Sunny Lea Sheep

Growing wool on a small farm in Kentucky

The Web Collector

It’s the best part of the day, a time to think and slow down, and remember that this is a beautiful world, too often wasted by hours spent in buildings, toiling away to make money so we can buy food, instead of toiling away in the beautiful great wide outdoors to grow food. The ultimate irony. We purchase food that wrecks our health, and pay (!) to work out in gyms, when we could grow better sustenance, and get better exercise simply by doing what we were created to do.

And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it”  Genesis 2:15

“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”

 ~Wendell Berry

I am bringing up the sheep from the back pasture, herding  them up near the barn to keep them safe from coyotes, bobcats, and dogs.  The long path passes through a stand of forest, huge cedars along one side, a mixture of trees and underbrush on the other. It is growing dark, and the shadowy sentinels rustle softly, green light glowing like emerald gems through their branches. Crickets chirp and birds sing. This is where I belong. In the great wide world, where one has only to look at the detail in each living thing to know that a creator exists.

Along the path spiders spin their webs, great swaths of delicate sticky strands that drape me one by one, clinging to my arms and face, stretching out behind me. They are like the little worries of life; the first  you brush aside, not much disturbed, but soon they pile up, a hopeless entanglement that sticks with you long hours after they first take hold.

The sheep are sometimes waiting by the gate, sometimes away back in the trees, but always they come when I call, with the exception of a rainy night last week, when they were convinced that to be soaked by the down pour  was a worse fate then to be eaten by coyotes.

There have even been a few occasions when they have come up of their own accord, the gates having been left open. I believe sheep can be trained to certain patterns with patience and consistency. In this case, their minerals are at the barn, and they come for this reason. The lambs especially gulp  them down, leaving an amusing reddish stamp on their mouths, which appears ridiculously like lipstick.

Now I take time, though it is growing late and I must be up early, to pet the sheep and look them over. Who has foreign material tangled in their precious fleece? Is Martha any closer to having her baby? Can I convince the lambs to let me scratch their chins? Tommy is friendly, perhaps overly so, and Nutkin is getting there. Thomasina wants to be, but must keep up the pretense of not wanting to be.

The lights of the house glow warm and friendly beckoning me in. My day is much better for ending this way, a little time spent in nature to refresh and calm.  Good night sheep. Life is good.

 

 

 

 

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The Bert Sweater: Chapter Two

In chapter one, you saw how a fleece is sorted, washed, and carded. All that work merely sets the stage for the magical process of spinning. Preparing the fiber is  a huge task, but in the end it  is only the work that prepares you for more work. (Which prepares you for more work, because after spinning comes knitting.) It is really a simple thing, twisting fibers into yarn, but it seems magical, and wonderfully old-fashioned;  all wrapped up in princesses and fairy tales,  pilgrims and pioneers.

Spinning is very satisfying once you can make a decently consistent yarn, and relaxing, a steady beat that reminds you the world is still turning and life goes on.

Bert is lovely to spin, very soft, and because his locks are different colors along their length, grey closer to the skin, turning to brown in the middle, and fading to fawn at the tips, the yarn is not a solid color, but a lovely heathery brown.

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I made  3-ply yarn with all of Bert’s fleece. When spinning, you take a length of carded fiber, and pull it out to the thickness you want the yarn to be (called drafting) and allow the wheel to add twist. This is called spinning “singles”

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You then twist two or more singles together in the opposite direction (this is called plying);  in this case three singles are twisted together making a “3-ply” yarn.

102_5274Last year while spinning all my fleeces up for knitting into mittens and hats to sell, I found that while my fiber felt soft, the yarns I spun were stiff, and the things knit from them had little drape, and were not as soft as I wanted. Research in books and on the internet revealed I was spinning  “worsted” style which produces a strong, smooth,  hard-wearing yarn, and that  “woolen” style spinning makes a   fluffier yarn. It incorporates more air into the fibers, so that it is warmer, and makes a softer finished garment.  How you prepare and draft out the fiber determine whether you are spinning “worsted” or “woolen”. Currently, I spin a “semi-worsted” yarn in which the fiber is prepared for woolen style, but spun with a worsted drafting  technique. This is because I have not yet mastered woolen (“long draw”)  drafting.

Also, I was simply putting too much twist in the yarn. To help with this, I dug some commercial 3-ply yarn out if my stash, snipped off a little piece, untwisted the plies, and used them as a reference while spinning, trying to match it as closely as possible. When it came time to ply I referred to the commercial yarn again, comparing it and my yarn to see if I was plying to much or too little. This also helped me to spin the thickness of yarn I wanted, because when spinning singles, it is hard to tell how thick a three ply made from them will be.

