Muntanui Spring 2014
Given that a picture's worth a thousand words and we've had very little time to post anything of late, I thought I'd let this say it all:
Incidentally, that hail storm lasted an hour and it took nearly two days for the deepest patches to melt.
Our 2014 lambing season was the best yet -- poor old Spidey outdid himself. He fathered 14 progeny and we only lost one, so there are 13 of the little darlings running amok and keeping us entertained. They're in incredible shape. It's a very graphic demonstration of the difference good pasture makes to the ewes.
Onwards and upwards! Although I'd just like to say that we are TOTALLY over snow, hail, frost and freezing winds -- and we're only two weeks away from the official start of summer!
Posted by Farmer Nik
R.I.P. Charlie the Sheep
Charlie was the two-year-old wether that we hand-reared after he was abandoned by his mum.
He was one of a pair of twins and his mum only looked after the other one. I found him in the paddock, not even cleaned off by the mother, and I thought he was dead. Then he moved.
I took him inside, rubbed him down and put him in a towel by the fire. Soon after that, he took his first steps in our lounge room. He grew quickly and was soon back outside with Hoover (the other orphan that year). He never lost his familiarity with us and, unfortunately, that was what led to his demise.
Recently, when either of us was feeding the sheep he would become more and more pushy. He would circle our legs, just as he did as a lamb, to get fed. In the last couple of weeks that escalated into butting at us, whether we had food or not. He was becoming dangerous and could have caused serious injury to Niki or me. He had a head like concrete and could not be dissuaded.
Today, I took him into our sheep yards, gave him some sheep nuts to distract him and ended his life. It was quick and he had no idea what was coming. We won't waste his life and he'll be in the freezer by the weekend.
Another lesson we have learned: don't hand-rear male sheep. Or, if you do, don't let them grow past one year.
Posted by Farmer Wan
Butchery 102: The Real Thing
Back in August of last year I wrote about my first experience of butchering the back half of a pig, which had been kindly given to us by a friend in the village.
This year things got a lot more serious on the farm and it was time for us to complete the full cycle of life from birth to death for some of our animals. I had known that this day would come eventually, but it is a hard one to prepare for having no previous experience.
Back in March it became very apparent that we had too many sheep (27 in total). This was after a successful lambing season, on top of the fact that we didn't sell or slaughter any of the previous year's lambs. They were eating us out of house and home (or at least all of our grass down to its roots).
Something had to be done.
The idea had always been to start eating our own meat. We thought it would be our steer (Stew) who would be first in the freezer, but he has a reprieve for another year.
Not knowing the first thing about slaughtering, dressing or butchering livestock I called upon a local farmer (Farmer G) to ask some advice. He offered to come round and assist, an offer I took up straight away. I had completed our sheep yards earlier in the year so Niki and I were able to muster the sheep and separate out one of last year's wethers and return the rest of them to the paddock. I am not embarrassed to say that I thanked the animal for its life. We had been responsible for it from birth through to death.
Warning: Graphic description of slaughter follows
Farmer G and his wife came round on a Friday afternoon and I was all set to go. I had my .22 ready, sharp knives on the bench and plenty of nerves. Farmer G told me what to do and I got on with it. A clean shot to the back of the head at point blank range was enough to down the wether. Next was bleeding it out as soon as possible. This involved cutting the throat, ensuring the jugular was severed. During this there was quite a lot of reflexive movement and it was necessary to hold tight (by the way, there was absolutely no doubt the sheep was already dead).
We then moved the carcass to the shed and began the dressing (skinning and gutting) process. Once we were at this stage, it was much easier to see the animal as future meat, not the same as the sheep that had been walking around only 10 minutes ago. We started cutting the skin at the knees (careful not to cut the tendons which are needed whole for hanging) and worked away (front and back legs). Hoisting the carcass to hang in the shed was an effort even with two of us and I promised myself I would purchase a pulley for next time. Once the carcass was hung it became much easier to separate the skin using a closed fist to punch down between the skin and the brisket. Apparently in abattoirs there used to be the job title of 'left handed brisket puncher' just for this task. Once the skin was removed all the way to the neck, the head was cut off and the head and skin/fleece were removed. I would, in future like to use as much of the animal as possible, but this time I didn't plan to save the skin.
