Saturday, March 27, 2010

A lost triplet

After Tillie gave birth to the second lamb around 1.00 or 1.30 pm yesterday, I relaxed a little, perhaps too much. Aimee came home soon thereafter and we watched together for another hour or so to see that both lambs were on their feet and trying to feed, then we went indoors around 3pm.

I lay down to catch up on some of my missed sleep from jet lag and night checks. Later, around 4.15 pm and after that, I went out again several times to look for the placenta. By dinnertime nothing had happened and I was worried enough to look up "retained afterbirth" in the Storey book on sheep management. The book said to wait at least six hours before doing anything, so I checked one last time at 5.30 pm, made a dinner for myself and some pasta for Aimee, and then checked again at 6.30 pm.

And there was a third lamb, fully shrouded, and the entire plancenta, all in one package, warm but still. I peeled off the caul and slapped it once or twice to see if it would breathe, but gave up when I saw that there was no heartbeat. Perhaps there had been one when it was born, but I doubt it. The fact that it came with the placenta led me to think it stillborn, being the last lamb after 6 or 7 hours of labor. At some time or other the cord had probably been pinched, cutting off the oxygen.

So this death probably couldn't be helped, except perhaps had I felt inside for another lamb right after pulling the second one out, which I didn't even think to do. Thinking about it, Monday morning quarterbacking, I probably would have explored inside Tillie if there had been a long delay after a first lamb, but not after a second. I just wasn't expecting three.

We've never had a triplet at Womerlippi Farm. We still haven't had a live one. And I doubt Tillie, a rather aged ewe that we weren't even planning to breed, could have handled a third lamb. The two she has are doing OK, but they are small and very frail as lambs go around here.

But boy, Mother Nature is really kicking our butts this time around. Shepherds 3, lamb deaths 2. Not good. I hope we don't lose any more.

And I have learned a hard lesson or two about shepherding.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Two more

I came home at 12.30, to find Tillie with one new lamb at foot, the other as yet unborn. I picked up the one she had and popped it in the lambing pen, and of course the mother followed, contractions and all.

I then watched and waited for another hour and a half, but nothing showed, not so much as a single hoof, so I had to pull the second lamb out myself. It came easily enough, if you waited for the contractions to pull. Then there was an agonizing thirty seconds before the first, gasping, desperate breath came.

Mother and lambs are now doing well.

Two boys, one black, one white. "Quandary" and "Quagmire," Aimee said. It's Q-names this year. Last year was O. O was easier than Q.

I'm sort of hoping she was joking.


"Maggie was too big for just one lamb," Aimee had said. Which sent me to the back of the north paddock to look around as soon as I got done with work yesterday.

And she was right. A dead white ewe-lamb, sister to the other that lived, was there on the ground between the two placentas, victim of being born in a pouring rainstorm with a shepherd who was at work, when he should have been at home shepherding.

Small-time sheep herding is not a full time farm animal job, not like dairy cows, or any large operation. But there's this one time of the year, see, when you have to be around, when you have to get out of bed at all hours, when you can't let it slip. And I let it slip.

I was only gone for four hours, but that was enough. But I have to work, and so does Aimee. Some occasions like this can't be avoided.

Today I'm not going to get trapped at work by all of the stupid stuff again. Most of it can be done as easily by email as it can in person. I'm going to get done with my class and come home.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

And the winner is....


Despite the fact that Tillie was the ewe we were all watching, Maggie gave birth sometime late this morning to a single black ewe-lamb. While we were both at work, no less. I've been coming home every day in the early afternoon to check, but this one got away from me.

Mother and daughter are doing fine, although I placed them both in the lambing pen very quickly because it's supposed to get quite cold hereabouts tonight.

This lamb is out of Snorri, or she should be, so that's nice. We've wanted a Snorri-ewe for a while, but had to cull Polly, the one we got last year, because of a disease.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sheep with their legs crossed

On the weekend, after coming back from my trip, I took one look at Tillie and said "she's going into labor." But Aimee shrugged and said, "she's been like that since Wednesday."

