I love that my forever-farm came with so much open acreage that I can run livestock on pasture. Approximately 12 acres of pasture out behind the farmhouse, and maybe 3-4 acres surrounding the house itself. The pasture, in tandem with investment in electric net-fencing and solar chargers, has opened the door to new opportunities for Runamuk. I’m using chickens and sheep to improve the condition of the soil here, and creating superior food-products by allowing my animals choice grazing all season. It’s everything that farming should be, and I am loving every minute.
For a good 12 or 15 years now, I’ve been keeping chickens. I like them; chickens are fun and interesting creatures. They’re curious, and sociable, and they can be surprisingly clever at times. Having eggs when honey is scarce has been a key strategy in keeping my farm afloat; eggs are a household staple and are always in demand. Produced on a diet of organic and fermented grains, and rotated on pasture, mine are high-quality eggs, and I’m damned proud of them.
The chicken tractors I designed and constructed last year have held up well. The A-frame roosts inside a hoop-house style coop allows roosting space for about 50 birds, with nesting boxes on the sides, and wheels on the back. Using my utility dolly I can roll the structure across the field fairly easily. Before going out on pasture this season, the chicken tractors are each getting some minor modifications.
The lightweight standard blue tarps I’d used last year hadn’t held up very well, and the chicken wire covering my hoop-coops pierced the material in so many places that by the end of last season the tarps were, essentially, perforated. This season I’ve invested in a pair of heavy duty tarps in white, with the thought that the white will reflect heat from the sun better and keep the ladies a little cooler when they’re out there on pasture all summer.
I also made some modifications to the nesting boxes. I removed the pink material (whatever it is!) I’d initially repurposed for the side-walls of my nesting boxes, and replaced it with plywood. Onto the roofs of the nesting boxes, I’d originally planned to install hinges, yet due to the design of my hoop-coops, trying to affix the tarp so that the wind could not take it was “awkward”. Screwing a long strip of plywood to anchor the tarp to the roof of the nesting box, and then using anvil clamps to keep the roof of the nesting box in place, solved both the wind-issue and the hinge-problem at the same time. I have a tarp that isn’t going anywhere unless I want it to, and nesting boxes that keeps eggs in place, allowing for collection of eggs with relative ease.
In order to get the sheep out of the hoop-shed where they’d spent the winter, I had to first construct a shelter they could use out on the pasture this summer. I wanted it to be moveable─like the chicken tractors─but also rugged enough to stand up to the sheep, who sometimes like to rub against and lay against the walls of their shed.
In the barn I found a few landscape timbers that had been left behind by the former owners of my farm, and opted to use 2 of them for skids. I started much the same way as I had with the chicken tractors: by making a bottom frame 5 feet wide by 8 feet long, with the rear wall inset 9 inches to allow for wheels. Then I used 2x3s for the framing and created a salt-box style structure.
“Mill-felt” is a material that’s fairly common in this area, having once served as the conveyor belt in one or another of our local paper mills. I happened to have been blessed with several large swaths of this stuff, left behind by the former owners. I’ve used it for smothering new garden plots, keeping drafts out of the chicken coop, and now the sheep tractor. It’s a bit of a PIA to cut, and heavy as all hell to work with (especially when wet!), but I really like it for certain purposes. And so, I cut it to fit the shape of the structure, and tacked it onto the sides as my walls.
The roof is made of sheathing plywood that I’ve painted fairly generously. I even embellished the structure with my farm name.
I’m pretty pleased with how the sheep shed turned out. It’s heavy enough that the wind can’t take it, rugged enough to stand up to the sheep, and still light enough that I can move the thing with the dolly. Most importantly, so long as I keep the back wall to the west, the structure protects the sheep from the driving winds that come down off Mount Abram, and gives them a place to get out of the sun, as well as any inclement weather.
Finally the time had come to pick up the lamb that I’d reserved back in March! I made the trek on Friday, an hour and a half southwards to Chelsea, Maine, where Olde Haven Farm is located. Pam and Kelby Young have been growing their farm for the last 5 years, and being there and seeing their operation, I couldn’t help but hope I’ll have as much accomplished at Runamuk in 5 years as these folks have done at their farm. 2 large barns (they said 1 was there when they bought the property), 1 greenhouse, 3 high-tunnels, a commercial kitchen attached to a farm-store, 2 other livestock sheds, and they’d cleared about 30 acres to establish the rolling pasture now in existence there.
If you’re looking for commercial-level production, Finnsheep are not for you. These are a smaller breed, with a hanging weight in the range of 45 pounds. It’s some of the best-tasting lamb-meat you’ll ever have, however, and their fleeces are incredibly luxurious. I especially like that Finns are an old-world heritage breed, which has largely retained their natural instincts for mothering. They tend to produce multiple lambs with every pregnancy, and can produce a variety of colors in their fleeces. Olde Haven Farm is one of the top 10 breeders of Finnsheep in America, and after seeing their stock and talking with Pam and Kelby, I can see why. These farmers really know their stuff. Their animals are all premium livestock, and they won’t let any animal go if they don’t have supreme confidence in.
I had a hard time picking out just 2, but Pam and Kelby were patient with me. They took me around to see the Mamas and the Papas to get a better idea what the babies might look like when they grow up. We toured the farm, checking out the high-tunnels, and the back pastures. Much of the infrastructure in existence at Olde Haven is thanks to various NRCS programs that the Youngs have taken advantage of. Kelby strongly advises beginning farmers to develop a relationship with their local NRCS office; he says once you’ve been filing your “Schedule F” with your taxes for 10 years, the opportunities for funding decrease significantly, so he urges you to utilize those programs while you can.
It was a tough choice, but in the end I managed to make my selection: a rugged little ram lamb, and a dainty little ewe─both brown and white marbled in color. You’d think out of all the choices I’d have selected 2 different colored sheep for the sake of variety, but Kelby said this guy was one of their best ram lambs this year, and I could tell just by looking at him that he is strong and healthy, and will sire some beautiful babies in the future. The ewe I chose is a little on the small side, but something about her struck me, and so I brought her home too!
Changing the World
I really enjoy having livestock in my life. It’s rewarding to know that I am providing my critters the kind of existence these animals are meant to have: foraging on green grass under a blue sky. The electric net fencing allows me to move them around the field, so they always have fresh grass and forage available to them. These are some happy and contented animals; they greet me with enthusiasm, asking of my attention and love, and I give it to them wholeheartedly. We’re a team─these animals and I. They may not realize it, but the work they’re doing on the pasture is important to Runamuk’s long-term success─and important for the ecosystem we’re a part of. These critters are changing the world just by doing what critters do, and I am the facilitator─steward of animal, plant, and land at Runamuk Acres.
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