Add a gallon of milk to your Fitbit challenge

This weekend I worked out. OK, I worked out(side). But that counts, right?

I don’t own a fitbit. I don’t eat many fruits or vegetables. I really don’t even like to walk between my farm and my parents’ farm…and we are nextdoor – country style – neighbors. But this weekend I rediscovered every single muscle while walking more than 15,000 steps per day. Sidenote: I only know this because my smart phone knows.

Why would I do this? Because we’re having spring lambs out on beautiful, green pastures that are as tall as my waist. So here’s how the workout(side) muscle discovery goes:

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Ear tags aren’t animal fashion accessories – they’re a way to trace our animals back to this farm as a way of protecting public health

My feet ache from wearing too-small, too-old rain boots.

My legs are tired from all the walking, a little running, from trudging through tall grass and uneven ground, and they ache from floating over the electric fence as carefully as possible so as not to be zapped by the current. My thighs and knees hurt from carefully supporting lambs while eartagging each one.

My arms and abs are sore from carrying lambs when it was necessary to match up moms and babies or to bring a lamb into the barn to be a bottle baby. They hurt from carrying the equivalent of a gallon of milk – all the tools we need for eartagging, banding tails and keeping good records inside of a 5-gallon bucket this season (an awkward shape to carry anyway!). They hurt from using pressure to hold down the fence with a shepherd’s crook so my sore legs could more easily cross the hot fence.

Know what feels great? Taking care of animals. Doing my job to the best of my abilities. Being trusted by my parents to handle the responsibilities of three farms while they took time away. It feels amazing to be here on the farm while juggling tasks of my usual work routine, too.

I don’t do yoga, I farm. And that’s enough for me. But if you are into fitness, I recommend adding a gallon of milk to your workout. Either in weight carried around, or drinking it as often as possible for muscle ache recovery and to increase sales for my dairy farmer friends.

 

Grass-fed, Grain-fed…what do these labels mean?

Last night I attended a “Bringing Everyone to the Dinner Table: Understanding Farm to Fork and Today’s Agriculture” event hosted by the Macomb County Farm Bureau (as in, Michigan’s outskirts of Detroit-area).

Michele Payn-Knoper, founder of Cause Matters Corp., Indiana dairy farmer, book author and fellow Michigan State University graduate (see her Spartan Saga here), was the guest speaker. She encouraged the attendees to share the dinner plate when it comes to food and farming topics.

On our farm, we recognize a variety of farming methods are needed to make the community healthy. Small and big farms, organic and “regular” farms, farms that use horsedrawn plows and tractors that use autosteer and GPS, heritage vegetable plots and GMO seeds…the list goes on and on. What we LOVE is to celebrate the choices that we have as American farmers.

Know what those choices mean? Choices in our grocery stores. Heck, choices at the direct on-farm markets and your local downtown farmers markets. The world is not black and white, as much as I would love clear rules. Right now we want things to be green anyway ;)

One more thing that seems to be murky these days, though, are the labels found on foods and other products. Grass-fed, grain-fed…what do these labels mean? Do they matter?

Not to start researching what others already know and have written about, I visited a blog entry from “Mom at the Meat Counter,” written by a mom/farmer/meat scientist/when-does-she-sleep rockstar. Because even though we raise sheep on pasture and our lambs get a “grainola” mixture with most homegrown crops, I know our way isn’t the only way. I’m not always right. (But please don’t tell my dad, OK?)

I always hope to learn from others’ questions. Foodies, I hope you ask a farmer (you’re looking at one) those questions, and farmers, take time to understand those questions. Foodies, you’re our customers and our neighbors. We care about making sure you feel confident in the choices we have. After all, farmers are food customers too!

Balance of food animals and wildlife

We find value in providing wildlife habitat on our farm. We have an appreciation for the natural surroundings and we feel there’s a need for balance between our food animals and local wildlife.

This hunting season, a friend of ours set up a trail camera that captured some awesome sights. It’s a reminder to us that we’re providing more than what meets the everyday eye.

Michigan wildlife

We have a huge variety of animals crashing in the woods on our farm. This doesn’t even show the beef cattle a friend had here this summer and fall.

That said, sometimes we do have to protect our domesticated sheep from being prey. Our electric fences are typically enough to keep predators at bay, but sometimes coyotes will make a wrong, life-changing choice to enter a field. I’m not trying to be funny – this is merely a reality of farming.

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One coyote has threatened our sheep this year.

Trust me when I say that there are plenty of coyotes left in these woods. One simply has to listen on any given night to the sweet eerie sounds of activity. Personally I like that coyotes keep the deer population somewhat in check – less chances for me to have an auto accident. But our sheep are off-limits. Usually.

