Spring Valley couple proud to be shepherds
Monday, February 27, 2012 8:42 AM
Modern day shepherds in the Bluff Country area are out watching their flocks during lambing season. Stacey York and her husband, Dennis Hoffman, of Kindred Spirit Farm, just south of Spring Valley, find lambing time one of the most exciting and exhausting times of the year.
Stacey York of Kindred Spirit Farm near Spring Valley holds Fiona’s newest lamb as his mother nuzzles him and the rest of the ewes (wearing jackets to keep their wool clean) look on. The new lamb will grow wool over seven inches long and will then be made into lace weight or fingerling yarn. (Bluff Country Reader photo by Mary Whalen)
"This is the time of the year when we feel most like shepherds," stated Stacey, who grew up in southern California. "And it's the time of the year when we feel an affinity with shepherds everywhere. I think of the shepherds welcoming Baby Jesus. I think of the 'Good Shepherd' watching his flock by night. I feel a sense of awe and respect for the shepherds of today who sleep in tents and trailers, guarding sheep through the long winter on the ranges of Montana and Wyoming. "
Having a familiarity with horses, rather than the sheep, Dennis was raised in the small Minnesota town near the South Dakota border named Hills. As he witnessed his wife's passion for these gentle creatures, his support and help allowed their family to raise registered English Leicester Lincoln Longwool and Romneys.
"We, like most folks who raise livestock, have a lot of care and compassion for our animals. We raise animals because we enjoy being around them," Dennis explained.
Like many small farmers today, Stacey and Dennis are employed at full-time day jobs off the farm. Learning how they juggle their schedules with their professional work, farm chores and life with four children - ages ranging from 7 to 18 at home - visitors to their farm gain an appreciation for their dedication and commitment to raising sheep. One can only imagine the excitement and anticipation of lambs being born at Kindred Spirit Farm.
In this age of technology, emails are often exchanged with their shepherd friends wishing for a safe and productive lambing season.
"May there be lots and lots of ewe lambs," laughed Stacey. "Yes, girls are preferred. I can tell we are in the midst of lambing season because it has been very quiet in the online discussion groups."
Impending births call for lots of preparation. The birthing kit has to be cleaned and restocked. The scale and barn charts are ready to go. There are supplies like colostrum, powdered milk replacer, clean bottles and new nipples in case the need to bottlefeed newborns arises. Also, shepherds need to make sure there is enough straw on hand for bedding. A plan needs to be in place of where to make the lambing pens, which are called "jugs, " and heat lamps need to be checked, making sure extra bulbs are handy.
Stacey commented, "All of the breeding information has been entered into the computer. The first due date comes and goes. We wait. There are sheep in the yard who are as wide as they are tall. Their milk bags are full. Each day I think to myself, 'Surely they can't get any bigger. They have to start lambing today.' But another day is over and we still have no lambs. And we wonder when are they ever going to come?"
Shepherds learn to read the signs and symptoms of their sheep and try to be available during the delivery. Stacey explained, "The formation of a milk bag comes about 10 days before lambing and sometimes we can see the lamb 'drop' creating indentations in the ewes side and making the hip bones protrude, kind of like 'cow hips.' Also, when lambing is really close, the ewe will begin to make a nest. She will circle and seem particularly uneasy, getting up and down. She may bleat more frequently or chew frantically. Yet, sometimes it is just hard to tell, because they are uncomfortable that last trimester. They are moaning and stretching, and wanting their hips rubbed. Some are more vocal and dramatic than others. Some just take it in stride."
Sheep have a gestation period of 145 days and are managed to lamb anywhere from January to May, however, the exact arrival date is not always predictable.
"We thought we would be lambing from the end of January through March," said Dennis. "But our first lamb didn't arrive until the 19th of February. In our seven years of raising sheep, he is a first. We woke up and looked out of our bedroom window to see our Lincoln ewe, Fiona, standing in a paddock with a lamb at her side. We were able to celebrate his arrival with a photo session out in the sun."
Dennis explained that their sheep usually lamb during low fronts.
"In other words, the middle of a snow storm with whipping winds and temperature well below freezing," he added.
Stacey continued, "Once the lamb is 'on the ground' we have to clip, dip, strip and sip. We clip the umbilical cord, dip it in Triodine 7, strip the ewe's teats of the waxy plug so she can nurse, and then finally make sure the lamb is nursing."
