24 October 2007

Back on Pasture and Why Labels are Misleading

The early snow has pretty much all melted and we got one batch of ram lambs back out on our triticale pasture regrowth. We made sure they were all pretty full with hay before putting them out and made an aisle of electric fence to prevent too much pugging of the permanent pastures. We'll bring them back in to the corrals at night to reduce predator pressure. Our plan is to replant this to permanent pasture in the spring so any pugging that happens now won't matter and I'd rather the feed go into sheep rather than be wasted.

This brought up an interesting dilemma regarding labeling of food products. I've already explained why I consider USDA Organic regulations to be cruel and inhumane for livestock. However, there are other labels that we might qualify for that we have so far not used. Terms like free-range, cage free, no hormones, vegetarian diet and the like are all potential ways to describe our products.

Grass-fed has up until now not been regulated by the federal government. That has changed and there is now a new Federal grass-fed standard. I'll talk a bit more about it in a later entry.

The American Grassfed Association has developed a very strict interpretation of grassfed that limits feeding of stored forages and use of winter corrals. It's a nice idea but we'll never qualify. The sticking points for us are "All livestock produced under this standard must be on range, pasture, or in paddocks for their entire lives. This means that all animals must be maintained at all times on land with at least 80% forage cover or unbroken ground." and "AGA grassfed ruminant animals cannot be fed stock-piled forages in confinement for more than 30 days per calendar year. "

The limit of 30 days confined feeding is not necessarily enough to protect our pastures from severe pugging and erosion in wet, muddy times. Our attempts at feeding hay on our pastures resulted in destruction of the pasture in that area for a year or more. Our heavy clay soils are the most likely culprit in the problems and compaction we experienced. The people I know who are successfully meeting those restrictions either have sandy soils or have large areas they can plow for annual crops and so use those for their feeding of stored forage on pasture to meet the no confinement requirement. I had hoped to be able to do this on our farm with a multi-year rotation that would include brassicas and small grains like oats and triticale as pasture for our sheep. In addition to providing feed during our summer slump it was also going to help extend the grazing season into fall and provide a way to feed hay on pasture in winter reducing VM contamination of our wool.

Unfortunately we learned by trial and error that plowing our fields only plows up a new crop of rocks. We've been talking to people who have tried no-till but so far everyone has said that nothing they've tried works in our soils with our huge rocks. The giant rock walls that ring our pastures haven't really made a dent in the rock component of our soil. There is a reason that our mesa has always been planted to perennial crops like fruit trees, hay or more recently wine grapes. So we use our winter corrals as places to put sheep when the pastures are too wet or muddy to safely graze and use stored hay forage as needed when pastures are dry or not growing. Now if we sold primarily lambs we could get them to qualify as from birth to harvest they would meet all those restrictions. But our primary product is mutton, an older sheep that for us is usually 18-36 months old and has experienced at least one winter here. Many of our butcher animals are old ewes or rams who have performed other jobs for us and now go on to their final and in many ways most important job, providing tasty mutton for our customers and ourselves.

The new federal grass-fed standard requires that animals get 99% of their feed from pasture or hay and that they are on pasture from the time of the last frost in spring until the first frost in fall. So what does it mean when we pulled sheep off before first frost because the pastures were too wet, and yet now after a major frost have some back out on pasture? I would maintain that long term sustainability means we take good care of our land so that it continues to be productive for generations. A rigid standard that ignores individual farm conditions seems counterproductive. Certainly other farms in our valley can plow regularly and can plant crops without encountering huge rocks. But those farms are on the other side of the valley, not here. Yet our farm is highly productive when I work with the soils growing permanent crops with only very rare plowing. Shouldn't labels designed to promote healthy food and better land stewardship be flexible enough to account for what's best for an individual farm?

What about other labels like free range or cage free for poultry and no hormones or antibiotics?

Free range is federally controlled. The definition of free range for poultry is that the birds must have "access to the outside" No indication of for how long, or how much and certainly no real requirement that they be outside once they are done brooding. And since the time from the end of the brooding period until the time to slaughter for most commercial broilers is so short even if they were outside they won't get very much time there. In short, many birds can be labeled free range when all that it was was an open door at the end of a broiler house for the last week or so of their lives. Since free range doesn't mean what people think it means we have generally avoided it unless we qualify it by explaining that our birds are "really free ranged" and explain the legal defintion plus what we do. We have picked a slower growing commercial cross that we don't butcher until 14-16 weeks of age. Our chickens are outside during the day but penned at night for predator control. When outside they are free to get into everything and do. Our birds range freely over the farm eating all sorts of stuff.

Cage free only means no cages. Most birds are now raised cage free. But they are still in indoor confinement sheds with thousands of birds. Cage free does not mean outside access. So be aware when you purchase eggs or meat from "cage free" birds.

