small family farming

Shetland Sheep Shepherd

grazing Shetlands

As some of you may know, I have a proclivity for raising Scottish breeds of livestock.  From the large Clydesdale draft horse to the Belted Galloway cattle to the Scots Grey chicken, breeds of livestock from Scotland and the surrounding isles have always brought about a great amount of curiosity and interest in this Scottish descendant.  This past year, I decided to pursue an interest in a Scottish breed of sheep, Shetland sheep.

In recent years, handspinning and knitting have seen a resurgence in our geographical area as people begin to return to simpler ways and reconceptualize the meaning of the term local.  Market gardening and selling from farm gate affords a farmer ample opportunity to talk with customers and friends of the farm.  While restocking my roadside stand this past Summer, several people approached me and shared that they would really like to be able to purchase local wool for handspinning, yarn for knitting, as well as lamb and mutton for their freezers.  All we had to do was find some pedigreed sheep to start a flock and we could begin to provide for a growing demand in our area.

After spending several months researching breeds I landed upon a smaller statured, primitive sheep breed originating from the Shetland Isles in Scotland.  Scottish Blackface sheep seemed to be in short supply in the Maritime provinces of Canada so they were out of the question, but after browsing the NASSA website (North American Shetland Sheep Association) and sending requests to join several Shetland Sheep Facebook groups I felt confident that we would find breeding stock.  The search for a ram and three ewes was on.

In recent years, the last couple decades really, the breed has seen a resurgence in popularity with small-scale flock keepers due in large part to the breed’s primitive appearance (shorter tails and smaller features). their generally calm and docile temperament, and their maternal instincts.  Shetland sheep have 11 different colorings and 30 different markings.  This variety of colors and patterns make the fleeces from Shetlands highly desirable for handspinners and avid knitters.  When considering Shetlands as a food source, their meat is considered to be very flavorful and high quality.

The Ewes – The Three Ladies

Finding our first three ewes to start a flock took us to Deerfield, NB, which is approximately 3 hours southwest of our farm in Northern, NB.  A long time shepherdess, Dr. Cathy Gallivan, was looking to part with some of her ewe lambs as she had decided to only keep a small flock of retired ewes.  It was a treat to meet my first sheep farmer and talk farming with her at her family’s homestead.  I spent a good deal of time talking with Dr. Gallivan about her experiences with equine livestock in an effort to grab a few bits of information to mollify any lingering worries about raising sheep that were still perturbing my mind.

I’ve learned over the years, from stories and experiences visiting farms, that you should always allocate time towards the development of conversation between farmers.  We can’t treat the purchase of livestock like convenience store shopping.  Although you can flirt with the possibility of wearing out your welcome, gauging the farmer’s willingness to let go of their livestock will signal when it is time to leave.  Speaking from experience, farmers can grow deeply connected to their livestock and experience difficulty letting go of their animals, especially those animals who have journeyed alongside them.  Taking time to develop trust before the transaction is finalized can reduce any sitting tension or anxiety on both sides of the transaction.  It gives you time to inspect the animals, observe their behaviors, and at the very least allow them the chance to get used to your voice.

three ewes

We loaded the 3 ewe lambs into the back of my Honda CR-V.  Don’t worry, I flipped the seat up, installed a divider to keep the ewe lambs from jumping shotgun in the front seat, and laid a tarp down to catch their raisin nuggets.  Pelleted sheep dung is a bad prank waiting to happen, let me tell you.   The three sisters stood tensely for the first hour of the return trip, eye balling me while I coursed through the meandering back roads to the Trans Canada highway and then Highway 17 and 11 home to Point La Nim, NB.  The trip was uneventful, unique and eerily quiet at first, but with the radio on CKNB we pulled into the farm lane just after dark in the beginning of December.  In the dark of night, our breeding stock had arrived at MacCurdy Farm.

Robbie MacRam

The breeding window of Shetland sheep is seasonal.  Generally, the further the sheep breed originates from the equator the shorter the breeding season.  Our ewes arrived at the beginning of December but the search for a ram, and a livestock hauler, took us into the last month of Winter.

