Topsy Farms Blog has moved…

March 3, 2013

Please visit the new blog at the Topsy Farms website here!

ATV doing chores on Topsy Farms

ATV doing chores on Topsy Farms


A “New” Haybine

November 1, 2012

We decided we needed an upgraded haybine for cutting hay, as our oldies had been patched again and again, and just were not up to the job. We use them constantly during haying to feed a growing flock, and also to keep pastures trimmed.

New for us means anything since 1950.

Christopher found a New Holland Hydraswing haybine that was only 15 or 20 years old and bought it. This style (which we term “Gooseneck”) can cut on either side of the tractor, enabling the operator to work up and down each row, and in 12 foot swaths instead of the previous 9 foot. The longer windrows make the raking and baling more efficient too.

The challenge was to get it home.

Men and machines assembled on mainland, preparing to lift haybine onto wagon

Chris and Ian rolling wagon under haybine

Chris heading to the ferry, towing wagon with haybine chained firmly

The dealer delivered to a site relatively near our ferry on the mainland.

Christopher crossed with one tractor on the 9 am ferry, traveled to the site and towed the haybine along the road to a large township space to meet Ian and Don. They had crossed on the 10 am ferry with two more tractors, one towing an empty wagon. The haybine is too large to tow onto the ferry; it had to be loaded on its side with the swing arm out of the way onto the wagon to be towed home.

Chris, directing 2 tractors as they lift haybine

Don inching the haybine arm around into position

Chris, pulling wagon out from under haybine

The photos show some of the steps involved in unloading. Three men, 3 tractors, one wagon and ingenuity, but our new haybine was home by 2 pm.

Christopher, Don and Ian under the swing arm of the ‘new’ haybine

Welcome to our newest Topsy addition. May it last into the next generation.


Surviving a Drought Year

September 3, 2012

Most of our 41 summers farming on Amherst Island have been dry. The summers of 2008-2011 were a pleasant exception – no Islanders could remember 3 green summers in a row and 4 in a row still seem miraculous.

For us, the driest summer was in 1988. We had to buy some poor quality hay and quite a bit of grain to get the sheep flock through to the next spring.

It was a near squeak that year to pay the bills.

Once again this year we have had a tough spring/early summer with high temperatures and very little moisture.  The August rains enjoyed by some have managed to miss us almost entirely.  But we are in quite a bit better position than we were in 1988.

Our equipment isn’t quite so ancient and is less prone to breaking down when urgently needed.  Hay can be made more quickly. We now have the equipment and experience to make baleage early in the growing season which enables us to harvest good quality forage while encouraging re-growth for pasture, and at least slightly reduce our dependence on increasingly expensive grain. The sheep are rotated from pasture to pasture.  We try always to trim the completed pastures to remove plants that the sheep didn’t eat.  (We don’t want the least favourite to reseed, coming to dominate the pasture.)

Topsy Farms

Christopher, wrapping a baleage bale

Our soil quality is much improved.  We roll the hay out in the fall and winter, spreading it on the ground.  That is the most efficient way for all sheep to have equal access to the fresh hay.  It also leaves tiny hay fragments which, combined with the sheep droppings, increase the organic matter in the soil.   We have less manure to spread as we now use the barns less, but still stockpile the barnyard gleanings and spread on the fields when we can. This increases the ’tilth’ of the earth, draws earthworms (which add their own castings) and other small organisms, which helps hold moisture if we do get any rain.  The first year we unrolled hay on poor pasture, we could clearly see the green stripes in the ground, where the more lush grasses were growing thanks to the increased organic matter.

Topsy Farms sheep

Don unrolling hay to newly shorn sheep, early spring

Last year was a good year – we harvested as much hay as possible and were able to build up a surplus – called ‘drought hay’ – which we are already feeding during the weaning process (5 large round bales/day plus supplement).  Last year we made over 1700 round bales and didn’t start feeding until November; this year, we were able to make just over 1100 bales, and have had to start feeding during the summer.  That is a big difference.

Topsy farms bales

Ian loading bales onto wagons for transport

Consequently, culling animals that are not productive for the farm is a much higher priority this year.  A first year ewe-lamb who didn’t get pregnant is unfortunately sent to market.  Older ewes unable to raise lambs once more would normally be culled in the fall, but this year, they are going in the summer.   We just can’t feed them.

