Twin Calves

This time of year is so busy for us. It’s calf season! We have a fine bunch of mamas this year. Anyone who has cows knows a couple of things about mama cows. One, they like to hide their babies from us. Two, they are extremely protective of their babies with some mamas becoming outright homicidal when you get too close to their babies. This time of year can be stressful, as we try hard to keep track of who has had their babies and get them tagged while also trying to get eyes on the calves every day.

Seeing the calves every day can sometimes be easier said than done. We do our best, but we currently have the cows in a wooded field. Mamas who like to play hide and seek with their babies will pull their babies off into the wooded area to hide them from us. So far, we have been able to put eyes on each calf at least once per day, and we are checking them twice daily.

Yesterday morning, B went to check cows and found that one of our mamas had twins! She was missing when we checked cows the night before, and he found her yesterday morning with her two babies. Immediately he knew that she was not producing enough milk to support both babies. With the help of a friend, he was able to catch one of the calves and brought her to the house to bottle feed. The mama will produce enough milk for the other calf. We don’t have twins on the farm often. Here are some interesting twin facts for you:

In beef breeds, twins occur about 1% of the time. There is a higher rate of twins in dairy breeds.

In other farm animals (sheep and goats) it is extremely common to have twins. In cows, however, having twins can be a bad thing. Having twins is hard on the body, and a cows body is only made to have one baby at a time. Having twins means a higher rate of abortions (miscarriages in cows are called abortions) both in early pregnancy and in late term pregnancy.

Cows that are carrying twins have problems during delivery more commonly than single calf pregnancies. These mamas will generally need help during delivery. Cows that are carrying twins will more frequently go in to preterm labor, and the calves aren’t mature enough to survive.

It is pretty rare to have identical twin calves. In twin calves, you are 25% likely to have two bull calves, 25% likely to have two heifer calves, and 50% likely to have one bull and one heifer. 90% of the cases where you have one bull and one heifer calf, the heifer is infertile.

An infertile female twin is called a Freemartin. When a female and male calf share a uterus, the male hormones will cross through the blood supply to the female calf and that will cause abnormalities in her reproductive organs, making it nearly impossible for her to have babies. There are ways to check if she will be infertile, including a blood test. Typically a Freemartin cow would be raised for beef.

Twins are genetic. Twin heifers are more likely to have twins.

When we have twins on the farm, we always pull one calf off of the mama in order to ensure that each calf gets his best chance. In twins, it is common for one calf to be a lot stronger. This will mean that the stronger calf will get all the mama’s milk, and the weaker calf will likely starve to death. The alternative is that each calf will get half the milk produced by mama, but it will not be enough for them. Mamas to twins rarely produce enough milk to support two babies.

We look forward to seeing our babies grown this fall and winter. Calf season is tough, and can be stressful, but it is worth it.

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Adding Sheep to our Farm

Farming isn’t easy. As I have talked about in a previous blog, there is always work and chores to be done, always animals that need our attention. Over the winter, we have trialed having pigs and we have added chickens to our farm. Ultimately we decided not to keep pigs, and to expand our chicken flock.

After much consideration, B and I recently decided that we needed to add sheep to our farm. There were many factors that we considered when making this decision, and this was not a decision that we made lightly. We are, of course, keeping our cows and chickens. We just added some sheep to keep things interesting… Or something like that…

As mentioned, there were several factors that went into our decision to get sheep. For starters, sheep are a much smaller animal, and therefore they are easier to herd and work than the cattle. Working sheep vs working cattle is a completely different ball game. The cattle are obviously bigger, and it only takes one crazy cow to get the whole bunch worked up. When the cattle get riled up, they are big enough that they can trample you and have potential to seriously harm you. When the sheep get spooked they are much smaller and more skiddish. They are more likely to run away from you. Another factor that we considered when making our decision is the fact that since sheep are smaller, they are much easier in general on the ground and on the fences. This means less wear and tear, and ultimately less repairs on the fences than with the cows. A small downfall of the sheep, however, is that with the babies being smaller we did have to add some materials to our fences to keep the babies from being able to get out. The babies can fit through the smallest gaps in the fencing!

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One of our new mama sheep. This is the third baby to be born at Wrinkle Farms.

With our sheep, we chose to have what is called hair sheep as opposed to wool sheep. A common misconception is that hair sheep are a cross between goats and wool sheep. This is not true. Hair sheep are their own breeds. The difference between wool sheep and hair sheep is that hair sheep have more hair fibers to wool fibers, and wool sheep have more wool fibers to hair fibers. This mostly makes a difference in their coats. Hair sheep shed, and as a result do not require shearing as the wool sheep do. They will typically keep their coats until mid to late May, and then begin shedding their hair. This will cause a “patchy” appearance in their coats this time of year, as some of the hair has started shedding while some of it lingers. Some hair sheep do not shed as quickly as others, and will still need a little bit of help with that process. This was important to us because this makes the hair sheep more suitable to our climate in SWMO without us having to work them with the shears.

