Watching the ewes


It is in the last few weeks of gestation that lambs do most of their growing. By watching the sheep for changes in behavior, I can sometimes ward off lambing complications.

So when I go out to check the ewe flock, what am I looking for?

  • First thing I do when I leave the house is to listen. Generally the sheep are quiet; if the sheep are noisy, I need to find out what has them upset.
  • As I approach the flock I look at it as a whole. I want to see that all the girls are near to each other. Stragglers may be sick or out of sorts. If the stragglers do not join the flock as I approach, I need to get closer to check for signs of discomfort.
  • I count the sheep to make sure no ewe has wandered away.
  • I observe the ewes' ears. Katahdin ears usually stick out to the side and move to better hear my approach. Drooping ears can be a sign of illness or pain.
  • When the sheep stand first thing in the morning, I like to see them give a big stretch, almost like a cat, which signals good health.
  • When I can get a hand on the girls, I wiggle my fingers through their hair feeling for prominent bones. Too much bone and a ewe needs more feed.
  • I watch the back ends of my ewes. When the ewes are lying down, I check for early signs of prolapse. I look at the girls' udders to make sure they are filling evenly. I also watch for any discharge that can be a sign of impending labor.
  • Before lambing, hollows sometimes appear in front of some ewes' hipbones.
  • Feeling for signs of labor I check the fullness of udders and the loosness of the ligaments at the top of the tail head. 

With less than two weeks until lambing, I check the flock a few times during the day and once after dark. Next week I will start the late night and early morning barn checks.



Maude is one of our original Katahdin ewes. She has given us 6 lambs and raised 8, accepting a set of 8 day old twins when their mother died. This is her fifth breeding season and I believe she is bred. She is calm and very maternal, "un-weaning" lambs as they move through our summer grazing paddocks. Last year, a day before her own lamb arrived, Maude tried to "steal" new lambs from their mothers-herding the lambs into a corner and pushing the actual mothers away. Until I moved Maude  and her equally maternal flockmate Mab, into their own pen, the usually quiet flock was unsettled-ewes running in circles and lambs crying for their mothers.

A ewe that steals lambs puts her own soon-to-arrive lambs in danger by feeding the first milk, colostrum, to another lamb, leaving her own lambs at risk. Without the nutrient dense, antibody rich colostrum, a lamb's survival rate is decreased.

This year I am keeping an eye out for overly maternal behaviors and will pen Maude or Mab with a companion before the flock is upset.


Cream Legbars




3 week old Cream Legbars

3 week old Cream Legbars

Into the coop brooder under heat lamps.

Into the coop brooder under heat lamps.

Last year a neighbor told me of his new-to-his-coop breed of auto-sexing chickens. These birds are not sex-linked, a first generation hybrid of two separate chicken breeds, but a breed of chickens that produced visually sexable birds. 

An auto sexing breed of chickens is a practical addition to a small farm that wants to breed their own flock replacements. 

  • After they are fully feathered roosters can be separated from the pullets and fed a grower feed for earlier processing. 
  • Juvenile roosters are easier to manage as a group, away from the pullets and mature roosters. When I select the next generation of roosters from the juvenile group, it won't be the more aggressive, could-stand-up-to-the-mature-rooster-in-the-flock boy that makes the cut.

Recently imported from the UK, we will be breeding our Jill Rees Cream Legbars for productivity, hardiness and mothering ability. That the Cream Legbars lay pastel eggs and have a wild pompadour sprouting from the top of their heads is just a bonus.


Lamb shanks

From a 2010 NPR article
If someone asked you what part of the lamb the shank comes from, you'd probably guess right: It's the lower part of the leg, from the knee down. The kneeward part is the meaty part; there's practically nothing as you get toward the hoof. As in any animal, the most-used muscles are the toughest ones. 

