Thursday, April 7, 2016


This weird warm winter has actually been a pain in the neck for us- we're used to snow and cold, and really count on it when figuring work schedules in "winter".  This year has been warm - leaving us with mud to navigate, one of my least favorite things.  Hauling water to sheep in February eats up time and energy - when they normally would be ecstatically eating snow - and hauling hay over mud is way more work than a sled on snow.

But!  The Icelandics have come through beautifully; and now - it's that time.

The first lambs of the season arrived yesterday morning.  It's delightful to see how excited lambs make - people!  And happy.  We all love lambs, which I find fascinating.  These were a bit of a surprise, both quite black, not a pattern we've had a lot of in our flock. Both have tiny bits of white accents here and there; it will be interesting to see where they wind up, as fleece patterns can shift a bit in the first few years of life.  One ram and one ewe, names not entirely settled yet-  Only problem with black lambs is they're really hard to photograph!

Here they are with their momma, Flora; one of our founding ewes.  The lambs are around 8 hours old here; they're up and walking in minutes.  The current paddock includes a long row of hazels which we want to coppice - very soon.  This is one of the major economic contributions the Icelandics make- preparing tree crops for the coppice cycle.  By eating grass and weeds and low branches, they cut the actual labor humans have to expend in the process probably by more than half.  It's significant.

I can guarantee we'll have more lamb pics coming very soon!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Settling in...

The past weeks have been more than hectic enough; including chestnut and hickory-pecan harvests made possible by the sheep (and horses) - and getting our Icelandics separated for the breeding season into 3 groups; 2 breeding rams, Cable, and Buster; and the non-breeding ram pen.

The flock had never been separated like this before, and the process took on the characteristics of a rodeo, with Brandon as the chief sheep-tackle.  Thank goodness.  More exciting than either sheep or people really needed; but we all calmed down dramatically once the process was complete.

With a few days to catch our breath - the world has now moved on - it's Winter.

I saw this out the house window, while inside warming up.  When I got outside with the camera- it was gone.  The sun had moved just a bit, and the one that caught my eye was now shaded by a tree trunk.  But.  Several that had been shaded, were now illuminated.

Stained glass windows, and Christmas tree ornaments, I thought.  Blackberry leaves; snow; and sunlight.

Incomparable wealth.

Sunday, November 1, 2015


We had the most gorgeous pumpkins for jack-o-lanters this year that we've ever had, in all my 40 years of growing pumpkins.

And yes; we had them because the sheep planted them.  And fertilized them.  With no help from us humans.  Really!
That one's a bit fuzzy, because it was hand held for a full second.  The artists; left to right, Eleanor Rutter, Mark Hamann, Philip, Meg.

Pumpkins are in fact excellent fall / winter feed for the Icelandics; we've fed them every year.  Last October 30 or so, Meg came back home from volunteering at the school with the back of the van full of surplus pumpkins.  They obviously had good jack-o-lantern genetics; good color, good size, and very strong "handles".  We fed them to the sheep in various paddocks; but most of them went to the non-breeding rams; held in a smaller pen where they needed us to feed them.  

I'm not sure if the seed went through the sheep, or they just missed a few- but this spring we wound up with about 8 volunteer pumpkin vines- growing in the corner of the ram pen they'd chosen for the primary "deposits".  Enough sheep poo there that all the grass was buried, and killed- meaning no weeding for us in the early growing - and truly fabulous fertility.  Boy those were healthy vines.  And boy did we get gorgeous pumpkins.

Top view of mine; notice how thick the walls are-the deck boards are 6 inches wide.
 Their genetics all came through; color, size, handle- but ours are all better than their parents, I would bet entirely due to the sheep fertilizer.  The biggest difference- the sheep pumpkins are heavy- and it's not water; its the thickness of the walls.  Which is where the food is.

I love these pumpkins.  We aren't going to count on the same lucky phenomenon this coming season, though if it happens, we'll be delighted.  We're also saving seed, and we'll get some planted on our own.  Maybe we'll run a competition with the rams.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Another new use!

We have discovered another new way in which the Icelandics are a significant economic help in the tree crops.  I hadn't ever seen this particular practice mentioned in descriptions of "silvopasture" operations; the idea simply occurred to me as I was doing this necessary work right next to the sheep, and it hit me that they could be a huge help.  Maybe.  So I set out to test it immediately; and the answer is yes!  The sheep are a huge help, in yet another way.