Next was removal of the offal, a task to be carried out carefully to avoid any contamination. All of the stomach, intestines, etc. went into a blue plastic bin for later disposal (great for worms). Then there were the heart, lungs and liver. I kept the very healthy looking liver. Niki and I had liver and onions for lunch the next day, it doesn't get any fresher than that. Once the dressing was complete the carcass was wrapped to keep the flies away and left to hang for a few days (being late summer a couple of days was enough, in winter it could easily hang for a week or more). Meanwhile Farmer G's wife was in the kitchen with an emotional Niki. I was exhausted!
Of course, dressing the carcass is only half the job. Unless you are doing a spit roast it's a bit hard to fit a whole sheep into your oven! Luckily one of our near neighbours is a retired butcher and he had already offered to give me a hand turning my sheep into useful cuts of meat. A few days after hanging the carcass he came over to show me what to do. We spent a Sunday afternoon in the shed with a trestle table covered in plastic, a large piece of untreated eucalypt as a chopping board and lots of sharp knives, an axe and a machete. We turned the carcass into 26kg of recognisable cuts of meat - chops, roasts and shanks. I think I'll need a few more goes at it to get better and know what I'm doing, but I now have a grasp of the basics.
I bagged up all the meat, weighed it and, except for a shoulder put it all in the freezer. Niki slow-roasted the shoulder the following week and it was truly delicious. What an amazing experience to have a plate of food in front of you where everything on the plate (4 vegetables and meat) came from our farm - that's why we're here.
Since then I have slaughtered, dressed and butchered a lamb and taken 9 other lambs to the sale yards and sold them for a good price, we sold 2 others to neighbours. We are now back down to 10 ewes, almost manageable for the little grass we have left.
Postscript: After packing and weighing the meat I calculated how much it would have cost to buy the same cuts at the supermarket using a well known supermarket website. The 26kg of meat would have cost me $467 at the supermarket. I could have probably sold the live animal for about $70-80. That tells you something straight away - somebody is getting well paid for meat - and it's not the farmer!
Posted by Farmer Wan
R.I.P. Spidey the Ram
"There's something wrong with Spidey," said Farmer Wan. "I think you'd better come."
That was yesterday afternoon. Only the day before, Friday the 13th, our big blonde cow Bonnie had slipped a calf (miscarried) for the second year in a row. And now, it seemed, Spidey was sick.
"Sick" was an understatement. He was foaming at the mouth and staggering. We could hear an awful gurgling in his abdomen and he was fighting to breathe.
Poison, I thought, but that seemed ludicrous. A few days earlier, we'd moved the sheep into the orchard because it's the only place where we have any decent grass. There were native tree plantings by the fence that I knew were harmless -- coprosmas and flaxes -- and some non-toxic ornamentals bordering the driveway.
We did have have a bit of buttercup in the drainage ditch, but a local sheep farmer had told us the sheep would avoid it. Maybe Spidey wasn't poisoned at all. Maybe it was bloat, or something.
I won't go into the gory details. Suffice it to say that we did everything we could think of while Spidey's condition grew worse. Farmer Wan asked me to call one of the local farmers for advice. I rang five different people but no-one was home. By the time I ran outside again, Spidey was dead.
It took a while for Spidey to grow on me. He wasn't particularly attractive and he was incredibly greedy. But in our first lambing season, we lost a ewe in horrendous weather and one of the other ewes started pining for her. She parked herself in one of the sheep shelters and refused to come out. She didn't eat or drink for three days and for all that time, Spidey stayed in the shelter with her. When she eventually came out, he did too. He remained by her until she started to eat and drink normally again.
