Thursday, 21 July 2016

Got Milk? Heck, yes!

We’ve had our Great British Summer – sunshine and 80F for three days in a row – and most of the young pheasants are in their pens in the woods enjoying it too.  Fledglings in the garden find new and interesting ways to put themselves in danger while learning to fly. I’ve re-nested (is that a thing?) a few blackbirds from the ground before the dogs found them and ate them.  

Four sparrows fell down the chimney over the past few days, so I’ve taken to leaving the wood stove door open. When I find them flap-hopping over the furniture, I just pop them out an open window. The morning bird song is still tremendous, so I guess the song bird population is doing pretty well this year despite all that.

We’re filling our freezers for the coming shoot season. Underkeeper Ian shot a muntjac deer trying to break out of a pheasant pen. The estate has let us keep the deer for our freezer (and beaters’ lunches). I put a goat in the freezer too – the female half boer goatling that came with my milkers. We’d sold her, but she came back to live with us. She wouldn’t gentle or tolerate being handled by humans, so she became meat.

With that one exception, our goats are a pleasure to handle and nearly as companionable as the dogs. The two does are giving milk, though I’ve left the kids on their mother. I only milk her out, about a pint, to relieve any pressure or balance up her udders. Kids and lambs both seem to favour one teat and a doe / ewe ends up full on one side, milked on the other. This can lead to mastitis, and certainly it’s less than comfortable for the mother. I swear you can see the sense of relief on a goat’s face when you milk out a full side, then rub teat cream on to soften the skin.  I brush them both after milking too. It’s an outdoor goat beauty parlour.

I enjoy the milking process but, with age and wear, my elbow and wrist joints hurt. Milking by hand every day doesn't give my joints any time to heal. I looked online for small portable milking machines but the only options I could find were a) still reliant on using one’s hand to pump or b) upwards of £1000 to buy. No kidding. (Excuse the pun.)

I started searching for a design that I could build myself. Preferably on the cheap.  Preferably something that runs on batteries as there’s no electricity in the goat paddock. And portable. But still cheap. I mentioned that, right?

I found Sherri Chekal at Windhaven Farm, a milking mastermind who designed just the thing by re-working a food saver pump. Sherri offers step-by-step instructions on her website to build your own portable goat milker. I was so thrilled to find her design and emailed her to thank her, and to point out her genius. Sherri's gracious response was "Aw shucks".

All I needed to buy was a syringe, some food-grade tubing, the largest Kilner jar I could find, and the Food Saver pump.  I scavenged pipe joiners from parts we use to build water systems for pheasant pens and sealed them in place with silicon. I was so excited to test drive my new milker that I didn’t even change out of my pyjamas that morning to milk the goats. Wellies on, and I was ready.

It worked!!

I milked the goats and saved my old joints. The goats didn’t mind the pump milker either. When I'm done milking, I bring the food saver pump home and plug it into a kitchen socket to recharge, ready for the following morning. Total cost? Less than £40!

At the moment, a litre of my fresh goat milk is being taxed every day by this little ewe –

She’s one of the twins born to the ewe with mastitis / tumors. That ewe had enough milk to feed one of the twins, but not both. I bottle fed the smaller lamb but left her to grow up with her mom in the flock.. The lamb knows that my milking time is her breakfast time, and she chases the Land Rover shouting for her share. Once she’s finished, she runs back to be with her mother and brother, so it’s the best of both worlds for her.

The goats have provided us meat, milk, cheese, a sense of achievement (building my own milker) and entertainment value. I provide them with the best husbandry I can, and occasionally with their favourite treats: nachos. They also like asparagus spears, banana skins, raisins, broad bean pods, and bread. But mostly nachos.

Ole goats!

Monday, 11 July 2016

Shearing Time & Show Season

The weather conditions finally allowed our shearer Matt to come and shear our flock: a spell of warm weather to raise the lanolin and no rain so the fleeces dried out on the sheeps’ backs.  Matt shears after lambing and before hay cutting. It’s all part of the family farm’s income, so wife Donna and children Llewelyn and Ffion came along to help. 

They are our good friends as well as our shearing team, and we know how hard they work year-round, so I put together a quick supper for afterward. I wish I could say it was homemade but Mike and I are very busy this time of year too, so it was grocery store pizza for the children and salad for the adults, plus wine to help with those aching muscles. Donna brought scones and fresh fruit for dessert. Kath, whose husband is the woodman on this estate, also joined our shearing team as she loves working with sheep.  Chores double as social time when friends get involved.