When you work with any woody crop, eventually you hit the point where you simply have too many branches in the field; and in our case, too many trees, too.  You absolutely must remove them, via pruning and/or coppicing.  The concept that there is a "right time" to prune or coppice - becomes laughable, once you are working at a larger scale.  Pruning "on time" is a luxury; old apple growers used to respond to the question "When is the right time to prune?" with a blunt grunt of "When your saw is sharp."  Which is to say, whenever it is possible, in the rush of all the other work necessary.  Do it any time in the year you can - that is vastly better than fantasizing that you will get it done sometime in the future, when conditions are perfect.  That way lies ruin.

Inevitably, much of our pruning/thinning happens when the branches are completely leafed out.  And those leaves - are a major barrier to finishing the job; getting big branches or thinned trees cut into moveable pieces, and removed from the grove.  Typically we have cut, waited for the active leaves to draw as much water (and weight) out of the cut wood as possible, and the leaves have dried down crisp; then done the chore of removal.  No matter what; the leaves slow you down dramatically, and take up space in the transport process.  More work.  But you know what?  The sheep eat chestnut leaves, and hickory-pecan leaves - voraciously.  We have already been relying on them (and the horses) to remove everything they can reach - up out of our way, and letting us humans actually get under the trees, for harvest.

So - what happens if you go into the next designated sheep paddock, and do the pruning thinning right before putting the sheep in?
Chestnut tree thinnings, dropped in next paddock. 
Above: an entire small chestnut tree dropped for the sheep to work on.  Imagine yourself having to wrestle the leaves and twigs out of the grove.  It's a very significant amount of sweat involved.

After the Icelandics.
This is the same culled tree- skeletonized; you can tell by looking at the big chestnut tree in the right margin; same trunks.  Notice there's a lot of green grass still available; the sheep eat chestnut leaves before grass.  And notice the black and white ewe in the upper left; she's prospecting for any chestnut twigs/leaves still reachable.  They eat not only the leaves, but also most of the young twigs, which like the leaves are just a pain in the neck for the human partner to deal with.  They don't eat the immature burrs, interestingly, but those are easy to deal with.

Something I was not able to get a photo of; our sheep work on the dropped tree as a gang, not individuals.  I saw them do it.  When one of the larger ewes manages to bend a yet unbrowsed branch just a bit lower- 5 more sheep immediately ran to work on the tops now in reach.  They are eager.

Now- multiply this help by the hundreds of branches and thinnings we need to remove every year.

I think this is a big deal.  Dramatically lowers the cost of this part of managing the trees- as well as providing good feed to the sheep.  And rather than the dry leaves blowing away somewhere, the nutrients in them go through the sheep - and are then harvested by us humans, either via the sheep, or as harvested nuts or wood.

Win-win-win, once again.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Speaking Leadersheep

Just like with fossil fuel lawnmowers; if you're using livestock to mow grass; you need to keep careful track of how much fuel they have available.  An empty tank on your gas mower - means running out of fuel in the middle of a job, possibly far from more gas.  An empty tank on your grass-fueled mower - means sick sheep, low growth rates, and possibly dead animals in the winter.  So - we keep careful track of how much graze is left in the paddock.

Right now our sheep are mowing under our main nut producing chestnuts- both to eat the burdock down to zero again, depleting the root systems so we can hope to prevent seed formation; and also to eat volunteer chestnut seedlings, which will confuse our data- and which the horses will not touch.

The sheep also avidly eat chestnut leaves they can reach; which we appreciate- it makes it possible to move in the grove.  And they strip invasive tartarian honeysuckle completely, and most other invasive woody plants also.  They don't touch mature chestnut bark.

The Leadersheep genes in our flock means - the sheep tell us the state of the graze; whenever we walk by.  Literally.  The first picture below is how they greeted me just now, as I came to check.  Supreme indifference.  Meaning; graze is ok at the moment.  But- the two top ewes both spoke to me; both Minnie and Bridget gave me one "baaa" each, as they lay down.  On a new paddock, they will not speak.  Two leaders speaking means, specifically - "It's ok today; but we can see it's going to run out before long."  Meaning; the paddock will need to be moved tomorrow; or the next day for sure.

