28 September 2007

Farm Tour Tomorrow!

Anyone who is in Western Colorado is welcome to come visit us at the Paonia Harvest Festival's Self-Guided Farm Tour tomorrow between 11am and 4pm. We'll be here all day talking about our sheep, geese and chickens. I'll have meat, wool and yarn for sale then as well all day Sunday at the Farmers' Market in downtown Paonia.

Stop by and visit us!

26 September 2007

US Organic is Cruel and Inhumane for Livestock

US Organic is Cruel and Inhumane for Livestock

The above statement will shock many and be denied by others. The US standards for organic production of livestock are cruel and inhumane. They are a travesty of what organic should be.

In an ideal world buying organic would mean the products you purchase are produced in a fair manner, provide a decent living for the farmer and improve the fertility and long term sustainability of the farm land. There should be no bad environmental effects caused by the farm’s management practices and it should be a thriving, long term sustainable food producer for many generations to come.

Many people think that organic means no sprays, no chemicals and no treatments for the problems that beset agriculture. However, organic does in fact allow and use many chemicals. Some of them are actually more toxic and lethal than their non-organic counterparts. The difference is that organic treatments are natural and not synthetic. All of agriculture defines the time between when a treatment can be given to a crop and when it is safe for humans to eat or otherwise contact that crop. Organic pesticides can have longer withdrawal times for both handling and harvest and for entry than non-organic counterparts.

Domestic animals should be free to express natural behaviors, protected from disease, parasites, predators and illness, eat natural foods appropriate for their species and sheltered for their well being. All these requirements should be adjusted to reflect the vast differences in farms, soils, breeds and species and should reflect the diversity that is the birthright of many thousands of years of agriculture.

In many ways the organic vegetable and fruit growers are working towards this goal but the US standards for livestock are woefully lacking in common sense and good animal husbandry.

Under US organic rules no slaughter livestock can be given any sort of paraciticide at all. On the surface this sounds reasonable - after all with proper management there should be no parasites in your stock right?
WRONG! While there is much in livestock management that can be done to minimize common parasite infestation of your stock there is no way to prevent it completely. All livestock is eventually slaughter stock, a responsible farmer will make certain that the animals are healthy AND free of medications before they go to the stock yard. Parasite infestation causes not only significant harm to the individual animal and can cause death but even animals that do not die fail to thrive. This affects not only the quality of the wool, meat and milk from infested stock but causes unnecessary discomfort, shortens their lifespan and can cause significant loss of young. Increased costs to raise replacements is a hidden but significant cost in a flock that is heavily parasitized.

Parasites in sheep can be broadly classed into several main groups.

There are intestinal worms - round worms and tapeworms that can infest stock. Flukes can infest the liver, lung worms can infest the bronchial passages and meningeal worms can infest the nervous system. External parasites include ticks that can carry several different virus diseases, sheep keds and lice in two varieties. And there are the hybrid parasites such as the bot fly which lays eggs in the sheep’s nose; the grubs eat blood from the nasal passages and will cause internal damage if they get into the stomach. Some bot flies are viable in humans and other animals. Warble flies are another hybrid style of parasite.

There are many techniques the farmer can do to reduce intestinal worm infestation in their stock. Proper grazing management combined with a large enough area to rest pastures, a hard freeze cycle and using other species such as chickens, geese or cattle can help break the life cycle of intestinal parasites. If the land can be grazed by both cattle and sheep a farmer can use the cattle to sweep the pastures of the primary sheep parasites and vice versa. The animals are still infested, it just will reduce the losses caused by the parasites. Proper grazing management can make a huge difference in the intestinal worm burden of a flock.

One technique, FAMANCHA, is used to detect individual animals that are infested with the barber pole worm. While touted as the solution to parasite problems this only works with one, specific species. However, if you are in an area that has barber pole worm, using FAMANCHA can help you reduce the amount and number of times you must deworm the flock and target the drug to only those animals that need it. Knowing the animals are infested is useless unless something is done to kill the parasites without killing the animal.