What to prepare when you’re expecting…lambs

Imagine expecting 450 babies this year. If you’re a veterinarian or a farmer, you know where I am going with this. Here’s the top five things to prepare when you’re expecting…lambs.

MONTHS before the winter lambing season begins, you’re going to want to make hay when the sun shines. Vacation is nice. To save for winter. For farmer meetings, and only a few days at a time so your sheep know they can count on you to come back and feed hay. June, July, August and September in our northern climate are devoted to harvesting hay fields and some straw for homegrown feed and bedding for our ovine dependents. Store this stuff where it’s convenient to where you’re expecting lambs.

It may seem appealing to go on vacation in the summer, but there's nothing better than knowing we're prepared for a long winter and the lambs that will be born.

There’s nothing better than knowing we’re prepared for a long winter and the lambs that will be born on our farm.

Get your record book ready. No, record books aren’t just a task for 4-H youth. Keeping track of your flock records help you continue to make improvements as your business evolves. We’re still handwriting notes on each mom and baby, but I’m hoping to someday have electronic files of each animal.

Order USDA ear tags and elastrator bands (for tails and other dangling pieces you want to manage). The tags are free and the bands cost little from our friends over at Mid-States Wool Growers.

Ear tags aren't animal fashion accessories - they're a way to trace our animals back to this farm as a way of protecting public health.

Ear tags aren’t animal fashion accessories – they’re a way to trace our animals back to this farm as a way of protecting public health.

It also doesn’t hurt to have a heat lamp handy, a few plastic teats with recycled pop/water bottles and a syringe with feeding tube, in the case that you’ll have some “bonus lambs.” Most people would call these bottle lambs or orphan lambs, but I like to think of them as a small bonus. With a little extra effort on the farmer’s part, these lambs have an opportunity to be a youth project or a protein source, just like the others. And on that note, make sure you’re able to source some lamb milk replacer if needed.

Bonus lambs have potential to turn into bonus business.

Bonus lambs have potential to turn into bonus business. Isn’t my mom so cute with them?

Get the barn ready. Be sure you have enough water buckets for mothers and cut enough gates for “lambing jugs” (individual pens for new moms and babies) proportionate to your estimated amount of needed bonding-space. For instance, if we expect 90 ewes to have lambs over 3-4 weeks, 6 pens are what we prepare to be set up as needed. We then transition bonded families to “kindergarten,” where several families mingle but aren’t set free to roam the full playground yet. One other important step to get the barn ready is to shear your sheep. Wool takes up more space than you think and holds on to moisture, so promote the health of your flock by shearing.

There’s plenty more to do, but these items make my top five list. Not baaaaa-d for 450 babies, right?

Sheep shearing timing

We get a lot of questions about shearing our sheep. On our farm we shear ewes (mature females) before they have lambs, rams (mature males) in May with the spring lambing group and lambs at 3-4 months old. The ewes that are shorn in the winter are able to use a barn for shelter. As you can see in a photo from today’s 30 degree temperature, our sheep are still comfortable outdoors during nice weather.

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Shearing promotes the health of ewes and lambs. Their health is improved because the barn is drier, as wool can hold a lot of moisture. Shorn ewes also make nursing easier for lambs because the udder is easy to find. An added benefit is that, if shorn when the ewes come into the barn, wool is kept clean before it’s harvested.

Growing lambs

As we prepare for another season of winter lambs, I can’t help but reflect on my trip to sell healthy, full-grown spring lambs last week. It’s amazing that these animals turn our abundant – otherwise inedible to us – pastures into healthy meat for families like ours. Here’s a comparison of the same lamb when he was newly born to the time he was ready for harvest.

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In just a few months, our lambs grow to be about 120-160 pounds. We can’t keep them all, but we can provide care and attention for each animal on our farm.

Michigan is Auto

My news feed is blowing up with tweets and Facebook posts about the North American International Auto Show (follow #NAIAS for details). It’s remarkable that at a time of social unrest both nationally and internationally, we can come together peacefully to talk about cars. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, maybe because of the media trend, so I wrote a few thoughts down as to why #MichiganIsAuto:

Michigan is Auto because we believe. We believe in the power of innovation and technique. We believe that despite the downturn of economies, the act of wars and the hardships of weather, we will remain strong. We believe in creating products that meet customer needs, we believe our history helps us improve and we believe in working together to achieve our visions of greatness. Michigan is Auto because we use the strengths of individuals to believe in something bigger than ourselves.

So what does this all have to do with our farm? Henry Ford also wanted to make the work of small farmers easier with mass-produced tractors. So thankful for visionaries like that guy!