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Time for Lambing, Chicks & Turkey Eggs

February went out like a lion and March came in like a lamb—not the normal way of saying this analogy, and we don’t yet know how it is going to finish. While the weather timeline skews early this year, the saying is still most apropos. Lambs will indeed be coming soon, so we are all glad Mother Nature has rewarded us with a wonderful stretch of weather. Thank you, ma’am.

The two-week snowy blur that closed out February rather quickly turned to sunny, dry days, cold at night but warm enough to awaken the soil and kick off the next growing season. Around here, we figure on the grass going from brown to green the first of March but not start growing enough to graze until the first of April. The new little green leaves, tucked safely away under the old brown leaves of last year, swell and elongate with the warmer days. Only when the soil warms sufficiently can the roots and microbes rev up to translocate nutrients with the photosynthetic leaves, and make new ones, which is what’s happening right now. We have to be quite strategic how we manage this new growth for the good of the plants and the good of the animals that depend on them.  

The sheep see the green grass in the field next to them and don’t understand why we are not moving them—that grass looks better to them than the grass in their current field. In reality, there are plenty of green and brown leaves where they are, and they have been quite content until now. They were glad to have hay when the snow was on but went back to turn their noses up at the hay soon after the snow melted. Patience is important here. If we start pasture rotations too early, the sheep eat the leaves from the plants that will feed the roots the energy to grow new leaves, reducing the productive capacity of the plant. If we allow the plants to get a good jump on their grazers, there will be enough leaves for them to thrive and for the sheep to eat all they want. We especially want the pastures around the barn to have that jump and to be clean for lambing season.  

Lambing will start any day now, and I found the first turkey egg yesterday, which is a week early, it seems. 

Lambing Prep

We put the rams with the ewes on Halloween so the ewes will give birth in March. I pushed back that date a little to try to avoid early lambs getting here in February, and I’m really glad I did. 

Walking through the ewe flock each day, we look for early signs of an upcoming birth and delivery. Just before she’s ready to give birth, the ewe’s udder begins to swell and the wool sloughs off around the teat. There is a lot of variability of these structures among individuals, therefore we can easily be fooled as to how close they are to lambing. As the lambs start lining up in the birth canal, the ewe’s belly drops down to allow them to do so, and we know they are close.Then, surprise! A miracle every time. 

All of our animals are kept on pasture nearly 365 days a year. Just after lambing, mothers and their lambs are kept up in the barn for a day or two to be sure bonding and nursing get off on the right foot. Each ewe and lamb unit have their own “jug”—a temporary pen constructed with wooden gates to allow plenty of space for them to move around and allow us to get in to help if needed. Working with them in this smaller space means we don’t have to chase anybody around to catch them if they do need our help. 

By making sure the ewes are on a high plane of nutrition their whole lives, complications are minimized. Yet lambing doesn’t always go perfect. In The Dirty Life, a book Ann is reading, first-generation farmer Kristin Kimball wrote, “Farmers toil. Nature laughs. Farmers weep.” Being unprepared for common eventualities borders on being inhumane. There is nothing glamorous about the gut-wrenching life and death decisions that come to us. While animal husbandry is not always glamorous, engaging with well fed healthy animals as they raise the next generation is rewarding.

This Year’s Turkeys

Turkeys lay eggs only at this time of year. (See a photo at the top.) We gather them and put them into the incubators in batches. We can prepare better for hatching when they hatch in groups. If we added eggs to the incubator each day as they came, it would be harder to manage them all. 

When both incubators are full with the first round of eggs and turkeys are still laying, we collect the eggs for our own enjoyment for a few weeks. Then we go back to collecting eggs for hatching. After a second setting in both incubators, we keep the eggs for ourselves and some to sell to you all until the turkeys stop laying in June or July. 

A seasoned turkey hunter tells me the pointy eggs will be hen chicks and the more rounded ones toms, but when I have tried to sort them, it doesn’t turn out. It would be fun to figure out if there is anything to it.

Broiler Chicks’ New Digs

The first batch of broiler chicks arrived this week and seem to be doing well in our upgraded brooding room. 

We converted an old tobacco-stripping room into a brooding facility about 10 years ago. It was done on a shoestring budget as an upgrade to the outbuilding we were making do with as we got started in the broiler business. 

This winter, we made further improvements to the space, repurposing most of what we dismantled. We added insulation to stabilize daily temperature swings. This new brooder house employs the same radiant heating and multi-stage ventilation systems the big farms use—we just got the smallest systems they make. (See a photo at the top.)

It is the first time in 20-something years I have put day-old chicks in an open-top pen, rather than shrouding them in a plywood box with lights and heaters to keep them warm for a few days. So far, we all like the new way, even though I am still getting used to the idea of them being out in the open of the space, seemingly more vulnerable. 

All of this feels so much better with a little sunshine and the warmer temps this week. March did indeed come in like a lamb. Hopefully we have done our job and the chicks and poults and lambs will come in the same gentle—and healthy—way. With that being said, I am looking forward to the break of spring. —Mac Stone

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