29 June 2009

Reporting live from Olds Fibre Week!

<beep ba beep ba beep beep beep>

This is Kermit the Frog, reporting live for Sesame Street News …

Actually, it’s me, reporting live from Olds Fibre Week!

I arrived today and got all set up in the parking lot (I do love having the motorhome, even if it drinks gasoline like water on a hot day, I still love it) and headed over to the registration desk. I lugged my skinless sheepskin rug, to enter it in the competition, and got stopped twice by people wanting to look at it on the way over. I got all registered and then wandered the merchant mall for awhile, where I tried needle felting for the first time (wow, is that ever easy! I can't believe I haven't tried that before!) and saw a lot of really pretty fibre (but of course with a room full of it at home, I'm not purchasing fibre right now!).

This evening was a llama spin-in - they brought llama fibre and had teams of people spin and create something. I was asked by a lady I'd never met to join a team, and so six of us (who’d never met before) joined creative forces to come up with something from raw fibre in two hours. I had taken my wheel over, thinking to spin while I watched, but as I'm not very good at spinning llama yet, I loaned my wheel to one of the other members and I coordinated the knitting. We knit up a little bag to hang on the wheel (to hold the gadgets you need). It was really fun, and I got to see how a lucet works (I very much want one of those now!) and I got to knit with slippery soft suri fibre spun in a wild loopy yarn.

Tomorrow morning is my class, and I have the evening to myself now - it's great, there is highspeed internet here and power, so I'm comfortable in my little space, with a full fridge, a laptop and a bunch of fibre to play with!

That’s it for tonight, folks, stay tuned for updates and further developments!

28 June 2009

For two days, I will seem normal!

I am heading to Olds College for Fibre Week tomorrow … well, not for the whole week, just for two days and one class, but still. Fibre Week!

For two days I will be surrounded by other fibre addicts, even people who make their living doing neat stuff with wool and other natural materials, and in that environment, my addiction to all things wooly will seem downright normal!

I am way  more excited than I thought I’d be. The motorhome is packed up and ready to go (we did find out that the water heater tank ruptured over the winter, so I have no running water, but that’s not a show-stopper .. the toilet still works!), I completed the project I want to submit for the Natural Fibre competition, and my spinning wheel and knitting needles are packed up and ready for action.

I’ll head down on Monday, get registered and set up (motorhomes can park in the college parking lot, which is terrifically convenient and very cost-effective!). Next, I plan to get my skinless sheepskin rug entered for the competition and then check out the goings-on. Monday evening there is a llama spin-in that should be fun to watch:

You’ve heard of sheep to shawl competitions –this year’s Spin In presents the “llama to luxuries” contest. We will provide the fleeces –you bring your team and your creativity to make a small luxury item of your choice. Come join us for a relaxing (?) and fun evening. Everyone welcome!

Then on Tuesday, I’ll be taking this class:


Students will spin S and Z singles and knit swatches to explore twist mechanics.  Students will understand and apply knowledge of how twist and a variety of knitting stitches can be utilized in future knitting adventures.  Participants should be able to spin consistent S and Z threads, plus have advanced beginner/intermediate knitting abilities.

The translation, for the non-spinners in the crowd, is that I’ll be learning how to work with yarn that is just one thread (think about most yarn you’ve seen, it is two or three threads twisted together, right? the single threads are called, strangely enough, singles). It’s one of those things you never see in a book, so it’ll be wonderful to take a class and learn about it live and in person. I’ve never taken a spinning class before!

Tuesday night there is a silent auction and a fashion show, so I’ll stay over Tuesday night as well then head home Wednesday morning so I can drive in daylight and not be rushed or tired.

A full report on the fibre festival will be posted when I return!

22 June 2009

Independence Days update

Our ongoing documentation of ‘what we have done around here’ … with the focus on accomplishments, no matter how lengthy the to-do list may be!

The concept is courtesy of Sharon Astyk.