Breeding for sheep that are somewhat resistant to parasites can and does work, for the farm where the animals are selected. However, significant research in Australia and New Zealand indicates that animals bred to be resistant to parasites on one farm may not be resistant to the ones found on another farm so while helpful for the farmer in reducing their individual use of dewormers it is not a total solution.

All of these techniques can and should be used by all sustainable farmers to mitigate the problems caused by intestinal worms.

Nothing in an individual farmers' grazing management can do anything about the parasites carried by the wild animals and transmitted to the domestic stock.

The meningeal worm is commonly carried by deer. Sheep are a dead end host when infected because unlike deer they can die from the infestation. Nose bots are a serious problem in some areas and because they are the larval form of a fly the individual farmer cannot control it. We personally have lost sheep who died from nose bot infestation. Liver flukes are another parasite carried by deer and elk.

There is very little that farm management can do to curtail external parasites.. Shearing at the proper time and providing clean bedding is about the limit of management that can be used to prevent infestation by lice, keds and ticks. Fortunately, such infestations tend to be rather rare. In our own flock in the last 8 years we have only had to use an insecticide on our sheep twice. In modern agriculture the old sheep dips have been replaced with much smaller doses of targeted insecticides. Most are based on pyrethins, a natural insecticide in chrysanthemum plants but for consistency and safety a synthetic version is used. Natural pyrethins can vary in lethality and that makes deciding on the dose of a natural pyrethin very difficult. You must use enough to kill the parasite but not enough to kill the animal. Synthetic pyrethins are consistent in drug effect and can be administered more safely.

Given that all domestic stock will become infested with parasites it is critical that organic standards provide a safe effective way to deal with these pests when management is not effective or when there is nothing the management can do, such as pests carried by wild animals. Sadly there is no safe and effective paraciticide that is also US organic approved. While many things have been tried, under rigorous on-farm testing in the real world all of them have either proved ineffective, worse than doing nothing or unsafe and resulting in deaths of the treated stock. And even the most promoted potential remedies do not handle infestations by flying pests or flukes.

This significant problem is well recognized by the organic standards in other countries. Under the international IFOAM standards, or the EU standards proper control of parasites is deemed an animal welfare issue and is mandated by the standards. Treatment using approved paraciticides is allowed when a defined need is documented, under the direct knowledge and control of a licensed veterinarian and when at least double the slaughter withdrawal time for the drug used is adhered to. Additional regulations concerning prevention of any environmental contamination are also required. This is a common sense approach and has resulted in the widespread adoption of organic standards by many more diversified farms who would not consider it unless parasites could be controlled.

In US organic standards when, for example, an apple grower is facing a parasite problem like codling moths there are several safe, effective ways to deal with it. Initially dormant oils are sprayed on the trees to reduce the hatching rate of the over wintering eggs. Later pheromone lures are used as mating disrupters to prevent the moths from finding mates. When the inevitable infestation does occur there are several safe and effective chemical sprays that can be used to kill the codling moth grubs. Similar options exist for the control and elimination of pests for other vegetable and fruit crops.

The livestock producer is denied any way to safely and effectively treat his or her animals.

In the past there were few if any safe and effective paraciticides.

This resulted in the use of unsafe ones, such as straight nicotine and also in the needless deaths of many animals. Some medieval records indicate that it was not uncommon to lose up to 50% of the sheep in a flock in a year due primarily to the worms they contracted. Such a waste of animals is abhorrent to anyone who really cares for them. Even the best current US organic farms seem to accept a 10-15% death loss of lambs as normal yet a well managed ‘non-organic’ flock standard is less than 5% deaths including stillbirths and accidents and no deaths to parasites.

