Homesteading and Livestock
Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.


Raising and Butchering Broiler Chickens at Home

 broiler chicken

Broiler chicken, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Improve your health by eating naturally raised chickens. Their meat has more heart-healthy yellow omega 3 fat and less saturated fat than poultry from the store, and you can ensure that they are eating a natural diet of insects, greens, and seeds.

It’s as simple as raising and butchering broiler chickens in your own backyard. Once you master a few basics, you’ll spend 11 easy weeks a year raising them and one day having a butchering party with friends. You can successfully raise broilers outside in the Mid-Atlantic from May-October.

Choose Your Breed

Freedom Ranger Chickens make the best home broiler flock since they are active birds that reach their peak weight of 5-6 pounds in 10-11 weeks. They grow well in free range and fenced pasture environments, foraging for food during daytime hours. Other broiler breeds that grow more quickly tend to be unable to walk around after a few weeks as they get too heavy, too fast. 

 baby chicks

Baby chicks, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Choose Your Numbers

Determine how many dressed broilers you can stuff into your freezer and how much space you can devote to raising them. We have typically limited ourselves to 30 birds who forage on 2500 square feet of pasture. We could easily raise twice that number in this space without harming the pasture. Or we could raise two batches of 30 with a short break in between.

Choose Your Environment

You want to balance safety and health for the chickens. We use a 50x50 foot fenced pasture with a three sided shed which is the night coop for the chickens. Wood-framed door panels covered in chicken wire keep chicks in at night while keeping predators out. They are encased with wooden lathes and cross bars so that raccoons can’t break in. A heat lamp hanging from the rafters over an enclosed section of the shed serves as an early brooder for the baby chicks. The chicks stay in the brooder area for about three weeks and then begin foraging on pasture.

 three sided shed

Three-sided shed, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Choose Your Feeding Program

The chickens are let out on pasture to forage for bugs and vegetation during the day, then put away safely at night. We provide free access to organic, non-GMO feed at night to ensure a balanced diet. Water is available at all times in the shed and also out on pasture.

Choose Your Butchering Day

We always share the costs with friends and then hold a group butchering party where everyone takes home a portion of meat. Over the years each person has begun to specialize in handling a couple of the jobs for the day.

 kickboxing

Sharing hard work with friends, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Choose Your Butchering Set-Up

No matter how you set up your work area, the steps are similar.  Here’s how we set up our work stations and the steps we take at each one:

Station One

  • A board with a hole in the center set on stacked cement blocks at both ends
  • A killing cone made of chimney flashing runs through the hole creating a funnel
  • Live chickens are placed upside down in the cone with their heads sticking out the bottom
  • A trash can lined with plastic sits below
  • Using one hand to stretch out the neck, you cut the carotid artery with a scalpel letting the blood drain out fully

gathering

Bringing chickens to the killing cone, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Station Two

  • A large kettle of water heated to 150 degrees over an outdoor camp stove
  • Scald the dead birds in the kettle for 30 seconds, plunging them up and down by the feet to quickly heat and loosen feathers

Station Three

  • A clothesline slung between two trees
  • Two small loops are attached to the line with slip knots
  • A large barrel sits below
  • Slip each of the chicken’s legs into a slip knot and quickly pull off all the feathers into the barrel

 plucking

Plucking station, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Station Four

  • A 6 foot folding table, a hose with sprayer attached, poultry sheers, a scalpel, and small propane torch
  • The head and feet are cut off here, as well as the small oil gland at the base of the tail
  • The vent is tied with string or a rubber band to keep excrement from contacting the meat
  • The torch is used to singe off the pin feathers

tying and singeing

Prepping the chickens, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Station Five

  • is indoors at the eviscerating table
  • Large coolers hold ice-water baths, and we have stacks of two-gallon freezer bags
  • Using our hands we reach in and remove all the organs from the rear of the chicken
  • The chicken is washed in cold water and dried
  • We then put them into freezer bags by holding the full bag under water up to the zip line so as to squeeze all the air out of it before zipping it up with the chicken inside
  • The bagged birds cool off in the ice-water bath for several hours

 eviserating

Eviscerating before cooling, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Station Six

  • First they go into the large refrigerator where the cooled birds are placed in their bags for 24-48 hours to make the meat tender
  • Then they go into the chest freezer where they will keep well for at least 6 months

freezer    

At the end of the butchering day, photo by Sheryl Campbell

That’s all there is to it. Eleven weeks of just checking on the chicks twice a day to make sure they are healthy and to replenish their food and water. Followed by one very full day of processing made fun by sharing it with friends.  Go out and find a few friends, set up your growing area, and raise a few broilers of your own. We hope you have fun on butchering day and thoroughly enjoy the healthful meat you’ll raise.

Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Sticking Points

 

 Mountain sunrise.

Photo courtesy of Bruce McElmurray

Much has been written on ‘how to’ start and maintain a homestead but I have found little on how to keep on going when things pile up and it gets tough going. Many people have grandiose ideas about homesteading but after a while when the reality of all the hard work bears down on them, the dream gets tarnished when the going gets tough. 

Getting A Backlog: 

Homesteading takes tremendous dedication, organizational skills and a strong work ethic. There is always something that needs attention and pretty quickly things can unravel as you move from one project to another. Getting bogged down in one task can leave others undone. Next thing we know there is a backlog of things needing to be done and the homesteader is overwhelmed. 

Lessons That Carry Over In Life: 

I associate homesteading with when I used to lift weights. Most of my life I have lifted weights and I see a parallel between some things I learned when lifting weights and homesteading. When doing the bench press for example, you have substantial weight balanced over you and that last repetition just won’t go up to full extension. You  have reached what is referred to as a ‘sticking point.' No matter how hard you push, that weight just won’t go up. There you lay with that  weight teetering over you and it won’t move upward. 

Having A Spotter In A Time Of Need: 

That is where your spotter steps in to help. The spotter puts his hands under the bar and you assume he/she is helping you lift. Laying flat on the bench, you can’t actually see if they are lifting or not when in reality their hands under the bar are only a facade. They aren’t lifting but you can’t tell that because it appears they are getting you over the sticking point. You then push the weight up with strength you didn’t know you possessed. Your brain, which previously told you there was no way that weight was going up,  allows the weight to suddenly go up exclusively from your effort. Your spotter has deceived your brain and the “can’t do” suddenly is “accomplished."

 

Autumn colors.

Photo by Bruce McElmurray

You May Be Capable Of More Than You Realize: 

The first time I experienced this I couldn’t believe my spotter had not done any heavy lifting to get that weight back in the rack. I have seen it repeated many times and have done it myself as a spotter.  I thought he was helping lift when in actuality he was only using minimal pressure. I ended up pushing the weight up beyond what I thought was within my ability. It is the same for a troubled and overwhelmed homesteader. A spotter can be a  friend/family member or neighbor, someone who may have a more objective view of your situation based upon their experience and common sense.  

Stubbornness Can Substitute But A Spotter Is Better: 

A mindset of determination can, in some people, be a worthy substitute for a spotter. Sometimes you just have to put forth more effort and take that next step forward to do what you previously thought impossible. 

No Homesteader Is Immune: 

Any homesteader can go from exciting to overwhelmed before you even realize it. As you look around the homestead you see so many projects that may need doing and you reach your sticking point. Where to start? Which one should be first etc? You end up being so overwhelmed that you end up doing nothing and everything spirals further out of control.  What earlier enamored you to homesteading suddenly becomes an overwhelming and hopeless pit. The inclination to give up creeps into your thinking and you contemplate just starting over somewhere else.

If You Need Help - Seek Help:

Under those circumstances it is no disgrace to admit you need help and to reach out to a friend, neighbor or family member to help you get past the sticking point. It is unrealistic to ask them to do all the work, but to help you organize your thoughts and get you back on the right path and to work past your sticking point. After all, it is your homestead and hence your responsibility but help is welcome. 

Can A Homestead Be Restored In A Week - Yes It Can: 

This principle can best be demonstrated in a popular television show where a father, his daughter and son go to homesteads in trouble and spend one week helping them to get back on track. Once restored to a more normal homestead, the people can move forward once again to fulfill their dream. The family does some jobs that will help the homesteader carry on and restore the homestead. When they leave, the homesteader sees a path to the future and is focused on a direction to success.  

Helping One Another: 

Sometimes it only takes another perspective to get the troubled homestead back on a forward moving path. Homesteading is a unique lifestyle and those who engage in it are equally unique and special. It often takes working together and sharing knowledge and experience to make it a success. I am fairly certain that  many experienced homesteaders would agree that when you look around the homestead you always see things that need to be done. The question therefore is what priority should they be given?  

Seniors Work More Slowly - Factor Into Prioritization: 

Being able to prioritize is a valuable asset on any homestead. Some things should be placed above others. The older I get the more I realize the importance of having a priority list of ‘to do’ tasks. As a senior I realize being able to have a priority list is vital in keeping the homestead functioning smoothly. No longer am I able to work as fast as I once did so making sure I have a priority list is doubly important. 