And it's true. There's been no change. She's off her feed, even if I take it to her personally and keep the other sheep away. She staggers around as if her back legs were locked. She spends much of the day lying down at odd angles on the ground.

But no lambs.

Maybe she'll stay that way forever. Poor old Till.

The other sheep are similarly huge, especially Molly who looks like a giant snowball with her beautiful thick fleece. A snowball with silly legs.

Something's got to give.

Still, it gives me an excuse to come home from work earlier than normal. I can check on the sheep and work in my den.

We're "springing out" on the wood from the wood men that came a couple months ago. I'm surprised it burns as well as it does, to tell you the truth. I'd been using it only for the outside wood furnace, which has a draft like a Sheffield blast furnace and can burn any carbon life form. But it's been great in the little kitchen stove too. I put on a 8-inch wide chunk, the size of a small tool box, this morning, propped it up on a single tiny red coal, and the whole thing sprang into life in two minutes and is now burning brightly.

Mainers say they "spring out" on the last of their wood. Spring is not a serious heating season, so you can get by with wood of poorer quality and less quantity.

So we're springing out. When the frogs come, then we'll know for sure. Frogs and lambs.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


The ground dried early this spring. So I decided to spread compost and till the garden, on the grounds that I could then change the tractor implement from the tiller to the York rake to rake up the gravel that the winter spreader had spread all around our front yard.

The little Kubota used 1.5 gallons of diesel to spread a couple tons of compost, till it in, and rake up most of the gravel. I still have a little to rake.

In today's Guardian I read of a two-wheel tractor being used for much the same purpose, but I think that our four-wheel, four-wheel drive Kubota probably uses about the same amount of fuel and does a better and much easier job.

Aimee did a fine job of sticking her tongue out just in time for a snap. I have quite a few pictures of Aimee with her tongue out. maybe I'll make a calendar to send to her folks for Christmas, one for each month.

This is probably the way they always remember her anyway!

A busman's holiday

I like it best when all of the bits of my life work together as well as they can, especially when I can unite my two homelands. These last two weeks have been that way.

In the English English of the 1960s and 70s that I grew up with, the phrase "busman's holiday" means that when a fellow goes away for a break, he does the same things he does at home. So a busman would ride a bus on his holiday. It's one of those things that makes no sense in American English.

But I just got back from a very creditable example of a busman's holiday.

Accordingly, this post is published on three blogs, the Sustainability Blog, the Womerlippi Farm Blog, and the reflective blog I made for the students on the trip.

This trip will only come as news to regular readers of the farm blog. I hadn't published that I was going anywhere on the farm blog because I didn't necessarily feel the need to advertise the fact that the Womerlippi Farmhouse would be emptier more than usual. Although I doubt that would have led to any insecurity for Aimee, I'm often careful like that. Belt and braces, we say in Yorkshire. In American, belt and suspenders to hold your pants up.

Back-up for back-up, in other words.

Enough with the American-English, English-American dictionary already. Oy!

I took eleven students with me on this field trip. Two were from my own Sustainability Design and Technology program, but the others were from many different programs so we made it as much of a cultural exchange as it was a tech-happy field camp. It was a bit of both, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope the students did too.

It certainly seems to have been that way.

The first picture above shows Amber and Alicia touring the Whole Home exhibit at CAT, an example of a very low energy consumption house, conceptually not unlike our own Unity House project.

The second and last of the three pictures above show one of our projects, the repair, re-mantling and erection of a 600W Marlec wind turbine.

This was of course exactly the kind of thing we do all the time in our Sustech program, but to do it on a breezy Welsh mountainside was a very nice experience. The turbine was connected to the building it powered, and turned on, so as soon as it was up it began to make power. Very fun.

