The seasons have changed very rapidly at the farm in the last week or so. We had most of the leaves fall from the trees around the house and just managed to get them raked up and out of the way before winter descended upon us with a vengeance. Like many areas of the Midwest our temperatures have plummeted to record or near record lows and we have experienced early snow falls. So far our lowest temperature was 11° F (-12°C). We have been lucky in terms of the amounts of snow; southern Wisconsin has seen significantly more snow than we have. Nonetheless it has been difficult to make such a sudden transition into mid-winter type weather.
The flock has managed quite well in the current cold. At least they are all in the barn and out of the worst of the weather. Six years ago at this time was the last time that we bred our ewes. That meant that the breeding groups were all out on pasture 24 hours a day from early-October until close to the end of November. At times those groups were a challenge to care for. Often the water lines would freeze up over night and it often took a lot of sunshine the next day to get water flowing again. On occasion they would briefly get snowed upon. Had we set up breeding groups this year it would have been a disaster and I am sure that we would have had to call everything off, probably before early November. In that regard, even though we dearly miss the lambs, I am glad that we are no longer breeding the ewes.
Breeding was always a stressful time for the sheep and shepherds alike. Having the sheep spread around the farm for 5 weeks, every day and night, in small groups, was always a security concern for us, especially considering our robust coyote population. This year, for the first time, we were made aware of potential increases in our security concerns. Early in the morning of November 7th, after our second measurable snow storm, I noticed that Pussa was extremely alert at our bedroom window…not her usual morning behavior. Upon heading out to morning chores I noticed new animal tracks in the snow just outside the backdoor. For years we have been conscious of deer visits virtually right up to the backdoor. On this particular morning there were also very large canine tracks across our front lawn, right underneath the kitchen window, then across the path to the backdoor and out across the backyard, at least past the vegetable garden. The snow was not deep enough to leave a very distinct track but here is the best picture I could capture of one of the foot prints. The claw marks are on the left and the size of the footprint is quite large, nearly 5 inches long. I suspected that we had a wolf visit. Later in the morning we learned that a nearby neighbor caught an image on his trail cameras of a wolf in his backyard two days previous. Needless to say we are very glad that we did not have sheep scattered all over the farm. Since that morning we have seen no further tracks around the house or barn, but we will be looking in the future.
With the cold weather, the two of us have spent considerable time working on fiber projects for next season in the Gallery. Gretchen has already woven one set of warps for pillows and is starting to work on a second set of warps. She sold all of last year’s inventory so she has a ways to go to replenish the stock.
I just finished weaving the last in a series of scarves on my smaller Louet loom. This is the end of the scarf just prior to removal from the loom. I knew that I had woven quite a number of scarves in this pattern but I had lost track of how many, since all but three have been sold. Since I tied each new warp onto the remnants of the previous scarf I decided to carefully unroll all the remnants (also know as “thrums”). It turns out there were 18 total scarves in the collection. Here is a look at the collection of thrums. The ends of the first scarf warp is at the bottom of the image. The last two scarves, including the last red and gray scarf, are not quite visible at the top of the image. I think that it is about time to start a new pattern!
My first blanket project on the large Gilmåkra loom is actually the second blanket in this pattern. I wove the prototype late last winter. Like all my other blankets from last year it too has been sold. The pattern is a relatively simple twill, but I believe it is very effective. The warp consists of 2 separate gray shades, and a dark brown, plus a white yarn that Gretchen died into a lovely tan using birch bark scraps that we collected over the last year. As with all of our weavings, the yarn is exclusively from our flock. Here is an overview of the project. It is difficult to see here, but the blanket is nearing completion. So far we are pleased with it. We will need to come up with some different shades and colors for the next couple of blankets, but I believe that we should have some nice blankets ready for next spring.
If you live in northeast Wisconsin I do not need to tell you that September and October have been exceedingly wet. For those of you who live elsewhere I will hopefully describe what has been going on here. In the 47 days since the 26th of August at the farm we have experienced 22 separate days with measurable rain. In that period we had only one run of 5 days without rain; the next longest “dry” period was 2 days! I do not know what our total precipitation for the year has been at the farm, but I know that Green Bay broke its all time annual precipitation total in mid-September (and that is with nearly three and a half months still to go!) By the way, their previous record year was last year.
