Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Baby Time Returns

It's a gloomy, soggy way to end February today.  I'm kind of surprised there are not ducks swimming in the backyard today, as there is enough standing water there (and I've seen them do it before!).  But grey days like this always seem a bit cheerier when there are babies about, and we've gotten the spring baby season underway!


Nutmeg was the first mama of the year, and she had this healthy ram lamb.  Her twin sister, Rosa had the most recent lamb, this one a girl.


 For some reason, even though they are twin sisters, and both black themselves, Nutmeg virtually always has white lambs, and Rosa's are almost always colorful.  Never all black, quite a few have had white on their head like this girl.  She even had a speckled brown and white lamb one year!  Baby lambs are just about the most adorable  things you'll ever see.  Once they get steady on their feet, they jump and twirl around their mamas in the lambing pens.  (We keep them inside for the first week or two to watch both mama and baby for any health issues, and to keep the lambs out of the cold or wet weather.)

And it's not just the sheep who are multiplying around here, we also have baby rabbits!  Murphette had a litter yesterday.  They are snug and warm in the nest she made from hay and her own fur.  I knew the big day had come when I saw the fluff moving ever so slightly inside her pen.  It's not quite picture time for the bunnies yet...they are born with their eyes closed and are nearly bald, so we'll wait a week or two for their photo shoot! 

We're also beginning to save chicken eggs to set in the incubator this week.  We'll set the eggs at the end of the week, and three weeks later we anticipate chicks! Our Bourbon Red tom turkeys are gobbling and strutting pretty much continuously now, and the hens are starting to pay attention, so turkey breeding season is upon us as well.  I expect to begin getting eggs from the turkeys in 2 weeks or so, and the poults will hatch four weeks later.  The geese are squawking and fighting now as well, but we'll let them make their own nests and hatch the goslings.  Experience has taught us that it is very hard to hatch the goose eggs in the incubator successfully because of the high humidity requirements, so we'll just let nature take its course.

We've got the sprout house completed, and back up fluorescent lighting in the house for the seedlings  in case of cold or gloomy weather.  We've already got flats of tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, eggplant, and a wide variety of herbs planted, and I will be starting more flats of other veggies next week.  We also started dismantling the large greenhouse frames yesterday.  I am so excited to set up our new one!  The old greenhouses were a bit of an eyesore, so I'm happy to get them down at last and recycle the frames into a new 65' growing space for earlier tomatoes, peppers and such.  Between babies and seedlings, it is really starting to feel like spring is here!


Baby Season Again

It's a spring thaw here at the farm!  Although it's a great change of pace not having to break chunks of ice from all the water buckets, the packed snow has become so slippery that it's pretty much a matter of when, not if, I land on my rear while doing chores.  The best I can hope for is that it's not on a big cow pie!  


As I mentioned last time, we have babies!


Here's Char's pile of piglets- there are 8 total, 6 mostly black like mama and two of the blue butt coloration like Wilbur.


and here's double trouble...Rosa's twin ewe lambs, who are already beginning to bounce around and play!


It's somewhere between snow and mud outside, but luckily for me I have lots to do here inside!  The Farm to Table conference in Pittsburgh ( is coming up March 25 & 26.  It's official that I'll be presenting at 2:30 PM on Saturday, so I've been polishing up my presentation as well as putting together a Powerpoint full of pictures of the animals to show as well.  I'll also have a table in the exhibit hall, so I'm inventorying what products I can take to sell, putting together some signs with information and photos of the farm, and prepping to be part of the Friday evening food tasting as well.  While it is work, I enjoy this kind of stuff and I'm really excited. If you attend this conference, be sure to stop by the Pleasant Valley Farm table and say hi!