The second big issue is vaccinations. The US standard says vaccinations are allowed in one section. But in another section it says that nothing can be given that is not on the approved substances lists and no vaccines are on the list. This has led to differences in how certifying agencies interpret the rules. In some locales any vaccination to prevent disease is allowed. Others will allow vaccines but only if the vaccine is labeled for the species to which it is given and yet others say that until vaccines are individually listed no vaccine will be allowed.

This is cruel. In our area there are many sheep diseases that are in the soil. They can stay in the soil for decades and are carried by wild animals. Before we used a vaccine that protected against these diseases we would lose lambs. They are horrible clostridial infections, a group of organisms related to tetanus and once the animal gets sick there is almost no possibility of saving it. Their deaths are prolonged and terribly painful. To deny the farmer the option of preventing these diseases is to condemn animals to unnecessary and cruel deaths.

It is for these reasons that I consider that the current US organic standards to be cruel and inhumane and is why we will not become certified organic until the standards reflect the high level of care we demand for our special sheep.

If we were in Wales or in Europe, or Australia or New Zealand we could in fact be easily qualified as organic as their standards do recognize the critical animal welfare issues parasite infestation and preventable disease represent and have provided a way for that to be treated effectively, humanely and safely.

25 September 2007

Wine, Mutton and Cheese

This past weekend the three main agricultural businesses on our mesa held a wine, cheese and mutton tasting. Our farm had mutton slow cooked shoulder roasts and 2 Welsh cheeses to taste. Terror Creek Winery had lovely fondue to go with their Swiss style wines. Stone Cottage Cellars had a selection of cheese paired with their wines and a fruit and chocolate fondue for their Alpine dessert wine.

We didn't advertise this event very much but we still got between 30-40 people to come by, most of whom had never been to our farm or either winery.

We set up signs on all the pens with what sheep were in there, and notes about our farm and farming philosophy.

It was well received and we hope to do this again next year.

Now we're gearing up for the big Paonia Harvest Festival that starts this weekend. Froday is the Chili Cookoff and the Pie Contest. Last year Ken was a judge, he hasn't been asked yet this year but I am still hopeful. It made deciding which piece to buy much simpler!

Saturday we will be open all day for the self-guided Farm and Winery tours. It usually gets rather crazy, in years past we've had as many as 10-15 people show up at once all wanting to learn about our sheep. Sunday we'll be back in town for hte last farmers' Market of the year.

If you are anywhere near Western Colorado, consider coming for a great time and fun event in Paonia. See you this weekend!

19 September 2007


No pictures. Sorry.

Today was a bit more exciting than I wanted. AM started with the contractor laying out our the new shop, the hoe operator moving the rock piles and getting things set to level the building pad. We got hay in to all the sheep, all feeders were empty and we had to put hay in for the girls on pasture because the aisle between the pasture and the sheep sweep was in use during the rock moving. We know the gate was latched, but just before we started lunch my husband looked up to see flashes of black racing out the front yard.

"They're out!" and we raced for boots, hats and gloves.

Black Welsh sheep do not flock and don't herd well. I ran to get in front of the sheep to try to turn them from heading down the driveway and over the hill. Ken tried to get in front of the side batch to put some fences up to keep them from heading out the other driveway and up the road and then he grabbed an electric fence to start putting up something to keep them somewhat corralled. As soon as I could I grabbed my cell phone and called in the cavalry. In this case the neighbors, who thankfully arrived on 4-wheelers just in time to help.

It took a while, not sure exactly how long, but we managed to get them all back into the orchard eventually. Neighbors went back up the hill and we headed in for lunch.

Afternoon was spent cleaning out the chicken condos for the egg laying chickens and catching the spare range sheep we had manged to get into our corrals and sending her on home. Thankfully she was not outside when ours escaped or it would have really been a trick getting her separated from the rest.

Dinner and a glass of wine was sure appreciated this evening!

18 September 2007

Construction Starts!

Construction started today on the replacement for the old bunkhouse building. All the old stumps were removed and the rocks sorted from the dirt. Then the rocks were removed and dumped on the old dump at the end of our driveway. The good dirt was saved, we are always short of fill dirt so we'll use it somewhere. We've even had to buy in dirt, we grow great rocks on Garvin Mesa but dirt is hard to come by.