In March, after coming to terms on the purchase of a ram from Chassagne Farm in Puslinch, Ontario, our ram finally shipped.  Chassagne Farm is home to the lineage of the first Shetland sheep flock introduced to Canada by Col. Dailley.  Not to be outdone by the three ewe lambs, the ram received a ceremonial trip in a dog crate in the back of the Honda CR-V.  I travelled 2 hours to meet the livestock hauler in St. Leonard, NB where we transferred the ram into the large size dog crate, which my aunt had used for her large sized dog.  Travelling alone again the second time around, my wife wisely chose to stay behind with the kids, I had a two hour bonding window with Robbie the ram, which culminated in him ramming the cage door when I greeted him at the back door of the jeep.  There was no way Robbie would allow me to open the crate and get him into the livestock barn.  However, stubbornness would not prevail.  Distraction would win this battle.  My sister, home for a visit, waved her hands at the other end of the dog cage, while I snuck my hand at the cage opening to grab a horn. Painless victory!  We then proceeded to coax our newest addition to the barn, myself on the curled end, my sister on the raisin pellet end, but were met with resistance like that of a toddler dead set on not going to their room.  In the end, Robbie joined Martha, Rosie, and Ruby establishing our first flock on MacCurdy Farm.

Robbie the ram

Bearing in mind that Shetland sheep, in colder climates such as ours, tend to have a shorter breeding window, I thought the introduction of a ram to the three ladies had a small chance of producing lambs.  Only learning later that some shepherds/shepherdesses avoid breeding sexually mature ewe lambs to allow their body condition to develop, I thought no need to rush things.  In the absence of any witnessed breeding behavior, the opportunity to have lambs seemed a dismal possibility.

Say what now?

The gestational period, pregnancy term, for ewes lasts 148 days give or take a day or two.  If Roberto was successfully able to throw lambs with the three ewe lambs, it would be July 27th before the fruits of labor arrived.  On the morning of July 23, 2017.  I received a phone call from my father, “Justin!”  Busy preparing breakfast, I responded, “Yes?”  There was a pause on the phone, “You might want to come up here,” he spoke, the excitement pouring through the phone.  “Why? What’s up?” I curiously inquired.  “There’s a baby lamb in the pen, get up here!” dad said, and just like that a day had eagerly anticipated had arrived.  My father, like myself, loves animals and does everything in his power to insure that their lives under our care are meticulously cared for in all aspects of animal husbandry.  Given the novelty of a newborn lamb on the farm, I knew the importance of attending to the lamb as quickly as possible.  After all, if there is anything that defines us as a farm, it is our love for our animals.  Unable to contain my glee, I told the kids about the new arrival, we grabbed breakfast on the go, jumped into the Honda CR-V, cleaned and with a human occupancy only rule now in place, and drove up to the farm.  The joy we shared as a family watching the new lamb, Daisy, stumble after her mother was palpable.  I could see the wonder in the faces of my two little ones.  My kids, not convinced of sheep as companions, fell in love with the new lamb…and the next two that followed during the Summer.

Daisy

After allowing the ewe to clean her lamb and establish a bond with her lamb, I sterilized the remaining piece of the umbilical cord, fed momma, and sat back with my own precious lambs, Cameron and Addyson, to watch a new mother nudge, guard, and teach her newborn lamb.  My lambs repeatedly exclaimed, “She’s just so cute! I want to name the next one Daddy.”  They would each have their turn naming the next two lambs.

Both lambs that would follow, Midnight and Storm, would weigh in at just over 6 lbs, which is at or near the average weight of Shetland lambs.  Shetland lambs are up on their feet in no time, unlike us human beings who take 9 – 12 months to find their feet.  The fact that they stood so quickly on their own made it easy for me to weigh the lambs on my platform scale.  Taking records of the date of birth, weight at birth, conditions of birth, colorings, health status, and any other pertinent information quickly followed weighing the lambs.  Shetland sheep truly are easy lambers with strong maternal instincts that go hand in hand with their hardiness as a breed for our snow filled and cold infused Winters on the North shore of New Brunswick.

