Lambing at Pecora Dairy

Lambing Time

Its lambing time for us after a 3 month break and, I have to say, I approach this time of the year with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Most people think of lambing as mums feeding cute and cuddly healthy lambs with ease. The majority of the time this is true, but nature can be cruel as well as kind and we must deal the smooth and the rough. I’d like to devote this blog to a transparent, open, warts and all account of how we deal with lambs here at Pecora Dairy. It is one our most frequently asked questions. The Ethical Treatment of Animals is something we are very serious about and we never mind being quizzed about our systems at Pecora Dairy.

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The Process of Share Milking

The time between lambing to weaning is by far the busiest of the year so we try to use the most efficient yet best practise possible. We use a method called share milking for the first 21 to 30 days of lamb’s life. Put simply, we take the day milk, the lambs take the night milk. We believe that this reduces the stress on lamb and ewe, and dramatically minimises mortalities. There is a sacrifice, we lose a significant volume of milk to the lambs but the reward is beautiful strong healthy lambs and calm relaxed mums in the dairy.  Our philosophy is to be efficient whilst always putting the health of the flock first. We have a long term view of our business and are working for  sustainable management practises.

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Lambing

Believe it or not, some East Friesian flocks can average 2.75 lambs per birth. So the whole process requires a keen watchful eye as triplets and quads are all too often accompanied by low birth weights and birthing complications. As luck would have it, the first Ewe to give birth this year, 1st week of July, presented with a difficult breach birth which required my assistance.  Vigilance, and obstetric gel, are essential ingredients.

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New Borns

When a ewe lambs, she will have her babies with her constantly for the first week. The milk is largely colostrum during this period which is not suitable for cheese, but is essential for the healthy growth of lambs.  After this first week, her lambs will go into the nursery during the day. Our woolshed was designed with this extra job in mind. They sit in the sun on the ramp during the day and have unlimited access to water, hay and pellets. East Friesian’s are precocious, nibbling at grass, copying their mums at 5 or so days old.

With the lambs in day-care, the milking ewes graze the paddocks during the day and come in to be milked in the afternoon. In fact, we rarely have to coax a ewe into the dairy, they happily leave their lambs to come into the stalls. This is because they trust us.

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Sharing The Milk

After milking we let the lambs out of the nursery and back to their mums. It’s an absolute racket, mums and lambs calling to each other. Imagine over 150 bleating lambs tearing around like crazed pillocks trying to find which one of the 80 odd ewes is their mother. It always amazes me how quickly they find each other. Then its lights out and bed time for all in the warm shed safe from the cold, rain, wind and importantly foxes.

Morning is an early start as we open the shed into the holding yards. The task here is to separate/draft-off the big lambs again so they can go back up to the shearing shed/nursery for the day again.

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Weaning

As the days progress during lambing, we spend some time up in the nursery watching the lambs. When a lamb is vigorously eating pellets and drinking water, it is clear that it can fend for itself. It will be put into a larger pen and weaned from its mum. This is usually at between 3-4 weeks of age. The weaning process, takes about a week. The lambs need to stay out of sight of their mothers so the bond can be broken. The lamb will join friends of a similar age in a small paddock away from the milking ewes with specially grown lush pasture and extra goodies to promote strong growth.

One or two ram lambs are kept for stud stock and the rest are raised to 12-15kgs and sold off as beautifully lean, pink fleshed milk fed lamb direct to restaurants.

It is extraordinary how quickly they grow. When a lamb is born, it is a matter of minutes before it is up on its wobbly little feet trying to find a teat. It takes human babies about a year to be up on their feet…  At 2 weeks twins can launch a ewe’s back legs off the ground as they rocket in for a feed.

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The Agony of Loss

On the other hand, we  get lambs who are too weak to survive. The law of nature is that if a female has a weak offspring slowing her down, she becomes a target. Ewe’s will walk away from a weak lamb and in traditional farming operations these would be taken by foxes.

The heartbreaking reality of it all is that by saving every weak runty lamb, we risk weakening the long term health our flock. Indiscriminate breeding will increase lambing problems and the need to medicate ill thrifty adults. Therefore, occasionally, we have to humanely euthanase weak lambs. Sadly, the industry standard amongst Merino sheep farmers is to achieve better than a 70% survival rate for twin births. We pride ourselves on achieving much better than that, but it gives you an idea of how precarious lambing can be. This year, at the time of writing, we are happily doing better than a 90% survival rate – but we know that early life remains fragile.