I loved him a little bit for that.
Today is Farmer Wan's birthday. He spent this morning burying Spidey and Bonnie's dead calf.
And I loved him even more for that.
There were two small, undigested leaves in Spidey's stomach -- obviously the last things he ate. We took them with us into the orchard to find out what killed him.
We located the culprit down by the fence, a small shrub in amongst the native plantings and partially obscured by a large flax. I'd never noticed it before.
"Rhododendron, maybe?" I said. "But it looks way too small and I'm not sure."
Farmer Wan cut some of it, brought it inside and jumped online.
"Rhododendron minus," he announced.
This is a dwarf rhododendron and the physical description certainly matched what we had. The toxic effects matched too.
Farmer Wan dug it out and then found two others, both partially hidden by flaxes. None of the bushes were over 50cm high and yet they're so incredibly toxic that two little leaves were enough to kill a full-grown ram.
Ironically, the former owner of this place loved rhodos and had planted more than 50 on the bank behind the house. When we bought the property, I invited her to take them away if she wanted them and said that if she didn't, I'd probably rip them out and burn them because they were poisonous. She did take them out and I thought that was the end of it. These other three in the orchards were missed, although it's possible they were planted by someone else further back in the ownership chain and no-one else knew they existed.
So RIP, Spidey. Lambing will be a bit poignant this year and I suspect it's a birthday that poor Farmer Wan will probably want to forget.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Bleat, spray, gloves
Wow . . . two months since the last update. Just confirms what I already knew: we have been busy!
Muntanui is exploding with life at the moment -- baby animals, rampant weeds and the beginnings of what looks like a bumper season of produce. Our trees have been laden with more blossom than we'd ever seen before, we desperately need to cut hay before everything bolts to seed and my vege garden's assuming triffid-like proportions. The mild winter and very wet spring seem to have triggered a massive mast (flowering en masse) in the surrounding beech forest. Our hills are tinged with gold and red -- a palette you'd normally associate more with a New England autumn than an alpine Kiwi spring.
It's an incredible time of year.
If there's one thing we managed to nail properly this year, it was lambing. Waiting until May to let Spidey in with the girls was the best thing we could've done. We had a higher pregnancy rate, more lambs born and the mortality rate was halved. The weather, although very wet, was a great deal warmer than it was last year and we used a paddock with plenty of shelter as the nursery.
We had a no-interference-unless-absolutely-necessary policy this year. It paid off -- no ewes rejected their young'uns, And, to top it all off, Farmer Wan became a dad, delivering two lambs all by his big, soft-hearted self.
If you'd like more of a blow-by-blow account of this year's lambing, including numbers and stats, check out our 2013 Lambing Diary.
We remain committed to converting Muntanui to biodynamics, so on Sunday 17 November we stirred and sprayed our second lot of Preparation 500. We distributed it over a paddock we're re-vegetating (more on that in the next post), with some left over for the orchard.
This time, we managed to get through the entire process without arguing, so we're counting that as a win.
It's way too early yet to know how successful our biodynamic practices are, especially when the conditions generally have been so ideal for rampant growth. The grass in the orchard is the lushest it's ever been and while it's true that we sprayed Prep 500 over it in autumn, it also got the benefit of drift from all the soil amendments we spread back in June. So it remains to be seen but we're very happy to persevere with the process for the foreseeable future.
The vege garden is totally full of plants for the first time since we arrived here and I'm feeling smug about that. Planting it all out was set back by a month because October rained solidly and I couldn't work the saturated soil without risking damage to it. We won't have our own tomatoes for Christmas, but we should have them by late January, which is better than this year, when we didn't get them until May.