Students got to tour sustainability exhibits and Welsh towns and a castle and the like, but they also were able to experience British countryside life quietly and directly, with rain showers, lambs in spring, bus trips to town on market day, and walks to the pub. They got to live a little slower for a few days, a very good thing that all of us should try. Even the five-hour train and bus ride back to the airport was slow and patient in a very British way, and relaxing rather than stressful. In very stark contrast to the speeded pace and ridiculous commercialism of the airport itself, especially the Terminal Three department lounge, which needs to take a tranquilizer.

They also got to eat black pudding, if they were very brave, or lamb, or cheese of many different kinds rarely seen in the US. One or three even got to see England draw 15-15 with Scotland in the Six Nations rugby tournament, in the very loud "pigs bar" of a Welsh country pub.

We deliberately had an unpacked schedule with a lot of quiet time and opportunity for unscheduled activities. The British propensity for inclusivity, all "mucking in together", and preference for last minute improvisation over planning helped. Our hosts on the CAT Education and MSc programs came up with new activities they wanted to include us in nearly every day and we took full advantage. It worked better to include the MSc module material for our Sustech specialist students as well as the regular CAT Education department discussions because, well, our specialists are more where the MSc students are, really, if a little younger.

I got to give two lectures in the CAT MSc program, which were well received. Despite the increasing importance of many of the ideas, academics with a Dalian ecological economics training are still quite rare, it seems, and so a good lecture on the basics of this point of view puts many things in clearer perspective, which is what I seem to have managed to do.

At least that's what the MSc students said. It was nice to teach advanced students again.

So good. Maybe we can go back again some day.

Back at base, Aimee has been doing the night checks for our several very pregnant ewes, but of course now I'm home again that's my job, since I'm the somnambulist of the Womerlippi family, if not also the human "black sheep".

We saw lots of English and Welsh lambs on our trip and our students were of course charmed by them. The British countryside is kept in tidy trim by literally millions of sheep, and lamb and wool products are much more popular there. We even saw wool used for house insulation.

Sheep make for an excellent livestock choice in the UK because of the climate, but the fact that they can live outside on grass nearly all year also reduces the carbon emissions from supplementary feed and from equipment use. As I mentioned to students, you don't see nearly as much tonnage of agricultural equipment rusting away around an English or Welsh mixed farm as you do an American one. The main reason is that you need far less winter feed, especially for sheep, and so hay cropping is less important.

Our own Womerlippi Farm sheep are hugely pregnant and will drop around 6 or seven lambs (total) very shortly. I'm looking forward to having lambs at home. Aimee and I will of course try to get some of our students involved in this educational and seasonal operation too.

Because everything works best when it works together.

A few acknowledgements are in order:

Many thanks to CAT staff and faculty for being so welcoming and flexible, especially Rennie, Kara, Arthur from Engineering, Jo, Deidre, Christine, Julie, Mike from the CHP Plant, Sue and Liz and all the others from the restaurant, Meg and Kat from Information and all the MSc faculty, staff and students who allowed us to muck in together for a very enjoyable and educational experience.

Back at Unity Base, thanks are due to Carol Palmer first and foremost, for organizing our finances and our air travel. Amy Knisley, and Doug Fox also helped a good deal, especially Doug who went above and beyond to get the students to the airport and on the plane.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A warm day

Saturday saw a 53 F day in Jackson town. Very nice. Exceptionally warm for March in Maine. Here the sheep are sunning themselves, although most are out back in the shade.

53 F too hot for a winter sheep with a thick fleece, I guess.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sheep breeding for science geeks

Aimee, ever the biology professor, has been keeping a lab book on our farm livestock and every year or so makes up a pedigree for the sheep. She uses it in class to teach genetics. This is the latest. Just click on the link to enlarge. A big "X" means a lamb that died soon after birth. The brown shapes are brown sheep, white shapes are white sheep. Round is female, square is male.

We men are so square.

Notice there is a little inbreeding going on. Some of this was the previous owners -- we only are responsible for the second and third generations. These are organized by generation, not by year, although you can tell which year our lambs are by the first letter of their name:

M = 2007
N = 2008
P = 2009
Q will be 2010

But we've had a few difficulties keeping Abe separated from his daughters and granddaughters, the dirty old bugger. Now he's gone, we won't miss that problem.

