Sheep on Rachel’s grandfather’s farm in the late 1940s.
June feels joyful as the garden is all green and blooming. As we transition from spring into summer, the pace of life slows slightly and we can stop long enough to take a breath and enjoy the beauty of the season all around us.
June presents its own set of challenges as well–such is the life of a farmer.
The spring lambs that have grown so large on their mothers’ milk are now eating lots of the rich, green grass in the pastures. That is a good thing, but with grazing they will ingest parasites that can overwhelm them, even to death, if we don’t do something to intervene. This is the bane of every sheep farmer in warm, moist climates conducive to the growth of Haemonchus contortus or the “Barberpole worm” and dozens of other nasty internal parasites that pray on sheep and goats.
Every shepherd has their own strategy for dealing with this unfortunate reality. Most use anthelmintic drugs to keep their sheep alive because it is the only way they can. The problem with these drugs are that over the last fifty years or so that sheep farmers have been using them, the parasites have gotten stronger and more resistant, while our sheep have become weaker and more susceptible. It is a problem that devastates the sheep industry and at this point even many “experts” are questioning the overuse of these drugs, recognizing that the only sustainable way to combat these problems is to once again raise sheep that have the natural strength and resistance to withstand internal parasites.
Here is how I see it. When John Wily wrote his Treatise on the Propagation of Sheep in Virginia in 1765, he made no mention of medicating sheep, or of sheep suddenly dropping dead in the midst of a rich, green pasture, their eyelids white with anemia caused by internal parasites. Even my own grandfather, who grew up on a sheep farm in the 1930s & 40s, is puzzled by the pains I must take to keep my flock alive, when the sheep his family owned more or less took care of themselves. While internal parasites of sheep have been recognized as early as the 18th century, the average farmer probably never spent much time thinking about them.
In our effort to aid in the preservation of several heritage breeds of livestock, my husband and I feel that we must manage these animals the way our ancestors did. Heritage breeds are often touted for their hardiness. I have to ask, how hardy will their populations remain if drugs and chemicals are routinely used to keep them alive? Even if you don’t raise sheep, we can all take a lesson from what has happened in the sheep industry. Worms affecting poultry, and other species of livestock and companion animals, are also beginning to show resistance to anthelmintic drugs.
Since I am often asked about our parasite management tactics, I offer this information in the hope that it may be useful to someone. And so anyone who enjoys a good lamb chop or those bucolic scenes by the side of the highway may have a greater appreciation for what it takes to raise those fluffy white critters. Here are a few strategies we employ to grow a naturally strong and parasite resistant flock:
- Good pasture management so that sheep are always grazing on tall forages. Parasites are usually found low to the ground. We rotate our flock frequently (every 3 days or less) for the purpose of promoting vigorous grass growth. Pasture can only be considered free of parasites if it has not been grazed by sheep for a year, or has been cut for hay since grazing. It is not feasible for most shepherds to rest pastures for a year between grazings, therefore it is imperative to build strong, resistant flocks and use additional tactics since pasture rotation alone is rarely good enough.
- Multi-species grazing. Cattle, equines, and geese are not host to the same parasites as sheep and goats. When other grazing species consume the sheep’s parasites on the grasses, the worms are destroyed.
- Boost health and immunity by offering good quality forages, as well as sea kelp and sea salt free choice at all times. We mix diatomaceous earth, garlic, wormwood, walnut hull powder and ground cloves into the sheep’s salt to help combat the worms. Plant pastures with medicinal herbs, and allow leafy forbs that are palatable to sheep to naturalize. It is interesting to note how the sheep consume more kelp or salt or bitter herbs at different times of the year as they know they need them.
- Check on sheep often and treat stressed or suffering sheep with a tonic of equal parts water, raw organic apple cider vinegar, and garlic juice. I give 20 mL to tiny lambs and 60 mL to bigger lambs and adults.
- Remove parasitized sheep from the pastures to a clean dry lot and feed good hay and alfalfa (a blood builder) until they have recovered. It is imperative to remove them from the source of parasite pressure while they are recovering. While on dry lot, treat often with the garlic & vinegar tonic. A strategy to build natural parasite resistance in lambs that is catching on in Virginia is to move lambs onto dry lot at weaning and leave them there for a month.
- Understand anthelmintics and use them wisely and sparingly!!! Here is an excellent article full of information that every shepherd should know: http://www.sheepandgoat.com/articles/anthelminticswork.html (Although I must note that while this article claims there is no significant proof that garlic has effective anthelmintic properties, my personal experience is that it does.)
- Cull for strong parasite resistance. Any adult sheep that requires much care or anthelmintic drugs to stay alive should be sent to the butcher rather than kept in the breeding flock.
- Keep learning. Compare notes with other shepherds in your area. Read a lot. Learn from your sheep. I’d love to hear from any of you out there who have had success battling sheep parasites naturally.
Each year that goes by shows greater strength in our flock. It is difficult to make the transition from routine drug use to natural management practices, and we’ve had many struggles along the way. But we feel that our efforts will be worth it in the future as our sheep become easier to keep healthy, rather than more difficult.