Between these two discoveries, my yarn is now much softer and drapes nicely, although it is still not completely consistent.

After the yarn is spun and plied, you take it off the “bobbins” (spools) and make it into a big loop, called a “hank”. You can do this using  a kind person’s hands, the back of a chair, or  a “swift”,  an umbrella-like tool that makes the process quicker.

To keep the hanks neat, they are twisted into “skeins”:

 

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All of Bert’s wool is now spun, and the knitting has commenced. Stay tuned for an update on the progress!

 

 

High Tensile Fence Building Tips, and How to Estimate the Cost

High tensile fence has several advantages over other types of fence. It is easier to work with than barb wire, (something I consider a curse upon the earth after having wound up what seemed like miles and miles of it) and easier to construct and maintain then woven wire. It is also cheaper to  build.

There are a couple things to consider before beginning with your own fence. One pertains to fencing in general, the other to high tensile in particular.

1. While a fence may appear to be made of metal and wood, with a little plastic thrown in, it is mostly  made of blood sweat and tears. And I mean that very literally . In my fencing career I have gained scars from the wounds, lost  weight while still eating huge meals of very fattening foods, and sat down on the dirt and bawled out of pure frustration. Unless you are paying someone else to build your fence , plan for these three things to be a big part of your life. Do not undertake this if you are not willing to work very hard. You will go to bed at night with every bone and muscle aching, only to wake up and do it all again the next day and the next.

Enough with the Johnny Raincloud though. It is very worth it in the end. You’ll be glad you did it.

2. High Tensile  is a mental  barrier not a a physical one. This fence will only keep your animals in if you keep it properly maintained. Trim weeds regularly, tighten wires as needed, and walk the fence often to check for shorts like trees branches. Test it to be sure you have a strong currant. The animals can easily plow though the fence if they want to. Make sure they don’t want to. And put them where the grass is. They’ll stay in much better if they have plenty to eat. We had a sheep who could not be kept in the fence because when she was a lamb, we put her out in a field with fence that was not hooked up to the electric. She got so used to going through, that even when the electric was on, she continued to be a nuisance. You will need to train the animals by making sure the fence is very hot their first time out.

So while high tensile is the most affordable option for fencing, it does require quite a bit of time both while building and throughout it’s lifetime.

Now to meat of the matter.

before

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We use metal t-posts in between the braces. In flat country, you can go great distances between posts, but here in the hills of Kentucky we put them closer together, about seven or eight steps (12′-15′)  apart. You don’t want them too close, because one of the advantages of high tensile is the “rubber band effect”. If a tree falls on the fence, the wire will stretch down to the ground, but spring back up, unbroken, after the tree is removed. If the posts are too close together (or if the wire is over tightened), you lose this handy trait.

There are some points we have discovered along the way, that make for a straighter, stronger fence. It is sometimes hard to remember them all, and so not every brace we build is perfect, especially at the end of a long day.

Helpful Tips:

  • Build the braces two at a time. Set the corner posts, then stretch one of the lower fence wires, complete with insulators and a wire strainer, and tighten it just enough to get a straight line, but not so much much that you can’t pull it back out of the way while the inside post holes are being dug. This way, you can be sure the inside posts are set in the right place, so that the brace is pointing the right direction, and the wires will not be putting pressure on the inside post once they are tightened. example2.png
  • Set the posts with gravel. We used to use the dirt from the hole, but gravel is much faster and much more secure. Dirt must be carefully tamped down with a thin stick, gravel can simply be shoveled in.
  • Don’t set the inside post until the horizontal brace is up. This way you have more wiggle room to get everything to fit.
  • Staple all the insulators down before you tighten the wires, or it will be hard to position them, and they may split.
  • Make the cross wire run in a figure eight. This way it interferes less with fence wires. Make sure the strainer ends up on the back side of the brace for the same reason.
  • Slide on extra sort insulators in case one breaks or you need to slip them between the cross-wire and fence wire to keep them from touching. This happens most often on the top and bottom wires, as the figure eight is wider at these points.
  • Use a “Story Stick”, a stick with the desired position of the fence wires marked on it, to figure out where to drill the holes for the brace pins. The horizontal brace should sit between the top two wires. When using the story stick, make sure it sits on level ground. This may require digging away some of the dirt or gravel around the base of the post.
  • Make sure the cross-wire is slanted the correct way.  We once did several incorrectly, so that they were pulling the corner post over, instead of bracing it back! Oops. Just remember it should be UP on the inside post, and DOWN on the corner post.
  • When you pound in the metal t-posts, start in the middle of a stretch, not by a brace. This will make it straighter. If you work end to end, its is more likely they will get slightly out of line. Start in the middle, then go to the middle of each half, and so on.
  • PUT THE WIRE STRAINERS  IN THE MIDDLE OF A STRETCH, NOT BY A BRACE. That way, the tension is equally divided on each side of the wire strainer. Also realize, the fence will stretch over time, and every year you will tighten it more, so leave room for the wire strainers to move quite a bit. Don’t pound in a metal post right by them.