Vegetarian diet is another one that is commonly used. For ruminants like our sheep a vegetarian diet is the natural diet. Geese too are almost exclusively vegetarians and will only rarely eat insects. But what about chickens or ducks? One of the best fly controls is to have chickens range behind the grazing ruminants and scratch and eat the fly larvae and adult flies on a regular basis. Ducks can be important in preventing liver fluke infections by eating the snails that are an intermediate host. Using these natural parasite controls only makes sense but doing so means those birds can no longer be said to be raised on a vegetarian diet. Yet vegetarian diet is promoted as natural for chickens when it isn't really their preferred way to eat.

No added hormones is a difficult one as well. It is illegal to add hormones to poultry or pig feeds or to give them any so a no added hormones label on either pork or any poultry is irrelevant. Yet it does make sense for ruminants like cattle and sheep. Dairy animals are the ones most commonly given additional hormones and many people prefer to avoid them. So whether the label is meaningful depends on species. For the record we do not give our sheep hormones except when used to bring them into heat for artificial insemination, a procedure we use very rarely and so far only with imported semen from UK rams.

What about no antibiotics? Poultry is routinely given antibiotics in the feed from birth to death. Pigs too are often given low levels of antibiotics in the feed. They are also used in ruminant feeds. All of these applications are potential problems. While they do increase weight gains, and therefore farm income it's certainly not in the best interests of the animals or the consumer to eat constant low levels of antibiotics. Yet if an animal is injured or sick antibiotics are a necessary part of humane care. For us here is a recent example. One of our ewes, Ann, got severely injured. We found her with the inside of one front leg with no skin from the knee up to her elbow. The missing skin area was as if someone had skinned her leg. She was put in a small pen and the injury bandaged. There was no skin to put over the wound, it was gone, so as a precaution she was on a course of injected antibiotics for 10 days with pain medication as required to keep her comfortable. We also used an antibiotic and antifungal ointment on the wound at each dressing change to prevent any problems. She is making a full recovery, there is no nerve damage and there is good scar tissue over the whole area. We fully expect her to be fine in another couple of months. She raised two lovely lambs for us and is a wonderful young ewe that is worth the extra effort and care. However she will eventually be a slaughter animal. We hope it will be many years but there is always the chance she will do something that puts her on the butcher list, fails to care for a lamb, starts eating trees, causes a significant problem with her behavior or the final cause, getting so old that she has lost too many teeth to be able to eat. When that happens she wil be put on the trailer to be processed into mutton for our customers or ourselves. Should we prevent her from ever fulfilling her final job due to an injury and succesful treatment years earlier? By all the rules of all the various labels she could never be used for meat due to the antibiotic use while treating her injury.

The bottom line for us is that we want our customers to ask questions and talk to us about how we produce and care for our animals. We automatically double the federal slaughter withdrawal from any drug, dewormer or vaccine we use but we will always provide the best and most humane care we can for our precious sheep. But we are unlikely to promote federally regulated labels unless there is no way we would ever have to compromise those standards. For us the higher goal is long term sustainable food production given the limits and challenges of our particular farm, soils and climate.

23 October 2007

Emergency Preparations for a Farm

Watching the news about the big fires in San Diego county yesterday and today prompted me to review our farm emergency plan. We used to live in San Diego, in Ramona, one of the towns in the path of the fires. The latest data indicates our old house was either on the edges or was burned, the information varies but it was clearly in the evacuation area. When we lived there we were primarily raising horses. We had a clear evacuation clipboard in the barn, halters and lead ropes for every animal labeled with their name on duct tape and a priority list of who to evacuate first in case we couldn't get them all out. We even had luggage tags of laminated plastic on each halter with a description of each horse, our name and phone numbers, vet info and any critical behavior or medical information about each animal. Our plan was that if we had to leave animals there would be identification on each horse in case someone else evacuated them. If we evacuated we planned to put the same tags on as we loaded horses into trailers in case we got separated or animals ended up in different shelters.

When we got the sheep we had enough small pens that we were able to keep critical sheep separate and they got added to the list and I had a paper with ear tag numbers and data on every individual. I still carry a full listing of every sheep with me at all times in a belt pouch along with my camera and a small notepad and pen.

Our priority list looked at the relative value of the bloodlines represented by all of our animals. In an emergency we would of course try to save them all, but if time is short we might not be able to and we had to make those tough decisions in advance.

This past lambing season we were faced with a similar instance. An odd heavy snow storm in the middle of lambing had us racing to bring in hay bales to make windbreaks and build small pens for the most critical ewes and lambs. I was woefully unprepared to triage the lambing ewes on pasture to save critical bloodlines. I spent valuable time deciding which of several ewes and lambs were most important as we could not make small pens or shelters for all of them. Thankfully everyone made it ok (Black Welsh Mountain ewes are extremely good mothers) but it was a particularly stressful time.