Each ewe and her lamb or lambs are separated from the flock and placed in a small pen called a lambing jug where they can bond and the lamb is safe and the mom can eat and rest without worrying about all of the other sheep.
Stacey and Dennis recall many a time when they were fumbling in the dim light trying to help a struggling ewe by pulling the lamb or drying off one lamb while the ewe is giving birth to the second or twin.
Stacey explained, "Sometimes, we are there to simply hold and rock and cry with a ewe for two hours because she just lost full-term triplets because they were breech."
Stacey has developed a unique friendship with a man who has been raising sheep for nearly 50 years, Lloyd Burgener from Richland Center, Wis.
"Lloyd and his wife, Lois, have developed one of the best flocks of Lincoln Longwools in the country," she explained. "He's won the Minnesota State Fair, Iowa State Fair and Wisconsin State Fair the past two years. When he retires, he'll be going out on top of his game. When you see Lloyd, you think the guy is mean as all get out. He's a crusty old fart. But underneath that rough exterior he's as kind-hearted at they come."
This year, after his 70th birthday, Lloyd decided to share some of his wisdom with Stacey and Dennis.
"Lloyd says his sheep are raised in an unheated barn, yet he built a room in the barn that can be heated to 50 degrees so he can sleep out there if he thinks a ewe is getting ready to lamb," commented Stacey.
If one visited Lloyd and Lois' house one might be surprised to see that the entryway of the house and mud room are tiled with little wooden "gates" resting against the walls.
"It sure looked like the making of lamb pens to me," mused Stacey.
And when she heard that his sick and weak sheep do come in the house, Stacey thought to herself. "He's not such a tough guy after all."
The majority of shepherds check their ewes every couple of hours through the night to make sure that they are all right. Some even sleep in the barn in the midst of lambing.
New technology includes "lambing cameras" that are color cameras or infra-red with night vision that have been installed. A monitor is placed inside the house where the ewes can be watched. The days of getting all bundled up and trekking out through the snow to the barn to check on their ewes is over for these shepherds.
Dennis and Stacey have not yet embraced this technology. Since Dennis is off to work before dawn arrives, he makes the first check in the morning.
Stacey explained, " Since I'm usually the last one up at night, I'm the one that makes the last check at night. As I head back to the house, I look up at the sky and find myself looking at the stars and thinking of shepherds everywhere who are also outside tonight or out in their barns sleeping on cots. Luckily, our sheep usually lamb around 7:30 in the morning or between 8 and 10 at night."
She added, "I'm grateful for the opportunity to raise livestock and practice animal husbandry. Most folks in the city have no idea of what goes into producing the meat they eat or yarn they use to knit a scarf."
Stacey and Dennis share their love of sheep with another Spring Valley resident, Harris Williams. He is (with the help of his wife, Geraldine) a longtime shepherd who just sold off his flock this past fall.
"It's really nice to have a knowledgeable and more experienced sheep person close by," Stacey said. "There have been times when we needed his advice or needed to borrow 'power punch' from him for a sick lamb."
Lambing is a crucial time for shepherds however, the details of owning sheep, especially registered English Leicester Lincoln Longwool and Romneys are numerous.
"Lambing comes at the same time that I'm trying to finalize the show and farmer's market schedule," said Stacey. "I'm trying to set prices and update marketing materials for the year and trying to get Internet orders in the mail before the end of the month."
As part of Kindred Spirit Farm, Stacey prepares fiber as well as processes wool into yarn, so products are ready to sell in the spring.
"There's always a bag of wool tucked away in the corner of the kitchen and there's often wool in the kitchen sink and there's wool drying in the dining room," Stacey added. "It's sometimes hectic and a lot of work, but raising registered English Leicester Lincoln Longwool and Romneys is worth it!"
The passion for raising sheep keeps farmers on top of the preparation needed so that the time, effort and monetary commitment finds completion in the rewards, tempered with the losses involved with their occupation.
For more information on learning more about sheep or purchasing products, check out their website http://www.kindredspiritfarm.com/ or call Stacey and Dennis at (507) 346-1822 and stop by Kindred Spirit Farm to meet some modern shepherds.