Sunday, May 1, 2011

Building Jerusalem in my head

It's been sunny off and on this week, but there's been a bit of rain too. There hasn't been any frost.

As a result, the grass is making up for lost time, and in our most fertile places has jumped up three inches in almost as few days.

I was able to put the sheep out to graze for the first time for a couple of hours on Sunday night after our chicken-fence marathon. They went to the New Paddock, where the grass was long-enough already, but less lush, mixed in with some brown thatch from the fall. This was good because they were able to adjust slowly to their new diet.

Sheep get a bit squiffy if they jump from hay to lush green grass too quickly. This is called "scours" and it isn't good for them.

Later, Friday evening after the BBC America news, we fenced the Island Paddock, and Saturday afternoon (after I got back from judging at the Maine State Science Fair) they went on to that very lush green material, with no ill effects.

Our flock of mothers and nursing lambs were grazed most evenings after work this last week, which reduced the hay consumption considerably.

For which my wallet is very grateful.

I had been trucking up to Newport every few days for a large round bale from Beem Farm, where they specialize in hay and straw. This was very nice timothy hay, which was good for our nursing mothers, but at $45 a bale, it was a bit steep for sheep.

Sheep are wasteful of hay. Our sheep, given a whole round bale to eat, will mine through rapidly (leaving a perfect nose-shaped hole in the bale), eating all the leaf and leaving the stem. The expensive buggers then bed down on the stems as if they were the softest straw, which they may as well be. After they've slept on the stems for a night, only the sharpest of hunger will cause them to go back over the now-tainted fodder.

The solution is to eke out the fodder using a hay feeder. We have one, in the barn, but it takes square bales not round, and I prefer our ewes out in the sunshine all day this time of year. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, good for drying moist dungy fleece, and a good deterrent for fly-strike. I'd rather waste hay than get infected sheep.

Actually, there is another solution, which is to chop the hay. Old timers used a device called a hay chopper to reduce the stems a little, after which cattle and sheep would eat more of the whole plant. If I could ever find or make something modern and efficient to do this job for us, I could get our hay consumption per year down about fifty percent.

So the green grass has helped a lot with costs. I also was able to convince Andrew Stoll the Unity Amishman to sell me the last of his 2010 hay, twenty square bales of green mixed pasture grasses which I picked up on Monday during my lunch hour. This fodder wasn't technically as nutritious as the Beem Farm timothy, but it could be fed a bale at a time, and it was the second cut of the season, so there was more leaf and less stem.

The combination of the switch to square bales and the addition of the evening grazing routine has cut the hay consumption down considerably. A round bale is often said to be worth ten to fifteen square bales, and indeed one Beem Farm round bale weighed more heavily on the truck springs than all twenty of the Stoll Farm square bales.

The Amish around here cut by horse power, but run their motorized balers in the barn, feeding the cut in by hand, and so you get a loose bale. But each Stoll Farm bale lasted almost a whole day, whereas the sheep ran through their last Beem Farm bale in only four days.

At $2 each for the Stoll Farm bales, and with each bale lasting longer, our hay bill has been more than cut in half.

Obviously we don't make money nor break even on the sheep business. Revenue from sales of whole live and whole butchered animals and yarn comes to less than $500/year, whereas we spend that much on hay alone, never mind the grain and shearing costs.

It probably costs us about $1,000 a year to stay in the sheep business. We can make a profit on eggs. We break even on pigs. But we lose on sheep.

But after several years of experience we've been able to work out what might work. If we had about a twenty-acre hay field, a bigger tractor, all our own haying equipment, a lambing shed, and four or five times as many animals of slightly better bloodlines, I reckon we might get good-enough prices for Corriedale ewe-lambs as breeding stock, and we could get a good carcass price for a Corriedale market lamb. We'd only get the very best prices for our meat if we put in our own mini USDA- and State-of-Maine certifiable slaughtering and packing facility, and sold our other farm products like Aimee's pesto and the yarn we get made up at the same time. We could then sell retail in small vacuum-packed packages, and get $5/pound or more at the local farmers market and in our own CSA scheme, the germ of which already exists in our pig club members.

Now we know how to keep sheep alive and thriving in this climate, we could make money out of them, I'm sure. But only if we were willing to risk something like $40,000 of capital.

Dream on, Mick! That's the path to impoverishment and bankruptcy. We're not giving up our day jobs anytime soon. I'm happy for now to write off that annual $1,000 loss against a couple tons of compost for the garden, against not having to mow lawns, which suburban chore I despise (and lawn mowers cost money and use gas which also costs money), and against the very great pleasure of seeing lambs snuggle up to their mothers on green pastures in the evening sun, as in the photo above.

For the foreseeable, if we're going to help take any particular sustainable business to the next level, it will be Unity College.

One of the hymns sung during the recent nuptial event in the UK was William Blake's Jerusalem, which particular favorite piece of music I was very sorry to miss, but then it did happen to come during my Friday morning commute.

We didn't get a day off in New England.

Bread of Heaven, however, another favorite (also known as Guide me, oh thy Great Redeemer), came during my morning cereal, much to my republican wife's* anguish since I turned up the volume.

But Jerusalem remains more germane to my mood this spring...

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land

*In the British sense of the word, someone who prefers a republican form of government, most definitely not a monarchy.

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