Tomorrow the general contractor comes to lay out the foundation. We did the deconstruction earlier this summer and have been waiting until the dirt contractor could come to start the real construction.

The old building was probably put in about 100 years ago. We know it wasn't there on 8 October 1908 as we have a picture taken from Redtop that clearly shows the orchard and there is no bunkhouse or red barn. But we also know it was there before 1927 as we have a picture of the guest house taken then that shows it in the background. Beyond that we don't really know much. The bunkhouse was built in 2 sections and at least one had been used as a house for a while. There was fire damage in two places from a stovepipe throgh the roof so it had a stove in at least two different locations during its lifespan.

Although we've tried to restore and refurbish many of the old buildings this one was just too rotten and in too poor a shape to save. So it's being replaced by a 2 story shop building. The new shop will have space and cover to do welding downstairs, a covered front porch to the south for farmers' market days and an upstairs that will be for wool storage and fiber work. It will be insulated with both heat and cooling so we can work in it year round.

I can't wait for construction to start.

17 September 2007

Hay, Rain and Sheep Selection

Well we've been busy. We just got in all the hay, luckily before the over inch of rain fell. Last year our entire second cutting was destroyed by rain. We buy hay from a neighbor and we'd already contracted for it so we were out the whole cost of the hay, cutting, baling etc. This year we bought hay from the same neighbor but we managed to get it cut and baled earlier. Although it didn't quite all fit in the barn it's still a great feeling to have most of the hay under cover. We should have enough for the whole winter now.

We got most of the ram lambs sorted out of the main group and into their winter corrals. They all got their second vaccination too. We had planned to work the ewes again and do all the ewe lambs but it's been raining heavily and the sheep are wet. Not only is it no fun to work wet sheep, vaccinating wet sheep makes it more likely for them to get some sort of infection at the injection site. It's supposed to get warm and sunny again later this week so we'll reschedule and do them then.

I've had some requests for more info on our sheep selection procedures. I have always used a selection index to choose who to keep and who to cull. I have in my mind the ideal Black Welsh Mountain sheep. I also have a list of characteristics I consider important. This list can change each year but includes subjective things like teeth, legs, body style, temperament, wool quality and horn shape as well as objective measures like birth weight, fleece length and average daily gain. Each sheep is graded on a scale of 1 to 5 against each individual characteristic and then they are added up. Weights are converted to a numeric score. A 5 is perfect a 1 is bad. The overall scores are my first cut at culling. In years past the range from the best sheep to the worst ones was very wide. So it was easy to cull the bottom animals. But now most of the index scores are very close and the culling comes down to which individual characteristic is more important. For this year I am focusing on the 3 characteristics that affect our income the most, fleece length, fleece weight and average daily gain.

12 September 2007

Ovine Haute Couture

It's fall and time once again for the latest in ovine fashions to be unveiled prior to coming in off pasture and into the corrals for winter hay feeding. Fashionable sheep will be sporting the latest in ovine coats for the winter as designer and manufacturer Oogie M is feverishly working on her new line to debut later this week. All the best ewes will be wearing coats this season to protect their valuable wool from contamination.

This season the watchword is patchwork. Last season's mid range coats are being refreshed with a variety of colorful patches across the body especially prevalent along the sides and around the neckline. Many are made even more eye catching with the addition of contrasting overstitching in black, white and brilliant purple. New this year is the addition of taupe overstitching to highlight some of the more colorful patches. While there are still a few styles with gathers at neck and tail the most stylish coats now sport attractive tail darts instead. Mid range sizes include darts at the girth for a better fit along the forequarters and shorter body hugging leg straps.

