Dear Readers -Forgive me once again for failing to keep you up to date with the goings on around here. The Summer flew by, and before we knew it, Fall was upon us. I will fill you in on the highlights, both mundane and exciting. First the mundane. After a successful lambing season, we turned our attention to getting the irrigation system ready to go. To our dismay, we had almost no water in the lower section of the pasture. Fortunately, we had the trusty backhoe to dig up the line, where we found a place where the pipe reduced in size. When we took it apart, we found pieces of melted black plastic, which were obviously from the pipe that had melted 1/4 mile upstream during the fire of 4 years ago! Once we cleaned it out, the pressure was better than ever.
At the end of May, Bill took some time off to visit his old hometown of Burns, OR. Some property that had been in his family for a long time was being sold, and he wanted to retrieve a few things. The main one being his old 57 International truck. Hard to believe, but it was still sitting in the same place he had parked it 37 years ago, key still in the ignition, windows intact and interior remarkably mouse free! The tires were flat, but once inflated, they held air, and he rolled it onto a trailer and brought her home. It's tucked safely into the back of our barn, waiting a little TLC. Our goal is to get it running well enough to drive it in the 4th of July parade one of these years.
After we got the truck put away, we turned our attention to the major project for this year: building the "bunkhouse" to replace the one that burned up in the Carlton Complex fire. It's really more of a deluxe cabin, but we still like to call it by it's former name. The first task was to cut down all the huge dead fir trees that were looming over the building site. We hired the capable crew at Lloyd Logging to come and take care of that for us. They did a great job, and once the logs were cut and stacked, it was apparent that there was some pretty nice lumber in there! So we had them take a couple of loads to a local mill and ended up with about 3000 board ft of lumber. We hope to use some of it for flooring and trim in the bunkhouse. Lloyds leveled out the building site for us, too, and then it was time to start digging, We hired our neighbor, Alex, to do the foundation and framing, and provided him with our backhoe. The concrete work looks great, the framing is mostly done, and the roof rafters are going up as I write. Bill and I are doing the plumbing and electrical ourselves, and we have the hardest part of that done. We had to dig a trench about 300 feet to bury the water and electric, so once again the backhoe earned it's keep. (Have I said how much I love that piece of equipment??) The trench got dug, water line installed, and power panel hooked up. Such a relief to have that out of the way before winter!
While all the construction was happening, the rest of our life on the ranch was going along more or less as usual. The garden got planted, and even though we had a TERRIBLE smoky August (due to nearby wildfires that burned for months), managed to produce an abundant harvest. I also found time to wash and dye a whole lot of fleeces in preparation for the Fiber Fusion show in October. I tried something new this year- using commercial dye to do multi-colored roving for spinners. It was really fun and I got some great color combinations (thanks to advice from family and friends). It was my first time at Fiber Fusion, and I had a great time. There were lots of positive comments on my natural dyed yarn and roving, and I exceeded my expectations for sales. I met some wonderful people who are so committed to raising fiber animals and working towards increasing opportunities for the small producers. I will be back there next year for sure.
That pretty much sums up our summer, except for one thing. I saved the best for last. I decided to treat myself to something very special - a handmade spinning wheel from Betty Roberts. For those who don't know, Betty is a local craftsperson who has been making handmade wheels for decades. They are truly a work of art, and I am lucky to get one. She lives north of here, in Oroville, and I went to visit her when I picked it up. In addition to being finely crafted from wood that she has collected over a lifetime, and perfectly balanced (really a pleasure to spin with), her signature is to inlay wildflowers and other little treasures that she has collected. She took the time to tell me about each flower that was used on my wheel - what it's called, where it came from, etc. My wheel has a few extra special things - porcupine quills, a rattlesnake rattle and a tiny morel mushroom. I can't wait for all the Fall chores to get done so I can just sit and spin. Wishing you all a bountiful Fall season, and stay tuned for updates later in the year!
I've been waiting to update the blog until the last lamb was born so I could give the final count, and today was the day! Finally. The last ewe, Susana, who was a first time mother waited a full week after all the rest were done to present us with her twins. Every day I thought, surely she will have them today. And every night when I got up at 2 AM to check, I thought, please don't let her have them in the middle of the night. But she picked a fine sunny afternoon, and it all went well. She is an attentive and calm mother, and the twins are healthy and eating on their own. So, a year with no bottle feeding- couldn't ask for anything more than that! Here are the stats: 26 total; 9 Female, 17 Male; 2 black, 24 white; 1 set of triplets, 10 sets of twins, 3 singles.
In case you think that all we are doing is sitting around waiting for lambs to be born, you would be wrong! We have been working our tails off trying to keep up with Spring and all the chores that season brings. Even though we look forward to it and can't wait for it to arrive, it always seems to catch us by surprise. One day there is snow on the ground and the cat is warming himself by the wood stove, and the next thing you know the garden is ready and you realize that you better get those seedlings planted if you want to have any tomatoes this year. So, up goes the temporary greenhouse, and the planting begins. I always plant way too many seeds, and then can't stand to discard any of them. How many cauliflowers do two people need anyway?
