Friday, August 27, 2010

Newborn Guinea Hog Piglets!

Yesterday, shortly before sunset, our pregnant Guinea hog sow Cerridwen started nesting, panting, and acting restless.  This morning she gave birth to TEN piglets, all alive and nursing.  She did a great job!  That's a big litter for a first-time mom in a breed where the average litter size is six.

Since American Guinea hogs are a critically endangered breed, I feel pretty good about our farm helping to boost the world population with such a nice big litter of healthy babies.

There are four girls and six boys.  At least one boy and one girl have white feet like their mom.

The births are very easy, and the newborn piglets immediately get up and climb straight over to the nearest teat to start nursing, without any help.  Amazing!

Cerridwen is being a great mom so far.  She's alert when the babies squeak and is being careful not to squish any of them, but she doesn't mind if I handle the little ones, so long as I don't make them cry.

The babies all have strong, compact, warm little bodies, and shiny black fur.  They are making almost no noise at all right now, but I expect that will change in a couple of days, once they start running around exploring.

Here's a video of the piggies, just a few minutes old:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Quilt Project, Part 2: Fiber Preparation

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm making a handspun, handwoven quilt for a customer, doing all the steps myself, from sheep to finished product.

After finalizing the design and selecting which fleeces I will use, the next step is to prepare the wool for spinning.  This is the most time-consuming and tedious of all the steps, but it's crucial, because the wool doesn't exactly come off the sheep all clean and ready to spin. 

Sheep live outside.  They lie down on the ground.  They rub up against trees.  They stroll through patches of tall grass and weeds.  So naturally, their wool picks up some dirt and debris:  seeds, twigs, bits of chaff, dust, thorns, etc.  The same lanolin in the wool that helps protect the sheep from the weather also helps small bits of debris stick to the fleece. 

So, it's important to prep the fiber thoroughly to remove all the debris, so none of it ends up in the final product.

For the past few days, I've been working on preparing Urbana's lamb fleece, which is truly luscious.  Very soft and rich, with a beautiful luster.  Here's what it looked like while Urbana was still wearing it.  This photo was taken about a month before she was sheared.  From a distance, she looks pretty clean, right?

This is what the fleece looked like after it was sheared.  If you look closely, you can see all the little bits of VM (vegetable matter) that are caught in the wool.

Picking out all the VM is a tedious, time-consuming task, that requires a lot of patience and attention to detail.  Each individual lock of wool, out of an entire garbage bag full of fleece, must be examined. 

I grasp each lock by the outer ends, give it a good shake to dislodge any second cuts (small bits of wool that were accidentally cut short on shearing day), then spread the fibers out and pick out any debris, from burrs or thistle pods all the way down to tiny flecks of dirt that are smaller than the head of a pin.  Sometimes I hold the tuft of wool up to the light to check for debris I have missed.  Sometimes I lay the tuft against my leg and brush it with a flick carder to dislodge the last few crumbs.

It took me three afternoons of picking VM to completely clean Urbana's fleece.  (Last time I cleaned a fleece, I tried washing it first, then picking out the VM.  Doing it that way took much longer.)  If we had a nice, weed-free, manicured pasture, our fleeces would start out a bit cleaner.  But we're not there yet, so for now I spend a little extra time in the fiber prep stage. 

Here's what Urbana's fleece looked like when I was done.  Much cleaner!

Here is the bucket of second cuts, VM, and dirty wool that I discarded.  Nobody would want all this stuff in their quilt!

Now the wool is ready for washing.  I've already written a post about how to wash a fleece, so I won't repeat myself here.  But to continue to track the process of this quilt, here's a photo of Urbana's fleece soaking in the wash water.  That fleece looked pretty clean, didn't it?  But see how brown the wash water becomes?  I only picked out the visible flecks of debris.  Now the soapy wash water will remove the dust, sheep sweat, and lanolin.

Here is the washed and rinsed wool, still wet, laid out on the drying rack in front of the fan.  By tomorrow it will be dry and ready to card.  See how much whiter it is now?  And how the beautiful natural sheen of the wool is starting to show through?

But wait!  What's this?  Even after all the time I spent picking debris out of the wool, now that it's clean and white, suddenly thousands more teeny tiny specks of debris have become visible, where they weren't visible before.

