Sunday, December 7, 2014

Ty checks out the Icelandic ewes at Litengård - Little Farm

There's a new guy in town - a black ram lamb by the name of Ty that we're leasing for the breeding season. 

Last year our three Icelandic ewes were accidentally bred by an overwintering castrated ram.  

{Yes indeed, castrated.  If you've ever seen an intact ram with his fuzzy boys hanging down nearly to his ankles, you would not mistake an intact ram for a castrated ram lamb.  The boys we had last year were definitely castrated. Apparently someone had something retained that was still functioning despite the lack of physical evidence}

The flock was so surreptitious about the whole thing that I never did see anyone breeding or suspect any of my girls were pregnant. 

Until late April when we sheared them and realized with a shock they were all imminently due

This year we were going to be a lot more intentional about the whole thing. 

Unfortunately, we don't own an Icelandic ram yet.  So finding one was the biggest challenge. 

Icelandic ewes checking out a new ram

I contacted all of the local Icelandic breeders that I could find and nobody was interested in leasing us a ram.  This struck me as odd, since in the alpaca world that I am much more familiar with, leasing a herdsire is a very easy task.  

I was about to give up in frustration when I located an Icelandic group on Facebook and less than a day after posting my request, Papa Bear and I were meeting some very nice folks in the parking lot of a hotel in DeForest, WI and moving Ty from their dog kennel to ours. 

On Sunday we put him in with our girls, after first removing all of the ewe lambs from the paddock. 

two sheep, one dog kennel

Our biggest two lambs went to market {if you're anywhere between Madison, WI and Minneapolis, WI, we will gladly deliver your order for a whole lamb! Contact us on our Facebook page} and two went into a temporary holding pen until all the breeding is done.  

Li'l Liza

These ewe lambs are so small we don't want them bred by the ram. I'm also hoping that by separating them and holding them in a smaller pen, I will be able to tame them up a bit.  

These lambs are wild, wild wild!  I can't even get near them to give them the treats that the older ewes enjoy.  In a smaller space, I can give them good things to eat and sit with them until they learn not to be so terribly skittish.  I can also give them extra hay that they won't have to compete for against the bigger animals. 

But back to Ty and the ewes. 

Since our ewes bred in secret last year, I was curious to see what this sheep dating business would entail.  

There was a lot of sniffing and licking (not licking each other, just a lot of tongue flicking out of the mouth), lots of tail wagging, and occasionally Ty would lift one stiff front leg up in front of his body at a ewe. 

He also displayed the upper lip curl, a behavior known as "flehmen response," which is one of his ways to check for a ewes receptivity. 

Ty displays the Flehmen response

I saw him attempt to breed a couple of times, but it seemed he was too short compared to the height of the ewe to, um, reach the goal...  

I've been assured by an experienced breeder that the ewes will assist him in "Tying one on" when they are ready. 


So I left them to their little huddle and went on with my chores.  

Icelandic ewes huddle with a new ram

I've learned that in sheep their estrus cycle is approximately 17 days, and she will be receptive to the ram for only about 24-36 hours during the peak of her estrus cycle.  So she should come until heat every 16-17 days until she is bred.  British long wool breeds tend to be short-day, seasonal breeders, coming into heat in Oct./Nov.  

Unlike alpacas, which are induced ovulators and can become pregnant any time of the year (which is why you must run your males separately unless you are trying to have your females bred). 

alpacas are unconcerned with the sheepnanigans going on around them

The alpacas were not one wit concerned about what the sheep were doing, either.  

Which I find fascinating.  The ewes knew Ty was a sheep and was a ram and were extremely interested in him, whereas the alpacas knew he was not an alpaca and could not care less what he was doing.  How do they know?  Sight? Smell?  Sound?  Pheremones? 

I suppose I will never know.  

But what I do know is that next spring when we shear the ewes in late April, if we see filling udders and wide bellies, we will rejoice in the knowledge that they did indeed successfully "Ty" one on and soon we'll have Icelandic lambs bounding across the green pastures.

Cheers - 
Gypsy Farmgirl writes about sheepish dating routines

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

baby Blue Slate turkey poult

I'm wild about turkeys.

And I'm wild about wild turkeys.

I'm not so wild about wild turkey, however.  Although they have a nice picture on their label.

wild turkeys at the Little Farm

Last year we watched (from afar, wild turkeys have dang good eyesight and hearing) a family of turkeys that would often cross our hay fields grazing for insects.  We watched the babies get bigger and bigger all season.

I wondered what happened to all of them over the winter, but this spring we began seeing them on our fields again.