The warmer weather means we've had our first wave of visitors and they've willingly donned gloves to help us out, for which we're very grateful. Big thanks to Kim and Jan, who cheerfully assisted with everything from tailing and rubber-ringing the ram lambs to weeding my woefully overgrown knot garden. Thanks also to Big Lil, weeder extraordinaire and best mate of St Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. I'm still not sure how much he had to do with Farmer Wan's sunglasses turning up again but hey, we're very grateful nonetheless.
Last, but not least, this:
Posted by Farmer Nik
Spidey's big day out
Saturday 4 May was set to be the biggest day in Spiderbuilder the Ram’s calendar: we were putting him out to the ewes. Last year’s orgy took place in the middle of April and the lambs were born in the first two weeks of September, during the worst weather of the year. This time, we decided to hold off a few weeks, hoping that the weather would be more settled during lambing and there’d be more pasture growth for the ewes.Natalie, Andreas our neighbour and Charlie, the wether that wasn't
Farmer Wan and a couple of friends had separated Spidey from the flock back in February. They tossed him over the fence into another paddock with last year’s wether lambs for company. After a short period of adjustment, the boys seemed happy to bach it together.
Our Swiss friend, Natalie, was staying with us over Spidey’s big weekend. I’d talked up his previous year’s prowess and she was keen to come with us to watch the show.
Getting Spidey into the ewe paddock was the first challenge. He didn’t seem very interested in checking out the girls, preferring instead to run away from us. He’s not exactly an ovine Mastermind candidate. Or a Rambo (pun intended).
The wethers, by contrast, couldn’t wait to charge into the ewe paddock. Silly, silly us. For some reason, we’d thought that “no testicles” equalled “no interest” -- the bald eunuch in Game of Thrones doesn’t seem to pine for jollies, as an example. It’s obviously different for sheep. The wethers literally ran up over the backs of the startled ewes and began partying like it was 1999.
Spidey eventually sauntered through the gate. I started humming Some Enchanted Evening to encourage him. He sniffed at a couple of disinterested ewes and then noticed what the wethers were up to. He fought them both off for about five minutes before taking a short breather. In this time he managed to do the business with a young ewe, with whom he – it sounds stupid but I swear it’s exactly how it looked – fell in love. He smooched around her, nuzzling her neck, presumably demonstrating that she meant more to him than a one-afternoon stand and he still respected her. It was more embarrassing to watch than the renewed leap-frog attempts by the wethers.
This was not the wildly exciting erotic fiesta we'd promised Natalie and I could see she was growing bored. Farmer Wan suggested playing some Barry White to our love-struck ram to boost his ardour but it was growing cold and there was obviously nothing to see here, folks. We left them all to it.
The next day, Farmer Wan called out that we had a ewe in trouble. Charlie the wether had pestered her so much that in her efforts to escape, she'd got tangled up in some portable electric fencing and ripped out her ear tag. We disentangled her and Farmer Wan dragged her into the yards to give her some peace. Charlie trotted in after her, so Farmer Wan flipped him on his back and started dragging him out. It was then that we saw them -- two bulges that weren't supposed to be there. Charlie, although missing a "purse", is still in possession of its contents -- which totally explained his enthusiasm for the girls. We're hoping that he and the other wether are shooting blanks but there's no real way of telling.
Oh joy. It's going to be another interesting lambing season this year ...
Posted by Farmer Nik
I'm indulging myself and having fun while we play The Wellbeing Game (anyone wanting to join Team Muntanui, follow the link and sign up -- it's very cool!). Enjoy!
Posted by Farmer Nik
Basically, our first experience of lambing was pretty horrendous. We’d sort of prepared: we had supplies of colostrum and milk powder, two feeding bottles with lamb teats, an elastrator with rubber rings and a woolly lamb jacket. As it turned out, those things were vital and we used them all, so yay us. But in other respects – especially where shelter was concerned-- our preparation was woefully inadequate. It didn’t help that the weather was absolutely the worst we’ve experienced here to date: gales, snow and freezing, lashing rain for the better part of ten days.
