Herding Skunks and Searching for Rain

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. Orb Weaver SpiderThe 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.

No. 2 compleley grazedThis 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!

Grazing No. 3Here 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!

Meeting Midsummer Head On

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.

Round bales on the big fieldOften 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!)

Round bale, close upThe 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”. Flock on pasture early in the morningUsually 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.Curious sheepThe 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.ams heading out to pastureThanks for joining us. Hopefully I will be able to return more frequently in the future!

A Season of Color — Week Four — Mullein

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.Mulliens

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. Mullein YarnI 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.


A Season of Color — Week 3 — Lily of the Valley

There is a large, vigorous stand of Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) on the west side of the house. They are remnants of the Lily of the Valley plants that were growing here when we purchased the farm in 1983. I had never considered Lily of the Valley as a dye plant until I was browsing through my collection of books about natural dyeing. Stephania Isaacson in her book “In Search of the Perfect Green and Orange, too! A Natural Dye Book”, 2013, has a section devoted to Lily of the Valley. She suggests using the leaves at at least twice the weight of the fiber being dyed. Lily of the ValleySince the Lily of the Valley plants next to the house were spreading out into the lawn and over the low growing juniper next to them, I harvested leaves in those areas with abandon. The resulting amount was 466 grams. I cut the leaves into one inch pieces, placed them into a fine mesh bag, and soaked them in water overnight. The next morning the soaking water was clear and had no color. This lack of color was somewhat worrying but I decided to proceed anyway.  I transferred the water and the mesh bag to the dye pot and heated to a rolling boil. Slowly, the water turned from clear to pale yellow and then to an orange yellow. I turned down the heat and simmered the bath for one hour. I then removed the mesh bag and divided the dye bath into three equal batches.

I had a total of 122 grams of fiber so my ratio of fiber to dye materials was almost 4 to 1. The first dye bath was neutral and I placed two skeins of yarn into it. One skein was mordanted with 10% weight of fiber with Alum and 5% weight of fiber with Cream of Tarter. The second skein was mordanted with Copper Sulfate liquor. To the second bath, I added 2 Tablespoons of Lime Juice and one skein of the Alum/Cream of Tarter mordanted yarn. The third dye bath received a skein of Alum/Cream of Tarter mordanted yarn plus 1/2 teaspoon of Soda Ash. Each bath was heated to simmer and then simmered for one hour. The results are pictured below. Lily of the Valley YarnThe resulting colors are quite lovely. I particularly like the alkaline (Soda Ash) result of a butterscotch shade. Stephania mentions in her book that the dye bath is slightly toxic if ingested. So, I am planning a careful disposal of the three dye baths (about 1 gallon of water total).

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* We are open year round for the sale of yarn. Before May 17th we are open by happenstance or by appointment

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* Online Fleece Sale, mid-April. Contact us to be on the mailing list for immediate updates

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* Special Gallery exhibits. Check here throughout the season for special events and shows. The fiber dyeing will occur (weather permitting) into early October

The current dyeing projects are yet to be scheduled

* Gallery closes for the season after Sunday, October 20, 2019

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