Thinking Spring

Despite the fact that it's still bone-chillingly cold here, there are signs of spring on the way.  Perhaps that groundhog was on to something!  The days are steadily getting longer, giving us a slightly longer window of time to get evening chores done without flashlights.  I have been hearing many more wild birds calling from the trees, and while I haven't seen a robin yet, I doubt it will be too much longer now.  Our mail ordered seeds are steadily arriving in the mailbox, which make me anxious for the ground to thaw.  At the end of the year, I'm ready for the end of the garden season; it's a welcome break from weeding, planting, harvesting, and canning/drying/storing.   At this point of winter, though, I long for something fresh and green.  I miss planting, harvesting, eating, canning, and yes, even weeding. Of course, in my mind the new garden will have less weeds, less bugs, and more produce than ever before.  (Reality has yet to set in!)  But I do miss it and I look forward to the time when at least I can get the indoor seedlings started (tomatoes, peppers, and such).  I'm trying to get better at it each year, because there are just so many more interesting varieties possible when you don't need to rely on what the local garden centers are carrying!  I also try to get more comfortable with working the horses each year, so I'm looking forward to using some machinery this spring that I haven't in the past.  (Check out to see photos of Dan & I, our horses, and equipment!)

The last sure sign of spring around here is, of course, farm babies.  I've mentioned the heartbreak of the ones we lost, and there is nothing to do now but move on.  We noticed that another one of our ewes, Nutmeg, seemed to be very close, and even though it's a week or so early for her, we put her in the barn.  A healthy lamb greeted us this morning as we did chores.  I'll check on her soon to  make sure all is well and to see if there are two babies, as she normally has twins.  



Hope & Heartbreak

First of all, I want to say thanks to everyone who took the time to read about my sick sheep and send warm thoughts, kind words, and suggestions on how to help her.  It was truly appreciated.  Sheepie survived.  She appears to have made a total recovery; no more wobbliness, a healthy appetite and is alert and attentive.  Despite my earlier predictions, she is no longer skittish around me and happily comes over for a treat from my hand whenever I'm near her pen in the barn.  Here are a few photos I took of her at feeding time two nights ago.



looking for a handout! 

Looking for a handout (yes, she's actually licking my hand!)


However, there is sad news; she went into labor this morning. We assumed that it wouldn't be good, since it's earlier than we expected.  For us, lambing season begins in mid to late February, not the end of January.  She had two big, beautiful twins; both were born dead and required our assistance.  This was my first time assisting a sheep in labor. Sheepie was a good patient, I just wish it could have been a happier ending.  It is always sad to have a pregnancy end badly for any of the animals, but it does happen. In this case, we know what went wrong, which makes it a bit easier.  We did all we could and I know this. I just remind myself that it could have been much worse, because if we would have lost the ewe, we definitely would have lost the babies too.  We saved her, and she will be able to have lambs again.  Her mother, Pansy, was productive well into her teens.  Sheepie is just 2 years old, so that's a lot of life and many more lambs (we hope) ahead of her.


The Hard Part

When I was five years old, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. I believe that was my first serious thought about what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had an idea that playing with puppies & kitties all day would be the best job ever. As I got a bit older, I realized that vets deal far more often with sick animals, involving blood & guts & surgery and that not every animal was going to get better; some would die. That seemed too much to bear, so I moved onto something else (at 6 I wanted to be a paleontologist, since by definition studying dinosaurs meant they couldn't die on you!) It's a bit ironic now that I do spend a good bit of time as an amateur veterinarian, now that I am a “grown up.”

I have immense respect for vets, but find that we do most of our own care here. The nearest office is 20 or so miles away, and farm calls are not cheap, so it's pretty much a financial necessity to have the knowledge to be able to do your own worming, vaccinations, foot care and other routine stuff. The supplies for all this kind of medical care and more is available at our local farm supply stores. It's harder when it comes to animals actually getting sick, but again, if you can pinpoint the cause, you can generally get the products to do the care yourself.  

