17 November 2014

The Cow Buffet is now open for business

Today The Boy and his friend helped me roll the bales from the driveway (where they were delivered yesterday afternoon) into the feeding area.
All in place!
That is four rows of two hay and two straw bales in each row, plus I have two more straw bales … one kind of stuffed in at the back (where you can’t see it) and one just under my clothesline, on a tarp, where I can peel it apart and haul some straw up to the barn as needed.
The plans for the design we are following are here. Essentially, there is an alleyway just off to the right of the picture that lets the cows and donkey walk up to where the bales are: they have enough room to stand in front of the front row of bales and eat. Right in front of the bales is a strand of electric wire, which keeps them from walking around the sides of the bales and keeps them from messing up the bale too much … they have to reach over or under the zapping wire to get a bite to eat and they will have to clean up what they drop on the ground before I move the wire backwards so they can work on the next part of the bale. It’s a self-serve Cow Buffet!
While we were moving the bales in, Sasha stood at the gate demanding that we hurry up. The boys finished putting up the barbed wire around the perimeter and I got the electric wire figured out. I got some neat little adjustable insulator things that fit nicely onto rebar, and we have lots of rebar here. I cut a couple of pieces of rebar to the right length, pounded them in the ground with a hammer, attached the insulators, and strung the wire across in front of the bales. Got it hooked up to the charger and it was zapping away on the first try. If you look closely, you can see the yellow insulators and the two strands of white wire running in front of the bale.
Should the rebar get frozen into the ground, I can just put in a new piece ... The insulators can be moved, or I can just use more ... I got a whole bag of them for $4, so I have lots. I will probably also go out and run some wire along the walkway they use to get from the winter pen over to the feeding area: it goes right through one of the pastures, and I don’t really want them walking across the whole pasture all winter … especially come spring, they’ll eat all the new grass before it’s ready, so I need to figure out a way to block that off … and the electric wire should work fine. A few rebar posts, some insulators, some wire, an arch over the gate to get to the charging thing .. yeah, that should work.
I still need to get the string off most of the bales, I only did the front row, but for today, this is good! I’d also like to put a big tarp over the back rows of bales, to keep them in better shape over the winter. Need to pick one up, though – we don’t have one here that’s big enough.
Once we opened up the gate, Sasha came in and had some hay … when she got bitten by the electric wire she walked away in a huff, but she came back to eat some more so I'd say we have a successful strategy going! Of course we will have to see how it plays out over the full season but I am very happy to not be out feeding by hand every day. And having animals trained to electric wire is going to be a good thing for summer, too, I think. I'll be able to do some closer grazing management without installing permanent fences. ;)
Yay for hay and cow buffets!

14 November 2014

Tanning sheepskins: What I’ve learned

Tanning the sheepskins has been a great adventure – I have spent countless hours reading information on the web (one of my favourite links is here) and experimenting with the three pelts I have here, and I’ve come to some conclusions about how I’ll likely do this in the future … because I definitely intend to do this again! I love the process and the finished product.

First, here’s why I bother:

Purebred Icelandic, gorgeous colouring (the ‘shading to red’ like that is not uncommon in Icelandic sheep – it’s called phaeomelanin - and it is even more lovely in real life!) … I’ll be warm under this lovely covering tonight!

So, here’s the process I intend to follow the next time I do this:

1. Get the skins from the butcher (my butchers did a FANTASTIC job fleshing the hides, too, big kudos to them) and bring them home. Use the ulu to remove any large bits of nasty stuff on the skin side, but don’t stress about getting all the little bits of membrane – that can be done later. Cut the tail open and remove the bones. If you aren’t going to wash the fleece right away, salt the skin side and leave it to drain. (The stock trailer is a good place to leave a salted hide!)

2. Drape the hide over a chair in the shower stall and wash it from the fleece side very thoroughly with Sunlight soap (this is what we always used to wash sheep for 4H shows, it is cheap, smells good, and does the job). Use the shower on ‘massage’ setting to help drive out the bits of hay and bugs that are inevitably in the fleece – get it as clean as possible at this stage of the game so that things go more smoothly later on. You are using a whole lot of soap, so this should be inhibiting bacterial action – one of the worries when dealing with a fresh hide.