Planted: I can’t even remember when I last posted! The garden currently has: peas, beans, kamut wheat, lots and lots of onions, a bed of strawberries, several squash plants, and quite a few potatoes. Oh, and beets and a few carrots, and a lot of weeds. The big accomplishment this week was to get the mattock out and hack down the knee-high grass so that I could actually see what is growing out there! The herb bed is still … questionable, some of these are plants I haven’t grown before so I’m not sure what the baby ones look like. I’m waiting to weed until I can be sure what is what.

Harvested: The first three radishes of the season, and two onion leaves to use as green onions. Nothing else is quite ready yet – oh, but I did learn what nettles are, and where I can go harvest them! Ouch!

Preserved: A friend gave me a huge pile of rhubarb, and I’ve got the dehydrator full of little pieces, and the rest cooking up on the stove into sauce. 

Waste Not: Rescued a bunch of ‘lesser cuts’ of lamb from the freezer, cut the meat off and ran it through the grinder, cooked and seasoned it – this will become lambacos this week (that’s tacos made with lamb meat, for the uninitiated). Fed the less than perfect rhubarb trimmings to the chickens.

Want Not (Preparations): FINALLY got the fence around Pasture A in place, and the sheep moved to fresh grass. Pasture B is next, C is done, and the ‘back section’ has been fenced for the cows, who are now off in the trees being Jungle Cows and happily eating the underbrush.

Community Food Systems: Have regular customers purchasing eggs from me, from four to six dozen a week, so we need some more laying hens before winter, I think! Also have customers lined up for much of the lamb we’ll produce this year, which is encouraging. Found someone willing to house our dairy Dexter cow for a couple of months with a mini-Hereford for breeding, which will mean another beef-on-the-hoof here if all goes well.

Eat the Food: Made a baked apple dessert from some apples that were getting weary on the counter, tried a chicken casserole recipe from More with Less (that’s in the freezer to be tried later this week), made several batches of iced tea in the sunshine (a low cost, low sugar, high satisfaction beverage if ever there was one!).

21 June 2009

In the garden

Once again, I spent Sunday afternoon in the garden. A bird came to sing to me from the fencepost several times, so I did indeed have “the song of the birds for mirth”.

I didn’t get all of the mulch down when the garden was first set up, nor did I get all of the walkways and beds delineated … and it’s been several weeks since I spent any time in the garden. Suddenly, the grass is knee high in several places!

Today’s job was to get the grass under control. I attacked it with my mattock, and was amazed at how well the tool worked for the job. (I’ve never had a garden big enough to use a hoe or anything larger than hand tools … it’s hard work, but boy, does it go fast!) Once the forest of grass was cleared away, I could see several pea plants working their way upwards, a few squash plants with big broad leaves soaking up the sunshine, and lots of potato plants.

As I was working the soil near the potatoes, I saw that the partially-composted ‘stuff’ that was put down early in the spring is well on it’s way to becoming humus. I dug the pathway wider and moved the rich brown compost onto one of the raised beds, where I will plant .. umm … something. I’m not sure what yet. :)

The onions are tall and sturdy, the lettuce and spinach are suddenly leafing out, and the beans are starting to look like actual plants. The wheat is knee-high, and I’m really not sure if the green leafy thing I saw is the Jerusalem Artichoke or something else. I can’t remember where I planted it, and I’ve never grown it before, so I’m not sure what it is supposed to look like. :)

The first radishes were harvested today and served to The Reluctant Farmer for a Father’s Day treat (he likes radishes), and the dinner potatoes were seasoned with some green onion from the garden. Harvest time is nearly here!

Next, I need to plant some more radishes, weed the other raised bed, get some tomato plants out there, and put the peppers in. Maybe next weekend I’ll head down to the greenhouse and pick up some seedlings to replace the starts I had that didn’t make it.

I was thinking today that working in the garden feels like a reward – when the other urgent jobs, like fence repairs, are done, then it’s time to go play in the dirt. Ahh. I love my garden.

Fences for sheep

It has taken us a very long time – four summers, basically – to get the hang of making sheep-resistant fences. I dare not say sheep-proof fences, as I doubt there actually is any such thing, but we have learned quite a lot of things through trial and error and the new fences seem to be holding up reasonably well.