One of our usual Spring chores is burning the branches of all the trees that fell during the winter, and the fruit tree prunings. (We use the big stuff for winter heating). Standing around a burn pile can be kind of nice, but it takes a long time, it contributes to poor air quality, and we really like wood chips for lots of things such as garden paths and chicken coop bedding. So this year we invested in a wood chipper attachment for our tractor. It came just after the fruit trees were pruned, so we gave it a good workout and it performed like a champ! Our neighbor suggested that we use the fruit wood chips for smoking meat, which sounded good to us, so we followed his advice. We chipped the fruit wood separately, dried it in the sun, and ended up with about 5 large garbage bags full of chips. I think that building a smokehouse just moved up the priority list a few notches. Apple smoked bacon anyone?
We have lots of projects lined up for the summer, so stay tuned! The biggest one is building the "bunkhouse", a cabin that will replace the small structure that burned in the Carlton Complex fire four years ago. We hope to break ground later this month, and start construction in June. We are also working on a solar energy system and if all goes well it will get installed later this year. And of course I will continue to do my fiber work once the garden is underway. I have been trying to be better about posting photos on Instagram and Facebook, so if you want more frequent glimpses in to life at the Lamb Ranch, check out those pages. See you next month!
After the holidays, with the shop finally done, I finally had time to devote to fiber. I set up a washing station in the garage, where we had plumbed hot and cold running water that connects with hoses to my two portable sinks. The best part of the setup is an on-demand water heater that I can set to 167 degrees. No more boiling water on the stove, waiting for the water heater to warm up, or trying to muddle through with not quite warm enough water. It has really streamlined the whole process and is so convenient! Once the fleece is washed, I take it upstairs where I have my mordanting kettles on the stove. I put it in, heat it up, and leave it all night. By the next morning it is ready to go on the drying rack. I can get through one large fleece or two small fleeces easily in a day.
The next step is the dyeing. I prepare the dyestuff ahead of time, and once I have several washed, mordanted fleeces ready to go, I move into dyeing mode. That's the fun part! I just experiment with different colors, sometimes combining them, sometimes doing one color, then over-dyeing with a different color. Then I take a small sample from each one and soak it in modifying baths that are different pH, and also iron. If I like what I see, I might do the whole fleece. No two batches ever come out quite the same.
In 2016 all the lambs were from our Cormo ram, Manny, which meant that all the yearling fleeces that were sheared in 2017 were the Romney x Cormo cross. I had them all micron tested, and found that they all fell in to the 19-24 micron range which is quite nice. I got through all of them so there will be a lot of really nice yarn and roving as a result. I have been spinning a little of it myself, and it's dreamy....
Other than working with fleece, it's been a pretty routine winter and early Spring. We had our usual bout of early warm weather, then it got cold again. The past few weeks the snow really started to melt off. The garlic is starting to show it's little sprouts in the garden, and the chickens finally have some open ground to scratch around in. We had a bunch of roosters that hatched last year and grew up to be extremely noisy and ornery fellows. In March Bill dispatched 5 of them and I stripped the meat off the bones for future use in sausage, and used the bones to make 30 quarts of delicious bone broth. It's so nice to have the extra space in the fiber studio, where there is a ventilation fan. I can simmer stock all night long on an electric burner and use the pressure canner on the gas stove, all without messing up the kitchen in the house.
In early March I sent off over 50 lbs of fiber to Spinderella's to get made into yarn and roving and they did their usual excellent job and quick turnaround. It was less than a month door to door, and my next job is to get labels on it all and put it on the website store and see if anyone wants to buy it! Our local yarn shop in Twisp closed last year, so I am going to try more on-line sales and see how that goes. I will still sell yarn at the Mazama store and at Wooley Mama's yarn shop in Omak, but spinners mostly buy their roving on-line or at fiber festivals. Stay tuned for updates on that.
Remember the culvert I mentioned in the last blog post? Well, the latest warm weather followed by two days of rain has given it a real test, and we are happy to report that it is working splendidly! Our little rock waterfall is holding up, and the rocks we put around the edges are staying firm. The big culvert looks almost empty, even though this much flow last year would have overwhelmed the old one. We are feeling very happy about the whole thing.
The sheep are sheared, and we expect the first lambs of 2018 to arrive in a little over a week. Stay tuned!
Apologies, dear readers, for taking a whole year off from Blog updates! Last year was crazy busy for us, and not only did I neglect the blog, I set all my fiber work aside and just concentrated on getting the shop done. All the usual activities went on (lambing, gardening, etc.) but every spare moment was devoted to finishing the building so we could start using it. I. won’t bore you with too many details, but this entry will be a catch-up review of 2017 with a few highlights and photos.
When I left you last, our dear Nellie had just died and winter 2016-2017 was in full swing.
