What’s the best way to live the rural farm life dream if you’re only a struggling mid-twenties semi-transient start-up? Easy. Farm-sit for seasoned, vacationing farmers during the winter.
Ok, not SO easy. But if you can score a farm-sit job during the off-season when farmers can actually think about getting away from their land for more than 6 hours, take it!
In this particular instance, I’m farm-sitting 15 acres, 130 sheep, 2 dogs and 3 cats. In the outskirts of Port Ludlow, WA, lies Springhill Farm, home to nationally recognized and award-winning breeds of wool and show sheep. The couple who own the farm have been shepherds for over 30 years and traveled all across the country and even abroad to places like Scotland. Numerous championships ribbons line their mantel, approximately a ton a wool in individual trash bags sits in the ‘wool room’ adjacent to the laundry room, their bathrooms boast signs such as: “Welcome to the Baaathroom,” and “Occupied; Ewe’ll have to wait,” while numerous sheep and rural farm life books line their bookshelves, (“Things That Go Baa in the Night” was the first to catch my attention.) Not one but TWO Ashford spinning wheels occupy the space in front of their woodstove in the living room and the easy chairs are lined with cozy, rustic, home-raised hides.
Twenty three permanent paddocks make up the pasture land they have that backs up to Chimacum Creek, the main waterway through the wide and rambling valley here in southern Jefferson County. Of those, ten are currently filled with groups of sheep separated by age and sex. Morning chores consisting of carting hay (and supplemental grain to the lambs) and checking waterers take a good hour and a half to complete. Their fencing system is some of the best I’ve seen yet; high-tensile wire threads the perimeter of each paddock and sturdy (though weathered) fence posts mark solid corners. Individual spigots spouting VERY shallow ground water accompany each paddock and are lined up right next to the runways that run N and S (they meet at the barn to form 2 separate lanes) for ease of refilling stock tanks. Sturdy, stainless steel gates for each paddock are secured with chain at each opening and swing wide and easily for entering a pasture.
To be sure, the philosophy of sustainability does not reign on this farm; rotation isn’t happening, too many sheep per acre are causing a build-up of feces and bare patches in the grass, and this being the rainy season, waterways are chiseling through the inclines and puddling up in various places throughout the pastures which makes finding a clean place to throw their hay somewhat of a challenge. But there are lessons to be learned here nonetheless (among them plenty of what I wouldn’t choose to do on my own farm, but lessons all the same.)
In fact, from the 3 sheep farms I have worked with or stayed on this year (Pinwheel Farm in KS, Spring Rain Farm in WA, and now Springhill, I’ve packed away a good bit of knowledge, such as:
-If you open a gate, close it
-If you turn on a spigot or hose, turn it off
-Sheep don’t like it if you come right at them, they will respond much better from a lateral move or clapping your hands together behind them.
-If you think belching is funny, you’ll get a kick out of listening to sheep
-Regular hoof trimming and maintenance is a MUST when the surrounding area tends to get boggy or brimmed with water.
-If a sheep learns how to jump a fence, you can un-learn it by tying its front and back leg together on one side for a few days (or weeks…) until the jumping habit gets kicked.
-You can tell how a sheep is feeling by the position of its ears; if they’re up and alert the sheep is feeling fine, if they’re pointed down the sheep is feeling under the weather or is sick.
-Don’t pet rams, not even as cute little lamb boys.
-Don’t pet rams, not even as cute little lamb boys.
-Border collies for herding and training purposes; Great Pyrenees or Maremmas for guardian purposes only (you really can’t train these breeds); llamas for both guarding AND herding, (though in one horrific account, after years of great service, one farmer’s llama took to trampling and killing the new lambs. Needless to say, it got voted off the island real fast.)
-Just because it’s ‘local lamb sausage’ doesn’t mean there isn’t MSG in it.
-21 days before reusing a pasture is the optimal time-frame for rotation because of the life cycle of certain parasites that live in their feces.
-Sheep are creatures of habit and of their shepherd. They like and thrive off of the familiar.
-If you don’t keep a hard watch on Roaming Romeo over there, you could get yourself into the pickle of lambing season lasting through June!
Said Roming Romeo
-When designing a pasture layout, plan to have runways that you can utilize as both traveling lanes and paddocks themselves.
-Also in design, it’s smart to have a barn or central outbuilding that meets at the corner of four pastures. This makes feeding different groupings of sheep and checking waterers SO much easier.
-Layers of lime and sawdust under bedding straw helps to soak up a lot of the urine and keeps a check on the pH levels of the bedding. Adding more straw when the first whiffs of ammonia become apparent is a good practice to get into.
-Sheep are VERY preferential over the fresh pasture grass they will choose to eat. They will bite down to the dust the varieties that are sweet and soft-bladed while leaving more bitter and sharper blades alone. (This is when adding another species to co-graze is a great idea, like horses.)
-A full half of their live body weight is attributable to the hide and organs; a 75lb. live lamb will only yield 30-35lbs. of meat (with bones.)
-When you feed them hay, in order to not get flakes and pieces caught in their wool (which you want to keep as clean as possible for shearing) you have to trick them by pretending to throw it one direction first, then when they all herd to the swing of your arm, dash back to the other side and toss it behind them.
-Sheep have a set path that they ALWAYS travel in the field. Anytime you’re herding them into or out of the pasture, they will take this same (arbitrary?) foot path that eventually wears away the grass in a solitary strip. It’s usually at a curve to the actual destination point.
-Lamb is my all time favorite meat; ok, so I kind of already knew that.
Sheep set the pace of life on a farm at an ideal pace for me. They’re lighter on the land and any food resources than a cow, they’re less frisky, nervous and jumpy than goats, they smell so darn good (a mixture of lanolin and earth, I think) and they serve multiple purposes from meat to milk to fiber to conveniently pelletized poop for composting or mulching to grass mowing and co-pasturing well with other species. I hope someday to have sheep as a part of my own farm operation – whenever and whatever (and wherever) that’s going to be.