In a nutshell, ten lambs were born and we lost four, plus a ewe. Two of the lambs were lost because of our inexperience (we didn't get enough colostrum into them after their mum rejected them) and two because of the weather. We lost the ewe because we didn’t have the medication she needed. Oh, the lessons we’ve learned.
We had lambs in our laundry for almost three weeks. Two died, two survived. When we started running out of newspapers and floor-mopping energy, Farmer Wan constructed the LAMBorghini (see pic below) to contain them. It saved a lot of work but it also meant we could no longer hear little hooves clattering around the place, which was kind of a shame.
On the plus side of the affair, the two weeks of lambing coincided exactly with Farmer Wan’s R&R break home. I really don’t think I could’ve managed on my own. We also had a lot of support from our neighbours and friends: spare newspapers and drop-sheets for the laundry floor, extra hot water bottles, two beautifully-built sheep shelters, alternative teats for the bottles, help with feeding the laundry lambs and even some muffins to feed us!
So... with the laundry lambs now roughing it in the great outdoors, we have six little ovines bouncing around the place. Every afternoon between three and four o’clock they go mental, chasing each other around and finding the highest piece of ground as a look-out. I’ve taken some film footage and I’ll try to post it here sometime soon. In the meantime, enjoy the photos. And for the sake of posterity, the full, day-by-day account of our lambing travails can be found here.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Hearts, "Hopalong" and herpes
On the day I discovered the limping ewe, my heart plunged into my boots. Being a diligent heart, it continued to do its job but you could tell that its own heart wasn't really in it. The poor thing had been slowly getting heavier over the previous weeks, weighed down by an assortment of stresses, including an injured back and Farmer Wan's absence.
The ewe didn't look too happy either.
I waited a couple of days to see if she'd come right by herself. Nope. She got worse. I, in turn, got more stressed and bleated long and loudly over the phone to Farmer Wan in Oz. He rang one of the local farmers back here, who then rang me. (If this sounds convoluted, that's because it is. I suck at asking for help, especially from people I don't know.)
"Sheep are the biggest wimps of all farm animals," the farmer told me. "They're the first to let you know when something's wrong with them. Cows are really robust, deer will just drop dead on you without warning, but sheep act as if they're going to cark it for the least little thing."
This was reassuring but it didn't help with my herculean problem, which was how to catch Hopalong and get her into the paddock where the livestock yard is, ready for the vet. Our paddocks are all 1.6 hectares (nearly 4 acres), and the one relevant to this story has manuka scrub on the northern boundary. The sheep are half wild and I, if you recall, have a bad back.
My knight in High Vis and polar fleece appeared in the form of our neighbour, Andreas. He's a strapping young German bloke who gets a kick out of chasing livestock around paddocks and rugby-tackling them to the ground. I saw him in action back in February, when we needed to separate Spiderbuilder the Ram from the rest of the flock. Andreas ran him down, hoisted him up and heaved him over the fence. It was beautiful, I tell you.
So, thanks to Andreas, we got the ewe into a trailer on the back of his 4WD, drove to the other paddock and installed her in the yard. After my sheep wrangler left, I realised I needed to fill the yard's water trough. There was a 25-litre container full of water in the shed. I could put it in the 4WD and drive it up to the yard. Great idea!
I crunched my back so badly lifting the damn thing that for the next five days, I had to get dressed sitting down. I couldn't bend over at all.
By now, I was in so much pain and so strung out generally, that I was half-expecting the vet to have a go at me for not knowing how to care for our sheep's feet. He didn't, of course. He was terrific.
"A bit of advice for the novice farmer," he said. "If you have to yard a sick sheep, always put another one or two in with it. If you leave it alone, it thinks it's the last sheep left in the world and it panics. If you have two or three in together, they keep each other calm and they're easier to work with."
Duh. It was obvious as soon as he said it but I doubt I'd have come to that myself.
