In keeping with our upcoming Farm to Table issue this summer, here is a beautiful look at the symbiosis of animals, seasons and planting in the spring on the small farm.
By Andrea Chandler
Living here in the Piedmont, we’re all familiar with the fickleness of spring. A few mild days in March get us hopeful, only to leave us crushed when freezing temperatures return the following week. This winter in particular seemed like it was never going to end. Living in the city you’re dependent on a few sad trees caged in concrete, grass carefully tended, and the weatherman to let you know that the cold will let up soon. But out here where the wooded hills of the piedmont cradle us and we’re bone-tired of going out in the dark and cold to do the chores, we’ve learned to find other signs that the cold really has left and warm weather is here to stay.
The first reliable sign is that the best mothers among our free-range hens will accumulate a nest and start brooding. With the exception of one young hen who hatched a clutch of eggs during a particularly cold January, the hens seem to have a reliable sense of when the weather is going to turn, and go to work producing babies. We’re grateful to them not just because it means we have a self-replacing flock of chickens to provide meat and eggs for our table, but because a broody hen tells us that no matter how long and hard the winter, the weather will break soon. So far the hens are rarely wrong, and round about the time their chicks are popping out of the shells the nights will reliably be in the 40s rather than the 30s. Once the hens start brooding, I can plant cold-tolerant crops, like peas and radishes.
The next sign of spring, assuming that I timed things right and the goats cooperated, is filling udders and swelling bellies as the does go into their last month or so of pregnancy. The soon-to-be mothers become simultaneously more sedate, spending most of their time looking tired of being pregnant; and much, much more irate if I happen to be late feeding them. If keeping goats has taught me anything, it’s that you don’t get between a late-term pregnant creature and her grain. The angry honking of pregnant Nubian goats is music to my ears, letting me know that April is just around the corner, bringing green leaves and bouncing baby goats. When the goats fill their udders, it’s time to get potatoes, carrots, and beets in the ground.
And then, right around the time the peas are bravely unfurling their first leaves and the first small delicious radishes are ready to eat, the final sign of spring arrives: my hair sheep begin to look ridiculous. Hair sheep hark back to the primitive sheep that humans first domesticated, shedding out their wool coat every spring rather than requiring shearing. I have two, a Blackbelly ewe named Ella (pictured) and a Katahdin wether (neutered male) named Tyson. Ella starts first, shedding out her neck and tail while her body is still covered in 2-3 inches of wool, which led a friend of mine to compare her to a vulture. Tyson is even more hilarious, shedding his wool in erratic patches as he scratches on trees and fence posts. The sheep pen (which they share with some goat wethers) starts to look a bit festive, with wool streamers hanging from every possible thing a sheep could scratch on and their beds in the shelter acquiring a felted wool mattress pad.
At last, with the arrival of ridiculous hair-do (wool-do?) time for the sheep, I can relax and take a deep breath. Half-naked hair sheep mean that warm weather is here to stay, and once they’re mostly naked I can plant the things that require warm soil, like corn and beans, and have a little time to take a deep breath until the round of summer harvest and preserving starts.