{Happy dance!}

the tom struts, the hens ignore

Despite rumors to the contrary, perhaps instigated by their broad-breasted domestic cousins we've engineered to suit our Thanksgiving plates, turkeys are not stupid.  In fact, they are one of the smartest wild birds in North America.

I have been raising turkeys - both heritage and commercial breeds - for three years now, and I don't think any turkeys are stupid - commercial, heritage or wild.

Perhaps turkeys in general get their bad reputation from the fact that domestic turkeys are raised mostly in confinement operations with tens of thousands of turkeys to a pole building, where they do not get to express many of their natural turkey tendencies.

{The turkeyness of the turkey, to paraphrase Joel Salatin}

young slate turkeys explore the yard

A bird raised completely indoors, without any parents or older flock mates around to teach them anything, probably does have an intellectual disadvantage compared to those raised in more natural settings.

My turkeys, raised on pasture from the time they come out of the brooders, are very smart indeed.  Even the domestic Broad-Breasted Whites that I raised last year did exceedingly well on our pastures.

Turkeys will not stand outside in the rain, look up and drown.  Not even the Broad-Breasted Whites. Nor will they choose to stay out in the rain if they have a shelter to go into.

Turkeys are incredibly social.  Mine are even more social and playful than my chickens.  They remember which leg pocket I keep my gardening gloves in, and like to play games of "keep away" after snatching them out of my pocket and taking off across the paddock.

blue slate turkey on my head

I had a couple Blue Slate turkey hens that even liked to sit on my head or take naps in my lap.  They all readily take food treats out of my hands.

Turkeys are calmer as youngsters and show far less flightiness than chickens when I put my hands into the brooder, although they are more cautious than chicks when it come to exploring new items in their environment like treats they have not seen before.

Turkeys are seasonal breeders and egg layers which means they do not lay eggs year-round like chickens, probably because they have been raised more for meat production than egg production.  Laying chicken hens have been raised for generations to lay more and more eggs.

A tom turkey will not just jump on a hen like a rooster will with a chicken.  He does a lot of strutting, and when the hen is ready, she sits down.  He walks up and down her back for awhile, which helps get her ready.  Finally, she lifts her tail, he maneuvers his around hers, and they touch cloacas (called a "cloacal kiss").  It is a rather remarkable feat, if you ever get the chance to see it (there's a lot of it around this farm in the spring!).

Amazingly, a turkey hen can hold sperm from one mating up to a month, releasing a little bit with each egg.  Talk about preserving the harvest!

turkey poult hatching

A turkey egg takes 28 days to hatch.  Except mine usually start hatching on day 25 for some reason.  Chicken eggs usually take only 21 days to hatch.

A turkey baby is called a "poult," not a chick.  They are hatched with downy fuzz just like a chicken.  Poults, like chicks, have an egg tooth that they use to break out of their shell.  The egg tooth falls off soon after they hatch.

When hatching, first they "pip" a hole near the large end of the egg, then they "zip" a line of holes around the end of the egg.  Finally, they push the egg shell pieces apart.  This process can take 24 hours or longer.

{Pipping and zipping pics can be found here}

A turkey poult has a completely different vocabulary of peeps and trills than a chicken.  I was instantly captivated the first time I heard a poult peeping. I still am, every time.

{crazy turkey lady}

peep, Peep, PEEP! goes the turkey poult

It starts low and quiet, then escalates as it rises - peep, PeeP, PEEP!

My little poults like to pretend someone is in trouble or has flown out of the brooder by peeping loudly, non-stop until someone goes down to check on them.

As soon as you step into their room, they are instantly quiet.  Nothing amiss.

shhhh... mama's here!

I suspect as soon as you leave the room, they all start peep-giggling at you for falling for their trick.


Despite not being raised around their mothers (we've tried unsuccessfully to let some of our broody turkey hens hatch their own eggs and will keep on trying until we have successful hatches), our poults have shown a surprising number of instinctual behaviors like dust bathing at four days old, strutting (despite not having any tail feathers yet) at a week old, and trying to fly by running fast and flapping wildly from nearly the day they are hatched.

even baby turkeys strut their stuff!

They can fly out of their brooders by 2 weeks of age, which necessitates adding a screen cover to avoid having to go rescue them all day and night.

If ever we hook up a camera in the barn, I will watch the "turkey channel" all day long.  In the meantime, I will have to visit the brooder, the barn and the paddock to watch my little poults grow up into the beautiful birds that will grace many local Thanksgiving tables.

"How can you send your birds to market?" I often get asked.