And in the picture below - you can see the flock simply expressing interest in me.  They got up and came to see what was going on; when I stayed at the fence, came a bit closer, and started taking pictures.  A little more baaaing, but not much; and very casual behavior.  They understand the entire process of moving the paddock- and are interested.

In the normal course of things, when I repeat my inspection tomorrow, instead of just Minnie and Bridget baaaing, there will be 5 adult sheep speaking as soon as they see me: which translates as "We'd appreciate a new paddock today; but it's not exactly urgent."  If they're in the same paddock on the next day - the entire flock will speak - loudly- as soon as they see a human.

It's very, very useful.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Step 1 - Moving The Flock To "Registered" -

Meet "Cable", our new, and officially Registered, ram.  We're very happy with his ancestry- which, since he's registered, is all laid out to see.  Registered Icelandics are not cheap; which is why the Shuttleworth Flash Grant was needed to allow us to make this step- but; aside from providing really certain genetics, registering our animals in the future will basically double the value of animals we can offer for sale as breeding stock.  Our goals for our flock include developing the potential for them to add to farm income, directly as well as indirectly.

Yes, he is this year's lamb- but Icelandic ram lambs can be counted on to "function" fully in their first year.  We're picking him up in August, from Lydia's Flock, good careful breeders whose starting genetics were quite different from our own, but who also have a focus on Leadersheep, a sub-breed within Icelandic sheep that we definitely want.  You can learn about Leadersheep easily here, on the front page of Sunrise Sheep And Wool, another first rate Icelandic farm in Minnesota (but whose flock genetics are generally much closer to ours.)  We already have Leadersheep genetics in our flock.

Leadersheep were carefully maintained and bred in Iceland, apparently right from the beginning (1,000 years ago.) Basically, they did not have their wild intelligence entirely bred out of them.  Virtually all other sheep have been bred into proverbially non-intelligent creatures.  But Leadersheep notice the world around them, bring flocks in out of storms or if a wolf howls- and bond to their humans, helping with flock management.  We need that intelligence here; we depend on the flock to be sensible.  That doesn't mean they have human brains; they are sheep.  But they are not silly.  If you look at Cable's photo - you can see it; he's alert, aware, not timid- and interested in you.

When I first wanted to try sheep in the nut crops, Megan was not at all enthusiastic.  Her opinion of sheep, based on growing up on a ranch with thousands of commercial breed sheep, was that they are "wooly turnips."  It took a while- but- Megan is now an Icelandic sheep enthusiast.  They have personalities- at least our flock with some Leadersheep genes in all of them, certainly do.  And we've never lost an animal to coyotes; though they are abundant- and they know the flock is there.

We started our flock with animals that were registered, or registrable; good genetics.  But during the trial stages, we were not always meticulous about which ram was responsible for which lamb; for about 3/4 of the lambs we are sure of the sire, but...

Now; with the help of the Shuttleworth Foundation; we're upgrading; and we'll have the ability to keep rams and their ewes separate during the breeding season, so we'll know.  We'll have 3 great rams available this year; 2 registered and 1 registrable- and we know which ewes should go with which ram to block inbreeding.  At the moment, we're a little more inbred than I like; "line breeding" is a standard tool in animal breeding; but always carefully and with limits; we're at the limit, I think.

We do also have a few "excess" ram lambs- in case anyone is interested in a "grade" (non-registered) Icelandic ram with excellent genetics.  We have, I think 6 ram lambs; 2 of which we banded, as wethers, 4 of which looked so promising as breeding stock we did not castrate.  But we don't really need; or want; 4 more rams- we'd like to keep 1, probably, for future breeding.  The other 3 will likely be castrated later- unless- someone out there wants a ram...

We intend to get good pictures of the flock, including available ram lambs, before too long.  But they don't exactly stand still for their portraits...

Friday, June 12, 2015


Folks, we're actively working on getting this new blog into shape and working- so if you check in here and something looks really goofy - let us know, via the comments-

I'm cussing under my breath (or top of my lungs) at the "improvements" in the Blogger software; I've been on Blogger for years- but of course, nothing in the set process is the same, it's all better, faster, and more powerful - and usually incomprehensible.  To me.

Like - somehow, the default "color" for headers/headlines is orange.  ??  What??  Makes my eyes hurt; working on getting that fixed now.

Bear with us!  I promise lots of sheep and lamb photos- stories - and word on what's for sale, when.  And links; and all that stuff.

Soon!  Really!