I also notice that we have twin lambs about as often as we have singletons, and that Tillie has only ever had white lambs, although Tillie's daughter Molly who is white has had a black lamb.

Black coat color is supposed to be a recessive gene. Tillie must be homozygous for the dominant white trait, while Molly her daughter must be heterozygous.

Very cool. I like it when we have well-organized sheep. And if you think this is geeky, you should see Aimee's egg data, where every egg ever laid on the farm is weighed and recorded.

Or the planting data. Every seed, every variety, every row.

I'm surprised she doesn't have a lab book for me. She probably does. Just keeps it hidden somewhere in case it freaks me out.

I'm not immune. I have a record of every check ever written to pay a bill since we were married, as well as spreadsheets of house energy use data and a heat energy model for the house that tells me whether or not the building envelope and insulation is performing to specifications.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Night checks in the wind

The bad habit I have of waking up each night around 2 or 3 pm and often not being able to go back to sleep never seemed much of an asset before we had sheep to tend. I hate not getting enough sleep.

But in lambing season it is a definite plus.

The weather here has remained warm by midwinter Maine standards, around 30-35 F during the days, but we've been getting a lot of snow and sleet showers and frequent strong winds. Tonight was no exception. I rolled out of bed a little after three and pulled on my clothes and toddled out with the Mag-lite to see what was up, if anything, with the ewes.

Maggie seems to be the one to watch. She's been separating herself from the herd a lot, and is pretty big, at least by her normal standards. She is not usually monstrously huge when pregnant like Molly, who each year gets bigger and bigger until she's a full two feet or more wide, and then stays that big for weeks until she pops out twins.

Tonight they were all bedded down together for once, so I didn't need to go out back to hunt up Maggie. She was right there. No change. These days they don't even get up when I come by with the flashlight.

I came back inside PDQ after that, since the wind was whipping around the dooryard.

Lambs and spring. That's something to look forward to.

Here's one of our lamb videos from last year, as a taster.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sheep shots and a dog and pony

Busy weekend, with two talks to give, one on community-owned wind power, another on household energy efficiency, then a big stack of grading, and all the bills to pay. There hasn't been time to post on the farm blog.

But we did do some farm work.

This was our last possible weekend to give the sheep their tetanus booster shots before they give birth. The pregnant ewes need this in case of infection during or after birth, but the other sheep need it too. We also trimmed hooves.

The procedure for doing any sheep handling around here is to lure the animals into the wide part of the barn with a bowl of feed, then shut them in. You can then catch them one by one and do whatever you have to do. Our sheep, once they figure out what is going on, bunch up by the gate to their nice safe pen that they can't get in to any more, looking worried. You then have to tackle each one by catching their heads and moving them out into the light. This particular injection is subcutaneous. It's easy to do in one of the sheep's four "armpits," where there's no fleece.

Then, in this case, each sheep got a good trimming and was let go. The hoof trimming was easier than usual because the warm wet weather we've been having has made their hooves softer.

Nellie, our most tame sheep, was very curious and came over to see what was going on each time. Nellie has only ever known us for owners, was born and raised here and is quite happy to be petted and scratched while the others are less interested in us humans except when there's food. Her older aunts and great aunts were far less sanguine about today's operation, and Tootsie in particular fought me, trying to get me with her hooves.

Tootsie always fights. She's the toughest old sheep, a real hard case.

Then there was a silly chicken who kept trying to fly over the half door to the barn to see what was going on and had to be pushed off each time. This, and Nellie's antics, became rather comedic, and Aimee was much amused.

Me, I was trying too hard to get them all done before my back gave out to laugh very much.

This rugby-like activity was a good warm-up for watching the England and the Wales Six Nations games, although both my teams lost. And there was the small matter of a third of a cord of salvaged firewood on Saturday that I brought in. More exercise. Which was all good because the two dog-and-pony shows and all the grading meant I lost out on my usual long walks. But I feel pleasantly exercised this morning, my muscles slightly aching.