Conclusion: 

Any homestead can get into trouble whether it is a fledgling or established homestead. There are natural occurrences that can throw it off track and being able to prioritize tasks to keep it on balance is essential. Sometimes it may take a new perspective from others to help keep the dream alive.

Bruce and Carol live in the mountains in S. Colorado with their canine family and take measures to protect them from the wild predators that are around. They lead a somewhat different lifestyle and for more on them and their canine family visit their blog site. You can read all of Bruce's Mother Earth news posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Raising Sheep for Excellent-Quality Wool, Part 2: Proper Skirting and Shearing

Crimp and Luster of Bond Fleece 

Beautifully organized crimp and luster in the wool of a Bond sheep.

Photo by Kat Ludlam

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed how choosing your sheep, selectively breeding them, and feeding them properly greatly effects the quality of wool and value of your finished wool products.

How you handle the wool during shearing and afterwards also has a big impact on the quality and value. Many a beautifully grown fleece is ruined after it is removed from the sheep due to improper handling. But before considering how to handle your fleece, it is important to understand breaks in the fleece.

Breaks in the Fleece

A break in the fleece is a section of each fiber that is thinner and more fragile than the rest of the fiber. They are caused by stress or poor nutrition. If there is a time during the growth of the fleece where the animal undergoes a lot of stress (moving to a new location, giving birth and lactating, being chased by a predator, etc) the fleece won’t grow as strong during that time, thus creating the “break,” or weak spot, in each fiber. If there is a time during the year where they are not getting adequate nutrition, that can cause a break as well.

Break in a section of wool fiber

A break in a group of fibers. You can see the line of weak spots appearing as lighter and thinner when you hold it up to light.

Photo by Kat Ludlam.

Broken section of fiber at a weak spot

A smaller section of the same group of fibers broken after being tugged while holding each end. The fleece broke right at the line of weakness.

Photo by Kat Ludlam.

A break can decrease the value of the fleece, or potentially make it nearly unusable. If the break is near the center of the fiber, then as the fiber is being processed it will break at the weak spot and can ruin the ability to make it into the finished product you are hoping for. Breaks are sometimes unavoidable, but how you time your shearing can help you manage the breaks better.

Shearing

As stated above, birthing and lactating can, and usually does, cause a break in the fleece. The best way to manage this inevitable occurrence in your breeding flock is to shear eight weeks before they are due to lamb. By doing this, the break will be located towards the tip of the fiber and thus won’t affect your finished product like it would if the break were in the middle of the fiber growth. Other reasons to shear before lambing include that it keeps the ewes from being too hot during labor, it keeps the back end of the ewe cleaner after birthing, and it helps the baby find the udder and nurse easier.

Another important aspect of shearing, after timing, is hiring a good, professional shearer. Using a skilled professional can make all the difference in the world. A good shearer will give a clean shearing with minimal second cuts (short pieces of wool caused by running the shears over the same area twice). They will also be able to shear each sheep in about five minutes, thus decreasing the stress on the animal. A fleece that is cut evenly and doesn’t have many second cuts will process into much nicer, consistent roving and/or yarn.

Skirting

Skirting the fleece is the process of removing the undesirable portions of a fleece from the good portions. The obvious undesirable portions are the rear end, legs, and belly wool because it is not an even length, is full of vegetable matter (VM), and is very dirty. Sometimes the neck wool needs to be removed due to large amounts of VM. And in some long wool breeds that have wool that parts along their spine, the spine might need to be removed as well since it can accumulate a lot of VM right along the part. Another thing to look for and remove during skirting is the second cuts (described above) that can happen during shearing.

Most people think that you skirt once, after shearing time. While this is somewhat true, the way to get excellent fleece is to have a primary skirting and a secondary skirting. The majority of skirting should happen DURING shearing. This is the primary skirting. As the sheep is being sheared, someone should be squatting near the sheep (without being in the way of the shearer and his/her ability to maneuver the sheep around), grabbing the undesirable fiber as it is being sheared off, and putting it in a separate pile away from the good fiber. This really helps because when you pick up a full fleece after it has just come off the sheep, the VM and undesirable fiber from the belly, legs, and rear end start to mix in with the good, barrel-fiber and it is much harder to remove that all later. Removing rear end, legs, belly, and potentially neck and spine wool (if needed) right there on the shearing floor will go a long way towards cleaning up the fleece. Once you have done the preliminary skirting during shearing, the fleece can be taken and laid out somewhere to air and dry (especially if the sheep are hot and sweaty during shearing) and then bagged.

