North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Understanding Sheep

Of all the barnyard critters, sheep seem to be the most easily misunderstood.  Yes, folks will say that goats are liable to eat tin cans (though Linden hasn’t managed this yet…but we haven’t given him a chance either) or that chickens will run around with their heads cut off (we always butcher using confinement cones, which eliminates the running potential), but sheep seem to always get the short end of the appreciation stick.  No, they’re not stupid—they’re just really good at being sheep.

“Silly sheep,” I remember Barbara, one of the hosts during my brief tour of England and Wales, saying to herself as she shook her head at an escaped yearling running along in front of our bus.  It had somehow slipped the fence and was putting every ounce of effort to get back to his friends.  “That’s what the English say about them,” she explained.  “Silly sheep.  Sometimes they climb up so high on the slate shale that they get scared and won’t come down, so they have to be carried off the hill.”

Now, it doesn’t help that sheep (as foragers of grasses and a little grain) find themselves in the lower strata of the hierarchy of predator and prey—where humans and wolves would be at the top.  For sheep, their diet contains very little variation (they like it that way), even though eating and re-chewing what they have already eaten (a slimy substance that is part of the rumination process called “cud”) takes up most of their day.

Being at the bottom of the predator/prey heap means that there are quite a number of other creatures in this world that would be happy to eat sheep.  Even eagles are known to attack lambs, let alone the four-legged hunters.  With so many hungry stalkers everywhere, sheep have learned that the best defense is to flee.  This could mean fleeing from sudden loud noises, the approach of anything unfamiliar, or for other reasons that may escape untrained human perception.  For a sheep, it is better to run and ask questions later.  Last one out is usually the first one caught.  When all else fails, bunch into a tight group and hope you are the one in the middle!

Getting their share of food and staying away from things that are frightening are the two biggest motivators for sheep.  If you find yourself having trouble moving sheep from one area to another, it’s not because the sheep are dumb—it’s because you’re not using the right motivators!  Dash a bit of grain into the trough and in they’ll come.  Use the sheep dog to help herd them in the right direction and they’ll go.

But sometimes there is a conflict of motivators.  When we first started to train our sheep to enter our new dairy parlor to be milked, the ewes were anything but cooperative.  The stanchions are up on a metal grate platform.  On top of the platform was their daily ration of grain (good motivator) but to get there involved climbing onto an apparatus where the sheep could see the ground below (bad motivator—sheep like to be firmly on the ground).  To overcome the bad motivator, we zip-tied cardboard to the bottom and sides of the platform so that the sheep couldn’t see through.  Once they were convinced that the structure was solid and safe after a week or so, we slowly removed the cardboard a piece at a time.  When we started milking this summer, the older ewes taught the younger ladies that all was safe—based on their authoritative experience.  Besides, dinner was in those buckets!

Trying to escape the paddock because the grass is greener on the other side of the fence?  Food motivator!  And, well, can you say that you’ve never desired something you couldn’t have?  To sheep, green grass is better than any chocolate cake with raspberries and ganoche frosting.  It’s simply divine.

The other place where sheep are criticized for being stupid is connected with their fight-or-flight instinct.  When humans take a tumble, our instinct is to put out our hands to break the fall and save our vital organs from a hard impact.  In a way, this makes sense (outer extremities are not as vital as one’s heart or liver) but on the other hand it seems terribly silly given that a shoulder can take a greater hit than a wrist.  Silly humans, why do we stick out our hands and break our wrists when we fall?  We should know better!

For sheep, that moment of panic manifests in bolting forward.  This could be triggered because they pushed their necks under the electric fence for that extra-sweet clump of grass then—pop—as the jolt comes through they charge forward and suddenly find themselves on the other side of the fence.  Oops, that wasn’t supposed to happen. 

Now the rest of the flock is easing away from the fence because the first sheep made a sudden movement and startled them.  Now she is no longer with her group!  She is alone!  She is vulnerable when she is alone!  Something might come out of the woods and eat her!  Can you blame her for being a bit panicked and pacing the fence to find a way back in?  If she touches the fence again, it will bite her.  If she stays where she is, a predator might attack her.  It’s an anxiety-provoking position for anyone.

