Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Expletive Post

The last of this year's ram lambs went to ice camp this week. I loaded the pair into my stock trailer around dawn for the half hour drive. This time I tried it without the Valium and I was fine. No tears or regrets, and four days later I collected 63 kilos of butchered lamb. I called a local farmer and demanded that I be given a t-shirt or badge or something that says "Official Farmer - No tears!".

I think I heard eye-rolling over the 'phone.

In truth, I'm far from any reasonable definition of 'farmer'. I have livestock, sure, but that includes a chicken with brain damage, a Labrador that licks the furniture, and a ewe that wags its tail when I pet her. As a rule, farmers don't pet their sheep, and I admit that I look forward to a morning cuddle with my friendly ewe.

I was recently reminded of my farming shortcomings while watching Countryfile, a show on the BBC about countryside stuff, though most people only watch it for the week's weather report. The celebrity farmer (yes such things exist) was helping someone purchase sheep to start her flock - Horned Dorsets as it happens. In fact, I had only picked out and purchased three new ewes earlier that week. Then I watched the farmer select the lambs by checking their udders and teeth were good. Of course! Udders and teeth. If they can't eat or produce milk, you're sunk before you start.

Shit. I forgot to check those when I chose my lambs.

I chose my lambs based solely on my (limited) knowledge of the breed standard. Essentially, it would be like going to a used car lot and saying "That red car's pretty!", kicking the tyres once, then writing a cheque for it. Thankfully, I bought my stock from Mr. Baker, a lovely gentleman who is a tireless promoter of the breed and encourages me in my burgeoning shepherdess role. He made some gentle suggestions when I chose which means I probably didn't buy a lemon. Or three.

The three new lemons / ewes in front. They have pink ear tags.

Note to self: check teats and teeth next time. It's bad when a TV show reminds you that you're ignorant.

All the remaining lambs born last year are ewes to be added to the breeding flock. I've amalgamated my flock so born ewe lambs, newly purchased ewe lambs, and mums-to-be ewes are all together now. That's 18 sheep in total - a proper starter flock. The sheep will just graze now until 20th October, when lambing starts.

But between now and then I can harvest yet another crop from my sheep: Poo. After the TV let me down, I turned to the radio for solace and Gardener's Question Time: a weekly Q&A programme with timely tips for the gardener. When asked what fertiliser made for the best tasting tomatoes, one expert said a tea made from sheep poo. Simply put poo in a hessian sack inside a container filled with water, wait an unspecified amount of time, and feed liquid to plants.

In case you didn't know what crap looks like

I have a penchant for experimenting and sheds to clean out which were awash in sheep poo, so it was a no-brainer. Everyone knows that the only things money can't buy are love and home-grown tomatoes. 

I happen to have planted similar tomato cultivars on either side of the green house, so I'll feed one side my sheep tea, and the other a proprietary tomato feed only. The expert didn't give a standard or recipe for the Water:Shit ratio so I've opted for a barrel of water to a bucketful of shit, mostly because I had a barrel and a bucket to hand. This should indicate the rigour of my scientific inquiry to you. With any of my experiments, simply assume that it's the rigour of a woman drinking cooking wine out of a mug that came free from the pheasant feed merchant (It is, and I am.)

It has a lid - mandatory - to contain smells. So far I haven't noticed any.

If summer eventually comes to Britain and the tomatoes ripen, I will invite friends round for a taste challenge and post the results. If it works, I'll fit a spigot to the barrel and start my tea brewing a bit earlier in the year.

But, time and weather means my attention must turn from sheep to game: pheasants are going to wood, and a dry evening means I should put on my camos and see if I can bag a roe buck. The chiller's still on from hanging my lambs, and my extra Buff Orpington cockerel finally went in there today, after another stay of execution. Yesterday was our first day of sun in a long time, and I though he should enjoy it too.


Poppy Cottage said...

I brought a ewe because she was called Winky and had one eye missing and was really tame.

Turned out I ended up with a free Dorset Down ram lamb as she was expecting. always thought of her as my Super Market Sheep offer, buy one, get one free!!

I totally forgot to check out her under carriage, teeth, feet etc but thoroughly enjoyed having her to lead my very small flock.

And I had Portland sheep because I like the lady who owned them.

Now I am going to sit and watch Countryfile on iplayer!!

Hazel said...

Ah, now the celebrity farmer I know about! No good at celebrity fishermen, but my 8 year old daughter is rather smitten with the farmer!

We live not all that far from his farm park and when we went a couple of years ago I did have to prepare her for the fact that he wasn't going to actually be there amongst the Kerry Hills.

I watched that episode of Country File and thought of you and your Dorsets. Which of your ewes wags her tail?!

megan said...