Secondary skirting can happen any time after shearing. Take the fleece and lay it out on a table. The best option for a skirting table is one made with the top surface being hardware cloth or some other open mesh. That way the VM and smaller pieces can easily fall through while you work. If you don’t have a skirting table, it is fine to just use any table. When I use a regular table, I like to put a sheet over it and then skirt the fleece on top of that because it makes clean up a lot easier. Work through the fleece a small portion at a time, removing VM, obvious guard hairs (guard hairs will also fall out during the milling process), second cuts, and any fiber that isn’t the high-quality that you want. If you are seeing significantly different lengths in your fiber, you should separate the fleece into two piles, one of the shorter fibers and one of the longer. This is also the time to separate it by color if you have a multi-colored animal and want it to be separated out by color. Skirting one fleece can take hours, depending on the quality of the shearing and the amount of VM you are dealing with. Good skirting greatly increases the value of your raw fleece and the finished items if you are having it processed.

Storing

When you are finished skirting, it is important to store your fleece properly. It should be in a plastic bag that is tied closed and has no holes in it so that wool moths cannot get in and ruin the fleece. Some people choose to put moth balls in with their fleece. Don’t do this. The chemicals and smell can be nearly impossible to fully remove from the fleece, and many mills will not accept your fiber for processing if it has had mothballs in it. You can research more natural options for protecting your fiber from moths that are quite effective if you don’t think you can keep the bags sealed.

Bagged raw fleece

Skirted, raw fleece bagged and ready to be sealed and stored.

Photo by Kat Ludlam

Don’t forget to label each fleece with the animal identification and the year, either by writing on the bag or including a paper inside the bag with the fleece. You might think you will remember later, but when life happens and you don’t get around to processing them right away it can be hard to remember not only which one is which, but also what year it came from. You can also weigh the fleece now and mark that on the label to help you know exactly what you have and how much.

Store your raw and/or skirted fleece in their sealed bags in a climate-controlled environment. Do not let them get direct sun and do not let them get hot. If a fleece is subjected to extreme heat, it melts the lanolin (the natural oils from sheep skin) and will ruin the fleece.

Your fleece is now ready to be sold as a raw, skirted fleece, or it is ready to go on to processing, either by hand, or by mill. By following these guidelines about raising and caring for your sheep, as well as proper handling of the fiber, you can take your wool production from good to excellent and increase the quality and value of your fiber and fiber products.

Kat Ludlam has been homesteading in Colorado for 15 years now. She and her husband, Daniel, are the owners of Willow Creek Farm, where they breed specialty wool sheep, milk sheep, chickens, and crops that thrive in their location. They also own and run a custom fiber processing mill, Willow Creek Fiber Mill . Kat loves to feed her family from their land, and teach others to homestead as well. Read all of Kat’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Johnny Appleseed Organic Invitational

international

12 Organic Gardeners 

6 Growing Competitions

4 Grand Prize Options

Organic gardeners throughout the United States will have the opportunity to compete for prizes including $50,000 cash, a Bitcoin, a new electric vehicle and a small farm as the first-ever Johnny Appleseed Organic Invitational gets underway on Sun., Sept. 26. The launch date coincides with the birthday of John Chapman, the real life American frontiersman who inspired the Johnny Appleseed legend.

Presented in partnership with Mother Earth News, the contest is intended to showcase the skills of the nation’s top organic growers and provide a platform for them to share their knowledge. Video entries will be accepted through Nov. 30, 2021, with finalists selected in December and the competition itself set to take place during the 2022 growing season.

“Everyone acknowledges that organic food is healthier and better tasting, but there’s a pervasive myth that truly sustainable growing practices can’t produce an abundant enough yield to feed American families,” said Jeff Meyer, founder of Johnny Appleseed Organic. “The Johnny Appleseed Organic Invitational will prove that we can provide for everyone while producing food in a responsible, ecologically friendly manner.”

Growers selected for the competition will be among the most talented and experienced gardeners in the country, and will compete from home as permitted by their local growing season. It is free to enter the contest and no purchase is required.

Contestants will receive points for their placement in each competitive category, with a cumulative winner determined at the end of the contest. Categories include:

veggie-bar

  • Heaviest tomato (as determined by certified scale)
  • Hottest pepper (Scoville scale)
  • Most beautiful flower arrangement in a 65 gallon grow bag (determined by social voting)
  • Heaviest sweet potato in a 65 gallon grow bag (as determined by certified scale)
  • Heaviest squash (any variety, as determined by certified scale)
  • Best organic gardening ‘hack’ (determined by social voting)

Each competitor chosen for the invitational will receive $1,000 in cryptocurrency, and the overall cumulative winner will receive their choice of grand prize options including $50,000 cash, one Bitcoin, a brand new Ford F-150 EV, a Kubota tractor with attachments and a restricted deed for a small farm at the Johnny Appleseed Organic Village, a sustainable living development nestled within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near Folkston, GA.

prizes

A live leaderboard will run throughout the competition, and will feature multimedia content from the contestants, including tips and tricks for other home gardeners following the competition. Leaderboards will also be updated on JohnnyAppleseed.com and MotherEarthNews.com. 