Sheep do, however, have the propensity for mishaps.  If there is something to get oneself tangled in, trip oneself on, or wedge oneself into, the sheep will find it.  Over the years, we’ve learned to stop and think, “If I were a sheep, could I get stuck or hurt on that?”  With stories of farmers who left round bales of hay in the paddock for their sheep only to find that as they ate the middle the remaining ring of hay collapsed on their wooly friends along with other misadventures, it’s always good to think two steps ahead of the sheep.  With long, knobby legs, it’s easy to get tangled.  Without much depth perception in front (unlike predatory vision, like ours), it’s sometimes hard to judge the true size of any space.

This is true of a time when we were moving a ewe and her lamb from a birthing jug in the south wing of the barn to the center barn with the other ewe and lamb pairs.  Kara was holding the lamb (which the mother usually follows complacently), while I held the pen open.  The ewe wanted to follow her baby, but at the same time she did not want to leave the safety of her jug.  We had her almost to the door when she changed her mind and darted back towards the pen—choosing the most direct route.  This was right between my legs.  I suddenly found myself sprawled over the back of a galloping sheep, legs in the air, arms grasping for any tuft of wool.

“Don’t do that!” Mom yelled as I was carried off and slammed into the sides of the pen.  “I wasn’t trying to,” I moaned as the sheep finally just lay down with me on top.  “The silly sheep must have thought I was taller!”

So next time someone says that sheep are stupid, you can reply that no, they are just really good at being sheep.  Speaking of which, Sweet Pea the miniature sheep and Linden the dwarf goat are down at the Café on pleasant days to greet you!  Maybe they’ll share a few more secrets with you about understanding sheep, if you listen carefully.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

Storm Stories

If you’re tucked back in the woods, sometimes it’s hard to see the weather coming.  If you’re on the lake, you might have a great view of impending clouds (especially if they’re coming your way across the water).  But many people who have visited the farm for longer periods of time realize that our fields offer a unique view of the building and changing of storm clouds.  This is a good thing, since having fair warning of hazardous weather can be quite critical for farming!

Why do farmers always begin by talking about the weather?  Too much wet and you can’t get into the fields to work.  Too much dry and the crops may fail.  Too cold and freak frosts can damage sensitive plants or prolonged bouts stunt tomatoes and peppers.  Too much hot and many plants bolt or animals suffer from heat exhaustion.  Hail and wind can wreak havoc, as well.  The list never ends!

This spring, the weather’s bipolar tendencies have made life quite interesting, to say the least.  Loads of snow, gusty winds, hot and dry, wildfires, soaking rain that lasts for days, chilly dampness, and steamy sunniness all in a month’s time can send farmers like us into a dizzy dance to keep-up.  Open the windows to the chicken coop, then close them again.  Cover the portable shelters for our poultry with tarps, then uncover them.  The sheep dash out to play, then dash in again.  Mild bouts of spotty rain aren’t too much of a concern, but when the weather turns foul, that’s when farmers get worried.

Every farm has storm stories.  Invariably, I’m out in the worst of the fray, trying to save plants and animals from harm, getting drenched and a little bit terrified.  Once everything is safe and secure and I finally make it back indoors…the rain lessens, the thunder ceases, and soon I’m back out opening up the hatches I’d just battened down.  When the clouds change their shapes in springtime to rise puffy as cauliflower heads—that’s when we keep our eyes out for the next storm.

The dark underbelly of the clouds has much to tell about their temperament.  Most times, they float in from a westerly direction, across the long North Field with the rain dragging behind them.  But this spring, nearly all the storms have trailed up from the south, popping over the green ridge of pine trees like a prowling lion in the Sahara grasses.  Often our eyes are glued to the online radar images, watching the progress and growth of storms.  We’ve learned over the years that getting a head start makes a difference for storm preparation.

I remember in the early years of farming for us—before we’d equipped ourselves with headlamps and generators—dashing out in the middle of the night in a storm to quick close down doors and windows in the barn or coop, scooting along the edge of the garage bent near double.  I didn’t want to be the tallest object in the barn yard!  Lightening flashes, and the black-and-white-lit image of the top half of a balsam tree lays like a corpse across the yard, broke clean off its trunk beside the wood shed.  The smell of wet raincoats, mud, and the feel of water between my toes in my sneakers mingles with the tingling in the air from the storm’s power.

