Spring 2019 Updates


Growing tasty food and increasing the productivity and the quality of our land continues to be the focus at Lilac Hill Farm. We have a bit of wanderlust and a desire to visit with family and friends, so to manage all of our goals, our farm schedules have tightened up and our management systems have evolved to make it easier for our farm caretakers when we are away.

This is a transition year for the sheep. Eight of our Katahdins lambed in January/February. Some of the 14 lambs have been set aside to add to our flock, the rest are available for sale as meat, pets or breeding stock. Six more lambs were born in May, one more ewe may lamb at the beginning of June and we anticipate more lambs in September. Starting in 2020, we will only lamb in the fall. I believe the fall-lambing ewes will benefit from the regrowth of the cool season plants in the pastures and I know I won’t miss lambing in the cold barn.

The Pilgrim geese had a good laying season; we hatched goslings in the incubator and in the barn under geese.The flock has readily adopted the incubator- hatched goslings. Some of the goslings will go to other farms and if all goes well we will have grass-fed goose for sale in late fall.

To limit congestion in the moveable pasture pen, we decided to raise meat chickens in the spring and fall. The first group will go to the butcher at the end of June and the other in October. We continue to raise a bird that is bred for a longer grow out on pasture. The flavor is terrific so we aren’t going to change what works here.

Our two bee hives survived the winter. One of the hives is very strong and I hope for a honey harvest this year. This week the strong hive swarmed. I hived the swarm so now have 3 hives on the terraces.

In the early spring I incubated and hatched eggs from a flock of lovely Dominique chickens. Right now we have two groups of Dominique chickens, some old layers and four unattractive (at least when compared to the standard) Dominique roosters. The old hens and roosters are available as soup birds and we are still taking orders for broilers. Until our flock grows we will only have Dominique roosters for sale.

As always, contact me with your questions about our farm and our farm products. I will be happy to walk you though a cutting order and to share some of our go to recipes.


Chicken tractor dolly

With tutoring and shared welding equipment, thank you Steve and Pat, the dolly to lift the end of the chicken tractor and roll it is complete. Unfortunately the pen is still too heavy for me to lift. Until we make design modifications I will remove the tops to reduce weight.


Death on the Farm

Today one of the ewe lambs I brought to the farm last week died. This was not altogether unexpected. After the dash to catch and pen the lambs in the trailer, I noticed one had bottle jaw, defined by Merriam Webster's medical dictionary as "a pendulous edematous condition of the tissues under the lower jaw in cattle and sheep resulting from infestation with bloodsucking gastrointestinal parasites." I knew that the seller's farm had wormed the sheep two days before we arrived. I also noted that only two sheep in the flock had bottle jaw. Rather than unloading the affected sheep from the trailer, the owner did not charge me for the ewe until we were sure of good health. Today during morning chores the ewe was not with her flock and by lunch she had died.

This incident brings up all sorts of "farmer" thoughts.  

I am glad that we have multiple paddocks where I can quarantine new animals on the farm. In the next 6-8 weeks I will worm the new ewes again and watch for other health issues.

If the former owner had not offered the ewe for free until proved, I would not have taken her home. My limited experience has taught me that at least. What I had not thought as carefully about was the  answer to the what-if-she-survives question. I had hoped to use the ewe in my breeding program but I do not believe that would have benefitted Lilac Hill in the long run. Adding a ewe that is not resistant or resiliant to worms is not a ewe that should be in any breeding flock. With wormer medications losing their effectiveness against parasites, better management practices, including targeted worming, rotational grazing and multispecies grazing as well as breeding for resistant and resiliant sheep will build the strong flock I envision.

I am glad that I follow an experienced farmer's advice to watch my animals every day. With only five days of observing the new sheep, I knew that something was wrong with the ewe today, even though her bottle jaw seemed to be resolving.

Following Penn State recommendations, we composted the body. Rather than relying on the assistance of a friend and his equipment, as we have in the past, our small skid-steer handled the task. Today I was very glad that we are far along enough in our farm building to know that dead animals should be composted, to own the skid-steer to manage the heavy work and to be able to operate the machine effectively. Having a just started compost pile of last winter's chicken bedding and a few bales of rotten hay at the edge of the property, also made the job easier.

It is a rotten day on the farm when an animal dies. Fortunately, rotten days usually teach me something about being a better caretaker of this farm.


Square water tote project completed

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Last year I purchased a 275 gallon tote off Craigslist with a vague plan of moving water to the furthest reaches of our pasture. The weight of 275 gallons of water is not vague, but a definite 2293.5 pounds, so my plan needed refining. Our small skidsteer can lift and carry around 650#. Instead we needed a sturdy running gear that the skidsteer or Subaru could pull to the paddocks and we needed a downspout diverter to catch the water coming off the boat barn roof. In a friend's treeline, under a fallen tree, there was a running gear that had carried luggage at an airport which he was willing to loan us. The weight of the tree had done some damage so we trailered the gear to a local machine shop. The repaired gear has a hinged tongue and a receiver for towing.

