Since I last wrote, weather conditions have changed drastically, in our case all for the better. After nearly two very hot months without rain, it finally rained seriously during the last week in August and the first week in September. During that period at the farm we received about 4 inches of rain. Unlike much of Wisconsin which received way too much rain, we enjoyed just enough. Then after the rains the temperatures also moderated. The resulting changes in the pastures were miraculous. Most of the pastures had appeared to have gone dormant, but two weeks of rain and cooler air woke up even the brownest pastures. Very recently we had begun planning for feeding baled hay to the sheep out on pastures, with the prospect of continuing that until cold weather and killing frosts. On the day following the last rain, we began grazing the flock on our hay ground, which was the last pasture with significant enough forage for grazing. While we grazed that field over the last two weeks, all the other pastures have perked up and will hopefully provide enough grazing for the flock to get through October, especially if we get some additionally well timed rain in the near future. So all and all both sheep and shepherds are happy campers!
Over the last few days we have experienced dense ground fog overnight and into the morning. It has been an especially pleasant change of routine for me, setting up the temporary pasture fence each morning. The walk out to pasture is nearly a quarter of a mile. By the time I reach the pasture the sun is not quite up and the house and barns have totally disappeared in the fog. At times it is even difficult to see the opposite end of the area I select for the day’s grazing. This is the view from the edge of the pasture looking back to the east toward the maple grove.Somewhere down below is the path the sheep take to get out to the pasture. Once they get this far they will then follow the raceway out in the center of the pasture. After setting up the day’s temporary fence line, I walk back to the barn to let the flock out. Even in the dense fog they seem to know exactly where they are going. One can tell that they have been here before (even though it has been two years since they last grazed in this area). They disappear into the fog at a pace that far exceeds mine. I just have to hope that they make the journey without my help (which they always do!). By the time I catch up everyone is peacefully and seriously grazing. The fog deadens nearly all the morning sounds. Usually at this time I can hear the group munching away, but the fog silences even that quiet sound. On a couple of mornings the silence is slightly broken by a low flying flock of Canada Geese. I can hear the wing beats and see faint images of the birds flying over head.We often joke that when the flock grazes this portion of the hay field that they have reached the edge of the earth, since none of them have ever during their lives traveled any farther from the barn than here. The fog seems to give new meaning to that description, since it seems that if they go just a bit farther on they will drop off the edge. So far they all have manage to stay put and return to the barn in the evening!
I may spend a few minutes with the flock before I return to the barn to get the rams out to their private pasture. Every one in the flock seems truly happy and contented. After I have enjoyed the peace and calm a while, a few of my buddies will acknowledge my presence by looking up for a moment to make sure that I am alright. That at least seems to be what Cha Cha is up to at least. Even the long walk back to the barn is pleasant. It is comfortably cool (unlike so much of the summer!) and exceedingly quiet. I may encounter a few Bluebirds along the fence line. They are still here, but flocking up and I am sure they too will depart soon for southern climates. The walk past the maple grove is usually special. The trees are still green and Goldenrod is in bloom scattered between the trees, yet everything seems to be in pastel shades. And then, almost as if by magic, the barn appears out of the fog. It is now at least an hour since I first headed out to the pasture and close to the barn, the fog is beginning to burn off. Within another hour the only sign that it was very foggy is a heavy dew that remains on the grass. This morning routine has been repeating itself for almost a week, every day with some minor variation. I will miss it when it stops, but I will enjoy it as much as possible while it lasts. I also believe that the sheep enjoy it as much or more than I do.