Turkeys are especially prone to mishaps in storms.  They gawk at the clouds, facing upwards towards the rain drops.  Without proper precautions, turkeys can literally drown because the rain runs into their nostrils as they look skyward!  So often I find myself with a long stick, herding turkeys inside amidst pelting raindrops.  Last summer, the rushing gust of a storm’s front caught me just as I was in the turkey pen.  Looking up, I saw a great tree behind the barn rip in half—the top thrown as if a toy to the side.  I herded the turkeys even faster that time.

The old saying goes that if you place a horse, a cow, a pig, and a sheep on a hill, the sheep will always be the one struck by lightening.  This may have a connection with the buildup of static electricity in their wool coats, but no one knows for certain.  Either way, we are always careful to bring the sheep into the barn when a thunderstorm strikes.  But apparently you don’t always need clouds to have lightening!  One day while cleaning dishes at the kitchen sink in the farm house, I looked out the window into the field.  From the blue sky came a small bolt of lightening, right down to the middle of the field, followed by a poof of smoke.  I didn’t imagine it, honest!  I even found the scorched spot of turf later that day!

But our queen of storm stories comes from two summers ago while making hay.  Yes, yes, yes, you are supposed to make hay when the sun shines, and it had been shining!  There were no predictions of storms for a three-day stretch.  The grass was cut, raked, and dried—the exact time you don’t want it to rain on the hay because the moisture will ruin the crop.  That afternoon it was hot, muggy, and rough work for baling and stacking on the wagon under the July sun.

Then we looked up to the west to see a pea-soup-green wall coming our way—fast.  The leading edge curled upwards like a massive dog tongue, any sunshine behind it completely obliterated.  We revved the tractor and tried desperately to crank out as many bales of hay as we could before the beast struck.

Sarah, our intern at the time, and I frantically pulled a load into the Red Barn just as the leading winds hurled into the farm.  As fast as we could run, we pelted out into the field to tie down the chicken tractors, pounding T-posts into the hard earth with the vigor of 19th-Century railway workers.  The lightening flashed, and I imagined myself as the perfect lightening rod in the middle of the pasture as the hammering rains descended like a gray wall, blanketing the farm in water.  The wind howled, carrying with it tarps and buckets.

Sarah remembers thinking, “I’m going to blow away!” as she chased the last of the laying hens into their movable summer coops.  Then she looked at me clamoring after a tumbling tarp and thought, “No, you’re going to blow away!”  We hurried to close the walls on greenhouses, the windows on my studio yurt, and to save the turkeys.  Out in the field (about 10 bales from being finished), a mound of hay jammed in the baler, a pin sheared, and Kara left the rig in the field to pull in the last of the finished bales.  The rest would have to be sacrificed.

We drug ourselves into the house that evening, sweaty from the day’s labors and covered in hay chaff, drenched and windblown and a bit out of breath…only to discover that the power was out so there was no shower and likely no supper.  Oh the life of farming, it’s not for the faint of heart!

This week, take some time to remember your favorite (or at least most memorable!) storm stories with friends and family.  Stay safe, and maybe we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

Spring Cleaning

When interns come to our farm, there are lots of things to learn, but one of the first lessons goes like this:  half of good farming is cleaning, another half keeping things organized, another half planning three steps ahead of what you’re doing now, and the last half is saved for picking up after unforeseen disasters.  If that sounds like too many “halves” to you, then you might guess that farming also involves having more things that need doing than can possibly be completed.  This week, however, we’ve been catching up on the cleaning part.

The saga really started in January—or didn’t, to be precise.  Typically, a light January or February thaw gives us a chance to clean out the hen coop and freshen things up.  But with no thaw, the bedding and droppings stayed hard as a block of chicken-flavored ice that wasn’t going anywhere without a good fight.  By March, things were desperate.  Hacking paths into the snow in our yard big enough to drag out the wheelbarrow, we dug and chipped and drug out the odiferous concoction and heaped it amidst the two feet of snow.  This, of course, meant that a second cleanup into the manure spreader was necessary to relieve the yard once the snow subsided.  Next time you take a farm tour, be glad you don’t have to wade through three feet of last winter’s chicken excrement!

Our dear “honey wagon” (some tongue-in-cheek farmer must have thought that term up for a manure spreader) has certainly had a workout since it arrived on our farm as an already well-used piece of machinery.  In the days when we had 25 chickens and 2 sheep, a pitchfork, shovel, and wheelbarrow was all we needed to keep things tidy.  But as both numbers began to multiply, our hands and backs were ready for a break.