Tough decisions.   We need to enhance the core of our flock, feeding them well, rather than giving everyone skimpy rations.

So, now our soil is improved.  Our techniques are improved.  Equipment is in better shape.  We just need to perfect our rain dance techniques.


Sheep have bad press

July 16, 2012

How many disparaging phrases have you heard about sheep?  “Led like sheep to the slaughter”; “The black sheep of the family”; “A wolf in sheep’s clothing”…

“Not fair” says our shepherd Christopher, and we agree.

Their instinct to herd is simple common sense defense.  Lacking speed, teeth or claws, hiding in a group is smart.  It follows that when shepherds want them to go into a pen or through a narrow gate, the sheep understandably feel less safe, and simply don’t want the same thing the people do.  That does not mean they are dumb.

They are individuals.  A stranger looking at a flock might think they are all alike, but those of us close to the animals can clearly see their personal characteristics.  There are mothers more skilled than others; confident leaders and obedient followers; ones who know the guardian dogs are to be obeyed fast while others are mavericks; the steeplechase jumpers who challenge all fences…

Some breeds have certain predictable traits.  A black-faced Suffolk ewe or lamb will be more calm and steady, whereas a lamb bred by a Border Cheviot will be feisty, almost high strung, with great ‘survivability’ skills.

Personalities vary also.  We fostered twins from one hour old, and one was far more skilled than the other at finding the food source.  It was first born, probably by just a few minutes, and was more playful and clearly the leader of the two.

Lambs being fostered have a high learning curve.   Their instincts say to go under a warm belly and feel for a firm warm teat, then drink milk of a certain flavour.  When they are fostered, they have to learn quickly to seek a hard black rubber nipple up high, with reconstituted powdered milk that doesn’t taste quite right.  A lamb who has been with a ewe for a few days will initially say ‘ptooey’ to the taste.  However, survival instincts rule, and usually by the second feeding they will move toward not away from the person with the bottle, thumping energetically at knees, seeking food.

Our two older foster lambs know “go for a walk” and “into your pen”.  (They like the first.)  I started to save the last bit of milk in the bottle to reinforce the latter directive. After one repeat they knew what to expect, and now enter eagerly.

The next time you hear someone disparage sheep, do challenge it.  Come and visit Topsy Farms and see for yourself.


Foster Lambs, 2012

May 21, 2012
1st foster lamb

First foster lamb eager for a warm, full tummy

Lambing on pasture is natural but can be fraught with difficulties, so we check the several fields of ewes four times a day.  Often we discover a small problem that could become serious if not caught soon enough:  a ‘cast’ ewe (flat on her back); a ewe whose udders are so swollen the lambs can’t get their first suck; a newborn who has gotten though an impossibly tiny hole in the fence and can’t find mom.  Rescues are deeply satisfying.

Nathan, off school bus and into cage, visiting a solitary lamb

Nathan, off school bus and into cage, visiting a solitary lamb

Jake found two very hungry lambs in his noon checking.  Apparently a ewe birthed twins and simply lost track of one – or possibly chose to reject one.   One of the lambs was still strong enough to stand and suck, and took readily to the lamb replacement formula that we feed.  (We use stubby beer bottles, as they can fit in the microwave for quick reheating. We buy black rubber nipples designed for lambs.)

Friends learning to feed lambs, day two – no longer solitary

The other lamb couldn’t even lift its head.  It’s a pretty black and white marked baby, and was just a few hours old.  I milked the nipple, dribbling a few drops at a time down its throat.  A few hours later he was up and yelling for more. This year’s Lazarus.

Lazarus, 1 day old, stretching

Another possible reason a lamb might become fostered is if a ewe has triplets and the smallest one can’t compete.

Eager eaters, thriving

Eager eaters, thriving

When possible Christopher sets up an adoption with a ewe if she’s lost a lamb at birth – but so far we’ve had few of those.  Otherwise, we send them to a new home where they’ll be raised.  We just got a report that one of last year’s fosters birthed a lamb last week.  Our other potential home has a child with ADD, and the farming parents want the nurturing, tactile experience for the child.  It’ll be lovely for the lamb too.

We’ve had 8 foster lambs so far with 6 already in their new home. We have a few weeks to go yet.