Indeed, the day after the turkeys go to market is one of the saddest days on our farm.  The paddock seems empty and lifeless after the chatter and commotion of turkeys all summer long.

Sweetgrass flock at Litengård - Little Farm

But the answer is simple - for every bird we raise and sell, one less turkey is purchased from Costco or Malwart - and one less turkey spent its entire life in a pole building, suffocating from ammonia and trampled by its thousands of companions.

By raising meat animals to sell to conscientious consumers, we reduce the amount of animal suffering.  And that, for me, is worth the pain of losing my beloved birds every fall.

Happy Thanksgiving -
Gypsy Farmgirl loves turkeys

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Oakley poses for the group of boys across the way

After a long summer of being separated by nearly a quarter of a mile, the large group of boys moved up to their winter paddock this weekend, which means that Oakley in the girls' paddock can now see the other boys.

Boo stares at Oakley, wishing for a closer view

This has made for some very interesting non-verbal interactions between the two groups.

Lots of raised-tail stances, even some hippity-hoppity moves.

Oakley - herdsire at Litengård

{Did you know that intact male alpacas fight for dominance by trying to bite each others cajones?}

Luckily {unluckily?} for Boo, his have already been removed.

The boys stare at Oakely

For now we'll leave the groups as they are, since Oakley gets along well with the girls and having him removed from the boys group means less fighting.


Sorry chum, you're staying put.

Cheers -
Gypsy Farmgirl observes her male alpacas standoff

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sweetgrass tom enjoying the natural light in his turkey townhouse

I get absolutely giddy when we are able to reuse a structure on the property that has long gone unused and forgotten.

Like the cheep shed, which is now our primary winter housing for all of our chickens and rabbits. And occasionally also used for lambing jugs and shearing holding pens.

Sheep waiting to be shorn in the Cheep Shed

For the last two years we've housed our heritage breeding flock of turkeys in the cheep shed with our chickens.  But I wanted a new space for the turkeys this year.

Not because they don't get along with the chickens - they cohabited just fine last year.  The problem arises in the spring when the turkeys start to lay eggs.

Although I provided several large plastic dog kennels as nest boxes for the turkeys, they preferred to use the chicken nest boxes.

Jenny our Blue Slate turkey hen using the chicken nest boxes

This seemed dangerous to me, as they sometimes got stuck, and sometimes more than one hen tried to share a box together!

They also ended up breaking quite a few eggs in the process.


So this year I wanted a separate place for my turkeys.

There was this very old, old chicken coop on the property, a building the former owners had used before they built the cheep shed.

turkey townhouse before renovation
The glass windows were long gone and the screen windows were falling off.

gaping window on the turkey townhouse

Last spring a mama skunk had burrowed underneath it and given birth.

It had quite a bit of junk inside of it and weeds over the rooftop on the outside.

old nest boxes inside the turkey townhouse

junk and a trunk in the turkey townhouse

The sills were rotting and there were holes in the walls and roof.

rotting window sills on the turkey townhouse

The door had fallen off its hinges, allowing easy access for raccoons (and sometimes my laying hens).

views of the turkey townhouse before renovations

coming unhinged

pullet eggs amidst the junk in the turkey townhouse

But I only saw the potential.  I knew it could work, especially given my hubby's skills with a saw and screwdriver.

Papa Bear renovates the turkey townhouse while Gypsy looks on

Papa Bear working on the turkey townhouse

So while I worked on mucking out the cheep shed, I left Papa Bear to fix the townhouse.

mucking out the cheep shed

As expected, Papa did a smashing job on the renovation, including building the turkeys a roost and installing polycarbonate greenhouse windows which let in some of the sun's heat while blocking the winter winds.

Of course there was the usual supervision from Gypsy and Karma.

Gypsy's "please play fetch" eyes are nearly irrisistable

Karma checks out progress on the turkey townhouse

Then, before we had quite finished, Winter blew in with a vengeance, with temps below freezing day and night, the past few days suffering wind chills below zero.

winter arrives but the turkey townhouse is nearly complete

Normally we wait until the end of November to take our critters off the fields, but there was no time to delay this year.


So last Friday afternoon as the light waned I found myself out in the lower hayfield herding our small group of Sweetgrass turkeys into a catch pen and loading them up in a kennel in the ATV trailer, hauling them up to their new home.

Sweetgrass hen roosts in the turkey townhouse

It may not be the Ritz Carlton, but compare to the wide open spaces and bitter winds of the hayfield, I'd say it's downright cozy inside.