In spite of being "one of the toughest cuts," shanks can be the centerpiece of a simply seasoned braise. Quickly seared in a hot pan, then braised (cook slowly in liquid in a lidded pot) at a low temperature, it takes very little effort to bring a richly flavored meal to the table. When the meat is cooked, I usually remove it from the pot and cook down the braising liquid to make an easy sauce to top the meat.

Keeping track of lambs


Last year I started using colored lamb ear tags. With color coding, I was able to keep track of sire, and that a lamb was a single, twin or triplet. From afar, I was able to compare Burgess' lambs (blue sire tag) and Duncan's (purple sire tag). Early on I did not worry if a lamb with a lime ear tag was a bit small, after all it was a triplet.

In the past,ewes and their lambs were marked with one (single), two (twin) or three (triplet) lines to quantify the type of birth. This year I will paint the dam's ear tag number to their lambs' backs to aid in quick, from-across-the-barn assessments. This will be helpful early on when lambs can get separated from their ewes and later in the spring when they are first out on pasture.



Ground lamb

Grilled lamb burgers with crumbled goat cheese

Grilled lamb burgers with crumbled goat cheese

Growing up we did not eat lamb so learning to cook the lamb we raise, beyond chops or a leg roast, has been a learning experience.

I have discovered that in all the recipes I have attempted, ground lamb can replace all or part of the ground beef. As I experiment with Middle Eastern, North African and Greek recipes, their spice blends compliment the delicate lamb flavor. As much as I like my mother's old family "Meat Mixture"  recipe for stuffing a pumpkin, substituting ground lamb for her choice of ground beef balances the earthy pumpkin flavor. Since family lore says that it is an old recipe, I wonder if beef was a modern concession over lamb, mutton or a mixture of different meats.

For those accustomed to cooking with imported lamb from Australia,New Zealand or feedlot fattened meat, our grassfed meat is leaner and to my taste, milder. 

If you want to try lamb in a recipe of your own, give me a call.  

Time for Murphy to move in with the rams


As lambing season approaches, I make changes in  the pasture/barn set up to keep the ever widening ewes safe and comfortable. 

Murphy's protection is important, especially when the flock is moves across our fields during the grazing season. Murphy moves his flock around with a stomp or head swing in response to perceived and real threats. Now that the ewes are a little slower, I want to limit rushing around the round bale feeder and narrow spaces in the barnyard.

After some "how-do-you-do" head butting, the rams and Murphy have settled down.





Boat barn to sheep barn

The Boat Barn sits across the drive, behind and a little to the right of the Barn.

The Boat Barn sits across the drive, behind and a little to the right of the Barn.

The Boat Barn stores our assortment of homemade,wooden boats and farm equipment. With its access to the North Field and physical separation from the Barn Field, it is a great location for overwintering the vacationing rams,weaning lambs from their ewes,and providing an extra pen for sorted sheep.

Sliding door on the north corner of the Boat Barn

Sliding door on the north corner of the Boat Barn

A sliding barn door works best,especially when piled snow is on the ground and would impede a swinging door. If we need to keep the door closed,the opaque window panel opens,adding ventilation to the pen inside.

The hay feeder and water bucket are accessible from outside the pen.

The hay feeder and water bucket are accessible from outside the pen.

I can add hay and water from outside the pen which is especially important when the rams are unhappily separated from their ewes. The Boat Barn has electricity to keep water in a heated bucket unfrozen, running water,and an easy to clean concrete floor.

High stall walls should keep separated sheep in place.

High stall walls should keep separated sheep in place.

Tucked around the small craft, there is room for some convenient hay storage.

Just for this winter,we pounded posts and wired on temporary fencing for a winter ram paddock. In the spring we will permanently fence the North Field with small grazing paddocks,access to the orchard,and long gates so that big boat can leave on its next cruise.

The Barn


One of my favorite writers, Gene Logsdon wrote  The Sanctuary of the Barn in a recent weekly post. His essay reminded me that I love our barn. It was sited in the hill, barnyard facing the low winter sun  by wise farmers before us. Repaired and renovated, it still serves as a haven for our livestock and us.