As with so many farm projects, the short description of a project hardly portrays the actual time, equipment and skils involved.

Here is this project's equipment list of tools that we owned, bought and borrowed: trailer for towing the tote home; round downspout diverter; chainsaw for removing the fallen tree from the running gear; large skidsteer for pulling the gear from the treeline and loading onto the equipment trailer; truck with the appropriate brake and light set up for pulling the equipment trailer; our truck with the correct hitch for towing the repaired running gear home (hitch balls come in multiple sizes and at our place are spread across three vehicles);assorted straps for securing totes and the running gear to the trailers;drillpress and bits for drilling a hole in the skidsteer fork for a hitch ball to move the running gear;and our skid steer.

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Living in this community we found a slowmoving vechicle reflector triangle at the farm store and the machine shop was less than five miles away so we did not have to fiddle with our own and borrowed welding equipment.

Without our friend's generous gift of time and equipment we could have completed this project, but its cost and effort would have pushed its completion into another grazing season or two.

Barnyard management

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This spring we lambed earlier and had more ewes than last year.  Deep bedding in the barn and barnyard kept the the Katahdins healthy and clean but resulted in new management issues for me. After scraping up the manure/straw/hay layer and piling it for composting, the barnyard was bare.Bare ground is anathema to a farmer on thin ground so I visited Norm's farm store in search of cover cropping seed.Sudangrass is a good choice for summer seeding; it can tolerate heat and drought and can be harvested for feed. After cutting in the fall I may sow rye into the space.The old wheel hoe/plow, that was in the barn when we move here did a good job scratching up the rocky, compacted soil.I broadcast the seed with our yard spreader.Raked the seed in.I used the last of the bedding straw to mulch the seed and waited for the falling rain to do its work.

June 2, 2013

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Despite late frosts alternating with 80'+ heat, the pastures grew, even the Hill Pasture, rife with multiflora rose and other invasive undesirables. The Belites ate the tasty forage and left the overgrown, unpalatable stems. With time at a premium, I did not rotationally graze this pasture. The girls ate what they wished, supplemented with green chop from the North Pasture. Our Farmall Cub mowed all but the steepest of the pasture, knocking down the overgrowth and pruning the multiflora before they went to seed. Later this season the cows and maybe the sheep will return to graze. 

Power washer vs. Water tote

ABC's Wide World of Sports:"Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport! 

The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat!"

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Thrill--Yesterday, thanks to a Google search,I downloaded the owner's manual and read a few engine troubleshooting sites, tried a few suggestions and got the power washer running.  Not sure if topping off the oil or replugging the low oil sensor wires made the difference but the washer works and the barn looks great. Victory.

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Defeat--The plan is that this tote will carry water from the downspout or cistern to the Hill pasture across the road.  Until we have a running gear under the tote our small skidsteer can only carry enough for one trough filling.  When I tried to drain the excess water into the ditch to make moving the tote more stable, the handle broke off in my hand. Agony.

Transitioning to growing season mode

As the days lengthen and warm we shift from feeding hay in paddocks and watching for lambs to moving fence  and water to accomodate the rotational grazing of the poultry, sheep and cows. Eventhough our goal of raising delicious meat on pasture remains, the particulars are different each year. This year spring's warming was slow to arrive, especially compared to last year's early heat, lengthening the ruminants' time on hay and off muddy pastures. For the first time we are managing a bachelor pen for Burgess our ram and selecting a wethered lamb to keep him company until December. Blair should  drop her calf one month later than last year, therefore pushing back the bull's visit to the farm. And Lilac Hill will host a wedding reception at the end of May, barring the cows from the North field. (Those cow pies that I check, guaging the health of my Belties are just not a welcome addition to the country reception parking field.) It is a juggling act, balancing the present and future needs of the animals without a crystal ball to  tell me how the weather wil be later this season.

In spite of a long list directing me to move fence and water , clean barns  and plant the garden,home life goes on. A check of the NOAA website can prompt me to do a bit more laundry for the closthesline on clear day or to  clear off the desk on a rainy one. No matter the forecast we need to eat, which is especially apparent at around 7PM. After a week of thrown together meals I bought the ingredients for a few refrigerator staples. It is time to prepare the first of the warm weather grilled vegetable/starch/meat or bean salads that sustain us. This early in the season the salads are heavy on greens from the hoophouse and and frozen red peppers, rosemary from the pot near the windowsill and bits of beef. As the season progresses fresh peas, beans, peppers,basil and tomatoes will arrive from the garden and lamb will be featured from the May butchering.