At Whitefish Bay Farm we are not immune to the extremes of weather which seem to be hammering much of the planet. While we are not suffering the extreme heat and drought that has plagued much of Europe, including my friends in Denmark, we are undergoing what is becoming more and more like a classic drought. It has been hot, dry and humid: not weather enjoyed by sheep nor shepherd. A year ago at this time we had received 21 inches of rain since I placed the rain gauge in the garden after the last snows of spring. This year we have received 10.5 inches in the same time period, the vast majority of which occurred before mid-July. Since then we have seen only a half an inch, spread into 3 small “storms” each totaling not much over .1 of an inch. In that same time the high temperatures have nearly always been in the upper 80’s (a few days in the 90’s) and rarely cooling below mid 60’s over night. All this has seemed much less pleasant due to humidity in the upper 80’s to low 90’s.
I try to get the fencing for the day’s grazing set up as early as possible, while the weather is still relatively cool. This situation of high humidity and cooler morning temperatures presents the strange contrast of wet dew on a pasture that is crying for rain. For over two weeks now, first thing as I step out the door I am greeted by another weaver, this time an Orb Weaver spider. The permanence of the web is partly a testimony to a lack of any heavy downpours! At least there is one weaver here that works everyday.
The permanent pastures have been holding up pretty well, considering how dry it has been. There has been no regrowth after grazing, but there has been sufficient forage to feed the flock relatively well. We have finished the second grazing of pastures #1 and #2, the later just 4 days ago. My early morning fence moving has also presented challenges that I have not experienced in a couple of years. I have needed to herd a skunk or two off the pasture before letting the sheep out. It is usually not too difficult a task, as long as I make sure that the skunk is aware of my presence ahead of time. Then a bit of loud conversation on my part and an occasional clapping of hands sends the skunk on its way, as long as I am not between it and where I figure it will be hiding out for the day. Our local population of skunks tend to like to occupy abandoned woodchuck burrows. This year we seem to have an abundance of empty burrows, since I have yet to see nearly any woodchucks for the first time in 30 years. (I suspect one of our neighbors has poisoned the lot, why I am unsure.) In any case, my most recent skunk encounter was on the last day we were to graze #2. That pasture abuts a sharp rise in elevation which is heavily wooded on the western edge. It has always been home to woodchucks. So it was logical to believe that my skunk friend would head in that direction (which indeed he did). Skunk herding thus seems pretty logical and speedy, since they trot along at a good speed. Thankfully I have not had to herd any porcupines in the last couple of years. That is a slow, meandering process, lacking any definite goal, which can only be aided by occasional prodding with a portable fence post.
This is what #2 pasture looks like after we spent nine days working our way west. (The woods to the west is where the last skunk headed.) It will take a lot of rain and more moderate temperatures before it can be grazed again. The flock has now moved on to #3 (which is just to the left of this image). This will be the first time we have grazed it this year. Previously we cut and baled it, since in early summer it grew too fast for the sheep to keep up with it. How things can change in a matter of just a few weeks!
Here the girls have just begun grazing shortly after sunrise yesterday. It is cool enough at that hour that they will get a fair amount of feeding done before the heat becomes uncomfortable. One of the beauties of this pasture, at this time of year, is that there will be enough shade from the trees on both north and south edges that the flock can find some relief from the heat at its worst. This pasture has not had as much time as I would like to recover from when it was cut and baled. As a result, each day’s allotment is a bit larger than normal. This pasture will also need a lot of moisture before it is green and lush again. When the flock has finished here, there is still fairly good grazing to be found on the little pasture down the hill from the barn. Parts of the “orchard pasture” have rebounded enough to be grazed again. Lastly, we can head out to the large hay field with temporary fencing. I am hoping that these remaining pastures will retain enough growth to get us into fall. Too much constant heat and drought can turn any of these pastures into dry toast. If it comes to that we will need to start feeding some of our round bales on pasture. Hopefully we will not come to that!
It is definitely the middle of summer here at Whitefish Bay Farm. Signs of the season seem to be everywhere. Temperatures and humidity have been high for a number of weeks. Our Barn Swallows are in the midst of fledging their second brood of young with great noise and excitement. We are toying with drought conditions where the areas of shallow soils become especially apparent. We are getting by just barely with the scattered rains we have had in the last few weeks. But luckily we have gotten all of our first cutting of hay completed and baled.