Lilac Hill Farm Cassoulet

Cassoulet is a rich, slow cooked bean  dish, traditionally prepared with pork sausages, duck/goose pieces and pork skin.  The combination of the tender meats, creamy beans and caramelized crusty top is very satisfying, especially in winter. Once the dish is assembled and set to slowly bake, it requires little attention.

 A few cooking notes for adjusting this recipe:

  • Since our larder does not always have the exact meats listed in the recipe, I follow the techniques listed in this recipe, but substitute lamb shoulder chops, lamb or pork sausage and our pasture raised chicken and duck legs and thighs.
  • Until our next pig butchering when I will add enough garlic sausage to our cutting order to satisfy our cassoulet cravings , I add garlic to our ground lamb or pork. 
  • I do use rendered duck fat from our birds. Even if we do not raise many ducks this year, I will raise a few especially for the fat.
  • Our cassoulet has more beans and less meat than recommended in the recipe because we really like the beans and my cast iron pot fits fewer pieces of meat neatly on top.

American Pastured Poultry Producers Association

Membership in APPPA is a valuable tool for managing poultry on this farm.

Our flocks are small, but the topics shared on the Yahoo group site, weekly podcast and bi-monthly magazine supply solid information to support planning. APPPA members share their feed costs per bird, seed mixes for side by side pasture trials, and techniques for handling predators and weather variables.

 Let's face it, if you buy chicken or duck from me, you pay a premium for the certified organic grain and the labor of keeping the birds clean and healthy on pasture.Until my customer base increases and I have a more efficiently sized flock, it will be hard to drop prices. That said, I feel an obligation to my customers to make flock management choices that keep my operating costs as low as possible while optimizing poultry health and welfare. Last season, when I decided to try a non-Cornish Cross hybrid, I went to my APPPA Grit magazine to compare the data on the different meat bird breeds when selecting a hatchery. 

The discussions about all those labels (organic, certified organic, transitional organic, soy-free, GMO-free, conventional, humanely-raised, locally raised, heritage breeds, Cornish Cross, Red Rangers, to name only some topics customers are interested in) is open and respectful. The conversations about choosing breed, feed and management style is balanced with realistic business planning.

If you are considering buying your poultry from a smaller producer, now is a good time to contact a farmer since many farms are finalizing their production and pricing schedules. Most small farmers that I know are interested in what you are hoping to buy.

Here's a few things you might want to ask your farmer:

  • what kind of feed to you use and why?
  • where do you source your feed and chicks?
  • if the poultry is raised pasture pens, what is the square footage per bird in the pen?
  • if the poultry is day ranged, how often are the paddocks moved?
  • what options do you the customer,have in the cutting order,packaging and pick up schedule

The time you invest in finding a small poultry producer will have a very delicious return.





Flocking Behavior

Our sheep are content the the company of other sheep. Each sheep is aware of the actions of their flock mates.

Our sheep are content the the company of other sheep. Each sheep is aware of the actions of their flock mates.

Some ewes stay closest to their pasture buddies.

Some ewes stay closest to their pasture buddies.

I use the natural flocking behavior of our sheep to move them around the farm. With only 26 ewes I can move the flock into the barnyard, across the road to the Hill Field and between pastures without the assistance of a herding dog. 

Once a sheep, usually one that is most curious and friendly, starts moving towards me in the field, the others follow. To complete the move I circle around the back of the flock, forcing the stragglers towards the rest of the group.




Jamaican Jerk Lamb Chops w/ Sweet Yam Mash

From Kate Krukowski Gooding's SIMPLE GOURMET LAMB

From Kate Krukowski Gooding's SIMPLE GOURMET LAMB

I needed a cold day meal with spicing that did not resemble holiday fare and could be assembled with ingredients in the house. Of course, we didn't have everything in the ingredients list so I made the following changes-

  • the 2 yams were replaced with 3 sweet potatoes
  • we didn't have Scotch bonnet peppers so I opened a can of jalapeno peppers instead
  • after scraping the marinade off the chops (I used shoulder chops) and searing the chops, I added the marinade to the cast iron skillet, covered the pan and put it into a 300' oven for about 45 minutes 

The combination of warm spices, ginger and hot peppers was perfect. 