To learn more about the competition or submit your entry, visit Johnny Appleseed Invitational.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS

Since 1970, Mother Earth News has embraced the back-to-the land movement, concentrating on sustainable living topics such as organic gardening, do-it-yourself projects, renewable energy, green home building, natural health, and food preservation. Through its magazine, website, podcasts, live events and online learning, Mother Earth News inspires millions of people to live self-sufficient, healthier lives. From the organic farmer to the survivalist and the suburban dreamers longing to move to the country to the long-time rural dwellers who manage small acreage, Mother Earth News provides the “can do” information everyone needs to live a sustainable life.

JOHNNY APPLESEED ORGANIC

Johnny Appleseed Organic is a green technology company focused on creating sustainable, environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional farm and garden products. In March 2021, they debuted ClimateGard™, an ethically derived, no-kill organic fertilizer infused with cutting-edge microbiology. They followed that up with ClimateYard™, a probiotic lawn and landscape formula designed to eliminate harmful runoff caused by traditional lawn products. The company also offers grafted apple trees genetically identical to the last surviving tree planted by John Chapman, the real-life American frontiersman behind the Johnny Appleseed legend, and is a leading authority in the carbon sequestering, food producing practice of Climate Farming™.


For interview opportunities, contact George Atchley (PR Coordinator, Johnny Appleseed Organic) at 904-386-2006.

Root Cellar In a Box

Our root-cellar-in-a-box overflows with potatoes

Our root-cellar-in-a-box overflows with potatoes. Photo by Rory Groves

Spring starts with a bang around here—planting seeds, preparing beds, mulching and weeding. Throughout the summer we enjoy fresh greens, ripe strawberries, and the incomparable BLT (with our own bacon and tomatoes). But by harvest time in Fall, we are ready to whimper. We often find ourselves too tired to preserve the harvest we worked so hard to cultivate all summer long.

Spring's inspiration to "build a root cellar this year!" has faded along with our energy levels, which are focused by this time on splitting wood and settling in for winter. The root cellar will have to wait, yet again.

But what to do with the Yukon Golds, the Red Norlands, the Danvers Carrots? Over the years, we've tried many approaches to storing root vegetables with varying results. But our spuds kept sprouting within a few months and the carrots would dry out, leaving us without homegrown roots for most of the winter.

all hands on deck for the potato harvest

All hands on deck for the potato harvest. Photo by Rory Groves

All of that changed when we discovered this easy method for preserving our root crops. The idea is simple and anyone can do it, regardless of space (or energy levels). All you need is a sturdy box and a generous supply of peat moss. It works especially well for potatoes and carrots. We call it a root-cellar-in-a-box. It has worked very well for us and preserves the harvest well into spring, as long as we do our part to maintain it.

Step 1: Build your box

Root-cellar box

 Root-cellar box. Photo by Rory Groves

We built our boxes out of ¾-inch plywood. The dimensions were approx. 3-ft long by 1-ft wide by 1-ft deep. A small box can hold a lot of potatoes! These were built to fit easily into the coldest corner of our basement. We also built a divider in the box for sturdiness and to group breeds together.

Step 2: Layer your roots

first layer of potatoes

 First layer of potatoes. Photo by Rory Groves

After building a box to suit your space, place a 3-inch layer of peat moss on the bottom. You can buy a bag of peat moss from the garden store for about $10 that will likely supply far more than you need for this project. Peat moss keeps pretty well, so you can store the leftovers or share with neighbors.

Next, place a layer of potatoes or carrots in the box and cover with another inch or so of peat moss. Try to space the root vegetables so the peat moss can fall in between. This will help with distribution of moisture and minimize rotting.

Potatoes covered with peat moss

Potatoes covered with peat moss. Photo by Rory Groves

Continue layering the roots and peat moss until you fill up the box or run out of roots. Leave at least 3 inches at the top of the box to cover with peat moss.

Finally, cover your box with a sturdy lid that light will not penetrate.

Step 3: Keep moist and enjoy

The key to preserving a root crop harvest is keeping the environment dark, cool and humid. Peat moss is a perfect medium for this because it holds moisture so well. And the layering approach prevents light from sneaking into the box.