No need to worry.  The washing has removed the sticky lanolin from the fleece.  Once the wool is dry, most of the remaining impurities will fall off naturally when I card the wool.  Any truly stubborn bits that remain after that can be picked or brushed loose as I handle the wool before spinning.

Stay tuned for Part 3!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Four Days to Piglets

I posted a photo of our Guinea hog sow Cerridwen when she was three weeks to her due date.  Now, for comparison, here's what she looks like this morning, with only four days left before her piglets are due.

Now that she's closer to her due date, do we have any more guesses as to when the piglets will be born, and how many there will be?

Friday, August 20, 2010

100% Factory-Free: Handspun, Handwoven Quilt Project (Part 1)

I'm starting a new, major project today!

A friend of mine has placed an order for a custom-made, handspun, handwoven quilt.  I'm pretty excited about doing this because it will be my first of what I hope will be many more large projects creating beautiful, practical, and durable goods from my farm that are 100% factory-free.  I've done lots of other smaller projects (jewelry, purses, etc.), but nothing approaching the scale of an entire queen-sized quilt.

By factory-free, I mean that EVERY material used has been grown on my farm, and EVERY step of the processing, from raw material to finished product, has been done by me, here on the farm, by hand.  How often do you have the opportunity to own an entire quilt that has never, at any point, passed through a factory?

The quilt will be made of wool from my own flock of Icelandic sheep.  I shear the wool myself, then wash, dry, pick, card, spin, ply, weave, and stitch it.  I estimate that this quilt will contain more than 3 miles of double-ply yarn (which means that I spin 6 miles of single-ply yarn, then spin it back on itself to make it two-ply, a total of 9 miles of spinning).

The quilt squares will be individually woven by hand on my set of Quilt Weaver looms from Hazel Rose Looms.  Then the squares will be assembled into the Maple and Oak Leaf pattern I designed.  The colors will be the natural colors of the sheep, so no dyes will ever be used on this quilt.

I expect this project to take me a few months to complete.  I'll post updates here periodically, to show how it's progressing.

Today, I'm starting with the very first step:  Choosing the wool.  My customer wanted his quilt made from lamb's wool, which is a little more expensive, but it's softer than the wool of an adult sheep.

One of the fun things about getting a custom quilt direct from me is that you get to see the sheep who provided the wool.  Here are the sheep who gave their lamb fleeces for this quilt:




I don't have any of the beige colored lamb's wool in my inventory at the moment, so that will come from my fall shearing, in October.  It will probably come from this handsome lamb:


Next step:  Preparing the wool.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pretty Sheep

I've been spending the past few days trying to get new photos of all of my lambs to update my sales list as well as some new shots of some of the adult sheep to update my web site.  I haven't gotten them all yet, but I've gotten a few nice shots along the way.  Enjoy!

I think Rhonwen looks like a supermodel with her hair being blown by a wind machine in this one.  Her fleece is SO silky soft.

Paris and Xanadu.  Here's what Xanadu looked like as a baby.

Sapphire is one of my favorite ewes.

I've had Tawny for almost a year now.  It's about time I took a good photo of her.  She's such a pretty girl.  I love her long sweeping horns and her regal look.

Remember little Wish, the cutest lamb of all time?  She's a year old and all grown up!

Remember Xander, the lamb in the Unidentified Flying Lamb Pod?  Here he is now.

Xelene still hasn't lost her knack for always striking a picture-worthy pose.

Xcaliber seems to be putting all of his growth into horn size.  Those are some huge horns for a little guy!

Sometimes, it's fun to compare pictures to see how much the lambs change as they grow.  Other times, like these three pictures of Xanti, it's fun to see that she looks exactly the same!

This is Xenophon.  Photos can't do justice to how handsome this ram lamb is.  Every time he walks by, I just stop what I'm doing and stare at him.  For three years, I've been trying to breed a ram lamb who will be worthy to replace Nicholai when he retires.  This may be the one!

Did you know that ram lambs always strike a majestic pose when they're peeing?  You can always get a good photo of them then.  Sorry for the invasion of privacy, Xaq, but you just looked so regal standing there!  :-)

Remember teeny, tiny Xoco, who was so much smaller than her brother when she was born?  Well, she's a big girl now!  Of course, she's still smaller than her brother Xaq (pictured above), who is HUGE.  She's also the one who ripped her horn halfway out of her head.  As you can see below, it re-set itself and is growing in just fine.