It has also been quite a long while since last I wrote anything here. For that I apologize! My silence has been due to a difficult case of tendentious in my neck, right shoulder and elbow. The cause of it seems to have been a combination of factors going all the way back to shearing and operating farm machinery in spring. Among other things, typing on a computer and operating a computer mouse have been compromised. I have been working with a physical therapist and we slowing have been making some progress, but there is still room for improvement.
Often times the need to perform farm chores conflicts with medical recovery. One important limitation has been the inability to make hay into small bales in the manner that has been part of our existence for so long. For the second consecutive summer we contracted to have our hay custom cut and baled into large round bales. All of the hay was cut and baled before the end of the first week in July. At least this year we had enough windows of opportunity to get the hay cut and baled without it being rained upon, so that the quality of the hay will be much better than the hay we could not get cut last year until late August. The image above is just a portion of our collection of over 140 round bales, which I am still in the process of collecting and getting protected from the weather. Each bale weighs somewhere between 600 and 800 pounds. (That is a lot of small square bales that we are not having to move manually!)
The flock had a ringside view of the baling action, since they were grazing in the field we know as “The Orchard”, which is immediately adjacent to our hay field. They coped amazingly well during the cutting, raking and baling activity. One wonders if they knew that it would be better tasting hay than last year’s and they were therefore more patient with the neighborhood activity and noise.
The sheep always begin their grazing day long before any mechanical activities began next to them. In the early morning there is almost always much too much dew on the pastures to permit the presence of mechanized equipment. So at at hour, aside from me setting up their pasture and taking them out, their only regular company is the flock of swallows which are happy to have the flock stir up some early insect activity which is of course “bird breakfast”. Usually eating breakfast is the ewes’ first priority at this hour, but there are usually a couple members of the flock whose curiosity becomes too great when I spend some extra time with them taking pictures. Dana and Diva can almost always be counted upon to show up in those situations.The rams are always the last to go out to pasture in the morning. They of course have their own private pasture for which they are sometimes not happy about due to lack of companionship, but it is better than staying in the barn. Aries’ and Clancy’s trek out in the morning is a bit more sedate than when the ewes head out. Nonetheless they always make it out.Thanks for joining us. Hopefully I will be able to return more frequently in the future!
It has been a while (June 23rd) since I completed the week four dyeing project. I now have time to write about what we did. Many of you may remember that last summer we had to put in a new driveway to get tractors and equipment to and from the machine storage shed. The resulting disturbed soil on both sides of the new driveway was fertile ground for Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) to grow.
Since the sheep refuse to eat the Mullein, it is not a desirable plant to have growing in the pastures. Not wanting to perpetuate this plant, Dick pulled the plants before they started to develop the flowering stalk. I then separated the leaves and cut them into approximately one inch pieces. I had 780 grams of chopped leaves and 120 grams of fiber for a ratio of 6.5 to 1. I soaked the leaves in water for 16 hours and had a light yellow/green color in the water. I simmered the dye bath for 2 hours resulting in a deep yellow/orange color. I separated the dye bath into 3 equal amounts. To the first third of the dye bath, I added one skein of yarn mordanted with Alum and Cream of Tartar and one skein mordanted with Copper Sulfate liquor. I simmered this bath for one hour. For the second third of the dye bath, I added 2 Tablespoons of lime juice to the water and then added one skein of yarn mordanted with Alum and Cream of Tartar. I simmered this bath for 1 hour. To the third and final dye bath, I added 1/2 teaspoon of soda ash. This bath simmered for 1 1/2 hours . The results are pictured below. I was surprised and pleased with the results. I had dyed with Mullein in the past but I had always used the flowers and the flower stalks. These plant parts had given a green with yellow undertones. Using just the leaves from early summer plants, I got a yellow green and a deeper yellow green in the neutral bath, a lovely butterscotch color in the alkaline bath, and a tan color in the acidic bath. Certainly a plant to use again.