3. Put the hide into an acid bath. The stuff I used this time worked fine – sulfamic acid, a product meant for cleaning/etching concrete driveways – just dissolve that (or any strong acid, you need a pH of about 2) in water, add a generous amount of salt, stir it all in then immerse the hides and leave them there for a few days.

4. Remove the hides from the acid bath (wear gloves!) and take them back to the shower. Wash again with Sunlight soap: this will help neutralize the acid, and give you a chance to get the rest of the yukkies out of the fleece. Let it drip dry for a bit.

5. Plunk the skin fleece side down on a few towels/sheets laid on the floor and work with the ulu again to really clean the skin side of the hide. Get as much of the membrane off as you can, and work the hide with the knife quite firmly – this helps to stretch it somewhat. Use dental floss to sew up any holes now, while the hide is still pliable. Make sure you insert the needle fairly far from the edge of the hole, or it’ll just tear through the skin.

6. Blow dry the fleece side of the hide to get the drying process underway. This is probably optional: if the weather is good, outside on the line or fence would work well, or just draped over a chair with a fan. Be careful about draping over chair backs for any length of time though, it can stretch the hide in weird ways. Blow drying is a good way to check the fleece over for bits of dirt or remaining bugs – you can get a lot of the nasty stuff out of the fleece while you are working.

7. As the hide is drying, stretch  the skin side to side and up and down with your hands, step on it and tug, pull it across the back of a chair, and periodically put it back on the floor and take the ulu to it some more. The scraping motion of the ulu will help to stretch out the hide as well as getting the guck off the skin side.

8. When the skin side is just damp (and feels chilly) rub some oil into the hide side (mink oil or whatever is handy) and leave to dry some more.

9. Work with the ulu and your hands, stretching the hide, until it is white and smooth and completely dry. It should not feel cold at all – cold spots are still damp.

10. Trim the hide to the shape you want, removing any of the thick spots along the edge (I scrape from the centre out to the edge so a ‘ridge’ of stuff seems to collect along the edges).  Brush the fleece side if you want, or leave the lock structure intact.

Voila! A tanned hide.

I did do one hide (the last one pictured above) with just Murphy’s Oil Soap instead of the acid bath, and it came out fine – though it will need to be smoked still to remain soft. I think the acid bath gave a nicer skin texture, though, so I’ll probably just use that method in the future – it was easy enough.

In hindsight, I probably spent too long fleshing the hides early in the process – they were very clean to start with, but of course I had no idea what “clean” meant, as I’ve never done this before. I dinged the hide in several places, being new to the use of an ulu. I also didn’t wash the fleeces thoroughly until after the acid bath, and the one I did with Murphy’s soap wasn’t washed much at all before I started the process. 

Also, if I have a hide that is really nasty or needs a lot of fleshing or washing, I’ll probably take it to the car wash and use the pressure washer on it. Or, if I ever happen to end up owning a pressure washer, well, then I can just do it here. There are some awesome videos on YouTube of people fleshing deer hides with a pressure washer – it goes *so fast*! I’d use it on the fleece side of a Down breed sheep, too, no problem – not something like Icelandic, which felts if you look at it funny, but something less feltable? You bet. It’d be so clean so fast!

I’ve spent several full days working on these … which was a good thing, given the state of my brain at the time, but the next ones I do I think can be finished in much less time, now that I know what I’m doing.

Overall, I’m really happy with the results. If you try this, or have used other tanning methods, I’d love to hear from you – I really do read the comments!

And if you’d be interested in buying one for yourself … I could probably be talked into doing one or two for sale.

And I think I’m gonna try a cow hide, if I can get a nice one from the butcher. This is just way too cool!

07 November 2014

Tanning Sheepskins

With the last of the sheep turned into sausage (except Cherub, who is still here waiting for a lift to her new home), I’ve been working on the sheepskins that the butcher saved for me.

I went to Sangudo Meats last Friday to pick up the hides, which had been expertly removed (and these folks do an excellent job processing meat and making sausage, too, as well as having great respect for the animals and treating them gently). Came home and hosed off the hides outside, and did an initial pass with the ulu to flesh the hide (though honestly they didn’t need a lot of work, sheepskin is fairly thin, and the initial skinning was done so well that there was very little to remove). Salted the hides and left them in the stock trailer overnight, where they would be safe from critters and cool (it’s cold at night here, but much warmer than usual for this time of year – so the stock trailer is like a big walk-in-fridge, rather than a deep freeze), and the drippy water could just run onto the rubber coated floor.