To date, my experiences with Shetland sheep have brought a great deal of pleasure to my foray into sheep production.  They love saltine crackers, have unique personalities, are curious, produce beautiful natural colored wool, and provide lots of fodder for story telling which leads me to the story of the last lamb, Storm.

In an effort to learn about the lambing behavior of Shetland sheep and experientially document the tell-tale signs of imminent lambing, I decided, as both a precaution and an educational experience, to follow the last lambing.  I have years of experience in assisting cattle, when necessary, with difficult births but in the equine world of lambing my rating is at nil.  Dr. Gallivan had graciously given me an arm load of books when I left so I wasn’t a complete greenhorn in the area of lambing.  Well, maybe I was.  At any rate, Martha showed behavior consistent with being close to lambing such as getting up and down, making of a bag (udder), dazed appearance, and finally the passing of her water bag.  I thought, “Oh wow, I’m going to witness my first lambing.”  Outside the barn, a thunderstorm crackled, illuminating the sky in the heat of the August night.  Inside the barn, I lay on a stack of hay, praying for a healthy lamb, cowboy hat resting over my exhausted visage.  It was nearing 2 am so I got up, went inside my parents house to tell them that I’d be back up in the morning as the ewe didn’t look to be distressed and would likely lamb before morning.  Oh but that was not the case, when I returned to say goodnight to the animals, there was a brand new ram lamb that only 5 minutes earlier had not taken his first breath.  Amazing!  In the same manner that I had never witnessed any breeding in my flock, this ewe decided to keep the birth of her lamb private, away from the shepherd’s eyes.

Storm

As I continue to raise sheep, I find myself thinking that just as these beautiful sheep are under my care, so too am I under the care of my Shepherd.  Psalm 100:3 says, ” We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”  I am thankful for the experience of having these beautiful small-bodied with big personality sheep.  A little over a year later, we are now registered Shetland Sheep breeders with NASSA (North American Shetland Sheep Association).

More to come in the near future on my experiences with raising Shetland sheep on MacCurdy Farm.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Bay of Chaleur, family farming, farming, MacCurdy Farm, pasture based farming, Shetland sheep, small family farming, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

MacCurdy Farm Roadside Stand Build

dancing-farm-roadside-standLate in the Winter of 2016 we sat down and tossed ideas around about a sugar shack and roadside stand build. After browsing the internet, contacting timber frame outfits, and surveying our current set up, we decided to proceed with a 20′ x 10′ double bay building with a lean-to roof.  As with everything we build on the farm, we try to always find multiple purposes for it.  The roadside stand will triple as a sugar shack in the Spring, a roadside stand in the summer, and wood storage in the Fall for our greenhouse operation.  If we happen to add a farm store in subsequent years, the design will allow the building to be used as a run-in-shed for our livestock (horses, sheep, cattle, etc.)  The ability to plan ahead saves a farmer time, energy, and money.  Each of which is a precious commodity for a small farmer.

In March of 2016, Jonathan and Justin purchased a 1996 air-cooled Skandic 500 to haul logs off of our woodlot to the farm.  We cut down 10 sizeable spruce and cedar trees to be milled at a nearby neighbors saw mill.  He cut our logs into beautiful rough sawn boards, 2 x 4, 2 x 6, 4 x 4, and 6 x6 timbers.  Given the restrictions of the length of lumber he could cut on his mill (14′) we decided to sister 2 x 6 lumber together to get 21′ skids, which formed the base of the building.  The sistered 2 x 6 lumber formed a 4″ x 6″ skid that we could use to tow with the tractor.  After the skids were nailed together with 3.5″ spirals and screwed together on either side of the joints and at the ends with 3″ lag screws, we put the circular saw and chisels to work to farm 1/2 lap joints on our 4 x 4 x 10 cross pieces.  The cross pieces needed corner half laps and the skids needed 3 dado joints (notches for the half lap to sit into).  The dados can be made by making multiple passes with the circular set to a 2″ depth.  The slivers can then be knocked out with a hammer and then the seat of the joint cleaned up with a chisel and rasp.  With the base finished, we moved on to the front and rear walls.