That's the only way to really experiment, at least in my world. I always find myself snarking back at comments on various blogs that ask "what about doing it this way? or that? Would it work?" -TRY IT AND FIND OUT. Wild experimentation with what is to hand means you learn more. Okay, well I do.

And in that vein, this year's experiment tells me that alpaca poop grows incredible gardens. I have three plots - two I've had for years, invested in loads of soil amendments, they test well for organic matter and all that; both are just eh. But a brand new, just cut this spring, garden covered in lots of not-even-composted alpaca barn clean out has made greens, tomatoes, and squash plants larger than I have ever grown. If the fruiters have a great fruit set too, I am sold on alpaca poop. Not the actual animals so much, but their back-ends are awesome.

Jennifer Montero said...

Colette - I'm glad other people make decisions based on nothing more than compassion and good vibes. Of course our choices usually make for good anecdotes, if not good breeding stock!

Jennifer Montero said...

Hazel - I'm envious that you've been to the farm! We have no celebrity farms / farmers in our local vicinity but we do have competent ones that are generous with their time (I try not to pet their animals).

I will post of video of my morning sheep cuddle, it's Ewe2 the big Texel gal. Matilda is going through a teenage phase and doesn't want to know me anymore.

Jennifer Montero said...

Ohh Megan, it's interesting to hear that about alpaca poo - or "beans" as they're called here. I see bags for sale but wondered if it was a gimmick, like lion dung from the zoo purported to keep deer off of one's rose beds. Like you, I was never sold on the actual animal (I had an alpaca burger recently - tasted like rabbit) but I love your observation about their valuable back ends.

Have you got any other experiments in the offing you'd like to share??

Felix said...

I have only just discovered your blog and am really enjoying the lovely insights you post into self-sufficient life and shepherding. Thank you so much for your wonderful writings! I don't know if you follow the Juniper Moon Farm blog, but Susie just wrote a very moving account of her beloved ram, Ernie, which encourages me to think that a great many successful shepherds pick their sheep for sentimental as well as practical reasons:

I intend in the future to keep some sheep, and I am sure I will do things like pick sheep because they look pretty and require valium the first time I take the ram lambs to the butcher... it must be part of the process of learning to live close to animals.

Re: sheep poo and garden "tisanes"... I have just finished making a disgusting concoction in aid of my food-growing mission this year; dead slug soup. The idea was that if you collect a lot of slugs, many of them will have infections and bacteria... I read about it here:

...if you allow them to die, then the resulting liquid will in theory be full of slug-hurting bacteria. I have covered my borlotti bean bed in the stinky stuff which I made according to this theory... I don't think this activity was nearly as pleasing as making sheep-poo tea looks, but I also got some "slug-buggers" which are pellets of scratchy sheep wool, stuck together with sheep poo, and apparently a great irritant to slugs. I don't know if you have a slug problem where you are, or if you use your sheeps' wool to try and contain them, but apparently the itchy surface of wool is very repellent to slugs... sheep are so useful!

I can attest that applying the slug-buggers to the ground around the bean plants was infinitely more pleasing than handling the yucky dead-slug soup... I shall keep up with the progress of your tomato plants and the sheep poo tea.

megan said...

I bet you can find an alpaca farm somewhere and haul off a truckload. This particular garden is at an actual alpaca farm; I farmsit for the owner occasionally, and she offered space for a garden in exchange for some veg. She took my anconas when the rat problem happened this spring. I was out there yesterday harvesting (kale up to my waist!), with our new meat birds hanging out in the coop, just marvelling at the yields and thinking about roast chicken.

I'm experimenting now with hard harvests of kale to see how much I can lop off and have it still come back. Also trying to freeze kale - blanch, chill, spread on baking sheet, pack in gallon bags. Haven't done that before; don't know how long it will last in the deep freeze. And today's last experiment - beet kvass, from garden beets and the whey from draining some cheese this morning.

I would love to experiment with the finer points of cooking my here-at-home woodchuck, but I have no firearms and wouldn't (yet) know how to use them. As for alpaca, I figure you can't eat them, ride them, or milk them so they aren't much of an interest for me. Other than for their beans.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I felt a lot like that when we went to pick out our pigs. I read a detailed article about what to look for -- eyes set wide, big hooves, a proportional shape -- and then three of them just went from the pen to the truck amid a storm of outraged oinks. To this day, I'm not sure how we chose.

And that's my kind of experiment, with the sheep poo! I'll be on the edge of my seat, waiting for results. Do you suppose pig poo would work? One of the things I never knew about livestock is that all poo is different. I never woulda thunk it.

octopod said...

You don't need to blanch kale! This is why kale is amazing. Just stack the leaves on a baking sheet, plop a brick on top, and freeze it. Then you can put the frozen stack into a bag to prevent freezer burn and then just cut a chiffonade off the block as you need it.