A few days ago, Dan noticed a sheep all by itself in the pasture. He went to check on it, thinking maybe it had somehow got tangled in the fence or something, but it was just standing there. He chased her (very slowly) back to the rest of the flock in the barnyard. When I went to do evening chores, I looked for her and found her by the creek, staring off into space and not really responding to anything going on, even me approaching her. She's normally shy and flighty, so this was a sure sign that something was very wrong. After finishing up the birds' care for the evening, I went inside and consulted the various veterinary manuals- all seemed to point to the same thing, ketosis, or twin-lamb disease. This happens when a ewe is carrying twins or triplets and doesn't get enough carbs in her diet to support her rapidly growing babies and her own body. We feed a bit of grain to the sheep this time of year for that reason, but the sick one is shy and easily chased off by some of the older ewes. This is her second pregnancy, and although she had a single lamb last year it's very possible she's carrying two for the first time. This disorder also seems to be set off in some instances by changes in feeding schedule (nope) moving the flock (nope), or sudden changes in weather (a big yes- the day she got sick was COLD, with highs only in the teens and a sub-zero wind chill. It would drop to -18 that night.) Although I would have had a hard time describing her symptoms, descriptive words from the manuals included “dopey” and “generally slow” which pretty much hit the nail on the head. Symptoms can quickly proceed to blindness, paralysis, coma and death. As many as 80% of affected animals don't survive, according to one of the books.

Dan and I moved her into the small pen in the barn. Although she might not make it, leaving her outside would surely mean death. Since I didn't have any propylene glycol, the recommended treatment, I used the old-time trick of feeding her molasses. I also made sure to try and get her to drink, since dehydration will worsen the situation. Not being one of the tame favorites of the flock, she didn't have a name, so I started greeting her as "Sheepie" when I entered the pen.  In the morning I found a store carrying the glycol, got it, and began her on the dosage proscribed in the book.  Since then, she's been pretty touch and go. I still am not confidant she'll live, which is the hardest part. (I've debated for days about blogging this, as it's so likely to have an unhappy ending.) I make Dan go into the barn in the morning and then tell me that she's alive before I go inside with fresh water and her medicine- in these kind of situations they always seem to lose their fight during the night. When she seems to be going downhill, it can be hard for me not to cry while I'm trying to get some nourishment into her. When she seems marginally better, it's hard not to get my hopes up too high. I'm never sure what is harder, losing something you've been nursing for days or a week, or finding something happened suddenly, like when raccoons get into the coop and kill most of your favorite hens in one night. I tend to take it all personally, as though I am solely responsible for the outcome, even when it's something I couldn't have prevented or the advice I find states that treatment is frequently unsuccessful even under the best of circumstances. Dan reminds me that their lives are ultimately out of our hands, and all we can do is our best.



** It took me a couple of days to publish this, so I thought I'd include an update on Sheepie.  She's still alive and in the pen in the barn.  She's more active every day, including running from me this morning.  (She never was very tame, and now she associates me with an unpleasant attempt to tube feed her.  I doubt she'll be eating snacks from my hand any time soon.)  She's eating hay and drinking water and appears to be regaining strength rapidly at this point.  She does still have some wobbliness; it remains to be seen if this too will disappear or if it's some sort of permanent nerve damage.  Also up in the air is the fate of the lambs.  Will she end up aborting?  Stillborns? Will they be alive, but somehow damaged?  Or happy, healthy lambs?  Only time will tell.  I'm also watching the rest of the ewes like a hawk, I don't want to go through this again. 


Old Horse, New Tricks

Yesterday was a busy day here.  We needed to move around some of the livestock as the trailer from our processor, Hirsch's Meats, was coming to pick up a cow, a couple of pigs, and the first of our spring lambs.  Dan and I had already moved the pigs from their tractor to a pen in the barn, but it was my job to get the sheep and Louie, the cow into the barn.  Louie wasn't hard as he eagerly followed the sound of a scoop full of feed into the barn. Emotionally it was harder than anything else though.  Louie has been here since early January of 2009, when he was just a weanling calf.  He was a character and I'll really miss seeing him, but that is the nature of raising beef.  I try to content myself with knowing I gave him a good and happy life while he was here, and that it was the complete opposite of the lives led by most cows destined for beef who must endure feedlot conditions.