All the rain has made grazing a difficult task for the flock. On so many days they stayed in the barn where we fed some of our winter hay. On days when they could get onto pasture, the forage was often wet and the ground soggy. I had to play a delicate game of making sure that the ground was not so wet that it turned into mud with too many hooves grazing on it. Nevertheless we are coping. So rather than continue any further with a narrative of the frustration of wet weather I will try to look at the sunny highlights that popped up occasionally.
Our gardens have for the most part prospered. As I wrote last time, Gretchen’s flower gardens have been especially beautiful. With a few exceptions the vegetable garden has also done well. Our only major disappointment has been that we did not get as nice a crop of artichokes as usual. Our melon crop developed later than normal, but was truly impressive toward the end. In addition to the vegetables in the garden we also grew some of our dye plants around the edges. On one of the sunny days this is the cosmos patch after I had harvested the last set of blossoms for the year. The orange cosmos yield a lovely orange dye while the white and purple flowers produce a beautiful soft yellow. One of our freezers is now stuffed with bags of cosmos blossoms, along with an equally large quantity of marigold blossoms. We had hoped to do a lot of dyeing this fall. Unfortunately that will have to wait, not because of the weather, but because our white yarn has yet to return from the mill.
Because of the abundant moisture our pastures have also grown more vigorously than usual. As a result we had to bypass some of the pastures in order to assure that the others got properly grazed. The sheep are creatures of habit and seem to know the normal pasture rotation. So when we bypass one of the pastures confusion can occur. We were able to mow and bale hay from pasture number #3. As a result, the first time the flock set foot on that pasture was September 17th. Pasture #3 is in the extreme southeast corner of the farm. It is a good quarter of a mile hike to reach it. For the first few days the flock just assumed they should make the “normal” right turn off of the first pasture and head up the hill into the “orchard” pasture. Instead of following behind them I found that I had to walk around the entire flock and lead them past that turn off and another into #2. Eventually we got things straightened out, but there were some memory relapses, even on the last day going out to #3. This is the flock heading out at sunrise on October 10th. They did just fine on this first leg until they got to this point (which happens to be where the path branches of to the “orchard”). They waited until I worked my way to the front. Then we were ready to go again. This is Vespera following me and leading the rest. I was still in the lead all the way around the edge of #2 until we finally made it through the gate into #3. At last the goal was in sight and I had to step aside in order to not get run over. Since this was the last day on this pasture the flock needed to go to the very western end. They made that sprint in close to record time! We did all make it to the end of the trail with each of us in relatively good shape. It was nice to see everyone busy with grazing almost as soon as they arrived. (By the way this was the last day of the one and only 5 day period without rain.) One of the atypical conditions caused by our weather is that the fall colors are quite mixed up. Some of our trees are still quite green, some have turned yellow (as they are at the end of this pasture). And some of the trees have already dropped all their leaves. On our farm we are seeing virtually no red fall colors this year. There also seems to be no rhyme or reason for the different conditions, i.e none of the species of trees are behaving uniformly.
The season is wrapping up very rapidly. The B&B will close for the year after next weekend. The same is true of the gallery, but we will continue to offer yarn for sale this winter from the house. The sheep will have a few more days on pasture. They will be out grazing when and if is not pouring rain and until the truly cold weather sets in and the waterlines to the pastures freeze up. I do not even wish to predict when that will occur. Until then all of us, sheep and humans, will be happy for any good grazing days!
We experienced a warm and wet July at the farm. August looked to be more of the same. But after the first week, the temperature and humidity went up and the rainfall stopped. We truly began to feel that we were experiencing a serious change in the weather which we were accustomed to expect for mid summer. Eventually we began needing to irrigate my vegetable garden and Gretchen’s flower gardens. All of the gardens responded favorably.
Gretchen’s flowers seem to have reached their summer peak in terms of beauty. The flowers in front of the Gallery and our back door are annuals. Some of the varieties have passed their peak performance and have been supplanted by other slower developers. Here is a view of the Gallery garden. The garden in front of our back door tries hard not to be out done and it seems to succeed. The flowers next to the Bed & Breakfast entrance are also underneath the B&B kitchen window. They are all perennial flowers and only reach their flowering peak in mid-summer. It is a mix of Black-eyed Susan, Conef lowers and Phlox. The Coneflowers and Black-eyed Susan are favorite flowers of a host of our local varieties of butterflies. We are having an especially good year for monarch butterflies. One can almost always count on seeing a number of them on the flowers under the kitchen window. They are not alone however. This Painted Lady was very happy with the selection of blossoms. But it could not seem to choose a favorite flower (I think the Coneflower won!). It is wonderful to have the butterflies as pollinators for our gardens, but we truly miss the once staggering number and varieties of bees. Aside from a few Bumble Bees, we are seeing virtually no bees in our gardens this summer. I am sure that their low numbers has resulted in some very poor pollination of some of our vegetables.