The next day, the two Icelandic hides got a second pass with the ulu then went into an acid bath: I filled the green turtle pool with water and a container of sulfamic acid, as well as a generous amount of salt, and let them soak for a few days. I weighted them down with rocks so that they stayed submerged, put the lid on the pool and weighted it with a sledgehammer so none of the critters might get into it accidentally, and ignored it. This step is called pickling.

The third hide, a crossbred Columbia/Hampshire/Icelandic lamb, was left well salted for several days, then brushed clean and brought inside for a more thorough fleshing. It was still quite moist, so I just worked it more thoroughly with the ulu and removed more of the thin membrane from the skin side, as well as scraping off the salt residue. I used dental floss to sew up the few holes I made (I’m a rookie, holes were inevitable) and then used Murphy’s Oil Soap to “brain tan” the hide: brains are the traditional substance, but soap and oil, eggs and oil, or a number of other things can be used – you do have to smoke it afterwards, to transmogrify the oils into the proper preservative and keep the hide soft, a step you don’t necessarily need with other tanning methods. As I’m experimenting to see what works well given the tools and materials I have on hand, I’m trying a few different methods. At least Murphys smells all right!

The soaped hide was then left to dry … the skin side is just now beginning to dry out after three days. I brushed the fleece out last night, a job that took a couple of hours with a dog brush … the staple length on this fleece is amazing and is so soft! Here you can see the before brushing and after brushing comparison:

Just look how cushy soft it is to stand on! It’s ankle deep!

Brushing got out the vast majority of the vegetable matter (and the odd bug), as well as cleaning out the dirt and dust. I think if I were to do this again, I’d bring the raw fresh hide in the house right off the bat and give it a very thorough washing with Sunlight soap (what we always used to wash live sheep before 4H shows, and which I still prefer for washing raw fleece) before starting the fleshing process – that way the fleece could be drying while the hide is salting out, and more of the gunk will be out from the get-go.

The hide side is starting to dry now, so I’m working it to keep it soft. This entails pulling and stretching as well as pressing a rounded bone into the skin to provide more stretch. The dogs helpfully brought me a perfect bone from somewhere: they found a nice cow femur that has a perfect ball on the end, nicely aged and slightly roughened so it also works like a pumice to help rub off the leftover bits of membrane. Because the fleece is so cushiony and soft (and clean now) I have the skin just lying on the couch and I scrub the bone into it, stretching into the skin and working it. Traditionally you tie the hide in a stretching frame then press into it with a rounded stick, but this seems to be working, there’s enough flex with the cushioning under the hide to allow for the pressure to stretch the hide when I push on it.

Photo 2014-11-07, 2 25 54 PM

See how the hide is turning white in the dry places? That’s what we want.

The Icelandic hides came out of the acid bath yesterday and were thoroughly rinsed and washed with soap – this will neutralize the acid as well as clean the fleece. The white fleece, Lambie’s, is just gorgeous: I spent a long time with the shower head on ‘massage’ setting washing the VM and dirt out because I want to leave the lock structure intact. It’s drying nicely (I draped it over a chair and blew a fan across it for several hours after the shower treatment), and this morning I oiled it with canola oil and will begin the breaking process as the skin starts to dry out.

Jellybean’s pelt, the black Icelandic, did get brushed as it was harder to work the locks clean for some reason. It’s hard to get a good picture of a black pelt indoors, but here you go!

The skin side of this one was treated with mink oil, and is hanging up to dry. These two should need only breaking, not smoking.

My brain isn’t working very well just now – it’s been a stressful couple of weeks at our house, as The Reluctant Farmer’s work contract was suddenly terminated and he has scrambled to find new work … he has just started a new position as a firefighter/EMT in an industrial department, and things are going well there so we’re all able to breathe a bit easier now but it takes a lot out of a person going through so much change. Working on the hides has been a good ‘mindless’ task. My arms and hands are pretty sore, but I just keep putting Voltaren on them and carrying on with the work!

Hopefully my brain is restored in the next few days. If you’ve been waiting to hear from me on anything, I do apologize … I’m just not really “all here” right now, so give me a few days then try again!

UPDATE: What I’ve learned, and images of the finished sheepskins … here!