Old Man Winter was pretty kind to us. The temps stayed fairly normal, and the young dogs took over full time guarding. In February Alfred, who was 14 months old, had his first real experience protecting his flock. A couple of coyotes got pretty close and were making a racket one Saturday morning. The dogs were with the ewes on the far side of the barn, and Alfred figured that the yearling bunch needed protection, so he scrambled over the dividing fence (a snow berm made it pretty easy) and rounded up the gang, moved them away from the barn, and stood guard in front of them for at least a full 10 minutes. Meanwhile, his partner, Callie, stayed with the ewes and barked like crazy while Bill went up with his rifle and fired off a warning shot. The coyotes got the message and decided it was better to leave. Only when the coast was clear did the dogs release their charges. It was something to see!
During February and March we fired up the wood stove in the shop and worked on electrical and insulation. By April, we were ready for sheetrock – that was one job we left to the professionals, and were so pleased with the fast excellent job they did.
Eventually Spring arrived, as it always does, and in late March our shearer, Martin, came and sheared 42 sheep in just a few hours. 23 of them were our new Romney x Cormo cross and they look beautiful!
April – June 2017
Lambing due date was April 19th, and we are traditionally right on schedule. We usually have at least one ewe lamb on the first day, with the others following shortly after. I was pretty much ready by the wee before, but had a few things left to do. On the 14thI went to town to stock up on a few things, and was going to come back and set up the electric fence to keep the sheep closer to the barn where I could see them. I did my usual check on the flock before I left, and all was quiet. When I returned two hours later, there was a huge commotion in the upper part of the pasture up over the rise of the hill where I couldn’t see. I heard dogs barking, sheep baaaa-ing and figured there must be some sort of disaster. As I got closer I heard a lamb cry and soon saw a mother ewe with one lamb, and the other one a little way off. The dogs were “protecting” the lone lamb from it’s mother and she was desperate to get to it. I intervened and got them all together, when I heard another lamb crying! I couldn’t believe it- two ewes lamb 5 days early when I happen to be gone for 2 hours? I looked around to see who the other mother was, and all the rest of the ewes were sitting quietly with no evidence of having recently given birth. I finally figured out that this was a set of triplets. Pretty extraordinary, considering the daddy was our new ram, George, who was only 9 months old when he bred her. After a comical episode of me trying to carry 3 lambs at once, with a concerned mother following me down the hill, I finally got them all into the barn in a lambing pen with food and water and they settled down in to a happy little family. The rest of the lambing went mostly smoothly, with George performing very respectably for a young ram. He had 2 sets of triplets and 3 sets of twins with the 5 ewes he bred with. Manny, our Cormo ram, held up his end with one set of triplets, and 4 sets of twins from his ewes.
Once lambing was done I went back to working on the shop and garden, and had an additional job of keeping an eye out on the rising creek just outside our door. With the recent wildfires, there is simply no vegetation to absorb the Spring runoff, and the creek runs higher than it ever has in the recent past. This year a culvert at the bottom of the county road plugged and McFarland creek became a raging torrent that washed out the paved road, almost stranding those of us who live upstream. In addition, the culvert that runs under the driveway to our barn was too small to handle the flow and we ended up with sandbags in front of our basement. All worked out OK, but it was a long 6 weeks before it finally receded. We decided to have the culvert removed and replaced with a larger one in the Fall.
If that wasn’t enough to keep us on our toes, in May the hillside where our water supply line is buried slid and tore out about 100 ft of our pipe. It took a couple of weeks to repair, during which time we rigged up our trusty fire pump to get water to the troughs for the livestock. As usual, our dear friends Jeff and Maria came to help us in our time of need, and assisted with hooking up the new pipe. What would we do without them!?
Fortunately there were no more disasters in the second half of the year. Bill’s friends Matt and Cathy visited us from Oregon and helped put up the walk-in cooler that we have had in storage for 5 years. It fit perfectly into the space we designed for it, which was very satisfying. We finished painting the interior of the new shop, and installed cabinets and lighting.
We did take a few days to go to Oregon to view the solar eclipse. Bill’s mom lives right in the path of totality, and we all went to a camping spot a few miles from her home and had a fantastic view. It is the first total eclipse that I have seen, and I highly recommend making the effort to see one if you can. The rest of the summer flew by, and we celebrated the harvest with our traditional asado lamb roast, which was a perfect combination of family, friends and neighbors, and of course amazing food.
Sept – Dec 2017
The last quarter of the year was busy as usual. Canning, preparing for winter, and of course working on the shop. We had a Halloween surprise, when one of our hens showed up on October 31st with a single chick. We finished all the interior trim work and finally started moving into the new shop. Bill found a nice drill press that someone was selling for cheap, and we built workbenches, moved cabinets and generally got things organized. We were really happy to get our mini-split heat pump hooked up, and found that it kept everything toasty warm. The cooler compressor was connected, too, and proved to be very convenient for our Fall butchering. We bought beef from our neighbor, and were able to hang that for a month, which made for some mighty tender steaks! After all the meat was gone, we used it through the winter as a root cellar, and I have to say, I have never before had carrots last until April without getting soft. I stored them in a bin with peat moss slightly dampened, and it works like a dream. A carrot that I took out of the bin on April 1st(harvested in late October) was as firm and crunchy as if it were just pulled out of the ground. We managed to get some shelves built in the carport for storage, and Bill got enough wood split to last us all winter. We spent the holidays with friends and family, reflecting on how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful, bountiful place.