Young ewes are forgoing the girth darts in favor of a lean look with only a single pair of tail tucks. Their main colors this year are black and red with white and black stitching visible along all the seams and edges. A few edgy ewes have opted for purple edges making a classic statement against the snow and hay. Leg straps can be in many colors with purple and khaki most common this season in addition to the standard red and black.

We haven't forgotten our plus size ewes with a new line of maternity wear. Styled like their younger sisters' coats these new pieces include ample belly room and discrete darts at the girth to prevent unsightly gaping. The same short leg straps are in evidence but large sizes now sport two pairs of tail tucks. A few of the styles include additional girth darts that can be easily let out as needed.

Fabrics this year are durable, rugged and easy care. Designed to survive harsh Colorado winters they are sunlight and manure resistant. 120 denier nylon Oxford weave is the standard for this Fall collection. Machine washable and built to survive the rigors of fences, this season's new line of sheep coats is sure to be a big hit with all the ewes.

10 September 2007

Local Food Dinner

One of our local farms Zephyros Farm hosted a farm dinner yesterday evening. About 125 people attended the event celebrating local foods. Each course was prepared by a top local chef and the menu included the sources for all the ingredients. Ryan Hardy from Montangna @ the Little Nell in Aspen did the appetizer course, Eleni Stelter from Eleni's Uptown in Paonia did the salad, Dava Parr from Fresh and Wyld in Paonia did the side vegetables, Mark Fischer of 689 and Phat Thai in Carbondale did the main course and Bob Isaacson of Smith Fork Ranch in Crawford did the desserts. Local wines and distilled spirits were available as well.

We were thrilled to provide all the Black Welsh Mutton for the main course.

Today it's back to the grind of end of summer farm work but last night was a welcome break.

03 September 2007

Labor Day Musings

On a farm every day includes at least some labor. Today was no exception, today we started the sorting process of the ewes. Any that were marked for butcher or for sale got sorted out into the winter corrals for further evaluation. While this may seem to be just physical labor it's actually a skill that is very hard to learn. How do you select whether a bad mother is worse than bad teeth? Does temperament count and for how much? Will a great fleece offset some grey fibers in the fleece? As we processed the entire flock evaluating and sorting sheep I got to thinking about labor and our attitude towards it in the US.

In many cases we denigrate skilled labor that involves physical labor. A skilled fence builder is as much an artist as a manual laborer. At least a good fence builder is. A skilled tailor is far far better than any off the shelf clothing purchased at the nearest discount store but we don't value skilled tailors and refuse to pay for their services so there are fewer and fewer of them. Farmers, who feed us all, rarely if ever get the actual value of the products they produce if you included all the inflation in the costs they pay for materials and other expenses. Right now the going price for lambs on the hoof for slaughter is running about $1.00 per pound. That is for live weight. The parity price, the price the lamb should be bringing if the costs for all the inputs and an allowance for all the inflation that has happened since WW II was included should be around $2.15 per pound. And a live animal is not all meat. There is the head, hooves, hide, guts and other inedible portions. Even once the lamb is reduced to a carcass the cutting and wrapping will reduce the edible portion further by removal of fat, bones and other trim. And unlike every other major livestock species that is slaughtered in the US, sheep are charged a per head slaughter fee. All other animals are charged based on the carcass weight. If you have small sheep it costs the same to have it processed into meat as it does a large sheep. So meat from smaller animals will always cost more to produce.

Small farms like ours cannot compete against multi-national corporations who will import product from the lowest cost vendor. Most of those imports do not count the true cost of the transportation and may ignore wages, working conditions and regulations that producers here are required to comply with. Our labor is only rewarded if we go outside the standard ways to sell our product and sell direct. And because we are small we will never achieve the economy of scale that a larger company can do. So our food and products are always going to be more expensive than the competing products.

So when you next go to the grocery store and complain abut the high cost of domestic food, keep in mind that maintaining a skilled local labor force that can provide high quality food is critical to the long term survival of a culture. Do we really want to be dependent on other countries for our food as well as our oil?

Food for thought this Labor Day.