Donna and I vaccinated all the lambs and tended to any sore feet.  Ffion attempted to mark each lamb we finished with a dot on the forehead, but she’s only seven so a streak of marker paint anywhere from the neck up was good enough.

Matt started shearing while we vaccinated. We finished the lambs, and then assisted Matt. Kath worked the gate, Donna and I rolled the fleece.

Kitty oversees the proceedings -

I haven’t been to the wool depot to get bags so we stacked the rolled fleeces in the sheep trailer temporarily. The rolls made a comfortable seat when we were forced to shelter from a heavy shower.

Kath was a great gatekeeper but I forgot to tell her to be vigilant of Grumpy ewe. With only a few sheep left to shear, Grumpy saw her chance and blasted through a small gap in the gate. I shouted some choice swear words at Grumpy and threatened to go home and get the rifle (as I always do) but I went home and got sheep feed instead, and lured her back to the pen.

Bloody ewe.

Last week two of my ram lambs broke legs. One broke a hind leg at the ankle joint.  An easy repair.  After injections to bring the swelling down, I fitted a splint (“borrowed” on a visit to the dog vet) and set his leg properly. It’s stable and he’s walking alongside his mother, grazing and still milking. The ankle joint will fuse and he'll have a limp, but he will heal - just in time to go to ice camp.

The second ram was not so lucky. The break was at the knee joint in a front leg and it wouldn’t heal. The ram went downhill quickly, so we harvested him rather than let him die.  I necropsied the leg. The ram burst the synovial fluid capsule and the joint was full of infection the colour and consistency of McDonald’s Shamrock shake. That is an Injury of No Return.

Aside from the infected leg, the carcase was clean meat. However, this was a six month old entire ram I had kept for the breeding sales, and he was gamey – even though I tried to hide the flavour in a strong curry. Our loss is the dogs’ gain, and they have been eating raw bones and cooked meat scraps all week.

I finally got my shorn fleeces packed and sewn into their wool sheets, and took them to a wool buyer. This year I skipped the Wool Marketing Board depot and sold straight to an Irish trader for a better price and faster payment. The Wool Board is a middle man, and sends payment only after your wool is sold on the open market, minus their cut.  Yet another good connection made through my shearers.

It was my turn to help Matt and Donna this week. We’re into the agricultural show season where farmers bring their best livestock to show, be judged, and sometimes sold.  It’s the best advertisement for your product that you can get. A lot of effort is put into preparing sheep for show, and rather than watch your hard work go straight back into a pen and lay in muck, exhibitors put coats on their animals.

Donna tried to make these coats herself as they are expensive to buy. As she doesn’t sew, she tried to make do with iron-on hemming tape.  I offered my meagre sewing skills and machine, both good enough to hem sheep coats and sew heavy duty leg straps. I set up in her kitchen by the warm Rayburn.

July in Wales - of course the stove is still going!

Meanwhile, Matt and Donna headed down to the farm to groom the showing sheep. When I finished my seamstress duties, I watched some of their preparations.  Their Welsh Black sheep are a quarter of the size of mine, and can be lifted onto a grooming table.

It's a husband and wife grooming team, but they work in tandem on the same sheep. First, the sheep is combed to bring up the fleece -

Then the fleece is carefully trimmed using hand shears to show off the shape of the animal: a nice straight back, full legs, graceful neck-

Once trimmed, spray shine is applied to enhance the bloom and keep the farm dust from settling back into the clean fleece. Matt uses a wooden paddle to tamp the fleece and make it tight -

As a hill breed, a “tight skin” (good weather-proof fleece) is a desirable breed characteristic. 

Now the newly sewn coats can be fitted-

More finishing touches – plucking stray white hairs, putting linseed oil on rams’ horns, using a toothbrush to clean between the cleats of each foot – can be done before loading up in the morning.

It is a labour of love, as much as an opportunity to advertise your stock. And not without financial risk. Entering a few main classes in the big county and national shows can total £1000 in a season. I won’t be entering anything any time soon.

After my bit of sewing, I drove home and pulled into our drive to find this waiting for me-

The guys have started Canada goose hunting. 

The dogs are going to eat better than us this month.