Shearing

April 27, 2012
Traffic jam

These pregnant ewes are on their way to the barn to be shorn. Their instincts to protect their young lambs from bad weather is enhanced by mamas having thin coats too. Photo ("Traffic Jam") by Jacob.

Shearing time is the most challenging few days of the year for our farm. You see, we can’t shear wet sheep. The weather can be dry (as it has been this spring) for weeks on end, but lo and behold, when the inflexible shearing dates approach (the guys are booked solid) the forecasts are full of wet and cold doom and gloom.

Ewes have to be shorn yearly for their health and well-being. We believe that the best time is in the spring, just before they lamb, when (hopefully) the weather is warming, but before the lambs are born. That way, after they have babies in tow, they’ll seek shelter if it is windy or cold. They don’t feel the weather if their coats are still on.

It rained steadily all Saturday, and despite our best efforts, 68 of the 1250 sheep to be shorn got wet. Fortunately the shearers are finishing a job elsewhere on the Island, so will return on Tuesday.

Photo by Don Tubb.

There is a glory in the teamwork activity however. There are 3 shearers and 6 “roustabouts” working in the upstairs barn shearing area, with another three people backing them up. The ‘rousies’ pick up and fling and skirt fleeces, and sweep floors. The space is purposefully snug, so people and animals aren’t travelling more than necessary. There is an almost ballet-like quality to the flow of action, with people keeping an eye on what is needed and who else is moving where, as they back each other up.

The shearers finish each fleece in about 2 ½ minutes; nudge the animal out one gap so they can descend a ramp to the outside; click a counter to keep track of numbers; get their next ewe or lamb from their individual holding pen and start again. Meanwhile someone has to pick up the fleece in just the right way so it can be flung, right side up, on the skirting table. Someone else has to sweep the area so it is cleared for the next fleece, while not interrupting the movement of the shearer. It’s a dance.

In the adjacent space, the fleece on the table is “skirted” with any dirty bits removed, then roughly bundled and put into an 8 ft hanging burlap bag, that is being solidly packed, then sewn and hauled up by block and tackle, then replaced by an empty one. A metal frame with ladder and a suspended bag takes the flow of fleeces while this is happening. Jacob or Kyle have been doing (or helping with) this job since they were about 5 or 6 years old.

Meanwhile, Dianne prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner at her place and hauls hot water, coffee, tea, and snacks to the barn for mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks.

Shorn sheep on Topsy Farms April 2012

These are the 'Bare-Naked Ladies - a variation on the theme - after shearing. Photo by Sally.

Don and Ian keep the flock fed as well as moving unshorn sheep up the ramp into the holding pens on the second floor of the barn. They also moved the shorn sheep down the road to the shelter of our new barn.

The action starts each day about 6:30 am. On the final night the men finished at 8:15 pm.

Today, as forecast, there is rain and wind, mixed with snow – just an additional challenge. We do the best we can, providing barn shelter and wind-protected fields, and all the food they want.


Morning Feeding

April 12, 2012

Don Tubb does all the layout for the Amherst Island Beacon, a monthly newsletter published by our extended family for over 30 years.  Ian and I were away when Don was working to deadline so this is what he wrote:

“So, having a bit of space to fill (the Beacon prints in 4 page intervals), I thought (fairly desperately) that I would show you morning feeding of the ewes.

Topsy Farms sheep

I give them 4 large round bales of hay first thing in the morning and then Chris comes up and gives them some grain. So, picture 1 shows all is calm with the ewes contentedly eating their hay…

that is until Chris shows up when there is a general movement of the flock towards the ATV.

Topsy Farms sheep hear the ATV

This escalates to a general swarming of 800+ ewes encasing it – loudly demanding their ration.

Topsy Farms sheep demanding their ration

The end result is a long line of ewes munching pretty noisily on their grain – no more calling… just molars crunching corn and soya beans.

Long line of Topsy Farms ewes

The 5 dogs in the field have learned (the hard way) to keep well clear of the flock during this operation or they will be mercilessly trampled. At any other time, the dogs hold pre-eminence… dog wants to drink, the ewes gives it room… the dog wants to lie on this hay, the ewes eat somewhere else .   Not so with grain.”

Readers, you will have to come to visit to get the audio.

All photos © Don Tubb 2012.


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