Over the course of the winter, open the lid and add water to the peat moss. You can either spray or gently dribble water from a jar. The amount of water needed depends on the size of your box, it's construction (wood holds water better than cardboard, which wicks water away), and the vegetables being stored (carrots need more water than potatoes).

You will have to experiment with this, but a good rule of thumb is to water about once a week. The peat moss does an excellent job absorbing the moisture and distributing it around the box. You don't want the moss to be soggy (too wet), but you don't want it to be dusty either (too dry).

This small and simple "root-cellar-in-a-box" will help us preserve the harvest each winter until that day when our energy levels catch up with Spring's inspiration and we can build a proper root cellar.

Until then, enjoy the harvest!

Enjoy the potato harvest

Enjoy the potato harvest. Photo by Rory Groves

Rory Groves is a technology consultant and family farmer who lives in southern Minnesota, with his wife, Becca, where they farm, raise livestock, host workshops, and homeschool their five children. He is author of the book Durable Trades: Family-Centered Economies That Have Stood the Test of Time (Front Porch Republic). Connect with Rory at The Grovestead, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Raising Sheep for Excellent Quality Wool, Part 1: Selective Breeding and Feeding

Lincoln Longwool Lambs 

Lincoln Longwool lambs
Photo by Kat Ludlam

Raising sheep for wool is a fun and satisfying experience. The market for wool and wool-products continues to grow as people are eager to learn skills such as felting, spinning, rug-making, weaving, knitting, crochet, and many others. We have had thousands of fleece come through our mill and the difference in quality is immense. Breeding, feeding, and care make a huge difference in the quality of fleece and thus, the quality of the finished products. With some careful planning and special care, you can raise sheep with excellent quality wool, setting your fleece apart from the rest, making them more desirable, and increasing your profits.

Wool Breeds

Producing great wool starts with choosing the right breed of sheep. While all sheep grow wool, not all wool is created equal. Even among wool-specific breeds the variation is immense. Before you go purchase your breeding stock you need to research the different wool breeds and find the one that matches with what you are wanting with your finished product. Long-wool breeds, such as Lincoln Longwool and Wensleydale, have a coarser wool that grows faster. It is strong and doesn’t have as much memory, so is more drape-y. It is excellent for rugs and items that won’t be close to your skin.

Fine-wool breeds, such as Merino and CVM, grow slower and thus have a shorter staple length. They generally have a lot of crimp and memory to the fiber. They are much softer and wonderful for making items that will be used against the skin. Dual-coated breeds, such as Navajo Churro, have a coarser outer coat, and then a softer under coat. Cross-breeding is also an option. Oftentimes the best fleece come from a cross of two breeds, bringing excellent qualities from each. What does your market want?  What will sell well?  Or what do you want for your personal use? You need to consider all of these things as you choose your breed or breeds.

This is also a great time to consider whether you plan to hand-process your fiber, or have a custom mill do it. If you would like a mill to do it, you should contact some mills and get an idea of what they can and cannot process. Some mills cannot process the very short fleece, such as Southdown Babydoll. Some cannot process the very long wools, such as Cotswold (if only sheared once a year). If you want your fiber to be mill-processed, taking into consideration whether or not there is a mill that can process what you are hoping for, and where it is located is important before you buy your stock and start breeding them.

There are so many options for wool breeds and it can sometimes feel overwhelming to decide. A great resource for studying different wool breeds is the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Carol Ekarius. Take your time to do your research before settling on a breed or breeds.

Once you have chosen a breed (or breeds) you need to find a breeder to buy your stock from. Again, the variation in fleece can be immense, even within a specific breed. One Bluefaced Leicester fleece can be a lot softer and finer, while another is coarser. You need to find a breeder that has been selectively breeding for the attributes you want in your wool. Visit the farm, get your hands on the wool and see if it is really what you want. If you can’t visit the farm, buy a raw fleece from them, or have them send you a sample of wool (or several samples from different sheep) to give you an idea of exactly what they have been breeding for and what their sheep produce.

It is important to note that you cannot just focus on the fleece. The animal needs to have good conformation, no defects in its physical form, and be healthy and hearty. If selective breeding focuses solely on the fleece, you can end up with all sorts of genetic defects in the body because you are not paying attention to the conformation. Both need to be taken into consideration when choosing breeding stock.

Selective Breeding

Once you start breeding your stock it is important to select your breeding groups with purpose. It can be easy to fall into just breeding every sheep you have, or breeding a sheep because they are friendly or your “favorite.”  But if you aim to create a high-quality fleece you need to purposefully breed the rams and ewes that give you lambs with that excellent fleece. Again, don’t forget to keep conformation, health, and hardiness in mind when selective breeding.