Cheers -
Gypsy Farmgirl shows her turkey townhouse renovation

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Sweetgrass flock at Litengård

The saddest day of the year arrived yesterday, the day I transported the majority of our turkeys to the processor in order to supply Thanksgiving tables all around our area with the healthiest, happiest turkey on the planet.

I dread this day above all others - even more than I dread picking up hay bales.

It's not so much that I dread the physical effort, although in hindsight, I should have been dreading this as well, but rather, because I adore these birds.

For the ones I get from the hatchery, this year the Broad-Breasted Bronze and White, I have been there since they arrived at the farm as day old balls of fluff in the middle of June, five months ago.

a tale of two turkeys

For our Sweetgrass turkeys, I have been there since the day I collected the eggs from my hens and placed them into an incubator in Feb., counting out the days until the first eggs pipped and hatched at the end of March, 8 1/2 months ago.

For these past eight months I have spent every day caring for them, watering them, feeding them, moving them, being endlessly entertained by them.

I have been awed by their beauty, and giggled over their games of chase and keep-away.

I have talked to them and they have gobbled to me.

beautiful Sweetgrass heritage turkey hen

In short, I have loved them.

Every. Single. Day.

Sweetgrass toms at Litengård

So yesterday arrived with much trepidation.  Not only is it an emotional day for me, but also I was nervous because this was the first time I'd be transporting them via a livestock trailer (previously my numbers were so small I could do it via dog kennels in the back of the XUV).

I picked up the trailer the day before, and had no trouble getting it out to the end of the hay field where the Sweetgrass turkey paddock was, even doing a fine job of backing it up to the paddock.  It would be ready for loading first thing in the morning.

Unfortunately, overnight we received 1.5 inches of slick, wet snow.

snow in the Sweetgrass paddock

So yesterday morning, I swallowed my nerves and headed out to the hayfield, remembering to turn off the fence charger before heading down.

I opened a gap in the paddock, making the two ends of the fence into a little funnel right up to the trailer.  With the back of the trailer open, the funnel led right into the trailer.

Sweetgrass flock checking out the livestock trailer

I had no idea if the Sweetgrass turkeys would move up the funnel or be afraid of it (turkeys can be very cautious of something new) but they all were curious and moved right up the funnel.  With some very very slow herding pressure from behind, one by one they all jumped into the trailer.

Well, all except for one Jake who snuck down the outside of the trailer between the fence.

I got the net and caught him and loaded him by hand.

Sweetgrass flock loading onto the trailer

Half of my work was done for the day, and it wasn't even 10:00am!


Cocoapelli watches the turkeys load up

After firing up the truck (a GMC XUV with 4WD) I inched my way forward up a slight incline, hearing the wheels spin and slip a little.

Uh oh, this was the easy part of the journey - by far the steepest part was getting up off the lower hayfield.

I made it up the little rise and gathered speed as the truck descended down the hayfield, giving it as much gas as I felt it could handle.

We made the rise at the top end of the field and the sharp turn up off the hayfield onto the grass field road running below the cheep shed, and I continued along the field road towards the last turn.

Cranking the wheel for the last turn, I felt my anxiety spike as the truck refused to obey, continuing straight into the next hayfield and completely missing the turn.

off the lower hayfield, only to get stuck on another field

By the time the truck turned we were 20' off the field road.

And stuck.

Spinning tires turned slick snow into even slicker ice and mud - I wasn't going anywhere.

Time to call in Plan B.

I tromped to the house in my 20 pounds of Carhartt insulated barn clothes and called my closest neighbor, the one who often cuts hay for us.  They always seem to have a lot of large equipment around, and I was praying they could pull me up the last 40' to the dry pavement of my driveway.

"No problem," my neighbor assured me, he'd be home in 90 minutes.  I checked the clock and estimated a noon arrival, giving me plenty of time to load the remaining turkeys and get on the road for the processor by 2:00pm.

In the meantime I did all the other afternoon and evening chores that I would need to do before leaving for the many hours it would take to get to the processor and back home again.

12:30 came and went.

I kept myself busy.

Somehow I managed to wriggle the truck and trailer off the hayfield back onto the field road, but I was still stuck there.

stuck on the field road in 1" of snow

I realized by original plan of driving the trailer up next to the paddock of Broad-Breasted turkeys would not be feasible given the slick conditions of the snowy hayfields, so I made a "Plan B" for getting my broad-breasted turkeys onto the trailer - I would make a laneway out of my extra net fences leading from their paddock down to the trailer on the driveway.

The fences were extra heavy, given that they had been laying on the ground and covered in wet snow when I picked them up, showering the back of my neck with cold water.