The spring rush continues and we spend a lot of seventeen-hour work days trying to get it all done! This month we spent a lot of time planting, weeding and mulching in the garden; shearing sheep; moving chickens, sheep and cows to fresh grass; finishing the interior construction on the new barn; and butchering chickens. We also took four beautiful heritage hogs to the butcher, meaning we will soon have a full inventory of pork cuts to add to our offerings. In addition to the seasonal activities, our regular daily (meaning every day) tasks include feeding and watering the critters, dairying, egg gathering and packaging, and of course, lots of laundry!
Dairying is particularly enjoyable in May because the wealth of green grass for the cow produces wonderfully rich, sweet milk, and lots of it! Historically, butter and cheeses made in springtime have been greatly esteemed, but the delights of such seasonal nuances have become lost in our industrial food system. So this month, I will tell you about Coco the cow and all the gifts she gives us.
I start each and every day with Coco, and we visit again in the late afternoons. Coco is a Brown Swiss milk cow. The first time I saw Brown Swiss cows many years ago I thought they were so beautiful I knew that I wanted one someday. I love her silvery brown color and her sweet face and huge ears. Brown Swiss give nearly the butterfat content of Jerseys and their milk is especially good for cheesemaking. I milk by hand in the barn and Coco stands patiently. She’s a very good cow.
I milk into a stainless steel milk can with a wide strainer on top fitted with a new, disposable filter to keep the milk clean. As soon as the milking is done, the lid goes on the can and I set it into a bucket of very cold water to chill the milk as quickly as possible. I cannot over emphasize the importance of cleanliness and careful milk handling during all steps of dairying. Good milk can turn bad real quick if contaminated with harmful bacteria. It is also of utmost importance that your dairy animals test free of diseases that can spread to people who consume their milk.
There is much written on the health benefits of good quality raw milk, so I really don’t need to go into that. All I will say is that we made the switch six years ago as a way to help one of our children facing health problems, and we have all enjoyed the benefits ever since. We drink a lot of raw milk, and I also use it to make our butter, cheese and yogurt. The buttermilk, whey and any extra milk help make superb rations for the pigs. Yogurt is also an excellent tonic for growing birds. We’ll often give it to turkey poults and young chickens to help them develop robust immune systems—the opposite of the common practice in the poultry industry to feed a steady diet of antibiotics, endangering the immune systems of those who consume the poultry. A milk cow truly can be the heart of a healthy homestead.
I got four 10 quart stainless steel milk cans with lids from Hamby Dairy Supply. I love these and use them for all my dairying. They are easy to sterilize, I milk right into them, and I use them for butter, cheese and yogurt making. I also got fine mesh stainless steel sieves, fine enough for straining butter and mascarpone, so I never have to mess with cheesecloths. I’ve always hated having to wash out cheesecloths. I find the sieves much easier, since I can just put them in the dishwasher.
I fill two milk cans to the top and let them sit in the refrigerator for a day or two so the cream fully separates from the milk. Then I can easily skim a lot of cream off the top of both cans–this is easier than skimming the cream off multiple jars of milk. I put the cream into my electric butter churn. Believe me, I’ve hand churned butter many a time in the old-fashioned up-and-down-with-the-dasher type churn, and I say that electric butter churns are a genuine modern convenience. All I have to do is plug it in and then I can go help the children with schoolwork for an hour or so until the butter is made. Then I pour the contents into a fine mesh stainless steel sieve to strain out the buttermilk, scoop the butter into a large bowl and wash it with cold water several times, working it with a spatula until all of the buttermilk is washed out. Sometimes I salt it, often I don’t. Generally, I make butter once or twice a week, storing extra in the freezer until needed. Sometimes instead of butter, I’ll use the cream to make mascarpone, sour cream, ice cream or whipped cream (a must when there are fresh strawberries coming out of the garden!).
Click here to learn why raw butter from grass-fed cows is a super food.
Click here for a basic homemade yogurt recipe.
I’ll often make yogurt weekly, 8 quarts at a time. My family can go through a lot of yogurt so if I go to the trouble to make it, I want the effort to count. Yogurt makers that you can buy usually only make a little bit at a time, so I improvised my own. My stainless steel milk can will fit inside a standard five gallon bucket with room to insulate around it with Styrofoam packing peanuts. To save time, I bring the milk straight to the kitchen still warm from the cow, place the milk can right on the stove top, stick in a dairy thermometer and gently heat the milk to 185° F. This must be done carefully, only on low to medium heat since the bottom of the milk can is thin and the milk can easily be scorched if the heat is too high. As soon as the milk reaches 185° F*, I take the can off the stove and place it into a sink full of ice water and stir the milk until it cools to 114° F. Then I take the can out of the sink, stir in yogurt culture or plain yogurt from the previous batch (2 tablespoons yogurt per quart of prepared milk). I put the lid on the milk can, wipe the bottom dry, and place it inside my five gallon bucket and fill the space around the milk can with packing peanuts. I put the lid on the bucket and let it sit for 8 hours. The packing peanuts insulate it perfectly and the temperature stays warm enough for correct yogurt incubation. After 8 hours, I pull the milk can out of the bucket and place it in the refrigerator to chill. And there, from milking the cow to completed yogurt, the milk never left the same container. Works for me!