Required tools:

  • Wire cutters
  • Hammer
  • Strainer handle for tightening all wires
  • Post hole digger
  • Fencing pliers for pulling out staples that were nailed in wrong. Believe me it will happen.
  • Cordless drill with 1/2″ bit long enough to drill through the 6″ inside brace post.
  • Chainsaw. This will only be needed if you have to adjust the length of the horizontal brace. If the hole for the inside post is carefully dug, you should not need to trim the horizontal brace.
  • Shovel
  • Spinning Jenny,  for dispensing the roll of wire

How to estimate the cost:

Each corner brace will cost about $105.20

3   6″x8′ posts, $42

2   4″x8′ posts, $14

8 wire strainers,  (one for each cross-wire, and one for each fence wire)  $24

12  long insulators, $12

24  short insulators, $2.40

18  Staples, $1.80

2  10″ brace pins $2.00

2  5″ brace pins, $1.00

Each end brace (for gates) will cost about   $87.50

This is assuming you buy the wood posts. We save a lot of money, (and have a rip roaring good time!)  by cutting our own cedar posts.

Now, what is a little more difficult to figure; wire will cost about $ .03/foot.

So, figure out how many feet of fence you need (x), and  multiply that by 6, since you need six wires:  6x=a    Multiply a by .03:    .03a =b

You will also need  one  6′ metal t-post and six clip-on insulators ($5.21) for every 12-15′ feet of wire. We’ll say 12, to make things simpler.

To figure the cost of t-posts plus insulators,  divide x  by 12:   x/12 = c

and multiply  c  by  5.21:                                 5.21c  = d

So the wire, t-posts and insulators  will cost    b + d = e  (for Exhausted. That’s how I feel after all that math. Yuck.) The last time I had to use Algebra was for  learning how to knit a custom heel on a sock.  When in school, I firmly believed that crap would never be something to use in (my) real life.

Okay, to estimate the whole total cost of the fence (drum-roll),  you need to draw a picture, so you know how many corner braces and end braces you need, and then figure out how many feet of fence you need, and just add up the cost from there. Let me refresh you on the numbers:

Corner Braces,  $105.20 each

End Braces, $87.50 each

Wire,  $.03/foot  times 6

T-posts and clip-on insulators,  $5.21 for every 12 feet of fence.

So this example, which has four corner braces and one end brace:

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would cost $802.77

A handy tool you can use is Google Maps. Here you can estimate how may feet of fence you will need.

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This is the new pasture we just finished building last week. Using the numbers I gave you above, a pasture this size (and shape!) would cost  $2335.93   if you bought the posts, and $1663.93 if you cut your own posts. This is reasonably  close to what we spent, so I think my calculations are pretty accurate, and you can use this info to be sure you are prepared for the expense of building. Happy fencing!

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On the Lam

The barn is quiet and dim. As I enter the pen, the lock clicks behind me, and there is a nervous rustling of bedding  as the sheep take notice that a threat is near.  It is time to be sure everyone has water, hay and minerals, but first I want to pet a lamb. This is not as easy as  it sounds. When they see boots approaching, away they go. Here is the shepherd, out to grab them, and they are on the lam. The key is to get one in a corner.  It is the perfect opportunity, just stoop and swoop. If I’m lucky, I come with a lamb and not air.  Once in hand, the lamb may go very still. This does not mean it is happy and content. Not yet. In time maybe. Now it is terrified, frozen with fright.  Or it may struggle, trying to leap back to ground, and those little hooves are quite sharp! So I hold on tight, scratching behind  ears, and cooing, and pretending they love it. They’re  so darn cute! The feeder is a favorite place for them to sleep, and sometimes makes it easier to catch them.

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The older ones feel surprisingly  heavy. How can they be so big already! It seems like we just started lambing yesterday, but in realty it’s been so crazy around here time has flown by while seeming to stand still.