Grandpa remembers the days when he and his dad would pitchfork the manure from the cow barn out the back door into a winter pile.  Come spring, it was much more of a heap or “small mountain” as Grandpa recalls from his teenage memories on the old family farm in central Illinois.  “We’d fork it out the door, then fork it up onto a wagon pulled by horses (because we didn’t have a manure spreader) and then we’d fork it back out onto the field while the horses plodded along.  You gals have it easy.”

If you’re not familiar with the workings of a honey wagon, imagine a long, narrowish two-wheel trailor with three sides (the back is left open).  Along the bottom of the wagon runs a chain on each side along the length, supporting bars that slowly pull along the wagon floor to the back, drop off, come under the bed of the wagon, and then rotate back up like a large conveyor belt.  At the back of the spreader is a stout bar supporting what look like large metal webbed hands called “flails” pointed in different directions that spin around fast from the bar.  When the wagon is hooked to the tractor’s power takeoff and engaged, the combination of moving conveyor bars and flailing paddles spreads whatever might be in the wagon in a relatively even pattern out the back.

That is, unless the wind is blowing from behind you—then you get a nice even spray all over the tractor and yourself.  There’s more than one reason we have large-brimmed sunhat on the packing list for our interns.  “But remember,” Grandpa says, “My dad always said that’s the smell of money.”

After restoring our historic gambrel barn in 2001, there was considerably more space for housing sheep.  But even with the manure spreader to help with hauling and distributing the nutrient-rich bedding, we were still chucking it into the wagon by hand.  Some spring manure packs three feet deep could take days to clean out, and it was terribly hard on our hands, shoulders, and backs.  It was time to upgrade with some smart machinery!

Leave it to Grandpa to find the answer.  Another used piece, looking for a new home, only this time a bit more modern than the spreader.  Let’s just say that some small bobcats are trouble (for ducks) but others are pretty awesome powered pitchforks!  Kara whirs around between the hand-hewn tamarack timbers of the barn with surgical precious, attacking the soiled hay and wood shavings with vigor. 

But it’s more than just cleaning things out.  Composted animal manure bedding is a vital nutrient source for soils through organic and permaculture practices.  For our current barn-cleaning project, we’re working to improve our hayfields by spreading this excellent organic matter mixed with lime to improve pH and calcium levels.  Another load of black gold pulls away as Mom engages the Allis D15 tractor with its characteristic grumph-humming chug.  Earlier, we had the creative inspiration to use the honey wagon to spread well-rotted compost (humus) over the garden and potato patches.  Pitchfork, shovel, and 5-gallon buckets?  Save those for the small jobs; we are getting serious!

The other fun (hah!) aspect of spring cleaning on our farm are all those dishes I meant to get to last fall…if only there was just one more nice, sunny day.  I don’t mean dishes like what pile up at the kitchen sink—I mean “chicken dishes.”  Red-and-white plastic waterers, orange bell drinkers, metal bucket and range feeders, pails, ice-cream buckets, heat lamps, and all the works.  They waited for me at the back door to our walk-out basement, patiently.  It was one of those things that doesn’t go away, despite trying to ignore it.  No, the chicken dishes were still there after the ice, which had bound them all together onto the concrete, melted this spring.

I attacked the hoard in batches.  First off were all the feeders and waterers that were needed for the imminent arrival of baby chicks.  Scrubbing, brushing, sanitizing, laying out on towels to air dry—the floor was soon covered with bright, clean chicken dishes.  While cleaning isn’t my favorite thing to do (is it anyone’s?), at least it’s the sort of thing where you can actually see the progress you’ve made.  But then, off they go to the brooders, and it doesn’t take long for them to get all good and dirty again.  It’s like laundry—it never ends.

Now we just have to move those piglets out to their summer pasture paddocks, pen the yearling ewes out in the yard for the day, and muck out the Clear-Span “lamb barn” sometime soon, get the rams into their summer home and clear out the “red barn,” and we should be in good shape with our spring cleaning.  We’re pecking away at the yard work and garden, and summertime will be here before we know it.  Best wishes for your spring cleaning projects, and maybe we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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