Happy New Year to all of our readers! We hope that you all had a warm and happy holiday season. Bill and I had our ups and downs for a variety of reasons. I came down with a terrible flu, and on top of that we lost a couple of our beloved animals in the days just before Christmas. Our oldest ewe, Vinnie, died 11 days before Christmas. She was retired from lambing, but had such a personality (and nice fiber!) that we kept her around just because we liked her so much. We don’t know exactly how old she was, but she lived a long and comfortable life. She just stopped eating, and would not come into the barn with the other sheep. She became weaker and weaker, and finally laid down one night and couldn’t get up. It was hard, but Bill swiftly put her down, painlessly.
The other loss was our dear old guard dog, Nellie, who died just a few days before Christmas. This blog is a tribute to her.
Nellie probably never knew how lucky she was. In the Spring of 2007 Bill traveled to the Oregon border to pick up a dog from a breeder he had found in a magazine. He was expecting to pick up one male dog and be on his way, but when he arrived, there were two puppies. One was the dog who he named Casimiro, and the other was a small little female. Bill asked about her and the breeder said that she was a runt and deformed so he would probably just “get rid of her”. Bill couldn’t bear the thought, so he brought her home, cleaned her up and nursed her back to health. She was skinny and her hind end was so weak that she couldn’t walk. The two pups were inseparable, and little Nellie gradually gained strength and started walking. She grew a little, although she was only about half the size of a normal dog of her breed. She didn’t let her small stature deter her from her duties, though. She was always very suspicious of people – it took her almost a year to trust me enough to let me pet her – but her guarding instinct was fully intact. She was just over a year old when I met her, and shortly after that I happened to be there the first time she saw a lamb being born. Bill asked me to pay close attention, because he did not know how the dogs would react. I hung around in the pasture that day, and pretty soon a ewe went into labor and had a lamb. Nellie was nearby, watching, and even though she had never seen this before, she came over and tried to protect the lamb from it’s own mother! I watched for a while, and the ewe would not be deterred. They went around and around, and after about a half hour, they got it sorted out. The ewe bonded with her lamb, with Nellie sitting up on the hill watching them closely. She was a quick learner, and after that her behavior was to position herself near a ewe who was lambing and then let them bond while she chased away any of the other curious sheep who would come over to see what was going on.
She was very attentive to the entire flock, but always paid special attention to the lambs when they were young. I recall one time when we had a small group of “bummer” lambs (ones whose mothers can’t or won’t nurse them), in which case I bottle feed them when they are small. I was in the pasture about 100 feet away from the fence and had just finished feeding. Nellie was up on the hill behind me. Just then a big truck drove up to the barn and couple of guys got out. It was the electrical PUD crew who were doing routine inspections of their power poles, one of which was near our barn. Casimiro raced to the fence and started barking like crazy, so I got up and walked down to talk to the crew. I noticed that as soon as I left the lambs, Nellie quietly got up and came and sat right next to them. She did not bark, or get excited, but she was on alert and never took her eyes off the strangers until they were gone.
Nellie was devoted to her flock, and to us, right up until the very end. In early December, she lost her appetite and stopped eating. I took her to the vet, and he said that she was anemic and that most likely her body had stopped making red blood cells. Given her advanced age, there was no treatment that would accomplish anything, so we made the decision to take her home and let her spend her last few days in the barn. We set up a lambing pen with a nice straw bed and a heat lamp, and gave her water. She was in full view of the sheep and other dogs, and was comfortable and happy to see us when we would visit several times a day. She held on for a couple of weeks, which was extraordinary. I had to go to Seattle the week before Christmas, and I was pretty sure she wouldn’t be there when I got back. I visited her one last time and said my goodbye. When Bill got home that night, he went in and spent some time with her, then went out to do some snowblowing. When he got back about an hour later, she was nowhere to be found. He could see that she had pushed through the gate on the pen. It was pitch black, and snowing, but he put his head lamp on and searched the pasture until he found her. She had gone up to her favorite spot, just past the willow tree, and laid down and died.
RIP Nellie. We will remember you always.
Dear readers- My apologies for being so delinquent in my blog updates. It was a jam packed summer, and apparently Fall has gone by in the blink of an eye as Winter is now descending on us in the form of snow! I will try to summarize the past 6 months with some photos and descriptions of the highlights.
When you last heard from me I was on my way to pick up our new ram, George. He has turned out to be a handsome fellow, and has a nice personality. He gets along with Manny and Chip, with whom he spent the summer. They are all good pals. George and Manny are with their ewes now, and we are hoping that their romances will result in lots of lambs next April.
After Jackson left, he sent me some of his reflections on his time here. I thought I would share them with you:
I worked and lived part-time at the lamb ranch from March to August of 2016. I came to the
ranch with an inkling that I would enjoy the quality of life but also with an ambition to learn as
much as I could about ranching.
“Sheep are what sheep eat.”
