. I also tried spinning some of the Southdown wool (Jack's fleece) that we carded up on the drum carder, and although it's a bit on the slubby side (due in no small part to my crummy shearing job) it is quite serviceable and much better than what I can do with hand carders.

The kids had fun helping me, too, as you can see .... so all in all, it was a fun night. :)

15 October 2007

Construction Update

Well, the roof is on and felted, and the metal roof installation starts tomorrow. The Reluctant Farmer figures we may have the house all closed in by the end of the week, or maybe early next week. Windows should arrive Wednesday, the same day the septic tank gets installed, plumbers will be in for Wednesday and Thursday, and the permanent power should be hooked up by the end of the week.

It's really neat to see how the whole building will look when it's all completed, the shape is clear now. It's going to be a nice place for us all to live!

Pictures will be posted shortly. :)