Over the last week the temperatures have moderated here. It has made the task of moving pasture fence early in the morning much more enjoyable. The sheep have responded with more speed and enthusiasm heading out each day. Yesterday we received a staggering 3″ of rain throughout the day and into the night. The rain was not accompanied by damaging winds. As a result everything seems to have responded very positively today and hopefully conditions will remain so for a while.
A month ago I wrote that we were experiencing a super abundance of rain. At that time it was impossible to even consider cutting and baling hay, despite the fact that the hay was ready. The ground was too wet to be rolling heavy machinery across it. The frequency of the rainfalls was such that it would have been very difficult to cut and dry the hay sufficiently to get it properly baled. By the first of July the hay was becoming over-mature. It was also very deep. This view, on July 4th, is from the northeast corner of our large hay field, looking south along side the pasture we know as the “Orchard”. One would hardly know that the sheep had recently grazed the pasture to the left of the electric fence. The hay along the footpath straight ahead was from 3 to 4 feet deep. The next picture was taken at the opposite end of this path looking back toward the house and barns. This is an especially nice part of the field, with a nice mix of red and white clovers, plus lots of trefoil mixed in with numerous types of grasses. These views are all rather hazy, due to smoke which was drifting south from forest fires north in Canada. The images are significant in that we decided on that day, the 4th of July, to cut all of our standing hay. The weather forecast finally seemed to indicate a dry spell which would last long enough for us to cut, dry, rake and bale our hay. By the end of the day all 35 acres were cut. Needless to say, we were now committed!
Unfortunately the smoky haze did not permit as much sun in to rapidly dry the cut hay. In addition to which we also received an un-forecasted light rain on the 6th, which further slowed the curing process. By the 9th the hay was still struggling to dry and rain was forecast for the night of the 10th. We decided that we had to gamble and therefore we raked the hay on the 9th in hopes that it would be ready to bale the next day.
(I should point out that this is the third consecutive year that we opted to bale all the hay into large round bales, as compared to the small square bales that I had made for at least the previous 26 years. The changing weather of the last three years has made it next to impossible for me to cut and small bale the entire field. There is just not enough dry time any longer. The beauty of large bales is that the larger equipment used also permits faster cutting, raking and baling speeds. Hence, the entire 35 acres can be cut in less than a day, raked in even less time and baled in less than a day.)
Despite some initial mechanical problems, all of the hay was successfully baled before chore time on July 10th. And yes, we did receive a light rain that night. At least it was not significant enough to harm the baled hay. This is the view that greeted the flock as they headed out to graze in the “Orchard Pasture” the next day. It was interesting that the flock was not particularly bothered by a large tractor repeatedly rolling past them on each of the three days that cutting, raking and baling occurred. It was almost as though it was a bit of entertainment for them. I am also sure that they appreciated the fact that any breezes from the west or south were no longer slowed down by the tall grass next to their grazing area. Here is the view that the sheep now had to the west: large, beautiful round bales scattered off into the distance. Or, if you prefer the eagle eye view, here is part of, but not all of, our new collection of round bales for this year. There are probably equally as many bales out of view farther to the right and in a smaller field to the left. To the left are the strips that the sheep just finished grazing in the “Orchard” over the previous 6 or so days.Since the baling was completed, I have been slowly and hopefully steadily collecting the bales and transporting, them 6 at a time, down close to the barn, where I am getting them covered with tarps in order to protect them from the weather until such time as we begin feeding them to the flock, probably sometime in October. As I write I am about 60% finished. I got nothing moved yesterday. The weather caught up with us. Mother Nature dumped over 4″ of rain upon us yesterday morning in less than 3 hours! So now I wait for the uncovered bales to dry. Luckily they shed most of the rain. All I ask for now is just a couple more days without rain!