So a task I have set for myself for the next couple of weeks is to again develop a farm disaster plan. In our area the likely natural disasters are either blizzards or fires. The appropriate response to each is obviously different. Sheltering in place is fairly easy for us, we typically have plenty of hay on hand during blizzard season and with ponds on the place we are also fairly well protected in case of major fires.

But what if we had to evacuate? Which animals would be the priority to get out?

In our case the sheep flock contains all the bloodlines of Black Welsh Moutnain sheep that exist in North America. We'd need to try to evacuate critical breeding ewes and rams of each bloodline. Without our guard dogs the sheep would be targets so moving sheep would require taking at least some guarding animals. If we were unable to evacuate everyone we'd have to leave some guard dogs with those left behind.

Our horses are also fairly rare but in terms of overall value to the breed as a whole, I have to admit that all of our horse bloodlines are represented in breediing herds elsewhere. The other stock, chickens, donkey and geese, although important individually to us are not critical or rare and would have to take a back seat to getting sheep and horses out.

What I plan to do is put in place a list of all the animals, in order of priority, for an evacuation in case of emergency. Thinking now about the hard decisions of who to take vs who to leave when I am calm and not stressed is vital to being able to respond quickly and efficiently in case of disaster. I'll also be evaluating our own personal evacuation plans, do I know where critical papers are and can I grab them in a hurry if I need to?

For shelter in place I will be looking at whether we have a plan to provide for our own food and water in case of a major blizzard or other event that kept us on the farm for an extended period.

These plans can be adapted to other potential disasters, what if there is an outbreak of a major disease? Do we have disinfectant? Can we lock gates to prevent any visitors if we are quarantined? What medications and first aid items should we have on hand for both us and our animals?

I'd urge all farmers to look at their own situations and develop a disaster plan for your farm's most likely problems. Every part of the country can experience disaster, a bit of time now making a plan for how to handle it could save lives in the future. If nothing else you will save time if there is a disaster as many of the really hard decisions will have already been made. Whether it's fire, blizzards, flooding, rain, tornados, hurricanes or something else now is the time to prepare.

21 October 2007

Winter Snow

First snow here on Garvin mesa. It's a bit early this year, usually we don't get snow down here until later. The sheep love the snow. I think because they have such nice warm wooly coats they enjoy playing in it and really like cold weather. The rams are eagerly waiting for their breakfast.

The ewes especially like to go around the corrals licking and eating the snow and icicles that form. What they don't like is the snow sliding off the metal roof of the barns into their pens. We position water tanks under the roof to catch the snow and a ridge usually builds up too. The sliding snow makes a lot of noise and scares the sheep. Most of the ewes have decided that mud is better than the noise above their heads today. By mid winter they usually get over this and will stay under the barn when the snow slides.

It's supposed to be in the mid 60's this coming week so all this snow will be gone. As I type this it's already melting and we've got major mud outside.

13 October 2007

Ovine Haute Couture Part 2

Models relaxing after the sheep sweep show held over several days in western Colorado.

Ewes raved at the latest designs from Oogie M at the final showing of the new fall collection of Ovine Barn Wear this week. With over 100 pieces in the new collection there was something for every sheep. Colorful patchwork was a highlight of the show as old coats were refreshed with new purple edging and contrasting patches on the sides and neck.

It took nearly the entire flock to show all the new styles but there was much duplication with only minor variations in the detailing around the tail tucks, neck lines and leg straps. However a surprise was the prominent sizes written on each and every coat. No modesty for ewes this year, if they wear a 34W everyone will know.

A model displays the latest in patchwork coats for the fashionable ewe.

No fear of too thin models being banned from the runway in Colorado. All the models in the show were plump and fluffy. A few delicate lambs sported specially tailored coats to accentuate their diminutive features. Many ewes are in the smaller sizes now but are expected to be wearing the new maternity line soon. In addition to the nearly 100 coats displayed on models an additional 58 coats were made for the show but not displayed.

And in an unexpected move Oogie M has declared that she will be introducing a mid winter line of coats based on the same styles but in different colors. "I'm not sure what colors to use yet. Dark ones do not show the sizes well and our stable of models is always growing so we need to have a variety of coats in all sizes for them to wear." She is planning a trip to the fabric store during the fall sale in November.

"Our ewes are very concerned about pricing so taking advantage of discount fabrics is important to our line. Fashion doesn't have to be expensive but it does have to be well made. As you can see from this collection a well made sheep coat is a staple of the ewes wardrobe for several years. A few of our older models are sporting coats they have had since lambhood."

All in all it was a successful show.

For information on how to adapt Oogie M patterns for your own flock please see her simple directions here

09 October 2007

Back From Taos

I had a lovely time in Taos, didn't come back with more wool than I took so that is good. I did find a pair of patterns for knitted dragons and bought 2 types of roving to make a knitted dragon like our logo and sign. My test sample looks pretty good so I'll continue to spin it and hopefully manage to get the dragon knitted this winter.