He checked Hopalong's teeth, confirmed that she was approaching four years old and then had a look at her foot. He showed me how to compare the feet, then the toes, to isolate where the problem is. One of Hopalong's toes was swollen but there was no obvious cause. The diagnosis was "bad bruising" and he gave her two injections: an antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory. He demonstrated how to clip the hooves. He talked about foot-baths. And then we discussed the need to section off one of the paddocks for lambing.
Farmer Wan came home the following week and, with Andreas and his family helping, built a mighty fine set of sheep yards. Hopalong slowly healed, over about ten days. My heart climbed laboriously back into my chest and my back improved.
"But what about the herpes?" you ask. "That was in the title. What's that got to do with any of this?" To which I reply:
"An episode of shingles, dear friend. The wages of my stress. Very painful and un-fun. I don't recommend it."
So I've decided I need to change the way I view things. We came here to escape a certain type of stress, not to incubate horrible mutations of it while living in a charming alpine setting. I'm in a place that I love, with a life that I've chosen and new experiences that I've invited. It's time to relax a little, rest a little and look forward to the arrival of new life at Muntanui. Lambing's due to commence in the first week of September. Stay tuned!
Posted by Farmer Nik
Who said sheep were dumb?
We're discussing fractals. Go away.
Whoever it was, I’d like to take issue with them because our particular, personal ovines are not dumb as stumps, like they're meant to be. They’re smart -- not quite as smart as our dog but streets ahead of our cat (who, admittedly, isn’t that bright and still has to be shown where her food bowl is).
Clever sheep. Just our luck.
The full extent of their intellectual prowess was only made clear to us recently when we attempted to separate Spiderbuilder the ram** from his girls. This segregation was designed to spare us the thrills of lambing during July blizzards. The problem was, we don’t have any stockyards. Or working dogs. Or experience.
The theory was simple: we’d quietly herd them to a fenceline, walk them around it until we got to the gate and then direct them into a pen fashioned from temporary electric fencing. At this point, the theory got a bit hazy but basically involved Farmer Wan rugby-tackling dear Spiderbuilder to the ground, letting the ewes escape and somehow dragging the ram into the adjoining paddock.
The first attempt started well. Aided by our friend Jan, we managed to get the sheep into the temporary pen. Then they panicked and jumped the fence, with the exception of one ewe who managed to get her head stuck through the mesh.
We decided to change the set-up: different gate, more secure pen. Three more times, we had those animals penned up. Three more times they escaped.
They’re good jumpers, our sheep. They have many talents. They're quite possibly Renaissance Sheep.
The weather turned foul and we postponed the exercise until the next day. Reinforcements came in the form of Jan’s husband, Robbie. The game plan was basically the same – no noise, no fuss, just silent and implacable steering along the fence-line to the gate. (Jan has since dubbed this technique “Tantric mustering”.)
We should’ve succeeded this time but we hadn’t allowed for one vital factor: the sheep had learned from the day before and weren’t having a bar of it. They were happy to trot along the fence-line but at the first sign of the gate, they’d bolt. And bolt again. Seven times they bolted. Finally, with sheep and humans all stressed and panting, we gave up.
The solution: a substantial investment in some portable yarding, due to arrive this coming week. Until then, we have to hope Spiderbuilder exercises some restraint -- doubtful. I can just picture him with his three favourite ewes in the collective afterglow, murmuring with the utmost disdain:
“Who said humans were smart?”
** It's a long story. Don't worry about it.
Posted by Farmer Nik
About Ewan and Niki
Scottish mechanical engineer with a deep and abiding passion for good food. Outstanding cook. Builder of lots of stuff. Cattle whisperer. Connoisseur of beer. A lover rather than a fighter.
Kiwi writer and broadcaster who hates cabbage, even though she knows it's good for her. Chook wrangler. Grower of food and flowers. Maker of fine preserves. Lover of dancing and wine. Definitely a fighter.