I’ve heard that expert fly anglers are entomologists knowledgeable about the life cycles of the
insects that feed the fish. During my time at McFarland Creek Lamb Ranch, I learned that the sheep rancher is similarly concerned with plants. The rancher takes custody of not only animals, but also of pastures. Potentially, pastures require more time and effort to maintain than the animals
I heard Katie say a couple of times that day-to-day work on the ranch is “not as glamorous as
people like to believe it is.” That struck me as the realization that I was rarely asked to do work
that directly involved the livestock. The majority of my time was spent weeding--trying to prevent
noxious weeds from crowding the pastures. I felt like an anonymous neighbor to the flock. We
saw each other often and I had no reason to approach them other than to shoo them away
when they lay across an irrigation line. Or dissuade them from mustering at a gate as I passed
in or out. I thought of myself as their servant, busying myself with tidying their pastures.
I found that during the spring and summer months, the great majority of my tasks were related
directly to plants and indirectly to preserving the wellbeing of the animals. I’d say the same of
what I observed Katie and Bill doing around the ranch. These tasks revolved around cultivating
and maintaining the sheep pastures. Weeding, mowing, and moving irrigation lines.
I also noticed that Bill and Katie discussed their prospective choices of hay as they would have
discussed different choices of salad at a restaurant--no less discerning than if they had been
required to eat the hay themselves. They discussed which varieties of hay were available,
where it was grown and who grew it, whether it had a surfeit of stems or blooms, which cutting
produced it (the first cutting is generally less desirable), and at what price it was being sold.
They reserved their right to be picky, because they knew that their decision would affect the
quality of the meat that they produced.
Through mainly my efforts, the “upper pasture”--an area claimed as pasture during fire
recovery--was this year cleared of the vast majority of the flowering generation of mullein
(Verbascum thapsus). I wrote this to mark the virtual completion of my task:
The mullein of McFarland Creek lamb ranch were equal in grandeur to the California redwoods.
Towering, bolting for the sky, innumerable. I saw them like the early loggers might have seen
the redwood forests. It was my duty to eliminate them and I very quickly tired of the tedium,
appearing after days of toil to have made a minute difference. Without end in sight, I became
numb to the destruction I caused, disturbing solitary insects that had alighted on the furry leaves
of the mullein. I churned the soil unearthing pupae and the nests of bumble bees and ants.
Yesterday, the tables turned distinctly. Then the end was suddenly in sight. Then the task was
finished abruptly before I knew what to do with myself next. Like a shark circling prey I whittled
away at the fringes of the last patch of these giants. Each shovel stroke lost its effort. For the
last time I straightened my back, tipped back my hat, and scanned the pasture with squinted
Nowhere left to go and no weed left to to conquer. A feeling of loneliness and regret. Lonely to
be the last one standing. A feeling of silly destruction. I am the surprised, defeated victor.
Apprehensive about the future. Who am I now that I have no more mullein to fell?
Herding sheep, I found, relied on intuition that I developed as a middle schooler. I never
imagined that basketball practice brought me closer to being a good sheep herder. I found that it
helped to take a wide a stance and to keep all sheep within my field of view. While directing the
herd I continually revised my own position, plotting the trajectory of each straggler and the path
that I might take to block it from dashing off in the wrong direction. So at a fairly relaxed pace, I
found that I could encourage the sheep to go where I wanted them to go. They are timid
creatures, mentally susceptible to my calculating moves.
After he left us, Jackson worked in one of the more remote National Parks (California's Channel Islands) where he assisted with managing and researching the fox population. We wish him all the best in his future adventures.
We had a couple of moose visit us this summer, which is not unheard of, but still rather rare. They usually prefer to hang out further up the road at our neighbors' place, where there are some swampy ponds, which sare their favorite habitat. In July, I saw a cow moose walk through our yard, cross the county road, and wander down into our lower pasture. In September, we did not see the moose itself, but we sure saw the aftermath! The dogs had been barking during the night, and even though Bill got up and looked with a flashlight, he didn’t see anything so went back to sleep. The next morning we found the gate near the barn smashed and broken, and saw a big hoof print in the dirt. Definitely a moose. Fortunately, we were able to patch up the gate without too much trouble.
The garden was bountiful this year, and I tried to put up as much as possible. It really cut into my wool processing, but I did manage to get some dyeing done, which was very gratifying. Our local yarn shop, Twisted Knitters, is selling almost everything I can produce!
Our biggest project this year is building a new shop to replace the one that burned in the fire two years ago. We went all out and decided to incorporate all the features that we wanted: covered storage and parking; enclosed, heated garage; workshop area; bathroom; office space; fiber workshop space; and a place for our walk-in cooler. The project started with bringing in fill dirt to build up the pad to a level that will allow the runoff to drain away. We hired our neighbor to do the foundation, framing and sheathing, and he got it all buttoned up before winter. Now we are doing the rest mostly ourselves. We got the septic tank in and covered up just before the ground froze, and are now working on electrical wiring. Hopefully we can get that inspected in a week or two, and then we can get some insulation in. We have the wood stove, so it will make it cozy for the finish work during the winter.