Flying solo, I used 2 x 6s to temporarily brace the three front sections of the 10′ high front wall and the three 4 x 4s on the 8′ rear wall.  Once the walls were erected and temporarily braced, I fastened the top plates to both front and rear walls with 10′ rough sawn 2 x 4s.  The front and rear walls are connected with 9’6″ rough sawn 2 x 4s that are toe nailed at a four foot height on both corner 4 x 4s of the front and rear wall.  At the midway point on the side walls I installed a 4′ stud to remove any sag in the cross piece.  Each bottom corner (with the exception of the two bay openings) are knee braced with 4′ 2 x 4s while 2′ 2 x 4s are used on the top a the plate height using 4″ spiral nails.

Our lean-to roof uses 12′ 2 x 8s purchased from a local lumber yard.  The pitch of the roof is 2.5/12 so I used a framing square to cut the birdsmouths for the front and the back walls as well as the ridge and tail cuts on both parts of the overhang.  The rafters were positioned with 2′ spacing on centre and toe nailed into place on the separate top plates.  Afterwards, I nailed the 2 by 4 purlins at 2′ spacing perpendicular to the rafters.  The purlins will be used to give the roof more rigidity against prevailing winds as well as provide a surface to fasten the royal blue metal roofing sheets.

The royal blue metal sheet roofing came from a company called Vicwest through one of our local hardware stores.  The royal blue is in keeping with our color scheme for the farm that includes green and blue as found in the MacCurdy tartan.  The metal roofing went on lickity split, as they say, and I was careful to follow the manufacturer’s suggested installation technique to avoid any future issues.  Always be careful to not overtighten the self tapping roofing screws as the gaskets will wear more quickly if compressed too much.

back-side-of-roadside-stand

Sheathing the structure involved some creative license.  I had tried board and batten before but with growing carpentry skills I thought making our own cedar shiplap siding by using a 3/8″ rabbeting bit with a guide on our router.  By clamping the boards to both sawhorses and passing the router and opposite edges of each side of the board some beautiful shiplap siding was made from this year’s rough sawn cedar and spruce as well as last year’s boards, which I removed from our smaller chicken barn.  This was very time consuming but worth it in the end given the beautiful look of the vertical shiplap on the three enclosed sides and the horizontal ship lap on the front wall.  It took a lot of measuring and cutting over the course of a week during free moments to make the shiplap.  After running out of full length 10′ boards I used shorter 8′ boards and jig-sawed the pieces together to make the siding.

On the triangular ends there is some math involved in cutting the appropriate angle on the board to run plumb up the wall.  The pitch of the roof is 2.5/12 so depending on the size of the board used (4″, 5″, 6″, or 8″) I solved for the unknown rise for each board width by finding an equivalent fraction to 2.5/12.  For example, for an 8″ board, the rise is 1 and 2/3 of an inch which is about 1 and 11/16″ on a measuring tape.  Measuring down from on end of the board 1 and 11/16″ I would make a pencil mark and then using my speed square draw a line from the mark to the opposite corner of that end of the board.  It is important to note that each board width has a different rise which must be used to cut the board to the appropriate dimensions.