Apple blossoms

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My childhood time spent with Dick and Jane on grandfather's farm never prepared me for the beauty of spring; the heavy scent of crabapple and the thrum of bees searching blossoms.

Spring clean up

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With a family event on the farm at the end of May, spring clean up is well underway. Our usual pattern of starting a farm-improving project (translation=tearing up some part of the yard or farmyard) has been checked as we prepare for guests.With the flowerbeds edged and mulched,the chickens are back in the portable coops.  This triangle coop needed the rotted end and door repaired before the January chicks took up residence.We finally fashioned wheelbarrow handles so it is easy to move across the lawn.

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I had expected that the chickens ,ducks and geese would eat all of the corn purchased from the neighbor last fall. They did not so we disassembled the makeshift corn crib ,bought an antique Black Hawk corn sheller (thank you Craigslist) and shelled and bagged the remaining ears.What an ingenious tool:shells the corn and spits out the cob.  We attached it to the side of the skidsteer bucket so we could adjust the hieght of our work space.

In addition to the spiffing up  I am gradually transitioning the ruminants to pasture. The veterans in the flock know that the sound of temporary fence post pounding means good grazing; the lambs need to learn to stay with the flock inside the electric twine.  Because some of our pastures will be hosting non-boot wearing guests, the cows will not graze those areas so the sheep have the Orchard and North pastures to manage.

Temporary bale feeder in barnyard

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So the lactating ewes and their growing lambs can eat as much hay as they need, I cobbled together a round bale feeder for the sheep's barnyard. Tucked into the corner made by the baryard gate and the barn wall, and sided by a pallet and cattle panel, the sheep have access to the hay.

Layering farm jobs

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As spring moves forward and the the gardens move into production, it was time to rein in the tidbit searching, dirt scratching hens. Twice a day we move this pen across the lawn. The hens do the spring fertilizing as they eat their way around the yard. The egg box at the wheel end and the feed hopper at the handle end  makes their upkeep very convenient. (In this picture the access door is open against the roof of the hen tractor). Although unwieldly, the long handle gives us greater mechanical advantage so one person can move the pen loaded with a hanging waterer and a full feed hopper.

Barn spring

Although the spring equinox occured on March 20 at 7:02 A.M. EDT, snow and cold remained on our bit of land. Lengthening days, nights in the high twenties and day temperatures above freezing have brought a softening to the barnyard this week. With the warmer temperatures the Belties take longer to eat a round bale of hay and the Katahdins can eat their day-ration of hay in the mostly sunny barnyard. Yesterday I rolled up the extension cord and packed away the trough heater when I scrubbed out the Beltie's trough. The heated bucket in the barn was cleaned and stored away until next winter's frigid temps. Dividing the barn pasture with a polytwine fence to limit the heavy hooved cows to a smaller sacrifice paddock will preserve the lower barn pasture.The electrified barrier will also retrain the beef to respect the pulsing fence, a key component of our rotational grazing routine in the growing seasons.The water fowl pens were remulched with the dry hay leavings from around the sheep feeder to keep mislaid eggs and feathers clean.I also reset the temorary posts supporting the fence that keep the four-leggeds separate from the two-leggeds in the barn pasture.  Spent corn cobs are effective fencepost wedges,handy after a winter of avian snacking. The miserable kinked hose was retired, hose menders and bronze ends salvaged and a newer hose placed on the rack. 

During all these tasks, traipsing back and forth across the yard and pasture I noticed more chores to be tackled. The multiflora rose is reddening and already pushing new growth; my mattock should be brought out of the toolshed for grubbing the tenacious roots. Checking and repairing portable chicken coops is the first step to getting the free ranging , landscape scratching hens out of the yard. Garden cart and wagon tires need to be be retubed and reinflated, orchard trimmings need to be cleared and late spring pruning needs to be completed. Before the sheep are turned out to pasture, I will teach the lambs to avoid the electric fence, trim hooves and worm when necessary. 

Even when I get overwhemed by the length of my ever expanding to do list,my routine is never boring.

Managing the early spring pasture

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Our Belties spend the winter outside in my sacrifice pasture, with access to run in shelters and close enough to the barn to fill the heated trough. Through the winter I move the location of the round bale feeder to spread out the waste hay and manure. Later in the season this well fenced pasture will be where the lambs learn about electric pulses, where rambunctious animals are pastured when I am away from the farm and where the bull will visit Blair. In an effort to limit the damage casued by heavy hooves and insatiable mouths on spring pasture I set temporary posts in the ground last fall.  With warmer temperatures predicted I unrolled the electric twine today closing off the lower section of the barn pasture. Once hay feeding is done and the water fowl pens are moved I will spread out the remaining hay litter and see what comes up.