I think all the instructions for building fences must’ve been written by people in Saskatchewan, as nothing I’ve read tells you how to deal with the dips and swells in the land. The slightest dip or bump leaves a gap which a determined sheep or guardian dog will manage to wriggle under, loosening the fence, and leaving a larger gap for the next escape attempt.

So, here’s what we have learned so far:

First of all, you need wooden posts. You need to use *all* wooden posts. T-posts are great inventions, but they just don’t work well enough to qualify as permanent design elements in a sheep-fence.

Corners need to be braced (you will find instructions for that in any set of fence directions). We make H-shaped braces: basically, two fence posts pounded in about 2 feet apart with a brace screwed between the two about a foot down from the top of the posts. If you’re already making a braced corner, you can add a couple of extra cross bars and build a stile, for the humans to climb over. Stiles are an especially good idea on longer runs of fence where you’re not going to want to go all the way around to the gate every single time. We also build some stiles without wire across them, specifically so that the dogs (who will jump up and over and through a small square) can get from one place to another. The sheep don’t seem to go through those little square openings – although we do use them only on cross-fences, not perimeter fences, just to be on the safe side.

You also need page wire, or woven wire (four feet is good, five is better) and you need barbed wire. Oh, and you need a post pounder, a lot of staples, a hammer, a fence tightener, and something mobile and heavy to pull against (we use the bobcat, or a truck, but a quad would work well if you had one). If you haven’t got a ratcheting fence tightener you can use a comealong, but the fence tightener is really useful when it comes to the barbed wire, so it’s worth getting one.

Now that you have all the gear, how do you build the fence? Well, start off by putting in your posts. Wooden posts only, about 8-10 feet apart, always putting a post in the bottom of a dip and at the top of any rise or hillock that is in the path of your fence. You can get a straighter fence line if you put the corner posts in first then run a string from one to the other, using the string as a guide for where to place the posts. Eyeballing the alignment is rarely successful, trust me on this.

Posts can be very hard to pound into the ground: we pound in a sharp iron stake first (t-posts work for this too), then wiggle it to open the hole a bit, pull the stake out, and fill the hole with water. The wooden posts is then pounded into the dampened pre-started hole, and goes in much more smoothly than it does into unprepared ground. 

Get your H braces built at each corner and at the side of each gate opening. It’s really hard to have too many gates, and you need more stiles than you think you do. If you use a bobcat or tractor or quad, make sure each pasture has a gate wide enough to get through with your equipment, and consider building some smaller ‘people gates’ for the places you’ll routinely pass. People-sized gates are easier to open and close, and much easier to get through without letting all the sheep out.

Once the posts are in place, you can pull the page wire across. Unroll the fencing all along the row of posts (it’s easiest to unroll it on the ground then stand it up afterwards) and staple it to the far end of one of the H corners. Position your bobcat/truck/quad at the other end of the fence line (or as far down as you can reasonably go in one pass) so that you are able to hook your fence tightener onto some part of the vehicle and have it be in line with the fence. The idea is to pull the fencing against the immoveable vehicle, rather than against the corner fence posts – we’ve learned through much unhappy experience that even well-braced corners just can’t sustain the pressure of having the fence ratcheted tight against them, although for some reason (which I probably learned in high school physics and have subsequently forgotten), the posts can withstand the pressure of a tightened fence being stapled to them.

Now, tightening the fence involves a bit of a trick: take a long post (a t-post will work, or a piece of heavy pipe) and thread it through the holes in the woven wire, in and out, top to bottom. Hook one end of your fence tightener to this post, the other end to your vehicle, and ratchet the fence until it is nice and tight. This vertical post ensures that you get tension on the whole fence, rather than just on the one wire that you grabbed with the fence tightener.

Once the wire is pulled tight, go back along the fence and staple the wire to the posts. You don’t need to do every single wire on every single post, but the sheep will pressure the fence most at the bottom, so staple the bottom several wires for sure, and then about every other wire the rest of the way up.