Callie and Alfred are doing great. They play hard and are loving the snow. Alfred is so big now- we are guessing at least 130 lbs, maybe more. He has a sweet personality, and is very attentive to his guard duties. Last week I heard an eerie sound- something between a scream and a screech. I had no idea what it was, but Callie went tearing over to the fence line and barked ferociously for quite a while. Alfred stayed with the sheep. The next day I found some large cougar tracks in the snow, and I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard. Haven’t seen or heard any sign of it since. Our old dog Nellie is slowing down. She’s 10 years old now, and we are keeping her comfortable and providing a place out of the cold where she can live out her last days.
One of my resolutions for the New Year is to do better at updating the blog. We wish you all a happy holiday season, and stay tuned for more frequent updates in the New Year.
Springtime at the Lamb Ranch has been very busy and very rewarding. It was still winter the last time I posted, and now snow is a distant memory. I got an early start (for me) on getting the greenhouse up and starting some seeds. Our helper, Jackson arrived in late March, and we put him to work right away. He got a lesson in driving the tractor, and learned about the irrigation system. We put him to work attacking weeds, which are plentiful in certain parts of the pasture. Since we don’t use herbicides, it’s a big job to dig up each one by hand, but in the end it’ s very effective. The areas that we have done over the past few years have almost no weeds any more. The remaining section is mostly mullein, which is easy to dig out, so by next Spring our weed work will be minimal.
What a difference a year makes in the fire recovery! Last year (first Spring after the fire) the hillside among the burned trees was mostly brown, and although there were delicious morel mushrooms to be found, it wasn’t all that nice to look at. This year (second year after the fire), the entire hillside exploded in yellow balsamroot, which was impressive, but then we had an unexpected bonus of a lupine bloom. It went from yellow to purple. Big swaths of hillside just covered with brilliant color. And now instead of dull brown below the trees, it’s a carpet of green. Even though we miss our trees, we are really enjoying watching the transformation each year as the land recovers.
There was above average snow this winter, and everyone here was hopeful that would mean more water soaking into the ground and less fire danger. But the Springtime temperatures were above average, and it’s melting off very fast. All the streams and rivers started running high much earlier than usual. Our little creek that runs through the front yard started rising in mid-April. By early May it had come up onto the grass and we had to dig out the spillway and let it go over the driveway. It’s a nice feature that is leftover from the days when this property was a power generation plant, and it allows us to control the flooding really well. It peaked about a week ago and is slowly going back down now.
Our regular shearer, Martin, showed up right on schedule- first weekend in April- and got all 40 of our sheep sheared in just a few hours. He is such a pleasure to work with and we are grateful to have him. He had just returned from a trip to Australia where he got to shear with some world famous shearers. This year I had every fleece micron tested and was pleased to find that many of our yearlings had readings that were in the 26-29 range. There were three Romney/Cormo cross fleeces that were 24-26. I can hardly wait to wash them and see what they are like once they are spun.
Shortly after shearing comes lambing, which started on April 14th. It was another very successful year. All the ewes lambed in a 10 day period, and we ended up with 23 little rascals. All healthy, with all good mothers. It’s the second year in a row with no bummers (meaning I don’t have to bottle feed any of them). There were only two singles out of the bunch, and the grand finale was a set of really nice triplets out of our veteran ewe, Pearl. She waited until the very end, and they were all nice big lambs. She had only had singles up to this point, so I was watching her carefully to make sure she would take all of them and be able to nurse that many. She proved to be just a wonderful mother. She somehow manages to keep track of all three, and they hang out together like a little tribe. Her bag is huge, and they are all getting plenty to eat. All of the lambs this year are from Manny, our Cormo ram, so next shearing should result in plenty of very nice fleeces.
The lambs were so cute this year that I couldn't resist posting a video of them racing around while their mothers were eating. I have more video on the Facebook page, too.
Once all the lambs were on the ground we were able to turn out attention to other things. The garden got planted, and we started getting the site ready for our new shop. We had to have a lot of fill dirt brought in to level it up, and it looks great. It’s going to be a bigger structure that the one that burned, and will include an enclosed garage, a workshop for tools and repairs, a small office space, a walk-in cooler for hanging meat, and an upstairs that will be used as a fiber art studio. We don’t expect to get it done completely this year but are hoping to have it framed up with siding and roof before winter. We will finish out the interior spaces as time and money allow. The main thing is that we will have covered space for our woodpile and other items that have been spending the past two winters outside under blue tarps.
Business has been good. On the meat side, we are almost sold out of all the available lamb for this Spring. We only have one left, and have started a waiting list for the Fall. Yarn sales have picked up considerably, too. Our local yarn shop, Twisted Knitters in Twisp, has moved to a storefront on Main Street, which seems to have been a good move. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but business is booming. I encourage any of my blog readers who are in Twisp to visit this delightful yarn shop. It's right across from the bakery, so you can indulge all of your appetites.
I am headed to the West side tomorrow to do meat delivery and pick up a new ram. He is a purebred Romney from The Pines Farm in Maple Valley. They sent me a picture of him and he is a very handsome fellow. I’ll be posting photos of him in the next installment, so stay tuned!