WHy I don't sell eggs but keep hens


I like barnyard hens.

I like the sounds they make as they scratch the ground in search of tasty tidbits; I appreciate how a couple of chickens in a pen can clear a garden bed and prepare the soil for seeds; and I like how they turn kitchen scraps and barn floor gleanings into friable compost for topdressing my plants. I love watching a broody hen set, protect and teach a clutch of chicks too.

We all like to eat eggs. Thanks to our kitchen waste and hoop house weedings our hens lay beautiful eggs with orange yolks, even in the winter.As much as I would like to share the bounty with customers, I don't regularly sell eggs. To produce eggs on our small scale is an expensive, labor intensive project. I do not want to raise enough hens to achieve an efficient economy of scale , nor do I want to subsidize egg sales by underpricing each dozen.

So why are eggs an expensive farmyard enterprise?

  • Farmyard hatched chicks don't usually produce eggs until they are about 6 months old-eating plenty of feed and requiring daily care before they produce one egg.
  • Ready-to-lay hybrid pullets are worth the $7  I spend annually for each, but concerns about disease brought onto the farm and their clipped beaks keep them in the relatively protected garden run and coop.
  • Feed is expensive. I could change to something cheaper but the feed I buy is grown and blended locally, certified organic and my birds thrive. I have not found a reasonable alternative to fix what is not broken.
  • Like eggs available in much of the world, my eggs are not refrigerated. Refrigerating and washing fresh eggs is customary in the USA. Managing two sets of eggs adds complexity to the pantry and refrigerator. That said, I do refrigerate eggs for sale when we have plenty on the home shelf.

This winter's flock, 10 hens and two roosters, seems to be the ideal overwintering flock; the size is a manageable balance of labor and eggs. The biggest challenge to this balance is that first statement in this post, "I like barnyard hens." The lure of breeding my own Australorps and Easter-eggers, not to mention the Cream Legbars peeking out of the hatchery catalog is fierce. 

Although I am not always able, I might have an extra dozen if you stop by.




Setting the calendar w/ A Pipestone Sheep Management Wheel


For me, now is the time of year for blocking out the calendar. 2016 will be the first year we try an accelerated, three times in two years, breeding schedule for the Katahdin flock. With a turn of the Pipestone wheel I can discover if my list of "wants" is even possible.

So as I combine family and farm, what's on the list of "wants"?

  • no lambing in Jan/Feb
  • November lambing to catch the 2017 Easter (4/16) market
  • flexible blocks of family time in June and late fall

I am not sure how the flock will respond to an accelerated schedule, but using the wheel, I will set dates for moving the rams in and out of the breeding flock to keep the bitterest months lamb-free and our family time intact.

New Year's Pork and Sauerkraut

On low heat, I rendered a bit of the trimmed fat in a cast iron Dutch oven.

On low heat, I rendered a bit of the trimmed fat in a cast iron Dutch oven.

After removing the trimmed pieces, I turned up the heat and browned all sides of the pork roast.

After removing the trimmed pieces, I turned up the heat and browned all sides of the pork roast.

After browning, I covered the pot and put it into a 250' oven for about 2 hours; added the sauerkraut and covered the pot for another hour and a half; and pulled apart the meat for serving.

After browning, I covered the pot and put it into a 250' oven for about 2 hours; added the sauerkraut and covered the pot for another hour and a half; and pulled apart the meat for serving.

We served the pork with mashed potatoes, a spinach (from the hoop house garden) salad, a bottle of red wine and the last of the Holiday sangria.

Notes to self: when loading the pork into the freezer from the butcher shop-label a pork roast to reserve it for New Year's dinner. Ask friends with the pork and sauerkraut New Year's tradition what kind of farm-made sausage could be added to our first of the year feast. When the cabbage comes into the root cellar, make sauerkraut.