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Our first two babies born on Wrinkle Farms. These two babies were born on Mother’s Day.

It is believed that there are more sheep breeds in the world than breeds of any other livestock species (with the exception of poultry.) Worldwide there is an estimated 1000+ breeds of sheep, and there are 50 distinct breeds of sheep in the United States alone. There are two breeds of hair sheep that are considered to be the “most common,” although there are several breeds. Two of the most common breeds are Katahdin and Dorper. We chose these two breeds for our herd.

The Katahdin sheep are a mix between several different British meat breeds: Suffolk, African Hair Sheep, St. Croix, and Wiltshire Horn sheep. In the 1950’s, a breeder by the name of Michael Piel worked on developing them, and he named them after Mt. Katahdin, which was near Piel’s Maine farm. The Katahdin are well known for being a low maintenance breed, and they are extremely hardy to climatic extremes. One of the most interesting facts about these sheep is that they are naturally resistant to internal parasites. These sheep are typically raised for meat.

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The Dorper sheep is the second largest sheep breed in South Africa, and they were developed there in the 1930’s. These sheep are bred by crossing a Blackheaded Persian ewe with a Dorset horn. These sheep are typically either all white, or they have a black head. The Dorper is well known for their thick skin, which makes them hardy to harsh climatic conditions. The Dorper has the most sought after sheep skin in the world. These sheep do lack the parasite resistance that is common in a lot of other breeds. They do not shed as well as other sheep breeds, but they are considered to be a superior breed in the United States, and they are one of the most popular breeds of registered sheep in the U.S.

Our dorper sheep are actually a cross between dorper and katahdin. Because they are a mix of the two breeds, you get the best characteristics of each breed.

With there being so many different breeds, and factors to consider, this was a big decision for us. However, we are excited to add this adventure onto our plate and see where it takes us.

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Getting to Know our Chickens: Buff Orpington

When I was writing my last blog post, it occurred to me that I had not really gone into a whole lot of depth on the types of chickens we have decided to keep, and the reasoning for keeping each breed. Sure, I have talked about the breeds we have right now (Chicken Farmer) and I have talked about our Rhode Island Red babies. But I haven’t really taken the time to explain the specifics of each breed, and why these chickens are the best for OUR farm. After talking with B, we decided that a “mini series” about our chickens would be a good idea. Welcome to “Part One” of our series.

Buff Orpington chickens are an English bird, and were first bred in the late 1800’s. Orpington chickens were “created” by a man named William Cook. Cook was breeding several varieties of chicken to get desired traits that he wanted in a chicken. His first cross was the Black Orpington. The Buff orpington was released to the public by Cook sometime between 1887-1894.

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Bryan turning the Buff eggs in our incubator

The Orpington chicken was a popular breed, and was being exported from England within 10 years. They were so popular for their coloring, and they are short fluffy birds with pale orange/brown or “buff” feathers. Buff’s were a favorite breed of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. She had a flock that won several awards for their beauty and grace. However, by 2016, Orpington’s as a whole were on the endangered list. Thanks to small homesteaders with “back yard chickens,” the breed has been removed from the Conservancy list.

Buff Orpington chickens were the first breed that we really decided would be a good fit for us, as far as raising. There are several reasons that we considered the Buffs.

The first reason we decided the Buffs would be a good fit for us is that Buffs are a hardy breed of chicken, which means that they will withstand the harsh temperatures in our climate. This is important to us, as one of the big killers of our chickens this winter was the cold. Our Buffs that we got in late summer have withstood our cold and wet winter this year.

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Our Buff’s socializing with our other chickens

A second reason that we settled on Buff’s is that they are what is called a “dual purpose” breed. They were bred specifically for producing a higher quality of egg, while still maintaining good meat quality. Basically, when they are done laying they will be good for eating. On average, Buff’s lay between 200-280 eggs per year. Their eggs are a nice light brown color. This is important because if we sell these eggs to individuals, most will want a nice brown egg. Most people consider the brown eggs to be a “true” farm fresh egg, although there are chickens who lay white eggs.

A third reason that we settled on the Buff’s is their temperament. Buff’s are known for being good chickens to have as pets. While we don’t exactly intend to keep ours for pets, exactly, this is still a good feature that we want in our chickens. They are docile birds, and do not make or like a lot of noise. The hens are good for raising babies, and typically make good mothers. This is good because a lot of chickens actually DO NOT make good mothers, and will kill the babies when they hatch.

Overall, the Buff’s are a good addition to our farm. They will be a good bird that we can sell the eggs from, and still eat when they are done laying. We will also hatch and sell the babies from our Buff’s.

