Wahey! Lambing is over and we really are celebrating this one because it did drag on somewhat this year…! We had one ewe who just would not lamb. We waited and we waited. Pete continued to pop up to the shed at midnight every night and Gavin still got up to the shed at 5am every morning to check the old lonely lamber! Needless to say, its tolerable when you are checking 200, even when you are checking 20, but a week of checking just the one and everyone was getting pretty fed up of waiting on ‘Betty’ to give up the little woolly goods..!
When a sheep lambs later than the rest of the flock like this it is because she did not get ‘caught’ by the ram in her first heat cycle, and in fact she must have been the only one to be had at the very, very end of the second heat cycle. I am not sure what was keeping her so occupied in the weeks before this, but she clearly kept old Terry the Texel ram dutifully courting her before the big day..!
Eventually Betty had her lamb, hooray for that, out to the field with them and that is lambing 2021 done and dusted! Hang up the arm length gloves, crack open the beers and let’s crawl out of the dark dusty lambing shed because rumour has it, it’s Spring outside! All joking aside, it was a really great season for us this year, with lots of healthy lambs born and really great results.
At Butterbox Farm we lamb indoors; we have lambed outside previously but in recent years we have chosen to come into the barn to minimise losses from the weather and from foxes and other predators on the farm. Lambing indoors enables us to ensure that the bond between the ewe and her lambs is strong before they are turned out to the field. We can also observe that the lamb has had a good initial feed of colostrum (the first milk feed from mum) when they are born which is crucial in their survival and building strength and immunity in the coming weeks.
So, what does a day in our lambing shed look like? Well, it’s pretty glamorous as I am sure you can imagine, I’ll give you the run down…
Gavin and Pete split the night checks so that the sheep are always closely monitored and this in turn avoids any mismothering. Mismothering can be great fun in the lambing shed – imagine three sheep lamb at the same time, they move around, mix their lambs up and when you arrive bleary eyed at 4am ready to move them into a pen with their lambs it goes a bit like this: “Umm, whose is whose ladies?”
They stare at you blankly.
Just to add to the already riveting 4am fun, sometimes a sheep who has yet to lamb will pinch the lambs from one who has just had hers. This is what some people call a nanny sheep. Pete has lots of other names for these sheep, but I won’t write them here. So, basically for ease of management and to ensure that the right lambs get penned with the right mothers and that everyone gets some milk, we check them regularly, and get them penned early.
The morning routines in the lambing shed begin at half past seven. We feed all the ewes some concentrate; this is the only time on the farm that we feed a supplement and it is to enable them to maintain condition over lambing and to help with milk supply. The rations are calculated dependant on how many lambs each ewe is carrying (we have them scanned prior to lambing), and they are grouped in big pens accordingly – singles, twins, triplets and more…This year we had a ewe who had five; this is quite rare, and not desirable! The ewes get a big handful of our homegrown hay and fresh straw in their pens. Finally, we scrub up and refresh all their water buckets. Once the sheep are fed and watered and any fresh lambs penned then it is time to do the cattle. The Dexters are housed for the Winter and fed our homegrown hay and silage. Each morning and evening they get fresh feed, and every other morning they get fresh straw for bedding. Generally, after this it is coffee break time, but there’s not a lot of time to stand around and drink it so we have the thermos flasks out at this time of year and it’s a cappuccino to go as we head back to the lambing shed.
In the morning someone heads out to check the ewes and lambs who have already been turned out. The ewes have a few weeks supplementary feeding in the fields and as they line up for their feed, we can count them all and count their lambs. This is a great opportunity to observe that everyone is feeding properly, that their udders look healthy and that all the lambs are spritely and well. Back in the lambing shed the individual pens are turned out into a larger pen, by now the ewe is well bonded to her lambs and they can mix again in a larger group before heading out to the field. We can hold them in these indoor pens if the weather is particularly poor or if the lambs are smaller than average and we think that they need a few more days before they head out onto the farm. Throughout the day we are continuously moving freshly born lambs and their mothers into the individual pens.
It seems crazy that a whole year has passed since we were propping our baby William up against a straw bale and he was grabbing wildly at the little lambs and gurgling in glee as they tried to nibble his dribble bib. This year he was a proper little farmer in the making, quickly grasping the routine and proving to be quite the little helper. He soon established that the sheep feed was carefully prepared in buckets with the red plastic scoop. There’s a lot of sheep to feed each morning and evening, a lot of buckets, and just the one scoop…Needless to say, Pete soon grew tired of asking us politely if we knew what William had done with said scoop, but it turned up eventually most days! When we weren’t looking for the scoop, we were hooking sheep pellets out of Williams mouth – “that is NOT food for you!” I despaired. (By the way when I refer to sheep pellets, I do mean the sheep feed, not the other pellets, although he has attempted to eat plenty of those over lambing as well - give me strength!)
What he may have lacked in value feeding the sheep, William certainly made up for when it came to filling their water buckets. Day one in the shed he watched us fill each bucket from the trough. Day two he got stuck in, he grabbed a little pail and began sloshing water out of the trough and into the buckets, it was quite helpful, albeit messy. Day three he was delighted to learn that he could pick the small bucket filled with water up, and he could throw it at various passers-by! Oh, day three was a fun day. Incidentally, there was not a day four, we left each morning before it was time to do the water.