Technically, according to the books, anyway, if you pull the wire tight enough, the sheep won’t be able to push their way under it. I suppose on flat ground with wooden posts no more than 5 feet apart this might work, but we’ve not been able to accomplish this feat ourselves. What we do is put the bottom of the page wire about an inch or two off the ground. We’ll deal with that gap shortly.

Staple your fence to the posts all the way along, and then take off the tension (be careful when you release the fence tightener, sometimes things spring back and you can get whacked in the head). Move your vehicle down the line, unroll some more fence, and keep going.

Once the page wire is in place, you need to put the barbed wire on the bottom. This is the key to a sheep-resistant fence. The barbed wire is a lot easier to tighten, and it will fill in that gap between the bottom of the page wire and the ground. Wrap a strand of barbed wire around your corner post, staple it in place, and then stretch the wire along the line of fence posts. This time you can use the last post as a brace for your fence tightener – you are pulling right against the base of the post, so it will not lean over from the strain. Pull the wire tight, staple it in place, then cut, wrap, and staple the end in place. Now go along the fence line and look for any spots where the page wire seems to wiggle at the bottom. In those spots, take a short piece of wire and tie the page wire to the barbed wire: the taut barbed wire lends it's stability to the page wire, and attaching the two together leaves the sheep less wiggle room.

With the wire all in place, all that remains are gates. Gates you go through every day need to be hinged people-sized gates, but gates that keep one pasture separated from the next can be tied in place. We are now using hog panels cut to size for a lot of our gates: they are sturdy, easy to cut with bolt cutters, and can be ‘hinged’ with rope. We had built a lot of wooden panels to use for gates, but the hog panels are lighter, much faster to build, and tidier-looking. Getting a pile of them delivered along with the fence posts was a good idea.

If you will be going in and out of a particular spot during the winter, keep in mind that you’ll need snow clearance. A rope-hinged gate can float upwards as the snow piles up, whereas a gate with proper hinges has a fixed height and must be shoveled out all winter.

We are still working on infrastructure improvements, and redoing the fences is one of the biggest tasks. Taking loose fences down just so you can put them back up again later in the day is a lot of work, as is chasing escaped sheep! If you can get your fences right the first time, you’ll be glad of it.

A lot of people use electric fencing when dealing with sheep, and have had good success. With our small size, though, it’s not quite cost effective, and there are technical issues to be dealt with as well so for us, the payoff just isn’t there. It’s worth considering though, especially if you have a lot of determined escapees or if you already use electric fencing for other livestock.

Of course, now that I’ve written this, the sheep are probably all going to be out wandering the neighbourhood, just to put me in my place. I’d better go check. :)

16 June 2009

Chickens and food security

I just finished listening to a new audio book - One Second After, a story about what could happen if the United States was hit by an electro magnetic pulse weapon (a nuclear strike designed to knock out sensitive electronics). Communication goes out, vehicles that have electronic starters and components stop working, the power grid goes down. Fixing it takes months or years, not days.

Suddenly, people are not able to just go to the store to get what they need.

The book is a really interesting look at what could happen in a prolonged outage of 'normal services' - there are interesting characters and they find themselves in a difficult situation. The story has a fairly heavy focus on weaponry, but then, it is an American story after all, so that's understandable.

Still, one thing I noticed was that in this story, nobody had any chickens.

Chickens have to be one of the easiest routes to food security I can think of. If a household had say, one or two hens per person, and a rooster, that'd be a guaranteed supply of protein no matter how the rest of the world might go kablooie. Our chickens fend for themselves quite nicely most of the summer, eating bugs and weeds and such, and a little bit of grain or food scraps thrown their way rounds things out for them. A broody hen will give you chicks, some of which are bound to be roosters and therefore stew meat. With a very small investment of feed, you can ensure you've got eggs all year. If grain isn't available, well, chickens are omnivores - they'll eat mice (it's disgusting to watch, I admit), bits of dry bread, the crumbs from your dinner plate, and weeds you can gather in summer and hang to dry for a winter treat.