*It is a common misconception that the first step in yogurt making of heating milk to 185° F is to pasteurize the milk, and so proponents of raw milk will often recommend skipping this step. In fact, the purpose of this step is to prepare the milk proteins to form a thick yogurt curd. The step of heating the milk may be skipped, but the resulting yogurt will be thin. I like a thick yogurt, and I don’t worry about any beneficial bacteria that may be lost in the heating since, after all, we will inoculate the milk with beneficial bacteria in the yogurt culture!
I’m a big fan of New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. If you are seriously interested in making cheese at home, I highly recommend Ricki Carroll’s book, Home Cheese Making.
While I play around with different soft cheese recipes like mozzarella, ricotta, panir, and brie, our staple cheese is a soft cultured-buttermilk cheese that can be used in infinite ways. After evening milking, I bring the milk can to the kitchen while the milk is still warm from the cow (about 85-90° F). This saves me the step of having to warm the milk! To one gallon warm milk, I stir in 2 packets buttermilk culture and 2 drops vegetable rennet diluted in ¼ cup cool water. Then I put the lid back on the can and let it sit at room temperature overnight. In the morning, the milk has formed a solid curd and whey. I pour the curds and whey into a fine mesh stainless steel strainer placed over a large bowl or pot and place the whole set-up inside the refrigerator. I allow the whey to drain from the cheese for six to twelve hours and the result is a delicious spreadable cheese. I can add salt, different combinations of herbs or fruit preserves for variety. I use the cheese in dishes such as lasagna, soups and sauces, egg dishes and on sandwiches. The point is that I can make cheese for our every-day use with less than ten minutes prep time. I am in awe of people who make artisanal aged cheeses, and someday I hope to get a cheese press and learn to make cheddar and gouda! In the meantime, simple and easy is the name of the game.
Ok, so I’ve gotten a bit behind on writing here. A symptom of the season. Spring is our busiest season and as the weather changes we find ourselves slammed with a hundred things to do at once. It is both exciting and overwhelming. I will tell you a bit about what’s been going on around here.
March was full of lions and lambs this year. Lions came in the form of a series of snow storms, which are unusual for us this time of year. The heaviest storm in the first week of March left us without electricity for three days. We carried our young chicks in several large bins over to our neighbor’s house to keep warm by the woodstove. We lost a batch of eggs in the incubators, and the turkeys stopped laying for almost the entire month of March because of the cold. It was as if February and March traded places this year. Still, we were thankful that we got through as well as we did, always reminded that things like electricity and incubators are conveniences that allow us to cheat a little and that in reality nature’s way is best. There is nothing like farming to teach the valuable lesson that I am not in control of the situation and should always be grateful–rather than prideful–when things turn out well. While I will continue to use my incubators, I have been putting more trust in broody hens.
In the midst of our March lions, all of this year’s lambs were born. Little bouncing bundles of joy. They are amazingly hardy creatures, kept warm by their wool coats that they already have when they are born, and bellies full of milk. Sheep’s milk is richer than cows’ milk and it is amazing how fast the lambs grow. Each lamb will have to prove itself strong enough to live, but we put that thought out of our mind and just enjoy watching the beautiful little creatures bounding about the pasture in the evenings.
I spend a lot of time with sheep this time of year. In my “spare” time between planting the garden and managing the poultry, I am out shearing flocks for other people. It is hard work, but I have a particular fondness for sheep, and I love seeing beautiful fleeces fall away from the animal as I shear and hearing what special project the shepherd has in mind for the wool.
Well, it snowed right up to the last week of March and then April arrived and declared spring with all its glory. Our newly planted orchard is blooming with promise, and the pastures have grown tall and lush. At long last we were able to set up our paddocks, dividing the larger fields into sections with portable electric fencing, and move the sheep and cows back out on the grass. The animals are thrilled, of course, and we are happy to see them fattening up and glowing with health. It’s also nice to not have to be feeding expensive hay every day anymore. I have a good feeling about this year. Over the last couple of years we have tried to learn all we can about good pasture management. Books can take you only so far. Mentorship from more experienced graziers has proven invaluable. And over the past year we have participated in a program offered by Holistic Management International that has been a fantastic experience. It is exciting to see the health of the animals, the pastures, and the land improve as we put what we’ve learned into practice. Our farm may be small, but that is all the more reason to maximize health and productivity, utilizing the land to it’s full potential.
Oh, and I can’t forget to tell you that we’ve just processed our first batch of pastured chickens for the year! We are pleased to be able to offer you these fine birds for your table, as well as a plentiful abundance of eggs from our free-ranging hens. Stop on by the farm and say hello.