Winter into Spring

With pouring rain outside on a spring day it’s time for another infrequent farm update. After the fall shows and shearing were completed the farm settled in for winter. We had already decided not to breed this year, given the economy and a lack of interest in breeding stock, so there was no ram to bring in, no breeding program to manage. While we missed the excitement of breeding season, in fact this turned out to be a good decision for us for a number of reasons. The price of hay increased this year, and the extreme cold temperatures we had in December and January meant that the flock was eating more than usual to burn calories and keep warm. In addition, the two lambs that we decided to keep for our own breeding program will have a full year to mature before their first pregnancy. And, not having to purchase and manage a ram also meant we could focus on selling a few lambs of our own.

Chaleco ram lamb
Manta’s boy, Chaleco

Fortunately we have been able to sell a few lambs from 2010. First, we were contacted by a family who has been showing sheep in the state, and wanted to try Navajo-Churros. They purchased Riker, our first sheep born on the farm and our largest ewe lamb. I’m hoping to see them and Riker’s lamb at the Tunbridge Fair this year.

Next we were contacted by some established Churro breeders near St. Johnsbury, who were looking for a lighter-colored ram to introduce some new genetics into their flock. They bought Chaleco, the reverse badger ram from Manta. I’m looking forward to seeing photos of their lambs, which should be due in the next few weeks. Then in January we were contacted by a woman in Maine, also in search of a ram lamb. Fortunately we still had Louis, a fine black ram lamb with great fleece and amazing horns, just like his sire. It’s great to see some of our first lambs going to good homes.

Louis
Louis, Nina’s ram lamb

Meanwhile, we had to turn our attention to the remaining ewe lambs and make some decisions. We knew when we decided to breed that there was no guarantee all of the lambs would be of breeding-stock grade, and we would have to either sell these to non-breeding farms or use them for meat. We also knew that the latter choice would not be easy, but such decisions are part of raising livestock. In order to promote the breed, we have to make sound decisions for good genetics, and this means culling animals that do not have desirable traits. This could vary from horn deformities, poor fleece quality, too much wool on the face and legs, and even a nasty temperament – any of these undesirable traits can be passed down to offspring.

Fortunately, we got a recommendation on a slaughterhouse from a friend of ours who raises pigs: Brault’s Market in Troy, Vermont. It’s about a 2-hour drive from our house, but the peace of mind that comes when working with a reputable, ethical, and family-owned operation are more than worth the extra travel time. I called them back in October expecting to have to wait a couple of months for an appointment, but was surprised that they were already booked into February. So we took the first available date and marked it on our calendar.

sheepskin
Sheepskins make great chair covers, cushions, and lap blankets.

I must admit that when the time came, it was easier for me to cope with our decision than I thought it would be. I felt sympathy for the lambs we were culling, but also felt a sense of pride in being able to raise our own meat. Not many people can say that they’ve done this; most meat eaters consume anonymous cuts that are hermetically sealed in the grocery cooler, or dressed up and served at a restaurant. Our lambs were raised with care, allowed to remain with their mothers and run free on pasture, and when the end came they were treated with compassion and respect.

Even after death we have tried to honor their gift of life by using as much as we can. We’ll eat the organ meats rather than throw them out. And as it turns out, waiting the extra time for an appointment was beneficial. It allowed the lambs to grow a little larger, and since the butcher charges a flat rate per head this meant more meat for our money. It also meant that the lambs had more time to re-grow their wool after October shearing, and since we elected to save the hides for tanning, this will make for a much more luxurious sheepskin with a nice thick coat of wool. The hides are in the barn, salted and drying out before I send them to the tannery, and our freezer is full of delicious, healthy meat.

This winter has been an interesting chapter, providing important learning experiences for us. Spring is time for another shearing, and warmer weather means I can get back outside to skirt fleeces and dye some yarn. I just hope we can make it through mud season without another huge snowstorm.

Published by Sarah Scully

Sarah is the owner/operator of Vermont Natural Sheepskins. She is an avid knitter and knitwear designer. She also enjoys cooking and gardening.

1 Comment

  • Jamie Clark

    December 14, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Hi Sarah! Came across your blog. I am curious to find out where you send you skins to tanned. I raise alpacas and would like to tan some hides on occassion. I prefer a very soft tan, the kind where you can drape the skin over a couch. But I also want the fleece crimp maintained while stains and impurities are removed. someone who knows how to process super fine fleece without ruining the integrity of the fleece and wihtout felting it. Thanks! 🙂