Every once in a great while, we have lambs that get their ear tags caught on things and end up pulling the tags out, down through the ear.  Xummer is the first one we've had who managed to pull her tag out SIDEWAYS through her ear.  OUCH!  That must have hurt!  Now she has a very distinctive look. 

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Zero-Effort Gardening

This is the story of The Mighty Pigaloupe.

All winter long, the sheep ate hay in their paddock.  Inevitably, a lot of it was spilled on the ground and wasted.  Naturally, the sheep added a lot of manure to the mix.  The ground grew thick with mulch.

In the early spring, I took the sheep out of that paddock and put the new pigs in there.  The pigs plowed up every foot of the soft, well-mulched soil like diligent, four-legged rototillers, and added their own manure to the mix.

At some point in mid-spring, we bought a cantaloupe from the store.  After we ate it, we fed the guts and rinds to the pigs in the paddock.

In mid-summer, with the pigs now moved to a different pasture, I discovered cantaloupe plants growing all over the paddock.  Huge, sprawling plants, with many, many flowers, and lots of young cantaloupes starting to form.
 "Hmm," I thought.  "The sheep fertilized and mulched the soil, the pigs cultivated the ground and planted the seeds.  I have a garden growing here without me having to do any of the work.  I wonder if these cantaloupes can get all the way to harvest without any effort from me at all?  No weeding, no watering, no fertilizing, no pest control.  Nothing."

It has been a brutally hot summer.  Temperatures have been over 100 degrees for many, many days, and we have had almost no rain at all.  My pastures have barely grown an inch in the last month and a half. 

I checked on the cantaloupes frequently, out of curiosity, but I didn't assist them in any way.  On a couple of the most scorching days, the leaves started to wilt and I thought maybe I'd have to water the plants eventually.  But then we'd get a tiny little 15-minute shower of rain, and because the plants were growing in such deep, organically-rich soil, that tiny amount of moisture was enough.

Today, officially, the zero-effort gardening experiment became a success.  I harvested the first cantaloupe (officially named:  "The Mighty Pigaloupe"!) this afternoon, without having done a single bit of work to make it grow.

The Mighty Pigaloupe weighed 10 lbs. 2 oz. and had a circumference of 27 inches.  I looked it up:  the average size of a cantaloupe is 4-9 lbs. so this really is a whopper!  It was nearly as big as the full-sized dinner plate I set it on. 

There are many, many more cantaloupes out in the paddock, at various stages of growth.  The vines are still growing, still flowering.  We're going to have all the cantaloupes we can possibly eat, plus plenty to share with our industrious, seed-planting pigs.

I'm one of those odd people who loves living on a farm, loves working with the livestock, but does not particularly love gardening.  I like the CONCEPT of gardening, I like the results.  But the endless digging and weeding and fighting pests I find mind-numbing and tedious.  By nature, I'm much more of a hunter-gatherer.  I'd love to wander, foraging food from plants I didn't slave over all summer.

So this whole cantaloupe experience got me to thinking:  How can I adapt this low-input idea so that I can have as many wonderful, home-grown veggies as possible, with very little effort?

If I do a similar thing with the sheep and the pigs over the winter and early spring, I could easily plant the whole paddock with the big-seeded, sprawling type of veggies.  Squash, melons, pumpkins, zucchinis, cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, peas, corn...  seems like those might all be vigorous, large plants that could outgrow the weeds and thrive in that rich soil. 

I'm planning to plant a regular garden too, but now I want to incorporate some of these ideas into how I build that garden as well.

I've got a long time to plan before next planting season.  In the meantime, I'd love to hear any of your ideas and hints for low-effort gardening!

Countdown to Piglets

There are only three weeks left until we are expecting our first piglets to be born.  Cerridwen is due sometime around August 27.

What date do you think the piggies will be born?  How many do you think there will be?  (Guinea hogs can have anywhere from 1-14 in a litter, with 6 being average.)

Here's what Cerridwen looks like today:

And here's Magick, the proud papa-to-be:

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Pretty Chickens

I just did a photo shoot with the chickens, trying to get some better pictures for my website.  I wanted more closeups of the pretty colors and textures of their feathers and faces.  Enjoy!