Spring is on the way, and boy, we can’t wait. We’ve had some teaser days with sunshine and warm temperatures, but then the clouds come, and more snow which means another round of mud before things dry out. The other day we had a heavy wet snow fall during the night and went out to find a big limb on the willow tree had broken off. The tree suffered a lot of damage during the fire, and we are not sure if it will survive.
The big news around here is that our new Maremma puppy, Alfred, arrived late February. I went to the farm where he was born and met the breeder along with his mother, and a few siblings that were still there. He is just a magnificent little dog. So calm, curious, smart, and huge. He just had his checkup at the vet yesterday and weighed in at 41.5 lbs. And he’s only 3 months old! Our oldest dog, Nellie, is not too interested in him, but that is her style. She takes a long time to warm up to new things, but she is already showing signs of coming around. Callie, on the other hand, was immediately attracted to him. I think she must have a strong natural mothering, or at least guarding instinct, because she has definitely taken charge of watching out for him. She doesn’t let him out of her sight, and is right there if anything seems awry. If he whines, she runs over to see what’s wrong. And the other day a ewe gave him a little head butt and it startled him so he squealed. Callie was watching and she leapt in between them and gave that old ewe the stink-eye. She has really taken the lead and will be an excellent teacher and playmate for Alfred.
I’ve been working hard at getting as much wool washed and dyed as I can, and although it’s going slowly, I’m making steady progress and coming out with some very nice colors. I just got another batch back from Spinderella’s this week, and sent another one off. I tried something new this time- I had a tender fleece (one with weak fibers that won’t work for spinning), so I had them felt it for me. It turned out beautiful! I’m going to sew a vest out of it, and also experiment with making some tea cozies. I’ll embellish them with needle felting using some of the dyed wool that I have laying around.
I don’t know when I’ll have the time, as our project list is growing daily. Next weekend our helper, Jackson, is arriving from California to spend the summer working with us. He will spend part of the week working for Bill in the surveying business, and part on the ranch. We are both very excited to have him here. The next blog update will have more about him. We are also planning our new shop building, and should start construction later this Spring. It will be such a relief to have a place to store things under cover instead of under blue tarps covered with snow all winter.
We’ll be shearing on April 1st, followed by lambing starting April 15th, so the busy season is almost upon us. Our ewes are starting to look very big, so we are expecting the usual healthy lamb crop, with plenty of twins. We will have 5 first time mothers this year, so we're crossing our fingers that they are all up to the job. The rest of the yearlings did really well this winter- no illnesses, all looking good. We’ll be butchering after they’ve been on grass for a month or so.
Stay tuned for news and updates on all these things and more in the next installment!
This blog installment is dedicated to our beloved guard dog, Cas, who passed away last week. His full name was Casimiro, which is Italian and means “The Great Defender”, which he certainly was.
Bill got Cas and his sister, Nellie, in November of 2006. They were litter mates, and inseparable right from the beginning. They were a formidable team and worked together to protect their flock through thick and thin. Many a time we witnessed them go to work when coyotes and other predators were lurking about. Cas did not like anything near his sheep, even birds. If a hawk, eagle or raven flew over, he would run around the pasture barking like crazy. Any sound or scent that he detected outside the pasture was investigated. Usually it elicited a warning bark, which would be enough, but if necessary he and Nellie would go into full defense mode. This usually entailed Nellie rounding up the sheep and getting them into a corner away from the threat where she would stand guard in front of them while Cas would go to the fence line and let the predator know that it would be a big mistake to come into his pasture. This was very effective, and truly impressive to watch.
Cas had a natural instinct for which animals needed the most protection. He was especially good with lambs. I remember one time when we had a few bummers (lambs whose mothers either couldn’t or wouldn’t nurse them). I was bottle feeding them in the pasture, and was getting ready to finish up and go do some other chore so I playfully told Cas, who was sitting on the hill behind me, that he needed to take extra special care of those lambs because they didn’t have mothers to look out for them. Just before I got up to go, a stray ewe wandered up and was approaching the lambs to check them out. Before I knew what was happening, Cas flew down the hill and head-butted that ewe clear out of the way! She looked totally bewildered and had no idea what had just happened.
He also took special care of the old ewes. We had a retiree, Licorice, who had been Bill’s niece’s 4H lamb. Licorice lived to a ripe old age, and in her later years she had arthritis and didn’t move very fast. In the summer we move the sheep to the upper pastures during the day, and bring them down at night. The rest of the flock would race up the hill to the fresh grass, while Licorice would make her way slowly up the hill and eventually catch up with them. Cas would usually hang back with her until she had re-joined the flock.
One thing we will never know is what happened during the Carlton Complex fire, when we left the dogs in charge of the flock. All we know for sure is that the new dog we had just acquired a few months before panicked and escaped, but Cas and Nellie stayed with the sheep while fire raged all around them. The fact that all were saved with nothing more than a few minor burns tells us that they probably worked as a team yet again to get the sheep into the center of the irrigated pasture, away from the flames that were burning at the fence line.
As fierce a defender as he was, Cas was also very playful and affectionate with us. He loved his daily belly rub and if I forgot to do it, he would put his paw on my leg and look at me while he rolled on his back with his legs in the air. When he was younger he loved to romp in the snow and slide down the hillside.