The smaller lot are so light, and their hooves so perfect and tiny!

Beatrice is friendly, and lets me pet her, so her ram lamb is curious and will sometimes come up too. Jemima, although not completely averse to a scratch now and then before she had her lambs, is now a dignified queen. “Do not touch me, minion, thou menial carrier of water buckets. And stay away from my babies.”  She wants no attention, and butts those who try to give it.

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, a little white lamb with brown spots, is especially cute, so I pick on her a lot. Sometimes it pays to be less good-looking.DSCN9636

A new lamb entered the scene today;  a yearling ewe  had  a big, healthy black lamb. She doesn’t have as strong an instinct to keep her lamb near as the experienced mothers, so we had a bit of a fuss figuring out who the new guy belonged to.DSCN9633

Last week Bianca had two lambs, an  interesting combination, as one is large and white, while the other is the smallest lamb I’ve seen yet, black, and (surprise surprise), has a white splotch on it’s head.  Good grief!  Our ram Bert must have  some skunk in his background.

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The Arrival of the Lambs

It has a been dizzying whirl of activity here at the farm lately. We are working on building a new pasture down by the garden, and this past Friday, the lambs began to arrive. Jemima had her’s first.  I went out to do chores in the morning , and there was a little black lamb at Jemima’s side.  The day before, I had cleaned out the ewes’ pen and set up some of the wooden panels we built several weeks ago,  so thankfully there was a lambing jug all ready for Jemima and her baby.  I ran  to the house to let Mom and Dad know about the baby, then went back to put the tiny thing in it’s jug. There in the large pen  was another lamb, black with a white spot on the head, curled up against the wall. Good job, Jemima! Into the jug they went, Beatrice almost going in too, as she wanted to claim one of them.  We got Jemima a bucket of warm water and a snack, and Mom held the lambs while Dad dipped their  little belly buttons in iodine, to prevent infection.

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That night between 11:00 and midnight, Mom and I went out to check on everybody, and there was a Cheviot with a lamb. She had gone into one of the jugs of her own accord, so all we had to do was shut her in. While we got water and food for her, she popped out another one! This one had the cutest little reddish-brown  spots, legs and tail.  They are doing well. The spotted one is bouncy, and very vocal, opening it’s little mouth wide so you can see its tiny pink tongue and meh-ing until all the other sheep get excited too, and there is quite the racket!

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The next morning while I was at my job in town, another lamb came to call. The mother, one of the Cheviots, seemed to be doing all right, but later in the afternoon, while Mom and Dad were gone shopping, I discovered another lamb, laying still, and not licked clean by the mother. I didn’t know if it was dead or alive, but thankfully my friend, who is a vet tech, was visiting to help with fence building, and she came to the rescue, checking for signs of life, and wrapping it up in a towel. The poor thing was dead. We do not know if it was born so, or was smothered  because the mother was too busy with her first lamb, and did not take care of the next. Perhaps this could have been prevented if I had been there right away when it was born, or perhaps there was nothing to be done. It is a horrible feeling to  lose a lamb, and wonder if you could have helped it.

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So, as of now there are five lambs, and four more ewes that have yet to give birth. Today we are sawing lumber to build more lamb jugs, and to patch up the large pen so that when the new families are let out of the little lamb jugs, the babies don’t get hurt trying to escape through gaps in the walls.

The Bert Sweater: Chapter One

How does wool go from being a sheep coat to something you can wear?

This  is the first in a series of blog posts explaining the process. There are as many different ways to achieve the same, or nearly the same results as there are spinners, but this is the way I do it.

Last year, I sent all of my fleeces to a mill, and had it made into “roving”, ready for me to hand spin.  You can watch this video to see their process in action:  Spinderella’s Fiber Mill Video

They are all booked up this year, and shipping the fiber was expensive. So I will be carding some of the fleeces on a drum carder that I recently acquired, and looking for another mill within a reasonable driving distance to card the rest for me.

 

The Bert Sweater will be hand washed, carded, spun, and knit.

The first step is “skirting”. Some of this was done on shearing day, but now the fleece is unrolled, and as much as possible of the hay, etc is picked out. If there are any really nasty bits left they are bagged up for mulch on the garden.

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Bert looks brown, but is grey underneath.

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The next step is washing, to get rid the sticky grease called “lanolin”, and any residual mud (or worse). Washing is the biggest reason I send fleeces to a mill. It requires very hot water, and a lot of it.  I washed Bert’s fleece in a bucket in the sink, adding boiling water if needed, and dumping the dirty  water outside. Mom’s baby gates came in very handy for drying it.