More and more cities are allowing urban chickens - no roosters, but a few hens can really make a big contribution to your household and with very little effort on your part.

Do you have a chicken in your yard? :)

08 June 2009

The compost is steaming!

Yes, you read that correctly.

Last evening, it was pretty chilly outside (around 5 degrees C) and I looked out to see steam coming off the compost heap. I put on my shoes and went outside to hold my hand over the steaming spot, and sure enough, it was very warm!

This is great news - the compost pile is cooking nicely! That means we'll have good quality dirt from our barnyard waste. Way cheaper than getting it in big bales from Canadian Tire, and obviously the mix is richer this year than last - I think the addition of the cow manure has optimized the mix.

We've also started feeding the chickens on the pile - a scoop of grain is scattered along the top of the pile, and they scratch through it adding their own manure while helping to turn the top layer of the pile. And, they get to keep their feet warm while they are doing it!

05 June 2009

At last, Cherub’s lamb!

Cherub was expected to lamb back in February, based on our observations of activity in the pasture last fall. Apparently, though, the activity we witnessed wasn’t as productive as one might’ve hoped and Cherub needed to let the ram have a few test runs before finally settling into pregnancy. February passed with no lambs … then March … then April and May. Cherub was clearly pregnant … but where were the lambs?

My dad always looks at the presents under the tree on Christmas day and says “Oh, they are too pretty to open! We should just put them away until next year.” (This elicits the predictable cries of protest from the rest of the family, but it makes me laugh every time!) Anyway, The Boy started saying that Cherub had obviously decided to just save her lambs for next year … either that or she was planning to deliver a market lamb, ready for the butcher from the get-go!

In the end, Cherub finally had enough of pregnancy, and a single ewe lamb was standing all alone out in the pasture when The Boy went out to top up the hay feeder the other night. Cherub wasn’t particularly interested in her offspring – the sight of a pitchfork full of hay was way more interesting than a bleating soggy newborn.

This is the first lamb we’ve had born with an orange fleece: she wasn’t actually orange, just stained orange from the birthing fluids. I suspect that is a sign of meconium staining, similar to what happens in humans, an indication of some stress just before birth, although I’m not quite sure and the quick research I’ve done hasn’t told me much. Regardless, we got the little girl dried off with a towel and convinced her mama to go into the barn by offering her alfalfa pellets (food is a very reliable bribe for Cherub!).

In the barn, Cherub still seemed to be in some pain, even two hours after lambing and passing the afterbirth, which is unusual … as is having a single in the second year, we were really expecting twins. We kept a close watch on them both: Cherub wasn’t really thrilled about letting the baby nurse, and we weren’t positive that there wasn’t a dead twin inside, but after another couple of hours went by the bleeding stopped and Cherub was letting the lamb nurse, and being her usual self.

We are keeping them in the barn for a bit longer than usual, as I’m not quite convinced that Cherub won’t abandon her baby nor am I completely sure that she has recovered entirely … I’ve read of other shepherds finding out several days later that a dead twin wasn’t delivered. That’s a situation I really don’t want to find myself in, but at least with her in the barn, if anything is wrong, we have a decent chance of noticing and of getting it dealt with properly.

I think we might need to name this little one Endurance – she was very persistent and was not at all put off by her mother’s kicking and fussing. She’d struggle up to her feet, stagger to her mama, and butt her nose against fleece, legs, sides, and udder until she found what she was after, and a kick or a shove from Cherub did nothing more than convince the lamb to try again. What a trooper.

Oh, she’s clearly Jack’s baby too – she has that adorable little Southdown grin, and the really long tail. We’ll dock that in the next few days (we don’t dock medium or short tails, but this one’s pretty much guaranteed to get mucky enough to be a risk for fly strike), and see how she does.

One more lamb, yay!


The potatoes are coming up!

This is very exciting because, well, growing stuff is always exciting, but you should realize that the new green plants are not from proper seed potatoes, nor are they in proper soil. So it’s even more exciting than usual.