Wensleydale Fleece

Wensleydale fleece
Photo by Kat Ludlam

Feed Them Well

It goes without saying that a well-fed sheep will produce a better-quality fleece. Feed your rams and non-pregnant sheep with high-quality pasture or grass hay. Pregnant (after 90 days) and lactating ewes will need alfalfa and potentially grain to help keep their body condition up and their fleece healthy and growing well while they are gestating and feeding their lambs. Dr. Nancy Irlbeck, renowned animal nutritionist and shepherdess, taught us that properly feeding the pregnant ewe from 90 days of pregnancy on will even affect the secondary hair follicle development in the lamb(s) she is carrying, and thus can lead to lambs with more hair follicles per inch. Once a lamb is ready to start eating solids, they will need good alfalfa, in addition to their mother’s milk, so their bodies can grow and mature properly while also growing an excellent fleece. And don’t forget good mineral supplements and, of course, fresh, clean water available at all times to all sheep.

What you feed can also affect your fleece because of what it physically puts on the fleece as they are eating. If the hay you buy contains a lot of seeds you will find your fleece to be full of seeds, some of which will not come out and thus will affect your wool and finished product. The same is true with grazing them in seedy pastures, or pastures that have plants that contain burrs. Many a fleece has been ruined by the VM (vegetable matter) that got into it while it was on the sheep. The time and effort to remove it ends up de-valuing the fleece and makes it not worth it. And if you sell your fleece raw, having a lot of VM in it will definitely cause the value to plummet.

Jacketing

One option to help keep your fleece cleaner and free of VM is to jacket the sheep. Jacketing is not right for every situation, but when it is, it can really improve the quality and value of the fleece. Jacketing prevents sun-bleaching of dark fleece, staining of light fleece, and keeps out the majority of VM.

If you choose to jacket your sheep you will need to invest in 2-3 sizes for each sheep as their wool grows through the season. You cannot leave the same jacket on the whole year. You must change the jacket as the wool grows or it can cause felting of the wool or even injure the sheep. You will also need different sizes to change out on your lambs as they are growing to their full size. The jackets will wear out over time and need to be patched or replaced. Jacketing is definitely a financial investment, but with the right market it can pay itself off with the quality of the wool you will be producing.

Jacketed CVM/Merino Ewe

Jacketed CVM/Merino Ewe
Photo by Kat Ludlam

Jacket Removed from CVM/Merino Ewe

Same CVM/Merino Ewe with the jacket removed
Photo Kat Ludlam

If you jacket your sheep you need to check them twice a day. Jackets can get tangled, torn, or caught up in fencing or the sheep’s legs. It is not safe to jacket your sheep if you are unable to check on the entire flock at least twice a day.

Choosing the right breed, and the right individual breeding sheep, selectively breeding them carefully, and feeding them well has a large impact on the quality of fleece they produce. In Part II of this series, I will discuss breaks in the fleece, and the best methods for shearing and skirting to produce excellent quality wool.


Kat Ludlam has been homesteading in Colorado for 15 years now. She and her husband, Daniel, are the owners of Willow Creek Farm, where they breed specialty wool sheep, milk sheep, chickens, and crops that thrive in their location. They also own and run a custom fiber processing mill, Willow Creek Fiber Mill . Kat loves to feed her family from their land, and teach others to homestead as well. Read all of Kat’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Putting Pigs and Chickens to Work Clearing Land

 

Pinky, Red, and the unfinished pig cabana with a comfy mattress. Photo by Jo deVries

In an article in the Ottawa Citizen on October 31, 2020, titled “Vineyard Menagerie”, I read about the various animals used to help out in vineyards around the world. It tells of a winery in California where sheep munch the weeds, while donkeys and Spanish mastiffs ward off coyotes and mountain lions. Owls deal with the destructive gophers, and chickens scratch the earth and devour bugs.

In Patagonia, some growers keep armadillos to eat the aggressive ants that damage the vines and leaves. Some winegrowers are experimenting with non-venomous serpents to help restrain the population of rodents. In South Africa, ducks forage through the rows of vines looking for the invasive white dune snails. Napa wineries use falcons to ward off hungry birds, especially aggressive starlings.

Horse, mule and oxen driven farm equipment is found around the globe. In some countries, donkeys and camels are depended on, to carry heavy loads over difficult terrain. Many times, the decision to use animals to work on the farm is a financial one. Sometimes there is simply no other option. Occasionally, it is a firm ecological choice.