The choice of which chickens to keep is a tough one, but the Buff’s were a no brainer.

Chicken Farmer

When we first started the adventure of having chickens, we never dreamed that it would be as in depth as it has grown to be, or rather that our interest in raising different chickens would become what it has become. Initially, we wanted chickens to eat the fresh eggs, and eat our own free range chickens as they stopped laying eggs. I am not sure, to be honest, where that stopped and our new adventure began, but here we are separating out our breeds and building new chicken coops.

When we got our first chickens back in late summer, we had a smattering of random chickens. We had Americeunas, Buff Orphingtons, Lavender Orphingtons, Rhode Island Red’s, and a smattering of others. From there, we have purchased some more chickens and traded for others. Over the winter, we had a massive decline in our chickens, as you may have read in our previous post, titled Rhode Island Red.

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Our newest rooster, a Lavender Orphington

Since the weather is starting to get nicer, we have gotten a little ummm… chicken crazy. After hatching our Red’s in the smaller incubator, B decided that we needed a bigger incubator. We had looked for several used ones and decided upon a good used one. The one we purchased is actually meant to be used as a hatcher, where you put the eggs to hatch after they have been in the incubator for the allotted amount of time. The chicks will hatch there, freeing up the incubator for more eggs. The hatcher we bought has 6 racks, and can hold up to 600 eggs for hatching. The nice thing about the machine that we purchased is that it can double as an incubator.

We purchased some hatching eggs from several different people. First we got 4 dozen Buff Orphington eggs, and we plan to keep around a dozen of the ones that hatch for our personal stock. We also purchased some pure Ameraucana eggs, which we will keep about half of. We have Lavender Orphington eggs in the incubator, along with a few mottled Orphington eggs. We recently put in some eggs from our new Polish chickens as well.

Over the last two weeks we have acquired several new breeds.

First, we got our trio of Polish chickens: one rooster and two hens. They are currently residing in the dog house and pen that we had set up when we first got our two Great Pyrenees. We love looking out at their weird hair, and they have obviously settled to contentedness as they are already laying daily.

Second, we got some  Black Astrolorp pullets. At least they were supposed to all be pullets. We are about 99% sure that one of them is a Roo, but that is not confirmed at this point. The Astrolorps are an Australian chicken, and are well known for laying brown eggs. They are basically an Australian Orphington. These guys are perfect for our flock as they are hardy in the winter, and lay dependably. They are also considered to be a rare breed.

The third big addition to our flock is the addition of a Copper Maran Rooster. The Copper is a great addition, and he will serve two purposes. With him, we will be able to keep our Ameraucana’s and our Copper hens all in the same pen with the Copper roo. Copper will be able to fertilize both breeds of hen and we will still be able to distinguish which egg is from which bird, which will tell us which babies are in the eggs. Copper’s lay dark eggs, and from them we will get full blooded Copper chicks, of course. The Ameraucana’s will lay the blue/green eggs, and from them we will get a breed called Olive eggers.

Overall, we are quite excited about our chickens. Although we haven’t resorted to naming them yet, that just MAY be the next step. We are learning as we go, and growing our flock. We can’t wait to share the next step with you!

Chickens for the Freezer

One of our new projects that B and I had talked about is the act of buying chickens specifically for our freezer. Obviously we don’t want to butcher all of our laying hens, but we also wanted some chicken for the freezer.

Typically, any chicken that you buy in the store is going to be meat from a Cornish Cross chicken. These chickens are bred to grow really big, really fast. They are supposed to be ready for butchering within 8-12 weeks from hatching. They are such a hungry bird, eating all the time, that you cannot put wood chips or other means of bedding in with them. The chickens will eat the wood chips, and it will kill them. They will eat day and night. Usually after about 4 weeks of age, they will lose most of their feathers. Our chicks have already lost most of their feathers. This is most likely a result of the cross breeding.

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When we originally started our venture with the chickens, we had discussed butchering any freeloading chickens: ie any chicken that doesn’t earn its keep by producing eggs. However, with having such a rough winter and subsequently losing so many of our chickens, we have yet to butcher any of our chickens.

A few weeks ago we decided to go ahead and order some Cornish X chickens. We ordered 25, but they mailed us a few extras. Most of the time, when you order chicks, they will send you a couple of extra chicks because some are expected to die during transit and soon after delivery. We got our chickens, and got them set up in the chicken house with some food, water, and a heat lamp.

These chicks are hands off. We check them every day to make sure that they have ample food and water, but otherwise we leave them alone. Basically with these chickens, you just leave food out and they eat all day long. Currently, we have around 20. We have lost a couple, but that is to be expected.

We have had our chicks for about three weeks at this point. They will be ready for butchering in another 5-9 weeks, approximately.