I always have some potatoes in the bin that start growing eyes before I get around to using them. I’ve read that you’re not supposed to use store potatoes for planting because they’ve been treated with sprout inhibitors, but as I’ve rarely had aging potatoes refuse to put out eyes, maybe Canadian potato companies don’t use inhibitors. Maybe it’s a guerilla potato marketing tactic! You know, if we let the potatoes sprout, maybe folks will plant some of their own! The growing season here is short enough, we don’t have to worry about losing market share. A potato in every garden, that’s the way to increase our popularity! Spread the joy of potatoes! 

Anyway, if it’s got eyes growing out of it, it’s a candidate for the garden in my opinion, even if it isn’t a Canadian Potato Growers conspiracy.

Now, about the soil. The edges of the garden are piled deep with not-really-composted waste hay, mostly. All the really loose and still-identifiable bits from the compost pile got heaped around the edge of the garden: it’ll break down eventually, and it might as well break down in the spot it’s intended to stay in once it turns into proper compost. Then, since it wasn’t gonna cost me anything if the experiment didn’t work, I stuck some sprouted potatoes into the piles of not-really-soil-but-definitely-organic-waste, sprayed some water in the general vicinity when I remembered, and pretty much just hoped for the best.

We’ve had a bit of rain over the last few days (finally!) and during a break in the showers The Reluctant Farmer and I took a meander around the garden. “What are these?” he asked, “Potatoes?” Yup! Potato plants, coming up along the edge of the garden, growing right through the yellowed stems of straw and hay!

I counted thirteen plants showing their leaves, which is an encouraging start. There are probably a few more to come up yet, and the moisture will definitely help. I also planted another fifteen or so in a much-closer-to-actual-soil row in the centre of the garden about a week ago, so with luck, we will see their lovely green heads soon as well.

Ah, fresh potatoes from the garden … I can’t wait!

04 June 2009

Ah, there *is* an explanation!

Sharon Astyk has a wonderful post today that explains ... well, lots of things.

The message is for all those who find themselves somehow attached to a previously normal person who suddenly comes down with a serious case of 'farm dreaming' ... Sharon explains what's happening, and how to live with someone afflicted with / blessed by this chronic condition.

[My husband's] advice to all of you, if you have a spouse with a serious case of the farm dream, is simply “let go, complain a lot (so that he/she appreciates properly how much you are suffering, and feels guilty enough to be accomodating of *your* dreams and pleasures), but go with it - it really isn’t that bad.” ...

And the funny thing is, it can be fun, and not just for the one with the dream. There’s something about learning new stuff, about building, making, growing and tending your own that is…well…neat. And neat not just to the person deeply infected by the crazy-agrarian-brain-parasite, but often, to the least likely people.

It's all so very familiar - and if you've read this blog, you'll see us in just about every paragraph. I mean, I'm married to The Reluctant Farmer himself!

Like all of Sharon's work, it's a great read, and I guarantee you'll find yourself laughing along the way.

Daily humour from The Reluctant Farmer

We had a broody hen hogging one of the nest boxes, and as a result chickens were laying eggs in other mysterious locations ... which we could not locate easily.

This was The Reluctant Farmer's suggestion:

I think we need to buy helmet cams for the chickens so we know where they're laying their eggs.

We'd need a pretty big screen to watch all the feeds simultaneously though.

01 June 2009

4-H Achievement Day

Today was the annual 4-H Achievement Day, but it was different than the previous years as we had no animals to go with us. All our sheep have been exposed to orf (contagious ecthymia, basically, cold sores on sheep) and pink eye (same as in humans) and although both are fairly mild illnesses, they are not ones you want to share with other flocks, so our critters are home under quarrantine.

The Boy, however, went along to help, and was in the show ring leading lambs for other kids who had mama sheep with babies, and one of the other members loaned him a sheep to use for the showmanship classes. He did an excellent job in showmanship - one of the best performances I've seen him give! - and took second in the two classes he competed in.

We are home now and enjoying the late sunshine - it's almost solstice, and it is very nice to have such warm sunlight so late in the day.