Putting Chickens to Work Preparing their Coop Area

In some cases, the animal is being raised for another purpose — the fact that they can be put to work, is a bonus. I am wanting to add an outdoor addition to my chicken coop. The area behind my coop needs to be excavated down to the solid rock. I decided to put up a temporary fence of chicken wire around the area, and let my chickens have a go.

They are getting the job started, scratching up the earth, exposing rocks and digging up small roots, while eating the greens and insects. These chickens are beneficial for many reasons. They provide offspring to sell as chicks, a beautiful selection of colourful eggs, and quality meat.  They eat insects, and now they’re working the land. I’m all for getting them to work for their keep; raising chickens isn’t cheap these days. I can buy a cooked chicken from the grocery store for less than half the price it takes to raise one.  nd besides, many feet make light work.

Pigs Put to Work Digging Roots

In some cases, an animal will do a far better job than any piece of equipment.  The soft nose of a pig is the best option for cleaning off a beautiful rock face, that might otherwise be permanently scarred by the scraping of metal instruments. At present, my pigs are doing a job that can’t be done with machinery.

They are digging up the earth and leaving only the Elderberry, Joe Pye Weed, Goldenrod, and Cow Parsnip. I will relocate the Joe Pye Weed and Goldenrod to the natural perennial flower garden I’m making. After just discovering that Cow Parsnip is edible, I’ve now got plans for it too.  The seeds are presently ready for harvest, to use as a spice, and I’ll have a healthy crop of young greens next spring. No piece of machinery could dig up all the other roots and only leave certain plants; plants that are all beneficial to me. Pigs are best suited for this job, by far.

Over the years, I’ve bought two or three pigs in a season, to clear an area of land. Any more than three pigs, is a gang. Pigs require very strong fencing, especially if confined to a small area. They will try to go over, under, or through most fencing, and are often successful, if their desire is strong enough. I’ve heard of pigs bolting right through a fibreglass cap of a pick-up truck on their way to the slaughterhouse.

In contrast, I’ve had three pigs thoroughly enjoy their 45-minute back-road excursion in a flimsy enclosure I built in the back of my truck out of 2-by-2s. I’m sure it never crossed their minds to escape. They had food in their bellies, and the wind in their face. That’s the key: keep your pigs happy. And pray before doing stuff like that.

My pigs have recently acquired superb sleeping accommodations. They are enjoying the luxury of sleeping on a mattress. This idea occurred to me when I saw a large selection of mattresses at the dump. They were being collected for their steel. I picked up a fine-looking single mattress, after being assured I could simply return it in the fall; regardless of condition.

For two weeks, the pigs seemed truly grateful. Then they started tearing it, and the springs started pocking out. When I turned the mattress over, it looked as good as new. Later that day, I gave Pinky heck when she attempted to bite it. She stopped, and so far, the mattress is fine. Perhaps she realized the consequences of her actions; people keep telling me how smart they are. I just wish they could behave when food is served. They totally lose control of themselves at feeding time. Hence the saying “He eats like a pig.”

Clearing Land with Pigs

Raising pigs has proven to be another incredibly practical and financially responsible decision for me. Pigs will clear land (even eating poison ivy), and provide pork in as short as six months. My pigs will pay for themselves when I sell them in the fall. Grass-fed pork is hard to find and will fetch a higher price than strictly feed-raised pigs. Each year, I raise pigs, the grass and weeds will be kept down in the elderberry grove, and their selling price will help pay-down the fencing expenses.

To fence an area approximately half-an-acre in size, cost me about $2,000.00 Canadian. 80% of that was for materials: steel fencing and posts. Due to finances, I had to get the job done in two stages.  A fourth-generation fencer answered my ad. Glen did an amazing job with surprising speed, making both me and the pigs very happy!

This was a good investment in sustainable living, which should pay for itself in less than ten years. After that, I’ll be making a profit while harvesting an abundance of incredibly healthy, native fruit, each year.

The materials for phase-two of the steel fencing job were purchased sooner than expected, when I discovered that retailers were running short of stock.  Suppliers were also not able to guarantee future delivery dates; I panicked and bought what I needed; thankful for my credit card.

Trying to keep up with Mother Nature’s growth rate on this property is tougher than I originally thought. The clay-based lowland is heavy with nutrients and water, and plants and trees grow incredibly fast. Having the pigs is a huge benefit for me and offers them a great quality of life.  They have sun and shade, and endless greens and roots to eat.  They can roll in the dust or lay in the mud; whatever their heart desires.

And at the end of the day, their hard work is rewarded with a second high protein meal and a comfortable bed. They won’t have a long life, but they sure have a good one. And isn’t that what’s most important?

Jo deVries (Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect with Jo of the Woods and read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.







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