Several people, Patricia, Suzanne and Erika, all helped me figure out the double knitting for the Monmouth cap and I finished rev 2 while I was there. It came out much better and much closer to the original. As soon as I finish weaving in the ends and fulling it a bit I'll post pictures. I'm still not happy with the increases at the top after finding some more pictures of the original and also the increases to set up for double knitting but I am getting there.

Erika showed me the first couple of stitches for naalbinding. I can see it as being a really great way to make very flexible but warm mittens and hats for winter. It may also work for socks, the ones she had were very nice but they looked rather difficult. Now I have to spin some appropriate singles yarn for that technique.

When I got back I had to start sewing on sheep coats again. I have about a dozen more to finish and we can pull the rest of the ladies in off pasture. I should finish those this week and then I can clean up the sheep coat mess from the living room.

I need to get the ram lambs sorted and evaluated but it's not likely to happen this week. They are looking good so it will be difficult to pick out the top dozen or so to keep as potential breeding animals.

Skirting of fleeces continues. I have about 7 more to get up on our web site under the wool for sale section. I still have quite a few to skirt. Hope to finish that project this month as well.

05 October 2007

Off to Wool Festival & Bears

Heading out today to attend part of the Taos Wool Festival. I'm taking my second revision of a Monmouth cap and the start of a scarf from a chart that I am having problems reading in hopes I can get some help from some of my knitting friends who will be there.

The Monmouth cap is interesting. My first one followed the many on-line patterns fairly well but when it was done, although a very nice knit cap, it doesn't look at all like the one in the Nelson Museum. So I started another of my own design but am stuck on the double knitting part for the brim. I think I have a plan to finish it but want to run it by someone else first.

About a week ago we had bears visit us very close to the house. I keep meaning to put up the pictures of the tracks but just didn't get around to it until today. There were at least 2 bears one larger and one a bit smaller. The first track was a small distance from the house as you can see. It was fresh, we back tracked and found fresh scat too.
Bears can be very serious predators of sheep. They will go into a killing frenzy and just keep killing sheep without eating any of them. So far our guard dogs have managed to keep them away but I am anxious to get the bears off the mesa and hiberbating. The next morning we found more tracks very close to the house. Right by the porch as a matter of fact.

There is a huge overpopulation of bears. When Colorado got rid of the spring bear hunt we started having many more problem bears that come in where people are and learn about domestic stock as food animals. We are allowed to protect our stock but the increased density of houses in rural areas make it harder to find clear sight lines to shoot the offending bears. Predator protection costs add a lot to the cost of our wool and our meat. Each guard dog puppy has nearly $2000 invested before he or she is deemed a reliable guard animal.

Sometimes I wish the urban folks who think predators are cute would come see the devestation they can cause. But no one wants to see the bears shredding sheep and guard dogs, or the coyotes dragging still living lambs off while their mothers try to save them, or worst of all, wolves first attacking and killing all the guard dogs of a flock before decimating the poor sheep.

So far we have been very lucky, we have not lost any sheep to predators once we had enough guard dogs, 4 for our small 20 acres of land. We have lost geese and many chickens and had sheep injured who survived. I hope we can keep enough dogs on hand to protect our precious animals.

04 October 2007

More on Sorting Sheep

Yesterday we gave all the ewe lambs their second shots and all got evaluated. I managed to get coats on most of them but still need to make 11 more coats as I ran out of some sizes. The uncoated sheep got to go back into the orchard on pasture while the rest are here in the barns on hay now.

Most of the lambs ended up very close when evaluated. To rank them I first did my normal evaluations on all their characteristics, then broke ties by going with fleece quality and then fleece length, thus focusing on wool for the ewe lamb selection this year. We didn't get everyone weighed for their 30-day weights so I don't have average daily gains on all lambs so I can't really use meat production for selection this year. I still have to evaluate all the ram lambs.

We also sorted out some of the for sale yearling ewes. These 4 lovely ladies are sold but we have more like them ready to go. Ewe yearlings are $175 each if purchased and picked up by the end of October. Ewe lambs are $100 each. Ram lambs are $100 each and adult breeding rams are $200 each. All sheep are registered in both the US and UK and are sold with the transfers completed. Any required disease testing, veterinary inspections and paperwork are extra but this is a great chance to get some lovely black sheep for your flock.

I'm heading off to Taos Wool Festival this weekend. I'm looking frward to a major fiber fix. I've never managed to get to any fiber festivals because most of them happen when we are too busy with farm work but things are slowing down so I can sneak away. Black Welsh Mountain yarn will be at the Fire Ant Ranch booth on Saturday so stop by and take a look.