After the siding was attached with 2″ spiral nails, the building had to be stained.  We used a semi-transparent cedar stain to completely stain the outside of the roadside stand.  After many brushstrokes and a day of drying it was ready to move to the roadside.  In order to haul the stand on skids, we drilled holes in one end of the skid in order to insert 8″ eye bolts.  Make sure these eye bolts are heavy duty i.e., thicker gauge.  Do not use them if they have rings.  The weight of the building combined with the pressure from the steel cable can pull the eyelets apart.  For a 10′ building, we used a 18′ braided steel cable.  We roughly calculated 18′ from the length of a semi-circle of a circle with a diameter of 10′.  C=pi x diameter.  Circumference = 3.14 x 10′ = 31.4′.  Half of 31.4′ is approximately 15′ 8″.  The braided cables have to be looped so we add at least a foot of length to each end to get us to 18′.  Once the steel cable is passed through the eyelets it is brought back and run through a cable clamp that matches the gauge of the cable.  Tighten them with a ratchet or wrench.  Once this is done you are ready to haul and set up your roadside stand…by the roadside.

eye-bolt-hitch-with-braided-cable-and-clamp

We used our 5445 Massey Ferguson Tractor to haul it slowly and carefully down the hillside to the preset location.  It’s best to have your site prepped in advance so that you can pull it into place, unhitch, and start your season selling veggies.  More to come on the honor system and our first summer with the roadside stand in a blog to follow.

Categories: Bay of Chaleur, family farming, farming, four season farming, MacCurdy Farm, multi-purpose housing, small family farming | Leave a comment

2016: A New Year Brings New Ventures

After a quarter annual hiatus from the blog, we are back with some updates and ready to roll out some new blog posts in the next few months as we build towards more changes and additions on the farm.  Despite our absence from the blog, we’ve continued to plug away at farming on MacCurdy Farm.  Winter has a tendency of recharging the batteries, when sickness is held at bay, and tends to reinvigorate the body.  Lots of quality time snowshoeing on our family acreage helped to reinstill a hope in the members of the family to further establish our transitioning farm.

Multi-season farming has been a goal for Jonathan and Justin since they began to pursue their separate farm endeavours.  Without abandoning previously established elements of the farm, Jonathan and Justin have decided to put their knowledge sets together to increase productivity on the family farm and partner together in the birch syrup, small fruit, pastured poultry, and greenhouse operations.  They’ve both come to the realization that together they can accomplish much more in seasonal aspects of the farm that require man power and brain power.  Who better to partner with than a brother or sister?

Warm me up Scottie!

Warm me up Scottie!

Justin and Jonathan will be tackling birch syrup production beginning in March when the sap starts to run.  They’ve set amibitious goals and have made filling last years crowdfunding backers the first priority for this season, with birch syrup for the market and other stores within Canada to follow.  We’ll be putting out an informative blog series on everything pertaining to birch syrup production in the coming weeks for those of you interested in trying the product.  An informed consumer is more likely to be a satisfied consumer.  We have hopes of potentially sharing our knowledge in the school systems in years to come as well.  We’ve started to prepare our evaporator, sap collection equipment, and temporary sugar shack for our big boil downs to come.  The next few weeks leading up to March Break/Study break will be busy, to say the least.

In other news, Justin and Jonathan have added a wood fired furnace to the greenhouse to get an earlier start in march with herbs, cut flowers, tomato and pepper plants, and some in ground cold hardy plants for the table.  In our winter with the greenhouse, we are pleased to announce that we’ll be able to produce a substantial amount of produce, herbs, and flowers.  Our goal is to open up the greenhouse as flower shop in the Spring to provide hanging baskets, cut flowers, container herbs, and other floral arrangements.  More to come in the coming months.

We will be sharing more about our seasonal adventures on MacCurdy Farm/Nature’s Estate Farm in the near future.  We apologize for the hiatus from the blog.  Jonathan will hopefully be able to contribute his keen knowledge set on everything pertaining to birch syrup in the following months.  Please look for another tab on the website related to birch syrup.

MacCurdy Crest Dartboard Cabinet

MacCurdy Crest Dartboard Cabinet

Taking care of health and family relations have been a priority for us this past year.  Justin has kept busy with teaching school and some small carpentry projects, Jon is constantly studying his craft and mom and dad are busy being busy.  Together, they are very excited to tackle birch syrup, small fruit production, market gardening, our cow/calf operation, pastured poultry operation, and greenhouse growing in the Spring, Summer, and Fall of 2016.  We are hoping to satisfy the local palates of our devoted customers and locavores.   Until we get to see you at the market this Spring, enjoy some of what’s left of Winter in our beautiful region in Northern New Brunswick.