Slow cooked pork roast

Yesterday morning we took the chickens to the butcher shop. Because we like to have some of the whole birds vacuum bagged, pick up is delayed until late afternoon. After a day of errand running, returning to a delicious meal, not chicken, is soothing.

I have slow cooked pork roast in the past; yesterday I followed Shannon Hayes' recommendations for a slow cook pork roast. I rubbed the thawed roast with a slurry of olive oil, half a head of garlic, salt and pepper. I placed the roast into the slow cooker , topped it with a sprig of rosemary and set the cooker on low. I did not add any liquid to the pot. During the cooking process, some of the fats melted and mixed with juices of the roast. At the table yesterday evening, I served the sliced roast with a small bowl of the strained liquid from the bottom of the crockpot. Without my usual tomato puree, wine or cider added as a braising liquid, the flavor of our pork was the star. Delicious.

Mid-August Pig Tractor update

The good news--  The moveable pig pen is effective, the pigs are ripping apart the briars. Everyday I move the pen forward 16' and leave behind tilled ground. Depending on the weather, I refill the water tote from our cistern and move it uphill from the pen. The feeder holds 350# of feed but at this point I only add 150#s at a time.

The not so good news--  The pen is on a slope so those pigs can take a running start and jump out of the pen. The pigs do not wander far and they come to me, especially when I shake the scoop with corn. Last night we set a swine panel over the top of the pen to prevent jumping.

The figuring it out news-- The rooting action of the pigs leaves craters in the field. I need to smooth out the rutted swath left by the pigs. Whatever method I come up with, I want it to follow closely behind the pigs so I can plant soon after the porcine disturbance; I need to manage it with my small skidsteer or Farmall Cub tractor; and I should not add considerably to the time spent managing the pigs and pasture.

Moveable pig pen, AKA the pig tractor

All the animals on the farm must do more than fill our freezer and grace our table. Beyond eggs,meat and broth,the chickens turn table scraps and pulled weeds in the compost pile, tend the next generation of poultry, and scratch and fertilize sparse pastures. The ewes and lambs repeated rotations through fields and orchard improve the quality of our pastures while filling freezers with delicious grass fed meat. Like the birds and sheep,the pigs must work for the farm. Last year's pigs lived behind two strands of electric fence in the woods that border the orchard. I increased the size of the paddock over the course of the summer and this spring sowed a pasture grass mix into the almost bare ground. Later this summer the sheep will graze in the improved woodland pasture thanks to those busy pigs' snouts.

In addition to providing meat and lard for the table,this year's pigs have a formidable task: to renovate the Hill Field,a worn briar patch of a pasture,across the road from a plug for a fence energizer and a yard hydrant for water. With profit margins close for small farm raised meat,the pigs management system must be efficient as well as effective.

Applying the knowledge we have gleaned from our moveable chicken pens,outfitting with built in feeders and improved water systems,a pig tractor seemed the sensible choice.

When planning our pig tractor,we knew the pen would have to be heavy to keep the pigs from lifting it,yet light enough for an old Subaru or small skidsteer to pull it across uneven ground;provide shelter;support our feeder (which holds 300lbs of feed) and  the gravity fed nipple waterers;and have a gate for easy access. Since we like pork and plan on raising pigs for years to come,the pen must be durable and house pigs of all sizes.

Our pig tractor is 8'x 16',set on 16' skids,with a metal roofed,rough-cut lumber sided shelter at one end. The short side, opposite the shelter, has two gates. Adding two heavy 4' x4' posts across the pen, supports the feeder we built last year and braces the frame to limit racking when we pull the pig tractor. Metal cables on each short side permits pulling from both directions

This is the gate end. The shelter end cables attach on the top of the cross piece.

The pigs are happy this first 48 hours of the pig tractor "experiment". We have successfully moved the pen three feet and will add the two nipple water founts on the weekend.