Sadly, mothers will also perish from time to time. Trips and quads take an enormous toll on the ewe’s body. Thankfully, this year, there have been no ceasarians, no retained lambs, prolapses or other vet call-outs. We haven’t always been so lucky.

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Congenitally weak lambs are quite different to ones who are simply tiny just because they got less of the food going around whilst growing in mum. A ewe will sometimes have a huge first lamb and small second or third. These little fighters will be brought in and hand raised on the bottle. Sometimes they will need stomach tubing with colostrum to get them over the first 24-48 hours. There will typically be 5 – 10 bottle fed lambs per season that inevitably find themselves around the house with Rosie, our maremma dog, as their foster mother.  She kind of looks a bit like a sheep actually.

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All our healthy ewe lambs are raised to maturity ready to go into the dairy given we are still building our flock of milkers. In time, we will sell excess East Friesian ewes through our stud. The very best ram lambs we will keep,  grow out and sell as stud East Friesian rams.

Our Philosophy

I believe I am a steward of these beautiful animals and therefore it is my responsibility to sometimes make hard decisions. Michael and I do our utmost to farm this patch of dirt, over which we have jurisdiction for this lifetime, sustainably and ethically. However, often, unlimited short term compassion and ethical farming for the long term, do not go hand in hand.

Family sized farms are leading the way in sustainable management practises and innovative exceptional product. We know that this what our customers expect of us and it is no less than what we expect of ourselves.

Cressida McNamara

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Considering Provanance

The Provenance of Food

I lived in the city when we were first married. It didn’t last, I don’t mean the marriage, the city living. We moved onto some land when Lizard Man was 1 and started breeding our sheep. We had a plentiful orchard of mostly stone fruit and I also started a vegie garden in a big way. I poured over heritage seed catalogues and worked like mad planting and mulching while the baby was sleeping. The vegie patches ended in a big way too with the very premature birth of Cricket Mad but that’s another story.

6 years on, I’ve just completed the first season of my newly established vegie garden and it really feeds into what I’m passionate about. The Provenance of Food.

Pecora at eveleigh

Farmers Markets

As you can imagine we spend quite a bit of time at Farmers’ markets. My favourite part of the Saturday morning (other than counting the cash box…) is buying from other stall holders and having a chat about how things are on their farm.  Vic makes my snags from his beautiful Mirrool Creek Texel lambs, we talk about sheep and lambs and pasture. I wouldn’t buy my apples from anyone except Pete the Apple Man, all the way from Batlow, who always tosses in more than couple of freebies for the boys. I joke with Robyn and Norm from Highland Gourmet Potatoes that our boys are growing strong on their spuds. Norm grins and pushes some Kenibec’s towards me saying they make the best chips. They DO make the best chips (drizzled with olive oil, salt and baked) AND are grown in our neighbourhood.

spuds

My friends Fiona and Adam of Buena Vista Farm left the big smoke in search of something more and found themselves back at Fiona’s family farm at Gerringong, where gloriously the paddock meets the sea. After so much of their planning and waiting, I was excited to see that they had finally brought their beautiful pork products to Kiama Produce Markets, from their pasture raised pigs this month. They sold out. We had their delicious, salty, crispy bacon on toast for Sunday brekkie with some glorious cultured butter made by our friend Pepe Saya.

apples

I could go on about this wonderful food community we are involved in. But you don’t have to go to the big Sydney markets to get a bit of what I’m talking about. I make a bet if you go to your small local suburban market, among the second hand book sellers, you will find people who are doing agriculture on a small scale and doing it well.  Feeding your family food produced by people you know makes it so much more than just nourishment. There is an honesty, authenticity, integrity, connectedness and good will. Food for the body and the soul.

Eveleigh

The very opposite of this, of course, is Aldi. A soulless commercialised place where farmers and producers have been deliberately cut out of the picture. All the food has private labels and comes from Minchinbury apparently. Here the provenance of your food is completely unknowable and the farmer is just another dispensable link supply chain.