5:30 barn check

No lambs in the barn when I pointed the dim flashlight into the ewes' pen. The short walk back from the barn was peaceful. The morning sky was lightening and the waning cresent moon showed its slightly reddish dark side, Earthshine.

I learned from www.science.nasa.gov:"Leonardo Da Vinci explained the phenomenon nearly 500 years ago. He realized that both Earth and the Moon reflect sunlight. But when the Sun sets anywhere on the Earth-facining side of the Moon (this happens every 29.5 Earth-days) the landscape remains lit -- illuminated by sunlight reflected from our own planet. Astronomers call it Earthshine. It's also known as the Moon's "ashen glow" or "the old Moon in the New Moon's arms."

Reasearchers also note that northern spring is the best time to see the Moon's ashen glow; perfect timing for lambing barn checks.


Finagle's corollary to Murphy's Law

Anything that can go wrong, will-at the worst possible moment.

"Anything that can go wrong, will"---In January a trough full of ice slipped and fell on my toe. After three, painful weeks of ice, elevation, Buddy taping and wearing oversized Crocs an x-ray revealed a nasty fracture.

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"at the worst possible moment"---One week before lambing is expected to start I had surgery to repair the fracture. My pinned toe is encased in gauze dressing and protected by a stiff soled walking boot. Crutches for support and instructions to only touch down with my heel  limits my usefulness in the barn. Hopefully the ewes will wait until later in March, so my kind family and friends do not need to act as midwives.

A break in the weather

With yesterday's warming (and sleet and rain and mist) running  water returned to the barn hydrant.

To avoid sore feet or twisted legs, I will keep the pregant girls, the ewes and Gretel, in the barn. The ram and wethers will stay have access to the barnyard, but not the field with Murphy, the donkey and the Belties. With warming on the way and mud in my future, I will get a round bale out to the cows today.

The new batch of round bales are heavier and mostly Timothy. The larger bales last alot longer limiting skid steer traffic and during the coldest temperatures and the last weeks of pregnancies,when nutritional needs are high, my animals benefit.

Arctic Blast

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The last week has found us in the clutches of bitter temperatures. When the temperatures dip into the single digits my barn water hydrant freezes and the frozen waterfowl troughs become too heavy to dump. Fortunately the hydrant in the boat barn is reliable and uphill from the heated field trough so draining the hose after use is easy. Until the duck and goose "ponds" melt a bit, the fowl must be content with buckets of water drawn from the cow and donkey trough. I placed the round bale of hay closer to the hill to provide northly protection from the wind.With the Katahdins and Gretel nearing the end of their pregnancies, I have changed my management practices. Gretel's earliest due date is in the middle of February.  She overnights in the goat pen to avoid excess jostling and eats her portion of grain without competition. During the day she roams the barnyard for exercise, eats hay from the round bale feeder and lies in the sun. The ewes now overnight in a paddock fashioned at the bottom of the barn with two pen specific gates and two panels from the trailer pen.The ewes have two 8' troughs set up along the back wall of the barn for their portion of grain. With 16' of trough there is plenty of room for all the ewes to eat without competition.  A much distressed Burgess now beds down and eats with the wedding wethers. During the coldest nights I keet the sheep and goats closed in the bottom of the barn.  I set up the 4 hurdles as a moveable chute for guiding the ewes and goat away from the bins of grain and out to the paddock. In spite of the frigid temperatures I keep the sheltered door open during the day to welcome in the sun. 

Becoming a shepherd is a humbling endeavor. It requires that I observe the sheep, looking for clues to conditions I often do not know exist. For example, I noticed that the yearlings' bellies were rounding, but missed that their condition score was dropping until I ran my hand along their bumpy spines. According to the advice of my books I had planned on starting to feed grain during the last week of January but, experience would have told me to start a week or two earlier. As LHF grows, so will our handling facilities.  With more secure fenced fields I will be able separate the yearlings for later breeding dates, to avoid stressing their growing bodies with early first lambings. As my flock grows, staggered lambing dates will also allow me to use the pens that I have without overcrowding. My winter reading list reflects my deficiencies as a shepherd.  I have been reading about nutrition and the types of hay best suited to the needs of the sheep, hoping that I will know what to look for when looking at a field ready to be cut and a round bale offered for sale. At a workshop sponsored by Fertrell's I paid particular attention to the talk about feeding small grains to rumninants. I have also been reading about lambing and watching youtube videos to refamiliarize myself with lambing-normal and troubled. Hopefuly when faced with an unexpected problem I will be able to manage and add another "thing" I notice as I tend my sheep.