But eventually I had them both set, and beautiful little lane leading right down to the driveway.

{Hard to see them in this photo but there are 2 net fences blending into the snow}

laneway to the broad-breasted bronze paddock

1:30 came and went.

I fed and moved the rabbits, switched out their frozen water bottles, checked on the chickens and sheep.

I spent some time hanging out in the Broad-Breasted turkey paddock, soaking in my last sights and sounds of the flock.

broad-breasted turkey hen from a flock at Litengård

2:00 came and went.  I decided to call again.  He was nearly on his way he said.

At 2:30 he arrived with his 4WD truck and a chain.  It didn't take long to realize we still weren't going anywhere.

"I'll be right back," he assured me, then slipped and slid his way off the hayfield and disappeared.

I entertained myself by checking my Facebook and Instagram feeds, and when I next looked up, a GINORMOUS tractor loomed into my sight.

GINORMOUS tractor pulling us off the field road

In less than two minutes the monster and pulled us up the remaining field road onto hard pavement.

I tried sending my rescuer off with some frozen chickens as a thank-you, but all he said was, "That's what good neighbors are for."

It was now 3:00pm, time to load the broad-breasted turkeys.

I pulled the trailer up the driveway and parked it next to the laneway.  After opening the back door of the trailer I realized the turkeys would be able to duck under the door, so I took the ATV and got 3 bales of hay to stack along the back side of the door and prevent any escapes.

laneway, trailer, hay bales, what could go wrong?

It was time to open the paddock.

The turkeys headed down the laneway just as I had planned.

herding turkeys


Until they got a couple feet from the driveway.

Apparently, pavement is scary, because they would not BUDGE from their position, even with pressure from me behind them.

And then as if on cue, half of the flock attempted to fly over the netting and escape.

Because they are so big, they didn't quite make it over the net, but did hit the netting hard enough to tumble over it anyway.


Now I had several turkeys in the laneway, and even more outside of it.

The thing about herds and flocks is, in general, they desire to stick together.  That's why if one sheep or one alpaca escapes, I never panic, since they will always hang around the paddock where their mates are.

The same goes for turkeys.  The ones on the outside followed along as I led the others back up the laneway and back into their paddock, then herded them over to their night shelter which consists of a shade shelter with a livestock panel on each end, which we shut them into at night.

Once I got the inside group contained, I opened the paddock and herded the others inside, eventually getting them into the shelter as well.

Now the real fun began, as I could not attempt to herd them down the laneway again, I would have to catch each one individually and bring it to the trailer by hand.

could you lift this tom by yourself?

After lifting two nearly-forty-pounder toms I realized I would not have the strength to carry them one-by-one all the way from the shelter to the trailer, so I went and found the wagon and grabbed the biggest dog kennel we had, and caught and transported them two-by-two.

I was utterly exhausted when the last one went safely into the trailer.

By now it was after 4:00pm.  I rushed inside to quick shower and change (I was thoroughly drenched from the exertion of hauling the turkeys), feed the dog, count the cats and if all present (they were), shut them inside the house for the night, then grab a couple of water buckets (in case we got stranded on bad roads on the way there) and head out.

By 4:30 I was on the road, only 2.5 hours past my desired departure time.

Thankfully, the rest of the night was uneventful and the roads that I feared would be slick and snowy were clear and dry.

The friendly folks at the processor even offered to back my trailer up into the loading area for me.

The turkeys herded off the trailer with much less effort than they had required getting on.

The trailer was returned to its owner only slightly muddier than when it left.

Today I ache so badly I almost cannot move.  After morning chores (which consisted of emptying and refilling every single water bucket which had frozen into 4" thick sheets of ice) I had to take a 2-hour nap.

Now that the difficult physical parts of the turkey tale are over, I will have the time and space to grieve the loss of my turkeys, as I do every year at this time.

I will remind myself that another new batch of turkeys will hatch in the spring, starting the cycle all over again.

But the nearly empty paddock will seem lifeless despite the remaining inhabitants - five remaining Sweetgrass turkeys (my breeding flock), and the boys, all of which will be coming up off the hayfield this weekend and settling into their winter paddocks.

And of course there are still the sheep and lambs, the girls, the laying hens, meat rabbits and the Velveteens.

My daily chores and care giving tasks will help me take my mind off of the loss, and will also remind me of a greeting card I once read, the wisdom of children always surprising me:

I once asked a four
year old what the
secret of life was.
"Feed the kitties," she said, "Feed the kitties."
— Ellis Felker

Blessings -
Gypsy Farmgirl loads turkeys for transport

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