 

Categories: birch syrup, family farming, four season farming, Locavore, MacCurdy Farm, small family farming, small fruit, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Broody hens: Hatching eggs au naturel

By fortuitous circumstances one of our Plymouth Barred Rock hens set on 10 eggs in our egg mobile this summer.  She somehow evaded daily morning egg collection.  Instead of laying in the nesting boxes, which we access from outside the egg mobile, she hid in the corner away from sight.  She’d gone broody.

I'm gone broody

I’m gone broody

Natural hatching has always intrigued me.  Before purchasing our heritage breeds, I had read about the varying levels of broodiness in the different breeds of hens.  Plymouth Barred Rock hens have a tendency to go broody and make good mothers.

Into the Light

Into the Light

Allowing a hen to go broody and hatch eggs involved special care and attention.  Hens can sit on 8 – 12 eggs respective to their breed.  Our broody hen naturally incubated 6 out of 10 eggs.  All eggs were candled (shine a light on them in the dark) to show full development inside the shell so I am uncertain as to why the last 4 eggs did not pip or hatch.  I didn’t keep the nest as clean as I could have so it is possible that there could have been some bacterial contamination.  It is important to keep the bedding dry and clean.

Broody hens are easy to identify.  Stick your hand inside their nesting box and feel the power of the beak pinch and the alarming shreak of terror.  These are unmistakeable characteristics of a broody hen.  Broody hens have a tendency to leave the nest at the same time of day to relieve themselves, eat, run around, and dust bath. Their fecal deposits are ginormous, for lack of a better word, and you will observe them dance around their nesting area.  I liked the fact that we used our egg wagon as a shelter for our hen (having moved our layers to another housing) as it allowed Hen-rietta to get outside, do her business in the sunlight, and then get back to incubating. The incubation process takes approximately three weeks (18 – 22 days) and the hens will fulfill their mothering duties for up to 5 weeks when they begin to lay again.  The last three days of the hatch usually find the hen locked into the nest until the hatch completes.

Let's eat!

Let’s eat!

Broody hens should be left alone as much as possible so they can go about their business.  I kept a small margarine dish of chick starter and a chick waterer near to the nest (in a dark corner of the egg wagon) to make sure that the hen stayed hydrated and nourished. Broody hens consume far less feed than laying hens so high protein chick starter or pullet grower in place of laying mash or pellets works well.  Some may even need prompting to feed and drink as they become entranced and entrenched into never leaving the eggs.

Normally, a hen would be encouraged to go broody in mid-Spring, however, our broody hen decided to go broody in August.  Given the late discovery of her developed egg cache in a dark corner of the egg wagon and my refusal to discard the eggs, Hen-rietta was able to bring 5 beautiful chicks onto the farm.  As they say, a chick hatched via a broody hen has a much higher likelihood of becoming broody as a laying hen so here’s hoping that more natural hatches can happen in the Spring with our Plymouth Barred Rocks, Black Australorps, and New Hampshire Red crosses.  I’ll probably invest in a couple of Silkie hens by then as they are top notch broodies.

This was my first experience facilitating a broody hen hatch.  Next time around, Spring 2016, we’ll have a hatching pen set up inside one of the chicken barns so that multiple broodies can hatch at the same time.  A temporary nesting box in the form of a pet carrier, bucket, milk crate, or box in isolated pens will serve as a maternity pen set-up.

The most important lesson I learned in this whole process was through the maternal behavior exhibited by Henrietta.  Mothers are teachers and she was quick to educate her chicks on drinking, eating, and the safety of a mother’s wing.  It is a beautiful thing to watch the chicks imprint onto their mother.  I won’t retire the hovabator incubator, but I will certainly enable our hens to go broody and hatch chicks as often as possible this coming Spring and Summer.

Everybody scatter!

Everybody scatter!

Categories: farming, Heritage breed chicken, livestock, pasture based farming, small family farming | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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