Physically, rounding up the sheep was the most difficult part of the process.  Our sheep have been roaming 20+ acres of pasture all summer.  Being completely self-sufficient makes them much less tame than during the winter when they look to us for food.  They are also usually up in the far reaches of the pasture, so I don't have the daily interaction of feeding them treats.  I figured if I could just get the whole flock into the little paddock by the barn, Dan and I could pick out which lambs we would send.  So I walk off to find my sheep, armed with a small white bucket filled with feed and cookies.  This wasn't part of the usual routine, so the sheep started to run away.  Except Rosa.  She is one of the oldest ewes in the flock and is so tame she is somewhat of a pest at times.  But I was grateful she accepted my offer of snacks and as we began to walk towards the barn, the other sheep began to follow. I got Rosa and one of her twin lambs into the paddock, but the rest of the flock just wouldn't follow.  The more I tried to herd them through the gates, the more agitated they became until all of them ran back into the pasture, including Rosa.  I figured I would let them calm down and try again a bit later.  Later even Rosa ran and wanted no part of my cookies.  I needed to move them, I needed to do it in the next couple of hours, and at that time I was really wishing for a well-trained Border Collie or something that could help me.

I went back to the barn, where the horses were.  In addition to the work horses, Dan and I also have a miniature named Ponyboy (bought as a pet soon after our wedding)  and I have a Morgan mare named Sara.  Sara has been a part of my life for many years now.  She was 6 when I adopted her from a humane society and she is celebrating her 25th birthday tomorrow.  (Yes, that's correct-25 people years!)  Although 25 is retirement age for most horses, Sara hasn't slowed down much at all.  We've only started to train her to work in harness the past few years. She's descended from government-bred calvary horses, some of whom lived well into their 40's and I hope I am that lucky with her.  Giving her new tasks to do or new trails to ride truly seems to keep her young.  So I threw a saddle on my pony, tied a lasso to the horn and headed outside.  I left the barn door open because at this point I didn't care if I caught the sheep in the barn or the paddock.

Now I am no cowboy and Sara is no roping horse.  I didn't really think I would rope a sheep, the lasso was more to wave in the air to scare them in the direction I wanted them to go.  I tied it to the horn because it was raining and I didn't want to have to stop and get off if I dropped it!  Sara hasn't been ridden much at all this year, and like most horses she'd rather not go off by herself leaving her herdmates in the barn.  Plus I'd never herded anything on horseback so she had no idea what we were doing riding around in the rain in the pasture.  I tried to get her to trot, but she wanted to buck every time I got her out of her foot-dragging walk.  Once I got around behind the sheep, we were pointed back towards the barn and she was much happier to get up.  Things were going really well and I was quite proud of our work.  The sheep were thinking about going into the barn, and I figured this would be easy until Ponyboy, who had gotten himself loose, came blasting out of the barn, whinnying and chasing the sheep back into the pasture with glee.  I was so mad!!  I rode into the barn, shut the door and tied Ponyboy up very short. Now the sheep are back out in the pasture (for the 3rd time of the day) and are pretty spooked by all this action.  Sara, by this point, seemed to have grasped the work at hand and was eager to move quickly for me.  We got behind the flock again and pushed them into the barnyard.  They were even down by the gate to the paddock, but this was the tricky part.  Not only were the sheep scattered between a few pieces of machinery, the gates are located near the corner of our workshop building.  As the sheep headed back towards the hog house, Sara and I raced around the backside of the building to cut them off.  They turned, but I couldn't let them get up past the barn either, so back around the shop we would go at nearly full speed.  This happened multiple times.  At this point Sara was really seeming to have fun; she would get impatient when we had to stand for more than a minute or two.  It's like we were playing a game and she had just figured out the rules.  (If this sounds like too much credit to give to a horse's brain power, all I have to say is that you've never met Sara!)  At what seemed like long last, Rosa moved through the gate into the paddock.  She may have remembered the feed I had dumped on the grass earlier as sheep-bait when I was still working on foot.  One by one, then two by two, the rest of the flock followed.  Sara and I ran up to shut the gate and finish the job.  By now, both of us were soaked from the past hour's intermittent rain showers, so we went into the barn where I unsaddled her and gave her a few cookies as a thanks for her cooperation.


 Who says you can't teach an old horse new tricks?!?

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