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Some of Bert’s fleece drying.

After the fleece is washed,  I “flick” the locks to get out the tiny bits of hay and such which are impossible to remove before washing, and to open up the ends so that they will card more smoothly. There are special tools called “flickers” to do this, but a dog brush, or any other similar item, works too.

My sheep are not coated, so quite a lot falls out at this stage:

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The floor after a day of carding.

Next, the locks are fed into the drum carder:

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When the carder is full, the fiber is pulled off, and is ready to spin. This is called a “batt”:

I prefer to go one step farther, and “diz” the fiber off the carder. This makes the batt into “roving”, which is what you get back from the mill, and is nicer to spin.

A “diz” can be a special one made for the purpose, or anything with a small hole in it. Mine is a large button.  Using a crochet hook, the fiber is fed through the hole, and then pulled firmly as the drum is turned slowly, until all the fiber is drawn off:

Roll it up into a ball to keep it from falling apart, and it’s ready to spin!

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Several balls of roving, ready to spin.

 

Shearing Day

Mr Lawson, our shearer, works magic with his electric clippers, sometimes bending over as though to touch his toes, sometimes kneeling, as he  gently removes  the fleece from each sheep, like peeling a banana. He makes it look easy, but it takes a lot of strength and skill  to do this job well.

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It is amazing to see.  There are some nicks if the sheep struggle, but after it is over they seem happy to be free of the long heavy coats they’ve  been wearing for months. Especially this year, since the weather has been so warm.  The lambs leap in the air, while the more sedate adults rub their newly  shorn skin, reveling. They sniff around to be sure those strangers are really their old friends.

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Last year we sheared eight sheep, this year fifteen. It was a crazy day, one I’ve been stressing over for months, the thing  I worried about at 2 o’ the morning when I was supposed to be sleeping. Last year we had a couple of jumpy ewes who refused to come in the barn, and so were not sheared. Their fleeces got very shaggy and matted, and they didn’t look at all comfortable over the  summer. Thankfully this year there were no problems like that, and all went smoothly. We are getting better at having an efficiently flowing system in which the sheep are penned up on one side of the barn, sheared in the middle, and let out the other side with very little  coaxing.

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It went very quickly; in this picture Annie herds a newly shorn sheep outside, I gather up the fleece, and Dad gets the next sheep ready to lead out to the shearer.

Dad figured it all out, and got the various pens and gates in the sheep area set up in the most convenient manner. He did the catching, bringing each sheep to the shearer.  Mom handled the belly wool which is sheared first and tossed to the side, bagging  it up to use as mulch on her garden,  opened  gates and gathered up fleeces. My sister and her fiance helped wherever needed and took  pictures, all the photo credits go to them and Mom.

I did the skirting, laying out each fleece on a “skirting table”,  a surface which allows dirt and seconds cuts to fall through. Ours is a wooden frame with hardware cloth stapled to it.  Skirting is the process of removing foreign material from the fleece. There are varying levels of intensity when it comes to skirting. On shearing day, the object is just to remove the really poop encrusted parts, and large pieces of hay, etc. The fleeces will be gone over again later, and closely examined and cleaned.

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Beatrice’s fleece; multicolored and silky.

Digging your fingers into a fleece right off the sheep is so much fun. It’s still warm, and it has a strong aroma of sheep, a smell that is an acquired taste. Some people might think it’s a bad smell, but I enjoy it. In fact, the fleece off our  ram, Bert, was so delightfully soft  that  I laid down my head on it,  breathed in the sheep-ness, and was happy.

The fleeces are stuffed into large paper bags made for collecting leaves and grass (if stored in plastic they can mildew),  and  once again the laundry room is piled full of fleeces. This is only the beginning, and there are many steps between a raw fleece and finished yarn. A series of blog posts detailing these steps is upcoming. I plan to make a Bert Sweater, and you can observe the progress and cheer me along.  Bert is moving to another farm, and a sweater from his fleece will be a reminder of our  first ram. He was so cute when we got him, almost still a baby!

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Bert the day we brought him to our farm at about 6 months old.

Here are some before and after pictures:

Flower:

 

 

Martha:

 

Bert:

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Jemima, very bulgy! She had twins last year, and it looks like she will again this year.

It is such a relief to have a task that means so much to the success of our goals done, and there is a wonderful feeling of opportunity about having bags and bags of wool just waiting to be transformed. This one might be a hat, and some mittens! What if these two were combined?! An endless array of options opens before you!