We didn’t know that he was ill until the very end. He had been slowing down a bit, which was to be expected with large dog of 9 years who has lived outdoors. But he was still playful, and would follow me up to the gate every day and wait for me to return from my chores. The week before last, he all of a sudden was not able to move one morning. The day before had been normal, and then the next morning he was paralyzed in his hind end. I took him to the vet immediately, but he could not find any obvious reason for it. I then took him to the WSU vet hospital, which is one of the best schools in the country, and they examined him and said that while they could not make a diagnosis without some very expensive testing, the bottom line was that he would never walk again. The most humane thing to do was to put him to sleep. So that is what we did, and I am so grateful to the kind people at WSU. They were very respectful and let me have some private time with him and be there when they did it. They then offered to do a necropsy as part of their training, and send us the results so we would at least know what happened. It turned out that he had very advanced cancer in most of his major organs. He had never let on that anything was wrong- just kept on doing his job until he literally could not walk. During the last few days we had him in a pen in the barn, and Nellie would not leave his side. She sat next to him day and night, and when he was gone, she sat there still for several days. We are so glad that we have Callie, the younger dog, whom Nellie has bonded with. Nellie is starting to sit with Callie now, and although I’m sure she misses her brother, is getting along OK.
There is some happy news on the horizon, too. We have been planning on getting one more dog to be a companion and partner to Callie, but had not made any efforts yet. When Cas became ill, I realized that we should probably get on a list for another Maremma puppy, hoping that we could get one later this year. I contacted the breeder who gave us Callie, and she called me immediately and said that she had just had a litter, and there was a beautiful little male pup available! So I sent her the deposit and will be picking him up later this month. We will always remember Cas and hold a special place for him in our hearts, but are looking forward to the next generation of loyal guardians. So, stay tuned- the next blog entry will be full of cute puppy pictures. You won’t want to miss it!
Greetings Lamb Ranch Friends! Christmas is behind us, and the new year is looming on the horizon. As usual, Fall was a very busy season for us, so I have not had time to catch up on the blog until now.
We are reflecting on our year, and find that we made a lot of progress. The major project was getting all of the fencing replaced, which was huge, and should last a lifetime. We hired it out, despite Bill’s reluctance to let anyone else do such an important task, but they did a great job. Every day I walk the fence line on my way to the irrigation box, and just gaze at the fence feeling so happy that we finally have a secure boundary, and dividing fences for pasture rotation. One day I was walking along and saw a big hole in the upper fence. What the …? At first I thought “what creature had the strength to punch through a brand new steel fence?” Then I realized that was crazy, and started looking around. This part of the fence is at the bottom of a steep hillside, and I figured that maybe a rock had rolled down and busted through. I looked around and saw lots of rocks just sitting there looking all innocent, not saying anything. It was clear that none of them were going to fess up, so I went into CSI mode and finally figured out who the culprit was. It was sitting right on top of the indentation on the ground where I had picked up the hose the day before. And there was a bunch of crushed green grass underneath it, whereas all the other rocks had just dirt under them. Aha! I gave this rock a life sentence of sitting in the same place forever. Bill patched up the fence the next weekend.
This year we had a nice pile of compost, so I had plenty to use on the garden. After I harvested everything, I put a thick layer on the beds, and then covered that with leaves. I managed to get some garlic in the ground this year so we should have a nice crop next summer. It was so gratifying to be able to get everything put to bed before the first cold snap.
Meanwhile, Bill has been busy putting up the firewood. He cut down all the dead trees around the barn area and split and stacked them under the sheltered area of the barn. It’s so much nicer than having them under a blue tarp in the driveway. We’re starting to feel almost civilized!
Now that we have our barn and fencing done, we are looking forward to next year when we will start rebuilding our shop. We have a dream of installing a micro-hydro power generation system as well, so we thought it would be a good idea to figure out what equipment would be required so that we could design the space for it in the shop building. We had a consultant visit us to look at our creek and go over the options, and found that we have plenty of flow and head to generate what we would use and then some. So, we made a space in the shop to accommodate some inverters, etc. So exciting to think that we could be a net zero operation someday!
Of course the holiday season is the big sale season. Our community is lucky to have several businesses that promote locally made products, so I have a place to sell all the hats that I knit during the year, along with the yarn. It was the best year ever for us, sales-wise. I am almost out of yarn, and sold all the knitted items. Thanks to Twisted Knitters, the Community Center Christmas Bazaar, Sun Mountain Lodge, the Mazama Store, and Cashmere Cottage Yarns. Now I have to get busy and start washing and dyeing.
The next few months will be busy with that, plus helping out with the Okanogan Valley Fiber Festival planning. We have more people to help this year, which is a huge relief, as my plate is getting pretty full. I was elected Secretary of the North American Wool Co-op, which is a group of fiber farmers who have collaborated to market their fiber. There are many exciting things happening there that I will be writing about during the coming year, so stay tuned.
Bill and I wish you all a very happy and prosperous New Year!
Life on the Ranch
This Blog is intended to be a summary of the events of daily life that take place on our ranch. We hope you find it interesting - feel free to comment if you like.