Back at home we have begun landscaping our garden. Those that have visited recently will know that it has not had any lawn on it for a while (we have now got our grass seed on), so we were excited to buy some plants for our patio borders and begin to get a bit of colour in the garden. We are fortunate that although we do not currently have a lawn to look at, we do have a field just beyond our garden fence. And because it is the field just beyond our garden fence, we decided to graze it with some of our rare breed sheep – I am biased, but they are rather pretty. This was seemingly Idyllic, and William really enjoyed having them so close to home. However, apparently the grass IS always greener on the other side, (ironic I know because we have no grass) and we began to have a rogue sheep test the boundary fence between field and garden. First one of our Black Welsh mountain ewes crept in, she delighted in eating my new climbing rose and pruning our new and establishing fruit trees. We shooed her back into the field and patched the fence but the next day she was back (how was she doing this?) and this time she had her two lambs in tow. We decided to move the rare breed gang further afield before she spread the word to the others, and they all decided to dine in our garden before we have even had the chance to do so this Spring!
Following that bit of rain that we had last week we are finally seeing our grass start to grow. The frosty nights have held things up a bit until now, but fingers crossed the grazing season is upon us, and our lawn might catch up too! There are lots of clever and technical ways of measuring grass growth on farms these days. Lots of farms carry out different techniques and use of software to assess when they should be grazing paddocks, for how long and with how many head of cattle. Last year we implemented a particularly modern and new technical approach on the farm to assessing our grass growth and this took the form of Williams off road pushchair. If it goes over the ground easy, hold the cows up, it’s not quite grazing time. When I start to feel a bit of resistance, we know that we are well on the way, another week of sunshine should do the trick. And when the wheels get jammed, and I begin huffing and puffing trying to get that pram across the pasture then Hallelujah its cow time! This week I am starting to struggle with the pushchair and so we are aiming for a turn out before the weekend. We have a few calves to wean before turning out day and we have a few holes in fences to patch before we can open the barn doors and let them loose (those Dexters can fit through some small holes and our fruit trees really would not survive that!), but it’s gearing up to be our favourite week of the year! There is nothing quite like getting the cattle out for the Summer!
This leads me to make an almost sad (bear with) confession about the eldest member of our Dexter herd, dear old Maple! Truth is we have been a bit soft where Maple is concerned. She is our eldest cow, having recently reached twenty years of age, and she has always been a wonderful cow on the farm. She has given us lots of calves and has probably contributed to a lot of our breeding herd that remain here today, growing old alongside her daughters and granddaughters. She was one of the original girls that Pat and John bought down from Yorkshire when they began the Butterbox dexter herd and she has always been a pleasure to have on the farm. A couple of years ago we decided to retire her, she had more than done her bit for us, so we kept her on as a pet cow in the herd, knowing that we wanted her to live out her days here on the farm until she was no longer comfortable. The past few weeks Maple had begun to lack the spirit that we were so used to expecting from her every day. She no longer rushed over to join the other cattle for her silage, preferring to hang back and eat an armful that Gavin would drop next to her instead. She had stopped moving about in the shed and we were beginning to worry that she was in pain or would not be able to hold her own amongst the rest of the herd. It was with heavy hearts that we made the decision to have Maple put to sleep here on the farm. We made the phone call and we felt really low when we finished work that day. The following morning, we went in to feed the cattle and Gavin grabbed a halter from the barn and slipped it over her head. Maple, being one of our oldest show girls and knowing the drill, lifted her head and slowly got up. We wanted to lead her outside, we had a couple of hours left with her and he wanted her last morning on the farm to be spent outside in the field with some sun on her back. Gav led her to the gate and opened it up. She stepped slowly outside and let him lead her over to the grass. Well, Dexters are renowned for a fair bit of attitude, small but feisty, and I can now safely assure you that this does not diminish with age. Maple let out a bellowing roar. She hauled herself free of her halter and made a dash for the driveway gates. I am not sure who was more shocked, Gavin who was tripping over himself trying to shut the gates in the yard, or Maple who it seemed had just remembered she could run after a long Winter in the shed! She bucked, kicked, roared, and charged across our driveway, stopping momentarily to grab a mouthful of grass, hurtling back to the shed to taunt the others and then back across to playfully push and rub against Gav. Nobody said anything for a moment, letting her settle down to cheerfully graze the grass outside the shed, looking quite content with herself and her newfound freedom. Gavin promptly made the ‘thank you, but we will no longer be requiring your services today’ phone call, and it was confirmed that Maple would be seeing out another Summer with us here on the farm! We are all thrilled with our cow with nine lives!
We hope that you are all keeping well and that you are enjoying returning to some normality now that the lockdown restrictions are beginning to lift. We are excited to see lots of you again soon when we do our BBQ boxes this Summer, it will be great to catch up and we will have our Dexters out nearby for you to visit when you come by, please do come and give Maple a pat on the back, she deserves it! We also have a few pet lambs this year that William is bottle rearing and some piglets in the woodland opposite the barn, which he is keen to show off to anyone that will stop to meet them. So, until then, have a great month and we look forward to catching up soon!
Holly, and the team at Butterbox!