Mostly, Lizard Man and Cricket Mad know the farmer who has produced what’s on their plate. I really hope this is a lifelong lesson in positive eating habits for them. While most people are upset about the rise and domination of supermarkets, we have the opportunity to vote with our wallets. And its easy to do. Support your local farmers. Try even one meal a week where all the food is grown within 100kms. Its just is so pleasurable and worthwhile.  It’s certainly not new, communities have always been run this way,  it’s only recently with globalisation and corporatisation that we have strayed from the path, but we can revert…

 

 

Drying off time

I get heaps of ideas when I’m driving, and there certainly seems to be a lot of motoring needed with Lizard Man and Cricket Mad having to be here, there and everywhere – particularly in the school holidays. I have been thinking, of the many funny stories of sheep, the dairy and cheese that I almost can’t wait to share with you. In this post, however, I’ve decided to discuss our philosophy of ewe management, very poignant at this time of the year, given the girls are in their final weeks of lactation. Animal health and well-being is one of the most frequent issues people ask me about at markets is integral to the way we manage our farm.

dairy girls

Interestingly, sheep milking has a deeper history than dairy cows. Cheese was developed as a way of preserving milk for the period when the animals were dry in the European winters. Sheep would spend winters on the plain and summers in the Alps. In overcoming this seasonality, we have bred cows to produce massive volumes over long lactation periods. However, we are now realising that this sort of interference is not without its problems and at the expense of seasonal variation. Sheep however, still live by their natural annual rhythm that comes and goes with the seasons.

So, in early May, we will dry the ewes off and give them a well-earned break. The breed of sheep we milk is called the East Friesian breed. They have been in the country for over a decade and have yet to be extensively used for milking. We are the only pure East Friesian dairy in Australia. When you look at these girls, you can see the generations of careful selection which has been put into making them the world’s highest and best milkers. They do particularly well in the European-like clime of the Southern Highlands.

udder

People will forgiven for thinking this looks more like a goat from behind. It’s not, it’s one of our beautiful girls. Look at that clean udder and breach area delightfully clear of wool. The long “rat like” tail means we don’t have to dock their tails. There is a ewe in the dairy now who has an amazing ability to use hers like a whip! Leaning over to put the cups on, if you’re not careful, you can suddenly get a slap across the face. It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes!

udder with clean tail

The girls, now well pregnant, will spend the next 2 months taking a break in some specially sown paddocks I have ready for them. I feel this time is extremely important for them as both lambing and milk production takes a massive toll on their bodies. We have girls in the dairy who are going into their seventh or eighth lactation. Extraordinary, when you think that most meat or wool sheep are ditched at 5 or 6. Our careful management keeps the ewes in optimum health and extends their productive capacity.

But much as I love seeing the ewes grazing lush pastures, I am dying to get my hands on to those massive post lambing udders again!!!

Autumn at the Farm

Autumn has got to be the best time of the year on our farm in Robertson.  Summer always makes me feel a bit stressed. The pastures take a beating and the girls tend to look hot, as they pant in the shade of eucalyptus during the midday onslaught. The “Autumn break”, as the farmers call it, brings lower temperatures and good rain. Its not long before the farm, once again, is a sea of lush pasture and the white grazing sheep are a picturesque sight set against bright green paddocks.

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The other significant thing about this time of the year is that the ram goes in with the ewes. Its an exciting time, watching him sidle up to the girls who will either accept him or in no uncertain terms, tell him to buzz off. We have never had to have the little “birds and the bees” talk with our boys. At  age 5 my Lizard Man, in a wise tone, said of his pet ewe “Oh look mum the ram was on top of Moo, she will have a baby now…”

We put a harness on our ram which has a crayon that marks the ewes backs. See the blue marks below on the hindquarters of the girls.

the girls coming into the dairy

I love bringing the girls in from the paddock each day and counting how many have been marked. The first marking basically determines how long our break from milking will be. This year we will dry the ewes off at the end of April and they will start lambing at the very start of July.

Sheep dairying is very much in tune with the natural rhythm of the animal. Unlike cows, ewes have not been interfered with in any significant way to dramatically increase yield or length of lactation.  So, our girls have a relaxing couple of months happily getting fat in the paddock and when the time comes, raising her lamb. More about that in another blog.

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Here’s a pic of the main ram we are using this year. Isn’t he handsome? We proudly bred him and he was chosen for his beautiful and docile nature. Can’t wait to see his progeny in the first few weeks of July….

 

 

 

“The yoghurt is to die for, thank you.”

Alexandra Potts, 29 October 2012

Fabulous to see you Macca at CarriageWorks! Your cheese is out if this world! Congrats! X

Sally Blackwood, 3 March 2013

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